Author's Note: While the events of this story are self-contained, the context, characterizations and references will be most familiar to those who've read the previous stories in the series, most especially 'Exitus'.
"You know what I'd love right now..."
A groan swept through the silence of the comm channel. Kaidan glanced up to see the mischievous grin evident under Stenham's visor.
"A stiff drink?" Even from her position on a ridge half a kilometer away, Wickham always seemed up for it.
Kaidan nudged the temperature setting on his armor up half a degree. A gentle warmth bloomed around his torso, spreading slowly as the resistive microweave lining his armor's undersuit reacted to the the flood of power. Sitting still for so long, he could feel the areas where the insulation of his armor was a little less effective. Bands around his upper arms, hands, and of course his ass, where the cold, rocky ground hungrily sapped away every joule of energy that bled through the weave. Armor built to withstand the coldest planetary surface, and yet he was still suppressing a shiver.
Stenham stretched his legs. "Naaah..."
Across from him, Kaidan could see Montrei's eyes moving under his visor, shifting from person to person as he sought to tease out the rules to this new game. Beside the corporal sat a trio of gun drones, their stabilizer vanes tucked up under square, snub-nosed cowlings.
"Nachos!" Tarasov's enthusiasm felt a little forced, but as always, he was trying.
"Oh, you suck. Mountains of melted cheese, man."
"Cheap excuse. Back me up here, Chief."
If nothing else, Kaidan was grateful the Spectre wasn't in-channel with them.
"Only the maple-smoked kind," Kaidan blurted despite himself.
Stenham gave an approving grunt. Or perhaps he was satisfied that he'd succeeded in luring his recalcitrant commanding officer into one of his little games. With all the changes that had come to the job of soldiering since the dawn of human history, one trial remained constant throughout- waiting. The tense, exhausting wait for the enemy to show itself, for command to get their heads out of their asses, for the other team to get in position...
"What is this, amateur hour?" the corporal declared. "Naw, I was thinking... eggs Benedict. Swiss cheese, maybe spinach? Poached eggs, and of course, all covered in hollondaise sauce. With home fries and-"
Kaidan resisted the urge to gnaw on his tongue. In theory, he could put a stop to it, argue the extra cruelty of such an exchange around biotics, but they'd all been out here for hours, in the thin, chilly air of this unlovely rock. Sharing the pain was what the game was all about.
"There's a 24-hour place near my hometown that makes the best homefries!" Montrei said.
Looking at the younger marine, Kaidan guessed perhaps he was overly aware that he was not only an FNG but a replacement for someone who never made it back from a mission. He wanted to integrate himself as fast as possible into the squad's micro-culture.
As the banter went on, Kaidan's fingers tapped an imprecise pattern onto the armored plate of his thigh, to find the rhythm dancing around the edge of his thoughts. The memory of the tune he'd been listening to was a vague jumble now. A male singer, somewhat nasal, pacing through words that repeated themselves into a pattern over a tune and rhythm that teased the edge of atonal without crossing the line.
Before the song broke off with a digitized squeak that set his teeth on edge even in memory. Kaidan wasn't prone to the scourge of getting a song stuck in his head it under normal circumstances, but it wasn't the song that was stuck so much as the problem. A fragment wanting its other pieces. The data block he'd scanned from the broken datapad was full of obstinate little puzzles like it. With so many real and grave threats lurking in his head, somehow the riot of confounding, engaging little problems contained on that fractured drive kept luring him back in.
Perhaps because with enough effort, each could be solved.
trans: op /intercept
12:23:56; OriginalFarlor: You there?
12:24:47: 4lagarn: sry big mobbo
12:25:04; OriginalFarlor: Wonderful, I'm paying realtime to listen to you play with your toes.
12:25:10: 4lagarn: technology!
12:25:26: 4lagarn: patience, magos
12:25:38: 4lagarn: little mice are runnin
12:26:57; 4lagarn: im farming GGO
12:27:09; OriginalFarlor: I can't believe you're still playing.
12:27:21: 4lagarn: hey man dont dis
12:27:53: 4lagarn: we miss farls magic fingers ynow
12:28:19; OriginalFarlor: I don't miss GGO, I can tell you that.
12:28:26; 4lagarn: wus
12:28:47; OriginalFarlor: You're still mad that I got an ReBSS before you, aren't you?
12:29:01: 4lagarn: lastsecond 14kp bid, i mean wtf
12:29:13: 4lagarn: i promise to resent you til the end of time
12:29:31; OriginalFarlor: That warms my heart.
12:29:49; OriginalFarlor: I promise to never let you forget it.
