A sincere thank you to everyone for their patience, understanding, and support.

- Creamofwheat2311

The Infinity Effect Chapter Thirty Two: Push to Palaven Pt. I

SSV Normandy

The Master Chief watched the diagnostics lines scroll through the heads-up display as his MJOLNIR calibrated itself. Crystalline layer functioning normally, gel-pressure at optimal levels, power servos operating smoothly… The Spartan gave these notifications a little more attention than usual, as the new Mark VIII suit was still relatively new to him. He hadn't run into problems so far, in fact the newest iteration of the Spartan program's flagship armor system had vastly exceeded his expectations in every possible way. However, it never hurt to be careful.

John flexed his hands and worked his gloved fingers around to make sure that his dexterity wasn't negatively affected, before doing the same for the rest of his body, shaking and stretching his limbs in the familiar routine he always performed when putting on the suit. It was a habit he all the Spartan IIs had developed when they first received their Mark IV armors all those years ago. Often these simple exercises had found things the diagnostic systems had missed, but not today.

"Diagnostics coming back green," Cortana chirped in his ear. On the off chance that the Master Chief might have missed something important regarding his armor status, the artificial intelligence currently occupying the neural lace connected to the base of his helmet definitely wouldn't.

Chief didn't need to respond, instead taking a quick look around the space on the Normandy that he'd claimed as his own. There was his cot, a couple of supply crates containing his sparse clothing and personal items, a workbench for equipment maintenance, and two weapons lockers that Chief kept separate from the rest of the Normandy's armament. The Spartan was a strong believer in having his weapons close at hand and available for any situation. In wartime, battles oftentimes came fast and unannounced.

One of the lockers held an M6D, an SMG, and a Shotgun, as well as a number of rounds of ammunition and magazines for each of them. The other locker was specifically designed for the new ACS, or Adaptive Combat System, and contained within it specialized parts and tools for it's unique maintenance requirements. The rifle itself was yet another thing that John thought UNSC Research and Development had hit out of the park, it had performed above his expectations in all of them. The versatility the onboard hard-light round mini-manufacturing plant offered in terms of being able to tailor his caliber and rate of fire to the situation was a tactical advantage the likes of which most soldiers could only dream of, combined with the hard-hitting effect of the hard-light round itself meant that the Master Chief felt confident enough to face any situation that might be thrown his way.

Granted, the high-tech design of the ACS meant that there were a lot of complicated moving parts involved in operating it, but those complicated parts hadn't failed him yet, and he was just fine trading some extra maintenance hours for all the other advantages the rifle offered. Besides, even if the weapon did break of malfunction, he still had dozens of different types of UNSC weaponry stored in the Normandy's armory, each of which he was extremely well versed in using and very capable of being just as lethal with.

The Master Chief reached into the aforementioned locker and withdrew the ACS from its magnetic holding strips where he had placed it some hours before. If he did have one complaint, it was that the shiny, silvery finish on the weapon, though very sleek and graceful, didn't lend itself well to passive camouflage. While yes, his MJOLNIR's active camouflage systems recognized and enveloped the weapon along with the rest of him when he desired, the Spartan still had a strong desire to go back to the classic gunmetal grey or black coloring scheme that almost every other piece of UNSC equipment had.

As Chief's right hand closed around the grip of the rifle, the nanocircuitry embedded into both the grip and the palm of his glove paired with each other, creating an electric connection that allowed power from his armor's reactor to flow into the ACS's mini-manufactory and thusly powered the inner working of the weapon that allowed it to fire. The same nanocircuitry was present on the foregrip of the rifle and his left palm as well, and the redundancy in this case was definitely not a bad thing. Now that it was paired to its power source, the weapon had come to life, ready to deliver death at the pull of the trigger. Chief put the rifle to his shoulder and checked the optics, as well as the smartscope link between the rifle and his HUD. Satisfied, he passed the rifle over his shoulder onto one of the magplates on his back.

It was a short journey to the shuttle bay, where the rest of the combat team was busy gearing up. Previa and Liara were giving each other a once-over, to make sure that there weren't any problems with their armor or weapons. Vega was just finishing strapping the last of six M793 SAW magazines to his already bulky armor, and once done he jumped up and down to make sure that everything was secure. Garrus was simply leaning against one of the requisition terminals, already fully armed and armored, helmet held in his left hand. After withdrawing an M319 grenade launcher and a bandolier of grenades to go with it, the Master Chief walked up besides the Turian.

