Homeworld of the Salarians
For a mission which was supposed to be a simple pick up the air in the shuttle had never been more tense as it bumped through the upper atmosphere. Even before missions where success was unlikely and death almost certain there had never been quite this flavour of calamity permeating the hollow metal box wrapped around them. It wasn't so much the mission itself though that had its own complications, rather it was the team Shepard had brought along. In hindsight he should have predicted it.
His core team was reliable as always, Garrus was unflappable as always maintaining that unique mixture of easy going competence. For this mission he had also brought along Edi's new robot body recovered from Mars and reconfigured by the advanced AI who was now controlling it from orbit like a puppet. A surprisingly shapely puppet which had gained some popularity among certain sections of the Normandy crew. Joker especially.
He also had Wrex on the team which was a given, picking up the Krogan female held on Sur'kesh was his business and he deserved to be there when it happened. Alongside him was Major Hayes of the EDF representing his fleet with his ongoing mission to gather details on this new galaxy for his command. Likewise Captain Bless of Gamilas had similar orders and Shepard was happy to facilitate them, both were competent soldiers who had proven themselves on Menae and brought some useful capabilities to the team.
The final guest was Varhana Anagrain, War Witch of Jirel and his secret weapon when dealing with the notoriously deceptive STG, his walking lie detector thanks to her telepathy. All of them were valuable and this was a good simple mission to show them more of the galaxy and the work Shepard was doing. His miscalculation was forgetting that while Regent Ida had been accepting of the Gamilans that didn't mean the others of her world would be.
The sheer hate crackling between Varhana and Bless was palpable, as if either one of them was a mere instant away from putting a bullet between the other one's eyes. It was an oversight and he kicked himself for missing it but it was too late now.
"We're on final approach." Cortez called back from the controls. "Couple of minutes."
"Sooner the better." Rumbled Wrex. "Things never go simple with Salarians."
"That include eating them?" Garrus took an open shot.
"Gristly." The Krogan ran with it. "Next time I'll try frying."
They both watched with barely disguised amusement as both Edi and Major Hayes tilted their heads at the exact same moment and raised the exact same eyebrow.
"So." Wrex moved on. "What's with those two?" He jabbed a thumb at the two women glaring fiercely at each other.
"Ever tactful." Garrus grinned. "In fact I think you've been taking lessons."
"One species destroyed the homeworld of the other." Shepard answered flatly.
"That'll do it." Wrex kept watching them. "My money is on the grey one."
"With that amount of rage you're always armed. Trust me, I'm a Krogan."
"As long as it's not in here, way too cramped for a deathmatch." Garrus followed on.
"There won't be any problems." Varhana suddenly spoke. "Not on this mission, I would not embarrass the Commander with such poor discipline."
She smiled icily at the Gamilan.
"I can wait."
"Any time Witch." Bless sneered back.
"It really could be any time, any where." The Jirel nodded in casual agreement. "You won't be the first Gamilan I've killed, I stopped counting. I only remember the ones who died creatively and I think I'll have something special for you."
"Enough." Shepard stepped in. "For as long as you are on my team I expect you to keep it civil. This mission is critical, if either of you cannot obey my orders let me know right now."
"No problem here Commander." Bless nodded. "I will not dishonour the Colonel or betray the trust she has placed in me."
"I'll do what I promised, but that is all." Varhana agreed. "I'll let you know what the truth is here, and I have promised Regent Ida not to kill anyone. Even a Gamilan. For now anyway."
"Then we're still a go, you are both professionals, I expect you to act like it."
He exhaled and turned back to Wrex.
"If not I'll feed you to the Krogan."
Varhana laughed, Bless looked a little concerned.
"Commander." Cortez interrupted. "We might have a problem, the Salarian base is waving us off, they say we don't have permission to land."
"We have clearance from the Dalatrass herself."
"They're still refusing."
"Told you, damn Salarians."
He slammed a fist into the door controls opening them up above the landing platform before wracking his shotgun.
"Wrex, I know you're not about to do something really stupid..."
"Me? Nah." He croaked a laugh and then jumped out and landed with a crash on the Salarian base.
"I read about Krogan." Hayes picked up his rifle. "Seems about right."
"I guess we're fighting then." Bless took her own carbine up.
"Not yet." Shepard waved them back and swiftly leapt down as several laser sights from emplaced snipers tracked the team.
"Stand down! Stand down!" A salarian darted forward from further back in the base waving his arms at both sides. "It's alright, we're clear, everyone stand down!"
With a further glance at Shepard Wrex complied, as he lowered his weapon so the snipers also stood down diffusing the potentially incendiary situation. That was much closer than Shepard liked, especially for an apparently peaceful operation.
"Commander Shepard, we only found out about this a few moments ago!" The mildly panicked Salarian Officer spoke quickly, slightly out of breath either from running up here or at the thought of a diplomatic disaster on his watch.
"Understood." Shepard eased the situation. "You have something here that belongs to Wrex."
"Something worth dying for." The old Krogan jutted out his chin defiantly. "The last hope for my people."
"This matter can be resolved but I must insist he," He waved at Wrex, "remain under guard."
That was good enough, Shepard gave Wrex a straight look holding eye contact.
"I've got this."
The Krogan held it for a while, then agreed placing his faith in the human.
"Fine, but if anything goes bad all bets are off."
With a final glare and a sharkish grin at the small gaggle of Salarians facing him Wrex relaxed and stood aside clearing the way for the rest of the team.
