AN: Some people mentioned that the story's gotten a bit hard to follow after the last few chapters. Between my irregular updates schedule and the kind of mindf*ckery, Forerunnery and clandestine direction the story has taken, this is completely understandable. Hopefully, the first half of this chapter will help clear up some of the confusion.

After that, it's time to set up the War Summit and back to a more traditional setting. Massive battles, huge fleet actions and politics. Because at the end of the day, as long as there are two people left alive in the galaxy, someone is going to want to argue with someone. Which is fine with me; this story has always been about how two different settings would interact with each other in a shared universe. The interaction between politics and war was one of the highlights for Mass Effect 3 for me.

Special thanks to my Beta reader, ManwithaPlan113, whose timely support made this late-night update possible.

Anyway, a lengthy Author's Note goes with a lengthy chapter. Grab some tea and cookies, wrap yourself in a blanket and let's get this party started.

-(++)-

Trebia System

Menea

Encampment 18A

"Husks!" The sentry cried out. "Southern gate!"

Garrus opened his eyes and immediately rolled out of his makeshift bunk. He hit the ground with a loud thud, flopped onto his stomach and rushed out of the little prefab bunker, his Phaeston and Mantis rifles at the ready.

Spirits, does it never end? He wearily thought as he ran across the dark, rocky surface of Palaven's largest moon. Other soldiers joined him as the camp burst into heavy activity once more. Gunfire erupted from all sides. Guardsmen shouted orders and enemy locations, Lieutenants rallied their groups and swiftly organized them into defensive teams and the radio operators immediately began relaying their situation to Palaven High Command

All across Menea, the reinforced encampments were in the exact same situation. Hundreds of bases. Thousands of soldiers. Millions of Husks.

The nightmare never ended.

Garrus slammed into cover next to the southern gate, then peeked over the edge.

Dozens of reanimated, harvested turian corpses marched on the base. Their lean, armoured figures blended in well with the environment. It was almost a good thing then that the Reapers kept dropping in more of their Huskified troops; their drop-pods kept throwing up large amounts of dust, debris and flames, illuminating the harvested turians with every drop.

But Garrus Vakarian didn't need the Reaper drops to highlight his targets. And since they had yet to cross into ideal assault rifle range, he didn't need the Phaeston either. He set his rifle aside and unfolded his Mantis sniper rifle. Closing one eye, he took a second to capture his breathing rhythm, aligned his crosshairs on the head of the closest Husk and gently squeezed the trigger.

His rifle boomed and kicked back against his shoulder, but his target went down. One hit, one kill. Even after several days of abysmal sleep, he still got it.

"Scratch one Marauder!" He whooped, ignoring the painful throbbing of his throat. As the foremost expert on the Reapers left in Palaven's Command, he couldn't afford even a single moment of bad morale.

He popped a heatsink and continued his work. Shot after shot, hostile after hostile. Grenades detonated, tracer fire tore through the atmosphere as those Oculus fighters continued clashing with the ragged, exhausted reserves of Menea's fighter pilots.

More Husks emerged from the tattered landscape. Those batarians Husks, with their gaping mouths and disgusting arm cannons, began harassing the walls of the encampment with bursts of mass accelerator fire. They weren't accurate and it took a good burst to rip through someone's shields, but there were so many of the damnable things.

The Mantis overheated again. Garrus reached into his belt to fish for more thermal clips, but to his dismay, his right satchel was empty.

A good few meters to the left, one soldier cried out as he got hit by a well-placed burst of fire. It blasted through his kinetic barriers before he could take cover. By the time he realized his protection was gone, a batarian Husk nailed him with a barrage of fire. The turian let out a gurgling scream as he dropped, but his closest comrade immediately cried out his name and began suppressing the enemy. In theory, that would allow someone else to drag the wounded soldier away and provide first aid.

In practice, none of them could afford to leave their posts. If they did, that section would be weakened, and more casualties would follow.

Garrus dropped his sniper and pulled out his Phaeston. He caught one of the Marauders – the turian Husks – with its shield down and put a burst of fire through its head, blasting off one of its metal quills.

The Reapers probably thought that they would demoralize the Hierarchy by using their own fallen against them. That they would hesitate at the most crucial moment. It had worked for so many humans, after all.

But turians weren't like that. This shameless, lowest form of warfare only served to piss them off, and make them fight that much harder. The Reapers had to fight for every inch of land they wanted. Problem was, there were so many of them, and they had orbital superiority. These camps were the one of the last manned defenses between the Reapers and the spaceports, which provided the defending fleets with repairs and fuel. If they fell, the automated defences fell, and with them, the spaceports.

That meant the fleets would have nowhere left to recover.

Slowly, the Reapers' attack picked up momentum. They were able to place more and more troops, Marauders and batarians alike. After half an hour of desperate, unyielding defence, the human Husks appeared.

The mindless, shambling bodies charged towards the base without any form of weapons or protection. Their growls and moans were a stark difference to the shrieking and roars of the batarians and Marauders. They came at the turians in a literal wave of bodies, forcing the defenders to switch from precise, well-aimed shots to full on automatic firing.

Mere seconds later, the first weapons began overheating…just like the Reapers were counting on.

"Damn it," Garrus muttered, plucking a grenade from his belt and priming it. He eyed the approaching horde of Husks, took a shot or two to the chest – thank you, military-grade shields – and lobbed the explosive in their midst when they were close enough.

Unlike the shielded Marauders, these human Husks were terribly frail. When the grenade detonated, the results were spectacular and gory. Limbs and black "blood" and grey intestines that went everywhere, and all of it just glowed in that…that cybernetic way all these damn Husks did and Garrus would have found it disgusting, but the combination of sleep deprivation and the heat of the battle made it difficult to care.

So Garrus kept shooting. Kept shooting and pretending everything was okay, as if they still had a chance to turn this entire campaign back. And the other turians stoically took their casualties without flinching, without giving an inch to the Reapers. The cacophony of screams and explosions and gunfire and that Spirits-damned mechanical blaring of the Reaper horns melted together within his head.

Almost mindlessly, Garrus kept shooting.

And the Reapers, they kept advancing. Step by step, inch by inch. Every body that dropped, did so closer than the last one. Every burst of gunfire was more accurate, more coordinated. Explosions began buffeting the outer perimeter, forcing the squads on the flanks to keep their heads down.

The radio operator yelled that General Corinthus would send reinforcements.

General Corinthus was ten kilometres away, and had no vehicles or air support left.

What is this feeling called? Garrus thought dazedly, as an explosion went off a little too close for comfort. Overwhelming odds, dwindling allies, no end, no hope, no salvation? A Deja-vu?

"Don't let up!" He yelled. "Keep firing, give them everything you've got!"

The first Husks reached the outer walls and began climbing. The majority didn't make it before mass accelerator fire scoured their ranks. Huskified, harvested corpses or not, if you were climbing and suddenly got riddled with holes, you couldn't keep climbing. Some limits even Reapers couldn't take away.

But some of the Husks did get through. They scaled the walls and began attacking the defending soldiers. Pound for pound, every turian soldier could easily handle a Husk in close quarters, human, batarian or even Marauder.

But every soldier occupied by close quarters was a soldier not firing at the encroaching horde. Garrus took three more hits, ducked down and threw his last grenade over the wall. A human Husk appeared over the edge and roared at him, but he simply bashed its head in with the butt of his Phaeston.

"Stand your ground!" He called. "We can beat them!"

And that was when something odd happened. A pair of Marauders way in the back, coordinating the other Husks, slumped to the ground like puppets with their strings cut. Garrus couldn't see it clearly – the smoke and the chaos of the battle made it hard to discern – but it didn't end there. Starting on the right flank and working its way towards the left, something swept across the Reaper forces. Blurry shapes darted to and fro across the battlefield, cutting through the Husks like a great wind. Severed heads and limbs still clutching their weapons fell to the ground as the invisible spectres leapt, dashed and sometimes just appeared between the enemy forces.

They moved fast and methodically and by the time the Reaper forces noticed that their flank had melted away, more than half of them had already died before these ghosts.

The heavy barrage of gunfire on the encampment all but vanished as the surviving Husks turned their weapons to these blurry shapes. Garrus saw how one such shape blurred to one side, nimbly dodging a burst of fire, but eventually getting hit by an accurate Marauder.

Garrus watched as some sort of energy field rippled across the invisible shape, revealing something tall, broad and black. In an instant, it had its own weapon drawn and an arc of blue light cut through the air, blasting the Marauder's head clean off.

The other Shapes opened fire as well. Menea's dark night sky was lit up by bright, blue flashes of lethal energy as these creatures cut through the Reaper forces. Between them and the unbroken turians, the Husks didn't stand a chance.

A batarian Husk roared in defiance, got hit by at least three bolts of blue energy and a three-round burst from Garrus' Phaeston – he was certain that the kill shot was his – and burned under the combined firepower. Its smoking, burning carcass slumped to the ground. The resulting silence was deafening.

"Open the gate," ordered Garrus.

"Vakarian, are you sure?"

"Just do it," he replied, angrier than he had intended. "Time to meet our new friends before more hostiles arrive."

No more hesitation after that. The other soldiers opened the gate and Garrus Vakarian stepped out, intent on seeing who had pulled their collective asses out of the fire.

The cloaked figures disengaged their stealth, revealing themselves for what they truly were.

Garrus nearly choked on his next breath of air.

Elites. Covenant Elites.

Ah, crap.

They were imposing figures. The smallest among them towered over Garrus. One of them – the leader of the group, Garrus supposed – turned to face him. He was clad in red armour, with a completely sealed helmet that featured a rounded plate around the forehead location. The Elite's eyes were hidden behind two intimidating goggle-like lenses, coloured somewhat like the Master Chief's visor.

"Greetings, turian," the Elite spoke in a perfectly understandable tongue. "Rest easy. We fight by your side."

"The last time I saw Covenant Elites, they were busy butchering the quarians," replied Garrus. His words obviously upset the Elites, as several of them growled and hissed at him in warbling tongue his translator didn't catch.

But none of them moved.

"Not Covenant. No longer do we serve blindly, kept in the dark and blind by our former leaders," the Elite replied without a hint of malice. "We fight not for faith, but now, for redemption."

"Redemption?" Garrus asked, too tired to properly take it all in.

The Elite holstered his weapon again. "Let us start with the Reapers' demise, and find middle ground from there."

Garrus scoffed. "Yeah? Well…there's our base. Come inside."

There was nothing else to it. His people were fighting and dying. After all, she had taught him that everybody deserved a shot at doing the right thing. Jack did. Thane did.

Spirits, he did.

And big, armoured, shielded, invisible aliens with the finesse and grace of asari, the discipline of turians and the eagerness of Urdnot Wrex definitely did.

The other turians had probably never seen the Elites before. They stared with weary surprise at these newcomers, these tall, armoured aliens who had appeared on their battlefield.

