Mass Effect 3: The Miracle at Palaven
For all the unsung heroes
Fighting battles with wrenches
Select Excerpt from Of Steel and Talons: The Battle of Palaven by Arena Nyscirius (2214 CE Edition) (Edited for Human Reading)
Licensed to Kaidan Alenko Secondary School, Kithoi Ward, Citadel
Preparing for a Miracle
Operation: WHISKEY CORRIDOR was, according to official press releases, a mitigated tactical setback, an operation that encountered significant obstacles before it was quickly scaled back in favor of other operations. In [Captain Irrena] Ixius' opinion, WHISKEY CORRIDOR was a complete disaster. It had been a daring, ambitious plan that had been chosen in favor of two other cancelled operations, PHANTOM SNOW, a highly coordinated and organized retreat from low-priority defensive positions on Menae so the fleet could bombard the Reaper forces overrunning the area, and STARDUST SONATA, a coordinated counterattack against skirmishing Reapers targeting the shipyards around Nanus.
Admiral [Irix] Coronati had been confident that if he could just open a direct path to the Trebia mass relay, it would streamline logistical considerations between Palaven space and all other turian military resource holdings across Citadel space. But as well-equipped and well-trained as the turian fleet was, it could not match the alacrity in which the Reapers coordinated with each other and responded to threats. An operation that required split-second timing amongst turian starships to isolate and outflank individual Reapers between Palaven and the Trebia mass relay was doomed to fail when Reapers could – and did – dance around turian warships and regroup, despite the fact that the turian starships generally outnumbered each Reaper vessel five-to-one.
The failures were not due to the shortcomings of the turian fleet, each ship filled with well-trained, well-disciplined, and experienced officers that represented the best Citadel space had to offer, of which [Ixius' carrier] the Example was no exception. The crew had manned the Example admirably, responding to their captain's commands faster than any other group responsible for navigating a kilometer-long could, and Ixius had never seen such a superb performance from any carrier crew until WHISKEY CORRIDOR.
Still, in spite of this, the Example had fared poorly in the operation. It had been outflanked by two Reapers, and only survived because the Dominion had posed a much more tempting target when the dreadnought moved in to support the Example. Deck Two had been breached and damaged so badly that its entirety was exposed to the vacuum, and declared off-limits until their return to the docks of Nanus could facilitate flash-repairs. More than three-fourths of the carrier's fighter-bomber complement had been lost, all of their drones shot down. The turians performed exceptionally, but they were only organic. Orders from Coronati went to fleet CIC, which was passed through military tactical networks to individual ship communications officers, then to their captains, then to the bridge officers. That was to say nothing of individual ship CICs reporting rapid-fire updates to the captain, which was hectic enough even with VI assistance. The Reapers, in contrast, had virtually no communications delay, controlled their weapons and navigations as if they were extensions of the body, and instantly responded to any situation simultaneously.
WHISKEY CORRIDOR created a salient from Palaven towards the Trebia mass relay across nowhere that needed to be defended. What had meant to be coordinated isolate-and-destroy operations against the Reapers along the "highway" ended up as a disaster as Reaper ships simply winked in-and-out of FTL faster than turian vessels could follow, and flanked the corridor from every possible vector. Two days into the operation with nothing to show for his progress aside from barely managing to secure no more than thirty percent of the planned corridor, Coronati finally called an end to the fiasco. Two hundred and fourteen ships had been committed to the operation, but only one hundred and eight-six had made it safely out, and that wasn't even counting the ships that were heavily damaged. ¹
The only measurable success they had was that the Reapers no longer maintained a defensive perimeter around the Trebia mass relay. They had attempted to guard the mass relay religiously to cut off reinforcements and logistical lines, but after taking losses from the continuous stream of self-guided warp bombs being sent by out-system turian forces through the relay, the Reapers had retreated to a minimum safe distance to intercept the bombs before they could do any damage. The navy was deprived of a way to take potshots from across mass relays, but at least the Reapers staying far away from the relay meant out-system reinforcements could arrive in the Trebia system without having to worry about being instantly shot down.
The Example had been amongst the first ships to return to Nanus for repairs, giving the crew two days of rest while shipyard engineers managed to make miraculous repairs to the extensive damage to the ship. It was the only piece of good news that Ixius could walk away with from WHISKEY CORRIDOR, aside from the fact that they were all still alive, as it meant they were not in the long queue of ships waiting for the docks to empty up. The engineers and dockworkers in the shipyards orbiting Nanus worked on little sleep, because while ship crews had downtime between shifts and during repairs, damaged vessels kept docking in for the repair and resupply crews. Their docks were always full and with many more ships waiting in orbit for repairs and resupply, outpacing the rate of even the engineers' miracles. They were constantly being shot at by skirmishing Reapers, made worse by the fact that they were unarmed stationary targets protected only by a defense of dreadnoughts and their escorts. Their food supplies rarely ever arrived on time due to supply ships being ambushed or diverted by the enemy. They had been spending nineteen hours out of every twenty in vacuum-sealed, hot, uncomfortable armor for weeks due to constant attacks that depressurized parts of the shipyards, depressurizing only to eat or relieve themselves. They were woefully undermanned because High Command gave greater priority for replacements to the warships, and the shipyards needed to have specialists that were not easily replaceable. Yet when the engineers gave the promise that the Example would be combat-worthy again in two days, Ixius knew they'd keep it.
