Joe's Note: I would ask who saw that coming, but I gave that away something like a dozen chapters ago so… yeah. Well, Harry's certainly going to be shocked by meeting Ismene. That counts for something, right? Also, this is going to be my first test of convincingly escalating the forces arrayed against them so that the group actually faces the same degree of challenge that level 1 Shepards did on Eden Prime… without going too far in the opposite direction and forcing me to overpower Harry, Ismene, or both to justify how they survive the encounter unscathed. Hopefully it goes well for me; reviews are even more appreciated than usual because I am tackling something that's a bit outside my norm.
Dedications & Thanks: To Nicholas, Howard, Samuel, Alexander, Tibor, Alonsis2, Daniel, Beverly, Daniel, Jade, Robert, Kimeru, Charles, Crygon20, Subtle, Christopher, Stephen, Fablesrogue, Morgan, Janne, Joseph, Jason, bloodylord, Marc, Ziryo, Leigh, Chris, George, Koby, William, Dale, Dimitria, Haematite, Mauday, Ken, Paul, Pat, Edward, Roman, Warren, and Jess for sponsoring me on , and making it easier for me to spend more of my time writing. Additional thanks go to the incomparable LogicalPremise for his amazing set of references covering many untouched facets of the Mass Effect universe, as well as listening to me ramble about ideas for the future of this story.
"Deianeira? Just out of curiosity, what would a cannon that big hitting a nuke do to it?"
"Depends. How big of a cannon are we talking?" Deianeira let out a nervous chuckle as she followed his line of sight to the looming geth. "…oh. That big. Yeah, we're fucked." With a gesture, the grand master summoned the other two asari accompanying Harry to form up around her, and they began raising a series of overlapping barriers around them and the bomb. The last layer was the visually distinctive form of Thalestris's newfound pride and joy: the Backlash invocation that she'd worked exhaustively to master over the past few weeks after being gifted with the knowledge by Quana's thrall. Whether or not it would be able to bounce a round from a tank the same way it could repel small arms fire had never been tested… but there was no time like the present, evidently. "Stay focused, ladies. All we need to do is weather one shot and then we can take it while it's recharging; we'll go for the legs and-"
While fiendfyre could be cast just as silently as any other spell by a sufficiently skilled magical, the trademark billowing roar of its conjuration was a noise that Harry was all too familiar with. It was also a spell that he'd seldom been on the friendly end of, especially during the Second Wizarding War and the cleanup afterward. Accordingly, he found himself tensing up involuntarily and adding an extra layer of protections to the women's barriers as a massive flaming phoenix rose into existence over the battlefield. It surveyed its foes with an almost imperious air before letting out a piercing screech that drew the attention of the few geth not already staring up at it in confusion. Then it dove, hurtling down at the colossus and curling its wings around the body of the oversized geth.
Multiple stories of canon-toting tank analog it may have been, but no amount of muggle armor - even futuristic muggle armor created by artificial intelligences - was sufficient to protect something from the cursed flames of fiendfyre. Tendrils of fire dug into the colossus, burrowing through the armor to tear at the considerably more sensitive electronics within, liquifying the geth's innards before the great fiery wings curled tighter and compressed the colossus down into an unrecognizable mess of steaming liquified purple metal on the decking. And then proving that the fiendfyre was directly under the control of an incredibly competent wielder, the phoenix then proceeded to turn its attention to the few remaining geth platforms. Leaning forward, the phoenix… pecked almost delicately at the platform, each peck obliterating one of the few geth troopers who had escaped the destruction of the colossus. Then and only then did it spread its wings wide and disappear with a pop, leaving behind a thick coil of oily, sulfurous smoke.
Stepping out from behind the shipping container that she'd used for cover while casting and guiding the spell, Ismene spread her arms wide as she strode through the haze hanging over the now-still battlefield. "So, I believe you were saying something about how you had some sort of right to walk away with the prothean beacon that I was sent here to secure, Potter?"
"First of all, if you think that you're the first witch to ever throw around fiendfyre in front of me…" Trailing off, Harry cocked his head to the side as he stared at Ismene contemplatively, thinking back over the many and varied opponents he'd faced over the years. The lion's share of Voldemort's marked supporters had been men; on second thought, given that neither Bellatrix nor Alecto had favored the spell… "Actually, you very well may be the first witch that I've seen use it, now that I think about it. But I've faced plenty of wizards who were plenty fond of it, up to and including Voldemort himself. I'm still here. They're not. Think about that. Not to mention that you're personally outnumbered two to one, and my team outnumbers yours by almost three to one. Is this really a fight you think you can win?"
