Author's Note: Oi... a little bit of downtime between all my projects. I probably should be working on my third book, but meh, not really feeling it right now (not that the first two are setting sales on fire anyway). I haven't forgotten about this, promise!
The vehicles path took a sharp and continued path down through the lower canopy. The descent was not missed by the passengers.
"Keelah... do not tell me we're going back down into spider hell..." Dani whimpered.
"As I said earlier, they were closer to scor..." Hermin began.
"I don't care!" Dani screamed into the salarian's ear, making him wince painfully.
"If by 'spider hell', you mean naxi territory, I'm afraid so." Crawt said grimly. "It's the only place where no one would dare follow us. It's how you survive as a fringe resistance... by being slightly crazier than your enemies."
Aria snorted once in amusement. "I like this guy. He gets it."
"Don't worry, we have measures in place that keep the naxi from attacking us."
"And what sort of measures are those?" Marshall queried.
Crawt made a clicking sound that could have been sheepishness. "Let's just say you might want to hope that your helmets have good scent filters. We're used to it by now, but..."
Dani had her helmet on and sealed before Crawt could even begin the next sentence. "Done."
Harmin wasn't far behind. "Been waiting for an excuse to turn on climate control."
Aria and Marshall shared a long look of resignation before following suit with their companions. "Remind me again why I'm on this mission." The asari said.
"Because you demanded to get off the ship."
"Fuck." Aria deadpanned, "I was hoping I remembered wrong so I could blame someone else."
The road changed to either gravel or dirt judging from how the ride changed, more jostling and bumps. Even more, while Marshall couldn't see much through the heavily tinted windows, it certainly appeared like... "Are we underground?"
"Indeed." Crawt answered. "As I said, you have to be pretty crazy to survive as a resistance cell."
"The spiders home field... yah... that's pretty crazy." Dani retorted. "I'm guessing that's why we couldn't find any of you through thermal imaging."
Crawt laughed. "Rather amusing, considering where you landed was pretty much right on top of us. In a sense of irony, that is the worst place for us to have tried to reach you. It's a good kilometer down, and five to the entrance of our den. By the time any of us could have responded, the four of you were long gone."
"And how the hell do you survive with that army of naxi above you?" Marshall wondered.
His question initially went unanswered as Crawt pulled to a stop. "We're here." The raloi said, and hopped out of the vehicle as Marshall lifted the side door latch and slid it open towards the vehicle's rear.
He took the lead, stepping out and regarding his surroundings. It didn't look particularly different from the raloi architecture he had already seen, except for the fact that it was all underground and sitting underneath a geodesic dome comprised of steel plates. He wasn't particularly convinced by the defenses he could see, "Those naxi scraped and punctured my reflexive armoring. Something tells me steel wouldn't dissuade them if they wanted what was inside badly enough."
"Four centimeter thick steel plates aren't entirely appetizing." A female raloi said with something near a chirp. "But it helps that we keep them fed with their usual prey of soilworms. They've become our most effective natural defense from any prying eyes. I do apologize if the smell is... overbearing. Naxi tend to leave some rather... odoriferous droppings."
The four 'aliens' turned sharply towards the source. Two raloi, male and female, appeared, nodding in deference to Crawt. The female's plumage was a vibrant orange at the tip that faded to cream at the base. The male was a drab and mottled brown with gray, and a white fringe. They clearly had some degree of authority, as Crawt saluted and stepped away.
"Good day, friends. I am Skrana." The female said, then with a gesture to her companion said, "This is my partner, Frawks."
The male nodded, "I wish we could meet under better circumstances, but our agents inside Primir have got us up to date on what you were looking for. Skrana and I can update you further."
Skrana asked the team to follow, speaking along the way as they approached a low single story circular building made of brick and mortar. "Reaper elements have been scouring the Scrawatti for five years, as far as we can determine. They could have been at it for longer with indoctrinated servants. It was only five years ago that we saw husks arrive."
At that point, they were inside the small building, which seemed to be nothing more than a single room with a circular table low to the floor. Another female raloi, mostly red with streaks of white, handed over a thin plastic file box, which Frawks accepted and set on the table, Skrana using her middle leg to retrieve a bundle of what looked to be photographs.
Offering them to Marshall, he started flipping through the bundle, and said grimly, "Fucking hell."
Before any of them could ask, Marshall drew two pictures from the group, and held them in Dani's direction. "Bosh'tet selak!" She hissed, instantly recognizing quarian husks like the ones found on Eden Prime, along with clearly salarian influenced husks no doubt taken from Sur'kesh.
