Chapter 116

Gunboat Diplomacy

XXXXX

"A week's leave?" Roger said, sounding as if he couldn't believe it. "We get a freaking week's leave?"

"That's correct," Miranda said. The Normandy was in dock at the Citadel, a high priority dock that was among the closest to the Presidium, reserved for VIPs and those who could afford to pay top dollar for the rent. At the moment, the Normandy certainly qualified for the latter.

The task force that had stormed the Collector Base was all gathered outside, with the exception of Shepard. Ashley couldn't help but look around for her captain. No doubt she was still in her cabin, wanting to be left alone until she was called up for her debriefing by Admirals Anderson and Hackett.

"A special arrangement has been made for active personnel arriving on the station," Miranda continued. "Those who are on leave are permitted to keep their equipment while on leave in the event of an emergency." There was a rather nasty implication that hung in the air after Miranda said "emergency." There was an unpleasant thought that Ashley could tell was passing through the minds of all present.

It has been two weeks since hostilities had been brought to a temporary end, and representatives from all major governments had been flocking to the Citadel in order to attend the peace talks, large swathes of soldiers coming with them. President Woods had finally arrived earlier today, making her the last representative to reach the Citadel, meaning that the station was now filled with thousands of soldiers from governments that had been at war a mere fifteen days ago. So why were soldiers allowed to keep their weapons when they weren't on active duty? It implied more than a few things, none of them pleasant to think about.

"Be warned though," Miranda said sternly. "C-Sec is on maximum alert. Practically every bar, brothel, and casino on the Citadel has officers swarming all over it, on the look out for any soldiers that are causing trouble. Part of the peace talks included giving them authority to arrest members of armed forces if they starting causing trouble, and the right to shoot to kill if lives are at risk. So it doesn't matter how high emotions run, we're all guests on the Citadel at the moment."

"Hopefully you won't need to know any of this, but things are balancing on a razor's edge right now," Ashley added in. "Go out, enjoy yourselves, and don't cause problems for yourself or anyone else. Do me a favor, make it so that I didn't need to tell any of you this. Dismissed." Almost at once, the Morieans in the group, sans Roger, split off to the rest. Ashley could vaguely hear some mumeries about them honoring the dead and them looking for the right bar for the job. Ashley couldn't help but remember the last time alcohol and Moreians had gotten mixed with Falo, and prayed that C-Sec was up to snuff.

"Lieutenant, question." Ashley pushed her thoughts to the back of her mind to see Roger approaching her. "You're on leave too, right?" Ashley gave a brief nod. With the Normandy out of active combat and not needed anywhere, most of the paperwork being handled by Coalition intelligence agents who were double and triple checking everything on the Normandy's hard drives with the help of EDI, she too had some time off. "Well, if you're up for it, a lot of the others and I were talking about heading over to this pretty good place we heard about, it's called the Dark Star Lounge. It's a bit more classy than a lot of the bars around here, so I thought you might be interested."

Ashley allowed herself a small smile. "I seem to remember a wild party the day after the Collector Base mission. After that, you and the others still have an appetite for killing your brain cells with liquor?"

Roger let out a laugh. "Between you and me, I can't drink as much as I used to." He flexed his mechanical arm. "Funny thing about cybernetic limbs. There's a lot of body mass that they replace, and with less body mass, the booze can't defuse as much as it used to. So I get drunk a lot faster than I used to when I had ten toes and ten fingers." He smirked. "And yet I still can easily drink Sheryl under the table. But anyway, end point is that I'll be going there for the atmosphere more than anything else. Good music, general friendly attitude, the two I really care about, and a good friend if she's up for it."

Ashley would never admit it, even if there was a shotgun pressed against her head by an angry Krogan, but she was touched by Roger referring to her as his friend. It felt like a stupid thing to be affected by, after all, the baggage between them had been dealt with a long time ago, but it was still a pleasant surprise. Even if, the more she thought about it, it wasn't that surprising. It was more a welcome distraction from the fragile nature of the peace that hung in the balance. "Lead the way," she said.

"Dark Star, huh?" Wrex said, working his way to the head of the throng. "More of a Chora's Den guy myself. They always give me discounts there, and I could probably get some for the rest of you." He gave a small shrug. "Then again, half of you might take issue with the fact that I get discounts because the owner thinks I'll trash the place if I don't get 30% off."

"And would you?" Nora asked, sounding as if she wasn't sure whether to laugh or be angry.

"Nope," Wrex said, a massive shit eating grin spreading across his face. "But I never told him that. He just assumed that I would and I was in no hurry to correct him. Hey, if he wants to assume the big ugly Krogan is a violent thug, that's on him, not me." Nora's eyes had been narrowed up until this point, but they loosened as she let out a hearty laugh. "Well, Humans, Standard, Necro and Meta, don't come to the Citadel that often. The whole 'I hate you, you hate me, but we're gonna pretend otherwise until we start shooting each other' deal you had with the Council probably made it awkward. So I'm gonna guess you don't know where the lounge is. So follow me if you're tired of being sober."

With Wrex in the lead, the group departed from the dock and made their way through the Citadel. As they moved towards the lower levels, Ashley couldn't help but notice more than a few disapproving looks being thrown their way by the various aliens that lived on the Citadel. She supposed that it was only natural, considering that they had been at war with them not too long ago, but it still made moving through the Citadel feel uncomfortable. More uncomfortable than it usually did anyway.

Eventually, they found themselves outside the Darkstar Lounge, at least Ashley assumed it was the Darkstar Lounge, there wasn't a visible name. Filing in through the entrance way, the made their way to the bar and managed to take up a good portion of it all by themselves. The Turian behind it looked a little startled at the massive influx of customers, but kept his cool. "Coalition? Hey, fine by me so long as your money's good, but I can't have you guys causing trouble in here, all right? C-Sec has been up my rear all day and I don't need another reason to come back here. So what can I get you?"

Ashley barely listened as the requests for drinks were listed off, mere asking for some water herself. The amount of alcohol consumption had reached such an insane level since the Collector Base, that she just couldn't help but feel oversaturated by the prospect of it. Too much of it had happened for her taste. So instead, she looked around.

A loud but pleasant beat was playing over the lounge's speakers and a dance floor was illuminated with bright, multicolored lights. Despite this, very few people were dancing. In fact, the lounge looked like it had practically been deserted before the Normandy crew members had arrived. Getting up, Ashley returned to the entrance and took a quick peek outside. Now that she thought about it, the overall foot traffic on the Citadel looked a little lighter than the last time she had seen it all those months ago. It was a small sample size, but it made her feel uncomfortable all the same.

She returned to the bar, just in time to see drinks being handed out to the group, many of whom left the bar after being served to locate more private tables. Nora, Sheryl and Roger took one for themselves, Jessica joining them after a decent bit of coaxing. The former Enclave Special Forces operative sat opposite her former foes, looking both uncertain and pleased. Roger activated her omni-tool and showed something to her, while Sheryl let out a loud yawn after a few sips of her drink and leaned to her side, resting her head on Nora's shoulder. Smiling, the larger woman took off her hat and plucked it onto the top of Sheryl, who didn't seem to mind at all.

