NOTE1: Hello! The new chapter is here. I hope you will enjoy it and the codex updates at the end. Please feel free to use the names I came up with for the ships. It is not like I have any copyright over them.

NOTE1bis: This is the last update until the second half of July! An update will come soon for The Lost Civilization and then that too will be on hold. Everything will be on hold until second half of July. Enjoy the current chapter!

Chapter 24: Startle the Heavens I

"As a rising major power between the Hegemony and the Council, the Systems Alliance was the largest non-Citadel affiliated polity and possessed some of the most advanced technologies. It still does. They are pioneers in as many fields as the Council races have pioneered themselves. From the advanced and feasible QEC devices, to the ion cannons, to the hyperspace FTL drive, to the first intergalactic colonization effort. […]

The Alliance in the immediate aftermath of the Human – Council War was awfully exposed to its neighbors and it showed. As a federated state that started as a defensive military alliance, they had to keep rebellious tendencies in the colonies to minimum. On the outside, they had to project their power and secure their borders. The lack of use, and later on even disposal, of mass relays made them very hard to invade.

Their geographic position pitted them against the Batarians in the race to colonize and claim space in the Attican Traverse. The Skyllian Verge was a topic of hot debate that, with the obvious covert catalyst from the Asari matriarchy and Salarian dalatrass leadership, gave birth to tremendous tension between the two states. The Human mindset, as Director Harper put it once, was that they cannot afford to leave such attacks unanswered. They were obligated to retaliate if they wanted to secure a favorable position in the long run. Most times they are like the Turians: they say what they mean and mean what they say. But they don't always say what they mean, and they don't always mean what they say. And believe me, when they say they are ready to use overwhelming force with extreme prejudice to exterminate a threat? They did not lie. You have not seen the kind of destruction an Atacama-class, Saint Helens-class or Robert Oppenheimer-class can unleash. They are called nuclear annihilation stealth destroyers for a good reason.

The Batarian Hegemony's interests were simple: protect the state – and by state I mean the leading caste. They were threatened by the Citadel they were part of and by the Systems Alliance. They were outmatched militarily and economically. Their only hope to gain an advantage in the shortest time possible was through the Leviathan of Dis, but we all know how that episode ended. Truly, they could not allow Human encroachment in their part of the Verge. Even if they were the real perpetrators of the attack on Mindoir and the Shanxi Hostage Crisis, they could not come forth and admit it and try to shoo the Humans away. They had to go head on forward if they wanted to preserve control of their borders with Humanity. They were losing Anhur and started to calm down the rebellions on Camala and Erszbat. They had been the targets of attempted government overthrows from the Council in the past!

The Alliance, on the other hand, was also forced to take action. Inaction would have only attracted more brazen attacks to their address by any faction with an interest to do so. And securing the relays they thought would lead into their space in the Verge was paramount in that sense. And the Turians, let us not forget about them, according to the Citadel Charters they were supposed to conserve the territorial integrity of the Hegemony against foreign incursions. They were supposed to enforce the Charters by force, least the Citadel and the Council look weak and paint a bull's eye on their backs for their rivals. And rival could be anyone: from the inside – a political adversary, or from the outside – a faction like the Geth, like the Alliance, like the Fledgling States, like the Terminus… And what did they do? Well, Primarch Fedorian bit his fair share of dust for his actions.

In the end, it was everybody for itself. Helping the other person was an option only if it helped you further your own interests.

(Atelas Razea, former Admiral of Unified Fleet Command, General of the Galactic Foreign Legion, current military dictator of the United Asari Republics, Interbellum: Politics of the Galaxy)

Reach, Intelligence Command HQ

Director Harper's office

Harper smoked both cigars and cigarettes. The difference is that he smokes cigars when he is relaxing, discussing important topics or devising a plan, and he smokes cigarettes when he is stressed. Right now, Harper knocked a cigarette from the pack and pursed his lips around it. After five more seconds he exhaled the first cloud of smoke. His work phone vibrated on the desk. He took note of the caller's name and answered.

"Do you have her?" he asked with his usual calm and professional tone.

"Yes, sir. One of the Kodiaks spotted her and brought her aboard the SSV Interstellar," the voice at the other end replied.

"Any injuries?"

"A few splinters in her skin and damage from the cold. Lucky she didn't enter into hypothermia. She's recovering well. We've also found a SIG Sauer P650 pistol in her possession. It belonged to one of her security detail agents."

"Noted. And the attackers at Fenli?"

"The Marines and the Counter Terrorist Unit assaulted the resort and killed them all. It was impossible to take prisoners without gravely jeopardizing the lives of our men. Hostages have been secured."

"Unfortunate. A prisoner would have been useful. Clean the scene and redirect the resources to Tianxia. Kill the terrorists at the OCA office. Smuggle the Asari away with as few people aware about her surviving this. We will say she died."

"Understood, sir!"

Harper left the comfort of his chair and went to open a window. Fresh air poured in. Bastion was shining under Epsilon Eridani's warm light. The Viery Territory was indeed the best spot to put the capital city of Reach. Harper thought that naming the city Bastion just because the planet and the solar system were mostly dedicated to the military was stupid. Perhaps another name, something like New Alexandria, or any other name with a better ring to it. Bastion? Straight up military. He found comfort knowing that the other major cities of the colony were given decent names.

It was January 18th 2181, the fourth day of the Shanxi Hostage Crisis. The Batarians had shot one of the hostages already because the Alliance was not agreeing to cede the Verge to the Hegemony. They refused any sort of money and negotiation. They refused everything the Alliance was willing to give them. So Harper just ordered their deaths. It would certainly help if they captured one of the buggers for interrogation.

He also found out about the possible impending attack on Mindoir by a rather powerful pirate force. He had to thank Ryder and the Turians for that. He was informed about this development at the same time HIGHCOM was. Fleet Admiral Hackett had sent the Fast Reaction Fleet to hopefully intercept them before they activated that mass relay and enter Alliance space, but prognostics were lacking big time in that department. Battlegroups Thunder Child, Malice and Lionheart had a head start, with Battlegroups Einstein and Kirishima following behind. Odds are that Admiral Kastanie Drescher will be there too late. It is not like Harper was concerned the pirates will inflict significant damage. Mindoir had a small defense fleet centered around five Ares-class cruisers and their escorting destroyers and frigates, not to mention the Mindoir Colonial Defense Force that further bolsters the ranks with 400 corvettes and 100 light frigates. And elements of the Third and Fourth Fleets were converging to Mindoir and Elysium. The situation will be contained.

Montgomery wanted these ships intercepted before they arrived in any inhabited system, least they be the cause of an exponential increase in restlessness among the population. Harper understood the president – he wanted to involve Humanity in galactic affairs and secure a more than advantageous for the Alliance. The economy was already growing and, according to prognostics, it would grow exponentially in the next 20 years. New technologies were being unlocked and more space was being claimed. But, more importantly, Humanity was making friends out there. The Elcor and Krogan were shining examples, with the Turians tentatively friendly.

Relations with the Batarians were strained as they were with the recent incidents. If the masses learned about another attack in such a short time since Shanxi the whole agenda would go to hell. It will only give credibility to Terra Firma and Donnel Udina, xenophobes who were running a xenophobe agenda and their ratings were going up. Harper was all for Human supremacy, but he wasn't a blind xenophobe. A working relationship with friendly alien polities was the best course of action. It might help that he was also privy to information about a threat in the shadows. A threat that could befall the whole galaxy, not just Humanity.

He still thought if what Wrex, the leader of the Urdnots and the Krogan, told him was related to what the AIC discovered immediately after the Insurrection's conclusion. Cerberus must investigate. But what would they uncover? No investigation turned up results, official or unofficial investigation. The results of these Collectors' experiments bare semblance to the alterations suffered by the Human body and other alien bodies when exposed to the freakish technology.

Could it be these Collectors' doing? If the ship nuked by Captain Adama in 2163 on what is today known as Jartar was a Collector ship, then the hypothesis made no sense. That ship was older than Humanity. If these Collectors were that old then they had no business kidnapping people now when they had advanced technologies. They could have done it when the known races were still primitive. Or had they not encountered them until now? But if they are that old they are bound to have superior technology and could afford a few shadow attacks on unescorted vessels in the Terminus. Then again, why were they not more widespread in the galaxy if they had that much of a head start in contrast to the rest? According to every rumor flying around these Collectors based their technology on Eezo too, so they should have come in contact with the rest of the galaxy much sooner.

"This doesn't make any sense!" Harper complained to no one in particular. His mind was creating more questions and answers. But that was his mind, trained to investigate and find answers. He had a natural talent for it. Humanity had nothing to lose if they investigated the matter. There was a distinct possibility that the Collectors are either that threat or are in league with the threat. Could it be that whoever was behind this wanted to start a war between the Humans and the Batarians? Or with the Council once more? Weaken the galaxy in preparation for an invasion? As soon as they dealt with the current situation and Fireteam Viper had finished their training with Cerberus, Harper will order their deployment to investigate the existent leads in the Terminus.

