Chapter Nine - Eden Prime
SSV Normandy, Arcturus Stream
April 6, 2183
"You are cleared, Normandy. Have a safe flight?" The soft voice of the flight control officer rang out from over the speakers on the bridge. It was a toss up to whether or not she was a VI or not, and Riley spent all of a few seconds pondering that from her place on the bridge, between the pilot and copilot seats. Crossing her arms, she turned her gaze away from the near incomprehensible holodisplays before Joker and Spitfire to the rapidly approaching Mass Relay through the windows. She tried to ignore the hairs rising on the back of her neck. Nihlus was lurking just behind her, and he had a prime view of both the bridge and the neck of the ship.
Hitting the communication button, Joker cut off the connection. Chewing on the inside of his lip, he muttered, "Safe flight my ass."
"She's just doing her job," Spitfire answered, leaning back in her seat. She didn't enjoy flight operations as much as Joker, but she could match his every move with nearly as much skill. Still, there were times that she missed being an active part of the Wonderbolts flight team. Feeling the air rush over her wings was an experience unlike any other.
"Yeah." Joker scoffed, rolling his eyes. His fingers flew over his holodisplay with the familiarity that could only come from years of practice. "Telling me where I can and can't fly."
"Do you need a candy bar?" Spitfire asked, checking over Joker's calculations.
"What?" Her question caught Joker off-guard, and he turned to look at her, confused. He blinked, having no idea where she was going with that. "What?"
"Do you need a candy bar?" She repeated.
Joker stared at her blankly. "I'm confused."
"You're getting a little cranky. Is your blood sugar low?" She smirked. Joker's eyes widened in surprise as she reached down under her seat and pulled out a candy-bar. "You're starting to act like an ass in front of the Commander."
Glancing over his shoulder, Joker leaned towards Spitfire. Comically loud, he whispered, "What about the Spectre?"
"Knock yourself out on that one, buddy." Spitfire laughed, wiggling the candy bar enticingly in from of him. She giggled at the way his eyes followed it. "So do you want it or not?"
"Well…" Joker shrugged, jutting out his bottom lip to try and look as pitiful as possible. "Yeah."
"That look really doesn't work for you." Shaking her head, Spitfire tossed the candy bar to Joker, turning her attention back to her holodisplays.
Joker settled back into his seat, unwrapping his new candy bar in childish glee. "I appreciate it."
"You should." Spitfire typed in a small course correction. "And you should really pay more attention to your math. You were off by a hundredth of a percent."
"Nag," Joker muttered, glaring as he took a big bite of the bar.
"Whiny bitch," Spitfire shot back, regretting for a moment that hooves weren't very good if one wished to make rude gestures at someone.
Behind them, Riley raised her eyebrows. The pilots were skirting the edge of being out of line, and she was wondering if she'd have to step in. She didn't really have a problem with it, but there was a Spectre listening to them after all.
"The Arcturus Prime relay is in range." Joker focused, freeing his hands by holding his candy bar in his teeth. "Initiating transmission sequence."
"We are connected." Spitfire flipped through her screens until she found the right one. She immediately started working through the math. "Calculating transit mass and destination."
"The relay is hot. Acquiring approach vector." Reaching over, Joker activated the Normandy's internal communications network. "All stations secure for transit."
The relay grew bigger and bigger in the windows of the bridge. The Mass Relays were marvels of engineering. Not only were they absolutely massive constructs, they had survived countless millennia in the cold void of space. Arguably the single most important construction ever made by the Protheans, they had last for tens of thousands of years. Some had even suggested that they were older than that. Without the relay network, galactic civilization would look incredibly different. In all likelihood, humanity would still be making the journey to the closest star system.
"The board is green. Approach run has begun." Joker tore his eyes away from his holodisplays for just a moment to find the relay before looking back down. "Hitting the relay in 3… 2… 1…"
Great white tendrils of electricity reached out from the relay and raced along the hull of the Normandy before grabbing hold. With a massive expenditure of energy, the relay grabbed the frigate and created a mass-free corridor between one of its multiple sister relays, this particular one in the Exodus Cluster. As it had countless times before, and would countless times again, the relay flung the Normandy across space, neatly side-stepping physics and Einstein in one move.
Making a relay jump always left Riley feeling a little strange, like a thousand needles were crawling up and down her back. She shook the feeling off. Relay jumps were a part of life in the Alliance Navy, and there was no getting around it. You adjusted to it, or you didn't reenlist.
"Thrusters…" Joker paid no attention to the feeling. As an Alliance pilot, he didn't even notice the transition anymore.
"Check." Spitfire confirmed. She wiggled uncomfortably, using her wings to try and smooth down the fur of her coat. Relay jumps always left her feeling… fluffy.
"Internal emissions sinks…" Joker's eyes widened as he took in the holodisplay. "Huh, looks like Adams got it working. Engaged! All systems online. Drift… just under 1500k."
"1500 is good," Nihlus remarked, startling everyone on the bridge as he spoke. "Your Captain will be pleased."
Turning, Nihlus turned and walked out of the bridge, leaving Riley, Joker, and Spitfire alone.
Looking over his shoulder, Joker waited until Nihlus was out of hearing range. Shaking his head, he turned back to his holodisplay. "I hate that guy."
"No you don't." Spitfire rolled her eyes, sticking her tongue out at him.
"Yes!" Joker nodded emphatically at her, wishing that he could bang his fist against the armrest. He didn't want a broken hand. That just wouldn't be fun for anyone. "Yes, I do."
"He gives you a compliment, so you hate him?" Spitfire had learned that the words that so often spilled out of Joker's mouth wasn't always the truth.
"Hey!" Joker protested, sending a glare at Spitfire. "You remember to zip up your jumpsuit on the way out of the bathroom? That's good. I just jumped us halfway across the galaxy and hit a target the size of a pinhead, so that's incredible!"
"I don't wear a jumpsuit," Spitfire remarked, chortling to herself. "And you're exaggerating. It wasn't halfway across the galaxy, more like a sixteenth. At the most. I also wouldn't call 1500 kilometers a pinhead. I don't know what world you live in, but we're all here in the real galaxy."
