"The one minute. The soldier's minute. In a battle, that's all you get. One minute of everything at once. And anything before is nothing. Everything after, nothing. Nothing in comparison to that one minute."
—Thomas Shelby; Peaky Blinders.
Book Two: Suicide Mission
Prologue - Semper Fidelis
"Should be an easy mission. And if we must, we can take on the whole colony. Not a problem."
If someone says that a combat deployment - any kind of mission where combat has even the slightest chance of occurring - is easy, then I have only one piece of advice to give.
Punch them in the face, remove them from your squad and, if possible, consider never deploying them again. 'Cause clearly, they are in no position to lead - and a liability to any functioning team.
If you face any deployment with this mindset, if you ever are arrogant enough to assume right from the get-go that everything will go according to plan, you're an idiot. And very likely a very dead idiot in the not too distant future.
Every single time you step onto the battlefield, no matter how good you think you are, you roll the dice. And if you keep doing that, on and on and on… at some point, your luck will run out. That's just a fact.
Of course, every soldier likes to just forget about it, not be reminded of the odds and ignore the reality of their potential doom. I am not blaming them. I'm just like that as well.
The difference was: I kept saying it to keep others - especially rookies with no experience - from thinking about it too much. Prazza actually believed it.
However, I had better things to do than wasting my energy on him. I only worried for those under his command, the ones he was spewing his nonsense at. But even that worry was more luxury than necessity, if I am being completely honest with myself. The majority of them were not much smarter. Acceptable casualties.
Leaning back and closing my eyes, I recalled the details of what was about to happen into the forefront of my mind. Two years - three years since I had last 'experienced' all this myself - were a long time. But I had taken countermeasures. Still, it couldn't hurt.
Fifty minutes and counting to empty my mind, steady myself, ready up for what was to come. The entire time, I felt the touch of my two squadmates, through my pauldrons and left and right, shoulder to shoulder, keeping our bodies in contact. But what would have been awkward among humans - and to me generally, not long ago - had become natural. The quarian definition of 'personal space' was so much different.
I trusted both of them implicitly, and I like to believe that they did the same. We had a bond with each other, created under fire, hard to shake or break - literally feeling each other was not uncomfortable, but reassuring. That was just the quarian way.
Neither of us moved much. We all had completed our preparations long ago. All we needed now were our orders. It was almost… well, like a warrior's meditation. I hope I am making sense.
Forty minutes until we were close enough to Freedom's Progress to be in their sensor range, before we had to radio them to not get shot at. The slight movement of my head, clad in the usual Recon Hood, might have tipped Caan'Daran off. He looked up. I imagined a nervous smile behind that mask. Live among quarians for any meaningful amount of time, and the tiniest movements become obvious signs. I sometimes wondered if that was what communication among Elcor felt like.
"Relax, if you can. If you can't, double-check your equipment. If you know for sure that everything is fine, you'll be much more at ease." I told my wing leader - and protégé. Him and the two rookies at his side, both of whom seemed outright… scared. "Focus on the task ahead, do what you've trained for. You're not alone in this. We're with you. And trust me - being nervous is normal. Even I am, sometimes. It'll go away as soon as you hit the ground."
He nodded and immediately started to check his rifle, as did both of the rookies under his command.
"Well said, Raven." The message came over team-only radio. Despite her sitting directly to my left, some things were best said privately. "I can only repeat, though: What was the Captain thinking, putting a rookie in charge of two rookies?"
"I can't tell you, Lis. But well, you know how the Captain can be." I grinned. "Remember the first time he put me in charge? Also, to be fair, Caan isn't really a rookie anymore. This is just his rookie command. I've seen him fight. He can do it. And even if things go south, we are here to cover them. As are Prazza and his men."
A distinct sound, the quarian equivalent of a snort. "That's a drawback, not an advantage. Trust me, the first sign of activity, and Prazza and his men are off. They should be fighting Geth - not rescue a pilgrim from a human world. He'll ruin everything if left unsupervised for three minutes."
The tiniest of movement from the other side. It was nice to know that my guys shared my sentiment. Still, I had to at least pretend.
"We'll see about that. Tali'Zorah is in command. All I know, Prazza rates her highly, therefore: Will follow her orders without question. As long as they do that, it should be good."
Another 'snort'. "Nice try, Squad Leader. I'll be prepared to bust their asses out, don't worry."
Well, I should've known. As good a soldier as Selu'Vis was, his patience with and faith in people not suited for the job was not his strength. Not that I doubted his judgement in this case.
Thirty-three minutes and counting.
And the entire time, I braced myself for what was to come.
It should come to no one's surprise that quarians have a vastly different mindset compared to humans. Equally, it should come to no one's surprise that I am having difficulties translating every last concept to English - or a human mind in general.
An example: Me being referred to as 'Squad Leader' was not so much a position within a squad… but rather, depending on the context, a rank. If I were to translate it literally, it would be: 'First of Nine''. The fact that, in this particular instance, I was leading a team of three and another team of three with their dedicated Fireteam Leader - a total of six - didn't matter.
And this is where other conceptual differences come in, something that people find hard to understand if they never really thought about it. As a human, you are used to having five fingers. Five fingers on two hands each, ten fingers - a biological link to the decimal system, shifting one digit higher after 'Nine'.
Five, ten, fifteen, twenty… feels natural, doesn't it?
Quarians have three digits on each hand - and each foot. The decimal system has little to no meaning to them.
I cannot translate this rank to, say, 'Sergeant' or 'Gunnery Chief' either, though - as those descriptions have grown from human context, especially English, if I were to be nit-picky. Just as the quarian understanding of 'Captain' differs significantly from the human (read: English) understanding of it.
So, I have to improvise a bit.
To avoid proper confusion down the road: The basic unit of the Migrant Fleet Marine Corps is the Fireteam. Three soldiers, one of them the 'First of Three', whom I will refer to as Fireteam Leader or Team Leader from now on. Fireteams are the most permanent unit as well, always fighting together. I was the Fireteam Leader of my team. How it came to that - a story for later.
