13/03/2018

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

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

Part 4 Empire
Chapter 52: Through the Eyes of a Child

-cfr-

45684 Years after Human Ascension, 629 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Orbit of Planet Home, Onboard Cerberus

Once the shuttle that had picked him and Harper's bodyguards up from the Palace landed within Cerberus, Lawson led the way through the labyrinth-like interior of his Ascended form to the quarters Williams had directed him to. There was a large open area with smaller rooms coming off it from several connected corridors.

It was a bit off-putting when the bodyguards put Harper's body on what passed for the table but he resolved not to let it bother him.

"Are they still talking?" he asked.

"Yes," Williams' voice came from all around them.

"How's it going?" Lawson inquired.

"Shepard is being sensible," Williams replied.

"That's good."

"Shepard has always been sensible," she continued, detecting the slight note of doubt in Lawson's voice.

"Oh, I never said he wasn't," Lawson replied defensively but before he could say anything further Harper's voice came over the comm.

"I hate speaking with him!" he growled.

"Harper!" Lawson said.

"I don't care," Jack snarled. "You try talking to a man you have to obey," he continued

"Your bodyguards are here." Technically Williams shouldn't have said the name Shepard but… it was all confusing.

"Who gives a fuck?" Harper yelled.

"What did he order?" Lawson asked, trying to calm Harper down. He'd only be this worked up if Shepard had ordered something annoying.

The bodyguards were looking at him. They were not stupid. They could draw the obvious conclusions from that question and Lawson knew they'd have to explain who Shepard was now but that would hardly matter. They were on their Ascended form. If they stayed long enough, the bodyguards wouldn't care about anything they weren't told to care about.

"Launch within 2000 years."

"That's not a problem," Lawson said after a moment of consideration. They might be behind but they weren't that far behind.

"It could be, if we have to put Quantum shields on it."

"Oh," Lawson said.

"Not oh," Harper corrected. "Fucking oh! Even after a cycle, with the whole fleet working on the network, they aren't even close to them."

"Do we have to do it?" Lawson asked, stressing the words carefully. He'd review the entire conversation between Shepard and Harper later but for now he'd listen to Jack's ranting.

"No, but he'd definitely like it."

"Sir!" One of the bodyguards interrupted boldly.

"What is it, Tryggve?" Harper demanded.

"You're alive?"

"Well, of course I'm alive. This is my real form," Harper answered. "Ew," he added and Lawson figured that Harper had just 'seen' his body. "Get rid of that," he ordered.

"Sir?"

"Get rid of that meat," Harper said. "I'll need a new organic shell."

"So you are coming back?"

"Of course I'm coming back," Harper replied.

"Then why did y-" the bodyguard stopped himself before he fully asked the question but both Lawson and Harper knew what was being questioned. Why had the Emperor killed himself?

"Why don't I explain?" Williams asked, a definite note of glee coming through her transmission.

"Ugh," Harper groaned. "Go ahead," he allowed.

Williams had always disagreed about hiding Shepard from the general population.

Lawson nodded. "While you explain, Harper and I can work out what spin to put on this," he said.

Williams snorted but made a hologram appear to one side before she beckoned the bodyguards to come close. Most of them obeyed without question. The few who didn't followed along as they finally realised there was little need to continue to protect a corpse. While Williams wasn't their ultimate Commander, most had been military and she was their Grand Admiral.

"So Jack, how do you want to do this?" Lawson asked.

"I want to figure out some way of shooting him," Harper growled, though the sound was more a yelp of pain.

"Two thousand years to launch is generous," Lawson said. "And we'll just stick a couple of mixed military civilian research groups on quantum shields. They'll at least hash out the basics," he reassured Jack.

"And double the defences on each planet," Harper added.

Lawson blinked. "Oh," he said again. That was more problematic. They were already seen as a military race by the Attori and, despite their efforts to maintain peaceful trade relations, doubling the defence fleet around every colony world would ring alarm bells.

"Every fucking planet!" Harper complained.

"Did he say by when?" Lawson asked and got the sense that Harper drew back a little at the question.

"No," Harper said slowly. "No, he didn't," his voice gained more confidence.

"So we do that over the next two to three hundred years," Lawson said easily. "It will get done and if we keep encouraging the Attori military, it won't alarm them too much. Besides, it's not like we couldn't take care of them if needs be."

