A/N: Been quite a while folks, sorry for all that, but as they say, life is life, and interest in things waxes and wanes sadly, but interest in this has never left me for a day. A lot of my time off has been spent thinking about things, and this chapter has been worked on every week since the last, changing and editing and revising and mourning and cursing and smiling and whatever else you can do when you're writing.

Thanks to all my Patient fans, Thanks to all my impatient fans.

Omega, Munz District, August 9th, 2171

His name was Bazzriak, and according to what passed for records on the Citadel, he was rich, affluent and powerful…according to the records that the Citadel had, he was a drug runner, a slaver, and a general bad person, and according to Aria he was a part of the Shadow Broker's organization. On paper it all seemed so simple, elegant and direct, he was a bad person, he was useful and he was going to be captured for the information that the Omega team desperately needed. But in practice, the 'desperately needed' part was something that was getting hazier and hazier. Which was why rather than calling down a team of Black Legion Commandos to abscond with the Salarian and peel his mind for information…Mintara and Vox were standing on a street corner and generally looking casual.

"I'm surprised that you can find something like this on Omega. The place was always described as being a shit hole…" Vox muttered, glancing about the brightly lit and clean streets that were entirely out of place when you considered they were a short shuttle from slums.

"It feels like the Citadel, clean and brightly lit. But you can still feel the character here. It's not sterile and utopian. There's sleaze, but this is where the rich people like to live, and they pay good money for their protection, and their amenities." Mintara said, his voice speaking with the well traveled knowledge of an Alliance Marshal, someone who was as at home pulling thugs out of dive bars as they were serving warrants in financial districts. The streets were filled with pedestrians and boasted stores that looked far more upscale and refined, the kind that you'd expect to see in a Paris fashion district or a Montreal tech district. It didn't keep with the filthy stores and simple storefronts you'd find around Afterlife or the more traveled areas of the planetoid. As the pair of Omega agents watched, the reason for the security and safe display of wealth was readily apparent. A large armored speeder rolled down the middle of the avenue filled with Turians and Asari in combat armor with heavy weapons, their eyes glancing this way and that. Along with the overt display, there were more subtle touches, like guards in military style uniforms and body armor outside of each store and business, or pairs of marching mercenaries. The overwhelming display of force made it clear that while Aria liked to claim she ruled Omega, there were still those who did a swift business in their own segments.

"When is the team going to grab Bazzriak?" Mintara asked, his head tilting back to look at the apartment where they'd tracked the Salarian agent to.

"They're not." Vox replied succinctly and glanced over at his friend. The Alliance Marshal glanced back and his expression was expectant.

"Forgive me for the misunderstanding, but I had thought we were after him to make a point to the Shadow Broker and find out what is going on. Am I wrong?"

"We were. But that side tracks us from our objective. Something is going on, and the abduction of Professor Wst proves that something very dangerous is at play. That's the pattern we need to be concerned about, not the Broker." Vox replied, and lit a cigarette, his eyes looking up at Brazzriak's apartment.

"And what pattern is that?" Mintara asked.

"Technology. Or to put it simply, knowledge. There's been a massive upswing in information theft and technical theft in all aspects of Alliance technology, from the simplest genetically engineered foods to the most advanced weapons systems, there are people trying to learn everything they can about us."

"And by people you mean the Citadel Council."

"Or a proxy of theirs. It's good, but the fact that it's going on isn't exactly reassuring. We've been pushing the Citadel hard on every front, diplomatic relations with the Terminus systems, military relations with the Batarians, even economic expansion, so naturally they want to push back…but they've shown that they've gotten burned when they've tried to play games of intrigue with us…so why would they risk it?" Vox asked quietly.

"Because you get desperate for every advantage you can find. And we have a tech edge, they want to eliminate that advantage so they can bully us into a docile position like all the rest of the 'civilized' species in the galaxy." Mintara replied.

"Dangerous though. Most of these attacks have been caught and exposed, and many of them can be traced back to businesses, corporate espionage and regular information gathering. Nothing sinister or dangerous…except for the abduction of Professor Wst from Illium." Vox said.

"How so?"

"That was the only one that was successful. Whoever managed it grabbed one of the Alliance's leading experts on high energy physics, a field that the Citadel species are woefully primitive in. Plus…I've read the male's dossier, almost ninety percent of his work is classified at the Top Secret level, parts of it are even beyond codeword secure…but even more interesting, there are sections of his life that are blank. Not classified, not restricted, just blank. As if the information he was working on was so sensitive there was to be no record of it at all." Vox said.

"So all those failed attempts at information gathering weren't failed at all…" Mintara said, his eyes widening slightly.

"What do you mean?"

"Most of them were a smoke screen, but all of them failed, failed to gather viable information, but I'm willing to bet that they all pointed to Wst as being a male with the knowledge they needed…but for what purpose is going to be where things get cloudy…" Mintara explained and Vox nodded slowly.

"I think we can forget about the Broker and his tips about Cerberus. That group is nothing but a pack of lunatics. This kidnapping is more dangerous."

"They've launched terror attacks across Alliance and Citadel space…" Mintara said warningly.

"Yes, and terrorism can't bring down governments, the purpose of Terrorism is to terrorize as Lenin put it so succinctly. The only thing that Cerberus is doing is killing people and making the headlines for about an hour. People are so numb to news that a terrorist bombing or shooting is striking, but they don't care. The Security Service is more than capable of crushing them and if, if there's a real between Cerberus and the Citadel, we'll find it…but as far as I'm concerned, they're a group of lunatics who need to be crushed by someone else." Vox replied.

"So then what's the plan?"

"We forget about Cerberus, we forget about the Shadow Broker, and we forget about Omega, I'm not keen on following the words of a Council Spectre working for an information dealer. We're going to Ilium to find out just who the hell stole a Vegan scientist." Vox said, stepping away from the wall and striding down the street. Mintara followed along, casting one last glance at the Salarian's apartment, and was rewarded with the perfect view of the explosion that blew out the walls in a shower of metal and stone façade. Mintara froze as everyone on the street began to scream and run from the falling debris. Ahead of him Vox didn't pause, didn't even look.

"What the hell was that?" Mintara screamed to his friend, and Vox turned to look back at the Alliance Marshal.

"We don't have time to fiddle with the Shadow Broker, but we did have time to send a message. We can kill any one of his operatives, and we can get him if we so chose." Vox said, and kept walking, his leather duster jacket flowing behind him as he strode along.

The Citadel, August 9th, 2171

Councilor Hillardan's office on the Citadel was one that you would expect for a member of the Triumvirate that 'ruled' the civilized galaxy. Blessed with a view of the Wards and the nebula, it was fitted and laid out with decidedly gorgeous artifacts from the Homeworlds, everything from rare antiques to pieces of fine craftsmanship. It spoke of luxury, and of wealth beyond measure…things that you needed to display in great prominence when you met with beings on this level. Only the most affluent and influential saw this office, not the 'common folk' of the galaxy. Those people expected a certain level of décor and taste when they came to meet a Councilor. Hillardan knew that Tevos and Valern had similar displays of decadence in their own offices, but for quite different reasons. Hillardan's people knew about politics and posturing, when you came from a species whose entire ruling class was an interlaced web of marriages and loyalties based upon birth and blood lines, when politics was as common as eating and sleeping, you learned the tricks. A display of decadence was one of those tricks. Something to over-awe and over stimulate, yet not to be basked in, to do so would be as dangerous to one's political ability as breathing vacuum.

