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Vala Buchan

Commander of the Deliverance

0 · 473 views · located in Mass Effect Universe created by Bioware

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

Description

Vala is a natural reddish blonde, although she has dyed it raven black during her stay with the Phoenix Project. It hangs just below her jaw line, and Vala often ties it into a low ponytail slightly reminiscent of her old style. Her eyes are a sharp topaz, cold and proper as her image demands, although when her composure cracks or on even rarer instances, is lowered, they're the first thing to falter and expose the thoughts inside. She keeps in good shape, and has a well toned body to show for her efforts. Where once Vala was mostly scar-free, she has earned several new ones after the Project. The right arm lacerations remained her most obvious scars, but her knuckles now boast dozen of small markings, as well as her shins and knees. Her face is still largely untouched.

Personality

Vala conducts herself with an air of professionalism, or at least she tries to. Driven with a reckless determination to achieve and improve, Vala is loathe to admit her own weaknesses, even as things spiral out of control around her. Every imperfection feels like a personal failing, truly embodying the mentality of "my own worst enemy." An admitted workaholic, Operative Buchan is quick to occupy herself with something when left to her own devices, be it re-reading mission reports, training or badgering the unfortunate souls who've earned her ire. During 'business' hours, Vala likes to stay 'professional' when dealing with people, although irritating her enough will earn some dry sarcasm.

There is little doubt that Vala suffers from an inferiority complex, most likely due to her weak biotic abilities and status a the 'prodigy' of her former Commander and ex-fiance Benjamin Slatton. While she may seem overly critical of others, Vala holds herself to the highest standard, one that she likely cannot reach. While others might buckle under this self pressure, Operative Buchan seems to use it more as a drive to overcome and push forward, doubting every step, but making them all the same. In situations that threaten or break her composure, Vala is quick to withdraw into isolation, nursing her pride with distraction until she feels confident enough to resume the appearance of flawless control.

When her guard is down, Vala is far more personable. To those she ranks as her friends, Vala has a much more relaxed temper, becomes surprisingly open about herself and her past, and reveals a sense of humor that one would be hard pressed to draw out in the average situation. To those not used to such a sight, she might seem to be an entirely different person.

Equipment

Prototype "Nyx" Combat Armour - Vala's Nyx armour is a one of a kind suit of medium grade combat gear. Far more protective than her old light armour, the Nyx boasts full body coverage and has fully reinforced joints to brace it's operator for the jostles of a hard infiltration. Designed for usage by biotic operatives on stealth assignments, the Nyx is coloured almost completely black, save for small white 'highlight' strips along the joints and edges. It's visor is decorated with the image of a Jaguar's face, a personal touch from the development team that Vala hasn't had the heart to remove.

While seemingly made of standard armour materials, the Nyx has the odd 'side effect' of seemingly swallowing light. It's surface barely reflects light, instead seeming to draw it in and snuff it, almost like a black hole. This effect extends to the 'glow' of Vala's biotics, although not as quickly or thoroughly as it would with regular 'light'. A remarkably handy feature, as the Nyx has no cloaking systems to speak of yet, meaning Vala must rely solely on her own stealth skills to avoid detection. Vacuum sealed, the Nyx is combat capable in all environments.

The true bread and butter of the Nyx, however, is it's Detection Pulse hardware. A prototype that is, as of yet, untested but has been designed to send out a biotic 'pulse' that spreads outwards from the user, mapping out the surrounding area and relaying information back into the mind directly. It's lead developer, Professor Rhodes, makes frequent mention of feedback overload in his notes, citing the risk of too much sensory input having negative effects on the mind, at least temporarily. Migraines are likely to be a common side effect of use, and there runs the risk of seziure if the Detection Pulse is used for an extensive period of time or is extended over too great an area. This is, of course, all speculation, provided the pulse works as intended.

Edge II Emergency Sidearm

History

Born on Terra Nova, in the capital city of Scott, Vala was raised predominantly by her mother, Johanna, as her father, Ramsey, served in the Alliance fleet as a combat pilot, notably in the Fifth Fleet for most of his career. Despite rarely seeing her father, Vala has always been close with both of her parents, although she has a notable difficulty telling them no when it comes to her personal decisions. This fact largely contributes to Vala's rather odd skill set from her youth, as her mother insisted on raising Vala as a 'proper young lady', whilst her father was content to rough house and teach her how to shoot when he was on leave. Since she refused to deny either of them, Vala was both a young lady, and a tomboy at the same time, or at least as much as a young child could be.

While she has clearly focused on her combat skills since joining Cerberus, Vala still maintains a surprising amount of skill in the 'finer' things, making her deceptively efficient at infiltrating high end social gatherings and the like. It is of note that Vala has, on Cerberus credit, often had scar removal surgery, to help maintain the image of a 'refined woman'.

Her entire career with Cerberus has been almost completely classified, an understandable precaution due to the highly... sensitive nature of her work. Aside from what she is willing to reveal, it remains difficult to piece together an accurate timeline of her career and associates. Some of whom no longer swear fealty to Cerberus.

Of those, most pressing is Commander Benjamin Slatton, former Cerberus Commander and now an enemy working to sabotage it for reasons unknown. Vala originally served on Slatton's frigate, The Arras, and he served as her mentor, later on also becoming her lover. The exact details of their relationship and it's effects are unknown, and those who might be capable of parting with such information are slim, namely being Vala and Benjamin. Vala is rare to reveal anything about her time with Ben, and those that bring him up will likely encounter stiff resistance until the subject is dropped. His apparent betrayal, and subsequent abandonment has left it's scars however, and Vala feels the need for answer before any of them are allowed to truly heal.

Vala has spent the last two months in the fabled Phoenix Project, training her biotics and body to a new height. The full extent of her training has yet to be scene, but she is notably more capable with her biotics than before, and has even toned up considerably. Freshly reactivated, she has been given command of the Deliverance, a refurbished Vindicator staffed by a new crew, with some familiar faces hidden in the mix.

So begins...

Vala Buchan's Story

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Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan

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“Dr Porter, I think she’s coming to.” The voice was unfamiliar, but it echoed painfully in her head, and she couldn’t help groaning feebly at the source. Soft, yet quick footsteps echoed across the room, and she felt the gentle touch of who she could only assume was Porter. There was a few ominous beeps from the nearby monitoring equipment before the woman chuckled humourlessly.

“She was supposed to be out another day. Next time, we’ll use a horse tranquilizer.” A pair of hands slipped under her back, lifting slightly and Vala was slightly thankful for the assistance, although she would never admit it. Her eyes were blurry, her mind having woken up before they had, and it took several moments for them to even make out the outline of the doctor’s face. “Welcome back to the world of the living, Miss Buchan.”

Lacking the will to bother with a response, the operative shifted as best she could, trying to make herself comfortable to no avail. The aide hovered nearby, tapping away at the various machines, likely doing a few preliminary tests. “Everything looks stable, Ma’am.”

“Good.” Porter snapped her fingers a few times in front of Vala’s face, her topaz eyes blinking away the blur and zeroing in on the hand. She made a noise in her throat, reaching up slowly to push the hand out of her face, earning a light laugh from the doctor. “Well, she’s got some basic cognitive, that’s for sure.” Rolling her head to the side, Vala glared softly at the woman, who simply smiled back, making it rather difficult to stay irritated with her. “Your operation was a success, Vala, but we just need to do some tests to make sure there’s no damage. Do you understand?”

“Mhm.” Her voice felt weak, and was hoarse from disuse. She coughed harshly, and gratefully took the small cup of water when the aide offered it. Water had never tasted so damn good, she decided, greedily gulping it down. Once it was drained, and the aide had taken it from her, they began their tests. The first few were basic, little more than moving the proper finger or toe when instructed, eventually going through the major limbs, and all seemed to be working properly.

“Alright, now, we’re going to do some memory tests.” Pulling up a screen on her Omni-tool, Porter glanced over the sheet for a few moments, muttering something about damn classified documents before finding something appropriate. “Where were you born?”

“Terra Nova. In the capital, Scott. Some memorial hospital.” Vala silently stretched her muscles as the doctor continued, waking all the under used limbs from their slumber. It was a weird sensation, almost like when a leg fell asleep, except for the entire body. Everything was stiff, and the only thing really at the forefront of her mental agenda was getting into a shower, or even better, a bath, and soaking away the ache.

“You were raised in Scott, primarily under your mother’s care, due to your father serving as fighter pilot in the Alliance Navy. Which fleet does he serve in?”

Vala rubbed lazily at her eyes. “He’s served in two different fleets. Originally served in the Fifth Fleet, up until the battle of the Citadel, after which he was transferred into the Second Fleet to help with training new pilots.” She smiled gently. “Less risky work, keeps Mom off his back.”

Veronica nodded in approval, pacing around the bed. “Alright then, let’s try something a little more recent. Just before your surgery, we conducted a mission on a Cerberus facility. What was that facility’s name?” There was a moment’s pause as Vala thought, and a trace of worry flashed across the doctor’s face as the woman searched for the name.

“Hephaestus. An R’n’D station in an ion storm.”

“Correct.” Her mood seemed to be brightening with every passed test, and Vala couldn’t help but sharing in the enthusiasm, although she was understandably more subdued. “Your memory seems spot on, so how about we get you up and moving, hm?”

“I’d enjoy that. I’ve had enough of this bed to last me a lifetime.” It took a little help, but once she was standing, Vala found herself immediately feeling much better, even if her knees threatened to buckle. Porter let her be, hovering close in case she collapsed, but giving the woman her space, which Vala appreciated more than the doctor would know. Slowly, she stretched out the unused limbs, relishing the feeling as the muscles woke from their slumber.

“Now, as much as I’m sure you’d love to get back into the full swing of things right away, I’m going to ask you avoid anything overly strenuous for a few days.” The two shared a look, and the doctor couldn’t help smiling at the slight irritation Vala was poorly trying to hide. “By all means, hit the gym, get some exercise and get yourself back up to speed. No missions for now, though.”

The operative was silent for a moment, before averting her gaze to her hand as she flexed it experimentally. “I feel fine, Doctor Porter…” Sighing, she nodded slowly, reluctant but relenting. “But I understand. I’ll sit the next one out.”

“Well, you don’t have much of a say in that one, I’m afraid. The commander is already out with a team for a mission right now. We’re docked at Omega.”

“Omega?” There was only so many things Cerberus could actually need on Omega, and getting any of them was likely going to be a labour. Already her mind began to piece together any random bits she could think of that Cerberus would need from the den of the Pirate Queen. Veronica watched her silently think for a moment.

“You know you have access to operational reports, don’t you? Once the mission is complete, you’ll be able to read up on the whole thing.”

The blonde blinked before chuckling half-heartedly. “I suppose you’re right. No point in stressing over it right now.” She fiddled with the hospital gown for a moment. “I don’t suppose there’s a change of clothes waiting? I’d rather not walk through the ship in this.” The doctor gestured to a neatly folded pile on one of the vacant beds, before making her way across the bay and settling into her desk. It took a few minutes, but soon, Vala had tugged on her casual clothes from her pub trip with Daniel earlier.

Finding her omni-tool at the bottom of the pile, she attached it to her arm, and powered the device up, immediately scanning through her emails for anything important. Only one stuck out, a communication from the Illusive Man himself. Oddly enough, it was dated only minutes ago, when she had only just woken up. The operative glanced around the med-bay curiously, wondering where exactly he had stuck the bugs to provide such lightning fast responses.

Opening the message, she was surprised to find it rather brief. “Vala, it’s good you’re back on your feet so soon. The Vindicator is currently docked at Omega, and I have something you need to look into. There’s a contact waiting for you in the apartments near Afterlife. You’ll know him when you see him.” She frowned momentarily, unsure of what to make of the cryptic message. She wasn’t usually tasked with handling contact meetings, but if the Illusive Man felt she needed to do it, then she certainly didn’t have much of a say in the matter.

“I’m stepping out.” She murmured as she walked past the doctor, who watched her leave the med bay for a moment, brow creased with worry.

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Stalking silently though the crowded streets of Omega, Vala’s eyes searched tirelessly for the contact, pausing every now and again to check the time on her omni-tool. Hopefully Titus’s mission would keep him busy enough for her to meet this mysterious contact and get back to the ship without difficulty, otherwise she’d have a hell of a time explaining herself to the man. She doubted anyone would be thrilled with her decision to go walking about the station so soon after waking up, but orders were orders.

Thinking about her operation made her head throb painfully, and Vala rubbed at her temples to try and sooth the heavy throb that seemed to worsen by the moment. The constant blast of furious bass from Afterlife just behind her did nothing to ease the ache, and the operative regretted not grabbing a painkiller before leaving the Vindicator. “Hindsight…”

Amidst the push and pull of the crowd, she noticed something. Off to the side, leaning casually against a bulkhead, a man watched the crowd, eyes seeming to pierce through it and bore straight in on her. Her own narrowed in suspicion, and the curious figure straightened out, taking a moment to fiddle with the cufflinks of his fine suit before turning and disappearing through a lone door. Vala was hot on his heels, the door not even having time to close before she passed through, only to watch the man enter another chamber at the end of the hall.

Gritting her teeth, she thumbed the knife hidden beneath the back of her jacket, and made her way down the surprisingly empty hallway. The door opened as she approached, and she entered only to be greeted by the man sitting comfortably in a chair in front of a table, thumbing his way through a deck of cards. “I’ve been expecting you, Ms. Buchan. Please, have a seat and we’ll get started.” He gestured to the chair opposite him, face a perfect image of calm.

She crossed the threshold hesitantly, resting a hand on the offered chair. “You’re my contact?”

“Is that what he’s calling me these days?” The man chuckled, tossing two cards onto the table in front of her, before setting two down in front of him. “I suppose you could call me that. I’m in the business of acquisition, let’s say. But that isn’t why you’re here. Please, sit.” She reluctantly complied, looking cautiously at the cards as he flipped his first one over. A two of hearts.

“Why am I here?” She reached for her own card, flipping the first one over. Ten of clubs. “As much as I’d love to play mind games with you, I’m running on a tight schedule.” The man nodded, flipping over his second card, chuckling humourlessly at the queen of spades.

“We’re here for a private conversation away from recording devices and nosy AI.” He eyed the unflipped card, and she placed her hand on it slowly. “But where are my manners? My name is Keagan Nulfem.” Vala gave a hesitant nod, glancing at her unflipped card for a moment longer. “There’s a new member aboard your ship, a Janis Freeman. An infiltrator much like yourself, but with a specialization in the political alone. He’s been deep cover for a good long while, if what our employer has told is anything close to true.”

“With who?”

“A new Alliance program, something called Oracle. A veritable mini-Cerberus, only with morals, ethics and no where near the funding. A cute copycat, really.” Keagan drummed his finger on the table, his plain eyes watching her intense gaze with the faintest hint of amusement. She found little in his eyes, and it unnerved her slightly. The man boasted an impressive poker face, eerily reminding her of the Illusive Man, minus the piercing eyes that cut through you. “Oracle in of itself isn’t much of an issue. All it may try and be, Cerberus is by far the stronger.”

“And why do the actions of an Alliance program concern me? My focus is on the Collectors and assisting Omni Cell.” The man tapped his revealed cards, and she hesitantly flipped her remaining card over, only to freeze at the image on the card.

“Ace of Hearts, right? A Blackjack.” A small smile crept across his face, as she stared hard at the picture on the card. “Commander Slatton has been confirmed to be working in unison with Oracle, and specifically with the intention of getting rid of Cerberus.” Vala released a slow breath, eyeing the man with a knowing gaze.

“Which means our double agent is the best means for finding Slatton.”

“Correct. The Illusive Man prefers to handle this…discreetly. Traitors can have interesting effects on the actions of loyal members. As of now, you have updated mission parameters.” Fetching a data pad from his pocket, Keagan slid it across the table to her waiting hand. “Speak with Janis about tapping his Oracle contacts for information on Slatton’s next move. If we can trap him, you’ll be able to move in.”

“And the crew of Omni Cell?”

Keagan shrugged, collecting his cards from the table. “I believe this isn’t exactly something they need to worry themselves with. What they don’t know won’t hurt them, and we don’t want to risk assets by starting a witch hunt. After all, the more grunts you throw at Slatton, the more aware he is of what’s coming…”

Vala nodded, finishing the thought. “And the more dangerous he gets. Understood. I’ll keep it from them as long as necessary.”

“Excellent. Once Janis has recovered the necessary intel, the Illusive Man will be in touch.” Vala made to rise, but paused as a thought crossed her mind. The well groomed man seemed to notice her hesitation, and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the small table. “Yes, Ms. Buchan?”

“Why didn’t he just contact Freeman himself?”

Nulfem chuckled, an actual laugh that seemed foreign coming from him. “It’s quite simple, actually. As far as the Illusive Man is concerned, this is your mission, Ms. Buchan. Consider it a…field test of your abilities to get the job done. To mobilize assets to accomplish objectives and secure success for Cerberus. ” Her eyes narrowed in confusion, and he could only chuckle again. “An excellent performance here will secure a very promising future, Ms. Buchan. Shall we leave it at that?”

She watched him silently for a moment, before nodding in understanding. “Yes. If that will be all, Mr. Nulfem?” The man bowed his head, watching the operative disappear back out the door from the corner of his eye.

“Well, well, well…” He mused, shuffling the deck expertly as he stared after the woman. “This is shaping up to be quite the interesting hand…”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Janis Freeman

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Nulfem thumbed through the stack of cards with all his usual serenity, a wry smile perched on his lips as he leaned lightly against the wall. Every three cards, he’d pause for a moment, glance towards the open door beside him, then over to the lone figure staring out at Omega through the single dominating window of the apartment. Having counted the deck sixteen times already, the sharply dressed man straightened, rubbing his thumb on the top card of the deck as he gazed through the open door beside him.

Hunched over the toilet, Vala Buchan looked far from the frigid and striking woman he’d just properly met earlier today. She looked like an unfortunate college girl suffering from a long night of binge drinking, and Nulfem wasn’t entirely sure if that was a charming or disheartening concept. “Perhaps he planned this.” It was the first thing anyone had said in the apartment since his two ‘house guests’ had arrived roughly an hour ago. The newcomer she had brought with her was none other than Janis Freeman, the one who, up until recently, had been tasked with Commander Titus.

Who was now rocketing to who knows where aboard an Oracle ship. Nulfem chuckled silently at the thought, as Buchan emptied her stomach for what had to be the hundredth time since she’d staggered in here. “If he did…” She paused, fighting off another retch with mild success. “…I have no idea why.” Nulfem pocketed the cards, rubbing a soothing hand on the woman’s back to ease the process. He’d not been made aware of her operation prior to their visit, but she’d been so kind to inform him in between swearing and throwing up everything she had eaten within the past month.

“Well, I doubt the Illusive Man would have you wandering about right after waking up without good purpose. Our meeting no doubt could have waited, but it just so conveniently got you off the Vindicator in time for our associate to attempt his hit, and provided he failed, ensures you weren’t whisked away by now very much hostile forces.” Truth be told, he was lying through his teeth, but the tension fading from her shoulders told him she was at least buying it. Clutching the toilet firm, she staggered to her feet, knees shaking, but Nulfem promptly slung her arm over his shoulder and walked her to the small sink.

“Thanks.” She muttered, letting the water run for a moment before splashing the cool liquid on her face. Vala sighed in relief, enjoying the sensation for a moment before looking in the mirror, her breath fogging the surface slightly as she panted. Her eyes were dull, and ringed black, betraying the sheer exhaustion she felt despite having woken up only a few hours prior. Thin beads of sweat mixed with the water. Nulfem hovered nearby, a small face towel slung over his arm, which she gratefully took, dabbing away the water before slinging it around her neck.

She nodded towards the main room, and he helped her out the door and into a plush chair. The Commando sunk into it with a happy sigh, and Nulfem quietly excused himself to the small kitchenette to fetch them all some drinks. Vala listened to his smooth footsteps echo in the silent apartment for a moment, before opening her eyes and scrutinizing the man seated just to her right. It didn’t take long for her to notice his eyes watching her, and she frowned coldly at the man.

