Shepard stared at the point of a gun.
“Now, ah suggest ya jist turn yerselves around here, and go back the way ya came,” said a scraggly bearded older man with curly red hair. His manners were those of a colonial on a fringe world. Shepard could only guess that the man had given up the fight on the edge of the universe, tried to come back home, only to find the Reapers invading. The Alliance Captain pictured a rust bucket of a transport buckling under the mere thought of a Reaper weapon pointing in its direction and crashing on to Mars, well short of its intended destination.
“Hey, didn’t you hear the man?” asked an equally rough looking woman behind the old man. At least Shepard thought it was a woman. The tangle of hair mixed with scars on the person’s face, combined with the grease covered jumpsuit, left a lot of gender distinction to be desired.
Shepard tried to put on a reassuring smile. It did not have the intended effect on the roughly twenty strong mob in front of him and his team. They only raised their weapons with even more concentration. Shepard held up his hands. “Look, everyone just take a deep breath and let’s work this out. We came here to help you out,” he said, hoping the story would work. “We were sent to look for survivors and . . . well, here you are. We can provide aid and support in whatever form you might require. But in order to get that support,” the captain said, looking past the crowd of disgruntled refugees that seemed more and more like a poor man’s mercenary crew the more he studied them, to the doorway beyond them,”we need to get to a communications array and repair it.”
“Don’t trust him, Dale,” the might-be woman said. The old man shot her a dirty look.
“Damn it woman! Don’t use my name in front of these Alliance fucks! You know I’ve never trusted them and I ain’t starting now . . . Judy.”
“Don’t you curse at me, you old bastard. Leader or not, I am a woman and you will not speak like that to me!” Judy yelled.
“Well that confirms it,” Shepard thought. “Mercs . . . and Judy apparently is a woman after all. This is about to get even uglier. All there is to do now is get through it as quickly as possible.”
Dale turned back to Shepard poked the gun into his chest. “Now I’m gunna give ya ta the count of 3 to turn your ass around and leave, boy. If not, me and the gang, here . . . well, we been itching for a fight since the Reapers vanished on us. So- one . . . two . . .” the crusty old timer began.
Shepard’s face went stone solid. Javik sensed the impending fight easily. Liara and Tinman watched Shepard carefully for a clue as to which way this was about to go.
“Three!” Shepard said, snatching the gun and man in a lightning fast preemptive strike. “Diplomacy can’t win them all, I guess,” he said.
“Damn it, take them out, Cranks!” yelled Judy, firing her gun directly at Shepard, regardless of the unintended human shield between the two adversaries. Shepard and the other Normandy crew members dove for cover, Dale’s carnage torn body crumpling to the floor as Shepard released him with Judy’s first shot. He jumped around a nearby corner away from the onslaught of the weapons fire.
“This type of discussion I like,” Javik called from his own wall of cover, the half wall of a small lab off the main hall through the Mars complex. Broken remains of glass that had once spanned the remaining distance to the ceiling crashed down around the Prothean as the mercenaries turned their focus, and guns, to the sound of his voice.
“Javik, I can never tell when you’re joking and when you’re not when mentioning violence,” Liara called over to him, crouching next to Tinman, down the other side of the hall Shepard had ducked down.
“Asari, I do not joke when in battle,” he replied raising his old energy weapon over his head and blindly shooting into the enemy’s ranks. A handful of disheveled humanity were cut in half and fell silently into piles of death around their comrades.
Tinman sprinted across the hall, firing a geth spitfire with chilling machine efficiency. The magnetically fired clustered rounds hit the enemy, shattering on impact, inducing the plasma conversion that seared the targets in a chain of superheated damage. The geth was down and crouching beside Shepard before the last round hit. He turned to Shepard, his artificial voice confirming,”Six targets terminated, Shepard-Captain. Eleven remain.”
Shepard looked at the new member of the Normandy family with a humorous smile. “What, no rockets?” he asked with a laugh. He leaned around the corner of protection he had chosen and lobbed a grenade after an instant’s survey of the mercenaries’ locations. The explosive landed behind a huddled mass of the Cranks, a name Shepard was not familiar with, but would be researching once he got back to his cabin aboard the Normandy. The detonation flung nine of the thugs into the air, Judy among them. Their bodies slammed into nearby walls and the ceiling, blood stains marking the end of lives lived in violence and ended in kind.
“Larger explosives are ill-advised in such close quarters, Shepard-Captain. Though, my understanding of human expressions and analysis- I believe you were joking, Shepard,” Tinman finished in more organic like terminology.