Two or three Fireteams make up one Squad. One of the Fireteam Leaders - most of the time, the leader of the most senior Fireteam - is the Squad Leader. A Squad is semi-permanent. Depending on the situation and tactical requirements, different Fireteams are assigned together, but they usually come from the same ship - so at least they know each other. As I was qualified to lead a Squad and my Fireteam was more senior than the rookies with us, my official rank within the Corps and my position on this mission were both Squad Leader.
Now, it gets a bit complicated. Bear with me please.
Two or three Squads are, subsequently, a Platoon, with a Platoon Leader.
However, Squads tended to come from different ships. Many of the smaller ships in the Migrant Fleet simply weren't able to afford having more than one or two Squads on standby at all times. That manpower was needed elsewhere.
Which means that a Platoon Leader was not assigned directly to either a Squad or a Fireteam. Their main job was to coordinate the different Squads. The level of skill, insight into the rest of the fleet and the knowledge required to, essentially, lead teams of vastly different tribes to success makes me want to compare them to commissioned officers of other navies. The fact that Tali was entrusted with such a position at her young age was testament to her skills - and to how highly her peers rated her.
However, the larger ships of the Migrant Fleet, such as the three Lifeships, tended to have enough soldiers on standby all the time that they were able to easily form not just one, but multiple platoons on their own. In those cases, they were not not officially named a 'Platoon' - they were a 'Triple-squad'. And the leader of such a unit is the only one I am comfortable calling Lieutenant - as the Lieutenant of such a unit led it in lieu of that ships' Captain.
Confused yet? Well, good. Too many people expect to understand different cultures with their own words - without understanding that even a basic word may have a different meaning to different people. You have to rid yourself of your own assumptions and re-learn even the most basic things.
For humans, the world they hailed from - or Earth, the origin of Humanity, depending on context.
For quarians, the 'Homeworld' was the central point of all of their desires, an almost mythical paradise - their 'walled garden', their equivalent to the Garden Eden, if such a comparison is valid.
Something that I thought I was prepared for when I joined the Flotilla. Rest assured: I wasn't. But that's a story for another time as well.
The clock ticked down. The time came… and went. As expected - the unexpected. Nothing was ever easy or certain. And this was not what any of them expected.
The briefing came, the briefing went. Tali was very… economic with her words. There is only so many times you can repeat the same bits of info. Or rather, lack of info. You can only say 'We don't know, this is strange' in different variations so many times.
If I read her right - and I thought I did so quite reliably, nowadays - then she was not really sure what to make of the situation. Granted, an entire colony going dark and being seemingly abandoned from one day to the other was strange, to say the least. The fact that Freedom's Progress did not look the part from orbital scans wasn't helpful either. If the colony had been raided, damage would have been visible. If the colonists had packed their things and gone to search their fortune elsewhere - well, they would have packed their things.
Even after our fifth scan from lower orbit, nothing seemed to make sense. No contact, neither friendly nor hostile. No movement. No signs of life. Except a fully powered colony.
And one scared, lonely pilgrim running away in fear as he saw our ship approach the landing zone. And before we even knew what happened, the mechs started shooting.
The SCYTHE was a good, fast transporter - but it was not built for sustained combat. A corvette which had sacrificed any armament for speed and surprisingly strong shields, retrofitted to allow a marine detachment to enter and exit a warzone quickly.
We retreated beyond the edge of the colony, outside the effective range of their anti-air defenses.
One quarian pilgrim on an empty human colony with a plethora of automated defenses and mechs targeting his only logical saviour.
No wonders this gave Tali headaches. Even without using extra-universe cheat powers, I could've told them all that this mission was going to get… demanding.
But hey, at least Prazza had shut up.
"Raven, I need you to go first and clear the way for us. Can you find out what defenses the colony has and make sure the SCYTHE won't be shot down when we come in?"
"We'll get it done, Tali." I nodded. "We should be able to take out the AA-guns. The type of gun they're using here can't be used against ground targets, so we should be able to get close enough to take them out. If Veetor keeps his mechs as close to him as they are at the moment, we'll meet next to no resistance. How confident are you that his mechs won't come to hunt us down?
"Very." Tali wrung her hands. It had become extremely rare these days. "I've spoken with the therapist who examined him before he was allowed to go on pilgrimage, and I have studied his profile. Whatever happened here - he's scared and wants to defend himself, but he will not order his mechs to attack aggressively. That would only leave him vulnerable."
I nodded. Quarians can suffer from mental breakdowns as much as most sentient species, humans included - but generally speaking, they were far more predictable. If Tali's intel suggested that Veetor was only going to protect himself, stay almost passive, then that was the truth.
"Solid copy." I gave myself three seconds to compose myself - then jumped on my feet and gestured at my squadmates. "Ready up, guys - we're going in!"
Amidst the usual blur of motions, my voice rang out clear.
"Our objectives are as follows:
One. Get planetside and secure the landing zone.
Two. Disable the opposing AA.
Three. Screen the other squad against whatever hit this colony.
Four. Retreat to the landing zone once Veetor's been extracted.
You are free to engage the opposing mechs, but hold your fire on anything else until ordered. Stealth is not an option! They know we're coming anyway, save the energy for your barriers. We need to be fast and decisive. The less time we spend here, the better. Got it?"
I nodded. "My team takes the lead. Caan, follow us, watch our backs. Watch your spacing, stay out of each other's line of fire, keep a good look on our surroundings. We do not know what's out there. But whatever it is, do not be caught off-guard." I gestured at Prazza. "I'll contact Tali'Zorah when we're done, Prazza."
"Yeah, yeah." He gestured dismissively. He seemed hungry - almost blood-thirsty. "If we meet humans, make sure you remember what side you're on - mercenary."
I was about to look over my shoulder and make one of the billion snarky rebuttals I had for that nickname when my squadmates jumped at my side. Figuratively - and literally.
"Make sure you remember first which side the bullets come out of, soldier."
For the record: Lis'Raan could sound so wonderfully belittling when she wanted to. And I didn't even need to look to know that she'd hit the tone quite right.
"Ready up, fellas!"
