STARCRAFT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. MASS EFFECT DOES NOT BELONG TO ME. STILL WORKING ON THAT POWER ARMOR, THOUGH.

Not really sure why I didn't update sooner. Well, actually, a lot of stuff happened, but I'll get into some of the details at the end of the chapter.

Cycles Upon Cycles

Chapter 33

Dark Nexus

Hello, and welcome back to UNN. This is Kate Lockwell, and we have some good news tonight. Less than two hours ago, Alliance and Council forces declared the situation in Batarian space secure. The Batarian rebels—which we've discovered were remnants of Saren's clone army—that were attacking civilians have been destroyed, and reconstruction efforts have already begun.

Some people are asking why any help should be given to the Batarians; after all, their entire culture revolved around slavery and exploitation, and then it was discovered that they had bred an enormous army of clones in their system. Emperor Valerian answered with the following quote:

"We cannot fault the Batarian citizenry for the crimes committed by their leaders. If we cause harm to those who did no wrong, we are just as bad as the ones who wronged us."

The Emperor then went on to say that this offer of aid will not come again if there is another Batarian attack on Alliance personnel or property. In short, the Alliance will give aid this time, but there won't be a second chance.

In other news, Dominion Research and Development has announced that a new form of combat-stim is entering production, one that should be less harmful to the user. However, many soldiers are protesting this replacement. We'll bring you the whole story after the break. Until then, this has been Kate Lockwell, for UNN.

Haven

"Hey, Professor, how're you enjoying Terran life?"

Mordin looked up from his omni-tool—refurbished to fit under Alliance specs—and smiled. "Fascinating. Can see where certain values in Terran culture developed. Large-scale social hardships, forced adaptation. Almost like cultural version of Zerg evolution; extreme environment called for extreme change."

Shepard grinned. Mordin was hard to dislike when he was excited by something, and he'd been that way for the last two days he'd been on Haven. "Careful, Professor, most Terrans would consider being compared to the Zerg an insult."

Mordin nodded. "Understood. Past conflicts with Zerg breeds resentment. Have heard of atrocities committed by former Zerg leader, the Overmind, and more by Queen of Blades. Curious as to why she is now part of Alliance."

"That's… a long story," Shepard said. "The short version is that she's no longer trying to kill everyone in the universe."

"Batarians would disagree," Mordin pointed out.

"If Kerrigan was like her old self," Shepard said darkly, "there wouldn't have been any people for your clinic to help. In fact, you wouldn't have been able to build a clinic, what with the Creep all over the planet."

Mordin accepted that with a nod, then went back to his omni-tool. "Was told that lab equipment would be ready soon?"

"Yeah, it's being set up in one of the science facilities here. Once the rest of us come back from our mission, we'll have everything moved to the Normandy if you haven't already finished."

"Good. Can begin work on Collector countermeasures soon." Mordin smiled again. "Am looking forward to incorporating Alliance technology into experiments. Have theorized about Protoss capabilities, but eager to see if theories are correct."

Shepard laughed. "Professor, if you're even half-right about how Protoss tech works, that makes you smarter than most Terrans. I can see why the Alliance wanted you with the Strikers." Before he left, he paused. "I'm sure you and Liara will have a lot to discuss in your free time; she's been studying the Xel'naga for a while, and their tech is even freakier than what the Protoss have."

Mordin nodded. "Have heard of Doctor T'soni. Would like to discuss academia with her, when possible."

Leaving Mordin to his work, Shepard headed to the Strikers' temporary command center, an old militia base not far from where the Normandy was docked. There, he found his officers, along with Garrus and a recovered Tali waiting for him.

"Sorry I'm late," Shepard said, "I was making sure that Professor Solus was adjusting. Turns out, he is."

"About Solus, Commander." Miranda frowned. "Are you sure it's wise to keep a former STG agent so close to our operations?"

"In this case, I don't think we'll have any problems." Shepard leaned back in his chair. "He already told me that he doesn't plan on communicating with non-Alliance personnel. Even if he tries, and the telepaths don't catch him, Edi will monitor his calls; Mordin might be smart, but even a Salarian brain can't compete with an AI."

