DISCLAIMER – I do not own Mass Effect franchise, the story, or any of its characters. All rights go to Bioware.


AUTHOR'S NOTE:

So first, let me thank you all for the awesome reviews and nice conversations we had about them! I usually respond via PM to as many of you as I can, and I know I hadn't responded to some of you, but what else would there be to talk about when all the reviews revolve around 'What an awesome chapter'? :) So, thanks for the high praise, really.

This chapter originally had 5000 words in it, which I didn't like, so I decided to improve it. Now it has over 15000. I think I overdid it a bit, no? I know. I couldn't stop. And it's radical! It's bound to raise some questions on your part.


Chapter posted on 8.8.2017.

Main Tags: Action, Sci-fi, Adventure, Friendship building, Love.

Additional Tags: Slowly turning AU, Technology-heavy, Geopolitical themes, Economic themes, Intrigue, Militaristic…

Rated M – for mature and adult content.

Enjoy…


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Chapter 27 – Shifting Tides

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Six weeks after Ontarom incident…

...

A swirl of blue shimmered next to the Arcturus Gamma relay as an Alliance frigate jumped into the system. It navigated past the cruiser patrol group that guarded the relay and maneuvered deeper into the system, heading straight toward the Arcturus Station, being quickly guided through the throng of civilian and military ships toward one of the station's priority military landing pads.

Hackett watched patiently as the transport glided gracefully into the bay, followed by the sound of dull claxons as the docking ramp promptly extended and latched onto the main hatch. Seconds later, the main hatch opened and a pair of marines walked out, taking up sentry duty on its sides, with David Anderson stepping out right after them, wearing his officer's blues. A single military transport bag with his belongings was in his hand, and a grin the size of the Milky Way was trying hard to fight its way onto his face, as attested by the spring in his step. He walked briskly down the pad toward Hackett and, stopping two paces in front of him, he stood at attention and fired off a crisp salute.

"Nice to see you've made it here so quickly, Anderson," Hackett spoke as he saluted the man right back, then offered his hand for a handshake.

"Not quickly enough, sir," Anderson replied with a lopsided grin as he took the proffered hand in a firm handshake. "Over two whole months too slow in my book."

"I'll take your luggage, sir," a serviceman that had followed Hackett spoke, taking up Anderson's bag and walking off to deliver it.

Hackett motioned him with his head to follow in other direction, and the two men quickly fell into brisk pace as they walked down the pier and toward the tram station.

"I'm sorry that you're the one that drew the short straw and had to go through that, but you know what kind of chaos it was after Eden Prime," Hackett said. "In all the shuffling and reshuffling, you were the one who was left in the limbo; something that shouldn't have happened."

"You can say that again," Anderson replied ruefully. "Being an emergency military attaché to the Citadel was not how I wanted the rest of my career to go, so I sure as hell am glad to be away from it."

Hackett shook his head. "You're not the man that's supposed to sit behind a desk, Anderson; we all know that," he said. "It would be great neglect to have an N7 and one of our best Captains stuck at a political desk job when he should be out there," he waved toward the large windows that overlooked the stars. "But there were no ships to be commanded; not until now."

Anderson chuckled. "Trust me, nobody's gladder to hear those words than I."

Hackett merely nodded as the two of them entered the station's transport tram and he inputted the destination.

"When you sent the transfer orders, you told me that we were to attend a meeting," Anderson ventured. "You never said what about."

"A strategic meeting," Hackett said. "Krieg will be there."

"The Defense Minister?" Anderson wondered, narrowing his eyes. "This isn't an ordinary thing, is it?"

"No. The contents of the meeting are classified as Top Secret."

Anderson went silent for a moment.

"If that is the case, then why am I there?" he asked gravely.

"Certain topics of this meeting will benefit from your input," Hackett replied. "A review of SR-1's performance is one of them."

"I see," Anderson nodded. "I just hope that the single mission where I was the ship's C.O. will be enough."

Hackett nodded. "Also, after the main part of the meeting is finished, you will receive a mission. A very sensitive mission. It will require you to be in the loop as to the bigger picture that depends upon its success."

Anderson met his serious gaze and nodded slowly.

The tram reached its destination, and the two men stepped out into the military headquarters of the Arcturus Station. All around them, the Naval offices were a buzz of organized chaos and activity, to a much greater extent than Anderson ever remembered it being.

The two of them continued past it, though, and straight toward the top security conference room. They flashed their credentials to the two fully armed and armored marines, then passed through the blast doors into the dimly-lit chamber that bore an uncanny similarity to the circular shipboard briefing room, if a bit of a larger size. Pivoted conference armchairs were arrayed near the outer wall, each with a small desk of its own, with the far wall bare, leaving room for a set of large holo-displays.

Several men were already inside – Joint Chiefs of Navy, Marine, and Intelligence branches, and a few other high-ranking officers too – but Anderson's gaze immediately fell on the soul civilian in the group. His very presence drew attention, not because he was the only civilian among uniforms, but for the sheer aura that the man exuded. Tall, dark-haired, and broad shouldered, his jaw was strong and the closely-cropped full beard he wore only emphasized it, but it was his stern, no-nonsense gaze that drew and demanded everyone's attention. With his dark hair graying at the temples and the sharp suit he wore, he was the very definition of a stern father you obeyed and wanted to one day grow up into.

The military had given birth to Steven Hackett; the civilian sector had given birth to Peter Krieg.

"Is that everyone?" Krieg asked as Hackett and Anderson walked to their pre-designated seats.

"It is," Hackett said simply as he and Anderson sat down.

"Then, we shall begin," Krieg declared, his deep voice reverberating across the room.

People moved to their seats, the sounds of shuffling filling the air for a few seconds until everyone settled.

Placing his thumb on a scanner of a boxy device he carried, Krieg activated a powerful jammer inside it, then spoke up:

"This strategic meeting is brought to order for the purpose of reviewing the progress of the strategic and military changes that had been set in motion in lieu of the Eden Prime Attack, exactly 67 days ago. The points of today's agenda are as follows: general review of the galactic situation and stance relevant to the topics at hand; military buildup and military technology advancements review, of which the subtopics are to include the review of recruitment for the mainstay forces, progress of the Colonial Defense Force formation and equipping, progress of the Mech Initiative, advancements in ground forces weapons technology and the progress of their implementation, and status and progress of the construction of the new ships in Jupiter and Eridani shipyards. Miscellaneous will be discussed at the end." He paused and looked across the assembly. "Objections or proposals for any additional things to be discussed on today's agenda?"

Everyone present shook their heads individually.

"Very well, then I declare this strategic meeting's agenda accepted," Krieg said, then leaned forward with his elbows against the desk. "With that, I will say a few words concerning the first point, which is the current galactic situation and stance relevant to this meeting.

"As you all know, the Parliament has had a long-standing history of chronic fear of what the Council would say if we were to begin our full-scale military buildup. Fortunately, however grim that might sound, the Eden Prime attack had shaken things up big time, forcing them to act. Now, the Council doesn't get to say anything against our very much justified push to go into a full-buildup which, as all of you already know, has been put into a full overdrive mere days after the attack, and has been rolling strong ever since. Now, usually in these cases, the politicians would get cold feet a couple of months later – which would be around this time – and the Council would use that moment to try to intervene and influence them to actually try to prevent the buildup, justifying that the galaxy seems to be peaceful and that there would be no need for it.

"Fortunately for us, a sequence of events has occurred that has worked against that happening. Of course, I'm talking about the X57 incident. Now, I don't need to tell you what kind of an epic screw-up that was on behalf of our intelligence early warning system. Thank god that Commander Shepard has had an information-brokering network working for him that had picked up whispers from the criminal elements throughout the Traverse and managed to piece it together so that Shepard himself could stop it before it struck Terra Nova. Otherwise, we would have been looking at the most devastating terrorist act in human history; millions of colonists would have been killed. Ironically, though, that event has served to firmly knock any argument against our military buildup away from both the politicians' and the Council's hands.

"The second important event that I've been explained had worked immensely in our favor was Commander Shepard's execution of the ExoGeni CEO. Now, don't ask me how it worked or why, but my analysts assure me that what he did has caused the galactic-wide economic tremors, causing the investors to fear that the entire galactic economy might be standing on fragile legs. They ran away from stock speculation and went seeking firm ventures rooted in actual industrial production – ventures such as the ones sponsored by the Alliance Military; a military that has openly declared and shown that it has started rolling its war machine hard. Suddenly, the Council, who depends on money circling, has found itself faced with economic instability unless they allowed us to continue our military expansion and buildup because that is what all of the galactic investors had started investing in."

He paused, taking a look at everyone's faces to make sure they were following. And they were, very attentively.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he continued, "what I'm trying to say is that we have funding and backing that nobody in the galaxy can stop unless they want an economic recession to slam over their heads."

Cheerful murmurs echoed across the chamber, with one admiral going so far as to slam the desk with his palm. Krieg raised his hand, bringing the assembly to order.

"With that in mind," he continued grimly, "I need to, at this point, draw the attention back to Eden Prime attack. I'm sure that all of you know of the… insufficiently substantiated rumors about the existence of the so-called Reapers; a synthetic species that has allegedly wiped out the Protheans 50000 years ago. Now, you have all heard and received copies of the conversation between Saren and Benezia. You've all seen the data from that geth memory core. Other than that, we have some information that comes from Shepard's interaction with the Beacon, but the Commander has remained very tight-lipped about it… Personally, I think he's just trying to cover his own ass from being labeled as delusional because all the indications say that he's sitting on some serious info. Which means that I am very disinclined to discard the existence of the Reapers. This galaxy is vast; only 2% of it has been charted, and there's no asari, turian, or salarian that can convince me that there might not be something very big, bad, and sinister lurking in the dark. We cannot afford to dismiss anything."