Neither said anything until Nulfem returned, setting a trio of short glasses on the small table between them. In two, he poured a rich amber liquid into, and the last was filled with crystal clear water. Dropping a pair into each, Keagan handed Janis one of the amber glasses, and Vala the water. “You look like death, Buchan.” Freeman turned his chair slightly, sipping his drink casually as she took a greedy gulp of her water.

Gasping lightly as she lowered the glass, Vala nodded in thanks as Nulfem promptly filled the glass again before finally sipping at his own drink. “Just the price I have to pay, Freeman.” Setting her cup down, the woman smiled, although it was far from sincere.

He sipped at his drink, all confidence, which only set her already frayed nerves even more on edge. “No doubt. I suspect there’s something you want to talk about, unless you’re just enjoying the sights.” He gestured smoothly to his fine clothing, which brought a cold frown to her lips. “You should smile more, Buchan.”

“Save the charm for a woman who’s interested, Freeman. I want to know what happened.” Janis stared back out the window, finishing off his glass and setting down on the table. If he’d heard her question, there was no sign that he intended to answer it. It only added to the tenseness that hung over the trio like smog, and Vala’s eyes narrowed into slits as he spoke to Keagan.

“An excellent brandy, Nulfem. Hard to find?”

Their ‘host’ chuckled, sipping at his own glass for a moment. “Not overly. It was once quite the rarity, but an enterprising volus managed to secure the rights to it, and has set about mass producing it as they are so fond of doing.” Shrugging, Nulfem finished his glass and retrieved the bottle to pour them another. “It was actually a small present from the Illusive Man when I first signed on with Cerberus. I save it for special occasions.”

Vala raised a brow. “And what’s so special about today?” Nulfem chuckled lightly, handing Janis his refilled cup. “There’s nothing worth celebrating, in case you haven’t noticed.” He shook a finger slowly, sealing up the glass bottle and crossing the room to place it back in the small bar.

“It’s not a celebratory drink. Brandy is traditionally an after-dinner drink, to help the body digest the meal before it.” She stared incredulously at his impromptu history lesson, but the man continued unlaundered, crossing the room with all of his confident charm. “Consider the mission the meal for a moment, and we are stuck trying to swallow the unfortunate aftermath of its outcome. A perfect reason to enjoy a fine glass of brandy.” He placed a hand on the top of her chair, giving an amiable smile at the younger woman. “Now that Freeman has had a chance to digest the events, he should be able to fully inform us of what went wrong.”

Janis seemed slightly transfixed by his drink, but eventually he spoke. “Titus had outside help. I had him clean in my sights, when an agent from Oracle intervened.” Keagan seemed unphased by his explanation, but Vala’s jaw tightened and she leaned forward in her chair, ignoring the swirling throb of her head.

“Don’t push yourself too much, Ms. Buchan.” Nulfem cautioned, but she held up a hand for silence, brow knit in concentration.

“You had the shot. You’re an assassin, Freeman; you’d have squeezed the trigger when there was an opportunity.” The man was perfectly silent, sipping his drink. “…You had the shot but didn’t take it immediately.”

“He was dead, regardless.” Vala rose from her seat, gripping the man’s blazer by the collar and ripping him half out of his seat, free hand reaching for her knife as Janis quickly reached for his pistol. The two Cerberus agents stared each other down, Vala’s topaz eyes flashing dangerously while Janis’s cool gaze simply watched, unflinching despite the threat. Her fingers tightened around the knife’s handle, as Janis continued. “You wouldn’t last a minute in your state, Buchan.”

Her face split into a dark smile, face paling as her body protested the sudden movement and labour of standing up unassisted. “Perfect. It’d take me ten seconds to slit your throat, Freeman.” Nulfem placed a calming hand on her shoulder, and the commando released her grip on the assassin, nearly collapsing back into her seat. “Next time you have a mark, kill it, and don’t talk its ear off. A little tip from an actual killer, you polished sack of shit.”

The double agent took a moment to fix his collar, irritated she had handled it so roughly. “I didn’t ask for your opinion. Focus on your own assignments, Buchan, and I’ll deal with mine.” She stared at him, irritation fading as her breathing calmed once again.

“No, you won’t, Freeman. Oracle cut you loose, and you failed to shoot one undefended man in the back of the head. As far as I’m concerned, you’ve become useless, and your assignment just became my problem. I’ll kill Slatton, I’ll kill Titus, and if you even think of getting in my way, orders or no, I’ll kill you.”

Janis gave that arrogant smile of his, and she fought the urge to smack it off his face. “You think the Illusive Man would just let you kill me?”

“I think he knows which one of us is worth keeping around.” She turned from the man, stepping round the chair and heading towards the door. Her headache was subsiding, and with it, the crippling vertigo that had kept her confined in the room with these men. A small terminal on the wall beeped, and Nulfem strode fluidly to it, tapping a key and listening to the voice on the other end.

“Understood.” Turning to Vala, he gestured to the door. “Cerberus forces are here to reclaim the Vindicator, Ms. Buchan. It’s in your best interest to retrieve your things before it’s moved from dock.” She nodded in agreement, as he stepped to her side. “I’ll accompany you.” The warning glare she shot only made the man raise his hands in mock surrender. “A safety precaution. Omega is not place for you to collapse.” Without another word, the commando tapped the key to the exit, turning round the corner and starting off towards the docks.

Nulfem glanced over his shoulder to the still figure of Freeman, staring once more out at Omega. “I trust you can show yourself out, Freeman?” The double agent nodded, and he was left alone with his thoughts as the bulkhead hissed shut.

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There were no real difficulties on the journey back, aside from the exhaustion niggling at the back of her mind. It had taken them barely ten minutes to reach the elevator, even with Keagan constantly reminding her to slow down. His dedication to keeping her walking was surprising, and he never seemed to get irritated or let his voice rise above the polite casual he’d had since she’d met him earlier. Why he was so concerned with her health was another matter, but whenever she paused to ask him why, he’d simply keep walking and remind her of how tight their schedule was.

As the elevator opened, she half-jogged out of the lift, relieved to see the familiar hull of the Vindicator sitting in port, as a small group of techs milled about with the final preparations, and a pair of men exchanged words with a rather agitated looking turian. Keagan whistled low at the ship, and Vala cast him a curious glance. “This is a warship? Looks more appropriate for transporting diplomats and business tycoons than battling Collectors.” Vala opened her mouth, but he held up a finger, smiling at her confusion. “Can’t judge a book by its cover, right? An old fashioned saying for a woman who’s likely never held an actual book in her life.”

“It’s a saying that’s lasted hundreds of years, Nulfem. Try not to kill it, alright?”

“I’ll leave the professionals, then. I’ve seen you react to those who think they’re one.” She chuckled soundlessly, slowly descending towards the men occupying the turian. One glanced up as she approached, and stepped around the turian to address her.

“Operative Buchan, I presume? We were told you would be coming.” She nodded, glancing towards the turian who was growing more irritated by the moment. The man seemed to read her mind, glancing back at the alien. “The turian isn’t please with the commotion we caused.”

“Pay him and his gang double what we already did. I’d like to keep ourselves in the Talon’s good books.” The man stared incredulously back, and the commando frowned at his hesitance. “Or would you rather put money in Aria’s pocket?”

“Understood, ma’am.” She nodded, brushing past the man with Keagan in tow, who waved lightly in greeting to the slightly befuddled man, before tucking his hand into the pocket of his trousers.

“No one listens.” She murmured, moving towards the airlock where a lone armoured figure stood guard. He held up a hand for her to stop. “Something wrong, agent?”

“We’ve a team searching for traps or bugs inside. No one goes in until the sweeps done, Ma’am.” As much as she disliked the news, she nodded in understanding, and stepped to the side so as not to obstruct the lone pathway for the team which might need it.

“Mr. Nulfem.” The man turned to her, head titled every so slightly in wordless inquiry. Vala stared along the side of the ship, face soft as she seemed to examine the hull. “You’re in the business of acquisitions, correct?” He nodded. “What would you do if a ship like this just fell into your lap?”

He flicked his gaze to the white exterior, brow creasing for the slightest moment as he thought. “It’s not something that can be utilized quickly, Ms. Buchan. Depending on the purpose my employer had in mind, it’s unfortunately known to Oracle, and with that, no doubt the Alliance. It’d need to be scrubbed of bugs, its IFF would need to be rewritten to avoid easy detection, and a new paint job might help keep it off the radar a little longer…not much work, but essential work.”

“And it‘d need a crew.”

Keagan shook his head. “I can get a crew in a heartbeat, Ms. Buchan. The hardest part has just fallen into our lap.” He paused, and the two exchanged knowing glances. “Cerberus will no doubt get just as much use as they wanted out of this girl.”

“Good. She’s a good ship. I’d hate to see her scrapped.” She turned from the view of the vessel, walking back towards the guard intending to ask a few things. Her companion stayed where he stood, seemingly transfixed by the sleek hull.

“Of course, Ms. Buchan. She still has so much to prove.”

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When the team was finally finished its sweep, the guard allowed them inside, Vala leading the way slowly through the familiar halls. The ship was eerily silent, and it unnerved her. This whole ship had been occupied not hours before, and now it sat empty, completely abandoned for them to come pick apart like a vulture. The sound of their footsteps echoing through the shell didn’t help, and she picked up the pace just so she could leave the ‘ghost’ ship all the quicker. “Do we have an ETA on the Call of Victory?”

“It should be arriving within the hour.”

She nodded, biting her lip as she approached the door to her office. The bulkhead whooshed open at her approach, and Vala stepped inside with a soundless sigh. Everything was as she had left it. Most importantly, the Nyx sat untouched on its stand, the dark visor staring tirelessly at the door. “And I take it the Illusive Man still isn’t sharing exactly why they’re coming to pick me up?” The blonde rounded the desk, dropping into the chair and firing up the terminal in front of her.

Keagan crossed the threshold casually, taking in the room with a slow, wandering gaze as Vala worked. “I suspect it has something to do with the loss of the only other Commander in Omni Cell that you’re aware of?” She froze, eyes snapping to him, but he could see the surprise she tried to hide. “You’ll meet Commander Ross soon enough, Ms. Buchan. Focus on the present.” He walked past the desk, moving into the living area of the room.

“Right…” She gave her head a shake, looking back to the screen as she sorted through the files to preserve and ones to delete. It was a slow process, and she found herself skimming some reports multiple times before deleting them. She could hear Keagan sorting through her closet behind her, packing the few meagre outfits that she had away for transport.

“You should know we managed to contact Professor Rhodes for you. He was quite…adamant that he be allowed to help you with the Nyx. I’ve uploaded the contact details of his new laboratory to your Omni-tool.” Securing the last few files on the terminal, Vala powered it down, and spun about to face him.

“And why would I need to contact him?”

“The Nyx is still a prototype, Ms. Buchan. I’m not familiar with the design itself, but it will no doubt have a few bugs that will need worked out.” His eyes glanced at the armour in question. “Plus, if there are any improvements you want done, who better than the man who developed the armour to do it?” She looked at the armour, a light smile spreading across her face.

“That makes sense.” She frowned. “Provided, of course, he actually listens to me. He seemed to be only half-paying attention last time we talked.” Keagan zipped the bag he’d been packing closed, and tossed it into Vala’s waiting arms. “Still, thanks. You’re rather useful.”

“I try to be.” He glanced down at the sleek, but aged watch on his wrist, a relic in the era of omni-tools and haptic interfaces. Some men just couldn’t let go of the past it seemed. “You should get moving, the Victory will be here soon. I’ll arrange the Nyx to be moved before you depart.”

Rising, she rounded the desk, pausing at the door way and slinging the duffle bag over her shoulder. “What are you going to do now, Nulfem? Off in search of the next acquisition?” The card player smiled; face betraying nothing as he slowly shook his head.

“No, Ms. Buchan, I have some new pressing business to attend to. A golden opportunity has fallen into my lap, and I need to make the most of it.” She titled her head in curiosity, but the man simply shook his finger, unwilling to reveal what exactly he meant. “Don’t worry, Ms. Buchan. We’ll meet again soon enough.”

“I hope not. You’re a little to cryptic for day to day conversation, Nulfem.” Despite her words, she smiled, waving to the man before heading out of the room. Alone with her thoughts, Vala occupied herself with thoughts about the Nyx and what exactly she was supposed to be doing onboard the Victory. And only after she emerged from the familiar hull of the frigate, did she stop and release a slow sigh.

The mission was falling apart around her, and the sinking feeling in her gut told her things were only going to get worse from here on out.

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru

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Vala stared for a half second at Invaru, before a slight smile upturned the corners of her mouth. “Glad to be here.” She stepped into the airlock, a lone marine following behind her, dutifully pushing along the Nyx in a small trolley. “She looks like a beauty. Hold up well since you got her?” Kelly smiled softly as she led the way to the elevator.

“"More or less. Things haven't exactly been going well for the Cell as a whole, or at least, from what I'm told.” The woman’s neutral was light, but it seemed to hint at something, which Vala read loud and clear. The marine trudged behind them, seemingly emotionless behind the black of his helmet visor, stopping only when Vala did, like he didn’t even process the rest of the people around him.

“I’m not surprised you’ve heard about it…” Her eyes narrowed, her sharp gaze focused on the floor like it was the most interesting thing in the world. She continued, unaware of the bitter venom tainting her words. “I can barely believe it, and yet I feel blind for not seeing the signs earlier.” As they approached the elevator, the commando released a surprisingly shaky breath, swaying lightly in place as Invaru called the lift. “Shouldn’t have left it up to the double agent though. I would have done it.”

There was a silence, and Vala brought her free hand to her forehead, muttering unintelligible noises under her breath. She had a headache coming on, and today was already bad enough. She didn’t need anything else going wrong. "Maybe you would have, but that wouldn't change our current situation. We would still be down a Commander..." She felt eyes upon her, and looked up at Kelly, caught off guard by the woman’s stone-like gaze. "Have you been briefed on Lieutenant Harrens?"

Vala stopped cold, eyes widening in surprise. “Daniel? No, why? What happened?” Kelly said nothing as they boarded the lift, the marine keeping his distance from the two so as not to intrude on their conversation. The Victory’s current commander stayed silent for a few moments, watching the lift tick away the floors as they approached the crew deck. The waiting only made her more anxious.

"Lieutenant Harrens has been captured and is considered MIA for the time being." Vala stiffened, somehow looking more shocked than she had been before. The door pinged open, and Kelly started out, pausing for a moment to let Vala’s properly catch up. "What limited Intel we have suggests that it was an Alliance black ops unit called Oracle that made the ambush." Invaru glanced back at Vala; head cocked ever so slightly to the side, and face blank. Almost cold. The commando couldn’t help but wonder if the woman even noticed his absence. "His disappearance changes nothing. As of now, we are heading towards our next mission. We will be there within a couple of days."

Nodding once, Vala glanced back at the marine behind her, making sure he was still coming along like instructed. The man was, silent as a mouse, and unaware of the few spare glances the resident crew were giving his armoured figure. “I see…” Brow furrowing in thought, Vala went over the information she’d heard from Nulfem earlier, particularly the scarce information he’d provided on Oracle. “They hit us with a raid and pulled out Titus…Nulfem was wrong when he called them little.” With a quick shake of her head, Vala jogged forward slightly to catch up to Invaru proper, falling into step with the taller woman. “What’s the mission?”

Kelly gave her a small smile. "One that you won't be going on, in your condition." Vala sighed as they came to a stop in front of a door, likely meaning it was to serve as her quarters. She nodded towards the door, and the marine wasted little time opening it and hauling the Nyx inside. "It's a raid. Not much demand for a black ops operative such as yourself, nor the need to put your health at further risk after your surgery." As Kelly spoke, Vala managed to glance around the working marine at the room beyond. It was very simple, with the bunks on each side switched out for a single double bed and a small desk on the other side. It was smaller than the room Vala had been given on the Titan, but it would suit her needs for the time being. The bed looked reasonably comfortable as well, so that was a small plus. "On that note, you should also check in with Dr. Grass. He would like to be kept appraised of your condition, and would like to check to make sure nothing is...well in his words...'missing'." Kelly turned towards her, her form immaculate and perfect as ever. "Any questions?"

Vala frowned deeply at the ‘missing’ comment. “I’ve walked across Omega, secured terminals and purged data today, and he worries that something is missing? I’m past that point.” She was silent for a moment, watching Kelly’s expressionless face. “But, I suppose I can humour him. Where’s the Med Bay?”

"The Med bay is just further along this deck Operative Buchan." Kelly gave another small smile. "And that's the reason he wants to see you...just because you aren't falling over dead now doesn't mean you won't be in a few hours." Vala sighed, muttering something along the lines of agreement.

“And there’s no way to convince you to lift the ban, is there?”

"The Ban stays, Operative Buchan." She could feel the woman giving her the once over and swallowed down the woozy feeling in her stomach to stare back firm. "You're barely standing as is, and in a crowded and most likely shell shocked environment, you'll be out of your element." Vala didn‘t flinch, resolute as the two locked eyes for a fraction of a second. "The most I can do is permit you to be aboard the CIC when the mission starts, but that is as far as my leniency goes." After a pause, Vala nodded in agreement.

“Alright. Thank you.” She stretched, suppressing a yawn but failing rather miserable. The commando leaned against the bulkhead, chuckling sleepily. “That’s all I need. I won’t keep you, I’m sure you’ve got a full plate with the mission and all.”

"Alright Operative Buchan, I will be on the CIC if you need anything." With that, Kelly returned the way they’d come, the heel of her boot echoing down the hall until it finally disappeared all together. As if on cue, the marine emerged from her quarters, saluting sharply to the operative before standing at attention.

His external speakers crackled to life, his voice even and respectful. “Ma’am, the armour is set up, as per your instructions, ma‘am.” His form was impressive, not even wavering under the weight of his black armour. “Do you require anything else, ma’am?” Thinking for a moment, Vala tapped a finger against her lip, before shaking her head.

“No, I think that’s enough. I should be able to handle the rest. You’re dismissed.” He saluted again, and she saluted back, and he wasted no more of her time, heading down the hall towards the lift. Vala watched him go, before turning her gaze into the room that was now officially hers. There was much to be done, no doubt, reading over reports from when she was unconscious, debugging, setting up the terminal, unpacking, plus a visit to the med-bay to satisfy Dr. Grass.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, Vala thought about all this, and felt tired just from the process of sorting it all mentally, never mind actually doing it. Falling back onto the bed, desperately trying to ignore the pounding hammers at the back of her skull, she debated getting up and going to see the doctor right now. The bed was warm though. Very warm. And comfortable. “Fuck it.” She murmured, grabbing the sheets and pulling them around her. “He can wait a few hours.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Corporal Edward Stevenson Character Portrait: Specialist Maya Salazar Character Portrait: Private First Class Logan Fischer Character Portrait: Private Roger Pollard Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Sparrow Oberacker

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This many people weren’t supposed to be this quiet. Roger and the others were in roughly the center of the herd, but aside from the steady beat of dozens of footsteps, there was very little actually being said. No doubt the private channels were alive with pre-mission chatter, but there was that collective hush that came right before the bullets started flying. That was what unnerved the marines, and Roger found his hands shaking slightly, hidden by the bulk of his armour, but judging by the way Maya kept glancing back at him, she was very aware of it.

It made sense, when he thought about it. She’d mention once that, being a field medic, her suit had a few slight changes, linking her HUD with their vitals and likely with any of the marines in the local area. His heart was hammering in his ears, and there was little doubt she knew exactly why. The front of the herd began to climb up the sloped side of a small hill, and Roger grimaced at the prospect of running uphill in the slab of ceramic plate they called armour. Once at the top, the objective was laid out in all its glory, and the young private cocked his head to the side in confusion. “Huh…that…actually doesn’t look so bad.”

Ed nodded slightly at his comment. “And that’s what’s wrong with it.”

“Uh…say what?” The corporal glanced back, Maya turning with him to chuckle at Roger. “You guys seeing something I’m not?” The specialist shook her head, resting the visor of her helmet in her hand as Ed responded.