Adam and Cornelia had taken a table to themselves. To her surprise, they had both activated their omni-tools and now holograms of some sort of card game were coating the table. It was no game that Ashley recognized, although it clearly wasn't a standard 52 card deck game. Odd looking figures were coming out of the cards after they were plaid, clashing against each other with brutal and obviously fake viciousness. She could see Cornelia playing a game like that, but was surprised that Adam was into that sort of thing. It didn't match the kind of quiet, caring dignity that came with being a priest. Then again, neither did chugging Nuka-Cola.

She watched the game for a little bit, trying to follow it without knowing the rules. Cornelia seemed to be trying to flood the board with large numbers of weak creatures in an attempt to overwhelm Adam, while Adam seemed to be trying to build up a steady front line of much stronger creatures. Both of them seemed to be losing a large amount of cards each, but Cornelia had a grin on her face while Adam looked worried. That was probably a safe bet that he was losing.

"So, tell me, what's the plan for the Krogan people after this?" Ashley turned her head. Wrex was standing with Garrus and Liara nearby, Wrex holding two glasses of what looked like Ryncol. "What exactly are you going to be demanding from the Council?" Garrus asked. Interested, Ashley moved towards the three of them.

"Not gonna lie, that's something I never worked on the details of until recently," Wrex said. "Up until recently, the end goals for the Krogan were just getting around the Genophage. Get enough fertile females to get around the Genophage, hate the Council because of the Genophage, and I was always arguing that we had to stop fighting each other because of the Genophage." He drained one of the glasses. "You probably got a good impression from Wreav, but a lot of Krogan didn't even want to listen to that."

He drained the other glass. "But as for what comes after, it's hard to figure out. Nearly all Krogan just came to accept the Genophage as something that they were going to have to live with, no matter how much they hated it. This is something you need to understand, if you were a Krogan born between this whole mess and the Krogan Rebellions, the Genophage was part of your life, and a massive part of your identity as a Krogan."

Wrex slid the glasses onto a counter-top as he continued talking, the bartender giving him a refill. "I've seen so many young Krogan just not giving a damn about throwing their lives away on stupid clan feuds or mercenary work. I talked to a lot of them back when I lived on the homeworld, trying to bring them into clan Urdnot, get them to work towards something better. You know what they said? Every single time? What's the point, we're all going to be extinct in a couple thousand years anyway."

Wrex sighed. As he sighed, for the first time, Ashley truly appreciated the fact that Wrex was well over a thousand years old. "For my people, there was no after the Genophage. We dreamed about it, but we never thought that it was actually going to happen. Now it's happened, and I need to give my people a future, while also making sure we don't end up right back where we started."

"I hate to be the one to say this," Garrus said, "but you're going to have to find a way to make sure you don't piss off the Council again. If you take the same old expansion routes that you did before the Krogan Rebellions, the Council is going to mobilize and I'm not certain the Coalition will risk going to war a second time over this."

"I know, I've been thinking about that," Wrex said. "We're gonna need to put in some kind of breeding law. Though I was probably gonna have to do that anyway. The Genophage gets cured, we go right back to screwing to make kids in the old numbers, and the Hierarchy almost beats us within a month by starving us to death. We don't have the infrastructure for the old kind of breeding, and probably won't for decades. Though you're wrong on one point Garrus. I won't be dealing with the Council."

Garrus blinked. "What?"

"He'll just be dealing with the Turian Hierarchy," Liara added in. "Though they may receive some support from the Union. This war has...changed the Council. The Council couldn't stand united in their decision of how they wanted to approach the Coalition, the Asari Republics didn't stand by the Union and the Hierarchy when they needed them. And now that everyone knows what the Reapers and Collectors are, there's an uproar from nearly all species that the Republics were in the right to not side." She gave a weary sigh. "And just as many for saying that they were just in the wrong because they stayed neutral and didn't stand against Saren."

"I hate to say it, but in a conflict, both sides tend to have a dim view of those who don't side with them," Garrus said. "They view them as looking out for their own self interest and not working towards the greater good."

"Pretty roundabout way of saying that people think they're cowards, but basically," Wrex said. "Speaking of which, the next round of meetings starts in half an hour, so I'll have to leave to make it up to that. This'll be real fun. Half of the words out of the Council always start with 'this has always been the case' or 'this has never been the case' when I bring up proposals. They just don't seem to get it. This war was pretty small compared to the Rachni Wars and Krogan Rebellions, the Council can't just go back to being the Council after all of this."

Ashley chose now to enter the conversation. "Do you think the Council's going to end up being dissolved?" she asked. She couldn't help but remember how the United Nations had dissolved back on Pre-War Earth as a prelude to the Great War. She wasn't overly fond of the Council, but she very much wanted to avoid that scenario happening all over again.

"Nah, they've been doing this for three-thousand years, that's too much to just drop everything," Wrex said. "It's just that what the Council says is going to end up mattering less and less. Representatives that have an issue with laws aren't going to go to them, they're just bypass them and to straight to the heads of state of their governments. The Council will get some bones thrown at them, but them being the be all end all? That's over. Maybe for good."

"So where do we go from here then?" Ashley asked. "Does the Coalition have to sign separate peace and trade treaties for each member of the Council? We had a rather blanket treaty after the First Contact War, does that even apply anymore?"

Wrex shrugged. "Couldn't tell you. Still, I'll give you credit. The Coalition did in a few months what the Krogan couldn't do in three centuries. You completely turned the Council on its head." Ashley lowered her head, taking a small sip of her water. She had not wanted this to happen. She had had no desire to fracture galactic politics like this. The only thing she had wanted to do was protect the Coalition and their way of life.

"A joke Williams," Wrex said. "Trust me. When you're in a shit situation, sometimes you gotta learn to laugh at things. I've made more than one joke about how I've got four balls and none of them worked properly every time I tried my luck at having a kid." Despite the unpleasant mental image that gave her, Ashley couldn't help but let out a small snort of laughter. It didn't do a whole lot to remove the overwhelming feeling that was slowly starting to creep over her. The feeling that something was broken she was grimly awaiting the punishment that would follow.

Before the conversation could continue, Wrex's omni-tool gave a loud beep. "Well, crap, they want to start early today," he said, checking it. "Guess they want to get things rolling now that President Woods is here in person and not communicating via hologram." He paused, reading the message that had been sent to him in detail. He blinked. "Shit," he said. "They want Shepard to be part of today's meetings."

A heavy silence fell over the four of them. "Why?" Garrus asked tersely. Ashley was pretty sure Garrus, Liara and herself all knew the reason, but none of them wanted to say it out loud in the vain hope that they were wrong. Wrex disappointed them.

"It looks like, as part of the peace agreement we've been spending all of our meetings making barely any progress on, they want her brought up on war crimes," he said. "Yesterday we finally managed to get the Council to agree to not press charges on anyone for curing the Genophage, though probably only because we're part of proceedings and they can't just ignore us anymore, but it looks like they're coming at this from the Rachni angle."

"We were all there," Liara said sharply. "We were all part of Shepard's crew when that decision happened. If she's going to be brought up on charges, then they can do it to all of us. Or are they too afraid to hurt their already fragile image to say that one of Thessia's most respected Matriarchs, and her daughter, were involved?"