Shepard smiled with a nod. “You’re getting the hang of it, Tinman,” he said, and then, leaning out with a hand cupped to his mouth, called,”Liara, if you would be so kind . . .”
“My pleasure,” her reply came. A biotic shimmer lighted the hallway and gripped the last two mercenaries in a freezing field of dark energy. She calmly rose and walked towards Shepard and Tinman, Javik crossing behind her, taking a different route. Liara looked to her friend and captain. “What should we do with them?” she asked.
Shepard looked up to Tinman, debating whether to stop what was transpiring or not. He decided he did not want to worry about being stabbed in the back later, so said nothing. The geth looked past Liara and then down to her, apparently deciding similarly. “Do with who, T’Soni-asari?”
Her keen intelligence catching the implication, the powerful Shadow Broker turned and watched helplessly as a calm and cold Prothean raised his weapon to the chests of each of his enemies in turn, stared into their eyes, and pulled the trigger. A spray of blood misted onto his face. Javik blinked as if bothered by an annoying breeze, and watched life drain from his victims, the biotic energy having not warn away, holding them in a standing position.
Liara let down the arm she had not realized had been raised in a sad attempt to restrain her comrade who had held such great potential in her mind at one point. She let out a disgusted huff and walked down the hall, intent on the original destination of the communications satellite dish. “Avatar of vengeance or cold blooded murder?” she asked, brushing past Javik on her way.
Tinman and Shepard followed. The captain stopped and inclined his head towards Javik. “Are you trying to destroy her belief in Protheans?” he asked.
“What should be believed? Her fairytale vision of how great and noble and enlightened the Prothean Empire was or the truth of what she sees? A real, live Prothean, trained to perfection in war’s killing arts?”
“The watching them die was a little over the top, don’t you think?”
Javik looked down at the now fallen bodies, down the hall to the diminishing figure of Liara, and then back to Shepard. “Perhaps,” he said.
Shepard looked into the warrior’s face and saw what had not been seen before, but he had always suspected was present: the pain of insurmountable loss. “Look, Javik, if you need to talk . . . “
“Talking is not what I do, Shepard. I will help you until you stop asking me. As the destroyer of the Reapers, that is what you have earned. But know this: when we have finished repairing the mass relays, rebuilding to a sustainable point that which the Reapers have destroyed, I will go to join my people. I have not forgotten our conversation before the last battle against the evil that brought extinction to my race.”
Shepard nodded and Javik turned to leave. Tinman watched Javik and then turned to Shepard.
“The Prothean’s actions and words are confusing, Shepard-Captain. Does he not wish to continue living?”
“People deal with pain and loss in different ways. Some in extreme ways. And that’s from the sadly typical loss of life and loved ones. Now multiply that by the extinction of your entire race, Tinman. It’s not hard to see where that can lead individuals to very dark decisions.”
Tinman processed the new information. “Emotions seem to play a large role in organic decision making, Shepard. Geth have not- I do not have enough information to decide if this is a positive or negative aspect of your form of life in general, but in the instance of Javik-Prothean, it seems to be an impractical trait. An individual’s life should not be thrown away based on the feeling of sorrow. Like all emotions we have studied, it is a transitory moment and experience that comes and goes, easily followed by joy, or humor, fear, or jealousy.”
“That’s the thing about emotions, Tinman. We don’t get to look at it from a practical standpoint. Emotions can override reason and that does not always end well.”
“This is interesting, Shepard-Capta- Shepard,” the geth amended his speaking. “I will require further information at a later period.”
The geth marched off in silence. “At least from a speaking standpoint,” Shepard thought, hearing and feeling the prime’s thunderous steps as he moved to catch up with his other team members.
Shepard watched the other three and wondered at the trio’s ability to function as a cohesive fighting unit despite drastically different backgrounds, philosophies, and practices. He wondered more at his own ability to relate to each one of them, the empathy and thirst for knowledge of Liara, the warrior spirit and need to destroy threats of Javik, and Tinman’s pure objectivity, Shepard’s most important trait as a leader. “Is that something the geth will maintain, now that they’re individually aware and free to do as they wish?” Shepard asked himself, jogging to catch up with his friends.
* * * *
The Normandy and its two escort fighters closed in on the Sol system’s mass relay.
“Almost there,” Joker announced over the ship wide comm system, to no one in particular. “Let’s see what we got, EDI.”
