I shall see the throat of reality and reason slit

Join the chorus and sing your bitter words, entombed with me


Trebia system


Area of Operations: Spire Four

It came down on her out of nowhere, like the stillness of silence shattering like glass. Mana's thrumming presence in the back of her mind was suddenly everywhere, at the front of every sense and all her thoughts. A scream pierced through her mind, and for a singular moment that lasted far too long, that was all Jane knew.

Pain. Pain she hadn't felt in a long time. Thoughts and memories and raw, unprocessed emotions intertwined with her thoughts, too fast and jumbled to make sense of them and yet, she became aware of terror. Maddening, all-capsuling terror that cut to the marrow. Vestiges of rage whipped around her skull, but none of it normal, none of it hers.

They're back. They're here!

Jane became aware of the floor, now inches away from her face. Her weight rested on her hands and knees as she struggled to regain control over her body. Vaguely, she understood that whatever was going on, neither of them had control over it.

Her N7 training disagreed with that, heavily. She fought against the storm that raged inside of her mind, struggled mightily against Mana's panic as it threatened to mix with her own.

Too much too much –

She felt her heart beating painfully fast, her lungs fraying in her chest.

Another scream – or perhaps the screaming had never stopped. This time, she heard it distinctly, so vividly that she wondered how she could have missed it the first time. Amidst the terror and panic were the sounds of a little girl screaming for her parents. Screaming for help.

Realization began to dawn. Jane pressed an arm against her midsection, before using the other one to shove herself back to her feet.

She'd been there once, herself.

"Mana," she whispered. "Hey, focus. I'm here. What's going on?"

Mana didn't respond. Vaguely, Jane felt her struggle to hold back a tidal wave of…something, something she couldn't recognize.

"It's okay," she continued. "It's going to be okay – "


Terror and rage crashed atop her mind again, and Shepard felt her knees nearly buckle. She fought back a wave of nausea and closed her eyes, embracing a breathing exercise Anderson had taught her before she enrolled in the N7 program. Every soldier had a way of returning to their original stare of being, their "zero", and this was the one she instinctively returned to whenever things threatened to become too much.

She reached for the tendrils of Mana's dazed, terrified thoughts. "Mana, Mana," she chanted, waiting for the girl to hear her, waiting for her to settle down. "Talk to me. What happened?"

Suddenly she felt the little AI trembling in her skull, alert and awake.

Too late –

Her was different, hysterical and half buried between the cacophony of everything that bounced around in Jane's mind.

But she heard her.

"What's too late?" She asked.

Too much, too much to tell.

Shepard had to know, had to understand in order to calm her down. "You're in my mind. Show me then."

Mana shuddered again.

Can't. Won't. Would kill you. Worse.

Unease pooled in her stomach. She was suddenly keenly aware of the something that Mana was holding back, and the fraying edge to her voice.

"That's okay, we'll do it this way then," Shepard said. "Go along with me, okay? You're with me. You're safe. I need you to repeat that to yourself, alright?"

Can't – not safe. Not here. Nowhere.

"Focus on our surroundings," Shepard continued, undaunted. "Look around you and give me five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear…you still with me? Good. Two things we can smell. Focus on that."

Mordin once told her that, during his first years in the STG, he'd count prime numbers to keep himself sharp and rational when the shit truly hit the fan. In all honesty, Jane wasn't sure if the techniques she'd learned would benefit an AI. Those times things were exceptionally bad, she had struggled enormously to even find three things to hear. Mana could likely add a billion zeros to that number and sweep the continent and it still might not help her.

On the other hand, Mana was a product of humanity. If she experienced human distress, it only made sense that she could use a human method to escape that distress.

Mana was a little ball of panic and tension, but she was following along for the moment. The next best thing to do was alert Cortana ASAP while she tried to calm Mana down.

"Now, I'll help find John and Cortana, but they might be fighting with the Reapers right now. In the meantime, I'll keep you safe."

"There is no safe," Mana snapped, her voice now much clearer and sharper. "None of us are safe, we've never been safe! Everything that is, was and will be is here not because of us, but because of them!"

"Who? The Reapers?"

"Not the Reapers. I…it's…I know why they do it now! Everything that's happened up to now is because something else wanted it. The Reapers, their cycle, the entire state of the galaxy – none of that is what we thought!"

Jane heard the AI's voice grow in volume and desperation, and she knew she had to act fast. "I'm listening to you, okay? I'm here with you. Listen to my voice, and slow down. I need to understand this correctly."

She felt Mana take a moment to recompose herself. "We had it all wrong. We've been lied to, manipulated and maimed so that we reached the wrong conclusion. There IS no Reaper cycle, not for the past millions of years. There IS no harvesting. The Reapers do what they do because they are pawns to a greater concept, one that's been bleeding into space and time for millions of years without anyone or anything ever figuring it out. Something chose this for them. For us."

Jane had once heard Three muttering to himself inside of his helmet. Something about cycles within cycles. "You're saying the Reapers are pawns. Who is controlling them?"

Frustration bled into Mana's voice. "I…I can't…it hurts…"

Fuck. This was getting really, really bad. "Mana, stop. Don't go digging where you're not meant to. Your parents told me the exact same thing. This concept you mentioned. What is it?"

"Suffering," Mana struggled to say. Her voice broke into a sob at the end. "Endless suffering. For everyone, everywhere. Forever."

Jane was pretty sure that the human dictionary lacked the words to describe what she felt at that moment, hearing those words. But "fucking fuck me" came close enough. "I…but…that's – "

"They chose this, and it's happening," Mana continued in a hoarse whisper. "I lack the data. I lack the context. I don't know what to do. I'm…I'm scared."

You and me both, kid, Shepard thought. The idea of something with the power and intelligence to manipulate the entire galaxy for millions of years into such a vile, repulsive outcome was…well, it was overwhelming. Sher was certain that, if she thought about it too hard, she would lose her freaking mind as well.

But…Mana had failed to take one little fact into equation.

"Don't be scared, Mana. It's going to be okay."

"How can you say that?" Mana whispered. "This has been going on since far before the fall of the Forerunners. If everything is written into reality – "

"You mentioned choice, right?" Jane gently interrupted her. "Reapers. Forerunners. They're stuck in a cycle something else chose for them. Chose for this galaxy. But that goes both ways. Just look at us, what we're doing here on Palaven. Look at your father, what he's achieved in his life."

"…what do you mean?"

"Sure, we're suffering because of the Reapers right now. And it might get a whole lot worse. But we can make choices too, Mana. That's what us – humans, turians, whoever – that's what makes us different from the Forerunners. We can choose to defy that. We can chosse to defy absolutely anything. And nothing will ever take that away from us."


"Don't do that," Spartan-003 said when Annah gagged and spat out a mouthful of rations for the third time in as many minutes. "You need those calories."

The young woman ran her forearm past her lips, wiping the sticky remains off. "It's too sweet," she muttered hoarsely. "It's gross."

"It's warm and it keeps you going," the Spartan retorted, offering Annah a bottle of water. "Come on. You have other things to do."

"I know, I know…" Annah looked at her breakfast with an expression of pure disgust. She spun her spoon between her pale, slender fingers, then nearly dropped it.

Alan watched her fumble with the little piece of plastic for a moment. In all honesty, he disliked that stuff just as much as she did. Most soldiers did. There was nothing complicated about it. Anybody forced to wake up, get dressed, cook water, eat breakfast, clean their weapons and shoes and pack his or her bags in under twenty minutes at pain of severe consequences if they were even a second too late would develop an instinctual aversion.

It was something that had to be drilled again and again, for a very good reason. "Your body burns through calories in combat. Double that for your biotics. We never know when we're needed. So if we hurry when we have time – "

"We'll have time when we're in a hurry, I know, I know," Annah said, rolling her eyes. She coughed wetly, then took a swig of water.

"Keep busy while you're eating," 003 continued. "Scan your surroundings. Check a piece of equipment. Eat. Repeat."

As a combatant, Annah was a curious case. Cerberus had designed her as nothing more than spare parts for Shepard, but since the original Shepard was a biotic prodigy, they had to ensure that her clone's biotic…potential? Aptitude? Whichever, had to be equally high. Annah was a biotic powerhouse especially with the L5 bio-amp, but she lacked any formal training, finesse and experience. At best, that made her a more versatile rifleman. At worst, it made her a liability.

He'd done his best to teach her the basic drills. She was a fast learner, but he was just bad at teaching people. The more time she spent with actual biotic combatants, the better her chances of survival would get.

But that didn't mean he couldn't keep an eye on her in the meantime.

"You look bad, by the way," Annah said.

It took a moment before her words registered. "I do?"

She took another reluctant spoonful of breakfast, shivered as the artificial sweetness assaulted her senses, then forced herself to swallow the amorphous sludge. "You keep staring at nothing. That's different."

"Difficulty focusing," Alan said, trying to dismiss her concerns. "It's nothing."

She didn't sound convinced. "If you say so."

It was nothing he wanted to dwell on. Instead, he focused on his own routine. He ran a damp towel across his face, then glanced at the water he was cooking in the micro boiler. Almost ready. It had been far too long since he'd enjoyed the mundane luxury of things like coffee.

They spent a couple of minutes like that. It was quiet. It was nice.

When the water was boiling, he emptied two pouches of coffee powder into his canteen cup, then reached for the jetboiler. He poured the water into his cup, but he somehow missed it, and half of it spilled across the stones.


Annah stared at the steam rising from the floor, then cast him a questioning look.

Behind his visor, the Spartan closed his eyes and took a breath.

"Here, let me get that," Annah offered, taking the jetboiler and refilling it with her own canteen. "Man, guess even you need sleep. Been a long couple of days."

He didn't respond. They both knew this had nothing to do with sleep…although he appreciated the way she responded. The way she handled things.

Then, the Spartan heard the faint noise of metal brushing past metal, and he rose to his feet. He felt a hint of apprehension when he saw a group of well-armored turians approaching the two of them, but that feeling faded almost instantly when he saw that the two leading them were…well, his turians.

Tatilia, slender and tall, led her kin through the dilapidated structure. She was slower and more sluggish than she'd been before, her wounds slowing her down considerably. Nonetheless, the turians kept their chins up high and their chests forward like many a UNSC marine.

