Here we go, the Unbound v2.0 as promised. The Unbound Chapter Index Chapter 01 Chapter 02 Chapter 03 Chapter 04 Chapter 05 Chapter 06 Chapter 07 Chapter 08 Chapter 09 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 (First Post on this thread) Chapter 17a Chapter 17b **********Chapter 16 He should have been angry, enraged even. His forces were decimated, only a small fraction of the ships and men from the overall fleet returning from the thorough beating they had been subjected to while failing to achieve their stated objectives. He had watched the destruction unfold before him in real time, paired particle technology stolen from the Salarians providing him with secure and untraceable communications from light years away until the command cruiser had been destroyed. Years of effort, millions of credits and some of his most skilled commanders, lost to the void. Even the most pessimistic of estimates had been heavily exceeded. By all rights, he should be furious, venting a rage that would gut anything short of a reinforced bunker before it burned out. Most of his kind, most other species even, would have done the same. But he wasn’t angry. Not even in the slightest. Oh yes, he had lost a great many ships and men. A setback that would take years of rebuilding before they were a viable force again. But it was an acceptable tradeoff, at least when considering the successes of the test. The VIRTUE probe had performed beyond expectations, providing near perfect and completely untraceable realtime telemetry on the target fleet’s makeup and position down to the very last picket ship. Compared to more conventional means of surveillance, its capabilities were astronomically far ahead in the world of space warfare. It’s tactical value alone would be astronomical. But when combined with the navigational capabilities of the SIN guidance module he had deployed with the raiding force, that long range surveillance became the key to breaking the back of any defensive formation. Much like it had done to the Quarians. With these, he had the capability to challenge and overcome any naval power in the galaxy. But he did not dream of conquest and glory, of pillage and plunder like so many of his kind had fallen prey to. No, he had larger aims than that. The Terminus systems were rife with a multitude of minor powers with ambitious dreams of expansionism, a dozen border skirmishes going on at any one time. A vicious, hard biting sector who’s only stability came from the fact that no major power was strong enough to take out a rival without exposing themselves dangerously to another. A stability VIRTUE and SIN would shatter. No existing fleet formation would be able to hold itself against the first strike capabilities this technology made possible. Let the Turian’s and Humans crow about their billion credit stealth frigate, wasting its potential on spy games with manned vessels. His technology would do the same and more, multiplying the first strike deadliness of any fleet it was installed on tenfold at a fraction of the cost. Any nation, even the ponderous Elcor, would recognize the potential. And any one of them would easily pay five times again what he’d lost today just to maintain an exclusive supply of the modules. Oh yes, even the Batarians would pay through all four eye sockets just to get their hands on his technology, once they got their grubby hands on the test data. And once they did... Batarians, he felt a flicker of grim amusement at the thought, so predictable. But the amusement did not last long. As paradigm changing as his technology was, it was now an old paradigm. Undoubtedly it would be soon eclipsed by this new and unexpected player, the same one who had dealt his fleet its death blow. Oh, they would still change the paradigm of space warfare in the galaxy, there was little doubt to that. But only against contemporary foes still dependent on mass effect technology for their needs. That dependency had been a safe bet, until not so long ago. A touch of a control, and data streams began feeding into his consciousness. A wealth of information, terrabytes of data gained from the sensors of his fleet of the anomalous vessel and its attendant guardians. There were scientists and engineers, sapients with impressive intellectual accomplishments bound to him who would be soon studying the data with greater capability than he. They would go to work soon enough, trying to tease out what they could from the minutes of battle data. But he wanted to see it first for himself, to savour the raw power that had been demonstrated against his fleet. It was breathtaking. Directed energy weapons powerful enough to cut through a cruiser, yet small enough to mount on a chassis the size of a heavy shuttle. Armour durable enough to withstand concentrated GARDIAN fire, yet light enough to mount on those self same shuttles with no impairment to mobility. Electronic warfare capabilities extensive enough to break through secured lines at light minute distances. A mother vessel, he no longer believed that it was a station, that dwarfed even the largest of space stations constructed by any living species. And even more incredible, tantalizingly out of his immediate reach, a new form of faster than light travel, unlike anything even dreamed off in the wildest of existing FTL theories. Portals that bypassed such concerns as intervening physical objects, with such esoteric readings that even the sensors of his battered fleet hadn’t been able to fully catalogue them before shutting down from data