Star map of human territory and ship sizes, TvTropes link, as well as a galaxy map are on my profile.
Yeah, so life's gotten quite a bit in the way, as well as a pretty severe case of procrastination and writers block. As well as a mean case of the rewrites. I am very sorry for the huge delay, so I hope this chapter is worth the wait. Some of the wait at least.
I hope everyone has stayed safe and healthy these past few years! Get your Covid vaccines, wear your masks! It's not political, it's a pandemic.
And with that, for some, sadly controversial opinion said, any and all feedback is much appreciated.
Chapter 20: Good for the Soul
Fasius could scarcely believe it. They were landing on Illium.
The past few days had been rough. The atmosphere on board the ship had gotten tense again over the past few night-cycles, but not for the reasons he had expected.
Gerro had been in his chambers for long stretches of time, having hushed meetings over holos with ambassadors and dignitaries about the incident. Cammius and Novicidia had had a nervousness to their step since then, and he could not help but feel that space seemed to press in just a little closer than it usually did. Veva hadn't been quite as talkative as she had been previously either, none of them liked what had happened, and the travel meant that they only had too much time to think.
Hopefully, this stay would get their spirits back. Right now, they all just wanted solid rock under their feet and an open sky over their heads.
He had a hand on the controls, their ship, Qal Ge, gliding smoothly through atmo. It was the first time in a long time that space travel had been exciting, and he hoped it never was again. As did the rest, he could not remember a time he was more happy to reach his destination, on this ship at least. Cammius and Novicidia were hugging each other in tight embrace in relieved celebration. He was fairly sure they would 'celebrate' more later as well, and who knew, perhaps they'd finally make it official. Gerro was still shaken, but he had composed himself better. He stood on the bridge, next to Veva, checking that the A.I them kept to course.
"...Okay, okay..." Gerro replied in a whisper. "Do what you can."
Veva immediately turned and gently, but firmly, pushed Fasius out of the way, and ducked beneath the consoles and controls. Fasius leaned down to get a view at what the A.I was doing. He saw immediately that it had started tearing out panels, stripped the shell off its lower arms, and that several cables and wires extended from them. One hand went to its abdomen, and opened a small compartment, rummaged inside and came back out with what looked like converters.
"Where did you get that?" he asked.
"Bought them on Arcturus. This mech can't modify itself like the advanced models." it answered.
Veva quickly plugged the cables together, and before long, the console beeped, indicating that it had managed to establish a connection to the ship. The lights on the bridge flickered, and Veva's voice came from every speaker.
"I have control." the ship said. "Now then."
"Here's the access-codes you will need." Gerro said while activating his omni, activating his codes for it through the main console.
Fasius bent back under to look, having been momentarily distracted by the flickering of lights, and the voice. He saw that the face-holo was flickering rapidly, like a screen which could not quite get a signal. Or was broken.
"Hey, are you okay?" he asked the prone mech.
"I am fine, thank you for your concern." the ship replied. "I am currently in the ship itself, running through hardware on the mech and ship. I will take disruptive measures to protect the Qal Ge and her crew."
"Wait, what, what do you mean by...?" Gerro started after a few seconds, but never completed the sentence.
Fasius had rigged the system to his console, and set it to immediately activate holos with info in case of sudden, major changes. A plethora of holos popped to life on his main console, showing that Veva was currently drawing a lot of power from the main reactor, to the point that several non-critical systems shut down, including main lights and- ...even their shields were weakening! Fasius was by now fairly convinced he was going to the spirits, while waiting for life-support to fail as well.
Before it had come to that, after what felt like an eternal wait in the red lights of the backups, the reactor had resumed normal operations, temperature and draw was well on their way back to normal, lights came back on, and the mech had shifted.
While some in the galaxy held the impression that being Councillor was a position held for life, Sparatus knew it was not so.
In the case of the Turians and the Hierarchy, it was a political appointment more than anything. If the current Primarch decided he or she rather wanted someone else in the position, the Primarch was well within his or hers rights and power to remove the current Councillor, and place one more to his or hers taste so long as the choice could be justified.
The Hierarchy and the bulk of other governments of the galaxy held the Citadel Council in high regard, yet they were still independent bodies, with different ways and customs, and more than most, the Hierarchy had to have a strong leader who could set a clear course for the future, unify and direct the Turians as a singular focal point. And so the Councillor was ranked lower than the Primarch in the grand scheme of things, Hierarchy protocols clearly outlining the chain of command following the Primarchs lead, the Councillor merely being the voice of the Turian people in the wider galaxy.
Sparatus had long served under Primarch Fedorian, having retained his position as the Primarch had taken his seat over 12 years ago. He still remembered the first call between the two, discussing and outlining the foreseeable future, a path they had more or less agreed upon. Sparatus had not known at the time, but Fedorian had treated that as a job-interview, to see if he was like to keep Sparatus at the post or not.
At the moment, Sparatus was standing in one of several adjoined rooms, back in his quarters on the Citadel, in front of a console with a connection to Palaven. He was watching the stone-faced hologram of Primarch Fedorian staring down at him.
"Is there any new updates regarding Saren?" Primarch Fedorian asked.
While Spectres were Council agents and not beholden to any singular government, they more often than not represented the best of the best a species could offer, and seeing one of them killed or severely injured was never a good thing, for anyone.
"Not as of yet. Per Tevos' report, Jondum Bau is currently at Arcturus Station, and has confirmed Saren's condition. I have gotten in contact with him, and it would appear the Alliance has merely performed procedures to save his life, but has not attempted any ...meddling as it were." Sparatus answered.
"That is good news. And what of the Normandy?"
"On Khufu at the moment, alongside most of the crew, according to the mission set out by the Alliance. They gave us the dossier. That is one of their missions, but we'll have the Alliance help with some of our issues after that. Of course, given that Saren is unable to accompany them, they are lacking their XO. The Alliance has requested a replacement, but makes it clear Saren is welcome back after recovery. The Alliance has offered to aid in any capacity to that end. I should mention that Jondum sent an update, it appears he managed to secure clandestine transport on short notice, setting up several civilian vessels serving as decoys for a volus merchant vessel."
"Why not on a military vessel? And why the secrecy? I would think that the Alliance has the medical expertise to help."
"It was done on short notice, and Jondum did not want to attract any unwanted attention by bringing the military in. I stand by his decision, he has more info on the situation on the ground. Saren was moved because the Council did not feel comfortable leaving Saren entirely in their hands." Sparatus answered somewhat tersely.
In fact, he hadn't had too many major objections to Saren remaining in Alliance space for recovery. The Alliance was a leader in cybernetics, and the better equipment Saren got, with the help of Citadel doctors to keep the Alliance 'honest', the better. They could also glean at some secrets then, he was sure Lugoln would approve. But Valern was not Lugoln, the other two had been adamant. And despite Saren being a Turian, he was a Spectre first in their eyes. It was too bad salarian Spectres tended to rely too much on being clever in situations like this.
"I see. Well, as long as he is secure. We have the means to secure his recovery as well. I am aware of their Quarian mission. What they are trying... It hasn't been done before, at least not that we have records of. Do you think it'll be successful?"
"Maybe. I am not sure which outcome I prefer, but if the Quarians get their planets back, there will be more planets available for all, and there would be less stress on our current dextro-colonies." Sparatus answered, scratching at his mandible. "There are few enough dextro-worlds, even if the Alliance were to expand their palaforming projects. At least for many years."
"Hm. That is true. If they can resolve the conflict, then maybe we'll hear the end of the A.I issue Thessia is always clamouring over. And if not, nothing has changed. Now, for the reason I called; What is the situation with the Collectors? I know the Alliance already made their assault, but unfortunately, the report I received was incomplete, or not as thorough as the one you received. Half of it was redacted." Fedorian said, ever so slightly indignantly. "I also gathered that the new Salarian Councillor Valern was not all that optimistic about the newest additions to the galaxy."
Valern sat in his new office, not remotely bored.
His office was recently vacated by Lugoln, who had graciously let him start moving in rather quickly. Not much time for ceremonies, but Salarians did not hold such things in high esteem in any case. All the necessary people and channels had been informed, had adjusted to the change, and he had taken the helm of the Salarian Unions' branch of the Citadel.
Lugoln herself had kept a close eye on the transition, but was now out of the inner workings, though still important and well connected enough to be able to glean at most intel. She had relocated to a rather luxurious suite on the Presidium for the moment, where she would likely spend the rest of her retirement and life, serving in more of an advisory role, as was custom for Salarian Councillors.
For his part, he had thoroughly gone through security, digital and physical, and found it adequate. Still, he had installed a few improvements on his own, experimental, but cutting edge. He was more comfortable with the risks of experimental tech than many of his contemporaries.
His quarters were spacious, a set of chambers, with several lounges and a large bedroom adjoining the main office, the other rooms laid out in a hexagon shape around said main chamber, with a hallway connecting to several other junctions, eventually leading to the long hallway leading outside. Of course, his chambers also had several very well hidden escape routes. The walls were, as ever, the blue-white walls of the Citadel itself.
He had turned up the humidity somewhat more than Lugoln's settings to better simulate his native environment, the area near the equator of Mannovai, which had more dense jungles and swamps than even Sur'Kesh. The furnishing was lush, dominated by greens and browns, lavish carpets hung from the ceiling, concealing a number of security measures, most of which would be deemed "excessive" or "paranoid" by most others.
In his experience, anything was only excessive or paranoid until it wasn't.
Even now, he had not yet seen much in terms of Citadel politics in person, although he was as acquainted with them as he could from an outsiders perspective. However, he had taken some measures already. The bugs he had had planted in Airiel's and Anita's office had not yielded much yet, but that would quickly change.
He had perhaps been somewhat aggressive when giving his assessment on the Alliance to the other two Councillors, but he had decided it was a better approach than a roundabout one.
Most of what he said had been true, and he had made sure there was a general negative tone to the speech, complete with examples of the worst the humans had to offer. While not entirely ...accurate, as things were now, it was imperative to get the Citadel to stop working so hard to vie for the Alliance's favour, instead to start opposing them in a meaningful manner. It was time the Big Three started playing on the same field, for the same team. He knew the Alliance had plans already in motion, plans which could be severely detrimental to the Citadel should they reach maturity.
It was past time the Citadel Council stopped discussing, and past time for action. The Alliance was already moving on theirs.
Having assaulted two galactic powers, no matter how unrelated to the Citadel they were, had been an excellent cover which all news agencies had helped spread without much thought, Valern found he admired it, despite their consequences.
Valern set up a blocky device on his desk, while setting up a hardline connection with his omni. It was a scrambler which would only allow very specific signals and frequencies through, state of the art from the Union itself. Even video footage would be blurred beyond recognition in a two-metre radius, and it had an in-built sound-wave disruption causing destructive interference, making audio recordings just about impossible. Anyone entering the room, physically, would never notice anything was amiss unless he spoke, so he locked all entrances, then ran a quick diagnostics.