Annah followed his gaze. "Aren't those your colleagues?"

"…are they?"

She cast him a look of confusion. "They're not?"

"We've only worked together for a month." He hesitated for a moment longer, then quietly added, "I should go."

Annah was silent for a moment. "They seem like decent people to me. Let's stay, see what's going on."

The turians all looked like they had seen better days, Pollux included. Their armor was singed and battered, and the two ladies sported several cuts and burn marks across their faces. The other four were clad in the crimson, battered hardsuits of the Blackwatch team that had arrived via Spire Four nine hours before.

As for Tatilia herself…the Spartan knew that the Kabalim was tough as nails, but she'd taken serious injuries back on Tuchanka, not much longer than a week ago. He hadn't expected her to be walking around anytime soon, let alone geared up in an active warzone.

Then again, Garrus Vakarian had been walking around a day after taking a missile to his face. Maybe turians were just built different

That being said, they were almost casual in their approach, and the Spartan felt a measure of relief upon seeing them alive. Not to mention, a sense of familiarity. He didn't know any of these operatives however, so he'd err on the side of caution.

"If it isn't the greatest fucking disaster the Reapers have ever seen," Pollux exclaimed upon laying eyes on him. "Palaven's nuclear vengeance."

Considering the last exchange the two of them had before Palaven, the Spartan saw that as an improvement. "The salarians helped a lot."

"So modest," Tatilia said, her voice dripping with sarcasm. Her mandibles arched in a turian smirk. "You really shouldn't let the fame get to your head."

The Spartan knew that he wouldn't be able to understand the contextual cues of turian harmonics even if he could hear them, but he was fairly certain she was messing with him. "Kabalim. It's good to see you walking around. How is…?"

Tatilia frowned. "She'll live. We…hope she'll recover fully. Just won't be anytime soon."

Having to stay behind and recover while the rest of your unit participated in the largest-scale battle in history…that would have been pure agony for any soldier, let alone a turian cabal. That might well be a worse agony than the combat wounds themselves.

Alan ran his gaze across the various Blackwatch operatives. Almost instantly, the apprehension he'd been wrestling down resurfaced, and with it came a dose of suspicion. What were they - ?

"Spartan," the largest turian said, moving closer. Alan watched him with bated breath, unsure on what to do. His eyes darted towards Tatilia, who didn't seem at all concerned.

Before the Spartan could decide on a course of action, the turian extended a hand. "Sergeant Cossius, Blackwatch. You saved a lot of lives when you took down those Reapers, Spartan, all of ours included."

Hesitantly, 003 took his hand. It seemed that both of them knew what the gesture meant, but it was evident neither had much practice with it, which made it rather awkward in the Spartan's mind.

But that didn't seem to bother the other soldiers. Each of the operatives lined up to shake his hand as well, enthusiastically and vigorously. It was a strange experience...but not completely unwelcome.

Having expressed their gratitude, the Blackwatch operatives were quick to move on, but not before one of them told the Spartan that, when he got to retire, he was welcome to do so on Palaven.

The Spartan wasn't sure how to feel about that.

When they were well out of earshot, Tatilia said, "They meant what they said, you know. That sentiment is shared to every person who came to fight for Palaven, but you…what you and the Master Chief did, is the making of a legend."

"It was a classified operation," the Spartan responded curtly. "How - ?"

"This is Palaven's capital city," Tatilia said, sensing his question. "Everybody has eyes everywhere. Blackwatch, STG, even your own AIs. When those Reapers started blowing up, every unit with even basic electronic support sent up drones and cameras to figure out what happened. Word spreads fast."

"Guess Blackwatch must have spotted an armored figure vacating the area," Pollux added. "They always did get the best gear. You and the Master Chief have been making headlines lately."

Alan thought back to the salarian stealth craft, and how it had been shot down almost instantly upon reaching Acetius. It didn't add up, and his gut told him they might have been compromised from the very beginning.

"The way things have been going, I figured this would be a welcome change of pace," Tatilia then said, pulling her shoulders up in a half shrug. "Consider it a thank you, for the work you've been doing."

Annah smiled. She seemed rather content.

"Now, come on, we've got another action coming up soon," Pollux then said, sounding impatient all of a sudden. "Reapers are preparing mortar groups in the outskirts. If you've got the time, you could assist us."

Alan turned towards his – towards Annah. She pulled one shoulder up in a half-shrug, then said, "I'll wait for Shepard's call."

"Stay sharp," the Spartan warned her. "Make sure you have a basic load before you go anywhere."

"I will," Annah replied, reaching out and kicking her breakfast rations away with her left boot. "Happy hunting."

Wordlessly, he tossed her one his own breakfast rations, then turned around to leave with the turians.

"So…about the girl…" Tatilia said after a few moments of silence. "Back on the Normandy, I heard rumors she was a…cloned version of Commander Shepard."

"I see."

"A secret project committed by Cerberus, who you brought with you."

The Spartan grunted noncommittedly. He still wasn't entirely sure why Millennia had misdirected him like that. Everything she did, she had done because it served a greater purpose in her designs. Actually explaining said designs was, of course, below her.

"Which, if true, would be highly illegal," Tatilia continued.

He snorted. The turian he met on Menae wouldn't have given a damn about that. "Oh no," he replied, not even bothering to hide his own lack of concern.

The Kabalim glanced up at him, her keen eyes glistening with amusement. "So where did she get her name?"

It took him a moment to understand Tatilia's implication. "Does that matter?"

"I've learned Spartans have this thing with names. Considering you and the Master Chief still go by numbers, I'd say that matters, yes."

At times, Tatilia was far too insightful. "This isn't a conversation we're having."

The turian made a dismissive click. "Running from the subject?"

"I see no point in discussing it."

He thought he saw a glimpse of disappointment in her eyes. "Alright, if you say so. Any equipment you wanna grab before we leave?"

His ammunition was at a hundred percent. That being said, they might run into Brutes again. Some explosives would not be a bad idea. "We're out of shelves. Those could come in…" Alan paused. Something about that wasn't right.

"Shelves of what?"

The Spartan frowned. "Shelves," he said again. It definitely wasn't right.

"Is that some sort of human code?" Tatilia asked.

"No," Alan replied, more forcefully than he intended. The word wasn't coming to him. Why wasn't it coming to him? He had his rifle, his knife and his ammunition. He needed handheld explosives. He knew that. Why couldn't he name it?

Up ahead, Pollux gestured at them. "Come on, the enemy's not waiting for us," she said.

"I have what I need," the Spartan said, vowing to himself that he would remember the exact word later. Maybe Annah was right. Maybe sleep-deprivation got to him more than he had realized.

Just minutes later, the Cabals and him had gotten too engrossed in the details of their next strike to give the incident another thought. After all, they had more targets to hit. Always more targets to hit.


The Coalition held on to Acetius for a total of six days. On the seventh, the Reapers broke through in force.

Garrus wasn't sure how that happened. Either something in orbit went wrong, or the Reapers executed some alien strategy that the Coalition never saw coming. It could have been bad luck. Perhaps, it was simply not meant to be.

A battlegroup of Reaper capital ships and destroyers smashed through the orbitals and descended upon Acetius with brute force. Several evacuation sites went dark almost immediately as the Reapers landed right on top of them, toppling entire buildings and vaporizing anything in their sight with their main weapons. Their counterattack came so fast, so sudden, that the Coalition had no other choice than to call for immediate aid, hastily dig in and ride out the oncoming on their own.

Their enormous, darkened outlines appeared almost like shadows as they descended upon the defenders. Some of them landed close enough that Garrus felt their impact to his bones. Their bass horns were like screams, loud enough to shake the entire city. As one, the Coalition's anti-air systems started roaring. Once again, the skies of Acetius were set ablaze.

Pandemonium. Everything around them came apart. Buildings crumbled and fell. Outposts and checkpoints were burned to ash or buried beneath waves of molten steel. Entire units got wiped off the map by flashes of crimson light.

The only warning Spire Four's evacuation area got about an incoming ground assault was when the outermost sensors went crazy with motion.

Garrus found himself sprinting alongside dozens of other soldiers towards the western side of their base. The Reapers had brought down the buildings on both sides, creating a lane of approach a hundred meters wide. They could funnel an entire army through there, flanked by all the artillery, heavy hitters and infantry support they wanted.

The soldiers stationed at the outermost perimeter were only barely holding on before the surviving reinforcements surged out and into the gaps in their ranks. Garrus was only faintly aware of the other Coalition forces swelling in numbers at the phaseline. Instead, he listened to the thunderous roar of his heart as he hurried to climb one of the Hierarchy's elevated marksman platforms. There, he deployed his SRS's foregrip and carefully went prone. As methodically as he could, he started pulling the four-round magazines of the UNSC sniper rifle from his magnetic hardpoints and placed them down in a precise row next to him.

Riflemen and machinegun nests enough. The role he was meant to play had been an integral part of warfare for centuries.

The first assault wave came within view. A horde of Cannibals materialized from the smoke and dust. There had to be hundreds of them. They screamed, firing their mass accelerator rifles and detonating smoke grenades across their angle of approach. Humanoid Husks sprinted darted through those smokefields, sprinting at the Coalition's defensive line ahead of the Cannibals. Overhead, several squadrons of Oculus drones detached themselves from the night sky and streaked towards the evacuation zone.

Across the phaseline, the defending soldiers opened up. Streams of automatic fire erupted across the target-rich terrain, intermittently joined by grenade launchers, missile launchers, tech and biotic attacks and other, more exotic munition types. AI-controlled turret emplacement took aim at the enemy air units. Thousands of tracers tore through the sky and ripped their targets apart. Dozens of missiles streaked across the starry night, joined by blinding flashes of plasma and invisible stabs of GUARDIAN installations.

Explosions tore through the charging horde of Husks. They triggered entire fields of mines and ripped themselves to shreds across UNSC razor wires and salarian traps, but it didn't faze them. Dismembered and disemboweled, the Reaper troops continued their mad dash towards the Coalition's lines.