"Yeah, well…" Joker pouted. He stuck his own tongue out her, copying her move, then realized how absolutely stupid and childish that was and got back to work. "Spectres are trouble. I don't like having him onboard. Call me paranoid."
"You're doing a pretty good job of that yourself." Spitfire ruffled her wings, then finally settled them down, the static dissipating finally. "The Systems Alliance wasn't alone in building the Normandy. He's here for the same reason I am."
"Don't remind me," Joker muttered. The fact that Spitfire could be reassigned at any time was not something he enjoyed.
"There's something else going on," Riley remarked, resting her hands on her hips. "You don't send Spectres on shakedown runs."
"Joker, status report!" Captain Anderson's voice came over the communication network.
"Just cleared the mass relay, Captain," Joker reported, straightening out of respect, even if he was just speaking to the Captain over the radio. "Stealth systems engaged. Everything looks solid."
"Good. Find a comm buoy and link us into the network. I want mission reports relayed back to Alliance brass before we reach Eden Prime." Captain Anderson said.
"Aye, aye, Captain." Joker glanced over at Spitfire and smirked before proceeding to cross right over the line. "Better brace yourself, sir. I think Nihlus is headed your way."
"He's already here, Lieutenant." Captain Anderson's voice was flat, though a very subtle hint of anger was present in his voice.
Joker winced, rubbing his face. Spitfire just rolled her eyes at him, far too used to his problems.
"Tell Commander Shepard to meet me in the comm room for a debriefing." Captain Anderson said before cutting the transmission.
Joker glanced over his seat at Riley, wincing when he caught sight of just how unimpressed she looked. "You got that, Commander?"
"He sounds angry." Riley had to bite back her laugh at how ridiculous the pilot was. "Something must have gone wrong with the mission."
"The Captain always sounds like that when he's talking to Joker." Spitfire laughed.
"Haha, laugh it up fuzzy." Joker scowled, clenching his fists.
Turning, Riley marched down the neck of the Normandy, towards the briefing room hidden behind the galaxy map. She passed by Lieutenant Pressly, who was arguing with someone over the communications network.
"I told you, I just saw him!" Pressly exclaimed, multitasking as he worked up the mission log. "He marched by like he was on a mission."
"He's a Spectre. They're always on a mission."
Riley ignored Pressly, walking right on past them without looking back. She paid little mind to the rest of the crew going about their business. On the other side of the galaxy map, she saw Rainbow and Dr. Chakwas listening to Corporal Richard Jenkins blather on about something. As she strode forward, she was able to make out what he was saying.
"I grew up on Eden Prime, Doc!" Jenkins practically shouted, gesticulating his hands as he looked over his captive audience. "It's not the kind of place Spectres visit. There's something else Nihlus isn't telling us about the mission."
He was a reedy young man, a bit too tall, and way too thin. Rainbow thought he looked a bit like a yearling just growing into their legs, and Riley had certainly seen the connection when the Pegasus had pointed it out to her.
"There's always something they don't tell us about a mission." Rainbow rolled her eyes, her shoulders slumping. She wanted to be anywhere else at the moment. "Ever heard of need to know?"
"Yeah…" Jenkins rubbed the back of his neck, glancing away from Chakwas and Rainbow.
"Obviously, you don't need to know." Rainbow pointed a hoof at Jenkins.
"What do you think Commander?" Jenkins asked as Riley passed them by. "We won't be staying on Eden Prime too long will we? I'm itching for some real action!"
"I sincerely hope you're kidding, Corporal." Chakwas chimed in, having had enough of just silently letting Jenkins blather on. She had seen too many young men and women eager to prove themselves a 'hero' end up dead before she could even help them. "Your 'real action' usually ends with me patching up crew members in the infirmary."
"Real action isn't as cool as it sounds." Rainbow glanced down at the ground, her wings drooping ever so slightly. "It's not very cool at all, and I should know."
"That's not true!" Jenkins shook his head. He had watched all of the videos of the Angels of Elysium, and he wanted that for himself. "You're a hero, and all because of Elysium. Without you and the Commander, we would have lost the colony."
"You need to calm down, Corporal." Riley spoke softly. She narrowed her eyes at Jenkins. The kid was beginning to touch at things he really should know not to. "A good marine stays cool under pressure."
"Sorry, Commander." If he had any idea of what was good for him, he would stop talking. He continued on. "But this waiting's killing me! I've never been on a mission like this before. Not one with a Spectre before."
"And I'd never been on a vacation where marauding pirates decided invasion was the best course of action." Rainbow growled, looking off to the side.
"Patience, Corporal." Riley sighed, wanting to just walk away. "If you rush into anything, you're going to get yourself killed."
"Easy for you to say, Commander!" Jenkins stomped a foot, and Riley had never felt worse about the state of the new recruits of the Alliance if he was anything to say about it. "You proved yourself in the Blitz. Everybody knows what you can do. This is my big chance. I need to show the brass what I can do!"
Straightening her spine, Riley stood tall, wrapping her officer persona tight around herself. She spoke authoritatively. "Calm down, Corporal. That's an order! Don't do something stupid."
"Yes, ma'am!" At the sound of her voice, Jenkins straightened and snapped to attention, saluting her out of habit.
Looking down, Riley shared a look with Rainbow. Her little sister rolled her eyes. They were in agreement about that, it seemed. This guy was way too eager.
"The Captain is waiting for me," Riley said, excusing herself from the conversation.
"Goodbye, Commander." Chakwas watched longingly as Riley beat a hasty retreat. She wished that she could do the same, but she had standards of decency to maintain.
"See ya'," Rainbow murmured, waving a hoof goodbye.
Riley walked past all of them and into the briefing room. As she stepped past the sliding door, she found that only Nihlus was present. Captain Anderson was nowhere to be seen. The turian Spectre had his back turned to her, his arms crossed over his chest as he watched images of Eden Prime taken from what had to be an orbiting satellite on the rooms view screen. Hearing her footsteps, and the the door sliding shut, Nihlus turned. He towered over Riley's rather modest height 5'8" by a whole foot.