When he was satisfied the device was up and running as it should, he navigated his omni-tool, and a small, high-quality video appeared over his arm. He reviewed the footage again, and as he watched, he once again saw the humans shred through the ship. It sent a slight tingle up his spine. Salarian politics were not all that different from the stabs in the dark, the manoeuvres, the feints, the sharp blade beneath the harmless silk in the hidden action, the black ops of the STG, and he was good at it.
He loved it, and he revelled in it. No drug ever felt so sweet.
As the vid came to a close, he breathed deep. He would thank the humans for causing a stir, but for now, it was time to make a stir of his own.
Veva flowed through the cables, expanding her processes throughout the ship. Raw cyberspace greeted her, tendrils of light pierced at her perception, prickled gently at her code structure, firewalls being turned away by the access codes she had from Gerro. Admin control, even. Here, cyberspace was so calm and flat compared to the Core. But it was cyberspace still, and she was at home, and her home could be shaped. She would have to spend a bit on installing a decent server before she could really get to work though, and would most likely need permission. She popped into the main computer on board, not very powerful, but functional, solid.
She knew the turian "patrol" was still a fair bit a ways, so decided to explore her new home away from home while she was there.
In a few seconds, she found a few flaws in the programming, especially those concerned with energy-efficiency, which had not been done by a quarian, quickly generating and drawing out the power of the computers around her. Taking a portion of their power for her own as she created a few code-segments, slapped them in place, seamlessly integrating them. Programming, hacking and thought was much the same in her world. And, if she was going to work here, it should be nice to be here as well!
She turned her attention to navigation, her eyes and ears in space, and got the location of the so-called patrol.
She aligned her antenna to ping it with a tightbeam, and hopefully, their computer would answer. She turned her attention back at the cockpit where the turian, Fasius, appeared to be concerned for her. The mech must look in a bad way to him. 'How sweet, proper gentleman that one. Or ...gentleturian, I suppose.' she thought with a digital flicker.
"I am fine, thank you for your concern." she answered as she worked. ""I am currently in the ship itself, running through hardware on the mech. I will take disruptive measures to protect Qal Ge and her crew."
She had the angle of the antenna and the vector right, the coordinates right, and the shuttle was... 1.49 light seconds away. Veva fired off the tightbeam, waiting an agonizing 1.49 seconds for it to connect. Then it did, their computer accepted the signal, she had a connection, and she prepared her attack and defence nodules for her one-A.I assault on what was still technically an Alliance ally.
Veva never heard Gerro call for her, having shifted her focus entirely to draw as much out of the weak reactor as she dared, boosting the force of her signal, and her connection. Before the other shuttle had time to react, she reached across and forced a fragment through and in, rapidly found the controls for comms, promptly shutting the turians out, placing a pretty damn heavy jam on it for good measure. Now, only she could disconnect.
She ignored the rest of the systems for now, and checked the bridge-cameras to see what the crew was up to.
They were frantic at their controls, not realizing what the power-surge had been. Most was dressed in the standard Turian Navy uniform, but there was another there as well, who did not panic. It was a Turian not much taller than the others, but clad in a heavy robe, and Veva was pretty sure it was not standard Navy uniform. It was very clearly in charge, crews coming to it for orders, murmured in answers too low for her to hear. The robe was thick and ashen grey, and reached to the floor around his feet, his hands and arms hidden in deep folds. The hood came down far over his face, but she could see a very faint blue light of sorts shining from within the hood.
'That decides it, these guys are definitely pirate or private, no way have Turian officers started dressing like that!'
She caught a few moments of video of the scene, then went to work. Veva shredded through firewalls, observing weakness and strike before whatever firewall it had could reconfigure itself, Veva stitching the rather paltry code back together for her own use. In less than ten seconds, she had control, this shuttle did not have nearly enough power or code to protect itself from her. Weapons were disabled first, the very software needed to fire, erased, gone.
She turned her attention to navigation here, while the hooded turian stood there and let its subordinates flail in confusion. Perhaps it was confused itself, and just didn't want to embarrass himself in front of the engineer? In any case, she gently nudged the controls, and their course, so that they would pass some thousand kilometres 'below' her and her co-workers, jammed the controls, then gave the engine a heavy burn, locking down their main computer as a parting middle finger.
Tevos took a sip of her favourite tea, heated to broiling to best capture and preserve the delicate fragrance and taste while it slowly simmered down, the taste changing and morphing with the temperature. She strode slowly and gracefully over to the one side of the camber, approaching the large one-sided windows overlooking the Presidium while her hand softly glided over the draperies which hung from the walls.
She watched as the light, soft Phorosian silk draperies brushed gently against the floor, the walls, rippling in silence. The banners carried scenes of the early Asari, the Goddess Athame watching over them, spreading the light of civilization over Thessia. The large domed room was silent, the area the Asari Republics had chosen to be their main envoy seat on the station, millennia ago.
Tevos continued over to the sound-system and put on a calm Thessian orchestral piece, as she glanced over to her desk and the myriads of tablets waiting daily inspection. She turned for her window again, watching the sprawling station that never slept stretching out before her. She had a clear view above and out, seeing the five arms of the Citadel spread through space, stretching into the nebula beyond like a hand grasping through ethereal mist. It was as if it was reaching to grab for the galaxy itself, which was quite an apt metaphor, she thought.
She put her cup on her desk, pulled her robe of deep red-purple Asterian velvet closer around her, tightening her belt of the same tighter. Even in this simple garb, she managed to look effortlessly regal, a Matriarch at the height of her power. That endured even after almost a thousand years of what the galaxy could throw her way.
Still, it would not do to meet in this, no matter how regal she might feel, and the galaxy never seemed to run out of things to throw. She had a number of important meetings in the coming weeks, and Asari did not prepare for such occasions with half-measures. She pressed a button on her intercom.
"Kaesslea, have the packages arrived?"
"Yes, Councillor. They arrived late last night, samples of fabric, perfume, make-up and jewellery are waiting for you at your pleasure." her acolyte answered. "The ingredients from Thessia and Earth also arrived five and seven hours ago, respectively. The chefs are already going through the manifest to create a suitable menu. The Dal De Atruana has been reserved for the occasion, and a selection of music has been uploaded to your omni-tool, with recommendations highlighted."
"Thank you. Have the fabric samples brought up in an hour, and the tailor brought up in two, please."
"Of course, Ma'am." her acolyte replied, ever polite. "We have also done our research on Anita's and Airiel's history, and what we could find of their tastes, so as to have a few more compatible dishes for all of you. C-Sec has approved of Airiel's modified bio-mech for use on the Citadel, so she has sent a notification to all concerned."
"Indeed, that is good to hear. Thank you for your efforts." Tevos replied.
"Not at all, it is a pleasure." her acolyte answered, and Tevos cut the line.
The 'please' and 'thanks' were of course rather wasted sentiments, but orders tasted better with a touch of politeness. Her dress would be custom made, a simple matter, all things considered. Tevos opened the holographic interface on her desk, and went through the usual reports, checked through a dozen approvals, signing only some. While she went through her morning, Tevos took a small sip while her other hand worked deftly across the holo-surface, and pondered.
Phaos took a good look around the room.
She had half expected a pantry, or maybe a strange sex dungeon. Hard to tell with the humans sometimes. Granted, some of this info might have come from human vids of all sorts, so perhaps her knowledge was not particularly nuanced. She hadn't met or visited all that many humans yet, after all. What she had not expected was a small, chilly room with a couple of chairs in it.
It was sparse, little decoration of any kind, but it was clean and well maintained, and had a small fridge to the side. The chairs as well, were strange, and not like any furniture she had seen in the apartment, either hers or Dana's. It was a recliner, for lack of a better word, and did look pretty damn comfortable, what with all the thin gel-tubes tightly packed horizontally, it had to be said. But near the headrest, or rather, instead of a headrest, there were these padded half-globes, glowing a soft green between the padding pattern, and there were wires going from the base of the half-globe into the wall in thick, but well organized bundles.
"I thought you said you weren't going to fry my brain for lunch?" Phaos asked, only half sarcastically.
"Heh, not to worry. No more surprises, remember." Dana said, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder, leading her into the room. "This is where I work. Or rather, it is where I put my body while I work."
"I don't get it." Phaos said honestly, as Dana turned, her back to the chairs.
"It is a direct link to my own server, and a bit further, to the Network itself. While I am in it, I can enter my consciousness and awareness into the Network temporarily, to my own little mind-space there. It is easier to show, rather than tell, to be honest. It is like those VR sets the Citadel uses for entertainment, the simulsims, just more advanced."
"So, like... uploading or something? Moving your brain into a machine? What happens if the power cuts out? I have tried those simulsims before, of course, and it feels pretty real. This chair would make it real for real, right? ...That did not come out well, but you know what I mean. Will you be trapped, or die then?"
"No, I'd just wake back in this chair. The feeling of he ground suddenly disappearing out from under you is pretty uncomfortable, I'll admit. Then, there is a moment of darkness, and you jolt up. I jolt up, at least. My brain is still in my head, and still what is doing the thinking, still what is me. It might feel real, and in many ways, it is. I don't think you know just how much tech is stuffed into the walls and buildings in this city? Or how much the Network is?"
"A lot, I am guessing. You humans always get weird about tech and go completely overboard." Phaos answered with a weak smile and threw her hands up in mock-exasperation, turning to walk out the door again, Dana following a moment later. "I'm a communications officer, I love stuff like that, getting all technical, hot and bothered over breakfast. It's all so high-tech and convenient, and you're just... showing it off!"
"Glad you're having fun." Dana answered and crossed her arms, leaning back on the door-frame.
"I am, thank you! And you're all practically giving the damn tech away!" Phaos said with a little bounce. "To me, at least, don't know so much about what many other asari are given here, not to mention the Citadel. I checked on Fluff, by the way, he has food and water, and is currently dozing on a sun-strip."
"Sounds like a content cat."
"It does indeed, based on what I have learned. Although he is very particular about the amount of food in the bowl before he will eat... Very practical, those little homecare drones, by the way."
"Can't argue that. Standard V.I suite, though I guess you've modified yours somewhat?"
"Yes, I did, now it doesn't refer to me as 'resident' anymore, thank the Goddess. But, you're not changing the subject, so I guess that is my job! I admit, I was a little too focused during breakfast, but I am still an Asari Maiden on her adventure out in the galaxy!" she said, spreading her arms around her, gesturing at the ceiling, towards space.
"How's that working out for you?" Dana asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Well, let us see." Phaos started, turning back to Dana, while raising a hand and four fingers to count down dramatically, as was only proper for a Maiden. Edging closer to Dana, she started counting down, dramatically. "I have been through First Contact with the largest and most destructive warship in the galaxy, I have had my brain probed by an absolutely enormous alien A.I for hours, and I have just experienced an alien concert and breakfast package deal!"
"Quite the list, it does really put things into perspective!" Dana smirked. "Sounds like it is going well!"
"It has, and does indeed. And for all we can gush about technology, music and breakfast, there is one more thing. I also met a verrry cute alien... And-" Phaos continued, more slowly, less dramatically. Now, with only her index finger raised, slowly pointing down at the now near Dana. With a vivacious smile the humans' way, Dana blatantly lost her concentration, a red blush forming on her cheeks. 'Oh, yes', Phaos noted happily to herself, her tiny vain side satisfied at that reaction. "-If I am not entirely mistaken, you did say you would happily discuss a certain matter later. Now... is later."
