Planet Bekenstein, Boltzmann System, Serpent Nebula
"Almost there." Chula kept her voice low as Valeria entered the Sulaco's cockpit. "Just a few more minutes.
"Thanks for the lift." Valeria stared at the black windows and sank into the seat to Chula's left.
"Hey, you know we're all here for you." Chula dimmed the lights until only the faint glow of the control panels remained. The darkness faded from the windows and revealed the blue-and-green planet growing gradually larger as the Sulaco approached. Off to the left, a considerable distance away yet already well within visual range, was the dreadnaught-size hospital ship Angel on my Shoulder.
Chula whistled softly. "Look at the size of that ship."
Valeria nodded. "I've been keeping up on its development. Completed only a few months ago, so it's state of the art. Which is good, because we'll probably be needing it when the Reapers invade."
"Yeah." Chula glanced at her again. "Sounds like you're planning to still be alive after today. Glad to hear it."
"Oh, I intend to survive this, for my parents and my siblings and most of all for Irving. Knowing what the thought of losing him has already done to me, I could never put him through that." Valeria sighed and stared at the wedding ring on her talon. "I doubt I'll ever be the same after today, but I intend to be alive."
"I still want to help you with this. We all do."
"Thanks, but I'm going to get dirty on this mission." Val clenched her jaw and her mandibles quivered. "I'm going to hit those motherfuckers with everything I've got. When it's over, the hostages will be free, without a scratch, and I'll have the blood of more than two hundred mercs on my hands. I'd prefer not to let any of that be on yours."
Chula shrugged. "I've already killed more people than that. Several dozen batarian, vorcha, and krogan pirates on a single job on Virmire a month or so before we met, just for one example. I can handle a few dozen more today." She pushed her hat into a slight downward angle. "Besides, these mercs kidnapped a shuttle filled with innocent people, and it isn't the first time they've done that. Most of the people they've abducted in the past didn't survive. These guys need killin'."
"I think you're a stronger person than I am, then. I've always been a little bit afraid of myself. That's why I didn't want to go back into the Spectres. I'm afraid there's something monstrous inside me." She raised her head and met Chula's glowing eyes. "And in a few minutes, I'll be unleashing that monster, letting it take over completely, and after it's over, I'm worried that I'll never be able to bottle it up completely again."
"Do you really have to go that far?"
"Lantim Akos isn't the only enemy I made while I was a Spectre the first time around. Nor is he the only one who survived an encounter with me. And if I don't send a clear message, he won't be the only one who tries to get to me through the people I love." Valeria sighed and rubbed her hands over her face. "By wiping these bastards out with extreme prejudice, I'm hoping the others will hear about it and think twice about trying the same thing."
"Okay, I can understand that." Chula nodded slowly. "But please let us help, somehow. Even if it's just covering your back."
Val thought it over, took a deep breath, and released it slowly. "Alright. Keep an eye on things from a distance. Open fire only if you see one of them about to get the drop on me. I don't want any of you getting hurt, and would prefer you don't get any more blood on your hands than you absolutely have to."
"Deal." Chula turned back to her console and tapped a few glowing buttons. "We've entered orbit."
Valeria stood and headed for the door. "Okay. Let's gear up."
Valeria stepped into the shuttle and stopped in her tracks. The entire Sulaco crew sat in the passenger compartment, including General Kurakova and their recently-discovered stowaways, Garusha and Scott Bailey. All of them wore armor and carried a full weapons loadout except Scott, who'd put on a spare set of armor but hadn't taken any guns.
Valeria opened her mouth, but before she could speak, Kurakova crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head.
"We're going with you, and that's final. Irving's my grandson, so there's no way in hell I'm sitting this one out."
"Nana ..." Val sighed, let her shoulders slump, and walked over to put her arms around her grandmother-in-law. "Thank you."
"You're not arguing? Holy shit."
"Chula already convinced me to let you guys watch my back. If someone is sneaking up behind me, take them out, but leave the rest to me."
"Fair enough, I guess." Nana hugged her again and returned to her seat.
"The kid has to stay behind, though." Val aimed a stern look at Scott. "You're a civilian, and your dad will kill all of us if anything happens to you." She turned to Garusha and added, "The same goes for you."
"Relax, I'm just flying the shuttle," Scott said. "I won't set foot outside it, I promise."
"You know how to fly one of these, kid?"
"Yep. I've raced a few similar models. Well, really souped-up models, that is." His face took on a slight reddish tint and he cleared his throat. "The races were illegal, so I never told my dad about 'em."
"Uh-huh. And how many ships did you crash?"
"Hmm." Valeria sighed. "Well, as long as you drop us off and immediately move the shuttle to a safe distance." She glanced at Garusha. "Sixpack, you stay on the shuttle with Scott and keep him safe-and make sure he stays put."
"I'd be happy to." The batarian girl smiled.
Val nodded and turned back to Scott. "If things go pear-shaped on us, you lift off and run like hell. Don't even argue. If one of us tells you to go, you go. Contact the Angel on my Shoulder and request permission to dock. Tell them what happened, and they can take it from there." She turned to Chula and leaned over to whisper to her. "Take the copilot's seat. If it looks like he can't handle the controls, take over."
"On it." Chula clapped Val's shoulder and sat on Scott's right.
Garusha gave Scott a passionate kiss before scurrying over to one of the vacant seats.
Scott glanced over his shoulder and made eye contact with everyone. "Ready?"
"Let 'er rip," Dakka said with a grin. She gave him a thumbs-up and then kept both hands on her giant rotary cannon, making sure the barrel was pointed away from everyone.
Beside her, Nana gave her M-98 Widow anti-material rifle one more quick inspection and propped the stock on the floor between her boots.
Everyone else simply nodded or gave Scott a thumbs-up. He nodded back and tapped the control panel.
"Depressurizing the shuttle bay. Opening outer door."
"I wonder if we'll need tranquilizers," Quint said under his breath.
"I fucking heard that. Lifting off now. Hold on to your asses."
Magnum grinned. Quint closed his eyes and held his breath.
The shuttle raised off the deck, eased forward, cleared the doors, and entered a deorbit trajectory without the slightest jolt.
"Closing bay doors. Beginning descent." Scott glanced over his shoulder and arched an eyebrow. "You sure you're not gonna need a barf bag?"
"Uh." Quint sighed and stared at the floor. "Sorry, kid." His face turned red.
Scott merely nodded, but then he flicked a smirk at Garusha before facing forward. She snickered and winked both left eyes at him.
Valeria chuckled and gazed down at the helmet resting on her lap. After silence stretched out for a few more seconds, she looked up at Nana.
"Do Irving's mom and dad know about any of this yet?"
"I haven't told them. Figured there was no point in worrying them sick when they couldn't do anything about it anyway."
"Thank you. They already don't approve of our marriage, and they'll hate me if he doesn't make it through this. It's my fault this happened in the first place, and if I can't-"
"Hold on, there. You didn't do this. Akos and his crew are the ones responsible for all of it." Nana leaned over and patted Val's hand. "I'll make sure they understand, no matter how this turns out."
"Thank you." Valeria held Nana's hand for a moment before resting it on top of her helmet. She turned to stare out the front window.
Hold on, Irv. I'm coming for you.
