It has been two months since the Battle of the Citadel.
The rogue Spectre Saren Arterius was defeated by the human Commander John Shepard, and the Reaper, Sovereign, was destroyed in a ferocious turn of events that shook the galaxy.
For the moment, there is a tender peace, but paranoia has begun to spread throughout the civilized races. Fear lurks about in the shadows; people have begun to question their safety.
In order to combat the rising tension, Shepard and his crew have been dispatched to quell any sign of insurgencies amongst the geth. So far, all claims have been proven baseless, but there are too many requests for aid and none can be ignored.
In order to satisfy their given objectives, Shepard has split his team up to cover the most ground, confident that several reports for assistance are mere fabrications.
It is this assumption that would cause everything to unfurl in disaster…
Eagle Nebula – Amun System
The UT-47 Drop Shuttle, more affectionately known as the Kodiak, buzzed through the cold reaches of space and proceeded on course toward the blue and green planet quickly filling the field of view. The craft had just entered mass production after being extensively prototyped by MirCon and P/Trin, a joint venture between one of the largest manufacturing conglomerates on Earth and a noted turian technology company and now it had been quickly put to use once it had rolled off the factory floor. The stubby craft could mask its heat emissions, making it effectively invisible to traditional sensors and it could also enter limited FTL jumps in addition to being able to utilize the relay system. This meant that the Kodiak was practically a tinier version of the Normandy, the sleek ship that had occupied the hearts and minds of free people across the galaxy for the last two months, due to its prominence in rescuing the Citadel Council from the geth attack while leading the charge.
This Kodiak was painted blue, Alliance colors, but it was not yet equipped with any weapons for defense despite its military association. Such an addition required more time for testing and the occupants of the craft had a more dire need for additional transport rather than worrying about the uses of further armaments. The situation at the moment was ideal with its current range of options and in theory would not require a use of force at all. This would just be a regular mission like the last successive five, just a quick drop in and out. Simple enough.
The garden world of Anhur, named after an Egyptian god of war, began to find itself host to the Kodiak infringing upon its borders. Quickly, the front of the craft began to heat up as the friction from reentry began to sear the metal, turning it red hot. Once the Kodiak had passed through that initial border, the racing wind cooled the smoking craft and it proceeded on its way through the towering clouds.
A low layer of stratus clouds obscured the ground but a few spires of black mountains rose along the horizon, puncturing the white layer. The Kodiak raced on through, seemingly intent on a specific point on the planet for it to land. The blue sky was brilliant overhead, with a few wispy clouds distorting light from the crystallized particles suspended in mid-air.
Passing only a mile from the side of a particularly tall mountain, the Kodiak's forward thrusters fired and the craft began to slow. Angling downward, the shuttle started to pass through the low hanging clouds, instrumentation doing all the work from here. A few minutes passed of complete visual blindness, itself not a reason to worry because a visual point of reference was no longer a requisite for any flying object in this day and age.
With little fanfare, the bottom of the craft burst through the clouds and the extent of the landscape was revealed. The mountainous terrain was rocky and blackened, steam rose from vents halfway up the summit. There were a few places where heat was escaping into the air from the ground as denoted by the wavy distortion from the differing temperatures. Obviously a site of volcanic activity.
A few miles downward, the green edges of a lush jungle suddenly stood out, fueled by the fertile soil in the area. The canopy of trees covered the rolling hills that were not in the way of the many lava flows that had permeated the area recently. The cries of animals echoed through the empty wasteland, birds could be seen flying in the air from tree to tree. It looked to be a very healthy place and quite capable of supporting a range of life, not unlike what the rainforests back on Earth used to be before they had been completely deforested by the endless corporations for profit. This world had not been spoiled, yet.
The Kodiak found a patch of soft, sandy ground in the middle of a valley and gently set down upon it, well away from any rocks that could jab at the craft's undercarriage. The thrusters quieted; the craft a big blue dot against a black and grey backdrop. With nothing but the wind creating noise, the low valley carried the sound of the shuttle door opening far and away, letting it last before the surrounding silence swallowed it up.
Gingerly, Commander Shepard stepped out of the shuttle, boots sinking into the black sand below. He surveyed the landscape for a minute, breathing in the rich air, before gesturing to the other person inside, a clear indication for them to follow. Once the all-clear was given, Tali'Zorah nar Rayya joined him on the earth, both starting to trudge up a slope, weapons out and ready as they left shoe imprints upon the ground.
Tali looked down at her omni-tool briefly as she opened up the necessary program. "The signal is definitely getting stronger." She pointed in the direction they were traveling. "Just a few hundred meters that way."
