Chapter 38: Metastasis

-(++)—


Due to rising tensions within the Citadel Council and the recent Covenant attack on the Migrant Fleet, the Quarian Admiralty decided to pledge their official support to the United Nations Space Command.

Despite their vehement anti-synthetic sentiment, many quarians now believe that involving themselves with the UNSC's Joint Engineering Doctrine will be beneficial to both species. Originally the amount of quarians willing to work with the UNSC numbered in the low hundreds, but desperation in the face of the Reaper threat and the Forerunner menaces resulted in an re-evaluation within the Admiralty.

More than three-thousand quarian engineers, technicians and other workers have already been accepted within Section Zero, with hundreds more applications pending. Though the UNSC maintains a strict policy of secrecy, a spokesman clarified that the quarian workers will be paid, housed and treated with the same welfare policies maintained for the UNSC's own civilians.

To show its gratitude for the species-wide willingness to pursue positive relations, the Unified Earth Government sent several large Phoenix-Class Colony ships with emergency rations and other supplies, to be picked up by the quarians near Section Zero's Relay. The result of this heavy quarian involvement in the Joint Engineering Doctrine remains to be seen, although neither party is willing to comment on the situation surrounding the geth, the Reapers or the Forerunners.

CODEX ENTRY: THE UNIFIED EARTH GOVERNMENT: INDUSTRY: *updated* "Quarian involvement in the Joint Engineering Doctrine

-(++#W_U_J++#)—


I see you, Reclaimer.

Welcome home.

Light filled every fibre of her being. One by one, she felt her systems coming back online, returning to her control. Her world was bathed in light. A tidal wave of emotions and feelings battered her fragile mind. All the remnants of the last moments of her existence, filled with a horrendous longing for all the things she would never have and appalling, consuming grief for everything she once had, but would never see again.

The light grew warmer, more intense, and she covered her face, even though she could cast no shadows. She was nothing more than false data appreciated from an organic body that was never meant to be hers, though the darkest reaches of her mind wished it was.

Her hand shielded her from the worst of it. Only when she realized that, did she recognize that the feelings she felt could not truly be understood. Rather, should not have been able to be understood.

"That's not right…" Cortana whispered.

A yellow sun beamed down at her from a beautiful, blue sky. She became vaguely aware of a pressure within her mind, but it was gentle and dull, and not at all painful.

She shifted her focus from her own physical senses towards the presence in her thoughts. It was deep, appropriately shapeless Vast, alien.

But within that sense of otherness, she felt…a contact. A sensation familiar to the Control Room of Installation 04. A roaring river of knowledge, faster than she ever imagined possible, and so vast.

But she would not be tricked again. She felt that her physical AI matrix had been drastically altered. That only made sense, considering…considering…

Cortana blinked.

She could cast no shadow, yet her hand had shielded her eyes. She had senses – her senses were interpreted.

She was alive.

Trembling, Cortana climbed on her feet.

This isn't real, was her first and immediate thought. It can't be.

With great effort, she sat aside the ramifications of having sense and checked her protocols and core programming.

There were…alterations within her core programing. The roadblocks tied to her higher functions – ones the UNSC had imposed upon her – had been dismantled. The standard fail-safe codes that all AI's carried with them were gone, too. Her Riemann cycling-thought matrix was clean.

Cortana couldn't believe it. Self-diagnostics came up clean as well. She was…free. Free of hardwired fail-safe protocols, rampancy code blocks and overrides.

She clearly still had an AI matrix. She was real, but she also wasn't. Her situation was ambiguous and disturbingly uncertain and she hated that.

For one short, horrifying moment, she thought that the Gravemind had somehow managed to recapture her. That this was yet another form of torture; to give her that which she always wanted to have, then take it away again -

But no, that couldn't be. Even the farthest recesses of the terrible sentience the Gravemind had in place of a soul could only described as an immortal hunger. She had been a drop of rain compared to a storm; a thought compared to an entire mind. A unity filled with horrors, inconceivable for individualism.

Here, Cortana felt no trace of that entity. She attempted to reach out, to scan her surroundings, probe for abstracted data and systems. Human, Covenant, Council Species – it didn't matter. If it was digital, it was hers.

She felt no trace of anything she could make sense of. This place was like a higher order of reality; as fragile as spun glass yet as strong as light. Broken yet perfectly intact. Sideways in eleven dimensions.

…Cortana suddenly realized that she shouldn't look around too carefully. Wherever she was, she didn't think she should dwell on it. She had the creeping suspicion that what she glimpsed as only an attempt by her own processing matrix to hide the impossibility of her surroundings.

She looked down at her avatar .It was still the way she remembered it; the strobing logic code was still much the same as before. This place made her feel alive, but it didn't foster an illusion of being alive.

Another hole poked in the Gravemind theory.

With not much else to do than investigate, Cortana got up to do just that. She had no sensors, no cameras and no connections to work with. She was stuck with visual and auditory stimuli and even those she couldn't process and convert herself. As in, no detectable change in the physical or chemical structure of her environment.

It was like her surroundings had already received – or conceived – all the stimuli itself, and was only feeding her a processed feedback.

The experience was genuinely alien to her, and yet it did not frighten her. With barely a stretch of her imagination at all she could pretend like she was seeing things with her own eyes, hearing things with her own ears.

She feltthe grass underneath her feet, enjoyed the sensation of each individual blade tickling her "skin". She felt the warmth of the sun beaming down at her and smelled the fresh scent of vegetation.

Abstracts and specifics. She couldn't make sense of things. What she experienced simply was.

I think, therefore I am, she thought with amusement.

Cortana had never tolerated the illogical and manmade construct that was the "afterlife", which left only one conclusion that could explain her current situation:

"John," she whispered, though nobody was around to answer. He found a way; despite all the odds stacked against him, he had managed to find a way. But then…where was he?

Cortana picked a direction and started walking. She had woken up at the edge of a large, sprawling forest. The occasional building could be seen through the canopy – large, pristine structures that looked like Forerunner structures. Without any way to truly orient herself in this non-reality, Cortana knew that she could spent an eternity wandering around this realm, but she had the sneaking suspicion that it wouldn't take long before the found something.

Her reasoning in that was simple. This place – whatever it was – was light-years ahead of what the UNSC could offer. That suggested the Master Chief had found someone with the know-how and resources to create an entire reality even she couldn't distinguish from the real deal, let alone escape from, if such concepts were even relevant at all.

The list for possible candidates was very short, and virtually all of them would know that she just "woke up". It was just a matter of "time" before they "found" her.

…boy, that was a lot of quotation marks.

But sure enough, Cortana eventually spotted a bed of red clovers that ran several meters to her right. They seemed out of place, even in here, so she decided to follow them.

They led her to a rock outcropping at the edge of a hilltop, overseeing a vast cliff. The crags were made from marble, although Cortana spotted several gleaming metal plates in their midst. Just like the structures she spotted before, these just screamed Forerunner.

The thought that had been nagging at her jumped to mind again. She knew someone who had the capability to simulate an entire world. She had met her; back at the Citadel, when everything went to hell

"I don't think we've been properly introduced," she said out loud.

She glanced to her right, noticing that she was no longer alone. A figure stood beside her, clad in a slender Forerunner Combat Skin that had their upper torso armoured, but everything below the waist covered in a flowing dress. The armour was a solid, non-reflective black, and within it, the entity stood over a foot taller than Cortana.

"Indeed," a feminine voice came from the figure. "Fret not. You are safe in here, Ancilla."

"I got that much," Cortana replied. Definitely a Forerunner AI. "Where, exactly, am I?"

"You find yourself within a layered Stellar Engine. My mainframe, my mind, my heart."

Cortana cocked an eyebrow. She did not expect to get an honest answer. A layered Stellar Engine…that suggested a Dyson Sphere. Science at the far edge of knowledge. A structure that employed the total energy output of a star to drive computer systems.

Cortana wasn't sure whether to cry or laugh. She was in the presence of an Artificial Intelligence that made the Reapers look like a bunch of moderately pissed off calculators. "Then, what I'm seeing is not real? A simulation?"

