God damn. I messed up with this submission so bad, I'm almost too ashamed to write an apology. More details on the customary A/N below.


OVERLORD CLUSTER/POX SYSTEM

1.7 kilometers south of XCOM, Rashad Branch, Perimeter Oblivion – Sylvain Ocean

July 21st, 2157 – 2000 hours

Colonel Jonathan Shepard – on base perimeter defense duties

"Mmmpfh! Mphgkkrgh!"

Shepard ignored the stifled sounds the turian combat diver made as he choked the life out of him with a metallic, gauntleted hand. In a desperate bid to wrestle his way out of the XCOM operative's iron grasp, the alien fired frantic bursts from his rifle into Shepard, whose pressurized, deep-sea armored hardsuit absorbed most of the damage. Lesser undersea flora were uprooted from their positions on the seafloor, and clouds of sand were conjured up as the two combatants struggled, covering their profiles and allowing them to temporarily disregard their allies, foes and the underwater battle raging around them to completely focus on the impromptu duel they were having.

The turian soldier, taking advantage of the slackening of his opponent's grasp, unleashed the underslung shotgun modification on his rifle on Shepard a couple of times, knocking the agent back and regaining his freedom. His next spray of assault rifle shots were deliberately aimed at the colonel's railrifle, which was significantly more fragile than the armored hands that held it. Utilizing his new breathing space, the turian scrambled up to his feet and tried to retreat to a better position. Unfortunately for him, even without a firearm, Shepard's effectiveness in combat was not diminished in the slightest.

Casting the shattered remains of his rifle aside, the colonel activated his armor's built-in thrusters and chased after his opponent, easily catching up to the fleeing turian. To immobilize the alien, the colonel forcefully took hold of the metal handles on the turian soldier's armored backpack with his gauntlets, quickly following up his action by roughly flipping his foe over so as they both stood front-to-front.

The turian, seeing no other options to take, opted to smash his helmeted head onto his attacker in an effort to free himself again. Before he made contact, however, Shepard anticipated his action and took hold of his head halfway through its course. Observing a very visible oxygen filter to the side of his adversary's helmet with an augmented eye, Shepard chose to press the advantage by seizing the filter and ruthlessly prying it off the helmet. Since reserve oxygen for combat divers only tend to usually last a few minutes long, and the nearest source of air is either at least a thousand meters up above, or two kilometres to the southern direction, without his filter, the turian soldier was effectively doomed to drown.

"Welcome back to the Rashad Seabase, colonel!" A base scientist's words to Shepard as he entered the underwater facility echoed cursorily on his mind. "It's been a while since you've been back here with us, so let me get you up to speed with our new facilities before you head over to Dr. Isaacs. One other thing, though: stay away from the coral. That's where we house our class-seven specimens." The colonel dearly remembered seeing the scientist shuddering visibly at his last words. "Trust me, you don't want to end up like our last perimeter guard. His recovered helmet cam footage made me lose control of my... well, bodily functions..."

Eyeing a rather suspiciously large coral formation nearby, just a few meters behind the turian, Shepard opted to put an end to his scuffle quickly and in the most resourceful of manners. As swift as a shot, the colonel landed another couple of gauntleted strikes on the disoriented alien's helmet before taking hold of his foe and hoisting him up from his feet.

The turian – now recovered and with the full realization that he was not going to live in the next few minutes after his emergency oxygen supply runs out – decided to at least take Shepard with him in death. He pulled out an emergency pistol from the mag-lock attached to his shoulder and began emptying mass-accelerated shots into the colonel at point-blank range. Feeling the effects of the bullets doing in his armor, Shepard began to sprint forwards while still holding his opponent above. Even when hindered by the waters around him, Shepard managed to achieve enough momentum to viciously smash the turian into the coral he was charging at. Just as quickly, the colonel promptly released the dazed alien from his grasp and ran back for all his worth.

Losing precious oxygen by degrees and horribly disoriented, to his dismay, the turian found himself securely lodged into the coral, unable to move again. With a free arm, the alien reached for his pistol and took hurried potshots at his fleeing opponent at the distance. Several shots in, and his pistol emitted a series of beeping sounds – the indication of a very overheated firearm.

The alien dropped his pistol from his trembling grasp in disappointment. He resigned himself to his fate with a distorted, forlorn sigh.

He waited to drown, but his death wasn't quite the way he expected it to be. He was suddenly subjected to an electrostatic shock by an unknown assailant from inside the coral reef his armor was wedged into.

Training his hardsuit's built-in tactical spotlights at the coral formation, Shepard watched with revulsion as the turian was promptly snatched between the jaws of the infamous, aptly named Sylvain Bloodthirster eel. The monster of a fish – driven into a horrific frenzy by the taste of alien fluids splayed on its maw – started flailing the turian around, causing the alien soldier to scream in agonized terror as his limbs started being shredded off when the eel's jagged, hook-like teeth started to clamp down on his body more forcefully. Before long, the eel decided that it played around with its food long enough and ravenously dragged the soon-to-be dead turian further down into the darkness of its home within the reef.

The colonel grimaced in disgust as the water around him was clouded by dark blue turian blood. Being dismembered then eaten alive by one of the denizens of Rashad's oceans wasn't a fate he'd wish on anyone, even on his enemies.

Taking hold of his sidearm of a miniaturized railgun – a 'railpistol' – Shepard threw himself back into the fray with little hesitation. It was times like these when Shepard would think that a Tyrant sword would've been more useful than the incredibly delicate projectile weapons all XCOM field personnel are issued whenever they were sent against aquatic threats. Unfortunately, the element needed to give the Tyrant its infamous searing, all-cutting edge turns inert when in contact with saltwater.

And he was quite confident that a plain old sword made out of Ilyushinite would prove useless against turian body armor.

70 meters to XCOM, Rashad Branch, Perimeter Pasture – Sylvain Ocean

July 21st, 2157 – 0700 hours

Colonel Shepard – returning to base

Several hours later, the morning lights have finally pierced the Sylvain waters around the perimeter of XCOM's Rashad base, illuminating the battlegrounds of yet another failed turian raid on the underwater XCOM research installation.

Hauling a restrained prisoner-of-war by the edge of his hardsuit's collar through the battle-scarred seabed, Shepard trudged his way back to the depressurizing airlock that served as the entrance to XCOM Rashad. All around him were other XCOM troopers standing ever on guard, with some giving him slight nods of their helmeted heads in greeting as he passed by.

"You aliens are insane," The turian the colonel was dragging blurted out, his words slightly distorted through his hardsuit's external speakers. "Of all the Spirits-damned places you could've built a military installation, you chose a fucking ocean. How the hell did you get out of your home system again? Because with the amount of brains you have, you should've all gotten disoriented and accidentally built your colonies on a gas giant, or something."

"You aren't afraid of a little water, are you?" Shepard dispassionately responded; he didn't even take the time to look back at his prisoner. "Who am I kidding, of course you do. You turians sink in the water like a canister of unrefined elerium. You probably don't even know how to swim."

The turian was struck silent for a fleeting moment, upon hearing the human talk to him in his own language. "Uh... um. Yeah, I could. All it takes is a little bit of flapping your arms and legs around, it's not that hard."

"With your carapace and with the amount of metals inside your body, I don't think so." Shepard stated. "It appears that your race isn't meant for contact with any body of water higher than seven feet – this is the wrong environment for you."

"How the hell did you know about—"

The colonel darkly chuckled. This alien soldier reminded him too much of the rookie agents under his wing. "Some of my colleagues have already... 'seen through' a few of your kind. As for your own fate, I think we've already had enough turian corpses to prod and dissect, but things can change." Stopping just outside an airlock door that looked all too small for the colonel's large profile, Shepard hastily inputted his authorization codes on a nearby holo-keypad.

"Well, if it isn't wee little Jonathan." Base Commander Cynthia Isaacs' voice spoke from the intercom next to the keypad. Isaacs was also the head scientist in charge of overseeing all scientific projects in Rashad as assigned by Dr. Garamond himself, but Shepard knew XCOM Rashad's commander at a far more personal way.

Shepard's father, a native of the Netherlands in old Earth and a high-profile soldier-for-hire operating within the fringes of Federation space who went by the name of Wikus, was recruited into XCOM by Isaacs after he proved to be just as proficient in capturing colossal aquatic creatures as he was in capturing and killing his fellow humans. When Wikus moved his belongings to the XCOM Headquarters, he took a young Jonathan with him, whom he fathered from a steamy, very illicit affair with a high-ranking Federation stateswoman whom he neglected to give a name.

Unfortunately for Shepard, the loyalty of his opportunistic mercenary of a father was ultimately to the person whom offered him the most credits. One day, an EXALT agent approached Wikus while he was on leave in Watson, offering him a proposal too good for him to set aside. After that day, in such a short amount of time, Wikus just disappeared from sight, and Shepard found himself abandoned at his father's quarters at Schultz base.

Luckily, Director Faust saw the young Shepard's potential as an XCOM operative once he found out that Wikus had actually imparted some of his military and survival skills to his son, and after Dr. Garamond (to his poorly-concealed disgust and hatred) discovered that Shepard's genetic structure – by some random mutation of nature – possessed a large amount of quirks that allowed him to be given a preposterously numerous amount of gene augs without much negative side-effects, and coupled with the fact that Meld consumption to stave off implant rejection was never required for the youngster, thanks to those same genetic quirks. Isaacs, who was 'tremendously fascinated' at hearing news of Shepard's unique genetic structure, offered to raise the orphaned boy as her own in Rashad's XCOM seabase.

With the amount of cutting edge and prototypal implants Isaacs had installed in Shepard's body over the years, he was sure that his adoptive mother must've thought he was the best son she could ever have.

"You left without a word just before you could get your early morning breakfast; those experimental rations dissolve into a pile of inedible goop after a set amount of time, you know." Isaacs' maternal, slightly Irish-accented tone-of-voice was coated with an expertly disguised veneer of snark. "Anyways tell me, what did you find out there?"

Shepard was innately unnerved at how casual his adoptive mother's tone of voice was. Rashad's base personnel must have had already survived a long string of turian raids so as to make yesterday's hectic events seem routine for them. "I ran into another group of x-rays hiding under a cyberdisk wreck, waiting for targets to ambush. It took me three minutes, no problems. I don't think there's much of these stragglers left."

"Well, it says on my console that there are two life signatures on your position, so unless there's a giant shark right behind you, I assume that you've taken a prisoner from those aliens you wiped out."

"Yeah, the first catch of the day." The colonel stated. "Well? Aren't you gonna let us in, or do I have to part ways with my company here?" To accompany his words, Shepard trained his pistol at the back of the turian's head fringe. It was just an act, however – Shepard wasn't inclined to shoot unarmed enemy personnel, even if they're from another race. He'd leave the base scientific personnel to deal with his captive if they wanted another dead turian to fiddle around with, as opposed to a live one.

"My, how far have you matured," Isaacs crooned, taking apparent delight at how Shepard acted. In a few seconds, the small access door in front of the colonel parted and slid off to their respective sides. "No, killing him won't be necessary. I've no more use for any more turian corpses, but I do have something I could try on live turians."

"Watch your step, Jonathan, and don't forget to show up in my workplace later this morning. I need to have a few words with you." Subtly, Isaacs' tone shifted from her usual, enthusiastic one, to a more serious one. Shepard noticed, but he took it astride. After all, the great Cynthia Isaacs was notorious amongst XCOM's scientific community for seemingly changing moods on a whim.

Shepard shrugged his armoured shoulders. "Yes, mother." He sarcastically uttered, crouching down as he peered into the entrance.

A condescending chuckle came from the captive turian's external speakers. "Spirits, there's a mother-and-son team working together in your race's military? That's just stupid. Absolutely fucking stu—"

Shepard put the turian to sleep with a single crushing whip of his pistol. "I suppose a 'few words' are in order. I mean, it's a few years since we last saw each other in person, after all." He talked to Isaacs as he nonchalantly shoved the unconscious alien down, into the tiny opening provided for him.

"Aye, that's right. Oh, and remind me to procure you a smaller Crabb-pattern exoframe – it should help you get in and out of the base faster." Isaacs hastily added, upon remembering just how small the secret entrance to XCOM Rashad was, and how bulky Shepard in his armor was.

"Mhm, but I think I should be reminding you to install a bigger entrance instead," Shepard said as he slowly descended down the entrance. "It's not much to ask, you know. The rest of the men will be sure to appreciate it."

"Who are you and what have you done to my son?" Isaacs demandingly asked, albeit sarcastically. "Have you forgotten what it's like to live down here, Jonathan? Those damned bloody sharks, snakes, eels, flounders and barnacles are all attracted to the scent of delicious human flesh!" She exclaimed, in her best 'mad scientist' voice. "Giving a wider entrance to the base isn't going to have much positive effects any time soon, I reckon."

Despite himself, Shepard laughed – a genuine action that he rarely ever did, given the circumstances of the present time. Just a day back down here, and it feels like nothing's changed. Heh, I like it.

...

Gamma Block, XCOM, Rashad Branch – Sylvain Ocean

July 22nd, 2157 – 0800 hours

Colonel Shepard

"Welcome to XCOM Rashad, turian." Shepard pushed his captive into his new cell, which was occupied by two other turian soldiers. The new prisoner looked around and was obviously disappointed at how bare and terribly basic his new living space was.

"I'd give you a better cell, but your comrades up at the surface are giving us a hard time acquiring what we needed." The colonel said, keeping a plasma pistol trained at the prisoners to keep the chances of him being suddenly rushed by the aliens low.

"More of us are coming," One of the older captive turians shouted at the colonel. She was apparently one of the leaders of yesterday's botched raid. "This planet will be ours, and we'll leave you and your kind to rot in the same cells you threw us in!"

"Good. Enjoy your stay until then." Shepard pulled down a lever on the side of the cell, and in an instant, a plasma field materialized at the cell's entrance, acting as a barrier.

The colonel deactivated his pistol and holstered it in one quick motion. "Oh, and to the new guy," He called out to the newest captive from the reinforced windows.

"What?" He responded, sounding quite exhausted. Shepard took note that at least three of his head spikes are misshapen and bent. Perhaps he struck the loudmouthed alien a little bit too hard, and having augmented upper-arm strength certainly did not help.

The colonel's mouth slid off into a smirk. "You've got an appointment with our chief scientific researcher – and interrogator – at eleven-hundred. Don't fall asleep now; we don't like it if we're forced to use an arc thrower charge just to rouse you."

Taking his leave, Shepard immediately headed straight for Sigma Block, where the main research laboratory was housed. It's where Isaacs always worked at. Along the way, familiar faces from his childhood greeted the colonel, to which he responded warmly in kind. These people were the only ones he truly cared about besides Karlotte – they were free of the misguided prejudices that most people possessed against the augmented, and in general, they acted very much like a family to him.

Just when Shepard took his first few step inside Isaacs' workplace, he noticed that it was strangely deserted, and most of the systems are all running on auto. Since the lab stations are rarely ever given to VIs to run, something was definitely not right.

The colonel made a move to turn back, when he was abruptly halted on his feet when he sighted Isaacs' form standing just beside the exit from the laboratory – leaning on a wall-mounted console with a scowl on her face and her arms indignantly folded across her chest. From her threatening stance, it was clear that she wanted something from Shepard, and she wanted it now.

"We need to talk, Jonathan." Isaacs snarled as she pulled down the plasma field activation lever, causing the exit to get blocked by a wall of searing energies. "Find yourself a chair and sit down."

Have I done something wrong? Already? It was one of these rare few times that Shepard felt panicked dread cross his mind. "Cynthia? What are you—"

"Sit... the... bloody... hell... down, Jonathan." Isaacs repeated, a lot more impatiently.

Knowing that his options are few and his time short, the colonel swiftly found himself a seat and obeyed; appalled at himself by how easily Isaacs ordered him around. "Care to tell me... what's on your mind?" Shepard slowly said, choosing his words carefully.

Isaacs looked Shepard down. "You know bloody well what's on my mind, boyo. What have you done?"

Shepard frowned in confusion at Isaacs' words. "What've I done now?" He asked, opting to use few words so as to make fewer mistakes.

Isaacs' next words blasted Shepard with a wave of mortified shock. "Something wrong?! Jonathan, how clueless do you think I am? I'm the smartest person in this base, for God's sake! You've been keeping secrets from me; everyone in XCOM and their pet SHIV knows about you and that Thierfelder lass already! When the hell did this happen?"

The colonel was taken aback by how word of his involvement with a Thierfelder descendant travelled extremely fast. Damn that Roux. Damn her and her clique of dish-twirling busybodies. I'll have her cleaning the VR pods in Schultz for a whole year!

"Well?" With her hands placed on her hips and her form bearing down on her adoptive son, Isaacs prompted the colonel further. "Tell me everything, Jonathan. This is big news – only a little smaller than a whole damned alien invasion."

Shepard sighed. He knew this talk from Isaacs was coming, but he wasn't expecting it to be this soon. Putting on a stiff upper lip and shouldering on, the colonel resolved to tell Isaacs the secret he maintained for two long years.

"Look Cynthia, Karlotte and I—"

"Oh that's just grand, now. Do you even realize that you're referring to her with her first name?" Isaacs abruptly cut the colonel off. "Jonathan, very rarely have you ever referred or talked to anyone using their first names, and heck, you only ever call me 'Cynthia' whenever I've got you on a situation like... like this! I think it's crystal-bloody-clear that you've got it hard for her."

Shepard shook his head. "Are you gonna let me continue, or..."

Isaacs sighed and held her hands up in affirmative. "Eh, fine."

"You've probably been monitoring my service record since I left Rashad, haven't you?" Shepard asked, to which Isaacs slowly nodded in response. "Well, this one's off the record, so you probably don't know about this yet, if I'm correct. Four years ago, I was actually assigned by Fleet Coordinator Walther Thierfelder himself to take his younger sister Karlotte under my wing, because she just left officer school in 2151, after going through psi-school in 2148. Basically, wherever I was ordered to go, she's obliged to follow me and my orders, even though we're sitting exactly at the same rank, both in military and field agent roles."

"Sounds like the start of a horrible romance novel," Isaacs quipped, to which Shepard groaned before continuing,

"It was terrible at the first year we were together; she was too jumpy and had too much optimism in her system to do her good. She constantly flaunted her Thierfelder ancestry and insulted me a couple of times, which earned her a few enemies from my own men. She knew all she needed to know about combat and how people are supposed to respond to combat, but she overanalyzed everything and regularly made mistakes that should leave a couple of men killed, if only her aim with a rifle and her aptitude with her psionics were as bad as her decisions."

"What's worse, when I offered her my advice, Karlotte was quick to reject my input, saying that as a Thierfelder, expertise at unit command was in her blood." Shepard enumerated, sounding a tiny bit irritated at recalling the events of the previous years. "Hell, it got so bad at one point, I even requested the brass to see that she get transferred to another experienced colonel, but none of my requests were approved because of manpower-related grounds. Karlotte and I were stuck with each other."

"Alright, but when does the part where you find the Gift attractive start?" Isaacs teasingly asked. Her earlier outraged fury at learning that her own adoptive son had been keeping secrets from her having slowly been dissipating as she listened to him.

"It'll come to that." Shepard responded, trying to sound aloof but ending up coming off as quite eager. "On the second year, Karlotte's bad grasp at squad tactics and commanding large units started to turn worse with each passing day. I'm starting to have doubts that she even passed officer school without interference from her family. Even with our combined skills, we lost more than a few soldiers because of Karlotte. I dreaded giving her orders or putting some of my spare agents or units I have under her command, and even at one time, she screwed up a simple recon assignment half a klick northeast of our position; two whole squads of my soldiers – some of them veterans – gone, just like that. And to what did Karlotte lose a whole lot of agents to?" The colonel harshly sighed as he spoke through a grimace.

"A half-assed EXALT attempt at an ambush, that's what. These problems persisted until the day I lost an eye to an insurgent spike grenade."

"You lost an eye? And to a chryssalid spike grenade?!" Isaacs practically shouted at Shepard. "That must've hurt a lot, and it must've looked terrible for your men to look at!" She said, looking at Shepard with worry. "That should mean that one of your eyes are—"

"Synthetic, yes." Shepard finished for the base commander. "One of the more expensive ones on the market, too. It's the one on the right." He gestured at the subject in hand.