Shepard hefted the assault rifle he carried in his hands, his armor creaking as he hiked at a forty-five degree angle. "Hopefully this will yield something more fruitful than the last four planetfalls so far, but distress calls always seem to attract unwanted attention so keep your eyes alert."
"It's either been two things with distress signals, I've learned," Tali agreed as they maneuvered around a large boulder. "Either they were completely fabricated from panicked locals or they were part of some kind of trap."
"I'm betting this is probably another trap," Shepard sighed. "You're right in the fact that there has been little variation with this sort of thing. But, then again, someone's got to do this job. Might as well be us. But stay close, no telling who or what could be nearby."
"Right behind you, Shepard."
The sight of the two together would not really be considered normality for anyone, truthfully. Tali was a quarian, and unlike most quarians, her duty was to a human ship instead of one commanded by her own people. Normally, a quarian would embark on a Pilgrimage to seek out something of value to bring back to their fleet in exchange for a posting aboard one of their ships. However, extreme circumstances had forced the paths of Shepard and Tali to collide and, sensing an opportunity, Tali practically begged Shepard to take her along, not unwilling to let her story end here. This was merely an extension to her Pilgrimage, working on board a human ship to aid in the greater good. Passing up such a lucky circumstance would have reflected poorly on her and she made sure that Shepard knew that before he mentally processed her request.
In hindsight, allowing her on board the Normandy had probably been one of the best decisions Shepard could have ever made in his entire life because he found out that Tali was a genius with spaceships and engineering, capable of working efficiently with any electronic device. She was a natural with a shotgun and definitely was the most surprising member out of anyone in his team. Shepard's inexperience with quarians had quickly vanished once he got to talking with Tali, who was more than willing to share with him aspects of her society. Despite her claims to the contrary, she was very engaged and enthralling as a conversationalist and their discussions always ran longer than he expected while they chatted and compared concepts between the two species, each analyzing and interpreting the other.
For some reason, he always found himself wanting to hear more from her.
The two did not utter a word to each other until they crested the hill. Steam rose from a hole in the ground a couple meters to their left, itself reeking of sulphur. The atmosphere was entirely breathable to Shepard but Tali had on her helmet, as always. Being a quarian, she could never remove her covering because her weak immune system would be unable to defend against a host of foreign contaminants. Even a simple strain such as a cold could kill her if she was not careful. Still, Tali did not let her fragility become an extreme handicap, demonstrating to Shepard time and again that she was tougher than she looked through enduring the fires of battle. Even so, removal of a quarian's helmet was basically an invitation for death unless proper precautions were taken. Not that it mattered much to Tali anyway; no one had seen her face since she was an infant.
Shepard craned his neck and took a few deep breaths, not winded from the short hike but careful to conserve his energy all the same. He was not planning to stay long on this planet but he wanted to minimize any opportunity for resource consumption. Tali looked in the other direction while Shepard was gazing at a rocky cliff and quickly tapped Shepard on the shoulder.
Shepard looked to where Tali was pointing, taking a step forward. Near the base of a large hill, the remnants of a Trident fighter lay scattered amongst the cracked pumice. The shattered fuselage was uncolored, pieces of it were strewn behind it as it had gouged out a terrific line when it had impacted with the ground.
A crash landing.
"Good eyes, Tali," Shepard said admiringly. "Any confirmation with the distress signal?"
Tali glanced at her omni-tool once more, the orange glow dancing across her visor before replying. "Yes, it's definitely coming from the wreckage. Everything matches."
"Kind of odd that we lost the signal while we were approaching the planet but had no trouble picking it up while we were in a separate system. Does Anhur have a record of heavy magnetic interference?"
As they broke into a fast walk, Tali scanned whatever records she had compiled on the planet. "Not that I see. It could have been sunspot activity interfering with the quantum transmitters or that we passed in front of an object that blocked the signal for a moment. In reality, it could be a thousand different reasons why the connection was so spotty."
"Doesn't matter now, I guess. We found the source. Keep your gun ready, just in case."
"You really think that someone would go to all this trouble to set up a wrecked fighter as a trap?" Tali asked as she clutched her shotgun tightly, her body language betraying her doubts.
"Depends," Shepard said as he stepped over a jagged shard of a wing. "When I was with Garrus on Zesmeni, we found that these Eclipse troopers had placed a beacon in the middle a methane mining outpost and they blew the entire thing when the asari military had arrived. Garrus and I just ran the cleanup crew in the aftermath. Point is that you can't be too careful in these situations. A trap can be set anywhere, no matter if it's a simple or elaborate setup."
