Hello all. Here's chapter 21!
There has been a bit of a delay. Never fear: I'm still working on this story, and I do plan to complete it.
(Hint: If you take a course in writing, writing for fun suddenly feels like homework)
Nonetheless, I still plan on finishing this piece. And editing it. The first few chapters are mostly unbridled power-wank, which is sort of expected for a new author's first piece. I'm currently about halfway done rewriting chapter 1 (as of 6/27/18). Hopefully it will come out better this time. I'm also planning on retconning a couple little details that don't really sit right with me. Notably, changing the name of Harry's mercs from 'Mortis Solutions' to some variation of 'Cloak and Dagger Securities.'
Here goes nothing.
Hermione glanced up at the stars.
She'd always known the Reapers were coming. Ever since Harry's message fell back through the Veil, she'd been preparing. With Daphne's help, humanity had spread across the stars. Magics had been crafted, rituals woven and cast, artifacts built and maintained, and ships sailed between the stars, traveling faster than the speed of thought.
Hermione scowled. They'd had a century-and-a-half of warning, and they still weren't ready. The news from Arcturus had arrived an hour ago, and now everyone was panicking. She stepped forwards, approaching her home. Her wards wrapped around her as she leaned into their embrace. They felt warm, as if she was basking in the sun at noon. Hermione walked along the path leading to her door, glancing at the enchanted gardens surrounding the entryway. One of her great-grandchildren had enchanted them a few years back. Now the flowers wouldn't wilt on her if she ignored them in favor of a book. Again, to the consternation of some of her family.
She noticed something odd. An old-fashioned racing broom leaned up against her doorway. She knew it was familiar. She knew she'd seen that sort of broom before. She couldn't quite place it, though. Her hand touched the door-handle, and the worn brass tingled against her skin. It vibrated once. One person inside.
Hermione palmed her wand, just in case, and turned the handle. The door creaked open, and she heard a faint voice talking.
"–and the support cruisers should be keeping the shield-projectors interlocking and layered, rather than trying to only block the easiest avenues of attack. We're going up against AI. If we leave openings, they're going to take advantage."
A tinny voice answered. Hermione couldn't hear what it said, though she strained her ears as much as she could without magic assistance.
The audible voice spoke up once more, almost irritated. "Yes, I'm aware. Irune is on the line, and it's not happening how I remember it should. They've changed their strategies. I've seen a few runes I'm not recognizing from the old collections, and they're not focusing as much on hard targets. I think they've taken morale damage into account. That's why I missed the Irune push, initially. I got complacent. Remember, you've got command once everything starts. I don't have the reaction time, or the skill."
Hermione, shut the door behind herself, as she tiptoed across her entry hall. The voice grew louder as she approached.
"We've got maybe twelve hours before I think they'll advance, and ten hours still left in transit." spoke the intruder.
Hermione stepped into the doorway of her conservatory, and spotted the source of the voice. A tall man with messy black hair spoke into his omni-tool, while leaning on the railing of a set of steps leading down to the back gardens. The quiet voice replied, before the man answered.
"It's optimistic, I know. The volus have some aces I'm counting on. Some kind of casaba-howitzer thanix missile design. Here's hoping it's as good as they say."
Hermione closed the distance slowly, wand ready. This time, she heard the buzz of the other caller as they responded.
"It's gonna be pyrrhic at best. Still, can't stop a man from trying." said the intruder. Again, Hermione couldn't help but feel that she was missing something.
"Alright. I've got to go. Here's hoping you make some progress on those runes."
"Got it. Be safe, Dobby." Harry spoke. Hermione almost jumped into the air.
"Turn around." she said, with a quaver in her voice. "Slowly, or I'll turn you into a fine mist."
"Hey, Hermione!" The intruder–Harry– turned, with a smile on his face. "How've you been doing?" His eyes crossed as Hermione aimed her wand-point right between his eyes from just a few inches away.
"You bastard. How dare you use his face?" She spat, with tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.
"Relax, it's me!" Harry said, lifting his hands to show he was unarmed. "Didn't you get my message?"
"No. Tell me something only he would know." the tip of Hermione's wand glowed an angry red, and dripped sparks.
"Um, you used to draw hearts around Lockheart's classes on your schedule in second year?" Harry said, confused yet hopeful.
Hermione took a moment to process what he'd said. She holstered her wand, and punched him hard in the shoulder. Then she leaped forwards. "Harry!" she cried, just about crushing him in a hug.
"Hermione–" Harry pretended to wheeze. "I can't breathe–"
Hermione stepped back, and glared at Harry for a few moments. "What the hell do you think you're doing!" she finally cried out, voice both exasperated and amused. "You found humans at first contact, and came and visited and then you left?"
"I–" Harry had barely begun when Hermione interrupted him.
"And of all the things you remember from second year you think of that?" Hermione giggled uncharacteristically before she was able to compose herself. "Bloody hell, Harry!" she turned her head, and stepped back. "I feel like I should be offering you tea and baking cookies." she gave a watery smile. "You look as young as some of my great-great-great grandchildren."
