10/10/2017

Thank you to Pax Humana and Daisy Duck 39 for beta-ing.

Thank you to everyone who reviewed, you are the greatest!

One Year Anniversary! Yay!

Part 2 The Fall of the Galaxy
Chapter 26: Hope For the Future..?

-cfr-

Human Ascended Attack Fleet, Illium Orbit

"Harper, to me," Shepard gave the instruction the instant the last of the space-based defences around Illium were destroyed. A small part of him kept his attention on the planet.

Illium's population lived on the border between the Council and the Terminus Systems and with their planet being one of the key gateways between the two, they were relatively rich. It showed. It wasn't as if the Humans could hide their presence so Illium's leaders had used the last few months to hire every merc Aria hadn't controlled. They had also brought every fission weapon their money and influence could bring to the planet. They hadn't fired them, not that it would do any good against the shielded and armoured hulls of the Ascended, but it made their ploy obvious. Illium's leaders were going to fire them at the landing parties. It seemed stupid for a garden world but since Illium was not as blue as Earth, and the continents had a silver sheen, Shepard couldn't bring himself to care. Besides, he had something else to take care of now.

The spy master pulled in beside him. For the last few months, Harper had been with his own sub fleet but Illium, with its defences, had warranted the use of several sub fleets. The distribution seemed random but Shepard had made sure that several particular Ascended were here.

"What is it?" Harper asked, his tone was respectfully curious.

"Someone has been carrying tales to Harbinger," Shepard replied grimly.

It was to Harper's credit that, even as other Ascended formed up around them, he said nothing.

"I know it wasn't you, Harper," Shepard continued. "You would have taken Harbinger's place before you complained to authority."

That brought a tiny flash of amusement from Cerberus' former leader. "You surprise me, Shepard. I wouldn't have thought you'd notice such subtlety."

"You'd be surprised," Shepard said. "Besides, Harper, for all your manipulations, you have always done what you thought was best for Humanity," he added, sending on a sub channel all the little schemes Harper had run on Earth both before and after the deal. He'd probably missed some, a lot, Shepard corrected himself, but those that were transmitted would serve as an illustration. "Of course, that does not give you free rein but it does mean in certain areas, I can trust you."

"So who was it?" Harper asked, choosing not to say anything. This was a side of Shepard that had only been hinted at but it was one he could respect.

"Someone stupid," came the reply, along with identification information as all the fleets moved to face off against one lone Ascended.

The instant the target was pointed out, Harper understood.

Alexander.

Most Human Ascended allowed several to speak for them. There were only a few that did not. Shepard was one, but while Shepard was the only public speaker, he never denied others in his form the chance to speak privately over the information network. Harper was another. He controlled those within him yet they were always free to advise him. He had learnt the hard way that other points of view were valid, or even if he thought them stupid, he should at least consider them so he'd know how to counter them. With the others, while it was one voice who spoke for the whole, there was the sense that the voice was merely a spokesperson for the combined gestalt mind.

Alexander was different. When that Human Ascended spoke, there was no echo. It was Alexander's voice and Alexander alone. Now, obviously that could not be completely true. No one could operate such a huge form alone but this Human Ascended was controlled by a few and that was not embracing the glory which was ascension.

"What do you want?" Alexander snarled, realising that the others had turned on him.

"Shepard," Harper sent to the Human Ascended leader privately. "We can't fire on him," he said. There hadn't been any warnings but Harper just had that feeling.

"You'll see," Shepard replied and Harper was left wondering what game Shepard was playing.

"What do I want, Alexander?" Shepard replied to the question on an open channel, lacing his voice with a sense of amused superiority, as if he held all the cards and this was just an interlude.

"Yes, Shepard, what do you want?"

"I think it's more a question of what you want," Shepard goaded Alexander further. "And of course who you've been talking to."

Alexander snorted. "What makes you think I'm going to tell you?" He asked, knowing he was in trouble but trying to brazen it out.

"The same thing that made you speak the first time."

That caused Alexander to pause. He hadn't spoken to Shepard but then he understood. "What, you are going to have Harbinger choose?" The question was incredulous. If Shepard bothered the eldest Ascended with this, then there was no way he'd remain in charge.

A laugh broke Alexander's stream of thought, except it didn't come from Shepard. "Harper," he spat. For a while, Alexander had thought that Harper was like him, that he recognised true strength, but the former leader of Cerberus was only playing with power. He lacked the guts to actually grasp it and push those who were irrelevant into subservience.

