"Science has stolen most of our miracles."
UCV Saint Luke, November 17th, 1:18 PM, 2186
Standing at attention in the Saint Luke's starboard hangar deck, I waited patiently as a transport Cobra hovered through the field and came to a stop just a few meters from me. It landed with the usual loud thud, blowing up a heavy gust of air as its thrusters glowed and its engines revved down. The ramp under its belly dropped open, allowing seven figures to walk down into the light.
Richard walked at the front of the pack, practically dwarfed by those behind him. The six quarian ORION volunteers had finished their recuperation, and none were worse for wear. Due to their increased body mass and numerous cybernetic enhancements, they all wore newly-designed envirosuits built just for them, with power armor over top of that. According to what Richard had told me, their new suits were capable of directly interfacing with the newest versions of our power armor, allowing them far greater control than the average soldier was capable of. Sira had really outdone herself with the newest version of these suits, they all looked like goliaths.
"Well, here's your special delivery." Richard joked, smirking as we finally came face-to-face. "Six certified badasses, ready and willing to wreck anything you point them at."
"Forgive me for asking, but why aren't our Raloi volunteers here?" I questioned, noticing their clear absence as the thumps of the exos echoed through the hangar.
"They're still going through muscle therapy." He immediately answered, tapping the tips of his fingers together as he tilted his hands towards me. "The increased muscle mass, combined with their… heftier physiology, makes the process last much longer for them."
"Well either way, I'm always happy to host those who don't pull their punches." I returned with a smile, walking forward as they all stood at attention in a uniform line, shoulder-to-shoulder. "At ease."
They all relaxed, seeming more like machines with all the armor.
"Welcome to the ship, ORIONs. You already know who I am, so let's just jump to the part where each of you state your name, rank, and specialization!" I began with a raised voice, hands held together behind my back as I turned back to Richard.
"Hold on! ORIONs, take your helmets off for the good Captain." Richard interrupted, a smile forming on his face. "You'll love this."
They all followed his command, disconnecting their armored helmets to reveal their bare faces. At first my brain almost didn't register the fact that I was looking at uncovered Quarian faces in the open air, but then I remembered the conversation I had with him about the immune-boosting implants so long ago.
"I had almost forgotten you were working on that." I grinned, walking to the end of the line as I took in the unusual sight, focusing on the last in the line. "Proceed."
"Private First Class Jina'Zol, Support Gunner." The first ORION announced, saluting as I stood and looked at her.
"At ease… I remember you, soldier. You were one of the Marines who helped take Cronos." I immediately pointed out, recalling her name. "It's good to see you again."
"Likewise, sir. Glad to be aboard." She finished, staring ahead as I took a few steps over to her squadmate.
"Private First Class Son'Rollo, Rifleman." The second marine stated, making brief eye contact with me before staring back into the distance.
"What's your experience, Private?" I asked, looking him dead in the eyes as I basically forced him to look back at me.
"Sir, served aboard the Hichito, fought against Reaper ground forces in the Nubian Expanse." He answered, looking rather nervous. "Uh, sorry sir. I'm not used to people seeing my face yet."
"Nothing to apologize for, Private. At ease." I finished, continuing my walk down the line.
"Staff Sergeant Gata'Raemas. Infantry Assault." The next Marine declared with far more confidence, helmet tucked neatly below his arm as he gave a quick salute. "Nice to meet you, sir. I've heard a lot about this ship."
"Only the good things, I hope." I joked, getting him to smile slightly. "Why'd you decide to join this little outfit, sergeant?"
"I just wanted to be the best soldier possible, sir." He answered plainly, getting one of my eyebrows to shoot up. "The better I am, the better I can defend my people."
"Humble… I like that." I nodded, moving on to a much more nervous looking ORION with paler, more freckled skin than the others.
"C-Corporal Jora'Fusar, Combat Engineer." The next introduction came as she unintentionally smacked herself in the forehead with her own salute, wincing in pain.