"It gets better." Marshall said with a sarcastic grin, holding up another photo that didn't require much imagination to identify as a Reaper-husk of a yagh.
"Nope." Harmin said, shaking his head animatedly. "Nope nope nope. I quit. I'm done. I resign. Have fun folks!"
Aria slapped him across the back of the head. "You're not going anywhere lawyer."
"Yes he is." Marshall replied. He tested his QEC, found that it was able to clear the earth to the Iwo Jima, and said, "Wrex, Ensign O'Carter, suit up. Chipper is bringing you down. Lt. Rhab will be taking the shuttle back. We can't waste time, we need to hit by tonight."
"Moving by tonight?" Skrana said. "It will take several days to reach the Scrawatti dig site. There's a no fly zone extending nearly three hundred kilometers around it. Any unauthorized vehicle will be targeted immediately."
"She's right." Frawks agreed. "I have no doubt you have mechanisms we've never seen, but..."
Marshall thrust the pictures into Frawks chest. "You don't know what those things are. I do. Those are new Reaper forces, not remnants from the first war. Which means the Reapers are moving as quickly as they can. We need to move quickly as well."
Liara cut into the QEC, and offered, "The Normandy's stealth systems were able to hide from Reaper detection, as long as we weren't doing something that blatantly declared our location like actively scanning planets and systems."
"Chipper, how do you feel about a blind night drop?" Marshall asked the bridge.
"Why do you ask questions in which my opinion is irrelevant, sir?" Chipper grumbled, then with a tired exhale added, "As long as I have coordinates for the drop and pick-up, I can do fully instrument guided flight."
"Good. I'll work on that now. Be ready." Marshall said. "Alright, I need all the information you have on the area. Topography, latest intel, anything you've got."
Liara cut in again. "Spectre, I have more that you will no doubt find vital to this mission."
"Go on..." He said, motioning for Dani to start sorting out the papers that Skrana was trying to push into his hands.
"Have you ever played a game called 'Hot and Cold?'"
"No, but I've heard of it."
"Even if you find the complex it's hidden in, the artifact itself can be extremely hard to find. As you might have felt, they resonate at a very specific frequency sensitive to detection by biotics. Shepard and I would play that 'Hot and Cold' game to find the ones we uncovered."
That reminded Marshall of the memories he had from Miranda and Jack's demise. He switched to the armory, and said, "Lieutenant Grimes, do you have anything that could potentially drill through rock?"
Larisa scoffed. "Do I? Sir, we have plasma ignition switches here that could burn through the Iwo Jima's hull if I felt so inclined. Wouldn't be hard to modify a rifle that could serve as a drilling torch."
"You have until 1900. Get to it quickly. Get Seven and Ensign O'Carter to help however they can."
"Aye aye, sir!"
Liara jumped in again, "There could be one complication, Spectre."
Marshall grimaced. He knew it was going too smoothly. "What's that, Doctor?"
"Reapers, even dead ones, interfere with the artifact's... broadcasting. I'm not sure how large the range is, but we had to clear out several inactive husks before Shepard or I could feel its presence."
Marshall groaned, "Which means we can't be fighting Reaper forces while we're looking."
Dani didn't seem bothered by that. "I'm willing to be decoy bait. It'd be more fun than watching you two get all touchy-feely." She then added hastily when Aria and Marshall both gave her glares she could feel. "With... the artifact... I mean... unless... the two of you..."
"No." Marshall and Aria insisted sternly.
Aria then immediately whipped her head in Marshall's direction with a warning, "Don't you start those cliches with me like speaking in unison, Spectre."
Before he could even argue, she added testily, "Or arguing about pithy things. Drop it."
Marshall put up his hands to surrender the issue. He had no idea what Aria was going on about, and if he was being totally honest, really didn't want to know either.
Dani spoke up, "All this data is scanned and sent to the bridge, Captain. Chipper and Mayes are sorting it out now."
Skrana had been absorbing all this planning, and came to a very correct conclusion, "So, I take it you have no intentions of helping our resistance."
Marshall shook his head tentatively, "Even if we wanted to engage in a full campaign, we're just one ship. The Citadel Council will most certainly hear about it, but that is their decision on how and when to act. This crew's mission is extremely limited in scope."
Skrana curled the tip of her right wing over the top of Frawks's left. "Can you give us one moment, Spectre Brasser?" With her other wing, she pointed towards the exit.