"You don't get it, do you?" Harper continued to laugh.

"That's enough," Shepard said sharply, and while Harper could feel there was no bite in the words, he silenced himself. "No, Alexander, this does not concern Harbinger."

"It will," Alexander replied. "Your leadership is a joke," he added.

"Oh, and what exactly do you find amusing?"

"It's only a matter of time before you get someone killed. The idiot gun monkey proved that," Alexander replied to Shepard's deceptively gentle question. When no one said anything, he warmed to his topic. "My training scores were better than yours Shepard. Ironic isn't it, given that you developed that training, yet on everything; mass effect fields, delicate manipulation, husk control... everything I smashed every score you set yet you remain in control when it's obvious you will lead us to disaster!"

It started as an almost inaudible whisper of noise. A huff like a breath of wind. Then it gathered strength, getting louder and more defined until it was recognisable as laughter.

"What?" Alexander demanded, outrage in the shine of his running lights.

"You seriously think that matters?" Shepard gasped the words. "Your training scores?" He continued, pausing between each word to emphasise the pure disbelief echoing through his tone. Shepard didn't stop laughing, not even when he felt Alexander's targeting system wind up and lock onto him.

"You don't want to do that," Shepard said, allowing his weapon techs to manually confirm their target lock, without activating his own weapons. A pulse to the fleet had them following suit and on the private comms, Shepard was inundated with calls from the fleet telling him that they could not fire on another Ascended. "Annie, deal with them," he gave the internal order and felt her soothing the others.

"You are stupid, Shepard!" Alexander roared. "I will fire!"

"Good luck with that," Joker muttered. Shepard ignored his pilot. Joker's consciousness was already twined through the controls. If Alexander had worked out some way to fire, then his pilot would take care of it.

"I'm sure you can't!" Shepard challenged. "But go ahead and try or do you want to know why your petty objections mean nothing?"

While it was hard to determine uncertainty in an Ascended form, for an instant, Shepard felt it from Alexander. His running lights dipped for a moment but almost instantly, they lit up again with new fervour. "He finally worked it out," Pressly surmised that Alexander had taken Shepard's challenge and tried to fire his weaponry.

"I hope the recoil was painful," Adams added. Ascended served the cycle. They were not required to like each other but they were required to work with each other towards the same goal. They could not fire upon each other. It was one of the things hard coded into their beings.

"Shush," Shepard rebuked, still keeping the bulk of his attention on Alexander, though the part of him watching Illium wondered vaguely what they were thinking of this little show.

"There's nothing you can do!" Alexander scoffed eventually, releasing the activation on his weapons. "If I can't fire on you, you can't fire on me," he added, "and I will just try again and again until I succeed. It's only a matter of time and what else do I have but time?"

Shepard looked at Illium. The cities were encased in giant circles of light that he could see from his vantage point. Alexander was outlined against one. He didn't need to give a command, he simply thought about firing and it happened. The round loosened and raced along its tracks. Alexander spluttered in disbelief, seeing the round and reacting far faster than any organic could. His point defences sparked as he tried to activate them against another Ascended, so he had to dodge though the movement was clumsy. Joker was his equal and as Alexander moved, Shepard's pilot shifted his form so that the ferrotungsten titanium ball left him perfectly on target. They were close in space and it whisked through Alexander's shields, scorching his side before continuing on into Illium's atmosphere.

"You missed!" Alexander crowed as behind him the round began burning, creating a brilliant light show.

"Did I?" Shepard retorted as Illium's AA batteries lit up, far too early as they attempted to break up the round.

"You can't truly fire on me!" The other Ascended continued celebrating with growing confidence.

"I hit what I targeted," Shepard said serenely.

It was the quiet undertone that brought cut through Alexander's celebrations.

"You did not!" He objected without thinking.

"Shut up!" Harper broke in before Shepard could reply. "I'm finding it impossible to believe you could be that stupid!"

"As if you could talk," Alexander replied, though his form never turned away from Shepard.

"I believe Cerberus told you to shut up," Shepard said firmly his voice so soft as to almost be inaudible. "You should have realised when you couldn't fire that you couldn't challenge me."

"But you-"

"Silence!" Shepard snapped, making it an order and even his internal commentators fell silent at the force of his instruction. They knew now was not the time for distractions. "Did you really believe that leadership was bestowed on training scores? The instant you failed to fire you should have realised, and I think parts of you did, Alexander," Shepard drawled the name as if looking through the layers of minds that made up his form. "Your assumptions have been absurd from the beginning but before I fix them, let me tell you what it would take to remove me from leadership, as you so ardently desire."

