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Part 3 The Trigger
Chapter 33: Failure Is Always An Option
Farthest Step (Between Sigurd's Cradle and the Far Rim), System of the Prophet, Five Leaders Conference Area
"Sir! The ships have disappeared." The report was excited.
Javik felt no excitement. The report meant they had only minutes to prepare. That was unusual though. The Reapers didn't usually jump in system. They preferred for their victims to see them coming. What had changed?
The realisation struck him quickly.
"Move into defensive formations! Now!" he shouted into the comm. "And sound the alarm over the city." The city was his. Defensive formations had been drilled into them and even though they had never thought it would be necessary here, they would know what to do.
"Get the leaders to the bunker," Javik ordered Filat. "Take them there yourself," he added. If the Reapers were here for him, there was a chance the leaders would survive, and Filat had to survive with them. The Yoxall could continue his work.
Filat didn't even argue, which meant he understood the situation. He would do well if needed and as he moved away Javik watched for a few moments as he thought of what else needed to be done.
Two Darmaris ran up to him, carrying his armour as Filat began hustling the milling dignitaries out. Politicians hadn't changed, Javik thought as took his armour and began strapping it on. His weapons were next and all too quickly he was armed.
The alarm sounded again. A different tone this time, one Javik recognised as signalling impending attack. That meant the Reapers had reappeared. He ran to the wall. There was an outside balcony and he had had sniper's nests built into the towers of this building. He could direct the resistance from there, assuming the Reapers did not just orbitally bombard the planet. He didn't think they would.
The city was small, only 100,000 or so and they could not guarantee he was dead if they did not come to him. That was his only advantage. He ran up the stairs taking them several at a time as he listened to the radio chatter.
Those in the city were confident but those above… He risked a glance from a window, straining his eyes as much as he could but he couldn't see through the atmosphere. He didn't need to see to know that it would be a slaughter. The ships of this cycle couldn't hope to take on Reaper dreadnoughts. Not yet. Not for years. His designs, while good, could not hold out either. Though he feared they might be considered a curiosity. The Reapers would occasionally pause when the Empire launched new ships. Then they attacked harder, destroying them.
"Ground forces!" he commanded, as he reached the sniper's nest. "Are you in position?"
"Line One in position," came the confirmation, just as he'd taught them.
"Line Two in position," the follow up came.
"Line Three in position."
Javik listened as the lines all reported in. A few had stragglers. That was to be expected. Some had extras. Again in the chaos before battle that wasn't unusual. Everyone was armed and ready.
Suddenly, light arced from the sky. "Incoming fire!" Javik screamed into his comm.
Standard Reaper attack procedure was to soften up the ground forces with orbital bombardment. He'd told his forces that and those manning the AA cannons knew it was well. They opened fire, but it was already too late and Javik knew that Reaper fire could not be shot off course like other rounds.
There were not that many AA embankments but it still hurt to lose them.
"Everyone be prepared, they'll be landing forces soon, and the real fight begins. Hold your positions and fight to the death, because death is all they will give you."
There was a roar from the troops and Javik took a calming breath as he settled in. All he could do now was wait.
Farthest Step (Between Sigurd's Cradle and the Far Rim), System of the Prophet, Fifth Planet
Ten minutes later Shepard's little fleet had covered the five point eight billion kilometres between them and their target. They opened fire as one, not bothering with their main cannons as their thanix cannons lanced out.
"Holy shit!" Nergal exclaimed but the reason for his surprise was obvious. The fleets were weak and they were slicing through them like a hot knife through butter. It was almost like they didn't have shields and armour.
"Just kill them," Anderson replied.
The ease with which they were destroying the alien fleets said nothing about the fact that they were returning fire. The shots were weak and while they impacted upon the Ascended's shields, they didn't even light up the entire section. The unknown ships fared slightly better. Their weapons were different.
"Particle beams!" Elysium identified the strange, almost purple lights.
"That's new," Ares replied.
"Do you have the specs?" Hackett asked.
"Of course," Elysium replied, sharing the design plans with them all.
"Then we don't need them anymore," Hackett returned, and the fleet fired together, cutting through the unknown ships. It was a matter of seconds before the last of the fleets were nothing more than burning wrecks and the Ascended turned their attention to the ground.
The planet was mostly a wasteland but there was a city on the surface. There were no lights on the dark side but the city was developed. It had probably grown out of a mining facility.
