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Wyatt Sinoff

2IC of the Deliverance

0 · 166 views · located in Mass Effect Universe created by Bioware

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

Description

Wyatt stands at a towering 6’3”, and has a well built frame from his years of mercenary work, weighing in at 202 lbs. His thick nose is crooked from a poorly healed break, and his jaw is strong with smooth chin. His eyes are light brown, and his hair is a similarly light auburn, kept in a well trimmed crew cut. His face is clean shaven.

On duty, he wears a Cerberus officer uniform, kept in immaculate condition and as pristine as the day he received it. Off duty, he typically wears light t-shirts and trousers, most of them emblazoned with the Cerberus emblem.

Wyatt has several scars, most the common sort left by a bullet, although there are a few of notable interest, such as a large pair of puncture scars on his right bicep far too evenly spaced to be simple bullet wounds. Also of note is the burn scar on his right breast. On his left breast is a tattoo of the Cerberus emblem, small and difficult to spot at a distance.

Personality

Wyatt is a man with a very simple set of rules, and the loose enough moral code that has allowed him to flourish in the cutthroat world of the Terminus mercenary economy. Ruthless enough to kill an unarmed man for pay, there’s little to be said of Wyatt’s professionalism both on and off the field. Mercenary or not, Wyatt carries himself with an air of respect not expected from his kind, and his attitude isn’t as rough as one might expect from a man formally of the notorious Blue Suns.

Wyatt holds loyalty in the highest regard, favouring the dedicated over the gifted or blessed. As a mercenary, the contract was practically law for Wyatt, and he followed his instructions to the letter. Since his recruitment into Cerberus, he’s brought a similar mentality to the field, although the freedom they afford their agents leaves plenty of breathing room for an up-and-coming man with the will to climb the proverbial totem pole. Wyatt takes very poorly to betrayal, and while he won’t toss his life away for some petty payback, he’s not the sort of man to let something go unanswered.

Equipment

A former Centurion with the Blue Suns, Wyatt is quite fond of the M-27 Scimitar, as well as the M-15 Vindicator. Wyatt also has a small present from his ‘departure’ from the Blue Suns, an enforcement gauntlet he relieved his batarian commander of during his final contract with the Suns.

History

A former Blue Sun's Centurion. Little is currently know of his current or former life with the mercenary group.

So begins...

Wyatt Sinoff's Story

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Excellent news. How has she done?”

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

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

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

“Any signs?”

“Negative. Section 1 is clear.”

“Section 2 is clear.”

“Section 3, clear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At once, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This, frankly, was bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sir?”

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

“Thank you, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right, well…we best get moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Cover?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Did she explain them?”

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, she’s essentially your opposite.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…no.”

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

“Trusting me alone now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re telling me…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have combat experience then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oversights..?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is unnecessary, Mr. Chekan.”

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

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

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

“I do not gossip.”

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

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

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

“Jo is acceptable.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stunting?”

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

“Did he stunt in the ship?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She looks like quite the ship, sir.”

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

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

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

“Of course, sir.”

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

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

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Casual?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Got it. Where are they headed?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is..?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She didn’t like me very much.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need a rappel?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Commander?”

“Do you have visual on Harrison?”

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

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

Characters Present

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello, Lance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And your cover?”

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

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

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

“Who?”

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

“Speaking from experience?”

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

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

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

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

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

“No excuse to get lazy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But if you’re the handler…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was nice to meet you, Commander.”

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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: Wyatt Sinoff Character Portrait: Charlie Welles

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“Commander Horn, should we dis-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bingo.” Alexis chimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right on the money, Commander.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can do.”

“And Charlie?”

“Yes, Commander?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Booo…”

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

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

“So, yes then.”

“It’ll work.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Say what now?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Copy.”

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

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

“The ambient temperature is currentl-”

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

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

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

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

“Uh…”

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

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

“I’m much better crispy!”

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

“Jo, how long we got?!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“10 minutes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“G-go to hell.”

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

“Commander.”

“Gravette, what’s up?”

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

“Would the codes make them stop?”

“Definitely.”

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

“Affirmative.”

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

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

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

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

“You have 2.”

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

“Does Sorin have a bad temper?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Just a moment…”

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

“It’s locked in!”

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

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

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

“You’ve confirmed it?”

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

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

“…thanks?”

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

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

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

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

Characters Present

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Same to you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Something wasn’t right.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Confirming kill.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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: Tia St. Jean Character Portrait: Operative Kelly Invaru Character Portrait: Sparrow Oberacker Character Portrait: Wyatt Sinoff

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Drumming a finger impatiently on the polished, ultra-basic stainless steel of her work station, Sparrow stared dully at the duty roster on the display of her work terminal. She hated making duty rosters with a passion; hell, she hated eighty percent of the desk work her position entailed. Whoever got cleaning the heads would complain. Whoever got stuck guarding the armoury, near the furious slab of flesh that threatened to tear their limbs off if they twitched, would complain. The only thing they could all agree on was complaining in general about how ruthless O’Ryan’s training was.

Resting her forehead against the desk, the sergeant gave a low groan as she dug her fingers into her scalp. Couldn’t she just lead the little bastards, and make someone else get them to do the rest of their jobs? Wasn’t she supposed to have an assistant? There was an automated hiss from the door, signalling someone had entered the office but she didn’t look up as whoever they were moved into the room. Judging by the footsteps, there were two, confirmed by one of the chairs across from her sliding out while a hand came to rest on her shoulder.

“You’re actually working for once, Sparrow?” She lifted her head slightly, loose red hair obscuring her vision of the source until she brushed it aside lazily and fixed him with a less than amused expression. “Or attempting to, at least.” Sergeant First Class Nathan Percy chuckled lightly, his wrinkled face smiling down at her. His light brown hair was already beginning to grey in some places, and his face had the beginnings of a salt and pepper beard forming. It was difficult to believe the man was only three years her senior, but after something like Titan, it wasn’t surprising to see a man gain a few years.

“Stow it, Nathan.” She muttered, leaning on her cheek on her arm with a faux frown on her lips. “I’ve got duty rosters crawling out my ass and then some disciplinary actions to issue to some unfortunate idiots.” Her fellow sergeant laughed, removing his hand as he dropped into one of the work stations to her right.

The room was a joint office that had been set up for the NCOs to use for their work regarding their companies and platoons respectively. The platoon leads had a trio of work terminals lining opposite ends of a large rectangular ‘desk’ while the Master Sergeants enjoyed their own private work stations in the two back corners. Aside from the work areas, it was mostly unfurnished, save for a small couch that hugged the right hand corner when you entered the room, with a small coffee table and, more importantly, coffee machine sitting atop it.

There was an airy, mocking chuckle from the station in front of her, and Sparrow shot the source a look. “You wouldn’t have so much work to do at once if you actually did it when you got it, Oberacker.” One of her fellow Victory leads sat across from her, Jessica Mareen, who led the First platoon. The brown-skinned woman flashed a knowing grin at her colleague’s deepening frown, powering up her terminal with a tap as she brushed a few locks of raven black hair from her eyes. “Don’t act so testy, it’s your own fault. Always off picking fights with your troops, or lazing around the observation bay…”

“It’s called hands-on-training, Mareen. It’s good for morale!”

“Who’s? Yours or theirs? I’m quite sure you get enough jollies from beating on those poor privates all the time!” Nathan snickered as Sparrow slumped back into her seat, knowing a losing battle when she saw one. “Actually, I think there’s been a noted drop in injuries from your platoon…why is that?”

“Beats me.”

Nathan, who hadn’t even attempted to power up his work station, was quick to refute her. “The word going around the ship, I hear it’s more because you’ve focused your abuse onto one particular marine. One of the privates…Ronald, was it?”

“It’s Roger.” She corrected, although she immediately bit her tongue at his smug grin. “Don’t set me up like that, Nathan, I still want to believe you’ve got my back…” He held his hands up in mock defence, looking like she’d actually hurt him, at least until she jabbed a threatening finger in his direction and the Titan relented.

Mareen rolled her eyes as her fingers typed away on her haptic interface, sorting through her workload with a practiced ease that made Sparrow slightly envious of the older woman’s experience with leadership. Nathan finally fired up his own, still nudging her slightly in the ribs with his elbow to assure her that the teasing would resume when they didn’t have work to do.

As much as she could do without them prodding her about beating up one of her privates, the sergeant almost wished they’d continue so she had an excuse not to try and finish this damn roster. Or hell, that she could go and train that damn private, because that’s what it was, training, no matter how much Nathan poked her in the side with his overly pointy elbow. Pressing her head on the desk again, Sparrow exhaled sharply, suddenly wishing she had had the foresight to bring her cigarette. “Some days, I wonder if O’Ryan promoted you as a punishment…” Mareen muttered through an amused smirk.

“That would be cruel and unorthodox…” There was a long pause before she tilted her head back to face the woman with a grimace. “Which makes me think that he might have.” Summoning up the will to at least attempt the roster, her fingers lifted to the haptic interface as she regarded the information one more time.

The door hissed open as she moved for her first keystroke, and the three sergeants turned their heads in unison to see the newcomer, surprised to find Tyler Carson, the Master Sergeant in charge of Victory Company. Whatever the man had been intending to say was immediately cut short as the intercom came to life with the always boisterous and demanding Commander Horn on the other end.

