So, we're done. And despite my worries, I only went a few thousand words over my expected budget. (Progman, no snarky commentary until you finish Retrofits).
As a writer, I think ATTWN was 'better' than OSABC. I do plan to overhaul both stories at some point, and I VASTLY appreciate the amount of support, encouragement, and typo reports you all have given me. I'm aware this ain't everyone's favorite - certain people on Spacebattles apparently think I'm a hack - but I'm writing for those of you who do like it.
Saying that to say this: There are elements of this story that will require more than simply reading the words. Some things presented are not factual. Some things are hype, some things are inaccurate. Rarely if ever does the story give you all sides of events. That is on purpose. If something seems ... odd ... then you should remember it, because it is likely that way for a reason.
Progman gets the majority of the credit, as much of the last few chapters was inspired by his own insane take on Omega and Aria. Liehtr, my beta, also sharply improved several chapters, including several critical points.
I would like to give very special thanks to AlsoknownasMatt, metaladdict, AlexN7, nogui, nogoodnms, the lovely Nimraj12, LadyRainFeather, Wandering the Arid Sea, RED78910, and Kyren for ideas and feedback that, in one way or another, changed or redirected my original plans for this story. I also want to thank MonkeyEpoxy and Himuradono for some keen textual analysis of my strengths and more importantly weaknesses on the Dark Lord Potter Forums. Although the idea my word counts would shrink is heresy.
I would like to thank everyone who reviewed, sent a PM, an email, or a digital hug. I never ask for money for this, but if you have some spare change, you might consider commissioning something from LuckyFK, or funding alienyouthct's account, or going over to All Nighter Productions and having her do some crazy-good artwork for you.
Nemrut: sorry man, I can actually crank 10k a day, all I had were simple fifty word outlines for each chapter. This is why people have long lists of typos where I jack things up and miss words. (Or as 5 Coloured Walker puts it, I accidentally a word or two.)
This book was a blast to write, and based on the feedback I've gotten, at least a bit better than Mass Effect: Clusterfuck, or whatever the hell they called the comic. I can't even remember, and I own the thing. The ME2 piece I'm working on will start as soon as I get drunk and recover from pushing well over a hundred thousand words out so rapidly. I'll try not to write anymore crackfic since my current one broke some people's brains.
As usual, given this is the last chapter, review what I did WRONG as well what I did right. I don't consider myself where I need to be as a writer yet, because we can always improve at what we love doing. Reviews are always welcome, be they positive, negative, or derptastic.
'Dead? Bitch, please.'
- Sara Ying Shepard to Tevos
"Stasis fields steady and holding." The specialty AESIR mech continued adjusting settings, but the hard part was now completed.
Miranda slowly exhaled, a faint ghost of a smile crossing her features as she spoke into her omnitool. "The sample we took to create the flash-clone does not appear to have harmed the subject's viability. We are encasing the subject in a larger, more powerful stasis array until we are ready to begin work."
Even as she spoke, more AESIR mechs were adjusting the final touches to the stasis array that would preserve Shepard's remains for until Project Revenant was ready to proceed. She'd wanted to go with Lazarus herself, but the Illusive Man had shook his head and picked this more gruesome moniker instead.
The situation was not at all ideal in some ways. Shepard's body had taken more damage than they expected, and P's crude extraction of the corpse from the Normandy had done even more. On the bright side, Vigil's initial scans had suggested there was 'enough' to work with, although the device refused to give any more details.
Pel and Kai would recover, although both would need more cybernetics and long surgical recovery periods. Kai would also need a cybernetic eye replacement. She might need one herself, her left eye's vision was blurry at times still.
Marred perfection was not exactly her favored state. Still, the completion of the mission - and the unexpected relief in Jack Harper's eyes when he saw she was mostly unharmed - buoyed her mood. Even Minsta had been grudgingly impressed she'd pulled it off, and Trellani was bitchily graceful in her complements.
She watched as cryocooled fluids flooded the storage creche and then the stasis field erupted, freezing everything within its radius into immobility. The apparatus took up most of the core of the small cruiser the Illusive Man was having them use in the beginning phases of the plan, while he had a more fitting location scouted and built for the actual attempt at reviving Shepard.
Doctor Wilson's company had been bought out, and even now Jack Harper was working on bringing Wilson into the fold. Minsta had protested, but that was hardly surprising.
Miranda turned away from the ongoing stasis field, trusting the robots to finish the job without supervision. Now that the stasis field was up, hopefully they could find a method to get the near impossible task given to them by the Illusive Man.
