10/07/2018

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 76: Play Time Is Over

-cfr-

47179 Years after Human Ascension, 2126 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Phoenix Empire, Planet: Home, Emperor's Personal Quarters

Harper looked at the feed from Obdulia. The Rock that was the Project was now fully self-propelled, though there was still a significant Ascended presence with it. It had cleared the LMC and was now heading out into the vast, relative emptiness of intergalactic space and he had a decision to make.

The Nur had noticed the Phoenix Empire's military expansion. They had partially bought into the military for planetary protection excuse, probably because some of the expansion was due to growth in the Empire. They now numbered eleven thousand and twenty systems and while, in the wake of Shepard's calling, he had allowed accelerated expansion, each of the planets was properly protected.

Williams had bitched and moaned and complained but she had got it done. Of course, more planets meant more population, which mean more Ascended and they were still loyal to him.

Harper snorted.

That might be going a bit far. They had to obey him, which was good enough. Better, in many ways as he had always known there was loyalty and loyalty. Absolute obedience was far more convenient. Still, the Nur had noticed the build-up and had partially responded in kind.

Relations were still good and had improved considerably once that bitch of an Ullator spy had died. He'd looked at the logistics of having her assassinated but getting a reliable agent that deep into the palace was absurdly difficult. Every single worker, soldier, functionary, official… Every single one of them in the Palace was a member of Empress Lunyd's extended family and once assigned to the Palace they did not leave!

He could have gotten to some on the outside but there was no guarantee they'd be called for service and he could have sent some Ascended tech bauble but if he was doing that, he'd just send it to the Empress explaining it as a Human custom.

"Stop worrying about the Nur," Henry said, breaking into Harper's thoughts. "We've got a decision to make about that," he added, pushing his friend's attention back to the Project.

Harper sighed. "The real question is if they go after it," he told Lawson. "Their long range vessels have the same theoretical range as us."

"They are slower," he pointed out. Ascended were still the fastest known ships.

"Yes, but the Rock is limited to sub-FTL," Harper growled. It had taken forever to get the rock up to speed and even with all the engines straining, the Ascended pulling and every last scrap of eezo that they'd loaded onto the Rock and activated, the engineers had told him that they couldn't get it going another measly 2 metres per second faster. They literally could not break into FTL with the Rock. It had been a relief in one way but had just reinforced the amount of time it would take in another.

Relief had come from the confirmation of sub-FTL, because that way they wouldn't melt half the ship, and kill the crew. If the Rock went FTL, then the relative time to the crew would be 163 thousand years or so. Unless they could get it to speeds only an Ascended could maintain. Anything slower, even the top military speed, and the crew would die of old age, long before they reached Tartarus. But… it might have been nice to be finished in a few years, assuming they could get it fast enough, even if they weren't ready to face the rest of the Ascended fleet.

"Can they track it?" Lawson asked. "Even if they want to go after it, they have to find it."

"I don't know," Harper said after flicking through several reports about the Nur. Despite efforts, they seemed to instinctively know when one of their number was compromised. Some didn't care but as soon as the agent actually became active, they were singled out and eventually forced to self-terminate to avoid capture.

It was almost like a hive mind or a shared consciousness. Harper had had Williams ask the few Nur they took about that, using every term and variation they could but none had said anything about it. Though when new agents were asked if they thought they could get caught, they all said yes. The Nur had a limited ability but only with their siblings, so unless he could compromise the entire brood, agents, even indoctrinated ones had limited uses.

"Can they find it?" Lawson altered his question.

"Maybe," Harper replied, sighing heavily. "I already know the answer," he continued. "The escort remains," he announced, reaching out for a special data pad.

Time dilation as you approached light speed was brutal and even Ascended were subjected to that law of physics, which was why they usually travelled sublight up to about half c or jumped to FTL but even with the time dilation, they could receive messages. It just took forever to relay them. While the escort fleet knew how important the Project was, some of them had complained bitterly that by the time they got back, they would be so far behind on news, that they might as well be newborn. Gossip was the unofficial currency of the Ascended, and while Harper had a direct line to them, several maintained communication with other Ascended as they attempted to keep up with the so-called news.