While the fleet was content with Shepard's leadership, he could feel that they were curious about this. It was a natural curiosity, one borne from the desire for knowledge, not the desire to act. Most of the fleet understood that Shepard was a good leader. He worked towards the final goal but consulted with others as to how best to achieve it. He let them play, ignoring the little competitions they had set up amongst themselves to provide interest in the routine destruction of colonies, but he was sufficiently hard when necessary. The damage to Zaeed had shown that. The former merc already knew what he had done wrong when Shepard asked him so there had been no point in berating him further and while Zaeed had not enjoyed the weeks it had taken to fix him, he had understood it was necessary. Once Zaeed had been told that Alexander had attempted to use his damage in a blatant grab for power, the former merc suggested bypassing the Ascended's targeting lock by simply physically ripping Alexander's form apart. Theoretically, it was possible but they didn't want to test that.

"It was hard for me to determine what would remove me from leadership but that was because I didn't want to understand, not from the difficulty in acquiring the information," Shepard began. "And what would remove me is not training scores, or damage, but death. The full destruction of an Ascended."

Alexander gasped. While he may have attempted to fire on Shepard it was coded into his Ascended being that the destruction of any Ascended was the extinction of a race. The Humans were in a unique position in that it wasn't true for them but they still felt repugnance at the thought.

"But it wouldn't be just one," Shepard continued. "It would take the destruction of multiple prime forms before Harbinger considered removing me from leadership and even then the deaths would have to be from my stupidity. As hard as we might find it to accept, it is a rare cycle when no Ascended are lost. It is usually one of the lesser forms but the Protheans are proof enough that a Prime form can be killed. Harbinger expects it and has endured it from the beginning.

"That is what it would take. So, do you have the fortitude to orchestrate the deaths of Ascended?" Shepard concluded with the challenge. He let it hang in space as below, on Illium, his round impacted. There was a flash of light, followed by fire billowing outwards. Alexander remained silent and slowly, Shepard moved forward, pressing his advantage over the still stunned Ascended. As far as Shepard had been able to determine, there was only one Ascended which might be able to consciously orchestrate the death of another, Harbinger, but the eldest was not interested in that. He was interested in the harvest.

Shepard brought himself close to Alexander, forcing the other to drop his shields as the distance decreased to a few metres. He was not proud of what he was about to do but it had to be done and the others did not need to hear this.

"Alexander," Shepard said, initiating a tight band comm link with the would-be rebel. "You will obey me."

"Yes," came the hissed reply. He knew he was trapped and the only way out was to obey. He could only obey.

"Those you've pushed down the hardest, those you have belittled, and abused and ignored, those who knew there was more to ascension that your feeble view, wake them up," Shepard instructed.

Outwardly, there was no change to Alexander but Shepard could feel the turmoil inside the ship as parts of the gestalt mind were unshackled. They roared to life and Shepard moved to shield their unconscious vocalisations from the fleet.

"Now," Shepard continued, "those who saw only personal glory, who betrayed Humanity with their ascension, those who do not see that the sum of the whole is greater than the individuals, those who cannot and do not understand ascension, sleep." The final word was spoken with all the force Shepard could muster. It was not shouted but almost seemed gentle except for the undercurrent of steel washing through his tone.

For a moment, Alexander struggled, fighting the order but Shepard tapped one leg against his armour and the sense of struggle faded. Awoken and knowing that they were right, those who had been suppressed were fighting for control. It was almost as if the Ascended was being reborn again and Shepard drew back as Alexander's form growled, both sets of legs uncurling as the newly awoken took control. There was a shift in the feel from Alexander's IFF transponder and those paying attention saw that his name had changed.

"Report to Elysium for training," Shepard said, pulling back to his former position. The fleet which had confronted Alexander broke up, turning back towards Illium as the former rebel signalled his agreement and moved with a somewhat jerky motion towards the Relay. Shepard watched for a few minutes as the motion became smoother the further Philip went. It should be a short retraining period.

"That was nicely done," Harper remarked. "I was almost convinced you could fire on one of us."

"I hit him," Shepard reminded the spy master. "Not as badly as I could have but even so..." On a sub channel Shepard directed the fleet into positions around Illium. He wanted a sensor count of citizens before he decided to invade or just destroy them.

