October 24th, 2173

01:23 Local Time

Illium, Tesale-System

Nos Astra

Ad Astra Branch-HQ

Secure Medical Ward

It was as if my consciousness returned to me with the snap of my fingers. One moment it was the deepest of blacks, and the next, I returned to the world.

A groan escaped my lips as I instinctively closed my eyes after foolishly opening them, only to be blinded by the light.

I could hear people suddenly rushing around, but my only concern was whether it was possible to go back to sleep.

The bed I was in didn't feel like mine, yet it was comfortable nonetheless.

The thought brought me to a standstill.

This wasn't my bed? Yet, I couldn't remember in whose bed I would go to sleep. There was no reason I would sleep in another's bed right now, or was there?

A rush of memories assaulted me, and I bolted upright from my lying position. Thankfully, a pair of hands stopped me from falling back when my vision turned black for a moment.

"Easy there, Mr. Denebren," I heard a voice say. "You got a bad concussion and even with our advanced equipment, it will take some time to fully heal. So, please take it slow in the meantime."

My vision was still somewhat blurry, but I could make out the basic contours of a face in front of me.

It was the face of an older gentleman with a distinguished presence. His black hair was peppered with white or gray streaks, and even the neatly trimmed beard encircling his face bore the marks of time.

I tried to ask what happened but whenever I opened my mouth to say something, my throat felt parched and only a dry cough escaped.

"Please wait a moment, sir," said the man, whom I finally could identify as Dr. Hermann after the remaining fog on my mind lifted. "A glass of water should suffice to deal with your speaking difficulties."

He handed me a glass of ice cold water and held two small pills in his left hand which he offered me with a kind smile.

"The pills are nothing special but should help you with any lingering pain. One is a mild painkiller and the other is a headache remedy," Dr. Hermann explained when he saw my puzzled expression. "The latest test showed that the swelling inside your head is receding nicely, but it wouldn't surprise me if you still felt discomfort. Normally, as your doctor, I would recommend that you remain in bed for the foreseeable future. Yet, if I know anything about you, Mr. Denebren, I expect you will probably reject my recommendation. Hence the painkiller and the headache remedy."

I took both the glass of water and the pills from his hands with a grateful and apologizing smile before putting the medicine in my mouth and swallowing them with the help of the water.

The feeling of the pills in my throat wasn't very pleasant but it was thankfully over quickly. The water, on the other hand, helped alleviate the constant dryness that made me feel as if I were eating sand.

"Thank you, Dr. Hermann," I said after putting the empty glass on the stand next to the hospital bed I was laying in.

Since the world didn't look like a blur anymore after my eyes finally got used to the artificial light, I finally took a look around the room to get a feeling of where I was.

I recognized the room as one of the private ones of the medical ward inside the Ad Astra HQ here on Illium.

The room was well-equipped and had a clean, sterile appearance. The walls were adorned with holographic displays showing vital signs and medical data of the patients fortunate enough to rest there.

There were no actual windows, as the medical ward itself was placed in the center of the building's 26th floor for better security in case of attacks, but a holographic display to my right showed a nighttime view of Nos Astra as if there had been a window in its place.

"What happened?" I asked after I was sure that this time actual words would come out of my mouth instead of coughs.

"I can't give a complete recount of the events," stated Dr. Hermann, "since I got only called in after the attack was already over. But I notified the Vice-Commander when you showed signs of waking up, she should arrive in a few minutes."

"She?" I asked, not understanding why the doctor was using that word. Wasn't Ajax Dûbal the vice-commander of the local Ad Astra security forces?

"I'm sorry to say that Vice-Commander Dûbal died in the line of duty," explained Dr. Hermann with a remorseful expression. "I heard he was a good and dutiful man. Ad Astra will mourn his loss."

The doctor was only giving the usual condolences, yet I appreciated it nonetheless. It wasn't like I knew the previous vice-commander well either, but the man gave his life protecting mine, and that wasn't something I took lightly.

"That she will," I responded in a solemn tone before a determination welled up inside me that I hadn't felt for some years. "And Ad Astra will not only mourn his loss but find those responsible and respond in a manner befitting the situation."

Dr. Hermann looked taken aback at my declaration of essentially declaring war on my attackers before a grim expression settled over his face.