Money wouldn't be a problem. Time would be the problem. They had three years – if they couldn't get it done by then, then the Illusive Man was prepared take drastic action. She hadn't been told what that 'action' was, but it worried her all the same.
There was little she could do about that now. Her next six months would be spent on Earth, studying biomolecular science, cybernetics and nanotechnology. She had a role to play in the coming operation – the Illusive Man was putting her in charge of Project Revenant. She couldn't afford to be ignorant of the techniques this Doctor Wilson would be using.
New technology and new instrumentation would need to be created, and using Trellani as a front, they were already buying up biotech companies. As a result of the chaos in the Alliance fleet, Brooks had been promoted to Lieutenant Commander in Alliance R&D, and would channel them useful information when she could.
Miranda sighed. She would not enjoy the next six months. With a grimace, she clicked her omni-tool.
"I'm about ready for departure. Can I presume the ship is ready?"
The voice that answered her was sharp. "Can I presume Your Royal Bitchiness is actually going to be ready to go on time this time?"
Miranda rolled her eyes. "Mr. Moreau, if you dislike me so much, why would you agree to be my pilot?"
"Look, lady. I dislike everyone equally. I gave Anderson shit, I gave Shepard shit, now I give you shit. Besides, once we found out what the hell you were planning to do with Shepard, do you really think we'd leave you alone? Tali has the problem with the electronics fixed, so anytime you feel like, you know, getting on board, we're ready to leave. As we have been for five hours."
There was something to be said for needling someone so ill-prepared for her stoic nature. "Very well. I'll be there in fifteen."
"Sure, waste my time."
She clicked off, and turned to see the figure of Matriarch Trellani walk into the research bay. "Yes?"
The asari matriarch gave her that small, superior smile she always had. "I merely wished to wish you a safe journey, Ms. Lawson. Jack has decided I will stay here, on the Restless Spirit, and continue to work on the notes from our explorations of alien species."
Miranda arched an eyebrow. That was unlike the Illusive Man. "I see. Then I suppose I should get moving, thank you for your … concern."
The matriarch gave the shallowest of nods. "But of course, Ms. Lawson." She turned and left through the door she came in.
After she was gone, Miranda muttered. "Bitch."
"Tazzik is technically alive, but the amount of work that will be required to make him functional is expensive and excessive. From what I can tell he was certainly winning until he made the completely idiotic mistake of actually turning his back on a Dancer."
The Broker gave what almost sounded like a sigh, and Tetrimus carefully suppressed his mirth as the sight of the massive form shaking his head in disgust. "And salarian intelligence is so highly touted."
Tetrimus coughed past his amusement. "In any event, most of the damage was from the fall – some twenty stories – into some kind of chemical plant after being thrown off the platform. The, ah, substances he fell into didn't exactly help either. Most of his organs are failing, and most of the external armor is wrecked. We have a good idea, based on the surviving data recording systems that weren't destroyed in the battle or by the fall, of who we were facing, as several names were tossed about."
The Broker tapped a thick finger on the desk. "We'll discuss that later. What kind of cost would it take to repair him, assuming we went that route?"
Tetrimus folded his arms. "Doctor Vaan says we can perhaps get him up and moving again, but we'd have to go well over 85% conversion. And no salarian has been taken that far. Even with the genemods and the information from Okeer's lab...that's going to be difficult to do. Timewise it would take a least six months. We'd have to remove all the current cyberware after stabilizing his current organs, redesign an entirely new body support system, install him like some kind of ersatz Shieldbreaker, and then rebuild from the ground up. At least thirty to fifty million – not counting research costs, materials, and so forth."
The office of the Broker was even more poorly lit than usual, and Tetrimus left spur – the one that wasn't cyberware – kept twitching every time the growling note of the Broker's displeasure vibrated through the room.
"I see. Tazzik's use has come to an end. Spending millions on salvaging his current form after this failure is inefficient."
Tetrimus sighed. Tazzik was going to owe him for this.
"I actually disagree. From everything I can ascertain, Tazzik's mistake was a miscalculation in battle. He was focusing on the most dire threats and assuming none of the rest of the people with Aethyta could harm him, which was probably correct. From what I saw, ignoring a sniper that had already taken down P. with a hipshot – not exactly easy to pull off in such chaotic conditions – would have been unwise, especially since we're almost certainly looking at the work of Vakarian."
Tetrimus carefully chose his next words. "While the project was a failure, the situation is not entirely dire. Aria has been weakened vastly, half of her warlords distrust her, Omega will take months or even years to recover. The Alliance distrusts us and yet, I suspect from their actions, the puppet masters behind the Alliance are happy Shepard is dead. The Council is clearly buying our version of the story over Aria's, especially given the footage from the battle showing how strong she was."