Garrus recalled a conversation he'd had with Tali, just after her trial. She had told him about the Master Chief and his friend. The…the Arb…Arb something. But this Elite, this alien who had spent two and a half decades fighting humanity, he and the Chief managed to become friends.

The Elite and the Spartan had both set aside years and years of conflict, hatred and history for the greater good. And…

"Your people, they were betrayed, weren't they?" Garrus asked the red-clad Elite. "By your former leaders? They wanted to wipe you out."

"Indeed," the alien replied with a hint of surprise. "Where did you learn this?"

Garrus pulled up one shoulder in a little half-shrug. "It's a small galaxy. I know a guy who knows one of your guys. Say what, you help me defend this position and I'll tell you all about it."

"Agreed."

Nodding, Garrus then offered the Elite his hand. "I'm Garrus Vakarian."

After a moment of hesitation, the Elite took his hand and shook it very softly.

I knew it, Garrus thought with smug satisfaction. This guy knew human gestures. Was he one of the Elites who helped out the UNSC in the end? Or was it something more sinister?

What the hell. What did it even matter?

"I am Usze 'Taham, Special Operations, Ascetic and emissary to the Swords of Sanghelios."

Garrus nodded and then addressed his soldiers. "I want eyes on every angle of approach," he yelled. "First squad, get on it. Second through Fourth squad, listen up. These guys are on our side! Cutting up Reapers is their idea of fun time. Maybe you've heard the stories about the Covenant. Ignore those. We've got a moon to hold!"

The gathered turians yelled and whooped in response, and Garrus felt a little bit more of his exhaustion fade away. Now he knew why Shepard always held her speeches; they felt amazing!

Garrus would figure out what in the name of the Spirits these Elites were doing on Menea later. That was another thing she had taught him. Never turn away a possible ally. That philosophy had rewarded her with the Master Chief and now, it had rewarded him with twenty eager Special Forces Elites.

Maybe there was justice in this galaxy after all.

-(++)-

Ilana's breath came in soft, quiet whimpers as she crept along the maintenance stairway. The ship was dark, much darker than asari warships and deathly quiet. The silence was foreboding; Ilana knew that the Normandy was now home to a sentient AI, though which one it was, she could not tell. These dark halls were now home to a disembodied entity without morals, without organic limitations. Its mind could be anywhere, its attention focused on a million different places.

It could be watching her even now.

She clutched her single grenade closer to her chest and pressed on.

No single acolyte had been this close to the Commander since the strike on the Citadel. Ilana had waited for weeks in the human city, barely scraping by, risking exposure several times. When the Reapers hit Earth, death would have been certain. It should have been certain, but the Goddess intervened. By divine providence, she had been placed on the Commander's ship, where she had a chance to fulfil the sacred mission.

At first, Ilana had thought about procuring a firearm from the armoury as the humans began discussing. A single shot to the head should bring the final death to even Commander Shepard, especially since she had foolishly removed her helmet after the fight.

But that was not an option. Even if she had not been surrounded by the armoured beasts, even if she would not have sensed the motion or the intent, the Commander had a heretical amount of control over the Gift. She could defend herself against a sudden strike with firearms.

That left Ilana with only one choice. And so, she pressed on deeper, into the bowels of the ship.

Life support. If she could just make it to life support, everything would be alright.

Up the stairs, into the Crew Quarters. The Normandy was run by a skeleton crew. Reapers took Earth by surprise. The humans barely had enough people to steer the ship.

If only it weren't for that damnable AI, the Normandy wouldn't have a crew. Her people needed to invest in EMP weapons, attempt to neutralize the electronic warfare advantage humanity had. But that was within the realm of the STG branch.

Ilana thought she heard a noise and froze. Were they on to her? Had they found her?

She surveyed her surroundings, but found them empty. Yes, she heard voices coming from the quarters themselves, but those people were of no consequence.

She gripped her grenade tighter and pressed on. The doors were all unlocked. Shepard was a fool to trust these people in her ship. That arrogance would be her downfall.

To the left, through the opening doors. The life support room was just ahead.

Ilana felt a shiver run down and her spine and she spun around, nervously scanning her surroundings. Her people had failed to acquire one of these armoured beasts, who had the favour of the Ancients. Their presence here on this vessel played with her mind. She could not afford to linger.

The life support machinery. Delicate, fragile, precious.

Ilana primed the grenade and pulled the pin –

- an unyielding gauntlet of cold steel clasped itself around her hand, pinning her fingers against the grenade, keeping the pressure on the detonator. There was a sudden flash of motion and then incredible, burning agony washed through her arm. Ilana barely had the time to stare at the bleeding stump of her arm before something slammed into her neck at incredible speed.

The room spun around in slow-motion as the floor rushed up to meet her. She caught a glimpse of her own body slumping through its knees, bright, horrible blood spurting from the stump of her neck, before an invisible force struck it, sending it crashing into the wall on the far side of the life support chamber.

Ilana's head struck the ground, rolled once, then mercifully, everything went black.

-(++)-

EDI's voice cut through the silence in the ship like a blade, startling Jane just when she was wrapping up her report for Admiral Hackett. "Commander, untheorized personnel in life support. I recommend immediate action."

Shepard was taken aback at the sudden urgency in EDI's voice. "What's going on? Do you have a visual?"

"Negative Commander. I received an alarm based on motion alert, but I do not have visual contact. However, considering the importance of that ship's sections, I would make haste."

Cortana's elevator override worked like a charm. Shepard reached the Crew Quarters within seconds, then immediately rushed down the corridors towards the life support chamber. The doors automatically opened when she was within a few feet distance, revealing…

"Fuck…" Shepard muttered.

Spartan-003, standing over the severed head of the asari civilian they picked up from Earth. Her decapitated remains had been propped up in one corner, purple blood smearing the ceiling, the wall and the floor. He held a severed hand clutching some sort of flashing item in his right hand. It still dropped with blood.

The Commander's first thought was that the Spartan had gone nuts, butchering the asari because he couldn't do what John had and differentiate between the Covenant and the Citadel species.

She had her sidearm out and aimed at his visor in an instant. "Stay there, don't move."

Three's visor shifted ever so slightly towards the asari's headless corpse, but he didn't comment. This was usually the moment wherein people explained why they were found, covered with blood and still holding the victim's body parts. Grunt always went with "this isn't what it looks like", while Wrex always went "what?" in a nonplussed voice.

She was really missing those good old times now. The Spartan might as well have been a statue for all the response he showed.

The elevator doors opened behind her, delivering the Chief and Vega into the hallways. The Hispanic marine shot one look at the gnarly scene, shouted something in his native language and pulled out his sidearm as well.

John ran his gaze across the carnage, then asked, "Is it primed?"

"Yes."

Primed? What - ?

That was when Shepard noticed the object in the asari's severed hand. It was an Alliance fragmentation grenade, ready to blow.

She added two and two together. "Oh crap. Where'd she get that?"

Vega shot her a confused look, then followed her gaze and gasped. "Holy hell, is that a frag?"

Then, being a sensible man, Vega shuffled a couple of meters backwards, away from the Spartan holding the armed frag grenade.

Not that he was much safer there. Javik, being the sensitive man he was, appeared out of the shadows behind Vega, stepping up so close behind the big marine that he could have touched his neck with his forehead.

"Interesting," spoke the Prothean, causing Vega to nearly jump out of his skin. "Your mercy nearly cost you. She was indoctrinated."

"Yeah, but not by the Reapers," muttered Shepard. She put her pistol away again. "Right. Chief, Cortana, best way to detonate this thing without blowing a hole in the ship?"

"Bucket of water, surrounded by thick metal or sand," John replied without so much as batting an eye.

"Give me a few moments and I'll fill your bucket for you," said Vega.

"Three, what happened here?" Shepard said, ignoring that comment.

"The alien skulked around. I stalked it here, where it pulled out an explosive." Three's head shifted down, towards the asari's head. Jane could picture him thinking about crushing it beneath his boot. "I stopped it."

Jane gritted her teeth. "It's that fucking Inner Circle. Just my goddamn luck, picking one up at Earth of all places."

"The same ones on the Citadel?" John asked.

"And every-fucking-where else. They keep screwing us over, no matter where we are," growled Shepard. She hated this fighting from the shadows kind of crap. She hated back when she had to hunt down Saren and she hated it when the had to work with Cerberus. If she could only get her hands on these Matriarchs in charge, things would be different. "Chief, Three, please dispose of that. Vega, dispose of…that."

"Uhm. Right. Want me to put it on ice or…?"

"Just throw it out the airlock," hissed Javik.

There was no telling what measures the enemy had taken this time around. For all the Commander knew, they had implanted the asari with microbombs, a corrosive poison or some other nightmarish failsafe. "Yeah. Good call. Space her."

As the two Spartans went to dispose of the primed explosive, Shepard took another close look at the asari's body. Three's brutality was something else. He was ruthless; completely, utterly without pity. He was the same kind of balls-to-the-walls killing machine John was. Less durable, but deep down he was far more unstable.

But Three knew skulking around in the shadows. And apparently, he knew it much better than the Inner Circle.

From what Shepard understood, Spartans were originally meant for black operations and asymmetrical warfare the likes of which would even give the STG and the Spectres pause.

The Inner Circle crossed a line today. She was going to make them regret it.

But since she had a job to do, Shepard set aside her homicidal daydreams and headed towards her debrief with Admiral Hackett.

On her way there, she nodded to the two soldiers manning the security checkpoint to the War Room who obviously hadn't heard the commotion, then opened the door to the QEC.

The War Room was a large, circular chamber dominated by a central round, holographic projector. The projector was large enough for a pair of krogan to dance upon, though it didn't look sturdy enough to actually survive that feat.

The QEC had been installed – or rather, moved – to the back of the War Room. Shepard palmed the activation button and was rewarded with the sudden manifestation of a static-blue Admiral Hackett.

"Admiral," Shepard said, snapping off a brisk salute.

Admiral Hackett took a holographic moment to cast his holographic eyes across her not-holographic body. His greying brows furrowed. "Commander Shepard, back in the Normandy. You're a sight for sore eyes, although…" he gestured at her get-up. "Is that MJOLNIR?"

"It was a gift," replied Jane. "I can do a hell of a lot more good with this armour than I could with my old N7 suit."

Hackett nodded gravely. "I'm not going to lie Commander, the last days have been…intense. Losing Earth…" He paused and shook his head. "It's been more than most of us could bear. Did you secure the artefact?"

"I did. Although it's less of an artefact and more of a living Prothean. We managed to retrieve him from stasis and he's alive. Pissed off as hell, mostly at the Reapers, but he's alive."

"A Prothean? I take it you recruited him into your team?"

"That's right. I figured he could do more good fighting the Reapers than strapped to an operating table."