There was a brief pause after he finished when Hackett spoke up:

"What is the word when it comes to the politicians?" he asked.

"Better than I feared, worse than I hoped," Krieg said. "They're not stupid, Steven. We're still newcomers to the Galaxy; they still remember the fear we all shared when we discovered mass relays for the first time. It's only been 26 years since we met aliens, and the fear of unknown dangerous things that might lurk between the stars hasn't left us yet. This thing just rekindled it."

"But, have any of them given any hint as to what is the general stance?" another admiral asked, raising his palm up for emphasis.

"The general stance is that if the Reapers do exist, then the things that have already been set in motion because of Eden Prime are the things that need to be continued and secured in their trek."

"So, the military buildup it is, then," a second admiral concluded, then sighed. "Well, at least it's something. Can we proceed to review where we stand in that regard?"

"Lets," Krieg nodded agreeably. "Parker?"

General Parker activated his omni-tool and sent a data packet onto the big screen.

"The aftermath of Eden Prime has seen a major influx of new recruits, which is a good and bad news all unto itself," Parker began. "Good news for obvious reasons, but bad news because we weren't quite ready to handle that many. The recruitment centers are swamped, and we have had neither enough room in the boot camps or training equipment for all of them in the first few weeks. Fortunately, this is where all that prefab industry came through, and the new training centers are already up and running, the only question is equipment."

Krieg waved his hand. "That's already being handled. All firms have gone into overdrive and twelve new contractors have been put to work."

"Twelve new contractors? That's a lot. How many recruits are we talking about here?" an admiral asked, frowning.

"The past two months alone had seen a greater number of recruits than the past two whole years combined," Parker said with emphasis.

An admiral whistled in impression. Another one, though, sounded skeptical.

"I'm not sure if it will hold, though," he said. "You know how it is – half of those boys and girls drop out in the first two weeks."

"Not this time," Parker shook his head. "This is different. The ones that might drop out are the Earthers, but what we're seeing here is a staggering number of colonists. Almost 80% of young people from Eden Prime ages 18-25 have enlisted. That's half a million people. Another three hundred thousand on Terra Nova so far. More still from Tiptree, Benning, Amaterasu… No, this isn't a spur of the moment thing. What we're seeing here is people saying enough was enough. Eden Prime, Terra Nova – these are their homes. Their doorsteps. They're not about to flee when they've spent decades building it! They are doing this because they want to actually be able to protect it."

An admiral chuckled ruefully. "Talk about a one-eighty. Three months ago, we were struggling to make our recruitment quotas."

"Three months ago, the political propaganda was still painting the galaxy as suns and rainbows," Parker retorted.

"Hey, I won't be looking at the gift horse's mouth," the first admiral said. "Having a great number of militarily-trained people among the civilian populace is the best deterrent against slavers. For the umpteenth time, I wish our people were more like the turians."

"Well, hopefully, the Colonial Defense Force program will get us closer to that," Krieg said.

"The process is already well underway," Parker picked up from him. "Eden Prime already has militia training centers deployed, and the rest of the colonies will have them up and running by the end of the month."

"The Parliament has made the CDF mandatory for all able-bodied colonists, though. Has there been any resistance to it?" an admiral asked out.

"No, surprisingly not," Parker replied empathically. "The deadline of one year until colonists needed to report for training was given, but over 90% of them have reported in already. Like I said, these people are very motivated."

"And what's the structure of their training and the state of their equipment?" another general asked.

"For now, the training consists of the organization, evacuation drills, but is planned to very quickly progress into arms training, then into organized combat."

"Just so we're clear – this is asymmetric warfare we're talking about?"

"That's right. We're not teaching them to be shock troopers. This is mostly guerrilla warfare and quick organization, response, regrouping, hit-and-run – basically, we're teaching them how to handle the situation instead of being chickens to the slaughter. We're teaching them how to survive, how to secure the noncombatants, and then how to strike back against an overwhelming and organized enemy. We don't want another Eden Prime nor another Mindoir ever to happen again."

"And the equipment they'll be getting?"

"Older grade of weapons and armor for the time being," Parker replied. "However, since Hahne-Kedar, Rosenkov, Ariake, and Kassa have been contracted to supply the new, high-end gear for our mainstay armies, the Colonial Militias will be receiving our soldiers' current-gen weapons and armor later as hand-me-downs."

"Well, considering that they had practically nothing before…" an admiral pointed out.

"So we really are going to train and equip large militias and then actually send them home with military-grade weapons and armor?" another one asked.

"That's actually very beneficial," a general responded to that. "This way all that military equipment actually gets to be kept well-oiled and maintained instead of gathering dust. And we get to keep much better track of it – both of it and militiamen, actually. God knows how many kids go to become mercs anyway. This way, we keep them with us."

"If we're smart and handle these civilians carefully, we will be able to build up their trust and loyalty to the Systems Alliance with this. Plus getting a massive defense force against potential raids or invaders. A win-win-win situation in my book."

"But will we have enough gear to supply them all?"

"We will," Krieg said. "The public opinion is forcing the Parliament to maintain their financial support for the armament program whether they want it or not – especially when it comes to equipping the large civilian militia."

"Too bad we can't do anything about Earth civilian populace itself," an admiral said.

"Earth is divided into individual sovereign nations," Krieg said. "We cannot impose anything like the CDF to them; it's a diplomatic nightmare, so it is up to them how and whether at all they're maintaining their national armies. Nothing we can do about that. What we can do and have done is make the service with the Systems Alliance an appealing prospect for Earthers. And for that, we've been using the image of Commanders Marcus and Jaina Shepard as propaganda material shamelessly and mercilessly."

"And it works," Parker intoned seriously. "Those kids see a pair of badass people and they want to be them. It's just up to us to keep them in our grasp. But we'll just have to see the results farther down the line, won't we? We all know that most Earthers are nowhere near as tough and tempered like the Colonials are."

"That still means that real numbers could be the problem," another general said. "With this, we will be looking at millions more of fully-trained soldiers and tens of millions of trained colonial militia by the end of the first year, but when you compare that to billions of militarily-trained turians…"

"Or even millions of batarian soldiers and tens of millions of slave soldiers…" another person added. "We could make our soldiers or even our militia better trained, yes, but numbers are numbers. We need true, replaceable shock troopers to use against something like hordes of batarian slave soldiers, or packs of krogan or vorcha pirates."

"Which is the Mech Initiative," the first general stated, then looked around the assembly. "I propose we proceed to the second point of agenda."

Krieg nodded. "Do we have anything else to review when it comes to human personnel recruitment and training? Very well, then we will proceed to the second point – the Mech Initiative. Now, my sources suggest that Hahne-Kedar has already made some progress in that regard. Takeshi, where do we stand?"

"We're practically ready," general Himura said, then tapped out a command on his omni-tool and sent out a data packet to the room's holo-projector. A life-size figure of a mech appeared at the center of the room for all to see.

"This is the Rampart mech," the man spoke. "It's clear that it was built on the same chassis as the Loki, but that's about all that they have in common. You can see right from its outlook that it was made with to be a lot more… deliberate. Its armor, power generator, mobility and stability system – all have been significantly buffed up – plus they've actually added a shielding unit and hardened it against electric and electronic strikes."

"Won't matter a damn thing if it brainlessly advances through the open like the Loki mech does, though," general Parker commented.

"No, we've made sure it gets reworked to suit our needs," Himura said. "Trust me, I gave them a lot of grief over it. The Rampart runs, charges, vaults, leaps, dives, and rolls on par of any average soldier, and it actually knows when and how to seek cover. I guarantee it."

"How smart is it really?" Anderson found himself asking.

"It's not really," Himura replied immediately. "It's still just a VI, so it's not really capable to be intuitive and perform proper assaults or counterattacks on its own. It needs a commander for that."

"Which is why the whole idea of placing them as auxiliary group attachments to proper human combat units," a general nodded. "Good, I like it. If this mech is as mobile as you say and won't slow down our human soldiers, then having a mixed squad of humans and mechs can increase the survivability of our units immensely."

"Or, it can be used to lethal effect by our spec-ops teams," Anderson spoke up, drawing everyone's attention.

Himura frowned. "In what way?" he asked. "They weren't exactly intended for that."

Anderson pointed with his upturned palm at the mech's projection.

"Can they learn new tactics?" he asked.

"Yes, in fact, that's what they were intended for," Himura said. "They need to be used together with regular units, and for that, they need to be adaptable; we have, after all, intended to have them attached to colonial militias."

"Then, that's what an N7 would do with them," Anderson said. "He would train a small fireteam of mechs to serve as his grunts, adapting them to his own tactics. Mechs are quiet, precise, and they do not hesitate. Link them up with a spec-ops soldier's neural implant, and simple commands can be issued directly with mind – not unlike biotics. The mechs would become an extension of the soldier, his weapons and armor, working as one. An ordinary soldier might not have the skill or discipline to direct those mechs via a neural link, but an N7…"

There was silence in the room.

"That's actually a very interesting idea," Parker said. "Assuming we can protect them from hacks."

"The standard mechs already are," Himura said. "They do not have an antenna and aren't controlled via omni-tool but via their recognized human commander's voice and hand commands. And since they are hardened against EMP strikes, no wireless signal can penetrate them either. The only way to access their software is via physical port during maintenance. Which means that, in order for them to be able to do what Anderson said, we'd need to alter them a bit… but if it is a limited batch meant for spec-ops soldiers, then I suppose it would be very much possible."

