Cosmic Year: 2214
The galaxy has changed. Its inhabitants have changed. Old ideologies, entrusted to interlink fragmented and disparate groups of races, have changed.
Nothing is as it once was.
The Reaper War, devastating and final, dealt a terrible blow to the galaxy, but the titanic and multitudinous machine gods were vanquished, earning the galaxy respite. In their wake, they left shattered civilizations behind. In the time since then, governments had to be restructured, scars had to be healed over, and people had to find ways—for better or worse—to move on.
Complications have ensued from this total reconstruction. The individual militaries for each race that comprised the Citadel Council were subject to near complete destruction. To fill this void, Private Military Companies (PMCs) quickly became incorporated into existence to provide security and a source of income for those displaced from the conflict. Companies such as Chimera, Interro, and Zone 75, among others, have found this new market to be lucrative and inviting. People, desperate for money, sign up to these corporations in droves.
The PMCs have no loyalty to any one government. They are set upon their targets under employ of their customers, who could be anyone imaginable in this shattered time. Many times PMCs are deliberately directed to attack other PMCs. Sometimes the Council hires these PMCs to mollify small disturbances on colony worlds. Sometimes private owners send them out to secure land or resources. The PMCs operate without distinction—conflict is considered a total outcome, with civilians usually caught in the crossfire.
Governments routinely send in the remains of their once-formidable armies to pacify the conflict that the PMCs cause, but their strength slowly wanes year after year while the corporations gain in both money and manpower. For their part in causing so many errant civilian deaths, the courts do their part to sanction the PMCs for such wanton violence. But the power of the courts are limited—the corporations have the means to hire the best legal teams known. No one corporation has been rendered insolvent from one class action lawsuit of their own.
A breaking point is nearing.
To forestall this inevitable meltdown, the Council has taken drastic action. Alarmed by the PMC crisis, the Council enacted a plan two years ago to establish a pacifying military force to maintain stability in the galaxy.
The Council Defenders: a multicultural army all made up of volunteers. Veterans, fresh-faced rookies, all inhabit this capable fighting force. Warring PMCs are their prey. Their mission: to destabilize the strength of a PMC's fighting force in a conflict zone in order for its corporate structure to finally submit to a system of laws and harmony as dictated by the Council. But to accomplish this, many bloody campaigns await the Defenders.
And so begins a war of attrition.
Lower New York Bay
10,000 ft. above sea level
United North American States
The wakeless ocean, flat and gray, rippled serenely in the company of the cool morning air. Murky tides produced invisible tugs, drawing the bay water far out to sea. Only the sound of the ocean's lapping yielded the only discernable noise for a time.
Then… a low thrum. Mechanical. Very distant, judging by the soft volume.
Clouds choked the sky, barely producing glimpses towards the field of blue that spanned the heavens. However, if one were to look up and peer very hard, they would be able to just pinpoint a little black dot spearing its way through the pillars of towering mist. Even from the ground, no details could have been possibly made out with the naked eye.
But another dot would soon join the leader. Then another. And another. And another.
Far too many to count would seem to leap out from behind the cloud wall, as if they had been lying in wait this whole time. A mass of pinpricks, many miles away, made their presence known in a swarm of metal, fire spewing from their engines as their control thrusters gently guided them lower to Earth.
Gunships. Troop transports. Fighters.
The swarm swooped low, towards the ocean, pulling up just enough for the wake of its passage to send scything cuts of white, foaming water to ripple in the direction of the shore. All together, they cut a path across the open bay, sending plumes of mist flying as they skirted their way towards the continent. A towering bridge spanned the closest point between two distant land masses—the ships carelessly flew underneath the structure, impassive to its existence.
Upon crossing some invisible point, the fighters, sharp-winged Raptors, all gave a burst of acceleration, widening their flight path area as they proceeded towards the heavily populated peninsula in the distance. The gunships and troop transports, conversely, slowed their velocity—thick flaps raised from panels lined along the roof, producing thick contrails in the voids they left behind in the air.
The lead transport straightened itself out a smidge—turbulence had temporarily knocked it off its flight axis. The occupants did not notice—inertia dampening fields made it so that anyone residing within the interior of the craft would not be affected by a bumpy or disorientating ride. As it stood, the pilot was relatively unconcerned as he adjusted a few controls on his holo-display, relying completely on instrumentation to guide his path. No other option really, the columns of fog were choking the ground and air ahead.
"SWORDSMAN Home, this is Saber-1," the pilot radioed in, his tone neutral. "We've cleared the Verrazano-Narrows. Beginning holding pattern."
The pilot heard a noise of boots on metal behind him, and he glanced over his shoulder for a moment to behold an armored soldier in blue-and-white Defender colors—a turian, one with the rank of major etched onto his shoulder plates—reach over to sync the radio frequency to his own personal channel.
"Major Rethius, SWORDSMAN," the turian spoke out loud, the alien's vocals causing an odd flanging effect to occur between his competing tones. "Forces are locked, loaded, and ready to disembark. Advise on current ground situation at Battery Park, over."
"Saber-1," the voice over the radio immediately said back, "you are to remain in your current pattern for a duration of no less than two mikes. All other Saber call-signs will join you for disembarking. Be advised, the situation at your LZ is considered hot. We have confirmed reports of enemy armor and entrenched positions. Raptors are dispatched to begin bombing runs."
"Acknowledged. Any change in the ROE?"
The Rules of Engagement were the strict commands set by the strategic minds during an operational campaign. They dictated the exact terms of how they wanted a battle to play out, whether it was to keep free fire in check, or to ask of soldiers to wage total decimation.
"The ROE have been modified," Command radioed. "Contacts in vicinity of the park are now to be declared hostile. Fire at will. Be advised, civilian evacuation has not been completed in the Financial District at this time. Any stragglers will be trapped in the nearby buildings. They have been instructed not to venture outside. Do not prejudice but stay frosty."
The turian mustered a look of deep regret, followed by a thin, yet lengthy sigh. "SWORDSMAN, will this have an effect on the tempo of our mission? We're heading into a heavy fire zone and we won't have the ability to concern ourselves with not torching any civilians."
"Your tempo is also to remain unchanged. Maintain aggressiveness. No civilians should rightfully wander near Battery Park with the current conflict right now. If they do and they get fragged, you can be sure that no one today will be held personally responsible."
"Understood, SWORDSMAN" the turian nodded to no one in particular, his expression not one of complete comfort, but very slightly assuaged nonetheless. "Will provide next sitrep from the park."
"See that you do. SWORDSMAN out."
The turian major gave his head a subtle twitch, ending the call. He looked to the pilot, a human, for reinforcement, but remembered that SWORDSMAN's instructions to him were delivered in the privacy of his personal frequency, so there was no one he had around to share his reservations with.
Smartly, the turian turned around and made his way down the very tight connecting corridor, jumped off a small ladder, and ducked his way into the holding area. Fifty men and women—human, turian, asari, salarian—all wearing their Defender armor, stood in five cramped columns of ten. Some were currently reaching up to grasp at the fabric handholds to give the illusion of additional stability to their stance. Others stood with their feet slightly apart, grim looks set on their faces. A few shivered in place, eyes locked to the ground, nerves overriding their brain for the moment. A young, clean-shaven human drew a shaky smile before he suddenly pitched forward and vomited onto the transport floor, earning him a few groans from his fellow soldiers.
Rethius ignored the temporarily stricken man. He had been in so many battles that he knew all of the little idiosyncrasies that accompanied them in each of the individual moments. There would always be soldiers that would succumb to fear at any time. When Rethius had been in the trenches on Palaven, he had witnessed scores of his own forces fall to catatonia in a matter of seconds. Perhaps, for many aboard this craft, the memory of the Reaper War was merely a fleeting thing, not a permanent scar seared into the gray matter of their brains. Lucky them, but they clearly lacked the foresight to imagine what a real war was like, Rethius thought to himself. Had they been born earlier and had survived the horrors the Reapers had brought, perhaps they would have thought differently about signing up to this army.
Army. Rethius nearly failed at suppressing a laugh. The Council Defenders were no army. They had the funds, the troops, and all the trappings that made them appear to be an army, but deep down Rethius knew that they were nothing more than a bunch of ragtag enlistees either seizing upon the naïve propaganda that enticed potentially doomed farmhands to see the galaxy, or old-timers looking for a paycheck to cover their exorbitant medical expenses.
Or they were just like Rethius. Bored with the sensationalism of warring, not at all swayed by the promise of cash, simply adamant to pursue a profession in line with his limited skillset that did not come at the cost of his dignity. He could take money from the Council any day. Now, money from a PMC? Tainted. Who knew where it came from? It was blood money, every credit of it. No, he would remain damn true to his gut feeling that being a Defender was not only the right career move, but the right decision for his soul.
Rethius let his eyes sweep over the soldiers in the slightly rocking hold before he loudly rapped an armored knuckle upon the bulkhead—the signal for everyone to snap to attention.
