. . .

Saren's Story – THE RELAY 314 EXPEDITION (III)

. . .

Tyla was worth the wait.

Wiping the blood off her hand, smearing the thigh of her softsuit with it, she stood over a trio of corpses. Saren was pleased to note her proficiency, especially in close combat. She had the strength of a krogan in the frame of an asari, and she used it well to crush opponents against hard surfaces like walls. She was also well-accustomed to combat, unflinching in the face of death. In Saren's opinion, that was perhaps her most valuable attribute: she did not hesitate and she did not give in to fear.

"Among your people, are you Special Forces?" Saren asked, stepping over another bullet-riddled body. "Cabal unit? Blackwatch?"

"Cerberus," Tyla answered, checking the thermal readout on her pistol – one of his pistols, actually – and advancing on point. "So, not so different from Blackwatch. You were a member."

"Briefly," Saren replied, sweeping an adjacent room. "Clear."

"Why become a SPECTRE?"

"Blackwatch serve the Hierarchy alone," he explained, moving shoulder-to-shoulder with her. "It is a turian unit, in all ways. I respect that. But someone like me would never be allowed to advance or reach my limits… even you, an alien, must have noticed my face."

Tyla nodded.

"I'm bare-faced," Saren continued, sweeping another room with her. "An orphan with no family and no colony. Untrustworthy. To most turians, that means I have no loyalty…" Saren's mandibles twitched in annoyance, but his expression otherwise remained cut in stone. "They aren't wrong. I was adopted by the Arterius family; they are my patrons and I owe them for that, but I do not love them. Even now I feel no particular affection for any one place or people. Serving the Citadel is the only logical course of action – the only concept broad enough to deserve loyalty from a man with no home."

"Your home is everywhere and nowhere," Tyla joked, but Saren didn't contradict her.

"When I became a SPECTRE, colonies sent me requests, wanting me to join… to at least legally bind myself to a place and a people." Saren shook his head once. As he turned a corner, he saw a blood-smeared turian, stark-naked, hunched over a fallen brother. Saren put three rounds in the fallen creature's skull, dropping it on the spot.

"I declined them all, of course," he continued, flicking the quick-cool breather on his pistol. "I'll never paint my face. Not even if the Central District of Palaven itself begged me."

"Heads up," Tyla warned, pointing to the elevator shaft up ahead.

"This should be quick," Rutaris rushed forward, accessing his omni-tool. Taking a knee and hunching over the flickering holographic screen, slicing into the controls, he smiled to himself. "Human... tell me, have you ever heard of my world? Honoria system, the second-biggest moon around the largest gas giant, Honoria IIb?"

Tyla glanced back at him while she and Saren took overwatch. "Sorry… I'm not familiar with it."

"Nothing to be sorry about. Honoria's a backwater. But the SPECTRE here is bare-faced, homeless, but he's not the only one," Rutaris explained while his blue fingers danced over his omni-tool. "Even before the turians and volus came, the different tribes on my world used to paint our faces… to mark great events, achievements, and affiliation. When the space-borne came, we fought them. The turians pulled us out of the trees, out of the jungles, taught us science. Changed the name of the planet, too, of course. We kept the planet-mind but stopped worshipping it. Your psionics reminded me of that… a little."

"Anyway, that was hundreds of years ago," he continued, dragging over a window and assuming control over the transportation network. "Most of us still never leave the planet… poor bastards… they just can't bear to. It's an addiction. To the flora. To the fauna. The scientists call it a Reinforcing Symbiotic Ecosystem. But we're all raised off world and some of us can resist it. Those who don't come back home right away… the Hierarchy gives us the opportunity, but we're never really accepted again, not by our people or by the planet. The animals won't bond with us. The air is an irritant when we remove the implants that let us breathe in normal nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres. We give up our home to see the stars."

The doors to the lift opened, just as the funicular elevator arrived.

"But you don't ever need to be welcomed home to have a home you want to protect." Rutaris minimized his omni-tool and brought out his shotgun. "I'm bare-faced, too. I suppose." The four entered the lift and it soon began to move.

