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25 December 2580, Omega Centauri Space
Approaching the Intelligence

Our massed armada made an FTL microjump, down to the heart of the star system, and found the valdarii fleet ready. Our capital ships formed up into a wall of battle, and began to exchange great waves of fire with the enemy. Then our smaller craft and fighters leapt forward, to engage at knife-fight range.

Chandragupta remained behind, waiting for the first engagement to be resolved. We had strict orders, from Shepard and from Fleet Admiral Sinopus himself, to stay clear of the battle. Young Aspasia danced with impatience, knowing that many of her colleagues were fighting for their lives just a few million kilometers away. Still, she knew that Shepard or one of her parents had to reach the Intelligence alive, if we were to win.

It wasn’t our turn yet, to take the insane chances. That would come soon enough.

It seemed a strange place to fight.

We flew close to a nameless star, almost as massive as Sol. Yet our surroundings looked like deep interstellar space. The white dwarf still glowed with the heat of its ancient collapse, but it was tiny, packing all that mass into a sphere only a few thousand kilometers across. With so little surface to radiate, its golden-white torch-light was lost in all that immensity. From our position, it seemed to be one star among millions, barely even the brightest of those.

The Intelligence seemed strange too. Our sensors probed its shape, building a picture of the place where we would fight the valdarii at close quarters. At first glance it resembled a planet, spherical, with about three times the diameter of Earth or Thessia. I worried that we might find ourselves trying to run and fight under several times normal gravity. Then Kalan observed as the object occulted several background stars, and discovered that its surface wasn’t solid. Soon he measured its mass, and showed us that it was quite a bit less dense than metal or rock, somewhat less dense even than water. We could expect to find ourselves under a fraction of our normal gravitational field there.

“It can’t be a solid object,” the quarian concluded. “Big sections of it must be hollow. Or it’s a fractal structure, like a planet-sized foam of ceramics and metal. Ancestors alone know how it prevents its own gravity from crushing those cavities over millions of years.”

“It uses the mass effect to hold itself up,” said Shepard. He sounded strange, as if he wandered through dark forests of distant memory. “I think, once we get inside, we’ll be in microgravity the whole time.”

Kalan blinked in astonishment. “Just how much eezo is in there?”

“A lot. Gigatons of it.” Shepard glanced at the astronomer, suddenly not at all distracted. “Eezo for power generation. Eezo for gravity control. Eezo for faster-than-light communication across the mass relay network. Eezo for internal faster-than-light communication, so a brain the size of a big planet can still think at lightning speeds.”

I felt a sinking sensation in the pit of my stomach. “Shepard, if the Intelligence uses eezo as part of its core processing function . . .”

“It should be firewalled off,” he said, but he didn’t sound certain.

“I don’t think that follows. In all the time that the Intelligence has ruled the galaxy, have any of its victims come close to attacking its core?”

“No. The only way anyone but the Reapers ever had contact with it was through the Crucible mechanism. Before today, only the Reapers ever knew where the Intelligence was located.”

Silence fell for a long moment, in Chandragupta’s command center. In the tactical display, the allied armada slowly pressed forward, fighting now in the immediate vicinity of the Intelligence. I glanced at the battle damage assessments, saw that tens of thousands of people had already died on both sides of the confrontation.

Facts and evidence fell into place in my mind, old information broker’s habits still in working order, building a structure of inference out of partial information.

“Shepard, the Intelligence didn’t know the nature of its Adversary. It sent you out as an emissary. It sent the Reapers out on a search pattern. It thought the Adversary was hidden away somewhere in the bright-matter universe. Not until we heard John Tikolo’s story on Omega did we deduce that the Adversary was living as dark matter. Not until we saw them destroy Omega did we realize how they could manipulate eezo at a distance. The Intelligence didn’t know that it was vulnerable.”

“She’s right,” said Vara. “Technology is always full of security holes, until enough people hack into it that it gets tightened up. Maybe the Intelligence is secure against hacking from our side of the universe. In that realm, it can draw upon the experience of tens of thousands of extinction cycles. But this is probably the first time anyone has ever tried hacking into it from the dark-matter side of things. No wonder it’s gone down.”

“I don’t think it’s gone down yet.” Shepard folded his arms, turning to watch the tactical display. “There are ways to design an architecture that remains partially secure, even if there’s an access path you didn’t anticipate. Defense in depth. You can slow an intruder down, limit his options, force him to work hard for every inch of progress. If the Intelligence didn’t have that capability, it would already be dead or completely corrupted, and the Old Ones wouldn’t be maintaining such a large force here to keep us away. They’d be out in the galaxy, nailing down their conquest.”

Time passed. The armada moved closer to the Intelligence, methodically pushing the valdarii aside. I became convinced that Shepard was right, that the Intelligence still held out under siege. The Old Ones and their slaves had never been quite this stubborn before, not under sustained attack from a significant force.