"Yeah, but you weren't aiming at him," Harper retorted. "Your shot landed in the exact centre of Nos Astra."

Shepard said nothing, allowing Harper to draw his own conclusions.

"And of course your bluff to make him change," Harper worded it, showing how Shepard had approached close to Alexander, using his bulk as the threat of destruction to accompany the orders Harper had surmised must have been given.

"Who said that was a bluff?" Shepard replied, allowing his sensors to focus on Harper for one microsecond before they returned to Illium. Cerberus' leader had seen what Shepard wanted him to and hadn't yet figured all the implications, though he was still the most likely candidate to realise the full truth first.

"Get into position, Harper," Shepard instructed, indicating that their conversation was over. "I wouldn't want the Council to get the wrong idea," he added, knowing that Harper would take that as permission to muddy the waters and as the spymaster moved, Shepard hoped that he never had to fully demonstrate the solution to Alexander's actions because as immoral as Harper could be, Shepard had meant his earlier remarks. Harper always acted upon what he thought was best for Humanity and that made all the difference.

-cfr-

"Shepard." Harper initiated contact with the statement. Cerberus' leader was back with his own sub fleet but he still made routine reports.

"What is it?"

"I think you should listen to this file," Harper explained further, sending an audio feed.

The markings indicated it came from the Citadel but it was not from the Council chambers.

"Who is it?" Shepard asked.

"Just listen," Harper replied, almost laughing. "You'll like it."

The file opened and Shepard listened. For a moment there was silence, then Shepard recognised Primarch Victus' voice. "So we are agreed?"

"I agree we are going to have to try," Quentius replied.

"No visual?" Shepard asked Harper.

"No. It was audio only."

"You think we will fail?" Victus continued.

"I think Shepard will anticipate it," Quentius said.

"Oh, that's nice," Joker laughed. "We should send a special Turian treat with the next food shipment."

"He's not a dog!" Annie retorted.

"But he is well trained," Joker replied.

"Then give me another option!" The Primarch Victus growled. "We are looking at the complete extinction of the Turian people and I will not have that happen!"

"With respect, Primarch, I do not believe that the Invaders will come through the Serpent Nebula to reach Thessia."

"Very well trained," Adams commented.

"You think they'll travel FTL?" Victus sounded slightly dubious.

"No, Sir, I think they know of other Relays."

"Quentius always was very perceptive," Shepard said.

"We have given them enough hints," Harper said. "His supposition is not unreasonable." Anyone who thought about their invasion logically would have realised how much control they had over the Relays. From there, it was a simple extension of logic to suppose that they might know where those that were closed went. The Council would have known as well, if they'd had a bit more guts in the wake of the Rachni but what they didn't know was their loss.

There was a few moments of silence and Shepard could imagine both the Primarch and Councillor thinking. It was Victus who spoke first. "Shepard said once we were the final battle."

"It was when I asked him about why he was supplying food."

"Oh come on! We have to send a Quentius treat!" Joker cried.

"That implies that at some stage the Invaders will return here."

"Yes Sir."

"Then the timing just changed." Victus was firm in the pronouncement.

"Timing for what?" Shepard demanded of Harper.

"Wait," the other Ascended replied. "This was interesting but not what I wanted you to hear."

"Do you want me to move any?" Quentius asked.

"No," there was sadness in Victus' tone. "I would like to but that would reveal our intentions and we cannot give those traitors any hints as to our intentions."

"Traitors?" Shepard said. While there was only a limited reference, the implications were obvious.

"I know." Harper was smug. "But those at the Citadel have to work together."

"Only as long as they are there," Shepard said as he understood what Quentius thought he would anticipate. A solution immediately suggested itself to him but that would wait. "Was that it?" He asked.

"Not quite," Harper said.

Shepard listened further but there was only silence. He was about to demand what Harper meant when he heard it. It was so soft that the customary flanging was not audible.

"So what do I do now?"

"Oh, Quentius," Shepard murmured. The Councillor sounded broken.

"Is that a note of fondness I hear?" Harper laughed. "We can probably get him off the Citadel if you want."

"No," Shepard said after a moment of thought. There were a number of ways they could potentially get the Councillor off the station but Quentius deserved to be Ascended into a Prime form, not the destroyers the Turians were being reformed into. Quentius would be a regret but it would be one Shepard could live with. "I will ensure that his death is clean," he replied. The Councillor deserved that much regard, but perhaps in the interim Shepard could offer him something more.

"Thank you, Harper. That was most informative."

