SSV Monongahela, Indris System, Upper Camala Orbit.
It had been eleven months, two weeks, four days, thirteen hours, and one minute since Ambassador Harland Rowe received judgment from the Council as to humanity's place in the civilized galaxy.
Private First Class Mitchell Young only kept count for one reason. His little brother was among the one hundred thousand relocated to the Citadel as part of the joint Alliance-Council experiment to see if humanity could meld with the greater galactic society. And for a while, based solely on vid updates sent by his brother via tenuous extranet connection, it seemed that things were optimistic. But all of that changed when Act 24-21H was repealed, and humanity was told to leave.
Mitchell's brother, Adrian, did not take the news well. He went dark for several days after the announcement, and while Mitchell was receiving a battle briefing from Chief Wesley, his omni-tool lit up with a series of encrypted messages.
Adrian had willingly joined Jacob Krieger's resistance movement on the station. Just receiving these messages, if found out, could violate Mitchell's security clearance and have him detained in an Alliance brig until an investigation was complete.
He had to make sure he was always alone when he viewed these messages. They always worried him, and the last few horrified him. Adrian's messages had become increasingly...disturbing. Adrian was a kind, almost timid person. Never roused to fight, never considered narrow-minded or bigoted. Hell, he had been in relationships with several asari and a turian woman. But his messages after the act was struck down...disturbed Mitchell.
Adrian spoke of being willing to die to take the Citadel from the "oppressors" despite the fact they were outnumbered, quite optimistically, three-to-one by C-Sec forces.
He looked gaunt. Eyes sunk deep into his skull. Adrian was obviously malnourished. Dirty. But there was something behind the angry look in his eyes. Something burnt deep in his glare to the camera that sent chills down Mitchell's spine. Like liquid nitrogen being pumped right into his marrow.
Adrian's messages ceased about three or four weeks ago.
"I uhh...don't know where we're pushing next, after Redbrick Plaza." He sat, with the camera drone floating a few feet away from him. Adrian was pressed up against a wall, the occasional pops of sustained light machine gun fire could be heard in the background. He wore dirty fatigues with matching dark tan jackboots, something that raiders out on the jungle worlds wore. A messy mix of greens, tans, and browns made for an effective pattern in the forests of Pragia or Eden Prime. But not on the Citadel.
He held an Avenger in one hand, by the looks of the shortened barrel and stock it appeared to be the M8A3 carbine variant...Krieger's militia seemed to have provided additional modifications to the weapon. The scope had been removed and in its place were comparatively primitive iron sights running along the length of the top rail. A grenade launcher was added underneath the barrel, or perhaps it was a compact shotgun meant for breaching doors with burner slugs, Mitchell couldn't tell from the grainy feed.
"But don't worry about me, Mitch." Adrian smiled at the camera. A genuine one. "I uh...I'm fighting for something that's...right, I think"
A sharp inhale, the carbine in his hand shifted, he placed it across his thighs as he rubbed his face with both hands. Adrian looked back up at the camera. He just kept staring for what felt like ages, not a peep as his gray eyes became full of tears, silently drifting down his dirt-stained cheeks. Every time Mitchell replayed this final transmission, it always brought water to his eyes.
"I'm so fucking scared, dude. I've seen people bleed out in front of me...guts on the floor...there was this kid turian, couldn't have been older than like ten...his head all split in half...I could see his fucking brains, man..." Adrian leaned forward, his eyes connecting with Mitchell's. Tears were flowing down his cheeks.
The Avenger carbine was picked back up, he racked the charging handle, and the weapon hummed to life. His tears stopped. His whole demeanor changed, and there was nothing that the static of the video feed could do to change that. This wasn't Adrian anymore. "I don't want to die, but at the same time...I'll do anything to make sure we can stay here, safe. And if that means doing whatever Krieger needs us to do, then I'm all in."
A quick extension, and Adrian's palm filled the screen, and then the message went dark. Mitchell hadn't heard from his brother since. All he wanted to do was get to the Citadel and cut a swath to his brother. And he was here, sitting in the drop bay of the SSV Monongahela, waiting for some Alliance Army officer to brief him.
Mitchell felt a hard slap across his back, startling him and by instinct shutting off his omni-tool. He turned to find the newly-promoted Sergeant Joanna Cortoza standing before him, her dirty-red hair wrapped in a loose bun, strands drooping over her left eye.
"You good, pri?" She asked with a grin, using the derogatory (but occasionally affectionate) term for a lower enlisted grunt.
His hands went to the small of his back at the position of parade rest, as he stammered his response, "U-Uh roger, Sergeant Cortoza." He lithely locked his omni-tool with a quick gesture of his left thumb against his palm, silencing any more notifications he could receive. "Just nervous," he quickly made up an excuse. "Never been a part of a ground assault. Not in combat."