12:29:55; 4lagarn: dick
12:30:22: 4lagarn: dude, no wonder
12:30:29; OriginalFarlor: What?
12:30:56: 4lagarn: wth is wrong with you allies?
12:31:07: 4lagarn: using a codec from 33
12:31:21; OriginalFarlor: 33?
12:31:47: 4lagarn: dude this is a compression codec thats 25 years old
12:31:56: 4lagarn: thats why you cant find it
12:32:02: 4lagarn: bass ackwards allie tech
12:32:17; OriginalFarlor: What part of 'private archive retrieval' didn't you understand?
12:32:30: 4lagarn: fff
12:32:39; OriginalFarlor: The day I come to you with military archival issues is the day I hang up my spurs forever.
12:32:46; OriginalFarlor: You can give me *some* credit.
12:32:59: 4lagarn: not till you mail me a ReBSS
12:33:09: 4lagarn: heres the dump
12:33:15: 4lagarn: look that up
12:33:27: 4lagarn: maybe public domain hahaha
USER 4lagarn_7105BLOCKED /senddata -onupload
12:33:40; OriginalFarlor: Thanks. Much appreciated.
USER OriginalFarlor_2471_BLOCKED /rec
12:33:47; OriginalFarlor: I better LO.
12:34:06: 4lagarn: later jarhead
12:34:12; OriginalFarlor: A pleasure as always.
12:34:26: 4lagarn: liar
12:34:39: 4lagarn: take care yo
USER OriginalFarlor_2471_BLOCKED logged out
USER 4lagarn_7105BLOCKED logged out
trans: opt /drop
Stenham fell silent in mid-sentence. A small burst of adrenaline, mixed with a certain relief, shot through Kaidan's skull. Finally.
"Marking targets," Wickham murmured from their distant perch. "Positive ident."
The two marines with Kaidan shifted their weight, rocking forward onto their feet. He squinted at the array of red dots as they appeared in his HUD, overlaid on the glowing map of the complex beneath their position. Four of them getting out of a transport hauler. With luck, their ticket inside. And the distraction the Spectre requested.
"How's your range?" Kaidan asked. He gestured to Montrei as he spoke, then turned and locked his HUD map to absolute positioning.
"Range is good. Sight lines clear." Amari said. By her tone, she was already intent on the feedback from her weapon.
A hum thrilled through Kaidan's mutant nerves as small dark energy fields bloomed behind him, accompanied by the gentle whine of servos.
"Drones are hot, front door targets entered." Montrei said.
"Wait," Amari said. "I've got non-coms."
Kaidan gritted his teeth. "What are we looking at?" A trio of green dots appeared, moving next to the red ones around the holographic bulk of the transport hauler.
"I think they're slaves," the sniper murmured. "I can see 'em. They've got wrist shackles."
"This was supposed to be clean," Stenham muttered beside him, off-channel. "Hot targets only."
"They may not be jacked." Amari said.
"Or they might be. Click. Boom."
"Can we take the risk?" Odell growled.
"Commander," Wickham interjected, "I've been listening since we got here. No reciprocator callback signal on record cycles on longer than we've been sitting here. I would have heard it. No kill switch. If we hit carefully, they'll be safe enough."
Kaidan frowned at the green dots. Good soldier, thinking about what I'm not. Still, there could be more of them inside, more potential hostages. For a few seconds, he was back in the briefing room, listening to Captain Nasser enunciate every word of the importance of this insignificant mercenary band as a link in a much longer chain. A dozen times, the captain looked him in the eye and repeated the importance of this mission. The Spectre's mere presence was proof enough.
Past mere presence, though, Kaidan wasn't given much detail as to the Spectre's goals. He shouldn't have been surprised, nor let the frustration grate on him as it did. But even the word alone grated on him, as it had for two years. It was a stone in his shoe, forcibly reminded him of things he couldn't think about right now. Like a certain paranoid turian's infuriatingly short message, a military code word for 'all clear' and nothing more.
Kaidan pulled his pistol off his hip. "Montrei."
There should have been at least three squads on this mission. Not his lone squad split in half, and the unreliable promise of a lone wolf somewhere out there in the dark.
The private mirrored him, his omni-tool a pale glow. "In position, sir."
The drones, he reasoned, were at least better than the sluggish bipedal mechs that were flooding the security market. Drones were fast, made small targets, and had the advantage of flight. But the fact that Montrei, a drone ops specialist, had been pushed on Kaidan as a replacement squadmember struck him as an unsettling symptom of the Alliance's persistent troop shortages.
At least they'd yet to suggest giving him LOKIs.
He quirked a bitter smirk in the privacy of his lowered helmet. Spectres... Spectres were trouble. "Go drones. Amari, take your shot."