"I'd still prefer not to," Harper said. "Shepard seemed pleased that we were peaceful with them."

"But surely, he understands that's not going to last forever?"

"He does, but for now, peace is still advised."

"So what did he say about the Ascended."

"Nothing," Harper replied.

"Nothing?" Henry was surprised. "You mentioned them?"

"Of course, I mentioned them. He just didn't react."

"Take that as approval because it's too late to change anything now."

"Yes," Harper agreed before he sighed. "Emergency upload works," he said with a deliberate change of subject.

"I can see that," Lawson said happily. He knew it did, but it was always nice to have multiple confirmations.

"Download is going to be a bitch," Harper continued.

Lawson thought about it for a few moments. "Oh dear," he agreed, somewhat mockingly.

To the Empire, the Emperor was dead, killed in his own, very secure quarters at the tender age of 29 years into his reign. He'd be back, but this early into his cycle of rebirth, he hadn't even started on Harper's replacement body. They could accelerate growth, and he could get a body done in a week, but it would deteriorate far too quickly. It was far better to grow their avatars at a natural speed so at about 75 years into each century, Lawson began the new body. It meant that Harper returned to work with a body that was old enough to withstand the rigorous days and was at physical and mental maturity so there were far fewer chemical imbalances. He remained looking about 25 for the next 60 years before he began aging but with natural life spans getting older that was not an issue. Harper's body easily made it through each century and would probably survive another half century but it was becoming a tradition.

"Well, we are going to have to come up with a cover story," he said.

"One that does not reduce my ability to work," Harper added and Lawson translated 'One that does not increase security.'

Lawson nodded. Williams probably had some ideas but the security around the Phoenix Emperor was already high.

"Well, the easiest way to do that would be to admit the truth," he said, mentally bracing for an explosion.

"True," Harper said and there was a genuine note of speculation in his voice.

"What! You've always hated that option for the last 500 years and unless you missed something, none of his orders were that problematic."

"No," Harper agreed. "But you know what's been happening on Ceddon?" he reminded Lawson.

"Those idiots! I thought we said we'd ignore them."

"I did," Harper said. "But they are dangerous."

"They obey without question," Lawson reminded him.

"Until I make a mistake," Harper retorted and Lawson blinked.

Had Harper just admitted that he might not be perfect? But then he got serious. Jack had a point. While the sect worshipped Harper as an Immortal God and were obedient for now, they were a religion and religions were dangerous. At some point, Harper would do something. It might not even be a mistake but he would reverse a policy, change something that they didn't like. Some would continue to follow but others would either quit the faith, which would be a good option, while others would maintain the old ways, at which point, eventually a holy war would break out. The situation was somewhat cute now but could quickly become untenable.

"So we tell the Empire about Shepard?"

"Yes!" Harper said. "We make him, as Williams once called him, God. They worship someone they are never going to meet and I get an Empire mandated reason for changing my mind. Shepard ordered it."

Lawson was silent as he thought. Harper was being slightly flippant but that would be one of the most useful consequences of revealing Shepard, except was it that easy? They didn't want to reveal Shepard without considering the other consequences and there were always other consequences.

"There might be a problem," Lawson said. "Without some sort of divine sign, we leave ourselves open to others claiming to be messengers of Shepard."

"And at that point, Williams becomes useful," Harper joked.

To her, it was bad enough that they hadn't revealed Shepard but if someone else claimed to be in contact with him, Harper wouldn't even need to use the secret police. The military wouldn't leave much more than a smear for the dual insult of claiming to know Shepard and putting him in the position of god. Even with everything that had happened, for Williams, there was only one God, and it was not Shepard.

"His existence is eventually going to come out," Lawson said.

"The only question is how long eventually is," Harper agreed.

"We could say he's our contact in the Milky Way," Lawson suggested.

"Too mundane," Harper said, "And it will mean that others could try to contact him. Not necessarily the Ascended," Harper added. "But the organics and that would be a fucking disaster."

"Quantum comms," Lawson said. "They can't contact him."

"You know as well as I do that we've gone beyond paired comms," Harper said, referring to the early days of quantum communicators. "It wouldn't be that hard to build a cycler."

"Point," Lawson conceded.

"I think we are going to have to amend the Ceddon decision. They'll be given a choice, to accept that I'm immortal but still a man and therefore slightly imperfect. At that point they can give up their stupid religion or they die."

