The dusty old bar was packed to the brim when Jim arrived, tired after a long day's work. As soon as he pushed past the swinging doors, cheers erupted from the regulars, and somebody was quickly handing him a drink.
"No, fellas." Jim refused good-naturedly, with a slight grin of humor. "I told you before, I pay for my drinks the same as anyone else."
"Not in my establishment you don't!" the bartender called back over the noise of the crowd. "As long as you don't shoot my screen!"
"One time!" Jim roared back humorously, as the bar erupted into laughter. "One time I shoot the screen, Joey, and you're never gonna let me forget it!"
Jim took his usual seat at the bar and exchanged greetings with the other customers as the ancient, battered jukebox in the corner starts playing.
The worn wooden furniture complemented the warm and friendly atmosphere, and for a brief moment, Jim smiled basking in the glow.
Then the antique jukebox's repetition of 'Sweet Home Alabama' scratched, as somebody cut the record off at the source.
A few people protested, hollering at the offender to put the damn record back on, but the next moment, everyone in the bar fell silent as the vid-screen turned to the image of a grim-faced reporter alongside the image of a bizarre looking spacecraft.
"…no clear identification for the aliens, which match no known ship profiles. I repeat, we have unidentified alien battleships in high orbit over Shanxi."
"…oh shit," someone whispered, as a dropped glass of beer shattered on the floor.
"…General Maxwell has declared martial law," the reporter continued. "All civilians are to proceed immediately to the nearest bunker, while all members of the militia are ordered to gear up. We don't yet know if the contacts are hos-"
Static raced across the screen for a brief moment, and then the image focuses on a live camera feed of a burning building.
"- the barracks are gone! The entire base is-"
Once more, the screen cut out into static, and the signal did not return.
"…Maybe it's the signal?" one of the customer suggested weakly, his frightened face lit up by the nervous puffing of his cigarette.
"That wasn't a dropped signal – that was the broadcast getting cut. Orbital bombardment, most likely." Jim observed, his confident voice filling the nervous bar.
Standing up, Jim drained his whiskey in one go and placed the glass back on the bar. As he turned around, every eye in the bar was focused on him.
"Well?" Jim demanded passionately, looking at each of the men in turn. "What're you boys waiting for?"
At his penetrating words, the bar exploded into action, as men grabbed their rifles and their coats, dropping money on the table as they readied for war.
"I'll tell you what, boys," Jim continued, his sure voice carrying throughout the bar. "We've survived the Great Wars, the Swarm, and all the other horrors that this galaxy has to throw at us. If these aliens want a war, then we'll give 'em war!"
The jaded frontiersmen of Shanxi roared their approval as they charged out of the bar to their vehicles, an eclectic mix of modified trucks, ex-military Vulture hoverbikes, and more than a few 'technically decommissioned' AH/G-24's and A2 Armored Mechanical Hybrids, more commonly known as Banshees and Vikings.
Though many thought of him as a war hero, Jim Raynor still thought of himself as a Marshall, and as he strode out of Joeyray's Bar, it was with this in mind.
And as far as the established procedure went, when hostile aliens came to invade, the Marshall was to defend his land. He should know, he established that procedure when the Zerg attacked Mar Sara.
So, as Raynor fired up his old Vulture, he opened up a comm. channel to one of his few surviving friends, so that he could do just that.
In high orbit above the planet, the commander of the Turian Hierarchy's fleet stood alone, silently contemplating the scenario before him.
An unknown species had been discovered violating Citadel Law by activating a dormant Mass Relay.
Naturally, he and his men had immediately destroyed the two vessels, though they had lost a surprising number of ships to the long-range laser-batteries that one of the ships had born. The losses of the fleet had been communicated to Palaven Command, and action was swiftly taken.
Palaven had detached a dedicated pacification fleet immediately, and so the turians had followed the Relay to the 'Terran' world, and found that the fleshy beings known as 'Terrans' had barely colonized this rugged world, indicating that they had a homeworld elsewhere.
It made his plates itch just to think about that arrogance that these Terrans had, just charging off into space in ramshackle, primitive looking ships.
The turians themselves had been cautious when they had first started exploring space, but these Terrans seemed to be stupid enough to charge straight ahead without even contemplating the possibilities.
It said enough about Terran capabilities that the Terrans only had a few lightly armed scout-ships in orbit around their world, barely recognizable as fighter-craft, much less as proper spacecraft.
No, General Oraka reflected self-assuredly, it was better that the Terrans become a client race of the Turian Hierarchy, for their own protection.
But off the record, Oraka was much more interested in the original method that these Terrans had used to achieve FTL, as well as the functional laser weapons, as both were feats of technological genius that were (for the moment) beyond the Council races own tech. The records analyzed from the first ship, a more bulbous civilian (possibly research) vessel, had indicated that planet 'Earth' (a quite unoriginal name) was their homeworld, but also that none of their technology used Eezo. None!
If the Turian Hierarchy could seize control of this new FTL method, then they could gain a massive advantage over the other Citadel races. They had already pulled the wrecked laser-batteries off the destroyed cruiser, but their FTL engines had not survived the brief skirmish.
But if they were to reap the full benefits of this harvest, then they would have to subjugate this species quickly, before the Council got wind of their discovery.
"General Kuril, you have permission to land your forces." Oraka broadcast fleet-wide over the comm. network. "Your orders are to pacify and contain this world."
"Understood, General." Kuril confirmed, as turian troops across the fleet heard their words.
Soon, Oraka thought, they would have this species under control, and his men would all be able to return home as conquering heroes.
"Commander, I want anti-air now!" Kuril barked at his subaltern, as the infernal Terran ships began yet another bombing run on the turian's rooftop command post.
"We can't shoot if we can't see them, General!" the commander yelled back, his irritability at the situation leaking through in his tone.
"Then shoot the sky around the missiles and pray!" Kuril roared furiously. "Use suppressive fire if you have to, those gunships can't take more than few hits anyway!"
Things had been going so well, at first.
The landing had gone smoothly, as the orbital bombardment of every military asset had supposedly destroyed all possible resistance.
The Terrans themselves appeared a small species, comparable in height to the asari, and therefore inferior to the turians in terms of height and musculature, and appeared to be an easily cowed species.
Kuril had even boasted to his troops that the pacification campaign would only take a week, a sure-fire tactic to get the morale of his men up.
They'd even compromised the Terran comm. network and language, providing a wealth of information that had only boosted their confidence, such as the fact that these Terrans were not regular troops, but a hastily-organized militia.
Tall suits of powered armor (dubbed 'Marines') had suddenly burst out of several of the Terran buildings surrounding the landing sight, firing primitive boxy rifles at the platoons of turian troops.
Though momentarily stalled at the resistance, the turians' technological superiority had the advantage, as mass accelerator rounds were somewhat capable of penetrating the Terran power armor, though the amount of armor these troops wore was staggering. Several of the marines had some sort of heavy-duty riot shield, which proved somewhat more frustrating to take down.
Because of that, the main problem came from putting enough rounds into the armor to put them down permanently. A turian squad had left cover after downing their opponents, believing them dead, only for the Marines to open fire again, despite being near dead.
Yet another incident had occurred when a Terran Marine, despite missing his left arm to an explosive, had killed two turian troopers with punches. Their advanced-yet-primitive (a previously impossible notion that only the Terrans could have achieved) power armor appeared to augment physical strength to a degree beyond even most Krogan.
Some reports had come in speculating about the use of combat drugs to ignore injuries and enhance physical endurance, but Kuril couldn't afford to waste time analyzing what limited toxicology scans he had.
And the Terran's odd rifles didn't help things. His troops had thought them primitive at first, primarily because they fired absurdly large 'spikes' as ammunition.
But though their kinetic barriers were effective at stopping the spikes, the moment that barrier dropped the turian would be riddled with spikes, of which even one could instantly kill.
Luckily, his troops were experienced enough to move smoothly between pieces of cover as they battled their way out of the spaceport and into the city proper, giving the Terrans little opportunity to hit them.