"There's only about 100,000 there," Ares said.
"Where is the political shindig?" Anderson asked.
"Probably in the centre," Udina answered, highlighting a group of large buildings near the centre of the city. "These things are usually held there and I doubt aliens are any different," he added.
"I'd like to question the leaders," Shepard said, "but they are a bonus. The Warrior Prophet will be enough. How many husks do you have?" When they went into hibernation the husks were converted from organic cybernetics into purely cybernetic creations. It meant what little flesh was left would not rot and was done because the energy requirements to put that many troops into suspended animation were prohibitive. It gave them a starting point for the next cycle.
"Shall we each land 100,000?" Miranda suggested.
Zaeed laughed at the suggestion but his sub-channels indicated agreement. It would be a pain reloading that many husks but it would be equally fun to flood the city and watch the new aliens run.
Shepard sent his agreement to the network and they took position. It would be overkill but it would be worth it. He scanned the city. There were a few AA defences and without needing orders, the fleet targeted them and fired. "I'll go down with the husks," Shepard said as their shots lanced through the atmosphere. The others launched their transports and with them around him Shepard headed for the planet.
From his vantage point, Javik could see the troop transports falling through the atmosphere. It was a familiar sight from his youth, when he had been fighting for the Empire, struggling to hold back the Reapers from every inch of space.
But then Javik froze.
Cutting through the clouds were five black legs. They were quickly accompanied by a long tapered body. The running lights made up an ominous set of eyes.
"No," he whispered, transfixed at the sight.
The Reaper continued to descend like some huge bug come to prey upon them all and Javik knew that the battle was lost. All he could hope was that Filat and the others weren't found. He grabbed one of the weapons, unconsciously choosing the most powerful and hoisted it to his shoulder.
He didn't even feel the weight as he took aim, targeting the Reaper. To move that much mass in a gravity well, its power was directed to its mass effect fields, not shields. There was a chance, a tiny one, that he could do some damage.
The missile tracked truly. It was almost impossible for it not to given the size of the target it could lock onto and Javik discarded the weapon as he reached for another. As he'd told his forces, the only thing left to do now was fight to the death, because with the Reaper here, that's all they could do.
The missile hit with a yellow explosion of light but Javik's sharp eyes saw the shield that shimmered over the armoured hull. The Reaper didn't even acknowledge the missile as a threat. It hadn't fired its point defences. Javik gritted his teeth as he lined up another shot. This time, he wouldn't fire on the Reaper, but on the landing transports. He couldn't take out a dreadnought class vessel but he could make their assault as costly as possible.
"Take out as many transports as you can," he ordered. There was no need to waste more ordinance on the Reaper when it would do little damage. There had been another couple of shots on the Reaper from his forces, but they had done nothing. Once again, his missile flew true and Javik watched as it tracked one of the landing ships.
But it was now that the Reaper fired. There was a flash of light and an instant later the missile exploded, far before it hit the target.
"Damn it!" Javik screamed even as he noted the oddity. Reapers did not protect their landing troops. They didn't care about the losses yet this one had. Or did it simply understand military tactics? It was still airborne but it completed a pass and didn't return. It was probably landing in the wastelands. He couldn't think about it now as the first transports reached the outskirts of the city and his comm came alive with the calls from his soldiers.
"Gods of the Underworld! What are they?"
"Open fire!" That sounded like Kishenta. He was one of the Darmaris guards who had defected to his side.
For several minutes, the sound of gunfire filled the comm link.
"They won't go down!" The complaint came through in Cypiene.
"They will!" Javik replied forcefully. The Reapers relied on mass producing ground troops and while they could produce hardier troops, they often didn't bother. Where most races would send in specially trained troops, the Reapers just sent in more. They didn't care about losses. It was just one of the things that made them so hard to fight.
"Aim for the legs!" Kishenta's voice sounded again. "Disable them!"
"What do they look like?" Javik demanded. He kept one eye on the Reaper. It appeared to have landed but it was now out of range. It loomed over them. And then there came a noise. A boom. It echoed over the city and was followed by another boom. The Reaper was moving. He couldn't see the legs but the towering tail became larger on the horizon.
"Bi-ped, completely mechanical."
That was different. All the Reaper troops Javik had seen were cybernetic organic soldiers. "They appear to have two eyes and are glowing all over. There's thousands of them!"
"Do you know them sir?"
