I've been writing this on the spacebattles forum as a bit of a lark, but I'm some thousands of words in and was recently asked to make an FFN archive for it. So here we go!
Crossover: Mass Effect & XCOM: Enemy Within
Timeframe: set before the canon games
The nebula stretched out like a pink and neon blue shroud, a vast enveloping canopy that separated this part of the vast Attican Traverse from the rest of civilized – which was to say Citadel – space. This deep in the galactic backwoods designations were more common than names, and this particular stop fell into the former category. Angling away from the rarely used Mass Relay, a small ship curved through space, angling away from the system's tiny, frozen, third planet.
The fourth planet in the system was much larger but similarly frigid and of little interest to spacefaring species. The primitive anaerobic life that eked out a living in the inhospitable environment had been studied centuries ago, leaving nothing of repute for modern visitors. A small hydrogen-helium pegasid hugged the K-class orange star that lay at the center of the system.
That left only the second planet in the unnamed system: yet another frozen rock, though with more water and a halfway breathable atmosphere… provided one was a krogan, anyway. It sat just outside what would have been a normal habitable zone, almost exactly the same orbital distance Thessia enjoyed, but this icy blue marble was a far cry from the Crown Jewel of the Asari in every other respect. It was a frozen waste, just like the rest of this system, just like the rest of this cluster, and even pirates – smart ones anyway – avoided it. Yet it was their destination all the same.
Ilena Thanoptis shivered at the thought. Whoever their contact was, if he was smart he wouldn't keep them waiting around on that ice-ball for long. Even asari commandos could get… twitchy.
Another asari commando paced down the shuttle's cargo hold.
"Get your gear ready!" she barked, one arm holding her helmet and the other waving her rifle threateningly. "I don't want any fuck ups! You stick close and you follow my lead! Anyone so much as takes one step out of line and I'll leave you buried in the snow! Understand?"
"Yes, sir, commander Sederis!" Ilena joined the other mercenaries in a chorus.
Everyone knew that Sederis's threats were more like promises. Jona Sederis was a powerful biotic, and she combined that with a vicious streak that would impress a krogan. It was best just to yell when she wanted you to yell, don't mess up in any obvious way, and otherwise keep under the radar. Sederis had been running their little outfit for a few years now, and after a while, you got a feel for her quirks. Every merc captain had them, after all: their little eccentricities.
At least she was always easy to pick out in a fight: Sederis seemed to have a love for gold and black and wore it all over her hardsuit. Everyone else was a mismatch of colors: purples, blues, one in hot red. Ilena stuck with a pale white and blue. If worst came to worst, there was always the option of diving into the snow and keeping hidden. She chuckled to herself at the idea… and wisely didn't try and share the joke. Besides, white went well with her lighter shade of blue skin. Any good merc had to have points for panache, too! It was part of the lifestyle.
"Hey," Ilena whispered, nudging the turian seated next to her. "You got any idea what we're doing down here?"
"Collectors… or slavers… or something," he replied, sounding disinterested. Noram was the turian's name. He was big and beefy as far as turians went. Ilena got the impression he was a bit simple, too. It wasn't just his lack of conversational skills or the fact that he only smiled when he got to squeezing the trigger on his shotgun. A lot of folks were like that, and admittedly, you didn't become a merc out on the Traverse and Terminus if you didn't like shooting things at least a little bit. No: it was more that far off look he always seemed to have, like he was staring out through a bulkhead.
'Slavers' wasn't a bad guess, though.
Their cargo, in addition to a squad of heavily armed mercs – that usually doesn't count as cargo – included a bunch of crates that looked suspiciously like coffins. They were definitely asari and turian sized and shaped, and having sneaked a peek earlier, they had a frosted over little window, too. So either there were groceries in there, or maybe drugs, or bodies. A good haul could be made with two of those three products. The rest of the boxes looked much more mundane: some electronics, a salarian-made mech, a few crates marked with bio-samples, a whole bunch of omnitools, a captive quarian…
"Yeah, slavers." Ilena nodded to herself. The quarian in the back was technically a captive, but she didn't seem to be kicking or screaming or trying to escape. Nor did she have that resigned look that most poor fools had before being shipped off into batarian space. Her wrists were cuffed over her ramshackle black clean-suit, her omnitool disabled. She sat in the back of the shuttle, head lowered. Not that anyone could see her face anyway.
Though, on second thought, who wanted a quarian slave, anyway?
Not like you could use them for much manual labor. You couldn't even have much off-hours fun with one, not without it getting sick. Ilena supposed you could lock it up in a room and force it to do tech support. By the goddess! What a cruel fate that would be!
"We're coming in on the drop site!" the pilot warned, his voice bearing the usual batarian inflection.
"You heard him. Get your shit ready!" Captain Sederis yelled, "Helmets on! Weapons loaded!"
"Here we go, I guess," Ilena murmured, slipping her helmet on and checking the hermetic seals and environmental settings. It was Badass Asari Commando Time.