But the Terran's infantry doctrine seemed to be unusually well suited for destroying shielded troops, focusing their fire on selected troops before moving on to the next one.
From the holograms of the firefights, Kuril had seen the Terrans select their groupings very quickly, suggesting either a sophisticated squad-level VI (which he doubted, given the Terran's tech level) or long experience fighting shield-equipped foes.
But if they had experience in fighting opponents with kinetic barriers, then why didn't they have any kinetic barriers? Surely they could reverse engineer even the simplest of barriers; mass effect technology was highly adaptable, after all.
The first indication that something was really wrong was when the Terrans VTOL gunships had started making bombing runs, spraying their payload of missiles and clusters of rockets down on exposed infantry and tanks.
The turians had brought vehicle support, of course, and turian fighters and anti-air emplacements had started chewing up the lightly armored Terran gunships (so-called 'Banshees') easily, when the damn things just disappeared.
Kuril had been watching one such Terran fighter, a three-pronged craft (which was identified as an outdated 'Wraith' fighter) with Spirits-damned laser weapons, when the craft literally disappeared before his eyes.
Stunned, Kuril demanded answers from his intelligence officers, only to be stunned as the officer had hesitantly pronounced that the Terrans had functional cloaking technology.
The scanners aboard the larger turian dropships and spacecraft could penetrate the guise to pinpoint the enemy fighter-craft at a close enough range, but their own fighters were getting lured out of sensor range and then swarmed by large numbers of cloaked ships.
Granted, they could shoot down any cloaked ship that had penetrated their lines, but the remaining Terran fighters now mostly hung back and harassed their turian counterparts.
And then the damned tanks had started showing up.
Turians had tanks, of course, but those were nimble craft that were designed for fast-paced warfare on unsteady ground, whereas these Terran tanks were hulking, house-sized masses of death seemed to be straight out of the Unification Wars!
The damnable things also seemed to function as localized artillery, as one unfortunate platoon had found out when they'd pushed through one bomb-wrecked street, only to wander straight into a killzone; the unlucky soldiers had been annihilated by a barrage of shells from the tanks just one street over.
They could handle the tanks, of course, with a careful application of VI-drone scouting elements to pinpoint the vehicles for pinpoint orbital bombardment, and so far they'd wiped out an enormous amount of these tanks through this method.
"Spirits," Kuril muttered under his breath as he watched a dug-in turian platoon open fire on a group of Marines in a wrecked school through his holo-screen, before retreating and calling in another orbital strike. "At this rate, we'll have to flatten the entire city."
Fortunately, aside from the unusual artillery tanks and the power armor, these Terrans seemed fragile enough to break with repeated attacks.
Worse yet, the well-established strategy of a combined arms approach with a slower, but more thorough movement was falling apart, and Kuril had been forced to desperately shift units around far too quickly, without the necessary support.
Whereas a traditional platoon advance included drones calling in orbital fire on hard-points and vehicles to guard the main infantry approach, Kuril had quickly discovered that such slow, ponderous columns of movement along the hazardous streets were vulnerable to the Terran's preferred artillery bombardment.
To compensate, he'd ordered the infantry to advance more quickly, leaving the vehicles to slowly trundle behind in the ruinous debris of an urban battlefield. The result was a riskier, but far more rapid strategy that seemed to be effective.
Luckily for Kuril, the Terrans anti-air capabilities seemed highly limited, and his scouting drones had had almost free reign over the battlefield. The Terran fightercraft seemed to be to busy dealing with the turians own fighters or their armor, and static missile defenses had been destroyed in the first orbital bombardment. Apparently, the Terrans were resorting to attempting to shoot down the drones with nothing but rifles, but the mobility of the drones combined with poor accuracy rendered that an ineffective tactic at best.
Five minutes later, Kuril's strategy seemed to be paying off, as the turians continued to isolate pockets of scattered resistance. Furthermore, the well-oiled turian war machine's superior communications and coordination were allowing them to shift units back and forth as necessary, trapping many leaderless units and leading others into orbital bombardment.
The platoon-level autonomy of his infantry did an effective job of giving his men the initiative to call in orbital strikes, leaving time for his tanks and air support to clinically eradicate the enemy's own limited armor and fighters.
Add in the fact that that there couldn't be more than four million Terrans on this entire planet, and General Kuril was feeling very confident about the Turian Hierarchy's future control of these Terrans.
Which is, of course, about the point that the Spirits decided to make things even harder for Kuril.
After seeing the power armor, the cloaking technology, and the siege-tanks, Kuril was slightly less surprised when three of the Terrans atmospheric fighters (of the non-cloaked variety) dipped dangerously close to his command post, it's wing tips almost touching the turian anti-air emplacements as it hurtled precariously past them on screaming engines.
Turian anti-air fire immediately downed one of the fighters before it could get off a single missile, while the second fighter managed to let loose four missiles from its racks, engulfing a hovertank in a ball of fire before it too was shot down.
Of course, Kuril reflected, it wasn't surprising that some of the human pilots were lunatics, given the desperation of defending one's home, be it a colony or not.
But General Kuril had not been expecting the last remaining fighter-craft to suddenly cut its engines, plummet to the ground using only minimal thrusters for safety, and then transform into a Spirit-damned mechanized walker!
Said walker had landed incredibly close to the General's command post, and had proceeded to open fire with twin automatic cannons, which quickly shredded any turian infantry before they could open fire on the damn thing!
The walker retreated just a few moments later, transforming again and blasted off at maximum speed, before anything heavier than one lone rifle could shoot at it. Kuril grimaced in distaste at the transforming fighter-walker monstrosity - who in their right minds designed such a bizarre machine?
"These Terrans are cowards," Captain Denarius remarked scathingly as the Viking retreated. "Rather than do their duty, they flee for their lives!"
"The fact that we haven't conquered this city yet says something for their courage, Captain." Commander Adrien Victus commented sharply, reprimanding the young Captain with a harsh glare.
"Worse, now the Terrans know that we can't stop their walkers from landing wherever they damn well please. Increase defensive firepower; those hybrid fighters can't be that well armored due to their design. If the Terrans try that trick again, we'll blow them out of the sky."
General Kuril ignored the chatter of his command staff, focusing instead on the communications transmitter before him. The transmitter was currently hooked up to the central Terran comm. line, translated into turian by the device's VI.
The usual squabbling babble of the disorganized and chaotic Terran forces had abruptly been silenced a moment earlier, and a single voice had started speaking, indicating the first sign of unified authority that Kuril had seen. Perhaps it was a survivor from the garrison that they'd bombarded initially?
"…Repeat, this is Jim Raynor calling for all Terran forces to keep…"
Kuril leaned in closer, turning up the volume, but the back and forth talk of the other comm. operators as they coordinated units kept distracting him, making him miss words.
"Quiet!" Kuril ordered with a snap of command, silencing the command post as he listened in to the transmission of this 'Jim Raynor' of the Terrans.
"…can't say I know who or what these alien bastards are, but frankly, I don't care. We came to Shanxi to start a colony away from the blood and the war of the Koprulu Sector, but it looks like our luck had other ideas."
"Record this transmission!" Kuril snapped at the closest comm. tech, as he listened. "Now! He's telling us everything!"
"I don't know much, but I do know that we've fought enough tyrants already." Raynor continued, his voice strong and confident, the sign of a true leader. "Whatever reason these aliens have for attacking us is pointless; I'm not keen on anyone attacking innocents, and these bastards bombed us without provocation."
"This is our home, and if these bastards want it, then I say we give 'em the same response we gave the Zerg!"
"You see 'em?" demanded the youth, just barely big enough for his blue CMC-armor as he hid in cover inside a rugged metal-walled store, ducked down behind the neo-steel wall.
The squad of Marines was a mixed bunch, their CMC-armor decorated with a variety of colors and markings, but they all gripped their rifles with a blend of nervous tension and the ease of long experience. It'd been a long time since Vittorio Esposito had fired an Impaler in anger, and the movements came back to him with an all-too frightening ease.