Still, the escort fleet had orders to remain until they heard otherwise. The choice between the Project and the Empire was no choice at all. The Project came first.

He didn't need Shepard's orders to know that while the grunt might regret the deaths of the Humans, if they died to protect the Project then it was a necessary sacrifice. But Shepard was more than understanding of the requirements to keep the Humans safe from the Nur or any other aliens.

"Not exactly a hard choice," Lawson murmured.

"Not any choice at all," Harper growled.

"With it clearing the LMC, it does mean some freedom." Lawson reminded him. They had fulfilled Shepard's orders, to create the Project and had launched it within his time frame. Now all they had to do was wait. Wait a very long time but essentially the job was done.

"We won't be free until Tartarus is gone," Harper reminded him but his expression softened. "Except there are no pressing obligations."

Lawson laughed. "Except colony defence," he reminded Jack.

"That's Williams' problem," he replied. "And I make sure she had access to more than enough funds so it doesn't bother me." Even the Chief Treasurer called the planetary defence budget, which was separate from the Military, generous but Harper had waved off the assessment and approved the funds each year.

"How is the remote control project coming?" Lawson asked, making a face. It sounded like a child's toy when he referred to it like that.

"The KII project is going well."

"KII?"

"Keep Immortalised Immortal," Harper explained.

Lawson chuckled. "Should have had it as KAI," he retorted.

Harper thought for a moment before he nodded. "I might. It should annoy them both," he said before sobering. "She's limited the number of direct copies. They don't seem to work as well," Harper explained.

"What do you mean?"

In response, Harper pushed a data pad towards Lawson. It displayed what at first appeared to be two Ascended, except one had been given the label of remote and was slightly less refined. The two ships were moving together and as Lawson watched the pereiopod weapon on the remote ship fired but the leg of the control Ascended was also extended. He frowned. Surely Ascended had better control?

"Most of them are like that. Some even fire! The form is too much like themselves and the signals keep getting confused."

Lawson sighed. He didn't need to say anything for Harper to realise what he was thinking. With one billion minds on each of the Empire's Ascended then surely they could work out how to separate the signals.

"The smaller destroyer or cruiser sized ships are easier because they have to split their attention, which brings extra focus and a lack of confusion."

"They don't run into each other?"

Harper sighed. "Not so far," he said but Lawson knew the full sentence was 'not so far but there have been some close calls'.

He nodded his understanding. "Is homogenisation playing a role?" Lawson asked as the thought occurred.

Harper thought for a moment. "I don't think so. Legacy and Instinct aren't any better at it. It really does seem to come down to individual skill and aptitude."

"It's a work in progress," Lawson said finally.

"True," Harper replied. "And they are getting better with practice," he added. It was true but he had hoped for better results, especially given how smoothly Ascended could remote pilot processing ships but they, despite their armouring were not combat vessels. And flying them was a relatively simple task, mostly one where you were required to simply keep it moving with you. He pushed the thought from his mind. "How are the plans coming?"

"We can begin building the initial tubes whenever you want," Lawson tapped on one of the data pads, bringing an artist's rendition of what the beginning phase of the new topopolis would look like before he pushed it over to Harper. "You just have to decide which system."

"We can put farming areas on this?" Harper asked, rotating the image to look at the habitable area.

"We can put whatever we want on it," Lawson told him. "The only restriction is going to be materials. Thankfully, it won't be all metals since those have been so scarce lately."

"And transport," Harper added. "It will go in Home," he decided. Another decision which was not a decision, but for different reasons this time. The call for further habitable areas on the homeworld was strong and the space habitats were just not big enough.

"So no Dyson sphere?" Lawson teased.

"That can be done somewhere else," Harper dismissed the suggestion. He was more interested in the topopolis. While you could build and live in sections of both a dyson sphere and a topopolis, he liked the topopolis better. It seemed simpler, more modular and massively cheaper. They didn't have to connect the pieces and to his paranoid mind, it left less evidence. Eventually the Dyson sphere would block the star by design and that could be seen. The topopolis would merely shade relatively insignificant areas, which could still be detected but not as easily.

