Udina's shuttle slipped gracefully into the By Other Means' hangar. He disembarked alone, his Avaunt companions staying onboard, ready for deployment. They wouldn't even be leaving their bodies and joining the main sim, instead patching in through a secondary feed. If needed, they were ready to go.
Udina made his way through the small hangar to a small closet-like room. He stepped inside and closed the door. Just before his body liquefied and was reabsorbed into the ship's bio-reactor reserves, he thought of those itylli seed buns.
After a brief feeling of disembodiment, he arrived in the command sim.
"Negotiations were a success, Captain," Udina said. "We have an offer of peace, and more, that I need to relay to Sol. We must make all possible haste in our return."
"Way ahead of you Ambassador," said Warrens. "We got some rather unpleasant intel from Ghost Tango here, and we were just waiting for you to lam it the hell out of here."
"Intel more important than a successful cease-fire with the entire galactic community?" said Udina dryly.
"Intel that makes that cease-fire either irrelevant or essential." said Warrens.
"We've been cleared by Citadel control. Flight-path all laid out back to the relay." announced the Comms tech.
"Then hit it. None of that polite, non-threatening cruising we were doing when we arrived either." ordered Warrens.
"Aye aye sir," replied Helm.
Smoothly, and perfectly synchronised, the five human ships pirouetted to face the Widow Relay. Once aimed correctly, their drives fired as one. Citadel control weren't particularly surprised by their speed; it was fast, but nothing too exciting.
It wasn't until later that they realised why they should have been very worried about that fact.
Having no FTL, the human ships were limited in their travel speed. Relay transit worked fine thanks to the Singularity drives, but travel across a system to another Relay had to be done at sub-light speed. They alternatively leapt and crawled back towards Sol, and were on the far edges of Council space when they encountered trouble.
"Sir, we're picking up a dozen ships. Data says they're a batarian/turian mix. They are powering weapons and heading straight for us. Range is 0.5 light-seconds."
"I thought this might happen." said Warrens.
"What do you mean, captain?" asked Udina.
"Ambassador, you're good at your job, and I'm good at mine. The Council may want peace, some of them anyway, but they also want hard data on our capabilities. Our lack of FTL was always going to bite us in the arse. Lieutenant! Send them a polite but firm 'piss off', and then prime the guns for when they ignore us."
"The Council set this up?" asked Udina.
"Can't be certain, but I'd put money on it. We have to crawl at sub-light from Relay to Relay. They send a message on ahead, get some 'non-affilited' mercs to attack us, and they get a nice clean way to see what we're made of. They claim pirate activity, wring their hands in regret for any losses we may suffer, and then run home to analyse our tactics and technology. So, order of the day: show them why not to do that again."
"No response sir." said the Comms tech.
"Any opening for a cyber attack?" asked Warrens.
"No sir, they aren't even listening to us. No external channels open. No hack attempts possible."
"Ahem." said Tango.
"You can do better, Ghost?" asked Warrens. It wasn't a challenge, really. Cyber-war was what Ghosts did, after all.
"I have a few ideas. No systems is ever fool-proof. You just have to find the right fool." said Tango.
"How long 'til we're in range?" asked Warrens.
"Optimal firing range in 150 seconds." answered Weapons.
"Go do your thing, Ghost." said Warrens.
Tango grinned, and burned a hole out of reality.
Volp sat in his bunk, tired. So the captain gets a tip-off about some new race with primitive tech, and starts drooling over the chance to get first dibs on new slaves and plunder. Did that mean they had to tear across half the galaxy, pushing the ship to breaking point, to get here first? Volp hadn't been able to sleep for hours for all the rattling.
He glanced at the other, empty bunks. Could be worse, he thought. Could be a tech or a raider rather than the ship's cook. Then he'd be on duty now.
His omnitool chimed. Checking his messages, he found a new one.
"Tarth, your daughter is out of control. Look at what she was caught wearing!" it said. It had a small attachment for an image file.
Tarth was a pretty common batarian name. There were at least three Tarths onboard, in fact. This message was probably meant for one of them. He should open the image just to check. Yes, it would only be responsible of him to see the scandalous young woman's clothing.
