There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships or missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective that the war is over because that nation or planet has ceased to exist. What we do is entirely different. We make war as personal as a punch in the nose. We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point at a designated time. We've never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if they tell us to, we can. We will.

We are the boys who will go to a particular place, at H-hour, occupy a designated terrain, stand on it, dig the enemy out of their holes, force them then and there to surrender or die. We're the bloody infantry, the doughboy, the duckfoot, the foot soldier who goes where the enemy is and takes them on in person. We've been doing it, with changes in weapons but very little change in our trade, at least since the time five thousand years ago when the foot sloggers of Sargon the Great forced the Sumerians to cry "Uncle!"

- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers

ILS Once More Into the Breach , The Bahak System- Urdnot Jak

February 24th, 2176

The shuttle bounced and bucked as it entered into the atmosphere, and Jak grinned at her warriors in anticipation. They bared their teeth right back. The other occupants of the shuttle were not quite so enthused.

"Idiots. You're all too young and stupid to know what we're getting into," Jorgal Leerj sneered. Jak almost called him on his cowardice, then remembered that he was the one who bore the badge of an N7. And had done battle with the foe they were likely to encounter on the planet below.

Another of the Ns hawked and spat, grimacing at the deck. "Three more goddamn days. I was gonna retire. Got a nice piece of ground picked out. Spend my days relaxing and drinking, maybe terrorizing the local gas bags every once in a while. Then the whole goddamn galaxy decides to go to shit. Goddamn perfect is what that is."

"I can tell by your whining just how excited you are, Massani," the female quarian of the group laughed, inserting a fresh clip into the sniper rifle that was nearly as big as she. "They called me and Leerj straight out of Hell. Where have you been?"

"That's goddamn classified and you know it Veskar. I'll tell you later."

"All righty then, listen up," the leader, the male quarian Jak had talked to earlier said, standing and addressing the entire assembly. "We literally have no idea what the hell to expect down there. Near as we can tell, every last one of these bastards is as likely to be Indoctrinated as not. That means you are to treat all of them as potentially hostile. I don't want a slaughter, but if they look funny or act funny, don't hesitate. Kill 'em."

The warriors nodded. That was the sort of order they could understand. "At the same time, if we CAN find friendlies, it's going to help us. The batarians have given us scanners that should indicate if someone's Indoctrinated or not. Our contact is someone named Sticky. She's a female resistance leader. She's somewhere near the Herr'Gar slums. Other than that, we know don't know nothin'. We're expecting heavy resistance from their ground forces, so if you see someone in a uniform don't ask questions, don't take prisoners, just blast 'em. Got it?"

"Understood," Jak replied for her warriors. She raised eyes to the ceiling and roared. "We shall avenge our fallen! Those who are responsible for my father's death shall drown in their own blood!"

"RAAHHHHAARRR!" her warriors roared back, and Jak grinned at the N7s. "I think we're ready."

The shuttle finally came to rest, and the warriors of Jak's warband stormed out to secure their position while watching for overhead threats. The navy was busy battering the system's defense forces into oblivion, but they weren't quite finished just yet, and total air superiority hadn't been obtained.

That was fine by Jak. More for her to kill.

She encountered her first foes mere moments after her boots touched down on Aratoht. A squad of batarians had taken cover behind a thick protrusion of jagged black rocks, and was peppering her warriors with fire. A few of them were returning fire and charging forward, but the ground was rough and the going slow. Not for Jak though.

With a cry of "Urdnot Wrex!" Jak leapt forward with her biotics, appearing to teleport to her new location by reducing her mass to a negative then propelling herself with a burst of force. She crashed into her foes and punched one of the batarians in the head hard enough to shatter his bones to powder. The blood spray she felt on her armor was glorious; the first ounce of revenge. The next foe she blasted into pieces with her Claymore shotgun, a weapon so massive that only a krogan, or someone with biotic bolstered muscles, could hope to wield it. Claymores had been designed to kill the predators of Tuchanka, and were ludicrously overpowered for dealing with batarians. The first shot drained her enemy's shields, the second reduced him to meaty chunks.