Grinning to myself, I entered the airlock last. The cycle didn't last long, the hiss of the depressurization was as annoying as always. The outer lock opened, we were hovering around ten meters over ground. Almost as one, my team grabbed for one of the many modifications we'd done to our trusty transport - ropes, attached to three winches positioned on the hull above the lock.
Why waste Eezo on zero-grav shenanigans when simple, tried & tested solutions are good enough?
Of course it took essentially no time for the mechs to start shooting. My systems counted about thirty active units. They all failed to penetrate our ship's barriers. They had no realistic chance of doing so.
"Zero Squad, on me!" I grinned even broader as the magnitude of this event came crashing to the forefront of my mind.
"Let's even the odds!"
And with that, the three of us grabbed the ropes and descended, followed closely by our second team. Our heels had barely touched the ground when we spread out and returned fire.
Such times we are needed - such times we'll appear.
Out of the frying pan, straight into Mass Effect 2.
Contrary to my first statement in this chapter, I must admit that this first part actually was quite easy. As far as life-or-death firefights go, anyway. As good as mechs are as automated defense systems against the usual batch of pirates and raiders - groups that, generally speaking, have no idea of how to even spell 'tactics' - they were simply too few and too disorganized to offer us a real challenge.
Not that I was complaining. I was more than happy that our rookie team had an opportunity to start out easy and shake off the nervousness before things went downhill. FENRIR mechs really were nothing but ankle-biters to a trained squad, and the LOKI-mechs did not really work together enough to take advantage of their brethren's ability to soak up firepower.
The only enemy unit on the field that was inconvenient in any shape were those goddamned Assault Drones. In essence, flying, quick-to-deploy automated defense turrets. Good thing I was with a well-tuned team. If you spot them early enough, you can destroy them while they are setting up, and balancing out the amount of hits either of us took came natural to us.
In the same vein, taking out the anti-air cannons was no major problem either. Since the mechs were not actively defending it, all it needed was one of us six to run at their base and hack it, before destroying the antennas for their remote controls.
We then quickly fell back from the warehouse in which our target was holed up in,
just to make sure that none of Veetors' mechs were pursuing us. We spread out, ten meters, twenty meters apart from, but with direct lines of sight on each other. Tali's intel turned out to be good - as soon as we put some distance between Veetor and us, the attacks ceased. Indirect fire continued, but the mechs never really left their positions, leaving them open for our long-range attacks.
I made myself reasonably comfortable atop another pre-fabricated building and kept staring at the sky, assisted by the array of sensors built into my suit and the ship's sensors linked to it. The SCYTHE flew past me to the designated landing point, and Tali gave the order to keep reporting every two minutes to make sure that we were all still active. Basic, standard procedure.
I have to admit, I still do not quite understand how that shuttle would have slipped past us completely unnoticed. I mean, granted - it came in from the side covered by our rookies. That might be on me, spreading the experienced and fresh ones out unevenly.
But still - what does that say about the crew of the SCYTHE that were much better equipped? I would later have to have a word with my Captain to actually give us the sensor suites that were direly needed.
That being said - I never bothered to actually do so. That was for the superior officers to worry about.
Still, from a… poetic… point of view… it was wasted potential.
The next thing I know is that Tali sent out a radio message on my squad's frequency.
The sound of her voice is impossible to describe.
"Raven, do you read me? It's Shepard. She's… back!"
I closed my eyes again and took a deep breath. Deep enough to be audible through my microphone.
Honestly, despite the rather heavy presence of enemy mechs on this planet - it was more surprising that the anticipation hadn't given me a heart attack yet.
"Repeat, Tali. Say that again."
One way, or the other, there would be a lot of 'reviewing' left to do. And a lot of reviewing on my part, to be exact. All the questions, the doubts, the uncertainty… I had thought I'd be prepared and in control. I wasn't. Simple as. And to be quite honest - given that I had two years to prepare, this almost felt like a failure. By my own standards.
At least, it meant that I didn't have to do much to fake the disbelief into my voice.
"Commander Shepard… She's… back, Raven. It really is her. I-I didn't tell her that you are here… she's with Cerberus! She has two Cerberus soldiers with her - but I swear it's her!"
Her voice shook. Ever-so-slightly.
"Cerberus? What the -?"
I exhaled dramatically.
"Tali, please confirm. Commander Jane bloody Shepard is here and has two Cerberus agents with her? Did I understand you right?"
I had to snap her back into her role. There was time to be stunned… and time to take action. As much as it pained me to do so. In her shoes… I am not sure if I had kept it together without prior warning.
The sigh with which she got her act back together… I could almost see it before my inner eye.
"Yes. They are pushing towards the warehouse now." In short, hasty sentences, she described the details of their encounter. It was like I remembered.
"... Okay." I exhaled. "That changes everything. Shall we continue to watch, or move up in case that is a trick?"
"Come here, Raven. I'll need your squad to push-"
I knew what was about to happen. I just knew it.
"Squad, this is Raven!" I said as I jumped off. My boots caused the thin layer of snow on the ground to crunch. "Regroup on me! I have a bad feeling about all this! MOVE!"
With that, I started jogging towards the warehouse. Seconds later, Lis'Raan and Selu'Vis were next to me, matching my pace while keeping our spacing intact. It didn't take long for Caan'Daran and his team to catch up.
"Squad Leader?" Lis asked me, the strain of movement obvious, but still controlled. "What Platoon Leader Zorah just said… could that really be your old Captain? Shepard?"
"I don't fucking know, Lis!" I snarled. It took a bit more effort to keep up the mask this time. "She's dead! She's supposed to be dead!" I almost yelled that last bit.
Then, suddenly, Tali.
"Raven! I need your squad with me, now! Prazza is rushing to Veetor! He wants to keep Shepard away from him! He's rushing directly into the heavy mechs!"
"I knew it!", Selu snarled and said what I thought.
"On our way, Tali!" I yelled and picked up the pace. "Move it! Go, go, GO!"
Why, by all singing Elcors, I thought to myself as chaos broke out and a heavy machine cannon started firing in the distance, is Prazza such a fucking idiot?
