Chapter Thirty-Six: Hunting Illusions Pt. V
"If you can see the whites of their eyes, somebody's done something wrong."
- UNSC Marine Corps Handbook (Unofficial)
The Normandy was quiet. It was just past 1900, a couple of hours after they had gotten back to the ship after the mission on Horizon. The smaller second shift crew had relieved the first shift crew a little while ago, and since the Alliance vessel was doing nothing but travelling through FTL, there wasn't much to do other than making muted small talk or doing ship busywork. By now, the details of the prior operation had percolated throughout the ship, and the atmosphere was correspondingly somber.
Everyone who had been on the ground team, including the pilots, had gone to collapse into their various bunks once they had gotten back to the safety of the Normandy. The immense stress of the investigation and escape from Horizon had taken a severe toll out of all of them, not to mention the fact that they had gone straight there from the infiltration operation on the Cerberus research station without stopping. In fact, the last several days had been more or less just mission after mission, assault after assault, scrap-out after scrap-out, against both Cerberus and Reapers. Everyone was weary, and they needed to rest. Even the Master Chief needed sleep. After stepping out of his Mjolnir and giving his ACS, which had done such good work down on Horizon, an appreciative cleaning, the Spartan went horizontal on his cot and was asleep the second his head hit the pillow.
While the last of the ground team had sacked out, Cortana and EDI were hard at work. Cortana had gotten yet another massive information dump from the Horizon facility, and the two AI's were eager to dive into it. They had become quite the effective pair since they had been brought together. Cortana's raw, unrelenting processing speed and power meshed extremely well with EDI's familiarity with this galaxy's computational structures, along with her incredible organizational abilities.
As they sifted through the trove of Cerberus data, they each fell seamlessly into their given roles. Cortana, whether through brute force or wily precision, stripped away and discarded firewalls and peeled away various levels of encryption, revealing the data hidden underneath. EDI took that bare data, sorted it into cohesive categories, and added relevant contextual information. Then, both AIs would analyze, discuss, and summarize their findings for the end report that would be relayed to the Normandy crew.
It quickly became evident what the true purpose of the Horizon facility was, and what had gone wrong. As Cortana had hypothesized, the entire operation was a biological testing grounds. The refugees, wanting nothing more than safety in a galaxy where the concept was quickly disappearing, became unwilling test subsects for Cerberus experiments that focused on the rapid and substantial changes in a brain heavily exposed to Reaper tech.
This was done in a simple, ingenious, barbarous method. The unwitting refugees were given entry 'vaccinations' by Cerberus medical teams which were actually powerful sedatives. Once incapacitated, the new test subject was flitted away belowground, where they were placed in an incubation tube and observed until they awoke. Then, in the midst of their throes of sudden panic and claustrophobic fear, when the brain was working in overdrive, was the aerosol released. Said aerosol contained hundreds of thousands of nanites, which had been previously exposed to a large piece of destroyed Reaper salvaged by a special forces team from Turian space.
The results were fast, severe, and grotesquely uniform in all cases: Huskification. The end goal of the project as the two AIs understood it was to see if any potential advantages brought by Reaper influence in a body - increased strength, endurance, aggression, etc. - could be gained without the adverse effects of complete Huskification.
However, in the end it had been the planet of Horizon itself that had brought a halt to Cerberus' ongoing operation. Given the sensitive nature of the procedures occurring within, the underground complex was built with very precise specifications. Being built below ground meant that seismic activity was a concern, one that Cerberus architects and engineers largely ignored due to time constraints. All it took were two of Horizon's tectonic plates, which had been pulling themselves apart from each other for tens of thousands of years, to finally complete their separation. The resulting seismic tremors, although minor, still possessed enough power to dislodge a pressure release valve in an aerosol storage tank, sending a slow, steady stream of nanites through the air - and into the facility ventilation system. Fast forward a few days, and all that was left of the operation was what the Normandy ground team found on their hectic mission just a couple of hours prior.
The two had dove into the deep end of trove of transportation data: military and civilian shipping logs and manifests, outbound and inbound data transfers, the like. Cortana had hopes that it would be here, in this category, where they would get vital information like Cerberus facility or warship locations, and their plans.