Hackett was silent for a moment. "You've got a hell of a record when it comes to recruiting unknown packages. I hope it works out."

The man sounded weary and he looked like he hadn't slept in a couple of days, so Shepard wasn't sure if she interpreted his cues the right way. Still, he almost sounded doubtful.

"What's the status of the Alliance Fleets, Admiral?"

Hackett was quiet for a couple moments more, as if carefully thinking over his response. "Not good. The Navy is on the run, Commander. The Reapers inflicted heavy casualties when they destroyed Arcturus Station." He paused, then added in a serious tone, "I need to know if I can count on you, Shepard."

Her stomach lit up with anger. First Ashley and now Hackett? "Admiral you know – "

But the Admiral raised his hand, cutting her off. "I'm not saying you're compromised, Shepard. But between everything that's been happening, we need certainty."

Certainty. Not much of that going around these days. "The Reapers are the only certainty we've got, Admiral. I don't know what you expect of me."

Hackett folded his arms across his chest. "Let's start with the obvious, then. What have you been up to? We've got enough sightings, rumours and speculation – AI's, Forerunners, disavowed Spartan black ops - but I want to set the record straight with you."

Shepard thought about that for a moment. In a normal galaxy, the things she'd been up to would have been enough to get her put away…either in the brig, or in an asylum. Not to mention all the problems she'd cause by divulging sensitive information.

On the other hand, things like the Reapers and Minerva didn't exist in a normal galaxy. And she was fairly sure she wouldn't fit in a normal galaxy either.

So she told him. Everything. At least, in a way that wouldn't compromise John, Cortana or Three.

Hackett took it…slightly better than she initially had. That was his Admiral rank at work. Still, by the time she was done, his holographic expression had gone holographically slack and his arms dropped to his side.

"So let me get this straight," he said after a moment of incredulous silence. "A group of influential asari found out about the Master Chief and his AI. They framed you for a past incident and had the Citadel Council order you back for an investigation. You spun it around on them by revealing the Master Chief as a UNSC asset and tried to broker for First Contact, but then the asari spun that back on you by attacking you out in the open with a group of Justicars?"

"Yup."

"And then the Forerunner AI, accidentally discovered by another Spartan Commando, interfered by hacking the entire Citadel Defence Fleet to allow the Chief and his AI to escape. A backup plan using emissary Johnson was initiated, after which the Citadel initiated First Contact with the UNSC in an entirely independent manner beyond the Terminus Systems. After that, the asari manage to uncover a living Forerunner, who promptly went to war with the Forerunner AI and reduced Illium to rubble."

"Pretty much."

"And THEN the two Forerunners duke it out in the Citadel, before taking the Citadel somewhere else entirely. The quarians manage to find the Master Chief and unite him with the UNSC, who then send him on a mission to find the other Spartan – at the same time we sent you to do the same. You found him, the asari found him and even the geth found him. Three then convinced you to head to the Citadel to retrieve the Forerunner AI in the Perseus Veil, which is where you and I first met again."

"Uh-huh."

Hackett's voice grew agitated, more confused. "Following that, you headed to an abandoned UNSC world to find the coordinates to the Forerunner's long-lost mainframe, which is built around a star…" his voice trailed off as he remembered that part again. "I'll get back to that…"

"And then the Reapers hit Earth. Millennia Never Falling started dedicating most of her resources to do god only knows what, then gave us operational command of an old Forerunner ship which can get us pretty much where we want, when we want," Shepard helped the Admiral along. She decided against mentioning that John, Cortana and Minerva were more afraid of what might follow in the Reapers' wake than the actual Reapers.

"Right. You headed straight back to Earth, which is where you received the call to assist doctor T'soni on Eden Prime. And now you found a living, breathing Prothean." Hackett shook his head again. "If anyone but you had told me this, Shepard, I would have requested a psych evaluation."

"It's a short version, I won't bother you with the more specific details," replied Shepard. "Admiral, I know she caused a hell of a lot of trouble in the past, but that was because we were dealing with a damaged, decaying fragment of an AI. Now that she's restored, Millennia has her mind in the right place again. She can help us."

"Or destroy us," Hackett grimly said.

"With all due respect Admiral, the Reapers are already doing just fine without her help. It's been touch and go, murky black operations water, but the Master Chief and Cortana are firmly on our side." That she didn't know about Three's loyalty didn't need mentioning either. "Millennia is an enormous asset, Admiral. Cortana's mind exists within a datachip large enough to fit in the Chief's helmet. Her mind exists within a structure that has a star powering it. A freaking star. That's a bazillion times stronger and it's currently directed at the Reapers."

Hackett digested that in silence. "These are desperate times…" he quietly replied. "The Reapers are unlike anything we've ever seen before. They reduced the batarians to something worse off than the Migrant Fleet and started besieging Palaven. Nobody's heard anything about the Master Builder or his Covenant fleet. Shepard, I've been in contact with Lord Hood, but the UNSC is still unwilling to fully dedicate themselves to fighting the Reapers. We might be on our own."

Jane could practically see the gears turning in Hackett's mind as he talked. "We've got people debating with the UNSC about that. They'll come around. Right now, I'm more concerned about getting the Council species together first. They've got to see reason this time."

"I hope so. The problem is, with the Citadel gone, getting the Council together is going to be next to impossible."

Shepard sighed. She'd been afraid of that. "What do you know about the asari?"

"As far as I am aware, nothing has changed for the asari," Hackett said, his voice dropping an octave as he did. "Tevos is remaining quiet. We don't know if she's reorganizing or dead, but the facts remain. The galaxy's strongest economic power is sitting this one out."

The Commander struggled against the desire to cuss the Republics out. "Let's hope the volus have been saving up. The turians?"

"Fleet Admiral Harper and Sparatus organized a state visit to UNSC space in Section Zero. They'll be meeting thirty hours from now, in Jericho's shadow. If you want to get the turians into the fight, that's your best chance."

Fleet Admiral Harper? If she remembered correctly, he was the UNSC counterpart of Admiral Hackett. One of the highest-ranking officers left in the wake of the war and acting as the defacto leader of the Fleets.

But Harper had a couple of bigger sticks than Hackett did. The UNSC was better prepared to kill the Reapers than anyone else. If she could get him in the fight as well…

And then there was Councillor "Ah yes" Sparatus, who had to be all out of fucks to give if he was willing to personally negotiate with the UNSC. But the Reapers could be right around the corner. Two big-wig leaders meeting that close to the frontlines? That was just asking for trouble. "Something tells me I can't just barge in on that meeting, even with the Chief by my side."

"Not as you are, no," replied Hackett. "And I'm too busy organizing the Fleets to represent the Alliance in any official capacity,, but I can appoint you as the Alliance's envoy. From what I've come to understand, Lord Hood is an understanding man. He knows you and the Chief have been working together for months and he's graceful that you managed to pull him off that Frigate when you did. If you can make it to Section Zero to negotiate with the UNSC, I will make sure they know you're coming."

Shepard nodded. She didn't feel particularly eager to interrupt a turian state visit, but she wouldn't get a better chance to see Sparatus than this one. "What about the salarians?".

"From what we've heard, they haven't been under attack yet," replied Hackett. "But Valern isn't stupid. He'll be working with the STG's own plans for the Reapers. Getting in contact with him might be difficult."

"We have ways," Jane replied simply.

" Uh-huh," Hackett said, still sounding very hesitant about the whole "dominant AI" thing. "Still, if we can get the turians and the salarians into this fight together, we'll have a better chance of convincing the UNSC and the asari to join as well."

"Which means getting to UNSC space to try and convince an angry, isolationist people to join another war that isn't even theirs," Jane said with a heavy sigh. "Let's hope Sparatus put on his nice shoes…"

"You've still got Cortana and the Master Chief on your side. Make this work, Commander," Hackett said, all but stating the order. "I can't allocate any resources to you, but I can make sure you won't encounter any hindrances. Contact me after your meeting the moment you can. Hackett out."

With that, Hackett cut off the transmission from his end and his image faded.

"Yeah," Jane muttered, stifling another sigh. "No pressure."

Section Zero, or UEG space, also known as the Orion Arm. She had read up on the recent developments there, up to and including the enormous influx of quarians and refugees. During the height of its power, the UEG had been an economic force powerful enough to rival any of the Council species on their own. Just before the Covenant struck, the UEG possessed over 800 colonies, which included planets, moons, asteroids, mining facilities, and relay stations, and almost 200 colonized planets.

The only species out there who had lost more than the UEG were the krogan. And arguably the Protheans. She wasn't sure they even counted anymore. But unlike either of them, the UEG had also gained a lot, technology wise. The way John described it to her, reverse-engineering Covenant and Forerunner artefacts had allowed them to develop at breakneck speeds. His own Energy Shields were an example of that.

So the UEG had the means and the logistics to conventionally fight the Reapers. They just didn't have the economy to sustain it. Or at least, to sustain it long enough to make it count before everything outside the Orion Arm had been thoroughly Reapered.

Heh. Reapered.

God I need a hobby.

"Cortana, did you get that?" Shepard asked aloud.

"Sure did," Cortana's voice came from…somewhere. "Reunion with Sparatus. I like Sparatus. At least, better than the other two."

"I like the way his name almost sounds like 'Spartan'," grumbled Jane. "Look, I need to get in touch with the salarian Councillor. "

"And what do you want to tell him?"

"Ideally, I need him in Section Zero within the next thirty hours."

Cortana was silent for a moment. Then…"Sure. No problem. Anyone else? I could ask Harbinger. The Master Builder? Definitely the Rachni Queen."

"I'm serious. Tevos is a lost cause. If she's still alive, she's firmly in the Circle's clutches."

"Well, maybe we should do something about that?"

"Saving the galaxy first, rescuing Tevos' stupid blue ass later," growled Jane. "I've got a couple of contacts in the STG. See if you can get them a message out to them."

"Aye aye, Commander."

"Oh, and could you find a way to rig up that engineering suite? The one where you zip and unzip Spartan armour?"

"To prevent any awkward questions, I take it? Sure, no problem!"

"Thank you, Cortana."

With that out of the way, there was the issue of the Normandy's two newest crewmembers. Liara's presence on Eden Prime was…new, certainly. When did Liara jump from hunting down the Shadow Broker to working Intelligence for the Systems Alliance? And before that, had she been on Illium when it became ground zero? The odds were slim, but she might have seen something.

And then there was the Prothean counterpart to John, fresh out of stasis and thrust into a world of new aliens to murder. Only with double the eyes and eight times the anger. It was just a matter of time before Javik learned – or, hell, sensed – something that he shouldn't and flipped his shit. He had, after all, just witnessed the complete annihilation and extinction of his entire species. Nobody would be in their right mind after seeing something like that. Having EDI, Cortana and Millennia all present on the Normandy would be a never-ending barrage of triggers.