"Still getting used to those new muscles, Corporal?" I asked in a more light-hearted tone, allowing myself a small smirk.
"Yes'sir. It won't happen again, sir." She quickly replied, obviously embarrassed.
"At ease, ORION. I'm not here to judge you, especially not for something so trivial." I reassured, giving her a quick pat on the armored shoulder as I continued.
"Lance Corporal Yaelo'Vill, Marksman." The Marine greeted, saluting as I noticed the large rifle on her back.
"What's the farthest hostile target you've hit with that weapon, soldier?" I asked, getting her to briefly look at it before smiling.
"3,921 meters, 16 kilometer per hour crosswind. 1.2 g's, clear sky." She listed off, genuinely impressing me despite how boastful she was. "I can shoot the tail off a Varren with my eyes closed."
"Don't get too cocky. " I smiled, moving to the final ORION who seemed strangely familiar.
"Lieutenant Kal'Reegar, Reconnaissance." He stated, immediately surprising me.
"Reegar! It's been a long time!" I practically gushed, walking up closer. "You've certainly come a long way since the day I won that knife from you."
"I can say the same for you, Admiral. It's good to know you still remember me after all this time." He nodded, turning back to his fellow ORIONs. "If it's alright with you sir, we'd really like to get our equipment squared away as soon as possible."
"Very well. I'll make this quick." I agreed, walking back over and standing next to Richard. "ORIONs, you are part of a new breed of soldier, one that will define the United Confederation for years to come. I know it hasn't been an easy path getting here, but I know all of you will perform your duties with honor and distinction. Your success will determine the future of the ORION Program, and I don't have to tell you the risks we'll be facing during our time together. No matter what happens in the days to come, leave behind a legacy that will inspire others to follow in your footsteps, and be all you can be. Dismissed!"
They all saluted in unison, quickly moving to unload several crates of equipment from the Cobra. Watching them, I began to grasp what I had here. Quarian marines, though highly skilled, were often glass cannons due to their physiology. Their envirosuits were notoriously hard to redesign for combat, and the nature of the suits combined with their weak immune systems often limited how effective they could be in long-term engagements. Richard, Hans, and Mineko managed to solve both of these problems with the ORION Program, and their collaboration with Sira had proved very successful as well.
As they finished unloading the rest of their gear, I waved them over with a smile.
"I do have a final surprise for all of you. One of the perks of being ORIONs is receiving private quarters." I announced, watching a few of them grin. "We've prepared a small section on Deck 8 for your stay with us, and have included all the standard amenities afforded to the rest of the crew. All your equipment will be stored there, and it'll be off-limits to everyone except ORIONs or senior officers. My XO will show you the way, enjoy."
"Right this way." Dixon urged from the nearby doorway, getting them to follow him as I turned back to Richard with more questions on my mind.
"Anything I should be aware of before you set off?" I asked in a lower tone, immediately getting a furrowed brow in response.
"Other than the high protein diets they require? No, none at all." He denied, looking more annoyed than anything else. "Why would you even ask that?"
"I just didn't want to leave anything to interpretation. Better to ask and be wrong than to not ask and miss some critical information." I defended, knowing I was perfectly in the right to ask.
"They'll be fine. All I ask is that you take care of them. The implants in their bodies are worth more in raw resources than those armored suits." He said in a far more facetious tone, turning to walk back towards the Cobra.
"Hey, as long as you take care of Dan, I'll take care of them." I yelled back, getting him to stop and turn to me with a stupid look on his face.
"If I can fix your head, his will be a piece of cake." He joked, giving me a thumbs up as he walked back up into the waiting Cobra.
As he took off and left me by myself in the hangar once more, I took a deep breath and walked over to the nearby comm panel, mentally preparing myself for what I was about to put into motion.
"CIC, Michaels here. We're cleared for departure, prepare to move us out of spacedock and inform the flotilla we'll be leaving the system in one hour." I ordered clearly, hanging the phone up seconds later.
Now, we went on the hunt.
