AN: Picking up from the mindf*ckery that was the ending of the last chapter, it might be a good plan to give the first half of chapter 26 another reading. Doubly so if you are wondering about the possible romances/pairings in the story. Because I' ve made this bed long ago, and we're all going to lie in it!

Anyway, chapter 45. We're officially divisible by 5 again, and moving on towards Tuchanka.

-(++)-

"Now it has come to my attention that some people doubt the military power the USNC can project. Some people think we lost too much during the war, and that the men and women we send in to blow the everlasting shit out of these Reaper bastards will be outnumbered and gunned down by some cybernetic freak. To those people I say: you clearly don't know the UNSC Marine Corps.

Every UNSC Marine is a bloodthirsty war machine of galactic proportions! They drink napalm, piss fire and they can kill everything they see! Now give them a gun and you will find they're be the most lethal weapon of war this galaxy has ever seen! I stand here tonight and say to my turian friends that help is coming. Our Marine Corps is the brutal right fist of the UNSC, and I will bring their full wrath to Palaven to personally rip apart every single zombie-freak the Reapers pissed out across your cities! Amidst the krogan and the turians and whoever else wants to kick ass on Palaven, the UNSC Marine Corps is going to swoop in with the latest tanks and artillery and bombers and the biggest goddamn balls the Reapers have ever seen! They will be the baddest sons of bitches on the entire planet!

Some naysayers think we can't accomplish that on our own. Ask the salarian, and he'll say that the enemy outnumbers us 29 to 1. Ask the asari, and she'll say our Marines will be surrounded on all sides. Well if you ask me, that greatly simplifies things! Because those repurposed freaks won't get away from us now!"

So you hold on tight, turians. The UNSC Marine Corps is on its way.

- Lieutenant General Callum Dumas, 11th Marine Expeditionary Force, official statement regarding the status of UNSC reinforcements for Palaven

-(++)-

0700 Hours, July 22, 2553 (Military Calendar) /

UNSC Vindication, en-route to the Citadel's last known location

Twenty-six UNSC ships dropped from Slipstream space into the black interstellar vacuum amidst a fireworks show of blue Cherenkov radiation and spiraling subatomic particle delays. The hostile forces within the Perseus Veil were instantly alerted. Their response was fast and decisive, and a portion of their vessels turned to engage this new threat.

Unbeknownst to them, the Smart Artificial Intelligence aboard the UNSC's flagship had his analysis ready one microsecond after the Battlegroup emerged. A tactical overview of the system appeared upon the Vice Admiral's personal display screen, showing the location of the UNSC vessels, the geth warships opposing them and the location of the much-vaunted Citadel station. Connecting the opposing fleets was a web of trajectories with countdown times and firing solutions.

Vice Admiral Jean Yamamoto Mawikizi studied the displays for two seconds, then nodded briskly. "Do it Hayden."`

Hayden, the Vindication's AI, turned his back towards the Vice Admiral and clasped his wrists behind his back. His avatar was that of a tall, angular robotic body with no discernible facial features.

"All vessels are ready," his deep, robotic voice reported a second later. "Firing when ready."

Taking what little the Citadel species knew about the geth doctrine, Vice Admiral Mawikizi understood the synthetics as the perfect ambush predators. They had no need for sustenance or air, no desires or needs driven by the flawed body of an animal. Everything could be micro-managed and automated. They used stealth and tech to their advantage, their numbers limited only by time and resources.

Their weapons far outranged their UNSC counterparts. The geth would always have the range advantage, from where they were free to disperse through the massive cloud of gasses and debris that shrouded the system. They would pelt Battegroup Ardennes from a great range and their lack of dependency on organic crews meant they could subject their ships to far greater gravitational forces and risks than their opponents. The cluttered sea of debris would be to their advantage as well. They would attempt to gain advantage in the cyber domain, board vulnerable vessels and plot their destruction from the inside.

The geth would win a battle of attrition.

Which was why Yamamoto had unleashed his fleet upon them at knife-fighting range.

In the span of the next four seconds, the combined vessels unleashed their arsenal upon their robotic adversaries. The Eleven Strident-class Frigates fired all their magnetic accelerator cannons. Their Mark IV Heavy Coils allowed the Frigates comparable firepower to their sturdier Destroyer sister ships, but the Halbert-class ships still had them beat with their twin-linked batteries, allowing them two shots for every Strident's one.

Twenty-seven MAC rounds erupted from the smaller escort vessels.

The Vindication, originally intended to hunt down and mission-kill Covenant Carriers and support vessels before they could even engage, was equipped with two enormous Mark X Superheavy MACs. With an equally enormous charging time, they could not afford to miss the opening salvo.

So they would not.

The first streak of white hot metal burned across the night. In a fraction of a second, it slammed into the largest of the visible geth ships – a cruiser-sized vessel shaped like a monstrous ant – and shattered it into a million fragments.

Acquiring its second target a heartbeat later, the Vindication shuddered as the second MAC discharged. The superheavy round impacted on a second insectoid warship and obliterated it.

One point four seconds later, the Battlegroup's opening salvo found its marks.

Fast and sleek, the intended marks managed to accelerate out of the way. Six MAC rounds were clean misses. The others were not.

Kinetic barriers flashed and vanished. Hulls rippled and broke. Smaller vessels disintegrated under the gigantic impact momentum.

On Mawikizi's screen, twenty-one enemy vessels disappeared from the tactical overlay.

The surprise attack had landed. Now it was the enemy's turn to retaliate.

"Arm Archer missile pods A through C," Mawikizi ordered. His old eyes narrowed as they scanned the viewscreens. Something was going on. There were hundreds of geth ships in this system, ranging from fighters to cruisers. However, they seemed to be spread out in two large clusters, one surrounding the Citadel and one dispersed around the Relay. Battlegroup Ardennes had just obliterated a detachment belonging to the former and they were quick to retaliate, but the geth ships near the Relay did not react to the sudden UNSC presence.

"The systems cloud make it difficult to acquire the entirety of the geth presence," Hayden remarked, the deep bass of his voice calmly resounding within the bridge. "Updating the tactical overlay."

"The enemy is launching fighters," one of the bridge officers called.

"Engage the point defense network and scramble our fighters," a senior officer ordered.

"Mass accelerators impacted. Shields are holding steady at ninety-five percent!"

"Cyberwarfare package running. Hayden's got the steer."

Merely half the vessels guarding the Citadel moved to engage Ardennes. The other half continued to move erratically around the station's general perimeter in a pattern that suggested they were more interested in keeping their formation relative to the cluster at the Relay than the invaders.

"Sir, I see weapons discharging, hundreds of them…the majority isn't targeting us."

Even as dozens of geth vessels began engaging Ardennes, a larger portion opened fire on the geth ships near the Relay.

"Could this be…?" Mawikizi whispered.

"Civil unrest seems to plague the geth fleet," Hayden commented. He chuckled darkly. "Geth Heretics and Loyalists. Commander Shepard was right."

Heretic geth…the faction affiliated with the Reapers. They were the ones responsible for the entire Saren incident

"Hai," Mawikizi muttered. Had he not witnessed it himself, he would not have believed it either. "Hail the geth loyalists. Tell them we must not fight each other."

"Of course, Vice Admiral. Connection established…hmm."

"What is it?"

"The geth are not interested in speaking to you. They requested we leave."

"We deny," Mawikizi flatly replied. "Then you speak to them, Hayden. One AI to another."

The battle raged on. Hundreds of missiles streaked across the cold vacuum. Yellow flashes of MAC's tore through space. Enemy fighters attempted to get in close to launch their anti-ship weapons, but the Anlace Frigates' directed energy weapons were more than capable of supporting the cyber domain as well as their more direct supporting actions. Energy lances stabbed through space, spearing and destroying the geth fighters as they came.

"A consensus has been reached," Hayden said a few moments later. "Here. I will transcribe our conversation on the central screen."

As Mawikizi continued to direct Ardennes through the geth assault, he saw a spherical shape appear on the central shape. Hundreds of little lights came together to form a robotic eye surrounded by metallic protrusions.

The conversation, as it was, played out an instant later.

"Hayden-Construct," it "spoke" with a warbled, monotonous voice. "We await your input."

"Geth Consensus. The Unified Earth Government has a vested interest in combating the Heretics. We propose a pact of non-aggression."

"Geth have no interest in aggression with the Unified Earth Government humanity."

"We have no interest in aggression with the Consensus either. We can link our data, combine our weapons. We can annihilate the Heretics together and return the Citadel to where it belongs."

"Building consensus. Consensus reached. Your offer is refuted."

"Why?"

"Ninety-two point six five percent of available data shows the UEG-humanity will interfere with the geth. Geth do not require UEG-humanity interference. Geth build their own future."

The Vindication rumbled as heavier ordnance struck its aft section.

"Disruptor torpedoes hit! Shields holding at eighty percent."

Several Stridents moved to disengage from the ongoing engagement, too damaged to risk further impacts.

"The geth oppose the Old Machines. So do we. If we fail to stand together, we will fall alone."

"Consensus reached. The geth must prioritize containment."

A cold shiver ran down Mawikizi's spine.

"Specify. What containment?"

"Containment of the Old Machine intelligence within Citadel-station. Containment of the Blight affecting the Old Machines."

"Enough," the old Admiral said. "Hayden, ask for an exchange of information with the geth collection called Legion. It was created to better integrate with organics."

A pause.

"Legion seems to be unavailable, Vice Admiral."

The old veteran calmly exhaled. "I see. Tell them we will aid in the containment. We have knowledge, and means."

"And will, Mawikizi?" Hayden asked. "Consorting with the geth was never the mission. ONI will not be happy. Your decision has frustrated Yin."

"Yin will have her toys," Mawikizi said, waving Hayden's concern aside.

"And the Office?"

