Chapter Twelve - Final Judgement
The boiling surface of the sun was the sole reason that he had even had the station built in the first place. There were other places he could hide the seat of his shadow empire, places that didn't require constant course corrections and monitoring, but none of them had quite the view of beauty, power, and rage. It fit the Illusive Man to the very core of his being.
He stood in his office, his inner sanctum of polished glass and steel, looking the darkly tinted window at the star Anadius before him. Without the glass, he would have been unable to actual look at the star that made his office the most desirable spot onboard Cronos Station. With it, what should have been blinding was dimmed to far more manageable levels.
Taking a sip from the glass of scotch he held loosely in his hands, the Illusive Man turned, walking through the holo-displays that served as his computer monitors. Pausing, the Illusive Man looked over the monitors, frowning at what he saw before him.
He quickly downed the rest of his glass.
Easing himself down into his chair, he quickly pressed several of the discrete buttons on its arm rest. The actions had long since become muscle memory and he didn't even have to look to make sure he was pressing the right ones.
A door hissed open and one of his most promising lieutenants entered, summoned by his call. Miranda Lawson, the perfect woman. Created in a test-tube from the DNA of Henry Lawson, the trillionaire mogul with a rather unrealistic dream of living forever, Miranda was everything that Henry was not. She was tall, statuesque, beautiful beyond compare, with an intelligence sharper than all but a handful in the galaxy. She was the type of woman who knows how to use all of her assets to her advantage. When she had run from her home, he had been waiting to save her, offering her everything she asked for and more.
The Illusive Man admitted to himself that he would be hard-pressed to find a more loyal woman.
"Sir." Miranda stopped just in front of him, out of the way of his monitors. She clasped her hands loosely behind her back, waiting for him to reveal the purpose of his summons.
She didn't have to wait long.
"Miranda," the Illusive Man said, taking a moment to light a cigarette with his favorite lighter.
Miranda didn't say anything, just waiting for her employer to speak. He gestured behind her at the monitors, which she turned and glanced over, speed-reading over everything.
"What is your take on all of this?" He asked, watching her every move intently. He already knew what he would do with everything, but he was grooming the brunette to eventually take over the position of his second in command. He made sure to lead her, guide her, shape the way she learned to make decisions at every opportunity that had presented itself to him.
Miranda turned fully to face the monitors, taking a closer look. After a moment, she gestured at the closest monitor to her, with a large headline that read "EEZO ACCIDENT OVER YANDOA". She bites the inside of her lip.
"The potential is immense here. I would send our doctors to help with the relief care would give us a chance to gather data." She frowned, chewing her lip. "We could set up a long-term study of human expose to element zero."
The Illusive Man said nothing, just listening to Miranda.
She turned to the next monitor, which was open to a news page about the custody battle over Riley Shepard. She grimaced, crossing her arms. "Terra Firma has no chance of coming out on top over this."
She turned to face the Illusive Man, her brow furrowed in confusion. "I can only wonder what Simmons was thinking when he started this. I think that Terra Firma is definitely over-extending themselves. Even if they win, they are going to lose a lot of public approval over this. That could come around to hurt our own public image."
"I agree." The Illusive Man nodded, tapping his fingers against his empty scotch glass.
He pressed another button on his arm rest. A moment passed, and deep within the heart of the station a superluminal signal flew out, slipping through the back door of the nearest turian comm-buoy, worming through an Asari starship's computer banks, then slipping through another back door on a comm-buoy to Earth. All of that took less than three-seconds, and then a monitor opened with a live connection to Ethan Salitoran.
"Ethan, I have a job for you." The Illusive Man nodded in greeting to his number one enforcer.
"Illusive Man! God... It is incredibly awkward to talk to you. I still don't know how I should address you. Mr. Illusive? Mr. Man?" Salitoran smiled, clapping his hands together, happy to do his own work. "Tim? No. That's stupid."
"I need you to talk with Inez Simmons." The Illusive Man ignored Ethan's ramblings. He didn't pay him for his wonderful philosophical skills. "He is going off the deep end, and the public isn't going to keep tolerating them for much longer."
"What do you want me to do?" Ethan asked, his attention focusing on the Illusive Man.
"Talk some sense into him." The Illusive Man said vaguely. At this point, he honestly didn't care what happened to Inez Simmons. He would leave it up to Ethan's own discrimination.
"I can do that." Ethan nodded, grinning widely.
The monitor blinked out of existence as Ethan cut the connection.
Miranda finally looked away from the picture of Riley on the monitor that she had been staring at through the Illusive Man's entire conversation with Ethan. She pointed at the picture as she asked him, "Sir, what do you think of her?"