For Tevos and Valern, their decadent offices were those they sat in, looking about and admiring the trappings of power. Valern of course didn't see it as being rewarded per se, but for a Turian, recognizing the 'rewards of duty' was an unavoidable…indulgence. Tevos was more…aristocratic about things…and that was something that gave Hillardan no small amount of mirth when he thought about it. The Asari viewed the adornments of her office as trophies, displays that spoke to her not in the words of luxury or wealth, but trophies that in her eyes testified to the power and strength she held in the galaxy. It was ironic to think along those lines, but of the three, Hillardan was the most dedicated servant on the Council. His appointment to the Council had been a decision based in politics, but he hadn't campaigned or fought for the position, he had been selected as the best candidate. Valern's appointment was much along the same lines, he had been selected as the best person to represent the Hierarchy…to most outside observers, you could look at the Turian system and hold it up as a shining example of a meritocracy, Turian civic mindedness overcoming the paltry selfishness so rampant in other species…that thought was enough to make Hillardan laugh aloud in the confines of his office.

No species was a hundred percent perfect, far from it. No species could be boiled down to one trait without putting a very large number of exemptions to it. The STG knew that Turians could be just as corrupt as any other species, and the worst part about them was the good ones didn't think that there were any bad ones. Of course, when you couldn't tell the rotten fruit from the good, your meal could be a very unpleasant affair. The Salarian Councilor was not willing to toss out Valern's competence and ability so quickly, he was a good and honest Turian, and he was better than many office holders who'd resided in that post over the years. But when you sat there and believed that he was better than most you couldn't help but wonder who was the best. Sadly, for Hillardan, he knew that Valern was a military man, and focused on military solutions to problems. And without a doubt the biggest 'problem' that the Citadel faced was the Systems Alliance. Between the two other members of the Council's Triumvirate, Hillardan was very much inclined to consider Valern the better of the two.

Tevos was…different than she had been centuries before. At least that is what the STG had reported in it's psychological profiles, and the highly detailed reports that his predecessors had made on her throughout the centuries. Hillardan had information on just about every open and private decision the Asari had made throughout her tenure on the Council. From her first days to her most recent trials, the STG knew it all…and despite the shortness of the Salarian lifespan, their people could take the long view on matters, the very long view on matters when it came to the most important. Innumerable generations of Salarians had lived and died under the Citadel's leadership, and without question, it was the single most important facet of the Galaxy…Tevos, it's longest lived member. Considered by most to be one of the most reasonable, intelligent, and diplomatic members to ever hold seat on the Council.

Hillardan ran his hands gently over one another, idly examining his train of thought, taking a few moments to consider just what he was considering. This wasn't exactly the reason that he'd decided to sit in this decadent office, but the idle wanderings of his mind had come back to the crux of the matter that had been building in his own subconscious for months, and in the minds of a growing portion of the 'Asari action committee' of the Special Tasks Group. Hillardan's continuous concern for his other council members had peaked the interest of the intelligence community…leading it to devote more resources than ever before on spying on it's allies and fellow council members. The Salarian Councilor was not entirely pleased with that development, one should trust one's friends more than one's enemies. Show too little trust, and your friends become your enemies whether they wish it or not. But the information that the STG had turned up on the Asari Republics and their clandestine operations was become a matter of interest. Too many Asari Commandos were fighting on Tuchanka of all places. Weapons shipments were being moved throughout Alliance and Batarian space by Commandos…and some Asari Spectres were thought to be operating with them. Of course, Spectres had their own areas of operations, they could make their own decisions and Batarian Space was Citadel Space despite their growing warmth with the Systems Alliance, and the Asari Commandos were mercenaries in many cases.

Hillardan sighed softly and shook his head. He had been devoting far more of his energies looking for patterns like an intelligence agent than he had been in exercising his duties of office. He rubbed his face gently and forced himself to put the thoughts aside. Nihlus was doing his job and working to run down the Asari connections on Tuchanka, and he'd produced some rather intriguing results, and those results were what had brought him into this office for this meeting with one of the newer and more talented members of the STG. The Tuchanka situation was disturbing enough, but combining the information that Nihlus had presented with the confidential reports he'd received from the STG it had compelled him to speak with the STG directly, and without Councilor Valern who was technically responsible for Galactic Peacekeeping.

The duplicity of having to worry about a rising threat to the galaxy and the possibility that the Turians might not consider it a threat was something that Hillardan had more than once sat up at night and shivered over. The balance of galactic peace was a fragile thing that could be shattered at any moment…releasing the horror of war upon every sentient being, the Turians kept it in check with weapons, the Salarians kept it in check with deceit, and the Asari kept it in check with words. But now, the STG said that an ancient foe could be rising again at the provocation of an as yet unknown manipulator, and the only force that Hillardan could consider willing to stop it was the Alliance Military. He sighed again and straightened up, the soft chime of his Omni tool letting him know that his appointment was here.

Mordin Solus was brilliant.

It was hard to describe the savant as anything but an immeasurable intellectual. His very being seemed to exude it as readily as he breathed, and for Hillardan, it was clear that he was faster thinking than the average Salarian. The Doctor strode into the office brusquely without so much as a comment, and his demeanor made it clear that without a doubt he would rather be elsewhere, preferably a laboratory or somewhere that he could actually be doing something. Even the look in his eyes seemed to show that he was none to pleased that he was sitting before a political layman who was best known for standing with two others and making paltry decisions rather than actually accomplishing something. Hillardan smiled softly at the intriguing display and the sheer simplicity of the younger male's demeanor. He'd never seen such difference from the male so casually sitting across from him, looking at a Citadel Councilor with annoyance.

"Councilor. I am Dr. Mordin Solus, Special Tasks Group. Here at your request for information on Krogan Birthrate deviations, correct?" The scientist said quickly, his eyes focused in on the Councilor without blinking or looking away. Hillardan kept smiling and nodded silently, his hands taping idly on his desk top for a moment and watching the palpable shift in the other Salarian's mood at being made to wait, even for a few seconds. A moment before he spoke, Hillardan beat him to the punch.

"I'm glad you could make time for me in your busy schedule Doctor. I've been told by the STG that you are among the best, surprising for one so young." The politician said, stroking the younger male's ego slightly before beginning the particulars.

"Not one of the best, the best. If familiar with the STG's research on Tuchanka and the Genophage. I am the foremost authority on the subject." Solus replied tersely, seemingly resisting the urge to draw up examples of his own brilliance on his Omni tool or begin listing credentials.

"Surprising for someone who has never been to the planet itself…but one doesn't always need to see the faces of one's…patients." Hillardan said, his voice slightly lower than before, it was a soft jab. Not intended to provoke an angry response, but simply one to garner a bearing on the young male's views of what he was doing. The STG maintained extensive files on it's agents, and tended to examine them at length for any possible 'conflicts' with what they might be called upon to do. It was redundant for Hillardan to try to prod the younger male into a reaction, but sometimes you had to see things for yourself. The expression on Solus's face didn't shift at all.

"Not necessary. My work is primarily technical, not sociological. Don't need to visit the planet for that." Solus replied without a thought, a dismissive wave of his hand underscoring his contempt for the idea. Hillardan dropped the point at that, a slightly placating nod to the younger Scientist.

"Indeed, a true enough statement, but tell me about the…discrepancies that have been recovered from Tuchanka." Hillardan said, segueing to the heart of the matter. Solus nodded and lifted his display tablet, handing it across the desk to the Councilor's outstretched hand. Notations and marks covered the document that glowed on the screen.

"Small deviations, but consistent with an upward trend. Without a doubt, the Krogan are gradually increasing in numbers. This despite the effects of near open warfare with the Systems Alliance." Solus said, his gaze watching Councilor Hillardan as he read down the reader, while the information in the document wasn't new, the notations that Solus had made were. Subtle hints, subtle clues, all of which were within the limits of statistical variations, but put together…

"I'm surprised you noticed it Doctor Solus." Hillardan said, handing the reader back to the Scientist.

"Simple enough to catch. I studied the Genophage extensively. Besides, Alliance kill ratios should show negative trend in Krogan population, not positive. Analysts see what they want to see…especially when they possess the information to support their suppositions." Solus said, his words exemplifying one of the intrinsic flaws that intelligence agencies had faced throughout history. Hillardan sighed softly.