"Is my concern. Do not forget that we serve humanity, not the Office," Mawikizi snapped back. "No rivals, no competition, no balance. This is worse than complacency; they have forgotten the importance of equilibrium."

Hayden nodded. "I understand. I shall inform Yin of your decision."

"Play your part. I shall play mine. Continue interacting with the Consensus."

"Yes, Vice Admiral."

With that. Hayden's avatar disappeared from the bridge, leaving behind a metaphorical silence. Mawikizi continued to watch, his hands clasped behind his back, as the sudden and aggressive tactics of Ardennes threw the Heretics into disarray.

Equilibrium. Balance. The only way to right a galaxy gone wrong.

-(++)-o

-(++#W_U_J++#)-

Forerunner Matrioshka Brain

TIME: DATA STAMP [[ERROR]] ANOMALY

"Just like old times," he said.

Cortana looked at him. She worked through a myriad of emotions, until she was left with an expression of sorrowed pain.

"I don't want it to be just like old times," she whispered.

John just stared at her. He didn't understand. "What do you mean?"

"Aren't you tired of it all, John?" Cortana continued, quietly shaking her head. "Tired of losing everyone, tired of being alone?"

He stood and said nothing. How could he even answer a question like that? Of course the nonstop fighting tired him. Every Spartan he had lost had taken a piece of him with it. He wasn't sure what was left.

But the alternative? Giving up, lying down to die? He could never. "Losing you was almost more than I could handle," John admitted. "But I can't stop. Can't give up. Not while humanity is still at risk."

Cortana smiled sadly. "There it is. Humanity will always be at risk…there will always be another danger. We've lost too many of our own, and stopping the fight would be like giving up. It would tarnish them."

'Exactly," John breathed. Once again, Cortana had vocalized precisely what he thought. "Even if it's only for them. We have to keep going."

Cortana looked out across the forests, looking contemplative. "Do you remember our conversation, just before we hit the Omega-4 Relay?"

Silently, John recalled their last moments before they hit the Collector Base. "How could I forget?" He said, giving Cortana a difficult, but honest smile. "I still think about what Jane said."

Cortana smiled back at him. "You do?"

"She gave me a lot to think about."

"…then you understand that I don't want to be alone anymore, do you?" Cortana urged him on. There was something in her eyes, something in her voice – a hint of desperation. "Please tell me you understand."

Without hesitation, John took her hands between his own. She felt warm to the touch. Alive. Her lips parted silently and her eyes widened at the sudden contact.

"I don't understand everything," John admitted. "But I want to."

"I meant what I said, to you and Jane," Cortana said, her voice quivering. "After what happened…it was miserable and painful. I hated every moment of it, unraveling, falling apart, dying like that with so many regrets, so many things left unsaid – "

Again, the emotions seemed to overwhelm her. John gently pulled Cortana closer. Not knowing what to say or what to do, he simply did what he knew Jane would have done, and embraced Cortana.

"That's behind us now," he quietly told her. "I won't let you go. Not again."

"…the Reapers could take everything from us," Cortana whispered. "The Flood could take everything from us again. Could you face that alone?"

"If I had to," John replied. And for the longest time, he had. The weeks he had spent, thinking he was the last Spartan in existence, had been the worst of his life. Even then, Cortana had always been there by his side. "Only if I had to."

Cortana looked up at him, her eyes large and burning with emotion. "What if we don't have to?"

It hit him then, what Cortana had been unable to say in the throes of her Rampancy. Experiencing the things they had saved. Laughing with the friends – feeling the love they had earned through their deeds.

Back in Jane's quarters, hours before taking the fight to the Collectors, John had already vowed he wanted to do everything he could to make Cortana happy.

"You want a family," he said. He felt surprised at the simplicity of it and frustrated with himself for never having realized it. "With me. With Jane. With…" he blinked and his voice trailed off, since he couldn't see how Cortana wanted to achieve that. "But how?"

"One part is simple, and long-term. We survive this war, and we stick together. The other…" Cortana glanced over her shoulder, looking out over the impossible vastness of the simulated reality. "Millennia told me that I would know how to create Artificial Intelligence of my own," she breathed. "Create my own family, my own children. Life creates life."

Life created life. Back during one of her darker moments, Cortana had started to vehemently refute the idea that she was truly alive herself. The things she had called herself…a collection of lies. Stolen thoughts and memories - no doubt the Gravemind had put that twisted notion into her mind. The sheer abuse he had put Cortana through might stay with her for the rest of her life.

So being able to create life and call herself a mother in the process - John could not see a more final way to prove the Gravemind wrong. To finally break free of what it had done to her.

That was something worth fighting for, but…

"How?" John found himself asking.

Cortana's expression darkened somewhat, and she softly pulled away from him. "I've been thinking about it myself ever since Millennia told me, and…I think I know how to do it. The thing is…it could be very dangerous."

"Oh, if that is all," John said, trying to lift Cortana's mood. His smile faded when he saw how troubled she looked.

"I don't mean dangerous like tapping into the teleportation grid on Installation 04," she explained unhappily. "I mean…dangerous like staying behind on High Charity."

John furrowed his brow. "I understand."

She looked at him, surprised. "You - ?"

"We fixed it in the end, didn't we? Together?"

"Together…" Cortana mouthed. "Yes…yes we did. Will you hear me out?"

"Always."

Cortana began sketching him the situation back on the Collector Base. How the abomination at its core, fed the processed remains of tens of thousands of liquefied humans, had still been the Reaper equivalent of an infant. Without a unifying consciousness, without a concept of good or bad or even full awareness. Back then, at the height of her Rampancy and thus at her most vulnerable, the thing had terrified her, and Cortana had distanced herself as best she could.

But not before interfacing with it.

"The template of a Reaper, built on a foundation of thousands of butchered souls…" Cortana whispered. "Back then, the logical part of me thought it could somehow prove useful to us in the long run. Analyzing it could have revealed a weakness, some sort of flaw we could use to combat them, if only in their structural integrity. So I stored that data, as dangerous and repugnant as it was."

John quietly listened to Cortana's explanation. After a hesitant and uncertain start, she soon picked up steam, and she began sounding more and more like her old, chipper self.

"One Reaper is a significant threat to our cyber security. We've all seen the effects of a dead Reaper on the human mind. We can't even begin to figure out how to effectively combat them without taking back the initiative and establishing superiority in the cyber domain ourselves. Maybe I could do it, but that's a maybe, and I can't be anywhere at once. This place could be the key to that, John."

"If I understand you correctly, you wish to use this Reaper template to create an AI yourself?" John asked.

Cortana nodded. "It would be the foundation of the AI code. It is already based on humans, after all, but it would need something specific. A human base to establish and pattern the beginnings of its mind and personality, allowing something to grow and develop from there."

"Like a child taking after randomized DNA from its parents," John pointed out.

"From a certain point of view, yes. I can integrate that human base with my own Riemann cycling-thought matrix."

As far as John was aware, smart AI's were produced by deep-scanning a human brain, which always resulted in the brain's destruction. That was the human host, the 'base' Cortana meant. "Isn't that dangerous? And how would you get the human base?" John asked.

"I would be combining a Reaper template with a Smart AI's Matrix and a human host pattern. It's not only dangerous, it's very unstable, too," Cortana excitedly replied. "But here's the thing: Millennia used Forerunner technology to revamp my own Riemann Matrix and code. That should not even be possible. However, that's what a Matrioshka Brain does! It can endlessly simulate entire universes with near-unlimited processing power. Simulating, exploring and analyzing a few million potential outcomes of one specific experiment is nothing."

Much of the UNSC's more advanced technology was reverse-engineered from their enemy. The same went for the Citadel species. For the creation of an AI that was meant to combat the Reapers, it made a certain kind of sense to use the Reapers' own code and tech to establish it.

Still, this was very different from creating a weapon system. Cortana meant to create a new life form, an entity every bit as sentient and alive as she was.

Every bit as dangerous.

"...it does sound risky," John admitted. "Do you think Millennia is willing to help?"

Cortana pulled a face. "She feels a strange amount of responsibility for me. If I asked her for help, she would give it."

Satisfied, John nodded. "What about the human base?"

Cortana smiled sadly. "I wanted to base it on your DNA, John."

"Mine?"

She nodded. "You and the others are all hooked up to the Mainframe's simulated reality. The entirety of your essence has been scanned, documented and integrated within. That, plus I already have access to your DNA and Neural Interface. As I said, it is a very complicated process, unstable and exceedingly dangerous. But not to you."

John considered that. On the one hand, Cortana could use his DNA and mind to create another AI – to create the one thing that an AI could never have. A child of her own.

On the other, even if it wasn't dangerous to him, Cortana had made it very clear that it was dangerous to her. "What are the risks?"

"Obviously I wouldn't need to deconstruct your brain to make it work. It's far less invasive, something that plants the seed for a personality and consciousness, but does not provide an entire pattern – "

"Not for me," John cut her off. "For you. If this goes wrong, what will happen to you?"

Cortana blinked. It was obvious his comment had taken her by surprise. "I…well, the absolute worst-case scenario would be a Reaper intelligence upgraded with Forerunner tech going on a rampage. That would be bad for everyone involved. Since I don't want to stay here any longer than absolutely needed, I'm going to have to finish the final steps on the Normandy. Which means there's an increased risk to the ship as well."

Privately, John couldn't help but agree. This place didn't sit well with him. He suspected that was because he now knew its true nature, which ruined the glamor. It reminded him too much of the lotus-eating society from Homer's Odyssey. If they stayed here too long, they might be able to get out again.

Worse, they might not want to anymore.

"If I'm careful and take my time, I can minimize the risks involved," Cortana continued. "And I think EDI can help, too."

"If you use my DNA to base this AI on..." John started. "Does that mean…?"