Of course, Jeff,” the AI female said from a one time infiltration synthetic body. She went through the motions of tapping at controls in a desire to mimic human interaction. In actuality, EDI had no need to manipulate anything to bring up the ship’s sensors, the AI being not just an attractive synthetic, but the computing system that ran the ship, as well. The distinction was not lost on Joker.
“EDI . . . I love watching you play with yourself,” he cracked.
“If this turns you on, wait until you see the full ability of this unit to manipulate its makeup and structure,” she said, looking to Joker and winking with a seductive smile.
“You two are ridiculous,” came the comment coupled with a laugh from another seductive voice, with an Australian accent. Miranda Lawson walked up to stand behind Joker and EDI, wearing her signature skin tight uniform. “What do you see, EDI?” she asked, leaning on the back of EDI’s chair, supporting herself with her forearm.
“Scanning. One moment.”
Multiple blips began popping up on the targeting display at the consoles in front of EDI and Joker.
“Son of a bitch,” Joker said.
“Ericson, to Normandy. You all got the long range sensors. What’ve we got out there?”
Joker glanced over to EDI. Her eyes widened slightly. “Lieutenant, there are twenty three ships of various sizes and designs. Four are the same design as those we have already engaged. Some of the larger ships, I believe, may be carrier class, judging from their size, and may contain more such units within.”
“Yeah, I’d guess they were just this group’s advanced scouts,” Miranda added.
“That explains why it was so easy to take them out. Nasty guns, but no shields. Scouts slash mobile gun batteries. Willing to bet they’ve got heavy shield, light gun defenders in their mix somewhere,” the ace pilot said.
“So what’s the plan?” asked the other expert flyer, Wayne.
“For now, I think-” Miranda began.
“Yes, let’s here what you think, Miss Cerberus,” interrupted Lieutenant-Commander Williams. “I’d be happy to take your opinion under advisement.”
Miranda turned to face the newcomer to the bridge, her eyes narrowing to slits of displeasure. “Ex-Cerberus, thank you. And what the hell do you mean, ‘advisement’?”
Ashley stepped in uncomfortably close, invading Miranda’s concept of what constituted her personal space. Williams folded her arms across her chest and glared back at Miranda. “If you need a dictionary, I’d be happy to dig one up for you. And if I need to, I can also remind you that this is an Alliance vessel, now.”
“Commanded by Shepard, who trusts my judgment,” Miranda retorted.
“Well good for you, but Shepard is not on board right now, which means command transfers to the next highest ranking Alliance officer. That’s me. Not you, a Cerberus parent-killer,” Ashley spat viciously.
“Mrow!” Joker mocked the two ladies, putting up his hands, mimicking cat claws swinging in the air. EDI sat in her seat, looking at Joker and then putting a hand over her down turned face.
The two faces of Ashley and Miranda whipped around to face Joker with a simultaneous,”Shut up, Joker!” from both women. Joker froze in mid swing, grimaced uneasily and slowly turned back to the Normandy’s control console. Miranda and Ashley looked back at each other. They held each other’s stare for a long, uncomfortably long, silence. Miranda smirked with a dismissive roll of her eyes.
“You know what, you’re a big girl. You can have your Alliance ship, for now. When the fires start, I’ll come bail your ass out,” Miranda said, walking off, restraining the desire to biotic-slap the Alliance bitch in front of her back past Specialist Traynor. She made a mental side note that it would, sadly, only send Williams through one set of doors before flying over the galaxy map and past Traynor, before she slammed into the wall next to the elevator.
Ashley watched Lawson saunter off, fighting the surge of disgust rising in her throat. Once Miranda was out of sight, the second human Spectre to the call the Normandy home turned to Joker and said,”Keep an eye on those ships. I’ll be in my quarters. There’s a ton of Spectre communications coming through the Normandy and Shepard wanted me to keep up to date on all the back and forth.”
The lieutenant-commander left the bridge, passing Vega who was uncomfortably making his way to the bridge. He looked around as if expecting an unseen attacker to ambush him in the blink of an eye.
“What’s up, Vega?” Joker asked.
“Uh, you two the only ones up here?” he questioned, shifting balance back and forth from foot to foot.
Joker looked at EDI who shrugged to the unasked question in the pilot’s eyes.
“Sure, big guy. You okay?”
Vega relaxed a little. “Yeah, yeah. I’m good. Just hoping I don’t have a psycho biotic stalking me.”
“Have you angered Jack in someway?” EDI asked.