Snow crunched underfoot as Sederis directed her squad to fan out around the transport and establish a perimeter. Atmosphere aside, the frozen planet around them was still good and frozen. In fact, the atmosphere made it worse! It was colder than a matriarch's privates and, on top of that fun; there were gusts of wind blowing in that lowered visibility. While they were setting up, Ilena paused and picked up a handful of native snow. It was icy, rather than methane-y, and packed into a satisfactory snowball. So at least this planet had one thing going for it.
"Quit goofing off!" Sederis choose that moment to shout, and Ilena quickly tossed the snowball behind her. "Roggo! Thanoptis! Noram! Look sharp!"
For all Captain Sederis's posturing and barking, they were left standing in the snow for several minutes before anything actually interesting happened. No: not the snow angel. That was interesting and mysterious, but not what everyone had been waiting for.
Their contact finally arrived.
It was another asari… by the look of her.
She emerged from out of the snow storm like a ghost (or a snow angel, Ilena couldn't help but think with a giggle), carrying two sizeable cases by their handles. The cases were normal enough, but this asari they were meeting had some custom gear. Sederis directed everyone to take up positions, and Ilena did as asked, but she also took a moment to zoom in with her rifle scope to get a better look at their new arrival.
She had a hardsuit on, of course, but on top of it was the sort of outfit a quarian might wear: like a hood or part of a robe. It shimmered black and blue and then transparent-white like the snow. Probably a tactical cloak, then. The hardsuit beneath the cloak looked… different, too. Bulkier. There were corded bands of some sort of fiber around the arms, for example. But it was hard to tell, exactly. The strange asari helmet completely concealed her face as well.
"You have it?" a female voice spoke.
"Take a look," Sederis invited the new arrival forward, to where they'd loaded up the goods on a trolley. Said 'goods' included the frozen people and the quiet, sulking quarian.
The new asari slowly walked forward, closer and closer into the trap.
Only for her to stop, mid-step, and hesitate.
"Payment," she said, holding out the two briefcases. "Take them. Go."
"You'll need help unloading all this onto your ship, won't you?" Sederis asked, not approaching the cases. "Where is your ship, by the way?"
Rather than answer, the asari trudged away from the landed shuttle.
"Hey!" Sederis barked at her back. "You want us to just leave this stuff here?"
The asari in the odd hardsuit turned back around. "Yes. You have your payment. Take it and go."
"Yeah, I'm not going to do that." Sederis charged up her biotics in one hand and leveled her rifle with the other. The signal given, a dozen other mercenaries did the same. "See, my orders are to find out who you are and who you work for. Now, you can make this painless, or you can make it painful. The bullets and biotics are the painful way."
"Don't let her cloak!" Ilena warned, as a faint shimmer began to trickle out from around the asari's shoulders. Falling snow was abruptly pushed away from the activating cloak along with a gust of wind.
"Painful it is!" Captain Sederis roared, opening fire with her Armax Crossfire. Controlled three round bursts were soon joined by two other, similarly armed mercenaries, while a pair of vanguards rushed forward with shotguns.
Ilena, her rifle shouldered and leveled, kept her finger over the trigger but didn't fire.
There was no glitter of mass effect shielding.
The shots were missing.
And everyone was still clustered far too close to-
One of the briefcases exploded, filling Ilena's visor with a vibrant green light. 'Why,' her brain struggled to process a single silly thought amid the confusion, 'why was it so green?' Green was such a tacky color. As she hit the soft, snow covered ground, her polarized helmet soon filtered out the painful viridian light. What it revealed was a molten crater, but shaped like a crescent rather than a circle. It looked almost like silica glass. Like someone's fancy window or countertop.
Not far from it, four of the men and women Ilena had flown down to the planet with were dead. One, a batarian brute from some shitstain of a colony she couldn't remember but that he always gushed about, had undergone some rather drastic weight loss. Most of his midsection was gone, seared away by that green flame. Another mercenary, a turian, had lost both legs and most of his lower body. There was no sign of fire amid the swirling snow, and no blood. That brief, blinding flash had just removed half his body. Another asari commando, further away from the explosion, was on the ground, flailing wildly with one arm. Of the fourth, there was little to take note of, except the one leg and a formerly well maintained assault rifle, now half-molten.
It was a bit of a shock.
More of a shock came when things – tentacled things – materialized out of thin air. Like deranged hanar, they descended and began to entangle four more mercenaries in their silvery tentacles. One of the victims was Noram, and for all his size and strength, the big turian started to panic the moment the hanar-geth-lovechild wrapped a pair of tentacles around his face and neck.
With a pop-hiss one of the mechanical hanar flashed green, a faintly glowing hole punched into the chest of the turian it had been subduing. Ilena gritted her teeth, summoned up a biotic push, and slammed it into both Noram and the floating robot… thing. Both went flying, but at least they momentarily separated. Unfortunately, sending a flying robot 'flying' was not quite that effective. The tentacled mech reoriented itself with ease and started rushing towards the asari that had interrupted its meal. Or face-love. Or whatever it was after this fine evening.