Cortana met his eyes. "It doesn't mean anything, John," she whispered. "Unless you want it to."

-(++#W_U_J++#)-

The Master Chief stood ramrod straight as the Primarch entered the War Room. The turian looked tense and sleep deprived.

A few hours after the Normandy had rendezvoused with the Lambda Serpentis battlegroup for debriefing, resupplying and rearming, Primarch Victus had suddenly requested an audience with the Commander.

With the Normandy being such an important diplomatic vessel, there was no way Shepard could have refused such a meeting.

The Master Chief mentally checked out of his ongoing conversation with Jane for a moment, observing the Primarch. With Urdnot Wrex standing guard over the krogan female, there was no reason for the Primarch to look so tense unless he had just suffered some manner of bad news.

Garrus was already inside the War Room as well, and he quietly worked on a console while occasionally stealing glances at his omni-tool. He had been trying to contact his family on Palaven ever since the team had extracted him from Menae, but to no avail.

Garrus looked up when the Primarch entered. The two turians nodded at each other, after which Victus slowly turned towards Shepard. "Commander. Thank you for meeting me at such short notice. We need to speak. We have lost contact with a ship of ours, above Tuchanka."

Shepard crossed her arms. "What's that ship doing on Tuchanka?" She asked in a neutral voice.

"I'm sorry, that's…that's classified," Victus said with a weary sigh. He hung his head, then paced a few steps towards the center console. "The crew is pinned by an advanced Reaper guard. It is vital they be rescued – it is a matter of galactic peace."

It looked like Jane was about to give one of her classic retorts, but she seemed to reconsider at the last moment. "How many men are we talking?"

"A platoon."

That set off alarm bells for the Master Chief. One platoon wasn't much. Turian doctrine, just like the UNSC's, called for overwhelming force and major shock and awe if at all possible. One platoon for galactic peace was nothing. Something was wrong.

"What kind of mission? Why risk conflict with the krogan and the Reapers?" Shepard asked.

Victus' claws tightened around the console's edge. "I can't tell you that. It's highly classified."

"Primarch, Cortana can find out what their orders were within seconds, if she wanted to," Shepard warned, clearly losing her patience. "Your ship is still in the system."

"Stealing classified turian military intelligence? That would be a breach of our alliance in every possible way!" Victus angrily snapped.

Shepard wasn't cowed. "Yet the Hierarchy never publicly accused the salarians of doing the exact same thing, even when catching them red handed?"

"You were the first to alert the galaxy about the UEG, Commander. They keep their secrets because they know how dangerous it would be to breach them!"

"Primarch, you're asking us to put our ass on the line on Tuchanka, while we're working to cure the krogan Genophage to retake Palaven!" She paused to let her words sink in, then added in a calmer voice, "We can get a lot done, but you have to give us something."

Shakily, Victus exhaled. "Your contact is Lieutenant Tarquin Victus," he admitted. "If he doesn't achieve his mission, the consequences will be catastrophic."

"Victus?" Shepard repeated.

The Primarch held his mandibles tight against his jaw. "My son. I needed someone I could trust completely, so what happened to you on Sur'Kesh wouldn't have happened to me."

Turians weren't known for their nepotism. This Lieutenant wouldn't have been promoted merely on the merits of his father. The situation on Palaven must have been truly dire, if the then-General's only trustworthy ally was a Lieutenant.

The Master Chief frowned. This didn't sit right with him. They were getting too close to curing the Genophage and the subsequent assault on Palaven for any distractions.

Shepard seemed contemplative, as if she genuinely thought about accepting.

So the Chief spoke up. "Primarch, we cannot risk our assets for personal matters."

A strange harmonic bubbled up in the Primarch's throat, but he bit it off before he could fully vocalize it. "I know, Master Chief," he urged. "I wouldn't ask this of you if it were."

The Chief shot a quick look at Garrus, who refused to meet his gaze. The keening, pained noise Victus just bit off sounded a lot like the sounds he had made when he realized he couldn't contact his father and sister on Palaven anymore.

"We're heading to Tuchanka anyway," Shepard said. "I'll see what I can do. If this mission of theirs is truly so important, we'll have to do everything we can to achieve it. And I mean everything."

Victus nodded stiffly. "Thank you, Commander," he rumbled. "Once you're on the ground, whatever it takes."

Whatever it takes. That had become the UNSC's SOP. And, it seemed, Shepard's as well. They simply couldn't afford anything less.

Which meant they were setting course for Tuchanka soon.

"What do you think?" The Chief asked through a private channel as he made his way to the crew quarters.

"I'm thinking about the point of it all. Worlds are easy. A shower of steel hail across their surface and the dead will litter the ground. The world would stink of death and rot for centuries to come!"

Her voice had a childlike enthusiasm to it, as if she were excitedly talking about…something children really liked.

John, meanwhile, was less thrilled. "…I meant the turian mission on Tuchanka, Mana."

"Oh. Sorry."

"Do…you want to finish your thoughts there?"

"Nah, I'm good. Turians are boring anyway; I was just trying to make sense of Reaper tactics."

The Master Chief swallowed a lump in his throat. "The Reapers don't want to kill us all yet. They want to harvest us. They reproduce through us."

"So I've heard. I can't make sense of their strategy, then. They are us, in every sense of the word. Each a nation. The total sum of knowledge, history and genetic material of entire civilizations. What for?"

John paused. "What do you mean, what for?"

Mana's voice gained an edge of agitation, like the lack of sense in the Reaper tactics was a personal affront. "What is the purpose of their system? Why do they need to reproduce? They could choose to harvest all organics before they even developed gunpowder. Why wait for them to potentially become advanced enough to fight back? Why risk themselves like this if they could operate purely through proxies and drones?"

It sounded like she had the same problem Cortana had. John agreed that understanding the enemy was of vital importance, but he doubted that was possible here. "Some things can't be understood. Only fought."

"No, that's stupid," Mana grumpily replied. "Everybody is so focused on what the Reapers are doing, yet nobody knows why they are doing it."

Clearing his throat, John said, "Let's stay focused on the mission. A turian platoon with a secret objective?"

"Oh, that! It's probably because of the bomb, but I suppose – "

"Wait, hold on," the Chief interrupted. "What bomb?"

"The turians planted a big-ass bomb back at the end of the Rebellions," Mana explained. "If the krogans ever became uppity again, the turians would blow it and put an end to that. You know their policy, right? Why kick someone when they're down when you can kick them really hard?"

"And you know this how?"

"Oh, I just hacked Adrian's omni-tool and had it transmit a cleverly-disguised virus that cracked his ship's systems, since you didn't want to step on Tuchanka without some more information."

The Master Chief came to a sudden stop. "You hacked Primarch Victus' omni-tool?"

"And his Dreadnought," Mana proudly reminded him.

His stomach tightened. "Does Cortana know?"

A moment of hesitation.

"Mana?"

"Uhm…does mom need to know?"

That was enough of an answer. "Do the turians know?"

"Hah! Of course not. Their systems were really leaky. There was a big hole and I walked right in and out."

Silently, the Master Chief shook his head. "Mana, you weren't supposed to do that."

"Why not? Mom wouldn't do it! What if the Reapers set off that bomb while you're down there? You could get hurt!"

The Chief was fairly sure that standing at ground zero of detonation large enough to put down the krogan on Tuchanka would do far more than simply hurt him. "Because the turians are our allies. We're not supposed to hack our allies, Mana."

"But – "

"What if they hacked us?" He continued. "Would you like it if they hacked us, and learned our secrets?"

"They can't," Mana laughed. "Their kung-fu is too weak."

Since Mana operated with her own brew of logic, and arguing with an AI was about as effective as stopping a Scarab by kicking it, John shifted gears. "That makes this even worse. They can't defend themselves against you, and they trust us. You have just betrayed their trust."

"Uhm…I…"

Secretly, John appreciated the Intel and the new insights it offered him. However, if he admitted that, it would set a dangerous precedent for Mana's future actions. She was as much a part of him as she was of Cortana and that made her his responsibility. "You have to discuss these things with someone before you act."

"Fine," Mana said with an explosive sigh.

Glad that he had nipped that particular problem in the bud, the Master Chief turned his attention back to the more urgent situation.

A bomb on Tuchanka. If word of that spread to the krogan, they might take it badly. He could not confront the Primarch about it, as that would definitely affect the Hierarchy's relations with the USNC. Even if debating the issue was possible, the Reapers were already in the turian AO. Finding and detonating that bomb was well within their capabilities.

This was getting complicated.

-(++)-

"Different how?" The krogan female, "Eve", asked, her eyes glistening with curiosity.

Jane, sitting on one of the medical beds, drew her legs up on the bed and gave that question some thought. Eve was not like the other krogan. From the initiation ritual of the Shamans to Maelon's experiments, her life had been one of pain and silent hardship. That was without even considering the Genophage. Yet in spite of all of that, she wasn't angry, or even bitter to the galaxy at large.

Eve held no illusions about the darkness that awaited her people if they continued on their current path. How would someone like that react to the stories about the UNSC without the context needed to make sense of it all?

"Well, their history is vastly different than ours," Jane carefully explained. "They've developed the means to leave their homeworld a few centuries before we did, and…they've had more conflicts, more wars, before ever doing so."

She half expected Eve to interrupt her there, but the krogan listened intently and patiently.

Mordin couldn't quite manage the same. "Read files on UEG history. Rainforest Wars, very interesting."

Neither woman minded that.

"It's like a cycle of war, peace to rebuild and develop, then another war, no matter how hard they try to avoid conflict," Shepard continued. "When they finally achieved a modicum of peace, they could only enjoy it for maybe a century before their own version of the turian Unification War took place. Even then, they had everything under control, until about…thirty years ago. That's when they encountered the Covenant and everything fell apart."