"How is your wound?" the Spartan asked, referring to the abdominal puncture wound the Turian received from a piece of falling debris back on Tuchanka.

"Manageable," was the reply. "It won't affect me on the mission."

Chief nodded. "Where's the Commander?"

"Already waiting inside the Kodiak."

Garrus' tone of bridled annoyance caused the Spartan to tilt his head a bit, a gesture which the Turian picked up on.

"Do you want to know what he told us?" Garrus continued, "Gear up. That was it, before he went and enclosed himself in the shuttle. No briefing, no objectives, not even any words of encouragement or reassurance."

Vakarian paused for a moment, voice notable lower now, solemn. "It's not like him. It makes me uneasy."

Chief sighed through his nose behind his visor, unheard to Garrus. "Cortana, how long until we exit slipspace," he asked in their private channel. No, not slipspace. Even for a Spartan decades of habitual thinking were sometimes hard to break.

"Well if it was slipspace we'd have been here yesterday. As it stands now though, five minutes and 12 seconds," was the AI's initially coy response.

A low whine suddenly filled the hangar bay, and started to gradually increase in intensity and volume until stabilizing. Chief didn't need to turn his head to know that it was Viper-Heavy starting up her engines, as he'd been hearing UNSC Pelicans and their various noises countless times throughout his life. It was a sound he was intimately acquainted with. The Kodiak started up soon after, its unique mass effect-driven hum much lower and pulsating.

Chief stepped forwards, gaining the attention of those gathered in the bay. "Helmets," he said, tapping his own. Garrus, James, Liara, and Previa all slid their helmets over their heads and briefly checked to make sure their seals were good. As each person's suit synced with their helmet systems, Chief saw the team pop into the mission comms channel one-by-one.

"Cortana, make sure our pilots and the Commander are linked as well," Chief said. He would give the mission briefing himself; he'd already committed all the data regarding the Cerberus research base to memory. Shepard didn't need to say anything if he didn't want to, but he would damn well listen. Once he saw that Cortez, Dolton, Cehack, and Shepard were linked to the channel too, he began.

"This is Firebase White, an armed Cerberus outpost protecting an integrated research laboratory." As he spoke, blueprints of the facility popped up in each team member's HUD, courtesy of Cortana. The Master Chief never ceased to be impressed by what information the mischievous AI could steal. "Note the landing pad and small hangar set outside the main base."

A large concrete structure, small for a hangar, and the flat area in front of it where highlighted by Cortana. It was separated from the main facility buildings by about two hundred meters of cargo bays, catwalks, and small paved roads.

"This is going to be our landing area. There's an underground access tunnel leading from the hangar to the base proper's sub-levels, which we are going to use in order to avoid trying to cross this no-man's land in the center here," Chief said.

"That hangar is plenty big enough to fit a flight of fighters, or a couple of gunships," remarked Viper-Heavy's pilot Samuel Dolton from within his cockpit.

The Chief nodded. "That's correct, and why you and Airman Cehack will be running overwatch for our team defending the hangar area."

"And who will be doing that?" Garrus was the one who posed this question.

"You and Vega," Chief answered. "Long sightlines and ample cover around the hangar. Perfect for a sniper and a suppressive LMG. Infiltrating and exfiltrating from the base via the hangar and the access tunnel is our best option, so you two and Viper-Heavy have the responsibility of keeping that link secure."

The Turian and the big Marine turned their helmets to look at each other. Vega held out one of his fists towards Vakarian, which he regarded for just a second before bumping with a closed fist of his own, leading James to nod in satisfaction.

"As for the rest of us, we have two objectives inside the base. One: Capture and detain any scientist we can find for a later extraction by an Alliance pick-up team. Two: Access the base's central data records and pull as much intel as we can."

"I'm waiting for a catch," Previa said with some lightheartedness that may or may not have been forced.

"The 'catch' is that according to the blueprints, the scientists barracks are adjacent to the troop barracks, which is of course connected to the base's main armory," clarified Chief.

Liara spoke for the first time. "What's the estimated strength of the enemy garrison?"

"Company strength, minimal. Likely with additional support attachments," answered Chief nonchalantly. Those gathered around the Spartan near the lockers, Garrus, James, Liara, and Previa all shared some glances.

"Should be a fair fight then," Vega said with a feigned boastful confidence, earning him some smirks and snorts from underneath helmets throughout the channel.