He tapped the icon to open the image, and then froze when the lights went out a moment later. As emergency lights activated and klaxons began to sound, Volg very carefully deleted the message, scrubbed his omnitool, and started pretending he'd been asleep the whole time.
"Seven ships affected, Captain, two in full shut-down." said the Sensor tech.
"Nice work, Tango." said Warrens, as the tactical display updated to show the disabled ships.
"Entering optimal weapons range in twenty seconds, sir." said Weapons.
"Time to put on a show. Load the pop-guns" said Warrens.
"Loading pop-guns, aye." said Weapons.
Down in the core of the By Other Means, four ensigns jumped into action. Each was currently an auto-loading system, and they felt their guts churn as a particular ammo type was selected. Carefully guiding the first rounds in, they sent a signal to Weapons before ensuring the next rounds were ready to load.
"Pop-gun rounds loaded, ready to fire on your order, Captain." said Weapons.
"Mess 'em up, Lieutenant."
The four smaller barrels of the By Other Means' secondary guns fired in unison. In a longer battle, they'd fire in sequence, each punching out a round every second. In this engagement, unified fire was the order of the day.
The rounds were two metres long, and a metre thick. They were fired at one half percent of the speed of light.
The active pirate ships had opened fire by now too, their weapons impacting on the thick armour of the human ships, pitting and scoring, but not penetrating it. Most missiles that got close were shot down by plasma-based point defence turrets that vomited sprays of short-range range plasma toroids at near-luminal velocity. The few that connected and managed to pierce armour had surprisingly little effect. No atmosphere vented, and repair drones swarmed the impact sites within moments, spraying a temporary alloy patch over the holes in the armour.
The cheerfully named 'pop-gun' rounds reached activation range. Each flayed open and released a cloud of smaller, five centimetre flechettes. Each flechette began communicating with the others as soon as it was launched, with the remains of the pop-gun rounds' main canisters serving as network hubs. Their tiny minds and minuscule sensors, thus shared, were magnified, and allowed each little missile to orientate itself directly towards an enemy, with priority clusters aimed at valuable systems. The fletchettes, whose bodies were mainly composed of a rare and expensive transuranic element considered too massive for use in starship armour, activated their drives.
Drive is perhaps ascribing too much complexity to the devices. Several milligrams of antimatter met their normal matter cousins in armoured cocoons meant only to ensure that the solid front half of the missiles shot directly forwards rather than be instantaneously atomised.
Each of the pirate ships were struck by hundreds, if not thousands, of darts of annihilation-propelled metal. Those ships whose shields were untouched by Tango's attack resisted the first hundred impacts, before failing after a microsecond. They remained mostly intact, and even boasted a survivor or two who was not near a vital, and targeted, system. The other ships were rendered into an expanding cloud of shrapnel and vapour as thousand of impacts shredded them.
The human ships passed through the cloud's outskirts as they burned towards the Relay, once again unopposed.
The Solar Council were silent. They each considered the impact of the information Captain Warrens and Ghost Tango had brought back to them. Their meeting room seemed even darker than usual. Eventually, Casual spoke.
"Well," he said, "at least we're at peace with the Citadel races."
"A tentative peace, one not helped by Captain Warrens' destruction of what were most likely Council agents." said Tuxedo.
"Sacrificial cat's paws. They wanted to get some hard data on our capabilities, data we've denied them so far. Warrens may have been rather, ah, enthusiastic, but as long as he didn't use the big guns, I stand by his actions. It was Udina's job to convince them we don't want war, and Warrens' to convince them they don't." said Military.
"Given the intel Ghost Tango brought back, war is less preferable than ever." said Casual.
"Or more preferable." said Lab-coat. "If we were to take control, we may be able to take the appropriate measures without interference."
"If. If we could win the war before the Destroyers notice, if we can rebuild before they attack, if the war is even winnable, and not a long, bitter struggle. And what would these appropriate measures be? Aside from Tango's report, we have astonishingly little information." said Military.
"Perhaps then, we should confirm Ghost Tango's report before starting a galactic war?" said Robe.
"The intel he got from the geth has been confirmed by Envoy. I still think they are trustworthy, even in light of this information." said Military.
