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Martin Grien

Mercenary Gunner and Soldier-for-Hire

0 · 108 views · located in The Vindicator

a character in “Mass Effect: On the Edge”, as played by Guilty Carrion

Description

Martin stands 5’9, and has the body of a career solider, which isn't far from what he actually is. His eyes are a light shade of blue, with small flecks of green scattered within them, surprisingly docile for a mercenary, but he doesn't really fit the mold for a traditional merc anyway. He always seems to have a perpetual case of five’ o’clock shadow, even if he shaves. His hair is light brown, kept short but not in any particular style.

He typically wears a uniform, although he does have some other more casual clothes of varying designs. Martin typically wears the gauntlets from his armour, even if he’s not wearing the rest of it. The exact reason for this isn't really know, but it seems to make the merc a degree more comfortable when he’s allowed to, so no fuss is currently being made.

Personality

Martin is a quiet man, not one for long winded conversation or any extensive social interaction. Dusk seems to be the mouth of the pair, and garners much more attention than her partner. Between the two of them, Martin is infinitely more tactical, with a cool sense of logic and a seeming lack of issue with just about anything.

Martin lets things bounce off him with an almost practiced ease, and his almost other-worldly patience makes him a good partner for Dusk’s more biting sense of humour. The two are largely inseparable, although the exact nature of their partnership isn't know.

History

Martin came aboard with Dusk, having a been signed on by Keagan when he contracted the pilot. Martin apparently has a seasoned career behind him, but doesn't share much of himself with anyone bothering to pry. He’s served on a number of ships, but the length of his time with Dusk is unknown.

So begins...

Martin Grien's Story

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Charlie Welles Character Portrait: Dusk Trafford Character Portrait: Martin Grien

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With the majority of its 52 hour days spent blanketed in darkness, and frequent snow storms that swallowed the sky into howling black, it was a rare opportunity to watch the sunrise over the frozen peaks of Mavigon’s northern pole. Along the side of one such peak, barely perceivable amidst the dunes of snow and deep crags that lined the cliff side, a lone figure stood.

Behind a several inches of high density acrylic glass; specially treated to withstand and disperse the extreme conditions of Mavigon’s frigid climate, he watched the sun slowly rise above the furthest peaks. Steel eyes flicked briefly to the western horizon, noting the billowing black clouds rolling across the tundra expanse with frightening speed. Aged fingers briefly stroked his perfectly shaven chin, musing on the approaching storm for a few moments. “Reschedule Exercise Delta Twelve for the next calm. Replace it with Hazard Training, Drills Three through Five. Limit equipment.” The man’s voice was quiet but powerful, projected fully and with a resounding clarity. Moments later, the facility VI chirped in its synthesized female voice.

“Re-scheduling successful. Instructors have been notified. Necessary equipment assigned. Expected delays: Minimal.” Nodding in satisfaction, he raised a steaming mug of freshly ground coffee to his lips after a few moments’ pause. His figure was imposing, from his flawless posture to the white, gold and black of his Cerberus Officer uniform that spoke clearly of his rank and station.

It was only when the station behind him gave a soft tone that he turned completely from the view, tapping a key on the haptic keyboard to disable the terminal’s hibernation. Behind him, thick shutters of reinforced, cold resistant ceramics hissed shut, darkening the room for a mere moment before the lights hummed on. Placing his mug upon a small coaster, the man, identified as Director Luvgren from the small metallic plate upon his desk, lowered himself into the aged mahogany chair behind his sleek black desk.

“Forward all morning reports.” He murmured, the VI instantly complying as a series of statistics and messages hopped up onto the screen. “Expand.” Seconds later, two additional screens appeared on either side of the original terminal, dominating his view as the system sorted the reports into different segments on each individual screen. Leaning back, Luvgren took a slow slip of his coffee, eyes focusing on the many disparate reports before him.

One screen focused on raw data, averages, peaks, valleys, anomalies, while another focused instead on the psychological aspects of those within his facility, the last seemingly reserved for reports of specific nature, all aimed at one specific individual. With this in mind, he finished the last of his coffee, placing it neatly on its coaster once more and turning his attention fully to the last screen. Or at least, he was in the process of such when the VI unexpectedly interrupted.

“Director, we are receiving a Priority One transmission from Cerberus High Command.” Seemingly unphased by the interruption, Luvgren gave a nearly unperceivable nod. On cue, the room dimmed several tones as the polished black tile before his desk soundlessly parted to reveal a projection pad that hummed to life. “Establishing connection. Strengthening. Verifying QE integrity. Verified. Connected.”

Luvgren rose from his seat as the holographic image of a man in a suit appeared upon the pad, smoothly taking a breath from the cigarette perched between his fingers as the Director stepped round his desk. “Sir.” He stated; tone respectful as the Illusive Man gave the slightest inclination of his head. “Shall I assume you’re calling for your special package?”

“That would be correct, Director. Things are in motion, and we haven’t anymore time to waste.” Taking a last breath of smoke, he discarded the cigarette in the ashtray before regarding Luvgren once more. “I trust you’ve done as I’ve asked?”

“Of course, sir. The Phoenix Project has only the highest standards, and regardless of the task, my facility is equipped to meet the needs required.” Luvgren gestured towards the door, speaking to the system VI once more. “Engage quantum projection orb. Reinforce the connection for maximum clarity. Minimize lag, secure additional power if neccessary.” A moment later, the projection pad revealed a small compartment, out of which a small spherical device hovered. The hologram of the Illusive Man flickered for a moment, before synchronizing the QPO’s position, displaying the man once more. “It’s right this way, sir.”

With the QPO, and by extension, the Illusive Man, in tow, Luvgren approached the door to his office, which parted seamlessly into what might as well have been described as an alternate world. Beyond the polished refinement of his personal chambers, the long hall leading towards the heart of the facility was a stark contrast of rust and cracking steel. The Director moved quickly down the hall, as the Illusive Man mused aloud. “You volunteered the Project for the funding cut, Director.”

“I did, and I stand by it, sir.” Luvgren paused in his stride, turning to look his employer in the eye. “This facility, worn as it may appear, serves in both its function and as an additional tool at my disposal.” He gestured towards one of the hair line cracks, and the ice building along it. “Critical systems are maintained daily, but the Project doesn’t need the luxury of other cells. Our fundamental cause is, as you know, to train our recruits into operatives without compare. If I were to offer them the luxury of a hotel every time they returned to their quarters, they would be useless to me. Luxury is a privilege I seldom saw on the battlefield, and they would do well to learn the same.” There was a brief pause, as both men shared a knowing smile. “You have, of course, known about this long before today.”

“Of course.” The Illusive Man replied. “And you’ve defended your reasoning in the past. I simply prefer to confirm your conviction to the Project.”

“You will not find me lacking, sir.” The Director continued down the hall, speaking as ‘they’ walked. “Aside from your package, we are expecting to have another batch of Phoenix Operatives ready within the next month, barring any difficulties.”

“Excellent news. How has she done?”

Reaching the end of the hall, Luvgren raised his omni-tool to the sealed bulkhead, glancing only partially over his shoulder. “In honest, better than expected. Despite initial difficulties, she has taken to the training well.” The door groaned open, notably slower than the previous, and Luvgren strode into the mostly empty atrium. The mess hall beyond was equally barren, save for a few patrolling guards clad in identical silver gray suits of combat armour. “With the training provided amplifying her skill set, and the tempering to control her temper and standoffish tendencies, I believe she will be everything you desired. But,” Luvgren stepped through the room, taking an immediate right towards a door which read ‘TRAINING GROUNDS’. “I believe the results should speak for themselves.”

The two men moved swiftly through the short hallway, taking a right at the lone intersection and stepping into a small room dominated by a large window overlooking the training facility. The QPO hovered over, affording the Illusive Man a view of the field below. The chamber was large; whole sections seemingly cordoned off from each other by thin steel walls capable of moving and retracting into thin slots along the walls and floors. As it was, the room below was comprised of a series of small ‘buildings’, with a small number of lightly armoured guards moving about the darkened chamber.

In the center building, guarded by a pair of men equipped with a Predator heavy pistol each, sat a small, barely visible data pad. A cursory glance confirmed that the guards had formed a perimeter around the object, placing it as likely the objective of the drill. A few quick taps on Luvgren’s data pad, and the speakers within the chamber came to life with chatter.

“Any signs?”

“Negative. Section 1 is clear.”

“Section 2 is clear.”

“Section 3, clear.”

“4 clear.” There was a brief pause, before the last speaker spoke again. “So…where the fuck is she then?” The guards paused in their patrols, each checking uncomfortably over their shoulders before continuing on.

“They seem concerned.” The Illusive Man mused, sipping his drink as Luvgren nodded in confirmation.

“She has earned something of a reputation within the facility. There are rarely volunteers for these drills anymore.”

“Promising.” As the words left his mouth, the chamber below and the observation deck plunged into perfect darkness without warning. Luvgren looked to the lights, displeasure written across his features, but before he could speak, his employer simply held a hand for silence. The chatter from the guards was rapid, filled with swears and hurried breaths, small LED lights along their armour the only source within the training chamber as they raced about like rats in the darkened maze.

Behind the men, the bulkhead door hissed open, the lights flickering on at the sound. Luvgren turned partially, raising a brow as the figure stepped properly into the light. “Sirs.” The woman intoned, offering a rigid salute to them both. The Illusive Man’s lips turned up ever so slightly at the familiar sound, casually turning to face her as he sipped coolly from his drink.

“Vala Buchan. It’s been too long, Operative.” For the first time in two months, he gave the woman a once over. Her once blonde hair was now raven black, hanging just past her chin and framing the familiar yet still striking topaz eyes that watched him with a reverent respect. Thin beads of sweat trailed down her neck, and the collar of her form fitting tank top was damp from exertion. Her lithe frame was noticeably more tone, betraying what he knew to be a newly tuned set of skills far outside her former comfort zones. “The lights were your doing, I assume?”

“The best method of retrieval is to never fire a shot, sir. The lights are hardwired into the facility, but isolating the system wasn’t difficult.” Luvgren nodded in approval, looking back to the Illusive Man with the faintest of smiles on his face. “I apologize for any interruptions it may have caused you, sirs.”

“At ease, Buchan.” She complied instantly; feet shoulder width apart and hands behind her back. “I trust you have the data pad?” She nodded, handing the device to the Director before resuming her at ease. “Excellent.” He gestured to the woman, addressing the Illusive Man once more. “As you can see, sir, I have not let her skills dull during her time here. With your permission, I’d like to have one final drill to showcase how far Buchan has managed to progress.”

There was a brief pause as the Cerberus leader considered the offer, before nodding his consent. “Thank you, sir. Buchan. Return to the training chamber and set the system for sparring. I shall join you briefly.”

“At once, sir.”

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The training chamber was unnervingly quiet, despite the fact that almost ever spare inch of space had been filled recruit and guard alike. The crowd surrounded the sparring ring, speaking only in hushed whisper as the soon-to-be-opponents spoke in the center. On one side was Vala, breathing lightly as she flexed her hands to test the wraps that covered her already bloodied knuckles. Her hair was tugged into a low ponytail, away from her eyes, which stayed firmly locked on the last person she was expecting to have faced today.

The Director himself stood opposite, wearing only a basic marine uniform as his flawlessly neutral face watched the woman finish her preparations. It was an unprecedented example, for Luvgren himself to step into the ring and face down one of his own recruits. Most thought him too old, or just too vain to even consider the possibility. Standing a good head above his opponent, and still boasting the physique of a much younger man, it was a far cry from the demanding administrator they all knew. High above, the Illusive Man watched from the viewing chamber, a fresh glass in hand for the coming show.

“This will serve as your final examination, Buchan. No opponent you face will ever hold back, and I will be no different. Use every tool I’ve given you, and you may earn some semblance of respect.” With only a curt nod for a reply, Luvgren gestured to the ringside. “Very well then. Begin.”

In those first few moments, the room seemed to swell with pressure, as both combatants bodies were wreathed in the blue electric pulses of their biotics flaring to their full potential. In moments, Luvgren’s ‘aura’ quickly surpassed Vala’s; shrouding the man in biotic energy so intense it began to shift in colour. The Phoenix director struck first, thrusting his fist forward and releasing a massive shockwave that shook the ring at its approach. Without hesitation, Vala launched herself sideways, easily dodging the slow moving attack and quickly moving to close.