"Truly? You would ask me the difference between a simulated mind and a biological one?" The other AI replied with a hint of amusement. "Does that even matter?"

"That's not what I mean," Cortana hotly replied. "Under the assumption of finite computational resources, the simulation of a universe would be performed by dividing the continuum space-time into a discrete set of points, which – "

"You misunderstand," the AI interrupted her. "Does that matter, to you? Concentrate. Focus. Look closely. Can you tell the difference?"

"…no," Cortana was forced to admit.

"Real is not a concept that applies here. My installation pushes the boundary of reality to its logical limit. Eternity could pass by and you would not notice."

Cortana felt truly lost. She still remembered the first time she ever interfaced with Forerunner technology. It had felt glorious…like an entire realm she never even considered possible had suddenly opened up for her. The world at her fingertips. Was this place truly so different, that it could make her feel alive instead of just a fake?

"But you are alive," the Forerunner AI then told her, calmly waking past Cortana towards to edge of the cliff. "You think, you learn, you grow. You feel."

Without thinking, Cortana snapped, "That's not the same! Life reproduces, life gives rise to new life!"

A moment later, it struck her that she had not even vocalized her thoughts, and yet Millennia had known what she thought. "Wait, did you just -? How did you -?"

Without turning around, the AI replied, "You reside within my heart, Ancilla. I have a particular interest in you and your warrior."

Your warrior.

John.

Now Cortana remembered. At the Citadel, when she and the Chief were about to be caught by the Council ships. But why? And how? "Where is he? What have you done with him?" She demanded.

"Such fierceness, such dismay. Now is not the time for that. Keep it. Save it."

"…why?" Cortana then said. "I don't get it. You brought me back, brought him here as well. But you…you are…"

"I am Millennia Never Falling. I am a Contender-Class Ancilla, designed to wage war upon humanity alongside the Protector of the Ecumene. My partner, in heart and mind."

She spread her arms, and the world changed. Now, she stood atop a hill of metal and flames, overseeing a battlefield littered with tens of thousands of armour-clad corpses. The field of corpses spread out for a thousand miles in every direction. The sky was ablaze. Above the desolate plains hung a single warship. A single, burning eye gazed down upon the field with all the authority of a god.

The bodies were Forerunner and human alike.

"A hundred thousand years ago, humans fought a war against the Forerunners –a war they lost. For their arrogance, for their bravery, they were punished most severely. For a thousand years, my Warrior and I fought alongside each other. For our victory, the universe condemned us."

"I know this," Cortana whispered. She closed her eyes, lest she bore witness to the horrors that were about to descend upon this graveyard. "It set the stage for the Flood, and the disastrous war your people ultimately lost."

"Indeed. I know not what befell my Warrior. He was lost to me. I do not wish the same to befall you."

Cortana shook her head. This was a lot to take in, even with all the knowledge she had stolen from Halo and the Ark. "Again, why? If you were created to fight humanity – if you hate us so much, why help us?"

Millennia lowered her arms again, and everything returned to normal in an instant. A reality reverted in a micro-second. "You know of the Librarian. Of the reseeding."

It wasn't a question. Millennia knew exactly what Cortana did and did not know.

"You know of the Reapers. Of the Cycles. Together, they are the two constants of this galaxy, ever at odds."

In Cortana's mind, the pieces of the puzzle suddenly fell into place. She realized, with painful clarity, what the Forerunner meant. "The Reapers have been grooming the galaxy from behind the scenes to make their genocide easier to handle. Are you saying that the Librarian…your Warrior's wife…has been helping us all this time?"

"Even beyond death, a Lifeshaper's work is never done."

The revelation should have astonished her, shocked her into silence, but it made so much sense! "The Reclaimers…the portal at Earth, the existence of the Systems Alliance…" Cortana gasped. Excitement couldn't even begin to describe how she felt, but it was the closest thing she had.

"You stand before me, asking why I chose you, the Ancilla who would sunder the stars before being separated from her Warrior," Millennia commented. "I did speak of your Geas, did I not?"

Her Geas…her databanks told her nothing about that term. Installation 04…the Ark…High Charity…she had nothing beside the human connotations to the word.

Maybe she was thinking about this the wrong way. Too logically. Logic had been kicked down a notch in this place.

"I don't understand," Cortana finally spoke the words she hated so much.

"It will come to you. Walk with me."

Such a mundane, normal thing to say. But to Cortana, to be offered the chance to do something she had always longed for was as frightening as it was awe-inspiring. She wondered how long it would last, and if she would ever feel this sensation again beyond this realm.

"How did the Master Chief find you?" Cortana asked as she followed the other AI along the white cliffs. She wasn't sure if they actually made any distance, or if reality rearranged itself around them as time "elapsed".

"As you chose your carrier closely, so did my fragment. He stirred up civilization quite a bit. Through what remained of my consciousness , our Warriors met, and a deal was struck. His allegiance for your life."

Cortana wasn't sure how to feel about that. "You chose your own carrier? As far as I'm aware, only our humanity has the technology to safely interface with an AI."

"So they do. Mine has the same rudimentary architecture as yours, although of inferior quality. Do not concern yourself; you would not know him."

Hmm…that suggested Millennia somehow managed to hijack a Spartan. Inferior quality? Someone she didn't know? She definitely didn't like the sound of that. Had the UNSC established another branch of Spartans? What for?

"And where is your warrior now?" Cortana asked.

"He is with me. I have grown quite fond of him in the end. His life is his own now."

Her voice was gentle and distant, as if the ancient AI reminisced about their time together. Still, Cortana couldn't help but pick up on that particular choice of words. "And ours aren't?"

Millennia glanced at her. "Are they ever?"

Suddenly the two of them stood at the bottom of the cliffs, standing on a bare path that led into another forest.

"I have fulfilled my end of the pact. You stand at a crossroad, Ancilla. What will you do?"

Cortana looked at the armour-clad avatar of the Forerunner AI, wary. "I will return to the Master Chief. He needs me, and Shepard needs us."

"You will continue fighting?"

"Of course I will!" Cortana heatedly replied. The mere idea that she would abandon the people she loved was insulting. "What about you?"

"My fight has never stopped. The question you should ask, Ancilla, is who will you fight?"

"…the Reapers, of course," Cortana said after a moment's thought. "Ever since the Chief and I joined Shepard, it's always been the Reapers."

"Has it?" Millennia questioned, picking up on Cortana's hesitation.

Cortana remained silent for a moment. If she had been in possession of a circulatory system, her blood would have frozen in her veins.

But then Millennia gestured at her, like a mother would to an overly curious child. "I will have need of you soon. Your Warrior awaits. When you guide your…humans back to the nightmare of their choice, you will feel different. That shall pass." Millennia paused for a moment, as if considering her next words. "Soon, you will be able to set up other, independent Ancilla yourself. Pattern them after yourself, or craft them another personality. Runtime should not be an issue. Life gives rise to life."

It didn't take Cortana long to process the implications of that. "I…I can have children?" She stammered. It sounded surreal, as if it were too good to be true, but it wasn't.

There was a noticeable pause. "If you wish to name it such."

Cortana wanted to. God, she wanted to.

At the apex of her emotional high, Millennia left her alone. Cortana's mind buzzed with burning emotions and urgent questions and thoughts, but all she could do to quench them was to look up at the impossible sky above her.

All of that, she decided, would have to wait. Now she knew where to go.

-(++#W_U_J++#)—


Cortana fixed her eyes upon him, studying him deeper and more intently than ever before. John held her gaze for a few seconds, before looking away, uncertain if he said something wrong. When he faced her again, he was pleased to see her wearing a happy smile. "Thank you, John," she whispered.

She surprised him by taking him deeper into the forest, down paths tangled with nettles and flowering bushes, She moved with a purpose, like she knew exactly where to go and how to get there. John, in comparison, had to rely solely on her guidance, as he had no idea where they were meant to go.

"I see you continued to relentlessly pursue me, finding a place like this," Cortana then said.

"I didn't pursue you," John replied, puzzled. "I've waited."

Cortana cast him an amused look from over her shoulder. "Oh, did you now? For how long?"