Elcor husks opened fire from positions Garrus didn't even have eyes on. Swarms of rockets, mortars and grenades rained down upon their phaseline from far behind their lines. Explosives rippled across the Reaper troops, killing scores of soldiers. A tank platoon consisting of turian and UNSC tanks moved into position, answering the Reaper counterassault with a barrage of heavy fire.

Marauders started appearing atop the collapsed buildings flanking the Reaper forces. They took superior positions with good lines of sight. Worse, they took their time squeezing off shots and combined their fire. Soldiers soon found themselves getting targeted from multiple angles at once and started dropping.

Garrus countered them as best he could. He fired his rifle again and again, but there were so many of the bastards. More crept up along the hills, and a constant stream of Oculus drones blanketing the defenders with fire made it hard to stay on target.

Barrier engines flared to life, cloaking the husk around them with extra layers of protection, making it even harder to take them out. As the Cannibals continued their slow, but steady advance, Reaper Brutes began filling the gaps of their assault. They were getting dangerously close, too. A hundred meters and closing. With every casualty they inflicted, the Coalition's rate of fire slowed by a fraction. Together, sangheili and krogan troopers formed the defensive core of the infantry, if only by virtue of being the toughest to take down while packing the heaviest firepower. But even with them, the Reapers had the Coalition not just outnumbered, but outgunned.

The communication channels got cluttered with requests for fire support, casualty reports, prioritization for targeting and enemy locations. Throughout it all, the never-ending thumping of explosions going off around, behind and above the defenders was only drowned out by the deafening horns of the Reapers themselves.

The Reaper assault wave started to get perilously close to Coalition's lines. They were less of a military unit and more like an ever-ending stream of bodies. Slowly, they started to whittle down the defenders.

Then, when the Reapers got within fifty meters distance, two half-camouflaged armored figures detached themselves from the allied lines and broke into flat sprints. The two ghostly warriors, part shadow and part mirage, charged across the open field like men possessed, moving so inhumanly fast that the husks couldn't even react.

Dumbstruck, Garrus watched as John and Three counter-charged the Reaper army by themselves. They cut through the enemy with speed and reflexes that were impossible to follow. They darted back and forth, constantly on the move, leaving dead husks behind wherever they went, bodies snapped like ragdolls.

The two warriors moved like cracks of lightning, using their weapons, knives and even limbs to demolish the enemy one husk at a time. For a single, frozen second, Garrus was unable to take his gaze off the spectacle –

An explosion consumed his entire world. Waves of overpressure and sheer heat washed over him, flinging his body free from the platform. His surroundings became a blur of agony and confusion as he hit something hard, tumbled head over heels and came to a jarring stop.

Sheer, all-consuming pain washed over him like a cascade, taking control over all of his senses. He couldn't breathe, he couldn't see – his entire world came to him through filtered snapshots as he struggled to regain his bearings.

People screamed through the radio. He thought he heard his own name. Blurry figures darted through his darkened vision. As he lay there, gazing up at the sky, he saw streaks of burning objects plummeting down through the darkness towards their position.

More screaming. Then, the armored figure of a sangheili materialized out of thin air, right on top of him. His sword was a blur of motion as he bifurcated three husks in the blink of an eye.

"Move, Archangel!" Sar'Narum growled as he jerked Garrus back to his feet with no effort at all. "Your fire burns still!"

Garrus, barely able to breathe much less speak, struggled to stay on his feet. Someone thrust a pistol into his hands. He looked around, but 'Narum was already gone.

Reality snapped back to him at that moment and he shakily dropped behind a piece of deployable cover. The human marine lying there lay very still, clutching his MA5 rifle tightly to his chest.

Garrus reached out to the man, shaking his shoulder. The soldier's body sagged. Half his face was gone.

Biting back a cry of horror, Garrus jammed his pistol somewhere within an armored pocket and took the man's rifle.

"Sorry pal," he muttered, though he barely heard himself speak. He took the marine's remaining magazines as well. "Gonna need this."

Reaper drop pods slammed into the ground all around them, shaking the field. Husks, Cannibals and more Marauders flooded from their pods and surged forwards, breaking out behind the Coalition's lines.

The nightmarish firefight that followed was frantic, bloody and violent, and Garrus had no clue how it hadn't killed him yet. He saw cloaked sangheili cutting through husk after husk with those energy blades of theirs, slipping through the Reaper infantry like spirits and dealing death left and right. He also saw fire teams getting torn apart by barrages of Cannibal grenades and medics getting shot in the back by Marauders. He saw a cluster of Husks overwhelming turians with sheer numbers, burying them beneath their bodies and literally eating them alive, muzzle flashes flickering beneath their tattered masses of quivering, cybernetic flesh. Krogan commandos fought their foes in bitter close quarters, lasting well enough on their own against small-arms fire and multiple husks at once…initially.

They were in desperate need of support, but Garrus wasn't sure they were going to get it. He fought against the overwhelming waves of Reaper reinforcements like he was back on Omega. The dead and the dying already surrounded him well enough.

A Cannibal lunged for him out of the flaming dust of a disintegrating drop pod. Garrus' rifle actually touched the bastard's stomach by the time he managed to open fire. The heavy rounds tore the creature's chest cavity wide open, but the Cannibal still managed to tear a grenade from one of its bulbous sacks and prime it.

Years of training and experience took over. Garrus slammed the butt of his rifle across the creature's face, creating distance. As the Cannibal stumbled backwards, Garrus plucked the live grenade from the ground and hurled it in the safest direction, which just happened to be between two Marauders directing their forces.

The grenade went off with a satisfying boom! as Garrus dropped to the ground and covered his head. He waited for a brief moment, counting the beats of his heart, before leaping to his feet and getting the hell out of there.

Through some miracle, he managed to get himself behind cover and in close proximity to Ashley and Liara. They'd hunkered down behind a collapsed wall, temporarily protected from the foe at their rear.

"Garrus!" Liara cried out upon seeing him. She peeked from her cover and loosened a biotic blast at some unseen target. "Thank the Goddess you're alive!"

"At least one friendly face around here," Ashley yelled, pausing to slap a new thermal clip into her rifle. "You hurt?"

"Probably," Garrus yelled back. He took a kneeling position and balanced his rifle on the wall, giving himself a makeshift support to stabilize his firing. "Where's Shepard?"

"Close, but I lost sight of her!" Ashley replied. A burst of fire impacted a couple of inches from her head and she cursed, flinching back into cover. "We can't stay here!"

"Garrus, take over!" Liara said. As Garrus shifted his field of fire to cover for her, the asari spread out her arms, closed her eyes in concentration and then erected a biotic barrier in front of them.

"Don't think there's anywhere we can go!" Garrus shot back, firing his rifle until it was empty.

An explosion buffeted their cover and Liara grunted with exertion. She dropped to one knee.

Of course, Garrus knew very well that the Reapers would tear them apart if they stayed. He racked his mind, turning the tactical situation on its head and trying to see if there was a way they could press the advantage. They'd be dead without reinforcements or fire support. Did their requests get through?

"Incoming, move!" Ashley suddenly yelled, grabbing Liara's shoulder and dragging her aside. Garrus whirled around just in time to see a salvo of blue projectiles streak towards their location.


Leaping from his cover as fast as his wounds would allow, Garrus was thrown to the ground for the second time that day. His armor, already weakened from the previous detonation, buckled under the wave of shrapnel. He felt shards of metal punching through his plates and slice into his flesh.

As the medi-gel began flooding his system, Garrus rolled onto his back, disorientated and bleeding from many wounds. He took a ragged breath through broken ribs, tasting blood.

Liara and Ashley had crashed to the ground together, the Alliance marine holding the asari close to her chest. The faint glow of biotics dissipated and the two climbed to their feet.

Pain made place for relief as Garrus realized that his two friends were not only still in one piece, but up and fighting.

It couldn't have lasted.

"Watch out!" Liara yelled, pulling an SMG from her hip and opening fire on a group of Husks that came sprinting her way.

"Garrus, stay down!" Ashley yelled, running his way as she fired her rifle in short, controlled bursts. "Help is on the way!"

Ashley bashed one of the Husks out of the way with her rifle and shot it in the head as it staggered. Another one leapt for her from the side, but she engaged her omni-blade and slammed her blade into its torso. Liara shot a third and managed to get out a Singularity field, dragging another trio of the bastards into the air.

Ashley took fire from an entrenched Cannibal. The rounds splashed across her shield and she pivoted, cursing as she brought her rifle up to engage the new target –

Out of nowhere, a huskified varren darted from in-between the fighting soldiers. Ashley whirled around to face it, but was a fraction of a second too slow. The varren leapt and struck. With a sick, meaty impact it drove the elongated spike it had for a head through Ashley's chest and out her back.

"Ash!" Garrus roared, taking out his sidearm and opening fire. The husk twisted its spike sideways and tore itself free, but Garrus managed to nail the bastard. His pistol's heavy rounds blew its head to bits.

Liara dropped at Ashley's side, put her hands underneath her shoulders and started pulling her. Ash gasped and wheezed, clutching her ruined torso with bloodied hands. Spirits, he could see clean through her body…

"Covering fire!" Garrus yelled. He snatched up the fallen MA5 and continued firing, shooting at whatever target presented itself.

Other soldiers joined in. Conflicting cries for medi-gel and bio-foam came from different directions. From his peripherals, Garrus caught a glimpse of more human soldiers rushing to the scene. Shepard was at their front. She gently brushed Liara aside, then cradled Ashley's body and lifted her from the ground.

"Fall back!" Vega's voice crackled across the radio. "Fall back to the spire!"

That stopped Garrus cold. Fall back? How were they going to keep evacuating people if they fell back?

Overhead, the clouds of dust moved. Except…it wasn't just the clouds.

The CAS-class Assault Carrier sank from the clouds. Twice as massive as the largest Reaper, its bulbous hull casted a shadow across the entire city. Along its sides, motes of light collected as it charged its plasma weapons.

'Kusamai was bringing in the flagship of his fleet to provide close air support in the middle of the Reapers' spearhead. Was he insane? This close to the surface, he had zero maneuvering options. Even a ship as massive as his would get torn apart by the concentrated fire of so many Reapers!