UCV Saint Luke, November 19th, 1:01 PM, 2186
Sitting back in my private quarters, I sipped on a glass of water as I read the latest reports the Council had sent us. Surprisingly enough, very little had actually changed the last few days, but admittedly it was unknown how extensive the Council's coverage of the region was. We had deployed dozens of probes ahead of the Saint Luke to scout our projected search areas, but we were still waiting on anything that might indicate Cerberus activity.
I was still quietly pissed off with the idea that Cerberus was still involved in any of this. While I wasn't naive enough to believe killing The Illusive Man would put an end to them as a threat, I never thought they'd be in a good enough condition yet to steal from the Systems Alliance in the middle of a genocidal conflict. I could only guess what was going through their heads at this point.
Putting down the datapad, I looked around the empty room, feeling how barren it really was now that Mara and Elle were no longer on the ship with me. Mara and I had come to the decision to no longer travel together on military assignments after what happened with the Batarians. It was amicable, sure, and I never wanted to put them in any dangerous situations, but having them around to cheer me up after a long day really did help. No matter how bad I felt though, I knew it was ten times worse for Mara back home.
Feeling the need for stimulation, I looked at my Simulstim headset sitting in the corner, having gathered a small layer of dust since I brought it onboard. Like my old VR headset back in my college days, I hadn't used it all that much after since I spent a good amount of time with it. Even with all the interesting programs I had acquired for it, I still felt very little incentive to throw it on. The Simulstim, though interesting, was exhausting to use mentally, and I needed to be in top form for whenever Cerberus appeared. However, when thinking about it for a few more moments, I realized I hadn't used it since receiving my implant. Part of me wondered if using the headset would disrupt its functions, or vice versa.
Banishing the question from my head lest I test the theories myself, I decided instead to take a walk around my ever-changing ship, specifically to visit my ORIONs. I hadn't interacted with them since our initial meeting days ago, and figured checking out how they were doing wouldn't hurt. I slipped on my jacket and walked out, locking the door behind me.
Deck 8 was considered by many to be the "fun deck". It was the largest deck on the ship that wasn't related to Engineering or the hangars, and took up two "floors" worth of space. Most of it was dedicated to the crew quarters, but there were many amenities that you wouldn't find on other Confederation vessels, including the movie theater, zero-g therapy chambers, a basketball court, and the full cafeteria that used vegetables grown in Hydroponics. This was among numerous other small things, of course. I often made use of the zero-g therapy chambers in conjunction with a TENS unit attached to my back muscles. It helped relax them after a long day.
Walking further towards the front of the ship, I finally reached the door that led to the ORION quarters. It had its very own dedicated life support, including water and air filtration, and was specially hardened against attack with thick titanium armor plating. Obviously the section was originally intended to be VIP quarters, but we ditched that in favor of giving our ORIONs a nice, private place to live aboard the Saint Luke. Considering how quiet they'd all been, I assumed they were enjoying the accommodations.
Opening the door with a hiss, I walked into the small airlock, hearing very little except a few deep vibrations as it went through a quick decon cycle. The moment the door on the other side opened, I was immediately met with the sound of "Frankenstein" by The Edgar Winter Group playing in the background. It was loud enough that the bass shook the room, but not so loud that I couldn't make out their voices. Their armor all stood in a neat line near the airlock in their charging ports, with their crates of gear not far away, but their quarters were rather… haphazard by comparison.
"You lying bosh'tet, you know exactly how much it's supposed to be." I heard one of the women remark in an aggravated tone as I peeked my head around the corner, seeing the speaker, Yaelo, and everyone else lounging around outside of their armor. "You'll give me exactly what I earned or I'll kick your ass."
"That's wrong and you know it. 21 is a better sale than 19, and you clearly don't have the cards to beat me, you von." Jina defended, looking quite cross as she stood up face-to-face with Yaelo. "Now hand over the noodles, unless you want to give me three servings instead."