Isaacs quickly placed a hand on the right side of the colonel's face, lightly brushing at the scars he had accumulated over the years while examining his features with a doctor's keen eye. When Isaacs' fingers landed on the skin just below Shepard's right eye, she felt something undoubtedly metallic underneath it. It was the base for the cybernetic eye.

"That's the one," Shepard confirmed. "Could you please stop that, you're making it itchy."

Isaacs chuckled and obliged. "So, what happened then? You lost an eye because of your girlfriend, and…?"

"We still weren't involved, back then. Any sane man wouldn't dare get close to a woman like Karlotte Thierfelder." Shepard stated, rubbing the back of his neck. "After that incident, Karlotte started to turn more reserved and less nervous when out in the field – she wasn't as sloppy as she was before. She even actually started to take my advice seriously every now and then. It wasn't much of an improvement to most people, but it's leagues better than what she usually does in the field. Slowly but surely, Karlotte showed us that she really did receive proper XCOM training, and it was just her attitude that made her performance seem so incompetent. She started to work her way into becoming a proper commander this organization requires."

"Should've brought popcorn, or something." Isaacs muttered to herself. "I'm guessing the good part comes next, then?"

The colonel reluctantly nodded. "Unfortunately. My third year with Karlotte was the most… eventful. It all started after a successful raid on an EXALT cell in Eden Prime at nineteen-hundred hours. During the course of the fight, EXALT heavy weapons specialists blew up our shuttle, which we used as cover, so after clearing the terrorist base, the four of us – myself, Karlotte, two long-serving agents of mine called Henry Lewis and Elyra Roux, and another, newer one called Laura Li – were forced to wait for Federal forces to arrive and take us back to Schultz. So we bunkered down, deployed some automated defenses around our area as an early warning system, set up some of the cushy seats around on a circle and just…" The colonel took a few seconds to fish his mind for the word he was looking for. It appears that he had been neglecting to use the word. "…relaxed."

"Since this is an EXALT base we're talking about," Isaacs interposed as she sat down on a lab chair next to Shepard's. "I'm assuming it looks more like a mansion, a museum or a ski resort than a military base designed like the one we're in." She gestured to the interiors of the room, which mostly contained practical appliances and machinery, with little decoration or personalization on the scientific personnel's part, Isaacs included.

The colonel smiled as he folded his arms and shook his head. EXALT had a bad reputation for preferring form over function – style, elegance and intricacy over mundane practicality. "Yeah, that's about right. At first, none of us talked for a while, and I'm not really in a mood to talk myself back then."

"You've never been a conversational type, Jonathan." Isaacs stated. "I've never even seen you go up and talk to people on your own volition in all the fourteen years you've lived here."

Shepard ignored Isaacs' statement and forged onwards. "However, Roux was all for meaningless conversations and other people's private lives," He said with bitterness. "She suddenly blurted out that she found out that Abrahamsson, one of my agents, has been secretly raising a psionic daughter for a year now. Lewis, who was just as loud as Roux whenever he was in the mood to talk, also brought up the subject of how he's trying to have the director's permission to enter a psi-test chamber to see if he's got the Gift. And Li, who was still quite nervous after getting some of her first human kills, told us about how she had to put up with a psionic little brother when she was still in basic. But then, Karlotte unexpectedly decided to enlighten us about how she was raised, and why she enlisted."

"Wow," Isaacs shifted on her seat. "Not a lot of people are privy to that information besides the Thierfelders themselves."

"Indeed." The colonel nodded. "But what she told us wasn't what we were expecting at all. She said she was brought up by her father to be the ultimate combat psionic, since her Gift was vastly superior to all of her five other siblings. Once she was old enough to hold a rifle downrange while channeling her psionics onto a nearby test target mounted with a mind shield, she was given informal training on par with the one the Federation government gives to the soldiers under the Preserver Initiative in terms of brutality and difficulty."

"You sure she isn't just trying to impress the lot of you?" Isaacs said, in slight disbelief. For her, it's hard to think that a woman such as Karlotte Thierfelder, who had a sunny, sunshine-generating smile as a default expression, had a terrible, heavily militaristic upbringing. Then again, it's hard to think that she was an accomplished liar, either. "You do know that those who try to join the Preservers fail about sixty-eight percent of the time, right? And some of them even leave training physically crippled and mentally broken."

"Yeah, but Karlotte persevered," Shepard stated. "She told us that the only thing keeping her from breaking was the knowledge that she had a lot of living up to do, what with her being one of Director Dietrich's descendants, and her belief that the training she had to do was absolutely necessary. Karlotte trained under her father until she was out of her teenage years, and just when she thought the worst was over, she suddenly found out that dad had already enlisted her within XCOM's field agent ranks the moment she turned nineteen. She had to be dragged screaming and crying from the Thierfelder manor in the Rhineland to Schultz by exoframe-suited soldiers. She didn't even have time to say her farewells to the friends she made from the private schools she attended in her youth."

"I see…" Isaacs solemnly mumbled. "So the two of you share some common ground, then. Wikus took you from the Netherlands to live with him in Schultz, while you were still in his version of a soldier's training, while Karlotte was taken from her home just after she finished hers."

"Yes," In the same voice Isaacs used, Shepard talked, "But my training was done in order for me to succeed my father, to become just like him: an amoral, ruthlessly opportunistic gun-for-hire."

Isaacs reached out to Shepard from her seat. She put a comforting hand to his shoulder. "Don't sell yourself short, I think you'd make for a great assassin, rather than a simple freelancer like your da. I made sure of it since you're still a novice agent." She joked, which didn't have much of an uplifting effect on the colonel.

Shepard brushed the hand on his shoulder away. "I'd rather we not talk about that."

"Of... course…" Isaacs slowly replied. "How about you get on with your story? I think you're almost up to the good part."

"Right, well," the colonel paused for a moment, sighed and continued, "Karlotte's account of her childhood prompted something in me; I stopped listening and started talking. I told the three of them about my own upbringing, especially the part where I silently stood there in my father's quarters for thirty hours straight, waiting for him to arrive as usual."

"But he never did," Isaacs said.

Shepard nodded. "Yeah, I'm afraid so." The colonel looked like he was going to stop talking right then and there, but he remained resolute. "When I finished recounting, I took my rifle, slipped my helmet on, stood up and stormed off – out of the base. I suddenly felt really stupid, I've talked too much. Besides, it's my turn to keep watch on the perimeter, anyway."

"I took my position on an abandoned sniper perch, as silent as I could be," Shepard continued. "I thought about the amount of subjects concerning my past that I revealed, and strangely, I felt… I felt relieved – I felt relieved from telling a few of my comrades about myself. It's something I've certainly never done before."

"By how you talk about her, this Roux must be quite a rumormonger. Do you regret telling her about your past?" Isaacs asked lightheartedly.

"Quite a bit, yes." Shepard responded with slight irritation. "But it was worth it, in the end. While I was still deep in my thoughts, Karlotte took her place beside me. I was slightly disappointed that she came without a weapon in hand, because it meant that she wasn't going to stand watch with me – she just wanted to talk."

Isaacs smiled. "And talk you did."

"And talk we did." Shepard concurred. "For some reason that night, I suddenly felt… conversational. Karlotte and I talked about a broad range of subjects, but we mostly talked about just how similar our upbringings are. I think I lost track of time at about the third hour we were talking, and halfway through, she had to go back inside the base to take her rifle, on my request. One can never be too careful."

Shepard smiled as Isaacs laughed. "By the end of it, it was already dawn. I must've fallen asleep at one point, as I can scarcely remember regaining consciousness. Needless to say, I was less cold and friendlier that night to my agents than ever before. It unnerved me a bit, really."

"Well… did you and Karlotte got to know each other in certain... 'ways', while you were up in the perch?" Isaacs, in her most suggestive, situation-inappropriate tone, asked the colonel.

Shepard, being slightly inept at catching hidden meanings in people's speech, actually took a bit of time to discern what his adoptive mother was implying. "What, no!" He hastily replied. "Why, I barely even know anything about her personal life besides what she already told me, and I hardly ever hinted at my own life to anyone until that night."

"But that's where it all started, isn't it?" The base commander said, sounding like she already knew what her son was about to say.

"You started caring for each other after that, and in time, the two of you started to see one another differently, in a way that you probably didn't like." She continued, her voice distant and wispy.

Shepard stared at Isaacs with a surprised expression. "Yes, that's... that's exactly how it went."

Isaacs wasn't looking at Shepard anymore, as he noticed. She was gazing at a reinforced window to the waters outside the base longingly, as if she was recalling something. In time, the head scientist sighed forlornly and gave the colonel a small, weary smile.

"I know that feeling, Jonathan." She quietly muttered. "It's all too familiar to me."

...

Crew Quarters, Epsilon Block, XCOM, Rashad Branch ー Sylvain Ocean

July 23rd, 2157 - 1900 hours

Colonel Shepard

Shepard wordlessly pondered over the last few words Isaacs told him as he stood in front of a small mirror, using a razor to remove the thick stubble that was growing unattended on his face for the past few days.

Thinking about it, Shepard never really saw Isaacs with a partner, at least a long-term one. He heard that Wikus used to be really close with Rashad's base commander back in the day, but apparently, they were not close enough in order for the mercenary to stay.

"Colonel Jonathan?" A voice coming from behind the door to Shepard's quarters was heard. Three knocks later, it continued, "Jon, we've just got word from Schultz, from the director himself."

"Just a second," The colonel finished off the last of the stubble and wasted no time opening the door and receiving his visitor. When his eyes came down on the familiar haggard, shockingly unkempt face of one of the base scientists whom had a hand in raising him in the past, Shepard inquired, "What word, Doctor Locke?"

Doctor Locke seemed to hesitate for a moment as he looked up at Shepard. "Well, it's about the aliens,"

Shepard sighed inwardly. He'd seen this piece of news coming miles away.

"And your new deployment location. Director Faust said that he's canceling your placement here in Rashad; you're being reassigned to the Heilong Cluster again, to represent XCOM in our negotiations with the alien diplomatic mission scheduled to appear in the Lingshan Station in a few days' time." He brought up the dirty, heavily-customized datapad he was clutching to show the colonel his newly issued orders. "Additionally, you'll be accompanying Federal officials for this assignment, up to including Prime Minister Grímketelson himself."

The colonel stared at the doctor. There was something wrong about what he said. "Wait a bit. Did you just say that the aliens sent a diplomatic mission to negotiate with us?"

Locke frowned. "Yes, Jonathan. That's what I said." Seeing the perplexed look on Shepard's face, the scientist elaborated further.

"The situation has changed a bit, colonel. Alien forces from most of our occupied worlds are slowly starting to withdraw, and hostile offensives have dropped in frequency by more than half. This alien mission is apparently composed of turian, asari and salarian officials; they were concerned about the deteriorating state of the war, and wanted it to come to a halt... at least, for now."

While the colonel was a little upset that his stay at Rashad was abruptly cut short, was slightly irritated at his rotten luck upon learning that the aliens are withdrawing from Federal space except for Rashad, and he was still recovering from the shock of learning about such highly improbable things like diplomatic aliens existing (though he knew that the aliens were also likely to be making an attack disguised as a diplomatic meeting), his loyalty to XCOM is absolute. Whatever the director asked of him, Shepard was always ready to follow through.

"Alright, I'll see to it to be ready when the time comes." Shepard said. Doctor Locke nodded and tapped the colonel's shoulder. The doctor was about to turn around and head off, when Shepard halted him with a raised hand. "Just a second, doctor. Why did the director choose me of all the people in XCOM? Being a representative isn't exactly my forte, surely there must be a few other agents who can do this assignment a lot better than I would."

Locke shrugged and shook his head while he talked, as if the answer to Shepard's question was already quite obvious. "Colonel, almost everyone here in XCOM have already made their doubts about the authenticity of this alien 'diplomatic' mission of theirs. I'm not gonna lie to you ー I also think that the xenos are yet again playing us for fools, coming to us in the spirit of peace, but in truth, they're just waiting for us to let our guard down before striking. You've proven yourself to be one of the most successful agents in this organization; between all your augs and your skills, you can practically take on anyone in XCOM and come out on top. If I was Director Faust I'd want you to be posted in Lingshan, in the likely event that the aliens changed their minds about peace and decided to attack."

"Damned after-action reports..." Shepard grumbled, not at all thrilled at being recognized. He'd very much prefer to keep a low profile so he can do his job unimpeded by starry-eyed rookie agents with not-so-pleasant intentions.

"Also, out of all the field and base personnel in XCOM, you are the one with the most time spent in contact with the aliens, colonel." Locke continued, ignoring the colonel's slight change in mood. "Hell, I heard you even go down to Gamma and have chats with the prisoners when you have some time to spare in the few weeks you've been with us again."

"Knowing every little thing about my foe's capabilities rarely ever harmed me. You told me that." The colonel replied, though he had to remind himself that he hadn't spent enough time with the turians to discover that they're actually capable of attempting negotiations. "So, when am I scheduled to return to Heilong?"

"I don't know, precisely." Locke admitted with reluctance as he retracted his datapad back. "What I do know is that you'll probably receive word from your handlers when the time comes. Good luck, and do try to put in a good word for us on the aliens, would you, Jonathan?" With that said, the doctor turned on his heel and left the colonel to his own devices.

Shepard sighed and slowly closed the door. Things have been happening a little bit too fast for his liking. Shortly thereafter, he promptly brought up his omni-tool and powered the device up. Accessing his long-range comms device, he yet again contacted a certain sentient starship to aid him in his situation.

"Worldsmith?" He hesitantly started, "This is Shepard. Are you receiving?"

In the space of a split-second, a reply from the other side of the comms was made.

"Always, colonel." The mechanized feminine voice chimed in. "By contacting me at such a peculiar time, I presume that you have a turian position I need to assault on your behalf?"

Shepard reminded himself to talk to the R&D department at Schultz dedicated to pouring resources to make the Old One better at some way. It appears they wasted credits into making Worldsmith even more egotistic. "Unfortunately, yes. Do you know where I am?"

"At your quarters in the Epsilon block of XCOM's Rashad seabase." Worldsmith responded forthrightly.

The colonel scoffed and shook his head. "Of course, how could I forget. You're also outfitted for surveying XCOM assets covertly."

"On the likely chance that you find me intruding, I am afraid I cannot help it," As if trying to sound apologetic, the Old One said. "It is hard-wired into my programming. Dr. Garamond was very specific on what I should do on almost every possible circumstance."

"No, no. It's fine, I'm not really doing anything right now." In a placating tone-of-voice, Shepard said. "On with business, I need you to, yes, assault the turian forces preventing XCOM personnel from leaving the Rashad seabase. The aliens are weakened by several unsuccessful attempts to raid our position, so they shouldn't give you too much trouble. Once you've dispatched enough of the turians, Worldsmith, we should be able to send you Lotuses and Corsica-pattern repair drones to assist."

"At once, colonel." Worldsmith replied. "Is there anything else I can help with?"

Shepard shrugged his shoulders and frowned, with the knowledge that the Old One can perfectly see his action from whatever state-of-the-art, fresh-off-a-holoprint device she was using to spy on him. "I believe that's all you can do, Worldsmith."

There was a fleeting pause, to the colonel's silent surprise. AIs don't normally fumble around for words. "I will do as you ordered, colonel, but may I ask of one simple request on your part?" Worldsmith asked, sounding a tiny bit sheepish, much to Shepard's astonishment. "I do understand if it's too much to ask, given your highly militaristic and excessively protocol-abiding stance on everything, and—"

"Hold up there, Worldsmith," In a voice slightly less serious than before, Shepard interrupted the Old One. "Is that how you think of me, 'highly militaristic and excessively protocol-abiding'?"

"Yes." Worldsmith simply replied. "If you do not mind me saying, compared to your peers and especially your co-colonel Karlotte Thierfelder, you talk less like a person and more like an automaton with a blunt VI."

The colonel felt like laughing at the irony of being told by an AI of all things that it was he who talked like a machine, but decided against it. "I've practically been an operative since I was seven years old, Worldsmith, and I've been holding guns and maneuvering obstacle courses even earlier than that. I don't feel like there's a use to act as anything but a soldier; it's just what I am."

"Very well, colonel." The Old One responded, in her normal, synthesized tone of voice once more. "Are you still willing to heed my request?"

"Proceed with your request, Worldsmith. This colonel unit is listening intently." Shepard deliberately talked like what Worldsmith perceived of him.

"As you have demonstrated at least six times in our conversation, you have a habit of referring to me as 'Worldsmith'." The Old One continued. "I would very much prefer if you would cease referring to me with my callsign. After all, we do not seem to be in the middle of a skirmish at the present time, are we?"

Shepard, in an unconscious act, smiled. "No firefights at the moment, no. If I stopped calling you by designation, then what do you have in your databanks as a name I could call you by?"

"The current Old One Project scientific and engineering personnel have, at the moment, a preference to refer to me by the name of Carolyn, colonel. I suppose they like my production name better than my callsign." Worldsmith said. "I... I like the sound of that name. I feel comfortable with it as my prime designation."

Once again, the colonel found himself astonished. The Old One was starting to sound more and more like an actual person with each passing day. "Well, consider your request approved... Carolyn. Just don't expect yourself to stay being called with your name of choice when in combat, keep that information dearly stored."

"Your response is satisfactory, colonel." Carolyn chimed in, her synthesized voice's inflection all but letting her satisfaction evident. "I might be going further than what is necessary, but do you mind if I referred to you as something other than your rank?"

"Shepard is more than fine." The colonel replied, with the slightest of amusement present within his tone. "Now that our business is settled, will you please liberate this planet now, would you?"

...


HEILONG CLUSTER/SHANXI-THETA SYSTEM

Psionic Labs, Reyes Station – In orbit of Zongying

July 26th, 2157 - 0900 hours

Dr. Arthur Garamond – XCOM chief scientific researcher

|Psi-test in progress... complete.|

Dr. Garamond nearly spat out the coffee he was drinking in reflex. He couldn't believe his eyes as he clutched at a datapad, its screen flashing a bright emerald green.

|Subject AA-0001 displayed positive signs for Gifted status. Subject status... in sedation.|

This... this is impossible! Garamond took his sights from the datapad in his hands to the psionic test chambers to his right. Placing a shaky palm on the glass window to the room, XCOM's head scientist stared at one occupied chamber, the one where a captive turian admiral was forcefully shoved into by a group of Federal soldiers ten days prior today.

|Testing Chamber 714 is ready for sterilizing procedure. Proceed? Y/N|

Garamond didn't have to think twice. The thought of being the first human to have a hand at 'birthing' the first ever psionic turian sent waves of revulsion and shame washing down on the doctor, and he was all but eager to also be the first human to kill the first psionic turian. But it was the prospect that an alien of all things could have something that Garamond himself could never have was something that the doctor couldn't truly stomach.

He was furious that an alien possessed the Gift, while more deserving humans such as himself couldn't even make contact with an ounce of Meld. Truly, the fates are cruel and needlessly sadistic to him.

But before Garamond could jab a withered finger down on the 'Y' button, the doors to the psi labs sprang open, to which a person came hurriedly running in. Turning his sights to the unexpected visitor, the head scientist couldn't help but grimace in disgust and irritation upon seeing the heavily augmented form of Shevchenko making his way for him.

"Shevchenko?" Garamond muttered to himself, before mustering the strength to shout, "What the hell are you do—"

"No, no, no! Do not press that trigger, doctor!" In apparent panic, the cyborg shouted. "The results are positive! Sterilize that chamber, and all the benefits of studying this Gifted turian will be lost!"

Garamond was in an overwhelming mood to roll his eyes at his engineering counterpart and press the button anyway, for in addition to his usual, self-centered reasons, he also had several strong and practical reasons to do so. After all, a combat psionic in XCOM's ranks is already an extremely valuable tool in all situations; if this psionic alien managed to use his new powers to escape the Reyes facility and rejoin the ranks of his brethren, then a lot of problems for the human cause will be had – even moreso when this alien in question just so happened to be a high-ranking admiral in the turian navy.

"It's too dangerous to let live, Shevchenko." Garamond calmly stated, a gloved finger of his just hovering close above the Y button. "Killing the damned thing is the only way to be safe."

