15/05/2018

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

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Part 4 Empire
Chapter 62: Skirmishes and Spies

-cfr-

46352 Years after Human Ascension, 1300 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

Captain Yun Earley stood on the bridge of the dreadnought class Phoenix Military Ship Steadfast. Grand Admiral Williams was currently in her chair and the woman was hooked into the network, monitoring the updates. It was odd not to be there. She was so used to monitoring everything that it felt wrong to be just standing, even if she knew the Grand Admiral was more than capable of taking care of things. The woman was capable of running the entire battle, if she chose, but Yun didn't think Williams would do that. Not this time.

They and their fleet and the other fleets were a minimum of three systems into the Fedochi Protectorate and had been in position for the last few hours. Yun had questioned the legality of the deployment but watching the updates come through from the Phoenix Empire border worlds, her doubts had melted away and now she wanted nothing more than to show the arrogant Fedochi the might of the Empire.

She was not a fool, she knew there was no real issue of legality. In space, the strongest set the rules but there had been an unspoken agreement between the Fedochi and the Phoenix Empire that they did not violate each other's border. Technically, the Phoenix Empire had violated the border first but they had done nothing. Yet.

Earley's hands curled into fists, her short nails digging into the leather of her gloves as the material creaked. The cowardly Fedochi had attacked. Barely two hours after confirmation that the Emperor had Ascended, just as the celebratory parties would be going full swing, the first report had come through of Fedochi forces attacking the border system of Benovos.

It was not a pirate raid but a full attack fleet, operating under the authority of their Exarch. They'd openly displayed the colours of their Dukes.

They'd been driven back. Benovos was not helpless but then a new attack had been reported on Floria. At that point, Yun had realised that the Grand Admiral had known the attacks were imminent, which is why the fleets were already in Fedochi territory.

They were not to defend, or threaten, or deter or anything like that. Their job would be to devastate. To illustrate to Exarch Ilkin the true cost of attacking the Phoenix Empire.

For the last couple of hours, their targeting computers had been crunching observational readings. They might be thousands of kilometres distant but they had a fair idea of their target's defenses and it was fair to say they were thinner than expected. The Fedochi border systems had their normal defences but as you progressed inwards, the defences had been lessened. No doubt, those defences had been stripped for the strike on the Phoenix Empire.

It would be a costly mistake for the Fedochi.

In total, eight border systems had been attacked. Williams had just nodded as each of the reports came through. It was difficult hearing about the battles, knowing you could do nothing and Yun had expected Grand Admiral Williams to give the signal for them to surge forward but it hadn't come.

Instead, the Supreme Commander had just urged them to wait but she hadn't said for what. And now they were being told that the attacks were being driven off. Yun couldn't shake the feeling that it was now or never for any act of retaliation but still Grand Admiral Williams was holding!

What was the woman waiting for? Yun thought with exasperation. She knew the Grand Admiral could keep track of more things that she could, that's why Williams was the commander, but what else was there to possibly track? All the information was coming through the Steadfast.

"We've got dropouts from lightspeed!" Sensor tech Isidro screamed.

Yun's pulse rate spiked and her breathing quickened. The bridge crew came alive as they worked to identify the newcomers. It was only because Earley was standing behind Grand Admiral Williams that she heard the whispered word. "Finally."

"They're immortalised!" Isidro reported.

"All fleets report similar," Arla announced and Yun could see the comm screens from the rest of the fleet. Each of their fleets were now accompanied by at least fifty immortalised, though her fleet had an even hundred.

Emperor Harper's face appeared on screen and Earley jerked back. Grand Admiral Williams didn't seem surprised.

"Well?" she asked.

"I've cleared it with the boss, you're good to go," the newly Ascended Emperor replied.

The boss? Yun frowned. Who the hell had authority over the Emperor? Even if it was in jest, who would Harper refer to as his boss?

"That was quick," Williams observed.

The Emperor smirked and while the image had to be generated, the entire bridge crew could tell that Harper was pleased with himself. "Two hours of absorbing their pre-emptive attack on loop, from every angle did the trick," he said. "But you are only authorised for a retaliatory strike," Emperor Harper added.

"That's all?" Williams demanded, her voice questioning his sanity. "Of all the times for him to hold back," she muttered.

The retired Emperor just stared for a moment. "In this case, I think his diplomacy may be for the best," Harper said. "All things considered," he added, the last with particular inflections that made Williams' grimace before she nodded.

"Perhaps, all things considered, it is for the best," she agreed with the Emperor. "We'll pull back when we are done."