Ilena scrambled backwards, opening up with her rifle the moment she got a good bead on the mech.
It wasn't invulnerable – thank the Goddess – and nine heart-pounding bullets later the mech exploded just within arm's, (or tentacle's) reach of the asari commando. Frantic and catching her breath, Ilena heard a crunch in the snow and spun around, expediting yet another gethified hanar to pop out and start playing tease-the-tentacle with her helmet. Just barely easing her finger off the trigger, she realized it was the quarian captive. She was hiding behind the trolley with all the other merchandize.
Okay – yes – that was a good idea.
"Make way!" Ilena yelled, diving down behind the same cover. Her mind, in a rare moment of clarity and lucidity, recalled the crescent shaped explosion from before. It had been directed in all directions but one – towards the trolley. Whoever this asari with the robot pets was, she didn't want her goods being blasted.
"Captain!" she heard someone cry. "What are you-"
"She's shooting at us!"
"Sederis! What the hell!"
Jona Sederis, once at the front of the squad in pursuing the strange asari woman, had abruptly turned around and started firing at her own snipers. One went down to a fusillade of mass effect propelled rounds and the other scrambled for new cover, his sidearm's bullets dinging off the Captain's biotic barrier. The others, still struggling with the mechanical hanar, soon went down to point-blank discharges of green light.
As for the two vanguards who charged after that asari…. Fuck them.
"Surrender!" Ilena yelled out from behind the trolley, holding up her hands and pointing her rifle into the blue, snowy sky. "I surrender! Please don't rape my face! I use it every day and I like it as it is!"
Standing among the ashes of her attack squad, Captain Sederis craned her neck in a curious, sort-of alien, way.
"Ha," she spoke, mechanically. "You surrender?" she asked, but her voice was strained. Forced.
"I've never surrendered harder in my life," Ilena replied, carefully putting her rifle down on the trolley but not stepping out from behind it.
"Probably shouldn't shoot you then," Sederis said, and now Ilena was sure of it. It was like the asari was just repeating someone else's words.
"Oh, Sweet Goddess, please don't snatch my body!" Ilena suddenly cried, reaching behind her to yank the captive quarian up to eye level. "That's what she's for, right? Take her, not me!"
"Snatch your…?" Sederis's body asked, making an odd sort of sound. She pointed to herself. "Oh, this."
From out of the swirling snow, the strange asari appeared. She placed a hand on Sederis's helmet, patting it like a krogan would his favorite pet varren… or vorcha. She had a weapon, too, Ilena noticed. It didn't quite look like any rifle she had ever seen before, and just like the explosion earlier, the barrel of this rifle glowed a faint green.
"Oh yes, I just ate her mind just now," the strange asari said with a dark laugh. "It was very tasty. Behave yourself, don't do anything stupid, and I won't do this to you. Clear?"
"As clear as Thessian crystal!"
"As clear as what?" the asari asked and shook her head. "Nevermind. Just keep out of the way for now."
Ilena was very nearly about to open her mouth and – as she often did to her detriment – keep talking, when more shapes began to move from out of the swirling snow. At first, she had thought them to be krogan, but they were too big, even for that. They were… disks. Big, silvery disks.
"Fascinating," she heard the quarian whisper, speaking for the first time.
Ilena just groaned. "What have I gotten into now?"
Ilena Thanoptis was starting to suspect this other 'asari' wasn't an asari at all!
It wasn't that she didn't have the figure for it. She definitely did. The real tip-off came some time later, when a similarly dressed body-snatcher asari showed up. She also looked the part, but the two conversed in a language Ilena had never heard. Granted, there were a few weird Thessian dialects out on the various and storied colonies the asari had settled on across the galaxy, but all were at least recognizable forms of jibber-jabber.
This one didn't sound like anything in Citadel space. It was definitely alien. Either that or these asari had invented their own alien language. Maybe they were scifi geeks who spent too much time around salarians?
That would also explain the mech-fetish.
"Keep back," the first one said, motioning for Ilena and the quarian to keep their distance.
"What's going on?" the asari commando asked, crossing her arms over her armored chest. "I've never been taken prisoner before – well, maybe once before – or twice… but aren't you sort of obliged to tie us up or something?"
The first fake-asari, the one that had been in the firefight, chuckled.
"No need," she replied.
"Any moment now I could plan my daring escape."
The fake-asari graced her with an inquisitive look. "Really?"
"Sure, why not? I'm a dangerous, powerful biotic, you know," Ilena warned her.
"Stronger than that one?" the fake-asari asked, pointing back at Captain Sederis. Or what was left of her. She was standing, but hunched forward slightly. Ilena could see the mercenary captain's face through her visor, and she looked either high or braindead. Or both, considering she was sort of braindead to start with. At least she wasn't drooling… much…
"Hha hha hha!" Ilena breezily laughed, moving her hands to her hips. "Have I mentioned 'I surrender' yet?"
"Many times," the shackled quarian noted with what almost sounded like amusement.
Ilena narrowed her eyes at the migrant. "Well it bears repeating."
