SSV Everest, Exodus Cluster

Remember, just like a drill. Just like a drill? Yeah, right! Serviceman Chung silently griped. Who did the brass think they were kidding? The drills had been established at a time long before anybody had even heard the term 'Reapers' as it referenced the race of sentient machines bent on total annihilation. The drills were designed with the aim of instructing the young men and women who manned the gunnery controls of the Alliance's largest warships in the fine art of demolishing cruisers before they could pose a threat. The drills hadn't been designed with the aim of launching twenty-kilogram ferrous slugs at one to one point five percent of light speed per second at motherfreaking REAPERS!

Despite the climate-controlled cool of the Everest's combat deck, a trickle of perspiration ran from Chung's hairline. It matched the trickle of unease he felt along his spine. Chung reminded himself that, powerful as she was, the dreadnought Everest wasn't alone out here in the black – the entire Alliance Fifth Fleet was here as well with craft ranging in size from single-seat fighters all the way up to the capital ships. The Fifth Fleet in turn was not alone either – the most battle-worthy of the quarian flotilla had joined the battle for survival. And a fleet of geth cruisers besides. Geth. Chung shook his head. There was a betting pool going, on who was apt to launch the first salvo, the quarians or their synthetic creations, thus dooming the already-fragile multi-lateral alliance.

Much as Chung respected Commander Shepard – the woman was a living legend after all, he was of the firm belief that the geth had no business playing nice with the very same organics they'd tried so very hard to kill. For centuries, in the case of the quarians. Still, much better them than us if it comes to that. And it wasn't like the geth were 'real people' – they were machines like the Reapers although not nearly as scary and great deal easier to kill.

Some tens of thousands of kilometres away, right next door in astronomical terms, was a single Reaper. Intel said it was 'small one.' Small? Shyeah right. Did those pen pushers not recall the cornholing a single Reaper had inflicted on the combined Citadel and human fleets?

"Gunnery control," Admiral Anderson's calm voice ordered and Chung stiffened in his seat. "Give me a firing solution on the Reaper."

Chung smiled as he recalled the words of the gunnery chief. Sir Isaac Newton is the meanest sonofabitch in space!...This is a weapon of mass destruction!...That is why you check your damn targets! That is why you wait for a firing solution! That is why, Serviceman Chung, you do not 'eyeball it!' You are not a cowboy shooting from the hip!

Chung smiled. He couldn't help it. Silently he mouthed, "If you pull that trigger, you are ruining someone's day, somewhere and some time!"

A female ensign's voice rose above the background murmur of a ship preparing for battle. "Firing solution locked in," she announced.

Standing tall on the combat deck, hands clasped behind his back, Anderson nodded. "Fire at will."

If he hadn't been waiting for it, anticipating it, Anderson would not have felt the subtle vibration through the deck as the dreadnought's 1.8 kilometre long main gun loosed its payload at the distant target. Centred in the Everest's main holographic display, the insectile Reaper seemed to shudder the slug impacted it, shattered hull fragments spiralling out and away from the battle space at ever-increasing velocities. Even as the dreadnought's main gun spoke a second time, the Reaper extended a claw-like appendage towards its aggressor, a dull red glow at its tip rapidly brightening to crimson.

Calmly, the Admiral called into his comm, "All hands, brace for impact!"

The Reaper's potent energy weapon flared brighter than the system's parent star, lashing the Everest's kinetic barriers and shaking the dreadnought's superstructure. As the attack subsided, Anderson demanded, "Damage report?"

"Kinetic barriers stable and holding at sixty-two percent," the ensign reported. A moment later she added. "The barriers can't take another hit like that, sir."

The Admiral nodded, calmly accepting this data. Beyond the Everest, the geth and quarian fleets added their own firepower and landing shots that would have utterly destroyed any allied vessel. The Reaper appeared to shrug off the damage, turning each of its appendages on a separate target. Simultaneously, three quarian and two geth craft dissolved in silent fireballs.

Anderson opened a comm line to Engineering, "Redirect all power from non-essential systems to the kinetic barriers." Over the ship-wide channel he ordered, "All hands secure for null-Gee operations." As he spoke, Anderson seated himself in the captain's chair at the centre of the CIC. A touch on an armrest control and straps slid into place across his hips, preventing him from floating free. Throughout the CIC, a rattle of metallic clicks echoed as each crewman strapped into their stations. As the dreadnought switched to null Gee, the lights dimmed and red emergency lighting cast an eerie glow upon the crew.

"Status?" Anderson called.

The ensign looked up from her console, "Kinetics at seventy-five percent and rising."

"Gunnery," Anderson straightened in his chair, "Give it everything we've got."

Even in the cold vacuum of space, the dreadnought's heat sinks struggled to dissipate the heat from repeated firings of the main gun and the ambient temperature within the CIC rose noticeably. And still, the Reaper would not succumb, claiming two of the Alliance cruisers flanking the Everest.

Then the ensign's voice rose in surprise as she reported, "Sir, sensors are detecting a massive surge in the Reaper's acceleration; it's jumping to FTL!"

A ragged cheer went up among the crew even as Anderson ordered, "Plot its most likely course and send out alerts to the fleets in other sectors. That thing has to show up somewhere." Anderson leaned forward in his seat, studying the now-empty space in the holographic display where the Reaper had been. "And when it does, we'll be ready."