Harry's eyes widened. "I've never met any of your family." Harry felt something clench in his gut. "I never knew…"
"I have three children." Hermione said, with a far-away look in her eyes. "Rose, Hugo, and Harry."
"You named one of your children after me?" Harry's breath caught, and his vision blurred. Hermione nodded, with a faint smile. A lump in the back of his throat stopped Harry from speaking, as Hermione continued.
"Rose had four kids of her own, Hugo has two, and Harry has three." Her smile grew. "And each one of them had children, and their children had children. Counting all my children, grandchildren, great-grandkids, great-great-grandkids and so-forth, I have ninety-two grandchildren."
"Family reunions must be something incredible." Harry said, still stunned.
Hermione's voice went hoarse, and tears streamed down her face. "Every single one of them has red hair." she said, with a desperate laugh. "Weasley red hair is a dominant trait, genetically. Have you ever seen a red-haired Malfoy? Rose's kids are hilarious. Half the time I can't tell my own grandchildren apart." she laughed again, longer this time. "Except for when they're Asari. Alexander Weasley, one of the youngest, is happily married with two blue kids."
Harry's eyes opened wide. "Has she been briefed on…" he waved his wand around. "...all this?"
"Come to the next family reunion." Hermione nodded, with a wistful smile. "It's in two months. Every year we head out to a castle I own in the tropics. It's always fun."
"In two months." Harry said, suddenly furious at the reapers, that they might stop him from meeting Hermione's family. "I'll be there. If I have to move heaven and earth, I'll be there."
Harry and Hermione sat next to each other in silence, watching the stars through the windows of the conservatory.
Finally, Harry found the nerve to speak up. "What else have I missed?"
"Ron died in the twenty-eighties." Hermione replied, somber. "George passed a year later."
Harry nodded, with a pained expression across his face. "I knew Ron passed, but I didn't want to be certain." He bowed his head. "I've never even visited the graves. God..." Harry's voice choked up. "I don't even know where he's buried." Hermione looked on in sympathy, and tapped at her omni-tool.
"We always left flowers there from you." She said, eyes distant. "Lilies. Always lilies." A tear rolled down Harry's cheek.
"I must be such a mess right now." he joked, halfheartedly.
"Nobody's pretty when they're crying." Hermione murmured, putting her arm around Harry's shoulder. "It's alright." she said. "You should meet George and Alicia's kids–twins, both pranksters. They joined the Alliance navy. They've had joint command of a black-ops cruiser for half a century. They've had to get some special paperwork and classifications, but they're some of the best."
Harry let out a tired laugh. "I think some of my ships must've been playing tag with them while I was out. The Alliance was trying to take a look at some of my shipyards. Took a devil of a time getting away, according to Dobby. –Er, figuratively, not literally."
"Did you know that there's a monument to you on Hogwarts' grounds?" Hermione changed the subject. Harry froze. "It's almost as tall as the astronomy tower." she added, teasingly.
"Um." Harry's jaw dropped, and he glared at Hermione, indignant. "Who put that up? I told the department that I didn't want any statues."
"It wasn't the Department of Mysteries." Hermione explained. "It was actually Draco's idea."
"Oh my god." Harry let his head fall back against his chair. "Was it purely public relations, or what?"
Hermione nodded. "Good PR, plus he knew it would drive you insane once you got back."
Harry frowned. "He knows me too well." As Hermione laughed, Harry kept talking. "I met him, before I died, the last time. That was… A year and a half ago?" Harry pulled up his omni-tool, before he nodded. "Yep. A year and a half. Jane was dead for the first five months of twenty-one-eighty-three before I brought her back, then it took most of another year to take down the collectors. Then I died." He murmured. "Hmph. Didn't feel that long."
"Draco told me about that." Hermione spoke up. "He was very grateful, and very confused."
"Sounds about right." Harry grinned.
"I have to admit, I'm a little curious about Ms. Shepard myself." Hermione tilted her head. "I won't pry into your relationship, but I thought resurrection was impossible without the Hallows?"
Harry glanced in her direction, measuring. "It is impossible, barring outside help." Hermione's expression turned guarded. Harry winced, and explained. "That came out wrong. It was a balancing of the scales. Something broke one of the rules governing conflict between celestials, and this evened it out. Best for all parties involved."
"The Celestial Compact?" Hermione said, probing.
Harry nodded, and raised his eyebrows. "Where'd you hear about that? It took me a couple years of investigation off-and-on plus a sacrificial goat and a knowledge-spirit."
Hermione smiled, merriment in her eyes behind the drying teardrops. "That sounds just like one of your adventures." She sniffed. "A diplomatic party visited the ICMB about forty years back. All very interesting stuff. But two years ago, both parties stopped communicating with one another. After a few months of radio-silence they told us about the compact, but nothing else. Now the ambassadors are back to being the best of friends." She thought for a second, then looked accusingly at Harry. "Do you happen to know why that would be?"
