"Hey, Death." Harry sat up. Far above him, the skylights of King's Cross station beamed down, showing brilliant blue skies above. Harry wondered what exactly was outside this construct, this limbo. It looked and sounded like King's Cross station, yet Harry had wandered for hours the third time he'd died. Every few hundred steps, he'd find himself staring back up at the same skylights, the same benches, and the same train. It was always the same shade of red, with the same lettering on the side. The Hogwarts Express. Every time he died, Harry spared it a long, wistful glance. He knew, of course, that he'd never take that train. He could still daydream, though.
"YOUR FORESIGHT IS IMPECCABLE." The hooded figure on the bench nodded, speaking in the same familiar tone of echoing shadows and crushed cobwebs.
"What?" Harry blinked. Normally, Death just sent him back to the land of the living.
"SHEPARD'S PORTKEY- THE NECKLACE YOU GAVE TO HER. THE DOG-TAG."
"What about it?" The wizard was confused. He hoped desperately that Jane hadn't tried to use it too close to the black hole.
"SHE TAKES AFTER YOU, I SUPPOSE. ALWAYS TURNING FATE ON IT'S HEAD."
"I know." Harry replied, off-kilter. "That's what I saw in her. What I see in her." Then, quieter, "She reminds me of myself."
"UNTIL SHE SET HERSELF ON HER CURRENT COURSE, THE GALAXY HAD A DARKER FATE. SHE IS ABOUT TO PERSONALLY CHANGE THE OUTCOME OF THE HARVEST."
"GOOD LUCK IN THE LAND OF THE LIVING, HARRY POTTER. DO KEEP IN TOUCH."
Harry's eyes widened. "No, wait-" he managed, before a yawning black void engulfed him.
The wizard's eyes flickered open. He stared unseeing at the bulkhead for a few moments. Sitting up with a gasp, he opened his omni-tool, intent on sending some sort of reassuring message to Jane.
It was not to be. The moment he activated the device, he was flooded by notifications. Most prominent, flashing red, was the label, "Reaper Incursion Imminent.'
"Bloody hell." the wizard murmured, frozen. The world spun, and Harry couldn't help but wonder when his heartbeat had gotten so loud it drowned out all else. Pulling himself away from the fear and worry paralyzing his limbs, Harry reached once more for his omni-tool. One by one, he dealt rapidly with the rest of his notifications. Then, with shaking fingers, he tapped the urgent warning, and read its contents. A moment later, he looked up, with a thousand-yard stare. "All fleets, ready weapons, shields, and engines. We're going hunting."
Out in the cold emptiness of space, thousands upon thousands of lights flickered on as a military like no other began to mobilize.
Six Months Earlier
"Shepard." Liara said. "I know this isn't the best time, but I got a message I think you should know about."
"What is it?" Jane beckoned the asari into her quarters. Liara noticed dark circles under her commander's eyes, and Shepard's armor -still covered with battle-damage from the collector base, even a day later- piled haphazardly on the floor. The blankets on the bed were snarled up, twisted every which way. "Is it about the Collector Base?"
"No." Liara said, wringing her hands. "It's a pre-recorded message from Harry."
Jane's eyes lit up. "What did it say?" she said, interest writ large across her features.
"Harry sent us the Shadow Broker's network." Liara said, holding out her omni-tool.
"His entire network? Everything?" Jane's eyes widened. "Why?"
Liara lifted her omni-tool, reading off of the digital script. "He wrote that he wants us to keep the galaxy running. Make sure nobody starts any wars, keep the galactic stock market stable. And that he trusts you and I with all of this. The same message should go out to you as well, but he didn't know if it would get past the filters you'd imposed. The network unlocks once we both have access."
"Send me access?" Shepard said, holding out her omni-tool. "I haven't gotten it. Besides, two heads are better than one."
Liara tapped her omni-tool against Jane's and both devices beeped. Then a voice played from both omni-tools, cheerful and upbeat. "Hello! I'm Dobby. I'm a highly intelligent VI programmed for data summary and analysis as well as naval and electronic warfare. I'll guide you through the information network, as well as navigate to any files you may want to examine. It's my job to keep everything running smoothly, and take the reins when both of you are busy. I see that Harry initiated a transfer protocol. As per his original request, I'll bring up a few reports of operations Harry's been personally involved with."
"Uh. Understood?" Jane said, more a question than a statement.
"Wonderful. Feel free to ask any questions you may have." The VI said. Then Jane's omni-tool beeped, and entries began to flow onto her screen. Most of them appeared to be screenshots, digital 'clippings' of each article, taken from news reports.
The first message was accompanied by a high-definition still-frame of a glowing storage device. "It was a tiny thing;" the message read, "A bit of unsecured unencrypted data drifting as part of a Prothean wreck. However, it has provided a significant extension to the range of ship sensor systems and greatly improved local mapping of the Hades Nexus cluster."
Liara examined the next few emails- reports? Briefings?
"It was most likely ignorance or accident, but a team of batarian explorers inadvertently destroyed a hanar holy site of Prothean remains via an unplanned evacuation of their sewage system. Factions across the galaxy are up in arms at this act of disrespect, and a number of trade relations have been ruined. The career of a certain Muakla Bugyir is almost certainly at an end."
Jane and Liara watched in silence as their omni-tools steadily revealed more and more. Readouts scrolled down their displays, glowing orange and promising a depth of information that was nothing short of formidable.
"There's nothing quite like a friendly popular press. Thanks to a few wily development decisions, Harold Masir, the primary alias of a wealthy media baron, has been able to sell feel-good messages to populations across the galaxy. Citadel Council popularity has skyrocketed, treasuries are profiting, and Mister Masir has purchased an entire constellation."
"Recent projections of the trajectory of the moon Litae have revealed that the celestial body is no longer on a crash-course for the surface of Aite, the garden world it orbits. "It's impossible," said famed salarian astrophysicist Dells Curaie in a press conference last week. "If I hadn't checked the results myself, I'd be certain that there'd been a mixup."