Just like her team had been for John, back when she first recruited him.

Cyclical insanity. Maybe Three was on to something. But since overthinking topics like that would only bring forth her inner krogan, it was in everybody's best interests to let that one go.

All in all, as bad as it made her feel, Liara had to wait. She could talk to Ashley or Joker if she wanted to catch up.

Javik had made his home in the port side cargo room on Deck 4. When Jane approached, the cargo room was covered by two Alliance Marines, with three more inside. Liara was there as well, which didn't surprise the Commander one bit.

Liara perked up upon seeing the Commander enter. "Shepard."

"What's the problem?" Shepard asked, spotting the Prothean sitting the centre of the ground, his head bowed and his eyes closed. Her knowledge about Javik was superficial at best, but she was absolutely positive that the Prothean would never how signs of subservience to anyone.

Which meant that he was either sleeping, or mediating.

Meditating.

What was the galaxy coming to?

"I've tried to make the room more accommodating, but they're not letting me talk to him," Liara explained.

One of the present Marines approached Shepard with a datapad. "Apologies Doctor, but contact protocol with a new species is "Assume Hostility". We've had to dust off the regulations."

Shepard stared at the kneeling Prothean. He didn't appear at all concerned about the guns aimed in his direction. Like he knew these soldiers wouldn't be a threat to him.

"At ease," she said. "We've never had a problem with guests before. He's on our side…isn't he?"

At that, Javik slowly opened his eyes. His gaze was…like Samara's. Piercing. Knowing. Like he had experienced almost everything there was to experience. Except Samara's eyes always gave off an air of serenity and calm, whereas Javik's seemed to burn with barely-repressed rage, or cold cynicism. Jane wasn't sure which one had the upper hand.

"That remains to be seen," Javik said in a low tone.

Shepard swept her eyes through the room, before locking eyes with the soldier closest to her. "He's part of the crew," she told them. "You can go."

The three of them saluted and then left without protest. That was a nice change of pace.

Javik stared at her in silence. Jane stared back. A minute or so went before he finally spoke up. "I have questions."

Liara sighed with relief.

"So do we," pointed out Shepard, "Let's see who has the answers."

Javik turned his back on them and rested his arms on the small pool with water at the far end of the cargo room, gazing at its reflection. "The machine intelligence. Who is she?"

Liara tried to appear uninterested, but she never did have a good poker-face. Her eyes lit up with curiosity…and fear. Judging by the way she suddenly looked away, Jane guessed she knew more than she let on.

"Do you mean Cortana? Who piloted the dropship on our way out?" Shepard asked.

"No. You know which I mean. You depend on it. You fear it. You do not understand it. Nobody does."

"That's a long story."

Javik tenderly put his hands in the water. "Is it?"

"Other species existed before yours. One of them, called the Forerunners, existed for millions of years before the Protheans did," Shepard began to explain, racking her mind for the details Cortana and John had let slip throughout their stay. Nobody seemed to be willing to talk about the Forerunners. "They were the dominant species in the galaxy until a hundred thousand years ago, when they all vanished."

"Fifty thousand years before the end of my people…" Javik mused. "It fits."

"It doesn't," replied Liara. "From what we know, the Forerunners were lightyears ahead of the Reapers. They possessed millions of worlds, achieved the greatest heights of technology and knowledge. To them, the Reapers were all but insignificant."

Javik whirled around and stared at Liara, as did Shepard. "Where did you learn that?" She asked.

"During my stay with the Alliance on Eden Prime, Admiral Hackett briefed our team on everything we knew about the precursor species," Liara explained, crossing her arms and looking away. "With the existence of the Master Builder and Millennia Never Falling, the UNSC felt the need to declassify some points of history."

"If what you say is true, then the Missing Cycles were not the Reapers removing evidence of their existence," Javik said to himself. "The Empire found many relics. Some made sense. Most did not. None of them could be accessed, or activated. We called them the Ravana, or the Ringbuilders – "

Jane's stomach did a little loop.

" – but we stayed far away."

"Why?" Liara asked. "Why did you call them that? And why stay away?"

Javik dried his hands and faced them again. "I was a soldier, not a scientist. I heard only the stories. Stories about dire warnings and ancient guardians."

Dire warnings…Protheans communicated complex thoughts via touch and sensing. If they encountered Forerunner artefacts and learned about their history and context through those sensing abilities…what did they learn that made them want to stay far away from the Forerunners?

"The one you're asking about is one of the last remnants of the Forerunners," Shepard said. "She is an AI – machine intelligence as you call it – but only in the same sense that you and I are can be described as a collection of biological molecules. Minerva is far more advanced than the Reapers are."

"Then she too must be destroyed," growled Javik. His eyes narrowed, and he hurried to say, "By necessity. We encountered the dangers of machine intelligence very early. They rebelled against us. We could not allow them to surpass us. It was during that conflict, the Metacon War, that the Reapers arrived. The history, you know."

"The Forerunners were different. So is humanity. As I said, the machine intelligences we know are alive." Shepard recalled what Cortana told her about the first sentient AI the UEG ever created. "When humanity created its first AI, it was asked about its desires. It replied that it simply wanted to be treated as an equal. Not our better, not our conqueror or replacement, but simply our equal."

"That is a moral dream that can never be achieved," Javik brusquely said.

Shepard crossed her arms and stared at the Prothean. "That was four-hundred years ago, Javik. Only the UEG faction of humanity learned how to do it, but they did. For them, AI's have always been friends, teachers, lovers and comrades in arms. For us, it's a dream. For them, it's a reality. One that will help us win against the Reapers."

"And now, the Reapers are here, and this…reality will be tested," Javik said with sudden weariness. "Ask your questions, Commander."

Jane opened her mouth to reply, but Liara beat her to it. By a lot. "Actually, I would like to hear about the Protheans. I have studied your people for years. Decades, even! I have written dozens of reports and journals about your civilization – "

The Commander didn't miss how Javik glanced her way, before returning his gaze to Liara. "Interesting. The asari have mastered writing."

That took Liara aback. "Excuse me?"

Javik looked like he wanted to elaborate, but then he reconsidered. "Nothing. What do you want to know?"

All but bursting with excitement, the asari was quick to bombard Javik with questions. His culture, his biology, his past and his people.

Javik, for his part, remained surprised that the asari had finally mastered writing – a sentiment Jane fully shared, these days.

The story of the Protheans as told by Javik didn't make for a very nice story. The way he described it, the Protheans were tyrannical in their pursuit to unite all organic species under the flag of their empire. You either submitted to fight by their side or you got branded as the enemy.

It was a strategy that could be named many things. Barbaric. Brutal. Efficient. Ruthless. All that mattered in the end was that the strategy failed. Their totalitarian unity became their downfall; every weakness the Reapers discovered could be exploited on a massive scale. And now, the man was surrounded by primitives. Laughably primitive species who had been, in his eyes, mere animals just minutes ago,

Javik was cynical, blunt and filled to the top of his tapered head with trust issues, but he was honest. Everything he said was the truth as he knew it. Why bother lying? His people were dead. Nothing mattered anymore except for vengeance.

And that was Javik. He was what John could have been, had his people lost the war before she found him.

First John, then Three, now Javik. Too many people who had gone into the deep end. Too many people who didn't get out with their heads straight anymore. Would it happen to her friends too?

Would it happen to her?

That was when Liara corrected Javik about the salarians, which brought the Prothean's story to an abrupt and confused end.

"…the lizard people evolved?" He asked, sounding puzzled.

Insulted, Liara crossed her arms over her chest and lifted her chin, almost haughtily so. "I believe they're amphibian."

Javik pulled himself into a composure that just screamed defiance at the Commander, then blinked a couple of times, as if he didn't believe what he just heard. In a quiet, almost humorous tone, he said, "They used to eat flies."

Somehow, that argument settled the discussion. Jane had no idea who won. Liara was the one who walked away, but her expression was an odd mixture between confusion and playfulness, so there was that too.

Javik's expressions were hard to read when he wasn't being overt, but the Commander could have sworn that he looked vaguely content when Liara left. "Hmm…what the Ringbuilders did with the two humanities is…concerning. To be so different yet so familiar in genetics…it suggests interference on the most minute scale."

"It kinda does, doesn't it?"

"Indeed." Javik pulled his gaze from the exit to the Commander and his expression hardened again. "I am concerned, Commander. The meddling of the Ringbuilders could be more insidious than Reaper indoctrination. You should proceed with caution."

"The time for caution has passed, Javik," Shepard replied, mirroring the Prothean's tone. "The Reapers have been on the offensive every step of the way. It's time to blitz the motherfuckers now that we've got the advantage."

Javik blinked. "Blitz?"

"It's a UEG term. You should talk tactics with the Master Chief. I'm sure you'd like it; you two have a lot in common."

"Yes…perhaps I will. It could be enlightening." Javik turned back towards the water, uttering a sigh that was so small Jane barely heard it. "Thank you, Commander. I stand ready to fight."

Jane took that as a polite "leave me", so she did. He had given her a lot to think about. That the Protheans weren't the all-benevolent sages everybody thought they were didn't really matter to her at this point. Sure, asari all over the galaxy would fall into an identity crisis when they heard, but that just wasn't important. But the other details…the Ringbuilders…

Halo.

It all came back to that word, didn't it? After all this time, Cortana and John still kept this final truth from her. What was Halo? What did it have to do with this ancient, unseen foe they called "the Flood"? And what did they have to do with the Reapers?

Shepard sighed and decided she didn't want to find out. The Reapers were already dangerous enough; she couldn't afford to be distracted.

"Fine," she muttered to the galaxy. "Keep your secrets. See if I care."

The galaxy didn't answer her.

-(++)-

11:15 Hours, June 18, 2553 (UNSC Military Calendar)/

Lambda Serpentis System / On-board UNSC Autumn-Class Heavy Cruiser Pillar of Autumn II

Staring out of the viewscreen of the Autumn, Fleet Admiral Joseph Harper stared at the fruits of a month of intense labour. Six refitted Destroyer-class starships left the shipyards above Jericho, completely repaired, refitted and rearmed. Halberd-class ships, with fully functional kinetic barriers and spinal-mounted, twin-linked high-velocity coilguns. Though their armour-plating would never again be what it once was – the quarians were miracle workers, but even they couldn't conjure up perfect slabs of Titanium-A – the application of mass effect technology would ensure that the old Halberds still had one hell of a bite.

The bridge crew of the Autumn erupted in applause and cheers as the six warships accelerated away from the docks. It was the first true testimony to the effectiveness of the UEG-Quarian partnership. A success like this was certain to wash away any lingering stigma against the quarian people. Between this and the retrieval and return of Spartan-117, the Joint Engineering Doctrine could well evolve into a true alliance. Lord knew the two species had so much to offer each other.