"You could always display some carnal knowledge," Lawson teased.

"No, just no!" Harper said. Who knew what twisted theories they'd come up with then?

"So we don't tell them about Shepard?" Lawson said, becoming serious again.

"Not yet," Harper replied. "It's safer to not even mention him, even if it is the easy answer."

"You're sure? That's going to mean a change in security since the only other reasonable explanation is an assassin getting into your quarters."

"Or a coup d'etat."

"No," Lawson said firmly. "No way am I accepting that," he added.

"You suggested it," Harper said, reminding him that the decision to get somewhere safe was because it would be a natural assumption. "It's going to be suggested, so why fight it?" He challenged.

"No," Lawson said again. "I'm not going to use a different body every time I speak to you."

"You didn't even suggest that I might replace you," Harper sighed, almost disappointed.

"You won't do that, Jack. I know you and you won't take that risk. No one else would be as accepting."

"True. So an assassin in my quarters?" he spat. "Some of the bodyguards will need to be injured," he continued. "They will have at least attempted to save me! What else is there?"

"We'll probably need to immortalise them," Lawson said, glancing over at the group who were still listening to Williams.

"With what she's telling them, that goes without saying," Harper grumbled.

"I'll sort it out," Lawson volunteered, "including the show trial."

"Eager to establish your innocence?"

"Yes actually, I am. And a public statement from you would help. I won't be very effective if I get arrested the moment I leave," Lawson said.

Harper conceded the point. "What else?"

"The Attori?"

"Nah," Harper dismissed them. "Just reinforce the Immortal Emperor bit and explain I'll be back shortly. There's nothing outstanding with them anyway."

"Then I think we are about done. When Williams has finished, we can put them to bed and get to work."

"I'll have a talk with my bodyguards' trainers," Harper said. "The next time Shepard calls, I am not going to go through that again. They can attend to it, but there will have to be a code phrase or something. You, had better make sure you've covered every fucking possibility for uploading faster."

"Will do. But look at it this way, you are now the Immortal Emperor Harper, who will do absolutely anything to get the job done."

"Pft! With an attitude like that, I'll make sure it's your job that gets done!" Harper growled before turning his attention away from Lawson.

Lawson chuckled but quickly sobered. They had been lucky this time. There had been nothing major happening but the next time Shepard called, they'd have to have a plan because while the Empire might exist to fulfil his orders, the Empire could just as quickly turn without a firm hand at the helm. And Harper had made sure that it would be his hand.

-cfr-

45684 Years after Human Ascension, 629 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Planet: Home, City: Safehold, Attori Embassy, Ambassador's Office

"What the hell is going on?" Prime Minister Ismal demanded the instant Uwr'sa opened the comm.

"Hasn't Ambassador Sousa kept you informed?" Uwr'sa asked.

"She has told us nothing more than the official line and that's hardly useful."

Uwr'sa sighed. "The Humans haven't been good with information," he said before taking a deep breath, his frills colouring slightly with anxiety. "Here's what I know for sure. The Emperor Harper was assassinated in his quarters about a week ago.

"Grand Admiral Williams took former Ambassador Lawson and Harper's bodyguards into custody."

"Martial law?" Ismal asked.

"No, but given how the Humans are, there's hardly any difference," Uwr'sa said. "I'm told there will be a trial tomorrow, and that Emperor Harper will return to work the next day."

"Emperor Harper?" Ismal snorted. "They are still persisting in that fiction," he seemed amused. "Who do you think it will be?"

Uwr'sa shook his head. "I don't know. We know so little about the Emperor's family," he added. "I haven't heard, and the Humans keep insisting that it is the same man."

"Their cosmetic surgery is good," Ismal agreed. They'd known the Humans for sixty years now and the images of the Emperor never seemed to change. He had gotten old but then, with a small break which the Humans said was his holiday time, he had come back younger. It was obvious that the former Emperor had retired and a new Human had taken the position. That was one change, this assassination would be another.

"I'll try to get a meeting with the Emperor," Uwr'sa said. "That should sort out quite a few things."

"Do you think you'll get one?"

"I should," Uwr'sa's frills flashed with confidence. "Relations are strong at the moment."

Ismal nodded. "I know Sousa has been telling us that there will be no break in trade but do you think there is any chance of it? We need that eezo."