Even as Ismene's confidence visibly began to falter, she kept her wand trained on Harry as he took a step toward her. "Does it matter if I think I can win? If we just surrender the beacon to you, the Alliance and the Council would both-"
Harry sighed; the worst part about dealing with career soldiers was that they reminded him of the worst part of Hermione in her youth. While obviously they were trained - and expected - to follow orders, that didn't mean they should do so utterly unquestioningly. "I'm sure that plenty of factions out there who would want to take the beacon for shady reasons, but we're not one of them. We're not just going to take the beacon and disappear; I'd have to ask the matriarchy, but I'm pretty sure they're going to want us to meet with the Council after all this anyway. But the simple fact of the matter is that you aren't equipped to safely-"
A burst of teal light followed by a series of larger blue flashes in the corner of his eye heralded the arrival of Luna and her team, the blonde brushing her magic against his mind as she assumed her customary position on Harry's left. Wrapping an arm around his waist even as she withdrew from his mind, she let out a disgusted snort. "Whatever good genes you and Daphne contributed to the pool appear to have bred themselves out by now, Harry, or at least the Slytherin genes are long gone." She turned her head, looking Ismene up and down slowly before amending that statement, her eyes pointedly lingering on the black-haired woman's chest. "Well, most of the good genes are gone. Either way, if she's not cunning enough to realize that she could learn from us and then use our superior knowledge of the beacon to improve her own situation… so be it. I say we give it to her. After all, securing the beacon was a tertiary objective at best." That earned her an odd look from Harry, and Luna frowned up at him. "What?"
"It's a mission goal that ranks below both primary and secondary objectives in importance. In this case-"
"I know what one is. Since when do you know what one is?"
"You're not the only one whose bondmate rubs off on them." Luna's eyes slid sideways to where Thalestris was standing on Harry's other side. "Well, if you want to get technical, yours aren't so much rubbing off on you as-"
Luna's decidedly single entendre was cut off as Epipsychidion slapped her hand over her bondmate's mouth. "Much to this one's surprise, she finds herself agreeing with Luna." Using her free hand, the matriarch gestured in the direction of the beacon, which was quite clearly active as tendrils of emerald lightning crawled over its surface ominously. "The Systems Alliance doesn't yet have the requisite knowledge to safely deactivate a beacon, meaning that any attempt to approach the beacon as it sits will result in some degree of cognitive damage. Accordingly, rather than fight them, we should simply allow Shepard and her underlings to attempt to secure the beacon. We can take possession of the beacon after it has knocked her unconscious, and her as well. This one is quite certain that Doctor Dalianis would enjoy having another witch to examine. The fate of Shepard's underlings is less certain, but this one is certain that a use for them will be found."
Rather than react negatively to the thinly-veiled threat as Harry would have expected, Ismene merely rolled her eyes before slipping her wand back into the slot in the right vambrace of her armor. Assuming a more casual stance, she looked from Epipsychidion to the beacon and back before offering the asari a condescending smile. "Oh, I'm sure. Because the hundreds of scientists who interact with the Mars Archive on a daily basis all get their 'brains scrambled' by it."
"That's a bit of an apples to oranges comparison, isn't it?" Harry met Ismene's eyes before nodding in the direction of the beacon, which was looking livelier by the second as her muggle subordinates approached it. "Unless I'm wrong, what the protheans left behind in the ruins you found at Promethei Planum was a repository that was specifically designed to share knowledge with a younger race. How many scientists do you know who interact with a prothean beacon each day?"
As Ismene's brow furrowed, the woman clearly struggling to come up with a suitable retort to the question, Williams decided to take the initiative and try her hand at securing the beacon for the Systems Alliance. Exactly how she intended to do so given that it was a giant pillar far beyond her ability to move manually, Harry doubted he'd ever know. Whatever her intentions, though, the result was something altogether different: the beacon flared and began dragging the woman closer, tendrils of electricity flickering out to lash at Williams's body as it tried to figure out what was trying to interact with it and how to best go about doing so.
