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The Illusive Man

The enigmatic leader of Cerberus.

0 · 314 views · located in The Call of Victory

a character in “Mass Effect: On the Edge”, originally authored by The Ghost Writer, as played by RolePlayGateway

Description

The Illusive Man is the elusive, secretive, and well informed leader of Cerberus. He has close-cropped silver-grey hair with "steely blue" eyes which appear to be prosthetic. The Illusive Man's real name and his life before Cerberus are both long forgotten. For years, the Illusive Man has been using Cerberus and his immense network of contacts to achieve his goal - that of making humanity ascendant above all other races. He is described as having the best and worst traits of humanity rolled into one man.

Source: Mass Effect Wiki

History

The Illusive Man was a normal civilian with a job and a family until the discovery of alien life. Not long after the Battle of Shanxi, an e-mail circulated throughout the extranet calling for humanity to take its rightful place and assert its power to its new alien contacts. Alliance intelligence could not locate the originator of the e-mail, but referred to him as an "illusive man" in press releases to try and dismiss the human-centric diatribe. The name stuck, and the Illusive Man founded Cerberus, a human-centric splinter group. He was responsible for breaking Cerberus away from the Alliance military, and building up Cord-Hislop Aerospace as a cover for the organization's shadow operations. His justification is that, "If humanity is to survive, sacrifices must be made for the greater good. The Alliance doesn't understand this, Cerberus does." In terms of appearance, the Illusive Man is dressed in an impeccable futuristic-style suit, combined with the casual swagger of a charming billionaire; he also seems to possess unique patterns on his irises. It is currently unknown whether these grant him any additional abilities or are simply aesthetic.

The Illusive Man believes that the political party Terra Firma has a part to play in humanity's ascension and even used an assassination in order to put the right man — Charles Saracino — in power. The Illusive Man's belief that biotics are the future of humanity led him to order the sabotage and detonation of Eldfell-Ashland Energy starships over human colonies, to ensure biotic children would be born. Somehow — likely through unsavory means — the Illusive Man claimed one of these biotic children as a baby and gave her to Paul Grayson to raise as his own daughter. A decade later he planted Cerberus operatives into the Ascension Project to take advantage of the Alliance's more sophisticated biotic research.

He also has an interest in the quarians and their Migrant Fleet. The Illusive Man does not trust an alien species that effectively has the largest armada of ships in the galaxy. However, he is also greatly impressed by the quarians' technological expertise, namely their creation of the geth and their continued survival despite the odds stacked against them. This curiosity has led him to seek the transmission codes for the Migrant Fleet in order to spy on them.

His long-term plans are ultimately unknown, but he has many different projects all factoring into helping humanity achieve its rightful place. Currently, it seems that his main focus is on the Reapers after their discovery, realizing the vast threat they pose on humanity. He appears to dedicate all his vast resources to stop them by any means necessary.

Source: Mass Effect Wiki

So begins...

The Illusive Man's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Braden Reynolds Character Portrait: Commander Jonathan Titus Character Portrait: Darcy Mansfield Character Portrait: Elizabeth "Lizzie" Rikers Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait:
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"You need a haircut," Lizzie insisted with her fingers combing through the mess on Braden's head. The young teen only snickered and let out a chuckle of amusement as he watched her reflection massage his neck and shoulder muscles in one of the windows of his - or their, really - room's starboard windows.

Eventually, his gazed focused on his own reflection. He had matured greatly since joining the Vindicator; not just mentally, but physically as well. His chin and jaw line were becoming more distinct, as well as his muscular tone. The training with Captain Villayn and the frequent use of his biotics kept his body in shape. He was still small, but he felt great; and looked it. From time to time, however, it wasn't just his body that he would find himself admiring. While Lizzie herself hadn't changed much since they first met, her body was always attracting his wandering eyes. Her eyes and lips were gracefully cute, and the rest of her was... irresistible. Especially now that he was sitting down on the foot of the bed and she had risen up on her knees to press down on his shoulders. The tilt in the window had given him a cruel, teaing angle and perfect reflection of her womanhood.

"You're staring again," she whispered, making him blush and divert his eyes elsewhere. As if to torture him more, her hand reached down and slowly slid across his bare chest. When he felt her lips on his neck, he squirmed and laughed. It was foolish, but he couldn't help it. She started laughing too.

Braden pulled himself away, but only turn around and gently push Lizzie back onto the mattress. Every nerve in his body screamed out, and a tiny voice in the back of his head was trying to say that what he was doing was wrong. Yet his adolescence and sexual desires urged him to keep going. As Lizzie laid out straight on the covers, he crawled over her, bringing his chest close to her, feeling her breasts press into him when she breathed in.

"Braden...," she started, stopping the boy from kissing her at the last second. "What are we doing?"

The young teen pulled himself up enough to look at her with fresh eyes. She was concerned, perhaps even frightened; and as she should be. Braden quickly pushed back and away, nearly falling off the side of the bed. He was red with embarrassment, but also felt guilty and overwhelmed with fear. "I- God, I'm so sorry! I don't know what I was thinking! I just-"

He felt her hands over his shoulders a second later, stopping him before he could ramble. "Its okay," she cooed. "Its okay. We're not ready yet."

"Yet?" He turned to see Lizzie smiling out of his peripherals. She leaned in and pecked him on the corner of his lips.

"Yet," she promised.




The next morning seemed to drag. By the time Titus had made it to the helm, he was already sipping down a second cup of coffee; which was a rarity for him. At most, the commander would hardly finish one cup, preferring to take only a few sips and let the rest sit on the edge of the galaxy map all day until Operative Taylor insisted he toss the cup in the trash. Maybe the recent increase in stress was causing him to act differently, or perhaps he was beginning to feel older.

No, it wasn't age, he told himself. He had been one of the youngest soldiers to hold the rank of Captain in the Alliance. In Cerberus, he still held that same rank. “Commander" was simply a title to them, and it wouldn't change unless the Illusive Man hand picked him to be promoted to one of his esteemed generals.

The thought of Cerberus becoming its own army only disturbed him. They were supposed to be covert, but with how things were going, the Illusive Man was making them look like any other galactic fleet out there: generals and their troops, ships outfitted with thannix cannons, and entire space stations devoted to the research and development of weapons. How much longer until Titus left Cerberus like he left the Alliance?

"Something on your mind, Commander?" Darcy asked, glancing up at a gloomy Titus standing just over his shoulder.

"Just stuff that's better kept to one's self, Darcy," John replied.

A tone sounded from Darcy's haptic interface. "Look's like the boss wants to see you upstairs,” he said, tapping a key to acknowledge the notification. John silently nodded in response and spun around to hastily make his way back down the bridge and into the CIC. He past by the multitude of technicians and navigation experts, offering a nod in greeting to Taylor as she gazed over the galaxy map, and entered the elevator. Stretching his index finger out from its snugged position around the warm coffee cup, he pressed the command to take him up to deck one, and then took a final, long gulp of the miracle liquid. In the back of his mind, he prayed the Illusive Man had not read his thoughts light years away. The timing of this summoning was uncomfortable, if he were to say the least.

At the ping and opening of the elevator, John stepped out and headed straight forward into the conference room, only stopping for a single second to leave the near-empty coffee outside. Once inside, EDI, as usual, had begun closing the outer shutters to darken the circular room, and the table disappeared into the floor. The Man's familiar office materialized around John. Today's star an odd complexity of deep reds and a tint of violet. As usual, nothing about it was recognizable.

“Commander Titus,” the Illusive Man greeted, lighting a fresh cigarette. “You look a little tired. I hope your burning out too quickly. The threat hasn't gone away over a few weeks.”

Titus straightened himself out before replying, “Don't worry about me, sir. I'm willing and able for whatever task you have for the Vindicator next.”

The Man smiled after letting go of a stream of smoke. “That's what I like to hear.”

Before the conversation carried forward, a figure came into view next to John. The commander shot a surprised sideways glance to Terrance Sinclair. “Professor?”

“Commander,” Sinclair said in return before turning his attention to the Illusive Man. “Happy to report, sir, that Operative Buchan's nervous system has received the immunity to O-E without rejection; and her new L5x implants are operating as hoped. She'll be fit for duty again in no time.”

“Excellent news, Professor,” the Illusive Man said, well pleased.

Titus was lost. “O-E?”

“Omega-enkaphalin, Commander,” Sinclair explained. “It's a biotic-supression drug that was secretly developed by Cerberus in 2169; codenamed 'Project Trapdoor'.”

“I'm having all of our biotics undergo nanosurgery so their bodies can adopt an immunity to the drug,” the Man said. “I don't want our own weapon turned against us.”

Titus nodded his understanding. “I see. What about Serena Taylor, or Braden Reynolds? They're both biotics, and on my crew. Will they have to undergo the same surgery?”

Sinclair shook his head. “Operative Taylor received her immunity shortly before Sovereign's attack of the Citadel. Braden received his at the Ascension Project when they installed his amps and implants. Cerberus is making sure all of the human biotics trained at the Grissam academy are made immune to omega-enkaphalin as part of our agenda to advance our race's own biotic abilities.”

“Well put, Professor,” the Illusive Man commented. “Thank you for your report. You're dismissed.” Sinclair bowed and humbly stepped out of the three-dimensional conversation; leaving Titus and his employer alone to carry on.

“How much do you know about our history with the quarians, Commander?” the Man asked.

John smirked. “Enough to know that we royally pissed them off, recently. Something about a bomb and a girl from the Ascension Project. Grayson's doing, right? Before he went rogue?”

“Vaguely, yes. Since that incident, we've had trouble to inserting spies into the Migrant Fleet, and I'm rapidly running out of eyes and ears inside their flotilla. Their entire population is strictly quarian-only; so we have to rely on converting some of their own to be our agents; and that's not always easy. If they're still apart of the tight community that makes up their fleet, then they're usually loyal to the core. Quarians aren't ones to have loose lips these days. Any small thing that threatens the security of the Migrant Fleet sends them over the edge. Thus, our only viable option left is to infiltrate and install our bugs. But to do this, I need the best infiltrators we have. Unfortunately, Vala still needs time to recuperate; and I have Kai Leng on an important assignment of his own.”

Titus shrugged his shoulders, not quite understanding why the Illusive Man was going to him about this. The Vindicator had no other infiltrators that were capable of the mission. He was right about Vala still needing to recover after the surgery; and other than her, no one on his crew had the technical or strategic know-how to replace her. “So... what do you need me for?”

“The truth is, Commander, I don't. But within a few hours, I will. I'm dispatching another infiltrator to your crew. Like Vala, he deserves high praise from me. In fact, he's so skilled at his job that I have working as an inside man in an organization I believe you've recently discovered. Does the name 'Oracle' ring a bell?”

John's eyes widened and his mouth almost flew open. “Ugh... Yes; it does.” He then folded his arms across his chest. “But I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that you know about my relationship with Sibyl Carson, that particular organization's director, now should I?”

The Illusive Man smiled and took another drag of his cigarette. “No,” he said while blowing out the smoke. “You shouldn't. The agent's name is Janis; Janis Freeman. He makes infiltration, sabotage, and assassination his profession; practically an art. Where Operative Leng performs with the grace of a magician; Operative Freeman dazzles with the charm of a politician. They're both cunning, deceptive, and highly skilled; but for this particular mission, Freeman's expertise is preferred.”

“So how shall I proceed with the mission once Janis is aboard my ship?”

“He's on his way now via another Cerberus frigate. Once he transfers under your command, I want you to travel to Omega. In the past, I had one our agents bargain with an exiled quarian to gain the secrets of boarding the Migrant Fleet. He taught us how its done: through the use of unique pass phrases. Unfortunately, he couldn't provide us with what was required. The pass phrases taught to him in particular had been black listed per his banishment from the flotilla. We had to torture a captured quarian for his phrases. One denotes an 'all secure' message; where the other is a duress phrase. This time, however, we've cut a deal with a quarian whose not banned, and he's willing to trade his phrases.”

“What was the deal?” Titus asked, looking sharp for the catch.

“The quarian's name is Jal'Ishtet nar Idenna. It just so happens that the Idenna is the particular vessel in the flotilla that I need bugs installed inside the most. In exchange for getting you on that ship, he's asking for a large amount of the drug Hallex. We're not entirely sure of the reason for this odd request. Perhaps that's something you and Janis can find out while talking with him; though I have a feeling its a simple drug triad business.”

“Anything else I should know?”

The Illusive Man stood up from his chair, holding his cigarette down to just above his waste line. “There is one other thing...,” he replied, taking a moment's pause as he considered his words. “I'm well aware of your last visit to Omega, and Braden's particular attempt at exacting revenge on his former slave master. While I'm not concerned about that in particular, I am concerned about the possible consequences that situation may have led to in regards to Aria T'Loak. I hope her seeing you again won't be problem, Commander.”

Titus placed his hands behind his back and straighted himself with the discipline of the soldier he was. “No, sir. I can assure you that Cerberus presence on Omega is of no concern to her right now. I managed to smooth things over when we last spoke.”

“I know you did, Titus. I'm just making sure you understand that Cerberus - I - can't afford to be on bad terms with her at the moment.”

“Understood, sir.”

The Illusive Man took a final drag of his cigarette. “Good.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Marine LT Menar Character Portrait: Noah Korol Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Commander Jensen Ross Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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Ross didn’t even remove his armor as he left the armory but the sight of the Hornet breaking into millions of pieces still fresh in his mind. He had a call to make and his employer was not the kind of person who liked to wait for the news. His communication to the Illusive Man was in the briefing room, the sounds of his team could be heard through the door. There was a lot of laughs and banter, the sounds of a team who got the team well and truly done.

