Chapter 1

A New Threat

The tension was palpable across the bridge of the super-carrier NSV Xerxes; though it had long been suspected that the Migou were not only alien race out there, no one had thought humanity would make contact with another one so soon. Even worse, just as the Migou had done, these aliens had revealed themselves as hostile. It was quite clear from the look on everyone's faces, human and Nazzadi alike, that they believed another Aeon War was about to start, and after barely sixty years of peace.

Steven Hackett, captain of the Xerxes, strode on deck, a holographic image of the Supreme Commander waiting for him. "Commander Anselm, sir," the captain said, snapping a perfect salute, which the commander returned.

"At ease, Captain. I'm sure you're already aware of the current situation with Shanxi, correct?"

"Yes, sir," Hackett replied. "Do we know anything about these aliens?"

The commander's hologram scowled. "Nothing yet. The research team studying that alien device just had time to let out an SOS about hostile aliens. I've already given orders for the 5th Fleet to head for the colony. You and the dreadnought Vesuvius are the closest, so you two are going to spearhead the attack; the Vesuvius will serve to keep those bastards at bay. I understand that your ship is carrying a full complement, am I right?"

"Yes sir."

"Good. Shanxi was only recently colonized, so military forces present there are sparse; if the aliens decide to invade the planet, they won't be able to hold them off for long, especially without naval support. It'll be your group's task to provide recon and ground support until the 5th Fleet arrives." The commander pinched the bridge of his nose. "I wish I had more information to give you, but other than the fact that they've proven themselves hostile, we've got nothing. Godspeed Hackett."

"Thank you sir." Hackett snapped another salute as the hologram disappeared. Looking around the bridge, he barked, "To your stations! Helmsman, prepare for dimensional jump!"

The helmsman, a Nazzadi with the typical crimson eyes and markings of his kind, nodded an affirmative. "Aye, sir. Dimensional Fold Drive engaged. All crew, prepare for jump."

His fingers flashed across a holographic screen with the ease attained from years of experience. A loud whine filled the ship as the drive activated. A split-second later, a vivid azure portal opened in front of the ship's prow and swallowed it up. The physical universe was left behind, replaced with only endless blue. It was at the same time beautiful and terrifying to behold.

"Dimensional shift successful," the Nazzadi helmsman said. "We are en route to Shanxi; ETA, six hours."

Hackett let out a breath he had involuntarily been holding. Even though he had done this a thousand times, dimensional shifts still left him feeling cold inside. Crossing from one plane of existence into another always felt unnatural to him, like he shouldn't be there. Like the campaigner he was, however, Hackett shrugged the feeling off; he could not afford weakness at a time like this.

"Helmsman, open up a channel throughout the ship. I'm going to offer a few words to everyone."

"Aye, sir." With a touch of a finger, it was done. "The channel is open. Whenever you're ready."

Hackett stood tall and clasped his hands behind his back and began. "Men and women of the Xerxes; as you all know, we have just received word that an alien force has attacked one of our colonies in an unprovoked act of hostility. We will rendezvous with the Vesuvius and hold them off until the 5th Fleet can arrive. As of this moment, we know nothing about our new enemy, even their military capabilities; for all we know, they may be even more advanced than the Migou were."

He paused to let that sink in, hoping that this was not the case. After close examination of those damned bugs' technology, it was made abundantly clear that they could have wiped out mankind without any effort; only their desire for an abundant slave population kept that from happening. The thought of fighting an even more advanced race was enough to chill Hackett to his core. Steeling his resolve, the captain continued, his fervor growing with each syllable.

"But that does not mean that we are just going to sit idly by and let them get away with this act! We are strong! We have fought not just against aliens, but also against horrors from beyond space and time! We bent, but we never broke and in the end, we were the ones who emerged triumphant!"

He caught a few cheers off to the side. He allowed a small smirk to grace his face, knowing that the ground troopers he was carrying were probably howling with battle-lust right now.

"However this ends, whether we are victorious or defeated, we will make these aggressors pay dearly for their gains! All of us, human and Nazzadi alike, will show them that we are not going to give up without a fight!"

Throughout the carrier, savage cheers echoed in its corridors.

#

Admiral Gallus Othon looked out from the bridge of the Resolute Spirit, flagship of the 57th Turian Patrol Fleet. Not two standard hours ago, his fleet had encountered what appeared to be a new race; what's more, they appeared to be trying to activate Relay 314. That was against Council law, and so he ordered his ships to respond accordingly. It was unfortunate that he was forced to resort to such harsh measures, but when it came to the safety of the galaxy, only those measures would suffice.

From the corner of his eye, Gallus noticed his XO fidgeting slightly. "Something wrong, Captain?"