Tali stumbled on a rock as she listened to Shepard, but reflexes took over and she managed to catch herself. Shepard immediately started walking back over to her but she threw up a hand to reassure him. "No, don't worry. I'm fine."
"Positive," she nodded as she dusted herself off. She let a faint huff of irritation loose, quietly so that Shepard couldn't hear. Tali hated embarrassing herself like this in front of him. To draw attention away from her spill, she resumed the conversation where it had left off. "Well, at least my mission rotation with you has been a lot more interesting so far than when I went with the other members of the squad back on Raysha. All that led to was an abandoned mining post and nothing else. Not even a hint of enemy movement."
"All those false leads on geth activity starting to get to you?" Shepard smirked playfully.
Tali nodded emphatically, even though Shepard was walking ahead of her and couldn't see the motion. "It's just so frustrating to me when we get a notification after notification of nothing but speculative claims. We're supposed to be hunting down any remaining pockets of geth resistance and it seems that no one can provide a half-decent observation of-" She suddenly stopped mid-sentence, realizing what she was saying out loud. "I'm sorry, Shepard. That was out of line. I'm in no position to gripe about our mission. I just…get so frustrated with empty promises and having them all…all…"
Shepard just gave a quick laugh before patting Tali on the arm, the act making her stiffen but he didn't catch it. "No need to apologize, Tali," he smiled. "Truth be told, I'm getting annoyed as well. But it's our duty to seek out leads, wherever they are. We just can't take the risk of ignoring any of them because one could be a genuine call for help. On the other hand, considering our dismal success rate of zero percent at the moment, I can understand the discouragement."
Tali wilted, relieved. "I guess that you're really good at masking your feelings, huh? How was I supposed to know that you've been just as mad as me in this regard?"
Shepard gave a sly smile before pointing a finger upward. "Chain of command, Tali. That's where all the gripes go."
Feeling better already, Tali smiled widely as they climbed up a ledge made up of a previous lava flow and proceeded to walk up to the shattered canopy of the craft. Shepard pushed upward on his feet to peer inside while Tali checked out the side of the downed Trident. The crackling of obsidian beneath their feet replaced their conversation, along with the rushing of the wind that tugged at them.
After taking a few seconds to look around the interior of the fighter, Shepard dropped back down. "Pilot's dead," he said grimly. "Been here at least a few days."
Tali gulped. "How bad?"
If by bad she meant that the entire upper torso had been completely blasted away when a high velocity round had torn through the metal sheet that sealed the pilot away from the thin atmosphere, completely painting the back wall with blood and gore, then it certainly couldn't be called mild.
"Pretty bad," was all he said, already starting to block out the grisly sight. He couldn't even identify the species for there was so little left behind that wasn't already distributed across the cockpit.
"Oh," Tali said with a slump in her shoulders before she tapped the side of the fighter. "Insignia on the craft matches to Anhurian militia, though. This was a local Trident."
"And someone shot it down," Shepard mused. "But who? Geth?"
"No, impact holes on the fuselage are all punched inwards, indicating projectile rounds. Geth only use plasma which would only result in a neat hole and evidence of heat damage. There's no melting around the edges and we've never seen geth use anything other than plasma based weaponry."
"Hmm." Shepard stepped back to consider the wreckage thoughtfully, Tali joining him at his side, mimicking his movements. "This should have been discovered sooner. I mean that with the tracking software all ships are implemented with, someone on this planet should have noticed that this bird went missing and sent out a team to its last known location. How come we're the first to make it?"
Tali was furiously scanning all frequencies on her omni-tool before shaking her head in frustration. "I…I don't know, Shepard. And it's weird because I'm not picking up anything on the military band…or any frequency for that matter."
Shepard frowned. "Omni-tool working fine?"
"Yes, it's still functional. I just can't seem to get a signal."
A quick check to his own tool corroborated Tali's frustration in that he couldn't connect as well. Shepard quietly swore before stowing his rifle so that he could pace with his hands on his hips, gazing at the expansive jungle in the distance beyond the wasteland.
"This complicates things," he muttered. "Without the network we're unable to get a signal to the Normandy, much less the authorities on the planet. What's worse is that we have no point of reference to match this fighter to any of the individual governments on Anhur, judging by the fact that the crash gouged the hell out of the tail, making any identification number useless."
"Individual governments?" Tali cocked her head. "What do you mean?"
"Well," Shepard explained, "Anhur is primarily a human-controlled world but there is a significant population of batarians living here. And the relations between our two species are…not good, as you know."
