Shepard had moved on from his gang running memories to flashbacks from his early days in the N7 program and the brutal, all environment, survival training. He remembered how much he hated the constant thick, wet conditions of the South American jungle air. He shuddered, reliving the sweat dripping down the heavy armor that was purposely left without environmental protection systems intact and the constant barrage of stinging, biting, and sucking insects. He had preferred the arctic training to the steamy forests and Sur’Kesh was reminding him why all over again.
“At least the armor has the temp regulators this time,” he told himself as he wiped his exposed forehead, diverting another river of sweat away from its stinging path to his eyes. “Should have brought the sealed helmet, though,” he told himself.
The captain of the Normandy and his crew followed Major Kirrahe’s team through one of the dominant jungles of the salarian home world. They were still kilometers from Talat, having landed out of sensor range, but the quick pace of the salarian STG squad would have them on the outskirts of the city soon. To Shepard’s surprise, Allers had been true to her word, keeping up with the rest of the pack.
Jogging through trees and ducking branches that attempted sneak attacks at his face, even the thunderous Wrex kept pace at Shepard’s side.
“Hanging in there pretty well, Wrex,” Shepard commented.
“Krogan are built for the hunt, Shepard. Strength, sight, smell, speed and endurance are not things we lack. Personally, I’m impressed with Chakwas. She’s old by human standards, isn’t she?”
“I may be older for a human, Wrex, but I’m not hard of hearing at all,” the silver haired woman called over to the krogan.
“Good job, buddy,” Shepard said, glancing over at his monstrous friend whose scarred face betrayed no clue to the extent of his embarrassment.
“Sorry, Doc. No disrespect was intended.”
“I know, Wrex. Think nothing of it. I will take it as the compliment it was meant to be,” she told him.
They continued on, Shepard keeping the conversation with Wrex going. “You ever wonder about the missions we’ve been on? How quickly they change and how we have to adapt to that on the fly?”
“Only on the missions with you, Shepard. That’s what makes them so exciting. You get assigned to the impossible and your instincts on the battlefield . . . you’re the eye of a hurricane, Shepard. Everything goes to hell in every direction, but you maintain the calm demeanor of . . . well, I’ve seen no warlord or general to match it, among any species. That’s why we follow you into that hell. We trust you to lead us through to the other side of it safely. Sovereign, the reports of your fight with the collectors, and then the Reapers themselves. This galaxy has been spinning for billions of years and it finally created the perfect soldier, Shepard. You.”
“Jesus Christ, Wrex,” Jack exclaimed from behind,”never knew krogan were such ass kissers. Need a towel to wipe all the shit off your face?”
Wrex turned his head and glared at Jack with a low growl. The dangerous biotic only laughed in response.
Shepard shook his head. “I don’t know about all that, Wrex. You ask me, I’ve been the luckiest son of a bitch that ever lived. And died. And lived again to almost die again. That luck is going to run out sooner or later.”
“Come on, Loco, with this squad?” Vega asked from Jack’s side. “When was the last time you were leading a battalion this big? It was always three here, four or five there. Same for you before we met up. Now you’ve got close to twenty crazy bastards at your command. These yahg don’t stand a chance.”
“Damn, what’s with the Shepard love-fest?” Jack asked, rolling her eyes. “Can we just melt our asses off in silence for a while?”
Shepard chuckled at Jack’s irritation more because he was as uncomfortable with his two friends’ belief in him as much as she was annoyed by it. He didn’t say it out loud, but the last time he had been a part of a ground force as large as this one, it had become the legend of Akuze. Those were not thoughts he wished to dwell on. He concentrated on the salarian feet in front of him and began counting the steps to occupy his mind.
* * * *
Night darkened the already low light conditions of a densely wooded section of the jungle. Shepard and his resistance team gathered around a central area and munched at rations that ranged from bland to putrid in both taste and smell.
Javik sat across the loose circle from Liara, flashing his upper eyes her direction every once in a while as he ate. Vega sat to his right and leaned over, pointing at the Prothean’s weapon in way of misdirection. “Just act like I’m talking about your gun.”
Javik nodded, waiting.
“So, uh, what’s the deal with you and Liara? I mean if it’s none of my business just say so, but if you’re trying to keep whatever’s going on . . . on the down-low, well, you’re failing horribly, amigo.”