“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.” Sparrow chuckled lightly at the man’s antics, leaning her head on the flat of her palm.

“However! Now is not the time for feelings, good or otherwise! Because, ladies and gentlemen! We are needed…” There was a beat of silence, for what she assumed was dramatic effect. “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! So marines! Prep yourselves! Battery officers! Load the weapons! Techies! Write me some god damn miracle code! Ladies! Hand me your numbers! Brace yourselves Men and Women of the Call of Victory! We're going to war.”

The sergeants shared a few curious glances amongst each other, before the intercom crackled 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.” The intercom went dead, for good this time, and Carson rubbed his temple for a moment before chuckling humourlessly.

“Well, you all heard the man. Get everyone prepping.” Whatever his original purpose for visiting the office had been cast aside, Carson turning back out the door and heading off down the hall with an even stride. Sparrow was still for only a moment longer, before rolling her head to look back at her untouched duty roster.

“Well, looks like this will have to wait.” She snapped her fingers. “I was really looking forward to it too!”

Nathan rolled his eyes, flicking his terminal off as Mareen rose from her seat and bee-lined out the door to go muster her platoon. “Sure you were, Sparrow. Sure you were.” He replied casually, patting the woman on the shoulder as he stood and headed for the door. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you were waiting for some sort of excuse.”

“Yeah, yeah…” Waving her hand over her shoulder, Sparrow straightened from her seat with a groan, having sat idle in it far too long for her liking. How someone could handle a desk job all day was beyond her. With a happy grin, she flicked off her terminal and spun on her heel for the door, lazily shaking the sleep out of her leg as she moved. “Kicking ass is so much better than paperwork!”

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This was not better than paperwork.

She’d been briefed, quickly, of the target her platoon was expected to take care of. An operations center, hidden in a corporate building stuffed to the gills with civilians. Her jaw was tight, worrying the inside of her lip as she flipped through the details again and again. The building needed to go; collateral damage was a non-issue. ROE was up to her. Almost complete operational freedom.

That made it difficult. Blowing up civilians didn’t sit right in her gut. It wasn’t right. She’d been halfway through a half assed battle plan when she heard footsteps approach from her right, glancing up from her omni-tool to regard Lieutenant O’Ryan and Operative St. Jean. Both had already donned their full battle rattle, and she bit her lip anxiously at the fact she was still sluggishly pulling her’s on even though most everyone else was already prepped. “What’s up, Lieutenant?” She asked quickly as she secured her greaves to the squish-skin suit.

“I’m making an addition to your roster, Sergeant.” O’Ryan replied evenly; if he noted her lack of gear he wasn’t saying anything about it. She was silently thankful for that. Her nerves didn’t need more to worry about. He motioned lightly to the operative behind him, and Sparrow nodded in both greeting and acknowledgement to the woman. “St. Jean is well versed in demolitions, and given the inexperience of your platoon, she’ll do more good with you than the others.”

Saint nodded back, offering a light smile that didn’t quite reach her entire face. “Got your back.” The sergeant watched the woman for a second, before looking back down at her omni-tool.

“Right, I’ll put her to good use, sir.” She murmured, already trying to rattle up a new plan to incorporate the veteran’s skill set. There was a palpable pause, and she found herself glancing back up to look at O’Ryan’s face. It was a mask, as always, but she couldn’t help feeling that there was something more lurking behind his stony visage. “Sir..?”

Before she could continue, he turned and spoke to Saint. “Operative St. Jean, you’ll be taking orders directly for Sergeant Oberacker. I’m sure it needs no mention, but for the duration of the operation, treat her word as my own.” The operative glanced to the sergeant briefly, and then looked back to the Lieutenant.

“Understood.”

Seemingly satisfied, O’Ryan’s eyes flicked back to the platoon lead. “Finish your preparations, Sergeant. Your platoon is already mustering.” Without waiting for a response, the Lieutenant turned and left the women to their devices, his broad back firm and immediately dissuading any further attempts to speak with him.

“You got it…” Sparrow muttered, securing the last harness for her greaves before digging into the equipment locker for her chest plate. Her eyes dully flicked over the ceramic plates, smoothing her fingers against the material before looking at the operative in her peripheries. It was almost unsettling how quiet and still the operative was, breaking it momentarily to check over her gear before her honey brown eyes glanced over to lock with Sparrow’s forest green.

“Just how inexperienced is this team going to be?” There was a detached sort of tone in her voice, but the sergeant ignored it as she tugged on her chest plate and began to engage its clamps. Whatever the source of the question, curiosity or annoyance at being paired with rookies, Sparrow didn’t have the inclination to decipher, nearly mumbling her reply.

“Victory 3rd is basically a training platoon, Saint. We don’t see as much action as the rest because I’ve got to teach the Greenknees how to be soldiers. They’re not useless, but they aren’t as good as the crews you’re use to working with.” As the last clamp fastened, she turned partially to the woman, watching her with dull eyes. “I’ll pair you with one of the more experienced teams, though. I’m sure you’re not interested in deadweight slowing you down.”

The operative shrugged a single shoulder. “I’ll go where you think it’s best to complete the mission and get back home,” There was a brief pause, before she added as an afterthought, “ma’am.” Tugging on her gauntlets with a grunt, Sparrow tucked her helmet under her arm as her weapons clung to the magnetic holsters on her armour.

“Let’s not bother with ma’ams, Saint. Outside of today, I don’t even know if your rank deserves salute or a friendly grunt. I’d prefer we just keep things simple.” The operative gave a smile, surprisingly genuine from what little she’d seen of the woman.

“So would I.”

Perfect. One less thing for her to worry about. The quagmire of ethics and morality she was going to be wading into neck-deep was bad enough with her platoon’s lives on the line. She seriously didn’t need fancy titles making the situation more complicated. Kicking her locker shut with a flick of her foot, Sparrow sighed heavily, tapping her forehead with her free hand as she started towards the door. “Let’s go see who your team is gonna be.”

If there was a response, the redhead didn’t hear it, the thick footfalls of her boots echoing as she trudged out of the armoury prep room with her new ‘ace’ in tow. Who would be best served by the addition of Saint to their squad? The fire teams rolled up on a list inside her head, and she immediately crossed out Robin. Birkingham would have enough on his hands dealing with his three little idiots, and the operative would only further unnerve the corporal.

Working up the list, she found herself discarding Pebbler as well, if only due to Detts inexperience with his command position. He’d been promoted after Ontarom, but hadn’t seen much action since. Saint would likely end up hijacking his command, and he needed to get the experience.

Kakariki and Eclectus wouldn’t be half bad choices; both Thielst and DeGeorge were familiar with their teams and had proven reliable under pressure. Both already had an engineer-in-training though, and again the need for experience was weighing in favour of leaving them be.

Boarding the lift, Sparrow leaned back onto the small railing with a muted sigh, staring at nothing in particular as she rummaged around in her mind. Her own fire team would be focused on the fighting aspect, being the most experienced, followed closely by Swan and Owl in that regard. Her mind derailed for a brief moment at the thought of Owl and the thick, purpling bruise she’d seen on Roger. They’d had a rough mission, and extremely recently. She’d have to give them a lighter duty on this mission, maybe an over-watch, or-

Biting her lip, the sergeant shook her head. Now wasn’t the time for playing worried mother, not when she needed her best boots available. They’d perform fine, she assured herself, and refocused on the task at hand. This, really, was practically decided.

Amazon. The squad that had formerly belonged to Ramirez. She pushed the younger corporal from her mind, instead focusing on the present. Unlike Pebbler, Amazon hadn’t had one of the rookie members promoted to fill Ramirez’s shoes, instead having a corporal of some experience transferred from a guard roster within another cell. Corporal Jane Galt, or as Sparrow sometimes referred to her as, ‘Lady Ed’.

The two were very similar, preferring to lead by example and taking the largest risks themselves to preserve the safety of their squad. It made them ideal for the ‘training’ nature of the platoon, and in some cases, Galt’s cautious nature made her a better fit than Ed’s ‘Can-do’ attitude. Her team was still rather fresh, only two of the original four having survived Ontarom with a fresh Greenknee filling out the final slot. All of them were basic riflemen to boot.

“Amazon.” She announced aloud as the elevator slowed to a stop. Saint looked at her slightly curious as they disembarked in unison. “I’m going to assign you to Fire Team Amazon. Corporal Galt can put you to the most use.” She figured, anyway. She didn’t mention that part though. Didn’t exactly instil confidence.

The hangar bay was crowded, as it typically was whenever someone deemed it necessary to stuff all the fully armoured marines into a single area, but Sparrow brushed through the masses with only the slightest exertion and a few slight shoves with her plated shoulders. Most of the marines were waiting for their big briefing, and she found her platoon milling about much as they always did. They always had trouble standing still without someone of authority shooting them death glares.

Approaching Amazon, she splayed her hand above her head in greeting, and the Greenknees shared suspicious glances behind their helmets. They clearly didn’t find the idea of the Sergeant seeking them out very appealing. Galt tilted her head back slightly, peering at the approaching women through hazel bangs and gesturing softly with her hand in greeting. The corporal didn’t speak much, her pale lips set in a thin line as Sparrow slowed to a stop in front of her. “Sergeant.” Her eyes flicked to Saint. “Operative.”