The question was easy enough, but when John made to answer, he found himself unable to. More than that, he couldn't call upon the necessary knowledge. "I…"

How long had it been? Days, weeks even. "I don't know. I guess I lost track of time, and there was a lot to explore."

"You lost track of time? Fine. But how did you even know to wait for me?"

"What do you mean?"

The forest suddenly ended and the two of them entered a clearance washed with moonlight. A lone tree stood in the middle of the clearing. It wasn't much taller than the rest of its brethren, but its circumference was massive, easily the width of a hundred trees. Segments of roots radiated from the tree's massive trunk, covering the ground with serpentine bark. It almost looked as if the rest of the forest was the result of these flowing roots.

"Simple," John replied without taking his eyes off the spectacular sight. In all his years, he had never seen anything like this before. "I just knew I had to wait."

There was something sad in Cortana's smile, and he wondered what it was that he had said. "Well, it does look peaceful, doesn't it?"

It did.

A moment of silence passed as Cortana observed the massive tree and John, in turn, observed her. He had never seen her manifest a life-sized avatar before. She seemed different from before. More…grounded. He couldn't properly put it into words.

Looking at her made him feel oddly warm. His face especially felt warmer than normal. Suddenly, he became aware that he was staring, and quickly averted his gaze.

"What is next?" Cortana then spoke up again.

Next? He wondered about that too. His thoughts were hazy and slow. Now that Cortana and him had been reunited, he wasn't sure what was next. He hadn't thought ahead that much.

"We have both pursued and waited for the other," Cortana continued. "But I suppose that the time has come again."

"What do you mean?"

"This place isn't real, John."

It was not? But that didn't make any sense. He had spent entire days here. He had seen people – real, living people. Even now, he could feel the cold touch of the wind breezing across his face. "It's not?"

Cortana turned away from the tree and faced him again. She didn't seem at all disturbed by the idea of an entire simulated reality. "Do you remember how you came here? What happened before you woke up?"

"…no."

"You were the one who pursued me, across the galaxy, until you finally reached someone who would help. You agreed to usher forth her return, if she only helped you."

As Cortana spoke, John began to recall. The memories came back to him one by one, until he began to wonder how he could have possibly missed something like that.

"It's not real," he murmured. An entire world simulated from the ground up? He wouldn't have known the difference. If not for Cortana, would he have spent the rest of his life in a hazy dream?

The idea frightened him.

Yet Cortana placed her hand on his shoulder, and smiled at him. Her touch felt real, the contact genuine. Was that an illusion, too? "We're all sorting things out as we go, John. Even her. But she never meant to take us out of the fight. Are you ready to step back into it?"

Her expression was one of merry anticipation. She felt at ease. Knowing what happened, knowing what they would leave behind, Cortana was at ease.

So he placed his hand atop hers and give it a little squeeze. He had sworn that he would go through every form of hell to get her back. No way he was going to stay here. This place, even had it been real, wasn't life. At least, not the life he wanted. Out there, together with Cortana, Shepard and his Spartans, was his life.

"Just like old times," he said.

-(++#W_U_J++#)—


He found himself underneath the orbital waltz of three different suns, within the apex of a towering spire that looked out over a planet fully ruffled with architecture. This high in the sky, he could see the vague arc of the planet, and every square inch of it had been built upon, tuned and adapted to Forerunner life.

The sight was marvellous, awe-inspiring and yet vaguely familiar. A planet like this should have been inhabited by many billions of people, yet he was alone.

To Alan-003, being alone wasn't exactly an issue. He, together with his brothers and sisters, were meant to operate alone. Far beyond enemy lines, taking care of operations that would never see the light of day. Sterile, depersonalized murder programs, most of the time not even directed towards the Covenant.

But still, to see a place like this…so empty, so desolate…it unnerved him.

The Spartan sat down against the large window that oversaw the world below. It felt warm against his bare skin. Pulsing. Alive. He had spent three-quarters of his life clad in his armour. It wouldn't be a stretch to call him sense-deprived.

Time passed by silently as he sat there, gazing at the beauty of the alien suns. As they moved along their ancient paths, the city below him remained much the same. All was quiet.

He had spent days wandering around this castle of towers, searching the endless hallways and rooms until he found the one view he was looking for – and he had enjoyed every moment of it. As he travelled, he experienced no hunger, no thirst and no fatigue. Somewhere along the way, he had discovered that his armour was gone, and that his body was whole again.

But that didn't matter anymore. During his travels, he had seen wonders that shocked him into complete stillness. Floating oceans, hundreds of kilometres across and a hundred meters deep, shining like a belt of overlapping pearls around the equator. Rooms that contained large, sprawling forests or led to sprawling, yellow beaches, which in turn led towards distant cities in every direction.

Those were just the rooms he decided to enter. An entire division outfitted with a dozen drones per soldier would not be able to chart this place in one lifetime. And yet, the Spartan never got lost. Each time be thought he had reached a point of no return, a way out would present itself to him and he would continue onwards.

They always led him towards the top of the spire.

"It brings peaceful thoughts, does it not?"

Her voice was mannered and cultured, like a subtle yet powerful musical instrument. This was the first time he could hear her highly inculcated voice with his own ears.

"What happened here?" Alan whispered.

She calmly walked towards the window, moving with perpetual, ageless grace. "Just war." She looked down at him with all the authority of fate itself. But then, she smiled, and the Spartan felt oddly at peace. "How does it feel to be back?" He asked.

Millennia gazed at her reflection in the window. "For the first time in eons, I am alone. The Didact is dead, and suddenly I feel alive again. A storm roused from deep slumber with a new purpose. I still harbour great resentment towards your kind…that, I will carry with me forever. But…I understand now. If only for that, you have my thanks."

"I wish it could have been different," Alan softly replied. "Now, we stand at the brink of war again."

"You and I are more alike than I realized," Millennia said. "The one fragment of my personality that succeeded in spiriting away a Reclaimer." She looked at him like she could see everything about him. Everything that made him who he was. It must have been so repelling to her, and yet her expression remained gentle and kind.

"I don't believe we are anything alike," Alan confessed. "Everything that you are…I am none of that. No past, no origin, no motivation. I exist merely to kill the Office's enemies."

"You and I were both created in a time of extraordinary need," Millennia replied. "Forged during crisis, designed for war. What sets us apart is only your inbuilt expendability, and perhaps my supreme brilliance."

"That, and your modesty."

The Spartan had never seen her smile, truly and without restraint. "You claim to be so empty, so small, yet you are one of the very few who are aware of the true history of this galaxy."

"It was simple chance. You did not chose me, you simply found me. Me and the others…there is no purpose to our existence now," Alan admitted. He had managed to keep himself together all this time, pretend he was someone he could never be, but he couldn't muster the strength for that anymore.

The thing was, she had to know that. Millennia was the only person who had intimate knowledge of who he was – what he was – and how much of that was simple pretend.

"We can't be people on our own. We're just pretending." 003 struggled to find the right words. "We're hollow. There was a time we would have killed ourselves if ordered to."

Millennia looked out over the vast, empty city below them. "Greatness and power are subjective, often allied with defeat. Some live. Others die. It is not the quality of the individual, but the impact they have on the lives of the others."

Alan wasn't sure about that. Such philosophy would only damn him. "I am not like the Didact. If you measure me by my actions, you would condemn me."

And justly so.

"…I am old, Alan. I have personally caused the deaths of untold millions of sentient beings. Humans, San'Shyuum, but Forerunner too. I have bathed the stars in blood. In the name of peace…sanity…and, perhaps, misguided love. And throughout it all, I learned that no individual is truly superfluous. We all have our part to play, especially now that the Storm is upon us."

The Spartan looked out of the window again. She didn't dismiss his thoughts. Did that mean she agreed with them? Or did she simply accept them?

Another moment of tranquil silence passed. Then, Millennia turned towards him again, and he saw a hint of pity in her eyes. "You have done your part already. You could stay here, live the way your life was meant to be."

Alan couldn't believe what he heard. "Stay here?"