"She is nothing." The Illusive Man dismissed the girl, his mind already moving onto bigger issues. "Just a victim drawn into the web of predators beyond her understanding."
Miranda didn't say anything, but from the way her nose ever so slightly crinkled the Illusive Man could tell that she didn't agree with him. That was fine. It was better when his people could think for themselves. He wasn't omnipotent after all.
The past week had been hell. The trial had taken everything out of Riley, and she could feel the exhaustion just weighing down on her. The week had been full of emotions that tore at everyone's hearts, and she wasn't sure that her own could last for much longer.
Riley stepped out of her room for what was hopefully the last day. Deep bags sat under her eyes, and while her makeup is applied perfectly, she looked tired. Rainbow tagged along at her feet, having stuck faithfully at Riley's side for the entire week. She was too young to fully understand and grasp the importance of what was happening in the trial, but she knew that Riley smiled more when she was around. After coming to that realization, the little filly was careful to make sure she was within a quick galloping distance from the older human girl.
"Hey, Riley?" Rainbow asked, her face scrunching up as a huge thought crashed down over her.
"Yeah?" Stopping, Riley looked down at the little filly.
"Do you..." Rainbow stopped, dropping back to sit on her haunches. She looked up at Riley in confusion. "Do you want to be my big sister?"
Riley froze, her mind screeching to a halt as the entirety of the question coursed through her. She considered Rainbow for a moment before sitting down cross-legged in front of pegasus. She reached out and took one of Rainbow's forehooves in her hand.
"I would like nothing more," Riley murmured. She sighed, glancing down at the ground, biting her lip before continuing. "It might not happen. Don't get your hopes up too much."
"But..." Rainbow frowned, emotions welling up inside of her. She shuffled closer to Riley, her face torn. "I want you to be my sister."
Riley didn't quite know what to do with Rainbow's statement, rocking back a little. Before the entire incident on Mindoir, she had never had a close relationship with her little sister Jane. She regretted that now, and wished that she could go back and change everything.
She didn't let go of Rainbow's hoof, but her eyes pulled away from reality for a moment. Her mind struggled to make connections, attachments forming where there weren't any before. She might not be able to change the past, but she could start now.
Making her decision, Riley snapped back to reality. Pulling Rainbow closer, she wrapped the filly in a tender hug, pouring all of her heart into the hug.
"I do too, Rainbow," she whispered into Rainbow's ears.
Rainbow wrapped her forelegs as far around Riley as she possibly could, nuzzling into her neck. She screwed her eyes shut, praying to whatever deity that might have been listening that everything would go their way.
Standing, Riley easily bore the weight of the little filly, lifting her to set her on her shoulders. She giggled as she realized that she very well might have been the first human to give a pony, a pony back ride.
Rainbow propped herself up, her back legs on both of Riley's shoulders, her forehooves holding onto Riley's head.
They continued on into the living area, to be met with the sight of everyone waiting for them on the couches. When Prism and Firefly caught sight of them, wide smiles grew on their faces.
"Hi mom, dad!" Rainbow waved to her mom and dad, practically shouting.
Waiting by the door, Natalie impatiently checked the time on her omni-tool, ready to get going. "The shuttle is waiting. We need to get going."
Everyone looked at her as if they were realizing she was there for the first time.
The entire group sat in their shuttle, waiting quietly to arrive at the Supreme Court. Riley watched out the main window as New York passed by outside, Rainbow sitting next to her. The filly had her head in Riley's lap, a goofy smile on her face as the human scratched her between her ears. They were closer than they had ever been, and everyone else in the shuttle noticed it.
Firefly couldn't help but notice that her two girls were sticking as close together as possible, for emotional support she supposed. It warmed her heart to know that Riley got along so well with Rainbow.
Riley watched, resigned, as the shuttle flew in to land outside the entrance to the court house. Settling in to land with a gentle thump, the door slid open to let out all of their passengers.
Anderson and Prism were the first out of the shuttle, tense as they ushered the rest of their group out. They kept a firm watch on the crowds behind the police barricade. Firefly and Natalie stepped out after the two soldiers, followed by Rainbow who bounced after them. Riley took a deep breath, preparing herself before she stepped out. The adults quickly formed up on her, shielding her from the sight of the crowd beyond.
Together, they all walked up the steps to the entrance of the Supreme Court, ignoring the cameras as best as they could. Police officers kept the crowds back, which had swelled in size over the course of the trial. The turn out for the final day was absolutely astonishing.
As soon as they entered the Court House, blessed silence greeted them. Riley breathed a sigh of relief, slumping ever so slightly as the doors shut behind them.