Thought most of these Marines were veterans of the long wars of the past decade, a few younger boys, like the one who had spoken up, had been quickly press-ganged into the militia upon the arrival of the invaders, and their inexperience was quickly shown, especially compared to the grim silence of the older men.
As if to answer the boy's question, a half-dozen shots punched through the decorative wooden panels and windows of the storefront, sending light debris and dust amongst the squad hiding behind the much more sturdy neo-steel sections.
"Yeah, Jones, now shut up!" Esposito ordered irritably as he quickly poked his head out from the lip of the bar counter to glance down the debris-strewn street, while the sounds of chattering Impalers overlapping with the faint boom of explosions echoed throughout the city.
Almost immediately, Esposito spotted the eight bird-like aliens some twenty yards down the road.
Six birds were clustered inside another building, sending frighteningly accurate fire at the entrenched squad of Marines, pinning them in place. The other two birds carefully moving from cover to cover with lithe, agile motions, darting ever closer.
The two birds rushed between a few abandoned trucks as they moved closer, and Esposito swore at the speed that these bastards could move at.
Still, while that light armor might be good for their agility, it couldn't be as protective as full CMC plate. It'd be hard to wear down the birds shields, but once you got past that, a few spikes would put the birds down for good.
"Alright, listen up!" Esposito barked over the comm. as he pulled his head back in. "We got two birds running down the street. Davis, Broacher, put some suppressive fire down on the larger group. The kid and I'll take out the runners before they toss in a grenade."
"Alien birds or not, everything dies with enough spikes in 'em!" Davis commented brashly, drawing nods from Jones and Broecker.
Esposito held up his gauntlet with a three-fingered countdown as the fire from the aliens started to peter down. The other Marines tightened their grips on their Impalers, shifting around behind their minimal neo-steel cover.
"Now!" Esposito barked over the comm. link, forming his hand into a close fist.
Davis and Broecker swung out of cover simultaneously, raking the other building with about thirty spikes a second each, a punishing rate of fire.
Esposito and Jones popped up quickly, knowing that they only had six seconds before the covering Impalers ran out of ammo.
Esposito panned his rifle hurriedly across the street, spitting concentrated fire down on the lone bird in the open, who he'd caught just as it was dashing towards a piece of neo-steel debris.
The bird stumbled as its shields activated, giving Esposito enough time to shift his aim onto its upper chest, the center of mass.
Frantically, the bird scrambled forward, diving for cover, but its shields broke with a visible flash as it did, and Esposito sprayed spikes across it, hitting it at least eight times.
The bird slumped as it hit the ground, where it lay, unmoving.
Just to be sure, Esposito gave it another burst, shoving the corpse back with a jerk as a dozen spikes ripped into its back.
Esposito didn't look to see if Jones had killed the second runner, ducking back under cover immediately as Davis and Broecker's Impalers ran dry.
"I got him!" Jones whooped over the comm. jubilantly, his youth evident in his voice. "Did'ja see, boss, I-"
A sudden barrage of rounds from all six remaining birds smashed through Jones' armor, cutting him off. The rounds punctured kid's front armor, slicing through neo-steel with reduced, but still lethal velocity.
The squelch of flesh and bone being pulped into nothing rang out over the comm. link, the first time that Esposito had heard it since they'd left the Koprulu Sector.
For the first time in four years, Esposito felt rage at the loss of a comrade, a feeling that he thought he had left behind in Koprulu, the all consuming red tinting the edges of his sight.
"Kill 'em!" Esposito roared furiously, standing up and spraying automatic Impaler fire wildly at the birds.
"Get down, Vito!" Davis yelled, sprinting towards him.
Davis's thundering charge bowled Esposito over, tackling him back into cover, but it was too late. As Davis knocked Esposito into safety, a burst of something struck his suit, knocking all of its systems off-line.
The EMP-overload shut the suit down completely, locking Davis upright and out of cover, in full view of the birds.
Davis desperately tried to reboot his armor, but a burst of well-aimed shots nailed his visor, killing him instantly. The shots knocked the immobile Marine over, sending a tremor of noise and vibrations through the wrecked storefront with a thudding BOOM.
Esposito struggled to get back up, wrestling his awkward armor as Broecker returned fire on the advancing aliens.
Just as Esposito had gotten to his knees, Impaler in hand, he heard the telltale tink-tink of metallic ringing, impossibly loud despite the roar of Broecker's Impaler.
"Grenade!" Esposito screamed, lunging away from the numerous small alien discs.
Broecker dove to the side, but the grenades detonated while he was in mid-air, mangling his CMC-armor up and shredding the flesh underneath.
Esposito took multiple gashes from the flying shrapnel, the purpose-designed fragments from the half-dozen grenades slicing open his armor and stabbing red-hot pain into his body.
His vision swayed, and Esposito fought to stay conscious as his ears pounded and his lungs tightened up.
Coughing, his warm blood coating the inner rim of his visor, Esposito sluggishly nudged the emergency release button with his chin, which in turn lifted his visor. A blast of cold, chill air washed over his sweaty, overheated face, giving a slight shock to his numb skin.
Perhaps it was the fact that he'd spent the last two hours seeing through an orange HUD, but the world outside seemed maddeningly serene, tinged with blue light. His eyes worked to overcome the visual adaptation, but all Esposito could think about was how peaceful the destroyed storefront looked.
The tables and displays had all been savaged by weapons fire, and scraps of neo-steel lay on the ground, chipped off of the dead Marine's armor by the explosion.
A layer of dust, disturbed by the grenades detonation, had settled over everything, giving it an ethereal appearance, as if the bloody vista had been plucked from history and brought to life in this quiet street.
Just as Esposito's eyes began to droop down, close to closing permanently, there came the sound of walking, armored boots clicking as they stepped over the dusty concrete and neo-steel.
Fighting to maintain consciousness, Esposito watched as the alien birds slowly came into sight, clutching their rifles close as they edged carefully around the massive form of Jones, nudging his CMC-suit almost comically with their taloned feet.
The squad of birds spread out with quiet efficiency, checking on the bodies of his dead squadmates. One of the birds stalked closer to him, its rifle held loosely and easily, the wariness of combat tension gone from the creature.
It stepped up to him, bending down to inspect the Impaler by his side, when its curious helmet suddenly jerked upwards, staring straight at his exposed face.
"Fuck...you..." Esposito whispered, the very effort of speaking sending hot needles of pain into his chest.
With the last of his strength, Esposito painfully moved his hand, thumbing a disused button on the underside of his palm.
Awareness and power raced through Esposito's veins, the chemical cocktail of the stimpack activating the last reserves of adrenaline and dopamine in his system. In a few seconds, the cocktail would use up the last of his body's energy, killing him, but for these brief moments, Esposito felt alive.
The bird pulled back at the sight of Esposito's movement, starting to squawk something to its squadmates, but as it moved away, Esposito moved.
His arm, clad in the neo-steel of CMC armor, snatched the bird's rifle, crushing the little toy-like gun with the close of a hand.
The bird realized instantly the danger that it was in, but Esposito's other hand had closed on its leg, yanking it down onto the ground, smacking it down with a crump.
The bird's squadmates jumped at the noise, having already turned to fact Esposito at their squadmates squawking. They raised their rifles, about to open fire, but before they could get off a single shot, Esposito smashed his fist onto the trapped birds helmet, crunching the metal and electronics and rending the bird's plate-like head into pulpy goo.
As the birds opened fire on his dying body, Esposito died giving them a howling roar, unable to feel the dozens of impacts as the stimpack took his pain and his life.
The birds took no chances after that, liberally spraying the corpses with fire, just in case one of them decided to register a complaint about their invasion.
It was just then that another squad of Terran Marines stumbled onto the birds, whilst they were shooting up the dead bodies of their comrades.