But that was not enough to stop the chain of bad news that kept flowing in. Casualty reports were staggering. One of the downed Hierarchy ships had been a dreadnought. Nanus was beginning to see a supply shortfall as supply routes between Palaven, Menae, and Nanus were obstructed by Reaper forces. And, for the first time since the war started, Ixius was told she was on the waiting list for replacements for the crew she had lost. Previously, almost every ship that returned to dock after a sortie or operations had its casualties reoccupied by a line of waiting reservists almost immediately. That the navy was told it'd have to wait by High Command could only mean that the brass was losing faith in the navy's attempts to assert aerospace superiority over Palaven, or that there was a manpower shortfall. Or, worse, both.
It was in light of all this that Ixius desperately hoped for good news when [the Example's executive officer Commander Patrus] Castellus contacted her in the captain's quarters while she was resting. Unfortunately, her prayers were not answers. "Captain," her X.O. started bluntly, "I have bad news and even worse news."
The bad news was confirmation that High Command had decided not to give the navy priority on replacements. As far as the deliberative bodies were concerned, the navy had made three costly attempts – the Fifteen-Minute Plan, Operation: IRON HAMMER, and Operation: WHISKEY CORRIDOR – with very little to show for it. It was unsurprising that High Command was now doubtful of the navy's capacity to maintain orbital superiority for much longer, even if the entire war effort went towards replacing the navy's losses. There was also General [Minin] Resvirix's own lobbying to consider, his insistence that conventional warfare was useless against the Reapers, and that his own ground forces were necessary to hit the enemy where they least expected it. He might've been right, but that cost the navy resources.
What this effectively meant for Ixius and every other captain and admiral in the fleet, however, was that their losses would not be replaced for some time, that resources would not be diverted to another ambitious naval operation, and that the fleet would be doomed to limp around for days, making runs between Palaven, Menae, and Nanus. Far more frustrating, however, was the implication that the Hierarchy was having manpower shortages, if they were as far as to mention that the Example wasn't getting immediate replacements. "Are reinforcements not making it?" Ixius asked, dreading the answer.
Castellus' reply was so even, Ixius wasn't sure if he was feeling sarcastic or genuinely dismayed. "They are. That's the even worse news. They're krogan."
¹ Contrary to popular belief, warships are rarely destroyed in battle; vessels and their crew are highly valuable assets and difficult to replace, and therefore ship commanders are rarely ever encouraged to make sacrificial plays. FTL drives provide near-instantaneous retreats at will, and most ships will escape a battle when their shields approach danger levels. The majority of space battles in history were considered "decisive victories" not when the enemy fleet was destroyed, but when the enemy retreated from the defense of an unmovable target or area of operations. Losing twenty-eight ships in a single operation was considered to be a massive loss even when compared to the overall size of the Hierarchy navy, and was a symptom of Reaper magnetohydrodynamic weapons that defied traditional naval logic by being able to destroy even shielded dreadnoughts in one direct hit, giving ship commanders no safe window within which to make a FTL jump to a point beyond the weapon's reach.
Commander Serona Ravakian was anxious. She had been pulled out of deactivation – because honorable turians never truly "retire" from the military – to rejoin her old unit, the premier turian special operations unit Blackwatch, when the Battle of Palaven moved groundside. It had been weeks since she had last heard from her husband, who was trying to take care of their three underage children. Their last known location, [the city of] Seruvia, was one of the major flashpoints of the ground battle, with the turian resistance and Reaper forces waging full-out war in an urban environment. And more than half of her unit was already being moved off-world by orders of Primarch [Adrien] Victus to assist in other flashpoints in the galaxy, leaving Ravakian with only 2nd Platoon. The arrival of the krogan only compounded her mounting worries, and was not appreciated at all.
Ravakian was accounting for inventory with her unit in the hangar of the Example when the first shuttles carrying the commando reinforcements arrived. Turian activity came to a standstill when the occupants emptied out of their shuttle, dozens of krogan stomping down the corridors formed between the rows of shuttles and fighter craft on the carrier with instantly-recognizable krogan swagger. Eyes stared at the bizarre scene of the Tuchankan aliens onboard a Hierarchy military vessel, a combination truly made in hell. They had heard about turian involvement in bringing the krogan to the fight after the heroics on Tuchanka, of course, and warily accepted the fact that their historic enemies were now tentative allies. But to see any of them, never mind dozens, strutting across the hangar of a Hierarchy vessel in orbit over the turian homeworld was another thing altogether. They were shock troopers, massive, towering soldiers wearing heavy armor, carrying heavy shotguns, their belts clipped with grenades of all kinds. The cavalier and flippant way they carried themselves – the way they brandished their weapons with little regard for safety or all the expensive, sensitive, and potentially explosive components scattered all around the hangar – was utterly alien to the conservative, disciplined turians.
It would not be until hours later that Ravakian learned about it, but the reinforcements were from Clan Urdnot, known as Malgus Company, which would soon be joined in the following days by similar krogan commando outfits in the form of Arrae, Dranek, and Nith Companies. It was the hope of Primarch Victus and krogan leader Urdnot Wrex that Urdnot commandos – who were at least personally loyal to their relatively liberal clan leader, if not tolerant of alien races – would cooperate more fluidly with Hierarchy forces and thus pave the way for the less forgiving non-Urdnot commando units to integrate into a steady turian-krogan military framework. Ravakian, however, couldn't see anything that could remotely be paired with the words "cooperate", "fluidly", "forgiving", "integrate", or "steady". The engineers were smart enough to step out of the way, and her own Blackwatch operators were too professional to play games of hubris, but many of the soldiers and pilots were spectating not-so-casually as they looked the incoming krogan up and down, as if sizing them up for a fight, something their passing guests were all too eager to reciprocate.