Had the Council also been infiltrated? High echelons of the Turian Hierarchy certainly were indoctrinated, though he doubted that Fedorian was one of those indoctrinated. Perhaps among their SPECTREs? Had this Nihlus guy brought back an indoctrination device unwillingly and it indoctrinated officials who came close to it? Too many questions, far fewer answers.

But he had answers for other questions, like what was up with the shady messages flowing between the colony of Eternium and the Citadel? Well, as Miranda found out for Harper, the messages sent by Rita Riley from the Citadel ended in a proxy computer that Alliance Bureau of Investigations agents couldn't find. Its track was lost on the M10 highway that links the colony's capital city of Nargothrond with the rural region. Even if found, Harper doubts they'd find anything useful. No fingerprints, no camera footage, no personal data. Everything wiped clean on it before abandonment. Or at least that's what he'd do.

Another call alerted Harper to return to his desk. There was a high priority message waiting to be read. It was simple and to the point: "The Condor has delivered." Harper smiled. This was it. Condor, the AIC agent that infiltrated the rebel network, had gone dark for a decade. But after this many years of silence… he finally spoke. And he delivered big time! With this they could start cracking the codes and crack down on perpetrators. There was more.

With Condor's codes Cerberus had cracked the code and translated part of the messages. The traitors didn't use a single code, but multiple codes, each one harder to crack than the previous. It was only a matter of time until they had the full picture. He couldn't wait to know what the full message was. So far there were hints to the procurement of an FTL drive core. For what purpose? Harper became angry only at the thought that another Human being could betray its fellows like this. The fact that Rita has been spotted on the Presidium means that she didn't go to any small fry for help, but to the big lads. He didn't know if it was the Council, their junior races, or both. He will give the third possibility the most chances until further clues are uncovered. The Alliance could use proof of such a shadow operation as leverage big time.

A cunning idea came to mind… One so cunning you could stick a tail to it and call it a fox. The fox will lead him to whoever promised support to the rebels. And the AIC didn't have to do anything complicated.

Shanxi, Tianxia

Office building overlooking the OCA office

"Prophet One reporting, I am ready," Prophet One reported through the radio.

"Roger. Stand by, fire at my order only," the Intelligence Counter Terrorist CO instructed him.

"Wilco," he replied without ever taking his robotic eye off the scope.

Prophet One is the commander of Fireteam Prophet, one of the many permanent N7 teams out there. What makes Prophet One stand out among others is that he is an AI. Probably a third of the N7 teams have AIs assigned to them, even fewer of those have an AI as the commanding officer.

Fireteam Prophet was assisting with the hostage crisis due to being close to Shanxi when the ordeal started and were deployed on short notice. While his subordinates would breach the building with the CT units, Prophet One took the role of a sharpshooter due to the peculiarity associated to the plan. The local authorities had evacuated the immediate vicinity of the OCA office which meant office buildings of the various companies that came here to be among the first to trade with the galaxy. Snipers made their lairs in multiple buildings with the best lines of sight into the building.

Their task was to eliminate the six Batarian terrorists as soon as the assault teams breach. The Batarians were not dumb. They stayed away from windows and had the hostages holed up in what they assumed to be the best place to hold them in. But what they failed to take into account was the composition of the walls. The rooms they were in were susceptible to armor piercing munitions because they were made of thin office walls. While the building was solid all around, the poor practice of using thin office walls had carried on – easy to put up and tear down if renovations were needed. The front of the office was mostly massive glass panels, with many more large windows on the sides. A funny plot twist as it will be remembered in history.

The Alliance infiltrated the building with minuscule spy drones to give them a live feed of every detail unfolding inside. The corpse of the first shot hostage, a woman in her 40s, began to smell and was showing initial signs of decomposition. It was a potent medical hazard for the other hostages who were mere meters away. The AIC used the drones to calculate the best shooting lanes for the snipers. They would require to fire through walls with no line of sight to their targets. But, using geometry and the building's blueprints, they deduced where every sniper had to aim to score a killing shot. The terrorists were also fed fake information through the media. Harper had every single channel broadcast a fake image of the outside. The Batarians were watching the news, no doubt. But what they were seeing was only highly advanced forged footage to make it look like they were not about to be jumped on by assault teams. Shanxi SWAT, AIC Counter Terrorists, even Alliance Marines and an N7 fireteam, were waiting for the order.

Prophet One checked for the millionth time the telemetry and calculations to make sure his aim was true. Everything checked. Every time his target moved he recalculated. Prophet One does not believe in deities, but he'd thank God for the extremely advanced and small spy drones, smaller than mosquitos, that dotted the interior of the OCA office. He and three more AIs were keeping track of them and updating the aim marker on the HUD for the other human snipers. There were at least 30 seconds between the hostages and the breaching point which belonged to Fireteam Prophet. A lot of people could be gunned down in 30 seconds if any single one of them failed to score a crippling shot. Subtract one second for the Batarian to actually feel any sort of pain if they live. Subtract estimated times to get over the shock and take hold of the situation. Subtract the time to aim. That still leaves a window of opportunity for them to start shooting hostages in retaliation. A few seconds alone were enough for an organic combatant to cause an uncomfortable number of casualties with a firearm.

Prophet One's finger was frozen over the trigger of the sniper rifle. The kind of plan they came up with called for a powerful rifle that guaranteed success, that guaranteed the penetrating power to pull it off. So the AIC shipped some of the best sniper rifles they could in the short timeframe. Behold the ML-X Black Arrow anti materiel sniper rifle. The proposed design – a joint venture of Zastava Arms, Steyr Mannlicher, Accuracy International and Heckler & Koch – was intended for large game hunting from long distances, but the military took an interest in it and approached the companies to develop a military grade sniper rifle for the model. The end result was a monster of an anti materiel sniper rifle, perhaps the most advanced on the market. It was produced in limited numbers by the Alliance State Arms state enforced consortium.

The ML-X is the go to firearm when you absolutely need to eliminate a target on the other side of a building, or two buildings. Prophet One had chambered the 12.7x120mm APFSDS bullet. The special ammunition was required to guarantee the desired result.

"On my mark, in 3… 2… 1… mark!" the command came and Prophet One, along with the other snipers, squeezed the trigger.

The firing pin struck the cartridge's primer. As usual, the small amount of propellant was ignited and propelled the bullet forward. The chemical reactions were triggered a fraction of a second later, generating the power that feeds the process of magnetic acceleration. The weapon absorbed the electricity through special conductors fitted in the casing and used it to generate the magnetic fields that accelerated the bullet up to 12,000 meters per second muzzle velocity. The bullet immediately shed its sabot and the only thing left was the dart – or, to be correct with terminologies, the flechette. The flechette is 25 millimeters long with a diameter of 6mm.

It pierced through the glass panels with no problem, went through one of the main concrete walls, pierced through 3 thin office walls and struck the target's head at hypervelocity. It made contact with the rather poor quality helmet and punched a clean hole through it. Then it pierced the Batarian's skull like paper, traversed the brain at a downward angle and exited the head through the other side, going through the floor and embedding itself in the foundation. The shock of contact with the Batarian's head caused hydrostatic shock and his brain popped through his cranium. He fell dead, his helmet a small reservoir of brain matter that was leaking blood through the two holes punched by the flechette. The assault teams were now breaching

"Five confirmed kills, one incapacitation," one of the other AIs reported through radio. Prophet One checked the feed from the spy drones. Indeed, one Batarian had been incapacitated in the sense that he was hit in the neck. The flechette fired by his designated killer must have deviated somehow or he must have moved just before the shot was taken. It didn't matter, none could threaten the hostages and the assault teams would be over them in seconds.

As they believed the situation to be over, preparing to celebrate in anticipation of the assault teams confirming the kills, half a dozen explosions shook the office. Prophet turned his attention to the spy drones. All spy drones in the hostage room had been destroyed. He directed two others there. But the footage from the hallway already confirmed his fears – the bastards had explosive devices. They must have triggered when the Batarians were killed, based on their life signs.

The Shanxi Hostage Crisis had ended. Dozens of hostages had been killed and the others wounded.

Skyllian Verge, Avolantis System

Battlegroup Einstein, SSV Albert Einstein

"The mass relay is showing signs of activity! Its rings are spinning and the Eezo core is active! We have incoming!"

"Battlegroup Yamato is taking position 200,000 kilometers from our bow, bearing: 010 by 356 degrees," the tactical officer reported.

"Ma'am, emergency QEC from Reach!" the communications officer announced.

"Read it!" Hannah ordered.

"Ma'am! Message follows: Intercepted 11 ships in Kogrom System, one captured. 60 other ships activating the relay, unable to intercept. Extreme long range sensors detect gravitational anomalies consistent with Eezo FTL at the periphery of the system. Estimation of transit vectors indicate they are coming from Hierarchy space. Blockading the system. Hold at Mindoir! Signed, Admiral Kastanie Drescher, Fast Reaction Fleet. Further comments by FLEETCOM."

"Continue reading!"

"Yes ma'am! Message continues: To SSV Albert Einstein CVN-16, Battlegroup Einstein, hold at all costs at the mass relay in Avolantis! Message ends."

"Thank you," Hannah muttered. "That will be no problem. We have both numerical and, most likely, technological superiority."