Slowly, Kalan and the sensor officers could build a detailed image of the Intelligence. Artificial mountains, uncannily regular in shape, like endless rows of pyramids bathed in weird energy. Forests of antennae the size of continents. Vast plains of hexagonal grid-work, through which cold blue light shone from far beneath. Tantalizing hints of a maze of tunnels and cavities, stretching thousands of kilometers beneath the notional surface.

Somewhere in there, I knew, rested computational power and storage sufficient to “preserve” the remains of every civilization the Reapers had ever destroyed. Images, sounds, texts, cultural data, even the ghosts of living minds. An archaeologist’s dream. All the galaxy’s history, buried in that . . .

. . . that abomination.

I had Shepard’s memories of being the Intelligence. I knew that those memories were only a tiny, fragmentary shadow of the reality. I knew that even so, he was tormented by them.

He remembered sending the Reapers out to commit mass murder on a galactic scale. He remembered welcoming them back each time with a wealth of knowledge, purchased at the cost of a trillion corpses. He remembered storing all that data away where no one else would ever benefit from it.

Over and over. Tens of thousands of times.

Yes, I understood that the Intelligence had done exactly as the Leviathans had commanded – even if they, in their monumental arrogance, had never seen the implications of their scheme. I understood that the Intelligence was built as nothing more than the universe’s most powerful VI. It had no choice, no moral agency, in anything it did before Shepard arrived.

Still. Staring at its image in the display, I felt a helpless rage, worse than anything I could remember. If some kindly goddess had come by just then, handing me a weapon that could eradicate the Intelligence from the universe, I would have used it without a moment’s hesitation.

I felt a gentle hand inside my elbow, pulling me close so that Vara could rest her head on my shoulder. “Are you all right, love?”

“No.” I took a deep, shuddering breath. “Are we on the right course? Coming to rescue that thing?”

“I’m afraid so.” She glanced up into my face, her eyes gone a bleak grey. “Liara, what happens if the Intelligence dies?”

“We fight the valdarii. Now that we’re unified against them, now that we have some immunity to the Old Ones and their manipulation, we beat them.”

“Then what?”

I caught her train of thought, across our intimate link, and sighed. “Right. We can’t do anything about the Old Ones themselves. They’re still out there, embedded in the dark matter we can’t touch. They can continue to corrupt the very stars if we don’t surrender to them. If all else fails, they can drive us into extinction, then wait out there for another fifty million years for some new civilization to come along and open the door for them.”

She watched the image for a while, offering the wordless comfort of her presence.

“I hate it too, Liara. I don’t think any of us who survived the Reapers will ever forgive it. But it’s the only thing in the galaxy powerful enough to maybe give us a chance against the Old Ones. And at least with Shepard’s mind in charge, it doesn’t seem likely to do any more harm.”

“Yes. You’re right, of course. You usually are.”

I felt her smile. “It only took you four hundred years to figure that out?”

“Well, it’s my turn.” I reached out through my daimon to interface with the display, turning the image of the Intelligence and zooming in on one sector in its southern hemisphere. “That’s our way in.”

“Hmm.” Vara consulted her feelings, the homing signal that was growing more and more clamorous in our minds. “I think you’re right. Shepard?”

He loomed up behind us, a big hand on my other shoulder. “Yes. I’m feeling it too. Interesting. That area doesn’t have any distinctive or unusual features. Captain T’Rathis, are we getting any intel on the deployment of valdarii ground forces?”

“Very little, Admiral. They don’t seem to be concentrated in any one location.”

“Hah!”

I startled slightly, at his sudden bark of laughter.

“They don’t actually know what precise location they’re trying to protect from me!” he explained. “The Old Ones must not understand the inner workings of the Intelligence all that well. Which leaves them trying to cover ten times the surface area of Earth with just a couple million soldiers.”

“It can’t be that easy,” Aspasia complained.

“No. They probably have a plan in place to move troops where they need them, the moment they see the schwerpunkt of our assault.” Shepard made a slow smile. “Which suggests that we shouldn’t actually have one. Or that we should put it somewhere completely unimportant.”

I cocked my head at him. “Shepard, are you seriously considering ordering the bulk of our ground forces to attack somewhere as a feint?”

“Very loudly and clearly,” he told me.

 

Six hours later, Chandragupta went in with the main assault. Aspasia kept the ship’s transponder pinging in full IFF mode, and EDI imitated Shepard’s voice and manner with uncanny accuracy over the comms. We hoped that the valdarii would be taken in by our denial-and-deception, at least long enough.

Almost fifty thousand kilometers away, a wing of Dragon-class shuttles soared over the surface of the Intelligence, on a ballistic path, mass-effect cores at minimum, cold and silent. On board, a full company of Confederation Marines waited for the signal to land. Shepard and Kamala commanded our assault team, with Vara, Miranda, Keana, Timo, Palethi, Grunt, and Kalan as auxiliaries. Not to mention one former President of the Citadel Confederation, devoutly praying for this to be her last combat engagement.

“I’m getting too old for this,” I muttered.

Vara, a century older than me and the most experienced veteran in our team, snorted in amused disdain.