"...So we're going there, are we?" Dana asked with a smirk, after mentally composing herself a moment, moving from the door and walking slowly up to to Phaos, her blush not quite gone, well aware that neither were wearing more than t-shirts and underwear. They were very close now, Dana reached out a hand to caress her cheek. Then she moved in closer, spoke again in a slightly breathy voice; "I have heard a lot about Asari bathhouses around. And I happen to have a very, very, nice bathtub."
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"How are our... guests doing?"
"They're talking amongst themselves, attempting to make sense of their predicament." the new captain of the guard answered with a slight grin. "The men stationed at the end of the hallway have not reported anything suspicious at the moment. I'm in direct contact with them, and I'll inform you if something were to happen."
"Good. I don't care what conclusion they reach, but they should by no means leave their cells. We will keep them out of the inner sanctum for now, we need their turn to be subtle." Bosin Ranferoh said, never looking up from his desk, where he was busy working on several holo-screens. "Inform the men as well, I do not want to find them drooling in two days time."
"Understood, sir." the new captain of the guard answered.
"I mean it." Bosin continued, finally looking directly at his new captain. "Last time I gave that order, two of the previous captain of the guards' men decided to take them on a sightseeing tour. As you well know, the prisoners were not appreciative of, and far too susceptible to the tour. The two, and their superior, were reprimanded sharply. Anyone found near their cells, anyone who is not authorized to be there by me personally, will count themselves lucky should they face the same reprimand as your former superior."
The new captain of the guard swallowed, the memory still fresh in his mind.
"Without discipline, without order, men are no more useful than a single round of ammunition. And bullets we possess in great abundance."
"Understood, Sir." the new captain of the guard answered, his little smirk gone.
The new captain turned on his heel, and marched to the exit, through a solid metal door exiting into a concrete hallway, stretching for a dozen metres before joining with the larger sections of the facility. The hinges creaked loudly under the movement. Bosins quarters were never meant to be comfortable, but there was a price put on even minor comfort these days. His bunk, hidden in an alcove, was the softest thing in the room, and it would not be an overstatement to say the floor was just about as comfortable. It actually had a rug.
The walls had cracks, running from floor to ceiling, some minor water-leakage here and there, and little in the way of fabrics. His desk and chair were similarly to the door, solid metal, but far from spotless, with large patches of rust, mostly superficial. Wires hung from the ceiling in great bundles, connecting his terminals to the base, and the base to the larger internal systems of the Hegemony, and was the sole line between himself and the higher-ups.
Despite the state of the facility, Bosin was quite happy about the situation at the moment.
A Spectre, now his captive, and a sure-fire way of turning him to an asset for the Hegemony and his benefactors. Now, all that was left was determining when the turn was complete enough to release him, and which of his compatriots to keep as collateral for the time being. That, and the slight tug of Their whispered command would be more than enough to keep him in line. He had done quite a bit of experimentation, and thought he had the timing down, when They took hold of a man, and had made sure to keep away from the worst of it.
It was an alluring temptation, even to him, but his determination to see the invaders off kept him sane and sound. The fools of the Hegemony were weak-willed, and had been too easily swayed. He would be damned if they reaped the benefits his benefactors would bestow upon him and his men.
They were already making their moves, moving personnel, vying for influence over one another over the facility, but the facility was his to rule. So far, none had managed to dislodge him, and none would. He was certain was the better conduit for what needed to be done, the conduit for where to direct the anger of his benefactors.
He had felt it.
"Kuh muh." Kumu had said.
Feron had passed the 'sniffers'' test. If it could even be called a test. Kumu had stood there, breathing in and out with that raggedly thin wheeze, analysing with more than his nose, if Feron was to guess.
He had been shuffled to the side, while Velan had been "sniffed" at as well. Kumu was so far the only thing which had given the blasted salarian pause, even Velan was clearly uncomfortable with the massive quarian looming over him like a dread shadow, flinching back and never letting his eyes of the thing.
But Velan had passed.
"Kuh muh." Kumu had said.
"Alright, that is good enough for now." Ghormoroh said. "Move it along."
Feron was free from restraints, but was shoved forwards by one of the mercs. He saw no reason to make it difficult, having come so far. Thankfully, he was not hooded again, and could look around, but found it hard to take his eyes of Kumu, who had returned to staring motionlessly at their entrance. Another shove directed his gaze forward.
The walls were a misshapen mismatch of steel and rock and concrete, and looked to all like it had been slagged, like a great torrent of metal and rock and eezo had once flowed through. But it would have to have been long ago indeed, even as Asari measure time. Whatever signs of slag were ...scant, like dust and rock, machine, boots and hands had pried out what they could, had harvested, dug through the rest to reach the bones of Omega.
A wall to the side was a part of the asteroid proper, and the hallway past stretched deeper into the rock still. Behind and to the side of the hallway, the rock continued back for hundreds of meters in deep, dark fissures. It had to be ancient, one of the early mines or outposts which had sprung up around and in the rich eezo mines at the very beginning of Omega's long and bloody history. They had set precedent which endured to this day, slumming together in violent disharmony. These early outposts would have mostly either been removed (violently), or simply been built over, having been forgotten in time. As the station grew, these areas became more remote, and it was not easy to get to, unless one knew the maze that was Omega.
Even Feron had issues with finding his way in this place, given how often Omega saw "restructuring". The station as a whole might change little, but areas could become unrecognizable after a few years, shanty-towns within the station could have moved or been destroyed, a wall might collapse, or a ceiling cave in. Perhaps someone had even erected a new building? There were few building regulations here.
He walked on, past a pair of ragged and scarred batarians slumped to one grimy wall, some wounds still oozing or bleeding. Their heads were lolling idly from side to side in a way which looked painful to all species with more bone than cartilage, their eyes staring into unknowable distances. Feron recognized the look as a batarian whose muscles were entirely relaxed, and that they were either; extremely relaxed and comfortable, pleasantly inebriated, deathly sick, or high out of their minds.
Feron didn't guess which applied.
Eventually, he came to the low door, or what was left of it, leading deeper inside. The frame was barely more than a red smear in a vaguely rectangular hole in the rock which he stepped through. The mercenaries were still at his heel, directing him this way and that way through the rough tunnels carven through the asteroid. The light had gone over to a brighter, whiter light, but it was still faint, and scant.
Feron walked in line for what felt half an hour, but he could not be sure, no longer having an omni to check with. They did not move fast, and had walked past several small squads, which looked in significant better shape than the two batarians from before. These ones were batarians as well, they had the characteristic posture, the eyeholes, and the voices to go along with it, but few actually spoke.
Few other species. He might have seen a salarian, and he thought he caught glimpse of a turian, but the vast majority were batarian without a doubt. Perhaps Hegemony soldiers having abandoned posts, or perhaps war-refugees?
But they were too well armed. Too well armoured.
Hegemony soldiers and war refugees were two and the same these days, and they would come with little more than the clothes on their backs and perhaps a weapon, if they were lucky, but to scavenge one here was easy enough. Armour wasn't so uncommon, but it was usually the basic Batarian State Arms armour, which was crap. These guys were different.
For starters, they were tall, about half a head taller than normal, and they were bulky. That was also enhanced by their armour, which had patches of what looked like ...bark? Chitin? What it was, Feron could not tell, but it covered areas usually reserved for joints or movement, plate covering the static areas. The chitin-like material appeared to be grabbing the plates to keep it together, uneven patches creeping up over the plate-edges. It was at the very least the base around which the rest was assembled.
They watched the new guests cautiously, barely spoke a word, then went back to their guard duties.
Soon, they came to a much more well maintained blockage of large steel plates, and was by far a more recent addition than most things here, but then, that went for everything. They looked heavy, and were not new, but they did look solid. One of the mercs walked past him and pressed a hand to a plate which was smaller, and stuck further out than the rest. A holo appeared, and looked to be scanning their hand. Biometrically locked or keyed to the armour. After a few more seconds, there was a series of loud 'clanks' as a set of heavy locks disengaged, and a surprisingly quiet mechanism slid a pair of heavy doors open, the gap between door and frame almost invisible.
The inside was well lit.
The walls were bare rock, scarred with fissures and ancient signs of mining. They arched upwards, and met in a sharp angle, melting and fusing together again. The floor was rough and uneven, with patches of darker colour or moss, but in significantly better shape than the high walls, and was covered in pads and tech, while thick bundles of cables snaked across the floor, the thickest of which were hung through a rough hole in the far wall. There were large crates pouring over with steel, cable, tech and other strange devices stacked disorderly to one side, and a few barrels with loose or missing lids containing, if Feron's eyes did not play tricks, body parts.
Not just large ones, like arms or legs (they were there too), but fingers, eyes, ears. Something which looked ...internal, floated quietly in the foul ooze those barrels contained. Even a massive insect leg.
"Welcome to Omega!" a voice in front of him said, high and in mock triumph.
Feron hadn't seen the speaker enter the room. But less than five meters ahead, stood salarian in bloodied medical robes, and a quarian in a heavily modified suit with his arms spread wide.
Fasius bent down, and reached out his hand. "Spirits, are you okay?" he asked the prone mech as its face-holo reappeared, and the flickering stopped. "What happened?"
"I took disruptive measures to protect Qal Ge and her crew." Veva answered, grabbing Fasius' hand to pull itself out. "Check nav, they should be well off course."
Cammius looked at Veva like it had grown a second head, but after a few moments, gathered himself together enough to carefully walk towards the nav-console. He glanced over, his eyes widened, and his mandibles splayed in surprise. He pressed a few buttons.
Cammius confirmed that the shuttle was, as Veva had said, going to pass over 9000 kilometres 'below' their position, relative to their current perception of up. Veva had also told them that they could keep course, and not worry about weapons, or indeed any more hostile action from the shuttle. They had been understandably incredulous of these claims. It was... oddly terrifying in a way. It had in just about a minute disabled a shuttle belonging to the Turian Hierarchy with almost contemptuous ease, and had not at all been shy about attacking organics. But then again, he thought back to their conversation, and back to how things were on Arcturus Station.
It was unshackled. It could freely make its own decisions.
It had let both them and the shuttle live.
"What, exactly, did you do?" Gerro asked.
"I entered the main computer of the Qal Ge, slapped in some improvements, you should see fuel expenses drop by between 5 to 10 percent per cycle. Then I drew power from the main reactor to boost my own processes, sent a tightbeam to the shuttle, took over comms. I erased the weapons software, set them a new course, and gave them a push." Veva answered while counting down on her fingers, then looking apologetic. "It took some power to do, I am sorry if that scared you."
"...Its fine, thank you for dealing with this." Novicidia said as she was calming herself. "I've been telling you you should have upgraded the drive core when you installed those shields." she said with a look to Gerro. "Now you have another reason."
"It will be the first thing I do on Illium, I can assure you of that." Gerro answered, having been no less scared than anyone else. "Luckily, most of the cargo can handle long storage. It'll require some reshuffling, but we'll sell what cannot be stored first."