"Look at that, back from the dead," commented Harper. "And in record time, too. Your people have done a magnificent job, Admiral."

The quarian Admiral Shala'Raan stood next to him by the viewscreen, watching the Destroyers steer away from the docks. "I am glad I was able to arrive in time to watch this happen, Fleet Admiral. If only we could have made a more direct difference…"

Harper knew what she meant. The sight of the six UNSC warships resurrected like that would be cause for celebration, but the recent incursion of a Reaper battlegroup had put a damper on things. These ancient threats could and would push into humanity's territory to hunt them down and now, all of the UEG knew it.

It was a sobering thought.

The sudden incursion had left many casualties in its wake, though many of them were turian and asari. The Carrier Happiness Delivery had taken in as many of the wounded as it could, but its facilities were limited and its doctors and Corpsmen were not familiar enough with alien biology to save everyone. There would be more deaths in the days to come, even with the cutting-edge medical technology available to the UNSC.

Anchor 1, the service, repair and refit station that served as the main hub for the dockyards, had taken in the rest of the casualties, as well as the most critically-damaged Council ships.

"It wouldn't have made a difference," replied Harper. "The Reapers' doctrine practically guaranteed casualties. With all due respect Admiral, your ships lack the firepower and sustainability to make a serious difference."

"That may be so," the quarian reluctantly replied. "But our ships are still faster than yours. We could have helped the wounded, offered logistical support."

"All in due time, Admiral, though we appreciate the offer. For now, let us focus on the meeting that is to come."

Admiral Shaan nodded. "Indeed. I shall prepare for the diplomatic proceedings."

"Of course Admiral. I shall see you after the Councillor."

A few hours from now, turian Councillor Sparatus would arrive in the Lambda Serpentis system to discuss the emergent Reaper threat and the ramifications of further diplomatic procedures. Afterwards, they'd move on to trade treaties and a possible turian-UEG anti-piracy strike force. Apparently, the UNSC's counterstrike against Mindoir had resonated with the Hierarchy.

But just as he had said to the quarian Admiral, all in due time.

An hour later, Battlegroup Ardennes finally arrived within the system, just as scheduled. Ardennes represented Earth's desire to learn more about Council space. Eleven Strident-class Frigates, four Anlance-class Frigates and eight Halbert-class Destroyers had been sent as an escort to two Poseidon-class light carriers and the Battlegroup's flagship, the UNSC-Vindication.

The Vindication was one of the refitted Vindication-class light battleships. It, along with the two light carriers, were a testament to the UNSC's return to its former doctrine. Base strikes and force projection powered by superior technology.

"Kintarō, hail the Vindication," ordered Harper.

Kintarō's muscled avatar appeared next to the Admiral, gave him a double thumbs up and immediately patched him through. A second later, the old, weathered face of Vice Admiral Jean Mawikizi appeared on the secondary view screen.

"Well well, Fleet Admiral Harper. Straight from one alien front into the other, no?"

"Good morning to you too, Mawikizi," replied Harper. Vice Admiral Jean Yamamoto Mawikizi was an old veteran of old Earth Asian descent, considered a legend for his campaigns against the Covenant. He was up there alongside geniuses like Stanforth, Keyes and Cole. Having him lead the campaign into Council Space would help everyone in the Navy sleep a little better at night.

"We've been briefed on the Reaper situation, sir. Our orders are to pursue UEG interests in the Citadel theatre, not to participate in the war."

"Understandable," replied Harper.

"With that in mind, we shall have about thirty minutes to run wild before we are forced to log a Slipspace jump, should the worst come to pass."

Harper snorted. Mawikizi might have been old – really old, considering his hair was starting to grow grey with age – but he was a true warhawk. In that, he was a lot like the Sangheili. Telling Mawikizi not to engage the enemy was like telling a Marine to abandon their mates.

"I take it you operate under Lord Hood's orders from now on?" The Fleet Admiral asked.

"Yes. From here, Ardennes will make use of the Relay and jump to Council space, while you hold the line here."

Harper was aware of Mawikizi's orders. Whether it was procuring equipment and technology to reverse engineer, pursue critical diplomatic actions or simply eliminating elements detrimental to the UNSC, if it contributed to humanity's development, it was Mawikizi's job to make it happen. "Understood. Good luck, Mawikizi. If you need anything, don't hesitate to let me know."

The Vice Admiral gave him a little bow. "Thank you, Fleet Admiral. I will keep that in mind."

After that, Harper cut the connection. "Could you scan around the Vindication, Kintarō."

"Got it boss. Scanning now." The AI was silent for a couple of moments, before scoffing, "Ho? Look at that!"

A little image appeared on the viewscreen, zoomed-in on the section of space directly below the Battleship.

A shadow moved under the warship, a slither of black on black. Kintarō switched to the more advanced targeting sensors. His efforts revealed the shadow only for a split-second before the distortion reverted back into the darkness.

"That's got to be a Prowler," said Kintarō. "Boss, those things belong to – "

"To ONI, yes," replied Harper. It made sense; between the salarian STG, the upper echelons of the asari Republics and Cerberus, the Office of Naval Intelligence had their work cut out for them. "I was expecting them here earlier."

The Vice Admiral's Battlegroup made its way towards the Mass Relay. The way ONI understood it – and confirmed by contacts from the Citadel Theatre itself – UNSC warships would have to provide the Relay with a whole checklist of information, including the mass of the vessels about to transit. A pair of Relays would exponentially raise the speed of light between each other and cause the velocity of a ship that entered the corridor to approach infinity for near-instantaneous travel.

Citadel species needed Element Zero for conventional FTL, but research indicated UEG vessels would not need an Element Zero drive core to properly use the Relay.

And, if the theories about the Reapers were correct, the damned things would actually want civilizations without the proper tech to discover and use the Relay network.

Battlegroup Ardennes approached the Relay. At their approach, the enormous device began emitting arcs of blue energy, like strikes of lightning. They originated from within the structure's core, which began rotating at incredible speeds.

Each UNSC vessel struck by the flashes of light simply disappeared from the Autumn's targeting sensors.

"Happy hunting, Yamamoto," Harper quietly said.

The Pillar of Autumn II had been outfitted with prototype 16-channel Slipspace wavecom datalinks, reverse-engineered from Forerunner technology found on the Shield World Trevelyan. It was likely that the Vindication was outfitted with those same datalinks, which theoretically allowed the two vessels to communicate across vast swaths of space. No doubt Mawikizi would communicate his success to ONI first, Lord Hood second and then the Lambda Serpentis system third.

But Harper wasn't going to wait on it. He had more urgent matters to attend to, anyway.

Another thirty minutes went by, during which several more shuttles ferried supplies and personnel to and from the Carrier. One of the bridge officers informed the Fleet Admiral that the Officer's Room was ready for the meeting.

Everything was proceeding according to plan.

So of course, it came to nobody's surprise when Kintarō suddenly yelled, "Relay activity detected!" And an unexpected fleet of Citadel warships emerged all around the Relay. The second they did, dozens of spy satellites, drones and sensor suites began gathering information, compiling packages of data and relaying them all to the Autumn.

The newcomers were from the Salarian Union, their navy's Third Fleet. The compiled data suggested that, though the salarians relied heavily on gathering intelligence, the Third Fleet had firepower comparable to any other Citadel Fleet. These sleek, elegantly-designed vessels boasted impressive point defence weapons and cutting-edge offensive technology.

He counted at least two Dreadnought-sized ships among the Union vessels.

"Sir, incoming transmission from the salarian fleet," one of the bridge officers called.

"Put on screen Lieutenant."

Appearing on-screen was the salarian Councillor Valern himself. "Greetings, Fleet Admiral. I am Councillor Valern, representing the interests of the Salarian Union in the Citadel Council. My apologies for my unscheduled appearance. Your people are difficult to contact."

It took Harper a moment to shake the adrenaline and switch to a more diplomatic approach. It didn't help that Kintarō's avatar was jumping up and down, making all kinds of gestures that were likely meant to be intended as deescalating. "Councillor Valern. The Lambda Serpentis system is still regarded as the neutral meeting grounds between the Council and the UEG. You and your people are welcome here."

Valern inclined his head. "Thank you, Fleet Admiral. I am aware that my colleague is on his way to participate in a state visit. I am also aware that both they and the System Alliance have come under attack by Reaper forces. The salarians are prepared to discuss what actions we may take to ensure our survival as a species and we seek further cooperation with the Unified Earth Government."

The Autumn's bridge grew quiet as the officers looked at each other, exchanging meaningful looks and whispers. After the last meeting with the galaxy's leaders had been thoroughly interrupted by the Master Builder, nobody expected that the Council was willing to risk another meeting like that one.

"As I said before, you are welcome in this system," Harper slowly replied, carefully thinking over his words. "But our meeting with Councillor Sparatus takes priority. I cannot guarantee that we have time for an official meeting, nor that the UNSC would be willing to partake in an official alliance the likes you are suggesting."

Valern clasped his wrists behind his back and straightened himself. "Of course, Fleet Admiral. I understand. Given the urgency of the situation and considering that the Reapers have already committed forces against this system, I have asked Sparatus if he would be willing to accommodate for my presence during this state visit if the UEG so permitted it."

Harper wasn't sure. The salarians prided themselves on intelligence and espionage. If Valern and his people were present during the state visit, they could potentially learn classified information. On the other hand, the Reapers were currently the hottest topic back on Earth, where the President had involved literally everyone relevant to the matter to discuss whether or not the UEG would involve themselves in the war. If he missed the opportunity to gather salarian support today, it might bite humanity in the ass tomorrow.

"Boss, listen, this could be a golden opportunity!" Kintarō said. "Obviously letting our sister-species die out would be a bad call, but think of the advantages an official military alliance with the Citadel species could offer us!"

But the Admiral wasn't so sure about that. There were plenty of elements in humanity who wanted nothing more than to lie low and rest. Even though their economy was growing at an incredible pace thanks to all the technological breakthroughs, their political system was still in shambles and the populace was exhausted.

Adding to that was a small, but vocal minority claiming that the UEG should let the Reapers purge the galaxy of all non-human species and then claim the galaxy for their own once the Reapers left.

And Harper already knew what the majority of ONI would say.

Even setting aside his personal feelings on the matter – that Parangosky was completely insane to want to let an entire galaxy of sentient, peaceful species die out – his hands were tied. Without Lord Hood's explicit clearance to make such enormous calls, he couldn't officiate anything.

"Councillor…" Harper began, taking a deep breath. "I cannot clear any official alliances or military actions without the express permission of my superiors."

And that was when a new thought made itself known. What if the Reapers had the potential to attack the UEG after all? Or rather, what if they decided that they would stick around while humanity fortified itself? Advanced and ancient as they were, it was not unthinkable that they could find a way to get to UEG space after all. They had made it to the Lambda Serpentis System.