Javik picked up his gun, playing along, and pointed at the barrel. “Clearly. And as you said, Vega, it is none of your business. It is a matter that needs no further input from outside interests.” Javik sat silent for a moment and then added,”But I . . . appreciate the concern. There is no issue. There is a choice that needs to be made. Once I set foot down one path or the other, the rest will fall into place on that . . . battlefront.”
“Okaaaay,” the marine drew out, trying to understand. Failing that, he decided it was best to drop the line of questioning as Javik suggested. “So you ready to face off against some more yahg?”
Javik smiled, glad to be speaking of something more in his area of expertise and that he was far more comfortable discussing. “Indeed. They are a worthy foe. I am only glad that the Reapers’ plan seemed to have involved leaving these primitives for post-war purposes. I would not have wanted to face a synthetically enhanced version of this species. One need look only to the creatures dubbed ‘brutes’ to see what would have paled in comparison to a twisted yahg.”
“Yeah, that would have been real bad.”
“The yahg are bad enough as they are,” Shepard said, joining the soldiers. “Trust me. Taking on the Shadow Broker was one of the hardest fights against a single individual I can remember.” Shepard was waved over by Miranda near Liara and moved to join her. “Duty calls,” he joked.
“What’s up, boys?” Jack asked, coming to take Shepard’s vacated seat.
Shepard sat down on a fallen tree next to Miranda and gave her a kiss on the forehead as he descended. A strong gust of wind found its way through the trees and Shepard wrinkled his nose.
“What is it?” Miranda asked.
Shepard looked past her to Liara whose eyes were finding his with a look of alarm. Before she could open her mouth, Wrex jumped to his feet, snatching up his shotgun. The rest of the unit took notice, dropping food and drink, whipping out their own weapons.
The circle inverted and the guns pointed out into the pitch black of waving tree trunks and large leaves that frustrated the eyes searching for whatever might be lurking behind the cover of foliage. Nervous faces sighted down gun shafts. Breaths were trapped in lungs. Ears strained for the slightest clue to unnatural sounds. Fingers rubbed anxiously within millimeters of triggers.
It began to rain.
Shepard stared through the heavy drops crashing onto the top of his Mantis sniper rifle and splashing into his eyes. He blinked the water away and peered through the gun’s scope, but saw no heat signatures registering as he panned across the tree line.
“Does anyone see something?” Major Kirrahe asked. The responses were quick.
More negative responses came in, but Shepard still felt uneasy. “Something’s wrong,” he thought. It took a second to register, but when it did, the captain knew the situation was bad. “Does anyone see anything on their heat sensors?” he called out. “Anything at all?” he stressed.
Major Kirrahe came to the same conclusion as the one Shepard had not yet voiced. “We’re being jammed!”
“They are above you, Shepard,” a voice informed him.
“You only come out when things are bad,” Shepard confirmed.
“Incorrect. I am here when the situation demands it.”
The situation demanded it. Shepard snapped his eyes upwards a moment too late. Yahg soldiers dropped out of the trees, one of them landing behind the marine as he yelled,”Open fire!” He spun to face his enemy and saw a large blade rushing towards his face. He bent backwards and the blade just missed the tip of his nose. He let himself continue falling back, hit the ground, and rolled to the side as a heavy foot smashed down on his previous location. He hopped up and pulled his Carnifex handgun from his hip. He jammed it into the yahg’s stomach and pulled the trigger in rapid succession. The beast doubled over as its version of stomach and intestines exploded, bursting through the new opening Shepard had provided through the attacker’s back. The yahg looked up to lock eyes with Shepard with a toothy growl and swiped at him with the razor claws from the hand not trying to retain its innards. The captain’s free hand came up and his omni-tool formed a deadly blade in a fraction of a second. He severed the arm and it dropped to the ground as the yahg roared in pain and followed it, crashing to the mud the falling rain was quickly forming.
Shepard turned to see dozens of yahg fighting up close with his team as well as a few still in the trees taking shots at the combatants below. He saw two of Kirrahe’s men already on the ground with blood falling from open wounds that looked fatal. Javik and Wrex were back to back fighting different yahg hand to hand, Wrex’s broken gun smoking on the jungle floor nearby, Javik’s still on his back.
Jack was rolling away from a diving enemy with blue energy lighting her body. She came to a crouching position, whirled to find her target, and then easily lifted it and launched it across the air, yelling,”Liara! Kirrahe!” as the body flew their way. The two allies, locked in gun fights in close quarters, looked to the sound of their names and then dropped to the ground. The yahg projectile slammed into two other yahg and brought them to the ground. The three recovered and jumped back into the fray immediately.