Lawson nodded. "Even with the resources from the Project freed up, we are going to have problems," he said. "Not now, but in the future. We've already mined the easy metals from the core systems."

Harper sighed. That was true and had been evident while constructing the later areas of the Project. There was competition between the immortalised, the Project, the Military and planetary construction sectors. As Williams had once said, 20 inch thick armor had to be 20 inches. By Imperial decree, the Project had won those competitions but with its drain no longer on the economy, the other sectors had picked up and were now competing with each other.

"We might have to build more space lifts on several planets," Harper murmured, thinking about the issue. He had resource managers for that. They were already proposing solutions.

"We might also have to look at other means," Lawson said carefully.

"What do you mean?"

"Not every planet is suitable for mining, and not every system is rich. Eventually even the marginal concentrations will be mined out. Maybe not for several hundred thousand years but that is what immortality means."

"Yes, so?"

It was a problem they would eventually face but it was not yet quickly approaching.

"Dyson spheres are better known in the community."

"And we will probably have to create some for energy collection," Harper agreed nodding.

"Yes but think about what they are enclosing."

"A star."

"Yes, untold billions of tonnes of material. Raw building blocks that we can mould into whatever is required," Lawson announced.

"We can't harvest a star!" Harper objected.

"Not yet," Lawson said with a note of confidence in his voice. "But the idea has been around for about as long as dyson spheres."

"Stellar lifting?" Harper questioned, once again flicking through several data pads. He'd read about something like that recently.

"We don't have to develop the tech overnight," Henry reminded him. "But if we put a few thousand groups on it now, someone should come up with something."

Harper snorted, rolling his eyes. That seemed to be their solution for everything although he had to admit it was generally successful. "It didn't work for quantum shields," he reminded Lawson. The Rock did not have true quantum shields but it had some truly formidable kinetic barriers. It had to and Harper glanced back at the feed.

"I suspect there's a reason for that," Lawson said, not dissuaded.

"Well," Harper said noncommittally, "it's going to have to wait," he added with a vicious grin, tapping the controls to project the map of the LMC on to the wall.

The two Empires were marked as red and blue.

"Ah," Lawson said, his voice understanding. With the Project gone, and most likely out of reach, but well-guarded if not, there was no longer any reason to make nice with the neighbours. "Internal purge first?" he asked.

"I don't believe that's necessary," Harper said. So long as the nonhumans of the Phoenix Empire accepted the reality of Human domination, there was no need to eliminate them.

And most were happy. Even the Ullator but the new generation had been raised to Human standards and it was estimated that in a few more generations, culturally the Ullator would be dead. Except for a few customs they were allowing to maintain the illusion of cultural independence. It wasn't the same for the Attori or even the Fedochi. They were actively encouraged to keep their cultures alive. Those bits of their culture that did not contravene Empire law of course.

Some of the non-indoctrinated Dukes had been very disappointed to learn about that additional fact but even with the Fedochi's long life spans, they were becoming accepting of reality.

"Are you going to hand over to Williams?" Lawson asked. The soldier had probably already mapped out several campaigns but Harper now had the time to devote to war and he had, once, been a soldier.

"Mostly," Harper replied with a mischievous grin. "I wouldn't want her to sulk."

Lawson chuckled before his expression sobered. "Are your guards on alert?" he asked.

"They are always on alert," Harper replied, allowing his expression to tell them they had his support.

"Kai said he'd be coming after you again now," Lawson reminded Harper and got a disbelieving look.

"That's if I believe a woman who died in poverty over 250 years ago. A woman who was the known Head of the crime syndicates. Not exactly the most reliable source," Harper dismissed the warning.

"But Kai hasn't made any attempts in that time," Lawson reminded him.

"Oh," Harper replied.

Henry took a deep breath. "Three," he answered the unvoiced question. "But I'm pretty sure Williams helped him with one."

"She had to," Harper explained. "She owed him a few years of implants."

"I'm also pretty sure she'll continue to help him, if asked," Lawson countered.

"The time limit is up on the implants and the stupid Ullator died a few years ago," 'as nothing more than a twitching mass of flesh' did not need to be said.

Lawson shook his head. "Shepard," he breathed the name.