That question would stay unanswered. Jumping over obstacles, eliminating the few remaining lesser mechs as we went rushing towards the action, I could feel nothing but a rush of adrenaline - and dread.
Tick. Tock. Tick. Tock.
I had thought I would have at least some measure of control over this reunion.
To repeat myself: I had not.
I could only hope that casualties remained low.
I turned the corner just in time to see the YMIR's 50-mm-Autocannon rip Prazza to shreds.
And that's a sight you never get used to - enough sheer violence that you can almost feel your own chest burst open. Without wanting to go into details…
A quarian has, on average, five litres of blood in their body. By the looks of things… it looked as if ten times that was spilled in a matter of four seconds.
I had to clench my teeth to keep myself focused. No matter how stupid he had been… that was not a fate he'd deserve.
The rest of them were running in dread. One of them turned, tried to get a few shots in - only to get the exact same treatment.
"Squad, take cover!" I yelled from the top of my lungs. "Get our guys to safety! I'll keep that mech busy!"
I didn't see Shepard at that moment. For me, the one thing that counted was to keep that YMIR occupied to allow one more quarian to escape from its grasp.
I fired on the move. Training my aim on its vital parts - by which I mean the parts most vulnerable, like its gigantic head - I rushed towards that hulking mass of steel.
Instead of finishing off the lone marine running from it, it directed its focus on me. Guess there were some self preservation routines written into its code, after all.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the last survivor of Prazza's team use her chance, running as fast as her obviously injured body allowed her, sliding behind cover just before the two autocannons could finish her off. If memory serves, then I had already been influential in this situation - because it meant that the one quarian that you see in the game, the one that gets stomped, crushed and shredded by the YMIR before it turns its attention to you in the game got to live yet another day.
I saw Tali running too, getting into cover, desperately trying to get on top of things, to regroup and minimize losses. Admirable. Unnecessary.
And just before the YMIR was able to rip me to shreds in return, I slid into cover as well, storing the rifle on my back to pull out the Punisher. At this range, I needed some Blood Pack firepower.
Incidentally, I found myself in cover right next to… one Jacob Taylor.
"Where the hell did you come from?" He asked loudly, staring at my mask as he loaded a fresh clip into his Predator. He didn't seem all that fazed, strangely enough.
And that was the point where it clicked in my brain, and I activated 'Mass Effect Mode'.
"Thought you'd need a hand, Cerberus!" I replied. "Let's get to it!"
He merely nodded. No needless questions. Shooting now, sorting everything else - later.
Almost at the same moment, we rose from and leaned out of cover. He lit up blue to unleash a biotic Pull, I fired two eight-rounds bursts, the last shot of each burst an armor-piercing one, hurting the YMIR good.
That's when I first realized that Jacob and I would probably get along juuust fine.
I would like to say that this was a colossal struggle, a titanic boss-battle… but I think I know my readers well enough to understand that nobody would buy it. First mission, prologue of Mass Effect 2 - and, well, everything.
That being said, it was still a bit of a challenge to make sure that the YMIR actually went down. These things are specialized to rip apart infantry, and even with three biotics and one rather decent (if I may say so myself) rifleman and the damage it had already sustained, it did take us two minutes to get it damaged enough to trigger the self-destruct mechanism.
I should concede, however, that I specifically made sure not to use any of my... 'abilities'. There was still a chance - no matter how small - that Miranda and Jacob weren't playing fair. No need to show my hand until every bit of doubt was eliminated.
I hid behind cover as the YMIR's explosion rocked it, but stayed on my feet without much issue. Spotting my teammates caring for one of Prazza's boys that had been hit, I walked over.
"That was the last one. Everyone okay?"
"We're okay." Lis responded and looked up. Selu kept on working to seal the breaches in his fellow quarian's suit. "Caan got hit, but is on his feet. His rookies are okay as well."
"Thanks." I looked around, and sure enough, I found my second-in-command in a small building nearby, leaning against a wall next to Tali. "I'll have a look at him. Help out the others as well… and recover the bodies, if you can."
"I hate to say this, Raven," Selu spoke up, and it was easy to hear that he held back a massive string of curses, "But I was fucking right."
"I know." I sighed. Now that most of the adrenaline had left me, I was almost too relaxed for my liking. "We'll talk about it at the debrief. Get to work. I'll check on Caan."
Two nods, and I went to join Tali. So far, nobody had noticed that I was not really paying attention. Good on me. With one eye, I looked out again for Shepard, Miranda and Jacob - no sign of either.
Tali looked up as well. She had blood on her suit. Not hers.
"Raven! There you are! Can you have an eye on them? I- I need to see what… what Shepard is doing."
I merely nodded. "Copy that. I'll join you shortly."
With that, she dashed off to the warehouse. Good. Let Shepard and her have a bit of time first. Shepard is not expecting me. Yet.
I crouched and looked Caan in the mask. "You okay, mate?"
He groaned quietly. "Yes, Sir. One of the YMIR's bursts hit me in the chest. I'll manage. My team is alright."
Looking left and right briefly, I saw two young marines who were shaken, but uninjured. I smiled grimly.
"Congratulations, you've made it. Grab the medical supplies and help my team patch up our injured. I need to check on what's happening inside. Stay alert, this might not be over yet."
"Yes, Sir." Caan replied.
I went to move, but stopped myself two steps later. As distracted as I was, one thing had to be addressed. "And, Caan?"
He looked up.
"Use some medigel on yourself, too. I know you. If you had a chance, you'd save it all for the others."
I could see his slight amusement even from a distance. "Will comply, Squad Leader."
Are you sure you wanna do it like this? My inner voice asked me - yet again.
Yes. And again, I swatted the doubts away. She'll notice if I show no surprise at all.
Isn't this too… extreme?
No, and now shut up, voice of doubt, and go back to some outer layer of the cerebral cortex, where you belong.
Out of sight of our platoon - I drew my rifle.
Five meters away from the warehouse entrance, I had it at the ready. I kept the barrel low. Ready, but not immediately ready to fire.
The voices inside were muffled, but just loud enough to understand.
