Chapter 25: Blitzkrieg

Today was shaping up to be a fantastic day, thought Saphyria. The usual crowd of embassy visitors had been barely half the normal size, she had used the lull to actually work her way ahead of the paperwork for once instead of being forced to play catch up, and she had finally coaxed her supervisor into giving her that raise they had been discussing for weeks. Goddess, even Emissary Udina seemed to feel it, if the alarmingly good cheer he was in when he greeted her this morning was any sign.

She wondered briefly what had him in such a good mood and if she should start preparing for another surge in her workload, but dismissed it in the same breath. There was nothing she could do about it either way, and she had enough work to do without looking for more. She'd just have to hope that, whatever it was, it didn't end up on her desk. And who knows, maybe it would be good news for her as well.

The thought was forgotten as quickly as it came, however, when the sound of footsteps approached her desk. She glanced up from her terminal and met the gaze of a slim young turian, just barely old enough to have ended his mandatory military service, and her lips quirked into the slight, gracious smile of greeting she had practiced to the point of perfection.

"Can I help you, sir?" she asked politely, momentarily setting aside her work as she turned her attention to her visitor.

"Yes ma'am," the turian replied stiffly. He paused and his eyes flashed with the mix of shame and uncertainty that all those too young or too proud feel when forced to ask for help. "I am looking for the C-SEC Academy and appear to have lost my way. Can you direct me from here?"

She smiled gently at him and obliged, quickly rattling off the directions. "It is only a few minutes walk," she finished. She took a moment to let her eyes rake over his figure one last time and she nodded internally, confident enough in her guess to add one last piece. "Good luck on your application."

The turian blinked and his mandibles slackened briefly in surprise, but he quickly rallied and firmed his features. "Thank you ma'am," he said, a tone of nervous gratitude in his voice, and turned to go. Halfway through his turn though, he paused and, after glancing around the empty room, turned back to her, his posture suddenly significantly more nervous. "Say... Saphyria," he said, clearly reading from the placard on her desk bearing her name. "The tests are completed by 1900 tonight. Would you be available and willing to join me for dinner afterward?"

This time, it was her turn to blink, and she had to fight to keep the blush she felt from her cheeks. It had been years since someone had approached her like this, and even longer since she'd been in a relationship. She was out of practice, unsure of how she should respond, and how he would react to it when she did. Still, he was rather attractive, in a decidedly military sort of way, and seemed nice, or at least polite, enough. She couldn't stop her eyes from tracing over the lithe muscle rippling under his carapace, or the low heat of desire from building.

Goddess, she felt like a maiden again.

"I, I think I would like that," she said at length, and the turian's eyes twinkled brightly. He introduced himself as Maximus Antillar and they exchanged omnitool addresses to keep in contact. "Let us meet on the Presidium at eight?"

"I will see you tonight then," he replied happily and turned to go. She smiled at his back as he went, content with yet further proof that today was shaping up to be a lovely day. Her date for the evening opened the door back on to the Presidium then turned back and waved at her with a grin.

The next instant, a blindingly bright flash of blue filled the Presidium behind him and rushed into the embassy building through the open door. Saphyria twisted her eyes closed and cried out at the sudden stab of pain, echoing a similar cry from Maximus. Strange shapes of every color danced through her vision even behind her closed eyelids, and remained once she opened them.

Through the multicolored spots in her vision, she could see Maximus whirl around to look out the door. The turian spat a vicious oath a beat later, his hand reaching over his shoulder in a gesture she instinctively recognized as reaching for a gun that wasn't there. Another oath split the air and he whirled back toward her.

He started to speak, but his words were drowned out by another flash, just as bright as the first, and an enormous, deafening, and ground-shaking explosion that sent the decorations on her desk flying and nearly threw her out of her chair. She only managed to stay in it by virtue of being too close to her desk to slide out easily.

Maximus was not so fortunate. He tumbled to the floor in mid-step, landing heavily on the rugged carpet with a muffled yelp of surprise she barely heard over the ringing in her ears. She threw herself out of her chair and rushed over to him, reaching him right as he regained his knees.

She bent to help him up and concern gave way to fear, which soon gave way to outright panic, as gunfire erupted on the Presidium. There hadn't been a shot fired in the Presidium since the Krogan Rebellions! What in the Goddess' name was going on?! She turned her gaze from Maximus to the half-open door, desperately hoping that she could see what was happening and that it would never see her. Her thoughts raced in circles as she tried to figure out what was going on, but all that filled her mind was the realization that the Citadel was under attack and she was now in the middle of a Goddess-forsaken warzone!

She nearly jumped out of her skin when Maximus laid a taloned hand on her shoulder and the room echoed with her piercing shriek of surprise. She whirled on him just in time to see the turian wince at the noise, but he tugged on her shoulder insistently all the same. "Come, we need to move!"

"R-right," she stuttered her agreement. "Where are we-"

Her question abruptly shifted into a startled yelp as Maximus suddenly tackled her to the floor. She hit the ground with a painful thud, moments before a burst of three sharp, ear-splitting cracks snapped through the air like a whip. Maximus cried out in pain and landed heavily on top of her, driving the breath from her lungs. Her eyes went wide as he coughed, a wet, gurgling sound that wasn't at all normal, and a sudden shock of wetness splattered against her cheek.

"W-what?" she managed to gasp out, her mind suddenly sluggish and uncomprehending under the sheer enormity of what it was trying to process.

"R-run!" he gasped out, shoving her toward the door to the embassies and himself off her and back onto his feet in the same motion. She watched dumbly, barely able to breath, let alone move, as the courageous idiot put himself between her and the trio of geth platforms that had just walked through the door. Blue blood poured down his back, soaking into his shirt in rapidly spreading stains with every heaving breath he took.

His legs wobbled unsteadily, and with every breath, his panting became more and more of a wet gurgle, but he stood strong and defiant and, somehow, charged at the geth, armed with nothing but his fists and good intentions.

The instant he started to move, all three geth opened fire. A veritable wall of bullets slammed into the turian and he stumbled to the floor before he could finish his third step. Dark blue blood soaked into the carpet around him, and the only thought her traitorous, inappropriate, and vile mind could conjure through her numb horror at the sight was the knowledge that that stain was never going to come out.

A series of rapid chirps filled the room, but before she could even begin to process it, the geth's rifles roared again. A sharp jolt of pain blossomed in her chest followed by a wave of numbness and then she knew no more.

"Sir!" the shocked and disbelieving voice of the communications officer cracked like a whip through the low bustle of activity on the bridge of the TFS Dauntless. "C-SEC reports hostile geth on the Presidium!"

"What?!" Admiral Rufus Scipio, commander of the Citadel Defense Fleet, whirled on his fellow turian fast enough for his carapace to click alarmingly loudly. All around him, activity came screeching to a halt and a stunned moment of silence rippled through the crew, only for them to turn back to their tasks in a near frenzy of industriousness less than a second later. Despite his shock, Rufus couldn't help feel a moment of pride in his crew, and that of most of his fleet for that matter. They were turians, and they had a duty to perform, that was enough, even in the face of this impossibility, to get them moving, preparing for the fight they all had known was looming.

At the same time, the sudden shock of surprise mixed with the actualization of a long-anticipated fear and formed a sick dread that settled heavily over his shoulders. He had known the geth were coming for some time now, and he had thought he was ready, but he had never imagined the geth would, or even could for that matter, ignore his fleet entirely when they did. By the spirits, how the hell did they pull that off? "How?!"

"Unknown, sir," the officer answered, his voice coasting along a thin layer of forced calm over a deep fear that was as obvious as it was tightly leashed. "But there's at least a brigade, with more every few minutes and heavy vehicle support. Almost a third of the Presidium has been overrun and..." He hesitated for a brief moment, as if fighting with himself to get the words out. "And C-SEC is requesting immediate fire support."

"What?!" Rufus thundered again, most of him desperately praying whoever made the request would spontaneously contract a case of sudden onset sanity. Fire support for the Presidium, especially against anything C-SEC's own heavy weapons couldn't handle, meant the ships needed a line of fire and there weren't any openings in the Presidium ring, which meant they'd need to make one. And once that was done, the atmosphere would be gone in a matter of minutes. Tens of thousands of people would be killed if they couldn't get to at least a vac suit, and in the middle of a battle, most civilians had other things on their mind. Not to mention the millions of credits in damage to the Citadel. "Are they out of their minds?!"

"The geth are killing every organic they can find," came the answer, outrage now tinging the fear and uncertainty behind his voice. "In their words, 'anyone caught in the collateral is already dead'."

Rufus made a low, angry chirp in the back of his throat, but held his tongue. He was a military man through and through and in the cold calculus of war, the request was a good one. Tens of thousands may die from it, but if the geth weren't stopped, they would be dead anyway, along with millions more. His mandibles flicked in suppressed anger as he glared at his display, silently hating himself for what he must say.

"Contact the Council and relay the request with my backing," he ordered bitterly. "As soon as they approve it, Aquitania Legion is to prov-"

"Relay-6 has activated! Ships inbound!" the sensor officer's voice cracked through the bridge, trampling over the admiral's words. Before the words had even fully registered with Rufus, the officer continued. "Geth warships confirmed!"

Impossible! The thought raced through Rufus' mind before he could stop it. There was no way the geth could be coming out of that relay without warning. In his younger days, he had personally led the task force that had mapped out every single system that linked with it, and he had triple checked the sentries, both organic and VI, in every single one less than a week ago. It should not have been physically possible for the geth to use it without sounding the alarm hours ago, at the latest.

The admiral swallowed the scathing litany of curses on the tip of his tongue and forced aside the bitter recriminations. How they did it didn't matter at this point, only that they did. He could figure out how afterwards, assuming he survived the fight. "Belay that order! All hands to battle stations! All forces, prepare for combat!" His gaze roved hungrily over the tactical display, finely honed instincts and long years of bitter experience both looking for any flaws in his preparations.

It took half a glance at the hologram to find the single flaw that invalidated nearly the entirety of his primary strategy however. His fierce glare switched from the display to the comm officer. "Get on the horn with Citadel Control! They need to close the station, now!"

"Already tried, sir! There's no response!" the officer shot back immediately. He paused momentarily, clearly listening to something through his omnitool, before focusing back on the admiral. A low simmer of worry and terror, an emotion Rufus had seen in every soldier with family in the line of fire, welled up behind his eyes. "C-SEC reports that the geth's first move was to seize the control room, and they can't force the bastards back out!"

Rufus bit down on the angry shriek of frustration building in his chest, but couldn't stop his hands from tightening around the bars he leaned against hard enough for the metal to audibly groan. When he spoke, his voice was clipped as he hurriedly rearranged his plans to respond to the advancing attack. "Aquitania is on close defense of the station. Provide fire support for C-SEC as available, but the priority is intercepting any geth that slip past us. Make sure no more of these synthetic bastards get on the Citadel! All other assets are to advance. We're keeping them as far from the Citadel as possible. Stand by for engagement orders."

A whole chorus of acknowledgments came back and he took a brief moment to study the geth's swift advance. They had shot out of the relay, already arranged into a tight wedge, at impressive, if not terribly uncommon for an assault, speeds straight toward the Citadel. It did not take a tactical genius to recognize what they were trying to do, especially since Saren's flagship was nowhere to be found.