"Good. I'm waking up Kuoxxar," Harper said, though the name meant nothing to Yun.

Williams laughed. "I'm sure Ilkin will appreciate that," she murmured.

"I thought so," Harper said. "Now, get to it," The retired emperor added, nodding before the image vanished.

Williams rose. "Put me on speaker to all the fleets, including the immortalised," she ordered before standing on the inbuilt projection disk.

Yun nodded to herself. This was all part of the plan, she realised, as her pulse returned to normal.

"The Fedochi have been discontent for some years," Williams announced. "They did not like the formation of the Attori Protectorate. While for the Phoenix Empire, it was merely the formalisation of our duties, it took away from their pirated income. They have come to the erroneous conclusion that attacking the Phoenix Empire will make us renege on our duties.

"They do not know our strength, our resolve, but as their attacks were driven back, they've had a taste of it. Now, though, now, they will come to understand the futility of their actions. They will not know our rage, for we are not savages, who lash out blindly when hurt. They will instead know the true cost of what it means to attack our Empire. They will know the lengths to which we will go to ensure that they never attack again," Williams smiled viciously.

"All forces, you are cleared to attack! Go with attack plan Delta," she instructed before indicating that the comm should be cut.

"Us, too," she said turning towards Yun.

"Delta plan?" she asked. Delta was to take out the orbital defenses and the heaviest ground fortifications before letting the immortalised lead the ground assault. Actually, it was more than that, they were to let the immortalised conduct the entire assault.

It came as no surprise to Earley that the immortalised could fly and fight. That was known to the officer corp. They conducted military games with some of the immortalised but she had never heard of them ever fighting on the ground. Now, she'd get to watch, she'd get to know but Yun wasn't sure she wanted to. The immortalised were canny fighters in space. What would they be like on the ground?

"You'll see," Williams said.

Yun nodded. She really didn't have much choice. Williams was her commanding officer and the Emperor, retired or not, had authorised the attack and she had no grounds to object. She nodded to her XO and a moment later the bridge of the Steadfast was noisy with activity. The stars blurred and they jumped past light speed, their support ships and the fleet of immortalised going with them.

The Fedochi systems would never know what hit them.

-cfr-

46353 Years after Human Ascension, 1301 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Ullator Homeworld: Ulan

"I trust you won't need a further demonstration of the consequences of attacking?" Xochitl could hear the note of absolute confidence, despite the Human Emperor's drawl.

"That will not be necessary."

And she could hear the very well concealed fear in the Exarch's tone. The Phoenix Empire might be writing this incident off as a simple, if slightly extended border skirmish but anyone who could rub two thoughts together knew the Humans had won.

"I'm glad to hear it," Emperor Harper replied. "My legal teams will have the treaty documents to you within the hour," the Human continued and Xochitl found it interesting that the Human Emperor spoke Plam. It spoke well of him that the Emperor was so well educated.

"They will be signed," Exarch Ilkin returned, his voice slightly testy. "And the buffer zone will be established within one month, as agreed."

"Very good," the Human almost purred and Xochitl could well understand his glee. The buffer zone was being formed exclusively from former Fedochi territory and, while the border systems were not generally valuable, evacuating this buffer zone would leave the surrounding systems flooded with refugees.

Though word was that the Humans had done their very best to depopulate the planets they had attacked. The Fedochi Protectorate was clamping down on the information but it was no secret that the Humans had swept away the space defences and had pounded the planets before landing troops. Some estimates said at least seventy percent had been killed but Xochitl was more inclined to only go as high as forty with further wounded.

"I will also be expecting to hear your retirement announcement," Emperor Harper pushed the issue.

"It will be a long transition," Exarch Ilkin said, "but in light of events, it is best for my son to take up the mantle."

Emperor Harper laughed. It was a coarse noise. "Don't bullshit me, Exarch. I told you the first time we talked, direct communication reduces misunderstandings. You do not need political speak with me."

The Human statement hung in silence for a few moments and Xochitl could see that Exarch Ilkin was offended but the Fedochi eventually nodded.

"Fine," he snarled. "I will be retiring so that the House of Bandiophadiae maintains our grip on the throne and so that you will return the noble hostages you have taken."

"We didn't take them," Harper objected but Xochitl could tell he was merely laughing. "You sent them," he told the Exarch, "but they will be returned in the same condition they were taken."

"Unharmed," Exarch Ilkin insisted firmly.