Uwr'sa thought for a few moments. "I don't think so," he said finally. "We still don't know what they are using the metal for but they do still want it."

"So for the moment you remain?"

"There's no threat to us," Uwr'sa said. "We didn't assassinate the Emperor. They've already announced that they killed the assassin and know who was responsible. Since we weren't mentioned, I doubt they will be able to change the story now. And there is no reason to implicate us."

Ismal took a deep breath, his frills still showing worry. "Be careful."

"I will."

-cfr-

LMC Galaxy, Planet: Home, City: Safehold, Palace, Emperor's Office

Uwr'sa stared.

The last few days had been hectic. He had managed to get an appointment to see the new Emperor Harper but it had been after the trial. If you could call it that. The whole thing had been fabricated. Harper's bodyguards had just stood there. They hadn't objected to anything said and they had all pleaded guilty. They hadn't even flinched when the sentence was handed down.

Death, with no right to appeal.

It had simply reinforced the fact that the Humans were a military state and that the execution of their leader was the highest crime. Military security had hustled the bodyguards out of the court before anyone could ask anything.

Lawson had made an appearance, standing next to the Grand Admiral to prove that he was not implicated in the assassination and then he had reiterated the announcement that the Emperor would be back to work the next day. And that was that.

Uwr'sa had gotten his appointment for that day and he thought he was braced for every possibility. The Humans maintained that the Emperor was immortal but that was a nice fiction for them. True, for the last 60 years, every image of the Emperor had been the same, which added to their fiction and Uwr'sa had been ready to meet a Human who looked the same as the previous Emperor. It would be his brother, his son, someone related, who had had surgery, which would explain why the Humans required the week to prepare, to allow the surgical marks to heal, so that the Human would bear the same face.

He was not prepared for this.

Across the desk, in the position of Emperor was a young Human. Uwr'sa had some experience in estimating Human ages and this Human appeared to be entering their teenage years. The features were similar to Harper's but they were too young. It was entirely disconcerting to see such focused eyes in a young body.

"You wanted to see me?" the voice was high pitched.

Uwr'sa was however diplomat enough not to ignore a direct question. "I did, Your Majesty," he said, using the term the Humans specified was appropriate.

The child before him nodded. "I believe my Ambassador Emiko Sousa has spoken to your Prime Minister Ismal," the child continued sounding a little annoyed. "The Attori trade rights are guaranteed under Article 7, sub-section Y, of the treaty between our peoples, which is in effect for another twenty years, until the official time of review. The Phoenix Empire still requires your excess metals."

Uwr'sa was experienced enough not to demand for what but he knew the question showed in his frill colour. The child across from him just smiled and he recognised that on an adult Human it would be banal but on the smaller form, it was, dare he think it, sort of cute.

"My people will be greatly relieved to have that confirmed by the highest authority," he said one of the catch all diplomatic phrases and before he could say anything further, one of the Emperor's ever present bodyguards stepped forward. Unconsciously, Uwr'sa tensed. He was so used to them remaining in the back ground that he was shocked by the sheer sense of controlled menace he could feel from the man.

But the bodyguard didn't want anything from him. Instead, he placed a glass of water in front of the child Emperor. It was just a simple glass but the child who looked like Harper glared at it before saying something Uwr'sa didn't catch. Apparently the bodyguard did and he reminded himself that all of the Emperor's bodyguards would have extensive cybernetic enhancement, including hearing. "When you are older," the man replied, sounding amused and Uwr'sa realised that if he thought that the child form was somewhat cute, how much worse it must be for the Humans.

They were biologically conditioned to like their young, and in this case the bodyguard would have been trained to protect this young Human. But this Human was not the former Emperor, yet they treated him as if he was. Surely, the Humans had some degree of respect and while Uwr'sa tried to quash that thought, he couldn't help the half sigh of frustration that escaped.

It brought the attention of the entire room and despite the gaff he'd just made, Uwr'sa forced himself to remain calm, though his frills still coloured to show he had questions.

The child Emperor was astute enough to pick up on that. "Was there something else, Ambassador Uwr'sa?"

There was, there was a myriad of questions but most would… Well, he didn't think the Humans would actually execute him but he would be sent back to Atto in disgrace. His expression calmed but the Emperor smiled again, this time knowingly and Uwr'sa felt himself tense.

