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Charlie Welles

Founder and Leader of the Hell Hounds

158 views · located in Mass Effect Universe created by Bioware

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

Description

Charlie stands 5’9,with a lean runner’s build that betrays his skill set. One of the immediate things most people notice is the fact that he has a full well trimmed beard that wraps the entirety of his chin and around his mouth as well, flecked with the occasional silver hair. His hair is a dark brown, and his eyes are a similar colour, thin lines beginning to crease around the corners as he ages.

He avoids dress uniforms like the plague, preferring a more casual style than other officers might. He typically wears standard marine garb, although it’s not unlikely to spot him in more relaxed clothing, like t-shirts and khakis.

Personality

Charlie is a tad laid-back, but not to the point of slacking. If he’s relaxing, it means he’s accomplished everything expected of him, and won’t complain if assigned something else. He’s talkative, to a degree, particularly about his unit, whom he almost seems to view like an adoptive family. If so, he’s very much the patriarch of the lot, serving as the calmest head to offset Sorin’s hot-headedness, and Heather’s mothering.

He’s supportive of those beneath him, and loyal to his superiors; Charlie has little in mind for advancement, feeling that he has reached where he was meant to be in his career, focusing his time on ensuring his charges reach their destined peak as well. His supportive traits make him suited to collaboration with Commander Buchan, and it is hoped that his insight can provide the rookie leader with tactical and ‘moral’ assistance in her new assignment.

History

Charlie was hand-selected by the Illusive Man to serve aboard the Deliverance underneath Vala. His adaptive nature and experience with black ops made him an ideal candidate for the task, primarily charged with handling the commandos assigned to the ship and serving as their leader. His skills are viewed as an asset to Vala’s undertakings, and has additional instructions to serve as a mentor of sorts to Vala in the art of small squad command, where Charlie is most comfortable.

So begins...

Charlie Welles'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?”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jonathan Titus Character Portrait: Braden Reynolds Character Portrait: Lance Williams Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Charlie Welles

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As she reared the second whip for the strike, Vala’s eyes noticed the slightest flicker in her peripheries, seconds before the biotic barrier defended Harrison from her attack. The Deliverance commander took a step back, but another bubble soon snapped around her, severing the extended whip and making the removed end vanish into nothing. It took her only a moment to process it, eyes snapping instantly to the newcomer to the arena. She was still under his gaze, helmeted gaze watching silently.


“Vala?” Braden inquired after a few seconds. “Is that really you?”

It was a possibility she should have prepared for. She’d seen him in the picture, departing the Marathon with Titus, Harrison and Lance. There was always a chance he was going to get involved. Quietly, never letting the N7 leave her field of vision, she turned more to focus on the young man. Her external speakers crackled. “Braden...you shouldn’t be getting involved.”

"Involved?" the boy responded, his expression conveying insult. "I've been involved."

“That doesn’t mean you should continue to be.” Her eyes flicked cautiously to the N7, who seemed to be as locked down as she was. “This isn’t your fight. There’s no need for you to be here.” Her words faltered, as she considered her orders for a moment. Titus was to be eliminated if possible, and the logical extension meant that applied to his crew. Was Braden..? “Did Titus send you down here?”

"No," he said, though not as loudly as he had previously spoken. "I'm here on my own. Why are you fighting us? I know you’re Cerberus... and we're not anymore, but... We were friends. Right?" Casting her eyes at the floor, Vala thought for a moment before responding.

“Yes. Yes, we were.” Her voice was soft, and she stepped towards the edge of the barrier, touching it lightly with the tips of her fingers. “And there’s very little that says you can’t still be my friend, Braden.” Her gaze shifted, staring up at Titus behind him. “Save for the very people I’m fighting. After all…I’m a terrorist to them. A murderer.”

"N-no!" Braden shook his head, seemingly rejecting the idea. A bead of sweat could be seen trickling down from his forehead. Constantly maintaining the strength of the barriers was beginning to take its toll. "That's not true," he went on. "You do what's right. You protect... You have to. That's what Cerberus stands for; right? You saved me."

Vala tapped a key on her omni-tool, visor of the Nyx parting into the sides of her helmet to reveal her face. Her eyes watched the boy softly, a gentle smile upturning her lips. “That’s right. I fight to protect. We can’t save everyone…but we’re willing to do what has to be done to save lives.” She lowered her hand from the barrier. “Cerberus will always fight to protect us. Always.”

Braden's eyes narrowed and he lowered his head to the ground, taking heavy breaths in order to keep the oxygen flowing and stay concentrated. "Then stop this," he finally said. His fingers twitched slightly as the violet hue around his hands faded and the barriers dissipated.

Harrison was immediately back in a defensive stance, but he made no move to attack her. She watched him for only a moment, as the shouts from the arena around her reached her ears. Several officers, six or so if she counted correctly, entered the bleachers, quickly taking position around the arena. After a moment of quiet consideration, Vala nodded lightly.

“Alright, Braden. I can do that today.” Her smile sadden, eyes not drifting from the boy. “But I can’t stop forever. These people attacked us first. They took my friend. They tried to kill us.” The infiltrator took a slow step towards the teen, holding her hand out to him. “I don’t want you caught in that crossfire. I know someplace far from this…somewhere all this fighting isn’t. A place you could have some peace, and grow into the man you want to be.”

Braden took a step back, regaining his focus after his use of biotics. After he took a moment of pause to consider Vala's offer, he sadly shook his head no. "I don't know what I want yet." Her hand fell back to her side, nodding to his response.

“That’s fine.” Looking to the guns trained on her, Vala’s eyes squeezed shut, her smile slowly fading. “When you decide…let me know. Stay safe until then, okay?” There was no disappointment in her voice, just an understanding of the boy’s fragile state. “And if you ever need me, I‘ll come running.” Her visor clicked shut over her face, once more concealing her from the prying eyes of the world. “El, Jones.”

“Looking a little hot down there, Ma’am…” El commented, signalling they’d at least been paying attention. “We’ve got eyes on a marksman who thinks your head is mighty pretty.”

“I figured, but I’m not overly worried.”

Jones was quick to reply. “Can you catch bullets with your teeth? Cause that’d be pretty fucking amazing.” Ignoring the commando, Vala tilted her head back slightly, looking past the military police to stare coldly at the man behind them. Her speakers crackled and boomed, amplified by the arena acoustics.

“Content to sit up there while others run into the fray, ‘Captain’?”

A corner of Titus' lips turn into an upward smirk and he replied with equal volume, "Braden jumped down there to confront you on his own, Vala. I had nothing to do with that. Besides, I don't have a gun or biotics. I'm no fool."

“Some might argue otherwise with your choices of late.” Pulling a small pistol-like contraption from her belt, she fired it off towards the catwalk; the carbon fibre arcing high into the air before imbedding itself in the fixture above. “Best be ready next time. I won’t hesitate.” With a solid tug and a fluid flick of the hand, she fastened the line to her belt, the small system whirring to lift and hoisting the infiltrator high into the air. She watched the man for a moment longer, before looking down at Braden. “Till then, Jonathan.”

Without another word, her cloak flickered over her body, and Vala vanished from sight. There was a pause, before Lance shouted at the darkness above. “Not even a ‘Hey, Lance!’?! C’mon! I’m here too!” There was a moment’s pause, before her voice echoed down from above, dry and un-amused.

“Hello, Lance.”

The man grinned at no one in particular. “Told you we have a thing.”

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Their flight from the cube was smooth, dodging the few security forces present to disperse into the streets. The cloak made it difficult to spot the trio, but even so they clung to the few precious shadows available to them in the flashy neon lights of the citadel. El and Jones spent the entire time firing back and forth between each other, so fast that Vala didn’t even bother to attempt to keep up with their conversation.

As they crept into a narrow but deserted alley, Vala hunkered down in an attempt to catch her breath. Something the commandos instantly noticed. “You alright, Ma’am? Sound a little tired.” El asked; concern in her voice.

Vala nodded as the Hound knelt next to her, Jones opting to keep an eye out for any patrols from C-Sec. Jo had passed along a hacked channel of C-Sec communication, and they had increased their presence in the area in response to their little…show. It wasn’t clear if they knew they’d ‘escaped’, but the threat of running into C-Sec in combat armour was unappealing.

“Open up.” She felt El knock lightly on the visor, but she could see the small hip flask the woman was offering. “Got some energy juice for you. Keep you running till we can get out of this junk.”

“Stripping with the boss, El? This I gotta see.” Jones quipped, earning a playful glare from his partner. “Watch duty, right. Gotta make sure it’s a private show.” Vala chose not to comment, making a note to speak with Charlie when she returned to the Deliverance about his commandos. Taking the small flask, her visor parted slightly, enough for her to press the liquid to her lips and take a slight swig. It was, pleasantly, not alcohol, instead some sort of smoothie like drink.

Offering the flask back, Vala remained seated for a few moments longer. “Biotics always get so tired…” El mused aloud; not really straying from her superior’s side. “That stuff you pulled was impressive as hell. Guess it’s got a price?”

“Everything has a price.” Vala responded, pushing off the wall to stand straight once more. “And I’d be thrilled if we can keep it low. Let’s get moving. Jo, can you get us a path past most of the patrols?” In no time flat, a route quickly painted itself on their HUD map. “Good work. Jones, take point.” He nodded, quickly heading deeper into the alley with Vala and El close behind.

It took only a half hour for them to weave across the district, dodging dozens of patrols on route to the safe house. Once inside, she wasted little time shedding the Nyx and storing it back in the case which they’d hauled it in with. Jones wasted little time securing it to his back, while El gave Vala another swig of that strange brew of hers. “You two will be fine to get back to the ship?”

“No sweat.” Jones grinned, adjusting the straps slightly. “The Citadel has so many holes in its security it’s sad. We could probably walk through the front door if we really wanted to.” Vala fixed him with a stern look, as he hastily added. “Not that we do in the slightest. Quiet as mice.”

“I’ll keep him in line.” El chuckled, stepping over beside her partner. “Meet you back on the Deliverance, Ma’am. We owe you a drink after the show you put on.” The two gave light, two fingered salutes before their cloaks made them vanish into the black of the room. After their footsteps echoed into silence, Vala rose and hauled herself up the ladder into the familiar cramped hall that led to the deserted alley.

Taking a minute to assess the surroundings, Vala slid on her sunglasses, glancing at the various passers-by. Pressing a finger to the comm piece in her ear, she spoke. “Keagan. How we looking?”

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Rendezvousing with Keagan was smooth, waiting in the same intersection they’d split up for her. As she approached, her eyes caught glimpse of the small bag dangling from his grip as he lazily waved his hand at waist level. Once close enough to talk, she pointed at it. “Did some shopping after lunch?” The sarcasm was thick, but he took it good-naturedly.

“Not at all. I actually just picked up some food for you, Ms. Moir. An excellent Fettuccini Alfredo, made by an asari chef so skilled you could have sworn she was born in Italy.” He paused, as if entertaining the thought, a slight smile etched on his face. “Not as impossible as it might sound really…it’s almost like a different planet there anyway.”

Vala shook her head slightly, taking the bag graciously as they fell into step with each other, heading back the way they’d come. “Thanks….although how did you know I li-”

“Your affection for pasta is not much of a secret, I assure you. Anyone with a second grade education can deduce that by the way your eyes lit up when I mentioned it.” His smile had the slightest, arrogant edge, but she couldn’t really fault him for it. “Besides, you’ll find I know far more about you than you might suspect. I always do my research, and quite thoroughly.”

“I’m not sure if I should be glad or disturbed…”

“No need to decide right away.” Seemingly satisfied with their inane conversation, he shifted focus to the mission. “I take it you managed to get the message across? The news networks have been a buzz about your little show.”

“I think it was clear. Harrison got lucky today, if…there hadn’t been outside interference, he’d be leaving the Cube in pieces.”

“And your cover?”

“Safe. They won’t be able to identify me from what little face I showed.” The pair slowed, foot traffic slightly congested from C-Sec officers moving through the area. “So long as the Hounds make it back to the Deliverance in one piece, it’s safe to chalk up a success.”

“Delightful. I can think of few better ways to christen a new vessel.” Stroking his chin, Keagan watched a pair of officers move past as they drew closer to the CHA private dock. “A tad sluggish for C-Sec. You’d think they’d have gotten more personnel on site faster.”

Vala didn’t respond; face setting into even neutrality as they approached the lift back to the ship. As they rose above the slight chaos on the streets below, Keagan simply shook his head. “Really, what did they think was going to happen?”

“Who?”

“This Oracle. Making enemies is the worst thing you can do in the backrooms.”

“Speaking from experience?”

Keagan chuckled, not bothering to respond as the lift opened to the Deliverance and the aide from before. She smiled at Keagan, but was clearly more preoccupied with work behind her small station. The two walked casually up towards the ship, airlock hissing open to greet them and sealing behind them once they were inside.

Vala shot him a sharp look. “How often am I going to be stuck as this ‘Mia Moir’, by the way?” He tapped his chin, thinking on the subject while the decontamination cycle purified them of any bacteria.

“Generally whenever you decide to go romping about on Alliance worlds, or the Citadel. Our pesky counterpart has cast a wide net to ensnare our operatives. Fortunately for us…their eyes are limited, just like ours. The ship is a safe haven, so feel free to be yourself.” The interior seal opened, and the yeoman stepped out quickly. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some work to take care of.”

“Of course.” He headed towards the lift, and Vala watched him go for a moment before the movement of the pilot chair caught her eye. She half-turned to Ronas, who grinned in greeting. “Enjoying yourself, Ronas?”

“Just breaking in my chair, really. If we’re stealthy, I’ll be spending most of my time in this seat doing nothing much, so I’d like to be as comfortable as I can make it.”

“No excuse to get lazy.”

“Relaxed is different from lazy. It’s always better to be relaxed than a bundle of nerves; those guys are really twitchy when they fly.”

“I’ll take your word for it. Carry on then.” Footsteps echoing behind her, Vala turned to greet the source, blinking when she came face to chest with who she could only assume was Sinoff. Tilting her head back slightly, she raised an eyebrow at the man. “Need me for something, Lieutenant Commander?”

“Operative Sedlack would like to speak with you, Commander.” He replied, gesturing down the helm to the CIC, where Alexis was leaning against the galaxy map display. Wyatt wasted little time answering the unspoken question on her lips. “Her cane isn't effective in a ship environment. The long stretches are proving to be exhausting.” To his credit, he didn’t seem overly bothered by playing errand boy for his ‘mentor’.

“I don’t really understand how she gets around a bar on that thing, let alone an entire floor. I’ll talk to her, thanks for telling me.” She started past him, pausing with an affirmative pat to his chest. “And feel free to pass it onto a grunt next time. You’re busy without playing messenger.” He nodded in affirmative, and she continued on, hearing the future 2IC give a sharp order to Ronas as she went.

As she approached, Alexis gave her a weary wave, looking rather worn out for someone who’d spent all their time on ship. “Welcome back, Ivory. Nice work out there.” Vala grinned lightly as she continued. “I already forwarded a preliminary report to the Illusive Man, so you’re off the hook for now.”

“Thanks. I could have taken care of it, you know.” The older woman scoffed, waving her hand dismissively. “I use to do more paperwork than you did, Scorpion…”

“I’m giving you some free time, if you want to piss it away on fancy reports, that’s your prerogative.” Straightening up from the display, she planted her cane firmly, already looking displeased with the prospect of having to move. “More importantly though, there’s someone I figure you should meet.” Her stride was understandably slow, and the two circled round the CIC slowly until they reached a small station near the Helm’s walkway.