The few batarians were smashed against the rocks when Jak collapsed her biotic barriers in a wave of force. She knelt to catch her breath and recharge her defenses, then stood and waved her warriors forward. Jak's warriors pressed on as more batarians poured from the slums, many of them simple civilians. They were eerily silent, with few cries or shouts normal to battle. Even when they were cut down by fire or blasted to bits with biotics and grenades, they didn't make a sound. Jak felt sickened as she realized that some of her foes were naught but children, tiny hands grasping weapons meant for larger fingers and blazing away at Jak and her warriors. After so many years under the Genophage, it was anathema for a krogan to kill a child, but Jak forced herself to cut them down like any other. She was beginning to understand what Reegar had said about nightmares.

"There is no honor in this!" one of Jak's warriors lamented. "They have no armor, no shields, and there are females, whelps! How can we be expected to kill children when they are armed with nothing more than ancient relics and rocks?"

"You will do as your Oaths demand!" Jak shouted, then bashed the warrior with her head. She had to reinforce her bones with biotics when she did it, but Jak could headbutt as well as any krogan chief. "They are abominations, the Indoctrinated! You will kill them because they are the foe we must face!"

"Yes, Battlemaster," the warrior apologized, ducking his head respectfully. He rushed back into the fray, firing his grenade launcher into a group of school children armed with Molotov cocktails they were hurling at the krogan. As soon as he finished, the warrior bent over and vomited. Jak nearly did the same.

"Sickening, isn't it?" Jorgal Leerj rumbled from behind Jak.

She nodded and turned to him. "You knew of this?"

"I've seen this crap before. Never as bad as this, never whole communities. But I did see a kid that couldn't even be ready to leave his mother's side charge me with nothing but a knife because I tried to take away the Reaper artifact in his owner's mansion. I had to cut him down. I don't have many nightmares about war, I am no soft human or quarian. But I dream of that child, and weep."

Jak nodded, looking at the lifeless bodies of the children. One wasn't quiet dead yet, and struggled silently to her feat, trying to throw her flaming bottle at Jak. Jak shot her in the head. "I think I may have dark dreams of this day as well, Leerj."

Outskirts of Herr'Gar, Aratoht - Hevesh the Pleb

"Mother, there are soldiers. They are in the settlement, putting the dead to rest. They look strange, not like any batarian I have ever seen. Most of them are large and savage, with eyes like demons and armor thick enough to stop an Overseer's knife."

Hevesh stood, nodding and putting away the ancient transmitter kit. "The League is here. I wonder, are they demons, or are they gods as my Uncle Vreet once claimed they were? "

"They have to be better than the killed," Crelli replied with a shrug. Hevesh's daughter had a similar outlook on life to her mother. A rather brutal one, that sorted people into two groups: enemies and friends. Enemies you killed, friends you helped. And there were very few friends on Crelli's list.

Once they scrambled out of the old sewer pipe that was the site of Hevesh and Crelli's latest hide away, the sounds of battle were clearly audible. Fires had already consumed the lower section of the slums, and the choking smoke was blowing in into Hevesh's face. She didn't take her breath mask off, it was necessary to block the sewer fumes and likely needful on the surface now as well.

The two batarians crept toward the sound of fighting cautiously, using back alleys and sneaking through abandoned buildings. Soldiers were everywhere on the street, and it saddened Hevesh to see how few civilians they had to round up. Most everyone in Herr'Gar had been killed. Even going into the city was dangerous, which was why Hevesh lived in the sewers on the outskirts. Great black pillars that bent the light when you tried to look at them had been put up around the city, and slowly they had killed every man woman and child within a kilometer of them. Hevesh and her daughter steered well clear of them, refusing to even get close. It wasn't worth it.

They finally circled all the way around the city to where the fighting was. Spying one of the alien soldiers, Hevesh pulled out a scanner. He was clean. "Stay here until I whistle for you," Hevesh told Crelli.