Ross snapped to attention and saluted as the room grew dark. “Sir.”

The Illusive Man silently dismissed some files he had been perusing as the holographic image of Commander Ross rose behind him, slowly spinning his chair to face the man, a cigarette perched between his fingers. Flicking the ash away, he broke the brief silence.

"Commander Ross." He exhaled, blowing smoke across the dimly light room, highlighted by the blazing star to his back, his face shrouded in shadow save for the glow of his eyes. "I take it you've dealt with Poitvin?"

Ross dropped his hand but stayed at attention. "Affirmative. Took a burst to the back of the head, it won't be an open casket funeral. We have also just destroyed the Hornet but not before taking every piece of data we could find on it. Phillis is sending it over now, preliminary findings show that Poitvin indeed failed his mission to retrieve the Prothean data."

The Cerberus head took another slow drag off his cigarette, before snuffing it in the ash tray on his arm chair. "Excellent work, Ross. It seems my decision to invest in you was well made." He tapped a few keys on his haptic interface, and a display image of Eliza appeared before him. "I trust you won't let your newest crew member's...loyalty issues cause any trouble?"

Ross took a moment and thought about it. "She's been fucked over and asked to do horrible things with both the Alliance and that animal I just put down. Dr. Chel and I believe that my type of leadership will work with her. The doctor will also begin taking Eliza through some therapy to help her with some of her issues with her time on Eden Prime and with Potivin. She is an exceptional soldier and we are lucky to have her. We also will have her manning our main battery. We do not believe she is fit for the field. Yet."

The Illusive man simply nodded, his chair spinning back to face the countless screens that kept him informed on the vast workings of his organization. "As long as you're committed to the cause, and keep them committed, you have total discretion with your recruiting." His finger raised to end the call, pausing just above it. "I'll contact you when it's time for another assignment." With that, he cut the call.

Ross had just relaxed from his at attention posture before a voice came from behind him. “Speaking of recruiting we need to make a stop.” It was said as more of an order than a request and Ross turned to see it was Menar who gave it.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Two days later…..

Ross always enjoyed the planet of Illium, and not just because of all the beautiful blue Asari walking around. He enjoyed the energy of the cities and the various ways to lose yourself in them. It seemed to be one of the few ways to calm his panicked mind after he left the Alliance but since getting it all back together he has had little need to come back. Coming through the hallways of the ship dock and seeing the views made him take note that a leisure not business visit might be needed soon.

He was sure he’d not be able to relax this stay as the Krogan Menar followed him and complained. “I don’t understand why you needed to come with me Ross. I told you, she’s one of mine. That should be more than enough of a reference for her.”

Ross kept walking down the hallway, if ignoring Menar wouldn’t result in some kind of violent outcome he would have done that. Instead he said, “Forgive me for not taking your word on it Menar. Lord knows you’re a fine judge of character.” He made the last part dripping with extra sarcasm. “The Illusive Man may had given us every right to bring more people on to my ship. But it is still MY ship and I want to meet anyone we might bring on board.”

“There is no might about this Ross. She is coming with us.”

Ross stopped and stood toe to toe with the Krogan. “I don’t care if she was part of your crew. This is my team and my ship. If I don’t ok it, she’s not coming. And if you dare try to undermine me in front of the men like this we are going to have problems.”

Noah stood at the reception lounge where Menar had told her to be ready to go. As usual, she was early. She recognized the rumbling voice and particular pattern of his footsteps before he came into sight. Rising from her chair, she watched the Krogan come into view with a tall human male and they didn’t appear happy with one another.

She waited for an opening in the argument, obviously centering around her and interjected, “If you will pardon Menar, I am certain that was not his intention.”

Both Menar and the human turned toward her, startled by the sound of her voice.

She offered a gentle smile, huge black eyes gleaming innocently back at them. She bowed with a single hand pressed to her chest. “It is my pleasure to meet you. I am Noah Korol. Companion of Menar.” Noah then turned and bowed separately to Menar, “It warms me to see you once more, Menar.”

Menar was first to speak. “God damn it Noah, if that sneakiness wasn’t so damn useful in combat I’d have belted you long time ago for that.”

The Drell turned back to Menar, “I assure you, Menar. It was not my intention to startle. Please forgive me.” She said in a tone that was completely sincere and yet indicated that she’d heard his threats countless times before.

Ross meanwhile looked back and forth between the Krogan and the smaller Drell. The contrast at just the surface level was staggering, but more than that this Noah in no way looked to him like the killing sort. He looked Menar and pointed at the Drell. “SHE….is part of YOUR crew? And is your EXPLOSIVES expert?”

Her attention returned to the Commander with a new interest. “Indeed.” She assured Ross. “I am proficient in all forms of infiltration and explosives. Hand to hand combat and most known weapons. I have been privileged to work with Menar for 2 years and I believe it has been mutually advantageous.” She paused and then continued, “If you wished, I could…”

Menar interrupted before she could launch into a complete history of their missions together with a soft growl. “No. Not the whole perfect memory trance creepy shit. Trust me Ross she’s tougher than she looks.”

Ross looked back at the Drell and after a moment of looking into her eyes decided to go with his gut. “Commander Jensen Ross. Welcome aboard.” He held out his hand.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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As the holographic interface surrounded Kelly, projecting her new environment, she stood completely rock still. Her hands were held behind her back slightly tighter than she was used to, and had to forcefully work at keeping her hands loose, so as to not let the slightest emotion sink out when she was talking with her boss. As the interface finished its scan of her, she was rewarded with the familiar large, shifting gas giant that was right outside the Illusive Man’s window. The Illusive Man stood at the far end, his back to the Quantum Entanglement device, and his hands were surprisingly void of any cigarettes this time around. Kelly stood there, knowing that he knew that she was there, and knowing that he would start talking when he wanted to. After a slight silence, TIM gave a small sigh. “This unit was supposed to be some of the best men and women in the known galaxy...fighting a threat bigger than any politician on Earth or Arcturus Station could possibly comprehend.” TIM turned to Kelly, and slowly started walking forward. “Yet it seems that this unit, this cell...is only capable of getting its officers killed or captured.” TIM took a seat in his favorite chair. “Tell me Operative Invaru, why is that the case?”

Kelly stiffened a slight bit, knowing he was looking for a place to find a problem and correct it. One wrong word, one wrong move, and she could find herself in the worst post possible, or worse. “Sir, our team was ambushed planet side. When they got to the room, the targets weren’t there. In their place were some heavily armed soldiers in an armour configuration that our team didn’t recognize...” Kelly took a breath for a moment. “First Lieutenant Harrens was captured in the ambush.” TIM took all the information without batting an eye as Kelly recounted the tale of the ambush, his finger hovering over the holographic display and eyes shifting between her and the screen as she talked.

“That much I can see from the reports filtering in from the ground team sent...and the armour configuration...without a picture I can’t be certain but it sounds like our little brother in the Alliance wants a slice of the cake.” Kelly looked over at him, confused. He took a moment of silence, before lacing his fingers together. “There is an Alliance program being run, called Oracle. It’s the Alliance’s way of trying to keep tabs on all of our operations. They work much in the same way we do, with separate cells dedicated to different areas of operations. What they lack, however, is the funding and manpower. They’ve been watching us for awhile now, this is the first time they’ve acted in any measurable amount.” Kelly looked at him, her eyes growing cold and metaphorical frost falling from her shoulders.

“Sir, was there a reason we weren’t told this? We could have gone in prepared for a possible ambush, been more careful, understood the risks...”

“Everyone understands the risks they take when they join up with this organization Operative Invaru.” TIM stood up, stepping closer to the QE pad and raising his voice slightly. “This job requires sacrifice from the soldiers, the scientists, and the operatives to function. This is a known fact, something that you should already be fully aware of Operative Invaru.” TIM stared her down for a moment, his very presence forcing her to back down. He took a step back, and pulled a cigarette from his breast pocket. After lighting it and giving it a slight inhale, he spoke. “I didn’t tell you because I was just as much in the dark as you were. Despite their lack of means, they are surprisingly resourceful. My contacts didn’t know about the ambush until it was already made.” TIM sat back down in his chair. “I made the mistake of underestimating them, their reach, and their tenacity. Make no mistake Operative Invaru, this will not happen again.”

“Forgive my...abruptness sir, but how can we possibly understand the risks if you won’t tell us.” Her trademark professional tone returned for that brief moment, possibly the only thing preventing her from being fired or eliminated at this point. The Illusive Man didn’t raise his voice lightly. TIM waved his hand around, trailing smoke behind the cigarette as he did.

“I can’t have my agents, soldiers, and scientists being spooked by every single rumour out there. We are always under threat of attack, under threat of espionage, under threat of morality rearing its head. The truth is, Operative Invaru, is that I didn’t notify you because we had been ‘under threat’ from Oracle for some time now. They had done nothing previous to the ambush that indicated they had the means or the motivation to actively strike at this organization.” The Illusive Man looked Kelly straight in the eyes. “Had I told you, you would have dismissed it as a rumour as well. Something that happens every day, something that is constantly watched but blatantly ignored by the people who don’t need to know what the threat actually is.” TIM relaxed for a moment. “I suggest you drop the matter Operative, there is nothing more to discuss here.”

“Understood sir.” Kelly’s voice was cold, and despite her best efforts, it was getting obvious to see that she was angered by this betrayal, however small. It cost her a crew member and a friend. “Is that all sir?"

“Three things. First...” TIM took a drag on his cigarette. “Commander Titus is no longer with us.” Before Kelly could say anything, TIM held up a hand. “He’s not dead Operative, he’s betrayed us. Those men who attacked your squad and took Lieutenant Harrens, he’s joined up with them. He’s with Oracle now. From this moment on, if you come into contact with the former Commander, you are to eliminate him with extreme prejudice. Are we clear?”

“Crystal sir.” Kelly replied.

“He left the Vindicator when he fled from Omega station, salvage teams have been sent out to recover the ship. Your priority is to get to the station, and pick up a crew member he left behind.” He took another drag on the cigarette. “Vala Buchan. She’ll be staying with you until I deem otherwise, so I suggest you make something comfortable for the Operative, after all, she just had brain surgery.”

“I’m sorry sir? Are we talking injury?” Kelly inquired.

“No, we’re talking implant upgrade to L5’s. She’s up and moving, but I wouldn’t expect much from her for awhile.” The Illusive Man took a moment of silence once more. “Two, I have another mission for you. I realize that you would want to rest and recuperate from the loss of your temporary field Commander, but this is something that simply can’t wait.” TIM hit a button on his display and a planet appeared before them. “This is Ontarom. You may remember the planet from the Corporal Toombs incident.”

“The one where a soldier came back from the supposed dead to kill the Cerberus Scientists that had abducted him?” Kelly asked as she looked at the rotating planet.

“That would be correct.” TIM took one last drag on his cigarette before snuffing it out. “Since then we had established a research station on the other side of the planet. With the help of some sympathizers within the human colonies, and some bribes towards some of the Alliance officials in the area, we were able to set up a base of sizeable proportions.” TIM touched a button, and the image zoomed in on an area near the south pole of the planet. Kelly took one look at it, and raised an eyebrow.

“That’s not just a research station...” Kelly stated. The base itself was built like a fortress. Noticeable weapon emplacements couldn’t be seen from the image that she was given, but she had to guess they had some sort of hidden arsenal there. Aside from that, it was built to withstand a sizeable attack. Kelly guessed that it had to do with the Alliance personnel on the planet, in case they decided the bribes weren’t enough. TIM pressed another button, and showed that the base went several floors underground as well.

“You’re correct in a sense. It’s a weapon’s developing facility.” Kelly looked up at the man as if he was mad.

“You placed a weapons developing facility on an Alliance controlled world?” Kelly asked, unable to keep the incredulity from seeping into her words.

“Money can buy many things Operative Invaru. Peace and quiet happens to be one of the cheapest. Besides, being an Alliance controlled planet is the equivalent to having a drunken mother who only registers you exist when you stop feeding her alcohol. Even if we were to launch an attack from this base, I doubt the Alliance would respond with any speed to do anything about it.” TIM looked up at Kelly once more. “Which is good, considering what I’m tasking you with.” Kelly looked up curiously, and the screen switched to a balding man with a marine’s build but scientist’s attire.

“This is Doctor Harvey Mueller. He was our lead scientist within the Ontarom Outpost, but since then has proven that he is...too difficult to handle.” The image changed to several videos all depicting horrible weapon experimentation involving live targets varying from human to asari to elcor. “While the loss of such life is...saddening, the real problem happens to be the fact that he is drawing attention to us. We are already under enough scrutiny as is from the galactic community, and could deal without this headache.”

“I’m going to guess that you already asked him to stop?” Kelly asked. TIM looked back at the videos.

“Of course, several times under pain of death this last time. He’s managed to gain the favour of most of the marines and scientists in the area. Either through sheer racist zealously, or fear of death.” The videos changed to one video of Cerberus marines fighting one another throughout the base, vying for control of key sectors. “As of 8 am yesterday morning galactic time, the outpost officially went off the grid and assumed rogue.” Another button push and the screen disappeared. “Your mission is to go in there, and liquidate the entire area; marines, scientists, anyone that has sided with Dr. Mueller regardless of the reason. Be forewarned, this is not an easy enter and clear operation Operative.” TIM leaned forward a bit. “With Commander Horn still in a coma and Lieutenant Harrens currently MIA, this task will be all the much harder. They will be armed, they will fight, and there will be death for both sides.”