Ravakian's executive officer, Lieutenant Derlude Helsrang, was unrestrained in his frankness. "Great," he muttered to his commander as the krogan marched by. "Now we're all going to die before the Reapers kill us."
It was not the first time Ravakian's career involved krogan, regardless of whether it was with them or against them. Much of Blackwatch's history, in fact, had revolved around deniable operations that involved krogan mercenaries in one way or another. She was familiar with what krogan commandos were capable of and respected their capabilities, but she didn't hold them in awe. Ravakian accepted that the individual toughness displayed by krogan physiology granted them greater leeway in operational audacity that other races had to compensate via teamwork. Krogan commanders that had survived the ages also benefitted from their long lifespan, and had accumulated centuries of experiences from battles no one else other than the older asari have seen. But the arrogance, bloodlust, and overconfidence of the krogan, to say nothing of their complete lack of discipline save alpha male authority, bordered on the comically incompetent. Ravakian recalled a mission where, as a lieutenant at the time, Blackwatch hired krogan mercenaries to act as decoys, to draw attention away by simulating mercenary gang warfare. The "simulation" ended up occurring several days in advance in the planning room, when a casual insult from one krogan ended up starting a free-for-all headbutting brawl between the four krogan mercenary leaders in a room with turian Blackwatch officers. Ravakian had tried to step in to stop the fight, but her commander stopped her, escorting the officers out of the room as the krogan "worked out their differences". By the time the turians went back in after the sounds of crashing and krogan bellows had stopped, two of the mercenaries were dead, another unconscious, and the last slumped against the corner of the room, bleeding out. Needless to say, the turians didn't get a krogan diversion for that operation.
As the leader of Malgus Company, Urdnot Nakmor's attitude towards the turians was similar. He acknowledged that the krogan ought to learn a thing or two about turian discipline, given that even turian mercenaries generally tended to follow orders despite personal misgivings, a stark contrast to what Urdnot considered to be mewling and grumbling amongst many of the krogan rank-and-file. But like everyone else, the turians were small, soft, and fragile, at least when compared to a krogan. They were overly reliant on technological advantages, using it as a crutch, which dulled their instincts and capabilities in combat, something Urdnot considered unforgiveable. Take away their tech, and the turians were only so much meat. Where the krogan dared to try new strategies, the turians were staid and uncreative. News of three successive major failures on the navy's part only reinforced the stereotypes in Urdnot's mind, as did the sight of the turian wounded scattered across the ship. The Example's medical bay was at full capacity, so further casualties had to be placed wherever there was room, or somehow tough it out.
The sight of so many limping turians was horrible for morale, and no ship would logically keep so many of them around while in active combat. But the Example's problem was shared across almost every other ship and installation around Palaven space. The surface of the planet and the two moons were flooding with Reaper troops, and casualties could not be sent there. The space stations and orbital elevators around Palaven were filled to the brink with civilian evacuees; the Hierarchy had told them to get as far up into space as possible to expedite evacuations, but the turians soon found themselves with few ships to spare to get the civilians out of the Trebia system. The stations were also flooded with the military wounded, which was where High Command had relocated them in the first place; the same went for the bases on Menae and the shipyards of Nanus. There was an overwhelming amount of wounded amongst the Example's crew, as well as the pilots on board, as well as the ground troop and Marines being ferried by the carrier, simply because there was nowhere else to put them.
But the krogan had not undergone that problem, they did not know the context, nor did they care for any other explanation than their own. As far as they were concerned, the turians were weak and battered and bruised, the krogan were being called upon to save the galaxy from their troubles again, and that gave them the supreme, uncontested right to gloat mightily. They were here for glory and because their clan leader said so, not out of any love for Palaven or the turians. The Marines wondered who came up with the idea of bringing krogan onboard the Example; the army might have appreciated krogan reinforcements more, but the navy had never asked for krogan assistance, felt they did not need them, and this attitude managed to seep down to even the lowly Marine NCOs and the navy technician. "We needed more ships and bigger mass accelerators," Serviceman Second Class Lanus Vadim explained the prevalent thought amongst navy personnel at the time. "If we absolutely had to, we can bombard Palaven, purge it clean of Reaper ground forces, and rebuild. But until we destroyed Reaper ships, we weren't going to be going anywhere, and the krogan sure as hell weren't going to help us with that."
Ravakian and Helsrang didn't think that way, and they were pretty sure the Blackwatch 2nd Platoon agreed with them, that the navy was writing off the ground battle too quickly, and that having any extra assets was always a boon, regardless of whether or not it was what they wanted. What they were most concerned about, however, was unit cohesion. On the best of days, Ravakian would have to make sure a turian and a krogan didn't kill each other if they were in the same room. Now, High Command was trying to tell them to play nice because the krogan were somehow essential to the overall war effort, something that might've been easier to stomach if Malgus Company hadn't been so insufferable. They had a live grenade on their hands, and now Blackwatch could only hope it exploded while the turians weren't the ones holding it.