“Hey, Galt.” Sparrow offered lightly, stooping down to be at eye level with the seated marine. Setting her helmet on the ground in front of her, the redhead watched Galt fiddle with the predator gripped loosely in her hand before motioning at the gun. “Having some issues with it?”

“Trigger’s a little stiff, Sergeant. Nothing important, just want it back the way it was.” The corporal’s even reply got a nod from her superior, as the soldier attached the gun back to it’s magnetic clamp at her hip. The look in her dull brown eyes prompted Sparrow to speak, and she cleared her throat.

“Right, well, we’ve been given the operative here,” She thumped the back of her palm against Saint’s leg armour, “for the day, and I’ve decided to assign her to your team. She’s got some skills in what we’ll be dealing with today, and your team is…lacking in that department.” It wasn’t exactly praise, and she offered an apologetic smile as the private’s shoulders slumped ever so slightly in their armour.

“Of course, Sergeant.” Galt was unphased, straightening to her feet and Sparrow mirrored the action. “Something with tech on the agenda today?” The redhead glanced back at the operative, raising a brow at her before flicking back to Galt. “She looks like a techie.”

“You’re a sharp one, huh? O’Ryan will flesh out the details.” The sergeant stepped back from the team, leaving Saint with a nod of her head as she filtered through the ranks as O’Ryan’s voice boomed through the hangar for attention. Any who weren’t already in position quickly scrambled to comply and she found her fire team in their proper location a few moments later. They nodded in greeting as she took her place at the front, and all eyes in the hangar zeroed in on O’Ryan.

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There wasn’t much to consider strategy wise, realistically. Their target was in the downtown core of a major city and it needed to get blown the fuck up. There was no tactical way to manoeuvre 32 fully armoured marines into a position without every goddamn head within a city block seeing them. Quiet was out of the question, which meant they were about to get very, very noisy. They’d been the second last to deploy, and she saw that was for a good reason now.

“Here’s the plan.” She began, eyes flicking over the team present in her Kodiak even as her voice carried through the comm unit to the others. “There’s no easy, pretty access point to this building. It’s public, it’s in the open, and it’s just after lunch. Our objective, as you know, is the entire building. The Oracle bastards inside it aren’t the only ones. There are civilians inside as well.” She bit her lip, squeezing her eyes shut behind the visor as she continued without any trace of the concern in her voice.

“And I didn’t sign up to turn you all into a bunch of cutthroats. We’re going to do this the hard way. Swan, Owl and Amazon, you’ll be dropping on the roof. Sparrow will be taking the front door, along with Eclectus, Kakariki, Pebbler and Robin.” She found herself pacing, a habit she didn’t like that was beginning to rear its head whenever she was on the spot.

“Amazon and Kakariki, you’re to prioritize the placement of the demo charges. Use the designated locations that the AI is providing for minimal collateral damage. I want this building falling straight down, not into the streets.” Glancing at the timer in her HUD, she sucked in a breath before continuing. “Eclectus, you and Pebbler are going to be my guard dogs. Anyone tries to come in the front door, chase them off.”

“As for Owl and Swan, you’ll be helping Sparrow and Robin clears the building. I’ve got one general rule, and each and everyone one of you will be holding it near and dear to your heart. Don’t shoot anyone who doesn’t deserve to get shot. Don’t go making orphans without a damn good cause.” Her voice hitched ever so slightly at the word orphan, but she barrelled through, slamming her foot down to end her pacing. “If they won’t leave, make them. And if you can’t…”

The timer expired, and the hatch to her left began to hiss open. “Well…do what you gotta do. Let’s get this done.” Without another word, the sergeant turned to the open hatch and dropped the small distance to the ground. Landing with a grunt, Sparrow un-holstered her Mattock as she stared up the street towards the target. Her HUD was already painting the dozens of civilians lining the streets in neutral colours, as the remaining fire teams poured out of their Kodiaks behind her.

Above the building, she could see the others dropping onto the roof, and the sergeant began her grim march straight up towards the building. 19 sets of boots echoed loudly behind her, and the street was beginning to swell with a collective feeling of dread as the armoured figures marched forward. They weren’t Alliance. There was none of the familiar blues. People didn’t want to believe that though. Nothing bad would happen to you.

Smashing that illusion was what upset her the most. Sparrow fired a trio of rounds, shattering the glass doors leading into the building and the street was no longer quiet. Shouts and screams tore at her ears as the reality descended upon awestruck colonists. Thundering feet and racing sky cars carried the crowds away, and the sergeant was thankful for that. She didn’t need any extra blood today.

Stomping up the stairs two at a time, she was soon striding through the ruined entrance with her rifle squarely trained on the pair of men manning the small security booth. Neither looked like they‘d ever actually dealt with more than a vandal, let alone considered the possibility of combating an entire platoon worth of marines.

Thankful no one attempted to reach for their pistol, as Sparrow motioned with her gun for them to back the fuck away before mounting the small counter and taking over their position. “You’re off early today. Get the fuck out.” She hissed over her external speakers, and both men needed no further prompting to get their asses clear of the building. Turning to the system behind her, she tapped a few keys, bringing up VI listing the building schematics and current population totals.

“Eclectus, Pebbler, get cosy.” She barked; the fire teams in question quickly dragging all the various furniture in the lobby to rig up some proper cover. She hated corporate buildings for that reason. They were never designed to make firefights convenient. So much open space and fancy ceilings and holographic displays of fancy company logos or stocks.

Before she could continue her tangential thought process, the elevator behind her dinged. There as a split second delay as she turned to face the occupants, before the striking blue glow shot out of the parting doors and smashed itself into her chest. The air immediately left her lungs, as the sheer power of the energy slammed her backwards into, and over, the counter behind her and dumping her flat on her back on the ground with a pained cough.

It was only a few seconds later that the lobby erupted into a firefight that she couldn’t see as her vision danced from the sudden impact. “Sonuvabitch…” She whispered, clutching her throbbing stomach for a moment as she pushed off the floor with her other hand. Gripping the counter, she hauled herself up as the brief surge in gunfire died down, whatever had been standing in the elevator having been reduced to little more than chunks. “Tasty.”

“You alright, Ma’am?” She heard Lares ask worriedly, looking at the man to her right with a slight grimace. “Got your Mattock.” He held out the weapon and she took it with a light nod of appreciation. Patting her sore stomach, Sparrow started around the counter with the rest of her fire team falling in behind.

“Looks like there’s going to be more than just civvies in here…” She mused as she stepped over the bullet pocked corpse, ignoring the dull squish of her boots in the gore staining the small elevator. Tapping her comm piece, Sparrow spoke quickly. “Roof teams, just a heads up but some of these spooks have some experience. One just tried to make me a stain on the lobby floor.”

“Always making friends.” Feldmann replied quickly. “We’ll keep an eye out; see if we can avoid any nasty surprises from our hosts. See you in a few.” Grunting in acknowledgement, she cut the line, levelling her Mattock on the controls for the elevator and pumping a few rounds into the circuitry. Satisfied no one would be riding it to sneak up on her again; she looked to the fire teams fortifying the entranceway.

“How we looking?”

Corporal DeGeorge looked back at her, shaking her head slightly. “Local police is already beginning to show, Ma’am.” The woman called, and Sparrow frowned beneath her visor. It must have shown in her body language, cause DeGeorge quickly added, “Not many yet, and they aren’t making any attempts to come in. Probably planning to barricade us in until the real heavy lifters can come.”

“Perfect.” She snarled, tapping her comm for platoon wide as she motioned her team towards one of the doors leading to the staircase. “Get to work everyone. I want these civvies out in five minutes, and this building falling in ten.” Kakariki was already rigging the first of their demo charges to one of the designated positions before Sparrow looked slightly to the corporal in charge of Robin. “Birkingham, take your boys and these two,” She gestured to two of her own team. “And start sweeping the second floor. Me and Devera will take care of whatever’s down here.”

The man nodded, starting up the stairs with the marines in tow as Sparrow called after them. “And make sure they take the stairs!” Leaning back into the lobby, she shouted at no one in particular. “Someone shut the lift off, ASAP.” Devera chuckled lightly at her, and the sergeant squeezed a light sigh out of tight lips. “I hate this job.”

“Didn‘t you just break the lift?” He asked curiously, as Sparrow stopped by the double doors leading into the minimal security offices that co-ordinated all of the security personnel for the facility.

“I’ve learnt never to under-estimate a determined hostile with technical skills. Breaking it and shutting it off will at least make life much harder.”

“And we get to take the stairs.” He joked, standing opposite to her with his hand on the door handle. “They don’t make buildings like this very often anymore. Real doors? Pretty classy.”

“Shame we’re going to level it, right?” She fired back, leaning out of the way of the door and tugging it open quickly. There was a brief silence, before she peeked around the corner and caught a glimpse of the half dozen weapons levelled on the doorway. The security office wasn’t big, by any stretch, nor particularly designed to resist prolonged attack she could tell, but they obviously had a weapon’s locker inside since the weapons pointing her way were assault rifles instead of the predator’s their lobby counterparts had been using.

Ducking back behind the door frame to avoid getting her face blown off in the salvo of fire that erupted from the guards. “Well, they’re not going anywhere easily.” Devera commented, pulling a grenade from his hip and holding it up for her to see. “Could clear them right out.”

