The Siege of Shanxi

Chapter Twenty: The Scouring

I don't own BioWare

"It's intriguing when you think about it. A turian is generally slightly taller than your average human, probably weighs a bit more too. Both have similar pain tolerances, similar resistance to heat and exhaustion...humans do slightly better in the cold. But put a human and a turian in a fight, and most of the time people will bet on the human, even if they only win about half of their fights. Why? People expect that human to have something up his sleeve. Some dirty, unexpected surprise that is almost dishonourable, but always successful. That little scrap near Relay 314 gave them a rep, time will tell if they live up to it."-Aria T'Loak, Omega. (2162)

Williams still remembered his basic training. Off the hover bus at Camp Mathis, herded into the headquarters of Alpha Company, 7th Marine Recruit Training Battalion. Assigned to 4 Section, 3 Platoon under Corporal Tilly, Staff Sergeant Orwin, and Lieutenant Weir. For a kid who had grown up in a military family, the shouted orders and infuriated screaming were not quite confusing, but still terrifying.

Sixteen weeks, designed to teach recruits the basics of soldiering and prepare them for the even more demanding employment training that would await them at their chosen professions. From the very first day, they were beasted, abused, tormented and belittled. Individual identities were erased. No one was lesser or greater than his fellows, all were equally worthless.

They slept alongside each other in cramped barracks, made their beds, ironed their uniforms, polished brass until their fingers ached. They ran until their feet were sore and blistered. They did push ups for every single mistake, ran laps of the obstacle course for every misdemeanour, held their rifles at high port for hours for every patch of carbon found in a barrel.

But out of the fear and humiliation arose giants. Tough and ready men that the Corps could use, that the Corps could mould, upon whose shoulders the Corps would rest. Riflemen, gunners, scouts and snipers, all of them carrying the memories of a Drill Instructor's beating, and all of them cocky as hell that they had gone through hell and kept going.

It had taught him a valuable lesson. Adversity was fertilizer for character. To develop a human's spirit you had to test it. Starve, torment and then chip away till you had a decent human being. He'd kept it mind all through his military career, from OCS to Mars. And he would not forget it now. His men had been through their own trials before this war. They'd all made it. They just needed to make it a little further.

All around the command centre, the staff still sped through their work, plotting enemy movements and directing recon patrols to harass and engage. On the main battle lines, things were becoming too quiet for his liking. The enemy was preparing to hit, and hit hard. Next to him, now only handcuffed, stood the more attractive one of his prisoners.

"Do you have a confirmed count of your dead from the engagement at Relay 314?" Ceris rubbed her dry lips together, wishing for the thousandth time that her hosts shared the asari liking for temperate climates. The bunker was becoming stifling.

Colonel Pressly grunted. "Thirteen science vessels and one frigate. Eight confirmed lost with all hands. Three got off life boats which we recovered. The ASV Necessity and ASV Tolkein are presumed lost with all hands, along with the SSV Leyte Gulf."

"Why do you ask?" Williams tipped his water bottle over into a glass, then passed it to the asari.

"Because they learned your language from somewhere, and they learned it well." Ceris took a sip of the cool liquid and sighed. Gratitude was an emotion that transcended species, evidently. "Even an auto-translator can't do much if it doesn't hear real conversation, with context to the words it hears."

"They've taken their share of prisoners. So have we." Pressly eased out his pistol and placed it next to a cleaning kit on the table behind him.

"Yes, but they'll be keeping those prisoners. You have a few underground detention facilities that will be overrun within the next ten hours. They have ships in orbit that they can take their prisoners to."

"Which ship?" Williams leaned forward with interest.

"Turians believe in centralisation. Those prisoners will be ferried up to the dreadnaught in orbit, right where the Admiral can get to them."

"One dreadnaught?" The strip of hair above the General's right eye lifted slightly. Ceris wondered if this was an expression of belief or doubt. 'They hit us with three."

"Why would they need to keep them?" Pressly's hands moved rapidly around his weapon, stripping it with the ease that came with muscle memory. "they've wiped out our defences. It's a ground fight for now."