“Pollard, if you were expecting an assault, would you build fortifications then leave them empty for the enemy?” The private shook his head as the team lead continued. “That’s what’s wrong with it. Why build it and not use it? They likely already know we’re here.”

Roger looked back out at the trenches. “Well…I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.” Logan chuckled silently at Maya’s exasperated sigh, with Edward simply turning to look back out at the facility, right as Carson began to speak.

“Alright marines arm up and get your running boots on! Keep an eye on your squad, keep them safe, and stay alive. Let's go!” The man turned and started running down the hill, and Victory Company wasted no time following him down towards the base. The descent was silent; each marine focusing on the task at hand with the dedication that O’Ryan had spent hours pounding into their skulls. Even Roger kept his mouth shut, eyes watching the building as if it was going to rear up to kill them itself. As the first few marines crossed the threshold, there was an audible pop, and a blue ball flew above the facility. Roger slowed slightly to watch, only for a rough shove by Logan to stagger him forward.

“Move.” The big man didn’t even look up, practically pushing the smaller man along with the thick of his shoulder. The first of the nests rose from the base, and the engineer grit his teeth as the private stiffened in front of him. “Down!” With a grunt, he practically threw Roger the last few feet into the nearest trench, sending him tumbling ass over head into an undignified heap. The air burst to life with the booming rattle of machine gun fire, and Roger hauled himself upwards to look back out for Logan.

The engineer raced forward, rounds ripping up the ground around his feet and shredding his shields like they were made of cardboard. He grunted in pain as a spray clipped his shoulder plates, sending him into a slight spin that sent him sprawling into the dirt. Roger hopped up to the lip, throwing his hand out and gripping Logan’s own, bracing his legs against the side of the trench and pulling the man into the relative safety. They lay there for a second as the battle screamed around them, before Maya’s voice punched through the static. “I’ve got vitals flare! Logan, you alright?”

“I’m fine. Took a few rounds, but the squish suit’s got them sealed.” There was an audible sigh of relief from the specialist before the engineer continued. “Is Ed with you?”

The corporal responded. “I am. We must have gotten split up in the initial ambush.” There was a brief pause of silence as the thundering ring of explosions filled the air and Kelly’s command overrode the private squad chatter.

“Marines! The trenches are mined! I repeat, the trenches are mined!”

Roger swore colourfully as Logan did a quick check of their trench for any unwanted explosives. Satisfied they were clear; Logan opened the comm channel again. “That’s going to complicate things.”

A detonation sounded again, and Maya swore violently in the background of Ed’s comm. “We’re going to get slaughtered if we stay put. I’m linking a way point to your HUD now; we’re going to rendezvous with you and Feldmann’s team there. We’re Bravo Squad. Switch to channel SB-72T. How copy?”

“I copy. See you there.” The engineer switched comm channels quickly, immediately being buffeted by the calm shouts of ‘INCOMING!’ from Feldmann’s team. There was no time to react, as the trench filled with a plume of dirt and rubble from a mortar detonating above them. As the dust cleared, Logan swept the dust from his visor, giving the sprawled form of his trench-mate a light tap with his foot. “On your feet.”

Roger groaned, his head hammering from the noise of the blast, but he complied, staggering up into a low crouch. Logan wiped the smudge from his visor, locking eyes with the private as another series of mortar rounds detonated nearby. “We…uh…we need to…move up, right?” He muttered and stammered, eliciting a frown from his team-mate.

“We’re syncing up with Ed and Maya, as well as Fire Team 2. You follow me, you keep low, and when I say move, you run like the devil himself is on your heels. Alright?” Roger didn’t really respond, and Logan thumped his shoulder with a rough punch. “Focus, Roger, you focus on me. You understand?” After a moment of silence, the younger man nodded, and Logan peered above the lip for a moment.

The company was pinned all over, but there were fewer bodies on the ground than he’d been expecting. He spotted the sprinting forms of two marines, wagering it was Ed and Maya. He waited for a break in the fire, as the machine guns trained on a new target, before hauling himself roughly up the ledge. “Up and over, Roger!” He barked, and the private complied, scrambling up behind him and breaking into a low sprint towards the nearest trench.

“What about the mines?!” Roger whispered into the comms, and Logan simply retrieved a small grenade from his side before lobbing it into the trench. A moment later, their HUD blinked as several Cerberus IFFs appeared in the trench, before a resounding detonation engulfed the strip. They both dropped in seconds later, but the trench was devoid of bodies, littered with shrapnel but little else. “The fuck?”

“IFF grenade. A few of the engineers and me whipped them up before the mission. Usually meant for misleading, but they should be able to fool the mines detection.” The engineer sunk deeper into the dirt as the lip exploded under a salvo of MG fire.

“Got anything for those MGs?” The desperate tone of his voice made Logan chuckle humourlessly.

“If we were closer, I might be able to fire the heat sink for a few moments, but at this distance? We need a ML-77.” Roger groaned, sinking to his knees and resting his head against the wall. “The Mako might hit that one; just keep your head on straight.” It was then Feldmann’s voice came over the comm, slightly irritated as he spoke.

“Heads up people, we’ve got a few friends visiting from the Terminus.” Logan and Roger looked skyward, as a number of Eclipse Gun-ships appeared on the horizon. “Eclipse from the look of it.”

Carson cut through the chatter. “Missiles up people! Bring’em down!” There was a chorus of affirmatives across the open channel, and there was only a moment’s pause before a hell storm of missiles burst from the trenches. With every ship downed, the marines roared enthusiastically, but as the fourth claimed their Mako in a salvo of missiles, the chatter fell into a deafening silence.

Roger swallowed roughly. “What was that about the Mako, Logan?”

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The screaming wail of mortars rang in near perfect harmony, screeching over the constant hammering bangs of the MGs in rhythm that was both completely horrifying, and yet entrancing at the same time. Another mortar detonated inches from the trench, spraying the occupants with dirt and making the Greenknees hug the sides even tighter than should have been possible in their bulky armour.

Beside them, Sparrow sat, eyes closed as she hummed softly to herself, a strange tune of no real melody that almost tried to mirror the chaos raging outside their small little ‘fort’. Beside her, Ramirez was squatted; his back to her and eyes peering round the lip for a way up. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t finding any.

Sparrow cracked an eye, her visor tint having faded to allow the others to see her face, watching Ramirez for a moment. “You got a plan to shatter the entire enemy line yourself, Ramirez?” She asked, not even blinking as another mortar detonated a few feet away from their trench.

The man glanced back at her, face obscured behind his darkened visor, but she could gather the intent easily enough. “It’s better than sitting here getting shot at.” She shook her finger, slowly digging her heels into the loose dirt until they found purchase, before hoisting herself into a low crouch.

“They’ve built these trenches well, Corporal. It’s a kill zone, and it’s one hell of a kill zone at that. We may have cover, ignoring the mines, but we frankly can’t get anywhere with the amount of fire they’re laying down. The issue is going to be…” She paused, a mortar showering them in another spray of dirt. “…that we’re going to lose our patience. We’ve got no way to retreat without being sitting ducks for those guns, so the only way we can go is forward.”

“Which is right into their bullets.”

“Exactly. And while I’m sure the man in charge is hoping we don’t, but even if we do manage to pierce his defensive line, we’ve got an entire base to secure that’ll be rigged top to bottom in booby traps and traitors.” She chuckled for a moment, glancing over the Greenknees towards another trench. “Gotta admit, the bastard is one smart motherfucker. Shame we’re gonna kill him.”

Ramirez shook his head slowly, wincing as another barrage of mortars sounded around them. “You’re rather confident in that fact, Ma’am. Care to share why exactly?” The corporal poked over the lip, firing a burst from his Avenger before ducking back down before the MGs could train on his position.

“Because we’ve been backed into a corner.” She grinned savagely beneath her helmet, pulling her Mattock from its rest against the trench wall and settling her grip. “And that’s when you fight hardest. No way out, but through them.” She laughed again, deep and loud, although the noise was a little unsettling to the others in the trench. “My kind of fight! Get your asses up! We’re moving up, ladies!”

The Greenknees complied, hesitantly at first, but they knew better than to disobey an order from the Platoon chief, settling into a stance similar to her own. Ramirez locked eyes with her, and her grin only strengthened at the intensity lurking behind his visor. The man was placing his trust in her. She’d have to see it wasn’t misplaced.

“Feldmann!” She called over the radio, earning a near instant “Ma’am!” from the man. “I’ve got a favour and your boys are just what the doctor ordered!”

“All do respect, Ma’am, tell the doctor to fuck off! What do you need?” The static made it a little difficult to hear, but she paid it little mind, tapping a few keys on her personal omni-tool that brought up dozens of displays for the soldiers in her platoon. For a moment, she paused to examine the KIA statuses blinking for a few of her men, before she dismissed the majority of the beacons with the exception of Feldmann’s squad.

He was holed up on one of the flanks, with the rest of the ‘Bravo’ squad, composing of Edward’s fire team as well, who seemed to have gotten separated from each other. No matter, she mused, glancing towards the MGs with the best vantage on her position. “I’m marking some MGs on your HUD. Get their attention so Alpha can gain some ground.” She paused, before adding with a laugh. “And try not to get your wrinkly ass shot up. That’s the last thing Grass needs today.”

Feldmann laughed over the comm. “Will do, Ma’am. Try not to get those kids killed now. Not everyone is as tough as you.”

“They damn well will be when I’m done with ‘em.” Sparrow glanced back at the marines, flicking her eyes over each of them. The HUD wasted little time displaying their vitals and names as she looked to each, and she spared only a moment to commit each name to memory. “Ladies, Feldmann’s gonna give us a distraction! Now, I know you’re all probably a little freaked out by the amount of hell raining from the sky, so here’s what we’re gonna do. I’m going to go first, and you’re all going to fix your eyes on my fine ass, and follow it until I damn well tell you to stop. We clear?” The privates simply stared back at her, Ramirez snickering quietly. Sparrow simply shook her head. “Hand it to you on a platter, and you don’t even take it. Kids today!”

Two marines from Feldmann’s squad emerged from their trench, weapons blasting as Feldmann himself stepped up partially on the lip to fire off a rocket from the ML-77 at their unlucky targets. It took only seconds for the guns to divert their fire, and Sparrow wasted no time hauling herself over the lip. “Go, go, go!” She had barely gotten halfway to her target trench when the ground in front of her broke apart, a white coated mech rising fluidly from the dirt.

There was little point to firing so close, so Sparrow simply balled one of her hands into a fist and slammed it across the fragile screen that dominated the machine’s ‘face’. Feeling nothing, the VI was already reaching for its pistol, but the blunt stock of her Mattock promptly caved in it’s already weakened ‘head’, and it toppled over into a heap. The ground was seemingly falling apart around them, as more and more of the ‘sleeping’ mechs woke up, and she promptly recognized them as LOKIs. Before anymore thought could be given, Sparrow found the Mgs no longer distracted by Feldmann and turning back to the doubtlessly juicy target an exposed marine made.

She rolled to the side as the first gun opened up on her position, shields flaring as several rounds tore through the fringes of the barrier. She could feel the force as the rounds hissed by, and for a moment, she found herself thankful the MGs had a seemingly slow turning speed. The precious extra seconds she’d bought with her roll were spent scrambling behind a tank trap, although she was a little surprised when Ramirez fumbled into a nook beside her. “Good to see you in one piece, Ramirez. Where’s the Greenknees?”

“Back in the trench, Ma’am. Soon as the LOKIs showed up, I ordered them back.” She nodded, their position chipping and shattering under the powerful assault. The constant jabbering of the LOKIs echoed in the second long pauses between gunfire, and Ramirez braved the bullet hail for a moment to pump a round through one’s head, ending its blathering permanently. “I hate these things.”

“We’re in agreement then!” She jerked her head towards a trench to their right, and Ramirez nodded. “I’ll cover. Frag it, and then get in.” He complied, popping a grenade off his belt and lobbing it expertly into the trench, which sent the trench up in a brilliant burst of light. Sparrow stepped up, pumping round after round into the encroaching LOKIs, as Ramirez burst out beside her, firing his Avenger blindly into the mechs as he ran. He threw himself into the cleared trench with a grunt, and Sparrow was after him the moment he disappeared into the dirt.

She had fewer margins for error, the ground around her feet erupting in a hail of bullets that made the dirt uneven beneath her feet as she pounded across the small space. Her shields flickered, slowing the rounds as best they could but the sheer number of rounds quickly depleted them and her HUD blinked red in warning, but the sergeant ignored it, throwing herself into the trench with a pained grunt. She landed on the balls of her heels, rolling forward until she bumped into Ramirez, who panted with his back to the wall of the trench. “You know, these things aren’t overly great to run in.” He knocked his knuckles against his helmet as Sparrow laughed.

“C’mon, I’m barely even sweating!”

“That’s not helping your cas-” He stopped abruptly, tilting his head and gesturing towards her side. “You’re bleeding, Ma’am.” Despite the slight concern in his voice, she didn‘t seem overly worried herself. Glancing down at the area he gestured at, Sparrow was surprised to notice a small stain of red on the grime smeared white of her armour. A moment of careful prodding found the source or at least, the small breach in her armour that had been the source. Her squish skin had already patched the hole shut with a heavy dose of medigel, which combined with the adrenaline to make the wound’s pain all but non-existent.

“One of the LOKIs must have winged me. Impressive for one of those worthless VI.” She peered over at the base, gritting her teeth in frustration. They still had a good distance to do, and the constant alerts for injuries pinging in her helmet was a grim reminder of how limited their resources were. With the Mako slagged, there wasn’t many ways they were going to get themselves in range to assault without shredding eighty percent of the company. “We’re gonna need a small miracle to get up there alive…”

As if on cue, the horizon came alive, an echoing blast that thundered even though it was clearly miles away, a massive mushroom cloud of debris dominating the sky. She and Ramirez stared for a moment silently, before the man punctuated it with a well placed “What the fuck was that?!”

Sparrow held up a finger, as if she intended to speak, although it was a short minute before she actually said anything. “Either Logan’s imaginary friend decided to start pulling his weight…or someone in orbit is plenty pissed off.” Shouldering her Mattock, she gave the platoon status a once over before looking to Ramirez. “I’m not banking on any more help though, so let’s get moving. Line ain’t going to break itself.”

“You’ve got it, Ma’am.”

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High in orbit, Vala stared silently at the overlay of Ontarom, a small display on her Omni-tool rolling slowly through the same briefing that had been read to the marines before their mission. Every now and again, she’d pause, glancing about at the various technicians before resuming her watch of the overlay. It was pointless, had no function and was frankly mind-numbingly boring, but there was nothing she could really do to stifle the feelings of uselessness.

She’d paid Dr. Grass a visit a day prior to the mission, and the man had been more than content to poke and prod and test until he was absolutely confident that she wasn’t about to keel over or fall into a fit of spasms. With a relatively clean bill of health, and the sternest warnings that she should not, under ANY circumstances, be exerting herself for the next few days, he’d been content to let her wander the ship.

As if the flying tub had anything she could actually do to pass the time. Training outside of light cardio was forbidden, and after her first visit to the mess hall, she’d quickly reasoned that she’d not be visiting again while there were marines present. They were a raucous bunch, and her fragile head couldn’t handle their noise. She’d spent an hour lying in her room groaning last time, and she was not eager to repeat the experience. She paused at the thought. All of the marines had been mobilized for the mission, and most of the techs would be occupied during mission time.

She straightened, a light smile stretching across her face at the prospect of a nice quiet meal and turned towards the lift. She had barely taken a step when the entire ship suddenly shook with the force of impact, and Vala deftly grabbed onto the railing around the galaxy map to keep herself from being tossed to the floor. The overlay of Ontarom disappeared immediately, replaced by a small area view of planet’s immediate surroundings, and several small pings marking their previously unknown attackers in plain sight. Three icons, quickly identified as Eclipse, and marked as frigates, moved swiftly on the display, and Vala looked up towards the helm, noting the pilot’s hands deftly flying over the displays she could make out from the back of his chair. “Time to see what kind of guns this tub has…”

The EDI unit of the Victory, Nikki if she remembered correctly, came over the PA, quickly announcing “All hands, brace for impact.” Vala barely had time to grip the railing tighter before the ship shook violently under the punishing salvo from the mercs. Her arm stung from the force it took to keep herself rooted in place, her knuckles white from the strength of her grip. Hissing, she barely moved between the next set of salvos, trying not to be flung like some of the unfortunate techs.

The red warning lights blared, and she squeezed her eyes shut, wondering why they needed to be on in the first place. Anyone who wasn’t aware they were under attack at this point was a blithering idiot, and the lights weren’t going to help in the slightest. The techs moved quickly, shouting to each other and working at a blistering pace to handle the thousands of little things the ship needed done. The organized chaos of it all only cemented the tense feeling in her gut.

There was truly nothing she could do in this situation to help, either on the ground or up here in orbit. The utter uselessness was unwelcome, unpleasant, and at this point, far too familiar for her taste. As the Call began its hard burn, and the threat of attack faded, Vala didn’t release her vice grip on the railing, staring darkly into the display’s soft glow.

Everything was on their shoulders, and there was nothing she could do to change that.

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

“Down, down!” Ed’s voice roared over the static filled comms, and Roger barely had time to pull his head down from the rim of their trench before a hail of fire tore the space he’d been occupying moments before. The private sat for a moment on his haunches, blinking slowly as the ringing in his ears slowly began to fade. He and Logan had managed to bound up and catch up with Ed and Maya, although the entire advance had stalled completely at this point, no real cover between the marines and the final defensive line occupied by, from what he’d seen, a small army’s worth of mercenaries and ex-Cerberus marines.

A rough shake rattled the private, and he sluggishly turned his head towards the source, startling back slightly at the unexpected proximity of Ed’s helmet. The corporal stared at him through their visors, and for a moment, Roger swore he saw the man’s lips moving. As the ringing faded, Ed’s voice, dulled by something he couldn’t quite place, managed to break through. “Roger! C’mon, private, we need your head in the game right now!”

“Y-yeah? What is it, Ed?” He mumbled hands slackening on his rifle as his team lead looked over his shoulder.

“Maya, soon as you get McCarthy stabilized; give Roger a minute or two. Combat-stress.” The private followed his corporal’s gaze, the HUD readout identifying Maya as she hunkered over the prone form of a seemingly unconscious marine, hands deftly working on a rather large wound that had seemingly mauled most of the man’s arm.

“Fuck! Talk to him! We can’t do jack-shit for combat-stress out here! Hendricks! I need your hands, get over here!” Another marine moved into view, crouched low as he stepped towards the combat-medic, but there was a powerful snap before he jerked and collapsed into the dirt, a spray of red splattering across Roger’s visor. Maya turned instantly, already hauling McCarthy tighter to the wall as she shouted over the comms. “Hendricks? Hendricks, get the fuck up!” There was a moment’s pause, and Roger stared in silent horror at the completely still body lying on the ground. “God fucking dammit! Hendricks is KIA and McCarthy isn’t going to be doing jackshit for us today!”

“Do what you can to get him comfortable, Maya, and we’ll mark the trench for Medivac.” The medic simply shook her head; fingers deftly dressing the wounds of her patient, as Ed shook Roger’s shoulder again, trying to pull the private from the body lying in the trench with them. “Look at me kid, c’mon. Don’t go tunnel vision on us.”

Trying to swallow the knot, Roger looked at Ed, but his lips fumbled for words until his stomach wretched in protest. His visor slid open instantly, the suit having detected the upcoming vomit, and the private fell forward onto his hands and knees, dumping the contents of his stomach all over the blood stained trench. Ed rubbed a soothing hand on his back, keeping the young man from moving too far forward and into the waiting sights of the hostile snipers. “F-fuck.” He breathed in between retches, and Ed chuckled humourlessly.

“Better to toss it up. Any better?” Fumbling back against the trench wall, Roger nodded slowly, diverting his gaze from the body as his visor once more slid closed to obscure his face. “Good. Maya how is he?” The medic wiped her hands on the legs of her armour, ignoring the grime that smeared her fingers as she did.