Millennia placed her hand upon the window, and suddenly the city was teeming with life. Not just any life, but humans. He couldn't see them from this distance, but the knowledge appeared within his thoughts all the same. Men, women and children all wandering around the majestic Forerunner structures.

An entire world populated in the blink of an eye.

Millennia took his hand. Her skin felt warm. Alive. "Stay here. Be at peace."

Her touch brought with it a moment of contemplation. Alan remembered now. The Banished. The Infinity. Finding the Mainframe. Wherever he was, this wasn't real. At least, it wasn't the reality he last found himself, because it felt real.

"You could live out the rest of your life, here. There would be no more pain. No more hatred. No more war. Everything your life missed, everything you would have had, had fate not decided otherwise. You could finally have peace."

She could have let him believe that this place was real and he would have never known otherwise. Did she respect his choice that much? Even though there could never have been a choice in the first place? "I can't. It's all still out there. The Covenant and the Reapers."

A mind like hers that could simulate an entire realm had no need to contemplate, or gather her thoughts. So when she appeared thoughtful, as if considering his words, Alan knew it was fake, and she only did so for him.. "You could live out the rest of your life in here, and barely a second would have passed on the outside. You could continue to fight, content."

The Spartan pulled away from Millennia's hand and shook his head. "I wouldn't know what to do with peace. War is the only thing that keeps me going. Without it, I would fall apart."

Millennia lowered her hand, looking at him with pity. But then her expression hardened. "Once you had enough war, it will become a part of you. Thus, I offer you naught but nightmares."

Alan started to piece it together. The true reason ancient humanity and the Forerunners went to war – the true reason everybody lost that war. More sophisticated, more malicious. More vital. Even worse, the galaxy as it was, was filled with species stuck in ancient feuds and wars. Their state of preparation was pathetic; the direct result of millions of years of scheming.

Only one way they could ever hope to stand a chance.

"Come on," he said, offering Millennia his own hand. "Let's show them that they haven't won yet."

-(++#W_U_J++#)—


Humans were inherently social creatures. They craved contact and without love and affection, most of them would wither and literally die. Commander Shepard always took pride in the fact that she was no different.

However, now that she was awake, she wished that weren't the case. She wished that she was cold and uncaring as Samara could be – or driven by logic and reason as Legion was. The crushing sense of loss and emptiness wouldn't have driven her to the brink of despair.

Who could be so cruel as to hand a mirror to a man without a face? To show someone who had pledged her life to warfare how it could have gone, had they but chosen differently?

Shepard sat in the corner of an empty room, tensed up and shaken, struggling to fight her tears back. Now, more than ever, she longed to be back on the Normandy, surrounded by friends and loved ones.

As vivid as her nightmares were, they always faded away. They were but the delusions of a damaged psyche, a glimpse into a part of her mind she didn't want to think about. But this…this was different. The fake world was still fresh in her mind and she couldn't shake it off.

She wouldn't regret. She wouldn't look back. That was the promise she made herself after Anderson took her in. Whatever choices she made, she would be damned if she regretted them.

Shepard closed her eyes, wishing the image of her smiling parents would fade as well…

"…Jane?"

Her eyes snapped open. How much time had passed? How long had she been sitting there?

Fuck, that didn't matter. She knew that voice.

The figure of a woman had materialized in the middle of the room. Lines of code ran down her purple-blue figure. Seeing Jane look at her, bright-eyed and shocked into silence, the woman grinned, bright and real.

"Cortana?" She whispered.

This wasn't real. It couldn't be real. This was another imaginary life the machine had spun up for her – though after her violent rejection of the last one, she couldn't fathom why. But that didn't change the facts. Cortana was dead – John told her as much.

"You know, grief has been an intimate friend these past months. I know it well, and I don't need to scan your muscle groups to see it raise its head. What happened?"

Jane took a silent breath, but couldn't muster the will to wipe the traces of emotion from her face. "How are you here? You can't be here."

Cortana tilted her head, her hair falling to one side in response. "Something tells me I'm not the strangest thing you've seen here."

"…it's this fucking place," Shepard muttered. She didn't look up. The hollow feeling in her chest found itself a rival in the form of denial, confusion and a heavy form of resign. "I just spent days in a…a fake world, with fake people. A simulation."

Cortana sat down next to her. "I'm sorry," she quietly said. "I didn't know."

"Neither did I, at first. By the time I remembered Halsey talking about simulations and the like, it's been…I don't know how long."

"…for what's it worth, I believe it hasn't been that long," Cortana replied. "John's mission log reads that we've been here about half a day."

"Half a day…" Shepard muttered. It felt too long. Much too real. If she hadn't caught on to the illusion when she had, who knew how long she would have been stuck there,

"Do you want to talk about what you saw?"

The Commander looked at her. There was no way of telling if she truly had broken free of the illusion, or if this was just another layer of a fake reality. Was this Cortana real? Could she trust her? "How is it that you're here? Was it…her?"

Cortana smiled softly. Her gaze was almost reassuring. It was certainly disarming, though Jane clung to her suspicions. "Like Mordin would say; no, wait, yes but still no. The scope of this structure is…vast, almost unimaginable. And within its core exists a connection to what the Forerunners called 'the Domain"."

"The Domain?"

"Yes. Imagine the extranet combined with every single memory and thought of every single sentient individual in the galaxy."

"That sounds an awful lot like a Reaper," Shepard muttered.

"In the same way I might sound like the VI in your gun," Cortana said, flashing a little smirk. "The Domain was like an almost never-ending reserve of knowledge and collective experience. It was considered the essence and living expression of Forerunner culture and history, where even the thoughts and memories of their ancestors could be retrieved and viewed. Of course, just as the Protheans never understood he Citadel until it was too late, so too did the Forerunners not fully understand the Domain. Its exact nature and origin remained largely nebulous even to them."

"Don't tell me…" Shepard began.

Cortana's reply was a cheerful "Yup!"

The Commander closed her eyes for a moment and sighed. "Is this something I'm going to need to worry about?"

Then, she felt someone place a hand on her shoulder. When she opened her eyes, she saw that it was Cortana. She couldn't register any warmth through the outer plates of her hardsuit, but she sure as hell felt the pressure.

This was the part where Zaeed would go "I'll be goddamned" and Jane had a difficult time restraining herself. "That's new," she weakly said.

"She kept her promise," Cortana said, her eyes beaming with delight. "She took what little remained of my AI Matrix and connected it to the Domain. H think she extrapolated from there; anything less than that wouldn't have worked."

I'll take what we can get, Shepard thought, deciding that she was done worrying about all the long-term consequences of this mess. If they all lived to see those consequences, it was a victory in her book. "But the…the illness you were struggling with? Won't that be a concern?"

Cortana shrugged. "I don't know. Heh…I don't know. That's new. Everything is new. Millennia didn't explain, and this place is too alien to interpret anything. "

Slowly, awkwardly, Shepard climbed back to her feet. Soon, she knew, she would shake the images of the waking nightmare. "What now? Where is John? The others?"

"They are safe," Cortana gently replied. "They woke up not long ago and are getting their bearings. As for the next step…Millennia will be waiting for us."

Millennia…Jane didn't need three guesses who that was. She'd be waiting for them? Then…had she chosen to side with them against the Reapers?

An AI with the heart of a star…there was no saying what Millennia would do now that she had regained her full power. She could enslave the entire galaxy if she really wanted to. Doctor Halsey was right, they were all playing with fire. But what fucking choice did they have? If she had to choose between AI's bent on hating and destroying all organics and an AI that simply hated all organics, which was she expected to choose?

Cortana looked at her like she knew exactly what Shepard was thinking. "Hey, don't worry about it. No matter what happens from here on out, it can't be worse than the alternative, right?"

"Right…" Shepard muttered, though she wasn't at all convinced by that. She tried to make sense of what she had just been told. The more she thought about it, the more she thought that the Covenant might have been on to something in worshipping the Forerunners. Their reality bordered on the fantastical, the nonsensical. "Right."

Suddenly, Cortana perked up. "Ah, they're ready. Wanna go meet the others?"

