Chapter Twelve: Dynamic Entry

Raw data, unfiltered and chaotic, poured across the extranet.

They tracked it, starting as disparate inputs lacking context. Input was captured, assembled, and transferred down optical pathways and mass-free corridors, transitioning at faster-than-light speeds, filtered and studied and collated at a million other nodes, before being transferred to a single point. Analysis provided definition, comparison provided context.

A human mind provided meaning.

Sources were disparate. Some were public, providing general and periodically viable snippets of input that only became useful once collated. Some were through direct observation, either active or passive, providing a variety of data with a variety of value. Some were more specific: taps on data feeds, hidden surveillance devices, camera feeds from agents in the field, and more esoteric detection mechanisms like bio-samplers, element zero detectors, and phase-shift pulse scanners.

They painted a tremendous, hideous picture of the chaos in Zakera Ward, an event that drew all of their attention at the moment. As the data poured in and they struggled to understand it, they watched closer. Smoke drifted in front of eyes that were no longer entirely human, but they only registered it in passing. They instead focused on the individuals: a Zone Trooper who was being bisected by a Scrin warrior. A C-Sec aircar, deftly evading Scrin fire while shooting down at the aliens. Civilians pounding on sealed doors. A GDI Commando pinned to a wall by a tiberium spike. A turian Spectre blasting a Scrin Intruder at point-blank with a sniper rifle. Nod soldiers, scattered and mangled on a rooftop.

Two quarians, around which all this lunacy was revolving.

They lifted a cigar to their lips, watching the insanity perpetuate itself, and formulated scenarios to find a way to bring it all back under their control. The control that was an illusion. No. No it wasn't. They were in control.

Their eyebrow twitched as they forced a reharmonization. Sometimes . . . Sometimes they disagreed. Philosophy, fortunately, was their most common point of contention. They agreed on operational issues almost universally, and what they didn't agree on they could reach a consensus and compromise within a few seconds.

Focus. Focus on the individual. On the larger scale, and how they interweave. But which should be focused on more? Neither, both are equally important. Acceptable, but inefficient. Inefficiency was the purview of organic life: requiring equal amounts of self-organization and perpetuation but coupled with other biological impulses, they could not task all resources to optimization. But there was nothing wrong with that, was there?

Focus. Reharmonization. Getting distracted. The other great failing of the organic machine, but somehow exacerbated. Integration had . . . unexpected side effects.

The direct line chirped, interrupting the internal argument. A twitch showed identity, and they both focused on the commlink. Two disagreements became one consensus.

"Locke," reported a voice. Distantly familiar, despite close degrees of association. The incongruity was disconcerting. "We have one secured. Creature is injured."

"Begin analysis," they ordered, shifting all resources to the task. "Upload immediately."

"Scanning now," replied the commando.

Data burst into their consciousness, and they began to observe, study, collate, and theorize, while biological components moved to pour another glass of brandy.

The stairwell was drenched in glassy alien blood-analogue. There weren't a lot of dead aliens - most of them were in cover on the level above - but the Scrin that Corporal Gillian Nolan's Zone Trooper squad had killed died messily. The hulking GDI troops of Bravo Squad, Fourth Platoon, Delta Company, charged up the stairwell, alien guts and silver blood splashing on their heavy boots, and hallway barriers folded and attached to their left arms. Most GDI fireteams had been routed and fallen back, but Nolan's team, accompanied by Gamma, a Marine rifle squad from Second Platoon, had counterattacked and gunned down a group of the Scrin warriors, retaking this stairwell.

Now they rushed up into the hallway outside, Nolan holding his Werewolf one-handed while hefting the folded ceramic plates of the hallway barrier in his left arm like a medieval shield. Plasma from an Intruder's arm gun seared along the thick, rectangular barrier, and his onboard targeting computer fed the Zone Trooper a firing angle from his Werewolf's sensors. He sighted the Scrin and fired a single railgun blast, the round shearing off the Intruder's arm in a spray of glassy gore. More gunfire ripped past him and tore into the humanoid Scrin's torso, sending it stumbling backward, and Nolan took the opportunity to drop to a knee and slam the hallway barrier down with a crack of metal on ceramic.

He crouched behind the barrier, which rose to waist height when collapsed, and sent an activation signal. Nolan sighted the stumbling Intruder and fired again, the railgun bisecting the injured alien at the waist. The barrier clicked and began deploying as the alien flew apart, plates expanding up and out to fill the width of the hallway. Kinetic barriers began activating automatically, useless as they were against Scrin, and the barricade rose to the hallway's ceiling.

Within a couple of seconds Nolan had sealed off his end of the hallway, leaving only a few of small firing ports for his weapon and the Marines beside him.

"Left side sealed!" Nolan reported, pointing his weapon through the armored barrier and sighting a pair of Disintegrators as they rounded a corner. He sighted, corrected his aim with his suit's computers, and blew one in half.

"Center, sealed!" shouted a Marine.

"Right side, sealed!" shouted Sergeant Ibella. "This is Bravo Actual, we have the secondary stairwell secured!"

The Scrin reacted within seconds. The GDI force barely had enough time to take positions at the barriers' firing ports before more Disintegrators, chased by Intruders, began to bound around the corners, firing searing beams at the defenders. Sparks and molten armor erupted from the barriers, but they held, and the return fire from the GDI soldiers was withering.

"Troopers, focus on the big bastards!" shouted Ibella. "Marines, take out the little ones! Buy the evac some time!"

Report- query?

Hostile - identification - verified? Identification - verification: HostileHF1 - specified designation: Shepard.

Identification archived - priority - moderate

Advisory: HostileHF1 experiencedtacticalcombat: reprioritize?


Hostiles - identification - verification: HostileQF1 - archived designation: Tali'Zorah vas Neema - verification: HostileQM1 - archived designation: Kal'Reegar

Priority - extreme

Query: Survival?

Response: Irrelevant - prioritize HostileQF1 and HostileQM1

Captain Ivan Dolvich had many problems. Being the GDI officer commanding the GDS Kursk, personal ship of Rear Admiral "Havoc" Parker, brought countless problems to begin with, many involving the words "strategic" and "collateral". Being captain of the Kursk in Citadel space meant those problems were compounded, even on days when two old enemies were not rearing their heads at the same time, one to attack GDI confidence, and the other to attack the GDI Embassy.

"Captain!" the comms officer called over the chaos in the bridge. "C-Sec is still refusing our requests launch!"

"Of course!" the stocky captain replied, his thick-accented tone dry and caustic. He strode across the bridge, the blue-white light glaring against his stark gray-white naval uniform. "It is not like we are fighting a mutual enemy! It would make sense to allow us to concentrate forces against mutual threats, and therefore we all must do the exact opposite."

The comms officer did not reply, instead speaking into his headset, apparently trying to convince the C-Sec officer on the other end to release them to engage the enemy. His console flashed as another message came in.

"Captain, Admiral Havoc," the comms officer called, and Dolvich nodded. He activated his omnitool, directing the line to his own personal communications system.

"Captain Dolvich, sir," he said.

"Captain, where the hell is my air support?" Parker called. He could hear explosions in the distance.

"You will have to ask Citadel Security for that, sir," he replied. "I have explicit orders from C-Sec to hold position and not attempt to leave my berth."

"I wasn't aware GDI ships followed Citadel orders, Captain," Parker replied quickly.

"The three anti-ship guns pointed at my bow when I said the same thing were quite convincing," Dolvich said, his words dry. "I am trying to persuade them to see reason, but I think they're still trying to figure out what is going on."

There was a pause.

"Captain, upload the spoofers into your Orcas' IFFs," Parker ordered. Dolvich frowned, then nodded.

"I do not think the Citadel would appreciate that," he said. "But I shall do so. We'll get air support headed your way, even if I cannot launch the ship."

Dolvich closed the channel and barked orders to his flight commander to begin loading the IFF protocols they'd stolen from C-Sec into the Orcas in the Kursk's launch bay. InOps would be pissed that they would play that intelligence coup so quickly, but orders were orders, and he wondered what the salarians would think when they realized the "amateur" humans had managed to break their security systems and acquire something so potentially dangerous.

He shook his head. They would deal with that later. For now, he needed to get the four Orca strike craft in his launch bay out and into the fray. He could only hope that Lieutenant Telfair's squad could make a difference.

Shepard anticipated the recoil of firing the grenade module. She didn't anticipate the pain. The tremor from the module rolled through her body, and that was enough to send a cascade of white-hot agony up her impaled arm, even through the painkilling medigel the suit pumped into her wound.

She tried to ignore it. Commandos learned to ignore it, both in training and raw experience. Jaw clenched so hard it hurt, she kept the grenade launcher raised, stock pressed to her shoulder, and fired another shot into the Ravager as it recovered from the last detonation. The first couple of grenades had barely made it flinch, but her constant, steady barrage, one every couple of seconds, at least seemed to be pushing the Scrin beast back with repeated hits.

Michel was next to her, right out in the open with that classic not-giving-a-fuck attitude of combat medics. Her omnitool glowed, lighting her up even more as a target, but Shepard said nothing about the doctor's near-suicidal bravery.

"We have to cut her loose!" she shouted, opening her medical kit. Kal'Reegar slid in between the doctor and the Scrin, pistol barking, while Tali crouched beside her, her own omnitool lit up.