Shepard chuckled. “One more battle, T’Soni, and we’re off to that beach on Thessia.”

“You’re on. Assuming this battle actually ends the war.” I bent to check my sidearm and gear for the seventh time.

“Admiral Shepard?” One of the Marines leaned forward, a salarian, peering closely at Shepard. “Is it true that you fought in the Reaper War?”

Shepard caught my eye, with a microscopic smile and a flash of amusement.

Apparently, it’s been so long that even the history books are a little fuzzy on the details. Especially salarian history books.

“That’s right, Corporal. Several of us here did, in fact.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, sir . . . was it as bad as everyone says, back then?”

A scar-faced turian officer leaned forward, about to rebuke the young salarian, but he relaxed back into his seat at Shepard’s quelling gesture.

Shepard frowned, his expressing becoming distant for a moment, and I could sense him reliving some very dark memories. When he finally spoke, though, his voice was gentle.

“I don’t think war is ever anything less than terrible, Corporal. The Reaper War could have been the end of everything, if we’d had just a little less good luck . . . but then, you can end up just as dead in some tiny police action that doesn’t even make the extranet news.” He looked around the cabin, at all the young soldiers who were trying very hard not to appear to be hanging on his words. “I won’t lie to you. The next few hours are likely to be tough, especially if the valdarii see through our deception. Just remember that you’ve trained for this. You know what to do. You’ve got your teammates at your side and your officers looking out for you. This is the job, no more and no less. Do the job, and I give you my word, the outcome will be worth any sacrifice we have to make.”

The salarian soldier nodded firmly, his eyes shining. “Thank you, sir.”

Then we sat in silence. I reached out with one hand and took his, and to hell with the effect on discipline. From her seat across the aisle, Vara smiled at us both.

“Signal from the fleet,” said the pilot, after a few minutes more. “The main assault is fully engaged. It looks as if the enemy has taken the bait.”

“Take us in, Lieutenant,” Shepard ordered.

Outside, a weirdly alien landscape rose toward us. The region looked . . . corrugated, is the only word I could find for it. Low ridges and lines stretched out in all directions, to the strangely distant horizon. The pattern was clearly artificial. Regular, but so complex as to tease the eye. High terrain features shone in the starlight, while lowlands lurked in deep shadow. Everything looked perfectly sharp, with no atmosphere to diffract the starlight or soften the edges of things.

Then, quite suddenly, an opening appeared before us, a fat ellipse several kilometers across. As our shuttles approached, it became the top of a deep shaft, disappearing into pitch darkness below. I glanced at the deep-radar display, and saw that the shaft went far down into the body of the Intelligence, a hundred kilometers at least.

One at a time, six shuttles banked and descended into the darkness.

We’re very close, I thought, and wondered how I knew.

“Lights,” murmured Shepard.

Navigation lights snapped on, illuminating the shaft before us. At first the sides of the shaft seemed perfectly smooth, a matte-black color without any hint of reflection, with no sharp edges or features to help the eye see its limits. Then we saw a set of cross-shafts, six of them, burrowing off through the body of the vast machine. Then, a few kilometers further down, another set. Then another.

“Deep-radar is picking up the bottom of this shaft,” said the pilot.

“Take the next cross-shaft in . . . that direction,” Shepard ordered, pointing. Then he glanced at Vara, checking what he sensed against her perceptions, and got a concurring nod. It felt right to me as well.

We slowed, slowed some more, and then moved off in the direction Shepard had indicated. This shaft was much smaller, circular in cross-section, about a hundred meters across. Behind us, the other shuttles followed two by two, the last taking up the rear alone.

“Picking up a lot of radio noise,” said the pilot. “Is that normal here, sir?”

Shepard looked uncertain for a moment, then nodded. “It can be. Turn sixty degrees to the left up ahead, and then look for another shaft leading downward.”

We turned, slowing even further as the instruments began showing some chop. The deep-radar fuzzed for a moment, then went out entirely.

Then something crashed into my consciousness, a soundless noise that felt almost exactly like a Reaper’s horn. I happened to be looking at Vara at the time, and saw her cringe at it too.

“Put us down!” shouted Shepard. “Put us down now!”

Something flew past us, missing the shuttle by meters as our pilot hurled it downward. Then a terrible light flashed behind us. The pilot swore viciously as a shockwave slammed unto us, tipping our vehicle forward and up almost onto its nose. We crashed ungracefully down onto the floor of the tunnel, bouncing slightly in the light gravity, and then the pilot did something with the mass-effect core to bring us firmly into contact with the surface.

More missiles zoomed out of the darkness up ahead. More flashes of light, as the warheads went off in our midst. I half expected one of them to strike our shuttle, tearing it open, but it didn’t happen.

Someone got the side hatch open, and then the cabin was full of Marines rushing frantically to deploy.

Shepard lunged for the hatch. I followed him, out into the chaos of a valdarii ambush.

Beginning of Story: [A Midnight Intruder]
Previous Chapter: [Bright Space]
Next Chapter: [The Last Firefight]
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