"Oh, for fucks sake!" Harper growled. "He wouldn't have!" he exclaimed.

Lawson just raised one eyebrow, asking Harper if he really believed that statement.

"That scum sucking, anal retentive, vindictive grunt!" Harper cursed. "One cigarette," he continued. "It was one bloody cigarette!"

"It was a whole three minutes to him," Lawson reminded Harper. He already knew the lengths his friend had gone to in an attempt to smoke. Passive smoke was about the only way Harper was getting nicotine. And it had to be passive smoke from someone else actively smoking. Just lighting up and letting it burn still triggered the order as did ordering one of his guards to do so.

Harper controlled himself only through long practice. "He won't have given Kai unlimited time or unlimited numbers."

"No," Lawson agreed, breathing out. "But Kai's got you three times?"

"Four," Harper replied morosely. "I'm hoping it's five," he added.

Humans tended to count more easily in units of five or ten. He hoped that applied to Ascended Shepard still and that the grunt had given Kai permission to kill him five times. Running a war with an assassin over him was not going to be pleasant, especially since the Nur would be targeting him.

"He's not likely to stop?" Lawson asked.

"For the Project, yes. For a war against an insignificant race, not likely," Harper snorted, dismissing Henry's question. "I'll deal with it later," he added, looking back at the map. "We are at a slight systems disadvantage," he mused, "but with the last 556 years build up, I believe we are fairly equal militarily."

"It's going to be brutal," Lawson responded, looking at their respective territory.

"Which is why I want to give it another couple of years," Harper said.

"Another 150 planets and 700 or so Ascended," Lawson reflected, considering their current growth rates.

"That's if we can find them," Harper said. "Terraforming isn't keeping up with the expansion, which was one of the reasons I want the topopolis. The extra growth probably won't make much difference but I want the time to prepare the Empire."

Lawson laughed sarcastically. "You can't really say, oh hey, get ready for a war with the other half of the galaxy."

Harper looked at him flatly. After all this time, Henry should know he was far more subtle than that. "Maybe not," he agreed. "But I can heighten the dislike towards uncontrolled aliens, increase the distrust. Start a few rumours and maybe engineer an incident or two. Given enough time, the Empire will be pressuring me for a war," he concluded with a chill smile.

"Oh I know," Lawson agreed and Harper could see the twinkling in his eyes. "I was more thinking that if you give it a bit of time, Kai might kill you at a non-critical time."

"That's also a possibility," Harper admitted candidly. He didn't like dying and he certainly did not appreciate that Shepard had let his death become a reward but unless he wanted to further engineer his body then death was something he had to periodically deal with. And it kept him in touch with the Ascended fleet. True, they now acknowledged him as being Ascended but it never hurt to remind them when he could interface at the far more intimate level available to Ascended forms.

"What does Williams think?" Lawson asked. Jack might once have been a soldier but Williams had actually run the military for the last 1600 or so years of the Empire and even before that.

"More time is good. She acknowledges the necessity of the attack but if possible she'd like to hold off until victory is absolutely certain. Well," Harper corrected, "as certain as any military operation can be."

"We have 44 thousand Ascended. Plus Williams' military forces! Ten thousand planets with a minimum of ten dreadnoughts each and patrol fleets. We took down the entire Milky Way with far less ships," Lawson objected.

"Farixen Treaty," Harper said the words like a prayer. "I have to wonder if the VI the Protheans left the Asari was Prothean or Ascended."

"You can't indoctrinate VIs," Lawson reminded him. "It's one of the reasons we don't have AIs."

"No, but you can create their programing."

"We are not making an AI," Lawson said firmly.

"No, we're not," Harper agreed. "And as for the Nur, their fleets look remarkably similar to ours. Not in design but they do not hold half the galaxy without knowing a thing or two. And military power is something they know."

Lawson sighed. "I know they can detect indoctrinated but why haven't you sent a gift to their Empress? What would they do? Disobey their supreme leader?"

"I have considered it," Harper told him, "but I'm not sure they'd allow her to be exposed in that way. Even if I make it a personal gift, indoctrination is gradual and I think they'd feel the change. I don't want to give them that much access to the process. Even if we take over the researchers, it's no good if they are dead."