"Legions Aegyptus and Cappadocia are to sweep wide and come at the geth from here and here," he ordered, marking a pair of points in space far to either side of the geth's path. "They're going to try and build a road for that superdreadnought. Collapse it behind them. Daccia Legion is to break their formation. Hit and run only, do not stay to engage. Orta Legion," he paused briefly and turned his focus toward Matriarch Lidanya, captain of the Destiny Ascension and leader of the non-Turian elements of his forces. "Strike while they're scattered, stop them cold."

He watched with tense anticipation as his orders were carried out. The slow, lumbering, yet implacable wall of Aegyptus' heavy cruisers and the fleet's few turian dreadnoughts, his own Dauntless among them, flanked the geth formation, creating the anvil upon which the crushing might of Cappadocia's strike craft would descend, smashing the geth between them. At the same time, the nimble frigates and light, graceful cruisers of Daccia, the fleet's skirmishers, barrelled headlong toward the enemy under the protective gaze of Orta Legion.

It was only a matter of moments until the forward elements of Daccia reached effective firing range, and the space between both forces dissolved into a chaotic storm of lead slugs. Countless projectiles, each one moving at an appreciable fraction of the speed of light, shot toward the advancing skirmishers with incredible precision. In seconds, every ship in the attack had no less than three projectiles tearing through space toward exactly the same place on their shields, and from angles that shut down nearly every maneuvering option they had.

Nearly was a far different beast from every, however, and Rufus did not bother to fight the pleased, almost feral flex of his mandibles as the nimble craft of Daccia, each one pushed to the very edge of turian science in the realms of speed and maneuverability, practically danced around the first wave of projectiles. Ships rolled and dove, twisted and stuttered, climbed and spun in a chaotic, impossible to follow ballet, slipping through the miniscule gaps in the oncoming volley like water through a crack. The occasional flash of shields and shower of sparks as enemy slugs scraped a glancing blow the only sign the geth had even attacked in the first place.

From there, Daccia's advance turned from an all-out sprint to a veritable ballet, conducted to the rhythm of the geth's symphony of slaughter. Rufus snorted quietly in gallows humor as he realized just how true that analogy was. The geth attacked in a regular pattern, firing in a ripple across their entire formation every two seconds or so, and nigh-perfectly kept a beat.

A beat that ended the lives of more good soldiers with every note.

The many ships of Daccia danced through space, but as they grew closer, they began to dodge fewer and fewer of the geth's attacks. Shields flared, bright and distinct, nearly constantly throughout the legion, and with every wave of projectiles they grew weaker. The ships tried to rally, and their return volleys flew true, straight into the heart of the geth ships, but they went ignored. Daccia's primary weapons were never meant to be used at that range, and the lack was dearly felt. The geth's shields, ludicrously powerful on even their smallest vessels, absorbed the attack with almost frightening ease, and there was no hesitation in their return fire.

The frigates of Daccia, already fragile by both design and size, began to falter under the relentless barrage. Rufus could only watch impotently as, one by one, the geth isolated and cut down his men with cold, unfeeling precision.

Then Orta finally reached effective firing range.

A volley of slugs, flung from the bellies of some of, and including the, biggest guns in his fleet, tore through the intervening space in a fraction of a second. Geth shields flared and died under the enormous power of the Destiny Ascension, her support craft, and the salarian contribution to Citadel defense. The damn synthetics were forced to break off the attack on Daccia and scramble away to avoid the next volley, even as several of their own shattered and died in brilliant explosions of raw power.

The geth advance slowed to a crawl, floundering slightly as Orta hammered them. Nearly as one, they turned their attention to the far more dangerous craft, and Daccia seized on the opening. The space separating them vanished quickly, disappearing entirely at nearly the same instant Cappadocia and Aegyptus reached their positions and slammed into the geth's flanks.

The geth formation dissolved into utter chaos. Their formation broke with a nearly audible crack under the relentless pounding they faced on all sides. Shields flared, flickered and died, even as great rents were torn in their hulls and entire ships went dark. Their return fire claimed several of Rufus' ships, but he pushed aside the anger and the grief. Victory was in the air, so thick he could taste it. He was going to show these synthetic bastards what it meant to threaten the Citadel.

"Press the advance!" he ordered, not looking away from the display. "Crush them before they can recover!"

The second the words left his mouth, Daccia arrived. The small, nimble craft hit the disorganized cluster of geth ships, he could no longer honestly call it a formation, and carved a path through it like a knife.

The craft of Daccia, designed specifically to counter the Coalition's fighter forces, danced around the geth forces with ease, almost negligently dodging out of the line of fire every time they fell in it. The geth reacted absurdly quickly, and any one of their ships could destroy his with ease if they could get a hit, but not even they were as fast or as agile as the miniscule fighters Daccia had been created to fight. Now that they were deep in the heart of the enemy formation, they could and did make extensive use of other geth ships as cover, removing vast avenues of potential attacks and allowing them to dodge and retaliate through the clear space with heartening ease.

Rufus watched one in particular, the TFS Relentless in its place deep in the heart of the enemy, as its cannon spat deadly storms of flechettes, each one the size of his head, out of the ship's cannon like the galaxy's largest shotgun. The cluster of flechettes slammed into the shields of a geth cruiser with force he could practically feel, even across the empty void of space.

The next second, the comm officer erupted. "Sir! Relentless reports visual contact with the superdreadnought!"

"What?!" he demanded, instinctively tearing his gaze away to look at the turian in surprise.

"It's disguising its sensor signature!" the officer shot back, and Rufus turned back to the display, only to gape as what his sensors said was the geth cruiser the Relentless had just attacked was flagged as the superdreadnought. He could only watch, stunned, as its holographic recreation mutated before his very eyes, almost immediately resolving into the bizarre, tentacled monstrosity that had attacked Eden Prime.

The ship wasted no time. In the very same second as its reveal, one of its tentacles flexed and the Relentless was utterly shattered, torn apart by a blow Rufus could not hope to follow. A beat later, his sensor readout erupted in a storm of symbols and warnings as over half the geth ships thought slain surged back to life. Redoubled geth fire rained down on all three attacking legions, taking them completely by surprise and stalling the attack for long, precious seconds.

Daccia had no need to worry about geth fire however. No, they were faced with something far worse. Deep in the heart of the geth formation, Daccia had to contend with Nazara.

The superdreadnought tore into them like a varren with a carcass. Every motion it made, from flicks of its tentacles to rolls of its body, utterly destroyed yet another vessel. Beams of solid red and glowing white tore into the turian skirmishers with reckless abandon, uncaring if it struck geth, so long as it killed turian in the process.

It was over in mere seconds. Rufus watched, shocked, appalled, and barely able to think as a single ship slaughtered dozens of some of the most advanced warships in the Hierarchy by itself. The fact that it killed eight of its own ships was small comfort.

He was jerked from his stupor as the Dauntless shook once again, struck hard by a geth cruiser. Damage reports and the crew's responses were called out all around him, but he could barely hear it over the sudden shimmer of panic in his thoughts. He could feel himself shouting orders to fall back, to form a defense closer to the Citadel, but he was only dimly aware of it. His mind was simply too busy staring in abject horror at the thing Saren had found.

Suddenly, it whirled within his display and seemed to face him directly, staring out of the hologram and, he got the uncomfortable impression, directly into his soul. The comm officer screeched in agony and threw himself away from his station, his headphones going flying in the process. A raw, noisy explosion of sound, something between a scream and a shriek tore out of every speaker on the bridge followed by a voice, a rumbling, baleful voice filled with ancient rage and terrible purpose, that struck Rufus like a physical blow. When it spoke, he felt it more than he heard it, and it consumed his mind utterly.


"Hurry up and get that barricade closed again!" Tonn Chellick barked at his subordinates, even as he hurriedly pulled the rushing pair of, on this day, far too young, C-SEC officers, both turians like himself, through the small opening in the hastily assembled barrier. They stumbled through the gap mere seconds before the air car that formed the backbone of the barricade slammed back into place mere inches behind them. The pair, obviously too exhausted to right themselves, fell to the floor with a clatter and simply lay there, panting heavily.

"What happened?" he asked them worriedly, gently dragging them away from the barrier so that his squad could set up on the barrier unimpeded. "And where's the rest of your squad?"

"Dead," one of the pair gasped out between pants once he released their collars and crouched down beside them. "The, the geth were too much."

Chellick's talons tightened on his rifle. Spirits, a whole squad of officers dead. Even when it was wholly expected, that hurt. He couldn't let that distract him though; he still had a job to do.

"They'll be remembered," he said, carefully projecting a calm surety that he certainly did not feel. "Now, what happened?"

"Ordered to hold the control room," the other turian answered, his breath slowly coming in smaller and smaller pants. His head flopped around to look listlessly at Chellick. "Geth came at us hard, with weapons I have never even heard of. We, we did not stand a chance."

"Once that became clear," the first picked up as his partner trailed off, his gaze going vacant in a look Chellick was unfortunately far too familiar with. The look of one lost in memories best left forgotten. Spirits, he was too young to feel this jaded. "Command ordered us to disable the controls and fall back. There wasn't time to get to everything, but life support and in-station transportation should be locked down."

Chellick nodded soberly, his mind racing. That explained the orders to set up barricades all over Citadel Tower, even on the maintenance footpaths that ran along the outside of it. With luck, the barricades combined with the lack of working elevators would keep them contained too, provided the CDF and that arrogant bareface Scipio could back up their boasts. He just had to hold out until they dealt with whatever was going on out in space.

"How far behind you were the geth?" he asked.

"Not far, five, maybe ten minutes," the second turian answered, and he drunkenly staggered to his feet only for his legs to nearly buckle underneath him. Chellick surged in and caught him before setting him back down sitting upright next to his still-prone partner. "Lot of them too. They almost caught us, but got distracted by something. Sounded like plasma fire. It slowed them down, but they'll be here soon."

"Plasma?" Chellick asked, a bit taken aback but not willing to indulge the feeling. He had no idea what human troops were doing on the Citadel, but at this point he wasn't willing to question it. If even half the constant stream of reports flying out of his comm were to be believed, they needed all the help they could get. "Was it XCOM? Did they follow you?"

"Don't know," the answer came with a shake of his head. "I didn't see any sign of them, just heard the guns. Sorry."

Chellick nodded with a frown. A battalion or two of psionic troops to come riding to the rescue had been far too much to hope for, but the knowledge of outside aid, no matter how small, was absurdly comforting. "Rest up then, you've both earned it. But be ready to move again soon. This is probably going to get worse before it gets better."

"Yes sir," they said as one, their voices a mix of weary despondence and grim determination, and Chellick gave them a quick salute before turning and rushing over to the barricade to join his command.

"No sign of movement," his second, Lenna Rentola, offered the instant he drew near. Though his voice was calm, the salarian's stance practically thrummed with nervous tension and his rifle shook almost imperceptibly in his grasp. He gulped audibly and glanced at the officers surrounding them warily before he continued in a quiet whisper Chellick had to strain to hear. "We're not going to survive this, are we Tonn?"

"I doubt it," Chellick replied grimly and just as quietly, his talons tightening almost painfully on his rifle. As he spoke though, his voice started to rise, lifted by the angrily determined passion that beat a steady rhythm in his breast. "But when it comes down to it, it's either us, or the thirteen million innocent people behind us. Not so hard a choice, when you think about it."