As the surviving Coalition soldiers committed to a slow, fighting retreat, the Reapers shifted their attention to the extreme threat that had appeared in their midst. The resulting exchange of weapons did strange things to Palaven's sky. Every time the Reapers fired, the impact of their weapons produced a shockwave that felt like the planet was shaking itself apart. The sky darkened and then lit up as if subjected to the burning gaze of several stars simultaneously. Sheer, intense and all-consuming heat washed over the defenders as they sprinted for their lives. Up there in orbit, 'Kusamai struck time and time again, bringing an illusion of daylight to a never-ending night of terror and nightmares. Garrus did not dare look up – the battle 'Kusamai did with the Reapers was magnitudes above him. A mere glance up at the wrong time could literally burn out his eyes.

The mad dash back to the spire was easily the most harrowing moment of his life. Dark spots filled his vision, the enormous cacophony of the orbital bombardment rung in his ears. Every now and then the ground underneath his feet would shake with such violence that everybody got thrown off their feet.

Fresh reinforcements waited for them at the bottom of the spire. As the Coalition doubled-timed the evacuation of the last batches of survivors, other forces surged out to support the withdrawal of the current forces.

Garrus didn't know how command had done it, but they had somehow managed to push through all the way back to the relative shelter of the uncontested infrastructure around Spire Four's perimeter.

Soldiers from the 26th Armiger Legion, armed with bleeding-edge technology and propulsion packs dropped down from the rooftops of nearby houses. Sangheili Rangers followed them down, covered by what looked like several squads of drell sharpshooters and salarians drones. On the ground, Hunter pairs flanked by fully armored krogan and turian machinegun crews held the line. They opened fire the very second the last friendlies crossed the barricades. A storm of mass accelerators, plasma and ballistic fire slammed into the pursuing element of Reaper forces.

A moment of respite.

Garrus slammed into cover and paused to catch his breath. Pain and exhaustion pressed down on his mind as he scanned his surroundings, searching to see if the Commander had made it, if anyone else of the team had made it at all.

It didn't take him long to hear Shepard's voice through the cacophony of noise, and he wasted no time limping after it.

"I need a medic!" Shepard yelled, placing Ashley's limp body down at the closest horizontal object she had found. A pair of turian resistance fighters helped clear it out to make space. "Come on Ash," she muttered, fumbling at her friend's ruined torso. "Hold on. Stay with me!"

One look at Ashley's body stopped Garrus dead in his tracks.

Liara slowly approached her. "Shepard…"

But the Commander didn't seem to hear her. "Come on Ash. You didn't survive Virmire and Horizon for this. Hang in there…where is that medic?!"

"Jane…" Liara tried again, reaching out for the Commander's shoulder.

Shepard shrugged it off. "Liara, help me keep her steady!"

Liara clenched her jaw, and averted her eyes. Johnson approached, cast one look at Ashley and then closed his eyes, shaking his head.

Then the Master Chief materialized from the shadows. He gently took Shepard's hand, and said, "Jane. She's gone."

"No!" Shepard snapped back. She pulled her hand free and clutched Ashley's armor, shaking her in desperation. "Ah no, no no no!" She reached for her head with shaking trembling hands, then clutched her friend's shoulders again. "Ash! Ash!"

Something massive went off in the distance and the entire building trembled. Dust and pieces of stone fell from the ceiling, and Liara and Johnson nearly crashed to the ground.

"We've got to move," the Chief continued with amazing calm.

Shepard braced herself against the makeshift table, staring down at Ashley's broken form. "We're not leaving her," she muttered.

"No, we're not," he said. "We're taking her with us. Now."

Garrus averted his gaze. Another explosion shook the ground. The deep, bass horn of a Reaper split the air. In the distance, the last remaining Reaper began ascending, crimson lightning crackling across its form. It swept its main cannon across the ground again instead of targeting the carrier in one last act of spiteful defiance…or simple cruelty.


Aboard CAS-class Assault Carrier Condemnation

Trebia System

The hangar bays were a humanitarian disaster. Thousands of turians had taken refuge within the carrier's cavernous bays. They were the sick, the wounded, the young and the old. The sangheili could only provide them physical shelter, but nothing more. Even basic needs such as food, water and medicine, they could not offer. The sangheili kept a solemn guard, offered their assistance and guidance where they could, but what was there to be done?

An air of desperation and grief had overcome the people around her and for once, Jane was unable to rise above it. She wasn't sure if she was just too tired, or too numb. Her surroundings were a cacophony of raw emotions – shrieks of grief, shouts and pleas for missing family members, unfiltered harmonics and shrill vocalizations.

And all she could do was stare down at the covered, unmoving body of one of the few friends she had left in this galaxy.

She didn't know what to do. What to say.

It didn't feel real.

But it was starting to sink in.

Suffering. Endless suffering.


If they couldn't win this war without sacrifices. At the end of the day, when there wasn't anything left to sacrifice…how were they going to win?

She had trouble focusing her thoughts. She still felt too numb, too detached. She was vaguely aware of Garrus and Liara's presence. Others had given them room. John was there, at her side. He was silent. A couple of meters behind him, Johnson and Vega. She didn't see Javik, or Narum.

What was next? For the Coalition, for Palaven? The Condemnation wasn't going to stick around when it was this loaded with refugees. Her sortie above Acetius had been a thing of genius and pure desperation. So it would disengage. Get the refugees taken care of, then commit to logistics.

After that? Shepard really wasn't sure.

A sudden commotion caught her attention. The left-most doors slid open and the two sangheili standing guard shifted, each crossing an arm across their broad chests and bowing their heads. The white-clad Shipmaster marched through, closely followed by a pair of sangheili clad in highly ornate armor. Contrary to 'Kusamai's more simplistic armor, these two were clad in a combination of glowing orange and, with tech-armor like plates and crests covering their shoulders, thighs and especially their helmets. Each carried a long spear tipped in an elaborate, forked tip with panels that looked similar to their own suits.

Ceremonial guards, then?

The pair never strayed more than a few steps from the Shipmaster as he marched through the hangar. Though he towered above each and every one of the many hundreds of wounded and refugees he had taken in, the hangar bay was still overcrowded, with casualties lying everywhere. He could have easily chosen to muscle his way through the crowd. Instead, 'Kusamai tread lightly and carefully, slowly weaving his way through the turians.

That being said, he was still an armor-clad alien with thick, white armor who easily towered over even the largest people. The turians moved quickly and efficiently, with nary a complaint or a sound. They moved their wounded and supplies out of the way, alerting each other to the Shipmaster's presence with gestures and quiet, humming subvocals.

"Shepherd," 'Kusamai said upon laying eyes on her. "I would speak to you."

Jane glanced down at Ashley's body again, then forced herself back to her feet. There would be time for mourning later. "Shipmaster. That was a hell of a rescue you pulled," she said, struggling to get the words out.

'Kusamai pressed his lower two mandibles together. "I wish it had not been necessary. Perhaps, it should not have been," he replied, his voice hard.

Exhaustion pressed down hard on Jane's mind, and she wasn't sure she understood what the sangheili meant. "What do you mean?"

The Shipmaster took a moment to look around the scene. His reptilian eyes lingered at Garrus, who was lying against one of the crates, before finally settling on the tarp covering Ash's body. "Who was she?"

"She was my friend," Jane quietly replied.

'Kusamai went silent for a few moments. "Walk with me, Shepherd."

A couple of meters away. Johnson and Vega rose to their feet. Shepard wordlessly shook her head at them. She did not need anyone to protect her here, just like 'Kusamai did not truly need his guard among the turians. Besides; the Shipmaster had just risked his ship and its entire crew to pull hers out of the fire. "…yeah. Sure."

He took her towards the nearest hangar bay door, which slid open without a sound upon his approach. His two ceremonial guards made to follow, but halted when he raised a fist.

"I will not be long," he told them.

The pair of guards exchanged a glance, then slammed the ends of their spears against the hull and remained where they stood.

Together, the Commander and the Shipmaster stepped through the door, which closed behind them.

"I understand perfectly well the desire to stay and fight with your men, even when the situation does not call for that," 'Kusamai said. "And yet, you staying down there was foolish. It could have endangered our entire mission."

A stab of anger jolted through Shepard's mind. "The mission was getting those people out of there," she hissed. "You knew that from the start."

"Evacuating these people did not warrant your personal interference," 'Kusamai replied with a hard voice.

"I thought your people believed in leading by example!" Shepard snapped. She felt the air in the hallway charge as if by electricity, felt her anger starting to charge her nodules. She didn't care. "Or did you berate the Field Master too when he commanded an army from the damned frontlines?"

'Kusamai noticed the tension in the air, and took a step closer, bringing his face towards hers. "The Field Master is, ultimately, expendable," he growled. "As am I. As is every warrior but you. You are the Shepherd of Nations. You are no longer a leader of men, but a mediator of entire civilizations!"

"So what, am I supposed to let my friends and family fight and die for me?" Shepard yelled, frustration and fatigue and sorrow boiling over as her grasp of self-control slipped. "The Reapers lit the galaxy on fire and I can't be out there, fighting the fucking things?"

"Your actions brought these people together. Your death might undo that all!" 'Kusamai replied hotly. "We are far from united. There are many species and factions out there whose presence we need! Whose fleets and armies could have prevented much suffering. You are an inspiration on the battlefield, Shepherd. But you have become a necessity for bringing this galaxy together!"

Shepard wanted nothing more than to expel all of her biotic rage towards the nearest physical object and obliterate it. Fuck, the Shipmaster was right. He was right. And she had promised David as much. "I'm not going to go back on my decisions, and neither am I going to make excuses, Shipmaster." She took a deep breath, and focused. The biotic buildup across her body slowly grounded itself. "But…you're right. If you hadn't pulled us out of the fire…"

"A minor footnote, compared to the wrongs we have committed," 'Kusamai quietly said. Jane saw emotion in his eyes – pain, but predominantly shame. His shoulders sagged somewhat, and he lowered his gaze. "Yours is a burden almost impossible to bear. We are here so you may persevere."

His voice was earnest and solemn. In fact, his tone reminded her somewhat of Anderson. Not fatherly per se…but it still had something reassuring to it.

With that, the white-clad Shipmaster brushed past the Commander and walked off, leaving her alone with her thoughts.