"It makes no sense though." Ceris stood up and began pacing. "Turian military doctrine calls for overwhelming force in engaging and destroying potential threats. For them to split their forces before the fighting is done doesn't fit."

"Maybe." Williams brought up the scans of the dreadnaught on the main display. "But things will be tough enough once our reinforcements arrive. That dreadnaught could put a round clear through the Everest."

There was a laugh from the Colonel. "Do you honestly think Grissom would let any of his ships sit still long enough for that? He'll paste these squinty-eyed alien fucks faster than you can spit. No offence."

"None taken." Ceris shook her head. "I don't know who Grissssom is, but he'd better be good enough to beat Jhirx."

"Jhirx?"

She elaborated. "Citadel space hasn't seen a major conflict for over three hundred years. Just a series of minor brushfire wars. Combat experience is hard to come by, but Jhirx has been fortunate enough to be present at every single one that has taken place over her career. She has distinguished herself as a bridge officer, a ship commander and a flag officer. She has more battlefield experience than most officers of her rank. Decorated three times by the Primarch of Palaven, and personally awarded the Citadel Medal of Service by the Council six years ago. Her clan lineage is impeccable, her family name renowned for its leadership and dedication."

"Yeah? Well, Grissom's a tiny Irish, pub-fighting mongrel with a mean streak a mile wide." Pressly cracked a grin.

"I'm more worried about what we'll face down here. Can you give me anything on their field commanders?" Williams caught himself desperately wishing for a cigarette and quietly fumed. He had finally managed to kick the habit less than two years ago, and now the damn stress had him craving the sweet tang of nicotine. He could get one of Pressly's cigars, but the bastard would make him beg for it. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he retrieved a small packet of gum and began to chew. Combat sticks dwelt in a morally grey area in the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Flavoured with peppermint and a mild stimulant, they were meant to keep troops awake on long piquets, and prevent a soldier on the verge of collapse from dropping off at the end of a firefight. Good in theory, but the stims were less effective than a hearty cup of coffee. And given the choice between peppermint or a hot cup of joe, Williams would rustle up his grinder every time.

Ceris desperately tried not to stare at the new curiosity. It was probably some kind of jaw exercise. "I don't know which units or commanders you're likely to face. Just their General."

Williams nodded. "Desolas Arterius, you mentioned him before."

"He has even more experience than Jhirx. Some of the smaller wars he's been in have been even bigger than this one in terms of scale of forces." The asari racked her brain for everything she'd ever heard about the soldier. "He's renowned for fast and heavy assaults, punching through with as much force as possible. You've probably already guessed that he likes inserting elite reconnaissance forces to seize and hold terrain, following it up with waves of heavy infantry, then as much armour as possible. From what you've told me, you've managed to stall all three phases."

Pressly just grunted. "Somebody should call him and tell him that Rommel wants his Blitzkrieg back."

Ceris was once again confused. "Rommel?"

"A general from one of Earth's past wars." Williams was distracted by a new battle report. "One of the best to have ever lived. Absolute genius with fast tanks and manoeuvre warfare. Loved using the blitzkrieg, lightning war."

"And he was very successful?"

"Oh, very." Pressly looked smug. "Till he went up against a soft spoken little schoolteacher by the name of Leslie Morsehead and a division of sheep and cattle herders."

Ceris was now totally lost. "I'm not...familiar..."

"There was a battle at a small coastal town called Tobruk, back on our homeworld." Pressly explained. "Rommel rolled up with his Afrika Korps. The best tanks and best soldiers that the world had ever seen. He smashed every force that came at him and conquered half a continent almost single handed. Only thing standing between him and the rest of it was Tobruk, manned by a Major General Morsehead and a single division of troops from a continent called 'Australia'. Everyone thought Rommel would destroy them in a week, but they managed to hold that town for nine months till they were relieved. Rommel was utterly smashed a little while later at El Alamein."

"I see." Ceris began to understand. "And you hope to replicate that here?"

"Here? Oh, no, we haven't got a chance of doing that here. Our only hope is immediate reinforcement." Pressly replied in a surprisingly cheerful tone. "But we will hold the line. I just don't like being on the back foot."