The repetitive alert that notified everyone they had unknown or hostile contacts began to bleep. TIT-TIT! TIT-TIT! TIT-TIT! Hannah looked at the 3D tactical display and saw contacts appear near the mass relay.

"Ma'am, we have 54-" the tactical officer wanted to say but stopped to correct himself as more contacts were registered by sensors, "correction, 60 unknown contacts. Classifying…"

Hannah looked again at the 3D render. Yamato and its escorts were slowly approaching the unknowns. They, in turn, were accelerating and clearing the relay. "Who is the CO of the Yamato?" she asked.

"Captain Kosaku Aruga, ma'am," Alfred, the Einstein's AI spoke for the first time from his holographic projection. [1]

"Tactical, any results on classifying those ships?"

"Aye, ma'am! We have 21 frigates, 30 cruisers, and 9 heavy transports. All of them are old models that are no longer in service with any of the modern navies. Correction! We have a pair of Ter-class heavy cruisers!"

The Ter-class was designed and built by the Fledgling States after the Quarian exodus from Rannoch. The Fledgling States still have Ter-class cruisers in service, upgrading them with improved systems and keep them competitive. Although the class is 300 years old, the firepower it packs is no joke for a cruiser. The cutthroats must have paid good money to get their hands on them, considering that the rest of their ships are third rate at best, rag-tag ships assembled by salvaging older vessels. Nevertheless, in sufficient numbers, they could pose a serious threat to any state naval force.

But Battlegroup Einstein and Battlegroup Yamato numbered 90 modern warships. Battlegroup Einstein had an Albert Einstein-subclass aircraft carrier, the Epoch-subclass battleship SSV Kirishima, four Ares-class cruisers, 20 destroyers and 30 frigates. Kirishima had suffered extensive damage during the naval counteroffensive at Shanxi and lacked behind the Fast Reaction Fleet due to repairs and some upgrades she received. That brought Battlegroup Einstein to 56 warships. Battlegroup Yamato has 34 ships centered around SSV Yamato, sister ship to Kirishima, with only the battleship, 11 destroyers and 22 frigates.

The Mindoir Defense Fleet centered around Battlegroup Arkhangelsk Mikhail was forming up in high orbit, readying to intercept anything that got through. The Mindoir CDF was running interdiction operations for civilian craft in the system, directing them to safety and away from the immediate and estimated engagement zone.

"Get me a line to him and patch me through to the other ships we have. I want to relay the battle plan," she ordered.

"You're live, ma'am!"

"Rear Admiral Shepard," she heard the Japanese accented voice of Yamato's captain, a man past his 47th winter.

"Captain Aruga, are your ships ready?" she asked.

"As ready as we will ever be, Admiral."

"That is good to hear. Alright, everyone listen. FLEETCOM wants these aliens dead yesterday! Ther-" she was about to explain but the sudden movement of the hostiles had her stop a moment. They were accelerating quickly. And they were trying to break through the blockade of the relay, some frigates even making a beeline for Mindoir. "Shit! There's not going to be anything fancy. I'm assigning every frigate and destroyer pack targets on Battlenet! Yamato and Kirishima, engage the enemy cruisers right now!" she selected the targets on the tactical display and assigned them to the two ships and support ships. "Einstein's frigate and destroyer complement, intercept those frigates!"

"Aye ma'am!"

The Alliance warships fired their weapons at the pirate force and everything seemed to go well. The severely weaker rogue vessels fell immediately under the firepower put out by the Navy. It looked like this whole thing could be contained to a satisfactory degree. Until it didn't.

"Ma'am, new development!"

"Report!" Hannah ordered.

"A pirate ship just went FTL! It's 100,000 kilometers above us!"

Hannah followed the ship on the 3D tactical display. It was now reorienting itself and facing the colony. "Ah, shit!" she cursed as the ship went FTL again, bearing down on Miindoir.

Arcturus Stream, Arcturus Station

Administrative District, President's Office

Montgomery was frustrated beyond belief. His second term as the president of the Systems Alliance started good, making contact with aliens and effectively establishing Humanity on the galactic scene. The unfortunate war with the Council claimed many lives, it forced him to drop the plans he had for the Alliance. The Humanity and the galaxy he had envisioned back then were like a dream to what he was seeing now.

He was not stupid, not by any stretch of imagination. Kevin Montgomery is a very intelligent person, his age only contributing to that aspect. As long as we live, we learn. He did not expect for the galaxy, for the alien races to be totally peaceful and simply take everything at face value. They were fighting interstellar wars when Humans were fighting the crusades. And Montgomery and his peers within the Government, Parliament and military agreed that the Systems Alliance will not join the Citadel if they are constrained in any way. Those old and proud races would never take it lightly, a rejection of this level from a species that embraced the taboo in their eyes.

What he did not expect was blatant aggression like he was witnessing at Shanxi and Mindoir. These attacks by alien perpetrators literally threw his plans under the bus. He wanted the put Humanity up there, on top of the food chain, through as peaceful as possible means. He does not want his species to be remembered as the barbarians of the galaxy, but to be an example. That agenda implied establishing as friendly and warm relations with the other powers.

And that was now biting him in the ass. Udina, his political rival, was using this to great effect. The Shanxi Hostage Crisis gave credibility to his propaganda. Citizens were in the streets by the millions. On Earth, on Mars, Horizon, Reach, Terra Nova, Elysium, Mindoir, Arcturus and many other centers of population significant numbers were calling for Montgomery's resignation. Udina wanted to push a xenophobic agenda that would only lead to isolationism when Humanity – and the galaxy itself – could ill afford.

He had been told what lied in the darkness of space, what dangers waited to pounce on them. The xeno-archeological and xeno-anthropological discoveries, coupled with what Nathan Bourne was able to uncover after the Insurrection and with Wrex's testimonies, confirmed that the threat was all too real. And it was out there, probably trying at this very moment to undermine and subjugate the civilizations of the galaxy.

Perhaps this was the most frustrating part of it all – that he wanted to foster good relations and maybe establish a common front once the Alliance confirms the identity of this shadowy foe. And it was not working right now. Still, to that end, he was doing his best, considering the circumstances.

"Ambassador Irissa, please! The Systems Alliance gave you the same answer on numerous occasions…" he spoke into the phone as he slowly rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger. He was mustering all the diplomacy he still had left in him. "Why do you keep insisting on it? Nothing will change if you keep asking, for goodness' sake!"

"President, I am asking this in the name of multiple republics. In particular, the Colonial Republic of Asona, Republic of Minalea, Republic of Indis, and the Republic of Mesana," Irissa informed him from the other end, most likely from her own office on Arcturus, in the area assigned for the alien embassies here.

So far, bar the Quarians, only the Turians and the Asari bothered to open an embassy there. The Asari were extremely active through Ambassador Irissa Myrais while the Turians were content to just be here. Montgomery guessed they opened the embassy just because it was protocol for them. The Salarian Union had been denied an embassy following an attempt at espionage from the initial delegation that came to Arcturus to see where the embassy would be. The Alliance was still negotiating on the matter with the natives of Sur'Kesh. The Elcor have a small delegation comprised of one diplomat and a few experts in trade and economy to facilitate the already productive trade agreement the two governments had. But, in all honesty, it was still the Citadel that was the heart of all these interactions. Nothing major happened on Arcturus.

"What the aforementioned republics are offering can be extremely beneficial to your people, mister president," she began again. Montgomery sighed. "Besides the extremely good relations you can foster, the economic benefits cannot be denied. Free, open trade and travel between Alliance space and the Republics-" Montgomery stopped listening at this point. She was giving the same argument with different words. The Republics were pushing open trade and free travel to no end while continuously claiming it to be for best. "-and the temporary halt on issuing travel permits by the Alliance Embassy on the Citadel has negatively affected relations and commerce between-"

The computer built in the desk flashed the screen with light. He had received a new message. Irissa's voice kept talking on the other end of the phone. Montgomery immediately noticed the urgent priority flag on the message, sent by FLEETCOM. He opened it, dreading what it might have to tell him.

"Confirmation of naval engagement in Avolantis System.

Battlegroup Einstein and Battlegroup Yamato engaged pirate fleet.

Mindoir's mass relay was activated by pirates.

Fast Reaction Fleet failed to intercept the enemy in Kogrom System.

Could not contain battle, civilian craft reported to witness."

This was it. If the Navy could not keep the civilians away, the AIC unable to cover it up, then xenophobia will increase even more. Nothing could be salvaged now. 'Godless Batarians!' he cursed.

"-you could please reconsider your standing on this issue?" his brain finally registered Irissa's words again. No, he's had to deal with this shit too many times now. It's like she and her superiors can't take a clue no matter what you do. He and his subordinates who have to deal with this had enough of their nonsense.

"No! For the last fucking time: NO!" he raised his voice. "Put it on all your news channels that the Human Systems Alliance WILL NOT agree to open trade and unrestricted travel between our borders with the Citadel! We are fine with what we have at this moment and we will not change our position on this!"

"President Montgomery, please calm down and think this through. Making decisions while angry wi-" she attempted to defuse the situation.

