Chapter 45 – High Stakes Poker

x

Major John K. Shepard

Captain's Cabin

SSV Normandy SR-2

x

Jackie lifted the cigarette to her lips, took a long drag and blew blue smoke up towards the ceiling. She passed it to me, and I stuck it into my mouth with my right hand. My left was holding on tight to hers. The sweat from our frantic coupling had dried and it was a little chilly, even beneath the sheets. We hadn't said anything for a long while. Just her and me, lying side by side, enjoying the warmth and feel of being in each other's company. Outside these walls, a war raged for the soul of the galaxy. But in here, right now, everything was peaceful and quiet and comfortable and still. Everything was perfect.

"It's worse than we thought, isn't it," she said quietly.

"It's about as bad as it gets," I said. "I know you don't like Earth the way I do. But the hell the Reapers brought there was...nightmarish. Overwhelming. I barely escaped."

"How did you?"

So I told her. How they dragged me in for a court martial. How it was rudely interrupted. And how Admiral Anderson helped save my life.

"What next?"

I told her about Hackett's orders to go to Mars. Meeting Liara. Finding the blueprints to something that may or may not be the key to winning the war. How the Cerberus mech had taken out Ashley with one hand. I had expected, but wouldn't have appreciated, some kind of snarky comment about that. Jackie didn't do anything of the sort.

"Is she okay?"

"She took a lot of damage. The last time I saw her, she was still in hospital."

She gestured for me to go on, so I did. About the mission to Menae, to rescue the new turian Primarch. Who happened to be on the ship with us right now. And how the Council had chosen not to act, as usual, and that our last hope was to go over their heads and broker the biggest galactic alliance in history.

"I hope you understand, Jackie," I said at last. "I wanted to come and get you, the minute I left the Citadel. But Palaven was under attack. Menae was about to fall, and the last of the turian Hierarchy with it. Without the Primarch, we wouldn't have the summit. Without the summit, we don't have the support we need to finish building the Crucible, and we might as well be dead."

"People died while you were on Menae," said Jackie. "Honaker, Cai, Wellington, Djokovic. A few more were taken away. Cerberus will do to them what they did to me."

I hung my head and said nothing.

"I know you had a job to do. But they were my students. They trusted me. I told them to stay on the station because I was sure you would come. Would you feel any better if it was any one of your crew?"

"No."

Jackie didn't say anything for a while after that. But she did keep holding on to my hand. I finished my cigarette.

"I'm sorry, Jackie," I said at last.

"You shouldn't be."

Now that was unexpected. I turned my head to look at her and she met my eyes.

"You said you had a job to do. And you were right. This...summit, I can tell it's important. You had to do what you did, even if it meant...my students..."

She squeezed my hand harder.

"I haven't forgotten who the real enemy is. You didn't kill my kids. You didn't take them away. Cerberus did. The Illusive Man did. The whole fucking galaxy is being invaded by monsters from dark space and he still wants to carry on with his sick twisted shit. Do you remember that deal we made?"

"Yes. I promise you, Jackie, we'll find him. Even with this war on, we'll find him."

"And when we do, I want to kill him. Myself."

I brought her hand up to my lips and gave it a kiss.

"Thank you," she added. "And thank you for coming for us. Kahlee's right. We would be dead right now if you hadn't swung in like the big damn hero you are."

She smiled up at me, that sweet gentle smile I was beginning to like more and more. "I guess I should be glad you don't change. You don't change, do you? Ya big marine."

"Oh, hell. You know me, Jackie. I just do the job that's in front of me."

"And why do you do it?"

"So I can come home to you."

She laughed. "Oh you'd like that, wouldn't you boy scout? Big house, 2.4 kids, white picket fence?"

"I won't deny it sounds nice. But think bigger, Jackie. The Verse. The stars. We'll go from one end of this damn galaxy to the other. I want to see it all. And I want to see them with you."

"Jack," she said, rubbing her left hand. "Remember, you said..."

"That I wanted you to marry me? Still do."

Her smile grew wider. She looked so, so happy. I wanted to see that smile on her face every day. I didn't care there was a massive war on. With Jackie by my side, I felt better than I ever had since the Bahak Relay blew up.

I kissed her cheek and rolled out of bed, hunting for my clothes. Jackie watched me.

"Where are you going?"

"Come on," I said, tugging her hand. "You need to see Dr Chakwas. And I need to uh, set a few things straight with my crew. Then I have to hobnob with a turian Primarch. All in a day's work."

I tossed her the clothes she had left lying on the floor and we got dressed quickly. Our break was over. It was back to work. Jackie left for the med-bay. I sat down at my desk and tapped my intercom.

"Specialist Traynor?"

"Yes sir?" came the reply.

"I want you to bring up Ken and Gabby and Greg from Engineering. And tell Joker to come up too."

"Aye aye, sir."

A short while later, my engineering crew, my pilot, and my comms specialist was gathered in my cabin. Traynor made as if to leave, but I stopped her.

"No, no, you stay here Traynor. I want to speak to you too."

"What's this about, sir?" asked Joker. Out of respect for his condition, he was the only one sitting.

"Guys..." I began hesitantly. The younger crew members looked confused. Only Engineer Adams, who had known me the longest, looked as though he knew where I was going with this.

"In my haste to reach Grissom Academy and rescue Jackie, I've not been fair on you guys. I've pushed too hard and asked for too much, even though you perform miracles every day. Traynor," I said, looking at the Comms Specialist.

"Sir?"

"Without you, I wouldn't even have known that the Academy was under attack. I've got a ship full of tech specialists and only you managed to decode the fake turian signal. Thank you."

"Just doing my job sir," she said, looking considerably sunnier.

"Adams, Donnelly, Daniels. I wanted you all on my team because you are the best there is. You do all I ask of you and more. I was too harsh on you earlier. I can't promise it won't happen again, but I'll try my best."