"We'll go on the offensive when it's practical." Williams called Pressly back into line quickly and efficiently. "Now, Miss Feon, I need tabulated data on the weapons that General Arterius's troops are using. Muzzle velocity, range and rate of fire."

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'We are victims of our own success.' Desolas pondered bitterly as he examined the newest casualty reports. Thirty percent above estimates. It was unacceptable to him, it would be even more unacceptable to the Council of War and the rest of the Senate of Primarchs when he returned to Palaven. His battle plan had been meticulous, well thought out and almost perfect in size and scope. It was time to admit that it had been shot to pieces over the last twenty four hours.

He was beginning to see the cracks appear in the command staff already. Officers who had previously been reliable, efficient and loyal were beginning to foul up as their commands were decimated down on the surface. Troops who had been eager for battle an hour earlier were beginning to flinch a little as every casualty evacuation dropship landed.

The fault lay with the damn peacekeeping and skirmishing that had been the Legion's main fare for the past six tours. They had perfected their tactics and leadership structures for dealing with the brief and savage conflicts that they came across out on the borders of the Terminus. Squad, Platoon and Phalanx leaders were still sharp, their skills as warfighters had not diminished in the slightest. But from company to division level, officer capability had faded away. Most had just been sitting at their desks for far too damn long.

On second thought, that wasn't fair. The Legion's training rotations had been rigorous, and each soldier and officer had passed their assessments with banners high. They were highly competent. But the humans possessed an entrenched position, were well armed and from the looks of things, their officers were as competent as his own. His initiative of attack, his right as the offensive party, was draining away. Unknowns had severely hampered him. Factors that he couldn't have predicted, but could now correct.

"You there, Officer!" He beckoned over one of the junior lieutenants from the Tactical station. "Co-ordinate with ground control and intelligence. I want lists of High Value Targets ready to be sent out to the cruisers in orbit within the hour."

It was finally time to take off the warm varren hide.

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"So...our friends have prisoners." Pressly did his best not to scowl. "If they took a ship commander prisoners..."

"Bad news, acknowledged." The General hid his own dismay. If a command level officer was taken prisoner, a number of very bad things could happen. Command crew on border worlds knew things that would be very valuable to invading forces. Colony locations and defences, fleet stand to points and numbers. That was an asset that had to be denied to the enemy. "Shepard!"

"I have a problem."

"Sir, I don't know if you've looked around..."

"A specific problem, Commander." Williams gestured at the dreadnaught scans. "I want you to destroy that and retrieve some prisoners."

Shepard blinked, then turned his head to the scans. "You know, sir, I'm not generally one to say a task can't be done..."

"I thought Navy Special Warfare just spent a whole training rotation on tactics for taking down ships in space." Harper questioned.

"That was frigates and light cruisers. Dreadnaught is too tough a target. Protected by the whole fleet, your infiltration vessel is going to get shot down before you get close." Shepard eyed the mercenary balefully. "And if I get on board, there's the security I have to deal with. You can fit near a division of Marines on one of our dreadnaughts, and this thing's about one hundred metres longer than the Everest. And lastly, I have no idea where the engine room, bridge or brig is on that thing. It's a damn suicide mission."

Harper turned his head back toward the scan. "Double my fee and I'll do it, General."

"Well, if Mack's too cautious..."

"Wait." Shepard shook his head. "Sir...what's the classification on this op?"

"Top priority, Commander. Failing to act might compromise our entire frontline, not just Shanxi."

"It'll take time to put together a plan, and I'm going to need more firepower on this one." Shepard jerked his head toward the two Marines standing by. "Mind if I recruit some more of your shooters?"

Williams turned a critical eye on them. "McDevitt, right? And Alenko?"

"Yes sir!" The troopers snapped to attention.

"Gentlemen, Commander Shepard has a penchant for high risk missions. I can't exactly guarantee your safety."

McDevitt shrugged. "Don't reckon anywhere on this planet is actually safe, sir."

Williams nodded. "Fair enough. Shepard, they're yours, along with anyone else you want."

"Just don't take all my good NCOs." Pressly growled. "We're decentralising all command structures. This is turning into a sergeant's fight. My platoon and company commanders don't have enough comms or rally points to keep the chain of command going."