Captain Jorus began twiddling his talons together. "Nothing, sir."

Gallus sighed. "Speak your mind. You're practically dancing in place."

"It's just—sir, with all due respect, these aliens are clearly newcomers to the galaxy. There's no way they could have known about Citadel law forbidding the activation of dormant relays without knowing what's on the other side."

Gallus turned sharply to face his XO, mandibles flaring. "Captain, the last time a dormant relay was activated, the Rachni Wars started. Our job is to make sure something like that never happens again. It should be common sense not to poke around things without knowing what might happen. Ignorance is not an excuse."

The captain still looked unconvinced. "But shouldn't we have at least warned them? From their point of view, an alien force just came in and attacked them for no reason. This could lead to war."

"I don't care about their point of view," the admiral retorted. "They were willfully trying to activate a dormant relay without regards for the potential consequences. When a child plays with a gun, you don't shake your talon at him; you discipline him. And if they want to try and pick a fight with us, they're going to be in for a shock. We're the greatest military force in Citadel space. We can handle some backwater primitives if they come after us." He then turned the communications officer. "Send the orders for the other ships to hold position. I want to be sure these aliens don't try anything funny. Also, send out salvage teams to get ahold of some of their ship fragments. If worse comes to worst, I want to know what we'll be facing."

#

Super-carriers, by design, were capable of moving massive amounts of resources, from troops to supplies, in one go. Though the threat of cults was not at level it had been during the Aeon War, remnants of the Chrysalis Corporation, particularly the Dhohanoids, as well as members of the Rapine Storm, still lurked amongst the worlds that mankind had colonized. The military had to be prepared to act at a moment's notice if word of cult activity was reported, and that meant keeping sizeable forces on standby in order to crush it in its infancy, before it had time to ensnare others.

The Xerxes currently had what amounted to a small army; two divisions, each numbering 15,000 men and women; 200 mecha, from the hulking Sword-classes made by humans to the sleek Nazzadi designs; 100 Engels, including a few Seraphs and Chashmals of the towering Behemoth-class; and enough munitions and provisions to last a month, if used carefully. There were even two Tager Packs, with a dozen members each.

In the mess hall, the troopers were enjoying what might be their last meal. They had about three more hours until the Xerxes reached Shanxi. The mood was somber; the fire and brimstone that Hackett's speech had incited was now sufficiently dissipated. No one knew what to expect when they finally went into battle against this new alien race. Hackett's comment on how they could very well be more advanced than the Migou had been had not done anything to boost morale. Scuttlebutt was traded in hushed tones, theorizing what they might be in for.

Such was the case at one table, which was composed of a few mecha pilots from Sigma Squadron. One of these, a man by the name of Jacob Cross, picked absently at his food. He was a strapping young man and looked like the ideal image of what a NEF mecha pilot ought to look like, crew-cut and all. Jacob had got out of the Mecha Academy just a couple years ago; never in his worst nightmares did he think he would ever be at the forefront of a counterattack against aliens.

One of the other pilots was more vocal about his apprehension. "You guys think these aliens might actually be more advanced than the Migou?" James "Jimmy" Ferguson was a wiry guy; even though he had the appetite of someone twice his size and could usually be found in the weight room, he never seemed to bulk up. He did, however, have very good reaction time and could think on his feet, even in the heat of battle. In contrast to most other mecha pilots, James was perhaps the least arrogant; then again, his mech was a Centurion, which many considered to be just a glorified suit of powered armor, so he did not have all that much to brag about.

"I don't care if they piss plasma and crap black holes, once I touch down, I'll be mowing the fuckers down left and right," declared Jonathan "Jonny-Boy" Triol, mimicking the firing of a gun with his hands. Unlike James, Jon was the very embodiment of the stereotypical mecha pilot: cocky, headstrong, a penchant for excessive profanity and gifted with an overabundance of self-confidence. Cthulhu himself could be glowering down at him and Jon would just flip him the bird. Also unlike James, he was built like a champion weightlifter (though a quick match against one of the ground-pounders soon showed that those muscles weren't optimized for actual fighting).

James shot his larger counterpart a sharp glare. "Easy for you to say. You'll be piloting a goddamn Broadsword; I'll be stuck in a dinky Centurion. One good shot, and I'm a pile of slag."

"You'll also be a smaller target," said a new voice. All three men looked around and saw their group leader, Master Sergeant Alison Connell. She had fiery red hair, denoting her Irish ancestry which, coupled with being tall and full-bodied, often made her the target of a number of catcalls from the male mecha pilots (to which, thanks to her tomboyish personality, she would reply with a very nasty left hook—or knee to the groin). She sat down with her own tray and continued. "The bigger the mech, the bigger the threat level. Odds are those aliens will be busy aiming at the Claymores and those other big ones. Gives you plenty of time to find yourself a nice position and crack some rounds off. Speaking of which, what kind of gun are going to use?"