Kaidan gestured to the marines with him, then jumped to his feet and thudded down the incline toward the opposite entrance, urging his stiff legs into action. The drones arrowed over his head, homing in their assigned target. The front entrance of the complex came into view just as gunfire exploded from his right. A red-armored mercenary was running away from the door, intent on the drones. A burst from Stenham's assault rifle took the mercenary's feet out from under him, slashing his kinetic barrier to ribbons. Kaidan's pistol barked three times, stilling the man's floundering. There was a second armored body lying in heap a few feet away.
Kaidan jogged up to the large door, scanning the surroundings. "Montrei. Status."
"Drone Beta down. Port stabilizer's shot."
It did its job. "Leave it for now."
"... Aye, sir." The private sounded no more happy about the order than if he'd been asked to leave a fellow marine behind. The remaining drones swooped in wide and low, skimming the ground to return to their operator's side like loyal, spindly hounds.
There was a pause. "Loading bay clear, Commander." The ops chief sounded winded from their own run down from the ridge. "Non-coms shouldn't be a problem."
"We need that code."
"Wickham's on it."
A tense thirty seconds passed before HUD flickered a reception signal at him. He lifted his omni-tool and fed the passcode into the door pad. The holo flipped to an obliging green and the door cycled open.
Kaidan tapped his tool. "CBO protocol." The comm channel beeped and clicked off, shutting down their network connection. Despite the encryption of their channel, the noise of it could be picked up by monitoring equipment in the base.
Not that he expected the surprise to last long.
The portal opened into an antechamber packed with unarmored pressure suits and haphazard pieces of equipment. Near the ceiling, a bank of heating elements glowed a sullen red. The three of them crossed the room, drones humming along in tow, into the corridor beyond.
As they advanced, heading for the junction, a strange pressure crept into Kaidan's skull. He raised his hand to signal his marines forward to sweep the junction for enemy contacts when the sensation became one of alarm. His arm snapped rigid to squad halt. There was a surprised clatter of armored boots behind him as he stared hard at the innocent-looking metal-plated floor.
He loaded a comm burst. "Tarasov," he murmured. "Keep your head open. They've got a crush plate out here." The communication compacted itself and fired in a nanosecond, much less detectable than an open channel.
Stenham exhaled through his teeth. "A crush-plate? Damn, expensive furniture for a merc band-"
"We're stuck here unless we shut that thing down," Kaidan said, touching his omni-tool. "Montrei, scan for power conduits. Stenham, cover the corridor. Don't walk here."
A red overlay bloomed in his HUD map, covering the junction ahead of him. For good measure, Kaidan spread the warning a little further than he guessed the dark energy field stretched. A brief green flash from his comm band indicated an acknowledgement signal from the young biotic.
"How did..." Montrei trailed off, glancing at his CO.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kaidan saw Stenham tap the middle of his visor. "Nose for gravity, see. What do you figure it's putting out, Commander?" The corporal's tone was conversational as he leveled his rifle down the corridor.
Kaidan examined his omni-tool as it ran through several wavelengths. "I'm guessing lethal." Enough, he supposed, to suffocate the unfortunate intruder under his own body weight.
"Shee-it. Hope the Spectre's paying attention."
"She'll be fine." During the pre-drop briefing, Kaidan hadn't failed to note the amp fitted into her armor's back collar.
Stenham drummed his fingers against his rifle grip. "Daylight's burning, Montrei."
The private swept his omni-tool back, teeth bared in a flash of frustration. "Well gee, I'm sorry they didn't install a cutoff switch on-"
"Hell," Stenham muttered. His assault rifle roared to life.
Kaidan spun around to see a group of armored mercenaries across the junction. Surprise painted their faces for only a moment before their arms shot for their own weapons. The drones bobbed up toward the ceiling, firing over the squad's heads and weaving evasive figure-eights. Returning fire with his heavy pistol, Kaidan pressed himself against the wall. The tracerless rounds seemed to vanish into the hallway. Even as he tracked a merc dodging into cover, something in his head registered that their opponents seemed to be aiming far too high.
"I'm hitting air!" Stenham said between his teeth.
In a flash, Kaidan understood. The mercs' targeting systems were calibrated to compensate for the steep yaw in gravity well in the middle of the corridor. Without more accurate numbers on the field output, his team couldn't match them. Unless he changed the fight's parameters now, they would have to retreat.
"Montrei!" he snapped, pushing a charged tech grenade into his weapon rail.
The private was huddled in the shadow of a bulkhead. "Still working!"