The Broker's multiple eyes narrowed. "I am not hearing why I should waste tens of millions of credits on Tazzik."
Tetrimus smiled. "Because he's well known and visible. As we move ahead with the evacuation, we will need that visible presence to avoid suspicion. The only other person in the Network who could possibly replace him in terms of combat power would be Almnrut – "
The Broker's glare was accompanied by a hard growl. "No."
Tetrimus bowed slightly. " – or possibly Tela Vasir, but that is risky given that she was never a full member of the Network, not to mention her own … ambivalence at the moment. The death of Aethyta Vasir and Liara T'Soni has made her … displeased. "
The Broker said nothing, and Tetrimus continued. "Spending the money and time on Tazzik – especially after Aria has so gloatingly announced his death – will shake her confidence even more when he returns, apparently unharmed. He can be used as a more public agent, dispatched on tasks to draw the eye. If we use him correctly, he can even spin a story for us to counter the claims of P."
After long seconds of silence, the Broker finally growled again. "I dislike expending effort and valuable resources and time on those who fail me, Tetrimus."
The turian's one cybernetic eye whirred. "And yet was that not the very reason the Primarch used to toss me aside on Shanxi? Tools, I think, should not be wasted simply because they were ill-suited for the job. Simply apply them to a different job."
The Broker made a waving motion with his hand. "I will discuss it with Vaan at a later time. What of our leaks and loos ends?"
Tetrimus folded his arms again. "You already know about Charles Saracino. That went perfectly. As a bonus, the man replacing him is none other than Jared Rhysaan."
The Broker sat up slightly. "You are telling me they put one of our spies in a Ministerial position?"
Tetrimus gave an amused nod. "The AIS has so far failed to match the spoor to the trail. And the Commissariat trusts him because of his actions in revealing Saracino's 'corruption'. I still fail to see the reason why human sexual peculiarity is so horrifying, but in this case it works in our favor. We have not made any contact with him, but I'm setting up the chain of people to allow us to do that now."
Tetrimus glanced at the list of names in his HUD. "As for Beatrice Shields, she was also handled, in the incident itself. I executed her, personally. That was my top priority. Although I have to admit, given the presence of Aethyta Vasir and several Dancers, only the spirits know who in the hells of Valak she was talking to prior to this mess blowing up. I know the intel says Dunn, but since when does Cerberus work with aliens?"
The Broker's fanged maw curled into a set of three jagged lines, the facial equivalent, Tetrimus thought, of a smile. "You are forgetting the evidence we have that Harper himself is in league with Trellani. No matter. What of Goto?"
Tetrimus sighed. "No traces. Hock sent out some kind of hit-man after her, but Goto's little girlfriend Ghost-Step turned him into a messy pile of meat on Ilium, and I haven't received any further updates. However, I'm not sure exactly how much of a threat Goto is. She's smart enough to realize that even if she spills what she knows, the Alliance may not care."
The Broker sighed. "You are missing the true threat. If she goes to Cerberus or the STG, they will listen and make good use of her. Put your best trackers on her, immediately."
Tetrimus nodded. "The only other outstanding element is the Normandy itself. Aria, in an attempt at normalizing relations, graciously allowed the Alliance to retrieve the wreckage from Alchera. They've been going over it for weeks and the last released report suggested that the stealth design itself must have been flawed."
Tetrimus straightened. "Officially, they're blaming the death of Shepard upon the geth, and stepping up war preparations. The deaths of Shepard and T'Soni are being spun by their propaganda people – a movie and even a holo-series are being worked on, along with subtle but clever social media manipulation. Certain unsavory facts about Shepard's past are being massaged and even the asari Republic is getting into it, casting the T'Soni woman as a tragic, misunderstood figure who died for love."
The Broker was silent for several more seconds before he shook his head again. "That is so illogical I cannot even fathom how it would work. Given the rank stupidity of most of the species in power, I am astonished they haven't suggested the geth killed T'Soni as well."
Tetrimus again coughed to hide his amusement. "For now, most of our people are focusing on the evacuation. Our ETA is slightly better now, and the Collectors do not appear upset by our lack of acquiring Shepard."
The Broker nodded. "And the device we are manufacturing for them?"
Tetrimus queried his omn-itool. "We're trying to locate sufficient tantalum for the next phase. The purity they want is not naturally occurring, so we are having to chemically synthesize it. The only strange request we had from them came in this morning – they asked us if we had listings of human wildcat colonies."