"Good," he said. "There were more dead than just the Vice-Commander, and even more were injured. I am not fond of playing the role of coroner in addition to my duties as a live-saver. I much prefer the latter. Much more rewarding in my opinion. And during those duties, I got to meet many of those that lost their lives in the attack. They were good people. Rough around the edges but good and honest people nonetheless. I'm going to look forward to what is going to happen."

The doctor's not-so-subtle approval of my intention of making those that participated in the attack and those who backed them from the shadows didn't surprise me in the least.

Ad Astra was a tightly-knit family. If you were an employee of the company even those on the other side of the galaxy would help you even if you had never met them before just because you were working for the same company.

It was a mindset I carefully cultivated over the years with me as the head of the family. The trust and respect each employee showed each other not only reduced any workplace friction but made it harder for other companies to poach my people or turn them against me.

And such an open attack against the company? Well, that only meant that everyone was closing ranks against the threat from outside and got ready to retaliate in the names of their lost brothers and sisters.

I had no idea how the employees inside Alliance territory were taking the news of the attack, but since my more... devoted employees -I refuse to call them fanatical, least of all because that would shine a bad light on me and my company, we weren't a cult after all- came from there, I did not doubt that there were rising tensions, especially among those who were more xenophobic than the rest.

There was a knock on the door and the good doctor went to open it as he was one of the few people whose Omni-tool had permission to open it as a security precaution while I was unconscious.

Meanwhile, I was already making a list of things I had to do after leaving the bed now that the doctor gave me his quiet permission to go back to work as long as I didn't overdo it.

One of the first things on my agenda would be to hold a series of interviews that would hopefully help to calm down the situation. Of course, firstly I would have to be briefed on the situation as giving an interview without knowing all the available facts and information would leave me vulnerable to unexpected questions. Right now, I had to show an image of strength, that this attack wouldn't hold me down in the least. Furthermore, I had to curb the xenophobic tendencies that had undoubtedly sprung up. Holding only those behind the attack responsible and focusing on those that tried to use this moment of weakness to their advantage would hopefully accomplish just that.

Since there was no doubt that some rivals inside the Alliance tried to do just that, and those were human, it would distract from the issue that my attackers were exclusively aliens.

At least that was the impression I got from the few tidbits I remembered from the actual attack. Yet, it wouldn't surprise me if that was the case.

Human mercenaries, while not unheard of, were still rare in the galaxy. More and more human mercenary groups were popping up in recent years, and established groups like Eclipse started to let humans join them, but the total numbers were still on the low side.

Furthermore, getting the typical human mercenary to attack Ad Astra, and me specifically, without any thoughts of going behind their customer's back and informing my people about the impending attack wasn't an easy task. It would mean that the person behind the attack had incredible pull not only on Illium but throughout the galaxy, the Alliance included, to gather the necessary people.

I hear the door open with an almost silent hiss, but didn't look who entered as my previous thought played through my mind again and again.

The person behind the attack had to have incredible pull and had to have planned it for a long time. That person either corrupted, blackmailed, or threatened one of my shuttle drivers or got someone to infiltrate the group of drivers, or else he wouldn't have tried to get away as soon as I got out of it.

While an investigation would show which one of those options was the case, I personally hoped it wasn't the latter. It would speak of a plan that had to have been long in the making and a disturbingly large security leak. The security measures and checks here on Illium may not be up to the standards of say Earth, Terra Nova, or the Citadel, but they were extensive nonetheless. Getting a mole in and having him there for at least a year should have been impossible.

I was interrupted in my thought process when a woman at the end of her twenties stopped next to my bed and coughed to get my attention.

She was dressed in the official uniform of the Ad Astra security forces and had a stern expression on her face, but I could see sparks of relief in her brown eyes at seeing me up and about.

There was a burn scar at the upper left of her forehead that disappeared into her dark brown hair and gave the woman the air of someone who had experienced hard battles and survived. Not completely, but mostly.

"It's good to see you recovering, boss," said Vice Commander Sheryll Olivier, her rather high-pitched voice being in stark contrast to her warrior appearance.

"Thanks, I feel rather well, all things considered. How is the situation?" I asked, coming right to the important points.

Congratulating Sheryll on her new position was superfluous and in bad taste. She got her position because the previous Vice-Commander died in the line of duty and not because of her merits.

Oh, she would have gotten the position in time anyway, from what I heard she was ambitious and dedicated enough to work her way up, yet, I didn't think that she imagined she would get the post as Vice-Commander so soon or in this way.