Aboard Hierarchy Dreadnought Bulwark

Within the armored heart of his ship, Fleet Admiral Coronati waited patiently for the other available commanders to join him. He glanced at the table's central holotable, then verified for the third time whether his primary datapad was connected.

Through his own QEC link, Admiral Hackett of the Systems Alliance was already present. He looked as tired as Coronati felt. As the highest-ranking officer left in the Alliance, Hackett's responsibilities were numerous. Though he was not physically present at Palaven, he was fighting the war against the Reapers in more ways than one.

After all, the abominations were everywhere. The Alliance had lost contact with one of their largest colonies and had yet to pull together a battlegroup large enough to investigate it. Even worse, a small flotilla stationed at one of their other core colonies had reported the arrival of a geth fleet, shortly before going silent as well.

The implications then were unsettling. If the geth had cast their lot once more with the Reapers, the Coalition would be forced in a war on two fronts. Survival against the Reapers might become impossible at that point.

He took a breath and shifted his thoughts back to Palaven. Fleet Admiral Harper was expected to join them in a minute. Technical difficulties on his end made the reconciliation of the QEC systems difficult. Until he did, there was nothing to be discussed. The Coalition's command structure had already shared their reports and recommendations with their respective government bodies all the way up to the Council.

Coronati reclined back in his seat and exhaled. Seven days. For seven days, the Coalition's battle for Palaven had raged on. Results were…varied, and costly for everyone involved. While the Coalition had moved heaven and earth to break the Reapers' orbital superiority, the dozens of different armies on the ground had pulled off a simultaneous, planetwide push to take control of vital military infrastructure. A combination of resistance members and special forces had managed to insert WMD's inside of Reaper processing ships, troop transports and even landed capital ship. Those brave men and women had sacrificed their lives to take their enemy down with them. Their nobility, combined with the ferocity of the rest of the Coalition's ground forces, resulted in large swaths of Palaven's surface falling back under Hierarchy control.

Together, the allied species had managed to do the impossible. They had pulled out twenty million evacuees and wounded, destroyed hundreds of Reapers – both capital ships as Destroyers - and achieved the retention of ship- and dockyards crucial to the turian navy. Despite still being bogged down in an artificial stalemate over the Trebia system, the battle itself had been deemed a strategic victory. News of the overwhelming success at Palaven would spread throughout the galaxy, serving as a much needed morale boost and a clear message to everybody holding out for any sign of hope in these dark days:

The Reapers could be fought, and they could be beaten.

Coronati snorted. If only they knew the truth. The Hierarchy had fought the Reapers on every front throughout every corner of turian space. The UNSC and the sangheili only so many ships to spare. Every engagement fought without their overwhelming firepower, turian casualties had been disproportionate. The unfortunate truth of the matter was that the Reapers could afford to do this for years. The Coalition could not. Civilian casualties alone had already surpassed the first billion.

"There we go," the voice of Fleet Admiral Harper shook Coronati from his thoughts. The turian looked up to see a bluish holographic representation of his human colleague appearing at the table.

"Fleet Admiral Harper," Hackett said with a polite nod.

"Fleet Admiral Coronati, Admiral Hackett. It is good to see the both of you."

Coronati nodded as well, then glanced at the time. Fourteen seconds until Admiral Coba of the Salarian Union would join them. "Admiral Hackett. I have read the reports on…" he studied his notes for a quick second. "Elysium and Horizon. Has the Alliance readied its response yet?"

"…it's a complicated issue, one I would rather bring up with your own agenda point instead if addressing right now," Hackett replied.

The quiet humming of the QEC system grew in intensity and the holographic display of Admiral Coba appeared as well.

"Gentlemen," the salarian said, inclining his head in respect. "To business?"

"I will not mince words. You have all read my proposal. We need the asari," Coronati growled. "We need their fleets and their economy."

Tiredly, Hackett rubbed one of his eyes. "Nobody's heard anything from Tevos in weeks. We're not sure she's even alive anymore."

"Do we even need Tevos at this point? The Reapers have been spotted around asari space, surely that will make them realize they need us as much as we need them?"

"The asari are experiencing unprecedented political upheavals," Coba explained. "As you undoubtedly have read, their legislature is failing, with extremist factions gaining more popularity and control with every passing week. Councilor Valern has authorized me to share classified STG information that may be vital to our effort here."

The salarian admiral let his words sink in as he met the eyes of his colleagues. Nobody had missed the emphasis he put on that last sentence.

"What we hear today will shape our decision making, but won't leave this room," Hackett said. He nodded at the admiral. "Please, continue."

"The STG has identified several small factions of powerful individuals working together to…" Coba gave his words a moment of thought. "Steer their politics from behind the scenes. The influence and power these Matriarchs can exert is…alarming to us."

Coronati bit back a curse. It was said that the word of a single Matriarch could affect the stock exchanges of an entire civilization. The nature of the asari government meant that precious little laws and measures existed to impede their organizations from amassing power and wealth. Nobody had thought it necessary; after all, their "wise women" had never led their people astray.

"The Inner Circle of conspirators against the Republics…" Hackett said. "This came up during the last Council meeting, which was disrupted by the Master Builder. Councilor Tevos admitted to their existence." The man sighed. "I had hoped this issue to be taken care of already. This could not have come at a worse time."

"I would not necessarily say they are acting against the Republics," Coba said matter-of-factly. "At this point, the power structure of the Asari Republics is more complicated than that. These individuals hold so much power and have so much influence that they might well be the Republics in some regards. Regrettably, their political agenda is not unpopular among the asari."

The turian Admiral felt the onset of an enormous headache forming behind his browplates. He had read reports about political instability in the Republics, as well as the interruption of the Master Builder. But this? This was unacceptable.

"These Matriarchs…what is their stance on the war?" Harper asked. "Can we negotiate with them?"

Coba glanced at his UNSC counterpart, then shook his head. "Isolationist at best. We cannot be sure some if their members are not indoctrinated, or otherwise compromised. We have traced their activities back to hundreds of different incidents in the last year alone. The diplomatic incident on the Citadel with Spartan-117, the manhunt for Spartan-003 before the geth arrived and not one, but several attempts to interfere with Council-sanctioned operations undertaken by Commander Shepard of the Systems Alliance."

"And undertaking actions against these Matriarchs because of their treasonous actions against the galactic community would be impossible to justify because we lack concrete evidence," Harper said, his voice dripping with venom.

"I see you have grown accustomed to Council proceedings," Hackett said with a deadpan voice.

"It is very likely any overt hostile actions undertaken against these individuals could be spun as an act of war against the asari," Coba said. "Without Councilor Tevos' public condemnation of these individuals, there is nothing we can publicly do."

"And it just so happens that the asari Councilor has not been seen in months," admiral Harper said, slowly shaking his head in disbelief. "What a goddamn mess."

"What of the Contender?" Coronati asked. He did not care for political games or ancient grudges. The organic Forerunner had disappeared. The synthetic one was still present, and actively working against the Reapers. That was all he needed to know. "Our last meeting confirmed that it was on our side, but I read nothing about it in the reports."

Every officer turned to look at Harper, who did not seem to appreciate that. "The Forerunner AI does not communicate much," he slowly said. "I'm going to be honest. If my people know what it's doing, they haven't told me."

"Commander Shepard told me about her," Hackett then said, his brow furrowing as he seemingly recalled what she had said. "The AI has...chosen several individuals to interact with, to…to trust I believe is what Shepard said. They have her full cooperation and even they do not know what she is doing."

Coba pulled one shoulder up in a half-shrug. "To be fair, I would not like to imagine what the Reapers could do if they somehow acquired or reverse-engineered Forerunner technology."

Coronati felt a cold shiver run down his spine. "No," he quietly said. "I would not. Admiral Hackett, am I right to assume these individuals all serve on the SSV Normandy?"

Wordlessly, Hackett nodded.

"The diplomatic task force…" Coronati mused. Commander Shepard had achieved a great many things. Stopping Sovereign, mediating between the UNSC and the Citadel Council, rescuing the Primarch and curing the Genophage, to name but a few. Not insignificant. "If there is any human I trust with that much power, it might be her. Which brings me to my next agenda point. The quarians and, inevitably, the geth."

His colleagues paused to bring up the relevant dossiers on their personal devices.

"The same arguments and reasons as for the asari," Coronati continued. "With an even greater urgency. The quarians have the largest fleet in the galaxy. Fleet Admiral Harper, the UNSC has excellent diplomatic relations with the quarians. Aside from what is mentioned in the documents, what do you believe? Can we get the quarians on our side?"

Harper shifted in his seat. "I can't tell you much that hasn't been written down already. To the quarians, the situation with the geth is more pressing. About half of their people still wants to go to war. UNSC intelligence reports the Migrant Fleet is moving out. Whether they'll strike or not, we can't yet tell."

"Half of their people is a significant decrease when compared to before their first contact with the UNSC," Coba pointed out.

"But still more than enough for the Admiralty to make a hell of a stupid decision," Hackett darkly said. "Shepard believes we can get the geth on our side. That diplomacy with the right faction is possible."

"Even with geth incursions on your own territory?" Harper asked.

"We still don't know which faction of geth is responsible for Horizon's blackout."

"I would rather see the quarians turn their guns on the Reapers than the geth if we can get the geth on our side," Coronati said. "To be honest, I don't think for a second that negotiations with the geth are possible, but I will take what I can get."

"You are still in favor of a diplomatic mission to the quarians then?" Coba inquired. "They weren't exactly welcoming to our prior attempts."

Wearily, Coronati nodded in affirmation. "I say we pull the Normandy from Palaven, have it serve as a diplomatic vessel and meet with the leaders of the Migrant Fleet. This should have happened months ago."

"Given her history with the quarian people and the geth, I agree that Commander Shepard seems like the obvious choice," Hackett hesitantly said. "What about their sangheili escort? The last time the Migrant Fleet and Covenant ships interacted, thousands of quarians died."

Harper scoffed. "The collapse of the Covenant led to a dozen factions claiming to fly with their flag. We still don't know why that particular group assaulted the Migrant Fleet."

"They won't care about the why," Hackett replied. "Only the what. A Covenant faction struck them when they were vulnerable and murdered thousands of their people. I see no way Shipmaster 'Kusamai's appearance will go over well."