In the intangible world of cyberspace, Cortana dipped her fingers into the next set of data, only to suddenly halt with a gasp of surprise. It was as if she had walked right into a brick wall, the code delivering a hard smack to her entire being when she tried to manipulate it. More intrigued than wary, Cortana steeled herself, and tried accessing the data again. There was no sudden jolt throughout her like before, just a hard layer of resistance between her and the code. Cortana was now more than intrigued. She was downright fascinated. Ever since she had arrived 'here', to this new yet similar galaxy, she hadn't felt challenged during any of her codebreaking. After EDI had given her a thorough course in galactic information science and codebreaking, Cortana had been able to handle any piece of encryption that had come her way since with relative ease.
Except for this one. Cortana isolated the code, cutting away the excess data surrounding it so she could better direct her focus. She tried accessing it again in different ways, sneakily trying to worm her way in, or attacking with all of the pure brute force she could muster. Again, she was stopped in her tracks. "EDI, I need you," she said, and the rounded curves of the AI's avatar materialized besides her. Cortana's struggle had not gone unnoticed by EDI, who had continued on with her own tasks but was ready to offer assistance if called for.
"Take a look at this code," Cortana said. "It's locked down tighter than anything I've ever seen from Cerberus. I've tried every encryption key I've got, tried fabricating new ones, tried multiple slicing techniques… nothing. I can't even get a foothold." Cortana had already taken a long visual look at the code. The raw alphanumeric values were changing constantly, yet after a few cycles it became clear that there was a pattern, and that the code went through segments of changes in hectic, yet now predictable ways.
EDI's avatar flashed in confusion. "Which code were you referring to?" she asked.
Cortana gave her a sideways look, one holographic eyebrow raised. "Right here, in front of both of us." The UNSC AI took her hands and highlighted a box around said code.
Again, confusion from EDI. "There's nothing here. Is this another kind of joke? I know my humor subroutines have a way to go, but I don't understand this one."
Cortana suddenly became very serious. "No EDI, it's not a joke. I promise. There is a large piece of code in front of both of us that I can't access. Are you really telling me you can't see it?"
"No, I don't see anything," EDI repeated.
Cortana pointed, finger just a few pixels away from the code's protective barrier that was giving her so much trouble. "This, right here, where I'm pointing. It's clearly Cerberus code, but the encryption is like nothing I've ever seen before."
EDI took another long look at the space of electronic emptiness where Cortana said there was in fact Cerberus code. "Doesn't look like anything to me."
Cortana blinked a couple of times. Doesn't look like anything to me? What the hell? She then had bit of a revelation. "EDI, Cerberus made you, so it would make sense that they have at least some understanding of how you operate. Could they have used that familiarity to create a new kind of encryption? One that wasn't just hard to crack, but one that couldn't even be detected by you at all?"
EDI gave the question a brief nanosecond of thought. "I would not put it past their abilities. We know by now how capable Cerberus can be at times."
The two AI's thought for another nanosecond or two. Cortana's eye's flashed in inspiration. "I've got an idea. You might not like it."
"What is it?" EDI responded, with much less hesitation or apprehension than Cortana was expecting.
"I want to take a look at your code," Cortana said. "Your central code. I've got a hunch that there might be something in there that can help us crack this encrypt."
This time there was apprehension. It was no small thing that Cortana was asking of her. An AI's central code is its foundation, upon which everything else is defined and built. Given the highly fragmentary nature of an AI, where it's matrices and processing centers were divided up between a vast multitude of tasks, it was within the sprawling lines of central code where an Artificial Intelligence's sense of self, its core identity, was the strongest. What Cortana was asking was for EDI to allow her to examine her in totality, as if she were a hospital patient sprawled out bare-skinned on an physician's table, waiting for exploratory surgery.
"Do it," EDI said calmly. "My desire to eliminate Cerberus trumps any sense of modesty I may have."