Alexis announced their presence by slamming the bottom of her cane on the floor loudly, causing the station’s operator to practically come out of their skin, spinning the chair around in a panic and half-leaping into a standing position. “I’m sorry, Ma’am! Won’t happen again Ma-”

“You’re not in trouble, Govern.” Alexis commented dryly, clearly amused by her panicked reaction. She gestured to Vala, who offered a hand in greeting. “This is the Commander. Vala Buchan. Commander, Agent Celeste Govern.”

“Pleasure.” The woman quickly took the hand, shaking it meekly before retracting it and fiddling with the hem of her uniform. She didn’t have the look of a fighter, a small frame with a huddled posture. Her eyes were light green, and her soft brown hair was bobbed around her chin for a slightly more professional look than most of her crew hand. “What is it you do in the CIC, Agent?”

“Oh, I’m…not really important in the CIC. I’m the field handler. Your field handler, actually.” Vala blinked, looking at Alexis who simply nodded in reply.

“But if you’re the handler…”

“Didn’t feel she was necessary.” Scorpion admitted, tapping a finger against her cane in thought. “Which seems to have been accurate? I’ll make sure Govern is on hand for all your future missions, though.”

“Please do…” Ignoring Alexis’s casual explanation, she focused back on Celeste. “So, do you have much experience?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I've actually been a handler primarily with the Hell Hounds. Lieutenant Commander Welles helped me with my initial training, and has tried to keep me close to the unit ever since.” That was unexpected. Celeste didn’t look like the type to handle the blacker shades well, but perhaps she had a few hidden fires that Vala wasn’t aware of.

“You’re associated with them? I’m not sure if that’s good news or bad…” Celeste titled her head, slightly confused. “I just met some of the Hounds on my operation is all. They’re good, if a little…eccentric.”

The handler gave a light smile, accompanied by a soft, airy laugh. “That’s the Hounds alright. You get use to it pretty quick.” She wasn’t really sure if getting use to the oddity of those two was really in her best interest, but she didn’t give any outward sign. Before they could continue, Ronas appeared beside Celeste, looking mildly irritated. “Oh, Helmsman Chekan. Is something the matter?”

His deadpan spoke wonders. “I have an invisible woman banging on my window.” The trio of women blinked in response, varying degrees of confusion on their faces. Vala clued in first.

“Oh! El!” Celeste straightened at the mention of the Hound, looking back at her station which had a pair of blinking lights alerting her to the attempted communications.

“Oops! I got distracted! I’ll let them in right now.” She hopped into her seat, quickly sliding on a headset as she gave an apologetic look to Ronas. “I’m sorry, Helmsman.” The man watched her for a moment, before sighing and waving it off.

“Don’t sweat it. Just nearly gave me a heart attack.” He started back towards the Helm, and Celeste gave one last glance to Vala.

“It was nice to meet you, Commander.”

“Likewise.” Deciding it best to let her work, the pair started towards the lift, Alexis lagging behind a few steps. Looking over her shoulder, Commander Buchan gave her friend a light-hearted sigh. “You know you should head to the med-bay, see about getting something a little sturdier.”

“Probably.” The operative grunted. “But I’ll labour on for at least another day before then.”

“Your pride wouldn't let you do any less.” Watching her friend retake her perch, Vala debated mentally what she should do with her time before filing a report. They wouldn't leave the Citadel right away, not until C-Sec got a little less riled up, and Alexis had taken care of the report for the time being. Deep in thought, Vala tapped the key to the lift, which opened instantly to reveal Charlie.

“Ah, perfect.” She blinked in surprise at his sudden appearance, looking up at the commando. “I was hoping I’d catch you, Commander.”

“Oh?”

Welles gave her a large grin, motioning for her to board the lift. “If you've got the time, I think it’s time to properly introduce you to the Hell Hounds.” She chuckled breathlessly, stepping onto the lift. “Can’t have El and Jones giving you a bad impression of us all.”

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?”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Charlie Welles

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“Commander Horn, should we dis-”

“I'll contact you when I have a rough plan etched out.” Before she could even respond, he ended the call, leaving Vala standing in the conference room with something akin to a scowl on her face. It was wonderful to know Horn was still the exact same as he’d been before her two month ‘vacation’. Reigning in the irritation welling up in her gut, the Commander took a slow breath.

She’d use the time he was strategizing to meet with her own staff and make her own strategies for the various targets as well. It would be time well spent, she mentally assured herself, and they’d have something of a civil strategy meeting after they had both prepared. Civil wasn’t a word she’d ever consider between herself and the jetpack-obsessed adrenaline junkie, but the Illusive Man expected it.

She would simply have to provide. “He really knows to get under your skin, huh?” Snapping her eyes to the door, Vala frowned half-heartedly at Scorpion as she casually approached the rising table and took a seat atop the surface with a happy sigh. “Commander Horn, right? I didn’t really get much info on him, but I’ve heard you’re not fond of each other.”

“No.” Vala sharply replied, rounding the table towards the ‘head’ on the far side of the conference room. “But, whatever he may feel aside, I am willing and able to put my personal feelings aside for the duration of this operation. It’s as simple as that.” Alexis nodded to herself as Wyatt stepped quickly into the room and took up a place opposite Alexis at the table. “Keagan gathered you both, I take it? Any word if he was going to get Welles?”

On cue, the door hissed open and Charlie jogged into the room with a quick wave. “Hope I didn’t keep you, was in the middle of a workout.” He took a spot beside Alexis, leaning partially on the table as he gulped for air. “What’s the work today, Commander?”

Vala tapped a few keys on the interface before her, and the image of the Daedalus system appeared. “The operation is straight-forward, but will likely be difficult. We’ve been tasked with the removal of several known Oracle assets within the Daedalus system, a mixture of both soft and hard targets. For that reason…” She tapped a few more keys, and a small image of the Call of Victory appeared. “This will be a joint operation between the Deliverance and the Call of Victory. It’s Commander, Jason Horn, and I will be going over strategy for the upcoming operation shortly, but we need to have some basis of a plan to begin with.”

The display shifted to the lists of targets, and the command staff gave them a quick once over. Alexis was the first to speak, rubbing her chin idly. “The hard targets are likely better suited for the Call; given that it’s a cruiser and will likely pack more ordinance than us…” Charlie nodded in agreement, motioning towards the names.

“The Hounds can likely hit most of the marks without any help from the Call’s marines as well. This information is up to date, yeah?”

Alexis nodded sharply. “I’d bank on it, given the reliability of the Illusive Man’s contacts. This seems fairly straight forward, but…”

“It would only be straight forward if we can rely on the targets remaining in place.” Sinoff gruffly continued; arms crossed across his chest as his eyes coldly examined the information on display. “The first sign of trouble, they’ll head aground.”

“Bingo.” Alexis chimed.

The 2IC pressed a finger to his lips. “Even ignoring that, we should be expecting Aurora resistance, correct? Any word on numbers?” Vala shook her head slightly, glancing at the man in her peripheries.

“Nothing exact, aside from a pair of scout frigates patrolling the area.”

Sinoff nodded, focusing his attention on the overview of the system. “Then they are logically our first hurdle. If either of the frigates can signal our presence, we’ll be lucky to get half of these targets. And no matter how good the excuse, a cruiser dropping in will ring warning bells.” Alexis nodded, and Vala drummed a finger on the table.

“Then we’ll hit them with the Thanix cannon. It’ll shred those frigates to pieces.”

“I don’t think that’ll work, Commander.” Charlie murmured, running a hand through his beard. “No matter how strong this cannon you’re talking about is, it’s not going to kill a frigate in one shot unless we’re somehow packing a dreadnaught MAC. Chances are; first sign of trouble, a VI will fire off a warning to the other.”

She frowned, but found herself nodding in agreement. It was a logical failsafe. “Then how do you suggest we take care of the frigates quietly, Lieutenant Commander?” The commando rubbed his chin for a few moments, before the faintest spark lit up behind his eyes. “You’ve got something?”

“Jo, can you bring up a standard blueprint for an Alliance frigate?” The AI complied wordlessly, the display snapping to the layout within seconds of his request. The others watched Charlie curiously examine the layout for a few moments, before his face split into a pleased grin. “I’ve got just the ticket. We’ll board it.”

Alexis’s face lit up, and Vala could tell there was something about the ballsy-ness of such an action that excited the old operative. “Now that’s a curious thought. We’re not an assault team here, what exactly do you plan to do on board the frigate?”

“It’s relatively straight forward. If we can get me and two pairs of my Hounds on that ship, we can kill both frigates in one giant clusterfuck of explosions.” He looked to Vala, and the confidence of his smile spoke wonders to her. Tapping a slender finger on the table a few times, she shot Sinoff a look in curiosity. The man took the opportunity to speak.

“And if they detect your presence? It’ll simply cause the exact thing we’re trying to avoid.”

“Jo can help with that, actually.” Alexis offered, bringing their attention to her. “Let’s say we send the Hounds over, but before Charlie gets stuck in with the crew, we attach a simple short-wave jammer to the hull? The GARDIAN systems won’t be online outside of combat, and it’ll take a while for the scans to notice something as small as a jammer attached to the ship. If Jo manages the jammer, we can make sure whatever messages they send…don’t get out.”

After a moment, the stoic 2IC nodded in confirmation, and Vala gave a slightly reluctant sigh. “If you’re all on board, then I only have one real question, I suppose.” Inquisitive eyes flicked to Charlie, who met them with all the confidence in the world. “What exactly are you planning on doing over there, Welles?”

Rubbing his palms together with a childish glee, he wasted no time bringing their attention back to the display. “Now that, you see, is going to be the fun part…”

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“That’ll be all, you’re dismissed.” Vala sighed heavily as Welles and Sinoff saluted and headed off to prepare for the operation ahead. If only she could be doing the same, instead of waiting for a call from Horn of all people. The young commander leaned partially on the conference table, staring through the still glowing display of Daedalus at Alexis’s back. The scarred woman leaned back on the table, watching her right back with a curious gaze. “I can’t believe I’m going ahead with this.”

Scorpion suppressed a laugh, twirling her cane idly in her free hand. “I have to say, it’s a pretty ballsy idea for only your second operation. You’ve got yourself one mad bastard in that one.” The younger woman deadpanned at her friend, turning the display off silently and dropping the room into a more ambient lighting. They sat in a companionable silence for a few moments, before the operative sighed. “You holding up alright?”

“…well enough, I suppose.” She admitted; resting her cheek on her knuckles as her brow furrowed in thought. “Still hasn’t really sunk in yet, you know? Almost feels like they’re running the ship, and I’m just riding along with them.” She was still only for a moment longer, sighing again and straightening out with a groan. “Remind me to get a chair for in here…I can’t take all this standing if I’ve got to be at every damn meeting.”

“We’ll get you a nice throne, Ivory.” Alexis called teasingly, resting her cane across her shoulders as she smiled across the table. “It’s what they’re here for. Hell, it’s sorta what I’m here for. I don’t think anyone is really expecting you to run a warship perfectly right away, especially not at your age.” Her eyes drifted to the view port behind Vala, and they glossed over as if she was remembering something far away. “…he wasn’t much better.”

“What was that?” Vala perked up, only to be promptly shot down by a dismissive wave of the hand. “You know I hate secrets…”

“You hate secrets that are dangling in front of you. Such a woman you are.” The playful jeer got a chuckle, and Alexis tapped her cane once on her shoulder before placing it properly on the ground. “Don’t sweat it; it’s not important right now.” Straightening out, she took a long look at the viewport. “Although, be careful how much you rely on these guys, yeah?”

Before she could inquire as to what exactly Alexis meant by those words, Jo’s voice sounded. “Commander Buchan, we are receiving an incoming QE transmission from the Call of Victory.” The room didn’t shift, as Vala paused for the briefest of moments to consider making Horn wait as payback for his earlier rudeness. At the lack of response, Jo continued, microscopically more insistent than before. “It likely pertains to the upcoming operation, Commander.”

Sighing heavily, Vala rounded the table. “I know, Jo. Let it through.” With a soft ‘Affirmative’, the room darkened once more, shutters sliding over the ‘dome’ as the table sunk into the floor like it had never been there before. The pad hummed beneath her feet, and she idly noted the Alexis hadn’t left the room, instead leaning just outside the projection area.

Moments later, and she was standing in a seemingly ‘empty’ place with only darkness and the twin figures of Horn and Invaru appeared across from her. Vala nodded ever so slightly, crossing her arms as she regarded them both. “Ready now?” She questioned dryly, focusing her attention on Horn. He simply nodded, and she inclined her head partially. “Alright then, let’s get on with it.”

Operative Invaru tapped a key, bringing up the display of the system, although by this point it was almost a formality. She’d been staring at the damn thing for most of the day already; it was practically ingrained in her mind. “Did you want to start, Commander Buchan?” The slight enunciation of the title made it painfully clear what he thought of it, but for the sake of the operation, she gave no reaction.

“Certainly.” Clearing her throat, Vala tapped a few keys on her omni-tool, bringing up a smaller display of a typical Alliance frigate. “Due to the nature of our operation, we can’t afford detection before the majority of our pieces are in play. The scout frigates pose the first and most immediate threat to detection, given the fact that your cruiser has no stealth technology. Therefore, I’m prepared to use the Deliverance to secure the system before you arrive.”

Horn seemed skeptical. “Against two frigates? How do you plan to take out both before one of them sends off a distress signal to the soft targets?” Vala straightened ever so slightly, motioning to the frigate calmly.

“They won’t be able to send for help. They’ll be silenced for the duration of our operation, and if all goes according to plan, it will create enough of a disturbance that even your ship will be able to enter the system without being noticed straight away.” Lacing her hands behind her back, Vala gave the slightest smirk. “There’s really nothing else that can be done. Anything else just runs the risk of detection, while this plan reduces it to practically nothing.”

“Part of me wants to know how you plan to do that, and the other part doesn't care so long as it gets done.” He motioned to Kelly, who quickly brought up a display of the various buildings and facilities that needed to be destroyed. “The Call of Victory will be dealing with the hard targets, sending a small contingent of marines armed with enough explosives to destroy half a city.” A red X crossed out each of the hard targets, leaving the faces of the soft targets. “This is more your area of expertise, but the targets are well dispersed. How do you want to divide the targets up?”

Rubbing her chin, Vala examined the faces in thought for a moment. “We should likely focus on the difficulty of access for each target…those harder to reach should be handled by my operatives, while the others can be hit with your marines.” She flicked her eyes over the targets. “It’s really a matter of picking who though, and ensuring we can get forces on station before anyone knows we’re there…display target information.” She instructed, and the images of the targets expanded to reveal more about each individual.

Vala gave each a preliminary sweep. “We’ll want to avoid as much collateral damage as we can. My operatives can hit the marks in the population centers, since they’ll be far more precise than your marines. Those will be…” She tapped several images, which vanished as soon as her finger moved on. Moving to tap a fifth, she paused as it didn’t vanish like the others.

An EDI, she wasn’t sure if it was her’s or Horn’s, spoke. “Commander Buchan, the provided information for that target indicates that it will not be removed easily.” She tilted her head, re-examining the info again.

“High-rise office building, large civilian presence…but he’s in a corner office. A sniper should have no trouble picking him off.” She paused, scrolling further down the information before a frown crossed her features. “Office is bullet-proofed…perfect.”

“The office is bullet proof, but the man himself isn't. Display the blueprints for the building." A moment later, and the building itself was highlighted. “I can send a small marine detachment to the ground floor, and work their way up. It won't be quiet, and this man will know they're there long before they got to him." Horn stretched his hands out, and widened the image. “Set up a sniper team across from the building, his most logical escape route is to run for the roof and get a ride. When he does, that's when your snipers will have a shot.”