"No," Javik said after a moment. "They are probably from the last cycle. Follow Kishenta's orders. Aim for the legs and draw back in an orderly fashion."
"There's too many of them!"
"How many did they land?"
Javik gritted his teeth as he listened. The shouts turned into screams and differing orders and while some of his forces managed to get away, others didn't. He heard them die and all along, the Reaper drew ever closer with an ominous boom, boom, boom as the legs moved.
The screams intensified, coming closer. Javik hefted the weapon he'd chosen. It was a sniper rifle. It wouldn't do anything against the Reaper, but it would hold off the troops. He knew there was nothing, but even so he was still wracking his brain for anything they could use against the Reaper. He should have just let the Darmaris have that nuke, Javik growled to himself. It was a barbaric, primitive weapon but it had some chance against a Reaper.
He sighted down one of the longer streets. The way had been lined with rubble so that the invading troops couldn't use it as an avenue. But it was there that he got his first view of the Reaper's troops. They were bipedal, but as reported they seemed to be completely mechanical. The ends of their limbs were curled into claws. Was this what a husk looked like after a cycle?
The Reaper moved ever closer.
He fired, aiming for one of the lights on what passed for a husk's head. It fell and Javik immediately lined up another shot and fired. There was nothing else to do but take down as many as he could.
The instant the Reaper entered the city, everything changed. The screams from his troops became more desperate and the constant boom of its gait was accompanied by the sound of collapsing buildings.
The first line was gone, so were the second and third lines. The rest were scattered and combat was no longer ordered but was a desperate struggle as groups of his troops banded together, taking husks down before they were overrun. Javik didn't give further orders. There was nothing he could say as his troops were already selling their lives as dearly as they could.
He didn't know how many troops he shot. Enough to hold them back slightly but he could do nothing to stop the Reaper. It was the first to approach his position. Behind it, the Reaper troops swarmed into the destruction in its wake. That gave them an even better foothold in the city. Not that they needed it.
The Reaper was soon all he could see and he had no choice but to target it. It was a pathetic gesture but it was all he could do and every shot could be his last. The Reaper's point defences were firing at everything and eventually, sooner rather than later, they would fire at him.
Javik gritted his teeth and fired again. He'd fight to the end.
The fighting was brutal. While the city was comparatively small, it appeared that every resident was a soldier. They were all fighting. The husks had been landed around the outskirts of the city and had fought their way inwards. Shepard had landed further out but had quickly made his way into the centre of the city.
The residents fought him but an anti-tank mine to something as large as him was like a bee stinging a bear. Even with the power to his shields reduced to support his bulk in the gravity well, he didn't even feel the rocket propelled grenades they launched at him. He walked through the city, destroying buildings as his point defences took care of those few who fired on him. He could have waited for the husks, but he wanted to make sure that they caught the leaders.
He was coming up on the central buildings now, the ones Udina had pointed out. There were barricades in the city, filled with soldiers who fired upon him. Shepard simply crushed them with one walking leg as he brought himself alongside the central complex. There were several spires, but one was higher than the rest and in it, near the top was a life sign. It was firing at him with quite admirable precision and Shepard was prepared to gamble that this was the Warrior Prophet. He was consciously holding back his point defences from destroying the tower.
Now how did he get the sniper out? Again, Shepard realised he could just wait for the husks. They had followed in his wake and were storming the building now. It would only be a matter of time, but the Warrior Prophet deserved his personal attention. There was nothing he could use as bait. The alien had already run into the spire to snipe at him, which meant he cared nothing for the politicians below. That left…
Oh, it was too easy. Carefully, Shepard lined up his point defences, and fired on the tower. He clipped the side and it shook. The sniping stopped. Not that it had been doing anything but after a moment another shot sounded. Shepard fired again, clipping the tower again. He exposed the internal stairs. His senses showed that the sniper was running down the stairs. Apparently the Warrior Prophet would not go down with the spire. It was a simple task to grab the alien when it ran down the exposed steps.
Shepard let the alien hang upside down for a few moments. It was a bit of a surprise when a biotic flare lashed at him but his mass effect field was solid. The alien was not going to escape him but the biotic ability was good to know. Carefully, Shepard manoeuvred the alien towards him, opening a hatch.