"In the lore of the Migrant Fleet, it was known as the Bel Riannoh, the last and largest dreadnought made before the Geth Uprising. Supposedly, it was separated from its support fleets, and cursed to wander the cosmos as it searched for lost survivors of the Morning War. The ship itself has been discovered intact, and its crew - before their death or disappearance, for the ship is empty - apparently reworked it with armor of incredible thickness and durability, as well as weapons that rival the greatest guns of modern times. It is now the flagship of the quarian armada, and its gleaming armor and armaments inspire the entire quarian population to greater heights of ingenuity and technological advancement. At four kilometers long, it is clearly the largest dreadnought ever made by any race known to the council, larger even than Sovereign. Scientists and ship-designers across the galaxy are in an uproar. Insights from this craft could lend a new lens upon which to examine the largest ships in the galaxy- the so-called 'Discretionary Fleet.' Council records from before the Morning War show the Bel Riannoh's length to be mere meters shorter than the Destiny Ascension- despite the fact that the Bel Riannoh is more than two kilometers longer, and more than three times as massive. Further analysis shows evidence of a cover-up done by Asari or Salarian intelligence, perhaps to minimize quarian influence on the galaxy as a whole. Some experts have already suggested that the cover-up was an effort to reduce public will to aid the quarians. Only time will tell.
Scientific communities are in uproar, as the atmosphere of Tuchanka, the Krogan home planet, has been rapidly improving as of late. New studies have shown that the planet's ozone layer is now almost fully intact, and that the planet's famous dust storms and tornadoes should soon be a thing of the past. As well as atmospheric improvements, the planet's temperature has been steadily increasing. Many plants are now able to grow comfortably along the planet's equator, and a green belt is steadily expanding around the planet's middle. "Seems like magic, for all we know," said Urdnot Grunt, a member of Aralakh Company- Krogan Special Forces. Due to unconventional interactions with Krogan culture, it's not uncommon for a clan's spokesman to be one of the most martially proficient members of the clan. Urdnot Grunt speaks for clan Urdnot, the current leading Krogan faction. Urdnot is unique in trying to unite all krogan on the planet under a banner of growth and unity. While it is unfortunate that we could not receive an interview with Urdnot Wrex, we're glad both that we were offered an interview at all, and that none of our employees were dismembered during the trip.
In possibly related news, the Salarian STG's galactic terrorism alert level has jumped up three ratings. Civilians outside or on the edge of Council Space are advised to buy high-caliber personal defense weapons, harden supply-lines, keep up regular scheduled contact with someone offworld, and purchase specialized emergency beacons and alert systems.
Kechlu Bandwidth, a premium bandwidth-resale corporation, has expanded into weapons-manufacturing, ultra-fine ballistics research, and shipbuilding. Barely skirting the edges of Council anti-monopoly laws, the corporation is raising eyebrows across the galaxy. Only thirty-three years old, it's placed forty-sixth on the Illium three-hundred list, featuring the top three-hundred most promising corporations across the galaxy. Still privately traded, and highly secretive, the company is under heavy scrutiny from all corners of the galactic market.
Economists everywhere are scratching their heads, as the Credit -the primary currency of all Council races- has deflated by three percent between 2200 and 800 hours last night before apparently stabilizing early this morning. The First Bank of Irune has released a statement that they believe such a brief wave of deflation could actually help the galactic economy, though they worry that this might not be a brief trend. Still, the Credit has been stable for centuries now, so this sudden wobble has sent shockwaves through the galactic economy. The First Irune has stated that more than twelve million businesses have chosen to run an audit on their finances, in order to make sure they're still running at a profitable level. And, in the interest of galactic financial security, Irune has funded a think-tank padded with all the best economic minds in the galaxy to find the source of the issue.
Noveria Now's annual "50 CEOs Not to Mess With" issue hits the net today. The e-mag's number one this year is Eldfell-Ashland Energy exec Jonah Ashland, beating second-place Harold Masir of the enigmatic Kechlu Broadband corporation and third-placer Ganar Yulaz of the Blood Pack mercenary company. Says the mag: "Masir can practically freeze the extranet access and investments of entire planets, but Ashland can set the galactic price of helium-3. Which is more likely to pinch you, your family, your business, and your government?" Coming in last was newbie Marcus D'Angelo of Spyte Media, whose spat with Prime Minister Amul Shastri of Earth led to a deluge of mocking viral videos until Shastri cried uncle. "We'll never look at a Hindu cow the same way again," concludes the "Now" team, "and fortunately for the cows, neither will Shastri".
Thirteen Mass Relays were discovered missing today. There's no word on possible culprits- after all, most Relays are just over nineteen kilometers long. Curiously, every missing relay was a dead end, of sorts- the Citadel Archives made a press release less than an hour ago, in which the organization's chair explained -he himself visibly just as curious as any audience member- that each relay led nowhere, or, more accurately, nowhere useful. Empty systems, for the most part. Lonely stars with barren husks of planets orbiting them. It's theorized that the corresponding end of each relay may have disappeared as well, though there's no way to gather conclusive proof. There is a clear pattern to the disappearances, though. Each relay led outwards, towards the far edges of the galaxy. Most were also in strategically interesting locations, like incredibly dense asteroid belts, or a nebula reminiscent of the widow nebula in which the Citadel resides. Sensor traffic was shown to be heavily distorted within both nebulae. Another Relay was taken from just outside the Mactare System, shrouded by a heavy-ion cloud. Whisperings from Turian Command say that the relay itself was supposedly a military secret, though no solid evidence exists from that quarter. Dire news indeed. More on this story will follow as we discover it.
The end is nigh! Doomsayers and survivalists across the galaxy have had a recent upswell in numbers. Millions of bunkers are being constructed as we speak, and the price of long-term rations has skyrocketed. Whether there's an actual apocalypse coming or not, protective facilities and evacuation points are rarely frowned on by administrators or planetary governors.
"There are citizen associations whose political and moral agendas can range from quaint to mentally imbalanced. Fortunately, this group of pro-government turian volunteers, in tandem with their military, have managed to retrofit and pull together scrapped, retired, damaged, and discovered ships in great enough quantities to create a viable fleet."