"Commander Shepard." Nihlus flanged voice rumbled strangely in Riley's chest, and he seemed to loom over the entire room. "I was hoping you'd get here first. It gives us a chance to talk."
"What about?" Riley asked, grinding her teeth.
"I'm interested in this world we're going to." Nihlus half turned so he could look at both the view screen with pictures of Eden Prime and Riley. "Eden Prime. I've heard it's quite beautiful."
"They say it's a paradise," Riley said, eying Nihlus carefully. The fact that he was alone in the briefing room and Anderson was nowhere to be found was extremely telling. He wanted her alone, for what reason she couldn't fathom.
"Yes…" Nihlus nodded, turning fully to face Rainbow. "A paradise. Serene. Tranquil. Safe. Eden Prime has become something of a symbol for your people, hasn't it? Proof that humanity can not only establish colonies across the galaxy, but also protect them. But how safe is it, really?"
"Do you know something?" The entire conversation with Nihlus was setting Riley on edge, and she had to wonder just what he wanted.
"Your people are still newcomers, Shepard. The galaxy can be a very dangerous place. Is the Alliance truly ready for this?"
At the sound of the door opening, they both turned to watch as Captain Anderson walked in. He shared a private look with Riley, filled with warmth and paternal love, which she eagerly returned in her own kind. Nihlus didn't let on that he had noticed the entire thing.
"I think it's about time we told the Commander what's really going on," Captain Anderson said.
"Very well." Nihlus nodded at the Captain's decision. "This mission is far more than a simple shakedown run."
Riley just stared at Nihlus blankly, her posture screaming 'of course it is.' That went without saying.
"Right." Anderson ignored that, moving the conversation along. "We're making a covert pick-up on Eden Prime. That's why we needed the stealth systems operational."
"I assume there's a reason I wasn't told about this?" Riley asked, crossing her arms. Need to know could be more annoying than she ever let on.
"This comes down from the top, Commander, information on a strict need to know basis." Anderson said, stepping past Riley to stand side by side with Nihlus. He glance at the satellite pictures of Eden Prime. "A research team on Eden Prime unearthed a beacon."
Riley blinked. She hadn't been expecting that. The galaxy practically worshipped the Protheans, searching for any remnant of their once vast and powerful empire. The mass relays and the Citadel were the most obvious of their artifacts, but the ones that were far more valuable were the Beacons. They were the single rarest of all of the paleo-technology that the Protheans had left behind, and that was partly because of how fragile they were compared to the relays. Beacons were what had allowed many of the races of the galaxy to learn the secrets of faster-than-light travel, expanding further into the galaxy than they ever would have been able to on their own. To have found one on a human colony could only mean good things for the Alliance.
"This is big, Shepard." Anderson smirked. That was an understatement if he had ever heard one. The beacon could catapult the Alliance forward technologically and politically. This mission had to be handled correctly. "Eden Prime doesn't have the facilities to handle something like this. We have been ordered to bring the Beacon back to the Citadel for proper study."
"Obviously this goes beyond mere human interests, Commander," Nihlus spoke up. "This discovery could affect every species in Council space."
"It certainly explains your presence," Riley murmured. Of course the Council would want to have their own piece of the action.
"The Beacon's not the only reason I'm here, Shepard," Nihlus admitted after sharing a look with Anderson.
"Nihlus wants to see you in action, Commander." David explained further. "He's here to evaluate you."
Riley shot Anderson a look, her eyes narrowing. Explain, please.
"You held off an enemy assault during the blitz with your untrained sister," Nihlus said with a chuckle. "You showed not only courage, but also incredible skill and foresight. That's why I put your name forward as a candidate for the Spectres."
Riley took a step back, her eyes going wide, and she looked to Anderson for explanation.
"The Alliance has been pushing for this for a long time, Shepard." Anderson smiled apologetically at her, but he certainly didn't relent. "We want a larger role in shaping interstellar policy. We want more of a say with the Citadel Council. The Spectres represent the Council's power and authority. If they accept a human into their ranks, it shows just how far the Alliance has come!"
"I need to see your skills for myself, Commander," Nihlus explained. "Eden Prime will be the first of several missions together."
"You'll be in charge of the ground team," Anderson said. "Secure the beacon and get it back to the Normandy. Nihlus will be accompanying you to observe how you operate on the mission."
"Just give the word, Captain." Riley saluted.
"We should be getting close to Ede—"
"Captain!" Joker's voice crackled over the Normandy's communication network. "We've got a problem."
"What's wrong, Joker?" Anderson asked, listening carefully.
"Transmission from Eden Prime, sir." As he spoke, Joker took control of the briefing room's view screen from the bridge. "You better see this!"
"Show us, Joker."
Together, the three of them turned to face the view screen. A second passed, and the satellite photos of Eden Prime disappeared, replaced by shaky footage from what appeared to be a helmet cam. A team of Alliance marines were shooting at an unseen aggressor on a grassy hill, the marine filming tripping and falling to the ground. The marine struggled to get up, and the footage went wild, the camera bobbing about everywhere.
"Get down!" A female marine in white and pink armor rushed at the marine, shoving the other marine back down. She got back up to her knees, firing her rifle in short, controlled bursts.
An explosion sent the entire small squad sprawling to the ground, disorienting the marine with the camera even further.
"We're under attack!" Another marine rushed at the camera, shouting to be heard over the sounds of battle. "We're taking heavy casualties. I repeat, heavy casualties! We can't— Aargh —eed evac! They came out of nowhere. We need—"
A line of bullets marched their way up the marine's back, and he dropped to the ground dead, his face twisted in terror.
A horn sounded from the sky, something that wasn't so much heard as it was felt, and the camera looked up at the sky. It was a crackling, ancient sound that sent shivers down Riley's spine. Following the marine's gaze, the rest of the surviving squad looked up as well, the firefight slowing for a moment.