"I…see…" The Councilor said, not at all prepared for that little revelation, his own thoughts racing.

"An, unforeseen event as it were." Solus said, his gaze fixed on the Councilor when the older Salarian's head came back up.

"Do you know anything more…specific about the situation?"

"Krogan numbers are increasing. Cause unknown, rate unknown. Can't give you that answer without more research." Solus said idly, looking back down at his data reader, clearly displeased with the mystery that he couldn't unravel. Hillardan nodded slightly at that, his mind working slowly over the looming issue and filing it away with all the other concerns that he'd had weighing heavily on his mind. For a long moment he wondered what Nihlus' latest puzzle piece was…piled on top of all the others, Hillardan felt his head began to throb lightly.

"Councilor?" Solus asked, the young scientist looking slightly concerned at the politician's visible discomfort.

"I'm fine…" Hillardan said and rose from his chair and walking around the desk to escort Solus from the room. "…Doctor Solus, I believe that this issue requires further examination. I require you to take the lead on this."

"What do you mean? Fieldwork?" Solus said, surprised enough to bring the younger male up short as he rose up from his chair.

"You're the specialist, and I'd have to say you're a rather gifted analyst along with being a brilliant researcher. I believe you should work on examining this situation in greater detail Doctor Solus." Hillardan said, guiding the scientist towards the door.

"…your…confidence will not be misplaced Councilor." Solus managed as Hillardan escorted him to the door of his office, taking the younger male's hand in a gesture far more common to humans than it was to Salarians, Solus hesitated at the moment and then simply nodded. Councilor Hillardan nodded back, letting his hand fall slightly, perhaps the gesture was too egalitarian for most Salarians. He smiled at the younger researcher.

"I know it won't Doctor Solus, you're a gifted mind and I expect great things of you. Perhaps you'll be more than just a great mind." Hillardan said, gesturing the Doctor out the door. As the door slid shut, he regretted not telling Solus that his supposition and discovery had confirmed something terrible. The Genophage cure that Sederis had been offering the Krogan wasn't a lie, despite what the Warlord had thought, it really was working, and the Krogan really were breeding…distressing. Hillardan sat down heavily behind his desk and ran his hands across his head gently, cradling it ever so slightly as he worried over the myriad problems that seemed to be growing in the galaxy.

Warlords were gaining power in the Terminus Systems whose political ideologies caused the Council some concern, some pro-Alliance, some malevolent neutrals…a disturbing power shift that had compelled the Turians to re-examine their force dispositions. Even if they were simply opportunists who were flocking to a power that could give them advanced technology, and didn't like the Council, it was a worry. Politics made strange bedfellows, and while the Alliance was an avowed supporter of the ideals of free democracy and representative government, they had made it clear that they were not above working with groups whose politics were completely contrary to that. The Alliance had begun to show itself as a power eager to gain any advantage…but then that political proclivity had been shown by their willingness to buy Batarian support, even if they were little more than galactic thugs. Political Theater or not, that one action had done more for the Alliance's effort to gain leverage against the Council than a thousand years of benevolent rule had earned the Council.

Older members of the Citadel pressing slowly but surely for more equal representation with the Council. Political maneuverings that had stretched across dozens of newer species that the Alliance had discovered, upsetting the expected way of doing things more than anything, and driven the old leadership of the Citadel to become more aggressive. Mercenary groups and pirates that seemed to be supported by someone launching attacks and raids against Alliance Territory from within Citadel Space. Those and so many more problems rising, every one seemed to square the Citadel against the Alliance. Every one seemed to be perfectly designed to escalate tensions, place each galactic power against one another. Something was happening

With a heavy sigh, he reached out and touched one of the concealed control studs on his desk, opening a com line.

"Councilor Valern, I have some disturbing news that I need to discuss in person…" Hillardan said tiredly, his eyes falling upon the small data reader that held his own copy of Solus' report.

Moscow, August 15th

The view from the top floors of Lubyanka hadn't changed much in centuries. Of course, the march of time and the march of technology and development had added many new additions to the skyline of a city that had withstood the march of armies and ideologies. You couldn't affect that with bricks and mortar, or dura-steel and synthetic glass. Every structure of the city seemed to be imbued with a history, a legacy of days gone by that was filled with the whispers of ghosts. The Kremlin, Red Square, St Basils Cathedral, so many others that were synonymous with the city. None of them could rival the infamy of this one though, if speaking of ghosts was hyperbole elsewhere, they held the greatest chance of being tangible within the walls of this infamous structure. Almost two centuries before, the residents of Moscow had joked darkly that Lubyanka was the tallest building, you could see Siberia from the basement. But the interrogation cells had slowly been moved, offices had replaced them, and like all things when faced with the march of time, changed.

The end of the not-war that had made the occupants of this building so terribly feared ended…and a great empire fallen with it. The KGB ceased to be, and time marched on, the building that had been host to an organization whose mention could still bring forth a chill, at least to those who knew. Director Vissara had often wondered just why the Alliance had decided to place the headquarters of it's own intelligence service in a building with such a sordid history. She couldn't blame them for their foresight, anyone who knew anything about the history of the humans home-world would understand the intention…but intentions and results were always such difficult things to achieve. When it came to galactic politics, sometimes you received a result radically different from the one you were hoping for. Director Vissara was one of them. A recent political appointee by the President, her place hadn't come because of political maneuvering…at least on her part. Her elegant demeanor, beauty, and disdain for all males marked the reason that she was occupying a seat in the office once held by Beria and Iron Felix.

"What do you think of the City, Director?" Representative Hitch asked with a smile. He was standing casually in the doorway to the office, an un-announced arrival to the room that led Director Vissara to look up from the scrolling holo in annoyance that shifted to the icy disdain that Drow females seemed to direct towards anything male. The head of the Alliance Parliament's Intelligence oversight committee stepped inside, letting the door slide shut behind him as he walked across the rich carpet and looked idly around the office as if he had never had a chance to glimpse at it. Vissara's violet eyes followed him as he strode across the office and settled himself down into the leather chair that sat before the elegant birch wood desk.

"Impressive." Vissara said acidly, and Hitch smiled in response to the tone that graced his ears. He looked back at the Drow female and leaned back in his chair.

"Glad that you enjoy your new posting, I would be so very disappointed if you were uncomfortable here on Earth. But of course, your kind aren't very comfortable with forty-nine percent of the Human Species." Representative Hitch said, the words 'your kind' laced with more than a small modicum of disgust. Director Vissara looked at the politician and smiled venomously.

"Tell me Representative, do you study history?" Vissara asked, her voice oddly even as she regarded the human politician across from her with something approaching contempt. The Politician smiled in response, reveling in the intrinsic Drow disgust with anything male. Vissara knew that this creature's arrival was meant to instill contempt, and to remind her of her place in the greater scheme of the Alliance.

"Whose? Yours? Ours?" Hitch asked, choosing his words with practiced aplomb, although unlike the spur of the moment reactions to interviews and 'spontaneous' meetings with constituents, these words were chosen to provoke, not soothe.

"Your own of course Representative, your history…it is quite, colorful, isn't it? Yet it's quite short. We Drow had a civilization for twenty thousand years. Twenty millennia, and it was organized, prosperous and developed. Our people created great works of culture, art, and science. In many ways, you could consider us to be superior in almost every aspect. We have traditions that date back to before the very rise of your most primitive cultures. Yet…you were better in one respect…" Vissara said softly, her words punctuated with a smile that seemed to have put Hitch on his guard.

"And what is that?" Hitch asked, brushing at his lapel idly to reinforce the sense of disdain that he enjoyed conveying to the Director.