Rubbing her chin, Vala nodded sharply. “The private security won’t likely provide opposition for your marines, but they’ll still need to carve a few floors worth to properly spook him.” Seemingly pleased with the plan of attack, she flicked the image to the side, examining the remaining targets. “The remaining marks are isolated, or even on actual military facilities…most of them should be right up your alley.”

Horn reached up, tapping the image of a military commander. "While I would love to say that marines can handle anything and everything, this one would be a problem. Nikki, bring up the base specifics.” A spreadsheet popped up beside the man’s head, roughly listing resources, manpower and vehicles. It wasn’t exactly a small number. "I'd have to commit a sizable portion of my manpower to take out this one man, which I simply can't spare. We need to thin his numbers...or at least create a distraction."

“A distraction…” Vala muttered, only for the slow steady steps behind her to draw her attention to Alexis as she stepped into the projection pad. Horn’s gaze shifted to the woman, and Kelly gave a wordless greeting in the way of a polite nod. “Got something?”

“Distractions seem something a boisterous man like yourself are more fond of than us shadowed types.” She joked lightly, tapping the screen for a few moments. “Marines by their nature are rowdy, so why not put it to use? Do a strike raid, and while the base is scrambling to get on it’s toes…the general loses his head.”

"I doubt the general would lose his head to a small assault. If he did, he wouldn't be in the position he currently holds." Horn placed a hand up to his mouth. "While the smoke screen could work, my marines wouldn't be able to take on a full compliment of Aurora marines for long. 2 minutes, max before I tell them to get their asses out of there. That's how long your operatives would have to find the general, and put a bullet into his head."

Scorpion chuckled lightly, tapping her cheek once before speaking. “Jo, display Operatives Letsinger and Alto.” The two commandos profiles appeared on the screen, small and filled mostly with text save for the small image of a crown that Vala didn’t bother to ask about. “Infiltration specialists. I’d be willing to bet my good leg they can handle a little ‘speed run’, provided your troops can keep the base properly occupied.”

"My marines will handle it, just don't fuck up." Horn stated, obviously ready to move onto the next topic at hand. The woman just grinned and nodded, glancing briefly to Vala who met her eyes silently and motioned for her to continue.

"Of course, Commander. They won’t disappoint." With an idle swipe of her fingers, she brought up another image seemingly at random. “She’ll be tricky as well. Jo, schematics.” Dismissing the majority of the other displays, they were promptly replaced by a large layout of a facility. “Let’s see…choke points, remotely controlled blast doors, security mechs…it’s like a miniature fortress.” Kelly and Horn stared at the display in silence for a minute, before she pointed out one of the rooms.

“That looks like a central security hub, if we could get a team in there, we could have access to the entire buildings defense systems.”

Horn wasted no time in continuing the thought. “There would need to be two teams, they can't get to the security hub and their target at the same time. That and the fact that they should have some sort of VI with all this tech, which means any attempt to leave the security room would end up with all the security measures coming back online.” Nodding in approval, Alexis motioned to one of the entrances to the base.

“Then, let’s take a lesson from a scorpion and use a pincer.” Circling a small area on the display, she quickly mapped out a route through the facility, pausing every so often to think before tracing along again. “If the strike team can gain access to the facility, following this route will lead them past most of the chokepoints, while…” Thumbing through the floors, she came to the roof and highlighted the entrance.

“One of the tech specialist pairs can be dropped covertly on the roof and move on the security control room. The strike team should hold up…” Flicking back through, she jabbed one of the rooms seemingly at random. “…here as a ‘diversion’ from the control team’s infiltration. Once the security systems are under control…”

Before Scorpion could continue her ramble, Vala tapped her shoulder with a chuckle. “The strike team can easily progress through the facility while the defences are used to slow the defenders, right?” It had been awhile since she’d seen the operative in the mission mindset, but it seemed her enthusiasm for it had not diminished much in her ‘retirement’.

“Right on the money, Commander.”

"That could work, but is also incredibly risky for my marines. Any failure to capture and hold that security booth leaves them trapped in a small room with a lot of guns pointed in their direction." Horn‘s eyes went to Vala, and she met his gaze with hidden unease. “Are your people up to it?”

Well, there was a question she didn’t have an immediate answer to. There was no real way to answer the question, at least, not in a way that inspired confidence. The only members she’d seen in anything relating to action were Jones and El, and there wasn’t really much to be said there. The mission had to take priority though. She straightened, meeting Horn’s gaze properly. “I can’t ask your men to do something I wouldn’t. If need be, I’ll lead the strike team myself.”

There was a thick silence for a moment, before Horn gave a light ‘Huh.’ She barely raised her brow at his reaction, and the Commander didn’t bother addressing it. “No, you shouldn't be needed for this one. You're going to be needed elsewhere for the other assassinations.”

“Then you’ll send marines, or do you want my own to do this?”

“We'll send both. The marines will forge their way through the facility while your operatives clear a path through the defences for them via their security hub.” She wasn’t sure if he trusted her, or rather looking for a place to blame her, but Vala nodded in agreement to his plan. They had little other options.

“Then I’ll trust the remaining targets to you, Commander.” With those words, the display vanished, leaving the four of them standing in the darkness. “I doubt neither of us wishes to waste each other’s time with the exact details of our plans. We’ll be mobilizing for Daedalus immediately, and will signal you when it’s clear to come through.”

Horn gave a slight nod, faintest hint of a grin on his face. “Hopefully, you can keep your emotions in check this time around Commander?” She tensed for just a moment, before staring darkly at the man with a face blank of emotion.

“Of course. I just ask you watch your trigger finger around my men.” Pressing her hand into the shape of a gun, she aimed it casually at the man before making a soft ‘bang’. Jo, blessedly intelligent as the machine was, seemed to catch the subtle cue and shut the call down without hesitation; silencing any possible retort. Alexis glanced at Vala, who turned sharply on her heel and stalked towards the door with a look of bloody murder on her features.

“Someone knows how to push your buttons.” She idly commented, but was ignored as Vala stalked from the room and into her personal quarters. The Commander wasted no time stepping up to the armour locker built into the wall, and pressing a key that opened the storage unit.

Gripping the helmet with one hand, she tapped a finger to her comm piece. “Chekan, get us on course to the Daedalus system.” There was a curt “Ma’am” and she tapped the comm again. “Welles, I want your team geared and ready before we’re there.”

“Can do.”

“And Charlie?”

“Yes, Commander?”

“It better be damn impressive.” She cut the line before he could reply, looking at her helmet for a moment before focusing on the rest of her armour.

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Sitting silently on the lip of the Kodiak shuttle, Charlie was almost perfectly still save for the subtle rise and fall of his chest with every breath. The flight crew were finishing their final checks on the shuttle, and he could already see most of them beginning to shift their attention to the Gunship across the bay where the mercenary girl was barking instructions on handling and components.

Inside the cabin behind him, his chosen team occupied themselves as they waited for the final all-clear for their operation. Five in total, including himself, the decision on who exactly to bring was an easy one. Since the target was a warship, Operatives Gravette and Marczak were an automatic shoe in for their expertise in tech and demolitions. The two sat quietly beside each other one, calmly reviewing blueprints and schematics on their omni-tools in what he was certain was complete techno-gibberish.

On the other side, he had the privilege of watching El and Jonesy having a rather lively game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, although it was immediately and constantly ruined by the rising absurdity of their chosen ‘objects’. He’d tuned them out the moment El had tried to make a krogan with her hands and Jonesy was attempting to symbolize the genophage. He’d almost taken McNeary and Cottam for their close quarter talents, but with a delicate operation like this, the last thing they needed was a ‘points’ war between those two.

Perking his head up slightly, Charlie watched as the lift opened and Commander Buchan emerged in full battle rattle with her helmet tucked neatly under her arm. The cold intensity of her eyes made him chuckle, and suddenly more of the dossier he’d been presented was beginning to make itself known. She certainly looked like a different woman as she strode powerfully across the hangar towards the Kodiak. Hopping from his perch, the Lieutenant Commander saluted sharply, and she returned it without a missed beat. “Commander Buchan, I was expecting you to be on the bridge.”

She shook her head, glancing at his selected team for a moment before looking back at his faceplate. “This is a real assignment in comparison to the Citadel operation, and I don’t think I should be absent on the largest risk.” Charlie glanced back at the team, tapping his helmet around the ears for a moment in a wordless sign to ignore them. Vala seemed familiar with the lingo, fixing him immediately with a suspicious look. “Is there an issue?”

“I’m not going to, nor can I actually, tell you not to come, but it’s not exactly in our best interest for you to be accompanying us on this, Commander.” The tightness of her lips said all of what she thought of that notion, and Charlie moved to explain himself. “It’s not a matter of capability; it’s more a matter of compatibility. I’ve read your dossier, but aside from what little I saw on the Citadel from the helmet feeds, I’ve never seen you in action personally. Nor have you really seen me or my teams.”

“Then it’s best to accompany one another on a mission so we can become properly accustomed with each other.”

“Which we can do anytime, you say the word…but this is a high risk operation. Anything goes wrong over there, and we’re in so deep that it’s more likely we aren’t coming out. We can‘t have that uncertainty on the back of our minds, me or you.” He placed a hand on her shoulder, lowering his voice slightly. “And frankly, it’s a lot worse for morale to lose the actual Commander than the dude with the awesome beard.”

Her eyes flicked down to the hangar floor as she considered his words, and after a moment, she nodded. “What you’re saying makes sense. Alright, I’ll leave this to you then.” It wasn’t hard to guess she didn’t like sitting it out, but Charlie was thankful she was open to his advice. The ability to do so was more valuable than he cared to admit. “But don’t go making any mistakes, Welles. I’m not eager to have casualties. If you can’t do it, simply go to plan B and exfil ASAP.”

“I don’t make a habit of getting myself killed, so no need to worry. I’ll have the ship primed before you can ready the champagne for the fireworks.” She chuckled lightly, nodding a sight affirmative before Ronas came over the intercom.

“We’ve reached our target destination, Commander. Jo’s eager to get started, so just say the word.”

“Have we confirmation from the Victory that it’s in position outside the relay?”

Govern answered her question quickly, speaking slightly faster than necessary in a likely attempt to get off the intercom as fast as possible. “Y-yes, Commander, they’re in position and awaiting our signal.”

“Excellent. All hands clear the deck!” Vala barked the order, and the staff quickly filtered through the door to the other compartments on the level. Charlie idly noticed that the mercenary didn’t leave her cockpit, most likely having sealed it so she could continue her preparations. Vala extended a hand to the commando, and he took it lightly. “Best of luck over there, Welles. Impress me.”

Laughing, Charlie gave her hand a firm shake. “I‘ll see what trouble I can stir up for you, Buchan.” Hoisting himself up into the cabin, the Hounds Commander ducked into the dim lighting without a backwards glance; the pilot sealing the door behind him as the hangar began to open. Through the view port, he could see Vala calmly place the helmet on her head, sealing it seconds before the atmosphere vented violently out into space. She didn’t move an inch, powerful magnets in her boots no doubt locking her in place as the Kodiak drifted out into the void.

“Stealth systems active. En route to drop point.” The pilot calmly announced, and Charlie turned his attention to the team now watching him expectantly from their seats. It was next to impossible to see any difference between the five Hounds, at least, to those unfamiliar with the unit. As its lead, Charlie could tell who each figure was without the helpful markers in his HUD, the distinct markings on each pair’s marking telling him all he needed to know.

“Alright, I’ve already gone over the hard stuff, so just a few refreshers. First,” He held up his hand, revealing a small device clamped round his wrist that extended over the palm slight with what looked like a small hole. “Micro-thrusters. Been awhile since we’ve used em, so time for a basic refresher. These are for manoeuvring, not propulsion, so don’t try and be a speedster. The fuel is pretty limited, so keep in mind that we’ve got a return trip to make.”

Pulling his fingers back away from his palm, a small burst hissed from the port, before vanishing as the hand relaxed. “Just got to lock your hand like that to activate. Got it?” Gravette and Marczak nodded lightly, while the other pair fired off a pair of unintelligible noises that he took as confirmation. “Alright, now, I shouldn’t have to remind you that this is an Aurora frigate, not your standard Alliance fare. They aren’t going to be Special Forces or anything, but don’t make things easy on them. We’ve got to impress the boss so I want only your A-game.”

Gravette raised a finger, and Charlie motioned for her to go ahead. “Commander, have we determined our entry point yet?”

“Good question. We’re playing it by ear at this point. Once we’re in-position and have placed the jammer, Jo is going to find us an entrance. I’m hoping we can hit the airlock since it’s a straight shot from there, but we’ll just have to adapt to what’s available.”

El laughed in delight. “How bout the main gun? That thing is always open! Can crawl right up the shaft!” She and her partner exchanged excited glances at the prospect of climbing a mass accelerator cannon, but Charlie shook his head.

“Already thought of that, but the blue prints are saying that the hole won’t be big enough for those hips of yours, El. We’ll have to take a boring route.”

“Booo…”

Charlie just smiled knowingly at the woman. “Next time we raid a ship, I’ll make extra sure it’s got a big enough gun just for you, fair?” He turned his attention to Marczak, who was attentively typing away at his omni-tool with little concern for the briefing. “You’re good for the FTL plotter?”

The man didn’t even lift his head, studiously examining the blueprint on the small display before him. “Typically FTL plotters are used on private vessels, which lack the level of encryption that an actual warship has. The firewalls will be the most difficult part, but once the plotter is attached and the systems scrubbed of counter-measures…”

“So, yes then.”

“It’ll work.”

“Then just say so next time.” Charlie glanced back over his shoulder towards the pilot, who was watching them quietly out of the corner of his eye. “How we looking?”

“We’re just about at the drop point. No signs from the target that they’re aware of our presence. Still, best to make the drop as quickly as possible.” Tapping his helmet once, the pilot’s visor sealed and hissed as it pressurized. Moments later, his external speaker crackled. “Get ready.”

Charlie motioned to his team, who were already getting up from their seats. The tech pair wasted little time fishing a pair of devices out from underneath them, one no larger than a stone while the other looked like a slightly over-sized Frisbee with several small lights alone it’s surface. Securing them to a small magnetic strip on their back, they flashed a thumbs-up as they joined the others by the hatch. “We’re good to go.”

“Opening hatch in 3...2...1...” There was a brief hiss as the door began to open, before the atmosphere inside quickly vented and the Hounds disengaged the magnetic clamps in their boots to be taken along with the surge of air. They were barely out of the Kodiak before the shuttle was closing and on its way back to the Deliverance. “Good luck in there.”

“Thanks.” Charlie drifted for only a few moments, before clearing his throat and gesturing towards the frigate that sat idle before them. They’d taken the liberty of rigging a fake S.O.S. in the area, to at least ensure the frigate would come by. It wasn’t unheard of for the odd old transmission to be picked up by a ship’s comms, but most ships would at least check to ensure there wasn’t actually someone stranded.

Almost made him feel bad to take advantage of the kindness of their enemy, but there was little time for such considerations. “Hades, this is Pack Lead, we are commencing the operation, how copy?” There was only a brief pause before the response came, Agent Govern’s voice firm but light.

“This is Hades, Pack Lead; I read you loud and clear.” It was like an entirely different woman was speaking to him, and it had always been a subject of amusement for the Hounds commander. Celeste was a natural at her job, despite her utter fragility in typical conversation. “Please proceed with the operation and keep us updated. Good luck, Pack Lead.”