Then she stood, raised her hands over her head and walked toward the soldier. "I am Sticky, I have talked with the League soldiers in the skies. They say you are here to free us. Here I am."

The soldier whirled, keeping his gun trained on Hevesh. He was a big brute, of the species Hevesh was fairly certain was called "krogan." "Are you crazy like the rest of them?" he barked.

"No, I am clean. See? I have a scanner. I checked you too. You are clean. I must talk with your Overseer. I see they have led troops into the city. It is not safe. There are black dead stones there. They will turn you into a killed if you remain in the city for long."

"Er, OK. Weyrloc Tarl to Battlemaster Urdnot Jak. I have the batarian called Sticky. She says the city is bad, booby trapped somehow with black stones. I think she's saying that's what makes these batarians so crazy."

He listened for a minute, then grunted and nodded. "The Battlemaster says an N7s just saw one of your pillars. They're evacuating the city. They want me to guard you until they get here. They have a device that can tell if you are crazy or not."

Hevesh nodded, then looked hard at the krogan. "Do you have food? Water?"

"Um, yeah, I guess. They told us not to eat the bodies. Might make us crazy. I certainly ain't gonna touch 'em. The N7's said to burn 'em. There were whelps. Hatchlings. And they just attacked us. I shot one. I think it was a female," the alien shuddered. "A little female. She had a gun. Tried to shoot me. So I shot her. Ancients hold me, but I shot her."

Hevesh just stared at the soldier, then said, "I am hungry. There is little food in the sewers where I must live. Or clean water. If you have some, mighty soldier, will you share it?" Hevesh held hear breath once she had asked. This was the test. To see if everything Unlce Vreet had said was true.

"Take it. I don't think I can eat. Never thought the day would come."

A tingle of shock zapped up Hevesh's spine as she took the proffered food and water. No soldier ever gave anything, or regretted having to kill a child. What sort of creatures were these krogan? She had heard they were demons, angry monsters that ate children and killed with glee. But this one looked like Crelli had after she'd stabbed her first killed. Hevesh whistled.

Crelli was at her side in a moment, and Hevesh shared the clean water and food with her daughter. It tasted like nothing Hevesh had ever had before. It was wonderful; clean, pure, and untainted by the chemicals that crept into the pleb's drinking supply even when they were not camping out in a sewer. Truly, this League must be a wonderful place.

Hevesh and Crelli sat and chewed on the wonderful fare, contented expressions on their faces. The soldier gave both of them all of his rations and promised more if they proved to be clean themselves. Hevesh was almost happy enough that she would have been willing to die right then and there. It had been so long since she was able to eat a carefree meal in the open. How many years had it been since she'd come home to find Naar dead? She couldn't remember.

After a time, a new alien arrived. It looked like a batarian, but it only had two eyes. Hevesh looked at the hands. Five fingers. So probably a human, if she remembered right. "I am Warlord Urdnot Jak. You are Sticky?"

"I am Sticky. This is my daughter, Knife. Are you here to free us? You are too late. Most of the others are already killed. My daughter and I are the last in the resistance I know of."

The human turned a more natural shade of green. Good, she must be happy. "We are going to scan you to see if you are Indoctrinated. If you are, we will kill you."

Crelli nodded as she wiped some crumbs from her face. "That's what you do when somebody's killed. They're an enemy then. You have to kill them, 'cause they are already dead."

Jak turned greener and passed a glowing scanner over Hevesh and her daughter. "Clean."

Hevesh nodded happily. She had been pretty sure she wasn't killed, but you never knew. Everyone she'd ever thought was a friend was dead. Either they became killed or they died another way. Maybe now it would stop.

Outpost Charlie Baker Zero, Erszbat - Second Lieutenant Ashley Williams

February 24th, 2176

When the navy pulled up stakes and left the day before, Ash had been worried. They'd said they were coming back, but for all she and the marines under her knew, they were on their own now. Of course, since she was the LT, Ash couldn't exactly express her fears to her marines. Instead, she expressed them Gunnery Chief Nakamura. It was the time honored tradition of the Corps that veteran nom-coms like Nakamura picked up their snot nosed junior officers and dusted them off once in a while.