"New orders, Defenders!" Rethius barked to the group. "We're going to be deploying on the southernmost side of Manhattan Island. Battery Park is the combat zone. All contacts are declared hostile. You are expected to be uncompromising in your advance."
An obvious, but still quiet murmur passed through the group. Rethius did not blame them. He knew that the thought of potentially wasting a civilian was not a prospect that anyone here wanted to go through. Still, he kept speaking.
"Recap: we've got two PMCs in direct conflict with each other in the killzone. Tyranno Systems is one, and Bucephalus is the other. They can be identified by their unique color schemes. Intel reports that they are wreaking havoc in the downtown area—pitted against each other by rival banking corporations to force damage to their assets. They believe that, by destroying enough property through the PMCs, one of these banks will be able to force a hostile takeover of the loser's remnants, gaining in both size and scope. Apparently, both these banks hired PMCs at the exact time—the wrong time—and sent them against each other in what looks like a complete and unlucky coincidence. That's why the Financial District of New York City has, if you want the short version, turned into a shitstorm."
An asari, purple-scaled, near the front raised her hand, wide-eyed and terrified.
"Private?" Rethius asked.
"Sir, are civilians expected to be present in the combat zone?" the asari asked. "Have Earth's militaries evacuated the area in time?"
This time, Rethius could not completely mask the regretful look that briefly flickered across his face.
"It has been reported to me that the NYPD and the Systems Alliance were unsuccessful in getting everyone out in time. However, I am assured that the civilians are making every attempt to stay in places of cover. You are not expected to come into contact with them but keep alert at all times. Be smart with how you pick your targets."
It was clear that this was not the answer the asari was hoping to hear, and judging from the morose looks being exchanged amongst the group, others did not like this bit of news either.
Rethius was not an idiot. He knew there were misgivings, but he could not dawdle on this lest he waste precious time or unnerve his troops even more by repeatedly introducing the idea that this whole campaign had the potential to go very wrong. He slammed his fist against the bulkhead again, returning everyone's full attention back to him.
"We have our orders," he raised his voice to add to his sincerity. "We know the situation. I expect you all to simply do your jobs. Now, next order of business: squad refresh. Lieutenant?"
The turian's eyes hovered past the assembled men. From behind the columns of bodies, at the back of the transport, a thin shape sidled into view, masked by the shadowed interior. They made their way forward, each step delicate but placed with steeled determination. The sleek, curved boots melded to the proportions of the three-toed feet that wore them, the soles gently clicking as they made contact upon the aluminum floor. As they approached the front, a shimmering veil of electric blue ice delicately washed over the individual's visor, where the greater expanse of light added to the sudden bloom of color. Two pistols were strapped to this person's hip. A shotgun was slung over their back, gently tapping against a grenade launcher that was nestled alongside it. Their three-fingered hands were slightly clenched, held firmly at their side as they maneuvered past row after row of bodies. The contours of their own figure were slim and graceful. A full-body uniform, replete in hues of stormy gray, completely enveloped them—an enviro-suit. Twin motes of melted glowing mercury—their eyes—speared past the aqua barrier of their visor, molded against a helmet made out of a dappled silver metal.
A traditional head-garb, common for this particular race, was tightly fastened against the metal helmet. Smudged and worn, despite its dark color, it seemed to burn a path clear through the gloom with how radiant it made its wearer in contrast to the rest of their wardrobe. The head-garb, a sehni, was a deep violet awash with curling spirals not unlike the churning tides of the ocean, woven from a memory. Patterns engrained in fabric, garroted by the color of a dying day.
Fifty years ago, the sight of a quarian would probably elicit tiny glimmers of fascination amongst the men and women currently in the transport at this moment. Their nomadic lifestyles rarely gave outsiders the opportunity to get a solid glimpse at them, for they preferred to keep to their own most of the time. But time is merely a dynamic factor and those frail in its wake are doomed to succumb to its subtle tendencies. Now, when a quarian would stand at the front of an attack column, the patch of a Defender lieutenant adorning their shoulder, not one of them would bat an eye.
Lieutenant Roahn'Shepard appraised the soldiers in front of her, taking a long, sweeping gaze to flicker from one pair of eyes to the next. Fear, anxiety, terror, panic. Common accompaniments prior to the slaughter. Roahn felt her heart grow heavy as she took the briefest of moments to absorb their worries. Many of these troopers were young. Too young. Barely out of high school, she figured.
Keelah, many of them will die afraid.
The moment passed. Roahn let breath fill her lungs again. Even through the filters in her helmet, the temperature still passed through unchanged, keeping her properly chilled. Abandoning her woes to that nameless ether, Roahn unconsciously straightened herself as she prepared to address the forces.
"The situation on the ground is dynamic," Roahn begin her address, her voice easily carrying over the heads of every soldier, timbre light but husky. "We'll be in tight quarters so keep your range of fire limited to prevent crossfire. Expect rapid shifts in command—we're going to be tearing through enemy positions very quickly, so stay focused and do your jobs."
"Row One," Roahn snapped her head to the rightmost column, which was mostly lined with asari. "Southernmost trench. Shore up defenses and prepare to use your reserves for the biotic artillery. Row Two—," Roahn rotated her head to the left about ten degrees, "—take the rightmost flank and lay down cover fire so that we can get our armor in place. Three: disembark behind Row One's position and lay down suppressive fire. Four: main assault unit, I'll be leading you. Five: support units dig in and set up sniper positions to take care of bogeys holed up in the nearby buildings. Loud and clear?"
"LOUD AND CLEAR, LIEUTENANT!" the group howled as one. Roahn nearly smiled. At least they got that part down.
Roahn calmly reached over and grabbed an assault rifle from a nearby rack. She skillfully racked the slide back halfway, checking to see if there was a thermal clip already loaded, which there was. Satisfied, she dropped her arm to her side, her thumb clicking on the inferno round setting from muscle memory.
"Time to drop?" she called towards the front.
"Forty-five seconds!" the pilot answered back, his voice strangely clenched. "Careful, we've—,"
A sudden jolt rocked the craft violently. Many soldiers instinctively reached up towards the fabric straps on the ceiling to steady themselves. Some fell heavily anyway but their comrades were there to pick them back up.
Roahn grunted as she too had to straighten herself. If an impact like that made it through the acceleration dampeners, then whatever had been the cause must have been dangerously close. She had a suspicion and clambered up the stairway towards the cockpit simply to confirm it.
"AA fire?" Roahn asked as she leaned past the pilot's seat, her helmet nearly touching the window. The pilot responded, but his answer was lost on the quarian.
She could see it all from here.
The sun had begun to burn away the morning fog that had previously enveloped lower Manhattan. A scything, jagged mess of metal and glass tempered only by geological boundaries. Skyscrapers and levels upon levels of roadways intertwining upon each other in a seemingly meaningless dance. The city, a breathtaking spectacle, never failed to entrance Roahn, who had glimpsed it on only a couple of occasions beforehand.
But now, it was a city on fire.
The southernmost tip, Battery Park, normally a lightly forested area, green and enticing, was now a burnt plain of scorched grass, cratered dirt, and smoking stumps. Trenches and temporary pillboxes had been crudely erected where sidewalks and tennis courts had once resided, the park completely overturned to serve as a battlefield.
Troopers of varying shades of red and gold clashed together down at the park in waves. Not Defender uniforms, Roahn could tell at this distance. Tyranno Systems and Bucephalus. Two corporations at war with one another, with the only thing they had in common was that they both hated the Council Defenders. Small arms fire rocketed from the ground, pinging off the armor of the transports in brief flashes of sparks. Roahn could see, near the edge of the park, blocking the wide avenues, were sets of anti-air equipment, mobile cannons that fired erratically into the air, blowing apart the approaching Defender vessels as they made ready to land.
Roahn glanced over just in time to see one of these AA bursts catch a gunship directly on its nose. The craft went up in flames immediately, the resulting conflagration burning everything out, leaving just a skeletal chassis to plunge into the ocean, the angry foam hissing as the metal plumed it into the air.
Fifty men gone, in the blink of an eye. Damn. They didn't even get their boots on the ground.
Omniscient to her internal panic, the pilot fiddled with the controls, maneuvering them even lower to the sea, under the minimum axis that the AA cannons could fire at.
"Fifteen seconds," the pilot announced over the intercom. "Prepare for disembarkation."
Roahn hurled herself down the ladder and raced to take her place at the side of the transport, out of the way of what would be fifty charging men and women making their way onto the battlefield. Roahn clutched her rifle, her breathing so deep it threatened to break her ribs. Keeping herself steady, she counted down the remaining seconds in her head.
Another soldier vomited, stricken by fear. He fell to his knees, hacking and heaving. No one spared a glance at him. Many were beyond terror. The adrenaline, that wonderful stabilizing agent, had taken hold of their systems, providing immense focus and hammering their duties home in their heads.