The shockwave continued for a moment longer, before vanishing into the light blue glow of a grid that arisen around the ring as a sort of barrier for the spectators. Vala thrust her palms forward as she approached, a hexagon of dark energy appearing on the tip of her skin, stopping Luvgren’s powerful fist strike cold. The barrier dispersed as quickly as it came, and she moved past the still retracting limb to strike with her knuckles at his stomach.

Luvgren barely staggered, eyes flashing dangerously as a pulse of biotic energy tossed her from her feet across the ring. She recovered quickly, landing in a roll that carried her to her feet, hands raised defensively in front of her. Luvgren chuckled humourlessly. “A good effort.” Energy rippling off his frame in waves, Luvgren strode forward, dark energy channelling in his hands for the next offensive.

The aggressive stance of the director was setting the pace, and Vala knew full well she had to keep pace or risk being crushed by the man’s vicious biotic strength. Coiling her hand into a fist, Vala felt the dark energy begin to condense and focus into the thick of her fist, ducking as Luvgren threw a powerful haymaker. He followed with a rising knee that caught her solidly in the ribs, but instead of resisting the momentum she allowed it to send her back a few steps, giving her the space to navigate his offensive.

The strikes flew rapidly, with blocks and parries being traded in equal regard. For every connecting strike, their biotics flared and thundered violently against each other threatening to burst every time the unstable energies collided. The lesson was clear, after each titanic volley that Luvgren was clearly in control, never giving her a chance to properly take the upper hand.

Breaking back a few steps, Vala circled predatorily, Luvgren standing firmly in the center of the ring, eyes watching her with deadly calm. The threat he posed was unexpected, she realized, while his body may be old, his mind was sharp, and nothing said his biotics had dulled either. If anything, they seemed stronger.

This, frankly, was bad.

Seeming to sense her hesitation, Luvgren removed the option once more, leaping unexpectedly into the air before slamming his fist down onto the mat. Dark energy burst off him like a blast, forcing her back several feet as he surged across the small distance. Without her balance, Vala took a pair of strikes across the chin, before managing to throw up her forearm to block. Luvgren countered instantly with an uppercut, and she barely stepped back to in time to avoid it, back pressed to the ropes.

He hammered into her, never relenting in his assault, but Vala retaliated, driving her elbow forward into his chest. Before he regained balance, she unleashed a fury of jabs that earned her several inches, quickly using the newfound space for powerful hi-kick across the Director’s jaw. He barely slowed, and the two lunged into melee again.

In a particularly vicious exchange, Luvgren caught her arm, twisting so hard the bone threatened to break. Gritting her teeth, the operative leapt with an added boost from her biotics, gracefully flipping herself over the snared limb to strike Luvgren’s nose with the blunt of her shin. He recoiled from the hit, and she wasted little time thrusting a push into the thick of his chest, sending the old solider skidding back several steps. Straightening, the Director’s face seemed almost amused, nose slightly bruised and a thin river of red trailing down from his nostril.

Nursing her sore arm, and panting slightly from the lack of energy to burn for her biotics, Vala knew attrition wasn’t a battle she was equipped to win. Not against a skilled, ruthless and nourished biotic like Luvgren. Both of them knew it. Taking a calming breath, she extended her arms to her sides, channelling everything she could muster into them. As she did, she felt the amps embedded in her forearms begin to heat and activate, dark energy manifesting along the bottom of her arm.

It took only moments for the energy to reach her wrist, continuing to grow out until the strands coiled and consolidated into two separate strands on either arm. Gripping the dark energy in her hands, Vala’s eyes narrowed on Luvgren, rearing the whips up and behind her head before slamming them down. The mat shook under the sheer force, nearly toppling Vala but she kept her footing. The whips retracted, and she frowned at the still standing form of Luvgren. He’d nearly fallen to a knee, but the man’s arms were crossed over his head, barriers formed on his wrist flickering a few times before dispersing.

Rising to his full height once more, the Director seemed to be truly pleased by her performance, but made no moves to end the contest. With his form wreathed once more in dark energy, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was somehow different than before. As Luvgren pulled his fists back parallel to his chest, the threat became clear, and Vala barely had time to flare up a kinetic barrier as Luvgren’s fists shot forward.

It was a moment that if you blinked, you missed it; Luvgren’s body wreathed in dark light rocketing across the small ring faster than humanly possible into the kinetic barrier. The energies reacted, faster than either biotic could hope to react, sparking into a detonation than flung both of them across the ring into the ropes. Vala hit the mat hard, but to her credit quickly began to push herself; half-crawling, half-walking as she crossed the ring to Luvgren’s prone form.

Gripping his collar, she hoisted the Director from the mat, cocking her fist back to deliver a decisive strike when the Illusive Man’s voice echoed across the chamber. “I believe that is enough, Operative.” She looked up to the observation window; his holographic form watching down on her with what she hoped was approval in his eyes. “There isn’t a shadow of a doubt. You’ve passed, Operative.”

“I agree.” Luvgren coughed; bringing her attention back to the man she was still poised to strike. After a moment’s pause, she rose, pulling him to his feet as she did. Once standing, Luvgren dusted his uniform for a moment, before both of them looked to the Illusive Man. “I’ll begin the necessary work immediately, sir. Buchan.”

“Sir?”

There was a thick pause, before Luvgren turned and offered his hand to her. “Well done.” Looking to the hand, Vala stared for a moment, before taking it firmly in her own. The two shared a powerful shake, and for the briefest moment, she swore he actually seemed proud.

“Thank you, sir.”

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Even steps echoing through the long, chilled hall, Vala eyed the cracking walls with some degree of disbelief. Many of the cracks were familiar from her few other visits to the Director’s office, and it still eluded her as to why Luvgren felt it unnecessary to perform the repairs. Maybe once they reached a critical level he’d see the need. The man worked in curious ways.

Reaching the end of the hall, she fiddled with the hem of her worn out recruit uniform for a moment; trying to make the battered outfit seem somewhat more presentable despite the apparent futility. After today, she honestly doubted she’d see him ever again, but for all he’d done, she felt that some degree of formality was demanded. Once satisfied her uniform was presentable, she tapped in the code to the door, and it sped open.

Stepping inside the office, she noticed a figure seated in the grand wooden chair. Striding across the room, she opened her mouth to speak, only to catch herself when the figure became clearer. It took only a moment for the name to return to her. “…Nulfem?”

With elbows placed neatly on the desk, the man raised his head from the myriad cards arrayed before him and offered a light-hearted smile. “Ms Buchan! It has been far too long.” Devoid of any scars, Nulfem was a man out of place in his thousand credit suit, but looked perfectly at ease all the same. He gestured to one of the chairs before the desk, free hand taking a card and placing it on another pile. “I hope Mavigon has been pleasant for your little…‘vacation’?”

She grimaced at his terminology. “Is that what it’s being called?” She spared a glance to the small glass resting beside his cards, half-drained and filled with a clear liquid of unknown origin. “It has been…enlightening, to say the least.”

“Well then, I look forward to hearing all about it.” For a moment, he regarded his cards, before flicking his eyes past Vala to the door. “Ah, Director Luvgren. Perfect timing. She’s only just arrived.” The card-shark rose from the chair, scooping the cards up in one fluid motion whilst retrieving a previously unseen briefcase from beside the chair.

Vala began to rise to address the man, but Luvgren spoke before she could fully stand. “That won’t be necessary.” She hesitated, before sinking back into her seat as Luvgren and Nulfem passed each other to take their respective seats, Nulfem beside her and Luvgren behind his desk. As he lowered himself down, Luvgren addressed Nulfem. “I trust that your presence in my office means all the necessary arrangements have already been made?”

“Of course. Once we’re done here, we’re free to depart.” She eyed the two, clearly not liking being left out of the loop, and Luvgren wasted little time, pressing a small key on the haptic interface of his desk that powered the QEC behind them. After a moment, the holographic image of the Illusive Man appeared once again.

“Vala.” She rose immediately, turning and inclining her head in respect. Keagan and Luvgren rose as well, although neither offered the same greeting as her. “Since your induction into Cerberus, there has rare been an occasion that you have not risen to the task. Few better embody the drive and determination of humanity, and it is this very trait that has made you a valued member of Cerberus.”

He glanced aside to Nulfem, nodding to the man who promptly raised the briefcase beside him to chest level, holding it out towards Vala. “Our enemies are legion, but there is too much at stake for us to falter. Cerberus, and humanity, needs men and woman capable of standing against the odds and guiding us to victory. I have few I can trust with such a task, but it is time to reward the loyalty you have long given me.”

The briefcase clicked open, and Vala looked to its contents, eyes widening in surprise. Inside laid two outfits, both quickly recognizable as the Cerberus dress whites, and the other as the Battle Dress uniform, each with four black bars on the shoulder. On the lapel of each was a small pin of what looked like a bird, coiling on itself in a small circle. The pin was black primarily, with the outlining of the bird in a polished gold. It took only a minute for her to process all this, before she looked back to the Illusive Man incredulously. “Sir..?”

“Congratulations, Commander Buchan.” The statement was echoed by Luvgren, while Nulfem settled for a large smile at her sheer surprise. “Mr. Nulfem has been sent with your new command; a familiar face from your time with Omni Cell. Once you’re underway, contact me for your first assignment.” She was slow to respond, before settling on a heavy nod of her head, mouth seemingly failing. “Savour the moment, Vala. You’ve earned it.” Nothing more to be said, the Illusive Man ended the call.

It took several minutes for Vala to find the words to speak, dropping into her seat with a wide-eyed look. “Commander..?” She murmured, prompting Luvgren to reply.

“It is an honour at your age, Buchan. The amount of faith the Illusive Man is placing in you is impressive.” The Director took a moment to pour a fresh cup of coffee, eyes barely moving from the stunned woman. “A burden I trust you can handle.”

“I doubt he’d give her command if he didn’t trust she could.” Nulfem offered, closing the briefcase and placing it beside Vala. “In truth, I’ve been preparing for this for the past few months. Before she even joined the Project.” Looking to the man, her surprise faded.

“That makes surprising sense. Then is the command..?”

“Indeed. The freshly refurbished Vindicator, with a new crew handpicked by myself and the Illusive Man for you.” She frowned at the name. “It’s expected that you’ll give it a new title though, Commander. She certainly feels like a different ship.” He glanced at his watch, raising a brow. “In fact, it’s probably for the best if we get ourselves moving now. Need to get you acquainted with the ship again, along with her crew.”

“Right, well…we best get moving.”

“After you change. Not to tell you how to do your job, but it’s probably for the best if you look the part.”

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High in orbit above Mavigon, Vala stood by the window of the shuttle, watching as the faint blip on the ‘horizon’ grew closer and closer. It wasn’t difficult to recognize the ship she’d served briefly aboard, despite the re-colouring it had received during its refurbishing. The sleek ship looked beautiful in black she noted, pleasantly impressed that it was devoid of any obvious Cerberus logos.

Nulfem sat on the bench behind her, once again fiddling with his cards. She spared a glance at him, scrutinizing the man for a moment before his eyes flicked to hers. “Something on your mind?” She paused for a moment, looking back out at the ship before speaking.

“What’s your role in all this, Nulfem? Just here to get me?”

“Quite the contrary, in fact. My task was twofold. The first was to simply acquire a talented crew to man a ship that the Illusive Man would provide for you to command. The Vindicator was just a stroke of luck, really.” Shuffling the deck skilfully, the elegant man looked out the window to the approaching ship. “With that complete, I am officially assigned to your crew, in the function of a Yeoman, as well as your ‘cover’.”

“Cover?”

“Yes. I am an official employee of Cord-Hislop Aerospace, and quite well paid at that. While the Vindicator has always disguised itself as a CHA ship, the lack of official personnel on board made that a rather…wishy-washy cover, to say the least. I address that issue. The ship is now flagged as my personal frigate. No need to worry though. I’ll always defer to you.” He paused in his shuffling for a moment. “And call me Keagan, please.”