With the situation easing Shepard joined the Salarian officer who led him from the pad. The facility itself was built on the side of a lush steep valley, a series of gleaming terraces open to the humid air of the Salarian homeworld. Numerous individuals worked around them, a mix of scientists, technicians and well armed guards.
"I appreciate your understanding Commander, I'm Padok Wiks." The lead Salarian finally found a moment to introduce himself. Like most Salarians he spoke fast with brief sentences conveying information as efficiently as possible. All Salarians seemed to be in a hurry, perhaps wisely so given their relatively short life span.
"With the war everyone is on edge." He offered apologetically. Shepard recalled the Salarians hadn't been hit hard yet, just a few skirmishes, but it was only a matter of time.
"Do you have the female Krogan here?" Shepard asked.
"Yes, they were in poor condition when we found them on Tuchanka. We brought them here to stabilise them."
"I'd like to see them."
"Of course, give me a few moments to clear it."
The team dispersed a little as Wiks contacted the research labs, the new arrivals taking the time to look around.
"Why females?" Major Hayes asked. "I mean these specific ones?"
"They were cured of the genophage." Garrus answered.
"In a way." Edi replied. "The Krogan species reproduced at a prodigious rate, after a large war several centuries ago with the other council races the Salarians developed a way to significantly reduce their birthrate. A genetic alteration which means most Krogan are now stillborn."
"Better than exterminating them." Garrus shrugged. "But it also affected Krogan culture, Wrex believes curing it will allow his people to set aside their more angry and brutal ways and become a great civilisation again."
"Others believe it will just give them the army they need to crush all other races." Edi noted. "Curing the genophage is not well supported."
"But if we want the Krogan in this war then this is the price, and we want them in this war. We need them."
"If the Salarians did this they probably don't want it fixed right?" Hayes checked.
"Their government doesn't, no, if Shepard does it we might alienate them." Garrus confirmed. "It's a gamble, and part of that gamble is getting the Krogan females out of here in the first place."
This place was oppressively humid, even with the cooling systems in his battle gear Shepard was getting hot. He could hear Wrex arguing, the others talking about history and politics. Varhana was peering over the edge of the terrace at the jungles and teeming wildlife leaving just Henna Bless, the Gamilan Commando furtively seeking out the Commander.
"Do you have a moment to speak quietly Commander?"
"Looks like." He checked over to see what progress Wiks had made, the STG operative still on the comms line. "If you're worried about what happened in the shuttle..."
"No, nothing like that, you are the mission commander and your orders are absolute. I'll obey to the death." Bless dismissed. "But I do want to talk about her."
She didn't need to specify further.
"What do you know of her?"
"She's a war witch, only one left as far as anyone knows." Shepard answered. "Regent Ida didn't want her to leave, maybe she's being over protective of her people, maybe something else."
"Do you know what she did after the war? After the fall of her planet?"
"She was the one who evacuated them to Lyonesse. She lost her crew in the process and had her own life shortened but everyone on that world owes her their lives."
"You sound doubtful."
"It's just... after the attack we hunted down any survivors, we never got them all but we accounted for their entire navy. Except one ship, a battleship, and a single war witch."
"I think your search is over."
"That's what concerns me."
The Gamilan checked over her shoulder to see Varhana still engrossed in the scenery.
"The vessel we couldn't account for didn't just vanish, not at first. We started losing ships, then convoys. Someone was raiding our forces near Jirel, not pirates though, too professional and powerful. It had to be a warship."
"The missing Jirel battleship?"
"We confirmed it not long after, once it began attacking colonies." Bless intoned. "Wiping out isolated settlements, mines, stations. Then small border worlds and entire colonies."
"A single ship?"
"The Jirel were advanced but one ship shouldn't have been enough. They didn't overpower our defences, they turned our people against themselves. Telepathy Commander, but on a vast scale."
"Are the Jirel able to do that?"
"Alone? no. But there are pieces of ancient technology that enhance telepathy and we know the Jirel had access to a lot of it. We analysed some pieces, they can enhance and project telepathic effects over a wide area. We believe the Jirel ship had such a device and someone powerful enough to use it. Like the unaccounted for war witch."
Bless pursed her lips.
"One of my first missions as a junior officer was to investigate a colony that went dark. They were all dead, not from bombardment or bioweapons, they killed each other or themselves. They used any weapon they had, knives, sticks, bare hands, teeth. They tortured each other and themselves, they mutilated..." She broke off, the usually icy soldier needing a moment of composure.
"If it's her, if she is the missing war witch who wiped out our colonies then we are all in terrible danger. She is beyond insane, the things she made innocent people do, men, women and children Commander, no one who allows that is stable."
She glanced over to see Varana a dozen metres away staring their way with a smile. She waved cheerfully as they locked eyes, a gesture which of course was not designed to convey joy.
"It can't be a coincidence Commander. Be careful, I don't think she is what she says she is." Bless warned warily. "She's a monster."
"Commander." Wiks waved him over interrupting Shepards slightly unnerved train of thought. "You're clear to head down to the labs."
He pulled his mind together and put it back on task. He had a mission in front of him and had to make sure it went well at any cost. This investigation could wait.
"Alright we'll head down. Wrex, be good."
"Sure, sure, just remember why we're here." Growled the old Krogan. "And don't take too long, these Salarians are looking more and more appetising."
"Don't get fat old man!" Garrus called over as he strolled up beside Shepard. "Let's go get this over with, the whole thing has me on edge."
"Given our location combat is unlikely." Edi remarked blankly.
"That's usually when it all goes to hell."
"Keep your eyes open just in case." Shepard concurred. "I made sure we were armed for a reason, we don't know if the Reapers have indoctrinated anyone in the Salarian government."