"Your people tried to betray us once already. If we give him to you, we'll never get the intel we need."
Ah, Miranda. The queen bitch of Cerberus.
"Prazza was an idiot, and he and his men paid for it!" Tali sounded more than just angry. "Shepard, please…!"
"Talking about betrayal, Cerberus?"
Everyone's attention snapped at me as I slowly moved in. Everyone was where they were supposed to be. Including young Veetor.
"That's rich, coming from you."
Miranda and Jacob had their pistols up in a heartbeat, but similar to me, they weren't really aiming - a standby position, ready only if the need actually arose. I ignored both of them, heading straight for their leader. Though it should be noted that both of them looked just like in the game - black-white catsuit and dark, leather-y thin combat suit.
She merely stood there, in black armor, red honour stripe prominent on the shoulder. The N7 looked almost subdued. Her posture betrayed confusion, anger, annoyance at the repeated interruption. And tiredness. Anxiety. Lingering exhaustion, mental and physical.
She looked me in the eyes. A second under the gaze of those radiant, brilliant green eyes - and I knew that it was really Commander Jane Shepard. It's hard to explain, so I won't bother.
The scars in their radial pattern were deeper than I liked to see.
I tried my best to mix reverence, astonishment, enthusiasm and caution into one word.
"I couldn't believe my ears when Tali told me."
"Who are you?," she demanded to know - and it should come as no surprise, but even the voice was exactly the same.
"You know who I am. But… how can I be sure that you're really Shepard?"
My face was obscured, but my voice was not modulated, save for slight speaker disturbances. It was… amazing to see how the realization hit her. Right down to the wide eyes and slightly open mouth.
"Tell me, Commander… I was promoted twice. The second time you promoted me, the promotion would only come into effect later. Can you tell me something about it?"
It took her a second to compose herself. She swallowed hard, then spoke.
"It was after your breakdown. After Virmire. You and I had a falling out. I came to you, to apologize, you did the same. I told you we'd speak about it in detail later. And before I left… I promoted you to Corporal, effective at the time that Saren was defeated. You received your new stripes in hospital."
It sounded almost monotone. I wondered if her reaction to Tali had been the same. And grinned.
"Heh. It's actually you. What. The Fuck."
I lowered my rifle, stored it at the small of my back. Normal soldiers had their shotgun stored there. Normal people weren't me.
With both hands I unclasped the seal on my Recon Hood - and tore it from my head in one motion.
And kept on grinning. "Hello, Shepard. I didn't think I'd see you again. It's good to be wrong."
"Who are you?" Now it was Miranda's turn to ask. And she sounded properly ice-queen-like-annoyed.
I feigned - feigned it so obviously that anyone wondering if I was joking should be considered an idiot - my surprise this time. "What? You don't know me? It's not that difficult. You should serioulsy consider upping your research, Ms. Lawson."
My grin widened as slightly as her eyes did the same. And I put on my best 'jolly-ol'british' accent. "Because yes, I know who you and Mr. Taylor are. Don't underestimate Quarian Intelligence, when it wants to."
I nodded in the man's direction - only making my cheerful mock-accent worse. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Taylor. I know of your exploits to save the Council's asses. Bloody good work, ya did there!"
He even… chuckled lightly. Doesn't mean that he was not ready to strike down the madman in front of him at a moment's notice - but at least he was amused. "The pleasure's all mine, Mister…?"
"Ah, how rude of me!" I exclaimed, taking back the fake enthusiasm just enough to be taken seriously again. I had done enough damage to the ice queen's composure. "Though, Commander, it's your fault as well. After all you did not properly introduce me to your new friends."
I gave a half-salute. "Raven'Si'yeh nar Terra vas Cicepia - or in your terms, Raven without clan, born on Earth, crew of starship CICEPIA. You may know me as Jess Raven, formerly of the Systems Alliance. A pleasure."
It almost pains me to say this - but this was indeed the way I had intended to introduce myself all along. That was the plan I had come up with. I hadn't come up with anything better. And if there was nothing that would work out without a hitch… Then, I though, I might as well hit Miranda with my 'charming' personality. Sweeping her from her stilettos. And giving Shepard and Jacob something to grin about.
Refuge in Audacity. Or, in other words: Victory through Bullshit. I'm better at that than I would like to admit.
"You're… with the Migrant Fleet now, Raven?"
Shepard sounded and looked very puzzled. I can't blame her.
"Yes. Long story." My grin turned tired. "Very long story. But… What happened, Shepard? Why are you showing up now… two years later? You were dead. The NORMANDY was destroyed…!"
"I know, I…" She closed her eyes and suddenly looked very old.
"Long story, huh?" I said, quietly. If Shepard was severely uncomfortable, I didn't want to add onto it.
"Yeah." Eyes still closed, she… smiled. It was not a happy one.
"I see." Taking a step back, I shook my head. Another time. "To business. Veetor, what happened here?"
Instead of answering, he turned and pressed a few buttons. He still shook like a leaf in a storm.
The footage of the Collector attack was on the large screen. Just like in the game. And I hated it just as much. Maybe even more, given the… graphic nature of it.
"What. The. Hell." I almost whispered. Then turned my head to Shepard, who stared at the screen, much like myself. "Is that why you're here, Commander? You and… those two?"
"... Yes." She snapped herself back into reality. "I was… brought back to investigate the attacks on human colonies. Attacks like this one."
"The Reapers, right?"
She was still for a moment.
"It's them, isn't it? The Collectors, Reaper pawns?" Not receiving an answer, I looked back at the footage. "... Fuck."
"... we need Veetor to come with us, Mr. Raven." Jacob suddenly spoke up. "He needs to be questioned. We have to know everything that happened here. I assure you, he will be return unharmed."
I shook my head. Vigorously. "We cannot allow that. Veetor is injured, and traumatized. He needs care, not the torment your… 'interrogation specialists' would put him through. And while I have some reason to trust you, Mr. Taylor, I do not trust the organisation you're working for."
I briefly considered throwing shade at Miranda as well - but those would've been cheap shots at best. Plus… I liked her. Not as she was currently - but in her later, de-frosted state. Why start it off on the wrong foot for no reason?
