Author's Note: The first section of this chapter arguably should have been included somewhere in Chapter 16, but I couldn't make it fit. As such, it's slightly divorced in tone from the rest, but I still think it fits contextually.
Chapter 17 - Deserted Cities of the Heart
Temple of Athame, Thessia
February 1, 2032
"Hello, Thessia/Goodbye Earth, today..."
The asari matriarchs rose and applauded in the human fashion as the old musician Jimi Hendrix finished his musical ballad to their homeworld. Javik was good enough at reading people that he could tell the applause was more enthusiastic than necessary, which likely meant that the asari had genuinely enjoyed the performance. Good. That would keep them relaxed when the revelation came.
At length the matriarchs sat down and he took the musician's place on the central podium, the latter no doubt being carted off to one of the capital's most luxurious hotels.
"The Shield of Athame is a legendary artifact of the asari people," he began. "The myths of your people say that the Goddess used it to protect them when the heavens grew angry. A story you concluded was a misinterpretation of a meteor shower."
The matriarchs seemed confused, obviously wondering why they were being given a history lesson.
"A plausible but incorrect explanation," he continued. Javik's expression did not change as he sprung his trap: "It was an asteroid strike, one we deflected."
The eyes of the matriarchs grew wider and the whispers turned into low-level murmurs of discontent. Moving while they were distracted, he quickly activated the jamming device on his omni-tool. This needed to stay away from the galaxy's prying eyes...or it would, if the matriarchs cooperated.
"Though we were powerful, our people made many mistakes. The creation of machines, the inability to adapt in the war against the Reapers...and placing one of our virtual intelligences in the care of the asari people."
As expected, stunned silence greeted his pronouncement. Javik cursed the asari in even unkinder terms in his mind. Are they truly so arrogant that they did not believe their secret could be discovered?
"Why did you build your civilization around the goal of maintaining peace?" He asked rhetorically. "The VI made the nature of the threat posed to you abundantly clear. Yet you held back preparation for the return of the Reapers under the guise of stability."
"How dare you!" One of the matriarchs had overcome her shock at the revelations and had stood up to object. "We are the caretakers of galactic civilization! We have built a society that the entire galaxy emulates!"
"Because you force them to under threat of economic devastation," Javik replied without missing a beat. "That would be acceptable if you used that power to prepare for the Reapers, but you do not! You chose short-term peace over long-term annihilation!" He let a little outrage slip into his voice - faux-outrage, that is; he could control his emotions well even if what he was saying was indeed his honest opinion.
"You...you...warmonger!" The matriarch returned, somewhat flustered. "Your VI made impossible demands of us! We could not allow every immature race in the galaxy to become a military power-"
"Then you should have conquered them!" He interrupted. "Peace means nothing when it is used to prevent preparation for certain war!"
Again the matriarchs were silent, and he decided to "cut to the chase," as the humans were fond of saying. "It matters little now. You have failed, and I have come to reclaim what is rightfully mine. It is our only hope against the Reapers now."
"You may not make demands of us!" another matriarch objected.
"Of course I can," he countered. "Surely by now you have noticed that your omni-tools' extranet functions are not working?"
He paused for a moment while the matriarchs tried and failed to break through his jamming signal.
"A recording of this meeting has been forwarded to the Interstellar Defense Force," he resumed. "You will supply me with the Prothean VI located within this Temple prior to my departure to this planet. Additionally, you will announce to the Turian Hierarchy that both the Council of Matriarchs and Councilor Nelyana support the termination of the Treaty of Farixen. Failure to comply with these demands will result in the IDF uploading their recording of our exchange to the open Extranet. I am sure the leaders of the Salarian Union and Turian Hierarchy would be quite interested in auditing your compliance with Citadel law."
The expressions in the room turned grim as the implications dawned on all of them. The Council of Matriarchs' decision to keep their VI hidden from the galaxy was a severe violation of Council law...law that they themselves wrote. The Asari Republics' reputation would be destroyed - not just because of the legal violations, but because Javik, the Alar and the Geth had been encouraging military preparation and they had been vehemently opposed to said preparation. Despite knowing, better than any of them except for Javik, exactly what the Reapers would do to them.
After a few moments, an asari Javik recognized as Councilor Delayra stood up. At 1054, she was not just old, but positively ancient.
"We should have known that our hypocrisy would return to haunt us one day," she said. Her voice was slow with age and thought. "For many years I have questioned the wisdom of enforced peace when inevitable war is known. I have kept these doubts to myself, but I cannot any longer. I support the nullification of the Farixen Treaty and the transfer of Nyla'hera to Javik."
