Hey everyone, it's been a long time.

But no worries, you won't have to wait two years till the next chapter this time.

I just got to do a lot for my studies and work.

Well, I know what you, so you'll get it

I hope you like it!

January 7th, 2164

18:29 SET

Earth, Paris

If somebody told me I would think that radiant heaters were one of the best inventions ever, I would have called them a fool.

Yet, right at this moment, I would call it the truth and nothing else.

While I had a preference for open-air parties, they should happen during summer and not when there was snow dancing over the rooftops.

Thankfully, the heaters kept the cold away from the guests and me while a small mass effect field protected us from the harsh winds and snow.

Still, if I ever got my hands on the organizer of this party, we would exchange some words that should not be repeated in polite company.

Nonetheless, I had to admit that Micheal's re-election party was a huge success. The party was sponsored by an old friend of Micheal, the two of them trying to help people around the world since before we found the Prothean archives on Mars.

That goal was still on their agenda. The only difference was that they didn't restrict themselves to only Earth anymore.

Through donations and resettlement programs, they had helped the development of the colonies as much as they had helped reduce the effects of global warming.

Even the entrance card for today's party was nothing more than a way to collect donations.

I grabbed a champagne flute from one of the wandering waiters and turned my attention back to the conversation I had with a quite enthusiastic young woman.

She was the niece of our political party's representative on the colony of Amaterasu, Claire Lodgins. Bright blond hair with innocent blue eyes.

Yet, there was something in her eyes that shined brighter than her apparent youth, and that was the reason why I even entertained the idea of talking to her for more than a few minutes to thank her for her presence at the party and her support.

She may be still in the middle of getting her master's degree, but the idea she had and the groundwork she had already done were fascinating.

"Could you please repeat that?" I requested. "I don't think I completely understood what you were saying."

Claire smiled at me and started to explain to me once again: "The basis of my research lies in the application of the Omni-tool interface in different ways. I want to find out how it could be applicable in VR technology."

"VR technology? As far as I know, they already use it on the Citadel. A battle simulation for civilian use."

"I've heard that as well, checked it even on the extranet," Claire admitted, a small pout on her face at the fact that the idea she had was already made into reality by someone else. "But I've not found anything regarding the software or hardware behind it. And to buy the license to use it would probably cost a small fortune. That's why I want to discover it by myself. I'm already at the point where I can create a room full of plants and interact with them. People as well! Admittedly, they are nothing more than orange blocks at the moment, but that won't stay this way for long! Just think about the dozens of scenarios where we could use this technology. It doesn't have to be restricted to entertainment uses! For example, police forces could use it to scan and recreate a crime scene and then manipulate the recreation without compromising the actual scene."

"That is a good example. How realistic do you think can these simulations become?" I questioned further, a picture manifesting in my mind.

"Well," Claire said, playing with a lock of hair while thinking about the answer, "that would depend on the computational power available. If we set the computational power as a constant, the amount of details is anti-proportional to the size of the simulation. Furthermore, the addition of movement would need computational power as well.

But, if we're only talking about details, it would be possible to see single hairs on a person's head."

The applications of such a technology could be endless. The only restriction I could think of at this moment was the lack of imagination. Claire's idea of using it for police work was admirable, but I had another one, an idea that would possibly keep people alive.

The most important thing that our military forces lacked wasn't cutting-edge gear or training. They needed something far more simple, namely, experience.

Different scenarios could be trained without any real danger to the soldiers, and the realism of the simulation would help them too.

I wanted to continue the conversation and find out more about how Claire wanted to accomplish her idea, but I could see Micheal approaching us from the corner of my eye.

He looked like he wanted to talk to me, so I ended the conversation as politely as I could.

"I'm sorry, Miss, but it seems like the guest of honor wishes to have a word with me," I said and took out a card from the inner pocket of my jacket and held it out for her. "Still, I would like to hear more of your idea at another time. Here's my card, please call me when you finish your master's degree. Only a year left, right?"

Claire took the card out of my hand with a dazed look and nodded absently.

"I really like your work, and I would like to fund further research into the subject. Also, there are a lot of projects that could use someone like you. I see a bright future ahead of you, Claire," I complimented with a smile.

I patted her on the shoulder, and she looked up from the card in her trembling hands. Her bright blue eyes almost teared up when I finished and returned my smile shakily.

With another nod, I left her and went to meet Micheal.

He looked exhausted, and I noticed that the grey in his hair had become even more prevalent over the few months we hadn't seen each other.