"Hey!" For a moment, Harry looked indignant, but an embarrassed grin stole its way across his face. "Why'd you instantly assume that I'm in the middle of all this?"
"Aren't you always?" Hermione scoffed. "Really, I bet I could trace you back to most of the events in the news in the last few years."
"Um." Harry laughed. "I can neither confirm nor deny…"
Hermione laughed. "I can see your hand behind all the armaments initiatives and militarist lobbying in the Alliance. It's pretty easy if you know what you're looking for."
"Are they working?" Harry said.
"Yes, but it's scaring the asari." Hermione said.
Harry cocked his head. "I don't follow."
"Think about it, Harry." Hermione felt nostalgic, all of a sudden. Her school-years were long over, but it appeared that teaching Harry would never fall by the wayside. "They're a race that lives more than a thousand years. Long-term expansion is their bread and butter. They don't do all the short-term stuff we humans do. For them, economic power equates to military victory, since most fights between asari are settled on the stock markets, in extranet debates, or corporate takeovers. What trend do you see there?"
"I've heard this before." Harry said, not seeing where Hermione was leading the conversation. "Everything they do takes years and years. That includes military expansion. According to an asari perspective, money equals might because they're used to having enough time to build up militaries."
"Mostly right," Hermione nodded, hesitant. "But you're not the only one lobbying for both long and short-term military expansion. Within the Alliance, Admiral Hackett's a strong supporter of the navy, along with Hahne-Kedar and the rest of the Alliance-affiliated contract companies. Outside the Alliance, the largest lobbying organizations include the Shadow Broker," she winked at Harry. "Plus Cerberus, and Aegohr Munitions, a salarian corporation."
"Wait, how'd you figure that I'm the Shadow Broker?" Harry feigned indignance.
"You used 'Harris Pottis' and 'Bilius Reasley' as aliases for the CEO of Kechlu corp. I guessed based off of the sheer number of shell companies involved with Kechlu, and don't dodge the question."
"You caught me." Harry said, jovial. "So what, there's a lot of money flowing to fund the Alliance. I knew going into this that the Alliance military would be seen as a bunch of warmongering monkeys."
"Yes. That's exactly it." Hermione said, shaking her head in exasperation.
"It's worth it. I need ground troops." Harry spoke. He sounded almost regretful. "I can build a navy, but not an army."
"But the Asari don't see it that way!" Hermione said, exasperation coming to a head. "They're terrified. They're thinking a hundred years ahead. If this keeps up, the Alliance will have enough troops that they could invade a good chunk of the galaxy."
"It doesn't matter now, though." Harry said. "They've got to face the facts."
Hermione's eyes opened wide. "They won't see how important this is unless it gets rubbed in their faces. They'll deliberate until Reapers are landing on Thessia."
All of a sudden, Harry looked a whole lot older. "That's what I thought." he said. "But they've got to fight. Biotic infantry en masse will go a long way towards winning this war."
"We've been preparing for war against the reapers for a century, and we're still not prepared." Hermione muttered.
"You saw the news from Arcturus?" Harry asked, already knowing the answer.
"It's bad." Hermione said. "They sent so many ships for us… and this was their opening salvo." She shook her head. "Tell me honestly. How do we stand? What are our chances of winning against them?"
"About that…" Harry smiled. "We found something in the Mars Archives. The Protheans and the Inusannon before them had a plan for the Reapers. They designed some sort of superweapon, we think."
"...And you need my help to find it?" Hermione asked, drily.
"We need your help to translate the designs." Harry said. "It's a thirty-kilometer long ritual altar. I can put it together, but it's written in Prothean and Inusannon script. I know a million different alphabets and languages from the Reaper I assimilated, but that was millions of years ago. Nothing I know applies to the last couple hundred cycles, so this is new to me. Hell, magic wasn't developed enough way back when to pull off some of the rituals I've seen. Half the rune alphabets I know aren't precise enough for this. I'm good with rituals, but I'm not good enough that I'd stake the fate of humanity on my ego."
"Leave that to me." Hermione spoke with a sense of finality. "I'll translate the runes on that weapons of yours. You've got to collaborate with the Alliance and get the thing built. Once that's done, we can win. Until then we're sinking."
"You don't know how much of a relief it is to have you in on this." Harry glanced downwards. "That's not the only reason I've come." He glanced up at Hermione. "I've felt some of the rituals you've cast from the far side of the galaxy."
Hermione froze. "How?" she asked. "Rituals don't put out that sort of magic reverberations." she shook her head. "It doesn't work like that."
"I'd recognize that brand of bookish and playful anywhere. I kept feeling like your patronus was nearby whenever I felt the ritual. Didn't take a genius to figure it out."
"Do you mean…?" Hermione trailed off.
