AN: Sorry for the long wait. Hope my readers enjoy.

The Mass Effect Age

Chapter 6: Returns and Machinations

Turian cruiser approaching Shanxi Prime

Aboard the turian cruiser a group of humans sat waiting in one of the cargo bays that had been repurposed for holding them prisoner. They were all prisoners of war and many of them had been taken for interrogation once or twice. More than a few had been dragged back with more than a fair share of bruises for the few medics that were in the compartment to patch up.

However one of the human POWs was not Earth Force. He was a mercenary employed by a MegaCorp that had unearthed some sort of unknown alien artefact on Shanxi, just outside the main colony, and which just so happened to be right next to the Spaceport which was invaded by the turians. Like a fool he had stayed with the rest of his squad and defended the dig site and had been overrun in the first few hours of the attack. Most of his squad had been killed and he and one other, Eva Core`, had managed to get deeper into the dig site and hunkered down in it like a makeshift foxhole.

He had noticed a strange green glow coming from the artefact which grabbed both his and Eva's attention. Their mistake was to look at it directly and both were hit with a strange green energy, and he experienced a wave of images and sounds of death and destruction. More than either of them had seen in both their lifetimes, and Jack Harper had fought for Earth Force during the Dilgar War and had seen the horrors of the Balos campaign up close and personal. After that the artefact exploded and knocked both mercenaries out.

Afterwards Jack had awoken hours later on an alien warship, most likely being shipped off to some POW camp for the remainder of the war, but soon after they had been told by an alien officer, a turian lieutenant named Victus, that the conflict was over and that they were being shipped back to Shanxi. Harper didn't believe a word the alien said until he set foot on an Earth Alliance world, ship or star-base, but he saw the hope kindle in the eyes of the men in the hold and held his peace. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Soon enough the same lieutenant that informed them the conflict was over came back with a squad of armed guards and motioned for the prisoners to step out. "You are now being released back to your people!" he said to the POWs in his flanging speech.

"How do we know that this isn't some sort of trick?" Harper asked. "And where's my partner, Eva Coré?" he demanded once again.

"This is no trick," said a human voice and the closest human near the door called out, "Attention, Commander on deck," and the Earth Force personnel snapped to attention. The Earth Force officer came in and revealed himself to be Commander Williams, military governor of Shanxi colony in a freshly washed and pressed uniform and looked over the men with a critical eye, noting the state they were in.

"At ease, gentlemen," he said and everyone relaxed, but Jack was still suspicious. "In answer to your question, mister Harper, your partner is with the female POWs. The turians segregated the sexes from each other. Seems to be their SOP. They've already been offloaded. You people are next to be offloaded onto Shanxi Prime, where you will be debriefed and medically examined."

Harper picked up his old leather jacket from the cot he had been assigned to ever since his capture and followed the rest of the POWs out of the cargo bay and into the corridors, giving the turian soldier a cold stare as he left. All he could see was a slight twitch of Victus's mandibles. It didn't seem like much of a reaction, but right now Jack would take that little victory for what it was.

((((((The Mass-Effect Age)))))

Shanxi Prime

On the catwalks of the customs area a number of civilians and military personnel waited with baited breath as the electronic announcer announced the arrival of the POWs from the turian cruiser. Soon enough the POWs came in to a much elated crowd's jubilation. Some perked up and managed to wave back to the crowd, but most could only smile back at the crowd. Not far away Matriarch Benezia watched the proceedings with Mister Sheridan. Sheridan was smiling brightly while Benezia was only showing a polite diplomat's smile, betraying extremely little.

Soon enough though Sheridan quickly slipped into his diplomat role and put his poker face back on as he regarded the both beautiful and regal Asari Matriarch standing beside him. "Shall we return to our discussions, Matriarch?"

"Yes," she replied.

They quickly returned to the meeting room they had been assigned and resumed their negotiations, and Sheridan couldn't help but wonder if the Asari had a game similar to poker, or if she was simply the more experienced diplomat, given that from what little cultural information had been both scrounged up from the computers of the downed turian warships and the little bit of cultural information that had been given by the Asari themselves, Matriarch Benezia was nearing her one thousandth birthday and well into the matriarch stage of her life.

"So your people are willing to build a diplomatic station in neutral territory, this Babylon project?" she queried.

"Yes, provided we can get more than just the two of our civilizations to agree to join in. The Earth Alliance is willing to provide the station, most likely it'll be similar to Arcturus Prime," Sheridan answered as he worked the touch screen built into the table in front of him. Moments later the lights dimmed slightly a small scale hologram of a large space station under construction. It had a basic shape of a large cylinder with an outer ring that rotated counter to the inner cylinder, and according to the scale it was roughly over 16 kilometres long and had a diameter of less than 2 kilometres.