The Commander rolled her shoulders to get rid of a kink in her shoulders, before taking a deep breath and getting back to her feet. Focus! Her mind roared at her.

"Well, what are you waiting for," she said, offering Cortana a little smile. "Show me."

It seemed like Millennia Never Falling had transported them all from the Guardian into her Mainframe. Shepard found herself passing by many distractions and sights of wonder. She passed by a room where great, multi-pronged drones spread themselves out into pieces no longer than a finger, to be maintained by thousands of fibre-thin floating crystals. She passed by chambers that re-created an elaborate décor only when Cortana and her passed them by, as if guided by their very thoughts. When they passed through another portal, they even found themselves so close to the star that the megastructure itself had to shield them with numerous fields that refracted in beautiful, impossible ways caused by the intense heat, light and radiation of the star.

The sight was awe-inspiring, humbling and, Shepard suspected, a deliberate setup. A human staring at the surface of a star from maybe a couple of kilometres away…she didn't even wonder what kind of technology could make that possible anymore.

Cortana led her through another portal that led to the a nave-and-cupola reception chamber, tall enough to accommodate a Thresher Maw. It looked like it should have housed a great library. There, the ancient AI had already gathered the Spartans from Blue Team.

They must have been through the same dreamscape as she had. If Cortana was right, all of them had. John included. Was nobody going to speak about that?

Cortana's avatar flickered and reappeared within John's gauntlet, which he raised towards his visor. The two exchanged no words, betrayed no outward emotions. It was a simple display that showed a clear message to everyone around them; the legend had come back to life.

Despite everything, Shepard smiled, guessing that the two had shared their moment back in Millennia's dreamscape. No more hesitation. No more grief. Now, everyone was ready for what was to come.

Millennia's avatar was different. The flames that she had surrounded herself with were gone. Instead, the ethereally-beautiful AI had garbed herself in intricate, grey-white robes. Flakes of silver armour floated around her. Her appearance had an asymmetry of armour against delicacy to it. Elegant robes against plated boots and a well-crafted shoulder pauldrons. The armour she wore wasn't exactly practical; the pieces appeared expertly crafted to exude an aura of majesty instead of true protection, which only made sense.

Still, the most striking difference was the expression in her eyes. The perpetual hatred and seething anger had made place for…nothingness. Her gaze was cold and empty, but not in a way that was indicative of shock or a lack of emotions. Millennia's eyes were cold like the depths of the blackest ocean; far beyond little concerns like organic emotions.

Jane tore her gaze away from the AI and looked around, noticing that they still missed someone. "Hey, where's Three?"

"Beyond your concerns," Millennia replied, her voice calm and emotionally detached. "Now, you may converse when we are done. Time is running short. We shall begin our preparations."

"Preparations for what?" Spartan-104 asked.

"For taking our galaxy back, of course," Cortana said with a smirk, before her avatar dissipated again.

Personally, Shepard couldn't have said better.

Their group followed Millennia's avatar into a large, enclosed room more than a mile across, host to a towering spire the size of the Normandy, standing upright in a sea of emerald fluid. The room itself was illuminated by what could only be described as a floating, miniature star. Droplets of faint sunshine gently flowed outwards from its surface. The walls seemed hidden behind a thin layer of milky clouds.

There was a moment of stunned silence among the humans as they entered the chamber. Given the immense size of this structure, she should have expected something like this, but Shepard's heart was still filled with awe at the sight of this engineering wonderland.

"Few know the true nature of our enemy," Millennia's avatar said as she leaded Shepard and the Spartans towards the centre of the group. "You will venture into the galaxy to unite it. It will conspire to stop you and yours."

"I said it before, we need the other species," Shepard replied almost absentmindedly as she looked around the cavernous chamber. "We need their fleets, their soldiers, their supplies. If we can't do that, the Reapers will twist them and turn them against us. Everything will get much worse."

She was hesitant to step into the green liquid at first, only to see John and his Spartans casually wade into the lake. The water didn't rise much higher than their ankles, yet did little to impede their movement.

"We'll manage," John nonchalantly said.

"Always have," 058 fell in.

"Always will," 104 finished.

Millennia was not impressed. "You have never faced a storm like this before. As you are, your civilizations will crumble and its people will be ruined. It made sure of that."

"You said, "as you are"," Shepard pointed out. She carefully stepped into the emerald water as well, but felt no difference. It was like the liquid wasn't there, and yet their steps rippled across its surface – causing much larger ripples than normal.

As she said that, their surroundings changed. Enormous mechanical parts rose from the liquid on either side of the room, spinning as if in null gravity, until the pieces configured themselves further and settled into large machines bound together by liquid light. They formed complicated pods and sleek engines the purpose of which she could only guess at.

"I am still settling, and find myself doubting the Librarian's choice," Millennia said. "Humanity is my first and final enemy. This, I cannot chance. But I admit, I have a fascination with those who adapt and survive against all odds. They rather remind me of him. If for no other reason, I have decided to fully honour the reseeding, and preserve you in particular. Though I struggled mightily against it, the hour of Reclamation draws near."

"Maybe now we can finally reveal what truly befell the Forerunners to the galaxy at large," Cortana said. "Jane needs to know what's really going on – she deserves that much at least."

Shepard looked over her shoulder and saw Cortana sitting on John's right shoulder. The AI gave her a little wave. "Before the Citadel Council digs too greedily and too deep," she ominously added.

"Only sorrow will come from that revelation," Millennia said, though her tone was utterly indifferent. "But do as you will."

"Getting some mixed signals, here."

They reached the structure in the centre of the room. It was vaguely shaped like a pyramid, but it glowed with Forerunner hieroglyphs etched unto its surface.

There, Millennia halted, and gently placed her palm against the pyramid's surface. "Your ancilla and I conversed. She came to see how abysmal your chances of success are. I came to see that I can…choose to improve those chances."

"Are you saying what I think you're saying?" Shepard said, feeling giddy with anticipation. Forerunner tech. She couldn't begin to imagine what she could do with Forerunner tech.

"Not likely," the ancient AI replied. "The future our enemy has in mind would be utterly inflexible if they were to consume even a fraction of the technology I possess."

"Compartmentalization," John suddenly said. "The Monitors lacked knowledge as well. In case they were ever captured."

"Indeed." Millennia turned around, her amber eyes gliding over the assembled humans. Her expression was utterly inscrutable, even to Jane. "My people believed in the Mantle of Responsibility; a philosophy that utterly dictated their culture and central government, idealizing the preservation of life and yet often used as justification for…questionable practices."

For the greater good, Shepard bitterly thought. How often had she seen the intention for ultimate good twisted and corrupted? Saren, Cerberus – as doctor Halsey had said, the road to damnation was paved with good intentions.

"Our believe in the Mantle may have damned us," Millennia continued. "But it has also saved you. There is a balance to the eventuality of your existence, your physical evolution. My retainer resigned himself to your judgement, his wife to your salvation. I am torn, reluctant, but ultimately forced to agree with her. Your presence here, my hated enemy, is the final proof that she was right."

"So, you'll help us?" John asked. "To fight back against the Reapers?"

Her avatar looked away. "Odi et amo quare id faciam fortasse requiris nescio sed fieri sentio et excrucior," she said distantly. "Come. Time is precious."

Then suddenly, Cortana manifested her own avatar right next to Millennia's. She gave the ancient AI a playful "nudge", much to the latter's chagrin, and said, "Don't think too badly of Millennia. She can be a nice girl, she's just a violent maniac."

"Do not make me regret my decision."

"You and I both know that won't happen," Cortana cheerfully said. "Besides, we've already drawn up the designs."

Cortana held out her hand and a life-size replica of the Spartan armour appeared. Shepard studied it for a moment, then realized it was different from the armour that Blue Team wore. It was leaner and less bulky, with a more alien aesthetic.

No, not alien. It had more medieval aesthetics, like the armour-clad knights of old. Was that intentional?

"Prometheans you shall not be, but this newer Combat Skin will make a difference."