Showtime. Valeria crouched behind a shipping container and used her helmet's optics to zoom in on the compound in the distance. Scott had dropped her off a kilometer away and proceeded to deposit the rest of the crew at equidistant points around the base before finding a landing zone far off-site. The team had then approached the base and taken positions a safe distance away while Valeria continued on. Her armor's stealth system had rendered her invisible to eyes, cameras, and sensors, though she'd have to use it sparingly from here on to conserve the power cell.
Footsteps approached. She held still and waited until a turian trudged past. He turned his head, gave the area a half-assed sweep, and moved on with a bored sigh. Valeria remained still until he disappeared around the corner of the compound's outer wall. She crept through the gate and took a quick look around.
The closest building appeared to be a hangar, which was a good enough place to start. The first order of business was to remove the mercs' ability to escape or send gunships after her and her friends.
The rest of the buildings were stubby cylinders, with a larger one in the center topped by a dome. Probably the command center. Might be where the hostages were being held, too. She knew from past encounters that Akos liked to stay safe in his command center while keeping hostages where he could see them.
She rushed over to the hangar, found a personnel door, and paused long enough to scan the interior with her Omni-Tool. It detected only two life forms, one human and one batarian, and no mech units. Their locations appeared as blips in her heads-up display, in the corner near this very door.
Fantastic. Even though I'm invisible, they'll see and hear the door open. An idea came to her and she cocked her head. Unless ...
She suppressed a chuckle, hacked the lock, and tapped the control on the panel beside the door. The door slid open and the two mercs spun around and raised their rifles.
The human muttered, "What the hell?"
Valeria waited three seconds and hit the button again. The door closed and she waited three more seconds before opening the door again. Three seconds, closed it again. Three more seconds, and she opened it.
The batarian shook his head. "Great. Another malfunction. Akos finds the best places to hole up, doesn't he?"
Valeria closed the door, waited three seconds, and opened it.
"Maybe the next job will be on Illium," the human said. "If we play our cards right, we can stay in the Azure Hotel."
Valeria closed the door and opened it again. Come on, get your ass over here to check the control panel, so I can fucking kill you.
"Imagine being surrounded by hot asari pussy," the human continued. Both of them turned their backs to the door, having apparently decided to ignore it.
"Yeah, I wouldn't mind getting me some of that."
Val closed the door again. Okay, Plan B. She opened the door and fired a small overload blast from her Omni-Tool into the control panel. The door froze two-thirds open.
"Wonderful," the human grumbled. "A planet as gorgeous as Bekenstein, and we're stuck way outside the nearest city, with old equipment that's falling apart and every pleasure this planet has to offer out of our reach."
"Well, when this is over, maybe Akos will give us a night or two off. I heard about a synthetic brothel in town. I'm curious enough to try it out."
"Synthetic hookers? Eh." The human shrugged. "On second thought, it might be okay. And since they're synthetic, it doesn't matter if you smack 'em around a little."
Seriously? Valeria rolled her eyes and slipped through the open door.
The batarian laughed. "If that bitch would just show up already so we can kill her and be done with it."
"Yeah." The human snorted. "All this just for a porn star."
"Well, former Spectre turned porn star, and now she's a Spectre again."
"Uh-huh. I've seen a few of her vids. Y'know, turians aren't particularly attractive, but there's something about this one that really gets me all worked up. It's a shame Akos won't let us fuck her before he kills her. Like, we could all take turns with her."
Oh, you did not just say that. Valeria crept up behind him. Guess I won't feel as bad about this as I expected to.
He laughed. "Actually, she doesn't have to be alive for that. Just get in a quick bang while the body's still warm."
Oh, you piece of shit. This is one brutal murder I won't regret at all.
"Hah!" The batarian grinned. "Well, maybe we can have a few of the hostages before we get rid of 'em all. That little sister of hers is kind of cute."
Valeria suppressed a snarl and pulled the knife from her belt.
"Hmm, yeah." The human took his helmet off and raked his fingers through his hair. "She looks pretty young. I bet she's got a really tight-"
Valeria stepped up behind him, grabbed a handful of his hair, yanked his head back, and raked her blade across his throat-slowly. His arms flailed and his helmet hit the floor and bounced. Blood sprayed across the two meters between him and the batarian and splattered him.
"What-? Fuck!" The batarian stumbled backward and raised a hand to activate his comlink.
Valeria charged him, clamped her arms around his head, and spun, twisting at the waist and throwing her whole body into the motion. His neck snapped and she let his corpse tumble to the floor. She scanned them with her Tool to be sure they were dead, then she texted a single word to her friends: In.
She deactivated her stealth system, glanced around at the ships surrounding her, and plucked a grenade from her belt. Time to announce my presence. She stopped behind the nearest gunship, jerked an access panel open, set the grenade to remote-detonate, and dropped it into the fuel cell receptacle. She repeated the process with the other gunships until she had no grenades left.
Then she plucked the detonator from her belt and sprinted for the door.
Let the good times roll.
An explosion hammered everything-floor, ceiling, walls, and everyone inside the command dome. The other hostages near Irving twitched and the armored mercs beyond them reached out for railings, consoles, or whatever else was nearby, bracing themselves and glancing around with wide eyes.
A second blast hit even harder, as if a giant had roundhouse-kicked the side of the tower. Smoke and shrapnel shot into the sky outside the observation dome.
Smaller pops and snaps and booms followed like popcorn-ammo and ordnance in the gunships cooking off. Another muffled whump announced the loss of yet another ship.
Irving stood and stared out through the dome. The hangar continued shredding as more shuttles and gunships ripped apart, sending chunks of metal into the sky and arcing off to all sides.
A particularly large chunk, almost the size of an aircar, tumbled straight toward the dome.
Oh, shit. Irving backed away and almost tripped over someone. He glanced down and found Valeria's little sister, Actana, scooting out of his way without taking her gaping stare off the incoming debris.
Akos and several of the mercs gathered around a set of consoles off to the left stared slack-jawed at the chunk of metal and flinched as it smashed into the dome.
The dome cracked with a snap that left Irving's ears ringing, but didn't quite shatter.
Everyone gasped, cried out, or twitched as the debris bounced off and plummeted to the ground, landing with a thud that rocked the building yet again.
Several of the hostages behind Irving whimpered. So did a couple of the mercs. One of them took a few more steps back and covered her mouth with both hands.
Irving laughed softly. Across the room, Akos spun around to scowl at him. Val's parents, brother, and sister also turned to stare at him, confused at his reaction. He gave Desentos, Lithia, Actana, and Galadin a reassuring smile before turning to smirk at Akos.
Akos's scowl faded. His eyes widened and his mandibles quivered as he turned, pointed at the dome, and snapped, "Close the blast shields!" He pointed at the human woman. "Kerensky-scanners!"
She pulled her hands away from her mouth and tapped her control panel. "Just picked up a single female turian in full armor running from the general direction of the explosion. Not one of ours." She pointed at a monitor.
Irving shuffled to the left until he caught a glimpse of a turian woman in black armor with red trim, gripping an M-96 Mattock heavy rifle in her hands, sprinting across the ground and kicking open a door into one of the nearby cylindrical towers.
"Send the nearest squads to that location," Akos ordered. "Have them converge on her from all sides." He turned to aim a smug look at Irving. "She made an impressive entrance, but my people will blow her away and lay her corpse at my feet so you can watch me spit on it before I slit your throat."
