Chapter 16: The Day That the World Broke Down

Stratton walked the dim halls of the alien vessel, green light pulsating through fiber optic cables and across computer screens. The Imperial Guard aboard Imperator had already cleared and secured the entirety of the ancient vessel, declaring it safe. Despite this, four Guardsmen still accompanied him. "Tell me about your world." Stratton spoke directly to the linked consciousness of the species.

The overlapping tones and inflections rang out through the halls of the vessel, carrying an ethereal weight with them. "Our world was ocean, deep and expansive." The Voice began, its tones lamenting and sullen. "Our kind was… one of the first to reach out from beneath the waves. We were the apex of life, the pinnacle of existence on our world. Even that was not enough to save ourselves or our home."

"Our time spent adrift has left us yearning for resources and information. We have encountered many races much like our own, just reaching out to the stars for themselves. None of them lived as you do, Human. You have transcended what was thought possible for a species to achieve."

"In a way, so have you." Stratton returned. "We've only recently begun doing what your entire species seems to have accomplished. It would be a shame to let you keep drifting, we both have quite a bit we could learn from one another."

"What do you mean, Human?" The Voice asked.

"Your kind fascinates me, and it's clear we fascinate you." Stratton answered. "Do you have any images of your anatomy?"

"Indeed." Stratton watched as a screen came to life, showing biometric data and the complete genome of this species. They were certainly aquatic in origin, but had a certain humanoid quality to them. They had the four appendages and single head, but their skin appeared much stronger and more resilient. Their eyes were similar in shape and size to a Human's, but the count of internal cones and rods was almost triple that of a Human eye. Their hearing was rather underdeveloped, but that was not unexpected for a species adapted to live in water. Strangely enough, they appeared to be amphibian in nature. They had both lungs and gills that worked together, allowing respiration beneath and above water.

"Your kind is rather similar to my own…" Stratton mused. He remained thoughtful for a moment, eventually speaking up once again when a certain world crossed his mind. "There is a world in our space, Sivus III, which is almost entirely ocean. With our synthetics technology, we would easily be able to re-create your bodies and allow you the life you used to live."

"Is this offer sincere?" The Voice asked.

"I'm rarely ever not sincere." Stratton answered, transferring the data regarding Sivus III to the ship's mainframe. "There are no worlds in this system suitable to Human colonization… there is one suited to your species, however. I simply require your knowledge on organic-to-digital consciousness."

"This is agreeable, Human." The Voice answered, sounding elated. "We accept."

"Excellent." Stratton smirked. He linked back up to Imperator's bridge. "Helm, bring us to the Sol System at full power."

"Right away, Chancellor." The navigator responded.

"We are not going to this Sivus System?" The Voice asked, confused.

"You need bodies to colonize a world." Stratton answered. "And Sol is where we can make that happen."

XXXXX

The streets of Omega's largest residential district were alive with the sounds of gunfire. Projectiles no larger than grains of sand flew through the filtered air alongside UHE Coilgun slugs as the mercenaries were beaten back.

Shepard and her team were at the front of the fight, switching to and from targets as the Turian, Salarian, Asari, Vorcha, and Krogan mercenaries were dispatched. Garrus had set up a killzone from his perch in a window, picking off unlucky targets with his rifle. Thane flayed the mercenaries around with Biotics, tossing them across streets and slamming them into walls. The Marine Raiders moved independently, coordinating with Shepard and her team to provide support with grenades and surgical strikes against heavy targets.

Shepard, as she slotted a round through the skull of a Salarian engineer that was working on setting up an auto-turret, quietly wondered why she didn't have the entire Marine detachment on Normandy come to assist. They had been pushing these mercs back for the better part of four hours, moving from street to street as they cleared them out.

"Krogan's charging!" Kaidan called out, propelling himself out of the way of the mass of armor that had come barreling towards him. The Krogan had put himself into such an intense rage that he didn't quite register the impact of a concussive shot from Garrus, followed by a quick stab through the neck from Miranda's combat knife.

"Blood Pack leader sighted, Shepard." Garrus commented from his perch. "Firing."

Shepard followed the faint trail of Garrus' round, finding the target. The massive Krogan's barriers flared up upon impact, but remained up. "Focus fire, take him down!" Shepard shouted, ducking out of the way of an incoming Biotic Pull.

