The shuttle had landed in the middle of a large patch of cracked bitumen. Small scraggly plants grew out of the larger cracks, soaking in the pale green light of the star. They swayed in the constant cold wind.
Only one human stood waiting to meet them. By accident or intent, the green orb of the Enclave's star rose directly behind him, casting a large dark shadow towards the shuttle. He may have been alone, but that didn't calm Evarian much. Ignoring the capability of humans, several low, crumbling buildings were within sniper range. He assumed his face was in a cross-hair right now, just in case.
The waiting human was slightly taller than Evarian, and very solidly built. Riahs stepped forwards and offered the other human an omni-tool. Before they'd boarded the shuttle, a tech had uploaded the new and fast growing human to turian translator to several cheap, minimal-use omni-tools for translation purposes.
"Captain Evarian, commander of the 23rd Turian Patrol Fleet, may I introduce Arquin, Administrator of Enclave Seven," said Riahs.
Arquin stepped forwards, and held out his hand. For a moment Evarian was puzzled, then a fragment of Riahs's memory surfaced and he reached out and grasped it with his own. Turians didn't often shake hands. It was a different gesture in a race with claws.
"Captain, it is my pleasure to welcome you to our Enclave, and our planet. We knew we were not alone, but to find a race noble enough to offer aid to us in our time of need is more than we hoped," said Arquin as he released Evarian's hand.
Evarian was extra glad he'd worn armour. He'd heard his gauntlets creak.
"How could any race possessing honour do otherwise?" Evarian said.
"Indeed," responded a grinning Arquin.
"If I may be so forward, Administrator, the political wrangling can be left to the diplomats. Riahs has requested aid, and I am sure you have many questions. I know I do." said Evarian.
Arquin paused for a moment, then laughed. "Yes, it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. If there is work to be done, then let it be done. Perhaps you'd like to retire to some place warmer?"
Evarian's armour was happily informing him that while it could sustain him indefinitely, without it he'd be dead within an hour from exposure.
"That would be preferable. We turians come from a much warmer world than this."
"Once, so did we," responded Arquin. "But we can talk once we are out of the cold."
The trip to the Enclave's main group of buildings had not taken long. Evarian had offered the services of the small scout vehicle attached to the shuttle. Riahs had offered to take the 'car' back to the docks, and Arquin had happily rode along inside the scout. Evarian had noticed an odd solemnity when Arquin handed what looked like a back pack with an attached handset to Riahs. He doubted he would have noticed the subtle body language interplay without the strange sense of humanity Riahs had left in his head. By their reactions, he assumed it was a fail-safe of some kind, and reminded himself that though they were being friendly on the surface, the humans were not taking things lightly.
The Turian light scout vehicle had no trouble on the worn roads and streets they travelled. In places, repairs had been made, but aesthetics were obviously of minimal concern. Leaving the old airfield behind, they moved through farmland and small clusters of houses and buildings. Some were very old, some newer. All were heavily repaired. Once or twice, Evarian could have sworn he saw something flicker on either side of them, as though a small group of hidden watchers were following the scout vehicle's progress.
Eventually, they came closer to the waterfront, where larger, older buildings stood. They looked abandoned, but Evarian's instincts were blaring. There was enough room for a small army to conceal itself.
The building they arrived at was old, and made out of actual brick. Evarian hadn't seen brick buildings since a visit to a historical site on Palaven many years ago.
Walking through its doors, Evarian was struck by a blast of warm air. Arquin removed the thick cloth and leather coat he had been wearing, and hung it by the door.
"My office is regretfully filled with the paperwork needed to run an Enclave, but there is a sitting room through here," Arquin said as he led Evarian past faded wallpaper and a large wooden staircase.
The room they came to was small but clean, and in good repair. It was lit by what Evarian could have sworn were gas lamps. Arquin gestured for Evarian to sit in one of the solid chairs next to the dark wooden table.
"Perhaps your guards could wait outside? Some conversations are best held between individuals, I find," said Arquin.
