"Heat shield is gone!"
An unknown voice screeched over the cacophonous symphony of alarms, their tones and timings an unceasing wail of warnings, assaulting my ears. Overhead the lights are flashing red, matching the flames licking the windows outside.
"Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!"
I continued to call but received no response.
"We have to ditch!"
The voice is familiar now. Perhaps the words are what jarred me out of focus.
"No!" I shouted in response. My body was being pushed into my chair by the sheer force of gravity, preventing me from speaking to Ashley direct.
"Hydraulics down! Engines offline!"
"Mayday! Mayday! May –"
The flames cleared and revealed a bright blue picture in all windows.
"We're going in."
I tried to tuck my chin against my chest and memorized the layout of the Mako's cockpit. Once we landed, we would have to escape. I could only hope that I would remain conscious, though the fact I was conscious now was a positive sign.
"We're going down."
No one ever plans for a disaster mission. You can meticulously plan and prepare. You can go in having all intelligence at your disposal. But in the end, you can't control everything.
There was no time to meticulously plan for Virmire and we barely had any intelligence. A few satellite images of that appeared to be the standard construction setup of drug manufacturing outposts. It's proximity to the Terminus Systems and impeded colonization efforts made it an unappealing homestead, thus an ideal location for such criminal activity. Lush jungle surrounded by vast seas made such outposts easily hidden.
Virmire's secrets, though, were only surface deep. Further scans of the area indicated extremely high energy consumption, equivalent to that of a mid to large-size military base.
Well that explains why the STG team was so interested in Virmire. I said.
Wrex plodded over to the briefing table where images and maps were strewn around. Maybe it's just a really big drug operation. I've seen those before.
Something that size would be responsible for the entire distribution of the Terminus Systems. Garrus interrupted. And besides, there's almost no traffic in or out of Virmire to speak of. Why make it if you can't distribute.
It's not drugs. I agreed. Whatever it is, it's worth investigating. Especially if the STG believes Saren is involved. He might even be planet side.
Tali had been studying the maps silently for several minutes, mulling her thoughts. There had been no reports of Geth, no reports of colonies being attacked, no pattern to indicate Virmire could be a target for Saren or the Geth. She placed both hands on the map and willed her mind to find a reason to investigate.
Whether or not my own intelligence sources could find a valid reason to land on Virmire, we were going to land. It was a foregone conclusion simply because I had been made aware of the Special Tasks Group that was apparently stranded there. Even if they were all dead, it was up to us to find out what they had died for.
Just as I had pulled up my chair to begin analyzing the limited data at my disposal, Liara rushed into the briefing room and spilled a heap of papers and data pads onto the table.
Sorry. She muttered, scrambling to reorganize her chaos. It might be nothing…
That's a lot of data pads for nothing. Garrus Quipped.
It might be nothing, but when I read the energy output readings I got curious. Generation of that kind of power requires a massive power grid, but no scans show any solar, wind or even mass effect power generation fields. So I concluded that whatever power grid constructed must be underground. Liara sifted through a stack of papers and slammed one into the middle of the briefing table. This document is a copy of a dig request filed with the Citadel Colonization Committee filed two years after the First Contact War. It's for a parcel of land that was purchased in 2158 under the name Jarrah Peck.
No mining company was ever registered as mining Virmire because no resources worth mining have ever been found, but a mining company did purchase it only a few years after it was registered.
A smile surfaced on Liara's face as she glanced around the table, holding on to some apparent inside joke only she was in on.
Xenon Mining Corporation. We starred blankly.
It's a Cerberus front company! And looking deep into its very public books, the Virmire operation produces no profit and nearly a 55 million-credit loss for the last two straight years.
100 million credits can buy you one hell of a research facility. Ashley joked. I assume.
Liara nodded her head in agreement. That is only what has been publically recorded. There is no telling the true amount of funds being funneled there.
Kaidan stepped to the table. But why allow such an operation with no oversight? You're telling me the Counsel let Cerberus operate there for years, pulling no resources with no questions?
As long as the Citadel continued to receive its taxes it wouldn't be inclined to investigate. Garrus said softly.
I sat back in my chair and tried to absorb the information that had been presented to me. Good work, Int O. I smiled at Liara. She returned the gesture and took her place at the table, tidying her files.
Research was the why, but we still didn't know the what of Virmire. What were we looking for, what would we find when we got there?