It was screaming but he didn't understand. The language was not one in the current information packs but a scan of the alien showed that it was not a native of this cycle. It was different. The alien had four eyes, similar to a Batarian but it was different enough that Shepard could tell it was not a Batarian descendant. It had to be something else. Was it really a Prothean?
"Soliphon," Shepard called the name, reaching out through the Ascended network to the Vanguard.
"What is it, Human Shepard?"
"Do you have Prothean language packs?" Shepard asked, sending a visual of his captive.
Soliphon was silent for a few moments before the vanguard pushed the requested information to Shepard. "I'll take it to the slaves," Shepard told Soliphon before the vanguard could ask. If this was a Prothean then the slaves would benefit from a new infusion of genetics. It was a pity they had not brought the slaves on this run. They had some useful tech for this kind of thing but it was best not to reveal them so early in the cycle.
"If it is Prothean," the vanguard replied.
The Prothean Empire had spanned the galaxy, and while they had been remarkably uniform there were several dialects. Shepard loaded the language packs Soliphon had provided and instantly the alien ranting made sense.
It really was a Prothean! It couldn't be anything else. If Liara hadn't been able to fully learn the Prothean language, then nothing of this cycle would be able to. Any organic speaking Prothean had to be the real deal. Which led to many questions, not the least of which was how it had survived almost 100,000 years since the extinction of its… his, Shepard decided, people.
There was a biotic strike to his internals as the Prothean tried to break free.
"It's not that easy," Shepard said, carefully modulating his voice so as not to damage the organic.
"Kill me!" the Prothean demanded.
"No," Shepard replied. "I have a few questions for you."
"It's really a Prothean?" Hackett asked.
"Yes, it appears to be," Shepard replied as he lifted off. He targeted the few nests of resistors still firing as he moved through the atmosphere. He made a couple of powerful shots at the city, gouging large tracks out of the city. The beams he used to overpower the dreadnoughts of the last cycle, made mincemeat out of the cities of this cycle. He quickly reachieved orbit and with the others fired down on the city. The husks had pulled back with him, after having grabbed the alien leaders. The Prothean was still pounding on the hatch both physically and with biotics but Shepard's internals were not that weak.
While they had dropped close to 1million husks, reloading was fast and controlled. There was no shoving as the cybernetic troops re-entered their transports.
With everything in hand, as it were, Shepard turned his attention inwards. "You cannot escape," he told his passenger. "And even if you could escape, I am no longer on the surface." Shepard shifted some of his internals, opening the way deeper. It would take a short time for the force of his presence to start to affect the Prothean. And no doubt, the alien already knew it. But the only thing that could stop the process was the Prothean's will and Shepard's desire to ensure that he remained lucid. Information could be dragged from the fully indoctrinated but they were so far gone that it was hard. It was better to question an organic who still resisted. The pauses in their speech and observation of their breathing, eye movement and other small motions meant that it was easy to discern when they were attempting to hide information.
"What is your name?" Shepard asked. "Mine is Shepard," he added. It was only polite to introduce himself. "I was Ascended in the last cycle."
That seemed to interest the Prothean. "The last cycle?" he questioned.
"Yes," Shepard confirmed.
"There were no species named Shepard," the Prothean objected.
"How do you know that?" Shepard challenged. While there was no doubt evidence as to some species, how could the Prothean be so sure of that.
The ancient said nothing but Shepard had fully assimilated the information Sirta and Harper had liberated. "Oh, I see," Shepard murmured. "That traitorous little bitch," he added. "Well, at least I know she died alone and with any luck starving and in pain."
"Who?" The Prothean asked.
"The one who made those beacons," Shepard replied. "Her name was Liara T'Soni, a young bitch of the Asari species," he said. "Still, the beacons do not appear to have helped you much."
"Enough," came the spat reply. The Prothean leaned against the outer hatch, refusing to move, even though Shepard had kindly illuminated the way. "Enough to know you aren't of that cycle."
"Oh but I am," Shepard almost purred. "In Liara's little list of species, did she have the guts to mention Humans?"
The mention of his species caused the ancient to pause. "The betrayers?"
"More like the betrayed but no doubt Liara was less than truthful in the details she provided to future generations," Shepard said. "No matter. Won't you tell me your name?"
"Why are you not named Human?"
"I am," Shepard replied. "My full name is Human Shepard," he added. "We made a deal with what you call the Reapers."
"You can't! They don't talk."