Miranda came to Shepard’s side. “This is a hell of a mess, Shepard!”
“Yeah, tell me about it!” he yelled over the sound of gunfire. He shot at the crowd of yahg that Jack had just toppled again with a shock wave of biotic power as Wrex dove for another weapon. “Wrex! Vega! Shotguns on those three!” the captain yelled, pointing at Jack’s victims as they climbed to their feet once more. “Liara! Hold them still!”
The asari created a mass effect field quickly, holding the three yahg immobilized. “It won’t last long, Shepard!”
“It won’t need to!” he told her. Vega and Wrex unloaded blast after blast into the powerless yahg and then Miranda added her own biotic attack to warp a small portion of space in the middle of the yahg, crushing them with gravitational destruction to finish what the shotguns had started.
Shepard turned from the coordinated attack to find Javik now teaming with the remaining salarians and Diana Allers, his Prothean particle weapon now being used and slicing into another wall of approaching enemy. The embedded reporter was firing away with a Locust submachine gun with surprising efficiency.
“More are coming, Shepard,” Vendetta informed him.
“Too many for your forces to defeat. I suggest falling back to another location.”
Normandy’s leader looked at the chaos around him in a single breath. He saw the dark movement of shadows of the other yahg closing in while everyone in the squad was already engaged in fighting the current throng of adversaries. The snipers in the trees were still a threat to his grounded comrades as well. “Agreed,” he thought to the Prothean VI.
The sniping yahg were focusing on the salarians who were being protected by a blue barrier from Wrex who was running over to help them. It wasn’t enough. The barrier fell under an onslaught of yahg fire and blasts began to rain down around the scattering salarians as they ran for other cover. Major Kirrahe took a shot to the back as he sought protection. It took him down and he writhed in pain.
Shepard aimed for the yahg in the trees and started firing, calling out as he went,”Fall back! We’ve got more coming in! Regroup on me!” Clip after clip fell from his gun as new ones took there place. The yahg snipers began to fall. The Spectre allowed himself a smile that promptly ended with a frantic cry from behind.
“Loco, look out!” The heavy body of Vega crashed into him from behind. A distant yahg pulled an angled knife out of a cluster of eyes that had enraged the beast who had responded to Vega’s attack with a vicious backhand. It had sent the tattooed marine flying. He hit Shepard squarely in the back, dropping him to the ground. Shepard’s face smacked into a large stone, half buried underground, in the process. His head racked with pain, and he once more thought about his enclosed helmet as opposed to the open face version he now wore. He felt busted lips pour blood over the unmoving rock, and flashes of light played across his vision. He glanced over and saw Vega no better off, lying unconscious with his head at the base of a tree trunk.
Powerful hands grasped his ankles and Shepard felt his body being dragged away from the fight. He reached out with his hands, clawing at anything that might give him a grip to slow the capture, but a kick from an unseen foot ended his struggle. His vision faded to darkness. The last thing he saw was Allers fall down, her armor torn open and the white shirt beneath shredded and staining red, with yahg sized slash marks across her chest.
* * * *
“So, this Trojan horse idea . . . is it supposed to end with us like this?” Garrus asked calmly from a kneeling position. His hands were tied behind his back and the muzzle of a gun rested on the back of his head.
Ashley looked over from her identical situation. “Not exactly,” she answered. Ashley turned back and faced a row of mercenaries lining each side of a short rise in steps to a gaudy throne. The occupant of the orante chair looked down at the prisoners with a concerned expression on her blue face.
“Shut the fuck up,” Aria T’Loak said with little emotion. “And tell me where Shepard is hiding. It’s not like him to send his people in to danger and not face it himself.”
“Well, which do you want, Aria, ‘shut the fuck up’ or ‘tell me where Shepard is hiding’?” Zaeed asked from Ashley’s other side.
Aria motioned to one of her guards who smashed the butt of his gun into Zaeed’s face.
“You can go with the ‘shut the fuck up’ option, Massani,” Aria answered and then turned back to Ashley. “Williams can tell me where Shepard is.”
“He’s not here.”