"That is actually brilliant!" the second general said. "Having a standard variation of Rampart mechs controlled by commander's vocal commands won't interfere with regular troop method of operation. It's actually more practical than having commander tap around on his omni-tool – especially if his hands are tied shooting. This is perfect!"

"They still lack the intuitiveness of organic soldiers," Hackett warned.

"For that, I have soldiers that will order these mechs around," the general said. "But these mechs will be the ones to hold the line – against invaders or slavers – while the non-combatants retreat to shelter and the militia we talked about organizes itself into resistance! No, this is excellent! This is bloody excellent!"

"We need to strictly control who has the license to purchase these mechs," an admiral warned.

"Only the Alliance Military," Himura said. "That was the no-negotiation condition we imposed on Hahne-Kedar. We've made it clear that the penalties if so much as single Rampart ends up in non-Alliance hands will be quite severe."

"Good, good," the general said. "And what about that other project for a heavy mech?"

"The Sleipnir," Himura said, then brought up the projection. "It's an improved Ymir platform based on observations seen in geth Armatures and Colossi. Instead of two humanoid legs, it has four insectoid ones. As a result, its speed and stability have been substantially increased to the point where we can mount heavy cannons without sacrifice to accuracy, let alone the threat to topple over. But while Rampart has already entered production, Sleipnir is, unfortunately, still in testing stages. Initial data is promising, though. The single working platform has shown that it can scale large obstacles that Ymir simply has no way of traversing, while at the same time retaining a silhouette small enough to navigate corridors and use cover. It has armor plates on its shins, and its front legs can be tucked together, forming up an armored shield behind which Sleipnir can crouch into cover. There, it can fire while still retaining limited mobility by its hind legs.

"Looks good," the general said. "I'm hopeful that this will pan out, but we'll just have to wait and see in this case. And what about drone flyers?"

"Production has already been adjusted accordingly," Himura said. "Standard tripod flyers have been judged sufficiently quick and maneuverable. Just like with Ramparts, squads will be attached to platoons to serve as auxiliaries, or harassment or scouting force."

"So, what numbers are we looking at when it comes to the human-mech ratio in a unit?"

"We're thinking that for an average 30-men platoon, there'd have to be at least a section of Ramparts, plus a squad of flyers. So, ideally: 30 men, 15 mechs, and 8-10 drones. We're considering the feasibility of adding a single Sleipnir heavy mech if it proves itself. Logistically, the drones are intended to function as quick resupply carriers and their gun can be replaced with repair and medical tools in a pinch, so we've got that area covered."

"Hmm… Tactically, it's very sound," the general said. "Logistically, too. I have no objections."

"That covers all aspects of the Mech Initiative," Himura said. "We can move on."

"Very well," Krieg nodded. "We're moving on to review the status of new technological solution for the mainstay troop gear. Valenty? How far have we gone?"

"Not as much as I'd hope, but it's still much better than before," General Sokolov spoke up, his voice bearing virtually no trace of an accent. "Obviously, stronger guns and shields usually require more eezo, but since we've started mining those huge eezo lodes on Io, eezo isn't that much of a bottleneck anymore. What is, however, are heat sinks. More eezo means more heat buildup, and standard heat sinks cannot compensate, and this has been what's plaguing the galactic weapons tech for millennia."

"Oh, don't tell me that you weren't able to rig something up," one of the admirals spoke up jokingly.

Sokolov chuckled. "Rigging something up isn't the problem; the problem is making it simple and resilient enough for those blockheads of ours not to break it," he said. "Fortunately, we have very recently acquired a quite ingenious method to combat the heat buildup."

He activated his omni-tool and sent a set of image files onto the viewing screen.

"You're all familiar with the Normandy SR-1's IES stealth system, I trust?" he spoke. "That system uses mass effect fields to capture the heat and keep it in so it is not detected. This modified M96 Mattock you see on the images uses a somewhat similar, but far more stripped down system that does the exact opposite. It uses the mass effect field to force the heat out through heat sink's radiators at a greatly accelerated rate, thus facilitating cooling."

"I know that rifle," Anderson spoke up, smirking. "Commander Shepard gave you the schematics for that cooling system, didn't he?"

Sokolov inclined his head. "He sold it to us, yes," he said. "It's his patent."

"Is it effective?" Himura asked.

"We've tested the system on a few different rifles," Sokolov said. "Obviously, bigger eezo core inherently means better cooling, but even older versions of Lancer have shown a rough 150% increase of its SBO rating and a 50% decrease of cooldown time. That's 95 of the standard, non-modified rounds before overheating, with a 3-second cooldown after that. With explosive rounds installed, the SBO rate is 13 rounds, whereas before, a stock Lancer couldn't fire more than five of them."

"Now, that's something," an admiral said. "Is the system expensive to implement?"

"Not really, and it is very robust," Sokolov replied. "It will handle dirt, ice, and mud with flying colors."

"Now if we could implement it together with that geth thermal clip system we discovered…" another one said.

"We can't. It wouldn't be compatible," Sokolov said. "Eezo thermal pump requires a gun to have radiators, like a standard heat sink. Geth thermal clips don't radiate heat. They just store it. The material is stupendously good at absorbing it, but that very heat will change its physical properties, rendering it useless after it is ejected. So, no, my advice is better to use what Shepard is using already: a detachable heat sink, like this…" he tapped the control, bringing up the image. "The entire standard heat sink would be clipped onto the gun by holding clasps rather than being bolted on. With a press of a button, the heat sink can be detached, clamped onto the thigh mag-plate to cool, while the spare heat sink is popped onto the gun."

"I see… Any issues about heat damage to the suit of armor if clamped like that onto a thigh?"

Sokolov shook his head. "No, those armors are made of ceramics and advanced carbon fiber composites; heat won't so much as touch them. You might think that it would be a danger if the soldier was standing next to something flammable, but then again, it'd be worse having superheated thermal clips flying all over the place. Now, we've already prepared the assembly lines for new weapons that would utilize this new cooling system, and, like with mechs, the manufacturers have been ordered to have the Alliance Military as the only supplier of the eezo thermal pump. Meanwhile, to help keep this system well out of our potential rivals' hands, we've given then the manufacturers the green light to develop geth-styled thermal clips for the civilian market. Hopefully, it will serve as a decoy for our rivals from finding out what we're really incorporating into our weapons systems, at least for the time being."

An admiral hummed in thought, then pointed his finger at the image.

"You know, that thermal pump system would turn our warships into powerhouses," he said. "If it radiates so much heat, our shipboard guns could operate for extreme periods of time."

Hackett leaned forward, speaking up:

"That particular idea has already been looked into, and we already have a preliminary working model on one of the Alliance's ships, but we can cover that once we get to the next point of agenda concerning the starships. Before we do that, I'd like to draw everyone's attention to this…"

Hackett sent a video file from his omni-tool to the viewing screen and promptly activated the recording.

The video started playing, and it became immediately clear to everyone that they were looking at was a front-mounted cam view from some kind of vehicle in motion. It was flying at a great velocity across the surface of a desolate planet, the speed pegging it as either a hovercraft or a low-flying gunship.

Before anyone could voice the question on what they were looking, they witnessed the view pitched up and turned left as the vessel climbed and banked over a small rise. As the vehicle barrel-rolled through the air, the view quickly panned down to show a contingent of geth troopers, with Armatures and Colossi surrounding an exterior of a Geth base.

For a moment there, everyone present expected what they thought was a gunship to start spraying machinegun rounds or launching missiles at the geth. Instead, they all jerked back in surprise when a high-caliber tank round slammed into one of the armatures, completely piercing it through and sending a shockwave of dirt and shrapnel in all directions.

The vehicle side-strafed to the left, dodging the heavy incoming fire as it engaged one of the huge Colossi. Two rounds, launched in quick succession, brought down a monstrosity that the M29s and M35s needed more than six shots to achieve, with another, identical heavy cannon's rounds from a second vehicle somewhere off-screen dispatching the second Colossus just as quickly.

As the geth troops began spraying concentrated fire at the two unseen vehicles, the shimmer of powerful barriers briefly flashed in front of the screen before a pair of guided missiles launched from each of the vehicles into the clusters of geth troops, the shockwaves inverting earth and throwing limp mech bodies spinning through the air.

As the surviving dazed and damaged geth tried getting back to their feet, a hailstorm of 12.7-cal machinegun fire erupted from a pair of side-mounted machineguns, mowing the survivors down like wheat. Bullet, plasma round, or a rocket – it didn't seem to matter what the geth were sending its way – the vehicle's barriers took it all in stride.

As the final stragglers got dispatched, the video paused, leaving almost everyone in a state of disbelief at what they'd seen.

"What the hell was that thing?" an admiral demanded in disbelief. "A gunship? A hovertank?"

"You tell me," Hackett said, and tapped the command for the holo-projector, bringing up the 3D image of the vehicle. "Because we have no idea how to classify it."

The vehicle everyone saw had a rough outline of a Mako in its core, but that's where the similarities ended. Instead of wheels, a hover system with an added pair of thrusters to the rear was installed, and it sported a pair of large, side-mounted, armored turrets up at the front that housed heavy machineguns with an array of missiles.

But the main feature that nobody could've missed was a turreted cannon mounted all the way at the rear of the vehicle, whose bore ran almost the entire length of the tank.

"How can a hover vehicle field a cannon of that size and strength, and remain stable?" general Parker wondered.

"Ask our Spectre," Minister Krieg said dryly. "He's the one who built it."

Eyebrows shot up as they looked to him, then back down at the image of the vehicle.

"It is because Shepard used a large Martellix core and a Rhinok hover system," Sokolov elaborated more closely. "That cannon may fire as much as it likes; the platform won't budge."