"I'm talking to you, aren't I?" Shepard retorted. "But if you aren't willing to speak, I will wait for a bit and ask you later. Perhaps you will be more willing to answer my questions then."
He could see the way the ancient braced himself. The Prothean knew what time would mean, just as Shepard was sure that the Warrior Prophet did not know how much time would be required for him to be forthcoming.
While talking to the ancient inside his hull, Shepard and the other Human Ascended were making tracks for the Relay. He had no fear of the organics of the current cycle being able to destroy them but it would be entirely counter-productive to their plan to sow discord if they were caught at the scene of their crime. Behind them, the city was ablaze and the last few life signs were succumbing to the fires.
"So what do we do now, Shepard?" Udina asked, after they had micro-jumped back to the Relay.
Shepard thought about it for a moment. "We'll need to monitor the situation," he decided. "The organics should turn on each other but we don't want them developing too fast. It will depend on how much they believe the Prothean's words."
"So they could still turn against us?"
There was a laugh from the fleet. "Organics will always fight the cycle," came the reply from Hackett in a credible imitation of Harbinger.
"True," Shepard said and their conversation was briefly interrupted by their passage through the Relay. The organics of the cycle had not even begun to explore the true strength behind Relay travel and the Ascended were catapulted into an area of space that remained closed to this cycle's organics.
"I think we should also find some way of discrediting a certain Asari," Miranda suggested. "I can create a few beacons of our own."
"I like that thought," Shepard complimented her. "Where were you thinking of the organics 'discovering' them?"
"Oh, here and there," Miranda replied before she went into further detail. "Based on the current galaxy map Soliphon's provided, there's a few planet's the organics should be getting too soonish. If they have any brains at all, they should hone in on the minor power signature."
"Before we get into that," Anderson interrupted, "have you been scanning the Relays?"
The conversation turned in a new direction at Anderson's prompt. "I've got minor scans," Zaeed said, "but I was waiting until we returned to the galactic core."
"I think it best if we scan before then," Elysium observed, her tone considering. "Soliphon will be there, and while he may not appear to pay that much attention, I think he does."
"Or he may just brush it off as Human eccentricity," Nergal suggested.
"He might," Elysium agreed, "but why take the chance?"
"He won't stop us though, will he?" Ares asked.
"No," Shepard allayed that fear. "He won't stop us, but he will tell us to get the information the usual way."
"The usual way?" Miranda inquired.
"You can't feel it now because the fleet is in hibernation," Shepard said, his sub-channel indicating towards the hibernation point, "but when the fleet is awake, it is active, there is a network, much like the Human network, between all Ascended."
"So that's what that was!" Sirta exclaimed.
"You felt it?" Hackett asked.
"During the sweep," Sirta confirmed. "Just the edges of it, I think."
"And it has all the data the Ascended have gathered over the cycles?" While Harper tried to be nonchalant, they all noticed the growing excitement in his tone.
"I believe so," Shepard replied.
"So why didn't we all feel it?" Miranda demanded. She had not felt anything like that and it would have given her something to do on the long flight back to the hibernation point. Her internal information answered the question echoing Shepard's reply.
"Because it is introduced to us during our first full cycle," the eldest Human Ascended explained. "And right at first, we will be expected to use the galaxy maps," he added. Every cycle was slightly different, as all organics were different, but with the Catalyst controlling which Relays were open when the organics started exploring space, there were several base galaxy maps the Ascended used. They were augmented each cycle to account for the organics opening new Relays but the major travel lanes could be predicted. For example, Illium had been on the major trading route between Council Space and the Traverse but the organics of this cycle would have to discover and open five Relays to get to Illium so it was doubtful that they would find the ruins of the formerly Asari planet.
"The plans for a Relay are in that network?" Zaeed demanded. He was just as excited as Harper.
"They should be," Shepard said.
"Who needs the scans then?"
"We do." There was a cold note in Elysium's tone that brought any jubilation to a grinding halt.
"Why?" Udina asked.
"Search your own data banks, but pay close attention," she advised.
The Ascended searched through their data banks at Elysium's prompt, even if they didn't know what they were searching for. "I don't get it," Ares complained finally.
"No, you don't," Elysium seemed happy with his objection. "You don't get it, because we haven't organised them."
"Shepard has, partially," Elysium ignored the outburst. "That's why he seems to know more about ascension."