"Get to cover!" Shepard ordered, firing another shot. "I need-"

"We need to cut you down, ma'am," Kal'Reegar replied, still firing. His voice was as cold as liquid nitrogen. "Not leaving you behind."

"That pistol is useless against something this big!" she shouted, firing another shot for emphasis. Her mind worked furiously as she counted the number of grenades left in the magazine. She could hear the whine of a laser scalpel starting up. Tali was holding the device, while Michel's hands deftly moved through the medical kit. "Reegar, get to the armory station! Heavy weapons! Down the hall!"

The laser scalpel whined, and Reegar paused for less than a heartbeat before spinning and charging down the corridor. Shepard fired another shot, hitting the Ravager in the thing's glowing face. Heat washed over her as Tali started cutting in the space between the wall and Shepard's arm.

"No effect!" she reported after a moment. "This laser doesn't have enough power!"

Or at least, not enough power to cut through the spike before Shepard ran out of ammo.

"It's all I've got!" Michel said. "I'm not equipped with hull-cutting tools!"

"Down to half!" Shepard shouted as she fired another shot. This grenade hit the Ravager's leg, and it stumbled sideways. Dribbles of that silver goo-blood were running down small cracks in the monster's armor, but she wasn't hurting it fast enough. This Ravager wasn't like the ones on Akuze; here, the grenades were doing little more than knocking the metaphorical breath out of it. Had they been adapting to GDI weaponry?

"When I run out, get clear!" Shepard ordered. She grit her teeth as she spoke, remembering the screams. Maybe this time . . . .

"But-" Tali began, standing.

"You're more valuable!" Shepard snapped, and fired again. "I'll hold it off until-"

There was a sudden flash of light and heat, cutting her off, and more agony screamed through her.

The Scrin were pushing deeper into the Embassy. The EVAs were feeding Garrus information on where the aliens were breaching the building, with groups entering the second floor. Isolated pockets of human resistance still held the main accessways to the second level, but the aliens were simply blasting holes in the top floor and descending.

And, in spite of the Citadel's prohibitions against AI, even the shackled, emotionless EVAs, Garrus appreciated their input, reaction time, and warnings when two of the humanoid "Intruders" came bursting around the corner and directly into his line of fire outside the armor station.

He hadn't had time to study the Akuze data in detail, but he knew enough to understand that Scrin xenobiology afforded them different structures than humanoid organic life. Headshots disoriented but did not kill them.

When the Intruders came around the corner, the first one to leap into view took a high explosive round from Garrus' marksman carbine dead center in the chest.

The creature was larger than a human or a turian, more akin to a krogan in mass, but that mattered little. The high-explosive rounds were designed to knock over enormous wildlife like alpha varrens. The detonation blew apart Scrin armor and flung the Intruder into the wall.

Garrus dropped the carbine, overheating from the mass and power of the explosive round, and snapped up his assault rifle as the second Intruder rounded the corner, arms rising and plasma cannons glowing. He poured bullets into the creature's head and torso as it oriented toward him, and the armor-piercing rounds blew chunks of plating and silver blood out the back of its head. The Intruder jerked back, a strange resonating warble erupting from it, and Garrus pressed the attack. He fired single shots or two-to-three round bursts, aiming for the sapphire eyes in the thing's mangled head. He saw one explode from a direct hit, but couldn't pick out the other in the jerking alien's slurry-covered face.

Instead, he switched to concussive fire mode. The second barrel beneath the main one of his rifle pumped, launching a tiny rocket-propelled fin-stabilized round into the Intruder, which then exploded with tremendous concussive force. The cracking detonation launched the disoriented Scrin off its feet and into its companion. The first wounded Scrin was nearly on its feet when its companion slammed into it and knocked them both prone.

Garrus tossed a couple of incendiary grenades at the pile of crystalline aliens.

Part of him felt an urge to turn around and walk away without looking at the aliens when the grenades detonated, but that would be unprofessional. Instead he watched them as the plasma charges exploded and consumed the aliens where they lay. Once he was sure they were dead, he turned and entered the armory station.

The GDI private manning the station nearly shot Garrus as he strode into the room. The young, nervous human was only halfway into his armor, pointing a pistol at the turian. Naked fear was apparent on his fleshy, soft-skinned face, and the short, shaved fur on the top of his head was plastered flat with nervous sweat.

"Put that thing away," he ordered, and brought up IFF on his visor as he crossed the room. "Private Wallcroft, Spectre Vakarian," he continued, and gestured at the long, narrow room. Line after line of sealed weapons lockers covered each wall, behind the locked access door.

"I need weapons," Garrus said. "Get me inside. We have Scrin to kill."

Locke finished his report, right as a laser beam sliced along his torso plating. He whipped around, raising the grenade launcher, smart-sight hunting through the obscuring smoke and thermal waves rising from the ventilation units. The woman leading the loyalist Nod force was fast. Faster than an ordinary human should be, not to mention a biotic; it was the only thing that kept her alive when he'd sprayed her with micro-grenades while landing.

The rest of the team was surrounding the body of the prone Scrin, forming a perimeter while the scanners went to work. Everyone had their eyes on everyone else, and their orders were clear in case one of them began acting strange: Shoot first.

Locke had a more pressing concern, for the woman was moving out there. He could pick out her footsteps over the din of the battle between the loyalist unit on the other side of the roof and the remaining Scrin units. The faint whisper of stealth-poly boots on ceramic rooftop was hard to pin down, even with his suit's audio trackers. The sensor suite was unclear as to where she was hiding; the vents were obscuring thermals, and he was having a hard time picking out element zero masses due to what looked like one hell of an ECM system.

He turned slowly, eyes hunting as he slipped around the perimeter. His suit was reporting minor damage from the glancing hit from the laser beam, with no loss of functionality. The nano-autorepair system hadn't even activated to fix internal damage.

Fascinating technology. Amazing that the batarians of all people managed to develop it . . . .

He thought he saw movement, a flicker on the scanner, and strode forward, launcher raised. The contact appeared and disappeared, moving from multiple points. Definitely ECM.

"Detaching from perimeter," he warned the team. "Maintain watch in case she doubles back."

The fireteam acknowledged, and he slid forward, a silent quarter-ton of coiled destruction, and pursued the flickering contact. If she was careless, he'd run her down and finish the job, either with railgun or grenade.

But if she was deliberately trying to draw him out, she wouldn't regret that mistake for long.

Miranda paused behind one of the thermal vents, her breath steady. Some Nod soldiers had superconducting neural wiring to reroute their fear of death, but she had nerves of steel. There was fear, an awareness of just how bad things had swiftly gone, and how alone she was, despite the Brotherhood chatter on the commlink. But that fear kept her sharp, instead of overwhelming her.

She didn't know whether her nerves were a skill she'd earned or if they were just part of the package.

Miranda checked her visor. The Phoenix squad had thrown down the standard battlefield ECM, and her sensors were struggling to sort it out, but she could make out the enormous trooper with the heavy Werewolf as he prowled among the vents after her. The rest, as far as she could tell, were clustered around the Mastermind.

She could bypass the big guy and hit the Mastermind now. Conventional logic would have her take advantage of her maneuverability to reengage the primary target at her discretion. But she saw how he moved, and instinct - and a bit of paranoia - warned her that the enormous soldier hunting for her was too wary to be easily evaded. She'd have to deal with him first, either evading or neutralizing him, before eliminating the Mastermind.

Time was terribly short. The next wave of Scrin could arrive at any moment. The Mastermind was down but not out, and if there was a Corrupter among the mix, the Scrin command unit would be on its feet in seconds.

Miranda slid out from cover, darting between ventilation units, and spotted the massive soldier less than twenty meters away. He pivoted toward her with speed that was definitely not natural, massive cannon pointed her way.

She fired two laser blasts; one beam cut through the rooftop a couple meters behind the man, and the second hit him in the chest, scoring a deep black furrow. She kept moving, cloaked in mid-step, and then changed direction right as he fired. Microgrenades exploded where she'd stood a moment ago before reversing direction, shrapnel skipping off her shields. She dove back behind the first unit, and slipped around the side under the cover of the detonations.

The optical-thermal camouflage she carried in the armor was useless against the Scrin, but still effective against most standard and military-grade scanners. She doubted it would defeat his sensor suite for more than a few moments, as Phoenix never gave people like this anything less than the cutting edge. It was an unfortunate reality of tech vs. tech warfare that the exploits and vulnerabilities of previous-generation equipment were ironed out with subsequent generations. Phoenix was constantly upgrading their tech with their own software and hardware; the omnitool weaponry that would have worked against current-gen Citadel, GDI, or Nod technology as recent as a month ago would barely affect Phoenix's, if it worked at all.

Fortunately, Miranda Lawson had more in her blood and flesh than just enhanced genetics.

She thought, and the superconducting weave threaded through her body's nervous system triggered complete sensor transparency.

The activation didn't appear on her visor's HUD, instead showing up inside her own retina. The suit was linked to her internal subsystems, however, and fed power from the suit core to them. Kane had not given her the technology that had assembled itself inside her body during her lifetime, but he did supply the gear that helped her take advantage of what she had.