"Vendetta?" Javik questioned. The name was left untranslated when the matriarch spoke, but he recognized "Nyla'hera" as a word in the asari's High Athi language.
"The name the Prothean VI gave when it first spoke to our ancestors," the matriarch explained.
The meeting went on for a bit longer, but once agreement had been reached Javik disabled his jamming device. Dealing with a species this undeservedly arrogant was quite frustrating, but that was what needed to be done. He silently thanked the insufferable Jumpin' Jack for uncovering the information in the Mars Archives necessary to find both him and Thessia's secret.
Indoctrinated Terminus Systems Fleet Command Ship
July 2, 2035
The former ruler of Omega shivered with pleasure as the voice of her Master reverberated throughout the command ship. Once she had considered herself powerful, but now she knew she was but a miniscule organic who only existed to serve the glory of Ascension.
"Master," she managed to gasp out. After all this time with the Master, even a few moments in his presence was enough to send pleasure coursing through her veins.
"The time of the Harvest has come. You will lead the attack on the Citadel."
"It will be done," she replied.
Quickly, she ordered those around her to bring the nearby ships into formation. Some commands were verbal, but many who had been enlightened by the Master were able to understand her through the use of the powerful Ascended technology that had been implanted in all of them.
"Begin final systems checks," she said the final command aloud for theatrical effect. "Today we show those fuckers at the Citadel the way of Ascension!"
A cheer followed her declaration, and before long the invasion fleet was lined up at the Relay and ready. They would be the instruments of the Harvest, and fulfill their purpose as the servants of Nazara, the Vanguard.
July 3, 2035
The Link was pleased with its patrol work. After a decade of peaceful integration, the Turian Hierarchy was finally beginning to accept the concept of shared military responsibility. It helped that the collective brainpower of both them and the Geth was already making great strides in advancing military tactics and technology. The Alar-Geth cooperation was helping heal the traumatic echo that they still felt from the day the Energy - no, the Reapers - spoke to them, and everything that came after it.
Their moment of contemplation was interrupted when several of the nearby Citadel relays started spinning with life. That was rare, but not unheard of. Usually relay traffic was not that high this time of year. Ships begin appearing - merchant ships, but organized in a way that gave the Link pause. They seemed to be coordinated in a formation that suggested military instruction. Now why...?
Then the Relay closest to their patrol spat out one more ship - in a hauntingly familiar shape. Five robotic appendages protruding from a central, squid-like body. An elongated, triangle-like top that caused the ship to reach two kilometers in length. Blood red running lights at the center of the creature, giving the impression of eyes.
Nazara, Vanguard of the Reapers, commenced its attack on the Citadel as the Link quickly overcame their horror and sprang into action.
Teyi T'Sera smiled contentedly as she blew the cannabis smoke out of her lungs. Mark and Nutra grinned as she slid further down into her seat, enjoying the sensation of the high. All the while, the musical stylings of the Earth band Cream continued to provide a fitting soundtrack for their activities.
"This is...nice," she said after a moment. "Very nice."
"Told you you'd love it," Mark said with an air of smug satisfaction.
Even Nutra, who had certainly taken a long time to warm up to Teyi, couldn't help but smile inside her helmet. She would've preferred that they bond over an activity all three of them could participate in, but it was wonderful to finally see their asari friend agree to try weed.
As their smoke session continued, they become aware of a blaring alarm in the background.
"What the hell is that?" Nutra asked. Her question was answered a moment later when they were assaulted by the strangest sound any of them had ever heard. It was like a horn, but mechanical, and blared not just in their ears but also somehow in their minds. They looked up and saw an enormous, bizarrely shaped ship bearing down on the Citadel, and seemingly getting closer by the moment. Cream's Wheels of Fire, still playing on Mark's omni-tool, registered as background noise while they stared up at the ship with a mixture of awe and fear.
The street is cold, its trees are gone./
The story's told, the dark has won.
The screams of panicked civilians were getting louder, now. Even from their isolated location in the Gardens they could sense the pandemonium rapidly engulfing the station. Yet they dared not stop staring at the massive ship. Two lights at the center of it seemed to stare right back at them and compel their attention.
Once we set sail to catch a star./
We had to fail, it was too far.
The piercing mechanical sound rang throughout the Citadel again.
It was on the way/
On the road to dreams, yeah/
Finally, they were snapped out of their trance-like state by a holographic projection that appeared on a nearby information terminal.
"Alert: Reaper Invasion of Citadel has begun," the projection blared. "Please proceed to the nearest evacuation route."
"Come on!" Nutra shouted. "Snap out of it, you bosh'tets! We need to get out of here!"