"The same condition they were taken," Harper repeated. "I'm not about to lie and say they were all uninjured when we blew their ships out of the sky but we will not have added additional injuries and with care they should all recover. The ones we told you are alive, anyway," Harper concluded.

Xochitl felt a stir of admiration for the Human. He was intelligent and he knew how to play the game. It was a bit hard to tell with the Fedochi filtering the files they had but everything they learned just highlighted how dangerous this Phoenix Empire was.

"Just go away, Harper," Exarch Ilkin said tiredly.

He would rule from behind his son for a while but the Fedochi was defeated. It had been a masterful play by the Phoenix Empire. First, the absorption of another race, then his handling of the Fedochi. The Phoenix Empire had let the Fedochi attack after having positioned additional forces at the attack sites. And then, while the Fedochi were reeling from having been driven back from targets they should have taken, they got word of attacks from within their Protectorate. Not on the relatively heavily armed border systems but other worlds, two to three systems deep into the Protectorate. Emperor Harper's forces had just been waiting for the signal to attack and just like that, the Fedochi knew they were beaten. It was a gutsy move, stationing multiple fleets within enemy territory, but it said louder than any intel report that the Phoenix Empire's intelligence knew the Fedochi intentions all along and they had their counter attacks in place. It was a move that showed Emperor Harper was not afraid to go to war if that's what it was going to take.

Unsurprisingly, the Fedochi sued for peace almost immediately. Surprisingly, the Phoenix Empire had accepted. Xochitl could see no reason for Harper to not have pushed his advantage and claimed even more territory. But he hadn't. So what was she missing?

"No," Emperor Harper's voice said, "Because there's one more thing we need to discuss."

"You have your treaty, you have the planets and you even have the Attori. What more do you want?" Exarch Ilkin demanded.

Emperor Harper's face was neutral but he sighed as he answered the question. "As a sign of good will, and to show that the Phoenix Empire truly harbours no grudge against the Fedochi Protectorate, I am willing to offer you terms on the purchase of eezo," the Emperor explained patiently. "It will also help your people recover after this unfortunate incident."

Xochitl shook her head. Now who was using political speak? But she noticed immediately that Exarch Ilkin did not dismiss the idea.

"The same rates as the Attori?" the Fedochi leader asked cautiously.

Emperor Harper thought for a moment. "I think we can manage that," he replied.

"Then I'll have my people draw up an agreement," Exarch Ilkin said, his voice still cold towards the Human.

"Then we can put this business behind us," Emperor Harper responded.

With a final parting nod at the Human Emperor, Exarch Ilkin cut the comm and the file stopped playing after giving one last look at the Fedochi leader.

Xochitl narrowed her eyes, looking at the screen. "How did we get this?" she asked.

"It's genuine," Zystos replied. "We've checked the authenticity and it all comes up positive. Plus, what they discussed is what their species are doing so if this isn't real, it's the best acted recreation we've ever seen."

"That wasn't what I asked," Xochitl said. "How did we get this?" she repeated the question.

"Sub-agent Xavia got it, via our agents in the Fedochi Protectorate," Zystos answered.

"Really?" Xochitl questioned, her voice dripping sarcasm. "I find that very hard to believe but if true, we have been grossly misusing the agent who has infiltrated far enough to plant a vid bug in Exarch Ilkin's office!"

Zystos flushed. When it was stated like that, it did seem absurd. The vid was a recording of a private meeting between the leaders of significant, space going civilizations. It was not random gossip picked up on a street corner. There was no way they should have this file.

At least, not yet. Given enough time, their agents would infiltrate far enough but not now. Now was far too early.

"Alright, I'll ask an easier question," Xochitl said. "Who do we think gave us this file? The Humans or the Fedochi?"

"Xavia indicated that the vid file came from the Exarch's office, so it has to be the Fedochi!" Zystos pointed out.

"Or it could be the Humans, making it seem as if the Exarch's office has leaks. If I wanted an excuse to attack later, that would be sufficient," Xochitl concluded, much to Zystos' chagrin. He hadn't thought about it like that.

"So you believe the Phoenix Empire leaked the file to our agents?" There were implications with that scenario Zystos didn't want to consider, not the least of which is how the Phoenix Empire knew which were Ullator agents.

"No," Xochitl said slowly. "I think it was a Fedochi but I believe it was done under Human instruction," she explained.

That statement made Zystos' head hurt more. "What does that mean?" he asked.

"It means," she smiled, "that Exarch Ilkin should just ask Emperor Harper for orders." Xochitl nodded to herself. "And it means that the Humans have far better agents than I gave them credit for."