The first two Marines reacted swiftly, applying suppressive fire on the birds while they were still out of cover. The Marines behind them ducked into the meager cover that the street offered, popping up to rattle off bursts of fire to keep the birds suppressed while the first two Marines dove for cover.
The birds lobbed out a few grenades blindly, and even though they didn't land near the Marines, they got the Terrans to duck into cover, allowing the Birds to start firing back.
Near the back of the formation, Sergeant Fred Jax was stuck behind the corner of a building, half inside an alleyway. Jax swore at the fact, annoyed that he was stuck this far back, when any good sergeant should be up in the front, leading the squad.
"Jax!" another voice called, as the thumping boot steps of a set of CMC-armor approached.
Glancing up, Jax let up a rare smile as the black CMC-armor of Jim Raynor dropped down beside him.
"Commander! We got six birds in that store!" Jax reported as Raynor's visor slid open, revealing the sweaty and grim face of the Marshall.
Raynor took a quick peek at the mostly exposed street, his eyes sweeping over the wrecked trucks and metal debris with long experience, ducking back inside as the birds took a few potshots at him.
The light brt-brt-brt of the birds' rifles fire was only faintly detectable over the BATA-BATA-BATA of the Terran's chattering Impalers, at least to Raynor's ears. For a moment, he ignored that information.
"Alright, here's what we do." Raynor told the squad over the comm. as he took command. "We've got the weight of numbers here, so let's get some alternating cover fire. Ol' man Jefferies will start us off with a few bursts to get their heads down, then y'all will keep up that coverage while the rest of us move up."
"No problem, Marshall." Jefferies confirmed in response. "Just like back on Antiga Prime, remember Jax?"
"I remember being on the other side of that particular battle, rebel punk." Jax retorted humorously, tapping the white paint of his faded Confederate Alpha Squadron paintjob in response.
"Now, now, boys, let's focus on the birds, alright?" Raynor chided lightly, the slight twitching of his lips betraying his amusement at the two Marines' antics.
From his position in the middle of the street, Jefferies lifted his Impaler over the lip of his neo-steel barrier and sprayed blind fire over the edge, holding down the trigger until all two-hundred spikes had been blasted at the enemy, making the neo-steel exterior of the storefront look conspicuously similar to a pincushion.
"Let's move up on my mark…" Raynor commanded, nodding to Jax and sealing his distinctive death's head visor. "Mark!"
Dashing around the corner, Raynor opened fire on the run as he sprinted for a crushed car, Impaler spikes howling into the building while Jax's squad gives him supporting fire.
Wisps of smoke curled and danced through the street from the burning truck off to the side, but visibility wasn't an issue.
Now a little closer, under the cover of a neo-steel support pillar left over from the destruction of the barracks, Raynor took a moment to catch his breath and try to get a better read on the situation.
As the Marines and the birds traded fire back and forth, Raynor thought he noticed a pattern, like…
…like the birds were firing slower than the Marines.
"Jefferies, how fast are the birds shooting at you?" Raynor questioned, a plan starting to come together in his head.
"Not that fast, Boss. Don't know if it's 'cause of their guns or cause of them, though." Jefferies reported, reloading his Impaler with mechanical precision as he answered his Marshall.
"Right then boys, this is what we do." Raynor called out to his squad. "We've got the edge in rate of fire. I wanted heavy suppressive fire on the birds, full-auto. It'll be ammo intensive, but it'll give us the freedom to maneuver. If you're not suppressing the enemy, then move around until you can get a clean line of fire."
"And then we stick 'em full of spikes?" Corporal Vega asked aggressively, his anger raised by the invasion.
"Then we kill 'em." Raynor confirmed, checking his ammo count as he spoke. "So let's get to it!"
Jax popped out of cover, his Impaler chattering in his hands as he raked controlled fire over the storefront, panning his rifle to keep the entire squad of birds suppressed. Two more of Jax's Marines joined him, effortlessly coordinating their fire.
"Light 'em up!" Raynor yelled as he stood up, his boots booming as he charged closer, his spitting Impaler lending fire support to the other Marines.
Raynor made it all the way to the side of the building, smashing through the flimsy wooden door without missing a step. The birds reacted to the noise, but Raynor was already hosing them down with spikes, taking cover behind a neo-steel pillar supporting the flimsy metal roof.
He lined up the first alien in sight, which was visible from the waist up as it fired at Jax. Without any hesitation, Raynor opened fire, a burst of five spikes stopping dead on the alien's flashing energy shields. The second burst was longer, a full barrage of 8mm spikes slamming smack into the alien's upper chest.
The alien's shields sparked and flashed, but halfway through the burst they failed, and the bird dropped to ground with no less than fifteen spikes in his torso.
As Raynor ducked back down into cover, he caught a glimpse of another bird practically exploding as it was lit up by three Impalers, with blood spraying behind it onto the beat-up bar behind it.
The remaining four birds died much faster, as the Marine's fire grouped up on them, perforating their bodies with Impaler spikes.
The furious noise of combat died down as the Marines ceased fire, trooping inside the building.
Raynor trod over to the forms of Esposito's squad, his face grim as he slowly and respectfully rolled each suit of armor over. One by one, he lifted the squad's visors, gently pulling away their dog tags.
When he reached the last suit of armor, he paused to reflect on the black CMC armor of the dead man, the sign of his lost homeworld.
It could be him lying there, Raynor knew. It could have been him lying broken and battered, had their positions been reversed.
Raynor extended a gauntlet to lift the visor, and took in one last look at his good friend, Vittorio Esposito, one of the last men from his original colonial militia.
Gently, he pulled away Esposito's dog tags, saying one last goodbye for the son of Mar Sara.
"Grab whatever ammo you can from dead!" Raynor ordered, burying his rage as he turned to face the immediate situation. "We're leaving now!"
"You heard the Commander, boys, get moving!" Jax snapped, taking charge easily with his experience as an ex-Confederate non-com. "On the double! Jackson, you're on point! Move it Marines!"
The militia squad quickly trooped down the street at a comfortable running pace, but Raynor was running on autopilot, his thoughts more focused on the impending orbital bombardment than on running away.
Logically, there was no way that these aliens could fail to annihilate their group from orbit. Any moment now, there would be a descending strike from an orbiting-
The dull trilling of a comm. signal pulled Raynor out of his thoughts. A quick glance at the comm. icon and a few intentional blinks opened the channel.
"Talk to me." Raynor said, his tone unemotional and professional, even in light of this disaster.
"I can't leave you alone for more than a week without you finding some kind of trouble, can I Commander?" asked the reassuring voice of Matthew Horner, Captain of the Hyperion.
"Matt!" Raynor returned warmly. "Damn glad to hear from you; we've gotten ourselves into a bit of a scrap here, any chance you and your boys could do something about that?"
"Of course, Commander." Horner replied. "When I got the emergency broadcast, I recalled every cruiser assigned to recon, colonization, and mining operations. About half of them are too far out, and they're going to take a few hours to arrive, but I'm on approach with around half of the fleet. We'll swing by and drop off some help."
"Much appreciated, Matt." Raynor thanked, smiling underneath his visor as the squad trooped into a mostly untouched market, the pointman simply jogging through the flimsy wooden doors.
"No problem, but can you tell me how the hell this all happened? Where's Giffords? What happened to the Admonisher and the Magellan?"
"No idea, Matt." Raynor grunted as he piped the transmission to the rest of his squad. "You know I'm not in charge any more."
"Fair enough," Horner allowed, as a few voices in the background started chiming in with readiness reports. "Here, I'm linking the broadcast to every comm. system I can access. Why don't you say a few words for the men, give them something to fight for?"
"One of these days, Matt, I'm gonna make you give a speech instead of delegatin' it to me." Raynor chided, as Horner chuckled, either at the notion of giving a speech, or at the fact that Raynor had done so over the live broadcast.
Perhaps, Matt Horner reasoned, that had been why Raynor had done it, to give the battered people of Shanxi something to chuckle at.