"Besides when we landed on Proxima Noble, you mean?" Her hard expression wavered, her light green eyes shifted to the floor. The hardass demeanor she constantly put on in front of everyone softened for a moment. "Shit was fuckin' whack. The bodies with their throats slit..." She shuddered. Everyone on the team remembered how broken up she was seeing that kind of carnage. Walking through pools of blood that belonged to people was something nobody on the team experienced before. "We'll do okay, alright, pri? We got Chief Wesley with us. He's seen this shit before. Hell, he survived the Battle of Tel."
Mitchell's brow furrowed, "I didn't know that."
"Yeah." Cortoza's hand came up to brush her slick her loose strands of hair back. She glanced over to Chief Wesley, who was over on the opposite end of the deck. "He's a hard old fuck...if he's been going on this long through everything...then we'll be okay."
Mitchell sighed nervously. "I hope so, sergeant."
A sharp ring played over the Monongahela's intercom, signaling a ranking officer had stepped onto the deck. A marine in the distance immediately cried out to support the alarm.
"Officer on deck!"
Marston Wesley sized up the Alliance Army officer in front of him.
He wasn't donning combat armor, instead the officer wore the iconic "Pinks and Greens", commonly attributed to the glory days of the American army during the Second World War. A dark brown jacket and tie, complimented with a lighter khaki shirt and pants, bearing every ribbon he had earned. On each shoulder came pinned golden oak leaves, showing he was a major. The only weapon he carried was an M3 Predator folded up tightly against his hip, stowed in an almost archaic Sam Browne belt.
Crossed rifles sat upon his collar, and a sky blue cord dangled from his right shoulder going underneath his armpit, indicating the officer was an infantryman. No badges on his chest indicating he had experienced combat as an infantryman.
The operations chief wasn't impressed. If anything that damned uniform brought nothing but rage to Marston.
Marston used to be in the Army, he signed his initial enlistment a few weeks before Relay 314 happened. Originally he had joined up as a vehicle systems repair technician, his primary duties were to ensure the computer and mechanical systems aboard vehicles like the Grizzly Armored Personnel Carrier kept running despite damage or constant use. He had signed up to join the Alliance as a way of hopefully paying for his trade school. A family of mechanics, welders, and technicians going back generations, Marston only knew the value of working with his hands on machines.
When he saw the turians break from FTL and engage Alliance ships on the vids, he marched back into the recruitment office in a teenage fervor, demanding that he either got re-classed to the infantry or he'd walk out.
He shipped to the Alwyn Cashe Infantry Training Center at Porto Alegre, Brazil four days later. For twenty-two harsh weeks Marston was molded into an infantryman, ready to bring the fight to the "turian menace".
His first and only assignment as an Alliance Army soldier was to the border world of Tel, found on the edges of the Maroon Sea within the Chayal System. Tel was viewed as a strategic "jump point" for FTL explorers. The planet was rich in resources, had a relatively habitable atmosphere, and the colonies there benefited from the traffic of the mass relay that orbited the planet.
This relay directly guided ships from Tel back to the Arcturus Relay...
It didn't take long for the Turian Hegemony to figure out why Tel was a tactical goldmine. Take Tel and her relay, have a direct line back to Arcturus Station and you cut off the head of your adversary.
The Alliance had foreseen this at the time, and established surface-to-orbit batteries on the surface of Tel, and the entirety of Third Fleet was headquartered there to defend the planet and her relay. Interwoven with the fields of fire from the batteries were automated, roving satellites in Tel's orbit that carried anti-ship cruise missiles, allowing almost total coverage across the entire planet. Fighter patrols scoped out and combed over every disturbance that scanners indicated. Joint marine and army zero-gravity assaults, commonly referred to as "zee-gee jumps", dropped to planet and exo-planet surfaces to investigate anything out of the norm in anticipation of a greater confrontation coming to the Chayal System.
Everything about that planet and its orbit was designed to defend the relay in its reach.
The late General Haysworth had described Tel as a "fortress world" and the "pinnacle of the Alliance's militaristic might".
Despite all of these defenses, the turians had managed to infiltrate the Chayal System. Some kind of stealth tech that they had developed during the early 2150s allowed them to remain nearly invisible to all Alliance early warning systems...they employed their stealth to lethal effectiveness.
The attack on Tel itself was surgical. The fact that Alliance historians still call it the Battle of Tel was generous to say the least.
Turian frigates struck first. Their job was to break from using their stealth tech and hit Alliance cruisers with as much ordnance as possible in order to break kinetic barriers. Turian dreadnoughts broke stealth next, to provide the finishing blows from their massive main guns.