Lawson nodded his understanding. The main advantage of indoctrination was that the compromised agents were undetectable. They looked the same, they acted the same, until the time came to show their loyalty. Then they struck.

The Nur's ability to detect agents and continue to work with them, all the way up until that critical moment, was frustrating. It meant they were fighting without one of their most formidable weapons and that left them weakened.

"The more time, the better," Lawson said.

"Yes," Harper agreed, though it was obvious he was not completely satisfied with the answer. It was however, equally obvious that it was the only realistic path to take.

Lawson looked back at the image of the Rock, the motion dismissing the still projected map. He reached out to snag the glass poured earlier for him. "For today, Jack, we should be thankful for what is," he said. "Tomorrow, we can look for what will be. To the Rock," he made the toast, raising the glass high in salute.

Harper looked at him for a moment, obviously thinking hard before he reached out for his own glass. Mimicking Henry's action, he saluted. "To the Rock," he agreed and they both drank.

Lawson was correct. Tomorrow he could look to the future because today he had fulfilled his duty to the now.

-cfr-

47181 Years after Human Ascension, 2128 Years after the Rebirth of Humanity in the LMC

LMC Galaxy, Phoenix Empire, Planet: Home, Emperor's Personal Quarters

"Playtime is over Jack."

Harper barely heard the voice. His bed mate did and quickly disentangled herself from him, leaving him in a rather compromising position, with a very apparent desire but now with a good view of Grand Admiral Williams' hologram.

"Out," she instructed the woman.

Harper's playmate nodded and moved over the mattress to the edge of the bed. She didn't make a grab for the sheet to cover her nakedness. That would have been slightly hypocritical with his bodyguards ringing his bedroom. Ferne, Harper thought her name was, padded over the carpet towards the door, once again not bothering to pick up her clothes. Williams' eyes tracked her until the door closed securely.

The time it took Ferne to leave had taken the excitement from one part of him but had definitely left him on edge. He didn't bother to tell Williams to get on with it.

"At 2321, Atto was attacked by four Nur merchants. Their cargo was eezo enhanced nuclear," she announced.

Harper pulled himself completely upright but as the import of Williams' words became clear he rolled out of bed. "What else?" he instructed, ignoring the clothes strewn around as he moved to his dressing room. There had been a note in Williams' voice that said she wasn't finished and even if it was just Atto, he'd be up all night and would have to make an announcement. He already knew what he'd be saying.

"About 40 minutes later, at 0003, the border sectors of Juraj, Wilkins, Archer, Watson, Chakwas, Hackett and Ellis were attacked by full Nur attack fleets."

"Which contingents?" Harper demanded. Seven sectors meant seventy planets and while that did not seem like much against the 11170 of the Empire, it was a wide battlefront.

"We got identification for Rhyfel, Llynges, Filwraidd and Ymosada," Williams replied. She knew exactly what that meant.

The Nur were insectoid. Huge, but very much like insects. They did not possess a hive mind. Instead, egg mates could communicate with each other across huge distances. The Empress was the one whose clutch held the most senior positions. The contingents listed were under the direct supervision of Empress Oydryd's brood mates.

This was not accident.

"How many did we lose?" Harper asked, his voice tight with controlled emotion. There was no lingering excitement now, rather rage was threatening to engulf him. The Nur would pay for every Human they killed.

He emerged from his dressing room, wearing a severe black outfit but it wasn't complete yet. For this announcement he was going to need the tokens that displayed his rank. Every last one of them.

"We've lost comms with most, but the network suggests that we've lost the entire sectors of Hackett, Archer and Juraj," Williams told him. The fact that she hadn't referred to a data pad told him more.

"You're in Cerberus?" he asked.

"Emergency upload," she confirmed. "I have reinforcements heading towards Ellis, Watson and Wilkins but from the network losses, I don't think any system in Wilkins will hold out that long."

"What happened to Chakwas?" Harper asked as he slipped on a wide sash. He didn't like it but it carried most of the ornamentation that proclaimed him to be Emperor. The only thing he needed now was his sceptre. Maybe he could use it to execute their Empress, to show them exactly how ornamental it was!