"First a new type of heat sink, then this?" an admiral asked pointedly as he motioned with his hand to the projection of the vehicle. "Is there anything else he designed that we're supposed to be reviewing on this meeting?" he asked sarcastically.

Krieg motioned with his palm. "Well…"

"Don't tell me that!"

"How's it possible that one man is capable of designing so many things in such a short time?" another admiral demanded.

"Not a short time, admiral," Anderson spoke up. When everyone's eyes turned toward him, he continued. "I've known Shepard for a long time. He always had that engineering knack. Even before I knew him, he earned his living by tinkering with the large machinery, and he used his free time in the military to design various technological solutions that he felt would have helped him during his missions and assignments. His rifle, the modified M96 we saw, is the result of a whole year of work, trial, and error. As for this vehicle – I've seen some of the early schematics three or four years ago."

"Fair enough, but that still doesn't explain how the hell did he build it so quickly?"

"Because as a Spectre, he doesn't have to go through any of the red tape," Hackett replied. "An engineer would need to work for a company or an organization and request funds and materials from the higher-ups. But as a Spectre, he can just commandeer a military vehicle and use his own funding to do with it whatever the hell he wants."

The admiral harrumphed. "So in this case…"

"He tore down and then reassembled a Mako with the new parts that he bought," Hackett replied. "Look at these images."

The big screen displayed images that Anderson recognized as the crowded cargo bay of the Normandy, with a half-disassembled Mako being the center of it. The second image showed the finished hover vehicle.

"The difference between those two images is eight days," Hackett said pointedly. "Shepard named it the Scorpion."

The many sets of eyes looked down from the image to the 3D projection at the center of the room, noting how the side-mounted turrets resembled the scorpion's pincers, and the main gun the stinger tail.

"Well, it does resemble one," an admiral said ponderously, then frowned. "But didn't we have an experimental hovertank project similar to this? The Hammerhead?"

"We do, but that one isn't supposed to come out for another two years," Sokolov replied.

"And its capabilities aren't supposed to be nowhere near as potent as the Scorpion's," Hackett added.

"Which is why I'm particularly dissatisfied with our military's R&D department," Krieg said. "I can understand that a true state-of-the-art war vehicle requires lots of tests, and I can understand the lack of funding from before Eden Prime attack, but when you look at World War 2, none of that holds water. Russians were sometimes designing or rigging up new types of war vehicles in matters of days, and they barely had anything. Germans had state-of-the-art machines, and as a result, they couldn't have enough units to deploy everywhere."

"The Scorpion is pretty low-tech and straightforward," Sokolov pointed out to everyone.

"Shepard had provided all of the technical specs to Hackett, and he has forwarded it to Sokolov's 303rd technical division," Krieg picked up, then looked at him. "I hear your boys have swarmed all over it like a pack of angry ants."

"As of this morning, we've modified the chassis of 32 Makos," Sokolov reported. "Seven of them are up to specs with Shepard's two models, but the remaining 25 have had to have smaller eezo cores and not-as-adequate hover systems. As a result, the performance of the latter 25 models is somewhat diminished, but is still significantly higher than that of any gunship, let alone any IFV we have."

"Does it carry troops like the Mako too?" General Parker asked.

"No, the eezo core compartment had taken up a lot of the rear space where Mako would have had troops. Instead of eight troopers, like the Mako, the Scorpion only carries four – a pilot and a gunner, plus two, though it could be fully operated by a single man in an emergency."

"Space for four troopers was taken up?" an admiral asked. "Just how big is this eezo core?"

"It's not so much the size of the eezo core, though the Martellix is four times larger than what you'd normally see in a Kodiak," Sokolov said, "but the reason the 'engine' compartment took up that much space is because Shepard has left a section of it empty for the purpose of installing an FTL module. He couldn't do that – as you know, FTL module is the one thing that requires being carefully designed and calibrated to that vessel's shape, mass, and volume; you can't just pop in a replacement from any other vessel – which is why he left that particular aspect of the job to our engineers. A vessel of this size won't be able to achieve more than a couple of factors of c, but even that is sufficient. It will have the ability to jump through the relays and to operate across an entire solar system. It might not be nearly as fast as our fighters, but the strategic potential of this vehicle cannot be denied."

General Parker spoke up, pointing at the projection:

"If all that you say is true, then there is nothing of similar tonnage in our arsenal that matches those vehicles' capabilities. Nothing. Gunships might be as fast, but their armor is paper-thin, and they don't have anywhere near the firepower. Tanks might be as resilient, but they are nowhere near as mobile, so… Hell! If those 25 so-called sub-par models are even half as good as what I've seen this vehicle do on that recording, we could say goodbye to gunships, Grizzlies, and Makos altogether. Especially if you consider we'd be manufacturing only one unified platform, rather than the three radically different ones."

"Maybe, but this kind of vehicle is exponentially more expensive because of its eezo core," an admiral pointed out. "We might not be able to field as many of them as we could tanks and gunships."

"I think that pros outweigh all cons by a large margin, Maggie," a general said. "With the Scorpion's firepower and staying power, combined with its extreme mobility, I could do more with one platoon of them than I could with a tank company and a flight of gunships combined!"

"Hmm… Well, I'll trust your judgment, Johnson," she replied. "And don't get me wrong, I'd really like to see these vehicles enter our mainstay. The way I see it, Scorpions could be an excellent asset that can raid pirate strongholds if deployed from a cruiser or a carrier, and they can be a major asset for the spec-ops team to resolve the situations such as the X57 incident."

"Which has already been shown as practical by Shepards," another admiral pointed out. "No doubt about it, the Scorpion obviously represents an apex form of the bridge between surface and orbital actions. The only thing that remains now are the starships themselves."

"He's right. None of what we've discussed until now matters if we can't protect our skies from the big guns, especially for when the batarians finally go to war against us," another admiral pointed out.

"I agree," another admiral said. "I'd stake my life on the fact that they've been building dreadnoughts like possessed since they left the Citadel. Hell. With it being almost twenty years, and with Camala's eezo deposits going solely to them, they might have even managed to outfit as many dreadnoughts as the asari have!"

"A disconcerting thought," the second admiral agreed.

"But not at all unfounded, and we all know it," the first one added. "We need those ships."

"Alright, so if nobody has anything left to add concerning the status of surface forces and tech, we'll be proceeding to the topic of shipbuilding," Krieg declared, then sent a grim look Hackett's way. "Steven. I'm giving you the green light for a full disclosure."

Hackett nodded, then leaned forward with his elbows on the desk, cupping his fist in front of him.

"What I'm about to disclose was classified as above top secret, and as such, only the Defense Minister, Director of Intelligence, and since recently myself, have been in the loop. In order for you to understand the sheer scope of everything I'm about to tell you, I need to explain the background that has prompted it.

"It all goes back to the early 2160s when the Citadel Council granted humanity free right to colonize the Skillian Verge. Some of you might be aware of this already, but they did it for one reason alone: to keep us and the batarians pitted against each other so that the humanity, a new player, and a wild card, could be kept in check.

"Most of our leadership at the time had failed to realize this quickly enough. But when the batarians left the Citadel back in 2165, a few very smart men realized the gravity of the situation right then and there. We had expanded across the entire Verge and all the way into the Traverse, and now, we had a rogue state at our flank and the lawless Attican Traverse straight at our face – a rogue state that was no longer bound by any treaties, and could build as many dreadnoughts and research as many previously illegal technologies as they could. So now, we couldn't build dreadnoughts; the batarians could. We couldn't even build as many regular warships as we wanted because the Council was trying to suppress our buildup on the account of maintaining peace; the batarians had no such problem. And those same smart people already realized that if a war were to occur, the Council would not step in to help humanity – not right away, anyway. They'd want us to bleed against the batarians so that once they did step in, the Alliance would be too weak to resist any of their imposed… regulations… and would have to accept the Citadel's authority – their ultimate goal from the very beginning.

"In order to prevent this from happening, in order to help us ensure an absolute victory against the batarians so that we remained an undisputed power in the region, with our military as fresh and as strong as ever, thus tying the Council's hands, those few smart men have devised a project they codenamed The Emergency Shipbuilding Program… And judging by your faces, I trust that at least some of you are acquainted with the term."

"The Emergency Shipbuilding Program?" an admiral spoke up. "This wouldn't be that program from World War 2 when the United States built some 6000 cargo and troop transport ships in an unprecedented short amount of time?"

"That was the inspiration for this project, yes," Hackett replied. "Seeing that we were going to be wedged between the batarians on one side and pirate fleets on the other, and with the Council preventing us from building up a sufficiently overwhelming navy, we made the most practical alternative: we built a chain of hidden shipyards that would be activated the moment the situation was sufficiently dire. This thing with Eden Prime, with an army of rogue synthetics suddenly raiding one of our worlds? You're damn right it was judged sufficiently dire. The Vulcan Shipyards had been active and operating since Day 3 after the attack."

There was a moment of silence.

"The original Emergency Shipbuilding Program was building transporters," an admiral said carefully. "Some frigates and escort carriers, true, but it was mostly cargo and troop transporters. I don't need to tell you that war cannot be waged with those."

"And it is what my predecessor thought so too when he initiated the project," Krieg spoke up. "Don't let the name of the project fool you; it was made as a ruse for all foreign espionage agents. The Vulcan Shipyards in Epsilon Eridani were, from the very start, intended to construct full-fledged, state-of-the-art warships."

An admiral licked his lips, then asked, "What kind of shipbuilding capacity are we talking about here?"

"Take a look for yourselves," Hackett said and opened up an encrypted data file from his omni-tool and sent it onto the main viewing screen.