Vice-Commander Olivier straightened up at my question and replied in a completely professional tone: "The building is currently on high alert, and all security measures are activated, at this moment. Every member of our local security forces is in the building and even sleeping in the basement barracks when they're off duty. No aircraft is allowed to approach the building above the third floor, and even should a shuttle get through the AA turrets targeting them, every entry point is shielded by a double layer of kinetic shields. The engineers are making sure that the power reactors in the lower basement floors are running smoothly and not overheating due to the energy they're outputting. Every employee wishing to enter the building has to go through double and triple checks of their identity and respond with the appropriate passwords concerning if they or their families are under pressure from outside sources. The same applies to guests. Those are also accompanied by a security officer outside of uniform for the duration of their business here."

She took a short breath before finishing with the sentence: "In short, Mr. Denebren, sir, we're on our war footing right now."

"Excessive?" I asked to get her personal opinion if the standard protocols were too much in this situation.

"No, sir," Sheryll answered without a moment's pause. "The situation outside makes it clear that the measures we're taking are absolutely appropriate."

"The situation outside?" I asked. "What's going on? Is there a war going on?"

I asked the last question jokingly, but the expression on the Vice-Commander's face told me that I wasn't too far off. My face suddenly felt slightly cold, and I could feel how the blood left it.

"In a manner of speaking," Sheryll slowly answered, "you are right."

"In what manner," I gritted out, feeling how my temper was beginning to rise at her evasive answer.

Sheryll's posture had slowly relaxed as she rattled down the security measures of the building, but hearing my growl put the tension right back into her shoulders and a hint of nervousness flitted through her eyes as if expecting I would bite her head off when I heard the news.

It wasn't like it was her fault anyway. The aftermath of events like the attack was solely in the hands of the people trying to take advantage of them, and I counted myself as such a person. There was no point in trying to deceive me by saying I wouldn't. After all, there were numerous examples of accidents in Ad Astra's mining branch that I used to portray myself as a caring and concerned employer to get good PR.

"We are under attack from all sides and on all levels we're operating on," began Vice-Commander Sheryll, and I was rather impressed that she kept every hint of nervousness from my piercing stare out of her voice. "Our IT department has to fend off numerous cyberattacks, not just at our servers but those of our closest associates on the planet as well. Those businesses are under attack on the stock market, too. Someone is trying to buy up as many shares as they can. If this continues, our analysts agree that we're going to lose a lot of our influence on the planet. Furthermore, they tried to buy a chunk of shares of Ad Astra Illium too when our stock prices fell to the floor in the wake of the attack, but our brokers put a stop to that before more than a twentieth of our total shares got away from our control."

"That's nothing unusual," I commented. "We had to deal with those issues since we opened the branch here on Illium."

"True," she admitted, "but the scale is unusual, for both the amount of buyers and cyberattacks. The latter is unusually coordinated too. In fact, everything is unusually coordinated. Everything seemed to start at the same moment and took us by surprise. We were slow to respond to all the sudden fires springing up and couldn't smother them before some of them turned into bonfires."

"I'm guessing those two problems you mentioned aren't the bonfires?" I guessed warily.

"No, sir. That would be the gang war happening on Illium's lower levels."

"A gang war?!" I choked out surprised.

That was definitely a surprise and an unwelcome one at that. No wonder the Vice-Commander was nervous.

It wasn't something that was openly known -as that would be the height of stupidity, and the source of neverending fodder for the press- but Ad Astra had some relationships with the gangs here on Illium. To be truthful, not just here on Illium, but on every planet that housed more than a simple warehouse.

After all, it was much easier to pay those gangs than constantly keep an eye on them. Threatening them with complete destruction if they broke the agreement was mostly enough to keep them in line. The added benefit of them keeping an eye out for trouble caused by gangs we weren't bribing couldn't be ignored, either.

As long as 'our' gangs didn't do anything too outrageous or dealt in things we, or better said I, couldn't condone, they were paid a good sum of money and had easy access to a selection of our armaments. Nothing groundbreaking or advanced, just upper selection for the civilian market to much better prices than the public.

That wasn't something I liked to do, but it kept the peace better than leaving them alone, and as long as they only pointed those guns at other criminal groups, the division inside Ad Astra's security forces that dealt with the eradication of problematic pests wouldn't have to pay a visit to them.

Of course, nothing was perfect and the vermin exterminators, as they were called inside the forces, had often to make an example first before our criminal associates got the message and behaved like we wanted. And if they didn't, well, then they would shortly stop to exist, and the group we approach next would have a very good example of what happened if they also thought the rules we established didn't apply to them.