"It is possible." Edi accepted. "It is likely they have recovered Reaper artifacts for study."
"Look how well that went for Cerberus." Garrus shuddered a little.
"Indeed." Edi replied. "Workplace safety was never a Cerberus priority."
They stepped into a large lift and headed deeper into the facility emerging into a dimly lit large room a few floors down. It was busy with Salarians dashing around in their usual state of hurried slightly frantic activity and contained many different displays and consoles scrolling through data Shepard didn't pretend to understand.
Most notable though was the far wall of the room which was set with a half dozen glass fronted cells. They all seemed empty at the moment though their place in this more secure room suggested they had once held the high value individuals the team had arrived to collect.
"Shepard!" A familiar voice called to him from across the dull room. "Excellent timing!"
"Mordin?" Shepard lightened a little, it was a surprise to see his former team mate here but a refreshingly welcome one.
"Eyesight still sharp, surprise understandable, hadn't expected to return to work." The Salarian rattled off with his standard speedy efficiency eliminating any words not required to convey his meaning.
"They brought you in because of the Krogan Females?" Garrus asked from beside Shepard.
"Of course, they had to bring me in. Someone else might have got it wrong."
He lowered his voice.
"Helped females, sent information to Wrex, encouraged political pressure to free females."
"That suddenly makes a lot of sense."
"We must hurry, unusual activity, security warnings not normal."
"Warnings?" Shepard became still.
"Perimeter sensors detected something, unlikely to be coincidence. Must leave soon."
"Will need to make arrangements, couple of minutes, wait nearby please."
Mordin went off to work leaving the group to split up and meander a little with Garrus and Edi investigating the room while trying not to look too obvious about it as Bless and Hayes chatted in a corner about the different types of aliens.
Varhana's silky voice tickled Shepard's ear, her arrival seemingly from nowhere.
"A prison, a laboratory, a place for experimentation on living beings. Sentient or otherwise." She observed quietly. "All for the benefit of scientist Salarians, as the song goes."
"Song?" It took a moment for Shepard to remember the simple ditty Mordin had sung once or twice on the Normandy back during their battles against the Collectors. "How did you know about...?"
"Not from your mind Commander, Mordin has it running through his head, projecting it loudly in his thoughts. It's like shouting in a quiet room, I can't help but hear it."
"I'll make a note of that."
"It seems he is working hard to get the Krogans out of this place, I respect him for that." She walked around Shepard peering at consoles and the staff manning them. "These places are uncomfortable, many of my brothers and sisters found themselves experimented on in locations like this. Not many left."
"I don't condone any of this."
"Of course not, you are a decent person Commander. You do well to keep a calm composure but you must be imagining what goes on here. These Salarians look frail, mildly comical with their manner and vocabulary. Yet how many people have died in this building on an operating table? Kidnapped and imprisoned? They look so busy but how many stop to understand what they are really doing here?"
Shepard could see her point.
"It's how Salarians are, they prioritise science as their best weapon."
"A weapon which is exactly as bloody as the ones any other soldier carries. This place is sanitised but it isn't clean, you saw the Yahg elsewhere in this facility, they are aggressive but still sentient. Here they are kidnapped from their world, imprisoned, stripped naked and experimented upon. Not all can be as lucky as, who was it Liara said? Shadow Broker?"
"Long story, but yes, it's not right."
"I can hear their anger and despair, their resignation and grief. It isn't just Krogan and Yahg here Commander, who else do you think is in this facility, just dumb animals? There are humans here, Turians, others I can't identify."
"I am sure they have had centuries to justify it to themselves, but it is good at least one of them seems to be understanding the true situation."
"So you say some of your people were experimented on?"
"We were unique in our telepathic ability, or at least mostly unique."
"I'm guessing it was mostly Gamilans doing it?"
"You guess well."
"I can understand how it would add to the bad blood between your people."
"This is your tactful way of asking if I'm going to be able to control myself around Gamilans? I saw her chatting to you, probably telling you how terrible we all were and how we deserved our planet eliminating?"
"Not exactly, but she had concerns."
"She's afraid of me isn't she?" Varhana grinned happily. "Good."
She leaned against the nearest bank of consoles ignoring the nearby Salarians projecting a relaxed aura around herself.
"I'll be frank then Commander so you have no questions. I would love to see every Gamilan dead, they massacred my planet, my brother and sister, my parents, everyone I knew. They did so indiscriminately for poor reasons and I am angry on a scale few alive will ever understand. You do Shepard because it's happening to you, Major Hayes knows as does his fleet for the same reason. I carry the battle scars of the war in my heart and on my body and they will not fade. But I am loyal Commander and I have my duty. Regent Ida ordered me not to kill, so I will not. Nor will I embarrass you by causing disruption and hindering your mission."
"I appreciate that Varhana, we can probably..."
He was interrupted by a deep rumbling explosion that shook the room and loosened dust to fall from the ceiling.
"Now that can't be a good sign."
"Shepard! This way!" Mordin frantically waved over. "Situation becoming problematic."
"What was that explosion?"
"Unidentified vessels have breached our perimeter."
"Your perimeter?" Garrus found them. "Isn't this your homeworld?"
"Indeed, implications unfortunate. Recriminations later, survival now."
He quickly walked down to the last of the cells, contained within the hulking form of a Krogan wrapped in heavy clothing.
"This is the last one, the others did not survive. Weakened immune system, tried to help. Failed." Mordin lowered his head in genuine remorse. "Failed."