Irving snorted. "Nope. Your guys are already dead."
On the bank of monitors, three teams approached the cylinder and entered through separate doors.
The screens blanked out and Kerensky gasped. "Cameras and sensors are down-all of them, all over the base."
All that was left in the holographic display was a bank of bioreadout stats-pulse, respiration, and brainwaves of each merc.
Distant gunfire erupted, and seven of the displays flatlined within a split-second of each other. The woman clamped a hand over her mouth again.
The shooting continued, and four more readouts flatlined, followed two seconds later by another six.
Most of the color drained from Kerensky's face.
Akos stared numbly at the monitors and shook his head slowly as they continued flatlining one after another, as if unable to comprehend what he was seeing.
Finally, Kerensky slumped forward, braced her hands on the edge of the console, and hung her head. "They're all gone."
One of the cameras switched back on and both of them jerked their heads up to look at the screen. On it was one of the rooms in the tower, with more than a dozen bodies sprawled on the floor or slumped over a table or bench or control panel. Some of them had been chopped into burning pieces with an Omni-Blade.
"Christ," Kerensky grunted, turning away from the screen and covering her mouth again. "She ... she butchered them!"
The screen switched to a view of the corridor outside the room, with more dead bodies and body parts scattered from one end to the other.
"No," Akos moaned.
"What," Desentos whispered, and Irving glanced over his shoulder to find Valeria's father gaping at the screen as the view switched to another room filled with more fresh corpses.
Finally, the screen blanked out again.
"Lithia ... what has our daughter become?" Desentos mumbled.
"It's his fault." Irving nodded at Akos, turned to stare into the merc leader's eyes, and shrugged. "That guy kinda pissed her off."
Akos stared back for several seconds, turned to his lieutenant, and spoke in a shaking voice. "Send everyone to Terakkis's last known location!"
The rest of the mercs filed out of the room except for Akos and his lieutenant. Several minutes ticked by. Irving kept watching both of them and hoped he could maintain his air of confidence. As terrified as he was that he would never see Valeria again, he couldn't let it show. The more he could rattle Akos, the more likely the bastard would be to screw up.
One of the screens flickered back to life, showing a view of Valeria from behind, with twenty mercs approaching her from the far end of the corridor. Kerensky raised her hand to her forehead.
"What the hell?"
Akos drew in a slow breath and let it out in a soft moan. "She wants us to see this."
"It doesn't have to be this way." Valeria stared the squad leader down and hung her Mattock on her back-but not for the reasons her opponents probably assumed. There was nothing to take cover behind in this corridor. The enemy troops could simply keep firing until they wore her kinetic barriers down, and then blast away at her armor until a round punched through and either killed or disabled her. If she survived that, they'd either blow her brains out or drag her to Akos and let him finish her off.
She needed to get right into the middle of them, where they couldn't shoot at her without hitting their own people.
"Walk away now and I'll let you live. Don't, and you'll be shipped home in boxes."
"You talk pretty big for someone who's outnumbered and outgunned." The leader continued his slow approach.
"The hundred-plus dead people behind me had me outnumbered and outgunned, too." Closer. Come closer, you prick. "I gave them the same offer I just gave you. They were ... uncooperative."
"Get on your knees, bitch. Surrender now and maybe the boss will go easy on you."
Uh-huh. Sure, he will. Valeria remained where she stood, and just waited.
Finally, he stopped in front of her and jammed the barrel of his M-15 Vindicator into her forehead.
"You sure this is how you want to play it?" She stared at him through her helmet visor.
"Get on your fuckin' knees!" He clamped a hand onto her shoulder and tried to force her down.
She grabbed his rifle, whipped it sideways, wrenched his trigger finger the wrong way back, and twisted the gun around until his finger snapped. He howled, but she shut him up by grabbing the sides of his head and breaking his neck with a casual twist. The body crumpled to the floor before the other mercs recovered from the shock. Valeria pulled the rifle from his limp hand as he fell, spun, and hurled it into another merc's face. The impact knocked him off balance and he stumbled into the wall.
Valeria deployed her Omni-Blade, sliced a third merc in half diagonally, spun and lopped the head off the second. As the rest took a step backward, she lunged at the next nearest merc and shoved the blade through his chest before letting it dissipate.
Four other mercs opened fire. A single hit flared her shields up before she dive-rolled out of the line of fire. The mercs sprayed incendiary and disruptor rounds into each other and several of their cohorts before they released the triggers.
Val pulled her Mattock in mid-roll and twitched the trigger before she hit the floor and rolled forward to come up in a crouch. The shot knocked one of the mercs back several steps and his already-weakened barriers collapsed. Valeria braced the gun against her shoulder, leaned into it, lined up another shot, and fired. The gun discharged with its familiar, bass thump and its kick rocked her back several centimeters.
The incendiary round punched through his teeth, slammed into the back of his throat, and began burning his head up from the inside out.
The rest of the mercs paused to stare at him and recoil in horror as he collapsed, thrashed around, and screamed until his larynx could no longer produce sounds-and Val took advantage of their hesitation.
She pistoned the butt of her rifle into another merc's visor. The impact was slow enough not to trigger his kinetic barriers, but landed with enough force to crack the visor and knock him off his feet. She jammed the barrel of her gun against his left eyepiece and blew off most of his head before whipping around to drill a half-dozen more shots into the next nearest merc. His shields collapsed and two rounds slammed into his chest plate and ignited it. He screamed and pawed at the flames, which then spread to his gloves.
The fire burned through his armor and, in a panic, he popped the latches on his chest plate and yanked it off.
Another guy stepped into Val's field of vision and lined up a shot. She whacked her gun into his chest and he teetered backward and flailed to regain his balance. She jerked the knife from his belt and winged it into the burning merc's chest. The blade punched in to the hilt and he staggered back into one of his buddies, who shoved him aside and pointed her gun at Val.
The other merc recovered his balance and tried to adjust his aim. Val shoved her rifle into his softer, flexible neckpiece and vaporized most of his throat.
The nearby woman squeezed off a quick burst that splattered against Valeria's shields and dropped their power to fifty percent. Valeria leaped forward to the man she'd knifed in the chest, grabbed the handle and gave it a vicious twist before yanking it out. The serrated blade finished what she'd started a few seconds ago.
Another burst drilled into her shields and she sprang at the woman. She slammed her gun down on the merc's arm, nearly knocking the rifle out of the woman's hands, and hilted the knife in her eyepiece.
Something slammed into the back of Val's helmet and everything spun around her. She staggered forward, shook her head, and turned to find an M-8 Avenger shoved into her face. She caught a glimpse of a man without a helmet, wearing only a HUD that covered his left eye. She snapped her gun up, but the man kicked it out of her hands and planted his rifle back on her forehead.
She grabbed his gun with her left hand, wrenched it sideways, and hit its eject button with her right hand. The red-hot thermal clip popped straight up into his face and struck his left cheek with a sharp sizzle. He screamed, staggered backward, and pressed his hand to his face.
Something on his belt caught her eye-a half-dozen incendiary grenades.
She leaped at him, slapped the detonators on all six, and bolted to the opposite end of the corridor.
