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Chapter 66

"I stand corrected." Dani commented dryly. "This could have gone better."

Turns out raloi reacted to alien species dropping uninvited into the middle of their city about the way Marshall should have expected; with panic and violence, especially since at some point in the last century the asari had become connected to the Reapers as agents of said Reapers.

"You know this is all your fault." Dani added to Aria nonchalantly, as if the hail of bullets pinging against the barricade they had set up were of no consequence. Not that they were, as the raloi had indeed turned the clock back to the point of ballistic weapons. It would take concentrated fire from likely that entire police line for a good ten minutes before Dani's magnetic barrier would even acknowledge that something was hitting it.

"My fault." Aria repeated in deadpan. "Do tell me what I did again."

"You can hear them. The asari are the harbingers of the demon machines." Dani explained. "If you would have had the courtesy to not be asari, this wouldn't be happening. You know, you asari could have told everyone this a hundred years ago. I'm sure the Reapers were very confused when their agents started fighting them."

"It's a curse. Asari aren't good communicators I guess."

It's not often that Marshall watched a comedy show while facing live fire. Hermin, however, wasn't quite as at ease. "You do realize that they are still shooting at us?"

"They are?" Dani asked, sticking her head up over the concrete, and held position for fifteen seconds as gunpowder accelerated bullets bounced harmlessly off her barrier. Ducking back down, she said, "Hunh. So they are."

"You'd think they'd run out of ammunition eventually." Aria noted.

"Don't you think we should try and convince them we aren't a threat?" Harmin offered. At this point, he wasn't worried about themselves as much as innocent raloi getting caught in the line of fire.

Dani sighed comically, "We tried that, remember?" Her tone then shifted to faux happy, "Hi! We come in peace... oh! You say hello with bullets!"

As much as Dani was over-simplifying the sequence of events, Marshall had to agree it was a pretty accurate summation as well. The Yukon's descent had drawn the attention of law enforcement almost immediately, and it had been roughly three seconds after Marshall's feet hit the ground that they opened fire.

The same sort of fire that opened on him from his and Hermin's right flank. A small strike team had finally decided to try and circle around, raising their front leg to fire and hopping forward to advance. In response, Marshall burst a small shockwave to rip up the tarmac in front of him to form another barricade.

"I don't think they're going to give up, Captain." Dani observed.

"It doesn't seem like they're going to get the hint that they aren't going to hurt us, either." Aria added. "My worry is that might try to escalate their response further."

Marshall nodded. "I didn't want to get rough, but they might just leave us no other... move!"

His shout was in response to a sewer grate in front of them shifting, and the raloi who's head popped up from the pipes below found itself looking at four matter pistols promising to turn said head into finely seared plasma. It's bright red fringe flattened at the sight, and it dropped its head in a respectful bow.

"Greetings!" It said, the lower half of its beak dropping with a forked tongue curling back and quivering. "My name is Kralk. I do apologize for our less than sophisticated kin's welcome. If you would be so kind as to follow me, I can present you to those of us much more appreciative of your visit."

Dani and Aria both shrugged at the suggestion. They no doubt figured anywhere else would accomplish more than staying where they were. Hermin regarded the sewer with unease, but was able to shrug it off quickly enough.

"Somehow, I suspect when all is said and done, that walking through a bird shit sewer won't even rank in the top three most disgusting things I'll encounter on this tour of duty." He said with a frown.

Aria nodded. "Wouldn't even make a top one hundred list for me."

Even though no one could see it because of the quarian's helmet, they could hear the smile in Dani's voice. "One day, I will have to hear this list."

Aria grinned. "Number sixty three is a vat of krogan placenta gathered from Genophage victims."

The smile in the quarian's voice left quickly. "I don't want to hear this list anymore."

"I'm sure Aria can tell us all about it while we evac." Marshall ordered, gesturing to the open grate. "Lead the way, Mr. Kralk. Anywhere's got to be better than this."

111111

Their escort had not been exaggerating when they said they were going somewhere more receptive. The first clue was that an element zero powered shuttle was waiting for them at the extraction point at the end of their sewer dive.

Though the degree of improvement was up for debate.

The party settled in as Kralk tapped the cockpit divider as indication to move. "It's fortunate that we detected your entry. Unfortunate that you picked the wrong side of the planet to land on."

"If you knew we were approaching, why didn't you try to communicate?" Marshall asked suspiciously.

Kralk shrugged his wings. "Couldn't confirm your identity initially, then discovered our current comm channels aren't compatible with whatever you use nowadays."