The only thing that the turians were remotely thankful for in terms of the krogan arriving was that they had done so with a ridiculous amount of ordinance, especially in the form of special ammunition and grenades. The industrial bases that produced infantry weapons and supplies were largely on the surfaces of Palaven and Menae, neither of which was safe – even by turian standards – to approach solely for infantry supplies anymore, given that it didn't look like the Marines were getting any action anytime soon. This meant what limited ordinance that wasn't being given to groundside defenders on Menae were being allocated down a predetermined list of ships, and Ravakian had a feeling that board the Example was pretty far down that list. If Tuchanka lacked anything, however, it certainly wasn't anything that killed people. Malgus Company had stacked their transports full of specialized ammunition and explosives, and Urdnot had the presence of mind to order his commandos to share the surplus.
Vice Admiral [Certisius] Lantiar boarded to make inspections. It was an unwelcome development because Ixius had to run the ship tighter than it already was in preparation for the vice admiral, and "tighter" was probably the last thing the crew of the Example needed, considering half of its passengers were now casualties, walking or actual. Ravakian hoped that the vice admiral would at least address the issue of the krogan, but Lantiar made a point of ignoring the krogan commandos, told the men to "keep it up", promised to get them groundside soon, and left. As far as the commander felt, Lantiar was in the optimal position to try and get everyone on board the Example to work together, and he had squandered it.
Helsrang wasn't so optimistic. "I doubt it would've changed a thing," he said years later. "If anything, trying to talk about how the krogan were 'one of us' now probably would've stirred the men into simmering anger. No one forgot about his personal clusterfuck that was WHISKEY CORRIDOR, and no one was about to forgive him for it anytime soon."
Still, it wasn't all bad news. Ravakian reasoned that the krogan were here by personal entreaty of Victus, and if the primarch himself was now committing the krogan to Palaven, it meant there was going to be some kind of play soon, a chance to get real ground beneath her feet where she could take the fight to the enemy. In everyone's opinion, it couldn't come soon enough.
When the primarch had promised Admiral Coronati a "special consultant" to help plan the upcoming offensive, tentatively codenamed Operation: SLENDER SCALPEL, Ixius personally hoped it wasn't [Commander Garrus] Vakarian, a consideration made largely for Coronati's sake. Although she wasn't privy to the details, she understood that any consultant personally dispatched by the primarch would be given much leeway in the planning process, supposedly due to superior experience in a particular field of expertise, a leeway even the admiral couldn't ignore or easily override. While turian officers were accustomed to shelving their personal reservations in the face of superior orders, Ixius knew that Coronati would not be pleased at having to stomach a Victus-backed Vakarian. The admiral made it no secret that he held the commander's checkered past in contempt, bore no love for the man's lack of command experience, and considered Vakarian's sudden promotion to commander of an anti-Reaper task force to be made through dishonest backroom deals with the late Primarch [Velarius] Fedorian.
In consideration of this, Coronati had preemptively declared the Example the hosting ground of the strategy meeting instead the Defender, despite the fact that Victus had refused to specify who the consultant actually was. It was undoubtedly a snub in anticipation for an unwelcome choice for a special consultant, having the congregation take place on a subordinate's vessel instead of the admiral's own flagship. Ixius personally did not mind, but that meant the burden of increasing on-ship security was squarely on her. She did not doubt its necessity; until two weeks ago, turian-krogan relations were virtually nonexistent, and all the krogan on her ship were making everyone nervous.
When the special consultant finally arrived, however, Ixius realized that her worries would be magnified despite the fact that it was not Vakarian. She ended welcoming a turian she had never heard of, Demetrius Risithi, when he and his escort finally arrived on board the Example. A quick search for his profile, however, made Vakarian's own record look pale: Risithi had been promoted to the rank of commander years ago before earning two demotions for unethical conduct on the battlefield, details classified. He spent the years afterwards working as a highly-ranked strategist for the Blue Suns mercenary group, working up a resume of equally dubious ethical standards. "To Coronati," Ixius declared, "Risithi was little more than a criminal suddenly given official power. I was certain the admiral was going positively apoplectic in his quarters, raging that the primarch was manipulating him into accepting Vakarian as an alternative."
Ixius did not know it, but Risithi's assignment as special consultant was made largely out of political concerns. Although the genophage had been cured due to no small part of turian assistance, many of the krogan dispatched to Palaven had, until weeks ago, bore a vicious grudge against the turians for the Krogan Rebellions. The animosity was barely kept in check by the threat of the Reapers, but Victus had decided that the krogan forces dispatched to Palaven would trust High Command as far as they could throw them. Risithi was hoped to be a stepping stone, a Blue Suns officer who had working relations with the krogan of Blood Pack, which in turn had no shortage of krogan members returning to Tuchanka upon hearing of the genophage cure. If the turians' new allies weren't about to trust the Hierarchy, then the hope was that they would at least have a stable working relationship with Risithi, who had no problems working with Hierarchy forces.
Risithi's influence in smoothing out wrinkles between the turians and the krogan was questionable. Malgus Company were no less scathing towards him than they were to any other turian, even though it seemed that they were at least more willing to discuss business with the special consultant, who in turn largely seemed unbothered by the commandos. The turians, in turn, acknowledged Risithi's presence and new rank as part of the provisional brass, but there was an undertone of animosity towards a turian who had gone mercenary. "Risithi was treated better by the turians than they treated the krogan, and better by the krogan than they treated the turians," Castellus, who made several trips through the decks to inspect conditions aboard the Example (despite knowing there was little he could do about it), acknowledged. "But I doubt it worked as well as whatever the primarch or High Command had in mind."