Evarian nodded, and his guards saluted and stepped out, closing the door behind them. As Evarian sat down and tried to get comfortable on the wooden chair built for a race whose knees bent the wrong way, Arquin rummaged in a small cabinet before withdrawing a large, battered metal vacuum flask.
"There are few things in this world so powerful, so dangerous, that we name them after that which destroyed or world. This," he announced as Evarian tensed, "is Nemesis Ale."
Arquin unbuckled the four clasps holding the flask closed. Cold fog hissed out, obscuring the contents.
"Out beyond the light of our stars, past the great storm walls, the very air begins to snow down. Before that place, there is a zone where we make the Ale. We take our normal ale, and leave it exposed to the night for a week, before returning and removing anything that has frozen. Finding the best spots to make the ale is an art. Too warm, and it lacks strength. To cool, and it freezes into uselessness. It is the rarest, and most powerful drink we have, and I believe I need that right now."
Arquin picked up a small sturdy glass, and fitted it into a loop of wire. He lowered it carefully into the flask, then removed it and placed it on the table before Evarian. The glass, now filled with a smoky grey liquid and smelling faintly of metal and fruit, almost immediately began freezing itself to the table.
"It has been that kind of day," Evarian said. His finely-honed combat instincts were telling him that nothing good would come of drinking the still-fuming liquid, but he ignored them. Alcohol at least, was chirality neutral.
It burnt like vacuum-exposure, and tasted like the hatred of a star.
"So," he gasped as Arquin poured himself a drink, "what happened here? Your race could not have evolved on this planet."
"Not as it is, no." said Arquin, before downing his ale.
"Nemesis," he coughed, "is recent, at least historically."
He poured them each another glass. At Evarian's look of mild horror, he grinned. "It's the kind of story where you either drink or weep at the end. I'm one of the few who knows it in full. It's part of being an Administrator. There is the version we tell to children, which covers the basics."
He sighed, and began.
"Long ago, there lived the Summer People. They walked under a bright sun, in a sky of purest blue. They danced in fields of green, and drank water that flowed freely. For thousands of years, they lived and grew. In time, their numbers covered the Earth, and they looked to the skies to see what other worlds there might be. And they found Nemesis. A dark sun, an anti-star, it swam towards them out of the eternal dark. The Summer People were scared, but their scientists promised that the Earth would not be eaten. Nemesis would pass them by, but it would shake the world with its passing. So the Summer People built and built. Great underground shelters, underwater towns; anything that might save them. They even sent a ship to Mars, in case the Earth was eaten after all. And on Mars they found the ruins of another race, the Protheans. The Summer People gathered up their wisest and boldest, and sent them to Mars. The Protheans were old and clever, and their old city held many wonders that might save humanity. Perhaps a great ship could be made to take them to another sun!
Before anything could be done though, Nemesis came. It ate many of the other planets that once shared the sky with us, and swung in towards the Earth. The Summer People cried out in fear, but their scientists were right. Nemesis passed them, although it shook the sky and pieces of it fell across the world.
But the Summer People lived, and were happy. They had planned for far worse that what had happened. They rejoiced.
Too soon. Nemesis did not flee back into the dark. It drew the sun towards it, and they began to dance. Earth and Mars were flung away from each other, and more planets were lost or drawn inwards.
The sun began to die, its death scorching the Earth. The Summer People fled back to their shelters during the day, only emerging to hunt and farm at night. For a hundred years, they lived only in darkness, always fleeing the sun's burning light.
When the sun at last cooled enough for them to walk in the light again, they were the Summer People no longer. They were the Twilight People, and for another hundred years they lived happily as their ancestors once had. But the nights got colder, and the days darker. The sun was still dying.
The Earth began to freeze, and more people died. The Twilight People were sad, because even though they had survived so much, they thought they would not survive the last sunset.
Then came the Martians. They had survived on their world, colder and darker than Earth, as it swung away from Earth and Nemesis. It had taken them two hundred years to go out and come back, and in all that time, they had learnt and built. The gifts and the knowledge left by the Protheans helped them survive, and now they came back to their long-lost home to help the Twilight People.
