Author's Note: A while back I posted story called Fade To Black. You may have read it. Aside from Shepard, the story had an OC of mine I called, tongue in cheek, "Hailstorm." This is a series of loosely connected stories intended to give her some more backstory. The timeline is before Mass Effect. Some parts are humour, some not. Some canon characters from Mass Effect may pop in from time to time as well. I'm also taking the chance to play around with different tenses besides past tense. Because past tense is so 2008. :P
She remembers the battle, the fighting, in flashes, like an old reel of film that's missing frames and unspooling before her mind's eye.
Now: the briefing and Major Kyle staring blankly into space. Everybody knows Kyle's losing it. Nobody says anything about it. Later, she'll wonder why. For now, she says his name three, four times until he snaps out of whatever funk he's in and begins giving his last orders.
The film shuffles forward a little: she's relaying Kyle's orders to her platoon. They make no sense even to her own ears but Kyle is the officer commanding and to the marines on Torfan, he's practically God.
"Is the old man crazy?" spits one of her platoon.
"It's a goddamn suicide mission!" shouts another.
"Alright! That's enough!" she has to raise her voice to be heard but heard she is. Immediately the troops button up and come to attention.
Now: she's on the ground on Torfan, hunkering down behind some boulders, large, weathered and being chipped away by withering gunfire from the batarians. They're five minutes into the op. Already Burke and Wilson are gone. Hardsuits breached, they died from decompression in the airless atmosphere. There's no time to do more than utter a silent prayer before they're under fire again. She deploys her sniper rifle, leans out just enough to sight in on a batarian footsoldier as he's moving from cover to cover. A shot rings out, the batarian's down. A hand claps her on the shoulder and a voice, Corporal Carver's, gives her a congratulatory word.
Flash forward. How long, she can't know. The doctors who counsel her after the fighting and her subsequent recovery from her physical injuries say it's part of PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder - that her mind is shutting out things it doesn't want to remember. Part of her is grateful. Another part of her brands herself a coward. She should remember the fallen and how they died. They deserve as much.
Now she and Carver are inside the underground bunker deep below the surface. This is the heart of the batarian defensive effort and the scene of the bloodiest fighting. Carver's the closest thing she has left to a platoon sergeant. But then, most of her platoon is dead so maybe it doesn't really matter at this point.
Another leap forward. Aside from Carver, she's on her own. In these tight quarters, her rifle's useless so she fires her sidearm until it overheats. She's in a frenzy now, sight tinged with a red glow, heartbeat pounding in her ears. Combat talon in hand, she stabs a batarian through his cuirass, yanks out the blade and whips it backhand across his throat. The four-eyed alien falls back, gurgling. Her omni-tool bleeps, clamouring for attention. She's calibrated it to signal her every time a new tech mine is ready to go. The mine sails out, catching a four-man fireteam in the blast, rendering their weapons temporarily useless.
Losing all situational awareness, she dives in among the enemy, firing pointblank, blade slashing and stabbing. As the last one falls, she stands amid the bodies, chest heaving as she gasps in air through her suit's O2 system. Despite the air recirculator's best efforts, the air is full of the smell of her own sweat as well as the alien blood she's cloaked in from head to toe.
A distant voice, male and human calls out to her. She can't hear it properly, her ears are ringing with the din of battle and the rushing roar of blood through her veins. Movement in her peripheral vision causes her to wheel around, blade up. A strong hand grabs her by the wrist, twisting the blade aside. With a grunt of effort she slams her helmeted head into the man's face but he holds on regardless. Dimly she's aware of a voice, the same one as before calling her name. Eventually she realises the voice belongs to the man she's trying to stab.
"LT? Come on, snap out of it, dammit!"
"Carver?" her voice feels wrong to her own ears.
"Yeah. They're all dead, LT. You can stand down."
She blinks repeatedly and as the red mist lifts, takes a look around herself. Bodies lie contorted all around her. "Tell me I didn't do that."
Carver shrugs. "I've seen people overtaken by bloodlust before, but damn, LT, that was some mighty fine bladework." Carver sounds impressed and his Southern twang is comforting to her ears.
A thought strikes her, "Where's the rest of the unit?"
Behind the visor, she can see the pain in Carver's eyes. "They didn't make it, Ma'am."
Wearily she slumps to the floor, shaking her head repeatedly in denial. "No...no," she mutters. She doesn't see the lone, critically wounded batarian prime and toss the grenade until it's too late.
For an instant, all is white and heat and searing pain. Then she knows nothing more.
Bit by bit, Second Lieutenant Hayley "Hailstorm" Storm swam upwards from the depths of unconsciousness. Voices, some near, some far impinged upon her awareness. The voices were human, speaking English. A wave of relief washed over her but for the moment at least, she was unable to recall why that should be important. As the young Marine officer floated in the black, she was able to make out snatches of conversations over the faint ringing in her ears.