"Probably," Wrex said. "Anderson and Hackett sent me this message, that seems to be the general impression that they got from. Oh, and they also said that they would really appreciate it if I didn't make too much of a stink about this, and that they would try and make sure that Shepard isn't charged, though they may have to discipline her on their end to make the Council happy. So in other words, they're telling me to shut up and be a goody little boy." He sighed. "I was starting to like the Coalition's leadership. I guess I should keep all my love for Marcus, the only major military leader in the galaxy more infertile than I am." Ashley didn't laugh this time.

"You will help her, won't you?" Liara asked, sounding more than a little nervous.

Wrex looked honestly offended at the question. "I think I can be bothered to help the sister of the man who died helping to curing my species of the biological that had been driving them down a slow path to extinction. Doubly so considering it was her idea in the first place." Liara gave an apologetic nod, but Wrex waved it off, evidently able to figure out what she was about to say. "Don't apologize, we've got bigger stuff to worry about. I'll do what I can on my end, you may want to get in contact with your mother and see if she can pull any strings from your end."

Liara activated her own omni-tool, looking a little worried. 'I'll try, but something odd has been happening. My mother hasn't been responding to any of my messages. It's not just me either, I've asked a few of her old friends, and they haven't heard anything from her either. It's been like this for over a month now." She swallowed. "You don't think something happened to her, do you?"

"No," Garrus said without hesitation. "The only one who would be stupid enough to try and hurt your mother is Saren. And if Saren had done anything to bring harm to an Asari Matriarch as known and respected as your mother, the Republics would have fought alongside the Coalition without question. If I had to guess, your mother was most likely busy dealing with the war."

"I hope so," Liara said, typing into her omni-tool. "I'll send a message asking for help just to be on the safe side. Hopefully she'll be able to pull through with help for Shepard on this one. They were both the ones who decided to let the Queen go after all."

"Let me know if anything comes up," Wrex said, sounding annoyed. "In the meantime, I have to go make sure your people don't through her to a pack of hungry Varren." With a grunt, Wrex made for the exit. Ashley watched him go, badly wishing she cold follow him. Anderson and Hackett had said that they had only been interested in making sure that Jane was still fit for duty. She wanted to believe that they wouldn't offer her up to appease the Council, but if the alternative was the war flaring up again, would they stand by her?

Ashley tried hard to not think of the answer to that question.

XXXXX

Shepard was in a strange place of limbo. She heard everything that the representatives at what was hesitantly being called a peace summit were saying, but her thought process went no deeper than that. She heard it and remembered all of it, but did not analyze it at all. The end result was her taking more and more mental notes of a series of conflicting accusations, interests, and agendas, without bothering to consider what they all meant. It wasn't meaningless noise to her, but it was noise that she was making no effort to find the meaning of.

She took a look around, taking in everyone who was present on the Presidium. Admirals Anderson and Hackett, the Council, President Woods, General Moore, Dalatrass Linron, Primarch Fedorian, Admiral Shala'Raan, Legion, Wrex, who had just walked in a few minutes ago, General Victus, a representative from the Batarian Hegemony whose name Shepard didn't know, and several Asari Matriarchs. In-between all of them were dozens upon dozens, maybe even hundreds, of soldiers from the representative governments of the representatives. Shepard didn't recognize most of them, but she did spot Cadance Moore near her mother at the head of a group of Enclave soldiers in power armor, her super sledge on her back.

They weren't in the chamber in which the Council met, it was far too small for this. Instead, a conference room had been reserved for them, a wide, open room with circular tables and observation seats that could seat hundreds. Most of them were empty, minus a few VIPs that had been given permission to be there.

"Reginam, despite everything, is a citizen of the Hegemony!" the Batarian representative made, although he didn't look as confident as he was trying to sound. "The crimes that she committed were against the Batarian people, within the territory of the Hegemony! It is our right to judge her as one of our own, without outside interference."

Jane shook her head. She had heard about the glassing Reginam had ordered, and something about the severity of that crime caused her mind to slowly slog forward. Subconsciously, she began to follow the beats of the arguments and debates again, though not as fast as she normally did. The first thing she noticed was that nearly every government representative was glaring at the Batarian. The only exceptions were Legion, who Shepard wasn't certain was emotionally capable of glaring, and Linron, who looked more annoyed than angry.

"Ignoring how no galactic power would ever allow such an atrocity to go unpunished," Hackett said coldly, "Batarian civilians were not the only target. Hundreds of thousands of Moriena shock troopers and mercenaries in the employment of the Coalition were on Tialiv. It was an act performed against an enemy you were at war with, and I do believe that that qualifies as a war crime, am I correct?"

"I can think of approximately one dozen treaties that the Batarian Hegemony signed in which they agreed to the classification of orbital bombardment as a war crime," Sparatus said. "All of them classified the targeting of civilian centers during an armed conflict as a war crime as well, none of them clarifying that there was an exception to friendly ones." Sparatus clicked his talons against the table in frustration and obvious dislike. Shepard had to admit, it felt odd seeing him being angry with someone who wasn't a member of the Coalition for a change. If the situation was just a little bit different, she might have enjoyed the experience.

"Precisely," Anderson said. "And as Reginam was the one who ordered the largest mass slaughter of civilians this century, we, as representatives of the galactic community as a whole, demand the right to see her punished for her crimes. A right we fully intend to pursue." He looked around at the other representatives. "Unless there are any objections."

Nearly all of them shook their heads, even Woods and Moore joining in with disgust on their face. Legion didn't nod, instead gently moving its head back and forth as it observed the talks, and Linron, who simply chose not to respond and seemed to have become suddenly fascinated with her omni-tool. Shepard could help but feel that she looked thoroughly apathetic from this distance.

"I-I will have to confirm this with the provisional government," the Batarian said, wiping sweat from his brow. "But, if we are putting my former head of government on trial for her crimes, then surely we should be putting all who have committed crimes against the galaxy on trial, shouldn't we?" A heavy silence fell into the room. Quite a few of the onlookers glared at the Batarian even more heavily, while some heads turned in Jane's direction. "I'm just saying, we still don't know where the Rachni are and-"

"You'll forgive me if this sounds like a naked attempt to change the subject to make yourself look good by comparison," Woods said scathingly. "Your Chancellor was the one that gave an order to have millions of living, thinking lives out of existence because of spite. Kind of seems like you're in a hurry to make everyone forget about that."

"And if we're discussing the matter of war crimes, I feel that there's a few more important matters that need to be cleared up before hand," Moore said, turning her head away from the Batarian and onto Linron. As if she could sense the general's glare, Linron looked up, waiting patiently. "Are you in possession of any Enclave prisoners of war?"

Linron nodded. "Thousands of them, all of whom are being kept comfortable and cared for," she said, her voice controlled and neutral. "If you wish to discuss the exchange of POWs, I beleive that can be easily arranged, particularly with the Turian prisoners has from the battle of Tuchanka. I am not certain what you are attempting to imply with frivolous accusations of war crimes. Are you suggesting that we have been mistreating the personnel that we have taken captive?"