For a brief second, the sergeant considered it, but she knew well enough that the security teams weren’t actually Oracle. No doubt hired to guard what they thought was just any old building in the downtown core, blissfully unaware of the fact that it was actually a front operation for a shady organization. Having a conscience was more trouble than it was worth. Shaking her head no, she switched her speakers to external.

“Hey! Guys!” There was only silence from the room beyond, save for the shuffling of a few feet and muffled whispers she couldn’t make out. “I know you can hear me in there, so hear me out, alright? You’ve got yourselves a pretty solid bottleneck here, and judging by those guns I saw you could probably make sure nothing gets through this doorway for an hour or two. That’s a pretty good plan.” She motioned with her fingers at Devera, and he sceptically tossed her the grenade. “Only problem is, we’ve got this.” She caught the small sphere and held it out in the doorway for a moment. “If you’re not military, I’ll fill you in. Standard issue fragmentation grenade, typical Alliance fare, with a wounding radius of around 20 meters. If I toss this in there, what do you think it’s going to do?”

She half expected one of them to take a pot shot at her hand, but the threat of the weapon she held seemed to be making them cautious. Devera seemed utterly perplexed by this approach, but didn’t voice his thoughts aside from the quizzical tilt of his head. “So now that we have your attention, let’s make a deal. You boys probably don’t work for Oracle, yeah? You’re just honest people doing honest work for an honest day’s pay. I can respect that and I don’t want to punish you for that. So, if you put down the guns…and let us come inside, we’ll let you go. Simple as that. Just like everyone else in the lobby. Nobody needs to get hurt. Does that sound good?”

Someone found their voice, an older man by the sound of it. “How can we trust you? If we’re unarmed, what’s to stop you?” She was still, shutting her eyes for a moment before retracting the hand that held the grenade and attaching it to her belt. After a heavy breath, she tossed her Mattock around the corner into the room beyond, earning a startled yell. “The hell are yo-”

She upholstered her predator next, throwing it inside as well before looking to Devera who was shaking his head furiously at her for the sheer stupidity of this plan. “I’m stepping out. Those are my guns.” She pushed off the wall and stepped into full view of the doorway, letting her visor’s tint vanish so the security forces could see her face, however little it showed. “See? No guns, just my grenades.” Her hands out at her sides, she pointed briefly to the weapons attached to her hips. “Now my friend outside still has his, and the rest of my platoon is spread throughout the building, so I don’t think it’s in your best interest to squeeze those triggers. I’m out on a limb here for you guys, so how about we put those weapons down and nobody has to lose their head?”

The fuck was she thinking? The fuck was she doing right now? Her adrenaline implants were dialling up without any need for prompting, the prospect of staring down six automatic weapons alone causing her heart to hammer in her chest. If they fired, she’d have a chance, however small. She could duck back into cover at a moment’s notice, even if they’d land a few hits before she could. Devera could toss a grenade and that’d be that. It’d trash her mattock and predator, but with luck there would something in the weapon’s locker she could borrow.

She scanned their faces, all men of varying ages, but some were young. One looked like he wasn’t even legally allowed to drink yet and she found herself focusing on him out of them all. This was just a job; she wanted to say, not worth getting yourself shot over. This is just a pay check. Put the gun down. She didn’t want to kill a kid. She didn’t want to see this whenever she tried to look at one of the privates. For a split second, she pictured Roger, stuck in a helmet slightly too big for his head and staring down the most intimidating thing he‘d likely ever seen in his young life. Her face softened.

“C’mon. This ain’t worth it.”

As the kid dropped the gun, she smiled. It took only a few nervous glances between the remaining guards before they cautiously began to lower their weapons to the ground, with the older man being the last to relinquish his weapon with a stoic nod. “And you’ll keep your word?”

“Of course. Devera, escort these gentlemen to the lobby and get them on their way. Make sure the police don’t mistake them for us.” Devera stepped cautiously around the corner, his weapon still in hand but lowered in compliance. Sparrow motioned with her head for them to get moving, and the guards filtered out in front of the marine as her squad mate spared a long look at his superior. “Yes?”

“You have some serious screws loose, Oberacker.”

“That’s why they promoted me.” They said nothing more, as he moved to escort his charges out of the building, calling loudly so they wouldn’t surprise the teams waiting in the lobby. As soon as he was out of her immediate vicinity, Sparrow released a long shaky breath as she stooped down to the ground to retrieve her weapons. “Hooookay, Sparrow, you’re going to see Grass and get on some meds after this, you crazy bitch.” She stammered to herself jokingly as she attached the weapons back to their appropriate places and took stock of the room.

There wasn’t anything overly special about it, just a fairly standard security office that was perhaps slightly shinier than most she’d seen? Not really something to tip one off to the secret funding and shadowy sorts that had created the structure, or at least repurposed it. Scanning the work stations, nothing leapt to her as inherently out of place.

Stepping backwards out of the room, she spoke across the platoon channel. “Status. How we doing people?”

“Swan. In good shape, clearing the last few rooms on the top floor with Owl.” She nodded, meeting Devera at the foot of the stairs and starting up towards the second floor.

“Amazon. Third floor is almost rigged completely. Placing the last few charges.”

“Eclectus. No attempted entries so far and civilians are being received safely. Police encirclement is tightening though, and we’ve got a few Kodiaks dropping off boys in blue with body armour a little thick to be LEOs.”

Sparrow stopped on the stairs at a group of civilians descending with their hands raised partially above their heads, standing aside so they might pass. Every single one kept their eyes locked on her as they shuffled by, the fear almost palpable as they quickened their strides to carry them to safety. “Robin. We’ve a…slight issue, ma’am.” The sergeant grimaced.

“Talk to me.”

“Most of the second floor has been cleared…”

“But?”

“…but we’ve run into some resistance. Not a hostile, I don’t think, but one of the civilians isn’t complying. He’s staying in his office, and I can’t get him to come out.” Pulling the door open as she reached the floor, she ushered an approaching civilian into the door with a sharp jerk of the head, before focusing on her HUD to locate the corporal.

“Why not drag him out?”

There was a long pause, before the man sighed. “I’m worried, Ma’am. Anytime I’ve stepped into the room, he’s got his hands beneath his desk, in the drawers or something. If he’s got something in there, at close range…”

“Our shields won’t count for much. I get ya.” Following the readout on her HUD, she waved Devera off to assist the others in clearing the floor before rounding the corner to find Corporal Birkingham shuffling nervously in front of the door to one of the corner offices. He noticed her approach and hurried over to meet her halfway. The man was always a bundle of nerves. “I’ll take it from here. Go keep your boys from throwing each other out a window or something.”

“They probably would…” He bemoaned, nodding in compliance and hurrying to check on his fire team. She watched his retreating back for a moment before continuing down the hall and pausing outside the sleek glass wall that separated the room from the more typical workspaces scattered throughout the level. The man sat behind his desk, fingers laced in front of his bowed head and she could see the sweat beads dripping down his forehead and staining the collar of his suit.

Readying her predator, she pulled the door open quietly and stepped into the room with her eyes locked on the man, who flicked his head up to meet her gaze, looking like a cornered animal staring down the hungry predator. “Yo.” The pistol remained at her side, but the man was painfully aware of it’s presence by the way his widening eyes kept darting to it. “I hear you’re not going to leave. Why’s that?”

“There’s no reason to.” There was a conviction to his voice, but it shook under her faceless gaze. “You don’t want to hurt us? Then why should I leave?”

“Decent idea. Minus the fact that I’m going to blow this place up.” He stiffened in his seat. “Yeah. You probably shouldn’t be here for that. C’mon, let’s get you out.” The sergeant took a step forward, and the man’s hands darted beneath the desk quickly. She froze, pistol raising slightly at her side but stopping after a few inches when he made no further movements. “Take it easy.”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Can’t say. Now why don’t you stand up and take your hands out from under the desk, alright?”

“You can’t just come in here and make demands! Waving your guns around and shooting innocent people!” His voice was rising in pitch, and Sparrow swallowed the lump forming in her throat as his eyes burned accusingly on her visor. “What gives you the right?!”

“Relax! No one innocent has died today! No one innocent WILL die today! The building is all we’re after! Now back away from the desk!” Her voice rose, despite her attempt to keep it even to calm the man, and he seemed even more spurred by the escalation.

“Why the hell should I listen to some piece of shit terrorist?!” He roared, slamming one hand the desk as he rose sharply from his seat. She could see the muscle tension through his shoulders and arms, her breath hitching as the obscured arm began to emerge with tightened knuckles around…something. Rationality lost its place. A lifetime of close calls and near-death experiences overwhelmed thought and her arms straightened the pistol into a ready position. The world had the speed suddenly sucked from it, as implants roared to life at the perceived threat.

There was no time for protest, finger tightening on the trigger and the round punching clean through the soft tissue of the breast.

The second round tore over the shoulder, shattering the glass off the corner office and tossing the man off balance.

The third ripped through the soft tissue of the throat, which sent the figure toppling backwards through the still fragmenting window.

Her footsteps thundered to the edge as the air filled with panicked gasps and screams, stepping to the lip long enough to see the body crumple into the concrete, splattering blood and grey matter across the street and nearby police vehicles. Sparrow stared silently out the window, feeling the heads turn upwards towards her with accusing horror. Her body didn’t feel anything, hands still tight on the gun by her side.