Eventually, they managed to whittle away at the Barrier enough to start attacking the Krogan directly. Thane reached out with a Biotic Pull, yanking the mass of armor and flesh towards the group. Garrus slammed a concussive blast into the Krogan's head, and the N7 Operatives peppered him with gunfire from every angle. The Marines kept their fire trained on the Vorcha that still infested the area. As a final slug finished off the Krogan, Thane tossed the limp corpse into a group of Vorcha that were closing in on the Marine position, knocking many of them clean off their feet.

Shepard stood up from behind the mass of rubble that she was using for cover as the remaining Vorcha were silenced by the fire from the Raiders. "Area clear, Shepard." Garrus came over the comms. "Last Merc leader eliminated."

"Finally…" Shepard muttered to herself, slotting a new magazine into her coilgun. "Alright team, regroup back at the clinic. We're getting off this godforsaken rock."

XXXXX

Shepard stepped back onto her ship, joined by her away team and Professor Solus. All of the eyes on the CIC Deck turned to look as the Salarian stepped on board. Mordin scanned over the deck with a scientific eye, fascinated by the Human technology all around him. "Impressive…" He commented. "Sleek design inside and out, open decks, minimal crew, maximum automation to ensure sustained operations. A stealth vessel?"

"Quite observant, Doctor." Shepard acknowledged as she walked towards the Galaxy Map.

"Strange…" Mordin commented, looking to the crewmen aboard. "Your vessel is quite… different than the ones I am familiar with, Commander… is it new?"

"Not quite." Shepard answered, waving off a salute from a passing deck officer. "This vessel saw combat in the Second Contact War."

"Contrasts quite heavily with normal Human doctrine…" Mordin commented. "Your kind not well known for stealth."

Shepard decided to ignore the small chuckle from her Turian crewmate. "We hid from you for a thousand years, didn't we?"

Mordin remained awfully silent for the first time since Shepard had met him. "Fair enough." She simply had to smirk at that.

"Commander!" Traynor called out, catching her attention. "Priority-1 message from Admiral Hackett."

"Marines, escort Professor Solus down to the Crew Deck." Shepard ordered.

"Aye, Ma'am!" Vega said, nodding for Mordin to follow him towards the elevator.

As the Marines, Thane, Mordin, and Garrus headed for the elevator, Shepard walked over to her terminal next to the Galaxy map, placing her helmet down on the metal surface as she turned to Traynor. "What do we have?" She asked.

"New orders, Commander." Traynor said, the picture of professionalism. "Hackett wants us to return to the Citadel. He's also forwarded a few more dossiers to us."

"Let's see them." Shepard said. At her word, Traynor pulled up four holographic images depicting the profiles of their next additions. One was a Krogan Battlemaster by the name of Urdnot Wrex, one was an Asari Justicar named Samara, and one was a very unorthodox addition, to say the very least. The third dossier showed the very scarce profile of a Geth platform called Legion. Apparently, it was one of the few Geth that was capable of verbal speech with organics and had developed something resembling a personality after the Quarians resettled Rannoch. The final dossier was a familiar face: Tali, the Quarian engineer and daughter of Admiral Rael'Zorah. "Huh… A Geth and a Quarian on one ship…"

Traynor cracked a small smile. "Thankfully, Wrex and Tali are both on the Citadel, but Samara is on the Asari world of Illium, and Legion is on Rannoch."

Shepard nodded. "Joker!" She spoke over the bridge comms system. "Set a course for the Citadel, get us as far away from Omega as possible."

"Right away, Ma'am." Joker responded.

Shepard closed out of the communications suite on her Datatool, grabbing her helmet and placing it under the crook of her arm. Shepard gave Sam a quick wink as she headed for the elevator, earning a rosy blush on Sam's cheeks.

XXXXX

The Normandy connected with its designated docking tube in Docking Port D24 on the Citadel's Zakera Ward. The short, four hour jump from Omega to the Widow Nebula having just concluded. After handing the helm over to the ship's navigator, Pressley, Shepard's team, along with much of the crew, disembarked the vessel and stepped onto the massive space station.