He watched as their faces first settled into concentrated frowns as they examined read the data, before one by one, their eyes began to widen.

"This…" an admiral spoke, trailing off. She raised her eyes to look at Hackett. "This can't be right!"

"It is," Hackett replied succinctly.

The entire room briefly glanced at him incredulously, then back up at the screen.

"In only two months?!" demanded another one with his palm upturned.

"In only two months," Hackett confirmed. "One ship a day – that was the adage that the creators of the project wanted it to be. Not exactly possible, true; it still takes more time to build a true warship. But one hundred ships in one hundred days? Definitely possible, if you have one hundred construction piers. One hundred hulls had been laid down a mere week after Eden Prime attack. Right now, all of them are more than halfway through their completion."

"Jesus," one of the admirals muttered into the ensuing silence.

"What ship class are we talking about here? The York-class cruiser?" another one asked.

Hackett shook his head. "The production of York class will continue on the standard arrangement in Jupiter shipyards. Eridani shipyards are producing something else entirely."

He tapped a command on his omni-tool, and a projection of a ship appeared at the center of the room for all to see. Almost everyone blinked a few times as they saw the projection before them.

"The Normandy class?" one of the admirals asked incredulously.

"60 out of 100 ships in this first batch, yes," Hackett replied. "The remaining 40 will be split between the two new ship classes that we'll review today."

"You can't be serious," an admiral exclaimed, drawing attention to himself. "The York is the second-heaviest and the most heavily armed cruiser class in the Galaxy – it's practically skirting the boundaries of Farixen – and you're constricting this?"

"Yes, I admit, York is formidable," Krieg replied. "707 meters long, triple spaced armor, twin coaxial guns, plus a total of 78 broadside cannons, eight javelin launcher tubes, and even a small strike wing of 12 interceptors tucked between the armor plates. A pocket dreadnought we designed just for the purpose of bypassing the Treaty of Farixen. But tell me something, Boris – no, actually, I'm asking this question to all of you here: can this one ship – only one single York-class cruiser – be capable of clearing out 80% of the known pirate and criminal groups of the Skillian Verge?"

The admirals blinked.

"Is that a hypothetical question?" one admiral asked confusedly.

"No, this is not a hypothetical question, Kathryn, what I'm asking you all is to evaluate a realistic scenario," Krieg replied. "Can one single York cruiser with ensured resupply be capable of eliminating 80% of the pirate and criminal groups in the Verge, using all realistically possible tactics at its disposal?"

"Well – no, of course it cannot," an admiral replied immediately.

"Why?" Krieg demanded.

"Because pirates run, plain and simple," another one replied.

"Yes – the moment they spot an Alliance warship, they retreat; they're not stupid."

"All pirates work by deploying scouting probes in those systems where they have their surface bases," the first one picked up from there. "The moment they detect an Alliance ship, they…"

He suddenly trailed off, an incredulous realization dawning on his face his jaw slackened and his eyes turned back to the Normandy's projection, drawing the confused looks of all other admirals to himself.

"Go on!" Krieg demanded pointedly. "The moment the pirates detect an Alliance ship, they…?"

"They make themselves scarce," another admiral continued instead. "Unless they cannot see it…"

"And can they not see a York-class cruiser approaching?" Krieg demanded.

"No," the man replied seriously, realizing what point Krieg was driving. "Unless they're really careless or drunk, they'll always see it, they'll always run unless they have a clear numerical advantage… but they cannot see the Normandy, can they?"

"No," Krieg replied. "No, they cannot."

There was a stunned silence as everyone in the room realized what Krieg was getting at.

"It can't be," an admiral said incredulously. "Are you suggesting that that scenario about 80% of Skillian Verge being cleared by a single ship is really not hypothetical?"

Hackett spoke up, his gravelly voice filling the ensuing silence:

"During his pursuit of the rogue Spectre Arterius, the trail has led Commander Shepard to scour the Verge and the Traverse for any trace of him. In his pursuit, numerous criminal organizations throughout the Verge had crossed his path.

"The result of this was that over the past two months, the Normandy has singlehandedly intercepted and eliminated a total of 28 pirate ships, as well as no less than 17 geth warships – five on Feros and twelve throughout the Armstrong Nebula where the geth had made an incursion. Of all these ships, none of them were traveling in groups smaller than three, and five eliminated ships were full-fledged cruisers. In addition, the Normandy's stealth system has enabled it to destroy no less than 13 hostile surface bases by ambushing them, five of which were fully-established Type-5 geth bases. Most of the eliminated criminal organizations were just your average local warlords, but the notable one was Alec Darius from the Plutus system. I don't think I need to explain just what kind of a thorn he was in Alliance's side because you all already know the extent of his armament and defenses after we had armed and equipped him to keep the batarians away before he went rogue."

"Darius had a decommissioned Berlin-class cruiser and a wolfpack of frigates," an admiral spoke slowly. "A total of seven ships. We couldn't dislodge him from Nonuel without sending an entire task force, which we couldn't do because moving that many ships to a non-relay system like Plutus would have been very risky with it being that close to batarian space. How the hell did the Normandy manage to eliminate them on its own?"

"The Normandy had walked up to Darius's ships without them ever knowing it was there," Hackett replied. "It unleashed a full salvo of disruptor missiles into them before their GARDIANs had the chance to react, and all that without even having to break its stealth cover. Sixteen disruptor missiles. One is enough to knock-out a cruiser-weight vessel."

"And you're telling us that this scenario has repeated itself all over the Verge and the Traverse? Only one ship achieving all that?"

"Yes," Hackett replied firmly. "The Normandy has managed to achieve what an entire fleet couldn't hope of doing. Let that sink in."

There was a long moment of silence as everyone absorbed this.

"God almighty," an admiral muttered. "And when we created that vessel, the most I thought it'd be good enough is to loiter in enemy systems and monitor traffic or drop infiltration teams!"

"I thought it was nothing but a co-developed boondoggle in order to play nice to the turians!" Boris croaked. "Color me impressed, but even so, we can't really base our entire future doctrine on stealth assaults with Normandy-class frigates. What happens when an enemy breaks through their stealth? They would be useless in a standup fight!"

Anderson spoke up, "Actually, sir, that would definitely not be the case."

"What do you mean, Captain?" he asked.

"Because the Normandy has a cruiser-sized eezo core," Anderson replied with emphasis. "That means that its barriers' and its main gun draw have the commensurate mass effect factor. Its main gun might not be as long as a cruiser's, and thus only clocks at some 55% of the one on the Berlin-class, but its barriers are even more powerful because the shield emitters can concentrate all that power around a much smaller volume that is Normandy. During its shakedown run, its barriers had an active power output of 115% of a Berlin-class cruiser.

"In addition, being a frigate with an oversized core, the Normandy possesses speed and maneuverability unlike any other known ship in existence. Its inertial dampeners are so strong that they enable maneuvers that'd shear any other ship in half, and with an evasion algorithm enabled, it is capable of dodging away from the enemy ship's firing arc before they can even acquire a firing solution. Not only that, but its top speed exceeds 20 light years per day, beating the second-fastest ship, the salarian STG corvette by whole 5 LPDs, not to mention that the fastest cruisers don't exceed 12 LPDs on their finest day!

"And finally, when I said that its gun does not quite clock as high as a cruiser, that's why the designers installed those sixteen disruptor missile tubes. Each of those strikes harder than a dreadnought main gun, and due to its speed and agility, the Normandy is currently the only ship in existence that can charge a dreadnought into a knife-fight and discharge a full salvo that is capable of overwhelming its GARDIANs."

Dead silence reigned throughout the chamber as he finished. Nobody knew what to say. What could they say? They had been sitting on a technology that had made all the combat rules that the galaxy had relied on for millennia obsolete, and they weren't even aware of it.

Hackett chose the moment to speak:

"As you can see, this is the very reason why the Normandy-class frigate is going into full production. Like the submarines of yore, the IES technology had broken all the rules of warfare.

"To asari, turians, salarians, and all other species, a capital ship had always had only one definition: a warship with a coaxial main gun longer than an equivalent of 800 meters. We, humans, however, had always used a much more flexible definition. In our military dictionary, a true capital ship has only ever been defined as a ship so powerful that no other ship can safely operate in the same waters – or the same area of space. When we came to the scene 35 years ago, the aliens quickly realized that our carriers more than live up to that definition, yet they still staunchly held on to the definition of their own.

"But now, we have truly and utterly broken the rules. What we have now is a frigate-sized ship that, despite its size, completely falls into the category of a capital ship – it is so dangerous, that not even dreadnoughts nor carriers can be safe while a Normandy-class frigate is prowling the same area. And, apparently, despite the fact that the turians already have the blueprint and the salarians might very well already have stolen one as well, nobody but us seems to truly realize just what it is that they have in their hands."

There were a few moments of silence as everyone looked to each other, reading one another's faces.

"You said 60 ships?" one of the admirals asked.

"60 in this first batch that's slated to be complete in the next forty days," Hackett replied. "There will be more, that's definitive. As it stands, the current plan is to maintain this level of production for two years at the very least."

"With the rate of one hundred ships every one hundred days?"

"That's right," Hackett replied. "That's 700 ships from the Vulcan shipyards in Eridani alone. With other regular shipyards throughout the Alliance space, that number will exceed 800 ships of various classes by the end of 2185."

"Sweet Jesus," an admiral muttered, then spoke louder. "I can understand what the Minister here said at the start of the meeting, that the current economic situation has made private investors galaxy-wide invest into our ventures, but where the hell do we get the materials from to build so many? Even for these 100 ships of the first batch?"