Gliding around the corner, Miranda raised her Werewolf to her shoulder and targeted the Phoenix agent's head. He was still firing his weapon at where she had been standing a heartbeat ago, oblivious to the invisible, sensor-transparent woman, and she pulled the trigger.

The launch bay for the GDS Kursk was in the same state of hurried chaos as the rest of the ship. Munitions and flight crews were going over the last emergency alert checks while EVA units reported the status on the Orcas' onboard systems to the engineers and techs. It was a riot of noise: shouts and mutters, moving munitions carts, and emergency klaxons, and the only thing that she could think of as she ran through the mess, sealing her helmet, was that she'd left her service pistol in the armory's Grindstone device for software updates.

For Lieutenant Anastasia Telfair, flight commander for the Kursk's Orca strike craft compliment, the lack the reassuring weight and the equal lack of time to recover the weapon were painfully distracting, but she tried to shut it out as she ran pre-flight emergency checks from inside her helmet. Some strands of her black, blonde-streaked hair flew past her eyes, but she didn't have time to take the helmet off and tie her hair back down from the rough braid she'd pulled it into. There was no gravity in the launch bay; everyone was moving around with automated mag-boots, the gravity fields shut off the moment the alert came down.

She rounded another Orca, and spotted her craft, sitting in its launch cradle. The four Orcas were smaller than atmosphere craft, designed for escort and intercept work in vacuum, and they took up most of the space in the Kursk's lowest deck. Instead of the old turbofans and long tails, they had wide, bulbous thrusters flanking the tapering fuselage, with missile pods mounted below the cockpit and two deceptively short-barreled mass accelerators in a dome gunmount on the nose. She disengaged her own mag-boots and leapt through the air toward her Orca's waiting cockpit, a flight crewman standing beside the open canopy. He caught her arm as she reached the craft, and she rotated her body, plating her boots on the side of the craft. She clambered down into the cockpit, the canopy closing down around her.

Her HUD finished syncing with the Orca's, and streams of data began to fill her helmet display. Her eyes flicked about, moving independently to go through the final flight checks. Human brains and eyes weren't wired for independent movement, but the sheer volume of data an Orca pilot took in demanded one overcome that. Anastasia had gone through months of mental conditioning and plenty of migraines while training herself to handle it, but it had been worth it to fly the strike craft.

"Artemis Lead, all systems check," she called. A trio of portraits appeared in the upper left corner of her HUD from the other pilots in the flight as they checked in. She could see her own portrait in the lower right corner, slightly larger. Like most humans, she was a mixture of many ethnic bloodlines, though she favored her Korean side more strongly, save for pale blue eyes and the blonde bits in her hair. She was tall and slender, both from her heritage and as a symptom of spending the majority of her life in space; her family had served the Initiative military since the First Tiberium War, so space service was in their blood by now.

"Artemis Two, check."

"Artemis Three, check."

"Artemis Four, got a red on the mass accelerators, give me two."

Anastasia nodded, bringing up her comms and checking incoming sensor feeds from the Embassy. As she did so, she double-checked the Orca's IFF codes.

"Artemis Flight, run a final check on your IFFs, match them against the Kursk's," she ordered, and then switched comms as she spotted the only other GDI contact in the area. She accessed the Kursk's laser transceiver and sent a burst. "GDS Normandy, this is Artemis Flight, transmitting identification. Be advised, will be flying with C-Sec IFF if Traffic Control does not authorize us for launch."

"Normandy acknowledges," came the reply. There was a pause, and she frowned. That voice sounded familiar. "Hey, Annie, is that you?"

"Oh, hell," she muttered. It was him. "Not a good time, Jeff."

"I know, I know," Joker called back. "Just . . . I didn't expect you on the Kursk. I thought you were more sane than to fly on a ship with Admiral Havoc."

"Joker, not now."

"Understood," he replied, sliding back into business. "ID confirmed. Were are still not able to launch due to C-Sec's standard issue stick-in-ass."

"Copy that," she replied, and switched her frequency over to C-Sec. She queried the control tower. She seriously doubted she would be able to launch, but she might end up with an officer who didn't have his, her, or its head up someone's sphincter.

"Artemis Flight to Citadel Traffic Control, requesting permission to launch."

It took several seconds for a response to come in.

"Artemis Flight, your tags read you as GDI," came the response. Short, quick, high-pitched. Salarian. "What are you carrying?"

"Four Orca ASP-30s with ground-strike packages," she replied, wincing. "Guided and dumbfire. Requesting flight vector to support GDI and C-Sec assets at GDI Embassy in Zakera Ward."

"Denied, Artemis Flight," the salarian immediately replied.

"Citadel Traffic, request you reconsider," she said, scowling. "Both our people and yours are dying down there."

"Your request is denied," the salarian replied. "Do not attempt to launch. Anything flying over the Ward without authorization will be treated as hostile."

"Dammit, Citadel Traffic, we're on the same side here!" she hissed.

"I am only relaying orders, Artemis Flight," the salarian replied, and she thought she heard annoyance in his tone. Whether it was at her or his orders was unclear. "Request for launch has been forwarded to Citadel Security Command. Standby for update."

"The time it takes you to get authorization from your superiors, hundreds of people could die!" Anastasia snapped, frustration building up. She was notorious for her temper, and it was showing now. She didn't want to go out there with C-Sec IFFs, because the moment someone realized what was happening, it would cause even more chaos. But the troops at the embassy would need their fire support.

"We need to get out-" she continued.

"Citadel Traffic, standby," came another voice over the line, and she stopped. It was short, clipped, controlled, but had the flanging, metallic edge of a turian. "Uploading authorization codes."

"Uh, yes. Codes received." A half-second pause. "Spectre? I see. Authorization accepted. Artemis Flight, we are transmitting temporary IFF codes and synchronization protocols. Please acknowledge."

She glanced at her HUD, and found the relevant display. A progress bar filled within a couple of seconds, and the Kursk's EVA sent an acknowledgement.

"Codes received," she reported, and switched frequencies. "Artemis Flight, check IFF codes again. Purge previous codes." Positive acknowledgements came back. "Artemis Flight to Citadel Traffic, we are launching. Requesting vector to the Embassy."

"Sending now," came the salarian's reply. He sounded a lot more chipper with the bureaucracy broken in the wake of the Spectre.

She pulled up the frequency of the turian who'd sent the authorization as the Orca began to descend into the launch cradle. The dim lights of the flight bay were cut off as the cradle sealed, and her engines powered up, sending a thrumming pulse through her seat.

"Whoever you are, I owe you," she called, and a snort sounded over the other end.

"Nihlus," the turian replied. "You can pay me back by killing our mutual enemy, Lieutenant."

Anastasia Telfair grinned as the cradle opened up into vacuum and the dazzling lights of the Citadel. Flight paths appeared on her HUD, guiding her toward Zakaera Ward and the distant chaos around the Embassy.

"We can handle that, Spectre," she replied. "Artemis Flight, on me. Let's paste some Scrin."

Kaidan yanked the Intruder off its feet and pinned it against the ceiling. Jacob's shotgun module thundered three times, blowing apart the center-mass of the Scrin creature, and he fired a grenade into the gaping, silvery wound. The detonation blew the alien in half. Kaidan stepped forward into the rain slurry, Werewolf shouldered and firing at the group of Disintegrators down the passage at an intersection. His rounds tore into one, throwing more reflective sludge through the air and sending it tumbling backward, and he sidestepped into an open doorway as they returned fire.

Beams scythed down the corridor as the two humans weaved back and forth, slicing lines in the walls and floors. Jacob stepped out just enough to pump a hand at another quadruped, and yanked it toward them. Kaidan perforated it with two quick bursts. Another shot from Jacob dropped another Scrin weapon-beast in a tightly-grouped burst of tungsten flechettes. Two more bursts of gunfire from Kaidan dropped the last creature.

"Move up," Jacob called from ahead, and Kaidan bounded up the hallway past him. He spotted movement on his suit's sensors down the hall, motion and thermal contacts, and ducked into another doorway close to the intersection as another Intruder leapt around the corner, plasma erupting from its arm cannon. There was a pulse of biotic power from Jacob into the middle of the plasma stream, a pull that dragged the fire away from Kaidan and toward him, and the Zone Trooper ducked back into cover. Plasma splashed over the doorframe down the hall while Kaidan emerged and slammed his Werewolf into the Intruder's head hard enough to rock it backward a couple of steps. The mutant pulled the trigger, pouring rounds into its head and neck at point-blank range, and chunks of armor and reflective slurry erupted into the hallway behind it.

Jacob rushed up beside him, shotgun module booming, and tore apart one of the Scrin warrior's arms. They kept shooting, weapons blazing and the alien flying apart under their fire, until it toppled backward to the floor, nearly a third of its mass blasted to tatters.

"How far to the intrusion point?" Jacob asked as they moved to the intersection, checking the corners.

"Fifteen meters," Kaidan answered, glancing at his HUD. "We'll have to go through the floor."

"One more hole in this place isn't going to be a problem," Jacob grunted, and they began moving down the passage to the marker the Admiral had given them. "I don't have demo charges. We'll have to warp the floor plates."

"EVA says more Scrin are closing in," Kaidan said as they advanced.