As Shepard and the first group of crewmen made their way out of the docking tube, they all reflexively snapped into a salute as they saw a uniformed Admiral of the Imperial Navy awaiting them. Shepard kept her professional stance, despite knowing the Admiral in question rather well. "At ease!" Admiral Anderson ordered, causing all of the naval crewmen and Marines to relax. "As you were."

As the lower-ranked crewmembers made their way through the security checkpoints to take advantage of their shore leave, Anderson made his way over to Shepard, a small smirk on his face. "Good to see you again, Commander."

"Good to see you too, Admiral." Shepard said, smiling. "Looking a little soft around the edges, there."

Anderson chuckled. "That's what happens when the Chancellor appoints you as the Ambassador to the Citadel."

"I heard about what happened at the Embassy yesterday." Shepard added, her voice falling in tone slightly.

"Yeah…" Anderson said, sighing. "Twenty dead in total, a lot more wounded. Threw the Council for a bit of a loop when the news footage of Imperial Guardsmen helping aliens was broadcasted. It's helped our image a bit, but we've got a long way to go before the galaxy trusts us enough to rally behind us."

Shepard nodded. "I just hope we have the time."

"So do I…" Anderson agreed.

"Assuming that what Javik told us is correct, we have at least two years before the Reapers get to a Relay."

"That's two years we have to prepare, without causing a mass panic at that." Anderson admitted, shrugging. "Looks like you've got your work cut out for you, Shepard."

"Believe me, I know." Shepard nodded. "But Hackett's given me the best crew our species has to offer… if anyone can do it, it's them."

Anderson managed a small smile, despite the morbid topic. "Speaking of your crew… your mother tells me you and your Comms Specialist have grown rather close?"

Shepard groaned, letting out a light laugh. "She told you?"

"She did…" Anderson smiled. "She really likes her, too. I'm happy for you, Shepard."

"I'm glad you approve." Shepard chuckled.

Anderson smirked, clasping a hand on his friend's shoulder. "The universe finds a way to bring people together, Annalise. I know your Father would be proud of what you've done. Hell, he'd be the first to tease you to Hell and back when he heard about you and Traynor."

Shepard gave a mournful smile. "I know…"

Anderson smiled, deciding to switch the conversation back towards the original point. "Well, the Normandy should be ready for departure by tomorrow. Enjoy your shore leave while you can, Commander."

"Enjoy the politics, Anderson." Shepard shook her mentor's hand, earning a chuckle from the aging man.

"I'll do my best."

XXXXX

Lucassen's body shook as the LAV-25 IFV beneath him bounced over the battered asphalt. He heard the distant rumbling of Abrams treads as the tanks rolled alongside their lightly-armored IFV escort. The roaring engines of F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightnings tore through the air above the armored convoy. The Marine's heart was pounding in his chest as the cacophony of war sounded around him. "Marines!" Lieutenant McNamara called out over the roaring engines, earning the attention of his subordinates. "The Citadel Council has made their intentions absolutely clear… I know some of you are afraid, some of you want nothing more than to go home… believe me, I know. It's this, or we bend a knee."

"These aliens are here to conquer, not to liberate." McNamara continued, ducking his head slightly to avoid banging his helmet against the metal roof of the IFV as he stood to address his men. "These aliens have turned their backs on diplomacy, and have shown their ultimate goal: to see their flag fly over our own. As for us… I expect you to rock their world! Wipe them out, they've made their choice."

"Ooh-Rah!" The Marines chanted, their symphony of the traditional Marines call momentarily drowning out the roaring engines.

"I expect you to be ferocious in battle, and magnanimous in victory! Our world is steeped in a long history of war. These freaks have no idea who they've just pissed off! They've come a long way from their Citadel, and have turned their backs on our upright, decent, and generous diplomacy. One day, their kind will be embarrassed by the hospitality we offered, even though we had nothing compared to them, other than the soil on which we tread!"

"It remains my foremost intention to bring every one of you out of this war alive! There will be those among us that will not see the end of this campaign to defend our species… we will put them in their sleeping bags and we will send them back home. There will be no time for sorrow, these aliens will not allow it. We will grieve for our brothers and sisters later. The Enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and we are bringing about his rightful destruction! Now let's get these fucking freaks off our planet!"

"Ooh-Rah!" The Marines chanted again.