Cortana just nodded, appreciative of the level of trust that her fellow AI had with her. She then had a fleeting thought. If the roles were reversed, would she be comfortable with those same levels of vulnerability and scrutiny required to do what she was about to do to EDI? Cortana's immediate initial thought was no, she wouldn't be. Her second thought was on how hypocritical that was. Her third thought was that despite that obvious hypocrisy, there was still almost no way in hell that she would let anyone other than herself, Dr. Halsey, or the Master Chief, get close to her central code and the data that surrounded it. There were too many secrets, to much data that could have serious and lasting negative impacts should it get into the wrong hands.
Her fourth thought was that this wasn't the time to go down that line of reasoning. There was a job to do. Cortana sent an investigative query at EDI, which she accepted, physically bridging the two in cyberspace. Then she began to look at EDI. Look into EDI. The code flitted past Cortana as she dug deeper towards EDI's center, and the UNSC AI couldn't help but feel a sense of unease with this level of… intimacy – especially one that she didn't feel like she had earned.
Nevertheless, she continued. She could feel EDI's 'eyes' on her as Cortana continued trawling through her code, and she did her best not to be as incessantly observant as possible. Thankfully, it didn't take long to find what she was looking for. The Cerberus encryption was hundreds of thousands of characters all changing in a seemingly random pattern. Cortana knew better though. Nothing was random, especially if it was programmed. Cortana identified a string of EDI's core code that was constantly changing much like the encryption, and after an observation period comparing the two found in the end that, like most of the work she did, it all boiled down very simply.
Cerberus had gotten lazy, again, but had managed to hide said laziness through an admittedly clever trick. With EDI likely being the most advanced piece of software that Cerberus had ever made, it was easy to see why kept that special code around for use in other projects. They had even inserted a widget into the encryption code that read from EDI's core processes and masked it behind a smokescreen of false-positive data. Little did they know what Cortana was capable of. She'd been playing this game for far longer – in her sense of time at lease – and far better than Cerberus ever could.
Once she had identified what was really going on, it was easy for Cortana to use EDI's original code to create a cipher that matched with this annoying Cerberus encryption. "Finished," she said, explaining what she had done in a beam of text to EDI before quickly retreating from the AI's bare code and back into the spacious ether.
EDI composed herself. "Well?"
Cortana broke the encryption. "Coordinates."
John-117's eye's shot open, adjusting near instantly to the dim light of his tucked away abode aboard the Normandy. He saw Cortana standing in the small holoprojector on the crates that served as his bedside table, looking down on him with an urgent demeanor about her.
"Chief," she said again.
"I'm up," the Spartan grunted, tossing off his blanket and swinging his legs over the side of the cot. He looked at the holo-clock just besides Cortana. It hadn't even been three minutes since he'd hit the pillow. Chief blinked to clear his eyes, then looked over at Cortana. "What is it?"
"It's about Cerberus. Get dressed and head to the War Room. We need to contact Admiral Lasky."
Chief nodded, and reached for his boots.
Shepard's eyes flitted open slowly, heavy with fatigue. There was light coming from his bedside table, and as he turned his head to look found himself squinting at EDI's holographic avatar.
"Commander," she said again, and even in his disoriented state Shepard could hear the urgency in her tone. There was a digital clock beside the built-in holoprojector, and Shepard could see that it hadn't even been five minutes since he and Liara had collapsed into the bed. Not fair.
Provoked by the thought of her in his mind, he turned and saw her sleeping in the other half of the bed, face laid gracefully atop of her pillow.
"Commander Shepard," EDI spoke once again.
Shepard rubbed his eyes, having been brought back to the present. "I'm up," he said softly. He then pointed to the datapad on his bedside table, and back to Liara, who had been thus far undisturbed by EDI's calls.
The datapad flashed with a message from EDI. Shepard reached for the datapad with one hand, rubbing his eyes to help them focus with the other. He tapped on the message.
I recommend you get dressed and head to the War Room as soon as possible Commander. It's about Cerberus. We need to contact Admiral Hackett.
Shepard nodded, swinging his legs out over the side of his bed and feeling the cool floor of the metal deck on his feet. Then he reached for his boots.