"Ah Major, it's all water under the bridge," said Ken, rubbing the back of his head. "Sure there might be a raised voice or two, but we're all in the same boat aren't we? I mean, literally," he added, and then chuckled at his own joke. Behind him, Gabby rolled her eyes.

"Bickering now and again, that's the highland way," Ken said. "What counts are the big things. You saved us from the damn Collector Base! You told the Council to let us go and gave us another chance to serve on the Normandy. I wouldn't trade that for all the tea in China. And neither would Gabby. Isn't that right, Gabs?"

Gabrielle nodded. "We're doing what we always wanted to do, sir," said the young engineer earnestly. "We're with you to the end. No matter what."

"Alright, my turn now," said Joker. "Come on, Major. Tell me how much you love me. Come on."

"Flight Lieutenant Moreau, you are far too horny for your own good and if you were as half as good as you think you are, you could fly a dreadnought with your feet."

"Go on..."

"Lucky for you then that you really are that good. And you've pulled my ass out of the fire many a time. Thank you, Joker. Keep up the good work."

"Closure! I've achieved closure! This sure makes up for all the times my father never hugged me," said Joker happily, as he and Traynor and Ken and Gabby filed out of my room. Only Adams remained behind.

"Something on your mind, Greg?"

"I gotta say sir – I've served on a fair few ships. And in all my years, I've never seen the Old Man ever apologise for anything. Ever. He could have spaced your visiting family out an airlock and the most you'd expect is that he'd remember it later during your performance review."

"I'm not Navy, I'm a Marine," I said, grinning. Marines might serve on Navy ships and serve beside Navy servicemen but we sure as hell weren't sailors. Us jarheads did things a little differently.

"Maybe a normal ship's captain acts like a distant god all the time. Maybe he has to. But this isn't exactly a normal ship," I added. "When you ask people to follow you to hell and back, you gotta give them a damn good reason to risk their neck. The least I can do is realise when I've been an asshole, and say sorry for it."

Now Adams looked uncomfortable. "Sir, before I leave. I just want to say..."

"Yeah?"

"I'm sorry myself for not joining the crew during your fight against the Collectors. If I could go back and do it over, I should have followed Dr Chakwas and went where you needed me."

"That's all in the past," I said firmly. "I was in a bad place. It would have killed your career."

"What's a career compared to the lives of all those colonists?" asked Adams. It looked like he had been harbouring these thoughts for a while. I knew the best thing to do was to get it out in the open, like draining poison from a wound.

"Adams, listen to me. We've all fucked up before. What matters is what happens now. Now there's a new job, and you're helping me to do it. That's all I care about, and I'm damn glad to have you back."

Adams saluted. "Thank you sir. I'll keep this bird in the air no matter what."

"See that you do, Chief Engineer. Dismissed."

He nodded and left my cabin too. I looked at the closed door, taking comfort in the knowledge that a necessary task had been done, and done well. Then I went over to my clothes locker. The N7 t-shirt and pants just weren't enough for the next task. True, it was still my ship, but like all military men Primarch Victus would respect the trappings of rank.

Blue trousers, the dark blue suit and jacket, and the epaulettes on my shoulders bearing the diamond insignia of an Alliance Major. The Marine Corps rank of Major was the equivalent of a Colonel in most terrestrial armies. The Corps liked to joke that one of our Majors could do the job of a Colonel in any other service branch. I was happy to have been made a Major. My dad had been one. But it wasn't a patch on a Primarch of the Hierarchy.

While I dressed, I called Traynor and asked her to send me the latest report from the Prime Minister's Office. She had her own difficult negotiations with the salarians. Finished, I went down to Bridge, submitted myself to the security check of Privates Campbell and Westmoreland, and headed for the War Room. The Primarch and his men had taken up quarters in a little spare room to the side. I hadn't the heart to tell them Mordin had once used that room to store his collection of viral bio-weapons.

The two turians who stood guard outside the door straightened up when they saw me approach. I nodded at them politely. No sense in throwing your weight around until you really needed to.

"Hello, boys. I'd like a word with Primarch Victus."

"I will see if the Primarch is free to speak to you," said one of the turians. He disappeared into the room while the other one and I engaged in a staring contest. Some things never changed, even with a Reaper invasion on. Bureaucratic bullshit was one of them. Then again, I mused, imagine if the tables were turned. Prime Minister Serra or Admiral Hackett having been rescued from Luna by a turian frigate, temporarily taking up residence there. They'd want to keep whatever dignity they had left.

The Primarch emerged, a tall turian in a suit of nondescript white and gray, his face unreadable. I extended my hand and after a moment's pause, he shook it.

"Primarch, I apologise for not speaking to you sooner. I had an urgent mission to complete."

"I am glad it is finished, Major," said Victus, with hint of reproach in his voice. "I have been keeping up with the casualty reports from Palaven. Our losses are staggering. Entire cities have been wiped from the map. We need to act quickly."

"I agree," I said. "Let's adjourn to the boardroom." The Alliance retrofitters had shrunk the Quantum Entanglement Chamber while the Normandy was in their care, but had added the boardroom to compensate, a glass-enclosed, wood-panelled space intended for crew meetings and debriefs. It was completely sound-proof, and the walls could turn opaque for extra privacy. I supposed it would do for high-level negotiations as well.

"Certainly," said Victus. He nodded at one of his turians, and he fell in step behind us.

"No, sir."

"Excuse me?"

"Our ears only, Primarch Victus," I said, gently but firmly.

"This is unacceptable."

"I believe this will go better if it's just the two of us. Not that I don't trust your man there, fine soldier, but these are matters of galactic importance," I said. "I bargain without a weapon in my hand."

It was an old turian expression that Garrus had mentioned more than once. It meant a desire for complete openness and honesty, a promise that I would tell no lies and hoped to hear none. Victus looked undecided for a moment. Then he ordered the soldier to remain at his post and we entered the boardroom alone.

"It's your ship, Major. Tell me what you have in mind," said the Primarch, taking a seat.