A moment later, the armored column ground to a halt, the heavy M2 MGs on the roofs rattling off .50 BMG at their targets. The rear door opened, revealing the edge of a shattered and broken city. The platoon of Marines stormed out of their armored vehicles, their M16 rifles clutched in their hands.

Lucassen, his platoon's corpsman, sprinted under a hail of gunfire, sliding into cover behind the front wheel of a burned-out sedan. Plumes of smoke rose from the shattered remains of Charleston, the skyline broken by the bones of skyscrapers. Over the sea of rubble and debris, he could make out the distant silhouette of the enemy. The Turians, Asari, and Salarians stood their ground in the center of the city, returning fire with their alien weapons.

The LAV-25 that Lucassen rode in on started unleashing hell with its 25mm cannon. Soldiers from all nations manned the counter-offensive. For the briefest moment in Human history, the species was united against a common foe. In a strange way, it was poetic.

Lucassen popped out of cover, firing a few rounds at a distant Asari with his rifle. He know how unlikely it was for his rifle to actually kill one of the invaders, their shields made them far more resistant to gunfire than a Human soldier. The Marines were banking on their numerical and vehicle advantage.

He instinctively ducked as he heard the familiar crack of a Council slug buzz past his head. In return, one of the M1A2 Abrams tanks in the column fired a 120mm shell at the Council lines, the APFSDS shell splashing against the shielded, six-wheeled vehicle that was pouring fire down on the Marines. "Heads down!" McNamara called out over the thundering war around him.

From above, an F-22 crashed into a nearby building. The fighter's internal fuel tank went up, blasting the airframe apart and bringing an adjacent building down even further. Small chunks of concrete thumped against the ground, a heavy block narrowly missing Lucassen.

Amid the carnage of battle, Lucassen heard the faint, deep calling of his title. "Operative… Operative!" In an instant, his vision went black, the simulation shutting down. Blinking, his vision returned. He was greeted by the sight of his holographic AI companion, Voight-Kampff. "Operative, the Director wishes to speak with you."

Lucassen sighed, sitting up and pulling the wires from his neural implant. In reality, he was sitting aboard the simulation deck aboard the Atlas-Class Cruiser Indomitable Will, which was currently docked with Terra-I, the largest orbital dock in the Sol system. Groaning as the real world around him shifted, he stood on his own two feet. "What about?"

"We are being called back to Earth for a meeting with The Director." Voight-Kampff answered with a smirk. "Did you enjoy your trip back in time?"

"No." Lucassen answered, grabbing the polymer cap to his neural implant and slotting it into one of the two open slots in the back of his head.

"Why do you keep coming back, then?" Voight-Kampff asked.

"Feels closer to home than this damn place." Lucassen muttered, grabbing his compact carbine from the retention rack on the wall and walking for the door.

XXXXX

Shepard stepped off of the elevator, simply amazed by the fact that despite the nature of Element Zero technology, their elevators were still that damn slow. The small club tucked away in a small corner of Zakera Ward, Chora's Den, was nothing short of an alien dive. Shepard, one of the three Humans on this level, was clad in her uniform, handgun strapped to her hip. The two other Humans on this level, Ashley and Miranda, also wore their uniforms and weapons at their hips.

"Wrex is here?" Ashley asked, looking to the sleazy electronic sign above the pneumatic door.

"That's what C-SEC said." Shepard shrugged. "They've been keeping an eye on him, apparently he's caused some trouble in the past."

"Do you think he can be trusted?" Miranda asked, walking alongside Shepard as they made their way for the door.

"Hackett wouldn't have forwarded his dossier if he didn't think so." Shepard answered, pressing the activation button in the center of the door. The three panels of the door slid open, revealing the circular establishment. There was a central bar, surrounded on all sides by tables filled with patrons of all species, sans Humanity. Asari dancers decorated a circular platform above the bar, twirling around their floating stage and enrapturing the patrons.

The light droning of conversation stopped as the three Humans stepped into Chora's Den, all eyes in the room turning to them for a moment. After a few moments of the Human soldiers holding their ground, all eyes turned away from them, back to their drinks or to the Asari dancers.

It didn't take long for Shepard to spot Wrex. The behemoth of a Krogan was stood on the other end of the club, clad in heavy red armor with a shotgun slung across his back. With a few long strides, Shepard and her two squadmates covered the distance quickly. Wrex, leaned against a wall, obviously saw them coming, despite keeping his eyes glued to a small datapad. "What do you want, Humans? I have no quarrel with you."