A moment later and the ground began to shake.
Rising up from out of the thick drifts of snow and ice, Ilena saw another large disk. The others had been workers and robotic soldiers of some sort, and like the hanar-mechs, they had assisted the fake-asari in scanning and moving the trolley. Hence the worker part. The soldier part…? Well, that mostly came from how the two of them had morphed, firing lances of amber light into Sederis's landed transport, blowing it halfway to Omega.
Just like those disks and the hanar-things, this big one – a ship probably – didn't seem to have normal engines or other means of propulsion. It was a little larger than shuttle sized but it had to be these asari's equivalent. As the snow and ice sloughed off the sides, it revealed that it was a bit more of an oval or an egg, rounded on the top but much flatter on the bottom. Perhaps the best was to describe it was like a stone in the water, worn smooth and round. Over the smooth layer of armor was a second set that seemed able to shift and move independently. The sides facing the rear shimmered with blueish-green energy.
It floated with hardly a sound. Where the roar of a normal ship's engines would be deafening, this close, this ship moved with barely a hum. It alighted so gently at first, landing on a patch of snow nearby, that it almost seemed as if it would land and take off again with nary a trace left behind. Instead, the moment the glow of the ship hit the snow, it turned instantly to vapor. Ilena made a mental note: glowing stuff equals unhealthy. Then again, glowing stuff was always unhealthy! That was probably why it glowed. The universe was telling you not to touch it.
The blue-green sections peeled away after it landed, but it did so in a way that materials really couldn't. It had to be a technology similar to mass effect shields, like the ones engineers always put up to keep you from shooting them. In this case, instead of the shields protecting someone's face, they revealed an open cargo bay.
It seemed they were all going for a little ride.
As for the final nail in the coffin as to any of these aliens being real asari…
"You're male," Ilena stated, poking the alien in the chest. Yep. Male. Or embarrassingly flat. There was one way to be absolutely sure.
But a more in depth examination… probably wasn't wise at the moment.
The would-be asari swatted away Ilena's hand and turned towards one of the female fake-asari. None of their faces were visible behind their strange armor, and they didn't speak any intelligible language, but their mannerisms were frequently asari-ish. Enough that Ilena would guess what they were talking about.
"I get why that one's here," the male seemed to be saying, pointing first at the suspiciously quiet quarian. "And I'm sure we can torture and eat that idiot." He gestured towards the brain-damaged Captain Sederis. "But what's up with that other one? The beautiful and talented asari maiden? She's amazing, but what's she doing here?"
Admittedly that interpretation might have been… a little embellished…
"Should I have shot her instead?" the female seemed to be asking, defensively. "She surrendered, and she's far too attractive and great to kill. She was the only one who didn't have her face eaten by our hanar-mechs."
"I don't disagree with your assessment of her appearance, in fact, I think you undersell her, but-"
"I think they're arguing over who gets to kill you," the quarian murmured.
"Stop ruining my fantasy," Ilena grumbled. She glanced over at her former captive, and now fellow captive. "What's your name anyway? I don't want to keep calling you 'quarian' or 'that quarian.'"
That quarian promptly turned away with an indignant and universal-across-species huff.
"Fine," Ilena growled at her, "be that way! Your name is Bucketthead now."
"Buckethead? Buckethead!" the quarian whirled around and stood on the tips of her toes in an effort to loom over the asari commando. "If I had my omni-tool right now-"
"Ohhh? But you don't have your omni-tool," Ilena reminded her with a smirk. "Bucket. Head."
"Quiet, both of you," the female fake-asari interrupted. The male took Captain Sederis away to another part of the ship, leaving his comrade to herd the two elsewhere. Elsewhere ended up being a small, featureless room.
Though calling it a 'room' was being too generous. It was more like a metal closet. Ilena mentally gagged. Even her sisters back home had closets bigger than this! Just for shoes, even!
"H-hey!" Ilena finally found the courage to object. "What's going on? Who are you, anyway?"
"No one you'd know," the rough woman said, pushing Ilena into the cell. "Just sit tight for now."
"Of the quarian?"
"No, we have her dossier. I mean the asari."
"Ah. Her. She's kind of an idiot, sir."
Sitting down, Lieutenant Annabel Shepard placed her helmet on her lap. She still wore the rest of her psi-armor, but it was more a second skin after so long than a hindrance. Sometimes, it felt strange not wearing it. Regardless, the body-glove was personally fitted and conformed to her body and suited for extreme long-term deployment. It always felt good to remove the helmet, however. Shepard ran a hand through her short black hair and sighed. Faint traces of purple psionic energy ebbed out of the corner of her eyes as she tried to pat down her mass of hair into something marginally less disheveled.
"Her head can't be completely empty," her commanding officer argued.
Sans helmet, he appeared to be a middle aged man, brown hair streaked by flecks of gray. That reckoning didn't account for the MELD in his bloodstream. Captain Benjamin Price had fought in the Ethereal War. He was rather older than he looked… but then, that was true of a lot of people.