"War. Your Species sole preoccupation for the past ten thousand years has been war. You're fantastically good at it, you've fought conflicts that consumed millions of lives, waged wars that lasted for centuries. You're obsessed with conflict, and you've been driven by conflict so…readily, and the memories of those conflicts have etched into your popular consciousness more heavily than anything else." Vissara said, nodding to the window in the direction of the Kremlin. "Russian newly-weds still lay flowers at Mogila Neizvestnova Soldata, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A memorial to soldiers who fought in a war over two centuries and three governments ago. I've seen your Arlington Cemetery in Washington, the great peace memorial in Jerusalem…so many others that your species has erected to celebrate the end to your conflicts and memorialize your dead. Most of them aren't viewed as passionately…but your history is littered with war."

"Your point Director?" Hitch said tiredly.

"You're barbarians who merely got lucky, Representative. Warmongering, violent barbarians who are as subtle and cunning as a ferrous iron asteroid slamming into a Garden World. The Citadel Council is right to fear you and react to your existence with terror, especially since you refuse to be tamed by the galaxy at large." Vissara said sweetly as Hitch's face shifted further towards fury with every syllable the Drow spoke.

"Barbarians? Are you serious?"

"Yes, I am. Any being with half a brain can see through your foreign policy, after all, I'm sitting here aren't I?" Vissara said, her lips smiling in amusement with the Politician's anger.

"I remind you Director…" Hitch said, his eyes widening slightly. Even in this office, shielded from outside sensors and as secure as any space within Alliance Space could be, the mention of the agreement with the Drow was enough to cause Hitch concern.

"Please, you think me a fool? If I'm sitting here I'm quite aware of the special agreement that our governments made. You wouldn't want to have the Citadel Council turn the Drow Federation's short-lived and exceptionally swift withdrawal from your little political league into a public relations coup would you? You humans couldn't stomach that kind of loss of face…another of your oh so human failings…pride…" Vissara said with a sly smile.

"You would do well to remember that your own people are guilty of that same failing Director." Hitch replied evenly. The Human politician was still scowling, not liking the tenor of the conversation that had originally intended to show the Drow just who was in command. For Hitch, he had rarely made political missteps of any kind, but now, he was faced with the unfortunate prospect of entering into an engagement that might not have any open consequences…

But with Politics, the battles that aren't known to anyone but the participants tend to be the most decisive, and the most dangerous.

"Perhaps, but we didn't allow it to dominate galactic policy. You have, which is why you made what you thought was merely a minor concession by having a Drow placed as an appointee to head your Intelligence Services. You came here today to assert your position, that I was just a pretty face and a minor concession. I know that the Supreme Court ruling as a show trial, I know that the ironclad protection you gave the Federation to deal with the Gender issue was the biggest issue in your mind. Allowing a member domestic autonomy like that was your government's main concern." Vissara said, rising from her desk and walking over to the expansive windows that looked out on Lubyanka Square. Her violet eyes gazed out at the square, bustling with Muscovites going about their business.

The Female stood silent, waiting for Hitch to speak, but the human had tacitly avoided saying anything to the Drow, instead he sat silent, his eyes watching her and waiting, knowing that she had rather artfully maneuvered him into an intractable position.

"Representative, by your own government's organization, the Director of the Alliance Intelligence Service has the final authority over the Intelligence operations of the Systems Alliance. Excluding operations by Alpha Teams, and Omega Agents, I am the final arbiter and instigator of this Governments Intelligence services. I carry out the activities and policies that are put in place by the Parliament and the President. I intend to follow those guidelines completely, because that is the law." Vissara said and looked over her shoulder at Hitch.

"I am quite relieved to hear that." Hitch replied caustically.

"According to the law, the Parliament's Intelligence Oversight Committee does not exist to give orders to the Intelligence Service, or to guide it's actions in any way. The Committee's responsibility exists entirely to judge the actions undertaken by the Intelligence Service, in accordance to the orders given it by the President and his legal representatives. You cannot tell me how to do my job, you cannot give me orders, you cannot demand that I take any action, that is what your laws require of my position. I know that the intentions of your little political ploy were to place my position into a status little removed from a puppet." Vissara said, slowly walking across the office, her fingers trailing across the birch desk-top as she circled it and looked down at Hitch. The representative scowled slightly.

"I am quite familiar with the law, Director." He said, his voice refusing to budge from the venomous tenor that it held.

"Good. Then there will not be any need to relay to the media information about the meddling and interference that my position has been experiencing from the Parliament in general, and the Oversight Committee in particular…" Vissara replied, letting the words sink in before finishing. "…do we understand each other?"

Hitch stared at her, actually going slightly pale when the word 'media' was uttered. The Free press of the Alliance couldn't be called 'impartial providers of the truth' as much as they could be called 'vicious predators seeking sustenance'. Unlike the human media of centuries past, the Alliance's news media was eager to get good stories and to turn a profit for the multi-billion dollar networks that they owned. Partisan politics didn't factor into it, hard questions weren't ignored out of sympathy or personal beliefs, too much money was on the line for a network to cater to a political demographic or to follow an agenda. No media source would ignore a government scandal, and Hitch knew that the days of politicians being able to simply cater to the ideologies and sympathies of the Press had died a century before during the North American unification wars when entire news networks had ignored economic, political, and military news to support the candidates they idolized.

That willful ignorance and prejudicehad led to a war that killed tens of millions of Mexicans, Canadians and Americans and shattered the three governments that shared North America…and devastated the credibility of the global news networks with it. Now days, the media knew that if it wanted relevance, any news was worth reporting, and any story was valid. Hitch had learned that lesson early enough in his political career that he was not going to treat the threat of media exposure with any less caution than someone in the 15th century would view a witch hunter…something that would burn you alive if it had the barest hint of provocation.

"Alright Director, I can see that the Alliance Intelligence Service is in quite capable and skilled hands…" Hitch said begrudgingly, he knew that he had been defeated, and despite the anger, and humiliation of being so handily minimized, he couldn't help but give a small and begrudging nod of respect to the Drow. She'd played him, she'd baited him, and she'd threatened him, all without doing anything more that stating facts, and being willing to use a system that she was barely familiar with to her advantage. Hitch stood and smiled, the political mask on once again and allowing him to do the thing that all politicians could do as readily as breathing, smiling and treating a mortal enemy like a dear old friend. Vissara returned the nod and the smile.

"It's always a pleasure to see you here Representative Hitch. But your arrival does present me with another much more important opportunity…" Vissara said with a smile across her high cheek boned and disturbingly beautiful features. The cowed Representative smiled back, not willing to seem too beaten by the exchange.

"How can I help the Intelligence Service?" Hitch replied.

"I've received numerous reports from my agents that there's an upswing in intelligence gathering operations along civilian datalines that's been geared towards two things. Of course, all of this is veiled as legitimate research, and from what I can tell the Security Service hasn't located anything sinister in the investigations, but…I learned long ago that the most dangerous threats can be those that aren't sinister." Vissara said, running her fingers across the surface of her desk. Sensors tracked the subtle motions and the panoramic windows closed, tinting and going opaque to the eyes and to any electronic sensors that might be trying to peer in. The outer door sealed softly and to bring light into the sealed room, a holo display materialized against the far wall. Hitch turned his chair slowly and he looked at the readouts.

"And this would be?" He asked, glancing back to the Drow.

"Dark Energy. There's been a massive amount of interest in the topic from across Alliance space, or so the Security Service reports. The amount of activity and requests for access to Dark Energy is unusual. Our Batarian Allies are also showing an excessive amount of interest. Normally, scientists don't all get curious about the same things at the same time. And not usually something that we consider vital to our security. Which brings us to the second topic…what is Black Mercury?" Vissara said and here violet eyes watched Representative Hitch as he turned to face her…and she had more than a little respect for how impassive his features were.