overload. The technologies he had crafted from years of painstaking research would upset the balance of the galaxy. But they were mere toys, trinkets before the sheer potential of alien technology that had been demonstrated in only a few brief minutes. This was no relic of the Protheans, of that he was certain. The Quarians could not be so quick as to plunder the secrets of such a vast artifact in such a short period and master it’s functions in time to turn it to the defense of their fleet. No. The focus of his attention belonged to a new species, one who had the technological wherewithal to develop their own weapons, armour and drive systems, away from the crutch that was element zero, that much he was certain of. And not only had they done so, they had clearly prospered. The resources it would have taken to construct such a mobile planetoid, much less the infrastructure necessary to make the endeavour possible, would be ruinous to even the Council races. This was no minor star power taking it’s first steps onto the galactic stage. Not if they were advanced to develop such technology and wealthy enough to incorporate it into such a massive vessel. No, it would not surprise him at all to learn if they were a vast one, well entrenched with many thousands of worlds under their influence. A lesser sentient might fear their vengeance, that they might track his fleeing fleet back to enact retribution for daring to order the attack. He did not. His own precautions to prevent just such a tracing attempt were well developed to counter the best trackers the galaxy had to offer. And if these aliens were still able to circumvent them? Then it was inevitable and fear would not change that. He would forge on with his plans. Why the aliens chose to appear now, he could not guess, but he well understood there was a new power now in the galactic power bloc as he knew it. Strong enough to destroy the balance of nations more thoroughly than any new technology he unleashed. Strong enough, perhaps, to light the fires of a galaxy consuming conflict. The Citadel races would not appreciate the thought of such a powerful player that did not need to bow before them, much less seeing that incredible technology disseminate beyond their control. Limiting as their reactionary policies were, they were not so short sighted as to miss seeing how their own grasp on the galaxy would be challenged by this development. There was the flicker of a smile as he considered the possibility. It lasted a moment, an eternity to make his decision. Properly guided, they would do his work for him. He opened a communications channel. His own plans would suffer a setback from this, but it was a willing sacrifice for the long term goal. There would be much to do. Certain parties to contact. Opportunities to make. Information to sell. Fear to spread. ********** It was a tense atmosphere in the Liveship’s meeting chambers. Members of the fleet were gathered outside a single enclosed room, hushed, excited whispers filling the air with an excited babble of voices. Normally fractious and varied with their debates, there was a current of uniformity to their discussions, a palpable energy of unified purpose as the collective leadership of the Quarian people discussed the latest twist of their oft-beleaguered fate. Some few talked of the most recent raid, of the damage done by these pirates to their fleet out of proportion to their numbers. But their voices were a tiny minority. Most talked of the strange golden ship that still drifted serenely at the edges of their perimeter. Pirate raids were a part of life for the Quarian people, to be fought and weathered through. But a true first contact situation like this was rarer than Eezo. They did not have all the details, and much remained sealed while the Admirals debated. But what every Quarian captain and bridge crewman had seen with their own eyes were more than enough to set their curiosity ablaze. Who were these strange newcomers? What star nation did they come from? How could they afford to construct such a behemoth? Were they truly a race without element zero? Or had they simply surpassed the need to use it? Everyone by now knew the story of it’s sudden appearance, the portal it had appeared from and reactionless drive system they had employed. They knew an investigative ship had been sent to into it’s bowels. And while the details of the expedition remained unknown, they had certainly seen part of the outcome of the alien’s intervention. It was a power unlike any other they had imagined. A power, many whispered, that could change the entire galaxy. If a fraction of that power could be theirs... But who were these aliens? What did they want with the Quarian people? Would they be friends or enemies? Could they afford to have them as friends? Could they afford not to? Ensconced inside the private meeting room, conversing with his other fellow Admirals, Han’Gerrel was well aware of the growing concerns of the fleet. In fact, he could practically feel the underlying sentiment radiating through the door like some kind of energetic pulsar. “They’ll want to know about these... Bentusi, soon enough.” Rael’Zorah spoke up, breaking the silence that had settled between them as they digested the post battle reports as well as the details of Tali’s debriefing. In front of him, and the rest of the gathered Admirals, reams of data scrolled across holographic panels. Recordings from ships data recorders intermingled with the captures from Tali’s suit cameras, giving a visual counterpoint to