Through the clouds, it looked like a massive hand was reaching out for the planet itself, wreathed in red lightning. The horn blared again, and the gunfire began again.
Before anything else could happen, the video cut to static.
"Everything cuts out after that," Joker said, switching the display back to satellite photos of Eden Prime. "There's no comm traffic at all. The entire planet is silent. There's nothing."
"Joker, reverse and hold at 38.5," Anderson said. He took a step closer to the screen, tilting his head. A second passed before Joker did as he asked. The satellite photos disappeared, and the image reverted back to the blank mechanical hand reaching down from the heavens.
Now that it was paused, Riley could see what it was more clearly. It wasn't a hand at all. It was a ship, and a massive one at that. There was nothing to give it a true sense of scale, but if she had to guess, she would say that it was at least two kilometers in length, maybe more.
"Status report, Joker," Anderson barked, frowning.
"Seventeen minutes out, Captain." Joker said. "No other Alliance ships are in the area."
"Take us in, Joker. Fast and quiet."
"You got it, Captain."
"This mission just got a whole lot more complicated," Anderson said, turning to Nihlus, his face grim.
"A small strike team can move quickly without drawing attention." Nihlus had been on countless more difficult missions, and he already knew how he would tackle it, but he was still there to see Riley in action. "It's our best chance to secure the beacon."
"Grab your gear, Shepard, and meet us in the cargo hold." Anderson turned to Riley. "Tell Alenko and Jenkins to suit up. You're going in."
"Sir, Flying Officer Dash would be an asset on this mission," Riley broke in, suggesting to him.
Anderson thought about it for a moment, before nodding in agreement. "Very well. Tell her too."
"Yes, sir," Riley saluted. Turning, she walked out of the briefing room, leaving Anderson looking at the image on the screen.
Striding out into the CIC, Riley found that the conversation she had left between Jenkins, Chakwas, and Rainbow was still going on. From the look of things, Chakwas had been going on a rant for more than a few minutes, and both Jenkins and Rainbow looked like they wanted to escape.
"I'm sorry, Doctor, but I need these two." Riley smirked at Rainbow's overenthusiastic sigh of relief. "I hope that's not a problem."
"Oh?" Chakwas blinked, looking over at Riley. "It's not a problem at all, Commander."
Chakwas turned and left, and Riley turned her attention to Rainbow and Jenkins.
"Get suited up and meet me in the cargo hold. This just became a combat mission."
"Combat?" Riley didn't like the way Jenkin's eyes lit up. He bounced on his heels, a giddy smile overtaking his face. "What's happening Commander?"
"Get suited up first, Corporal." Riley said, trying to keep her voice even and steady. Jenkins didn't need any more encouragement to be too excited. "The Captain will brief us in the cargo hold."
"Yes, ma'am!" Jenkins snapped to attention, saluting. He rushed off towards the stairs, going for his armor and guns if he knew what was good for him.
"What's going on?" Rainbow asked as soon as Jenkins was out of earshot.
"Trouble." That summed it up perfectly. Riley knelt down so she was at eye level with Rainbow.
"What?" Rainbow backed up a bit, not liking the intense look that Riley was giving her.
"Stay safe," Riley murmured, keeping her voice low. No one else needed to hear what she had to say. "Mom and Dad would kill me if anything happened to you."
"Same to you! I'd never hear the end of it." Rainbow scoffed, rolling her eyes. She sat back on her haunches, holding her forelegs up as she batted her eyes and pitched her voice higher. "Oh, Rainbow, why did you let your big sister get shot in the face? Now I'll never have any human grand-babies."
"Seriously!" Riley punched Rainbow right in the chest, stopping her horrible imitation of Firefly. "Keey an eye out. Everything about this mission is hinky."
"Hinky?" Rainbow cocked her head, raising an eyebrow.
"Something bigger than us is going on, and we're getting caught up in it." Riley sighed, running a hand through her hair. Emotions were hard for her sometimes, but she tried her best. Rainbow was a huge part of her life, and going on without her was completely unthinkable. "Just… stay safe."
"Yeah…" Rainbow met her sister's gaze, nodding once. She looked more than a little confused by her seriousness, but Riley hadn't led her wrong once yet. "I will."
"Good." Riley stood, taking a deep breath. "Go get your gear."
Rainbow straightened up, saluting. "Yes, boss ma'am, sister, sir!"
Before Riley could say anything, Rainbow zipped off in a streak of her namesake. Rolling her eyes, Riley followed after her with a hurried but far more sedate pace.
She took the stairs down to the crew deck two at a time, walking right past the freight elevator to the line of sleeper pods under the neck of the ship, she saw Rainbow already digging around in her locker under her pod. In the small kitchen area, Kaiden sat at the furthest table finishing up a cup of coffee. She made a beeline straight towards him.
"Alenko!" She barked, clapping him on the shoulder.
"Ma'am?" Kaiden stood, watching her carefully.
"Get suited up. You're on the mission. We're going down to the cargo bay." Without any further explanation, Riley strode past him to her own sleeper pod.
Kneeling down, she opened her own locker underneath it and pulled out the chest plate of her armor, the N7 badge gleaming up at her. Alliance standard issue for all 'N' operators, her onyx class armor had saved her life more than a few times in the past. It would hopefully do the same this time.
With an ease that only came from years of experience, Riley started to pull her armor on, attaching it to the hard points of her BDUs.
"Come on, you stupid piece of—"
Hearing the grumbled curses behind her, Riley looked over her shoulder to find Rainbow on her back, struggling to tug on the armor on the rear of her leg. With a cry of triumph, she rolled over and jumped up onto all four of her hooves.
"Having a little trouble there?" Riley asked with a coy smile.
"Shut up." Rainbow growled and trotted away, shaking her rear leg to try and even out the fit.
Finishing up, Riley tested the fit of her right gloves, nodding in approval. Smooth motion all the way through. Good.
Looking over, she saw Kaidan was finished too. Together, the two of them headed after Rainbow. They found her waiting impatiently at the elevator, tapping a forehoof against the ground.