"I do not have any knowledge about the material known as Black Mercury, or any research plan that applies to it." Hitch said in stalwart monotone that sounded more in keeping with a primitive vocal synthesizer than coming from the mouth of a living being. Vissara looked at him, eyes narrowed.

"You expect me to believe that?" She snapped.

"Yes, I do Director." Hitch replied, his voice calmer and much more alive than before.

"By your laws Representative…" Vissara began but Hitch held up a hand.

"I know full well what the Law says Representative, but the fact is that while I might have had a more intimate knowledge of Black Mercury at some point in the past, I do not anymore. Those memories have been erased from my memory. I can't tell you what it is, I can't tell you anything about it, but I can tell you that the information about Black Mercury is of such vital importance that a member of the Intelligence Oversight Committee had it erased from his memory. That alone should tell you how dangerous and important the knowledge is, and how vital it is that it be kept secret." Hitch said quietly and rose from his seat.

"I see…" Vissara said.

"Director, you know how to do your job, all I can say is that anyone who wants to know about Black Mercury, shouldn't."

The Citadel, September 2nd

"Your talent for understatement is incredible Councilor. You describe this as a…matter of concern?" Councilor Tevos said sharply, her eyes scanning the data scrolling before them with unfettered shock. There was little to be said at the notes being displayed in the margins of the documents. Tevos was a rapid reader, and comprehension of something so simple as 'Krogan breeding faster' was not hard to garner. She leaned back in her chair and tossed the reader onto the desk before her, glaring at the pair sitting there. Councilor Valern winced slightly at Tevos's sharp expression, but Councilor Hillardan simply watched her impassively. He'd already noted that the Asari had not offered either one of them a seat despite the importance that they had implied in their request for a meeting. Telling another member of the Council that they had to meet on an 'urgent' matter tended to mean a matter that could result in galactic war.

Usually that warrants a chair.

"I was unaware stating that there was a matter of the utmost importance was an understatement councilor. As you can see I have taken the liberty of dispatching a covert team to Tuchanka to investigate further. Their results-"

"Are inconsequential." Tevos finished with a wave of her hand to make the Salarian Councilor stop speaking in mid sentence.

"I beg your pardon Councilor?" Valern asked, shocked enough that the normally stoic expression he held shifted to one of mild surprise.

"The Krogan were one of the greatest threats to galactic stability since the Rachnni, any change in the Genophage's ability to retard Krogan birthrates must be addressed. Not doing so borders on the criminal." Hillardan said firmly.

"I am well aware of that Councilor, and I remind you that the Systems Alliance has claimed sovereignty over Tuchanka with our peace accord. They wished to have dominion over the Krogan, and they have it. It is their issue to contend with, not ours." Tevos said, lifting another document reader and tapping commands into it.

"Councilor, I remind you that our agreement expressly states that there would be a continued presence in the Krogan DMZ by Council monitoring forces. We cannot ignore the Krogan issue." Valern said forcefully, but did not even manage to get Tevos to look up at him.

"It is an Alliance matter, and one that is of benefit to us. If the Alliance manages to unite the Krogan Clans against them, then we merely need to sit back and watch them wage a bloody and brutal war against one another. I remind you that the Krogan are a species with low tolerance for interference and the Alliance's high minded efforts to 'civilize' the beasts are merely serving to give the Clans a reason to ignore their petty troubles." Tevos said.

"And if the Krogan continue to breed without restraint?" Councilor Valern pressed, his expression venomous.

"Then what of it? The Alliance will decide to sterilize them in a far more permanent way. The STG has stated that the Alliance is more than capable of annihilating a planet. Doing so will rid us of the Krogan problem and give us a significant propaganda victory. We can demonstrate to the galaxy as a whole how bloodthirsty the Alliance truly is. Now, if you would excuse me." Tevos said, all of it without bothering to look up. Councilor Hillardan did not hesitate, he turned and left the office, Valern following behind him after a moment's hesitation. The Salarian was silent, but the Turian was anything but.

"How dare she dismiss us like that! We're equal members of the Council and this issue is one which we cannot ignore. Asari arrogance." Valern snarled, his talons grasping at air silently. Hillardan looked to the Turian with a wary eye, the overt rage more than he'd expected to see from his colleague.

"She has her own concerns Councilor." Hillardan said diplomatically, not displaying any of the displeasure he felt himself.

"Her concerns should be more in keeping with the rest of Citadel space, not concern over how to make the galaxy a better place for Asari!" Valern practically shouted in the corridor. Hillardan winced and glanced to either side, ensuring that there were no hearing diaphragms that might catch a Councilor shouting, but only their bodyguards stood in the hall.

"Tevos has been very…insular. I cannot say that I have seen it personally, but the Salarian Union has noted a distinct…trend in her actions." Hillardan said.

"I know that as well as you Hillardan, the Hierarchy has it's own memories of Asari actions, but Tevos in particular has been growing more and more recalcitrant when it comes to her duties. Most of all when she is forced to place the concerns of the whole beyond those of the Asari." Valern said with a sneer and reached into his robes to withdraw a small flask which he undid the top and sipped at. Hillardan noticed that small gesture with another level of shock layered on all the rest. Valern's drinking was an 'open secret' on the Council, his people's waning power after the Relay 314 Incident had relegated the Turian people's role in the Council to little more than a token gesture in Galactic affairs…and Tevos has led the effort to turn the Turians into little more than attack dogs for the Council when needed.

But Valern had never been so enraged or driven till now.

"My people fought the Krogan to a standstill, we held them back, paid in blood, blood! While those damn beauty queens simply sat back and gave us orders. They used your people too in that war, a war they couldn't fight…" Valern snapped and took another swig from his flask before putting it away.

"It is history now Councilor…ancient history." Hillardan said delicately, his mind racing at the implications of what he was hearing, a Turian Councilor's words in private were one thing, but right now it felt less like complaining and more like conspiracy.

"Not for them. Matriarchs still live who started that war, they're still there, giving their orders and making their plans…planning on how to civilize us and turn us more into what they wish us to be…so that we can better serve their needs." Valern said darkly.

"You make it sound like we're puppets." Hillardan prompted.

"Yes, perhaps we are. That's all Turians are to them, isn't it? Soldiers. Loyal, reliable, disciplined soldiers. Whose fleets patrol the galaxy? Ours. Whose soldiers enforce their laws? Ours. Whose blood is shed when the call to war comes from their throats? Ours! And they know that we'll pay the price, they know that we will do what they wish, because we must, because we cannot contemplate anything but working for authority." Valern said and his voice was dark and vicious.

"Councilor, this is…"

"The truth." Valern said finally and walked off, leaving Hillardan standing in the passage and wondering what in the universe had just happened and just what the Turian Councilor was thinking deep down in his gizzard.

The Citadel, Tyaseri Ward, September 4th, 2171

"Never been here before…it's…nice…" Kezbana said quietly, looking out at the massive spiral arms of the Citadel high above him. He almost looked like a tourist, standing in the middle of the sidewalk and looking up at the Citadel above him.

"Come on tourist, we're here for a reason." Nihlus said, glancing at the Drow Assassin and rolling his eyes. Neither one was exactly subtle, Nihlus was wearing heavy armor and Kez was…well, even in casual clothing he had the unmistakable air of being someone who you should not trifle with. But the Drow's head nodded slightly and he followed along behind the Turian Spectre.

"So tell me, you live here?"

"No…well, yes…I suppose." Nihlus responded as they walked through the warren of buildings that clung to the face of the massive ward arms. It was hard to make sense of the fact that millions of beings lived on a structure that they really knew nothing about, going so far as to build massive sky scrapers and structures on it's surface. But the Turian had long since gotten used to the fact that it was a place that people called home, even if they didn't know just what the place was.