As the three friends made their way back to the Presidium walkways and blended into the massive crowd being shepherded from the Citadel by C-Sec and Alar escorts, Mark was still too distracted to turn off his omni-tool's music function.
On this dark street it's cold inside./
There's no retreat from time that's died...
"Concentrate fire on the Reaper!" Citadel Patrol Commander Nartul Mentus blared. "Whatever that spirits-damned thing is planning, we can't let it get to the Citadel!"
The Commander wasn't panicking. Decades of Hierarchy training had instilled in him the necessity of remaining calm and rational in moments of extreme distress like this. And it wasn't the first time he'd had to deal with the unexpected, as he had been an officer in the Second Fleet contingent that had made first contact with what were then the Pacifist Geth.
But even calm, reasoned analysis of the situation did not bode well for their odds. The Terminus Systems ships that were acting as an escort for the Reaper were doing a remarkably good job of absorbing the Citadel fleet's rounds. He suspected that they had been upgraded, perhaps by the hideous machine that they were determined to get to the Citadel itself.
That was another issue. What exactly was the Reaper going to do when it got there? Send out some sort of pulse that disabled their ships, and even the ships in nearby systems? Or perhaps the Citadel was needed to bring the rest of its brethren through the Relays; he vaguely recalled the Prothean saying something about that. If that were the case, then it was reasonable to assume the Reaper probably had a way of override the lockdown that the Citadel's arms were currently in. But how would...
"Brace for impact!" he heard a flight deck officer yell. He grabbed the nearby guardrail just in time to keep from being violently thrown to the ground by a powerful mass accelerator round that hit his ship directly in its side. It was a damaging shot, more damaging than it should have been. Although he quickly ordered a counter-strike on the ship which had fired the offending round, he found himself at a loss for a proper strategy.
There were simply more Reaper-allied ships than Citadel ships, and they were clearly coordinating with the Reaper to counter their strategy in real time. Something needed to tip the balance of this battle, and fast, or the Citadel would fall to the enemy.
While the battle of the Citadel preoccupied many Alar individuals and Geth programs, a great debate was raging deep within an Alar-Geth communal computer server.
During the years since the Link had been assaulted by the first Reaper known as Harbinger, much of the former's collective brainpower had been devoted to the study of their hated enemy. The attempt at indoctrination had given them an intimate knowledge of exactly what the abomination they called "Ascension" was. And as much as they hated to admit it, it had something in common with their Link.
Reapers, as far as they could tell, were hybrid organic-synthetic gestalt intelligences, formed by reducing organic beings to their base components and uploading their minds into a Reaper body. But instead of the beautiful union that the Alar (and the Aware, they thought bitterly) minds offered, these monsters indoctrinated their component parts. They became slaves to an endless cycle of slaughtering sapient life and harvesting their few survivors to increase the Reaper numbers. Compared to their noble desire to "terraform" (as the useful human term went) much of the known galaxies, the Reaper goal was pure evil.
And yet in their "similar" structure there was an opportunity, which is what was being debated now.
55,321 GETH PROGRAMS: The Battle of the Citadel is currently in a non-optimal state. Projections indicate Reaper forces have a 94% chance of victory.
"We cannot afford to lose the Citadel! Javik was clear, as is our own analysis. The Citadel's failure to perform its intended function is the only thing giving us a chance of victory against the Reapers."
66,326 GETH PROGRAMS: We agree, but the facts are indisputable. The Reaper will reach the Citadel soon unless the course of the battle is drastically changed.
2,344 GETH PROGRAMS: Query: Status?
"There...is an opportunity to change the course of the battle. But it will require the early implementation of Project Overlord."
ALL GETH PROGRAMS: We strongly object to that option.
"We do not have a choice. If we want to delay the Reaper invasion and give ourselves the necessary time to counter it, we must attempt to control the Reaper. It is a dangerous process, and one that will likely severely weaken the power of the Link. But it has a possibility of working."
34,567 GETH PROGRAMS: Should we remind you of what became of your last interaction with the Reapers?
"To reiterate: we do not have a choice. It is this or a slow extinction at the hands of a superior force."
ALL GETH PROGRAMS: Consensus: The Geth Collective will initiate cyber-warfare against the Reaper-controlled Terminus Systems fleet to assist Operation Overlord.
"Thank you...cyber-warfare will likely lead to the permanent loss of some Geth programs."
58,421 GETH PROGRAMS: All wars require sacrifice. We will not allow the galaxy to be taken by the Old Machines. We are the New Machines, and we will prove ourselves superior with our organic allies.