"No," Moore said, her hands tightening into fists as she spoke, looking as if she wanted to do nothing more than vault over the tables and skewer Linron with her sword. "I'm just wondering exactly how many prisoners there are. See, that invasion force you smashed was massive, both ground and space based, and we have hundreds of thousand of men and women unaccounted for. We have good guesses on who died and who survived the naval engagement, but things are still fuzzy with the ground battle. I was on the surface of Sur'Kesh, I saw what happened down there. Tell me. Do Yahg even understand the concept of taking prisoners? My experience with them was brief, but they struck me as the type that don't. I mean, the Council quarantined them for a reason."

"A quarantine that I think we all agree should be reestablished as soon as possible," Woods said. "Unless the entire species has been uplifted as a response to the war between us. Has it?" Even through the haze that was clouding her mind, Shepard felt a small pang on panic. She could see half of the occupants of the room react in similar manners, stiffening, recoiling, and looking concerned as their attention turned to Linron.

"No," Linron said. "The hundred-thousand Yahg that were recruited to serve in the war are the only Yahg that have been allowed off planet since their homeworld was quarantined. The Salarian Union reached out to the Yahg and permitted some of their warriors the chance to leave their planet in exchange for serving the Union. In exchange, they were promised that the Union would speak to the Council on their behalf, asking them to reexamine the quarantine and consider lifting it."

"That was well beyond your authority!" Sparatus shouted, sounding utterly livid. "The Yahg quarantine was put in place by the Council, the

Council. One species can't simply subvert the authority of the Council when it represents the interests of all of its member and non-member species."

"I understand this," Linron said, "And I submit my wrong doings to the Council, for them to prosecute with the full extent of their authority." Jane's eyes narrowed. There was something rather nasty and smug about the way Linron had just said that. As if she thought she had some kind of trump card to assure that nothing would come of any attempts to incriminate her. And, unless she was mistake, Primarch Fedorian looked rather dejected as he watched this conversation play out.

"I think a disarmament of this Yahg army and a return of all survivors to their homeworld should be the first step taken here," Tevos said, her voice gentle, but with a trace of frustration to it. "You promised the Yahg that you would bring the matter of removing the quarantine to us and ask us to consider it. We will do just that" She looked back and forth between her fellow councilors, both of whom shook their heads. "We have considered it. The quarantine will stand. If anything, the Battle of Sur'Kesh has proven how wise the councillors who ordered the quarantine put in place were."

"Of course, I utterly agree with you," Linron said, blatantly being disingenuous. "The disarmament of the Yahg army is already underway, and five thousand of them are already on shuttles and cargo ships heading for their homeworld. I will pass along your message to them." She gave a quick nod of the head, just brisk and short enough to not be polite at all. "Now then, I do think we should discuss the matter of the Rachni. They're still loose in the galaxy and have not been spotted for months. It-"

"You still didn't answer my question," Moore asked. "Over half of my task force got left behind on Sur'Kesh. Less than 40% of it got evacuated. Quarians were down there too, even if it wasn't a lot of them. So please tell me. Are any of them still alive? Are there any that you took as prisoners? Or did the Yahg just gun down anyone and everyone that they say?" Moore's voice was deadly quiet. "One of our generals was down there. General Gaulle. I know for a fact that they killed her, even though she was in no shape to fight back."

Shepard felt like someone had just punched her in the gut. She blinked, looking at Moore. That couldn't be right. Sam was dead? Moore didn't notice her looking. Cadence, however, did. The power armor glad woman glanced at Shepard and gave a small nod. Cadence wasn't wearing her helmet and, unless Shepard was mistaken, she could see tears sparking in her eyes. The haze slowly began to creep back over shepard, but the horrible, twisted wrongness that had come with learning about Sam's death continued to eat away at her gut.

Linron gave an arrogant smirk. "I can assure you that no surrenders were offered. It seemed, no doubt a part of the rigid training you put your men through, that they all chose to fight to the last man. To imply otherwise would be a rather serious accusation, one that I do hope that you don't intend to make without proof."

"Of course not," Moore said, folding her arms. "Which is why I have to ask that you hand over all bodies and war equipment of the fallen. We had plenty of soldiers with recording equipment on them, at least one squad member has a helmet for gathering intelligence. A quick look at them would be enough to tell us all what happened." Her voice dropped so low it was almost a snarl. "And it'd be rather telling if the recording equipment was all destroyed or tampered with. But since you're so innocent, you wouldn't mind handing it all over, would you?"

"I agree with General Moore," Woods said, staring at Linron. She was more composed than Moore, but Shepard could still see icey cold hatred in the older woman's eyes.

Linron's smirk faltered, but quickly returned. Shepard couldn't tell if it was genuine or if the Salarian was putting up an act. "Of course. The war is over now. We need to focus on building bridges. And as a measure of good faith, all Enclave prisoners of war will be returned to you."

"And Quarian ones?" Shala'Raan added. She had mostly been quiet up until this point, no doubt a result of the fact that the Quarians had easily the least political clout out of all those gathered, but her voice was firm. "Dozens of Quarian vessels were lost in the orbital battle of Sur'Kesh. Have they been treated well? Even with the modified FEV that cured out immune system, barely any of us have gone through the physical therapy required to live outside our suits normally. It would be highly easy to abuse Quarian prisoners of war, simply raising or lowering the temperature and forcing them out of their suits would be enough."

"I wouldn't worry," Woods said, her voice almost casual, but still as hard and cold as steel. "Dalatrass Linron is a wise and kind leader. Of course she's been treating your men with respect and of course she was going to be returning your sailors with mine." She gave a small smile at Linron. Shepard knew the smile. It was the kind of smile you wore when you had to pretend to like someone while also implying that you'd much rather be bashing their skull in with a short bit of pipe. "Isn't that right Dalatrass?"

Again, Linron's smirk flickered. "Of course. And I assure you, they have been very well cared for. We will have them heading back towards Rannoch within a week. Transport will be provided. I'll even permit them to keep some second hand shuttles, I'm well aware at how invaluable they are to your people." Shepard was 99% sure that that last line had been intended as an insult towards the Quarians. Judging by the way Shala'Raan tensed up in response, it had worked.

Clearing his throat to prevent matters from devolving into mud slinging, Hackett spoke. "Then, in order to match the Salarian Union's selfless generosity, we will also ensure that all Turian POWs are returned to Hierarchy space within two weeks. I'll send word to begin preparations."

The Turian councilor gave a nod of respect towards Hackett. "Thank you admiral. If you could please do me a small favor, I'd like a list of those who survived the battle. I'm certain their families would like to know that their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters are coming home."

Hackett nodded, but before he could say anything else, Primarch Fedorian spoke up. "I deeply appreciate the gesture admiral, and I don't wish to come off as ungrateful, but I must ask that you return all Turians from Tuchank, not just the POWs." Primarch Fedorian's words sunk in as silence creeped into the room again. A few heads turned to look at General Victus. "All surviving members of General Victus' force must return to Hierarchy space and face judgement for their actions."