“As stable as I can get him without the Med-bay’s tools.” She glanced over, giving Hendricks’ fallen form a soft salute. “Was a stupid thing to ask. Fuck. Should have known better.” The bitterness in her voice was uncharacteristic of her, but Ed was quick to address it.

“We do the best we can with what we got.” He pointed up at the building, flicking his eyes over the others in their crowded trench. “And unless we get into that building, then Hendricks and a lot of other good men and women are dying for nothing. I need all of you on your A-game. Clear?”

“You got it, Ed.” Maya acknowledged, as Logan spared a moment to haul Hendricks’s into relative safety and retrieved the fallen man’s dog tags.

“Of course.” The large man murmured, before bowing his head as his hand tightened around the chain. There was a brief moment of silence, his lips moving in soundless prayer, but it passed quickly, the tags tucked away and his rifle readied once more for combat. His eyes drifted skyward, and the engineer quickly gestured upwards, the others quickly following and staring at the blazing fireballs falling from the sky.

Maya broke the stupor. “What the fuck is that?” As the debris crashed deep into the earth, there was only a moment of pause before the marines quickly noticed the large slab of metal now resting comfortably between them and the defensive line of the traitors. There was little hesitation as several other marines leapt from their trenches and swarmed up to the new piece of cover.

Logan looked to her, before answering in a soft tone. “His providence.”

Maya laughed lightly at the engineer, popping the heat sink of her Avenger. “Well, certainly beats a gun! Thank him for me!” Already the comms were filling with chatter of the possibility of assaulting distance, and the once desperate voices now had a hopeful, if not ecstatic hint of joy in their voices. More and more confirmations began to bark back and forth, and the LOKI mechs began to drop with more frequency at the marine’s growing morale. “Just the freak chance we needed from the look of it!”

Ed nodded, hauling Roger up into a low crouch like the rest of them. “We need some good luck, and Logan’s friend decided to provide. I’m not much in the mood to argue with the big man, so let’s make use of this.” He tapped his helmet twice on the ear, signalling for the others to switch comm channels, and the fire team joined the general channel in time for a rather boisterous declaration for Sergeant Oberacker.

“Ladies! The mercenaries are coming out of their hidey holes to play! I don’t know about you lot, but I think it’s about damn time we got some payback on these assholes!” Roger peered over the lip of the trench, spotting Oberacker’s marker on the slab of debris that had fallen, and he could make out a pair of glowing blades seemingly having grown straight out of her omni-tool, one attached to each hand. “So let’s show these traitors and guns-for-hire how a REAL marine kicks some ass! Victory Company!” The Sergeant rose in a fluid turn around the cover, driving the glowing blade into an Eclipse mercenary’s head with a brutal uppercut. “Let’s tell these fucks our motto! Cause we…”

“DON‘T GO DOWN!”

“TILL?”

“YOU’RE IN THE GROUND!” There comms filled with the echoing roar, and the trenches came alive as the marines surged over the barriers, barrelling forward to meet the Eclipse with guns and blades at the ready, a living tide that seemed to simply ignore the faltering fire of the MGs, unable to fire into the melee without risking a shot at their own men. Curses, swears and yelling filled the comm, and it was all Roger could do to keep pace with his team as they mounted the lip and rushed forward towards the melee.

The Eclipse mercs, to their credit, held their ground, seemingly unphased by the onslaught of furious marines, firing off incendiary bursts and electrical arcs of overload with impunity. Few marines even faltered under the attacks, the durability of their assault armour absorbing the damage with little difficulty, as they crashed into the hostile ranks.

Maya wasted little time clipping her Avenger to its magnetic lock on her shoulder, pulling out the Katana holstered on the small of her back with a sadistic laugh that betrayed her desire for some payback. She wasted little time blasting into the mercs, focusing on the thick clusters of them to avoid any friendly fire.

Logan was a different beast, using his large size and own tech talents to help support the fresher fighters that found themselves locked in with more experience mercenaries, distracting them with his intimidating size so the beginners might strike unimpeded.

Ed moved into the thick of things immediately, not even moving to holster his Vindicator, instead loosing point blank bursts into the exposed flanks of the mercenaries, and clubbing any stupid enough to engage him with the stock of the trusty weapon.

Try as he might, Roger couldn’t keep tabs on his fire team, eyes darting back and forth through the chaotic swirl of melee and HUD icons that sent his brain into a dangerous state of sensory overload. His Predator was held loosely in his grip, but anytime he dared to tighten it to shoot an exposed target, the pressing throng simply whisked it away again, leaving him stumbling and confused.

The edges of his vision blurred and darkened, and the tunnelled scope of his vision spotted a mercenary approaching the exposed back of a friendly HUD. His hands tightened on instinct, squeezing off a vicious burst that didn’t end until his gun was clicking with an overheated sink and the mercenary was dropping unceremoniously to the ground. Roger blinked once, hands slackening on the gun, transfixed by the fallen merc, unaware of the marine he rescued turning back towards him, hands encased in a familiar orange glow of an omni-tool, only shaped into short pointed blades made of seemingly nothing more than light.

“I…” The private’s gun fell from his hand, dropping forgotten to the dirt as he took a staggering step back, eyes dilating wildly as they focused, refocused, and blurred on the body. The one he’d made. He’d pulled the trigger, hadn’t he? He shook his head, falling back another step, eyes never daring to stare from the body. The marine was running towards him, hands outstretched, pointing at him. Accusation? He’d killed the mercenary. They all had! How could they blame him for one?! It was just one! Who were they to judg-?

The ringing bang shut his mind down, and his entire body stiffened before his legs collapsed from beneath him, landing roughly on his knees. Roger’s breaths shortened every attempt to breathe becoming a painful shudder that did nothing to ease his shortness of breath. A blur of motion barely distracted him from the sudden numbness spreading across his chest, his hand tentatively reaching across his chest until it found an unexpected indentation. There was a pause, before he pushed his fingers into it, nearly screaming as they dug inside, his body protesting with a violent spasm that sent him face first into the dirt.

His HUD blinked red rapidly, monitors blaring about his injury, but the private simply lay on his stomach, eyes hazily trying to stare into the dirt outside his visor. He lay there for what seemed like a short eternity, watching small granules of dirt dance and shake in the fury of battle that surrounded him, before someone gripped his shoulder and roughly ripped him over onto his back, the sudden motion snapping him back to painful alertness. “-oger! C’mon, Private, talk to me!”

He tilted his head the slightest degree, mumbling something unintelligible before gasping in pain at the agony trying to breathe brought with it. The marine above him was visibly relieved, and his HUD took a brief moment from its constant alarms to identify it as Oberacker. Coughing roughly, with a mind addled on adrenaline and endorphins, he still managed to choke out a weak “Ma‘am.”

“Formal even with a hole in your chest? Your mother must be damn proud.” She laughed, a humourless thing but he offered a weak grin to her attempt to joke. “Salazar’s gonna get you fixed up, Roger, alright? We just need you to focus on staying awake, no matter what. Can you do that?” His head lulled, rolling about, and the sergeant gripped the tip of his helmet to keep it up straight. “Talk to me, Roger, c’mon.”

“You…sure I can’t sleep..? I’m…pretty sleepy…” He mumbled, small surges of pain preventing him from really passing out, but Sparrow didn’t seem interested in trying their luck.

“You go to sleep; I’m going to make O’Ryan give you latrine duty for two months, Roger.” Another marine dashed up, tossing a shotgun over to Sparrow who snatched it out of the air and pumped the heat sink out. “Salazar, he’s got a hole in his chest. Eclipse bastard got behind him with a Predator.”

The medic nodded, already reaching for his arm to haul him up. “Up we go.” She grunted, as Roger’s feet fumbled beneath him for purchase, but she managed to at least get him standing as Sparrow took a step back towards the thick of the melee, pumping off a blast from the shotgun.

“Can you fix him?” The question hung in the air, before Maya began moving towards the trenches. “Salazar, I asked you a question. Is he going to make it?”

Maya turned back slightly, her helmet obscuring her face, but the intensity in her voice made everything perfectly clear. “I’m going to give him the best damn chance he has, but if we want him alive…” There was a silence, the two women simply staring each other down. “…those GARDIANS got to go, Oberacker.”

“Only a few dozen mercenaries to rip through.”

“Ed and Logan will be happy to help.” Sparrow said nothing more, already storming back into the fray as Maya dragged Roger behind the fallen debris from orbit, hunkering down with the few other marines who were trading shots with the MG nests and snipers. She laid Roger gently on the ground, touching the hole in his chest softly. “…all I have to do is keep you alive till they do.”

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru

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Kelly watched as the marines managed to rally behind one another as debris rained from the sky, creating new cover from the machine gun emplacements the traitors and mercenaries had set up. The marines, renewed through this lucky chance and motivated by a marine who's name Kelly was unable to look at while having rounds whirl past her head, were attacking with a renewed vigour that made her almost proud to watch and embarrassed at the same time. She should have been the one giving that speech, been up here leading by example. Instead she was in the midst, easily mistaken for another marine. She had to get up, she had to do something. She had to remind not the marines, but herself as to why she had a command position in the first place. With the grip on her avenger tightening ever so slightly, she rounded the corner with the next batch of marines to move forward. As she rushed into the engagement, one simple fundamental fact started poking out in her mind.

She was horrible in hand to hand combat.

Biotics. Those would have to do. If she sat back while the rest of the group went in and fought, she would lose so much respect that she doubted she could gain it back. As the group of marines finally crashed into the fray, Kelly's mind simply went into automatic as a blue glow started to cover the entirety of her body. The first mercenary she ran into, the man looked her dead in the eyes before starting to raise his pistol. Kelly sent her hand forward, releasing a wave of pure biotic energy that caught a couple more eclipse mercs off guard and sent them all flying as a result. She put her hands on her rifle, and turned towards the next nearest one and fired her avenger into the man's back. Another flip around, and she emptied the rest of her clip into another. She quickly made to reload when a knife swiped up in front of her face, knocking the heat sink from her hand and nearly forcing her to the ground. She looked over to see an asari summoning up her own biotic skills to use in the field, and doubt clouded Kelly's mind as she made to react in the same moment. They both released at the same time, creating a double effect as the two 'pushes' caused one massive outward explosion of biotic energy, sending them and a few others flying. Kelly rolled a few more feet before finally coming to a stop, her shields were down to half strength, but they would be back up to normal in no time. Kelly did a quick check of herself to make sure nothing was broken or fractured, and she was up again, this time managing to get a heat sink into her avenger to reload it.

She and the other marines were doing well, for the most part. They weren't really making any ground, but nor were they really giving any. The two sides were almost at a complete stalemate as a group of eclipse mercenaries would manage to make a hole in the Cerberus marines only to be slaughtered further in and vice versa. Kelly mainly kept just out of arms reach of the mercenaries, firing avenger rounds and assisting with biotics when she could. It was hard, the mass of bodies preventing her from unleashing her own full biotic potential without hurting her own marines. She restricted herself to biotic pushes and lifts, which were slowly but surely draining her of stamina. After a few minutes of fighting, her breaths were coming in gasps as she forced herself to regain some stamina. She hadn't used her biotics this heavily since the Citadel battle, well over a year ago.

A few marines in front of Kelly had managed to breach a hole in the defensive line, and were just about to jump into a trench when the very luck that had allowed them to get this far backfired on them. Pieces of debris landed in front, behind, and on top of them as a fresh batch of space junk littered the battlefield. Kelly spared a glance upwards, seeing the GUARDIAN system firing down the more dangerous pieces but noticing the sheer amount of debris coming from the sky. With the numbers she was seeing, she doubted it could be any less than a whole ship that had just been critically wounded. She seriously hoped it was not their ship. She looked around, noticing that the falling ship pieces were more condensed, impacting closer and closer to the marines. Some were even managing to fall on mercenary and marine alike.

Kelly broke from her trance like state, and made to move forward once more. Debris impacted beside her, throwing her off balance as a stray shot ploughed into her back, sending her to the ground. She lost her grip on her avenger rifle as it flew out of her hands a few feet away from where she was now laying. She quickly wiped the grime from her visor, and made to crawl towards her weapon when a pulse came over her, picking her up and throwing her several yards back from the defensive line. She rolled, once more, to a stop on the ground and stayed there for a moment. The impact had winded her, but she had enough sense left to get a look at what had hit her. The asari, the one that she had deadlocked with her biotics before, was marching towards her with a purpose. Maybe the asari knew who she was, or maybe she simply didn't like people trying to beat her at what she did best. Either way, she was glowing with biotic energy as she stretched our her hand and Kelly felt herself lifted into the air. She struggled and reached for her pistol only to be prevented from doing so by being slammed into the ground. In the split second that she wasn't at the whim of the asari biotic, she stretched out her own hand and gave a push.

Unfortunately, the asari had been expecting that, and managed to sidestep and draw her own pistol. Kelly looked up, and tried to roll out of the way but was only marginally successful as the round pierced her shields and crashed through her visor sideways. It broke the shielding around her face, the broken visor glass creating gashes on her features and revealing the true light and nature on Ontarom as she was no longer hindered by a HUD. Blood clouded her vision as red drops poured into her eyes. She attempted to wipe it away, but the jagged remains of her visor prevented her from doing so effectively. She looked up in time to see the asari stepping up to her, and in a move she wasn't even sure would work, put her hands underneath her and twitched, creating a powerful biotic push. The result pushed her off the ground, much to the surprise of the asari, and while Kelly was flailing, managed to give another push that sent the asari flying backwards towards the defensive line. Kelly had gone up about five feet, and dropped with a crash that threatened to wind her once more. However, with the adrenaline now going full tilt in her body, she didn't feel the need to spend any more time on the ground. She looked for her assault rifle, but amidst the chaos was unable to lay eyes on it. She quickly took out her pistol, and looked for her new target.

Without her HUD aiding her, the scene almost became a blur. There were no more IFF tags, no warning indications, no shield status, there was nothing. If felt weird, knowing she had the protection of the armour without knowing the actual condition of it. As she peered around the battlefield, she finally caught sight of the asari as she came out of the crowd once more, giving another push that Kelly braced for with a biotic barrier. Once it dissipated Kelly looked up only to find a blue fist coming at her already exposed face. With a blow that felt a lot harder than it should have been, Kelly stumbled back a few feet but managed to get her pistol up to fire a few rounds. The asari charged through them, her shields taking the brunt as she grabbed Kelly's wrist and forced the weapon aside. Kelly let loose with her left arm, surrounding it with biotic energy and crushing it against the merc's face with a satisfying crunch. She brought up her knee quickly, but the asari moved to the side at the last second and grabbed her leg. With an almost supernatural movement, she had picked up the 2iC and tossed her another few good feet from the fight. Kelly once again found herself on the ground, wondering what she was doing trying to fight in an area that was obviously unsuited for her skill set. She rolled to aim her pistol, but was lifted another several feet on the ground before being repeatedly smashed to the ground.

She held her grip on the weapon, afraid that to lose it meant that she would be dead. She looked to the other marines for aid, but saw that they were all too busy with their own life or death situations to worry about hers. For the moment, she was on her own. When the asari finally finished pounding her to the ground, Kelly raised her weapon shakily to meet the threat, but was defeated when the asari ran up and kicked it out of her hand. Kelly raised her other hand to release another biotic push when her body was locked in place by a field generated by the asari. The alien gave a small grin on her bloodied and muddy face, and raised her pistol to Kelly's head.

When the sound of something burning caught their ear's attention, and the asari looked away for a split second, the field surrounding the Operative weakening as a result of the asari's attention being shifted. Kelly utilized it, giving the woman a quick kick before pushing her several feet into the air. As she reached the apex of her ascent, a fireball of debris came flying out the air, taking it and the mercenary hard into the ground a few feet from Kelly. For the time being, as she watched the smoke rise from the small crater that was now the asari's grave, Kelly could do nothing but lie there and breathe. She was absolutely exhausted, and nothing short of someone else pointing a gun in her face was going to get her to move. She looked up at the sky, watching as more pieces of debris came raining down from the sky, and almost missed the figure stepping into her line of sight. Instinct took over as she raised her arms to prepare her biotics, only to have them kicked away at the last possible moment.

"Jesus Operative, you could hurt someone with that you know."

Kelly simply blinked, trying to wipe the blood and grime from her face as the figure knelt next to her, clad in bright white armour that looked like it had been singed from some kind of fire. The man retracted his visor, giving an all too familiar grin.

"Save someone's life, and I get pushed away as thanks. I was expecting at least a boob flash."

Yep...it was Horn.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

30 minutes earlier.

"God damn it Nikki, I can't make this boat move any fucking faster, so unless you have some super AI powers that I was made unaware of, stick to doing what you do best and stop telling me how to NOT fight a battle!" Harold swore at the AI 'sitting' next to him in his piloting chair as the Call of Victory was being harassed by the enemy frigates. He had currently tried to put them on a close orbit of the planet, hoping the natural gravity of Ontarom would allow for some of their shots to be pulled off target. Apparently it wasn't working very well.

"I was merely making a combat suggestion Mr. Bretton." Nikki responded.

"Yeah, and if I push the engines any more, I risk the problem of a catastrophic overload which is just as deadly, if not more so, then one of their mass accelerator rounds puncturing our hull. You leave the piloting to me, and I'll leave that weird math computer shit to you."

"As you wish Mr. Bretton...incoming salvo." The ship rocked again as the ship was once again bombarded by the Eclipse ships. Harold swore to himself some more as he brought the Call of Victory as close to the planet as was physically safe and started pushing around the planet on a hard burn. As they finally got around the bend of the planet, they were bought a moments respite from the unforgiving barrage. Bretton quickly got on the comm.

"All stations, give me an update!"

"The update is that I have these weapons primed and we've done nothing but wait and get shot Lieutenant!" Jessie's voice came over the comm. obviously a little more than pissed at the fact that their first move in their new ship was to run away.

"Do you have any damage down there?" Harold asked, ignoring the weapon's officer attitude.

"No, we're good to go when you get some balls and learn to fi-"

"Noted Lieutenant." Harold quickly switched channels. "Engineering, 411."

"We're becoming dangerously close to overtaxed. I may be able to pump out enough energy here for another flyby if necessary, but if you keep going like this I estimate ten minutes before we face a total emergency shutdown and vent of the core." Jaconis came on, his ever calm voice in the face of battle or death a welcome change of pace from the weapon's officer's threats.

"Alright, Bretton out." Harold did a quick check to make sure there wasn't any hull breaches on the non-essential sections of the ship when it came to battle, and was happy to see that so far, his ship was intact. "Good...good."

"Attention Lieutenant Bretton. The third Eclipse ship is coming into range." Nikki notified Harold.

Shit, I was hoping for more time. Harold thought to himself as he prepped his weapons to fire on the ship, only to get more reverberations around the hull from weapon's fire by the other two Eclipse ships that were following him. "We appear to be flanked." Nikki stated calmly and Harold simply gritted his teeth. Not bothering with any words, threats, or prayers, he fired a barrage of ordnance at the ship in front of him, hovering directly over top of the research facility. He was rewarded with their shields flickering and dying, and with several explosions on their hull, but was disappointed when the ship simply turned to re-engage him.

"Fuck." He swore as he took a ship on another hard burn around the planet. He knew the Call of Victory couldn't take sustained fire from three frigates for more than a few minutes, and was simply trying to by them time.

"Lieutenant Bretton...taking the ship around the planet once more will only tax the engine more than we are capable of. Doing so runs the high risk of burning out the engine and leaving us in the open." Nikki stated.

"My options are pretty limited here Nikki, if you have a better battle plan, I would love to hear it."

"Yeah, we fight those pansy ass mercs who think they can wreck my ship." Harold looked back to see Commander Horn standing on the CIC. His body looked pretty much healed, save for a few new scars as he stared down the pilot. Everyone took the split second to stop and stare at their commanding officer, supposedly back from the dead as he wandered around the CIC. "Now, someone tell me what the hell is happening to my ship, and what the hell happened to my pilot!"