"Roger that," Jacob said, unperturbed. He checked his EVA data feed, and scowled. Scrin contacts on the upper floor were moving in around the points marked as enemy cyber-intrusion nodes. "How long do-"

He spotted the contacts a heartbeat before they attacked. Jacob shouted a warning, then spun and snapped up his Werewolf as the ceiling behind them blew in in a torrent of white-hot fire. A swarm of Buzzers and several Disintegrators dropped through the hole, the latter firing as they hit the floor.

Corporal Nolan's railgun module howled at him as it overheated, and he vented the heat sink while switching to machinegun mode. He snarled a curse, shifting targets, and began pouring fire into the Intruder he'd just wounded with a dead-center hit from the overheating weapon. The rapid-fire module began heating up faster than normal as vented waste heat from the railgun washed over it.

The Intruder shuddered and stumbled backward as two dozen hypervelocity rounds tore into it. It fell to its knees, and he walked bursts over its neck and head, eventually decapitating the alien, but it pushed up to it feet and leapt backward through a door, trailing a river of reflective blood. Other Scrin filled the hallway: a trio of Disintegrators, another unwounded Intruder, and several clouds of Buzzers. The latter were reeling, unable to advance into the wall of fire Nolan and the two Marines with him were pouring down the hallway. The former, however, kept advancing down the hallway with intelligent but relentless determination, bounding from door to door and cover to cover, but heedless of their losses.

"The hell are these things made of?" shouted the Marine beside Nolan. A heartbeat later, a looming shape leapt around the corner down the passage, green crystals shimmering on its back in the strobing illumination of tracer fire.

"Ravager!" Nolan shouted, switching to his ion cannon attachment. The Scrin fired before the second syllable escaped his lips, and the crystal spike slammed through the barrier centimeters over Nolan's right shoulder. The ion cannon unfolded as a second spike smashed all the way through the barrier directly overhead.

The third hit one of the Marines in the chest, partially punching through the wall and burying into the man's heart. He jerked once in shock and slumped, killed near-instantly.

Nolan grit his teeth as the ion module fully charged, and he targeted the Ravager. He blocked out the other Marine's call for a medic, and squeezed the trigger. The blue beam erupted and sliced through the Ravager's torso, sending white-hot shards of crystal-chitin plating flying. The alien toppled backward, smoke rising from its body, and it struggled to its feet.

He swallowed, switching back to his railgun, and desperately sighted the impossibly tough alien as it struggled back around, preparing to fire again. He put another railgun round down the hallway, directly into the massive, smoking wound in its torso, and the Ravager toppled backward again. It started to rise anew.

There was no way they could hold this position. Not against something this powerful, which could just eat ion cannon beams without going all the way down.

But they had to try.

Report: Embassy - Grid - 1 - 45 - 41

Resistance: strong - query: reinforcement?

Acknowledged - reinforcement - Subunit 22 - Subunit 71 - Primeunit 4

Advisory: probablespecialistGDIsubunit s - targetedeleiminationassimila tors - query: prioritizedefense?


Advisory: Grid - 1 - 45 -41 - reinforcementinadequate - unabletoaccesslowerlevels

Advisory: Primeunit 9: confirmed presence of Hostile HF1 - HostileQF1 - Hostile QM1. Primeingressthrough Grid - 1 - 45 - 41 blocked.


Commandunit 1 prioritized: Grid - 1 - 45 - 41

The beam hit Locke's helmet dead on.

The helmet's armor plating was made up of a dozen composite layers, and at the yield of the laser the woman was firing at him, the beam took approximately half a second to cut through all of them to reach the vulnerable flesh underneath.

About halfway through that process, Locke had yanked his head out of the path of the beam, sidestepped with speed that left him as little more than a blur, and began returning fire. Smoke wafted from the vaporized armor layers, and burning heat seared the side of his face, but he blocked out that agony and targeted the Nod agent, his grenade launcher pounding out high explosive rounds at the fuzzy shape on his HUD.

She ducked back behind the thermal vent before the first grenade exploded - unsurprising. She was as fast as Locke, but the woman was far lighter. Less issue with momentum and inertia. She burst around the other side of the vent, and he caught a flare of dark blue wreathing her arm. He shifted aim, not bothering to evade the biotic pulse, and returned fire. She ducked back behind cover, and the twisting morass of dark blue crashed into his shields. The kinetic barriers reacted, shunting and disrupting the mass effect field with one of its own, and nullified the biotic attack at the expense of some of the barrier's charge.

He grinned beneath his helmet. Older shields couldn't do that, but those clever salarians had developed shields that could counteract biotics. In a year everyone would have them and the biotics of the galaxy would be looking for ways around them, but for now he had a nasty surprise on hand.

Locke capitalized on the surprise, and bolted forward, switching from sensors to visual scanning. He vaulted over the top of the thermal vent with a single bounding leap. He caught sight of her below - hard to see but moving fast, under an optical cloak. He raised his launcher while descending.

His suit's scanners picked up faint pulses from the far side of the vent as he landed. Infrared, from small discs.

Mines. Likely flash-fabricated by her omnitool.

Clever bi-

The concussive wave from the mines bowled him over. Smaller, lighter individuals would have been launched a few meters, but Locke was too massive, and just fell to his knees. He jumped back up in a heartbeat, ignoring the nausea from the blast, and brought his weapon up. He caught the faintest flicker as the Nod woman moved at the edge of his vision.

He whipped toward her right as an EW mine exploded, sending a tide of junk data over his HUD. Static blinded him, and every alert in his suit - power, heat, medigel, nanorepair, sensors, shields - sent him fake warnings.

Instinct took over, and his rifle rose. He could see or hear her, but he'd spotted the flicker, and he guessed.

He pulled the trigger twice, and bolted after her as his suit began auto-purging the junk data.

Two micro-grenades hit Miranda dead in the back.

Her shields absorbed the first one. Her armor blunted the majority of the second, but pain stabbed through her back as some of the kinetic force bled through. She stumbled and dove sideways, more grenades flying past, and got the air conditioning unit between herself and the massive Phoenix agent.

Miranda exhaled, shaking off her surprise at how fast he was. Fast and accurate, and armed with a shield that could disrupt biotics. The Brotherhood had acquired a copy of it, but she hadn't expected a phoenix agent to be carrying one as well.

And going by her sensors, that impossibly fast and accurate Phoenix agent was charging after her. She narrowed her eyes, relaxed, and clenched her fists as he rounded the corner, massive assault gun raised.

With a desperate burst of biotic power, she broke physics, pulling the man into a field of negative gravity, and he was yanked off his feet.

The Phoenix agent, after all, couldn't have known that he was charging with his shields down, with his systems screaming that there were errors in every component of the hardsuit. His momentum carried him past her and into the air, and when he tried to skid to a stop he was instead sent tumbling through the air to crash into another heating vent. The biotic field gave a moment later, and he dropped to the floor in a crash of ceramic and metal.

Miranda broke off and ran before the field had collapsed. She didn't expect the field to last long; she lacked the raw power of Series Two or the recharging speeds of Series Three and Four biotics. But those were the limitations of artificially-created element zero nodes in a young adult's body, especially when element zero was not well-understood by humans.

She had only moments before he recovered and resumed the pursuit, but she didn't have much time. The real enemy would-

There was a spike of radiation from section of the roof where the Mastermind was laying, and her heart jumped into her chest.

A moment later, twenty Scrin warriors had teleported onto the rooftop within a dozen meters of the Phoenix team.

Shepard grunted as the pain shot through her, and kept the grenade launcher on-target. Through her peripheral vision she saw Tali raise her arm, and the quarian barked something that didn't translate. Shepard fired another shot as the Ravager took a step forward, knocking it backward off its feet, and she spared a glance at Tali.

Her right arm was wreathed in the harsh orange light of her omnitool. Extending from that light was a long, flat, rectangular blade, which looked to be made of burning yellow-white light. A blade, flash-fabricated from her omnitool.

"It's not working!" Tali shouted, and chopped down with the blade again, hitting the tiberium stake. More pain shot through Shepard's arm, but she anticipated it this time, and it wasn't as disorienting. She sighted and fired again, hitting the Ravager as it started to rise.

"This thing should cut through Zone armor," Tali growled, and put one arm on Shepard's shoulder to steady her, then put the blade against the spike. She began sawing back and forth. That hurt even worse, but Shepard snarled, clenched her jaw, and kept her aim steady.

"Just cut it!" Shepard managed. "Cut it or run!" She heard something crack, and Tali cursed again.

"Need to make it sturdier," she muttered. "Monomolecular bosh'tet . . . ."

Shepard fired again, and checked her ammo. Running low. She turned her eyes back to the Ravager, and saw the silver slurry pooling around it, running from multiple wounds. She lined up a shot on one particularly bloody rent on its head, just above the sapphire eye, and fired. The microgrenade impacted and a spray of reflective goo erupted. The thing shambled sideways, but then took a step forward, movements drunken but determined.

Shepard heard the blade hiss into existence again behind her, but ignored it. Instead, she steadied the Werewolf as best she could, sighting the broken chunk of the monster's hide. She fired another shot. Dammit, too high; it shot over the thing's head and struck one of the spikes growing out of its back. The explosion shook the Ravager but didn't stop it. She aimed again, wishing that the module had a self-adjusting smart-sight that could guide the grenades in.