This was too early! Granted, he was building up for an attack but this was premature from the Nur. They could not truly be ready. Seven full attack fleets. There should have been more, or was this Empress Oydryd's way of consolidating power? She was relatively new to the throne but he had thought her more politically secure.

Harper shook his head. Even with the Nur's regrettable ability to detect indoctrinated agents, that information would be available shortly. He had to focus on the attack for now.

"They consolidated their fleets on two planets, so those two are holding out," Williams replied to his earlier question.

While seven full attack fleets might seem too small, he was not surprised at the losses. Chakwas had done well to retain two planets and Ellis and Watson were doing well to hold out and if Williams didn't reward their Sector Heads first, he would. Assuming they survived.

"Very well," Harper sighed but then looked directly at her. "I had wanted to wait a few more years, but launch the attack," he instructed. It would make what he was sure she was already doing official Empire policy. "Liberate our systems first," he added. He didn't need to tell her to be sure to get lots of footage of the atrocities the Nur would probably have committed. Even if they hadn't, battlefield shots would suffice for most across the Empire.

Williams nodded, her expression grim. "I'm in the process of detaining all Nur, though several ships blew themselves up," she said, her hologram moving with him as he walked out of his quarters into the palace proper. "They had similar payloads."

"Why didn't the net catch them?" he demanded. If the network could now tell them what systems had not fallen, surely it could have picked up these ships.

At 1 am, the Palace was mostly empty but those staff they came across knew better than to get in his way, even if for many this would have been their first time actually seeing him.

"It did," Williams explained. "But with a nuke/eezo payload, you don't need a long run up. Until the point of attack, they were legitimate merchant ships. The defence dreadnoughts and Ascended tried to stop them and they caught the fifth ship but," she shrugged, wordlessly saying that nothing else could have been done.

"How many?"

"Most of the 7 billion population is gone," she told him. "I'm assuming at least a 50 percent loss on all border systems as well, though you'd better speak to the Centurions directly."

Harper nodded. The Attori represented about 190 planets in the Empire and they had for a long time. While there was other ranks between them, he should speak to their representatives directly. It would give the better impression, even if officially the Senator was in the chain of command. He thought for a few moments, trying to remember how many Senators were attached to the Sectors under attack. He'd deal with whoever he had to for this.

"I've got ships en route to evacuate what's left. There won't be much," Williams shook her head. "Atto is going to be a waste for some time yet."

They could terraform but nuclear material just went everywhere and got into everything! Harper sighed, it was not the immediate issue. "Order eezo production ramped up," he said.

"Already done," Williams replied. She would have taken care of most of the preliminary orders the moment she uploaded.

Harper frowned as he thought. "Abandon Dorado. I want the Ascended gone in three hours," he instructed. "We've been there too long."

Williams nodded her understanding. The Nur could produce eezo. So could the Phoenix Empire. The production centres around neutron stars would be targets. Except the Humans had the advantage there. They could move their production facilities.

"The shipyards have already been notified, and all systems are on high alert. I've stepped up the patrols in Nimitz and initiated the Imperial Wartime Edicts for control over private production."

Harper nodded. He'd countersign those orders after he made his announcement but since they came from Cerberus that was as good as coming from him.

"Viarus is on alert, and those Ascended who were not around a planet are returning there for muster," Williams reported. "Assuming long range Nur attack ships crossed the border at the same time as the attack, by the time they reach Viarus, there will be at least 20 thousand Ascended waiting."

"How many do the Nur know about?"

"I believe their estimates will be for about 15 to 20 thousand."

It was higher than he'd like but with each of the inhabited planets of the Empire having at least one Ascended around it, and the longest inhabited planets having more than one, it was inevitable. It was also pointless to deny that they could be combat effective since the invasion of the Ullator. He could just hope that the Nur didn't have true combat specs, and that the extra numbers would prove to be a surprise. Thankfully there were only about one thousand escorting the Rock, so their absence would not tip the balance.

"When can we expect information from the captured Nur?"

"A day or two," Williams replied, confirming what he already knew. Indoctrination was not instantaneous.