“Of course.” She fixed her vision on the ship, watching as the hangar began to open for their Kodiak. Taking a deep breath, Vala coiled her hand around the ceiling grips, foot tapping slightly as they began to dock. “First impressions…first impressions…”

As the shuttle touched down, Keagan stepped up beside her, all confident charm. “No need to worry. You look like you were born to wear that uniform.” She straightened under his gaze, the white and black of her battle dress devoid of any wrinkles and imperfections. It fit perfectly, an unsurprising development given the nature of her employers, but the simple fact already bolstered her confidence immensely.

“Thank you.” She murmured, before the shuttle hissed open and Vala squinted briefly for a moment as the light flooded the darkened cabin. As her eyes adjusted, she stepped down to the metallic floor, boots ringing on the metal. The hangar had barely changed, she noted, starting across the floor towards the lift when she spotted something in the corner. “Is that a..?”

Keagan, one step behind her, glanced at the object of her fascination. “Ah yes. An A-91 Gunship. The starboard side of the hangar has been mostly repurposed to service it. Quite adaptable, I hear, but all those modules need space. We’re limited to a single Kodiak to give it the necessary space.” She nodded, eying all the curious markings that covered the gunship’s exterior. After another moment of staring at the machine, she noticed a pair of legs sticking out from the ship. Her yeoman seemed to have noticed as well, continuing. “Ah, excellent, we can begin your introductions.”

He started towards the hidden worker, Vala following just a step behind. The closer they got to the Mantis, the more its markings showed, which was honestly more than she’d expected at first glance. The tags were numerous and varied, most unintelligible or written in some alien language, save for the largest one, scrawled elegantly just beneath the cockpit. All it read was “Deadra”, and after a moment of thought, she suspected it was likely the ‘name’ of the bird. An odd name at that.

As Vala inspected the hull, Keagan squatted down beside the legs, rapping his knuckles on the metal a few times. There was an irritated grunt from beneath the gunship, earning a chuckle from the man. “Working, I know. However, I believe there’s someone you should likely meet, Miss Trafford.” A few muffled swears later, and the woman was hauling herself out.

“Don’t call me miss, dammit!” Vala glanced down as Trafford emerged, tan skin smeared with various oils from the maintenance of her bird. “Trafford is the last bloody thing I need getting around! Just Dusk!” She paused in her scolding, glancing at Vala with a surprised blink. Dusk didn’t look much older than Vala, although she was a few inches shorter, she certainly didn’t seem to notice the difference in their stature.

With thin streaks of purple dying her black hair and a small ring piercing her lip, she didn’t look like the typical recruit for Cerberus. Clad in an oil-stained olive tank-top, it wasn’t hard to see she lacked a fighter’s build, the mild muscle likely a result of hauling tools and modules for the gunship.

“Is she..?” Dusk asked, earning a slight nod from Keagan. After another moment, Dusk’s hand shot out in greeting, before she noticed the black all over it. “Oh.” Taking a quick second to wipe it on the camouflaged hoodie tied around her waist, she once more offered it, which Vala took after a moment’s consideration. “Dusk Trafford. You must be the boss of this rig, yeah?”

“That is correct. Commander Buchan. Pleasure to meet you.” Sharing a quick handshake, Vala then gestured to the Mantis. “I take it you’re the mechanic for the gunship?” Dusk nodded, leaning against the hull with her arms crossed.

“Yup. Also the pilot. Deadra is my baby, no way am I letting some Cerberus pilot in the cockpit.” As an afterthought, she added. “Not that I’ve got anything against Cerberus. She’s just mine. Can’t have someone ruining the seats, you know?”

“It’s a rare day when a pilot isn’t attached to their ship.” Vala offered, looking back to the woman. “I take it you aren’t officially Cerberus then?”

“Nah. I’m technically Cerberus for the duration of my contract. I’m a merc first and foremost though.” Dusk looked at Keagan, who had occupied himself examining the modules in storage just up the way. “Has he…ah…did the shark mention my terms?”

Following her gaze, she watched him experimentally prod some of the machines before responding. “Nothing. Are there some requirements I should be made aware of?” A mercenary’s loyalty was easy to earn, but from experience, Vala knew maintaining it was a priority, to keep them from simply taking an offer to betray you.

Dusk just shook her head, climbing up into the cabin of Deadra. “Nah. We can cross that bridge when we get to it. I’ve got some checks to do, make sure she’s not been jostled by the trip. Catch you around, Buchan.”

“Till then.” As the pilot resumed her work, Vala looked back to Keagan, strategically rejoining her as the women finished their conversation. Before he could get a word in, Vala offered bluntly. “Terms?”

“Did she explain them?”

“No.”

“I didn’t suspect she would, not yet.” The pair started towards the lift, as Keagan explained. “Dusk was a difficult member to recruit, even with the promise of credits. I secured her contract through…creative bargaining.”

Neither of them seemed willing to volunteer the information, and it made it difficult to ignore the little warning bells ringing in her head. “What did we promise?”

“The Illusive Man is handling it. As soon as we’re positive it can be delivered, I’ll inform you personally.”

He was placating her, but with an already mountainous to-do list before her, the commander found herself sighing in agreement. “Very well. You’ll inform me first, however, BEFORE Dusk.” Paging the lift, she shot him a look, making it clear that this wasn’t a request.

Keagan, naturally, complied. “Of course, Commander. Shall we continue the tour?” She nodded, the two boarding the lift as it opened; pressing the key for Deck 4. “Engineering will be our next stop.”

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Gazing up at the super-sized Tantalus drive-core, Vala leaned lightly on the wall, watching the vibrant blue energy ripple along the surface. Keagan stood just behind her in the next room, speaking with someone on the intercom. After a few quiet moments, she turned from the view, shaking her head as she did. “Should we return later? If the Lead Engineer is occupied…”

“Hold on, hold on.” A voice called, and Vala glanced at the entrance to engineering to see the source approaching. “Was in the mess. No one told me we were actually getting our commander today.”

“Slipped my mind.” Keagan fibbed, gesturing to the woman whilst looking to Vala. “Commander Buchan, this is your lead Engineer, Radley Havard.” Radley gave a two fingered salute, looking between her ‘guests’ for a moment.

“It’s good to finally have you aboard. I was kinda getting board babysitting a ship that never did anything.” Radley wasn’t very tall, tilting her head ever so slightly to look them in the eye. Her light blonde hair was styled short and messy; no doubt a necessity in the delicate work of engines. Dressed in a standard crewman outfit, with the sleeves rolled up to reveal a healthy assortment of nicks and cuts in various states of healing, Radley certainly had the look of a woman who liked to get her hands dirty. Vala suspected she and Dusk got along famously.

“It’s good to be aboard; although I wasn’t aware I was going to be here.”

“Surprised you with it too? Seems the suit here enjoys popping things on people.” Keagan’s response was a slight smile, which earned him a prompt elbow in the rib from the engineer. “Not on my deck, kid.” She scolded, as he held up his hands in surrender. “Is there anything I can do for you, Ma’am, or is this just the grand tour?”

“Something along those lines, yes. Although, I briefly visited the engines on my last visit, and something seems…different.”

Radley nodded instantly. “Good eye. We upgraded the thruster module to use the new Helios system. The helmsman mentioned that the ship is far more manoeuvrable now, although it’s taking sometime to get adjusted to the new sensitivity.” Taking a step back, she tapped a few commands into her terminal, bringing up some statistics. “The largest issue is the fuel isn’t as easy to acquire as the typical hydrogen-oxygen thruster. Not really an issue, provided who we work for.”

“Excellent. What other sort of upgrades has she gotten hidden away?”

Radley shrugged, and Keagan saw fit to field the question. “Mostly minor renovations. The Helios and hangar modifications are by far the largest of them.”

“I see. Thank you for your time, Havard. If there’s anything you need, feel free to let me know.”

“Well, best thing you can do now is get him off my deck.” Vala raised an eyebrow at the two. “Pretty boy has no reason to be here, and he’s distracting from my work.” Keagan laughed, retreating towards the lift as Radley watched him go. Vala simply stared until Radley chuckled at her reaction. “Don’t worry about it too much, Commander.”

“Right…well, I’ll leave you to your work then.”

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A silent elevator ride later, the tour continued on the third deck, although Vala’s thoughts were still slightly on Radley’s words in Engineering. “Keagan…” He shook his head, not even glancing back.

“You’re over-analyzing things. It’s how she is.”

“You two are familiar with each other, that much is obvious. Not a recent sense of familiar either.”

“I’ll admit to that. Radley and I have often run into each other during our time in Cerberus. She’s not exclusive to warships, and makes for a decent conversation partner when you need someone blunt over sugared words.” There was a moment’s pause before Vala replied.

“So, she’s essentially your opposite.”

“Your accuracy is wounding, but yes. I am tasked with mental health, she with ship health. With Doctor Crenshaw, we make sure the crew is happy, healthy, and not in threat of exploding. Quite the team.” He stopped in front of a large bulkhead, leading into what appeared to be the portside crew quarters. “I’ll leave the introductions to you this time.”

She fixed him with a quizzical look, but tapped the interface and stepped into the room beyond. Once inside, part of her immediately felt at home, whilst the other was more focused on the reaction she’d garnered. All eyes immediately snapped to her as she entered, and for a tense moment Vala almost felt like an intruder aboard her own ship. It was only a moment later when one man rose from his seat that she found a face to focus on.

He quickly stepped into a sharp salute, barking a quick command. “Officer on deck!” All present immediately leapt to their feet, snapping a simultaneous salute that made her truly feel like an officer for the first time since receiving the title. After a moment, she cleared her throat.

“As you were.” As quickly as it had begun, it was over, and she fond the lone man approaching her calmly. He seemed only slightly taller, and had the look of a runner about him. With a thick, but well groomed brown beard wrapping around his face and a slight smile on his lips, it wouldn’t be difficult to mistake the man as a civilian. Running a hand through his messy hair, the man stopped a few steps before her.

His hazel eyes were light, and he projected a relaxed aura around him that seemed to make one just feel at ease. “Sorry for the delay there. I’ve never been big on it myself, so they’re a little rusty. Pleasure to finally meet you, Commander Buchan.” She offered her hand, and he clasped her forearm in a warrior’s greeting, catching her slightly off-guard. “Surprised though. Nulfem said you were a blonde.”

She chuckled, as their arms fell back to their side. “It’s been some time since he last saw me, and I felt the need for a change.” Looking at the soldiers around the room, Vala smiled as she examined them. “Am I right to assume you’re commandos..?”

“Tch, where are my manners? Lieutenant Commander Charlie Welles and you’d be correct. Didn’t expect to sneak that by a vet like you.” He gestured to the others lightly. “They’re my own unit, the Hell Hounds. You won’t find them wanting in any task.”

“Hell Hounds?” The nickname reminded her of Horn’s own Demons, but she brushed the thought aside as quickly as it came. “An odd name. How’d you get that?”

“No real fancy story. Cerberus was the guardian of the underworld, by far the biggest and baddest guard-dog in history. But the only thing more terrifying than a big dog is a big dog with a hell of pack behind him.” He chuckled, watching the commandos talk amongst themselves. “Not to blow my own horn or anything, but I made the Hounds to be just that.”

“Interesting. How long as this unit been running?”

“Couple of years.” Charlie seemed to know where the conversation was headed, so he continued. “We run at 30 active Hounds typically, excluding me, Sorin and Heather. Train all of them in infiltration, sabotage, assassination. The standard commando fair, as well as improvisational skills. I bet you’ve seen those ops where your cover is blown and the black ops boys just don’t know what to do. Hounds are taught to avoid that. They’ll scavenge what they need, and stick to what they’re good at. Mobility is the name of the game.”

She nodded, feeling at ease with a fellow commando on board. “Sounds promising. Maybe later we can go over the details at length, but I’m on somewhat of a tighter schedule today.” Charlie rubbed his neck, cracking a sheepish grin.

“Ah, yeah, I figured you would be. I get talking sometimes, and there’s no stopping me. Anything else you need from me, Commander?”

“A question, actually. If you’re a Lieutenant Commander, am I right to assume you’re my 2iC?”

“Actually, no. I’m here to specifically handle the Hounds; as well a voice of counsel, if you don’t mind me paraphrasing the Illusive Man. Everything within my power to give is yours, just need to say the word.” He looked to the commandos once more. “Same goes for them. Any of them try and act tough, just show’em who’s the Alpha round here.”