Kaidan tried to force his voice to level as a line of sparks stitched along the floor, too close to his feet. "Your best guess, Private!"
A flash in his HUD showed glowing yellow lines, hazy, looping into the southern corridor. Kaidan drew two quick breaths, then gestured, forcing dark energy around himself and through the AEGIS pickups woven through his armor. The indistinct ripple of blue snapped into focus around him, shimmering plates of intense dampening field woven out of his own power output.
Learning to concentrate around and through the dampening fields was a just as much a trial as getting them ignited in the first place. Impacts made the AEGIS flash and sparkle as he jumped out into the corridor. Kaidan imagined the crush plate's field as a thundering waterfall. Stopping it was an impossibility, but deflecting it, just for a moment, would give him the opening he needed. He threw out his hand, sending a wave of dark energy forward. It crashed into the artificially generated gravity in a flare of blue distortion, knifing hard into the sheeting energy pattern.
Teeth bared against the strain, he hardly noticed the thud of the grenade leaving his pistol. He saw the spark of it rebounding into the left-hand corridor. The gunfire from beyond the junction wavered, there was a startled shout, followed by a sharp electrical crack.
The gravity in front of him cut out with a billowing wobble that made him stumble. Using the sudden momentum, Kaidan swept his dark energy out and ahead as he lurched forward. Abruptly free from the conflict with the crush-plate, his field exploded down the hall, rolling off the walls and blowing two pirates off their feet. His heart climbed into his throat as his feet propelled him across the nondescript section of floor that moments before had been putting out enough gravity to break his legs.
Against the knot of expectation in his stomach, Kaidan didn't fall flat on his face. A figure flashed to his right. He snapped his pistol out and fired into it, catching the surprised merc in the torso with two rounds, driving him back. Even as he dodged into the corridor to his left, he could hear the choked, high-pitch whine of the nearby capacitors recovering their lost charge. Gunfire chattered along the walls and slammed into his hardened shields.
Shouting. His helmet pickups dimmed the worst of a thunderous boom as a grenade detonated in the junction. Theirs or the pirates', he couldn't tell, but a flare of heated shrapnel lit up his peripheral vision as he rolled into the meager cover of a projecting bulkhead.
In the mayhem, he still felt it- the surge of the re-awakening element zero core, so close it felt like a fist closing around his brain. He whirled toward the sensation and fired into it, his pistol bucking in his hand until the heat clip overcharged and hissed.
For a breathless moment, he stared at the half-dozen thumb-sized holes in the wall plating, convinced he'd wasted the effort and left himself trapped on the wrong side of the crush-plate with several angry, armed mercenaries. Pounding footsteps bore down on him, rounds spewing from assault rifles. Kaidan had time to raise his arm to protect his face when he felt the nearby dark energy field spasm. It exploded outward, tearing the weakened bulkhead away and straight into the hapless mercs in a convulsion of gravitic forces.
Kaidan popped the glowing heat clip and staggered to his feet, fighting to re-orient himself as the shifting dark energy fields faded away. His pulse pounded in his ears. The holes he'd made with his pistol had become a large rent spewing sparks and smoke into the corridor.
"Nice one, Commander!" Stenham called.
Kaidan turned to see the corporal standing at the junction, a grin on his broad face.
"Don't get used to it," the commander shot back.
"Next time, bring a shotgun!"
"Let's move," Kaidan said through a clenched jaw. Damn it, I spent a year - more! - working on not being bothered by every little reminder.
"Commander!" The comm channel sprang to life with Odell's voice. "We've engaged in the main warehouse!"
There was no further sense in keeping to the burst protocol. "We're closing on your position, Chief," Kaidan called back, increasing his pace.
"Watch it!" Amari barked. "LVMRs!"
We had to after an arms dealer- Kaidan broke into a run, pounding down the corridor with the other marines on his heels. His HUD lead him unerringly, passing some kind of kitchen to a large open door. Dots floated in his vision as he burst through. His own team marked in green, and red dots appearing as they were scanned and logged as hostile targets by their CICVI. Eschewing a launcher, Stenham heaved a grenade overhand. It sailed in an arc over the stacked crates, heading for the red.
A humanoid form flashed in Kaidan's vision. His HUD said it wasn't one of his team. The instinct pushed, and pushed hard- cover. But his nerves sang in harmony with the AEGIS pickups, goading him. It bestowed on him a few more seconds than most.
The drones whined over his shoulder, skating on their invisible rails, spewing covering fire.
What would you do with a few extra seconds?
Kaidan's shield flashed and the merc died quickly, neck broken. The focused strike, once so reactive, came easily now. Exertion burned through his lungs. A cleansing feeling that wiped away the noise.