“Obviously. I doubt he would have been dumb enough to drive a Mako right up to my front door. Hell, he and I were on . . . agreeable terms last time I saw him at that shitty excuse for a club on the Citadel. He could have just come through the front door.” Aria looked down at Ashley’s crew in thought. “But Shepard’s not here. This isn’t his doing, is it? No. This is just Alliance military. Explains the Mako, but-“
“Whatever, bitch, we took the Mako from your people,” Ashley spat.
Aria stood up, biotic energy glowing at her rising fist. Then she stopped and the energy dissipated. “My people? We don’t have any Makos. At least not on Earth.” She looked over to the closest guard. “What the fuck is going on, Grizz?” The turian looked as surprised as anyone. “I don’t know, Aria.”
“Drop the act, Aria,” Ashley said. “The Alliance knows you’ve been stealing supplies meant for rebuilding Earth. Your operation is over. Kill us and the whole fleet will come down on you. Give yourself up to me . . . you might just walk out of this alive.”
Aria gave Ashley an approving look. “You’ve got a pair, Williams. I should expect that from someone who had Shepard as a mentor. The fact is, I won’t be turning myself in, because, for once in my life, I’m playing things straight. At least here on Earth. Every military in the galaxy is here and I have no intention of pissing that force off. I don’t want them trailing me all the way back home after I get off this planet.” The ousted queen of Omega Station pointed to her captives. “Untie them,” she ordered her guards.
The five Eden Prime members stood and rubbed at cramping muscles. Ashley shot Aria an incredulous look. “What are you playing at, T’Loak?”
Aria shook her head. “Like I said, I’ve been taking pains to not fuck with you and your coalition. If someone’s framing me and mine, I’ll find the son of a bitch and serve him the boiled flesh from his own legs before I kill him and hang his body on display.”
“So you’re claiming ignorance to repeated attacks and thefts?” Williams asked in disbelief.
“You’re still alive. That should be proof enough.”
“Then why worry about us coming to find you? Why send anyone out to capture us?”
“What are you talking about? Until I got a call saying a Mako was heading straight for my club, I had been enjoying some of this green drink called . . . what the hell was it, Grizz?”
“Absinthe, minding my own damn business.”
“Tali, play the recordings,” Ashley requested.
Tali pulled up the video taken from the dead sniper and the intercepted audio orders after that. Aria sat down and quietly absorbed it all. She looked to the turian, Grizz, once again. “You see that?” she asked.
“I see it,” he confirmed and walked over to a nearby security surveillance multi-screen setup. He brought up the club footage and ran it. “Check the time stamps and the clothes.”
“Clothes? All it shows is her face in what we have,” Tali said.
“But it shows a collar. Clearly our video shows, at the same time, Aria here and wearing what she’s wearing now.”
“No collar,” Aria literally pointed out.
Ashley looked at the two sets of evidence and thought about the situation. Clearly the two didn’t add up, but which set to believe was up in the air. She put the burden on Aria. “Make me believe you,” she instructed the underworld power.
Aria hesitated and looked at her guards. “Leave us,” she ordered.
“Aria, I don’t think-“
“And you don’t speak, either, unless I require it. Now go!”
Grizz led the guards out of Aria’s private suite on the top floor of Omega Earth’s complex. Once the guards were gone, Aria went to a computer at her desk and opened a holographic projection in the center of the room showing a device that Ashley did not recognize.
“What is that supposed to be?” she asked.
“This is what I think is being used to set me up. You remember that Cerberus overran my station?”
“Yeah,” Ashley said, rolling her eyes.
“Such a shame, too,” Garrus added. “A fine, upstanding business owner like yourself, being run off from that fine establishment by unruly thugs.”
Aria scowled at Garrus. “Watch your tone, turian, or I may release scans of you to the general mercenary public with a tidy sum over your head.”
“Bring it on. Wouldn’t be the firs-“
“Garrus, is this really the time?” Tali asked.
He looked to her and dropped his head. “I suppose not.”
“Done? Good. This device,” Aria said, walking into the middle of the display cast in life-size detail,”is my edge. It is how I keep my employees and enemies, often the same group, off balance and guessing. What you’re looking at is the center piece of an expensive projection system that was set up on Omega. I stand here,” she motioned to the circular pad with an outer ring of low lying electronics and scanning panels,”and I can be seen in perfect replication, real-time or prerecorded, in hundreds of locations of my choosing through out the station. And since no one ever touches Aria, no one ever finds out that I’m safely sitting back in my secure quarters or relaxing at the club. The few who have . . . are dead.