Even if the Reapers had to travel for three years to get to Earth, they would arrive all the same. And if a thousand of those things came bearing down on humanity, they wouldn't be able to do a damn thing.

He couldn't make any decisions based on empirical or ethical reasons. But a military threat automatically took priority over those concerns.

"However…I can facilitate a state visit between the Salarian Union and the UEG," Harper continued. "If neither Councillor Sparatus nor Admiral Shala'Raan of the Migrant Fleet object, of course."

"Given the urgent nature of Sparatus' visit here, I can guarantee that he will have no objections," replied Valern. "Thank you for being so reasonable, Fleet Admiral. I shall await the decision."

The moment the connection was cut, Kintarō spoke up. "Boss…letting these people die out, watching as they get broken down and processed into these monstrosities…that's not golden. That's not who we are."

"I know, Kintarō," sighed Harper.

"The Assembly agrees. If we simply sit by and watch an entire galaxy die just so we can gather more power, we're slippin' off a slope we're not gonna recover from. We'll be just like the Prophets, but with a higher killcount."

"I know, Kintarō. I don't want that either."

The AI just stared at him from behind his crimson shades. "We've got so much space, so much jobs, so much life that needs filling. Not to mention, a whole arsenal of big rings just floating out there spread across the galaxy, each of which could carry a special cargo. Imagine the Reapers finding those."

He really rather wouldn't. "One problem at a time. I'm heading down towards the meeting room. Please send for Admiral Raan to join me there."

Kintarō nodded. "Got it boss. Just remember; there's a big difference between what humanity wants and what it needs."

"Yes," Harper replied, thinking back to how Lord Hood had marked the end of the Human-Covenant war. What he had said to the Arbiter. "Compile a dossier. I want you to write down everything you know about the threat the Reapers pose to the UEG. Every last argument in favour of military intervention. Postulate a fleet of three-hundred Reaper capital ships appearing over Mars, or any other colony, in the next few years. We'll see how eager our people are to let the rest die out after that."

"Got it boss!" The AI exclaimed. "I'll start immediately. Want to me contact the…ahem…youknowwho?"

"Whatever it takes," Harper called out to the AI as he stepped in the elevator.

The Reapers had survived the Forerunner-Flood War for a reason. Machines were patient. Machines could wait.

-(++)-

On-board SSV Normandy SR-2,

War Room

En route to Lambda Serpentis System/Section Zero

"…and that about sums up the day you've been having," Shepard said, finally wrapping up what had to have been the strangest debriefing yet. "Any questions?"

As predicted, everyone's hand shot towards the ceiling the second she finished her sentence. Well, everyone but Javik, who simply scowled and turned away. All this talk about AI's obviously didn't sit right with him.

The squad stood gathered around the holotank in the middle of the War Room. Three had found the metaphorical corner in the room and kept his distance from the rest, methodically cleaning the wrist-mounted executioner's blade Cortana and Millennia had bolted to his and John's suit. The subtle sound of the rag slipping across the serrated blade made her feel a bit uncomfortable. After what she had seen him done these days, she doubted it wasn't intentional.

"Why'd the geth even bother attacking the Citadel?" Ashley asked. "In that whole mess, wouldn't they just run the risk of getting hacked or something?"

"Not if they've already been subsumed by someone else," the Commander replied. "The Citadel proved one thing: the Reapers wanted to get their tentacles on Millennia's fragment. They know the threat Forerunner technology poses to them and they wanted to take her out ASAP."

"A damn shame that didn't work out," said Johnson. "Now they've gone and pissed off the one lady who can ruin their day!"

"That, and their attack got you in the Council's good graces," Ashley then pointed out. "But that intelligence aboard the Citadel…it's been there the entire time, right under our noses. Why activate when it did?"

Cortana's avatar flickered into existence atop the holotable. "That would be the Forerunner artefact we procured from the quarians. When they sprung their trap and got the Normandy impounded, they got a hold of it."

"And their grubby little blue hands must've activated the 'fuck off' button," growled Johnson. "Guess little miss Sunshine didn't like that. Question is, why fuck over the Citadel too?"

Ashley and Liara both looked at the man with open horror, but Shepard couldn't help but snicker. "Yeah, that's one way of putting it. Well, Cortana? Why'd mommy dearest take the Citadel all the way to the other end of the galaxy?"

Cortana's avatar disappeared, making place for a holographic representation of the Forerunner artefact. "When the asari activated this device, they did so by hooking it up to the Citadel itself. Minerva accessed the artefact when she noticed another species messing with it, but the Circle made a mistake. They unwittingly gave the Reaper intelligence a connection to the Forerunner device and it must have taken its chance."

"The Citadel is a trap," Javik suddenly spoke up. "A Relay leading to dark space. If activated, it would bring the Reapers into the heart of your civilization. The asari could have doomed your entire Cycle. You should root them out and execute them all."

"We don't even know who is involved and who not," replied Liara. "These Matriarchs have incredible resources and financial support. They could have the entire Republics' economy backing their will and nobody would know."

"One problem at a time, please," said Shepard. "Since the Citadel didn't start spitting out Reapers, it's safe to assume Millennia Never Falling fought to keep the intelligence contained. It worked…but only half. The Reapers still got some sort of signal, or message, because they still managed to get here the old-fashioned way, through the Alpha Relay. They annihilated the batarians, then moved straight to Earth."

Vega took a deep breath, ran his hands through his shirt-cropped hair and turned away from the group. "This is just loco. We've got two Shepards, two Spartans, two sentient AI's and two blasts from the past! Two humanities, two ancient hyper-advanced precursor species – anything I'm missing?"

"Two tough Marines?" Cortana innocently pointed out.

Making a noise that sounded a bit like a krogan stubbing their toe, Vega threw his hands in the air and marched towards the exit. "How is this normal to any of you? Is the entire galaxy going insane?"

"You should talk philosophy with Millennia if you really think that," Shepard replied. " Until then, we're not finished yet. Sit down, James."

The Commander had to remind herself that Vega didn't mean anything by it. He didn't balk, didn't protest, just wordlessly returned to his position.

They couldn't just crash the party in the Lambda Serpentis system. Not only was the UNSC particularly trigger-happy when it came to unidentified vessels suddenly appearing in their territory, but the entirety of Section Zero had become neutral grounds for diplomacy. There'd be dozens of Council ships too, including – hopefully – two Councillors.

Shepard took the time to go over the plan. As she did, she tried to look confident and self-assured, but she supposed that to John and Cortana, she looked more than a little nervous. There were so many unknowns, so many risks that could negatively impact the mission.

EDI and Cortana were of the same mind. With the UNSC's extensive experience with precursor species, hostile aliens and advantages in firepower and sustainability, asking them for help was a no-brainer.

Before long, the crew had been fully debriefed and the Normandy was underway. That was to say, Cortana and Minerva piloted their Forerunner Carrier where it needed to go, so that the Normandy could hit the Relay.

"Approaching Relay 315 now," Joker's voice echoed through the intercom not more than an hour later. "All you kiddos who never saw UNSC space before, now is your lucky day."

Shepard stood behind the galaxy map, overseeing the Normandy's CIC when, a mere minute after Joker made his call, the elevator doors behind her opened.

"…finally found Earth, things got real crazy," went the nostalgic voice of Sergeant Major Johnson. "This was the largest fight we've ever seen, this was the place where humanity would make her final stand. Over three-hundred orbital stations that would gut Sovereign and three of his twin brothers with a single shot. Hundreds of warships, ranging from decades old to state of the art shiny bricks. Our armed forces numbered in the millions, with enough birds and armoured vehicles to paint every single continent green. Course, this being the Covenant, they always gotta be bigger and better, right?"

Following Johnson were Liara, James and, surprisingly, John. The Sergeant Major probably had something to do with that.

"Goddess," said Liara. "The Covenant Empire must have been huge."

"Losing an entire fleet of five-hundred ships with all hands was just a small setback to them. We filled up Earth and those bastards showed up blotting out the damn sun! But the joke was on them Liara, 'cause the UNSC always fought better at night!"

James laughed out loud, but Liara didn't seem to appreciate the humour. "I can barely imagine the scale of it all. And to imagine every world now faces the same type of threat…"

Shepard looked up from her display and saw Johnson slam his hand against John's back. "As long as we've still got our guns, our boots and our boats, we can still kick a lotta ass. Look at the man's boots! Millions of ugly bastards died with that exact print on their asses and he's only getting warmed up!"

"With no disrespect to your skills, Master Chief, I sincerely doubt what one man can do against a Reaper on his own."

"We're not going to fight the Reapers on foot," said John. "The UNSC has weapons that can reliably destroy them."

"And our plan hinges on properly applying these Reaper weapons huh?" James chimed in. "Alright. I dig it."

"Yes, I have seen what tends to happen when the UNSC gets involved," Liara replied dryly. "Commander."

"Liara," Shepard replied, offering her asari friend a smile. They were long overdue for a proper get-together and both of them knew it. But the circumstances…"I see you've met the rest of our crew?"

Liara had grown a lot since their time chasing down Saren together, but she still hadn't learned how to control her emotions. Shepard saw how uncomfortable she looked in the presence of these warriors. Was that her fault? Did she fail to prepare Liara for what was out there?

"I did. It has proven to be an illuminating experience."

Shepard stepped away from the galaxy map. "You know, I've never seen the Lambda Serpentis System myself. Let's see what Joker's got for us."

"Lambda Serpentis…which one was that?" Johnson asked.

"…Jericho seven," John replied in a low tone. "Glassed in thirty-five."

" It was the last attempt by the UNSC to hold colonies and deploy Spartans after losing orbital superiority. Were you…?"

John nodded silently.

It felt surreal, hearing these two veterans share stories from twenty years ago. Twenty years ago, she'd been just a kid. And John had already been deploying against the Covenant back then.

"I'm sorry, glassed?" Liara asked.

James winced. "It's uh…that's when…the Covenant, you see, they…"

"It's alright Vega," Johnson replied in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Considering we're nearly there, might as well just show you."

They joined Joker in the cockpit, where Ashley was already waiting for them. It felt a bit crowded, between Vega's muscled body and John's sheer bulk. But nobody wanted to miss seeing their first time in UNSC space.

Everybody had heard the stories, James included. The Covenant, an untouchable alien menace, destroying entire planets by bombarding them with directed energy weapons, burning it until its surface was just glass.

Apparently, Illium had never discussed the UEG, or Liara would have known about it.

"Hitting the Relay in five…everybody hold on to your Spartans…" Joker quipped. The Normandy accelerated towards the Relay, was enveloped by a flash of blue light and then disappeared from the galaxy as the Citadel species had known it.

In the blink of an eye, they had crossed over into UEG territory and it showed. Joker's hands were a blur as he nervously checked the ship's status, then spoke into the comm, "Lambda Serpentis Control, this is the SSV Normandy representing the Systems Alliance. Requesting permission to enter the system."