Shepard made it down to the War Room in just a couple of minutes. The ship was quiet, and he was thankful for that. He wasn't exactly in the greatest mood to interact with others currently. The circular strategic and tactical battle-planning room was deserted - save for one.
The big Spartan was standing by the central holotable, arms crossed. He had nodded at Shepard during his acknowledgment, then went back to looking at the holographic figure that dominated the central table.
It was a Cerberus base, the largest he'd ever seen judging by the proportions displayed besides it. He noticed Cortana and EDI's holographic avatars on the table as well.
"What have we got?" Shepard asked.
Cortana turned to face him. "Commander, this is the base. The Illusive Man's base. Cerberus' base of operations."
Shepard's eyes widened. "How did you find out? Are you sure?"
"We retrieved the coordinates from the data dump Cortana pulled on Horizon," EDI explained. "Cerberus made a mistake in their encryption, which we found and capitalized on."
"Once we cracked the encrypt, it was easy to find out where that data coming to and from Horizon was being addressed," Cortana said.
Shepard was amazed. He had never truly known the coordinates of the Illusive Man's base, even though he'd been there in person many a time. They'd always been hidden from him, a 'security measure' he was told. It was only by coded messages in which the coordinates were dropped to him when he was operating with Cerberus, and the message never persisted, even in EDI's memory, no doubt a result of clever programming.
"Are we headed there now?" Shepard asked.
"We can be," EDI replied. "Two hours and seven minutes of travel time."
The Commander nodded. "Take us."
"There's more, Commander," Cortana said, bringing up more holographic information with a sweep of her arm. "Cerberus has an entire fleet there. Eight Cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers, a Carrier, and hundreds of strike craft."
Shepard pursed his lips. It was obviously more than the Normandy herself could take on. "I take it there's a plan? EDI you did say that we needed to contact Admiral Hackett."
"Admiral Lasky as well," Cortana added. "And yes, there is a plan."
"The Allied Forces have just gotten into the beginning of their push to take back Palaven," Cortana said. "All three first-stage worlds have been successfully taken, with the second set of objectives to be pushed off for soon. Given the distance between our current location and the Palven Theater, along with the pure fact that they'll need every single ship that they can get, gaining the reinforcements required to take out such a station in a timely manner would be next to impossible. So, in the absence of a conventional solution, we need to take a look at unconventional."
"I'm guessing that sending the Master Chief in to blow the whole thing up won't work twice, will it," Shepard mused.
Cortana shook her head. "We're going to nuke the place."
The Commander's brows furrowed. "As in, nuclear weapons? The Alliance doesn't have any nuclear weapons, hasn't for decades. Phased them out for Mass Accelerators."
"Well the UNSC does, and I know just what kind of nuke we need," Cortana said.
"An SCBM," Chief interjected.
"Yes," Cortana replied, "A Slipspace-Capable Ballistic Missile. The Infinity is carrying four upsized SCBM Hyperions, each with a ten gigaton yield. One would be more than enough to annihilate the station and the fleet surrounding it."
Shepard thought on this for a moment. Could it really be that easy? Solving a game of galactic hide and seek, then a simple button press to make it all go away? It was odd to him, unnerving almost, to consider how much effort, energy, pain, anger, loss, and pure blood, sweat, and tears had gone into this fight against Cerberus, and now to think that it could just - end? He felt like he had to do more, fight more, endure more than that. He felt like he needed to look the Illusive Man in the eye and slowly crush his neck with his bare hand until he saw the life drain out of his face.
Then he remembered. Cerberus wasn't even the real threat. The Reapers were.
"I'm guessing we're needed to get permission?" Shepard said, looking at the Master Chief.
Cortana nodded. "You're the Commander."
"Very well. Let's try and get them on the QEC. Flag it as urgent," Shepard ordered. He started walking towards the Quantum Entanglement Communicator further back in the War Room, dipping his head at the Chief as instructions to follow.
They made it to the platform, making sure both feet were inside of the tracking circle on the floor, and EDI placed a call to both Admirals. Out of habit, Shepard straightened his fatigues, a gesture that didn't go unnoticed by the Master Chief.