“I dunno. Maybe. I’m not exactly playing the drunken prom date for her, if you catch my drift,” the war veteran said. “She’s cool, but . . . I don’t know. Crazy and dangerous. Normally I’d say she’s my type, but the regular ‘crazy and dangerous’ girls are usually just drama queens. Jack is for real. Not sure if that’s good or . . . well I don’t know if she’s someone I can handle.”
“Man, I do not envy you,” Joker said. “I heard about her performance when you all were saving Shepard’s ass on the Citadel. Sounds like she just keeps getting stronger.”
“Yeah, I was there. I’ve seen a lot of sick shit on the battlefield. That was right up near the top,” Vega added, a distant look in his eyes. He came back to reality quickly, though, looking back the way Williams had gone and then back to EDI and Joker. “So what did I miss? Ash looks pissed.”
“Oh, only the first of what I’m sure is going to be many amazing cat fights between Ash and Miranda.”
“Oh, damn. That is not going to be pretty. I’ve heard enough scuttlebutt about Shepard’s past with both of them. Williams has gotta be burning inside. And Miranda doesn’t seem like the type to put up with any old flame’s bullshit.”
“That is an accurate analysis, James,” EDI agreed.
“So what are we looking at out there?” Vega questioned, switching gears once more.
“That would be more of the bad guys,” said Normandy’s resident comedian.
“What are they doing?”
“Yeah, there’s a few other people who would like to know the same thing,” came Ericson’s voice. “Thanks for leaving that channel open, by the way, Joker.”
“Oh, did I?” he asked, faking innocence. “But to answer the question, I’m betting they’re just sitting there, waiting for your practice targets to come back with whatever report they were supposed to bring with them.”
“Good bet,” said Murphy from his ship. “But what happens when they don’t show up?”
“Probably jump in a bunch more heavy hitters and FTL to Mars to find out what happened,” Vega said.
“Why do you say that?” Ericson radioed.
James pointed to the displays that his crew mates had turned away from. “Because that’s what’s happening.”
“The fuck!” came Wayne’s response. “They- they just jumped in?”
“Looks like,” Vega answered.
“How? The mass relay is-“
“Dead. I know. No clue. But it just happened. At the relay. And Shepard is gonna be toast if we don’t get back to help him out.” Vega looked over at EDI. “Get a message to Hackett. Send him the data that we’ve got on those ships and their trajectory. I love the Normandy, but it’s gonna take more than one frigate and two prototype fighters to take this on. Ask Hackett to move whatever forces he can to Mars.”
“Should we clear this with ‘high command’ first?” Joker asked, hands making quotation marks.
“With Ash? I’ll take care of that.”
Vega jogged off, looking over his shoulder with a smile. “Don’t worry. I feel my N7 coming on.”
Joker looked over at his synthetic lover once more, shrugging. EDI did the same and then accessed the communications system. “Lieutenants Ericson and Murphy, please dock your fighters in the hangar. We will initiate FTL flight as soon as you are secured.”
“Copy that, EDI,” Ericson said. “You heard the lady, Wayne. Don’t get left behind this time.”
“Dude, you said you wouldn’t bring that up again!”
“Eh, I lied. Let’s go.”
* * * *
Liara patched down the last few wires connecting the make shift power source, salvaged from a wrecked shuttle that had been found expertly placed into the side of one section of the Mars facility. How the power cells had remained undamaged was beyond anyone’s guess. Liara pulled back her omni-tool, looked at her handiwork, and then stood up. She walked to the edge of the rooftop and looked down to Shepard who stood on the rocky Martian surface, waiting just outside the doorway back inside. Liara could almost see his eyes through his protective helmet as she gave him the human gesture she had learned was simply named “the thumbs up.” Where it had originated and why teased the archaeologist in her, tempting her to begin something she had never done before- extensively research a living civilization. Humanity was rich with history, wars, governments, religions, arts, science, and a hundred other things that she could look into. The Protheans had had those, at some point, but the Reaper war had distilled them down to only one focus, the one embodied in Javik: war. The Protheans had excelled at it prior to their cycle’s invasion, but it had only been one side of their story, albeit the dominant side even then. After the invasion, there was nothing else, and whatever beauty and greatness Liara had sought from them had been wiped out along with the Protheans themselves.
“Let it go, Liara,” she ordered herself. “Soon you’ll have your hands back on what’s left of Prothean science. Leave the Javik side of them with Javik. They weren’t all that way. Their work on Ilos and in passing along the Crucible designs proves it. Perhaps their long dead genius can help us again with the mass relays.”