"Then everything rests on getting this one to safety." Shepard focused, stepping up to the cell, feeling the Krogan eyes warily but confidently taking his measure. "I'm Commander John Shepard, Alliance Navy."
"Are you here to kill me?" The female asked matter of factly as if it were a question she asked often. Perhaps it was.
"Urdnot Wrex and I came to take you home. You are the future of the Krogan race, that's something I'll fight for."
He noted Varhana beside him, face taut and brow furrowed.
"You can't imagine what she has endured." She said simply. "Take her home. Get her away from this place and shed no tears when it is burned to the ground."
There were more rumbling explosions and alarms, the Salarians escalating to a new level of frantic.
"Time we were somewhere else Shepard." Garrus suggested. "Somewhere less like a fish in a barrel."
"Agreed." He turned to the nearest Salarian technician. "Release the Krogan, we're going."
"We're in lockdown, protocol states no movement during..."
"You are wrong." Varhana said simply. "There is no such protocol."
He paused for a second before nodding.
"You have authorisation on your screen, read it."
"It's confirmed." The technician looked at a totally blank screen. "The Commander has signed the release, disengaging locks."
"Thank you." She turned and smiled to Shepard. "Call that earning my pay, little bit of suggestion."
"Very helpful." Mordin leaned in. "No weapons, no hints of violence, no threatening action. Pheromones? No, too imprecise, no noted effects elsewhere. Injection of serum? No, too much distance, too fast acting. Telepathy. Remarkable"
"We can talk later, for now..." Shepard indicated toward the Krogan.
"Yes, I'll go with the pod." Mordin strolled over and activated the self contained cell bringing it into a rail system. "Will clear it through quarantine, see you at the checkpoint upstairs. Resistance highly probable."
"We'll take care of it." Shepard assured.
"See you up there."
Mordin began his journey, Shepard breaking off to head back for the lift.
"So is it violence again?" Hayes armed his rifle. "It is violence isn't it?"
"Looks like, we need to get the Krogan back up to the shuttle deck." Shepard informed. "Someone is trying to stop us, whoever it is make sure they don't."
"More of those robot zombie things?"
"I don't know, I don't think so." Shepard shook his head. "Might be a real fight this time."
The lift arrived with a hiss, the doors opening to reveal a suspiciously bomb shaped device in the centre.
The group dived for cover as the device detonated in a sharp crack, the bomb destroying the lift and a couple of slow to act Salarians nearby.
Shepard picked himself up, exhaling acrid smoke and the metallic taste of explosives while checking for injuries.
"Is there another way out of here?" Shepard yelled to anyone who could answer.
"Emergency exit, that side!" One of the Salarians pointed.
"We're moving!" He prepared his rifle, the others doing the same. The fight was on now and Shepard settled down to business. Varhana followed behind, unarmed and wearing just her flowing white dress with a continued look of calmness and wry amusement. What she found so amusing Shepard decided not to ask.
They took a set of ladders out of the secure room and back into the daylight arriving at one of the lower terraces of the research base, their destination another two or three floors above.
"Shepard, this is Wrex!" The angry voice called in on the comms channel. "We've got Cerberus soldiers everywhere! I took the shuttle, where's the female?"
"On our way up, get ready to pick us up when we arrive."
"Alright, but don't take too long! And Shepard, that female..."
"I know Wrex, we've got it covered, just be ready to get us out of here."
"See you up top Shepard, all of you."
"Cerberus huh?" Garrus exhaled. "Those guys know how to wreck a party."
"Cerberus are human soldiers yes?" Bless asked. "Armed and trained to military standards?"
"Yes, don't underestimate them, they're real soldiers."
"They're human, yet they are opposing you?" Varhana enquired. "They are fighting against you when your mission is to prevent genocide?"
"Cerberus has a different view of the Reapers, they want to control them." Shepard stated. "They're probably indoctrinated or if not delusional."
"They are traitors spending their strength on killing their own and weakening your race's ability to resist extermination. Unforgivable."
She clenched her fists in a momentary flash of anger, then exhaled forcing her passions to fade under ice.
"I'll remain out of your way, I am unarmed and under orders not to get involved in combat. Don't worry about me, just kill them all."
That was enough of a plan for Shepard. He led them across the terrace to where Mordin was waiting with the sealed pod containing the Krogan hooked into the cargo lift. Already Cerberus was trying to intervene with several white armoured soldiers advancing on the pod, their goal clearly the Krogan herself.
"Move up, weapons free!" Shepard ordered. "Clear the room but watch your fire!"
This was Shepard's stock and trade, his specialty. Small unit combat was where his skill, decisive leadership and physical ability all combined to make him virtually unchallenged. Garrus was also in his element and instinctively found the best spot to offer some marksman support immediately taking down two Cerberus troopers before they recognised the danger. Edi was also moving well using her new robot body to dodge swiftly and fluidly between cover taking snap shots on the way
Bless and Hayes also found his approval, the two Commandos displaying a natural skill and well practiced understanding of how to take advantage of position and terrain. Both opened up with their signature weapons setting up a crossfire with Shepard and Edi without needing any direct orders. Just like with Shepard's team it was second nature, the mark of a professional.
The exchange of gunfire was brief but intense, the team isolating and cutting down the Cerberus troopers in rapid succession. The enemy resisted but there wasn't much they could do about it.
"Clear, Edi, unlock Mordin through to the next floor!"
"That was exciting." Varhana stepped over the bodies taking a moment to examine their equipment. She nudged one of their rifles with her toe, considered picking it up, and then walked away from it with a tinge of regret. "At least eight more upstairs, they have orders to call in reinforcements as necessary and will do so. They aren't heroes."