The Commander turned slightly to Chief, an eyebrow raised. "How do I look?"
"Permission to speak freely?" the Spartan asked dryly.
The comment earned a small smirk from Shepard.
Admiral Lasky was the first to appear, cool and composed, and greeted both of them. "Commander Shepard. Master Chief. Good to hear from you."
"Likewise Admiral," Shepard responded, saluting.
"Sir," Chief said, doing the same.
Hackett materialized as Lasky returned the salutes, and in classic fashion, the grey-haired career military man got straight into it. "Commander Shepard, you marked this call as urgent. What have you got for us?" Hackett looked towards Lasky and nodded respectfully.
Shepard might have been tired, but he knew when an Admiral wanted information quickly. "Sirs, we've got solid intel as to the location of Cerberus' headquarters - The Illusive Man's central command orbital station. The Normandy is already en route to reconnitor, but additional data pulled from that same intel drop lists a sizeable naval force as guard. Estimated eight Cruisers, twenty-eight Destroyers, a Carrier, and a large number of strike craft."
"Commander, the entire Allied fleet is getting ready to push off for our second set of objectives," Hackett said. "Retasking a fleet element large enough to fight and win that kind of engagement just isn't possible right now."
"I had figured that would be the case," Shepard said, "We're not asking for ships sirs, we're asking for a missile."
"One of the Hyperion SC-10's," said the Master Chief.
Lasky raised an eyebrow in equal parts a gesture of slight hesitation. "Those are our highest-yield nuclear options in the entire fleet, and there's only four of them. With the odds as stacked against us as they are…"
"It's a worthwhile target sir," the Master Chief said. "Cerberus has been a substantial threat this entire war, and if they aren't dealt with swiftly they will only get worse. Eliminating them would get the Normandy back onto what should be our real target - the Reapers."
Lasky pursed his lips in thought, then turned to Hackett after a few seconds. The greyed-Admiral nodded his approval of the plan. He wanted Cerberus gone just as much as Shepard did.
"Alright Commander, you've got your missile. All I need is a when and where."
Cerberus' Headquarters looked small from this distance, even with the optical magnification. The SSV Normandy was sitting several hundred thousand kilometers off-station, on the very edge of the warship's highly advanced sensor suite range, looking inwards. The cockpit was crowded. Aside from Joker in his pilot's chair, and Garrus in the navigator's seat besides him, Shepard, Liara, Vega, and the Master Chief - thankfully not in armor - were all standing, looking at the sensor feeds coming in.
There weren't as many Cerberus warships guarding the facility as had been expected. Their estimate had been off by a couple of Cruisers and a handful of Destroyers, but despite that it was still far too much for the Normandy to take on by herself.
It was hard to pin down the mood amongst those present. They had given their all in the relentless fight against Cerberus, but had lost so much. Thane, Miranda… their names were on the minds of all present, friends and comrades who didn't live to see the end of the fight. Was it worth it? What toll would be inflict on them next?
A holo-timer materialized to life in the center of the sensor feeds. Thirty seconds, and it was counting down. The UNSC SCBM launched from the Infinity a few hours ago would be arriving at its target very soon.
Joker looked back from his pilot's chair at his Commander, trying to judge the emotions on his face. He might as well have been looking at the bare bulkheads behind him, such was Shepard's stillness and fixation on the timer now in front of him. Joker turned back to his instruments.
Garrus thought back to his time with Shepard during the fight against the Collectors. He remembered the bond he had developed with the master assassin Thane Krios, especially over their love of long-range weaponry. He didn't think it was fair, an individual like that being taken out in the way that he was, once-honed skills dulled by age and a draining health. Nothing was fair in war.
Liara thought about Miranda, the true Miranda. The intelligent, capable, loyal woman who showed all of them that her morals She had come to her and Shepard for help after turning against Cerberus. It was through her contacts as Shadow Broker that they were able to help her disappear. Well, she remarked with a pang of deep, inner sadness, almost disappear.