And just like that...most of Third Fleet and any orbital defenses were destroyed in a matter of days. Tel was bombarded endlessly with the husks of ships and orbital stations for what felt like weeks, molten frames of once-mighty warbirds falling from the sky. The turian navy had cut through most of Third Fleet by the time they had breached Tel's orbit, rendering any assistance to Tel itself impossible.
Without the overwatch of naval guns in Tel's orbit, the army was on its own to defend the surface.
97 hours after the turians broke orbit, tactical nuclear devices were emplaced by turian special forces units at strategic locations all across Tel. They were able to bypass entire brigades of emplaced ground forces on Tel's surface without detection or very little resistance.
Marston's unit had been assigned to protect one of the the surface-to-orbit batteries from turian assault. They had encountered firsthand turian Cabals...the Turian Hierarchy's secretive biotic special forces units.
Sniper fire was harassing his company, keeping them in their makeshift trenches at the base of the orbital gun they were protecting. His company commander, Captain Diya Aaorhi, had enough of the sniper fire.
She ordered two of her three platoons to immediately charge at the turians. The lieutenants under her argued there wasn't enough cover between the orbital battery and the woodline that the sniper fire was coming from, they they'd be cut down before they'd get close.
Captain Aaorhi ordered them to advance and wipe the turians out. She was confident between the quick advance of the maneuver element and the cover provided by those on overwatch the Alliance would quickly wipe the alien forces from the field.
Marston had been in the reserve platoon providing overwatch cover to the two advancing platoons. Approximately 90 soldiers...
And they had been slaughtered.
The Cabal had cut down the forward squads almost instantly. Biotic waves and interlocking fields of machine-gun fire turned people to masses of gory mush. Anyone who had been on the advance who survived the initial wave of biotics and gunfire didn't last much longer. The sniper fire had continued, and now with targets in the open, were able to cut down soldiers with deadly efficiency. Turian fire started to appear from allover, blanketing the defensive positions that Marston's platoon had occupied. His weapon had overheated four times during the waning firefight prior to being overrun. At the time he had figured there must have been at least a hundred turian soldiers.
One soldier getting torn apart stuck with Marston to this day.
A young trooper, an acquaintance of Marston's from another platoon. He had gotten drunk with him a few times over card games, but couldn't recall his name. That trooper was wounded in the field between Marston's platoon and the treeline, armor cracked from a zip of rifle fire, blood seeping through.
Slowly his wounded form started to glow an almost ethereal purple, and he lifted from the ground as if the hand of god himself grabbed him. The scream that came from his mouth still rattles in the back of Marston's mind, as the energy slowly ripped him in half. Torso one way, everything hips and below the other.
The explosion of red, the sickening crunching and tearing...that never leaves a person.
Marston's platoon, along with Captain Aaorhi and any remaining elements of the other two platoons had been quickly captured after the initial engagement and subsequent firefight. After seeing the trooper ripped in half, there was no fight left in the Alliance that day.
There had been only twelve turian soldiers in the Cabal that had attacked them. They hadn't taken a single casualty.
They were quickly shifted off-world, allowed the "privilege" of watching Tel's bombardment from the hold of a turian cruiser, all the while the tactical nukes turian special forces planted were detonated.
Except Private Wesley Marston didn't watch the bombardment. He didn't watch the hellfire ravage most of the landmass of Tel.
He stared down the incompetent officer that was Captain Aaorhi, who threw almost 90 lives away to the slaughter without a second thought, and then surrendered as the Cabal got close.
After Tel and his subsequent release back to the Alliance after the armistice was signed, Marston vowed to never wear an Army uniform again and requested a branch transfer to the Alliance Marine Corps. After months of paperwork going back and forth, his transfer was granted into his new job as an armored vehicle crewman, which he had built his career as.
And now, all these years later, he was standing before Army leadership again, hoping that whatever great scheme they had didn't lead to him and his men getting killed.
Mitchell gave a hard tug, and Ladybird's gunner's hatch fell and locked into place with a bass-filled thud. A sharp hiss filled the hull as the cabin pressurized itself from the outside world. He tucked himself into the gunner's seat and reached for one of the lead blocks stacked in a overhead panel.
With his right hand he pulled the charging handle to Ladybird's coaxial machine-gun all the way to the rear, and then slapped the lead block into the exposed recess on the bottom. The weapon's electronics hummed to life as he let the charging handle fly forward.
Mitchell bent over in his seat and shouted towards the front of the cabin as his right hand engaged the safety on the weapon, "Coax is up, chief!"
Chief Marston's rough voice quickly came back, "Check the main gun one last time..." A pause, Mitchell could practically hear the squint he was getting. "And put your fucking helmet on, pri! We're less than two minutes from a hot drop and you ain't got a brain bucket on, what the fuck?"