"Wishes, wishes," she muttered, and fired. Pain screamed down her arm as Tali cut again. This time, the spike shook a bit as the quarian cut into it. The Ravager jerked and stumbled, the grenade blasting a chunk out one of its forelegs.

"Come on!" Shepard shouted in sudden, desperate elation. The Werewolf pumped another shot. Silver paste blasted over the walls.

"Is that it? That all you've got?" Another grenade. Head armor cracked and flew apart.

"Son of a bitch! Die!" She fired again. Then again. Then again.

The Ravager dropped to its stomach, the metallic fluids pouring from its impossibly durable body. It started to rise, and Shepard shot it again. This grenade went through the gap in its head plating, and a fountain of reflective gore burst down the corridor, coating the walls and flying fast enough to trigger Shepard and Tali's shields. It splattered off their barriers, pooling around them, and the Ravager slumped to the floor, a decapitated mess.

Shepard ejected the grenade magazine, lowering the weapon, and stared for a moment.

"Keelah, Shepard," Tali whispered, echoing Kal'Reegar's statement from before.

"Yeah," she replied, unable to get anything else out. Her heart was trying its best to pound its way up into her throat, after all. After a moment, she hooked the launcher under her arm and began fishing out another grenade magazine. She slid it into the Werewolf while Tali kept cutting.

"That was," Shepard said, pausing and sucking in air from the helmet's rebreather. "Omniblade? Never seen one like that before."

"I usually use a knife," Tali replied, sawing. Doctor Michel, who had taken cover around the intersection, moved up to assist, using the laser scalpel. "But I figured this would be-" The monomolecular blade broke again. "Dammit. Monoblades are already unstable. Worse when you're modding an omnitool in combat."

"You modded the omnitool to make a monomolecular heat blade on the fly?" Shepard asked, and Tali nodded. Another blade formed around her wrist.

"Nothing fancy," she said. "Plasma sheath on a monomolecular plane, suspended in mass effect fields generated by the suit's barrier-generator and adherence boots."

"Tali," Shepard breathed, shaking her head. "Do you have any idea how hard it is to do something like that while in combat?"

"Somewhat," she replied. Shepard could hear her trying to downplay it. The wonders of autotranslation software, able to pick up on subtle cues like that and pitch the translated words to make inflection clear. "Give me a minute here and we should be able to cut it off. We're making some headway. I don't know what the Scrin do to these spikes to make them so damned durable."

"We'll need to cauterize that wound the moment we get the spike extracted," Michel said. "Blood loss will kill her if we remove it too quickly."

"Yay," Shepard breathed, unable to put even a token amount of forced cheer into it.

"I can prep a plasma torch," Tali said. "This wound is large enough that we'll need a lot of heat very quickly."

"Okay, then," Michel said. "Get her off the wall, and we'll extract when we get to a safe location. The armory station?"

"Good idea," Shepard agreed. "Kal'Reegar should be back any minute anyway with heavy weapons."

That was when the Corrupter poured through the hole down the hallway.

"Oh what the fuck."

Advisory: Primeunit 9 - engaged: HostileHF1 - HostileQF1 - HostileQM1 -HostileHF2(unidentified)

Engagement - projection: positive

Jacob narrowed his eyes in concentration as the floor plates twisted and buckled, He heard a warbling call of alarm from above, through the rents in the ceiling as the warping field he and Kaidan were maintaining tore apart the intervening floor.

"They're calling for help," he muttered, and Kaidan nodded. Scrin crystal-blood dripped off the mutant's armor, but he paid it no mind, staring down the hallway. The Scrin had stopped sending troops after the first half-dozen Disintegrators had been killed trying to come through the hole. Either they were depleted and waiting for reinforcements, or were waiting upstairs in ambush.

"We don't have much time," Kaidan said, looking up. "We're going in now."

Jacob nodded and released the field, leveling his shifter. Kaidan backed into the room and looked up at the twisted floor ceiling.

"You think we've broken it enough?" he asked, and the mutant shrugged.

Then he clenched his left fist, hauled back, and launched a mighty uppercut into the ceiling.

The weakened floor blasted upward, and Jacob jetted straight up into the hole Kaidan had punched, Werewolf ready. The space above was a rec room with some terminals and computer consoles, which was where the Scrin had stationed their hacker.

Well, "hacker" wasn't exactly right; it was an Assimilator, the Scrin equivalent to a technical specialist or engineer. The multi-limbed creature dominating the room wasn't a hacker in the traditional sense, anymore than the thousands of hair-thin crystalline threads that connected it to several of the terminals were conventional network connections. It vaguely resembled a Mastermind, walking on eight legs of jagged crystal, with a tall central body of angular, sapphire blue gemstone-like tiberium. The legs met at a central body, and atop that body was an elongated head with two prongs that extended to sharp speartip points. The tendrils connecting the creature to the terminals extended from the upper body, glittering in the emergency lighting.

He thought it was kind of beautiful, in a bizarre, otherworldly way. Then Jacob shot it in the face, or closest analogue.

The creature blew apart, spraying that disgusting silver slop everywhere and screeching in a ear-hurting howl, and he winced at the noise. He fired two more shotgun blasts into the thrashing creature, and it went still.

"That one went down a lot easier than the rest of these bugs," Jacob said, and dropped back down through the hole.

"Command, this is Alenko," Kaidan called over the radio. "Scrin hacking platform disabled."

"Negative, Alenko," Havoc called back over the radio, and he frowned. They stepped back out into the hallway and began bounding down it away from the hole in the passage. "EVA's still tracing intrusions across multiple points in the Embassy. They've got more than one of those things trying to take over our systems."

"Knew it wouldn't be that easy," Jacob grunted. "Command, feed us the rest, we'll take them out."

"Uploading now. Good luck."

The new targets appeared on their HUDs' maps, and they hurried down the hallway to the next Assimilator.

Valerian sent the response car into a sharp dive, evading the beam from the enemy Gun Walker by centimeters. Galorus swung the turret on the C-Sec vehicle around to keep it trained on the Scrin walker. The sensor suite on the aircar was having a hard time tracking the alien due to interference and the lack of detectable emissions from the monster.

Galorus kept the sights centered on the walker, and the cannon pounded out two long bursts before valerian juked and began ascending. Return fire was cutting close, and two lengthy scars marked the aircar where it had taken hits. One lucky shot would end them both.

But the Gun Walker wasn't shooting the civilians fleeing the Embassy, nor was it firing on the C-Sec Special Response airtrucks swooping toward the landing platform, or at any of the other response cars or the quartet of approaching friendly contacts marked with GDI tags. That was all that mattered.

"I'm not seeing any serious damage to that bastard!" Valerian reported.

"Let me worry about the bugs," Galorus hissed. He inhaled. His heart was beating faster; he was drawing breath every few seconds now. "You focus on keeping-" Inhale. "-us alive."

Truth was, through the righteous anger pounding on his flesh, Galorus could tell that they weren't have much effect on the Scrin beyond keeping their attention locked on their little aircar. The Gun Walker was weeping silver fluid from multiple holes they'd punched in the armor on its bulbous form, and those wounds would have dropped a creature of similar size, but it kept stubbornly standing.

Humans defeated these things when they didn't even have mass effect technology! he reminded himself, sending another explosive burst into the Scrin weapon. It flinched as the explosive rounds blew chunks out of its armor and sent more reflective slurry flying, but then leveled its gun-head at them and fired another burst of its own, forcing Valerian to weave and evade. Blue-white bolts screamed past them, another cutting along the backside of the car.

Galorus reacquired his target, and fired again, but he wondered at that last thought. Had the humans fought a serious Scrin force? They claimed to have, but looking at this impossibly tough monster who they were barely able to stay alive against, he doubted that.

Another bolt hit them, this time squarely on the rear of the armored car, and the vehicle jerked wildly, a deafening explosion sounding behind them. Alarms screamed at them as Valerian shouted and fought to keep the aircar under control, the vehicle slowing as it lost power.

Well, we're finally dead, Galorus realized, and sighted the walker as his pilot righted the vehicle. He switched to full auto and held down the trigger, not worried about overheating. He stared into the Scrin's gun-head as the turret banged out a stream of explosive rounds, hammering the alien and forcing it back. It braced itself, weathering the explosive blasts skipping off or blasting into its body, and targeted them.

He saw the bolt form in the barrel of the gun-head, and was amazed at how calm he felt as he stared at death.

Two dozen rockets hit the Gun Walker right as it fired, and his heart leapt into his chest.

We won, was the last thing he thought before the bolt blew his aircar in half.

Lieutenant Telfair raked the Gun Walker with mass accelerator and rocket fire, pounding the Scrin to paste alongside Artemis Two. She clenched her teeth in impotent rage, the remains of the ballsiest C-Sec officers she'd ever seen tumbling to the Wards below.

I'm going to find out who those people were, she promised. Goddamned heroes.

The Orcas of Artemis flight swept over the outside of the Embassy, blasting any Scrin they could see. Within seconds, they had cleared the landing platform, leaving only charred and shattered crystalline corpses as the only indication the Scrin had ever held that point.