“Solid copy, Hades.” Focusing his attention on the target before him, Charlie gave a small burst from his micro-thrusters to begin his approach, tailing after the others who had decided to advance without his go ahead. “Last I checked I’m the one with the fancy stripes!” He teased over the comms, watching in amusement as Jones rolled over mid-‘flight’ to shrug carelessly before firing another boost from his thrusters and cementing his lead. El wasn’t far behind her partner, with Gravette and Marczak dutifully following along.

As they all drifted closer and closer to the target, the hull became more and more visible as well as a small nav beacon placed on their HUD to mark their desired landing zone. What made the AI choose that particular spot was unknown, but he wasn’t really in a position to be questioning its judgement.

The five operatives adjusted their course expertly and in a few seconds they made touch down on the hull, magnetic clamps instantly fixing them to the surface. “And here we can see the majestic Aurora scout frigate, known for its skittish nature and tendency to explode in a brilliant display of fire.” Jones narrated as the more tech inclined pair gave their surroundings a brief once over, eyes lingering on the scattered GARDIANs along the hull.

“How long until they give up on the SOS?” Gravette asked as Marczak knelt down beside her and retrieved the jammer from its clamp on his back. “I’d rather not be stuck on the outside of a ship in FTL.” Charlie walked along the ‘spine’ of the ship for a few moments, carefully watching for any hidden windows beneath his feet.

“No way of knowing for sure. Sooner they’re jammed and we’re inside, the better. Marczak, get that thing online ASAP. I’m going to go see if I can’t nab us a little Intel.” As he spoke, the optical camouflage shimmered over his frame and he continued down the ship’s hull towards the helm. It took very little time to traverse the exterior, save for carefully weaving wide of any of the GARDIANs to avoid accidentally triggering them by pressure or any such nonsense that might have been installed, and it wasn’t long until he was sliding slowly down the small window that looked into the bridge.

Peering through, Charlie noted the preoccupied pilot quietly before his eyes flicked to the area behind him. Unlike their own ship, where the helm was an extended distance away from the CIC, Alliance vessels preferred a more…tightly packed central hub. In the event of equipment failure, it reduced the reliance on comm systems, enabling the captain to promptly and immediately relay his orders to the various stations that managed the ship. The only downside was that this made the bridge a much easier target, and it was very easy to scope out by anyone who happened to be looking in the window.

Arguably, he could understand why the latter wasn’t a priority on most vessels. What he found in the CIC, however, wasn’t to his liking. The SOS, or perhaps the lack of a seeming source for the signal, had drawn the frigate’s leader to an impromptu pow-wow with some of his staff. Did he smell a rat, or was he just looking for opinions? Regardless, the numbers were a little thick for his liking, automatically ruling out the airlock as their access point.

Climbing back up the ship, he rubbed his chin in habit, trying pointlessly to stroke his beard through the helmet. If they had taken the SOS seriously, as it seemed they were, there was little doubt they’d have prepped a shuttle in the hangar in case they needed it. It’d be thick with flight staff and possibly a few combat personnel for the ‘rescue’. The hangar opening would immediately alert the entire ship, and that would kill the whole operation right then and there.

“Sir, the jammer is online.” Marczak’s voice interrupted his thoughts, and he gave a half-committed grunt as he approached the group again. “Problem?” The operative looked at him expectantly, the golden eyes on the visor staring at the commander blankly.

“We’re lacking an entry point.” El’s voice sounded for the briefest second, but Charlie’s hand snapped up immediately. “Already said the gun is too small. That’s a no go.” She deflated, Jones patting her sympathetically on the back as the others exchanged looks. “Bridge is too occupied and the hangar is just one giant alarm.”

“Commander Welles, if I may offer a suggestion?” Jo’s synthetic voice cut over their comm channel, and he waited expectantly for the machine’s advice. “Utilizing the jammer, I should be able to hack into and isolate systems for the enemy frigate. It is possible that I will be able to activate an emergency engine shut-down for ‘maintenance’.”

“And this helps us how?” Gravette commented dryly, the hacker clearly amused at the prospect of a bundle of code advising her. “The engines aren’t exactly a doorway.”

Celeste’s voice came over the comms, far less interrupting than her AI counterpart. “This is Hades. Pack Lead, according to the schematics Jo has provided me; there is actually a possible route through the engines.”

“Say what now?”

Celeste continued. “While corvettes and fighters are easily maintained externally, warships like frigates have engines that are too large for such basic maintenance. Most have small ‘access routes’ that enable engineers to enter the internal workings of the engine and do the necessary repairs. There are both internal and external access points.”

There was a pause for a moment, before Charlie stated with incredulity, “Did you just say I should crawl through the engine of a hostile warship, Hades?” There was a suppressed, dual squeal of excitement from Jones and El that he pushed out of his mind. “We’re already high risk enough, don’t you think?”

“Commander Welles, there are few other viable possibilities that do not result in detection, and upon detection, the odds of mission failure and total pack elimination jump by-”

“Okay, engine crawling it is.” He interrupted with a defeated sigh, a light smirk on his face despite himself. “I said I’d make it impressive, didn’t I? Hades, please advise Commander Buchan of our ‘plan’. Jo, if you would be so kind as to remove the fire from those engines…”

“Of course, Commander Welles. Marking the location of the access hatch on your HUD now.” The icon appeared instantly, and Charlie jerked his head in the direction of it as he moved silently towards the engines. “Please refrain from opening the hatch until the engine has fully ceased activity. The temperature within is enough to fuse your armour to your skin.”

“You sure love freaking people out, don’t you?”

“I was not aware that this information would unsettle you, Commander. The biometrics in your suits is suggesting excitement.”

“Jones and El are throwing off your readings.” Approaching the hatch as he moved along the ‘wing’ of the ship, Charlie knelt beside it and smoothed his hand along the surface. This would certainly be a first in his career, and there wasn’t much he could say that for these days. His team circled around the hatch, and he glanced at all of them. “Jones, El, you’re first in. Marczak and Gravette, you’re in next. I’ll bring up the rear.”

“Copy.”

“Deactivating engine…now.” The hull beneath their feet vibrated forcefully for a few moments, before the vibrations dulled and eventually disappeared. There was a thick pause, before Jo spoke again. “The engine has full ceased function. You are clear to enter.” Charlie tapped a few keys on the access panel, and it hissed open without delay. The pack wasted no time; dropping into the cramped ‘tunnel’ and beginning the slow crawl up the shaft.

The shaft was blazing hot, even with the machines around them dormant, and he could feel thick beads of sweat beginning to form on his neck and back through his armour. “Fucking A, it’s hotter than the bloody sun in here!”

“The ambient temperature is currentl-”

“Shut up! Just because you know it, doesn’t mean I want to hear it!” Gravette snapped at the AI, which quieted at the woman’s outburst. The comms were silent for only a moment longer, before a new voice came over the system.

“Am I hearing Govern correctly, Welles?” The slight tint of disbelief in Vala’s voice made the man sigh quietly to himself. Crawling through a small furnace on his very first operation for her, oh yes, he was painting a wonderfully sane picture of himself. “You’re going to go through the engine?”

“Correction, Commander…I am currently going through the engine. And it’s absolutely lovely in here, let me tell you.” Panting slightly, he glanced at his HUD before flicking his attention back to the task at hand. Or at least, he would have, had he not noticed the small thermometer display tucked into the corner slowly starting to rise. “…it’s getting hotter?”

Vala didn’t even miss a beat. “What.” He could hear muffled barked shouts in the background, likely her demanding something from whoever was in her immediate vicinity. The thermometer continued its slow climb, but the pace was beginning to accelerate.

“Uh…”

“Commander Welles, it appears the crew has deemed the emergency shutdown as a system glitch and are reactivating the engine. It is currently powering up, and is likely the source of the temperature spike.”

“You hear that Jonesy? We’ve been invited to a barbeque!” El called cheerfully in the space up ahead, although he could see the both of them already moving at a much faster pace than before. “You think I can get you medium rare?”

“I’m much better crispy!”

“Not the time!” Marczak shouted, moving as fast as he could after the nimbler leaders with Gravette practically climbing over him in a frantic attempt to get out of the engine as fast as physically possible. Charlie wasn’t far behind, but the spike was already growing faster and faster.

“Jo, how long we got?!”

“I have delayed it as best I can but it can be estimated to fully activate in 26 and a half seconds.” The timer popped up immediately in his HUD, before Jo offered more of her sage-like wisdom with the same terrible timing. “Please be advised, by the ten second mark, your armour will begin to melt.”

“Thank you for that.” He hissed, pulling himself along the rungs as fast as he could make himself go. The tightness of the shaft clearly wasn’t meant for speedy escapes, and the compact nature made his armour grind and chafe against the edges.

His eyes flicked to the timer, swallowing as it dropped below the 20 second point. The others had a good lead on him, if the small ‘map’ provided by the suit was any indication, and they’d likely reach the end before he did. “Found the door!” Jones shouted over the comm, no doubt already fumbling through it as he spoke.

As the others vanished from the shaft one by one, Charlie climbed quicker and quicker, but the timer dropped lower and lower. With one last frantic glance at the countdown, Charlie gave an inward groan before pulling on one of the rungs as hard as he could before locking both his hands out.

The thrusters kicked in instantly, hissing full blast in tandem with enough force to propel the commando. Sparks arced off his armour as he ricocheted around the shaft, but there was no point to swearing or complaining about the rough treatment before they launched him full tilt out the small shaft and into the proper gravity of the ship’s engineering deck.

Landing in a heap a few feet from the hatch, Charlie picked himself up slowly, cloak flickering over his body as he glanced about wearily for anyone who might have seen his…graceless exit. “Next time…we’re going through the airlock.” Muttering under his breath, the commando glanced to his team, who all had hunkered down around the access hatch.

The map quickly displayed their location, and each gave it a cursory glance before turning their attention to their leader. “Hades, this is Pack Lead…we have gained access to the frigate and are moving to the second objective. Please also make a note that engine access is not a viable access route except in the most desperate of times.”

The light giggle before she spoke soothed his nerves somewhat. At least someone was enjoying this. “Solid copy, Pack Lead. Please be advised, Commander Buchan has assigned a secondary objective for you.” She waited for a beat before continuing. “If possible, we need you to access the frigate captain’s personal terminal and access his files pertaining to Oracle. It may prove useful in the upcoming operations. How copy?”

“Solid copy. I’ll take care of it personally. Jo, paint his quarters for me.” He jabbed a finger at the others. “You four take care of the bridge and get that FTL plotter rigged up. Once you’re in there…I’m not worried about alarms.” He dragged a finger across his neck, and the operatives nodded in understanding. “Alright, make me proud, and show off a little for the Commander. Got to be damn impressive.”

They filtered off quickly, soundlessly moving along the grated floor like a wraith before vanishing from sight in the various shadows of the deck. Alliance ships liked to be low light, which just made their job all the easier. Eying his map for a moment, the commando considered his route for a minute. The CIC was on the second deck, while the crew quarters, along with the Captain’s, were on the third, one up from him.

“Do we have a location on the boss of this tub?” He asked as he stalked through the darkness towards one of the access ladders. “I get the feeling he’ll have made some special encryptions on that data, and I’m not really the best hacker around.”

“The Captain appears to be taking a shower on the crew deck. To access his private files, I recommend acquiring his Omni-tool.”

The commando smirked, eyes flicking down the hall as he disappeared soundlessly through one of the doors. “Jo, you read my mind.”

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The CIC was quiet, despite the ‘excitement’ of the day. The technicians moved between their stations in an efficient but leisurely fashion, no doubt familiar with the dullness of their patrol route by now. Terminus or not, the system didn’t have much in the way of value, even for slavers and pirates, which made it a relatively easy post.

A few guards milled about the deck, but even to professional eyes, the Hounds were in their element in the dark. The four crept along the corners with perfect precision, each pair of eyes watching a different avenue as they worked towards their objective. Marczak and Gravette split off wordlessly as they approached the helm; him readying the plotter while she slowly drew the predator from her hip and brought it level with the man’s temple.

Behind them, El and Jones were already sizing up their first mark. The lone patrolling guard was left to Jones, quietly memorizing the man’s ‘route’ as he wandered through the technicians. El, pressed flush to a wall, had her gaze settled comfortably on the men guarding the lift, hands coiled around her Tempest SMG. Without any cue between them, the Hounds struck.

The Predator fired first, silenced round neatly punching a hole clean through the pilot’s skull and splattering the panel beside him with grey matter. Gravette spun on her heel as Marczak pulled the body from the seat, pumping a pair of rounds into the ensign in the co-pilot’s chair, shattering his jaw with the first round that muffled the panicked yell.

The patrolling guard turned, finding only a pair combat blades driving up through the mesh of his neck and puncturing both jugulars. With a violent jerk, the knives ripped out the sides in a shower of crimson, splattering the cloaked arms with gore as the blades retracted swiftly into the gauntlets.

El’s Tempest unloaded with unrelenting speed, dozens of rounds pumping into the first guard’s shield to overload the system, and as they collapsed under the hail her aim sharpened into a perfect burst through the man’s helmet that slicked the wall behind him. The second guard turned in a panic to address the threat, promptly hammered under the hail of bullets before Gravette’s Predator delivered a coup de grace from across the CIC.

Before the bodies had even fully collapsed, Jones and El’s attention immediately shifted to the stunned technicians. Jones pulled his Tempest up to the ready, and they fired in tandem across the various stations. Neither flinched as their rounds carved the unprotected personnel apart, shattering the various terminals as they methodically sprayed every inch of their respective sides with the Tempest’s vicious fire rate. El’s heat sink hissed a warning, but her hand snapped up to catch the heat sink Jones tossed over his shoulder to her and popped it in instantly.

As the last station went dark, the pair paused in their firing before a blaring alert sounded over the deck and echoed throughout the ship. They blinked in unison, before turning to the choking cough coming from one of the half destroyed stations. The woman in the seat stared coldly at them, several bullet wounds on her chest bleeding heavily as her hand slumped down from the interface. Jones tilted his head for a second before firing a round through her forehead. “That‘s one hell of an alarm clock…wonder what she wanted to wake up?”

“Clearly she wanted the janitorial technician. This CIC is a disaster zone! Are all Alliance ships so messy?”

Marczak turned about in the pilot’s seat, seemingly unbothered by the blood splattered along his new chair. “Talk later. You two secure the access ladders, Delois; get the elevator offline for now.” The operative’s chair swivelled back into position, and he called in annoyance over his shoulder. “And be quiet. I need to concentrate.”

His partner nodded in understanding, already crossing towards the lift with her Omni tool at the ready. Jones and El gave off centered mock salutes before heading for the ladders themselves. Connecting the FTL plotter to the systems, Marczak watched as the system immediately began to try and reject the hardware. His fingers flew across the interface, rapidly countering every defence the ship’s VI threw at his device with methodical precision.

It was an interesting challenge after so long, the high-end VI of an Alliance program compared to the typical security networks of private companies and mercenaries. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly, the thought of making a copy of the program for some tests back on the ship flashing across his mind. It was pointless when they had their very own AI to practice on though, and with that thought, he rapidly uploaded several dozen pre-made ‘worm’ viruses. The rapid replication of the virus would bog down the VI, making it difficult for the machine to properly counter his hacking.

“Archie.” Gravette’s voice sounded in his comm piece, and he grunted in slightly annoyance at being interrupted. “They have back up VI fighting for the elevator controls.”