Embarrassed, he reached down between his feet and grabbed the helmet that was resting on the floor. It locked into the neck protectors on his armor, the dark-green visor of the helmet automatically dropped over his eyes and began running diagnostics across his HUD.
Syncing weapon and vehicle systems with user...Standby...
M35 "Mako" Infantry Fighting Vehicle...A2 Variant...Urban Assault Upgrade Suite detected...Standby...
"My bad, Chief Wesley." Mitchell sheepishly apologized. He felt a hard tap against his calf. He could already tell it was Sergeant Cortoza in the crew area. She didn't say anything, but it was the kind of rap against his leg letting him know that he was smarter than leaving his helmet on the floor.
He snapped out of the small pity party he held for himself and did a final check on Ladybird's 155-millimeter main gun. Running his hands over the tracks of the dual helical magazines behind him, ensuring all the shells fit snug against one another.
Main gun magazine rotation...OK...laser rangefinder...OK...Autoloader...
Mitchell heard the distinct whirrrrrr and crack! of the robotic arm guiding and locking a high-explosive shell into the Mako's breech.
Ladybird currently held a mix of armor penetrator, high-explosive, and white phosphorous illumination shells, in a 18-18-6 mix for a total of 42 shells that Mitchell could switch over to at any time. She had a flexible enough loadout between the coax and the main gun to take on just about any threat that wasn't a tank or an airborne gunship.
...IFF...three friendly M35A2s detected...User please confirm visual identification...
Mitchell could see the outline of three Makos in front of him on his HUD, beyond the confine's of his vehicle's hull. Their designations hovered over their outlined forms. Martha. Rosalynn. Jackie.
...Air conditioning NOT OK...run diagnostic?...
Mitchell sighed and hit skip. Fucking AC never worked in this thing. Grease monkeys were too damn lazy to ever get around to fixing it.
He grabbed the targeting joystick and traversed the turret a full 360 degrees one final time.
Traverse and elevation...OK...All systems OK...Happy hunting...
"All systems up!" Mitchell shouted to the crew as he pulled down the targeting computer's screen, the display revealing what the 'eyes' of Ladybird could see through her turret cameras. They were in the hanger of the Monongahela, fourth in line of four Makos sitting in the drop lane of the hanger bay. The last of the maintenance techs were heading for the aft bulkheads, after completing last minute adjustments to the vehicles before their drop.
He could feel Ladybird shift on her hydraulics as he felt his lungs rise into his throat. The frigate was breaking through Camala's upper atmosphere, that or kinetic barriers getting rocked by surface-to-orbit antimatter charges. Both felt similar on the descent.
As Mitchell understood it their mission was simple. Marines and Army soldiers would perform a joint assault on a major batarian element zero mining compound on Camala's surface. The Army provided ground troops, marines would provide armored vehicle escort. Alliance intelligence suggested this facility was possibly utilizing slave-labor to assist in element zero recovery operations. Intelligence also indicated that the area was also used as a major military outpost, though for what purpose they didn't know.
Land, kill the batarians, free any slaves, and secure the mining facility. Easy, right?
More turbulence rocked Ladybird and her crew. Mitchell bounced in his seat and smacked his head against the side of the auto-loader with a very audible bang.
Cortoza bust out laughing, and he could hear Chief Marston snicker under his breath.
"Told you 'bout your helmet, dumbass." Chief said almost affectionately. His tone went cold as he received a transmission over the radio from the Monongahela's pilot. "Get ready, we're about to drop! Cortoza?"
"Go ahead, Chief!" The sergeant shouted back as the turbulence and shaking began to get more frequent. You couldn't tell underneath her kevlar-lined gloves, but her knuckles were ghost white from a death grip on her M-97 marksman rifle.
"If we have to dismount Ladybird for whatever reason, I want you out first with Fuller. You cover long range targets, Fuller takes anything short with his machine-gun. Got it, sergeant?"
"Fuck yeah, Chief Marston!" The newly-minted sergeant slapped Corporal Fuller's thigh, who occupied the seat next to her. "You ready, Fuller!?"
Fuller's head whipped to the side as another atmospheric gut punch rocked the crew bay. "My dick's gettin' hard thinking about all those four-eyed fucks I'll get to smoke."
"Oo-fucking-rah, marine." Cortoza whispered, mostly to herself as her eyes turned to the floor. She wouldn't admit to anyone how fucking terrified she was in this very moment. She'd take that to her grave.
She knew being scared was normal. But any fear she displayed in front of her marines would be perceived as cowardice.
The turbulence began to even out, and Mitchell's lungs began to bottom out back where they were supposed to be within his chest.
"Get ready!" Chief Marston shouted again, as a tone filled the crew's ears via their integrated headsets.
Lungs shooting right into his chest, Mitchell threw his hands to the turret ceiling as a cacophonous boom filled Ladybird's cabin. All four infantry fighting vehicles were released from the Monongahela's belly at hundreds of miles per hour in low atmosphere.