But Ixius wasn't remotely worried about Risithi; he was several steps above her paygrade, and – as far as she was concerned – Admiral Coronati's problem. Her problem, more so than any other, was trying to maintain discipline on her ship. Maybe it might have been less of a problem had the krogan been introduced onto the Example several weeks earlier, but with much of her original crew now largely casualties, many of the men and women on the carrier – regardless of whether they were naval officers, servicemen, ground troops, or other soldiers relocated to the Example because the Hierarchy had nowhere else to put them – were barely men and women. The old, grizzled officers that remained were holding it together, but it didn't change the fact that they were vastly outnumbered by young replacements barely out of Basic. The replacements were well-trained and qualified to whatever roles they were assigned, but they were also brash and impetuous. Between the threat of the collapse of galactic civilization and watching their planet burn below without any idea of the fate of their families, treating the krogan "with respect" was placed on a backburner. In fact, it was probably more accurate to say that some went out of their way looking for a fight to alleviate the mounting tension.
"Even in times like these, you couldn't stop egos from flaring up," [Service Chief Solana] Optimi remarked. There was a lot of sizing upon on both sides, turians and krogan in their little groups, quietly discussing what each group could do to the other, often separated by no more than a single hallway when these "discussions" took place.
It was inevitable that a fight would break out. It was considered nothing short of a miracle, in fact, that the Example had been fight-free for the first two days. But on the third day, a turian got into a fistfight with a krogan. Details of who threw the first punch were lost (or at least purposefully stricken from the record for the sake of public image), but results were predictable: The krogan outweighed the turian several times over, but the turian was nimbler, and the krogan wasn't particularly mindful of who else he struck with his near-misses. A single fistfight had turned into a brawl, and it took Ixius sealing the bulkheads and beginning to vent the atmosphere on the deck before the belligerents considered the sudden lack of oxygen to be of greater priority than their bruised egos (and, presumably, before onboard Marine security opened fire). It threw Ixius into a very uncharacteristic rage, because as much as her dressing down of the turians who had been involved was "probably more worthy of an extranet video streaming upload than the time one drunk servicewoman got into a fistfight with Admiral Coronati" in Optimi's opinion, the captain knew little would be changed at the end of the day simply due to the much more prominent pervading issues that had allowed this breakdown in discipline to occur in the first place, and Urdnot Nakmor seemed completely unenthusiastic in making any kind of reprimand or taking any kind of disciplinary measure against his own krogan.
Ixius did not have long to fume. A call to general quarters was made; Reaper capital ships were attempting to snipe at the fleet defending Nanus. The fleet was just outside the Reapers' effective targeting range, but a task force still needed to be swiftly assembled to chase the sniping Reapers away. Every now and then, an enemy ship would get very lucky and actually hit something.
This time, a Reaper got very lucky. A shot from a magnetohydrodynamic weapon glanced across the Example. The shot didn't physically connect with the ship, but it penetrated through the carrier's kinetic shields instantly and nearly flash-melted a section of the hull. The heat was sufficient to instantly cook Second Lieutenant Kericlus Quril, Gunnery Chief Nis Oridani, Gunnery Chief Feran Argovian, and Engineer Iridin Nephitis to death. Operations Chief [Telana] Cyrion was critically injured by the subsequent chain explosion; she survived, but lost her left leg above the knee.
Cyrion's incapacitation really shook up [Operations Chief Lonn] Syphiat. Cyrion was the only person left on the Example who had graduated with him in the same class at Basic, as everyone else they once knew was either KIA or MIA. Seeing her unconscious, bloodied, and missing a leg in the Example's medical bay nearly broke him. Like almost every other Marine, Syphiat was on the edge, sitting on a ship he couldn't get off, unable to take the fight to the enemy, just waiting for the next Reaper shot to gut them before the Example ever had a chance to fight back. This was a slow death, one by a thousand cuts, as attack after operation after skirmish slowly whittled away the crew. And stagnation was getting to them, with so many injured and medical supplies running low. Syphiat could barely take it anymore. Castellus gave him a mandatory three-day rest period in hopes he'd recover, despite knowing that Syphiat – like almost every other Marine – had been resting with little to do for weeks now. The executive officer could only hope that making it an official order would help psychologically.
Defending celestial bodies was possibly one of the most demoralizing aspects of naval warfare. Fleets needed to be arrayed to defend a planet or moon or large installation, and that meant any missed shots were likely to bombard the defended target behind them. It was a tried-and-true strategy that had been ruthlessly employed by the krogan against the turians during the Krogan Rebellions, and it was happening again more than fourteen centuries later with the Reapers replacing the krogan. The enemy took potshots against ships surrounding Nanus, knowing that even though their targeting systems did not go as far as the effective range of their weapons, the moon behind the turian fleet was sufficiently large for the Reapers to hit something. This was exuberated by the fact that Reaper targeting systems had a much greater effective range than turian ones, leaving the Hierarchy exceptionally frustrated by the sniping interlaced with skirmishes that attempted to cut off the expeditionary vessels targeting the sniping Reapers from the fleet defending Nanus and its shipyards. As Castellus described it, "I think it's safe to say we swiftly became the most chronically depressed generation in the entire history of the Hierarchy Navy."
News of WHISKEY CORRIDOR's failure sagged the morale of resistance groups groundside on Palaven. In [Draxen] Achtus' opinion, it came at the worst possible time. An electronic communications blackout to conceal the positions of the resistance made it difficult to confirm anything, but the fact that a harvester ship landed a kilometer north the day before spoke ill of the situation. Not only did it mean more Reapers were managing to make it past the fleet, it also meant that the Reapers had deemed the population of [the city of] Khronus broken, if they were going as far as to implement a program of surrender. Without sending a runner or risking the Reapers locking into their communications signal, it was impossible to tell what was going on in the other parts of the city, and whether or not the turians there were really being rounded up.