"I'm the Master of Death." Harry nodded. "The title isn't just for show, but you knew that already." Harry smiled, sadly. "I know you're making Philosopher's stones. Elixir of life, in quantities the universe has never seen. Disrupting the inevitable."
"Is immortality for all so terrible a goal to work towards?" Hermione said, half curious, half cautious. She shifted a little. A nervous tic. "Is there something wrong with wanting the best for everyone I've ever met?"
"No," Harry said. Hermione relaxed, almost invisibly. "But I want you to be careful. Immortality is a power unlike most others. Power of the body is only temporary. Strength of mind, arm, and magic comes and goes. Money, worship, and influence can last for as long as you live."
"Worship?" Hermione looked at Harry. Her eyes widened, and she ran a hand through her hair to hide the ever-so-slight quiver in her fingertips.
"Immortality–really just supernatural longevity– makes power eternal." Harry continued. "It lets you keep your mind sharp for the rest of time. It lets your strength of arm stay with you until the stars above you give out. Eternal life lets dictators sit on their thrones until the worship of their subjects turns them into gods of savagery and hedonism."
Hermione winced. "Yes," she said. "But we can counteract that. We can deal with them before they become a problem."
"It's possible." Harry said. "I won't deny the possibility. But the thing is, we aren't the only species with magic."
"But we haven't seen anything from any of the other races." Hermione said, certain of herself. "Nothing. None of the detectors went off, nothing's siphoning off the ley-lines on other planets, there's no residue from old artifacts and spells, there's nothing. We're the only species able to access magic."
"You're wrong." Harry made a vague all-encompassing gesture. "Every sentient being has magic. Not much, but they do. A normal non-magical human has just enough for them to do something with it just a few times in their life. Lift a car from off a loved-one. Drag a man twice their size from a burning building. Dodge an oncoming bullet. Us magicals have so much more than they do, enough that we can harness it. Our magic lets us perform miracles. Nearly instantaneous healing. Teleportation. Transforming one thing into another. Telling conservation of mass to go die in a hole. These are all things a magical human can do."
"But no other race has ever been able to do that." Hermione rebuffed him. "There's no evidence that even a single spell has been cast all across Thessia, Sur'kesh, Palaven–There's nothing."
"That's what I'm getting to." Harry explained. "Other races do have magic. Most of it is just natural. More comes with stronger will or determination. Salarians accelerate their brains just a fraction at the cost of their lifespans. Turians don't die on their sun-blasted waste of a planet. Asari biotics find it ever-so-slightly easier to manipulate biotics than humans. That's why asari biotic amps mostly improve biotic strength, rather than control. There's also some weird, mutated asari who kill people by melding with them. I'm not sure if that's magic, though. The Batarians have their Black God. Every batarian on Khar'shan prays to him when they wake and before they go to bed. They bequeath their power unto him, or something like that. That's why they're all terrified into worshipping him, and why he's lived so long. According to their culture and records, he's been leading their society into the future for the last five hundred years."
"Bloody hell." Hermione whispered.
"Yeah." Harry agreed. "It's scary. At least he's getting the shit bombed out of him by the Reapers. Isn't that a sentence I didn't think I'd ever say! If humanity didn't have our own protectors, we might be in a bit of trouble. But this is all part of the reason I want you to be careful with giving out supernatural longevity to the masses. Elixir of life works on every race, and heals almost everything. Beings from all over the galaxy and beyond will want what you have. The batarians, especially. Their so-called Black God would hold civilian worlds hostage for even a single stone. He'd kill trillions. The asari would do the same, though with politics and words. Unless you gave up access to the Stones, the asari would make sure we never traded another credit in Citadel Space. They're long-lived, but they die too. They watch as 'lesser' species come and go, and when death finally comes for them, they don't go gracefully. The salarians would declare war. Forty years is old age for them. Not a single salarian has passed fifty-one. They'd buy eternity with a guerilla war like nothing humans have yet faced. Biological weapons that scour planets down to single-celled organisms. Invisible operatives in every city, bombs in every aircar, cameras watching every face. The krogan wouldn't care. They're biologically immortal already. The vorcha would die in the trillions. There's a reason the media jokes about measuring their lives in months. The oldest vorcha in history hit twenty-eight years old. They can outbreed krogan even without the genophage. The Hanar already have brain-upload tech. The Volus would bribe and buy and sue until something gave."
"I knew it would be hard." Hermione glared up at the stars. "But this is something else. Are you sure about all that?"
"As sure as I can be." Harry answered. "This is the kind of thing that would force us into wars even as the Reapers come down around our heads. We've either got to use it only as a healing agent and call it super-medigel until after the war's over, or we need to wait. Because biological immortality–super-longevity– won't help whatsoever when you take a bullet to the forehead."
"I fucking hate politics." Hermione growled. "Can't do any good in the world without offending a politician."
"It's horrible." Harry shuddered. "And you went into politics. You'd know. Politicians and spooks are everywhere. Doing something like giving out elixir of life is going to step on lots of toes. There's nothing we can do about that." Harry muttered.