"You don't get to tell me to calm down, Ambassador! I've lost count how many times this exact proposal went up the echelons and reached my desk, only to be rejected! It's beyond absurd! Learn how to take a bloody point!"

"What the Republics are proposing is extremely beneficial to both our speci-" he didn't want to hear anything else and killed the conversation from his end.

"Fuck off already!" he cursed and went back to the important line of thought.

The Turians' warning about the possible attack came too late. They either didn't know about it in time and tried to warn the Alliance as soon as they could or they simply waited until it was too late. If it was the former, he was happy that his peer in the Hierarchy was striving for good relations. Either way, Montgomery will give Fedorian the benefit of the doubt, especially in the context of current interspecies relations.

Nevertheless, fecal matter has hit the rotating pallets hanged by the ceiling [2] and, whatever he will do and however he'll react, it will start spreading everywhere. The only reasonable thing to do was to act in such way that will be in Humanity's interests in the long run. No matter what, some will be happy, most will be pissed off. He had hoped that the Shanxi episode was enough of a warning not to mess with Humanity, that the words 'Gold in Peace, Steel in War' would have been understood. After all, it was not a riddle.

The fact that the terrorists were members of the Batarian External Forces did not help one bit. He could have understood if they were independents. But having members of a standing military force pull this massacre? All of Alliance higher ups and people who bothered to read on the state and history of the galaxy could tell that the Hegemony was not shying away from underhanded methods like this in an attempt to further their agenda. The tense relations between the Alliance and the Hegemony prior to the Verge Treaty arose from territorial conflict. High Hegemon Dorcador Dhothan had been adamant about the issue and wouldn't budge an inch until it became clear to him that his bravado had no effect.

So Montgomery be damned if this all is not too much of a coincidence. And he'd be damned to the deepest pits of hell if at the end of his six years term he leaves behind a Systems Alliance that compromises before aliens who wish to hurt their interests. What was rightfully Humanity's will stay theirs.

"Right," he muttered and reached for the phone that linked him to his military assistant. "Kieffer, it's me. Listen, get me a meeting scheduled with Ambassador Goyle, Director Harper and Fleet Admiral Hackett. As soon as possible. Thank you."

Arcturus Stream, Arcturus Station

Administrative District, VIP Meeting Room

"Thank you all for answering my call for a meeting on such short notice," Montgomery told the people present. Two of them were available on QEC. Hackett was in the same room with Montgomery, having arrived at Arcturus in preparation to the attack on Mindoir as divulged by the Turians. Harper was on QEC from the AIC HQ on Reach, his cigar lit in his hands. Normally Montgomery would not agree to anyone smoking during meetings, but he did not say anything. Harper was stressed and smoking helped him vent some of that stress. Goyle was live from the Alliance – Quarian Embassy on the Citadel. She looked tired. Very tired. "Especially you, Anita. I know you haven't shut an eye since yesterday evening."

"No rest for the wicked," she jested. She could afford to show her tired features in a more private setting like this.

"Wicked indeed," Harper commented. "We all know why we are here talking."

"Indeed," Montgomery voiced his agreement. "They reached Avolantis and every goddamn civilian in Mindoir's orbit witnessed the battle. I am dealing with the biggest disaster of my career. But I'm not here to salvage my career. Humanity has been attacked," he paused. "Again. And humanity must respond to this."

"The greatest issue is that we have a hole in our flank and traitors among our ranks," Hackett pointed out. "Militarily, that puts us in a bad spot. The secrecy of our planets is not so well kept," he gave Harper a look as he said it, "and it is unacceptable! I trust Intelligence will take the necessary measures to safeguard our secrets?"

"We're already cracking down on them."

"Right. The Navy is consolidating the breach as we speak. Rest assured, no future attack will punch through that deep into our space at Mindoir or Elysium," Hackett said. "I gave orders for five battlegroups to prepare to move into Batarian space and blockade every relay out there that is on our borders. They only need the president's direct order to do so." Montgomery nodded to that. He'll sign an order for that.

"What do we know about this planet called Torfan?" he inquired.

"Used to be a pirate fortress at its height," Harper began, "that not even the Turians dare attack due to losses. The place was 'rented' by the Batarians to the lawless groups or mercenary factions who wanted to operate in the Traverse. Batarian leadership has a history of using it as staging grounds for raids against the Citadel or independent colonies. Today it is a shadow of what it was, but still a tough to vanquish shadow. Tough by conventional means. I would not be surprised if the Hegemony is behind this charade."

"Charade or not, we are still caught between a hard place and a rock," Goyle joined in.

"It might have worked with the Citadel, but it sure as hell will not work with us!" Montgomery assured her.

"Mister president, you can't jump the gun!" Goyle cautioned.

"And if we do nothing we will look weak, Anita!" he countered. "What is the situation on the Citadel?"

"Ever since things made it out here things went – pardon my wording – tits up. The Elcor have expressed worry that this will hurt our trade with them. I've assured them that would not be the case. Councilor Tevos talks to no end about how the Alliance must proceed with care and prioritize diplomacy over violence, that we should not be brash about it… She's been all over the place, preaching about how peace is of paramount importance."

"It's more than that," Harper joined on the topic. "Our agents have discovered that it is not Tevos alone in on this. Scores of other matriarchs and Asari popular opinion influencers have jumped in the same boat as her. They've started it as soon as news of Shanxi spread out. And it will only grow more and more when Mindoir will make headlines."

"In addition," continued Goyle, "I've heard more news from Quentius. He says that there is a slander campaign against us in the Republics on a level never seen before. It's been going for weeks now. And the Turians have been targeted too. Quentius believes that the Armali Council – the Republics' de facto leading body – is behind this. For what purpose? I can only make… educated guesses."

"The good ambassador is right," Harper confirmed. "If you're asking me, it is almost as if the Asari knew something would happen. But the question is why are the Turians giving us this much information? AIC sources that have infiltrated the Hierarchy are offering zero clues. Moreover, it looks like whoever sent the instructions for this operation did it in the most oblivious way. Batarian codes have been used in broad daylight to send those messages from the Citadel. My agents have discovered that one of the Shadow Broker's contacts was the mailman here. Either the Batarians were very sloppy or somebody wants to make it look like it was them. And I don't know yet which to believe."

Montgomery rubbed his forehead. "Fleet Admiral?" he invited Hackett to speak.

The flag officer cleared his throat. "Well, no pirate ship has made it through the blockade at Mindoir's mass relay. Militarily, we have everything contained. Admital Drescher sent a message to notify us that 109 Turian warships of their Seventh Fleet have arrived in the Kogrom System. She was not far from shooting at them when they began to move toward the Relay. I told her everything she needed to know and now the Turians are keeping a safe distance from her fleet without the imminent danger of MAC rounds headed their way."

"Have they made any funny move?" Montgomery asked.

"Negative, sir. They've played ball with the Fast Reaction Fleet. There was a bit of arguing that we're infringing upon Citadel space, but common sense prevailed. Brigadier Ryder contacted me from the Citadel to tell me that one of Fedorian's advisors will meet with him. He's also received assurances that the Turians want to help us here. I don't know how much truth is behind that," Hackett spoke.

Montgomery exhaled a long held breath. "Anita, see how things move on the Citadel. I want you to send me constant updates on the political landscape. If the Batarians admit to something through their speeches and maneuvering I want to confront them. If not, we will carry on. Director Harper, you know what you have to do. Steven," he turned to look at Hackett, "secure our borders and prepare a counterattack. I'm sure Harper here can help you with an AIC stealth reconnaissance ship to scout Torfan and track down every single pirate remotely related to the attack."

"The Navy already has one stealth destroyer and one stealth frigate in the Verge," he said and looked with some distrust at Harper. "We can scout ahead with what we have. I'm sure the AIC will need its ships for other tasks."

"As you wish. Make it happen. The Systems Alliance will not take this lying down. A message must be sent."

"I hope you know what you're doing," Goyle said before everyone leaves. "Because this whole deal? This can go wrong in so many ways. We're treading on a fine line between war and freedom. The rescue of the Quarians from Illium is yet to commence if Rael'Zorah fails to come to a head with Illium's corporate polity."

"Your heart is where it should be, Anita," Montgomery spoke as he locked her holographic frame with his eyes. "But understand that we could lose everything in the long run if we do nothing." As nobody said anything, Montgomery concluded the meeting with a simple "thank you."

As the head of the AIC and the ambassador hanged up from their ends, Montgomery was left with Hackett and they started walking out. Montgomery had one more thing to ask of the good Chief of Naval Operations. "Steven, how is the Normandy-class coming along? I remember the Navy put a huge budget for it."

"As you know, the Normandy is already out there. She is a sound success. The second ship, Anzac Cove, is about to roll out of the shipyards and work has begun on the Okinawa," Hackett replied.

Montgomery thought it over for a moment. "Well, considering how shit is hitting the fan, it might not be a bad idea to ditch the construction of more Normandy-class frigates and start working on that theoretical Saint Helens-class? I will make sure the Navy gets the budget for it. But the Normandy will end here if we want to go ahead with it."