"There's more for you to review later, if you'd like?" The VI said. Both Shepard and Liara nodded, wordlessly heading back to their respective sleeping quarters.
"So you're telling me we may have lost a major asset in the fight against the Reapers." Hackett said. The old admiral's brows had turned themselves downwards, into the beginnings of a scowl.
"That's correct, Sir." Shepard said, unhappy. "I haven't gotten any news of his return. With the reapers closing in, we've got to consider that he may not… come back in time to provide any assistance."
"Damn." Hackett muttered. "I'll call you back in a week's time." he seemed more fragile, more feeble. His face more gaunt, the bags under his eyes perhaps slightly darker. "There are precautions to be taken, plans to be made…Contingencies in place for the continuity of human civilization." He trailed off. "I'm authorizing a military expedition to scour the Mars Archives for additional information. I'm putting the Alliance on a war footing. Recruiting rates should be skyrocketing within the next month or two. Six new Dreadnoughts and support fleets have been commissioned, with more on the way. The Alliance Financiers Councilors are furious- one of them even had a heart attack after receiving the briefing." A grim smile flitted across his face. "Find me anything you can. The fate of the galaxy is in our hands. Hackett out."
"Jane!" Liara's voice called out over the intercom as soon as Shepard stepped into the Normandy's airlock. "There's something going on. Dobby -the VI- revealed something half an hour ago. Something big-"
"Short and sweet, T'soni." Jane said, stepping into the lift. Liara took a few moments to formulate her thoughts as the lift shot upwards towards Shepard's quarters. Jane stepped through the doorway, eyes jumping instantly to her office-space. A pair of glowing terminals sat open on her desk. One screen showed a galactic map, and scrolling screens of information. The other showed Liara's face, lips pursed in concentration.
"Shepard!" the asari's expression lifted, suddenly relieved. "There you are. So there's apparently a situation on Aratoht-" the galactic map zoomed in on a small planet on the outer fringes of batarian space, and on the extreme edge of the galaxy. "-And according to Harry's documentation, there are a few 'contingency plans' he put in place there. I'm almost certain that this is one. The whole planet's had thirteen simultaneous failures in every single one of the biodome cities across the planet, so... You know the planet, I think. It pops up in the Alliance standard dossiers from Intelligence every few weeks."
"I'm familiar with it." Shepard said, confirming Liara's assumption. "Thin atmosphere, not enough breathable oxygen. Batarians have been trying to terraform it. They haven't had much success, if I recall correctly."
"Evacuation began yesterday morning." Liara said, in the tone of somebody breaking worrying news. "I'd estimate that around ninety percent of the batarian population on Aratoht escaped before the relay went dark. Now we know what happened next, but that's only because Harry scheduled one of his special observation drones-"
"The ones with the quantum-entangled-communicators?"
"-yes, those. According to the observation point's records, it was activated barely a week ago by an automated protocol. Not five days later, it picked up footage of a pair of reapers arriving in-system." Liara let that hang in the air for a minute.
"Alright." Shepard leaned back in her chair, suddenly appearing more haggard. "What's the damage?"
"Then the relay disappeared." Liara continued, heedless. "Powered down, and flickered out of existence. It's gone."
"Gone?" Shepard frowned, thoughts focused on far-off places. "What about the Reapers?"
"Only those two arrived, but they've landed on the planet." The asari sighed, fiddling with a bracelet. "I estimate that less than ten thousand batarians survived planetside beyond the first two days after the evacuation. They're probably all indoctrinated, now. And the Bahak system is more than a year away, maybe three months on Harry's ships. Without the relays, I don't think there's a single thing we can do."
"What about the footage?" Jane mused, eyes distant. "Of the Reapers. How's the satellite's image quality? Can we send this to the Council as some form of positive proof of the Reapers' existence?"
"...We can try."
"The Citadel Council made headlines with a series of new policies they've unveiled at a press release just this morning. In the span of a few months, it is estimated that galactic production of construction-grade military alloy should almost triple due to heavy subsidies from the Council's treasury. It cannot be understated how unexpected this move was- the last time measures like this were considered, the galaxy was still in shock after sixteen deliberate simultaneous asteroid impacts on civilized worlds sparked the beginning of the Krogan Rebellions.
That's not the full scope of today's changes. New subsidies and tax cuts in the mining industry indicate that Element Zero and other advanced materials may soon be an even more highly valued commodity.
Somewhere in an undisclosed location in Council Space, construction has begun on frames for thirty-two Dreadnought-capable shipyards. Almost two hundred frames for smaller craft have been constructed already, and according to new records, twenty-four hulls have already been laid out.
More worrying still were Councilor Sparatus' closing words.
"-The rest of the Council, as well as Primarch Fedorian, are in agreement with me. As much as I wish to deny it, there is … some evidence now that a clear and present threat to galactic safety and stability may exist. We must build up our economies, build up our militaries. Otherwise we may stand no chance of victory. If we are wrong, and there is nothing to fear, we will have wasted nothing more than credits. If we are right… Spirits help us all."
Bombarded by questions from every single member of the Citadel Press Corps, Sparatus refused to explain further, stating only, "I've said what needs to be said. This is the only option I see that has a hope of success."
Certainly troubling times indeed. Emily Wong, Citadel Newsnet."
"What's that?" a voice said, echoing from the far wall and vaulted ceiling.
"What, the cache?" said another voice. A pair of humans in long lab-coats stepped forwards, towards a series of glowing raised obelisks. "It's larger than expected, but-"
"No, what's in it? These look like design specifications." One of the technicians scratched his head, as he approached a terminal hooked into the network of obelisks. Alien writing scrawled across the screen, accompanied by glowing models of a long object with a bulbous point at one end. "Recognize anything?"
"Not in the slightest. I think that's good."
"Well, what are we hoping to find? You know I slept through the briefing."
"We've got no clue what we're looking for. Alliance brass got jumpy, and wants some trump card or something." The man shivered, rubbing his hands together in the cold of the main chamber. Mars's winter chill penetrated deep into the ground, here. Ever since the miraculously-terraformed planet was colonized, it had become known for frozen winters and gorgeous summers. Now, though, the winter season was well underway.