"How well do you know your men?" Harper questioned from the other side of the room, no longer idly toying with his knife.

"Like they were my own bastard children." The colonel responded with his typical bluntness. "Why?"

"Just weighing things up." Harper gazed off to the right. "By the end of today, we're going to have captains leading fireteams. Better hope everyone has the stomach for a street fight."

"Street fight? Bah!" Major Chekova boomed with actual enthusiasm. "That is my people's true art form. That, and grand ballet. Am I right, Petrovsky?"

"Da, ma'am." Her orderly nodded. "Many times I witnessed the Moscow performers as they..."

The burly woman lightly cuffed him on the back of the head, a reproving tone in her voice. "Now, Corporal, what have I told you about your jokes?"

"That I will never make Sergeant if I keep making them." Petrovsky's enviously thick moustache twitched with concealed amusement. "Or...you would make me shave."

"Shepard, would you mind taking him off my hands?" Chekova begged the N7. "I keep him around to ferry my vodka, and with all my bottles smashed..."

Shepard glanced over at Petrovsky. The young Russian was thickset and heavily built, but his eyes and bearing indicated more smarts than could be seen at first glance. "What's your CSV like, Corporal?"

"Airborne Guards, then Spetznatz for one tour before I join Alliance." Petrovsky's English slipped a little as he rattled off his experience. "I qualified S5 before transferring to Shanxi."

Shepard was satisfied. "Grab your gear and go with McDevitt."

The comm line beeped urgently. =Sir, this is Captain Khafagey. Enemy forces have increased their attacks along the main perimeter. We're holding steady, but they're moving more and more armour up against us. I need reinforcements and tank support.=

"Negative." Williams turned to Pressly and nodded. The regiment commander understood. "Captain, how many men do you have combat effective?"

=About three hundred, sir. But this is high intensity. My wounded are piling up fast, we're burning through ammo faster than we can resupply and two of my missile launchers have been completely destroyed by enemy fire.=

"All right, listen closely, Captain. We took an enemy prisoner last night. From what we could glean during interrogation, these guys love a straight up fight. Previous plans to bleed them out won't work, they'll just win through attrition. I can't commit more men to the line, that's just playing into their hands. So I want you to retreat."

=What?=

The rest of the room had suddenly stiffened. Retreat was for cowards, undisciplined rabble without the guts to stand and fight. If you needed to fall back and attack from another angle, then you withdrew in good order, you didn't scuttle away with your tail between your legs.

"Captain, we've got tank traps, pre-sighted mortar tubes and sniper alleys set up behind you. If we get them nice and confident, get them to chase you down, then we can kill a whole heap of them at once." Williams urgently explained. "Captain, that's an order. Run."

The comm line was distorted from the sound of gunfire, a scream and a victorious whoop. =Wyckoff, you beautiful little bastard!=

"Captain, are you receiving me?"

=Alright, alright. Pulling them back now, sir. But you better have those traps ready, these guys are right behind us!=

The line went dead, whether because communications had again been cut, or because Khafagey had run into some serious trouble. Williams looked around at the gathered officers and NCOs. "I think that's enough briefing for today, gentlemen."

His unspoken command snapped them into action. Grabbing webbing and personal weapons, the bunker was quickly abandoned. Tech staff dived back into their computers, downloading hard drives onto portable equipment, then erasing the originals. They could not afford to lose the tactical data, but neither could they entertain the possibility of it falling into enemy hands. The age old compromise: Save everything critical, burn everything else.

The three prisoners were efficiently shackled together and marched out. Each one had at least two rifles fixed on them at all times. A Marine MP with a stun baton was also close, his fingers wrapped tight around the hold of his weapon.

Pressly already had his map out as Williams stood at the centre of his rapidly disappearing command centre. "I always told them this place was too obvious, too high tech. Tapping it into the main power grid was just stupid. We'll need to shift between the emergency bunkers, they'll compromise this one by the end of the day."

"Don't those bunkers still have civilians in them?"

"Everyone we couldn't get out by mag train or hopper." Pressly confirmed. "But they're off grid, have their own generators, with enough space for the toys."