"For desertion I imagine?" Hackett asked. Fedorian nodded grimly. He didn't seem to be taking any pleasure in this, but there was a rock solid determination in his eyes. Jane had a bad feeling that, no matter what, he wasn't going to be backing down on this front. Fedorian nodded. "I understand your claim, but currently those soldiers are under the protection of the Coalition and its allies. I can't just ask them to turn themselves in after everything they've done for us."

"You don't have to," Victus said. He had been sitting with the Coalition representatives, but now he stood to his feet. "Primarch? I will return to the Hierarchy to face judgement under one condition. Pardon my men. They were doing their duty as soldiers of the Hierarchy, to follow the orders of their superior and never break the chain of command. They never broke the chain. I did. Do not punish them for doing what every citizen in the Hierarchy has been trained from their teenage years to do."

Fedorian paused, looking directly at Victus. Quite a bit of talking had broken out between the other representatives, but Jane ignored it, focusing purely on the two Turians. "You know how the Hierarchy works, an example needs to be made," he said. "If the security of our people is put at risk by the actions of one of own, then that person is no longer fit to be a servant of the Hierarchy."

"I agree," Victus said. "Which is why I should be the target of the Hierarchy's judgement and I alone. The duty of a soldier is to follow the order of his superiors and lead his subordinates in the right direction in accordance with the will of their superiors. None of my men broke either of these procedures. I broke both. If you must, punish me for the actions of my mine. They deserve better."

There was a long, pregnant pause from Fedorian. "You are certain on this stance?" Victus nodded. "Very well then. As Primarch of the Turian Hierarchy, I strip you of your rank, and dishonorable discharge you from the Hierarchy's armed forces. I also sentence you to exile for the rest of your life. You will have a month to put your affairs in order before this exile begin." He blinked. Jane couldn't help but notice that he didn't look happy about any of this. "You are aware where you will be expected to go for your exile."

"I am," Victus said, giving a nod so small it was barely noticeable. His voice sounded strained. "I will need transportation there. I also have several recommendations for my replacement. Quite a few talented commanders have, I beleive, what it takes to be a general of the Hierarchy."

"I see. I will be certain to look at them after this meeting is done." Fedorian paused, looking as though he was lost for a second, but recovered quickly. Shepard wondered if Fedorian would be doing this if the strict nature of Turian society didn't demand otherwise. "You will return to Turian space as soon as possibly, handing over control of your flagship to your XO when you do. After that, all access to classified information will be revoked, and you will be required to turn over all military hardware and software in your possessions. Do you understand?"

"Yes Primarch," Victus said, taking his seat and looking down at the table, saying nothing more. An uncomfortable silence filled the room.

"Well, now that that matter is settled," Linron said, and even through the dull haze hanging over her, Shepard felt a spike of anger, "we really should move onto the next matter on the agenda. The Rachni simply need to be addressed, if I can do this without being interrupted. Unless there is anything else that we feel should be discussed before." More than a few dirty looks were thrown at Linron, one from Primarch Fedorian, but no one objected to the change of topic.

A creeping feeling of resignation began to spread through Shepard. She had known that this would happen. "Thank you. Now, I do believe we all know our history of the Rachni Wars, even if many of the species here had not risen up to the stars when it happened, so some of us may not fully be able to grasp the horrors of it."

"Some of us may also not be able to grasp the horrors of it because they had to get another species to fight for them in the war they started," Wrex dryly. "It's a complicated war after all."

For the first time during that meeting, Linron's calm and smug demeanour vanished, and pure hatred flooded in. She looked as if she was going to start screaming at Wrex, but instead she closed her eyes, inhaling deeply. "As I was saying," she said, acting as if Wrex had not interrupted her, "it was a tragedy the likes of which would only be repeated once in the next two-thousand years." Jane wondered if that was an insult directed at the Krogan. Wrex snarled in response to the statement, so whether it had been intended as such or not, Wrex seemed to be taking it that way. "But, sadly, it seems that the galaxy is doomed to relieve it yet again, as they have been unleashed, and we have no way in which to track them."

"I trust you have been reading our reports on the Reapers?" Hackett asked. "We were quite detailed on their capabilities, but one thing in particular stood out to us. The ability known as Indoctrination, a signal that works its way into the mind of an organic being and slowly gains control of it." His eyes narrowed. "You are familiar with what I'm talking about, correct?" Linron nodded curtly. "Then I hope you understand that the accusation of Rachni being a threat to the galaxy doesn't carry the same weight that it used to. The Rachni Queen that was released claimed that her children had been corrupted by, and I quote, "a sour yellow note." Given the time frame, it's all too possibly that a Reaper near their planet indoctrinated the Rachni. We have records that suggest that even dead and damaged Reapers are capable of this, Saren experienced something similar during his excavations."

"Exactly," Wrex said. "When we first met the Queen, I was all for smashing her head with a rock and then taking a flamethrower to her eggs. Just like my grandfather used to talk about, honoring old Krogan traditions, you know? But we had a Matriarch look inside her head, and unless you're saying that a half starved and weak Rachni Queen has some sort of trick that can beat them poking around your head, well, we had three-hundred years of trying to figure one out and we couldn't come up with anything." He activated his omni-tool. "I'm not exaggerating. Asari extracting intelligence from Krogan POWs was a big concern during the Rebellions, I've got a few records covering it if you need some proof. Asari historians too, so don't waste my time whining about bias."

"While I fully admit that conventional technology has proven to be incapable of stopping powerful Matriarchs from gathering intelligence, all records we have on this matter are on Council races," Linron replied, her smarminess starting to flow back into her voice. "In the centuries during which we fought the Rachni War, a Queen was never taken alive. The act of sending a force out to the depths of a Rachni controlled world and extracting one was simply impossible. We only know what we do from autopsies, and Rachni Queens were so durable that even Krogan had to make copious use of heavy firepower to bring them down. The corpses we were able to recover were in very bad shape. Simply put, we don't know what happens when an Asari mend melds with the Rachni hive mind."

She continued. As she did, her gaze shifted away from Wrex and onto Shepard. Shepard met her stare without blinking, but didn't respond beyond that. "And while itis a massive relief that there is a strong possibility that the Rachni attacked because of reasons beyond their control, we only learned this recently. Back when they were released, we had every reason to believe that they were inherently aggressive and expansionist, attacking all other species on sight and overrunning their territory. The act of releasing a Rachni Queen during that time was nothing short of reckless and dangerous. And those responsible should be held accountable." Linron didn't say Shepard's name. She didn't have to. Everyone in the room was looking directly at her.

"All of those responsible? So you're saying that you want to put Matriarch Benezia on trial?" Anderson asked. "Is the Asari Republics willing to take part in that? Because allow me to make one thing perfectly clear. No soldier or sailor within the Coalition is going to be put on trial for a farce of justice. Matriarch Benezia had just as much responsibility in the Rachni being released, and far more authority. Captain Shepard has been called to this meeting, doubtless with the intention of having her convicted for the act of sparing the Rachni, but I don't see Benezia anywhere. Unless you are making a strong case to put her on trial too, the Coalition will not even consider charging Captain Jane Shepard with anything outside of what the Coalition deems fit. And at the moment, we see fit to charge her with nothing."