"The Normandy isn't a big ship, that's for one," Hackett replied. "It takes over a hundred Normandies to be equal in weight to a Kilimanjaro, so the material requirements aren't that much of a big deal to start with. The only thing that would have been the bottleneck would have been the eezo, but with Io's lodes, that is pretty much taken care of, not to mention the fact that now that the SR-1 has eliminated the majority of pirate and criminal elements throughout the resource-rich Verge, our mining ventures have already begun setting up shop. Shepard has already transferred the data on a huge amount of mineral lodes his team has discovered: light and heavy metals, rare earths, gasses – you name it. With that, and the newly-liberated Nonuel's eezo reserves to supplement what we already have, we won't be lacking in production materials whatsoever."

"So, based on what you're saying, the Normandy has been operating in near-constant combat condition since Eden Prime?" an admiral asked. "Have they managed to uncover any issues with the design or its systems? It'd be good if they have, so we can eliminate those things in these new Normandies we're building on Eridani."

"They have, and they've gone the extra mile or ten," Hackett replied as he worked his omni-tool to bring up the data.

"Ahhh, that's right," another admiral spoke up, "you've mentioned earlier that those new heat sinks and Scorpion aren't the only things Shepard made." He chuckled and leaned forward. "Well, I'm guessing that I'm speaking for everyone here when I say: we're all ears, Steven!"

"The first thing I'm going to say right away that the Normandy is a marvel of engineering, and kudos go to the team of humans and turians that made it," Hackett said. "Unlike your average ship, no direct issues could be discerned even after sixty days of almost non-stop combat run. That ship runs like a greased lightning.

"Obviously, Shepard has made a number of observations and has already proposed some radical changes to the design which we won't be able to fully implement with the SR-1 class. Most of them revolve around its newly-discovered combat prowess, but some are more combat insertion and invasion oriented. He has proposed a significant increase in ship's length – mainly to accommodate the significantly larger missile storage bays and fuel tanks so that it is more independent on long deployments. An increase of the cargo bay was proposed, along with a pair of marine barracks sections to the upper port and starboard side of the cargo hold – an obvious improvement to the ship's spec-ops and ground operations capability. Obviously, all of these improvements are impossible to implement on the SR-1 class, as it will require an extensive redesign of the ship, along with an even bigger eezo core. We have, however, sent those initial drawings to the engineering teams, and have labeled the project as SR 2.0. We'll have to wait and see the results in the future, but fortunately, there had been a number of improvements that we have been able to incorporate into the standard package – and some of these are applicable to other ship classes as well."

Hackett manipulated the holo-projection, outlying the sections on the Normandy as he spoke.

"The first upgrade which can only be applied to a frigate-class vessel is a pair of form-fitting atmospheric intake scoops under the root of its wings, with an internal H-fuel converter. The Normandy-class ship will be able to dive through a gas giant's upper atmospheric layer and replenish some of its fuel reserves in this way. It won't be able to fully eliminate the need for refueling, but it will reduce the fuel consumption by 75%, essentially tripling its cruising range.

"The second improvement is something that a quarian team member of the Normandy's specialist team has apparently developed. It is operationally dubbed a cyclonic barrier, which oscillates rather than being static, thus enabling it to slap the incoming projectiles away rather than wasting its energy absorbing them. This tech, unfortunately, is not perfect, I'm told, as it is liable to backfire if the arrays are not kept in top shape, but our own initial tests show that it is capable of boosting the ship's barrier effectiveness by over 78%."

There was an impressed whistle from the group. Hackett glanced around, gauging their faces.

"Obviously, I don't need to tell you how great of an advantage this tech would be if we could tame it," he said.

"And the final improvement is, in my opinion, the most important of them all. Essentially, it is a ship-borne version of the mass effect thermal pump we had discussed earlier. It was just as Onassis said – this thermal pump system is capable of drastically improving a vessel's capacity to increase the rate of fire and actually keep it sustained for a far longer period of time. Employing that system on the Normandy turned out to be exceptionally easy. All they had to do was use the IES system itself. That system already pumps the heat into the heat sinks and keeps it there; all they had to do was to switch off the IES field that captures the emissions and open up the radiator hatches. The result was that the heat got literally forced out at an unprecedented rate. It reduced the IES recharge time from dozens of minutes to less than two."

"That's more effective than the droplet radiator system," an admiral commented incredulously.

"And with zero threat of actually losing the coolant fluid while maneuvering the ship," another one added.

"Agreed. That's damn impressive."

"Then you will be even more impressed with what follows," Hackett said, manipulating his omni-tool and marking out a section at the upper rear part of the Normandy projection's hull that stood at the center of the room, then zooming in the view.

"One of Normandy's GARDIAN array lasers?" one admiral queried with a raised eyebrow.

"Not anymore," Hackett said, then took a deep breath, thinking on how to best explain. "Someone answer me this: what is the greatest bottleneck in the IES system?"

"The fact that it needs to drop stealth in order to release the stored heat," Anderson replied immediately for all to hear.

"That's right," Hackett said. "The IES heat sinks have an upper capacity, and not much can be done to significantly increase the limit. Once the ship shuts down the IES and opens up its radiator hatches, it'll light up on everyone's sensors like a supernova. There's no other way. The ship simply must release that heat. So, the question Shepard asked was not how to increase the IES capacity. The question he asked was how to release the heat without anyone noticing. Obviously, we're not talking about stopgap solutions such as releasing the heat while in the shade of some asteroid; that's too situational. What he sought was a technological solution. And he found the basis of it in a GARDIAN array laser that he and the Normandy's engineering team modified."

There was a moment of silence as everyone frowned at what he was saying.

"Lemme see if I get this straight," an admiral finally spoke up. "He… converted a laser into a heat radiator?"

"Essentially, yes," Hackett said. "A laser is, by definition, a radiation device – concentrated light radiation device. This device is a concentrated heat radiation device. The idea was simple: instead of radiating in all directions, this device radiates heat in a form of a directed, laser-thin beam. As such, that heat can only be detected if you were to stand in that beam's direct path. Being that it is mounted on a turret, the beam can be directed into any generally empty part of space – such as upward – thus making the ship remain virtually invisible while still radiating heat. Normally, the IES field would scoop this heat right back up, but they've made it so that the array emits a phased frequency that disrupts the IES field at that spot, creating a tiny hole through which the heat beam will escape without being recaptured."

"Hmm… I can understand the principle, but it can't be that simple," an admiral said. "We've had lasers for centuries, but they create a lot of heat themselves… it's a cyclic problem we hadn't been able to solve – otherwise, someone would have figured it out by now."

Hackett nodded. "Apparently, Shepard had come into possession of a Prothean Orb, a data storage device that held blueprints of a Prothean particle rifle," he said to everyone's astonishment. "He couldn't replicate the rifle, but certain parts of its mechanism had helped make this heat radiation array possible."

"A working Prothean device?!" general Himura croaked. "Why didn't he send it to us?! If he has found a way to access it, then our scientists could have used the data!"

"Because it doesn't work that way," Hackett shook his head. "Due to his interaction with the Thorian of Feros, Shepard is the only man in existence that is capable of understanding what Prothean memory devices transfer to him. Everyone else sees only gibberish. True, with him being busy hunting Saren, he doesn't have sufficient time to study the blueprints, but it still is far more than we could ever do ourselves – this device attests that. I call that progress."

"And how effective is the device?"

"Sufficiently effective to enable Normandy to actively cruise for days instead of hours," Hackett replied. "Heat generation from firing the guns and aggressive combat maneuvering is still too much for it, but everything else…"

"And we will be installing it on all of our Normandy-class ships?" an admiral asked with a small smile.

"We will be installing this on all of our stealth ships," Hackett replied.

The assembly went still, their faces turning sharply toward him.

"As I had mentioned," Hackett continued after a pause, "the Normandy-class constitutes 60 out of 100 ships that are being constructed in Vulcan shipyards. Of the remaining forty, twenty ships being constructed are these…"

The Normandy's projection at the center of the chamber moved away to present what appeared to be a larger ship. Everyone could tell immediately that it bore a general resemblance to a standard Alliance warship, yet that some the things were altered. The light-siphoning black paint was the most obvious one.

"What you see before you is a Perseus-class strategic cruiser," he spoke. "It is a 536 meter-long, strike craft carrying, cruiser-sized vessel. Nothing quite like it exists in the galaxy. And yes – it does possess an IES stealth system. The all-black paintjob you see is the further expansion on that. It's an electro-dynamic vantablack-IV coating, designed to reduce even the possibility of a visual detection by absorbing light reflections."

An admiral leaned forward intently, speaking gravely, "Steven… where did this thing come from? How come nobody heard of it? I mean, who authorized this project, and when?"

"I did," Krieg stated. "When I saw the blueprints of the Normandy for the first time a year ago, I felt that the potential for stealth vessels was immense. While the galaxy watched with close attention to the progress of the Normandy's construction and development, another team had been covertly working on the Perseus, closely copying the Normandy's progress and applying it to a cruiser-weight vessel one step at a time. The result is what you see before you. The SC-1, Strategic Cruiser One, was launched seven days ago and has been officially commissioned early this morning. All it awaits now is its commanding officer."

"This just keeps getting better and better," someone muttered incredulously.

"Wait for it," Hackett said seriously, then focused their attention to the vessel's holo-projection. "The idea behind the Perseus was to create an unlimited range, extreme endurance stealth vessel, capable of operating for extreme periods of time behind enemy lines and not only be self-sufficient but be capable of performing massive and repeated precision strikes against crucial targets without being detected.

"To ensure its endurance and make it as independent from resupply as possible, we needed it to be at least a cruiser-sized vessel so that we could equip it with a fabrication workshop. To ensure it can quickly and precisely project its firepower across the region, we needed it to have a large number of strike and shuttle craft, thus having it act as a carrier. And in order for us to actually equip it with an IES, we needed it to be sufficiently small. The result was the Perseus.