"Speak for yourself." Hul Bon wheezed, rifle clenched tight in his mechanical digits. "I have a housing complex and six children on Boro." Another wheeze. "And two wives. I'll miss one of them."

For some reason, the human started to laugh at that. Just like an asari. A second later and Rutaris joined in, laughing too. Hul Bon merely bounced eagerly in place, looking forward to the end of their little adventure, come what may. Saren watched them all, feeling a little left out.

The elevator came to a gradual stop, but Rutaris quickly hit a key on his omni-tool, keeping the doors shut. He turned to Tyla. "Can you do it?"

The human had her eyes closed in concentration. "Yes. I can feel them." She pointed to the left and right. "Two that way, both armed. One three meters from the door, the other ten. Three over there. One three meters from the door. A pair further back, behind a console. All turian. No… wait… one more." Tyla's upper lip curled in distaste. "An Andromedon. Haven't seen one of those in a while."

"Andromedon?" Rutaris asked.

"Heavily armored battlesuit. The exo-frame is formidable in any environment. I can Mind Control the pilot, but it'll be a full time effort. I'm not exactly in top form." She looked down at her SPECTRE-issue pistol and tossed it back to Saren. "These little pea-shooters won't cut it against a 'Don. You take care of the turians and I'll keep the heavy on lockdown. When we open the door, scatter- and fast. It'll try and splash us with acid as soon as it gets line of sight."

Rutaris and Hul Bon exchanged worried looks, but Saren's growl brooked no disagreement. "We move on three. One. Two. Three!"

The doors opened, and the four survivors rushed out of the elevator to pre-planned positions on the bridge. They couldn't have been too hasty, as a fast-moving orb passed by them and exploded inside the elevator itself. Saren had no time to see the aftereffects of it, but he assumed it to be the acid attack Tyla had mentioned. He saw Hul Bon duck and roll, coming to a stop in time to open fire with his shotgun, point-blank, on one of the turian crew opposing them. He was just where Tyla had indicated.

"Useful ability, that," Saren whispered to himself as he emerged from behind cover, putting rounds into an exposed turian standing next to the navigation terminal. As the bullets ripped through kinetic barriers and into flesh and bone, Saren recognized the man he had just shot. General Kalanos. Shame. The General had been a good asset up until a few days ago.

Return fire dinged off Saren's kinetic barrier, forcing him to duck down and withdraw. A loud crack split the air from some alien weapon. In his head, he counted down: three, two, one. On cue, an explosion rocked the bridge as a concussion grenade went off. The turian pair at the far end of the bridge staggered out of cover and shared an Incinerate blast to the chest. The whole assault was rather easier once you knew where the enemy was ahead of time, even if only roughly. If not for Rutaris and Hul Bon… well, this would've been more difficult. If not for Tyla, even more so. Possibly even impossible, if Saren were being brutally honest with himself.

Finishing off the last target, flanking her from the side, Saren also got a good clear look at the 'Andromedon.' It was a hulking brute alright; larger than a krogan or even a yahg. Bipedal and heavily armored, it resembled an antique space suit of sorts… and in the center of mass was a large semi-transparent housing, behind which swirled a strange liquid atmosphere. Within that alien soup, Saren could make out a darker form; the pilot, no doubt, but only an outline. The Andromedon was standing in front of the bridge command console, wielding a massive rifle-like device of unknown make. Parts of it were glowing a hateful and unnatural green.

Turning back towards the elevator, he saw Tyla, her right arm extended and ablaze with purple energy.

"Superb work-" Saren's praise cut short as he noticed Tyla missing her left arm. There was also a burning green hole punched into the bulkhead behind her.

"Tyla?" Rutaris rushed towards her.

"Don't break my concentration," the human yelled, gritting her teeth but never turning from the armored alien she kept on lockdown. "I can't kill this thing without a Rift or two but I can hold it. Now do what we came here to do."

Saren's mandibles twitched, but he nodded in agreement. "Rutaris. Hul Bon. Unlock the controls and get my navigation and fire control. I'll use my SPECTRE override."