"Scatter-brained might be a better way to put it," Annabel explained. She leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, briefly looking over at the ship's navigator.
Denise was at the 'helm' – such as it was. There was no real cockpit. The ship had a master navigation console that projected all the relevant data into a holographic display around the pilot. It was mostly for the benefit of those riding shotgun. All the real piloting was done with a neural-interface. The pilot's body sat in front of the console and the brain did all the real work. Everyone on the ship, all three of them, were certified and trained to fly a basic TRaNsport-type Firestorm. Other ships just used dedicated Sectoid navigators, but as an alternative on long trips human squads could take turns in the hot seat. Neither option was strictly necessary here.
The ship was already well outside the Pax System, headed not for the mass relay but for their rendezvous in deep space. Experience, what little of it they had with mass relays and Citadel spaceways, indicated that virtual all activity, illicit or otherwise, in these star systems took place at or around mass relays. A quick burn into the Deep Black and you were basically undetectable. No one was even looking.
They'd left the burning wreck of Sederis's transport freighter in orbit around the planet Noveria. Shepard nearly rolled her eyes at the memory. So the duplicitous pirates and mercenaries had tried a double-cross? Really? Well, it seemed that bridge was well and truly burned now. Less burned, actually, and more vaporized with nuclear fire. But maybe it was for the best. Doing all their work through criminal networks, posing as this group of local boogymen, called the 'Collectors,' was proving troublesome. Worse than troublesome: it was becoming unreliable.
"She surrendered, sir," Lieutenant Shepard continued, facing her CO. "Threw down her weapon and everything. If she knew what a white flag was, she'd probably be wearing it. We couldn't leave her alive down on the planet, so capture seemed like the best option."
"She's a pirate, you know," Captain Price reminded her. "Just like the ones we used to have back in the day."
"I felt her out already. I'm pretty sure she thinks of it as a big adventure," Shepard argued. "You've read about these asari we're impersonating? She's probably younger than you, sir. I'd rather not shoot another dumb kid if I can help it."
"If she was a 'kid' then she'd be in a classroom somewhere, not running around with that bunch."
"I dunno, sir." Shepard ran her hand along the crown of her helmet, tracing her finger over where the squad and organization's Vigilo Confido logo would normally be. "When I was in college, I spent a spring break on vacation, hiking up Mount Olympus. When an asari is in college, maybe her vacation is spending a couple years as a cold-blooded mercenary?"
"Or an exotic dancer," Price joked. "If you believe that." He pointed at the lieutenant. "If she causes trouble…"
"Yes, sir," Annabel agreed, nodding. "I disabled her omni-tool as well, not that she's capable of hacking her way into or out of a wet bag. But sir? What about the shipment? Was it all there? Is it even clean for transport?"
Price grunted unhappily, clenching his jaw in displeasure. "Best I can tell, they short-changed us again, just like the last time. We have the quarian. That's the most important thing, but half of those 'omni-tools' aren't the brand or the make we requested. The bodies check out at least, so some of the lab boys and girls will be happy, plus we gathered up all the bits-of-pirate you left in the snow… for what that's worth. Though you know, back in my day, we had to police enemy bodies with our bare hands. We didn't have drones to do it for us."
"Yes, sir," the lieutenant agreed, ideally to forestall yet another rant about the 'old days.'
"Did I ever tell you about that time I had to hunt for weapon shards in the middle of Brazilian jungle?"
"This is the story with the centipede."
"Huh. I guess I did tell that one." Captain Price 'hmm'ed and finally decided to skip over making another campfire tale of it. "Anyway: the bodies. They're clean enough to run through a final check on the Veritable, but I heard Doctor Vahlen's really interested in getting her hands on more of those krogan critters. This shipment was supposed to have a female one, but I didn't see it. So, yeah. We got ripped off."
Lieutenant Shepard shook her head and sighed. "Then again, you can tell grandma Vahlen that at least we didn't pay for any of it this time."
And so they had their very own little first-contact. It went surprisingly well.
"It's soooo soft!" The asari insisted on running her finger through the lieutenant's hair. Back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth-
"You can stop that now," Lieutenant Shepard stated, deadpan. "I'm flattered you like my hair, but is that really the most surprising thing you've seen today?"
At least one of the aliens, the quarian, seemed to be taking this seriously. "Of course not," she answered.
"Speak for yourself," Ilena insisted, until finally the human had to reach up and remove her hand. "You say it comes in reds and golds and browns, too!"
"Excuse her." The quarian leaned over the stacked crates that served as a makeshift table for the three women. "This ship is amazing-"
"That hair is amazing."
The two alien women glared at one another.
"Poor Buckethead. You can't feel anything with your fingers, so you don't know how great it is," Ilena broke the short silence and sat back in her chair, rubbing her fingers together teasingly. "If only you weren't stuck in that suit!"
The quarian was left staring at her fingers, as if wondering…
"Wonderful." She quickly snapped out of it and shook her helmeted head. "Your stupidity is contagious." She turned away from the infuriating asari and inclined her head in a shallow but stiff bow to the human who had so recently revealed herself. "Lieutenant Shepard, we haven't been properly introduced. My name is Daro'Xen nar Shellen. Though I suspect you knew that from the start. May I ask what is your purpose in … obtaining my services?"