With a quiet ding, the elevator arrived and the door lowered. Together, the three of them stepped inside, Rainbow pressing the down button with her hoof.
Ever so slowly, the door raised, and with a soft clunk of machinery, it began to lower.
They stood there, listening to the quiet whine of gears and hydraulics as the elevator moved at a glacial pace. Rainbow started trotting in place, groaning to herself.
"This is worse than the airlock!" Rainbow shouted finally, her impatience getting to her.
Riley just rolled her eyes. Kaidan chuckled, and she looked over to find him shaking his head.
"That's what I said when I first came onboard." Kaidan laughed.
With a thunk, the elevator arrived, and though it seemed to take forever the door opened and allowed them out into the cargo bay.
Riley took a moment to look the cargo bay over. It looked like more than a few ships that she had served on. An M35 Mako infantry fighting vehicle sat just before the bay doors, chained down to the floor. Across from it were the weapon racks. Jenkins was there, finishing up armoring himself. He checked his assault rifle, then slammed the ammo block back into place.
Walking up, Riley grabbed her standard gear. She was pleased to find that her weapons had been placed onto the racks, and she quickly went through her routine, checking that the barrels were clean, the batteries were charged, and the ammo blocks were full. Sliding her sniper rifle into place on her back, she repeated the process with her assault rifle, then her pistol.
Rainbow easily slid into her battle harness, built specially for the Wonderbolts. It locked into place on her armor with an easy click.
Hearing the ding of the elevator, the four of them looked over to find Nihlus and Captain Anderson striding out. Quickly, Riley motioned for them to assemble, standing at ease as the two walked up to them.
"We're ready to move, Captain." Riley announced, saying to him.
"Good." Anderson nodded. "Your team's the muscle in this operation, Commander. Go in heavy and head straight for the dig site."
"What about survivors, Captain?" Kaidan asked, his voice even and respectful.
"Helping survivors is a secondary objective, lieutenant." Anderson didn't sound happy about that, but there wasn't any other choice. "The beacon's your top priority."
On the side of the cargo bay door, a red light turned green and with a loud honk, the door began to open. Wind came rushing in, though Riley was barely even able to feel it through her armor.
"Approaching drop point one." Joker's voice came over Riley's internal suit radio.
Jenkins looked over in surprise as Nihlus pulled out his shotgun, checking it over. "Nihlus? You're coming with us?"
"I move faster on my own." Nihlus shook his head, barely giving the Corporal a second glance. Without a further word, Nihlus took a running leap and jumped out of the cargo bay.
"Nihlus will scout ahead." Anderson said, taking no mind that the turian had just jumped from nearly one-hundred feet up. "He'll feed you status reports throughout the mission; otherwise, I want radio silence."
"We've got his back, Captain." Riley said, noting from the corner of her eyes that Jenkins was staring after the last spot that he had seen Nihlus, his mouth probably gaping open inside his helmet.
"The missions yours now, Shepard." Anderson nodded, stepping back as he shielded his eyes from the wind. "Good luck!"
"Approaching drop point two." Joker's voice rang out again.
Riley got ready, and she could see that the rest of her squad was doing the same. Through the open cargo bay door, the planet's surface came up to meet them, until they were able to see a large clearing. When they were just twenty feet off the ground, Riley gave the order.
"Move it people!" Riley shouted into the squad's network. "Come on!"
Together, they leaped out of the ship. Riley, Kaidan, and Jenkins landed on bent knees, while Rainbow took a far more leisurely flight down. They quickly formed a loose perimeter, searching for any sign of a threat. As soon as they were out of the cargo bay, the Normandy rocketed away, back out of sight and to safety.
Scanning her rifle across the horizon, Riley looked up at one of the towering arcologies. It was burning, its skeleton bared for the entire world to see.
Eden Prime had seen better days. The sky was nearly cloudless, but it was tinged red from the fires that burned everywhere. In the distance, towering over the arcologies was the ship. Dark, charred atmosphere circled around its top. It didn't look like a hand, she noted, now that she could see it better. It almost looked aquatic, standing on great claws.
"It smells like smoke," Kaidan noted, his voice tinged with distaste. "And death."
"Perimeter secure," Jenkins relayed back.
Riley stood to her full height, scanning for any sign of the aggressors that the marines were fighting in the video.
"This place got hit hard, commander. Hostiles are everywhere. Keep your guard up." Nihlus' voice came over the comm network.
Jumping up into the air, Rainbow Dash hovered effortlessly, the weight of her armor not affecting her in the slightest.
"Rainbow," Riley said. "You're our eyes in the sky. Get to cloud cover. I want you to see our enemy hours before they see you."
"Got it!" Rainbow saluted her. She zoomed up, heading towards the nearest cloud.
As soon as she was gone, Riley turned to face Kaidan and Jenkins. "Let's move. Jenkins, you've got point."
"Yes, ma'am!" Eager to follow her orders, Jenkins rushed forward. He was shaky, and it was obvious the state of Eden Prime was really getting to him.
"You alright, Jenkins?" Kaidan asked.
"I…" Jenkins shook his head to try and clear his thoughts. It didn't work. "I don't know. God, what happened here?"
"You can work through it later, Jenkins," Riley reassured him. It wasn't the time for emotions though. "I know it sucks, but I need you on your game. Got it, Corporal?"
"Y-Yes, ma'am." Jenkins nodded, his breathing heavy.
"Good, keep moving." Riley ordered, shifting her grip on her rifle.
"Yes, ma'am." Jenkins spoke clearer this time.
Together, they moved forward, past scurrying native animals and down a small embankment.
"Oh, god." Jenkins couldn't help but look around at his home, seeing in the distance a burning arcology. "What happened here?"
They came around a turn to see a large open field. Charred corpses were strewn everywhere, farmers and engineers, men, women, and children alike. Holding her fist up, Riley signaled for Kaidan and Jenkins to hold. Getting down on one knee, she scanned the field before motioning for Jenkins to move forward.
The butt of his rifle firmly against his shoulder, Jenkins rushed forwards.
With a whirr of electricity, three hovering drones raced around the bend on the opposite side of the field.