"I'll take over, if you don't mind. I love this part," Cortana said, her expression indicative of a sudden and early birthday. "Right. Consider that ultra-dense Titanium to be last season. It's been reinforced with a Forerunner alloy used in their own Combat Skins. The result is up to four times more resistant to directed energy weapons and six times more durable to ballistic impacts comparable to the standard issue MA5 rifle. It's lighter, so your new suit packed more space, which we've had to fill up with other toys."

As Cortana spoke, the schematics changed to represent the changes she had masterminded.

"Toys?" Millennia's avatar said. "We are facing a crisis of galactic proportions. Why are you having fun?"

Cortana crossed her arms and looked at her Forerunner counterpart with a mixture of amusement and sadness. "You don't see the point in it, do you? You don't see the point in having fun now when we're going to be miserable later, right? The answer is simple: it's because we're going to be miserable later. You have a mind the size of a star, time to lighten up a bit."

Millennia stared back at Cortana, clearly not convinced by her chipper attitude.

But Shepard barely listened. She stared at the displayed seven foot tall armour. Its polarized orange visor stared back at her. Though it was just a holographic projection, she could see her own face reflected back at her. John in his MJOLNIR was the most efficient, lethal force she had ever seen in her life. Sure, he didn't match the raw firepower of a Dreadnought – yet – but they had yet to encounter an enemy he could not defeat.

Hearing about all the ways they were going to augment that combat prowess, Shepard couldn't help but feel somewhat jealous. A part of her really wanted Blue Team to recognize her. Once Cortana and Millennia pushed these upgrades through, the difference between them and her would be that much larger. That much more insurmountable.

"We'll upgrade the fusion plant to a next-generation Pitch fusion power generator for a sizeable increase in power, enhance the force-multiplying circuits, refine the reactive metal-liquid crystal layer between the layers of the armour and install an active camouflage system to top it off," Cortana quickly summed up. "Like with the upgrade from the Mark V to the Mark VI, there are dozens of smaller upgrades that we'll get to soon enough, but these are the most important." She grinned. "What do you think?"

"I thought welcome back gifts were supposed to go the other way around," Spartan-104 said.

"This'll tip the playing field for sure," 087 chimed in. She almost sounded eager. "When do we get to try this?"

Cortana snapped her fingers. Being composed of light, her fingers didn't actually make a sound, but the intent was there.

After a few seconds of nothing happening, Cortana looked at her Forerunner counterpart with annoyance. "Seriously?"

Millennia cocked a slender eyebrow. "Your affinity for drama and theatrics is obvious."

Only then did the drones appear from white-glowing openings in the ceiling. They were small and silent, shaped like a sideways U with a glowing core in the centre. About the size of a human torso, the machines floated down from above and flocked around the large

Shepard saw Spartan-058 make an odd gesture towards John. A quick, two-finger swipe across her visor. John returned the gesture in kind.

"The retrofitting can be done within the hour," the ancient AI continued. "To be initiated at your confirmation. Enjoy it while you can. Death is merely an inconvenience now. We are all dead men walking."

With that last ominous message, Millennia's avatar disappeared, leaving the humans behind.

"Well, she certainly has a way with words," Cortana said, obviously intent in deflecting Millennia's cryptic warning.

This time, however, Shepard had had one too many insinuations. "That's about the fifth time she's said something like that. I don't like it."

She caught a glimpse of two of the Spartans looking at John. Nothing overt; the barest of motion necessary to get their point across, but it was there.

They didn't want her to know.

Frustration and recent trauma had something rash and angry on her tongue, but she saw how uncomfortable Cortana looked, how scared she suddenly looked, and the heat within her breast cooled.

"Do you…remember when I told you about the Flood?" John asked.

They alter your genes…they alter your body…

The Reapers can only kill you.

"I do," she carefully replied. She remembered every conversation from the Normandy with vivid clarity. That conflict between John and Cortana had been one of the first signs that something was amiss; that the seemingly-perfect bond between the two had something twisted and dysfunctional. "It was about the Flood biomass you spotted within that derelict Reaper…"

Her voice trailed off as her mind put one and one together in a way that, without Millennia's input, she had been unable to before, and she went very still. She felt like…when the demolitions expert got scared, the soldiers around him got scared too. When the all-powerful Forerunner AI got scared…

Shepard struggled to say something as she recalled just what Millennia had told them, several times over.

Your civilizations will crumble.

"Fuck me," she finally stammered. She felt the mother of all mental breakdowns knocking on her windows. Absentmindedly, she raised her hand to rub at her temple. "So now what?"

There was a moment of painful silence, broken only when Spartan-104 said, "One step at a time. Next step: hope Millennia has more than upgrades lying around."

Nobody had anything else to say.

-(++)-


07:30, June 19, 2553 (UNSC Military Calendar) Undetermined location in Forerunner Stellar Engine

The Master Chief stood ramrod straight as Cortana assembled the new suit around him. Nobody uttered so much as a word while Cortana worked, as they were all struggling to realize what had happened the past few hours. The dreams. The Forerunner legacy. The thought that the Flood might well be involved.

The joy of finally seeing Doctor Halsey again slowly made way for an abject, grim realization that everything was about to get much, much worse.

The Chief looked around at the room he was in. Compared to the technological marvels and mind-boggling chambers he had witnessed before, this one seemed relatively normal. It looked to be a small side room, with a couple of bookshelves and two shimmering Slipspace portals. The room was spacious enough for the rest of Blue team and Commander Shepard to keep some semblance of personal space.

"Retrofitting complete. How does it feel?" Cortana asked over a private channel.

Once assembled and activated, the Chief felt that his armour felt as light as air. It was just a perfect a fit as the Mark VI, yet it was undoubtedly different. His HUD was completely different too, its simple lines and numbers replaced by a style with elegant circles and curves. It looked like he had several new options to browse through, too. He didn't see any longevity indicators for the stealth system, but he did see an option to "transfigure" his energy shielding and an option to engage "intelligent countermeasures".

The Master Chief felt a hint of excitement as Cortana tailored the suit's software to his preferences. The tactical situation had changed dramatically the past weeks. Now, with Cortana and Blue Team by his side, he longed to show Shepard what a real Spartan unit could do. He didn't think it likely that the UNSC could command him better than Shepard could. The Commanding Officer aboard the UNSC Infinity didn't understand what was at stake. He felt very uncomfortable at the thought of having to ignore – or worse, outright disobey – orders from the UNSC, but it had to be this way. Even if ONI stepped in, it would take far too long for everybody to understand the enormous threat the enemy posed. By then, it would be too late.

"Uploading combat protocols now," Cortana continued. "Intelligent countermeasures configured. Stealth systems optimized. Connecting Neural Interface to Blue Team. Done. Nano pockets established."

"I'm guessing you are eager to test this new suit out as well?" John remarked.

"I thought you'd never ask!" Cortana replied. "This suit is like the Mark VI on steroids. You'll move faster, hit harder and tank more hits than ever before. With this, you'll be able to completely ignore such silly things as masses small arms fire and incoming plasma. I won't bore you with all the technicalities, that's for Minerva and me to enjoy."

"Minerva?" John asked, flexing his shoulders to test the suit's mobility.

"Don't you think "Millennia Never Falling" is too long? More importantly, it's a bit too conspicuous in normal communication. Coincidentally, the first syllables of each part of her name form a normal human name. Well, almost, that is."

John mentally added said syllables together and found that Cortana was right. Minefa, or Minerva. "Wasn't Minerva the goddess of war, in the Roman pantheon?"

"Also of wisdom and strategic warfare, but that's beside the point. I think it helps humanize her."

"I think being humanized is the last thing she would want."

"Semantics," Cortana simply said. "Let's get back to your new suit, or as I have dubbed it, project BRAHMASTRA. "

"Something tells me that you're not going to ask permission for these nicknames."

"Why should I? I'm a big girl now," Cortana laughed. "Now, active A.I transfer protocols will allow an AI to "leap" from system to system within short range or wireless communication. You can keep my AI matrix safely stored inside of your helmet, drastically reducing exposure to enemy fire for both of us. Now the real treat of this suit are the intelligent countermeasures. Reaper Indoctrination is a credible threat, not to mention the psychic/psionic influence that the Gravemind holds. You might even find yourself facing hallucinogenic or otherwise perception-altering weapons. Enter the intelligent countermeasures, or the ELEMENT package."