"Plus, we are under orders to make sure Veetor returns to the fleet. If we'd give him to you, even if he really returned unharmed - in body and soul, mind you - Tali and I may be charged for treason regardless."
"The best we can do," Tali had come to my side, "is to give you the data on his omnitool and on these consoles. But please. Veetor needs to come with us." She still sounded agitated, but more pleading than angry.
Shepard suddenly moved her hand, weaving it in a calming manner. And suddenly, looked very hopeful.
"You don't have to take Veetor and go, you two. We could work together. It would be… wonderful, to have some of the old team back. "
Seeing her dejection as we both had to decline was… unpleasant.
"I… I'm still trying to accept that you're even alive. I want to... but I can't." Tali was… unnerved. "And you're with Cerberus!" Tali shook her head, but it seemed… sad. "I have responsibilities of my own. I have a mission. It's too important to abandon. Not even for you. When this is over… and I'm still alive… We'll see what happens."
Shepard looked… alarmed. And Tali hadn't sounded all too positive about her chances of survival, either. "Sounds dangerous. What's the mission?"
"I don't think Cerberus needs to hear about it. But it's in Geth space. That should tell you how important it is."
"I second that." I chuckled dryly. "As for myself… I need to return to the fleet, too. I need to report what happened here, and I can't just… leave. Not for the time being."
The face that faced me can best be described as… crestfallen.
"I'm not saying 'no, never', Shepard. But I've got my team, too. I can't just go and do my own thing anymore. Growing up comes with responsibilities, sadly."
At least I got a tiny smile out of her. Then she switched back to 'Commander'-mode from one second to the other.
"Veetor is traumatized and needs medical care, Miranda. Tali and Raven will give us his omni-tool data and take him to the Flotilla."
Shepard's voice still sounded powerful when she gave orders. Miranda knew that she was overruled. "Understood, Commander."
"Thanks, Shepard." I said with a relieved grin. I didn't even have to fake it. After all, Shepard's first decision - and it was still a Paragon choice. Her head was at least somewhat screwed on right.
"Thank you. Good to see that you're still the one giving the orders." Tali's levels of relief matched mine.
"Same here. If we find anything that can help you, we'll let you know." I added.
Everything was said. Tali turned, and looked me in the eye. "Raven, grab Veetor's possessions and as much data on these… Collectors… as you can. Let Shepard scan his omnitool. I'll see after the others."
She spoke quietly. Shepard's squad did their own business. "We're ready for pickup," Jacob spoke into his radio. Miranda was already working on the data console, Shepard still stared at the Collectors.
"Copy that, Tali. You should signal the ship to come in and pick us up. We may get away with some extra scavenging." I helplessly gestured to the screens, still showing the still image of this colony's bitter end. "Doesn't look like those humans will come back any time soon."
"Yes, of course." With that, Tali grabbed Veetor by the arm and gently led him out. The poor boy was done, simply done. Even if the mechs he had unleashed had killed three of the marines that had come here today… it really wasn't his fault.
Tali said it best. Prazza was an idiot.
Shepard was still staring up by the time I joined her. I cast one look at her face, illuminated by the orange tint of the holograms.
"Commander?" I said quietly as to not tip off the two operatives who were, jointly, scouring the warehouse for any extra bit of intel.
She tilted her head ever so slightly. "Raven?"
It suddenly hit me how long it had bee since the last time I heard that voice.
"My contact data is still the same. Yours?"
"As well. Don't ask me how they did it, but…" Shepard trailed off.
I merely nodded. I started to realize that the Commander was not in the best of shape. Physically… and mentally.
"Three weeks, Shepard. I will be on Omega in three weeks, countdown starting now. As soon as you have a ship… pick me up there. I will be waiting close to the main port."
Now, she faced me fully. And stayed silent.
For a moment.
I shook my head and grinned. "Don't thank me. The old gang would kill me if I'd left you on your own with Cerberus." I sensed the question coming - and looked over my shoulders. "We'll talk later. But rest assured - you're not alone. That, I can promise."
I took a few steps forward and picked up Veetor's omn-itool. Then handed it to her - always maintaining eye contact.
I had not been mistaken. Shepards eyes had been more dull than I was used to. And now, they started to gain a bit of their usual brilliance back.
"Take the data and put the 'tool back where it was. See you later, Shepard. I'll be in touch."
I gave her a nod - and left.
Just out of sight, I activated my omni-tool to send a pre-recorded message.
Naturally, it wasn't an open message. Although sent via the planetary comm-buoy and therefore, for a change, not monitored by the Migrant Fleet officials - there was still a chance the Cerberus guys working in the background may intercept a single message sent from an otherwise dead colony.
I will spare you the whole process of encoding and enciphering the message and just give you the message in clear:
It's her. Plan A. You're ready, I hope? Contact me in two weeks. Normal code.
Crow would know what to do. And I was willing to bet - well, maybe not my left nut, but a few fingers of my left hand that he was frothing at his mouth not much later.
I spent fifteen minutes assisting Tali and my squad with moving our injured and dead to the ship, then returned to pick up the data and search for other, useful resources. The Flotilla could use them better than the poor bastards the Collectors had taken from here - or any other looters that would come along, sooner or later.
By that time, Shepard and her squad had been long gone.
And we didn't linger much longer, either.
Barely three hours had passed between our first approach and the time the SCYTHE once again took to the stars.
We only left a dead and deserted colony behind.
"As I said… sending the Militia to deal with this problem was completely stupid. Even if it had gone according to our initial plans."
I exhaled. Under normal circumstances, the Captain's Quarters would've taught me respect, so to say - especially when I had to stand at attention. In all my time aboard the Fleet - and even on this very ship - I had only been granted access very few times.
If you think that Commander Shepard's chambers aboard the SR-2 are spacious and, in many ways, a bit… ludicrous, then I cannot even think of words to describe the audacity of Captain Jufa'Forgar vas Cicepia.