Shepard nodded to her thumbs up and walked back inside and the asari marveled at the speed of thought not for the first time. She climbed down as she heard the satellite hum to life. She entered the Martian building and found Shepard, his helmet now off, tapping at the communication controls. He looked up at her and smiled. Liara felt warmth followed by the ever present hint of lost moments, moments she once thought might lead to something more than the great friends she and the captain now were. But the wisdom of her one hundred and nine years in the universe eased the sadness with the knowledge that it was better to be friends with Shepard than never to have met him in the first place. “And definitely better than being his enemy,” she thought.
“Looks like we’re up and running, here. Good work, Liara. Now let’s- hold on. Looks like the Normandy’s been trying to get in touch with us.” Shepard accessed his omni-tool, linking it to the Mars comm system. “Joker? Shepard. What’ve you got for me?”
Shepard’s face slowly took on a scowling expression as Jeff gave him the details of the situation. “And what did Hackett say?” he asked. “And the enemy fleet will get here when?”
An explosion sounded from a distant building of the Mars Archives.
“Nevermind. Sounds like orbital bombing. Just trying to soften us up from a distance,” Shepard said. “Do what you can and tell our new fly boys to earn their pay today.”
Liara saw Javik and Tinman coming up to join her and Shepard at the control desk.
“The enemy has returned?” Javik asked.
Shepard nodded. “And with bigger guns this time. A fleet of over twenty ships.”
“What is the enemy’s target?” Tinman inquired.
“Judging from their actions up to this point, I’d say us.”
“To what end?” Javik wondered.
“Good question,” Shepard said, pulling his M-97 Viper sniper rifle off its place on his back, checking the thermal clip, and starting to move. “Let’s go find out.”
“But it’s an entire, fleet, Shepard!” Liara warned.
“Only until Hackett arrives. Then it’s a decimated fleet.”
Liara conceded the point and took out the Scorpion heavy pistol she had come to rely on since rescuing the krogan female, Eve, on Sur’Kesh.
“Shepard to Cullers. Amanda, are you there?” the captain asked over his communicator.
“What the hell is going on, Shepard? One second communications are restored, the next, we’re being bombed . . . by who?”
“Unknown. My ship will be here shortly to help distract the enemy until the fleet arrives to take care of them.”
“And until then?” Amanda asked.
“Until then, we stay alive. Your area is pretty well defended and far enough underground that you should be okay.”
“As long as they don’t land a ton of troops,” she added.
“True. But you’ve been handling mercs and Reaper forces for months. I have confidence in your abilities, but don’t worry. We’re on our way back to you, so you won’t be alone.”
“Thanks, Shepard. That means a lot to us.”
“Copy that. Shepard out.” He tapped his communicator, switching channels as he moved down the hallway, keeping the scope of the his gun near eye level to have as much early warning of enemy forces as he could. “Cortez, tell me you’re still not sitting on the landing pad.”
“No sir. Saw these guys show up on the targeting system while you were talking to Joker. Had that ‘I got a bad feeling about this’ moment and decided to move out. I’ll stay low and keep the buildings between me and them when they get here, but you give me a pickup spot and I’ll be there in under a minute.”
“Negative. You get back on board the Normandy, if you can. I don’t need you risking your life or our one shuttle when I don’t plan on going anywhere until our original mission is complete. We’re far enough under the surface that their ships won’t be a threat. And any ground forces they send, well, we’ll deal with them if they show up.”
“Roger, Captain. I’ll see what I can do, but with that many ships, I’ll be better off sticking to cover down here, so let me know if you need support. And you be careful down there, Shepard,” Cortez tacked on.
“Always, Steve. Now get going.”
“You did mean to say when the enemy shows up, didn’t you Shepard?” Javik asked.
Shepard looked at the gun in his hand and those in the hands of his team. “Yeah, I guess I did.”
* * * *
Ericson stood on the Normandy’s hangar deck while the automated systems reloaded his depleted ordinance. The elevator doors opened and Wayne Murphy came out.
“Damn I needed that!” the pilot exclaimed with a laugh.
“Which, the drink, the food, or the thirty minutes in the bathroom?” Ericson asked, laughing back.
“Ha ha. It wasn’t that long, but yes.”
“All of it.”
“Gotcha. The ships are almost ready,” Ericson reported to his friend.
“Good. Sounds like we’ll be getting back to Mars in short order. Got a tougher fight ahead of us this time, buddy.”