"Just like old times. Fix one problem, and a hundred more appear..." Hermione laughed, trailing off. "I can barely remember the last time you visited. Just after first contact." Hermione shook her head. "Visit more," she said. "And not just when we're on the cusp of complete annihilation."
"I will." he said. "I should've visited years ago."
The conversation wound down, until finally both Harry and Hermione stood in silence, emotionally drained and tired enough to drop. Harry wordlessly transferred the Crucible designs to Hermione's omni-tool. They laughed that she hadn't seen his note, and had come in thinking he was some sort of intruder. They spoke quietly, and laughed quietly, until finally, Harry said "I've got to get some sleep. Worlds are turning." Harry and Hermione stared at each other, neither wanting to be the first to say goodbye. A hug, a farewell, and some sniffles later, Harry apparated to his bedroom aboard the Nyx. Just for the night, he opened the observation port above his bed.
Harry and Hermione watched the stars, miles and miles away from each other. Both were asleep only seconds after their heads hit the pillows.
Alarms blared aboard the Pride of Commerce, one of the few Volus dreadnoughts in existence.
"All hands to battlestations!" Called a hissing voice over the intercom. "The Relay is activating. Massive signatures incoming!"
Squat exo-suited figures scrambled from compression-chambers and bunks. The ammonia-filled atmosphere within the ship's hull would be toxic to any other race, but not the volus. Despite the atmosphere of the ship, the crew still wore exo-suits both in case of hull breach and to breathe. The ship's cycling atmosphere wasn't pressurized enough for a volus to survive in it for long. It was only there to keep a volus with a suit-breach alive long enough for medical personnel to arrive. Liquid ammonia condensed along coolant tubes, as the Commerce's engines powered up. The dreadnought shuddered almost imperceptibly, as it accelerated. Blinking lights lit up all across the ship's interior, as kinetic shielding powered up and weapons-systems scanned for hostile craft. A target-designator and IFF system beeped once, then twice, then it let out a continuous whine as ship after ship passed through the relay.
The Volus Admiral leaned back in his seat. His respirator let out a long hiss, as he sighed in relief. "Lower threat level to three." he announced, entering a series of commands on his omni-tool.
"Admiral," -kscht- went the respirator, "We're being hailed." said a comms officer.
Dreadnought-scale thrusters thundered against the ship's bulkheads, making the entire kilometer-long hull of the craft shudder and shake. This was but one of the ships in transit to Irune: super-dreadnoughts ten times the size of any standard dreadnought hull soaring along with the rest of the fleet. A synchronized formation moving well in excess of the speed of light.
All the ships were dwarfed by one massive signature, right in the center of the fleet. This was the Ouranos, a thirty-kilometer monster of steel, alloy, and armor. Guns studded thousands of hardpoints across the craft's hull, and the massive main batteries running the length of the ship could shatter any ordinary craft with a single barrage. This was the flagship, the hammer to smash against the anvil of a Relay, or a series of defense platforms, or any choke point in the galaxy. This was a ship to put the fear of a human God into the hearts of the Reapers.
The fleet passed through the relay, flickering with the blue light characteristic of relay-standard cherenkov radiation. The massive hulls shuddered, as their antiproton drives propelled them forwards.
"Onscreen." said the volus admiral. A display lit up a moment later, showing only a pale blue dot.
"Greetings, Admiral." Spoke a human voice, bland enough that it could have been spoken by half the human race. "Reinforcements have arrived."
"That's when we arrived. The turians were there a couple hours later, but we weren't planning on going out-of-system and letting the Reapers land behind us." Dobby explained. The comlink flickered, despite the quantum entanglement. "I started detecting the rounds then, but I didn't know what they were at the time. Just a number of tiny objects moving pretty slowly on long-range scanners. Neither I nor the turians realized what we were seeing until about six hours after that. It was that volus admiral, Harry. He caught what they'd done. I don't think I've ever been so shocked in my life."
"Something's coming up on scans, sir." one of the volus technicians raised a bulbous arm. "Around four thousand contacts, moving at a significant fraction of lightspeed."
"Visual?" said the admiral, before taking another hissing breath.
"On-screen in two minutes, sir. Sensor drone away."
With bated breath, the command staff of the Pride of Commerce watched the feed from the drone as it accelerated to FTL. Two minutes sped by, as noise on the command deck fell to whispers. The beep and hum of the warship's consoles were all that breached the silence of the bridge.
A series of red lines appeared on the screens above the bridge. First one, then as the drone approached, it resolved into a mass of flickering rays, all traveling at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light. Finally, the display let out a ding as it completed its analysis. A readout lit up on a display just under the video feed.
Mass Accelerator Rounds
Quantity: (Estimated) 3,820 - 4,240
Muffled whispers echoed around the bridge, as the Admiral lifted a panel and pressed a large red button.