"Ah," the high pitched voice said again. "I miscalculated."

Uwr'sa couldn't help but stare. When the Emperor spoke there were two pitches.

The Emperor didn't look happy either because he rolled his eyes, muttering something under his breath before clearing his throat. "I miscalculated," he said again. "This body is physically capable of withstanding the rigors of leadership but it is very young."

"With respect, I was given to understand that Humans reached physical maturity some time in their teens."

"That is correct, Ambassador, though mental maturation can take much longer."

"Is that form not yet old enough, Your Majesty?" Uwr'sa asked, deciding that for now, it would be much safer to play along with the Human fictions.

"Old enough, but still growing," he replied in a way that was very reminiscent of Harper. Frustrated, yet challenging. "As I said, I miscalculated. In my desire not to be out of commission for so long, I did not allow the avatar enough time to fully mature and now I have to go through the bulk of puberty." The last sentence was particularly disgusted. "Again."

"You do not go through this every time you are reborn?" Uwr'sa asked carefully. He had not been the Ambassador when the Emperor had previously been replaced.

"Fuck no!" The child said and it was odd to hear such words spoken in the young voice. "Human life spans are approximately 170 years, especially with augmentation, so I make sure my body starts at about 25. It's not a precise science when dealing with avatars. But this body is not old enough to have sex! Or drink."

"But you are the Emperor!"

"Thank you for acknowledging that," the child said, smiling somewhat viciously at his bodyguards.

Uwr'sa immediately knew that even though the Emperor had been back at work, as the Humans would say, for only a day, this was an ongoing battle between them. While he could understand not allowing a physically immature form to engage in sexual intercourse, he had seen young Humans drinking. Maybe not quite as young as the Emperor though, he realised after a moment.

"Alcohol will impede your ability, Your Majesty," one of the bodyguards muttered, loud enough to be heard.

"Pft!" the young man replied. "Then at least let me have a cigarette."

"No," the same guard responded firmly. "You were insistent on returning to work in a week but you agreed to obey Doctor Lawson's orders. So no cigarettes."

"You wouldn't even give me one if you had them would you?"

"No, Sir."

"What the hell does Williams have on you all?"

"You know I can't tell you that, Sir."

The young man sighed, dismissing the matter before he turned back towards Uwr'sa. "I had to get back. There were all sorts of changes I had to make after speaking with-" The Emperor stopped and looked sharply towards Uwr'sa.

He just looked back, concentrating on keeping his breathing even. Whatever the Emperor had been about to say, Uwr'sa was not meant to hear it.

"Never mind," the young Harper said. "I didn't realise Lawson would do this to me!" he added growling.

"Doctor's orders," the guard repeated.

Uwr'sa just watched silently. The Emperor's last glance towards him had not been the look of a child but had been one of pure calculation. That sentence, as innocuous as it was, he shouldn't have heard it but he couldn't make any sense of it. Sure, if you took the Human's fiction as being accurate then it was possible that the supposedly immortalised mind of Harper could have spoken to someone, but that sentence implied that someone had instructed Harper to alter things and Harper was the Human Emperor. Uwr'sa had studied their hierarchies. No one had authority over an Emperor!

Well, maybe a divine being, but the Phoenix Empire was strict on religion. Many were atheists, but those who believed, did so privately. The Empire's laws over rode any religious guidance.

The young man waved one hand, making what Uwr'sa recognised as a rude gesture towards the bodyguard before he turned back to face him. "Now, is there anything else I can help you with?" he asked formally and Uwr'sa knew that his meeting was over.

"Not at the moment, Your Majesty," he said, rising. "I will report to my government that you are in good health and that our trade agreements remain unchanged. I'm sure it will be comforting to them."

"Good," the Emperor said, his eyes narrowed and Uwr'sa knew without being told that his communication would be monitored. He hated that but the Attori had never been able to catch the Humans at it so it remained a diplomatic fiction that they didn't monitor the comms, even when they did. He knew if he said anything more than that…

Well, the third Ambassador had died rather suddenly, and while every autopsy said it was a brain haemorrhage, that was meant to be a physical impossibility for Attori less than 50. No one had ever accused the Humans but… the Ambassador did have some rather unconventional ideas.

"Good," the Emperor repeated before turning back to the data pads in front of him as Uwr'sa was shown out.