"We're not here to cause trouble for you, Wrex." Shepard stopped a few feet from the Krogan, keeping her stance straight.

"Huh…" Wrex hummed, looking up from his datapad to look Shepard in the eye. "What do you want?"

"I'm Commander Shepard, Imperial Navy." Shepard answered. "I'm building a team, and your name's on the list."

"Humans? Working with aliens?" Wrex barked out a laugh. "I'll bite, what's this team for?"

"We're hunting down the Collectors." Shepard answered, earning a set of narrowed eyes from the Krogan.

"You mean you want to go through the Omega-4 Relay?" Wrex laughed. "That's suicide, no ship's ever returned from that."

"Human ships don't require the relays to travel " Shepard corrected.

"You think it's the relay that kills the ships?" Wrex asked, an incredulous look on his face. "The Omega-4 Relay doesn't connect to any relay in the galaxy, nobody's even sure where the exit point is. If no ship's ever returned, then it's either a paradise where it rains Ryncol and the streets are paved in gold, or everyone who's ever made it to its exit point is dead. I'm more inclined to believe the latter."

"So that's a no?" Shepard asked, crossing her arms.

"I never said that." Wrex answered, standing upright. "I'll go with you on this little trip, so long as you help me with my contract."

Shepard cocked an eyebrow. "What would that contract be?"

"One of the Shadow Broker's agents has gone rogue." Wrex explained, his tone low and hushed. "Name's Tela Vasir, a Spectre."

"You want me to help you kill a Spectre?" Shepard asked, eyebrow cocked. "Sounds like an Asari name, do you know where she is?"

"She was supposed to be on the Citadel, but the Council sent her to Illium."

Shepard smirked. "Well, you're in luck. Illium's our next stop."

"Alright, I'll come with you then." Wrex rolled his shoulders. "Always wanted to see what all of the fuss was about with you squishy little Humans."

XXXXX

Shepard smirked as she approached the Normandy's docking tube in Bay D24, spotting a familiar exosuit-clad Quarian waiting by the airlock. "Tali." Shepard approached the Quarian, smirk still present. "Good to see you again."

"You too, Shepard." Tali gave a nod. "I wasn't exactly expecting a call from your Chancellor, much less about joining you, but I'm glad I got the call."

"It'll be good to have a familiar face aboard the Normandy." Shepard smirked. "Or… helmet, I guess."

Tali chuckled, following behind Shepard as she tapped her Datatool against the airlock's scanner. "You might be seeing Quarians outside the suits soon, the Geth have been a great help with jumpstarting our immune systems." She gave a quick nod to Ashley and Miranda, both of them returning in kind.

As the airlock door slid open, a quick decontamination procedure vented sterilizing agent into the airlock, followed by the hissing of the secondary bulkhead's pneumatics. As the door slid open, EDI's voice came over the ship-wide intercom. "Commander Shepard is aboard, Flight Lieutenant Moreau stands relieved."

As Shepard, her away team, Wrex, and Tali stepped onto the deck, Shepard turned her head towards Wrex. "Head down to Deck 3, Agent Kai Leng has a few questions for you. Just a formality."

With a grunt of acknowledgement, Wrex strode off towards the elevator. Shepard nodded for Tali to follow her after turning to Ashley and Miranda. "You're all relieved, I'll show Tali to engineering." She turned her attention to Joker. "Joker, plot a course for Illium."

With a nod, Ashley and Miranda headed for the armory to stow their weapons away. "Right away, Shepard." Joker called out.

As Shepard led the way to the elevator, she pressed the button for Deck 4, the elevator quickly arriving from the crew deck. As she leaned against the railing, Tali turned to her. "Shepard… I heard you met a real, living Prothean. Is that true?"

"No, I met a fake, dead one." Shepard smiled, earning a light laugh from the Quarian.

Despite Humanity's xenophobic nature, the Empire had become a close ally and protector of the Quarians. Chancellor Stratton himself had referred to the Quarians as "kindred spirits" during a recent address that was given after the Imperial Navy helped to re-secure the old Quarian colonies from pirates that had set up there. Most Humans had come to empathize with the Quarians after their history had become public knowledge, and many groups in UHE Space had started up in recent months, helping to construct prefab structures for the resettlement of Rannoch.