Chief allowed a couple of seconds for the moment before continuing. "We're going to have to split up between the two targets, the scientists and the data records, given how they are almost on opposite sides of the base."

"Chief, you have Cortana so you get to the data records. Liara, Previa, and I will secure the scientists, and we'll have more bodies to deal with the soldiers in the barracks." The voice of their Commander made everybody perk up a bit.

The Master Chief was relieved. An order from Commander Shepard, and one he agreed with at that. "So it's set then. We'll be getting in at 0630 hours. Take advantage of the element of surprise, but don't expect it to last long. Dolton, Cehack, get a recon pass in before we land. After we sneak the Kodiak by and land, prepare engage and destroy any air cover you see on my order."

"Can do Master Chief," affirmed Dolton.

"An ANVIL missile will definitely wake up anybody within a few miles," added Cehack with a hint of glee in his voice.

"After getting what data I can I'll rendezvous with the rest of you three inside the base to assist with eliminating the rest of the Cerberus military presence on-site. Once that's done, we'll make sure the scientists are restrained, extract back through the tunnel, then report to the Alliance. Any questions?"

"Passing through fifteen-thousand feet," called Dolton. "Emissions are black."

"Passive sensors are scanning, gonna be hard to find anything in this blizzard though," replied Roran, eyes spending two seconds on his display screens, then one second out of the cockpit windows. He had flown in blizzards before on Reach, but familiarity did not equate with comfortability in this case.

"Yeah, but if we end up having a hard time looking for them, you can forget about them finding us," Dolton said. "Twelve-thousand feet."

"Hold on, wait. Two degrees left," said Roran, glued to his scopes. The gunship whined ever so slightly as Dolton made the minute course adjustment. "I see heat signatures. Two of them."

"I see them too," said Dolton as he confirmed on his own sensor screens. The two watched the heat sources, each one performing what they recognized as figure-eights, their paths perpendicular to each other so that the two patterns formed at clover.

"That's gotta be our Cerberus Combat Air Patrol," said Cehack. "Look like fighters too, not gunships."

"I agree. Think they have any friends around?"

"None that I can see. My bet is that anyone else is posted up in the hangar."

"Get the recon pics, I'll put us up on station high enough for good missile tracks."

"You got it," replied Cehack. "There. Everything but the visual spectrum of course. Got 'em Cortana?"

"Yes," the AI chimed in his earpiece. "I don't see any guards or lookouts. Seems like the weather is working to our advantage."

"This is Cortez, I'm bringing the Kodiak down now."

"Roger, we'll be covering your approach," said Dolton. Switching back to his channel with Cehack, he asked, "Got firing solutions on our two bogeys yet?"

"Almost," the gunner replied. "Then as soon as we get word we'll splash these sorry suckers."

Vega released the deep breath that he had been holding. He had done this a hundred times, deploying from a Kodiak into a combat zone, but experience never made the pre-mission jitters go away, at least not in his case.

There was a sudden jerk as the shuttle set down on the pad, a little heavier than usual Vega thought, probably due to the conditions outside. Cortez was a great pilot, but flying in this shit couldn't be easy.

Both side doors of the Kodiak slid back to open, and Vega hopped out of the left door along with Garrus and Liara, while Shepard, the Master Chief, and Previa went out the right door facing the hangar. Vega raced ten meters down the pad and performed a sweep of the area with his SAW to his shoulder, sweeping left to right, up and down. Can't see shit, he thought, switching through his vision modes.

"Got nothing on our side," Garrus answered for them when after a few seconds they hadn't gotten shot at.

"To the hangar, quick," ordered the Master Chief. "Cortez, keep the engines warm."

Vega kept looking out towards the no man's land between the hangar and base proper for just a half second longer, then turned and booked it around the Kodiak, close on Garrus' heels. As he rounded the corner he saw Chief, Shepherd, and Previa about twenty meters in front of them and headed for a standard set of double door off to the side of the hangar's shut main doors.

"Stack up," Chief said, "Previa, breaching charge."

The Armiger Turian, in addition to being the team's field medic, was also supremely qualified with explosives, a trait that Vega shared and also found very endearing. As the rest of them stacked up on either side of the door, Previa kneeled in front of the door while swinging her pack off of her back and onto the ground, where she withdrew what looked like a foldable mat. As she unfolded and stuck the explosive's filled mat to the door, seven marks appeared in Vega's HUD from inside the hangar.