A deep groan came from the Andromedon as they moved. It was moving.

"Tyla!" Saren barked.

"No. That's me. I'm moving it!" she warned. "There's a portal active in the room! More will come if we don't physically block it."

"Just destroy it!" Saren saw what she had to mean. There was some sort of alien-looking machinery haphazardly set against the far wall near where the two turians had been hit with Rutaris's Incinerate. A warbling pinprick of light was forming within its upraised arms.

"If I have to, I will!" Tyla yelled back. "But…" She extended the Andromedon's arm, weapon and all, into the forming portal. It turned purple-white, and nodules on the aperture's arms flashed yellow. The Andromedon groaned again: a deep bass rumble that sounded like boulders grinding together. Within the energies of the portal, the weapon and the armor began to smoke and char.

"Assuming command control," Saren said, quickly inputting his SPECTRE override authority. It took a moment to process, but at least the ship's VI and computer weren't as easily corrupted as the crew.

The dreadnought's controls flashed.


"Helm is under our control!" Rutaris announced. "Getting us an external feed now!"

The main screens along the port, starboard and forward walls of the bridge lit up with a scene of space. A holographic display followed a moment later, giving them a computer-generated view of their surroundings. Navigation data flowed in, displaying their location in general space.

"This-" Hul Bon wheezed. "-cannot be right. We are nearly to Aryaxis."

"I thought as much," Tyla answered him, still standing, arm-extended, controlling the Andromedon. The burning stump of her left arm had somehow stopped bleeding. No doubt her gene-mods allowed her some measure of control over anemia and hypovolemic shock. Hierarchy hardsuits had rapid coagulants that acted on contact with air or vacuum. A biological equivalent was not hard to imagine.

"How much time before we enter the system?" Tyla asked.

"We are already into final deceleration, Hu-Clan," he answered with a wheezing pause. "Fifteen minutes perhaps. But how…?" Hul Bon wheezed again, abandoning the question in light of a larger problem. "We are being pinged by the other ships."

"No one can fire on anyone else while in FTL," Saren assured him.

"At half-light-speed, though, there's GARDIAN." Rutaris reminded them. "The other ships won't be able to knock us out, but they will be able to damage our main gun."

"We won't need it to take out the Utanes or the frigates." Saren began to get to work on the systems under his control. In FTL, you couldn't risk any sorts of maneuvers or self-corrections. The computer handled a few to try and keep the ship on course and as part of a fleet, but any mistake and you could cross paths with another ship. Above light-speed, a collision like that was not something a ship could survive. That didn't even include what a rapid deceleration out of FTL did to a ship and crew.

Not only couldn't you move, but you couldn't hit anything. Attempting to fire while at FTL would just result in you running into your own mass-effect round, or even your own laser stream as it exited the mass-effect envelope and regained normal mass. Hitting anything or being hit was nearly impossible. At half-light, GARDIAN was a theoretical danger, but a little distance took care of it. Saren checked the readout, and the computer confirmed they had drifted away from the other ships enough to make lasers ineffective.

"We will have to wait until we decelerate." Saren frowned. That had always been the plan, but it had been expected that they would make their move during one of the stops to discharge the eezo core. Not that they would be doing it when they entered the human Shanxi system. "Pick our targets now. Make use of the time we have!"

"Programming a fire key now," Rutaris yelled over his shoulder as he worked one of the bridge consoles. "Ten minutes and I'll have every gun on the ship ready to fire at least once."

Hul Bon spoke up as well. "I will keep us in position."

"Can you last ten minutes?" Saren asked, looking back at Tyla.

"I can," she assured him. Her Mind-Controlled Andromedon kept its arm in the portal, seemingly impervious to the pain or damage being done to it. Arcs of fire and electricity escaped the tortured hole in space-time.

"Portals only work one way." Tyla must have have read his mind. "As long as something is entering it, nothing can materialize on our end – a safety feature – but it has to be a recognized entity. Just throwing a chair in there won't work."