"It may bear a similarity to a standard-profile Alliance cruiser, but unlike it, it has no broadside guns," he continued. "Instead, its port and starboard wings house flight decks that carry a total of 70 manned strike craft, 20 heavy attack drones, plus a compliment of twelve UT-47s for its surface strike teams – of which there will be a single marine company. In addition, two platoons – a total of eight – of the Scorpions that Sokolov's teams have made will be delivered and housed in a hangar bay at the bottom of the ship that was originally intended for M-44 Hammerheads to deploy from."

"Smart move with the Scorpions," an admiral said. "But let me ask you, are the fighter craft made to be stealth as well?"

"To a limited degree, yes," Hackett replied. "They are too small, and their IES cannot be as powerful as the one on the Normandy, but we have managed to supplement that with the active masking system used on the Kodiaks. It makes them extremely difficult to detect, even when they get close enough for their attack run. Of course, we're working on improving those solutions even as we speak."

"And what about the heavy assault drones? How are they controlled? Tightbeam?"

"No, they're pretty much autonomous and have no antennae, just like is the case with Rampart mechs, so we're experimenting with rudimentary QEC with these ones," Hackett said. "It maintains Perseus's stealth and prevents hacking, and since they are not used for dogfights, all the data they need to receive are coordinates – which is no more than a few hundred bytes of data, so the bandwidth won't be a problem."

"Yes, I see… this will keep many of our pilots alive if the drones could be the ones to perform assaults on heavy targets such as dreadnoughts."

"And what about its weapons systems?"

"The Perseus was never designed to be a frontline combatant; all of you must've realized that already. Its main assault weapons are fighters. The only weapons Perseus itself has are ten javelin launcher tubes with a complement of forty missiles – which, in essence, makes it less armed than an Alamo-class frigate – and they are only meant to be used in an absolute emergency as a means to ensure the Perseus's retreat. To help in this, the Perseus has an array of no less than 32 GARDIAN turrets. The first vessel of the class has had two of them temporarily converted to tightbeam radiation devices to use with its IES, but the remaining Perseus-class vessels will have additional two dedicated TBRD turrets instead."

"Interesting… I assume it is capable of replenishing its own ordnance and fuel?" another admiral asked.

"Fully – of both it and all of its strike craft. It is facilitated by a pair of Carrier Service Vessels, like the ones on the Einstein-class, whose job is to scoop Hydrogen and Helium from a gas giant's atmospheres and bring it up to the vessel, where a grade-III converter will process them into fuel. As for replenishing the ordnance, as well as repairing and manufacturing its own strike craft it has an integrated grade-III mining/manufacturing/assembly workshop – like the ones on carriers. It, together with its CSVs can deploy their mining lasers, scoop up the ore, then process it into whatever it needs."

"I like what I'm hearing very much," an admiral said. "This ship will really have an unlimited range and extreme endurance."

"And I assume its barriers will be just as above-grade as Normandy's are?" another one asked.

"The Perseus has an Everest-class eezo core," Hackett said. "You do the math."

"Who's this first ship's commanding officer?"

"Officially, one hasn't been assigned yet," Hackett replied. "But Captain Anderson has already been selected for the job."

Anderson fought hard to keep his face straight on hearing the news. Hackett continued:

"His experience in previously having already flown both a cruiser and a stealth vessel, as well as being an N7 operative with extensive knowledge of black ops make him a logical candidate."

The admiral hummed, then nodded at Anderson. "Congratulations from all of us here, Captain. We will be eager to hear your reports about this vessel."

"Yes, sir," Anderson replied levelly, even though his heart was pounding at a thousand beats per minute.

"And what about the other class of vessel other than the Normandy and Perseus?" another admiral asked. "You have mentioned that there are 60 Normandy and 20 Perseus hulls in Vulcan shipyards, which leaves us with another 20 to fill the one hundred construction bays. Are they as amazing as what we've heard so far?"

"No, unfortunately," Hackett replied. "Five of them are carriers, but another 15 are an experimental battlecruiser made on a modified York hull. Its broadside cannons had been replaced by javelin missile tubes and bays. The idea behind this philosophy is that since broadsides are almost exclusively used when ships engage in medium-to-knife-fight ranges that are already best suited for missiles, then that's what those launcher tubes should be best-suited for."

"It's like that experimental missile cruiser, Project Tremor, from a few years ago, isn't it?"

"I liked that idea even then," another man said. "I don't know why we waited for this long to implement it. Disruptor missiles punch harder than main guns, and broadsides have barely 20% of the main gun's yield."

"Eezo was the greatest bottleneck," Krieg declared. "Disruptor missiles require an eezo core for their warp fields to activate, and we didn't want to sling too much of the stuff all around. Now that we have significantly greater lodes of eezo at our disposal…" he left the rest unsaid.

"Hmm… Makes sense," an admiral said. "What else do we have?"

Hackett made a quick review of the datapad before him.

"Nothing anymore," he said. "With missile cruisers, we have covered all of the planned topics in the point of agenda that concerned ships. Does anyone have any other questions concerning this?"

There were a couple of moments of silence.

"Frankly, with this much of an information dump, I can't remember what I'm supposed to do for the rest of the day," an admiral said, her voice bearing a glorious British accent, which raised a few chuckles.

"Well, you can't say it was boring, at least," another one said.

"Alright then," Krieg spoke up, "then we shall move to the final point of today's agenda, which is discussing miscellaneous. As it is usual, this is to see whether you have any suggestions, questions, or would like to bring to light any potential issues. So, let's hear it."

"I'd suggest that we schedule a second, likely smaller meeting, just for the sake of us stamping impressions concerning today's topics. Few things can come to mind as suddenly."

"Fair enough," Krieg said. "I'll have my secretary prepare a date sometime during the next week or the one after that."

The admirals nodded amongst each other.

"I have had another idea, actually," an admiral spoke up. "I know that the Normandy is no longer under official Alliance command, but I feel that it'd be good to check out what's going on out there. After all, it's an Alliance crew lend-leased to a Spectre."

"You wish to make an inspection?"

"Call it a personal interest," he replied. "That ship was supposed to become a part of my 63rd. Most of the data about its performance comes from Shepard's reports, and I don't doubt it's accurate, but how much of it was caused by him being a Spectre, rather than something that comes from the Alliance. I feel that it'd be good for us to see for ourselves."

"I have no issues with that, but it cannot be an official inspection," Krieg warned. "The Normandy is in a peculiar position, so whatever you do, you must do unofficially. And even if you do find things out of order, there is no point in trying to enforce any corrections; and with results like these, I don't see the point to it."

"Understood, sir, I will keep that in mind," the admiral replied.

Krieg nodded. "Alright – anything else?"

There were murmurs and headshakes.

"Then I declare this council adjourned."

The admirals began shuffling out of their seats, their talk eager as they began discussing the aftermath of the meeting.

Hackett reached out to Anderson. "Stay. You will receive official orders from me regarding the Perseus."

Anderson finally allowed his grin to explode across his face, nodding.

As everyone shuffled out, only Anderson, Hackett, and Krieg remained.

"These are your official orders by which you assume command of the Perseus," Hackett said as handed the datapad to Anderson. "A shuttle is already waiting for you with your belongings on it to take you to your new ship."

"What's my mission?" Anderson asked.

Hackett shared a grave look with Krieg.

"Officially, your mission is to test the Perseus," he said. "Unofficially, it is to test a new ship detection system."

Anderson raised an eyebrow, making a questioning grimace.

"A sensor array?" he asked, then narrowed his eyes suspiciously, his gears turning. "Something tells me this isn't an ordinary sensor array, is it?"

"You have a good head on your shoulders, Anderson," Krieg approved from where he sat in his chair like a director that held all the strings. "You're right, it isn't an ordinary detection system. Tell me, what are the two most important detection methods in existence?"

"Standard thermal detection, and the newer pulsar system," Anderson said.

"What are their limitations?"

"Light lag with the thermals, obviously," Anderson said, playing along. "Pulsar doesn't have that problem because it essentially works like a comm-buoy, accelerating an energy signal through an FTL, not unlike the FTL radar."

"And the resulting pulse of dark energy that bounces back from the detected object will return just as quickly to the ship for it to be detected," Krieg added.

"Except that it makes the ship light up like a goddamn supernova on every single goddamn sensor in a 300-AU radius," Anderson said. "And since it detects every object, even the tiniest one, its effective range ain't greater than two or three AUs at best because of the saturation. Frankly, the thing is better used as a search-and-rescue scanner or a deep-penetrative scan to see what's inside a shielded base."

"About right," Krieg nodded. "So what would happen if you had a passive sensor that had a virtually instantaneous detection of every ship in the system?"

"I'd ask first how does it do what it does," Anderson challenged.

Krieg snorted, smirking, and rapped his nails against the desktop. "The dark energy effect of active mass effect fields creates a spatial distortion," he said. "This scanner detects those spatial distortions over great distances with zero lag. It is undetectable by conventional means. It doesn't use light, it doesn't use thermals, and it doesn't use any kind of energy signal. All it does is tap into the fabric of space to detect huge distortions such as planets and stars, and active mass effect fields. It's called a gravdar."

"The sensor's operators will have all the technical specs and deeper scientific method behind it," Hackett said. "Suffice it to say that this sensor will detect active mass effect fields only, and the bigger the source, the farther away it can be detected. Initial tests show that it cannot detect a fighter craft at more than half AUs of distance, but it can detect a dreadnought at almost a hundred."

Anderson recoiled in amazement.