“You?”

“In this tin can? It’s you, Ma’am.” She chuckled, a slight smile on her face. “I won’t keep you. Let me know whenever you’ve got the time to go over the details. Chances are I’ll be on this deck somewhere.”

“Thank you.” She stepped towards the door, pausing for a moment and glancing over her shoulder. “By the way…did you take over this entire dorm?” Charlie simply stared at her for a moment, the slightest smirk upturning his lips. It told her all she needed to know, and Vala simply shook her head, laughing lightly as she stepped out the door.

A short walk later brought her to the Main Battery, which seemed to be in rather immaculate shape. For a brief moment, Vala thought about the last officer to have served with these guns, but much like any thoughts from that time, she cast it aside with a cold precision. The present was her focus, which meant getting to know the current Battery Officer, who at the moment was hunched over the main terminal, data pad in hand in the middle of some work. She cleared her throat, and the man held up a hand for silence, before rapidly tapping a few keys in quick succession.

Seemingly satisfied, he turned to face her, brow raised slightly in curiosity as to her interruption. Wasting no time, she went immediately to introductions. “I’m Commander Buchan; I’m currently meeting all of my command staff. I trust you’re the Battery Officer?” He nodded lightly, gentle blue eyes watching her impassively throughout her introduction. After a moment of silence, she awkwardly added, “And you are..?”

“Martin Grien.” His voice was quiet, almost unnaturally so, but it seemed to fit his overall demeanour quite well. He had the build of a more typical marine, despite being shorter than the average trooper. His auburn hair was buzzed short, with the slightest hint of a 5’o’clock shadow wrapping his chin. Nothing about him felt hostile, but she knew better than to judge a book by his cover. “And yes, I’m in charge of the battery.”

He certainly didn’t talk very much, that was rapidly apparent. Before she could ask another question, Keagan chipped in. “Mr. Grien is another mercenary on the crew, like Ms. Trafford. They’re actually partners. Martin was a package deal with her, and he has some experience handling batteries aboard mercenary vessels.”

Martin nodded, glancing over his shoulder at the weapons behind him. “The Thanix is tricky to calibrate, but Dusk has been sending some advice along. We should be good to use it if the need arises, Ma’am.” He paused, looking back at her for a moment. “You’ve met Dusk?”

She blinked. “Yes, I met her when I first boarded.”

His brow creased lightly in worry, rubbing his chin in thought. “Is she still working on Deadra?” Vala’s expression only grew more confused, and Martin didn’t seem soothed by her lack of an answer. “She is, isn’t she?”

“She was when we boarded.” Keagan offered, earning a heavy sigh from the man. “Is there an issue?”

“Hopefully not. She’s just been working on it since we set out, and I doubt she’s eaten.” Turning back to the guns, he tapped a few commands, causing the system to hum to life. “The guns should be all good to go for the time being. Dusk works too much sometimes, I better go make sure she’s eaten. Nice to meet you, Commander.” Without waiting for permission, he stepped past them and moved quickly down the hall towards the lift.

Vala looked at Keagan after a moment. “He seems awfully…focused.” The yeoman nodded.

“He’s a bit of an odd one. Good at his job, though. They had quite the reputation in the Terminus before we picked them up.” Clapping his hands together, Keagan smiled. “Regardless, shall we move on to the next stop?” Vala nodded, although a part of her quietly wondered how much longer this was going to take. She was eager to get the ship moving after being stuck in one place for so long.

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The tour nearly complete, Vala stood once more in the lift, tapping her foot impatiently at its slow ascent. With her ‘guide’ watching out of the corner of his eye, she couldn’t help wanting to pace or fidget or do something to fill the still. Their trip to the med-bay had been largely uneventful, with her Doctor apparently occupied with an injury elsewhere aboard the ship. She’d simply have to meet him another time, and they had head for the final stop. Deck 2.

The brain of the ship, it was guaranteed to have the most active servicemen at any given moment, and it was there Keagan promised she’d find her 2iC. Of all the officers she’d met, this would truly be the one most important. Every commander needed someone they could trust, someone that could function in their role should the need arise. If they couldn’t co-operate…

The lift dinged, and she jumped slightly, making Keagan chuckle under his breath. “Remember what I said earlier. Relax.” She shot him a sharp look, which only widened his grin. “This crew was picked personally for you, remember? Have any been undesirable so far?”

“…no.”

“Then perhaps a show of faith, Commander, that I have not chosen poorly. You may just be surprised at what we’ve drummed up.” With those cryptic words, Vala stepped off the lift, whilst Keagan remained aboard. “You should visit the Science lab and the Helm before you report to the Illusive Man.”

“Trusting me alone now?”

“Implicitly, my dear woman. If you have need of anything, I’ll be in my office. 3rd deck. You should be familiar with the room.” She raised a brow, but he offered no explanation, simply tapping the key with his finger. “My door is always open, business or pleasure.” The lift slide shut.

Sighing slightly, Vala rolled her eyes at the man’s curious methods. Things would certainly be odd with him as the Yeoman. Idly musing about whether or not he was even qualified to be one, she didn’t hear the heavy steps that thumped up beside her. “He’s a bit of a showboat, isn’t he?”

“That he is.” Vala replied, before her brain caught up with her surroundings. Snapping her head to the side so fast she risked whiplash, her mouth dropped open partially at the woman beside her. “A-Alexis?!”

“The one and only.” The infamous Scorpion grinned, leaning lazily on her polished cane while her pale blue eyes flicked to her friend casually. “Close your mouth, you look like a slack jawed twit.”

Vala spluttered, fumbling for words. “You’re retired! Married!” She paused. “You haven‘t served since the Arras! Why in hell are you here?” Alexis chuckled, drumming her fingers against the cane as she waited patiently for her to finish. After another moment of directionless ranting, Vala trailed off, blinking at the woman. “…you’re my 2iC?”

“Mhm. I’m the big surprise, it would seem.” She snorted, turning to overlook the CIC. “Well, your big surprise, by anyway. My big surprise was the fact that YOU got yourself a command position. I’ll admit I didn’t see this coming. At least, not this early.”

“You’re telling me…”

“Course, everything you said is true. I AM retired, also married. I have priorities that don’t blend well with drifting about with you.” Vala nodded sympathetically. “So, this is more a temporary deal. Help smooth out the initial issues until you and the true 2iC are good to go.”

“True 2iC? Who would that be?” Alexis gestured towards the galaxy map, giving a sharp whistle at the man over-looking the display. He turned without delay, and Alexis gave a jerk of her head to beckon him over, which he complied with instantly.

Vala’s head tilted up as he approached, the man easily a head or so taller than her, and his large frame only made the size difference between them more apparent. He seemed every bit the soldier, brown hair trimmed into a pristine crew cut and face freshly shaven, with a stern, strong jaw that jutted out ever so slightly. His eyes were impassive, and she could swear he was giving her the same examination she was him. Dressed in the same Cerberus battle dress with only one less black bar than her own, it wasn’t difficult to see him as an authority figure.

He stood a foot from them both, and saluted. “Ma’am.” His voice was a powerful bass that rumbled through his entire chest when he spoke, but spoken with clarity and measured to a fault. A hell of a voice for giving orders. “Commander Buchan.”

Alexis thumped the man on the chest with the back of her hand. “This slab is Lieutenant Commander Wyatt Sinoff. He’ll be your 2iC when I head back to Earth. I’ve been grilling him since I got here, and he’s got some experience under his belt.”

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Wyatt intoned. “I look forward to working with you officially, Commander.”

“The same to you. What does Alexis have you doing until then?”

“I primarily shadow her, observing how she interacts and the exact details of the tasks before her. In addition, I am in charge of the marines aboard. I set their training schedules, shifts and duties for the day. In combat, I serve as their field commander, and if you so desire, I will personally lead them to the completion of their objectives.”

“You have combat experience then.”

“Yes, Commander. Former mercenary, Blue Suns.”

“Plenty of mercenaries on this ship, aren’t there?” She joked, although Wyatt barely even reacted to her jest.

“While that may be true, I am an official Cerberus officer, unlike the others. The Suns can rot for all I care; this ship and organization are now my sole focus.” The 2iC was certainly a serious man, of which Vala was silently glad. She doubted she’d have been able to work with someone of a less serious disposition.

“Excellent.” Vala looked between the two. “I’m sure you both have things to do, and I have a few more stops to make before we get underway. Let’s not keep each other from it.” Wyatt nodded sharply, turning back to the Galaxy map while Alexis simply eyed Vala for a moment longer. “Something on your mind?”

“…No. We’ll talk more later.” The Operative turned away, limping over to her ‘protégé’. Vala puzzled over her friend’s curious behaviour, but shrugged it off, turning towards the Science Lab. The bulkhead slid open quickly, sealing shut behind her the moment she was inside.

Within moments of stepping in, however, she was being yelled at. “For the last time, I don’t need any of you jar-headed buffoons cluttering up my lab! No guards are necessary! Shoo!” Turning towards the source, Vala half-grimaced, half-smirked at the man’s back, currently busy-bodying around an armour stand holding up Vala’s Nyx armour. “I don’t hear you leaving!”

“It’s been awhile, Professor Rhodes.” She called, causing the man to pause for a moment, looking over his shoulder to squint at her. For a moment, she let him simply try and puzzle it out, but it seemed the man wasn’t exactly good with faces. Not surprising really, given how he doted on that armour. “A hint. I saved the Nyx from certain destruction?”

Realization dawned. “Operative Buchan! Pardon my manners; I wasn’t expecting someone with an actual respect for technology to present themselves!”

“Commander now, actually. I take it you’re my Science Officer?”

“This ship is yours now? Marvellous! That’ll smooth the testing process immensely!” It wasn’t really surprising that Rhodes was already thinking about his Nyx again. “Finding candidates is next to impossible these days!”

“I can imagine. Most biotics seem to prefer standard combat.” She kept her distance from the man, watching him fiddle about with this and that on the armour. “I was wondering where the Nyx had gotten to while I was occupied. It seems to have found its way home.”

“No one touches the Nyx without my expressed consent!” He stated proudly, tapping a few notes on his data pad before resuming his fiddling. “I’ve already made a few modifications to the armour, correcting some minor over-sights in the initial design.”

“Oversights..?”

“Indeed! For example, the original design lacked insulation on the nerve semi-conductor units, which meant that any sufficient electrical surge could enter into the body’s nervous system.” He chuckled at the thought. “Would have fried anyone wearing it faster than standard FTL.”

Vala paled at his omission, having worn the armour several times with this apparent…kill-switch built straight into her brain. “It’s…good you caught that, Professor. I’d have hated to learn the hard way.”

“Mmm, yes. Its new lining is much better designed. Transmits the unwanted electricity into the strips, which feed it into the base of the greaves, harmlessly dispersing the energy. Rather brilliant design.” He bragged, while Vala just shook her head. His priority was clearly the armour, not the occupant. She’d need to take extra care not to be on the receiving end of any more…‘oversights’.

“You haven’t tampered with the sizing, have you?”

“No, it should still be sized to you. Do you need it?”

“I might, Professor. I’ll let you know.”

“Very well.” Rhodes resumed his work, and she was content to let him. The man was difficult to have a normal conversation with. She wondered how he’d react the first time the suit got damaged in the line of duty.

“Poorly,” She muttered, crossing the CIC towards the helm. The long walk to the helm was quiet, but as she drew closer to the cockpit, a pair of voices, one male, the other female, became clear. Only one was new to her, the female easily recognizable as the synthetic voice of EDI, while the other likely belonged to her pilot.

“…still seems like a lot of money for one warship is all.” She came to a stop behind the pilot’s chair, gazing out at the twinkling black expanse before them. “I won’t pretend to understand Cerberus’s financial resources, but the things they could accomplish if they used this money for something other than guns…”

“Cerberus operates in cells, Helmsman. What one cell does, will have no bearing on what another does.” EDI responded, the blue hologram ‘floating’ on the panel beside the pilot.

“I somehow doubt there’s a cell dedicated to charity work.” The man seemed to register her presence, chair turning ninety degrees so he could look up at her. “They weren’t kidding when they said you were quiet.”