"First of all, you have to understand that what you are asking for is immense. The turians have inflicted tremendous damage on the krogan. Their hatred of your people goes bone deep."

"The enemy of my enemy is my friend," said Victus calmly. "Or so I believe the saying goes. I am certain that with the threat of the Reapers, the krogan will be willing to negotiate."

"This is not about a disagreement of opinions, or personal grudges. This is about blood, Primarch. The oceans of krogan blood that the turians have spilled. The oceans of turian blood that the krogan have spilled."

"What are you saying?"

"You are asking the impossible, sir. Please, reconsider your terms. Even an official announcement of a formal alliance will be a huge morale boost to the Alliance and her people. Just one of your dreadnoughts could turn the tide in a hundred battles being fought by the Alliance Navy right now."

"I cannot. Not before the krogan help us defend Palaven. You need our fleets, and you shall have them...in time. The Empire and the Alliance have never been the best of friends, but we have never truly been vicious enemies either. I am not a fool, Major. I know in times like these, we must stand together or we will all die screaming alike. Our fleets will come to your aid...but I cannot justify abandoning Palaven now to help Earth."

"Your forces are doing a good job of fighting on," I said desperately.

"They are barely holding on," snapped Victus. "By their fingers. More and more die each minute. Millions are harvested and turned against their former allies and friends. We need help, Major! Earth cannot give it. Thessia is unwilling. Sur'kesh is wary. The krogans are the fiercest fighters in the entire galaxy. I need the krogan."

I exhaled, biding my time. It had gotten a little heated, and I didn't want to say the wrong thing. Victus eyed me suspiciously.

"I don't understand your hesitation," said Victus. "You are good friends with the krogan clan chief Urdnot Wrex, according to our intelligence. I am asking you to broker a deal, personally, because I know you have some leverage. It's more than the entire Empire has."

"Sir, it is precisely because I know Wrex that I can tell you the price will be unimaginably high. He is a veteran of the Rebellions, like many scattered throughout the galaxy. He is thoughtful, measured, and wise. He is far more willing to see reason than the next hundred krogan. And if given the choice, even today, he will slaughter the whole turian race, down to the child that was born yesterday, without a second thought."

"That is unfortunate," said Victus. "Because the krogan will not win this war on their own either, no matter how much they strut and boast. They need us almost as much as we need them. I don't care what it takes, I need this deal to happen. What do the krogan want? Planets, colonies, whole star systems? I say we give it to them. What use are a few names on the map when those are already blotted out by the Reapers?"

I leaned back in my chair. We had bumped up against the elephant in the room. I knew the Primarch wouldn't change his mind about the terms of the deal, no matter how hard I argued. It was all a feint to draw him closer to the real reason I needed to have this meeting. I needed to make him see that the time was coming when we would have to face an impossible choice, and I didn't want to be the only one involved in making the final decision.

"You know what the krogan want. What all krogan want," I said softly.

"What, the wholesale destruction of the turians? They shall have it within a year. Only they would not live long enough to dance on our graves."

"No, Primarch. A chance to atone for the sins of your people. The final crime after an eternity of war. The genophage."

The turian slammed his fist down on the table. "NO! That is unthinkable!"

"You said it yourself, I know Wrex. This is what he will ask for, and nothing less. The chance to save the krogan, and write the new chapter of their history himself."

"I will not be the first Primarch to rescue defeat from the jaws of victory! The genophage was necessary, Major. What we did, we did without choice, in the name of peace and sanity!"

"Does this look like victory to you, sir?" I said, calling up an Alliance News Report on Palaven on one of the projection screens. A holographic image of Palaven hung in the air between us, its endless fields of silver charred black and smoking. The Primarch stared at it, his claws digging into the polished wood of the table.

"Does this look like peace? Or sanity?"

Palaven revolved slowly. I wondered if one of the orange blazes on its surface had previously been the Primarch's home. I realised I hadn't looked at a map of Earth since I left it. I was afraid to. The Primarch said nothing.

"The genophage might have been necessary then," I said, trying to remain calm. I had to remember that I was going up against centuries of history and culture and education. In a way, it was as good a method of indoctrination as anything the Reapers had. Repeat something often enough, and it will be taken as fact. Teach it in schools, sing it in churches, chant it in temples, shout it in parade grounds, and it will be taken as gospel. The turians had known for centuries, with utter certainty, that they did what they needed to do against the krogan.

But I had a couple of things working in my favour. One, the utter futility of our situation if this summit didn't work out. And two, that Victus, for all his seeming stubbornness, was something of a maverick. Traditionalists never considered finding a better way. Fortunately, Victus wasn't one of them.

"But that was then," I continued. "The cure for the genophage is necessary today, sir. That is the price we must pay if we want the krogan to fight under our banners."

"You do not know what you are contemplating, Major Shepard," said Victus. "The krogan breed on a scale unlike anything else in the galaxy. Even if we win this war with their help, we will be their slaves after the next. A weakened and exhausted Council cannot hope to resist the resurgent krogan, if they want to commit genocide against us."

"What use is there of fighting the next war, sir? I want us to win this one."

We locked gazes, neither of us willing to give an inch. It was Shanxi all over again. In fact, it was exactly like Shanxi. Not willing to give an inch had led to the First Contact War. Perhaps it was time to start over.

"I don't know if you've met many krogan sir," I said, in a lower tone. "But I believe the reason for their violent, nihilistic ways is because of the genophage. Most do not believe in a better future, so they waste their lives dreaming of revenge and blood. If we cure the genophage, I truly believe the krogan can learn to walk a different path."

Victus stared at me for a long moment. It was the kind of look my old CO used to give me before he declared that I was the biggest idiot he had ever trained or ever will train. It felt rather familiar.

"You are asking me to risk the future of the Empire and its Hierarchy based on your 'gut' feelings and grade-school optimism of multi-species harmony," said Victus at last. You idiot was unspoken, but implied.