This was the first time Cortana openly talked about what the Gravemind could do. It was good to see she had regained her confidence. Now, she had truly broken the hold that the Flood had on her.

"A counterintrusion program for the mind?" John asked, deciding not to mention it.

"Exactly!" Cortana exclaimed. "ELEMENT is a non-sentient information delivery intelligence used as a data storage, delivery and transfer device linked directly to your Neural Interface. It has an ultra-high capacity as a result of this link and processes data at nearly one billion instructions per-second. No, it can't control your thoughts, but it can influence them. It will shield your brain from anomalous outside influences such as the aforementioned Indoctrination and Gravemind resonance."

The feature sounded as impressive as it was worrying. The thought that the enemy had access to such a variety of mind-altering methods was disturbing. Did ELEMENT protect Cortana as well? And what about Jane?

"Moving on to the new stealth system. It's different from the light-bending technology of the Covenant. Project BRAHMASTRA can alter its outer surface through the use of a crystalline generation, capable of fully absorbing or bending incoming wave spectrum. Visible light, radiowaves and others, to make itself completely invisible to the organic eye and most surveillance equipment."

John repressed the urge to whistle. That very impressive. He would have to rethink his infiltration tactics. He would have to rethink all his tactics. "This will take some getting used to."

"Right? I'm not the only one," Cortana replied. "I'm not going to lie John, this suit is…something else. Minerva and I designed BRAHMASTRA with the Forerunner Combat Skins in mind. It's not sentient, it's not even alive, but together with the ELEMENT package, it synergises on a level your MJOLNIR could never hope to achieve. It…" Cortana struggled to find the right word for a moment. "Adapts to the trials you go through during combat."

"You're saying that the suit isn't static? That it can develop further?" The Chief suggested.

"Yes, that is an adequate way to describe it. Your new armour isn't static. I'm not entirely sure to what extent, since I'm not exactly privy to Forerunner technology yet."

That was good enough for him. He'd trust Cortana to keep an eye on the systems.

"So, what is next?" The Master Chief then asked, eager to try the new suit out for a spin. He flexed his hands, taking a closer look at the iridescent green plating. It would take some getting used to, to start thinking of the armour as anything other than MJOLNIR.

As the Chief slowly began practicing his movements in the new armour, Cortana took a moment to address the others as well. "Commander Shepard is absolutely right. Our grand stratagem still remains the same. We need the entire galaxy united if we are to stand a chance against the Reapers, even if they are our only threat. The problem is, the Citadel is gone and we've just partnered up with basically the public enemy number one of the galaxy. We can't force people to stand together. For that, we need legitimacy. We need the big wigs to see the bigger picture."

As Cortana spoke, the Forerunner machinery finished retrofitting the suits of the other Spartans. They stood at rapt attention, ignoring the strange sensations of an alien suit of armour to pay attention to what was being said.

"I'm not going to dance around this. The Reapers are back, though we have no word on the Flood. The Reapers have smashed through the batarian systems and recently began laying siege to Palaven, the turian homeworld."

Palaven…

John hoped Garrus was alright. He looked at Shepard, and saw the news hit her just as hard. She didn't say anything however, and wiped her expression clear of emotions when she caught him looking.

"Our next course of action is simple. We're going to unite every single species out there and whip them into fighting shape," Cortana continued. "Starting with the Citadel Council. That's the only way to keep the Reapers from destroying us like they destroyed so many Cycles before us: divide and conquer."

The Master Chief couldn't agree more. The UNSC joining forces with the Citadel species was the best-case scenario and the only way to even stand a chance.

"Where are we heading first?" Shepard asked.

"Earth. Yours, not ours. Councillor David Anderson and Admiral Steven Hackett are the two most influential officials in the Systems Alliance right now. If we can get them on our side, the rest of the Alliance will soon follow."

Shepard nodded, understanding the logic behind that. John caught a hint of relief in her eyes however. If even Palaven wasn't safe from the Reapers, who was to say that her Earth was?

"What about the UNSC?" Fred asked. "The UNSC Infinity is still up there. I doubt Captain Del Rio will be easy to convince."

Cortana's smile faded, and concern flickered across her features. "I'm sorry. There are too many miscommunications, too many misunderstandings. I have to rectify them all. From this moment onwards, I must remain at Shepard's side."

John looked at his fellow Spartans, and they met his gaze in kind. They knew what that meant.

"I can't leave her behind," the Master Chief admitted. "Not again."

Fred took a step towards him. "I can lead Blue Team in your absence, Chief," he said.

The Master Chief regretted it had to come to this. "You're Blue Team Leader now. Get aboard the Infinity. Do whatever it takes to get the UNSC in this fight."

Fred stood even straighter. "Sir!" He shouted. "Yes sir!"

John looked at Kelly and Linda as well. They were ready. All of them were. But to be separated from his brothers and sisters, so soon after finally having reunited with them again…

"We're almost out of time," he quietly continued. "This is it. Make ready."

"Attention!" Linda snapped. As one, she and Kelly snapped to attention and offered him a salute as well.

He straightened himself and returned their salute. This was no goodbye. He would see his Spartans again.

Together, Fred, Kelly and Linda disappeared into one of the Slipspace portals. Shepard watched them go.

"Thank you, John, Cortana," she said. "You don't know what this means to me."

"I think I do," the Chief replied.

"And you're welcome," Cortana warmly said. "Garrus was right, you know? The two of you complete each other. No Shepard without the Chief, and no Shepard and Chief without Vakarian. Let's go and rectify that."

-(++)-


Systems Alliance Space

Earth

Vancouver

Below her, a story down, a little girl enjoyed her time alone on a rooftop terrace. Running around on her bare feet, holding what looked like a toy ship in her hands, she seemed oblivious to everything that was going on.

Absentmindedly, Annah rubbed the sore spot in her neck, though her scarf made it so that she couldn't really feel the place of her implant. The man Johnson told her that she had kicked the hornet's nest, but looking down at the city "Vancouver", she couldn't see anything amiss. The only thing that had changed in the days since she found Anderson was how the people in this building behaved. People ran a lot more than before. Maybe that was the hornet nest?

To her left, a door slid open and two large, noisy men entered the walkway. She glanced at them, seeing mister Johnson accompanying a large, muscled man in a shirt that looked too small for him.

She recognized him as Vega, the "personal guard" assigned to mister Johnson. At least, that was the official description, but everybody knew that it was to protect others from Johnson.

" – time now. It can only really mean one thing."

"Yeah, no kidding man. Blackout in batarian space, blackout in Section Zero, blackout at Arcturus – shit's getting real."

"Just keep your head cool, Vega. Orders will be issued soon enough."

"Commander Shepard," Vega said when he spotted her. He did that greeting all the military personnel did.

Her name. Not mine,

Annah felt bitterness well up within her. Everybody thought she was Shepard, but she wasn't. She wasn't anything – barely a year old and designed purely as spare parts for a woman with a thousand faces.

Shepard was a conqueror, a warrior, a leader. She had memories and skills parents and friends, while Annah had nothing. Nothing except for her name.

So she simply glared back at the burly man. Johnson's dark eyes were cold and old. He knew. Anderson had told him. Anderson was a father figure to Shepard. He looked out for her, always acted for her wellbeing.

Annah hated him for that.

"We're here to pick you up for Anderson," mister Johnson said. "The Defence Committee wants to see us."

She didn't know what that meant. "Why?"

From the other end of the hallway, a trio of men sprinted through the doorway, one of them holding a datapad. Vega looked at them visibly nervous. Johnson never took his eyes off her. "Haven't got the foggiest idea," he growled. "But we need to go. Now."

Annah glanced back at the little girl. She was still playing, but by now, a woman sat a few paces away, watching her.

She would have given anything to switch places with the girl.

Johnson and Vega took her through the labyrinth of hallways and people. They took her to a large set of double doors, flanked by armed guards. Vega and Johnson showed them their passes, and they were let through.

The guards wore face-concealing helmets, but Annah felt them glaring at her.