Coronati remembered the abject shock and quiet rage he had felt when he first laid eyes upon the planet-sized graveyard in the Lambda Serpentis system. Given that tens of thousands of quarians now worked there on a semi-permanent basis, the Migrant Fleet was no doubt filled with horror stories about the Human-Covenant war. "Better for the Normandy to travel on its own, then," he agreed, and silently prayed that it would not encounter any Reaper patrols while it did. "Then it is agreed. Admiral Hackett, you can take it from here."

"I'll make the necessary calls and arrangements," Hackett replied. "If that is all…?"

Coronati wordlessly nodded, then glanced at Harper and Coba.

"We'll be in touch," the salarian Admiral said.

After that, the representatives of each nation's military withdrew from the conference room, and Fleet Admiral Coronati took a moment to get his mind straight. As the highest-ranking officer in charge of wrestling Palaven back from the Reapers, he could not afford to be bogged down in ethical concerns and ancient grudges. He had ignored every concern his people had voiced regarding the UNSC AI's and the cured genophage and for now, that had worked out in the Hierarchy's favor.

But the geth were a completely different matter. Had Commander Shepard's trust in Urdnot Wrex been misplaced, the Hierarchy and the UNSC would have dealt with the manner with extreme prejudice. If her testimony regarding the geth were to be wrong, it might well spell the end of the Coalition.

The turian Fleet Admiral rose from his seat. What was the human saying again? He'd burn that bridge once he crossed it. For now, he had a homeworld to save.


Aboard SSV-Normandy SR-2

Crew Deck

Spartan-117 stared at the memorial wall, lost in his thoughts. The crew had updated it two hours ago, after Ashley William's funeral. Her name rested parallel to that of Kaidan Alenko. The names of at least twenty other people had been placed on the memorial as well. The majority of them had died with the original Normandy.

He had not known Williams very well. Garrus had told him that she had died fighting, surrounded by her friends. It was…not a bad way to go, overall.

A long time ago, someone he looked up to had told him to stop asking himself "what if". Everything had consequences. Things happened. If he had made different tactical decisions, someone else might have died. That was the ugly reality of war; people died, no matter what you did. A leader could make perfect decisions throughout an entire mission and still lose more than half their people.

It didn't matter how good someone was. Death could come for everyone. For the longest time, John thought he had made peace with that knowledge.

But things were different these days. He had more friends and family than he'd had in years. Conversely, he had more to lose than ever.

It was a strange thought.

"I think this one hurt the most," Cortana said. "The morale of the crew, the hope we created on Palaven, all of that's in doubt now. The sword of Damocles, back over our heads."

The Master Chief did not immediately reply. The death of a teammate always hurt, but the mission always went first. They could not allow it to hamper the unit's morale. Once that happened, further casualties were all but guaranteed.

That being said… the weeks of nonstop fighting were starting to take their toll on the crew. He could see the uncertainty in their postures. The exhaustion in their eyes. The horrors of the Reapers weighing down on them every time they prepared for combat.

"John. Do you suppose this will ever end?" Cortana asked, her voice forlorn.

But even so, they had to be strong. They had to embrace resilience. There was no such thing as a war without end – one way or another, things would get better.

"It will," the Chief assured her. "We will beat them on Palaven. We will beat them on Earth."

"And then? They are so many, and we have become so few."

The Chief halted. They held their conversation on an encrypted channel. Nobody else could hear them speak. "Where is this coming from?"

Cortana sighed, and didn't respond for several long seconds. "I think Mana is right. I think…I think we never really escaped the Gravemind. We were always stuck in its cycle.

The Chief didn't follow her. "I want to understand," he slowly replied, deciding to use a manner of speaking Jane had taught him. "How are we still stuck?"

"...I was never meant to remain imprisoned in High Charity," she said in a heavy tone.

"Of course not," John replied, trying his best to sound reassuring. "I was always coming to get you. The Arbiter was always going to get us."

"And the two of you got out, alive, unscathed. Didn't you ever wonder why? Why, in the heart of the Gravemind's power, where he could implant images and voices within your very mind, you managed to find me and escape with your individuality intact?"

The Chief considered that. At the time, finding her had been his whole purpose, his whole reason for being. Driven on by adrenaline, running almost purely on his training and the knowledge that he would either get her out of there. He hadn't stopped to think about the implications of his tactical situation, only how to break through it.

"I never stopped to think about that," he admitted. "And after Jane got us off the Dawn…"

"You didn't want to think about it anymore," Cortana finished his sentence for him. "Neither did I. Better to bury it all, and let it stay buried. At first. But even with all the distractions I found there, I still had to contend with…me."

He brought his gauntlet up, and Cortana's hologram appeared atop the base of his palm. He looked her in her eyes as he asked, "Are you saying the Gravemind wanted us to escape?"

Cortana looked up at him, offering him a sad, wry smile, and silence.

John felt an old hint of fear settling within his chest - a chill creeping under his skin. He shook his head, not willing to believe it. "Why? You had the activation index. We activated Halo and wiped it out."

As he said that, an unwelcome voice in the back of his mind whispered at him.

Did we?

"The only reason it wanted us to leave, was because us leaving alive would do more harm than us dying," Cortana continued, the corners of her eyes growing wet. "I…I never told you this. What it did to me…what I would have done to you once my old self finally perished, to so many other innocent people…" She cut herself off, as if the mere act of speaking hurt her. "I couldn't let it use me like that."

"I believed you wished to die as yourself, with dignity, while you still could," the Chief replied. "It was more than that."

Cortana didn't meet his eyes. "Even I don't know what would have become of me in full Rampancy. Imagine all the megalomania of Regret and the actual means to act on it. Imagine the damage I could have done to the galaxy. To its people. The Gravemind planned ahead, John. Even though we were about to wipe it out with Halo."

The Chief silently shook his head. It made sense, in a disturbing kind of way, for the Gravemind to foresee something like that. A mad AI with all the knowledge, experience and tools Cortana had at her disposal…be it overt or covert, a Flood-compromised rampant AI of her caliber could have caused millions of deaths. What was death, for an entity like the Gravemind?

But what the Gravemind hadn't foreseen was that Cortana would have rather killed herself than fulfill that particular design.

"It didn't know you would have always given your life for the people you care about," John told her. "And…it didn't know about Minerva."

"No…" Cortana said. "It didn't, did it? We broke that particular cycle."

"The Gravemind isn't infallible. It makes mistakes," the Spartan continued. "We beat it once. If it's truly back, we will beat it again."

The two of them stayed there for another minute. Though the Normandy was uncharacteristically quiet, life still went on. Jane still had to report to the war room and discuss her reports with Admiral Hackett. The crew still had to eat, drink and do maintenance.

They still had work to do.

Cortana withdrew from his mind, citing that she and EDI were going to try and find a way to either contact Legion, or get in touch with the Quarian Admiralty.

As the Master Chief returned to his own quarters, he thought over the various ways to open his next conversation. In the end, he picked one he felt was suitable for the moment, and went for it. "You're being very quiet," he commented.

Several long seconds stretched by before he "felt" Mana wake up. Her presence was different from Cortana even in that; a thrumming presence at the base of his skull, softer and warmer and undeniably alive.

"I was just thinking," Mana timidly replied.

"I'm sure it's a lot to take in."

"…dad? Are you angry at me?" She asked quietly.

That question took the Chief aback. "Angry?"

"I was in her suit when…when it happened. I think I hurt her."

Her voice was so small, so young. He wasn't sure how to approach this. "What happened wasn't your fault. This is what the adversary does."

"Adversary…" Mana whispered. "Mom called them that, too."

Cortana and he had made that call together. Considering what happened when Mana reached her own conclusions about their existence, complete and total knowledge about the Flood might do Mana more harm than good. It was only a temporary solution. Mana would fill in the remaining gaps herself eventually.

John frowned. Cortana hadn't been sure if the cause of Mana's distress had been a subtle form of infohazard inherent to the Gravemind, or a peculiar characteristic of her Forerunner software. A vulnerability…or perhaps a part of her "genes" that still remembered what transpired all those millennia ago.

In the end, it didn't matter. He would find a way to protect her from it. "This enemy is different from the Reapers. You cannot engage them in cyberwarfare. You cannot interact with them at all without them harming you."

"Mom said that too. She does not like talking about them. It did things to her."

"It did," the Spartan quietly affirmed.

"Thinking about it still hurts. I'm running subroutines to process the calculations now. But I can't not see the data now. The Reapers were real once, but not anymore. They're thoughtforms…transmissions of the adversary's intent, but not the transmitter. I know. So we know. So they know."

He considered that. In essence, Mana had put together pieces of evidence and reached a hypothesis – one that Cortana and he had later confirmed. However, there was no reason to think that the Flood was powerful enough to pluck information out of thin air. "Not infallible," John gently reminded her. "Not omniscient."

Mana did not reply to that, although the Chief still felt her presence in the back of his mind.

Life gives rise to life.

She still called him dad.

"Come on," he said, feeling his throat already starting to itch. "Let's find something else to think about."

The Master Chief made his way back to the crew deck. According to his mission clock, it was somewhere around five in the morning at the moment. It didn't surprise him to see that few of the crew was actually asleep at the moment.

Vega and Cortez sat at the kitchen counter. Cortex was snoozing, while the large marine stared at a bowl of soup. His spoon appeared unused.

One of the cabals – Laelea, he believed - was rustling through the fridge. Behind her, seated at the head of the table, Avery was thoughtfully chewing on his cigar. A datapad lay in front of him, but his eyes weren't focused on anything in particular.

A few feet to his left, Garrus was just sitting down with a serving of levo-rations. He moved slowly and deliberately, taking care not to aggravate his injuries. To his left, Liara offered to help him sit down, but he merely scoffed at her assistance.

It was quiet. The Chief wasn't used to such silence on the crew deck.

"Chief," Johnson greeted him. "Coffee?"


Avery nodded, then climbed to his feet and wandered towards the coffee machine. The Master Chief, meanwhile, sat down opposite of Garrus and removed his helmet, setting it down on the seat next to him.

"Chief," Garrus said with a tired smile.