Lenna's lips quirked. "Heh," he half-chuckled, half-said, his voice both wry and admiring. The salarian glanced over at Chellick for a long moment, then over his shoulder, toward the stairs that led up into the heart of the Citadel Tower. "I can't disagree," he admitted in a tone that wavered freely between resignation and acceptance. The trembling of his limbs slowed to a stop, even if he didn't visibly relax a micrometer.

Chellick spared a small smile for him and they both settled back into place mere seconds before a geth drone came flying into view in the middle distance. Almost a dozen rifles tore into it in the same heartbeat, shredding through its shields and sending it careening toward the floor nearly instantly.

There was no time to celebrate the small victory however, for on its heels came a veritable tide of geth combat platforms. Immediately, the air was filled with the staccato roar of assault rifle fire and the hissing crack of bullets tearing into scenery, barricade, and shields alike. The rifle in Chellick's hands bucked wildly with every burst he fired, but hard-won experience kept it cemented against his shoulder and locked center-mass of his target.

Its shield flared a brilliant white-green, but the blistering rain barely slowed its headlong charge. Without breaking stride, its rifle, and seemingly every single one of its allies', swung toward him and barked angrily. His shield flared with every hit, and in a matter of seconds, the screeching of the generator forced him to duck back behind the barrier.

Just in time too, for the next second something slammed into the far side of the barricade and exploded violently, throwing clouds of shrapnel and smokeless, billowing flames high into the air of the Presidium. His ears rang from the sudden shock of sound and the barrier jumped against his back and threw him head first to the ground. He immediately rolled back to his feet in a low crouch and hurried back to his post, cursing under his breath all the while.

Flames licked wildly at the remnants of the air car, filling the air above it with a low, shimmering haze of heat that sent dancing ripples over everything he could see. He was grateful for it nonetheless, however, for between the crackle of the flames and the ringing in his ears, he could not hear the shrieks of agony from Lenna as he writhed on the ground, clutching at the thick metal spike lodged firmly in his eye. Green blood pooled into a frothing puddle that was continually stirred by the frantic, visibly slowing efforts of the dying salarian.

Chellick cursed again, outrage and grief mingling into a heady mixture, and threw himself back behind the burning air car. He shouted something at his men, he honestly did not know what, but whatever it was, it did the trick. Nearly as one, they shook off the daze the sudden rocket strike had created and threw themselves back into the fight with a vengeance.

His rifle roared angrily with every squeeze of the trigger and peppered the swiftly advancing geth with an unending stream of bullets. Bullets whizzed past him close enough that he could feel the wind of their passing, just barely missing his shield, and he silently muttered a prayer of thanks to the spirits for the heat haze protecting him as much as it did the geth.

Shields flared all along the geth advance and in several instances began to flicker and die, mere seconds before the platforms behind them toppled over to join them, but it didn't seem to even matter to the geth. They just kept coming, and with every geth that fell, another of his own men joined Lenna.

In less than a minute of furious fighting, his original force of fifteen had been whittled down to only six, and the nearest geth was only meters away.

"We need to fall back!" he bellowed as he ducked back into cover and let his rifle cool. He signaled the two recovering turians to run for the stairs before dismissing them entirely. If they hadn't recovered enough to keep up, there was nothing he could do for them. His rifle signalled its readiness and he threw himself back over the lip of the burning car. "Tullius, set the mine!"

"Done!" the turian engineer replied a beat later, releasing the shaped explosive, the only one C-SEC's armory had available to give them, he had strapped to the inside of the barricade.

"Head for the stairs!" Chellick ordered quickly. "Set up at the next barricade before they can recover!"

Without another word, the six enforcers of Citadel law pushed off the burning air car and bolted for the stairwell an infinitely long ten meters away. Chellick and Tullius turned back, spraying wild covering fire behind them in a vain hope to provide some degree of protection. The sight of their retreat seemed to galvanize the geth though, and incoming fire redoubled in the first half-second. A flicker of blue sparks and a short, sharp cry of pain from just to Chellick's left signalled one of his men, he couldn't tell which in the chaos, collapsing to the ground in an arterial spray of blue blood.

Then the explosive detonated. Incoming geth fire came to a screeching halt as the car practically disintegrated around the charge. Its superstructure, already weakened by the geth rocket, was unable to take the additional stress and simply shattered. Twisted wreckage ranging in size from a few centimeters to half a meter across scythed through the air in a devastating storm.

Shields flared, flickered and died under the overwhelming barrage and thick white fluid flew in great spurts all throughout the area immediately surrounding the former barricade. Metal shrieked and synthetic muscle snapped as the closest geth were simply torn apart in a storm of steel.

Chellick watched with no small degree of satisfaction as he and his men finally made it to the stairs. Without turning, he reached behind them and shoved them up the incline before awkwardly following, facing out the door all the while.

He couldn't even begin to relax until they were behind the next barricade.

"Keep everyone moving that way," Councillor Sparatus said into the console he was using to coordinate the evacuation of the Presidium. "Stay low and stick to the alleyways. Once you get them past the cordon to Zakera ward, they should be safe."

The single C-SEC officer in charge of the group of civilians responded, but Sparatus had dismissed the man from his mind the instant he was done speaking. Without fanfare, he started barking orders into the chaos going on all around him. Much like his colleagues, he had far too much to handle to linger on any one of the thousands of problems cropping up all over the Citadel.

And to make matters worse, the geth were making catastrophic headway through the Presidium. At the current rate, they would have to abandon Citadel Tower, and all the equipment that made his efforts possible, let alone useful, within the hour or they'd be trapped here while the geth rampage through it.

"Councillors!" an aide's urgent cry rang out through the frantic bustle of the Council's private-chambers-cum-command-center. He couldn't pin down exactly what, but something in the young turian's tone made Sparatus automatically bump up the priority of this message. His instincts were screaming at him that this was the one to pay attention to over the dozen other such requests vying for his attention from every angle. He turned his full attention on the tense aide, who took the combined weight of the entire Council's gaze with aplomb. When he spoke, he proved Sparatus' earlier decision to be the right one. "C-SEC and the CDF are requesting permission for fire support operations on the Presidium!"

There was a brief moment of stunned surprise and appalled realization as all three Councillors processed the request, but Sparatus was the first to recover.

"Granted," he snapped curtly at the aide, inwardly cursing the spirits that forced him to make that choice. "Get it started."

His colleagues turned to him with matching expressions of disbelief and shock.

"No, stop!" Tevos ordered the aide before he could take more than a single step. The young turian froze, pinned in place by the asari Councillor's glower. She then turned her glare on him. "Sparatus, have you gone insane?! There are thousands of people still on the Presidium!"

He turned away from the salarian that had rushed up to his side the very instant he was open and met her glare with the steady, grim certainty he felt roiling in his chest. "And there are millions more in the wards. If the geth get that far or, spirits forbid, get through our locks on the Citadel's life support functions, they will all be dead." His mandibles flexed into a frown. He wasn't sure he should share his other reason, but he couldn't in good conscience leave it unsaid. "And if even a fraction of Nihlus' information is true, there are trillions more at risk." His mandibles pulled into a grimace. "I'm sorry, but they're an acceptable loss."

Her lips thinned into a narrow line and she was quite clearly unhappy about it, but she broke their impromptu staring match first. He nodded to himself at the implicit agreement and turned to the aide. "Give the order."

"Y-yes sir," the turian said with a salute before he scrambled back to his station.

Sparatus nodded and turned to Valern. "Have your people figured out what's wrong with the comm buoys?"

"Not yet," the salarian replied with a solemn shake of his head. "The best theory so far is a geth hub inundating the network and consuming the bandwidth. My people are attempting to-"

The salarian Councillor was cut off as the floor seemed to jump beneath their feet, sending everyone in the room not already seated falling to the floor. Sparatus hit the ground hard and his heart beat loudly in his ears, almost drowning out the shouts of surprise and fear filling the room. He muttered an apology to, and a short prayer to the spirits for, anyone caught in that mess and gingerly climbed back to his feet.

Beside him, Valern did the same, grumbling all the while. The salarian paused for a moment, clearly listening to something, then turned to Sparatus and Tevos. "We need to evacuate," he said matter of factly. "That was not a CDF strike. The geth have breached Citadel Tower. If we do not leave now, we will not get another chance."

Sparatus blinked in surprise. His last report said they were only just hitting the first of C-SEC's defensive positions. How were they already in the tower? He exchanged an uneasy glance with Tevos and they both nodded as one.

"Everyone," Tevos said loudly, her voice easily cutting through the chaos surging through the room and bringing dozens of eyes to her person. "I thank you profusely for your efforts, but it is time to evacuate the Presidium. Remember the evacuation plans. Make your way to the nearest Ward as calmly and quickly as possible while avoiding main thoroughfares and you should be safe. Good luck and may the Goddess carry you safely."

The room erupted in pandemonium as nearly everyone in the room dropped what they were doing and sprinted in a disorderly rush for the exit. The Councillors weathered the storm however, if only by virtue of the ring of guards around them. Sparatus was, for the first time, thankful the staff brave enough to remain numbered so low. If there had been many more people in that room, someone would have ended up trampled.

"We should separate," Sparatus said to his colleagues the moment he could be heard over the rush, forcing a facade of calm over the unease roiling in his chest. He couldn't afford to show fear now. "If the geth take us all out, the blow to morale alone will all but seal the battle. I will head for the fleet, I can do the most good there."

"Agreed," Valern said. "I will go to the Wards. My people maintain safe houses for operatives there. I should be safe and able to continue my efforts once I reach one. Should the worst occur, I will evacuate with the other refugees."

"Very well," Tevos agreed with a nod. She turned to the leader of their guard detail, who had been quietly relaying orders to his men to prepare them for the trip, and frowned at him.. "Minimal detail, Captain. Our escape depends on speed and not being found, and not being recognized if we are. Use any extra guards to get the staff to safety, then send every gun you can spare to support C-SEC's efforts."

Every single one of the guards turned fiercely disapproving gazes on the asari. She merely rolled her eyes under their combined displeasure. The captain opened his mouth, probably to chastise her, and she held up a hand to stop him.

"I appreciate the sentiment, Captain," she said with an honest smile before her gaze hardened. Centuries of stubborn will and a fierce, unswerving determination blazed in her eyes as she continued. "But I was not asking. You will assign the smallest detail you can get away with to each of us, then you will take the remainder of your subordinates and do everything in your power to save the lives of my people."

She paused briefly and the turian shifted minutely in discomfort. "That is an order, Captain. Am I understood?"

"Under protest, yes ma'am," he said through clenched jaw, his voice frustrated and bitter.

"Your protest has been noted," Tevos replied, her normal placidity beginning to seep over the uncompromising steel hidden within.

He nodded jerkily and pointed out several of his men and assigned each to one of the Councillors. "Protect them with your lives," he ordered sharply, his eyes blazing in frustrated anger. "The rest of you, after the others."

The majority of the guards in the room saluted in varying degrees of discontent and left the room in an orderly rush. Sparatus waved the group assigned to him to follow and made his way after them. Now he just had to make his way to the docks through whole levels of geth-held territory.

Spirits, why did he miss his days in the military?