"Uhh, sir?" Harold asked, confusion setting in.

"Where the hell is Jack Nathan!?" Harold looked over at Nikki for a moment, his mouth hanging open to answer when another barrage forced him to look back at the controls. He immediately turned from the Commander and set a course for another hard burn around the planet.

"Lieutenant Bretton. We can't sustain another hard burn orbit, our engines will be overtaxed." Nikki reminded Harold once again.

"I am keenly aware of that, but we only need to get to cover so that we're facing two ships, instead of three. Once there, we should have better odds than this."

"Warning, second eclipse frigate is committing a hard burn. Third eclipse ship is following. We are being blocked. Third eclipse ship has taken spot in front of the damaged freighter." Nikki stated as Harold swore.

"Damn it, if they get their shields back on, then we're screwed even harder...maybe if I-"

"Maybe if you listened to your god damn Commander Lieutenant you would have an idea as to what to do." Horn yelled as he made his way to the cockpit.

"With all due respect sir, do you even know what's going on right now?!" Harold yelled back, and was met with a quick and firm slap from Jason.

"When you say 'with all due respect' I expect it to mean that and not 'shut the fuck up sir'." Jason said with a dangerous undertone before stepping back. "We are being fired on by three eclipse ships, one of which is heavily damaged and hovering over the ex-Cerberus base that my marines have been sent to take. That about sum it up?" Harold simply looked at him.

"Well...uhh...actually yeah..."

"Good. First order of business." Jason wandered back to the CIC. "Set a collision course for the ship acting as a barrier to his wounded brother."

"Sir?" Harold asked, and Jason shot him another glare which got the pilot to immediately turn around and start entering the coordinates. "Sir, we don't have the shield strength nor the hull integrity to survive a full on hit."

"Well duh Lieutenant, but neither do they." Horn replied as he watched the battle on the map that was now displaying from the CIC.

"Sir, taking them out in a last blaze of glory isn't going to do the marines any good down there. I know your record says your damn near suicidal in your feats but I have to st-"

"Never judge a man by his record until you have a face to face with him. As of now, I am ranking officer of this ship and if you so much as open your mouth again Lieutenant, I will rip out your tongue and make you lick your own asshole, are we clear?!" Harold simply looked at the man, who then took a step towards him before bowing his head and returning his attention to the display in front of him.

The elevator doors opened and Dr. Grass came running onto the bridge. "Has anyone se-" He immediately saw Horn, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Commander. You are in no shape to be ordering anyone around. You just came out of a coma, there are side effects to such a thing, you need to be monitored."

"As if such a thing will matter if we are all blown to pieces doctor. Sit back and enjoy the show until that happens or we win." Horn stated.

"Thirty seconds to collision." Nikki stated over the intercom.

"Oh, we're going suicidal again?" Lincoln stated as he crossed his arms.

"Twenty seconds to collision." Nikki stated once more as the entire room got silent watching as their ship got ever closer to the enemy frigates and the planet's gravity well. The enemy ship was either too stupid or to confident that the Call of Victory would not collide with their ship, and as such made no attempt to move, instead peppering the Victory's shields and hull with sporadic gunfire as it's sister ship farther out did the same thing. Warning lights blared in the CIC as booms could be heard throughout the room as shells and missiles impacted with the Victory.

"Ten seconds to collision."

"Lieutenant! Hard reverse, all the power you can muster." Harold hit the button quickly, and everyone felt the lurch as the ship started fighting the momentum and the gravity of the planet as every possible thruster and engine was used to stop them from crushing into the ships. "Battery, ready all weapons!"

"Already done!" McKrain answered as Jason watched the Call of Victory get ever so closer to the frigate. He looked towards the cockpit, the viewing hatch was open and they were so close you could make out the GUARDIAN defences on their hull.

"Sir, we are practically touching them! Imminent collision!" Harold stated as he struggled to find extra power for the ship to shift to the engines.

"All batteries, open fire!" Jason yelled as the ship, which was millimetres away from the enemy frigate in space terms, opened up at point blank. They were so close the shields protecting the frigate were immediately ripped to shreds as the mass accelerator cannon tore through them, and into the wounded ship behind them. Secondary explosions rippled along the hull, and then the missiles hit, sealing the fate of their first victim. The second ship, being already weakened from the Victory's first salvo, was also immediately destroyed as the Victory's main cannon ripped through several hulls and set off a lethal amount of secondary explosions, causing the ship to literally break apart and fall to the surface.

"We're caught in the gravity of the planet! Hold on!" Harold stated as his hands moved like lightning to compensate for the force of nature that had a hold on their ship.

"This is Jaconis!" Kevin stated over the bridge comm. "I've managed to squeeze as much juice as we're going to get out of here. We're going to lose power to the weapons for a couple of minutes, but I didn't see a choice. You'll feel it any second." Horn didn't have the time to reply as a gigantic burst of energy was fired from their reverse thrusters, managing to push them just outside the grip of the planet. Harold's hands were still flying, working on getting the ship to a firing position on the last Eclipse frigate, but stopped for a moment.

"The last frigate is breaking off...heading for FTL." Bretton stated as Horn looked at the screen in the CIC, and sure enough, within a few seconds the blip indicating their ship had vanished. The intercom suddenly burst to life again.

"This is Jaconis. A primary conduit to the engines burst from the power being pumped through it. I can patch it, but it's going to take a couple of minutes. Until then, we're not going anywhere unless you want a sudden and albeit hot death."

"No worries about that Kevin." Jason answered, staring at the display. "I think we're out of the woods for the moment." There was a pause.

"Am I safe to assume that I'm talking to Commander Horn?" Kevin asked. Jason simply smiled, and hit the ship wide intercom.

"Attention crew of the SIC Titan!"

"Uhh...Call of Victory sir." Harold interrupted. Jason simply looked over at the pilot.

"The what now?"

"Sir, long story short, you're on the Cerberus cruiser called the Call of Victory." Jason just gave him a curious look, before clearing his throat and continuing.

"Attention crew of the Call of Victory. This is Commander Horn. As some of you may know, I have apparently been in a medically induced coma for the past few weeks. Well, I'm here to say I kicked it's ass. That's right, the coma came at me like raging krogan and I kicked it so hard in the quads it turned into a salarian. Coma's can't keep me down, Collectors can't keep me down, and I sure as hell ain't going to let...whoever...is down there on the planet keep me down. As of now, I am re-assuming...or assuming since it's a new ship...command of this ship. Now, no more questions as to if this is really me, cause that's going to get real old real fast." Jason cut the comm. and looked over at the pilot.

"Situation."

"Well sir. Operative Invaru and both companies of marines went down to the planet to eliminate a rogue Cerberus scientist. We lost contact due to their satellite uplink being turned into a jamming device. We have no idea what is happening down there, but we do know their location." Harold stated for him. Horn simply stared at him for a moment, his face in absolute stupor.

"Operative Invaru...is down on the surface...fighting?"

"Yes sir."

"With guns?"

"Uhhh...yes...sir."

"And shooting at people?" Harold simply stared at him for a moment.

"Yes sir." Horn simply looked at the map overlay of the planet, his jaw hanging before he finally regained himself.

"Huh...alright." Jason stated. "Well, in that case, I'm going to take a Kodiak down there and shove it down their throats." Jason made to move off the bridge when both the pilot and Lincoln stopped him.

"Sir, the GUARDIAN system around the base prevents us from getting close. Until we know whether or not they've taken it out, you'd have to land a good ten minutes away." Harold talked after him.

"That and the fact that you just came out of a coma Commander. You're not exactly going to be ready to go right off the bat." Dr. Grass stated. Jason stopped for a moment, thinking as he rubbed his chin.

"So we know where they are, but can't get close due to some damn defences..." Jason's eyes lit up. "Is all my stuff here...including the stuff I brought in from Hephaestus station?" Harold and Lincoln looked at each other.

"As far as we know sir." Harold stated. Jason simply gave a wicked look.

"Awesome. Doc, get me some battle stims and come with me. You're not going to like this plan."

"Oh, and that's assuming I like any plan that has you smiling like a preteen who just got asked to the prom?" Lincoln retorted as they both made for the elevator, but as they turned to leave, Horn looked off to the side and noticed a familiar figure which he had managed to miss amidst the chaos of the battle. Vala Buchan stood there, her stoic face analyzing him even as he fixed her a deep glare.

"Commander Horn." She stated, her voice level. Horn pointed a finger at her, his face red with a barely suppressed anger at her being on his ship at all. His mouth fumbled with several words before he simply stopped and pointed solidly at her.

"I'll deal with you later." Jason stated as both he and Lincoln got into the elevator.

"You have such a way with words sir." Dr. Grass stated.

"Lincoln? Shut your nerd face before I shove a holodisk of anime asari down your throat and you shit a fan service."



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"Commander...this has got to be the stupidest idea I've heard from you...and I've been your medical officer for a year."

Lincoln stated this as TJ outfitted Horn in his prototype Apocalypse armour. Horn flexed his hand slightly, getting a feel for the extra weight of the armour once more as Lincoln continued. "You're in no condition to fight, and the stims I have you on aren't going to keep you going forever. There is going to be significant physical and mental trauma down there that might send your body into a total relapse once you're down on the surface, assuming you even make it that far." The doctor simply stared at him as TJ finished suiting him up.

"Thank you Keller." Jason stated as she gave a grunt and went back to working on something else. "And besides Doc, if I do make it to the surface, I'm sure I'd already be in a coma from planetary re-entry."

"On that note...this isn't going to work." Grass stated as they started walking towards the elevator.

"Come now, that's quitter talk. You sound like most of my love life." Grass simply rubbed his face as they both got into the lift.

"I'm serious. You're taking untested armour down to the planet from space! Skydiving is one thing, but even if you get through the atmosphere...there is no way you're going to slow down enough to survive the landing."

"That's why this thing has super jetpacks!" Horn stated, pointing to the oversized canisters on his back. "Besides, you worry too much. This sort of shit is the reason I'm with Cerberus...it's fucking awesome." Dr. Grass was about to say something else when the ship rocked once more.

"The eclipse ship has come back on our flank! We're under fire!" Harold came over the intercom just as Jason and Lincoln stepped out onto the CIC.

"Situation?" Horn asked as he made his way to the bridge.

"Engines are still down, and from what I can tell, we sucked a lot of juice breaking free from the planet's gravitational pull." Harold moved his hands quicker than Jason thought possible. "I can possibly reroute non-essential power to the guns, but it isn't going to be much. Essentially all we can do is wait and hope to hell Lieutenant Jaconis gets the engines back up so I can move." Jason looked at the man.

"Tell you what...you get those weapons going and you turn that mercenary piece of shit into an actual piece of shit, you understand?"

"Uhhh...well in order to fire on it...I have to be able to turn...cause it's behind us sir." Jason paused.

"Oh...right. Well, do that." Jason walked back into the CIC as Lincoln and Harold both watched him.

"Uh...sir, what are you doing?" Harold asked after him.

"I'm going down there...marines need my help. I'm a calming influence." Jason stated as he secured his helmet and stepped into the airlock. Harold was simply left staring after him as Grass placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Get used to it boy, for now worry about that other ship."

_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

((http://soundcloud.com/user7837224/dragon-rises))

Jason stood in the airlock for a second, wondering just how much opening the door while the room was still pressurized was going to hurt. He took a couple of breaths to prep himself to be ready to move, and pulled the emergency release hatch. The doors flew open and Horn was pulled into space like releasing a cord on a parachute. He started spinning through space at first uncontrolled until timed bursts from the boosters in his hands and feet made him stable. Before him was the entire planet of Ontarom, looming in green and blue. Jason was smiling as if he was a kid being given the choice of a toy at the local store. His HUD, previously blank, blinked to life as it gave him the standard display of shields, weapons, health, and comm. status. Among this there was also a single beam that dictated the path he should take to land where he wanted.

Unfortunately, directly in front of him was the wreckage of the two eclipse ships, debris floating freely and slowly being pulled to the planet. Horn looked was drawn to just how amazing the ships looked in space, completely destroyed and looming like dark leviathans in space. His vision was suddenly blocked when a huge piece of debris floated from up underneath him. He swore to himself as he used his boosters to flip himself around and under. Whether he liked it or not, the gauntlet had begun.

"Should have remembered blowing up the ships...I blow up so much stuff I forget...heh...I like blowing stuff up." Horn talked himself as he used his hands to hurl himself over another piece of debris in the endless silence of space. The next few minutes were spent with him having to use small amounts of fuel in order to propel himself through the debris field generated by the destruction of the Eclipse ships, but finally, after a few minutes of mind numbing navigation, Horn was through. Now he could clearly see the planet and the adrenaline in his body was at an all time high. The stimulants given to him by Dr. Grass were in full swing, and his heart was pumping faster than an over-clocked engine on an Omega pleasure barge trying to outrun the Alliance patrols. As he got closer and closer to the planet, his grin got wider and wider until the outlines of atmospheric re-entry started to burn around the shields of his armour.

His shield monitor appeared on his HUD and he watched as the gradual build up started to shrink them away. However, thanks to the large canisters on his back which provided both energy for the shield and fuel, the amount being drained was minimal. So, with nothing apparently wrong for the moment, he followed the predetermined path that was laid out for him by the computer built into the suit. The planet, however, was slowly disappearing behind the veil of fire covering his entire suit, and soon, all he could see was a raging inferno as he entered full atmospheric re-entry. "Huh, ok this is different....still cool." Jason spoke to himself as his suit rattled so hard it felt like it was going to fall apart.

Soon, a warning sign came onto his HUD. "Engage primary retro-rockets. Prepare for hard burn." Jason simply looked at the thing for a moment.

"Alrighty then." He spoke as he flipped himself so that the boosters were facing downwards, and fired them. The amount of force, he was sure, would have killed him if the shield didn't initially act as a inertial dampener with the extra juice being provided to it. The rockets still managed to create a sizable jolt to him as he felt himself being almost thrown around like a rag doll.

"Adjust course 3 degrees west." The computer stated.

"Yeah...trying you mechanical bitch." Jason stated as he did his best to try and control it. He used the manoeuvring thrusters in his hands and feet to make sure he was still on course when one in his hand suddenly burst, sending him into an uncontrolled spin as the other thrusters in his feet and hand spun him around. "Fucking...experimental...STOP GOD DAMN SPINNING!" Jason yelled as he shut off the thrusters and tried to manually correct himself using his experience from his time in the Demons. Within a few moments, he had stopped himself from spinning, and the fires from re-entry had died down, allowing him to see the ground below him.

He was still about 15,000 feet above the ground, but he used his magnification to look down on the absolute chaos that was happening with the marines and the Eclipse mercenaries. He was so busy looking at the battle, he was almost taken out of the sky by a large piece of metal flying in behind him. He burst over to the side, watching as the debris came flying down to the ground. Soon after that one, several others started appearing from behind him. "I really wish you were soldiers...but if I had to make an entrance...this is definitely on my top ten list." Jason said to the debris as they roared past him, their mass allowing them a faster decent then himself.

"Adjusting IFF tags, enhancing views...Combat mode engaged." The screen lit up with all the command statistics, along with IFF tags and troop locations as Horn got closer and closer to the surface. He started searching through the marines, noticing that they were surprisingly low casualty rate for the assault they were performing. So far, from what he could tell, thirty percent of the troops were incapacitated, either killed or too wounded to continue. As his eyes surveyed the scene, they finally fell on one tag that happened to be having a rough time.

Operative Kelly Invaru.

Horn watched through a series of magnifications as an asari mercenary started trashing Kelly, throwing her several feet away from the main melee fighting. "Oh fuck no, go find your own hot redhead!" Jason stated as he shifted his position and started diving down to the ground. Warnings came on in his HUD, but he disregarded them. He knew Kelly wasn't strong in battle, and melee fighting even more so. The feet left to the ground started counting down, until all he could hear was the constant blaring from the warning in his helmet. Moments before he hit the ground, he pulled up lateral to the ground and was rewarded with Kelly's impeccable timing pushing the asari directly into his flight path. "Not planned." Horn stated to himself as he collided with the asari nearly full force, the pure impact causing him to crash unexpectedly to the ground and creating a huge gouge in the earth.

Horn lay there for a moment, his helmet blaring warnings to him as he slowly got up. He quickly felt everything, but was surprised to find that nothing was broken. "How...?" Horn asked as he stared at the asari. The impact had broken her back and neck, killing her instantly. He checked his systems, and was surprised that a backup fail safe had been built into the system. When the collision with the asari was detected, power was shunted towards the shields and inertial dampeners, which shut off his jetpacks and caused him to slam to the ground. Either way, it most likely saved his life. His HUD flared with a couple of warnings, one of which was to 'Disengage Battery Packs'. He did so, and the huge canisters on his back shifted and fell off his person to the ground with a thud. He still had his rockets on his back, but he no longer had the shield power nor the fuel to sustain flight such as he did when he dropped to the planet. Horn then quickly remembered the thrashing this particular mercenary was giving his 2iC, and quickly climbed out of the mini crater he had created for himself.

A few feet away, a fair distance from the main fighting, he found Kelly laying there and her visor blown open. His mind went to worst case, but he gritted his teeth, forcing the anger from his mind as he came up beside her. Despite the damage, she was still showing stable life signs and he gave a smile behind his visor. As he stepped up to her side, she raised her arms as they glowed with biotic power. He quickly kicked them away, resorting to the quickest way to disarm her rather than the gentlest.

"Jesus Operative, you could hurt someone with that you know." Jason stated as he knelt next to her. She blinked, obviously in absolute confusion. He retracted his visor, and gave her a grin. "Save someone's life, and I get pushed away as thanks. I was expecting at least a boob flash." She gave a small smile.

"Sorry sir, I'll keep that in mind next time." She replied as Horn helped her sit up.

"Alright, we don't have time for much though. Where are we at?" Horn stated as she picked some broken pieces of her visor out of her helmet.

"Dr. Mueller, bottom floor...through the defensive line." Kelly managed to gasp out as she tried to catch her breath.

"Alright, do the marines have their own assignments?" Horn asked.

"Yes sir." Jason gave a nod as his visor snapped back into place.

"Good, stay here, rest up. Don't want you dying and losing my eye candy for when we get back to the apparently new ship." She looked at him for a moment, expecting more but when she got nothing, she shook her head.

"No, I have to get up, the rest are looking to m-"

"Yeah, and I'm here. My job is to kick ass, your job is to be beautiful and smart, let's not wreck the first one alright?" Horn patted her on the cheek of her helmet for a moment before breaking off and running straight towards the fighting. He grabbed his vindicator from his back, pouring round after round into any and all Eclipse mercenaries that got within his vision, and just as he reached the edge of the fighting, he lit up his jetpack and soared into the sky. For a moment, there was absolute silence for him as he looked on the battle. A split second was all he took as he launched himself at one of the mercenaries, landing on him in a spectacular fashion and driving him to the ground. Before the man knew what was going on, Horn had holstered his rifle and taken out his carnifex and combat blade. He pointed the pistol at the man's head, and quickly double tapped at point blank range, leaving little to the imagination or to the man's head as it simply exploded.

Another mercenary attempted to come up behind him, but as he swiped, Horn spun and caught his arm in the crux of his armpit. With a quick jerk, he heard the man's arm break and his scream cut through the battle, which Horn quickly silenced by slicing the man's throat. Horn looked over to see a couple of marines being pushed back by a group of four mercenaries making a push through their lines, and with a quick burst from his jetpack he managed to get to them so fast they had no idea what has going on. With a quick punch to throw the first one off, Horn threw his knife at the leader who was foolish enough to not wear a helmet. The blade buried itself in his skull nearly up to the hilt and he dropped. Horn looked to the first one, firing a couple of rounds into his chest, before being forced to duck from an incoming fist from one of the other two mercenaries. The two other marines jumped in quickly though, taking their attention off of him as he finished off the grounded mercenary with a final shot to the head. Horn looked towards the defensive line, noticing there were some ex-Cerberus marines were there, trying to shoot into the crowd.