“What kind of numbers can we expect sir?” Kelly asked without missing a beat.

“The marine contingent based out of the outpost wasn’t large, 50 marines maximum. With the infighting, I would put their current numbers at around 30 to 40.”

“What can we expect defensively?”

“The outpost was equipped with a Guardian anti-air system built into the roof of the complex. However reports indicate that the loyalist marines managed to at least damage their systems before they were overrun. I have no knowledge of anything else, as they have managed to effectively cut us out of the systems. The reports and data have been sent to your on board AI.” TIM leaned back once more. “Be forewarned Operative Invaru. Dr. Mueller is a brilliant man. He may have been planning this coup for months before it actually came to fruition. Expect the unexpected.”

“Understood sir.” Kelly stood there for a moment, the both of them looking at each other in complete silence. “What was the third thing sir?” TIM stood from his chair, and walked towards the window slightly, his back facing Kelly.

“Omni Cell has fallen into disarray Operative. Reports, actions, and statistics are all saying the same thing.” The Illusive man turned back towards Kelly. “And that is Omni is costing me more money than it is worth.” Kelly did her best to not visibly stiffen. TIM walked forward slowly, his footsteps echoing in the chamber. “I do not work in the business of failures, nor do I work in the business of losing money Operative Invaru. Completing this mission, despite the lack of knowledge and resources would go a long way towards solidifying the reason as to why you were formed in the first place.” TIM was up to Kelly now, staring her down through the holographic interface. “Do not disappoint me Operative, I do not react well to disappointment.” With that, the connection was cut and Kelly was left standing in the briefing room feeling slightly out of breath. In his own twisted, mind-bending way, he had just threatened her job and her life. This mission was part of message, that failures and rogue agents would be hunted, they would be killed, and they would be forgotten. Kelly took a deep breath, and looked around the room slightly.

“Nikki, did you get the data transfer from the Illusive Man?” She asked the room.

“Acknowledged Operative Invaru, we can view it at your leisure.” Nikki answered. Kelly shook her head.

“In time, for now, there is someone I need to go meet.”

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“To be honest ma’am, I thought you weren’t going to show up.” Linda said as Kelly stepped into her room/office. The place was incredibly clean, save for her desk which had data pads tossed all over and old fashioned paper cluttering the free space. Off to the side were too chairs, one of them with a prop desk to write on, and the other with the ability to recline. Kelly knew which one was hers. “Just take a seat ma’am, and we’ll get started.” Kelly paused for a second, suddenly getting the feeling that Horn probably got whenever he was getting a psych exam. She walked over, and took a seat in the reclining chair, and remained silent for the few minutes it took Linda to grab her things and sit down in her desk-chair. She wrote a couple of things on her datapad, before putting it down and leaning forward on her elbows. “So, what’s on your mind Kelly?”

Kelly was slightly taken back by the casual use of her first name, usually one ever used by either Horn or Daniel on rare occasions. Linda just gave a smile. “I’m here to examine your brain Operative, and you’re concerned over the use of your first name? That’s cute.” Her tone was slightly condescending, which was strange for a psychiatrist. Kelly had always been with the ones that were all business, no jokes, and completely to the point. They never joked with her, or in this case, talk down to her.

“I thought I was here for you to tell me.” Kelly stated in a neutral tone as she disregarded Linda’s previous statement. Linda gave a smile, and wrote something else down on her pad.

“Well how do you think I do that Kelly? I can’t tell you what’s on your mind if you don’t tell me what you believe is on it.” Linda said as she looked over to the Operative. Kelly simply stared her down. Linda gave a sigh, and looked down for a moment before returning her gaze. “We can do this as easily as you like, or you can try and fight it. I find more problems if you fight it, just so you understand.”

“I understand that you tried to undermine my established position as a leader of the vessel while we were on the CIC in front of dozens of techs, who now might be questioning my mental health because of you whispering in my ear Ms. Franks.” Linda sat back in fake shock as she put yet another note on her datapad. Once again, Kelly’s voice was neutral as ever.

“Kelly, in the short time that I have known you, I have been able to observe a many things. An amount that actually surprises me considering how composed and in control you are at any given time. Would you like me to read them to you?” They looked at each other for a second, and when Kelly didn’t respond, Linda held up the pad and began reading from it. “Operative Kelly Invaru. Outer control is apparent, but a sign of inner turmoil as her constant need to be ‘in on the action’ has managed to portray a sense of over-achieving, along with subtle symptoms of extreme stress.” Linda looked up at Kelly, who simply held her glare. Linda continued. “While I have not known Kelly long enough to understand what she was like prior to her position as temporary Commander of the Call of Victory, it is obvious that she doesn’t feel comfortable in the position. The makeup that hides the bags under her eyes, the subtle twitches she’s developed when she hears bad news, to the point where she seemed to freeze when she heard that Lieutenant Harrens had been captured. All point to extreme stress, and possible psychological disorders of varying degrees should this routine keep up.” Linda looked up once more, and gave a smile. “Kelly, I’ve learned what a jaw lock looks like, I can see you physically trying to suppress your need to clench your fists, and your constant staring is indicating signs of anger.”

Linda sighed and put the datapad down. She took a moment to compose her thoughts before speaking. “I’m trying to show you what you are going to become should you keep up with this behaviour ma’am. Despite this show of control, this cold air of professionalism, this image of non-caring objectiveness, you are falling apart on the inside.” Linda sat back for a moment, tapping a finger against her chin. “I want you to describe Commander Horn to me.”

“I’m sorry?” Kelly stated neutrally despite everything being said.

“Describe Commander Horn to me.” Linda stated once more. “Not physically, but as a person. Who is he, what, in your mind, makes him tick?” Kelly kept her gaze with the woman a few moments longer before looking down and coming up with an answer.

“He’s...overbearing, sarcastic, sexist at times, often crude, sometimes rude, and most of the time simply acting as if he was a man that was going into his freshman year of college.” Kelly stated.

“So why do you follow him?” Linda asked. Without missing a beat, Kelly answered.

“Because despite that there are qualities that save his character. He’s brave, charismatic, loyal, courageous, witty, funny, and willing to do whatever is necessary to not only finish a mission but to save as many people as he can. He’s one of the few Commanders out there that I can say that without a doubt he would take a bullet for anyone on this ship...even TJ.”

“Sounds like you’ve spent some time analyzing his character Kelly.”

“It was my job.” Kelly retorted.

“Do you admire him?” Linda asked suddenly. Kelly looked at the woman.

“If by admire, you mean respect and trust him with my life, then yes.” Kelly stated. Linda gave a smile as she jotted yet another note down on the pad. She looked up, playing with her nails.

“Oh come on, you’ve been with him what? Over a year now? He’s the kind of guy that manages to put on a certain air of charm regardless of the things he says or does.” Linda gave a wicked smile. “And judging by the way your pupils dilated as if you were reliving a memory when you spoke of him is surprising. That and how quickly you came to jump to his defense when I started question him.” Kelly simply stared at the woman.

“It was my job to analyze him, to keep him on track, and make sure he knew what the threats, risks, and rewards were. He didn’t necessarily like it, but again, it was my job.” Kelly retorted.

“And now it’s your turn. You’re Horn, I’m Kelly. I’m analyzing you, and you hate it, much like his dossier says that he hates shrinks.” Linda leaned forward once again. “You’re trying to live up to his legacy without realizing you’re trying to live up to anyone. You’re trying to play it to your style, only to realize that you’re in a far bigger shadow than you thought you were.” Kelly looked down for a moment, giving a sigh and hating the fact that she was right. She had been trying to live up to Horn ever since he had gone off to the Collector Cruiser. She wasn’t a soldier; she was an analyst and a strategist. Linda continued. “I can sit here all day, and list to you your pros and cons, but that’s not what I’m here for.” Linda stood up, and took a seat on the arm of the chair Kelly was on. “I’m here to make you realize, you aren’t Horn...you will never be Horn...as far as I read, no one can really ever be Horn.” Linda gave a smile, and Kelly smirked. “I want you to be yourself, not for me or for the Illusive Man, or even for the crew. I want you to be you for you. This stress of the job, losing people, watching and not being able to do a damn thing about it...it’s not something you can control. You have to place faith in the right people, and when those people are willing to follow you simply because of who you are rather than what your position is, that’s when you know you’ve raised yourself to the point you’re trying to hoist yourself to.” Kelly looked up to Linda.

“Stop stressing, stop worrying, and stop crying on the inside for Horn or Harrens. Instead, do something about it. Take a break, have a rest, let some sleep clear that confused brain of yours and wake up in a few hours refreshed. Then, when everything is ready to go...” Linda stood up again, and grabbed her datapad. “We’re going to find those mother fuckers who took Daniel and treat them to several different kinds of hell for taking our field Commander.” Kelly gave a small smile before standing up from the chair. She paused once she was standing.

“You are not the standard type of psychiatrist Ms. Franks.” Kelly said, her tone slightly lighter now. Linda gave a laugh.

“Kelly, I’ve learned that you military types are so used to balding men in glasses asking you ‘what does this picture look like’ that you never actually learn what is mentally wrong or fit with you. I’m here to help you, not send a daily report off to God knows where so I can collect my paycheck.” Linda looked over at her. “Whether you like it or not, we’re all in this together...and I don’t like seeing my Commander troubled.” Kelly stood there for a moment longer, before taking a couple of steps towards the door.

“I...appreciate the concern Ms. Franks.” Kelly stated, and just before the door opened, Linda yelled after her.

“Hey!” Kelly turned and caught a bottle of pills, she looked them over and recognized them as sleeping pills. “There’s enough in there for a couple of nights, just to get you caught up. And for God’s sake ma’am, in this room, it’s Linda!” Kelly gave another small smile before walking out the door.

“Of course.” She said lightly as the door closed behind her. She took one more look at the pills, knowing there was still a few hours before their rendezvous with Operative Buchan. She slipped them into her pocket, and made her way towards her own room. She could really use one restful sleep before the rest of the shit hit the fan.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“And we are docked.” Harold stated as Kelly looked over his shoulder at Omega Station.

“Good, is Operative Buchan waiting?” Kelly asked. Harold pressed few buttons before a confirmation came across.

“It looks like it boss...I mean ma’am...sir?...Ma’am?...Commander.” Kelly looked down at the man as he quite easily became flustered.

“Ma’am will do fine Mr. Bretton.” Harold nodded sheepishly, keeping his head down as he no doubt scrutinized himself once more on acting like an idiot. Kelly walked back through the CIC feeling like a new person. The sleep brought on by the pills had allowed her the first restful slumber she had had since Horn had gone comatose. Her military form was, once again, immaculate as her eyes surveyed everything and everyone. Despite the loss of Daniel, the failure of the mission, and the threat by the Illusive Man, she walked around as if nothing was the matter. In actuality, she was still stressing on the inside as to how everything was going to work, but she had a purpose now. Once Vala was on the ship, they had a mission that needed to be completed and that was her sole concern for the time being. She could worry about Daniel, about Horn, about her job, about her life, or she could focus on the things that she could actually work on. Despite the talk with Linda, which went surprisingly well, she felt like she could fall into a stress remission at the drop of the hat if she thought too long and hard about the far seen problems. So instead, she flushed them out of her mind, and as she stood in front of the airlock, she focused solely on what was happening right now.

When the door opened, Kelly found a rather disheveled Operative Buchan. She looked like she had been hit by a truck, but Kelly chalked that up to a combination of brain surgery and Commander betrayal. She stood there, her neutral eyes looking at the woman with a small smile on her face.

“Operative Buchan. Welcome to the Call of Victory.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Janis Freeman Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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"The team is making considerable progress," Miranda said as she paced around with her thoughts behind the Illusive Man, with one arm crossed over her chest, supporting the other bracing her chin.

Her employer took a sip of his bourbon and gently set the glass on the arm of his chair. His ears belonged to Operative Lawson, but his curious eyes were focused on the many screens and information panels in front of him. His hand reached inside his jacket pocket and revealed a silver cigarette case. After pressing down on the clamp with his thumb, he elegantly plucked a single cigarette and exchanged the case for a lighter.

"I read you report," he said, after lighting up and taking a quick drag. "At this rate, Shepard should be awake in less than a year from now. How is Wilson doing? Has he given you any more trouble since we last spoke?"

Miranda shook her head no. "He's kept his thoughts to himself more since the raise you gave him. I suppose loud-mouth has their price. I still worry about him though. Just because he's not interrupting me at every turn, doesn't mean I trust him."

"Have patience, Miranda," the Illusive Man said in a calm, controlling manner. "For every ten yes-men, there needs to be a no-man."

"Pardon?"

The Man slowly stood up from his chair and turned away from the monitors. With his back to hundreds of information networks at his disposal, silhouetted by the gas giant even farther beyond, he explained, "Motivation and ambition is fool-hardy without reason and caution. I value Wilson's criticism, even if he tends to be skeptical at times."

There was an audible tone from the QEC projection pad in the center of the room, and the Illusive Man reached down to tap a command on the haptic interface above one of the arms of his chair. The hologram of a man in a fashionable suit and long, slick hair materialized above the pad. He stood with hands buried in trouser pockets, scrunching up the bottom of his jacket.

"Janis," Miranda said, a little surprised.

"Well, if it isn't the teacher's pet," Freeman retorted.

