W/N - Wow, I've been gone way too long. It's good to be back writing again. I just needed to get my mojo and momentum back so this is a quickly that sets up for a bigger fight. We'll draw from a couple of historical settings - WWI in the trenches and Vietnam.

Firebase Gabrielle – 15 March 2176, 0600 hours

"Danger close, danger close, fire for effect!" Amanda yelled into the mike over the staccato bursts of automatic fire and the grinding and squeal of vehicle wheels and treads. She shoved Claire's head down behind the lip of the foxhole. "Incoming! Take cover!"

The last thing Claire saw before she was pushed behind dirt was a wall of tanks and APCs charging at them, cannon muzzles spitting heavy sim shells at their dwindling ranks. She grimaced at the marine, insulted at the indignity. "What the…? I don't need a babysitter!"

Amanda glared right back, standing in the foxhole as if she were taking in the Sun on the beach. "Adam put me in charge of this position. You'll do as I say, Golden Girl. I need that thick skull of yours."

Claire was about to give a witty retort when the shriek of artillery shells tore the air overhead. Amanda leapt down and covered Shepard with her body. A moment later the ground shook with heavy impacts, covering them with dirt and sod. Crump! Crump! Crump! The sound was deafening in spite of the noise dampening headset and Claire covered her ears. Every explosion seemed closer than the last and Claire was sure that a shell would land in their foxhole, blasting them so smithereens. She closed her eyes and bit her lip under her helmet. It was all she could do.

All went silent in a minute, the lack of noise oddly disconcerting, and Amanda shook off the dirt. The marine popped back up, followed by Shepard and they could see the litter of robotic vehicles, wrecked by the fire mission. A few surviving tanks were in full retreat. "Good effect on target, Firebird!" Amanda called.

Claire pulled down her zoom optic and could see puffs of smoke far off in the distance along with massing troops and vehicles for another attack. "Uh oh, something's going on over there."

Amanda peered over and then stopped cold. "Shit, rockets! Get down!" she yelled as she pushed Shepard down again. This time it was like the screaming of banshees, an unearthly wail of death and destruction. The marine piled on top of her as the shrieks detonated into flash and fire. The foxhole rocked and swayed as if the whole of the earth would buckle.

Claire shut her eyes again and heard screaming. She thought Amanda was hit until she realized it was the sound of her own voice. Never had she experienced anything like this – an unending roar and the pounding of shockwaves that rippled through the crumbling foxhole. She thought her body would explode from the inside out.

Amanda grabbed her by the shoulder, shaking dirt off of them. "We gotta get outta here! Down the rabbit hole!" In preparation for the exercise, they built grenade sumps and interlocking tunnels into the foxholes that connected the various fighting positions. "We've got to fall back!" She pushed Claire down into the sump and into the tunnel.

Still screaming, Claire crawled for all she was worth, just trying to escape the roar and the endless pounding. She stifled her terror long enough to key her mike. "Adam, Yuri, we're falling back. We're coming to you!"

"Roger, expecting you from the northwest." Adam said tersely. The strain in his voice was clear.

The two scurried onward and soon the sound of rockets faded to distant howls. Claire breathed a sigh of relief and raised her visor to wipe caked tears and snot with the back of her gloved hand.

"So, I take it you've never been through a rocket attack, Golden Girl?"

Shepard's hand shook with fear and embarrassment. "No…I take it you have."

"Mindoir and a couple of other places. Hey, no shame," the marine said as she tapped the ass of Claire's hardsuit. "I threw up the first time. It's not something you ever get used to, but you learn to roll with it."

"I'm going to have to trust you on that. That was what hell must be like."

"You got that right. As they say, war is hell. Alright, c'mon now, Golden Girl, get a move on. The day's a wasting." And it was going to be a long day.

Firebase Claudine – 15 March 2176, 0622 hours

Adam stood under the glow of a lamp, looking over a chart with Yuri. He barely glanced up as Claire and Amanda crawled out of the rabbit hole and shook off the dirt. He merely pointed to Shepard. "Blow the tunnel."

Claire turned a knob at the tunnel entrance and hit a switch. "Fire in the hole!" she said before a deep rumble echoed along the escape route, collapsing it behind them.

"Amanda, SITREP," he added.

"The FB was compromised. We took a major rocket attack that destroyed the position. I spotted approximately twenty vehicles and over a hundred troops. We'd have been overrun."

"Understood. Firebase Isabelle just went down a minute ago. We're completely cut off from the main force."

Claire walked over to the chart to see red dots surrounding their hedgehog position. "Remind me why we're out here again."

Adam stabbed his finger at the middle of the chart. "We're the anvil to the main force's hammer. Our orders are to hold this perimeter, but it's looking more and more like that's not going to happen."

"So, is there any word on when the hammer will get here?"

LaRosa sighed. "We're being jammed. No word. Last I heard they got hit too."

Amanda crossed her arms and sucked her teeth. "Okay, so what are we going to do?"

"I need eyes and ears out there," Adam said, his eyes fixed and steady. "We can't just sit here and wait to be overrun. We need to go on the offensive."