Mitchell's hands reached out to the edges of the targeting computer in a vice grip as he felt his whole body begin to lift from his seat in the free fall.
"Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuckfuckfuckgoddamnfuckfuckfuckfuck!" What now felt like haymakers rocked Ladybird as she fell and fell, and Mitchell felt like he was going to die. He hated the Mako simulators aboard the Xerxes. He hated the live fire exercises he conducted back on Eden Prime a year and a half ago.
Fuck dropping in the Mako. Fuck being stuck in its cramped turret. Fuck the damn-near straight vertical climbs it can do. Fuck the fact that it can roll over by just looking at the vehicle funny.
Fuck the fucking Mako.
"Brace for impact!"
The retrorockets engaged, and the free fall everyone within Ladybird was experiencing quickly ceased, and brought everyone back to their seats. Six tires quickly made contact with the mucky sand of Camala, and skipped off the surface like a basketball.
Mitchell slammed face-first into the targeting computer's screen, and the screen flashed white before the live feed from the turret camera returned. Mitchell also saw white for a moment as his head recoiled off the computer and into the arm of the auto-loader off to his right. To say it hurt was an understatement.
The crew could hear the grinding of rubber against sand, and the vehicle came to a sharp, hard shift. The rear of the Mako left the ground, whipping everyone in the crew bay around as the front of the IFV dug hard into the sand. Ladybird skidded a full 180 degrees before coming to a screeching halt as all six tires finally settled onto the surface of Camala.
They had landed. Seemingly in one piece.
Radio transmissions from the other vehicles in the drop flowed over the shared net between the marines.
"All, this is Hightower Four-Four, all wheels down, over." Four-Four was Jackie, headed by Chief Renteria. Good group of marines, aggressive but disciplined.
"Hightower Four-Two, we're up, over." Martha. Chief O'Donnell. She was ice cold, but she had the youngest crew, timid to a fault.
"Hightower Four-Niner, my left traversal got fucked in the drop, slow as shit. But we're good, over." Rosalynn. Chief Vernier. Like Marston, had been on the bad end of some of the worst fighting during the First Contact War. He was hard on his troops, always at the razor's edge of pushing them over the line. He had been reported on three occasions for borderline toxic behavior to his troops. But they always came back unscathed, his combat record impeccable. So the Alliance brushed the allegations aside in order to keep experienced non-commissioned officers in house.
Chief Marston turned to look back into the crew bay, "Everyone good?"
Cortoza slapped Mitchell's leg again. He responded with a lazy kick back her way, which obviously didn't come close to her. She snickered.
"We're up, Chief. Is Walton good?"
The Chief's matte black visor turned to the driver on his left, who currently had his hands wrapped around Ladybird's controls.
"I'm good, guys." Walton said quietly as he depressed the accelerator, engines beginning to roar to life. "Brakes will be a bit touch-and-go from that landing, we came in hard...but I'll manage it." The Mako began to push in a slow half-circle to the right, the sand underneath tires slowing any momentum. "Where to, Chief?"
"All Hightower elements, this is Hightower Four-Seven." Marston's omni-tool came to life, syncing with Ladybird's tactical computer. His fingers deftly danced over the display, marking a route across a holo-map on the fly. "Follow the designated waypoints to the rendezvous point with Third Infantry dismounts. Fucking confirm your targets on thermals. Don't want friendly fire out here."
Walton floored the throttle, and the Mako picked up into high gear towards her target.
Mitchell pressed his thumb nervously against the safety to the coax and main gun, and offset his turret as Ladybird fell in behind the three other Makos as they headed northwest towards the mining facility.
The low hum of the Mako's engine as it idled almost lulled Mitchell to sleep. When the vehicle remained stationary, the vibrations from the engine rattled the crew to a point of almost relaxation. The constant droning of the engine drowned out any other noise, for better or for worse.
Jackie and Martha had pushed further east with the rest of the infantrymen after the IFVs linked in with the dismounts at the designated rendezvous point. Now it was just Vernier and his crew with Rosalynn, Ladybird and her crew, and third platoon, Third Infantry.
A hoarse, female voice came over the radio. She sounded tired, as was probably most of the Third Infantry dismounts that had landed on Camala. They had inserted the day before and conducted a foot march from their insertion point over thirty miles away. A thirty mile march in twenty-four hours under a full combat load was no small feat, even with the assistance that the weight-bearing servos built into Alliance hardsuits gave.
"Hightower Four-Seven, this is Panther Three-Six."
Mitchell shifted his turret so the camera barely got the form of a female trooper on his thermals. She was kneeling at the base of the sand dune, an Avenger rifle resting on the meat of her thigh, right hand wrapped around the pistol grip, left pressed up against the transmitter of her helmet.