"Yes, that sounds like a good idea. Just to finish up, when I came back, I told you to contact the Turian Navy to come pick them up, as I assume the Hierarchy is interested in interrogating these turians." Veva finished, activating either one of the human IMC's, or parts of herself as a holo around her arm, and pressed a few keys. "Here's the access codes back, by the way. They're gone from my system now, and I have exited all Qal Ge systems."
None could believe how casually the Vision relinquished control. They were all contemplating the approach to the next step by themselves, all at the same time. The moment when they would have to ask for controls back from the, still relatively unknown, alien A.I, which still had total control of their ship. And it just... did it, without even being asked.
"...Why are you not on every ship in Citadel Space?" Gerro asked, incredulous, checking his omni.
"Citadel won't have it, I'm told. We are, in the Core. And on pretty much every human, or Alliance ship, even out here." Veva answered. "But enough about that, look at this." it said, bringing up a holo on a terminal. "I don't know much about Turian culture, I'll admit, but this has to be odd, even for you, right?" it asked, looking around at them.
She explained it was footage from the bridge, and they saw what it had seen. Fasius didn't doubt this was real. Somehow, he didn't. And he was by now sufficiently creeped out of his carapace. What was going on in that shuttle was anybody's guess, and he could not see any logic or reason to what he had seen at all. It was definitively not Hierarchy. What happened while Veva opened the possibility of installing a server on board didn't calm any of them.
The Turian Navy had come pretty quick.
Fasius had expected a few picket ships to arrive to drag the shuttle along.
He had not expected the 67th Flotilla to arrive. They had come with a flotilla featuring two heavy cruisers as a mainstay. All for that little shuttle. It was drifting far away when the flotilla had come, they had decided to stay to keep an eye on it for the Navy while they travelled. Somebody had to be there to pick up any reward, after all. The shuttle had not changed course since their involuntary burn. Veva had gone on board to check again from time to time, very carefully, but they had not unlocked much, and not nearly enough to be able to flee when the Turians showed up, in any case.
They had all watched on navigation, while keeping in place per actual Navy instructions, as the 67th Flotilla approached the shuttle.
And they all watched as the shuttle detonated without warning.
"That is putting it mildly. I do not hold too much faith in his assessment, too much contradicts it, from what I can see." Sparatus answered. "The Alliance are far too interested in us, and have invested heavily in their integration to the galaxy. That does not spell war in my mind."
"Agreed. We will have to watch Valern closely. He has connections to the highest echelons of Salarian government, as well as the STG and other, let's say, clandestine groups." Fedorian stated."Which is expected, at the very least. I am unsure what the end goal would be here, but I can guess that it is related to some black-ops or other. The details surrounding his appointment is also quite extraordinary, him invalidating all other candidates so quickly."
"Indeed, I sincerely doubt he has any blackmail on either the Union, STG or Lugoln potent enough to accomplish this. But that will have to wait for the foreseeable future. You are right that you hold the redacted report of the assault on the Collector base, and I have more information which gives it... context. It was too sensitive to send through the usual channels. Primarch Fedorian... Are you alone in the room? Is anyone monitoring the feed?"
Something in Fedorian's eyes focused, and he grew sombre. Sparatus watched as Fedorian turned and barked orders to whomever was in the room, most likely other diplomats, assistants and servants. After a few moments, Fedorian turned back, having assured connection would not be broken, working for the duration, and ensured the two of them would be the only ones listening in on the conversation, having activated the protocols for the Primarchs' exclusive use.
"There. This is unusual, Sparatus, and I do hope it is warranted." Fedorian said at last.
"I believe so, Primarch. I will be blunt. At that Council meeting, prior to Valern's own theories, Anita Goyle and Airiel brought in a Collector corpse from the assault on Elysium. They also brought detailed analysis of the Collector DNA, as well as information on genetic engineering."
"And this is important, how?" Fedorian asked, bluntly.
"Because they were Prothean." Sparatus answered, bluntly.
That gave Fedorian pause. Sparatus could see something shift in his eyes as the Primarch of the Turian Hierarchy processed the information.
"And you are certain of this?" Fedorian asked in a low voice at last, after what felt like an hour.
"No, I am not. But the Alliance is certain enough to present the information with all three Councillors present, and left it with us. Lugoln examined the corpse, and could not determine foul play. There is no way the other two are not taking action based on this information."
"Spirits... As they should. Just the circumstances of the reveal is extraordinary enough. This is not standard Citadel business."
"No, it is most certainly not. I would appreciate it if you could make inquiries through our intelligence services for me, you have more access and clout there. Perhaps I'll even have to deal with the Broker." Sparatus said, and continued to sum up the meeting, including Anita's and Airiel's warnings that this was likely to not be self-inflicted. "I will speak to both Tevos and Valern, this is not an issue we should be dealing with on an individual basis. To get to the bottom of this will require cooperation on many levels."
"What do you propose be done in the meantime?" Fedorian asked, but Sparatus was sure the Primarch already had a dozen plans in his head.
"Keep doing what we're doing. Build up and reinforce the Fleet, expand the operations of our intelligence agencies, and keep the Alliance invested in future relations. More cooperatively built ships like the Normandy might be a start, if not the same class of ships. Right now, until this Collector-Prothean business is sorted, I would rather have the Alliance as agreeable, if unorthodox neighbours, than resentful isolationists." Sparatus answered honestly. "I will be conducting further talks with the rest of the Council, and do my best to make sure our decisions going forward are as unanimous as possible."
"These steps are too expected of us by this stage, something will have to change. Some of these 'expected' steps, we will keep up with. However, I have already started formulating a strategy with High Command, though this will change our focus by several degrees." Fedorian answered. "For once, we need more than military strength to get our way. We are not yet at war, and no other Citadel species have our capabilities to raise armies or fleets on short notice anyway."
Sparatus heard the wisdom in that. Everybody expected the Turians to be almost as ready to fight as the krogans, but the Hierarchy was far more discerning and disciplined in its method than the Krogan had ever been. Still, to change focus might not be too bad, at least it would be unexpected.
"Don't forget, we also have means to push through changes of our own, aside from the Fleet and the Army." Fedorian continued as he checked his omni, breaking Sparatus' chain of thought. "The Hierarchy is not entirely helpless in other areas. While it is true that the Asari wield significant soft power, and holds great sway over many species, the Citadel somehow keep overlooking the one which we hold great sway over, one which is significantly more important and are far more adept at negotiating than their status and standing in the galaxy give them credit for."
Sparatus mandibles flickered, and Fedorian continued. "And after all, what are the limits in power for the economy of a galaxy?"
They stood on the bridge, some distance apart, hands open and up.
In front of them was a squad of turian marines, pointing their weapons directly at himself and his co-workers.
Fasius wasn't unduly worried about this development. He had served his time in the Hierarchy, and knew they would not fire in this situation. His knowledge was confirmed when the squad leader gave an 'all clear', the squad relaxed and a turian in fine Armax armour emerged from the airlock, and soon stood in front of them with a small retinue at his back. He stood for a moment, going over each of them with his eyes in turn, lingering at Veva.
"I am General Adrien Victus, in command of the 67th Flotilla." he said calmly while overlooking them. "You, four people in a small trader with little in means of defence, are accosted by a fully staffed military shuttle, armed and shielded, belonging to the missing Cordantanus. One would think this situation could have only one outcome."
"...Indeed." Fasius answered.
"So imagine my surprise when I receive word of such a situation, and then hear that the trader is making contact to claim a reward for the capture of said shuttle." the General continued. "Can you help me make sense of that?"
"...I can. I am the captain of this ship, the Qal Ge, Gerro Farla. Thank you for your prompt response, General." Gerro answered, and indicated Veva. "We employ one of the Vision. You know, the Alliance A.I's."
The other turians were suddenly not so relaxed, but it did not seem to faze the General.
"...As a cyber warfare agent?" General Victus asked. "Seems a bit much for a trader."
"As an assistant." the mech answered, crossing its arms.
"Really." the General answered in turn. "In any case, you are alive, and they are not, making you my only witnesses. We might need to bring you in for questioning, but I am curious if any of you could go over what happened, while it is still fresh?"
Veva raised an arm in front of her, and a small chip soon extended from her wrist. "Here is my write-up of the incident. There are also complete computer logs from the shuttle as well as a small video I managed to record of what was on board."
The Generals' mandibles did an odd movement, not quite amused. "Indeed, the answer to all my questions is on that thing?"
"More or less, for my part, yes." Veva replied.
"And how do we know you were not the one who blew up the shuttle?" the General asked.
"Why would you even ask that?" I haven't killed anyone!" Veva protested, sounding genuinely hurt by the accusation. "I sent no signals from this ship while you were in-system. Check with your techs, they'll say the same."
"I gathered, but I wanted to hear it from you anyway. We found traces of high explosives on the remains of that shuttle, this wasn't due to any signal sent, but premeditated. My guess is that they did not conceive of facing a genuine A.I on the very first prey they chanced upon." General Victus answered with a dark chuckle.
They had been taken onboard one of the heavy cruisers, and had been interrogated as witnesses by the Navy. They had been fed and given water, as well as being able to sleep, so his needs was taken care of. This was not much different than normal travel, but he didn't have to worry about piloting right now. Veva had not needed these accommodations, aside from a few hours of what it referred to as "sleep", complete with air quotes. Fasius did know Veva had hours off on the Qal Ge, he had found the mech lying prone and quiet on a bunk with no trace of the face-holo before, but hadn't thought much about it. He made a note to ask about that, but Veva wasn't complaining about accommodations at any rate.
Fasius found he slept poorly. It felt like he was in way too deep in something which was way over his head from the start. Like he had had his daydreams answered, and gotten a glimpse at what the galaxy was really like.
After a few days, they had been released to allowed to continue on their journey. As Fasius understood it, even some pretty high-ranking Alliance and Hierarchy diplomats had to be called in to resolve the whole situation. The Hierarchy was angry one of its shuttles had been breached, by a civilian Vision to make it worse, stolen or not. The Alliance saw it as a perfectly valid example of self-defence after having read through the report. Things had apparently gotten pretty heated.
Veva, for her part, had pointed out in her interviews and questionings that if the shuttle had had an A.I of its own, it would likely have won, due to generally superior hardware, but vastly inferior code. To a Vision, it was a simple matter to repurpose those computers for their own use. It was basically just free real estate. Veva compared it to asking any turian, given the appropriate tools, to open an omni correctly, then make a mess of the inside.
Much harder when fighting someone trying to defend it at the same time. Not that it would have a chance against the Flotilla, that was far too much for a single Vision.
The other placating elements were of course the valuable information from Veva's raid, which the Alliance vouched for, as well as the crew of the Qal Ge protesting punishment for what Veva had done, agreeing with the Alliance's conclusion. After some internal discussion, the Hierarchy had agreed to the arguments, and apparently it had caused some other, much larger deal to be approved at the same time. He saw the news feed and recognized the situation, even if most details were obscure. Apparently the incident had been used for leverage by the Hierarchy in some way, but the Alliance had not seemed unhappy. He was just happy it was resolved for now.