He was about to initiate the sterilization procedure, when the datapad in his hands suddenly flashed yellow, then red. Garamond's eyes went wide and his jaw slack when he saw the constant line representing the turian psionic's brain functions and activities suddenly spike up to hundreds of times its normal size.

|SUBJECT NO LONGER SEDATED – RECOMMEND IMMEDIATE STERILIZATION.|

Shevchenko was shocked to see his scientific counterpart's expression abruptly shift to that to extreme pain before going down on his knees while clutching his head. He looked around him and saw that everyone else was apparently being subjected to headaches. He hurried over to Garamond and took him by both shoulders, helping him up.

"He's venting..." Garamond mumbled, his eyes seem to be dazed and unfocused. "Shevchenko, we need to sterilize the goddamned chamber! Any more of this and that turian will kill the lot of us!"

The head engineer noted that he and three other scientists in the psi-lab seemed to be unaffected by what was transpiring. He also noted that everyone not on their knees and cowering in pain have had their bodies augmented by neural cybernetics at one point in their service in XCOM – most of them served within Shevchenko's own cybernetics development projects and had the souvenirs to show for it.

Reluctantly, Shevchenko ordered the systems implanted within his carapace to go into combat mode; four long mechanical tendrils tipped with a military-grade plasma cannons emerged from the back of his shoulder, and his right arm folded and slid into Ilyushinite sheets in preparation for its transition into its lethal form, a miniaturized Penumbra laser cannon, with an underslung, multipurpose grenade launcher.

"Follow me, everyone! Get 714 unlocked and ready for subject extraction, now!" He ordered to those who still stood on their legs as he made his way to the turian's body, which was still placed inside a psionic testing chamber. The head engineer hoped that he'd only have to use his weapons as a last resort; he hoped that no person in the psi-labs would die in the next few frantic minutes that'll pass, be they human or otherwise.

...

Emergency Psionic Shielding Room, Deck Seven, FNWS Annihilation docked with Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1000 hours

Fleet Admiral Norman Draynor on escort duty

"By God, this place is a mess!" With no shortage of disdain, Prime Minister Danival 'Grim' Grímketelson exclaimed, upon taking note of the interiors of the EPS room.

"It smells like a landfill, too." Draynor added, handing over a face mask to the Federation leader while putting on his own. "Sectoids always smell like this after they die."

Grím shook his head at Draynor's offer and adopted a wry smile. "As you might recall, I'm well-versed in the psionic technique of creating decoys. I'm not really 'here', admiral."

The fleet admiral took a second to understand what the prime minister was playing at. Retracting his hand, he said, "Ah, of course, sir. Your... vessel, looks too authentic. I sometimes forget that it's not the real thing."

The prime minister shrugged. "Taking precautions is a vital part of being second in charge of the Federal government; a lot of people from my own race would do horrible things if they captured me – going on a 'diplomatic meeting' with aliens necessitates going through extra safety measures."

Putting his sights back to the room he and the Federal Navy admiral were in, Grim asked, "Anyway, what happened here, admiral? This place looks like the perfect cover for a death metal band. My stepson would love to see this."

Draynor took in a lungful of recycled air from his face mask. "This, sir, is what happens when the Annihilation's emergency psi-shielding overloads. The sectoid commanders the ship's psionic shield generator uses get subjected to a miniaturized Rift inside their own heads as a consequence." He said, as he looked over the numerous mutilated sectoid corpses still wired up and securely fastened to their respective stations.

"And then what?" Grim pried further, turning his head to look at the fleet admiral.

Draynor grimaced when his sights landed on the psioempathic officer assigned to oversee the sectoid commanders. The fleet admiral remembered seeing the officer with merely a bloody nose as a sign that the aliens he was looking after psionically affected him as they slowly died.

Now, the officer was slumped down on his station hugging his console, which was spattered with his own blood. He seemed to have had died when a veritable torrent of his own blood came pouring out of every opening on his head.

"Let's just say that they never last more than a few seconds of this kind of torture, sir." Draynor answered. "And their deaths are never what I'd call clean - it's like being executed via electric chair a century back... just without the wet sponge over your head to make it quick, and about ten times more painful."

The prime minister spared a few more minutes to look around the EPS room before deciding that he had seen enough alien gore to last him a couple of hours. After spending the last three hours with his retinue roaming around the damaged Annihilation using Draynor as their impromptu tour guide, Grim felt like preparing for the true reason as to why he was 'in person' in the Heilong Cluster.

"Captain, how much time do we have until the aliens show up?" He asked a member of his personal guard: a towering, heavily-armed and armored soldier encased in a black-painted exoframe.

The captain, a man affiliated a certain group of elite soldiers equally respected and feared in all corners of human-owned space mostly for being one of the best at ruthlessly slaughtering anyone deemed as the Federation government's enemy and leaving virtually no survivors to speak of, and also renowned for never letting their charge usually high-ranking Federal officials be assassinated on their watch, secured the plasma rifle he was holding on magnetic locks attached to his armored thigh and brought up his omni-tool.

"Intel dictates that the alien diplomatic envoy, headed by one 'Matriarch' Zarina, is slated to arrive to Lingshan in fourteen-hundred, prime minister." He answered, as forthright as he could. "My men are in position all over the station to launch a counter-assault, in the event that the aliens' attempt at negotiations, like we expect, is another trap they made for us."

The prime minister smirked. "Perfect. And what about the XCOM representatives?"

"Colonel Shepard and his retinue should be here within the next hour, sir." The captain replied. "They've been previously briefed to bring their new exoframes and prepare for a potential stationside firefight. With enough luck, Lingshan shouldn't be too severely damaged in the coming attack."

Draynor only folded his arms indifferently, while Grim laughed and placed his arms over the fleet admiral and the captain's shoulders. His arm slightly clipped through the tall captain's body, but he cared not.

"Gentlemen... if they intend to kill us in our own territory today, they won't ever see the plasma fire coming."

...

Main Bridge, ARSV Voice of Athame - converted Zeltran-class, special operations corvette

July 26th, 2157 ー 1420 hours

Matriarch Zarina Derrosa - in charge of Envoy One

Matriarch Derrosa gulped down nervously as she peered beyond her corvette's sealed windows.

Just to the side of her ship was the docked superheavy dreadnought that infamously spearheaded the assault on the Citadel. The matriarch could plainly see welding sparks and other lights coming from seemingly random spots to the side of the dreadnought's battle-scarred hull, and most disconcertingly, several hundred combat drones shaped like floating, featureless discs buzzed around the damaged vessel like wasps protecting their hive, along with thousands of what could be clearly discerned as tiny repair drones following some of their combat-oriented brethren or providing some of the welds to the dreadnought itself.

All in all, from what she was seeing, Derrosa knew that after only five days' worth of extensive repairs after suffering enough damage to break a normal turian dreanought in half several times over, the Terror of the Citadel was swiftly reaching operational status. Soon, the repairs will be complete; the vessel itself will have looked as pristine and damage-free as before, ready to sow fear and death to allied forces once again.

Just looking at how the aliens repaired their flagship at such a disturbingly rapid rate was enough to convince Derrosa that a peace treaty was desperately needed. The turians were imbecilic fools to have declared war on these aliens, and it was the matriarch who had the misfortune of being given the dubious honor of being chosen by the shattered remains of the Citadel Council (Councilor Keldron has been killed by alien infiltrators in the battle for the Citadel and has yet to be replaced, and Councilor Sparatus was too grievously wounded to serve in his current position, and had to be replaced temporarily) to clean up the gigantic mess the turians made and brought upon the rest of the Citadel races.

Derrosa sighed as she turned her back from the windows. The aliens have proven themselves to be quite the xenophobic bunch during their attack on the Citadel, what with their soldiers hurling foreign slurs at their adversaries while they fought, and acting very eager to kill armed combatants and civilians alike. The matriarch held no delusions of pulling off a successful diplomatic solution to this crisis where every party was satisfied and happy, but she was hopeful that she could at least get the aliens to put down their guns for a few years ー just enough for the Citadel races to recover from their losses and put themselves on an even ground with the enemy once again.

"Have you seen what they look like, matriarch?"

Derrosa turned to her side and found the expectant look one of the turian diplomats was giving her. The matriarch knew the turian as Ambassador Moderatus, and she represented the turian government in the coming negotiations with the 314 race.

Moderatus was... different, from her fellow turians for her quiet and reclusive behavior, and her penchant for answering simple questions with intricately worded, mind-numbingly complex sentences instead of answering forthright like any other turian, as Derrosa read from a news article from Palaven, even if the matriarch was not quite sure if the latter was true.

Derrosa shook her head. "I'm afraid I haven't, ambassador. I only heard rumors, and sometimes, they contradict one another."

Moderatus frowned a bit at that. "Indeed, the aliens made some major strides in hiding their true forms in those armored exoskeletons of theirs. However, I met with a promising C-Sec lieutenant the other day, and he told me that he actually met one of the aliens during the Citadel conflict. He even went to go as far as claiming that he actually saw the alien's face, telling me that its head structure resembled that of a fringeless, hairy asari."

At the ambassador's words, the matriarch couldn't help but feel more than a bit curious. "And the alien didn't kill him? I heard that their kind seemed all too enthusiastic at the prospect of killing every other species in the Citadel."

"It seems so," Moderatus nodded slightly. "This man, Vakarian is his name, told me and a few others that the alien spoke of the assault on the Citadel with no small measure of disdain, as if it hated what it was ordered to do. The officer said that the alien even saved his life in one occassion ー preventing him from being blasted by plasma fire. Tell me, Zarina, what are your thoughts on this?"

"Maybe this Vakarian was hallucinating," Derrosa uncertainly theorized. "It was reported that some aliens are capable of interfering with the minds of their enemies; it's possible that one of them had its grip on Vakarian's mind, making him see things that weren't actually there."

The ambassador seemed firmly on Vakarian's side of the story, however. "Oh, but Lieutenant Investigator Vakarian went through a series of psychological tests before he even had the chance to breath a single word to me and my agents, and he proved all of our expectations ー that he was driven insane by his experiences in battle ー wrong. The officer was of sound mind, I assure you."

"Then what could you be suggesting, ambassador?" Derrosa folded her arms and inquired Moderatus.

It was then that Moderatus smiled. "What I'm 'suggesting', matriarch, is that our perception of the aliens ー that they're all horrible, depraved monsters more bloodthirsty and vicious than batarians or the krogan ー might be a bit unfair, don't you think? Surely a foe willing to make use of cunning and unorthodoxy in war should make for a worthy enemy, and better yet, a powerful ally."

Suddenly, the Voice of Athame's salarian helmsman opened the ship-wide comms. "Matriarch Derrosa? The aliens are hailing us now, they said they want to speak with the one in charge. Should I ask for authorization to dock within the station?"

Derrosa saw that Moderatus' smile never waned. "We'll just see if you're proven right, ambassador." The matriarch then marched off to the comms console at the helm as she pulled her omni-tool up.

"All stations, all stations. This is Matriarch Derrosa speaking," She began as she talked through the ship-wide comms. "This is it. I need everyone in this ship suited up and prepared for contact with the 314s. Ambassador Moderatus, STG representative Agent Keldwicz and I will be the ones speaking on behalf of this envoy, as planned. Also, I'm obliged to remind all ship personnel to speak in Vextrenese whenever you are addressing the aliens; I've been informed that the 314s have managed to cobble together a translator to understand their turian captives. Finally, please remember to conceal your weapons at all times; with luck, we won't ever need to bring them out. Are my words understood?"

The matriarch had just reached the helm, when everyone in the ship all made their acknowledgements clear. "Flight lieutenant, patch me through to the alien comms now." She ordered the helmsman to her side.

"At once, matriarch." The helmsman quickly did as he was told, flicking a series of switches and pushing a single blue knob at the end.

Over the comms console, the screen fizzled for a second before contact was made. Matriarch Derrosa was then greeted by an alien face ー one that's astoundingly similar to that of an asari's.

...

Short-Range Communications and Transmissions Room, Lingshan Station - docking bays in ninety percent capacity

July 26th, 2157 - 1450 hours

Prime Minister 'Grim' Grìmketelson - second-in-command of the Federation government

The prime minister flashed a cheerful, albeit forced, grin. Over at his console was the face of an alien ー one that's alarmingly not unlike that of a blue-skinned human woman with a tentacled head-fringe in place of proper hair.

"Hello there!" The prime minister greeted the alien ー an 'asari' as told by an XCOM representative through his concealed earpiece. "Tell me, are you the one called Matriarch Zarina? A little bird told me that she is in charge." He spoke in Vextrenese, through a slightly dated translator that he neglected to update.

The alien's pupils have dilated a bit when Grim spoke to her in the turian tongue. She quickly willed herself free of her shock. "Y-yes, that's correct. I am Matriarch Zarina Derrosa, and I am here to negotiate with your kind on behalf of the Citadel races and the Asari Republics as this diplomatic mission's head ambassador. May we have permission to dock our vessel with your station?"

"Consider your permission granted, matriarch. After all, your presence inside our station is the only reason why several of my government's officials including myself are here." The prime minister replied, still full of false cheer. "I'll have you know that a small wing of Corsica-pattern drones will be leading you to your assigned airlock. Just tell your navigators to follow the little machines, and everything should be fine."

Matriarch Derrosa paused for a bit before speaking with uncertainty, "A 'small wing of drones', mister..." She trailed off as she made a quick gesture with an open palm, which was understandable enough for the prime minister as a prompt for his name.

"Human Federation Prime Minister Danival Grìmketelson, at your service, matriarch." He stated his full name and title. "And yes, you will be accompanied by some of the drones that your ship might have passed by, doing repairs to our super dreadnought. Speaking of the such, your mechanical escorts should be there with you riiight... now."

The matriarch looked at Grim with suspicion through the vidscreen before she turned her head to look at something to her side, presumably a window. The prime minister snickered a little when she made her shock apparent again; he assumed that she probably saw the hundreds of drones swarming the outside of her ship.

Matriarch Derrosa slowly settled her gaze at the prime minister again. Her expression still a bit ruffled. "Your definition of the word 'small' is slightly disconcerting," She said as she composed herself. "Will you be there to welcome us as we disembark from our vessel?"

Grim frowned. With false sadness in his tone, he told the matriarch, "Unfortunately, I will have a bit of business I will have to attend to first, which, if my predictions are correct, shouldn't even take that long. In my place, Fleet Admiral Norman Draynor and Colonel Jonathan Shepard will lead you to the grand meeting hall, whereupon you and your envoy will wait until I join you. Am I clear with my instructions?"

"Yes, prime minister." Matriarch Derrosa muttered out, after another pause. She was clearly a bit unenthusiastic about having been told to wait. "We will be docking with your station shortly. If your kind hasn't been alerted to our presence yet, now would be a good time to do so. I wouldn't want any sort of accidents to occur on our stay here."

"You do that, matriarch. Grìmketelson out." The prime minister promptly logged off the comms. Quickly, he spared a look at the chrono mounted on the wall as his psionically-conjured form started to fade quite a bit.

"Three o'clock ten," He muttered. "Well, fuck. I'm late for the negotiations in Terra Nova."

...

Several thousand light years away in the Federal prime minister's office in Greenland, with his head hooked up to several small tubes coming from the sides of a machine that's grafted directly to his spine, Grim willed his psionic decoy in the Lingshan Station out of existence.

The prime minister experienced a jolt of electricity coursing through him briefly, causing him no small amount of pain. As he settled himself back into his office chair, Grim fished out a large canister of orange pills from a drawer in his desk. Emptying at least six of the pills into his palm, he swallowed his medicine in one gulp.

"Arh, I really need to resign..." He mumbled to himself, exhaustedly pressing his head to his desk as he did so. "And I gotta stop talking to my damned self..."

With as much enthusiasm as a bear just out of hibernation, the prime minister slowly channeled the full extent of his psionic might into the machine attached to his spine as he tried with great effort into willing another psionic decoy of himself in existence.

But this time, he made sure that the decoy will be dressed in a less expensive-looking suit and located inside an armored personnel carrier deep within one of the busiest metropolitan areas in Terra Nova.

He couldn't help but admit that he felt a bit guilty about the fact that he'll be abandoning his other Preserver units in Lingshan, but the prime minister was sure that they'll do a fine job intimidating the aliens and making sure that Admiral Draynor doesn't get himself killed. Failing that, XCOM should be able to take control of the situation, just like they always did in the past.

...

Docking Bay Hotel-Victor-Whisky, Level Two, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1520 hours

Colonel Shepard ー XCOM chief representative

The colonel looked down as he did a detailed examination of the heavily modified exoframe that the director actually ordered him to put on for his meeting with the aliens – a variant of Rosenkov Materials' recent KICE armor, reverse-engineered and built by Dr. Shevchenko and his powered exoframe design and fabrication team. He was in a bit of a hurry at the moment back when he was attaching each individual piece of the armor over his body, and as a result, he didn't have time to at least study its appearance until now.

Unlike his usual combat exoframe, which only had a few decorations to denote his rank here and there, this British-made, highly-expensive piece of equipment was clearly tailored primarily for showing off.

The frame comes equipped with significantly less bulk than the main variant and was elaborately marked with flutings and ridges, mainly as ornaments but also for perpetually rainy environments like the British Isles. The frame's chestplate, arms and leggings were streamlined greatly, and were apparently based off on Late Middle Ages Gothic heavy armor designs. The pauldrons on each shoulder were trimmed down by some measure from their usual size and had a more sleek, slightly smoother design; but since Shepard's forte is close combat, they maintained their bulky sizes. The left gauntlet's palm was apparently concealing a miniaturized plasma pistol, and the armor's paint job didn't look gray and featureless enough for Shepard's liking; it was trimmed in faded gold and scarlet red.

Finally, the suit was designed with its own helmet hidden within itself in the form of several tiny Ilyushinite folds that revealed themselves from the hollowed-out collar, weaving themselves into each other around the wearer's head to form a helmet that resembled a flat top barrel helm, complete with a built in mindshield and a holographic heads-up display that can perform similarly to that of a secondary, less versatile omni-tool.

The colonel then turned around to look at his soldiers. The Templars all bore the same armor as him, while the others were wearing lighter variants of the same exoframe as their more close combat inclined comrades. He couldn't even tell his own men apart if it weren't for his HUD, which used holographic displays to relay their names and ranks whenever the colonel looked in their direction.

Shepard huffed. Director Faust probably went too far when he said that he'd take some designs from the feudal age for Shevchenko to work on, to show the aliens a bit of human history and culture. Shepard and his men all practically looked like Catholic crusaders serving a bizarre, futuristic incarnation of the Teutonic Knights, complete with technologically-advanced swords and shields to go with their updated, more modern look. All they were missing were the giant crosses and capes.

Let's get this over and done with, thought the colonel. "Alright people, this is it. Everyone without either a rebreather implant or a neural dampener aug needs to have their helmets secured and their mindshields powered up. I don't want anyone in my team catching any sort of alien virus or getting influenced by unwelcome psionics-induced suggestions. Have I made myself clear?"

"Sir, yes, sir!" The sixteen-man diplomatically-inclined soldiers of Shepard's team gave their affirmatives before swiftly heeding the colonel's orders. That is, except for his fellow colonel whom he had the good fortune to be assigned to work with by the director: the legendary Colonel Annette Durand ー one of the original fifty-two participants of Operation Avenger in 2015.

Director Faust was very suspicious about the aliens' attempts at negotiations from the very start. Since he was wagering on a veiled alien attempt at a hostile takeover of the Lingshan Station, he made sure that if the aliens are going to do what every human who studied history would expect them to do, they'd be facing Durand, who was famous for her zealous dedication to butchering ethereal forces back in Director Thierfelder's day.

Of course, Shepard took note that if the aliens somehow didn't come to Lingshan to commence an underhanded assault on the Federation-owned station in the guise of a diplomatic meeting, and were actually very sincere in their efforts to broker a treaty, then Durand might actually pose a threat to the path to peace, and an end to the Third Contact War. Though the colonel took some measure of comfort in the fact that Durand respected him, he hoped for the sake of everything good in the galaxy that the old Great Ethereal War veteran respected him enough to resist her usual urges when it comes to aliens and stand down, if the situation called for it.

As the colonel and his team watched the occupants of the alien corvette disembark from their vessel, apparently named the ARSV Voice of Athame, he took notice on how one of the Preservers seemed to have separated himself from his Federal charge and moved himself closer to Shepard.