"You can sense that?" Shepard asked.
"I can pinpoint individual minds nearby, they know you are here but don't seem afraid. Their minds are oddly calm and collected for people in combat."
"Cerberus troopers have been implanted with some aspects of Reaper tech." Edi informed. "It likely removes flaws such as fear, mercy and independent thoughts."
"Those are flaws?"
"They are for Cerberus."
Mordin began his journey to the next checkpoint above them followed by the rest of the team. At the rear of this floor were cells filled with Yahg, the heavily muscled predators watching their actions keenly, one eying up Garrus like it he was a main course..
"Spirits those guys are unnerving."
"Wait until they develop spaceflight." Shepard quipped. "I bet that's exactly what the Salarians are doing, they learned nothing from the Krogan."
They opened the door out of the terrace and found themselves face to face with an escaped Yahg, the massive creature glaring at them with a maw full of razor sharp teeth and a dead Cerberus soldier in it's clawed hands.
"Cover!" Shepard yelled instantly. "Concentrate fire on..."
Varhana stepped out in front of the team ahead of the Yahg with a hand raised at her side.
"Get clear! Those things are the deadliest...!"
"Wait!" She repeated firmly. "It isn't his choice to be here."
She walked closer, the creature roared but didn't attack.
"I see what they did to you, took you from your home, experiments, constant experiments. You wonder what has happened in your absence, are you remembered, has your place in society fallen, will you ever return to challenge those who replaced you?" She spoke softly, gently, keeping clear eye contact at all times as Shepard kept his rifle trained. "No, you won't, you will die here."
It became agitated, visibly furious, flexing its arms and breathing heavier.
"You will die here, but don't die alone. Kill. Kill those who tore you from your home and clan, kill the Cerberus soldiers, invoke chaos and when you die make sure you die with their flesh in your teeth."
The Yahg bellowed.
"We are your friends, leave us, slaughter the rest. Go. Release your rage on your enemies."
She stepped back as the Yahg charged away, pounding across the deck looking for victims to sate it's rage, the Jirel looking rather pleased with her work.
"What the hell did you just do?" Garrus asked in disbelief. "You turned it loose?"
"I gave it instructions to stalk the area near the ladders we used, it will secure the rear flank, we don't have to worry about anyone attacking us from behind for the near future." She informed. "Anyone trying to follow us is going to be meaty chunks."
"Including Salarians." Bless snarled. "Our allies."
"Are they our allies Shepard?" She asked. "They don't seem very supportive so far. Besides the creature's hate was focused on them, I had to use them to harness it and make it do as we needed. Fortunately I managed to direct its anger at Cerberus too, it won't differentiate."
"And when they eventually gun it down?"
"You think the Salarians would send him home after all this?" She scoffed. "He's dead either way, but this way his death has a benefit to us. We should move on, best not waste its efforts."
There was nothing else to do, Shepard nodded and advanced but this was giving him a bad feeling, casually using a living being to spend it's life for their benefit? It was going too far, but right now he had to finish the mission. The Krogan had to survive above all else.
They pushed on, advancing up to the next floor sweeping as they went, checking corners and shadows for possible ambush. Cerberus was already ahead of them filling their path with troopers and doing all they could to prevent Shepard's team from supporting Mordin and the female Krogan.
"Contact front!" He called.
In a moment the scene echoed with gunfire, red and blue tracers whipping past as both sides found cover and began to carefully and systematically work themselves into the best firing positions.
"Keep them busy, keep them clear of Mordin!" Shepard ordered putting a short burst into the helmet of a trooper who lingered above cover just a fraction too long.
They maintained their pressure, leaning out to fire in turn, cutting down any Cerberus trooper who made a dash forward. In turn though the Cerberus forces maintained their own steady defence forcing Shepard to whittle their numbers down first.
He winced slightly as several rounds pinged off the metal pillar he was stood behind, Cerberus apparently focusing on him for a moment. He considered throwing a grenade to break the stalemate but decided against it, they were too close to Mordin and didn't want to risk hurting the Krogan with shrapnel. It was going to be the hard way.
Amid the bullets whistling and plinking was Varhana, the Jirel witch strolling casually out in full view of the enemy to examine some of the Salarian consoles and data pads. She stood to the side with no armour or barriers dressed only in her old fashioned looking flowing white dress and yet managed to remain completely unharmed by the intense exchange of fire.
"I wish I could read Salarian." She remarked. "Some of this stuff must be valuable, think we should take a few of these data pads? Can we download them?"
"What are you doing?" Hayes snapped. "Get down!"
"It's fine, they won't shoot me."
"Of course they'll shoot you, they're bastards! They shoot everyone!"
She offered a light chuckle then waved at the Cerberus troopers.
"Over here! I'm completely defenceless! If you don't shoot me fast I'll start criticising your parent's life choices!"
She shrugged and turned back to the consoles with a fixed smile.
"They can't see me. Well they can but I'm manipulating their conscious so they don't acknowledge me as existing. To them where I am standing is just thin air."
She continued working the consoles and picked up a few data pads.
"I'll just grab a few, could be useful leverage."
Bless leaned out and caught a trooper out of position, spraying energy fire into his torso until he collapsed with a grunt.
"If you can affect their minds why don't you make them ignore us too?"
"Because Blue girl I have orders from the Regent not to get involved in a battle. I can defend myself, but you're on your own." The Jirel grinned, passing bullets ruffling her hair but offering nothing that shook her confidence. "It is quite difficult, it isn't just being invisible I also have to make sure they don't randomly spray bullets this way by accident or start throwing around explosives or rockets. There's a lot of subtle manipulation involved, takes concentration, much easier just to kill them of course but I have my orders. Still, you're doing fine. Keep it up."