“Commander Buchan.” The AI offered, as her Helmsman tipped his head in greeting. He fit the role of a pilot, she decided, with a streamlined physique that said he rarely saw actual combat. His face was friendly, a light smile on thin lips, with a trimmed goatee and slight sideburns peeking out beneath his toque. That was an odd choice of headwear.

“Good to see you, EDI.” She commented, although the pilot shook his head slightly as she did so. “Something wrong?”

“Not exactly. Just seems a tad impersonal to name her after an acronym.” His eyes flicked to the orb for a moment. “AIs are sentient, after all. They should have a proper name.”

“That is unnecessary, Mr. Chekan.”

“As you’ve insisted. What do you think, Commander?” He glanced expectantly up at the woman, and she couldn’t help but feel that EDI was doing the same with her various cameras.

“Well…the other ships that I’ve seen with EDI units had named her, so I suppose it wouldn’t hurt for our own to have one. Just to differentiate them all. Any suggestions, Mr. Chekan?”

Chekan sighed melodramatically. “Don’t mimic her, Commander. Call me Ronas. Mr. Chekan makes me feel like I’m married or something.” After a moment’s pause, he continued in a more upbeat tone. “As for a name though, I can’t really say. I don’t know much about her, so I’ve no clue what’s appropriate…well, aside from the fact that she’s always up to date on the latest gossip.”

“I do not gossip.”

“With a ship full of sensors and the way you blab about anything you notice? You’re a gossip.”

Vala smiled. “Call her ‘Jo’.” Ronas raised an eyebrow. “Short for Johanna. My mother. She’s a terrible gossip, never could get anything by her.”

Ronas laughed, looking back at the AI’s ‘face’. “Jo. I like it. How about it?” There was a long, awkward pause before ‘she’ responded.

“Jo is acceptable.”

“It’s decided then! Pleasure to properly make your acquaintance, Jo.” Ronas extended his hand in fake greeting, only for his chair to suddenly lurch back and forth in a violent shake. “Jo! Cut it out!” As suddenly as it started, the chair stopped, nearly dumping the pilot on the ground.

“I was shaking your hand.” Jo replied, earning a suppressed laugh from Vala as Ronas straightened himself out. “That was a joke.”

“A regular comedian…” He muttered, smile betraying his true thoughts on the matter. “Anyway, Commander, I’m sure you didn’t come up here to watch us talk. Grand tour?”

“Something along those lines. I’ve already deciphered you’re my Helmsmen.”

Ronas mock bowed in his seat. “Guilty as charged.”

“You’re new to Cerberus, I take it?” She motioned to Jo’s holographic image. “Judging by your conversation earlier, anyway.”

“That I am. An interesting change of pace, but I can’t really afford to be picky with my employers these days.” Vala raised an eyebrow at him, and he waved a hand dismissively. “It’s a long, boring story, nothing really excit-”

“Mr. Chekan is technically wanted in Citadel Space.”

His face dropped, frowning lightly at the AI. “…I never told you that. You’ve been doing background checks! My gods!”

“Standard Cerberus procedure.” Vala commented, eyeing the man suspiciously. Ronas clued in quickly, and sunk further into his chair. “Something we need to address?”

“Negative. Technically wanted. His offences are incredibly minor, marked largely for stunting in Citadel public use sky-cars.”

“Stunting?”

“I like to see exactly what I’m working with. You can’t test some thing’s limits until you really put it to its limits. Let me tell you…those sky-cars hide a LOT of power.” Vala blinked impassively, dryly looking to Jo once more.

“Did he stunt in the ship?”

“Yes, Commander. Several complex flight patterns, in addition to several loops and a barrel roll.” Ronas leaned his elbow on the armrest of his chair, watching the AI methodically dig his grave. “To his credit, the Helmsman never risked the ship, and maintained excellent control throughout his manoeuvres. No one was injured, as I had the foresight to temporarily disable the gravity.”

“I see. If Jo is willing to vouch for you, then I won’t worry about it. Keep in mind for the future though, outside of an emergency situation, I advise you avoid further stunts without first consulting me. Clear?”

Ronas grinned, fiddling with his toque slightly. “Of course, Commander. I’ll be the very model of an experienced helmsman. No adventures, joyrides or death-defying stunts without your say so.”

“Good. Pleasure to meet you, Ronas.” He held out his hand for a shake, and Vala’s lips curled up into a coy smile. “I’m a little busy. Jo, field this for me?” The chair lurched about once more, only this time Ronas was unable to keep his seat, tumbling into an undignified heap on the floor. “Thank you.” Grinning to herself, Vala departed the helm, listening to the pilot bicker with the AI as she went.

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Deck 1 had always been an oddity to Vala, the exposed mini-tower above the ship seeming a tad impractical, but given the origin of the ship, it was marginally more understandable. The deck was understandably abandoned, no crew having need of the floor unless they needed to make an FTL call in the briefing room. As such, Vala had it to herself as she stepped into the aforementioned room.

“Jo, contact the Illusive Man.” She spoke as she descended the few steps that lead to the center of the chamber. The room darkened, sheets of ablative armour sliding over the grand dome window that made up the majority of the outer wall. The table lowered into a thin indentation beneath the floor, as the QEC emerged from the center, which she wasted no time step unto as the device began to power up.

The holographic skin enveloping her shifted the room into the familiar chambers that housed the Illusive Man, seated in the lone chair with a cigarette perched lightly on his lips. He wasted little time, turning the chair 180 degrees to face her as he spoke. “Commander Buchan. I trust the ship is to your liking?”

“Yes, sir. It’s more than I could have hoped for.”

“Excellent. While I wish I could afford you more time to grow accustomed to the crew, we have pressing matters to attend to.” Tapping a command on his haptic interface, he brought up the image of a large cruiser, elegant but massive. “This is the Marathon, an Oracle cruiser that has just recently left the Charon relay.”

“She looks like quite the ship, sir.”

“Indeed it is, but the ship itself is not the issue.” His eyes darkened as he tapped another key to bring up the holographic image of a man Vala knew far too well. “Oracle, and by extension, the Alliance, have re-instated Titus, and he is the Marathon’s new captain. Oracle, as you know, has made itself a clear enemy for its actions against us.”

Vala’s features were dark, eyes locked with the Illusive Man’s as he explained. Titus’s presence on the ship explained her own re-activation, but the commander knew better than to put words in her employer’s mouth. “What do you need me to do?”

“For the time being, set a course for the Citadel. We have reliable information that it’s Titus’s first destination. Once you arrive, seek him out, but remain cautious. You’re operating under a new cover, as Oracle has flagged you in the Alliance and C-Sec database as a terrorist. If the opportunity presents itself, eliminate him. Otherwise…” He paused, taking a long slow breath before breathing a cloud of smoke that obscured his features even further. “…send the traitor a very clear message. We know, and we are watching.”

“Of course, sir.”

Turning his back to her, the Illusive Man looked out through the grand window once more. “I look forward to hearing of your success, Vala.” His finger lingered over the key for a moment. “Have you decided a name for her yet?” She blinked, providing all the answer he needed. “In ancient times, men often prayed to be delivered from evil. In the face of hardship, or challenges seemingly overwhelming, they asked for a higher power to grant them boon.”

“We face difficult times, Commander. Our enemies, legion. Our goals, grand. I can think of no time that mankind has needed deliverance more than now. Cerberus must be prepared to do just that.” His hand spun idly, leaving thin trails of smoke in the darkened black. “Are you, Commander?”

“Of course.”

“Then she has her name.” The two said nothing more, the QEC powering down as the shutters peeled back to reveal the dark expanse of space once more, but Vala didn’t move, eyes staring coldly out the grand window.

“Deliverance…” She whispered, before clearing her throat. “Helm.”

Seconds later, Ronas‘s voice crackled over the PA. “You rang, Commander?”

“Set a course for the Citadel. I‘ll be in my quarters if anyone needs anything.”

“Will do.” Moments later, the rippling glow of FTL shrouded her view, bathing the darkened chamber in a rainbow of shifting colours. She watched it only for a moment longer, before turning from its splendour and heading for her quarters.

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“Commander,” Jo’s synthetic voice jostled her from the light sleep, and Vala groggily looked up at the ceiling for some sign of the AI. “We are preparing to dock with the Citadel. Mr. Nulfem has requested your presence on the CIC.”

“I’ll be there ASAP.” She mumbled, but the AI seemed content, not bothering her further. Blanket tumbling off her, Vala sleepily glanced about her quarters as she processed the exact goings on. A quick glance at the clock told her she’d been out for a few hours, and an idle look down told she’d at least have the foresight to shed her uniform before collapsing into the bed.

Stretching slender legs as far as they’d go, Vala hoisted herself from the warm embrace of silken sheets, rubbing idly at her eyes as she did. The captain’s quarters were immaculate, she noted with a pleased smile, likely having made the same comment before she had taken her impromptu nap. The room was seemingly designed to her own tastes, something she could likely chalk up to Keagan’s influence.

The room had a slightly dated feel to it, with less focus on sleek and shining, instead favouring a more dark tranquility. The bed, a magnificent queen-size complete with silk sheets and comforters in the Cerberus colours, sat against the back wall of the chamber, lowered into a slight indentation of the floor that let it sit just below knee level. Perfect for simply falling into, as Vala was incredibly fond of doing after a taxing day. A small, plush rug extended around the bed completely, not letting her bare feet touch the frigid floor as she woke. On either side of the bed was a small nightstand, each with a lamp that kept the area around her at a comfortable dim.

The floor seemed to have been remodelled, where once something like an aquarium might have been; a new subtle lighting system had been installed, gently filling the room with soft light refracted from beneath her feet. She found the lack of direct light soothing, but she’d always been at home in darkened places. Along the left wall from her bed, a closet was seamlessly built into the bulkhead, more spacious than she was accustomed, and filled with various outfits that she was certain she’d never bought. Again, likely Keagan’s fault.

From there, it transitioned smoothly into her office space, sleek black desk integrated into the hull. The desk was sparsely decorated, save for a small frame with a picture of her parents, a personal touch she greatly appreciated. The wall behind it was of glass, giving a view of the small lounge area just beyond it. When the terminal upon the desk powered, it seamlessly integrated into the glass, allowing her to view a myriad number of things at once with little difficultly. The screen-wall also meant comfortable viewing of anything she desired from either bed or the lounge.

The lounge itself was modest, a small couch curving along the corner with a small, black topped coffee table. The center contained a small projector pad, for the personal communicator built into her room. Beside the couch, a small, waist high mini-fridge stood, fully stocked with a wide assortment of drinks. Just past the lounge was her personal bathroom, invisible to the naked eye until she approached.

The crowning gem, however, was the sound system built into the very walls. She had tampered with it briefly, and found it blissfully filled with only her tastes in mind. With a swipe of her hand, the room could fill with operatic chords, or sweeping instrumentals, making for one pleased Commander.

After a brief shower, Vala opened the closet, eyeing the various outfits contained within. Before she could make her selection, Jo’s holographic face appeared behind her. “Commander, Mr. Nulfem is advising you select something casual and concealing for your trip.”

“Casual?”

“Lieutenant Commander Welles has arranged for your armour to be delivered inside the Citadel, whilst you will be accompanying him past security.”

She frowned slightly. “They’ve already made an entire game plan. Aren’t I supposed to be the Commander?” Jo seemed unphased, quickly firing back.

“Correct, Commander. However, we are docking with a private Cord-Hislop Aerospace dock, meaning Mr. Nulfem will be viewed as the ‘owner’. He is essential for your cover.”

“Of course he is…” She muttered, looking at the outfits once more. “I’ll be down momentarily. Tell them not to plan anything else without me.”

“Of course.” Jo disappeared, and Vala reached for one of the outfits on display. Given the nature of the ship, and Keagan’s…attitude, she made the assumption that he’d attempt to make her play something less than flattering. With that in mind…

She wasted no time donning her chosen attire, a comfortable pair of loose black slacks, with perfectly polished dress shoes with the slightest heels. Rounded out by a white collared shirt and a small black vest emblazoned with the CHA trinity logo on the breast, Vala took a brief moment to look in the mirror built into the closet door. “Maybe you missed your calling. Can certainly pull of the ‘Corporate Bodyguard’ look.” She mused, chuckling at her own joke before pushing the door shut and heading for the lift.