Marshall groaned. "We use primarily QEC. You probably use something similar to the old Citadel subspace channels, don't you?"

"Which we never bothered to open when we didn't detect anything on this side of the planet." Aria added.

"Adapted to adjust for the loss of the mass relay, yes." Kralk replied. "Might be why you didn't catch our transmissions. Probably looking for us to be bouncing off comm relays in space and orbit. We developed our own buoy system through the top of our forest canopy. Keeps us 'silent' to outside visitors."

Kralk noticed the nervous expressions across his guests. "I won't lie, even my people are wary of visitors. But I hope you'll understand where we're coming from. The very last communications we received from the galaxy as a whole were from Thessia as the planet was being razed. Then the Reapers hit us."

"How bad?" Marshall asked.

"To the Nirsen here? Bad. Much of their infrastructure was damaged. Lost seven million in the first three days. And the Reapers didn't even bring any of their big guns. My people, the Primir, were much more lucky. By the time they were about to launch an attack on our borders... their forces... stopped. We got hit by a red wave of energy, and the Reapers dropped like someone had hit an off switch."

"The Crucible Pulse." Marshall explained. "It stopped the Reapers... temporarily."

That caused Kralk's fringe to ruffle. "Is... an attack imminent? Are... we about to be...?"

Marshall shook his head. "We don't know. The hope is that we can stop it before it becomes a rampaging genocidal menace this time."

"I'm afraid the raloi won't be of much help now as we were before. We weren't exactly on the cutting edge of development last century, and we haven't progressed that much since either."

Marshall waved off Kralk's thoughts, "I'll explain what we're looking for to your leaders. They'll probably have a better idea how to proceed."

The raloi nodded, "Understood. I shouldn't be prying anyways. I'm just the escort service."

Marshall moved to his comm. "Smoke, you still following us?"

"Aye, Ghost." He answered from the bridge. "Chipper's in upper orbit tailing you all as well."

"Good. I'd rather not impose on our hosts hospitality more than we already have." The captain said. "Any luck narrowing down exactly where we should be searching?"

"Somewhat? I guess? The problem, as I'm sure you well know, is that these chronicles have no telltale signs that we can pick up on when they're dormant, which at this point in the galactic cycle it would be... hey!"

Marshall was about to ask the reason for Smoke's abrupt protest when the answer came to him in Liara's voice, the asari no doubt "borrowing" the QEC at the captain's chair. "I apologize, Commander. Captain, have you ever played a game called 'Hot and Cold'?"

"Not really... but I'm familiar with it."

Liara then said, "The artifacts do have at least one singular operating process. They wake from their dormant state when they sense biotic energy. The closer you are, the more it reacts to your presence. Shepard and I used to play that game until we could locate the artifact. We have a rough idea where on Turvess it is. Between you and Agent T'loak, the two of you should be able to do the same thing."

Aria's eyes narrowed. "And how exactly would it let us know we are getting close?"

"Oh, you'll know." Liara replied. "It feels like a static field, though something only biotics sense. The field gets stronger the closer you are. The problem is that the Reticulans could, and often did, hide them in some really hard to access places."

"Like on Reticuli Prime, where the mechanism burrowed more than three kilos underground." Marshall said.

"By my experience, all of them were like that." Liara confirmed. "All of them underground, and all of them deep."

Dani exhaled, "So we do have to go through scorpion hell again. Wonderful."

"Let's worry about what's in front of us for now." Marshall advised. "Once we've made official contact with raloi leaders and established communication for them with the Council, then we'll worry about wading through giant scorpions."

11111

The main floor of Primir's Ministry Hall was a well lit amphitheater, empty save for three elder raloi, two males and one female judging from plumage coloring. They had introduced themselves a Minister Sresh, Minister Klee, and Minister Revish, and wasted no time ceding the floor to Marshall so that he could give them the full run down of what he knew and what he suspected.

And when Marshall actually laid it out all at once, he was a bit surprised to see how little it actually was.

"From what we can tell, all the information you have on the Reapers is second-hand?" Minister Sresh said warily, his faded blue and red fringe distracting as it rose and fell.

"Yes." Marshall replied, "A video archive from Sur'Kesh, testimony from a yagh about Parnack, and our own investigation of Reaper-influenced technology on Eden Prime."

Minister Revish, the female of the group identified by her drab brown feathers and lack of fringe, confirmed, "But no first hand sightings."