Five seconds later, the grenades blew, spraying everyone nearby with their sticky, highly-flammable payload, and sending out a swarm of smaller explosives. The secondary blasts took out over a dozen others.
Of the surviving mercs, all but three were panicking, screaming, and stripping off burning pieces of their armor.
Val glanced around, found her rifle, scooped it up and hung it on her back. She marched up behind the nearest of the non-flaming mercs and snapped his neck. She whirled, drew her M-5 Phalanx pistol, pressed it against the side of another man's head, and ended him with a single shot.
The third glanced over his shoulder, spotted her, and whirled.
She fired a neural-shock charge from her Omni-Tool and his whole body clenched up before toppling over. She stepped over his body and casually shot him through the right eye as she strode up to the nearest of the still-burning mercs.
The woman had pulled off her chest plate and was struggling to remove her flaming gloves. She spotted Valeria approaching and fumbled for her sidearm. Val snapped her pistol up, blasted the merc's chest wide open, and moved on to the next, who managed to raise his gun in her direction.
She shifted her Phalanx to her left hand, drew her Mattock with her right, and popped two rounds into his face. At the same time, she aired out another merc with the Phalanx.
She strolled among the rest, pumping round after round into them, ejecting spent heat sinks and continuing to blast away the instant fresh ones slotted into place.
Only one, a turian, was left when the new thermal clips overheated. She popped them out, but the chambers remained empty.
Huh. Used 'em all up. Oh, well. She holstered the guns and marched over to the turian, who gasped and scrambled across the floor to a discarded Avenger.
Valeria kicked his legs out from under him and drew her Mattock before he sprawled on the floor. He rolled over and stared up at her with wide eyes.
She flipped her gun over and pile-drove its stock into his bare chest. He grunted, clenched his fist, and clubbed her in the side of her head. She snarled, raised her gun, and crashed it down with every ounce of strength she could muster, amplified by the servos in her armor. This time the impact cracked his carapace open. He screamed and blood oozed from the wound.
Valeria hung the rifle on her back and yanked her knife out. She thrust it at the wound, but the guy managed to brace his forearms against her wrist and hold her back.
She drew her head back and smashed her helmet into his face. He cried out again and raised his hands to his face-and she plunged the knife in. He screamed and thrashed. She tilted the blade, angling it straight at his heart, and cocked her hand back.
"No!" He gaped at her, scrabbled weakly at the knife, sobbed and shook his head. Tears streamed from his eyes. "Please! No! No!"
She rammed her palm into the end of the handle and drove the knife all the way in. The tip of the blade pierced his back and struck the floor with a sharp clink.
She plucked the thermal clips from his belt and slowly, methodically inserted them into her guns while the last of his life seeped away. She stood, took her helmet off, and aimed a cold stare directly into the camera.
"You shouldn't have fucked with my family." She quick-drew her Phalanx and blew the camera off the ceiling. Then she put the helmet back on, walked to the far end of the corridor, and opened the door.
"Holy shit," one of the hostages behind Irving whispered. He turned and found a dark-haired woman grinning at the screen that had just gone blank. She leaned over to the woman beside her and added, "I'm not normally attracted to aliens, but I'd make an exception in this case. I'd fuck that lady all night!"
Irving cleared his throat. "That's my wife you're talking about."
"Oh. Uh." She blushed and tugged on her shirt collar. "Sorry." She grinned. "You're a lucky guy."
"I know." He smiled.
"Shut up!" Akos snapped.
Irving smirked. Ah, there he goes. He's losing it.
Akos's lieutenant motioned at the bio-monitors with a shaking hand. "We've got forty-four left. They're all converging on her position." She glanced at another screen. "Volkov just texted in; they spotted her entering another tower and are pursuing."
"Good. Tell him to hit that bitch with everything they've got."
She nodded and typed a message into the console.
"Whoa," Actana said softly, and Irving turned to find her stared wide-eyed at the screen. "I had no idea Val was such a badass." She glanced at her parents. "Why haven't you ever talked about her?"
Ouch. Irving winced.
"It's because she's spent the last two years making porn vids," Galadin said with a snicker. "But yeah, what she just did was amazing."
"Yes," Lithia said softly, and shook her head. "But horrifying."
"Shut the fuck up!" Akos shrieked. He turned back to the console and jabbed a button. "Volkov, give me a sit-rep."
One of the outside cameras reactivated and an image of one of the cylindrical buildings popped up on the main monitor.
"Oh, no," Akos whispered.
"That one's right next door." Kerensky clenched her fists.
The base of the tower burst open like a rupturing pustule. Flames and shrapnel spewed from the long gash in its side. The shockwave slammed into the command center and everyone staggered. Debris peppered the side of the building.
Secondary explosions tore dozens of holes in the tower on the screen, and it began to topple over. It collapsed, smashed into the ground, and was engulfed in flames. Irving caught glimpses of mangled, burning bodies tumbling out of the wreckage.
Kerensky pointed at the bio-monitors and backed away. "There are only two left. Two out of over two hundred."
The view shifted to a close-up of Valeria.
"Found your armory." She tapped her Omni-Tool and the screen blanked.
Kerensky stared at the two remaining bio-readouts and pressed a button. The entire bank faded out and she turned away, as if knowing there was no point in keeping track of the stats anymore.
Akos braced his hands on the console, slumped over, and trembled. "What have I done?"
"It's over." The woman turned to Akos and wiped her eyes. "Should we execute the hostages?"
Irving's heart twitched. Oh, shit!
Akos shook his head. "That'll only make things worse." He turned to face her. "Your only chance is to run or surrender. If we try to fight, she'll kill us. If we kill her husband and family, she'll kill us slowly." He turned and pointed at one of the exits. "Go."
"Sir?" She stared at him and sniffed. "Lantim?"
"Just go. She can only chase one of us, and we both know it'll be me. Goodbye." He ran to the door, opened it, and vanished.
The soft gasping and grunting didn't escape Valeria's notice. She turned slowly and swept the burning wreckage from left to right until she found a batarian dragging himself out from under a twisted slab of metal. Nearly every centimeter of his armor was scratched up, but seemed intact otherwise. He pushed himself to his hands and knees, coughed, and tapped the side of his helmet. He shook his head, tapped it again, growled, and pulled his helmet off.
Valeria leveled her Mattock at him and centered his head in her sights.
He dropped the damaged helmet, glanced around, scooted toward an M-27 Scimitar shotgun, and clamped his hand around its grip.
Valeria cleared her throat and he froze. After pulling himself together over the next few seconds, he turned his head slowly and stared at her.
His expression shifted subtly, his jaw clenching, his face hardening ever so slightly.
"Reconsider," Val said.
He took a breath, spun, and pointed the shotgun at her.
She twitched the trigger and everything above his mouth ripped open like a half-rotten watermelon.
Val glanced at her rifle and noted the spent heat sink as the body slumped over. She popped it out and a fresh one slotted in.
A scuffing sound came from behind her-someone crawling through the dirt. Valeria nudged a switch on the side of the Mattock, priming a concussive round, and concentrated on the sounds behind her.
Muffled grunting, raspy breathing, a stifled cough-and the click of a trigger being pulled.
She whirled and twisted to the right a split-second before the gun fired. She caught sight of a muzzle flash and the high-pitched discharge of an M-3 Predator heavy pistol as the shot pierced the space she'd just vacated.