"Seven inside," Chief said. "Three sitting, gathered around what looks like a table. One walking around a large mass that has to be an aircraft, and three two stories up at the far side of the hangar, looking out from what the blueprints say is the control room. I'll go in first and take the three in the control room. Commander, you go in behind me, then you and Liara deal with the three at the table. Garrus, get the loner."

"Ready," Previa said, withdrawing from the door and heading to the back of the stack behind Vega, switching her pack for her Phaeston with the type of fluidity that only came from performing an action hundreds of times.

"On my go," said the Chief, and there was a brief pause. The away team members tensed up their muscles, holding their weapons tight, mentally focused for the rush of action and adrenaline that was soon to follow. Time slowed as five waited on the word of one, the only thing keeping them connected to the real pace of the world being the whirls of snow and sleet swirling around them, lightly battering the seals of their suits.


Thud. It always surprised Vega how quite the breaching charges were. Previa had used just the right amount to where a chunk of the door was separated from the rest and blown inward, yet the detonation itself was not severe as wartime explosions typically were thought to be.

He didn't even see the Master Chief move through the new opening, nor Shepard for that matter. All Vega knew that was that he heard the sound of gunfire, and an instant later he was following Garrus into the hangar. There was enough time for Vega to see Garrus put a three round burst through the upper-torso of his target with his Vindicator, then everything was silent.

"You two," Chief said, pointing an armored finger in Vega and Vakarian's direction, "Secure the control room, see if they managed to get an alarm out. Then set up to hold this position."

"Roger," Garrus responded, and the squad split, the Turian and the Alliance Marine heading towards the stairway leading to the upper floors, while Chief, Shepard, Liara, and Previa booked it for the door leading for the access tunnel between the hangar and the bae proper.

As they ascended the stairs two at a time Vega exchanged his SAW for the Scimitar Assault Shotgun on his lower back, taking a moment to get in front of Garrus so he could lead the way into the control room. They paused at the door for just a second, flattening themselves against the walls, then Vega slapped the haptic door release.

Vega was through as soon as the door had opened wide enough to allow him swift passage, and he quickly scanned the room. "Clear."

"Clear," confirmed Garrus.

The only movement throughout the room where the sparks coming from a damaged terminal, and the slowly expanding pools of blood originating from the heads of the three men that had worked this station not even thirty seconds before. The man was a goddamn machine, three perfect headshots right between the eyes of each Cerberus technician, and the position of the bodies suggested that they had all been standing next to each other, not even having enough time to really react. The smells of singed blood and grey matter filled the air, the slightest scent still reaching him even through his helmet filters. It made Vega frown.

Glass from the shattered windows looking out into the hangar crunched under Vakarian's boots as he made his way over to the main terminal banks. "If they triggered an alarm I'm not seeing anything about it here. We might have been fast enough."

"We'll see about that," Chief said over their team comms. "We're nearly to the base, Viper-Heavy, get ready to take down those fighters."

"Missile solutions ready, just say the word," the gunship responded.

"Those stairs kept going, to an observation deck on the roof, see on the blueprints?" Garrus said, motioning James to follow him out of the room and back towards the stairs.

"Yeah I remember, should be a good spot for now," Vega uttered between breaths as they bounded up another few flights.

The door to the observation room was open from the stairwell, and as the pair walked in they were met by small hexagonal room with inward slanting wall-to-wall windows, with a solid flat panel of roof lights bathing a few stand-up consoles near the center of the room… as well as a woman hunched over one with her back turned to them.

"Hands up! Now!" Vega barked, shotgun pointed square at her back. The woman froze, then unbeknownst to either of her two new visitors very quickly and discreetly made one more tap on the console she had been working on. Slowly she raised her hand, taking a couple of gentle steps away from the console as she did so. Garrus moved in on her, rifle held in one hand yet still pointed in directly at her, his other hand going for a set of restraints cuffs on his belt.

The woman managed to turn around and get a hand on Garrus' rifle before Vega put a buckshot spread through her left side. The woman and the Turian both recoiled away from the shot, yet in different directions. Garrus maintained control of his rifle, and the woman fell to the ground screaming. Vega advanced towards the wounded woman, who had fallen on her back, and got a view of the mangled mess of skin, blood, and bone that had replaced nearly the entire left side of her chest. She briefly paused her screams of agony to try and take in another belaboured breath, only to find the reflex to call upon her destroyed left lung just made the pain that much worse. She didn't get to continue her cries, as Vega leveled the scimitar at her head and ended her suffering for good.