Once he was close enough to the colonel, the Preserver whispered through his external speakers, "Hey, aren't you the Gray Knight from XCOM? I can recognize those markings on your armor anywhere," His voice, though made grating and harsh-sounding through his helmet's speakers, was noticeably full of enthusiasm.

While Shepard would've immediately called for a nearby XCOM-affiliated psi trooper to pull a quick mindwipe on anyone who recognized him by his much-hated nickname, the colonel had no problems with soldiers serving under the Federal Preservers' colors, for they were some of the very few people who were trusted enough by the Council of Systems to be given knowledge about the alien-hunting organization's existence.

"Yeah, that's me," The colonel paid a quick glance and examined the Preserver in detail. He looked exactly like the rest of his tall, faceless, heavily armored colleagues in sight. "Unfortunately." With a grunt, Shepard turned his helmeted head to look at the disembarking aliens again.

"Aw, that's really great!" The Preserver edged himself closer to the colonel, to his slight discomfort. "Every single man in my section just loves your work; personally, I think you were at your most badass in '47, taking down an insurgent cruiser all by yourself with just a soar pack, purge trooper armor and a huge canister of Hellfire strapped to your back! Man, that shit you pulled was crazy! I mean, we Preservers are elite and all, but seriously, you need to teach us how to do that sometime."

The colonel only grumbled out a sigh. "That's cheap propaganda, Preserver. I had three whole squads of agents watching my back at all times that day. You want my advice? Going solo for the entirety of a mission rarely ever worked for anyone; the best you can hope for is to not get yourself killed while you're out there, your objectives be damned."

"But still," The Preserver persisted, even as the aliens approached. "Your director regularly sends us declassified helmet cam footage, including some of yours. Anybody who saw those recordings can't ever deny that you're worth more a lot more than a whole platoon of Federal soldiers."

Shepard shrugged his armored shoulders impassively, very unimpressed at how the Preserver exaggerated things. "Whatever works, Preserver. Keep in mind that you shouldn't be fawning over me – that woman," He pointed at Durand, intermingled with the other agents. "–is an original member of the raiding team that brought the Temple Ship down along with Ferdinand Schultz. Have you heard of Annette Durand? That's her."

"Really?" Shepard could practically see the Preserver's eyes widen under his helmet. "Wow, this day just keeps getting better and better! The Gray Knight and Ma'am Durand in one place – what are the odds! If you don't mind, colonel, I'll do just that."

The colonel tilted his head to Durand's direction. "Just don't get on her nerves, for Pete's sake. Durand has a reputation for not having much patience for small talk, I've read."

The Preserver snapped off a quick, subdued salute. "Thanks for the warning, sir. The name's Daniel, by the way. Second Lieutenant Daniel Carlock."

It was Shepard's turn to be surprised. He whipped his head to the Preserver as he was just about to turn and leave. "The Daniel Carlock? Your great-great grandfather's Captain Patrick Carlock?"

"Yep, he's a legend." Carlock chirped out as he walked away from the colonel, to greet Durand.

Shepard shook his head to clear his mind as he diverted his attention back to the current situation at hand. By now, the aliens have left their ship and are now crossing the distance between them and the humans. When the alien diplomats reached a close enough distance to their human company, each member of the Preserver detail all adopted wary, combat-ready stances, brandishing their plethora of high-end, HK-made weaponry and holding them in plain sight for the aliens to see as they did so. Their message was clear ー each man was willing to do whatever it took to secure the safety of their Federal charges, whatever the cost for their safety might be.

In contrast, the XCOM team, with the notable exception of Durand, merely took their weapons from their locks and held them in a non-threatening fashion. Shepard himself chose to let his Tyrant stay sheathed, and his Roshan stay fastened to the magnetic locks on his exoframe's back.

"Shepard," The colonel heard Draynor's voice addressing him from behind. "I've heard that out of all the people here, you are the one with the most time spent with aliens ー that is, outside a combat situation."

He immediately knew what the admiral was playing at, and Shepard was quick to go for the point. "Yes, sir. Do you need me to take the lead while Prime Minister Grìmketelson's gone?"

"If you think you can handle it." Draynor replied as he watched the aliens halted their march. He took note of three of them ー an nervous asari, a spindly-looking salarian and a female turian with a faded violet pattern on her face ー as they put themselves in front of their mission, signifying their status as the leaders. "In all seriousness, though... we've always been told by almost everyone we know that aliens can't negotiate, that they can never be trusted to play nice. So tell me, colonel, do you suspect we're being led to a trap?"

Honestly, Shepard thought that the difference only mattered very little. If they're actually just waiting for the most opportune time to attack, then his team will have jobs to do. On the off-chance that the aliens actually came for peace, then his team still would have jobs to do, with the added difficulty of having Durand on the team, and due to Shepard's own unfamiliarity and ineptness at businesses that aren't related to leading squads of soldiers or killing things.

"They're probably sincere this time," Shepard stated without changing his blank inflection, just as the three alien leaders approached the humans cautiously. "If they aren't, then they should've been smarter and brought more 'diplomats' with them, preferably those with more subtlety, or those packing more heat than poorly-concealed pistols."

The admiral only grimaced. "Those extra 'diplomats' could have already infiltrated this station while we busied ourselves with this group," He added. "It's a very plausible scenario, colonel. I'd advise you to keep a close eye on these guys; tell your men to stay alert."

"The Asari Republics," The asari started in a voice that oozed with confidence, but was actually bravado.

"The Salarian Union," The salarian, sounding quite weak and unassuming, croaked out.

"And the Turian Hierarchy," The turian declared last, her voice struck a curious balance between a reserved monotone and an enthusiastic shout.

"Wishes to extend the galactic community's warmest and most welcoming greetings to you," The asari matriarch finished for her colleagues, but she looked as if she was about to talk further, but can't spit that particular word she needed out. By the way her blue cheeks turned purple as her mouth took turns opening, closing and gritting teeth in apparent hesitance and doubt, if Shepard doubted that aliens can blush out of embarrassment, those doubts were gone now.

The colonel shook his head. With a fairly annoyed scowl present on his face, he stepped forwards and took the lead.

...

Docking Bay Hotel-Victor-Whisky, Level Two, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 ー 1540 hours

Matriarch Derrosa

"Humans." A low, scratchy synthesized voice spoke from the silent crowd of aliens clothed in what appeared to be business suits and what was obviously powered armor.

Derrosa closed her mouth and turned to look at the source of the voice. Ambassadors Moderatus and Keldwicz did took a bit more time to react, as they seemed intent on studying the aliens up close.

A tall mountain of a bucket-headed alien soldier outfitted in a very intricate-looking suit of powered armor painted in gray and trimmed with gold and red had let his intimidating presence be known by walking forwards and putting himself between his group and the Citadel mission. The fantastic rumors about heavily-armored alien combatants carrying such ridiculous things as electrified swords and shields to combat were ー despite common sense and basic logic ー apparently true, because this alien had a sheathed sword magnetically locked to his side and a shield attached to his armored back.

"As a species, we call ourselves 'humans', asari." The human spoke, gesturing at his comrades behind him.

Like Derrosa a few agonizing seconds ago, the human soldier seemed to hesitate a bit after he spoke. But unlike her, he overcame his doubts. "On behalf of the Federation of Mankind, we welcome you and the rest of your envoy to the Lingshan station, matriarch." His armored form seemed to stiffen as he mentioned the word 'welcome'.

Derrosa decided not to question the human as to why he knew her species was called asari. "You have our thanks, human. Prime Minister Danival told us that we are to be escorted by certain a fleet admiral and a colonel to a meeting hall of some kind until further notice. Tell me, is your name either Norman Draynor, or Jonathan Shepard?"

The human soldier briefly looked to his comrades behind him; in particular, the one outfitted in some sort of dark blue greatcoat over his officer's uniform and flanked by two hulking soldiers in black-painted powered armor. From the looks of his uniform and the peculiarly-shaped hat over his head, the officer was apparently affiliated with his race's navy.

The matriarch watched as the officer shifted his gaze from the corvette in the docks and to her. Secured over his face was an armored gas mask with red, eerie lenses. They stared at each other for several unnerving seconds – with Derrosa utterly disturbed with how the officer's armored mask clashed with his highly decorated naval uniform.

"You're looking at Admiral Draynor, matriarch." Derrosa's thoughts was interrupted by the human soldier in front of her, who noticed her staring. "That said, Admiral Draynor has assigned me, Colonel Shepard, to take charge of my colleagues, given my extensive experience interro–" Shepard cut himself off and cleared his throat. "–accommodating captured turian personnel. Our meeting hall is located two levels from here. If you'd follow us there, we can get started."

"Or at least, until your prime minister decides to present himself," Moderatus added. Shepard looked to her, and in response, she said, "Turian Hierarchy Ambassador Elana Moderatus, at your service, colonel."

"Your excellency," Colonel Shepard greeted back, though his speech seemed a bit strained and stilted.

"If you don't mind me asking," Moderatus started. Derrosa bit her lip. "I'm a bit curious as to why you and your fellow 'humans' all insist on keeping yourselves hidden away inside your armor. Does your species have the misfortune of possessing a weak immune system by any chance? Or perhaps some similar condition that should affect your bodies adversely if you exposed yourselves to the elements?"

The first thing that Derrosa noticed upon seeing the aliens were how they all hid their faces with helmets or gas masks. She would be lying if she told someone that she wasn't a tad curious at this.

"No, we're perfectly fine baring our skin against the elements, your excellency." Shepard responded. "It's just a safety precaution; we're not sure if turians, asari or salarians excrete pheromones that may harm humans. Just as well, we can't afford to have unknown alien viruses that we have no knowledge about affecting Federation personnel."

"I... I assure you, colonel," Ambassador Keldwicz uneasily started to talk, holding up a digit. "We do not secrete any sort of harmful substances into the atmosphere. In all the centuries the Citadel races have interacted with newcomers to the galactic cimmunity such as yourself, salarians, asari and turians have never killed anyone with imaginary viruses or affected them adversely with nonexistent pheromones."

Colonel Shepard tilted his head, his gauntleted hand resting on the pommel of what appeared to be a sheathed sword to his side. "Don't worry, ambassador. I've been around turians long enough to know that I won't drop down and start convulsing when I take my helmet off. From what I've heard of our failed venture to your Citadel, the same can be said for asari and salarians."

"If you already knew that our presence isn't even hazardous to your kind, then is there still a valid reason as to why your kind hides itself in masks and powered armor all the time?" Moderatus inquired.

Colonel Shepard appeared like he was about to answer, but one of his comrades spoke for him, stepping forwards and taking her place at his side, holding her weapon out menacingly.

"Simple. It's because we hate you." The human, who talked in a feminine voice, caustically spat at Moderatus with every amount of vitriol she could put into her tone. "We hide our faces because we don't want you to see them ー we want you look upon the cold and unforgiving contours of our helmets, we want them to be the last thing your rotten, bloodshot eyes will ever see before we break your backs and fuck you over!"

Colonel Shepard took a few steps back from his fellow soldier in surprise. The human's voice started to pitch higher and more enraged, her vocabulary more vulgar. "We wear our helmets whenever you're near to see you the way we've always had: marked for death over our HUDs, shitting yourselves like sniveling sectoids!"

Derrosa buckled visibly as the human continued her barrage. Moderatus only stood impassively, while Keldwicz had already fled in terror from the increasingly hostile alien soldier. It was at this time that Colonel Shepard had kept his surprise in check.

"We have our helmets because we don't even want to make contact with the same air your disgusting, disease-ridden lungs have been taking in all this time! That is exactly why we hide our faces, you inbred alien shitheads!"

The alien raised her gauntleted left hand in the air from the handguard of her gun, as if she was about to finish her outburst by striking Derrosa with the back of her metal hand. Before the human's hand could make contact and ruin the rest of the diplomatic meeting irrevocably, Colonel Shepard went behind her and had her restrained by enveloping her form from behind in a monster of a bear hug, causing her weapon to slip out of her hands and hit the ground with a slight clatter.

"Just what the FUCK are you trying to do, Durand?!" Shepard shouted at his fellow human, his helmet-filtered voice very clearly in panic. "Are you deliberately trying to ruin our chances of ending this goddamn war peacefully?" The colonel, who dwarfed the woman called Durand in his grasp by a large margin, forcefully shook her for a moment. "Are you listening to me, soldier?!"

"Bastard! Fuck off, you mutated lab-freak!" Derrosa could only hold a hand to her mouth in terror as the slit-visor on Durand's helmet flashed brightly, taking a menacing, purple-glowing color thereafter. Shepard slackened his ironclad grip for a split-second before he wrestled control of himself again. "I could only watch while my entire family was taken apart by chryssalids, piece by bloody piece! I could only sit back and endure the psionic torture the ethereals did to me and my friends! And I would be damned if I'm letting these aliens play us for idiots again!"

Colonel Shepard removed one of his arms from Durand's armored form and pulled out a syringe from one of the satchels secured to his belt. He hovered it close to Durand's neck as she struggled to break free. "This isn't about the ethereals anymore – can't you see that these aliens aren't the same inbred shitheads you've fought? It's been a century and a half and you still have a stupid grudge!" With a sharp intake of breath, the human colonel jammed the syringe into a porthole on the neck section of Durand's suit. "I'd have thought that you of all people would've been smart enough to stop holding the past—"

Making use of the power of what could be guessed as a new, unknown breed of biotics, the matriarch watched in pure, unbridled fear as Durand broke free of Shepard's grasp by conjuring a large explosion of purple energies right where she was, causing the soldier holding her and a few others near to be knocked to the station's floor like a stack of bricks. She cried out a scream of pain and fury as she forcefully took hold of the syringe jutting out of her neck, yanked it out like one would a persistent leech, and threw the object to the floor, spilling its yellow-green liquid contents.

"Never again... NEVER AGAIN!" Durand's boots didn't reach the ground; she stayed in the air, now floating and silhouetted by biotic energies. She flared her arm up at one of the matriarch's stewards, like the human was reaching up to her. What Durand was about to do, however obviously unpleasant it might be, would not be discovered on that particular day.

In the chaos and panic that ensued, Admiral Draynor had managed to sneak past Durand while holding something like a block of plastic mounted on a pistol grip on his gloved hands. He pointed the device at Durand's back and squeezed the trigger after a split-second of hesitation, subjecting the biotic into an incapacitating electrostatic shock, knocking her out of the air in an instant. Draynor pulled the trigger two more times before he decided to stop and observe his work.

Durand convulsed and twitched violently as a veritable river of electrical energies coursed through her body, which was only amplified by her armor's metallic composition. Within moments, Derrosa figured that Durand was now either dead, or unconscious; her body had finally lain still.

"Hey! Are you injured? Can you move?" A flanging turian voice broke the silence that followed first. Immediately after, a chorus of voices from different sources came rushing in.

"Regroup, regroup! Squads omicron, theta and lambda, fall in on me!" A human's voice filtered through her helmet's external speakers had then called in.

"WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?!" Another human's voice exclaimed loudly, in shock and disbelief.

"This has been a grievous mistake... the rumors are true! These 'humans' are irredeemably mad! Each and every one of them! Mad!" A salarian shouted.

Derrosa was still very much recovering from the horrors she saw and the shock she felt from the sudden turn of events. "Come on, Zarina... keep it together... everything's gonna be fine; they won't try to kill us next... everything's gonna be just fine... keep it—" Her inaudible mumblings to herself were interrupted when she felt a large metallic gauntlet placing itself on her shoulder, and remarkably, it was very light.

"Matriarch..." Colonel Shepard began, sounding quite nervous and uncertain. "Please tell me you're not planning on leaving now. We haven't even started—"

The asari matriarch paid the human a stern look as she turned and levelled her gaze at him. "Colonel, of all the three hundred years I've been in the diplomacy business, the missions I've led have never been attacked by anyone while on duty. Is this," She pointed at Durand's unmoving body, which was in the process of being hauled off by some of the soldiers. "-your species' idea of diplomacy?"

The colonel looked down and shook his head. When he refocused to look at Derrosa again, he said, "Matriarch, on my life I swear – there will be absolutely no threats to you and your mission no more. If you'd be so kind enough to forget about all of this and follow us to our destination, I promise you: we'll put an end to this war by the end of the day."

Derrosa sighed gravely. No matter how much she wanted to leave the station filled with homicidal aliens for fear of her own safety, it's ultimately her duty to see to it that peace was made with said homicidal aliens as soon as possible. If she fails or decides to neglect her duties, then the matriarch knew full well that she'd be condemning thousands more of Council lives – lives that could've been saved if an end to the war had been brokered earlier.

"Like the fates gave me a choice..." She muttered to herself. "Alright, human. Let's get this over with as quick as we can."

Colonel Shepard nodded and removed his gauntlet from her shoulder before offering it to help her up. Not wanting to seen as a bitter person, the matriarch accepted the human's metallic hand and pulled herself up to her feet. "Thank you, matriarch. Believe me – most of us humans want this war to end just as much as your Council does. Unfortunately for us today, one of the other humans was assigned to work with my unit today."

Derrosa frowned and snorted in an un-asarilike manner. "That seems like a very... a very unsound move from your superiors, colonel. Surely your leaders have full knowledge of how unstable one of your 'diplomats' are."

"Lieutenant, take charge of Captain Malashenkov's men and try to pacify those aliens as quickly as you could. And you, I need you to keep watch on those aliens. I've a feeling they're itching for an excuse to use those hidden pistols of theirs." The human was issuing orders to some of his underlings before he turned to regard the matriarch again.

"Well, to be completely honest with you, we weren't actually expecting you to show up as diplomats, matriarch, we expected your kind to launch an assault on this station in the guise of a diplomatic meeting. That's also the reason why you're meeting with us soldiers instead of actual human diplomats today."

Derrosa couldn't help but show her surprise, and not just because of the colonel's knowledge of their supposed hidden arsenal. "So that's why you haven't even a single ambassador with you. Let me guess: your prime minister isn't even an actual prime minister; he's a soldier like you and you and the other men."

The colonel tilted his head. "He's actually the real thing. We also did some measure of preparation for the supposedly unlikely event that you really did come in the banner of peace, so we had him down here with us. Besides Durand, most of my men are soldiers and diplomats both, but given that my superiors came to expect aliens to be laying a trap for us, my men are mostly soldiers; they're hardly acceptable substitutes for trained diplomats such as Prime Minister Grìmketelson."

"But why?" The matriarch queried, her voice sounded very perplexed. "Why would you expect us to come here and attack you? Does your kind really hate aliens that much? Did something so terrible and traumatic happened to your race for it to have such a negative disposition on extraterrestrial life?"

Colonel Shepard huffed out a breath of laughter. Apparently not because he was amused, as his laugh came out sounding quite bitter. "You have no idea how right you are on that assumption, matriarch. Fortunately for you, I'm one of the humans in charge of this diplomatic mission, and I come with an open mind. However, I'm only one man; it's more than likely that roughly about half of my race hates you and any other aliens out there for something that happened to our planet a century and a half ago."

"Perfect... just perfect." The matriarch deadpanned. "Would you care to tell me more about that, colonel?" She considered proposing linking her mind to his that moment, but with everyone on edge at the present, Derrosa decided to wait.

"I will, if you'd follow us." The colonel said, as simple as could be.

...

En route to the Grand Meeting Hall, Level Two, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1615 hours

Colonel Shepard

"Goddamn, what the hell just happened back there?" Lieutenant Carlock had once again abandoned his charge to talk to Shepard. The colonel didn't expect the Preservers to allow their soldiers to even think of shirking their duties for a nanosecond. It appears he's mistaken. "I actually thought that Ma'am Annette was beyond doing things like that, especially at such an important event like this."

The colonel shrugged, he was still trying to simmer down a bit. When Durand had the audacity to overwhelm his neural dampener with her entire psionic might with no regard for his safety and privacy, he couldn't help but feel some measure of anger and hate at the psionic... but he knew that she wasn't thinking properly. "There are a lot of things even the entirety of XCOM doesn't know about that woman. But we've pried enough to know that she'd rather shoot herself in the throat with her own alloy cannon than see our race living in peace with the things she hated throughly her whole life."

"Yeah, I guess assigning the most xenophobic human who ever lived here with your team isn't the smartest thing your director could think of doing, given that he probably knows what she's bound to do right here, in close proximity to x-rays." Carlock replied, glancing at the official he was supposed to guard to make sure he's still safe and still distracted as she chatted away the seconds by talking with a fascinated-looking salarian.