"What's your recommendation in this situation, Chief?" Ash whispered, keeping her pose confident and assertive. Her words were also confident and assertive, but she was pretty sure Chief Nakamuru could translate them to "oh shit, now what do I do?"

"Well LT," Nakamuru replied, keeping her eyes on the perimeter. "My recommendation is we do what you've told us to for now. Hunker down and see what happens when those metalhead bastards start their drop and try to secure a base like we did. Maybe they'll get as warm a reception too."

Ash snorted. They could only hope. At first, everything had been great with the League's landing. While the troops had been mostly loyal to the government, there had been enough soldiers in on the coup to hamper the loyalists. Plus, a lot of the civilian slaves and plebs had been ecstatic to see soldiers that would save them from the "killed." Whatever the hell that was. Fighting had been fierce, but sporadic, and key strategic locations started falling into League marine hands within hours of their touching down.

And then everything had gone to hell in a hand basket. Suicide bombers. Friendlies that had suddenly gone crazy and tried to claw the nearest marine's eyes out. Apparently, they were the killed. Conditioned sleeper agents of some sort deployed to sow havoc. And a rich harvest they had reaped indeed. The coup batarians had devices that could scan someone and tell you if they were under the whammy, but it didn't do anything to tell you who was just fighting for love of country or because someone had her family tied up to be executed somewhere.

Just when the marines thought they had gotten everything sorted out, the turians had shown up. In a matter of hours, they'd check-mated the navy pukes and forced them to withdraw. Supposedly the squids were now conducting hit and run raids on the turians, and using the new massive super-dreads to prevent them from entering into any sort of station-keeping orbit. Of course, that didn't keep the turians from using a few well timed kinetic strikes to turn the marine high command into hamburger. Things were bad.

But Ash was a Williams. And a Williams never surrendered, no matter how bad things got.

"Alright, we'll play it safe for now. Radio in enemy movements as we can. Tonight, we go scouting. See if we can bushwack a few turian patrols, put a wrench in their operations," Ashley mused aloud.

"As you say LT. If we're going to do a night raid, might want the girls and boys to get a few hours of sack time while they can. They've got that bank back there hollowed out enough that we can fit three or four in there at a time. Well, two if you're gonna stuff big Berk back there, but I hear krogan don't need sleep, just the blood of their foes."

The last bit was said loud enough for the squad's heavy weapons specialist to hear, and Thax Berkal chuckled evilly and adjusted his massive Revenant squad support weapon again. The krogan could wield the enormous mass accelerator one handed, though it took two humans or quarians to operate the thing normally.

Ash smiled and nodded at the chief. "Good plan Chief. Glad I thought of it. Why don't you go tell the troops to catch some shut eye. You and your fire team bed down first, I'll wake you in a couple of hours."

"Call me if anyone needs their diaper changed ma'am," Nakamura yawned, going over to tap the four members of her fire team on their shoulders and lead to the base of the hill the marines were camped out on. They'd hollowed it out as a place to squeeze into if there were any flyovers or a heavy kinetic pounding, though how much good it was going to do them if a dreadnought decided to play was anyone's guess.

Ash turned her eyes back to the perimeter, scanning for anything headed their way. She would do like grandpa did. Hit 'em hard, then fade away like smoke. And never, ever surrender.

City of Frerunk, Erszbat - Garrus Vakarian

Garrus had descended into a nightmare. The batarians were in open revolt, factions clashing with each other heedless of what the turians were up too. Some pleaded with the Blackguard to save them. Others spat curses and hurled homemade explosives at them. Many cowered in hiding, desperate to get away from the fighting. The turians were trying to restore order; ordering civilians into holding areas where they would be disarmed and monitored. A few were complying. Most were not.