He was about twenty feet from them, with a horde of Eclipse mercenaries attempting to block the way. He looked back towards the two marines he had just helped, and pointed at them. "You two, on my flank...Let's kick some ass!" They gave a quick 'yes sir' each and stepped in line behind him as he full out sprinted for the soldiers that were stationed in the trench.

The mercenaries noticed this of course, as they had with the several other attempts, and moved to stop his progress. Horn moved quick, mainly due to the battle stims seeing as he had been out of the game for a little while. His adrenaline amp was in full swing, everything moving at a pace much more manageable as he dodged the first two swings of combat blades. His gun moved up underneath one of the mercenary's chins as he ducked, and pulled the trigger, watching as blood sprayed out of the top of the mans skull as the Carnifex round punched clear through his shields and armour. Another mercenary turned to fire at Horn, and with a quick twist, Jason moved out of the shot, watching as it quite literally skimmed his shields making the surrounding area of his armour shimmer with shields as it passed him. Horn was upon the guy within a second, jumping into the air to punch the mercenary in the face. The gun for hire put up his hands in defence, but it was shattered the moment that Jason's fist connected with them. It prevented Jason from punching the guy in the face, but it still sent the mercenary staggering backwards, which lead to a series of punches to the chest and face that left the man bleeding and broken on the ground crying in pain.

As Jason forced his way through more and more mercenaries, more and more marines came in behind him and followed in the wake that he was tearing through these mercenaries. The Ex-Cerberus soldiers in the trenches were now almost solely focused on Horn's group, and were effectively stopping them from pushing any further. Jason looked at them, about to hit his jets once more to fly above them and land in their midst when suddenly the men in the trench were fired upon from their flank. A few went down immediately, and Horn turned to see another group of marines pouring into the trench from the relatively unguarded backside. "Sergeant Carson here, sorry for the late rendezvous, still here all the same." A marine came on the line as the Ex-Cerberus soldiers were quickly in a manner of disarray since their focus was now split. Horn didn't waste any time, igniting his jets and sending him right into the middle of the traitors.

With Horn now engaged in melee with them, and fire being poured into them, there was no doubt in their mind that they were dead men. So, the ex-Cerberus soldiers fought like dead men, throwing themselves at Horn and the other marines just so their comrades could get in a decent shot. Horn found himself on the receiving end of a bullet once or twice since one of them would literally tackle him with no regard to their own safety. Luckily for him, his shields held every time, and before long, the ex-Cerberus soldiers were either dead or dying on the ground. Horn looked to the commanding soldier of the flanking marines. "Secure the MG's! Start mowing down these eclipse fuckers from behind!" The man stood there for a second, before his HUD registered who was giving the orders and he gave a nod.

"Right away sir! Bersten! Get on that MG! Lyle! Gunther! With me!" Carson handed out orders as the one named Bersten hopped on the closest one and fired whenever he felt it safe enough to do so. Horn looked back into the melee and smiled. He reached down to one of the dead traitors, and plucked the combat blade out of his hand. This was going to get good.

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With their defensive line breached and fire pouring on them from both sides, the Eclipse mercenaries quickly lost any form of discipline they once held. They quickly broke into groups, if they didn't break ranks entirely, and were quickly and efficiently put down by the Cerberus marines. With them dead, the remaining marines took a moment to police the dead, treat their wounded, and grieve for their dead. Horn stood near the entrance to the facility, looking over the marines as they quickly tended to their duties. He had nothing to say to them, not now at least. He came down here to quickly to understand the full scale of the situation, and going off half cocked, despite that being his forte, was going to simply get them killed. He had managed to pull up information on the marine companies, including officers, company names, and current status, but was interrupted from delving any further when he noticed Kelly walking up to him.

She had removed her helmet, tossed it somewhere or to someone since it was practically useless now with the visor now smashed into tiny bits of glass. Horn had underestimated just how badly the glass had cut up her face. It still had that beauty to it that made her unmistakeably an officer and not a soldier, but a gash the crossed from the bottom of her left eye to the top of her mouth was clearly visible. Along with another gash that cross the bridge of her nose and ended on the ridge of her right eye. Without a reconstructive procedure, those would leave clearly visible scars. There were also more smaller ones that left blood trails of their own, but Horn could tell this was the last thing on his 2iC's mind. "Commander." She stated as she finally reached him. He retracted his visor to meet her gaze.

"What's going on beautiful? How we doin so far?" She gave a small smile and brought up her Omni-tool.

"We still have Titan company on the northern ridge. I managed to get in touch with O'Ryan briefly just a moment ago. He and his men are holding so far, but haven't been able to gain any decent ground since the debris came in and unfortunately took out a group of our marines. Their Mako was hit like ours, the cannon still operational but without any kind of hydraulic system to turn it, it's just as useless. Needless to say sir, they need some help over there." Horn looked at her, with a mischievous glint in his eyes.

"So make the call Operative, what are we going to do?" Kelly looked at him for a moment.

"Well sir, I thought you would like to know all of the information in order to make a decis-"

"Nah, you make the decision. Far as I can tell, I'm on a new ship with a new crew and new marines. They don't know me, and right now, I only have the most basic of understanding of this mission. Battle stims are the only thing keeping me upright right now, and I'm in no condition to be giving orders when I'm as hyped up as I am now. So, Operative Kelly Invaru, what is your decision to help out the Titans." Kelly stared at him for a moment, putting on a neutral face but Horn saw right through it. She didn't like thinking she had some of the pressure taken off of her only for it to be placed right on her shoulders again. Jason knew that this was a mean way to do it, but she came down to the field of battle of her own choosing, and she needed to be able to make hard decisions without him saying 'yeah, let's do that' all the time. She looked away at the marines for a moment, taking the time to think as she always did. Before long, she had called over Sergeant Carson once more. He jogged up to them, giving them both a salute as he came to a stop.

"Sergeant Carson." Kelly started. "I want you to grab a group of about ten marines, and head to the north side of the facility. Assess the situation, and assist where you can. Chances are you will need to do something similar to what you did here and flank the defensive line. If all else fails, simply help Titans hold the line until we get finished within the facility. Am I understood?"

"Clearly ma'am. I'll get it done." Carson gave another salute and wandered off to grab his marines. Horn gave a smile.

"He respects you, you know." Kelly simply looked back at Jason, then back at the marines.

"It's most likely the scars." Kelly stated, her hand running across her face absent-minded.

"Hey, scars are sexy, just ask any lady I know." Kelly gave another small smile, before turning to the entrance to the facility.

"Our target is on the last floor. Orders are to kill him on sight."

"Goody." Horn stated as his visor slid on once more. "I love it when it's simple." Kelly made to move past him towards the door. She opened it to reveal a short hallway that lead to an elevator shaft. The elevator itself had been cut, as expected, and the shaft was empty. She made to move further in when Horn stopped her. "uhh...Operative...aren't you forgetting something?" Kelly looked up at him as he nodded towards the marines. Though she didn't show it, she was groaning on the inside. Horn gave a smile. "Do they know what they need to do?"

"Their individual targets should be on their squad leader's Omni-tools. They all know what needs to be done." Kelly stated as Horn gave a nod and turned towards the marines.

"Marines!" Horn shouted through the speakers in his helmet to every marine's radio. "Form up!" Marines who weren't tending to the wounded quickly formed up into their separate ranks and squads, each ready to wreak more carnage. "Guess who I am marines!" Horn shouted, and there was a moment of confusion from the marines.

"I am the baddest mother fucker you will ever meet!" Horn started pacing in front of the marines. "I am a shock trooper by trade, a ladies man by choice, and a fucking destroyer of my enemy's morale by destiny! Do you know what that makes you marines?!" Horn was shouting to his men and women. "That makes you fucking monsters! You are my hands, straightening into a bitch slap for anyone who decides they should try to fuck with us! Well guess what, we just finished with the first bitch slap, now we're going for the second one!" Horn pointed towards the base.

"Inside that tin can of a fortress is a man who is responsible for dragging us out here. Responsible for making us waste good men and women's lives to respond to some lunatic who thinks he's better than us! Well guess what! Look around you! Look at his army that you; Cerberus marines and commandos; completely and utterly ass raped! He thinks he's better than you while he hides down at the bottom of his shaft! Well, we're going to go in there. We're going to trash his home, kill his men, and blow his brains out at the point blank range of our guns! When we're done that! We're going to come back, we're going to look at the men and women who were injured or gave their lives so that we could get this far, and we're going to say 'Thank you for being a badass soldier!'" Horn took a moment to look at his marines before dropping his arms and raising his visor. "Because we are marines! We are soldiers! WE ARE MONSTERS!"

"Now, let's go in there...and teach them the fucking definition of Victory!" Horn closed his visor, and walked to Kelly, speaking in a hush tone. "You coming?" She simply gave a small smile.

"Came this far sir." Horn gave a wicked smile and Kelly's eyes widened for a moment. "Uh, I don't thi-" Horn scooped her up in his arms, and ran the distance of the hallway within a couple of seconds, and without so much as a backwards glance, dropped out of sight into the shaft, leaving the marines standing there for a moment before one private spoke out above the rest.

"Did that really just happen?"

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: The Illusive Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent news. How has she done?”

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

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

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

“Any signs?”

“Negative. Section 1 is clear.”

“Section 2 is clear.”

“Section 3, clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At once, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, frankly, was bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, well…we best get moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she explain them?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, she’s essentially your opposite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…no.”

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

“Trusting me alone now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re telling me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have combat experience then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oversights..?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is unnecessary, Mr. Chekan.”

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

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

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

“I do not gossip.”

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

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

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

“Jo is acceptable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stunting?”

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

“Did he stunt in the ship?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks like quite the ship, sir.”

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

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

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

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Casual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it. Where are they headed?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is..?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She didn’t like me very much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need a rappel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Commander?”

“Do you have visual on Harrison?”

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

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jonathan Titus Character Portrait: Braden Reynolds Character Portrait: Lance Williams Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Elizabeth "Lizzie" Rikers Character Portrait: Adam Harrison Character Portrait: Jacob Torx Character Portrait: Jason Trox

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(music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYdSOCGBwLE )

“I don’t think I’m comfortable here.” Lizzie murmured as Jason led her into the dark club that’s only source of light were the flashing white and blue strobes that hung from the ceiling and illuminated the club like lightning strikes.

“Oh come on!” Jason urged as he pulled her through the door and over to the dance floor “It will be fun I promise.” The club was called Churoi’s and was owned by a volus of the same name. It wasn’t like most other bars and clubs on the Citadel that didn’t allow anybody below adult age in, here if you could pay you could play. Jason had paid the forty credit entry fee for both of them so he could guilt Lizzie into coming inside. She had a hesitant frown across her face as Jason practically threw her onto the dance floor and into the mesh of dancers, who were cramped into the dancing space with slightly more room than a sardine in a can. Lizzie looked extremely uncomfortable as she stood amongst the crowd, not even attempting to move with the rhythm of the heavy beat that thumped through the speakers.

“Come on get into a little.” Jason yelled over the music and started to pump his body in synchronization with the pounding beat of the techno music and the blinding flashes of the strobe lights. Lizzie slowly began to move her hips to the beat of the music, but her upper body was still stiff making her look like pendulum on a coco clock. Jason shook his head as he ran up next to her “No, no not like that come on!” he urged as he and began bobbing his head and snapping his body to the beat of the music.

Lizzie looked at him and tried to mimic his movements, but she gave up before even make a real attempt at it “Come on this is stupid! Let’s just go please.” She begged as Jason made his way behind her.

“You have to at least try!” he shouted over the pulsing beat “here let me help ya’.” Jason picked her arms up from her sides and brought them up just above here head and starting flailing them about in the air.

“What are you doing?” Lizzie giggled as Jason kept flailing her arms like she was some wacky cartoon character

“I’m trying to get you to dance! Come one if you don’t start moving your arms to the rhythm I’m just going to keep doing this!” Jason gave her one of his famous cocky smiles, and to his surprise Lizzie game a smile right back.

“I’ll dance, I’ll dance just stop that!” she laughed as Jason stepped back and she started to move her arms to the beat, her body began to sway with the rhythm but it all still seemed uncomfortable and unnatural.

“Put your body into it!” Jason said as he came over and grabbed the beautiful girl’s hips. She pulled away violently and turned to him with a little bit of irritation

“What do you think you’re doing? That’s not okay, okay?” She snapped at him

“Just relax; I’m only trying to help you get into the swing of thing!” He looked at her lustful eyes. He was speaking the truth; he was trying to help her dance since she moved like a dying sea turtle, but he trying to get his hands on her and move in a little closer as well. Who could blame him? Lizzie was a beautiful girl.

Lizzie looked at him, as she contemplated what to say. Then she turned back around and moved back into her original position “Okay, but no funny stuff.” She commanded. Jason smiled

“No funny stuff, I promise.”


******

The whiskey warmed Jacob’s blood as he took a swig from his silver flask then brought it back down between his legs and starred at his left hand. He closed the metallic fingers, then opened them, then closed them once more. The metallic fingers that were attached to his palm were just another reminder of the memories. Memories that he would rather have locked away forever, memories that required more whiskey to go away, he took another swig of whiskey and looked out over the small artificial lake he had found to sit by. Jillian would have loved the view, she always had a thing about water, said it reminded her of her home on Eden Prime long before the Geth invasion.

Jacob frowned, that day was the worst in his life…the day that she was ripped away from him. He looked at his hand and shook his head as a tear formed in the corner of his eye “I’m so sorry Jillian…I should have been able to stop them…I should have been able to save you” he held his tears back and leaned his head back and began to chug the last half of his whiskey. Still not enough alcohol, he would need to go back to the Marathon and refill, or maybe he would just find a bar somewhere and drown his sorrows there.

“Incoming transmission” a digitalized voice called out to Jacob from his Omni tool. He looked down to it and activated the communications array.

“Staff Lieutenant Trox.” Jacob recognized the voice as Connor DeMarco’s. Trox had talked to him a few times since he took the job as security specialist

“What is it Connor?” Jacob asked with irritation that was not meant to be directed at Connor.

“Captain Titus needs you to report to the cube immediately with a security detachment, they have a problem so go in with guns hot.” What? Captain Tummy Tickler was deploying the security force on the Citadel? There must be something big going on.

Trox’s old training kicked in and he began giving orders “I want six of my security officers, tell them to gear up with their High Risk Situations equipment make sure they have a sharp shooter and tell them to met me at the cube! Also warn C-SEC that an alliance Military Police team will be making a tactile entry into the cube arena.”

“Aye-aye sir.” DeMarco replied as Trox shoved he flask in his back pocket and bolted down the shining halls of the Citadel. As he ran he activated the map on his Omni tool so he could find his way to the Cube. He was forced to push pedestrians out of the way, since the streets were crowded with aliens and humans alike.

“Police! Police get out of the way, move your asses!” Trox was taken back to his day as a cop on Earth as he forced his way past people. He needed to get to the cube quick; he was in the mood to kick someone’s ass.


******

Lizzie tripped over her own feet laughing as her Jason made their way to a quiet corner of the dance club “So tell me I wasn’t right!” Jason yelled to Lizzie over the beating music.

“Okay, okay you were right!” Lizzie responded with a chuckle. She was a really good dancer when she got into it. Jason had been mesmerized by the way she had started moving her hips, and the way her body moved to the beat. The strobe lights had been bouncing off her hair, making her beauty even more defined in the harsh blue’s and whites of the club. When the two got over to the corner, where it was easier to hear once another, Lizzie inquired “How did you know about this place? It’s almost street level.”

Jason shrugged “Well my uncle was kinda’ strict so I spent a lot of time not doing what he said. He didn’t like me coming to these types of places, so I did and eventually I found all the good ones.”

“You know” Lizzie said with a serious look on her face “You shouldn’t have disobeyed him like that. It’s the fifth commandment ‘Honor thy father and thy mother, that your days may be long upon the Earth’.”

“Well I’m in luck.” Jason said with a know it all grin “He’s not my father; he’s my uncle so I’m in the clear.”

Lizzie gave him a crooked look “It’s talking about all your elders, plus if you spent most your life with him he is pretty much like your father so it would count anyway.”

Jason shook his head and his grin became a little less wide “Neither of my father figures were much of a father figure, so I think I’m safe.” Lizzie looked at him with a sympathetic stare like he was a hurt puppy, and it got his blood boiling. She was about to say something else but he interjected so that he wouldn’t go off on her “so, who was that guy you were with on the ship?’

She hesitated to answer, and just starred at Jason. She knew he was trying to avoid the subject so she decided not to chase it any longer “That was Braden, we have been friends a long time.”

“Oh really, so what’s your guy’s story? You two…” Jason brought his hands together in a joining gesture

Lizzie thought for a sec and smiled “yeah, I guess you could say that.”

“He looked kinda’ young, how old is he?” Jason asked with a shred of curiosity

“He is fifteen.”

“Fifteen? And you’re seventeen aren’t you?” fifteen! Fifteen! Jason thought to himself my competitions a goddamn fifteen year old!?

“Yeah, but he acts much older then he is. Plus it’s only two years so it’s not that big of a leap.” Lizzie answered with a shrug

“Hmm, well there must be more than meets the eye if he was able to snag a beautiful girl such as you.” Lizzie blushed a little, and Jason grinned yep, that’s right just working the magic he though arrogantly to himself

“Well, he’s smart, kind, good hearted.” She drifted off and Jason looked at her crookedly so he is a goodie two shoes?

“That’s it, nothing else spectacular that makes you like him? Because to be honest I think I could take him.” Jason made a mock muscle and showed off like he was some body builder.

Lizzie rolled her eyes “Yeah I don’t think so Jason.” She said with a grin

“And why not?” Jason arrogantly asked

“Because he is a biotic, I think he could handle you.” She said with a playful smile, but Jason’s grin dissipated like she had just punched him in the stomach

“He…he’s a biotic?” Jason asked, not sure if he had heard her right over the music

Lizzie looked at him strangely, wondering what had brought about this sudden behavior “Yeah…why is there something wrong with that?”

Jason cocked his head for a second and ran a hand past his mouth “Well, um no not with me I’m fine with biotics.”

“Then what is it?” Lizzie asked impatiently

“Well.” Jason rubbed the back of his neck “My dad doesn’t take to kindly to them, so you might want to keep Braden away from him.” He had seen his dad around biotics before, it wasn’t pretty.

“Your dad doesn’t like biotics?! I’ve seen him with that silver asari flask of his, they are biotics!” Lizzie growled, a little angered on Braden’s behalf

“It’s not all biotics he doesn’t like…just human ones.” He said cautiously

“What’s wrong with human biotics!?” Lizzie snapped, still with a tone of irritated anger in her voice

Jason didn’t answer, he looked to the floor, a feeling of utter emptiness started to overflow him and that aura reached Lizzie who starred at him awkwardly. The thought of what happened brought an unbearable pain to his heart, “A long time ago…when I was almost four…” he stopped and put a hand on his heart, the pain was still there “A biotic killed my mom.” Jason shook his head, he was so young but he could remember it so vividly like it was seared into his mind. He shook his head “It…was so long ago but I can remember it so clear.” He had to fight to hold back tears, that day tore his family apart. He grabbed onto his chest right above his heart and held it tight, and he and his dad had permanent reminders of it.

Lizzie looked at him with guilt written all over her face “I’m so sorry I didn’t mean too…” she trailed off, obviously in a little shock

“No...It’s fine. It was a long time ago.” Of course it wasn’t really fine, but he had learned to lock that pain away.

There were a few moments of silence, but then the strobe lights turned a light, red and a techno song meant for close dancing began to play over the speakers

(Music: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3W8Of04PvOI )

Jason started moving to the beat and looked at Lizzie with a smile that he forced himself to put on “Come on let’s dance”

Lizzie shook her head “but-” Jason didn’t give her a chance to answer as he put a hand on her back and started walking her to the dance floor “I don’t know about this.” She said as she looked at the other people in the club dancing extremely close to one another, but then Jason grabbed her hands

“Come on it will be fun.” He smirked as he pulled her over to the dance floor, she looked uncomfortable again so Jason did most the dancing at first “Come on move it! You were great before!” He egged her on, and with an unsure smile she began to dance with the boy. As Jason got closer in, to where their bodies were almost touching his smile became real, and hers became sure as they danced like they had no worries in the universe.