The Broker's hands tapped his desk controls. "How odd. Did you provide the information?"
Tetrimus shook his head. "I said we would have to check, to make sure that some of them were not actually Alliance honeypots to trap slavers. I wanted to check with you before providing them with Network intelligence."
The Broker examined haptic images on his desk as he queried something, then leaned back. "Provide them the information. Monitor what they do with it. Anything else of note?"
Tetrimus shook his head. "Not at this time. My people are still focusing mostly on the evacuation and looking for Cerberus. Do we know why they interfered with the recovery of Shepard's body?"
The Broker shut off his desk computer and stood slowly. "No. That is my current concern. A scan of the gravesite of Shepard on Earth reveals the materials there are from a flash-clone. But the information from P. as to Shepard's condition would seem to indicate she was not only dead but mangled. Why would he want the body, if he was going to convince the Alliance he had given it to them?"
Tetrimus shook his head. "I don't know. Barla Von made some surmises based on recent moves in the aerotech markets that Cerberus may be moving money into new shell corporations, but until we identify those we can't be sure of what they're doing. I presume you want me to keep working on this?"
The Broker nodded. "Yes. We will discuss Tazzik and my decision after I have rested."
Tetrimus knew a dismissal, and was out of the office seconds later, faintly sighing with relief when the doors sealed behind him. He hustled back to his own office, pulling up manifests of agents and trying to figure out how to best approach the coming problems.
His comm-link rang, and he tapped it. "Yes?"
The voice of his most senior science specialist, Dahimu, was slightly alarmed. "Ginnister Tazzik, I think I've found something interesting. I was reviewing the take from the deep space scanning arrays and came across … well. It looked like a galactic cluster just … exploding."
Tetrimus frowned. "Define 'exploding'."
"The region is roughly six to seven million light years away, so obviously this isn't contemporaneous, but over a course of less than twelve hours, the galactic core shrank in mass and energy emission by thirty three percent, and the spiral arms had waves of exploding supernova, followed by complete photonic cessation. It was like … a third of the galaxy just went black in less than a day. The loss of gravity from the core is making the entire galaxy come apart."
The phrasing caught Tetrimus's attention, and he did a quick data trawl. While that ran, he spoke. "Doctor, while I am usually interested in a certain fashion with some events, why is this significant?"
Dahimu was agitated. "The strange energy readings we got from the Collector device and from our sensor logs of Nazara matched the energy readings from this exploding, dying galaxy. Matched exactly."
As he spoke, the computer returned his query.
Human religious reference. Christian Bible. Revelations. Chapter eight, verse twelve. "The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night."
"...Doctor, when you said a third of the galaxy, was that a rough estimate?"
"No, it was exact. Actually...looking at the data, stellar luminescence and expected sequence spectra were also reduced by thirty-three percent."
The computer pinged again.
Turian religious reference. Valuvaan Commentaries of the Spirit, Vetnah House. Chapter Haluth. "And then the dark spirits wrought great fury upon the sky, and a third of the starry host of the sky was struck down, and a third of the blazing sun, and a third of the comforting light of the moon. The shielding spirits wailed and warned of this sign. That no place was safe. That all places were as one place. And then I heard a call, a trumpet of fear, of doom, that melted my bravery and made the spirits wail in fear."
Tetrimus glanced back at the comm display. "I see. Keep me informed. Tetrimus out."
As he hung up, the computer chimed again.
Salarian religious reference. Secondary notation of the Visions of the Circle, expurgated by the SIX due to heretical influences of now forbidden rituals. "And my vision widened, as the Wheel turned, and then it slowly ground to a halt, as if held fast by sticky mud. And I turned my eyes to the sky above, and it was as if a third of the stars cried out and perished. A third of the light of the sun flickered and sickened. A third of the sky became madness, and I could hear the spheres of thought, shattering one by one. And a voice said to unto me, 'Behold, the trumpet sounds'."
"...well, that's completely fucking creepy." Tetrimus canceled his query and set two agents to go dig around for additional references, while he sat back in his chair.
Perhaps this phenomena was something ancient humans, turians and salarians had seen before. It could be a natural event. But he doubted it. The humans and turians didn't have astrometric measuring tools until their holy books were centuries or millennia old. And even if they had...
"Computer. Find all congruent points of any religious documentation of an apocryphal nature for all known intelligent races. Focus on key words, stars, sky, sun, moon, trumpet. Commence."