Marshall confirmed, "No. But considering how badly the last conflict with the Reapers went, surely you can understand why the Citadel Council would rather not wait for a fleet of Reaper craft to come bulldozing through the galaxy this time."

"But to ask ourselves to provide assistance for an enemy we don't even know exists..."

Marshall interjected, "We aren't asking for military assistance. We don't want you to start girding for war. The Council simply wants to re-establish ties in case such resources need to be pooled. In case you need to bunker down in the future. At this point, we're still hoping to stop the potential problem before it becomes one."

"And that is the other matter that brings you here?" Klee surmised.

"Yes, Minister." Marshall called up a projection of Turvess's surface, a flashing dot where the Reticulan artifact could supposedly be located, off the northwest coast of the opposite continent. "Does this mean anything to you?"

"The Scrawatti Coast." Revish said. "It's a cold country up there. Not much of anything useful except for old eezo deposits, which we don't have much use for. The deposits that are there are mostly depleted and take considerable refinement to be made useable."

"We believe there is an artifact from a previous civilization that might help us with solving the Reaper problem. It might have revealed itself at some point just before the Reaper War."

Shresh tilted his head, still flapping his fringe annoyingly. "The Scrawatti is largely uninhabited wasteland, unsuited for our kind. Even if it did try to reveal its presence, it's likely none of intelligence would have seen it. We certainly don't have any history that I know of about any alien influence before the coming of the asari."

"Would it be acceptable for us to look?" Marshall asked. Not that a "no" was going to stop him, but he felt offering the courtesy would be appropriate.

The three raloi conferred amongst themselves before regarding Marshall and Revish saying, "We suppose there is no harm in it, though if you would be willing to wait until morning, we could probably muster proper support to assist you."

"Proper support?"

Klee's tongue flicked across the sides of his beak, "Despite our status as the most advanced civilization on our planet, the raloi do not control much of Turvess's surface. We have to fight tooth and nail for our few mining operations with the naxi, arachnid burrowing creatures that remain the apex predator on the planet."

Marshall rubbed the back of his head. "Oh. Those things. Yeah, they aren't very friendly, are they?" Marshall had to admit that if the 'naxi', as the raloi called them, were around the site in mass that it could be an annoyance at the very least. "How long would it take to put together a support team? I'd rather not waste time."

The three consulted among themselves again, and this time Shresh who answered, "Would two hours be too much of a delay?"

"No, I suppose not."

Shresh's feathers fluffed in what he assumed was approval judging from the chirp to his voice. "Splendid! We'll have a vehicle take you to our finest accommodations while you wait! Thank you for being so cooperative!"

"We will comm you once our team is ready, and we shall seek to modify our communications to receive and send word to the new Citadel Council. We aren't certain how much help we would potentially be... but anything is better than nothing."

"Indeed it is." Marshall said with a parting salute, "Thank you, Ministers."

"And to you Spectre Brasser."

He took his leave of the assembly hall, his team waiting for their captain at the other side of the double doors separating the hall from the foyer. "They want us to wait for a support team to be assembled; which makes sense if we're going back down into that madhouse on the surface."

Dani sighed in obvious relief, "Could it be that we're going to have good fortune on a mission?"

Aria winced, "Well now that you said that, we won't."

"That is a proper invocation of Murphy's Law." Harmin added.

Dani eyed the salarian angrily. "Just bear in mind when a quarian says they are going to bite your head off, it is not necessarily a figure of speech."

Marshall pushed past the jawing trio, and pointed forward. "Let's get outside and wait for our chauffeur, shall we?"

The wait took nearly an hour in and of itself, something that even the two uniformed raloi sentries found curious when Marshall mentioned the peculiar delay. "It's usually a matter of no more than twenty minutes for even an impromptu summons." The primary officer had said. "It is curious that a driver hasn't responded yet."

"At this point, we could probably just stay here and wait for the support team." Dani grumbled.

"This planet is cold when you're not moving around." Hermin mentioned with a shiver. "I almost want to throw on my helmet and turn on climate control."

Marshall didn't think it was that bad, but on that same token, the salarian's native climate was what humans would consider tropical. "I won't stop you, Lieutenant." The captain said.

Hermin shook his head. "Oh, I couldn't. It's horribly rude to cover your face in a non-combat setting."

Fortunately for the JAG, it was at that point that a black closed top taxi shuttle pulled to an awkward if slow stop at the curb. The driver's side door opened, and a raloi male with green and yellow striped feathers and a black vest nearly stumbled out, though he managed to right himself before taking a nasty fall. "I am so very sorry I am late!" It meekly said in apology, "There was a frightful collision on the way here, and I got caught in the gridlock."