“Tch.” Of the two, Gravette was the superior hacker, but if she was taking the time to mention it, then they were likely blitzkrieg her with dozens of inferior VI to overwhelm human reflexes. So the Alliance was getting somewhat crafty. “How long?”

“10 minutes.”

“Tch.”
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Sitting calmly in the shadows, Charlie watched as the various marines aboard the ship scrambled out of their bunks or away from their meals to race for their weapons. They’d had no idea that there was even a threat aboard the ship, and now his team already had access to the heart of their vessel. In their shoes, he’d have simple boarded an escape pod at this point.

The mind of a marine and a commando were different things though. His eyes flicked silently down the hall way towards the Captain’s quarters, noting the soldiers standing guard out front of the bulkhead. Intelligent. A threat suddenly appears; guard the ‘head’ of the snake while the rest kill the attackers. As the majority of the marines disappeared in the echoing stampede for the lift across the ship, he moved silently forward.

Nothing obscured him, save for the faintest shimmer of the cloak over his frame. Rolling his shoulders, Charlie retrieved the twin Predators at his hips and took the briefest second the enable the ‘disrupter’ setting on each of them. The slight charge provided for each round made them shred easily through shields, making the heavy pistol all the more dangerous.

One of the guards squinted, raising his Avenger and aiming towards the shimmer of his cloak. “Huh. Guess you’re better trained than your average Alliance grunt.” He commented, aiming the guns at both men simultaneously. “Lucky me.”

The cloak vanished as he opened fire, ducking to the side to avoid the burst of fire from the assault rifles ahead of him. His fingers never left the triggers, rolling swiftly across the floor as the pistols firing in tandem at the guards. Neither had anything much for cover, giving him the advantage with his mobility while the disruptor rounds quickly brought down the men’s shields. Holstering one predator, the last rounds of his heat sink punched a trio of clean holes into the man’s breast plate.

Several rounds from the rifle clipped his shields, but the hissing warnings of a weapon overheat echoed in the tight space. Before the marine could even try to pop a fresh heat sink, Charlie closed the distance and struck the pistol across the man’s face. The man staggered, but threw his arm up to block the weapon on its return swing. They struggled for a brief moment, before the commando hit the release for the heat sink and it ejected the burning hot material across the man’s arm.

Crying out in pain, he jerked back, clutching the wicked burns along his arm for a moment before the Predator took the thought from his mind along with most of his spinal cord. Holding the smoking gun casually, Charlie flicked his gaze to the dead men for only a minute before pressing his Omni tool up to the encrypted bulk-head and engaged the bypass. As the device did its work, he stepped to the side of the doorway.

The moment the encryption finished, the bulkhead hissed open and the thunderous bang that echoed out of the room made him pause. “…a Carnifex? Really? I want these guys budget…” Thumbing a grenade of his hip, he primed it with a quick tap before tossing it round the corner. There was a muffled ‘Oh shi-’ before the room filled with a flash of light.

Flicking his wrist, the knife hidden inside his gauntlet ejected into his palm as he stepped through the doorway with knife and pistol at the ready. The captain was ducked behind his desk, clearly fighting the effects of the flash bang as the commando crept closer. His steps were soundless, but the man was clearly on high alert. With a quick tap of the trigger, Charlie fired a round through the coffee mug atop the desk before stepping forward and aside rapidly as the Captain rose to return fire. The Carnifex punched a neat hole through the space he’d once occupied, but before the Captain could retreat back into cover, the combat knife flew blade deep into his fingers.

Screaming in pain, he dropped the weapon, only for Charlie to slam the hand down onto the table and rip the blade free, ignoring the mangled fingers on his hand as he drove the knife through the back of the palm to pin the limb to the surface. The captain howled in pain, pulling on the hand pointlessly as the commando circled round the desk and crouched down in front of him. “Nicely played, Captain.” There was no response beyond pained noises, and his external speakers crackled with humourless laughter. “Now that I have your attention, though, I’m going to need your codes.”

“G-go to hell.”

“I’d love to, but I can’t until I’ve got your codes. Now, there’s two ways we can do this, and you’re not going to like the second one…” The golden eyes on his helmet seemed to shine in the low light of the room, and the officer diverted his gaze. “Difficult. You Alliance types, always so damn proud.”

“Commander.”

“Gravette, what’s up?”

“We aren’t going to be in control of the elevator much longer. We need to finish up here, and quick.” He tapped his chin, still watching the defiant soldier before him. “Archie is almost done, but the VI is starting to try and kick him out as well.”

“Would the codes make them stop?”

“Definitely.”

“I’ll bring them to you. Others watching the ladders?”

“Affirmative.”

“Tell them I’ll be there momentarily.” Cutting the call, he glanced to the Omni tool on the officer’s unpinned hand. “You’re in luck, I’m needed elsewhere. I’ll just be taking this and be on my way.” Tugging the small device off the man’s arm, it unexpectedly powered down the moment it was off. There was a moment of silence as the two men looked at the device. “It reads your biometrics. Clever.”

Reattaching it to the arm, it quickly powered back up as if it had never turned off. Sighing heavily, the commando brought up his own Omni tool, tapping a few commands on the interface before the energy along it hummed into a thick and broad blade more akin to a machete. “I said you wouldn’t like this…”

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“2 minutes.” Gravette announced coldly, rapidly typing on her omni tool to fire dozens of counter measures to the brute force attacks the VI were throwing at her constantly. Her hands were beginning to get tired, constantly trying to compete with the instantaneous reaction speed of the programs. The challenge of it had lost its appeal shortly, especially when she considered the fact that there was a lift full of armed marines waiting for the inevitable outcome of this ‘fight’.

“I need 3.” Marczak replied, still not looking up from his work across the CIC.

“You have 2.”

“We’ll do it in 1.” Emerging from one of the side doors, Charlie casually waved with his free hand as El hurried over to the door opposite her’s to retrieve Jones. “Think you can keep them occupied for a little longer, Gravette?”

“Does Sorin have a bad temper?”

“Heh.” Striding across the CIC, the commando nodded in greeting as Archie turned partially in his seat to look at him. “Need a hand?” He asked casually, tossing the mangled limb still partially covered in Alliance dress blues to his operative.

The tech specialist caught it without hesitation, barely giving a glance to the small trickles of red still running down his superior’s gauntlet. “Biometrics?”

“Yup. Pretty fancy for Alliance Tech. Bastard even had a Carnifex.” Nodding idly, Archie turned back to his station and placing the omni tool on the small interface awkwardly. Confident the man could handle it from here, Charlie turned towards the others. “Jones, El!” The two looked to him in unison, and he motioned towards the airlock. “We‘re leaving.”

“We’re not going back out the engine way?”

“No. No, we are not.” The two groaned as they trotted towards into the waiting airlock. “Gravette. One last salvo, then let’s get moving.” The woman nodded, giving a few taps on the display before hurrying across the CIC to join the rest of the team. “Archie?”

“Just a moment…”

Charlie glanced at the elevator, the interface lighting up as it kicked in once more. “Now would be nice…” Thumbing another grenade from his belt, the commando primed it in his hand as Archie finished the final keystroke.

“It’s locked in!”

“Then we’re leaving.” Tossing the grenade across the CIC, it bounced once before rolling to a stop at the elevator, which dinged and opened seconds before the weapon went off. The bridge filled with the brilliant white flash, and the Hounds stepped back into the airlock as it hissed shut. Seconds later, the exterior door opened and the five commandos were vented out the side. “Thrusters on! Get clear before it hits FTL!”

The thrusters ignited in unison, full burn to push them out of the frigate’s mass effect field as its engines roared to full power. In another second, it blinked from sight, and the Hounds used the last remnants of their fuel to kill their forward momentum.

Floating casually, Charlie tapped his helmet. “Hades, this is Pack Lead. Operation is a success. We’re signalling our location for pick up.” There was a brief pause before Vala’s voice came over.

“You’ve confirmed it?”

“Archie likely spliced into one of the hull cameras, yeah?” He nodded an affirmative, holding up his omni-tool and tapping a few keys. “He’ll forward it to you, Commander.” There was silence for a moment, before a frigid laugh sent chills rolling down his spine. “Uh…Buchan?”

“Damn impressive, Welles. Sending your pick up. Good work.”

“…thanks?”

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Back on the Deliverance, Vala watched the camera feed on the main display of the CIC. It was seemingly innocent enough at first, nothing save the ‘warping’ light from FTL travel. It was only in the last moments as the camera feed was slowed by almost impossible amounts by Jo’s careful filter that one could see a near identical frigate appear just before the camera seconds before the entire bow crumpled into the stern of the other ship. The last thing on the camera was little more than a fiery plume of destruction that spoke beautifully of both ship’s ultimate fates.

The entire CIC was silent as she watched it over and over again. It was only at Sinoff’s quiet cough that Vala spoke, first to the AI. “Jo, send this file along with our all clear to Commander Horn.” She then straightened, back rigid and shoulders broad with her head high as she called over the deck. “Once we’ve retrieved our team, we’ll be commencing with the true objectives of this operation! I’m expecting the best from all of you! Begin final preparations!”

Nothing more to say, she turned on her heel and stepped down from the main display, flicking her eyes to Alexis as she passed. “Almost like an actual commander, Ivory.” The scarred woman watched her curiously, calling after her. “Why send the feed, by the way?” Vala paused, turning back to face her friend partially.

“Because it’s going to piss him right the hell off.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Charlie Welles Character Portrait: Dusk Trafford

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With the opening salvo to Horn's ego delivered, Commander Buchan had wasted little time boarding the lift to head for the hangar bay where the forces selected for the operation had been told to muster. During her descent, Ronas quickly passed along the incoming transmission from the Call of Victory to her, a small display hovering off the device to display the caller. To her disappointment, it wasn't Horn but Invaru on the other end. Without pause, she greeted the woman. "Operative Invaru."

"Commander Buchan." The redheaded woman betrayed no thought, as she was rapidly growing to expect from the professionally minded 2IC. "We are en route to our first objective, good job on clearing out the frigates." She nodded, trying to keep the small grin she felt growing off her face.

Curiosity got the better of her for a moment, and she quickly inquired, "I take it you received the feed then?" Before Invaru could properly respond, Vala heard the unmistakable crash in the background. There was a brief moment of silence before Horn's voice echoed from who knows where.

"Fucking cunt of a whore! It's on!" The words shattered her attempts at restraint, the grin she'd been suppressing in full display on her face as Kelly looked back to her neutrally.

"He congratulates you on a job well done. I will contact you should the need arise Commander. Victory out." The line went dead, and Vala lowered her Omni tool as the lift reached the hangar bay. The various crewmen on the deck were either finishing last minute preparations or simply killing time until the operation was ready to begin. Flicking her eyes over those gathered, she noted that more of the Hell Hounds were present than Sinoff's marines. Judging by the numbers, there were no more than two fire teams that would be participating in the action today.

Vala had yet to actually see any of the marines in combat, or even in armour for that matter, so she took a moment to examine them as she quietly crossed the bay towards the collected group. Each was fully armoured from head to toe in some of the thickest armour she had ever laid her eyes on, save for two who she assumed were the respective leaders of the teams, conversing quietly with their helmets tucked into the crux of their arm. Clearly these marines were meant to take massive amounts of fire, judging solely by the sheer bulk of their equipment, and she wondered briefly how difficult it was for them to move in the slabs of ceramic plate.

Each seemed to be carrying a Vindicator battle rifle attached to the magnetic clip over their right shoulder, and a shotgun tucked just below the small of their back. She wasn't overly familiar with the designs of shotguns herself, but she was pretty certain that it was an M-22 Eviscerator; a design considered technically illegal for military use. Several compartments along their waistline no doubt stuffed to the rim with thermal clips and grenades.

One of the marines noticed her approach as she drew closer, giving her a better view of the helmet as the soldier turned sharply and barked out "Officer on Deck!" The bay quieted for the most part, as most present turned and gave her the salute she was due. The feeling of it still made her shiver slightly with excitement, and she gave a light "As you were." before continuing her examination of her marines.

The helmet didn't match completely with more 'modern' designs' she noted curiously. Most helmets favoured a sleeker exterior all the way around, where as the helmets upon the soldiers had a much older feel to it. It covered the majority of their face, with only a narrow 'Y' shaped visor in the center of the helmet allowing you to see the soldier within, and most of them had it tinted to obscure them completely. For the most part, their armour was pure white, with only the slightest detailing in soft orange-gold as 'trim' in certain places.

One of the team leads, an older-looking man with greying brown hair and sharp eyes, turned to her as he finished his conversation with the other and nodded politely. "Commander Buchan, it's a pleasure to finally meet you." He offered his hand, which she took politely. His handshake was like a vice-grip, and she knew that if wasn't for her armour, it would probably hurt with the pressure he applied. The man certainly seemed the type who would do well under someone like Sinoff. "Major Tarrick; I lead fire team Ophanim and also assist Commander Sinoff with the day to day work involved with marines."

"A pleasure." She looked to the marines for a moment. "We have a platoon's worth, correct?" There was a brief pause before she looked back at him with a confused expression. "Wait...Ophanim?" The major nodded quietly.

"That was pretty much my reaction. All of the fire teams have call-signs based on one of the ranks of Jewish angels, and the platoon as a whole is called Sephirot." She stared blankly for another moment, and he just gave the slightest shrug of his shoulders. "The idea was Commander Sinoff's, Ma'am. He chose it after you decided on the Deliverance for the ship herself."

"I never expected him to be one for symbology." Heavy footfalls sounded behind her, and it didn't take much to decipher the source. She half-turned to the titanic figure of Sinoff, who was sharply saluted immediately by all the marines. He seemingly paid them no mind, leaving them as they were while he regarded her. "Perfect timing. I was just introducing myself to the marines."

He nodded, looking to those present. "They'll be tasked with handling extractions for all the teams in the field. One team per transport, regardless of what the mercenary girl says." The former mercenary looked sharply over Vala's head towards the woman in question, but she didn't really want to inquire after what had happened between the two to cause their displeasure with each other. "Ophanim will be assigned to the Kodiak, Seraphim to the Mantis."

"They'll provide cover for the Hounds to get aboard, I assume?"

"Yes, and if you find yourself needing a stable extraction point, they will provide it without hesitation." He turned partially to her, cold eyes flicking down to meet her gaze. "They are more than capable of handling whatever grunts these targets intend to throw at us." She nodded, gesturing away from the marines and the two fell into step. Wyatt's massive gait easily kept pace with her quicker steps, and they quickly took their place at the head of the assembled group.

Those present took the subtle cue; marines forming into a pair of ranks while the Hounds took a more casual and loose standing arrangement scattered before the ship's leaders. Vala took a moment to look over them all, before nodding to Wyatt. The 2IC cleared his throat, before the thick bass of his voice thundered through the bay. "This operation is now officially underway. The Call of Victory is mobilizing, and it is time we begin our actual objective in this system." His eyes shifted to the gathered hounds, voice never wavering in volume or clarity. "Each 'pair' has been given a specific target that they will be tasked with eliminating. Three are solo operations, while the other three shall be working in joint operations with the marines forces of the Call of Victory."

Vala had never heard Wyatt give orders properly before, but she could immediately tell the man had the talent for it. His voice demanded attention, not to mention the sheer sense of overwhelming authority he seemed to project over everyone gathered. The officer was already large, but the way he spoke, the way he carried himself just seemed to swallow as much space as possible and make you take heed. It made it rather clear why he was considered a commander in his own right. "Operative Tachi and Operative Arcsberg; Agent Letsinger and Agent Alto; Agent Wilshire and Agent Larick. You six are on the joint ops, as you know. I cannot vouch for the ability or talent of the Victory's marines; as such none of you should rely on them beyond their designated function."