“I used this scanner to record myself every day and then the software did the rest. It would detect empty areas that would soon be high traffic, pop up my image, and then shut off the image when things cleared out. Nothing like a boss that seems to be everywhere, all the time, to keep the dumbasses in line.”
“And this connects to Cerberus how, exactly?” Ericson asked.
Aria took note of the unknown member of Ashley’s team with a discerning look. “Who’s your hot boy-toy, Williams? He’s . . . got a familiar . . . aura about him?”
Ericson barely contained a blush, not only from being associated to Williams in a loosely romantic way, but because the asari crime boss who had no doubt been all over the galaxy and seen more than he could ever hope to, seemed to find him attractive. He looked Aria in the eyes and said,”Just a pilot who carries a gun and a lot of grudges.”
“Cute,” Aria said. “Well, Pilot, Cerberus overrunning my station would no doubt lead them to find all of my hidden toys. My guess is that one of them made their way here before Shepard destroyed the mass relays, and brought that with them. Most likely, whoever the soon to be dead son of a bitch is, they are manipulating the prerecorded images and voice to pose as me and issue commands to the hundreds of mercs roaming around Earth.”
Aria walked back over to her computer and turned off the projection.
“Seems a lot like the quantum entanglement communicator,” Tali commented.
Aria nodded. “Similar, but vastly less expensive. Where the Alliance dropped huge sums of money on their quantum pairings, I needed only projectors on a space station and a perfect quality projection of me. That level of realism is only a fraction of the cost.”
Ashley looked at her crew. There were nods that said without words,”It’s possible,” to shrugs that told her,”There’s no telling.” She went with her gut, despite its sometimes shoddy record. “Okay, Aria. I’ll play along with this idea right now. How would we find whatever Cerberus agent is using this?”
The asari thought for a moment and then answered,”Whoever it is would have to be relatively close. Not so much for range purposes- all they’d have to do is project to a video communication link- but they’d have to be watching me somehow. Know when I’m not in certain places at certain times so that they could step in without being noticed.”
“Or you have a traitor in your organization.”
“No shit. They’re mercenaries. They’re all traitors for the right amount of money. But they would still have to report to someone and that someone would be trapped in this system and probably not hiding out on another planet. Supply ships to their hideout would be pretty telling.”
“I’ll give you that. So, how do we find them?”
“That’s easy. The device gives off a very specific form of radiation that is not easily detected and even harder to reproduce. And it’s also deadly to anyone but me. Amazing what those devious little salarians can come up with under the right motivation, so the joke is on whoever is using this. They just may not know for a few months. A year if they’re lucky or have good doctors.”
“You can track that radiation?” Ericson asked, ignoring the rest of the asari’s statement.
“I can transmit the radiation signature to your ship. You’ll no doubt be equipped with the sensors to find it.”
Ashley nodded and activated her omni-tool, connecting a link from the asari’s computer to the Eden Prime. Aria pressed a touch point on her computer. “Sent.”
“How long till we have a target?” Garrus inquired.
“Long enough for us to get back to your ship.”
“‘Us’?” Ashley asked.
“Don’t think I’m going to let you track that down by yourself,” Aria stated. “That’s my property and whoever is behind this is putting my life at risk by pitting me against everyone on- or off- Earth. I plan to take back what belongs to me and personally end whoever that is.”
Commander Williams looked at the blue alien. “I’ll make some arrangements.”
“And I’ll want my own people in on this.”
“Don’t push it. You’ll be the only one on my ship.”
“How about when the fighting starts? You want all your precious coalition allies to die at Cerberus hands? It would be to your benefit and I’ll be able to see who’s left on Earth that I can still-“
“Trust?” Ashley asked in disbelief.
“Use,” the asari corrected her.
“Done. I’ll contact you when we’re ready to bring you on board. You provide orders to your people from there. None of them will be allowed on the Eden Prime.”
“Fine. Now get the hell out of my club. I’ll have Grizz smuggle you out the back, in two separate groups and in different clothes. We’ll stage a little execution and whoever is watching will never know you’re still alive . . . hopefully.”
“Not a bad idea,” Ashley admitted. “I’ll send word to the Alliance to play along. So when a few garrisons of troops show up, tell you’re people not to freak out.”
“No promises, but it makes sense.”
