The Siege of Shanxi

Chapter Twenty Six: Schemes and Plots...are the same thing.

SSV McKINLEY

FLAGSHIP, SECOND FLEET

EN ROUTE TO THE MILLIGAN CLOUD

"Ma'am, I will say it again, since you seem to be hard of hearing." Captain Crawley repeated as he followed her into the elevator. "No wide bodied vessel has ever successfully traversed the Milligan Cloud. The Orion, the Hercules, the Gatherer. They all have one thing in common, they were vessels larger than a frigate that tried sneaking their way through that death trap."

"Problems, Captain, problems. I need results." Drescher scolded him gently as she tapped the command key for the bridge. "Results which you are being singularly lacking in producing."

The door opened to the bridge, spilling Drescher and Crawley into the hive of activity. The Fleet was moving as fast as possible with the solar storms raging around it, that is to say, flogging their navigation computers and eezo cores in equal measure.

Returning the salutes of the Marine guards, Drescher walked past them and slammed her fist down on the door panel leading to her ready room. Entering quickly with Crawley fast behind her, she surveyed the scene in front of her with her typical grimness. "Attention on deck!"

The motley collection of senior naval officers and Marines jumped to attention as they heard her. They looked tired, unshaven, stressed. Some of them had discarded uniform jackets. Pads covered in navigation data, troop strengths, and fleet updates were strewn about the room.

"Before you say anything." Drescher began crisply. "I want to complement you all on your dedication to this mission. For thirteen hours, you have been collating data, troubleshooting mission ops, and generally trying to solve some very tough, and unforeseen problems relating to the first combat deployment of an Alliance fleet. During that time, none of you have offered a word of complaint or protest to my face. That is professionalism of the highest order, and I approve."

She leaned forward, her jaw set. "Now, can anyone give me a better solution on how to get this fleet through the Milligan Cloud now, than you could two hours ago."

There was silence.

Finally, Rear Admiral Simpson spoke. A bull like man with a shaved head, he was one of the few in the fleet that could stare Kastanie in the eye and not cower in fear when she raged. "Ma'am. I will once more advocate for advancing a corridor of scout frigates through the Cloud, having them activate pulse beacons, and guiding the Fleet through off their telemetry."

"Which will take days, if not a week to pull off safely, and we'll likely lose ten percent of the fleet to rogue meteors." Kastanie shut him down immediately. "Unacceptable."

"Ma'am, my fighters could form up in a solid wall at the front of the fleet, then blast through a clear space that the rest of the Fleet could follow behind." One of the squadron leaders held up his hand.

"I'll need every fighter I have once we get to Shanxi." Kastanie dismissed that idea just as rapidly. "I'll not throw away most of the force to meteors and nav hazards."

"Captain Webb advocates that every ship over extend their kinetic barriers in order to repulse the..."

"People, could I remind you what the Milligan Cloud is? It's a mass of junk gases and ruined moons, making up half a star system! We lose all visibility inside it, physical and sensor. Weapons won't function, engines foul up! Under best circumstances, it takes a frigate with advanced sensors two hours to cross it at top speed. I've got to move near ten score of warships, resupply vessels and troopships across it in less than twelve hours. And what I'd like to think are the finest minds in the fleet can't give me a better option than establishing a damn traffic signal, trying to play minesweeper with my fighter force, and destroying my shield emitters before we even get into combat!"

The room was quiet as Kastanie finished.

"We're six hours out, and so far none of you have given me anything aside from 'it can't be done.' I've already made the decision, we are going. It is your responsibility to give me a safe option for making this transit, but also a fast one. If you can't do that, then I will damn well use your ships to clear the way."

Everyone looked at each other, no one willing to offer another solution. No one...except one young officer with brown skin, fair hair and pale eyes. He raised his hand slowly, a short man amidst giants. He looked at Kastanie without fear. "Ma'am. I believe I have a solution."

"By all means..." Kastanie offered a sweeping hand to the floor. "Share it, Lieutenant...?"