The scene wasn't quite what I initially expected, though I couldn't say I was all that surprised considering they were all still Marines, albeit much bulkier and maskless. Jina and Yaelo were in the middle of a holographic game of Caravan, and sat at the room's large (and cluttered) mess table across from one another. Further down the table, Reegar was busy cleaning one of their Pulse Rifles, obviously doing his best to ignore the pair as Son and Jora laid in their open pods. Son slept in a heap, mouth wide open as Jora sat up reading something on a datapad. Gata sat on the side, leaning back in a chair against the wall as he bobbed his head to the music.
"You'd be better off stopping while you're ahead, Yaelo." Gata remarked with a smile on his face, arms crossed over his chest. "At least you can keep one of your rations if you quit now."
Looking exasperated, she looked around at Jora as she tried to find some way out of her situation.
"Come on Jor, tell me there's a way to win this." She pleaded as Jora kept her eyes focused on her datapad.
"You can't." She replied bluntly, not even bothering to look at Yaelo as she scrolled down whatever she was reading.
"Jo'der…" She muttered under her breath as Jina began laughing, immediately causing Yaelo's face to glow with anger as she whipped back around and slammed her hand on the table. "Quiet, vas Nedas!"
"Hey, both of you, knock it off!" Reegar ordered in a raised voice, shooting a glare at both of them as he polished the casing on his disassembled gun. "We're supposed to be professionals. Act like it for a change."
I couldn't help but smile at the scene in front of me, realizing even the most elite soldiers would still act like a grunt outside of combat.
I decided it was time, and walked out into the open. Gata was the first to notice me, his eyes growing in surprise as he immediately stood up and shouted "Admiral on deck!" Everyone suddenly jumped to attention, getting up and standing at attention with salutes.
"At ease, ORIONs." I remarked, allowing myself to smile as they took on relaxed poses. "I just decided to come by and see how you were all getting along… I see you've made the place your home."
"We haven't had much time to reorganize our equipment, sir." Reegar explained, eyes glancing at the rifle on the table.
"Relax, I'm not the type to chastise people for something as pointless as the cleanliness of their quarters." I smiled, walking over and sitting down at the table. "I see you listen to my station, Sergeant."
"I was unaware it was a station of your making, sir." He remarked, looking more confused than I expected. "It has… uh, grown on me."
"That station is my entire personal collection of music from a thirty-five period, from 1965 to the turn of the millennium. What's your favorite song so far?" I questioned, getting a genuine look of thought out of him as he briefly looked away and furrowed his brow.
To be fair, there were well over 2000 tracks I had queued up on both my private radio station back home, to the one I had set up as an option for the intercoms here on the Saint Luke. From the most popular stuff that was out when my parents were kids to the most obscure stuff when I was a kid, I've listened to it and ripped it.
"Uh, it was one sung by a woman… it involved some sort of fish, I believe?" He tried to recall, as I thought about it for a moment before coming to what I thought he was talking about.
"Barracuda?" I remarked, getting him to nod as his pale eyebrows shot up. "Heart was a pretty good band, not a bad choice. One of my all-time favorites will always be "Ain't Talkin' Bout Love" by Van Halen."
"That one by Kim Carnes is pretty good, Bette Davis Eyes." Jor suddenly cut in, managing to surprise me with how suddenly she had spoken. "I'm not sure exactly what the lyrics are supposed to mean, but I like the electronic sound of it."
"Yeah, synthesizers were pretty popular in the 80's back on Earth." I smiled, playing with my watch as I closed my eyes. Leaning back slightly, I rubbed my face as I attempted to dispel the stress from the last few days. Then, like a lighting bolt, I got an idea.
"I must admit, I've been struggling to find ways to occupy myself and the crew as of late… I was wondering if you'd all be willing to put your skills to the test." I teased, feeling good about this sudden idea of mine.
"Are you challenging us, sir?" Gata asked, crossing his arms with a smirk.
"In a sense. I assume you've all seen the basketball court a few halls down?" I asked, getting nods from a few of them. "I think a public game, Team ORION versus Team CIC, would be good for ship morale. Six versus six, basic rules. What do you think?"