The Illusive Man took another, longer drag of his cigarette. His cold eyes narrowed and they became all that was visible on top of the dark shadow of a man that stood directly in front of Janis' hologram. The atmosphere changed, and Miranda found herself taking a few steps back. "Janis," the Man said, a hint of anger in his tone, "I don't think you realize how much of a failure you are to me."

"I can expla-,"

"-No. I gave you one simple task: to shoot Titus. And from what I understand, you actually had him aligned with your sights, but you chose to do what you can never seem to stop doing... You wanted to talk. In doing so, you gave him and his friends the chance to over-power you and escape."

"Someone else interfered!"

"Regardless of Oracle's involvement, you failed. You had the perfect opportunity to do what I had asked, and you chose to delay for your own personal gratification. That agent's interference succeeded because your arrogance got in the way."

Janis tried to maintain his composure, but with clenched fists, a clamped jaw, and narrow eyes, he was practically fuming. Despite the blue tones that dominated his hologram, his face was clearly red with boiling fury. "Give me a chance to make it right," he finally said under a stressed tone.

The Illusive Man pondered the request for a moment, raising a fist to his chin as he carefully weighed his options. Eventually, he looked over to Miranda and asked, "What do you think?"

Miranda looked from the Man to Janis, a heavy frown on her face. "Personally, I think you were a better operative when you infiltrated the ranks of politicians and diplomats. But your methods seem to be effective both militarily and politically; and Cerberus could use more smooth-talkers. I think we have plenty of assassin's and gun-totting xenophobes. What we need are people that know how to make us some friends. The Alliance has Oracle, Aurora, and C-Sec. Cerberus only has the backing of our financial supporters, but most of them refuse to lend us their private armies."

"You want me to play messenger and ass-kisser?" contested Janis, who appeared insulted at the idea.

"You seem to be more suited to that kind of job than pulling a trigger," the Illusive Man remarked. "I agree with Miranda. You are to remain on Omega until I contact you again with an assignment." The Illusive Man turned his chair to face to Janis and then slowly took his seat. He brought up the haptic interface above one of the arm's and his finger hovered over the kill command for the QEC. "And try to keep your tongue in check until that time comes, Freeman." His finger tapped the command key and Janis' projection disappeared.

Miranda walked back over to her employer as the man turned his chair slowly back around to face his many screens of information and news feeds. "I really want that scoundrel dead, but I meant what I said about Cerberus needing more talkers than shooters right now. The state of the galaxy is extremely delicate, despite humanity's new role."

"While I couldn't agree more," the Man began, "Cerberus still needs to remain strong on all fronts. Talking only gets you so far, and, as Janis recently demonstrated, eventually makes things worse."

Lawson looked back at the Illusive Man in slight surprise. "But didn't we just tell Janis-?"

"His services will no longer be required." He leaned back in his chair and placed the cigarette between his lips. After inhaling a final drag and letting the smoke jet out into the air around him, he snuffed the cigarette out in the small ash tray on the arm of his chair and returned to browsing through his information network.




The blue-ish elixir that Janis found underneath the bar in his hotel room would have to do to calm his nerves. He wasn't too fond of having to drink alien alcohol, but considering human foods and drinks on Omega are in short supply given the alien-dominance of the Terminus, he didn't exactly have much of a choice. The talk with the Illusive Man had gone well, at least he kept telling himself that. It was always hard to read the man, but he guessed some form of punishment will come eventually and he would have to own up for his mistake. He was only relieved that he was being allowed to keep his life.

After a moment of forcing down the horrible-tasting beverage, Janis moved into the living area and collapsed on a long couch with one arm over his eyes and the opposite hand resting across his stomach. He already felt a small buzz from the drink. His body wasn't used to consuming alien products, especially their alcohols. Seconds later, he felt dizzy, even though he was still lying down.

"Son of a bitch," he grumbled. "What the hell did I just down?"

He tried sitting up, but that only made his head spin even more. Finally, he managed to swing his legs around and plant his feet on the rug underneath the couch. After a minute of hanging his head forward and staring at the floor, he pushed himself to stand up, rocking back and forth when he was on his feet.

The sound of a door hissing open echoed throughout the room, and Janis stumbled to turn his body in the direction of his hotel room's door. The drink must have had some hallucinogenic effects because from what he could tell - through his daunting, drunken vision - the door remained closed and the locking panel glowed a bright red. Janis' eyes remained focused on the red lock light for several minutes, with the color blurring in every which direction, capturing his sudden fascination.

Finally, the man shook his head free of the trance and stumbled across the living area, heading over to the suite. When he was about to loose his balance, he reached out and steadied himself on the door frame. Looking up and across the room, he saw the large king-sized bed, about two feet off of the ground. That was his goal. If he could just make it to the bed, he could call it a day and wake up the next morning with nothing more than a hangover the size of Neptune. But he only made it three steps inside the room.

"Who's there?!" he called out at the sound of a rustle coming from outside the suite. Janis stumbled back toward the door, only for his nose to run into the chest of a dark-haired man that suddenly appeared, standing in the threshold. It took Janis a moment for his glazed eyes to recognize who it was. The olive skin, the mixed Asian and Hungarian facial features. "Leng? What are you doing here?!"

"The Illusive Man wanted me to tell 'goodbye'," the assassin said in a dark, austere tone before a gloved hand shot out and grabbed Janis by his throat. All five fingers held a vice grip around the man's airway, relentlessly choking him. Janis struggled, but Leng's other hand covered his mouth and nose and he felt himself being pushed until his legs collided with the foot of the bed. With his balanced knocked out from under him, he was slammed down on the mattress and Kai's weight had him completed pinned.

Janis panicked and his mind raced through a thousand thoughts, but none of them provided him with an opportunity to escape, let alone breathe. He should have known the Illusive Man would never be so forgiving. Asking Miranda's opinion was nothing more than a ruse, providing Janis with enough false hope to remain on Omega until Kai Leng, the Man's guard dog, could find him and tie up any loose ends. He, Janis Freeman, had been played and defeated at his own game. Now, as his lungs burned for oxygen, and his thoughts spiraled out of control, his vision continued to blur and fade out until all went black... and his thoughts finally stopped.




Kai Leng stepped outside of the suite and into the living area of Freeman's hotel room, closing the door behind him. With a few rapid taps of his Omni-tool, the assassin hacked the room's lock and ensured that it would take a hacker of equal skill to get the door open again. It would be a few days before the hotel staff would find Janis' strangled body.

Leng pressed two fingers to a tiny comm device around his ear. "It's done," he said aloud.

"Good," the voice of the Illusive Man said from the other end of the call. "I'll be in touch. Monitoring Grayson won't be your only assignment in a few months' time."

"You know how to get a hold of me, then," Leng replied as he walked towards the door of the hotel room, satisfied with his work and the Illusive Man's personal praise.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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It was on the second day when Vala finally emerged from her quarters, her guards reluctantly falling into step behind the operative. Regardless of the events in the conference room, and the possibility of her and Horn encountering each other and sparking a second conflict, she had need of the QEC, by order of the Illusive Man. Her marine escorts were positively thrilled at the prospect of having to step between the immovable object and the unstoppable force, she could tell by the slightly nervous way they eyed every single corner or door.

She couldn’t blame them, really. Personal grudges aside, Horn wasn’t someone to underestimate, and while she had all the confidence in her own abilities, the marines would probably serve as little more than fodder to Jason should he get enraged. Boarding the lift, she pressed the key for the fourth floor, but the holographic image of Nikki appeared abruptly. “Operative Buchan. Please be advised Commander Horn is currently on the CIC.”

Vala blinked impassively. “I’m not planning on provoking him, provided he doesn’t interfere.” The lift started without further delay, and she shook her head at their precautions. A moment later, the lift opened, revealing the CIC and Horn at the galaxy map. He spared a glance over his shoulder, meeting her eyes for a moment. Her escort tensed, as she stared back for a moment before offering a blunt, “Commander.”

The two gave each other no more of their time, Vala turning and heading towards the briefing room which housed the QEC with her escort in toe, although she gave the both of them a sharp glare at their attempt to follow her in. “Ma’am, we’re supposed t-” One tried to explain, but she caught him short.

“I don’t care who gave you the order, communication with the Illusive Man is not something you are privy to. Stay here. Or else.” The two exchanged a few doubtful looks, before nodding in compliance, taking their places on opposite sides of the bulkhead. “Good.” She stepped into the room, taking a moment to smooth out her uniform and ensure she was presentable. Once satisfied, she stepped to the center of the room, and Nikki took care of the rest.

As the familiar grid pattern of the QE communicator covered her, Vala shifted uncomfortably on the balls of her feet. The room descended into darkness, and for a few moments, was completely still as the system established the connection. As the sleek black flooring and the silhouetted form of the Illusive Man against the blazing red star that dominated his view point. Files flowed around him, although their contents she was unable to make out, but it was always clear that he knew she was there. Several minutes passed in silence, the Operative watching him work until he turned his eyes to her, the faintest trail of smoke rolling from his lips.

“Commander Landon Prado.” As he spoke, the dossier of the Omni cell commander snapped up before her, startling the woman slightly. “Commander Joseph Poitvin.” The next dossier appeared, and Vala’s eyes flicked to the man’s image quietly. She hadn’t seen the man since the operation on Illium, which felt almost like a life-time ago, but the light text that read KIA spoke clearly of his fate. “Commander Jonathan Titus.” For a moment, she swore she detected the slightest hint of venom in his voice, but whatever he thought, the Illusive Man wasn’t sharing. “Commander Jason Horn. Commander Jensen Ross.” The final two dossiers appeared before her, as the Illusive Man strode across the room to take his seat, eyes never leaving Vala as she glanced between the different profiles.

“Omni-cell.” She spoke, quietly, but loudly enough for her employer to hear. Breathing a light cloud of smoke, he tapped a few keys on the haptic interface, and the dossiers for Prado, Poitvin and Titus disappeared. “…or what’s left of it.” She focused her eyes on Ross’s profile, not having managed to work with the man yet, but the majority of her attention remained on the man before her.

“An apt description, if unfortunate.” Rolling the cigarette in his grip, the Illusive Man spun his chair 180 degrees, looking at the array of information before him again. “But for its short comings, Omni-cell has still managed to achieve much in its short existence. We’ve struck against the Collectors, and managed to limit our losses, despite our enemies’ tenacity. But for ever success, there is a setback. These cannot be allowed to continue.” Shifting her gaze to his illuminated figure, Vala nodded slowly.

“Of course, sir. I’ll do whatever you need me to; you only have to say the word.” He nodded, still not turning to address as he flicked the ash from his cigarette. “The Commanders are my assignment, and I’ll see it through, no matter the cos-” He held up a hand for silence, and Vala immediately cut herself short. The air was thick with silence, and she felt a few beads of sweat break on her neck. This wasn’t the Illusive Man’s usual method. A gift for words he may have, but he knew how to make his point, and make it well. It felt as if he was choosing his words.

It was unnerving beyond belief, and when he finally broke the silence, she released a breath she hadn’t know she was holding. “Your original assignment, yes.” Taking a slow drag of his cigarette, he released one last breath of smoke before snuffing it. “The task was unconventional to ask of you. You’re specialized Vala, and that makes you rather useful.” She straightened ever so slightly at the perceived praise, before the cold teal of his eyes shifted to her, freezing her to the bone. “But not in this case. A lone assassin jumping between ships can’t make the impact I initially hoped.”

Shrinking back at his words, Vala’s gaze feel to the floor. “I’m…sorry, sir.” Any excuse she could give would be just that, and she knew he had neither time nor inclination to hear them. “If there’s anything I can do…”

“As you are, that’s not possible.” She flinched slightly, not even daring to meet his gaze, the bitter taste of failure settling into her stomach. “That need not be a permanent assessment, Vala.” Her eyes flicked up to meet him; the Illusive Man rising from his seat as an agent seemingly appeared from the shadow to hand him a glass. “Provided you have the drive and the will, I have the means to craft your new tools into the weapons we need to strike back at our enemies.”

“Always, sir. You just have to say the word.” Her voice was firm and resolute, earning the faintest of smiles from the enigmatic Cerberus leader. He raised his glass to his lips, sipping the liquid lightly for a moment before regarding her one more.

“Excellent. I’ve forwarded some co-ordinates to the Call, and Operative Invaru will ensure that the course is set.” Swirling the liquid in his glass about, he looked down at the woman, standing firm and watching him resolutely despite her perceived failures. “Your loyalty and drive has always been an asset, and I believe it’s time we truly began to cultivate the rewards you’ve earned for yourself.”

“Thank you, sir.” She stopped for a moment before continuing. “What’s going to happen with Omni-cell?”

The question seemed to give him pause, taking a slow drink of his glass as he turned to face the star dominating his long bay window. “Omni-cell will continue to operate. Horn has returned, and Ross is ready to face the enemy we brought him to fight. Despite its initial setbacks, I still believe Omni capable of handling the threat the Collectors present to humanity. They simple need to find their own drive once more. But for the time being, you shouldn’t concern yourself with them any further. You have your own work ahead of you, Vala, and none of it easy.”

“Of course, sir. I won’t let you down.”

“I have faith you won’t.” With a tap of a key, he cut the call, plunging her back into the darkness of the Call. After a moment of stillness, she rubbed her palm against her forehead, squeezing her eyes shut. She’d agreed, but she didn’t have any idea what she’d just gone and signed herself up for. The Illusive Man wouldn’t have signed her up for anything that she couldn’t handle…right?