An asari began hysterically moaning, tears flooding down her face. The private next to the alien roughly grabbed her by the collar, savagely muttered a few words in a low whisper to her face, and then released her. The asari was still tear-stained, but her composure steadied.
A slight bump jerked the craft. Touchdown. Roahn felt her arm move to hit the door release on the transport's side, but it seemed like her limb was all floaty, moving in slow-motion.
A wall of light slammed into the first row of soldiers mid-step as the front doors whirred open, already hastening to leave the cramped confines of the ship. One human lifted a hand to ward off the glare, momentarily blinded and disoriented, the sharp smell of cordite mingling with the salty tang of the ocean.
And a snap shattered the momentarily peaceful reverie.
The human, the same one who had held a hand up to protect his eyes, fell backwards as a bullet, fired from outside, slammed into his head. There was no warning. No one could determine where the shot had been fired from. The soldier fell backwards upon the man behind him, his face missing from his head. Nothing but a gaping maw of red hamburger remained, a darkly oozing hole.
"Mother of g—," the next soldier uttered upon seeing the remains of his comrade, before the same fate befell him.
Another bullet intruded and hit him just on the side of the jaw, blowing it clean off. There was a horrible hissing noise as a vacuum momentarily emitted in the place where bone and flesh no longer connected. Blood and bits of teeth completely sprayed over the asari next to him, who simply gaped in a clueless panic as she watched her compatriot die before her eyes, the remains of his cheeks completely blown out, hanging in tatters while his tongue lolled disgustingly in the open air with no jawbone to hold it in a mouth anymore.
"Oh… oh goddess," she too proclaimed.
Then everything went to hell.
Machine gun fire mercilessly barraged the interior of the vessel. Shooters from outside—Tyranno, Bucephalus, who could tell? The Defenders were overwhelmed in an instant. The troopers lining the front fell as they became riddled with holes, their blood exploding onto the floor, turning it slippery and red so dark it looked almost black. Exploding rounds zipped in, blowing off limbs. One such round descended in from on high, catching a man's hand and blowing it off at the wrist, leaving a shard of bone protruding from the stump. Rounds from low angles came in without prejudice, catching ankles and feet alike. Blood and bone popped, and many Defenders fell to the stained ground now sans a foot.
The sunlight was overwhelming. There was no way to tell what was going on. The sound of gunfire was increasing in tempo, becoming an ever-constant throb at this point. Roahn hunkered down, momentarily awed by the brightness of the blood as it was thrown clear of the bodies. Blood in all hues mixed in a disgusting swath. Red. Blue. Purple. Trifecta of death.
Then Roahn remembered herself.
"Defenders!" she screamed out, getting her panicked boat in order. "To me!" With nary a second thought, she got back to her feet and practically leaped out of the transport, going from being doused in darkness, to suffer the deadliness of the open air by herself. Her boots hit the chalky ground, fine dirt clinging to her boots. The imposing nature of the unnaturally tall skyscrapers went disregarded for the moment. All that mattered was finding cover and staying alive.
A dismal, intense thrum warped across the battlefield. A metallic concerto. Hydrogen engines revving from war mechs. The roar from the passing of jets overhead. The screams of the dying. The pops of the guns that delivered men to oblivion.
And there was that smell. Iron and metal. The warmth from the sun seemed to amplify it as it bounced across the windows of the skyscrapers in a bizarre ricocheting pattering. The ground felt hot to the touch, even as Roahn finally leapt into a nearby trench offering the sanctity of shadows, while bullets and death whizzed over her head.
Roahn quickly turned back and found that the soldiers under her charge had joined her in her assault towards the first position. Glassy-eyed, dulled to fear, they sprinted to safety, as if they could forget that their life could be snatched away at any moment from a well-placed shot.
A young human slipped as he approached the trench, his feet picking the wrong time to fail him. From where Roahn was crouching, she could see that the man had been hit in the thigh, though he was so hopped up on adrenaline that he did not seem to realize it yet. The pain eventually registered, hitting home when the man peeled a gloved hand away from his leg and found that it was stained red.
"Lieutenant!" the soldier cried out as he spotted Roahn. "Help me!"
Roahn did not spare a second thought. Stowing her rifle upon her back, she leapt up, out of the trench, and ran the last few meters to make it to the fallen man's position.
"I've got you!" Roahn tried to reassure the slowly panicking human as she slung one of his arms over her shoulders while she used her strong legs to propel the both of them upward. "Hold on!"
Roahn turned to make sure that she had the man's attention, but that moment was gone before she could ever grasp it, because a sniper's bullet flew through the air, invisible waves rippling in its wake, enough to crackle the quarian's shields. In an instant, the top half of the human's head exploded in a gory pulse, completely coating Roahn's visor. She had only a scant second to absorb what happened, quickly realize that she was staring at the ragged remains of a stump of a neck, before she felt her muscles slacken, the headless corpse now slowly dropping away from her.
Wiping the blood off of her blue visor, she had only a second to shiver. Stumbling, nearly blind, Roahn made her way back to the trench, fighting to keep her breathing even. Chunks of skull and brain matter had impacted onto her suit. She numbly wiped them off, plastering her back firmly against the trench wall, feeling the intense effort it took to slow her breathing down, close her eyes and try to force the image of that young man's head exploding out of her head.
Then she opened her eyes.
Refreshed with a new surge of anger, Roahn wheeled about, bringing her rifle to bear, as she opened fire on the enemy.
Near the Bucephalus line, Defender Corporal Alessia N'Tanis fired her shotgun with abandon at any of the darkly armored heads that popped up from the opposing lines. Superheated particles streamed all around her, the hissing of railgun rounds causing spasm-like shockwaves to rumble the very ground.
One of these railgun rounds would catch Corporal N'Tanis in the arm. The asari felt like she watched her limb sail away from her body for an eternity, the shotgun still clenched in her fist. She felt the blood dribbling from the stump at her elbow. Suddenly, what had been a warm day turned very cold.
Another bullet would strike N'Tanis in the neck, opening her jugular. A crimson spray erupted right in front of her eyes, glistening against the dry, orange sky. Now her face was hot. It had all happened so fast, she thought wistfully. She couldn't even remember falling face-first onto the ground of Battery Park, choking on the dirt and her own blood.
As she died, N'Tanis' last thought was that she wished she had told that human she had met at the bar last night that he was cute.
At the southernmost point of the park, Private Levy, all of eighteen years old, waved down the incoming armor transports with the beacons clenched in his hands. Behemoth walkers and Hammerhead tanks. The odds were about to become evened.
Dust clouds dispersed in circular waves as the winged ships momentarily touched down for their magnetic clamps to unlock, letting their cargo jump down onto solid ground. The two-legged walkers buckled as they hit dirt, but the servos in their legs took the punishment nicely. The pilots manning the controls were hidden behind armored plating—these things could take serious punishment.
Levy allowed himself to smile, a reaction shared by many in the presence of heavy-duty armor units. One walker was worth at least three highly-trained squads. With those high-velocity mini-guns, 35mm anti-armor autocannons, and rocket batteries, a Behemoth walker was a force to be feared by any infantryman. Maneuverable in tight quarters, they could function in any gravitational environment, on any terrain.
Now the Defenders would have some teeth!
But as Levy was grinning at the shining new Behemoth that was just stomping its way clear of the landing zone, the high-pitched whistle resonated deep in the recesses of the man's ears.
No… rocket launch.
The frequency warped upwards so fast that Levy had no chance to find cover. All he could perceive in one moment was the menacing Behemoth beginning to spool up its mini-guns, the next it had disappeared in a white phosphorous flash, the embers searing into Levy's eyes, his shield crackling and shattering in nanoseconds. Levy was thrown far away from the exploding mech, fire and smoke belching towards the morning sky. He felt a dull sort of pain at his stomach, but that quickly faded as his vision tumbled in all directions.
Levy rolled to a stop, not knowing how far he had been flung from the explosion. Numbly, he tried to lift his hands up to touch his face, but they felt weird, for some reason. Once his eyes finally focused on the charred objects in front of his face did Levy realize that those objects were, in fact, his hands.
Or… what was left of them.
Blackened from the fire, shattered from the pressure, all of Levy's fingers were either gone, or hanging by fibers from his hands. Levy let out a moan and tried to roll over so that he could get to his feet, but a terrible pain in his belly nixed that idea. Summoning his strength, Levy mustered the courage to look down at his body, transfixed at the sight of slippery, pink coils that had unraveled from a gash in his abdomen. The explosion had disemboweled him. He was staring at his own guts.
Levy lay on the ground, face up, waiting to die, simply wanting to know what losing his virginity would have been like.
This… is… on! Get some! Anderr Varturus thought viciously as he bounced on the balls of his feet, staring anxiously at the shut hatch of the transport as he waited for the craft to fully touch down. It had seemed like he had been stuck in this miserable ship for hours, but now it was time! He was about to experience his first real action!
Making you proud, dad.