As one, the entire group turned to watch as an aide walked towards them. Smiling, he nodded in greeting to Riley. "Chief Justice Ackerson would love the chance to speak with you before we start today."
Riley glanced back at Natalie, who nodded encouragingly to her.
"Alright." Riley looked back at the aide, giving a small nod.
"Please, his office is this way." The aide gestures towards a staircase. He led Riley up and away from the rest of her group.
Waiting in his office, Ackerson took a deep breath. It took quite a bit to keep himself impartial during the past week and he was feeling the strain as much as he imagined Ms. Shepard was. Blindly looking over the spines of the books covering his shelves, he waited for his aide to return. Dressed in a fine suit, he relished the last few moments before he had to don his stifling robes, which hung from a rack in the corner of his office.
A knock at the door drew his attention back to reality.
"Enter," Ackerson said after clearing his throat.
The door to his office opened and his aide stepped inside.
"I have Riley Shepard to see you, sir," he simply said.
Ackerson stood, straightening his sleeves before he walked around his desk to welcome the girl. He gestured at his aide. "Please, bring her in."
Stepping aside, the aide made room for Riley to shuffle into the room. She glanced around Ackerson's office nervously, trying her best to not look like she wanted to run away and hide. The fact that there was nowhere for her to go probably didn't help, Ackerson thought to himself.
Quietly, the aide left the room, shutting the door behind himself. Ackerson ignored that, instead focusing his attention on Riley.
"Thank you for agreeing to speak with me." He made sure to speak quietly, not wanting to scare the poor girl anymore than she already looked.
Riley just nodded, her lips sealed shut tight.
"Please, have a seat." Ackerson motioned towards one of the plush chairs in front of his desk.
Riley shuffles forward again, dropping down into the nearest of his two seats. Ackerson walked back around his desk to sit in his own chair. Taking a moment to settle down and get comfortable, Ackerson studied Riley's face.
"I wanted to tell you that you have been acting admirably through this debacle." He was honest about that, not just giving Riley false reassurances. For such a young girl, she was holding up better than quite a few adults that he had had the pleasure of witnessing in his long time in the court system.
"Thank you, sir," Riley whispered. It was one of the few times that he had actually heard her speak since the beginning of the trial, and her voice surprised him, but only for a moment.
"I want to ask you a question, and I want you to answer it honestly." With a sigh, Ackerson leaned back in his seat.
Pushing himself up out of his chair, Ackerson stood. A nervous energy pulsed through his body and he couldn't fight the urge inside him to move. Pacing around to the front of his desk, Ackerson leaned back against it and stuffed his hands into his pockets.
"You don't have to say anything that you don't want to, but it will certainly help me make my final decision." He tried his best to reassure her, but there was only so much that he could do. It was up to the girl if she wanted to be a part of his decision or not.
Riley glanced down at her lap, nervously trying to smooth a wrinkle out of her dress.
"I want you to know, no matter what you say, I am committed to seeing that you are placed in a loving home," Ackerson finally said after a long moment of silence. It might not be the most ideal situation, but he would do what he could.
"Yes, sir," Riley whispered nervously.
Ackerson frowned at her, concerned at her timidity. It would take more than a few sessions with a therapist to work through the things that she had seen, he was sure.
"I want you to tell me what you want." Ackerson began to explain. "I have heard what Inez wants, and I've heard what Commander Anderson and Mrs. Moore want, but through this entire trial, I have not heard from you. I believe that it is most definitely an oversight, and not at all an unnoticed one, but we have an opportunity to speak now."
Riley bit her lip, her eyes lowered. She didn't say anything for a long minute, and Ackerson waited patiently.
Finally, she opened her mouth, shut it, then opened it again.
Ackerson entered the court room, ignoring the heat of his robe, and everyone stood. Ignoring them, he took a seat. The entire audience sat at his example, and with that, the trial began.
Sitting at the defendants table, Riley stared down at the grain of the wood, ignoring the stares from everyone behind her. She tried her best to pretend that she was the only one to exist.
The room was silent for a moment as Ackerson settled. He looked out over the crowd, tried to meet eyes with Riley, then proceeded to speak when she refused to look up from the table.
"The past month has been an incredibly difficult time for all of us. With two tragedies on two seperate colonies, and the loss of tens of thousands of lives, the Systems Alliance has never before faced a more difficult time." It was in a ways true. Very few lives had been lost during the Skirmish of Shanxi, but that was due in large part to the few Equestrians who had made the planet their home before the Turian invasion. The humans had quickly learned that unicorns were a force multiplier like none other, and the Turians learned to think twice before messing with a race that could manipulate the weather at a whim.