They did at that point make a breakthrough, Garrus hit their commanding Centurion creating a brief break in their command and control. It was all Shepard needed to push his team forward and seize the Cerberus positions.
The team attacked, Shepard leaping over a low console and crashing into a Cerberus engineer, stunning the man and quickly finishing the contest with a burst of rifle fire. His team also moved aggressively delivering a torrent of firepower as they cleared the terrace.
"Left side clear!"
"Ride side clear!"
"Krogan pod secure!" Shepard confirmed. "Okay Mordin, last stop."
"See you up there Shepard." The scientist nodded and began the last stage of the journey taking the cargo lift up to the top terrace.
"Garrus, with me, everyone else standby."
The two friends moved forward and checked round the corner looking for blindspots. They made it to the next set of ladders without incident.
"This is it."
"Yeah." Garrus glanced over to Shepard. "While we're here scouting, suspiciously alone, can I mention something?"
"I'm flattered but you're not my type."
"Funny, very funny." The Turian drawled. "It's about our friend, the Jirel. You heard what she said a minute ago?"
"How she can manipulate people's brains so they can't tell what's real?" Shepard asked. "Right after she sent that Yahg to it's death for us?"
"Yeah, that." Garrus looked over his shoulder. "How well can we trust her?"
"You mean could she do the same to us? I don't think she would, wouldn't serve any purpose."
"Her skill only works on living people, not machines." Shepard reminded. "Like Edi."
"Which is why you brought her along." Realisation dawned on Garrus, the ex-cop approving. "Clever, this is not just testing her new robot body, she's insurance."
"Edi knows us better than we know ourselves, if we start acting weird she'll recognise it and act. She's immune herself and can neutralise Varhana if she has to, she's our plan B. Even so, I don't think we'll need her. The Jirel know what we're fighting for, I believe her reasons for being here. She wants to help."
"She could have picked up a gun."
"She has her orders." Shepard shrugged. "Can't help that. Anyway let's get this finished. Bring the team up."
The terrace above was the same one they and arrived on, a shuttle landing spot lay at the far side along with the cargo handling space necessary for offloading the female Krogan so they could finally escape this place together. Unsurprisingly Cerberus had a strong presence there ready and waiting to welcome them.
"Nine waiting around the corner, four more on the shuttle pad." Varhana informed. "Just a little information, I'm still not involved."
"Good to know." Shepard nodded. "Keep safe."
"No problems there."
"Last push people." Shepard checked his ammo. "Wrex, do you copy?"
"Still busy!" The warlord yelled back. "Where are you? Are we nearly done?"
"Just clearing the last checkpoint, be ready for pick up."
"I'll be there!"
He gestured his other four team mates to follow him.
"Don't let them get settled, push them back and keep them back. With me."
They made their move, Garrus opening the event with a trio of expertly placed shots. Shepard slammed into the nearest trooper and dispatched him with a knife, rolling into cover as a fusilade greeted them, angry voices calling out from the enemy side.
Garrus and Edi found a spot of relative high ground which the Turian used to snipe from while Edi kept him covered. Bless and Hayes advanced beside Shepard toward Mordin, the Cerberus troops focusing most of their attention on the Alliance Commander.
"More Cerberus! Coming up behind us!" Edi warned quickly, shifting position to meet them.
"Reinforcements up front too!" Hayes echoed. "They're bringing in more troops by shuttle!"
It was logical, the Krogan female had to be their main objective so they would be expected to throw everything they had into finishing the job at this last hurdle, it was going to get nasty.
"Garrus, Edi, cover the rear. We'll make for the Krogan!"
They advanced but the weight of fire was increasing rapidly and their position was not favourable. Shepard was able to bring down another trooper while Hayes did the same beside him, but it didn't do much to help their odds.
"Trouble above." Varhana announced casually as she perched herself on a console, still unconcerned with the buzzing gunfire. "Some sort of mech suit."
She was right, with a heavy thud the Cerberus troops were joined by an Atlas mech in enemy colours piloted by a Cerberus trooper. The well protected vehicle surveyed the scene for a moment, then raised an intimidatingly large cannon and pointed it toward Shepards team.
He ducked as it slammed a couple of high calibre rounds into the console he was hiding behind, the Commander thanking the Salarian builders for not using weaker materials. Hayes and Bless fired on the Mech but to little use, it's heavy armour resisting their energy weapons. To make matters worse the Cerberus troopers took advantage of their new support to counter attack, inching closer to Shepard's position.
"We take the infantry first." Shepard rapidly assembled a plan. "That mech is slow, mark it's position and keep something between you and it. Edi, any smoke grenades?"
"Pop some near the mech on my word, screen us and keep its attention."
"Garrus, support fire. Hayes, cover Garrus. Bless, we're going to spray and pray, full auto."
"Edi, pop smoke."
The AI did as asked expertly landing a smoke grenade beside the mech which began to obscure its view. She followed up with steady fire on it, the tink of bullets on its barriers serving to distract the pilot as smoke hid his view and disrupted sensors. As she did that Garrus began to engage, leaning over cover to fire on the troops attacking Shepard. Hayes used the opportunity to shift position and take over defence of the rear flank expertly shooting down a pair of troopers lining up on the Turian. The team did their part, now it was Shepard and Bless.
"Let 'em have it!"