the hard statistics. “Indeed,” Daro’Xen chimed in smoothly, “they are most curious about the opportunities this would present to the Quarian people.” “Opportunities?” Han’Gerrel shook his head in exasperation as Daro’Xen’s ill concealed eagerness. Her heart was in the right place, unlike that whiny suit-wetter Zaal’Korris, she wanted the homeworld back as much as he did. But the way she talked about reclaiming the glory of the Quarian people, Geth included as part of the package, that was damn well disturbing to him. “Risks is more like it. Didn’t you read the rest of Tali’Zorah’’s report?” “We have, Gerrel,” Shala’Raan chided, “And we share your concerns, but these Bentusi have not presented themselves as a threat to us at all.” “Yet,” he countered. “If her suspicions turn out to be true, then they’re playing us for fools, Raan.” He enlarged the video on his display, highlighting the ‘ambassador’ Tali had met. Analytical systems had already gone through the video, piecing together the unnatural angles and sharp lines that lay beneath the concealing robes it wore. “Synthetics aren’t going to help organic life, much less the Quarian people, out of some programming quirk.” “We have no proof that they are synthetics, Gerrel. What Tali met could simply be a synthetic intermediary and their culture forbids face to face contact with outsiders.” Zaal’Koris interjected, waving a dismissive hand. “And even if they are a synthetic race, we would be foolish to treat them as we do the Geth. They have come to our aid after all.” “Only after they were attacked by the pirates in the first place.” He shot back, only to grimace as he thought of the casualties. “We took a beating out there today, twenty three ships practically gutted and more badly damaged. And these Bentusi decide to help us only after that?” “That is a matter of concern,” Shala’Raan agreed, “but it does not dispute what they told Tali of themselves, that they would not intervene in matters of others.” “And yet here they are, intervening with their ‘offer’. Rael, do your teams have anything new on that thing they’ve put on Tali’s shuttle?” The admiral shook his head subtly, “Not very much Gerrel. The instructions that were given to Tali describe it as a hybrid between a communications unit and a...” he trailed off uncomfortably. “A matter teleporter of some kind, assuming they aren’t playing a grand joke on us.” Gerrel grumbled, recalling his own shock at the description of the golden device that Tali had returned with. Who would have thought the greatest prize of science fiction would be presented to them like this? Unsurprisingly, the Conclave had placed the decision in the Admiralty’s hands once they had learned that particular detail. The potential for disaster meant that none of them wanted anything to do with it. Current surveillance feeds showed the damn thing still securely lashed on the ships cargo hold, and completely inert as best as the sensors they had said, but just looking at it made his skin crawl. He’d had the shuttle evacuated and impounded there and then, a cordon of security ships around it ready to blast it to atoms if it so much as twitched. Not that they needed to sneak in a bomb or fleet into the fleet if they were hostile, he thought sourly. The disparity in firepower was too great to ignore. “We already know that. But have they been able to learn anything about how it works, and if there are any hidden surprises inside?” “Unfortunately not. I’ve instructed the teams not to take it apart as a precaution, but exterior scans aren’t showing any usable data. We haven’t been able to penetrate it’s exterior with any kind of active scan. The only thing we have been able to learn is that it has a null thermal signature, equalizing with local temperatures almost instantly. In that respect, it’s similar to the Mass Relays.” “If anything, I say this is further evidence of the Bentusi’s good intentions.” Zaal’Koris concluded. “The technical capability and wealth they possess is clearly magnitudes greater than what even the Citadel races possess. If they were planning treachery, what could we possibly have that they don’t already have in great quantities?” “Slaves?” Gerrel asked sourly. Zaal’Koris grimaced. “That may be a possibility, but it does not seem likely. They certainly do not act anything at all like the Batarians do. Would a slave taking culture be so friendly with us?” “Or maybe that similarity to Mass Relays isn’t just a coincidence.” Gerrel countered. “Maybe it’s a sign that these Bentusi are actually an advance scout of the Reapers that Tali reported on.” Koris shook his head in bemusement. “That is even less likely Gerrel. By her accounts, the Reapers were inimical to life, and treated organic life as waste. Does that sound like anything in her report on these Bentusi? They have gone out of their way to help us already, and are offering even more. For a mere pittance, knowledge that any established center of higher learning would already have, we would have access to technology that would benefit the entire Migrant Fleet greatly.” “Or make us dependent on them,” Rael’Zorah observed neutrally. “I will not deny that this phased disassembler array they are offering could be a boon to our resource scarcity problems, but there are many questions to ask about how well we would be able to make use of it, least of all our ability to maintain it.” “Perhaps that is true,” Shala’Raan spoke up, “There are many unknowns we face in this deal with the Bentusi, and we must be cautious. But we must also