Tension on the fault line-
Noise. Gunfire. An explosion sounded far too close, and a fist-sized hole appeared in the thick metal crate a meter away. A warning light flickered in Kaidan's HUD. Odell's armor had sustained damage, but his vitals were stable. Too close. Another explosion. He stumbled.
Cover was becoming meaningless. Soon, it would all be full of holes. "Amari, shut that thing up!" he shouted into his comms.
"I've got no LOS!" the sniper called back.
Kaidan risked a peek around his hiding place. Several large, twisted holes adorned the walls. He opened his mouth to shout to Montrei when the door at the back of the warehouse cycled open. He caught a flash of gunmetal armor, and gunfire and shouts erupted behind their enemy's lines.
"But I think our problem just got solved," Amari quipped.
The fight went out of the mercs after that. One of them spiralled into the air, wreathed in blue, easy prey for the sniper. The sounds that echoed around the warehouse spoke of the sudden confusion as the Spectre made short work of the holdouts. Kaidan's team dispatched those that fled her wrath.
Several tense seconds of silence passed. Kaidan's comm channel clicked, and the Spectre spoke. "The way is clear."
"The living quarters-"
Kaidan exhaled. "Odell?"
"Fine," came the sullen reply.
Kaidan pushed himself up and made his way to the center of the warehouse. His squad emerged one by one from their places. Amari still had her sniper rifle held close to her body as if she expected the crates to unfold into new threats. Odell held his arm clasped firmly against himself, his face drawn down into a scowl dark enough to flay the ablating off a Grizzly. His arm was speckled with blackened divots, and a large section of his shoulder plate was missing. Kaidan nodded to each in turn.
Montrei was drawn to the crates that stood open, and he peered in with evident interest.
"Are the slaves okay?' Wickham asked.
"Indentured servants," the Spectre said, emerging from the rear, "lately from Illium." A flick of mandibles from beneath her visor perhaps betrayed what little she thought of the practice. She glanced at her omni-tool, which shifted with activity. "My intrusion programs are working on their network even now. We will soon have the information we came for."
"Not looking forward to too many mercs getting their hands on this kind of weapon," Montrei said, waving toward the crates.
"Someone else was here," the Spectre's voice purred close to Kaidan, tilting in speculation. Her armored boots made surprisingly little sound as she paced past him.
Stenham plucked a finger-sized bullet from the crate and examined it, his lip lifting skeptically. "This isn't a standard slug. How do you fire a round that size without taking your arm off?"
"Low muzzle velocity, that's how," Montrei said.
"Or perhaps," the Spectre continued, ignoring the human marines as her eyes traveled the length of the room, "that someone is still here..."
Montrei gestured. "It's not trying to get through your shield. There's an internal gyro. As soon as it senses the the slowdown caused by a kinetic barrier, it blows." He pointed to the tip. "Self-propelled armor-piercing shaped charge exits the casing at point-blank range... probably past your shield."
The corporal's eyebrows went up. "Nasty piece of work."
"Luckily for us, it's a fucking expensive piece of work." Montrei twisted his SMG around in his hand and tapped the ammo slug casing. "I could put a banana in there and expect at least a little stopping power. But once you run out of LVMR rounds, it's just an ugly piece of ballast."
"What's this clown's name again? Heck?"
Stenham laughed. "Not much better!"
"Donovan Hock," the Spectre said, half to herself as she touched one of the LVMR launchers.
"Commander." Wickham was fiddling with her ever-present omni-tool. "I'm getting some strange readings."
"Yes... still here," Spectre Krannas murmured.
Kaidan turned slightly away from the turian's looming presence. "What kind of readings?"
"Something funny in the EM band. Trace heat. There's movement in here that isn't us."
"I suppose I've worn out my welcome."
Kaidan snapped his around to face the new voice as he hand went to his pistol. A cascading shimmer emerged from behind the crates. It coalesced into a feminine shape as the stealth field slithered back across a network of tiny emitter nodes packed far more tightly than Kaidan had ever seen. A small fortune of scattering technology wrapped around hands raised in a peacemaker gesture.
"Commander, is it?" the woman asked, facing him. Her eyes glinted from under the shadows of a deep hood. "I would like to surrender myself to your custody."
Perhaps it was the lingering adrenaline of the fight, but it was one of those moments when everything around Kaidan seemed crystal clear. The subtle stress the strange woman placed on the word 'your', even as the smallest of knowing smiles played around her lips. The quiet hiss from the turian. In the gap of stunned silence that followed, the words of the song that had been dogging Kaidan finally popped into his head.
Tension on the fault line lighting fires on my horizon