"So…maybe?" Kezbana asked with a chuckle, his eyes drifting back to the street and glancing around for a familiar species, but not finding any. For the Drow, it was a little odd to not see another Drow or Human out there…he had the unsettling realization that he was the alien here, not Nihlus. Oh, sure, it had been that way on Tuchanka, but really, that was a war zone and you couldn't help but find more important things to be concerned about. Here, on the Citadel itself…walking in crowds, you noticed the little things.

"I had an apartment, but my work is more important. I learned that from Saren. You can't let one place become to important, especially when you're needed everywhere by everyone to keep things secure and preserve the galaxy." Nihlus said.

"Yeah…I suppose…but when you fight for others, you tend to not care that you aren't fighting for yourself. Then you stop caring about the little things in life." Kez replied and got an annoyed glance from the Turian Spectre.

"Oh? You've never fought for anything other than yourself in this galaxy, have you?"

"Nope, can't say I have. Tends to keep your focus better that way." Kez said with a chuckle as the pair walked along, both of them beginning to notice the yellow armored forms of Eclipse troopers walking the streets, most of them just casually wlaking along, but others bearing the unmistakable demeanor of being on patrol.

"I guess I don't need to tell you to keep sharp then?" Nihlus said.

"No…I'm pretty sure looking out for myself is something that I can handle. Though I am curious about just why a major criminal leader would keep her office at the heart of the galactic government. All you lovely Spectre busybodies are here and could come in and arrest her, or that private army you call C-Sec could take her down…" Kez said as he walked along.

"The problem with 'taking her down' is the fact that Eclipse is one of the most dangerous Mercenary groups in the galaxy, and they have political ties beyond anything that you can imagine. They've got money, power, and protection. So taking Sederis down is something that even a Spectre would balk at." Nihlus said simply.

"So then why are you coming here my dear Turian?" Kezbana asked, leaning in close enough to Nihlus to make the Turian startle. His head snapped around and his mandibles flared slightly in annoyance.

"I don't know why I brought you along…" Nihlus snapped.

"Because I can beat the stuffing out of two Krogan with my bare hands, and my stunning wit. So just why can you do what we're planning on doing when every other Spectre out there isn't?" Kez asked again.

"Because it needs to be done…and because I don't listen to my superiors very well." Nihlus said, and flashed the Turian equivalent of a smile. Kez smirked back.

"I knew I liked you for a reason." Kez replied and they both turned to walk into the front of what looked like a completely average office building, distinguished from all the others by a pair of yellow armored guards out front and a large Eclipse emblem on the doors. Nihlus didn't hesitate, he simply strode in, Kezbana walking behind him, a smile plastered on the Drow's face. The lobby was the standard fare as well, fountains, plants, chairs set around tables with magazines a decade old. If you took out the stern faced guards who were armed with assault rifles and wearing heavy armor, it wouldn't be that unusual a place to walk into.

"So…shooting?" Kez muttered softly.

"No, I thought talking." Nihlus said and walked up to the Asari receptionist, nodding to her smile and completely cool demeanor.

"Welcome to Eclipse Private Contractor home office, how may I assist you Gentlemen?" She asked in her perfectly sweet and calm secretarial voice that probably wouldn't have broken if they'd walked in the door shooting and on fire.

"I'm here to see Jona Sederis. It's a matter of the utmost importance." Nihlus said simply.

"I'm sorry sir, but Ms. Sederis is currently…" The receptionist began her face completely locked in the expression of someone who was horribly mortified at having to provide anything other than assistance.

"It's of the utmost importance." Nihlus repeated evenly as he interrupted her..

"That may be sir, but Ms. Sederis is currently in a meeting and cannot take unscheduled visitors." The receptionist said and her face was just as sad as it had been moments before.

"Perhaps I should apologize for not introducing myself., I am Nihlus Kryik, Council Spectre." Nihlus siad and his face didn't shift an inch, but Kez did chuckle softly at the shift in the receptionist's expression which seemed to morph from regret, to surprise to fear and then to hopeful optimism that she could assist in under a second.

"I understand sir. Please, I will contact Ms. Sederis and have you taken to her office." The receptionist said and nodded not to one of the armored guards, but instead to another Asari to escort the pair.

"You've got to teach me that trick…" Kez said as the pair followed the Asari through the corridors.

"Sorry, need to be a Spectre for it to work." Nihlus replied.

"Damn, such strings attached…" Kez muttered as they stepped into a lift. The trip was short and the Asari smiled as the door opened into a large meeting room that gave a breathtaking view of Tyaseri Ward beyond.

"Ms. Sederis will be with you momentarily gentlemen, is there anything I can provide while you wait?" The Asari asked obligingly, but Nihlus merely shook his head and walked into the meeting room, taking a seat while Kez strode to the windows and looked out them at the beautiful view. It didn't take more than a minute for Sederis to join them…though her reception was much less obliging than her staff's had been.

"What the hell do you think you're doing here? By the Goddess do you know how insane it is for you to be coming in here out of the blue? Do you!" Sederis snarled as she stormed into the room, her eyes fixed on Nihlus as he sat at one of the chairs, looking up at the Asari Mercenary leader with thinly veiled confusion.

"Oh? And just how dangerous do you think it is to be screaming at a Spectre?" Nihlus asked cooly as he looked at the Asari. She snarled even more and sat down across from him, not even sparing a glance at Kez who was keeping track of the pair through the reflections in the view panel.

"I don't care, these are your damn precautions Spectre, all of your people were so terrified at people seeing you walking in here that your boss was adamant about keeping things quiet." Sederis snapped, glowering at Nihlus.

"You can watch your mouth, I'm here for answers and a Council Spectre has the right to go wherever they desire, in case you've forgotten." Nihlus said.

"Oh, big bad dangerous Spectre. You should know that you don't scare me and you certainly don't have my respect. I'm doing this for the money, so you're my client, not my superior. So you'd better divest yourself of that delusion fast." Sederis growled back, and Nihlus merely stared at her in silence, not even blinking, content to let the words hang there.

"I've come for information on Tuchanka and what's happening there." Nihlus said cooly.

"What do you want to know? We've made the shipments, we've got them the money you wanted, we've even got units fighting on Tuchanka, all of them Asari, no Salarians, of course. Not that the Krogan would like to see them fighting and dying for them…though they're useful in other ways. If you want to know about the cure we've been using…you'd have to check with whoever got the STG files to Binary Helix on the Genophage. The supply and support have been going as planned, no problems getting through the blockade or past the CEDM sensor nets. Is that what you want to know?" Sederis said with an annoyed sigh.

"That's part of it, thank you. How many Krogan Clans are working with you?"

"I don't have an exact number, but it's small…most of them just want to be left alone to their own squabbles, killing Alliance troopers is fun for them, but they just don't care. I'd worry about that one warlord Wrex, he's got some power and he's growing in strength. I think that one of our Units is supposed to eliminate him and make it look like Alliance Marines did it, something to stir up the locals even more, assassination instead of the way their Marines challenge clan warriors to one on one battles. Nice to take those little Marines down a notch in the eyes of the Krogan." Sederis said with a sinister chuckle.

"And the cure? To the Genophage?" Nihlus said in a completely calm voice.

"Not as viable as a one hundred percent cure. Nothing's gonna be that good unless you get an STG genetics genius to work on it, or you crack open some Alliance genetic engineering information. But that's not my job. Somebody else was supposed to work on that one." Sederis said with a yawn.

"What's the effective rate now?" Nihlus asked.

"How the fuck should I know? They're breeding more, that's all I can say." Sederis responded.

"I see."

"So just what brings you here Spectre? Normally is one of the Asari that gets sent to slum it here and check up on our work for you. Why'd they send you here to annoy me?" Sederis asked.

"Because I'm one of the best of course."

"Oh, you think you're as good as that holier than thou bastard Saren? Fucking nutcase he is…" Sderis said, and Nihlus flinched slightly at the casual sarcasm.

"He's a competent Spectre."