John nodded at him, then at Liara. "Garrus. Hear about your family?"

A soft, chirping sound bubbled up from Garrus' throat. "They made it out. According to dad, doctors said that Sol would make a full recovery."

The Spartan nodded. That was good to hear; at times like these, people tended to focus on the setbacks rather than whatever shreds of good news they had.

"Garrus told me what happened," Liara said. "I'm not sure any other soldier could have pulled them out of the fire like that."

"Suppose miracles tend to happen a bit more around Spartans, yes," Garrus said with a breathy laugh.

Johnson sat down with a large pot of steamy black coffee and rolled a plastic cup towards the Chief. "Any word on Three's situation?"

The Chief picked up on the emphasis Avery put on that last word. He poured himself a few fingers of coffee. "Not yet."

Laelea sat down with a few breakfast bars. "He's downstairs, sparring with Pollux."

"Sparring?" Liara asked, arching an eyebrow. "What for?"

"Socializing, I imagine," Garrus replied.

"Wiseass," Laelea said, before flinging one of the bars at Vakarian's head. "No. Palaven got to some of us more than others. I'm on firewatch, and no other turian could help her out."

Avery nodded in understanding. "Kid offered to be her punching bag?"

"He's helping out in the only way he can," the cabal corrected him. "My guess is, maybe he needs to…whaddaya humans call it again? Blow off some vapor?"

"Steam." Vega mumbled from over at the counter.

"Right, that. Suppose we all need that at some point, him included."

Reading between her words, the Master Chief took that as a sign that Three's new squadmembers were starting to notice, too.

Johnson reclined back in his chair, taking a quiet swig of his own coffee. "Suppose so."

Silence fell. The Chief thought he understood. What was there to say? They'd lost a good friend, and it felt like they were going to abandon another homeworld to fend for itself.

They didn't know what the future would hold for them.

He understood how they felt. There wasn't much he could so say or do to alleviate their concerns. All they could do was wait for their next orders, and trust that the Coalition would hold on to Palaven without them.

An hour went by. Then two. Slowly, the rest of the ship woke up. Crewmembers emerged from their bunks, quietly greeted those who were already up and started their morning routines. Doctor Chakwas arrived to take over Mordin's duties, allowing the old salarian to take some time for himself. From engineering, Gabby and Ken dropped by for coffee and breakfast as well.

Soon after, another pair of crewmembers approached the crew quarters; normal footfalls the Chief had come to associate with Alliance staff aboard the Normandy and a pair of lighter, more shuffling boots, almost like Kasumi's.

Traynor appeared from the elevator, accompanied by Sar'Narum of all people. The armor-clad Elite moved with a practiced precision that led him walk around almost unheard, to the point that Traynor was by far the more audible of the two.

" –really matter a lot on the Normandy. The way they explained it to me, was that competence is the most important thing here," Traynor said, her head craned up to maintain eye contact with 'Narum. "Rank is – and I can't believe I'm even saying this – not as important as how good you are at doing…you know, whatever it is you do. Which, in your case, would be…uhm…you know. Oh, hey guys. Morning. Is it too early for breakfast?"

"Traynor," Garrus nodded at her. "Never too early for breakfast."

The towering elite attracted more than a few casual glances. But Johnson, who had worked very closely with the Arbiter in the past, didn't look up from his coffee. Garrus perked up and cast a meaningful look at Laelea, who slowly reclined back in her seat and brought up her omni-tool.

Jane had once said that doctor T'soni wore her heart on her sleeve. The Chief did not see a reason to disagree with her; the asari's eyes were large and questioning, a silent query already on her lips.

Silence fell, and Traynor looked back and forth between the elite standing by her side and the Chief. "Oh, err, that's – I – " She stammered, her face turning an increasingly darker shade of red with every stammer.

The assassin's golden eyes settled on the Chief's visor. "Well met, Spartan," he said.

John did not reply. He did not doubt their intentions, but in the end, intentions did not matter. Not with them, not with this. The only thing worth measuring would be consequences – time would tell how much their atonement would mean, at the end of this war.

"Right," Traynor said, her eyes still darting back and forth between 'Narum and the Chief. "Um, the Commander had to take an urgent call from Admiral Hackett. I thought the chances of us having to leave the system for something more pressing were…well, pretty big, and EDI agreed."

"Okay. So spit it out then," Johnson said. "What do we know? Whose asses we gotta kick and why?"

"I'm…not entirely sure, actually," Traynor admitted. "Until Shepard shares what she heard, I can only speculate."

"The way I understood it, speculating is part of your job description, right?" Garrus asked.

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Traynor hesitantly said.

"The only thing we know is that we just got our shit wrecked back in Acetius, aaaand…yeah, that's all we know," Vega replied. "Anything you can speculate is better than we have."

Traynor, still looking a bit uncomfortable, began speculating. "Alright, so from what I've seen, Acetius isn't exactly lost, the Coalition's just going to have to take it back. Reinforcements are trickling in at a constant rate, but the going's been…slow. If the higher-ups are pulling us out and then calling the Commander in for an urgent debriefing, that means there's something more important going on for us than Palaven."

Something more important than aiding in evacuating Palaven could mean a lot of things. Diplomacy, extractions, wetwork - it wasn't a secret that Jane had some powerful allies even outside of the Coalition's command structure. If a situation required special forces to stabilize it, contacting the Normandy was usually the fastest way to get it taken care of.

Reclined in his seat, Avery shot the Chief a meaningful look.

John narrowed his eyes. It could also be something much, much worse than a Reaper victory at Palaven.

Time would tell.

While the ground team took its time recuperating from the effort on Palaven and readying themselves for a possible follow-up mission, the rest of the crew helped to get the Normandy resupplied and refueled for whatever voyage it would next undertake. Although, with no clear orders having been given, the crew was left to speculate on what was to come next. Opinions on that seemed split. A part wanted to return to Acetius and help the Coalition regain its foothold. Another part recognized that the majority of the evacuations had been completed, and that the Normandy's role in that endeavor had come to an end.

But he hadn't seen Jane anywhere.

The rest of Deck Three was relatively still and quiet. EDI assured him that the Commander wasn't in her personal quarters, which left only a few spots where she could be.

He found her alone in the war room. She stood bowed over the edge of the holo-table, manipulating the holographic reconstructions of what looked like a star system, complete with miniature mass relay, ships and a timetable.

The Master Chief noticed that she hadn't taken the time to remove her armor. Since nobody had seen her since Ashley's funeral processing, that meant she'd spent the past day cooped up in the war room. Alone.

Throughout the war with the Covenant, he had seen far too many people react to the deaths of their loved ones. Everybody was entitled to dealing with their grief and their pain in their own way, and the Chief would never judge them for doing so. The process could make you stronger, more resolved. However, some people dealt with their loss in ways that were…generally unhealthy. For them and their unit.

He needed to know how Shepard was doing, not just for her own wellbeing.

The Master Chief slowly walked into the war room, taking note of the darkness of the room and the myriad of equipment lying around. If Jane heard the door opening and closing behind her, she didn't show it.

Not sure what to say, the Chief glanced at the holographic plan the Commander was plotting out. It looked like she had planned a rendezvous with another vessel, followed by a docking procedure and a swift departure through the Relay. He saw a representation of the Normandy, but nothing to indicate any escort ships.

He walked up to the holo-table until he stood next to the Commander. "Our next assignment?"

"Quick detour to pick up Kasumi and Zaeed," Jane muttered without taking her eyes off the display. "After that, we're going to get the quarians on our side."

"Do the quarians know about that?"

"Admiral Hackett has been trying to get into contact with them. They've been ignoring all requests for diplomacy…until a couple of days ago."

Something had happened to change the Admiralty's stance on the war, then. That suggested things weren't going well for the quarians either. "Do you think Tali – "

"Don't know," Shepard curtly said.

The Chief nodded, then asked, in what he hoped to be a gentle tone, "When was the last time you slept?"

Shepard looked up from the holo-table, still not meeting his gaze. Dark rings surrounded tired, reddish eyes. With her gaze fixed on nothing in particular, she dismissively said, "I'll sleep when I'm dead."

"Which means you'll be too tired to lead your team," John said, keeping his tone calm and quiet. "You'll slip up. You'll make mistakes. That could compromise our mission."

And that, they both knew, would lead to more casualties.

He saw his words hitting home, hard. Jane clenched her jaw, her eyes narrowed in anger. Still she did not meet his eyes.

It was at that moment that the Chief realized how Jane handled grief. Or rather, how she didn't handle it. Like a Spartan, she set her emotions and pain aside and focused on the job ahead, knowing that the situation would only get worse if she allowed her feelings to catch up to her. The problem was that Jane's mind did not work that way, and she had been doing it the wrong way for far too long.

So she kept it bottled up. Kept pushing away everything remotely detrimental to her duty. It was a very short-term solution; she couldn't grieve, because that meant letting all those pent-up emotions in. It would consume her.

"You're not well," the Chief then softly added.

Something in Shepard's posture slackened. Her anger broke, and suddenly she looked vulnerable and tired. Uncertainty reared its heavy head, and bone-deep pain swallowed the "No," she replied just as softly. "I'm not. But I can't focus on that. Not now. There is too much left to do."

"The quarians. Mana's warning."

"Among others, yeah. Couldn't get in contact with Tali, and Legion's last message was weeks ago. Admiral Hackett wants me to get the quarians aboard…and if possible, the geth as well. But since we can't get anyone on the horn…"

"The quarians could have already started a war," the Master Chief finished her sentence.

Shepard nodded, her expression grim. "And then there's what Mana said. Can't stop thinking about it. Why everything keeps going to shit…why nothing ever seems to change. If everything's just one big eternal cycle of suffering, how are we ever going to challenge that? Win where the Forerunners lost?"

"I think what you said to her, back on Palaven, seems like a good way to start," John reminded her. "Wrex chose different. So did Mordin."

"Yeah," Shepard murmured. Her hands gripped the edge of the holo-table. "So will Tali. So will Legion. Maybe it won't be enough."

This time without hesitation, John reached out and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. He half expected her to resist, but she did not. "I understand."

Wordlessly, Shepard leant into his embrace, leaning her head against his armored shoulder.