"I have," Shepard agreed. "Information about ascension is within us all but it's-" He paused, searching for the right way to describe the jumble of facts that had been downloaded into them all by both the Catalyst and the process of ascension.
"Disjointed," Elysium supplied. "It's like someone took every book in a library and threw them into a mixing machine and turned it on high. The information is there, it's just not in any logical order. But that's just the information we all personally need to know. The information about the Relays, about every individual race that has been ascended, is within them, just as the information about Humans is within us."
"So you mean?" Miranda was the first to grasp the obvious conclusion.
"I would assume so."
"Damn it! Then we will never find it!"
"Find what?" Zaeed asked.
"One of the first tasks for any Ascended is to sort through the information on ascension," Hackett explained for Shepard. "We Humans have had it lucky. Between us all, I believe we have assimilated all the information, but not as individuals yet. And we had an advantage in that when we awoke, we were greeted by those who felt familiar," the former Admiral added, and his words triggered a rush of sensation to most of those present.
Unconsciously they all compared the feel of Human Ascended to that of other Ascended. There was a difference. It was slight and it was only felt now that they thought about it but the other Ascended were just slightly alien. It made perfect sense of course, because they were alien and mentally there were shivers as they wondered how that slight sense of discrepancy must feel for eons. Except, once they assimilated all the information on ascension that feeling would fade, just not before.
"So first we have to comprehend all the Ascended information, then we can get into the fleet network?" Nergal asked.
"It looks that way," Sirta replied.
"But then we still have a problem," Miranda said.
"Problem?" Udina's frown could be felt with his question.
"The original one," Miranda signed. "As Elysium said, all the information will be there, it will just be as if someone took every book ever written and jumbled them up."
"Then we will just have to sort it," Ares said, though his tone indicated he had some inkling of how large a task it would be.
The fleet was silent as they passed through another Relay the organics hadn't found as they all considered the enormity of the task. Now that it had been pointed out, several of them could feel the tangle of information on Ascended that was nested in their data banks and internally they couldn't help but begin to tug at it, grasping the new information and putting it into its proper place.
"It will take us forever!" Zaeed grumbled as they approached another Relay.
"Fifteen to twenty cycles at least," Anderson estimated, his sub-channel indicating that he thought he was being highly ambitious with the judgement. The Ascended network only existed when the fleet was awake for the cycle. The time they had available was limited. And the cycles had been happening for eons! There were thousands of species' worth of information to go through.
"Oh, I think we can get it done quicker," Shepard said lightly.
"How?" The demand came from more than a few of the little fleet accompanying him.
"There are four hundred and seventy six of us," Shepard said, and let his answer speak for itself.
"That's true," Zaeed said, his voice hopeful again and the others could feel him attempting to work out how many cycles their numbers would help account for.
"I think," Sirta said slowly, "if we all work on it at every opportunity, we can get it done in two to three cycles," she concluded.
"Wait a second! Why don't we just ask Soliphon, or one of the other older Ascended for their library system?" Zaeed demanded.
"Oh we could," Elysium said and Zaeed braced at the tone of her voice. "And they might even give it to us, but it would be alien! That's why each Ascended has to do this for themselves."
Zaeed silently acknowledged the point. "But why will it still take two to three cycles if there's over four hundred of us?" he objected.
"Have you ever done data sorting?" Sirta challenged.
"Believe me, it will take two to three cycles," Sirta replied, though her voice was not unkind. "There will be things in there we will just not understand, and will need time to assimilate and classify and there will be times when we are just fed up and need a break."
"We can make finding the information on the Relays a priority," Shepard suggested. "But we are going to have to go through thousands of cycles worth of information before we find it," he added.
"Bloody hell! Maybe the scans will be faster!" Zaeed growled.
"They won't hurt," Hackett agreed. "Shall we scan this one?" he said, indicating towards the Relay they were approaching.
"It's as good as any other," Nergal said, extending his senses to perform a long distance, high intensity scan. While it would be better if they could remain stationary and scan the Relay, if they did not want to be caught by Soliphon or the organics, then they would have to scan the Relays on the run, as it were. They could worry about the Ascended network later.
It was a nice trip away. Internet was flaky but I wasn't there for online stuff. Back now though. I hope everyone enjoyed this chapter, and will express that. Or even if they didn't! If critical, don't feel you have to be anonymous! I won't take offense and it's frustrating getting critical reviews when you can't discuss it! Sometimes, I have questions in return you know!