"So the brass put up a fuss, and now we're here." the technician gestured grandly around him. "The Prothean Archives, hallmark of humanity's success!" He turned back to his partner. "And it's empty."
"Not at all. It's full of data, but all that's left is encrypted. We can't just cherry-pick data based off of what's easiest to understand like we did just before the first contact war."
The other man scowled. "Yeah, well it's not like we're gonna have another tech revolution."
"You don't know that."Came the reply, with no real heat. "I admit, it can get boring. Watching progress bars tick up has never been a specialty of mine. And this is, of course, one of the lower levels of encryption. We think."
Something flickered. Both men stared more closely at the nearest display.
"Whatever it is, that looks… impressive." said the other technician. "I don't know if that's a gun, or a ship-"
"Whatever it is, I think we've just found something to hand over to Alliance Intel."
"Hi, mom." Shepard said, tentative. She had no idea what she was doing. It had been a spur-of-the-moment thing. One moment, she'd been laying back in bed, staring sleeplessly into the bulkhead above her. The next, she'd whipped out her omni-tool, and dialed her mother's number halfway on instinct. The line beeped. "I'm sorry, I can't take your call right now. Please leave a message." and an automated recording began to play. Shepard ignored it, waiting for the beep. "Hey, Mom. This is Jane." she said, as soon as the automated voice cut out. With a burst of nervous energy, she stood, shifting her weight rapidly from one foot to the other. Absently, she stilled her fingers, only for one of her feet to begin beating a rhythm into the floor. "I'm out of active combat, and I couldn't sleep. So I figured I'd call. I know you got my email a few months after my… death, I guess. You had some time to mourn, and then-" Shepard couldn't tell why her vision was blurry. "I'm sorry, mom. The whole thing sounds so… so… crazy. It's probably all classified to hell, too, though it's not as if my dossier didn't already read like an adrenaline junkie's wet dream, even after removing all the secret stuff. I just haven't gotten the paperwork yet. Bloody bureaucratic nightmare, the Council is. Still, I've requested some personal leave. Sparatus has already accepted, included a 'vacation budget' with seven zeroes, and implied that I don't have to come back to active duty at all. I think he knows I've got connections he doesn't, things that I can do that he can't as a councilor. I'm just babbling, at this point." hot, nervous emotion made her tongue swell, made her inarticulate. "When can we meet up? I figure meeting in the flesh might be… Good for the both of us." Jane hung her head. "Love you, mom."
Jane collapsed back into bed, drilling holes with her eyes into the bulkhead above her.
"Just last night, in the later hours of September nineteenth, the Batarian Hegemony pulled back all their fleets from the borders of human space. Alliance Intelligence has released a controversial statement implicating the Reapers- an ancient machine-race trying to wipe out galactic civilization. The batarians, however, have vehemently denied any allegations that they're under attack in any way.
"This is not normal; the Batarian Hegemony does not retreat." said one analyst, voice distorted to protect his identity. "They execute deserters on the spot, and give out court-martials for backing away from a fight. Something is seriously wrong."
FLOOD OF BATARIAN TRAFFIC BRINGS RUMORS OF WAR – ALLIANCE NEWS NETWORK
From: Alliance News Network Information Partners
September 21, 2186
Flood of batarian traffic brings rumors of war
By Shirin Kazemi
UTOPIA SYSTEM – A massive influx of batarian ships is raising tensions in the Exodus Cluster, putting Alliance forces on high alert. According to Alliance officials, the ships came from the batarian-held Harsa relay with minimal warning, some barreling right through. The Alliance reportedly fired on some of the ships with the intent to disable them.
"It's a miracle any of them are still alive," one human frigate captain said. According to the batarians, they are neither invaders nor defectors, but refugees. They claim a hostile species has attacked the Hegemony's fleet, bombarding Khar'shan and other batarian planets.
With the Harsa comm buoy system crippled, communication is sporadic at best between far-flung batarians and their government on Khar'shan. Some refugees claim the attackers were Council. Others blame the geth or even the rachni. All report that the enemy, in whatever form, is blockading the relay, destroying most spacecraft trying to make it through. The refugees are not solely civilians. Hegemony Commander, Eruz Mathat, who is under guard while his cruiser is inspected, was blunt in his assessment of the situation. "I never thought I would say this to the human navy," he said, "but we need you."
"Breaking news! Late last night, September twenty-first, Batarian refugees began been streaming into Alliance Space. Events have taken a darker turn, as the refugee count is astronomical. A full count has not been taken, but it's estimated that the number of refugees is well over three hundred thousand. More worrying are the scattered, disjointed reports coming from the refugees of massive black ships that tore through the Hegemony's fleets, and even now hold Khar'shan under siege. Can this possibly be true? We're working to figure that out. More at twelve. Emily Wong, Citadel Newsnet."
Jane rubbed at her tired eyes, finally accepting that she'd need to get some sleep sometime. Her other hand closed the display of her omni-tool, allowing the room to descend into darkness. Shepard blinked a few times, clearing from her vision the remnants of the omni-tool's harsh orange light, burned into her retinas. With a sigh, she allowed herself to fall backwards into the cushions of her bed. This one was larger, more comfortable than the one in her quarters aboard the Normandy, but Jane always had trouble sleeping away from her crew. Despite the comfortable rooms allocated to her here, aboard Arcturus station, she knew she'd sleep more soundly back on her ship. But now was much too late for such thoughts. Her mind drifted, shifting and writhing back to the same bleak truth that always kept her awake late into the night.
The Reapers were coming.
Shepard's eyes slowly drooped shut, as she lapsed into fitful sleep. The word 'Reaper' bounced around the inside of her skull, furious and shadowy and toxic.
A high-pitched chime rang out over the room's speakers, alerting the sole occupant that someone was at his door.
Steven Hackett rose from his seat, putting aside a tall bottle of a dark liquid and a glass with ice-cubes clinking against the rim. Stepping forwards, he made his way towards a heavy barricade set up in his entry hall. A high-end kinetic-barrier hummed to life around his belt, enclosing the aging admiral in an almost-invisible shield. On one side of the barricade, a heavily-modified variant of the standard Avenger assault rifle hung like a trophy. A succession of lights flickered to life as the man approached, lifting it lovingly down from the hooks it hung on. Hackett hefted the rifle to his shoulder, and glanced down the sights.