As the CDF fought a running battle back toward the protective envelope of the few defensive emplacements still functional on the Citadel, Rufus Scipio was waging his own internal, yet no less fierce, war. He stood in seemingly the only pocket of calm on the bridge of the Dauntless, the sheer weight of his inner debate driving out any possibility of other thought. The noise and bustle all around him faded into the background, buried under the all-consuming sound of his own thoughts.

He had very clear orders regarding the weapons he was holding back. That they were not to be used under any circumstance except when the Coalition finally turned violently hostile. They were meant to be surprises, hopefully enough so to make up for the technological deficit. And if he used them here, the humans would be able to develop counters or worse, take them for their own. Without that advantage, there was a very real possibility he would not be able to hold the Citadel against a determined human assault.

At the same time though, it was becoming increasingly clear that unless something changed dramatically, and soon, he would not be able to hold the Citadel now.

It was a nearly impossible decision to make. The mere thought of knowingly disobeying both the letter and spirit of his explicit orders made him ill; it went against literally everything he had ever known, been taught, and believed in. Worse, with the comm buoys inoperable and the Council in the middle of evacuating, he had no way to request his orders be countermanded. Literally his only options were to spit on his personal beliefs, millennia of tradition, and the very foundation of the Hierarchy, or watch his men be slaughtered, armed against the spirits' judgment with only the knowledge that he had done his duty.

In the end, it came down to a simple, short, agonizing choice: What was worth more? The lives of the men sworn to follow him, or his beliefs, his very identity?

The question haunted him as none other ever had. He wanted, oh so desperately wanted, to choose his men, but everything he knew, from his training and experience all the way to the ancient myths his mother shared as she tucked him into bed as a child, told him it was brutally wrong. Not only wrong, but cowardly. The surest sign of a craven traitor.

None of them though, including himself before today, had truly realized just how painful such a choice was to make. They could not have, or they would not have dismissed it so lightly.

He watched the display, paralyzed by indecision, as the geth hounded the heels of their retreat. His men performed admirably, given the situation, but with the loss of most of Daccia Legion, they were outnumbered as well as outgunned.

One by one, his ships went dark, killed slowly by the geth or utterly crushed by the superdreadnought. With each loss, he felt another stab of impotent rage and keening grief tear into his chest, adding more fuel to the fire raging in his thoughts. He watched in paralyzed indecision for several eternal seconds, his talons clenched tight around the railing before him in mounting fury, as his command was decimated.

Finally, as a cruiser of Aegyptus Legion was torn apart before his very eyes, its hull shattered in an instant by the overwhelming power of the superdreadnought's main gun, he could take no more. With an almost audible crack, his decision was made.

"Enough," he muttered fiercely to himself. His gaze abruptly sharpened and the chaos of the bridge once more began to intrude into his thoughts. Now that he had made his choice, there was nothing left but to follow it though.

It was as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders, and the guttering flames of his determination surged anew. They had taken a pounding, but it was time to hit back. A flex of his hand opened a channel to the entire fleet and when he spoke, his voice shone with an implacable will. "All ships of the Citadel Defense Fleet, I am authorizing the use of all Project Excelsior weapons. All survivors of Cappadocia and Daccia Legions are to deploy the mines in our wake. Aegyptus and Orta, ready torpedoes to fire on my mark."

To their credit, none of his subordinates questioned the sudden change, not even the ones who knew just as well as he did that he had overstepped his authority. His mandibles quirked into a small smirk and he shook his head sadly. They were all far better turians than he.

An effort of will shoved aside his brief moment of distraction and he turned his focus back onto the sensor display. He watched in silent approval as, from nearly half of his surviving forces, dozens of icons, each one representing an oblong ball of eezo and iridium half the size of an air car, poured out into the space behind them. Small thrusters on each one kicked on, swiftly maneuvering the devices into an rough grid almost half again as wide as the line of his ships.

In response, GARDIAN batteries came to life all along the frontrunners of the geth fleet and sent lances of pure thermal energy spearing into the grid of mines in a wide swathe. The synthetics did not bother to slow as their powerful lasers tore into the relatively small devices with abandon, turning their outer shells into little more than molten slag. Seemingly unconcerned with the wall of floating debris, the geth ships stayed on course and in a matter of minutes, their front ranks had entered the minefield.

Rufus' mandibles quirked into a small smile at the sight. Cocky bastards would get what they deserved this time, he thought with no small amount of glee. The geth's GARDIAN lasers were powerful, there was no question there, but Project Excelsior's mines were built to withstand a sustained plasma barrage. They would barely notice those lasers.

A beat later, accompanied by a crescendo of cheers from the Dauntless' command staff, he was proven correct. Mere seconds after the leading geth elements entered the field, the nearest mine, thin trails of molten metal trickling off its surface, shot toward the closest geth ship like it was fired from a cannon, glowing a brilliant blue from the single-shot mass effect impulse drive.

The ship jerked away immediately, but its own forward momentum ensured its downfall. The mine had crossed the intervening space in seconds, slamming into the ship's shields in a brilliant flash of green. Rufus sucked in a nervous breath, anxiously waiting for the mine's second stage to fire successfully.

Once again, he was not disappointed. As soon as he had finished the thought, the mine burst into its second stage. Every single joule of energy the foremost engineers in the galaxy could pack into its frame, as well as harness from the impact and the roiling thermal energy dancing over its surface was pumped through the ungodly expensive core of element zero buried at the heart of the mine. Positive charge rushed through a core the size of Rufus' torso, and the surrounding space imploded.

A sphere of utter, all-consuming blackness erupted out of the mine and the visual feed on it went disturbingly wrong. The geth ship, once secure behind the nearly-solid wall of its kinetic barrier, warped and twisted under the unimaginable force it was now subjected to. Metal warped, bent, and tore before being pulled like noodle dough. Solid armor, built to withstand direct blows of meganewton force, ran like water down a funnel, every single one of the infinitely many, infinitely long streamers pulled toward a single, incomprehensible point. In a matter of moments, the geth frigate had vanished, compacted down to the size of a few molecules by the mind-bogglingly huge crush of gravity.

The singularity was not content with only the one ship, however. Its gravity blanketed the whole area, catching nearly the entire front ranks of the geth in its inescapable grasp. It died quickly, as all false singularities do, well before any of the snared ships could follow their comrade, but the damage was already done.

Catapulted forward by the inexorable pull of the new singularity, the geth ships were simply unable to stop themselves from running headlong into the mines that had been similarly snared. Rufus watched in stunned, vaguely appalled, voyeuristic glee as the front ranks of the geth fleet were utterly annihilated in a wave of small and temporary, yet no less fatal, black holes.

The geth formation descended into absolute chaos as they were buffeted by the sudden gravitational tide, pulled every which way as singularities formed and then vanished again in a matter of seconds. Insectoid ships tumbled chaotically through space, thrown about like leaves in the wind. It was a gratifying sight, marred only by the fact that the spirits-cursed superdreadnought floated as steady as a rock amidst all the chaos unfolding around it. To Rufus, it seemed as if the thrice-damned mechanical monstrosity did not even notice the pull.

Even with that though, ragged cheers and mocking catcalls, filled with an enthusiasm and fire that had been missing since the superdreadnought revealed itself and turned this battle around, surged through the Dauntless' bridge. Rufus allowed the lack of proper decorum to pass with a small smile, too glad for the brief reprieve and too grateful for the sorely needed morale boost to chastise it.

He shook his head ruefully, his smile melting away, before he glared hard at the superdreadnought on his display, once again getting the sensation that it was peering back at him, straight into his soul. With an effort of will, he forced down the discomfort, drowned out the low simmer of instinctive fear, and focused every ounce of steely determination and burning anger he felt at the damn thing. Next time, it would die.

As if in response, the enormous ship surged to the forefront of the geth formation, the other ships falling in behind it like the tip of a spear. It then rippled its tentacles in a disturbing caricature of an asari gesture, each one undulating in a wave from base to tip that left it pointing at one of the many mines arrayed before it. With a contemptuous sneer Rufus could somehow feel radiating from the thing, each tentacle pulsed red, then shot backward as it vented its fury.

Five thick, glittering, angry red beams of utter devastation tore through space in an instant, each boring into, then through, a different mine. Metal warped and buckled under unimaginable force and every mine so targeted was shorn apart in an instant, long before any of them could ever hope to fire. Clouds of debris radiated outward from each impact and cast thin shadows of interference across the Dauntless' sensors, almost enough so to disguise the shift of the dreadnought's tentacles as it brought them to bear on yet another set of mines.

As if taking that as their signal, the geth ships immediately swung about and brought their spinal weapons to bear on mines of their own. There was a beat of silence, heavy with brewing violence, before powerful slugs and rending beams alike tore into the minefield with reckless abandon. Mines died in droves, either silently shattered by the impossible power of the superdreadnought's beam weapons or ruptured at the moment of detonation by geth kinetic rounds. The space around them glittered brilliantly with debris and the electric blue of swiftly-faltering mass effect fields, creating a viscerally beautiful display that was visible even from the Dauntless' ever-increasing distance.

Rufus watched, jaw clenched, as, in a matter of seconds, the geth carved a wide corridor straight through the minefield. When the entire geth contingent surged ahead of the superdreadnought and barrelled down it with no regard for the mines distantly surrounding them, his talons tightened angrily on the bar separating him from the holographic display and he cursed silently. Laying the mines had bought them time, but not nearly enough, and had not claimed anywhere near as many geth as he had hoped.

Even so, however, it had not been a useless gesture. They now had bounds to their movement after all. "Aegyptus and Orta, launch torpedoes!"

The sensor display alit with dozens of new contacts that poured out of the CDF's largest ships before streaking through space in rippling waves. Fusion torches glittered from the rear of each missile like miniature stars, catapulting them toward their distant targets at tremendous speed.

The geth reacted instantly. Banks of GARDIAN lasers all throughout their formation swivelled around and dialed in on the soaring missiles. As one, the laser cannons spat streams of ultraviolet death, intent on gutting the CDF's attack before it could even begin to be a threat.

And as one, every single beam missed completely.

In that brief window of time, those precious few deciseconds between the beams' release and impact, the missiles' defensive measures had come to life in a dazzling flash of brilliant blue. Mass effect fields rippled across the surface of each missile, nearly quadrupling their acceleration and catapulting them forward at ludicrous speeds. At the same time, control surfaces made almost entirely of precious vahlenite, bought, scavenged, or stolen from the Coalition itself, twisted hard within the missiles' thruster vents, diverting the exhaust and turning their headlong charge into an elegantly chaotic jumble that, the STG assured, not even the Coalition's vaunted defense matrices could anticipate.

All it took was a single glance for Rufus to be sure that the geth had no idea how to handle these new weapons. They flailed impotently, lashing out with laser batteries that were always half a step behind the dancing missiles. Their advance stalled for a long moment, as if deliberating how to respond to this new threat, and before they could formulate a response, the torpedoes arrived.

Bright, eye-catching surges of blue light raced across Rufus' display as the torpedoes finally reached their targets, heralding their attack. Mere moments from impact, in a feat of technological wizardry Rufus could never hope to fully understand, each torpedo's mass effect impulse drive activated, catapulting the lightened missile to the ragged edge of non-relativistic speed in an instant even as the polarity of the mass effect field reversed itself.

When the torpedo struck, it did so at nearly twice the speed of a dreadnought round, and with an order of magnitude more mass.