The biggest problem was that none of the fighters had the decency to wear a uniform or identifying markers. Sometimes a batarian would suddenly go berserk and start attacking everyone around them in eerie silence, or screaming about the voices in their heads. No one was able to figure out just how you could tell a batarian who was going to go nuts from one who wasn't. Normally the turians would have simply killed all of the batarians until the fight went out of them, but the batarians were supposed to be allies. You didn't go around slaughtering an ally's civilians unless things got even worse than they were.

As a sniper, Garrus was removed from the melee, ordered to keep watch on the perimeter for hostiles. How in the name of the spirits was he supposed to do THAT? Some of the combatants were children. Garrus had already watched as a child ran into a group of turian soldiers, then exploded. There hadn't been any way to tell the kid had been wired with enough explosives to reduce a block to rubble. And Garrus wasn't about to start shooting children, even if he got orders to do so. He did pick off any batarian who even looked like they might have a weapon. He could do that much.

It was getting dark, and Garrus adjusted his low light filter as he swept the city for possible targets. Slight movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he zoomed in on it. To his shock, Garrus caught sight of a League marine's body armor. Then it was gone again behind a block of buildings. Buildings very close to the forward deployment zone.

"Command, this is Private Vakarian. Possible League operatives in section B-867."

"Understood. Our only units in that area are a Cable fire team and yourself. Link up with them and provide covering fire."

"Copy that. Vakarian moving to rendezvous."

Garrus collapsed his sniper rifle and placed it on his back, drawing his Vindicator assault rifle. He kept low as he hurried along, leaping across several gaps to stay on the roofs and off the streets. That was safer; there were less places to ambush someone on a rooftop. He arrived at the rendezvous quickly, staying on the rooftop and gazing around the city.

It was pretty obvious that once, probably as little as a few days ago, Frerunk has been a beautiful city. The buildings were made of mostly natural materials like stone or wood, with roofs tiled with red clay bricks. Frerunk had been an agricultural center, and it's cobblestone streets were lined with warehouses filled with food and livestock for transportation to the rest of the Hegemony. Even with the fires burning throughout the city and the blacked ruins where orbital strikes, bombs and fighting that had reduced its beauty to ashes and rubble, Garrus could picture the calm, pastoral place it had once been.

Movement sounded on the cobblestones below, and Garrus spun, pointing his Vindicator at the source of the noise. "Victory," he hissed.

"Or death," a turian voice responded, completing the motto of the Blackguards and stepping out of the shadows. "Well, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to find you where there is trouble, Garrus."

"Nyreen? Yours is the Cabal I'm supporting? Where are the others?"

"Out of action. Taken out by an insurgent. Looked like a little old woman, but she had a bandolier of grenades under her blouse. Killed half the cabal and wounded the rest. I was the only one to get a barrier up in time to get out unscathed."

"Fantastic. So it's just the two of us against Corax knows how many League marines?"

"Looks like it. Think we should radio in and ask for reinforcements?"

"Of course not. We're Blackguards. The two of us should be able to take out at least a platoon by ourselves."

Nyreen thrummed, but she didn't argue. "Where did you see them?"

"This way. Lift yourself up here, we can sneak up on them from above."

Nyreen floated herself up to the rooftop, and the two Blackguards prowled towards where Garrus had first spotted the League marine. When they got close, Garrus held up a talon and the two paused, scanning the area for signs of hostiles. For about two minutes, they didn't see anything. This area was on the outskirts, and was the Blackguards' fallback position. There were some command structures and supply caches, and the area was a valuable target. Security was tight, but most of it was focused on the side of the base toward the city center.

Finally, Garrus shook his head. "Guess I was seeing things. Let's get down and do a patrol, just to be sure," he whispered. Nyreen nodded, and the two slipped down.

And landed right on top of a krogan.

The big brute was knocked down by the turians' landing, and for a nearly fatal moment, Garrus stared at the krogan in shock. Then someone shouted and opened up with a mass accelerator. Garrus sprang away, firing in the general direction of the shots and dragging Nyreen with him.