And then before Harry could take even the slightest measure to stop her, Ismene proved that at least two bits of her ancestor Eirene had bred true in her: Daphne's figure and Harry's hero complex. A hastily cast Switching Spell abruptly swapped Williams's struggling body for Ismene's, and then the witch went limp and allowed herself to be dragged in by the beacon. Even as he shook his head despondently at his descendant's rampant stupidity, Harry twisted in place and apparated over to where Hypatilia was standing in a tight cluster with all the other masters near Deianeira. "You know more about prothean technology than anyone on the ship. Can you shut it down?"
"Can I? Easily. Will I?" By now all too used to his abilities, Hypatilia didn't even flinch as she activated her omni-tool and waved it in the direction of Ismene and the beacon holding her captive, her eyes going wide as they flicked back and forth rapidly over the results of her scan. "I was going to waste a little time being playful but forget that. If that thing stays online, there's a good chance that you're not going to have a great-great-granddaughter a minute from now. Based on what I'm seeing here, someone tampered with the beacon before we got here; I'm guessing they accessed it and wanted to make sure that nobody else would. If I don't shut it down…"
Given that prothean beacons functioned by directly interfacing with a person's brain in a technological analog of the experiential exchange system that protheans possessed naturally? Harry didn't really care what the potential outcome would be if the beacon was left active and suffered some sort of mechanical failure; it would undoubtedly be even more hazardous to Ismene's health than the connection already was. "So shut the bloody thing down. Now."
Hypatilia spared a moment to fix him with a baleful look before returning to what she was doing. "What do you think I'm doing, inviting it to party up with me in Galaxy of Fantasy?" Her fingers flew over her omni-tool with a speed that made Harry envious; even after two years, he was still a very awkward and hesitant user when it came to his. Thanks to his repeated melds with Adikia, though, he was now capable of understanding what Hypatilia was doing as she connected with the beacon's internal systems and began probing it with a variety of cyberwarfare programs, searching for a weakness in its defenses that would allow her to compromise the device's operating system and seize control of it. With a triumphant cry, the Sylléktria made a flicking motion over the omni-tool's interface as she hurled one last attack at it, the beacon going dark a few seconds later and dropping Ismene to the deck unceremoniously. "And the beacon is on standby. When we get back to Óasi, I'll hand it over to the Mánteis to deal with. I may know technology, but when it comes to prothean tech… they obviously have an unfair advantage compared to me. I have no idea how much of its message it imprinted on Shepard's mind, but if I had to hazard a guess? Probably enough to cause damage."
Given that contrary to what every other society seemed to think due to their interactions with repositories, the beacons contained nothing more than a last desperate scream by the Prothean Empire? That there was no great wisdom, no potential technological breakthroughs, just a pants-shittingly terrifying vision of a far more advanced people falling to the Reapers? And that the beacon was directly injecting it into a victim's brain through means that even the Sylléktries still didn't truly understand? Harry was reasonably certain that even a fleeting moment's contact with a beacon could harm a human, to say nothing of the half a minute or so that Ismene had spent in its grasp. Hopefully witches were still more robust than their muggle counterparts, he mused, or else the Collective's grand coming out party was going to be marred by one of the Alliance's elite soldiers getting turned into a vegetable.
Speaking of their potential vegetable, though… Harry apparated over to where the woman was laying on the spaceport decking, dropping to one knee as he waved his wand over her and cast a diagnostic charm. "She took it better than a muggle would have, but that's really not saying much. Even with occlumency, the beacon made more of a mess out of her brain than this charm is capable of interpreting. All it can tell me for certain is that something is seriously wrong with her. Permission to have Allura make a pass overhead so we can apparate her straight to the medbay while you lot clean up the rest of this mess?"
"Hey! You can't just-" Alenko's attempt to rush over to Ismene was cut short by Luna intercepting him with a kanquess, emerging from the teal-hued charge with her wand drawn and the tip glowing an angry red. Gulping nervously, the biotic marine skidded to a halt before raising his hands in surrender as Luna's wand slowly inched closer to his chest. "Or evidently you can."
"LT, you can't-"
That earned Williams an irritated look from Alenko, which Harry could definitely sympathize with; nobody liked being questioned by a subordinate, especially over something that they weren't exactly happy about to begin with. "Commander Shepard is one of the most dangerous people that I've ever met, and evidently capable of a lot more than I was ever cleared to know about. But even she was having second thoughts about picking a fight with these people, Chief. Think about that." Harry's eyes bounced from Alenko over to where Williams was trembling with anger as Epipsychidion pressed a shotgun to the back of her head and then back to Alenko. The brunet gave a hapless shrug before collapsing and storing the pistol still hanging loosely from his hand. "The first thing they teach us in OCS is that it's better to live to fight another day. What's me pushing you until you smear me across the deck going to accomplish?"