After all, Turians did not swim.
Riley could hear Rainbow shuffling nervously behind her, and she felt a small grin threaten to break out over her face. She admired how much the rambunctious filly was managing to keep herself calm and quiet during everything. She couldn't help but feel that the little pegasus was doing it only for her.
"Through all of that, this trial has torn open all sorts of wounds that had only just began to heal. We have been forced to confront the knowledge that we still have so much growing left to do, and that we are only just now taking our first steps into the galaxy. We have so much left to learn, and we are children fighting against anything and everything that might bring us harm." Ackerson continued his speech. There was nothing left but for him to make his decision and everyone waited with bated breath.
Riley glanced up at Ackerson, and he spared a moment to give her a warm, apologetic smile. He was more than sorry that she had had to be dragged into the middle of the entire debacle.
"There has been a lot of talk about who should get custody of Riley Shepard. A loving human family, or the Rainbow family. Both choices have their pros and cons, but it was not a hard decision."
"Ms. Shepard has been through a horrible experience. Losing her entire family before her eyes, she deserves to have something go right." Looking at the Terra Firma table, Ackerson narrowed his eyes ever so slightly.
Glancing at Riley, he then turned back to face Terra Firma's table, catching eyes with Inez Simmons. The leader of Terra Firma frowned ever so slightly, anger raging behind his eyes.
"While I do believe that she would be able to find happiness with a human family, that is not what has truly been on trial here. Terra Firma would have us all believe that setting aside our prejudices would lead to doom for the human race." Ackerson ignored Simmon's glare, instead he ensured that he set humanity on a path that might forever save it from the darkness beyond. He wondered for moment if children years from now would watch this trial in their classrooms, but he dismissed that from his mind. It wasn't important, and there were bigger things for him to deal with.
"I do not agree." He shook his head. "I believe that we can only become better. To that end, I agree with Ms. Shepard's wish."
"I hereby grant Rainbow Prism and Firefly Shimmer custody of Riley Jane Shepard." Picking up his gavel, Ackerson proclaimed his decision calmly and clearly.
The audience was stunned silent for a moment, but they quickly erupted in surprised shouts. Natalie grinned proudly, turning in her chair to look at the Rainbow family and Anderson smugly.
Riley just slumped in her seat, the stress of the past week leaving her body.
Across the aisle, Inez Simmons clenched his fists, glaring at Samuels, who looked as stunned as more than a few members of the audience. Everything had gone wrong, and it was the lawyer's fault.
The Rainbow family entered the hotel room in stunned silence. They had been almost entirely quiet the entire shuttle ride back, more than a little surprised that they had actually won. Entering the room, they shut the door, and collapsed in relief onto the chairs and couches in the living area of the room.
Immediately, Rainbow jumped onto Riley's lap, curling up happily with a smug smile on her muzzle. The most put together of the group, she was the only one out of all of them to know without a doubt that Riley would of course be her sister. Anything else was just lunacy. While everyone else had been struggling to understand what had just happened back in the court room, Rainbow had just basked in the knowledge that she was smarter than more than a few adults she saw.
"We won." Prism broke the silence first, speaking in a hushed whisper. His voice sounded surprised.
"We won." Giggling, Firefly bumped against his side.
"We won!" Rainbow chirped, nuzzling against Riley happily. She stood on her back hooves and wrapped her forehooves around Riley's neck in a hug, rocking back and forth in excitement. "We're sisters!"
Riley instinctively hugged Rainbow back, still shocked about what had happened.
"Sisters," she whispered, staring at nothing in particular. She looked down into Rainbow's smiling face. Tears began to well in her eyes, and she wrapped her arms around her new pegasus sister, burying her face in her mane. With a muffled sob, Riley started to cry, letting it all out.
Sharing a glance with each other, Prism and Firefly get up off the couch, joining Riley and Rainbow in their hug.
"Welcome to the family, Riley."
They could all feel the relief in those words.
Stewing in his office, Admiral Ballard waited for Anderson to arrive. His fingers steepled together as he stared blindly at his door, he couldn't help but wonder where the Alliance had gone so wrong. Humanity was slipping, and it needed strong men and women to keep it from vanishing forever into the black hole of blind trust. There would be no more handing over the keys to the palace to any of the other races on his watch.
The intercom to his office crackled to life and his secretary spoke curtly. "Admiral, Commander Anderson is here."
"Send him in." Ballard smiled, standing. Anderson might have been able to get away with letting the moral fiber of the Alliance fall apart legally, but he would ensure that no such thing ever happened again on his watch.