* * * *
“Aria was right . . . I guess,” Steve Cortez told Ashley as she came to the bridge. “The Eden Prime’s sensors picked up that radiation signature easily and close to Chicago . . . relatively speaking,” he said, using air quotes with his hands around his last two words. He pointed to a display showing a map. “At least it’s still in the States.”
“North Carolina?” the commander asked incredulously. “Who the hell would go hideout there?”
“Well, it wasn’t hit as hard as a lot of other places with major cities,” Cortez answered.
“Probably because the Reapers looked at it and thought they already had,” Ashley cracked.
“Aww, come on. That’s not nice,” complained Ericson, joining Ashley and Cortez. “It’s not that bad.”
“You from there?” Cortez inquired.
“Nah, I’m from Virginia, but my grandpa lived down there near the capital. Used to go visit for a lot of holidays before he passed. Glad he wasn’t around to see this. And it’s not as bad an area as the news vids make it out to be. Honest.”
“Anyway,” Ashley steered the conversation,”we’ve tracked Aria’s device to a location west of the capital. Ready to go run through some old stomping grounds, Ericson?”
“Sure am, Commander,” he assured her with a salute and smile.
“Well, go gather your Locos squad and hit space. If this person is Cerberus I want him- her, whatever. If they run, I don’t want them getting far. We need to find out where they’ve been diverting all the stolen supplies.”
“Understood, Commander,” Ericson said and headed for the elevator to go down to the hangar.
Ashley watched the pilot go, letting her eyes linger on him just a bit too long to escape Steve’s notice.
“Following in Shepard’s footsteps, there, Ash?”
“What are you talking about, Steve?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe a penchant for a little . . . involvement with those under your command?”
“Ha ha. Jealous?” she joked with the pilot.
“Of that? If he wasn’t as obvious as you about his interest, I’d say yes, but it’s pretty clear what that pilot’s destination is,” he said with a smile at Ashely.
Her face scrunched in confusion. “What?”
Cortez rolled his eyes and shook his head and gave the commander a blank stare.
“Really?” Ashely asked.
“Commander, I’m not going to say that you’d have to be blind to not see it . . . but I don’t know how to finish this sentence,” Cortez joked.
“Uh, huh,” Ashely shot Steve a stern look. “Nice talking with you, Steve.”
“I have to go,” she stated.
She made her way to the room where she preferred to think Aria was being held, not so much staying as a guest. The room was where the Normandy’s observation room was located, but the SR-1B had split that into two rooms. The left door opened to a small weight room which had apparently been added after an anonymous email suggestion, that Ashley had no doubt was from Vega, had come to Alliance designers. The room was currently taken over by Grunt who felt more at home in the middle of the cold steel weights and sparse furniture. The door to the right, where the commander found Aria waiting at a desk with multiple displays open with various information on them, was supposed to be the XO’s room. Since Ashley had yet to name that position, it was as good a spot to keep an eye on the criminal as any.
The second human Spectre had asked Grunt to keep an ear open for anything suspicious coming from his “neighbor’s” room. She had also told Zaeed, Lanna, and Garrus to rotate watches from the mess hall a short distance away.
“You’ve finally found it.” Aria was not asking.
Ashley nodded. “Took longer than we expected, but yes, we have. I’ve sent you the coordinates. Get your people ready. We’re hitting them as soon as we can.”
“The sooner the better,” Aria said. “Those Alliance idiots around my club are fucking up my revenue stream.”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that,” the brunette soldier flatly stated, underscoring the obvious lie. “You’ve got until we get down there to have your mercs join the fight if you want to protect your little machine. Otherwise . . . I can’t make any promises,” Ashley said with an icy smile.
* * * *
Garrus crouched on the roof of an abandoned warehouse, watching a handful of targets a floor lower in a building across the street. Through his gun’s sight he could clearly see armored Cerberus agents, minus their helmets, standing around a table and discussing something. Outside, the scene was different. Guards patrolling around the building on foot wore armor depicting the marks of each of the major mercenary groups. Eclipse, Blue Suns, and Blood Pack members all appeared to be working together to guard the same stronghold.
“What’ve you got, Garrus?” Ashley asked over his comm-link. The turian touched his ear and replied.
“Definitely got Cerberus inside. Aria’s theory is holding up, so far.”
“How many?” she called up from her position in a small grove of landscaped trees in what had been intended, at one time, as an oasis of nature in the desert of a warehouse and business district.