The implants deactivated, colour returning to the world as she became aware of her own ragged breathing. Idly, her brain recognized the danger of exposure with the sheer number of LEOs below but she was sluggish. Stumbling backwards from the shattered window, her hip hit the desk, and she let herself lean against it as her eyes flicked down to the smooth title of the office floor. She trailed the small splatters of blood, before catching the glint of something metal.

The sergeant stooped down, brushing armoured fingers over the reddened surface of the broad faced, platinum watch; feeling the soft cracks in the casing from its sudden fall. Picking it up with an almost reverent care, it ticked dully in her ears as the old-style device sat plainly upon her palm.

There were footsteps by the door, but she didn’t look until she heard a voice calling to her. Forest green eyes flicked over to see Pinnick watching cautiously from the doorway, unquestioning but it was obvious she had an idea of what had transpired. “What is it?”

“We’ve got something you’re going to want to see, Ma’am.” She nodded dully, lowering her hand and tucking the watch away soundlessly. “Ma’am?”

“Yeah. Show me.”

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Pinnick lead the way, guiding her past the last few civilians exiting from the top floor and into the executive offices that made up the bulk of the top floors space. The offices were all deserted now, and save for the few still bodies of what she assumed were Oracle agents; there was little sign of any struggle. Pinnick motioned her into one of the rooms, and she entered to find it occupied by Amazon and Private Fischer from Fire Team Owl. He was working quietly on his omni-tool, a small blue haptic interface illuminating the wall behind him curiously.

Saint was tapping away on the soft blue of its keyboard just behind the large figure, clearly focused on whatever it was the two were working on. Sparrow glanced to her right, spotting a bloodied man kneeling in the corner with one of the privates standing watch over him. His face was bowed, but it wasn’t hard to sense to sheer anger radiating from his hunched form. “I’m assuming he’s not a civilian?” She asked, tone lacking its usual joviality but no one seemed to notice.

“Oracle agent, or so we have to assume. We caught him in the middle of wiping a data-mine, so we got Saint and Fischer to take a stab at digging out whatever’s on there.” Corporal Galt replied evenly, seemingly at ease with the current situation. “All the charges up here have been set as well.”

“Good work.” The sergeant looked to the engineer duo. “I’m assuming there’s a reason we have him alive then?”

Galt nodded in the corner of her vision. “Mhm. Saint said there was a chance it could be encrypted to Oracle agents by a retinal scanner or the like.” Saint glanced up with a nod at the mention of her name.

“Or perhaps other code encryption. That’s why he’s not dead and missing body parts.” That might have been a joke from a majority of the marines she knew, but the deadpan Saint wore as she spoke made the sergeant glance back at the man just to make sure he still had everything attached.

“Right. Have either of you had any trouble then? Encryptions or otherwise?”

“A couple bio feedback killers, but we quashed those. I'm sure there's another layer, but we haven't come across it yet." Saint didn’t bother looking up from her work this time, and Sparrow turned her attention more to the captured man. Not like she actually understood most of the techno-gibberish that engineers were so fond of.

“Anything of value?”

“Junk data, largely.” Logan answered, lowering his omni-tool slightly as he watched the sergeant for a moment. He seemed aware that something was unsettling her, but if he was, the engineer didn’t mention it. “He managed to scrub most of the information about their work here. So far, everything else has been observation notes about a few local figures of importance and agents within the building.” Saint gave another nod, still intently focused on her work.

Sparrow occupied herself by examining the silent captive for a few moments, before there was a light yip of satisfaction from behind her and she met with Tia’s gaze. “Well now. Look at that. A bolt hole.” There was a brief pause before she clarified. “It looks like there’s an escape route.”

“Can these guys get anymore cliché?” The sergeant muttered, watching contently as the data was uploaded to Saint’s omni-tool, and then quickly linked to her own. Glancing at the schematics for a few brief moments, she frowned. “The security office? I knew there was something off about it…” Dismissing the display with a sigh, she looked back to the engineers. “Fischer, get back to your team, I think this mine is tapped.” He nodded and stepped out the door quickly. “We’re pretty much done…once Kakariki has the last charges set, we’re leaving. Which leaves us with you…”

The room’s attention came to focus fully on the Oracle agent, who still made no attempt to look at the surrounding marines. Before she could think properly on the man’s fate, her comm line barked sharply in her ear. “Ma’am! Ma’am! We gotta go! We gotta go!” The normally calm DeGeorge was practically yelling straight in her ear, and as she opened her mouth to ask what had gotten the corporal so riled up, the answer came in the form of the thunderous M35 155 mm shell. The building practically shook from the impact, and the marines immediately looked between each other frantically. “They’re deploying a fucking tank to cover the infantry‘s movement! The Alliance is not fucking happy with us!”

“I got that, Corporal. Keep the doors secure as long as you can, we’ve got a new escape plan.” Galt looked to her curiously, but the sergeant was already switching to the platoon wide. “Victory 3rd! Times up! Everyone get your asses to the ground floor! We’re going to make use of an Oracle escape route to get out of this shit-hole. Move!”

There was no chorus of affirmatives, just the silence of understanding that spoke of the gravity of their situation. “Sergeant?” Galt asked questioningly, earning a sharp look from her superior.

“I want your team into that hole first. Get as far down it as fast as possible and tell me what the hell is waiting on the other side.” She stepped out the room, pointing a finger at her own team. “Once we’re on the ground floor, we’re taking over for Pebbler and Eclectus. We’re the last ones out. Any objections, feel free to climb into the hole with the others.” There were no complaints, and she spared a glance back at the room, seeing the Oracle agent’s feet just beyond the door frame. “We don’t have time for him now.”

The teams began to move, Sparrow watching for a few moments before a subtle crack of a pistol broke over the battle beginning below their feet. Turning sharply, the forest green of her eyes narrowed sharply as the Oracle agent slumped over as Saint exited the room calmly with her sidearm drawn. Before the engineer could move past, the sergeant gripped her arm sharply, glaring coldly down at the shorter woman. “The fuck is wrong with you?!”

She was in the process of holstering the weapon when Sparrow caught the limb by the bicep, digging into it harshly and making her flinch. Saint’s eyes watched her visor curiously, as if she was the one behaving oddly. “You said we didn’t have time for him. He’s the enemy.”

“We don’t just execute people! We’re not some terrorist fuckshow that offs everything in its way! You…you…” She gripped her head, an echoing ring of shattering glass pounding in her head with every heavy beat of her heart. “God-dammit, go! Get the fuck moving, now!” She practically threw the limb forward, not even looking at the operative as she sucked in air angrily to calm her nerves.

“Sergeant?” Devera stepped up cautiously, placing a hand on her shoulder and nearly taking a fist to the stomach as she whipped around sharply to stare into his visor. “You alright?”

“I don’t frankly know. Let’s move.”

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The lobby was in chaos as she descended; thick clouds of dust and shattering ceramic filling the air and choking her filters. The HUD painted the friendly units in the lobby, and she immediately raised her Mattock to pour fire on the encroaching Alliance troops. The marines turned to put fire on her, but she wasted little time sprinting across the gap between the exit of the stairs and the security desk, sliding over the counter and dropping into cover from the counter attack. “Status! NOW!”

“Amazon. We’re in the tunnel, moving as fast as we can. It’s cramped as hell, can only move single file.”

“Fucking perfect! Eclectus, Pebbler! Fall back to the security office!”

“Ma’am!” The corporals chorused, immediately rising from the battered barricades they’d crafted to lay suppressing fire with the sergeant’s fire team as the privates rose and sprinted to the ‘safety’ of their chosen escape route.

“Robin is inside, Owl is entering now.” Corporal Stevenson spoke calmly, but she wasted no breath on a reply as another 155mm shell sailed through the lobby and blasted a hole in the back wall; showering her position with chunks of crumbling ceramic and concrete. Ignoring the thick coating of dust, she rose to fire on the fresh wave of marines storming through the battered entrance.

Lares slid over the counter beside her, but popped back up immediately to trade shots with his avenger. “Eclectus’s boys are in. DeGeorge, fall back!” He shouted to the lone corporal, who nodded in compliance and started a slow steady retreat while laying covering fire.

“Pebbler! You’re up next! Go, go, go!” Sparrow demanded, watching two of the figures fall back quickly while the third hovered by the fourth. “The fuck are you doing! Move, Detts!”

“Copy that, Ma’am. Give them hell, Mar.” The Corporal fell away, leaving the one last silhouette on the barricade, propped up against it with a rifle in hand. The sergeant rose to climb over, but the swirling dust cleared for a moment and she caught sight of the bloodied stump where the private’s leg should have been. The soldier, the display told her it was Brooke Mar, flashed a vigorous thumbs up, and Sparrow could only stare before forcing herself to throw one back to the young girl.

The Alliance marines seemed aware of the abandoned cover, quickly moving through the swirls of dust to utilize it for themselves, only to quickly find themselves staring down an avenger in a very open area. The private fired widely into the group, accuracy understandably shit with her injuries, but when the enemy was bunched, it wasn’t necessary. Sparrow suppressed on the opposite flank, motioning sharply with her finger for Devera to take Eclectus’s abandoned cover as another tank round blew another sizeable hole in the building. “They’re gonna bring it down on us at this rate!”