Varturus, a turian, was grinning like a maniac at the front of the pack, having already switched the safety of his machine gun off. He was going to go at this full-bore. No limits. This was what he had trained for, to hurt these bastards that the Council had declared war on. He could almost taste iron on his tongue. He wanted blood.
"Five seconds!" the lieutenant roared out next to him. "Get to cover when we land! Do not stop until you do!"
The transport seemed to buckle. The sounds of war were right outside the door now. Varturus felt like he was going to pass out from excitement.
"Now!" he heard a scream. "Go, go, go!"
Varturus did not need to be told twice. He was running even before the transport door had finished descending to the ground, emitting dusty clouds as the heavy weight fell all the way down. The turian took one stride, then two, and glanced up momentarily to perceive the city encircling him.
"Damn," he murmured in awe.
He was looking up for so long that he failed to see the incendiary grenades that Tyranno mercenaries had just chucked in his direction. The red-decaled devices rolled to a stop at Varturus' feet, blinking serenely before detonation.
One moment Varturus was staring up at the sky, feeling an unimaginable calm, the next he was caught in a maelstrom of boiling and catastrophic fire. The flames were everywhere, on his skin, in his clothes, down his throat, in his eyes. He could not even scream, for the searing heat forced itself down into his lungs, the superheated gases charring his insides and cooking him from the inside out. He felt his eyeballs bubble and pop—the world went dark as what remained of his sclera dribbled down his ruined face.
Varturus fell, a smoking heap, having only made it one pace from the dropship.
"Get those biotic defenses up!" Roahn was screaming at the top of her lungs, clumps of dirt and soft objects that were most likely pieces of bodies raining down on them all the while. "Form your ranks! Engage at will and break their lines!"
Her words resounded, but it seemed like no one was listening. Clumps of Defenders all huddled in the trench, heads down to avoid being shot in the head. Many timidly peeked over the lip of the crevasse, only to duck back down with a panicked yelp as fresh holes suddenly punched their way into the ground inches from their eyes.
Roahn intermittently knelt back up to fire over the ridge. She timed her rifle bursts and grouped her shots in clusters of threes. She managed to land a few hits, but the shields of her combatants merely absorbed the blows with a crackle of static electricity. She still managed to down a few though, their heads popping nicely with a puff of vaporized blood and cracked polymer.
Some soldiers chucked grenades, but their range was inefficient to reach their enemies. Towering mechs, still glistening with grease and oil, creaking and whirring laboriously, trod over the trenches, momentarily blotting out the sounds of battle as soldiers came within range of its engaged mass effect fields. Missiles sailed through the air, impacting upon buildings, the shockwaves rippling out and shattering meter-wide radii of glass.
The Defenders were doing their best to return fire, but it was either Tyranno or Bucephalus that had the better position. Artillery, effective in the pre-sighted zone, blew crouched Defenders to pieces. Incendiary grenades ignited and set several noncoms ablaze. Their hideous shrieks mingled with the titanic roar of war as their armor melted into their cracking skin. Several of the flaming soldiers tried to dive into dirty puddles to set themselves out to no avail—the incendiary fuel was fireproof to a certain point. Many, in their panicked state, rushed out of the trenches to be felled by the PMCs' bullets, which was a much quicker fate. Those that still thrashed around in the trenches begged their comrades to kill them with whatever breath they could muster from their throats, hot gases having completely boiled their insides. Some of the anguished troopers complied. Others did not, lacking the courage, and could only watch their friends die in agony.
Roahn's visor was working overtime to compensate for the glare. While smoke from nearby fires was choking out the sun, its rays were still mercilessly bouncing off the windows of the city's buildings, making it feel like they were all under a magnifying glass.
A few hapless souls tried to scale the gravelly walls of the trench. Incoming fire stopped them in their tracks. The bodies were yanked back down, their blood mixing with muddy water as they splashed in the muck, very much limp.
One turian in front of Roahn tried to make a break for a stump just a few meters away to gain a little ground. A bullet tore the top of his head off instantaneously. The body fell with a thud. The PMCs did not stop shooting the corpse, though, and the remains of the turian jerked helplessly with blue spurts as bullet after bullet tore into it.
Watching the carnage, Roahn could only grimace, her rifle dangling helplessly in a clenched hand.
"Team leaders!" she called, waving a hand up in a circular motion. "Anyone who's not dead, form on me!"
Two humans, an asari, and a turian eventually pushed themselves from the throbbing mass and crouched next to Roahn, all in various states of anger or shock.
"Fifty meters to our northwest, there's a small rise," Roahn explained. "That's one of the CPs that we need to take. The Fifth Platoon will take the other, but right now, we need to get our biotics in place so that we can lay down some cover for the infantry."
"Who died and put you in charge?" one of the humans barked. He was unrecognizable to the quarian—he must be from another company. The insignia upon his chest told Roahn that he was only a sergeant.
She ignored him for now. "You—," she addressed the asari first, "—take your group and move along the eastern edge of the combat zone. Follow the terrain but do not cross the roads. Hit them with a flanking maneuver once we have our artillery established."
Roahn was already moving onto the first human before the asari could acknowledge her orders. "Your group digs in here. Tiger teams of three: rotate your launchers to minimize cooldown time. Aim ten meters in front of the enemy's southern trench and once we're clear, go for the armor."
"Your group—," she spoke to the next human, the one with the loud mouth, "—you will—,"
"Oh, fuck that!" the man hollered, his eyes bugging out of his skull as another shell landed a bit too close for comfort, dirt spraying over everyone's heads. "I'm not doing a damn thing you say!"
Incensed, eyes slit so intensely that they seemed to burn through her visor, Roahn had to restrain herself to launch a string of curses at the man.
"In case you haven't noticed, sergeant, I'm a lieutenant!" she jabbed a finger upon her scratched pauldrons for emphasis. "That means I outrank you! And if you don't follow my orders, you are most certainly going to die in this place because there's only one way out of here, and that's by taking that CP!"
"I don't care if you're a lieutenant, god, or Commander fucking Shepard," the man screamed back, spittle flying from his mouth, "I'm not going to be taking orders from a goddamned buckethead!"
Instantly, Roahn's heart skipped a beat from the pure spite that flowed through her arteries in that one moment. Buckethead. Despite all that had occurred in the past few decades, apparently some prejudices never fully died. The racist insult lingering in her head, a bevy of possibilities ran the gamut in Roahn's cortex. For all the talk of the Defenders' inclusivity, for all the so-called "unity" this galaxy had gone through, how was it that still some people could not be reached?
The urge to succumb to her influences could not be helped, so Roahn resisted no longer.
She lashed out with all her might. Her fist was armored. The man's jaw was not.
Blood exploded from the human's mouth as Roahn's punch spun him nearly completely around. Thick, red, and drizzled with saliva. The sergeant's eyes rolled up into his head as he gave a bubbling gasp and collapsed, stunned beyond all belief.
The other three group leaders were now staring at Roahn with a mixture of awe and fear. Roahn, flexing her fingers, testing them for damage (and finding them to be perfectly operational), nodded in the direction of the turian.
"Take over his group. See this through."
"Yes… ma'am," the turian stumbled over his words.
All three continued to mingle around, flirting with hesitancy. Roahn looked between all of them and, sighing, hefted her rifle and gripped it firmly with both hands while she set a foot onto the side of the trench in preparation. When blank looks still continued to appraise her, Roahn got annoyed.
"What, are you waiting for a pep talk? Do your fucking jobs!"
With that, she clambered over the edge, anger boiling in her vision, and left her gaping forces behind.
Multicolored tracers and beams all scythed around her in a deadly dance. Roahn could feel the concussion each bullet left behind in their wake. Pulsing machine gun fire ripped just behind her sprinting form, too fast for the PMCs to catch. The ground shook. Hypersonic projectiles shattered sound as they fruitlessly tried to snag the quarian. They all failed.
Roahn's shield began to fizzle and buckle as a few lucky shots hammered home. She stumbled a little, her center of gravity momentarily caught off guard. More infuriated than hurt, Roahn sped up the pace, racing between the lines of smoking bushes, flaming piles of debris, charred stumps, all with the gigantic skyscrapers forming an impassive hemisphere around her, beckoning her to behold the city's immense glory.
A Bucephalus position was just up ahead. A trio of operators, at first having been concentrated at keeping the Defender line back, now slowly turned in a daze to see the lone quarian bearing down on them.
It was too late.
Roahn cut the three down with a sweeping rifle burst, her armor-piercing rounds shredding through the combat suits like they were paper. She dropped into the enemy trench, both eyes piercing. Another trooper was there to greet her—she fired point-blank into his sternum. The soldier's shield's briefly rippled as it absorbed the first few rounds, but quickly shattered under the punishing onslaught. He soon fell, his chest a bloody mass.
More and more Bucephalus forces were turning from the trenches towards her as she switched to her shotgun, just in time as brilliant arcs of azure energy began to pummel down from above. That would be the biotic artillery, exactly as planned. The ground seemed to erupt from below the surface as the waves of dark energy hit, billowing and curtaining in clouds of electricity and noise.