"Ahern, ma'am. Tadius Ahern."

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"The main cities have all been pacified and secured. Scattered resistance groups are still harrying our men in minor skirmishes, but it is disorganised and has resulted in few casualties." Desolas delivered the updated report from his regiment commanders on the ground. "Tallies of captured manifests and identification documents have revealed that our estimates of total population may have been...exaggerated."

"I see." Jhirx did not turn to look at him. "Exaggerated in...size? Scope? Strength? Or just total population."

Desolas did not answer her.

"A military career putting down rebellions, crushing pirates and executing slavers." Jhirx clenched her fists. "And I forgot to check for the obvious signs. Extensive Terraforming, an environment too hot for this species to naturally enjoy, a population size far below expectations. It's a colony, all along. Not a homeworld, not even a core world. A single, isolated colony."

The General remained deathly quiet.

Jhirx turned to stare at him. "You knew?"

"I had my suspicions."

"You knew, and did not tell me." Jhirx murmured. "The single most important piece of information that I required for my discussions with Primarch Sparatus...and you concealed it from me."

"It was not relevant..."

"Did you know that due to a worker's strike on Dson, believed to be engineered by the Matriarchy, the crop was exceedingly low this year?"

Desolas was still. "The crop...?"

"That produces most of the tesh and foltesh for Palaven, yes, that crop." Jhirx advanced on him. "To get the money to create it synthetically, we will have to borrow from the volus, who will want more ships, more economic autonomy, more trading rights. Did you know that the Hierarchy is overdrawn on all accounts and credit reserves in Citadel space?"

Desolas hesitated.

"And that the asari have offered to make good on the debt...provided that we give them the plans to the new Arvad-point defence system." Jhirx grated her teeth. "Give them the plans. Our species, and its inability to manage the simpler aspects of capitalism are reducing us to a laughing stock in Citadel space. The turians, who have enough firepower to reduce a planet to ashes, but the inability to purchase a single loaf without advice from a volus."

"I have made a discovery." Desolas interrupted her rant with quick, calm form. "One of my teams finally made the return trip from the Temple of Ozrac."

Jhirx twisted. "Do not attempt to allay my wrath with extravagant tales, Desolas. The Temple of Ozrac is a myth."

"A myth that I found, using the ancient charts from when our forebears sailed the very solar flares that made our species strong." Desolas lifted his omni-tool. "We found it in a system near this one, we were lucky that our patrol route carried us so close. I found it and retrieved it, the heart of the Temple's power."

The omni-tool projected the image. "The Monolith of Valluvian the Priest."

"Rumoured to grant incredible strength and ability to all who keep the Way." Jhirx snorted. "Surely you can't believe..."

"Check your crew manifest, Admiral. You just lost fifty soldiers to four soldiers who touched that Monolith."

Jhirx paused. "Fifty?"

"Each of those soldiers possessed cybernetic enhancements beyond anything I've ever seen." Desolas showed her the remainder of the security footage. Jhirx watched with interest as the taller, stronger, more aggressive remnants of the Blackwatch troopers tore their way through the Lancer detail. "Completely focused on clearing and protecting the area around the vessel. Imagine a hundred soldiers such as this? Imagine a thousand?"

"We could end this war in seconds...no matter how many colonies or homeworlds these primates possess..." Jhirx mused. "And beyond..."

"Beyond, it means restoring a sense of fear to the asari, the salarians, any and all who seek to cross us." Desolas smiled. "It does not mean power, it means invincibility."

"How soon can you begin converting your soldiers?"

"I will require volunteers. Our wounded and crippled would be a good place to start."

"We cannot allow the Primarch, of Palaven or elsewhere, control of this resource."

"You are proposing?" Desolas chuckled.

"Perhaps it is time I considered more thoughtfully your offer of an alliance." Jhirx glanced at him, flashing him a rare smile. "You are for more resourceful than I initially thought. And should we be successful...there will be no one who will question your commitment to the Hierarchy, or to all of turian kind."