"But you…" Zystos objected.

"Already decided the Humans had good espionage capability," Xochitl completed Zystos's sentence.

"Yes Ma'am," he nodded.

"And I still believe that," she said, her eyes clouding with thought. "This changes nothing. It just means they are better than I anticipated and that we should already be on the watch for their agents. Forty years, after all, is more than long enough to infiltrate."

"I'll activate more counter-measures immediately."

"Good," Xochitl murmured, her mind occupied with thoughts on how to counter a species who could see what was required to win but who was also ruthless enough to do what was necessary to obtain that victory. This Phoenix Empire was the most dangerous race the Ullator had ever encountered and that was even compared to the huge Nur Empire on their flank. "The Humans will have to be watched," Xochitl whispered.

-cfr-

"Oh, will we?" Grand Admiral Williams asked rhetorically.

Her information sorters, those people she employed to filter through the vast amounts of information they collected hourly, had rightfully deduced she needed to see this personally. She'd have to give them a reward.

It had been extremely annoying to lure some so-called Ullator tourists into their territory but it had just paid off. While they were in the Phoenix Empire, enjoying the sights, they had provided a list of important Ullator, and she had then instructed them to either infiltrate, or find some way of getting the Ullator to visit. Most had infiltrated, which was slower, but with the Ullator life span of approximately four to five hundred years, it was an acceptable alternative.

The file was very educational about the Ullator, and Williams made an additional note to have Cerberus personally call the agent. That would be reward enough. She'd also have to find out exactly how well ranked this Xochitl was, because while the woman was obviously a spy master, she might just be an information broker.

It would be interesting to see who watched the watcher.

-cfr-

46353 Years after Human Ascension, 1301 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Phoenix Empire Capital Planet: Home, Emperor's Office

"I think it's become clear that we have to do something. The response to the Fedochi was not acceptable! I can't run an Empire where I cannot rely on a large part of my military!" Harper complained. The Ascended were meant to be the hidden force of the Empire. What good were they if they did not obey?

"Do you think it's any easier for me to run the military?" Williams retorted. She was not taking the blame for this. Not when it wasn't her fault. "We would have been okay," she added. "I had enough forces to make sure the Fedochi knew we were serious."

"That's true," Harper conceded, "but there would have been far more casualties and while I'm good, even I would have been very hard pressed to make the Empire accept the treaty if that had happened. The citizens would have rightfully wanted blood. As it is, most of them are treating it as a wonderful little diversion to mark my ascension." He could ignore what the citizens wanted, but it was far easier to follow popular opinion, especially when those opinions were in line with his orders. When they weren't, well that's what public education was for. It might take a few years to sway the organics to his belief, but it was simple enough.

Williams huffed. "So what do you want me to do about it?" she growled. "I can't make them believe." She didn't bother to hide the accusation in her tone. A large part of the problem came from Empire policy. Policy Harper set.

"I can't exactly tell the Empire about Shepard!" Harper objected.

"Why not?" Williams demanded. That was one of the issues. They were asking new Ascended to believe in something/someone they had never even heard of, or at best, someone they vaguely remembered from schooling as a historical figure.

"More of them believe in Crick, and while he was important, he's not going to die when we lose control of the situation," Williams pointed out when Harper refused to answer.

"But you are maintaining control?" He asked eventually.

"Yes. Barely," Williams replied. "The LMC Ascended aren't as aggressive as the Milky Way Ascended," she explained.

"They were Ascended to be immortalised, not for vengeance or for the cycle," Lawson postulated. He'd been a silent observer of this well-worn argument until then, though the differences between the LMC Ascended and those from the Milky Way were still mostly speculation. They knew there were differences, and they thought they knew why, but it was not an area that they could experiment in.

Being Ascended for preservation lead to calmer Ascended, and the desire to see other organics Ascended was controlled by the fact that there were no AI's around to save them from. Plus the Humans and some of the Attori were being Ascended. The desire to ascend organics was being fulfilled and that, combined with the fact that ascension was to give immortality, meant that the LMC Ascended were more relaxed. It was a fact Williams was thankful for.

The three of them were not meeting in person. Harper was on Home, back to work for another century, now that the excitement of the Fedochi 'invasion' had calmed down. Williams was on Nimitz, dealing with the paperwork from the invasion and Lawson was on Underworld, supervising the construction of the Project. The huge framework was nearly complete and soon they would start making real inroads on the stockpiles as they began filling it in. That would be relatively quick.