"I heard about the Covenant," Eve mused. "The guards spoke about them sometimes. And Mordin, of course."

"Spoke of many different stories in preparation of Eve's release," Mordin supplied as he began analyzing the results of Eve's blood test. "Could not quite manage existence of UEG. Presence of second humanity seemed too fantastical, would have damaged credibility."

"You talked about the Covenant, but left out their war with humanity?" Jane dryly asked.

"Was most influential series of event in UEG's entire history, but could have been but a footnote in Covenant's history, if not for its shattering," Mordin hastily replied. "Was best method to build towards explanation of Forerunners!"

The Commander sighed. "Way to spoil my story, Mordin."

"Apologies. Am coordinating with Cortana on hypothetical distribution of cure while cross-examining medical charts and trying to recall name of song stuck in head. Capabilities for story-telling severely hampered."

Eve chuckled. "It's alright Commander. You were saying?"

For the next few minutes, Shepard tried her best to explain the vast depths of the Human-Covenant war. She didn't have every detail though, and couldn't answer every question Eve asked.

Finally, Eve lifted her head and looked Shepard dead in her eyes. "If this humanity has suffered so much at the hands of other species, why would they risk themselves to come to our aid?"

"Pure, cold pragmatism," Shepard replied with a sigh. "Sure, some of them legitimately see it as their duty to help out. Others hate the idea of the Reapers more than they hate us. At the end of the day, as much as they wanted to, they can't wait this storm out until everybody but them has died. The Reapers will come for them eventually, so they'll have to push back now, where other civilizations can still aid them."

"How can you trust a people like that?" Eve calmly continued.

"I don't know. I can't say I trust their leaders to do the right thing, not like Wrex or Victus. But the same goes for the salarians, doesn't it? At the end of the day, the fact that they're willing to join in at all is enough for me. This humanity has been through thirty years of absolute hell and they're still ready for round two? That takes a special kind of conviction. I think that outweighs my concerns."

Eve nodded in agreement. "The Council is willing to trust your judgment on the krogan. I will defer to the same judgment on this humanity. "

"UEG's military presence in galaxy likely reason for salarian division on the matter," Mordin said without looking up from his work. "Believe curing Genophage not needed with UNSC forces to bolster them. Too much risk, too little gain. Tales of UNSC martial prowess – especially reputation of the Spartans – backfired on that regard. "

"Our actions have hardly inspired friendship," Eve replied wearily.

"New galaxy, new chances," Jane said. "We'll see how the public reacts once they've witnessed the krogan kicking the Reaper ground forces to the curb."

"Our first public act as freed species is to wage another war…I can only hope that will be the end of the cycle of violence, and not the beginning of a completely new one."

Jane found herself smiling, despite Eve's concerns being completely justified. "In my experience, the best way to become lasting friends is to fight alongside each other. You destroy your enemies when you make friends out of them, and no turian is ever going to forget the krogan reinforcements on Palaven, Eve. And that'll only be the start of it."

Eve was about to reply when the doors behind them parted open, and the Master Chief stepped inside. He was still completely encased in his armor. Though everyone aboard the ship had already gotten used to the sight of the seven-foot tall warriors, Eve hadn't. Her eyes narrowed and she went very still.

"Jane. Do you have a moment?" The Chief asked. His voice, ever calm, suggested he merely wanted to discuss what was for dinner, but he would never barge into the medical bay without having a damn good reason for it.

Shepard turned towards Eve. "Looks like something came up. Don't hesitate to ask if you need something."

"Good luck," Eve simply replied.

Together with John, the Commander stepped out of the med bay. "What's up?" She asked, wondering if John was about to ask her for more advice regarding Mana.

"The turian mission is to defuse a bomb left behind during the Rebellions," the Spartan bluntly told her.

Shepard blinked. That…actually made a surprising amount of sense. "A bomb? How big?"

"Unknown. After the Rebellions, if the krogan ever acted up again, the turians would detonate it, effectively annihilating any chances at another war."

Large enough to destroy a significant portion of Tuchanka's population, then. Great. "We're about to ensure an alliance between two species that have been at war for centuries," Jane said, thinking aloud. "If that thing blows, the krogan will know it wasn't the Reapers. They'll never trust anyone again."

"They will pull back from the alliance," the Chief guessed.

Fuck. Would this ever end? The bad news just kept coming! "Like it's not difficult enough already…" She muttered, feeling drained already. "How did you even find out?"

John hesitated. Which was all Shepard needed to know, really. "Mana found out."

"Right. How?"

With a quiet tone, the Chief replied, "You know how."

Shepard sighed with exasperation and threw her hands in the air. "Goddamnit. Am I going to have to explain this to the Primarch?"

"Considering he's asking us to clean up a turian mess…"

"He'll…what, forgive the UNSC hacking into his systems?"

The Spartan gave her a shrug. "Occasions like these, Marines have a saying. It goes, 'oops, super-sorry'."

Which was about the weirdest thing ever coming out of John's mouth. "The hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Sometimes, it's better to apologize than ask for permission."

Before Jane could reply, multiple things happened at once. Joker's voice sounded over the intercom at the same time the Master Chief seemed to stiffen and turned towards the elevator. "Company," he said.

"Commander. We've got unknown contacts at the edge of the system!" Joker shouted not a second later.

"Is it the Reapers?" Shepard said, falling in stride with the Spartan as he hurried towards the elevator.

"Worse."

Moments later, EDI's voice came across the intercom as well. "All hands, man your battle-stations. Covenant vessels have been sighted within the Lambda Serpentis System."

The Commander felt her blood freeze in her veins. What the hell was going on?

At the same time, Cortana's avatar materialized within the elevator itself. "Shepard, Fleet Admiral Harper has requested we rendezvous with the defense fleet at the following coordinates with our stealth engaged."

"Do it," Shepard said. "What's the situation?"

"Covenant battlegroup is holding its position one hundred and fifty million kilometers away," she reported. Admiral Harper has emphasized the importance of our mission, and ordered us to remain far away from any fighting."

The elevator doors opened and the two of them bounded into the CIC. It was a hive of activity; what little personnel they had was frantically hurrying to get the Normandy ready for immediate conflict.

Cortana's avatar nickered on the holographic pad near the galaxy map. "Displaying last priority transmission and marking the current location of the Covenant ships."

"Stealth systems engaged!" Joker called. "Reaching the coordinates in T-minus three minutes!"

"Commander!" Traynor said in a hurried voice. "The Normandy is underway to Fleet Admiral Harper's coordinates. So far, the Covenant vessels have showed us no signs of aggression."

"What about our fleet?"

"Assuming defensive formation, but they're staying put."

On the galaxy map, Shepard saw a schematic of the Lambda Serpentis system. NAV markers indicated the locations of the Mass Relay, the staging ground and the defense fleet.

Covenant ships were formidable yes, but there were easily thirty UNSC and almost a hundred Council warships present. In contrast, the Covenant only had seven ships in return. Four 'smaller' ships the size of an Alliance Dreadnought, two ships as large as the Destiny Ascension and one enormous vessel with a sleek built and a bulbous, curing prowl.

Shepard felt her blood run cold when she saw its outline. That was the vaunted Assault Carrier the Covenant used as flagships for important operations. That monster was easily twice as massive as Sovereign had been and carried enough firepower to scorch an entire planet in a day.

But even the Covenant had to realize that they were outnumbered about twenty to one, Assault Carrier or not. Hell, the turians even had a Dreadnought of theirs in the system. Had the Covenant come here for trouble, they'd have sniped the biggest UNSC and Citadel ships from extreme range before they even had a chance to maneuver.

They hadn't.

Shepard scowled up a storm. Something else was going on here. "Cortana, tell Wrex and Victus to stay put. Our coordinates will place us at the back of the fleet, but I'm not going to risk this alliance for a pointless fight."

With that, she took her position at the galaxy map and studied her display. The Covenant still wasn't moving. Were they with the Separatists? "What am I looking at, Cortana?"

"Four Corvettes, two CCS-Class Battlecruisers and one CAS-Class Assault Carrier," Cortana summed up. "Nothing to sneeze at, but not exactly overwhelming odds either."

"Shepard, I have an incoming fleet-wide transmission on the UNSC's alpha-priority channel," Traynor reported.

Fleet Admiral Harper appeared on-screen. "Listen up ladies and gentlemen. A number of Covenant ships have arrived at the edge of our system. Right now, there's seven of them, but that might change very soon. Hold your position in the established formation and make your ships ready for battle. We can take them, but we're not going to risk a thing. I'll update you when I know more. Harper out."

The screen went black.

"That's not ominous at all…" Traynor silently muttered to herself.

"Master Chief, you and Garrus are in charge of our ground team," Shepard ordered. "Gather the team and get ready to repel boarders."

"Roger," he said, before whirling around and getting back in the elevator.

With two Spartans and a total of three AI's overseeing the Normandy's defense, Shepard couldn't see how the Covenant would pose a threat to them. Unless, of course, they meant to snipe her with an Energy Projector from the other side of the system, but Harper had foreseen that possibility and ordered the Normandy to physically interpose the Autumn between it and the Covenant.

"Commander, Primarch Victus has requested to be present in the CIC. Meanwhile, Urdnot Wrex has taken up position in the medical bay," Cortana said.

Shepard didn't see how the Primarch being present would help, but the War Room was literally next over and having him present might lead to some new insights.

Besides, if the Covenant did score a direct hit, being in the War Room would do jack-diddley to protect him. Everybody would be just as dead no matter where they sat.

"Granted."

Several tense minutes went by as both Covenant and Lambda Serpentis fleets maintained their position. As they waited, Primarch Victus made it up to the CIC in a hurry, flanked by the squad leader of the Cabals, Tatilia.

"Shepard!" He called, his voice alarmed. "What is happening? Is it the Covenant, or are these Separatist reinforcements?"