"What are your services, anyway?" the asari asked with a sly look. "Because my omni-tool is a lot buggier and slower than when first I got it and sometimes I get this orange-screen-of-death-"
"As for why we want you exactly, it really isn't for me to say," Lieutenant Shepard cautiously answered, ignoring the baby blue commando. "Rest assured, we don't practice slavery, Daro'Xen nar Shellen. 'Purchasing' you in this manner was just the most expedient way to get our hands on a qualified quarian."
Ilena gasped. "So I was right! You do want her for tech support!"
Ignoring her just like the human was, Daro'Xen instead asked her new host, "If I am not a slave, can I return to The Fleet if I choose?"
"About that," the human replied, "you aren't a slave, like I said, but you aren't free to do what you want either. If you don't want to cooperate with us, then you'll just have to be our guest for… a while."
"A while?" Daro asked. "How long is 'a while,' if I may ask?"
"Years?" Shepard guessed.
"Years," Ilena repeated, and the two women stared at her. The asari commando slammed a fist onto the table between them. "I will not be left out of this or any conversation!"
"Why is she here again?" Daro'Xen remarked.
Shepard shrugged. "Comedic relief, I think."
"Well, I don't think that." Ilena Thanoptis grumbled, kicking back in her chair. She didn't let herself get too comfortable, however. Being in the strange ship's cargo hold was better than being stuffed in the broom closet, but at least in the closet no one was looming over you with a gun to your head. No one you could see anyway. To drive the point home, Ilena pointed back at one of the two floating cybernetic-disk things that shared the cargo hold with them.
"We all saw those two blow up a shuttlecraft, right?" she asked, and the Cyberdisc playfully dipped at being pointed out. It was sort of cute in a murderous-red-glow kind of way. "That wasn't just my imagination, was it? Because if it wasn't my imagination, I have a shuttlecraft-killing beam cannon pointed at the back of my pretty little head. You'll have to forgive me for getting a little nervous and running my mouth. It just helps me cope with the threat of imminent exploding-all-over-the-walls."
"Merely a precaution," Lieutenant Shepard promised.
Ilena crossed her arms again and tapped her armored bicep. "So… let me sum this up: you're aliens and you abduct people?"
"That is… ironically pretty much the case, yes," the human agreed.
"Those disk-things don't have probes, do they?"
"Actually, they do."
Ilena threw up her hands. "Well that's just wonderful."
Shepard chuckled. "Relax. They only come for you when you sleep."
"You're kidding," Ilena stated, laughing at herself as well. She turned around to face the floating cyberdisc. "She's kidding! You heard it! Or better yet, probe the quarian! They love that stuff!"
"But you are aliens," Daro'Xen said, more serious than the other two women, "and you are abducting us, and likely others I'd bet."
"We need information on your races," Shepard answered, growing serious again as well. "We've been visiting your corner of the galaxy for a while now…"
"Wait. No. Way." Ilena interrupted. "I understand you're posing as Collectors, but there's no way you could've been sneaking around for very long without someone noticing. Turian Intelligence. Spectres. STG. Customs and Immigration. Even if your ship was invisible or something, you'd have to be blind to miss things coming and going from the major mass relays!"
The lieutenant nodded in agreement. "Fortunately for us, we don't use mass effect relays."
"Oh! Well! That explains-" The asari commando was rudely pushed off her chair mid-sentence.
"You what." Daro'Xen suddenly took up her half of the little metal table, rising up onto her feet. "You don't use…?"
"I see that got your attention," Shepard noted.
"…excuse me," Daro said, reining herself in and slowly taking her seat again. "Yes. Lieutenant Shepard. It has my attention."
"You know," Ilena also slowly got back to her feet. "Most quarians are smart enough not to interrupt powerful, awesome biotic commandos when they're talking-"
"You actually have an alternative means of faster than light travel?"
"I wouldn't be able to share the specifics."
"Let me guess: you weren't after just any quarian on her pilgrimage."
"Again, I'm not at liberty to share the specifics."
"-so you have a way of sneaking around," Ilena raised her voice, taking her seat and shooting a fuming glare at the quarian next to her. "Again: why?"
"Suffice to say we aren't ready to reveal ourselves to the Citadel Council just yet," Shepard explained. "Once we've gathered sufficient intelligence, our superiors will decide what to do."
"What to do?" Ilena repeated, not understanding what the human meant. "What do you mean?"
"Idiot," Daro'Xen answered with a hiss. "If they have other means of FTL, they don't have to enter Citadel space at all. They can go wherever they want between the relatively few systems and clusters accessible via mass effect relays. They don't have to interact with us at all… unless they want to. Ninety-nine percent of the galaxy is still unmapped."
"Hey. Hey. First of all: I'm not an idiot!" Ilena snapped at the smarmy quarian. "Second of all: I will say thanks for explaining that, because I did not get that at all."