"You said I had leverage with the krogan," I answered. "You are correct. Urdnot Wrex is a good friend. If we survive this, and if Wrex survives this, I know that he will drag the krogan kicking and screaming from one road to the other. I'm not asking you to trust me, sir. I'm telling you that I trust him."

"All the krogan? Urdnot Wrex is big, but perhaps not that big," said Victus. Was that a tiny joke? Maybe the first crack in his resolve was showing.

"He is a very big krogan, sir," I said, keeping my face straight.

Victus sighed, and looked again at the hologram of Palaven. With a wave of his hand, he made it vanish.

"We are taking a huge risk," he said. "There are turians who would have my head for even thinking about this. But I cannot deny your logic, Major. I know the salarians like to plan for the next war even before starting the first one, but that is not the turian way. We need to win this one or we are all dead. And I would rather have a grateful ally than a resentful enemy to deal with when we send those Reaper bastards back into deep space."

"Well said, sir."

"And besides, I'm not even sure if a cure is possible," said the Primarch. "Maybe we wouldn't need to worry after all. Just promising to develop one should suffice for now."

"Sir, about that..."

"Are you going to confirm something horrifying for me, Major?"

"I happen to know that a cure does exist. Or at least, it is very close to being completed."

"I should have known the spirits would not be so kind. How do you know this, may I ask? Try not to lie too badly."

"Spectre connections," I lied. "It's classified." The Primarch didn't need to know that Mordin and I had once launched a rescue operation on Tuchanka that turned up a bloody horror of a medical lab, dead krogan piled high, a salarian with a guilty conscience and a few data files that could mean the salvation of the galaxy.

"Indeed," said the Primarch. "When do we hold this summit?"

"Prime Minister Serra of the Alliance will be joining us shortly," I said. "She felt that it was best if she attended in person. The Reapers have not made incursions into the Annos Basin just yet. We plan to hold the summit on Sur'Kesh."

"I see. The Salarian Union. They won't be as understanding as myself, Major Shepard. I'm just glad that I will be in the same room when you tell the Dalatrass that we're thinking of curing the genophage. I want to see the look on her face."

"Thankfully I won't be involved," I said. "I'm no politician. Just an old soldier."

"Ah, Major. And we promised each other not to tell any lies."

With that the Primarch rose from his seat, gave me a bow, and left the boardroom. I was left alone to ponder what he meant by that last remark.

x

Prime Minister Inara Serra

Office of the Prime Minister (Temporary)

Embassy of the Humanity Systems Alliance

The Citadel

x

Inara waited patiently as a small army of servants and aides fluttered around her like birds, pulling on bits of clothing, touching up her face with make-up, accentuating her best features while artfully disguising the marks of utter exhaustion. She was averaging about four hours of sleep a day now, with the rest of her time devoted to her endless tide of responsibilities. The destruction of Arcturus Station and the blockade of the Sol System had left the remnants of the Alliance government bereft of their legions of civil servants and bureaucrats that usually handled most of the grunt work. Even with VIs running at full throttle, she still had to coordinate an absolute avalanche of refugee columns, colony resources, troop movements, and now Hackett's Crucible project.

Udina wasn't much help either, although at least Inara knew for a fact that he was sleeping even less than she did. He was taking almost daily meetings with the rest of the Citadel Council now, growing increasingly angrier with each denied request. So when he reported that the turian Councillor had pitched the idea of a clandestine summit to Shepard, involving the heads of the respective galactic governments and not the Council, the task fell to her to coordinate everything.

Inara had reached out to the asari first. She instinctively felt more comfortable around them as opposed to the rest of the Council races, and had built up an impressive list of contacts from her short time as Ambassador to the Citadel. But when the Reapers had arrived, the asari had not behaved as expected. Inara found that all her hard-won influence, credibility and list of favours counted for little in the face of fear. The Asari Republics had become defensive, and were retreating into the heart of their territories, forgoing a quick strike and a military alliance in favour of waiting, watching and seeing.

You're all fools, she had wanted to scream. The Reapers are unlike anything you've ever faced. All your patience and prudence and wisdom will do nothing in the wake of their advance. But nothing had worked. The asari had simply refused to listen. Inara had more than a few heated discussions with Udina and Hackett about their refusal to turn up at the summit.

But when your sword breaks you draw your dagger, and Inara had reached out to the Salarian Union instead. She thought it was a wild shot in the dark, at first. If the asari were cautious, the salarians were infinitely more so. They had plans within schemes wrapped up in endless contingencies, and although they had shorter lifespans they worked all hours of the day, their minds racing as they sought the perfect, most elegant solution to the problem at hand.

The problem was that the problem at hand defied an easy solution. The salarians had placed their faith in their intelligence networks, their technological wizardry and their clandestine operations, but none of it worked against the Reapers. The Reapers had no secrets to divulge, and those who tried ended up insane or worse. The Reapers defied all known laws of science, and on a technological scale were to the salarians what the salarians were to their ancestors who had once lived in swamps. As Hackett had succinctly put it, the Reapers had rewritten the book of war. All the old certainties were gone. All the rules had been reset.

If this had worried the humans and the turians and the asari, it had devastated the salarians beyond measure. They looked for logic and reason and when faced with an enemy that could not be defined by either, they were cut adrift. Inara, with a lifetime's experience of diplomacy, had grasped that the earliest. The salarians are worried, she had argued, in the face of Udina's cynicism and Hackett's incredulity. The salarians had to be watching the invasions of Earth and Palaven with barely suppressed terror. The two biggest military powers in the galaxy had been overrun, and when the Reapers turned their attention to Sur'Kesh, as they inevitably would, the smaller salarian fleets would hardly slow them down.

The salarians were looking for a friend, and with the turians' capitulation and the asaris' reluctance, Inara was determined to bring them to the human table. An alliance with humanity seemed akin to attaching yourself to an anvil while going swimming, at the moment. But an alliance with the Alliance and the Turian Empire? And on top of that, the krogan clans? That was the kind of sheer firepower the salarians needed right now.