"And we should be thanking God for that," Williams snapped. "Otherwise, some of them would have already gone to Harbinger and we would be-" she didn't finish. Any word was far too mild for their position in that situation.

"We have to do something," Harper repeated.

"Well, when you come up with a way of indoctrinating an Ascended to believe what we tell it, let me know," Williams said acerbically.

Her challenge hung between them.

"There might be a way," Lawson said slowly, his eyes half closed as he thought. "Do you remember Project Lazarus?"

They both stared at him like he was an idiot. Of course, they remembered the experiments needed to rebirth Humanity in the LMC.

"Project Lazarus on Earth," Lawson added the qualifier.

Williams looked confused but Harper's features shifted to understanding.

"What was Project Lazarus? " she asked. "On Earth."

Lawson just looked at Jack, his expression clearly showing that Harper was going to have to explain this one. The Emperor didn't look impressed but knew it had to be explained and this was over forty thousand years ago!

"Project Lazarus was an attempt to get more assistance from the Human Ascended," Harper said with a deep breath.

Lawson snorted, the sound indicating he thought Jack's explanation was very liberal.

"Alright," Williams nodded though her tone was cautious. She hadn't exploded yet. It was actually surprising that she didn't already know. It wasn't like they had secrets in Cerberus but there was only so much information one could take in organic form. It was probable that Williams hadn't bothered taking some of Harper's memories from that long ago into herself. "How exactly?" she pushed, recognising that the answer to that question was the core of the matter.

"By cloning Shepard," Jack said quickly, hoping to rush the information past her so quickly that it would not ignite her fuse.

The way she went silent told him he'd failed and Harper quickly continued, hoping to extinguish the flame.

"The Project failed. Shepard himself destroyed the facilities. I'm told he was so angry he almost clipped the spy who confirmed the Project. That's why, even before the end, there was a one hundred square kilometre area glassed on Earth. He was very unhappy."

Williams appeared to be counting under her breath and her eyes were closed. The silence stretched between them. Finally, she visibly took a breath, then another before opening her eyes and glaring at Harper. "I bet he was," she said softly but the reaction was far better than what he had anticipated. Apparently, forty thousand years did make a difference.

"So what does that idiotic Project have to do with now?" she asked dangerously.

At this point, Jack looked over at Henry. "This was your idea."

The scientist shrugged. "We never managed to established how much control, if any, Human Shepard has over Human Ascended," he said. "I believe this would be a good opportunity to continue the research," he concluded.

"Continue? How? We don't have his genetic code," Williams frowned, "do we?" She tacked the last on suspiciously.

Harper sighed. If he lied, Williams would just find out the truth next time she uploaded. "In addition to Earth flora and fauna samples, Cerberus took on the remains of some of Cerberus' projects," he told Williams, consciously making the choice to refer to their Ascended form by name, rather than referring to it as himself.

"Shepard's DNA included?" Williams asked testily.

"That, I don't know," Harper replied. "Henry?" he was happy to hand answering back to his old friend.

"It's there, I think. That will be the first hurdle because if it's not like we've taken any special care of those samples," he continued.

Harper took a deep breath as long forgotten details returned to him. If they'd taken it on, the samples would be in a hermetically sealed tube or it could be digitised and he'd probably need to push the Empire into reinventing a reader for it, assuming someone on Cerberus didn't remember how to build one. That would be a trivial issue compared to the real problem.

Assuming the DNA was there, he still had no idea of if it would even work. Ascended, even Human Ascended, may just look at organic Shepard as meat. The best case was that they'd laugh, the worst, they'd attack and most likely rightly correlate that he had been attempting to control them. He had no idea what they would do then. He had no idea what they could do then as Ascended couldn't attack Ascended, but he didn't want to find out.

"No!" Williams shouted. "I don't care if it's there! You are not going to clone Shepard again!" she said.

"Calm down," Lawson said. "It's just an idea," he tried to soothe her.

"Bullshit," Ashley exclaimed. "I know how you two work. You want to try it. You want to see if it will work!"

"We have to do something," Harper retorted.

It might be just an idea for now but it was a potential solution to their problem. And the LMC Ascended were becoming a problem. Even Williams couldn't deny that.

"It's a problem with a solution," Williams snapped, rather tactfully not mentioning it was a problem of their own creation.

"Waiting is not a solution," Harper growled.

"It is this time," she said.