“Yeah. At least till Hackett shows up with the fleet.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t take too long. I don’t like the odds or the look of those new ships.”
“You and me both. The scout things from earlier were cake. They’re not all going to be like that.”
“Learned that the hard way, didn’t we?” Wayne asked.
“Fucking pirates,” Wayne said in way of confirmation.
“Haven’t thought of that shit storm since the Reapers invaded. Thanks for bringing back the fantastic memories, asshole.”
“Hey, you know it’s worse for me, Ericson. I don’t get the luxury of forgetting it,” Murphy said, looking down at the ring on his left hand.
“Fuck, Wayne. Man, I’m sorry. I know that. I don’t forget about it, or who we lost, but, you’re right- it’s worse for you.”
“Damn right. You don’t get reminded every morning you wake up in an empty bed, or when you cook dinner for two only to remember there’s only me now,” Wayne said bitterly, looking back up with moistened eyes.
“I know. My sorry ass always wakes up alone,” he said with a laugh meant to ease the sudden tension.
Wayne held his stare for a second, but then a small crack of a smile broke through. “You’re a disgrace to us pilots, Ericson. You’re the only one I know that walks into a bar, let’s the women know you actually are a pilot, and some how end up getting smacked across the face instead of leaving with two or three star struck bimbos.”
“What can I say? Women have a sixth sense for bad situations. And obviously I have that written all over my quite slappable face.”
Wayne Murphy laughed and patted his partner in crime on the back as they made their way over to their ships. “Is that even a word? Slappable?” he asked.
“If it isn’t, it should be,” Ericson said, climbing the ladder up to his familiar cockpit. He dropped inside, strapped in and pressed the button to signal Joker. “Let us know when we get there, Joker. We’re ready to light these boys up again.”
“Will do, Lieutenant. Just fair warning. When you launch, we’ll be right on top of them, coming out of FTL.”
“Nice. That should throw them off balance and get their attention for a few minutes. Shepard’s suggestion?”
“No,” came Vega’s voice. “Mine. But I did ask myself: what would Loco do?”
“Yeah, my nickname for Shepard. I do that, give people nicknames.”
“Right. Of course you do,” Ericson said.
“Anyway, I thought up a crazy tactic, ran it by Ash and she agreed. Hackett thinks it’s insane, but he didn’t suggest anything else. Guess he figures we picked up some of Shepard’s luck. Or that he’ll be there soon enough to cleanup any mess we make.”
“Let’s hope so,” Joker said. “Have you seen the readout on those capital ships? Those things are like turian dreadnoughts on steroids! They’re no Harbinger or Sovereign, but damn!”
“Fantastic,” Wayne tossed in. “So, mini-reapers or mega-turians. I love the plethora of options here.”
“Plethora?” Ericson asked. “You stumble onto a thesaurus in your cockpit, Murph?”
“Ha ha, Ericson. Why don’t you-“
“Exiting FTL!” Joker interrupted.
The friendly banter ceased immediately and the pilots became dead serious in an instant.
“Game time, men,” Vega said. “Good luck out there. We’ll have your back.”
“Launching,” was Ericson’s response.
The bay door opened and the pilot punched his afterburners and armed weapons in a flash. Cold space greeted his vision as he left the Normandy behind. He saw Wayne’s ship out of the corner of his eye as his proximity alarms nearly deafened and blinded him immediately. Ships were everywhere. Energy blasts streaked the sky. Ericson and Murphy broke into evasive maneuvers.
“Normandy to, uh, what are we calling you guys, anyway?” Joker asked.
Ericson thought about the question and came up with an answer in a single breath.
“Loco Squadron,” he answered.
“Fitting,” said EDI’s voice.
“Alright, well, Locos, you guys clean up the small fighters and leave the beasts to us. Let’s clear out some dots,” Joker suggested.
“Copy that, Normandy. Locos out,” Ericson said. He targeted one of the scout class ships and pulled the trigger. The ship, more intent on the swiftly maneuvering Alliance frigate, was caught off guard and erupted into just another field of space scrap.
“One down,” Ericson reported.
“And a dozen or so to go, buddy,” Wayne said.
“Should be fun,” Ericson said, gritting his teeth against G-forces as he pulled his fighter through a few corkscrew rolls and then slid sideways to come up behind two more small fighters that were new in design. “Let’s see what you got,” he thought to himself. He fired his guns. The storm of energy battered the rear of the target ships and Ericson saw the damage register on his sensors. It was definitely a stronger craft than the scouts from the fact that they were still there and not shedding debris, but it wasn’t so little that the pilots of the ships had not noticed. Both turned to find their attacker.