With that in mind, Vala wasted little time returning to her quarters, doubts and questions bouncing around in her head.

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Swinging the duffle bag idly from its place on her shoulder, Vala hugged the shadows of the hangar, avoiding the technicians like the plague. Packing had taken little to no time at all, and the marines had brought a small tote to carry the Nyx, which sat unassumingly in the case on the ground beside her. For a moment, she briefly examined the duffle bag, recalling all the times in recent memory she’d taken all she had and placed it in this small little thing. The number of instances grew quickly, and she forced herself to focus on something other than the lack of stability in her assignment.

Glancing at her omni-tool, the time made her frown in displeasure. The shuttle that was supposed to be meeting them for her pick up was late, and she didn’t really feel like hauling everything back to her quarters to wait another few hours in that small room. She’d seen enough of it during her lockdown, and it’d take more than a few marines to get her back in there again.

The lift hissed open, and she craned her neck slightly to see the occupants. With mild surprise, she saw Operative Invaru step into the hangar, and Vala stepped forward slightly to make herself visible to the woman. Kelly crossed quickly, still the perfect image of control, stopping just short of Vala and regarding her with a light smile. “We’ve made contact with the shuttle, Operative Buchan. They’re ready to receive you.”

She nodded in reply, glancing over to the Kodiak the techs had been prepping to transport her across. “Well then, I suppose I shouldn’t keep them waiting.” Hoisting the tote up by its strap, and adjusting the duffle on her shoulder, Vala crossed the hangar slowly, feeling Kelly’s eyes follow her every step of the way. It wasn’t really much of a mystery why she was here, when a simple page could have sufficed. In the brief time she’d been on this ship, it didn’t take much to learn that Kelly was professional in everything she did, and this was a professional courtesy from one Operative to another.

Setting her things inside the cabin, Vala glanced down at them for a few moments, before stepping up into the dimly lit space. Turning back slightly, she watched Kelly for a moment, before offering a light smile. “Well…good luck, Operative.”

“The same to you.” No more words were exchanged, as the cabin door sealed shut and Vala watched the crew filter out of the hangar so the Kodiak could depart. Moments later, the shuttle rose and slipped out into the deep black of space, the Call of Victory growing smaller and smaller until it vanished from sight all together.

She watched where it had been for a few moments longer, before dropping lightly onto the bench seat, lacing her fingers and resting her head in her hands. Hunched over in the dark, with no one save the pilot around, she found herself thinking. Not about missions. Not about the days to come.

She thought instead back to that night on Earth. The evening spent drinking with Daniel and Alexis, the stories, the laughter, and at the end…an omission she still didn’t really understand. “I don’t really know if I want to be solo again.”

She still didn’t know, but one thing was certain. Omni-cell would continue its work. They were no longer her problem, and she was no longer theirs. And for the life of her, Vala couldn’t decide if this was the best or worst news she’d heard in a long time.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Charlie Welles Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Dusk Trafford Character Portrait: Martin Grien Character Portrait: The Illusive Man
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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: Adam Harrison Character Portrait: Connor DeMarco Character Portrait: Captain Azuric Villayn Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait:
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“That’s it, Bishop,” Titus said with one hand bracing the headrest of his pilot’s seat as she guided the kodiak in closer to the Cerberus station above Thenusi. “Nice and easy.”

The heavy footsteps of Villayn approached from behind and Titus glanced at the turian through his peripherals. “Cerberus must have been put a small fortune into the cloaking tech that was hiding this station,” Azuric commented. “Imagine how deadly their vessels could be if they found a way to apply it to moving objects.”

Titus reached over his shoulder to grab the Valkyrie rifle that Sentry had prepped for him before they left, double checking that the concussive shot launcher was secured to below the primary barrel. “I’m not sure I want to even think about that. The Vindicator was deadly enough with a stealth drive and thanix cannon.” A few memories of his former ship flashed by in the back of his mind, but the Captain suppressed them as quickly as they had come. He was about to start a firefight in enemy territory; he last thing he needed to do was lose focus and reminisce in the past.

Looking at the radar, Jonathan noted that Cobalt’s kodiak was riding along next to them as they should be. Thankfully, the station wasn’t armed with any GARDIAN turrets, making their approach a piece of cake. But what was unsettling was that, along with the lack of automated defenses, there wasn’t a single Cerberus vessel in the system left to guard the station. The only kind of defense they had was the cloak. Something didn’t sit right with Titus about all of this, and he knew that Adam and Azuric had the same feelings, as both were oddly quiet and their eyes were scanning every reading from the computers and scanners, and eying the station with intensity as Lieutenant Bishop drew closer.

“ETA, thirty seconds,” Bishop announced.

Titus took her queue and his team gathered with him at the loading door on the kodiak’s port side, readying their weapons. Villayn had a Viper sniper rifle attached to the magnetic clip on his back, with a Scimitar shotgun in hand; Harrison was equipped with an M-3 Predator in hand, and his katana sheathed over his shoulder.

“Harrison,” Titus said, gaining the man’s attention.

“Sir?”

“Throw up a barrier in front of us as soon as we touch down. I don’t want to take a hail of fire as we make our way out of this fatal funnel.”

“You got it, boss.”

A fatal funnel was military slang for a doorway that could mean certain death upon entering or exiting. It was all a camping soldier would need to watch if it was the only route available for his enemy to pass through. In this case, they would be exiting a tin can through one door, entering an entire landing bay with an unknown layout and an unknown number of targets. Harrison’s biotics would be of use to stop the first barrage of incoming fire in case Cerberus had set up an ambush. And if they were smart, such an ambush was already waiting for them.

“Captain,” Bishop called back from the cockpit, “we’re inside the hangar! I’ll maintain hover at five feet. Prepare to jump in five... four... three... two...” One second later, the hatch popped and the door raised open, allowing the team of three to leap forward onto the ground. Harrison jumped the furthest, taking a diving roll as soon as he landed on the cold surface of the bay. As soon as he stopped in a kneeling position, he threw out his arms and a violet dome of concentrated biotic energy large enough to cover himself, Titus, and Villayn materialized.

Azuric and Jonathan scanned their sectors for several seconds, waiting for a Cerberus marine to take a shot; but nothing came. No gunfire, no shouting. Something was definitely off. Titus looked over to Dianna’s team as they remained in cover behind several cargo crates and small storage containers. Ostrander’s eyes looked to his own, waiting for any orders.

“No soldiers, no turrets.” Villayn said. “Where’s the welcoming committee?”

With a grunt Titus stood up and laid a hand on Adam’s shoulder, letting him know that he could take down the barrier. As Harrison complied, Jonathan still kept his gun up, waiting to see if some hiding Cerberus soldiers would take the bait. But when silence still dominated the hangar, he began to believe that they weren’t in any immediate danger.

“Cobalt!” Titus called out across the bay to Ostrander’s team. “Stick with the plan; take port-side! We’ll take starboard! Keep DeMarco informed every two mike!” He glanced to Villayn and Adam next and said, “Let’s move; keep your guard up.”

As the teams split up, moving towards different exits to the hangar, Titus heard the two kodiaks leaving through the atmospheric mass effect field that protected the bay’s docking entrance. Once the mission was complete, they would return for extraction.

The first door they came upon, just passed the emergency airlock that led out of the hangar and into the rest of the station, had its access interfaced colored orange. It was a standard lock that could be easily bypassed with any military-grade Omni-tool. Adam approached and started to tap away at his Omni-tool’s programs, but Jonathan stopped him. “No, I got it. The door is probably sealed using Cerberus protocols. Luckily, I’ve still got some of them memorized.” Sure enough, the door’s lock gave way within seconds of Titus’ bypassing hack and his team was barreling through with weapons ready.

A long, white and chrome corridor stretched out in front of them. It had seemed like forever since Titus had been aboard anything of Cerberus design. The utilitarian feel of the station seemed like a memory. It had only been two months, but being back now was like a dream.

“Eyes sharp,” he whispered as they passed by several doors on either side of them. As he glanced through the windows built into the walls on each side of the corridor, he saw that they were passing by a series of small laboratories and offices. All of them were empty, but there was signs of recent use. Beakers had been filled with chemicals and liquids, haptic computer terminals were online and running programs, and a radio was even playing a mix of music in one of the offices.

The corridor eventually ended at the open entrance to a larger lab, where multiple counters had been cluttered with experiments, terminals, and stacks of papers. As Titus glanced around, he determined that this room had been used for some kind of bio-chemical testing, as there were multiple samples of organ tissues kept in large, fluid-filled containers, and beakers filled with the same kind of dark, purple liquid mixed with a mesh of what appeared to be hundreds or thousands of tiny synthetic particles.

“What is all of this stuff?” Azuric asked, examining one of the liquid containers.

“Whatever it is, I wouldn’t touch it. Cerberus likes to experiment with biological and chemical weaponry.”

“Hey,” Harrison said, getting his two comrades to look over in his direction. “Coffee’s hot.” He was pointing to a half-full glass pot of coffee in the corner of the lab. The pot was sitting on top of a burner plate, and Titus could make out a tiny trickle of steam rising into the air.

“So we know that this place hasn’t been abandoned for long,” Titus concluded. “But where the heck is everyone?”

"I can answer that," Connor DeMarco's voice sounded off in their headsets. "Cobalt Team just stumbled their way into a lobby of some kind. It appears all of the station's staff had moved themselves there to stay out of our way. The marines turned over their weapons and ammo without a fight. They were never equipped to defend against an assault."

"Then what were they equipped for?" Harrison asked.

"They won't say," Connor answered.

The team pressed on, moving out of the lab and into another corridor that wrapped around a few corners and bulkheads. Titus finally stopped outside of an office, where the door had been left open and all of the lights on. As Villayn and Harrison posted up outside, keeping their weapons trained down each end of the corridor, Titus entered the office and walked around the desk, picking up a datapad that had been left on. He noticed a that the pad’s owner had left a recent voice memo and out of curiosity, his finger tapped the play command. A female’s voice began playing.

”The subject seems to be responding well to the injection treatment and initial results are promising. The nanites are enhancing available muscle tissue, while also constructing synthetic components both inside and outside of the body. Furthermore, the changes seem to have given the subject biotic abilities; a completely unexpected result as no element zero was used during the infusion.

I have only one concern about this project though... As the results of the experiment continue to manifest, I’ve noticed increased intelligence and awareness in the subject, as well as hostility. Carver was injured the other day while trying to obtain a tissue sample from the subject’s forearm. In response, I’ve ordered for increased security in and around Epsilon Sector. No one gets in without my explicit authorization.

...

...I’ve never seen anything like this before.”


There was a slight shuffle at the end of the recording as the anonymous Cerberus scientist proceeded to end her recording. Titus downloaded the voice memo to his Omni-tool before returning the datapad to the desk. After exiting the office, he re-equipped his Valkyrie and gathered Adam and Azuric to continue with him on down the corridor.

“We’re heading to Epsilon Sector,” he said as they walked with a quickened pace. “I want to know what the hell is down there.”

After another minute of wandering empty corridors and inspecting vacant offices and quiet labs, they finally approached upon a large blast door that read “EPSILON” in bold, painted lettering across the top of the door’s archway. The lock interface was colored red, signifying that the area beyond was on total lock-down. Hacking through the door would take a long while, but Titus wasn’t discouraged in the slightest. He knelt down and instantly brought up his Omni-tool’s hacking program for a second time.

“Keep watch, you two,” he ordered as he tapped away at the program. Just as he thought, however, that it would be a good minute before he made any progress, the lock interface flashed to green and the blast doors hissed. Titus immediately jumped back, slightly surprised, and drew his Valkyrie over his shoulder. Adam and Azuric also whirled around with weapons poised as the doors parted to reveal a dark and gloomy laboratory beyond the threshold.

The team entered slowly after receiving no contact, scanning every which way for any hiding hostiles. Dark shadows covered every corner and bulkhead, and the white, shining atmosphere of the previous sections they had traveled through seemed to be completely absent from this new sector, with black paneling and carbon steel. Several tanks had been aligned on either side of the room, all filled with a blue liquid. They seemed to be holding vats for biological specimens; or so Titus assumed as they quietly moved on through the lab.

Eventually, the team rounded a corner, where they stopped to see something suspended in the center of a large, open chamber, lit up by a series of spotlights above. Sturdy chains held an alien-humanoid in place, and multiple tubes, both liquid-carrying and electrical of some kind, were attached to its body. The pale blue skin, mixed with cybernetics and tubes protruding in and out of the body, was that was needed for Titus to recognize a husk when he saw one. But when he examined the former human in more detail, his eyes grew wide and his mouth dropped open.

“What... the... fuck? Keown?!” Titus dropped the Valkyrie, letting it dangle by his side. Disbelief held the captain’s emotions hostage as his eyes stared at his friend’s body. Or perhaps it wasn’t his friend anymore. Keown’s corpse had turned into a mechanical android, bearing hardly any tissue and completely mangled by cybernetics and other synthetic hardware. He looked exactly one of the husks they had fought on Lucr’n. The only way Titus was able to recognize his friend was by the few distinct features left on his face. Its face.

Villayn stepped forward and examined the body up close when Titus refused to bring himself one inch closer. Azuric turned back after a moment and said, “We turians never forget a face. It comes naturally I suppose when one’s race isn’t as diverse as yours. This is definitely your friend; no doubt about it.”

“What the hell happened to him?” Adam asked.

Titus turned his head slightly in Adam’s direction, gazing at the young soldier through his peripherals. His response was a solemn one. “He made the ultimate sacrifice so others might live. In the end... he became a puppet for the Reapers.”