"Yeah, well, just remember who you can talk to. No buddy-buddy pillow talk with your friend Saren, this is Tevos's show. If she's willing to let you in on it, you'd better keep your fucking mouth shut, or the goddess will be seeing you in thinly sliced strips when the Councilor is done with you." Sederis said and stood up, not even bothering to say the meeting was over. Nihlus rose and Kez looked to the Turian Spectre as he stood in place for a moment. The Drow was about to ask just what the hell had gone on just then, but Nihlus's expression didn't allow for any kind of idle curiosity. Instead, the pair walked out of the office and through the building, marching out on the street and away from the Eclipse offices as fast as possible.

"Okay, you know what the hell all that meant, right?" Kez asked quietly.

"Yes." Nihlus replied bluntly.

"So?" Kez asked again.

"It's bad."

"How bad is bad?"


"That's descriptive." Kez said with a sigh.

"She just named a Councilor as being part of an operation to run weapons, money and support to the Krogan on Tuchanka." Nihlus said simply.

"Isn't that what governments do? Proxy wars and that kind of thing? Especially since your government and mine aren't exactly on glowing terms." Kez replied.

"No…that's normal…the bad part…the Genophage.

"So, there's a semi-cure. The Krogan can breed, is that bad?" "Yes, it's very bad Kez, very bad." Nihlus said simply.

"Why?" "Because it's Treason. A Citadel Councilor is willingly undertaking an act of Treason. The Krogan Genophage was put in place to halt a galactic war, to stop them from having to be exterminated and to end a horrific conflict. To do anything to reverse that, is simply…a crime of the highest level."

"So…politicians break the law in pursuit of 'higher ideals' all the time…it's what they do." Kez replied.

"No…this…this is something that's worse. Much, much worse…and I've got no idea who is authorizing this…I was sent to investigate this by Councilor Hillardan, and why would he have sent me to investigate it if he knew about it?" Nihlus said.

"Because he didn't." Kezbana replied.

"Exactly, and if a Councilor doesn't know about that, then what else is Councilor Tevos doing that we don't know about? Just how many Spectres are in on this? Just what in the name of the Spirits is going on here?"

SSV Boudicca, Harsa System, September 5th, 2171

"Admiral, we are one minute out from fleet reversion to Realspace." The main Astronavigation officer said from her station in the amphitheater like Flag bridge of the SSV Boudicca. The Alliance Conqueror Class SuperCarrier was one of the first in the Alliance Navy's 'New Fleet' Program. So new that the ship still smelled of solvents and adhesion compounds from the New Rannoch Shipyards. Even the Air recyclers and engines held the sounds of a ship so new that it had barely settled into it's regular settings. Filled with over three thousand crew, settling in at a mass of over one million dtons and four kilometers long, the Boudicca was an impressive display of the might that the Alliance Navy felt it possessed.

"Excellent, stations ready?" Commodore Martinez said from his place at the command hologram situated at the base of the Flag Bridge. He smiled with pride as his hands touched the unmarked surfaces of the hologram projector, the ship still felt so new that there weren't even stains from coffee cups or rings on the edges of the console. He couldn't restrain the feeling of honor and joy at being given command of one of the System Alliance's newest combat starships, and being in command of an entire taskforce. Even if his mission wasn't one of combat.

"All Stations are ready for Arrival in the Harsa System Commodore." The Aslan Ops officer supplied from her seat along the second level of consoles.

"We are on time I trust? Our hosts would not enjoy us missing the mark for our arrival." Martinez said with a brilliant smile.

"No sir, we'll be arriving exactly on time and exactly where they want us to." The Nav officer answered professionally. Martinez nodded and sighed softly, the bridge crew was still new, still 'green', and they still didn't have the comfortable familiarity of a unit that had worked together for a long time. It as a subtle thing, but building the bonds of teamwork took more than just training. But for a shakedown cruse, they were professionals, and they were talented…that was usually good enough.

"Ten seconds Commodore." The Nav officer supplied, and Martinez nodded once more, taking a step to his command station and standing with his arms clasped behind his back, fitting the recruiting vid perfect image of an Alliance Navy officer as he waited for the arrival of his task force at Khar'shan.

As the chrono ticked off to zero the unearthly light display of hyperspace dissolved into real space, and the sensor panels displayed the star system surrounding the task force. With a few quick glances Commodore Martinez saw that his force was all intact from the hyperspace jump and none had been lost in their trip through the other-dimensional maelstrom. As he finished checking, the Tactical officer began calling out his own string of information that Martinez drank in professionally.

"All vessels report clear, local space has no hostile forces, current location of our welcoming committee is 300 kilometers off our prow, distance to Khar'Shan is five thousand kilometers. Batarian fleet is made up of old class vessels. I read three Batarian style Dreadnoughts, ten old model Alliance Battleships, fifteen old model Alliance Battle Cruisers and over forty old model Alliance Cruisers. Numbers of old model Frigates and Corvettes are available…" The Tactical officer relayed but Martinez raised his hand to stop the younger officer.

"No need for that, I'm sure our Batarian friends enjoy our contribution to their national defense, and we're all familiar with the old class of starships." Martinez said, examining one of the small tactical holos that displayed the Batarian fleet strength. When the Alliance introduced it's 'New Fleet' Program to address the serious tactical flaws that had caused thousands of deaths during the short and brutal war with the Turians, the Batarians had been foremost on the list of buyers to acquire the 'obsolete' Alliance warships. Bolstering the 'vital' ally state had been considered politically sound, and even at the reduced prices, the Batarians had been willing to invest millions of credits in the high tech alliance starships, increasing their own combat power immensely, and willing to overlook the fact that their patrons were getting rid of hundreds of warships to replace them.

After the War over Shanxi, the Alliance navy had found it's original design philosophy for warships was woefully ill equipped to deal with the dominant design trends in the galaxy at large. Turian Mass Accelerators on Cruisers and Dreadnoughts had torn through relatively lightly armored Alliance warships and blasted through energy shielding that was quickly overwhelmed by thousands of projectiles being hurled at hypervelocity. In response, the Navy had screamed long and loud and the Parliament had financed a complete new navy development program, much the way wooden hulled man o' wars had been made obsolete by ironclad warships, so to had the Alliance Navy found itself in a similar situation. Technological advantages and high tech energy weapons hadn't been nearly good enough to deal with the relatively unsophisticated and brute force approach that galactic weapons had utilized.

In response, the Alliance rebuilt the entire fleet from the keel up, redesigning and re-sizing entire ship classes, completely tossing out the design philosophies of the previous century and in response coming up with the 'New Fleet', of which the SSV Boudicca was the flagship. A 2,000 meter long Conqueror class Super Carrier, carrying 18 squadrons of fighters, interceptors and bombers, she was the first of the new Super Carriers. Boudicca was a long arrowhead design for her main hull with a large pair of hangers slung beneath it like immense flat rectangles. Eight main engines forced her through the void and her massive dark matter and fusion power plants provided enough energy to power some colony worlds. She was beautiful in her way, but less so than her escorts.

Providing protection for her was a pair of the new Victory Class Battleships, SSV China and SSV South Africa. The new Battleships were larger then their predecessors at two kilometers long and four times the displacement. The previous Alliance designs had been lacking in armor, and had been armed with Meson weapons, which were fantastically dangerous, but of limited range. The Victory Class was armored in multiple layers of nano forged armor plate with industrial diamond sheeting over thick layers of bi-phase carbide, a multi layered sandwich of armors that was designed to absorb and dissipate the impact of Dreadnought and Cruiser fire. In addition to that upgrading of armor, the Battleships also boasted Mass Effect barriers, multiple energy shielding layers, and polarized hull plating. All of the design layers intended to provide the shield for the Battleship's main armament. Instead of a Meson cannon, the Victory Class was equipped with three triple turrets of 508mm coil rail cannons and twelve dual turrets with 250mm coil rail cannons, each of these firing multiple types of projectile rather than the Citadel Dreadnought's solid slug ammunition. All of this firepower and armor was set on a hull that felt like a massive arrowhead that was covered in angular lines designed to deflect projectiles and to give the dorsal, ventral and prow 508mm guns unobstructed fire forward, and to provide the 250mm turrets along the dorsal spine and ventral keel perfect broadside lines of fire.