Achtus desperately wanted to say that his cell would never break, but he knew it was dangerous to settle into that sense of false security, especially given how badly things were going groundside. It was becoming increasingly difficult to carry out operations with any real chance of survival or success. Turian resistance in Khronus, like almost all other turian resistance in cities across Palaven, was harsh, swift, and overpowering, able-bodied citizens spending as many of their waking hours hammering the enemy virtually non-stop with a near-inexhaustible supply of conventional ammunition. This made Palaven unique in that it was a homeworld that never "fell" to an actual attempted Reaper invasion; whereas the majority of Thessia and Earth's defenses fell within hours of Reaper ships arriving in system, Reaper forces never managed to accomplish the same feat on Palaven, which resulted in the highest concentration of Reaper forces than anywhere else on the galaxy.
It was difficult to say that this did anything for morale on the side of the turian resistance, however. The amount of manpower and firepower the turian resistance was able to mount was absolutely staggering, achieving a level of resources and professionalism that could rival conventional armies. Fighting in Khronus and on Palaven in general was absolutely non-stop; ordinance going off had long become background noise. But the problem was that the Reapers had the capacity to match that firepower and manpower. The turian military and population in general had lived for centuries under the general conceit that the might of the Hierarchy was unstoppable. Victory was not a question of whether or not the Hierarchy could crush enemy resistance, but how much of the Hierarchy's resources could safely be diverted to a conflict. Yet here was one of the most intensive, destructive, devastating urban campaigns ever, the Hierarchy fielding every possible resource to fight the Reapers. The military and the citizenry unleashed a concentration of firepower far greater than anything anyone had ever seen in their lifetimes. And the greatest claim they could make to that effort was that they were holding the Reapers at bay. It was far more than any other race could achieve, but it was a blow to the turian psyche and ego, the equivalent of an unrivaled heavyweight boxer who was throwing out the heaviest punches, who could land the harshest of blows on his opponent, only to watch the opponent shrug those punches off and match him strike-for-strike. This was hardly a phenomenon that was unique to the turians – any military force would be hard-pressed to say they were encouraged when their absolute best efforts could only achieve "parity" – but using the Hierarchy as a comparison underscored just how intense the entire defense of Palaven was.
This was why – in addition to no real claims of victory beyond questionably successful defenses against Reaper forces – Achtus found the failure of WHISKEY CORRIDOR to be highly distressing to morale groundside. It was in light of this that, despite himself, he found himself somewhat eagerly anticipating the arrival of [Hierarchy Defense Intelligence officer responsible for liaising with the Khronus resistance cell] Nillin, who somehow arrived unscathed at their base of operations. It wasn't to say that they didn't jump through the usual loops that had long colored their meetings since the war began. They would greet each other, Nillin would ask for intelligence on Reaper forces, Achtus would try to bargain for it, she would remind him about rank and dying for the cause, and he would voice his limited resources and how much he could actually spare for an HDI operation of which details were kept from him, of which Nillin refused to divulge more than she deemed necessary, which was very little.
The interaction between Achtus and Nillin was not uncommon amongst turian resistance cells scattered across Palaven. The civilian population was numerous, heavily-armed, and determined to make Reaper forces fight for every inch of Palaven, but they were aware that the outgunned resistance cells were only a stopgap measure until the military could spare reinforcements to fight battles groundside. Resistance leaders like Achtus had a love-hate relationship with military intelligence officers like Nillin. He saw her as a glimmer of hope, that High Command had not forgotten about the deactivated civilian population, and that Nillin's presence meant at the very least that High Command believed the situation groundside could still be salvaged.
Still, the relationship was very one-sided; so far, the intelligence officer had consistently demanded for new intelligence on Reaper movements and force compositions, and asked for Achtus' subordinates for her own operations or that of High Command, men and women he subsequently never saw again. Nillin offered nothing in return save vague promises that High Command was apprised of the developing situation groundside, and reinforcements would be sent the moment they were available. Like almost all turians in resistance cells across Palaven, Achtus had no reservations dying for the cause, but between Nillin refusing to give the resistance any information, and constantly taking valuable men, women, and resources from them, and there was the lingering frustration that High Command in general and the HDI in particular were treating them as disposable pawns and sacrificial tools.
This was not entirely fair to the HDI. Intelligence analysts in the Hierarchy were aware of Reaper indoctrination at the time, but they did not have solid facts and figures, only old reports that were difficult to corroborate with present reality so far. They did not yet understand how indoctrination worked, only that it worked as some kind of brainwashing process that slowly deteriorated higher thought functions. Like salarian intelligence, the HDI did not enjoy sharing only partial information that it could not confirm. This was doubly so for the civilian resistance on Palaven; agents like Nillin did not know if resistance leaders or their closest lieutenants were indoctrinated, and one stray detail making it back to the Reapers could foil weeks of planning. Wrong and exaggerated information could also cause a panic. But neither was she inclined to explain why she was so secretive and keeping information from resistance leaders like Achtus; it was just HDI operational philosophy, and the public just had to get used to it.