For a human, speaking to a salarian was taxing, even more so in high-level negotiations. But Inara pushed herself and her team to breaking point, talking to prominent salarian leaders and members of their government, both individually and in groups. When she wasn't sleeping or speaking, Inara immersed herself in all the information on salarian culture that the extranet could provide, reading article after article on salarian body language, verbal tells, and cultural contexts. She was determined to make use of every advantage. Little by little, it had worked. While Shepard had been sent to Menae, Inara had managed to secure a meeting with Dalatrass Linron herself for the first time. She had allowed herself the luxury of an extra two hours of sleep the previous night, reasoning that it wouldn't help much if she fell asleep face-first on the table during the meeting. She had still felt like death when she woke up, but a little less so than the previous weeks. Coffee had helped, although at the rate she and her team were drinking it up, and with the uncertainty of future supplies she had made a note to pass a rationing law soon.

"We're nearly done, ma'am," said one of the make-up artists, brushing out Inara's long, flowing black hair. Two more were attending to the train of her gown. For the occasion she had chosen a long one in hues of blue and dark gray-green, after days of research. Being an amphibian species the salarians responded better to earthly, more understated hues. Bright and striking colours tended to attract the attention of predators, unless it meant you were poisonous. Inara hadn't wanted to give the impression that she was reckless, or poisonous.

The finishing touches were complete and the team stepped back to observe their work.

"How do you feel, ma'am?"

"As ready as I'll ever be," said Inara. "Let's leave now, and pray this works."

An honour guard of Alliance soldiers were waiting by her personal transport, saluting when she arrived. There was little threat of a direct attack in the Citadel, but the salarians respected a show of strength. Her escort was a reminder that even bloody and bruised, with Earth gone, humanity still could fight.

Inara tried to calm her mind according to the mantras, detaching herself from the sights and sounds of the Citadel traffic. Calm as still water, she told herself, as her transport approached the ornate building in the Presidium Commons where her meeting was being held.

"Her excellency the Prime Minister of the Humanity Systems Alliance, Inara Serra," she heard someone say as she got out of the transport. Her military escort were already arranged in lines, standing perfectly still. There were no members of the press or even curious onlookers. The salarians had evidently gone to great lengths to keep the meeting a secret. She recognised one of them waiting for her, Marquis Mon Rantullos, the Governor of the Garm Bel Iblis cluster. She shook his hand and smiled.

"It's wonderful to see you again, Mon," she said. "Thank you so much for making this happen."

"I am pleased to be of service, Madam Prime Minister," he said, blinking quickly. "In these dark times we must do all we can to bring our peoples closer together, not drive them further apart."

"I do so agree. And please, I've told you before. Call me Inara."

"Very well, Inara. Please, follow me."

Inara had brought along a team of aides, who trailed after the salarians. While normally she preferred one-on-ones with just one assistant to help take notes, the salarians attached greater importance to a larger retinue. Just as the Dalatrass was the undisputed leader of billions of salarians, Inara represented the multitude of humanity too, and her team was a reminder of that. Every consular staff and secretary and stenographer she could spare had been rounded up and told to put on their most formal attire for the meeting.

Marquis Rantullos led the group to a large, airy chamber with a big table in the middle, and seats all around the room. The furnishings and decorations were expensive and ornate, although more to salarian tastes. There was a small water fountain in the corner of the room, its bubbling noise making the atmosphere feel more comfortable. The salarians and the humans settled down, accepting coffee and other drinks from waiting attendants.

Dalatrass Linron rarely left Sur'Kesh, and would be attending the meeting via hologram. But despite the light years that separated them, Inara was certain that Linron would be observing her every move. Every word out of her mouth, every twitch and gesture. Inara hoped she was up to the task.

The attendants left the room and closed the large double doors. Marquis Ratullos pressed a few buttons, and an image of the Dalatrass appeared in the room, glowing faintly green. Inara rose first and bowed deeply, both hands pressed together. "Dalatrass Salamunos Linron, I thank you for this meeting. I hope we will make satisfactory progress in our talks today."

The Dalatrass inclined her head. "Your excellency, I am likewise honoured. Please, let us begin."

Inara laid out her terms. The salarians were invited to join a military alliance together with the turians and the humans. The Reapers were threatening all of known space, and unless the galaxy's council races displayed solidarity in the face of fire, they would be lost.

The salarians in the room objected to a hundred little details, which Inara dealt with quickly and efficiently. Despite the presence of her aides, who occasionally handed her a data file now and then, Inara was the only one speaking for the humans. This was calculated to give the impression she was in total control of the situation.

While this was going on, the Dalatrass watched everything and everyone in silence. No doubt this was all for show, a testing of the waters. The Dalatrass wanted to size her up before she decided anything, and her decision would be the only one that mattered.

A salarian raised a query about the asari. Why weren't they at the meeting? Why wouldn't they be included in this alliance?

"The asari have unfortunately decided that waiting is preferable to action. But you have seen the folly of this course of action for yourself, my lords. The Reapers have taken Earth. They are about to take Palaven. They will not stop there. They will overrun Thessia and Sur'Kesh itself, and take every last man, woman and child in the galaxy. This is a matter of life and death, and we must act."

She let that sink in for a while, and then continued. "That is why we would welcome your assistance and expertise. A formal alliance between the Turian Empire and the Humanity Systems Alliance would represent the biggest combined military force in the galaxy, even now. We would welcome the addition of the strength of the Salarian Union in this dark hour."

There. An appeal to strength. She hoped it would be enough.

Another salarian asked why the Council was being kept out of the loop. Inara pointed out that the Council had been warned repeatedly about the threat of the Reapers by Spectre Shepard, and they had chosen to ignore his warnings, to their cost. Even with the Reaper invasion, they still had not taken decisive action. Where the Council had failed, the governments of the galaxy had to step up instead.