"Citadel Dispatch, Artemis One," she reported. "You're clear!"

The C-Sec trucks dove in, and dozens of heavily-armed Special Response troops in black and blue armor stormed out: turian, salarian, asari, and a couple human. They fired at targets hidden inside the loading bay connected to the platform, and began a bounding advance into the Embassy.

Citadel rescuing GDI. She never thought she'd see that.

We're on the same side, dammit, she thought, and shook her head.

"Artemis Flight," she called, "Stay on a swivel. These Scrin fuck-heads don't play by conventional rules. Be ready for anything."

The Corrupter make the Ravager look like a hobbit. Where the Ravager was a quadruped with thin, hard plates sheathing its body, the Corrupter was the size of a Coyote fighting vehicle, covered in thick, ridged crystal-metal plates, with a dozen bladed legs. A massive, transparent sphere made up nearly a third of its body, filled with a green-black liquid tiberium that could melt tank armor. The thin, tapering head turned toward them, and an opening split the head in half laterally, somewhere between a mechanical hinge and a snake's jaw.

Surging around its body were dozens of glittering, silvery threads.

Shepard saw them, screamed, and fired three grenades into the Corrupter's mouth.

The Corrupter jerked a few meters backward down the hallway, its legs rattling and scraping on the blood-slick floor. Scrin blood-goo dribbled from the thing's mouth, but stopped within a few moments as a sickly green glow filled the creature's mouth and dribbled to the floor, burning through ceramic plates like acid. The processed tiberium repaired the wound, and the mouth snapped shut.

Shepard kept screaming and firing at the

it was inside her suit, cutting her stomach, her chest, slicing up along her neck, her face, into her nose

Tali and Michel recoiled at the violence of her reaction, the grenade launcher pounding shot after shot as fast as it could cycle new rounds into the tube.

"No! she shouted. "No! Die! Get out! Die, you fuckers! Get OUT!"

"Shepard!" Tali shouted, and started slashing away at the spike with frantic determination. Down the hallway, the Corrupter was bulling forward, head down, green acid-tiberium leaking from its mouth and the Buzzers taking cover behind its bulk.

Marines melting. Zone Troopers screaming as the Buzzers cut through them. Civilians burned down to the bone and beyond. Graveyards of buildings and tanks and crashing aircraft. A titan loomed overhead atop three legs, serpentine appendages twisting about and spitting white beams of death from behind a shimmering cocoon.

The impact of Tali's omniblade sent another wave of pain through Shepard, a white-hot flash that burned through the sudden memory of that thing in her nose. Shepard kept firing, but looked up at Tali.

"Run!" she shouted. "Tali, Michel, go!"

"I can cut it!" Tali replied. The Corrupter pressed closer, waiting for Shepard's ammunition to run out. The moment she did, it would release the Buzzers then open its mouth and empty that tank on its back. The clattering of its blade-legs was sharp and close over the detonations that rocked its body. Droplets of metallic blood trailed it.

"Get out of here!" Shepard screamed, the grenade launcher fighting to drown out her words. "You can survive! Someone can survive this time!"

"No! I'm not leaving you!" Tali shouted back, smashing the omniblade on the spike. The blade shattered again, and Shepard gasped in pain.

"You're too important!" Shepard snarled. "I'm not losing anyone else to these things! Go!"

"Not without you!" Tali shouted, another omniblade forming. Stupid goddamned quarian-

There was another blast of searing pain as she tried to cut the spike again, and somewhere between the start of that burst of agony and the end of it, Shepard understood. The frantic rush to get her to safety, and the earlier drive to rescue Kal'Reegar despite the insane odds. Shepard hadn't seen the bodies, and hadn't made the emotional connection. How many friends had Tali lost just hours ago?

She wouldn't leave.

The grenade launcher ran empty.

The Corrupter paused, waiting for another shot, and Shepard looked up at Tali.

"Leave me!" Shepard shouted, and the Corrupter opened its mouth. Tali's response was to create another blade. Shepard dropped the grenade launcher, dark energy swirling around her, and she raised her hand to throw Tali back.

The blade flashed down, and this time her arm was sheathed in numbing ice instead of blazing heat. She hit the floor, and heard something sizzling. Someone grabbed Shepard and bodily hurled her out of the intersection. She crashed and scraped along the floor, armor plates grating against ceramic, and rolled onto her left side.

She blacked out from the sheer, blazing torment that tore through her. Her eyes opened a moment later, and she screamed. Someone was pulling her onto her feet, dragging he rby the left arm, and on her HUD she could see Tali close by. Shepard twisted toward her, and spotted the quarian leaping out of the intersection, flicking the omniblade away.

Beyond her, still pinned to the wall, was Shepard's severed arm.

The Corrupter loosed a torrent of green fluid that filled the corridor behind Tali, searing and melting plating and armor and flesh. Tali rolled across the floor, evading the corrosive stream by centimeters, and bolted to her feet.

Michel hauled Shepard back, until she could get her feet underneath her. The Commando's mind whirled as she tried to process everything. The Werewolf had been in the hallway with her arm, destroyed by the Corrupter, leaving her with only her biotics. The Scrin beast-machine was chittering down the hallway after them, and she knew the Buzzers would be surging ahead of it.

Sure enough, the razor-threads swarmed around the corner and dove toward the trio.

Shepard snarled, terrified hate surging through her, and pumped her right arm at the evil little bastards. Dark energy twisted into a distorted wave of warping gravity fields that shredded the creatures as they advanced. A dozen and more of the threads died immediately, and the rest of the swarm recoiled and broke apart, dying in seconds.

"Go!" she shouted through a throat ragged from screaming so much. She turned, and they started to run.

"The armory," she gasped, her steps unbalanced, and it took her a moment to remember wait Tali cut off my arm. And in the process saved Shepard's life, at least for a few precious moments. The blade's heated edge had cauterized the wound, so no blood loss, which was a grim positive. The wound was still cold, but the pain was fading, thanks to the medigel dispensers working furiously to keep her conscious despite the abrupt dismemberment.

The Corrupter clattered around the corner, pointed head hunting back and forth with gleaming eyes, and it opened its hinge-mouth as it spotted them. There was no cover, and it would take precious seconds to open any of the doors on the hallway. Shepard clenched her fist and spun around to fire off another biotic thrust.

Then Kal'Reegar came around the corner opposite the Scrin, having gained half his bodyweight in gun.

Had Shepard known more about quarians, she wouldn't have been surprised. Every quarian clan was known for one specialty or another; there was a reason why quarians tracked not only ship name but also clan affiliation. Just as being born and raised on a ramshackle fleet taught every quarian how to be an engineer by necessity, every clan had its quirks or circumstances that led to their children being specialized. The 'Zorahs were renowned leaders due to having occupied positions of power. The 'Hobans were amazing pilots because they flew many tramp freighters and fighters. The 'Koris were shrewd politicians because they lived on large, compartmentalized ships.

The 'Reegars were Migrant Fleet Marines, descendants of the Rannoch surface garrisons that had survived to the end of the war with the geth. They made a point to rarely add a ship name once they had completed their Pilgrimage, simply because they believed that they belonged to the whole fleet, and served with distinction in that regard. The 'Reegars had a history of heroic last stands, glorious sacrifices, and insurmountable bravery; when a line needed to be held, a defense gun needed to be manned, or someone needed to take point to carve through the enemy lines, it was most often a 'Reegar who both volunteered and either succeeded or died trying. Thus, it was no surprise that Kal'Reegar had not simply chosen a weapon, but the biggest, meanest one in the armory with which to make his stand:


The Multibarreled Antiarmor Weapons System was designed to give Zone Trooper firepower to a Marine's lighter armor. It was a half-meter shorter than a Zone Trooper's dedicated railgun, but still demanded an armature that wrapped around 'Reegar's waist and shoulders to help him heft the tremendous weapon. A snap-on strength-assist and recoil-compensating exoskeleton modification had bulked out the size of 'Reegar's suit, letting him handle the immense recoil of the weapon's four railguns.

Kal'Reegar set the MAWS to sequential fire, and advanced with ponderous steps, one arm hefting the massive weapon, the other carrying a case of shapeshifter weapons. He tossed them down, gripped the MAWS with both hands - one on the rifle-style trigger, the other on the side handle to help keep the monster steady - and spoke.

"Pardon, ma'am," he said, pushing gently past them, and opened fire.

Railguns were often described as splitting the air. The MAWS cleaved said air in twain. The floor shuddered with every shot, the four barrels firing in alternating sequence. A continuous stream of heavy hypervelocity slugs thundered down the hallway into the Corrupter's head and body. It jerked and fell back, blood spraying as armor-piercing rounds punched deep into its body.

"Brace me!" Reegar shouted, spreading his legs. He took a single step backward, the recoil compensators unable to keep him from being driven by the raw force of the MAWS. Tali and Michel ran behind him and put their shoulders against his back, while Shepard sent another pulse of distorted gravity down the hallway. Scrin armor cracked and twisted.

The Corruptor wept silver blood, but green fluids flowed out of the wounds in equal measure, repairing and sealing it as quickly as the railgun rounds tore through it. The machine-beast backed away, trying to get around the intersection again.