The chime rang again, more insistently this time. The admiral lifted the assault rifle onto the barricade, aiming at the doorway. With a wave of one hand and a beep of acknowledgement from his omnitool, the door slid open. A spotlight flickered on from the ceiling, shining down into the open doorway. Painfully bright, the fixture was disguised as a mostly-defunct chandelier.
Hackett recognized a familiar face squinting and shielding itself from the light with a pair of outstretched hands. Another wave of his omnitool shut off the spotlight, and activated a high-powered security scanner bolted just inside the doorway. Blinking lights scanned the newcomer from ground to ceiling, before shutting off. The word, "Safe," flickered across a small screen above the doorway.
Hackett put aside the assault rifle, clicking the safety back on. "Prime Minister." he said, voice neutral.
"May I come in?" The portly man by the door asked. Half sarcastic and half pained, the man's hands were still occupied with rubbing his eyes. His clothing was rumpled, and his hair unkempt, as if he'd been running a hand through it for hours.
"Of course." Hackett replied, in the same even tone.
"What the hell is this?" said Amu Shastri, the Prime Minister of the Alliance. Gesturing to the assault rifle, the spotlight, and the barricade, he scratched his head. "Why on Earth would you possibly need all this?"
"Assassination attempts, for the most part." said the Admiral. "Seven so far. Four from Cerberus, two from the Salarian STG, and one from the Batarians, just to keep up appearances."
"What!" the Minister's eyes widened. "Why?"
"You've heard about the enlistment initiatives I pushed through the Alliance Interplanetary Security Committee, and the naval enlargement plan?"
"No, I've heard nothing." The corners of Shastri's mouth slanted downwards. "My cabinet members are not… forthcoming about many of the issues I wish to be made aware of. If they were not chosen personally by Alliance Intel, I'd think their obstructions were deliberate." The minister tottered forwards, still blinking both eyes furiously. He collapsed into a seat with an audible thump.
"You've heard nothing?" Hackett pressed. Confusion weighed his brows downwards into a scowl. "I've commissioned six new fleets. They're almost complete, for god's sake! The Enlistment Offices are working overtime, running ads and printing posters. The Alliance navy is going to almost triple in size, if we count support craft."
"But…" The minister clenched a fist. "I knew nothing about any of that!"
"That's what worries me." Hackett said. "And also what's worrying the salarians, the batarians, and of course Cerberus. They want me out of the picture, as I'm spearheading the whole thing. Hell, the salarian Dalatrass wants all of humanity out of the picture too."
"But-" The Prime Minister's head flopped back on his chair. He blinked at the ceiling a few times, before he sat up and stood. Beginning to pace around the room, his mouth opened a few times, but no sound came out.
"Why do you think Intel confiscated the aircar the dalatrass gave you on your last visit to Sur'Kesh?" Hackett asked. The admiral sat down, and picked up the whiskey he'd set aside just moments earlier. "It would have flew you into a building one day. Perfectly deniable, perfectly untraceable for the salarians. Of course there'd be some diplomatic fallout, but that's nothing in the grand scheme of things."
"Why?" Shastri murmured. "Why! What could we have done that would have set them off?" despite his clear panic and lack of sleep, the minister's political mind began to show itself.
"Somebody cured the Genophage a few years back." the admiral explained.
Shastri's pacing stopped, and the man collapsed again into a chair. "Please tell me you're joking."
"Not in the slightest." Hackett said, almost regretfully. "And the salarians -the dalatrass, at least- is convinced we did it."
"But I'd know if…" the Minister's shoulders slumped. "Did we?" he asked. He almost sounded incredulous, as if he couldn't believe what was coming out of his mouth.
"The alliance didn't do it." Hackett said. Shastri sat up. "But it was a human who did." Shastri slumped back down. "Harry James Potter is his name. Without him, I don't think we -as a race- would have made it halfway as far as we have."
"You've got to be exaggerating." the minister said. "You've simply got to be exaggerating."
"He's the admiral of the Discretionary fleet." Hackett said, with a tone of finality. The minister's mouth formed the words, 'discretionary fleet,' but he didn't voice them as an expression of recognition flashed across his face.
"I think I could use some of that, whatever it is." Said the Minister, gesturing towards Hackett's bottle of Whiskey. The admiral poured another glass, and the minister downed it gratefully, coughing a little at the end. Hackett refilled both glasses.
"So what brought you here originally, at this hour?" Hackett glanced at a clock. 0100 hours. 1:00 in the morning.
"I wanted to get your opinion on the Council's announcement." The minister said, still reeling.
"It's been well over a week since the press conference. Why the delay?"
"I have the strangest feeling that some of my cabinet members are deliberately stalling me, but I can't think of any possible cause."
"You can't be serious."
"Minister, I know what the Council saw. I got the same briefing."
"Indoc- wait." Amul Shastri pursed his lips, exhaling slowly. "You saw the same information as each member of the Citadel Council?"
"Yes." Hackett confirmed.
"And you told nobody of this." The Minister's tone would have been angry, in any other situation. Now, it was just tired.
"It wouldn't have helped." The aging admiral replied. "Nobody would have taken news of the Reapers seriously. I could have been booted out of the Navy, you realize. That is a risk I cannot take, especially not at this critical moment."
"How much danger is the galaxy in?" the Minister asked, voice soft and tentative.
"This will be a war like nothing our modern civilization has ever fought. There is nothing to compare it to, and I hope there never will be." Hackett's voice was low, almost gravelly.
"Why did you tell me all this?" Shastri murmured, his brown eyes fixing themselves to Hackett's piercing blue ones. "Why now?"
"Because when the Reapers come, and they're on their way now," The Admiral explained, time grim, "I'll need somebody to handle the political side of things. I've been called a tactical prodigy by many of my colleagues. I can win a war. But I can't fight, hell, nobody can fight when they're stuck halfway between the battlefield and a conference table."