Nillin represented the new breed of HDI agents: Young, creative, adaptable, tech-savvy, and more than a little arrogant. They were a generation that allowed the Relay 314 Incident and the subsequent war with the Systems Alliance to make an impression on their youths, had the Vallum Blast as the most distinguished item in their dossier. They were a generation that chafed under what they considered to be bullheadedness, stubbornness, and military-mindedness of their superiors. If a humanity that had only discovered mass effect technology decades before could fight almost as well as the Hierarchy in the Relay 314 Incident, and if turian separatists could crash a ship traveling at FTL speeds into Taetrus with little trouble, then it was as good a sign as any that offensive technologies were far outstripping those of defensive ones, that keeping Palaven safe could no longer be measured by the number of dreadnoughts they had or the sophistication of their defense systems. They were a generation that believed in PERSINT (personnel intelligence), who believed in agents on the ground to eliminate threats before they developed, a generation of military intelligence officers compared more to salarians than turians. But the brass continued to pour the lion's share of funding into the navy, and the turian intelligence community resented it, resented the lack of flexibility, resented the fact that no one else up the chain of command – the people who funded the HDI along with the rest of the Hierarchy's military – "got it". It accumulated in a generation of intelligent but elitist and perhaps a little insular turian military intelligence operatives who treated everyone else in the military with contempt, and did not care who else happened to be splashed by the acid of their flippant, secretive attitudes.
Nillin's questions were fairly par of course, which Achtus' eventually answered anyways for the greater good: Status of resistance cell, Reaper troop numbers and movements, an estimate of how much longer they could hold on, an appraisal of the situation overall. Achtus personally wondered how much of this information was even remotely useful anymore, as it didn't seem like the Hierarchy was willing – or even could – dispatch the military groundside to take advantage of the intelligence he was giving Nillin.
But then Nillin's questions became a little more specific. She asked if the Khronus resistance could still smuggle people and material in and out of Reaper prison camps; Achtus indicated that it was becoming increasingly difficult, but still possible. Then came the question of whether resistance members could get into Reaper capital ships and harvester ships. Achtus had seen no shortage of turians – some who had been rounded up by numerically superior forces, others whose willpower had been broken by Palaven falling apart around them, and leaders who tried to save their own subordinates or tried to find some avenue of negotiations – being allowed onto Reaper vessels with doors practically thrown wide open, but it would almost certainly be a one-way trip.
Then Nillin asked if it was possible to smuggle in military ordinance into the Reapers, and declined to specify precisely what that military ordinance was. That caught Achtus' attention.
The Reapers that had been accepting surrenders and negotiations had largely allowed the turians to bring a degree of personal belongings. This was not an example of the Reapers being merciful, nor were they indicative of plans to maintain long-lasting prison camps. Rather, by permitting captives to hold onto their belongings, which the Reapers themselves didn't need, the conquerors cultivated a false sense of survivability, the captives believing that the Reapers had no intentions of just killing them if they were allowing for personal items such as food and clothing to be brought with them. Achtus was fairly certain that he could smuggle items into the camps by sneaking in, or through resistance members pretending to surrender if it came to that. Bringing in military ordinance, however, sounded like a massive hurdle, and Achtus told Nillin as much. She told him to try and experiment with this anyways, and assume it was going to be the next operational goal before departing, leaving Achtus a little stunned.
"What was that all about?" [Khronus resistance cell lieutenant Derithi] Gianthis asked as he watched Nillin leave their hideout.
Achtus' reply was succinct. "I think HDI wants to blow up a Reaper from the inside."
New orders came down from the turian brass: The krogan were assigned military ranks despite not being a formal military force, and all turian officers and enlisted were to treat them as allied officers, saluting superior krogan officers and addressing them as "sir". This order had been difficult to formulate at first because the krogan had been unenthusiastic in adopting traditional military ranks. Urdnot Nakmor had reputedly begrudgingly accepted the very turian idea out of amusement; assigning all of his commandos new ranks that did not exist before sounded like a hassle to him, given a streamlined krogan chain of command that would seem abridged to almost any other armed force, but he humored the idea of turian soldiers and officers saluting him.
The move had been made in order to consolidate a semblance of authority that the turians were expected to recognize. It was also the kind of move that the brass tended to make without input from the enlisted, and became a highly unpopular order for the turians, with no small amount of anger when it was swiftly discovered that the krogan received no similar set of orders. Refusal or liberal interpretations of these regulations were commonplace. Officers, unenthusiastic in enforcing the mandate but pressured by the brass, cracked down and punished offenders, who went from ignoring the krogan to giving highly sarcastic salutes to pretending not to see krogan officers to avoiding them altogether.
The krogan, on their part, milked it for all it was worth. Their officers freely "took walks" down the Example whenever possible, deliberately wading through the denser areas and badgering the turians who ignored them or didn't disappear quickly enough for salutes and addresses of "sir". Corporal [Loriq] Ordinix described one instance where he was rotated for guard duty on the Example's bridge, "And this krogan major stepped through the door. I was surrounded by bridge officers who probably bore no more love for the krogan than I did, but I didn't want to risk one of them being a stickler for the rules, so I saluted dutifully. The krogan walked down half the CIC, stopped, suddenly turned around, then walked out the way he came, and I saluted again. I thought maybe he was lost, or maybe he had forgotten something, but ten seconds later, he stepped back in, and when I didn't salute, he stopped right in front of me and glared at me expectantly with the widest shit-eating grin I've ever seen. Not wanting to make a scene, I saluted again. That bastard made three more trips in and out of the bridge within a minute, making sure I saluted each time, until he finally left me alone. Which worked out for everyone involved, I guess, because, on the sixth time, I swore I was going to punch him in the face if he tried for seven."