'Reegar flicked a switch on the MAWS' bracing handle. The barrage of railgun fire ceased for a heartbeat.

"Brace!" the quarian marine shouted in the instant of silence, and pulled the trigger. All four barrels fired at once, sending him, Tali, and Michel tumbling backward.

It was worth it. The four rounds punctured the Corrupter's head and split it open in an explosion of metallic fluids. It toppled backward, slumping to the ground.

'Reegar tried to push himself up, the massive weapon tangling among the pile of limbs. Tali and Michel had to get out from under him and haul him to his feet. Shepard grabbed a Werewolf submachinegun from the case while they did so, arming the grenade launcher module and finding, to her immense relief, that this one was loaded with sonic grenades. She pointed it down the corridor one-handed.

The Corrupter stood up, head reassembling itself in a wave of sickly green tiberium.

"This is completely unfair," Tali said as it stood, and she scooped up a Werewolf. She handed a second one to Michel, who lifted it with a bit of hesitation, but put it to her shoulder like she knew the basics. 'Reegar swept the MAWS up to bear again on the wounded Scrin as it tried to retreat.

They couldn't let it escape. Given but a few moments it could regenerate that damage and come back anew, with reinforcements.

Shepard was about to fire when the wall exploded next to the Scrin machine-beast. Shrapnel tore into the flanks of the battered creature, and it was thrown against the opposite wall.

A turian strode through the gap, a pair of Werewolf submachineguns in hand, and poured fire into the Corrupter's flank.

Garrus Vakarian advanced, firing nearly point-blank, silver blood streaming from the stunned creature's wounds. Shepard switched to assault rifle mode, and she, Tali, and Michel opened up with steady bursts into the Corrupter's mangled head. 'Reegar steadied the MAWS, switched to sequential firing, and pumped shots into the Scrin beast-machine's head and thorax.

It jerked and twisted under the constant barrage of incoming fire. Garrus dropped both Werewolves as they overheated, drew an explosive charge from his belt, and threw it inside one of the Corrupter's gaping wounds. He spun and dove through the hole he'd just blasted.

"Fire in the hole!" Garrus called, and everyone ducked, Michel a moment after the others. The charges detonated, sending noise and force and flying alien giblets in both directions down the hallway. Chunks of the Corrupter splattered off their shields and armor.

Shepard rose in the silence that followed, staring down the passage. The Corrupter had been blown into hundreds of pieces, with only the mangled head and front pair of legs and the massive crystal tank holding the corrosive tiberium visibly intact. Bits of the Scrin covered the hallway, and the floors, walls, and ceilings were coated in the disgusting silver slurry.

She tried passing the Werewolf to her off hand so she could activate the radio, and failed a couple of times before remembering. Shepard collapsed the weapon and clipped it to a hardpoint on the front of her armor and keyed the radio.

"Garrus?" she asked.

"Here, Shepard," he replied, climbing through the hole he'd blasted in the wall.

"Best timing in the universe," she said, and then her knees gave out.

Advisory: Primeunit 9 deactivated - Hostile - Identification: Turian - Spectre - Garrus Vakarian - Qualifier: Insane - Designation: HostileTM1(I)

Advisory: Assimilatorunit 2 deactivated - confirmed: GDIsubunits - targetingassimilators

Advisory: Commandtransitunit 2 - 4 - 9 disabled - ETA: reinforcement: unknown - Responseunit 1: activated

Advisory: Hostileforce: CitadelSecurity - Number: 38 (estimate) - aircraft: transports - Number:2 - location: landingplatform

Advisory: Hostileforce: GDI - aircraft - Orca - Number:4 - Configuration 2211groundstrike - Location: overhead

Commandunit 1: Acknowledgement

Approaching: Grid - 1 - 45 - 41

"Sir, another Mastermind just jumped in!" Miranda shouted over the radio as she ran for the insertion point. She could see radiation spiking on her HUD, and the roar of an intense close-quarters battle raging just twenty meters away nearly drowned out Kane's response.

"Eliminate the wounded Mastermind!" he ordered. "The new arrivals will need time to recharge. Marked unit is one minute out."

She nodded, and switched off sensor transparency, then activated her enhanced targeting suite. Her Werewolf transformed in her hands, the laser module closing and rocket module unfolding. She shouldered the submachinegun and leapt over a tangle of pipes, then hopped onto a catwalk running between two vents, which gave her a good view of the battlefield.

The remains of a Mastermind lay beneath her, almost certainly the one who had brought the reinforcements. Or at least, she guessed it was a Mastermind, due to its bulk. The Phoenix fireteam had riddled it enough firepower to blow two thirds of it to mush. Smart of them, but not enough to actually save them.

The Scrin force was made up entirely of Intruders; they had to be reacting to the attack on the relay point, and had retaliated with efficient savagery. Two of the Phoenix team were still alive, firing furiously into the dozen Intruders that were bounding toward their position close to the wounded Mastermind. Several other Intruders were blown to pieces around them, and the other Phoenix troops were in a similar state, spread across the rooftop in disparate and bloody pieces.

She had literally seconds before the Scrin finished the remaining humans and turned their attention toward her. Miranda sighted the wounded Mastermind with her rockets and let fly, then spun around and bolted across the rooftop. She heard the explosions as she ran, and Kane's voice sounded in her ear a moment later.

"The creature is dead," he reported. "Now get clear, Miranda! They're coming for you!"

"Acknowledged," she breathed, running and jumping through the maze of pipes, platforms, and vents. Contacts appeared on her local radar, and she switched off enhanced targeting and redirected suit power to speed and mobility.

There were at least two Intruders, and they moved fast - almost as fast as her. She pushed herself through the maze, ducking and jumping and weaving and trying to lose them. Miranda knew if she stopped to fight, they'd kill her in seconds. She spotted a flare of radiation and instant before a plasma cannon discharged, and wrenched herself out of the way. A column of white-hot fury screamed past her, severing metal pipes.

She dashed forward, leaping over another tangle of pipes, and something hit the pipes right behind her. There was a scream of tortured metal, a hiss of burning steam, and the Intruder tore the obstacle free and hurled it aside.

It was two bounds behind her. Miranda whirled, dropping to one knee, and fired a biotic throw directly in front of her without aiming. The Intruder, looming over her with one arm raised, took it dead in the chest. She thought she saw surprise in the glittering crystal eyes as it was tossed backward into the cloud of steam erupting from the ripped pipes.

The second Intruder landed on the rooftop beside her, and she ducked and sidestepped a swinging arm, the claws scratching her flank and shearing through the armor like paper. She ignored the pain and the blood, but the power behind the blow sent her spinning, and it took her a heartbeat to regain her balance.

That heartbeat gave the Scrin enough time to whirl around, claws extending, and bring them down toward her face. She twisted aside again, sidestepping under the blow with the grace that only nanoweave cybernetic musculature would allow, and the blade cut along her face, slashing her cheek, ear, and temple. More blood flew as she danced backward.

She wanted to scream, but her training. Her body wanted to feel terrified, but the conditioning and training, both as a Hand of Kane and before he had rescued her, left her unable to be paralyzed by panic. Miranda dodged and jumped away in a cold, terribly rational state of self-preservation, and brought her Werewolf up to fire.

The Scrin Intruder's clawed hands sheared through the weapon, slicing it to pieces with a blurring cut. She activated her omnitool as she dropped the remains of the weapon, a glowing blade flash-assembled by the device. It seemed pitiful compared with the swift, towering warrior leaping toward her, gemstone eyes promising relentless death.

The Marked of Kane smashed the Intruder to the floor.

The cyborg dropped directly on top of the Scrin warrior, half a ton of flesh, heavy metal and ceramic armor, and gleaming red lines - Kane insisted on the glowing red lines. It was tall, nearly as tall as the Intruder it flattened, with spindly arms housing laser weapons, a heavy shapeshifter support gun folded up on its shoulder, and a faceplate with half a dozen glowing red sensor clusters. Heavy black armor covered the torso and legs, the bulk making the arms seem emaciated by comparison.

The Marked pointed one arm at the prone Intruder and fired a cutting beam, slicing the Scrin warrior in half at the waist. While doing so, two more Marked crashed down to the rooftop, their augmented legs barely flexing. They rose, one pausing by the tangle of wrecked pipes where the other Intruder was emerging, and fired a pair of missiles into the gap. Scrin blood and chunks of crystalline armor erupted from the gap.

"Appreciated," Miranda gasped, and the first Marked turned its bloody gaze toward her.

"Hand," the cyborg said in acknowledgment, and extended an arm. "We must depart immediately. Scrin are closing in."

She could hear an aircar's engines whining overhead. With a nod, she stepped over to the Marked, and the cyborg grasped her under the arms with surprisingly gentle mechanical fingers. There was a rumble as it ignited its jetpack, and it shot up toward the waiting vehicle overhead.

Corporal Nolan squeezed the trigger, and the third Ravager toppled backward as a railgun round tore it nearly in half.

The hallway went silent. He exhaled, checking his HUD, and grimaced. Of the ten troops who had been holding the hallway, only five remained: two Marine riflemen and three Zone Troopers. The hallway was blackened where plasma had burned floor plating and walls, and all three corridors were covered in Scrin remains, the creatures so impossibly tough that they had been forced to virtually blow them apart to finish them. The heavy armor of the hallway barriers was blackened and charred, where it had remained intact under the savage fury of the aliens' attacks.