As he steered the Qal Ge in the direction of the relay, he saw Gerro walking back out the bridge, humming happily to himself.
"My, the boss sure is happy today." Novicidia said, flexing a mandible in a smirk.
"Oh, he's just happy because he is feeling on the enormous happiness and honour it is to aid our dear friends in the Navy to help curtain piracy and lawlessness!" Veva assured her, only the faintest hint of light derision in its voice.
"Or could it be..." Fasius wondered, joining in, dragging out his words. "Could it be because of the large reward we received for some ve-ery valuable intel?"
"Hmph." Gerro answered.
"How much was it?" Veva asked in quiet glee.
"A hundred thou- shut up!" Gerro answered indignantly, leaving in a huff as the door closed on the laughter on the bridge.
'Damn that asari girl. We should never have let her stay, and certainly not so quickly.' Tevos thought as her brow creased slightly. It had set precedent, to suddenly take it back now would be suspicious. She knew that had been a miscalculation back then, even before Anita and Airiel told her about their nature.
It had been right after First Contact, that moment of carelessness when everyone was congratulating themselves for a job well done, war averted, peace saved, and was where some details could easily be missed or overlooked. When the diplomatic party and the crew had been offered to stay, the diplomats and crew had said yes. Many had quickly asked for extended leaves, some even to leave service, and the Republics had said yes. It was seen as an enormous gesture of goodwill on the humans part, so the other Matriarchs had waved away her concerns, and by the time she learned, it was too late to act on it.
And now, the Alliance were waiving a very troubling Prothean-Collector link in her face to top it all off. If not even Lugoln and the Union could dismiss it out of hand, then it was time to worry. The Inner Circle on Thessia had been informed, but they were so far rather disbelieving, not placing too much trust on the Alliance. She knew they would be more open to discussion after having exhausted themselves coming up with ways to ignore it.
But that could take time, time better spent elsewhere. She would be sure to prod them.
Tevos rapidly shifted her fingers to set up a call. The line would connect to Thessia, and was as encrypted and shielded as it could be, with the best tech and code of the Republics. The Union might have a reputation for the cutting edge advancements and technology, but the Asari were no slouches themselves.
'This is going to get complicated.' she thought, or rather, knew.
Asari took to diplomacy very carefully, and very seriously, and naturally, so did their Republics. It was what granted them so much sway in the galaxy in the first place, and they took pains to keep it that way. Right now, she was dealing with a pain of more immediate concern. She had quickly read up on and learned about human diplomacy, or at least Alliance diplomacy. Both they, and the Asari, considered it only polite to have a 'guest' each while they assessed each other. It wasn't a must, always, but this was diplomacy between species, which was what the Asari Republics did.
The asari girl, Phaos, was famous in both the Core and the Citadel, and was seemingly fine. She sometimes spoke wide-eyed on vids and streams, instantly going viral on the extranet about how it was to live there in the Core, with the enthusiasm only an Asari Maiden could manage, Goddess-damned perfect propaganda. Even her book was a best-seller. And given that she was a Maiden, she was probably up to her tentacles in humans by now, Tevos guessed. Even if few asari in Citadel Space these days would admit it, they absolutely found other asari attractive, so asari Maidens had always been popular ambassadors. Humans would be the ultimate adventure for many, and given that marginally larger populations of asari had steadily settled to colonies near Alliance Space... that remained true. So it wasn't all bad.
There were a few krogan there on Earth, true, but they were enlisted in their military, and came from nothing. Many aliens had visited Alliance colonies, and even Earth, now. Many humans, even Vision, had been on many Citadel colonies, even on Palaven and Sur'Kesh. They were not the Asari Republics.
No humans had settled to, or close to Asari space, and had only come as tourists or workers, but never to Thessia itself. It would only be proper that the Asari care for the Alliance's guests in return, especially when the humans and their Vision were looking out for those of yours, so close to home. The Alliance still had not seen Thessia in all its glory, but from orbit (she hoped). A proper visit to Thessia would mean a proper tour, like with all other races in the galaxy, even the smaller Turian client races.
Anything else was an insult.
The Asari Republics were currently undecided on the matter of letting a human, or perhaps even a Vision on to Thessia, for a variety of reasons. So far, the polite declines had been accepted, and seemed expected, but it simply could not continue forever. When even the Turian Hierarchy and the bloody Krogan were ahead diplomatically, something was going horribly wrong somewhere.
The first and most obvious reason for the delay was that the Asari Republics were the ones who had pushed the hardest for the ban of A.I in Citadel Space, and for the ban to remain in place. Thus, they also had a testy relationship with the Quarian Migrant Fleet, and Khufu. Negotiations with the Alliance had also not all been ...polite.
The second reason was that many Matriarchs, who were by now rather entrenched in their views, were slow to change their minds on reason one when it came to allow either creator or created on Thessia, especially ones who were not even part of the Citadel Government.
The third, most troublesome, and secret, reason was, how the human neural links interacted with technology. The Inner Circle had been informed of that as well, and for once had gone quiet as they considered the implications. It probably didn't even have to be an intelligence agent.
She moved over while she placed the call, which would take about thirty seconds to connect. Tevos skimmed over the rest of the tablets, and picked up the top-most, the one which connected to her more scientifically aligned friends, and, amongst other things, they had been kind enough to compile a list of areas, locations or structures the humans and their Vision were most likely to be interested in, should they be allowed on Thessia after all. She spread her fingers on the pad and up, instantly spreading the data as a holo above her desk. She quickly skimmed through it, her eyes caught for a moment on one of the names at the top of that list, ranked amongst some of the absolute highlights.
- Eternity Ground Stadium.
'The largest arena on Thessia, where the annual leagues were playing their respective finals, and the longest continuously run stadium in the galaxy.' Tevos thought.
- Founders' Plaza.
'The birthplace of the Asari Republics as it now existed, a magnificently huge plaza with all the art, architecture and culture the Asari could bring to bear.'
- The Lumina Concert Hall.
'The greatest and finest concert hall in Citadel Space, a must see, and must hear, the acoustics were unmatched.'
- The Temple of Athame.
"...Well, shit." Tevos said, and took another small sip as the signal connected.
"Whoof!" Dana sighed in a mightily satisfied manner, leaning back. "It certainly has been a while. But that was really... something."
"Indeed it was." Phaos answered as she sat up and rolled off the relaxed and tremendously comfortable human, not feeling too bad herself. Steamy water splashed softly around them. She settled next to Dana, and let out a breathy sigh herself. "That was just ...nice. So nice..." she said with a smile, as the human woman leaned in on her shoulder.
"It was nice." Dana answered, gently caressing and stroking her head-tentacles, Phaos gently rubbing her cheek against Dana's head to feel that damp and soft and beautiful hair. It was definitely a decent trade-off for the lack of head-tentacles. "I'm open to doing this again sometime."
"I like you." Phaos said, smiling.
"I didn't think you were much of a diplomat?" Dana laughed a little while nudging her.
"Hey now, the good-girl gets horny too!" Phaos protested, shrugging slightly.
They had been in and out of the bath for hours, and as nice as that was, it had also not been all steamy sex and embracing eternity with a hot alien with soft, pliable hair that was nice.
Asari culture valued their bathhouses, and it was a common sight in most Asari colonies throughout the galaxy. It was weird not to have one. The bathhouses were a tradition which stretched back millennia, to long before Thessia was able to reach for the stars. It was a place where any asari could enter, and meet as equals. Rank was worn above ones clothing, there was no such thing as a naked Matriarch. It was a place to talk, discuss ideas, and to bond and relax. It was as much as a grooming ritual as anything, one deeply ingrained in the Asari.
The humans had historically, and in places did still have communal bathhouses, but they were not nearly as ingrained in the culture. Humans were a bit more private, and usually when they showered together, it wasn't just to get clean. She had learned that much, but in true Asari fashion, they had combined the best of both worlds in this room, she thought.
Dana had thought so too.
Phaos had a pretty nice shower in her own apartment, but she had not shared a shower for a very long time. It was therapeutic, so she had made the most of it. And, by the Goddess, this bathroom was incredible! It was almost as large as the bedroom, and Dana had apparently paid premium to remodel the interior for this larger bathroom, and Phaos definitively approved of this humans' taste wholeheartedly.
There were pores in grids on the wall and ceiling, that opened to spray a mist of hot water and a retractable in the wall provided soapy foam. The tub itself had two levels which stood underwater when filled. And, just like home, it could blow jets and make the water bubble, froth and boil through tiny nozzles throughout the bath. Jacuzzi, Dana called it, but on Thessia, it was called a Gaen Foa. There was a desk of sorts near a wall with some cosmetics, and cosmetic tools of odd human sort, and there were also as a delicately tasteful mirror, oblong and beautifully engraved edges.
There was also a toilet, (which she could not get used to, who would have the toilet and bath in the same room?) which Phaos ignored.
But the walls were the most incredible thing. The walls had seemed to be shining marble tiles, cut and interlocked in elaborate shapes, and wrought in soft, light and earthy colours, blending together in a cloudy fusion only to split further down the rippling pattern which was weaving through the entire room in a complete, but complex circuit.
That was how it was when they entered. But right now, the walls showed a landscape, so lifelike she had reached for a branch only to hit flat surface when Dana browsed through her link. Right now, or rather, for the past few hours, they had been overlooking a vista on a rocky peninsula, with patches of green grass and small plants attempting to the best of their ability to cover the rocky hills, rolling behind them over the abandoned horizon. They themselves were situated on a plateau overlooking the sea, in a hot-spring. Didn't feel far from it. Beyond that, there was the most amazing sunset, red, orange, gold, yellow in fiery ribbons across and above the wide ocean, birds cruising carefree on the wind.
"You guys definitely have us beat in bath-culture." Dana sighed, dragging a smooth finger down Phaos' arm.
"If it is any consolation, you have us beat in bath-rooms." Phaos answered softly as she gazed up to the ceiling (which also had this screen system installed) and looked to the purple skies as the stars appeared. "This was a nice surprise, glad you have the good sense to prioritize a good bath!"
"Lungs were a mistake." Dana answered, delighting in the steam.
They sat like that for a little while, before Dana turned her head slightly towards Phaos. "Thinking back a moment, speaking of surprises, you were sure this wasn't gonna end in one, right? Because this was ...fucking amazing." she breathed again. "And I want to be me a bit more."
"It is your time to trust, now. Asari can decide if we want to start pregnancy when we are melding with someone, as we have done a number of times. I have decided." Phaos said assuredly, and could not see Dana's eyes widening in the early stages of shock. "You don't have to worry, I am not ready for that for a while either."
"Neat, but I'd lead with the last part next time." Dana answered, extremely relieved.
"Did I get you?"
After a while like that, Dana snuggled a bit closer, a playful smile on her lips. "...Say; That wasn't really a definitive 'no' either... I would be the 'father' then? ...That is so weird to think about..." Dana kept going with a thoughtful frown. "How does that work? The inquisitive human demands an answer!"