"Besides, Mordin isn't even coming with us for this one," Anderson pointed out. "He and Doctor T'soni will be working here, where it's safe."

Liara sat up and smiled. "I heard about Professor Solus a few years ago. If he's anything like the stories say, working with him will be entertaining, to say the least."

"Glad to see the eggheads are gonna have fun," Jack said, "but you haven't told us where we're going, Commander."

"Right, about that." Shepard nodded at Miranda, who brought up a hologram of the galaxy. "You all know that we're going after Cerberus next—these guys have been trying to screw with the Alliance for a while now, and we all remember that they helped Saren. It's time to take them off the board. Anderson?"

"We'll be headed deep into the Horsehead Nebula," Anderson said; he pointed at the section of space in question on the map, which zoomed in. "Our intelligence points to a major gathering of Cerberus' strength there, on a planet called Tartarus. What we don't know is why. Our first objective is to see what's going on, and only attack if we have a good chance of crippling their operations. If not, we'll wait for Alliance reinforcements."

"Unfortunately, we don't know the enemy's numbers, their position on the planet, or anything else except that they're there." Shepard took a deep breath. "I wouldn't be surprised if we're badly outnumbered."

James laughed. "When has that ever stopped us before, sir?"

Shepard grinned. "Good point. Anyway, just tell all your squad leaders to stay sharp; we're basically going in blind, but I think we can all agree that the more damage we do to Cerberus, the less of a headache we'll have later. Dismissed."

Most of the officers got up and left, but Shepard caught Kasumi's eye and subtly gestured for her to follow him. The two of them walked in silence until they got to Shepard's quarters—which were unofficially shared with Kasumi. As soon as the door closed behind them, Shepard pulled Kasumi in for a deep kiss.

"Wow, Shep," Kasumi said when she got her breath back, "I'm not complaining or anything, but what was that for?"

Shepard kissed her again, this time on the forehead. "We haven't spent much time together since the last mission. I guess I just wanted to make up for that."

Kasumi giggled. "Well then, please continue."

Shepard was about to do just that, but he was interrupted when the comms on his desk began to beep. Both of them sighed, irritated, and Shepard walked over to turn it on; they were surprised to see who appeared on the screen.

"Mom? Why are you calling me?"

Hannah Shepard pouted. "What, can't a mother call her son?" Her expression brightened when she saw Kasumi behind her son. "Going by the blush on her face, you two got over your issues?"

Shepard and Kasumi shared a guilty look; the latter had mentioned the discussion she'd had with Hannah, but neither of them had spoken to the woman since then.

"Uh, yeah, we did." Shepard decided to avoid further embarrassment, if possible. "I'm guessing you didn't call to ask about my personal life, though."

"Fine, ruin my fun." Hannah rolled her eyes, but gave in. "All right, I just wanted to let you know that I'm shipping out tonight. And, yes, I know that you're doing the same soon."

"Where are you going?" Shepard asked.

"We're reinforcing the blockade around Omega, just in case the Collectors try anything." Hannah sighed. "I don't really see the point; we've got enough firepower around that station to glass half a planet."

"Hey, there's no such thing as overkill," Shepard said.

Hannah raised an eyebrow. "It's called 'misallocation of resources', and it annoys me when it happens." She sighed again. "Anyway, I just wanted to wish you luck. Try and stay safe out there, okay, kids?"

"Yes, Mom," both Shepard and Kasumi said, the former with exasperation, the latter with sarcasm. The two smiled sheepishly, while Hannah laughed before cutting the connection.

"She's… interesting," Kasumi said.

"I think I got my sense of humor from her," Shepard replied.

Kasumi didn't respond to that, save for an amused smile. "I guess we have to get ready to ship out?"

"Yeah, we do." Shepard kissed her on the cheek. "See you back here when we're underway?"

"Definitely." Kasumi winked. "I'd like to continue that conversation we were having before your mom called."

Korhal

"I don't like this," Valerian said, eyeing the hologram of the galaxy in front of him. "Assuming that our information is correct, there are potentially millions of Harvesters waiting to attack us."

"Probably more'n that, Junior." Raynor took a long drag on his cigar. "We know that Sovereign can go toe-to-toe with a Battlecruiser and come out smellin' like roses. And even the entire Alliance don't have the numbers to win that kind of fight."