A few moments passed, and then the door to his office opened. Anderson stepped in, each step crisp and professional, his uniform pressed and shoes shined. He came to attention with the ease that only a career soldier could ever pull off.
"At ease, Commander." Ballard turned away from Anderson. There was no need to grant the traitor a face to face conversation.
Anderson relaxed, ever so slightly, his eyes firmly watching Ballard.
"Do you know why I have called you here, Commander?" Ballard asked, staring out the window of his office to the Hudson River beyond.
Anderson managed to restrain himself from glaring at Ballard like he so badly wanted to, not that the Admiral would have been able to see. Still, it was the principle of the matter, and David knew that he was better than the Admiral. He would not give him the pleasure of stooping to his level. "I believe I do, sir."
"No." Ballard shook his head, smiling at the foolishness of the larger man. "No, I do not believe that you do."
Walking back to his desk, he left Anderson to stand uncomfortably in the doorway. Opening the top drawer of his desk he pulled out a single sealed envelope. He rolled it over in his hands a few times.
"I have your orders, Commander." Ballard looked at Anderson with a grin, one that ever so slightly spoke of malicious intent.
"Orders, sir?" Anderson had no clue what the Admiral was talking about. "I'm on leave."
"You're being recalled." Ballard felt a shiver of pleasure rush down his spine as he said that, watching as Anderson fought to keep from doing anything stupid.
The man was pissed off, but there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it.
"What are my orders, sir?" Anderson asked through clenched teeth.
Ballard held out the envelope for Anderson to take.
Taking a deep breath, Anderson stepped forward. He grabbed the envelope from the Admiral's hand with more force than was necessary, but he managed to keep the majority of his emotions under check. Breaking the seal, he pulled out the letter within.
As he read the letter, Anderson's eyes widened in disbelief. The orders were completely legitimate and he knew deep down that no matter how much he wanted to fight and rage, there was nothing he could about it. They were clearly a punishment, and he knew that all he could do was just stand there and take it. He had pissed off the Admiral, and he had to face the consequences.
"Is everything okay, Commander?" Ballard asked, his lips twitching upwards ever so slightly.
"Yes." Anderson resisted the urge to crumple up the paper and throw it at the man. "Sir."
Riley lay fast asleep on her bed, the exhaustion of such a long week having caught up with her only minutes after they had returned to the hotel room. The television was the only source of light in the room, and its sound was turned down to almost nothing. Rainbow was curled up next to her, watching her new big sister with a happy little smile on her muzzle.
Reaching a hoof out, Rainbow rested it comfortingly on Riley's shoulder.
"I have a sister," she whispered almost reverently to herself.
She smiled to herself, turning her attention back to watch the TV. Some kids show was playing, and the sound is down nearly too low for her to hear, but she was happy. It was the best day ever after all.
Rainbow's attention was instantly torn away from the TV when Riley whimpered in her sleep. Turning to look at her, Rainbow watched as Riley's face contorted in terror, a nightmare the filly guessed. The human girl started to squirm in her sleep.
"No... Please..." Her voice was quiet, but still loud enough for Rainbow to her. "Jane, Mommy, Dad, no! Get away!"
Rainbow frowned, unsure of what to do. She reached out a hoof to comfort her, but stopped, unsure of what she should do.
Deciding that it didn't matter, Rainbow put her hoof on Riley's shoulder, rubbing small circles gently on her, nuzzling up under her arm. "It's okay, Riley. It's just a nightmare. You're safe, and we're going to go home and we'll be the best sisters in all of Equestria."
Riley whimpered again, and Rainbow frowned. She didn't like that her new big sister was having a nightmare and there was nothing she could do about it.
"NO!" Riley awoke with a scream, scrambling out of bed. She fell to the floor with a loud thump, her eyes wide in panic as reality struggled to set in on her.
Rainbow crawled to the edge of the bed, peering over to see Riley shuddering uneasily on the floor, curled up in a ball.
"Riley?" She asked softly, watching the girl with concerned eyes.
Riley didn't answer, her mind having not fully made its back to consciousness yet.
"Riley, are you alright?" Rainbow asked again, louder this time.
Again there was no response from Riley.
The pegasus filly jumped down off of the bed with a quiet grunt and nuzzled up against Riley, looking at her worriedly. "Riley? It's okay, I'm here."
"R-Rainbow..." Riley finally noticed that Rainbow was trying to get her attention. "What's happening?"
"You were having a nightmare and you fell out of bed," Rainbow deadpanned.
"Oh." Riley glanced down at the floor.
"It's okay." Rainbow hugged her, sensing a wave of sadness about to hit her sister.
They sat together in silence, getting their comfort from each other.
It was going to be okay.