Then again, that man was a unicum… in many ways. He would've fit in nicely with some of the more insane European nobility of the early industrial age. Right down to the fact that, while most quarians wore colourful and well-woven cloth on their suits… they didn't tend to change it day-by-day. While the rest of the fleet favoured form over function - a natural thing to do if your resources are as limited as they always were on the fleet - he was one of few exceptions to the rule. And yet, there was a method to his apparent madness. A madness that had still given him a bit of a flamboyant and… let's say, colourful reputation among his peers.
I'll stop myself here. I could dedicate an entire chapter to that man. Maybe I will. After all - he'd taken me in.
"Oh, I knew it was a bad idea." He made a gesture with both arms that conveyed two messages at the same time. 'I told them so' and 'I do not care at the slightest, not my problem'. The fact that the colour of the day was basically 'Russian carpet' did not help to alleviate my annoyance.
"Admiral Gerrel insisted. One of his crew was lost at a human colony. He would have some of his crew there to 'prove our strength', if necessary."
I sighed. Audibly.
"You don't need to tell me what you are thinking, Raven." If the Captain had been human, I would've expected a thin-lipped smile. "I can tell."
"Well, Admiral Gerrel got his crewmember back. And lost three for him." I gestured angrily. "And he had no Marines to spare? It had to be Militia? If he requests our aid - my aid, specifically - then he should as well do me the favour and send a few fully trained marines - or just leave it to us."
I sighed. Audibly. Again. Because sometimes, there is no other way to show exasperation.
"That was always going to end in a bloodbath, one way, or the other. I'm just glad that it was none of our crewmates. You cannot expect someone who is known as a zealous anti-alien idiot to go on a mission that - at best! - is a diplomatic mission and not expect things from going wrong! If he thought that Tali's presence alone was going to smooth things over, he's a bloody - "
"I know, Squad Leader." The way he emphasized my rank made me instantly aware that I had overstepped and had to shut up. And unspoken order. I grimaced internally. The one thing I did not need was my Captain being annoyed with me. Not with the question I still had to ask.
He took a step back, clasped his hands behind his back - and walked away, his back turned to me. "Be assured - I will raise this matter with Admiral Raan. She will have her say. I am sure of it."
I agreed in silence.
As you all know, the Migrant Fleet had a dedicated Marine Corps, essentially, the standing army of the Quarian people. What many people do not understand is that the Marine Corps was even at nominal full strength only about 9000 marines strong. And it rarely was at full strength. Between 2183 and 2185, the actual size fluctuated between 4500 and 4700. In any other military, a soldier in training, any piece of kit used only in training or resting in an armory was expensive - but a valuable asset of deterrence, or a reserve that could be committed when things didn't go well. Just take the Eden Prime War as an example.
Every quarian full-time soldier being idle cost the Flotilla resources that could be spent elsewhere. With little space, few resources and a fleet in constant need of maintenance - every soldier who didn't fight was a liability. Not just expensive - a literal threat.
The Codex will tell you that Marines were also the police force aboard the ships of the Fleet. That is not entirely wrong - but only the most valuable assets that the Fleet had a contingent of full Marines stationed aboard. The three Life Ships, the ships that saw regular combat instead of being mostly relegated to housing and second-line duties, were protected by full-time marines. Naturally, most ships of the Patrol Fleet and some others like science vessels or flagships also fell under this category.
In times of need however, there were a total of a million Militia that could be stood up. Most Quarians - if not all - had received some form of military training as part of their pilgrimage preparations. Take Tali as an example. Many of those then opted to serve for three to five additional years in the Marine Corps before being 'discharged' and leading a civilian life.
But the Migrant Fleet was constantly under martial law - and so, all former Marines and a lot of civilians continued to stand ready as the Militia - the 'reserve', if you will, but a more active reserve than you would find in most armies. Think US 'National Guard', but regularly called to serve, even if only in roles that did not involve direct combat. A Militia rifleman could easily find himself working one shift in a ship's agricultural section and then police that same ship one shift later. It worked surprisingly well.
That's why I am hesitant to call the Militia reservists or second-rate soldiers. But, obviously, most of the high-risks missions outside the Fleet fell to Marines. We were simply more used to it, after all. Especially to dealing with non-quarians. Militia like Prazza was not really suited to being diplomatic.
I would elaborate further, but his actions prove my point.
"Thank you, Captain." I bowed my head. "I would elaborate more, but that would be pointless. That being said, I want it on the record that Prazza brought this on himself and that I consider this a mission failure. One that would have been easily avoidable. That's all."
Captain Forgar merely nodded. "Consider it noted." He returned to his desk, picking up a dataslate and fully turning his back to me. It was obvious that he considered me dismissed.
I waited without a motion.
Once ten seconds had passed, he looked up again. "Is there more?"
Deep breath. "Yes. Captain, I hereby request a leave of absence, indefinitely."
He tilted his breath and eyed me up. Calmly.
I watched as he rose and walked to the other side of the room, passing by me only fifteen centimeters away - forcing me to turn around if I wanted to keep him in my field of view.
He almost appeared human in his behaviour. How he stared at the screen pretending to be a window, his hands behind his back, contemplating.
"Are you sure that this… woman… was your old Captain, the one you thought dead for two years?"
"And in the company of two Cerberus agents, of all people? Yes. Yes, that's her. I have no idea how any of this is possible, but I checked, and nobody else could have the knowledge of how exactly I was promoted, back then."
He lowered his head.
"You think those… Reapers… are involved."
"Yes. I am not one hundred percent sure, but something is going on. My old Commander doesn't just return from the dead, works with or for Cerberus to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a human colony for no reason. Hell, not only did they help us to reach our objective - but they also respected our request to return Veetor to the fleet! That's not how I would expect Cerberus to act."
I broke my formal posture - by folding my arms in front of me.
"You've read my report. Something big is happening, something that we must know about. Myself and Tali'Zorah vas Neemaowe the Commander our lives. And if she can't be there - I will."
He… Chuckled. Odd.
I was… stunned. That was not what I expected.
"On one condition, Squad Leader."
Ah. That sounds more like it.