Together, the Martians and the Twilight People built the first stars, and founded the first Enclaves. And when the final sunset came, humanity lived on under emerald stars as the Children of Nemesis."
"And that, Captain, is the short of it." said Arquin.
There was a moment of silence, then they both emptied their glasses, and gasped.
"That's a lot to take in. You lost your sun to a black hole, but used salvaged Prothean tech to stave off extinction?" said Evarian.
"That would be the extremely short version, yes." said Arquin.
"Amazing. Your people are very resourceful. But the stars? How do they work? I've never seen anything like them."
"You'd be better off asking a Martian about them, but from what I understand, there were two technologies of the Protheans that were used. First, is something called Element Zero."
"I am familiar with it and its effects. Most galactic technology uses it." said Evarian.
Arquin nodded, and continued. "The second, was a weapon. A particle beam rifle. It seemed to have a nearly inexhaustible energy supply."
Evarian's mandibles flared. "I have never heard of a working Prothean weapon being found. That's an amazing discovery."
"It was the salvation of Mars, Earth, and humanity." said Arquin. "The rifle produced heat and charged particles. It was reconfigured to power their underground base."
"How did they manage that?"
"They fired it continuously into a large tank of water, heating it. The fact the rifle never needed to be reloaded, only allowed to cool, was a miracle. At least, until they found out how it worked. That was the true miracle."
"How so?" asked Evarian.
"The rifle could not have an infinite power supply. It had to be drawing its energy from somewhere. It was eventually discovered that it was using Element Zero-catalysed cold fusion."
Evarian's jaw dropped. "What? Is that possible?"
"Of course. Element Zero can alter the mass of a substance, even to the point of allowing a ship to breach the speed of light. Is the idea that it can allow for mirco-fusion on a portable scale so surprising?" said Arquin.
"I...never considered it." said Evarian.
"Very carefully, the Martians replicated the rifle, though I understand the addition of several new craters meant that the process was not precisely smooth. The final result was much larger than the Prothean device. A tower, fifty metres high. Three of these towers placed several kilometres away from each other direct their beams at a specially made Element Zero core. The beams themselves provide the necessary fusion fuel, and need only be supplied with water. The end result is an artificial star capable of lighting and warming a thousand square kilometres of land and sea."
"That is truly incredible."
"Yes," said Arquin, his smile fading. "The stars are our greatest achievements, our salvation, and our doom."
"What do you mean?" asked Evarian.
"When Nemesis came, the human population was almost 5 billion. Its initial passage killed millions, though much fewer than was expected. The long years of darkness and burning light that followed killed more. By the time the Martians returned, numbers had begun to climb back up towards 3 billion human lives, but the cold and lack of food was starting to take its toll again."
Arquin sighed. "It was not simply the setting of the sun for the last time that separates us from the Twilight People. The stars were our salvation, but they came with an unexpected cost. Isotope One."
"I've never heard of it," said Evarian.
"It was unprecedented. Even the Protheans, as far as we know, were unaware of it. The leading theory is that some strange combination of Nemesis and the presence of Element Zero in catalysing a fusion reaction altered the Element Zero. Isotope One is unstable, except within biological systems. From 3 billion, the Twilight people's number dropped to a fifth within twenty years. Although it was discovered that it was the stars poisoning us, they could not be shut down. They were all that was keeping us alive. Some left the Enclaves, and tried to survive in the wastes. They died as well. Eventually, we discovered why some of us lived, and others died. Part of the Prothean database included references to genetic markers they were tracking. People with these markers lived. The purpose of the markers was not understood until the first child born under the light of the stars underwent puberty. Nodules of Isotope One had bonded to her nervous system, allowing her some measure of manipulation of the mass effect. Some feared her, and called her the Child of Nemesis"
"Biotics. We call them biotics." said Evarian. "But there is no Isotope One in the rest of the galaxy. All our biotics are formed through Element Zero."
"Indeed? How fascinating. It will be interesting to compare the two. The genes for, ah, biotics, were all that saved us. From 3 billion to 10 million in a single generation. No child born under the stars is not a 'biotic'. All of us are Children of Nemesis." finished Arquin.