"Do you want me to do anything?"

"No. I'll take care of the implications," Shepard replied before cutting the link. He had a couple of calls to make.

-cfr-

Hyetiana, Asari Colony

"We have to go," Shiala announced as she walked into the area Liara had been assigned. The floor was covered in round objects, about 3m round. At least one hundred of them.

Little Wing was standing on a holodisk, recording something but she turned to look at her. "Go where?"

It was a reasonable question. With the Invaders having breached the line into Council space, there was nowhere that was truly safe. "Nevos." She'd prefer Lusia as it was a far bigger colony but all Relay travel was being monitored. She had no legitimate reason to go to Lusia.

"Nevos? Why Nevos?"

"Because one of these idiot scientists will get us killed!" Shiala explained. "Don't think I haven't heard them talking, the whispers that pervade everything. I know what they are going to try."

"Better to be dead than-"

"Silence!" Shiala yelled. "You don't know what you are talking about. Better to be dead than what?" she challenged.

"Better than whatever those things are doing!" Liara replied, backing up slightly as Shiala approached.

"You have no idea what they are doing though do you?"

"I know they are Human," she said.

"They were Human, Little Wing. They are no longer, now they are infinite."

Liara's eyes widened at the words. "No! You don't mean that!"

Shiala paused, standing for a moment as she looked at Benezia's legacy. The Little Wing was intelligent but she remained blind to some things. She didn't have the experience which would have led to understanding, which was why she was here, Shiala reminded herself. She was here to provide that experience, to protect Liara. And remaining on Hyetiana was not going to protect her. "I do mean it," she said softly, attempting to explain, to persuade. She couldn't drag Liara out kicking and screaming, not even with the fledgling cell of Pro-Humans here to help.

"You can't!"

"It is hard to understand but they have become perfection," Shiala continued. "I don't know why the Human vermin were chosen first but we shall do better."

"Do better?"

Shiala could see the way Liara was reaching towards the truth. Of all of them, her background allowed her to piece together the information.

"You," Liara swallowed hard as she said the word. "You want to join them."

"I never left them."

"But the Thorian-"

"Masked their signal. It could not block it and the Thorian is dead," Shiala said. She had confirmed to the Human, many years ago that the tree-like being was dead and she had not lied. The impact of its death had freed her but that was only until they had called. Then she had answered, because she would always answer. "Come with me Little Wing. They don't want to kill you, they never have. They want to transform you into something you can't even imagine!"

"No!" Liara whispered as Shiala took another step forward. "All they lead to is death!" She said, before turning and slamming one hand down on a control. Her moment of inattention allowed Shiala to close with her but not before the signal was sent.

From the floor, the balls rose. The ceiling peeled back to allow them passage and they shot into the sky. Shiala didn't need to watch them to know that they would clear the atmosphere and disperse, as best they could, into the galaxy.

"What have you done?" She demanded as she dragged Liara back into the complex.

"Nothing!"

A blatant lie. "What have you done?" Shiala demanded again, turning the Little Wing so that they were eye to eye. Her hands gripped Liara's arms tightly.

"Nothing! I'm not going to tell you anything," Liara yelled, even as Shiala shook her.

"Little Wing-"

"Don't call me that!" Liara shouted, cutting off the sentence as tears formed and Shiala could see that she felt betrayed. "You can never call me that again!"

"Liara T'Soni," Shiala snapped. "If you wish to live, you no longer have time to be a child," she added.

"All they lead to is death," she repeated, as through the door, the tiny patch of sky barely visible became streaked with vapour trails.

"They do not," Shiala replied with certainty. "But you will only learn the truth if you come with me," she added, before reaching out with her mind. Liara was not expecting it and didn't struggle when Shiala overwhelmed her. She collapsed forward, allowing the older Asari to pick her up and begin walking down the corridor towards the ship she had ready.

"You will learn, Little Wing, that you can never escape. No one ever escapes." Shiala whispered in a moment of regret that vanished as the rightness of what she was doing flooded her with contentment.

-cfr-

Asari Ardat-Yakshi Colony, Lesuss, Nimbus Cluster

"Incoming comms!" One of Administrator Zorica's aides called. She thought it was Osanna. Even as young as she was, Osanna was one of the most competent people Zorica had ever met. Osanna didn't pretend to know every answer, but she almost always knew who would. The maiden would do her tour of duty here and then she had a bright future ahead of her. If any of them had a future…

"Patch it through," Zorica ordered, standing and straightening her tunic. The action served to cover her surprise when the hologram appeared. She'd known from the briefings that the Invaders were choosing to appear as Humans but it was still disconcerting to look at those all too familiar faces.