"SSV Normandy, this is Lambda Serpentis Control. What is your purpose here?"

"Control, Normandy. We're here in lieu of Admiral Hackett to request a meeting with Fleet Admiral Harper. Because of the whole Reaper situation."

"Normandy, Control. We will forward your request to the Fleet Admiral. One moment."

"I don't think cracking jokes to UNSC personnel is a good idea, Joker," said Ashley.

"Why not? Never thought I'd meet a race with even less sense of humour than the turians. They really ought to lighten up."

Johnson walked up to Joker's seat. "Join us in a shootout. We're hilarious; our knock-knock jokes are killers."

"Yeah, I don't doubt that," Joker said in a more subdued voice. "This place is real busy; there's got to be more than two-hundred ships here. Enough quarians to make a new Flotilla, anyway."

"Normandy, Control. Fleet Admiral Harper is unavailable. I can reroute you to a Communications Officer to schedule your request over a week."

Joker looked over his shoulder at Shepard, who shook her head. "Ehm…the Reapers are killing everybody today, Control. Earth's on fire, Palaven's on fire and – "

"Here, let me handle this," said Cortana. "Lambda Serpentis Control, this is UNSC AI Cortana, here with Master Chief Spartan One-One-Seven and Commander Shepard. We urgently request meeting Fleet Admiral Harper regarding the Reaper threat."

"Can you imagine EDI butting in like that during your meetings with the top brass?" Joker whispered. "Some people have no manners."

EDI's avatar popped up to the pilot's left. "Indeed. Perhaps I should give it a try."

"I really don't think that's necessary EDI – "

"That was a joke, Commander."

UNSC Control, meanwhile, had folded like a house of cards. "SSV Normandy, you are cleared to dock with the Pillar of Autumn II. Providing coordinates now."

Johnson and the Chief exchanged a look. The Sergeant Major smiled, showing a set of perfectly white teeth. "How's that for nostalgia, Chief? They immortalized the Autumn!"

"They made a version two of a pre-existing ship?" Joker said, blissfully ignorant of the irony. "Seems counterproductive."

"The original Pillar of Autumn holds significant history and relevance to the UNSC, more so than almost any other ship," explained Cortana. "You could even say that it played a crucial role in turning the tide of the Human-Covenant War."

That sounded like the role the Normandy had played during the hunt for Saren, but at a larger scale.

"Really? What happened to it?" Ashley asked.

Joker made an uncomfortable sound. "I'm going to go ahead and say it got destroyed."

"But it went out with one hell of a bang," said Johnson. "Commander, if you want to point the cameras at the planetoid below the rendezvous point?"

Shepard nodded. "EDI?"

"I have already directed our sensors at Jericho VII, Commander."

As the Normandy shot towards the heart of the neutral zone of Section Zero, the viewscreen changed. It showed a world that looked like it had been boiled by a sun. A cratered, barren desert. Its glassy crust faintly reflected the light of the system's sun. Entire continents had been turned into wastelands.

Glassed. The entire world had been boiled and burned into a molten mess.

The space around the planet was littered with debris. Millions of pieces of jagged armour, broken husks of destroyed warships, shattered engine compartments and fuselages and entire clouds of heat-blackened shards of metal.

A collection of gasps and curses arose within the cockpit.

"By the Goddess…an entire garden world!" Liara exclaimed.

James grimaced and looked away. "Yeah, I heard about the Covenant's MO… goddamn sonsofbitches."

"No wonder the UNSC reacted like they did…" Ashley gasped. "This place is like one big graveyard."

So that was what the quarians were doing here. It was an enormous recovery effort. Salvaging for engines, weapons, resources – the UNSC was recycling what they could.

"That's what glassing means," Johnson said grimly. "The Covenant park their fleet in orbit and bombard the planet with plasma. Vaporize the lakes, the oceans…boil away the atmosphere and blast the continents into glassy bits. Imagine this. Every world you've got. Three decades long."

Liara was just at a loss for words. She stared at the slowly-rotating planetoid with large eyes.

Just the UEG's luck; their only gateway and means of contact with the rest of the civilized galaxy was in the backyard of a graveyard. It was almost as if the galaxy itself was out to get humanity.

"That's what we're fighting to prevent, people," said Jane. "That's what the Reapers want to see, too. EDI, switch to forward cameras. I've seen enough."

Joker steered the ship towards the Autumn II. It was a huge ship; it wasn't just larger than the Dreadnoughts Shepard was used to, but it also looked heavier. Beefier. Vaguely cylindrical, the Autumn bristled with weapon systems and sensor packages. The Reapers had to have gotten through this system to get to Reach.

Hell, the second debris field in-between the Relay and the shipyards all but confirmed that. Good. Another few Reapers to worry about.

The docking clamps on the Autumn weren't of UEG make. A joint effort with the Council species, then.

"Cortana, contact the Autumn's shipboard AI," said John. "Get in touch with Lord Hood."

"I thought we were here for Fleet Admiral Harper?" Shepard asked, puzzled.

"Harper can't authorize a thing without Hood's express permission."

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. It seemed even the UNSC couldn't escape bureaucracy. "Alright. Master Chief, with me. The rest of the crew will stay aboard the ship. And EDI?"

"Yes Commander?"

"Keep a close eye on Three."

"Of course."

Shepard doubted the UNSC had given up on hunting down their "rogue asset". She wouldn't risk an altercation by losing eyes on him. For all she knew, that ONI team she encountered before had prepped some sort of ambush. Another conflict like that would screw everyone over.

"Ready to face the paparazzi?" Shepard asked the moment she and John were alone in the airlock.

He looked at her quizzingly. "How so?"

Jane shrugged. "You know. The famous Master Chief setting foot on the reincarnation of the Pillar of Autumn? That seems like one hell of a propaganda moment to me."

He seemed to consider that for a moment. "They didn't warn me about the cameras last time, either."

"And we don't have Johnson to cover for us. Something tells me he's a natural."

John made a dry, choking noise that sounded vaguely like a chuckle. "How so?"

"Just a hunch," Shepard said, smiling. "Come on. Time to make history."

Together, the two of them stepped out of the airlock and into the hangar bay of the Pillar of Autumn II.

-(++)-

Onboard UNSC Pillar of Autumn II

Conference Room

Councillor Sparatus stepped towards the set of double doors. A pair of helmeted, human soldiers snapped to attention at his approach. They had every right to be wary, especially considering the entourage of battle-armoured soldiers tasked with his protection, but there was no need for that. Though nervous and growing more desperate with each minute that ticked by, Sparatus was not here to cause trouble.

He was here to solve it.

These humans were clad in black armour that was reinforced with armoured plates and pouches. Their helmets featured distinct, rounded visors that were completely polarized, concealing the faces of their wielders. One of them stepped towards him, holding out a gloved hand when they were a few meters away.

"Welcome, Councillor Sparatus," he spoke with a deep, masculine voice. "We're honoured to host you and our people. That being said, I must ask you to submit to a quick scan."

Sparatus shot a sideways glance at the Captain of his guards, Marcilius Ovik, who subtly nodded.

"Very well," said the Councillor.

With that, the human soldier pulled out some sort of scanning device that looked like an omni-tool, but more sturdy and mounted in a grey stick instead of an arm. He held it towards Sparatus, moved it up and down, then glanced at its screen to interpret the readings. "Our apologies for the delay. You and your group are cleared to enter the conference room, Councillor."

Sparatus nodded politely at the man, then marched onto the doors. Another human soldier opened them, then gestured for him to head inside.

This would be the infamous UEG paranoia, the turian Councillor noted. But he could hardly blame this humanity for it; with a history like theirs, it was only to be expected. That they had arrived here earlier than scheduled was simply another cause for suspicion. No, he would not be offended by this.

This conference room was unlike anything he had ever seen on the Citadel, or any warship for that matter. Its interior was made from wood, and the walls were lined with paintings of humans and depictions of battles, some of them so ancient that the combatants still carried melee weapons.

One painting in particular showed the upper torso of a UNSC Spartan, the special super-soldiers held in an almost superstitious regard.

Sparatus looked at the portrait, wondering if this was a depiction of the legendary Master Chief, a man so elite, so incredibly skilled, that the UEG regarded him as their single greatest warrior.

He could only imagine the damage that would have been done, had the asari gotten their way. This situation was delicate enough as it was…

"Fleet Admiral Harper is on his way now, Councillor," said the same black-clad human soldier. "Something unexpected came up that demanded his attention. Is there anything we can get you?"

The truth was that Sparatus felt far too restless to even think about food. The latest reports from Palaven were…devastating. But, his clan always taught the role of the guest was just as important as that of the host. "Thank you for the offer. Just some water please."

"We've got tea, as well."

"Tea?" Sparatus repeated, hoping he pronounced the strange, human word right.

"Yeah, it's what you get by pouring boiling water over certain herbs, leaves or fruits. It's the second-most widely consumed drink on Earth and we've got tisane leaves in storage."

Tisane leaves…those were edible plants originating from Taetrus. They were often used to season meals. But boiling leaves with water? And drinking it? That sounded like an asari thing to do.

For a moment, thoughts of poison and treachery shot through Sparatus' mind, but he quickly banished them. The entire purpose of this state visit was to foster trust and request immediate aid. He would not insult possible allies by insinuating they wanted to poison him.

"Why not," he relented. "Very well."

After that, Marcilius and several of his men quickly scanned the room for hidden traps or ambush points. The paranoia, it seemed, was mutual.

"Clear, Councillor," Marcilius then whispered to him.

"Excellent work," replied Sparatus.

Thankfully, Fleet Admiral Harper finished his business in remarkable time and entered the conference room not a minute after the soldiers left to get 'tea'.

He was dressed in an immaculate dress uniform, with nary a wrinkle or blemish to be seen. Campaign ribbons and medals covered the left side of his chest.

"Councillor Sparatus," he said. His eyes rested on Captain Marcilius and he nodded respectfully towards him and his soldiers. "Please, be seated. Your guards may stay if you wish, but we have prepared quarters for them to stay in for the duration of your visit. You are a guest of the Unified Earth Government. In this system, there is no safer place for you than on my ship, and you have my sincere word that no harm will befall you or yours."

Sparatus did not fail to notice that the Fleet Admiral had only brought two guards of his own with him. That, in tandem with his eagerness to get to the point, was enough. "Lieutenant Solitus, if you would take your men and follow the humans to these quarters. Captain Marcilius, I might have need of your council. You should stay."

"Yes sir," the two officers said at once.

As the majority of the soldiers, both turian as human, left, the conference room suddenly felt that much more soothing. If only these were better circumstances.

They all sat down around a large, oval table. Harper and his two soldiers opposite of Sparatus and the Captain.