"That sounds like a challenge." Reegar parroted Gata, his face lighting up as he looked around. "I don't know sir, I'd have to ask my squadmates here. What do you all think?"
"What's basketball?" Son asked, obviously still half asleep as he stared at me through squinted eyes as an intercom tone rang out through the ship, turning off the music.
"Attention Admiral Michaels, please contact CIC ASAP." Dixon requested, immediately getting me to stand up and walk over to the comm panel. Gata stepped out of the way as I hit the quick dial for the CIC.
"Michaels." I stated clearly the moment I heard the line click, preparing myself for whatever he had to tell me.
"One of our probes just reported activity near the Nemean Abyss in an uncharted system. Engine signatures appear to match Cerberus vessels." Dixon stated, getting me to breathe a little harder. "What do you want us to do, Sean?"
I thought about it carefully for a few moments, weighing the few options we had available to us.
"Prepare for a jump to the edge of the system. Put the ships on yellow alert until further notice." I ordered, hanging up the phone as I turned back to the ORIONs. "We have a potential lead, and we're going for it while it's still fresh. Reegar, meet me in the CIC when you and your team are prepped and ready."
"Yes'sir." Reegar saluted as his fellow ORIONs did the same, getting me to nod as I walked out of the room with much more of a spring to my step.
Admittedly, engine signatures weren't much to go off of when you really boiled things down, but given how little we already had, we didn't have much of a choice. I saw the alert lights in the walls switch over to yellow as I made my way into the CIC, crew alerts going out to man their stations. Finally walking into the CIC, I immediately spotted Dixon staring at a holographic map of the system. His expression was… uncertain, to say the least.
"What do we have?" I questioned, standing across from him as he zoomed the map in.
"Three signatures so far. Two confirmed Cerberus, one unidentified." He began, pointing out one of the seven planets in the system. "It appears as if the two Cerberus ships are heading towards the fourth planet in the system, and are being followed at a distance by the third."
"Sounds like we're not the only ones shadowing them." I remarked, rubbing my chin. "What kind of planet does it look like?"
"Appears to be mostly arid, with a stable nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere." He went on, zooming into the planet with the partial image we had of it from the probe. "Apparently instances of high static discharge were detected on the surface."
"Well, that either means there are some pretty big dust storms down there, or Cerberus is using the planet to discharge their drive cores." I theorized, running my hand through my freshly trimmed hair.
"But if Cerberus uses the Reach System like we do-" He began to say as I held my hand up slightly to stop him.
"I know, they have no need to discharge their static." I nodded, taking a deep sigh. "An arid planet, two Cerberus ships, and an unknown pursuer… they've been known to use a planet's natural phenomena to disguise their presence, too. Hm, this might be what we need. Have the other ships finished positioning themselves?"
"Yes'sir. They're all synced to the Saint Luke's navigational system and we're ready to go on your command." He confirmed, giving me back that sense of weight and control.
"Very well. Jump to FTL, standby at all stations." I ordered, getting Dixon to whip around to the helmsman and gesture in confirmation. He gestured back, getting the lights to dim slightly as we made the three-minute jump to the uncharted system's fourth planet.
As we jumped and waited for the counter to count down, Reegar walked into the CIC with his full suit back on. He wasted no time positioning himself between Dixon and I, towering over us at the edge of the center console.
"Reporting as ordered, sir." He said with a quick salute, taking off his helmet. "What's the situation?"
"We suspect there may be a Cerberus base somewhere on this system's fourth planet." I explained, rhythmically tapping my finger on the center console as I kept my eyes glued to the jump timer. "There appears to be a third, unidentified party shadowing the two confirmed Cerberus ships."
"Well, I hope they're the friendly type." He remarked, smiling as I looked up at him, unable to keep myself from grinning at his positive attitude.