Benezia was once again impressed by this young race. The station the human diplomat had just shown was equal in scale to an asari military starbase that orbited her home world. She showed nothing as she replied. "Interesting design, though it is not on the same scale as the Citadel." She worked her omnitool and brought up a hologram of her own. "The Citadel is, by your measurements, 44 kilometres long and 12 kilometres in diameter, and has a population of over 13 million people, though over half of it is in transit. It is both the cultural and political hub of Citadel Space. It might be more cost efficient to use the Citadel as a neutral meeting place instead of building an expensive, and dare I say it, primitive space station to act as neutral territory."

Sheridan was not surprised by Benezia's little revelation, having studied the public codex recovered from the turian fleet, but instantly shot back. "My government, or any of the governments on this side of the Mass Relay, will never accept the conditions you demand for an embassy. We on the other hand have good relations with the Centauri Republic, the Narn Regime and most of the League of Non-Aligned Worlds. If we build a space station in neutral territory most, if not all, those races would come. It would be a truly neutral meeting place between every known sentient species in the galaxy."

This human seems to have the answer to just about everything! "Now that we have exchanged POWs shall we work out the details of what exactly you would consider reasonable compensation?"

Sheridan nodded. "I assume that the captain responsible for the attack on the EAS Amundsen is on his way?"

"Yes, he is scheduled to arrive within a few days. His name is Desolas Arterius, one of the youngest captains in the Turian Hierarchy. He had a promising career before this incident. May I ask what sort of sentence he could expect?"

This time Sheridan had to think it over. "Well, it's up to the prosecutor, judge and a ten person jury. At worst he could receive the Death of Personality to possibly as little as 15 years in prison."

"Then you should know, if you haven't already found out, that unlike your or my species turians are a dextro based life-forms and require completely different food than what you could possibly provide." Her brow tightened up slightly. "What is this 'Death of Personality?"

"It's just a fancy way of saying we mindwipe the criminal and replace their memories with new ones. By destroying the memories of the criminal you destroy the personality that committed the crime. It's our replacement for the death penalty."

"Sounds reasonable," she said evenly, though the thought of a mindwipe terrified her. "I would ask that we, the Asari Republics, handle his incarceration. We are far better equipped to handle a turian prisoner."

"I'm sorry, but EarthGov will never go along with that. Besides we're more than capable of meeting his dietary requirements. Nutrient paste might not be the most palatable foodstuff in the galaxy, but it's cheap and can be easily modified to a species needs. He isn't the first alien we've incarcerated."

"Very well. Would you accept element zero as payment for the reparations?" she asked.

Sheridan smiled. "That's a start." He slid forward an electronic pad. "Here's what we might consider fair compensation. It should compensate us for the damage caused to Shanxi and Earth Force."

Benezia's brow rose up in surprise. To her what the humans were demanding was expensive, but not completely unreasonable. "I need to discuss this with the Citadel Council. I cannot guarantee that the turians will agree to all of this. This is enough element zero to construct more than five dreadnought sized element zero cores. I may be able to make them agree to one, possibly two, but five? I don't think so. The platinum and iridium however is easy enough for them to part with. Maybe your government could accept a larger amount of those two elements?"

"Depends upon how much they're willing to part with. I may be able to get EarthGov to decrease their element zero demand, but don't count on it." He took a quick sip of water. "Maybe we can negotiate a payment plan..."

((((((The Mass-Effect Age)))))

Minbar, Minbari Federation

Tuzenor, Anla'Shok HQ

Anla'Shok Na Lenonn had just arrived back on Minbar and his old heart sang in happiness as he saw several workers from the local Worker Caste Clans were doing much needed repair and maintenance work to the ships housed in the Anla'Shok HQ hangar. There were only a few ships in the Anla'Shok's employ and most of them were old and in need of replacing. He smiled as he looked over the closest ship. A Shu-Nali class corvette, one of the new ships promised by Satai Dukhat. Before it stood two minbari gentlemen. One was tall and lanky, much like one of the Religious Caste while the other was slightly shorter, but with a much more powerful build, indicative of a Warrior Caste background.

"Sech Turval, Sech Durhan, I see my two old friends are admiring the latest addition to our small order?" he greeted and playfully asked.

"It is nice that our order is finally getting the support it has needed for the last few decades," said Sech Durhan.

"Now all we need are some new recruits. It will be good to teach again," said Sech Turval.

"Yes, which will be under yours, Sech Turval, and my remit. Durhan, your mission will be to organize our forces and begin to observe the younger races, in particular a race known as humans," said Lenonn, much to the surprise of his fellow Rangers.