"What about you?"

"I'll stay on the surface, co-ordinate what's left of my regiment, maybe even get some shots off." Pressly's smile was faint, but tangible. "You know something, despite everything that's happened, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else right now."

"Because you're the best man for the job or because you're having fun?"

"A little bit of both." Pressly confessed unconcernedly, but his eyes were hard. "I've got almost a thousand dead boys out there. Kinda hard to think about anything else except how much of that blue blood I've got to spill to make up for that."

"Colonel, you can kill them all and count the bodies." Williams turned away. "Consider that an order."

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"This is madness." Lacriss threw herself down next to Septimus, her middle talon jamming the trigger downwards, cutting down a human who had appeared at the top of the barricade. "The general is forcing us into a clumsy srisiak while these little pyjaks pelter us at their leisure!"

Srisiak, heavy war. Or, as Septimus preferred to call it, 'a highly limited, short sighted maneuovre'. It involved jamming assets down your opponent's throat until they choked. Worked against rebels, worked against pirates, didn't work against any force with the self-control and discipline to maintain a continuous stream of fire. The fighting had barely started half an hour ago, and he was already thirty men short, fifteen of them dead outright.

"Never thought you were shy about racking up a few casualties, Vakarian!" Oraka shouted back to her. "You picked up more scars than I did on the Techa Rotation!"

"That was before my husband put two children in me." Lacriss switched to her pistol as her rifle whined and snapped off another two shots at a distant target. There was a loud scream as her target topped from a window. "Now, I'd much rather fight smart and live to make sure that my husband doesn't turn them into miniature versions of himself."

Above their crouching hole at the base of the barricade, they could hear the loud cry of human voices shouting feverishly as a barrage of tank shells raked their gun positions.

=Colonel, this is Lieutenant Victus= The young officer's voice sounded strained. The night fighting had been hard on everyone. Originating on a world as bright as burnished metal, where the sun never really set, turians had never really adapted to the dark. A lot of good soldiers had perished in the black. =Overwatch reports that the humans are in full retreat. Requesting permission to pursue.=

"Granted. Pursue and destroy." Septimus eased back to his feet, keeping his eye open for any humans lying in wait. "Good hunting."

"Skittish species." Lacriss commented. "Poke them one way and they'll hammer away at you. Push them the other and they'll run like suspicious looking space herbivores."

"Don't examine a free kakliosaur in the teeth." The colonel gave her a hand up. "We need to pursue and destroy them before they can re-establish a defensive line."

"No arguments from me." Lacriss checked her grenades quickly. "Do we have new units incoming from the Legion?"

"The 31st and the Honoured 107th." Septimus handed her his own. "Let's hope we don't need them."

Lacriss parted her mandibles in a sign of agreement. "I'd rather not waste any more blood on these primitives."

As Lacriss and her phalanx advanced, she half wished that she was much younger, unmarried and childless. Back then, the thought of death did not terrify her the same way it did today. Back in the Arius Riots, or the Csaile Insurgency, when she charged into battle with foolish valour. But now...the thought of never again cradling Solana, of Garrus having no one to listen to his grand adventures...of her husband receiving the small message of condolence from General Arterius, it was almost paralysing.

'My last time.' She swore to herself. 'My very last time out. Can't risk it anymore.'

Seeing a human ahead of her, she ducked, hearing a crack as a projectile went past her head. Standing back up, she fired twice from the hip. The human went down in a red mist, screaming in a high tone. From the corner of her eye, she saw another burst of movement and fired off a burst toward it. The human slid into cover, then overarmed something toward her phalanx. The small canister clattered to a halt, then began emitting billowing clouds of grey smoke. A few shots rang out from the phalanx, firing blind through the smoke.

Lacriss held her fire, waiting until she could make out the shape of the second human running back toward his retreating unit, the first human slung over his back. Acquiring a sight picture, she fired three times. The first two bullets missed, but the third took her target through the right shoulder. Then he disappeared into a doorway and out of her sights.