face the possibility that if we do not take this opportunity now, the Bentusi may offer it to another. There are not so many unclaimed systems out there that we can afford such a disadvantage for very long. However we choose, we must decide soon before they lose patience with us. I propose that we put this matter to the vote.” Rael’Zorah nodded, “I have no objections to the proposal.” None of the others did either. The tallied results however... “We’re really going to go along with this then?” Gerrel asked the other four Admirals. “That is the result of the vote,” Shala’Raan noted. “Do you wish to object?” “No, I don’t.” The grizzled admiral sighed in surrender. “It is decided then.” Rael’Zorah concluded with some formality. “We take the deal.” ********** Tali approached the strange golden device with some trepidation. It hadn’t done anything untoward yet, but there was just no telling what it could do. No, that wasn’t true. She knew what it could do, if the instructions she had been given by the Bentusi were anything approaching the truth. They called it an Exchange Unit, a simple term. But the underlying principles were anything but simple. If this wasn’t a sham, then what stood silently before her was the crystallization of incredible technology undreamed of in the entire known galaxy, even if it did have that creepy looking eye-like design at its top. With this device, the instantaneous transfer of information and materials across huge distances without actually travelling the intervening space became possible. A fully functional matter teleporter! Forget the paired particle communication systems the Salarians were rumoured to be working on, it couldn’t be compared to this. Even with the implied limitations of the device, simply understanding the theory behind it’s driving principles could provide incredible benefits to the Fleet. The engineer in her wanted to take it apart, to study it’s every mechanism and glean what secrets she could from beneath its exterior, despite the explicit warnings against doing so. Even with that caution, the device was already surrounded by all manner of remote observation systems that the Migrant Fleet had managed to scrounge up on short notice. No doubt, the best minds of the fleet were already studying the device through these systems. Another part of her, the one that held the security of the Fleet at the forefront, wanted to space the device into the local star and run far, far away. It was a live black box. They understood nothing of it’s capabilities, or what damage it could wreck if there was some hidden malevolent programming inside it. Bringing it into the fleet was every bit as potentially dangerous as bringing in live Geth. The only guarantee they had that it was not some ticking bomb waiting to go off was the supposed goodwill of the Bentusi. But that wasn’t her choice to make. The Admiralty had publicised the details of the arrangement and their willingness to go along with it to the rest of the fleet, while ordering that she keep her suspicions of their true nature a secret. These weren’t the Geth they had explained, and she couldn’t prove beyond doubt that they were truly synthetics. There was a chance the representative she had met was nothing more than a synthetic proxy, and not a true member of the Bentusi species. Against that, what they had to offer was simply too valuable to jeopardize by letting airing her suspicions. Tali didn’t know whether to feel betrayed or elated at that. But she did feel more than a little nervous. As the Quarian representative, it fell to her to complete the Fleet’s part of the agreement. That was why she was carrying an OSD loaded with information, at both layman and technical levels, on the properties of element zero and its guiding principles. That meant activating the device within physical reach. She had absolutely no idea how the teleportation event would look like, but her imagination was working at double shifts filling up the blanks. Matter couldn’t just materialize or dematerialize without some kind of energy cost, and if there was bleed through... ‘No use worrying about that’, she scolded herself, taking the last few steps towards the Exchange Unit. As if sensing her approach, a holographic panel blossomed on its surface, displaying the phased disassembler array the Bentusi had offered, and summary of its capabilities. Below the display, in Quarian script, a separate panel quoted what the Bentusi required in exchange and a confirmation of her intent to complete the deal. Tali had a moment of confusion at the familiar strangeness of that before it struck her. It reminded her of a store catalogue of all things. Despite the gravity of the situation, she had to suppress a tiny laugh. There was just no way. It had to be a quirk of their behaviour. Synthetic or not, she couldn’t possibly imagine these Bentusi as some kind of... of intergalactic salespeople. Still, thinking of that helped her get over her initial concerns enough to reach out to the panel and confirm her intent, the console reacting to her touch as easily as any galactic standard interactive holographic panel. What happened next however, gave her a start. A portion of the Exchange Unit... rippled. There was no other way to describe it. One moment, it’s golden surface seemed as impenetrable and solid as the materials Mass Relays were made out of. The next it’s surface was undulating like mercury. At the centre of the ripples, a hole began opening in its surface- no. It wasn’t so much opening, she realized, as it was