*****

By the time Jacob had made it to the entrance of the cube, his assembled team was just arriving. The team was decked out in bulky, grey, assault armor and totting assault rifles. They looked like a true force to be reckoned with. As Jacob got within a few dozen feet of the entrance he pulled his pistol, he knew he should have packed his Assault rifle.

“I want an assault entry! Clear the room for hostiles and for God sakes don’t shoot a civvie!” The team stacked up at the entrance and Jacob got at the end of the line right behind a woman with a sniper rifle “that you Jackson?” Jacob asked the women.

“Yes sir!” the women answered with an unhindered focus

“I want you as far back and high as possible, keep a look out for any hidden threats.” Jacob ordered

“Ready for entry?” the point man asked as civilians looked on in confusion. Jacob patted Jackson on the back, then she patted the officer in front of her and so on all the way up the line until the point man had been patted. Then as quick as a flash the point man hit the button to open the door and he rushed in going right, the man behind him going left and so on in that pattern as the whole team entered the arena seating area.

Each officer, including Jacob, yelled to the civilians around them “Military Police stay in your seats!” Jacob scanned the rows for any signs of a threat, but he couldn’t see anything he wouldn’t expect not the see there. In fact everyone seemed rather calm, except for the people who saw the alliance marines busting in with guns ready. Jacob scanned the seats for the captain and spotted him with some other Marathon crew members observing the security team’s entry. Quickly Jacob ran over to the captain and stopped when he was next to him, still searching for a threat in the seats.

“Where’s the threat boss’?” Jacob inquired to his commander, who pointed to the arena at a figure that wore a helmet but was obviously a women by her figure. She was standing, staring at Harrison and a kid that Jacob had seen once or twice on the ship but wasn’t sure who was. He looked a closely and saw the biotic energy extending from the woman’s hands…and his blood boiled to an absolute rage. “Team, the threat is a woman in the middle of the arena! Get to firing positions around the seating area and take aim, Jackson I want you aimed up for a clean head shot.” The team moved instantly, each member taking up a firing position at least forty feet away from one another.

“Orders boss’?” Jacob inquired, but in his mind he wasn’t looking for any other answer to the question besides ‘take the shot’. Let me kill her, let me kill her, you know you want to let me kill her . Jacob’s earlier reminiscence about his wife put him in a foul mood, and now all he wanted was to see a biotic dead.

“Hold your fire Trox.” Tummy Tickler said, What?!

“Sir?” Jacob asked with shock

“Hold your fire.” The Captain repeated

“Sir, with all do respect we can end whatever is happening now!” he got close to the captains ear “We can blow her fucking head off right now.”

The captain looked at Jacob with a look of irritation and slight anger “I said hold your fire, Staff Lieutenant.” Jacob shook his head and ran his metallic fingers through his beard. He then angrily pressed the communications button on his Omni tool so he could speak to his team

“Hold your fire. But Jackson, keep a bead on that bitch down there.”

“Aye-aye, sir.” Jackson replied.

Jacob looked on at the scene that was taking place, and then grunted with disgust at the captains orders as he continued to scan the arena for a secondary threat.

Characters Present

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Lance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your cover?”

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Speaking from experience?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No excuse to get lazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if you’re the handler…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was nice to meet you, Commander.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

Setting

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

“Dusk.”

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

“Lunch.”

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

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

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

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

“I told you-”

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

“Take 15.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lonely in the hangar?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Complete with it’s own crazy traditions?”

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

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

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

“Yes, that’s me. You would be Sorin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only one partner?”

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: The Illusive Man Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff

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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: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: The Illusive Man

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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.

Characters Present

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

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“Commander Horn, should we dis-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bingo.” Alexis chimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right on the money, Commander.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can do.”

“And Charlie?”

“Yes, Commander?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Booo…”

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

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

“So, yes then.”

“It’ll work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say what now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Copy.”

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

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

“The ambient temperature is currentl-”

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

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

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

“I’m much better crispy!”

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

“Jo, how long we got?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“10 minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“G-go to hell.”

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

“Commander.”

“Gravette, what’s up?”

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

“Would the codes make them stop?”

“Definitely.”

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

“Affirmative.”

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

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

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

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

“You have 2.”

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

“Does Sorin have a bad temper?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a moment…”

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

“It’s locked in!”

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

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

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

“You’ve confirmed it?”

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

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

“…thanks?”

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

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

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

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

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Commander Jason Horn Character Portrait: Vala Buchan Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: Nerita  T'Lar Character Portrait: Carly Laren

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With the call cut, Horn stood there for a moment, facing the direction that Commander Buchan and her assistant had been simple moments before. Kelly was already typing information into her omni-tool, most likely directing the information side of the entire conversation to the most relevant members of the Call of Victory staff. After a couple of seconds, she noticed that Horn had not moved, and pried her eyes away from her tool to look at him. "Something the matter sir?" She asked, her tone inquisitive and nothing more. Horn gave a smirk as this seemed to break him out of his reverie. He turned around and started walking back to the hallway.

"Nothing's the problem Operative." Horn paused for a second, and looked back at her smiling. "It's been far too long since I've had a good competition." Horn gave a laugh to a joke that only he seemed to understand. Kelly's brow furrowed as she tried to understand exactly what he meant, and as he made his way through the door she clicked almost immediately as she took after him.

She caught up to him in the hallway, still typing away on her omni-tool as they walked. "So you assume that Commander Buchan meant to goad you into a one-upmanship?" Kelly asked as they rounded the corner into the CIC.

"What else would you see it as Operative Invaru? I hate her, she hates me. The only reason we were even talking is because the Illusive Man ordered it. There is only one natural evolution to this path." Horn rubbed his hands together. "A good ol' 'I'm better than you' competition." Horn looked over the map. "Lieutenant Bretton! Take us to the Mass Effect Relay linking to the Daedalus system and hold position."

"Affirmative sir." Came the Lieutenant's response and he started preparing the necessary calculations and preparations of the ship.

"Nikki, give me ship wide." There was a slight beep as the AI did as she was told. Horn had a permanent smile on his face as he started pacing around the CIC. "Attention beautiful and handsome crew of the Call of Victory, this is your ever present and badass Commander speaking. We are about to embark on our most daring, our most dangerous, and our most pivotal mission to date. Some of you might be hearing this, and getting scared. Others, excited. Even more, horny. Kinky, I know, but it happens." Horn stopped pacing for a moment.

"However! Now is not the time for feelings, good or otherwise! Because, ladies and gentlemen! We are needed..." Horn placed his hands on the CIC console. "To show Commander Vala Buchan just how a ship and her crew should operate! We are needed to explain to her, and her crew just how much marines kick ass! We are needed to show that this ship, her crew, and her illustrious Commander get shit done!" Horn paced around the CIC once more. "So marines! Prep yourselves! Battery officers! Load the weapons! Techies! Write me some god damn miracle code! Ladies! Hand me your numbers!" Horn reached the head of the CIC, stepping up to the command balcony.

"Brace yourselves Men and Women of the Call of Victory! We're going to war." Horn made a slashing motion across his neck, and Nikki cut the connection. Horn looked over to Kelly, his smile beaming. Kelly simply stared at him for a moment.

"Sir, you do realize you made it sound like we are going to attack the Deliverance..." Horn paused for a second.

"Nikki!" Without needing to be told, Nikki activated the ship wide comm. again. "Right, to clarify, we're not actually going after Commander Buchan, it's a joint operation and we're going to show them up...That is all." Horn cut the call again, and looked to Operative Invaru who had a slight smirk on her face.

"You are such a buzz kill Kelly."

________

It wasn't long before the Call of Victory was just outside the Daedalus system, awaiting the go ahead from the Deliverance. Horn stood on the bridge in full combat gear. His visor was retracted as he paced around the CIC. Nerita leaned against a wall, also in full combat gear. Carly was standing at an 'at ease' posture near the head of the display table. The entire bridge was tense, no one really saying anything and no sounds being made aside from the occasional clicking from the CIC techs, and sounds being made from Kelly's omni-tool as she managed the flood of information between the officers of the Victory.

"Lieutenant O'Ryan and both companies are ready for departure sir, awaiting your go ahead." Kelly stated. "Lieutenant McKrain has confirmed that all weapons are loaded, greased, and, according to her report, 'prettied up for the coming ball'. Nikki has our cyber-warfare suites working at full capacity. Sergeant Jaconis reports that the engines are 'good to go' and, if necessary, can be pushed operational limits for more than 20 minutes should we have the need." Horn already knew this of course, having read the report simply ten minutes ago. Kelly was simply filling the gap of space that was full with the utter impatience of her Commander to get started.

"Yeah..." Jason stated, his teeth grating slightly. "Now if Mrs. BlackieOps could figure out how to command her troops, and finish up whatever the hell she wanted to do with the frigates, we could do our fucking jobs." Jason stated, Nerita and Carly looking to each other but not saying a word.

"Imagine how I feel." Daniel replied, leaning against the wall next to the elevator, going largely unnoticed by the crew. Horn pointed a finger at him.

"Don't start with me. You're barely standing, so I don't need you going gung ho and asking me to put you into this op."

"Sir, with all due respect, pot calling the kettle black." Daniel retorted, his voice slightly sarcastic.

"That may be, but I have one thing you don't." Horn stated, giving him a smirk. "Command over this vessel and her crew, so there." Daniel simply shook his head as Jason gave a beaming smile at everyone as Harold yelled back from the bridge.

"Uhhhh...sir, incoming call from the Deliverance." Horn slapped his hands on the CIC.

"Finally! So did they fuck up? Are we needed to clean up the shit storm?!" Jason yelled. Harold hesitated.

"Um, not entirely sir. She's sent a video message, linking it to the CIC display now." Horn cocked his head slightly, before watching as the display lit up in front of him. At first, it was nothing more than a ship's outer hull camera. It wasn't long before they figured out it was from the Aurora frigate.

"What is this shit?" Horn asked quietly, watching as the space distorted around the camera to show FTL speeds. Within less than a second, the other Aurora frigate came into view. Another second and both ships collided, leaving the screen with nothing but static. Horn stood there, blankly staring at the display. Kelly's eyes shifted to the Commander, as did everyone else's. From the bridge came the only voice courageous, or stupid enough to speak.

"Holy shit, that was badass!" Harold stated as he looked back at the display. Horn's head snapped to the side, his eyes screaming murder at the man who shrunk to half his size under the gaze. "I mean....uhhhh, bad...bad Commander Buchan...who does that...right?"

"Daedalus! NOW!" Horn yelled and Harold nearly squeaked in his seat as the ship lurched for the Mass Effect Relay. Horn put his hands on the display console, taking deep breaths as he silently cursed underneath his breath. Kelly looked at him for a moment before Kelly wandered up to the bridge.

"Brace for Relay jump." Harold stated, his voice still slightly shake. There was a moment before the ship was enveloped in blue static, and instantly the Call of Victory was in the Daedalus system. Kelly looked through the windows, not being able to physically see the remains of the frigate, but able to know where they were due to the radar system aboard the Call of Victory.

"Get me a secure line to the Deliverance." Kelly instructed. Harold complied without a word, and soon Vala's face appeared on the screen.

"Operative Invaru." Vala stated. Kelly gave a light smile.

"Commander Buchan." Kelly stated, all business. "We are en route to our first objective, good job on clearing out the frigates." Vala gave a nod.

"I take it you received the feed then?" Vala inquired, and before Kelly could respond, there was a crash in the background. Kelly looked back to see Horn prying his fist out of one of the technician consoles.

"Fucking cunt of a whore! It's on!" Horn stormed out of the CIC, Nerita and Carly following him into the elevator. Kelly looked back at Vala.

"He congratulates you on a job well done. I will contact you should the need arise Commander. Victory out." Kelly cut the connection. Harold looked up at her, then back at the elevator.

"Ma'am, permission to speak, or I guess permission to ask permission to do something...is that a thing?" Kelly looked down at him.

"What is it you need Lieutenant?"

"A change of shorts! Commander Horn scares the shit out of me...ma'am."

__

Lieutenant O'Ryan stood in the hold, once again standing in front of nearly the entire compliment of the Victory's manpower. Marines stood in an at ease posture in front of him, everyone formed into their individual fireteams behind their company commander. Leonard said nothing, for he didn't feel the need. His helmet rest on the crate directly behind him, his eyes glued to his omni-tool as he read and re-read every single mission objective. It was straight forward, there was nothing disputing the fact, but after Ontarom, he wanted to be as prepared as he physically could.

He would spare a glance at his marines every so often, noticing the slight twitches from a few marines, the nervous ones that despite having fought one hell of a battle a few days ago, were still not sure of their own combat abilities. There was nothing O'Ryan could do to shake that feeling, he knew that from experience. The only thing he could hope for is that they would bring themselves out of the dark cloud of self doubt in time before they caught a round to the chest or a shell to the brain.

Despite not a word being said, O'Ryan knew that marines were using private channels to talk back and forth, every single one of them having their helmets donned. That was good, being able to talk was a sign of either confidence, or an attempt to gain some. Leonard gave an inwards sigh as his eyes returned to his omni-tool, only to be interrupted by Commander Horn's voice over his comm.

"Lieutenant O'Ryan?" Leonard put a hand up to his ear.

"Yes sir." He stated.

"We're moving into position, are the joint ops teams ready?" Leonard looked to the Kodiaks in the shuttle bay, already filled with fireteams ready to mobilize at a moment's notice.

"That's affirmative sir, ready to launch when you give the word."

"Alright, one minute 'till launch." With that, the channel was cut, and O'Ryan was left staring at the Kodiaks. He had hand picked the teams for these specific missions based on several aspects due to their working together with black ops soldiers. One of the main things he had to keep in mind, would be their ability to survive should the black ops soldiers leave them high and dry with no backup and no way out. Which left out a lot of rookies.

In the end, he picked Victory 2nd Platoon to take over the Joint Ops. Two fireteams per each joint op, leaving another 2 to be temporarily assigned to another platoon. Fireteams Cockatoo and Lory were going after the base general, teams Aracari and Eagle were to flush out the corporate paranoia man, and Rosella and Dove were to push their way through the Oracle gauntlet. Leaving Vulture and Osprey as the floaters. Despite them not voice it, he could feel their resentment of not being sent with the majority of their platoon. The problem being is that he knew how black op soldiers operated. Give them a few troops to help, but any more hinders them.

O'Ryan stopped looking at through the window long enough to grab his helmet and attach it. In the upper corner of his HUD, a timer revealed 20 seconds remaining. He quickly connected a channel to the joint op fireteams. "Alright marines. You each have your duties, so I'm not going to bother restating them. What I will say though, is watch your backs out there. These are joint ops, but don't expect the Deliverance's special forces to bail you out should you get into trouble. Keep your head, do what you're needed to do, and assist wherever necessary. Understood?"

"Yes sir, we got this one." Sergeant Lowavich said. A solid man with a light sense of humor in the best of times. He was a people person, making O'Ryan sometimes question exactly how he got into the marines in the first place. The Kodiak doors closed, and when the timer reached zero, the doors opened, and the Kodiaks dropped out into the reaches of space. Mere seconds after that, the elevator door opened to reveal Commander Horn and his entourage of Nerita and Carly, each one suited up for combat and ready to go. Leonard noticed that Horn's face shield was down, revealing his now iconic red devil smile. That was never a good sign.

"First teams are away sir, they will let us know when they make landfall." Horn took up a spot beside the Lieutenant.

"Yep, good, yep..." Horn stated, clearly agitated about something. O'Ryan refrained from asking about it. Asking him what was wrong would only spike his anger, poking a tiger with a stick and seeing if it will talk to you about it's life's problems only leads to you getting mauled, eaten, and shit out in a matter of minutes. It was a good few minutes before the first teams reported back.

"Overwatch, This is Cockatoo and Lory, we've touched down and are making for the rendevous. Will update on an as needed basis."

"Roger that Cockatoo and Lory, good luck out there." Kelly replied over the comm. to the teams. The other two weren't far behind.

"Overwatch, Aracari and Eagle on the ground and moving to kick some ass!"

"Overwatch, Rosella and Dove here. En route to rendezvous." Each one was responded in the same manner as the first from Operative Invaru, and shortly after the Kodiaks were back in the hangar and the ship was moving again.

"Titan first platoon! Load up!" O'Ryan shouted as the marines moved to comply wordlessly.

"Two minutes until arrival." Kelly stated over the hangar speakers. O'Ryan waited for the entire platoon to embark before speaking.

"Alright marines! Your objectives are a set of listening posts that Oracle has set inside the city of New Grankshaw. It's not a metropolis, but expect some civilian interference. Each listening post is designed, and functioning as a commercial building. As follows; A clothing store, a sports paraphernalia outlet, a restaurant, and a drinking establishment. Aurora presence in the city is predicted to be minimal, but hope for the best and prepare for the worst. The biggest obstacle will be the collateral damage that is, without a doubt, bound to happen. I will leave the ROE on that matter up to you Sergeant Lewana."

"Understood sir." Lewana stated, not saying anything more than she had to. O'Ryan gave a nod through the window.

"You each have enough explosives on you level each buildings yourselves, but don't get trigger happy with them. A bigger explosion means more notice. More notice, means more alliance grunts coming to stop you."

"Twenty seconds." Kelly stated, O'Ryan looked up for a second before addressing the marines once more.

"Alright, close the hatches! Get down there! Get the job done! And come back alive! Understood marines!?"

"Sir yes sir!" They stated with a practiced measure. The Kodiak's doors closed, and soon the ships were plummeting to the planet beneath them. There was an awkward few minutes with no one saying anything, and nothing really being heard except for the Commander's now pacing steps. He was getting antsy, and wanted to move.

"This is Titan first platoon. We're on the ground and en route to our first objective. How copy?" Lewana suddenly came over the comm.

"Good copy, good luck down there. Overwatch out." Kelly returned, and shortly afterwards the Kodiaks returned. This pattern repeated itself 3 more times, each time another platoon being selected and given targets.

Victory first platoon had been given the target of a series of Aurora outposts within city limits. Moderate resistance, but they wouldn't know they were coming. Besides the fact that their size limited the number of marines on station, they deemed it manageable. Titan third platoon was issued a manufacturing plant that was under the ruse it was creating commercial grade building equipment, when in reality, it was crafting military grade armors and weapons for Oracle special forces troops. Located in the industrial district of a smaller town on a separate planet, civilian resistance was projected to be relatively low. Lastly, Victory third platoon was issued one of the tougher ones. An Oracle operations center, set up in the middle of a metropolis to look like a corporate headquarters of a law firm, was set for demolitions. The problem being was that it was filled with civvies and oracle agents alike, and was three stories tall. O'Ryan didn't like the target, felt it was more like a terrorist attack than a legitimate military target, but he had his orders and so did Oberacker. She was to have that building leveled, regardless of collateral damage.

And so that left O'Ryan with Titan second platoon plus two teams from Titan first platoon. They were the assassins of the bunch. Assigned to take out oracle agents in easy to reach, but heavily defended zones. O'Ryan stood with his men, awaiting the Kodiaks to come back from deploying Victory third platoon. Horn was practically bouncing by this point, but wasn't deigning to say anything. By the posture of Nerita and Carly, they were glad he wasn't voicing his anticipation and/or frustration.

"Alright Titans." O'Ryan started. "We have our targets, we have our ROE, and we have the means to accomplish our mission." Leonard looked up at them through the visor of his helmet. "I understand you didn't sign up to be assassins, you didn't sign up to carve your way through humans to get at another human. We're Cerberus, we're pro-human, and in the end, you signed up to advance humanity." Leonard looked at his gun once more.

"Our original objective in this cell, was to stall and/or stop the collectors from taking our people. These agents, this Oracle Alliance agency and their attack dogs, Aurora, are stopping us from doing just that. Unprovoked attacks on our people, our ships, and our facilities have proven that we can't simply ignore these people. They won't go away of their own free will." O'Ryan slid his gun onto his back. "So it's our job to make them."