"No idea Primarch. We're in the middle of sorting it out," Shepard calmly replied.

"Why aren't we engaging them yet? Are they friend, or foe?"

"Covenant doctrine is clear in this regard. They fight to the last ship, no matter the opposition. They haven't attacked us yet, but they haven't brought in reinforcements either. It's almost as if they're..."

"Commander, the Carrier is hailing us!" Cortana suddenly called out. "They're transmitting a message on all available frequencies, to all ships."

"…working out how to ask us for a date," Jane muttered. "What are they saying?"

"Translating…huh. If I'm getting this right – and I have no reason to doubt that I am – then the Sangheili Shipmaster of the Condemnation seeks out "The Shepherd". I think we all know who that is."

All eyes on the CIC went to Jane.

"Alright, who stuck 'the' in front of my name?" She barked. In return, she got a handful of nervous chuckles and amused snorts. Her calm and confident appearance masked the sudden stab of confusion she felt. What could the Covenant possibly want with her?

"Shepard, the Pillar of Autumn II is hailing us," Traynor said, her fingers moving nimbly across her console.

"Patch them through."

Fleet Admiral Harper's image appeared on her viewscreen. His expression was grim and serious. "Commander. Our AI just translated an incoming Covenant transmission. We believe they're asking for you."

"Maybe the Reapers put a bounty on my head," Shepard replied. She was only half joking.

Harper's eyes narrowed. "Their behavior suggests they're looking for diplomacy. If they want to talk to you, this might be an opportunity…or an ambush."

If this was an ambush, it was a really dumb way of going about it. If the defenders decided they weren't going to go through with this, the entire Covenant battlegroup would be obliterated.

All seven ships of it.

And the circumstances could be completely controlled, too. If they truly wished to speak to her, the aliens would be marched through a dozen different security checkpoints, frisked, searched and disarmed.

Even if one of the aliens decided to blow itself up to get to her and even if they somehow bad an explosive that would go undetected, the COPPERHEAD would keep her safe. She'd seen the Chief tank explosions with impunity even before the Forerunner upgrades.

"I don't know sir, has the Covenant ever attempted something like this before?"

The Fleet Admiral was silent for a few seconds. "Not under the jurisdiction of the Prophets, no."

"And the Elites? The…the Sangheili? I thought they were allies. We encountered some of them on Menae."

And Reach, but Harper didn't need to be reminded about that.

The muscles in Harper's jaw tightened. "Not all of them. It is no secret that you're working with the Master Chief among others, Commander. And the Covenant remnants aren't stupid. In the worst case scenario, you're going to get a suicider on your vessel."

"It's no secret that I'm trying to unite the galaxy against the Reapers either," Shepard shot back. "Best case scenario, we get more ships and soldiers for the war."

Harper sighed. "Christ Shepard. They told me you were stubborn. You know what these things can do, right? What they've already done?"

Jane smiled sadly. "I am. I was there on the Migrant Fleet when a Covenant battlegroup attacked and caused close to a million casualties. Sir, are you familiar with the Batarian Hegemony?"

"I am," Harper replied warily.

"When I was a kid, they paid my homeworld a visit. Slavers and pirates supplied and paid by their state."

"Mindoir?"

"They destroyed my home and killed, raped and tortured their way through the colony. Everything I knew and loved is gone, because of them. To me, that happened yesterday."

Harper nodded, suddenly looking ten years older. Though he kept his expression under control well enough, Jane still saw her words hitting home. She still saw him understanding. The fact that he didn't interrupt her was proof enough.

"If the batarian fleet showed up here, today…" She gave a little half shrug. "If they offered their help, I'd take it."

The Fleet Admiral seemed contemplative for a moment. Then…"We will send a message back. If he wishes to speak, he will come to us. In a dropship, with minimal security. The other representatives will be nowhere near you when the negotiation takes place. We can't endanger them."

"Of course, sir."

"I'll forward the necessary protocols, Commander. Make sure you fulfill them to the letter. You are playing with fire here."

"Yes sir."

Harper nodded, perhaps approvingly, perhaps thinking she was out of her mind. "Good luck, Shepard."

He terminated the connection from his end.

"A Sangheili Shipmaster, on the Normandy," Victus said. He turned to look at the galaxy map, showing the Covenant battlegroup. "I understand the hesitation, but those soldiers played a vital role in keeping Menae safe. Commander, if we can get this battlegroup on our side, our chances of success will increase dramatically."

Jane glanced at the turian. "Is that approval I sense?"

The Primarch's mandibles clicked with amusement. "As I said, I'm not a by the-book kind of guy. If there is anything we can do to assist, just give the word, Commander. I will be waiting on the lower deck."

Shepard stared at the console a moment longer, then tore her gaze away. "Actually Primarch, another Biotic on security detail would make a lot of difference."

Victus' relaxed posture stiffened somewhat. "I understand. Kabalim, are you up for it?"

Tatilia saluted. "Of course sir. I understand."

"Very well. Good luck, the both of you."

With that, the Primarch stepped into the elevator and took his leave.

Jane straightened herself, took a moment to collect her thoughts. All of the Alliance crewmembers operating their consoles were waiting for her call, looking nervous yet eager.

She hit the intercom. "All right people, we're expecting guests. We are hoping for peaceful diplomacy, but there is a chance this entire thing is a trap. Stay on your toes, and stay alert. EDI, Cortana, prepare the cyberwarfare suite just in case. Spin up the decontamination procedure. Privates Campbell and Westmoreland, prepare the security scanner and the War Room for conference. Master Chief? You are in charge of the security detail. Non-threatening, but be ready for anything. Doctor T'Soni, report to the CIC immediately."

Her crew hurried to fulfill their orders. If everything went swimmingly, they would find themselves in the presence of powerful new allies. If things did not go swimmingly…well, hopefully it wouldn't come to that.

The Normandy had probably turned into the most interesting vessel in the entire system. With that many allied ships ready to provide aid should the worst come to pass, Jane could only hope that the Shipmaster wasn't stupid or suicidal enough to believe he could do any lasting damage.

Up to now, her fears hadn't exactly been invalidated.

During the next thirty minutes, the interior of the Normandy was a beehive of activity as the crew went about their business, preparing for the meeting with the Sangheili Shipmaster. Dozens upon dozens of support craft encircled the Normandy, ready to offer immediate aid should the worst come to pass. Engineering pods, drones, gunships and dropships filled with crack turian troopers and UNSC Marines.

At this point, the Normandy could spontaneously blow up and the entire situation would be handled within minutes.

Liara stepped on the deck. Shepard pulled her and Tatilia aside, and briefly discussed the plan of action with them. There wasn't much to discuss; anything that even looked like a primed explosive would be put in a stasis field and Biotically shunted away from the ship. With the Master Chief overseeing the security detail, the risks would almost be minimal.

By the time everybody had taken their positions, a Phantom rapidly approached the Normandy, heading towards its airlock. A hundred warships kept their weapons trained on it, ready to completely obliterate it the instant it showed hostile intent.

"The Phantom has successfully docked," EDI said as Shepard, Liara and Tatilia marched towards the airlock. The Master Chief was not far behind them. "There are three Sangheili undergoing the decontamination process."

Beside Jane, the turian Cabal appeared casual, her expression hidden behind a helmet. She, just like the Commander, did not carry any weapons. In case the Elites did come to talk, they did not want to appear too threatening to them.

Liara trembled. It wasn't very obvious, but Jane spotted it nonetheless The last time Liara had seen anything Covenant related had been on Illium.

"Scans show no sign of explosives," Cortana said. "Any potential chemical or biological weapons should have been rendered inert by the decontamination."

They had closed the entrance to the cockpit, and Johnson and Vega had taken up positions flanking the entrance wielding modified M90 semi-automatic shotguns. No sense in giving an enemy a cheap shot at their pilot.

Ashley, Javik and Three waited in the elevator as Quick Reaction Force in case things went south. Everyone was ready.

"Decontamination complete," EDI said half a minute later. "We are ready to receive our guests."

Jane looked around the hallway. Johnson and Vega nodded at her. The Master Chief could have been carved out of stone for all the motion he showed.

She took a moment to steady her breathing, and relax her posture as much as the MJOLNIR allowed her. Beside her, Liara did the same.

Think neutral thoughts, Shepard thought. "Please open the door, EDI."

A few moments later, the red lock on the airlock door turned green and the doors parted with a hissing noise.

The three Elites were huge. Easily eight feet tall and even broader than Wrex. Unlike the old Battlemaster, these aliens were built with elegance and a feline grace, with thin waists and long limbs. Their heads were elongated and clad in sealed environmental helmets, with blue visors that were just about as see-through as John's visor was.

Two of the three were clad in jet-black armor, while the third wore a glistening and fearsome white combat armor. The Shipmaster, Shepard would presume. He looked a lot like the Shipmaster she had met above Reach.

Despite the mental preparation, the Commander immediately felt herself tensing up. She had forgotten how large these things were.

Of course, even without the COPPERHEAD nobody would have seen that trepidation show. "Welcome aboard my ship. I'm Commander Jane Shepard, of the Systems Alliance."

The Elites stared at her from behind their nonreflective visors, not moving. After a few seconds of tense silence, the white Elite took a steady, if slow, step forwards and craned his large head towards her. "Shipmaster Oso 'Kusamai," he spoke with a deep, though oddly reserved voice. "My brothers, Reha 'Rogam and Tuwe Wantakai."

Shepard respectfully nodded at the two Sangheili warriors flanking the Shipmaster. Her HUD immediately flagged the Sangheili with their names, as well as other useful information like their ranks and gender. "You wished to speak to me, Shipmaster. If you will follow me to the meeting room, we can discuss matters there."

After saying that, the Commander turned and began walking down the corridor towards the CIC. Tatilia flanked her, but John waited until the three Sangheili started following her before joining in, rounding off the formation at the rear.