Roahn's finger was heavy on the trigger of her shotgun, knowing that if she did not continue to fire here and now, she would die. To hammer that point home, a round zipped by her side, narrowly missing slicing open her enviro-suit. Roahn cursed. For quarians, an enviro-suit breach was not the fatal death sentence it had once been before the Reaper War, but garnering on here, in such an environment filled with deadly particulates and pathogens, that would put her down for several weeks if she was lucky.
Roaring with rage, Roahn fired still. Bucephalus soldiers writhed and screamed as the wall of inferno rounds embraced them.
The renegade troopers ripped off their helmets and pieces of their armor as they were now the ones set ablaze. They twitched and cried long, horrible notes. Boiling blood burst from their eyes and noses. The molecules of their skin and organs all superheated in a flash burn. Flesh dribbled off the bones of their face and they collapsed in smoking pieces.
Once the carnage had died down to a simmer, Roahn finally stopped firing, the barrel of her shotgun emitting only a thin wisp of steam.
Ancestors… she tried to say, but bile held the words down.
The quarian felt oddly detached as she beheld the carbonized bodies of the men she had just slaughtered. There was no more blood—it had either boiled away or had soaked into the dry earth so rapidly there were not even any damp spots left. The remains of an arm, blackened and bubbled, lay outstretched towards her. A final plea for mercy?
Unfortunate that Roahn was not in a merciful mood.
Roahn turned to look back towards the bay, watching more and more Defenders jump from their landing transports, ready to get into the fight. The floating caravan formed a steel line in the sky, linking Earth and space, offering limitless resources for this useless battle on one world of trillions.
Her own side of the skirmish, led by the individuals she had previously singled out to lead their units, including the human she had punched (still sporting a bleeding mouth) was already up and out from their covered position, joining her in her assault, their guns blazing, eager to take lives away. Roahn let herself be still as her comrades ran around her—a rock in a river. Hollow, she watched as her platoon swarmed the next Bucephalus position, guided by the cool hand of wrath and hungry for blood. Routed, the Bucephalus troopers turned and ran for cover in the city, their previously ordered lines now broken down into a mad scramble. The harshness of the gunfire diminished in volume ever so slightly.
But Roahn had seen this all before. This was simply the new status quo. Corporate overlords shilling out men like they were currency, disposing of them as callously as if they were trash. Terrifying clarity infected Roahn so bitterly that she nearly sunk to her knees.
Names on a board. Tomorrow, two more would take their place. A PMC's life expectancy was limited, but their impact was always dramatic. Roahn had been fighting against these sort of foes ever since she joined the Defenders. Not once did she ever run into the same PMC twice. The Defenders had busted every PMC operation that they had been alerted to, but the violence never left. The corruption had infected the political system, a system that had embraced the idea of private armies with open arms.
What a waste.
Death begets death begets death.
How can I hope to stop it?
Nearly in a daze, the burning hulk of a dropship engulfed in flames at the far end of the park scything in and out of view as her visor distorted the light, playing tricks with her eyes, Roahn staggered away from the captured position, nearly about to relax until a low-pitched whistle frantically began to swerve into audible range.
Too low for artillery.
Roahn looked up in reflex, managing to spot a dark dot high above her in the sky. But the dot was rapidly expanding—the object was plummeting towards the ground.
Eyes widening in realization and fear, Roahn immediately scrambled for cover, hurling herself to the ground and covered her head with her arms. A second later, something enormous hit the ground hard, throwing up billowing dust clouds and shaking the earth underneath her boots. The resounding jolt nearly threw Roahn upwards into the air a full inch, the impact trembling so close!
Once the wave of dust had passed, Roahn dropped her arms back down and hesitantly tilted her head back up, her eyes wide with despair.
Straightening from its impact position, the Phantor-class armored walker, slashed with vivid decals of red Tyranno paint, extended its thin "arms," the joints making tightened creaking noises before the trio of multi-barreled miniguns on each limb began to spool up in turn, creating a harsh whine that rapidly escalated into a deafening cacophony. The walker's clawed, bipedal, quad-soled legs stutter-stepped to provide itself a better center of gravity, leaving flattened bits of grass and gravel in its wake.
The Phantor turned around once, the pilot trying to get a feel for his surroundings. In the midst of this battlefield calibration, the walker froze in place as it immediately spotted its first target of the battle: Roahn.
The pilot's laugh resounded over its cheek-mounted loudspeakers. "Not your lucky day, quarian!"
"Oh… shit," Roahn groaned out loud before she felt her legs pushing her up as fast as she could muster.
The place where Roahn had just been lying down detonated in a yellow and red series of flashes as the six miniguns on the Phantor opened up all at once. The jackhammer concussions—hundreds of bullets in a second—felt like they were splitting Roahn's head open. She cried out, but pushed past the discomfort and hurled herself into the nearest trench, the lip of the gorge popping in quick succession as the machine's bullets careened into it.
"Nowhere to run, quarian. Try and hide all you want, I'll still get you!"
Roahn grimaced, ignoring the Phantor pilot's confident snark, as she unlatched the grenade launcher from her back. A Phantor was easily one of the most deadly pieces of arsenal a private military could hope to buy. Light, nimble, and ridiculously over-armed, they were unparalleled at shredding legions of infantry, worth ten times their weight in credits for all the damage they could perform in such a short time span. Hell of a time for this particular walker to focus all its attention on her.
Raptor jets raced by overhead, swerving to avoid the buildings while the Phantor fired at the quarian. The shockwaves from the sonic tears the fighters left in their wake seemed to shake the earth apart. The windows of skyscrapers shattered from the brute force, raining the streets in jagged glass. Broken panes tumbled at Roahn's feet, sending her panicked reflection back upon her.
The ground at Roahn's back was shaking again. The Phantor was approaching her position, obviously intent at cornering her here in this trench. Cursing, Roahn flung herself further down the makeshift crevasse as bullets were flung in her wake, completely devastating her previous cover.
"You'll come out soon enough, bitch!" the pilot crowed, but a hint of annoyance was now creeping into his tone.
One of the Phantor's feet momentarily dropped into the ditch, knocking the mech off center for a moment. While the pilot was in the middle of adjusting, Roahn, still hefting the launcher, sprang out of the trench that had been saving her life and now ran along the ridge. She emptied the tube of the launcher—a silver streak that sailed just seconds across the shattered plain and detonated upon the kneecap of the Phantor. Metal squealed and wrenched, but the walker remained upright. Roahn jumped back down into another trench, out of sight of the pilot and his instruments.
The Phantor turned in place for a few seconds, puzzled as to where the quarian had gone. Obviously feeling frustrated that he had lost track of his quarry so quickly, the pilot directed his attention onto other targets that he could spot in the distance, bringing his miniguns to bear on them instead.
Ear-splitting bursts blasted from the Phantor's guns, tearing apart a Defender platoon that had just disembarked from its dropship. The Defenders, out in the open, had nowhere to go. The heavy rounds tore them to pieces. Many hapless troopers were completely cut in half, downed before they could ever hope to enter the fray. Smoke billowed over the split blood, the concrete below now stained a vivid red.
Beyond infuriated at seeing her fellow marines so carelessly cut down, Roahn bellowed a wordless cry as she sprang from the hole she had been using as cover, and fired the grenade launcher as fast as her finger could pull the trigger. Projectile after projectile found their mark and several concussive blossoms of thunder and fire turned metal into pulp. One of the Phantor's arms, having been engulfed in the first series of blasts, tumbled to the ground, severed and now a smoking piece of wreckage.
The walker's knee was now bent and the war machine was listing heavily to the side. In quick succession, the knee finally gave and sent the Phantor smashing towards the ground. The chin of the pilot's cockpit sank into the mud with a violent jolt, rocking the occupant uncomfortably. Roahn discarded her spent weapon and now raced at the disabled walker, her omni-blade ignited around her left arm and humming with a quiet, but violent energy.
Roahn checked to see if any of the Phantor's weapons were operational before she completely approached—they were not. She then positioned her omni-blade, extended at its full length, and surgically pushed it against the metal of the cockpit's latches, sawing it open.
The hatch of the Phantor was rated to survive temperatures up to 500 K. Roahn's blade could go up to 600.
Steel bubbled and frothed angrily as Roahn pushed her omni-blade deeper and deeper into the walker. Sparks burst into her face, bouncing off of her visor harmlessly. Superheated plasma crackled and dribbled down the white-hot cut the quarian was making into the mech. Roahn could feel sweat begin to trickle down her back, her muscles aching from the exertion.
But after a minute had passed, she heard a pop. Immediately, she withdrew her blade and grasped at the latch of the door, tugging and clawing at it with all her might. Her mouth locked into a savage grimace, turning feral as she pushed the cords of her muscles beyond their potential and into certain insanity.
The hatch swung open!