"Boys and girls, this is Jim Raynor," he said, starting off nice and slow. "I won't lie to you…"
"General, we have enemy ships in orbit!" Commander Victus reported, his talons flying over his console at the central holo-map. "Sizes seem indicate cruisers- six to be precise! Five appear identical to the cruiser that the patrol fleet destroyed, but the last is larger, closer in size to a dreadnought!"
General Kuril swore under his breath at the news, but the dealings of the Fleet were Oraka's concern, and he had bigger problems groundside to deal with, like the signal being broadcast across the planet.
"…won't lie to you; we're in a grim spot here. I wish I could say that I can bring back those that you have lost, but I can't."
"What I can promise you is payback. These alien bastards have hit us hard, but now it's our time to hit back! Matt Horner and the Hyperion just re-turned, and they brought half the damn fleet with 'em."
"We've been hit hard in these last few hours, make no mistake, but now it's our turn."
Kuril snapped his attention to his aides, opening his mouth to demand answers, when the Crack-thooom of fighter-craft engines attracted his attention.
Kuril glanced upwards, making out the tiny flares of fighter-craft on re-entry.
"General, look!" Captain Denarius cut in, bringing up footage from one of the orbiting turian vessels.
General Kuril watched silently as the visual feed showed the largest Terran vessel doing something, its spinal cannon starting to glow and pulse with energy.
Kuril opened his mouth to say something, when the spinal cannon fired, spitting out a ball of pulsing red energy that raced across the screen, impacting a turian frigate on the edge of the fleet.
"What did we find?" Victus whispered quietly, quietly enough that only Kuril could hear him.
Silent, the command staff watched numbly as the gigantic ball of energy scythed cleanly through the frigate.
"Leave the Fleet to Oraka," Kuril snapped as he took control of the holo-map, refocusing it on the objects leaving the Terran fleet.
The screen showed dozens of objects undergoing re-entry; what appeared to be a mixed bag of dropships, fighters, and some bizarre objects that were the general size and shape of buildings.
"All anti-air systems are to focus on blasting the incoming targets out of the sky!" Kuril ordered firmly, trying to take control of the situation and get his men focused. "Priority is on the larger objects!"
"Sir, we've got additional incoming attack-craft!" a young, inexperienced aide reported frantically. "They're headed directly for our anti-air batteries, sir! If we divert the anti-air to the dropships, the fighters will have free reign!"
"Calm down, soldier." Kuril said, looking at each of his command staff in turn, reassuring them. "We have protocols for this situation. Anti-air defense of our current lines is priority one, taking out the Terran dropships is target-of-opportunity only. All forward ground elements are to fall back to our lines and dig in."
"We have enough ships to defeat these Terrans - the Fleet will mop up the Terran ships and resume orbital fire support as soon as they can. Until then, our focus will be on securing territory: we need guards on civilians, sentries on every block, and drones scanning for insurgents. We're professionals, people, let's act like it."
"Yes sir!" Denarius blurted out nervously, drawing a few chuckles from the other command staff as they simply nodded.
"General, we should relocate the command center inside." Commander Victus advised in a quiet tone, projecting a screen showing drone coverage on his omni-tool.
"Any advantage that line-of-sight held for instantaneous tight-beamed transmissions is void now that we've lost orbital support. If we relocate now, we can get full control of the drone relays set up groundside, and should be able to keep any loss of coverage to a minimum."
"Agreed, but ground a few drones so that we can hold them in reserve." Kuril noted, singling the closer drones out with the point of his talon, leaving the far drones untouched. "And get the engineers to figure out a way of mounting cloak-detecting scanners on security check points."
"You don't think they have cloak-capable infantry, do you?" Victus questioned, slightly disbelieving.
"No, I don't, but that doesn't mean anything given what we've seen so far." Kuril replied wearily, rubbing a talon across his fringe. "Always expect the enemy to have something up their sleeve, Adrien. It pays to be prepared, even when it seems absurd."
As Kuril moved inside the spaceport's fortified control tower, he couldn't help but take one last glance at the mid-day sky, trying futilely to see the invisible conflict high in orbit.
For a brief moment in the war-torn city, there was silence.
Then came the thundering steps of men in CMC armor as they stomped their way down the street, heading out of the city.
"Double-time it!" Raynor ordered, frowning underneath his visor as the wind began to howl through the streets, sending up little swirls of dust. "The troops from the Hyperion should be landing right on the outskirts of town, so let's get there quick!"
The Marines formed two rough columns of men as they ran, for ease of movement down the somewhat narrow street, and because nobody wanted to get too close to the windows and look into the devastation within.
As the squad cleared the last building and left the city proper, they were greeted with gun barrels and bayonets.
"Friendlies!" the nearest Marine in blue-CMC armor shouted, lifting his Impaler and waving them through the defensive line. "You boys should head to the central barracks. We're forming up proper squads out of whatever survivors we find."
"Thanks but no thanks, pal." Jax replied, shaking his head. "We're sticking with the Marshall."
"Marshall Raynor?" the Marine asked, surprised. "Colonel Benning is waiting for you inside the Command Center, sir!"
"Alright, I'll head over there in a minute." Raynor thanked, clapping the Marine on the shoulder with a neo-steel gauntlet. "Keep up the good work son."
"Yes sir!" the Marine replied instantly, stiffening to attention.
Raynor chuckled as Marine visibly restrained himself from saluting, before trodding past him towards the Command Center, passing by a small neon yellow placard that read: VISORS DOWN! DUST HAZARD!
The war-camp was a rushed mixture of efficiency and chaos, like most military camps, and more than once Raynor had to duck aside as a Goliath stalked by on anti-air duties or a Siege Tank rumbled past on its way to the front lines.
The air was full of dust kicked up from the dropships, churning visibly around in dark swirls, stark against the harsh light of the dusty plain.
Workers in SCV suits had already started placing simple autoturrets down for temporary protection, and Raynor could see the tall rotating peaks of missiles turrets scanning for targets.
"Good to see we haven't forgotten how to build a half-decent base." Raynor murmured to Jax, nodding towards the dug in Marine fireteams, supported by Siege Tanks.
"We haven't been out of practice that long, Marshal." Jax replied lowly.
Raynor nodded sadly as they trudged forward, remembering all too well the blood and madness of the Koprulu Sector.
A few minutes later found Raynor inside the primary Command Center, staring at the tactical map.
"Why've you got the tanks here?" Raynor questioned, pointing a neo-steel manipulator/finger at the eastern edge of town.
"To better maintain fire support, sir." Colonel Benning, the ex-Dominion CO replied, his well-bred Core World accent notably distinct among the company of numerous Fringe Worlders like Raynor, along with his uniform - which, although it was only a set of fatigues, looked quite formal when compared to Raynor's battered CMC suit.
"Don't ignore the advantage of terrain - sure, the east side had easier access to better roads and maneuverability, but if we can get Siege Tanks up on the western ridge, we can lob shells down over a much farther area." Raynor corrected absentmindedly, his gaze focused on the starport itself, where the enemy commander had to be focused.
"Of course, sir. I'll redirect that company." Benning replied, already putting in the commands, transmitting orders to the company with his headset.
"This company?" Raynor singled out, pointing at the mixed company of Siege Tanks, Marines, and a few SCVs that was currently changing directions. "Don't bother, I'm splitting them up."
"Splitting them up, sir?" Benning questioned doubtfully. "The Siege Tanks need an adequate escort, otherwise they'll be taken apart by infantry raiders."
"Bullshit." Raynor dismissed with long ease. "Dominion strategies depended on fighting Zerg, Protoss, and me; I can tell you from experience that men escorting those Siege Tanks just made 'em slower, easier to isolate and destroy."
Raynor paused in thought, his eyes narrowed on the tactical map as he jotted down positions in his head, the techniques of strategy coming back to him effortlessly.
"No, instead take half the Marines off that company and use them as an aggressive forward scouting element. The enemy doesn't seem to like operating in units higher than a platoon, but on the off-chance that they do, the Marines'll locate 'em fast, allowing us to redirect our boys." Raynor ordered distractedly.