Hackett did not know what to say at first. But, as he was the subordinate, he acknowledged and carried out his orders. To be fair, Harper approached him to talk about the very same topic – the development of a completely self reliant stealth warship that can lurk deep behind enemy lines for years without fear of detection and with the capability to utterly annihilate a threat before they know what hit them. It would be the gun Humanity held at the galaxy's head.

"One more thing," Montgomery said. "I want the Spirit of Fire in this counterattack."

"The Spirit of Fire? That's Averescu's command," Hackett noted.

"Put him in charge of the operation. I want to make sure the Batarians get our message."

"… yes, sir," Hackett complied.

Citadel, Zakera Ward

Flux Bar & Nightclub

The bottle hit the bar with a loud sound. It was so loud in fact that the bartender, the Human female called Rita, called out to him to not break anything. Chellick didn't give a damn. He growled his annoyance in her direction. Rita knew how to take a "fuck off" and left him alone.

"Bad day at work, detective?" Chellick heard a familiar voice from his left. He turned around and saw a seemingly familiar face as he too sipped from his own drink. 'Taetrian Rum with cinnamon essence,' the detective mentally remarked the drink he was enjoying as the figure stood up and leaned with his elbows on the bar, facing away from it.

"Let me guess…" he stuttered. "Lucian… Lucius… the journalist who's sticking his nose where others wouldn't."

"Lucius Vextus, detective," Garrus reminded his former colleague the undercover name he used to introduce himself to Chellick the last time he met him at the same bar.

Chellick eyed him and, once more, had that gut feeling that there was a lot more to this man than he let on. That eerie familiarity was back. "What does a reporter want? You still on that case of the drug smuggling cartel?"

"I see the bartender here does not like you too much. I have a private booth," he said and made a head gesture to the private booths.

"I'm not in the mood to talk, Vextus. No interviews now, not even unofficial," Chellick tried to dismiss him.

"Come on, detective, I can have some dancers to entertain us. All on my money. Or even a luxury escort. I hear you've been missing on female company since last year. Come on, it will take your mind off those six dead smugglers," Garrus tried to humorously persuade him.

"You seem to hear a lot of things for a small fry reporter," Chellick returned a jab, his mind trying to discover how the 'reporter' knew the exact number of Salarians that have been found dead in the tunnels. C-SEC did not disclose the real number to the public.

"I hear many things. Not all of them are worth hearing. But you will want to hear the good ones. I promise it will help you in your newly assigned investigation."

'That's it!' Chellick thought and got up. He dropped his drink in the process and got into Garrus' face. He had so much shit and red tape to deal with recently that a smart ass shady Turian was the least he wanted to deal with. As soon as he got into Garrus' face, Chellick felt something through the clothes against his torso, something sharp.

"Let's not make a scene here, Chellick. Too much violence from bad communication," he warned Chellick, a hidden knife he had on him tickling his flesh just between the exoskeleton's plates. "Look, I want to talk to you. It's very important."

Chellick backed off. He could swear the man wouldn't use the knife on him no matter what, it was there just as a backup. He could call in C-SEC to arrest him. Yet he didn't go for it. Perhaps he could even disarm him. He could get the attention of the establishment's security and subdue what was turning out to be a fake reporter, a weird Turian who was not shying away from lying and underhanded methods to achieve whatever goals he had.

"I'm not against you, detective."

Chellick made a head gesture for him to lead the way. They walked away from the bar and entered the perimeter of the private booth. Garrus gestured for Chellick to sit down and they both sat opposite of each other.

"What is your angle in this, Vextus? You are no reporter, I can tell that much. And you seem to know more than you should," Chellick asked.

Garrus wanted to tell Chellick everything so bad, but that would only cost him and the Hierarchy's secret operation to rout out the rats. He wanted to have an honest chat with his friend and colleague. But his current assignment did not allow him to do so.

"I am a reporter – an unconventional one. I just want to find out the truth for the greater good of the galaxy and of the Turian people."

"The truth to what?"

Garrus' talons described a semicircle in the air. "The truth to what in the Spirits' name is actually happening behind our backs on what is the galactic capital. You know something foul is going on with C-SEC ever since the Migrant Fleet went missing," he spoke. Chellick didn't say anything yet. "You know it."

"Perhaps I've considered a few things…"

"What did C-SEC do about the smuggling cartel? Ever since they somehow mysteriously appeared on the Citadel you've been arresting them and someone was bailing them out. Trafficking minor drugs is a relatively petty crime. And, for the ridiculous sums of 25,000 to 100,000 credits each, Pallin lets them go. And what did they do when you were bringing in those smugglers to the precinct on a regular basis? You are reassigned to investigate weapons trafficking. And since then what is the situation? The number of arrests plummets, no more progress made. And I know for a fact that this does not sit well with you."

"You seem to know too much. Who are you?" Chellick kept pushing.

Garrus looked at his former colleague through his disguise, through the fake face he wore right now. "Would you believe me if I told you I'm a dead man?"

"What?" the officer was taken aback by his sincerity and lack of humor in his voice.

"I'm a Spirit looking for vengeance."

"I… am not following."

"I wouldn't expect you to," Garrus noted. "Back to the matter at hand, did you follow what I've told you previously?"

Chellick's eyes moved from Garrus to the table, his mind trying to wrap itself around what his interlocutor suggested. "So somebody big in C-SEC is an accomplice to this smuggling cartel?"

"They are coordinating and protecting them. Pallin is directly involved, but, without concrete evidence against him, he is untouchable," Garrus explained. "The only way to rout them out is through means most would consider… unconventional."

"What are you proposing?" Chellick asked carefully.

Garrus exposed a small chip, the equivalent of a micro USB stick, from one of his pockets. He slid it carefully across the table to Chellick. The latter did not reach for it, contempt in analyzing it.

"Use this anonymous tip," Garrus instructed and gestured with a talon to the chip, "to find a lead. I will supply them to you as long as you don't stick your head out of cover. Keep C-SEC involvement to a minimum and I will do the work, you take all the credit."

The green eyed Turian slowly reached for the chip and hid it in a pocket of his own. Though he didn't like what the mystery man was proposing, Chellick felt like it was worth investigating. Better than hitting dead ends and dealing with red tape. The mystery man might even leave clues behind for him to track him down for good.

"Things might turn very unpleasant," Chellick finally spoke, a challenging tone to his voice.

Garrus leaned back on the sofa, beverage in his talons. "For the sake of the galaxy, I hope you are wrong. They're already unpleasant enough. I will see you soon, detective. Enjoy your evening."

Taking this as his cue to leave, Chellick stood up. He had a lot to check. Just before turning around, he heard the man say "Remember to keep your head down."

Citadel, Zakera Ward

Archangel Hideout

Garrus deactivated his guise as Lucius Vextus and reverted to his default undercover appearance as he closed the door to the hideout. He dropped his combat knife and the light body armor he wore beneath his cloths. Casius and Metiana were waiting for him. The man was wiping Salarian blood from his hands with a towel. Metiana was furiously typing a report. He recognized the sigil of Hierarchy Intelligence in the document.

"They always break," Casius said with what could pass as a Turian smile.

"What did you do? Why is blood on you?" Garrus questioned.

"Squeezed some extra information from the prisoner," Casius answered.

"More like beat him and reopened every single wound he patched up previously," Metiana clarified.

"Hey, we have more information about the group he's part of!"

"Yeah, sure. If that is how you explain your sadistic joy… It is only a matter of time until somebody will notice that a Turian only apartment building is producing more levo waste, until they track it to us, and you keep-"

"Alright, enough," Garrus stopped them. "What is new?"

"The word goes in their little band of sneaky lizards that Saren Arterius would be their employer, though the grunts don't know it for sure," Casius answered.

"Arterius? The SPECTRE?"

"The other one was killed at Shanxi, so that kinda narrows it down," Metiana chimed in.

"That would explain how they were smuggled on the Citadel… a SPECTRE has the means to do that. What else did you get out of him?" he asked Casius.

"He said there are 100 others on the Citadel, just like him, tinkering with the station's circuits and communications. They're searching for a few particular signals and, once they find them, they were instructed to fix them."

"Instructed by who?"

"By Saren," Casius stated.

"And you believe him? He could have come up with all that to have you leave him alone," Garrus urged caution.

"It makes little to no sense to involve a SPECTRE in this. He also said that Saren made sure to keep C-SEC off their backs. If they finish this… task I guess you could call it… well, they've been promised credits in the millions. This ties all too well with what we're onto to not be related."

"The two of you seem to forget a very important question." Garrus and Casius turned to look at her. "What is the end goal?" Then Garrus looked at Casius.

"He either doesn't know or he doesn't want to tell. Either way, it can't be good. Whatever Arterius told them, the end goal is not one we want to let unfold by its own," Casius explained. "Whatever the hell we've discovered… Spirits, I have a feeling it is more than anyone is expecting."

"Well, we did start as a group investigating treasonous elements to the Hierarchy at the Primarch's orders… SPECTRE Arterius and Executor Pallin are still part of that Hierarchy," Garrus clarified.

"How did it go with Chellick?" the older man asked as he finished cleaning himself.