Inara noticed a subtle shift in the mood of the room. Although it was bold, she knew it was the right thing to say. The Council had indeed been warned, and the Council wasn't doing anything. The salarians wanted someone to do something, and they were ready to grasp the first lifeline available.

Another salarian asked about the rest of the Citadel races, the elcor and hanar, drell and volus, even the quarians and the vorcha. Inara pointed out that if three of the four Council races allied together, the rest would surely follow.

But despite the encouraging signs, the Dalatrass had not said a word. Although Inara directed most of her speech to her, she remained silent and still. It was during a natural pause in the negotiations when she finally said something.

"Prime Minister, if I may. This proposed alliance with the turians, has it already been confirmed?"

Damnit. "No, Dalatrass. That will be the purpose of the summit."

"I see. Presumably the turians have their own demands for such an alliance. What are they?"

Damnit, she knows. Of course she knows. "Major Shepard has returned from Palaven, having successfully extracted the new turian Primarch. He will be present at the summit and we will discuss the terms there."

The Dalatrass gave her a long, searching look. "Are we to expect other participants at this summit?"

No choice but the truth. "Yes. The chief of the krogan Clan Urdnot, Urdnot Wrex. He will speak on behalf of the krogan."

Every salarian in the room looked shocked. There were a few gasps. But the Dalatrass merely nodded her head.

"Of course. When a menace from dark space threatens us all, we turn to the krogan. The salarians have been down this road before, your excellency. The consequences were dire."

"The krogan are the best warriors in the galaxy, as the salarian people once understood. It would be utter folly to leave them by the wayside now," said Inara. She forced her hands to remain still, and folded them quietly in her lap.

"We uplifted the krogan to wage war. That is all they know because it's all we wanted them to know."

"And we are in the middle of the biggest war in galactic history. You may not like or trust the krogan, Dalatrass, but do not make the mistake of confusing them for the Reapers. A krogan can be reasoned with, even if it is difficult. A krogan can negotiate. The Reapers never will."

"Do not presume to lecture me, your excellency." The first flash of real emotion from the Dalatrass. The other salarians were cowering. The humans were all looking at her, hoping against hope for a miracle.

All or nothing. "I am reminding you of a fact, your honour. The time for guesswork and doubletalk is over. The time for action based on facts begins now. The fact of the matter is that your salarian Councillor did not believe the warnings of Major Shepard of the Reaper invasion. The fact of the matter is that no salarian has ever thwarted a Reaper. Major Shepard, of the Alliance, has done so twice. Abandon us at this hour and the salarians will quickly stand alone. But with the help of humanity, the turians and yes, the krogan, we have a chance of survival. And with all of us together, the asari will rally to our cause sooner rather than later."

The salarian Dalatrass, although young by human standards, was a master political manipulator. There were a few rumours about how exactly she managed to win the last election which put her in control of the powerful Linron family bloodline. Often 'poison' and 'blackmail' was mentioned. She was cunning and ruthless and had a wealth of secrets at her finger tips. On any other day, Inara's headstrong argument would have doomed the chances of the summit before it even began.

But not this day. Two things had changed the galaxy. The Reapers. And Shepard. For all her resources, the Dalatrass could not find a way to manipulate either. Because of that, she had no choice.

"Very well then," said the Dalatrass, after a pause long enough to make everyone in the room feel really uncomfortable. "I will represent the Salarian Union at this summit of yours. Where is it to be held?"

"In deference to salarian tradition, we feel it is best if we held the summit on Sur'Kesh. The Reapers have not yet entered the Annos Basin, and I have faith in the Union's capabilities to assure our safety and secrecy," said Inara. She could feel the relief from her staff around her. The salarians had formally agreed to attend the summit. It was a victory for everything they had been working towards.

Don't celebrate yet, she wanted to say. But it wasn't their fault. They didn't know what she knew.

"I agree," said the Dalatrass. "We shall convene on Sur'Kesh within one standard week. The coordinates of the exact location of our meeting place shall be given to you upon entry in the Annos Basin."

"Thank you, Dalatrass. I will be pleased to meet you in person."

"Likewise," said the Dalatrass shortly. "Goodbye, Prime Minister." Her hologram disappeared. The salarians rose from their places and began shaking hands with their human counterparts. Inara smiled and chatted with the best of them. But her mind was still working overtime.

She had made the right call. According to her research, salarian Dalatrasses rarely left the homeworld, and every salarian felt more comfortable in an environment they could control. A summit on Sur'Kesh would mean that every last detail would be selected and carefully shaped by the salarians. They would feel far more at ease.

But that would change soon, if Shepard's report was to be believed. The salarians had the best codebreakers and spies in the galaxy. Inara would not put it past them to be monitoring Alliance communications, even now. Shepard had used the old trick of hiding his message in plain sight. The report was heavily encrypted, of course. But the tendency of a codebreaker was to assume that once he got past the technical barriers, the message was the plain truth. Using human cultural touchstones and ancient jargon, Shepard had buried his real report under a routine one. Inara hoped it would be enough to disguise his actual message.

Once translated, Shepard had made it clear that the Primarch was not budging from his initial demands. And his best guess of what the krogan chief, Urdnot Wrex, would demand for his support.

The cure for the genophage.

Inara sipped champagne and continued smiling as she listened to Marquis Rantullos's congratulations. She had another mountain to climb, and she could only hope she was up to the job.

xxxx

It was later. Inara was at her desk, eating a late dinner of sushi while reading a logistics report. It was quiet in the office, most of the staff had went home. The ones who hadn't were practically living in the embassy anyway, snoring on couches in spare rooms.

She was chewing despondently on eel and soggy rice when a buzz from her personal communicator caught her attention. It was Hackett. Inara accepted the call and he appeared in front of her, looking spotless in uniform as always.

"Prime Minister," he said, saluting. Inara nodded, too tired to even raise her arm.

"Hi Steven."

"Bad day?"

"Better than most, actually. We're just sorting out the details of this trip to the Annos Basin."