Once out of the office, he took a deep breath before forcibly reminding himself that he was still on camera and began walking confidently back down the guarded corridor. He had been trained to do this but even he had trouble dealing with the Humans and their fictions within fictions. It was far too difficult and he needed a drink. Make that two. He'd drink the young Emperor's share himself.

-cfr-

45685 Years after Human Ascension, 630 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Planet: Home, City: Safehold, Imperial Palace, Emperor's Quarters

Harper stared at the datapad, blinking heavily as it blurred. His body was old enough to handle the rigours of the job but it tired quickly. In some ways that was good. It made him keep to the sleep schedule he had set but in others it was just downright inconvenient. Like now, when he was reading over the technical reports from some of the think tank groups.

Overall, though, being fifteen sucked. He couldn't drink, it was dangerous for a body this age to smoke, so he couldn't. And even if he could, Williams would stop him. Worst of all, some of the women just called him cute! Now that was fine when he was an adult, then they called him handsome and he could take them to bed but at fifteen, while he could perform, that was just gross. It was hard enough taking twenty-something year olds to bed when he was closing in on 800. There would be no one younger. And if he thought he'd been embarrassed the first time he'd had to have sex with his bodyguards watching, taking care of the needs of a fifteen year old body… that had been far, far worse.

To make matters worse, as he approached his first birthday in this body, he'd been fighting a low grade headache for the past few days. Lawson had run some scans but had no idea what was causing it, so beyond proscribing some painkillers, there was nothing that could be done. Except the painkillers were doing nothing and the headache would not go away. And it was building.

It was almost like the pain he had gotten the first and only time he'd thought about just putting the Project on indefinite hold, except a million times less but if it continued, it could become that. Except, he hadn't and wasn't disobeying any of Shepard's orders! He'd had to put a short hold on colonising the next planet, but the additional dreadnoughts were beginning to roll out to each colony world and the docks necessary to build the actual project were being constructed in a system named Underworld.

He'd considered putting it in Dorado. The Ascended there would keep the Project safe but it required input from the organics, so a new system was required. Most of the Empire just assumed the mining corps found the eezo they used, and while that was true to a point, the numbers wouldn't add up for anyone taking a good look. Well, they would, because the numbers were doctored, but the ones Harper saw allowed him a truer picture of the Empire's economy. Those in the Mining Corp who had figured it out, and there were a few who knew that they didn't mine enough eezo, thought that there was a dedicated Eezo collection corp. It was a relatively fine web of misdirection but it had proven to be robust. So long as everyone had their creature comforts and there was enough eezo to sell to the Attori, no one bothered to look too closely.

He was obeying completely so the headache couldn't be from Shepard. Sure, the grunt had a sadistic streak but that was only when he felt he'd been wronged. Hell, that was one of the reasons he was in the LMC but Harper hadn't done anything wrong...

"Oh, no," Harper groaned, dropping the data pad. "Get me Lawson," he instructed, his voice terse as he rose.

"Sir?" one of the ever present bodyguards questioned.

"Just get me Lawson," Harper repeated, sitting back down, gritting his teeth as the pain surged. He held his head in his hands, rubbing at his temples.

The bodyguards made the call and Harper could feel their worry increasing. They knew about the headaches, of course, but they also realised that something else was happening now. Harper tried to rise again, but staggered.

"Sir!"

"It's okay," he managed to gasp, forcing himself to make his way to the couch before collapsing on to it.

"What is it?" Lawson's hologram appeared. "Jack!" he exclaimed when he saw his old friend.

Harper swallowed hard. "You remember the conversation about a year back?" he said.

"The one directly after the incident?" Lawson replied with his own question. The guards stiffened. They remembered that incident. It was the reason they were here because as far as they knew, their predecessors had been executed for dereliction of duty.

"Yes. Everything has been done, hasn't it?" Harper managed to gasp.

"Your headache is from that?" Lawson didn't sound convinced.

"Everything?" Harper repeated the question, hissing slightly around the pain that had become all encompassing. He did not need to play question tennis with Lawson. Right now, he needed the businessman turned scientist to review the conversation he'd had with Shepard again. He needed to know if he was right. The pain said he was right.

"Dreadnoughts and the docks are both happening. There should be no issues," Henry confirmed.

"Journey?"

Lawson was silent for a few moments. "Oh dear," he said before turning his holograms towards Harper's bodyguards. "Get an uplink to the Cerberus on that display now," he ordered.