None of those questions mattered much while the Mako careened full speed towards the sea. I should have listened to Pressley. I should have found another way besides a combat vehicle drop when he told me the zone was too small.
The anti-aircraft guns discovered during orbital scans prohibited the Normandy from landing, or even making a safe vehicle drop possible.
I thought I was thinking outside the box when I decided that the Mako would drop from low orbit. Out of all the possible courses of action, dropping the Mako from orbit was actually the most feasible. Dropping individually was too dangerous. Given the atmosphere of Virmire, we would burn up on entry.
Landing the Normandy was not an option for two reasons:
1) Landing anywhere within 100 kilometers would result in a swift death by missile; and
2) Landing anywhere outside of 100 kilometers was impossible because we didn't have any boats.
Dropping the Mako, though dangerous, was the most logical and frankly the only way I would see us getting to the surface safely. It's not like it had never been done before. The Mako had been tested and proven capable in trials for the Alliance.
It was the obvious choice.
When I woke up, the cockpit was dark blue, flashing red light. My head was splitting, but my facemask was undamaged. The cabin was rapidly filling with water and I figured I had less than a minute before we were completely submerged.
In situations like these it's important not to panic. Steady your heartbeat, concentrate on the knowns instead of the unknowns. I know how to get out of my harness. I know where the escape hatch is. I know that bubbles flow upwards and I know upwards is where I want to go.
I wiggled my fingers first, then my toes and was relieved I was more or less intact. From the corner of my eye I could see Ashley struggling with her harness. Kaidan was seated across from her but I couldn't ascertain his status.
Looking to my left I could see Sergeant Addison Chase, my vehicle second in command, pinned between her seat and the turret. I felt a familiar churl in my stomach.
My mission now was to get free of the harness and try to free Addison and make sure Tucks was okay. He would have taken the brunt of the impact.
The water was at eye level now but I wasn't worried. My suit would pressurize appropriately and had about 30 minutes of emergency oxygen for such occasions. I reached towards my ankle and felt for my knife.
Free of my restraints, I cut Addison down and checked her vital signs indicator. There were none, but this might have been a fault of the suit or another malfunction. The feeling in my gut grew stronger. Next, I made my way towards Tucks, who was very much alive and awake, still struggling with his harness. He was fully submerged and likely panicking. Carefully moving downwards towards him, I tapped him hard on the shoulder with my foot, letting him know help was on the way. The light from his helmet shone in my direction. I held the knife out towards him and he grabbed it from me. Tucks' driver hole was too small for me to cut him free, and his escape hatch was below his feet should his top hatch be welded shut. As I turned back towards Addison, I could hear his feet slamming on metal. Tucks would free himself from our sinking vessel.
The Mako was complete dark now, save for the faint red emergency light above. The alarms had faded beneath the water and I could feel it sinking further down. The rear hatch had been opened and there was no sign of either Kaidan or Ash, so I could assume they were relatively safe. Unlocking the handle on Addison's back plate, I grabbed hold and started to pull her free. There was no time to consider her very likely head and neck injuries. The hint of light outside the hatch was starting to rapidly fade.
I swam out the rear hatch and pulled Addison through behind me, watching as the Mako tumbled further and further below.
A firm tug on my life vest spurred its inflation and Chase and I slowly rose to the surface.
Five crew had gone down in the Mako and all five had made it to shore.
Only four, however, had survived.
I had tried emergency lifesaving in the water when we had surfaced, once we had removed Addison's broken helmet and noticed she was no longer breathing. Constant applications of medi-gel were of no use. Once we had reached the beach we stripped her of her armour Ash and I began CPR. We stopped after nearly 30 minutes.
Sergeant Addison Chase died on impact of massive head trauma. There was nothing that could have been done to save her.
Kaidan was alive but had suffered a concussion. He had been resting under a tree watching Ash and I try to save Addison.
Tucks miraculously had only scrapes and bruises on him. He stood beside Kaidan, watching his Sergeant's lifeless body being tended to.
We all sat in silent vigil on the beach around her for a while, not speaking, knowing she would never open her eyes again. Knowing she would never see her home or her family again.
Another letter to write.
Ash broke the silence in the most appropriate way.
Fuck was right. We had no Mako, we had no comms with the Normandy, and we had no idea where we were or where we needed to go.
I rose unsteadily to my feet and stumbled slightly, dizzy from the exertion of CPR. "Kit check." My voice sounded as grimy as I felt.