Roahn had barely any time to react as she saw the armored pilot—humanoid—flail about for a second, shrieking in fear as the quarian tore his protective covering away. She must have looked quite a sight, silhouetted against the sun, her omni-blade dripping fire and sparks, face obscured by the color blue.
That was when Roahn saw that the pilot was groping for a pistol.
She was not exactly sure how her body knew to make all the right moves in that next second, only that pure instinct overrode logic in its frantic effort to preserve her life. The omni-blade slashed the air in half and the pilot's hand, severed at the wrist and still clutching the pistol, dropped to the ground between Roahn's feet.
"Wait!" the pilot shrieked as he was now grasping his wounded limb, which was spurting blood all over his white chest-plate. "Wait, mercy! I want mer—"
The thin omni-blade speared perfectly into the pilot's throat, permanently silencing him. There was, however, one final choking noise, and the human's remaining hand began to unexpectedly grab at Roahn's wrist, although he lost consciousness far too quickly for him to forestall his death.
Roahn withdrew the blade, opening the wound up and allowing a geyser of blood to hit her full-on. Red mist stained the front of her enviro-suit as she looked on at the man dispassionately, utterly hating him for what he had done to her comrades and what he had stood for. He had dressed up in the uniform of a private army… all for a paycheck. He had sold his soul and his principles all for the promise of a grievously low income. He was just one out of thousands—millions—that had fallen prey to this gigantic scam, this joke, that had perpetrated every corner of this galaxy.
This man, the dying pilot, had taken the PMC's money, fully knowing that it was a license to commit murder.
Roahn hated this man. She hated them all. They dared to upend a perfect future for the sake of a few extra credits. Her well of disgust ran infinite.
The pilot was still not dead as he was still wheezing in his diminishing breaths. Roahn felt her teeth grow cold and she stabbed him again, this time in the chest. Then she stabbed him a third time when he still did not die. And again. And again. Blood no longer sprayed out in between blows. The human's heart was not pumping strongly enough for that sort of pressure—it leaked out instead. Hissing noises from the gaping holes in the pilot's body emitted where gas could escape from the fleshy cavities.
Finally, after countless blows had been inflicted upon him, the pilot did expire, leaving a gasping and disgusted Roahn by the wayside. She tried not to look at what she had done to the man, already feeling dread creep at her spine, guilt lodging into her very soul. The mutilation, it had just burst from her, uncontrollable and savage. So many planets she had traversed, so many of the same pointless battles. Already she had had enough.
Roahn had completely forgotten that she still had firearms at her disposal, but she ran on to the next position, omni-blade still out and blazing. The battle was not over yet, after all, and she had switched her mind over to the next objective that needed conquering. It was the only way for her to stay sane. She could face regret for her actions later. Right now, she had a job to do.
Tyranno was the only PMC left on the field at Battery Park and they were occupying the last command post in a two-mile radius. It was not a far jog for Roahn to traverse and she soon found herself taking up the back of a charge alongside her fellow Defenders as they worked to overrun their foe's position. Not complacent with the idea of picking up the scraps of the skirmish, Roahn sidled over to Tyranno's flank, where the fighting was the thinnest, but it also meant that she could insert herself into the conflict for maximum effectiveness.
A mounted machine gun indicated the beginning of one of the Tyranno trenches. Sandbags and other pieces of thickened metal barriers had been stacked around the gun emplacement—Roahn was in the blind spot of the gunner as she approached.
She mounted the brief rise of the reinforced position, surprising the hell out of the armored Tyranno gunner, and stomped on the barrel of the gun, sending the grip of the machine gun flying upwards to crack the man hard on the chin. He fell completely backwards, limbs splayed out into the mud as he lay there, teetering on the edge of consciousness.
Roahn roared and leaped over the rim, plunging her omni-blade directly into the man's heart. The Tyranno trooper jerked once and lay still. Panting, forehead beaded with sweat, Roahn nearly collapsed upon the man she had just killed, using a hand to steady herself upon the pristine white chestplate, leaving a three-fingered handprint behind in the man's blood, dark liquid glistening and fat with heavy drops.
The quarian lifted her head as she detected movement at the top edge of her peripheral vision. A Tyranno soldier was stalking his way towards her, careful in his gait after witnessing her impale his comrade. A wicked-looking knife was clutched in a gauntleted hand—his knees were bent in a prepared stance.
"All right, you little cunt," the soldier rasped wickedly around a grin hidden by his helmet, eager to engage in a one-on-one battle of their own. "I'm going to enjoy cutting your guts out of your—"
Roahn whipped her omni-blade in a sweeping arc, severing one of the legs of the turret's tripod next to her. With its center of gravity off-balance, the turret toppled down towards Roahn, who caught the trigger handles of the weapon and immediately clenched down upon them as soon as she could get a grip.
The monstrous dual barrels of the gatling gun immediately opened fire in throbbing blasts. Tracer rounds arced and hit the soldier from head to groin, turning him into chunks of meat and a fine red mist.
Roahn only stopped firing after the Tyranno trooper had completely exploded. Some of the man's lower extremities still had not finished settling as the wet ground darkened—a lingering shadow. Allowing a sigh to burst from her throat, Roahn released the handles of the turret, her head momentarily resting upon a porous rock that had been partially unearthed within the trench. She was exhausted.
Panting, her whole body aching, Roahn groaned as she felt an incredible lethargy wash over her. She mustered enough strength to roll over on her back. Neat and straight contrails cut through the caramel sky above her while the sun glistened off any skyscraper window that had not been shattered by an explosion, bullet, or sonic boom. Her suit was marred with dirt and blood. Her fingers felt stiff and arthritic.
With a shaking hand, Roahn managed to thumb her comm. "Echo Lieutenant… SWORDSMAN."
"Go ahead, Echo."
"Tyranno forward position… secured. The Defenders have the park."
"Solid copy, Echo. We show that Tyranno and Bucephalus are in a full retreat from the Financial District. Hold your position and evac the remaining civilians who were unable to get out before. Transports are already on station and ready to depart. Acknowledge."
"Echo copies," Roahn grunted as she struggled to get to her feet, dashing spears of mercury light cutting a path from her eyes. "Over and out."
Forty-five minutes later
For once the term "military efficiency" actually rose above its station as an oxymoron. Roahn was impressed at the feat that the Defenders had been able to pull off, but was somewhat suspicious of its circumstances.
Her slit eyes betrayed her misgivings. She ended up giving sideways looks at everyone.
Still blood-splattered, Roahn had double-timed it from the park to the evacuation checkpoint that the Defenders had set up as soon as she had gotten off the comm with SWORDSMAN. She had traversed ten city blocks in a little under ten minutes, linking up with her lost platoon in the process. She led the unit at the front of the pack, setting the pace for everyone else to follow—not at all at a breezing walk, though.
Civilians had been lined up in an orderly fashion, the queue stretching around the block. Frightened women of all races—mostly human—clutched their screaming children. Wearied husbands held their wives close. All of them looked particularly miserable, with many of them glancing up towards the sky every time a passing fighter roared past. Most of the kids covered their ears as the bellow of the engines drowned out their own voices.
Roahn, impassive to the noise, marched past them without breaking stride.
Several commandeered civilian shuttles had been lined up in tight columns on one of the piers that jutted out into the East river. Several dozen landing pads comprised five distinct levels of the Lower NYC Spaceport, filled to the brim with transports ready to go, their thrusters already on standby. The Spaceport had the appearance of a multi-leaved clover, with its landing pads positioned in pinwheel fashion. Light cut through the supports of the structure, shadows creating slashing grids across the city.
A small child, panicked from the noise, broke from the line and raced for safety, disregarding the screams from his mother. Roahn, hearing the commotion, jumped backward, held out a hand and smoothly caught the kid around the waist. The boy tried to struggle, but the events of the day quickly took their toll on him and he ceased all resistance in moments. Roahn waited until she was sure that the boy had been tired out before she gently picked him up and walked back over to his mother.
"Thank you…" the woman, a young little thing with mousy blond hair, stammered. "I can't… I don't know where to go. This is my home…"
"You need to go with everyone else," Roahn replied, her voice a little sterner than she would have liked, but her adrenaline was slowly slipping away, replacing it with an apathetic drowsiness. "It's not safe here for you two."
"You'll come back here soon. Your home is not lost, but you can't stay here right now."
"For how long?" the woman moaned. "How long will we have to run? This isn't our fight. This…" she looked the quarian up and down, "…isn't yours either. We have no part of this."
"All the same," Roahn said. "We can't leave you behind in this place."
"Why? Why do this to us?"
Stiffly, Roahn bit her lip before responding. "I can't give you an answer to that. You're also asking the wrong side that question, anyway."
The young mother briefly appeared mortified and ashamed as she withered in the face of Roahn's calm tone.
"Here," Roahn gestured as she slowly led the woman from the line and towards the expedited gate, where other civilians took the elevator to the top of the landing pads. "Get your boy out of this city. You need to leave, for his sake."