Valerian scowled. "Then we won't engage the Harvesters in a standard naval battle. We'll create orbital defense systems around each critical location, and have our colonies prepared to evacuate at any time."

Raynor considered that. "Lotta anti-ship cannons on orbital platforms, surrounded by battlegroups?"

"Precisely. I plan to take a page out of the old Confederacy's book and expand upon it. We already have something similar with the Sky Shield here; I just want to make it more comprehensive, and set up a grid over every world we can."

"That's a lot of materiel, kid." Despite his words, Raynor didn't seem upset. "I'll see what I can do about finding the supplies. I reckon the Protoss and the Zerg are gonna have similar ideas about defense."

"And I'll be sure to coordinate with them," Valerian promised. "Of course, our biggest defense is the Koprulu Sector itself—we have only one Mass Relay leading into the sector, and it is heavily defended on both sides. If the Harvesters want to attack us from any other locations, they're going to have to go the long way."

"That just leaves Cerberus," Raynor said. "They're the only wildcard so far."

"Which is why the Strikers were sent against them." Valerian smiled. "They're something of a wildcard themselves."

The Normandy

Shepard hadn't known how much he missed his ship until it broke free of the atmosphere. The hum of the systems, the low chatter of the bridge crew, and the blinking lights all around him gave him a feeling of coming home.

"All systems are at one hundred percent, Commander."

Shepard nodded. "Glad to hear it, Admiral. Set course for Tartarus."

Anderson smiled. "Aye, Commander."

The Normandy shuddered as the ship prepared for the warp jump. The stars flickered and blurred together, creating an oddly fascinating blur before the blast shields blocked it out.

"Clean jump," Joker announced. "ETA to Tartarus is five hours." He grinned. "The pilot has switched off the seatbelt sign, you are now free to move about the cabin. As thanks, the pilot would appreciate tips—cash or check works fine—or pictures from female passengers. Have a nice flight."

That got a laugh from those on the bridge, as well as some middle fingers from the female officers.

"All right, you've got everything under control here," Shepard said, "I'm due for some sword-fighting practice with Zeratul."

Anderson saluted. "Have fun, Commander."

"Right, sparring against an alien with centuries of experience." Shepard rolled his eyes. "It'll be a blast, I just know it."

"Oof!" Shepard felt the air leave his lungs as he hit the floor. In the background, he could hear Kasumi cackling like a lunatic.

Zeratul held out his hand. {That was better. You parried my first three blows.}

"There has got to be an easier way to learn how to use this thing," Shepard grumbled, even as he accepted Zeratul's help.

{Of course there is,} Zeratul agreed, {you're just not seeing it.}

Shepard narrowed his eyes. "Don't get snarky, I already have Kasumi for that."

"Hey!" A few of the Protoss watching the spar glanced at Kasumi, who was perched on a supply crate. She sounded outraged, but no one missed the mischievous smile on her face.

"Anyway, what do you mean by 'I'm not seeing it'?" Shepard asked. "What am I not seeing?"

{Remember that you are Amon, however diminished,} Zeratul reminded him. {Your psionic abilities dwarf nearly any being in existence. It should be a simple matter for you to learn everything there is to know about fighting with a psi-blade from me. It is not the same as the Khala, but…}

Shepard stared at him for a long moment. "Then why have we been practicing all this time!?"

Zeratul didn't have a mouth, but it was obvious that he had the Protoss equivalent of a smile. {I wanted to see how long it would take for you to figure it out. However, we have a mission soon, and I was beginning to lose patience. Also… it was amusing.}

"Okay, as soon as I get what I need from your brain, we're having words about this," Shepard growled.

{As you wish, Commander.}

Five minutes later, Shepard had a headache, but he also had centuries of experience with a psi-blade to fall back on. A part of him was very annoyed that Zeratul had withheld that ability from him—and he was annoyed at himself for not even considering the idea—but that was quickly discarded in favor of excitement about his new skills.

"Our next spar is going to be a little more even," Shepard said. "We'll have to save that for when this mission is over, though."

{Agreed. I shall finish preparing with my brethren.} With that, Zeratul was done with Shepard, and turned away.