"Why didn't Envoy inform us of this during our previous negotiations? The geth seem almost incapable of deception on any other front." asked Tuxedo.
"They do not deceive, but they know what 'Restricted Access Data' is. They kept the existence of the heretics and of Nazara's offer from us because we weren't allies at that point." said Lab-coat.
"Why did the main geth consensus tell Tango then?" asked Casual.
"Envoy is approximately 5000 programs working together. It's probably as smart as all of us put together, in some ways. The main geth consensus has billions of programs, if not more. It decided to grant Tango access to their restricted data in order to warn us of the threat." said Lab-coat.
"As if our PR job with the geth wasn't going to be hard enough, now we have the heretics out there actually being the marauding evil robots the galaxy fears the true geth to be." said Tuxedo. "If we can get some hard evidence, it will help our case there immensely."
"Ghost Tango's report on the Citadel computer architecture is backed up by observances made by Ghost Whiskey. At this point in time, it would appear that the Citadel is Destroyer-built." said Military.
"I have a hard enough time decoding what those Ghosts saw myself. I trust that they saw what they saw, but to anyone who hasn't spent a few decades driving themselves mad in raw cyberspace, it's just speculation at best." said Casual.
"So, we know the Destroyers aren't gone, and most likely built both the Relay network and the Citadel. We know this, because both the geth and a class of Uploaded considered by most to be moderately insane told us." summarised Tuxedo. He sighed. "The Citadel Council isn't going to buy any of that."
"Screw the Citadel. We don't need them." said Lab-coat.
"We need their Relays," said Military. "And we need their Element Zero."
"Not for much longer." answered Lab-coat.
The other four turned to stare at her.
"What? You think we came up with the Singularity drive, from scratch, in just a decade? We've been working towards this kind of thing for the last two thousand years. Let me put this plainly for you, we didn't need their eezo, we needed their math." she said.
"Perhaps you could say it a little less plainly than that?" asked Military wryly.
"Fine, eezo is uranium, and we've got fusion reactors." said Lab-coat. "We missed out on all the fun with fission, lost all the wonderful benefits it could have given us, and we couldn't crack how fusion worked because we had neither the math nor the correct models. Then these guys come along, show off their nice fission power, and we suddenly know how atoms work. Bam, all those old projects that had promise but never went anywhere? Solved. Fixed. We knew the Singularity drive was possible for four hundred years, but we didn't have the math to get it to work. Dozens of other previous dead-end projects are being restarted now."
"How could it have helped that much?" asked Casual.
"It was like trying to find the Higgs Boson with an optical microscope. We had the theory, but we couldn't test it. So, it was just paper, along with dozens of other theories. The equations and theoretical models we developed from studying eezo from the Sol Relay, never mind the data we've lifted from the Citadel races, have expanded our knowledge of how the universe works so much, I am confident we'll have our own FTL drives based on Singularity tech within the century. No eezo required." said Lab-coat.
"While that's a fantastic development, the geth data would suggest we don't have a century." said Casual.
"The geth data also suggests these things like working behind the scenes, and have been doing this for a long time. We may not find any conclusive evidence before they actually attack." said Military.
"In the meantime, the Council's offer of a seat demands a rather more immediate response." said Tuxedo.
"We began dissemination of the Council's offer an hour ago. We are expecting the discussion to reach appropriate density within the next six. Once the Voice has spoken, we will respond. Personally, I am for it." said Robe.
"And I'm against." said Military. "They couldn't beat us by force, so they're going to get us with bureaucracy instead."
"We are not entirely defenceless in that area." commented Tuxedo. "If they intend to tie us up in red tape and defang us with litigation, I assure you we will do the same to them. Although the risks are obvious, I personally think that joining them gives us the best chance of achieving our current goals of introducing the geth into wider society, and preparing for the Destroyers."
"I don't care either way. If we're with them, we can push for joint research and shared intel. If we aren't then we can be a bit more aggressive with out data retrieval." said Lab-coat.
"I'm for it. New people, new places. I trust our legal systems won't annihilate each other on contact, and being part of the Council gives us more push to ask for certain things. Personally, the fact that the Batarians haven't been censured, and by that I mean shot, and the Quarians haven't been given a new colony world, regardless of their ancestors' actions, is to me a gross violation of human rights." said Casual.