Surrounding Boudicca, China and South Africa were the Cruisers and Battle Cruisers of the escort force. Both classes had been redesigned as their predecessors had, and the Yamamoto class Battle Cruisers boasted dual spinal Meson Cannons along their 1,250 meter length, and their arrowhead styled hulls were much more heavily armored, just as the Battleship class had been expanded. More armor layers, more shielding, more reactors, all of it crammed into the fighting starships making them larger than their predecessors. Complimenting the Yamamoto class Battle Cruisers in the line were the Warrior class Cruisers, these ships armed with dual fusion cannons running down their spines, they were intended for speed and maneuverability to close and engage enemy fleets in tight quarters with the Yamamoto class Battle Cruisers to take the brunt of the heavier fire and to give back some damage of their own.

Surrounding this hard core of combat starships was an exterior screen of Minuteman class Frigates and Guardian class Corvettes, neither class had gone through much redesign into the New Fleet program, since armoring either one to be able to take a hit from a major ship of the line would be a fools errand and make them useless, since armoring and shielding them enough to take the hit would make them so slow as to be pointless.

All in all, the taskforce was designed well and the mixture of vessels were theorized to be enough to take on anything that the Citadel races might throw at it. A Carrier to have fighters and bombers attack the enemy fleet at range, Battleships capable of taking heavy fire and returning it over a long period of time at a long distance, Battle Cruisers and Cruisers capable of closing the distance between the fleets rapidly under fire and utilizing the immense destructive potential of the Alliance's directed energy weapons, while the Frigates and Corvettes provided a screen against enemy frigates and light craft attacking the larger ships.

It all looked incredibly good in the simulations, and according to all the numbers, the fleet was going to be diverse enough to deal with any threats that the Citadel could bring to bear against it…but in the back of their minds, the designers and Admirals in charge of creating the 'New Fleet' knew that for every Battleship and SuperCarrier that the Alliance could build, the Turians alone outnumbered them drastically. Most of the Admirals in High Command firmly believed that any Alliance Taskforce or Fleet could go toe to toe against any Citadel fleet and win, but they all knew that the Alliance fleets were gravely outnumbered by those foes who they'd be fighting, and that disparity in numbers was enough to give any commander pause to be concerned. Sometimes wars weren't won by the side with the best training and best technology, sometimes they were won by the side who simply had more, and no matter how well you fought you couldn't make up for that kind of imbalance.

Not a happy thought.

"Commodore, I'm Receiving a hail from the Batarian fleet." The Comms officer reported flatly, and Commodore Martinez nodded to him and the main holo flickered into the air before him. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the indicators on the holo showing that it was being broadcast in the open on civilian bandwidth. Martinez had known about this going in, but the prospect of being broadcast live to billions of sentients in Batarian, Alliance, Terminus and even Citadel Space made him hesitate slightly. It was all propaganda, showmanship and simple spectacle that this shakedown cruise had come to Khar'Shan rather than to an Alliance World. This had been done to demonstrate to the galaxy the new forces in the Alliance Navy and to give the unspoken word of warning to the Citadel that the Alliance wasn't a small time player…

…and since Khar'Shan was technically Citadel Space, it made it all the more flippant an action.

"Greetings Commodore Martinez! I'm High Admiral Elaum Chankt of the Hegemony Home fleet and I welcome you to Khar'Shan. It is an honor to host your newest Task Force on it's maiden cruise." The Batarian Admiral said from the holo, his own fleet uniform looking especially elaborate with gold braid, medals from what might have been countless conflicts won (or countless errands run), combining with grim fabrics and a sever cut to make him look like he might belong as a doorman at a high-class hotel rather than in a Naval Command. But Martinez bit back a smile and merely nodded in grave appreciation, well aware of the audience watching him across the galaxy, and slightly conscious of his own simpler uniform. Even the bridge crew was attired in semi-dress uniforms rather than the standard on duty pressure suits or combat vacuum suits worn while on duty. It had all been decided long before…but it was still a little ridiculous when anyone who had a passing knowledge of naval procedures thought about it.

"Thank you for having us High Admiral, The Systems Alliance Navy was honored by your invitation to have a taskforce pay a courtesy call to Khar'Shan and we were happy to stop by." Martinez said and broke with military procedure to salute the Batarian officer over the holo, even though such formality did not usually extend over comms or to officers who weren't a part of the Alliance military.

"I'm glad you came Commodore, as you can see, our Fleet has been training and our crews were hoping to show off to our Alliance Friends." The High Admiral said with that perfect smile for the holo cams and the watching audience.

"By all means Admiral, we'd love to see how our Allies operate." Martinez said and received a nod from High Admiral Chankt. As he nodded, the comm frequency shifted out of the 'public band' and was encrypted so the conversation had less than several billion ears listening in.

"So, I guess you're as annoyed at this little…how do you Humans put it? 'Dog and Pony Show'?" High Admiral Chankt asked, sighing in relief and letting his own 'recruiting poster perfect pose and façade sag slightly.

"Just a bit Admiral, just a bit." Martinez replied, his eyes glancing over to the tactical holo as the Batarian fleet began maneuvering in space.

"Politics, such a lovely thing. But to be frank, we are glad to see you here at Khar'Shan Commodore. The Hegemony has precious few friends in the galaxy…and we're glad to count you among them." High Admiral Chankt said.

"I think it's safe to say we feel the same way in the Alliance, Admiral." Martinez said with only a slight lie to his words. Most Alliance military personnel were ambivalent about the Batarians in military matters. They were regarded as amateurs when placed against hardened combat forces and experienced Alliance Units, but most Alliance units had some degree of Combat experience and were trained to an outrageously hard degree and incredibly well equipped…so regarding the Batarians as less capable wasn't entirely fair. But there was a strong undercurrent of sentiment that the Batarians were merely an opportunity and giving them equipment, technology, loans, economic support and training to bulk up their military capacity was merely being done to give the Citadel something else to worry about.

"We're glad to have you. And I've been instructed to ask if your…package is here?" High Admiral Chankt asked. Martinez looked around and nodded slightly.

"Yes Admiral, they're boarding a transport for the destination your High Command has indicated."

"The Research base on Spekilas. You have the coordinates and your team will be met there by the facilities' staff."

"Good…Admiral, if I could ask, just what is so important that you need Alliance help with the research?" Martinez said asked and Chankt chuckled lightly.

"If you can find that one out Commodore, I would love to hear it. All I know is that our scientists have been looking at this thing since 2163...and we got ten free battleships out of your Parliament for agreeing to let you look at it. So I guess we think it's a win-win." Chankt said with a shrug over the holo com. The Batarian glanced off the holo and then back to Commodore Martinez.

"Time to get back to our little show Commodore." Chankt said and smiled with a nod to his left.

"Of course Admiral." Martinez said and nodded in the same manner before the comm switched back into the open band.

"Most impressive High Admiral, your fleet has been training well." Martinez said in honest appreciation, he'd been keeping track of the tactical holo and added a leftward inclination of his head in the Batarian expression of respect.

"Your praise means a lot to them Commodore. But as much as our Navy would enjoy impressing you, the leaders of the Hegemony wish to meet you and convey their greetings to you and the sailors of the Alliance Navy." High Admiral Chankt said and Commodore Martinez noted the small gesture from the ships operations officer indicating the shuttle with the researchers was away. Another day, another convoluted series of objectives to follow.