"I don't understand yet." The wizard sat back in his cockpit. "When did the evacuation of Irune begin?"
"We put out the emergency signals as soon as I verified the admiral's findings." The AI paused. "Once we realized that all those thousands of dots on the long-range scans were mass-accelerator rounds, I had the admiral hit the message beacons and start the evacuation."
"Where does harvesting a moon for materials fit in there?" Harry scratched his head, both curious and unsettled.
"We needed to evacuate them." the AI replied frankly. "So I blasted one of the system's moons to dust, and fed what I could into the factory-ships. All I needed was to change the template in each fabricator from fighters to shuttlecraft."
"We left too many behind, even then." Harry glanced downwards at the instruments in his cockpit.
"This isn't your fault." The AI replied. "We saved what we could. There wasn't anything you could have done differently."
"I should've predicted this. I knew their strategies would change while I was sleeping." The wizard lifted one hand to eye-level. Wispy smoke poured from his fingertips, collecting in a sphere hovering above his hand. Grayed-out scenes of Reapers in combat and burning ships and stations and worlds flickered rapidly through the sphere, growing faster as the seconds flew by.
"You were sleeping for millennia." Dobby spoke, almost exasperated. "You couldn't have known because you weren't there. You tried your best to counter them, but they've been around for a billion years. You've had thirty." The AI was silent for a moment. "Look, Harry. We're doing what we can. Without us, the galaxy would be stuck in this cycle of destruction. Now, we're giving it a chance. We can't throw that away."
"Let's go kill some Reapers." Harry sighed. "Give me some options."
"I've got good news." Dobby spoke up, almost happy in a vicious sort of way. "We're going into deep space, off the galactic plane."
"The Reapers are already here, though." said the wizard slowly. "We'd be destroying stockpiles, maybe signal relays and repair stations at best."
"Not quite." The AI replied, pulling up a few readings. Highlighted were a series of positions well past the galactic rim. "I've discovered that the Reapers are deliberately elongating this war. They caught on to some of your economic manipulations, and I think they're planning something with the galactic stock market. If they delay, the whole galaxy's economy will crash. Anyway, they didn't bring their whole force. In fact, I don't even think they've brought half of their fleets. I'm assuming that they're trying to draw you out, then pounce."
"You said there was good news." Harry grimaced. "This isn't funny."
"They're inactive. Hibernating. The Reapers are planning on reactivating them gradually, or whenever they gauge our strength." Dobby's wireframe avatar smiled, on Harry's screen. "It's a short window, but we can destroy them while they're hibernating, and when we're done, we've got that teleportation beacon of yours to get back."
"Good." Harry said. A smile crept its way across his features, until it reached almost from one ear to the other. "Let's make them pay."
Shepard stepped out of the Normandy's airlock into one of the Citadel's many docking bays.
"Excuse me, ma'am-" a voice called over the hum of the fuel lines even now refueling the ship. Jane glanced over, and spotted the owner of the voice: a customs agent. "-I've got a dataslate for you. Councilor Tevos signed for it herself once she noted the Normandy's docking request."
Shepard turned, and approached the man. He held out the dataslate, and nodded decisively. "I exempted your ship from customs inspections once the bay's scanners determined your identity. Standard procedure for council Spectres, and less paperwork for me. Unless there's anything else, I should go. Safe travels." The man waved, and started towards the doorway leading to the nearest transit terminal.
Shepard glanced down at the dataslate, and pressed her thumb to the scanner. She was startled by a miniscule prick, and pulled her hand away. A little bit of blood oozed from her finger. A familiar voice rang out, as Dobby -Harry's AI- spoke up. "Identity Confirmed: Jane Shepard. Access Granted."
Harry's face appeared on the dataslate. It wasn't a clear picture, nor was the resolution excellent, but it was clear enough that Shepard could see the determination on the wizard's face. "Jane!" Harry said, his tone casual but forced.
"What's going on?" Shepard asked, curious and slightly alarmed.
"I know I told you I'd meet you at the Citadel, but plans have changed. I'll be busy for the next week or three." the wizard replied. Jane couldn't help the knot in her stomach as it clenched hard. She hadn't realized how much she'd hoped to see him again. "I'm sorry. Fortunately for the war effort-" left unsaid was that it was unfortunate for him, "-I've stumbled on something important." Harry continued. "Game-changing. This might give us a chance, even if the Crucible designs don't pan out."
Shepard grinned halfheartedly. "That's just about the first good news I've heard in ages. How much can you tell me?"
"Not much at all." Harry grimaced. "Two of my fleets and I won't be back for at least a week, probably more. Dobby has command of just about everything and a solid quantum-commline, so he'll be able to tell you when I'm done, as well as provide updates. Until then, I think I've got to keep pretty quiet, since I'll be in the thickest parts of the fighting if things go wrong."
In the background, Jane heard the AI's voice call out. "Reaper signatures detected. All hibernating."