"Williams, if you had the new Exarch here, you wouldn't hesitate to give them a tour. What's the difference?" Harper asked, trying to force logic upon her. "This is for the protection of the Project," he added.

"This is for your tyrannical desires," Williams returned.

"Then how is waiting to ask Shepard any different?" Harper responded. "Because that's what I'll be asking him to do! Confirm my tyranny!"

"He's going to be confirming his existence," William countered.

"And in doing so, will confirm my right to lead the LMC Ascended. There is no difference if an organic Shepard does the same."

"There's every difference!" Williams cried. "You are violating everything Shepard stood for! Don't you get it?" she growled.

"This is something we have to attempt, Williams!" Harper roared. "The number believing that idiot Cannaman is growing and nothing you have tried is stopping them."

"We can't force them to believe in someone they've been told all their lives is just an historical figure. It's too big a shift! And that's your fault, Harper!" she added with a growl.

"That's where you are wrong," Harper replied coldly. "We can force them to believe," he said. "Well," he amended. "Maybe not believe but obey, and I'll settle for that," he concluded.

"By desecrating Shepard," she hissed.

"Williams, there is no guarantee this will work," Lawson said. "What's the harm in trying?" he continued, projecting a reasonable tone. "You are made from the same tech!"

"But I'm me!" she said. "You two just don't get it, do you?" Williams asked, shaking her head. "I am me, but you are creating a simulacrum of Shepard but it will not be Shepard. This is wrong!"

"Then come up with an alternative," Harper told her. "Right now, I'll consider anything."

She glared before sighing heavily. "Harper," she said seriously. "Over the last 1300 years, longer even, there have been times when I've wanted to kill you. Many times," she impressed upon him. "But this is the first time you have made me consider a coup." Williams' eyes narrowed dangerously. "You may be the Immortal Phoenix Emperor Harper but I am equally immortal and I know how to make you stay dead!"

Harper sighed, deliberately projecting his feelings. "Williams, I can't run an Empire like this. It's only a matter of time before one of them decides to try to prove Cerberus a liar and goes off to the Milky Way. We know what they will find and we can't have that so we have to control the situation and that means controlling the Ascended.

"I will ask Shepard when he calls but until then I need something else. This is something else."

"This is a violation and I will not stand for it!" she snarled, and they both saw her jab at the controls before her image blinked out.

"Well, that went well," Lawson commented.

"It could have gone better," Harper sighed, looking at Lawson seriously. "Do you think you can do it?" he asked.

"I think so," Lawson nodded. "If the genetic material is there, we can grow a clone. It will take a couple of years to ensure it had a consciousness." He looked thoughtful. "Actually, it would be better to raise the child from scratch. That will ensure a fully developed personality matrix. And then…" Lawson paused. He didn't have to say what happened then.

"Then we'll know," Harper nodded.

"You know, Williams might have a point," Lawson said.

"What do you mean?" Harper asked.

"Not about the violation or anything like that but if we should do this. You realise if it works, we will be subject to his commands as well. And this will be an organic Shepard, who won't truly understand. Who knows what he could order."

Harper bit his lip. That was a risk. It was a big one because he, just like all of the others, would be bound to obey. "I'll think about it," he said slowly. "For now, check the material but do nothing else. This is not a decision to be made haphazardly."

Lawson nodded. "So do you think she'll do it?"

"Do what?" Jack asked.

"Williams. Do you think she'll actually go for a coup?" Lawson prompted.

Harper leaned forward, resting his head in his hands. "No," he breathed the answer. "But she's gonna be pissed. And I might get assassinated once or twice."

Lawson laughed. "Better you than me," he said.

"Yeah, well, I won't be getting a cigarette this century." Harper groused.

The first time Williams killed Lawson was going to be amusing. Really, he might authorise Henry to go ahead with cloning Shepard, but Lawson would not get off lightly either. It would be Lawson who would do the work, and Williams would hold him even more responsible since it was his idea in the first place. Or- Harper suppressed his wince. She might tell Kai. The two of them hated each other but on this, they would be in agreement.

Lawson snorted. "I'll see what I can find," he nodded. "After that, we can decide what to do."

"Keep me informed," Harper said, taking a deep breath before the comm was dropped.

He nodded to himself. It was a possible solution. He didn't like it but it was another path to try. With the Ascended restive and for the protection of the Project, he would do anything he could.

Even Williams would have to respect that.