"What is the level of the current damage?" I asked to get a better picture of the situation. It was one thing to know that there was a war going on that involved some of our assets, but should it just be some minor altercations that got misnamed as such, then I could relax and let the security division handle it without much input from my side.

"Two of the five minor groups who chose to ally with the Black Varrens and the Bloddy Clubs have been eradicated by the other side. The other three are hanging on a thread. Intelligence suggests that at least one of them will either run away and cut every tie to the Black Varrens or switch sides."

"And how are the Black Varrens and the Bloody Clubs doing?"

The Black Varrens and the Bloody Clubs were the two gangs my analysts recommended to approach to get an in into Illium's underworld.

Contrary to their violent name, the Bloody Clubs were rather peaceful and nonviolent for a street gang.

They got their name from the weapon of their founder, Pas Verika, a Salarian.

Of course, I wouldn't trust any of those gangs further than I could spit without additional information about their general behavior and history, and thus I found out that they started as a group of vigilantes that rose up against the gang which had been terrorizing their neighborhood. I didn't know the name of the latter, but that wasn't important since the Bloddy Clubs eradicated them. The actual event behind the name was that their founder beat a mook of the terrorizing gang, a Krogan at that, dead with nothing but a normal steel pipe after the mook killed his brother for the heck of it.

The original reason for the founding of the Bloody Clubs disappeared, but they kept existing and transformed during the following twenty years into a criminal gang themselves whose main specialty was running protection rackets.

Nowadays, they were still doing that, just under a new overlord.

They were keeping an eye out for our business at the docks and the smaller shops that were under Ad Astra's patronage.

The Black Varrens, on the other hand, were just like the animal they named themselves after.

They were attack dogs that couldn't be controlled but directed in specific directions, as long as you had enough treats to keep them entertained.

At least, they knew what would happen to them if they entertained the idea to bite the hand that feeds them. One of their subordinate groups already had a not-so-nice meeting with Ad Astra's vermin exterminators.

"They are not doing very well. The enemy's opening move killed around two-fifths of their overall strength. Until now, almost half their people got killed, and if we hadn't intervened then it could very well be that the Black Varrens, the Bloody Clubs, and their subordinate groups would have been destroyed in one swoop."

"And what were the costs of this intervention?"

That the Vice-Commander actually winced -visibly winced at that!- told me that things would go from bad to worse after her next sentence, and I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable shock and following anger that would come up inside me.

"We lost ten security personnel belonging to the strike teams, and two-thirds of our local exterminators."

To me, it felt like the world had suddenly gone silent and started to spin a little.

I slowly lay back down, my head hitting the pillow on the bed softly, and I concentrated to keep my breathing calm and steady.

Losing two complete strike teams wasn't good, but not unexpected. They were well trained and could hold their own in any kind of situation, yet should they be surprised or confronted with too many opponents at once, they could be easily overwhelmed.

But half of the local exterminators?! They were Ad Astra's special ops division, for crying out loud! Most of them were N4s and up that had been discharged from the Alliance military for various reasons, and before letting them get snatched up by Cerberus or other groups with not-so-noble intentions, Ad Astra gave them a chance for a new life.

All of them had a certain quality that you just couldn't get elsewhere.

Four out of six former N-school graduates dead in a gang war.

What kind of shit was going on since I fell unconscious?

"How," I rasped out and took the glass of water Doctor Hermann, who I had completely forgotten was still in the room until now, held out to me. It tasted somewhat strangely, the doctor had probably added something to calm my nerves, but I still drank the whole glass in one go.

"An ambush specifically planned to take them on. They took out two of the attacking gangs before Eclipse showed up and got involved. The prior fighting exhausted our teams, and they decided to retreat. It was then that Eclipse sprung the trap, and in the chaos, they managed to kill four, while the remaining two, Asher and Cordelia, managed to flee and inform us about what happened."

"I hope Eclipse suffered for that," I muttered darkly before perking up, noticing a detail I hadn't before. "Eclipse?"

"Yes sir," answered Sheryll my unasked question. "It seems like whoever is behind our current troubles managed to get a contingent of Eclipse mercenaries on their side. We also know, thanks to identifying one of the bodies as an Eclipse lieutenant, that it was them that orchestrated the attack on HQ. It's unknown if Jona Sederis is also involved or even knows what her men are up to here on Illium, but we're currently trying to find out."