The timer finally ticked down to zero, jumping the flotilla into the system. Immediately, we began full scans of the space around us as our ships dispersed to give the Saint Luke more room to open up with its main batteries if need be. The arid planet ahead of us could be seen on the main screen above us, its atmosphere having a dull, fuzzy look to it due to the dust in its atmosphere.
"Status?" I questioned several seconds later, looking Dixon dead in the eyes.
"All systems are green, Gravity Drive is recharging." He smiled as a stream of new information began pouring into the ship's computer. "It looks like we were right about those signatures. Residual readings confirm Cerberus vessels."
"What about our third party?" I prodded, getting him to quickly scroll through the information.
"Appears to be a heavy shuttle of some sort, perhaps a corvette? It doesn't match any military signatures in our database." He listed off, getting me even more curious. "It couldn't be one of ours, right?"
"There aren't many people out there with access to a Gravity Drive, so my guess is it's either one of the stolen Alliance vessels or some kind of prototype." I wondered out loud, tapping my finger on my crossed arms. "Then again, if Cerberus had stolen the ship, they wouldn't be keeping all this distance between each other."
"Maybe they're mercenaries flying around in a modified ship? It's not uncommon for them to get their hands on military hardware, especially in the middle of a war." Reegar suggested, tugging on the collar of his armor.
"It's a possibility." I nodded, knowing his point was valid. "Anyone willing to shadow Cerberus all the way out here must have some resources on their side."
"Wait… there it is." Dixon immediately pointed out, zooming back in on the higher-res planet. "That ship just broke the atmosphere. It's landing."
"Track its trajectory, get its landing zone before it disappears." I immediately replied, watching the signature twitch for a few seconds before it blinked off the map. "Did we get it?"
"Hold on… hold on… there it is." Dixon grinned as the estimated landing zone was marked, along with the ship's path through the atmosphere. "Looks like it's landing near the equator, close to one of the planet's few water formations."
"Makes sense, they still need water." I nodded, noticing the massive dust cloud raging towards it as I turned back to Reegar. "If we're going to land forces down there, we need to do it before that storm rolls in. That's zero-visibility, and all the static generated by that storm is going to render our sensors useless."
"I can have my team in a Cobra in five minutes." He stated, taking a deep sigh. "We might lose comms once that storm rolls in, but I'll make sure we relay all messages back to you once we're-"
"I'm coming with you." I interrupted, getting a surprised look from both him and Dixon.
"Sir?" Dixon questioned, looking understandably confused.
"If they have a piece of a Reaper down there, there's no telling how hot it could be. Considering it could be Sovereign's core of all things, it could be radiating with indoctrination signals." I explained, looking both of them in the eyes. "With my implant, I'll be immune to any influence it might have."
"That's not an… ideal choice, sir. We prefer to work by ourselves." Reegar resisted, conflicted with my decision.
"I promise I won't be a burden, if that's what you're worried about." I reassured, bumping the back of my fist against his chest plate as I turned back around. "Prep Challenger 3 in the port hangar for departure, Dixon. You know the drill, you're in charge until we return."
"Yes'sir." He nodded, picking up the phone as I looked back up at Reegar.
"I'll be down in ten minutes. Be ready to go the moment I step aboard." I ordered, getting a silent salute from him as he put his helmet back on and left. I did the same, running down to the armory to grab my gear from storage.
I had to admit, the possibility that Sovereign's core might be down there was only half of the reason why I wanted to be there. I wanted to make sure there wasn't anything down there we'd miss, and to confront any Cerberus personnel in person. I felt a sense of responsibility towards the threat they still posed, and needed to make sure this was done right.
With any luck, this would be the last time I'd ever have to deal with them again.
A/N: Another day, another dollar. Between massive amounts of spring yard work and overtime at work, not only am I in quite a bit of pain every time I sit down to write, but I'm also tired and oftentimes annoyed. Still, at least this chapter came out in a more timely fashion, and I got to properly introduce the ORIONs for the first time. I hope you all enjoyed it, because this certainly went smoother than it did before.