There was a ping off to the side and the three whirled around in the sound’s direction with guns poised. Titus instantly recognized the flat circular projection pad of a QEC. The blue lights around the inner edge of the pad grew brighter as the machine hummed to life. A second later, the Illusive Man’s bodily projection materialized before the three of them, standing tall with broad shoulders and his habitual cigarette in his left hand.

“Quite the contrary, Captain,” the Man said. “The man you knew is more than a puppet; or, rather, will be.”

With anger in his voice, Titus barked, “You told me Cerberus would take care of him. You gave me your word, and I trusted you!”

Calm, as always, the Illusive Man rebounded the question with one of his own. “In the same way I trusted you?

“Let’s not fool ourselves, here,” Titus shot back, pointing an accusing finger at his former employer. “You’re the one that ordered Janus to shoot me in the back. You betrayed my team and I first. And from the looks of things here, you never intended to take care of Erik. You turned him into another science project. This whole time, you could have been finding a way to reverse indoctrination, but look at this!

The Illusive Man turned his cold eyes toward the hanging husk that was once Erik Keown. “I am looking, Titus. And what I see is the potential for humanity to reach the apex of our evolution.”

John couldn’t believe what he just heard and shook his head, exclaiming, “You’re delusional!”

“Hardly. I may be ambitious, Captain; but I know what my goals are and how to achieve them. I doubt the same can be said of you. You were with the Alliance once before, and then you came to me, and now you’re back there again. You let your emotions lead you, not your logic. And that’s a flaw I aim to perfect... by using the same means of control the Reapers use over these ‘husks’ that the rest of the galaxy even refuses to acknowledge.”

“And you question whose side I’m on?” Titus demanded. “Listen to yourself! You claim Cerberus’ goal is to protect humanity, but you’re willing to expose them to Reaper technology. Why not just hand them over to the Collectors? Why even bother stopping them, or giving Omni Cell a purpose? You think our species, or the rest of the galaxy for that matter, will allow you to make a decision like that for them? Controlling evolution like that? Or is evolution really your plan?”

The Illusive Man frowned and shook his head in apparent disappointment. “You were always temperamental, Titus,” he finally said. “Tell me: since you’re so opposed to the idea of controlling the fates of others; how do you justify dropping that Ardat-Yakshi off of the building on Illium? What was her name again?”

“Mirian...,” Titus muttered with a clamped jaw. “She blew a child over the edge of that building without a care in the world.”

“But even after EDI assured you that Operative Buchan had saved the boy; you chose to let go. You chose her fate, in light of the fact that Braden was alive.”

“That’s not the poi-”

“And then there’s Braden, himself. A young boy that you let tag along on your ship. You ordered armor that fit his size. You gave him a gun and allowed Sentry to instruct him on how to use firearms. You turned him into a child soldier and took away the peaceful future he could have had.”

“No!” Titus snapped. “You wanted recon drones around that facility on Eden Prime. You wanted to use those kids for yourself once their biotics were advanced enough. You would have turned them into mindless weapons!”

“And what was the young Mr. Reynolds to you, Titus? Was he not a weapon in the end? Another asset to be used for the mission?”

There was another pause between the two men. Titus was fuming behind his visor, but the Illusive Man remained perfectly calm. He took a long drag of his cigarette; the smoke floating in the air around him until it disappeared from the projection. Finally, the Illusive Man said, “You and I are so much alike. We both seek to control the situation around us, whatever it may be. But where you rely on your convictions, allowing emotions to overcome your logic; I rely on reason and intuition, paving the way for cunning innovation. But we are both men of ruthless ambition who will stop at nothing to get what we want. There’s no denying that.”

Titus’ lips twisted into a smirk. “Then you’d best be ready. Because what I want right now... is to see you stopped.”

“I expected as much,” the Man responded. “That’s why I’ve already begun purging every Oracle asset we’ve uncovered in the Daedalus system. I’m sure Commanders Horn and Buchan will be happy to see you again.”

“Then I’ll stop them first,” Titus replied with confidence.

“If you choose to go after Jason and Vala,” the Man interjected, “I’m afraid Adam Harrison will lose a dear friend of his.”

“Excuse me?!” Adam snapped as he hurried over the Illusive Man’s projection. “What is that supposed to mean?”

A smile spread across the Illusive Man’s lips. “You should ask your illustrious Captain Titus about my best assassin, Kai Leng. I’ve sent him and Commander Ross to retrieve some valuable data collected from the dragons teeth that plagued the Citadel during Sovereign’s invasion a year prior. I believe a certain Lieutenant Kyle is in charge of overseeing the security of that research, and the well-being of the Oracle scientists that have extracted and are analyzing the data.”

Both Titus and Harrison were clenching their fists in complete anger.

“It appears you have a choice to make, Titus,” the Man went on. “Rush to save the girl and the data, or rush to save Miss Carson’s precious assets. I’m afraid you won’t be able to accomplish both.” The Illusive Man paused to take quick drag of his cigarette. “It had been a pleasure working with you, Jonathan Titus. Now,” he paused to raise a finger and say, “stay out of my wa-”

Before his former boss could finish the threat, the captain shot the QEC pad with a burst from his Valkyrie, hastily nullifying the projection. He lowered the rifle and turned to look at Adam and Villayn with a smile behind his visor. “I thought I’d be the one to hang up this time.”

Without allowing a second of a chance for another comment to be made, there was a sudden and terrifying shriek that pierced the cold air of the lab. All three turned on heel and raised their guns at Erik’s husk, which was now fully awake and struggling to break free of the chain and tubes that suspended him from the ceiling above.

"It's aliiiive!" Adam yelled in an almost dramatic fashion, flaring up a biotic barrier around his armor.

"Orders, Captain?!" Villayn demanded.

Titus grunted as he thought of what to do. His rational mind told him that the thing he was looking at was another of a hundred Reaper-controlled husks. But on the other hand, he was looking at what was left of his friend. That was Erik's face; Erik's body. No! he told himself. That's not Erik Keown anymore! That's the enemy!

"Put him out of his misery!" he ordered.

Adam and Azuric, without hesitation, emptied an entire thermal clip into the hanging corpse. When the mangled body had finally stopped moving and screeching, Titus thought it was over with. But he was dead wrong. A second later, the husk woke up a second, much to their surprise, and a shock wave of dark energy burst outward from its body, obliterating its restraints and sending all three to their backs. When Titus and his team had recovered to their feet, the husk was loose and rapidly crawling towards them on the floor at an incredible speed. Within the blink of an eye, it was already leaping through the air at Villayn, who raised his talons to fend it off. The husk grabbed onto the turian and fiercely started tried to swipe and scratch at him.

"Aarrrgghh!" Azuric yelled.

"Hang on!" Adam cried as he unsheathed his katana with one hand and unleashed a biotic throw with his other, knocking the husk clean off of Villayn. Erik's body was sent crashing into one of the containment vats, spilling liquid all over the floor. The gush of plasma-like fluid knocked Titus' dropped Valkyrie several feet away.

Harrison sprinted towards the husk at it stammered to recover from his throw, katana ready to strike. But the husk acted too fast once again, raising its bony hand and forcing Adam into the air with its own biotic abilities. The lieutenant struggled to break free, dropping his blade to the floor as he tried to fight an invisible force. With a flick of the wrist, the husk sent Adam barreling through the air, and crashing him into a bulk head.

"Son of a bitch!" Titus yelled as he sprinted for his rifle. The husk now raced after him, screeching as he dashed across the floor. Jonathan felt the adrenaline surge through his body, and he knew that he was panicking. He could hardly recall the last time he had been this afraid. That was something he also didn't understand: he had been in touch situations many times before, and had handled the unknown with composure and ease. He had faced the countless number of husks on Lucr'n. This shouldn't be any different. Was it the fact that it was Keown that he was having to face that made him so hesitant and afraid?

His hand felt the body of the Valkyrie rifle before his mind could even finish processing its image. Finally drawn back to the situation unfolding around him, Titus grabbed the grip of the weapon and whirled around, falling back on his buttocks as the husk leaped at hip through the air. Without wasting another second to hesitate, Titus tapped a tiny button on the lower receiver of the weapon and pulled the trigger, unleashing a chaotic burst from the bottom barrel. The twenty millimeter slug that shot forward from the Valkyrie immediately locked onto its target and slammed into the husk's face. Upon impact, the cranium shattered and the body violently twisted backward, flying to the ground in a mangled heap.

It took a moment for everything to finish processing. Titus slowly looked around the room; from Villayn, to Adam, to the Keown's corrupted and destroyed body. His men were recovering and shaking off the husk's violent attacks; but Jonathan could only sit where he was, holding himself up ever so slightly from lying completely on the wet floor. His hands still braced the rifle, finger still pressed back at the trigger.

"Captain?" Azuric asked. "Titus!"

Jonathan's mind was yanked back to reality and he shook his head. "Son of a bitch!"

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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“How have the drills been progressing, Major?” Lieutenant Commander Sinoff had a certain gift with words, something that made even requests or questions seem like a statement of absolute truth. Sitting behind his desk, he still managed to somehow dwarf the major standing before him as he thumbed through the various files scattered across his work station. “Any issues?”

“None, sir.” The major replied quickly, knowing better than to waste his superior’s time with unnecessary exposition. “All the marines are performing as instructed.” The 2IC nodded in seeming satisfaction, flicking his eyes across a report.

“I want them up to speed on the strategies I’ve forwarded before the week is out, Major.” Wyatt’s eyes shifted to focus on the man fully, the intensity of his gaze only reinforcing his already massive presence. “If they cannot, they will be replaced by those who can.”

“A week, sir?”

“It is enough time. We cannot afford to sit idle while our marines learn, and no operation will be compromised by their incompetence.” Rising from his seat, Sinoff took the briefest of moments to straighten his officer’s uniform. “Have you received the Fire Teams call signs?”

“Yes, sir. An interesting selection.”

“More biblical than I might like, but life has taught that a symbol can be as motivating as survival from some.” The 2IC cracked his neck with a slight twist of his head, neutral eyes boring in on the Major. “That will be all, Major Tarrick. I expect a full report on their progress by tomorrow. You are dismissed.” Tarrick saluted sharply, turning on his heel and heading out the doors to carry out his instructions.

Wyatt stepped round his desk, still reading one of the myriad reports on his data pad as he left his quarters and started towards the lift. He passed through the mess hall briefly, the chatter silencing the moment his heavy foot falls crossed its threshold. Nothing save the scraping of forks and the slightest whisper reached his ears, but the 2IC paid the assorted troops no mind as he passed.

Tucking the data pad neatly under his arm, the ex-mercenary pressed the key for the lift firmly. Moments later the lift opened, although Wyatt couldn’t board until its occupants disembarked. More importantly, he noted with the slightest of raised brows, was their current method of disembarking.

“Lieutenant Commander Sinoff!” The pair inside chorused, snapping a salute in perfect unison that normally would have satisfied the demand….had the woman not been perched happily atop the man’s shoulders. “Missed you at debrief, sir! Should have heard what Commander Buchan got up to!”

“Caught a bullet with her teeth!”

“Hella-impressive!”

The 2IC only raised his brow the slightest amount, before stepping casually to the side to allow them passage. “Eat.” He calmly intoned, and the two seemed to need no extra prompting to get moving. The man started forward, gripping his partner’s thighs to keep her stable as he broke into a light jog towards the Mess Hall. As he embarked, he could hear the woman shout happily at the top of her lungs.

“Hail the conquering heroes!”

“Welles.” He murmured, already more than familiar with his fellow Lieutenant Commander’s…less than professional unit. Or perhaps it was a few bad apples. There hadn’t been time to properly inspect them all, but these ‘Hounds’ had a pedigree that was backed. If they couldn’t properly behave, perhaps he’d speak with Commander Buchan over some appropriate discipline to sharpen them up.

As the lift disembarked at Deck 2, Wyatt strode fluidly into the CIC, acknowledging the guards with the barest flick of his fingers. Stepping up to one of the two workstations beside the galaxy map’s stern facing portion, he placed the data pad on the small surface before giving the present staff a cursory once over. Most were dutifully attending to their duties, save for one who sat quietly at a notably dormant station.

Approaching quietly, the 2IC stood squarely behind the technician’s station for a moment, before clearing his throat roughly. The woman stiffened, quickly about facing her chair and hopping to her feet. She looked like a panicking rabbit next to Wyatt’s size, but she swallowed the instinct to flee and saluted the man as firmly as she could manage. Which clearly wasn’t much, by the way her knees wobbled. “S-s-s-sir! S-sorry, sir!”

“Agent Govern, correct?” The petite figure nodded quickly, as his eyes turned to her station. “You handle field communications and information, correct?” Again, she nodded. Pressing the side of his index to his lips, Wyatt thought for a brief moment. A lack of operations meant the woman was technically off-duty. She was still attending her station, regardless of its status, leaving little to be desired. Save for an idle technician with nothing to do outside of combat. “Is that your only currently assigned task?”

“Uhm…y-yes, sir.”

“Inefficient.” The swiftness of the reply made her shrink, growing somehow smaller before him. “Outside of combat operations, you’re unused manpower. A secondary function would be appropriate to properly fill your time. Enthusiasm for your task aside, idle hands are worthless.” His mind immediately turned to tasks and assignments that could be placed on the young woman. The mess could always use another set, as well as the maintenance teams. Her small size could make her an asset for the difficult to reach systems. If she had steady hands, perhaps a medical assistant.