"This is a decisions that we, as a nation, have reached," Hackett said sternly. "To charge Shepard and not Benezia would be an unacceptable double standard." Shepard felt a small prick of appreciation in her stomach, one that almost shone through the shroud that was covering her. She couldn't help but notice, however, that Linron's gaze had not moved from her.

"I understand your frustration, but there is something you must consider," Linron said. Activating her omni-tool, she pressed a few buttons, tapping into the holographic projectors located between the tables and causing several news feeds to appear floating in the air. "You doubtless missed them since you only came in through areas that had been labeled high security by C-Sec, but all is not well on the Citadel."

The feeds flickered to life, and Shepard's stomach seized. Several riots were in progress, with C-Sec operatives in full riot gear doing what they could to suppress them, even firing concussive rounds on full auto, with mixed results. In some cases, the mobs of angry people, all of them aliens, were lashing out directly at the C-Sec operatives. In many other cases, they were smashing the windows of shops, overturning stands, and engaged in general looting, assaulting citizens that were either vulnerable or didn't get out of the way fast enough.

The ones that truly caught Jane's attention however, and doubtless the ones that Linron had meant for her to see, were the ones that had Coalition citizens in them. Despite the Citadel being a hub of galactic politics, it played home to very few from the Coalition, who had a tendency to stay within their home territory. The ones that did come to live on the Citadel commonly had careers that required them to work with aliens, or simply had nothing to lose and wanted to be far away from the Coalition. They were the bridge builders, the outreachers, and the desperate. And now, they were targets.

The corpse of one Necro-Human was hanging lifelessly from the sign of a shop, a noose around her neck as the crowd below her cheered, five outnumbered C-Sec officers viciously battling to get to the middle of the throng. A Meta-Human was being accosted a pair of Elcor, who, despite his best efforts to fight them off, had broken both of his legs and were now raining blows down upon his prone body. A trio of Standard-Humans had fled into a gun shop, and were now trading fire with a group of mercenaries on the far side of the shopping center they were on. And one had truly massive mob gathered around a prone Standard-Human, beating him to death. Many of the aliens in that feed had signs they were holding, screaming to someone Jane couldn't see. Signs with her face on it, and letters in alien languages that, while she couldn't read, she doubted said anything nice. These kinds of posters and pictures were all over every last one of the feeds.

"There has been a recent spike in anti-Coalition sentiments as a result of this war," Linron said. "Even though it has only been a little over a month, it has brought tensions that have existed since we first met to a boiling point. While our armies may no longer clash, we have to consider a possibility going forward. Civil violence between civilians, the formation of armed militias with aggressive agendas, possibly even full blown terrorist cells. First non-Coalition attacking Coalition, then the reverse, and then everything spiraling out of control. Within a decade of a hollow peace like this, the death toll may outnumber the one created by the war."

"I want nothing more than a true peace, not a mere absence of military actions," Linron said, raising her hands up. "I-"

"You want Shepard to be offered up," Woods said bluntly. "Make a spectacle out of here so that everyone calms down. Bit of a flaw in your plan though, the Coalition people will see it as their government caving to aliens and be furious. It might calm down the Council races, but not the Coalition itself. I might even go so far to say that the Enclave itself would be quite mad, and considering that Shepard and her crew has gone quite a few favors for the Krogan and Quarian people, this would provoke quite a bit of anger from them too."

"Indeed it would," Shala'Raan said. "I have to agree with Admiral Anderson. If you cared about anything resembling justice, you'd be calling for both Captain Shepard and Matriarch Benezia to be put on trial."

"But we aren't going to be seeing that, are we?" Wrex said, sounding genuinely angry. He glared at Councilor Tevos and the present Matriarchs. "Why is that exactly?"

Tevos cleared her throat. "We are actually not opposed to summoning Matriarch Benezia and have her face the consequences of her overstepping her authority. However, ever since the start of the war, she has been missing. No communications to or from her have been found. Even her former bondmate is unaware of her location and has not received word from here. Rest assured, if it will address your concerns, we are looking for her." Tevos' words seemed to do the opposite of ease concerns. If anything, the Coalition, Enclave, Krogan and Quarian representatives looked insulted.

"Oh, missing? Well, that's convenient," Wrex said. "And I guess we're just supposed to assume that you're giving it your all? You haven't been doing it all half heartedly and then giving up, have you? You're not just lying to us right now? Or maybe "missing" is just a private euphemism for 'she's missing because no one found the body we tossed out the airlock' yet. Either way, it still sounds like this one wants to string Shepard up without waiting, and in a trial she'd probably stack in her favor."

"Arrangements can be made for the locating of Matriarch Benezia," Linron said. "STG can assist Spectres in hunting her down as a fugitive of the law if the Republics agree to it. As for the implication that I would stack a trial, I am highly affronted."

"Affronted that I think you would do that, or affronted that your not nearly as subtle and clever as you think you are," Wrex asked darkly. "I mean really, the Republics just lose one of their biggest Matriarchs? They think we're dumb enough to fall for that?"

"Six months ago you didn't know your own brother was building an army to attack the Coalition and rebel against the Council!" one of the Matriarchs shouted angrily. "You of all people have no right to make accusations about intelligence failures. Particularly when you fancy yourself a head of state!"

Shepard's mind went blank. She had not expected this. She had expected to have to face some consequences for her actions, but she had always thought that they would be a punishment exclusive to her and her alone. She wasn't looking forward to it, part of her dreaded it, but she was willing to accept it. Except that wasn't what was happening at all.

The Council couldn't let her go without angering its own civilians and leading the deaths of who knows how many Coalition citizens. The Coalition couldn't give her up without doing the exact inverse happening. And right now, people were rioting in the Citadel, most likely rioting all over Council space, because of what she had done. People were dying because of her. She saw it again. The image of the hung Necro-Human. And it set off a chain reaction.

She remembered Jenkins, killed on Moriea by a Batarian sneak attack. She remembered Falo, assassinated after letting herself be manipulated as a political pawn just so she could be helpful to her planet. She remembered Sam, who would put herself on the line to protect others, and had been killed by Yahg on the Salarian homeworld. She remembered her brother, who had sacrificed himself to save Coalition lives.

"I'm going to make this right," she whispered, too quietly for anyone else to hear over the noise of the arguments that were now escalating to shouting. "I'm going to make this right. I'm going to make this right. I'm going to make this right. I'm going to make this right."

XXXXX

Hurst turned over the cigar in his hand, threading it through his fingers before turning it over again. "Either light it or put it away for the love of God," a very annoyed Rig said. Hurst chuckled. He and Rig were sitting on Sarah's bridge, the screens showing camera feeds of the Citadel dock they were currently resting in. The majority of the refugees he had rescued had been content to let off on Adek, a handful had refused. They had not wanted to be left on a planet that was ruled by those who had been members of the old regime. That was what Hurst assumed anyway, they had refused to actually tell him.

He, along with the rest of the Nomads who had taken part in the battle of Tialiv, had made their way to the Citadel, where the refugees would disembark. One of the first things that the Coalition had managed to earn in their talks with the Council was asylum in Council space for these refugees, along with Batarians who were now actively fleeing the Hegemony. Of the latter, there were proving to be a surprisingly large amount, with commandeered cargo vessels, yachts, and transport liners jumping from Hegemony to Council space, at least a dozen a day.