“Should have saved the bombs!” Mar replied groggily, tossing her avenger aside and drawing her predator up to pump a few rounds at the marines trying to clip the barely visible soldier. “They’ll bring it down for us!” The team shared a look, hearing the fear that was lurking underneath her voice, but no one made mention.

“That’s awfully kind of them, isn’t it?” Pinnick replied, still positioned within the stairwell as she pumped a few rounds from her Mattock.

“Very kind. I might…” The private trailed off, sliding down into the mangled barricade as the pistol clattered to the ground. “…just have to pay them back.” The words were laboured, as she tugged at her belt and pulled it closer to her head. “One good turn…”

Mar’s voice hitched, sounding more like a pained sob than any attempt to speak. Sparrow straightened out of cover, firing with a furious roar at the marines rushing towards the private. “You’ve done enough, Brooke.” Her heat-sink hissed in overheat, and the Alliance team swarmed the battered barricade. The helmet turned towards her, before the belt came alive. There was only a split second as the first marine peered over the ledge to see the belt tight against their cover. The sergeant raised a hand in salute.

Brooke’s smile carried in her words. “Thanks.” The lobby shook as the grenades detonated in unison, blowing the barricade to chunks and shredding the marines in a hail of shrapnel. Lares pulled Sparrow down to avoid the brunt of the blast, and she sat quietly beneath the counter for several moments.

“Status?” She spoke softly, and Feldmann replied just as lightly.

“We’re all in. Come on.” Pulling up her omni-tool, she looked down at the master control she’d been granted for the explosives. Her hand lingered above the switch, before swallowing sharply. Pressing the switch, a countdown quickly appeared in her HUD, and her team likely saw it too.

“Let’s get going.” Hopping the counter, she fired a few staccato bursts as Lares and Pinnick moved into the hallway leading to the security office. Devera fell back slowly, laying down suppressing with his avenger. There was a furious rev of the engine, and Sparrow looked sharply to the doorway as the Mako barrelled up the steps, apparently done with patiently shelling them and intending to bring itself to the forefront. “Move!”

Lares dropped into the hatch first, sliding down the ladder as fast as the bulk of his armour would allow. Pinnick was practically stomping on him as she began to climb inside, trying to make space for Devera and Sparrow as the Mako rolled to a stop at the end of the hallway. The cannon swivelled as the pair rushed through the doorway, Devera swinging around to slam it shut just as the echoing boom of the cannon crashed against their ears.

The door splintered apart, and the next thing she knew, Sparrow was sprawled on the ground beside the escape hatch with her head ringing furiously in her ears and Pinnick yelling up the chute at her. “Sparrow! Get inside!”

She rolled over, pushing herself forward for a second before feeling the soft wet squish beneath her gloves and her eyes noticed the faint mist of red dancing in the air in front of her eyes. The countdown timer blinked in warning, but she glanced about the room slowly. The red was everywhere. She could feel bits of moisture escaping her dust clogged filters, but as she took one final stock, Pinnick screamed up at her. “Get inside and shut the fucking hatch!”

The sergeant nodded to nothing, fumbling down into the hatch and pulling the top shut. She descended a few rungs before the world began to shake and the sound of collapsing steel and rending metal filled the air. The intensity, so close by shook her violently and she lost her grip on the ladder, skidding down several rungs before catching one around her elbow. Staring dully down the shaft of barely lit darkness, she saw Pinnick’s visor staring up though black with the lights on opposite sides of her head.

Neither said anything until the sergeant had disentangled herself from the ladder and finished her descent. At the bottom, Sparrow sat for a long moment, just breathing while Pinnick watched quietly. Lares stood alone further down the hall, the occasional nodding of his head indicating he was likely speaking with the platoon. “Sparrow?” Pinnick broke the silence as she knelt in front of the SO, placing a hand lightly on her shoulder. “I’m…I…”

“What are you on abou…where the hell is Dever-” Her eyes widened, immediately raising her arm up towards her visor and into the light from the helmet. The sickly red liquid clung to the back of her hand and arm, sharpening her breath into painful gasps. Her stomach churned in a fit of tumbling emotions, slamming the hand roughly against the wall as her heartbeat began to hammer in her ears. Hand coiling into a fist, she slammed it on the wall, forcing herself to release a long rolling breath as she forced the anger to the forefront of the emotional blur.

“Sparrow?” Pinnick asked cautiously, stepping back as the sergeant rose to her feet.

“Let’s get moving.” She intoned; voice even and firm, but beneath the control her blood burned, molten and scorching her veins. The marine stared back for a moment, eventually nodding and hurrying after Lares who waved them forward before moving further into the cramped passage way. Sparrow’s steps were heavy, never leaving their backs as her shoulders chafed on the constricting walls of their escape route. “Overwatch, this is Sergeant Oberacker, do you copy?” She asked into the static filled communication channel, but there was no reply through the white noise. “Great…probably too deep.”

Glancing to the low ceiling above her head, she shook her head before quickening her pace to catch up to her remaining fire team. They travelled in silence for a few minutes, before reaching the slightly wider chamber housing the ladder up to the surface. “Inconspicuous, huh?” Lares muttered, slinging his rifle and starting up the ladder.

“Maybe it’ll come out in a phone booth.” Pinnick offered, gaze lingering on their silent leader for a second before following her comrade up the ladder. Sparrow reached up once she was a good ways up it, glancing back down the hallway.

“Feldmann, how are things up there?” There was less static as she began to climb, and eventually the Corporal’s voice became clear.

“We’re going to need to hit the ground running.” He replied, sounding slightly out of breath and more irritated by the second. “The streets are far too abandoned for this time of day, and I’ve seen Kodiaks ducking behind buildings nearby. They’re going to swarm us.”

“Cause that’s what we need.”

“What we need is an extraction point.”

“I’m working on it.” She shot back, hauling herself out of the hatch into a dimly lit room, unfurnished and looking like it hadn’t seen something alive in a few months. Light poured in from a small staircase to her right, and she took it two at a time to emerge into an alley of little description. The majority of the platoon was scattered throughout the space, watching cautiously for any approaching hostiles. It wouldn’t hide this many marines for long.

With that in mind, she tried again. “Overwatch, this is Sergeant Oberacker, do you copy?” There was a beat of silence, and she was about to speak again when Invaru’s voice sounded in her ear, neutral and professional as always.

“This is Overwatch, update.”

Silently breathing thanks, Sparrow looked out the alleyway towards the streets beyond. “We’ve destroyed the target, but the Alliance had encircled the building. An Oracle escape route provided an out, but the primary extraction isn’t going to work. Requesting an updated extraction point.”

"One moment." The Operative’s voice was completely calm, almost to the point that it had the opposite effect on her own nerves. There was a light thrum beginning to fill the air, but she shook her head as Invaru continued. "There is a lot that has been cleared for construction a few blocks away, past an open market and more corporate buildings. Alley ways and the bazaar should provide limited cover from Alliance armour and air. Note, we are sending Kodiaks to await you but will remain a few clicks away from the evac point until you reach it so as to limit fire from Alliance forces. How copy?"

“Solid copy, Overwatch.” The new evac point blinked up on her HUD, syncing with the platoon’s displays and painting the point for them. She motioned in the direction as she readied her mattock. “Overwatch, I’m-” The thrum grew into the roar of an engine, and Sparrow’s eyes snapped wide at the familiarity of the sound. “Gunship! Move!”

An A-91 swept in low over the alleyway, turret on the underside of its nose spraying the narrow space indiscriminately. Several rounds glanced off her shields, but she instinctively shielded her face for a moment before forcing herself forward several steps. The gunship swept high through the buildings, likely to bank around for a proper strike. “Get going now! Fuck formation, just go! Stick to cover!”

No one needed additional prompting, and the platoon barrelled out of the alleyway in a stampede as the air began to fill with that heavy thrum once more. In her ear, she heard Invaru, still unflappably calm, “Ground team, status?” and she bit her lip as she thundered out of the alleyway after her soldiers.

“Alliance A-91, Overwatch!” She made sure to avoid yelling it to her superior, even if everything in her right now was saying yelling was the best possible thing, preferably accompanied by swears. Numerous Kodiak shuttles swept overhead, bay doors opening and the occupants peppering fire on the marines. “And now the marines are swooping in!”

“Can you hold?”

It only took her a brief second to consider a response; sliding roughly on a leg behind an idle sky car as the gunship loomed back out of the skyline with its sights firmly set on her pitiful little block of metal. “This isn’t even mine, dude!” The gunship cared little for whoever the unfortunate bastard who owned the car was; firing a salvo from its machine gun as it began to sweep along the street. They lacked any heavy munitions, and she wasn’t the type to try and bring down a gunship with only determination and an assault rifle. “Negative on that. We’re not even going to try. We’re moving to the evac point now.”

There was a rumbling down the road from whence they’d come, and it was only with dread that Sparrow turned her head from the gunship to find exactly what she feared looming further down the street. “Another goddamn Mako?! We already crushed one!”

There was a long pause on the comm, but there wasn’t time to question what had gotten a hold of the Operative’s tongue. “Alleyway! Keep moving!” The marines looked at her in surprise, what with the gunship still laying down suppressing fire on their meagre cover, but they listened, vaulting their cover and swerving into the first alleyway available to them.