Scanning...the text read as it scrolled across Mitchell's HUD...Confirmed...First Lieutenant Zsofia van de Haar. Second Battalion, 69th Armored Regiment...
Her armor was similar enough to Alliance Marine hardsuits. Standard makeup of ceramic plating and kinetic barrier protection, but the Army was far less lenient with coloring then the Marine Corps had been. Armor had to be camouflaged to match the environment, no room for expression. Where a Marine machine-gunner had a pin-up asari with her tits out on their shoulder pauldron, the Army only allowed division level insignias.
Third Infantry's looked like this...broken tele-screen to Mitchell. It was this odd square of alternating white and blue lines in a diagonal fashion...he didn't get the symbolism behind it.
"Send it, ma'am." Marston replied in a low tone as he squinted against his screen. The thermal image revealed very little about the compound. Beyond the low, barbed wire fences he could make out a few structures of varying height, none taller than a few stories.
But nobody was patrolling the grounds. Nobody was working in the dig pit towards the central area of the compound. Large pieces of mining equipment and their associated vehicles lay around unattended. Random fires were burning in tiny pits, smoke trailing lazily into the dark sky.
Those were warming fires...in burn barrels...and yet no one congregated around them during the cold desert night.
The darkness of Camala's night did not help much. Outside of night vision or thermal assistance, only dark shapes could be roughly discerned from the blurry darkness. It was like trying to discern shapes made of blank ink on a background of tar. Your eyes would play tricks on you in this kind of darkness. Shapes would move even though the shapes didn't exist. Single targets could turn into a shadowy mass the size of a platoon sprawling across a field given enough sleep deprivation.
"This whole facility is quiet...I don't like it." A short pause.
None of this made sense. No one working meant no productivity...no productivity no product. And batarians were famous for their brutal efficiency when it came to producing a product.
Mitchell traversed the main gun to the right. Through his computer screen he could see at least three dozen dismounted infantryman in the prone upon a sand dune looking over the facility. Their forms glowed white-hot against a dark background on his thermals. All guns pointed towards targets that seemed to be absent.
Beyond the troopers was a building, approximately one hundred meters beyond the fence. It stood six stories tall, made of a concrete base and metal frame. Windows lined every floor, with the first, third, and fifth floors being large, office-like windows. Almost covering floor to ceiling. Furniture and foil sheets had been placed up against or on the windows to prevent the naked eye and thermal systems from seeing too deep inside. The second, fourth, and sixth floors had small, porthole windows, placed several meters apart from one another. Perfect for snipers or a machine-gun team to lay fires and then relocate if necessary.
"Are you guys seeing anything? We're like...two-fifty meters away and I can see fuck all, over."
Mitchell squinted hard against his screen, hoping to pick out something...anything to report to Chief Wesley. The buildings directly beyond the fenceline were as dark on his screen as the rest of the night. It was unnerving. There seemed to be nothing here.
His heart was pounding in his ears, he was expecting something to happen, for him to finally bring the fight back to the batarians. He still hadn't fired any weapon of his in combat. His Revenant...his coax...his main gun...nothing. He felt fucking useless compared to the marines who had fought with Commander Ryker and Travak not too long ago, destroying batarian assaults on Callista. They had been ordered to wait in reserve in Callista's orbit.
"Nothing, Chief." Mitchell called back in a disappointed tone, his finger floating just above the trigger to the main gun. "If they're out there, they're hiding pretty well."
"Ma'am, my guys don't have shit on thermals. You're clear to push towards the objective. We got you on overwatch, over."
The white-hot masses began to rise. Mitchell counted at least two dozen rise from the rest of the group, they disappeared briefly as they slid down the dune and approached the fenceline, weapons raised.
"Panther moving, keep us covered, Hightower. Three-Six out."
The first squad of Alliance soldiers hit the fence line. A bright green omni-blade appeared in the darkness, the edge white-hot. It cut through the metal barrier like boiling water through a block of ice, and the first soldier pushed through the hole created, her rifle raised.
Mitchell's heart pounded in his ears as he swallowed hard. His eyes strained against the bright screen inside Ladybird's dark hull. Nothing about this felt right. Nevertheless he adjusted the parameters of his rangefinder, the laser adjusting the main and coax guns to a range just beyond the fences.
The female trooper kept pushing. Two more infilled behind her, weapons pointed to either side of her.
Windows all along the building shattered.
Streaks of white-hot fire cut through the tar of the night. The murky sand lit up a bright tan as tracer after tracer round flew through the blackness. Booms of gunfire followed.
The trooper dropped to the sand, her rifle aimed toward the building in front of her, propped up on two elbows. She fired a burst of rounds into the building, and soon the entirety of the firepower of the troopers behind her followed.