A quick glance to her still shaking extremities dismissed the thought as quickly as it had come. There was value in he- “Lieutenant Commander?” The cheerful call of the pilot interrupted his train of thought, and his eyes snapped to the small display on the terminal displaying the grinning man’s face. “Sorry to cut in, but Jo informed me of your observation. Govern handles information, yeah?”

“Make your point, Helmsmen, and make it quick.”

Wyatt’s flat instruction made Ronas sigh, before nodding. “Well, I’ve got a rather unused terminal up here in the cockpit, and Jo’s always feeding all sorts of info from our sensors through it. If Govern’s got nothing to do, having someone sort through it all to tell me what’s actually important and isn’t just useless junk data. Jo could easily transfer the functions from her work terminal up here.”

“And why is the EDI unit insufficient at sorting this information?”

“She’s great at it…she just has stupid priorities at times. Jo will blurt out anything of the most microscopic interest at max volume straight into my ear. Plus we could free up some more runtime for the professor and his tests. He’d love that, I’m sure.”

“Running minimal scans does not negatively affect my runtime in anyway, Mr. Chekan.”

“Shows what I know about top-secret illegal AI programs.” The pilot chuckled, leaning back in his chair. “Just an offer, sir. Keeps her at her station while keeping her busy, you know?”

Wyatt opened his mouth to respond, but another voice from just behind him sounded instead. “Sounds like a fine suggestion. Govern, got get yourself situated, and we can iron out the exact details later.” The agent nodded quickly, quietly excusing herself as Ronas gave a victorious fist pump on the display before vanishing. The 2IC turned to the source, nodding politely at Scorpion, who was watching him with vague annoyance. “You have a serious issue with micro-managing, you know that?”

“Pardon?”

“Ships are little more organic than you’re probably used to. These people, and by extension you, are pretty much living on this floating tin can. Efficiency is great and all, but you’ve got to keep in mind that if they’re not happy, they’re not going to work as well.” The scarred woman glanced down the path to the helm. “Letting Govern work up there kills two birds with one stones. Sure, the AI is probably marginally faster than her at sorting through all that crap. But now she and the pilot have company, which will improve morale. Follow?”

He nodded stiffly, clearly not entirely thrilled with the prospect. Scorpion chuckled, leaning on her cane. “We aren’t mercenaries, Sinoff. Half these people are here because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves and the rest are either money-grubbing asses or people with power fantasy.”

“A practical view, if somewhat jaded.” He commented dryly, although she had learned quickly that Wyatt’s sense of humour was a far rarer thing that idle conversation deserved, and this was not it ‘shining’ through. “The debrief went well, I trust?”

“To a degree…it’s like herding hyper-active pyjaks with those two commandos.” Dropping into the abandoned chair left by Govern, Alexis released a low sigh. “Sometimes you question how certain people get such a high pedigree…”

“The unorthodox has its own unique value.” Alexis’s eyes slanted curiously towards the approaching form with an all too familiar swagger. “There are many cases to reference in history where the unconventional has accomplished things beyond expectations.”

“Nulfem.” Sinoff gave little in way of greeting, an action mirrored by his ‘mentor’, who simply nodded her head sharply towards the suited yeoman. “Elaborate.”

“Do I have to?” Slowing to a stop, Keagan looked between the two with his knowing smile, hands tucked neatly in the pockets of his slacks. “I’d much rather let the cards do the talking for me.”

“I’m gonna get sick of your card metaphors really quick, aren’t I?” Alexis quipped, slouching even further into her seat as the two man regarded each other. “You’re more interested in watching the hand play out, right?”

“If you can win, never make your opponent fold. Bluff until it is too late to realize their folly. A basic strategy that truly won’t hold up in competitive play, but for the sake of analogy, effective.” His eyes danced with amusement, noting the slight irritation on the operative’s face. “Tell me, Mrs. Sedlack, what is the definition of insanity?”

That piqued her interest, causing Alexis to straighten slightly in her seat. “Depends who you ask.” Keagan shook his finger, sighing in disappointment.

“You’re knowledgeable enough to know. Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Turning towards the galaxy map, the yeoman pulled one of his hands from its pocket, deftly flipping a coin along his knuckles as he spoke. “Now, say for the sake of expedience, we had a ship much like this one.”

“A stealth vessel, equipped primarily with operatives and recruits geared towards operations of a deniable nature. Her commander, inexperienced and young, assisted by a pragmatic and wiser veteran. The combination is unorthodox, but the oddity of it somehow works. The vessel sees great success…before disaster.”

Sinoff crossed his arms, watching Nulfem calmly but with faint suspicion. Where was the reason to this conversation? A hypothetical ship much akin to the Deliverance? His eyes shifted to Scorpion, only to find the woman sitting grimly on the edge of her seat with her eyes narrowed into slits. “Operative?”

Keagan‘s smile grew wider, and the air between the three grew cold and tense. He never turned to face her properly, contently watching out of the corners of his vision. “Aha, so you see the reasoning do you, Mrs. Sedlack? History has such a terrible insistence of repeating itself…but I’d rather avoid that coming to pass. Much like you, I suspect. That’s why you agreed to come onboard, hm?”

“It won‘t.” She muttered, gripping the head of her cane tightly.

The yeoman simply shrugged, flicking his coin of his knuckles into the air. “It’s my job to ensure it doesn’t, Mrs. Sedlack…but the tragedy of chance makes this a rather risky gamble.” Catching the coin in the flat of his palm, he regarded the result for a moment before smiling again. “But then, those are the most enjoyable games to play.”

She gave a soundless laugh, although her hard features said nothing of amusement. “You really do enjoy those games, huh?” Keagan nodded wordlessly, slipping his hand back into the pocket of his slacks as he turned from the pair. “Mind if I ask why you’re playing?”

“Because a game isn’t much fun unless you stand to lose something…but I suppose I’m alone in the sentiment.” His fingers snapped, and he glanced over his shoulder with a light-hearted smile. “Oh, I almost forgot. The Illusive Man is currently briefing the commander on our next assignment. I believe there is going to be a strategy meeting after the briefing with our allies, so it would be in our best interest if you both were in attendance.”

Alexis nodded sharply, rising from her seat with a grunt of exertion. “Oh goodie…I love strategizing with big-shots.” The statement earned a laugh from Keagan, and she fixed him with a quizzical look. “What?”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy this particular meeting, Mrs. Sedlack.”

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“…and that concludes my report, sir.”

She was predictably quiet, standing still and straight before him like it was the most important meeting of her short life. Considering its nature, perhaps it was accurate. The first mission could make or break an entire career, but with its success came peace of mind. He spoke through smoke filled breaths, watching her impassive eyes dutifully bore into his own. “Excellent work, Commander Buchan. Your time on Mavigon has been well spent.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“With the field test complete, it’s time we begin the true work, however.” The enigmatic leader laced his fingers before his face, still obscured by the linger smoke of his cigarette. For a few moments, there was silence as the Man gave his haptic interface a few keystrokes. With a lingering breath of his cigarette, he rose from his seat and stepped up before the gas giant that dominated his view port. With his back to her, he spoke. “It appears that my initial...assumption of our copycat organization in the Alliance was...inaccurate."


“So far, Oracle has done nothing but strike against Cerberus, Omni Cell in particular with the betrayal of Commander Titus and the capture of Lieutenant Daniel Harrens.” He turned back, eyes impassive and cold.
“Several strikes are, as I have just recently been made aware of, being planned and executed against us as we speak…” Slow smoke rolled from his lips, obscuring the Man‘s face, an unsettling sight which made Vala instinctively straighten. “Which is why I have decided that these alliance ‘shadows’ need to be shown their folly in provoking the sleeping giant.”

Reaching down, he tapped a key on the armrest, bringing up a large display that he calmly approached. “This is the Daedalus system. It rests on the border between Alliance and Terminus Space, with only a small colony of importance. Despite it being somewhat infamous as a staging ground for mercenaries, raiders, and overall crime; it remains a prime spot for intelligence gathering on numerous organizations.” Swiping his hand across the display, it switched quickly to a list of names. Ten in total, with several pictures located beside each dossier. “These...are Oracle assets…” He took a slow drag of his cigarette. “Eliminate them.”

Assassination then. She was more than equipped for the task. Before the Commander could speak, however, he swiped his hand again, revealing several images of various buildings and facilities. “All these facilities belong primarily to Oracle, and must be destroyed as well.” He paused for a moment, taking a final slow breath of his cigarette before dismissing the display. “This is, by no means, a crippling move to Oracle. The fact that they have successfully lead strikes against our organization shows that their influence runs deeper than I previously imagined…” He moved back to his chair, lowering himself into the seat like a king upon his throne.

“I am disinclined to allow that trend to continue. This is the beginning, and while it is not fatal, it will be damaging. No one on that list leaves Daedalus alive; not one of those buildings will be standing…and if Oracle or it’s long arm, Aurora, tries to impede you…” Slowly and deliberately, he snuffed the flame of his cigarette in the ash tray. “Ensure they never interfere again. Do you think you can handle that, Commanders?"

Vala was about to speak when his words clicked, and she blinked in confusion. “Commanders, sir?” The Man’s gaze focused on her for only a brief moment, as he touched a key on his armrest. There was a ping from the QEC beneath her feet, and the area to her ‘right’ became suddenly clear. Standing there, she found none other than Commander Jason Horn, who was looking at her with what she knew was an exact mirror of her own incredulous stare.

“Both of you will be working in tandem in this operation, to deal as much damage as possible to Oracle.” The Illusive Man’s eyes shut slowly, fingers lacing before his face as the silence between the Commanders grew thick. “This is not a matter of discussion, and I trust that neither of you will allow personal issues to hinder the operation.” His eyes opened, boring down on them with cold intensity. “The mission takes priority. Am I clear, Commanders?”

Vala nodded sharply, looking to Horn and giving the faintest inclination of her head in greeting. “Commander Horn. It’s been a long time.” Long enough, she secretly hoped, for their mutual dislike to have dulled for some semblance of co-operation between them.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Character Portrait:
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"You seriously did an individual report on each and every soldier on the ship?" Horn asked, his jaw partially open while his eyes scanned the datapad in front of him.

"Yes sir." O'Ryan answered, standing at an 'at ease' posture in Horn's private quarters. Horn read through it a bit more, before setting the datapad down and looking at the man.

"Tell me Lieutenant...When do you sleep?"

"During the night cycle sir." O'Ryan answered without hesitation. Horn stared at the man for a second, raising a finger to say something, then clasping his mouth shut.

"Well Lieutenant, thank you for giving me reading material for a month. I'll be sure to go over it, when I'm not out kicking ass, taking names, and taking numbers if you get what I mean..."

"Understood sir." O'Ryan answered, no humour in his voice evident. Horn just narrowed his eyes at the man.

"Dismissed Lieutenant." Jason stated, and Leonard briskly turned on his heel and left. Once the elevator door closed, Jason shook his head and shoved the datapad onto a pile of other paperwork and associated documents. "God damn stiff-ass manufactured marine. I've seen hulls bend farther than that man does when he stands at attention." Jason stated as he dipped into some other reports that he had been neglecting. He had only gotten five minutes into it when there was the ding of the elevator, soon followed by rapping on the door.

"Enter my abode!" Horn shouted, deepening his voice for effect. When the door opened, Daniel quietly walked inside. Horn looked up, almost immediately throwing the report in his hand off to the side before giving a broad smile. "Danny boy!" Horn clasped his hands together and Daniel took a seat in the chair opposite of Horn's desk. "What can I do for you? Requisition? Lunch? Hooker? Back Massage?" Daniel gave a small smile before waving it off.

"No sir. Although, requisition is one way of putting it." Horn leaned back, forming his pointer fingers into a gun and putting them up to his lips.

"I'm listening."

Daniel took a moment to compose himself, before leaning forward. "Well sir, when I was 'temporary leave', I had a lot of time to think." Horn nodded, not saying a word. "Well, I got to thinking about our squad sir. How there was only three of us, now two. Had I not made it out of that base, you would be the only certified 'Demon' on the ship."

"But you did make it out of the Daniel." Horn interrupted. Daniel waved his hand and shook his head.

"Not the point sir. The point is, there are too few of us to really make a difference."

"But the Demons are my squad...it's just a nickname for my personal entourage." Jason countered, trying to see right where Daniel was going with this.

"Sir, I'm trying to say, there should be more of us." Horn leaned in.

"How much more Lieutenant?"

"A company's worth sir." Daniel stated, and both sat in silence for a second. Horn sat back slowly putting his hand up for a second.

"So wait...let me see if I understand what you're asking of me." Horn looked to the side for a moment, laying his hand out flat in front of him. "In between catching up on mission reports, doing more missions which add to that report pile there, commandeering an armed Cerberus cruiser, and keeping myself in peak physical form..." Horn paused for one more moment. "You want me to somehow, someway gather near a 100 marines, train them in the art of being a shock trooper, and teach them how to use jetpacks safely and efficiently?" Horn shook his head. "I'm sorry Lieutenant, I simply don't have the time or resources to do so."

Daniel nodded his head, but didn't back down. "I wasn't thinking that you would be training them sir, aside from the odd time you could get away from..." Daniel pointed to the pile of reports. "Busy schedule. I could do it sir, I have the skills and expertise to provide adequate training." Horn put a hand up to his mouth, sliding it down. He shook his head again.

"A company is still too much. 100 marines, if we put it into statistics, that's almost a guaranteed 3 deaths per mission due to mechanical failure or human error during drop alone. We can't do it."