"What about the main enemy force? With the loss of orbital assets, we need intel on their positions." Benning pointed out, relinquishing command of the situation without a seconds hesitation.
"We can't risk Marines for pure scouting ops, they're too loud and too slow." Raynor explained, a frown creasing his mouth. "Where's our infiltration troops?"
"Hey, brudda," came a low voice, tinged with a husky Jamaican accent. "I thought your boys might need a little Spectre-muscle to hold their 'ands."
"Tosh." Raynor greeted, smiling as he clasped arms with the burly Spectre, his CMC-clad arm engulfing the Spectre's arm. "Good to see you. I'll need your boys to recon the city, in their usual fireteams."
"I t'ought you might ask that, brudda." Tosh acknowledged, tapping a few buttons on the tactical map. "So my boys are already out 'dere, doing some digging. Let me just put in dis frequency, and... there we go."
The map of the city unfolded before them, dark sections coming to life with live updates from operatives, pinpointing alien tank detachments, scouting posts, and more.
"Well, that'll do nicely," Raynor murmured under his breath as he surveyed the wealth of information. "Thank you, Tosh. That'll give us the edge we need."
"No problem, brudda. De missus would have me head if I didn't give you me support, not dat dere's any risk of dat not happening." Tosh replied, flicking his bone-stylized butterfly knife out, whirling it around his knuckles almost unconsciously.
"Where is the missus?" Raynor asked, a slight smile quirking on the edge of his lips.
"Oh, she's around." Tosh answered, his dark features alight with a savage grin.
Across the city, a Turian was running for his life.
Panting for breath, he ran, ducking underneath a low ceiling as he sprinted full-out.
"This is Corporal Avernus, can anyone read me?!" he barked frantically into his comm-link, his turian professionalism starting to unravel.
"Command here, we read you Corporal," a calm voice reported. "Report your location and status, over."
"I'm near the factories!" Avernus reported quickly, as he dodged into a building. "My squad's all dead, picked off by a sniper! I think they're chasing me!"
"Calm down, Corporal, panicking will only help the enemy," the comm operator soothed. "Sixth Platoon's only a few blocks from your position, do you think you can link up?"
"I'll see, I-"
"Corporal? Corporal!" the comm operator called, his voice echoing in the abandoned factory floor.
Gravel shifted noisily underneath a pair of boots, as light bent and changed.
Bending down, a gloved hand gently plucked the comm-link from the dead turian, recording the brief exchange of words before it, like the others, went dead.
Lithe fingers dropped the comm-link into a shielded pouch with the others, cutting it off from transmitting or receiving.
She had already gotten word that Raynor was back in command, so the next set of orders to appear as text in the corner of her goggles was a little surprising.
Raynor always preferred having as much intelligence as possible, and though he had a strange habit of micromanaging Ghosts, it looked like time had helped cure him of that impatience.
As a result, she now had the operation freedom to do whatever she believed was the right course of action.
She typed out a quick text confirmation on her gauntlet, then dropped a small short-range comm. relay. In a few minutes, the relay would send her response, and by then she would already be on her way to her next target.
Silently, the woman stood up, lifting her suppressed rifle as she reengaged her cloaking field.
Light bent and shifted around her athletic form, concealing the light gray-white bodysuit and the short blonde ponytail from view.
The last thing to vanish into nothingness was her Cheshire cat grin, as she left to stalk another squad.
Nova was having fun.
"I can't shake him! Spirits, I can't shake him!"
"Cut your core's power and drop altitude!" Calixto snapped, twisting his own fighter through a series of tight maneuvers. "Do it-"
"I can't-" the panicking pilot started to say, before cutting into static.
Damn it, Calixto thought to himself, scowling as the pilot's Besra-class fighter plummeted to the earth, half of it's mass seared off by the laser fire of the lighter craft.
The two types of Terran fighters were a mixed bag of technology, almost as if they came from two different schools of thought.
One fighter was a slim, speedy craft that was outfitted with both laser batteries on it's wingtips and cloaking technology, while the other was a hulking, slower fighter that used much more simplistic gatling cannons and missiles, but possessed the ability to transform into a combat walker.
It was as if these Terrans had copied the design philosophies of both the Salarians and the Elcor! Madness!
Honestly, Calixto had thought to himself when he first viewed one of the latter, who designs a transforming fighter? The lack of efficiency aside, the stress on the pilot must be monumental!
The transforming fighters (nicknamed 'Brutes' by the turian pilots) were the slower of the two, and their missiles were slower than lasers, but their missiles were numerous, and the elite amongst their numbers seemed to delight in complex maneuvers via transforming their fighters in mid-flight.
Through this method, they were capable of previously impossible maneuvers, such as opening fire on a Besra that was directly on their tail, blasting it with massive force and avoiding counter fire, before re-engaging their engines and zooming off in the complete opposite direction!
The key to taking the lumbering Brutes out, Calixto quickly learned, was with speed and overwhelming force.
The armor on the larger fighters made them capable of withstanding a lone burst from a Besra's cannon, but the massive hail of missiles made sticking around long enough for a second burst dangerous.
Instead, turian pilots would instead blaze past the hulking fighters as full burn, giving them barely enough time to fire their cannon once before they zoomed past.
Afterwards, they would sweep around for a second pass, and pray to the Spirits that the Terrans hadn't filled the air with missiles in the mean time.
The other type, though... they were a challenge.
Unlike the hulking transformers, the nimble fighters seemed to glide through the air effortlessly, slicing through a turian fighter with only a few blasts from their lasers!
But it was worse than that, for the Terran fighters vanished into thin air with their cloaking technology every time a turian fighter got a bead on them! This ability earned them a grudging nickname and identifier of 'Ghosts' from the wary and worn turian pilots.
It was like a child's game of Hunter, but played with fighter craft! If Calixto hadn't been losing pilots so quickly, he might have enjoyed the challenge.
Of course, the skill of the pilot quickly rendered any hasty judgment about the craft void.
Calixto swore under his breath as he flipped his Besra on it's axis, his engines roaring as they sped around the narrow corner, far too close to the ground for any comfort.
Behind him, already far behind, the swarm of simple but numerous missiles exploded on the metal face of the three story building, sending slivers and chunks of neo-steel into the air.
From the sheer number of missiles in that last barrage, the Brute had to be running out of its munitions quickly, a fact that Calixto held close as he juked and jinked across the smoky and chaotic sky, trying desperately to evade attracting another target lock from a free opponent.
A quick glance at his rear cameras showed Calixto the Brute racing behind him, making the hairpin turn despite the inelegance of his fighter's design.
"Watch it, those Brutes can be nimble in the right hands." Calixto warned his squadron, talons shifting across his holographic control display.
"The Ghosts are a bigger problem, Captain," one of his men argued. "The Brutes haven't shown us that they can pull off high-g turns without losing the pilot."
"Well," Calixto snarled as the Brute lobbed two more missiles his way. "Apparently I found their best pilot, then. Keep clear, this guy's throwing enough missiles around to get lucky with a target lock; the airspace is full of 'em."
"Understood, Captain," his second in command answered.
While his left talon swept across the interface, sending his Besra in a wild canopy roll, his right talon clicked off the comm. unit so that he could concentrate.
The canopy roll made his fighter rise out of the trench of the street, into the uncertain airspace where anti-aircraft fire was possible, before flipping his craft over, giving Calixto an upside-down view of a squad of Terran Marines clustered on the roof of a building, pouring fire from their boxy rifles onto the street below.
The Besra rolled smoothly, it's twin stabilization wings (merely ugly stubs, in Calixto's opinion) pointing to the sky while the fringe-tip of the fighter missed the building by a scant half-meter.
For a long second, Calixto's focused senses fixated on one of the Marines near the back, as his rifle rose impossibly slow, organic reflexes following far too slow to follow the Besra-class fighter's superbly executed canopy roll.
Then the moment was gone, and the building flashed by in a blur, leaving the Marine and his squad behind.