"It will take some time to get a full crew. The Warrior Caste won't let any of their people leave the Main Fleet any time soon with the threat of the Shadows on the horizon, and most Worker and Religious Caste crews are inexperienced, especially since they are not given the same level of training as the Warrior crews," Durhan cautioned.

"Then bring them up to speed. Besides, the missions I'm going to be sending you on is going to be mostly reconnaissance at first and make some discrete enquires among the older League worlds," countered Lenonn.

Durhan grumbled slightly. "On the job training. You know that I have very little patience with wet beneath the crest trainees!"

"Then you'd better get started!" said Lenonn, which Durhan responded with a good grumble, muttering under his breath a number of choice Warrior Caste epitaphs.

As Durhan walked away he hid a smile from his two older friends, relishing the opportunity of whipping several young 'victims' into shape. He had to make a few quick calls to some old friends he had in the Worker and Religious Caste Fleet Commands.

((((((The Mass-Effect Age)))))

Earth Alliance Space

Jericho System

Three weeks had gone by since the Liandra, the newest addition to the Anla'Shok's meagre space forces, left Minbar to finally reach a system of the Earth Alliance. Durhan had been waiting a long time for this since they had first travelled to one of the Minbari Federation's oldest acquaintances, the Markab Theocracy, to get accurate star maps to human space, and were now observing the human's closest outpost to minbari space.

The Jericho system was small one, with a single gas giant that orbited close to its parent star, a G-type, with three smaller rocky planets. The one after the gas giant was a massive rock in space nearly three times greater in circumference to Minbar and had roughly five times the mass. The humans had a number of small wheel shaped rotating space stations orbiting it and small craft were periodically coming and going from the planet. The humans were obviously strip-mining the rock of its resources.

What interested the minbari was the third planet in the system. It appeared to be a relatively young colony, but already it had some impressive defences, for a younger race. A squadron of small X-shaped fighters came within the Liandra's passive sensor range and a full silhouette quickly materialized in the central holo-tank of the bridge.

"What an ugly little fighter," commented the pilot of the ship.

Durhan smiled at the young warrior's impudence. "Ugly it may be, young one, but it seems that when it comes to war-craft the only consideration they care about is function, not form. Case in point is their Nova-class dreadnought." He pulled up a silhouette of a Nova that was in orbit flanked by a quartet of Odyssey-class corvettes, a vessel roughly the same size of the Liandra, but bulkier, heavier and much slower. The dreadnought's IFF-code, which was relatively easy for the Liandra's computers to decode, identified the ship as the EAS Repulse.

"As ugly a flying brick as I've ever seen, but look at the number and types of weapons arrays that ship carries. Even a centauri Primus-class battlecruiser would be wary of going up against that," said Durhan as he appreciated the raw brutality of the design.

A warning chime sounded as suddenly the small formation of four human fighters they had been tracking disappeared from scanners for a second, only to reappear a couple of kilometres off the Liandra's starboard bow.

"Unidentified vessel, you have entered Earth Alliance space, identify yourselves immediately, or be fired upon," challenged the lead fighter, at the same time as they sent over the first contact package.

"How did they do that? Those can't be the same fighters we've been tracking!" one of the younger crewmembers exclaimed.

"Calm yourselves, young ones," said Durhan sternly. "Remember what I told you, the humans have discovered a way to travel faster than light in normal space. Send a reply back in interlac, identify us as the minbari vessel Liandra on a fact finding mission and send along our language codes on a sub-channel."

The young minbari complied and worked quickly. Moments after the transmission was sent a reply came, though this time it was the EAS Repulse who responded.

"This is Captain Marco Ramsey of the EAS Repulse confirming receipt of transmission, and on behalf of the Earth Alliance welcome to the Jericho system. Please be aware that the EarthForce Navy is at DEFCON 3 in this sector, so your ship will be under escort during your stay in Earth Alliance space."

Durhan's eyes narrowed at the human captain's explanation, even as two of the smaller corvettes accelerated to 0.2 C faster than the Liandra could at full burn, which shocked everyone on the bridge.

"This Mass Effect technology they discovered must have granted the humans with a massive technological boon," Durhan mused as the two corvettes took up escort positions alongside.

What followed was a lengthy wait in which several high power tachyon transmissions were sent from the Repulse, most likely informing their government of their arrival as well as recalling all ships in the area. Minutes later after making contact a six ship echelon of human warships jumped out of hyperspace through the local jump gate. A pair of Hyperion-class cruisers escorted by four Artemis-class frigates, a stout but sturdy vessel armed primarily with rail-gun turrets.