Turian-krogan tensions didn't stop there. It was always a given that, without the timely application of extreme measures, someone was eventually going to get killed between the turians and krogan at each other's throats. While neither race were strangers to extreme measures, the turians didn't have the time or resources, and the krogan didn't have the motivation. Who or what instigated the fight has long become a matter of he-said-she-said, but the end result was the same: Corporal Viridia Murtinix was killed when one of the Malgus commandos got into a fight on the engineering deck.
Murtinix's death set off a firestorm of rage on the Example. The turian enlisted wanted the krogan offender's head on a platter, but Urdnot refused to get involved in a "children's squabble", Ixius could not intervene without authority from Coronati, Coronati could not intervene without consulting Victus, and Victus could not intervene without endangering the turian-krogan alliance. The turians were simply ordered to follow protocol, that this was an unprecedented diplomatic, military, and political situation, and that everyone was just going to have to bear with it until then. "It was my first time serving when I felt a Hierarchy crew actually came close to mutiny," Castellus recalled. "The crew usually felt Captain Ixius was an excellent commanding officer, but after Murtinix, there was prevalent sentiment that she and the rest of the navy brass were incompetent and impotent."
Casualties were mounting. The amount of wounded had long outstripped the capacity by which the doctors and medics aboard the Example could take care of, and now there was an insufficient amount of even the most basic of medical supplies: Medi-gel, anti-biotics. Many of the wounded who had suffered from easily-treatable wounds were withering away due to the lack of treatment and infections that were beginning to spread around the ship. There were calls to quarantine the wounded, but the reality was that there was nowhere they could put the casualties. [Lieutenant Tarquin] Siritii described what it was like: "You could not get from point A to point B without tripping over at least three guys sprawled against the walls, some of them your own guys, others High Command told you to take on because there was no space left on our orbital facilities where everyone was now crowded. You watched them cough and cough as their wounds got worse, as the infections spread, as they got sicker and withered away and died. And all this time, you're wondering if you should put on your helmet so you don't catch whatever it is passing around as well, or if that'd hurt the morale of those already in pain."
Amongst the Example's many tasks was funeral duty. Each ship looked after their own casualties, and the war was producing them in droves. Glancing hits from Reaper weapons were generally catastrophic, but if anyone could gain any questionable sense of comfort from this, it was that most victims of hull breaches would be spaced or flash-incinerated, allowing the crew to designate the crewmember as MIA rather than KIA. It was only a formality, of course; everyone knew the chances of survival were slim-to-none, especially since [combat search and rescue] was virtually nonexistent at this point. Very few turians held onto the false hope that MIA crewmembers had any chance of survival. But as Siritii observed, "There were few things as heart-wrenchingly final as a funeral service with sealed caskets shot out into the great beyond."
The Example had no chaplain, and had been largely reliant on the few volunteers shuttling around Nanus' shipyards for funeral services. These men worked tirelessly to see that the deceased were laid to their final rest, but even forgoing rest themselves was insufficient for their dwindling number to make it to every ship on time. Captain Ixius had submitted a priority request for a chaplain upon the final hours of the Example's repairs, and – when it was clear that the chaplain could not make it before the Example had to vacate the docks to make way for other ships – had privately begged the shipyard crew to drag out repairs for just an hour so a chaplain might make it. But there were simply too many damaged, limping ships outside waiting for repairs and resupply, and the repair crew couldn't in good conscience acquiesce to Ixius' request.
Castellus stepped up when the Example pulled out of Nanus' orbit, and surprised the crew by revealing he had religious training, volunteering to lead the military funeral in the absence of an actual chaplain. This was actually only true if one liberally interpreted his tertiary education certification in Pre-FTL Palaven Religious Studies as "religious training", but Castellus saw no compelling reason as to why he had to clarify this to the crew.
Nonessential personnel gathered at the hangar where the men were assembled rank-and-file before the procession of metal caskets. Among them was Optimi, who had been roused from her sleep for the funeral service. Perhaps it was the fatigue, but she couldn't feel particularly partial towards the service. In fact, Optimi felt that a lot of the emotional impact that had been part of losing comrades and having some closure to it had long been lost. "It was the fifth week since the Reapers arrived at Palaven," Optimi said, "and already we had somewhere just under two dozen funeral services because there was the pervasive fear that if we couldn't honor the dead now, we wouldn't be able to honor them ever." Watching her friends and comrades die had become so routine now that she had gotten used to it, although whether it was just futility getting to her or some kind of defensive mechanism that protected her from the emotional pain, Optimi did not know. "This kind of nonstop war absolutely burns the care out of you," she declared.
Despite this, Optimi was impressed with Castellus' eulogy: "The stone upon which we built our temple, the ash to which our comrades and our fathers and our forefathers have been reduced; it is they who watch with eyes unrelenting. Those who come after us may forget this day, but those who came before stand vigilant even after life, joined by the spirits of those who departed before us. To those who were born kings and those who were born paupers, we march to the same end, answer to the same destiny, stand before the same question asked of us when we join expectant brothers- and sisters-in-arms: Did we, in our final moments, stand as valorously as they did, worthy to stand beside the spirit of Palaven itself? Did we, in our final moments, ensure that their greatest sacrifices were not in vain?"
The list of names of the deceased was read, small looks of pain and loss crossing the faces of the assembled whenever someone from their unit was mentioned. "We're used to thinking about a dinner table with a forever empty seat whenever we lose one of our own," Optimi observed, "but this time around, it was getting difficult to imagine anyone ever coming back to that dinner table. Or if the table would even still be there."