Shepard started to walk back down the hill, finished with the wreckage, Tali hanging onto his every word. "Also, this planet had a pretty bad civil war a few years ago when the batarians tried to relegalize slavery here. Abolitionists took up armed conflict against the slavers, going to extreme lengths to protect their rights. The batarians were defeated but at a high cost to the planet's infrastructure, and Anhur has been in dire straits ever since."
Tali considered this for a moment as they started to approach the downward slope. "In that case, I would think that the abolitionists had the right idea. If your right to freedom is going to be taken by force, then surely you're supposed to use force to defend your life, right?"
"Absolutely," Shepard nodded. "Slavery is a despicable evil and no one should be subjugated to a life of torture and hardship. I'm not the best person to judge if the price the abolitionists paid was too high, but I have to support their reasons for rebelling to the idea of slavery."
"You sound like my father, Shepard," Tali said teasingly. "Always the staunch believer in absolute rights."
"That a good thing or a bad thing?"
Tali bit her lip, wondering how she wanted to portray Rael'Zorah to Shepard. "I would say that it is a definite positive. My father has always been enamored in the 'greater good' for all quarians. Of course, it got a little tiresome around the household because he-" She stopped in place, blushing fiercely, thankful that Shepard couldn't see past the helmet. "I'm sorry," she said again. "I don't want to bore you with my personal issues-"
"It's no problem," Shepard waved a hand in assurance before answering back lightly. "Garrus isn't here so you don't have to worry about him laughing. I don't mind, Tali. Honest, I-"
His sentence was cut off by a low rumbling that split the air, followed by a slight tremble up their legs. Shepard and Tali simultaneously glanced downward to see that tiny pebbles on the ground were dancing around, slowly sliding down the steep slope towards the valley floor. In horror, they looked at each other before they glanced at the mountain behind them.
"Oh…god damn it," Shepard gaped. "It never occurred to me to check for any seismic activity…"
"Shepard…" Tali said cautiously as an abrupt cracking noise like sustained gunfire vibrated the earth. Her eyes were traveling all over the place behind her visor, two wide orbs searching desperately for assurance.
With a vicious ferocity, Shepard grabbed her arm and immediately launched the both of them into skidding down the sandy slope. Where Tali had just been standing, the ground opened up and an enormous plume of molten rock spewed from underneath, boiling hot and sizzling. Chunks of lava flew into the air, launched hundreds of feet high from the immense pressure before the dense pieces dropped back down, smoking as the cooler air turned their state back into a solid.
Shepard and Tali tumbled, the latter yelping when a piece of lava hit near her hand, unable to slow the velocity of their descent. The both of them managed to turn themselves upright and they continued to slide down the slope, hoping to make it back to their Kodiak in time. Above them, a towering stack of ash plumed upward, billowing into the cloud layer where it would turn the day to night in a matter of minutes. The molten substance began to lip at the top of the valley before sliding down after them, a relentless pursuer intent on consuming everything in a wall of heat and flame.
As soon as the hill evened out for them, they took off running straight into the craft. They made it to the Kodiak in twenty seconds flat, an impressive feat seeing as both of them had about thirty pounds worth of weaponry strapped to their backs. Shepard hastily wedged himself into the pilot's seat, weapons and all while Tali frantically strapped herself in.
"No need to go through any preflight checks," Shepard muttered, mostly to himself as he tapped on the controls to ignite the Kodiak's engines. "Here we go."
With a lurch (as Shepard had failed to activate the acceleration dampeners) the Kodiak lifted a couple feet before it banked to the side, gaining altitude all the way. Shepard gradually eased the craft upward, moving in a slow circle around the base of what was now evidently a volcano. Shepard adjusted the pitch before moving parallel to the peak instead of away from it in order to conserve on potential time wasted.
"Systems look nominal," Shepard reported out loud. "Thrusters online, prepare to exit atmosphere and adjust for pre-orbit burn on my-"
With a BANG, the Kodiak was slammed to the side as something impacted with it, Shepard's hand knocking into the virtual window control as he and Tali were suddenly buffeted around. His head caught the side of the craft and he saw stars through the explosive pain. Through blurry eyes, he could see that an engine had been completely destroyed from the craft readout. Tali was clutching the console in front of her, making low moans as the craft began to spiral in the air.
Through the static projected onto the canopy, Shepard could see that whenever the Kodiak faced the mountain during their spiral, a second plume of smoke and flame had erupted directly underneath them, sending molten rock directly into their path, straight into the engines.
Secondary fissures, he realized too late, mind running too slow for his own good.
The ground seemed to be getting closer with each passing second, and Shepard could feel his stomach lurching every time the craft made a complete rotation in the air. Through his nausea and headache, he still managed to yell out to the hysterical Tali, telling her to let go of the console and get her head down, moments before the entire world jolted horrendously, causing his teeth to click painfully together. His entire skeleton seemed desperate to be rattling out of his body and the tremendous noise overpowered his ears, causing him to yell in response until everything abruptly settled.