"....injuries consistent with a fragmentation grenade. The hardsuit absorbed most of the shrapnel..."
"...sustained some minor hearing loss from the blast. Should be temporary. We'll know more after we can run some tests..."
"Dr Ross to the OR, Dr Ross to the OR, stat."
"What's her status?"
"Still unconscious, sir but showing an increase in brain activity. I think she's coming around."
"Notify me when she's able to be debriefed."
"Of course, sir."
The voices faded as she lapsed into a natural sleep. When she awoke again, she found the strength to open her eyes. A harsh white light seemed to stab at her from all directions and her lids slammed shut instinctively, pained tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. Squinting through the light, she made out a room. Walls: white. Ceiling: white. The lighting came from fluorescent strips set into the ceiling.
A scent of disinfectant registered and her nose wrinkled in response. From her right she could hear a constant bleeping sound and turned her head in that direction. Even that simple movement cost her: her vision blurred but she made out a bank of monitoring equipment to which she'd been wired. Suddenly, it all came into focus: she was in an infirmary but she couldn't remember how she'd gotten there. Head rolling back to face forward, Hayley ran an inventory. She clenched and unclenched her fists and felt a tugging in the back of her right hand. The IV line that led from the thin metal pole beside the bed, most likely. She wiggled her toes and they responded, if a little sluggishly. That was good - at least she hadn't been paralysed by...whatever it had been.
A grenade flies towards her and Carver shoves her aside.
"Carver!" she gasped and coughed. Her mouth was almost painfully dry and her voice was hoarse and barely audible. The nurse at the nurse's station just outside the door heard though and arrived on soft-soled shoes. "It's OK, now," the nurse, a tall middle aged woman who looks a bit like her mother said soothingly. Hayley thought the nurse was BSing her but lacked the energy to protest her situation.
"Where am I?" she managed to whisper.
"On the hospital ship, Lieutenant. The SSV Sydney."
Hayley nodded as the nurse walked around the foot of the bed, to check her vitals. The Sydney was part of the fleet, the Fifth sent to Torfan in retaliation for the batarian raid on Mindoir. Hayley had heard via scuttlebutt the reports that came out of Mindoir and, sanitised by all the political BS though they were, the reports made what the batarians did to the colony sound horrific. Doubtless the truth was even worse.
"I'll get the doctor, Lieutenant. Don't worry, I'll be right out there," the nurse said, pointing to the station outside.
The doctor, a man of average height and wearing a white coat over an open-throated blue shirt walked briskly into the room. By now, Hayley had come fully around and could feel the dull ache in her right side, arm and leg. She suspected that, without the painkillers they'd no doubt plied her with, she'd be in considerably more pain.
"And how are we today?" the doctor asked that time-honoured queston. From her position on the bed, Hayley could see that his ID badge identified him as Marcus Young MD. A crucifix on a gold chain glittered from the V of skin revealed by his shirt. It twitched back and forth as he moved as though the tiny Jesus there was attempting to get off the cross. For some reason, the thought of a tiny Jesus on the cross struck her as absurdly funny and her chest hitched up and down with silent laughter.
"Where's Corporal Carver?" she eventually asked, voice still hoarse. From the corner of her eye, she saw a tray with a plastic tumbler half filled with water and reached a hand for it. Her hand shook badly before the doctor picked up the tumbler and held it before her parched lips. Gratefully, she sipped some of the cool water through the bendy plastic straw. When she was done, the doctor placed the tumbler back on the tray.
"The Corporal is recovering in another ward," Young answered and Hayley's eyes closed in relief. So, her entire platoon hadn't been shot out from under her. That was sure to please Command, she thought mirthlessly.
"When can I see him?" she asked next. Her responsibility as an officer was to look out for the welfare of her personnel and she meant to do it.
"As soon as you're back to full strength," Dr Young replied smoothly. Hayley thought he might have been lying due to the way he broke eye contact as he spoke.
That was something her brother Julian used to tell her when they were kids, "When you lie to a person, look them in the eye. They think you're telling the truth." The first time she'd tried that, with her mother after accidentally breaking her favourite vase, her mother had seen through it anyway. Hayley smiled a little at the memory. Her family. They must have been freaking out by now.
Hayley inhaled deeply through her nose and asked the question she wasn't sure she wanted an answer to. "How badly am I hurt?"
Dr Young consulted a datapad that he removed from his coat pocket. A standard Aldrin Labs model, Hayley observed. "You're a lucky young woman," Young replied, giving yet another of the medical practitioner's stock answers. Hayley rolled her eyes.
Dr Young ignored this and said, "You were caught in an explosion from a standard fragmentation grenade."
An M30 her mind supplied automatically.