Val fired the concussive round and the impact rocketed the merc backward, jolting a roaring scream out of her that cut off when she hit the ground, rolled, and plowed into a section of the tower wall with enough force to buckle it. She slid down the sloping chunk of metal, plopped onto the ground, and lay there, cradling her left arm and sobbing and whimpering.
Valeria marched over to her. The merc fumbled with her helmet with her right hand, pulled it off, and dropped it. She held her hand up and tried to scoot away from Val.
Val raised her gun and lined up the final shot.
"No," the merc moaned, waving her hand and bursting into tears. "Don't-please-don't kill me!"
"Oh, for fuck's sake. What the hell do you expect, at this point?" Val started to pull the trigger.
"No! I have a family!"
"You should've thought of that before you kidnapped my family and threatened to murder them."
"Please! I have a daughter! She's only three years old!"
Val hesitated. Maybe the merc was telling the truth, and maybe she was just stalling until she could figure out a way to get the upper hand.
But if she was being honest ...
"Look." Weeping, moving slowly, the merc activated her Omni-Tool and pushed one of its holographic buttons. A photo album appeared in the air above her arm and she touched one of the pictures. It enlarged and Valeria found herself staring at a photo of the merc wearing civilian clothing, cuddling with an asari in a T-shirt with the Eclipse logo on its front. Both of them were tickling a laughing asari toddler.
In one of the other thumbnails, both women were making goofy faces into the camera. In a third, clearly older photo, the human held the diaper-clad baby out to the asari, who was pinching her nose closed and backing away with a grimace.
Oh, hell. Valeria glanced at the wreckage around her. How many of those people had families like ...?
No. Don't even go there. They were trying to kill me and my family. They brought it on themselves.
"That's them." The merc sobbed again. "That's my wife and little girl. Don't do this to them, please!"
Shit. Valeria lowered her gun slowly, but kept it aimed in the woman's general direction, just in case. "Hell of a career choice you made, with a kid to take care of."
"I was already doing this years before Nela and I met." The woman wiped tears from her eyes, but continued weeping. "Nela's in Eclipse. It's ... it's just what we do."
Valeria sighed, put her rifle away, and held her left hand up. "Okay. This is the only chance I'll give you."
The merc let out a long sigh, which turned into an even harder burst of weeping. "Th ... thank you."
"Just don't ever forget how close your wife and daughter came to having to bury your remains. If you're smart, you'll consider finding a civilian job, because if I ever hear about you abducting innocent people and holding them hostage again, a DNA test will have to be done to identify what's left of you."
The merc nodded, sniffled, and sobbed again. "I-I'm done. I swear!" She fumbled with the latches on her armor and finally managed to release the chest plate. She removed it and let it fall, sending up a puff of dirt when it hit the ground. She removed the armor on her left arm, whimpering and grimacing with every motion. She tried to reach over to unlatch the armor on her right arm, but cried out and cradled her left arm again.
"I think you broke my fuckin' arm."
"Here, let me help you." Val released the latches and gently pulled the armor pieces off.
"Thanks." The woman began discarding the armor on her legs, finally taking everything off except her boots and her tight-fitting undersuit.
Valeria pointed at the utility belt. "You might want to dose up on some painkillers and medi-gel. And, uh, if you want to find some place to sit tight until this is over, I have some friends who can give you a lift into town so you can have that arm fixed."
"Thanks," the woman whispered. Her lips quivered. "I ... I owe you. A lot. Everything."
"The only repayment I want is for you to get out of this line of work so you can be there for your family."
"Don't worry about that. I'm out. I don't ever want to go through anything like this again." She glanced around, scooted back against a large enough chunk of metal, and leaned against it.
"Glad to hear that." Valeria glanced over her shoulder at the central tower. "This is almost over. I assume Akos is holed up in there?"
"Yeah. I think it's just him and his right hand, Kerensky. You've slaughtered everyone else."
"Okay. Whatever happens now, it'll probably happen in there. You should be safe out here, but be sure to stay under solid cover, just in case.
The woman nodded and fumbled with her med-kit.
Valeria patted the merc's shoulder, stood, and strode toward the main tower.
Time to finish this.
Everyone shrieked when an Omni-Blade jabbed through the blast door at the far end of the room. The blade sliced down and to the left, melting through the alloy and reaching the floor in two seconds. It retracted, reappeared at the top, and arced down in the opposite direction, cutting out an A-shaped section of the door.
An armor-covered turian foot kicked the chunk of door into the room and Valeria appeared in the opening.
Irving grinned and waved at her.
An arm clamped around his throat and the barrel of a gun jammed into the side of his head. The hostages gasped and backpedaled. Valeria's parents stared at something over his shoulder and her siblings flicked their eyes back and forth from him to their older sister.
"Stay back!" Kerensky snarled, and dragged him several steps backward.
Valeria approached slowly and everyone in the room turned to stare at her.
"I said, stay back! Let me go or I'll blow his fucking head off!"
Valeria took her helmet off and placed it on a nearby console. She turned and flicked a worried glance at Irving.
He nodded and drew a thumb across his throat. Do what you have to do, babe.
"What the fuck was that?" Kerensky shook him and ground her gun even harder into his temple.
"It doesn't have to end this way," Valeria said. "I'm here for Akos, not you."
"Don't even give me that shit! I watched you massacre two hundred and thirty-six people!"
"You can light candles for them later-if you're smart enough to put your guns down and let my husband go."
"Last chance. Let me walk out of here, or I'll kill-"
Valeria strode straight toward her. Kerensky sucked in a quick breath and stepped back.
"What-what the fuck are you doing?"
Valeria drew her Phalanx and jammed it into Kerensky's face, right between her eyes.
"I'm willing to negotiate." Val pushed harder, forcing Kerensky's head farther back. "Are you?"
Several seconds passed. The only sound in the room was Kerensky's rapid, borderline-hyperventilation breathing. Irving caught himself holding his breath and squeezing his eyes shut. If his wife had to pull the trigger, he'd end up deaf until he could have the proper surgery done-but it was preferable to letting the merc go or letting her blow his brains out.
Finally, the grip on his neck eased off. In the corners of his eyes, Kerensky held her left hand up and pulled her gun away from Irving's head.
Valeria wrenched the gun from Kerensky's hand, and Irving lunged out of the merc's reach. He turned to watch them.
Valeria cocked her hand back and cracked the Phalanx's grip into Kerensky's forehead. Her head snapped backward and she toppled over, sprawled on the floor, and moaned.
"The local police can handle her." Val turned to Irving, stroked his cheek, and glanced over at her parents and siblings.
"We're alright," her mother said. "Are you?"
"Just fine, now." Val turned back to Irving and put her arms around him. He hugged her back, and they held each other for what felt like hours, but still wasn't long enough for him.
Finally, she moved back enough to gaze into his eyes. He kissed her, nuzzled her forehead, and kissed her again. He stepped back and pointed a thumb over his shoulder. "Akos ran off through that door.
"I'll be fine." He cupped her face in his hands and gave her one more, gentle kiss. "I love you. Now, go get that son of a bitch."
Her eyes seemed to take on a renewed gleam. She cupped his face in her hands, rested her forehead against his for a second, and whispered, "I love you."