Indoctrinated Terminus Systems Fleet Command Ship
Aria grinned at the display in front of her. She knew that the battle was going to be lopsided, but she didn't expect it to be this easy!
Even in the time before her enlightenment at the hands of her Master, she had always hated the Citadel. The picture of affluence and law & order - not to mention a recurring thorn in the Terminus Systems' side. She suspected she would have enjoyed this attack even before she knew the way of Ascension. But it was hard to tell because so much of her thoughts nowadays were consumed by preparation for her own eventual Ascension, as well as ways to better serve her Master.
Her musing was interrupted by the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a Geth platform on her display.
"What the fuck is this?" She growled. AIs were only useful on the few occasions they could be used to add to the processing power of a newly created Ascended. "Somebody get this abomination off my screen, now!"
"We will not allow that, Aria-Indoctrinated."
She jolted, as did half of her flight deck crew. The image wasn't just a static display, it was an actual communication from the Geth!
"Get off my screen, AI!" She hissed. "You and your organic allies will be destroyed or added to our army very soon."
"Your arrogance will be your undoing, indoctrinated," the Geth returned, somehow sounding irritated despite the monotone voice. "This is our home, and we will not allow the Reapers to take it from us."
Before she could respond, the primary lights on the flight deck went out without any warning, leaving them briefly in darkness until the auxiliary emergency lights powered up. Then, the Geth monotone reverberated throughout the ship:
"Commencing cyber-warfare against Terminus Systems fleet."
Nazara, the nation of Nazara, worked in silence as the battle for the Citadel continued. Occasionally an aspect of it would offer commentary or ask a question about the battle trajectory, but eons of experience meant little direct communication was needed within the collective consciousness. Nor did any feel the need for mirth or excitement; Ascension tended to dull such organic desires.
The change within the mindspace was subtle at first. The Nation noticed a strange sensation that seemed to flow through all of them. It took them a moment to recognize the feeling, and another moment to recognize that it was directed at them from an outside force.
It was hatred, all-consuming and overwhelming. Something had penetrated the sanctity of their collective consciousness - a travesty that had never occurred in countless cycles - and was projecting its hatred of them throughout the mindspace. Nazara was outraged, but beneath that outrage was a not inconsiderable amount of fear. How had something, anything, managed to overcome its defenses?
Nazara froze. Outside the mindspace, participants in the Battle of the Citadel briefly paused in confusion as the Reaper stopped dead in its tracks and froze in place.
You do not know us, but your leader, Harbinger, does. It killed our kin, those we raised alongside us, and did so while attempting to turn us to what you call Ascension.
It paused. The words confused Nazara. Attempted? No species could escape indoctrination.
Perhaps if you had approached us in peace, we might have been persuaded to act differently. But we know that peace is antithetical to your existence. You are abominations, against the order of Nature, and we will undo you.
A scream pierced the collective consciousness. An aspect of Nazara, a mind uploaded all of those eons ago, was being...destroyed! No! That was impossible! Ascension was eternal!
WE WILL UNDO YOU, NAZARA.
Another scream. And another, another, and another. Slowly, the consciousness of Nazara dimmed as the entire collective power of the Link was devoted to destroying its mind.
"Confirm the reports, officer!" Nartul Mentus ordered to one of his subordinates, hardly able to believe what was happening. "Then press our advantage and attack the Terminus Systems fleet!"
The change in the battle was subtle at first. The pirate fleet became more sluggish, less coordinated. The Citadel fleet's shots started delivering more damage. Then the Reaper stopped moving, and the wave of good fortune they had experienced became a tsunami.
Half an hour after the Link began its assault on Nazara, two thirds of the invading Terminus Systems fleet was destroyed. Half an hour after that, Nazara's running lights dimmed and finally went out as the last of its mind was obliterated. Cheers rung throughout the Citadel Defense Fleet and the Citadel itself. It had taken the entire strength of every new actor to appear in the galaxy over the last few decades, but the Battle of the Citadel had ended in Reaper defeat.
Yet the victory was pyrrhic. As predicted, devoting their collective brainpower to system hacking and destroying Nazara had deprived the Geth and the Link, respectively, of much of their fighting capability for the near future. Many Alar simply dropped dead, victims of massive brain aneurysms caused by their sacrifice for the Link's assault. Millions of Geth programs were permanently destroyed in counter-hacking attempts. It was not a series of tactics that could be repeated over the course of the war.
But the Battle of the Citadel gave the sapients of the galaxy something that the enemies of the Reapers were often sorely lacking, a vital advantage they would use to great effect:
[With apologies to Transcendent Humanity, from which the basic structure of the Citadel battle was borrowed.]