It wasn't a time for carefully controlled bursts, the enemy was many and advancing together overconfident thanks to the mech supporting them. With the Atlas temporarily neutralised the troopers were suddenly out of position with no cover and no back up. This was Shepard's chance and he took it.
The aim was not to outright kill all his opponents but to scatter them, leave them isolated and vulnerable to follow up attacks from Garrus. Any he did take out would be a bonus but more than anything he needed to take the initiative and put Cerberus on the defensive. This sudden aggression took them by surprise, the troopers taking precious seconds to react during which time they took the full force of Shepard and Bless' weapons.
It worked, but the Cerberus troops were better than expected and reacted faster, their cybernetics giving them a slight edge. Five fell to the combined firepower of the two commandos but the rest dropped and returned fire, knocking down Shepard's barriers and rattling his armour. He at once fell into cover to recharge, checking for Bless beside him.
She wasn't there, she hadn't been as fast as Shepard and her battle gear was not as tough. She had taken several rounds, the last two penetrating her armour and flinging her back with two wounds to the chest and abdomen. She fell hard to the deck with a hiss of breath splashing deep blue blood around her, still managing to fire off a one handed wildly inaccurate volley from her carbine to keep Cerberus back.
"Bless, stay down!" Shepard yelled and darted forward, a storm of fire immediately intercepting him and forcing him to dive back into cover. "Dammit! Hayes, can you reach her?"
"Negative! Fire is too heavy!"
"Commander, smoke screen is clearing." Edi warned. "Be advised the mech is returning to the fight."
The machine advanced, the surviving Cerberus troopers regrouping and preparing a second attack, this one more cautious and with the full support of the mech.
"Stay there Bless, we'll get you!"
"Forget it, finish the mission!" She yelled back angrily. "They're using me as bait to lure you out. Stay on the Krogan!"
"She is likely correct." Edi added. "Cerberus has employed similar tactics to prey on the comradeship of it's enemies."
"And when they see it isn't working they'll shoot her where she lays." Garrus snarled. "Any more smoke?"
"We're not leaving her for Cerberus target practice." Shepard turned to look backwards as the incoming fire intensified, the white robed Jirel just sat eating a piece of fruit amid the carnage. "Varhana, I need your help."
"I'd like to, but I can't get involved due to orders." She returned between mouthfuls of fruit. "Besides, I like watching the Gamilan butcher bleed."
"She's part of my team, she risked her life for my mission and for my world. Whatever you think I need you to help her."
"Make it quick!" Garrus fired a few more rounds. "Cerberus are closing!"
"I have my orders." Varhana shrugged, then tilted her head. "Although..."
"Whatever it is just do it! Fast!"
"Make me an Alliance citizen." She demanded.
"Ida is my Regent, but if I was Alliance she wouldn't be, her orders wouldn't matter." The Jirel explained. "Then as a citizen you could give me a field commission. At that point you can just order me to save the Gamilan murderer. Not that you should, but your choice."
"Alright, welcome to the Alliance Navy, now drag Bless into cover!"
She dropped down from the console with a huge smile, tossed away the fruit and saluted. "Yes sir."
She simply strolled out seemingly immune to fire and peered down on the Gamilan.
"You're lucky the Commander is a good man."
She grabbed the wounded soldier and dragged her back towards Hayes pulling her into cover. At once the EDF soldier applied first aid and began to seal the bullet wounds. Bless gritted her teeth, refusing to cry out in front of her enemies, Cerberus or Jirel.
"Done." Varhana wiped her hands on her dress, the immaculate white becoming stained with dark blue blood. "Now then, this has all gone on long enough."
Varhana strolled past Shepard and across the middle of the terrace, white gown flowing behind her. She closed her eyes briefly as a breeze caught her, enjoying the cool air dispersing if only briefly the tropical humidity. She paid no heed to the Cerberus troopers or flying bullets, walking between them as if they were mere decorations, the soldiers themselves completely unaware of her existence. Her target was the mech, the large machine firing a high calibre round past her as she approached tugging her fine dress and demolishing part of the cover Shepard was hiding behind.
The Witch paused in front of it and examined the pilot. He had implants, cybernetics based on Reaper tech to improve his combat performance which could have been an issue for her but fortunately his higher brain functions were still organic.
She took control, changed his perceptions, altered his view of friend and foe. She made him absolutely certain, unshakably so, that Shepard and his people were his squadmates from years of service and his Cerberus brethren their hated enemy. For Varhana it was a simple task, a single mind and a few tweaks, this was her calling after all.
"What are you waiting for?" She whispered in the pilot's mind, stepping aside to allow a clear field of fire. "Kill your enemy."
He did exactly that and turned the formidable weapons of the mech on his comrades blasting them in the back. The high calibre rounds turned the nearest Cerberus soldiers into a bloody torn mess, the remainder caught in an impossible position by the new assault. They tried to shoot back but with nowhere to hide the mech picked them off, Garrus helping dispose of the last two.
"Done." Varhana nodded to the team before addressing the mech pilot. "Get out."
"Check the area, are we secure?"
"Clear up here." Garrus confirmed.
"Here too Shepard." Mordin spoke from the Krogan pod controls. "I will finish cargo transfer."
"Hayes, how is she?" He checked in on Bless.
"Stabilised but we should get her to a real doctor."
"On it." Shepard tapped his communications controls. "Wrex, get down here, we need to go right now."
He checked around again, Cerberus wouldn't leave them alone if they still had troops and could attack again at any moment. His eyes rested on Varhana, the pale female standing before the Cerberus mech pilot now dismounted from his vehicle.
"I'm interrogating him." She answered. "A little time please."