The answer came back eleven seconds later. "Data found in all races religious materials. Would you like a summary?"
Tetrimus tapped the dedicated comm-link to the Broker. "I think we may have an issue."
"Do you buy the Broker's story, then?"
Valern thought carefully before answering the question. "I would suggest that in the long run it is immaterial if he is lying or telling the truth. We know, based on what the Alliance found, that it was definitely P.'s people who salvaged the wreck of the Normandy. The Broker is an opportunist. I suspect he wanted to snatch the IES technology the Normandy had, and took advantage of the attack by the geth – or this unknown, un-described ship with suspiciously Reaper-like weapons – to get it."
Tevos nodded, sipping at her vaporwine. "Still, Udina is correct when it comes to the fact that we don't know if the Broker is truly trustworthy or not."
Valern smiled faintly. "True. Then again, my people and yours have been allies for centuries and we still don't trust one another. Trust is a curious concept that we had to borrow the root word from you, after all. It is a concept no salarian can really grasp, as a lack of suspicion towards an intelligent being suggests we find them without threat. And everything is a threat."
Tevos smiled back. "Perhaps. Some threats are merely warnings given in the name of self preservation. But we now have moved far from the trail of the hunt. I distrust the Broker, but his information on the age of the Reapers meshes with the intelligence the Alliance is giving us. Tens of millions of years and the Reapers have been doing this. What are we doing to prepare?"
Valern rubbed a hand over his bracers, rubbing at a smudged spot. "What we can. Despite the risk, sharing of technology is at a high. The Broker's massive array of inferonomic sensors hasn't picked up any movement at the edge of space yet, so we have time. His estimate of thirty to fifty years is roughly inline with current STG guesses."
He glanced up, at the window showing the glowing white walls of the Presidium outside the Council Tower. "If we can reverse-engineer the weapon Nazara employed – and the last report from Thanix Palavanus was very positive sounding – then all we need is more ships and better preparations. The geth and Aria's hostility give us a perfect excuse to increase armaments and relax the Treaty of Fairaxen. Taxes will probably double, but the economy will also pick up."
Tevos pursed her lips. "The volus will howl."
He shrugged. "Then allow them part ownership of the shipyards. If Shepard was right, we cannot afford to put this off more than a decade or so. If we move now, while outrage at the geth is still high, then it will be easier to build up the financial framework we need to support larger fleets. As long as we have a clear enemy we can defeat and with Aria's piracy network crippled and the batarians withdrawing, we are poised to enter an economic boom."
She mused over this. "And the elcor?"
He leaned back in his own chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully, a gesture he'd picked up from Udina and found strangely comforting. "If they want to submit a Spectre, require them to build more ships, not just another dreadnought or two. Let them match their military spending to that of the humans. The elcor can be managed – much less direct and bossy than humans or volus."
Tevos frowned. "The quarians are becoming somewhat tedious with their demands for war on the geth, This will at least silence them, I suppose." She sipped her wine again. "And once that's done...we would have sufficient strength to clear out Aria and whatever is going on in the Hegemony, or Empire, or whatever the batarians are calling their space nowdays."
Valern inclined his head. "I had not considered this. A good point. And the humans and turians would certainly approve."
She smiled. "And lead the way. We could always hold our own ships in reserve, in case of … complications. Or Reaper activity."
Valern matched her smile. "Prudence is always rewarded. My only worry is the disappearance of Vigil. I cannot help but think we are missing something in figuring out who would want the device destroyed. We still have no leads?"
Tevos' expression soured. "No, not yet. I hate admitting it, but Udina is probably right again. It had to have been indoctrinated assets of Saren. The fact that Ylana had so few people at her base means there must be more of them out there. We've already come up with improved scanners that can pick up the lesions Doctor Thanoptis identified as the key markers. We're putting them on every entrance to the Citadel and spreading the plans to all races for them to build. AVINA will also have scanners to examine the population at large."
Valern made a notation on his omnitool, then stood. "A good precaution. I'm late for a meeting with the SIX, so I must depart – but I enjoyed the meal." He gave a shallow bow, and departed, leaving Tevos alone in the room.
Her omni chimed, reminding her of the time, and she stood herself, pausing to stare out the window at the busy walkways and skypaths of the Presidium for a long moment before setting her wineglass down on the small table. She wasn't paying attention, and as she stepped away, the edge of her shawl caught the glass and sent it to the floor, where it shattered.
As she stared at the broken glass, she wondered if that was an omen, or merely a lack of foresight on her part.
The story will be continued in the next Book:
OSABC: That Which Cannot Die
That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die