"Hold firm," Saren ordered and focused his attention back on his ship. With the enemy unable to 'portal' onto the bridge, the maddened crew who remained were gathering for a rush up the elevator shaft. Luckily, whatever insanity had taken their minds had also dulled their senses and technical skills. None could reassert control over the transportation controls of the Fearless. They had quite a few doors to batter down at this rate.

"I need… to sit down."

Saren glanced back, hearing Tyla's voice. Gingerly, she lowered herself down onto her knees. Her arm lowered as well, but fortunately it didn't interfere with her hold over the Andromedon. Her skin was pale, though, and Saren could see some sort of dark vasculature beneath the surface.

"You said you could make it ten minutes," Saren reminded her. "It has only been five."

"I keep my word, Mister Arterius," Tyla replied, though after a longer pause than Saren liked.

"We spoke of our homes before," he said, redirecting a lift to crush a group of crew who finally managed to break into one of the elevator shafts. "Or our lack of homes. But what about you, human? Where are you from?"

There was another long pause before she answered him. "It hardly matters."

"You swore to answer my questions."

"I did."

"So answer."

Tyla groaned and glared at him, but at least she had raised her head. Tyla's eyes were burning bright, but Saren could see them flickering, like a candle at the end of its wick. "I'm from the Herald… a Temple Ship… an Ark Ship. International Ark Ship."

She hadn't spoken of those before. "Like one of the old quarian Liveships?"

Tyla nodded, but then shook her head. "No. No… I don't… think so. The Temple Ships are… like the Recipe for Hate. That's a Temple Ship. But this one isn't so old. And smaller. It was built forty years after the war. One of the first. The Americans, Russians, EU, China and Japan… the major Council Nations left back then…"

She shook her head again and Saren could see tears in her eyes.

"Continue," he commanded.

"It isn't as pretty as the new ships," Tyla said, squinting as if seeing it in the distance. "All big and round and fat-looking. My parents met there. It isn't just a ship, though… there's gardens and libraries and a stadium. Sometimes the Commander parks it in orbit over Earth… or Mars… or Saturn. We make elerium and trade it to the new colonies. When I was a girl, we landed in the Pacific Ocean for five years and spread out the support fleet like… like islands in the sea."

The Andromedon groaned again and Tyla's fist snapped up, clenched tight. The hulking alien straightened up as she reasserted control. Still, there were tears on the human woman's cheeks.

"We'd go fishing and grill what we caught on a boat… a real boat... a real boat with real wood. The week before we left, they had a festival to celebrate. I kissed my first boy back then." Tyla's breath caught in a sigh and she slowly stood back up, her strength returning, at least for a while. "God, that was a good few years," she added with a smile. "After that, we moved out into deep space for a cruise. Nothing but nebulas and suns, a different one every few months."

"Then I got into the Jeanne d'Arc Academy on Mars and that… that led me here, didn't it?" she scoffed and turned her eyes upward. Still, her smile remained. "Not even wearing my own skin anymore. My nails. My hair. I had real blond hair once, no modification in vitro. I didn't think I'd actually die in this goofy blue body."

"What's wrong with being blue?" Rutaris asked, surrounded by icons representing pre-prepared firing solutions.

"Blue can be nice, but it isn't for me," Tyla admitted, but she seemed composed enough. Her fist clenched even tighter and she set her eyes on her Andromedon. "How much longer?"

"We're below twenty percent light speed," Hul Bon answered.

It was almost time.

In the darkness of space, they had already passed into the astronomical backyard of the Aryaxis system. Or the Shanxi system. The fleet would be spread out from their initial acceleration to FTL. As a precaution, ships always tried to plot a course where they drifted away from other ships rather than towards them. They would be far enough from the rest of the fleet, but close enough to come out swinging and shooting. Hul Bon set a countdown on the main screen so they could prepare.