She finally stepped back, returned to the console, and picked up her helmet. She turned to her parents, brother, and sister.
"I love you. See you soon." She put the helmet on, pulled her Mattock from her back, and charged through the door.
Irving's heart leaped as he watched her begin the final stage of the chase.
"You encouraged her to ...?" Desentos strode forward and grabbed Irving's shoulder. "Aren't you afraid she'll be hurt or-?"
"Of course I am. But she needs to finish this, and I know she can do it." Irving glanced at the open doorway. "Trust me, once she gets her hands on him, he's done."
"Guys," Valeria said into her comlink as she stormed through the corridors, scanning the area for her prey. "The hostages are safe, and all the mercs are dead except Akos, his lieutenant, and a wounded woman near one of the destroyed towers. I promised her a ride into town for medical treatment, and the hostages will need a lift out of the compound."
"Acknowledged," Weyland replied.
"We are on our way," Yutani added.
"I'm bringing the shuttle in to pick them up," Scott said. "We'll be there in about five minutes."
"Thanks, guys. Akos is trying to escape. I'm in pursuit."
"Do you want assistance?" Chula said.
"Negative. He's mine."
"Okay. Good hunting."
"Thanks." Valeria reached an outer door, activated her stealth system, and slapped the hard-light button on the control panel. The door slid aside and she waited for Akos to take a shot at the sudden movement. When nothing happened, she launched through the door, crouched behind a nearby stack of crates, and switched off her cloak.
She scanned the area again, and picked up a turian life sign a few dozen meters away, in a cube-shaped building she hadn't paid any attention to on the way in. She checked her Omni-Tool again to be sure the cameras were still offline, and approached the building slowly, keeping her gun aimed at the main doors.
The whir of an aircar engine started up inside the building and Valeria grumbled under her breath.
A garage. Wonderful. How did I miss that?
The doors parted and a scratched and dented rapid-transit car fired into the open. Val caught a glimpse of Akos in the driver's seat as she dived to the left. The aircar missed her by less than a meter. She tucked her shoulder, rolled, pivoted, and came up in a crouch. She pointed her Mattock at the car as Akos spun it around and accelerated straight at her.
Oh, shit! She leaped to her feet, sprang into the air, and began another forward roll as the car struck her. Its hood whacked her right shoulder and she bounced across it, glanced off the windshield, and flipped over the roof. The car slid out from under her and she waited for her uncontrolled spin to rotate her gun into position.
When it was aimed at the rear window, she squeezed off a shot and caught the impact in the corner of her eye just before she hit the dirt. The round pierced the window and grazed Akos's right shoulder on the way through the windshield.
He let out a high-pitched shriek and the car swerved before he recovered from the sudden fright.
Val tumbled, swung her legs around, and stopped with her feet braced under her. She popped off another half-dozen shots as he sped off to the left, drilling all of them into side of the engine compartment as he zipped across the compound and then lifted off.
"I hope those gunshots were you blowing him away," Chula commented.
"Nope. He ran over me, but I'm still in pursuit." Valeria sprinted into the garage, hoping there was another aircar she could steal.
"I'll fill you in later." Val burst through the doorway and stopped.
Directly in front of her sat a Mako. She winced.
I can't drive those fucking things.
She dashed around the front of the Mako, hoping there was something she could actually use beyond it.
There sat three more aircars. Yes! She jumped into the nearest one, fired up the engine, and punched it. She glanced at the ladar screen as it rose into the air, and bared her sharp, pointed teeth at the single blip heading straight toward the nearest city.
She pushed the engines to maximum and glared out the window until she caught sight of Akos. The city was still some distance ahead of him, but his car appeared to be losing altitude. Maybe one of her shots had ripped up something vital to the vehicle's operation.
Crash and burn, you fucking waste of cum! Valeria snarled as her car closed in on his. Just do it before you have any innocent people under you.
The distance between them continued to close. Val increased her altitude and kept an eye on the ladar. Once she was close enough, she could try to force him down.
More blips appeared on her screen and she sighed. They were starting to encounter traffic entering and leaving the city. She would have to be careful from now on.
Finally, she'd gotten within a few meters of his aircar. Go ahead and land. I'll be right behind you.
Something flared inside Akos's car and it shuddered, tilted forward, and began a steep descent.
The driver-side door opened and he leaped out.
"What the hell?" Valeria flicked her eyes over the area around him and spotted another aircar a dozen meters below him. "Huh. Ballsy."
He crashed into the roof of the car, rolled toward the rear, and tumbled off. Val stared at him, part of her hoping he'd survive so she could finish him off herself.
His left hand clamped onto part of the rear end and he dangled there for a few seconds, over one hundred meters above the ground. He pulled himself up, got his feet under him, plucked his rifle from his back, and pointed it through the rear window. He shouted something and the car banked gently to the right.
Are you kidding me? You can't just shake him off? Val sighed, altered her course slightly, and steered herself into the right position.
Now. She set the autopilot to land safely, flung the door open, and jumped.
Wind whipped past her for a few seconds before she plowed into Akos's back and slammed him into the rear window. He turned over and tried to aim his gun at her, but she grabbed the barrel in her right hand, wrenched it to the left, braced her left hand on his forearm, and shoved. His talons bent backward and he howled and released his grip. She gave the gun one more twist to rip it from his hand, and flung it aside. In the corner of her eye, it spiraled out of sight.
Akos's eyes widened and he thrust his left fist at her. She swatted it aside, drove her fist into the side of his head, cocked her arm back, and rammed her palm into the spot right above his nostrils. His head snapped back and he slumped over and scrambled for a handhold.
Val pulled her left leg back, ready to jam it into his chest and knock him clean off the car-but suddenly he rolled off himself and dropped out of sight.
She peeked over the edge just as he plopped onto the roof of another car a few meters below. He bellowed at the driver and pointed at something ahead.
Val braced herself for another jump. As she did so, she glimpsed the passengers through the tinted windows of the car under her feet-a naked human teenager and an asari. She realized what she and Akos had interrupted, winced, and gave them an apologetic shrug.
She hopped off and plunged through the air again toward Akos, directly below her. She goomba-stomped him, rolled backward, and managed to find a handhold before she could slide off. She tilted her head up in time to catch Akos slipping forward and across the windshield. He glanced around, his eyes locked on to something on the left, and he pushed off. She watched him plunge down the side of a skyscraper and reach out to grab on to its fire escape.
The edge of a rail bonked his chest plate and he flipped over backward. Somehow, he managed to catch the next platform by hooking his legs over the rail. He bent at the waist, grabbed the rail with both hands, and pulled himself over it. He glanced around, spotted her, and charged up the stairs.
He's limping. Good. The car had already passed the building, but luckily there was a slightly taller one beside it, and it looked just close enough for what she had in mind.
The aircar passed over the roof and she leaped, dropped two meters, and stumbled. Her right foot caught on a thin pipe running across the roof and she pitched forward. Without enough time to roll with it, she faceplanted and scraped forward another three meters before she could stop. She picked herself up and ran to the edge of the roof to double-check the distance to the building Akos had started to climb.
The gap between them was just wide enough for two aircars to pass side by side, and narrow enough for her to clear it easily.