"Listen," Lieutenant Shepard interrupted, rapping her knuckled against the table with a knock-knock. "If you'll let me finish? We're going to bring the both of you in. Daro, I can confirm that you were picked specifically for this and obtaining you was one of our primary objectives today. Ilena, you're mostly just here because of a fish-"
"Flu-k-e. A fluke. That didn't translate properly. It means because of random chance."
"So… you're saying I'm lucky?" The asari grinned and nodded her head. "Good. Good."
"You have biotics, too, which could be useful to us," Shepard finished, though she didn't sound all that convinced. Especially because Ilena was still nodding to herself in a self-congratulatory way. It didn't inspire confidence. "Yeah, very useful..."
In the Deep Black of extra-solar space outside the Pax System, the TRN-type Firestorm rendezvoused with a much larger, rectangular UFO. Just like the Firestorm itself, the Blockbuster-class of Battleship was a modified and hybridized version of the Ethereal War alien Battleship, several of which had darkened the skies of Earth by the end of the war. The current incarnation was, like the original, roughly cigar-shaped, with nictitating plates of Etherium armor occasionally revealing faintly glowing red orbs along the sides.
The Firestorm was just a fighter-transport, the equivalent of a local species shuttle. It was absurdly fast, especially outside an atmosphere, but it wasn't FTL capable. Aside from the ones assigned for base defense, every Firestorm needed a mothership to get where it was going. For the last three missions, that had been the BB-5016 Kilimanjaro. Lieutenant Shepard was still not entirely sure whether the assignment of that particular ship had been a coincidence or a bit of a private joke on the Fleet Commander's part.
Lt. Commander Hannah Shepard was XO on the BB-5016, after all.
"Captain Price," the holographic display of Annabel Shepard's only daughter greeted them, her tone laconic. "Sergeant Day. Lieutenant Shepard. I take it things went well."
Captain Price nodded. "We ended up killing our contacts."
"We also captured two asari, so expect some extra warm bodies: one ambulatory, one mind-frayed, plus the quarian. I'm forwarding my preliminary."
"Not just alive, but un-flayed?" Hannah Shepard's lips just barely cracked a faint smile. A strand of her bright red hair fell part way over her left eye, escaping from the loose ponytail she wore. "Mother, how unlike you to leave things alive in your wake; don't tell me you're feeling your age?"
"Ninety is the new forty," Annabel assured her, "Lieutenant Commander."
"Everything is the 'new forty,'" Hannah reminded her. She glanced away briefly, probably at someone among the bridge crew. "We're assuming control of the Firestorm now."
The Firestorm soon vanished behind one of the armored screens and the Battleship winked out into a brief, black singularity. Their next stop: Arcturus, both the star and the ship. It was XCOM Headquarters beyond the Local Cluster. It had also been the closest still-active mass relay leading to Earth.
Emphasis on the 'had been.'
"Relay 314?" Commander Desolas Arterius had never even heard of the thing before.
What was out that way? Just a lot of nothing. 314?
"Yes, sir," the other turian replied, nervously holding his datapad over his chest. "If you'll check, um, particularly pages sixty three to seventy one, you'll see that we have very… very convincing… evidence, that is to say, we've made a very educated guess based on our translations and other data… that there may be a prothean relic site of some sort beyond Relay 314. If you could just forward our findings to someone, like General Orinia, maybe-"
"I'll see what I can do," Desolas promised and the scientist's eyes lit up.
"Really?" he asked, sounding surprised. "Thank you, sir! Trust me, this is a sure thing! We just need to reactivate the relay!"
"Maybe so, but High Command won't authorize activating a relay on just this," the young Commander reminded him, waving about his copy of the scientist's datapad. "There are procedures to go through. Regulations. That's not even considering what's needed to get the approval of the Salarian and Asari. I'll forward it along, but I wouldn't hold my breath. I remember it took twenty cycles before they opened the last relay."
"Relay 258," the scientist answered. "I know, sir. And I can wait. I'm confident what's waiting for us will be worth it."
"We'll see," Desolas replied, and gestured for the turian to go.
The technician did, but only after another profuse: "Thank you again, sir!"
'How far down his list was I, anyway?' Desolas thought, watching the mousy turian leave his office. 'You'd think it would be easy to get funding to dig around for prothean artifacts. Especially ones that may have been referenced in some star chart in Palaven Temple.'
Frankly, it sounded like a wild varren chase if ever he'd heard of one.
"Arca Monolith?" he re-read the proposal abstract and almost tossed the datapad aside. Instead, he quickly scrolled through the pages of dense technical translations and starchartery. Where was Relay 314, anyway? There. He finally found an attached map of current relay lines. And 314 was… in the middle of nowhere, leading nowhere.
There was no all-consuming rush, then. Desolas made a mental note to pass the report along a little later. It would just have to creep up along the usual channels. It was doubtful General Orinia would be interested in sticking her neck out to get some new relay opened. The female was far too conservative. But in the future? Who knew? It might be a real career builder, and what was 'good for the tribe was good for the turian' as the old saying went. The Hierarchy was always looking for more artifacts, even if this particular proposal was a bit of a long shot.