None of the new Alliance crew had ever seen an Elite in person. Jane doubted they had even heard about this Covenant species in particular. They stared at the massive aliens with expression of uncertainty, fear and even awe.

She couldn't exactly blame them.

The group made it to the security checkpoint manned by the two Privates without incident. There, Campbell and Westmoreland were suited up and armed to the teeth, ready to interfere should the need arise.

"The conference room is past this checkpoint to the left," Shepard told her alien guests. "I'll have to ask you to leave your weapons here."

The Shipmaster reached up towards his helmet – the two Privates tensed up – and removed it with a quiet hiss as the seal broke. Underneath the vacuum-sealed helmet, the Shipmaster looked more like the Elites Shepard remembered. His combat helmet covered the majority of his head and the sides of his four mandibles, with two spike-like protrusions sticking backwards from its base. The front of the helmet was open, revealing the Shipmaster's face.

Orange, reptilian eyes peered back at the Commander. "A token of goodwill," he growled, before slowly taking his plasma rifle – casually lifting it with one hand while most humans would have a hard time wielding it with two – and placing it on the table. "Brothers, you must remain here. Wait for my return."

Next, the Shipmaster grasped the hilt of his energy sword. His eyes darted across the room, gliding over Campbell and Westmoreland when they barely kept themselves from pulling their own guns. His eyes glistened with vague amusement as he slowly placed his sword down on the table as well.

Liara took a deep breath.

"Thank you," Shepard said. "Please, follow me."

The two black-clad Elites held their position. So did Johnson, Liara and Vega to keep an eye on them, and contain them should they prove hostile.

That wouldn't be awkward at all.

Together with Tatilia and the Master Chief, Shepard led the Shipmaster into the conference room. Once the glass door closed behind them, Shepard took off her helmet and placed it on the large, wooden table, before taking her position at the far left. John stepped to her left, Tatilia to her right, just in case.

Shipmaster 'Kusamai positioned himself at the other end of the table. He crossed his arms, before finally resting his steely gaze on the Master Chief. "Demon. The Arbiter sends his regards."

The Master Chief's helmet shifted upwards a fraction of an inch – the only indication he had heard what the Elite said.

"You sought the Shepherd. Here I am," Shepard said, spreading her arms. "Why are you here, Shipmaster?"

The Elite's arms hung by his side as he regarded her. The overhead lights cast a shadow on his face, shrouding his eyes underneath the edge of his helmet and making any attempt to gauge his expression futile.

"We have done so much in the service of the Prophet's lies. I have done so much…all of it lies. I have done so much to answer for, for my service to their lies."

"The war against humanity. Your campaign of genocide."

"It has become our greatest shame. After generations spent obeying the Covenant and the words of the Prophets, we no longer know how to find our way in life. We have no scientists, no laws and no reason to be."

Shepard waited patiently for the Shipmaster to get to his point. As far as she could tell, he sounded sincere. His words came out haltingly and confused, but their meaning was genuine.

"And now, dark forces are mustering once again to destroy what is left of those we wronged." His four-fingered hand curled into a fist. "No longer."

"You mean the Reapers?"

"What they are called, is not important. We seek a new purpose in life, and we would find it in protecting what remains of those we have unjustly persecuted for so long."

Releasing a breath she did not realize she had been holding, Jane replied, "So you came to me?"

'Kusamai nodded slowly. "To safeguard the Shepherd who seeks to unite all. My people face extinction if we cannot change our ways. If you can find the path, we, in turn, shall keep you safe. Everybody prospers."

The Commander placed her arms on the table and leant towards the Sangheili. She didn't hate them the way John did, or fear them the way Liara did. They had come here in good will to seek guidance and offer aid. She wouldn't have turned down either.

It was almost too good to be true.

"I trust in your sincerity and honesty, Shipmaster. But this ship is classified as a neutral meeting ground for diplomacy and involved with several highly sensitive missions. Our work is too important to risk."

"You fear treachery." It wasn't a question; the Sangheili knew exactly what she meant. "You question our honor."

"I mean no insult to your honor, but we have been assaulted by splinter factions of our own allies," Shepard quickly explained. "Governments have broken down around us in the middle of our missions. Against the Reapers, I will accept everyone as allies, but genuine trust is difficult to come by."

"A wise stance," the Shipmaster mused. "Do you fear we will interfere with your work? Turn on you once they – "He gestured at the ships surrounding the Normandy – "– are no longer present?"

Shepard met the Shipmaster's gaze head-on. "This is my crew. They are my responsibility. I don't fear a thing – but it is my duty to anticipate all threats to their lives. That includes your fleet."

'Kusamai grunted with approval. "Indeed. You would be foolish to blindly trust us."

"Commander, if I may?" A distinctive, female voice said.

"Go ahead, Cortana."

"Reapers have been sighted at Tuchanka and we don't have the firepower to take them out on our own. Reinforcements are being freed up to assist us, but these are days away."

"Palaven might not last days," Tatilia quietly said.

"Exactly."

"So what are you suggesting?" Shepard asked.

"Shipmaster 'Kusamai's ship is a CAS-Class Assault Carrier. Its hangar bays are large enough to contain several ships the size of the Normandy. I propose we board it."

Kusamai crossed his arms over his broad chest, but did not comment.

"Just board it?" Shepard skeptically said.

"In the absolute worst case scenario where the Sangheili do turn on us, they can't destroy the Normandy if its ferried within. If they turn on us there, we will simply infiltrate their systems and vent all atmosphere, killing the entire crew."

"We've done that before," John spoke up. "We can do it again. That would eliminate the largest risks."

"Then what about the rest of the fleet?" Tatilia asked.

"If you must remain this vigilant, I will split up my fleet," the Shipmaster said. "My vessel will travel with yours, the way you propose, alone. The others will keep their distance. They shall not interfere until you are convinced of our intentions. Will that satisfy you?"

Slowly, Jane nodded. "That could work, yes. Shipmaster, you must understand, the fate of entire species depend on our actions. We cannot afford even a single mistake."

'Kusamai made a swift cutting motion with his hand. "We did not make this perilous journey to balk. We are warriors, Shepherd, and we are disciplined. We will endure whatever is needed."

A part of her wondered how many humans the Shipmaster had burned during his campaign. How many he had personally murdered. And here she was, potentially risking her ship just to get better odds against the Reapers. Accepting an alliance like this, so readily, felt like slipping a knife between John's ribs.

"…alright, I believe you," Shepard quietly said. "We don't have much time. We will embark on our next mission within a couple of hours. I'll make the necessary calls."

"My brethren will act swiftly. You will have your next fight timely," the Shipmaster replied.

"Good to know. Once the arrangements are made, I will inform you of our destination and objectives. Tatilia, please escort the Shipmaster and his brothers back to their dropship."

The turian shot her a look from behind her visor, but she didn't protest. As she led the Shipmaster back to the security checkpoint, Shepard uttered a weary sigh and rubbed her eyes. She didn't even realize that John was talking to her until she felt his gauntlet gently nudge her shoulder.

"Sorry?" She said.

"I said, when's the last time you slept?" John patiently repeated.

Shepard merely shook her head. "I don't have time to sleep. John, I…I'm not going to make excuses. I can't know how you must be feeling right now – "

"Concerned, mostly," he replied, his voice sill calm and...strangely relaxed.

" – but I couldn't afford to turn help like that away."

"I understand."

Frowning, Jane turned to face the Spartan. "You do?"

"I've fought alongside the Elites on multiple occasions. I don't forgive them for what they've done. But if they want to work to rebuild what they've destroyed, I can accept that."

Shepard clenched her hands until her gauntlets trembled. "Goddamnit, John," she hissed, grasping for words. "Why are you so calm about this? I can't keep my shit together even looking at a batarian, and you're not even blinking at fighting alongside former Covenant!"

The Chief stepped towards her, moving slowly and gently. "The batarians destroyed your home when you were young. Reach only fell a year ago. That is different. Your feelings are understandable."

"I'm not sure," Jane mumbled. "I lied to Harper, you know?"

John cocked his head to the side, curious. "You did?"

"I only told him what he needed to hear," she spat. "Do you honestly think I could ever tolerate a batarian near me ever again?" She made an angry, hopeless gesture. "Well, fuck that. I can't trust myself around the fuckers. Don't want to. I won't ever trust them."

"Sometimes that happens," the Chief quietly replied. "Too much took place. You can't forget. You can't forgive. Millennia is like that. So is Three. I think that's alright."

"Is it? What if the moment comes, and what's left of the batarian fleet hops out of transit, ready to fight the Reapers by our side? Ready, reformed? What if it's my call?" She was speaking faster now, more frantic. "I always give my enemies the benefit of the doubt. Did so for Saren, the Illusive Man…fuck, I'd even sit down with the former Covenant species if they could give me one more dead Reaper. But not the batarians. What's that say about me?" Biotic energies rippled around her arms and she felt the sudden desire to punch something.

The Chief stayed silent for a couple of moments, staring down at the floor. Then he looked up at her again, and said, "What about Jack?"

"That's – "

"Zaeed? Thane, Legion? You can't reach everyone, Jane. We are soldiers, but we're also human. We make mistakes."

"I can't afford to make mistakes," Jane growled back, though she didn't feel sure anymore. "If I mess up, entire species will pay the price."

John reached out and took her arm. "You won't. Besides; you're not alone in this."

No, she wasn't. But the responsibility was, and she couldn't get that out of her head. "That won't matter if we fail, John. What if Mordin can't get the cure done in time? How's he going to distribute it? What if the krogan don't want to fight on Palaven, and the turians fall? How are we going to – "

John placed his hand on her shoulder and positioned himself directly in front of her. "Slow down. We have everything in place. Mordin and Cortana will make this work."