"Focus on eliminating the target above all else, and let the marines handle the heavy lifting. Once the target is down and the kill confirmed, head to the designated LZ and signal for pick up. Assist them only as absolutely necessary, but refrain from risking yourself." His features were cold, betraying that these instructions were not made out of compassion. The logic was rather plain to see, if one had the mind for it. It was infinitely more difficult to replace a skilled commando than it was to replace a marine.

The commandos mentioned nodded lightly in understanding as the 2IC shifted his gaze through the remaining pairs. Each had a target that they would be handling independently of every other operation on the field, leaving them with more ground to cover in a shorter time. "As for the rest of you...speed is of the essence. There is only minimal, but do not rely on her. Extractions are her priority, and the more damage she does, the more countermeasures we can expect to be deployed against her.”

Across the hangar there was a sharp laugh, and everyone glanced towards the source for a moment. Dusk, comfortably seated inside her gunship, grinned confidently back at them all. "Anything they've got, I can handle it. I've flown through more shit storms than any one of their jockeys can dream about." Wyatt stared impassively, while Vala chuckled lightly at the mercenary's confidence.

"Regardless of her perceived skill, handle your assignments as discreetly as possible." His omni-tool chirped once, and he raised it to his ear. After a moment, he nodded sharply and lowered the device. "The Kodiak has returned; all non-essential personnel clear the flight deck.” He barked, turning partially to Vala. "Good hunting, Commander."

"Thanks." She replied as he followed the few remaining flight staff out of the immediate bay. She took a moment to fasten her helmet, and ensure everyone remaining had their own on before the bay hissed open and the atmosphere vented in seconds. The Kodiak hovered into the bay; floating inches off the floor as the hatch opened and Welles's team emerged from the cabin. She gave a quick thumb up to the man, which he returned as Major Tarrick’s team embarked with the other Hounds following close behind. A few of them traded gestures with their commander as they climbed aboard, although the man looked rather exhausted even in his full combat gear.

Pulling her eyes from the commando, she trudged over to the gunship as Seraphim finished their boarding. In the corner of her eyes she could see the slight scowl on Dusk's face at their presence, but she decided to leave it alone for the time being. Provided the merc was willing to work with the marines, she wasn't going to make any waves before a major operation. Vala climbed into the rather cramped transport cabin, which was already mostly dominated by the marines’ massive armour.

Along the wall that separated the cockpit and the cabin, a small screen flickered to life displaying Dusk's slightly irritated face from the side. She glanced at the small camera for a moment before looking back to the controls. "This is why I didn't want the jarheads." She gestured at the screen. "Mantis gunships are meant to carry small teams. Key word: Small. 12 people is really stretching Deadra's capacity limits."

One of the marines looked to the screen, face obscured by the helmet. "I thought you were supposed to be something of a hotshot pilot." The surprisingly feminine voice teased. "Can't handle a little extra weight in the back?"

"Please! You could stuff a pair of rutting krogan in there and I'd still be able to fly this better than any Alliance jockey could ever dream." Vala raised an eyebrow as Dusk continued. "Not to brag or anything, but I'm not really going to see much of a challenge against some hotshot military boy."

"Easy on the Alliance pilots." The commander started, turning her helmet to look fully at the mercenary. She looked ready to continue when Vala held up a cautionary finger. "My father happens to be a pilot in the 2nd Fleet, Dusk." Several of the marines sucked in a breath, one even giving off an 'Oooooo' as Dusk flicked her eyes away from the camera awkwardly.

"Ah. Well...shit. Insert foot into mouth."

"Make sure it's properly stowed, pilot." One of the marines called, earning a few laughs from the group as Dusk flipped them the bird and tugged on her helmet and sealed the G-suit completely. With that conversation seemingly done, Vala looked out the small hatch as the Hounds began to board. Her HUD quickly displayed their names. The first pair to embark was Operatives McNeary and Cottam, neither of which said much of anything as they climbed into the ship and took seats opposite each other. The commander gave the odd 'splatter' like markings along their armour a curious look, but decided against asking. Neither of them looked overly chatty.

Following right behind were Agents Mutz and Buday, who seemed to be talking on private comms judging by the slight motion of their head. Mutz hopped into the gunship before her partner and turned to offer him a hand up, which he took after a moment's pause. Their armour seemed to have...veins running along their body in the same golden colour as the helmet markings. Maybe it was another tradition in the unit, she thought.

The last pair to board moved slowly, although each seemed to have their own reason for doing so judging by their strides. The leading one, Agent Alto, had a rather arrogant stride, and seemed perfectly content with making them all wait while his partner, Agent Letsinger, moved with a much more skittish step and kept herself firmly behind the broad shoulders of her partner. Vala noted with dry interest the marking atop their helmet that resembled a crown. “Someone has a high opinion of themselves…” She thought to herself with a soft scoff. With all the pairs present, she gave wall a solid thump and the hatches on the gunship hissed shut and sealed them in the darkness.

A moment later, dim lights flickered on inside the compartment, and they felt the ship begin to stir beneath their feet as Dusk woke Deadra from her slumber. "Systems are green across the board, and we are cleared for departure. Permission to take us out, boss?" Dusk asked excitedly over the internal PA over the gunship.

Vala nodded once. "Permission granted. Let's go hit Oracle where it hurts."

"I like that plan!" The ship lurched for a moment before the inertial dampeners kicked in and the ship lifted out of the Deliverance's hangar bay. It was odd, she noted, to not have any immediate view to the outside like they did in the shuttles. It robbed her of anything to occupy herself with for the duration of their descent.

Tapping her foot once, Vala’s eyes drifted over the occupants of the crowded cabin, wondering briefly what sort of pre-mission rituals each might have as the gunship rattled roughly through the atmosphere towards their first target. They were all rather still, she noted, the marines largely resting back against the wall while the Hounds seemed to speak quietly amongst themselves judging by the slightest movements of their heads.

The cabin stayed in silence for the first few minutes as they approached their destination, only to be broken by the odd mumbles and half-audible talking of their pilot over the small screen. As the ship came to a slow halt, she glanced over to the camera. “First drop-point reached. Letsinger, Alto, you’re up.” The panel beside Vala hissed open and revealed the small skyline of the small city below. From the panel, a pair of rappels descended and neither of the Hounds wasted anytime hooking it to the systems built into their belts.

“Good hunting.” Vala offered, earning only a momentary glance from Alto before he dropped down the rappel and out of sight. Letsinger gave a timid nod before following after her partner. The commander peered over the edge after the odd pair, watching them unfasten the rappels and start across the small rooftop that was their drop point. Alto spared a glance upwards, and she swore their eyes met for a split second before the man shook his head and disappeared into his tactical cloak. “Pleasant one, isn’t he?”

The rappels retracted as the panel clicked shut and the gunship hummed off again. The cabin remained as silent as it had been before, and she doubted anyone was really going to liven it up anytime soon. Maybe this is why a pair like Jones and El were appreciated, she mused. They certainly had no trouble dispelling any sense of quiet, be it good or bad. Before she could think any further on the topic, the gunship came to a stop once more. “Mutz and Buday, you’re up.” Dusk called, the panel once more opening and deploying its rappels.

Buday took only a moment to secure his rappel, glancing idly at his partner as she fiddled with it repeatedly before finally getting it to co-operate and click in. His gaze shifted to Vala, and she could hear the smile on his voice. “Don’t let Vern stop you from wishing us well, Commander. I’d actually appreciate it.” She blinked as Mutz elbowed her partner in the ribs.

“Don’t sound too desperate now…” The woman growled softly, as Buday just shook his head with a light sigh. “Oh, but best of luck, Ma’am.”

“Same to you.”

The pair pushed off the lip and dropped down to the ground below, something more reminiscent of a parking lot than a traditional office complex or building serving as their drop point. They lingered only a few seconds longer than their predecessors, as Mutz once more fought with her uncooperative rappel before Buday simply undid it with a swift flick of the wrist. After a brief stare down, the pair trotted off towards their objective with their cloaks soon obscuring them from view.

As they set off towards their final destination, Vala looked to the remaining occupants quietly, surprised to find both the Hounds rapidly tapping their feet and drumming their hands on their forearms in impatience. Before she could say anything, McNeary’s neck straightened as she looked to her partner. “Better watch your 3 better today, Cottam. I can’t afford to cover for your shit on a real job.” It was surprising the intensity with which she hissed the remark at him, although Cottam wasted no time making an irritated sound as he looked off at nothing in particular.

“My 3 would be fine if I didn’t have to keep cleaning up after your sloppy ass footwork and making sure everything is actually dead.”

“I wouldn’t have to rush if you could actually learn to predict how a two-bit grunt is going to ai-”

“Oi, Lovebirds, we’re here.” The two stopped, looking in tandem to the monitor where Dusk’s helmet stared impassively back. “So get the fuck out.” Something like a guttural growl sounded in perfect unison from the pair, both practically leaping from their seats and throwing themselves out the freshly opened panel without delay. It almost looked like they were racing.

Neither had bothered fastening their rappels, simply grabbing the cord as they dropped and sliding down its length with a practiced ease that spoke highly of their ability. No sooner had their feet hit the ground then they both broke into a dead sprint. Their cloaks rippled and flickered for several seconds trying to process the speed before they ripped around a corner and disappeared from sight.

One of the marines, the female from earlier, laughed lightly to herself. “Christ, the Major wasn’t kidding when he said these guys were eccentric.” Vala glanced towards the woman, who titled her head in some sort of greeting. “I don’t think I’ve properly introduced myself, Commander. Service Chief DePaul, I’ll be your back up today.”

The commander took the handshake and gave it a light shake, noticing DePaul’s lacked the force of the Major’s. “Pleasure to meet you, DePaul. You lead Seraphim, I take it?”

“That I do, Ma’am. Hopefully you won’t need us much, but don’t hold back for our sakes.” She leaned back slightly, helmet glancing towards the various marines. “The boys want to show off for you, after all.” A majority of the other marines immediately looked to their leader and shook their hands in rapid denial. “And suddenly they’re bashful.” DePaul laughed heartily, the last marine who hadn’t reacted joining her quietly. Vala even suppressed a chuckle at the marines.

“Well, I can think of better ways to impress a woman than getting shot at…” She paused for a moment, looking away from the fire team while tapping a finger to her visor. “But if that’s all you’ve got then I suppose I should let you hold onto it, hm?”

“Ouch, Ma’am. Ouch.” One of the men commented, as Vala shook her head in amusement before looking to Dusk’s screen. The mercenary glanced over through the displays on her visor, which was obscured partially by the light reflecting off the darkened canopy behind her.

“We’re getting close, boss.” The pilot looked back to the control’s, hands moving across the panels rapidly for a few moments before she gripped the flight stick again and banked the gunship to the right. “I can put you down as close as you want.”

The commander nodded. “Keep some distance. I’d rather not tip them off.” Dusk grunted an affirmative, and it was only a few moments longer before the panel hissed open beside her. Vala stepped to the lip, coiling the rappel around her hand and pushing off the ship as the cord dropped lower to the ground. “After this, best keep out of sight.”

“Can do. Have fun.” Dusk commented with an almost bored drawl. Perhaps the mercenary wasn’t the best choice for playing ferry, if her confidence was anything to go by. “Make sure to smash some heads together for me.”

“I’ll see what I can do. Buchan out.” Dropping from the rope, Vala landed in a low crouch as the gunship wasted no time peeling away from her location. Her cloak wasted no time materializing over her body as the commander straightened to her full height. The area around her was rather quiet, filled with little but countless industrial warehouses.

After a moment surveying her immediate surroundings, she looked to the small clock displayed within her HUD. 13:17. It wouldn’t be long till the operation was properly underway. She thumbed the pistol at her hip as she crossed the deserted lot, eyes methodically scanning for any signs of movement. The only sound she could hear, save for the occasional flash of noise that accompanied a passing sky car, was the subtle scuff of her own feet upon the ground.

The silence gave her a moment to review her own objective, recalling the quick briefing she’d gone through with Alexis as she’d geared up. The target was a man by the name of Obadiah Vandenbroek, the project director at a new Oracle facility that had been constructed within the industrial district. Far from just a simple warehouse skeleton with a lab inside, they’d apparently bankrolled an extensive remodelling to the foundation to enable the facility to stretch underground.

Info on his work was sketchy at best, other than a focus on developing equipment in-house for Oracle Special Forces as well as something known as Project Durus. While the exact details were something of a mystery, information suggested that Obadiah was in the process of retrofitting a Triton ADS into something more akin to a combat walker. She wasn’t overly familiar with the design herself, but Triton’s were apparently an older military design that was more commonly used for deep sea exploration these days.

Suffice to say, letting the man finish his work wasn’t exactly high on Cerberus’s priorities, given Oracle’s stance against the organization. Her eyes drifted to the clock. 13:20. The agreed upon time for the operations to commence. Setting her lips in a grim line, Vala crossed the final few meters to the designated warehouse.

The basic encryption on the warehouse wasn’t difficult, and after a few moments of peeling back the various security measures, she slide the door open just enough for her body to squeeze through the crack before pushing it shut softly. The warehouse was rather dark, despite the time of day, and after a few moments her visor switched into a low-lit setting that made the area clear.

The facility was filled with dozens of storage units, each one labelled and organized into ceiling high stacks that made the supposedly ‘vast’ warehouse tight and claustrophobic. Moving quietly amidst the crates, Vala combed the area for any guards or even security features, but there wasn’t anything really in sight aside from a few basic, low end security cameras that she’d overwritten along with the warehouse security.

The entrance would likely be hidden, she concluded, tapping a few keys on her omni-tool. A second later, her visor flickered for a moment as she looked down to the ground beneath her feet. Sure enough, various cables, now highlighted in vibrant colours, ran in perpendicular patterns beneath the flooring. Following the wires, tedious as it was, would likely be her best bet for finding the access into the facility below.

A few tedious minutes of dead-ends and backtracking later, and Vala found the slightly larger than average ‘clearing’ amongst the crates, and the wires suddenly ducking down and running deeper underground until the readings couldn’t filter back through the concrete. “There we are…” She murmured, crouching down to trace her fingers along the faintest seam that obscured the access point from view.

A few inches to the right, a small access flipped open and a tiny screen blinked open. Tapping a few keys, it wasted no time prompting her for the password, and she quickly brought up her omni-tool. The connection took only a few seconds, and with a few keystrokes she activated the decryption program that Jo had provided to bypass the security.

As the machine did its work, she opened a channel back to the Deliverance. “Hades, this is Nyx. I’ve reached my access point.”

“Copy that, Nyx. Please be advised, we’ve been apprised of additional objectives. Updating your HUD now.” A soft tone sounded from the HUD, before Govern continued. “High Command has expressed interest in the recovery of information pertaining to Project Durus, as well as ensuring its destruction. If at all possible, the Oracle facility is to be destroyed as well.”

The commander’s eyes flicked over the information methodically, before focusing back on the program. “Copy that.” The task list growing didn’t help with the speed the mission required, but she refrained from vocalizing the complaint. Her omni-tool chirped, and the panel flashed green as the floor began to part with a hiss. “I’m in. Commencing radio silence.”

“Copy that, Nyx. Good luck.” The line went dead and the suit’s comm lines went dead, leaving the commander alone with her mission. A small lift rose up to greet her, and she embarked with a tentative test of the machine. She pressed the controls for the lift, examining the presented floors. Ignoring the floor she was presently on, the facility on had four others. The laboratories, personnel quarters, armoury and testing facility.