James seemed to sit up a little straighter. "Laser cannon. A charge beam packs a punch, but it takes too long to power up a shot for my taste, and a plasma cannon isn't as quick as a laser beam; it's fast, but not as fast as light. Give me a laser, and I'll give you a nice hole in something." He could too, Jacob knew. For all his nervousness, James could crack off laser beams like it was nobody's business.

Alison nodded approvingly. Then, she noticed that Jacob had gone back to staring at his food as though it were the most interesting there was. "Is your food revealing all the secrets of the universe to you Jake?" she asked.

"If it is, see if it can show you what the MS's cup size is," Jon guffawed. That comment earned him a solid punch to his left kidney.

Jacob gave a thin smile. "Guess I'm just a bit nervous."

Alison nodded. "No kidding. It's hard enough going into battle, but it's even worse when you have to go in blind. I don't think there's anyone here that isn't scared right now. Well, except Jon here," she amended, jerking her thumb at him. "He doesn't have enough brains to be scared."

"Damn right!" Jon laughed. Then, his brow furrowed as his mind began to process his squad leader's words. "Wait, what was that last part?"

The other three mecha pilots burst out laughing. After a few minutes, they mollified themselves and Alison spoke again. "Still, we got a job to do. These aliens hit us, so we're going to hit them back. To do that, we need to be completely focused." She snapped a pointed look at Jacob. "Can I count on you to not get distracted?"

Jacob's gaze hardened with resolve. "Don't worry. The moment I touch down, I'm going to be killing any of those bastards who try to tangle with me."

"Now you're talking!" Jon laughed, shoving a large spoonful of baked beans into his mouth. He then speared the steak he'd been eating and held it aloft. "Hold onto your asses, you alien shitbirds, 'cause Sigma Squadron is coming for them!"

#

For the technicians of the Resolute Spirit, the past few hours had been the most exciting hours of their lives. Since the salvage teams had brought back some reasonably intact pieces of the aliens' ships, they had been pouring over them nonstop. At first, the technicians had resigned themselves that this would just be another cache of technology with the same basis as everyone else's, but less refined. Instead, they found that this new alien tech was anything but mundane.

Admiral Gallus was reading a report on what had been discovered about the aliens' technology. There wasn't much there, which was understandable given that the ship's tech-bay was not exactly a first-class laboratory, but what he read disturbed him greatly.

He looked up at the head technician. "You're absolutely sure of this? That their ships do not utilize Element Zero?"

The technician shook his head enthusiastically. "Not a trace. We looked over their crafts dozens of times and I can safely say that they are quite bereft of Element Zero, as well as helium-3."

"But then how do they get energy?" Gallus wondered, more to himself than the technician. "And for that matter, how do they manage to travel through space?"

"Obviously, they've found a different method," the technician supplied helpfully.

"Obviously," Gallus said acidly. "I don't suppose you have any idea what it might be?"

The technician shifted uncomfortably. "Unfortunately, no. Granted, what we got was just from what amounts to a cursory glance at best; with better equipment and more time, we could probably have something more concrete." His discomfort quickly vanished, to be replaced by excitement. "It's amazing, though; starships without any Element Zero! Who knows what else these aliens might be capable of?"

Gallus, too, was wondering that, though not in the same vein as the technician. If these aliens had managed to develop a whole new field of technology, one not dependent on Element Zero to function, then they could become a very real threat to Citadel space. He would have to make sure that did not happen.

"Keep looking over the aliens' tech and let me know if you find anything else."

"Yes, sir!" The head technician practically skipped back to the tech-bay. Gallus then summoned Jorus to his side.

"Captain, send word to the other ships to launch an assault on the aliens' world."

Jorus blinked. "I'm sorry sir?"

"You heard me, Captain. We are initiating occupation procedures. Once the ships are in position, commence orbital bombardment of key points and then send in the troops."

Jorus backed away in shock. "Sir, invading the aliens' planet will only make things worse! We don't even know anything about their military capabilities!"

"Exactly. If these aliens can develop an entirely new source of energy, there's no telling what kind of weapons they might have. We need to establish a foothold; they'll return here, of that I have no doubts and I want our forces dug in when they do."

"B-but, sir—"

"That was an order, Captain."

Swallowing hard, Jorus saluted. As he relayed the Admiral's orders, a terrible sense of foreboding descended on him. This entire operation was going to end badly, of that he was sure.

Spirits watch over us.