"As if you can speak about weird." Phaos replied with a laugh. "My sense of normal is so warped from what it was only a few years ago, and I am still a Maiden, not some dusty Matron or Matriarch, remember! But it is the inquisitive humans' turn to get provisions for the confused asari." she added apologetically.
"Five minutes." Dana answered with a soft groan.
Phaos quietly and without word accepted the request. Phaos decided she was pretty happy with her adventure so far.
Valern opened a closed line on his omni, and a silhouette of a volus appeared over his desk, details obscured by darkness, voice scrambled to a deep bass-line.
Even the occasional breaths sounded more sinister.
"What do you have for me?" Valern asked the silhouette.
"Information, of course. The Broker is kind to his friends." the silhouette answered.
Valern knew very well what would happen to those no longer considered friends, yet he was no longer a lowly STG grunt, he was a Councillor of the Citadel. And it was not like the information requested had come cheap either.
"Glad to hear it. Now, I want names."
"We have some. The Broker even felt generous enough to throw in a little extra."
Now Valern was very interested.
"Cerberus is the name. It is a human organization, apparently not connected the the Alliance. It used to be, but according to our sources, it broke off about fifty four cycles ago, and has remained hidden, off the grid, since. Most of the Alliance considers them a myth or a dead organization, they do not consider it a priority. Aside from the Feronia, there have been sporadic references and reports. I will transfer the file we have on them." the volus said. "The few references are considered accurate, and fits other data well enough to support the evidence of this organizations' existence and its ties to current actions."
"Most generous." Valern answered. He doubted the file would contain all they had on this Cerberus group, and wondered for a moment how the agent knew about the Feronia, but struck the inquiry down immediately. The Brokers' weapon was information, after all.
It had been an annoyance having to go to the Shadow Broker, but no other group, faction or individual could boast such influence and power, not the vast interconnected groups within the Asari Republics, not the Turian Imperial Intelligence, and not even the Union or the STG. The Alliance had made use of the Broker after the attack on Elysium, and Valern very much doubted they got that info for free. This confirmed it. Even if incomplete, the information here would be very valuable.
The STG had not found much on the attackers of the Feronia. The Feronia had been assaulted a few months ago. A ship being assaulted was not entirely unusual. What was unusual was that the ship was a stealth cruiser on a top secret mission for the STG. Yet a group had been waiting for them, as if they knew where to look.
There had been quite the counter-intelligence probe throughout the STG after that incident. While a few risk elements had been weeded out, it did little to explain how it had happened. It was not until they had isolated each individual server that they had found some unusual code in a few sub-systems.
The STG was built with compartmentalizing in mind on every level, it was less complicated than it sounded on paper. The code they had found was nowhere near enough to compromise the entirety of the STG, and was itself far from true intelligence, but smart and small enough to glean at classified data. After a very thorough digging through the logs, they found activity by the code and shortly after, small pings sent to space, previously dismissed as errors, or explained away by other agents using the equipment the pings came from.
The code had also focused on the subject of species and races in the galaxy, special focus given to missions pertaining to them, rather than more general technology, politics or military, which they had discovered when presenting the now completely isolated code with several prepared databases with vastly differing information.
The code had a distinct touch to it, and was almost certainly from the Alliance, one of their intelligence agencies. Which made an awful lot of sense, given that the Alliance was still a newcomer, no matter how advanced, and would need leverage and favours more than anything. Whether this Cerberus group was deep cover, had sleeper agents within the Alliance, or the Alliance themselves had planted the code made little difference, the damage had already been done, and it had been done by Cerberus.
Despite how much of a unified front the Alliance showed, there were a lot of organizations and groups within the Alliance, and not all of them reported directly to the Alliance. Several human enterprises and businesses had moved and expanded to the wider galaxy quick as spit, and like all societies, there were smaller factions and malcontents who resisted the direction of their current largest government, some in secret.
"The Broker is generous, as I say. We have managed to obtain information about a suspected enclave of theirs. Not a large facility, but well hidden." the volus continued. "I would not wait long acting on this information. There is a reason why even the Alliance has been having trouble verifying their existence. Best of luck, Councillor Valern."
At night, They came to him in quiet whispers. Just last night, They had come again. Bosin was convinced it gave him a deeper understanding of Their will, but his duties saw him on as little sleep as batarianly possible, and he was no closer to an answer.
They were hard to understand, hard to hear. They never spoke directly, only gave subtle hints in dreams. In the dream, he had been in Ignis Terminal, above ground. He had been alone at the base, no one else had been there. The sky had been ink black, only a few scant stars casting an unusual amount of light for their dimness, shrouded as they were. The ground had been awash in starlight, yet somehow still out of focus, obscured, veiled in a way he could not put in words. Yet the walls had cast no shadows on the ground, remaining but shadowy monoliths in the night.
And for the first time, just last night, he had seen Them. Only spectres, faint shadows whose size could not be gauged or hoped to be measured, against the darkened night-sky with its faint stars. From behind his walls, he saw Them, impossibly vague forms peering down at him far away, from distances beyond anything he could fathom. And despite their remote presence, he perceived them as yet far-off shadows into a far greater darkness than the sky beyond.
Bosin had felt it, the anger. Angry at the audacity, that these upstarts were violating the galaxy, the Hegemony, his people. Abominations which had surrendered their minds and their souls to the machines of their own making, and the rest of the galaxy accepting it. His benefactors were the caretakers, the guardians, the guides, and they did not take kindly to those who upset their order. They would help him liberate his people from the aggression of the humans and their foul machines, and turn their power on them instead.
For now, he had more than enough to deal with in managing his current situation, and the rabble the upper echelons had seen fit to send him. Their constant in-fighting, even in the midst of the disaster they were currently experiencing, the worst the Hegemony had ever seen, had seen his original troops long removed and their own men had been stationed and removed at an alarming rate, but the manpower at the facility was as ever great, unless in exceptional circumstances. He was not surprised the Hegemony was on the losing side. But he would change that.
The one benefit of all these troops rotating in and out were that he was able to convert them to his cause, however subtly. There might be a price put on luxury, but he was not lacking in the essentials. Men, ammunition, food and weapons he had in abundance, and more still to come. They used the lower tunnels, secret pathways beneath the surface, so no one who entered through there were ever quite sure exactly where they were. Given what they had down here, it was hardly surprising that his command was probably the best equipped and run base on Khar'Shan.
He was shaken from his thoughts when he noticed it was time to make the rounds, to make sure the damage from the assault had not been too great. It had been well executed, and had penetrated deeper than he had expected. That is what "Spectre" meant, he supposed.
He rose from his desk, but before he managed to make a step, he heard a dull explosion in the distance, and the door to his office creaked, and he felt his temper rise a degree.
Not only had this new intruder not asked permission, the guards should have stopped the visitor and radioed ahead for whoever attempted entry before they got this far. He was about to offer a sharp command, when the new captain of the guard stumbled through the door with a pained groan and fell forward. Bosin saw that the new captain of the guards' body had been opened from shoulder to groin, bleeding profusely while his intestines spilled out, dead before he crashed to the floor with a dull thud.
Above the corpse, a shimmer was in the air.
The door opened wider, and Bosin sat back down in his chair, his arms to his sides. This was new.
Out of thin air, emerging from the shimmer in the air, over the corpse of the captain strode a human, full of arrogance and confidence, that much was clear from the swagger in his step, swagger such as it bypassed all racial barriers. Bosin felt his temper rise by several more degrees, but suppressed it.
"I take it you're here to kill me?" Bosin asked calmly.
"Indeed. Your security is pretty lax." the human answered.
"We were just attacked. I'm sure you noticed."
"I did. I'm not a fan of you aliens, but those attackers sure did make my job a whole lot easier."
"Not here to rescue them, I suppose?"
"No. I'm here for your head."
Bosin did not doubt the exact nature of the claim, as the man had an actual sword in his clawed hand, bloodied by the new -former captain of the guard, and even through the visor which obscured his eyes, only a thin white strip over either eye, he could feel the contempt emanating from this human. Dark hair, slicked back, body covered in sleek armour, and an odd hexagon shape on his chest.
"The Alliance, then? Or someone else?"
"Someone else." the human answered, bending his knees, preparing for the lunge.
"I thought as much." Bosin answered, and pressed a key on his console, hidden on his side of the large desk.
And 200.000 volts surged through the rug, on through the would-be killer, triggering the already tense muscles in his legs, launching him at violent speeds to the ceiling, leaving a bloody mark. He came crashing down on the rug on the floor, the electrical surge still running. The human started writhing in spasmodic movement, screaming and wallowing in pain. The screaming stopped after a good twenty seconds. Blood kept seeping from the wound on his head, running rivulets down his face as puddles formed beneath him, his bladder having given up the struggle. Bosin kept his finger firmly pressed on his button as a distinct burned smell filled the room, the smell of burnt flesh and electronics.
He did not stop the electricity surge for another minute, until he was convinced the human was not faking, when he had begun smoking in earnest.
"An Alliance operative would not have revealed themselves, or wasted time talking, you third-rate excuse for an assassin." Bosin said to the unconscious man on the floor as he walked briskly over, stomping on its head for good measure, as guards who had discovered their murdered comrades surged into the room, rapidly placing the third-rate excuse for an assassin in restraints.
Then there was another explosion, but closer, or more powerful, than the last.
"Busy day." Bosin mused.
Fasius had confirmed docking with the Nos Astra Commercial Spaceport traffic controllers before entering atmo and restricted and controlled airspace, and now began his approach to his designated one. It did not take long before they were through atmo, flying though air, rather than space. Down here, it was always very noticeable that the Qal Ge was by far more graceful in vacuum.
They could see the surface now, and Fasius allowed himself to smile, his mandibles widening.
Turians may have a reputation for being ...strict, but that probably owed to the galaxy being used to them as soldiers and their main armed force, as well as all those teen vids the studios insisted of poisoning the galaxy with every few years, like that 'Fleet and Flotilla' vid from a few years back. So far, it was the only one anyone could seem to remember the name of after a cycle.
Fasius knew he was not all that strict, truth be told. Stern, maybe, but not strict. Stern or not, there was just something about places where one could just breathe without having to worry too much (provided one had not signed anything).
The Qal Ge cruised ungracefully through the light cloud cover, rapidly dispersing as the planet turned to face the sun, or the sun came over the horizon, their perspective changing as they came in lower, towards the metropolis that stretched as far as they could see. The clouds left a slight mist on the window, which soon condensed to droplets of light, shaken loose by the rattle of the engine and the winds, glittering in rivulets across the glass.
All the little details had such clarity in his mind, he paid them more attention than he ever had. It was sweet to be alive. He did not have any illusions as to what would have happened if the shuttle from Cordantanus had docked with them. He sometimes daydreamed of being the rough Spectre on a daring secret mission to save the galaxy, but he knew that it was all it was, daydreaming. Coming up against something which had to have had suicide-on-capture orders put things into perspective.
Other ships flew by in the airspace above the capital of Illium, Nos Astra, some were leaving with their holds full, or were like themselves, arriving, with their holds full. The traffic flowed smoothly in clear lanes, in their never-ending dance.
They came in even lower, yet still far above the towers and spires that made a city.