"It appears that Corporal Carver threw you aside, out of the worst of the blast radius and your hardsuit absorbed the worst of the damage you did sustain. However, some shrapnel did breach the suit's inner lining and embedded itself in your right arm, leg and chest."
Hayley digested this information calmly though somewhere in the back of her mind, a scared voice was yammering relentlessly.
"Was there any nerve damage?"
"No, and the prognosis is good. We expect you to make a full recovery."
"And this ringing in my ears?"
"Temporary," the doctor replied, slipping the datapad back into his pocket. "As I said, you were very lucky, Lieutenant."
"No. Lucky would be me not losing my whole unit," she said flatly.
"I'll leave you to get some rest and I'll see you on my rounds. If you require any assistance, the call button's by the bedside. The doctor paused, as though he was about to say more than left.
The newsvids, which Hayley watches from her bed call the fighting on Torfan, "A great victory for humanity against the batarians."
A great load of politically correct Alliance-approved BS, thinks Hailstorm.
The news stories all credit the great tactician Major Kyle with orchestrating the battle, anticipating the batarian moves and countering them with bravery, skill and aplomb. Not one of the newsvids mentions the losses estimated to be at seventy-five percent. Nor do they make mention of the mental instability of Major Kyle during the latter parts of the assault.
That would ruin the carefully crafted image of the unstoppable forces of humanity beamed back to Earth and the Colonies. I'm too young to be this cynical she tells herself but that doesn't change the truth of things. Kyle's being hailed as a hero and the words Star of Terra begin to be bandied around by armchair military experts and talking heads who sit around endlessly debating things.
"Makes you want to throw up, don't it?" a voice says from the entrance to her room. Hayley is the only occupant of this room though there are empty rows of beds in the ward. At first she thinks it's because she's an officer but they don't waste entire hospital wards on lowly second lieutenants. She thinks it's more likely that the few other survivors of the assault managed to come through relatively unscathed and thus don't need hospitalising. Lucky lucky me she thinks to herself.
Carver stands in the doorway, trying not to let the pain from his own injuries show in his face. His platoon leader seems oddly small and fragile lying on the hospital bed. Her skin, pale and translucent looks washed out under the lights and her straw-blonde hair lies in a ragged halo around her head on the pillow.
A feeling of happiness rises in Hayley and she turns off the vidscreen before turning to see the only other member of her platoon to survive the engagement. Corporal William "Wild Bill" Carver stands in the doorway, wearing a hospital gown, stark white against his black skin. Hayley can't seen any obvious injuries on the man though he limps a bit as he walks to her bedside, favouring his right leg. Now that he's closer, she can see the ridges of scar tissue in his calf muscle.
"How you holdin' up, Ma'am?" he says and salutes. Smiling slightly she touches two fingers to her forehead in response and he falls into parade rest.
"For Godsake, Carver, sit down. You're hurt."
"Not as bad as you. Damn it's good to see you in one piece," Carver says as he carefully lowers himself into the beige seat he's pulled from the corner of the room.
"I understand I have you thank for not dying. Thank you."
Carver shrugs and looks painfully embarrassed. She almost expects him to say, "Shucks, warn't nuthin'"
"So," the lieutenant begins then stops. Her long fingered hands play with a loose thread on the hospital sheet covering her. "Carver, I'm sorry."
"For what?" her rumbles in reply.
"I fucked up," she states flatly. "I completely lost control down there," she gestures outside, "and God only knows how many people died because I wasn't thinking clearly and issuing the correct orders."
"Ma'am, permission to speak plainly?"
Oh this'll be good. "Go ahead."
"That's crap, what you're saying. Did you lose situational awareness? Yeah but to me, that looked like the only way to get out alive - to go berserk. But I'm going to lay blame for the whole sorry mess on the heads of the brass in general and Major Kyle in particular."
Hayley smirks, "Haven't you heard? Kyle's a hero and single-handedly saved the galaxy from the evil galactic empire."
Carver chuckles, "Yeah and Santa Claus flies out of my butt every Christmas."
The two Marines laugh together until an irate nurse arrives to escort the Corporal back to his room, admonishing him not to 'wander off.'
A couple of days later, a pair of officers in dress uniform arrived to speak to Hailstorm though she didn't know either of them personally. Their uniform jackets were laden with a variety of campaign ribbons and medals. One of them held a slim case in one hand.
"Second Lieutenant Storm, I'm Colonel Riley." Now she was able to place the man. Riley was Major Kyle's immediate superior and the officer in command of one of the units on Torfan, the 99th Skulls. "This is my aide, Staff Commander Jensen," Riley nodded to the other man. Tall, sandy-haired and youthful looking. He was the one holding the case.
Unable to stand at attention, Hayley struggled into a sitting position, feeling the plasmid stitches in her side and arm throb and saluted them.