After a moment, he added, "I mean sapient rights. Which I'd hold to be much the same thing."
"You know," said Tuxedo, "that raises a decent point. It is our job, first and foremost, to protect humanity. But when we say, 'humanity', do we mean specifically Earth-descended sapients? Or are we referring to that rather more ephemeral quality of 'person-hood'?"
"I'm not following what difference that makes." said Lab-coat.
Military groaned. "That opens up avenues to issues I have no desire to get entangled in."
"It is a valid point. We can all agree that, for example, the Batarian slave-trade must be dealt with," said Robe to the agreeing nods of the others, "but what of the diseases or accidents our technology could prevent? Those numbers represent death on a scale beyond that caused by even such a prevalent problem as the Batarians, but are we going to grant access to our technology to prevent them?"
"I see your point," said Lab-coat. "We are dealing with a major 'us vs them' situation. But is that situation 'humanity vs the galaxy', or 'the galaxy vs the Destroyers'?"
"The more support we can gather amongst the other races, the better. We're handicapped to start with because of the geth, and our own Uploading. We're new, we're powerful, and trust will be a long time coming. Too long, perhaps, to do any good. If we start uplifting the other races though..." said Tuxedo.
"Uploading should not be forced on those who do not desire it." said Robe quietly.
"Of course not! Sorry, should have phrased that better," said a slightly flustered Tuxedo. "I mean, we may not be more advanced than them in every way, but many of our technologies surpass theirs. Many of theirs surpass ours. A mutual uplift, a technology merger, might help win hearts and minds, and make everyone the stronger for the arrival of the Destroyers."
"So you are proposing not merely a political merger, but very nearly a societal one?" asked Casual.
"Technological at least. Look, I've seen the projections. Three decades from now, the Arcturus Shell's output will surpass our consumption. We will begin to have more ships than we can use." said Tuxedo.
"You're suggesting we give our warships to people who may yet be our enemies." said Military flatly.
"Yes." said Tuxedo. "Why would they be our enemies? Because they are arrogant, greedy, or scared. You can cow the arrogant, bargain with the greedy, and placate the scared. You can deal with them in ways other than war. You can't argue with annihilation. The apocalypse will not be swayed by politics. When the Destroyers come, we will need to throw everything we have at them. Right now, humanity isn't strong enough. We might not be for centuries. But a united galaxy, working together, geared for war, could be ready in time." said Tuxedo.
"We don't even know what 'ready' is in this situation. The geth data on 'Nazara' could be summarised as 'it is big, black and ugly'. It could be the smallest ship they have, or the biggest. There could be millions more like it, or none. I see you point, but we need more data. To convince the Council races as much as help us prepare." said Military.
"I thought you said we wouldn't find any before they came?" said Lab-coat.
"I said they've been doing this a while, and we might not. We still have to search though. We also have a head start. Most races wouldn't even know what to look for, or even to look. Besides, 'not conclusive' and 'not useful' are different things." said Military.
"Spectres." said Casual. The others turned to face him. "One of the biggest bullets we're going to have to dodge are Council Spectres. If we join, they will require access to Sol. If we don't, they will attempt access regardless."
"Personally I find the very concept of the Spectres to be faintly repugnant. They literally have no oversight beyond the Council themselves? Theft, murder, terrorism; if it gets the job done, they are not held accountable." said Robe.
"Indeed, but the simple fact that they have access to everywhere would help us greatly." said Casual.
"How do Council agents with immunity from law help us?" asked Lab-coat.
"You're all forgetting the very likely possibly that soon, we will be a Council race. They cannot, in any fashion, grant us a full Council seat and refuse us our own Spectres. The legal clout to go anywhere in Council space, to access classified data, to overrule local bureaucracy; not to mention the publicity bonus." said Casual.
"Getting friendly faces out there would help immensely. I'll admit I only skimmed that section of the codex, but the potential is certainly intriguing." said Tuxedo.
The room grew silent again.
Eventually, Casual sighed.
"We have a lot of work to do."