Harry glanced for a long moment at something out of the dataslate camera's field of view. "Plan's going well so far. I'm thinking three weeks, okay?" He said, speaking tenderly for a rare moment.
"Can't wait." Jane said. Her eyes flickered downwards.
"Jane." the wizard spoke, sincere. "I miss you. I can't wait to see you again."
Dobby's voice in the background rose. "Firing Axial Guns." the AI said, and the video feed of Harry's face shook and dissolved into static for a quarter-second. The static burst repeated six seconds later.
"I miss you too." Jane replied. The knot resting above her stomach eased, ever-so-slightly. "Be safe."
"You as well." The wizard said. "A fleet engagement's just begun. I have to manage. I'll catch you another time, Jane."
She exchanged another round of pleasantries before her finger brushed the 'end-call' button, and the screen went black.
"Three weeks." She mumbled to herself, and wrapped her arms around her chest. "Three weeks."
Within the docking bay, precision and military efficiency was the rule. Outside, the rest of the Citadel was in chaos. Crowds screamed and yelled, some waving signs in protest, some trying to get into the transit terminal. Many of them were simply trying to get home to their families or their homeworlds. Nonetheless, it was a scene wholly unlike anything Shepard had seen anywhere on the Citadel. Jane made her way easily through the crowds to the Citadel's internal tramway/elevator system, aided by the imposing visage of her heavy armor and heavier guns. Thankfully her SPECTRE authority allowed her to speed up the elevators, else the transit would have taken half an hour to take her from the far edge of Tayseri Ward all the way to the Presidium.
She arrived on the Presidium, stepping out onto a balcony overlooking the lake at the lowest level of the structure. Above her, the aircar lanes were far busier than she'd seen before. A shuttle bearing C-Sec's logo swept downwards a block away. The vehicle's side door opened fast, as it descended to a nearby landing pad.
Jane's omni-tool buzzed, registering a priority message. She glanced down. Her eyes widened imperceptibly as the device lit up with a council signature.
"This is Shepard." she said as she picked up the call.
"Spectre." the voice of Councilor Tevos played from Shepard's earpiece. "I need a miracle." The Asari's voice sounded strained, and Jane could almost hear the strain the councilor was under.
Jane pursed her lips, considering Harry's cryptic message, and the bombshell of his revelations about the crucible, days earlier. "Let's meet in person. I think I might have one."
"Thank the gods." Tevos replied, as if the weight of the world had been lifted from her back. "Where can we meet?"
"The Normandy's our best bet. Harry spent some time aboard, so it's free of bugs." Shepard explained. "Take a shuttle to Docking bay Tayseri-three-thirty-two. I'll open the Normandy's shuttlebay."
"I'll be there in fifteen minutes." Tevos said. "See you soon." She hung up, and started for the door. Then, muttering to herself, Tevos said "Oh, my security detail is going to hate this…"
Shepard glanced around, ducked behind a doorway, then activated the portkey around her neck. With a pop, she appeared on the bridge of the Normandy. "Open the shuttle-bay doors," she spoke aloud for EDI to hear. "Councilor Tevos will be here soon. She and I need to have a very… private... conversation."
"Remember, Shepard." said EDI, tone sarcastically dry. "Once you go blue, nothing else will do."
Shepard turned an incredulous face towards the nearest holo-transmitter displaying EDI's avatar.
"Too much?" The AI said, her voice innocent-as-could-be. Shepard could barely detect EDI's veiled amusement. On the other hand, she could hear Joker's laughter all the way from the back of the CIC.
Tevos' shuttle landed in the Normandy's shuttlebay with nary a whisper. Powerful engines spooled down, using barely a fraction of their maximum capacity. One of the armored side-doors opened, and an asari bodyguard stepped out, wary hand on the butt of her pistol. After no hostile contact occurred, the bodyguard gave an all-clear gesture and stepped further into the room. Another four bodyguards followed, and then, finally, Councilor Tevos stepped from the aircar, armored as fully as she could be.
Shepard walked forwards, unarmed and unarmored. The bodyguards tensed as she approached. One of them held up an omni-tool, and scanned her. "Identity confirmed," the turian said, clearly on edge.
"Everything alright?" Jane queried, confused at the nervous security-presence.
Tevos stepped forwards, pushing past one of her bodyguards. "They think I'm walking into a trap." she said, frankly. "Is this a trap, Shepard?"
"Uh, no?" Shepard said, suddenly worried. "Do you want to meet somewhere else? You could get back in the shuttle, if this isn't safe enough."
"I think it's all unnecessary." Tevos said, brushing aside one of her bodyguards as she approached Shepard. "They're worried because we don't know what's in your cargo holds, as your spectre clearance was used to pass customs. It's standard procedure for Spectres, so it's just worry over the unknown. For all we know, your bays are empty."
"And the terrifyingly high biotic rating, Councilor." said the asari bodyguard, audibly exasperated. "That's the other concern."