"I called to discuss that, as a matter of fact," said Hackett. "In addition to travelling on the SSV Edinburgh, you will be escorted by one of our frigate wolfpacks."

"I thought going there in one cruiser wouldn't attract attention," said Inara.

"Yes, but your safety is of the utmost importance, ma'am. And to be perfectly honest with you, I need to deploy the frigates to missions in nearby systems anyway. They're refueling and restocking on the Citadel right now, and will be ready to leave by tomorrow evening."

"Well I can't say no to that. Which one is it?"

"From our new World War II squadron, ma'am. These frigates have been outfitted with the latest in stealth capabilities, Thanix-cannons and cyclonic barrier shielding technology. The Khalkin Gol, El Alamein, Zhijiang, Midway and Stalingrad will be your escorts."

"Good squad?"

"One of our best. The Stalingrad returned from Sanctum recently. Destroyed a Cerberus laboratory there and retrieved valuable intel. We're making use of it here at the project."

The Crucible Project, the biggest technical undertaking in galactic history. Hackett was in charge, overseeing all operations. No one knew exactly where he was, not even her. But a tidal wave of money, men and resources flowed towards him every day. Hackett had made the call to concentrate on the project instead of building more fleets and raising more armies, and Inara had deferred to his judgment. Everything that could be of use was being called into service for the gigantic weapon that Dr Liara T'soni had named the galaxy's last hope against the Reapers.

"It's settled then. Has Shepard invited the krogan?" It was decided that Shepard would be the one to offer the summit invitation to Clan Urdnot. As Udina had pointed out, he knew the old chief the best.

"Yes, ma'am. Urdnot Wrex is en route and will reach the Annos Basin before you do."

"Good, I'd like him to get used to things before I meet him."

She was speaking to Hackett on her personal communicator, and in the heart of the human embassy, at the height of privacy and security. But even here, Inara still refrained from speaking openly about the genophage.

"Has Shepard briefed you about possible krogan demands?" she asked.

"Yes," said Hackett nodding to show that he understood.

"And what do you think?"

"I agree with him, ma'am," said Hackett. "Without the krogan we don't have the turians. Without the turians we're dead anyway. It'd be nice to have the salarians on board, maybe we could then convince the asari, but right now what I need is extra cover for the project. Third and Fifth fleets haven't been restored to full strength yet, and if the Reapers knock on our door we're sitting ducks. A turian fleet parked outside my window would be a very comforting sight."

Inara laughed. "What a long way we've come from Shanxi, to be able to say that."

"War makes for strange bedfellows," agreed Hackett.

"I'll be the one to thrash it out with the salarians then," said Inara, rubbing her temples. "Merciful Buddha, I feel like I'm walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon sometimes. One wrong move and..."

"You're doing a damn fine job, ma'am," said Hackett firmly. "Never doubt that. I knew Shastri, and believe me when I say he would be proud of what you've accomplished, and what you continue to do every day."

Inara was touched by Hackett's fierce conviction. "Thank you, Steven."

"And don't forget about our ace in the hole – John Kennedy Shepard. He's becoming more than a hero, according to my propaganda reports. Stuck his face on a poster and our recruitment drives have been soaring," said Hackett.

"Normally I couldn't give a fig for the song and dance monkeys, but Shepard has proven time and again that he's the real deal. He knows better than anyone the enemy that we're fighting, and he has better connections to the movers and shakers of the galaxy than anyone. I don't even think he's realised it yet. But he's in touch with the chief of the krogan clans, a turian military bigwig, a quarian admiral, the best Prothean expert in the galaxy...Shepard is our skeleton key, our Rosetta Stone. He managed to get a bunch of lunatics to follow him into the Omega 4 Relay and back. With his help, we'll sort out these alliances and pull everyone together, kicking and screaming."

Inara nodded, feeling better. Hackett was right.

"I'll have to promote him eventually, you know," she said in a lighter tone. "Can't have a mere Major rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers of the galaxy."

"Ma'am, if Shepard does half of what I think he can do for us by the end of this war, you'll run out of ranks."

Inara laughed, again. The sound of it was unfamiliar, when was the last time she had the chance to laugh? But it felt good, like a refreshing rain after a hot day.

"Thank you, Steven. Take care."

"You too, ma'am. Hackett out."

Inara got up from her chair and headed down the hall to her room and her wonderfully soft bed. She was not looking forward to making best friends out of the krogan and salarians. But if it meant she could get more than one decent night's sleep on the Edinburgh on the trip there and back again,it would be worth it.

x

Major John K. Shepard

Med Bay

SSV Normandy SR-2

x

No matter the time and place, whether you were a six year old kid going for a routine check-up or a grown soldier waiting in a trauma room, a trip to the doctor's office was never fun. Kasumi had once said she noticed not many people went into the Med Bay to talk with Dr Chakwas. The doctor was naturally reserved, of course, but perhaps the real reason was that people just didn't like going to the Med Bay. Despite the great advancements in technology, it still wasn't what you'd call a fun experience.

Jackie was sitting on a chair, one leg over the other, watching Karin as she looked through her files. I was behind her, leaning on one of the operating beds. Jackie had been through a round of tests and she'd asked me to be there during her appointment.

"Jackie, before we begin I'd like to make sure that you've asked John to be present. The doctor-patient confidentiality law is rather strict about this sort of thing," said Karin.

"Yeah," she said. She reached for my hand and I took it.

"Very well then. I've run the usual battery of biotic and neurological tests. We don't have a full medical facility on board ship, of course, but fortunately I still have your records from the days of the Collector mission," said Karin.

"Give it to me straight, doc," said Jackie.

"You said you had been using your biotic abilities sparingly during your time at Grissom Academy. It's definitely helped, although the tests show that there still has been a noticeable degree of motor-neuron degradation."

Silence from the two of us. Our hopes had been dashed. It wasn't getting better on its own.