"At ease," Riley ordered and she lay back again.
"Sirs," she replied.
"We understand your recovery is coming along nicely," Riley spoke. Jensen still hadn't said anything.
"Yes sir," Storm replied. If by nicely they meant no more blood in her urine.
"I'll be straight with you, Lieutenant," the Colonel went on, voice firm. "Torfan was a clusterfuck of epic proportions, pardon my language. You know it and I know it. Whatever spin the Alliance and politicians decide to put on doesn't change what happened down there. Losses were heavy and the decision has been made to deactivate the 99th at least until we can train more Marines to replenish our units. The Major has been stood down and is undergoing a full psychological assessment."
"Sir, with respect," Storm broke in, unable to remain silent, "If somebody had ordered Kyle to undergo a full psych assessment, none of us would be here now!"
"That's enough, Lieutenant," Jensen finally spoke. Screw you she mentally shot at him.
"No, she has a point. Either way your unit no longer exists. You'll be reassigned pending your full recovery and a psychological evaluation."
Hayley sat half upright in her bed. "You want to psych-eval me?"
"Where we're sending you, there's no room for emotional fruitcakes," Jensen put in.
"Given your exemplary service record to date, we're promoting you, effective immediately to First Lieutenant. Congratulations."
Hayley blinked several times in surprise. What kind of screwed up place is this that I can go off the deep end and come out smelling like roses?
"Thank you, sir," was all she said. Jensen took a step forward and opened the case. Inside were a set of lieutenant's insignia.
"As for you new assignment, it's a staff position on Arcturus Station. You'll be serving as Admiral Hackett's personal aide," the colonel informed her.
"Not a field assignment, sir?" she protested. "Sir, I feel my combat skills merit more than a desk job-"
"That will be all, Lieutenant," Commander Jensen said smoothly. Hayley's lips compressed into a thin line and she wished she could wipe the look off the man's face.
Colonel Riley inclined his greying head towards her and said, "Good day, First Lieutenant and I wish you a speedy recovery."
Then the officers turned and left.
A few hours later, having escaped the confines of his ward, Corporal Carver, now wearing an Alliance issue T-shirt and pants hobbled back in. A large case was held in his hands. "I heard the latest scuttlebutt," he said after he saluted.
"Good news travels fast," Storm answered dryly, picking at the bread roll that was part of her lunch.
"You mind if I have the jelly cup?" Carver asked. She cocked an eyebrow at him. "I love that stuff," he confessed. She shrugged and his big hand made the dessert disappear.
"So, they're sending you to Arcturus, huh?" Carver asked between spoonfuls of jelly. The small plastic spoon looked absurdly tiny in the huge Marine's hands. Standing at just over six-four and weighing close to a hundred kilos, all of it muscle, Corporal Carver was still capable of moving with great speed and grace when required.
"Yeah, a desk job babysitting Admiral Hackett. Mister Fifth Fleet himself. God..." she trailed off.
"You think they're punishing you for you performance down there," Carver said and it wasn't a question.
"Part of me thinks I have it coming," she confessed. "Another part of me is pissed off and ready for round two against those four-eyed freaks."
"If it's any consolation, they're sending me to Luna. I get to whip civilians into fighting men and women."
"Lucky you. And no promotion either? You really got the short straw," Storm smiled.
"I've been practicing my drill instructor voice. You want to hear it?"
At her nod of encouragement, he Corporal stood up straight and with chest out and shoulders squared bellowed, "What is your major malfunction, maggot?"
Hayley laughed until her side ached. The nurse at the station, a pretty Asian woman stuck her head in the door and hissed at the Corporal to lower his voice.
"Sorry, Ma'am," Carver said as he sat back down.
"Don't be. I needed the laugh and the vidscreen here seems permanently tuned to pro-Alliance propaganda channels. I miss my omni-tool. I could over-ride whatever lockout they put on it and find something decent to watch."
"Speaking of," Carver said and reached down to pick up the case he'd arrived with. After shutting the door to the ward to ensure their privacy he presented the case to his officer as though it were a religious relic. Opening it he said, "The teams that went in after the fighting to retrieve our boys and girls came back with these. I called in some old gambling debts and got 'em back for you."
Nestled inside the foam cutouts of the case was a standard issue Hahn-Kedar Kessler sidearm and her combat talon. The edge of the blade gleamed under the striplights.
"Great," she replied, taking the box and slipping it under the sheet where it bulged conspicuously, "Now I can shoot myself in the head if I get bored with playing secretary."
"We couldn't get the omni-tool back," Carver said, "And, from what I've heard, your hardsuit was messed up eight ways from Sunday."
Hayley shrugged. "I won't be needing a hardsuit on Arcturus anyway but thanks. You took a risk getting these back for me. I appreciate it."
The aw shucks look appeared Carver's face again.