While they obviously wanted to know why, they had been trained to obey and the orders were not going to put their charge in any danger.

"I'm gonna kill- argh!" Harper cried in pain.

"Just lie there, Jack," Lawson said. "Don't say anything. Don't think anything," he added. Harper glared back at him, pain evident in his eyes. "You know as well as I do that it's a very simple process, if you don't think it, you won't get affected."

"I'm still gonna-" again Harper didn't finish the sentence but this time his body convulsed and several bodyguards rushed to his side. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

"What's happening?" one of them demanded, turning towards Lawson.

"He's in pain," Lawson replied.

"I know that," the man said through gritted teeth. "What's causing it?" he demanded but Lawson recognised the question as more 'how do I destroy whatever's causing it?' These were Humans who had trained for one purpose only. Maintain the Emperor's life.

"We are dealing with it now," Lawson tried to temporise. Why hadn't they got that uplink yet?

"What is causing it?" the man repeated.

Lawson sighed. On the screen, the security protocols began cycling. "We're just going to have to add this to the list of State Secrets your bodyguards know but can't speak about," he said towards Jack. The fifteen year old form of his friend was surrounded by bodyguards, most of whom looked somewhat awkward as they tried to comfort the Emperor. One of them had found a cloth somewhere and had pressed it to Jack's forehead.

"Whatever!" Harper growled, gasping around the pain.

Lawson looked at the bodyguard in front of him, who was still waiting for answers. "The incident last year was not caused by an assassin," he began, aware that the room was listening. He didn't need to tell them this was another state secret. "It was the result of our immortalised form, Cerberus, receiving a signal from the Milky Way."

The guard nodded slowly and Lawson could see him putting the pieces together. 600 years of selective breeding was good for something. Now you could have brains and brawn! "Why couldn't the signal be routed down? As we are doing now?"

"Not for this signal," Lawson said, shaking his head.

"Okay," the guard said dubiously, not fully comprehending yet. "So the Emperor was immortalised last year, rather forcefully." The new training pack for Harper's bodyguards included a set of codes for what to do when Shepard called again. It was a logical conclusion for the guard to make.

"That's the delicate way of putting it," Lawson agreed. "While he was in our immortalised form, Cerberus, he got new orders."

"Orders?" One of the other guards gasped. "Someone has the stones to tell the Emperor what to do?"

Lawson refused to laugh. "Someone not only has the stones but has the ability to ensure that the Emperor obeys," he said, turning slightly. "The plan to double the defense dreadnoughts on each planet was not a recommendation from the Military, it was a direct order."

"From who?"

"What is it, Lawson?" Esha's face appeared on the screen as the protocols were established. Even though the Phoenix Empire's comms had been designed by Ascended, they were simpler. "I'm somewhat busy here."

"I need you to access the entertainment files," Lawson said, ignoring the bodyguards in favour of the uplink. Fixing the problem was more important than explaining it and they were intelligent enough to leave the matter for the moment.

"Yeah, what ones?"

"I need to you transmit BB to this screen," he instructed.

"BB?" she asked, incredulous. "Are you sure?"

"Positive. Review the conversation last year. He ordered it," Lawson said.

"Bastard," Harper growled from the side but it ended as a pitiful moan. Apparently Shepard's orders were competing to see which could cause Jack the most pain.

It took only a few seconds for Esha to do that and Lawson watched as her expression changed. It became amused but he could see that she was then accessing the files. "Err… I can't get that one."

"Why not?" Lawson demanded.

"Password protection," she replied. "And if I try breaking it, it will delete itself."

"Jack!" Lawson exclaimed. Only he would have put a password on that file. "Don't do that," he instructed Esha before turning towards Harper.

His glowing blue eyes were staring at the screen, though there were streaks running from his eyes as the pain assaulted his body.

"Password," Lawson prompted. "Jack!" he admonished. "Tell yourself you are going to watch it. It will help." It worked both ways after all. If you thought about it, you caused pain, but if you thought about it positively, the pain subsided.

Harper glared. He knew that, but telling himself that was to give into the grunt. Why had the bastard been given so much power? Instead, he looked at Esha and was suddenly thankful that he hadn't made it so that he had to be present in his Ascended form to unlock the file. Being fifteen sucked. Uploading again would suck more. "Password, unlock for BB," he said clearly, and hissed when the pain subsided. Lawson was right. Bastard!