The primary officer's eyes narrowed, "I'm sorry... who are you? You're not Rask."

The chauffeur shook his head and grimaced, "I am Crawt, Rask's replacement. He... was one of the drivers caught in the collision."

"Oh." The officer said. "I'll need to see your credentials and confirm it. There was no word given to us of a change."

Crawt nodded vigorously, handing over a black leather-like billfold. "Of course."

The officer then turned around, and opened a comm... just in time for Crawt to lift his wings, revealing the raloi's short, and near useless arms...

... At least, when they weren't holding a sidearm that put a round into the back of the primary officer's head.

A quick turn and a shot from the hip caught the secondary officer in the neck. Crawt ignored Marshall and his team as they drew their own weapons, and said nothing to Marshall's demand that he drop his weapon immediately. Instead, the raloi scrambled to the shuttle, popped open all four doors, and said, "Get in! We don't have much time before this whole place is swarming with reinforcements!"

Marshall, not surprisingly, wasn't about to comply. "You just committed a double homicide and want us to take a ride with you?"

"If you value your lives; yes." Crawt said with irritation, "I understand that this is probably not the best way to introduce myself, but rest assured, the Ministry has no intention of providing you with a support team. There is military personnel waiting for you, I'm sure... but they are being mustered to kill you. I promise I will explain in greater detail on the way... but here and now is not the best time and place to do it."

Harmin interjected, tapping Marshall on the shoulder and saying, "As your legal representative, any honest civilization would categorize our current position as under duress. If the raloi were to hold us in contempt for following this fellow until we got more information, I would not consider them a species worth associating with."

"That's why you're the JAG." Marshall grumbled. "Alright, everyone in. You better have a damn good explanation for this, or I'm liable to do the raloi authorities job for them."

Marshall took the front seat, passengers side, making sure Crawt was painfully aware of the presence of Marshall's sidearm. The other three slipped into the back and Crawt wasted no time closing the doors and accelerating away from the assembly hall, taking a deep dive at the first opportunity down towards the surface.

"The Ministry is already under the sway of the entities you call 'Reapers', and have been for the last decade at the very least." Crawt finally explained. "This country has been abducting civilians for about that same amount of time to fuel the war engine that the leader of the Reapers demands."

As Marshall could not recall seeing this raloi anywhere that he could have overheard Marshall or anyone on his team suggest the Reapers still existed, it lent a hint of plausibility to Crawt's position, but obviously, Marshall needed a bit more convincing. "How do you know this?" He demanded.

"I represent the Primir Press Corps. Several of their journalists had started investigating stories of their government abducting former citizens. I myself was your standard gun for hire... until my two sisters, their mates, and their children wound up as part of the missing."

Aria didn't buy the story, "The Reapers don't do subtle. They've never done subtle. The amount of a species they need to build even a destroyer is to the tune of millions. I can't imagine a raloi government being able to kidnap that many without setting off some huge blow back."

"They were doing something similar to this on Eden Prime." Dani countered. "There certainly weren't millions of quarians on the Tonbay by any stretch."

"Perhaps the Reapers are still assessing the viability of the quarians and the raloi. If what Wrex presented is to be believed, they're more than capable of the global genocide we're all familiar with." Marshall said. Addressing Crawt again, he then asked, "How can you be so certain the raloi leaders are being influenced by the Reapers anyway?"

"Because I witnessed a meeting between the ministers you talked to and the Reaper's leader."

"How'd you manage that?"

Crawt focused on the path ahead as they broke through the canopy. "I'm a master of infiltration, human. As part of their investigation, I slipped in as serving staff as a meeting was taking place. Guards weren't quick enough to turn me away before I got a good earful of their conversation."

The raloi clicked it's tongue in distaste, "If I hadn't known better... if my family wasn't already Reaper food... I'd have been convinced their leader was doing this all for the good of the galaxy. It was a real smooth talker, but forceful when it needed to be to get those ministers nice and scared. It knows how to play people. I'm damn terrified of what the Reapers could do once they have numbers."

Aria was not one to be easily swayed. This was no different. "Captain, I still don't buy it. I know Reapers. I've fought them. This isn't their style... maybe someone is playing Reaper to take advantage of the raloi, but..."

"Still not convinced, are you?" Crawt said. "That's fine. You'll have no choice to believe me once we get where we're going."

"Where are we going, anyway?" Marshall queried.

"To the one place they don't want you going... the site that they've been casing for the last five years."