"Jenkins!" Riley shouted, already firing at the drones. "Get back to cover!"
Jenkins didn't even have a chance to hear her. Even as the words left Riley's mouth, he was riddled full of bullets, the drones taking full advantage of an easy target.
"Shit!" Riley ducked back behind one of the large walls of granite, pulling Kaidan down with her. "Shit!"
The drones kept up a steady wave of fire. Pulling out her sniper rifle, Riley crawled to the edge of the wall and leaned down and around, only to scramble backwards as a wall of gunfire almost took off her face.
"What the hell are those things?" Kaidan asked, ducking even closer against the wall.
"I don't have a clue!" Riley looked up, finding the cloud that Rainbow must have grabbed high in the sky. She triggered the radio. "Rainbow, get off your ass and do something!"
Riley watched as the cloud moved, drifting over the drones. Rainbow opened fire with her battle harness, and in seconds the drones were turned into nothing but scrap and shrapnel.
"Good work, Rainbow."
Carefully, Riley stood and crept out of cover. Kaidan was right behind her. They both kept their heads on a constant swivel, looking for any more of the drones as they rushed towards Jenkins' still body.
"Jenkins?" Riley knelt down next to him as Kaidan stood over the two of them, keeping an eye out. She peeled the armor of his neckpiece away and felt for a pulse.
"Dammit," she murmured, looking up and Kaidan and shaking her head. "They ripped right through his shields. He never had a chance."
"He was young." Kaidan couldn't help but wonder if there was something that he could have done. Could he have pulled the boy back with him?
Sighing, Riley stood. "We'll see that he receives a proper service once the mission is focused. But I need you focused."
"Aye, aye, ma'am." Kaidan nodded, his voice grim.
Trigger her radio, Riley looked up at Rainbow's cloud. "Are you alright, Rainbow?"
"Yeah." Rainbow kept the communication curt and short.
"Rainbow…" Riley murmured, biting her lip.
"I'm fine." The cloud started moving.
"Alright." Riley sealed Jenkins' armor again. "Keep alert."
Together, Riley and Kaidan moved forward. They had to leave Jenkins' body behind. They couldn't take him with them, he would simply slow them down.
Holding up a hand, Riley paused in front of the drones. She picked up the mangled bulk of the closest one. It was a little larger than her chest, built of an extremely light material that wasn't metal, or anything else that Riley had ever seen or touched before. A thick gun hung under the drone, and it was clear why Jenkins didn't stand a chance. The drones were nothing but a floating gun platform, using weapons that were built for nothing but killing as many soldiers as possible.
"What are they?" Toeing one with his boot, Kaidan eyed the drone for a second before looking back up, keeping his guard up.
"I don't know." Shrugging, Riley stood. She had seen a lot of things during her time with the Alliance special forces, but these were on a completely different level. From the insides she could see through the bullet holes peppering the drone, she couldn't make heads or tails of what she was looking at. "They don't look like any drones I've ever seen."
Before they could speculate any further, more of the drones sped around the corner. Riley and Kaidan had their rifles firing, chewing through their surprisingly weak shields in a matter of moments. Engulfed in fire, the drones crashed to the ground and exploded.
"I've got some burned out buildings here, Shepard." Nihlus said over the radio. "A lot of bodies. I'm going to check it out. I'll try to catch up with you at the dig site."
"Rainbow." Riley activated her own radio. "Go scout up ahead. Keep me informed."
Both Kaidan and Riley watched as the cloud Rainbow was hiding behind moved forward, doing as she was ordered.
"Keep tight." Glancing at Kaidan, Riley took a deep breath before moving forward. He followed close behind her. Passing around the bend, they emerged out into the edge of a wooded forest. Tall trees reached up towards the sky, the closest branch over forty feet above them. The tops of the trees reached up to the burning sky. Through the edge of the forest, they came to an overlook above a long ravine.
Coming to the top of the overlook, Riley and Kaidan were just in time to watch the marine in white and pink armor from the transmission come rushing up the hill, stumbling as she tried to a help another limping marine along.
Two black plated mechs came around the bend of the ravine, following after the two marines with surgical precision. The armor that covered them seemed to suck in all of the light, and it was strange just to look at them. Carbon nano-tubes, Riley wondered. It would explain the strange light sucking quality. The heads of the mechs rose up into a singular, glowing eye, focused directly on the marines, and they raised their rifles almost in unison.
Rushing down the ravine, Riley clenched her fist and sent a singularity to separate the marines from the mechs. The dark energy caught the two mechs, lifting them off the ground and pulling them into an unsteady orbit around the miniature gravity well, leaving them flailing helplessly.
Pulling out her sniper rifle, Riley sent two shots through the head of each mech soldier, followed by one more each for safety.
The two marines paused, looking up at their saviors as Riley and Kaidan jumped down the overlook. Seeing just how high above them Riley was in rank, they straightened as much as they could, saluting.
"Commander!" The marine in white and pink armor said breathlessly. She wasn't a tall a woman, nor was she short. She was average, with a build like a wrestler, emphasized even further by the bulk of her armor. "Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams of the 212. You the one in charge here, ma'am?"
"I am." Riley glanced at the other marine.
"Serviceman Nirali Bhatia," she said, clutching her side as she tried to catch her breath. Unlike Ashley, Nirali wasn't an overly active woman. She only barely maintained the Alliance fitness standard for the marines, and she was starting to get too old to be running in full kit. It was only thanks to the servos and gears in her armor that she had been able to make it as long as she had.
"Are you two okay?" Kaidan asked, pulling out his medkit.
"A few scrapes and burns, nothing serious." Ashley shook her head. The adrenaline was starting to wear off, the enormity of everything hitting her all at once. "Nirali's shot though, and we were the lucky ones."
"Let me help, Serviceman," Kaidan said, helping Nirali to the ground.
"Thank you, sir." Grunting, Nirali clenched her teeth.
Taking his medigel, Kaidan injected it directly into the bullet holes in Nirali's armor. The woman winced, clutching her side. "Gods, that stings!"