The worker and religious caste crewmembers were observing the humans with both respect and a little bit of fear, remembering the information briefing they had received from the Anla'Shok before they began this mission. The one warrior caste crewmember on the bridge, the weapons officer, only showed disdain for what he considered a primitive species whose warships didn't deserve the title.

"Why are we contacting this species? They are a young race with barely any technology greater than our own." Durhan's eyes narrowed at the young warrior's arrogance.

"Mind your attitude, young one. We are here as the eyes and ears of our people, and on this occasion the voice our people. Do I need to remind you that our mission orders come directly from Anla'Shok Na Lenonn?"

The chastised warrior bowed. "I meant no offence, Shok-na Durhan."

Durhan nodded back. "None taken. Just remember to keep a civil tongue while we're talking to this young race."

((((((The Mass-Effect Age)))))

Shanxi System

Shanxi Prime

A weary Jack Harper stepped out of a transport tube and onto the Primary Corridor of the station, an open area of the Orion-class space-station that would double as an open bazaar once the station completed construction. Today however the Corridor was now flooded with Earth Force marines, sailors and engineers, having been turned into a makeshift triage area. Most of the marines were being checked out by navy medics, while engineer and technicians were busy finishing sections of the Corridor. There was at least one open air bar in the corridor that had reopened after Earth Force had kicked the turians out of the system and off the station.

He quickly spotted his partner Eva Coré sitting at the bar drinking a beer from a tall pint glass. Quiet as can be he sat next to her at the bar. "Hey Eva, I see you've found the bar."

"Jack!" Eva exclaimed as she embraced him in a bear hug, forgetting her beer for the moment. "I thought that you were..."

"Dead? Yeah, same to you. After we got separated I didn't know if you were alive or dead, or if the birds had begun torturing you." Eva released Jack from her bone crushing embrace and sat back. "Bartender, a bourbon for my friend here."

"Coming right up," replied the bartender who quickly produced a tumbler and bottle and poured a good thick finger's worth of the drink, while Jack produced his credit chit and put it into the bar's reader.

Both fell silent as Jack and Eva took swigs of their preferred poison. "Eva, have you been having bad dreams lately?" he asked her.

"Why do you ask?" she turned her gaze fully upon him.

"Look at my eyes, Eva. Don't they seem different to you?"

Eva took a closer look and saw that instead of their original brown colour they had turned into an electric blue with three white pupils in a delta pattern, and Jack saw that her eyes had likewise changed, only green.

"The artefact, it did something to us, didn't it?"

Jack nodded back to her. "Yeah, and I'll bet that the turians took it when they stormed our fox hole."

Eva shook her head. "No, they couldn't have, because the damned thing exploded just before we lost consciousness. I remember because unlike you I didn't land on my head." She gently patted him on the crown of his head which made him flinch at the sudden pain from a rather sizeable bruise.

"I thought I got that when they were interrogating me?!" He gingerly rubbed at the slowly healing bruise.

"Maybe we should get a telepath to help us, maybe help us clear up those images," said Eva.

Jack's eyes narrowed at his partner. "I don't trust Psi-Corp, they're creepy as hell and look down upon us normals like we're some sort of bug to be squashed. I for one don't want to end up a vegetable as they try to wring out every sight and sound out of that vision."

Eva mused on that thought. "How about Badger? He's a big shot in the Mars-Mafia now isn't he? He must know about any rogue telepaths passing through."

"He's also a psychotic low-life. If we go to him he'll scam us out of our money." A light bulb suddenly lit up inside his head. "Serenity," he mused to himself.

"Captain Reynolds' ship?" she asked with a frown.

"Yes, you remember that brother and sister team he had onboard last time we contracted with them?"

She chuckled at the memory. "Oh yeah, I always thought those two didn't quite belong. The older brother looked too clean cut, and the younger sister was just outright strange."

"Yes, quite an odd sight on an independent merchant ship. I think Reynolds is harbouring a couple of telepaths aboard."

Eva's brow rose quickly into her scalp. "You think so..."

"We interrupt this program for this latest breaking story," a woman's voice from a nearby news monitor sounded. "Officials in EarthDome have confirmed that a ceasefire between the Earth Alliance and the Turian Hierarchy has been agreed and further negotiations for a peace settlement are continuing apace with the Citadel Council Representative Matriarch Benezia T'Soni. This marks the end of the short lived Shanxi Conflict, which started with the unprovoked attack upon the EA Explorer ship EAS Amundsen.

The presenter visibly took a deep breath. "In other news it seems to be the week for First Contacts as a ship from the Minbari Federation was encountered in the Jericho System. According to alien sources the minbari are considered mysterious, staunchly isolationist and highly advanced. We'll continue to report on this as more information comes in. This is Dana Wong for ISN."

((((((The Mass-Effect Age)))))

AN: Comments?