"Oscar! Good to see you. I didn't think you would make it," Micheal greeted me, arms wide open to greet me with a hug.

"You as well," I answered and hugged him.

During the short moment we were close to each other, he whispered: "It's confirmed. Andrew briefed me shortly before I came here. There's one on Shanxi. No heads-up."

I clapped him twice on his back to signal I understood the message, and we parted again.

"Come, let's walk a moment. There's someone I want you to meet," said Micheal and started to walk without giving me a chance to reply.

"Somebody interesting?" I asked, not knowing who he would introduce to me.

"Just someone who has been making huge donations lately. I think you know him actually, at least, from the name."

"Not telling who?"

"Nope," said Micheal with an annoying smirk on his lips.

Just from that, I already knew that I would probably hate the guy.

"How does it feel to become president once again?" I asked to prevent any silence between us.

"Like the whole world just dropped onto my shoulders, again. While I'm happy to be re-elected, I'm also glad that I have to do this job only for another four years. After that, I'll go on a long vacation."

"You and vacation? Yeah, but only for a year or two before you're bored and want to do something again," I commented.

"You're probably right. It's not in my nature to do nothing," agreed Micheal jovially. Yet, the smile on his face disappeared seconds later, replaced by a frown.

"I still get the feeling that we won this election too easily. The first one, I could understand, but this one?" He shook his head. "There was no real pushback from the opposition during the campaign. I would have expected that the more xenophobic elements would put up a fight, but they were quiet as well, worryingly so."

"You still underestimate your own reputation," I said, "as long as you're their opponent, they won't fight. To do so would be a battle lost before it began. But you're right, too. Terra Firma was pretty quiet during this campaign. They are probably preparing for the next election period to stir up trouble for us. Without you, at the head, they will have an easier time."

The political scene of the Alliance could be divided into three parties if one wanted to make it easier to understand.

On the one side was Terra Firma, the political party with the mindset of humanity first. They had the most people with xenophobic tendencies in their ranks. For the moment, they mostly preyed on people afraid of what aliens could mean for human society and the dangers associated with them.

While they were currently just a small faction, at least in comparison to us, I knew that the moment the Batarians started to raid our colonies, they would gain a greater following and power.

On the other side was the political party with the name Galactic Union. To call them xenophiles wasn't quite right, but it described the prevalent feeling of the party. They wanted to bind the Alliance even tighter and faster to the Citadel and the Council than we already were. In their mind, humanity would only prosper if we followed the example of the other galactic civilizations.

Malicious gossip has it that some of their members even wanted humanity to become a client state to one of the Council species. It was just a rumor, but somehow it was pretty persistent.

The third party was us, Alliance Humanus. We were the so-called moderates of the Alliance, taking influences from the other two parties and making them our own. In essence, like the Galactic Union, we wanted to be closer to the Citadel but at the same time stand on our own two feet. To be seen as equals by the other galactic civilizations.

For now, we were the strongest political party, but I was under no illusion that it would stay this way forever.

"I fear the same thing," said Micheal, taking a sip from his champagne flute. "Especially since the Batarians convinced the Council to allow them to open the relays into our territory."

"It was only a matter of time," I replied. "If the Council hadn't agreed, they would have opened the relays regardless of our protest. Calling it the actions of pirates or other criminal elements. Nobody would have believed it, but to prove it would have been impossible. At least, this way, Anita could get us the promise of an embassy in a few years' time."

"I'm still of the opinion that we should have taken the option to establish an embassy this year."

"And I'm still of the opinion that we can't move too fast," I argued. "The other species waited for decades, some even for more than a century, to get an embassy on the Citadel. If we get one before even ten years are over since the first contact between us, it will lead to an even stronger resentment than it will already be."

Micheal suddenly stopped walking and took a deep breath. He then looked me in the eye, smiled, and said: "I know, we had that discussion when the offer was made. Besides, Anita supported your point too, and she is our current expert on foreign relations. If you both think that this is the right choice then I'm not stupid enough to not listen to you. Just let me have my own opinions, can you do that for your president?"

I saw a glint of amusement in his eyes and decided to indulge him.

With a flourish, I put my right hand over my heart, bowed respectfully, and said: "Of course, your grace. Whatever you wish, your grace."

I held my position for a moment, glancing up at Micheal's face to see him holding back a peal of laughter. He was quite unsuccessful in his endeavor and snorted, which, in turn, got me to laugh as well.