"What happened here, Chief?" Riley asked, keeping an eye on the other end of the ravine.
"Oh man…" Ashley tried to catch her breath. "We were patrolling the perimeter when the attack hit. We tried to get off a distress call, but they cut off our communications. Nirali and I managed to get away, and we've been fighting for our lives ever since."
"Do you know what those things are?" Gesturing down at the scraps of the mechs at the other end of the ravine, Riley looked back at Ashley, hoping for answers.
Looking down at her injured companion, Ashley and Nirali shared a look. They didn't know if Riley was going to believe. They didn't know if they believed themselves.
"I…" Ashley bit her lip. "I think they're geth."
"Geth?" Kaidan blinked. "The geth haven't been seen outside the veil for nearly two-hundred years. Why would they be here now?"
"They must have come for the beacon!" Ashley pointed back the way they had come. "The dig site is close, just at the other end of the ravine. It might still be there. We didn't really get a chance to look."
"We could use your help Chief, Serviceman." Riley looked over the two women. "Are you up for that?"
"Yes, ma'am!" Ashley straightened her back, preparing herself to jump back into the fight. "We're looking for payback."
"I just want to get out of here alive," Nirali admitted as Kaidan helped her back up to her feet.
"Stick with us and we'll make sure that happens." Kaidan reassured her.
Ashley and Nirali followed after the two of them, and they walked in silence for several hundred feet until it became to much for Nirali.
"We thought this world was safe…" She whispered to herself. "Then the geth showed up. Oh gods! I just want to go home."
"Quiet, serviceman!" Riley barked, hoping that there weren't any mechs around to take advantage of her.
"Yes, Commander." Nirali whimpered to herself, clutching her rifle to herself like it was a lifeline.
Riley in the lead, they headed down the ravine towards where Ashley had said the beacon had been uncovered.
The dig site itself was easy to see the closer they got. Cranes and diggers were littered across the surface of the ravine, and great mounds of earth were piled high on both sides. Tall work lights had been placed around the site, though they had been shot to pieces.
Motioning silently, Riley took cover just behind the bend of the ravine, the others following her lead. Peeking around, Riley saw more geth lingering around the dig site. A circular structure had been unearthed, having survived the millennia surprisingly well, but Riley couldn't see whether or not the beacon was there or not.
"Alright." Riley nodded, pulling herself back into cover. She looked over at the three of them. "Chief, with me. Alenko, Bhatia, keep them suppressed."
Waiting for their acknowledgement of her plan, her biotics flared blue before she ran out of cover, unloading her assault rifle on the first geth she saw until it overheated. Behind her, she could hear Ashley following after her, taking much more conservative shots with her own rifle.
With Kaidan and Nirali providing cover, Riley and Ashley charged forward. Punching a fist at a trio of geth standing inside the circular structure, slamming them into the ground so hard their armor shattered.
"Holy…" Ashely paused, amazed as Riley tore through the last remaining geth with her biotics.
Chest heaving, Riley caught her breath. Her biotics flared out a moment later. "Clear. Alenko, Bhatia, move forward."
As Kaidan and Nirali joined them, Riley took a better look at the dig site. The archeologists had uncovered a completely impressive massive stone structure with four large spires rising up from stone circle center. Ashley stepped up to the center.
"This is the dig site," she said, pointing right at the center. "The beacon was right here. They must have moved it."
"But who?" Kaidan asked, venting his rifle. "Our side or the geth?"
"Hard to say," Ashley said with a shrug. "Maybe we'll know more after we check out the research camp."
"Do you think anyone got out of here alive?" Riley herself wasn't very sure about that matter. It didn't look like the geth were in a hostage taking mood.
"If they were lucky." Ashley looked as doubtful as Riley felt. She pointed up at the other side of the ravine, towards a hill that the archeologists must have constructed when they were digging the beacon out of the earth. "Maybe they're hiding up in the camp. It's just on the top of this ridge, up the ramps."
"Right, let's move then." Riley started forward. They all headed up towards the research camp.
Coming up the ramps, the found twenty large spires rising up into the sky. Nirali gasped when she realized that a body was impaled at the top of each spike. They were too far away to get a clear look at, but they looked dark and charred, and Riley was glad that she had been running her suit on reserve oxygen the entire mission because she did not want to be smelling that.
The buildings of the research camp had been pushed out of the way to make room for the spikes, knocked onto their sides as easy as if they were sand castles.
"Oh gods!" Falling to her knees, Nirali clawed off her helmet and vomited, coughing.
Growling to herself, Riley gestured at the other two marines. Together, they surrounded Nirali, covering her as she fell apart.
"Serviceman, on your feet!" Riley shouted.
Shakily, Nirali grabbed her rifle and got back up.
"Are you good, Bhatia?" Riley asked, scowling.
"Y-Yes, ma'am," Nirali wiped bits of vomit from her mouth, keeping her eyes firmly away from the spikes and the dead bodies.
"Change of plans, Shepard." Nihlus' voice crackled over the radio. "There's a small spaceport up ahead. I want to check it out. I'll wait for you there."
"They hit the camp hard." Ashley murmured, wondering just how many people were dead.
"What happened here, Williams?" Riley asked.
"I don't know ma'am." Ashley shrugged, shaking her head. "It didn't look like this when we came through here."
"Right." Riley nodded, firming her grip on her rifle. "Keep your eyes open, people."
As she took a step forward, Riley paused as the one by one the spikes began to lower to the ground. The people impaled on the spikes started to struggle.
"Oh gods!" Nirali cried out. She tried to rush forward to help them, but Riley grabbed her shoulder and held her back. "They're still alive."
As they watched, the people started to pull themselves off of the spikes, and it was in that moment that Riley realized just how wrong everything about this situation was. Gone was any semblance of a normal human being. Instead, their skin had become ashen grey, with hundreds of machines growing out of their skin, glowing a pale blue.
As one, all twenty of the creatures turned to look at Riley and her squad. Opening their mouths, they let out an unholy shriek as one and charged at them.
"Take them down!" Riley shouted.