All across the front ranks of the geth, shields flared and died in the same instant, barely slowing the now-disintegrating torpedoes before they slammed into the hull with vengeful fury. Rufus watched with immense satisfaction as the enemy died. Here, a geth cruiser folded around the missile that had impaled its side, only to be snapped in twain by the completion of the torpedo's passage a moment later. There, a frigate was functionally disintegrated as two of the torpedoes tore through it from stem to stern, kicking up a whole cloud of whirling debris that whipped back toward the other geth ships.

Carnage reigned supreme as the missiles passed, leaving naught but a silent graveyard of annihilated geth in their wake. It was an indescribably cathartic sight, as the cheers of the Dauntless' command crew could attest, until it was marred, yet again, by the appearance of the spirits-damned superdreadnought.

Rufus' attention was firmly caught when the enormous ship surged through the remains of its followers, plowing through debris large enough to cripple even a Citadel dreadnought as if it did not exist. It emerged from the cloud with haughty indifference, utterly ignoring the last trio of torpedoes, the three fired from the Dauntless itself, that were now swiftly closing in on it. There was a flash of blue, brighter and larger than any other, as the torpedoes hit simultaneously, only to disintegrate in a flash, failing utterly against the seemingly immovable wall of the damn monstrosity's kinetic barrier.

Rufus' knees went weak at the sight, and the cheering around him died into a strangled sort of dread that only got worse as the survivors of the geth fleet, just over half their original number, surged out of the minefield and surrounded their flagship. Once again, the Dauntless' speakers crackled to life, belting out a wall of sound that rang with terrible purpose and cruel certainty.


Rufus gulped heavily, the sound echoing in the heavy, stunned silence the voice left in its wake. What in the spirits' name was that thing?!

A sudden notification on the terminal before him snapped the admiral from his shaken trance, and he hurriedly started barking orders. Anything to not have to think about that impossible monster millions of innocent people were counting on him to defeat. The bustle of activity on the bridge resumed, but with a subdued, defeated air that he hated, but could not dispel. He, himself, was half convinced this was a fool's gambit, that nothing they did would ever so much as scratch that damned tentacled abomination of a spacecraft.

With a shake of his head, he pushed that thought aside. True or not, thinking that way would guarantee it happened. He still had his duty. Come what may, be it death or victory, he would at least give it everything he had.

He finally turned his attention to the notice on his terminal and he could not stop the surge of renewed, cautious, fearful hope that rose in his breast when he recognized the origin of the communication request. A part of him briefly wondered how and when the comm buoys had been restored, but he dismissed it as irrelevant in the same thought. The military comms were up and running, that was all that mattered.

"Admiral Victus," he said happily, if breathily, and gave his senior a tired salute. A rustle of surprise shot through the bridge of the Dauntless as the crew registered his words, heralding a sudden uptick in morale. "Thank the spirits. We need immediate reinforcements."

"I know," Victus said, returning the salute sharply. "The entire Second Fleet is assembling to come to your aid." The rustling on the bridge turned into an almost happy murmur at those words. "We will be marshalled with access to the Citadel in forty minutes."

Rufus grimaced at the given time, and glanced around the bridge before leaning in and lowering his voice, relying more on his omnitool to pick up on the subvocalizations than truly speaking. "Hurry, Admiral. We may not be able to last that long. I have already been forced to deplete my stores of Excelsior weapons, and there are still far too many of them."

Victus' mandibles flared in a rare moment of raw, honest shock before firming once more as the admiral dropped an iron wall over his emotions. He nodded sharply. "Understood. We will be there as quickly as possible."

Rufus returned the nod and closed the connection before leaning back. He cast a glance over the Dauntless' bridge crew and opened a fleet wide comm line. "Communications have been restored," he said loudly, no trace of his inner doubts in his voice. "And reinforcements are en route. I repeat," he paused briefly, letting the anticipation build before continuing. "The Second Fleet is en route. This fight is far from over."

Ragged, unenthusiastic cheers, the cries of soldiers who do not dare hope, but wish to, filled the admiral's ears and he nodded to himself, somewhat pleased with the small recovery of his forces' morale. "Orta and Cappadocia Legions are to take positions around the Citadel. Link up with all functional defensive armaments and coordinate fire support. Aegyptus and Daccia Legions are to delay the geth advance as long as possible. All forces are free to engage as soon as the geth come within range of the Citadel's armaments."

He looked over the sensor display again, scowling angrily at the geth as they chased his forces straight toward the station. His gaze landed on the superdreadnought once more and he could not stop himself from adding, "May the spirits watch over you."

A sudden, silent flash of motion caught out of the corner of his eye sent Chellick diving back behind the solid fortifications of the fourth C-SEC barricade he had been forced to retreat to. Bullets tore past the lip of the low wall bare centimeters over his head and stitched a line of blue geysers and white cracks across the helmet of the turian leaning out from behind the tall machine erupting from the floor directly to his rear. He scowled and breathlessly cursed the silent vacuum of the exterior of Citadel Tower, and the intentionally collapsed stairwells that had forced him and his subordinates out here, for seemingly the millionth time. He would have heard that coming if this had been in atmosphere. His rifle automatically rose over the barricade and blindly fired several eerily silent bursts in the general direction of the movement he had glimpsed before he pulled it back. He scurried several meters along the low wall to a new, hopefully safer, position, the rush of his own weary pants the only sound to break the paradoxically tranquil silence of the fight.

He waited a moment then picked himself up and out of cover, his rifle settling smoothly against his shoulder with the ease of long practice. His eyes swept the battlefield for targets and immediately caught on a white trooper hauling the distinctive shape of a rocket launcher onto its shoulder.

"Skarr!" he barked into his comm and opened fire at the thing, mostly ignoring the flare of his shields as the geth spotted him and returned the favor. Bullets sparked off the rocket trooper's shields in a flash of green and failed to harm it, but sent it scurrying for new cover all the same. Chellick let himself drop back into cover as it went, calmly shifting back out of sight as his shields faltered. "Rocket at 10 o'clock!"

Skarr, a batarian and the only survivor of his original squad, grunted her acknowledgment and rolled out from behind the tall pillar, originally a support for the elevator shaft this particular maintenance path was meant to service, that she had sheltered behind. She waved her hand, omnitool alight upon it, and a ball of crackling electricity shot toward the rocket-bearing geth.

The ball struck the synthetic in the shoulder, tearing apart its shield in a flurry of sparks before sending visible arcs of electricity dancing all over its frame. Its muscles fired together in a single massive twitch that locked it into a bizarre caricature of a lightning-struck corpse and sent it tumbling to the floor mere feet from cover.

As it struck the ground, its allies surged around it, raining fire on Skarr's position and forcing her to retreat back into cover with a guttural curse. She fired blindly back at them, but it was a futile gesture, and both of them knew it. The geth would get up, or one of the others would pick up the launcher in another moment or two and destroy this barricade just like the last three.

Suddenly, a grenade shot past them both at immense speed and latched onto the fallen trooper's weapon. There was a brief pause, just long enough for Chellick's anticipation to build, followed by an enormous fireball that pulverized the fallen trooper and sent its nearest ally, a geth that had been reaching for the weapon itself, flying off the ground and out of the artificial gravity field emitted by the maintenance path, where it tumbled randomly off into the cold, distant reaches of space.

"Nice job," Chellick said with a nod toward the turian responsible, the last survivor of his own squad and one of the several just like him that had fallen in with Chellick in his retreat through Citadel Tower. Chellick felt a sudden lurch deep in his gut, a small waver in the calm determination that drove him and his mandibles pulled into a frown. He needed to do something about that. He turned back to the other turian and barked, "Now cover me!"

"On it!" the turian replied, rising out of cover and spraying fire at the geth his quick thinking had scattered. The other officers rallied with him and threw themselves into the fray. Anger and determination pulsed heavily around them and they tore into the geth with a vengeance. Supersonic rounds flew back and forth in a thick rain, bouncing off shields and tearing into armor on both sides.

Chellick seized on his chance and bolted out of cover, rushing through the few meters separating him from his goal while chaos reigned all around him. He watched with faint dismay as one of his officers rolled out of cover only to be gunned down in an instant by a withering barrage of gunfire, then another was thrown to the floor by the single hole drilled through their forehead, the mark of a sniper.

The first, faint stirrings of panic began to seep into his mind at the sight and his hurried steps somehow became even faster until, finally, he slid around an elevator brace at the rear of their barricade and came to a stop alongside a young human male, the sole survivor of the six humans that had been in the force two hours ago. A faint purple shimmer, noticeably dimmer than it had been only minutes ago, pulsed around the man's head, ebbing and flowing directly counter to the waves of panic roiling in Chellick's breast.

"James!" Chellick barked worriedly over a private channel. "What's wrong?"

"Tired," the psionic grunted back, his voice distracted and faint. A fierce scowl of concentration was etched onto the man's face and his talons twitched faintly atop his crossed legs. "Dun... dunno how much longer I can keep this up."

Chellick cursed silently. The indirect psi, as he had introduced himself, and his ability to reinforce morale, as vile and invasive as it was, was the only reason Chellick's ragtag and exhausted force had survived this long. The turian cursed again for good measure and leaned out from behind the brace to open fire on the oncoming geth. Without looking away, he spoke over his shoulder. "Then we're getting out of here. Keep it up as long as you can."

The human grunted an agreement, so Chellick opened his mouth to sound the retreat, but before the first syllable could escape, there was a blinding flash of white and a billion needles of searing agony slammed into his side, throwing him across the walkway where he tumbled bonelessly to the floor.

His breathing grew fainter and soon turned into choked gasps as the holes in his armor vented precious oxygen into space. At the same time, spears of searing agony raced through his body as his blood boiled from the sudden lack of pressure, only to fade into an icy numbness as that same blood started to freeze. Black tendrils began to creep into his vision, but it wasn't enough to obscure the massive form of the four-legged walker that trundled onto the maintenance path behind the C-SEC line.

The still-functional portion of his mind rebelled at the notion. Citadel Tower was non-magnetic, it was sheer to within a millimeter, and it was made of the same material as the relays, and therefore the next best thing to unbreakable. It shouldn't be possible for anything, including the Keepers, to move off the maintenance paths.

The geth walker didn't seem to know that though, and it shifted into the regular path less than a meter away from him with ease. Its head whirled down to face him, and he braced himself for the end, just in time for a grenade to fly in and smack it across the face.

Chellick blinked stupidly at the sight, his thoughts growing more and more sluggish by the second, and blinked again when Skarr suddenly appeared above him. The grenade exploded as the batarian hefted him onto her shoulder then bolted for the elevator shaft and the hatch leading back into the Citadel therein.

The turian's mandibles quirked slightly, both touched and wryly amused by the pointless, futile, and utterly selfless gesture. That was just like her, he thought moments before another white flash consumed his vision and he could think no more.

He was going to die.

There was little doubt of that, in Councillor Sparatus' mind, as he sprinted for all he was worth down the far too open streets that wound their way through the Presidium. His breath came in ragged gasps, stinging his dry and cracked throat as it went. The sound pulsed harshly in his ears alongside the furious throbbing of his heartbeat, but even combined, it was, unfortunately, not quite loud enough to cover the sharp metallic clangs of geth footsteps racing after him.