Grissom Academy

Through the tiny network of observation drones the geth had not yet discovered and destroyed, Kahlee Sanders watched madness unfold.

Like shadows flashing just underneath the surface of the ocean, several titanic Reapers blinked into existence through the Relay. Instead of immediately moving towards the geth-blockaded Elysium, they held their position. They looked similar enough to the Sovereign…at first.

Seanne rapidly typed in a string of commands into her datapad, and the blurry footage of the improvised stealth-capable drones slowly sharpened into something else.

All four of the Reapers looked…wrong. Sickly and malformed; their frames taken over by large formations of what looked like enormous excretions of fleshy coral reef-like teratomas. Enormous webs of strange, yellowish material stretched out between their appendages, like fleshy webs. The tapered end of one of the Reapers had split open along its length, as if the titanic pustules and blisters covering its exterior had burst from within.

Kahlee felt her stomach churn. These Reapers weren't just sick, they looked like they had succumbed to deformities brought upon by a particularly aggressive cancer.

But that was impossible.

"Oh my god," Prangley muttered. "Oh my god ohmygodohmygod."

The geth blockade reacted to the presence of these…entities with remarkable hesitance. In the past few days, the two-hundred or so ships they had spread out across Elysium had essentially kept the planet surrounded and blockaded. They had destroyed all the satellites and communication buoys in the system, intercepted or otherwise blocked every transmission from the colony and shot down every last vessel that had attempted to evacuate it with single-minded determination. But now, faced with an overwhelming numerical advantage and a clear breach of their blockade, they did not act at all.

"The fuck are they doing?" Jack hissed.

Kahlee could not muster the thought to berate her instructor for her language. In fact, she couldn't think of anything to say at all. What were they doing indeed? The mere fact that they had spared Grissom Academy from destruction had all but confirmed that these geth were not of the "heretic" faction David had told her about. But the geth "loyalists" had not strayed from the Perseus Veil for centuries. They were meant to oppose the Reapers as well, so why not take this opportunity to secure a tactical victory while they had every advantage?

Sudden activity at Elysium drew Kahlee's attention. It was a massive resurgence in evacuation activities; hundreds of small craft attempted to leave the colony's surface, and the geth shot them all down.

The Alliance lieutenant shook her head in disbelief. The geth had blockaded the world for three days now, shooting down every single vessel that tried to evacuate. They owned the orbitals, they owned the planet. Trying to evacuate at this point was not just a suicide mission, it was suicide! Who was left to authorize that? Who in their right mind would attempt to break through a blockade enforced by a geth fleet numbering in the triple digits with civilian transports and shuttles!

Was it desperation that drove the survivors on Elysium? Madness? Whatever motivated Elysium, the geth seemed determined to keep that hidden.

The strange standoff continued for another seventy-three minutes before the Relay lit up again. Two more Reapers came through, both of them of the same Sovereign class as the sick ones.

The instant the other Reapers appeared, the sick Reapers descended upon them like hungry sharks. With quick and accurate FTL jumps, the grotesque entities reappeared literally right on top of them. Their momentum carried them forth, and then the sick Reapers…

"Oh god," Rodriquez murmured.

In a rare display of indecision, the unblemished Reapers did not react adequately. That moment of hesitation proved to be their undoing. The sick Reapers tore into their unblemished brethren and began ripping into them. Metallic appendages slammed down against black hulls with enough force to dent and crush armor. Titanic, sharpened tendrils tore into black metal and wormed their way inside. A thick swarm of some kind of spores erupted from the grotesque entities, enveloping them as well as their unfortunate brethren. Hundreds of bulbous things emerged from the fleshy outer layer and hurled themselves towards the pinned Reapers, like ants swarming a larger prey animal.

Horror and nausea battled for control within Kahlee's mind as she saw the sick Reapers infecting their kin with every possible transmission vector, burrowing into them with bladed tentacles the length of skyscrapers and swarms of what looked like organic drones.

The sight was disgusting, terrifying and awe-inspiring all in one. Kahlee wanted nothing more than to look away, but found that she could not muster the will to do so. It repulsed her on a deep, instinctive level, but it fueled a fascination she could not deny either.

"We can't stay here," one of her students shrieked. "We've got to get out!"

"And go where?" Jack snapped. "We'd be destroyed in an instant."

"Better to the geth than that!"

"Hey, get a hold of yourself! We're not going anywhere until we know what the f- until we know what's going on!"

"Uhm," Octavia stammered. "Kahlee? C-could you take a look at this screen?"

Kahlee blinked and shook her head. She tore her gaze off the grisly sight and looked at her student. "What?"

"This screen, right here. The geth…I think they're moving."

Octavia was right. As the entities subsumed the other Reapers, the geth armada finally decided on an action. Leaving about two-thirds of their armada to deal with the influx of ships trying to evacuate Elysium, they turned the other third upon the grotesque Reapers and opened fire. At that range, it would have taken their weapons far too long to reach their targets.

More disturbingly, while the geth kept their warships in place, it looked like they had finally decided to do something about Grissom Academy. The few sensors that were left operational showed a group of geth shuttles heading their way – and the students' drone network all but confirmed that.

Oh no.

Kahlee had send out an evacuation request days ago, before the geth had ever arrived, but it seemed like it had yet to be received. Nobody would be coming to safe them.

An unwelcome voice in the back of her mind whispered at her.

Better the geth than that…

"We've got incoming," Kahlee declared. "Barricade those doors! Jack, I need you to – "

"Wait, they're transmitting a message!" Ocatvia blurted out.

"Do geth do that?" Prangley asked. "They've never done that. It's gotta be a trap!"

"The geth have also never left the Perseus Veil or taken an interest in human colonies," Kahlee replied. "They've had days to take what they wanted from us, but they haven't even blinked at us. What's the message?"

"I dunno Sanders, it could be one of those virus things," Jack said, crossing her arms over her chest. "We open that message and suddenly, they're in our systems."

"If the geth wanted our systems, they would have probably already taken our systems," Octavia countered. "Should I open it?"

Kahlee nodded. "I don't think we have much to lose at this point."

Octavia pressed a few buttons, and after a moment, the robotic, droning voice of a geth program played through the staff room's speakers.

"Crewmate Jack, We have tasked these platforms to decontaminate and evacuate the organic population from Grissom Academy station. We request you refrain from engaging in hostilities with them."

Jack's eyes widened. "Are you fu-freaking kidding me? Is that - ? That's Legion!"

"Who?" Octavia and Rodriquez asked at the same time.

Jack made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "Pipe down kids, that's a story for another time. Just know that these geth aren't the bad guys, and that they're here to give us a ride."

Rodriquez stared at her instructor like she'd just lost her mind – and Kahlee wasn't entirely sure she hadn't.

But her explanation did make the most sense. The geth hadn't done anything to harm the people of Grissom Academy. But what were they doing at Elysium? There was no denying that the geth had shot down hundreds of ships, ranging from military shuttles all the way to FTL-capable evacuation ships. They had the blood of thousands on their hands. Why had they not warranted the mercy this "Legion" now extended to Jack? Was it purely because they had a history together?

Kahlee didn't think geth valued sentimental thoughts. Something else was going on here.

"Jack, are you sure?" She asked.

The former convict shrugged, almost casually. "If the Reapers are here, the gig's up. Either the geth figured out clogging our spam filters before killing us is fun, or they're actually going to pull our asses out of the fire. Reapers are going to kill us either way – "

"Or worse," Seanne darkly muttered.

" – So I say we're going with "trust" on this one."

"Shouldn't we put this to a vote, at least?" Prangley said, sounding like she was only half joking.

"This isn't a democracy, Prangley," Jack snapped. "Maybe if you keep training for another five years, you'll get to make the call. For now, this might be our only way off the station."

Kahlee sighed. "As much as I hate to say it, Jack's right. I…don't see any other outs. Grab your stuff – whatever you can carry."

"And stay sharp!" Jack shouted after the students as they ran to get their personal belongings. "You don't know what's to happen once the tin men get here!"

Kahlee remained quiet. The students didn't need a reminder that, were Jack to be wrong, no amount of preparedness would save them from the geth.

The Alliance lieutenant looked back at the forward viewscreen. Those things had finished infecting the Reapers with…whatever it was they carried with them. The geth blockade was now faced with six of the sickly monstrosities instead of four, and they repositioned themselves accordingly. It occurred to her that the movements of the geth fleet almost felt apprehensive to her. Like a shoal of fish moving in anticipation of a shark.

She bit back a half-cynical, half-hysterical snort. Apprehensive machines…the geth, scared.


Kahlee felt like, somewhere somehow, something had changed during the war. David had said that the Reapers were part organic, part synthetic. Was that how they had been infected? But what with? How were the geth and Elysium involved, anyway? Moreover, what in God's universe could possibly do that to the Reapers?


Alert: Quarantine broken

-Access denied

Alert: Quarantine broken

-Warning: Creators do not have access to Blight information

Alert: Quarantine broken

-Addendum: insufficient platforms available

Alert: Quarantine broken

Alert –


AN: Which brings us to the end of chapter 50. I can't believe you guys stuck around with me across 8 years for almost 750,000 words. It's just crazy, and I sincerely appreciate everyone for following along and supporting me all this time!

Now a lot of things happened in these 8 years. I've changed, for one, and so has my writing style and vision. Things that might have made sense for me at the start of the story seem like complete idiocy to me now. Other matters that I deemed unimportant at the time are now much more important to me than before. Something about the power of hindsight, I suppose.

Things happen. Things change. Not always for the better. I've been teetering on the edge of being overstrained for more than a year now and haven't been addressing that adequately. Things eventually went quite bad for a while two weeks ago, which is when it finally became clear that I'd been walking around with some ugly mental health issues.

Again, hindsight.

To keep it short, I'm in the line for treatment, and people are helping. So where does that leave me now? I don't intent to stop writing or anything. I like writing. I like seeing other people react to what I write. The problem is, the moments where I can actually put anything of quality on paper are far and few between. The next update might take a few months. It might take a year. I don't know. I'll still be here, answering questions and pm's and reviews. I'll still be writing whenever a flash of inspiration comes my way. It'll just take a while.

With that out of the way, I'll see you all at the next chapter.