"Move up!" She didn't let her frustration show. The target had been within one hundred metres, a playground shot for a marksman of her calibre. She did not have sympathy for her enemy, she couldn't. Her job was to kill them, whether or not they were rescuing a comrade or not.

"Wait!" Lieutenant Parl looked around, his jaw narrowing. "Something's wrong...they're not firing anymore..."

She heard the dull thumping under her feet, felt the rumble of the pavement, but didn't truly understand either of these sensations until the ground erupted around her. Sent flying by the force of the blast, she smashed through a window, her head slamming against something hard. She felt something crack, let out a small cough, then lay still.

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Desolas had once regarded the prisoner with amusement, as a small toy to be played with at his leisure. And if he broke it in the meantime, it could be easily replaced. That was before. Now he looked at her and all he felt was anger.

Pyjaks. Little better than scampering simians, so devious in their vicious tricks against each other. He'd often heard how little packs of the bastards would sometimes swoop down on varren nests and carry off a pup or two. They'd take the things to the highest of trees, then hurl them down to their deaths. He imagined the primal rage the varren felt at this injustice, the weak and unworthy creatures destroying the potential of their young off spring. It was probably the same burning he felt crawling up this throat.

Another ambush. Another sniper attack. Another improvised minefield or surprise airstrike. Human retreats that turned into turian routs. His men were fighting magnificently, but the scum were still killing them. No turian force had suffered so many casualties in a single battle since the end of the Krogan Rebellions. He had expected a single solid day of fighting, not a slow slaughter. In a species with the temerity to activate Mass Relays on their own, he had expected arrogance, over-confidence and the pride to fight to the last man.

Oh, the arrogance and over-confidence were easy to find, but the pyjaks knew how to retreat. In fact, they loved it. His forces were spread out, vulnerable and dying by the minute.

"Whassa matter, General?" The prisoner's words were becoming clearer as the translator continued to evolve. He could now pick up inflections, emotional markers, and begin to understand certain idioms and tricks of the language. Clarissa Hobbes was becoming an easier puzzle to understand. "You lose something?"

His talons clenched. "Yes, Clarissa. Quite a few of my best soldiers. Not to worry, your own forces have suffered their own defeats. We've even managed to kill your commanding officer in an airstrike."

The prisoner's face sagged in despair. "Not...not General Patton. You couldn't have killed him."

So, now he had a name. General Patton. So that's who led them. "Yes, I'm afraid he's dead. Did you know him well?"

Hobbes burst out laughing. "Oh, pretty well. Considering he's been dead for about two hundred years."

Desolas kept his temper, despite the failure of his deception. "You're braver than I expected. You would have made a good soldier."

From a side pocket on his belt, he produced a small club with an electrified tip. "But you would not have made a smart one. A smart soldier would have kept her deception from me, allowed me to make bad decisions based on false intelligence. Your arrogance is why you are the one in that chair, not me."

Clarissa knew what would be coming. The slaps, the punches, the threats and shouting. All of it she had withstood. But she had pushed it too far. There was a crazed glint in the alien's eyes, more than the determined contempt that had sneered at her before. It bespoke a hatred unlike anything she had ever seen. She tried to look smaller in her chair. "Please...I don't know anything..."

"I'm afraid that I no longer care." Desolas advanced on her with implacable certainty. "Your species seems to like complicated deceptions and clever riddles. Mine does not."

He stabbed forward with the electrified tip, striking her in the stomach. "Oh, I know many of our politicians connive and scheme. I know that Jhirx and Sparatus see me as a disposable tool. But they have forgotten the true turian way. A true turian does not dance around his problems."

He lifted the club high. "He removes them."

A/N: Well, I had a weird, wacky and slightly terrifying four weeks at basic training, including befriending a Corporal who liked to go into music stores and listen to break up songs while eating Mars Bars when he gets dumped, hastily reassembling my weapon (I named my Steyr 'Miranda' and my Minimi 'Ashley) in the dark during a contact drill, getting called 'Fuckhead' by every NCO in the company, charging through a bayonet assault course screaming 'Kill! Kill! Kill!' and then getting presented with a trophy and a challenge coin for 'Most Outstanding Soldier' by the Commandant of Kapooka. So yeah, good four weeks.