As one, Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley opened fire. Nirali hesitated, her rifle dropping. She recognized some of them. Simon was one of them, the remnants of his uniform still clinging to his body.
The beings seemed to just shrug off the fire, and they reached out to grab them.
Nirali followed their example when she saw just what they had become.
Her body flaring blue, Riley let loose a blast of biotics to push the creatures back, for all the good that it did. The creatures were already getting back to their feet. One of them grabbed Ashley, screaming even louder as it grabbed her head and started to squeeze.
"Shit!" Screaming right back, Ashley beat the husk to the ground. Leveling her rifle with the face of the husk, she opened fire. "What the hell is going on?"
The husk didn't die.
Roaring defiantly up at her, the electronics spider-webbed across and under the husks' skin started to glow brighter blue, before it erupted. It sent out a pulse of energy as its body disintegrated, knocking out the squads shields, an EMP.
The tone of the entire fight changed. These creatures weren't just freaky, they were an actual threat and they had the advantage of numbers.
Riley and Kaidan went back to back, fighting with their biotics to keep the husks at arms length where they were able to pick away at them with their rifles. Beside them, Ashley picked away at those rushing them from the side.
None of them noticed a pair of husks coming up behind them. Before any of them could react, they grabbed Nirali and started to drag her towards the spikes.
"Get off me!" Nirali screamed and shouted, struggling against them. Despite the fact that they were skin and bones, they were far stronger than the middle-aged woman, her futile struggles nothing against them. "Let me go!"
The husks paid no mind to her, her struggles not even fazing them as they lifted her up into the air above the closest spike.
"Help!" Nirali screamed, her voice cracking. She wanted to be home. She wanted to be in Samesh's arms. She wished she had never joined the Alliance in the first place.
"Shit!" Riley shouted when she saw what the husks were about to do to Nirali. "Kaidan! Ashley! Suppressing fire!"
Charging forward, Riley pushed her way past the grasping hands of the husks, trying her hardest to get to Nirali.
Before she could get any closer, the husks shover her down as a spike shoved its way through her armor and straight through her stomach. It lifted her up into the sky, and Nirali screamed in pain as she clutched at the spike.
Riley shot the two husks dead, blowing apart their heads. Before she could even try to get Nirali down, the rest of the husks rushed after her, screeching like banshees.
"Get them off me!" She cried out, hunkering down. Anger coursed through her, and she berated herself mentally at letting another marine down. It had happened far too many times.
For a moment, the screams of Akuze filled her mind, but she ruthlessly shoved them back. It wasn't the time. Break down later, girl. You've got a job to do.
Kaidan and Ashley worked together, using a combination of biotics and gunfire to ever so slowly whittle down the number of husks.
Seeing her opportunity to end it, Riley took charge. Her own biotics flaring, she tore through the last of the remaining husks. Using the dark energy coursing through her body, she tore off the head of the closest, sending it rocketing at the next hard enough to embed it into the husk's chest. Using the butt of her assault rifle, she beat the last of the husks down, slamming it down again and again until nothing was left but gore and wires.
Riley stood, her hands shaking from the adrenaline.
"Help me get her down!" She cried over her shoulder as she rushed to the spike holding Nirali up. Kaidan and Ashley joined her as she started to push. They groaned, and together, they managed to knock the spike over. Nirali coughed, letting out a weak moan. Against all odds, she was still alive.
"Nirali!" Ashley cried.
The three of them rushed down the length of the spike to Nirali's side. When they reached her, it became obvious that the spike was the only thing keeping her alive, though blood loss was going to take care of that in a few moments.
"Oh Celestia." Riley shook her head, every bit of her medical training rushing through her head. She could already see that it wasn't going to do any good. She was beyond help. "Nirali, don't move."
Opening her omni-tool, she activated her suits radio. "Joker, I need a medical evac now!"
"P-Please…" Nirali grabbed Riley's hand, blood spilling from her mouth. "T-Tell m… my h-husband… I l-love him."
"I will, Nirali." Riley murmured, holding her hand, watching as the light started to leave Nirali's eyes. "Just hang on Nirali. Everything's going to be okay."
Pulling off Nirali's helmet, Riley ran a hand through the woman's hair as comfortingly as she could, humming softly. "It'll be alright. You'll see your husband again. Just look at me, and everything will be alright."
Breathing out one last time, Nirali died.
Silence hung over the three of them as they stared down at Nirali's still body.
"We…" Ashley had never felt so tired before. It wasn't a physical thing, but she felt weary in ways she never had before. "We should get her off of that."
Riley and Ashley stepped up to Nirali, while Kaidan got down and wrapped his hands around the length of the spike.
"Ready?" Riley looked at first Ashley, then Kaidan. "Lift!"
Kaidan lifted the spike, straining against the weight as Ashley and Riley pulled Nirali off. He dropped it down again as Ashley and Riley lowered Nirali down to the ground respectfully.
"We'll pick her up after the mission," Riley told Ashley, standing up straight.
Ashley looked like she wanted to put up a fight, balling her hands together into fists so hard that they started to hurt. With a sigh, she relaxed, her head dropping. "Yeah, okay."
As much as she wanted to, Riley couldn't think of anything to say. Instead, she activated her radio, connecting to the Normandy. "Cancel that, Joker."
A silence fell upon the camp.
Riley, Kaidan, and Ashley looked up to find an aging woman peeking out from the ruined facade of a burned out building. They shifted, half raising their weapons.
"Humans?" The woman sighed in relief, stepping out a little further from the building. "Thank god!"
"Hurry! Close the door before they come back!" Another voice, masculine this time piped up from inside the building.
Glancing back at Kaidan and Ashley, Riley lowered her rifle and approached the building.
"Don't worry," she said, keeping her voice calm and even. "You're safe."
"Thank you," the woman said sighing in relief. She leaned against the door frame of the building, shutting her eyes. "I don't… I can't… Everyone else is gone now. It's just us…"
Riley shifted her weight, taking a step forward. She tried to be as non threatening as possible. "Can we come inside?"