-cfr-

46395 Years after Human Ascension, 1342 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Fedochi Protectorate Homeworld: Cyr, Exarch's Official Advisor's Office

Ilkin looked at the basket of fruit on his desk. He might have retired and Tirto might be Exarch but Ilkin still had a job as an official advisor, so he still had a desk, even if he spent most of his time on his private estate with a bevy of young, attractive females. But this was his week to work and with the international events, he felt he needed to be here for Tirto.

Harper had finally taken over the Attori, welcoming them into the Phoenix Empire as citizens. So, Ilkin had planned to read a few reports from his agents, then have lunch with his son to keep him informed. Tirto wasn't quite up to handling the full spy network.

Except, he had to deal with this basket.

It was quite an elaborate basket, rather large and made of wickerwork. In it was an assortment of fruits. Some Fedochi, some Human and some even appeared to be Attori. They were arranged nicely and they looked fresh but who the hell was giving him fruit? And why?

There was a note nestled near the top. It appeared to be in crisp, white paper and Ilkin plucked it out of the edibles and unfolded it.

'Thanks.'

The single word was printed on the paper in a neat but hand-written script. There were five Human characters written underneath it. 'IPEJH.'

Ilkin stared at them for a long time, trying to think what the hell they meant. They were written in High English but he didn't know any word spelt that way. The former Exarch assumed this was some sort of Human custom that went with the basket and the note and wished he could call Huseyn.

The Duke had known Human customs but he had died in an accident which Ilkin didn't think was an accident but couldn't prove anything. He shook his head, pressing the intercom. "Purnt, get the Human custom expert in here," he ordered his PA and didn't bother to hold to see that the woman obeyed. Instead, he sat down, fingering the note. He could feel the textures of ink on the paper surface. Who had written it?

There was a tap on the door and his security answered it to reveal the Human specialist. They bowed before entering the office.

"Explain this," Ilkin ordered, pointing at the wicker basket that was overflowing with fruit.

"A fruit basket, Sire?" the Fedochi questioned.

"Yes, what does it mean?" Ilkin growled.

The fedochi nodded before looking at Ilkin. "There are two reasons to send a fruit basket, Sire," he said. "The first is to show sympathy or your support during a time of difficulty."

"And the second reason?" Ilkin snapped, dismissing the first explanation.

"Generally as a thank you present," the Human culture expert said.

That would explain the note but not who it was from. Ilkin didn't know that many Humans. There was the Ambassador, Williams and Har…

Ilkin looked at the letters written under the thanks.

Immortal Phoenix Emperor Jack Harper.

"You can go," Ilkin instructed the Human expert.

The man was wise enough not to ask questions. He simply saluted, as was proper to a former Exarch, and left, leaving Ilkin looking at the fruit basket. He wasn't going to eat it. The basket and fruit might have gone through security but he wasn't stupid. What he didn't understand was why Harper had sent it.

There was no reason or was this a play? Something sent by someone else but made to look like Harper?

Ilkin sat down, breathing carefully as he thought. The quickest way to clear it up would be to call Harper. He might be the former Exarch but the Human knew he was still responsible for much of Fedochi policy. Ilkin sighed and tapped his datapad, initiating a link into the comm relays. He pushed the basket to the side while he waited and few moments later the security protocols cleared to display Emperor Harper's face. The Human looked around for a moment before he smiled.

"You got it! Good! I wasn't sure it would get through your security." Harper muttered. "Now, how can I help you, Exarch?" The title was still valid even though he'd retired.

"Why?" Ilkin snapped. He no longer bothered with pleasantries with the Human and Harper seemed to prefer it that way.

"Why what?"

Ilkin blew his breath out. "The basket. Why did you send it?" he growled.

"It's a thank you present," Harper said brightly.

"For what?" Ilkin felt like Harper was deliberately being vague.

"Well, obviously, I sent it to thank you," the Human Emperor said. "I wasn't sure what you'd like so I went with something generic. Try the jackfruit," he added the suggestion.

"Harper, why did you send it? You have nothing to thank me for."

The Emperor laughed. "On today, of all days, you ask that?" He shook his head, disbelief evident in the movement. "I couldn't have done it without you," Harper continued.

"Done what?" Ilkin demanded testily.

"The Attori," Harper replied happily. "The Attori," he repeated, still laughing but he sobered enough to continue speaking. "Oh, now don't look like that," Harper chided, looking directly at Ilkin. "Huseyn practically told you it had been my plan and he wasn't far wrong."