Pooled together, we had one waterlogged map, three pistols, 24 ammunition clips, five emergency rations, and 10 litres of drinking water.
We stood around the limited array of kit. I rubbed my hands over my face, massaging any sign of hopelessness off my skin. Fuck. I can feel Tucks, Ash and Kaidan all looking at me, to me for direction. I'm the one who is supposed to know what to do next.
"Everyone check your onboard nav." I ordered. Each combat suit is equipped with onboard navigation, both GPS and analogue.
Tucks' had been ripped off when he exited the Mako, Kaidan's HUD was fried, his compass broken. My HUD survived, but couldn't find a satellite. Ash had ditched her helmet when it filled with water half way to the surface and her compass was shattered.
Ash took a piece of jewelry from around her neck and tossed it at me. A trinket hanging on a leather necklace. A small, pristine compass.
"Dad told me to never leave home without it." She said breathlessly.
Being on a beach it was relatively simple to triangulate our position using features on the map and on the ground. A high feature to our north, a pointed shore to the east. We were only 5 kilometers from where we needed to be, and it made my heart sink. Despite being on the, we had to head deep into the heart of the primary jungle.
Living, moving and fighting 'under the canopy' competently and for protracted periods require a soldier to be extremely physically fit enough to react automatically, instinctively and instantaneously to the unexpected in all circumstances. It was not uncommon for soldiers to exist on long patrols like wild animals.
Our only hope was to find the STG team and make contact as soon as possible. Normandy would have already initiated lost comms drill and when that inevitably fails they'll begin scanning and pinging the Mako. This activity will likely be observed by whatever facility we're supposed to be infiltrating and the place will go on high alert, making our mission all the more difficult.
"Mark the map for Chase." I said, gathering up my gear and redistributing the rest. "We have to go five kilometers and the Normandy is going to be raising hell in eight hours. We need to make a run for it and make contact as soon as possible."
"That's simply not possible." Kaidan's voice contained a hint of outrage.
Distance was a factor that could drive even the most calm and controlled soldier completely mad. In my training days, it took nearly seventeen hours to cover one kilometer, cutting our way up the chute as though it were a snowfield. Of course, if we had been able to get the help of a local, the trip would have been closer to 45 minutes. Local knowledge was always at a premium, and here we had none.
On Virmire, it took us nearly two hours to go through 500 meters of thick bamboo. Another hour and a half to bash through 200 meters of jungle.
Kaidan stopped in front of me and bent over, falling to one knee. "I think I'm going to die."
"We're almost there." I lied.
"At least there are no Geth", Ashley added.
In many parts of the jungle, only humanoids, not machines or even animals, can operate efficiently. Often the area to be covered, compared with the number of troops available, was so vast and empty of other people that, for long periods, the fights against the enemy was almost incidental. The real fight was against the enervating climate, the demanding terrain, the corroding atmosphere of unrelieved tension, of fitfulness of sleep and lack of hot meals, of disease and of accident, of having to carry everything everywhere as one side groped for the other like a grotesque game of blind man's buff. All the while a soldier had to be ready for the split second fleeting contact, for a few minutes of hectic action when patrol bumped patrol or, after great effort, an attack was launched or ambush sprung.
Only with hard training, self-discipline and high morale did men and women triumph when tired, far from base, outnumbered, wounded or sick, afraid, hungry and thirsty, and go those last few yards.
Ten hours into our journey, I had to take a knee and catch my breath. I felt like I was suffocating and needed water. We would have to take more time to collect some from the trees.
It must have been fate. Ahead in the distance, a shadow of a person was moving away from us. I signaled for the group to halt. We held silently, watching the figure continue its patrol.
I signaled with my hand to cloverleaf around. We were close enough to the last known position of the STG that it could have been one of their patrols. The figure was far enough away and the humidity was blurring my vision enough that I couldn't tell Salarian from Geth at that point. Positive ID was necessary.
Gunshots cracked in the air and my body was in full sprint towards the shadows ahead. By the time I had arrived, Tucks was standing over a downed Geth platform as Ash pulled its rifle free for herself.
"They'll have heard that," Kaidan said, trying to catch his breath.
"No, they won't."
The unfamiliar voice spun me on my heels to face a tall, gangly Salarian in dirty combats.
"Captain Kirrahe" the Salarian said, extending his hand. I shook it. "You looked like you needed a rescue."
"Actually," I laughed, "We're here to rescue you."