"Promise to ascend those who cooperate," he said with a wicked smile as he reached the store area for the Empire's sceptre. He began going through the security locks. They were coded to him so most opened easily.

"Eighteen hours then, maybe," Williams adjusted her estimate.

"Good enough. When do you think you'll cross the border?" Harper asked, pulling out a mundane key from one of his decorations to go through the final lock.

"It depends," she replied.

"Oh what?"

"How this plays out," she said. "I'd prefer surgical strikes to get to their core systems but I suspect it will be a wide ranging battle, system by system."

Harper reached out to pick up the sceptre, swinging it experimentally. He understood what she meant now and as he turned, not towards his office but to the throne room, he considered the question Williams was really asking. How much destruction could she wreak?

"Target their eezo production ahead of the main advance," he instructed. "Recapture our systems and mass for a total war over as much territory as we can strike."

Williams' lips pursed. She didn't like those orders and Harper understood the risks. They could very quickly overextend but it was a calculated gamble. If, in the chaos of a total border assault, the eezo strike fleets could get through to their targets, then that would significantly shift the balance in the Phoenix Empire's favour. No eezo, no transport, and the Nur did not have sufficient mining capability to make up the shortfall. Truly, the Phoenix Empire would struggle as well but his production facilities were mobile, and could fight back. That would be the difference.

"I don't like it," Williams said before he could continue.

"You know why," he replied.

"I do," she sighed. This war was an inevitability but they had meant it to be on their terms.

Harper had been far more involved with the planning. He entered the Throne Room, the internal lights turning themselves on as he made his way to the dais. The automated cameras would be sufficient for the announcement. It was the setting which was important.

"Well?" Williams prompted, returning to her earlier question.

Harper breathed deep as he sat down, arranging his sash and sceptre so that they were both properly displayed. He ran one hand through his short hair, making sure it stayed down when Williams raised one eyebrow to indicate it was still a little mused. "Hold off on any mass destruction," he decided finally. "I'd prefer intact planets to settle on, after we defeat them."

Williams frowned. In Cerberus she knew that was not Shepard's orders.

"He didn't dictate everything," Harper said, rather thankful that they had come across something Shepard had not thought about. "It's my decision but it fits with Ascended philosophy. Do not destroy planets," Harper said.

She nodded. "I'll make them regret," she promised.

Harper jerked his head at her, telling her to get into position for the broadcast.

"No," Williams objected. "This will look better with you alone," she said.

Harper nodded after considering that for a moment.

"Is there anything else?"

"I don't think so," Harper replied. "Let me know when you are ready to counter attack."

She nodded. "You're going to mention Atto?" Williams asked, gesturing towards the camera that was in position to broadcast Harper's announcement.

"I'm going to have to," he replied. "But I think I'll make an offer to the Attori people. For every extra year's worth of mining they produce, I'll give them one of the Nur's habitable planets," he grinned. Right now, the Attori would be in shock and mourning but eventually they would appreciate the gesture.

"Not yet," Williams said after a moment. "It would be crass to mention that now. Express sympathy, offer vengeance but don't yet make that sort of offer. Let the new Attori leadership know privately."

Harper nodded, silently agreeing that was for the best.

"I'll be going now," Williams said before her expression suddenly became thoughtful.

"What is it?" Harper demanded.

She looked at him with a wry smile. "Kai," Williams said raising her voice slightly, her hologram looking around, so that her eyes moved over his bodyguards. Harper watched with sudden interest but her eyes did not linger on any one in particular so he didn't know who to target.

Williams sighed and he wondered if she had not seen what she wanted, but the grin she directed at him quickly told him otherwise. He knew she was going to disappear as soon as she spoke her next words but he also knew what her statement of the name implied.

The assassin was here, was one of the men sworn to protect him! A shiver passed down his back but Harper held firm. Panic was what Kai would want and he was no target. Besides, Williams wouldn't have broken the assassin's cover in order to have him strike.

"Playtime is over Kai."

-cfr-

And there it is, the war for the LMC. The previous Empress' might have been a bit more relaxed. The new one is wiser... or is that more ambitious? Harper might be an immortal, and immoral bastard but he does care for his citizens and the Nur will find that out.

Review please!