He tried very hard not to think about how steadily those footsteps had been growing louder.

His eyes darted wildly around the path ahead of him as he ran, trusting in half-forgotten training and raw desperation to find the best route to evade his pursuers. His path had weaved drunkenly all across the Presidium, twisting and turning every which way until he had become hopelessly lost. Reaching the docks had become a distant dream at this point, replaced by the much more immediate, if no less unattainable, concern of simple survival.

Suddenly, a burst of sharp, crackling noise, as if from an untuned radio, broke through the background noise, moments before the distinctive thunder of geth assault rifles rang out. Sparatus cursed breathlessly as his shield flared to life around him and, in his surprise, missed his next step. He landed painfully on his chest, carapace rattling from the impact, and just barely managed to keep a grip on his rifle, the same one he had scavenged off the corpse of one of his guards.

Long-disused instincts screamed at him to move, and he hurried to comply. He didn't waste the time to climb to his feet and instead scurried on his belly across the few feet separating him from the corner of the building to his right.

Geth fire followed his mad dash for safety, pinging off his shield in a constant rain. Bright shimmers of blue danced across his vision with every impact, rendering him mostly blind until, with a shower of sparks, his shield failed and a sudden bolt of raw agony stitched a line all the way across the back of his left thigh. A strangled moan of pain tore out of his throat but he soldiered on and, with a pained grunt, hauled himself around the corner and out of the immediate line of fire.

Soft, poorly-repressed whimpers of agony leaked out of the Councillor's throat and the echo of gunshots faded once more into sharp, even footsteps. He slumped resignedly against the wall he sheltered behind, knowing with a single glance at the steadily growing puddle of blood in which he sat that he wouldn't be able to stand, let alone run, anytime soon. The moment the geth rounded the corner, he was a dead man. He sighed quietly. There was only one thing left to do in that case: Make them work for it.

He shoved the end of his rifle around the corner and blindly loosed a short burst. The rapid rhythm of the geth's footsteps faltered briefly, pulling a grim, humorless smile from the councillor even as geth fire began yet again. He slowly, painfully leaned toward the edge of the building, hissing through clenched teeth at the pressure it exerted on his leg. White tendrils crept through his vision from the pain, but he kept it at bay through a tremendous effort of will.

He leaned out, just past the edge of the wall, the rifle resting awkwardly against his shoulder, its weight at once familiar and alien as old soldier's instincts clashed with decades of politicking. He shoved the discomfort aside though, to the same distant corner of his mind as the pain, and turned his attention to the geth.

The synthetics, a trio of the normal troopers and one of the 'destroyers' Nihlus' reports had mentioned, were approaching his shelter at a steady, if cautious, pace. He couldn't hope to read their body language, but at least they weren't sprinting after him any longer. That had to count for something.

He ignored the bullets whizzing continuously past him, tuned out the roar of gunshots, in favor of training his weapon on the nearest geth. Time seemed to slow and his perceptions narrowed, sliding down tighter and tighter until only he and the geth remained. His talon tightened slowly on the trigger, the rifle kicked against his chest, and a bolt of green-white plasma fell from out of the sky, tore through the geth's shield like rock through wet paper, and slammed into its torso in a geyser of white steam. The geth collapsed bonelessly to the floor, the sound of its impact echoed a beat later by all three of its companions, all from similar wounds.

Sparatus only blinked stupidly at the sight for several seconds, scarcely able to believe his eyes.

A soft whine and rustle of air from behind broke him from his stupor and he whirled around, coming face-to-kneecap with a male human in full Titan Armor, jet thrusters on his back and ankles gently pulsing with light. The thrusters cut off a moment later, dropping the human the last few inches to the ground. The councillor flinched instinctively, hissing in pain yet again as his rifle automatically rose, only to stop as rational thinking and his exhaustion fought the motion.

"Easy there," the human said, his voice a pleasantly smooth baritone. "You're safe now."

As if to punctuate the statement, four other XCOM soldiers vaulted off the roof of the building behind him and landed on the street he had rounded while the sixth and final guard for the Coalition Embassy came in for a landing right beside the first. The second trooper immediately rushed over to Sparatus and fiddled with one of the hard pouches built on her armor's waist before she yanked out a fist-sized spray bottle that he immediately recognized as a medkit.

"Where's your injury?" she asked quickly, but before he could answer, she had already found it. He gasped in pain as the woman rolled him over and yanked semi-gently on his pants leg, only for it to fade into a moan of relief as the medigel was applied. Blessed numbness leaked into the limb, washing away the burning agony, and he couldn't find it in him to be angry for the rough treatment.

He rolled back over, much more gently than the first time, and nodded to the medic as she retreated from him. "Thank you." He glanced at the other one who had remained standing nearby. "All of you. You saved my life."

The first human returned the nod. "Not a pro-" he began, only to halt mid-word, his head tilting quizzically. When he continued, his voice carried no small amount of shock. "Councillor Sparatus? The hell are you doing out here?"

Sparatus blinked in surprise. They hadn't recognized him? He had not been expecting that. The idea that this wasn't a politically motivated, if fortuitous, event wasn't something he had even considered. XCOM wasn't exactly known for their compassion for aliens.

Part of him, the part that his men in the military had always hated and that had pushed him into the position he now enjoyed, was tempted to lie to the human, to spin a tale that painted both himself and the Council as in some measure of control of the situation, but the rest of him shouted it down. Assuming they didn't have a c-psi and he could get away with it, it didn't sit right with him to barefacedly lie to the people who saved his life, even if they may eventually be enemies some other day. Not to mention that it was hard to sell being in control while sitting, alone, in a puddle of your own blood.

Still, he had his pride, and all of him agreed that he would be damned before he had this conversation with the human's crotch. He forced himself to rise, waving off the soldier's offered hand and leaning heavily on the wall behind him all the while. He kept as much weight as he could on either his good leg or the wall and loosed a breath heavy with relief when he didn't immediately get dumped back to the floor.

"Evacuating. Or I was until my guards and I ran into a group of geth." His talons tightened imperceptibly in repressed tension. He jerked his head toward the corner. "Those were the last of them. What about you? I would have thought you and Emissary Udina would have been long gone by now."

"That would be my fault," the emissary's normally blunt tone cut in. Sparatus' head swivelled around to find the emissary rounding the far corner of the building and approaching them calmly, a plasma pistol clutched loosely, and incorrectly, Sparatus was surprised to note, in both hands. "The fact that the geth are here means that they have found the Conduit. I don't know what or where their objective is, but if they reach it, the geth will be the least of our problems." Sparatus' blood went cold at that. In his desperate rush, he had forgotten all about the Reapers. "I ordered Commander Taylor here to find out where they are headed and to stop them from reaching it."

"The largest concentration of geth troops is climbing Citadel Tower," the councillor said. "I made it out right before they cut off access. I'm not sure where in the tower they are headed however."

"Good enough," Udina said firmly. He glanced at the armored soldier standing nearby. "I can get you to the Council Chambers, then you and your squad can make your way down to wherever C-SEC's line is. We can't let the geth reach their goal, whatever it takes." He glanced in the direction of Citadel Tower and his frown deepened into a small grimace. "And you will need to climb to get through."

Sparatus wondered briefly what the emissary was talking about, but the soldier, Taylor, he supposed he should call the man, seemed to know, for he only nodded, a resigned grimness settling into his posture, and saluted. "Yes sir."

Taylor turned away and began barking orders at his squad, mustering them together, while Udina turned his attention to Sparatus. "Your evac ship's in the docks right?" he asked. When the councillor nodded, he continued. "We'll head to it once I get them to the tower."

"Very well," Sparatus agreed cautiously, not quite happy with the implication that the Coalition's emissary would be coming along with him. He didn't have much of a choice at this point however. "But while you're on a Hierarchy or Council vessel, you will be confined to quarters, understand?"

Udina nodded easily, a small moue of distaste on his lips. "Agreed."

He then tilted his head back and frowned deeply, gazing through closed eyes and layers of metal at the topmost point of Citadel Tower. A moment later, a small, flat orb of purple light flared to life a few inches above the emissary's head and Sparatus blinked in surprise. Udina was a psionic?

He shook off the surprise as irrelevant a moment later, when Udina's hands rose in front of his chest, knuckle to knuckle, quivering with restrained tension, while his expression morphed into a scowl of concentration. With a grunt of effort, his hands separated and the orb tore open, for lack of a better term, into a psionic wormhole.

Unlike every other wormhole Sparatus had seen however, this one was a ragged and sloppy thing. The streams of purple that lined its edge dove in and out at random, as if it was a circle sketched by hand by a child. It also stood out in how thin and wispy they were, as if a strong breeze would undo them entirely. At the same time, it was tilted at an easily fifty degree angle from horizontal and hovering two meters off the ground.

In short, it was nothing like any portal he had ever seen from XCOM. If he couldn't see the roof of the thankfully empty Council Chamber through it, he would have thought it a con.

Udina's hands dropped to his sides and he heaved an unsteady breath, a bead of sweat working its way down his cheek. He, slightly unsteadily, stepped aside and, with mechanical precision, the XCOM squad hurried over and helped each other climb through in a matter of seconds.

Once the last of the troopers disappeared, Udina nodded to himself and let the portal close behind them. He then pulled Sparatus off the wall and threw the councillor's left arm over his shoulders. Sparatus' wounded leg buckled as he tried to reject the assistance and would have taken the pair of them to the ground, if not for his free hand latching onto a decoration on the building's wall. He sighed, but pulled them both back up and resigned himself to the human's support.

Udina gave him a scrutinizing look, then nodded to himself and muttered something Sparatus didn't care to listen to under his breath. A beat later, another look of fierce concentration passed over Udina's face before, in a psionic display that was clearly much easier than the last, even to the untrained eye, another portal formed to one side. The pair limped through and Sparatus sighed in relief at the welcome sight of one of the several docks reserved solely for Council business.

Lieutenant-Commander Jacob Taylor, leader of the Coalition's security team on the Citadel, had expected any of several things when he led his people through the main door of the Council Chambers and into its anteroom. He had been half-expecting to walk into the middle of a raging battlefield, or an empty room full of alien corpses, or maybe even a group of geth dancing a jig while they summoned the Reapers. There were a million possibilities, and the vast majority were not very pleasant.

So when he palmed open the door and a blur of blue and black slammed into his chest and threw him back into the Council Chambers, he was only mostly surprised.

He hit the ground heavily, grunting as the weight of the bloody turian corpse that had taken him down slammed into his chest. The body still had most of its momentum though, and it tumbled up his body, somehow catching his chin on its way and driving his head back into the ground before it flew past. Even through his helmet, the impact rattled his skull, sending waves of nauseating dizziness rushing through him. For a second that stretched into eternity he could only stare blankly at the ceiling and wallow in it.

The moment passed as quickly as it had come however, chased out by echoing roars and the unmistakable sounds of mortal combat. Jacob mentally slapped himself and forced the disorientation down. He would just have to deal with it when he wasn't at risk of being shot at. He surged back to his feet and bolted for cover behind the doorframe as quickly as he could.

He blew out a low breath of relief the second he was out of the line of fire, but immediately poked his head back out around the edge, intent on getting a feel for the shape of the battlefield before committing his people.