Evarian was silent, mouth tight. 10 million biotics. Altered by Isotope One into strange new forms. The potential power was staggering. From his personal experience, he'd bet on Riahs against any Krogan battle-master, or Asari Matriarch. But was Riahs exceptional, or, spirits help him, typical. 10 million humans with the strength of Riahs could change the galaxy.
Evarian relaxed his mandibles slightly. The humans were not an army. That, and their current population was closer to 4 million, children included. They needed help. Declining population, barely sustainable ecosystems, and a constant loss of culture and knowledge meant that they were still dying. Just much, much slower.
Another century or so, and the humans might be like the krogan, or the vorcha. Lost culture, harsh environment, only able to survive through violence. They'd be a scourge. Evarian considered what steps might be taken to eliminate this variable. The simple one he knew would be proposed by some Turian admiral somewhere was orbital bombardment. Genocide did not sit well with Evarian, so he dismissed the idea. A krogan-style DMZ was also a possibility, but Evarian found the idea distasteful. The best thing for humanity, and for the galaxy, was for them to become a Turian client race. Like the volus, humanity's naval abilities were minimal. Unlike the volus, their individual strength was astonishing. He hoped he could convince Arquin of the idea's merits.
"You most likely have many questions of your own," he said.
"Oh yes. A great many. The quickest and simplest would be, in this wider world we find ourselves in, who will help us, and who is a threat?" asked Arquin.
Evarian sighed. "The galaxy is a large, complicated place. The Turians, along with the Asari and the Salarians, comprise the Citadel Council races. We hold the most power, and are the centre of the civilised galaxy. Turians are the military and law enforcement, the Salarians the scientists and spies, and the Asari are the diplomats. The Council maintains peace and law for the majority of the galaxy. The exceptions to this, are the Terminus Systems. They are the lawless parts of the galaxy, beyond our influence. The Council may or may not offer aid, depending on whether they conclude you are a threat to galactic stability."
"And are we?" asked Arquin.
Evarian frowned. "Yes. We have not had to best track record with first contacts, but humanity has the potential to change a great many things. I am unsure whether the Council will offer aid or not."
"What is the worst they can do against us?"
Evarian sighed, and eyed the flask of Nemesis Ale. "What we did to the krogan. This is a short overview of galactic history, including why we attacked your ship. Over two thousand years ago, before we turians had made contact with the wider galaxy, the salarians and asari encountered a race called the rachni after opening a previously locked Relay. Insectile and hive-minded, they attacked without mercy and began to spread. That is why no new Relays are to be opened. The salarians and asari could not stop them. In a final effort, the salarians uplifted a primitive race they had encountered called the krogan. The krogan homeworld was the most deadly place in the galaxy before the krogan nuked it into a wasteland. Krogan are big, tough, and can heal from just about anything that doesn't kill them instantly."
He leaned back in his chair. "They won the war, drove the rachni out, and destroyed them. They were the heroes of the galaxy. For a while. The problem is, krogan birthrates are massive. They needed to be, to survive their homeworld. Without that pressure, they began to expand faster and faster, overrunning what worlds they colonised in a few generations. Eventually, they attacked already inhabited worlds. Again, the asari and the salarians couldn't stop them. We turians had only just entered the galaxy at that point, and we were asked to step in. One on one, we were no match for the krogan, but krogan strategy is mainly limited to hitting things. Our ships were better, we were better, but we were still losing against their numbers. And so, the salarians came to us with a solution."
Evarian slid his empty glass towards Arquin. Arquin filled it solemnly.
"It was a bioweapon. The genophage. It didn't kill krogan, it sterilised them. Made only one in a thousand births viable. It was deemed the best possible solution. If their population stopped growing at such a prodigious rate, then they'd be able to be a part of galactic society."
He drained his glass.
"That's not what happened. The genophage worked, but the krogan are a dying race. They won't stop killing each other, or anyone else who annoys them. They have no future, and know it."