She ran back across the roof, turned, and blasted into a full sprint. Her right foot pounded into the edge of the roof and launched her into the air. She angled down toward the lower roof, thrust her torso forward, and threw herself into a roll the instant her feet touched down. She came up in a crouch and turned toward the side of the building Akos had landed on.
Finally, his head popped up over the edge of the roof. He climbed over, leaned against it to catch his breath-and then he noticed her.
His eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped, and he screamed like a little kid.
"You're goddamn right," she growled.
He gasped for breath, glanced around, and grabbed the M-9 Tempest on his left hip.
Uh-oh. Valeria lunged to the right, but he hosed her down before she could move more than two steps. The hail of supersonic projectiles sprayed her shields and reduced them to almost nothing before she found cover behind a stairwell entrance.
Pounding footsteps came in her direction.
She yanked the Mattock from her back and held it ready.
Akos burst into view, sprinting past her toward the far edge of the roof. He sprayed her again, but this time she returned fire. Her gun thumped and its round smashed into the shields in front of his forehead. She fired again, and his barriers flared again, this time at the side of his head.
He continued blind-firing as he dashed away from her, and enough bullets found their mark to collapse her shields with a snap that made her wince. She leaped over the stairwell, couched on the other side, and resumed firing, planting ten more rounds into his back.
His barriers failed on the seventh, and the last three slammed into his back and started burning through his armor. He staggered, screamed again, and fumbled with the latches. He kept running, finally managed to release the latches, and shrugged out of his chest and back plates. He dropped them and continued running until he hit the edge-then he launched himself into the air.
Valeria waited a few seconds for her shields to recharge and ran to the edge. She peeked over and found Akos skipping off a passing aircar and plunging to the roof of the next building over.
She eyed several approaching aircars, picked one out of the group, and braced herself for another leap. Once the car was in what she hoped was the right position, she hopped over the edge, planted her feet on the wall, and kicked off to boost herself out over the abyss.
The car intersected her path and she kicked off its roof. The next plunge took her toward a much smaller building. She hit the wall, clamped her arms around a pipe running down the side, and slid three more floors down before she managed to stop. She took a moment to catch her breath and take a quick look around. For a few seconds she thought she'd lost Akos, but then a quick motion caught her attention. She zoomed in with her helmet's optics and found him sliding down a cable running from the wall to a post on the sidewalk.
Valeria glanced straight down. This pipe runs almost all the way to the street. Perfect. She eased up on her grip just enough to slide down to the end of the pipe. She let go and dropped the last floor, hit the pavement, rolled forward, and came up running.
Across the intersection, Akos paused to glance over his shoulder. He caught sight of her immediately, let out a whimper, and bolted forward without taking his eyes off her. He ran straight into a wall and scrambled to get around it.
Valeria charged across the street even as ground vehicles sped through the intersection. A freight truck crossed in front of her, but she jumped, leapfrogged over its roof, and hit the ground running.
A car on the cross-street made a left turn straight into her. She bounded over its hood, dive-rolled over the roof, and continued her sprint without missing a beat.
Akos reached the next street corner, spun around, and opened fire even though dozens of pedestrians stood between them. A cacophony of screams exploded all around her and everyone scattered-except several people who'd been hit. Without shields or armor, their bodies had been chewed up by the hail of sand grain-size projectiles.
She glimpsed a child sprawled on the street and turned away before she could make out any more details.
Suddenly, her whole body turned cold inside.
She turned back to the street corner and found Akos staring back at her.
A fire ignited within her. She drew in a deep breath and, without taking her eyes off him, released a primal roar.
Everyone nearby lurched away from her and stared, their faces turning pale.
Akos stumbled backward, bumped into more pedestrians, and slumped over a parked car. The Tempest slipped from his hand, but he didn't seem to notice. He let out a hissing squeal, turned, and bolted.
Valeria plucked the Mattock from her back and the Phalanx from her hip, and placed both of them on the sidewalk.
No more shooting. No more innocent people harmed.
She launched after Akos once more, pushing through the crowd and trying to catch site of him. After several seconds, she jumped into oncoming traffic, kicked off the hood of the nearest car, and began leaping from the top of one car to the next.
There. She found him running toward a monorail station two blocks ahead, zoomed in to confirm it was really him, and increased her speed, leaping and sprinting along the tops of every car in her path until she reached the station. She hit the sidewalk and shoved aside any pedestrian in front of her.
Akos tugged on the train doors, but found all those nearby locked. He raised his hands to his head, moaned, and turned around.
His eyes locked onto Valeria and he froze.
Valeria sucked in another deep breath. "Akos!"
He glanced around frantically, and finally leaped and grabbed the edge of the train's roof. He pulled himself up and scooted across, clearly planning to drop down on the other side.
The monorail eased forward and he froze again. "Oh, fuck!"
Valeria climbed to the roof, crouched, and faced him.
Within seconds, the train was moving too fast to survive a jump to the ground. The wind whipped at both of them. Valeria leaned into it to maintain her balance. The city blurred past at the periphery of her vision.
Akos stumbled forward, crouched, and stared wide-eyed at her. His mouth hung open, his mandibles trembled, and his breaths came in ragged gasps.
Val marched toward him and he pulled out his knife. She flicked her eyes over his body and found no other weapons. She'd left her own knife buried in that dead turian's chest back in the compound. She had nothing but her hands now.
She needed nothing more.
She continued her advance and his eyes widened even more. He thrust the knife at her. She deflected it by whipping her right arm into his wrist and shoving the blade to the right, and followed it with a roundhouse punch with her left fist. The blow landed on his jaw with a crack that was audible over the wind howling past both of them. The impact snapped his head to the right and he staggered.
At the same time, the deflection move brought her right fist into the proper position, and she rammed it straight into his chin. He almost flopped backward, but the wind kept him propped up-but then it toppled him forward and he plowed into her.
He swiped the knife at her again, but she grabbed his wrist, yanked, and twisted it. He let out another shriek and tried to pull out of her grip. She swept his legs out from under him and he collapsed-but he managed to grab the part of her helmet covering her horns and yank her down on top of him.
He rolled her onto her back and suddenly she found the knife centimeters from her neck. She clamped her hands around his wrist and held him back for the moment. The blade couldn't penetrate her armor, but the piece covering her neck was, by necessity, soft enough to be flexible. One good thrust and it would be over.
He shifted his weight and the blade inched closer.
No. Irving won't become a widower. And you won't get away with what you've done. She wrenched his arm sideways and the blade scraped across the roof beside her left shoulder.
She backhanded him and he spun to the right, blinked, and shook his head to clear it. He raised the knife to plunge it into her-but she pounded his chest and gut with a flurry of punches. He doubled over and she snapped her head forward, ramming her helmet into his face. He lurched backward, his arms flailed, and the knife slipped from his hand.
The wind knocked him over and he flopped onto his back.
Both of them picked themselves up at the same time and crouched, facing each other. Akos squinted against the wind. Valeria waited for him to make his next move.
In the corner of her right eye, another train appeared on an elevated rail she hadn't noticed before, zipping in the opposite direction.
Akos finally lunged at her, driving his shoulder into her chest and knocking her off balance. He continued pushing her back, then he managed to slip behind her, grasp her right wrist, and brace his hand on her shoulder. He shoved her forward, and suddenly she found the side of the other train centimeters from her face.