Shepard glanced at Kasumi and tilted his head in the direction of the door, indicating that they should leave. Though the Protoss among the Strikers had bonded well with the rest of the force, they still had customs and routines that they preferred to do away from the eyes of others.

With Kasumi at his side, if invisible, Shepard toured the Normandy, inspecting vital sections of the ship and chatting with officers or soldiers that they came across. By the time they needed to make final preparations, both of them were in high spirits.

However, despite feeling as prepared and ready as he could be, some small part of Shepard's mind held a deep fear of the future. Something was coming, he just didn't know what.

"Coming out of warp… now." Joker grinned as the Normandy gently shuddered. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tartarus."

Anderson looked at the planet ahead of them and scowled. "Not the most pleasant world we've ever visited."

"Yeah, kinda looks like Char."

Tartarus was a small planet, barely bigger than the average moon, and was undergoing severe tectonic upheavals. Almost the entire planet seemed to be on fire, with only a few stable areas scattered across the surface.

"Status of the stealth systems?" Anderson asked.

"Systems are fully operational, Admiral," Edi reported.

"Any sign of Cerberus out there?"

"Negative at this range. However, if we boost power to the sensors to be certain, we may be detected."

Anderson nodded. "Fine, we'll get closer instead. Joker, take us in. Edi, have all ground forces stand by for deployment."

"Affirmative, relaying—wait." For the first time since meeting her, Anderson detected a note of concern in Edi's voice. "I am detecting a vessel on an intercept trajectory."

"Any sign that they've spotted us?" Anderson asked. "It could be a coincidence."

"I am uncertain. The vessel appears to have always been on this course. We may have simply wandered onto their patrol route. However, caution is advised."

"Agreed. Joker, increase speed; let's get our people on the ground as soon as possible, and then take us to a safe distance. I'd rather not have this ship damaged again so soon." Anderson turned back to Edi. "What can you tell us about this ship?"

"We are out of range for detailed scans. Like with the surface, if we boost power, we may be detected. However, I am detecting Terran-based technology, as well as… Xel'naga."

Anderson took a deep breath. "Looks like we've got confirmation of Cerberus here." He rolled his eyes. "Figures they'd hole up on a planet called Tartarus."

"Admiral, we have left the vessel's projected path, but it has changed course. It is almost certain that we have been detected."

"Pass it along to the Commander; it looks like we're going in hard. Joker, drop the cloak and push the engines as much as we can. Tell all forces to deploy as soon as we achieve orbit; we might not have a chance to reinforce Shepard's initial drop. As soon as all transports and fighters are away, we'll see if we can draw that ship off."

"Incoming transmission," Edi announced.

"Put it on."

The viewscreen crackled with static for a moment, then resolved into the face of a well-groomed man. He appeared around Anderson's age, with a trim beard and mustache. His uniform was neat, decorated with several medals. Anderson had a feeling that he only wore the medals he was proudest of, and that he had many more.

"Greetings," said the man, "I am Admiral Olag Petrovsky, representing Cerberus. To whom am I addressing?"

"Admiral David Anderson, Koprulu Alliance." Anderson kept his features stony. "You represent a criminal organization. I am giving you one chance to surrender."

Petrovsky chuckled. "I admire your bravery, Admiral. However, it is you that should surrender. I've read your file, and I know that you are no match for me in my element."

"You're a little cocky, aren't you?"

"It is not arrogance, but fact. I have analyzed your tactics; they are effective, but not creative. You are a soldier, and while I respect your dedication, I have trained thousands like you. I implore you to surrender; Cerberus will treat you well, I promise."

Anderson sneered. "I remember when the UED wanted us to surrender. We didn't bow to the forces of Earth before, and we won't do it now."

At the mention of Earth, Petrovsky's calm shattered, if only for a moment. "Your courage is commendable, but will only drive you to your grave."

"I don't have time for this. Edi, cut it." The screen went to black, and Anderson nodded. "What's our ETA?"

"Two minutes, sir," Pressly responded. "But that ship is going to be on us in three."