Tevos sniffed. "I don't care about the biotic rating. Murder with biotics requires intent. I know you're smart, Shepard. You wouldn't call a meeting like this to get me killed."
"O...kay?" Shepard's tongue stumbled as her train of thought derailed. She shook her head, forcing herself back on topic. "...I've got the starboard observation deck blacked out. No cameras, no bugs, nothing. Perfect spot for a private conversation."
"I will not-" The turian bodyguard opened his mouth to object, but Tevos shut him down.
"I trust Spectre Shepard." Tevos said, glaring. "If she wanted me dead, she's had ample opportunity to pull it off whether by action or inaction."
The bodyguard wordlessly conceded the point.
"Follow me." Shepard said, after few seconds of silence. With a hiss, the central lift's doors opened. Shepard stepped inside, and sighed as the first bodyguard stepped into the elevator, waited a moment, then gave an all-clear. The lift lowered one level, as the councilor's bodyguards' eyes drifted nervously around the lift's interior.
"This way." Jane said, stepping out of the elevator. She turned, walking towards the observation bay, and found herself alone at the door. She glanced over her shoulder, and spotted the lead bodyguard once again peering about methodically, before giving an all-clear. She could almost feel the beginnings of a migraine stirring in the back of her head.
"Look," Shepard said despairingly, "I know you're going to take the helmet-footage back to your commanding officers and cover your asses, but this next part will just be you five staring at the bulkhead while the councilor and I talk about classified things."
The bodyguards' silent fidgeting was damning.
"Right." Shepard said drily. "Go check the observation bay for bugs and explosives and such. Make sure the pool table isn't a geth, and that I didn't hide a shotgun in the liquor cabinet. Just make it quick, would you? The sooner you're done, the sooner you can get the councilor out of here."
Almost fifteen minutes later, two of the five bodyguards came back out to join Shepard, Tevos, and the third, fourth, and fifth guards. "It's safe." one of them said, and stepped aside.
"Thanks." Shepard muttered. The door hissed open again as she approached. Rather undignified, Jane slumped down in one of the couches looking out through the observation windows. Thanks to the ship's angle, she had a beautiful view of the Widow Nebula over Tayseri Ward. Ships flew by, leaving almost-invisible wakes of pink particles against the blackness of space. Shepard patted the side of the couch, indicating for Tevos to sit down. "EDI," Shepard said aloud, "Scan and destroy listening devices. Secure the room."
Tevos looked around for the source of a faint pop, and the nearly-inaudible eeee of one of Harry's anti-eavesdropping devices.
"You said you had something." The councilor began, prodding gently.
Shepard held up her omni-tool, and wordlessly displayed a hologram of the Crucible's designs. Tevos looked askance at the Spectre. "The Crucible." she said. "We found this in the Mars Archive. Prothean plans for a superweapon. A device to 'put an end to the Reapers.'" Shepard made air-quotes at the last line of the phrase. "That's the closest Harry, Liara and I can get to an accurate translation from Prothean to English, anyway."
Tevos didn't quite go bug-eyed at that, but it was close. "And will it work?"
Jane sidestepped the question. "Have you had the briefing on M-class Alliance citizens?"
"Your 'magical' population, yes." Tevos frowned.
"The Protheans had magic too." She tried to drop the bombshell gently, but to no avail. "Not the same way humans do, but Harry thinks that there's one constant, more or less. Runes, he calls them." here Shepard's explanation grew stilted, as she skirted the edges of what she knew about magic. "Sort of like programming a computer by writing out symbols and such." Jane was privately glad to see that Tevos had even less knowledge on the topic than she did. "It's called a ritual when you combine many rune-programs for a single result. Sometimes, if the ritual is complex enough, the caster needs a ritual altar. The altar serves as a combination of a focus and an amplifier. Stonehenge, on Earth, is one of the better examples of that." Shepard held up a picture of the standing stones, some of them fallen and all of them lichen-covered and mouldering away.
"...I think I follow." Tevos said, tentative. Her puzzled expression belied a keen glint in her eyes, a desire to know more.
Jane dragged her hand across the designs of the Crucible, and the picture grew closer and closer to the structure until a vast network of lines and symbols hove into view. "The entire Crucible is a thirty-five kilometer ritual altar." she said. "Apparently, a ritual of that size could cover the galaxy."
"So it might just be able to pull off what the designs promise." as she watched, lines dropped away from Tevos' face. It was the first relieved expression Shepard had seen the councilor wear in years. The Councilor and the Spectre sat in a companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the traffic above Tayseri Ward as it flew through the fringes of the Widow Nebula. In that moment, they were neither councilor nor Spectre. They were simply hopeful, for the first time in what felt like years.
Finally, Tevos glanced at her omnitool and stood, regretfully. "Shepard," she said, "Thank you for this. I won't spread the news any further. I wish I could stay, but my security team is getting worried."
"Be well, Councilor." Jane replied, content to stay on the couch for a while longer.