A light flickered on. There was a terrible rushing noise, and then a thunderous explosion of sound. The room shook like an aircar in a thunderstorm. Warning alarms shrieked, and a temperature-sensor on Hackett's primary door flickered on. The digital dial instantly buried itself deep into the red section of the temperature-meter.
"Damn." Hackett whispered. "Well, I'm almost certain that makes eight." he said, louder now. Alarms shrilled on his omni-tool, and he read through them carefully. Blinking red, the words "Reaper Invasion Imminent," flickered and flashed at the center of the screen. Hackett's face paled. "Minister!" he called out, to the portly man, staring wide-eyed around the room. "We need to get to the fleets as soon as possible. Begin evacuation. The Reapers are almost here."
The Admiral's pondering eyes watched the Prime Minister, taking in every aspect of his posture and bearing. Hackett could come to only one conclusion.
Amul Shastri was afraid.
"This is not a drill. General Quarters!" Said a voice over the PA system, strident and sharp. "General Quarters, all hands to battlestations!"
Shepard's eyes shot open. Dashing out of her bed, blankets flying, she rushed to the closet. In a matter of seconds, she'd slipped into her armor's undersuit. With a series of mechanical clicks, she snapped each piece of her armor into place. Her helmet came over her eyes, then sealed with one long hiss of releasing oxygen, pressurizing the suit's interior. In the corner of her HUD, a display appeared, indicating that her suit's environmental airtight seal was intact.
The floor lurched, with a roar of rending, tearing metal so loud her armor-suit activated its sonic-weapon mitigation systems. The PA system sparked, sputtered, and went dead. The floor vibrated, a distant rumble of impacts and explosions, dispersing through every bulkhead aboard.
EDI's avatar appeared on a nearby terminal. Sparking occasionally, the holographic projector flickered. "Shepard!" EDI's voice played, full of worry. "Arcturus is under attack. Reaper forces are trading casualties with the First and third Fleets. This station appears to be their primary target. You must get to the Normandy!"
"What-" the station shook, as Jane hooked her guns into their magnetic holsters.
EDI's voice cut out for a second, along with all the lights. Dull red emergency beams flickered on. "Fuel line breach detected in the station's diplomatic wing. Recommend evacuation!" The AI's voice played now in Jane's earpiece. "Tramways are displaying significant damage from sabotage. Be careful, Jane."
"Always am." Shepard replied, voice still bleary from sleep. Alarms blared, and warnings of all sorts began to play over alert channels. "EDI, how's the station's integrity?"
"Full evacuation just began. Escape pods-"
"Evacuation? How bad is it, EDI?"
"The entire lower section of the diplomatic sector is depressurizing. Emergency teams have been dispatched to the breach, but estimated time to repair is unknown. A state of emergency has been declared."
"How large is the breach?"
The station shuddered violently. Shepard almost lost her footing as she broke into a sprint. EDI spoke up once more, voice almost clinically detached. "There are two, now. One almost half a kilometer long, lengthwise along the inner rim of the station's Stanford-Torus ring. The other is a shot from a Reaper Capital ship that grazed the station's habitation section."
"Damn." Shepard muttered. Her feet clattered through the halls, clicking metal against metal.
Jane kept running, watching the path EDI overlaid across her visor. Gunmetal hallways and crimson-hued lighting blurred into a surreal mix of color and noise and sound. Shepard rounded the next corner, and froze as EDI's voice washed over her.
"Shepard!" The AI said, audibly worried. "Do you have a portkey?"
"Yes." the woman replied, thoughts going to the tags hanging around her neck. "...To the Normandy." Under her helmet, Shepard's cheeks reddened.
Thankfully, EDI didn't notice, or chose not to comment. "I need you to rescue a pair of VIPs. Hackett's on the station, with Amul Shastri, the-"
"The Prime Minister of the Alliance." Shepard finished, grim. "Where are they?"
"The diplomat's wing." EDI said. Something in her voice suggested there was more to it than a simple evacuation. "That's where the sabotage was focused. Structural analysis says that every single oxygen-line was targeted."
"Oxygen?" Jane wondered. "Were the saboteurs trying to asphyxiate them?"
"No." EDI replied, voice uncharacteristically grim. "They didn't shut the oxygen off. They made it impossible to shut off. I'd guess that they inserted a brute-force program into one of the primary terminals in the station security office. Now, the office is literally cut off from all contact, and the station's oxygen reserves are emptying themselves into the diplomat's wing of the station. This is naturally an issue, as they also ruptured twenty-two fuel lines."
"The station's fire-suppression teams are on their way, but prospects are grim." EDI spoke softly, quietly. "It's a firestorm. There are no clear exits or entrances anywhere. The saboteurs were thorough. I believe that this may even have been a contingency built into the station itself. One or more of the station's designers may have had connections to groups in need of a situation like this, perhaps to extract operatives. Cerberus is the most likely culprit, as they have been known for creating contingency plans decades in advance."
"This is a nightmare, isn't it." Shepard said, halfway wishful thinking and halfway a curse. "I'm still comfortably sleeping in my apartment in the residential sector. There's no fire, there's no chaos, and the Reapers are all a figment of my imagination."
"Sorry, Shepard." EDI replied, unapologetic. A new waypoint appeared on her HUD. "Rerouting. Your mission -should you choose to accept it-"
"Extract Hackett and the Prime Minister," Shepard finished, taking off at a run. "VIP escort mission. My favorite. Always failed those back in N-school."
"You still passed with flying colors," EDI said. "With or without the VIP."
"That was just the one mission. And how was I to know that I was supposed to get the man out of the secure, safe, armoured compound? That wasn't in the briefing!" Shepard had no idea why she was suddenly defending her actions from almost fifteen years ago. She kept running, watching the glowing line projected onto her HUD. An empty elevator shaft yawned open in EDI's path. The waypoint dropped downwards. Jane stepped over the edge,using biotics to slow her fall.
"No, but the gunship was. Standard protocol is to retreat if outgunned." EDI replied,with more than a little sarcasm.