"There are some treatments I can prescribe, but in my professional opinion the best thing for you is to refrain from using your biotics entirely," said Karin at last.

"But we're in a war," said Jackie. "If I don't fight, I'm already dead."

"If you continue straining yourself Jackie, you'll risk total loss of your higher brain functions, limb control or even total paralysis. Cerberus's procedures were brutal, prioritising strength and power of your biotics at the expense of your overall health."

"Heh. You don't say."

"Isn't there anything else we can do, Karin?" I asked.

"When I was at Alliance R&D I heard there was a division working on prototypes of a new generation of biotic implants," she said. "They were making good progress, but with the war on...I'm not sure if it's still ongoing."

"Do you think Admiral Hackett would know more about this?"

"I'm not sure. It's possible."

"Then I'll ask him if there's anything he can do," I said.

"That's a good idea. In the meantime Jackie, I'll go through with you the treatments we can do to slow down the worst of the effects."

"Alright." Jackie looked at me. "Jack, can you wait for me back in your room? There's something I need to tell you."

"Sure," I said. "Thank you, Karin," I said to my Medical Officer.

"You're welcome. I'll do everything in my power to help with Jackie's condition," she said. I nodded and left the Med Bay, heading upstairs. I passed by some of the kids from Grissom Academy, eating in the mess. One of them waved cheerfully at me, and I did the same. The kids and Kahlee Sanders would be travelling back into Alliance space on the SSV Edinburgh, currently en route to Sur'Kesh with the Prime Minister on board.

Once in my cabin, I sat down on the edge of my bed and stared at nothing. It looked like things were getting worse. I wanted Jackie to fight by my side, just like old times. But I couldn't ask her to put herself in even more danger and at even more risk.

The door opened and Jackie walked in. She flopped backwards on my bed and stared up at the ceiling. I lay back down so I was beside her.

"So I was thinking...Kahlee seems like a nice person," I said.

"She is," said Jackie. "She's also a good person. Not seen too many of those."

"I think Anderson and her might be old flames. I've heard rumours..."

"Seriously? Hmm. You know, I'm not surprised."

"I'll tell him the next time I get the chance to talk to him," I said. "He'd like to hear she's ok."

"Kahlee was the one who suggested that I take it easy with the biotics," she said. "Doc reckons it helped a lot."

"I'm contacting Hackett as soon as he's available," I said. "If there's something, anything the Alliance has that could help you, we'll get it."

"Even with this big war on?"

"Even with this big war on. Priorities, remember?"

"What happens if you have some important mission to get done?"

"Then I'll call in a few favours. The first thing any officer learns is delegation."

We held hands, listening to the hum of the ship.

"Do you want to help Hackett out on the Crucible?" I asked. "It's as safe as anywhere in the galaxy, right now. And you needn't use your biotics."

"Yeah? And what fuckin' use I'd be without my biotics?" she said. "Hold a hammer and knock in a few nails?"

"I'm sure he can find something for you," I said, stung at her sharpness. "But it's just a thought."

"Jack. I've said it before, remember? This is my decision."

"I know..."

"I want to fight. I have to fight. Cerberus. The goddamn Reapers."

"You'll kill yourself," I said quietly.

"You're under a death sentence every time you put on your armour and step outside this ship," she said. "But you do it anyway."

"That's different."

"Yeah? How?"

I couldn't think of anything to say.

"Do you want to come back then? Help me fight?" I asked, after a period of silence. It was more than I dared to hope.

"Yes. I do. Even with this...thing...on my fuckin' brain, I want to be there and watch your back the next time you throw yourself into a hail of bullets. But I can't. Not right now."

"What do you mean?" I asked, feeling uneasy. I had a feeling I wasn't going to like the answer.

Jackie sat up. "When that Alliance ship comes to take Kahlee and the kids off your hands, I'm going with them."

"What? Why?"

"Because they'll die out there without me. They're powerful, but barely trained. And the Alliance wants to throw them into the fight? I can't stop them from going. I've tried. So I'm going to follow them and make sure they don't get blown up."

I struggled to fight the tide of bitter, almost childish resentment. My girl was being taken away from me again, just when I got her back. There was a long and lonely road ahead, and I would have to walk it without her. But the mean little selfish impulse died, thankfully, after I thought it through.

Jackie wasn't a prize to be claimed, and no one was taking her away. She was choosing to sacrifice her own needs and wants for people other than herself. She had slowly, painfully, learned how to do that with my help. To oppose her decision now would be about the most hypocritical thing I could have done.

I sat up too and gave her a hug. I felt her twitch from surprise, then she hugged me back tight.

"You've changed more than I ever thought you could."

"Jack?"

"I'm proud of you, Jackie. I hate that you're going away. But you're right about the kids. With you there, they won't come to any harm. You won't allow it."

"Damn right I won't."

I let her go and just looked at her. I wanted this moment to last forever. Just Jackie and me in my ship, looking at the determined set of her chin, the striking lines of her face, her big brown eyes that had so much emotion in them, so much fire. A couple of years ago, she wouldn't have lost sleep over the deaths of innocent children. Now she was willing to risk herself to look out for a few kids.

"You do the best you can. You don't take risks and you stay safe. And you call me every day."

"I'll call you whenever I can. Or write when I can't. Jack...are you sure you're okay with this?"

"No," I said simply. "Of course I'm not. If it was up to me, I'd want you right here beside me. Or somewhere safe, far away from all this. But it's not up to me. And if I'm serving in this war, you've got a right to serve to, however you want to."

"Thank you," said Jackie, leaning her head on my shoulder. "I have to do this, y'know? I feel like it's something I have to do."

"Rescuing biotic kids from a horrible fate? Sticking around to make sure they're well-treated? Teaching them everything you know and helping them to achieve much more than they ever thought possible? I think I might know something about that. Just a little bit," I deadpanned. Jackie laughed.

"We've got some time before the top brass arrives..." I began.

"Enough time for a proper goodbye," she said, diving on top of me.