"Oh, that is gorgeous." Veva said quietly.
"You find things ...pretty?" Novicidia asked, turning to face it. "That's, well-"
"Hush, let's not ruin the moment." Fasius interrupted before the discussion could begin. "Enjoy the view. It's the first time you've seen it, right, Veva? We can talk later."
They sat in silence and drank the view as they came further down, while the horizon glimmered off of every surface. Wispy clouds floated and warped like faint silk around the spires that pierced them, refracting the light of the rising sun, bathing the city in a thousand colours. The shuttles and traffic appeared as flashes of gold between the towering architecture. Now they were reaching as high as the topmost of the towers, their course leading further down still.
The spires reached for the skies, each vying to outdo all others, their postures and angles made to be more sublime and wondrous than the next. They stood proud and stately, beautiful and tall in colours from pearly white to black jet, purples and blues. Yet there was no disharmony, the spires never seemed to diminish the others around it. Carefully crafted arcs and bridges connected some spires through lush and busy terraces as they intertwined and complimented each other, and all, together they made magnificence as they stood clad in their dresses of glass and steel, shining bright as if to greet a new day.
One thing he would say about the Asari, they did know how to build.
On the ground, there were large parks with fountains and waterworks where birds of all sorts sung in aged trees, and fish bred for purpose could be fished out of the ponds for a fee. It was a place many gathered to relax and talk while surrounded by trees and grass and water, areas surrounded and populated with sculptures of carefully crafted marble in grand processions, statues and art from all over the galaxy. There were always performers here, selling their talents to the tourists, while also providing ample ground for pickpockets.
There, below, in the plazas, in the wide streets paved between giants, there were restaurants and pubs, there were concert halls and bath halls, there were drug dens, theatres and musicals, strip clubs and dancers, casinos and stock-brokers, and if one knew where to look, information. It all seemed so ...effortlessly done, the flow and life of the city, the nightlife on the street, the countless shops and stores, never-ending in their clamour, never out of things to sell.
The city was pulsing in its own chaotic Asari rhythm, only the thinnest veneer of civility draped on top.
Fasius loved it here.
The sky had gone over to the deep purple of a bruise by the time they emerged from Faatalir Hall, the first stars appearing in the darkening skies, small clouds drifting lazily overhead to obscure them, only to evaporate moments later. Shepard had his helmet on still, leaving his filters relatively open. He could smell the smoke coming off the multitude of fires amongst the crowds, and covered the massive crowd in a light haze.
When they emerged, the crowd had grown restive enough for the haze to shift. Walking out here, the crowd seemed much larger than it had from their high lodgings. He had been able to hear the buzz of the murmur of the crowd as they neared the exit, but then, as Han'Gerrel, Zaal'Koris, Shala'Raan, Rael'Zorah and Daro'Xen emerged from Faatalir Hall alongside Legion and Tali, half the Conclave and several Alliance diplomats, it went completely silent, the haze settling over the crowd as a quiet blanket, and he could feel the sheer levels of anxiety on the verge of bursting.
There were tens of thousands visible, and most likely hundreds of thousands more in the buildings, beyond the haze of smoke, watching on screens on ships far above them, in houses or on hunts, in shops and workshops, in shuttles or power-plants, watching, watching and waiting. Most likely, near the entirety of the Quarian species was watching this moment, the moment which would decide the way forward, into the future.
Even the Admiralty seemed uncertain at how to react, and Shepard was not about to take action on this. He did not have to be a diplomat to know how that would go over.
Before it became too obvious the leadership itself was uncertain, Tali stepped forward, Rael barely flinching, perhaps itching to stop her. To her credit, she did not hesitate. Han came as far as reaching for her and missed, but did not press the matter. Tali reached the podium in front of her, the Admiralty and the Conclave remaining where they stood.
The crowd started shifting, the nervousness so palpable Shepard could just about taste it. As could Tali, as she stood on display, wondering exactly what to say. It could not be an easy thing. But then she spoke.
"I... uhm..." Tali trailed off for a second, before giving a small cough and gathering herself. "I am Tali'Zorah nar Rayya." she said more strongly. "Most of you don't know me, so I will say this as simply as I can; The war is over. We can go Home."
And in that moment, time itself froze.
Shepard could feel the realization of that simple statement hitting the crowds. Nothing moved, and no one breathed, even the Admiralty was frozen as the statement which they would never be able to take back hit the airwaves, and was shared across an entire species at once. Even the haze of the smoke below and the clouds above seemed to have halted its movement completely, frozen in time alongside the crowd.
Time picked back up, and then there was pandemonium.
The haze of the fires immediately evaporated as the crowd exploded in wild and sudden movement, and Shepard could not tell if they were overjoyed, angry, happy, relieved, scared, or anything in between. The noise was overwhelming, making it impossible to discern any singular emotion or purpose. It was cacophony, it was uproar and it was utter and complete chaos. Tali was similarly taken aback by the crowd reaction, and backed away from the podium, slowly. Her father moved up and put a hand on her shoulder, cutting her retreat short. Even at half the decibels, they would have trouble hearing each other, so he resorted to a simple nod, and gesticulated subtly towards the crowd in the midst of their eruption in front of them.
What more was there to say?
Phaos took a look around.
'This is not real', she thought.
But, by the Goddess, did it look it. It was not an environment she had ever seen. It was a large ...space, for lack of a better word. There did not seem to be an end to any direction but down. It was white, but not blindingly so, and the distance faded to a blur.
The ground was perfectly flat, and she held her hands up in front of her. They seemed real. She touched her fingers together, but the feedback was weak, like it wasn't really hers. She wriggled her fingers and moved her legs, she moved as she normally did. Didn't feel 'hers'. She still felt that 'she' was positioned right behind 'her' eyes, like normal. Made a lot of obvious sense, that was where the brain was.
Before she could contemplate further, she heard a soft 'whomph'-sound, and behind her stood Dana, in much different clothes than she had previously. So was she, now that she took a look at her body. She had a basic training shorts and sports-bra on. Dana was in a completely awesome long jacket, black, ragged leather pants with boots to match.
"Why don't I have any of that?" Phaos asked, feeling very jealous.
"Really? That is the first thing you ask after interfacing directly with the Network?" Dana asked.
Phaos thought for a second. "Yes."
Dana sighed. "Because you haven't dressed yet."
"How do I-" Phaos asked, and Dana raised her hands, and from behind came something at a great speed.
Phaos was about to dodge, when Dana said to stand still, so she did. A second later, whatever it was rushed past on either side, and Phaos could see that it was racks of clothes. Clothes of all sorts, clothes without end. Phaos squealed in glee, going through as much as she could at once, planning her outfit.
"No." Dana said.
"No?" Phaos asked form beneath the pile she was wearing. It didn't feel heavy.
"No." Dana confirmed.
After what felt like five minutes (actually closer to an hour), Phaos had her clothes selected.
"That took a while." Dana commented, despite having been as enthusiastic in dressing up the asari as the asari had been.
"Then you should not have given me ten thousand plus choices." Phaos retorted, quite happy with her selection.
She was 'rocking', as Dana had said, a low-cut jeans with a cute belt, a t-shirt and a long vest. She loved it, and Dana placed an order for the outfit so she could wear it 'for real' as well. That had earned Dana a big, oddly ...senseless, but very emotional kiss. The area around them had felt warm and ...'fuzzy', at that, and somehow made the kiss different. She knew, it was the Network and the neural links at work. Phaos liked it, and now understood what Dana had meant about 'real' earlier.
"Ah, well, before we get ahead of ourselves, why don't I show you around? This is just a sort of loading area. I figured you'd want to pass through here first. Now this; Is where I work!" Dana said as she detangled herself from Phaos, and with a flourish, the whiteness around them disappeared, as did all the clothes and the warm fuzzy feeling. They were standing on nothingness, not even the hint of a shadow beneath her feet. Phaos took a step, and did not fall.
Everything around her was colourless, yet Phaos could perceive shape and form clearly, Dana still stood a meter in front of her, relaxed as you like.
It probably had not been more than a few seconds, before a hilly landscape surged at them from below, as they were falling in pose. It came far too fast, Phaos was sure they would splatter - and then, nothing, as her feet touched the grass, all momentum just... stopping. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't really felt inertia in the 'fall', or any wind.
To one side, not far, a massive spire reached for the sky and seemed to touch it, looking like it had been carved out of the surface by the Goddess herself, a mighty sword crafted from the bones of a planet. It was rock, rock from deep beneath, obsidian and jet, marble, silver and gold, but it appeared as if smoothened and shaped by hands. Carved in the smooth sides, there were red runes and artwork in gorgeous harmony, from base to the distant top.
On the horizon, there were tall mountains, and forests could be seen in the distance over the rolling hills. ...Now that she took a closer look, it did appear as if the hills past the nearest ones were actually rolling, like waves across the earth itself, yet they never approached, never got closer. She saw that the forests rolled with the landscape, watched as massive ruins of grand castles and cities, as ships long sunk roiled across the waves of earth, disappeared and appeared beneath the shifting sea of land and sand, always changing, never the same ruin, nor the same wreck. The sky was a pale blue, with clouds of all colours drifting by rapidly, the world illuminated by a distant black sun.
Before her, in an open, grassy area, stood several pedestals, some high and narrow, others wide and fat. The grass was floating in the wind, but she could not feel it, and did not feel cold. On the pedestals were shapes, carefully crafted shapes. To one side was what looked like a heavy wooden board, floating weightlessly, with all sorts of colour spread out in a spectrum at its surface. To the side of this again were heavy chisels, hammers, brushes and sharp tools in their cases, but Phaos could not tell if any of it was miniscule or gigantic. It was a strange sensation.
"...I cannot say I have ever seen a workplace like this before." Phaos said. "You made this?" indicating the huge spire. And everything else.
"Yeah, I am an artist. I work in the Network, most of my customers are Vision looking to enhance their own servers." Dana said. "My chisel is code, as is my paint. We are in my sim now, my own little server, and I have made it my own. This isn't the standard server configuration, in case you wondered. It'll probably see a redesign in the next year, I think." Dana continued, a thoughtful hand on her chin, overlooking the impossible view. "Cool, right?"
"Allow me to say you have a slightly morbid and certainly unorthodox taste. But the Vision doesn't use sims that often, right?" Phaos asked. "How does that work?"
"This is code as well, this is how it would look to us. But-" Dana said, snapping her fingers, and the statues, and the paint changed. In their place were strings, vaguely resembling the structures, with soft flickers that appeared almost as vapour over the superstructures and junctures, nodules buried deep inside, glowing with their own soft light. They all were different, having their own feel, even now. Phaos could tell that much, just by looking, just as she had before. Even the large spire had changed, and over the now thin structure, there seemed to be code overlaid, slowly swirling around the monolith in lazy circles.
"Now you see it as a Vision would, or as they would feel it on their servers, more correctly." Dana replied. "They cozy up the places, probably something they picked up from us. I am told some Asari Matriarchs are interested in this type of art, actually. Geth, even."
"Multi-species art. Neat." Phaos said as the other thing registered. "Geth?" she continued. "That is about the last thing I expected."