"You alright?" Garrus yelled, firing a burst over the stone wall he'd taken refuge behind.

"Spirits take that brute, I injured my foot when I fell on his thick head!" Nyreen swore. Bracing herself up, she launched a bolt of biotic energy at their foes then sank back down.

"Command, this is Private Vakarian. Confirm contact with multiple League hostiles. They've got a krogan."

A roar of anger shook the yard, and then Garrus and Nyreen had to scramble away as a hail of rounds from a massive squad support weapon began to shred the wall they were behind.

"Copy that Vakarian. Backup is on its way. Hold until relieved."

"Fantastic," Garrus growled, lifting his rifle to his shoulder, again firing at the krogan. He scored a direct hit, but all that seemed to do was make the monster angrier. The krogan did fall back under cover and wait for his shields to recharge, which gave Garrus some relief.

Another League marine popped up and hurled something at the two turians. Nyreen caught it before it could cover half the distance and sent it spinning back toward its point of origin. An explosion lit the night as the grenade detonated near where the League marines were hiding. Garrus popped off a few more shots with his rifle, rapidly discovering that accuracy on the shooting range and accuracy under fire were two very different things. He did manage to score a few hits, but he didn't think he actually killed anyone. That was disappointing, because the Leaguer's were obviously trying to kill him.

For what felt like hours but was probably closer to three minutes, Garrus and Nyreen dragged themselves from cover to cover, blasting away at where they had seen the enemy. They continued to shoot in that direction long after they received no fire in return. They didn't stop until backup arrived in the form of two more squads of Blackguards.

"How many?" the officer in charge demanded.

"I don't know sir," Garrus panted. "At least a squad, maybe two or three. They had a heavy weapons krogan with them, he was using one of those huge Revenants."

"Hmm. Escort your wounded to the field hospital. We'll sweep the area, pick up the rest of them. I don't see any bodies, but it looks like there's some krogan blood on the ground over there, so you must have wounded a few. Good work soldier."

As Garrus and Nyreen limped back, Garrus reflected that his first contact with the League had felt more like two children throwing rocks at unseen monsters in the dark then an actual battle. He wondered how his foes had felt; if they'd been as scared, surprised and confused as he had been. Probably not. League marines were tough.

Outpost Charlie Baker Zero - Ashley Williams

"Holy shit, I don't believe we made it out of that one alive," Ash muttered to herself as her squad finally stumbled back to their hidey hole. She was pretty sure they weren't followed, but that squad of turians had put up a hell of a fight. It had been one of their elite Cabal units too, from all the biotic firepower that had been going off right in Ash's face. They'd thrown one of her grenades right back at her, and Ash had only been saved by diving into a refuse heap. She still stank.

"It wasn't that bad LT," Chief Nakamuru cheerfully remarked, much louder than Ash thought was strictly necessary. "We accomplished our goal. We found the enemy's base, scouted it, engaged the enemy, and got out without getting any of ours killed. Though one big baby's been whining about a scratch or something."

"You take a round from a turian marksman and see how you feel," Big Berk rumbled, though he sounded faintly pleased with himself. The krogan had been the first to make contact and the most seriously injured, and Ash was confident that it if wasn't for his brave defense that had driven off the initial turian assault, most of the squad would be dead.

Ash nodded, catching the spirit behind what the Chief was doing. "We did the corps proud today. I'd say our girls and boys are almost ready to go dancing for real, instead of a little shouting match like that. What do you say chief?"

"I reckon so LT. Hopefully we can find a bandaid big enough for a krogan in the medkit somewhere."

The troops chuckled, and Ash could sense their spirits lifting. They'd been scared after being driven off by the turians, but they'd made it back in good order.

"Get some rest. In a few hours, we're probing their lines again. We're still in this war. And we've got a job to do. 'If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you', then when you get home the bigwigs will give your ass a medal."

Chief Nakamuru got the sentries back up, and Ash ordered her communications specialist to get a report back to command. She glanced up at the stars, praying that God would see fit to allow their own fleet to come back for them soon.