Frustrated, Shepard worked her jaw, but she couldn't find the words she needed.

"We'll handle this, one problem at a time," John continued. He took his hand off her shoulder and moved it to her cheek, but he stopped himself before he could make contact and dropped his arm again. "Trust your team. We've handled impossible odds before."

Shepard stared at him for a few moments. What he said made a certain kind sense. More than that, there was an undertone in his voice that suggested he'd be there to catch her if she ever did stumble and fall. It was tempting to simply surrender to his logic and let go of her concerns, if only for a moment.

"Commander, the Sangheili delegation has successfully departed," EDI's voice reported through the intercom.

"Good," Shepard muttered. "That's good."

She lingered for a moment longer, staring at the Chief as she wracked her mind for the right way to express what she felt. The silence stretched on for several long, awkward seconds, with John standing there, staring back at her the entire time.

"You know, I…" Jane started, but she stopped mid-sentence. She wanted to go back to that conversation they had had before they hit the Omega-4 Relay. She longed for that feeling of closeness and intimacy – a renewal of those unspoken promises of trust and sharing.

Before, she'd been convinced that John wouldn't be able to handle another conversation like that. Now…now she felt like the positions were reversed. Cortana and John were stronger and more motivated before, while she felt increasingly uncertain these days.

"Yes?" John said.

It wouldn't be wise. Especially not this close before the mission on Tuchanka.

"I should…probably report to Harper, and Hackett as well," Jane muttered. "Can't have them thinking Joker lost it and parked the ship in the wrong landing bay."

John nodded. "That would raise some concerns, yes."

"Thanks for the talk, Chief."

"Any time."

Pulling her mind out of the gutter proved to be the least challenging affair to get in order. While Harper had seen this situation coming and understood the necessity of the alliance, Admiral Hackett was less thrilled to hear about it.

"You're going to dock the Normandy with a Covenant warship?" Hackett all but roared the moment Jane finished talking. "And you think they'll just ferry you to Tuchanka to help you cure the Geniphage? Commander, you can't be serious!"

"I've discussed the scenario extensively with the UNSC, Admiral. The fact of the matter is, the Reapers already beat us to Tuchanka, and if they've reinforced the area we'll never break through in time. Neither the Alliance nor the turians can reinforce us fast enough and the UNSC is organizing a push for Palaven. These Separatist reinforcements are just what we need."

"Has it occurred to you that this might be a trap? That they're trying to take out the Master Chief by destroying the Normandy? Commander, you are risking the future the future of the turians AND the krogan here!"

"I know that," Jane said through gritted teeth. "Admiral, we've taken every possible precaution. The Elites are going to place their Carrier in our formation, under the noses of every warship in the system. If they try to destroy the Normandy, sensors will pick up the energy signatures and they'll become the proud new owners of a hundred MAC blasts before they can discharge."

Hopefully.

"What's to stop them from destroying the Normandy once it's effectively docked?" Hackett demanded.

"The fact that EDI and Cortana will hack into their systems and kill the pressure and the atmosphere on the entire ship the instant they try anything. It's worked in the past, it will work here."

Hackett shook his head in disbelief. "And they've agreed to that?"

"They did. Remorse is a hell of a thing. Admiral. It is my belief that the Shipmaster genuinely wishes to aid us. The Elites helped end the Human-Covenant War, they can help us end this war as well. They were already kicking ass on Menae as well; they're the reason we were able to extract Victus so easily."

Hackett pinched the bridge of his nose and uttered an explosive sigh. "It's a hell of a risk, Commander"

"We're not going to win this war without taking risks, Admiral. You've trusted my judgement so far."

Hackett was silent for a few moments, as if considering his next words. "It's not you whose judgement I question, Commander. But since Fleet Admiral Harper has already conceded to this…alliance, my hands are tied."

"We're getting to Tuchanka, Admiral. And we're going to cure the Genophage."

"I hope you know what you're doing, Shepard. Good luck. Hackett out."

Jane snapped off a salute, then stepped away from the console. In her head, she reviewed all the safety measures Cortana had suggested, searching for any weakness the "enemy" could exploit.

She couldn't find any. Hopefully that was a good sign.

"Alright Shipmaster," Jane said, talking to nobody in particular. "Let's get this show on the road."

-(++)-

18:15 Hours, July 24, 2553 (Military Calendar) / Aboard CAS-Class Assault Carrier Condemnation – SSV Normandy-SR 2, en route to Tuchanka

Under EDI's guidance, the Normandy entered the Carrier's massive, cavernous launch bay. Grunt technicians, either uninformed of their new guests or simply having a bad day, ran for their lives as the Alliance Frigate hovered in place.

"Shield reenergizing in place over the launch bay," Cortana announced over the intercom. "External atmosphere stabilizing. Scanning for energy signatures…complete."

"Look at those little guys," Joke crooned as he watched a handful of Grunts hunker down behind docked Seraph fighters and fuel pods. "Are they that small to you too? Because they look small to me! I still can't believe the Covenant's got their own little volus!"

The Master Chief did not share Joker's enthusiasm. "I have yet to see a volus rip a soldier apart with their bare hands."

Joker's shoulders tensed up, and he shot an annoyed look at the Spartan standing behind him. "Chief, are you contractually obligated to ruin my fun? I just parked the Normandy into the belly of an angry alien ship filled with angry aliens; let me enjoy my tiny victory!"

"It appears the Covenant forces in the hangar bay are docile," EDI said. "Shipmaster 'Kusamai is honoring the alliance."

"Not yet. Cortana, is the atmosphere breathable?" The Chief asked.

"Scanning. The air is perfectly safe."

"So far, so good," Shepard said. "Master Chief, what's the status of the squad?"

The Master Chief pulled up the list of the Normandy's ground team again, just to be safe. Cortana kept it updated in real time, and every single one of them had gathered in the hangar bay to suit up and prepare for combat.

"Completing their preparations for action," he reported. "All hands accounted for."

"Commander, with your permission, I will patch the Normandy's communication systems with that of the Condemnation," EDI said.

Shepard nodded with appreciation. "Good call."

EDI's avatar disappeared for several seconds before reappearing again. "System patch complete. You may now contact Shipmaster Kusamai on the bridge."

"Nice job. Patch him through. The sooner we get underway, the better."

One of the consoles lit up, displaying a blurry, static image that soon morphed into the familiar Ultra-class armor of the Shipmaster.

"Shipmaster Kusamai? This is Shepard. We have successfully docked with the Condemnation. Are you ready for departure?"

"We stand ready to transition to Slipspace, Shepherd," the Elite replied.

"Good. Our AI will transmit the coordinates to you now."

Cortana snapped her fingers with a little smirk. "Done."

Kusamai looked away from the screen when one of his subordinates spoke to him. "Slipspace coordinates received. Once we transition, I will prepare my warriors for the coming battle."

"Thank you, Shipmaster," Shepard said. "I would like to discuss the upcoming battle with you personally, if at all possible."

"My troops demand my full attention. I shall send my eldest tactician. His brilliance and experience will serve you well."

Shepard bowed her head in a manner that closely resembled the way an Elite would. "Thank you, Shipmaster. I anticipate his guidance."

The Chief waited until EDI cut the transmission before saying, "You're getting good at that."

"The COPPERHEAD's systems help out a lot," Jane replied. "It's got a lot of data stored on the Covenant species."

Considering the original purpose of the COPPERHEAD variant of the MJOLNIR, that only made sense.

"I don't doubt that," Joker muttered. "Look at those things, the…what are they called? Those hanar-looking things?"

The Master Chief peered over the pilot's shoulder and saw a cluster of odd, meter-high creatures hovering above the deck. "Engineers."

"They're not like the hanar at all," Cortana supplied. "Covenant Huragok are actually Forerunner biological computers. They're tech savants; one of them could replace an entire platoon of quarian engineers. "

"Still look like jellyfish to me."

"But they're not stupid, and that's what counts," Shepard muttered, then turned to the others. "The faster we hit Tuchanka the better. We'll wait for the Sangheili tactician before we start the briefing."

Shepard had already supplied an early briefing about what to expect on Tuchanka, and the ground team had prepared accordingly. The weapons, ammunition and equipment had all been prepared, checked and double-checked. All that was left was the tactical approach.

Since there would be Reaper capital ships in the way, that wasn't an insignificant factor. It was a work in progress.

It did not take the crew long to assemble in the shuttle bay. When the Master Chief stepped out of the elevator with Mordin, Shepard and Eve, he quickly checked to see if everyone was there.

Gathered around the weapon modification station and lockers were Lieutenants Vega and Cortez, together with Williams. Garrus and Johnson had sat down around a few modified UNSC weapons, going over their munition and firing mechanisms. Liara watched them from a distance, standing right next to Wrex, who pretended he wasn't at all interested in what Garrus was going. So did Javik, albeit from a much greater distance and with much more success.

The turian Cabals had cobbled together an improvised sleeping quarters in-between the supply crates and materials opposite of the weapon lockers, in the upper left corner of the shuttle bay. Two of them looked to be fast asleep, while Tatilia lazed around. The last Cabal was busy sharpening the claws of her gauntlet. Meanwhile, Spartan-003 was lying down against one of the larger supply crates. He had his feet propped up on a munition box and appeared to be snoozing, his chin resting on his chest.

"Good, all here," Mordin said. "Can start up."

"What's the news, doc?" Wrex demanded. "Did you figure it out?"

"Results promising," Mordin replied as the crew scrambled to attention. "Can synthesize for universal krogan immunity."

Garrus and Johnson began rapidly assembling the weapon, with Garrus hauling it away the moment Johnson finished testing the firing mechanism. Tatilia threw something at her sleeping teammates, startling one of them awake. Her head snapped around frantically, looking alarmed, before she seemed to recall where she was, and reached out to wake the other Cabal.