Power, thought Desolas as he stepped into her arms, was a more alluring perfume than any other.

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"Not all Prothean artefacts get the attention they deserve." Ahern brought up a list of planets and star systems from the database. "Unless it's a relay, a data cache, or defunct Prothean ships and weapons, we don't maintain more than a small research base at the site, if that. I remember reading about this in a journal by Admiral Grissom a few months ago."

He finally found the one he was looking for. "Here, Tavor, grid four hundred by seven six two. Right on the other side of the Milligan Cloud. Unremarkable, barely suitable for humans to breathe, no arable land, water has all sorts of nasty minerals in it. Grissom did land a shore party though, and they found this, a small outpost that they translated as 'The Pinnacle'."

"I've heard of it. Completely unremarkable, from what I heard." Kastanie leaned over the console next to him. "Little more than a listening post."

"Actually, Grissom surmised that it was probably more of a weather station, kind of a scanning post...and a lighthouse."

"Lighthouse?"

"What he was interested in was the ability of the outpost to blast thin layers of energy through the cloud. The waves reflected off the asteroids and volatile gas pockets, lighting them up for fly by wire, more powerful than any standard LADAR could. In effect, it provided a running update to the nav maps in the vicinity."

"Okay, so why didn't we leave it powered on?" Kastanie raised an eyebrow. "More importantly, why didn't Grissom mention it?"

"Probably because it takes more power to run this thing than it does to run a carrier." Ahern grimaced. "The old Prothean power plant that ran this thing was one of their smaller ones, and it still could have powered the strobe lights in every strip club in downtown New York. And to be candid, ma'am, that's a fuck-ton of strobe lights."

"And the Cloud isn't exactly a shortcut..."

"No ma'am. The fastest route is always via the main relays."

"But you've clearly brought it up for some reason?"

"Well ma'am, whilst it would take a frigate with cutting edge sensors two hours to make its way through the Cloud, with the Pinnacle activated it wouldn't take much more than an hour for even a large group of ships to boost through on maximum conventional power."

Kastanie leaned back, her arms folded. "And how do we light up the Pinnacle for an hour?"

Ahern looked at her, his pale eyes devoid of levity. "We fly our best frigate through the Cloud, set her down on Tavor and plug her engine in to the Pinnacle. We then activate the Pinnacle, and keep it activated until the rest of the Fleet can navigate through. From there, it's only a two day hop to Shanxi."

Kastanie liked it. Liked it a lot better than the solutions she had been hearing. "Not a bad plan, Mr. Ahern. But what if the Pinnacle is under enemy occupation?"

"Force with force, ma'am. An assault platoon of S7 Marines will accompany the frigate through the Cloud, and secure the Pinnacle for the boffins to do their work."

"And who will lead the platoon?"

Ahern smiled bashfully. "I have my S7 rating, ma'am. I was planning on leading the mission myself."

Kastanie was satisfied by this. "Your plan, your mission, Lieutenant. You have five hours to assemble your men, select a frigate and prep for launch. If we're not through the Cloud ten hours from now, I'm going to be very disappointed with you."

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Even after a night in the quarters of his Admiral, Desolas could not sleep. Something was calling to him, beckoning him away from the warm body next to him. Standing up with a reluctant growl, he donned his uniform and made his way out without waking her.

He'd always felt oddly protective of Sablet, from the moment he took her as his lover when they were junior officers. It has been his pride that made him refuse her as a bond mate when she offered herself to him. An Arterius could not marry a Jhirx, a family whose patriarch was third in line on the meritocracy for the Primacy of Palaven.

That first rejection had hurt her more than he cared to see. She had pursued him until she became a ship captain...and he became lonely. Then their positions reversed, and she had taken inordinate delight in tormenting him across the length and breadth of turian space, only taking him into her bed when she deigned to.