"What was the Prothean like?" Tali asked, the elevator passing Deck 3.

"A bit of a prick, honestly." Shepard shrugged. "Kept going on about us being primitives." She let a small smile cross her face. "Shut up real quick when he saw Imperator."

As the elevator arrived in the Hanger, Shepard was greeted by a sight that she had come to expect. Garrus, James, and Cynthia were sat around the small makeshift table that was used for impromptu poker games, a rather animated conversation carrying over the noise of the filtration systems and humming of the Void Drive. "Please…" James waved a hand. "I dropped fifteen Batarians in hand-to-hand on Torfan. Used the fifteenth as a shield when his buddy drew a pistol on me."

"I'm just warming up, Vega." Garrus smirked, leaning his arms against the table. "A few years ago, just before your kind blitzed through the galaxy, I tracked down a Batarian spy ring that was trying to kidnap Executor Pallin. Shot on right through his head, right over the hostage's shoulder."

"I'll give you that, Scars… You've been through a lot." Vega admitted.

"So what, you giving up?" Garrus asked, smirking.

"Nah, I've got a few more… just don't like to talk about 'em."

"Fair enough… we've all got some of those." Garrus craned his neck over to Shepard and Tali, giving them a nod. "Welcome back, Shepard."

"Garrus?" Tali asked, surprising even Shepard.

"Wait… Tali?" Garrus asked, mandibles flaring out.

"You two know each other?" Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow.

"I helped her out when a few mercs were after her on the Citadel a few months back, nothing major." Garrus answered. "It's good to see you again, Tali."

"It's good to see you too, Garrus." Tali, unbeknownst to Shepard, was smiling.

"How'd you meet Shepard?" Garrus asked.

"She and her team were the ones that freed Kal'Reegar and I on Torfan." Tali answered.

"Really?" Garrus asked, looking to Shepard.

"Really." Tali answered. "One minute the Batarian Governor is shouting about something, next thing I know there's four Humans storming into his quarters, gunning down everything in their path. I was scared out of my mind… I thought they were Asari at first."

"Heh…" Garrus chuckled. "Anyway… it's good to see a familiar face, Tali."

"Speaking of which, Tali." Shepard interjected. "Chief Engineer Adams is over in the drive core." She shot a thumb over her shoulder, pointing to the door leading to the primary engineering room. "He can brief you on your position here on the ship."

"Thanks, Shepard." Tali nodded, heading towards Engineering.

"Oh, so the Quarian gets access to the ship's drive core but the Turian can't help calibrate the mass driver?" Garrus smirked. "I see how it is, it's a race thing."

"Hackett'd kill me if I let you tinker with the guns, Garrus." Shepard strolled over to the table, sitting down in one of the many fold-out chairs. "Either way, they're running at full capacity."

"Are you sure about that?" Garrus smirked. "Last I checked, you still had those new power converters sitting in their crates over there." He pointed to a collection of crates that were stacked up behind the Stryker.

Shepard rolled her eyes, a small smile betraying her exasperated expression. "I'll see what I can do."

"So, what about you, Commander?" Cynthia asked, thin wisps of smoke trailing from her nostrils.

"What?" Shepard asked, allowing herself to relax in the seat.

"Any ops that can top Garrus?" Cynthia clarified.

"Yeah, Shepard." Garrus goaded. "Think you can top busting a spy ring?"

"That's a battle you don't want to have, Scars." Vega smirked. "N7 cheat at this."

Shepard decided to humor the Spectre. "There was that one time I took the Turian Primarch prisoner right in front of the Council."

"Damn…" Garrus' eyes widened.

"See?" Vega laughed.

XXXXX

Jack Harper read through the new data that had come in from the strange technology that had been discovered in Batarian Space. He was absolutely sure of it now, this was Reaper tech. He casually swiped through the dozens of reports that had come in from the science team, describing the effects of this "indoctrination". He already had Cerberus working on counters for this, and it was proving more difficult than he had originally thought. Whatever it was, this effect was hard to pin down.