"Understood." Anderson activated the ship's PA. "All hands, this is Admiral Anderson. We are about to be engaged by a Cerberus warship. All ground forces and fighter squadrons are to make to the surface. The Normandy will hold off the Cerberus ship until reinforcements from the Alliance arrive. Until that happens, we will be unable to provide support. Godspeed, and good luck. Anderson, out." With that done, he turned to Edi. "Bring the enemy ship on tactical display, and give me an analysis."

A moment later, a green hologram of the ship appeared. It was bigger than the Normandy, shaped like a flat diamond, and bristling with what had to be weapons. Some of those weapons were recognizable—Anderson spotted missile tubes and laser cannons—but a third of the way down from the prow was a pyramid-shaped device that seemed to hover close to the hull, rather than actually be attached to it.

"The ship is faster than us, Admiral," Edi said. "It also possesses greater firepower for its standard weapons. I am unable to fully comprehend the main weapon, but its energy readings are easily five times what our Yamato cannons are capable of. The vessel's shields are weaker than ours, but the ship is fast enough to avoid approximately sixty-two percent of all fire we could direct at it."

Anderson tapped his chin. "So it hits hard and is hard to hit. That could be an issue."

Pressly stepped forward. "Sir, all forces are prepared to depart, but Commander Shepard has voiced his concerns."

Anderson nodded, but didn't reply. He was silently grateful that Pressly hadn't given Shepard a line to him—neither of them had time to debate the issue.

"Give the order to launch. Have all guns fire on the enemy ship as soon as it's in range; we probably won't do much, but we might buy a few more seconds."

The Normandy shuddered a few seconds later as guns fired, covering the dropships as they dove into Tartarus' atmosphere. As soon as Anderson was sure that the departures were successful, he turned all of his attention to Petrovsky's ship. As he suspected, the ship gracefully avoided most of the lasers, and the few that did connect weren't enough to breach the shields.

"All ships are away," Chambers reported.

"Joker, take us out of orbit," Anderson ordered. "Keep us far enough away to give us room to maneuver, but close enough to engage if Petrovsky decides to swing around and engage our ground forces from orbit."

"Aye, sir." Despite the situation, Joker was grinning; he was in his element. "Let's see what these guys can really do."

Tartarus

Kasumi was glad that Shepard had his helmet on, and his comms were off, because he was making no other efforts to hide how furious he was. In fact, the only reason she knew he was angry was because of their telepathic link.

{That absolute moron!} Shepard raged. {We could have at least sent Kaidan and his fighters to assist!}

{He's in charge of all air and space-based support, Shep,} Kasumi said gently. {You know that he can override even you when it comes to that kind of operation.}

Shepard was completely still in his seat, but Kasumi could tell that he was taking a deep breath. {Doesn't mean I have to like it.}

"Commander," Miranda said—likely detecting the telepathic communication, but not addressing it—as she inspected her rifle one last time, "All squad leaders have reported readiness. We'll reach the ground in two minutes."

"Good to hear." Shepard's words were calm, not revealing any of his emotions. "Patch me through to all Strikers."

Miranda tapped a console in the Medivac. "Ready."

"All forces, this is Commander Shepard. Our arrival didn't exactly go to plan, but that's par for the course for us. Our objective remains the same: find Cerberus, kill them, and take them off the board. We've got a real enemy to fight, and we can't have these guys getting in our way. A small team will do recon, while the rest of us will set up a base of operations. Once we know what we're really dealing with, we'll go in and take care of business, just like we always do. Fight smart, work together, and we'll all go home. Shepard out."

"Hey, Commander," Garrus said when Shepard was done, "what do you think our odds are? I mean, really?"

"Not sure," Shepard admitted. "Intel on Cerberus is sketchy at best. We're likely going to run into their elite forces, so it'll be tough. Still, we've got Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg all working together. Every time that happens, we come out on top."

As soon as the last words left Shepard's mouth, the Medivac rocked to the left.

"Anti-air fire!" the pilot shouted. "We've already lost four birds! We'll have to set down here!" The transport shook again; this time, there was the sound of tearing metal. "Shit! We're hit! We're going down!"

"Everyone, brace yourselves!" Shepard reached out and wrapped the passengers in a protective bubble of psionic power.

"You just had to say it, didn't you?" Kasumi demanded. "You just had to say it!"