A short ride later, Vala strode across the lift, ignoring the few lingering glances from the technicians as she passed. Keagan was visible, leaning at the end of the long walk to the Helm, chatting idly with Alexis and Charlie. As she approached, the yeoman looked to her, with the slightest pout of his face. “Casual?”

Charlie turned slightly, nodding in greeting before looking at her outfit. “You clean up nicely. Going to a board meeting?” Vala chuckled, shaking her head at the commando.

“No, keeping our precious executive safe. Isn’t that right, ‘sir’?” She turned to Keagan, who sighed in defeat.

“Bodyguard, of course. Silly me for thinking you’d dress up.” Straightening up, he reached inside his suit, retrieving a small case and holding it out to her. Vala took it, flicking it open and raising an eyebrow at the contents. “As lovely as they may be, your eyes are something of a dead giveaway. The contacts will give you a normal colour for missions in plain sight.” She flicked out the sunglasses also inside the case. “Those are simply a fashion statement.”

“Of course. Have to be stylish.” She took a brief moment to place both the contacts, blinking rapidly to adjust to the odd feeling. “Alexis, what’s the word?” She asked, sliding the glasses into place once the contacts had settled.

“We’ve confirmed that the Marathon is indeed docked, and the crew is seemingly taking a brief respite after their trial.” She held up her Omni-tool, displaying an image of Titus disembarking with a small group of his crew, most of who she immediately recognized. She pointed to the one she didn’t. “Good eye. Basic checks aren’t pulling up much, meaning Oracle’s probably got him classified out the yin-yang. What we can confirm should still be useful. Adam Harrison, he’s a graduate of the N7 program despite his age, only 20 years young.”

Charlie shook his head. “Kid shouldn’t be cruising around on a warship, N7 or not.” His eyes flicked to Vala, whose expression mirrored his own. “Talent doesn’t compare with experience after-all.”

Alexis cleared her throat, continuing. “Regardless of age, he’s got a vanguard classification in the Alliance database. Which means biotics, and as a graduate of the N7, he’ll be well trained. Be aware, and the kid won’t be much of a threat.”

“Got it. Where are they headed?”

“Last location put them on course for the Cube, big fancy biotic gym. I’ll update you once we’ve confirmed. Till then…” She trailed off, looking to the Lieutenant Commander, who tapped a key on her tool, bringing up a small display of the ward with which they were currently docked.

“Since you’re likely going into a fight, I’ve got two of my hounds on station for assistance if this goes sideways.” A small red icon popped up on the display, marking their location for her. “They’ve got your armour on hand, and once you sync up, they’ll tail you from the shadows. ROE is up to you, of course, Commander.”

She nodded, downloading the information to her omni-tool. “They’ll be useful, good work. Should I be concerned about detection?”

“No. Cerberus has properly reverse engineered the tactical cloak, and all the Hounds have one built into their armour. It’ll take a trained eye and a lucky sonuvabitch to find them.”

“On the subject though, you should be concerned about detection yourself.” Keagan interjected, fixing Vala with a serious look. “It took a lot of string pulling to properly build an alias for you and get it registered in both the Alliance and C-Sec. On public worlds, out of that armour, you need to act like what you‘re supposed to be.”

“Which is..?”

Keagan reached once more into his sleek suit, tossing her a sleek data pad. “Mia Moir, security contractor for Cord-Hislop Aerospace, and Chief of Security for yours truly.” Catching the pad deftly, ‘Mia’ gave it a brief once over, quickly familiarizing herself with the relevant information. “Noted professional, with a decorated career behind you. Highest pedigree for a contractor.” A sly smile split his face, eyes sparking with mischief. “The name was my idea.”

Tucking the data pad away, Vala crossed her arms across her chest. “I’m sure most things on this ship are your handiwork.” The helm was silent, the commander giving every officer present a momentary glance before clapping her hands together. “Alright, let’s get this moving. Alexis, keep me updated.” Keagan lead the way into the airlock, ‘Mia’ following just behind.

“Try not to get shot, Ivory.” Alexis called, starting off down the walkway, the steady tap of her cane echoing about.

“Good luck, Commander.” Charlie added, earning a slight wave over her shoulder as the airlock hissed shut. Outside, Keagan was immediately rushed by an aide, a petite woman in a pristine dress and a bundle of data pads clutched tightly to her chest. She shot Vala a suspicious glance before focusing fully on the man.

“Mr. Nulfem!” Her voice was a charming coo, clearly practiced and meant for handling public affairs. “We weren’t expecting a visit today. Hopefully you didn’t have to wait long for docking.”

“Not at all.” There rarely seemed a moment when Keagan didn’t have that confidence of his, but she supposed that came with the territory. “I was in need of a resupply, and remembered a lovely local restaurant on the Citadel that I haven’t visited in an age.”

The aide fell into step beside him, opposite Vala, as Keagan lead the way through the private dock. “We will be more than happy to fill your stocks, sir.” She shot another look at Vala, who responded with only a dry look over the rim of her sunglasses. “For security reasons, Mr. Nulfem, may I ask abo-”

Stopping in his stride, Keagan turned slightly, raising an eyebrow at her. “-My companion? Of course.” The shark gestured loosely to her. “This is Ms. Moir, Chief of Security for the Deliverance as well as my personal bodyguard. It’s a loosely held secret she has a love of foreign cuisine, and with her insistence to keep me safe, I thought to myself, ‘Two birds, one stone’ as the saying goes.” ‘Mia’ titled her head in greeting, remaining completely silent throughout the exchange.

The aide smiled wider at Keagan’s explanation, and the trio started forward again. “Excellent, sir. Will you be with us for long?”

“No, I don’t believe so. Mostly just until the supplies are transferred and my meal is done.” He shared a glance with Mia, who simply nodded, although inside Vala wasn’t overly pleased with their newly imposed time limit. “If you can just page me when the resupply is finished…”

“Of course, Mr. Nulfem. Enjoy your visit, and your meal.”

“I shall, thank you.” With a tip of his head, Keagan and Mia boarded the private lift, which hissed shut and began it’s descent to the ward below. After a few moments, she turned to him partially.

“She didn’t like me very much.”

“Oh, you know how women are. Give a handsome man some lovely arm candy, and they get all territorial.” He winced as Vala stomped his foot with her heel, scuffing the pristine black shoes. “A joke…Commander.” He ground out, still managing a pained grin.

“I have a track record with stupid jokes, and you’re getting off easy.” She shot back, crossing her arms defiantly. “Security detail. Ms. ‘Moir’ is nothing more than that.”

“The name makes little sense then, Mia Moir.” She blinked, slow realization dawning as the lift peeled open to a glistening business district, far from the presidium. Sleek towers climbed into the heavens, great shining signs naming various companies and corporations that took residence there. Every species imaginable walked the streets, dressed in outfits from every spectrum of life. Restaurants and bars hummed with life, countless boutiques flashing adverts tailored specifically for those who passed. Before she could retort, Keagan disembarked, flicking out his own sunglasses and sliding them on. “Now then, we are operating on something of a time limit, so might I suggest haste?”

She scowled, but followed him out; ignoring the few looks the pair received as they worked through the light crowds. “Do you plan on coming with me? You don’t exactly strike me as the stealthy type.”

“I’ll leave the actual work to you, Ms. Moir.” He coolly replied, earning a slight glare from her but nothing more. “I’ll simply maintain our cover, and once you’ve done the dirty work, we’ll rendezvous and return to the ship, as if we never left each other’s side.” Slowing to a stop, Keagan thumbed the side of his glasses for a moment, before glancing at her. “Those aren’t just stylish, by the way. There should be a small indentation on the side, it’ll power up. Very popular amongst security contractors these days.”

She felt along the edge, sure enough finding the indent he mentioned, pressing it lightly. A second later, the inside of the glasses brightened slightly, displaying a small HUD with the bare essentials tucked neatly in her peripheries. A way point flickered into view, a mark for her meet up with the Hounds. “Effective. Any other gadgets you’ve got hidden away?”

“Always keep an ace up your sleeve, Ms. Moir, but never let anyone know you have it.” Winking at her, he turned from the commander and moved towards one of the many eateries along the thoroughfare. “When you’re done, I’ll be here. And I stress again…” Keagan looked over his shoulder, sunglasses titled down low so his eyes were visible. “Do not risk your cover.” The shark slid the frames back into place, passing through the crowd with a relaxed stride.

Vala watched him go, before turning in the direction of her commandos. “It’s certainly been awhile…” She mused, purposeful steps carrying her against the throng.

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Charlie hadn’t been bluffing it seemed. As Vala approached the rendezvous, one of the sealed doors along the darkened alley hissed open, revealing only for a moment a black armoured figure, which quickly disappeared inside. Ensuring she hadn’t been followed, the commander followed shortly after, thumping her fist against the door seal as she passed. The hall was cramped, obnoxiously so, but it made sense as a good hide out for infiltrators. At the end, a small ladder waited, and she regarded it for a moment before sliding down into the dark.

The bottom was thankfully more open, but devoid of much light. While her eyes were use to such conditions, it still took a moment for them to adjust. Rubbing them slightly to speed the process, Vala found herself facing down the barrel of a phalanx. Her body reacted on instinct, smashing the weapon aside whilst driving her boot viciously into the stomach of the assailant. The pistol clattered to the ground, and she stooped to grab it, pausing in surprise at the gentle chuckling from across the room.

“Holy fuck, Jones, she kicked your bloody ass.” The voice was feminine but carried a dangerous tone hidden beneath the happy sound. There was a rough cough, as the one she’d disarmed staggered back to his feet.

“That she did, El. Guess she’s got the guts to follow after all.” The man’s voice was light, and seemingly unbothered by the hit he’d sustained. “Sorry to draw it on ya, Commander, but a dog’s gotta test his luck sometimes.” After a tense pause, she lifted the pistol, keeping it at her side for a moment while the man shuffled for a moment. A second later, the room filled with a dark orange glow, revealing the two to her.

Or at least, revealing their armour. The two looked identical in almost every aspect, the male only slightly larger than his counterpart. Their armour was sleek black, with barely any colour save for a rather savage carving on their face plate, detailing a fanged grin with twin slitted eyes that stared blankly at her, in what she could only assume was something akin to gold. It wasn’t something she wanted to see in a dark room with only one visible exit.

“I take it you’re the field team?” She asked cautiously, never loosening her grip on the phalanx. “LC Welles said you’d have my armour.” ‘El’ nodded, hopping down from the crate she was perched on and flicking it open. The Nyx lay inside, and Vala seemed appeased. She tossed the phalanx back to ‘Jones’, who snatched it out of the air. “Next time you think it wise, put some distance between us.”

El laughed at her partner, slugging him playfully in the shoulder. “Beat by a damn girl, Jonesy. Never gonna live that down.” Jones laughed lightly, holstering his phalanx while she gave him another hit. “I bet Sorin will have your head, but only-”

“-If Charlie doesn’t take it first for pulling a gun on the Commander.” He fired back, and the two laughed at his expense once more. Vala idly wondered as she pulled the armour on if all the Hounds were like these two. Still, despite their behaviour, the two seemed competent enough. She’d barely noticed them when she’d first entered.

Once armoured, with the helmet tucked in the crux of her arm, Vala turned her gaze back to the two, who in turn were watching her. “So, what’s the word, Commander?” El chirped, leaning slightly on her partner’s shoulder. “Back to the ship for some grub, or-”

“-emergency back up? It’s your call.” Jones finished, as the flare in his hand burned out. Vala considered it only for a moment, before pulling her helmet on over her head.

“Back-up. I expect this to get ugly.” As the helmet integrated with the system, she opened a channel to the ship. “Deliverance, this is Commander Buchan. Rendezvoused with commandos. Where’s the target?”

After a moment, Alexis came on. “We’ve confirmed he’s in the Cube. Area is crowded, and he’s seated in the bleachers around the ring, too many civvies for a clean hit. We do however; have a rather clean line on Harrison.”

“The objective is to send a message. He’ll do.”

“He’s entered the Cube’s biotic sparring contest, which, while in plain sight, will offer you an easy in to hit him. Keep your helmet sealed and even Nulfem won’t have something to complain about.”