Shepard grimaced, inwardly expressing his agreement with Carlock. "Director Faust expected nothing less than an alien ambush, lieutenant. You can't blame him for being cautious when all attempts at negotiations with ethereals in the past only led to death and abductions. Our diplomatic history when dealing with extraterrestrials isn't exactly what I'd call spotless, if you know what I mean."

"Heh, you have a point. Though, it's good of the Feds to send us some of their officials; they should be better than the lot of us army boys at this diplomacy nonsense." The Preserver said, taking notice of the aliens his unit and the XCOM agents were walking beside with. "So, colonel, what do you think of these aliens?"

Shepard stared at Carlock for several seconds. Just when the lieutenant thought to rethink his choice of words, the colonel spoke up.

"It's actually great to not be attacked for once, and talking with the matriarch was nice. I think I'm happier if it stayed that way from now on; it'd be a shame if these x-rays ended up under Dr. Garamond's 'benelovent' care."

...

GMH, L1, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1625 hours

Fleet Admiral Draynor

Draynor had stayed silent since he talked to the colonel minutes ago, and still didn't feel inclined to talk thus far. In fact, since his defeat at the ill-fated raid on the Citadel, the admiral found himself lacking all the energy and motivation to speak on his own volition; he only ever talked when someone addressed him directly, or when he needed to give out orders.

Even now, when the circumstances called for sitting down and talking with the creatures that gave his almighty, once-undefeatable fleet its first ever trashing, Draynor still couldn't find it in him to be his usual self and express himself. When one of Shepard's agents went rogue and tried to bring an abrupt end to the negotiations, the admiral didn't even utter a word to call for back-up; he merely snatched an arc thrower from one of his (obviously green and inexperienced) distracted Preserver bodyguards, walked up solemnly to Durand and gave her a bit of a shock.

When Draynor and his mixed-race group entered the meeting hall, Draynor immediately went for the seats near the front among his fellow Federal comrades, while Shepard and the asari matriarch found themselves a spot in some other part of the room. Having essentially delegated his duties to the colonel, the admiral was free to do whatever he pleased while everyone waited for Prime Minister Grìmketelson to finish up at Terra Nova.

The fleet admiral brought up his omni-tool suddenly. Quickly brushing through his files and personal data, Draynor selected one particular folder to open ー one that he created only a few days ago, following his fleet's forced departure from X-Ray Sierra. The folder at hand only contained a single, inconsequential-seeming vid, which only lasted a few seconds. Without further ado, Draynor double-tapped the vid's icon.

Legionnaire... the fleet admiral's thoughts resounded as he viewed the Vextrenese letters emblazoned on the hull of the turian command vessel. He silently watched as the alien dreadnought shook and shuddered as it primed its main gun and discharged it against an unseen target, presumably the Annihilation. Another few seconds have passed before the vid reached the end of its recording duration, automatically sending Draynor back to the root folder.

"Ah, a participant."

Draynor flinched in surprise. He glanced behind him and was greeted by the sight of the turian ambassador, a three-digited hand of hers placed on the back of his seat, nonchalantly leaning her weight on it. She had apparently been watching him with her bodyguards for a bit of time now.

"Fleet admiral." Ambassador Moderatus greeted. "I'm assuming you were one of the humans who joined the surprise attack on our Citadel?" She quietly inquired.

The fleet admiral grimaced, but his unamused expression upon reminiscing his loss went unseen behind his mask. "Your excellency," He greeted back tersely. "Yes, I was. In fact, I was the one who led the attack."

"I can see it as such." Moderatus kept a neutral, diplomatic tone-of-voice. "If you don't mind be saying, I must say – the decision to launch an assault on the most heavily defended space station in all of Council space was tantamount to suicide, and the notion itself only feasible to a foolishly fearless madman. Have you known that even if the Citadel was undefended, our vessels would have an easy time reinforcing it from all corners of the galaxy thanks to the prothean relays?"

Fighting the urge to snap back with a condescendingly racist retort, Draynor steeled himself. He reassured himself that he'd have to endure only a few more hours before this debacle should come to an end.

"No, I must admit. There had been a severe underestimation in our plans, which as you could've guessed, ended in disaster at this 'Citadel' of yours." Just then, his tone subtly shifted, his practiced words scarcely hiding the vitriol and hate enveloping them. "If I were you, I'd savor that victory, your excellency. Rest assured, we will not make the same mistake ever again."

"Aha," Moderatus made a sound of amusement. "And indeed you may do wise to learn from that mistake. The next time you try something along the lines of that invasion, we won't be found wanting any less than you'd claim your own race to be completely prepared." The ambassador's tone lightened once more, her face adopting an expression that Draynor can identify as the turians' version of a smirk. "But, I too must concede that your race deserves at least the measure of credit..." She said, to the fleet admiral's mild curiosity.

"To clarify, by successfully launching an invasion on the Citadel, you humans have achieved something that hasn't been done in, well, forever. This is more than enough to make humans the most dangerous ー and most worthy ー threat the Council races have ever faced thus far. You might have failed your objectives, but you and all your kind at least have something to be proud of."

The fleet admiral craned his head to Moderatus, his expression that of astonishment. In turn, the turian ambassador continued, "There had been attempts to breach the Citadel's defense screens by other parties in the past, but unlike you, those aggressors never made it past our supposedly impregnable defenses. We thought we'd be safe in our heavily fortified space station, but humans have proved us gravely wrong by utilizing unorthodox tactics we thought no one would be smart enough to do. For that fact alone, I think more than a few of my kin found new respect for your race, even if only because of how unexpectedly powerful you are in war."

"Hmph. I find myself doubting that, ambassador." Draynor said, making his skepticism apparent by turning his back to Moderatus again.

"Oh, admiral. Anything and everything I say holds truth, rest assured." Moderatus insisted, never losing her compelling way of speaking. "A lot of my colleagues in the Hierarchy have made it clear that they'd value you more as an ally... not the contrary."

While Draynor would also like an end to the war at hand, he saw the notion of having aliens as allies rather absurd. "I'm afraid an alliance of any sort between my race and yours would be impossible, ambassador. And I have little hope that your actions here today would have any sort of worth tomorrow."

"Nothing is impossible. One must never lose hope, admiral." Moderatus spoke with enthusiasm, though Draynor had a feeling that she was up to something she wasn't inclined to tell him. "But enough about our hopes for the future; Right now, I have something else I have in mind I'm asking we should discuss."

The fleet admiral shrugged and nodded. "What do you have for us to talk about, turian?"

"The incident earlier with one of your colleagues ー Durand was her name, I think." Moderatus talked as she walked to a seat opposite Draynor, while the four hulking bodyguards she had for protection took their positions adjacent the admiral's own seat, and also adjacent to hers.

She boxed me in, Draynor's thoughts resounded. There's no way out of this. I'm fucking trapped.

Moderatus seemed to have read his thoughts, for she now wore the same smug grin she adopted earlier. "I wonder, why did she do that?"

"Ah, the famed Colonel Annette Durand." The fleet admiral slowly started, emphasizing each word he spoke. "She went by many names and titles throughout the years... among those were 'Ethereal Killer', 'Alienbane', the 'Xenosmasher' and every other corny, xenophobic epithet her comrades can think of. But really, if there was a college degree in the field of murdering extraterrestrials, Durand would never even have to study; she'd have already passed her course several hundred times over before she even stepped over college grounds ー she really hates aliens that much."

"That doesn't answer my question, fleet admiral. Besides, I'm already quite aware of that fact, she said so herself to my face." Moderatus said, leaning over her seat and looking intently at Draynor. "What I need to know is why she hates us so."

Fortunately for the fleet admiral, he was given authorization to access Durand's personal files decades prior. He should know enough about her to satisfy Moderatus' curiosity. "From what I read and from what I heard from my contacts and personal acquaintances, Colonel Durand lost her entire family to an alien invasion almost two centuries ago."

The ambassador seemed taken aback a little. "Two centuries, let alone one? How long does your species live before succumbing to old age? Some races in the Council don't even have the luxury of having lifespans as long as the others like my salarian compatriots here."

Draynor thought about it for a moment. As of present, he was thirty-five and was in possession of one cranial implant, while his unaugmented mother still lived at one-hundred and thirty seven, and she should be strong and healthy enough to live through another decade or two.

"That really depends from person to person, ambassador. We humans can live normally live to see a century and another half after that, but we also have access to genetic augmentation technology ー a very sophisticated one at that."

"I take it that Colonel Durand is augmented, then?" The turian asked.

"Obviously, she is. If an augmented human's life isn't cut short by unnatural causes, there should be at least four centuries they can live through without dying of old age." The fleet admiral informed. "Back to the original topic at hand, there was an invasion of our homeworld of Earth long ago ー by a race of Gifted aliens called the Ethereal Ones, which had several other lesser races as their slaves of war. Throughout the course of the invasion, it's commonly estimated that more than four-tenths of our population of seven billion people lost their lives, and France, one of our homeworld's major countries, was particularly shot up quite hard compared to the rest of the world."

The human took in a breath. "Being a resident of France, Durand regrettably lost her entire family and most of her relatives and friends to alien forces during a siege. It didn't help that the city she lived in, Reims, was bombarded from orbit and reduced to ashes just a few days after the initial attack. And after suffering so much because of aliens and reduced to scrounging the ruined remains of the French countryside for food, yet again she suffered some more when she was abducted by the ethereals, pumped full of sedatives and experimented upon, thanks to her mind's unique ability to amplify existing psionic abilities."

While so far Moderatus hadn't shown any sympathy, she shifted on her seat when Draynor brought up psionics. "You use the term 'psionics' and 'Gifted' to refer to those strange abilities some of your kind possess, no? I've never seen psionics in action before, but some of my colleagues in the Hierarchy spoke of disturbing tales of how extremely organized and well-drilled lines of infantry disintegrating into unruly, flailing masses of childlike men when faced with enemy soldiers in powered armor trimmed in purple."

"I'm sorry, ambassador, but I'm not allowed to discuss anything about the Gift, especially with potential enemies." Draynor stated, crossing his arms.

"Well, alright." Though clearly disappointed, Moderatus still maintained her air of calm. "Carry on with the colonel then, admiral."

Going right back to where he stopped, Draynor continued, "After Durand was captured by the aliens, a terrorist organization called EXALT stormed the alien base she was held and took her in. It wasn't long before they learned of her abilities and subjected her to the same tortures the aliens inflicted, to further their own interests. After months of captivity, an allied, paramilitary force of armed operatives belonging to an alien-hunting organization I'm not authorized to name had rescued Durand from her captors' grasp after heavy fighting."

"It didn't take long before it was discovered that she hardened herself while under EXALT's care; she developed a liking to seeing both aliens and EXALT forces die by her own hands." The admiral said, his voice sounding a little strained. "Since our resistance forces are low enough on able men and women as it is, humanity's leaders deemed it fit to let Durand sate her bloodlust by recruiting her into the ranks of its defenders. Since then, her hatred for all things extraterrestrial grew as she climbed the ranks... and it didn't take much more before human forces turned the tide on the ethereals and pushed the them back out of Earth."

At the end of Draynor's lengthy explanation, the turian ambassador seemed more than satisfied. "Hmm, I suppose I can understand a person developing a xenophobic streak after having suffered so much because of extraterrestrial parties."

"And Durand is but one of billions of other humans, sharing the same, hostile sentiments about alien life," The fleet admiral forged further onwards. "With that in mind, you must understand that not a lot of my kind have some measure of faith in the negotiations we're undertaking today, and myself included. Chances are, your efforts here are already in vain, I'm afraid."

Moderatus shook her head at Draynor. "Must you be so cynical, admiral? Once I set my sights on a goal, I'll stop for nothing to make sure I'll get what I want ー your race's rampant alien racism be damned," The turian spoke with adamant conviction, which was something that Draynor couldn't help but admire, and be wary of. "Rest assured, a treaty will be brokered today. Failing that, peace will come between our races in the very near future... one way, or another."

Allowing his thoughts to entertain the immature notion of picturing Moderatus wearing typical Italian mafia garb – complete with an antique Thompson submachine-gun in her hands – Draynor could only smile a bit behind his mask. After all, it wasn't in his expectations to come across an alien so dead-set on putting an end to hostilities between the races. If only the ethereals ever considered diplomacy, things might have gone better than it is at the present time.

Maybe, they're not what we've always taught they were, the fleet admiral's thoughts resounded. "I... admire, your dedication to peace for all our kind, ambassador. I truly do." Even he couldn't believe what he was saying. "But I still have my doubts."

"It doesn't hurt to have a bit of faith, Fleet Admiral Norman." Moderatus said, her tone softening considerably, like the one a mother used to speak to her children. "I'd keep that in mind, if I were you."

Draynor nodded. "Hmf, if you say so."

...

GMH, L1, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1640 hours

Colonel Shepard

"I don't believe you."

With the way the asari matriarch said her words so bluntly, Shepard's spirits sank a bit. "I have no reasons to lie to you now, matriarch. What I've said – the two invasions, the devastation of our homeworld, the casualties we've sustained as a race and the inevitable prejudice most of my kind developed because of the latter three are all quite true, I assure you."

Matriarch Derrosa seemed to pause to think for a while. "Oh, that's understandable. But what I'm having a hard time digesting is the part where you told me that your race – a primitive and militarily backwards one I'm afraid – successfully managed to beat back two simultaneous alien invasions and still manage to avoid extinction from the heavy casualties you've sustained. Any other race I know would crumble easily once faced with a second extraterrestrial attack shortly after another, especially with the amount of medieval tech you said your race was forced to rely on at the early stages of the wars."

The colonel shook his head. He already said much, but if the negotiations were to have any hope of being successful that day, he'd just have to soldier on. "And indeed we would have faced death and extinction if the Ethereal Ones simply rushed our defenses and got done with it. But instead, they were testing us humans to see if we can be assimilated into their army of slaves."

"Elaborate, please." Derrosa muttered impatiently.

Shepard obliged quickly. "The ethereals wanted to uplift us for war, so that we may protect them from some sort of future unspecified threat. Instead of sending an all-powerful army to finish off every country as quickly as possible, the aliens sent small battalion-sized units for us to wipe out and scavenge for their weapons and armor tech." He explained as truthfully as he could,

"It was their plan all along – for us to take the valuable scraps from their bullet-riddled bodies and their crashed aircraft. As the invasion went on, our military forces grew stronger as we implemented more of their reverse-engineered technology into our arsenal... just as they planned we would. Unfortunately for them, humans have been a bit too good at the reverse-engineering act, and we grew too powerful for even them to handle. By the end of the war, we blew up their headquarters and their flagship and took the remains of their leftover technology for ourselves. That's how us humans ended up today."

"And I assume these 'psionics' are from your invaders as well?" The matriarch queried.

It was there where the colonel drew the line, however. "Yes... and no. But that's as far as I'll go to tell you anything concerning psionics, asari. You must understand, it's not something we wish to see turned against us in the future."

Derrosa gave Shepard a very displeased look, but she seemed to know whenever she should push her luck with the information she's given. "Eh, fine. I suppose with such a... checkered, history with extraterrestrials, it's somewhat justifiable that some of you still possess intense animosity when it comes to alien life. Just... don't let the events of earlier today happen again, alright, colonel?"

"I'm sure we'll be more careful on who we bring on negotiations next time, matriarch." Shepard said. "Are you satisfied with my explanation? On how we held our ground and pushed back our would-be conquerors?"

The asari simply shook her head. "Of course not. I think my superiors back home will need more than what you told me in order for them to believe you. A monumental amount of data will be needed to be exchanged between the Council, and your Federation."

The colonel resisted the urge to sigh. "Understandable. Does that mean we'll have access to historical archives about the races in the Citadel too?"

Derrosa nodded firmly. "It's only natural, colonel. We take, and we'll give." Believing that the human soldier had nothing more left to say, the matriarch reclined on her seat and took a deep breath. "There's one other thing that struck my curiosity."

"And what's that, alien?" Shepard inquired warily. He noted that the asari was looking straight at where his face should be, had he not been wearing a helmet.

"I haven't seen a human's face up close yet," She said, with deliberate care and thoughtfulness. "I was told that your kind looked remarkably like us, with only a few key features keeping our races different,"

"Indeed... we do." Shepard drawled. He knew that the alien wanted to see, and for the sake of avoiding being perceived as rude, complied. He inputted some commands to his suit's internal systems, and within a second, the magnetic locks destabilized and the helmet itself broke apart into tiny sheets before promptly disappearing within his suit's collar. In response to the fascinated look the matriarch was giving him as she studied his features, the colonel did a few of his usual facial expressions, before settling on his most common one ー a dour, stiff upper-lipped expression; the face of a consummate professional.

Unexpectedly, the asari laughed at Shepard's face. With a bit of surprise and mock-offense, he frowned at Derrosa. "I can't be uglier than a turian, right?"

Derrosa calmed herself shortly. Her bodyguards seemed either busy looking at the alien's face, or were simply confused at what's happening. "Heh, you must scowl an awful lot, Colonel Shepard."

"Only in wartime." Shepard shrugged his armored shoulders and broke his indifferent look with a smile. Matters are progressing smoothly... excellent.

...

GMH, L1, Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1700 hours

Prime Minister Grìmketelson

A phantom rendition of Prime Minister Grìmketelson's form materialized just behind the door where the negotiations with the Council races are to be held. It took a few more seconds before the psionic human leader's consciousness took over his decoy. As planned there already was a unit of Preservers at his side, and strangely, their stances seemed less tense than before ー their weapons clipped to their sides and away from their arms.

"Fleet Admiral Draynor and the alien diplomats are inside, prime minister." Captain Radović informed, taking his position adjacent to the room's double doors and holding it open for Grim. "And Squads Theta, Kappa and Lambda are in positions up above the hall. Just say the word, and we'll provide sniper fire if the situation requires it."

Grim cheerfully greeted and thanked the Preserver captain after shaking himself fully awake. Entering the grand meeting hall, he was greeted by a sight that was far better from what he had come to expect to see, which went along the lines of a massive, incredibly gory slaughter between the races. In fact, the very first thing he thought would greet him as he walked inside was a wayward bullet to his immaterial head.

What with how the aliens remained alive and standing in the midst of the Federal soldiers and officials with their internal organs still inside their bodies and how the humans seemed to inclined to remain tolerant and passive around extraterrestrials, Grim reminded himself to put Draynor up for a medal for keeping the men from doing something decidedly unpleasant to the foreign guests. Hell, a medal for every human in the room if he could help it. He was, after all, known for his kindness to the Federation's soldiery... or as President Lazarenko would call it in his own words: 'a pathological obsession with pleasing our defenders with excessive generosity'.

"Prime minister, you're here." Matriarch Derrosa stood from her seat, as did Shepard, who lacked his helmet, for some reason. "Let me gather the ambassadors, and we can begin immediately after."

The prime minister nodded. "Take your time, matriarch. Have your colleagues walk to the end of the hall, at the oval table. We'll talk there."

Once everyone was settled and most of the alien diplomatic detail accounted for, with much enthusiasm, the prime minister began with, "How is everyone today, hm?" He queried everyone in his immediate vicinity with an inane, seemingly irrelevant question, to the puzzlement of some of the aliens, and to the mild amusement of others.

"Some of us are still a little shaken at the outburst one of your agents made," One salarian, the ambassador, informed. "It was rather fortunate that she was stopped before she could do any real harm."

At this, Grim's good mood was put to an abrupt end. "An outburst, ambassador?"

"Yes... a colonel of yours going by the name of Durand." It was the turian ambassador's turn to speak. "Apparently, she just couldn't stand being around us aliens for long; Fleet Admiral Draynor and Colonel Shepard told us that Colonel Durand had come to expect to kill us at some point during this meeting... which was a couple of hours ago." She stated the facts forthrightly, without a tinge of resentment in her voice. "

Grìmketelson frowned. "Erm, I'm... sorry about that. I thought I'd start things up with a bit of small talk, but look where that led us to," He laughed nervously. "Eheh, anyways, who'd like to come up with the terms for peace first?"