"I expect reports on how your… adventure progresses. Every second week." He shrugged. "If nothing else, this will help to justify your absence from the Fleet in front of the Admiralty. I don't need to tell you that some would… question your loyalty, otherwise. Especially with the gear you carry. You are lucky that I can pull some extraordinary strings with Admiral Xen."
I saluted, feeling somewhat relieved. That last statement was very true. Even though, officially, it was just a rumour. Enough for me to be just that tiny bit sarcastic. "Yes, sir. I was a double agent for long enough. Time to be a triple agent. Consider it done."
He chuckled again. "I have no doubt that you will succeed." Suddenly, he switched to a serious note. "I was expecting your request. You are right, of course. Even if most other members of the Conclave and the Admiralty Board would like to pretend otherwise - we cannot ignore what happens outside our ship's hulls. It is a shame that it took Cerberus' attack at our heart to wake them up."
Now he folded his arms in front of him. "The next pilgrim shuttle to Omega departs the RAYYA in thirty hours. You may inform your team, but speak of this to no one else."
The way he sounded made it clear that I was dismissed. I snapped to attention and saluted. "Yes, Sir! Thank you, Sir!"
I left. Just before I had fully passed the airlock, I heard him speak again. "Good Luck, Raven. May your ancestors guide you. Keelah Se'Lai."
The lock closed, keeping me from replying.
It was barely enough of a ship to be considered a freighter, but for the week's journey to Omega, it would be enough. Even if I had to sleep on the floor. Just one of many things you got used to, over time. And at least I had a backpack to use as a pillow.
I felt strangely reminded of the long-lost time when I was a student and took a bus ride to school. Myself being a bit older, trying to enjoy those last few moments before an exam - with all those chatty kids in the background. Well, the… I think eight? Quarians that weren't part of the crew were young, no doubt, but physically at least, they were roughly the age of twenty, twenty one, Earth standard.
That being said… They all weren't really mature, having only ever seen the Fleet. Never even knowing anything outside the Fleet. The Pilgrimage was, after all, one of the biggest events in quarian society. In their lives. And it was an unfortunate truth that one in seven pilgrims never returned to the fleet. Either through death or choice. If you then consider that many quarians only ever have one or two children, that strict regulations existed to prevent overpopulation… You start to see why the Pilgrimage was indeed both a joyous and a terrifying deal.
So, you may start to see why I would consider any of these children lucky regardless of their eventual fates. Bragging, speculating, some of them already feeling homesick, some words of encouragement, some clinging on to trinkets from their families - may those be weapons, a few credits to get as much of a good start as possible, or other items of sentimental value. Items that would otherwise, under no circumstance, be given away freely. But this was a special occasion.
I tried not to pay those younglings too much mind, but of course, most of them cast glances in my direction. I was probably the first alien many of them saw, even though most of them had heard stories about me. I was, after all, a bit of a… unique person. For them, at least.
And it was kind of strange, but…
I bet I was no less excited and terrified than all of them.
After all, the 'Long Wait' was over. Time to get started, once again. If those two years had been a respite and a chance to truly 'settle in' - then now, the clock had been started again. And this time, it would not stop until the Reapers were defeated - or I was killed.
I took a deep breath. Then, smiled.
The NORMANDY SR-2 was waiting.
SIDE NOTE: Apologies for the unfinished version this chapter was released in! Sadly, the website system is not up to the task, really. So, if you see something wrong after I gave this final go-ahead - FOR THE SECOND TIME! - please, do let me know. Thanks!
A/N: G'Day, folks! Been a while, huh? Welcome to Mass Effect: 2!
*thunderous applause in the distance*
I know, I know. And hey: I am only ONE month overdue this time!
Jokes aside, the last few months were… interesting. Good, Bad, sometimes Ugly - but always interesting. I could really do without the stress, though. Ever since a certain point in late May, it seems as if everything simply happens at once. I'm moving into a new apartment, I'm finally living on my own, my search for a new job doesn't seem completely helpless anymore, and all those little tiny bits like doctor's appointments are also happening.
I don't mind the chaos - but just when I thought that COVID during the winter had completely exhausted me... the country reopening and basically everything being flipped on its head in my life is even worse. And so much better. Because I finally actually get to do something about it, no matter how taxing it is.
That's a bit of a long-winded answer there as to why the start of ME 2 was late, but yeah. I can't be the only one feeling like that.
That being said, I am more than aware that COVID ain't over. Just because there seems to be a respite right now doesn't mean it can't get worse later. So, do me a favour lads - and enjoy the freedom, but don't be stupid about it. I sadly get to see the consequences of idiocy multiple times a day. And no, I am not a medical professional.
Lastly, I would like to welcome the many, many new readers that undoubtedly came from the Mass Effect: Legendary edition. Hello, folks! Hope you've enjoyed the ride so far. Sadly, I didn't have a chance yet to play the Legendary edition myself, but from what I hear and see it actually seems to be worth it. Especially the revamp of ME1. In order to get some aspects of ME 1 right, I had to play certain missions over and over. And if you're coming from ME2 and 3… Let's just say that 1 is without a doubt the weakest part of the series in terms of controls.
Ah, I'm rambling again. my apologies.
For those of you asking where the background story is, what Raven has done in those two years… Put yourself in Shepard's shoes. She has to get reacquainted with her squad as well. And if I'd just tell you everything - where would be the fun?
Anything else that I may have missed? There WILL be errors in this chapter, one way or the other. If you see anything, do not hesitate to point it out!
On a related note: I am looking for a Beta reader! It should be someone who doesn't mind proofreading, is decent with the lore - decent enough to catch obvious mistake that I make or can offer a second opinion when I need to do a sanity-check (as I am insane, that happens more often than I'd like) and is also okay with having the story a bit spoilt. Which should come as no surprise, given that part of the 'job' description is to read stuff that is unfinished yet. If you're interested, drop me a review or shoot me a DM! I'll try to answer those as quickly as I can, but sadly, the eMail system of this site is sometimes beyond broken.
Okay - enough of me for one chapter. Thank you very much for enjoying this story, consider fa'ing, following or even reviewing if you did enjoy it, and see ya later!
Hang on to yer seatbelts, lads - we're only getting started!