“Sounds good. I’m bringing the commandos, might come in handy.”

“Copy, I’ll get you a route.” The Nyx helmet, locked comfortably into place, and displaying the familiar screen of initialize. Confirming, Vala felt the cold shivers as the sensors connected along her back, before the final one hooked into the L5x directly. Moments later, the suit VI announced a full synch, before her HUD returned to normal. Perfect, she had an ace up her sleeve.

“Get whatever’s important, we’re moving out.” She barked, and the Hounds quickly fell into step behind her as she hauled herself up the ladder.

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“Shoulda packed a lunch, or gotten some snacks…” Jones lamented quietly, stalking behind El and Vala on the long slender set of catwalks that hung above the ring, earning a light chuckle from the former.

“Professional. Gotta make a good impression, stop your complaining.” She was quiet for a moment, watching their commander move ahead before whispering over her shoulder. “Shoulda though. I’m getting peckish.” The two grinned beneath their helmets, before double timing after the leader.

Vala, unlike her companions, was more focused on the arena below. The asari and Harrison had begun their match moments before they’d managed to infiltrate the Cube it seemed, and the two traded biotics with impunity. The catwalk which served as their vantage was mostly abandoned, used primarily for lighting the combat below, and it gave them an unprecedented view.

The arena below posed another problem. It was far too exposed. Her gaze flicked over the flooring, tuning out the rapid commentary of the salarian. Trained eyes picked out the segmented floor, and the beginnings of a hunch, as well as a plan, started to take form. She idly called to the team. “What are you equipped with?”

El responded quickly. “Mostly close-quarter. SMGs and pistols. Accurate with the pistols though.” Vala nodded, eyes flicking across the crowd, the Nyx enhancing her vision enough to make out the faint features of the people below. She could barely make out anything in the crowd, before the faintest hint of recognition brought her gaze to a stop. In a sea of business suits, and casual garb, the tell-tale blue and gold of Alliance dress was like a beacon in a storm.

“Titus.” She breathed; a harsh whisper inaudible above the roar of the crowd below. Fingers flexing, Vala felt the cold, tempered anger seeping into her veins at the sight of him, relaxing amidst the normal civilians. Hand twitching towards her pistol, the infiltrator nearly took a shot right there. The distance would skew her shot though, and risk any of the civilians surrounding him. They wouldn’t die for his betrayal. Coolly turning from the former colleague, her eyes zeroed on the man below. No, only his own would suffer for his mistakes.

The tiles below shifted suddenly, dozens of them rising and turning into a complex maze of sorts. Some made simple half walls, while others joined into walls high above the combatants’ heads, and obscuring them from view. Vala smirked beneath her visor, rising to her full height. “Keep watch. If things get too hot, provide any responders with an appropriate distraction.”

“Need a rappel?”

“That won’t be necessary.” Without another word, her cloak rippled over her frame, and she leapt from the edge. The drop was over in seconds, biotics flaring around her body to cushion the impact, landing in a half crouch inside the maze. The crowd seemed no more aware of her presence, and the infiltrator straightened slightly. “Time for a little field test…” She breathed, tapping a key on her omni-tool.

“Detection Pulse Systems activating. Bracing.” The suit locked at the joints, and an audible hum filled her helmet as the various systems came alive. It didn’t start suddenly, like she expected, instead a slow building of energy that crept up her spine, extending out through the connectors linked with her nerves. When the pressure reached her amp, her senses went completely dark, before the energy began to push out.

Like a creeping tide, the faintest shimmer of dark energy rolled off her body, working across the floor and up the walls around her. With every centimetre, her consciousness expanded, scuff or bit of rubble painfully clear. The awareness only spread, moving over obstacles and painting the world in her mind’s eyes, a blend of myriad blue’s that her mind could somehow construe as an image.

It was when the pulse found the champion that it became difficult. As she entered the range, Vala’s head snapped violently in her direction, as if staring clear at the woman through the dozen walls between them. The hypersensitivity painted every contour of the alien, hugging the body and feeding a near perfect image into Vala’s mind directly. Every breath felt like she herself had taken it, muscles twitching at every idle movement it made. Her body ached with injuries seemingly not her’s, and she felt the lines between self and image blurring.

The pulse showed no signs of stopping, even as Vala felt her heart thundering in her ears and eyes dilating into pin-sized dots. It took a laboured moment of thought to find speech, and the infiltrator barely managed to stammer. “D-disengage.” The system complied, the field instantly dissipating into nothing. The braced suit prevented her from collapsing, administering a light injection of relaxant to stop the body from locking down. Even with it, it took a full minute for her to regain herself, breathing shakily on unstable knees.

Her eyes returned to normal, and Vala looked at her hands for a moment, swallowing down the shakes that controlled them. “Champion first.” She whispered, a cold fear clutching at her words, as if the world could see the weakness on her now. Staggering forward, it took a few strides before she regained her proper footing, following the countless turns like they had been painted in her mind’s eye.

It took little time to navigate, and as she rounded the last corner, she spotted the asari, resting slightly against the wall. Harrison seemed to have given her quite the challenge. Fists coiling, Vala stalked closer, breathing steadier with each silent step. Only when she was within striking distance did she act, and Vala lunged like a predator. One hand gripped the Asari’s scalp, ripping it down while the other delivered a strike at the back of the neck. There was little struggle, with the asari collapsing into a heap on the ground. The infiltrator looked down at the champion for a moment. “Good to know pressure points still work.”

The lesser threat contained, Vala turned slightly on her heel. “Jones, El.”

“Commander?”

“Do you have visual on Harrison?”

There was a short paused, before Jones replied. “Yeah, actually. He’s a few halls to the right of you, heading…” She didn’t wait for the commando to finish, given her wrist a practiced flick. Without delay, a tendril of dark energy erupted from beneath her wrist, and she lashed it onto the wall above her. Giving a solid tug and a powerful push with her biotics, Vala launched upwards, gripping the lip with her arm and hoisting herself up to the top of the wall. Her cloak flickered as the whip dissipated, before solidifying again. “…huh. He’s two over. Straight ahead.”

“Good.” Leaping over the gaps between the walls, Vala found herself above the Oracle agent, eyes narrowed darkly as the familiar cold seeped back into her blood. He crept forward cautiously, still possibly searching for the asari. She’d not get a better chance. With a hunter’s grace, she leapt, landing mere inches from the N7. He barely had time to react, before Vala delivered a brutal spin kick to the chest that sent him back several steps. The air hung between them for a moment, before her speakers crackled, and cold words filled the empty air. “Didn’t see me coming, did you, Oracle?”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Charlie Welles Character Portrait: Dusk Trafford Character Portrait: Martin Grien

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“See, I’ve been noticing the core’s been spiking when I run up the secondary weapon systems.” Dusk spoke quickly, almost too quickly for the technician who’d come to her assistance. “It’s not going to cause anything critical to explode, but in a heavy combat situation, the excess heat and burn off could cause some malfunctions. Eezo is not my area of expertise, but I’m thinking it’s cause the core is starting to get a little old…” The tech scratched his head, raising an eyebrow at the pilot.

“The core shouldn’t be causing the spike, even if it’s got some years on it. It might be something with…” He blinked, pausing for a moment. “The…ah…” Dusk tilted her head slightly at his sudden choke up, lowering the omni-tool displaying the read outs. The tech noticed, shaking his head sheepishly. “Sorry, just uh…” He gestured over her shoulder. “Do you…know him?”

Blinking once, the merc turned on her heel, frowning when she spotted Martin sitting casually on the lip of Daedra’s passenger cabin. He waved lightly, inclining his head ever so slightly as the woman heaved a heavy sigh. “Yeah, that’s my partner. Gimme a minute…” She muttered, stalking forward without hearing the tech’s response. Once close, she leaned forward slightly, face just above his as she stared down her nose at him. “Martin.”

“Dusk.”

“You’re hovering. You know I hate when you hover.” He raised his eyebrow curiously, which only deepened her frown. “Don’t even deny it. What do you want?” The two held their stare down for a moment, before he shrugged carelessly.

“Lunch.”

Straightening, she laughed humourlessly. “Then get some. I’ve got work to do, unlike someone else I know.” There was a beat before she quickly added. “You did finish your checks, right? And the maintenance? Calibrations? Any repa-”

“Yes, I did.” He cut in swiftly, seemingly amused by her worry. “And I already got lunch.” The statement derailed her worries, earning an incredulous look from the pilot. Martin didn’t waste any words, gesturing to a tray just behind him with two plates of food and a pair of mugs. “Some company would be nice though.”

Blinking incredulously, she shot him a withering glare. “You are not eating in Deadra!” She thumped him in the arm threateningly, earning a chuckle from him as he nursed the hit. “Not a chance in hell! And I don’t have time for some ‘lunch date’ with you, the engine isn’t gonna adjust itself, and then the guns need cali-”

“Dusk.” She paused, clearly not fond of being interrupted in the middle of a tech rant. “I’d like to have lunch with you.”

“I told you-”

“Dusk. I’d like to have lunch with you.” He insisted, and she ran her hands down her face in exasperation. “Otherwise I’ll be eating in Deadra while you work.” With an aggravated growl, she nodded sharply, jerking her head off towards an area behind the gunship as she turned back to the technician.

“Take 15.”

“20.” Martin called over her head as he retrieved the tray. Dusk glared over her shoulder at him, but nodded agreement to his statement. The tech, clearly confused, nevertheless complied; heading off towards another section of the hangar for his other duties. “Thank you.”

“Yeah yeah…what’d you get?” The two rounded the ship as they spoke, coming into a small nook in the storage area that had been arranged into something of a living space. At least, a living space combined with a mechanic’s station. The twin tables that dominated the space were littered with tools and parts in various states of assembly, several miniature screens displaying status of the various projects. Tucked into the back was a pair of low chairs around a short almost bistro-like table, the only one not buried under machinery. Off to the right of the table, a hammock had been fastened to the bulkhead, with only a meagre pillow in it.

“Chilli. The kitchen is apparently very well stocked.” Her eyes sparked at the mention of it, and he set the tray down on the table without any further delay. The pair took their seats, Dusk swiftly digging in while Martin examined her little nook. “They did provide you a room, you know…”

She fixed him a look, fork held tightly between her lips. Pulling the utensil out, she jabbed it towards him. “Uh-huh, and I don’t want it. Private rooms are so quiet. Makes you forget you’re on a ship without the hum. How people sleep when it‘s so quiet is beyond me…”

“And the hangar is better? Ignoring the possibility of violent decompression, that is.”

She nodded enthusiastically, speaking between mouthfuls. “This place has some great acoustics. Can feel the vibrations when the drive kicks in. Best lullaby I ever heard.” The mercenary chuckled at his companion, slowly picking at his own food. The conversation fell to the way side for a few minutes, a companionable silence between them before she spoke . “…so how’s your room, anyway?”

“Nice, I suppose. Has it’s own bathroom.” He tapped his fork on his lip. “Right near the battery, so makes it easy to handle my work for the day.”

“That‘s important, yeah…” She muttered, glancing over his shoulder for a moment before going back to her food. Once her bowl was picked clean, the pilot hopped up from her seat, seemingly eager to return to work. Despite her apparent eagerness though, Dusk glanced towards Martin once more. “It’s pretty well lit down here all day, you know.” He flicked his gaze up to her, but remained quiet. “And I still have your old hammock, in-case you…you know…” She trailed off awkwardly, causing him to grin.

“Lonely in the hangar?”

She pinked slightly, giving him a furious glare. “No! You’re just like a lost puppy without me around, so I thought I’d be nice and make a spot for you, and you’d come down, and then we could have lunch an-” He laughed lightly, earning another glare, although it was far weaker than the first. “Oh shut up! Just set up your damn hammock, Martin! I have work to do!” She stomped back towards the Deadra, pausing mid-step to glance back at the still smiling battery officer. “…and get that grin off your face before I smack it off.”

“You’ve got it.” His smile didn’t falter, and despite herself, the pilot had a matching one as she returned to work.

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The entrance to the gym hissed open, revealing Charlie with Vala in tow to the occupants. In what seemed to be their typical fashion, the Commander noted, the commandos had seemingly taken the entire facility for themselves for the time being; not a single marine present amongst them. As the first few faces turned, Charlie cleared his throat and shouted over the din. “Officer on deck!”