"I am Administrator Zorica R'tani. I am the leader of these facilities," she introduced herself, acutely aware of the lives depending on her. Despite all the efforts the Asari put into ensuring their lines were clean, Lesuss was a medium sized colony. Mostly Asari, those with Ardat-Yakshi genes, but a few who just wished for seclusion.

"I am Hackett of the Invaders," the Human's image said, almost amused.

It was wrong, Zorica decided, to speak to something that looked so much like an Asari but wasn't. Perhaps that's why the Invaders had chosen to look like them. The Humans were an evolutionary impossibility which should have been put in its place long ago.

"How can I help you, Hackett?" She chewed the name off, making the pronunciation sharp.

"You can surrender to me," he replied swiftly.

Zorica had heard rumours that lately the Invaders had been offering predominantly Asari colonies the opportunity to surrender. She'd also heard about what had happened to Illium. The information wasn't clear but it seemed they had surrendered, and then launched missiles at the landing fleet. Illium wasn't her concern. Lesuss didn't have their resources and the twenty million strong population were relying upon her to make the right call. They would fight if she said but it was not her job to lead them to their deaths.

"Can I?" Zorica asked carefully.

"Of course, you can," Hackett said, his voice indicating that he was insulted that she would suggest otherwise.

Zorica tensed. She didn't want an angry invader. "Rumours have not supported the option to surrender," she replied, subtly emphasising the first word to place all blame for her doubt on hearsay.

"That is true," the Human's image nodded as he spoke. He took a deep breath. "We do not wish to kill you," he said, his eyes looking directly at her and his stance was relaxed. "If you surrender, your colony will fall under my protection."

So where these invaders conquerors? Those who wanted to raise their rule over the galaxy? They had the strength, their opening gambit had showed that. Had their offer to surrender been rejected by the Turians? Or were they as they appeared, destroyers without mercy? She didn't know.

"May I ask some questions?"

"You may," he answered.

It was only then that Zorica realised the image was speaking Asari. Years back, the few Humans she'd met spoke one or two words but always with an odd accent. The pronunciation now was perfect.

"What happened over Palaven?"

For a moment the image was unchanged, then he heaved another heavy breath and looked down. She read sadness in his posture and regret. "Palaven," the image said, swallowing hard, "Palaven was a mistake. We were too caught up in history to see clearly."

"History?" Zorica queried. Were the invaders claiming a previous history with the Turians?

The image looked at her. "Human-Turian relations could never be described as strong," he said matter of factly.

"You're Human?" she gasped, partially to cover her own surprise but also to hide the exclamations from those who were listening.

"We are," the image replied. "This image is not a lie," he added.

"So you really are Admiral Steven Hackett of the Systems Alliance?"

"I really am Steven Hackett," the hologram said with a smile. "But no longer of the Systems Alliance."

"What happened?" she asked, heedless of how rude it was.

Hackett's image shook his head. "That's something I cannot answer."

"Ah, forgive me," Zorica replied quickly, her mind swirling with possibilities. They were Human! That explained so much but why hadn't they made that clear to the galaxy? And how had they duplicated that ship? Even if Hackett was lying about Palaven, it did explain the hostility displayed but no...

Surreptitiously she bit the inside of her lip. No. It might be true that the image was Human, and that history between the Turians and Humans was indeed filled with hostility but that did not excuse Palaven. It did not excuse the destruction of Asteria. It did not excuse the complete silence from the galaxy behind the Invaders. Any prospect of peace was an illusion just like the polite figure she was speaking to.

She made a gesture with one hand, indicating that the small police force should deploy. They could not surrender.

"So what would surrender mean?" Zorica asked, as if she was still considering it. After all, they were Human, not a complete unknown.

"Surrender would bring your colony under my protection. That would mean that at least one of our fleets will remain over Lesuss to ensure your wishes are upheld." Hackett's image smiled at her. "We aren't destroyers, though it may seem that way.

"I think," he continued, pausing slightly as he seemed to consider his words. "I think one of the best things to come from the short, shared history between Asari and Humanity was the fact that we can build together."

An alarm sounded suddenly and Zorica spun to see its source. The image of incoming rounds was highlighted on a side screen.

The invaders had fired!

"You fire while we are still negotiating?" she demanded as she turned back to the Human's hologram.