Garrus deactivated his cover as Lucius and reverted to his default cover. The programmable skin implants that Hierarchy Intelligence gave him did not cease to amaze him. "It went better than I initially expected. He'll have no choice but to bite. If nothing too bad happens, then he should expose C-SEC's corrupt side from within."

"You're placing an awful lot of trust on your old colleague," Casius cautioned Garrus.

"Look, I know him. He will play right into our plan, at least until he finds out what he needs before moving on his own."

"Well… we have a failsafe plan if he does not," Metiana assured them.

"What of Jondum Bau and the STG? Are they still in on this?" Garrus inquired.

"Jondum Bau reached out to our contact. Councilor Valern has the STG unit on stand by for now and the SPECTRE is on an assignment. No details known, just that something has Valern pretty reserved in making any moves," Casius answered.

"Well, shit… We move ahead. Their help could have been a major asset, but we move on regardless," Archangel instructed.

"Going back was never an option," Casius commented. "By the way, did you hear? One of Fedorian's advisors will arrive sometime soon on the Citadel. Apparently to talk to this Human that's a military attaché at their embassy."

Garrus' head perked up and looked at Casius when he heard that particular piece of news. "Does it happen for that advisor… to be a Vakarian?"

Casius shrugged. "Maybe. But don't get any ideas, kid. If you see him… you put this entire operation at risk."

"I know…" he admitted. He hadn't spoken to his family for some time now. Only through reports written by Metiana did he let his father know that he was well and still carrying on. "You know the plan. Get some rest. Tomorrow we move again. I'll be in my room," he excused himself and went ahead.

Inside, Garrus had the door close behind him. He walked to the mirror. A few commands introduced in the omnitool and his implants changed his color again. His eyes turned blue again. His skin and exoskeleton turned gray. And the blue face markings of Clan Vakarian faded back on his grey face plates. Garrus looked into the mirror and saw himself again. He had to tweak with the software, but he got his true appearance right. He lost track how long many minutes he spent gazing into his own eyes.

'You will all pay!'

Citadel, Zakera Ward

C-SEC Academy, Detective Chellick

Chellick had been scrolling through the C-SEC's Customs paperwork. No person with by the name Lucius Vextus existed. Nothing. He even went ahead and, with the help of a VI, searched through public Hierarchy census data. More like contact data where one could find contact details for Turian families. It was an old system that was still employed by the Turians – to have each family register contact details so that the Hierarchy can reach them. This allows for easier and faster large scale mobilization of reserves or warning of impending disasters.

Chellick found multiple Vextus families, a couple Lucius Vextus people. But none of them traveled to the Citadel. And none of them were journalists, independent investigators. He had the Volus owner of Flux give him access to the establishment's security cameras. Chellick extracted multiple shots of this mysterious Lucius Vextus where his face was showing. He ran them through the available database of images and station-wide security feeds. The results? He got matches only in the vicinity of Flux on pedestrian walkways. Nothing outside of the area of the bar. This was the second day and he found absolutely nothing useful!

Then he accessed the data chip he received from the mystery man as a gift. The information was secured by a time bound security protocol. He had to wait two full days since receiving it for the data to unlock. And, for his patience, he was rewarded with what could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.

In front of his eyes, on the screen of his computer, multiple transactions and time stamps were displayed in detail. Particularly how, if the source was to be believed, C-SEC or the Council was behind the attack on Frigate-07 of the Citadel Defense Force, operated by C-SEC. There were message and ship logs. It said in detail how the pirates found the frigate, how they had been paid to pull the attack according to instructions… these were logs from the ghost ship that suddenly arrived in the Widow System during the search for the Migrant Fleet. 1,500,000 credits had been traced to the pirate faction behind the attack, money that served as payment. Hell, this Lucius Vextus guy provided everything to him on a silver platter. He even had C-SEC logs and messages to back him up!

"Spirits preserve me,"Chellick whispered. This was definitely worth investigating. But how did it tie to his current investigation? To the murder of the Salarian smugglers by the maintenance tunnel? Lucius told him that Pallin was behind them as well, even maybe with help from Sparatus, the Councilor. The latter was mostly a suspicion from the mystery man.

Chellick must investigate and try to verify all this with his own hand, least he falls into a well laid trap.

Before he could ponder more on the topic, one of his subordinates rushed to him. "Detective! We have an emergency!"

"What emergency?" Chellick inquired as he locked his computer and copied the data to his omnitool.

"Civilians reported gunshots in the lower wards. One patrol confirmed an ongoing firefight by the restricted level that leads into the maintenance tunnels."

"What!?" this could be his chance. "Get me the guys from Special Response! We're going in there!"

Citadel, Presidium

Alliance – Quarian Embassy, Rael'Zorah's office

While Chellick was responding to an emergency, the politics of the galaxy were playing out without giving a damn about the day to day trivialities of life.

"Once again, the Quarian Republic is willing to pay the aforementioned sum of credits for the immediate termination of their contracts of indentured servitude," Rael tried to reason with the Asari who was negotiating for Illium's companies. "We are talking about more than a billion credits here."

"As communicated earlier and in our previous calls, Illium's corporate employers of the Quarian engineers you are talking about have no such clause in their contracts. The employee must work until he meets its quota as agreed in the contracts. Not to mention that there are some who have an unlimited timespan in their contracts," the Asari on the phone replied.

Rael rested his head in his palm, slowly shaking it in frustration. "We have checked the public contracts and the policy addendum of the companies who have Quarians in their workforce. You simply added an addendum and had them sign it as soon as we brought up the topic of their release from contract. It's written clearly – Addendum of 11/01/2181: the employee and employer agree that the current contract cannot be finished by a third party by financial means. You've practically pushed this down their throats! And it is written only in Asari dialects!"

"I don't make the legislation, Ambassador Zorah. I respect the legislation."

"How is that even relevant to our discussion?"

"The final answer would be no. I have consulted with the companies in whose name I'm speaking and the answer was given," the spokeswoman said.

"There will be consequences! What you're doing amounts to restriction of freedom and seizure!" Rael threatened.

"No, according to Illium legislation – might I remind you upheld even by the Council in the Tasale System – it is not. This topic has been closed by our side."

And the line went dead.

"Why in the name of the Ancestors did I even bother?" he asked.

In the room, by the left wall, Goyle and Ryder were waiting patiently. They had listened in to the last attempt at negotiation.

"Well, that could have gone better," Alec's dry comment filled the room. "Do you still want to go ahead with this, Ambassador?"

Rael turned his attention to him. "Han'Gerrel was right. I should have known that this was the only outcome. Those manipulative bosh'tet corporatists! We are going ahead with the plan. Though I have hoped there was still a chance they'd set their pride aside."

"From what I've noticed, the Asari will never set their pride aside. Just imagine what it would look like if they actually cooperated here," Goyle began to explain. "After the… humbling brought about by the Shanxi episode and the… what are they calling it now? The Terran Blitz?" she asked as she looked at Alec. The man nodded. "Right. After that, after the negotiations and how they were cockblocked? After how we sniffed Tuchanka right from under their control? It wouldn't look too good for the matriarchs to simply roll over and free those Quarians. For them, their servitude is a message that they are still in control. They wouldn't roll over again. Just think how their image would look like after it. They refuse to let their authority prestige take another blow."

"A fair point," Alec conceded. "But are we sure we want to go ahead with Operation ILLIUM FREEDOM on this time table? The Alliance wants all eyes on Torfan. Illium is a much bigger topic and will take the headlines. Our message too must get across."

"Please, General. Operation PAYBACK will take every headline. It was scheduled conveniently by Montgomery. At least that's what he told me," Goyle answered. "God, even the name alone is enough to make headlines."

"Right, Torfan. How did it go with the Batarians?" Rael asked.

"Just as everybody expected to go: Jath'Amon forwarded a formal complaint to the Council that we are violating their borders after we had warships secure every dormant mass relay in the Verge that could lead into Alliance space there," Goyle stated. "My personal negotiations with the man were not any better either. The one thing that bothered me the most though was that feeling of satisfaction I got from Tevos. That vibe that everything was green and well… There's something off about that woman."

"We've come to know them too well – with one hand they lure you and stab you the other one when you're close," Rael noted. "The Turians are yet to issue a statement. Anything going on between you and the Hierarchy that the Quarian Republic should know?"

"I'm going to meet one of their Primarch's advisors tomorrow. A man by the name of Flavian Castis Vakarian," Alec's baritone voice echoed again. "Depending on how it goes, the Hierarchy will be with us or against us."

"Aha…" Rael said no more.

"If they're with us, at least it will mitigate some of the fallout these two operations will generate. Less work for me," Goyle spoke.

"I'm going to give the green light for Illium," Alec said as he stood up. "Ambassador Zorah, please join us in the QEC room for live updates. It will help when dealing with the political fallout later."

Classified location, Tartarus Installation

Workout Wing

'91… 92… 93… 94… 95…' she counted in her mind every time she stood back up with the bar and weights on her shoulders. Back straight, only bend the knees, get down and then push yourself back up. Her legs were starting to kill her. They were protesting against the increased weight, against the total of 100 kilograms she was lifting on her shoulders while doing leg squats. She pushed herself back up for the 100th time, secured the weight bar and relaxed her legs.