Arquin was silent, solemn, and still. Eventually, he spoke.
"Out of approximately 75 000 births planet-wide last year, 50 000 survived. Nemesis is not kind to the weak. Our population declines every year. It does not please me to know that the Council would sanction such an act as the genophage, Captain. And allow me to make one point clear. While I have every intention of guiding humanity towards peaceful co-existence, if you threaten our children, there will be war until the end of one or all of us."
Evarian nodded tightly. "You will find few who believe that the genophage was a good decision, or an honorable one. The phrases 'cruel necessity' and 'harsh reality of war' get used a lot. I think that without it, the war would have ended in the annihilation of one side or the other."
"Perhaps that is true." Arquin sighed. "We understand that hard choices must be made. We have all made them. What do you believe will happen?"
"I do not know. There will be fear, and those for whom the final solution is the first resort. However, there is a way to ensure the safety of your race," said Evarian. "But first, I need to know one thing. What is a 'bond'?"
"Ah yes, Riahs did mention he tried a partial bond. A bond is a merger of energies. Biotic energies, as you would call them. It was risky for Riahs to try it with you, as they can be dangerous enough even among ourselves. They allow us to see each other truly, to understand on a sub-concious level the character of each other. Lovers, comrades, friends and family are the most common, but on occasion it is done with an enemy. Often, it allows an understanding to form. So much conflict comes from deceit and miscommunication."
Evarian nodded. "I understand fragments of Riahs's character, as you said. Echoes of his...humanity. It is why I have trusted him, and you, so far. That, and he trusted me when he had no real reason to. So, I make this offer in the full knowledge that you will most certainly not like it."
"There is a race called the volus," said Evarian. "They live on icy, methane-based worlds. They have no true military, or defensive fleets. They are masters of trade and economy however. They asked for our protection, and in exchange they trade and manage most of our economic interests. They are our client race. If humanity was to become a Turian client race as well, they would receive the same benefits, as well as a voice on the Council via our representative. It would be the easiest and fastest way to convince the Council that humanity is not a threat. We would also be obligated to provide any aid we could."
Arquin stared at Evarian.
"Today," he said at last, "I decided I was finally going to finish the backlog of paper-work I had. Clear off my desk, make things simple and neat again. This day has not gone to plan."
Evarian snorted. "Yesterday," he said, "I was doing my 11th patrol on the outskirts of known space, and my greatest concern was an Ensign who wanted some excitement. My ship had not been almost taken over by a race of super-biotics, I had not travelled to a planet orbiting a black-hole, and I had never heard of Nemesis Ale."
He sighed, and looked at the empty glass before him. The room was slightly fuzzy. "One out of three isn't bad."
Arquin stared at his own empty glass.
"I cannot make that decision for all of us, right now. Each Enclave is essentially a separate city-state, though we do all work together. I can talk to the other Administrators, perhaps organise a vote. It will take time."
"I would expect it to. However, there are time sensitive issues. I need to report back to fleet command, soon. It would be best to avoid them sending a second fleet to investigate why we have gone silent. The sooner this is done, the sooner the process of integrating you into galactic society, in whatever fashion you choose, can begin. Which means the sooner aid can arrive for your people," said Evarian.
"And you would like some of our people to accompany you," said Arquin.
"Yes. To plead your case, and be the face of your people."
"Very well. I will ask for volunteers, although I will ask Riahs to go along with you."
Evarian nodded. Beyond whatever bond they shared, he understood Riahs well. A soldier was a soldier, in the end.
"I will stay behind, and begin discussions with the other Administrators. I think there will be a lot of them," said Arquin.
Both males sat and contemplated the long diplomatic and political quagmire that stretched into their futures.
Arquin poured them another drink.
Several hours later, Evarian's guards heard a suspicious noise inside the room, and burst open the door. Both they, and the hidden human guards who arrived a split-second later, froze in shock at the sight of Evarian trying to teach Arquin the words to a particularly filthy Turian military song. The empty flask of Nemesis Ale had long ago rolled under the table.
As far as first diplomatic contacts go, there had been worse.