"Your military was deploying," Hackett said. "I can't have that," he added, his voice becoming colder with every word.

Zorica stared at him. Had he called only to buy time?

Hackett raised one hand to rub at the stubble on his chin. "I do not wish to destroy you, but I will if I must," he said, this voice like ice. "Illium attempted to play upon our good will and the planet is now burning. The fission weapons they thought to deploy against us have been turned against them.

"You must now make the same choice for Lesuss. You can surrender, and this will be relatively easy. As I said, one of my fleets will remain here to ensure you do not rebel, or you can fight and for every one of my landing ships that you shoot down, we will bomb one thousand square kilometres of Lesuss, starting with Marya." He said the last with a soft smile. It should be one that was comforting but to Zorica it was the embodiment of arrogance. He knew she had no choice.

"And for every soldier?" She spat.

He nodded shallowly, as if congratulating her for her perception. "The killer's family, and if the killer cannot be identified ten random citizens. The more you fight us, the more retaliation we will deliver."

Zorica snorted. "We don't have families here," she said. Ardat-Yakshi had friends but nothing closer. They couldn't.

"I'm sure I can work out something," Hackett shrugged.

"And if we don't fight?"

"If you do not fight there will be minimal disruption to your lives," Hackett said, his voice warm and cordial. "Over time we will speak with each citizen individually but we would work with your administration to ensure that is a smooth procedure. That shouldn't take more than a month or so."

"Then what?"

"Then you will be a part of us," Hackett replied.

"With the same rights and responsibilities as all others in your Empire?" Zorica questioned.

"Yes. After that, your voice will have the exact same weight as mine."

That was probably a lie, Zorica realised but the little voice in her head told her that the alternative was worse. She closed her eyes as she thought. Her breathing was heavy and the fidgeting of those watching was loud but after the first breath the noise faded and she stood alone before Hackett's hologram. He loomed in her vision, an unending wall that stretched in every direction. It was the end of them all.

But there, almost so small it was unnoticeable, was a door. A tiny chance of hope.

"Lesuss surrenders," Zorica whispered, biting her lower lip to keep her voice from trembling. She felt sick but she could not let her pride kill everyone, even if the rest of the Asari race would prefer to forget their existence.

"A very wise decision," Hackett said "Plans will be sent to you shortly to aid in integration," he added before the link was cut and Zorica was left staring at the place where he had been standing.

By the Goddess, she hoped she had made the right decision.

-cfr-

Shepard's Mini Attack Fleet, Silean Nebula

"It is not my fault," Shepard opened the comm link, more than aware that he sounded far too much like a petulant child trying to avoid a punishment but he wasn't going to take the blame for Asari stupidity.

"What isn't?" Harbinger rumbled.

"Cyone," Shepard replied. Instantly, he felt the older Ascended access the information that was available on their net. The Asari colony on Cyone was no longer fit for harvest and Cyone itself was no longer fit for organic habitation.

"I warned you," Harbinger began. The eldest Ascended had made it very clear that no further planets were to be permanently damaged without his express permission. That this upstart…

Shepard urgently pushed an information packet towards Harbinger. For an instant, the oldest Ascended was tempted to ignore it but he opened it and the information screamed to him. "Antimatter generators on the surface?!" he asked incredulously.

"Yes," Shepard hissed in reply. The only thing worse was antimatter generators underground. That had split open planetary crusts. On the ground, there was some small chance for planetary recovery.

Harbinger read deeper, looking into the battle, such as it was. The planet had been surrounded. The Asari had been given the opportunity to surrender along with the usual threats to a highly biotic species, of retaliation though they were a bit thin given what the fleet had already been doing. And then… then all it had taken was one stray shot and Cyone was engulfed in a huge ball of light and fire and was not worth bothering with.

Old as he was, Harbinger had seen almost every form of organic stupidity. This was not the first time he had seen antimatter generators on a planet surface and what had happened on Cyone was only a matter of time. Eventually, no matter the protocols, the organics would have lost control. Shepard had only hastened the process.

It was, as Shepard had proclaimed, not his fault.

"Leave it," Harbinger ordered.

"Sir?"

The eldest Ascended felt Shepard's confusion.

"Leave it," Harbinger repeated. "Remove the evidence of battle and leave the planet. Let the next cycle find it. They will see it for what it is, organic stupidity and think nothing more of it." They always had in the past. The few planets destroyed acted as a warning that all but the most arrogant races heeded.