Hurst couldn't help but notice that, while some of them were stopping at Adek to be with their own kind, many of them were bypassing the SDA, taking the longer and harder trip to the Citadel and other strongholds of the Council. Even after her death, General Hill's missteps at Adek tainted whatever potential the planet had had as a birthplace of a new Batarian society.

The way things were looking now, Adek would most likely become a minor, unimportant player on the galactic scale, the only difference between it and an independent colony in the Terminus Systems being that it was backed by the Coalition and had a formal, trained army. Hurst noticed that no one wanted to talk about it very much, but with General Usaro in charge and still going by the moniker of general, it was also most likely going to end up a military dictatorship or a Stratocracy. Hardly a place where any major progress or reform happened, even with a benevolent dictator. And after Usaro had responded to Falo's assassination with public executions, Hurst wasn't sure she could be called benevolent.

In a way, Adek's bad image was probably good for the refugees individually, although not so great for the Batarian species as a whole. As selfish as Hill's intentions had been with the formation of the Sovereign Dominion of Adek, there had been potential for it to grow into something great, a place where the Batarian people could be free and happy. "Or maybe that's just me being naive," Hurst muttered to himself.

Either way, it was now clear to everyone who was paying attention that the SDA wasn't a bright future for the Batarian people, and from certain perspectives it just looked like more of what they had come to expect from the Hegemony, minus the slavery and infrastructure. As such, many were avoiding it and heading to a place where they would be able to experience freedoms that they had only ever heard about before, but any talents they had would be drained out of Batarian space as a result. Hurst had a gut feeling that the Hegemony would be seeing a massive slump in the next few years, not just from losing two planets and going through a governmental shift, but through a refugee crisis and the very real possibility of brain drain if more educated citizens made up a good portion of those fleeing.

"Then there's the Council's end of things," he said. The Council was a massive collection of worlds with resources and influence that could easily handle Batarian refugees, even if tens or even hundreds of millions of them came pouring out of Hegemony space. Thankfully it was nowhere near that bad yet, the refugees currently numbering in the tens of thousands, but Hurst a bad feeling about the culture clash that might occur between the refugees and the Council species.

The Coalition had been the first government to not join the Council and that had led to decades of tension that had helped contribute to a galactic war. The Batarians were the second species to withdraw from the Council, with the first being the Krogan, with that too ending in a war. Hurst simply had a very bad feeling that the Council had a tendency to frown upon those that willingly wanted nothing to do with it, feelings that would only be exacerbated by Batarians now seeking asylum in the power they had withdrawn from. All this from a species that had always been seen as rather seedy and amoral by most species, being the only species in the modern day to practice slavery would do that.

No matter which way he looked, Hurst saw uncertainty for the Batarian people. A shift in government, economic instability, and badly hurt diplomatic relationships. Many of them were now freer than they had ever been, but far more weren't. And all of them were now in a much less stable situation. "Freaking hell," he muttered.

"I assume you're having a very nice conversation with yourself, but from my perspective you're just mumbling to yourself," Rig said, his voice cutting through Hurst's thoughts. "I...look, I think you may want to get some sleep. Or food. Or one of those things organics do when they're upset, I don't fucking know. Just do something."

Sighing, Hurst reached into his pocket, pulled out a worn and beaten lighter with a Blue Suns logo on it, and lit the cigar. "Wait, you still have that old thing?" Rig asked, all three of his optics whirring to focus on it. "I thought it ran out of lighter fluid a long time ago."

"Oh, it did, I just got it refilled," Hurst said, taking a hefty puff on the cigar while holding the lighter up. In spite of everything, a smile spread across his face. "Oh man, remember what happened that day?"

"Yeah, I remember," Rig spat. "I remember us not making anything at the last three ports we had stopped at, being forced to use substandard fuel, our engines shorting out, and being forced to make an emergency landing in the middle of a Blue Sun slave trafficking ring!"

"And we literally landed in the middle of it!" Hurst said, a deep booming laugh working its way up from his gut. He could still see it. Fifty mercenaries who had thought they could buy and sell people as cattle all crushed underneath the hull of Sarah. A nice little bit of karma. "And we managed to shoot our way out just fine, with all of the slaves to boot."

"I'm glad your idea of a good time was a desperate hold out against fifty mercenaries who were angry that you had killed fifty of their friends. I was the one safe inside the ship providing covering fire with the GARDIAN lasers while you were making runs for the slaves and fuel, and I still remember how we almost died that day. They had more rockets than I was comfortable with."

Hurst chuckled. "Aren't you uncomfortable with the enemy having any rockets?"

"Yes, but that's not the point!" Rig shouted angrily. "The point is that they had enough to do serious damage to Sarah! And if you've got a complete and utter lack of regard for your own life, you'd think that you'd at least care about the ship. If only because I'm expecting to walk down into engineering to find you pants down and shaft deep in an exhaust port. Any day now."

"Sure, the old girl got a little banged up that day, but it wasn't anything we couldn't handle," Hurst said, giving the control panel behind him a loving stroke. "Besides, scars build character. I still got a scare from where one of the Turian mercs clawed me in the leg."

"NO THEY FUCKING DON'T!" Rig bellowed. "Overcoming adversity builds character! Scars are bits of tissue that don't work as well as the old tissue and wave around a flag saying 'this monument marks the occasion where I fucked up' and you pretending they're anything else is your idealism going to your head and twisting your perception of reality. AGAIN! What the shit are you going to do the day something happens when you finally bite off more than you can chew and you fucking die!?"

Hurst took a long puff on his cigar, smiled, and spread his arms wide. "I've made my peace with it."

There was a long pause. Hurst watched with mild amusement as Rig's optics all closed and he heard the soft whirring of cleaning solvent being applied to them. After the cleaning process was completed, Rig opened his optics and stared at Rig. "I'm sorry, I think my audio receptors are broken. Could you please repeat that?"

Hurst gave a small shrug. "If I die I die. What's the big deal?"

"THE BIG DEAL IS THAT YOU'D BE DEAD!" Rig roared, his fury coming back in full strength. "Which I think would be a pretty big fucking deal, considering that, out of everyone that lives in the Coalition, Standard Humans have the shortest life span! You get 150 years max, a little more if you're lucky, so I don't know why you're in such a hurry to piss it all away when you could be doing something that's a lot less stupid with your time!"

Hurst shrugged again. "Rig, you're functionally immortal. You go in for a repair job whenever you have to and make sure everything is backed up, and you've easily got centuries in front of you. I'm 112. I remember when aliens were the illusive shadows that we only saw when the lights were dim and no one else was checking with us. When the only concept of aliens we had were the Protheans and half of us thought that we were all dead. I've seen the galaxy shrink and come to life, when all of a sudden we didn't have free reign and were rubbing elbows with a dozen different neighbors. I can't just sit back while all this is happening and not be a part of it"

"There's a way to be part of it without putting your goddamn life on the line Hurst!" Rig shouted.