"A platoon then sir. 5 fire teams, each independent and capable of working on their own." Daniel said, trying to grasp at straws.

"Who would lead them in the field Lieutenant?" Horn leaned forward. "You? As much as I have faith in your abilities to command and inspire respect from your soldiers, I need you for my squad." Jason stated, and Daniel put his hands forward in a pleading motion.

"Then I simply train them. We assign the best out of the group, give them a promotion and field command of the platoon when out on assignment." Horn sat in silence. "25 to 30 troops max, 5 fire teams and more shock troopers to kick some ass sir." Daniel stared at the man for a moment. "We can't continue to do this alone sir."

"I'll give it some thought Lieutenant." Horn stated, leaning over his desk again and grabbing one of the reports. "For now, that's all. Dismissed." Daniel opened his mouth to say something else, but slowly shut it and stood up from his chair slowly. He walked partially to the door, before turning and looking at Jason.

"I never thought you would turn down a bigger boot to kick some ass sir." Jason looked up for a moment.

"I never said no, Lieutenant. Now, if you don't mind...I have reports that need to be finished." Daniel quickly turned and left at that point. Horn was left there, sitting at his desk staring at the mountains of datapads in front of him. He gave a sigh and paused.

"Fuck...where was I...Oh hell no."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________


Horn stepped out of the elevator later, his fingers squeezing the bridge of his nose in a death grip. He started walking off to his right, and Invaru instinctively fell in step right beside him.

"Anything I should know going into the meeting with the Illusive Man? His mood? Is it his time of month? Does he know about the cafeteria incident? Cause I'm about One hundred percent sure that wasn't me."

"No sir, aside from the fact that he has another mission for us, he was his usual stoic self." Kelly answered, humour aside whenever she talked about their mutual boss. Horn gave a sigh as the door parted and he started walking down the hallway to the conference room.

"Oh goody...another few reports to add to the every growing piece of shit datapad mountain I got going on my desk."

"I did warn you that it would catch up with you sir." Kelly stated, and Horn looked over at her.

"If you say 'I told you so' one more damn time Invaru...I will enforce the bikini uniform for all attractive shipmates and say you sanctioned it." Kelly cocked her head slightly.

"And who do you think would believe that sir?" Horn slumped.

"Nobody, but a man can dream can't he?" The door to the conference room opened, and the table instinctively sunk into the floor. Kelly stood by the door, her hands softly clasped behind her back as Horn stepped onto the pad and the orange grid surrounded him. The Illusive Man's office started to form around Horn electronically, and silently placing his hands behind his back, the briefing started.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

No one would ever say that Horn was a patient man, or that he never said what was on his mind, but the one exception to that rule would be the Illusive Man. As TIM stepped through the briefing, anger being recognized if not shown by Horn's employer. There were targets, both soft and hard, and all of them were to be eliminated. Horn loved missions like these, save for the assassination bit. He had had his little stint in Black Ops, and he rather preferred the straight and narrow path of a marine to being a behind the scenes manipulating cutthroat. As TIM continued through the briefing, detailing and emphasizing that none of these targets were to be left standing, Horn barely moved an inch.

Horn could understand the use of his ship and crew for the hard targets, after all, what better way to assault multiple buildings than with a cruiser and 200 marines at your side. However, the softer targets, the assassinations would be tricky for a small army to eliminate. They were small targets, easily concealed and would easily see marines dropping down in Kodiaks to search for them. There would be too much warning, and they didn't have the manpower or a fleet to blockade the system. It was requiring too much from a ship and crew that were used to open ground fighting. Horn kept this thought in mind as TIM continued his briefing.

Nearing the end, Horn could swear he could hear venom dripping from TIM's words. He made sure to point out the fact that this was only the start, that Oracle picked the wrong fight and now they were going to feel the full weight of a Cerberus. What Horn didn't expect was the plural use of his rank when TIM suddenly sat down. "Sorry sir...'Commanders'?"

TIM hit a switch, and out of all the people that could have been standing beside him, it had to be the one that had nearly shot. Vala stood there, giving the same look that he was probably giving her. The next few words out of TIM's mouth were static to Horn as inside he fumed. He held it back for the sole reason they were in the Illusive Man's presence, but by the time he regained focus of what was at hand, TIM was already staring at them.

"Commander Horn, it's been a long time." Vala stated, her face neutral and stoic, no doubt feeling roughly the same thing Horn was but with less intensity. Horn gave her a look.

"Yeah." Was all he stated as he looked to TIM. "Sir, with all due respect, Operative Buchan and I do-"

"It's Commander now, Commander." TIM stated, taking a drag of his cigarette. Horn took a breath, regaining his focus.

"Commander Buchan and I do not get along at the best of times. I fear putting us both in a high stress, risk, and gain operation would hamper the both of us." TIM took another drag, before standing up and releasing the smoke into the air.

"Tell me, Commander. Is your ship prepared for assassinations?" Horn went to speak, but was immediately shut down when TIM continued. "No, it isn't. Your ship is geared towards assaults, overwhelming firepower, manpower, and killing power. You have 200 marines Commander, that's it. Marines, not special operations troopers, nor black operation operatives. Where as Commander Buchan is your complete opposite." TIM took a drag out of his cigarette once more, allowing time for the smoke to exit out of his nose.

"She has a stealth frigate, a small ship able to manoeuvre unseen. She has special operation troopers bred for infiltration, assassination, espionage, and sabotage. While it is true, she could take out the buildings with her troopers, there is a less likely chance that she will be able to complete it. Your troops will have the advantage in numbers and firepower, ensuring those buildings destruction." TIM turned around, returning to his chair.

"Regardless of your opinion on the matter, Commander Horn. You compliment each other, filling the gaps that the other leaves behind. Whatever your personal feelings are on the matter, I expect them to be replaced by a professional attitude." Horn straightened slightly.

"Yes sir, understood sir." TIM gave a small nod.

"Are we expecting Aurora interference?" Vala added, bypassing the whole explanation as to why she and Horn were being paired up.

"Aurora does have a presence in the sector. As far as we can confirm, there are at least 2 frigates in the area, and an unknown number of Aurora troops on the planets themselves." TIM took yet another moment to compose himself. "There should be a sizeable Aurora land force in the sector, waiting to aid Oracle assets in case of emergency. These Aurora soldiers and ships aren't necessarily targets, but they are still attached to Oracle. If you are given the opportunity to eliminate them, you will do so."

"Sir." Horn spoke up. "My concern is with the soft targets. What's to stop them from rabbiting the moment our ships enter the sector?"

"Simply put Commander, you need to be faster at eliminating them then they are at running away. They aren't expecting an attack, they don't believe they are compromised, and therefore should have their guard down. Commander Buchan's ship will assist greatly in this matter with the Tantalus drive core and it's stealth capabilities." TIM took another drag on his smoke before snubbing it on the ash tray sitting on the arm of his chair. "This is not meant to be a siege Commander, this is meant to be a blitz. Strike hard, strike fast, and leave nothing standing."

"What's the RoE on collateral damage sir?" Vala stated, and TIM locked his fingers together.

"This is an alliance system, but that being said, they are also humans. If it's unavoidable and deemed necessary to complete the objective, then you have permission." Vala nodded. TIM gave a moment for any other questions to pop up, and when none did, he stood up once more.

"I expect this mission to be done quickly and efficiently Commanders. I will not tolerate failure." TIM's finger hovered over the end call button on his interface, but he looked up at them for one last moment. "Good luck." The connection cut, but the interface didn't shut down. Instead, Horn and Vala were stuck on the same pad from two different ships. The Illusive Man must have rigged it so that they could talk strategy if they wished. Right now, Horn simply wanted out and to think about what needed to be done.

"Commander Horn, should we dis-"

"I'll contact you when I have a rough plan etched out." Horn stated before abruptly ending the call and watching as the conference room filled his vision once more. He rolled his shoulders slightly, before turning and seeing Kelly still standing next to the door.

"Issues with the mission layout Commander?" Kelly asked as Horn stormed back towards the door muttering something about 'luck' and 'favourite operative.'. The door opened and he looked to Operative Invaru.

"I need you in the CIC, we have a strategy we need to at least get an outline of before I start talking to Commander Buchan." Kelly cocked her head slightly. Horn gave a sigh. "Yeah, the bitch got herself a ship, remind me to send a card. Now, we have work to do."

"If you don't mind sir, the Illusive Man requested my presence after the meeting for a short time." Kelly stated, Horn looked at her.

"He didn't mention anything when he cut the call." Jason stated, and Kelly gave a small smile.

"With all due respect Commander, my information level is higher than yours when it comes to subjects outside of the Cell. I was an information agent before I was your 2iC." Horn gave this a moments thought, then waved his hand as he walked off.

"Alright, just try to hurry up. If we keep Vala waiting any longer than she needs to, I have a feeling this meeting will turn ugly in a heartbeat." Kelly gave a nod to the man's back, and as the doors closed, turned towards the conference table.

"Nikki, please connect me to the Illusive Man. Lockdown the room as well." Kelly stated as the table retracted into the floor once more.

"Acknowledged Operative." Kelly stepped within the perimeter of the QED and watched as the orange grid surrounded her. Before long, she was in the Illusive Man's office. He was in the middle of pouring himself some scotch near his chair when he looked up.

"Operative Invaru. Your report isn't due for another 24 hours." Kelly gave a small smile, standing straighter than usual.

"Sir, if you didn't mind, I had some questions I would like answers to." TIM looked at her for a moment, pausing in his pouring before giving a nod and continuing. Kelly took a moment to formulate her questions in her mind, and by the time she was finished, the Illusive Man was taking a seat in his favourite chair.

"As you are aware, we have retrieved Lieutenant Harrens from an Oracle outpost." TIM sat there, taking a small sip from his drink, waiting for Invaru to continue. "I took some time, and looked back towards Cecil's contacts. A drug ring run out of Afterlife on Omega. A group of thugs who, for better or for worse, are fairly reliable in their information gathering." Kelly stated. "My question is this. How is it that a man with limited connections using a sources that are mediocre at best manage to find an Oracle outpost before you?" TIM paused for a split second, lowering his drink to the holder on the arm of his chair.

"Operative Invaru, if I didn't know better, I would assume that you are insinuating that I intentionally withheld information regarding another Cerberus soldier in enemy hands." TIM stated, his voice as neutral as Kelly's.

"No sir, I am simply asking a question." Kelly stated, her voice never wavering past professional neutrality, and her form never slipping past perfectly rigid. TIM weaved his fingers together, glancing at Invaru over top of them.

"Are you asking out of curiosity, or suspicion Operative?" Kelly stood still, not entirely sure herself. TIM stood up, walking closer to her. "The fact that you have called upon me, unannounced and accusing me of withholding information regarding the safe keeping of Lieutenant Harrens is not only insulting, Operative Invaru, but embarrassing on your part." TIM's voice was calm, but there was always an undertone in the words chosen, not how they were said.

"Either way sir, I would like to know. This ship, it's crew, and it's mission need to be at one hundred percent. We can't do that if we are not playing with all of our pieces. Pieces, which could have been rectified by you at any point." TIM paced in front of Kelly.

"Let me put this into perspective for you, Operative." TIM stated, talking a moment to think about his words. "Everyone has a role to play. Every piece has its place, its mission, and its end run. In chess, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice a rook for a bishop, a pawn for a knight..." TIM looked Kelly in the eyes. "A queen, for a king." TIM stopped pacing, placing himself a few feet in front of Kelly.

"The truth of the matter Operative, is that I was not actively searching for Lieutenant Harrens. I wasn't listening, I wasn't looking, I wasn't even peripherally keeping an eye out." TIM stated, his bionic eyes staring into Kelly's. "Lieutenant Harrens is, and always will be, a soldier. His record is exceptional, his scores almost immaculate. Personality wise, he is a good man with good intentions. But at the end of the day, soldiers have two things that are required of them. One being fight when they are told to..."

"And die when you need them to." Kelly finished. TIM gave the briefest of smirks before it disappeared again.

"If you can finish the quote, you know who wrote it." TIM stated. Kelly paused for a moment, taking time to think before answering.

"Captain Grayson Horn sir." TIM nodded before turning and sitting back down in his chair.

"Commander Jason Horn may be different than his father, but that is only in regards to his friends. Had Daniel not been his friend and only surviving squad mate, do you think he would have searched that hard for some marine so far down that chain he or she was holding the anchor?"

"No sir." Kelly stated, knowing already that she had lost all footing in this meeting. TIM gave a nod.

"That is correct. So to answer your question Operative." TIM gingerly grabbed his glass, taking a sip before continuing. "No, I did not know where Lieutenant Harrens was." Kelly gave a nod, but didn't say anything. TIM motioned with his glass. "Was there something else you wished to discuss Operative?" Kelly took a moment, not wanting any sign of any emotion to come out of her. Instead, she answered in her cool and calm manner as always.

"No sir, no further questions." TIM nodded, bringing up the display on his chair. He gave her one last look.

"Remember your place Operative. Eve disobeyed the rule of God, ate of the forbidden fruit, and was cast from the kingdom of heaven...do not befall the same fate." TIM cut the connection, leaving Kelly standing there, a rare feeling of anger present in her body as she mentally calmed herself down. The Illusive Man had told her a bold face lie. He had known about the base, about Daniel, about the Commander stationed there, and he had simply put it to the side.

Kelly turned from the QED and made for the door.

For the moment, one war was good enough.