It was a point of pride that they maintained proper tactics, fire teams leapfrogging in tandem while others diverted the attention of their attackers by trading a few shots with the Kodiaks and gunship. It wasn’t the quickest thing though, and the Mako wasn’t slowing down, so she stepped out from behind her thoroughly mangled cover. “Sup asshole?!” The Mattock barked a few shots, and the turret swivelled towards the sergeant with lethal intention. “Just swimming in good decisions today, huh, Sparrow?”

Diving to the side, the 155mm round raced past with a hissing wail; detonating a few feet behind her and tossing her several more feet ass over head and covering her armour in even more dust. Clawing forward, she scrambled for the alleyway as the coaxial LMG peppered the street around her. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck-” Another shell raced past, deafening her ears with the proximity as she swerved sharply into the alleyway.

"Continue with the route provided, I will re-route resources towards you. Overwatch out." Invaru spoke softly, but that was likely just the fact that her ears were still ringing. The platoon was mostly at the other end, and her stride quickly ate the ground between them as the first team stepped into the street beyond. No sooner than the first one was exposed, the air filled with gunfire and thick plumes of shattering concrete erupted around their feet. One of the marines barely had time to react, dozens of rounds shredding their armour as the others in the team dived backwards to avoid the burst.

No sooner had the body hit the ground did the Gunship bank in low at the end of the alleyway, floodlights blinding the immediate marines as it’s gun readied another burst. Sparrow pressed herself behind a dumpster, as the teams scrambled for makeshift cover, but the roaring engine rising over the gunfire told her they’d soon be pincered between two vehicles they lacked the means to defeat. “Engineers! Burn it!”

There was a shared pause, before each of the engineers leaned out from their hiding places and fired off an incinerate blast. Positioned as it was, it couldn’t react quickly to the attack, and took the majority of the blasts straight on. Typically designed for anti-infantry, an incinerate blast wasn’t going to bring down a gunship, but as the canopy went up in a blaze, the pilot wasn’t going to be shooting straight.

The A-91 banked out of their way, in the nick of time as the Mako rolled to a stop at the opposite end and brought its cannon to bear. The first blast clipped one of the buildings, showering the marines in debris but obscuring the alleyway somewhat. There was no need to prompt them, all the teams already dashing out into the street beyond as the Mako carved the alley apart with its machine gun. Sparrow flicked her eyes to the HUD, noting the distance to the evac point and wondering where the hell those ‘resources’ were.

Sliding across the hood of another sky car, she traded shots with a circling pair of Kodiaks, winging the shields of the occupants but never managing to do more than that. One of the shuttles banked low, catching another team off guard and shattering the visor of one of the marines who crumpled backwards. One of the nearby marines flung a grenade into the open cabin, which detonated with a satisfying boom that sent the shuttle corkscrewing for a moment, before it righted itself and swept off into the sky, doors closing on the likely shredded occupants.

They swept through another alleyway to dodge the Mako as it weaved onto the street, and the market came into view just up the road. “Triple time it! Into the market!” She barked, turning the platoon’s attention forward. Some of the privates lagged slightly, the weight of their armour and frantic pace no doubt exhausting them but they didn’t fall completely behind. As the first teams burst into the abandoned market, Sparrow skidded to a stop at the entrance way and waved them forward. “Come on, come on!”

The A-91 swept in through the skyline, like a bird of prey as its missile pods opened and primed their payloads. The sergeant looked to the sky, gritting her teeth and urging the privates to run faster. After a moment, the missiles fired, and the street erupted into plumes of fire as the warheads detonated. She almost ran into the strike herself, but Lares caught her shoulder and pulled her back into the relative safety of the small, roofed hall leading into the market.

As soon as the blasts subsided, she pushed past the man off, darting out into the street and catching glimpse of what was left of those who hadn’t made it inside. She stared blankly for a long moment, unwilling to pull her eyes away from the mangled chunks that were supposed to have been her soldiers.

Before she could turn back, one of the bodies moved, and Sparrow quickly crossed the distance to find a lone private pinned underneath another, likely having shielded them from the worst of the blast. A jagged shard of metal jutted out of a large scar in the assault amour, but she knew better than to pull it out. It’d block the bleeding somewhat. “Lares! Give me a hand!”

The specialist complied instantly, moving to the injured man’s side and helping her haul him up to his feet whilst slinging his arm over his shoulder. “We’re going to have to carry him to the evac point, Sparrow.” He cautioned over a private channel, not opposing the idea, simply feeling it needed to be said.

“I’ll haul him myself if I need to.” They entered the market proper, and she frowned when she noticed the majority of the platoon hunkered down near the opposite entrance. “The hell are we waiting for?!”

Pinnick, positioned on one of the entering tunnels, looked to her sharply. “They dropped marines on the far side! The tunnels are a funnel, Ma’am!” As if to prove her point, a barrage of gunfire sliced the tunnel apart, as if a warning shot. “We’re not getting out this way without some heavy causalities!”

“Then fuck, we’ll go back around!”

“Down!” Lares shoved roughly on the private, dumping the soldier in Sparrow’s arms as he shoved the three of them clear of the tunnel they’d just entered. He spun around on his knee, dropping an Alliance marine that had scouted ahead, before bouncing a grenade expertly off the wall and further into the passage, which was met by shouts. It detonated a few seconds later, but it seemed it had done little more than clear the entryway. “They’re blocking this way too.” He muttered grimly, as Eclectus, Pebbler and Robin switched over from the opposite position to help lock it down.

Sparrow, still clutching the injured marine, looked quickly around the market, eyes searching for another way out but finding nothing. After a moment, she swallowed heavily. “Everyone…lock it down and dig in your heels. Salazar, get over here, I’ve got injured.” She hauled the man several feet to the small administrative building that sat in the center of the market, smashing the window with a quick shot and dragging him inside. The medic joined her moments later, and Sparrow relinquished the injured man before climbing up to the second floor.

It wasn’t a tall structure, only just rising above the enclosing “ring” of shops that had become the walls of their little fortress prison. The second floor was ideal for watching the market below, numerous bay windows that afforded an optimal view of all goings on while obscuring the occupant behind slightly tinted glass. It provided the vantage she needed to manage their perimeter properly.

First things first. “Amazon; break off and search the shops. Barricade any entrances you find, and radio back if you get hit with too heavy a breach. Kakariki, Robin; Rip down these stalls, throw up some makeshift barricades. Everyone, keep a close eye on your heat sinks. Manage them and make every shot count. I doubt we’re just going to find a box lying around.” Her initial instructions delivered, the sergeant switched the channel and took a calming breath before speaking.

“Overwatch, this is Sergeant Oberacker. Secondary evac point is a no go; the Alliance has encircled us in the market. We have multiple wounded and we need extraction, how copy?”

“Good copy, standby.”

Standby? Standby. She wanted them to standby?! Sparrow resisted the urge to scream something, moving close to the windows to see below her when she heard the blaring hum of engines. A shower of rounds pelted the marines entrenching themselves in the market, and as it banked around, she saw the flame scarred canopy of that damn gunship once more. “You don’t know when to fucking quit, do you?!”

“Man down!” Feldmann barked, and she bit her lip hard enough to draw blood. The bitter-sweet taste of iron filled her senses, and Sparrow slammed a fist against the window futility. There were too many avenues of attack here. Sure they had choke points, but they didn’t have the ammunition, or the manpower or the equipment to hold off everything the Alliance could bring to bear. How long until they brought in mortars? Or breached the buildings to allow armour to enter?

“Pollard!” She barked, hearing a slightly startled noise from the private in question. “Get up here; I have a job for your eyes.” She saw him pull away from his position, questioningly glancing up at the windows that hid her from view but obeying. The sergeant turned back towards the stairs, greeting him with a sharp wave even as the gunship did another strafe past, thankfully not claiming anymore of her marines.

“What do you need, Ma’am?”

She motioned to the gunship that was winding up for another pass. “I need you to keep your eyes on that gunship as much as possible, and whenever it’s about to make a pass, you warn everyone on the platoon wide. If we can keep our heads down, it shouldn’t do much more damage. Got it?”

He nodded sharply, stepping past her to keep tabs on the gunship as it readied its avenue of approach. She opened her mouth to speak, but Operative Invaru spoke, and the colour began to drain from her face. “Ground team this is Overwatch. We are attempting to send you reinforcements, but as of the moment you are on your own. If you can get to a secure location, the Kodiaks are still on standby just outside the city limits.”

Sparrow was still; body slackening as she blinked repeatedly; mouth working around half formed words before finally spitting incredulously. “On our own?! I’ve got an army worth of marines and hardware shooting at us, and we should try and get to a secure location?! This is as secure as it gets right now! I need something, anything, right the hell NOW!”

"Sergeant...The closest available unit I have is the Commander and his team, who are not outfitted with enough heavy ordnance to take on the Alliance Army. If they were to jump down, it would be the Commander at risk. Aside from that, all other marine teams are positioned around the system and assigned to their duties; the Kodiaks are already waiting for you. The only other option would be to use the MAC cannon from the Cruiser..."

There was a long pause, and Sparrow looked down quietly to the floor as her hand tightened around the grip of her gun. Outside the glass, the battle waged, marines trading fire as best they could as the Alliance continued to push and try to break the defensive line. She wanted to yell, swear, curse and rant. She wanted to sit down and just wait. Watching the private moving frantically in the corner of her eye, Sparrow found the clarity, however brief, to speak.