Four semi-circular steps, each one easily five meters across at the narrowest point, radiated out from the doorway, creating a shallow, stepped incline that merged seamlessly into a wide corridor that led across the remaining twenty or so meters to the bank of elevators typically used to get around the Citadel Tower. The defenders had erected a number of makeshift barricades on top of these steps, using everything from large, heavy plating or machinery that had obviously been torn out of the walls to the concrete and steel benches for waiting Council petitioners. The barricades were arrayed in broken rows, the walls of one row overlapping with the gaps of those immediately before and after it such that there was no straight path all the way through.

Jacob was impressed. Such an arrangement was nearly perfect to disrupt and grind down an infantry advance, giving the defenders nearly free reign of movement all throughout the setup while simultaneously forcing the enemy into distinct channels. Whoever was in charge here knew what they were doing and had prepared as well as could be expected for an infantry assault.

It was simply unfortunate, then, that the geth had brought a trio of ogres along with them.

Shattered steel and broken bodies littered the ground in wide swaths, serving as both clear evidence of the mutant krogans' frenzied charge through the first three layers of defenses and stepping stones for the geth behind them to walk through the disturbingly thick river of multicolored blood.

Surprisingly enough though, the eight surviving C-SEC agents seemed to have recovered admirably and were now somehow holding their own. Two of the three ogres had already been downed, their bodies riddled with so many holes and covered in such a thick layer of orange blood that Jacob could barely recognize them, while, right before his eyes, a pair of asari worked together to biotically shove the final one away.

The ogre, orange blood flowing freely from its many sluggishly closing wounds, bellowed angrily as it was catapulted backwards, flying straight at the group of geth brave or insane enough to follow in the ogres' wake. The synthetics scattered immediately, but one of them wasn't quick enough to evade the creature's massive bulk. Multiple tons of angry mutant carried it to the ground and then landed atop it with an earthshaking boom, an earsplitting roar of raw fury, and the distinctive sound of crushing metal.

The ogre was on its feet less than a second later, thick white fluid dripping down its back to mingle with the orange blood already coating its frame. It mindlessly howled, a terrifyingly angry sound that sent a shiver down Jacob's spine, and fixed a baleful glare on the nearest of the asari. It bolted straight at her and the commander decided that he had seen enough.

"Ivanoff, kill that thing!" he ordered quickly, even as he rolled out into the doorway and brought his plasma rifle up to rest against his shoulder. "Yoko, overwatch. Everyone else with me."

Sharp acknowledgments came back immediately and Jacob took off for the last intact line of C-SEC defenses. He made it all of three steps before Ivanoff, her body alight with the sapphire glow of the mass effect and the archangel thrusters on her calves pouring glittering exhaust, shot past in a blur.

The Russian bolted for the charging ogre at easily triple Jacob's best possible speed, only for the thrusters to surge even brighter mere feet shy of the barricade. She was launched into the air, as easily and naturally as if she had simply taken another step, and her other foot landed atop the barrier. Without breaking stride, she pushed off the top of the barricade and catapulted herself into the air, careening toward the mutant at incredible speed. Then, in a feat of aerial acrobatics Jacob knew he'd never be able to equal, Ivanoff swung herself around so that she was flying feet-first toward the mutant and her alloy cannon settled between her knees, pointed right at its head.

The ogre had just enough time to glance toward her before she hit and, thanks to her spider module, stuck fast to its upper back. Her momentum carried her forward into a crouch, where the barrel of her alloy cannon settled firmly against its cheek. Without bothering to stop its reckless charge, the mutant spun and swiped at her with a limb thicker than some trees.

Jacob could picture her cheeky grin as she used its spin to launch herself back into the air moments before her alloy cannon belched a storm of vahlenite flechettes directly at its head. Her target's head vanished in a shower of orange gore and gunmetal grey chips of bone that messily rained down all around it. The gun's recoil, thanks to her still-active mass effect module, threw her even further from the ogre, neatly dodging a volley of geth bullets, before her archangel pack fully activated and she took to the air.

Ragged, grateful cheers echoed over the battlefield just as Jacob and his team finally reached the last remaining defensive line. They slid smoothly into cover with practiced ease and the sharp, crackling whine of plasma fire soon joined the steady roar of mass accelerators already filling the air.

"I don't know who you are or why you're here," the turian crouched behind the wall a few feet down from him called to Jacob, shouting over the din of the battlefield. "But thanks, we needed that."

"Embassy guards," Jacob grunted absently in response to the unasked question. He swung out of cover and swiftly zeroed in on his next target before sending a burst of plasma downrange. "We thought you could use the help."

Green death tore through his target's shields like wet tissue paper and sent up a plume of pearlescent steam as it bored into the geth's shoulder and sent the thing's arm, and gun, flying off into the distance. A second geth surged to the first's rescue and the ensuing barrage of bullets forced Jacob back down behind the barrier, just as the turian was forced to do the same.

"We could have used help an hour ago," the alien snapped, his voice angry and bitter. He shuffled further along the barricade and sprung up before loosing a burst of fire back at the geth and ducked back down. "Where were you then?!"

"Trying to figure out where to go," Jacob growled back, unable to fight the resurgence of the bitter frustration and feelings of utter uselessness that search had entailed. "No one was exactly eager to tell us!"

The turian growled wordlessly and, judging from the noise, slammed a clenched fist against the barricade as Jacob rose from cover once again. His previous target now lay limp over the barricade it had sheltered behind, thin streamers of white pooling out of the collection of holes stitched in its chest, so the commander immediately moved on to seek a new target.

"How are the other defenses holding?" he asked as he settled on the final surviving geth, trying to steer the conversation into both safer and more useful waters.

"What other defenses?" the turian shot back rhetorically with more than a hint of bitterness.

Jacob flinched in surprise and missed his target by a mile. He absently noted a bolt of plasma from behind him, probably from Yoko's sniper rifle, tear through his target and the exhausted relief that settled over the surviving C-SEC officers when it fell, but he was far too preoccupied with his racing thoughts to pay any of it more than superficial attention.

This was bad. This was very, very bad. It was now all but assured the geth's target really was the Council Chambers, otherwise they would have been drowning in Reapers already, and they had a grand total of fourteen people to defend it against an unknown number of geth.

This had disaster written all over it.

Fortunately, he didn't have long to dwell on it.

Unfortunately, the reason why was the horde of geth that had come charging out of the elevators at breakneck speeds.

"Incoming!" he bellowed, completely unnecessarily as it turned out. Before he had finished the first syllable, the C-SEC defenders had already wearily scrambled back into position from wherever they had slumped and the steady roar of assault rifle fire filled the air once more, joined a beat later by the distinctive whine of plasma rifles.

The geth had not been unprepared however, and the instant the defenders opened fire, four blue blurs rocketed out of the pack. The blurs careened out of the hallway and slammed into two of the surviving barricades on the outermost ring. The heavy barriers went flying backward, skidding all the way back until they hit the second ring, but the newly-revealed mystics ignored it entirely. Instead, their whole bodies lit up with the mass effect and a massive, semi-transparent, and shimmering wall of solid blue light sprang up from where the barricades had once been. The wall rose swiftly, soon bending back to form a hemisphere with the hall's entrance at its center. Bullets and plasma alike pinged futilely off the biotic barrier without so much as a ripple to mark their impact, even from the pair of heavy plasmas, and the geth poured through the room's sole chokepoint completely unmolested.

The defenders' fire intensified yet again, but a sense of quiet desperation had begun to settle over the battlefield. Jacob could see it in the eyes of the turian beside him. The C-SEC officers had no way to handle this development.

He didn't either for that matter, he thought bitterly. He silently cursed the politics that had kept psionics out of his squad. At the time, he had understood the logic that the Council didn't like having soldiers with uncounterable psychic powers standing around on their home turf, but he was feeling a lot less charitable toward the notion now. One of John's rifts would have been perfect to deal with this.

He shook his head to drive out the unwanted thought. 'What if's wouldn't help him or his people live through this. They'd just have to deal with it with what they had.

He just hoped they had enough. "Smythers, Duesa, time for the big guns!"

"You got it, boss-man," Duesa shot back, and Jacob could practically hear his cocky smirk.

"You C-SEC guys want to duck," the commander said loudly, earning himself a wide-eyed stare from the turian beside him. Jacob paused just long enough to ensure they had listened to him before he dismissed them in favor of barking orders. "Yoko, take the left! Wilson with me on the right! I want those mystics dead the second the shield is down. Ivanoff, you're free to engage the moment you have an opening."

"Thank you, sir!" Ivanoff replied perkily from her perch somewhere in the rafters, even as the heavy plasma fire abruptly died and the duo manning them shouldered their blaster launchers. "I'll keep em busy."

"Watch your ass out there, you hear?"

"Like always," she replied, a steely calm settling into her voice. "Let's do it."

"Heh," Duesa half chuckled then. "Nice timing. Launchers're primed and guided." He and Smythers rolled smoothly out from behind their shelter, blaster launchers firmly in hand and aimed at the blue dome, while the rest of the squad immediately hunkered down behind their respective barricades. "Fire in the hole!"

Twin emerald green suns the size of bowling balls flared to life on either end of the defensive line, flooding the room with harsh green light and jagged, dancing shadows. A dull, steady thumping noise that Jacob felt more than heard filled the chamber and the orbs began to move. Perfectly synchronized, the pair swept inward, racing toward each other more than the biotic barrier. Moments before they would have collided though, they stopped on a dime and shot side-by-side toward the geth as if fired from a cannon.

Jacob had just enough time to note the hopefully alarmed chirps of the geth before the blaster bombs hit and the room was consumed by a wave of emerald green light. The shockwave hit in the same heartbeat, bringing with it the raucous cacophony inseparable from the detonation of two small fusion bombs.

Every barricade in the room jumped back from the force, sending the unprepared defenders sprawling, and the turian's sulphurous cursing easily reached Jacob's ears in the ensuing silence. He paid it no mind though. He'd gladly accept the alien being mad at him later if it meant they lived long enough to have a later.

He threw himself up and out of cover and couldn't stop the satisfied quirk of his lips at the sight. The geth's barrier had shattered completely and the geth forces had been thrown into chaos by the shockwave. All four of the mystics lay sprawled out in the open and most of the other geth in the room were only just beginning to pick themselves up. It was open season.

Jacob immediately dialed in on his recovering target. A burst of plasma fire tore from his rifle and barrelled downrange, slamming into its crotch right as it finally regained its feet. Superhot plasma seared into the platform, sending clouds of thick white steam and rivulets of molten metal dripping down its thighs. The synthetic muscles underneath couldn't take the heat and were easily severed by the molten metal and remaining plasma. Unable to maintain it's shape, the powerful muscles visibly curled in on themselves like an old window blind, sending the geth right back to the floor.

It was far from dead though, and a flick of its hand sent a bolt of biotic power rocketing straight for Jacob.

He cursed vehemently and tried to dodge but didn't manage more than a single step before a speeding train slammed into his shoulder. The world spun sickeningly as he tumbled wildly through the air, spinning once, twice, thrice before plowing face-first and upside-down into a wall.

He bounced off the solid metal with a resounding clang and somehow managed to land, if heavily, on his back. His vision swam in and out of focus and his ears rang with phantom sounds, but he couldn't muster the energy to care. He hurt too much. It was so much easier to just lay there, staring unfocusedly at the ceiling.