Tucking her wand back into its holster, Luna offered a mocking clap even as Harry went back to evaluating Ismene's condition. "Cute, biotic, reasonably intelligent, and good at taking orders from a woman. If nothing else, I feel like Philaenisa can find a use for you."
As Alenko let out a nervous chuckle and took a step backward, Harry sighed in resignation before tapping at his omni-tool. He wasn't sure exactly what the two muggles would be considered, but whether they ended up as prisoners or guests? The last thing they needed was one being returned to the Alliance with bruises and - more than likely - broken bones. "Fedelma Actual, Harry here. Deianeira and her team have secured the beacon. One non-battle casualty: an Alliance witch who was exposed to the beacon before we could shut it down. Requesting a flyby so I can apparate her aboard to begin treatment."
"Say that again, Harry? An Alliance… witch?"
"I didn't stutter, did I?"
"We're on our way."
The first thing that Ismene saw upon opening her eyes was the absolute last thing that she expected: a snorkack. The creature was perched on her chest, staring down at her unblinkingly with its fathomless black eyes. While the creatures were a marginally more common sight these days thanks to the captive breeding program at the Hagrid Wildlife Preserve, they weren't exactly the sort of thing that one expected to find… Ismene's brow furrowed as she stared up at the ceiling. There actually was a ceiling over her head, unlike the sheer utilitarianism that she was used to seeing aboard military starships, but at the same time the room lacked the cold sterility of the Alliance's surface and station hospitals. So where was she?
"Welcome back to the land of the living." Turning her head, Ismene found herself looking at a remarkably petite and young-looking asari dressed in an outfit that was too stylistically similar to what Potter, Lovegood, and their companions had been wearing to be a coincidence. Whoever Harry and Luna had fallen in with since their arrival in the future… they allowed children to serve? Because while the Alliance allowed families to live aboard some of their larger ships - something she knew firsthand from growing up aboard the SSV Einstein - the children were… well, children. They didn't wear uniforms the way this girl was. "Perk of being the captain: the doctor needed to catch some sleep, and I outrank everyone else qualified to keep an eye on you. So I decided to pull rank and wile away those boring hours of FTL transit by studying my second witch ever. I'm… marginally more impressed than I was when I met Potter and Lovegood. More so for that mark on your chest than anything else, though."
Ismene's jaw dropped. This… thoroughly unremarkable slip of a girl. Woman. Asari. Whatever. This tiny, barely pubescent-looking being was the captain of a starship? And… "I see that at least one person has been playing fast and loose with the Interstellar Statute of Wizarding Secrecy. How many people know?"
Rising to her feet - an act that did comically little to increase her height - the captain began pacing back and forth as she ticked off points on her fingers. "The entire crew of the Fedelma knows in a general sense, although some of us know more about Harry and Luna's abilities than others. Luna's bondmate; technically, Epipsychidion isn't a member of my crew even though she deploys with my marines. Then there's the Sylléktria who discovered them on Omega; can't remember her name right now. The members of the negotiation team that was sent to Omega to recruit Harry and Luna. Aria T'Loak, and possibly others in her organization. The thorian on Eingana. Quana, by extension. Um…"
Her eyes widening as the list grew longer, Ismene was brought up short by the next to last addition, her face screwing up in a mixture of disbelief and uncertainty. "That's so many violations of the Statute, I don't even know where to start. And how the bloody fuck am I supposed to obliviate a thorian?" Never mind that she'd only knew about the thorian through her friendship with Mireille, and as far as the Alliance knew it was only 'the' thorian on Feros…
"The same way you obliviate my bondmate: you don't." Ismene gave a start at the unexpected voice, dislodging the snorkack as she bolted upright to find Luna standing at the foot of her bed. A spike of pain lanced through her head, making her grimace as the world spun around her a bit. Luna clucked her tongue as she moved closer, scooping up the snorkack and hugging the beast to her chest. "Not that I particularly care what happens to Lost-Translations-of-Quantum-Foam; you could try your hand at obliviating it if you really wanted to. That was more a commentary on your chances of succeeding. Although I feel like a more important question is… how are you going to deal with what the beacon did to your brain before it causes permanent damage?"
"Spoiler alert: I have a solution, and it involves you getting to shag a very exotic-looking asari."
"…can I get a second opinion on my treatment options?"