“…No, Ma’am. That isn’t an option. I apologize for my outburst.” She glanced to her rifle, dangling loose in her grip. “Thank you for trying, Ma’am. I’ll see what I can do. Sergeant Oberacker out.” The line went dead, and she stood still in the room as the combat raged. Nothing was coming. This was it.

“Coming for a pass, down!” Roger shouted as the Gunship swept past, hurrying across the room when he noticed the stillness possessing her. The private glanced about for a moment, before crossing a few steps towards her, calling softly. “…Sergeant?” She twitched at his voice, looking to him quickly. “Is…everything alright, ma’am?”

They simply stared at each other, as if the visors weren’t there, as if she was just looking right at his eyes. Weren’t they jade? A bright jade, always had a shine to them, even when he seemed upset. In the faint reflection of her helmet, she could see her own, and they looked dull. Accepting. “Yeah.” She breathed, lying through her teeth and forcing a fake smile that he couldn’t see but it assured him all the same. “Focus on that gunship, Roger.”

The young man tilted his head at the use of his name, but quickly fell back to his task as Sparrow looked out through the glass. Howling screams echoed in the sky, signalling mortars that soon smashed into the market; throwing fire and steel through the air. Shapes began to stir over the buildings, and she raised her rifle as the first drone began to rise above the rooftop. “Keep calm.” She spoke softly, but he heard her all the same, pausing mid-stride to look at her before she opened fire.

Adrenaline implants kicking into full gear, Sparrow could watch in perfectly clarity as her round sent cracks arcing and weaving from the impact into a chaotic spider’s web. As she fired the second, the window splintered, shards of glass refracting the light and shining as they fell. Her third would fire as the first found its mark in the rising machine, followed closely by its successors and making the poorly armoured drone drop back from whence it had come.

It was only one, though, and the rest of wing rose unphased by the destruction of the first. Her eyes swept the assorted barrels as she fired more rounds into the formation, and was both frustrated and relieved to find nothing but the standard assault build. As a second drone corkscrewed into the roof from it‘s damage, the wing split into smaller groups, sweeping out and down into the market as she stepped to the edge to continue firing. “Drones!” She boomed loudly, and several marines reacted to the invading presence.

The drones weaved through the remaining stalls with surprising grace, firing staccato bursts to hinder the marine’s shields but finding little in the way of physical damage to the actual armour of their prey. She looked up to the roofs again as more wings began to appear, knowing full well the danger of drones lay in their numbers, not their ability.

One of the wings set its sights squarely on her, exposed as she was in the broken window and fired a synchronized burst. Her shields flared and failed, but she barely reacted, trading shot for shot as the barrage shattered against her assault armour. Her shoulder jerked roughly as the ceramic plating guarding her left pectoral shattered, and she was in the process of righting her weapon to fire again when a hand roughly gripped her shoulder and pulled her back from the lip several steps.

Two of the surviving drones swept in to finish their work, but met their ends at the quick shots that pierced the ‘head’ of the machines. Roger released a breath as he holstered his Predator, letting go of her shoulder when she gave a sharp tug on the limb in question. The mangled plate immediately caught his gaze, but to his credit the private didn’t point it out. “Be more careful, Ma’am.” He spoke quietly, unsure of himself in ‘chastising’ a superior.

“Why-” The words died in her mouth as a deafening blast filled the marketplace, and their heads snapped in unison to the crumbling walls that marked the blast-site. She moved forward to ‘see’ the damage, but it was for little more than her own personal confirmation. The drones were keeping the marines occupied, and now a new, large doorway had been made straight into the heart of their defence. She couldn’t summon the will to curse.

Roger hovered behind her, clutching his Viper tightly as his eyes flicked to her still back. “What should we do, Ma’am?” She gave no response, watching as teams moved from the other points towards the new gap, firing into the hole without needing any further prompting. “Ma’am?”

She could see how this was going to go. It didn’t take a master of strategy. The Alliance would continue breaching, creating new entrances and spreading them thin while drones thinned out their ammo count. There was no hope of breaching the encirclement at this point, and there was no help coming. Eventually, a point would break. And then it would be over.

How do you keep fighting when it’s only to prolong the inevitable? God, she just wanted to sit down and wait for the bastards to rush in. Was that too much? Her muscles ached and she felt every beat of her heart crisp and painful in her chest. She loved to fight, but now…it felt so pointless. She couldn’t save the platoon. She didn’t have the resources. The knowledge. The drive.

“Sparrow?”

Opening her mouth to speak, Sparrow looked to Roger. She froze mid-turn; her heart leaping into her throat and choking any words that intended to come. The damning hum of the gunship filled the blackening sky, as it swept down into view with its barrel aimed at their exposed bodies. They had no cover. It would hit him first.

The drive wasn’t so hard to find, it seemed. She swept forward, discarding her mattock as her arms snapped up around the private’s body to lock around his torso. There was no time for delicacy, pitching the younger soldier sideways as she threw her body weight with him. They landed in a heap as the gunship opened fire, but the sergeant raised her arms to shield his helmet as the gun caught up to them.

Those few seconds passed so slowly, their shields bleeding together to deflect some of the damage but inevitably buckling under the onslaught. She made no attempt to move, or uncover the private to protect herself more. Shaking with every hit, she kept her visor pressed tight to his, so close that the tint did little to obscure their faces and she could see the panic filling his eyes. Was this the inevitable part? A living shield to a comrade, to a friend, to a...whatever the hell this private was supposed to mean to her that she was willingly putting herself between him and a machine gun?

Maybe it wasn’t such a bad way to go. Maybe it was a good way to go. She still didn’t want to go.

The gunfire stopped. Seconds later, a blast of heat washed over them followed by a thunderous crash of rent metal. For a moment, she waited, expecting the gunship to resume firing and finish what it started. When nothing came, she straightened from her protective coil and looked out the ravaged windows to see no sign of the A-91. “What..?”

Blinding beams of light surged down from the sky, and the air reeked of burning ozone as the lights swept in great arcs around the walls. She tried to rise to her feet, wincing as she felt the warm trickle of blood down her side. Sparrow clutched her injury tightly, slightly surprised when her free arm was tugged over Pollard’s shoulder and he hoisted her up to her feet. Helping the sergeant across the room, the pair reached the lip in time to hear an unfamiliar but commanding voice fill the platoon-wide channel.

“This is Lieutenant Commander Sinoff of the Deliverance. I am assuming control of this conflict. Commence your extraction immediately, Victory 3rd. This is out of your hands now.” She stared in stunned silence at the frigate now hovering over their position; its GARDIAN lasers carving swathes through the suddenly outgunned Alliance forces. She nodded slowly, pulling her limb from Roger’s shoulder and straightening out as best she could.

“This is Sergeant Oberacker of the Victory 3rd.” She paused, staring at the sleek black ship for a moment longer before looking down at the marines below. “…thank you, Deliverance. You really pulled our ass out of the fire.”

“Speak thanks to your superiors, Sergeant. I would not be assisting if not for them.” The line went dead, and she nodded dully, already in the process of switching channels. In the corner of her eye, she saw Roger hurry down the stairs, but paid little mind to his departure as the connection stabilized.

“Overwatch, this is Sergeant Oberacker…the Deliverance is holding position above our own and is holding the Alliance forces at bay. I am requesting extraction, how copy?” There was a beat of silence, likely the Operative checking for a proper confirmation before she replied.

"Acknowledged, ground team, Kodiaks are en route to your location. Overwatch out." If she didn’t know any better, she might have thought that Invaru had sounded relieved. The sergeant stepped towards the stairs, only to be met in a rush by Salazar with Roger a few steps behind. So that’s where he had been going. The medic shot her a look, something between incredulous and appreciative, but neither had the desire to go into that at the moment.

After a brief once over, Salazar ushered her downstairs and forced her into a seat before digging into her med-kit. Her squish skin must have rent rather badly for the medic to actually need to do some field work, but as she felt the disinfectant sting at gashes along her back she hadn’t been aware she had, Sparrow dully resigned herself to the treatment. A few other marines lay nearby, sporting long gashes and cracks to the ablative plating of their assault armour. Each looked like they’d been through hell. It wouldn’t be far off the mark for today.

There was a beep in her ear, and she tapped her comm unit quickly. “Sergeant Oberacker, go ahead.”

“Sergeant, this is Flight Lieutenant Stephen Medwin. We’re en-route to your location; do you have a preferred LZ?” She looked dryly up to the frigate still looming over their heads like a vigilant guardian.

“Park it near the big warship. You can‘t miss it.”

“Copy that, Sergeant. See you in a few. Medwin out.” Dropping her hand back to her side, Sparrow released a long side as Salazar finished the last touches on her injuries and excused herself to another room. The sergeant stared quietly at the ground, slowly beginning to look through the operation in her mind.

She felt none of her usual accomplishment, none of the post mission celebration. Raising a dust stained hand, her eyes picked the small flicks of red still clinging to the normally white polished plating. Maybe this wasn’t supposed to feel like an actual victory, not with the way it went, not with what it cost. She didn’t want to think about it, really, not right now. She was alive. They were alive, and that should be enough.