Saren felt a very real tingle of apprehension as the countdown ticked down. From what Tyla had said, not only would the Flotilla-314 be destroyed if it attacked the humans, but it would mar the First Contact that was likely underway. Saren saw it a different way. A Citadel fleet being used as fodder to attack a human world? It would be humiliating for the Citadel. It would taint the First Contact, yes, but it would also reinforce to the humans that the relay races were unworthy of respect. If they allowed themselves to be disposable tools of this Dreaming Ethereal, then they could expect to be treated as such.

Saren could not allow it.

It wasn't just pride. It was practicality. If Tyla had spoken the truth all this time, and deep down, Saren did not doubt her, then the humans would be formidable friends or terrible enemies. There were elder races about in this corner of the galaxy, these 'Ethereals', and the humans would be needed to serve as a bulwark against them. It was in the best interests of the galaxy and the Citadel – for the two were effectively synonymous – for the relay races and the human sphere to join together as one. Naturally, the Citadel would need some way to remain on top during this, but there was no point being the biggest man on a sinking ship.

"We may die, but we die for a reason," Saren whispered to himself. "It will have meaning."

"OPEN SPACE!" Rutaris yelled. He didn't wait for the order. "Firing!"

Saren looked up at the main screen and saw ships popping out of FTL, ending their deceleration in formation. Some had already done so and were already turning to engage the hijacked Fearless. Others were just appearing. The space between them was already filling with mass effect and laser fire.

"Frigate rounds!" Hul Bon barely had time to warn them. Even as the words left his mouth the ship shook from the impacts. The corrupted ships of the expeditionary fleet were pounding on the old dreadnought, but the Fearless was hitting right back.

Intermediate rounds from the mid-range cannons tore one of the frigates, the Teti, in half. Overlaid with a computer-generated targeting matrix, the aft engines of the ship crumpled and the front section vented crew. Some of them Saren had met, not too long ago, during the cross-fleet Tournament. The next to die was one from the merchant marine; lightly armed and armored. It was meant to explore the new system beyond Relay-314. Another intermediate round smashed it through the front, sending it spinning lazily away with the impact. It was mostly intact, but the crew of such a small ship would not be able to survive such a catastrophic hit and the g-forces involved overwhelming the dampeners.

"The Rapeta," Rutaris cried as his old ship came apart under a barrage of fire. His hands drifted up to his head, fingers burying into his bald scalp. It was all pre-programmed fire now. All his doing, and yet out of his hands.

The bridge shook as rounds pounded into the port side. A dreadnought's best defense was its shields, but there was no time to get them up. None of the ships had shields up except two of the frigates that had arrived early.

"We're coming apart!" Hul Bon yelled, pushing away from his console. "Damage… everywhere! Everywhere!"


Saren agreed with the human. "It is good," he said, also pushing away from his console. "This is what we wanted."

Having just appeared, the discharge ship Utanes became a new priority target. The original plan had been to destroy it and leave the fleet stranded, but now it was enough just to knock out the engines of the unarmored giant. Same with most of the other lightly armed ships.

"This is good enough," Tyla said again, and her Andromedon stepped away from the portal. "Time for you three to go."

"What are you doing?" Saren roared, drawing his pistol on the now open portal. Before his very eyes, it stabilized and turned into a solid oval of purple fire. "What if something comes through?!"

"Now that we're in-system, I've co-opted it." Tyla's Andromedon pointed to the portal. "It will take you to Shanxi. Go."

"Are you sure it's safe?" Hul Bon looked to the portal then back to the human. Even without being able to see his eyes, even though the wheezing synthesizer of his voice, it was clear he hoped against hope it was.

"I used a Cerberus code. It will work for a while." Tyla said it again, "Go. At least this way you have a chance to get back home to that one wife you like and those six kids."

"Rutaris?" Hul Bon asked, already breaking into a run.

"Yes, a chance," Rutaris agreed, also beginning to head over. As Hul Bon vanished into the swirling maelstrom he hesitated, but not for long. The ship rocked again. Warnings appeared on the main screen of hull breeches and engine failure.

"Human," Rutaris said, saluting Tyla turian-style. "I will remember you!"

As he vanished into the fire, Tyla shook her head.