After a moment of thought, she thumbed the key for the laboratories. As the lift whirred to lift and began it’s descent into the bowels of the warehouse, she glanced up to watch the floor above hiss and seal shut overtop of her head again, plunging the shaft into darkness.

A simple but crude plan began to form in those quiet moments waiting for the lift to reach its destination. The laboratories would likely hold all the relevant information that the Illusive Man was after, and it wouldn’t take much for the programs stored on her omni-tool to handle the retrieval and deletion. Flicking her eyes down into the darkness below, she frowned slightly. After she’d located Obadiah, a quick trip to the armoury would hopefully yield enough demolitions to level or severely damage the structure.

If she’d known about the demolition aspect, she’d have insisted on bringing some proper high-yield explosives along, but it appeared her improvised plan would have to suffice. The lift came to a stop, and she ran a finger along the interface to open the door into the laboratories. The soft din of movement and conversation echoed from within the dimly lit halls, no doubt the scientists working on their pet projects.

With a flick of the wrist, Vala pulled her pistol from its magnetic holster, grip loose and relaxed on the weapon. Eggheads. Nothing too difficult. There was no immediate direction present on the walls or floors, and she moved slowly deeper into the facilities ‘heart’. It wasn’t long before long plexiglass windows began to dot the corridors, revealing countless researchers and technicians working away in their respective laboratories.

She paused by one of the windows, peering in at the work being done on what appeared to be something of a giant arm, save for the hand being converted into some sort gun, judging by the barrel. Stepping tighter to the glass with a squint, she looked at the barrel of the weapon for several long moments. It was far longer than most conventional infantry weapons, which undoubtedly translated into more power behind the weapon’s slugs.

Echoing steps made her freeze, eyes flicking to the corner of her visor as a twin patrol of Aurora guards stepped out of the small lab to her immediate right and started towards her. They chatted cheerfully, talking about the most recent game of biotiball and the office pool. Vala was as still as death, watching the men draw closer and closer with every passing second. She sucked in a low breath as the gaze of one of the men lingered on her back, footsteps coming to a stop.

Her hand tensed on the phalanx, every muscle tensing in preparation. Distract and disorient the closer guard with a low kick to the stomach, bringing him over the limb and likely out of view to the scientists within the lab. Eliminate the second guard with the phalanx, aim low to prevent upward splatter onto the windows to alert the scientists. The plan snapped through her head in seconds, and her body began to turn sharply to put it into action.

“Hell of a gun, ain’t it, Douglas?” She froze in place, turning her head ever so slightly to see the men. “Can’t wait to see when it’s all rigged up to the machine.” The guard who hadn‘t spoke, Douglas, was the one looking, although he was seemingly staring at her…or rather, through her at the laboratory she’d been observing herself.

“Yeah, yeah it’s going to be something else.” He murmured slightly, the slightly glazed look in his eyes as if something was making him hesitant but his mind couldn’t exactly place what. After another moment, he rubbed his eyes and she took the split second distraction to instantly duck low to the floor. Douglas blinked once or twice, before shaking his head to himself and hurrying a few extra steps to catch up with his colleague.

Her body remained still until the pair finally disappeared into another one of the labs, exhaling heavily as Vala straightened up to her feet. The guards were observant, and she’d allowed herself to get distracted in such tight quarters. Muttering a few scolding words under her breath, the commander moved briskly to the door and hesitated over the access panel. Peering back ever so slightly, her hand tensed above the panel as she waited for the scientists to arrange themselves in such a way that didn’t let them have an obvious view of the doorway.

It didn’t take long, surprisingly. They hovered about the room in a buzz, constantly shifting between dozens of stations and it took only one moment for her to hit the key and slide through the entrance before any of them even processed that the door had opened. One spared a glance at the seemingly empty doorway, raised his brow before shrugging and resuming his work. The room was large, but heavily crowded by machinery and the research team who continued their work blissfully unaware of the predator suddenly in their midst.

It was with some satisfaction that she moved amongst them, knowing from basic observation that they were no doubt identical to the researcher she had aboard the Deliverance. The moment their work began, the rest of the world didn’t matter until they were satisfied. Sinuous movements carried her through them like a ripple in a storm; the feather light moment-long contacts were dismissed from the focused mind without a second thought.

One of the terminals, solitary along the rear wall and obscured by various contraptions she didn’t bother trying to name, suited her purpose in the lab and her finger brushed the interface lightly to wake the machine from it’s slumber. Eyes flicking over access screen, she began to tedious work of breaking through the encryption. While her training had included all the necessary skills an assassin and commando would need, hacking was one Vala rarely practiced; often preferring to find alternate routes around heavy encryption instead of tackling the problem head on.

The code flashed along as her fingers calmly navigated through the mess to find the necessary information. A few tentative strokes brought her minor success, peeling back the basic login and revealing several more firewalls already in place. Frowning at the task ahead of her, Vala selected the immediately pertinent information, the weapon being constructed right behind her.

It took another few minutes to bring down the primary and secondary encryptions on the data, nearly trigging several alarms in the process due to poor timing or selection. Mentally reminding herself to brush up on her hacking back on the ship, she made the connection to her Omni-tool and began uploading the information. Her eyes flicked lightly over the information on display, reading about the development process with only partial interest.

As the download finished, there was a soft tone from the machine and her eyes widened partially at her blunder. Snapping her head to the side, two of the scientists were already looking her way at the terminally seemingly using itself…and beginning to delete the records of their precious research. One of the men started forward immediately, but staggered to a stop as he seemingly spotted the shimmering ripple of her cloak.

There wasn’t time for a plan, so Vala didn’t make one. She ripped a single grenade from her belt, tossing it in the same motion sideways towards another of the work stations handling the weapon’s more…explosive payloads. Her training put her reaction time leagues ahead of the simple civilians, diving down to the ground whilst she conjured a biotic shield around herself. There was a muffled shout, but she didn’t hear it, as the detonation engulfed the small laboratory. The glass shattered and blew out from the concussive force, throwing shards of metal, glass and bloodied bits about the hallway.

The force slammed her painfully into the wall while the flames licked hungrily at her barriers, but Vala remained huddled despite it. Fire suppression systems kicked in seconds later and several emergency warnings began blaring through the base. A VI began to rattle off its warning of the detonation as she pulled herself up with a pained groan.

The room was filled with the billowing black smoke, obscuring her far better than her cloak could hope to in the small downpour caused by the sprinklers deploying from the ceiling. The terminal, damaged as it might be, was miraculously still functional, likely protected by its odd positioning within the room. There wasn’t the time to waste decrypting it, but she hadn’t come this far to just leave the data behind.

Gripping one of the lifeless forms, she pulled up its omni-tool and synced the information to her own. The download took seconds, and the moment it was done she turned to the terminal, promptly barraging the console with every password recovered from the device with little concern for subtly. The system would be focused on the explosion, she hoped, ignoring the rather brute force method she was resorting to. Heavy, rushing footfalls sounded, panicked shouts sounding from the first responders. One of the passwords clicked, and she didn’t hesitate in commencing the download of all remaining files while simultaneously uploading the virus to destroy the info.

Bodies began to become apparent through the smoke, and she crouched lower to avoid detection for a few precious extra seconds. ‘Faster, faster!’ She hissed mentally, watching the download move closer and closer to completion as the figure began to step through the smoke to her. Her HUD blinked a quick download complete, and Vala needed no extra prompting to immediately move.

Re-engaging her cloak, she kept low while crawling sharply around the workstations. The moment a clear path presented itself, she took it. Breaking into a dead sprint, Vala cleared the mangled work table before vaulting through the ruined window. She landed in a dead sprint, already racing down the way she’d come. “The bomb’s next,” She muttered to herself. “Hopefully Obadiah doesn’t rabbit before I can track him down.”

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Something wasn’t right.

As she crept through the armoury, Vala painfully noted the total absence of any and all guards on the level. The base may have been a secret, but to leave an entire stockpile of weapons and ordinance unattended didn’t fit with the Alliance.

Flicking her eyes to the shadows, the commander strained her ears for any sign of the personnel, but was rewarded with only her own breathing. ‘This isn’t good…’ Swallowing the forming knot, she approached one of the storage units, quickly picking through its security and tugging it open to reveal the payload. Military grade, lock on tracking missiles. Examining the horde, she reached for one of the missiles when the PA system crackled to life in the armoury’s vaulted ceiling. There was static silence for a few moments, before an austere, yet somehow ‘jovial’ voice called down from above.

“Two frigates going dark in the exact same moment, an unidentified cruiser appearing in system, and nearly a dozen simultaneous strikes across an entire system…and you really thought wearing a fancy cloak was going to keep you hidden, Assassin?” There was a humourless snort from the voice, almost mocking. “After you blew up one of MY research teams and started feeding viruses into our mainframe? You didn’t think I’d check the feeds? That I wouldn’t notice the lift moving by itself? Do you think I’ve been living in a CAVE for my entire life?!”

‘I’d hoped, honestly.’ She thought to herself, tripping one of the grenades off her belt into the storage unit. The commander stepped back, already hearing the tell tale thundering of boots from every possible direction. Setting her jaw, her pistol reattached to her magnetic holster as the guards finished their encirclement.

“I’d expect better from a Cerberus assassin, honestly…this whole approach lacks…finesse.” The voice, which she was rapidly coming to suspect was Obadiah, murmured dryly. “Regardless, I think you’ve caused me enough headaches for one day. Wrap this up.” The speakers went dead, and the guard’s took aim at her shimmering figure.

“Gladly.” Her speakers crackled, hands thrusting out from her side as solid biotic energy pulsed out from her body. Every rifle opened fire in tandem, throwing a metal rain at the assassin ‘caught’ in their crossfire. The bubble rippled and pulsed with every impact, but the ‘shield’ held as her arms drew in tighter to her chest, dark energy violently rippling across her frame as her eyes pulsed with dark blue light. As the first of the guns hissed it’s overheat warning, her hands flared and swept backwards sharply; it was only a moment later that the bubble erupted outwards like a tsunami, greedily devouring the bullets fired into it’s approaching tide before hammering the nearest guards off their feet.


The brief reprieve wasn’t wasted, biotic whips materializing out from her wrists and slicing in glowing arcs through the air to grip one of the recovering men by the torso. The dark energy tore painfully at his skin, before a violent jerk of Vala’s wrist ripped her towards him at blinding speed. Her knee crashed into his stomach, buckling him over the limb as the assassin weaved past his body with a dancer’s grace. Twisting like a serpent, her hand gripped under his chin and with a volatile pulse of biotic energy, ripped the skull upwards until it cracked.

Biotics wreathing her frame in dark light, she launched off the crumpling body with feline speed, closing the distance to her next opponent in seconds. Slamming the barrel of his rifle downwards, she gripped his arm at the wrist before ramming the elbow joint upwards till it buckled with her free hand. Another moved to shoot, but the mangled arm gave her unprecedented control of her victim, dragging him through the rounds meant for her before discarding him like a spent thermal clip.

With a swipe of her hand, she drew her knife and flung it at the startled man, burying the weapon nearly hilt deep in his arm. She spun to face the fourth, rounds slicing along her shields as her hand straightened and sliced past the barrel of the rifle into the soft meat of the man’s trachea. The force buckled it inwards, his eyes bulging as his breath became a choked gasp. Her hand recoiled, striking the butt of his rifle to jerk it from his weakened grasp and slamming the barrel up under his chin.

She jerked the trigger roughly as she shifted her attention back to the wounded man, paying no mind to the gore splattered along her visor as the injured guard fired sharply from his predator. The first pair of rounds were stunted by her shields, but the proximity made the weapon much more dangerous as the third found its way through and punched a hole through her shoulder.

Medigel instantly deployed, flooding her system with adrenaline and painkillers to mute whatever pain the wound brought. Palming the pistol aside, Vala’s hand coiled around the knife still lodged in his other arm, weaving past his retaliation to drive the blade into the base of his skull with rehearsed precision. With a sharp jerk and a trail of crimson, the weapon was free and her attention shifted to the other guards who, despite the display of superiority, managed to hold their ranks and opened fire with their rifles.

Thrusting one palm forward, she crafted a biotic barrier, the hexagonal shape resisting the barrage as she drew deeply upon the energy in her body into her other hand. She’d never really used the singularity outside of training drills, but there wasn’t time for doubts.

Thrusting the hand forward, the air near the guards rippled before the singularity ‘solidified’ into place. Within seconds, the energy was gripping and tearing at the man, dragging them out of cover. Recognizing easy prey when she was it, Vala allowed the barrier to fade, drawing her phalanx and carefully sighting the 4 exposed men. Punching two rounds through the first’s BDUs, she snapped the gun to the second and repeated the process before she felt the singularity begin to destabilize. Drawing a small sphere into her hand, she launched it into the heart of the miniature black hole, which responded by promptly and violently detonating; smashing both it’s remaining victims like rag dolls across the armoury.

If they survived, neither was going to be a threat any longer, and Vala quickly retrieved a pair of grenades from the fallen guards near her as another fire team rounded on her position to deal avenge their butchered allies. Smirking under her mask, she raised her omni-tool and thumbed the detonator. A spilt second later, the crate of missiles she’d investigated earlier went up in a plume of fire, shredding those unfortunate enough to be close to it in a hail of metal shrapnel.

She was far enough away to avoid the thick of it, but several shards of metal sliced along her armour, leaving gouges in the ceramic plate and one lucky piece burrowed painfully up her forearm. Gritting her teeth as the fire from the missiles began to spread; Vala gripped the metal shard and ripped it clear from her skin. Biting her lip, she shook the limb tenderly as medigel worked quickly to seal and disinfect the wound. Another detonation drew her attention, several damaged crates of munitions falling victim to the spreading blaze. Thumbing her looted grenades, the commander darted past a few other storage units and primed the grenades as she sprinted for the lift.

“It’s just one assassin! Bring her down, dammit! Disable all lifts! Lock her down!” The intercom boomed, as one of the guards took a knee to fire. Gritting her teeth, Vala pushed her legs to go faster, as she snapped the phalanx forward and squeezed off her meagre suppressing fire. The man winced as a round clipped his shoulder, but fired back with the avenger, pelting her shields and armour with its furious fire.

Summoning more biotic energy to strengthen her shields, Vala thrust her fist forward, pushing a biotic throw towards her assailant. He rolled sharply to the side to avoid the energy, but she aimed for the end of his roll and fired as he righted himself. The next two rounds punched clean through his chest, and he collapsed backwards as Vala let the barrier fade.

Another guard rounded to intercept, but unlike the one prior, didn’t have the distance to get into a good firing position. Not bothering to slow her pace, her shin pulsed with energy before she slammed it painfully into the woman’s jaw. She could feel the bone shatter from the impact through the armour, driving the woman off her feet inches from the powered down lift.

No time to waste, Vala ignored the lift entirely as she draw the rappel gun from her hip and fired it into the ground as she jumped from the edge and into the shaft. The line tightened momentarily into her fall before settling into a fast descent towards the bottom. A tremor shook the compound as flames licked the shaft by the armoury floor. ‘Shit. That’s a new time limit.’ She thought darkly, panting slightly as she approached the final floor where she hoped Obadiah would be.

Landing in a half crouch, Vala stalked into the surprisingly barren chamber cautiously, eyes scanning for any sign of her target. After a moment, she spotted the silhouette of a man, and she popped the heat sink for her phalanx before inching closer. Surely it wouldn’t be this easy..?