He brought up his omni-tool. "We have several targets, split up throughout the system and with no doubt a large compliment of Aurora marines at least on station. We need to be fast and efficient if we want to get this done before the Alliance sends their fleets to investigate the area." O'Ryan turned at the sound of the Kodiaks coming back into the bay, and already Horn and his team were moving to one of the Kodiaks. Leonard looked back at his marines.

"We have our orders, our means, and our transportation." O'Ryan started walking towards the Kodiaks. "Let's get this done so we can get back to work." The platoon followed in his footsteps, walking into the hangar as Horn's team hopped into one of the Kodiaks. O'Ryan's team stepped into the same Kodiak as Horn's team, and immediately took a seat. The door closed, and within moments, everyone could feel the gut churning feeling of the Kodiak dropping out of the Victory's shuttle bay.

Horn was the only one left standing, his one hand on the bar above him, and the other flexing in front of him. "How's the hand sir?" Carly asked, a slight amount of humor in her voice.

"A little sore." Horn stated, looking down at it slightly. "But not enough to not smack some sense into smartass corporals...corporal." Carly looked down slightly.

"Understood sir." Carly stated, and the Kodiak became absolutely silent. O'Ryan looked between the Titan soldiers, to Horn's group, to the ground. He had nothing to say, nothing to offer, and wasn't one to really talk when he didn't have to. It wasn't long before the tremble of atmospheric re-entry was felt throughout the hold of the Kodiak, and minutes later the door opened up.

"Lieutenant O'Ryan." The pilot stated. "Your stop. Good luck." O'Ryan nodded, standing up and stepping out the door. The Titan fireteams followed his lead. Once all of the Titans were out, he looked up at Horn, who simply gave a thumbs up.

"Don't get dead Lieutenant." Horn stated.

"You too sir." O'Ryan returned as the door to the Kodiak shut, and soon the dropship was flying back into open space. Leonard simply checked his weapon once more before turning towards his objective marker.

"Alright Titans, let's move."

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Horn's team didn't have long to go after they dropped off O'Ryan and his Titans. Their target, a corporate executive by the name of Nicolai Breshnov, was stationed out of a mining outpost large enough to be a small town hovering over the single gas giant in the system. According to the man's profile, he was supposed to be a nice enough guy, but was still known for being a ruthless business man when it came down to it. It was also noted that Helium-3 deposits mined from the gas giant were also used to fund the Oracle war effort against Cerberus, which was enough to get this man, Nicolai Breshnov, on the list.

It was meant to be simple. Aside from a lightly armed security force, the mining station was to be unguarded from such assaults. Horn's hand never left the railing as the sight of the station appeared in the distance. "Do we have a plan?" Nerita asked, opening her mouth for the first time since Horn had picked her to accompany him on the mission.

"Oh you know, generally we kill anything that gets in our way and take out the target in a very timely fashion."

"Won't the station go into lockdown the moment we step on board?" Carly asked, Horn gave a smile.

"Well, timely fashion really just means moving really fast. I have Nikki running interference on their command line input things that close the station up, so that should buy us some time. Otherwise, we really have to hope we're faster at fucking up their dudes then they are at pushing buttons." Horn couldn't see Carly's eyes through the visor of her helmet, but he knew she was rolling them right now. "And don't roll your eyes at me corporal, I make my best plans up on the spot." Carly paused.

"So wait...you made this up just when Nerita asked sir?"

"Of course not, I ain't some kind of rookie." Horn stated, watching as the Kodiak came closer to the airlock, and finally clamped on. "If I was, I wouldn't be so damned confident! Not to mention good looking and generally a badass." Carly shook her head, while Nerita simply said nothing to that statement. A moment later and the Kodiak shook with the feeling of clamping down on an airlock.

"We're latched sir. Patching Nikki into the system now." The pilot stated, a few moments later, and the door to the Kodiak opened to reveal an opened airlock seal.

"Commander. I am inside the system and running interference on their lockdown systems. This is a temporary measure, I will not be able to stop them from initiating quarantine for longer than ten minutes." Horn gave a nod, making sure his gear was all in place before stepping off.

"Goody, that means nine minutes of fucking around. C'mon ladies! Let's kill us some assholes." Nerita and Carly stepped off the Kodiak behind him as they jogged to the airlock.

The inside of the station was slightly more luxurious than Horn would have pegged it to be, seeing as it was supposed to be a mining oversight station. Artificial plants littered the lobby that the airlock was attached too. An almost blinding white was used in every facet of the building's color scheme, along with some ornate artwork and sculptures. Benches, chairs, and even a small eating area with full blown tables and what looked like waiting staff was farther in the lobby.

Oh yeah, there was also a dozen or so security guards bunkered down behind any cover they could grab, every weapon currently trained on the Cerberus team. Horn stopped, his two teammates came to a stop as well.

"Drop your weapons and surrender!" One of the closest guards yelled, his eyes peering through his helmet and over the sights of his avenger. Horn gave a smirk.

"Nerita, do what the man said...Oh wait, let me change that a bit...Make them drop." Nerita flashed blue for a single moment before a pulse was sent out, catching the nearest guards and lifting them into the air. Carly was already moving before the pulse was sent, sending a quick rebuttal to the guards in the form of concentrated avenger fire. Horn launched himself forward with a small burst from his jets, catching the first guard lifted into the air. With a roundhouse kick, he sent the man flying into another one of his compatriots and saw the two men fall head over heels.

The guards returned in kind, their rifles barking death to the Cerberus team as they were all forced to find some cover. Nerita had her Karpovs barking as she was forced to duck after only a few shots. Horn looked over to her. "Nerita, give me a barrier!" She nodded, holstering her pistols and shoving out her hands to create a bubble around them. She flinched with every impact from one of the guard's weapons, so they didn't have long. "Corporal! Let's kill these degenerate fucks!"

"Aye sir!" She stated as they both popped up from behind their cover and started firing from the relative safety of the biotic bubble. Several guards dropped as the rounds shorted out their shields and pierced their armor. By the time that Nerita couldn't hold the barrier up any more, there were only six guards left.

"Alright, rest up a bit Nerita. Carly, give me suppressing fire on the left flank. Do not let them shoot me." Horn stated as he holstered his rifle.

"Shoot you sir?" Before she could get an answer, Horn was already jumping over his cover and sprinting to the guards on the right. Naturally, they stood up to fire at him, but Horn raised his carnifex. The first few rounds killed one of the three soldiers that he was charging at as another boost of his rockets sent him flying over the other two. He landed in a roll facing them, and before the two guards could turn to shoot at him, he fired his thrusters again, tackling one of the men back over the cover. A quick flick of his knife into the man's throat ensured that he was out of the action. A few rounds peppered his shields as he looked back at the last man who was desperately trying to put Horn down. Horn dived for cover, waited a split second, before rolling over the cover and planting a vicious left hook across the man's jaw which sent him stumbling back slightly.

Horn flipped his knife so he was holding the blade, and threw it with enough force it solidly planted itself in the man's shoulder. The guard gave a well of pain, but was quickly silenced as Horn punched him three times in the stomach, causing him to double over. A quick jerk on the knife, spinning it so the blade was down, a quick twirl for dramatic effect, and he had buried the knife up to the hilt in the man's neck, right below the base of the skull, severing the spinal and nerve columns to the rest of his body. The guard dropped without a sound.

Horn looked at the rest of the guards, who were now trying to force a retreat through the suppressing fire. They were panicking, and it was without doubt that the original guard that had tried to get them to lower their weapons was, at the very least, their on-duty security chief. There was no order to this retreat, they simply broke and tried to run. Horn switched to his rifle, and with the help of Nerita and Carly, quickly wiped up the rest of the guard detail. Horn rolled his shoulders as his two squad mates came to join him. "Well that was invigorating. Nothing like a good fight to get the blood pumping, am I right?"

"If you say so sir." Carly answered while Nerita paced slightly. She would never admit it, but Nerita loved a good fight almost as much as Horn did. Jason gave a smile behind his helmet, before turning a map overlay of the station on in the corner of his HUD. It displayed where his target was located to be, and a path to get there.

"Alright, I doubt that's the only security they have on board, despite the station being smaller on the inside than I had imagined. C'mon, we only have about seven and a half minutes before this place locks down." Horn stated as he took off down the corridors. Nerita and Carly followed suit.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

A couple of isolated guard fights and a short jog later, the team found themselves in an administrative area. Desks littered the main floor, complimented with fake fauna and computer screens. A pair of staircases twisted to meet on an upper level, where a single door lead to the head administrator, or CEO in this case. Computer screens, emulating a tropical environment were showcasing a jungle as if it was just outside, and benches littered the entire area. This place was meant to be busy all the time.

And of course, it was.

This time, however, it wasn't guardsmen. Civilians huddled in fear with their family or coworkers as Horn, Nerita, and Carly walked in slowly to the lobby. Everyone saw them, and immediately went quiet.

"Guard!" Carly yelled, their weapons coming to bear, but the man immediately put up his hands. He wasn't wearing his helmet, showcasing his baby smooth skin and youthful eyes. The man couldn't have been more than nineteen years old.

"Woah! Woah!" He yelled. "No man...no! I...I don't want to die alright." Horn stared at him down the sights of his vindicator for a moment, before nodding to Carly. She holstered her weapon, wandering over and securing him of his weapons, of which there was none. He must have dumped them and just given up. Part of Horn was disgusted at this guardsman, so easily giving up on his duty. Another part was simply glad he didn't have to waste a bullet on the man. Yeah, he was only nineteen possibly, but by nineteen Horn had already been fighting Cerberus's enemies on the frontlines. Carly looked over to Horn, who tapped his temple. Carly gave a nod, delivering an elbow to the man's head. There was a few gasps and screams as the man dropped, unconscious. It could have possibly killed him, but there was no time to perform a less effective method.

"Nerita, Carly. Stay here and make sure no one tries to play hero." Jason stated as he started jogging up the stairs. They had two minutes to spare before Nikki estimated she would lose control of the station, so Horn was rushing when he came to the final door. When he pressed the button however, the door simply gave a rude beep in response. Jason tried the button a couple of other times, and was met with the same thing.

"Nikki, why is this door locked. I thought you were still in the system." Jason asked, walking to the balcony to overlook the administrative area.

"The door, and the cameras surrounding that office are on a closed circuit. I have no access to their workings." The AI stated. Horn gave a silent curse.

"Alright, he doesn't have a way out of there, does he?"

"Negative."

"Is there a way for me to blast through this door?"

"Negative, the door is reinforced and would take too long for conventional arms and explosives to expedite an entrance." Jason gripped the bridge of his nose, squinting his eyes as he could feel a migraine coming up.

"I suppose the system that controls the doors and cameras is also inside the office."

"Affirmative." Jason paused in thought for a moment, looking over the civilians and then looking back at the door. On the side, there was a keypad and retinal scanner, one that looked like Daniel would even have trouble with it if he were here. Just thinking of that reminded how much the man would have come in handy right at this moment. Another idea sparked in Jason's mind.

"Nikki, aside from Nicolai, bring me up a list of the administrative staff. Specifically, I want his second in command." There was a slight pause, before a name popped up along with a picture of woman in her late sixties showed up on his visor. Jason switched to his speakers.

"Brenda Killson!" Jason yelled, jumping over the banister and giving a short boost of his jets to land safely. Utter silence permeated the lobby. Jason continued his slow walk towards the civilians. "Brenda Killson!" He stated again, looking at the eyes of every one. Jason looked to his team. "Find her." They gave a nod and started wading through the civilians. The team took a few moments to search the faces, but after a quick search, they turned up nothing. They reconvened in the middle of the lobby.

"She might have fled already." Carly stated over a private channel to them.

"Nah, if she did, Overwatch would have let us know an escape pod had jettisoned from the station. I don't remember killing an old hag, so she's somewhere on this station." Jason rubbed his jaw for a second, an idea forming in his head however nasty. "Alright ladies, I need you to follow my lead. This is going to get messy, but you need to trust me, alright?" They both gave a quick nod, and Horn switched to his external speakers.

"Ladies and gentlemen of this fine establishment! How's everyone doing? Good? That's good." Horn looked around to the civilians, all still huddling in fear. "Now, I need to ask you a question, a very serious question, in which case a very serious answer will be needed. If anyone answers with some stupid ass remark like 'your mom' or the like, I will boot you in the face so hard your head will implant itself in your ass." Jason looked to everyone again, before taking a breath.

"Where is...Brenda Killson?" Jason looked around, everyone was quiet and nobody was pointing anywhere. "Anyone?" Jason asked again. "I really don't want this to get nasty." Jason stated one last time, before giving a sigh as he was met with the same response. He switched to a private channel once more.

"It's going to get dark in here, just play the part." Jason looked through the crowd, and saw someone who looked to be higher up in the food chain. He walked briskly over to the man, and yanked him out of the crowd by his collar. A few people around him tried to cling to him, but another firm yank quickly made them lose their grip. Horn's carnifex was in his hand now as he held the man down on his knees.

"Seeing as we have no volunteers, I would like to present to you forced entry number one." Horn stated to the rest of the civilians. Jason looked down at the man. He was younger than him, no more than his mid-twenties. His jet black hair was swept back, and his suit was immaculately pressed, save for Horn's rough grip around the collar. The man's eyes, a mixture of fear and pain were darting around the room, looking for salvation where there was none. "Now, I'm going to ask you a very simple question." Horn stated.

"I don't know anything man! I don't! I'm just an accountant! A financial advisor! I do-" Horn belted him across the face with his gun, creating a gash on the side of the man's face and shutting him up.

"I haven't asked a question yet, so do my bleeding ears a favor and shut the fuck up until I do." Horn looked up to the civilians to see if anyone looked like they were going to try anything. After a moment of ensuring they weren't, he looked back at the man. "Where is Brenda Killson?"

"Look! I-I-I don't know! I've never met the woman! Everything from her was done through a sub-manager! Honestly! All I do is shuffle money! I swear!" Horn made a 'tsk' sound.

"Really? You sure you don't see her in the crowd? Your life kind of depends on your answer." Horn stated, his gun creeping up to the man's head.

"I DON'T SEE HER MAN!" The man yelled, clearly in tears now as the barrel of the gun rested against the financial advisor's temple. Horn shook his head.

"Well then, I see how this could go." Horn stated, looking to the other civilians. "See, I'm going to bring each and every one of you up here, and I'm going to ask the same question. If I get what I want, you live. If I don't..." Horn looked down at the man, his eyes shut tight and tears streaming down his face. "You'll end up like this guy." Horn halfway pulled the trigger when a voice in the crowd pierced the room.

"That won't be necessary." Horn looked up, his finger relaxing as Brenda Killson appeared from whatever hiding spot she had been cowering in. Jason looked her over once. She wore a grey business jacket and matching skirt. Horn had seen people hide their age well, but on this woman it showed. Wrinkles littered her face and was matched with snow white hair, which was pulled tightly into a professional looking bun.

Professional women and their buns. Jason thought, looking at the man once more before roughly shoving him back into the group of people. Horn nodded to her, which brought Nerita and Carly grabbing her by each arm and dragging her before Horn. "Ms. Killson." Jason stated, letting his visor's paint job do most of the work for him. "You're going to unlock the door upstairs for us."

"And if I don't?" She stated, rather matter-of-factly. Horn cocked his head, and faster than anyone could react, he raised his arm and fired a single round. Everyone screamed, and looked to where the round had went. The man was paralyzed in fear as a smoking hole was permeating heat inches above his head.

"The next one makes a hole in his face rather than the wall, along with everyone else in this room." Jason stated, being as matter-of-fact about it as Brenda was. She glared at him for a moment, before walking of her own accord up the stairs. Horn switched to a private channel. "Ladies, make sure no one becomes a hero while I'm gone." They both gave a nod, and broke off to watch the rest of the civilians while Jason climbed the stairs with Ms. Killson.

They reached the top of the plateau, and made their way to the keypad and scanner. She paused for a moment, looking over her shoulder at him. "Who are you? Mercenary? Assassins?"

"I'm the guy with the gun who makes the rules. Rule number one: shut the fuck up and open the door." Jason stated, pushing the gun against the back of her head. She complied without stating another word, and with a couple of beeping sounds, the door's holographic interface flashed green. Jason grabbed the woman by the shoulder, forcing her to walk in front of him.

"A human shield. How noble of you." She stated, Jason simply looked at her.

"I never claimed to be a good person." Jason stated as the door opened and they walked through. Nicolai peered over his desk, his aging frame seeming youthful enough for his job. He gave a small smile, and stood up.

"Well, it appears my work has cau-" Without hesitation, Jason shoved the lady aside, and pumped three rounds into the man's chest. Without a word, he dropped, making a soppy squish sound as the remnants of his body crashed to the ground. Brenda's eyes went wide, tears instantly forming in her eyes as she desperately tried to grasp what had just happened while Horn made his way around the table to confirm the kill. The man's body was a mess, the carnifex's rounds on an unarmored targeted decimating it to look more like a bad cafeteria meatloaf than human remains. Just to be sure, Jason pumped another round into the man's head, completely destroying the skull and leaving nothing but blood splatter where the cranium was supposed to be.

Jason took a moment to stare at the man, then walked around the desk past the crying Brenda Killson without a word. As Jason exited, Brenda whipped around and screamed at him. "I HOPE YOU BURN YOU SADISTIC SON OF A BITCH!" Jason looked back at her, contemplating killing her as a potential Oracle asset, but decided against it.

"Lady, I burn on a regular basis, so Hell can get in line." Jason stated as he calmly walked back down the stairs to the mass of civilians who were either crying or shielding their loved ones from any retribution. Nerita and Carly looked to Horn, who simply nodded towards the exit. Without a word, the three of them made their way back through the hallways to the waiting Kodiak.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Once aboard the Kodiak, everyone was still silent. Jason had taken to sitting this time around, his helmet sitting in his lap as he stared up at the ceiling. Carly's helmet remain on, as did Nerita's goggles. Carly seemed to stare at Jason for the longest time after they left, and finally Horn gave a sigh. "If you have something to say Carly, say it." It took a few moments, but finally she blurted something out.

"Sir, that was some dark shit." She stated quite bluntly. Horn gave a slow nod.

"Yep." Was all he said in return. There was an awkward silence between them as Carly expected more, but Jason said nothing else.

"Does it not bother you at all? Scaring those people half to death? Threatening their families? Their lives?" Carly stated, looking for something that Horn wasn't willing to divulge.

"Carly, do you know how many people I've made either so scared they literally shit their pants, or so sad they cry themselves to sleep every night?" Jason stated, looking at the woman, who replied with a stare. Jason sat forward, clasping his hands together. "Being a soldier doesn't necessarily mean being the good guys. Hell, we have the dirties jobs known in the universe. We kill people for a living Carly, and justify it as 'orders'. How many times have you thought 'that mercenary might have a family' or 'that soldier is a good father or mother'?" Carly looked down for a moment, providing the only answer that Jason needed as he sat back once more.

"I'm not proud of what I did in there Carly, if that's what you're implying." Jason stated. "I had a job with a time constraint, so I didn't want to waste any finding a woman when there was a faster way."

"Would you have actually killed that man sir?" She asked, Horn stared at her blankly.

"I'm trying not to take that as an insult. Despite the man being a banker, and I hate bankers, my carnifex had it's safety on." Horn stated, staring at her. "You are thinking too hard Corporal. Thinking's dangerous for the enlisted, they start questioning things...like orders, missions, and morality when the truth of the matter is this. When you are told to shoot, you shoot. When you are told to rest, you rest, and when you are told to kill a man through whatever means necessary, you take that to heart." Jason looked to the both of them now. "I'll tell you what I told Brenda Killson right before I pulled the trigger on Nicolai Breshnov...I never claimed to be a good person." Horn sat up now, his hand reaching for his ear piece, deigning the conversation finished.

"Overwatch, give me our next target

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something wasn’t right.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Confirming kill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

cron