In the end, we had to be quite an amusing sight for the other guests because I noticed after Micheal and I had stopped laughing that they looked pretty entertained by us.

"Now come, I don't want to keep the man waiting any longer," said Micheal, tapping me on my shoulder and started walking again.

It took us no more than a minute to find the man Micheal wanted to introduce to me.

"A there you are," said Micheal happily.

As always, it was a pleasure to see how well Micheal transitioned from genuine joy to faked delight. The shift was so seamless that most people didn't even notice it. It took me a while, too, until I could spot the difference.

The man in question turned around, and I got a good first look at him. He was in his forties, maybe fifties, and took great care in his appearance. His hair and beard were black without any hair out of place, and his suit was a custom order in the newest style. The smirk he wore on his face spoke of arrogance and self-confidence that came from money and, in my opinion, the illusion of power.

"Oscar, may I introduce you to Mr. Henry Lawson?" offered Micheal, and I could see in his eyes that he would prefer not to deal with this man but had no other choice than to do so.

"Good evening, Mr. Lawson. I've heard a lot about you," I greeted him, holding my hand out for a shake.

None of my words had been false. I had really heard about him and not just from the games. Henry Lawson was a competitor in the starship building business with a minor shipyard to his name. But instead of building them for the Alliance or other companies, he almost exclusively built starships for his by far more successful shipping business. Lawson Shipping was the company you hired when you either had to transport huge amounts of materials or something of extreme value.

The smirk hadn't left Lawson's face, but it had become more strained the moment he realized who I was. Still, he took my hand and shook it with more pressure than was necessary or even polite.

"A pleasure to finally meet you, Mr. Denebren," said Lawson, and I took an immediate dislike to his voice. If I had to describe how his voice sounded to me, I would say oily.

"I'm sure," I answered and increased the pressure of our handshake for a moment to show him that such juvenile tactics had no effect on me.

"I have to say," I continued after we let go of each other, "I had not expected to see you here, Mr. Lawson. If I remember correctly, you're currently in an important phase of expanding your business into Citadel space, or am I wrong?"

"No, you're not," he answered easily. "I'm currently expanding into Citadel space, my company already got a few contracts to that effect. I can afford to leave my affairs in the hands of some trusted people for the time being. After all, who in their right mind would ignore the chance to meet with the president of the Alliance?"

"And I'm thankful that you're here, Henry," interjected Micheal. "Your donation was truly generous and had been a great help during our campaign."

"Think nothing of it, President Port," replied Lawson, crossing his arms behind his back. "You do good work out there, and everything that benefits the Alliance benefits humanity, too."

"Yet, I've heard troubling news," continued Lawson and turned back to me. "Mr. Denebren, is it true that some of your mining operations came under attack by anti-AI activists? I've heard they were very angry that the reopening of the Anti-Drone bill had been denied by the courts. Do you even have enough time to take care of it with your responsibility to the Alliance as the Minister of Economics?"

His smirk was truly getting on my nerves, and I entertained the idea of hitting him in the face just to see another expression.

"Sadly, what you've heard is true. There was an attack, destroying thousand of Credits in material and equipment, but more importantly, killed some of my employees."

I took a deep breath to calm my nerves. The day I got the news, I had been so enraged that I threw my chair across the office. It seemed the anger still hadn't left me entirely.

"Yet, you're also wrong. That wasn't an attack by anti-AI activists. Sure, they called themselves as such, but an investigation had revealed no connections to any of the other existing groups. This particular group didn't even exist before the attack. Furthermore, they were paid by someone for the attack. Their official designation is pirates since they took with them what they could carry."

I looked deeply into Henry Lawson's eyes and saw a small bit of fear at the tone my voice had changed into. The deep growl unnerved him, and I took a small bit of satisfaction in it.

"Of course, as it is with all pirates, they will be hunted down, brought to justice, and we will find out who their associates are and do the same to them. It's being handled by the military and the AIS, so yes, I have enough time to take care of my duties as a minister."

"That's... good to hear, Mr. Denebren," said Lawson and turned towards Micheal. "If you would excuse me, my flight is in two hours. I can't miss it, as Mr. Denebren already said, my company is currently in an important phase."

Without waiting for our farewells, Lawson turned around, and almost fled from the party.

I couldn't help but smile satisfyingly at this.

"Did he have anything do to with the attack?" asked Micheal as we watched how Lawson disappeared.