“Inside I’ve got five visible. Guessing more than that, though. These are probably the shot callers. Outside, counted fifteen making rounds. With Aria’s people, we should be in good shape.”
“Alright. We’re a go, then. Garrus, I figure you’ve got two shots before they clear out of sight.”
“Give me some credit, Ash. I’ll go with three shots.”
“Whatever. When the fun starts, you keep us up to date on the movements. Ericson, your Locos ready?” Ashley asked the pilot who was also linked in.
“Affirmative,” the lieutenant answered.
“Good. Garrus: on your shot.”
“Acknowledged.” Garrus aimed with his higher position taken into account. He lined up his cross-hairs with two Cerberus agents standing across from each other, their bodies lining up nicely for the expert sharp-shooter. He smiled and gently pulled the gun’s trigger.
Glass shattered imperceptibly before one man grabbed at his exploding throat and the one across from him clutched at his chest.
“Everyone, go!” Ashley ordered.
Zaeed looked over from his place at Ashley’s side. “Allow me,” he said with a grin, lobbing a grenade into a group of the enemy coming out of a ground floor door to find their attacker. The new forces came wearing Cerberus colors. Ashley guessed that it meant they were either completely surprised or that they only had a limited number of mercenary suits to play out their charade. She preferred to go with the former as she opened fire on the combatants with her assault rifle. The first few went down quickly, the last one calling out something to others inside as he died.
LOKI mechs were the next victims to march out of the door. Ashley smiled and radioed to her quarian friend. “Tali, if you please.”
“Already on it, Commander,” the tech savvy woman answered from cover a little closer to the battle. Her omni-tool came to life and she called up her hacking programs. A few of the mechs froze for a second and then turned back, facing their own side and firing away.
More fighters came out of the building from other locations, converging on the unknown force decimating their number. Grunt was waiting on one such unfortunate group. He rushed from behind an overturned dumpster, a shotgun in each hand pouring death onto the panicking men. The last of his thermal clips falling to the pavement as he ran, Grunt threw one gun to the side and launched himself into the air, swinging his remaining gun in a downward blow, crushing one foe with it while his body descended heavily on two more. Ashley could hear his laughter as the enemy piled on top of him only to be tossed back easily.
A cold and calculating Lazarus waited on the opposite side of the Cerberus base, using his superior hacking ability to take over other mech units still inside the facility. He overrode their optics and took stock of the situation inside. “Commander Williams, I have overridden units inside the Cerberus base.”
“What can you tell me, Lazarus?”
“Three more squads of LOKI mechs and a squad of FENRIS mechs are coming on-line. Twenty-three more organics are arming themselves and preparing to come outside. This unit is taking fire. Overriding alternate. Processing.”
Ashely continued her assault and pointed to Aria without looking. “Your turn, Omega station,” she said.
Aria nodded and made the call. “Alright you sorry bastards, go show these impostors what real mercs are capable of! Bonuses to the top two kill counts!”
Three waves of mercenaries crashed into the streets, taking on the Cerberus forces at point blank range. Gunfire erupted, filling the air with ceaseless explosions. Bodies began piling on the ground with the clatter of falling weapons and armored dead hitting the cold slabs of road.
“New mech acquired, Commander Williams,” Lazarus came back. “YMIR model now under control.”
“Oh shit,” Garrus said, jumping down next to Ashley.
“Thought I told you to stay high and watch for us.”
“Nothing to see. Window’s been blocked. Everything else is street level.”
“Great. Lazarus, how many of those YMIR’s do they have?”
“Three. Not counting this one. Attempting to lessen their numbers. Please wait.”
Ashley leveled another two Cerberus soldiers and then heard the sound of detonating rockets from within the base accompanied by screams and then followed by the explosion of a section of the street-facing wall across from the Alliance commander.
“Goddamn!” Zaeed exclaimed. “That didn’t come from a YMIR mech.”
“Correct, Zaeed Massani,” Lazarus said. “We- I- the mech currently under my control is being attacked by an Atlas mech. This unit will not last much-“
Ashley looked through the new opening in the base, where the smoke of the destruction was just clearing, and saw the hulking form of the ATLAS smash a YMIR with a wave of one heavy arm, sending it careening into a collection of the small attack dog mechs.
“-longer,” Lazarus finished. “Rerouting. Error. Access has been jammed. Engaging enemy manually.”
“Great,” Garrus said. “There goes one advantage,” he said, sniping at the enemy, standing next to Ashley.