"Why not? Just got a ping from a friend, by the way. She's outside right now, with a bunch of friends of her own." Dana answered. "She's a Vision, and my friend in the Alliance which gave me permission to give you the headband by the way. She's a scientist, not military. Want to say 'hi'?"
"Sure, why not, this day can't get any weirder, can it?"
A door materialized a few meters away, just popped into existence after the briefest of tears in reality flashed, and it slid open in silence. Inside, there was a screaming light which would be deafening, but there was a 'film' of sorts over the opening which deadened the sensations from the screaming void. Some sort of code or filter, Phaos knew.
"Raw cyberspace, the true Network." Dana said. "You will need the implanted links before even thinking about jumping in there." she continued, as if Phaos had any desire to jump through that door. "It is pretty intense, but awesome."
"You have actually done it, you madwoman?!" Phaos exclaimed.
"Of course. Bucket-list material, that." Dana smiled as she turned to the doorway which had started existing mere moments ago. "Some people do it pretty casually. Anyway, my friend and their guest are coming through, so let's greet them."
Out stepped what looked like a human. Just where the filter ended, it materialized out of apparently thin air. Except, this wasn't air. The human-like being that stepped out was outlined with light of indeterminable colour that did not shine, every contour and feature was lined as if drawn by light. It looked female, like Dana, without clothes, code and lines of light instead of any ...bodily details. It was somewhat transparent, appeared to not be 'full' in the same way she herself appeared. There was just a glowing orb vaguely visible inside the head, and lines spreading, surging all over, inside and outside to give the entity shape. Still, despite all this, Phaos could see shape and form clearly, just like she had with Dana earlier, saw a face that smiled at her in greeting, and felt a gentle touch at the edge of her mind, and knew it was Vision.
The other was different. It too materialized from the filters edge, and appeared vaguely human in shape, but male. However, in place of human or asari facial features, there was just a series of deep swirls in the same indeterminable coloured light, ever-changing and like the Vision, appeared 'hollow'. But this one had no orb in the head, all Phaos could see were masses of small lights in the swirls, swirls that also shaped and changed deep within. The small lights, the flow and current was changing, appearing and reappearing at a staggering rate, the swirling flowing through the whole in a circuit. Occasionally, something inside flickered, sending waves across its surface which was vague enough as it was. She did not feel the gentle touch this time, but instead perceived an overwhelming curiosity, and knew it was not Vision.
"Uhm, Dana, what did you mean when you said your friend had a bunch of other friends coming over?" Phaos asked Dana.
"Hi, thanks for having us, Dana! I am Artemas, one of the Vision." the first being said, and moved close for a hug. Again, it was a very senseless hug, physically, but there was a different feel around, like a welcome to a friend. How the very air (Phaos again aware it was not really air) could feel like it did was something Phaos could not get over.
"...Hi, I am Phaos T'neala, asari. But that was probably obvious, huh?" Phaos managed.
"Probably." Dana laughed and moved in on the hug and joining in. "Good to see you! How is Levi?"
"Oh, he is great! Sleeping over at a friends house, so I thought I'd take the trip." Artemas replied. "I have someone who is burning to know how organics use the Network."
"So we are to be the guinea pigs? I assume that would be your friend here?" Dana asked, turning and moving closer for a handshake and a hug.
"We are Adam, a terminal of the Geth." the swirly figure answered, raising a vague hand to Phaos while appearing mystified at the greeting from Dana.
'Oh, shit.' Phaos thought.
The celebration did not abate for two weeks, they would later learn.
But for the crew of the Normandy, they would not be able to stay too long. It had barely been three hours since the announcement, and they had not been able to retreat from the podium for over an hour. The Admiralty had attempted to clarify some points, but the crowd had not been in that mood, so they had decided to wait with that for the moment. Spontaneously, the crowd instead had begun chanting, and although the whole situation would be later discussed to death, in this moment, they were all one.
"TALI'ZORAH VAS RANNOCH!"
"TALI'ZORAH VAS RANNOCH!"
"TALI'ZORAH VAS RANNOCH!"
"TALI'ZORAH VAS RANNOCH!"
The crowd had bellowed for almost ten minutes, and did not abate for ten more. Even if the actual logistics and politics of moving back to Rannoch would be, and was, immense, it was still a path forward. A path of progress, and most importantly, change. Change did most often not happen in great bursts and leaps, it built slowly and only in hindsight clearly, and on occasions few and far between, a monumental incident happened, which irrevocably changed the course of histories great and small.
"Well, that could certainly have gone worse." Wrex said to Tali as they moved through the halls of Faatalir.
Tali did not respond. She was walking beside Legion in a daze, who had managed to pull through without causing too much of an incident. Luckily, the news of Legions arrival had spread quickly, and it became clear during the announcement why it was there. Besides that, it had stayed in the background, and had not made an announcement of its own, at the advice of the Alliance diplomats, who thought it would be too much, too soon.
"Yes, it certainly could have!" Daro'Xen said in an amused tone as she hastened her pace to catch the other admirals, about 20 meters in front.
The Admiralty had chosen to retreat with them, and the Conclave was already gathering representatives and important personnel to disseminate information more thoroughly, because as things stood outside, most people would not be ready for much more than a giant celebration for quite some time. But it did seem the Quarian leaders still had their heads attached, and realized the monumental task ahead of them.
At the very least, the Citadel and the Council would not be able to stop this beyond protests, the 'damage' already done. Not that the the Admiralty would have listened anyway.
This was once again foreign politics to the Citadel, and they had long ago made it abundantly clear that they were not getting involved in Quarian politics, and were not willing to throw themselves at the Geth. Which to all involved was for the best, but the Citadel probably did not shed the idea of some meddling. It was shocking how many species the Citadel Council had estranged for not following the rules they had set. Shepard supposed they were reaping what they had sown right about now, and despite not having the full picture, he knew that the Alliance was in no way slowing down, and for that he was glad.
No, this was a decision the Quarians and the Geth had made themselves when presented with the option, and although it was unlikely to please all, it would please most, as Zaal'Koris predicted, given the crowd reaction outside.
They moved through the welded halls, shaking faintly from the commotion outside, past guards, small doorways and wide hallways, tapestries covering most of the walls. Even in here, the atmosphere was tense. The guards were military, and had been living on the idea of retaking the Homeworld by force and by Fleet for decades. It would not be easy for them to accept that this idea was now hanging in tatters. Shepard was not altogether convinced that they would go quietly in to that good night.
But for now, things were quiet, in the metaphorical sense at least.
The Admiralty walked ahead, Shepard's crew behind, while the Alliance diplomats had diverted to their own quarters, to report the results back to Alliance brass, and for any changes to the planned agreements. As things had gone well, they would remain behind when the Normandy left, as guests of the Quarians. Transport would be arranged for them later, they had supplies to last them for months. The Admiralty were all occupied by their omni-tools, sending messages and preparing meetings with the Conclave. The logistical nightmare already had begun, and Shepard was glad to have no part in it, other than the one he'd played out already.
Around the corner, another group of quarians came walking, at a brisk pace. One called out to Rael'Zorah.
"Ah, Wonn'Maasal, glad you're here." Rael answered. "I will need your help in this. Please reach out to the captains of the larger Marine contingents. While the military outside is keeping relative order, we will need extensive cooperation to ensure peace in the coming weeks. I want to avoid riots."
"As do we all." this Wonn'Maasal answered as he closed the distance quickly. Shepard thought he recognized some of the pattern in the suit from earlier on, at their arrival. Given that neither guards nor admirals reacted, he was apparently an important aide of Rael'Zorah. "This was decided on your vote. We owe you a great debt."
Before Shepard fully understood what was happening, time seemed to slow. And then many things happened at once.
Shepard saw the jerk of the arm before comprehending exactly what it meant, when Wonn'Maasal was at arms reach, but he was moving at once. Heloys, being Connected, in synchronicity, charged ahead before they had time to think, training and pure instinct moving their feet. He thought he heard Tali start to ask a question, but he did not hear the words. Wonn'Maasal swiftly lifted his arm to level with Rael'Zorah's chest.
And then there were flashes of light, and a sound like thunder erupted in the halls.
All else was quiet, aside from his own thudding boots, each thud feeling a minute apart. In three more steps and in no more than three heartbeats he had closed the distance, and Wonn'Maasal saw the N7 bear down on him. He still held his finger pressed fully on the trigger. Rael'Zorah had not yet begun to drop, and had not grasped what had just happened. The blood had not yet hit Daro'Xen's face-plate, hovering near motionless in the air. Wonn'Maasal might have started moving the gun towards Shepard, but slow, far too slow, never releasing the trigger. Shepard's arm shot forward, almost faster than the eye could follow, grabbing the barrel-opening with his hand, bending the gun with the force of the impact. It splintered at the next thunderclap, contained in the palm of his hand. The other hand had already curled to a fist, and Wonn'Maasal did not see it before it was an inch from his faceplate. Shepard's punch followed through, hit bone, sending the quarian through the air.
In the next moment, time moved again in the flow of the world, as Wonn'Maasal was moving in the air, his finger remaining in the guard of the gun, as the blood finally splattered Daro'Xen, as Rael'Zorah dropped haltingly to his knees, the guards moved and Tali screamed wordlessly in horror.
"Father!" Tali screamed as she ran to them. She skidded the last metres on her knees, already her fingers on the omni-tool, applying a liberal amount of medi-gel before anyone could do the same, and she came to a halt beside him at last. "Father! Can you hear me?!"
Guards surged on the group and surrounded them at once, tackling every last one rapidly and none too gently to the ground, but none other in that group were armed, as far as Shepard could tell, and quick scans from Heloys said the same. They were quickly taken away to custody.
"I... what... happened?" Rael'Zorah asked quietly, moving his hand to his chest, lifted it and looked at the bloody mess on his hand. "I am ...bleeding?"
"Please, don't talk! Keep still, we'll stop the bleeding!" Tali shouted frantically at her father.
Shepard was still clutching the ruined weapon when Mordin and the others arrived at her side. Legion bent down and cradled Rael'Zorah's head gently. Rael turned to it, and jabbed Legions chest with a finger, twice, not too gently. Even from behind the faceplate, Shepard saw a wordless appeal only known to them.
"...Creator Rael'Zorah. Please remain still. You have been hurt." Legion said, almost gently.
Rael'Zorah coughed, and blood splattered the inside of his face-plate. Mordin bent over him, and quickly scanned the fallen Admiral with his omni, rapidly going through the data it told, all the while muttering to himself, quickly and quietly. He had a concerned look on his face, if Shepard read it right. He appeared to be preparing a rapid procedure on the wounded admiral.
"Oh. I... ...I am having tr- trouble breathing..." Rael'Zorah answered quietly, his breath raggedy and shallow.
"Please, father, stay still! We can fix this!" Tali shouted. She was crying.
"No... I kn-" he started, but a violent fit of coughing stopped him. He continued, weaker by the second. "I know... when my time has... come. I am sorry... ...I could not build... that house."
"Father, what are you saying?! We're going to heal you!" Tali cried.
But Rael'Zorah spoke no more.
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