"You won't remember me," she corrected him, once he was gone. "But thanks." At last, she turned to Saren. "You, too, Mister Arterius. Time to make your dramatic escape. The Citadel will need a hero out of this tragedy."

"And I'm to be that hero?" Saren asked, still holding his SPECTRE issue pistol.

"Well, you saved my life," Tyla quipped, and staggered as the ship rocked again. Her hip bumped up against a nearby control console, and she used it to steady herself.

"You go, then," Saren insisted, pointing with his pistol at the alien portal the human had opened. "If I'm to play the hero, then I should die here, heroically."

"The moment I lose control, that portal will lead back to the Recipe for Hate," Tyla told him, her voice more insistent. "Besides. There's a reason why I was on this ship and not on T'leth. I can't use a portal with any technology from that ship… one last safety precaution against abduction. Thank God I have it, too. Death is preferable to being a part of the Dreamer. But I can't go back home that way."

Saren's mandibles moved as he tried to find something to say. For a moment, he was speechless. That was why? It had occurred to him… why the demons had tried to infect her here instead of taking her back to their relic of a vessel. It wasn't that they had forgotten to. They couldn't.

"A meaningful death," he whispered, but loud enough for her to overhear.

"Maybe," Tyla agreed.

"Yet." Saren was torn. "I was…" He struggled to explain his feelings. "This was my-"

Saren heard the thumping of heavy footfalls, and a moment later he was hoisted into the air. The Andromedon! It had him by the waist, lifting him like a child!

"Sorry, we're out of time." Tyla kissed her palm and turned it towards him. "Don't fight back when you land. The mutons won't like it."

"Wait!" Saren roared. "Wait! I order you to-"

There was no time.

The hulking Andromedon threw him the last two meters into the portal- and then the universe itself inverted. All feeling and sensation vanished for a split second… only to come screaming back a single disorienting heartbeat later. Saren tumbled and twisted on the cold, sterile floor, his senses a jumble. For a moment, just a moment, it felt like he could taste with his eyes and see with his skin. Everything was a mess, and then, just as quickly, everything was back to normal.

The Council SPECTRE blinked, and stared up at the armored forms of green-skinned brutes. Two of them. They were almost as huge as the Andromedon before. And behind them… behind them was an asari-like creature in silvery robes with a heavy steel mantle over its shoulders and upper body. It extended a pale-skinned hand and Saren Arterius's world turned dark.

. . .

. . .

The Invisible Man took a long draw of his cigarette as he mentally digested the psi-packet Eva had just transmitted. To think he had been relaxing on the Vasco da Gama, seeing to the Trellani contingency and putting the other First Contact affairs in order, all while Hell itself had come to Shanxi. Luckily, Eva had been left in command back on the other side of Relay-314. It was no knock against Ben, but Eva was just that reliable. If anything happened to him, Cerberus was almost certain to pass to her… following confirmation from Arcturus of course.

Eva Coré frowned as her holographic projection watched him inhale. It didn't take a mind reader – so to speak – to know she was just shy of reminding him to quit, only held in check by the circumstances. Ever since their time together as Cerberus Pups Eva had nagged him about his dirty little habit. It wasn't like this was the twentieth century and he had to worry about lung cancer, she just thought it was a filthy habit, polluting one's body with stimulants… to say nothing of the tar and other impurities companies kept in to preserve the "experience."

Which made her current appearance a bit jarring. Eva's blonde hair was matted with sweat and her eyes were ringed in purple, though minus the flames, a side-effect of nearly exhausted psionics. She was still in her combat armor, too: matte black and silver with gold trim. He could see the Cerberus logo on her left shoulder pad, along with their legacy motto from back when they had first been formed. Mutare ad Custodiam. To change is to defend.

'We are, if anything, mutable... and we will become anything to defend our people.'

Blowing out a thin tendril of smoke, Jack finished processing the recorded memories and analysis.

"It could've been much worse," he concluded, sitting up straight in his chair and putting his half-finished cigarette away. "And the Old Dog's on the line, too? You could've warned me, Eva. We've been keeping him waiting."