“It seems Cerberus doesn’t fail to disappoint. One assassin against almost 15 of my men, and she dispatches them all? I can’t say I’m impressed with their results.” The figure half turned to her and Vala swore loudly as his outline shimmered faintly. “You didn’t actually think I’d just be waiting for you like this, did you? Never trust an assassin; I’ve learnt that lesson many times.”

Obadiah Vandenbroek wasn’t a particularly old man, his features only slightly wrinkled in a way that did nothing to dilute the solid intensity of his brown eyes. A thick grey beard boxed his chin, whilst his head was completely clean shaven to an almost polished shine. The holographic image flickered as the man flicked away the cigarette he’d been smoking, rolling his shoulder slightly in his dark blue armour.

That gave her pause, sweeping the area around her cautiously for any sign of the man. Why would a researcher be wearing combat gear? And more importantly, why did it seem like the man wasn’t moving or making any attempts to get away? If it wasn’t a pre-recording then it would have to be showing a real-time image.

“You’ve damaged tens of thousands of credits worth of Oracle personnel, equipment and infrastructure. Particularly, MY personnel, equipment and infrastructure. That’s just simply unacceptable. I’ll have to deal with you myself.” Straightening, his hologram looked as if it was walking for a brief moment before it sat down. “Computer, engage VR simulation. Randomize.” There was a sadistic grin on his face before the hologram vanished; several dozen small pillars rose from the floor moments later, but Vala paid them no mind as the wall across from her parted open with an echoing hiss.

“Oh…oh shit.” She breathed, as the towering figure of a Triton ADS lumbered through the doorway. The machines had looked intimidating enough in their old model, but this ‘Durus’ version lumbering into the arena made the older walkers look like slabs of scrap. The gun mounted on its right side was familiar, likely the one she’d seen being worked on earlier in the lab. The other looked far more foreboding, a trinity of barrels gleaming with a massive looking drum attached to the bottom as what she could only assume was its ‘magazine’. The fact that such a large one needed to be attached made her dread the weapon’s fire rate.

Behind the light blue canopy, she saw Obadiah’s face grinning darkly from the heart of his creation, and the assassin steeled her resolve. Things were suddenly looking a lot harder. As the mech slowed to a stop, its creator’s voice boomed arrogantly over the speakers. “An outdated piece of weaponry, but we’ve improved the design in every way! You’ll have the honour of being its first live opponent!”

As he spoke, the VR environment kicked in, the blank room shimmering for only a moment before it was replaced by a burning cityscape. Half toppled buildings ‘towered’ above her in the optical reality, and countless bits of ‘debris’ lay strewn about the area as makeshift cover. There was a momentary whirring that filled the air, and she dove behind the nearest piece of cover on instinct as the ‘Gatling’ opened fire.

The rounds screamed through the air, slicing past her meagre mound of protection in the very definition of a bullet storm. Pressing her stomach as far as she could into the dirt, Vala clutched her head tightly as the weapon continued its assault. The Durus was online. This was the worst possible outcome this entire mission could have had!

How long had this base been operating to get a working prototype up this quickly? Heavy footfalls lumbers closer and Vala hauled herself up with a grunt of exertion to move for another bit of cover. The simulation system was state of the art as well, with adjustable ‘cover’ that was like being projected onto retractable surfaces from within the floor.

The machine fired relentlessly after her, and she felt a stab of pain as one of the rounds punched clean through her leg as she weaved in behind a ruined wall. “Shit! SHIT!” She hissed painfully, touching the wound as her lungs panted for air. Her suit’s medigel systems did their work, but she couldn’t afford to take hits from a weapon that size. Her squish skin could only repair so much.

“Where’s that bravado, assassin? You charged my men without a second thought! Don’t tell me you’re afraid of only one measly man?” He baited, and she felt the anger well in her stomach at his insults. Leaning out from her cover, she fired at the massive target several times with her phalanx, but its kinetic barriers absorbed the shots with little difficulty. The machine lumbered forward, its weapon hissing steam as cooling systems vented the excess heat.

Vala had no chance to capitalize on the mechanical failure, as the second arm raising its weapon and she noticed light welling up inside the barrel. “What in the world..?” She murmured, before it erupted in a surge of light that nearly blinded her even through the reactive visor. It was a second later that the impact struck her cover, and the sheer force of the projectile flung her forward as it tore the terrain asunder. “Fuck!”

Scrambling up to her feet, adrenaline pounding her senses as her heart beat a million miles a minute, Vala ignored every groan and ache in her body as she thundered towards the nearest piece of cover. Halfway to her target, the cityscape burning around her snapped out of existence, replaced immediately by a surge of blinding white.

It took only a few moments before she adjusted, and she barely suppressed a grin. The area had been changed into a full on blizzard of howling white winds, making visibility almost nothing and filling the air with whistling winds echoing off the enclosed walls just out of view. It would have been a rather brutal environment for the standard marine to adapt to. Unfortunately for Obadiah, Vala wasn’t a marine, she was a Phoenix Operative. And the brutal blizzards of Mavigon had honed her for exactly this kind of combat.

Pivoting on her foot towards the silhouetted Durus, Vala’s cloak rippled over her frame, vanishing into the blizzard like a wraith. The machine fired a burst at the location she had been, but the rounds found nothing but air and the machine thumped cautiously through the storm in search of its prey.

It had barely lumbered three steps when the first lash materialized out of the winds and slashed against its barriers. Staggering slightly to the side, the mech pivoted quickly and fired its machine gun but she’d already moved again. Another lash appeared; striking against the machine’s now exposed back before vanishing into the winds again. The pilot slowed it down, looking cautiously through the blizzard for his opponent. No other strike came, but then the machine lurched slightly. There was a pause, before the canopy above his head shook, rattling the entire cockpit.

Perched atop the mech like a cat, Vala grinned darkly behind her visor, biotic energy encasing her arms as she began to hammer against the canopy with thunderous blows. Whatever material they’d used was highly resistant, but just as her hands ached with every strike, she felt it give slightly more and more as her assault continued.

The Durus lurched backwards, pivoting it’s upper body about furiously to try and dislodge the phoenix operative, but every time it threatened to dismount her, Vala would tighten her hold and right herself to continue the attack on the mech. As her hand began to numb from the hits, hairline fractures spread from the impact point and her eyes lit up with renewed vigour.

The machine rumbled beneath her; a deafening roar rising above the howling blizzard as the immediate area was bathed in a red-orange glow. It was at the last second it dawned on her, as the Durus’s massive frame successfully began to hover off the ground. Not willing to be pancaked against the ceiling, she leapt from her perch and landed in a roll; spinning back around to her feet to see her targets plan.

The mech dropped down like a stone, its massive legs threatening to crush her beneath the ton of electronics and weaponry. “Shit!” Diving swiftly to the side, she avoided the impact zone by the skin of her teeth, the floor groaning under the machine’s titanic weight as it shook from the force of impact.

Ending her dive with a fluid handspring back to her feet, Vala didn’t have a moment to catch her breath as the machine charged through the snow like a bull; shoulder lowered into a battering ram. It wasn’t in her interest to take a hit like that, but dodging meant she’d likely just run into the same problem again. Stepping back, she felt her heel touch something, and she flicked her eyes over her shoulder for only a second before smirking.

Shrouding herself in the glow of her biotics, Vala surged forward towards the machine. She could see Obadiah’s near maniac grin glinting through his cracking canopy, although there was little doubt she’d be wiping it from the smug man’s face shortly. The gun slammed down like a clothesline intended for her head, but the operative was one step ahead of him. Dropping swiftly to her knees, she arched her back as momentum and the light field over her body pushed her through the titan’s massive legs.

Her hands tapped swiftly on the ‘belly’ of the machine in the split second they passed each other, before finishing her slide out of it’s path and spinning herself about with the momentum into a standing position. The Durus skidded to a stop, trying to turn to face the assassin who simply waggled her finger and keyed the detonator on her omni-tool.

Twin explosions staggered the machine backwards, toppling onto one of the VR towers which were promptly half-crushed by the proto-types sheer weight. External systems crackled on the Durus, slowly ripping itself off the mangled machine which was already beginning to falter in its blizzard projection; snapping between countless different biomes in the blink of an eye. “You think those little cherry bombs will damage something like the Durus?!” Obadiah roared as his machine straightened.

“They’ll kill you well enough.” She spat, biotic whips coalescing out of her wrists as she charged the mech once again. It swept with its arm roughly, dodged swiftly by Vala ducking under the limb and slamming her whips sideways into its flank. The Durus brought its other arm down like a hammer, and she leapt deftly to the side before striking the machine with both tendrils from opposite directions. The machine gun spun up and barked its volley as it swept back towards the target, forcing Vala into a dead sprint to stay ahead of its targeting systems.

Whips trailing and pulsing behind her, Vala barely noticed the slightly blow glow growing in the Durus’s secondary armament. The moment she saw, it was too late. The weapon had been tailing as well, and fired its payload directly in her path. She skidded to a stop, pushing for traction but the barely avoided taking the blow dead on. The blast flung her from her feet, flying backwards as her shields failed and she smashed like a rag doll across the facility floor.

Groaning, the commander’s hands tightened into fists and she began to push herself from the floor. With most of her body sprawled out, she noticed something the intensity of her fight had blinded her to. Everything was shaking. There was a thunderous boom, and her eyes dashed to the entrance of the lift, watching a small plume of fire lick the immediate area before vanishing back inside the shaft.

“The armoury…” She hissed, eyes flicking to the Durus which was still; likely having noticed the same thing she had. The VR systems around them were beginning to react to the damage of the facility, flickering and shifting without rhyme or reason. The failures were likely the only reason a follow up shot hadn’t been sent to finish her off. As the machine turned towards the shaft, she staggered up to her feet; briefly clutching her side with a wince at the heavy bruising she felt swelling up.

With a slow intake of breath, she started forward, feeling the detonations echoing through the structure’s framework. The VR masked her slow pursuit of the Durus, which was steadily heading for the only real escape from the inferno this base was about to become. “Hades, this is Nyx, breaking radio silence!” There was only silence, and she swore into the comms. “Hades, this is Nyx, the target is heading for the surface! The Durus is operational! I need close air support!”

There came no reply, and Vala wanted nothing more than to scream a litany of curses at whatever was holding their tongues or interfering with the signal. Breaking into a sprint, Vala drew on her dwindling reserves of energy to form a whip once more and brought it to bear on the machine. Unlike before, her intent wasn’t to damage, instead forcing the energy to take hold of the metal as the Durus’s thruster began to fire. Gripping the whip sprouting from her wrist with both hands, she drew on more energy into a barrier around herself before the whip went rigid and dragged her after the suddenly airborne machine.

Obadiah and his passenger shot up through the shaft like a rocket, flames licking their shields as more of the volatile equipment was brought into the inferno. Inside her armour, Vala felt herself practically cooking alive, her barriers only just keeping the flames from engulfing her armour. Sweat dripped down her brow, but the concentration required maintaining her biotics was the perfect distraction from the blaze.

Their flight was short, but didn’t end as she expected. Instead of landing inside the warehouse that had hidden his facility, Obadiah continued the Durus’s climb as its cannon trained on the roof and punched a hole clean through the concrete. The mech flew through the gap and landed with a deafening thud on the roof, almost slamming her into the surface with its abrupt stop.

Wobbling on her feet, Vala watched as it turned towards her. The white portions of its armour almost glowed with the heat of its escape, and smoke hissed from its exhaust. The cracks along its canopy had widened and grown into a spider web of thin lines, but the man instead remained confident. He had every right to be, she admitted grimly. The roof was completely exposed and she was already reaching a point of exhaustion from using her biotics so heavily.

“You’ve put my prototype through its paces, assassin. Even if it cost me the facility, I can’t be more grateful for the work you’ve done today. An excellent stress test for the Durus, don’t you agree?” He taunted, raising the guns in unison. “Take pride in that, even if you’re about to die. You’re helping create one of the greatest weapons to have ever existed.”

Sinking into a crouch, Vala shrouded herself in biotics once more, lips set in a grim line. Was this how she was going to go down? Fighting an over-sized tin can just a few days after she’d gotten her own damn ship? “Boss! I’d get the hell off the roof!” The thoughts were interrupted by Dusk’s eager yell, and Vala looked sharply in the direction of the gunship that appeared on her HUD. The Deadra swept in low out of the clouds, and two of its four missile pods opened to deploy their payload. It wasn’t a matter of thinking; she leapt backwards on instinct as the Durus began to fire. The movement bought her only a second, but before the systems could realign to find their target, the missiles impacted.

Dusk hadn’t used basic rocket pods, as was much more common with mercenary groups. The missiles deployed quickly from their pod, but within seconds of launch fragmented into a half-dozen smaller warheads each. The guidance systems rapidly adjusted to minimize allied damage, the barrage swerving to impact more directly on the mech. The roof was engulfed in the fire from the warheads, and the damaged concrete beneath her feet groaned before crumbling. Fumbling for a ledge of a surface to grip, Vala found little as she dropped into the rafters of the warehouse.

The first impact was by far the most jarring, one of the metal bars clipping the side of her helmet and making her head rattle painfully before crashing into another on her stomach. The raining concrete made it a poor idea to remain on the little outcropping, and with a pained grunt she pushed off the metal and dropped the remainder of the way to the floor.

Her biotics slowed her fall, but she landed with none of her usually grace, instead partially crumpling over as she gripped her head groggily. Dozens of cracks marred her vision like a broken mirror, and she lamely tapped the key to retract the damaged visor. Ignoring what felt like a trickle of blood on her forehead, she surveyed the damage as she hobbled slowly into the center of the collapse. Half buried in rubble, the Durus lay in a heap, and its canopy shattered open and slightly smeared with blood.

“Boss? Boss, you alive in there? Please tell me I didn’t just blow you up.” The pilot called worriedly over the comm, which sounded much too loud in Vala’s ear as she grunted a reply.

“Confirming kill.”

“Whew…had me worried there for a second, Boss.” She didn’t bother with a reply, climbing up the rubble and peering into the cockpit with a displeased frown. Obadiah stared back, somehow still arrogant with a piece of rebar lodged through his stomach and one of his arms mangled beyond repair.

“I suppose you can take pride in this, Obadiah.” She muttered, eyes lazily watching him as she pulled her phalanx from her hip. “It’s one hell of a design, and I’m sure we’re going to get a lot of use out of it.” Despite his condition, the Oracle agent lashed out with his good arm, almost striking her across the chin before she jerked back to avoid it. “Pain in the ass till the bitter end.”

“You haven’t won anything. All you’ve done is eliminate a cog in the machine.” He grinned through bloodied teeth. “When you’re done here, go back to your Illusive Man and learn nothing has changed, you stupid bitch.”

“There’ll be one less of you, and that’s good enough for me.” The phalanx ended their conversation with an echoing shot, and Vala rose onto the wreck to gaze up through the collapsed roof. “Dusk…pick up.” She muttered, watching as the rappel descended from the hovering gunship.

“No offence, but you sound like shit, Boss.”

“I feel like shit, thank you very much.” Attaching the rappel to her belt, she gave it a tug before the system began to lift her out of the ruined warehouse. In the distance, she could hear the echoing sirens and was thankful they would be leaving the area before any civilians arrived. Tapping her helmet, she opened a channel to the Deliverance. “Hades, this is Nyx, target eliminated. Break radio silence.”

“Welcome back, Nyx. Your signal was weak earlier; we could only receive your audio barely.”

“I got what I needed.” Gripping her side with a groan as one of the marines pulled her into the waiting cabin, Vala continued with a half-hearted mutter. “Give me an update. What’s happening out there?”