It returned but Harper was never one to let pain stop him and when Esha nodded at him, indicating that the system was ready, Harper forced himself to speak clearly. "'If there's nothing wrong with me, maybe there's something wrong with the universe.'"

"Password confirmed. File is unlocked," Esha confirmed. "I'll stream now."

"No!" Harper cried.

"Jack!" Lawson berated him. "You have to!"

"I don't want to!"

"He wants you to!"

The argument came to a halt when Esha began streaming the file and Harper's eyes fixed on the screen, almost against his will.

"The pain is better, isn't it?" Lawson said.

"Darn it!" Harper replied, which was answer enough.

"He?"

Lawson turned back to the bodyguard, meeting his eyes squarely. "We came from the Milky Way because we were instructed to fix a problem. The order was given to us by another immortalised. The first Human immortalised. When he gives orders, they have to be obeyed."

"What?" the guard demanded.

"It is exactly what it sounds like," Lawson said. "If he orders you to jump, you jump before you even think about asking how high. So if he instructs you to double the defences around each colony world, you will double the defences around each colony world. And if he orders you to watch a movie that you loathe, then no matter your personal desires, you will watch that movie," Lawson explained, gesturing towards Harper who was currently watching Jake Elwood being led through the prison.

"Bastard," Harper hissed, as his formerly light breathing became heavier.

"You are recovering, though," Lawson observed.

"Yeah but I can't look away," Harper replied as he continued to stare at the screen. To be fair, so were some of the guards. It was only natural to be curious about what had caused the Emperor so much pain.

"Be thankful you only have to watch it once a year," Lawson laughed.

"Fuck you!" Harper growsed.

"Sir, who is this immortalised? Was he the Emperor of the Milky Way?"

Lawson laughed. He couldn't help it, and even Harper snorted, though the noise was derisive.

"No," he said, shaking his head. "He was just a soldier. A good one," Lawson allowed, "with the rank of commander."

"Then how?"

Lawson sighed. "We are not the only immortalised species," he explained. "The soldier, Shepard," he said the name so he could actually speak about this properly, "was the one who brokered the deal for Humanity with the first Immortalised species. We believe it is that immortalised who gave Shepard so much power."

The bodyguard said nothing but Lawson could imagine what he was thinking. "I wouldn't think about killing Shepard if I were you," he warned. "You will not be able to do it, and it will only give your immortalised form pain. Despite what this looks like," he said, indicating towards Jack's prone form, "Shepard is very careful about his orders and watching one movie, once a year, is not going to kill the Emperor," he added.

Reluctantly, the bodyguard nodded.

"Next year, we will do this differently," Harper interrupted.

"Oh?" Lawson asked.

"If I have to watch this crap, then others can as well."

Henry was businessman enough to see where Jack was going with it. "So a stadium, paid tickets, that sort of thing?"

"Yes. Watch an original movie from Earth!" Harper made the statement mocking. "The profit will be huge."

"From Kai alone," Lawson murmured.

"If I have to watch it, I might as well make it work for me," Harper said.

"There's no pain?" Lawson asked. With Harper talking to them, he wasn't exactly listening to the dialogue… even if he knew it by heart.

"Shepard said watch it, he never said I had to pay attention," Jack replied, without turning his head.

"Alright, we can discuss it later," Lawson said. "I imagine if we make a set date for it, there won't be any build up."

"Probably not," Harper said.

"I'll come to check up on you later," Lawson replied before cutting his comm.

"Bastard," Harper muttered again. "I trust you all understand that the information you have just learned is classified?" Jack said to his bodyguards, hating the way his voice warbled. Being fifteen sucked.

"Sir!" came the cries of agreement.

"Good. I really don't have to want to immortalise another set of bodyguards because they know the truth," he said sighing as the Elwood brothers entered the orphanage.

He hated this movie and already he was dreading how many copies those in his Ascended form would make while it was unlocked. Finding them all was going to be a bitch.

-cfr-

The Blues Brothers as a weapon. Williams will be impressed. Harper is not liking it and Lawson is right, Kai will pay to be able to see the movie again. Though who knows, the assassin may have had a personal copy somewhere that Harper didn't find. He'd be sneaky like that.

The next chapter is actually Second Contact.

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