But they had held, and the Scrin had withdrawn.

"Command," Ibella murmured, panting, weapon drooping in his armor-assisted grasp. "Bravo One. Enemy has withdrawn from our sector. Requesting medical and reinforcements. We have heavy-"

Ibella, the barrier before him, and the Marine next to him slammed into the wall. Blood and gore blasted out from their bodies as they were smashed flat. Nolan's shields flared, deflecting high-pressure blood and flying chunks of armor, and he blinked in disbelief and shock.

"Contact, center hall-" the last Marine shouted, raising his weapon before being flattened against the wall in the same brutal, messy manner. Nolan snapped up his weapon, switching to the ion module, and leapt to the corner that the attack was coming from. He leaned around the corner, shifter ready, and spotted something down the passage.

It looked like a Mastermind, but this one had short, blue spikes all along its upper body, lightning dancing between the crystals jutting from its flesh. Half-remembered briefings and reports from Akuze flashed through his head.

A Battlemind!

He squeezed the trigger, not giving himself time to feel the terror that recognition should have evoked. The beam struck the Scrin warrior in the flank, and blue crystals and armored hide were blown apart by the blast. The Battlemind jerked from the impact, and retaliated.

The blast did not kill Nolan instantly. His armor crumpled as a wave of force smashed into him, and the breath blew out of his lungs. He slammed into the far wall, pain flashing through his body, and his armored form slid to the floor. Blood and crushed armor splattered over his body as the rest of his squad was killed where they stood.

The Battlemind clambered up the hallway, followed by more Scrin warriors, and passed Nolan's prone form. An Intruder strode past and paused, gemstone eyes peering down at him.

Nolan felt a vibration pass through the air, and another, slightly different, rattled his battered armor. The Battlemind paused for an instant, and then a low rumble filled the hallway and echoed off the prone human's armor.

The Intruder raised an arm, bladed fingers gleaming, and stabbed them into the Zone Trooper's helmet.

Locke lifted the last Intruder with one hand and hurled it off the side of the building. He turned, looking over the destruction on the rooftop, and the remaining Intruders that he had slain after recovering from that woman's trickery. The firefight with the Scrin had lasted only a few moments - only four of the dozen Intruders were still intact after tangling with his team and the Nod agent - but it had been enough for the woman to do her business.

He scowled and keyed his comm.

"Sir," he said. "Rooftop is secure, but the Mastermind is dead."

There was a pause, and then a response.

"Acceptable. Extraction inbound."

They sat in the office, the brandy running down their throat after closing the link to Locke. The burn of the drink wasn't enough to distract them from the emotion that plagued their processes.


The Mastermind scan had been incomplete. They only had a limited understanding of the communications architecture, and would have to capture or wound and study more specimens.

But for now, they had enough.

They opened a channel to a node installed in the top floor of the GDI Embassy, placed there years ago. Many years ago. Back when they had been he, and his name had been Harper. Before the first time he tried accessing the aliens' network transit network, and found something else.

The quantum entanglement communicator embedded in the transmitter activated the node and the radiation transmitter. They analyzed the input, and studied the radiation markers and communication using temporal phase pulses between the Scrin creatures in the Embassy. They compared the pulses with the Mastermind's architecture - specifically, the control systems.

It took them ten seconds - four of which were spent in internal debate over the best attack vector - to determine the method of attack. Finally satisfied, they sent the signal.

It would be a clumsy, rudimentary attack, analogous to a child firing a shotgun nearly as tall as himself. But as they watched the signal propagate through the local communications network, cutting through one alien after another, they knew they had taken the first, critical step.

And across the Embassy, every Scrin warrior and creature stopped in their tracks and screamed. Buzzers twisted and flew apart, the swarms of bladed threads collapsing and dying. Assimilators ceased their intrusions into the network, and the GDI EVAs began to retake captured subsystems. Intruders and Disintegrators stopped in mid-step, and were cut down by desperate human defenders.

The invaders recovered in less than a minute, but in the time it took the Scrin to do so, GDI troops seized the moment of weakness and launched the counterattack.

They smiled. That was the best they could offer for now, at least.

They tipped back the brandy, swallowing it, and settled back in their chair to watch a star die.



PURGE -11-B9l33AAtvaN:coMMencinG




Diagnotics: initiated - Attacktrace: initiated - Attackanalysis: initiated

Compiling: functional: subunits - primeunits - commandunits

Commandunit 1 - Report: unaffected: Grid - 1 - 45 - 41 secured

Assuming: direct control

Advisory: notamusing - acknowledged - ignored

Commandunit 1: Directive - Purged: Subunits- reroutetoCommandunit 1

Target: HostileTM1(I) - HostileHF1 - HostileQF1 - HostileQM1

Termination: maximumpriority - survival: irrelevant

Codex - Aliens - Non-Council-Species - Scrin: Masterminds

"Masterminds" are the Scrin analogue to field officers and commandos. Lacking in weaponry designed for direct combat applications, Masterminds instead use a number of esoteric technologies to support other units in the field. A relatively rare and - conjectured to be - expensive creature to employ, Masterminds have been encountered on a general ratio of one per Scrin division-analogue. The substantial numbers of Masterminds employed by Reaper-18 forces is a great concern.

Masterminds employ a method of teleportation technology that uses methods similar to the "phase-shifting" technology that they employed in the Third Tiberium War. This technology allows them to transport small groups of Scrin weapons/warriors over long distances. In addition, this technology can be used to "trap" matter in a cage of phase-shifted space.

The most frightening and insidious ability of the Mastermind, however, is their "mind control" technology. The device in question is mounted inside a Mastermind's "head" section, and is able to swiftly and efficiently override the neural network of any organic lifeform using an as-yet-unknown means. Masterminds frequently use this ability to turn entire squads or vehicle crews against their comrades, and in the ensuing chaos will take control of survivors and continue to turn them against their compatriots.

Masterminds are the only known form of Scrin species to attempt any form of communication with other lifeforms. Survivors of Mastermind attacks who "conversed" with such creatures reported that the Masterminds would create thoughts in their own brains in an effort to communicate, though the aliens would only demand that the victim immediately surrender and cooperate to make a mental takeover faster and more painless.

Two known variants of Masterminds have been encountered. The first is the Prodigy, a version exclusive to the Traveler sects, capable of wider-ranging mind control effects and even greater mobility and phase-shifting range. The second is the Battlemind, a version which has been observed to eschew mind controlling technology in favor of gravity manipulation capability, enabling it to inflict devastating damage to infantry through brute force crushing or throwing. Battleminds have only been sighted among the unidentified Scrin forces behind the assault on Akuze, and the later appearances of Reaper-18 troops after Eden Prime.

Codex - Aliens - Non-Council Species - Scrin: Corrupters

"Corrupters" serve as a support weapons system for Scrin forces, analogous to a light armored vehicle but much more agile in close-quarters battle. The large, spherical "tank" on the rear of the Corrupter houses a form of highly corrosive, non-volatile liquid tiberium, which can be projected out of the "head" section of the creature.

Offensively, the Corrupter serves as an anti-infantry and anti-structural assault weapon, using the destructive liquid tiberium to rapidly melt and destroy hardened targets that can resist other Scrin weaponry, and swiftly eliminate infantry. However, the liquid tiberium has a second function: any Scrin creature or structure exposed to this liquid tiberium can actively incorporate it into their body structure, repairing physical damage with startling speed.

Like many Scrin "vehicles" the Corrupter blurs the line between organic and mechanical, with seamless transition between soft tissue and hard mechanical-analogue structures. It is virtually impervious to infantry small arms. Reaper-18 variants have been observed to be even more durable than the "standard" forms, often using their own supply of liquid tiberium to heal injuries sustained in battle as quickly as they receive them, and shrugging off most man-portable weaponry.

Author's Notes: The biggest challenge in this chapter was keeping the Scrin powerful and scary while at the same time letting the protagonists survive the battle with them. I wanted the Scrin to seem nearly unstoppable, with the heroes surviving through grit, fury, and raw firepower against a relentless, impossibly tough enemy.

I'll also put up some props for fellow author Gregg Landsman, whose Glorious Shotgun Princess story (a Mass Effect/Exalted crossover of absolute awesomeness) has had some influence in this chapter, notably the segment about 'Reegars being badasses. That story presented the really cool idea of the various clans being specialists, and I knew I wanted to run with it, but I've got to give Gregg Landsman credit for the concept.

There were some references to Eagle's Fall and The Verge War in this chapter, specifically to some tech used by the characters, especially Locke. Locke's shields are also a nod to the difference between the shields in ME1 - where biotics went right through them - and the shields in ME2 and ME3, where shields blocked biotics. There are other references too; the "Grindstone" being an automatic modification/upgrade piece of equipment GDI will be using in The Verge War and the batarian-created undersuit nanorepair tech referencing...something much more spoilery. Deus Ex fans might note some similarities to another character's abilities; we're going to be exploring some of the transhumanist elements of this fused setting later on.

Next chapter will be the climax of this battle, with a singleminded Scrin juggernaut relentlessly closing in on our heroes.

Until next chapter . . . .