"He has his hands full," Eva replied, running a hand through her disheveled hair. "Besides, even if this was his turf, he's retired. An Old Dog. Don't forget that. You're The Invisible Man now."

"One man, three heads," Jack reminded her, gesturing with a free hand to bring up the second feed. "It is common courtesy to include a former Invisible Man when you have a situation like this. I'd expect the same treatment when my time comes around, in however many decades."

A second projection appeared over hyperwave: a grizzled old man wearing a heavy silver mantle over his second skin. The Old Dog. The original one. Everyone in Cerberus knew him, even though Cerberus was by nature an organization of secrets and closely guarded identities. Close cropped pure white hair and a rectangular face with a strong jaw, along with equally colorless goatee… he had much the same look now as he had when he first got involved with XCOM. The psionic gift, of which he had been only the third to brave the gasses to emerge empowered, had only changed his hair from white to whiter. MELD mods had done nothing to heal the scars over his right eye and right cheek. Most humans these days, like Eva or himself, no longer scarred except from truly significant injury. This man, though, was a relic from an earlier time, like a Coelacanth… or a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"Mister Zhang," Jack greeted his predecessor.

"Invisible Man," Shaojie Zhang answered with a polite nod of his head. Jack smirked. Of course, Zhang knew who he was. 'Jackie Boy' he had called him when he was just a Pup and before his formal retirement from service. But the Top Dog of Cerberus was always called The Invisible Man, except by his superiors. Jack was the Fourth.

Shaojie Zhang had been the First.

Back in the old days of the First Alien War, Zhang had been a gangster of middling rank but surprising insight. His boss had fallen in with EXALT amid the madness and death of those early days, getting his hands on some salvaged alien tech. Zhang had stolen it in turn and managed to get in contact with XCOM – quite the feat at the time, since XCOM's secrecy in those first couple months had been airtight. A half year of anti-alien combat later neutered much of the public masquerade. Abandoning the Triads, he had thrown in his lot with XCOM and been accepted despite his unusual background.

Where others might have struggled, though, Zhang thrived. He proved himself on early missions against the aliens; no mean feat when between a quarter to a half of new recruits didn't survive their first month. What changed the story, though, was not the aliens themselves but EXALT. When EXALT and XCOM began to fight a shadowy war against one another world-wide, The Commander and Bradford had needed someone with underworld and unorthodox expertise to lead the hunt and go undercover. It was in this shadow war with EXALT that Cerberus first took form. The Commander often used the same small number of operatives for his covert missions, and when MELD and MEC modifications started to mature, they were outfitted to specialize in that role.

By the end of the war, that Proto-Cerberus was no more than two dozen men and women, and that included the essential support faculty like Vahlen and Shen. They were the close-knit unit who pioneered many of the new MELD mods, who used them to do the work of a team of pre-war black ops. They were the men and women who sabotaged EXALT data-relays and hacked their information networks, who assassinated their leaders and kidnapped their scientists. They were the ones who defended XCOM operations and civilians when EXALT tried to return the favor. Even after the war was won, thanks to the Miracle on the Killing Road and Annette Durand (also a Cerberus member), their work had been cut out for them hunting down the remaining EXALT remnant and fighting counter-terrorist and counter-intelligence ops. At some point, the first man to be given Mimetic Skin became simply The Invisible Man and the Commander made Cerberus official: XCOM's Covert Operations Branch.

"Eva's psi-print paints a grim picture down there," Jack said with a shake of his head. "Eighty-one dead."

"Only five MIA," Zhang countered. Jack didn't smile, though he was a little amused when Zhang's holo lifted a cigarette to his lips and took a drag. Old habits did die hard. "The attack was like Mars. They went for the children and the procreation park, but we had forewarning. Caught a few Scorpions leading the usual mix of Andromedons, Berserkers, Consorts and Sectoids. In fact, one of the Scorps from this raid was taken from Mars back then. At least the family will have something to bury now."

"Messy business," Jack agreed. "No Ethereals?"

"Only one. The damn thing was practically a corpse. Only three arms."