"I like that," Claire piped in. "Toujours l'audace!"

"Exactly. I find it ironic that our firebases are named for those at Dien Bien Phu, the French disaster in Vietnam. We're going to change history. We go on the attack."

A ruckus at the entrance of the bunker caught their attention and Yuri drew his pistol. Joe poked his head in and held up an empty hand. "Hold up. We have three coming in from Isabelle."

Jill led the way in, wild eyed and covered in mud. "There were too many! They ain't stopping for shit!"

Amanda put a calming hand on the panicked woman. "Take a breath. Okay, tell us what happened."

The two others from Isabelle plopped down against a wall as Jill collected herself. "They came at us from all angles, dozens. I lost Cody and Karl in the first minutes. It came down to hand to hand. We had to bug out. I grabbed Prajesh and Keiko and we hightailed it out of there. I detonated the charges to slow them down. We might have bought a few minutes, but they're coming."

Adam drew his vibrodagger and stabbed it into the chart. "Amanda, take Claire, Jill, Prajesh, and Keiko. Get out there. Blunt the attack. Buy us some time. Yuri, we need to be ready to bug out of the CP here and fall back to a better position. You and Joe start powering up the traps."

"Got it, boss," Joe said as he and Yuri began tapping their omni-tools.

As Claire headed for the steps up out of the bunker, she took Adam's hand. "Hey, you're doing good. We'll get through this."

His look of grim determination melted into a slow smile. "That means a lot to me, Claire."

She gave him a wink and a pat on the cheek. "Don't worry none. We'll get it done," she said, a hint of an American southern drawl showing. Shepard took Amanda's hand and was hoisted out of the bunker into a ravaged landscape, charred grass and shattered trees with trenches crisscrossing the field.

"Aww, shit, Golden Girl, just give him a kiss why don't you?"

Shepard shook her head and shot back a smirk from under her face mask. "Just move out, Raging Cajun."

Amanda stopped for a moment and then laughed. "Hey, I like that. You're smarter than you look." She then peered up over the lip of the trench and scanned around. "Okay, it looks clear. I'm showing enemy formations massing north and east of us, preparing for a push. Firebase Dominique is still holding out to the south and Natasha to the west. Wait…there's a nice gap between the north and the east force. We hit there. Everyone…signature dampeners on. Let's move."

"What do we do when we get there?" Shepard asked.

"Run amok," Amanda said with a wink. She pointed at Jill. "Blondie, do your thing."

Jill drove spikes into the dirt along the trench and turned the heads of each one which began to glow. "Jammers and gate stealers are operational. False comm network is up and running. I've got a pack of drones with me that are itching for a fight."

Amanda nodded and they crawled over the lip of the trench like centipedes, scurrying from one crater to another. Mech bodies lay scattered about, riddled with bullets or blown apart by shells. As they moved to another shelter, Jill hissed and the team bellied down into the mud.

"Enemy patrol," she said. "Twenty strong…fifty meters and closing."

Amanda pointed to Claire and Prajesh and knife handed to the left. She made a circling motion with her fingers and then drew them across her throat. Claire nodded and began to crawl around the flank of the patrol.

Shepard picked each step carefully, moving from rock to fallen tree to shield her advance. For a moment, she imagined herself in a Tommy uniform, avoiding poison gas amid the bark of machineguns. The look of war never changed much. She looked back at Prajesh who gave her a nod. They negotiated around one more shattered tree and then knelt in the soft dirt. "Wait for it," she whispered as the patrol passed. "Suppressors," she added and they fixed small barrels to the muzzles of their M-9 Tempest submachineguns. "Go."

They trotted out silently to the rear element of the patrol and Shepard smoothly drew her dagger with her left hand as she approached the rear mech. In one motion she pulled its head back and pushed the tip of the dagger in beneath the jaw. Prajesh immediately took out the next one in line and Shepard leveled her M-9 at the rest of the crowd. With the press of the trigger a stream of rounds sprayed from the muzzle and tore into the mechs with barely a sound. The mechanized soldiers jiggled and danced for a moment before dropping silently to the ground.

"Patrol neutralized," Claire said into her mike as two drones flew by, scouting ahead. "Area is clear."

The rest of the squad came up shortly and Amanda patted Shepard on the rear. "I didn't know you could be so sneaky. Good job." She pointed toward the gap in the enemy forces and looked at Jill. "Get your drones up there and set one to automatic fire. I want the other to begin communication and targeting jammers on my call."

Claire checked her onmi-tool and shot Amanda a skeptical look, one eye narrowed. "If we don't achieve complete surprise, we're going to be crushed between two superior forces."

"Well, once we're surrounded, it greatly simplifies getting to those people and killing them. Any which way we face, we're attacking. And besides, Golden Girl, you gotta say what the fuck, make your move."

Shepard looked away into the growing light of the dawn. "I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die."

The marine cocked her head. "Huh?"

"Richard III before Bosworth Field. One of my ancestors fought for the king and died there. He took a chance too," she said in a faraway voice before looking back at Amanda. "But sometimes, you gotta say what the fuck, make your move. C'mon, it'll be light soon. We need to hustle."