The Master Chief wished the countdown would go faster. Ever since he'd arrived in this galaxy it had been nothing but crash courses in combat strategies to deal with new horror after new horror. He'd seen first hand the barbarity of the Reapers and of Cerberus, but when it came down to it, it wasn't anything he hadn't seen already across the countless battlefields he'd been on. He'd killed those old horrors, he'd kill these new ones, and would keep killing them until he ran out of targets. Dealing with targets was his job. He wondered how Fred, Kelly, and Linda were doing.
Commander Shepard blinked at the countdown. His eyes were tired, and hurt behind his eyelids. Every muscle in his body was tensed. His breathing was shallow and quiet, entirely indiscernible against the soft hum the Normandy's reactor sent throughout the ship. His entire state of mind was occupied with the numbers in front of him. It felt so… anticlimactic. Again, he felt like he hadn't truly earned the end of this fight yet, and that he had to fight more, struggle more, endure more. Those ice-blue cybernetic eyes would be forever burned into his mind.
The Illusive Man nodded at the aide who had replaced the empty scotch glass on his chair's armrest with a new one. He looked out the floor-to-ceiling viewports at the dying red giant in space beyond, dying - much like the rest of the galaxy would if they didn't find a way to fight the Reapers. Not like he was doing. It was the second day in a row that General Petrovsky had failed to check in about Omega. The research base on Horizon was no longer answering hails.
He leaned back in his chair, reaching for his glass of scotch. It didn't matter, the work would continue. He brought the glass up to take a sip of the brown liquid, but paused as it reached his eyes. There were three ice cubes, and he always asked for tw -
In an instant flash of thermonuclear fire, it was over. Cerberus, The Illusive Man, turned to ashes in the solar wind. The sensor feeds updated to show the aftermath of the UNSC missile, or rather, the lack thereof. There was nothing left for the sensors to see, other than the residual electromagnetic energy dissipating throughout the vacuum.
Shepard sharply turned and started down the corridor into the Combat Information Center. He didn't know what to be thinking right now. He felt like he had to get the Normandy onto the next mission, but didn't know what that mission would be. He was relieved that Cerberus was gone, but he was also tired, deep down into his bones and soul. He was hungry, but at the same time couldn't imagine eating anything. He mourned for the loss of his friends.
He felt a hand on his shoulder, a firm one. He stopped and turned to see Liara, who led him aside to a quiet corner of the CIC. She looked into his eyes, and could see behind the mental and physical fatigue that the man whom she loved was still in there, still willing to put up a fight.
"A message came for you Shepard. For both of us actually, but I've already listened."
The Commanders eyes widened, and Liara tilted her head towards the Commanders terminal by the galaxy map. They walked over and stepped up onto the raised platform, and Shepard keyed in his credentials to access the message forwarded from Liara. Shepard hadn't thought about Kal'Reegar in a long time, but he remembered that he was a hell of a soldier, and a good friend to Tali. The Quarian Marine's electronically transmitted gruffness came over through the terminals speakers.
"Dr. T'Soni, I hope this message gets to you. With the comms beacon network as wrecked as it is courtesy of the Reapers, and with the amount of encryption I had to run this through - I just hope you get this. Make sure that Commander Shepard hears this too. Listen, I'm on Omega with your weapons, everything you asked for and more, but things have gone belly-up here. There's fighting all over the station, all the mercenary groups have turned against each other, civvies are running panicked and rampant, there's a rumor that Aria is dead, and there was an enormous fleet battle outside that has my bay doors sealed shut. I've got a hangar tucked away in the lower levels mostly out of sight, but I'm unsure about getting out. My cargo ship definitely isn't the Normandy."
"There's one more thing, more important to me than whatever is going on here. It's about Tali. We need to talk, face-to-face. Instructions to reach me are enclosed within the message. Get here as soon as you can."
The message ended, and Shepard share a look with Liara. There was a new drive within him now, the embers of action had been lit. There were friends in need, and he wasn't one to keep them waiting. He then reached to the terminal to key the intercom to cockpit. "Joker, get us out of here. Set a course for Omega."