He pushed harder, and the top of her helmet scraped along the side of the train. Her helmet vibrated.
She reached around with her other hand, flailed and scrabbled at his face, and finally wedged her talons under his left mandible. His eyes nearly popped out as he realized what was coming.
She clamped onto his mandible and gave it a good, hard yank. He screamed, let go of her, and stumbled away. He found just the wrong angle and the wind knocked him over again. He turned over and pushed himself up.
Valeria threw herself on top of him, grabbed one of his mandibles in each hand, and jammed her right knee against his back. He gasped.
She leaned back and pulled, spreading his mandibles apart.
He screamed and thrashed his arms around in a futile attempt to dislodge her.
She continued pulling, arching her back farther and farther. Finally, his mandibles snapped, crunched, and crackled-and she suddenly fell over backward.
Blood sprayed from his broken and torn mandibles. He screamed and screamed and screamed, nearly drowning out the roaring wind. He rolled around and clutched at his head, half-crazed with the sudden agony of his wounds.
Valeria dropped on top of him again and pile-drove her fist into his face. She cocked her arm back and punched him again, then again and again and again. She kept it up, letting her rage take complete control, and pounded him without letup. Finally, when his eyes started to roll back in his head, she raised her arm one more time and brought her forearm crashing down across his chest. His carapace crunched and cracked, and his eyes popped open again. He hunched forward, sucked in a wheezing gasp, and coughed up blood.
He groaned and grunted out something that sounded like, "Cuhhh ..."
Valeria stared at him, pondering him, giving serious thought to simply watching the last of his life drain away.
"Cuh ... cun ... cu ..."
She glanced at the other train and an idea popped into her mind. She picked Akos up, pivoted, and hurled him into the side of the oncoming train. He hit, spun into a blur, and rocketed away like he'd been fired out of a railgun, angling down to the ground as he bounced back. Valeria leaned over the edge just in time to see him fall under the train.
His body ripped apart and blood fountained in almost every direction. His head, shoulders, and part of his chest tumbled out of sight. Valeria let out a long sigh, stretched out on the roof, and let her head rest on her arms for a few minutes. Suddenly, it was a relief not to move.
She finally sighed again and activated her comlink. "Chula, it's over. Where are you guys? I'm coming back."
Yutani touched Irving's shoulder and motioned at something behind him. He turned, found Valeria trudging through the hospital's main entrance with her helmet tucked under her left arm, and smiled. He glanced at the geth, patted "her" hand, and said, "Thanks."
"You are welcome." Yutani turned back to the rest of the Sulaco crew as Irving jogged over to Val and put his arms around her.
"You okay, honey?" he whispered.
"Physically, yeah. Mentally ... I don't know. Might take a while."
He nodded, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her. She placed her hands over his and leaned forward to rest her forehead against his. They held each other for a long moment before she opened her eyes and looked at him.
"I was a little worried that you might not want to see me after the things I did today."
"What? Honey, there will never be a time when I don't want to see you."
"It's just, well, what I did-I'm afraid there's a monster inside me, and was worried that it might change how you feel about me."
"Babe. Nothing will change how I feel about you." Irving stroked her forehead and smiled. "Even if what you said is true, I love that part of you just as much as I love the rest."
She let out a long, shaky breath and wrapped her arms around him. "I love you."
"Right back at ya, Val." He smiled and kept his arms around her.
After letting them hold each other for a few minutes, Chula walked over. "Here's something that might make you feel better. After you told us about the mess Akos caused during your chase, Weyland started checking into it and keeping track of the fallout. Especially that kid you mentioned."
Valeria nodded and squeezed her eyes shut.
"The child was not seriously wounded," Weyland said. "Two shots grazed his right leg, but with some minor surgery, he will recover."
Another relieved sigh rushed out of her. "Oh, thank you! I know a lot of other people were hurt and killed, but ... well, knowing this helps."
Weyland nodded, reached out to touch her shoulder for a few seconds, and walked back to Yutani.
Val took a few more breaths and turned to glance around at her friends, keeping her left arm around Irving's waist. "Is everyone alright?"
"The hostages are being checked out now, but we didn't see any visible injuries." Chula nodded at the merc with the broken arm, standing at a comm terminal. "She insisted on everyone going ahead of her."
"Aw." Valeria nuzzled Irving again and walked over to the front desk. She showed the man behind the counter her ID. "Valeria Terakkis, Special Tactics and Reconnaissance. I'll authorize my Spectre funds to cover the medical costs from the incident this afternoon. Including hers," she added with a nod at the merc.
"Okay, ma'am. Give me a moment and I'll set it up."
"Thank you." She turned to watch the merc.
An asari appeared on the screen-the same one in the photos the merc had shown Valeria.
"Hi!" The asari grinned-then she seemed to notice the look on her wife's face and the grin vanished. "Hey, Calista, what's wrong? Are you okay?"
"Not really. Our last job blew up in our faces. Everyone's dead except me and Kerensky, and she's been arrested. I've got a broken arm and probably some internal injuries."
"What the hell happened?"
"I'm not really up to talking about it just yet. I-" She sobbed and pressed her hand to her forehead. "The boss tried to take on a Spectre. He kidnapped her husband and family, and she damned near killed all of us."
"What? Who is she? I'll fucking destroy her!"
"No!" Calista shook her head frantically. "Nela, no, you won't! Listen to me-this Spectre ripped through us like we were amateurs. I know you've got centuries of combat experience, but it won't make any difference. This woman isn't a soldier, she's a goddamned army! If you even try to take her on, you'll just die." She burst into tears again. "Please, promise me you won't go after her. Don't do that to me and Ryla. Please!"
"Okay, okay! Alright." Nela held a hand up. "I won't try it, I promise. Goddess, it was really that bad?"
"Bad enough that I'm done with the whole mercenary thing. I can't take the chance that I'd ever end up pointing a gun at her again, because next time she won't let me live."
"You've invested nearly ten years into it, though."
"I don't care. I can't do it anymore. And ... and I hope I can talk you into doing the same. I can't bear to lose you." Calista sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes.
"We'll ... talk about it later."
Calista nodded and more tears trickled down her cheeks. Nela held her hand out toward the camera.
"Is there anything I can do?"
"I just ..." Calista sobbed again and reached out to touch Nela's image. "I want to go home!"
"So do I," Valeria whispered.
Nela nodded. "I'm on my way. Where are you?"
"Bekenstein. I'm in a hospital in one of the bigger cities. I don't remember its name."
"It's okay, I can find you. Will it be safe to bring Ryla?"
"Yeah. The fighting is over."
"Okay. We're leaving immediately. We should be there by morning."
"I love you."
"I love you, too. See you soon."
Valeria turned away from Calista and sniffled. Irving put his arms around her again and nodded at a nearby elevator.
"They let us park the shuttle on the landing pad on the roof. We can wait there while the doctors finish checking everyone out. I think a little peace and quiet will do you a world of good."
"Yeah, I think I could do with some downtime."
Chula patted Valeria's shoulder. "Go on ahead. We'll catch up with you once everyone's finished with their exams, then we'll head straight back to the Sulaco."
"Thanks." Val and Irving walked slowly to the elevator.
"Come on, honey." Irving smiled and clasped her hand. "Let's go home."