“Aw hell,” Ericson said, continuing to pour on the destructive power of his guns, which he believed the tech heads had mentioned were Thanix-based, following the growing trend of the last few years. The pilot watched his attack deal more damage to the new ships which, he noted, were actually elegant in design. The symmetrical layout and wide wingspan marked these as atmospheric capable fighters, the swept back design seeming to be an extension of the scout ship’s crescent front into a more logical flow that continued past the cockpit and wrapped around the back with only a split for the rear thrusters centered at the back. The guns were mounted on the top of the wings, and what resembled torpedoes hung from beneath. The enemies’ guns opened up. Ericson barely had time to roll the ship out of the way to avoid the brunt of the attack. His fighter rocked with the impact of a handful of solid hits. His shield dropped to half strength.
“Holy shit! Murph, we got a problem here.”
“No kidding. It’s called being out numbered eight to one.”
“No, I just took a hit from two of these guys. Not the scouts types. A few hits just took my shields down fifty percent.”
“That is highly effective,” came EDI’s voice.
“Thank you, Captain Obvious,” Ericson said, as he dodged another volley, returned fire and let loose a set of linked torpedoes. He reversed thrust hard and dove slightly to watch the missiles engage and slam home. One of the ships took a single hit directly to the cockpit and the ship was split in two. The second ship banked hard and lost a wing to one of the other missile’s destructive gravitational effects, sending it tumbling out of control and slamming into a larger enemy too slow to evade the collision.
The larger ship took damage, but nothing that seemed to inhibit its ability to continue firing at the Normandy, which Joker had kept clean up to this point, his flight skills beyond anything Ericson had seen. Sure, he’d heard about the brittle boned pilot coming up through the academy, but it had just been a name tied to records and training vids. Seeing him in action was an altogether different, if not humbling, experience for Ericson.
Ericson swiveled his head and his ship, attempting to track the path of the other two missiles he had fired into the mayhem playing out above Mars. He saw the two projectiles and saw Wayne’s ship on an intersecting flight path as he evaded a swarm of scout ships.
“Wayne,” Ericson radioed.
“Kinda busy, Ericson,” his wingman called back.
“Yeah, well, heads up, you’ve got incoming Callies.”
“Ha ha. I know it.”
“Then you might want to just, I don’t know, get the hell out of the way!”
Ericson’s brow furrowed in concern. Wayne had previously taken on multiple solo missions, post-Volkov, that many in their squad at the time had deemed suicide missions. It had been a dark time for Murphy and it had taken a hard talk and not less than one round in the ring for Ericson to very literally beat some sense into his buddy. He worried that the earlier exchange on the Normandy had drudged up an old desire.
“Murph, this isn’t looking good buddy!”
“Relax, Ericson. You forget who you’re talking to?”
“No, that’s why it looks bad.”
“Ye of little faith,” Wayne responded.
Ericson held his breath. The missiles were continuing on, random gun fire between the Normandy and enemy ships crisscrossing around them but not hitting. Wayne’s fighter streaked in front of the Callies and zipped past unharmed. His pursuers were not so lucky. The timing had been perfect. Wayne cleared the damaging path of the torpedoes but the enemy did not. The pack of ugly scouts were shredded into oblivion and Ericson saw a handful of red blips disappear from his radar.
“Ha ha!” he exclaimed. “Wayne, you crazy son of bitch!”
“You know me!” he answered, laughter in his voice.
Ericson relaxed, despite the dogfight going on around him, because he knew Wayne was going to be okay. “Mentally, anyway. Not so sure how much more we can rely on luck here, though,” the pilot told himself.
He found another group of targets and gave chase.
“Hey Locos, heads up.” It was Lieutenant-Commander Williams’ voice this time.
“Go head,” Ericson said.
“They’re doing it again: sending some ships down to Mars. These are bigger though. Thinking they’re sending troops down. I’ve warned Shepard, but you two make sure they don’t reach the ground alive. They’ve already entered Mars atmo, so you’re playing catch up.”
“Understood, Williams. Ericson out.”
“Damn it,” Wayne swore. “These things are intent on something down there.”
“Seems like it. Let’s make sure they don’t get it.”
“Ten-four, good buddy,” Wayne said in an exaggerated drawl. “I reckon we best git after ’em, then.”