Grenades from grenade launchers arced over the fenceline and into the building, the explosion shattering glass and turning the room as bright as the sun as flames engulfed whoever was inside.
Chaotic radio chatter filled his ears.
"All Panther Three elements, this is Lieutenant van de Haar! Focus your fire on the target building, aim for the windows, over!"
"I can't see anyone inside! Dudes might be shooting and scooting along the whole building, ma'am!"
Mitchell pressed his thumb against the safety to his coax, disengaging the only thing that would prevent him from laying down a swath of machine-gun fire on the building.
Through his thermals Mitchell could see the shields of the female infantryman flash and fail. A streak of white-hot gore exploded out of the front of her helmet. Her rifle barrel slumped forward and dug muzzle-first into the sand. A maelstrom of bullets consumed her form.
A rocket blasted through a porthole window from the sixth floor window, and whizzed past the troopers on the sand dune, missing them by barely a meter.
"YOUNG! OPEN FUCKING FIRE!"
Mitchell pulled the crosshairs over the sixth floor of the facility, where the rocket had blasted towards the Alliance troopers. Now machine-gun fire burst through various windows along the floor, forcing the Army troopers further behind the sand dune. Mitchell saw the limp form of another trooper that had gotten hit slide down the dune, their blood leaving a white-hot trail down the embankment on his thermals.
A combat medic disengaged from the firefight, sliding feet-first like a baseball player while simultaneously placing her rifle across her back and pulling out her thigh-strapped casualty kit.
Some of those rounds were now bouncing off Ladybird's kinetic barriers.
"On the way!" Mitchell shouted as hard as he could, the response that notified the crew rounds were being sent downrange. A gunner was never to send rounds downrange unless using this response, so the whole crew, mounted or dismounted, could be aware of the Mako's gun going live.
Fratricide was unacceptable across the entire Alliance military, but especially to the corps of the infantry fighting vehicle crews. They had prided themselves on never having a friendly fire incident going all the way back to the creation of the Alliance.
The tell-tale chattering of a Mako's coax filled the cabin, as Mitchell poured over seventy rounds into the building in his first "burst" of fire. He could feel the constant reverberations of the gun sending mass-accelerated round after mass-accelerated round at his target, the slight shift the hull made against the hydraulics of all six wheels as it maintained balance.
The fire from the sixth floor temporarily ceased as the joint marine and army force laid down a swath of fire against the building, chunks of concrete and metal beginning to chip and fall away.
"Scanning for new targets!" The gunner called out, as he shifted the turret to a new sector to the left of the building.
Chief Wesley's harsh voice came up from the driver's cabin. "Young! We got fucking troopers getting schwacked out there, and you're up there in the goddamn gun waiting for an order to fire!"
"Sorry, Chief." Mitchell said timidly, as he realigned his crosshairs on a batarian soldier who had silhouetted himself against a porthole window.
"On the way!"
He let out a much more conservative blast from the coaxial gun, and turned the porthole to particles. Too much dust and debris flying out from the destruction to confirm a kill.
"I don't give a fuck if you're sorry! Do your fucking job, or I'll leave your ass on this planet and find someone who can!" He felt Chief Marston eyes glaring at him, through the hull of Ladybird. "If you ever wait on my orders to open fire when we got guys out there dying...then get the fuck out of my Mako! If you have a clear shot that I don't see, fucking take it!"
"Roger, Chief! I'm fucking sorry!"
Chief Wesley immediately turned his attention back to the conflict, and called over the radio "Hightower Four-Niner, this is Four-Seven!"
"Send it." Vernier's harsh tone was only slightly deafened by the sound of his coax firing in the background of the transmission.
"Push us left of the building, Walton! Get us past the troopers and draw fire away from them!" Wesley's finger pointed out the front window of the Mako towards just beyond the left side of the building, approximately just fifty meters away.
The engine revved hard as Walton floored it again, and Ladybird skirted around the left side of the sand dune, Army troopers rolling away from the path of the vehicle. Mitchell kept up the fire along the building, sending bursts of his coax across the front of the structure as he tried his best to protect the Third Infantry troopers.
"Vernier, I need your crew to keep covering fire for Panther! We're going to smoke 'em out."
"Rosalynn has you all covered. Cook the bastards, frère. Four-Niner out."
Walton hit the brakes hard, and dragged the wheel of Ladybird hard to the right, fishtailing her rear away from the building. Her bow now faced the building from the side, where a tall, narrow slab of concrete and metal faced the the IFV.
"Gunner!" Wesley's voice rattled the cabin, and immediately Mitchell tensed up, his finger pressing against the trigger again. "Night vision and follow my laser! Identify target, center of third third floor of the target building."