'Good, I managed to hit 90 before the pain hammered me. Next time I'm going with 110 kilograms,' Jacqueline Nought thought. The other people in the gym, mostly men assigned to the Cerberus Division, were looking her way. "The fuck y'all staring at?" she threw their way and they immediately returned to their own exercises. Jacqueline's lips curled into a dominant smile as she sat down on the nearest bench.

They couldn't help themselves. It was not common sight to see a woman that barely broke the 1.70 meter height barrier do 100 squats with 120 kilograms on her shoulders. In fact it should be impossible. But Jacqueline was no normal woman. She was the strongest Human being alive. And not due to her raw strength. She could easily compete in competitions like "World's Strongest Man" on Earth, or "Strongest Man" for whole Alliance space.

But there was a reason why she and others like her, particularly the N7s, were not allowed to participate in such events, ever – they would blow away the state secret about the level of augmentations and genetic therapy they receive. Jacqueline's body was altered with cutting edge technologies in the field to put her on par with the best of N7 soldiers out there of her category. But she had one curbstomping advantage over her comrades in the Special Forces – her biotics. Jacqueline was also the most powerful Human biotic. Henry Lawson gave her the means to amplify her strength and it almost cost her her life.

But she is a fighter and a survivor. She had always strived forward. As a kid, she was bullied by other children for her biotics. Even after nearly one century of existence in Human society, biotics were still seen as freaks. The vast majority of them found safe harbor in the military who welcomed them with open arms. After an early childhood filled with parental abuse and bullied by her peers, she ended up in the care of the juvenile criminal system. Fortunately for her, there she met her salvation in the form of her best friend – Miranda Lawson.

Miranda and Jennifer – for this was her name back then before she changed it – quickly became friends. Two pariahs of society came together and hang near each other for many years. Eventually Miranda was tracked down by her father who took her home. Miranda leveraged her power to have the state refuse his custody over his eldest daughter and had Jacqueline come with them. Henry Lawson grudgingly accepted at first, cursing for giving her daughter that much brains, but his passion for the stray child renewed when he discovered her biotic abilities. He received custody of Jacqueline after a year in tribunals where he went head on against her mother.

But Henry's motivations were not out of sympathy. Oh no, he had Jacqueline involved in his research and experiments. It was not hard to persuade a young teen to help him study genetics of biotics. Mortality among Human biotics was fairly large even today, with a percentage of 10% stillborn, 20% die during early childhood, and up 15% more are either disabled by complications caused by the Eezo nodes in their nervous system or develop extremely violent cancer that is barely suppressed by known cures. That brought the tally to 45% of the Human biotic population. The remaining 55% struggles with social rejection. And an even smaller percentage of them – those who join the military – know how to control their abilities.

While there were cures for cancer, these were not as efficient when dealing with the disease when Eezo was the root of the problem. Only with regular nanobot injections can one go on with its life. But treatment with nanobots is extremely expensive. Henry did not pass up the chance to study Jacqueline to further Humanity's knowledge in that field.

He was also one of the leading scientists for the Alliance military's genetic treatments for troopers and the augmentations for the N7s. Jacqueline's potential quickly made it to the ears of the AIC's director back then. Director Bourne took special interest in her and inducted her for training. The AIC used the traumas she suffered as a child to turn her into one of the deadliest people of the century. Bourne then had Henry give her the augmentations and implants to amplify her potential.

"They giving you trouble?" Jack heard Miranda's voice from behind. She turned her head to take in her perfect curves in the dark AIC uniform.

"I've made a whole company of separatist terrorists disappear in the space of two hours. Your kids here must be a special kind of dumb to give me trouble," Jack answered. "So, what brings the cheerleader down here? Come to see how the grunts are doing?" she asked.

Miranda smiled at the nickname. She always did. Miranda missed her when Jack left her home to be inducted into the AIC. But when they met for the first time again a year later, the discrepancy between their personalities had widened even more. Jack gave her the nickname both as a friendly mockery and for the new impression she had of Miranda upon re-meeting her. One had grown in brutal training while the other in academy as an intelligence agent. Perhaps it was also the fact that Jack was happy to see her again, thus cheer-leader.

"No. Just my favorite psychotic biotic," she retaliated.

"What can this psychotic biotic do for you?"

Miranda sat down beside her. Her eyes unwillingly fell on the tattoos that hid the scars on Jack's skin. Jack used tattoos to hide the scars and to keep count of every life she took. "Don't worry, the pain has not returned. I'm not rejecting these implants," she assured Miranda.

"Still, doesn't mean I will ever agree with what they did to you."

"I wanted this," Jack replied.

"My father and Director Bourne-"

"Gave me the means to be what I wanted," Jack cut her off. "It feels… good… to be powerful."

"Turns out, mess with someone's head enough, you can turn a scared little kid into an all-powerful bitch," Miranda stated and caused Jack to laugh. "Listen, orders just arrived from TIM." The psychotic biotic's eyebrow shifted as she dedicated 100% of her attention to Miranda. "We will be moving out."

"Time to hit back the four eyes?" Jack asked as the news were still fresh in her mind.

Miranda nodded. "Not directly the Hegemony, but their extra muscle in the Traverse. We're going to hit the pirates on Torfan. HIGHCOM wants to make sure the message is on the wall for all to read, in big, red blood letters. They're sending Averescu in."

Jack smirked. "Averescu? Mister 'you can never kill enough enemies' himself?" she asked, to which Miranda nodded. "This is going to be lots of fun!"

"Telling me? We have ships scouting the AO. Battle plans are being drafted. The Batarians can cry all they want in the Citadel, we are going ahead. But listen, you will be going to hit that Eclipse base in the Traverse with the Corsairs and some Cerberus forces," Miranda instructed her. "We mustn't forget about what they did on Shanxi."

"You're not coming?" Jack asked as if Miranda joining her was a given.

Lawson shook her head. "I'm going to Torfan. Somebody must secure interrogation material. And I have to be there, boots on the ground, before Averescu if we want to sift through more than corpses."

"Damn shame," Jack cursed under her breath. "And the Illium operation?"

Miranda looked at her watch. "Should already be underway."



The SSV Spirit of Fire is the lead ship of the Spirit-class of battleships, the first battleship commissioned by Humanity, and the only ship in the Systems Alliance Navy to bear the name to this day. She is the most decorated warship of the Alliance, having served in almost every campaign and operation since the Insurrection up to the very end of the Reaper War. The ship is also famous for being the flagship of Rear Admiral Leonard Averescu.

Spirit of Fire's hull was laid down in February of 2154 at the Alliance Heavy Shipyards over Reach. She was launched in January 2157 and commissioned later in the year, in November 2157. Her design proved to be very successful. In fact, it was so successful that 119 other ships had been ordered throughout the years as part of the Alliance naval buildup, split into multiple subclasses of the Spirit-class. Each subclass would incorporate newer technologies and have different configurations built over the same general template.

The ship's service record is as long as her list of battle stars and honors. When Spirit of Fire entered service, she was thrust head first into operations focused on suppressing emergent rebel elements: Operation UNITY in 2158, Operation COAST GUARDin 2162, 2164 and 2166, the defense of Rho Anchorage against Blue Suns corvettes and frigates, and the attack on the last rebel base during Operation TORTUGA in 2166. She had a minor participation in Operation RAZGRIZ, in 2173, where she escorted the troop carrier SSV Astral Queen and the 101st Airborne Division for the assault on insurrectionist runaways on Velikaya II.

She would suffer major damage during the extremely controversial intervention in the Battle of the Citadel. When the Reaper known as Sovereign broke through the local defense fleet, Averescu put the Spirit of Fire between the Reaper and the Citadel where the two behemoths would duke it out. The commander's quick thinking saved both the ship and the galaxy until reinforcements arrived. She was towed away by the SSV Hecate to the Alliance Heavy Shipyards where she underwent major reparations and refits at dry dock.

Her combat record since contact with alien civilizations includes participation to every major campaign. Spirit of Fire most notably took part in:

The Human – Council War

The Shanxi Campaign

The Terran Blitz

Operation PAYBACK

Saren's Betrayal and Anti-Geth Campaign

Attican Traverse Pacification Campaign

The March Through Terminus Campaign

The ship's most decorated part of the career was during the Reaper War where she would fight as a front line combatant in multiple large and smaller constituting campaigns. Spirit of Fire fired the first Human shots in the Reaper War. Among the multitude of engagements she took part in the war, we can name:

The Attican Campaign:

Stand at Averescu Line

Kite's Nest Campaign

Operation FURY

Coronati's Race

Defense of Alliance Space Campaign:

Fall of Mindoir

Fall of Elysium

Fall of Vestige

First and Second Battles of Arcturus

Great Battle of Sol (The Sol Campaign)

Defense of Shanxi

Rolling Thunder Campaign

Alliance Rescue Operations

Defense of Hierarchy Space:

Magna Campaign

Trebia Campaign

Miracle at Palaven

Taetrus Campaign

Rolling Thunder Campaign

Turian Evacuation Campaigns

Inner Council Space Campaign:

Thessia Campaign

Illium Campaign

Serpent Nebula Campaign

Fall of Refuge

Defense of Tuchanka

Stand at Oltan

Rolling Thunder Campaign

SSV Spirit of Fire was decommissioned five years after the conclusion of the Reaper War and became a museum ship. The ship is anchored at the Spirit of Fire Memorial in orbit over Earth, the very planet she protected almost at the cost of her own 'life'. She made multiple appearances in the entertainment industry as her popularity arose. Among the multiple appearances we can name:

The Iron Fist (2229 Human production biographic movie about Leonard Averescu)

The Fighting Spirit (2215 – 2217 Human production drama series featuring the ship and the crew during the Reaper War)

A Galaxy Undone (2211 – 2212 Human – Turian documentary about the Reaper War)

Sacrifices of Our Fathers (2237 Turian production three part movie about the Battles for Trebia System)

2180: Galaxy in Conflict (2225 strategy game developed and published for Human audience)


Spirit-subclass: 20 ships built between 2154 – 2165, ordered as part of the first battleship batch. The ships underwent a refit between 2182 – 2184.