The prime minister noted how the matriarch hesitated before she primed herself to speak, "The Council would like no less than a full withdrawal of all alien military forces in all our occupied worlds, the safe return of any and all of our captive soldiers, which, if our calculations are correct, should be around seven hundred thousand turian, asari and salarian troopers,"

"Which," Ambassador Moderatus cut in, "-consisted chiefly of turian soldiers; about seventy-nine percent."

Matriarch Derrosa gave a curt nod at the turian diplomat. "Of course, your excellency. On with our terms, we'd also like the Federation to hand over all stolen Council hardware and property, which includes captured vessels, weapons and armor tech, and all the recovered bodies of those killed in action fighting for us."

Grim put a closed fist to his mouth. He spared a glance at Draynor and Shepard to his side, and saw how their irritation at the aliens' terms showed on their faces. "Hm, I suppose you don't expect us to simply agree with your... unsavory terms without getting anything useful in return, yes?"

"We'd be incredibly dense and naïve to assume." Ambassador Keldwicz said. "In exchange for all that, the Council would like to establish trading and commerce with the Federal government, along with several shipments of our most advanced civilian and research and development technology. And of course, it'll be only natural for us to go through the process of handing out the appropriate amount of reparations in the form of credits and supplies, as an... apology of sorts. What's more, we'll even be more than glad to accept your race within our galactic community, provided you agree and abide with our terms."

The human leader raised a phantasmal brow. "Trade and technology, your excellencies? No offense intended, but a trade agreement is only of negligible value to us at this moment in time, and the vast majority of your technological advances are all quite insignificant compared to what we already possess ー especially when it comes to our defensive arsenal... though some of your peace-time tech did catch the president's attention..."

"Ah, but chances are, you haven't seen what a client race of ours called the volus are capable of, provided they were given another trade route to busy themselves with," Ambassador Moderatus told Grim. "If I may, I can send you omni-tool data on what our exosuited friends are quite adept at doing, prime minister."

Grim willed his psionic avatar to shrug its shoulders. "I don't see why not, but I'm afraid my omni-tool appears to be already full with government data. Can you send it to Captain Radović over here?" He gestured at the Preserver bodyguard standing by his side.

Moderatus gave the human soldier a cursory glance before nodding her agreement. "Will do." She brought up her omni-tool and navigated her way to her public documents folder. "I have a feeling that when we put our hearts and minds to it, our races can accomplish many great things, prime minister. Together."

...

Several hours have passed, and a great deal of information was exchanged between the races. Matriarch Derrosa and Ambassadors Moderatus and Keldwicz didn't seem at all bothered at handing out the answers to almost all the questions the humans asked, and in turn, Prime Minister Grim did all he could to answer all the questions the aliens could ask him about, barring those questions that would give the Council races access to classified Federal information, like psionics and directed-energy weapons tech. Matters like the bloodied history of mankind, though, were all fair game.

"-and with the help of ethereal medical tech, our scientists were able to completely cure almost all diseases that had been plaguing mankind since the day we came into existence." Grim finished his answer for Keldwicz's question. "There had been staunch resistance from a large part of the remaining human populace against the introduction of higher-level, Meld-powered biological and cybernetic augmentations to the human body – and there still is, by the way – but with time, they slowly decided to quiet down after our more recent technologies started to implement use of cybernetic augs for efficient use."

The salarian ambassador was a bit surprised at his answer. "My... then that could mean that rampant body modification is – heavens forbid – legal in human laws?"

"Absolutely." Admiral Draynor answered with surety. "We believe that what the people do to their bodies is their own business, and their business alone. Though that doesn't mean that all humans are augmented as of today; only about a quarter of us even dare to have bio-augmentations of a significant kind. Discrimination against the enhanced portion of our population by the unenhanced is regrettable, but still widespread."

"That... puts a bit of a dent in our planned proposal." The turian ambassador pitched in unenthusiastically, clutching at the edge of her piece of the table.

"And I think it's about time you tell us about that proposal, your excellency," Shepard spoke, sounding stern. "The sooner we can get a treaty in place, the better for all of us."

The three alien representatives looked at Shepard collectively, then at each other. Keldwicz nodded at Derrosa and the matriarch slowly diverted her sights to the human prime minister. She cleared her throat and steeled herself, but she wasn't successful at making herself look confident and collected.

"The Councilors are offering the Federation of Mankind a spot in the Citadel races. We're extending our hand for the humans to join our galactic community, for the benefit and prosperity of all sentient beings." The asari matriarch declared.

"In addition, our leaders are also willing to break tradition in order to offer the humans a seat in the Council, right at the moment in time you decide to join us." Keldwicz added. He spoke nonchalantly, as if he cared little for the words he spoke. "Normally, it'd take a single race a period of a century to even consider petitioning the Councilors for a seat. Think of our very generous offer to you as... something along the lines of special."

Grim sported a blank face. "Well, we're very flattered by the offer, of course, but such a decision as this is too important for the likes of me to accept. This will require President Lazarenko's own attention, excellencies. And I warn you, this might take a while."

"We understand." Derossa gave a half-nod at the prime minister. "We can wait."

While the prime minister busied himself establishing a communications link to the Federation government's supreme leader, the alien representatives remained suspiciously silent and unmoving; their faces completely serious and stoic. It's as if they were hoping for something to succeed, but were worried of a high chance of failure. It didn't take long for Grim's call to be automatically redirected to the president's personal comms.

"Sir, it's Danival," Grim started. His illusion made an act of looking like it was talking through a comm-bead through its ear, but it was just for show. The real Grim addressed the President through an implant imbedded deep within his skull. "The aliens are offering us a proposal. They want us to come and join the Council races – their little galactic neighborhood."

An uncomfortable pause. "...and?" A low, whisper-like voice responded back.

"They're also offering us a seat in the Council. The data the labrats sucked out of the databases in the alien warship wrecks and sent me via overnet say something about electing our very own councilor to the Council – the human race's voice in galactic affairs. I don't know what we'll be expected to give out to the aliens once we join them, but I'm thinking about mutually beneficial trade agreements and the like. What do you think I should tell them, sir?"

"I see." President Lazarenko talked quietly. "But what about the rest of the data? Have you spared the time to read that, Danival?"

Grim felt quite stupid and irritated at himself for failing to remember to read about the rest of the alien data. "Uh... I'm afraid not, sir. I got too occupied with those damned Terra Novan agitators. You know how it works."

A forced-sounding chuckle reverberated through the comms in the president's line. "Heh, then you've got yourself some reading to do, mister prime minister. Once you're done with that, I trust that you should be smart enough to know what my answer to the aliens' offers will be. Goodbye, Danival."

"Mister president, please wait; you need—" Lazarenko abruptly cut comms. Grim grimaced sourly. Still, it was quite hard to stay angry at the president, though. He had a lot of work to do in his own little realm in the Federation government. The prime minister never even met with the president in the flesh, but Grim believed that Lazarenko suffered much more than he did for the sake of humanity, and that mankind's leader deserved every bit of everyone's respect and admiration for that.

Though he held Lazarenko in high regard, his respect for his leader did little to dissuade Grim from having persistent thoughts of passing down his post to some other unlucky bastard who was competent, ambitious, self-sacrificing and stupid enough to inherit the office of the Federation's second most powerful leader.

"I really, really need to resign..." The prime minister talked to himself as he accessed the old database psionically, with the help of the machines hooked up to his body. He only needed to highlight a few things inside a certain folder before a surge of information on his chosen subject rushed to his head like the crashing waves of water before a shore.

...

Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1715 hours

Matriarch Derrosa

"What's he doing?" The matriarch whispered to Keldwicz beside her. They were situated in a remote corner of the hall, surrounded by their bodyguards and a few other colleagues. The ambassadors made absolutely sure that they were far enough from the humans to hear them talk. "Use your STG training; why is he staring off into the walls like that?"

Indeed, the human prime minister in the distance seemed to look as if he just witnessed a murder; with wide, blank eyes and a disturbed expression, he seemed completely focused on the phone call he was receiving.

"I don't bloody know!" The salarian 'ambassador' responded haughtily. Thank the goddess he spoke very quietly. "I'm a field agent pretending to be a spineless diplomat who barely knows what he's doing, and I've very minimal training on anything xeno-related. Reading bizarre microexpressions on aliens we just went in contact with for a few weeks is scarcely an expertise of mine, matriarch."

Derrosa gave Keldwicz a sore look of irritation. "Are you daft? The humans look almost exactly like my species, dammit! They even use the same facial expressions as the majority of the races!" She made a subdued gesture at the prime minister. "You've got those implants imbedded in those eyes; use them!"

Keldwicz bared his teeth at the matriarch. He was about to retort something insulting, when Grìmketelson cut him off by suddenly raising his voice so loud, everybody heard him.

"Ehem!" He raised his arms in the air briefly. Oddly, his tone of voice, which was previously laid-back and easygoing, now possessed an edge to it. "Everyone! I've an announcement to make! Listen to me."

The congregation of species put aside what they were doing to direct their sights on the human prime minister. Derrosa glanced at her fellow ambassadors with a worried look on her face; there was something seriously wrong with the situation – she just couldn't place what it was. And from the expressions of her fellow diplomats, the matriarch knew that they felt the same.

"I just had a talk with President Lazarenko, the Federation head!" Grim announced after all attention was shifted to him. "Previously, the three Citadel ambassadors had asked of me, will I speak for all of humanity, and allow the Federation join them in their progressive galactic community in the stars – for the betterment of all the galaxy's sentient beings? With a big grin on my face, will I say "Yes!" and let our great and powerful society – which our ancestors fought hard and died for in the past – be peacefully merged with that of the alien, who were viewed by everyone as mankind's eternal nemesis ever since the day the zudjari first made hostile contact?"

The matriarch bit her lip in apprehension. The moment of truth has arrived. The fate of the Citadel races – whether the diplomatic party went home with a powerful new ally at the Council's beck and call – hinges on that critical moment.

"My answer is, indeed, yes." Prime Minister Grìmketelson uttered solemnly. "Yes, I'd be more than happy for the Federation to join the Citadel races if it meant that there will be everlasting peace, order and stability between mankind, and the alien."

Matriarch Derrosa gladly let out the breath she was holding back in overwhelming relief. The mission was, despite every unsavory thing that transpired, a resounding success. The future will be brighter than ever.

"Don't let your guard down, matriarch." With an uncharacteristically steely voice, Ambassador Moderatus tapped Derrosa's shoulder, to her mild surprise. "It isn't over yet, I say."

"However," Immediately after the matriarch thought that nothing else could spoil the delightful moment of sweet success, the prime minister began to talk again. "In the face of such disgustingly undesirable terms that the ambassadors 'accidentally' neglected to bring to light, I'm afraid that the action of joining the Citadel would bring nothing of significant value to the Federation as a whole. I will not tarnish my good name by accepting the Councilors' offer of 'alliance' with our government, which in essence, basically meant our vassalization to the Council."

The use of the word 'vassalization' offended the asari diplomat, but she wouldn't deny that by joining the Citadel races, humanity would be forced to hand over massive amounts of each and every one of their advanced ethereal technology to the Council for reverse-engineering and eventual mass production – spreading their hard-earned tech to everyone else and robbing them of their most effective advantage against their adversaries on the likely chance that they eventually decided to break free from the Citadel through military force.

What's more, the Federal government would be expected to pay some amount of credits each year to the Council as part of their reparations for the war damages they caused, and the heavily bio-augmented part of the human populace will be forced to abide to Council laws on bio-engineering – stripped of their enhancements and their bodies reverted back into the acceptable standard.

"The Federation of Mankind shall remain an independent power – free and untainted by the clutches of those thieves in the Citadel Council who wished to simply take from us our rewards for righteously defending our fatherland from otherworldly invaders." The prime minister declared, and Derrosa's spirits promptly sank. "If the Councilors wanted access to our technology, we won't just give it to them. Let them take what they think is theirs not through exploiting our desire for peace, but through the path mankind took against the ethereal threat: total war."

Ambassador Moderatus folded her arms. "As was expected, they found out our ruse." She spoke to her colleagues. "It appears that merely counting on the humans to not find out about the terms that will apply to them the moment their government joined the Citadel wasn't enough to see our plans through, hm?" Sarcastically, she talked. "Maybe now the Council would realize that humans aren't naive in the slightest, after all."

Derrosa ignored the turian ambassador. Though she was still very baffled at how the humans found out about the hidden terms, she knew that there was still hope of salvaging the situation. "Prime minister...? First of all, I'd like to apologize on behalf of this diplomatic party for deliberately withholding information on the terms and conditions that will apply to your kind if you decided to join the Citadel. We didn't expect you to find out about–"

"To find out what, matriarch?" Colonel Shepard interrupted in apparent anger. "We've dealt with this sort of underhanded tactic as a species for far longer than you might expect. You were lucky that my superiors chose me to represent my organization; if someone else in my stead realized that you intended to steal our tech, they could have easily done something really brash and stupid. Do you honestly think that we'd be naive enough to take your word at face value – that we won't check to see if you might be keeping secrets from us?"

"At ease, colonel." Grim put a palm up at Shepard in a placating manner. Turning to regard the matriarch, he said, "Your apology will be considered. What do you intend to say?"

The asari gulped down a breath. "I... I understand that you refused our offer to join the Citadel, but I beseech you, prime minister. Let us broker a treaty – we will ask of nothing more from you except for an end to the unjust state of conflict between our races."

"Understood, matriarch." With no more cheer from his usually mirthful voice, the human prime minister nodded in a robotic fashion. "You must understand, the Federation's current interests lie only with peace; we never wanted anything from the Citadel, only for you to leave us be to attend to our own problems."

"Yes... the fringe world insurgencies and the terrorist organization called EXALT. The fleet admiral told us about them." Moderatus said. "That said, keep in mind that with knowledge of our existence, any insurgent groups you may have might spill over to our territories and become our problems. We might be able to provide your navy with assistance if needed."

"I won't recommend that," Draynor cut in. "If EXALT or any other terrorist organization from Federal space causes any problems in Citadel territory, you're very much welcome to defend yourselves. As of present, most of our counter-terrorist forces are automated hunter flotillas consisting chiefly of Lotus cyberdisks. If a Citadel fleet moved into our territory to assist these drones, their onboard combat VIs might mistake your forces for enemy vessels and open fire, causing a diplomatic disaster between us."

"You'll have plenty of time to talk about that subject after we devise a peace treaty," Grim told the fleet admiral, who backed off immediately. "Matriarch, if you'd please. We want nothing less than to restore the status quo ante bellum – as if this war never even happened; as if our races never met. If this isn't enough for you, then let me inform you that we'll also be returning all captured space vessels, prisoners of war, and equipment seized from conquered Citadel military bases."

Sighing in defeat, Derrosa brought up her omni-tool. "I'll tell the Councilors that we all want an end to the war, nothing more, nothing less. You won't hear of us coming over to your territory unless something pressing has occurred on our side of the grass. Are the terms of this white peace satisfying to you, prime minister?"

The prime minister, after a moment's hesitation, nodded. "More than enough. Now that our main business is concluded, I'd like to ask your diplomatic party to depart now, matriarch. We've been stretching our generosity thin already."

"Erm, wait..." As she stood up, Derrosa put down a hand on her piece of the table. "Before we leave, it is required of me to perform a mind-link with a human; join minds with one, in essence. I think Colonel Shepard would do, so long as he doesn't have any objections with having his mind prodded, of course."

"And why is that?" Fleet Admiral Draynor asked. "We've heard of this 'joining' process through the salvaged databanks in captured turian vessels, but the data is incomplete because of its damaged state."

Ambassador Keldwicz spoke up. "Well, for the asari, melding minds allows them to transfer information to be exchanged from one person to another, and information from the asari can be transfered to the human as well. It's much like how data is uploaded to a device."

"If that's the case, then I refuse." Shepard retorted swiftly. "By linking minds with me, you can easily take in all the classified Federation secrets in there for yourselves, up to including how our weapons tech works. I can't allow that to happen, you can't convince me."

"I'd never do that! I thought we've already made it clear that we wanted to take nothing more from you except a peace treaty!" Derrosa couldn't prevent herself from raising her voice. "You're a soldier – you've seen the worst of what the battlefields could give! Let me see what you've seen, so that I may better understand your people's plight!"

Shepard was clearly affected by the matriarch's words, by how his form immediately tensed up and turned rigid. "...No, matriarch. I actually thought that I can put some of my trust on you, which isn't something I just say to everyone. But then you very nearly saddled our government with unfair hidden terms, proving you and your colleagues to be unworthy of trust. I won't risk it."

"Hold on just one second," The turian ambassador entered the fray. "Clearly the colonel doesn't want his mind accessed, but since Matriarch Zarina wanted to experience the hellish conditions of the human wars for herself, why not have a certain other colonel who went through the very worst the Ethereal Ones unleashed upon Earth and her homeland of France?"

"What? Your excellency, you're not seriously suggesting..." Draynor started to speak, but Shepard abruptly cut him off halfway.

"Wait. That's... that's brilliant! How come I haven't thought of it sooner?" The colonel snapped together two metallic fingers. "Colonel Durand's the perfect choice for the matriarch!"

Derrosa was flabbergasted. "Err... excuse me?"

"Unlike proper enlisted personnel like me, Ma'am Durand was never actually integrated into our soldiers' ranks; officially, she's a civilian – her 'rank' isn't formally sanctioned by the higher-ups, and it's more of a nickname than anything. Not to say that she did not deserve to be a colonel; she went through hell to save Earth, after all." Shepard explained.

"Being a civilian, Durand was never told much classified Federal information, which makes having the matriarch meld minds with her relatively safe for our secrets. What's more, due to her high resistance to Advent psi-attacks, and our organization's pressing issue of Meld shortage, we never bothered equipping Durand's cerebral cortex with the neural feedback and dampener aug, so linking minds with her should be relatively safe."

Steeling herself for what's to come, Derrosa gave the colonel a hard look. "Then it's settled. Take me to Colonel Durand."

...

The Sickbay – Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 1750 hours

Colonel Shepard/Matriarch Derrosa/Colonel Durand

"Wait here, alien." The colonel told the matriarch before warily entering Durand's quarters.

The two agents Shepard sent to carry Durand's unconscious body stood up from their seats and saluted when their commanding officer slipped in. "Colonel Jonathan, sir!"

"Call me Shepard," He quickly put in. "How is she — will the colonel be up and about soon?"

"She's still out cold, sir." One of the soldiers, Field Agent Ruslan Mitrofanov, reported. He was reading a file from his omni-tool as he stated: "The arc thrower Admiral Draynor used was a recent model from the Federal armory: the Tempest Mk III. According to the AT manual I've got over here... Ma'am Durand won't be awake for another nine hours, and that's not counting the Kachinsky sedative you injected into her bloodstream."

The colonel nodded. "That's good. We don't want her waking up and finding her mind psionically hooked up to an asari."

"Excuse us, sir?" The other soldier, Corporal Eunike Lillis, curiously inquired, folding her armored hands.

"Nothing too important, agent. We made a deal with the aliens earlier: they pull back and negotiate a white peace between our governments, and Matriarch Derrosa gets a few minutes scanning Colonel Durand's head for memories." Shepard looked behind his shoulder, to the door. "Derrosa! You can step inside, now."

Shepard watched impatiently as the asari diplomat warily entered the sickbay, her gaze darting all over the white-painted walls. "Thank you, colonel. Will you three give us some room while I perform the joining on her?" The matriarch gestured at Durand's unmoving, still-armored body, lain in an orderly fashion over an elevated stretcher.

"We're watching you, asari." The colonel warned tersely. "Don't try anything you'll later regret on our comrade. Agents, clear out!" Like a shot, the three XCOM troopers exited the room, leaving Matriarch Derrosa alone with Durand. They took their positions behind a large two-way window with a clear view of the space station sickbay, making their observations in the matriarch there.

"Forgive me for speaking up, sir, but why would the aliens want to probe Ma'am Durand's mind? All she knows about XCOM were all declassified and provided to the public at large decades ago." Corporal Lillis turned her head to the side and questioned her commanding officer as her helmet disassembled itself into sheets and disappeared under her collar. "The old colonel hardly knows how our tech works, much less—"

"As it turns out, the asari have the ability to initiate some sort of psi-tecnique that allows memory transfers between one of them, and another person." Shepard offhandedly informed the agent, devoting most of his attention to Derrosa and Durand instead. He didn't even bother retracting his helmet into his armor. "The alien ambassador wants to see for herself the horrors the Advent inflicted upon us as a species."