"Every Fallen Ethereal and Human we kill weakens the Recipe for Hate," Eva spoke up, trying to point out the bright side of things. Even if she looked like she'd spent the last few hours in the dark, killing with her fingernails. Maybe she had. With her mods, Eva could gut a muton without it noticing she was even there. "These attacks are a sign of desperation. It needs to stock up, assimilate new psionics." She balled a fist, as if to crush it herself. "Eventually we'll bleed it dry and finish it off for good."

"And how many centuries will that take?" Zhang wondered, exhaling a holographic cloud of smoke and sighing. His mantle shifted slightly over his shoulders. "Shanxi is secure. Our skies are secure. We'll rebuild. That's life in the colonies for you: Eternal Vigilance. I have just one question. Was the operative on that expedition anyone I knew?"

The Invisible Man hesitated to confirm or deny it.

In the end, though, he relented. Just this once. The woman deserved that much.

"Lyla Taylor," Harper answered him. "One of our best."

"Taylor?" Zhang squinted his eyes as he thought back. "Blonde girl, right? From the Herald? Transferred over after we helped the Blind Ethereal take over the Darkest Hour?"

Jack reached for a fresh cigarette and lit it. "Do you remember every cadet you pass through orientation?"

"Only the ones with something to prove," Zhang joked, and the two mulled over that while they worked on their smokes.

"The Chinese are understandably upset," Eva reminded them as her frown deepened. "Not just with T'leth, either. There's whispers that the attack only occurred because of all this attention around First Contact. The PRCT regional leadership were already lukewarm towards contact with Relay Races… Shanxi was their new flagship colony and now it's in the galactic crosshairs. The fact that it was Citadel ships… even if they were under the control of the Dreaming Ethereal…"

"Yet disaster was averted thanks to the courageous work of a Citadel SPECTRE," Jack interrupted with a sly look. "A SPECTRE who turned the guns of his own flagship against the rest of the fleet and who tipped us off to the presence of the Recipe for Hate. First Contact is going forward, Eva. First Contact has already occurred. I should know. I'm in a ship docked with the Citadel right now. In a few hours, I'm going to be having lunch with the elcor ambassador."

"Obviously. It's too late to call it off, but if the Chinese get apprehensive and uncooperative…"

"The old gang back home have sent almost the entire fleet to Shanxi.," Zhang said, dropping his cigarette and snuffing it out with a boot out of their field of view. "They're definitely spooked and slow to move, but the people of Shanxi understand the risks. They're pro-contact with the Citadel… overwhelmingly so. This won't change that. We'll take care of security. You handle the PR."

"Naturally," Jack agreed, nodding at his Cerberus predecessor. "Selling this First Contact, on both sides of the relay, is currently our Number One priority."

"You need to warn them about the Recipe for Hate, too," Zhang offered a little more advice. "We know it's attacked relay colonies before. After the thrashing it took over Mars and now Shanxi, it'll be looking for somewhere undefended and with plenty of sapient biomass."

Eva grunted. "Temple Ships are impossible to track. It could be anywhere."

Zhang chuckled. "That is the point of them."

Jack leaned back in his chair and took a long drag in his cigarette before disposing of it. It was a nasty habit.

"There's also the matter of exactly what to do with our Hero SPECTRE," he thought aloud. "Eva?"

"Sir?" she asked, though her thoughts sounded more like, 'What do you need done, Jack?'

"Have a talk with Mister Arterius. From what you sent, his willpower is unnaturally high." The Invisible Man smiled softly. "So let's avoid scrambling our new friend's brains too badly. Gift-wrap him and the others for the Citadel. Let me handle the international mess all this is about to cause..."

"How do you expect the Relay races to react?" Eva asked, eyes serious. She was not as pro-Citadel as he was, Jack knew. She was still pro-contact, just that she didn't trust them. Not that Jack trusted them much either, but he did trust in his ability to manipulate them and that someday, perhaps, it wouldn't be necessary to do so.

"Oh, it will be interesting," he promised with the same soft smile. "We're about to give the Citadel their first look at a Bigger Fish."