"I wasn't outgunned, though!" Jane protested, as she grabbed hold of the next ledge down the elevator shaft. "I'd just learned how to biotic charge. Naturally, I felt the need to test myself. It was N-school. If you weren't testing yourself, you weren't passing."
"So you ordered the VIP to barricade himself in a room, then decided to go mano-a-mano with a fully-armed, anti-infantry-spec ground-to-orbit Mantis gunship?" EDI's sarcasm was nearly tangible.
"Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time." Shepard mumbled, thoughts distant. She flew around one last curving hallway. Glimmering orange light flickered off the walls, and a low roaring sound came from up ahead, constant and furious. Occasional muffled yells and the harsh hiss of chemical fire-retardant split the monotonous roar. Jane rounded the bend to find a few frantic firefighters barely holding off a wall of flame with heavy-duty extinguishers and some sort of barricade.
Glancing into the fire, Jane frowned at the blinking light of her objective. "No other way around?" she said, resigned. The station shook under her feet, almost tossing her off balance. The wall of flame roared, growing closer as one of the firemen stumbled, losing his grip on his hose.
Shepard sprinted forwards, grabbing the nozzle in one hand, and turning it back towards the licking tongues of flame. "EDI, how far off are my VIPs?"
"Approximately three hundred meters forwards." The AI replied. "Hurry, Shepard. My sensors detect that the fire is spreading towards Shastri and Hackett from all sides."
"Ah, hell." said Shepard. The station shuddered. Screams of rending metal echoed from all directions, some distorted by the flames. Something creaked, groaning and cracking in a way metal and alloy shouldn't. A hissing noise grew louder, no longer nearly silent against the roar and rumble of the station's tortured bulkheads. A furious high-pitched keen rose over everything else.
"That's some sort of flammable gas burning." EDI announced. "Watch your surroundings, Shepard. There should be a patch kit at the breach point. Automated security-protocols like that are some of the only programs still running."
Gazing into the inferno, Jane's mind whirled. A cloud of billowing smoke rolled across the ceiling, dripping acrid flame and smoke across the corridor. Dimly, Shepard heard the two firemen yelling into radios on their collars, something about falling back. She steeled her nerves, and stepped forwards, tossing the hose aside. Now, glaring into the flames, she thought back to Illium. She'd been using biotics to deflect missiles, and her amp had been overwhelmed. It had overheated, really. The thing had launched itself from her neural-jack and splattered molten metal across the floor. And despite the temperature, she hadn't been injured. She hadn't even felt the heat. According to Dr. Chakwas, the ballistic-ceramics of her helmet had cracked, but her skin had not a single burn.
Jane tossed the hose aside, and stepped forwards. Steeling her nerves, she passed into the roiling firestorm engulfing the corridor. "Shepard! No!" EDI's voice called out, this time projected straight into her brain through her biotic amp, rather than her suit's speakers. "You-" The AI was silent for a moment. "Your core temperature is stable." she said, with as much wonderment as Shepard had ever heard. "The air around you is fluctuating between one thousand and twelve hundred degrees."
"Yep." Jane confirmed, watching with morbid fascination as flames licked against her armor. She felt warm, but nothing more. Perhaps birdsong, off in the distance? Shaking her head, she stepped forwards, vision blurred against the thick smoke. "EDI?"
"Yes?" the AI said, with a worried tone.
"Can you adjust my visual filters so that I can see more clearly?" Shepard asked, tentative. Just a moment later, Jane's vision cleared up. The walls around her glowed, outlined by wireframe structures superimposed over her HUD. "Thanks."
"Be careful, Shepard." EDI chastised, though jane was sure she'd heard the hint of a smile -was that even possible in a synthesized voice?- in EDI's tone.
Jane crept forwards, buffeted first one way and then the other by furious gusting currents in the flames. Just a few meters forwards, in some sort of alcove, a spurting cone of fire jetted out into the hallway. As she passed, Jane stared into the alcove, and paused. Three ruptured pipes ran vertically through the alcove, each one spewing fire into the hall. Flaring lights and an alarm played from a omni-gel dispenser against one wall.
"Fuel Line Breach Detected! Fuel Line Breach-" The alarm repeated, over and over. Drowned out by the roar of the flames and the hiss of escaping fuel, the alarm stopped mere seconds after Jane sealed the three pipes, liberally spraying omni-gel around. The fire and smoke around her diminished, as she approached the waypoint EDI had marked out. Shepard rounded a corner. Here, the fires had guttered out, fueled solely by the now-sealed fuel lines.
"How hot is it here?" Shepard asked. Through the smoke still filling the corridor, she could see a heavy blast door, blackened by flames from the pipes she'd just repaired. EDI's waypoint was centered directly on the door's electronic lock. The holographic display flickered, not designed for the thousand-degree heat from the blazing fuel line.
"Temperature in this corridor has dropped to just over one thousand degrees." EDI replied. "The station's cooling systems are working as hard as possible, but they're not perfect."
Shepard waved her omni-tool at the holographic lock. With a pained crunch of disfigured metal, the upper half of the door slid into the ceiling. The lower half simply sparked, emitting a buzz-click noise as it shuddered. It was stuck. Visible beyond the half-opened doorway, a whirling crimson inferno obscured the far end of the hallway. Jane barely had time to cover behind the lower half before the difference in pressure between the two rooms blasted debris and ash and molten shards of glass into her corridor. She felt more than saw the wave of flame pouring into the room, as the phoenix song in her blood grew louder and louder.
Stepping forwards, Shepard strode carefully through a scene of destruction like very few she'd ever seen before. Of course, she usually saw them after the fact, but she had no trouble recognizing that Arcturus station would never be the same.
At the far end of the hall, A service ladder ran upwards into the ceiling. EDI's path-markers traveled up its rungs and out of sight. "The next few corridors are blocked." EDI explained unprompted. Wordlessly, Jane climbed upwards. A thin catwalk extended in front of her. Its railings were missing. If they were plastic, they'd have melted off only seconds after the fires began. Shepard walked along the catwalk, dropping down by yet another door. The fires had receded, here, or perhaps they'd never gotten this far in the first place. Shepard could almost see the station's cooling systems working overtime in this sector. She was close. EDI's waypoint read 'twelve meters.' Examining the door, Shepard agreed with EDI's assessment. Heavy alloys and an inscription on the door stated that this was one of the Ambassadorial Panic Rooms.