The trooper was entirely docile, simply standing before the Jirel as she investigated his mind.
"Remove your helmet." She ordered.
He did so, much of his face traced by Reaper implants, his eyes replaced with illuminated sensor orbs.
"You sold your soul for lies. Gave away your humanity." She exhaled. "I pity you, none of you have a future."
She stepped back, the Cerberus soldier bending down and reaching for the floor to pick up a shard of smashed glass from the battle. With a single move he jammed it into his own neck and cut it across his throat in a brief fountain of blood that splashed Varhana's ashen face and white dress.
He dropped to his knees gurgling before toppling over backwards and bleeding out.
"No future for traitors." Varhana smiled down at the dying trooper, then noticed Shepard beside her.
"He didn't know anything, unimportant lackey."
"I want to make something very clear from now on." He spoke quietly but with an iron edge to his words. "You are in my command now, you will not execute prisoners, you will not harm innocents, you will obey every order I give. Are we going to have a problem with this?"
"This man is already dead." She answered flatly. "Can you remove his implants? Recondition his brain? Undo the indoctrination? Even Ida couldn't do that, this Reaper Indoctrination is like nothing I've seen. There was no way to save him and that is Reaper tech in his head. Put him in prison and a month from now everyone is a little indoctrinated Reaper puppet."
Shepard paused for a moment, she did have a point.
"You know how indoctrination works Commander, just one small piece..."
"Understood, but there are ways and means Varhana, getting a man to cut his own throat is not how we do things. Do we have an understanding?"
"We do. I'll make it quicker next time."
"No, next time you will..."
He was cut off by the shuttle arriving, Wrex dropping it down heavily on the pad and leaping out from the doors shotgun in hand.
"Did I miss it? What did I miss?"
"We'll talk more later." Shepard said firmly to the Jirel who gave him a sideways smile.
"Of course Commander, I'll familiarise myself with Alliance regulations in the meantime."
He put aside his rifle still feeling distinctly uneasy and joined Wrex heading toward the source of all the trouble. The pod containing the female Krogan had made it finally to the offloading point, Mordin had already opened it and made the system safe. The lanky Salarian offered his hand to help her down only to be unceremoniously shoved aside by Wrex with a grunt.
"Come on, let's get you down."
Wrex offered his hand instead, something the female Krogan neither needed nor wanted. She stepped down herself, strong and steady despite her harsh trials. Before she had taken two steps the inevitable happened, a pair of Cerberus troopers dropped down from an upper terrace and made straight for the female, weapons rising for a quick shot.
With no hesitation she snatched Wrex's shotgun before he himself could use it and blasted both troopers, her aim precise and unerring.
"I can handle myself Wrex." She said frankly shoving the gun back in his arms.
"Huh." the old warrior growled. "Women."
"Let's get out of here before more Cerberus show up." Garrus suggested.
"I can take care of that." Varhana offered. "Commander?"
"What do you mean?"
"There are still thirty two enemy troopers above us organising to head down. We can leave but the Salarian response is delayed, they will kill the remaining base personnel."
"What will you do?"
"Kill them." She said plainly. "They are the enemy, they cannot be redeemed, they will kill our Salarian... allies, I suppose you'd call them. I don't mind personally, this place is abhorrent, but you might want to save them."
He didn't answer at once. She was right, Cerberus was the enemy and the Salarians would be wiped out if they had no back up close by. Yet he hesitated, the warning from Bless still in his mind and not getting quieter after watching Varhana casually making a man slit his own throat.
"It will be quick Commander, they won't suffer." She reassured. "I understand your position, your rules of war. This will be within them."
"Alright, do it."
"It'll just take a minute."
She strolled away from the shuttle back on to the terrace, searching with her mind, finding each enemy. They were few so it wasn't hard, and in this case she only had to give a simple order. Far less effort than Ida and her intricate illusions.
"Step this way." She whispered. "Come and join us."
"Hey Shepard." Wrex watched. "What's happening?"
"Not sure yet."
There was a thud on the terrace, a body in white armour slid down from above and off the edge to fall into the jungle below. Then another fell, and another. Soon there was a steady rain of Cerberus troopers stepping off the higher levels and plummeting down the few hundred metres into the jungle below. Some bounced with a thud off the edge of the terrace striking it on the way down but uttering no word or exclamation.
"As I said Commander, quick."
She stood on the terrace smiling at Shepard, her white dress drenched red with blood, speckles of it on her face and hair from the dead trooper. The sun shone orange on her like fire, like a dying furnace as immediately behind her Cerberus soldiers threw themselves to their deaths enmasse like lemmings at her command. In the instant he saw her standing like something from a children's horror story a pair of Cerberus gunships flew into each other behind her, a deliberate collision that obliterated both in a ball of flame and black smoke silhouetting the grim rain of bodies and the slim figure commanding it in blackness with bright violet eyes hooked into him like harpoons.
"Spirits..." Garrus whispered.
"Glad she's on our side." Wrex said simply, then shrugged and got in the shuttle. "Come on, no one left here worth killing."
They began to board, Varhana joining them with her task completed.
"It is better this way." She said as she walked past Shepard. "Now you can see what I can do, how useful I am. I look forward to helping you win this war."
Shepard was the last on, still obviously uncomfortable. He shut the door and cleared Cortez to take off, the shuttle rising fast back toward the Normandy. Without a word he sat down, his face clouded as his mind ran through the possibilities and the consequences of these new events.
It took almost a minute before he noticed Bless watching him, her eyes intensely staring over an oxygen mask on her face. She didn't need to speak, Shepard knew exactly what she wanted to say.