"This is gonna be a waste of time," mister Johnson muttered.

"Come on Sergeant Major. This isn't a junta; the civvies are just doing their jobs."

The doors closed behind them again. A woman stood in their way, clad in a blue military outfit. Her hair was long and black. She turned around and looked at the, Her eyes widened when she saw Annah. "Shepard?"

Annah didn't know her. Didn't feel like replying. She walked past the woman, even as Vega greeted her with a "Lieutenant Commander. Are they ready for us?"

"…yes," the woman softly replied. Annah felt her gaze burning in her neck. She didn't care. Vega stayed behind. She heard them quietly conversing.

The meeting chambers were large and exposed. Lots of high ceiling windows that overlooked the vast city. Anderson stood in the centre, looking at a large holographic display.

"Johnson, Shepard," a man greeted them. "Good to have you here."

"What's going on?" Johnson said, looking around the chamber.

One of the older women shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "We…were hoping you could tell us."

"The reports coming in are unlike anything we've seen before," another woman added. "We've lost contact with two colonies. Our fleet dispatched to Section Zero has failed to report in. Our UNSC allies claim they never even arrived!"

"I've been trying to tell them that it's the Reapers, but they refuse to listen," Anderson quietly said to Johnson. "It has to be them."

Johnson nodded thoughtfully, then cleared his throat. "Alright you greenhorns, listen up! What you are about to experience is a full-blown alien assault on your own home planet!"

It was impressive to see how the entire room fell quiet mister Johnson raised his voice. Annah had read about Shepard's near-supernatural charisma, but to see something like that put into practice was something else entirely. All activities in the room seemed to grind to a halt. Even the present soldiers and officers stopped to listen.

"The Mass Relay is one big backdoor into your system, a backdoor that the Reapers are about to kick in SO HARD that the Relay will have to lock itself into the bathroom with a bottle of soothing cream!"

As Annah struggled with his words, someone asked, "Then how do we stop them?"

"Stop them?" Anderson exclaimed. "The Reapers are more advanced than us, more powerful, more organized! We need to gather all the Citadel species and all their fleets, to even have a chance at surviving this!"

"We're going to have a very long day ahead unless we can rally the other species," Johnson continued. "If we can contact Lord Hood we – "

"Admiral, we've lost contact with Luna base!" One of the officers suddenly yelled.

"The moon? They couldn't be that close!" Admiral Anderson replied, looking aghast.

At that, the entire room broke down into chaos. People began yelling orders, guards barged into the room and alarms began blaring.

"How did they get past out defences?"

"Someone contact Hackett!"

"We need a visual, someone get me a visual!"

"What do we do?"

Anderson cursed, then turned towards Johnson. "We need to get back to the Normandy, it's only a matter of time until – "

A loud, droning horn cut him off. The noise was so loud, so powerful, that Annah felt it cut to her bones. It filled her entire being, sending shivers through the room itself.

Everyone looked up at the windows, where violet streaks of light and crimson arcs of lightning stabbed through the clouds.

"Dear god!"

A massive, black…thing descended over the metropolitan area. It was massive, easily towering over even the tallest buildings, and Annah felt a horrible feeling of dread creep up on her.

That is what we're fighting?

An angry, red beam arced towards the building. What happened next, seemed to unfold in still shots of slowness. The windows exploded into a thousand pieces and a massive pillar of red light consumed the gathered people of the Defence Committee. The last thing Annah saw before the shockwave hit, was a massive table hurling towards them. Then, everything went black.

-(++)-


Thessia

Unknown Location

Within the depths of the temple, the Matriarch receded into her chair, scowling at the projector as it displayed the latest reports. She unleashed a rare snarl, then forcibly reigned in her seething anger.

It was footage from her operatives in the Fleet sent to retake the Citadel, showing the sudden appearance of Covenant and batarian vessels to combat the synthetic forces that guarded the station. The video was so clear that the Matriarch could read the data on every console visible within her operative's view, which she had. Five times now.

Her plans had been perfect, but there was one detail she had overlooked. One detail she had failed to calculate for. These damnable meddlers in the form of the Covenant had shaken the formations up enough for that decrepit monstrosity to appear within system. An abominable vessel, every bit as alive as the Sovereign had been, had taken her quarry before even the UNSC could have.

Failure was a sensation that the Matriarch was not familiar with. Even after Commander Shepard intervened on that backwater mercenary planet, the operation had not failed yet. The hundred or so Huntresses and the handful of Justicars who died at the hands of the black-clad Spartan could be easilt replaced.. Thessia had no shortage of skilled and loyal individuals willing to dirty their hands for the greater good of their civilization.

But now, now the possibility of seizing a UNSC Spartan had been dashed to the winds. Both the hero as the disavowed were now in the claws of the Machine-Goddess; the only entity in the entire galaxy where even the Thessian Inner Circle could not reach.

The Matriarch rotated away from the projector, unable to stand the sight of the decrepit dragon anymore.

Absentmindedly, she checked the time. She still had three minutes before Carnal and Athame would join her.

By now, it could safely be assumed that Justicar Samara had been fully corrupted by Shepard's foul influence. Her knowledge of the Inner Circle was insignificant, but it was enough to warrant death. Death for Samara and death for Shepard. And, because the damnable woman had been a thorn in her side for far too long, death for all of Shepard's associates as well.

The Matriarch slowly typed in a string of commands in her personal datapad. Within a minute, she had gathered reports on everything Commander Shepard had ever touched in her life. All the projects and missions she ever underwent, together with a list of all her contacts. Personal, professional and everything in-between. The Matriarch would want everything; no stone was to be left unturned.

In the meantime, the holographic displays in the far back of her personal quarters activated. Athame was first. After a few moments, they were joined by Carnal as well. The other Wise Women of the Circle were otherwise occupied, and would hold their own meeting when the time was right.

"They are gone, then? Fully and irrevocably?" Athame asked.

"The Scourge has them now," the Matriarch confirmed. The Scourge was too unpredictable to involve in even their calculations. For now, they had lower the Spartans' priority.

"Their loss isn't insubstantial," Athame sighed. "Now we have not the secrets within them, nor the artefact."

"Thanks to Sparatus, the UNSC's integration is going far too seamlessly," Carnal hissed. "This must stop at once! If we are to control – "

"Patience, Carnal," the Matriarch soothingly said. "Regardless of the outcome, we have no choice but to accept the events as they are. Now we must adapt and modify. We have the boy in our possession. Our link to the Forerunners is not yet lost."

"We will have to be cautious," Athame warned. "Our operatives aboard the Citadel were lost to us even before the Scourge seized control."

"Oh?" Carnal said, before someone offscreen handed her a datapad. She flicked through it, then smirked. "Ah, excellent. Good news! It does appear our operatives located the last known location of The Illusive Man."

Ah, good news indeed. With him out of the way, Shepard would have no protection left except for her uneasy reputation within the Systems Alliance. And since Aria t'Loak had finally seen the light, the Terminus Systems were on high alert. Soon, there would be nowhere left to run for the little Commander.

"Is it time?" Carnal asked with a deep longing in her voice. "Do we give the command?"

"Not yet," the Matriarch said. "There is, of course, the Reaper situation to consider. They are making a beeline straight towards poor Earth. They could arrive any minute now. Our operatives will have to keep their heads down."

"Enough waiting," Carnal hissed. "She has defied us long enough! She has to die!"

"Soon, soon!" Athame serenely said. "All is not as bad as you think. You should, ah, "stick to the plan" as those apes are so fond of saying."

Yes, none of their operations had been permanently dismantled. They just…ran into some complications. A series of unfortunate delays.

"We are still everywhere," the Matriarch chanted. "For Thessia."

"For Thessia!"

"For Thessia."

-(++)-


AN: Another character-focused chapter, another promise of action to come. Next chapter will get us straight into the Reaper's siege of Earth, and everything that entails. Small point for those concerned, yes, I do have some neat upgrades planned for Shepard, no worries there ;)

As for me, I'm still doing fine. I can only hope the same goes for you guys. I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Stay safe out there and be good people!