Ericson rolled his eyes and locked on to the shuttle class enemy ships. He punched the afterburners once more, wondering how long before they would overheat, and checked his radar. He and Wayne were pretty far behind, but their ships were much faster. “Still, we’ll be a few minutes catching up,” he concluded. The other thing he noticed on his targeting display was that the Normandy had garnered the bulk of the enemy’s attention and was slowly being surrounded. As good as he was, Ericson knew Moreau was running out of room.
“Joker . . .” he began.
“I know, I know. It’s getting tight. You go after those transports and we’ll . . . find a way out of this mess. How those new calibrations to the guns coming, Garrus?”
Ericson knew the pilot was bluffing. The ships were closing in too quickly and the Normandy was taking damage. “Joker, we can-“
“No, you can’t, Ericson. Just go! Shepard and the team on Mars are what matter now. Save them. Forget about us.”
Ericson heard commotion in the background over the comm channel. Excited voices, orders to evacuate one of the Normandy’s area that had been exposed to radiation after a hit, something about a system about to fail that Ericson could not make out as some sort of interference began to disrupt communications. It was a pattern of interference Ericson had diagnosed long ago: the sign of a large ship, or ships, about to exit FTL flight in the vicinity. He glanced around, expecting to see the ships himself, before the sensors registered them.
Over his left shoulder, he saw a dozen more ships appear, matching the enemy ships they were already fighting.
“Shit!” Wayne cried. “Ericson, they just dropped another bunch of s-“
Another disruption in the comm channels. Ericson looked at his gauges for damage. This disruption was different, but somehow familiar. “What the . . .” the pilot whispered.
A massive shadow blanketed him in the blink of an eye. Ericson glanced up and saw the underneath of a massive capital ship only meters away, too close to make out what it was.
“Hackett here. Ericson, Murphy, you two get to Mars and save Shepard’s ass. We’ll handle the action up here,” ordered the head of the Alliance fleet.
Relief flooded Ericson’s body. “Yes sir!” he heard himself say and continued on his path without another worry for the Normandy and her crew. As he pulled away from the near collision with the fleet, Ericson checked his readouts and saw representatives of every race contributing ships to the battle. “That’s why it looked familiar,” he realized, recalling the jump into Earth’s vicinity for the final showdown with the Reapers. “The combination of all the various ship types and designs must warp space in an odd way, causing the difference in the communication disruption,” he guessed.
He focused back in front of him, the nose of his ship pointing at the tail of the slowly growing target of the rearmost shuttle. It was already entering Mars’ atmosphere, the red planet now the only thing in Ericson’s view. “Don’t worry, pal, you won’t be landing that piece of shit intact,” he mentally warned his enemy. Ericson gripped his flight stick tighter, willing more speed out of the ship’s drive core.
* * * *
“The fleet just arrived!” Shepard heard shouted into his ear from Joker’s giddy voice. The captain smiled and let out a deep breath. Things had not been looking good above Mars.
“Not that they look good down here, now,” he reminded himself. His omni-tool fed him the data stream from the Mars satellite, showing two of the transport ships landing nearby, with Ericson and Murphy already firing on three others from a second wave.
Shepard, Liara, Javik, and Tinman stood watching from a large window that overlooked the landing strip the unknown enemy had chosen. The captain had secured Cullers and her crew while Javik had gone off on his own to,”Create tactical modifications to the environment,” as the Prothean had put it. Shepard wasn’t sure what that had meant and was slightly worried about finding out.
The shuttles settled with small clouds of rust colored dust puffing up around them. The rear hatches of the ships opened downward and armor covered troops marched out.
Liara gasped. “They’re huge! And- wait-“
Shepard saw it, too. “Are those-?”
Explosions ripped through the landing area. The shuttles went flying. The troops were strewn high into the sky, not all of them in whole. A few body parts came flying towards the Normandy team’s location. Shepard watched in fascination as one particular part careened towards the glass. He glanced Javik’s direction as what seemed to be half of a helmet covered head smacked into the top edge of the sloping window. “Tactical modifications, huh?”
Javik folded his arms across his chest. “Crude, but effective given the primitive technology available in this cycle,” the Prothean confirmed.
Shepard turned back to the sliding head as the helmet separated from the mangled flesh with a grating squeak across the glass. His eyes narrowed as what he and Liara had thought they had seen was confirmed.
“Yahg,” Shepard said.
Three explosions dotted the sky, far above the surface. Shepard knew that three more transports full of the incredibly powerful and dangerous species would not be making it to the ground.