An infrared laser cut through the darkness of Camala, a spectral beam of light unseen to the naked eye splashed against the gray concrete wall. Mitchell switched from thermal to night vision on his screen, and white-black inkiness gave way to a sickly greenish-white hue, and found his target.
The rattle of the main gun moving into position vibrated against the controls in Mitchell's hands, it moved so quick yet felt like an eternity and a half.
"Gunner! Armor piercing, through the building!"
Mitchell's thumb flicked a small switch on Ladybird's joystick, and the main gun's arm whirred to life as it yanked out a high-explosive shell and rammed an AP shell home.
"On the way!" The explosion of the Mako's main gun was always deafening, rattling your eardrums to powder as it sent metal flying at your enemies at thousands of feet per second. Hydraulics shifted and squealed in pain as they were subjected to the force of the main gun's blast, before diligently resetting.
Chunks of stone and shards of metal danced away from a blast that vaporized anything immediately beyond the first wall, and the armored penetrator of the AP shell kept pushing, making foot-sized holes through wall after wall after wall before stopping somewhere deep within the reaches of the stone and metal monolith.
Any windows that were on the side of the building suddenly erupted with gunfire, all pointed at Ladybird.
As the heat shifted away from Lieutenant van de Haar and her Third Infantry troopers, Chief Wesley was already relaying new instructions.
"Gunner! White phosphorous illumination, into the target building! On my command!"
Instinctively a white phosphorous shell was loaded into the tube, years of training forced Mitchell's fingers into a rehearsed dance of forcing the controls of the vehicle to respond to his will. The AI whispered into his ear that his shell of choice was loaded.
"White phosphorous in the pipe!"
Wesley didn't hesitate, his words following almost immediately.
"On the way!"
The blast from the main gun was no different than normal, but yet this felt so much more deafening to the young private manning the turret. The concussive wave rocked him just that much harder, the punch of recoil reaching his teeth that much harder, as if a championship boxer had caught him just so perfectly on the chin.
The sparks that washed out the night vision on his screen were scattered all across Ladybird's bow. Though these "sparks" lingered for far longer than they should have, and began to burn the sand to glass as they rained to the ground. A five-thousand degree wildfire contained in the space of a marble. This same wildfire slammed into the target building at over six-thousand feet per second, and shattered almost every remaining window in the complex with a concussive force that Mitchell had never seen before.
A cacophony of voices flooded the radio. First was Lieutenant van de Haar.
"All Panther elements, cease fire cease fire!"
"Gunner, hold fire on the target building. Let Ladybird smoke 'em."
The building erupted in a sudden blaze, white fire spread from the center of the building outward. Portholes exploded outward in a blaze unlike a flamethrower.
Not soon after, on the ground floor, fireballs burst forth from the front entrance back towards the Third Infantry troopers. Except fireballs would have extinguished themselves almost immediately. Fireballs didn't stumble back and forth in agony.
Fireballs didn't scream.
There were no errors or malfunctions with Ladybird's auditory sensors.
More fireballs poured from the building. Writhing blazes of white flame that turned skin to boiling liquid, popping and sizzling like meat left under the broil of a flamethrower. Some fell to all fours and tried rolling, others just kept running, a few fell dead.
Mitchell immediately pulled on the trigger to the coax, and poured round after round into the fireballs.
Plumes of sand rose around one in particular as the flames danced into between impacts, unintelligibly dodging a quick end. Eventually a single tracer round skipped off Camala's sand and cut the flames in two. Mitchell followed through, cutting down the rest of what he hoped were burning batarians as they poured from the building. Bright orange tracers from the coax lit up the sand and night respectively, as orange flashes mixed with a phosphorous inferno. Eventually the coax overheated and ceased firing, giving off a harsh whining in Mitchell's ears.
Then the sound of his labored breathing filled the cabin, his thumb accidentally actuating the crew radio for everyone inside Ladybird to hear. Adrenaline had rattled every digit in his fingers, causing him to lose all focus of his surroundings. He could only hear his labored, haunted breathing.
A harsh punch against his leg.
"You good, brother? How'd it feel? Getting your dick wet?"
Mitchell couldn't even bring himself to look at her. To look at anyone. His gaze was locked on his screen. Onto one burning form, one that had somehow escaped his maelstrom of bullets as an attempted mercy kill, writhing back and forth on the ground. It wasn't a batarian.
It was a small quarian girl. He could tell from her burning, tattered suit...the helmeted head of an environmental suit. She was wailing, screaming to keelah and whoever else would hear her. Begging for it to end as the white phosphorous was burning her to the bone and marrow, leaving no skin, no muscle, no blood left.
Mitchell let loose a burst from the coax. A harsh, snapping chatter of gunfire brought silence to Camala's night.
The gunner ripped his helmet off his head, and vomited all over the controls before him.