Planet Camala, Indris System.
Private First-class Ka'hairal Balak could smell it in the air: trouble.
This whole situation was trouble. It was a reactor about to melt down. Every instinct he had was at war with the fact that, if he tried to get the hell out of this jam, he was likely to end up shot by his own comrades in arms. Basically, it was looking more and more like he was right and truly fucked.
"Masks!" the battalion commander screamed over the dim below. "Get ready, you maggots!"
"Holy Pillars, protect us," another batarian draftee murmured to himself as he lowered the helmet faceplate down and tightened the NBC seals. "Protect us and guide us through this trial..."
"You put your faith in the Pillars," another tried to joke, raising his 'Executioner' Shotgun, the Batarian State Arms logo still proudly stamped on the side. "I'll put my faith in this."
Balak remained silent. It was enough to try and keep from vomiting or otherwise showing his anxiety.
"WWWRROOOO!" the roar came up from below.
Packed into the Plaza of Glory, stretching out line an angry tide, thousands of Batarians – and even a few other Terminus species, including a few krogan according to intel – were marching and protesting, waving signs. Even if the outlying military outposts in the arid wastes surrounding the capital did show up, they would still be outnumbered a hundred to one… or that's what it looked and felt like at least. Balak could hardly believe there were that many low-class batarians on the planet much less in just one city.
But there were.
There were thousands of them. Thousands of indentured servants. Thousands of angry low-class batarians who forgot their place in the system. Probably even a couple hundred slaves who somehow managed to slip out and join the riot. Who knew how many were armed? Who knew how many actual mercenaries and pirates had decided to join in, just on the off chance that they could loot some of the city in the chaos? It was a mess. It was a nightmare.
It was a gods damned Caste War.
The protests of thousands muddled into a deafening, indistinct roar.
Down in the Plaza, a line of armed and armored Batarian Internal Forces men tried to keep the crowd back and away from the gates to the upper tier… where all the wealthy citizens of Camala had their estates and their slaves and their private community. Those same esteemed high-class batarians were – Balak had no doubt – cowering in their suites and wine cellars, making desperate calls to every Colonel and Commander and Captain and Admiral they could think of. All to put more bodies between themselves and the angry horde that, whipped into a mad frenzy, had finally decided to march on them.
Balak could see brief, tumbling little lights as flaming bottles arched through the air. That was a new surprise. The incendiary cocktails exploded amid the thin black line of guards below, and together with the press of bodies… it was only a matter of time before something began to bend… or break.
It started with one guard, the shoulder of his hardsuit on fire, throwing down his riot shield.
The others next to him, seeing him panic, began to falter. Waver. Finally, one stepped back.
There was no bellow of "fire!" like in the heroic vids distributed by the Department of Information Control. Someone just did it. And then everyone was doing it. Balak heard the steady crack-crack of rifle fire. A gas grenade exploded in the air over the protestors. Then everything seemed to move around him, pushing him forward and into the nightmare. Clutching his own shotgun close to his chest, he tried to steel his nerves. The Internal Forces were failing. Who the fuck knew what the other External Forces units were doing or where they were. There was nothing TO do. Except to go along with it and try and survive.
A sound like a snapfly buzzed Balak's right ear.
He turned his head, trying to find the source of the noise, and saw the soldier who had been praying before. There was a hole in his helmet. A clean hole. The inside of his helmet was just an indistinguishable mess of bright red blood and mangled orange skin. Dead. Dead, but still unable to fall because of the press of bodies, the deceased batarian soldier was jostled forward like a ragdoll.
"Fuck me. Fuck me. Fuck me." Balak tasted something hot and acidic in his mouth and forced it back down.
"GO! Go! Go!" Someone was screaming. It was impossible to tell who.
"WWWWRROOOO!" the protestors roared, welcoming them with an enraged serenade. The crack-crack of mass effect rounds exploded everywhere. Balak's unit rushed into and through the breaking line of Internal Forces men. Where their Batallion Commander had gone, Balak couldn't begin to guess.
There were no more orders; no more discipline; just everyone howling at everyone else. There was only kill or be killed, torn apart by the mob. Lowering his shotgun into the closest mass of angry faces, Ka'hairal Balak squeezed the trigger… and prayed.
In the haze of it all, the confusion and the terror, you could hardly blame him for not noticing when another battle overhead decided the fate of the colony. In low orbit, the new Hensa-class cruiser Hatre, named after Camala's own main port city, had just finished firing on select ground targets. A Hegemony-loyalist frigate, attempting to either stop the rebelling cruiser or fulfill the Governor's final, mad orders to bombard the city, quickly succumbed to the larger ship's guns. With the capital in turmoil and most of the local military leadership dead, either from bombardment or convenient accidents, the garrison fell within the hour.
Camala – the Hegemony's latest and greatest source of mined and processed eezo – was in open and defiant revolt.