"Temperature?" Shepard said aloud, hoping again for EDI to respond.
"Two hundred twenty degrees, Shepard." The AI said. "Hackett and the Prime Minister aren't far behind this door. Open it and close it quickly."
Jane reached out a hand to the lock, omni-tool broadcasting authorization codes. Sparks sprayed outwards, hissing and humming as the holographic screen tried to activate. "That's not going to work." Shepard muttered, half to herself.
EDI spoke up. "While the terminal on this side of the blast door may be damaged, perhaps the one on Hackett's end may be intact." EDI let out a gentle hmm, and said, "I can't reach either the Minister or the Admiral through their comlinks. How do you plan to gain entry?"
Shepard shrugged, raising a gauntleted fist to the door. Biotic energy crackled around clenched fingers. "I'll knock."
Hackett settled back into his chair. Already, the room's temperature was rising. He'd done what he could, but there seemed to be no escape for him and the minister. He knew now that all entrances had been sealed. This was no mere assassination attempt- the timing was just too suspicious. Already Hackett watched as footage reached his omni-tool of scattered clusters of Reaper forces engaging the Alliance Navy. The Navy was making surprising headway, but still taking painful losses, Hackett thought. But something was wrong.
For now, though, his thoughts remained on escape, and on his surroundings. Somebody had to have triggered the explosions and the fuel-line breaches. Somebody's name would be attached to the orders. Even if their clearances were falsified, that would still provide a clue as to how the sabotage was perpetrated.
A dull thudding noise pulled him from his reflection. It repeated three times, as if someone was knocking on the heavy blast door closing off the entrance of Hackett's apartment. The admiral rose to his feet. Quick steps brought him to a glowing comm-terminal by the barricade set up in front of his main entryway.
"Name and rank." he spoke clearly into a microphone. Hackett waited cautiously for a reply, taking hold of his souped-up Avenger rifle once more. Flicking the safety off, he aimed down his sights at the doorway.
"Jane Shepard, Council Spectre. I'm here to get you the hell off of this station." said a voice, garbled slightly.
"Enter with your hands above your head. Walk slowly." Hackett ordered, opening the blast doors. "And I want you to prove you are who you say you are." He pushed a button, and the doors hissed open. One of them sprayed sparks as it settled, crunching against another metal surface. A wave of heat spread through the room, almost a physical force. Still-burning fires and acrid chemicals sprayed across the corridor, further back. An armored figure stood in the doorway, hands raised. Hackett noted the difference in armor indicating that the newcomer was female. The armored form stepped into the room, as Hackett quickly shut the blast doors.
One of the woman's hands went slowly to the back of her helmet. With a long hiss, her armor's atmospheric seal disengaged. A gauntleted hand grasped the helmet and pulled it upwards. A wry smile set into a familiar face greeted the admiral. Hackett lowered his gun, and stood.
"Admiral, Prime Minister." Shepard began, voice quick. "I'm your escape route. I assume you've both had the 'magic' briefing?"
"That's correct." Hackett spoke for the both of them. The minister just nodded, mute. "How do you plan on getting us out?"
"I've got a Portkey." Shepard said. One hand unwrapped her armor's neckpiece, while the other moved to fish for something around her neckline. A moment later, the Spectre pulled from beneath her armor the Alliance-issue dogtags that carried her name and rank. "Grab onto the chain. Keep a firm grip, and we'll be out of here in just a moment." she said, holding out the necklace.
"Where will we arrive?" Hackett asked, as he clenched a fist around the portkey. "I need to keep an eye on the fighting here." Amul Shastri as well took hold of the portkey, looping as much of his arm through it as he could. Shepard confirmed that both men were holding on, and whispered something.
A whirling vortex of blue-black magic and a magical hook behind the navel pulled all three travelers from reality. Just a half-second later, the twisting funnel of spinning, gut-wrenching power deposited everyone on the Normandy's bridge. A crew-member jumped, and stumbled back with a violent curse. EDI's avatar flickered into life by the galaxy-map, now displaying combat-statistics.
"Welcome to the Normandy." Shepard said, with a grin. She nodded to her two passengers, and stepped towards the cockpit, where Joker's voice could clearly be heard, speaking hurriedly with EDI.
Ignoring the startled crewmember, Admiral Hackett stepped up to a holoprojector showing the constantly-updating results of one of EDI's in-depth combat-analysis programs.
"This is excellent." he said, examining the screen. Tapping a few buttons on his omnitool, he spoke. The admiral's posture straightened, and he injected a new well of courage into his voice. "This is Fleet Admiral Hackett, broadcasting to all Alliance fleets. I will be acting as a command-and-control element for the duration of this engagement. Route strategic information through the Kilimanjaro's Quantum-Comms to the SSV Normandy. Good luck, and God be with every one of us."
Data began to stream in through the Normandy's QEC. EDI's massive processing power allowed her to analyze and compile everything into a more comprehensive format, splashing it across the Normandy. Hackett looked across his screen, expression grim. A crewmember beside him did a double-take, and quickly found a flight-harness for the Fleet Admiral and the Prime Minister.
A chill ran down the Admiral's spine as he looked everything over. He'd noticed it before, but now it was much more obvious. Something was off. He was missing something.
First one flash of blue, then ten, then hundreds appeared, heralding the arrival of a veritable armada. Long, gleaming ships swept elegantly through the void. For a moment, the Normandy's sensors focused on a single craft, almost three times as long as any other. Emblazoned on one side in white letters taller than a standard Alliance Dreadnought is tall, the name 'Gaia' stood out, brazen against the gunmetal grey of the rest of the craft.
Hot tears of joy gathered at the edges of the Admiral's eyes, little pinpricks of emotion. His vision blurred ever-so-slightly, and the corners of his mouth turned upwards into a slight smile.
Across Hackett's strategy-screen, a single line of text appeared, condensed down from hundreds upon hundreds of messages from all across of the fleet.
"The Discretionary Fleet has arrived."