“Good thing we have another.”
“And we’re going to need it,” Aria added, pointing to the Atlas mech storming out of the building in a direct line for their location among the trees.
“Damnit! Alright, Locos, bring it!” Ashley ordered. “Everyone else: clear out! The big guns are coming!”
“You heard the woman, mercs!” Aria added. “Get your asses out of sight!”
The roar of three ships deafened the urban battlefield and a maelstrom of mass accelerated fire hammered down on Cerberus, its remaining forces beginning to scatter. The operator of the Atlas did not change course. Nor did a sole individual chasing after the Atlas, screaming hysterically.
“Please! Don’t leave me! I can still help you! We’re all Cerberus! Please, Mastoon! Take me with you!”
The top half of the Atlas spun while the legs churned ever forward. The rocket launching arm lowered, pointing at the trailing figure. The man never had a chance. A point-blank attack scattered his body in a hundred directions, most of the bits descending as burned chunks.
“Mastoon?” Aria asked, looking to Ashley and Garrus.
“Heard that name on the Citadel,” Zaeed said. “When that sorry bunch was trying to take over the place and smashed into it with the damned boarding darts. And here he comes,” Zaeed warned uselessly. He and the rest of the team dove aside as the mech thundered through their position and continued on, ignoring them completely as it headed for the warehouse Garrus had been positioned atop earlier.
“Garrus, did you happen to check that building?” Ashley asked.
“Didn’t see a need to . . . it’s abandoned?” he finished in a questioning tone, watching the mech go.
Zaeed pulled another grenade as Ashley switched to her Blackstorm. His grenade exploded on impact, but only manged to throw the mech off balance. It quickly recovered.
Ashley aimed her weapon and pulled the trigger. A small sphere projectile blasted out of the heavy gun and streaked towards the Atlas. The weapon’s gravitational effect, which had earned it the nickname “black hole gun,” pulled Mastoon’s mech unit backwards for the briefest moment before the small singularity destabilized with a powerful detonation. The force sent the mech flying through the air and crashing through a wall of it’s intended destination.
Confident in the result, Ashley calmly walked over to the downed combatant’s landing spot a hundred meters away. It was only as she got closer that she saw Mastoon limping away from the shattered glass canopy of the mech unit.
“Son of a bitch!” she swore, yanking up her pistol and shooting as the man made his way up the ramp to a ship hiding in the large warehouse. Most of the shots bounced harmlessly off the hull of the craft. One found the left leg of Mastoon and he yelled in pain. Ashley climbed past the destroyed mech and raced towards the Cerberus agent.
“You’re too late, Alliance!” he laughed through his pain. The ramp lifted up with a hydraulic hiss and Ashley saw two figures come and drag Mastoon further into the ship as the hatch sealed close. She heard large engines roar to life.
“Aw crap,” she muttered in realization. She turned and saw Garrus and Zaeed climbing in after her. “Everybody back!” she warned, waving her arms desperately.
The engines burst to life and the enclosed thrust lifted Ashely off the floor and slammed her into a nearby wall. The ship lifted up through the retracting roof and blasted off, leaving a streaking trail cut through the night sky. The commander took note of the ship’s design as it fled from sight. She stood up, rubbing at sore ribs and called over the comm. “Locos, take it down!”
“Trying to, Commander!” came the quick voice of Wayne Murphy.
Ashley heard the sound of the hybrid fighters and Hayes’ custom ship firing into the night followed by a long string of curses from the female pilot’s frustration.
“It’s gone, Ash,” Ericson informed. “And we won’t be catching that ship.”
“Yeah, I don’t expect you would. Cortez?”
“They’re already out on FTL, Commander. Sorry.”
“Anyone want to guess whether they’ve managed to snag a mass amplifier?” Eden Prime’s commander asked, clenching her fist in anger at her failure. There was no response.
“Would have been nice for Cerberus to tell us they’d built another one of those,” Zaeed said.
“Yeah,” Garrus agreed.
“Alright, team. Let’s mop up what’s left of these guys down here and salvage whatever data and equipment we can from these two buildings. T’Loak, go find your . . . thing,” Ashley said, seeing the asari’s finger to her lips. Aria gave a small bow of thanks and then turned to head for the main base. She stopped after a few steps and then looked at Ashley in question.
“What?” the commander asked.
“What is a mass amplifier?”