Dazed, he slowly blinked his eyes, the taste of copper in his mouth. Someone was fumbling at the clasps latching him to the chair and he sluggishly turned his head in that direction. Tali was standing over him, unhurt, but her fingers were shaking heavily. Shepard didn't know if he was deafened because he had not heard a word from her, unable to tell on sight alone if she was speaking. In a few seconds, he was freed and her hands were slowly guiding him up. On trembling legs, he maneuvered out of the cockpit and thrust out a hand on the bulkhead to steady himself.
All motion seemed to be blurring together for Shepard. Sound was slowly coming back to him, the vibrations from the craft enhancing his current range of sensation. Tali was rummaging around in the small hold above the passenger seats, looking for something. Drunkenly, Shepard staggered over to the door and slipped a few fingers into the emergency hatch release. With little effort, he pulled and mini-thrusters on the frame engaged, launching the door safely away for it to clatter on the blackened ground.
The first thing he noticed was the searing blast of heat in his direction, making his eyes water. The second was that their Kodiak had crashed in a small gulley, utterly immobile, and that just uphill, a flow of lava was steadily making its way towards them, creeping across the earth as it popped and sizzled.
"Tali…" he got out, the proper words to describe the danger getting lost on their way from his brain to his mouth.
"One second," came her reply as she doubled her efforts for whatever she was searching for.
Shepard severely doubted that they had even a second to spare, judging by the fact that the flow was less than a hundred feet away and closing at a rather quick pace, despite its relatively gradual rate of travel. Even at this distance, he could see the putty-like substance bubble as it glowed a fiery orange, the cracked upper layer turning black as it rolled with the flow's direction.
Trying desperately to shake off the shock from the crash, Shepard whirled back inside the Kodiak as Tali finished throwing a survival pack over herself and grabbed her arm. "Let's go, Tali. We're out of time!"
She made a quick noise of protest but Shepard was too fast, immediately hauling her outside and up the small ridge. Seconds later, the lava flowed down into the gulley and made contact with the Kodiak, creating a furious hiss as the shuttle's skin started to melt, the paint catching ablaze. Standing overhead, Shepard and Tali gazed forlornly down as the molten rock began to consume the craft, flowing over it and engulfing it in the thick substance. Shepard's eyes watered from the heat and Tali clutched the survival pack protectively as the severity of the situation began to loom over them.
Shepard glanced upward in anticipation back at the volcano and saw that they were no longer in the path of the lava, having made it to relative safety in the nick of time. A furtive look behind him was surprising in that it revealed that the Kodiak had transported them about a mile away from the edge of the lush jungle they had glimpsed from the landing zone. He knew that standing on this rocky ridge was not going to do them any good in any case. If they wanted to get off this planet, they needed to get moving right now.
"Come on, Tali," Shepard said quietly as he gently guided her with his arm toward the jungle, the only safe haven in sight. "There's no use lingering. We have to get going."
Tali began walking sideways, eyes solemn as she continued to stare at the engulfed craft, jumping slightly when a muffled boom was trapped underneath the molten surface from where the Kodiak had been. The He-3 tanks had finally ignited. There was no turning back now.
"Right behind you…Shepard," she said distractedly as they proceeded to walk briskly towards the wall of green in the distance, careful not to lose their footing on the rough surface in the meantime.
Ironically, Shepard had to agree with Tali that this mission had certainly become more interesting.
A/N: Well, I'm back.
In some ways, I'm relieved because this marks another opportunity to explore a side of the Mass Effect universe that I've been wanting to tap into. I've been working on outlining this story for a few weeks now and I'm quite excited to share some of my ideas with you all.
Interestingly, because this version of the universe is slightly altered, I've been able to come up with more ideas that can continue past this story into two more entries. Consider this installment the first part of a trilogy that I've envisioned, the ENGAGE Trilogy. In it, I will not be focusing on the events of the main games but rather take a few ideas and either write my own interpretation or expand on them in a different direction. I'm very anxious to explore some of the concepts I've come up with and I hope that you will enjoy them.
Oh, and don't worry, this will definitely not be as angsty as An Interval of Calamity. I've gotten that out of my system, you can calm down. However, don't think this is going to be all sunshine and butterflies for I am focused on making this story very, very dark. I hope to make it all seem appropriate and tasteful and you can be the judge if I've succeeded or not.
Tell me what you think so far and I hope that I will have properly hooked you all when everything is said and done.
That being said, let's begin.