All of that would change once he assembled his new army and launched his campaigns against the Terminus. Thousand of pirates, slavers and warlords would be viciously crushed underneath the weight of just a few hundred of the new warriors, and it would send an important message to what would be an awestruck galaxy. For such a deed, Desolas would be more than just a Senator, or Primarch of some pathetic outworld. He would have Palaven itself to satisfy the honour of Arterius.

The nagging feeling in his brain drew him down to the main hangar bay, back to the ruined frigate that someone had thought to tow out of the way. He found someone seated by the ramp, polishing a long barrelled sniper rifle.

"Saren."

"Brother." The young turian stood up. "You weren't in your quarters."

His tone was accusatory. Desolas smiled. "I was otherwise occupied, brother."

"You seem to have a lot of other occupations besides winning this confrontation." Saren walked toward him. "Politics, social climbing, archaeology..."

"Why do I feel like you're about to give me a lecture, little brother?" Desolas chuckled, but there was no humour in his voice, any more than there was in Saren's.

"When we started this fight, you were committed to a swift and easy victory." Saren advanced on him. "Yes, we suffered setbacks, but you persisted. But you let Jhirx wind you up, distract you. And now this? This obelisk? Monolith? The legend of Valluvian and his priests? You have colonels running your fight on the ground, naval captains making strike decisions. Where is the General of the Legion? Between the legs of the Fleet Comm-"

The blow that Desolas put across his face was harder than he intended it to be. Rather than simply stinging his insolent brother, it knocked Saren to the ground. Spitting out a mouthful of blue blood, his brother leapt to his feet, rage on his face. Desolas let go a little anger of his own. "This is the thanks I get for my work? For all the years I've taken care of you? Trained you? Mentored you? Advanced your career beyond that of anyone else in this family? You dare..."

"I dare because you are arrogant, over-confident, and you have lost sight of what is at stake here." Saren spat back, injury in his voice. "Brother, you have never cared about the opinions of Primarchs and Admirals. You have won your rank through ability and bravery. Climbing the meritocracy has never mattered to you, nor has..."

"It is for you!" Desolas finally raised his voice. "For you...and for your children."

There was confusion in Saren's face. "Brother...I have no children."

"But you might." Desolas rested his hand on Saren's shoulder. "Brother, three tours back...I took a polonium round through the hip. I survived...but the tests came back...brother, I can never impregnate a female, no matter how much I may want to. You are the last hope of the Arterius line."

Saren looked stricken. "Brother, I...I..."

"I had hoped that this would be your last combat rotation." Desolas told him wistfully. "That you would have your fill of blood and glory, and be content to enjoy the spoils of victory...with a female and your platelings beside you. The more glory I take, the better your chances of a high match."

"You wish that I surrender my commission in the Blackwatch...my chances for the Spectres..."

"Aye." Desolas looked at him with regret. "It's a hard thing to do, a hard price to pay. But if we ever wish to become more than a subservient family to a larger clan, then at least some of our blood must be alive to do so."

Saren stepped back. "Des...I...I'm sorry."

"Saren." Desolas stood up. "You are named for our grandfather, a warrior through and through. You have made me proud beyond measure with your courage, your determination, your grit. I salute you, your people salute you. But all of this, Saren, is to ensure that we will never be the laughing stock of turian space again, that the Ragged General and his violent brother will be respected names, not feared ones."

"I understand." Saren looked away. "Brother, I don't want to appear ungrateful..."

"Then trust me." Desolas soothed him. "I've been at this a lot longer than you have. The Monolith, Jhirx, Primarch Sparatus and the Admiralty, it's all part of a game. A game that has been played since long before you or I were born. For the longest time, I believed I could stay free of the game, twist it to my own advantage. But now I have all the necessary pieces to play the game and win."

Saren turned away. "General, if there's one thing I've learnt, you should never play a game you have no aptitude for."

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A/N: Three updates, rapid fire, go on.

Next update, we make like a pirate and board. Not bored, that would be the opposite of what we're trying achieve here.