"I see you understand the power of this new tech," Hackett said.

"Understand? This kind of sensor is a complete game changer!" he said. "Why wasn't this mentioned at the meeting?"

"The more people know, the greater the chance something will slip out and enable our rivals to catch it," Krieg said. "And you had put it just as accurately as it gets: it's a game changer, a too big of a game changer. It can detect a stealth ship without any problem, and it can detect it hours before the standard thermal sensor even knows there was something there."

"Well, then, pardon my French, sir, but why the hell did we push for all those Normandy-class vessels into production then?" Anderson demanded incredulously.

"Because you cannot maintain an edge if you're stagnating and hoping no one invents something better; you can only maintain an edge by going forward, and by constantly pushing forward," Krieg said. "It might seem trivial, but you testing that sensor inside and out, and finding out every single goddamn quirk it has is the only chance for us to find a countermeasure to it – a countermeasure that would be employed on our stealth ships the first chance we get!"

Anderson hummed, nodding. "Yeah, I suppose I understand it all too perfectly. And after that is done, we find a countermeasure to the countermeasure. And so on, and so forth, until kingdom come."

"Like militaries had done since time immemorial," Hackett said in a tone as if he was making a toast.

Anderson shook his head, smirking. "So, you said I need to track down the Normandy," he said. "Fair enough, but I don't think it'll be enough to test this sensor properly. Marcus and Jaina Shepard aren't stupid, and their crew was handpicked by me; I can guarantee they'd notice someone was following them, and I guarantee they'd find a way to give me the slip before even I realized how to trick the gravdar."

Hackett nodded. "That's why the Perseus will be joined by these two ships." He passed him a datapad. "They'll work as your escorts, and you'll operate as a squadron. You will use them to test the gravdar too."

Anderson frowned as he looked over the information. "SR-1001 and SR-1002? Are these Normandy class?!"

"The first two non-prototype models," Hackett replied. "The mainstay models will get a four-digit designation. Being a prototype, the Normandy will remain a single-digit, as is standard practice."

"I get that, but where the hell did these two come from in the first place?" Anderson asked incredulously. "I thought they all needed another forty days before they finished construction."

"The SR-1001, the Red Cliff, was originally the SR-Alfa."

Anderson's eyebrows rose, and he nodded in understanding. "The testbed for the weapons systems and propulsion for the SR-1."

Hackett nodded. "It already had the near-identical superstructure, eezo core, and all the systems installed, so it only needed to have the SR hull installed together with the proper IES heat sinks. The SR-1002, the Kursk, was made from the parts kept in reserve for if something went wrong during construction of the Normandy and either it or the Alfa blew up. The moment it was shown that the SR-1 would be a resounding success, we pushed these two into a construction dock and brought them fully up to snuff."

"This will be the first time I command a squadron," Anderson commented.

"You know it yourself that you're more than capable," Hackett replied. "Commanding a carrier task unit is a fast-track to an admiral's position… Especially in this case, since testing the gravdar will be only the first part of your mission."

Anderson looked back grimly. He knew there was more to this from the get-go.

"Once you ascertain the effectiveness of the gravdar, your true mission will begin," Hackett said. "Your will cross into batarian space undetected and stay there. There is no specific target. Your job will be to stalk. Find their patrols, stalk them, get as close as possible without being detected, see their behavior, their routes, their patterns, their hidden assets if possible, and most importantly of all, devise methods for sudden kill strikes.

"This mission is ambitious and important. As such, it has no timeframe. Until you are certain that you have the full grasp of the gravdar, and have your squardron operating smoothly to your satisfaction, you will not even begin the attempt to cross the border. The location of the crossing does not matter, where you go after that does not matter, how long it takes you to get there does not matter. What matters is certainty. We want to be certain that we can do this, and we want to be certain of the methods that will get us there. Am I being clear on that?"

"Perfectly, sir," Anderson replied seriously.

Hackett nodded. "The Perseus has a QEC that links directly to me, and we will maintain a regular correspondence. As of now, you report directly to me and no one else."

"Understood."

"Any questions?"

Anderson smirked. "Can we get on with it? I want to see my damn ship!"

Hackett chuckled, then nodded him toward the doors. "Get outta here. Serviceman Perry should be waiting outside; he will take you to the shuttle."

Anderson stood at attention and gave a crisp salute, receiving a nod back from Hackett, after which he immediately left the conference room, his pace brisk and eager.

As the doors behind him closed, Krieg motioned at Hackett with his chin.

"Let's see it," he said.

At that, both him and Hackett immediately switched off their omnitools, removing the bands from their wrists and placing them in a shielded box. Revealing a hidden command console at his desk that sported real physical activation buttons, Krieg inserted a physical key and flipped the big red switch next to it.

A moment later, a powerful EMP swept the internal area of the chamber, shutting down everything, lights included, leaving only the light that reflected off of station's gleaming white hull from outside the window.

Krieg nodded at Hackett. "Show me," he said.

Hackett removed a tiny shielded box from his inner pocket and opened it up to reveal a small holoprojector that he placed on the desktop.

"These are 48 hours old," Hackett said.

As it activated, a set of images appeared, showing five huge construction piers surrounded by a misty blue nebular cloud. It was the final five of the one hundred hidden in Epsilon Eridani, the ones which were supposed to be constructing five carriers.

"That was a skillful dodge earlier, by the way," Krieg said. "When Xin asked what the remaining piers were producing other than Normandy and Perseus hulls."

"I told him the truth," Hackett said. "They are producing carriers."

"You just hadn't told him what kind of carriers exactly," Krieg agreed as he watched the images over. "The most ambitious plan the Alliance has ever envisioned: an answer to the Destiny Ascension."

"More than the Destiny Ascension," Hackett replied. "Each of them is 2400 meters of length – almost as long as quarian Liveships."

"Except that, unlike Liveships, these are actually true warships," Krieg said as he browsed the images reverently. "True supercarriers. Fully independent mobile military bases."

Hackett nodded. "This ship will be able to project such a great power at such an insane range that nobody will have an answer for it," he said. "Being able to move anywhere, at any range, it will be far from a sitting duck like our military space stations are. Nobody will be able to catch it; nobody will be able to stop it."

Krieg nodded absentmindedly as he switched the view to the holo-projection of a complete model, contemplating.

"We won't be able to produce any more than five, Steven," he said after a moment. "Even with all that new budget and that recent wealth of resources. A vessel of this size… It'll take almost two years to complete all five of them in parallel, and after that, we can kiss our ability to make any more for at least a decade at least, maybe two."

"Or maybe we get a Council seat in the meantime and keep the train rolling," Hackett replied.

"I was never the kind of man to put much hope in hypothetical scenarios," Krieg replied. "The Council won't grant us that seat any time soon unless something so drastic happens that they end up desperate enough. But whether they do or don't give us that seat, it doesn't matter. With the geth striking, the Alliance had gotten one slap over the nose too many. The people are realizing that the thin bubble of their comfort zone had burst. They are waking up."

"It's about damn time," Hackett growled.

...


...

The heels clicked audibly as their owner walked across the dark-tiled floor of the large chamber. Walking up to the singular chair at the center of it, she passed the datapad to the man that sat there in front of the numerous data screens, the outlines of his gray hair illuminated by their warm glow.

"It is confirmed that all of the depicted improvements to the ship design come from Commander Shepard directly," the woman said. "The working title of the project is Stealth Recon 2.0."

The man's focused gaze scanned through the datapad's contents quickly and precisely, bringing the butt of his cigarette to his lips and taking a deep drag, the cigarette's tip shining brightly and releasing crinkling sounds as the tobacco burned.

The man kept the lungful of smoke for a few moments, then passed the datapad back.

"Send it to the Minuteman station," he said as he exhaled. "This is now their top priority. Have them analyze and improve all of Shepard's improvements in whatever way possible. Make sure that eliminating them from the blueprints is not an option. Also, I want the Hannibal cell to merge into the Minuteman; I think we have just found a perfect housing for the Luna Base AI once its rewrite and upgrade is complete."

"Understood," she said as she took the offered datapad back. "May I ask why is keeping Shepard's improvements so important? Some of them don't exactly fit into our methods of operation."

The man was silent for a moment, merely dragging smoke from his cigarette.

"It is becoming obvious that Shepard is a formidable man," he said. "It would be of great benefit to us if we were to have him on our side, and I'm not just talking about stopping him from interfering with any more of our operations. A man as capable as him can be a powerful asset."

"You intend to bribe him by offering him a ship?" the woman asked skeptically.

"Of course not. A man such as Shepard will not be swayed by material wealth, but what he will be swayed if he feels that he has found an ally who is willing to help him due to noble causes. The ship would come into play later. What we would need to do first is take steps to convince him that we can be trustworthy, only after which we would take steps to slowly alienate others from him. He needs to see others as unreliable so that he chooses to come to us of his own volition. At that point, we would need to have something to use as an assurance and an incentive. The ship would merely be one of many ways by which we could ensure his long-term loyalty, but it would be nonetheless an important one."

"How do you suggest we proceed with convincing him?" she asked.

"Small steps, one at a time," the man replied. "Providing a key piece of information, or even so much as a heads-up at a key moment can mean much more than all grand revelations combined. This will require careful considerations."

The woman inclined her head, a perfectly-shaped eyebrow rising up. "I see," she said. "Will you require anything of me?"

"Not at the moment, but rest assured that your skills will come into play one way or the other," the man said. "You have your tasks. Dismissed."

The woman turned on her heel and walked out of the chamber, leaving the man's sharp, penetrative cybernetic eyes to gaze upon the huge, dimming star in the distance, the gears turning in his head, constantly forging plans upon plans.

...