Calixto leveled his Besra out, dipping it down under the protective cover of the streets, giving him a moment of freedom to get his bearings and find out where that expertly piloted Brute had gone.
The chime of a tracking-lock made Calixto swear, yanking his fighter around in a twisting shake as at least ten missiles from the Brute shot down from above like bolts of lightning.
How did he get up there? Calixto marveled absently, while his talons flew across his interface, using every single trick and technique he'd learned in his many years to dodge as many missiles as he could.
Five of the missiles lost their lock, smashing their explosive payload into the dusty concrete streets below, one detonated just shy of the Besra and caught another missile in the blast wave, and three missiles crashed directly into the fighter.
Two of the missiles impacted together, overloading the kinetic barriers with sheer explosive force; but although they had more force than the shields could handle, the barriers performed their task perfectly, shunting all kinetic energy away and leaving the fighter (mostly) unscathed.
But the last missile had been slightly behind the others, and caught Calixto's right stabilization pod in its detonation, annihilating it instantly.
Calixto grunted as the explosion jolted him against his restraints, prompting screeching warnings from the computer's VI and sending harsh G-forces against his chest.
Struggling to maintain control with only one stabilization pod, Calixto wrenched his talons upwards, dragging his now-sluggish fighter skyward in a maneuver that was called the 'Retreating Hunter.'
His craft rose straight up and curved back, in the opposite direction of his original heading, leveling out awkwardly and bringing Calixto into sight of his attacker.
The Brute was racing down to the street as fast as its engines could take him, to avoid anti-aircraft fire, and seemed to be completely unaware of Calixto's new location.
Calixto's weary features twitched into a grim smile as he threw his Besra fighter into a dive, following the Brute downwards towards the ground.
Clenching his talons, Calixto opened fire, activating his nose-mounted mass accelerators.
The burst caught the Brute right above the engines, stitching a line of holes across its fuselage. Almost immediately, the Terran pilot punched out, accepting defeat graciously.
As the Brute smashed into the ground with a tearing CRASH, Calixto felt his meager control of the Besra give way. Lacking any way to regain control, he ejected, detonating the canopy charges and launching skyward in his seat.
Alone, descending to the ground in an uncontrolled acceleration, Calixto howled with laughter as the wind swept across his uncovered face-plates. Glancing briefly down, he activated the ejector seats safety features with the poke of a button, bringing the uncontrolled descent into a smooth glide towards the ground.
Then the side of his seat jerked. Another jerk tugged at Calixto's secured form as he bent over, inspecting the seat.
There was a hole in the seat, small but noticeable.
Calixto unbuckled his service-issue pistol, his sharp eyes quickly finding the ejected Terran pilot some forty yards away, taking potshots at him with a pistol.
"Determined little bastard, isn't he?" Calixto murmured to himself as he returned fire, the wind stealing away the sound of his words just as it had stolen away the sound of the Terran's shots.
Two more shots went wide, then a third clipped the edge of his seat, spinning him around. Frantically, Calixto snatched up the controlling yokes of the seat, bringing the spin under control before it dropped him onto the ground below, but he dropped his pistol as he did, sending it plummeting down below.
When the seat had stopped spinning, Calixto realized that the Terran had run out of ammunition, and was now limited to yelling at him, though he could only tell by the movements of the Terran's enraged face.
Unable to help it, Calixto laughed again, while the Terran expressed his extreme frustration in a language that he couldn't even understand.
With a thump, the ejector seat hit the debris-strewn ground, leaving Calixto lying on his back in said seat, still roaring with laughter.
Forty yards away, the Terran pilot also landed.
Without a moment pause, despite his immobility, the Terran immediately started hurling arcane and unintelligible profanity at Calixto, who simply couldn't stop laughing at the absurd event.
We must be the two most incompetent aces in the sky, Calixto chuckled to himself.
And all the while, the Terran pilot, call sign 'Idra', screamed irritably at the turian in rage and frustration.
"Do you hear that?" Savos whispered softly, as he scanned the abandoned warehouse.
"No," his squad answered in unison.
The warehouse was empty, reported abandoned in the first push by turian troops. Now that General Kuril was pulling the turian lines back, they had to secure the warehouse properly, rather than just giving it a once-over.
Two large, soaring lines of stacked crates ran down the center of the warehouse, made of some unknown alloy. Some of the crates had fallen off, making a haphazard set of cover across the concrete floor and creating a few broken spots in the towers where a man could slip through to the other side.
"Private, get it together. The Terrans use hulking power armor, not hard-suits." his sergeant lectured as the squad swept through the towering stacks of crates professionally. "We'll hear the big ones coming long before we see them. Now quiet down and focus; we've got a job to do."
"Yes, sergeant." Savos replied quietly, clutching his rifle close.
The minutes passed slowly, as the squad of turians cleared the warehouse section by section. Wordlessly, they coordinated their search with the ease of trained professionalism, working in tandem to cover corners as they secured the building.
Savos twitched, spinning towards the noise, towards a close door in the corner of the building. He opened his mouth to ask, but remembering the Sergeant's order, he closed it again and didn't say a word.
Then a hand touched his shoulder.
"I heard it too," Sergeant Derinus whispered. "Tighten up men, possible enemy."
Quietly, the two turians formed up at the door. Silently, Sergeant Derinus started a slow three-talon countdown.
As the last talon dropped into a balled fist, Savos kicked the door open, storming past it with rifle raised. Derinus followed afterwards, both gripping their rifles deftly as they covered the room.
The room beyond was of a middling size, and looked to be some sort of break room for the workers in the warehouse. It was empty, but the turians wasted no time in flipping over tables and checking behind cover for hidden enemies.
"Clear." Savos reported, frowning a little.
"I don't like this… stay alert," Sergeant Derinus ordered, his voice tinged with a hint of irritation at the lack of enemies.
Sunlight drifted through high windows, lightening up the power-less warehouse and turning it into a maze of bright sun-glare and deep shadows.
It was easy to be tricked by the deceitful contrast, so the squad advanced slowly, double-checking their corners and making sure that the shadows were empty before moving on.
Savos and the Sergeant rejoined another pair of turians near the central aisle of the warehouse, using the towers of stacked metal crates as cover.
Dust from the streets swirled in through shattered windows, not enough to provide a deep coat of grime, but not light enough to be ignored either.
The turians reacted immediately, moving together into a close, back-to-back group as they simultaneously scanned for enemies.
"Upwards." Derinus grunted, keeping his rifle low as the other three turians scanned higher.
"Top of the crates?" Corporal Varanus suggested, doubtful.
"Unlikely; too wobbly," Sergeant Derinus dismissed, as the tense turians slowly crept forward as a single group.
Savos slowly walked backwards, keeping his rifle pointed the way the squad had come, while the other members of the squad covered their sides.
"There it goes again." Savos muttered, looking around quickly.
"I didn't hear it that time." Varanus admitted. "Whoever this is, he's good."
The fourth member of their squad suddenly jerked, raising his rifle.
"I think I see-"
"Cover!" Sergeant Derinus shouted, as their fourth squadmate stumbled, his kinetic barriers broken.
Varanus and Savos dove behind a crate immediately, as Derinus grabbed their fourth man and started to yank him towards another piece of-
The fourth member of their squad slumped bonelessly, a small hole in his upper chest visible to Savos as Sergeant Derinus dropped the body and dashed for cover.
Unable to see their enemy, the well-disciplined turians held their fire, and the warehouse went silent again.
Savos glanced briefly at the dead turian on the floor, his dark blue blood leaking through his shattered chestplate and onto the concrete floor, where it mixed with the thin layer of dust.
Savos hadn't even known his name.
"Contact!" Varanus barked, snapping his rifle up and spitting out a burst of precise shots. "In the back! Terran, small, no armor!"
"Flanking!" Derinus replied swiftly, as he charged around the outside of the right aisle of crates, breaking the line of sight from where Varanus had fired.