"After that display? I'm sure of it. Years ago, he tried to participate in the mining business. It was a small company and not very successful. I think he blames me for it since I bought it for almost nothing. And he's afraid that I take his shipyard away, too. He's the kind of man to carry grudges for the smallest of things."

"I had that impression as well. What do you suggest we do?"

"Take his donations," I said, "as many as he wants to give. Bleed him dry if you want, just don't give him any actual power. He'll let that go to his head."

"And you take advantage of that on the business side, I guess?"

"Do you take me for a fool?" I asked with no heat behind my words.

Micheal understood what I was implying and smiled.

A moment of silence passed between us, just looking at the place where Lawson had stood before Micheal asked: "I didn't know that the AIS was looking into it, too."

"They don't," I answered with a smirk. "I just said that, looking for a reaction. They have more important things to look into."

January 7th, 2165

19:32 SET

Shanxi, [Classified]

Mathew Avar, Alliance Intelligence Service

Mathew sighed as he leaned back from his camera. For a week, he had observed the individual in the apartment across the street. Even the knowledge of who he was observing didn't help to alleviate his boredom. No matter how important this job was, stakeouts were just plain boring.

The only thing that did help was that his shift was coming to an end and that he finally could take a well-deserved nap in the bedroom next door.

He leaned back forward to look through the camera again, and he couldn't help but chuckle at the fact that he used such a primitive design by today's standards.

Yet, he couldn't deny the brilliance of the director for his idea to use older technology to trick counterespionage activities. Hell, he heard from his mentor that some of the most secret information had been saved on diskettes that were almost two hundred years old! The security on them might be shit, but who even had a device to read them anymore?

Just like the camera, Mathew was using. It was nothing more than a single-lens reflex camera with no signals to connect it to any device. In addition to that, several old-style directional microphones were pointed at the apartment the Asari had rented.

He checked the time and took another photo of her doing something with her Omni-tool. Mathew didn't know what she was doing, and that wasn't part of his job anyway, only observing and reporting to another team when she left the apartment. A third team would run electronic interference if she tried to hack into any sensitive database.

Three years, that's how long he had been part of the AIS already, but sometimes he was still awed at how flawless they operated for such a young intelligence agency.

Mathew had lived in one of the poorer districts in one of the cities along the east coast of South Africa for the first ten years of his life. His father could barely provide enough for their family as a mechanic, while his mother had enough to do with taking care of him and his two siblings. Yet, before he could tell his parents that he was ready to find a job to help them, representatives of the Alliance came with an offer for a new life in one of the newly founded colonies. Life would be hard, and safety was not guaranteed, but the possibility for a better life existed.

Not even a month later, Mathew and his family traveled the stars towards their new home.

Like the representatives and ads had said life was difficult and hard, in the beginning, but it presented opportunities. His father found work quickly, and even his mother found a small-time job to help the family.

But the best thing that happened, in Mathew's opinion, was that he could continue to go to school. He even got a scholarship for university from the Alliance with the stipulation that he would have to work for the Alliance for five years after he finished his education.

When he heard that, he didn't even hesitate a second before agreeing to it. The moment he had entered high school, he had already decided to work for them. In his mind, he could do nothing else to repay the Alliance for the chance they gave to his family.

During his time in college, a woman had met with him and explained that they were impressed with the results he had achieved and offered him a place in the newly created AIS when he finished.

He took the offer after careful consideration, secretly excited about the possible adventure this could turn out to be.

Mathew held back another sigh as he thought about his naive younger self.

The work the AIS did was important, no question, but exciting? Most of his tasks were going over and compiling reports, and his fieldwork was restricted to stakeouts. That was the lot of a junior agent.

Still, he was sure that with time more difficult and exciting missions would come his way.

And this stakeout could be the prelude to that.

He didn't know how exactly the Asari had been identified, but one thing was clear from his briefing. Do not underestimate her.

After all, she was a Spectre.

It took them two weeks to be sure of that, and one thing was clear by now. No official agency knew she was here, which was a direct violation of the agreement the Alliance had with the Citadel Council.

There had been no orders to arrest her, just to keep her from sensitive information and observe her behavior.

It wouldn't surprise Mathew if this would be kept quiet. The advantage of using this in backroom deals far outweighed the consequences of a public outcry.

And while Mathew Avar might want an exciting life, he wasn't stupid.

Still, he thought, maybe I'll get a mission to infiltrate the Citadel in the future.

I hope you liked the chapter!

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