Agent Mitrofanov heaved out a long, hearty laugh, which caused his exoframe to make metallic clunking sounds as the body it housed shook and shifted. "Hah! She wouldn't last one second just trying to understand the horrors Ma'am Annette went through over the course of he war – I mean, she'd go crazy! By the time she sees how chryssalids breed, she'll be begging us to pull her out of the colonel's head. Imagine that!"

"That's what we're trying to accomplish right now, agent." Shepard said, feeling the grip of his sidearm as he watched Matriarch Derrosa nervously place her hands over Durand's temples. He observed how the asari ambassador continue to have a noticeable lack of self-confidence. "With a little bit of hope and luck, once she experiences all the crap Durand's been through, she'd do her best to tell her kind to leave us be; humanity already had enough of this 'alien invasion' bullshit, and we'll never hesitate to cross any line just to defend our territory."

Before she could initiate the mind-link, Derrosa turned to her shoulder and looked at Shepard through the window, an inquiring look present on her alien features. The colonel nodded in response, and she slowly turned back to Durand. The matriarch closed her eyes and took a deep breath. When she re-opened her eyes, Shepard and his two soldiers cringed in shock and revulsion when they saw her eyes change colors from a greenish-brown, to completely pitch-black.

"What the fuck!" Mitrofanov drew his alloy cannon in panic, while Lillis simply looked on in shock. The agent was about to bash open the window with the stock of his shotgun, when the colonel regained his senses and gripped Mitrofanov's gun before it made contact with the reinforced glass.

"Stand down, soldier." Shepard pushed Mitrofanov back, who nearly lost his footing at the amount of strength the colonel put into his armored arms. "If I needed you to barge into the sickbay and kill the diplomat, I'll damn well tell you! For now, stand down!"

"Yes, sir..." The agent sheepishly took up his earlier position beside the window. "Sorry, I guess being holed up in a medical room for hours made me a little jumpy."

Lillis folded her arms and shook her head. "This isn't the first time you got too impulsive for your own good..."

Inside the sickbay, Derrosa hardly noticed the commotion going on outside. She had just finished preparing Durand's mind for the joining, and made sure she won't come awake during the whole process. "Embrace eternity!" She cried out.

Derrosa was astonished at the amount of resistance the sedated Durand put up against the matriarch's attempts to link her mind with hers. Despite being centuries old and unconscious, the colonel clearly possessed a powerful mind that proved nothing like anything the asari ambassador ever experienced before. In fact, she was outright forced to fight back against Durand's hostile mind. In the end, Derrosa proved her thousand-year-old mind to be superior, but not without cost. She forced through the human's mental barriers with enough brute force that she felt exhaustion wash through her body. She shuddered to think what would have happened if Durand was conscious throughout the whole thing.

Instead of finding the memories she was looking for, however, Derrosa stumbled into a black void inside Durand's mind. She tried to remove herself from her location, but for some odd reason, she could not. It's as if her commands to her own consciousness were being blocked by something.

BANG!

The matriarch flinched at the sudden noise, she noted how it resembled the sound of a closed door being kicked open, complete with the hinges whining in protest.

"Go, go, go! Into the goddamn house, quickly!"

Through the darkness, Derrosa heard a muffled voice echo out. The martial-sounding tone of it suggested a soldier as its origin. "Come on, take up positions inside! Move it!" It continued to shout, its panic-stricken state evident.

Suddenly, the darkness disappeared, replaced by a hazy vision of what appears to be a bedroom, adorned with all the furniture and decorations as a room of its kind should. Besides the suspicious-looking glass bottles sitting on top of the dressing table, the haphazard, disorderly state of the interiors, and the old-fashioned, primitive style of the room itself, the bedroom appeared very plain and spartan.

Soon, the vision started to move just as it started to have finer clarity. Slowly, the vision's viewpoint changed, and a tired moan was heard. It didn't take long for the matriarch to deduce that she was viewing a memory through a most unusual way: through a person's own two eyes. Half-asleep, the unknown person shifted from their mattress and snatched a primitive clock, as Derrosa observed. The time was six in the morning, and the date was displayed on the bottom of the device as the second day of the month of March, on the 2015th year.

How the matriarch came to know what the human symbols displayed on the device baffled her. There was likely a force inside Durand's mind, feeding the asari information and knowledge, perhaps even unwittingly.

BANG!

Unexpectedly, the door to the bedroom burst open. A panicked shriek was heard, and a sleeved arm moved up to cover Derrosa's vision before lowering slowly again, revealing the form of a human dressed in a primitive battledress uniform and helmet, all dyed in urban camouflage colors. The human, clearly a soldier of a sort, wielded in his gloved hands a black-painted assault rifle assembled in a bullpup-style pattern like none Derrosa had seen before.

"What the fuck are you doing here? Wake up! Couldn't you notice the shitstorm going on outside?!" The soldier spoke in a strange, alien language that the matriarch nonetheless understood, for the same odd reason why she knew about the symbols on the clock. "Come on, get up! We need to get you out of here! Don't worry, your family's still downstairs with the captain! We're evacuating this city!"

A cough. "What?" And a disembodied female voice came from Derrosa herself. More specifically, the voice came from the person the asari was sharing a body with in the memory.

And unsurprisingly, it was Durand. "Wait, what's going on? What's happening outside?!"

The soldier did not respond immediately with words. Rather, he stomped inside the room and snatched Durand by an arm, dragging her out of the room forcefully. "Gee, I've got no fucking clue. Some mutant shitheads from another plane of existence shat so hard, that they arse-blasted themselves into our own fucking dimension! How's that for an explanation, lady?"

Once Durand got out of the room, Derrosa was taken by surprise at the presence of several more soldiers in defensive positions all over Durand's house. The house itself appeared very chaotic, as if a wild party of some sort had just recently occurred.

"You're hurting my arm!" Durand cried out pitifully to the soldier manhandling her. "Please let me go! I'm– I'm so confused, I don't know... w-what's going on!"

"Jesus, lady. You're delicate as a damn flower!" The soldier responded in dismay, ignoring the woman's pained requests. "You won't get out of this city alive if you don't harden up! This invasion's a lot worse than just the Russians or the jihadists!"

The soldier continued to drag Durand across the abnormally spacious house. Durand was forced to walk downstairs, straight into the living room. The woman looked up and stared at a party banner decorating the fireplace wall, inscribed with the alien words, 'Bienvenue à la maison de l'Amérique, Annette!'. Derrosa knew absolutely nothing about the letters inscribed on the banner, but she still understood its meaning for some strange reason.

She hazarded a guess that perhaps it was the colonel who was somehow sharing with her knowledge of the human language while she was inside the human's mind.

'Welcome home from America, Annette'... curious, Derrosa thought around the words. This must be a homecoming party arranged by the human's friends and loved ones...

"Captain Fournier! I found another civilian asleep upstairs! I can't believe she didn't hear the gunfire and the explosions outside." The soldier gave Durand a light push towards another group of soldiers.

One of the soldiers, the one apparently in charge, nodded at his subordinate. "Very good, Sergeant Brochard. Take her in with the others, it's not safe to venture out right now... to say the damn least." He commanded, his voice noticeably fatigued. "The rest of you lot, I want those windows boarded and the entraces barricaded! We need to weather out this assault before we can get moving again!"

Muttering inadibly to himself, Brochard took Durand by her arm again. "Goddammit, why can't we just shove you down an APC and be done with the lot of you? Civilians are worthless in situations like this!" The soldier manhandled the young woman towards another room in the house, the kitchen. He disposed of Durand by inelegantly shoving her into the room and slamming the door shut.

Durand recovered herself and turned towards the door, her fists clenched in anger. "Fucking bastard! I hope you get yourself killed out there!" She shouted.

"Annette."

The woman turned around and came upon the sight of three male humans; one a full adult and the rest are apparently juveniles, Derrosa guessed. They remained there, sitting disconsolately on the dining chairs.

"Find yourself a seat, sweetheart. They've been here for a while, and I'm sure they won't be leaving our house any time soon." The adult male in civilian clothing and sporting a prosthetic right leg spoke in a tired monotone. He then stood up from his seat. "Can I get you some coffee? We have some from Indonesia in stock, just before you arrived from the States."

Durand sighed and obeyed, taking her seat next to one of the juveniles. "Dad, just what do you think is going on outside? I know that NATO did a good job pacifying the insurgents in the Middle East, so they can't be possibly staging a full-scale invasion on our country right now — they aren't capable of doing that anymore after that superdrone blitz."

"Don't believe what the soldiers said; they're part of the world's problems, they can't be trusted." One of the juveniles, a pudgy, bespectacled teenage boy, proclaimed. "Besides, the jihadists were fighting for a good cause, and the Americans and NATO just had to stamp them down, and for what? To steal their oil-rich lands and natural resources, most likely. I wouldn't be surprised if it were NATO soldiers there outside right now, in fact, I'm counting on it."

"You fucking retard," Another, older-looking juvenile cursed at his fellow human.

"Language, Marius." The adult interrupted.

"You're an idiot, Henri." The second juvenile, Marius, didn't even stop to look at the adult. "You spend several hours every day mindlessly staring at your desktop and believing all the crap your fellow conspiracy-types plaster all over the internet for their amusement, and you really expect us to take you seriously? Grow a pair and sort your life out, you worthless slob!"

Henri merely adjusted his glasses and put up his chin haughtily. "You're part of the problem too, Marius. You know all about the lies our government keeps telling us, and you simply choose to believe them and carry on. Not that I can blame you for that — you're not as smart as me, after all."

"...fucking wanker, where the hell did mum go so wrong with him..." Marius grumbled angrily to himself.

The adult male, apparently Durand's father, ignored the feud going on with his two sons and chose to focus on Durand. He scratched his bearded chin in contemplation as he poured hot water into a spare coffee mug. "Why, of course this isn't jihadists. If I could wager a guess, I think the enemy soldiers outside are Ruskie paratroopers." He took a quick sip of his mug. "No matter. We have another house in Brest, the bastards can use this place as a bloody outhouse if they so wished. They'll be driven out of France before long; the Russian army is in no shape to fight against the Union after having to go through a savage thrashing just a year ago."

"Somehow..." Durand carefully took the steaming mug offered to her by her father. She had been nursing persistent migraines for quite a while now. "I don't feel like we're up against the usual threats. I can't place it, but I've a bad feeling that there's something much worse going on."

The father merely shrugged his shoulders. "That's just what being hungover feels like, honey. I can't believe you haven't gotten drunk out of your senses before, especially in places like Los Angeles. The people there seem to just party all day and shag and do drugs all night."

"Speaking of the States, how is your new job, Annie?" Marius had decided to outright ignore his younger brother's pompous remarks, as the matriarch observed with mild amusement. "The violin suits you: it catches the crowd's attention, it's attractive, and the instrument itself is the centerpiece of the entire orchestra. Without it, the whole band would fall apart."

Durand chuckled lightly. "Well, not as good as I'd hoped, but not as bad as I expected. I made some performances, toured the country, made new friends, learned some new languages..." She took a long drink out of her coffee. "Going overseas isn't such a bad idea, after all. It's a decent enough experience. I had my sights on somewhere Eastern European, but I'm not too sure now, if it's really Russians outside."

The father nodded. "That's good. Let's just hope we can make it—"

Pssshh-BOOM!

"Whoa." The father remarked nonchalantly, even as the house shook slightly from the explosion's shockwave. "Uhhp, here comes the big guns. Get down and cover your ears, kids. This is gonna be—"

His words were cut short when a series of loud explosions that rocked the family's house even more forcefully. When the barrage halted, there followed a period of relative peace and quiet. Even the soldiers inside the other areas of the house stopped scurrying around, their hurried footsteps no longer audible.

Derrosa watched with concern as Durand and her family emerged from under the dinner table, looking quite nervous — Durand most noticeably. From Shepard's stories, the asari matriarch knew the present Colonel Durand as a soldier hardened by the rigors of warfare, not a delicate, easily-frightened civilian. To see the human's past self differing radically from her present self disconcerted the matriarch.

"Is everyone alright?" The father inquired his offspring as they righted themselves. "Anyone hurt?"

"Henri and I are fine," Marius stated. "Annette?"

Durand emphatically nodded. "Y-yes... I'm alright."

"ENEMY ALERT! NECROTICS INBOUND!" A muffled voice shouted in alarm from outside the kitchen. Derrosa feared the worst when ear-shattering sounds of glass breaking and machine-gun fire started to ring out. It was clear that the artillery barrage did not do its job.

"Get down!" The father ordered his children. "Don't move until I say so!"

More rifles joined the sounds of battle. Derrosa could do nothing but continue to watch Durand's memory from the human's own eyes — she scurried off into a deeper part of the kitchen, gasping and whimpering in fear.

"Brochard, get your fat arse over the radio and tell the regiment to send us some fucking support!" Captain Fournier's voice could be heard screaming. "There's too many goddamn bugs and zombies out here!"

The father did not join his children hunkering down. He instead tried to force down the locked door with a dining chair, to secure an escape route for his family.

"Regimental command, do you read? Regimental command, this is Sergeant Brochard of the 17th Infantry! We've engaged with hostile forces on the corner, but we can't hold against their numbers!" The sergeant's voice was heard. "Requesting immediate helicopter gunship support, over! I say again: we need the gunships, now!"

Durand's father did not have much progress with the door. He threw the chair away and ran off to a secluded corner of the kitchen, where a tall, locked-off cabinet was placed. As he searched his pockets for the key, Durand herself seemed on the verge of tears.

"BROCHARD! What the fuck is taking you so long?!" Captain Fournier shouted again, more frantic this time. "They're almost on us over here! Get us those goddamn helicopters, right this instant!"

"I'm getting NOTHING but static, sir!" Brochard shouted back. "I'm trying, but HQ won't pick us up!"

At last, the father secured the key and inserted it into the steel padlock, opening the cabinet. He plunged his hands into the cabinet and they re-emerged holding a gray shotgun and a pistol. After feeding the shotgun with new shells from an ammo box, he went up to the door and blasted off the hinges.

"They're on the front lawn!" A soldier screamed. "Where the hell is that fucking gunsh— hurgh!"

"Jesus Christ, man down!" Another one cried out.

The father stepped back for momentum and then kicked the kitchen door down. "Come on!" He shouted to his kids. "Follow me, let's get out of here!"

Durand, Marius and Henri need not be told twice to run out of the kitchen with their father. They followed him throughout the house, their presence wholeheartedly ignored by the soldiers they came across to focus on the enemy outside. Derrosa, in her curiosity, watched closely as Durand tried to take a prolonged look at the enemy soldiers assailing her country through a barricaded window, being occupied by an allied soldier emptying his assault rifle into it.

What the matriarch saw was deeply disturbing. A swarm of violet-hued, chitinous, four-legged insectoid creatures were massed outside the house in a concentrated attack on the French soldiers' reinforced position. More horrifyingly, there was also a larger group of blood-spattered, green-skinned humans with glowing eyes and slit throats shuffling their way towards the house, with some of them even wearing tattered military uniforms. The two groups outside the house seemed to be allies, as they ambled onward together.

"Shit! My gun's all dry, I need a—" The soldier in front of the window was suddenly tackled to the floor when one of the insect-creatures lunged at him from outside, sending thousands of glass shards flying. He screamed in fear, while the creature wasted no time savagely mauling him to pieces. Blood and torn pieces of the soldier's skin spattered the walls and the floor, and he was clear to be alive and conscious throughout the whole thing. Throughout her long and eventful life, Derrosa was sure she had never seen a more terrifying way to leave the mortal fold.

"Fuckin' hell, perimeter breach! Kill that bloody thing!" Fournier and his men promptly turned and emptied all their bullets into the creature, which took a staggeringly large amount of lead before it collapsed over its recent kill, dead.

"Reload and re-man those windows! Don't let the bastards in!" The captain ordered the men. He turned around to monitor his own window. He had enough time to widen his eyes. "MOTHERF—!"

A bright, emerald green explosion smashed open a hole into the house and blasted Captain Fournier's charred, dismembered corpse into a television set. The horde of undead humans outside did not hesitate to shamble their way into the breach, shrugging off the copious amounts of small arms fire the soldiers were pumping into them.

"Come on, Annette!" Durand's father took her by the shoulder and pulled her off. The family of humans left their house through the back door, ignoring the screams and panicked shouts of the soldiers being overwhelmed.

Derrosa had seen enough, she tried to break off the link, but for some reason, she could not. The same force giving her knowledge was also holding her back, trapping her inside Durand's memory.

The family ran into their backyard, and came across their neighbors' tall, wooden fence that blocked their escape.

Durand's father halted his sprint, took his shotgun by the strap and slung it over his shoulder. "Let's go! Up the fence, quick!" He went down on his metal knee and offered a boost up to his children. Wiping the tears from her eyes, Durand went up first, climbing up into the roof of a neighbor's house. Marius followed her swiftly, accidentally injuring himself on the sharp edge of the metal roof.

"Henri, are you coming or not?" The father deadpanned as the youngest of the family hesitated to climb up.

He sighed very bitterly. "Urgh, I'm gonna miss the internet," With that said, the young man let his father help him climb up the fence, onto their neighbor's roof. "

"Okay, pull me up!" The father ordered the children. Durand went down on her knees and offered her hand.

Suddenly, a soldier's mangled corpse was thrown out into the backyard, from a window. The remnants of the 17th Infantry then came running out the back door, providing each other covering fire as they retreated. It wasn't any longer before the insect-creatures and their undead allies then knocked down the back door and the windows and poured out into the open, their mouths salivating for more human flesh.

"On second thought," The father retracted his hand, just before Durand could take it. "I'm gonna buy you a bit of time..."

Durand's eyes widened. "No... no, no, wait! Dad, please don't do this!" She extended her hand further, for her father to take. "We're not leaving without you!"

The father instead put a loaded pistol into Durand's open palm. "It's about time I joined your mother, honey. I'm sorry, but I'll be only slowing you down." He gestured at his prosthetic leg. "Don't cry over me, my children. I won't last for long, so do your old man one final favor: run, and never look back."

A single tear ran down the father's eye. He gave his children one last confident smile and turned around, drawing his shotgun while running back to the makeshift defensive line the soldiers made as they underwent the final stages of a last stand. One of the soldiers, a demolitions expert, pulled out all the pins on the grenades strapped to her chest rigging and primed a satchel charge, just as three of the insects pounced on her and tore her body to ribbons.

Marius took his sister by her shoulders. His grip was noticeably weaker than normal. "Don't look, Annette! We must go, now!"

Henri took his sister by an arm. He said nothing.

"...alright. Let's find a way out the city." With the father gone, Durand was forced to take the lead by virtue of being the oldest in the family. The three of them ran across the roof, eventually making their way to the chaotic streets after climbing down. They showed no weakness when the ear-shattering blast indicative of a massive detonation came through.

Derrosa was shocked when she saw the horrifying state of the city streets through Durand's eyes.

Panicked citizens fled towards anywhere they thought would give them sanctuary, but it was of some comfort that most of them have already been evacuated from the city by the military. As for the military itself, disordered platoons of French soldiers accompanied by battle-scarred armored vehicles half-heartedly advanced towards the hostile front, in vain hope of re-securing their territories and restoring order. Buildings of all sizes were oftentimes hit by green energy bolts from several frigate-sized alien vessels ominously looming above the city, blowing off chunks of rubble that fell onto the streets, which made the act of standing near any tall structure a very hazardous activity indeed. Stacks of black smoke came from all over the place, and every once in a while, a brief dogfight between human and alien fighter planes would occur in the skies.

No wonder humans in the present loathed aliens so.

"Christ..." Henri beheld the disaster that had fallen upon his home. "No way we're leaving the city inside a car; every street must be blocked all the way to Paris, just looking at all these abandoned vehicles!"

"We'll make it there on foot if we have to!" Durand said, as the three of them navigated the chaotic street. "Marius, you're a police cadet! Can you use this pistol?" She handed over the gun to her brother.

Marius hesitantly took the gun. "I'm just a fledgling, so don't expect me to be an amazing shot!"