Savos moved up, giving supporting fire and catching a glimpse of a small creature, which darted away, its skin dark with a few blue lines – which means that it must be wearing some form of light armor. More importantly, the rifle in the Terran's hands was long and lethal-looking, though Savos didn't get more than a peek at it.
"He's got a hard-suit!" Savos reported quickly, as the Terran scurried around the left aisle. "He's going left!"
"I'll circle around!" Derinus replied, as he came back into sight at the far end of the central aisle. "Varanus, get the other side! Savos, cover us!"
Corporal Varanus vaulted his crate swiftly, hurdling over the break in the lines of crates and vanishing from Savos's sight.
"The Sergeant's down!" Varanus cried out. "I don't see the Terran!"
"Moving up!" Savos called back, climbing the crates quickly.
"Spirits!" Varanus gasped, as he sprayed a burst of fire at something that Savos couldn't see. "The Terran has a cloaking field! He just vanished!"
Savos's eyes widened at that revelation, and he hurriedly sprang over the last crate, joining Varanus on the other side.
It was darker on this side of the tower, and Sergeant Derinus's headless body on the ground didn't help calm Savos's agitated nerves.
"Semi-automatic fire." Varanus muttered, sweeping his rifle around frantically as he searched for the invisible Terran. "One round cracks the shields, the second is lethal."
"Quiet!" Savos admonished Varanus, but his unsteady tone conveyed his own level of panic.
Then it was silent again. The warehouse was still, the only sound in it coming from the movements of the two remaining turians.
Savos covered the backside of the aisle, his rifle feeling like a toy in his hands.
Then, almost unnoticeably, Savos heard something.
Without hesitation, Savos opened fire, spraying fire from his rifle at the corner of the warehouse, at that infernal sound that was ticking away in his head.
Several rounds smashed into the metal uselessly, but just as his rifle overheated, the last round hit something else.
Unable to believe his eyes, Savos gaped as light bent and twisted around the Terran, revealing that rifle aimed right at the two clumped together turians.
"Down!" Savos screamed, tackling Varanus to the ground just as he began to turn around.
Savos smacked into the concrete, his hardsuit and helmet softening the blow, but Varanus hit the ground like a limp doll, his upper chest turned into a bloody mess.
Everyone was dead but him.
Savos suppressed the urge to scream, biting it off inside with a hardened will as he gathered his strength.
What are my options? Savos thought to himself.
He couldn't stand up and return fire, because the Terran had already proven that he could cut through barriers and armor effortlessly. If he exposed himself, he was dead.
Thinking quickly, Savos snatched up a grenade from Varanus's still warm corpse and hurled it over his protective crate, towards the Terran. He tossed another grenade after the first almost absently, and then he scrambled to his feet.
First unspoken rule of combat: there is no such thing as overkill.
As soon as he was up, he started running, sprinting full out away from the Terran. Within half a second, he'd reached the end of the aisle of crates and turned the corner.
He pressed himself against the wide crates, gripping his rifle tightly.
Risking a quick glance down the center aisle, Savos looked past the harsh contrasting light and darkness to see-
The Terran was gone.
Once more, it was still and silent.
Savos looked around frantically, but he couldn't see the Terran. Presumably, he'd reactivated his cloaking field.
Which meant that he was invisible.
Spirits, how was he going to survive?
Another quick glance down the side aisle – where Varanus had died – revealed nothing except a slight reddish tinge at the end, where Savos had hit the Terran.
Hopefully, the Terran had retreated.
…Which of course meant that he hadn't. Not when there was only one enemy left, one enemy that could report on the infiltrator's existence.
Savos moved out of cover, scooting over to the other stack of crates. He didn't quite know why he moved, though he justified it to himself as 'staying mobile rather than static', which was one of the first lessons taught to young recruits in boot camp.
But did those rules matter when your opponent was invisible?
He didn't think so.
The silence was getting to him – the chaotic rush of shooting and being shot at had been replaced with tranquil peace and calm, all while Savos's adrenaline pumped and his hands twitched. He wanted to shoot something, but he shouldn't waste shots.
Then Savos heard something.
Savos dove away from the stack, turning in mid-air to face the way he'd originally come, towards the far aisle where Varanus had died.
Savos's heart jumped at the harsh noise of the rifle, and then it jumped again when he smashed into the ground shoulder-first, scraping his armor across the concrete with a schreeeeech.
Savos opened fire; uncaring of his rifle's heat gauge, he sprayed mass accelerator rounds directly at where he'd heard the noise.
His accuracy was horrible; firing from a position on the ground was not ideal - but while most of his rounds hit the walls, some of them hit something hidden in the shadows.
The dark corner lit up as the Terran's cloaking field failed spectacularly, light almost seeming to break, much like how a kinetic barrier broke, revealing the Terran slumped against the wall, his dark hardsuit now stained with red.
Savos keep firing until his gun overheated, and even then his finger continued to pull on the trigger.
And when he stopped firing, the Terran stopped moving.
The overheated rifle hissed as the heat vented, and the only other sound in the empty warehouse was the staccato of Savos's short breaths, in and out with a gasp.
Savos lay there for a minute, unable to remove his gaze from the Terran body collapsed against the wall, as if unwilling to believe it dead.
An immeasurable amount of time seemed to pass for Savos, locked in the grip of a combat rush, though it could not have been more than a few moments.
The reassuring beep of his rifle woke him from that stupor, informing him dutifully that his rifle was once again ready to fire.
Slowly, Savos crawled to his feet, keeping his rifle leveled on the unmoving body.
His boots thumped softly against the dusty concrete as he stumbled towards the body.
The Terran was shorter than the power-armored giants that Savos's squad had fought earlier, and was clad in a dark bodysuit that appeared to be distinctly less armored than his turian-issue hardsuit.
Thin pulsing blue-white lines ran across the Terran's bodysuit in a few places, though they dimmed as Savos watched.
The Terran's chest was a ruin, alien red blood seeping out of the small holes of his rifle's rounds – matching the small hole in the Terran's leg from the first burst of fire.
Savos let out a sigh of relief, absently kicking the Terran's rifle away just in case he got back up.
The Terran was dead.
"This is Private Savos Aren of the Eighth Platoon," Savos broadcast through his comm., after taking a moment to calm his breathing. "My squad is all dead, but we killed a Terran infiltrator."
"This is Command, Private Aren, please repeat last transmission," a calm turian voice replied. "Can you confirm infiltrators?"
"Yes – yes, I – we killed a Terran infiltrator. The Terrans have – functional – personal cloaking devices."
"Understood," the comm. operator said. "Hold a moment, I'm transferring you."
Transferring me? Savos repeated in his head, confused. They don't normally transfer comm. calls – that was a breach of etiquette and protocol.
"Private Aren, I need you to tell me everything about this infiltrator," said a strong, deep turian voice.
Savos's eyes widened again – that was General Kuril's voice! The General himself was talking to him!
His training kicked in, and he clamped his mouth shut before he could blurt out the General's name over the comm.; regulations forbade ever identifying an officer over communications in case of code breaking and signal tracking.
"They're relatively unarmored sir, a – a well-placed burst sh-should be able to put them down for good." Savos replied, his mandibles trembling a tad as he spoke.
"It's all right, son, take your time." Kuril responded. "I sent Second Platoon to your position, they'll be there shortly. You're going to be fine, trooper, but first tell me about the Terran."
Savos twitched in surprised again at the mention of the entire Second Platoon being sent to get him.
"They're carrying high powered rifles, much more powerful than the usual guns Terran infantry carry." Savos told the General. "I – I managed to recover this one intact."
"Good work, trooper, you've done the Hierarchy a great service." Kuril informed Savos warmly, his calm and controlled voice easing the tension out of the panicky. "Tell me, how did you kill it?"
He didn't know how to respond.
Savos looked at the corpse lying there, slumped against the wall with several holes in its chest, and he realized that he didn't know.
"I heard it, sir." Savos heard himself say, as if from a distance. "I heard it coming."