As the mother edged into the elevator, holding her child close, she fumbled with her words before the doors closed. "Can you at least tell me your name?"
Roahn rigidly stood by, waiting until the closing doors had reached the halfway report before she partially turned away.
"I'm Roahn'Shepard," she mumbled, but it was so soft that the words could not have been heard by anyone else.
The elevator doors finally closed, the chrome surface sending her warped reflection shooting back in her direction. She was just a mess of color: purple, blue, red. In the glass of Roahn's mind, she could feel something tearing from her very soul, pouring from her body as she thought of that woman and her child, probably looking up with terrified wonder at the infinite void that would soon accept them.
She had been like that once. Small and afraid. Metal demons had threatened to rip her from her parents too. Faceless and merciless demons, all their causes murky and ambiguous.
Private armies. Roahn hated them all, down to their festering, rotting cores. The people that comprised them to the people that hired them. Hate. Hate. Hate. Roahn wanted to squeeze all of their necks so tightly that their vertebrae popped, strong enough that their eyeballs would bulge from their sockets, their voice boxes crushed against their larynxes, if only to impart a fraction of the grief they had caused her and so many others.
Words could not describe just how deep her hatred ran.
She wanted to kill them all.
Sustained, heavy bursts of gunfire unexpectedly erupted from one of the buildings at the far end of the boulevard, back towards the center of the district, blowing out the windows whose reflections had previously been hiding it from view. Civilians screamed and scattered, running in all directions away from the spaceport as they tried to flee with their lives. Defenders similarly ran for cover, utilizing anything within their vision to hide from the incoming bullets.
"Entrenched position, GRAY HAIL!" Roahn screamed into her comm as she ducked behind a shattered truck, its tires missing and windows in pieces. "Grid Saber-Eight-Five-Tango-Niner-Two-Three-Bravo! Request one LV orbital round! Danger close!"
"GRAY HAIL confirms," the voice over the comm said smoothly. "Low-velocity round acknowledged. Grid coordinates are correct. Delay in effect. Prepare for splashdown in five seconds."
"Friendly orbital strike!" Roahn yelled at the top of her lungs to anyone who would listen. "Danger close! Heads fucking down!"
The Defenders in the surrounding area immediately went prone and covered their heads. There was a muted thump and then a streak of light miles long speared down from the heavens, impacting the side of the mirrored building at the perfect angle. The orbital round was still travelling fast enough to punch through the other side of the skyscraper and into the underground transit system below. The PMC gun placement was there one second and nonexistent the next, having been blasted to smithereens from the overhead blast. Just a smoking hole remained, with torn piping leaking water and other fluids down onto the sidewalk below.
Roahn grumbled as she got back to her feet, her elbows now smarting from having been flung down to the ground so many times in short succession. The orbital strike was most likely overkill, but Roahn was at her wit's end today. She was not going to have her men suffer through several costly minutes of clumsily returning fire at a secure building when she had the resources to blow the obstacle out of the way with a mere word. The skyscraper was a total loss, obviously, and was now a compromised structure. If it did not collapse on its own accord, it would have to be demolished, but Roahn was not concerned by the cost of cleaning up this city after they were through.
She was concerned with the cost of lives accrued this day.
"There could be more in the building," Roahn said as she circled the platoon closer to her position. Armed but weary, they formed a ragged mob as they gazed almost serenely in the direction of the destroyed tower, following their lieutenant's example. "We're going to flush them out."
"Roger that, ma'am," one of her sergeants said. No one else piped up with anything to say.
The platoon plodded forward at a menacing pace two lanes abreast down the avenue. Roahn carried her pistol at her side, the rest of her weaponry strapped securely to her back. The heavy units jogged forward to take point, their powerful assault rifles sweeping the front in a conical sector, searching for signs of enemy movement. Machine gunners took up the rear while the engineers, touting shotguns, stayed near Roahn.
They had gotten about two blocks left to go before they reached the destroyed structure when every single one of their radios squealed a harsh, multi-toned electronic shriek.
Three long tones. Dissonant. Red-Three alert.
"A fucking R-3…" one of the troopers muttered out loud before the comms overtook him.
"All units, SWORDSMAN. Be advised, confirmed nuclear ordinance on the field. Repeat, multiple nuclear weapons are on the field. Minimum-yield devices only. Engineers are standing by for disposal. Report to your sectors and prepare for immediate evac."
The Defenders were looking amongst themselves with rapidly growing alarm. "Oh shit," one incredulous soldier bemoaned. "They're joking, right? Nukes? Where did these PMCs get their hands on nukes? There's no way they're going to use a nuke in a city."
"You don't know what these maniacs are capable of," another trooper, a turian, drawled. "Besides, minimum-yield strength? That wouldn't even level a city block."
"How would you know that?!" someone in the back chimed in. "For all we know, we could be in the blast zone!"
"We're thirty units in a city of more than a few million people, nowhere close to any mission critical areas. We're not a strategic target to waste a nuke on. We'll just make our way to the evac zone and get the hell out of here—leave the rest to the engineers."
"He's right," Roahn stepped in between the two, her smoky expression furrowed in concentration. "We don't have time to waste by squabbling. Tyranno and Bucephalus want to cover their tracks by deploying a nuke of the weakest strength? Let them. This part of the city's mostly empty, anyway. We'll repay them back in kind soon enough. But right now, we can't afford to stand around like a bunch of defenseless civilian—"
The word ached in her mouth before she had a chance to complete it. The abhorrent thought radiated such putridity that Roahn nearly believed that she could imagine such fresh and obscene horrors.
But it made sense.
How else would a PMC hope to run from a fight they had already lost?
No… kill innocents.
In an instant, Roahn wheeled back the way she had come, the water's edge now seemingly stretched out for miles in the distance, between the concrete walls of the artificial canyon. Ignoring the shouts from her men, the quarian broke out into a sprint, long legs relentlessly tearing up meters of ground as she ripped the last of her strength into this one final push.
"All units, be advised," the radio chimed, "MLLR-sats have triangulated location of nuclear devices in play. Stand by for the following locations: Broome at Soho, Chambers at Tribeca, Abington Square—,"
"No, no, no!" Roahn yelled into her own commlink, but SWORDSMAN was broadcasting over all channels. Her breath was heaving and her lungs rasping but she continued to scream even as she ran. "SWORDSMAN, Echo Lieutenant! Confirmed SCRAM-N at Pier 17! Spaceport District! We need engineers on-site ASAP! Repeat, we need—,"
A flicker reminiscent of a hungry flame glimmered to life in midair. The silver outline of a transport from the top level of the Spaceport, momentarily hung independent of gravity. The candle-like flicker then collapsed upon itself, giving Roahn the barest hope that she had merely witnessed a trick of the light.
But then the spaceport exploded.
A wave of pressure caught Roahn full on, throwing her head-first back down the avenue. Clouds of dust, smoke, and debris consumed her. She did not even feel her body hitting the pavement and rolling end over end until she finally became nestled in the entranceway to a vacant building. Something inside her cracked, creating blistering pain whenever she drew breath. Her vision grayed out.
Before Roahn finally blacked out, her eyes managed to catch the thin, rising mushroom burst of fire and smoke that grew from the very ground, contaminated and blackened. The spaceport, she could see, had been levelled to the ground… along with the thousands of civilians who had been using it as a conduit for their safety.
All of them, gone.
Shivering as the howling wind sucked back towards the nexus of the detonation, Roahn let the tiredness overtake her, finding it oddly difficult to breathe now.
It was difficult to tell how much time had passed since falling unconscious, but Roahn could at least determine was that at least an hour had gone by, due to where the sun was in the sky above her.
As awareness seeped back into her, Roahn wiggled her digits, all twelve of them, remembering it as one of the first tests a soldier makes to check for paralysis. No difficulties there, which was good. Now, for her surroundings: sky perpendicularly oriented to her face meant that she was lying down, moderately uncomfortable pressure at her back indicated that she was lying on a military cot, and the existence of her sense of pain alerting her to such a minor annoyance was a clue that she was not seriously injured.
With a gasp, Roahn sat up. She instinctively brushed herself off, finding that she was caked head to toe with dust that had been flung up from the explosion—her entire enviro-suit was now colored a dirty brown and her efforts at cleaning were just smearing the grime in further.
Craning her head, Roahn found white shapes anxiously bustling about to and fro: people clad in white, sterile uniforms. Medics. Doctors. Roahn glanced around and spotted the familiar symbol for a medical tent nearby, embroidered on a flag as it flapped lazily in the stiff breeze.
Another quick appraisal of her surroundings revealed that Roahn was back in Battery Park. Her men must have found her and dragged her over to the medics for treatment. Or… whatever kind of treatment they could give to a quarian in the field.
One of the medics saw her and hurried over. A woman, human, auburn-haired, quickly knelt next to Roahn. "No, you need to rest," she gently chastised the quarian. "You can't sit up right now."