The marine chuckled as they quietly trotted into the gap. "Chesty Puller," she said in a soft voice.

"Huh?"

"The words of Chesty Puller, surrounded at the Chosin Reservoir in Korea. Bunch of hard ass marines. See, I know shit too, Shepard."

"That you do, Cajun," Shepard said as they trotted along a gully to hide their advance. "Hey, I want you to know something and this is hard for me to say…. I wouldn't have made it this far without you and Adam. It…ummm…it means a lot to me."

Amanda slowed for a moment and looked Shepard square in the eye. "You were a pain in the ass and you had a lot of growing up to do, but you were worth it. And let me tell you, there is no family like a good solid team…and we have that."

"When we all pin on N7 we're taking over the club here, getting shitfaced, and we're going to kick Hartmann's ass."

"Now that's a plan. Okay, there's our rally point. Hustle up, there's a war to win."

Command Post – 0632 Hours

The dim glow of monitors filled the CP along with the crunching of chewed pistachios. Powers munched loudly, nut husks flying out of his mouth to settle in a pile on the deck. "You know, at first I thought it was going to all be about that Shepard chick, but Amanda is really emerging as the leader in all of this."

Grimaldi nodded, panning a camera onto the Delta's position. "I think it's more than just that, Seth. I thought LaRosa would be gone by now, but the three of them have actually melded into a team. It's looking like they might actually make it out of this place."

Seth pointed at the monitor. "They're just about in the gap. What do you think? This going to work?"

Carlo chuckled. "As long as they don't tip off the enemy, it might. They could get through the gap and cause all sorts of havoc. The worse case scenario is they get caught in the open and slammed from both sides. That would be hard to recover from."

"Mmm," Seth grunted absentmindedly, his attention elsewhere. He took another handful of pistachios and pointed to another monitor. "What do you think of that Jill? Blonde…tight…mmm mmm. I'd love to see her out of that armor."

Carlo shook his head and sighed. "Powers, you're going to step in it deep one day and I'll be right there to laugh my head off."

Seth turned and a huge, toothy grin flashed across his good ole boy face. "Claire…Jill…it'd be worth it!" he said as he pitched his head back and pursed his lips. "Man, I am so looking forward to Cerberus. No rules, just good fights and hot chicks."

"I'm sure it will be more than just that, bro," Grimaldi. "They stand for something…humanity's place and respect in the galaxy. That's worth fighting for."

"Awwww, keep your respect. I'm in this for that," he said, putting the tip of his finger on the monitor where Claire's butt was.

"There are two constants on this world," Carlo said with a laugh. "The sunrise and your libido."

Seth scrunched up his face. "My what? Was that an insult? Hey, you think that the girls would join us…I mean with Cerberus? Once they graduate they can do what they want."

"I dunno. Claire's true blue Alliance. Amanda…now she's been around the block. She knows the real enemies are out there and she's willing to do something about it. Jill's kind of quiet. Who knows with that one."

"Well, it wouldn't hurt to ask," Seth said hopefully. Then, he scanned the room and the monitors. "Hey, where's Hartmann? I haven't seen him in a bit."

Grimaldi began panning cameras. "Yeah, I don't want him sneaking up on us while you're perving on the students. I really don't feel like latrine duty my last month in this place."

"Oh, there he is," Seth said, pointing to one of the displays. "He's out in the field, watching the show."

"You know, I feel bad for the master chief. We're the last two in his cadre, everyone else is gone. You think Colonel Petrovsky will keep him on after we leave?"

Seth blew out a long breath. "I know Petrovsky respects the master chief, but I don't think he likes Hartmann's style. Too old school. So, what's up with Hartmann's daughter? I heard she was quite the N7 back in the day."

"She was one of the best. It was all in the family too. Hartmann has been a family name in the Alliance for generations. I heard she's gotten a little better though. Still, head trauma like that. I don't think she'll ever be the same."

Seth shrugged. "Never say never, bud. The colonel let me in on some Cerberus shit. Listen to this…he says they're working on regrowing brains…spines…it's fucking science fiction."

Carlo narrowed his eyes. "What? Really? What'd he say?"

"I dunno, it was way over my head," Seth said, spaying his hands out. He looked around, trying to think. "They put some kind of shit up your ass and grow you a new brain. That's all I got."

Carlo pushed Seth on the forehead. "I think someone needs to put some kind of shit up your ass. You need a new brain."

Seth tried to push Carlo's hand away. "Hey, hey," he said, flexing his bicep and then caressing his own cheek, "I got this and this. Beauty is better than brains."

"Too bad you have neither."

Seth waved his hands dismissively. "Aww shit, I don't why I put up with you."

Grimaldi let out a deep belly laugh. "Okay, okay, master chief is in position. Let the games begin."

CODEX:

APC – Armored Personnel Carrier

Grenade sump – a depression at the bottom of a foxhole that allows a grenade to fall into and explode harmlessly

Gate stealer – device that gives false range or azimuth readings to an enemy