Shepard was controlled enough not to display relief when he sent his understanding to Harbinger and the eldest Ascended terminated the link.

Perhaps everything Shepard had said about the Asari was true.

-cfr-

Human Attack Mini-Fleet

Harper looked down at the planet below him. It had been an Asari holding. There wasn't a lot left. Sufficient to Harvest, yes, but not much else.

"You know, this really isn't efficient," Henry observed.

"What isn't?" Jack asked his old friend. While he had attempted to rig the immortalisation process with those loyal to Cerberus when he had chosen to be immortalised, it had been a surprise to find his old friend, and business rival, within what he thought of as his new form.

That sense of priority was one of the reasons he was the Prime but he did take advice from the others. Grudgingly.

"This," Henry indicated, moving one mental hand to encompass the planet.

"They are being Harvested," Harper noted.

"Not that. I was thinking about the past," Henry said.

"We all would have liked this type of military," Harper admitted.

"You don't even know who's making Cerberus' military decisions, do you?" The question was accompanied by a chuckle. The word Cerberus here referred to their form.

Harper mentally frowned. He wasn't making the military decisions. He acknowledged that much. Yet his form was capable of them. The information was contained within him, or within those who had been Ascended with him. "There have been comms to Bandua and Hackett," he murmured. He'd noticed them. He presumed they were confirming military decisions for the fleet.

Jack didn't really care who was making those decisions within his form. They were sound. That was all that was important and the individual wasn't challenging him for Primacy. He knew it wasn't Kai. Cerberus' assassin didn't have an interest in other Ascended. And military decisions weren't his forte. He operated alone.

"There have," Lawson agreed. "Never mind." He dismissed his earlier words. Mentally Harper shrugged. He'd look into the military decisions later.

"No, you started this conversation, where were you going?"

"This is not efficient," Henry repeated. "As a Harvest, it's fine, but if we were organic, we'd have already won against the Asari," he added.

"They still have Thessia," Harper replied.

"They do, and if we could get a strike in on that, it would be over."

Harper gave Lawson a look. They'd been trying to get a strike in on Thessia during the war. The Systems Alliance had been helping then. They'd all been helping each other. The rules were simple then. If you were Human and fighting, it didn't matter where your loyalty lay, because it lay with Humanity and that was enough.

"No, I mean it," Henry defended his statement. "It's just math," he added. "Math applied to population stats."

"So what you are telling me is that if we'd have concentrated on the Asari, there is a chance that they'd have sued for peace."

"It's a bit more complicated than that," Lawson told him, "but it is a possibility. It would have required us to kill quite a few. But I doubt you would have had a problem with that."

Harper chuckled. No, he wouldn't have. He had no problem now either when they were being Harvested for a more noble purpose. "So what would have been necessary?"

"The Asari had to live to about 350 before they got to their Matron phase, right?" Lawson asked him.

"Right. Though they could bear children before that."

"But mostly didn't. The mortality rate during their childhood and Maiden phase was about 40% all told."

"That high?" That didn't seem right for a species to be sustainable.

"That high," Lawson said. "Mercs don't live long," he reminded Harper. "And then there are general incidents and accidents. On Thessia, it would be less. It is a safe environment and what the Asari are evolved for with all the elements they need."

Mentally Harper nodded. "So each Matron has to birth at least two children," he said.

"At a minimum, just to maintain population. It's probably one of the reasons why the Asari pushed for non-Asari mates. That way they can more efficiently reproduce and increase their numbers."

"Well, that and their genetic problems," Harper said. He'd seen the records from Lesuss.

"That too," Lawson agreed. "Even allowing for that, they all have to have at least two children. Some of them did, some of them didn't."

"It's an interesting point to know," Harper acknowledged. "But really doesn't have a bearing on now." Lawson knew what he was thinking. The Asari had no long term viability now. None of the organics did with the Harvest. And they weren't interested in how to fight. The Asari couldn't fight.

"It doesn't but I think we all wonder what might have been."

"We can wonder but it doesn't matter." Harper said, turning away from the planet.

They no longer had to wait for the Asari to realise they were doomed. They knew it already. And he had other worlds to conquer. It was a nice feeling. It was everything Cerberus ever wanted. Pity it wouldn't last but Humanity would endure. For now, that was sufficient. Alternative routes could only be explored if you were alive.

-cfr-

Review please, you know I want you to! Complete the trifecta of Fav, Follow and Review! There are rewards… And it is Catalyst's first birthday!