Marshall motioned for his team to comply, and they filtered out of the building and took position in a circle three meters outside. "Clearly they were hoping we could provide more than us to pop in and pop out." He said, with a regretful glance towards the now closed door.
Aria had spun her head about to a trio of raloi rubbernecking the alien visitors. "Keep moving!" She snarled angrily, watching the three out of the corner of her eyes as they picked up their pace. "Clearly they were hoping we'd give them weapons." She snarked.
"Can you blame them?" Dani retorted. "They're clearly outnumbered, hiding in a hole, with spiders as their primary protection against reapers." She threw a warning finger right in Hermin's face in case the salarian tried to correct her.
"Against husks." Aria corrected with a snort. "Maybe you don't know what Reapers are. I do. Believe me, if you have to wonder if there's a Reaper around, there isn't one. They aren't exactly going to win a game of hide-and-seek."
Dani laughed, "Then clearly you didn't know there was a Reaper Destroyer on Rannoch during the war. It was hidden quite well. Shepard and his crew only found it when they tried to hit a Geth facility with a high-atmosphere torpedo strike."
"Regardless, whether we would want to help them or not, we really don't have the resources to do so." Marshall interjected sternly. "Nor does it change anything on our end. I wasn't planning on raloi aid for this mission. The Council is going to have to decide on how to handle Turvess."
Aria laughed bitterly, "Hah! If it were me, I'd tell them they were out of luck. The raloi want to hide from their problems? Let 'em."
Dani again took exception to Aria's indifference, "Did you know some raloi during the war or something? You've taken their actions during it pretty personally."
"We needed every able body we could get for that war." Aria spat. "Every ally we could get our hands on. These birds tucked their heads into their cloaca and let us fight that war for them without offering one damned credit. Me, a damned smuggling and illicit goods baron, was throwing down millions of my own wealth and resources into the fight. These cowards? Nothing."
"And what could the raloi really have offered other than cannon fodder? Do you sneer spitefully at my people because we only numbered a few million men and women?"
"At least your people fought. The quarians gave as much as they could."
Hermin had an entirely different topic he wanted to broach. "Spectre, may I have a word?"
Marshall nodded, allowing Dani and Aria to bicker as they broke the circle to speak in relative privacy. "What can I do for you, Lieutenant?"
"I know you consider me barely above a non-combatant. I'm just a lawyer, as far as you are concerned. But all joking I did earlier... I don't want to leave. I'm as much a military man as anyone here. Let me prove it."
"This isn't a flight mission, Lieutenant Rhab. It's ground combat." Marshall said.
"I'm aware. I have firearms and survival training too." Hermin countered. "Sir... I'm tired of being dismissed by the crew as some unnecessary tag-along to fill some sort of Citadel legal policy, although it is true that my presence is solely because Citadel Military Code 117, Article A, Subsection C states..." He cut himself off sharply, "I can be more than just a JAG. I... think I need to be more."
Marshall cut him off with a "Later" when he noticed the door to the circular building crack open. He then hushed Dani and Aria to cut the chatter as Skrana and Frawks emerged. Frawks didn't look happy, but was hiding it behind as much of an indifferent posture as he could.
"Spectre Brasser." Skrana declared with an even voice. "It has been decided that despite your intentions on this world, that it would be good for our relations with a greater galaxy to assist you. We have several agents on and near site that are ready and willing to assist your efforts to distract the Reaper forces while you find the artifact you are looking for."
"Skrana, I appreciate the offer, I can promise you the Reapers have far superior weapons and defenses than anything your people have. Your men and women would be slaughtered."
"We know, as do they." Frawks said grimly, the reasons for his displeasure now very clear, "But Skrana already asked them to volunteer, and they all did so readily. "We won't insist, as we know that you probably already resolved a plan of action, and likely don't want to change it."
"But we have sat back too long, and tried to wait out the storm." Skrana finished. "We know what our people did one hundred years ago, and it was wrong. This is an opportunity for us to demonstrate that the raloi are ready and willing to fight."
"Hell, about damn time." Aria snarked. "Let 'em load up and roll out."
"Too bad it's not your decision, isn't it?" Marshall snapped. "It's mine."
And it certainly wasn't an easy one.
Author's Note #2: It's decision time again, folks! Couple choices on your plate here.
1) Do you want to keep Hermin on the team?
2) Do you accept raloi support?
Review or PM with your thoughts!