Regardless of task, each commando stepped swiftly into a salute, some leaping off their treadmills to do so. None of them moved an inch once the stance was assumed, and she couldn’t help but enjoy the show of respect for a few seconds longer than necessary. It might have been her ego talking, but it was a welcome change from two months of being treated like dirt. “As you were!” She called, and as quickly as they’d stopped, the Hounds were right back at their training; easily chatting amongst each other as they went about their various work outs.

To her right, Charlie whistled towards the lone solitary figure in the room, who perked up ever so slightly at the sound. The woman turned, a gentle smile stretched across her soft, rounded face. She crossed the room quickly towards her superior; the auburn braid hung round her shoulder swaying with each step as pure golden eyes regarded the pair. Once close, she gave them both a respectful nod before speaking. “You called, Charlie?”

The commando leader nodded, gesturing to Vala with a hand. “Indeed I did. I want to properly introduce the unit to Commander Buchan before we have any further ops, and you are the best starting point.” Looking to Vala, he grinned lopsidedly. “This is Staff Lieutenant Heather Driskel. I may lead the Hounds, but for all intents and purposes, she pretty much runs them. Any questions you have about the unit, or any concerns about any of the operatives, she’s the woman to go to.” He snickered. “She’s also the only dog I’ve got trained to respond to a whistle.”

Heather’s smile didn’t falter for a moment, replying without a moment’s pause. “I could only hope they were calls for attention, since a cat call doesn’t suit a hound, hm?” The lieutenant looked to Vala properly, offering a hand for a polite shake. Vala took it quickly, noting the woman’s gentle grip. “It’s a pleasure to properly make your acquaintance. As Charlie said, I handle most of the day-to-day business involving the Hounds. Please, don’t hesitate to ask me any questions if they arise.”

Vala tapped her cheek once in thought. “Well, I am curious about one thing…why did you send two? It seems excessive for a simple armour delivery.” Heather glanced at Charlie, seemingly surprised by the question but she answered all the same.

“It’s how they operate, Ma’am.” She turned, motioning over to a pair of the commandos chatting. “We never accept a single recruit for the unit, we always take pairs. After a few training missions, they’re assigned to each other. From their training to schedules and even their missions, a pair is stuck together.” Her smile widened ever so slightly, like a parent taking pride in their children. “It makes them quite the team, and highly effective in the field.”

Vala followed her gaze with some incredulity, speaking bluntly. “I’ve never heard of that before. Seems counter-productive to make a commando dependant on another.” Her eyes flicked up to Charlie. “Your idea, I assume?”

He shook his head, arms crossed over his chest. “Not exactly. I actually took the idea from asari huntresses, if you can believe it. I was assigned to a sabotage operation a little while before I made the Hounds, and got intercepted by a pair of asari. It was incredible, watching two lone huntresses so expertly juggle the entire raid team and lead them all on a wild goose chase. They moved and reacted to each other faster than I thought possible…”

Scratching his chin, Charlie shook his head slowly. “It was the day that I started to believe that turian saying. ‘The asari are the finest warriors in the galaxy. Fortunately there aren’t many of them.’” After a pause, he laughed. “So, I stole it for myself.”

“I see…” She looked back to Heather, pausing as she noticed a trend. Glancing towards another pair of the commandos, Vala tilted her head slightly to view their eyes. Which were the same solid gold. She turned slightly, scanning the various faces for a moment. “…are all your eyes tattooed?”

Heather nodded. “Good eye. It’s something of a little ritual for the recruits. Once they’re partnered up, they get the retinal tattoo that makes their eyes look like ours. Charlie is the only one without it because he’s afraid of needles.” He scoffed.

“I have to actually look presentable for the higher ups.”

She giggled. “Right…and you’re afraid of needles.” Sighing, he waved her off, clearly knowing a hopeless battle when he saw one. Heather looked back to Vala and continued her explanation. “It was an idea from another member of ours, to increase the solidarity of the unit. A bond with our partner is good, but all the hounds view each other as a sort of second family.”

“Complete with it’s own crazy traditions?”

“Something like that. Oh, we should introduce you to Sorin. He’s the primary trainer for all the pairs.” She placed a finger on her lip for a moment, brow creasing ever so slightly. “Although, he’s been in something of a mood today…”

Vala raised an eyebrow while Charlie snickered. “Sorin is always in a mood, Heather. He’ll behave.” Stepping past the women, he moved towards the small ring set up in the corner of the gym. Inside the ring, a lone figure stood, flexing a pair of sparring gloves on his hands. As the light revealed more of his features, Vala immediately noticed the pale, tarnished glaze over the right eye. Dozens of micro scars surrounded the blinded eye, as well as an imposing tattoo of a fanged grin that dominated the side of his face. Before she could really examine it, his head jerked over quickly to regard them, as if he‘d heard their approach over the din. His remaining eye was the same solid gold as the others, although it lacked the mirth she’d seen amidst the commandos prior to him.

Heather, seemingly aware of something Vala wasn’t, moved a few steps ahead of her, climbing up into the ring with who she assumed was Sorin. The two were an interesting contrast to each other, she immediately noted, the rich dark brown of his complexion a sharp contrast to her olive white. They exchanged hushed words as she approached, and the man eased back on his heels as she reached the ring with Charlie. “Commander Buchan.” He grunted, voice hard and hollow.

“Yes, that’s me. You would be Sorin?”

“1st Lieutenant Sorin Malcoms. I keep the Hounds from being useless, Ma’am.” His tone was curt, and she couldn’t help but wonder what exactly his issue was. “If you need anything improved, I figure I’m the one you should talk to.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Lieutenant.” She spared only a split second glance to Charlie, who seemed slightly exasperated at Sorin’s attitude, but made no comments. “Did I catch you at a bad time?”

Sorin tilted his head slightly upwards, showing more of the jaw tattoo as he did so. “No. I’m just not one for chit-chat. That’s Heather’s department.” Heather elbowed him sharply in the ribs, but the trainer didn’t even react to the hit, staring down at Vala with his one good eye.

As she looked at the two up in the ring, a thought occurred to her and she quickly voiced it. “Should I assume you two are a combat pair, since you both lead?” Heather stiffened in the ring, while Charlie muttered an ‘oh boy’ underneath his breath. “What?”

Sorin’s expression darkened; eye flicking to Charlie suddenly and glaring accusingly at the man. “You didn’t tell her.” Heather opened her mouth, but the trainer stifled her with sharp intake of breath. “Fine then.”

“Introductions isn’t the best time you know, Sorin.” Charlie commented, clearly not bothered by the sudden anger in his subordinate.

“Sure they are.” He stepped through the ropes and dropped down to the floor. “Charlie and Heather forgot to mention something important about the three of us. We’re the Old Dogs of the unit.” He stepped up to her, holding up a finger for silence when she opened her mouth. “Before you even ask, Commander, it means the three of us don’t have partners.”

“Don’t all of you have to have partners?”

“We get one. One partner. That’s it.” The gym had fallen silent as the hounds wizened to the scene playing out in the corner. “No. Heather isn’t my partner, and I’d appreciate you don’t make any assumptions about something you don’t unde-”

“Alright,” Charlie snapped, stepping between him and Vala. “That’s about enough. She didn’t know, and even then, Buchan is the boss. That means you show some respect.” The trainer narrowed his eyes, but Charlie didn’t let him get a word in. “Not up for discussion.”

His mouth opened and shut several times before his eye fell to the floor. “I apologize, Commander.” Part of Vala simply wanted to strike the man across the face, or take his ear off herself for a few minutes for showing such insubordination. And yet, another part quietly reasoned that she had struck a nerve, clearly a sore one. She’d have likely done the same, hell, she HAD done the same in the past.

The commander nodded. “It’s fine, Lieutenant Malcoms. We all have our own demons, and I didn’t mean to stir yours. If you’ll ignore my faux pas, then perhaps we can leave this behind us.” It was far more diplomatic than they’d expected her to be, and if she’d had access to a mirror, Vala would have seen a similar expression on her own face.

Sorin inclined his head. “Of course, Ma’am…” As quickly as his apology had come, the man snapped back into his personality from before, barking loudly at the commandos. “I didn’t give you bastards permission to gawk! Get back to work, or it’ll be suicides instead of dinner tonight!”

With a collective groan and a few grumbling ‘yes sirs’, the gym returned to it’s previous noise level. Sorin gave a lazy salute as he brushed past her, clearly wanting to bury himself in work for the moment. Heather took a seat on the lip of the ring with a sigh. “I told you he was in a mood…”

Charlie scratched awkwardly at his neck. “I’ll trust your women’s intuition next time…sorry about that, Commander. Sorin is a bit of a…handful some days. He’s good though. No one else I’d trust with whipping these lightweights into proper shape.” She nodded idly, clearly distracted as she watched the man work. “Something on your mind?”

“Only one partner?”

Heather diverted her gaze from Vala’s inquisitive stare but Charlie instead held it with a sombre expression. “Yeah, just one. Hounds don’t come home alone.” The statement hung in the air as he searched for words. “…they bond heavily in training. It’s kinda impossible not to. We don’t define what they have to view each other as, but the relationship is always…close. So, when one half…bites the bullet, and the other doesn’t…it’s like losing a sibling.”

“Oh.”

“I tried in the past to get new partners but…things linger. It just dug up more wounds, so I changed the plan. If one survives, they can either retire from the unit, or help me run things, as one of the ‘Old Dogs’.” He glanced over his shoulder at Heather. “Out of everyone, only Heather and Sorin wanted to stay on.”

“He certainly doesn’t look like he wants to be here…” She noted, earning a slight chuckle from the two. “What?”

“That’s just how he is. Always. Leave him to yell at everyone, and you’ll get along fine.” The man in question roved between the hounds, constantly watching, constantly tossing out criticisms and improvements for all of them. She watched him out of curiosity, lingering on the oddity he was for longer than she perhaps should have, before partially looking to Charlie.

“I’ll take your word for it.” Brushing a few fingers across her forehead, Vala made a few mental notes on what she’d been told, even as she continued to scan the assembled commandos. It didn’t take long to begin seeing the pairs, as they shifted between stations and exercises, only two in each ‘group’ would remain with each other. It was an odd system, but she was eager to see the results of such rigid policy. “Well, I trust that you three will be more than capable of keeping the Hounds running properly. If there’s anything you need…”

“We’ll take care of it.” Heather smiled, earning a similar one from the commander herself. “I’ll only trouble you with them if it’s necessary, Ma’am.” The woman was clearly used to the task, and was obviously well suited for it with her seemingly maternal nature. “All I ask is you don’t run them completely ragged.”

“I’ll see what I can do, but I don’t get to call those shots.” She shot Charlie a dry look. “Although that should be changing here very shortly, hm?” He grinned sheepishly, rubbing his neck awkwardly under her sharp gaze before the commander continued. “But, I think that’s enough for today. I have a report to file, and we should be safe to leave the Citadel.”

The ‘Old Dogs’ nodded, following her to the door and offering polite salutes as she set off to handle her tasks for the day. The pair watched Vala’s back until she disappeared around a corner; only then did Heather speak up. “Odd.”

“What’s that?”

“Dozens of things, really…she‘s young but leading a vessel chief among them. I’m not really sure if she can handle it…” He fixed her with a quizzical glance, and she continued lightly. “I don’t mean much by it. It’s a lot of responsibility, and not everyone is equipped to handle it. I’m just worried she might not be.”

Charlie blinked once, before looking out into the hallway. “Would she really have a ship if she couldn‘t handle it?” The pair exchanged curious glances, before the Lieutenant simply shrugged her shoulders with a smile. “Doing wonders for my confidence, Heather.”

“My job is support, not soothing your destructive curiosity. Doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on things, does it?”

“Isn‘t there an old saying about cats and curiosity? Something involving dying?”

“Good thing you’re a dog then, Charlie.” Heather patted his shoulder with a smile; promptly turning on her heel and trotting off towards the furious barking of Sorin’s instructions. The commando chuckled humourlessly to himself, before glancing off down the hall. “Besides,” She called over her shoulder. “Isn't the assignment to help?”