"Now is really not the time to—" Shepard was cut off when the Medivac plowed into the surface of Tartarus.

When Shepard came to, the first thing he saw was Kasumi peering down at him in concern.

"You okay, Shep?"

"Ow."

"Yeah, you're fine." Kasumi reached out her hand, and Shepard took it.

"What's our status?" Shepard asked as he stood up. "Did everyone make it?"

"Not the pilot," Kasumi said, "but everyone else survived with bumps and bruises."

Shepard felt a pang of regret; he could protect those he could see, but the pilot had been out of his line of sight.

"Where's Miranda?"

"Organizing the survivors," Kasumi said. "I stayed behind with Tali to keep an eye on you. It looks like most of the Strikers made it, but we lost a few Medivacs and Vikings."

"Damn." Shepard took a moment to check himself for injuries. He had a bit of a headache from his head smacking into his own barrier, but he was otherwise fine.

"Kasumi, is Shepard awake?" Tali shoved aside a piece of wreckage that the two Terrans had been using for shelter as she approached. "Oh, he is. Commander, you're going to want to see this."

Shepard crossed his arms. "Good news, or bad?"

"I… have no idea, I've never seen anything like this before."

"Sounds ominous," Shepard half-joked. "Lead the way, Tali."

Tali brought them to a hill, where Miranda and the other officers were waiting. The only one conspicuously absent was Grunt. As soon as he crested the hill, Shepard found out why.

Grunt and the Zerg had not been idle. Grunt had commanded several of the larvae he'd had with him to morph into Drones. Those Drones had turned into the beginnings of a Zerg Hive Cluster; the Hatchery was already complete, and several other bio-structures were almost done.

"They've been busy," Shepard commented.

"Commander, good to see you up." Miranda greeted him with a nod, then turned back to the Zerg. "They began as soon as they landed. I tried asking what was going on, but Grunt only said that the Queen of Blades commanded him to establish a strong Zerg presence immediately."

"That's probably not good." Shepard was about to telepathically ask Grunt, but something stopped him. A cold sense of dread washed over him, and he stumbled. This feeling was familiar, and as soon as he placed it, he fully agreed with Kerrigan's decision.

"Shep? What's wrong?"

"Don't you feel it?" Shepard asked, looking to the other psychics. "I feel it, and the Zerg have, too."

Zeratul, Miranda, and Kasumi all reached out, trying to find what Shepard was talking about. All three had different reactions.

Zeratul froze; other than a slight tremble in his arm, he maintained his composure the best. {Impossible… they were all destroyed!}

"Apparently, they weren't." Shepard noticed Miranda shaking. "You feel it now?"

"How are they here?" Miranda whispered, almost to herself.

Kasumi had fallen to her knees, her weaker psionics barely able to maintain her psyche in the face of what she was feeling. "What the hell is this?"

"You never fought them, did you?" Shepard's question was rhetorical, and he kept speaking. "We've fought them before, and it's not something we could ever forget. Cerberus is playing with something they never should have. It's why the Zerg are so riled up.

"Those idiots are working with the Hybrid."

Codex Entry: Hybrids

ERROR

DATA NOT FOUND

Hey, look at that, I finished a chapter. It has been… wow, it's been close to a year. Okay… sorry about that. I had to finish up college, and then I had a (terrible) job to get through, and now I'm working on my career as an author. With that stuff and everything else that went on last year, I had to give something up for a while, and that something happened to be this story. But I have some things I want to address:

First, chapters for this story will probably be shorter than before. This is because I'm more used to shorter chapters now; they're easier to edit, and are less intimidating. I hope that doesn't upset you, but it makes things easier for me.

Also, while this story is NOT dead, updates will be sporadic, as I'm working on my book. Actually, if you like this story (and seeing as how this is my most popular fic, I'm guessing that a lot of people do), I suggest that you come check out my book. There's a link to my website on my profile page, and that will get updated more frequently than this story. There's lots of sci-fi action, mystery, and other cool stuff that I know you'll enjoy. And, hey, the first chapter is free! Just remember: I'd love to spend more time on fan fiction, but money is important. If you buy my book, I'll have money, and that gives me more free time.

Next Chapter: An old nightmare from the past returns…

I'm in a heap of Muffins!