Ilkin blinked, remembering what his friend had said. Huseyn had always been one of the best at reading Humans and that had been attributed to his trade links but he had said that Harper could have planned this… Then did that mean Harper had killed Huseyn? Ilkin bit his lip as he answered his internal question honestly. Probably. But without proof there was very little he could do now. Even if he had proof, it was doubtful it would affect the Human Emperor.

Harper wasn't waiting for his thoughts. "My original plan was to dominate the Attori financially and by the time you appeared, I was well on the way to that. They were dependent on the Phoenix Empire for eezo and eventually, slowly, they would have become deeper and deeper in our debt. You hastened that considerably." Harper smiled.

"Your little pirate raids gave us the opportunity to appear as guardian angels. You made us the good guys," Harper grinned. "Essentially, you accelerated the process. So, of course, I sent you a thank you token. It was the least I could do because really, I couldn't have written your part better, even if I'd tried," Harper concluded, looking through the screen happily.

"And you expect me to believe that?" the former Exarch asked.

"I don't care what you believe," Harper replied, all trace of mirth gone. "You asked a question and I gave you an answer. It's not my fault if you don't like it."

"Harper, I want the truth!" Ilkin snapped, trying not to let the Human Emperor's flippant nature drive him to distraction.

Harper was a master at it and Ilkin knew he used it to avoid answering questions.

The Emperor breathed out. "I've never lied to you, Exarch. I've never seen any reason to."

"So you expect me to believe that you intended to dominate the Attori financially. You have all that military and you weren't going to use it to attack? Come on, Harper, I'm not a fool!"

Harper sighed. "I'm not allowed to attack," he replied. "But the boss understands I can't let anything endanger the Project, which is why we are not completely defenceless."

"Don't lie to me!" Ilkin cried. "That your military is defensive is a bullshit line and you know it. You attacked my systems with no concerns."

"Retaliation," Harper explained. "The Phoenix Empire did not initiate hostilities. We merely responded. Think, Ilkin, when has the Phoenix Empire ever initiated a conflict?" Harper asked.

"We haven't," the Human answered his own question before the former Exarch had a chance to answer. "The boss gave me a job to do and despite my inclinations, it is not to invade or otherwise subdue alien species. So yes, Exarch Ilkin, my military is defensive. But they are, as you well know, more than enough to take care of petty little problems!"

"By the ancestors! Now, you are spouting that nonsense that you have a boss! That line's been doing the rounds for centuries but I guess I know why!" Exarch Ilkin sighed. "If you don't want to give me an answer, Harper, then that's okay but don't lie."

"I've never lied," Harper said in a surprisingly gentle tone. "Just accept your fruit basket in the spirit I gave it. In thanks. And then enjoy it.

"Don't read anything into it and we'll leave it at that," Harper smiled. "We won't discuss my boss, the Attori or anything like that, and we'll get along well."

"Yes," Ilkin took a steadying breath. "That would be best," he replied. "Don't send me another one," he added.

Harper grinned, and the Human waved one hand. "I doubt you'll please me that much again," he said nonchalantly. "But you may surprise me," he said. "We'll see, and if there isn't anything else, Exarch, as you can imagine, I am quite busy today with 89 new systems officially entering the Empire."

Ilkin again told himself to remain calm. He knew about this and Harper was baiting him. "Yes, you must be," he replied. "I'll let you get back to it. After all, I wouldn't want my concubines to miss me," Ilkin added, picking out a banana from the fruit basket and shaking it playfully towards Harper's image. Huseyn had once told him that the Humans found this fruit somewhat erotic. Ilkin had no idea why but he would take his old friend's advice.

It seemed to work. Harper smiled thinly. "That would be a shame," he murmured before he grinned at some private joke. "Well then, until next time," Harper said and at Ilkin's nod the comm was cut.

The former Exarch threw the fruit down. He hated speaking to Harper! The Human was too vague, except when he was making insinuations. He had practically told him that the Phoenix Empire had killed Duke Huseyn but in such a way that nothing could be proven.

"I'm sorry," he whispered to Huseyn before he looked up.

It was time to call his agents. With luck, they'd have something new for him. Right now, he'd even accept compromising information on the Human Ambassador. Ilkin didn't really care, so long as it was incriminating for Humans. Anything would do.

Anything.

-cfr-

It didn't really go to Ilkin's plan but then he doesn't know how badly he was compromised. Maybe the next species will figure it out? Maybe they won't. Though don't count the Fedochi out yet, and of course the little skirmish had brought light one of Harper's ongoing problems. What will he do to solve it?

Review please! Complete the trifecta of Fav, Follow and Review. Or just take out the review leg. I don't mind. :P