Ships in the subclass:

SSV Spirit of Fire (BB-1)

SSV Spirit of Terra (BB-2)

SSV Spirit of Luna (BB-3)

SSV Majestic Spirit (BB-4)

SSV Crimson Spirit (BB-5)

SSV Graceful Spirit (BB-6)

SSV Dauntless Spirit (BB-7)

SSV Lightning Spirit (BB-8)

SSV Spirit of Thunder (BB-9)

SSV Spirit of Fortitude (BB-10)

SSV Immortal Spirit (BB-11)

SSV Dragon Spirit (BB-12)

SSV Spirit of Sol (BB-13)

SSV Valiant Spirit (BB-14)

SSV Infinite Spirit (BB-15)

SSV Spirit of Dawn (BB-16)

SSV Astral Spirit (BB-17)

SSV Spirit of Gaia (BB-18)

SSV Spirit of Glory (BB-19)

SSV Spirit of Malice (BB-20)

Heracles-subclass: 25 ships built between 2163 – 2170, ordered as part of the second battleship batch. They integrated improved shielding technology, a better armor scheme and improved cooling systems for the spinal ion cannon. The ships are named after mythological personalities. They underwent refit between 2182 – 2184.

Ships in the subclass:

SSV Heracles (BB-21)

SSV Minerva (BB-22)

SSV Orion (BB-23)

SSV Apollo's Triumph (BB-24)

SSV Thor (BB-25)

SSV Valkyria (BB-26)

SSV Amaterasu (BB-27)

SSV Bellerophon (BB-28)

SSV Artemis (BB-29)

SSV Hephaestus (BB-30)

SSV Theseus (BB-31)

SSV Elatha (BB-32)

SSV Jotunn (BB-33)

SSV Andromeda (BB-34)

SSV Svarog (BB-35)

SSV Svetovid (BB-36)

SSV Daedalus (BB-37)

SSV Andraste (BB-38)

SSV Bellona (BB-39)

SSV Victoria (BB-40)

SSV Achilles (BB-41)

SSV Kartikeya (BB-42)

SSV Perseus (BB-43)

SSV Aesir (BB-44)

SSV Yggdrasil (BB-45)

Epoch-subclass: 25 ships built between 2165 – 2172, ordered as part of the second battleship batch with the Heracles battleships. The Epoch subclass was designed to integrate, over the same general design, more powerful engines and lighter armor plating, thus excelling at maneuverability for their size. Most of the ships within the subclass serve as part of the Fast Reaction Fleet or patrol fleets. The subclass is also known for having most of its ships built mostly with financial donations when public support for the naval arming program dwindled. The most important selling point was that the donors would get to name the ships by voting in polls names proposed by them.

Ships in the subclass:

SSV Epoch (BB-46)

SSV Lionheart (BB-47)

SSV Sovereign (BB-48) – sponsored by the United States of America and Canada

SSV Scharnhorst (BB-49)

SSV Leviathan (BB-50)

SSV Yamato (BB-51) – sponsored by individual donors

SSV Korolev (BB-52) – sponsored by the Russian Federation

SSV Ashikaga (BB-53) – sponsored by Japan

SSV Slava (BB-54) – sponsored by the Russian Federation

SSV Simon Bolivar (BB-55) – sponsored by Argentina, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela and Brazil

SSV America (BB-56) – sponsored by the United States of America

SSV Thunder Child (BB-57) – sponsored by the United States of America

SSV Iron Lady (BB-58)

SSV Britannia (BB-59) – sponsored by Great Britain

SSV Kirov (BB-60) – sponsored by the Russian Federation

SSV Cardinal Richelieu (BB-61) – sponsored by the European Union (predominantly France)

SSV Frunze (BB-62) – sponsored by the Russian Federation, Belarus and Kazakhstan

SSV Nguyen Hue (BB-63)

SSV Roma Invicta (BB-64) – sponsored by the European Union (predominantly Italy)

SSV Warspite (BB-65) – sponsored by Great Britain, New Zealand and Australia

SSV Hiei (BB-66) – sponsored by Japan

SSV Kirishima (BB-67) – sponsored by Japan

SSV Yamashiro (BB-68) – sponsored by Japan

SSV Musashi (BB-69) – sponsored by Japan

SSV Santisima Trinidad (BB-70) – sponsored by the European Union (predominantly Spain and Portugal)

Imperator Augustus-subclass: 25 ships built between 2168 – 2175, ordered as part of the third battleship batch. Also known as "The Generals", the Imperator Augustus subclass was built at the same time as the Sun Tzu subclass and the first five ships of Mikhail Kutuzov subclass of Olympus carriers.

Ships in the subclass:

SSV Imperator Augustus (BB-71)

SSV Benjamin Oliver Davis (BB-72)

SSV Douglas MacArthur (BB-73)

SSV Charlemagne (BB-74)

SSV Alexander Nevski (BB-75)

SSV Gustavus Adolphus (BB-76)

SSV Gadjah Mada (BB-77)

SSV Robert Edward Lee (BB-78)

SSV Qin Shi Huang (BB-79)

SSV Bernard Montgomery (BB-80)

SSV Scipio Africanus (BB-81)

SSV Marcus Agrippa (BB-82)

SSV Mustafa Kemal (BB-83)

SSV August von Mackensen (BB-84)

SSV Aleksei Brusilov (BB-85)

SSV Erwin Rommel (BB-86)

SSV Konstantin Rokossovsky (BB-87)

SSV Heinz Guderian (BB-88)

SSV Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim (BB-89)

SSV John Joseph Pershing (BB-90)

SSV Tadamichi Kuribayashi (BB-91)

SSV Vo Nguyen Giap (BB-92)

SSV Carl von Clausewitz (BB-93)

SSV George Smith Patton (BB-94)

SSV Ferdinand Foch (BB-95)

Atlantia-subclass: 25 ships, built between 2173 – 2180, ordered as part of the fourth battleship batch. With their improved armor, shield generators, defensive network, improved main and secondary armaments, they are the most modern and powerful brawlers of the Alliance Navy. And most expensive warships in the fleet after the Olympus-class of carriers.

Ships in the subclass:

SSV Atlantia (BB-96)

SSV Pacifica (BB-97)

SSV Acropolis (BB-98)

SSV Archeron (BB-99)

SSV Solaria (BB-100)

SSV Stellaris (BB-101)

SSV Iona (BB-102)

SSV Athenienne (BB-103)

SSV Aurora (BB-104)

SSV Calypso (BB-105)

SSV Aeternitas (BB-106)

SSV Nike (BB-107)

SSV Demeter (BB-108)

SSV Autumn (BB-109)

SSV Hiraeth (BB-110)

SSV Europa (BB-111)

SSV Dragonlance (BB-112)

SSV Argonaut (BB-113)

SSV Heliadae (BB-114)

SSV Aegis (BB-115)

SSV Angelica Mortis (BB-116)

SSV Archangel (BB-117)

SSV Aurigae (BB-118)

SSV Excalibur (BB-119)

SSV Azura (BB-120)

[1] The CO of SSV Yamato is a reference to the last captain of the Japanese World War II era battleship, IJN Yamato – Captain Kosaku Aruga. He was killed in action on April 7th 1945 during Operation Ten-Go when Yamato was sunk by American torpedo bombers off Okinawa. The wreck of the mighty warship lies 290 kilometers southwest of Kyushu Island at a depth of 340 meters. The cause of her destruction was the detonation of the forward magazine after she capsized. Yamato and Musashi were the two largest battleships ever built, with the third ship in the class – Shinano – being converted into an aircraft carrier and the fourth never built at all.

[2] Gotta thank evevee for that particular wording of 'shit has hit the fan'. Go check out his story On the Illusion of Might if you haven't already. Fantastic work he has going there with an ME and Halo crossover.

NOTE2: Thank you for reading! We will continue in the next chapter with two big operations and Garrus finally taking names and kicking arse! Please leave feedback :D it is greatly appreciated and useful. Oh, and I won't update this story until July. Next update for The Lost Civilization.