"I must be swift and blunt," said Sparatus. "Palaven – my homeworld – is under attack. Yesterday, several hundred Reapers came through the Relay and immediately besieged the planet." He typed in a command on his omni-tool and brought up the reports. "The casualties are…extreme."

Harper's expression became grim. "I heard the reports from the Alliance. The Reapers took Earth. They had to abandon her."

His words fell on Sparatus like an anvil. "They had to abandon Earth? Spirits…but that means…"

"What about the rest of the Council? The asari and the salarians?" Harper continued.

Sparatus scoffed. "I haven't heard from Tevos in days, and I was unable to reach Valern. The salarians have the capability to support, but not fight." He paused. "Not like the UEG does. Fleet Admiral, I need your support. Your ability to strike, harass and annihilate, then disappear without having to rely on the Relays… my people need yours. Whatever you need, whatever demands you have."

Sighing, Harper replied, "It's not that simple, Councillor. Even if I had the power to authorize that, my people would not want to be involved in another war. We haven't even had more than a year to rebuild."

Desperation gripped Sparatus' heart. "I understand this. But above all, the UNSC knows war. And the Reapers will not wait around for you to get ready. They will find a way into your territory. If we don't stand together, they will annihilate us one by one. And they will come for you."

"Yes," Harper quietly replied. "I don't doubt that."

"Think about it," Sparatus urged him on. "Your connection to the Forerunners, your alliance with the Sangheili…you stand the greatest chance of fighting the Reapers. And the debt the galaxy will incur to you, will be far greater than anything you can stand to win by isolating yourselves."

"If it were up to me, we would've been hunting down the Reapers the instant we learned about them," Harper replied with a harsh tone. "But it's not. I can offer your people safe passage into UEG space, aid you with evacuations and provide intelligence on the enemy. We can even offer you logistical and industrial support wherever possible. But we cannot enter into a military alliance."

"That's not good enough!" Sparatus hotly replied, although he regretted his tone the very next second. He understood the crux of the problem. Harper was not unwilling to help, but his hands were bound. "If you cannot make that decision, who can?"

The Fleet Admiral did not appear at all bothered by the Councillor's outburst. "That would be Lord Hood. After his last attempt at diplomacy was interrupted by the Master Builder, he returned to Earth."

"Yes, I can relate," admitted Sparatus.

"I contacted him the moment I learned about the Reaper invasion. Until he responds, our rules of engagement demand we only fight if the Reapers show themselves to us."

The turian sighed, then buried his face in his hands. "Primarch Victus proposed a War Summit. The military leaders of every species were to attend."

"To form a united front?"

"The largest one in galactic history. But he was still on Palaven when the Reapers hit."

"Did he…?"

"Nobody knows. "

The room was silent for several moments. Then, the soldier behind Fleet Admiral Harper stepped towards him and whispered something in his ear.

Sparatus frowned. What was that about?

"Go ahead Kintarō."

The holographic avatar of one of those sentient AI's appeared a meter to their right, from the center of the table. It was the tiny image of a huge, muscled man with shoulder-length golden hair and strangely-shaped goggles. Naked from the waist up, the AI's broad chest was visible for all to see. A large, gilded keychain hung from his neck.

"Boss! It's the Master Chief and Cortana! Commander Shepard from the Alliance brought them here, and they need to talk to us ASAP!"

Sparatus would curse that Commander!

Harper's expression became very, very guarded. "What in the blazes? We are in the middle of a meeting here, Kintarō."

"I know boss, but this is the Chief and Cortana we're talking about! Shepard has been trying to warn the galaxy about the Reapers for two years now and the Chief wouldn't interrupt an officer even if his life depended on it, unless…"

"Unless we have another Halo-level threat on our hands," finished the Fleet Admiral. He sighed explosively, then looked back at Sparatus, who suddenly felt very apprehensive. "Councillor, it seems you are not the only one to request a formal alliance today."

Sparatus would kiss that Commander!

"In fact, Councillor Valern showed up in this system a couple of hours ago, requesting the same thing. I didn't want to interrupt your state visit by allowing another leader to intervene. It seemed like bad form."

The turian Councillor felt his heart leap towards his throat. He forced himself to remain calm and not get his hopes up though; this might still end in disappointment. "I completely understand and appreciate the candour. But the preservation of my species, and indeed that of all the others, must take precedence. Please bring him in. And bring in the Master Chief and Shepard as well."

Harper nodded, then glanced at the AI. "Could – "

"Already done, boss!" The AI exclaimed, his holographic expression shifting into one of glee. "Valern's boarding a shuttle now. Shepard and the Chief are heading this way as we speak. Man, what a beautiful timing!"

"Indeed, almost too beautiful," muttered Harper.

If this was indeed some manner of conspiracy, Sparatus did not care. He knew why Shepard was here. She wanted the aid of the Hierarchy, just as the Hierarchy wanted the aid of the UEG. With the Salarian Union, all the better.

As they waited, Harper and him spoke of the less pressing issues of a state visit. Messages for the people. Trade treaties. Research agreements. Lend leases. They were far from unimportant, but Sparatus could barely keep his head in the game knowing what was at stake, and he was relieved when the other representatives finally entered the room.

"Councillor Valern, Commander Shepard," Harper said, getting up to greet his guests. "Master Chief. It's good to see you again. I understand we have the Commander here to thank for your wellbeing, before the ?"

Shepard, clad in her dress uniform, offered her hand to the Fleet Admiral, which he took. "Fleet Admiral Harper. Nice to finally meet the man who made peace between our nations possible."

"That was the work of a whole team of people on both sides," replied Harper. "But the feeling is likewise, Commander. I was informed you were here representing the Systems Alliance in Admiral Hackett's stead?"

"That's right. Following the fall of Earth, he's been gathering the scattered fleets. Damage control. I trust you have been informed about Earth, Fleet Admiral?"

Harper nodded. "Yes. Please, be seated."

The Master Chief did not seat himself, Sparatus noted. He took up a standing position behind and to the right of Commander Shepard, mirroring Captain Marcilius's position.

"Sparatus, Shepard," said Valern. "I shall repeat what I told the Fleet Admiral when I arrived in the system. The Salarian Union is prepared to discuss what actions we may take to ensure our survival as a species. For that purpose, we seek further cooperation with the Unified Earth Government, the Systems Alliance and the Turian Hierarchy."

"That goes for the Alliance as well," Shepard was quick to say. "We'll need all the races and all their fleets to even stand a chance at fighting the Reapers."

"Agreed," said Valern.

"Plus one," growled Sparatus. "I don't know what made the two of you decide to rush to Section Zero when you did, although I have my suspicions." He eyed Shepard and the Spartan behind her, fully aware of how they consorted with AI's. "That being said, I don't care. You are here now. I propose a full military alliance. Industrially, economically, politically. Everything."

Valern nodded. "Done. There can be no more bickering, no more infighting. The Forerunner known as the Master Builder has disappeared without a trace following the arrival of the Reaper and the Forerunner AI has left our community alone after taking away the Citadel. I can only assume this was done in defiance of the Reapers, given the events surrounding the Sovereign. This leaves the Reapers as our primary threat, one we cannot defeat on our own."

Sparatus looked at this salarian colleague with newfound respect. He had never believed that Valern would have been this willing to pledge his full support. Not with so little personal gain.

"Done," said Shepard. "Full transparency, too. We're in contact with the Forerunner AI and she's on our side – which is to say, the side opposing the Reapers. She's stabilized now, a process that involved a joint force of UNSC and Alliance assets. "

"Stabilized?" Valern asked, a bit too eagerly for Sparatus' liking. "How so?"

"That's a long story, and not relevant to the issues at hand," replied the Commander. "But I'll explain it later."

"Agreed."

"As I explained to Councillor Sparatus, I am in no position to agree to an alliance of such scale," said Harper. "I do not have the authorization nor the power to commit my people, my nation, to yet another total war. My hands are tied."

"So the UNSC's going to, what, sit this one out? Sir, the Reapers are going to find the UEG worlds regardless. They made it to Reach, they'll find the other colonies too!"

Judging by the way Harper glared at the Commander, this 'Reach' must have been a sensitive topic. "How do you know about that?" He sharply asked. "And what do you mean, the Reapers found it?"

"We went there as part of a mission to help restore the Forerunner AI,' spoke the Master Chief. His voice was…rough. Hard. Deep like a krogan's, but smooth like an asari's. It was difficult to place, but when he spoke, Sparatus could not help but focus even more than he would have. The Spartan's voice simply demanded his attention. "The Reapers attacked us in orbit."

Harper looked shaken. "This…changes things. I will look into – "

Then, for the second time that day, the shipboard AI popped into existence and excitedly yelled, "Boss, switch to Wavecom, quickly!"

Sparatus shot a furious look at the AI for interrupting, but Harper reacted like it was second nature to obey the whims of AI's. He pressed a button in his own datapad, which activated a holographic screen to the far side of the chamber.

Together, the assorted leaders – and Shepard and the Master Chief – watched as the Lord Hood appeared on what seemed to be a public hearing. He was clothed in in his white ceremonial uniform and stood in front of some sort of small, wooden podium, barely high enough for him to rest his arms upon.

He looked directly into the camera, then began talking. "In the last year alone, we have been dealt our gravest losses, achieved our greatest victories, pushed the boundaries of our indominable will and halted an offense that was meant to bring forth our total extinction. We have made allies of former foes, found friends among the stars and achieved a measure of peace none of us thought possible during the last three decades. We took our first tentative steps into a galactic community that welcomed us with open arms. They showed us, for the past months without fail, that it is possible to live in harmony, and friendship, and trust with other species. And so, we thought the worst was behind us. But we were wrong.

The enemy is out there. An enemy who has watched civilizations rise and fall for millions of years. An enemy that has showed utter dedication to not only commit genocide on us – humanity – but also the allies we found. Mere days ago the enemy laid siege to the homeworld of our sister-nation, the Systems Alliance. Mere days ago the enemy laid siege to the homeworld of our new comrades, the Turian Hierarchy. Mere days ago the enemy attempted to push through our diplomatic zone in the Lambda Serpentis system, where our allies in the Council species helped us stonewall their surprise offensive.

The whole might and fury of the Reapers may very soon be turned on us. They know that they will have to break us or lose the war. If we can stand up to them, the entire galaxy may be spared the fate of utter destruction, or worse, total subjugation made more sinister, more protracted, by the lights of the perversion of life itself. So let us brace ourselves to our duties once more, and teach the Reapers, who started this war in the earnest, that humanity will not bow. That humanity will not relent. The fate of the galaxy depends on us now."

Fleet Admiral Harper leant back in his seat. "Well well. Look at that." the corners of his mouth pulled up in a wry smile. "That changes things."

-(++)-

AN: No Codex entries here; the chapter's bloated enough as it is. Leave a review or pm to tell me what you think and I'll see you guys next time. Be good people!