"I'm fine," Roahn grumbled, her voice caky in her mouth. "I don't need any rest."
The medic frowned, frustrated at Roahn's attitude, but she could not very well force the quarian to take any shut-eye on a battlefield.
"You're lucky you don't have any brain damage," the woman merely shook her head in frustration. "You must have taken the brunt of the shockwave—cracked a few ribs in the process, so you must have been close to the epicenter. With all the adrenaline and exhaustion you've been through, you entered a temporary coma. An ability natural to quarians, so I'm told, to stave off injury."
"It's a defense mechanism in our species. It helps us withstand punishment," Roahn gritted out as she tenderly prodded a rib. Dull pain erupted from her side, but it was not an immediate agony. Her enviro-suit must have dumped some medi-gel into her through micro-syringes embedded in the interior of her suit. The medi-gel would have already set the broken ribs, but there would still be some residual tearing damage inside her that she would have to deal with for a few weeks.
"Well, you can thank your suit for doing the heavy lifting. It administered a drug cocktail that increased your blood pressure after you apparently dropped dangerously low. You didn't garner any breaches, so you won't be stricken by any illnesses or reactions to anything in the air. All the same, you got off lucky, lieutenant.
Stone-faced, the medic turned to leave, but not before Roahn caught her wrist. "The bomb…" Roahn murmured.
"…Yes?" the medic whispered, not understanding.
The quarian looked up, her eyes peering through her dirt-encrusted visor, the polished metal now scoured and chipped. "I was close to the epicenter, as you said. To a nuclear explosion. Am I contaminated?"
Now the medic comprehended, recognition flickering in her gaze.
"We didn't detect any radiation in your system," the medic said, not noticing the slump of Roahn's shoulders from relief. "You don't need to worry about that. The yield from those devices wasn't substantial enough to cover any critical area. It's mostly confined to an area above the East River and a small part of the coastline on the peninsula."
"And the mission? Did we succeed in our mission?
The medic now smiled warmly. "We did. Two platoons up in Midtown managed to reach the benefactors behind the warring PMCs and captured them, ending the battle. You can relax, lieutenant. You had a victory today."
Tell that to the thousands of civilians who just got vaporized, Roahn sourly thought, but she let go of the medic's wrist, allowing the woman to move on to other patients.
Platoons in Midtown. Roahn would have cursed out loud, but it would have been too painful for the effort, so she just stewed in her anger. SWORDSMAN had not even deigned to inform her and her men about another incursion force. They had all just stormed the park, all thinking that they were the front line of the entire fighting force, when in fact they were nothing but a distraction, a useful idiot while others skirted the conflict, avoiding the casualties, and earning the day for themselves when they shut the PMCs down.
Roahn's fist clenched so hard they could shatter a battle helmet. Five campaigns. Five of these campaigns in a row she had participated in, and every time it felt like nothing was changing between them. A PMC goes rogue, the Defenders swoop in and put them down, the day is saved, and suddenly another one pops up elsewhere in a gigantic game of whack-a-mole. The script played out the same way to the letter. There was no end to the scourge. Living bodies were being thrown against a problem with no clear solution. At this rate, the Defenders would die a slow death from the number of men they were losing. They may have been killing more people on the PMCs' side, but what did that matter when there were hundreds of PMCs still out there?
Death by a thousand cuts.
The bureaucracy of the Defenders sometimes seemed converse to their actual mandate of saving lives in this galaxy. And was that not why the Defenders were formed in the first place? To save lives? Management was simply screwing them over like this by their erratic communication. Everyone was way too siloed—platoons had no proper communication between each other, command seemed like they were deliberately keeping their men in the dark on aspects of the battles. This complete lack of transparency was the true cancer in the Defenders, Roahn figured. Hundreds of their own people killed today over a plot of land that proved to be meaningless in the long run. All they did was put on a big and dramatic show to draw the PMCs to them while their true objective apparently was several miles further from where they had been dropped off.
Command could try and claim that they used Battery Park as a battlefield to draw the fire away from the civilians. A worthy attempt, except that civilians had been killed anyway when apparently Tyranno or Bucephalus had somehow gotten their hands on nuclear ordinance. Whatever narrative command would pull in an effort to spin the events of today positively, Roahn knew they would have quite the challenge on their hands.
A bucket of water, black and putrid, sat next to the edge of the flimsy cot. A stained rag lay draped over the side. Roahn fidgeted as she absentmindedly touched the worn edges of her sehni, only concentrating on the grime that permeated the cloth.
She reached up and began unfastening the loops and snaps that held the sehni taut against her helmet. It was a deceptively complex design that reached down to her back, around her arms, and tugged at her waist. It took several minutes for Roahn to tug the entirety of the sehni free, but eventually she held the thick fabric in her hands, her helmet now glistening in the smoky sun. She surmised that she looked almost pathetic with nothing covering the top of her helmet, allowing people to see the assortment of oxygen and vital fluid tubes that connected to ports near the base of her skull, spiraling down into her suit to feed valuable systems that kept her alive. Bare. Almost like she was unarmored.
Roahn took the dirty rag, wet it in the water, and wrung it out as best as she could before she began to dab at the sehni, soaking up most of the grit. Violet hues blossomed as the water soaked the threads.
The sehni had been her mother's. A striking woman. Tali'Shepard vas Rannoch (nee Zorah). She had passed away when Roahn had still been a child, with only her father left to raise her. Before she had died, she had instructed her father to give Roahn her sehni when she grew up, to remember her by. Each day that she wore it, Roahn would never forget Tali.
All of the memories that she had of her mother were all wonderful, but each day merely widened the gap from the last day that she had been alive. It was nearly twenty years since that terrible day. More than half her lifetime had been spent without a mother. A small sacrifice in the grand scheme of the galaxy… but Roahn would never stop feeling regretful at not having more time with her. Just a day. One more day would suffice.
As Roahn continued to clean her trappings, she was momentarily distracted from her duties by the wailings of a man a few cots over. Doctors and assistants were crowding around a man—a human Defender—that had just been brought in. The most recent casualty from all the scattered skirmishes taking place all over the city. Even from here, the vivid color of blood seeped into Roahn's eyes, armor and bodysuit of the soldier stained heavily with his life. Vomit and fluids stained the ground below the cot—the doctors were slipping in it as they tried to restrain the man and put him under.
From here, Roahn could see that the man was dying. It looked like he had been torn open by an explosive round. Fat pink tubes of guts coiled their way out from a deep cut in his belly. His squeals were unbearable. It was unbelievable that he managed to stay alive all this time.
Now Roahn could hear the doctors calling for morphine—or some other opiate that Roahn could not place. She understood implicitly. The doctors were going to deliberately stop the man's heart to spare him further agony. They could do nothing for him other than give him peace. Looking at the ruined soldier, Roahn could not disagree with their decision. It was what she would have done in the moment.
She looked away.
In time, the screams died down to pathetic moans. The moans then dissolved into pained squeaks. The squeaks quieted in short order.
Roahn's hands continued to clean the sehni but she was no longer staring down at the fabric. Glassy-eyed, she instead looked to the uneven horizon, past the bay and the ridges of the nearby coasts, curving upward towards the inky black nothingness and wondered what fruitless effort would chance upon her next.
Forward… to the next exercise in futility.
A/N: The first thing I'd like to say is sorry I took so long.
I know it's been half a year since Cenotaph I came to an end, but I always did have the intention of returning to this series sooner or later. However, a new job and moving to a new apartment sort of drained me of whatever creativity I had left, so for a while, I was simply easing into my new routine, trying to figure out exactly how to utilize my free time effectively. But I think I've finally worked bits of my life around to compensate and maintain free time of my own in the process. Thus, I think you can pretty much consider Cenotaph II to be fully in production.
A few caveats: updates are going to be a little scattershot, I'm afraid. I'm setting a pretty strict schedule for myself that will allow me to follow regular updates, but they are most likely going to be a couple of weeks in between. If you like the slow burn approach, then you'll probably be fine with this arrangement. If you're the type that likes their updates to come at a rapid-fire pace, sorry to say that you might be a bit aggrieved by this new approach.
So, what should you guys expect from Cenotaph II? Well, if this first chapter didn't make it obvious, Roahn will be taking the spotlight in this story. Yes, Shepard's still around, but his role will be reduced to a background character here. We're now in Roahn's story and she's gone through a whole lot of changes since you guys saw her last in Cenotaph I. She's got some surprises up her sleeve and I'm hoping you all will find her an heir worthy of the Shepard moniker by the time this story has been completed. Also, some of the loose threads from Cenotaph I will be addressed in II, so if some of you are still trying to decipher exactly what the hell I was writing in the first installment, you'll get some of your questions answered here.
Some, not all.
Let me know what you think about this first chapter and I hope you enjoy Cenotaph II: The Monolith.
Battle of Battery Park
Black Hawk Down (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Anthem (Original Video Game Soundtrack)
Civilian Evacuation/Nuclear Detonation
Alien: Covenant (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)