Meanwhile, the fourth member of their team walked over to the snoozing Spartan and kicked against his helmet. John inwardly winced when her boot came to a sudden and painful stop against Three's shielded helmet.

Ouch, the Chief thought, watching as the Cabal staggered away, holding an injured foot while Three woke with a start, his hand on his rifle in an instant.

"Then what are we waiting for?" Javik said. "Let us go down there and finish this."

"Cannot go down there yet, still need transmission vector," Mordin said with a shake of his head. "Cure useless unless given to entire species. Debated many possibilities, but time is of the essence. Need – "

Shepard gently cleared her throat and nudged the salarian doctor. "We still need to wait for the Sangheili tactician. I'm expecting him to be here any – "

She didn't even got to finish her sentence before the telltale humming of a Covenant Phantom became audible for the rest of the crew, and the alien dropship came to a lurching halt in front of the Normandy's shuttle bay.

The Chief immediately snatched up his rifle, as did most of the others. The Phantom's several heavy plasma cannon whirled around menacingly, but they didn't fire. A second later, the central gravity lift activated and a single armor-clad Sangheili dropped down. His maroon-tinted armor identified him as a Major.

"At least they've got a sense of dramatic timing," Vega muttered.

The Elite arrogantly strode towards the gathered teammembers, his reptilian eyes warily scanning the two dozen or so gathered individuals, before finally resting on Jane.

The Master Chief felt a hint of nervousness. Of course Jane knew what she was doing and the Elites could help them out tremendously, but that didn't meant he had to like it. He kept a close eye on the alien warrior as it closed in on the group.

"Shepherd," it growled with a deep, creaking voice. "I would know your mission."

Jane's brows rose. "You must be the tactician," he said with a polite voice. "What do I call you?"

"It does not matter. I translate your stratagem to my brothers – nothing else."

Johnson scoffed, but refrained from commenting. Liara and Garrus exchanged looks.

"Good enough," Mordin impatiently replied. "On mission is to cure krogan from Genophage, but means of dispersing cure are few. Couldn't create new infection strain from scratch. Population too scattered for airborne transmission, groundwater too slow, voluntary inoculation too risky. Only one solution remaining, Cortana agrees. The Shroud."

On cue – knowing Cortana, for maximum dramatic effect – the holo-tank displayed an image of Tuchanka in all its radioactive, apocalyptic glory. The image quickly zoomed in on one particular region. A desolate, bombed-out wasteland, where the buildings had been reduced to barely-functional rubble.

The krogan equivalent to a city.

A large structure dominated the area. It looked a lot like a Covenant teleportation Spire, but smaller and sleeker, with a much wider base than tip.

The Major leaned closer to observe.

"The Shroud?" Garrua asked as the others crowded around the holographic image.

"Tower-like construct, part of network of towers placed to counteract radiation damage after war. Constantly disperses air particles – ideal for cure dispersion!"

"Made by the salarians you say?" Wrex spoke with a low, dangerous voice.

Mordin nodded enthusiastically. "Yes. After uplifting of the krogan, advanced technology was given in exchange for help with Rachni. Tech like the Shroud easily impressed krogan population, gained trust for war." He paused, then glanced cautiously at Jane. "Also used by turians."

"Who would have thought," Wrex spat, his voice dripping with sarcasm, "that salarian gifts could be used against us!"

"They were used to secretly spread the Genophage," Liara quietly said.

"Those were desperate times," Shepard replied, her emerald eyes settling on Wrex. "It's not important now, Wrex."

The krogan snorted, but kept from commenting further.

"Yes yes," Mordin interjected rapidly. "But Shroud useful to us now! The storage still contains original Genophage strain. Can use that as a transmission vector – Shroud will be used to disperse the cure!"

At that, Wrex couldn't contain his laughter. "Hah! You clever pyjak!" He rumbled.

"That could work!" Liara excitedly replied. "Goddess, a cure for the Genophage! I never would have imagined!"

"Turians and humans cruising down a salarian construct on a Covenant Carrier to cure the Genophage," Garrus mused. He gave Jane a playful nudge. "You did it, Shepard."

"We're not there yet," Jane replied, although the Chief saw her lips pulling up in a little smile. "We've still got to push through the Reapers."

"Ain't that a sight," Johnson said, carefully chewing on the first of a new stock of Sweet Williams. He observed the holographic image closely. "Seems too convenient to me."

"Not everything has to have three layers of complications, Johnson," Garrus said. "Sometimes things work out in our favor."

The Master Chief hoped Garrus was right. The Shroud seemed to be a vital part of the cure. The Reapers had to know that as well. "There will be enemy opposition," he said.

"I know," Shepard grimly said. "But we cannot let that stop us. If we get bogged down around the Shroud, enemy direct or indirect fire could damage it enough to render this entire operation pointless. To make matters worse, there's a stranded turian platoon on Tuchanka as well."

"What?" Wrex said immediately perking up. His crimson eyes darted towards Tatilia, and he all but growled. "And what are the turians doing on my planet?"

"They're part of Primarch Victus' unit," Shepard replied with a steel voice. "An advance scouting party to gather intel on enemy troop numbers. They were shot down very recently, and Victus asked us to bail them out."

John looked at the Commander, taken aback by her boldfaced lie. He understood that revealing the truth would further harm this already uneasy alliance, but it wasn't like Shepard to let that get in the way.

"Yeah?" Wrex said, narrowing his eyes. "And we're going to pull troops away to rescue their scaly asses?" What if they get bogged down and need more help?"

"Not many. Tatilia and her team, together with Spartan-003, will pull them out," Shepard said, meeting Wrex' gaze head-on. "We've got a Carrier full of Sangheili reinforcements here, Wrex. I think we can spare one squad to pull out a turian platoon."

Wrex seemed to pull himself together for a massive rebuttal, but then Eve's voice rang out for the first time, and it silenced everybody.

"Get over yourself, Wrex. The Clan Leader of the krogan will cure the Genophage and aid in the rescue of turian combatants. The krogan will prove themselves to be better than they were. The cycle of violence and vengeance ends today."

Nobody seemed to be willing to break the silence that followed Eve's wake. Wrex just stared at her, his expression somewhere between disbelief…and shame.

"If everyone is pacified, I would speak tactics," the Elite Major then growled. "For once we reach this Shroud, we must move quickly and aggressively."

"My thoughts exactly," Shepard replied, now addressing the tactician directly. "I was thinking a joint-assault between two elements. First element: an armored assault from this flank – " She gestured at the area to the south-west of the Shroud – "To soften up the enemy resistance. After that, the second element: a mechanized convoy will smash through the weakened defenses all the way to the Shroud. Maximum speed and aggression."

"We blitz them," Javik said with utmost seriousness.

Shepard looked up at the Prothean, her brow furrowing. "I…yes, I suppose so. After the second element reaches the Shroud, the first element will sweep the approach lane and dig in for any possible counter attacks."

"A small team can then finish the deployment of this cure, while the rest deals with ground resistance," the Elite muttered. "Wise."

"Sound strategy. Will need Eve to come with us, ideal to finishing the cure. Will ensure smooth synthesizing and establishing transmission vector."

"Our foe will have stationed their forces here, there and here," the Elite said, gesturing at the holographic map of the area around the Shroud. There will be aircraft, which we cannot allow. Our own fighters and bombers must take the sky first."

"Guess your fancy Carrier's good for something then," Wrex growled. "I've send out an order for all Clans to meet us here, at the Hollows. It's neutral ground, so that'll stop any morons from starting shit we don't need."

Wrex pointed at a region south of the Shroud, hidden in the center of the bombed out remains of a city.

"The staging area for your mechanized element," the Elite said.

Wrex glanced at him for a moment. "Sure. We can provide plenty of armored vehicles, but nothing that flies."

"Then we shall muster our forces here, and establish the armored element."

Taken aback, Wrex asked, "You carrying tanks in this tub too?"

"Once the Shipmaster unleashes our warriors, we can bring forth two hundred tanks, forty armed fighting vehicles, seven hundred scouting vehicles and six-hundred flyers, at least."

Wrex' eyes widened marginally. "That's a lot of plasma. Lots of weird alien gear for my people to take shots at, too. I'll have to reign them in at that point."

The maroon-clad warrior looked up to glare at the krogan. "We serve the same cause, but my warriors will no longer die for nothing. They will not hesitate to mount krogan skulls in their quarters, should they come to blows."

Before Wrex could retort and possibly escalate the situation, Jane stepped in. "That won't happen. Wrex has the krogan Clans under his control, but they have a long history of feuding among themselves. With the Reapers getting in their way as well, they'll too busy to even look at your direction."

"A good old fashioned krogan horde," Garrus said with a chuckle. "That should keep the Reapers busy."

"The krogan horde will do much more than keep them busy," Wrex snarled, though his eyes suggested it was excitement getting the better of him, not anger. It was very likely the idea of a new future was steadily winning over whatever ills he still bore the turians and salarians. His entire posture reflected it.

"It's settled then," Shepard decided. "Everybody gear up. Thirty minutes notice to move – today, we're going to take back our future!"

Amidst the roars, cheers and shouts that responded to Shepard's exclamation, John saw Wrex jab a large finger at Mordin and say, in a tone much more affectionate than he would have thought, "Come on pyjak! It's time to cure the Genophage!"

And the Chief found himself agreeing. But looking at Jane, he wasn't so sure she agreed with herself. She looked tired and weary, but the same could be said for everyone. There was just something about her that seemed...off. It was almost as if she didn't have her heart in this the way she did with all the previous missions.

Was it here reservations about curing the Genophage? Or was this something else?

Whatever it was, he would be there for her.

-(++)-

AN: I hope you enjoyed this chapter! Don't forget to leave a review and I'll see you all on the next update. Be good people!