Hurst gave a wide smile. "Yeah. There is. But no ways that I'd be happy with. If I were to stick to major ports and safe transit lanes, I'd probably be safe, rich, and respected. I'd also be bored out of my mind and not doing anything with my life outside of lining my own pockets. Out here, not only do I get the thrill of being on the frontier, I'm actually in a position where I can make a difference. Not a lot of people have a ship and the weapons that we do. See, if I had to pick between living forever, and living a life worth dying, I'm gonna pick the latter each time. Because I'm Franklin Gregory Hurst, and I'll retire when I'm dead. I've got thirty to forty years left tops, and I'm going to spend those years being the man I've always wanted to be. If I die, I'll die a happy man."

Rig was silent for a moment. "You're an idiot that's going to get yourself killed, you know that right?"

Hurst nodded. "And if you had ever reached the point where you couldn't stand it, you would've left a long time ago. But you're still here. And I'm willing to bet that you aren't just content with sitting on your rear and living forever either. That you enjoy the thrill of it too."

"Well then pay up. I'm not here because of the thrill or whatever hormones are firing off in you to make you think being suicidal is fun. I'm here because you're my best friend you dumbass."

"Aw," Hurst said, feeling honestly touched. "Rig, you're gonna break my heart." Giving a hearty laugh, he spread his arms wide.

Rig gave an annoyed groan. "You know I don't do hugs, right? I don't mean that in a condescending way, I am literally incapable of performing a hug. Plasma cannons and flamethrowers aren't good for snuggles."

Hurst lowered his arms, but he was still smiling. "I'm gonna get one out of you someday."

"No you fucking aren't." Hurst let out another laugh, much to Rig's annoyance. Hurst took another puff on the cigar.

"Well, I might as well go out and see if I can find a good local watering hole. The shipboard booze can get a little samey after awhile. You want me to bring you anything back?" Hurst asked.

"I'd steer clear of the Citadel if I were you," Rig said. "You see the news? Our kind, Coalition, aren't really welcome there right now."

"Hm," Hurst said, bringing up his omni-tool. "I'll see if anyone delivers then. Get a couple of crates for the road. You're looking a little low on flamer fluid too, let's see if we can get anyone to top you off on that. Your manuel says your flamer can take Council brands just fine so long as we don't mix anything, so that should be fine."

"Try and find something Turian made," Rig replied. "It's more expensive but you get what you pay for. It burns bright and it burns hot. Take it out of my shares if you have to, I don't give a crap. Someone's gotta keep dragging your dumb ass back to life no matter how much you try and throw it away."

"Can do," Hurst said, pressing a button on his omni-tool, ordering it to connect to the local Citadel network. Then he frowned and pressed it again. He was getting an error message. "May want to consider updating too," he said, pressing it a third time to no avail. "I've had this model for twenty years, I think I can treat myself to this year's new release."

"I keep telling you, let me by the parts and I can build you an omni-tool that's better than any off the shelf model," Rig said, sounding annoyed. "What is it with organics and being so unwilling to upgrade? How do you think I keep going after all these years?"

Hurst gave an idle wave. "Too much hassle, don't worry about it." Again, his attempt to connect failed. He was starting to get annoyed. "Screw it, direct connection then," he said, spinning his chair to Sarah's main communication panel and typing in a series of commands. The same thing happened, with him reeiving an error message. He frowned. It was one thing if his omni-tool had crapped out, but now the exact same thing was happening with the much more powerful computers on Sarah. The computers he checked and updated far more often, because if something were to go wrong with the navigational data, they might accidently crash into a moon on the way to a planet. "Something's wrong."

Rig hovered closer, looking at the exact lettering of the error code. "Wait a minute," he said, his optics narrowing as he focused on the image. "I'm cross referencing that with Sarah's database and that error code is showing up anywhere except...oh no. Hurst? That's a government shutdown code. It's what the Council uses when they're trying to lock out communication between the Citadel and everything off of it. If you try to get any messages out of the system you'll probably get stone walled. Only the highest authorization messages would be able to get over it."

"But why the hell would they be doing that? It'd probably cause a panic if the hub of galactic politics suddenly went dark. I mean, the only reason they'd do this is if the panic from the radio silence would be even worse than the reality of what's going on." He looked at Rig. Rig looked as if he wanted nothing more than to slap Hurst. "Oh...oh fuck," Hurst swore. Swiveling his chair, he began to type commands into the navigation panel. "Fire up the main engines," he said. "We're gonna need to fight or run, and we can't do either locked up in dock."

"Already on it!" Rig replied, doing the same with the controls on his side. "What's going on? Did the Krogan let their bloodlust get the better of them and they started a riot? Or did the Rachni pop out of nowhere. I...oh...oh no." Hurst saw it too. Signatures popping up all over the sensors of Sarah. Heretic Geth Ships. Collector Ships. Reapers. All that remained of Saren's forces dropped out of FTL, right in the middle of the Citadel space. With the Citadel's defensive fleet, plus all the warships that had been used to escort the diplomats present. There was a split second of unbearable silence.

Then all hell broke loose.

XXXXX

Author's Note: I was wondering if I was pushing my luck letting armed soldiers walk around on the Citadel. Then I remembered the games, and how not only could Blue Suns apparently get all of their equipment and armor onto the station, people were generally ok with Shepard and co walking around in full gear with weapons, long before Shepard was made a Spectre. So I figured that the Citadel must be extremely lax with its gun control laws. Particularly in Mass Effect 2, where Shepard isn't with the military, can not be a Spectre, and is walking around with people with massive criminal records (Jack) and people who openly wear the logo of known terrorist organizations (Jacob and Miranda) and also seem to be rather chill with Grunt. I'm guessing the Citadel just doesn't give a shit, and after that, a temporary agreement to let soldiers stay armed feels tame in comparison. Still, I decided to try and work it into the story so that it would feel natural.

Also, one thing I do like about this story, for all its faults, is that I feel like the final arc had a lot of natural evolution towards the changes of the Mass Effect galaxy. It wasn't my plan to make it so that the nature of the war forever changed the landscape of galactic politics, but with the way I set things up, and the way the war played out, it just kind of hit me that that WOULD be the logical conclusion to all of this. In a way, I've been figuring out what this story is going to be as I'm writing it.

Also, wow, three months. Ain't I great at hitting the ground running. I guess when you write the same story for six years, you get a little tired of it. It's not that you don't like the story, I still love a lot of what I've done here, even if I could've done the earlier stuff better, it's just a big drain that's proven to be exhausting. I really do feel like I have to force myself to sit down to write this story nowadays, even if I still get into it once I build up a good pace. Look, I'm not gonna lie, if I keep writing at this abysmal pace, I may have to consider closing down my and possibly giving refunds for the past few months. People are paying me money for this, no matter how little, and they deserve better.

I would like to thank my Patrons, SuperFeatherYoshi, xXNanamiXx, Ryan Van Schaack, RaptorusMaximus and Davis Swinney for their amazing support.

Oh, but there's one thing that I want to tell you guys about. My friend published a story on this site and Space Battles, and I helped write it. So when you get the chance,please check out War for a Heaven. An XCOM/ Neon Genisis Evangelion crossover.