"-up, human!" a rough voice scratched at his ears and, suddenly, a four-eyed head appeared in his vision. He blinked, the surprise starting to break through the fog in his mind, only to repeat the action when the batarian grabbed his armor and tugged. A loud, metallic screech cut through the air as he was jerked half a centimeter or so. The batarian growled, then flinched from something Jacob couldn't hear and fired a burst from his rifle with one hand back over the barricade. At the same time, his free hand grabbed Jacob's armor and started shaking. "Get up, damn you!"

Jacob flinched from a particularly hard shake and the nauseating fog vanished abruptly as awareness returned. "I'm up!" he barked, knocking away the batarian's hand and rolling into a crouch in the same motion, instinctively picking up his plasma rifle as he went.

"About time," the batarian growled dismissively. "Let's go!"

And with that, he turned his attention back to firing at the geth and scurried back to the barricade.

Jacob pushed aside the lingering disorientation and hurried to follow, running an experienced eye over the geth as they went. The defenders had done well while he'd been incapacitated. Wilson had handled his target, someone had finished off the mystic that had thrown him, almost a score of the machines had been struck down before they could recover from the blaster bomb strike, and they'd only lost one C-SEC agent, a turian by the look of it, in the process.

Try as he might to deny it though, those numbers still favored the geth. There were just too damn many of the things. Turning this into a battle of attrition would not be the way to win.

As if on cue, a blue comet shot out of one of the walls and flew straight into the heart of the geth forces. The unmistakable deep, booming roar of an alloy cannon rang out, punctuating the sudden eruption of shrill chirps and whistles that tore out of synthetic throats, and then Ivanoff was among them.

Her first target had been a destroyer and she rode its shattered corpse all the way to the ground, only to push off it at the moment of impact and roll into the trooper next to it. The geth's rifle swept toward her with the unreal reaction times only synthetics could manage, but the archangel jets on one of her legs fired at the same moment, smoothly turning her somersault into a cartwheel that took her straight at another destroyer.

With casual ease, the lithe woman planted one hand hard on the ground and flung herself into the air, sliding out of the geth's closing grip with only inches to spare. Her hands fell onto her alloy cannon, pulled it from its resting place against her stomach, and set it against the destroyer's back. She kicked off the large geth as she fired, flinging herself away from the collapsing body and toward her next victim.

"Wha-" the batarian beside Jacob muttered in quiet shock. The commander couldn't blame him. Ivanoff in her element was always a sight to see. She was like a whirlwind; always moving, always shifting, pure chaos given physical form. It was as beautiful as it was deadly.

He just wished it wasn't equally as risky.

He had barely finished that thought before the entire wall of elevators at the rear of the room exploded inward in a blinding flash of white light. Fierce winds roared to life a second later and the defenders' cries of shock and dismay swiftly turned to panic as the atmosphere fled through the massive new hole in the wall. Small pieces of debris, from both geth and makeshift barricade alike, along with whole sheets of blood were sucked off the ground and toward the hole by the colossal suction, creating a multicolored hurricane in the suddenly far too small antechamber.

Ivanoff, caught by surprise and in midair by the sudden storm, couldn't react in time to compensate for the new, irresistible force. Unable to move, she was easy prey for the legion of geth beneath her. A surprised, pained shriek tore out of his comm a beat later and her readout on Jacob's hud went black.

Helpless grief and righteous anger surged in his chest, but he fought it down. Ivanoff would kill him if he let his grief get anyone else killed. He could mourn later.

"Into the Council Chambers!" the turian from earlier bellowed loudly, and was still barely audible over the howl of the winds. "Go go go!"

"Keep that damn door open Yoko!" Jacob barked into the comms, immediately agreeing with the turian's order. It was the only way any of them were going to survive. He grabbed the batarian beside him and shoved him toward the opening before turning and spraying fire at the geth as he followed.

Bullets whipped past him, the sound of their passing buried under the slowly-dying howl of the winds, and he returned fire as best he could, but in the chaos and confusion of the retreat, it was impossible to see anything, let alone aim. So Jacob gave it up as a bad job and focused solely on running, on rushing across the infinitely long eight meters between himself and safety.

He had crossed three of them when another blinding flash, the exact same shade as the one that had destroyed the elevator wall, seared into his eyes and fire seared into his flesh and he knew no more.

"Orta! Tighten up that flank, damnit! The geth are massing!" Rufus Scipio barked into his comm. His hands danced over the control panel before him and a growing cluster of geth ships was abruptly outlined in glaring red. "Concentrate fire on these vessels before they can charge!"

Acknowledgments came back immediately, but he had already dismissed them, trusting them to perform as ordered. He did not have the time to babysit professional military personnel.

His eyes darted across the display and easily spotted half a dozen different issues that needed his immediate attention, from a moderate geth strike force driving into the outer edges of his forces to the thrice-cursed superdreadnought that was matching all of the reduced Daccia Legion and still tearing into his other ships with contemptuous ease. He rapidly cycled through each one, shouting rushed orders into the comm and moving on to the next the same instant he finished.

And by the time he was done with those, a brand new set of problems had sprung up all over again and he had to begin again. It was a barrage of crises that never ended. He darted from one to the next like the cani in a demented cuni hunt. He'd be able to chase out one problem, only to be forced to run down another and by the time he turned back, the first had returned. It was infuriatingly frustrating.

Made all the worse by the fact that, despite his best efforts, the ships under his command were dying in a steady stream. Even with Aquitania Legion recalled out of the Citadel and back in the real fight, they would be lucky to last another hour at this rate.

Fortunately, he thought with a glance at the small timer in one corner of his display. They only needed to last another ten seconds.

He continued to bark orders, but kept one eye on the timer as it ticked down. An air of anxious tension and desperate hope filled the Dauntless' bridge, and Rufus knew he was not the only one paying far more attention than he should to the timer.

The clock ticked to five and he ordered Aquitania to fall back into Orta's firelanes.

The clock ticked to two and the deck shuddered beneath his feet as the Dauntless came under attack.

The clock ticked to zero and the mass relay stayed dormant.

Surprise and dismay rushed through Rufus in equal measures. He barely believed his eyes. Admiral Victus had never been late to an engagement in his life. It was a point of pride for him. If he had meant forty-one minutes, he would have said so. So where were the reinforcements damnit?

His mind raced for explanations, even as he tried to reassure himself and the rest of the bridge crew that they really were coming and wage a war simultaneously. Maybe another geth force had waylaid them and they had to deal with it first. Or maybe the communications blackout reached further than Widow. Or maybe the pilot had to use the head.

Excuses and platitudes raced through his thoughts, but as the seconds ticked by into minutes, only one thing became certain. The Second Fleet wasn't coming.

Finally, thankfully, his comm came to life with Admiral Victus' grim visage. "Admiral!" Rufus barked angrily before his nominal superior could speak. "We need those reinforcements now!"

"I know," Victus said sadly, his voice grim. The senior admiral averted his gaze and Rufus' heart sank. "But we can't reach you."

"What?!" Rufus hissed, his eyes narrowing into angry slits. He could practically taste the low simmer of panic beginning to settle over the Dauntless' bridge, and he had to fight to keep it from tainting his own thoughts.

"The relays to the Citadel are locked. Every spirits-cursed one." Victus replied, his tone unchanged. "They are refusing our commands. No one knows why." He glanced up, for the first time meeting Rufus' gaze, and the CDF commander was taken aback by the shame and frustrated anger burning behind his eyes. "I'm sorry."

The anger abruptly drained out of Rufus and he severed the connection with a resigned nod before he slumped dejectedly against his railing. Damnit. With the relays down, they would never get the reinforcements they so desperately needed, nor could they flee, even if doing so was a tolerable option. The entire CDF were dead men walking.

He sighed heavily, weighing his few options, before he nodded firmly to himself. There was really only one thing left to do.

"Attention all vessels, this is Admiral Scipio," he addressed his entire command calmly, forcing any trace of emotion out of his voice. "I have spoken with Admiral Victus of the Second Fleet and I have bad news. I do not know how or when, but every relay linked to the Widow system has been locked. No one is getting in or out of the system until that is changed. We are on our own."

"But that only makes our task all the more important," he bulled ahead before the inevitable panic could truly begin. Heat leaked into his voice, echoing the surge of fiery determination that roiled in his breast, and it steadily grew louder with every beat of his heart. "We are now all that stands between these soulless butchers and thirteen million innocent people. All of us count friends among that number, and most count family. If we fall here today, every single one of them will be dead by morning."

"I refuse to let that happen," he growled angrily as he glared ferociously at the geth on his display. "They have us outnumbered, it's true, and they may even have us outgunned, but I will not let them make this a victory! I, we, will make this battle one these barefaced bastards will remember forever as the cost of their hubris!"

A cacophony of determined cheers rang over the comm while thousands of turian voices bellowed war cries and recited the hymns of battle. A low, simmering anger and ironclad determination settled over the Dauntless' bridge and Rufus nodded sharply to himself. Good. Now for the next step.

He gestured grandly with one talon at the superdreadnought, despite the fact that no one could see it. One of the Dauntless' crew obligingly highlighted it for him as he thundered on, his voice stentorian and furious. "That ridiculous monstrosity is why they have come. It alone is the reason for this attack! It is what the geth have pinned their every hope on! It dies now! All vessels, concentrate fire on the superdreadnought!"

Resounding, eager, and bloodthirsty acknowledgment raced through the fleet in an instant, driving back the edge of panic through sheer bloody-minded determination and a target to vent their frustrations. As one, the ships broke from their engagements, immediately surging away from the Citadel and toward the enormous vessel in a quasi-synchronized dance. Dozens of spinal cannons were brought to bear in a matter of seconds, surrounding it on all sides and cutting off any path of escape.


The thing's voice echoed thunderously in Rufus' ears and his knees buckled under the sudden weight of attention that settled on his shoulders. He barely managed to keep himself upright thanks to his grip on the railing before him. Once again, he got the distinctly uncomfortable sensation that the thing, he could not in all honesty call it a ship any longer, was staring out of his sensor display and directly into his soul.

Rufus pushed aside the feeling with a small, smug grin. He no longer cared. It had just played its hand. "It's afraid! All vessels, fire at will! Repeat, fire at will! Destr-!" His orders cut off abruptly as the deck of the Dauntless jerked wildly beneath his feet. He barely managed to keep in place and his eyes immediately darted over the display searching for answers. "What was that?!"

"The Citadel!" one of the deck officers answered, his voice shrill. "The weapon emplacements are firing on us!"

"What?!" Rufus thundered, cursing himself for eight different flavors of fool and already knowing the answer to his question. The geth's infantry forces must have breached the controls. Before he could think on it any further though, the superdreadnought surged into action.

Negligently, as if swatting insects, the gigantic ship's tentacles rippled in a wave. Five angry beams of red light lashed across space in an instant, and five vessels carrying countless good soldiers died in fire. Their broken husks flew back toward the Citadel, carried by imparted momentum, and created an enormous opening in the CDF's net.

With no further fanfare, the abomination surged smoothly through the gap before Rufus could re-gather his wits and respond. The turian could only watch in numb despair as the enormous vessel slipped within the closing arms of the Citadel. Moments before the arms sealed entirely, the voice of the monstrosity once more echoed through the Dauntless' bridge, this time carrying a mocking edge.