He glanced up as he heard the metallic door to his office slide open, pleasantly surprised to find that Lucassen was early. "Operative Lucassen, thank you for coming so quickly." He closed out of the reports on his terminal, sticking a cigarette in his mouth. "Please, sit."

"Of course, sir." Lucassen complied, sitting down in the metallic chair.

"My apologies for… being so secretive about the procedure that brought you back." Harper began. "It was more for the sake of your mental stability than anything."

"I appreciate that, sir." Lucassen nodded. He knew that it was his mind playing tricks on him, but he could swear that he heard the light whirring of servos as his neck moved. "It won't interfere with my missions."

"Excellent…" Harper smiled, his synthetic eyes meeting Lucassen's own. "On that topic, your mission on Mars yielded some interesting new data." Harper swiped a hand across his terminal, bringing up a holographic projection of a strange-looking device. "The Protheans referred to it as the Crucible… it's a weapon capable of destruction on an unprecedented scale, unlike anything we've ever seen."

Lucassen examined the holographic projection. This object would be massive should it exist, easily as long as the Citadel. "Was it ever completed?" Lucassen asked.

"No…" Harper admitted. "By the time the Protheans had begun investing in its creation, it was already too late."

"Shouldn't be a problem for Imperial shipyards." Lucassen observed. The Empire regularly constructed orbital stations that were twice the size of the Crucible.

"The object itself would be a simple endeavor… it is missing a key component, however. Something called the 'Catalyst'." Harper took a drag from his cigarette, letting the thin smoke escape from his lungs with a quick breath. "This isn't why I called you here, however." Harper admitted, collapsing the display and removing the radiating blue light from the room. "I have a new assignment for you."

As Harper slid a datapad across his desk, Lucassen grabbed it and scanned over the text on the small screen. It showed a star chart, with a system within the Hourglass Nebula highlighted. Further down the document, an image of a planet was visible. It was a planet known as Hagalaz, its atmosphere in a constant state of flux. The oceans snap froze at sundown and boiled during the day.

As Lucassen read over the data, Harper launched into his explanation. "Deep Space scanners have detected a small anomaly on this planet. Occasionally, through the slight breaks in the perpetual storm that follows the sun, we've detected outgoing and highly encrypted communications. For the most part, it appears as junk data being pumped into Council comm buoys, but appearances can be deceiving."

"What do we think it is?" Lucassen asked.

"We believe it to be the center of operations for the Shadow Broker." Harper answered.

Lucassen hummed. He had some knowledge on the Shadow Broker, no more than anyone else in the galaxy. The Broker sold information to individuals, governments, and mercenaries. Many theorized that he was responsible for covering up the First Contact War for so long. "What's my mission, sir?" Lucassen asked.

"The Shadow Broker is a threat to Human interests, Operative." Harper answered. "Recently, we've had some leaks about Dying Star… the leaks lead here."

"Smash-and-grab?" Lucassen asked.

"No…" Harper answered. "You'll be leading an N7 Fireteam to kill the Shadow Broker. I'm transferring the Normandy-Class UHE Shroud to your temporary command."

Codex Updated:

First Contact War: The war that saw Earth bombarded by the Citadel Council in the early 21st Century. The First Contact War claimed four billion human lives, and completely wiped out the planet's satellite grid. The nations of Earth held their ground for a time, but were eventually defeated as the Council made use of their complete orbital dominance. The scars of this war are still visible on the surface of Earth, as entire areas of the planet's surface remain pockmarked with impact craters to this day.

Combat Simulators: One of the primary methods of training UHE Special Forces, Combat Sims provide full sensory feedback, while removing the chance of actual injury or death. Simulations for all scenarios exist within the UHE's extensive databases, and some are even released to the general public as entertainment, albeit on a smaller, more toned-down mode when compared to their military counterparts. The public release versions were originally used for propaganda prior to the Second Contact War.

A/N:

Finally, I managed to stop dragging my goddamn feet with this one. I hope you all enjoy this one.

Sorry if I've been getting really shit with my update schedule. I've been re-playing the Mass Effect games in anticipation for Andromeda (Which is fucking dope, by the way. Even with the weird-ass facial animations. Seriously man, every game uses motion capture for facial animations nowadays. You'd think Bioware could afford to mo-cap with almost 5 years of development and all of that sweet, sweet EA money.)

As always,

-TallYapflip