drawing away, the living metal drawing away to reveal a head sized aperture. Tali’s breathe came out as a quick hiss of surprise. The instructions had mentioned an opening to place the item of exchange inside, but she had expected a sliding panel, certainly not this! She was thankful no one was around to see her flush of jealousy. Another secret that the Bentusi had mastered but flaunted as if to remind her how far ahead they were. Dropping the OSD into the aperture, she took a few steps back. She’d barely come to a stop when the data device flitted up into the air, slowly revolving on its axis before vanishing in a sudden flash of light and the pop of air rushing in to fill the vacuum. Tali blinked at that. To be honest, she was expecting something with a bit more pomp for matter teleportation. But just as she was having that thought, the eye-like design on the Exchange Unit lit up, beams of blue light lancing out from its pupil and sweeping the area she had vacated. In several quick sweeps, the beams had traced a rectangular box with ghostly afterimages and the air began to hum with a quickly building electric tingle. A heartbeat later, there was a sudden crack of displaced air and a flash of azure light that her visor’s auto-polarization struggled to compensate for. But even blinking away the spots in her vision, there was no missing what now lay in front of her. It was smaller than she had expected, the size of a small air car. But it was unmistakably the phased disassembler array the Bentusi had shown her. Put alongside it, the OSD that ostensibly held the design plans for the device was almost all too easy to miss. Just as she was beginning to process all of that however, the Exchange Unit hummed again, snatching back her attention. Another teleportation? But instead, a familiar voice emanated from its surface. “Thus is our exchange made, Tali’Zorah Vas Neema.” “Yes,” She began cautiously, all too aware now of the various observation systems that were likely focused on her. “It is. But what happens now?” “We must depart. Our arrival in this galaxy was not unnoticed and we are needed elsewhere.” “Wait!” She cried out. “What do you mean not unnoticed? Who noticed you? Are there more of you?” "In time, we will meet again with the Quarian people, Tali’Zorah Vas Neema.” “All that moves through the void is easily heard.” The light in the eye went out. “Tali, report!” The voice of Han’Gerrel came in through her suit radio. “We lost all communications with that room for a few moments. What happened down there?” “I...” Tali began uncertainly, “the exchange was made, just like they promised. We have the array. But what do you mean communications were lost? Do you think the Bentusi-” “They’re gone Tali. Slipped right through that portal of theirs at the same time we lost communications. Slippery buggers.” “I think they’ll be back Admiral.” She looked at the Exchange Unit. The eye was dark once more, and the aperture was gone. The rippling liquid metal had simply slid over it in the moments she had conversed with the Bentusi. It stood as a monolith, silent and inactive. And, a corner of her mind whispered, waiting. **********CODEX VIRTUE: The Virtual Intelligence Tactical Unobservable Espionage probe is an extreme range autonomous reconnaissance probe built for stealthy observation of hostile star systems. Possessing an unusually slim profile compared to most probes, the VIRTUE probe is designed to be deployed via primary mass accelerator of its parent vehicle, a thick inner coating of shock resistant gel protecting its sensitive electronics from the inertial stresses of acceleration. In order to fulfill its stealth requirements, the probe is encased in a radar absorbent non-reflective shell designed to defeat conventional sensor scanning while stores of cryogenically cooled gas provide course correction adjustments. The minute amounts of heat generated from routine operations is projected through a Stern-Gerlach device which converts the thermal energy into a low power laser used for secure line communications. Long range telemetry is provided by a miniature element zero core capable of creating a minute mass effect corridor from the probe to the parent vessel. To date, the manufacturer of VIRTUE probes remains a mystery, as they are only rarely found on pirate vessels operating out of the Terminus Systems and captured samples have been wiped of all identification marks. SIN: The Synchronous Insertion Navigator is a fleet management system combining an advanced virtual intelligence, next generation course plotting software and a central paired particle communications hub. While conventional faster than light travel using mass effect cores usually have a navigational drift measured in the hundreds of kilometers and larger for fleets due to the inability to make meaningful course corrections while in flight, a similar fleet equipped with SIN modules is capable of making precision jumps. This is achieved by the system’s paired particle communications hub which permits a vessel to triangulate it’s position against similarly equipped vessels at any one time while in faster than light transit, making real time FTL course corrections both practical and safe. When more than one ship is transiting, this capability is further expanded with the system's virtual intelligence when interfaced directly with navigation, permitting simultaneous entry back to slower than light of the entire fleet at their individual coordinates. edit: Codex entry up. I may add more to the SIN entry later.