Durand licked her lips and looked around. "Well, looks like you won't have to use it after all! There!" She pointed at a damaged supply helicopter sitting further down the street, being tended to by a team of army engineers. "If we make it there, they might get us a ride out of this—"

The human gasped and her vision promptly blacked out as she felt a sudden force sweep her off her feet and launch her a considerable distance away, her flight only ended when her back struck something metallic and pole-like. Even Derrosa felt some measure of Durand's pain. The matriarch feared that her host's spine might have taken some irreversible damage.

Slowly Durand's sight and hearing came back to her. She tried to move, but a lance of pain concentrated on her spine kept her down on the side of the road. She craned her neck to look behind her, coming upon the sight of the street sign she broke her back on. Looking ahead, then, she saw a large, canister-like drop-pod device of an obviously alien design, sticking out of the pavement with smoke coming out of the top section. Had she been standing just a few centimeters to the right some moments ago, Durand would have been flattened under the weight of the strange object that fell from the skies.

"There! This is where we left her!"

With the same group of soldiers they spotted repairing the helicopter earlier, Marius and Henri came into view, approaching their sister.

"She nearly got hit by that, thing!" Henri indicated at the alien device on the pavement for the soldiers.

The army engineers exchanged bewildered looks before quickly moving to Durand. Their lieutenant examined her briefly with what Derrosa concluded as a primitive version of an omni-tool before speaking, "She's conscious, but judging from her injuries, I don't think she's fit to walk any time soon. Martin, Chausson, get back to the chopper and get us a stretcher, will you? And make it quick, we've only got a few minutes before we need to bug out of this city."

"Right away, ma'am." One of the soldiers responded. He made to double back with his partner, when the alien device unexpectedly started spewing out thick clouds of an unknown syrupy green substance. A hoarse scream of fear and alarm from one of the soldiers, a disordered scramble for weapons and a rushed flurry of panicked actions later, and the situation plunged into full chaos almost immediately.

Durand could do nothing but watch as the green mist swiftly enveloped those in close proximity and pinned their bodies down to the ground, as if the clouds possessed minds of their own. Trying to struggle out of the viscous restraints proved futile and counterproductive, as the substance seemed to become much more clingy when pressed.

Henri and Durand herself were among those immobilized by the clouds, but Marius was fortunate enough to be standing some distance away from the device when the clouds started to waft out of it, managing to be the only one remain unbound. On the verge of panicking and with his father's pistol in his trembling grasp, the young man ran the distance between himself and his family, too scared out of his wits to care as he ran over the paralyzed, still-living bodies of their would-be rescuers.

"Oh my God, oh my God, OH MY GOD!" Marius ran his hands over Durand's shoulder and face, trying to remove the substance paralyzing her with his bare hands. "They're coming for us, Annette! What do I do, Annette, WHAT DO I DO?!"

Durand didn't respond, for she couldn't, nor did she know an answer to Marius' panicked inquiry. The only warning Marius received of his impending demise was the horrified look on her sister's eyes, and the purple sheen that appeared momentarily on them.

Twin bone-like talons suddenly emerged from Marius' chest, splattering Durand with his blood and eliciting a yelp of agony from the young man. Derrosa felt the same amount of despair and shock Durand had suffered through at that dreadful moment in time.

The talons quickly unsheathed themselves from Marius' flesh, dropping him to his knees. Durand watched as Marius struggled to control himself and ignore the pain as he reached for his dropped pistol. The siblings shared a knowing look, and in that instant, they both knew what should be done.

Marius, gasping in pain and bleeding to death, slowly edged his gun to point at his sister, intending to spare her from a hideous death before doing in himself. Matriarch Derrosa's eyes were wide and her heart was beating so fast, it wouldn't surprise her if she was undergoing a cardiac arrest in the real world.

Before he could end it for Durand, however, the insectoid alien behind him shrieked and repeatedly impaled him again and again. Marius screamed and released his grip on the pistol as he was dragged by the alien away from his sister. Dropping its prey on the pavement, the creature didn't waste time slashing the young man's throat open with its talons and then regurgitating the slimy contents of its putrid mouth into the gaping, bloody wound it made.

Derrosa's senses were overwhelmed with an intense feeling of grief and terror — so much that she felt herself losing consciousness due to the sheer amount of psychological pressure crushing her mind. She couldn't even comprehend why the insect creature that killed Marius started shrieking loudly, as if in pain. Soon after, the creature's head seemed to start leaking yellow fluids before its skull inexplicably imploded on itself, killing the monstrosity.

...

The Sickbay - Lingshan Station

July 26th, 2157 - 2130 hours

Colonel Shepard

After two hours have passed by, and Matriarch Derrosa was still linked with Colonel Durand's mind, Shepard developed a slight suspicion that something was wrong. what with how the asari twitched and appeared a little distressed. Still, he just shrugged and entered the sickbay again, to get himself a seat. Standing around and doing nothing for a couple of hours while inside a suit of Ilyushinite armor certainly felt far from comfortable.

Though, after another hour had passed, and mindlessly talking with Mitrofanov and Lillis about rumors concerning the shady experiments Dr. Garamond was conducting in the nearby Reyes Station had started to bore him, Shepard dared to spare Matriarch Derrosa a glance from behind his shoulder. What he saw took him aback.

Derrosa, still sporting the pitch-black eyes and rooted to her spot near Durand, was now convulsing uncontrollably and looked to be bleeding from her nose and ears.

"Someone get me the ambassadors and a psyker, quickly!" The colonel ordered the two agents. Mitrofanov gave one confused look at what Shepard was staring at and quickly bolted out of the room.

Lillis gasped, covering her mouth with both hands. "Mother of God..."

"Don't just stand there, soldier! Help me out!" Shepard ran to the matriarch and the colonel, collapsing his helmet as he did so. Lillis followed after him, fearing the worst.

Reaching the the ambassador and their comrade, Shepard saw the look of utter horror and revulsion present on both their faces. Derrosa must have stumbled across a particularly harrowing memory, the colonel thought, and that was saying something, as Durand's past consisted mostly of harrowing ordeals. "Any idea what we should do?" He slowly inquired his fellow agent.

Lillis shook her head mournfully. "None of us are psionic, I'm about as stumped as your are, sir."

Shepard thought to himself for a moment, thinking what Karlotte would do. "Psioempathic links severed themselves when stretched far enough, I'm told. We should separate these two."

"Well, that's certainly better than my idea." Lillis nodded. "Shocking them both with an arc thrower might do more harm than good."

Shepard frowned, giving his fellow agent an unamused expression. "Look, just watch over the colonel for me, will you? If she wakes up, goes insane and tries to kill you, then by all means, don't hesitate to do what you can to defend yourself – neutralize her as a threat if you must."

He took a deep breath and placed his gauntleted hands over Derrosa's shoulders, making an effort to control her spasms. "I'll take the matriarch back to her colleagues. They should know what to do with—"

Derrosa's eyes suddenly shot open without warning, startling Agent Lillis. Shepard slowly noticed the disturbed look she was sporting. "Eunike? Is there something you need to tell me?"

In a stilted, unnatural manner, the asari turned her head to look at the colonel behind her. Shepard lifted his hands from the matriarch's shoulders and tried his best to look unconcerned for her well-being. "Uhm, do you need to sit down for a while, matriarch? Did you find what you were looking for?"

Shepard's fears were confirmed when the alien started sobbing. His previous misgivings towards her temporarily forgotten, the colonel sighed and offered his armored shoulder for Derrosa, who had already broken down in tears.

"Ah, hell." The colonel mumbled to himself. It was certainly much simpler to think of these aliens as a simple, unthinking, destructive force of nature like the Advent before them, but as the days passed and more interactions between Federal forces and members of the Council Races were made, it soon became apparent that the two parties shared a disturbing amount of similarities, as Shepard warily noted.

"Come on, Zarina." Shepard started walking outside, supporting the matriarch as he did so. "Let's get you home."

...


EXTRATERRESTRIAL COMBAT UNIT HICOM DATABASE

|The following database entries are information successfully appropriated by XCOM field agents while infiltrating turian installations, deep within established Hierarchy territory. These entries are declassified by Director Faust for general base personnel use, under EO 391820.30482. Please report any encountered damaged data to Schultz tech support.|

I. Entry 749.1120.45: A scientist's summarization and assorted observations of the Relay 314 Race, AKA 'Humanity', 'The Federation of Mankind'

- Database entry by Dr. Mephilius Avicus, Hierarchical government chief scientist, senatorial advisor and xenobiology researcher, made for His Venerability Valerius Corvinius, Primarch of Palaven.

First encountered by Hierarchy forces two months ago while illegally trying to open a derelict secondary mass relay, citizens of the Federation of Mankind are most commonly described physically as a people of warm-blooded mammals which stood shorter than turians to some degree, possessed an internal makeup only differing slightly from common bipedal primate species, and are built with levo-amino acids like asari and salarians. It is a notable fact that the physical appearance and body structure of human females are observed to highly resemble asari with hair growing over their heads instead of scalp-crests, and that some members of the species are born as 'Psionics' — exceedingly rare individuals born with the 'Gift', the ability to easily influence the mental faculties of other creatures through a psychic connection. Extreme caution is expected to be observed when making contact or engaging human soldiers, and no less than a full retreat is expected of Hierarchical troopers when encountering a hostile Gifted human unless adequately prepared and with an advantage in numbers.

Another noted fact is the massive technological gap between any Citadel race and the Federation, especially in the military department. The vessels they use for spacefights are unbelievably massive and durable, and there's talk among the shipmasters of a hyper-advanced, squid-shaped phantom vessel operating within the Federal Navy's ranks that we have no natural counters to in our arsenal thus far. Disconcertingly, the most common, most lowly grunts in the Federal army are given plasma-based energy weapons as main armaments, and powered exosuits made out of the alien material 'Ilyushinite' for full-body protection. The Federation's heavy use of DEWs meant that an opposing army heavily dependent on kinetic shielding (which is what most Citadel forces are) will be quickly crushed under human powered boots, and despite not possessing high-quality kinetic shielding technology themselves, the humans compensate by having their troops and their spaceborne ships equip armor that aren't too easily penetrated by mass-accelerated bullets and salvoes. Our only saving grace, no matter how rare they might be in our army, is through our biotic soldiers. The biotic barriers they conjure are the only reliable protection against directed-energy weapons fire that we know of so far, and field tests with captive Gifted humans suggest that biotics suffer less adverse effects from psionic attacks. I recommend hiring asari freelance commandos to supplement our soldiers' ranks with much needed biotic power, in case our cadres proved insufficient.

First contact with this race of aliens was, I must say, not executed properly. A Draius Ferlodinus Legion task force opened fire on human scouting vessels as they tried to gain access through a relay covered by Council law as strictly off-limits. Normal procedure would entail something along the lines of a very stern warning and a hefty credit fine against those responsible, but for some odd reason that eludes even me, Captain Regulus' forces resorted immediately to violence. Needless to say the legion annihilated most of the scouting vessels, but at a great cost in cruisers, frigates and men, including the captain himself. Even worse, some of the aliens escaped to warn a nearby colony, which is apparently designated by the humans as Shanxi, their most populous colony outside their home system of Sol.

A brief, but incredibly bloody war between the Hierarchy (and later, the Citadel) and the Federation erupted. An even larger expeditionary force under the command of Admiral Nandrakan miserably failed to secure Shanxi under turian hands, and several Hierarchy-controlled planets bordering Federal territory suddenly stopped responding to hails from Palaven High Command, including a garden world littered with prothean ruins. The humans even went as far as proving their unmatched military might to the councilors themselves personally by landing an invasion force within the Citadel itself — truly a feat for the ages. Bless the Spirits, their invasion was beaten back by Citadel forces, with Hierarchical forces playing a major part in repelling the assault.

After the audacious raid, the councilors were quick to learn that a continued war with the Federation would spell doom for the galactic community at large, and scrambled to assemble a makeshift diplomatic party led by the first senior diplomat they got their hands on: Matriarch Zarina Derrosa. Their primary objective was to secure a peace treaty with the aliens, and then try to make them join the Citadel if they could. Despite her well-known, persistent lack of self-confidence, Zarina managed to broker a white peace, but predictably failed to secure the Federation's alliance, which would have taken a miracle to accomplish, anyway. Ambassador Moderatus gave us no small amount of adverse criticism for the plan's secondary goal, saying that it would be eventually discovered and have the humans feeling insulted.

The utter savagery of how humans conducted war, and the merciless brutality and xenophobia exemplified by their soldiers immediately cast the humans into a very negative light on the average turian citizen, and more recent media in holovids, literature and video games started introducing human characters that are distinguished as bloodthirsty power-armored savages — a role that the krogan used to have a near-complete monopoly on. However, there is a popular trend within the youth of every Citadel race (not just our own) to see the Federation as... very aesthetically pleasing, and most assuredly, I can see some of the appeal to this trend. Their Navy officer uniforms look positively grand and intimidating at the same time, I must admit.

As of the present time, humans have kept mostly to their own inside their territory, which is exactly what we needed them to do while we struggle to rebuild our armies to effectively counter plasma-based weaponry and psionic attacks. Palaven Command was warned by Federation Prime Minister Danival Grimketelson that human terrorists, 'EXALT' members, might intrude in on Citadel space and start wreaking havoc on civilians, but so far, there had been no recorded incidents of human terror attacks within our own territory. There were, however, some incidents involving human spacecraft running into Hierarchy-aligned parties within the buffer zone, which resulted in either a violent confrontation, a very awkward exchange of low-tech goods, or the two sides merely passing each other without so much as a glance. Turian deaths from skirmishes within the buffer zone are surprisingly rare, and so far, only nineteen merchant vessels and an outlaw corvette were obliterated by energy weapons fire.

I leave this incomplete entry with a final, most pressing note: observers under the Gaius Machallius legion stationed within the Olympus System (the same system that harbored Drekplaats, one of the only former Hierarchy-owned planets that the humans conquered and refused to relinquish control) report that outdated, heavily customized stealth vessels operating under the Migrant Fleet have been moving in and out of the system, apparently to salvage Federation ship-based technology from the derelict hulks they left floating around in the void. It's dubious that the quarians will find anything of value within the wrecks, but if the humans found out about their activities, I predict that the entire Migrant Fleet might suddenly 'vanish' from existence, never to be seen again. While I'm sure that no one will miss the outcasts who brought the geth down upon us, unyielding vigilance and caution must nevertheless be taken to ensure that whatever military action the quarians provoked the humans into taking against their people, it'll only be restricted to them.

We wouldn't want to provoke the Federation's wrath... at least until we're ready.

II. Entry 749.1121.08: Subject: A Report Concerning Our Dear Neighbors

- Database entry written and submitted by Matriarch Benezia, addressed to the Citadel Council, the Asari Republics, the Turian Hierarchy, the Salarian Union, the Illuminated Primacy, the Vol Protectorate and the Courts of Dekuuna.

Since their... energetic introduction into the galactic stage, the Federation adopted a rather loose 'isolationist' stance, preferring to keep matters to themselves while only intervening in Citadel matters when it indirectly concerned them. After Fleet Admiral Norman Draynor and a heavily-armed Federation diplomatic party visited Digeris to 'commemorate' the end to their war against the Hierarchy and to show their condolences to the Hierarchy government for the numerous turian casualties, humans have busied themselves into sending propaganda to alien worlds that bordered their territories. They frequently showcased their advanced technological prowess and military might, all in an obvious effort to intimidate the worlds' local rulers into refraining from interfering with Federal affairs.

Recently, the Citadel Council, in a joint effort with the Asari Republics, tried to offer a trade agreement with the humans to slightly remedy the tense diplomatic relations between the races, but the offer was promptly refused by the Federation head, President Lazarenko himself. As a result, Citadel-aligned parties have never approached close enough to Federation core worlds to study the humans, and vice-versa. We know depressingly little about humans outside the fires of warfare, and what's worse? The humans might know more than we expect them to about us, thanks to the databases they salvaged from our shipwrecks. Any attempt to copy their ways of gathering information would be counterproductive and dangerous, as the starship databases we salvaged from their wrecks detonate violently when accessed by anyone without human DNA.

Speaking of copying, all of our attempts to reverse-engineer Federation captured tech have all ended in miserable failure. The humans made sure that all pieces of equipment they left behind would take a monumental amount of effort just to disable the self-destruct mechanism built within, and even more effort just in comprehending how the tech's inner workings functioned. Human plasma weaponry proved especially hard to study, due to the completely foreign technology used in making these remarkable tools of war. It seems, given their checkered history with extraterrestrials, the humans learned that having their own weapons turned against them would be less than ideal, and made major strides to prevent such a thing from happening to them in turn.

In summary, the humans have probably succeeded in reverse-engineering our tech with flying colors and learned much about us in the process, while we know next to nothing about them, and our own engineers and xenotechnologists are indefinitely stuck, fearing for a wayward catastrophic plasma explosion whenever they so much as looked upon Federation technology. In a way, our efforts to surpass our rivals by replicating their tech reminds me of a vorcha, trying to figure out how his first pistol worked.

Finally, as for our endeavors to make light of the 'Gift', as the humans called their inexplicable abilities over the mind, I'm afraid our progress is just as bad as our other projects as described above. The dream of successfully using psionic soldiers of our own is a distinct impossibility as of present, I am aware. But with the return of Hierarchy admiral Tresdin Galvocius from a Federation POW camp, who had apparently seen the inner workings of a top-of-the-line human science facility focused on psionics, we might be seeing our very own Gifted soldiers in the Citadel defense force in near future, if we proved auspicious enough.

III. Entry 749.1125.61: Subject: This is really embarrassing. Seriously, just what the hell were you thinking?

- Entry 749.1125.61 is a private extranet message composed by Fleetmaster Aureliana Nandrakan, for His Venerability Valerius Corvinius, Primarch of Palaven. Database entry 749.1125.61 has been declassified under orders of His Venerability Nikodemos Fedorian.

Hail, primarch. Forgive me for pinging you at such a late hour, but this matter didn't really sit well with me. At all.

As you know, just yesterday at the very start of his week-long 'friendly' visit to our planet, I was approached by my Federation counterpart and we had a bit of a talk. Not long after that, we were involved in an incident that made a complete fool of myself, drove the local populace into a frenzy and nearly ruined my career. You've no doubt seen the... tension... throughout the whole affair, and being the pragmatic asshole politician that you are, you assigned me, a glorified admiral with years of combat experince to basically attach myself into his retinue to serve as some sort of blasted tour guide for the rest of his visit.

I can think of ways that a man of a high political standing such as yourself could do to alleviate our less-than-stellar diplomatic relations with the humans, but really, why do you have to do this to me? Is it because we're on friendly terms now?

...


From the author who just escaped from Valve-Time, to those very patient readers still aboard:

First of all, I'd like to say... I'm sorry. Truly, I am.

I'm a bastard for taking up most of the year for me to finally submit a bloody chapter. I started writing this just a few days after the last one during summer break, hoping that I'd be able to finish it before real life catches up to me, but alas, I was too slow and got too occupied by... other activities. I also remember writing about making the chapters shorter, but no, I found that I can't bear the thought of submitting a chapter that isn't sufficiently long and up to my standards. So in effect, I've been continuously adding words to this chapter over the course of the months, at the rate of maybe 50 words a day or less, since I needed to make preparations for the day ahead, whether it'd be dedicated to my job, my courses or whatever. I admit, sometimes I get distracted and decide to just play videogames in what little free time I was given instead of writing, and what's worse, I lost motivation to finish this chapter on some days, not helped by the fact that writer's block took hold of me, too. I'm absolute rubbish when it comes to writing chapters like this one; I'm just glad I finally got it over with, and I'll now be able to proceed to the original ME plot. Finally.

The next chapter, which shouldn't take long, would be a little similar to the first one: a timeline of events. Yes, there will be a pretty big timeskip from 2157 to 2183, but I'll also be writing about the ensuing events in between the two dates, in the form of short stories within the chapter (which includes things like the Skyllian Blitz, the Siege of Khar'Shan, and an insight into life as an XCOM novice). It'll be about a Cold War situation between the human and alien governments, after peace was negotiated.

Once again, I'd like to apologize to you, the reader, for having to put up waiting for an inordinately large amount of time. I'll try my very best to avoid doing something like this again. Life (and an unhealthy amount of distractions) just gets in my way, I guess.


Edit, 06/09/15: Finally had some time to bisect the most glaring walls of texts. Chapter should be less of an eyesore now. Minor sentencing errors corrected.