"Damn," he heard Garrus say, and he looked up to see the Turian looking at the console the woman had been working at. There was a section that was glowing a very angry, pulsating red. "I think we've been made."

"This is Viper-Heavy, our two bogeys have started accelerating and converging on the base."

It seemed that Chief started talking the instant Dolton had stopped, so little was his hesitation. "Take them out. All teams, go hot. Proceed with the mission as planned."

"Fox three!"

Vega didn't hear the missile launch, but he did hear the detonations and felt the rumble of the shockwaves even through the storm and structure of the building. He saw a flash of bright light penetrate through the heavy blizzard, then all of a sudden all he saw was fire as he was thrown backwards off of his feet. The landing took the wind out of him, and it was a few seconds before he regained his wits about him.

Almost the entire right half of the control tower was gone, replaced by sheared metal and blown-out windows, snow now blasting into the room from the gaping hole that expsoed them to the outside.

"Vega! You good?" It was Garrus, who was now kneeling over the Marine and grabbing his arms, trying to help pull him to his feet.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm good," he said, doing a quick mental shakedown of his body and finding nothing severely wrong. "What the hell was that?!"

"Cerberus fighter. Clipped the tower."

"Madre de dios," James muttered, picking up his shotgun from the floor. The Cerberus woman's body who had sounded the alarm had been thrown clear by the sudden crash, so at least he didn't have to keep looking at that. "Viper-Heavy, you nearly sent that fighter crashing right into us!"

"It was either shoot him down or let him get off his strafing run on you,"

Vega shook his head, sighing. "Fair enough. Thanks."

"Blizzard's clearing up," said Garrus, who now had out his Viper semi-automatic sniper rifle and was adjusting a setting on scope. He was right, as Vega looked out the gaping hole in the control room he saw the snowfall become less and less severe by the second.

"I'm going back down, try and find a position in front of the Kodiak. I'll leave you the high ground," Vega said, feeling the magnets grab the weight of his Scimitar as he lifted the SAW from behind his shoulders.

"Sounds like a plan," Garrus said, watching as the Marine turned and jogged back into the stairwell. With the blizzard now mostly subsided, the Turian allowed himself a more in-depth look around. After clipping the control tower, the Cerberus fighter had lodged itself into the ceiling of the hangar, and was now billowing a dark grey smoke that the wind was blowing in several directions, including in front of the control tower.

That was good however, it would mask him visually, and with his visor's infrared vision mode he would be able to see past it with little issue. He extended the bipod on the Viper and went prone on the half of the control room floor that was still there, the barrel of his rifle a few inches back from the jagged opening that allowed him sight into the no-man's land between the hangar and the base. Soldiers were very good at finding gun barrels sticking out of windows, so for someone trying to stay concealed like he was - at least initially - it would have been a bad idea to cozy up as close to the ledge as he could.

"Viper-Heavy this is Normandy, be advised we have two additional bogeys incoming on you location from the northwest, 300 clicks and closing fast." It was Joker, he and EDI were watching the area with the Normandy's own sensor suite from geosync in orbit.

"Roger. Ground teams, we are leaving the mission area to intercept and destroy. We'll be back soon."

Garrus let out a near-silent sigh through his nose. No ground-pounder liked it when his air support suddenly had to be somewhere else. As fate would have it, only a few seconds passed before he caught movement at the research base two hundred meters away. The enemy had most certainly noticed the lack of close air support and had picked an opportune moment to launch their counterattack. In a flash he had his rifle to his shoulder, and was peering through the variable zoom scope, currently set at ten times magnification.

The large main double doors serving as the entrance of the base has opened, and what were very obviously Cerberus troopers had started pouring out, weapons raised in their direction.

"Vega, we've got company. Cerberus soldiers coming out of the base and advancing on our position," Garrus said.

"Yeah, I see 'em. I've got a good position off of the main road coming in. Good field of fire."

"Engage on my shot, lets see how many we can get before they get to all the cover within the cargo area." Garrus filtered the information coming through his scope quickly and efficiently. He counted thirty-two soldiers, four Centurion officers, two Nemesis snipers, four Guardians, and twenty-two standard Assault Troopers.

He centered his crosshairs on the head of the Centurion in front, currently directing troops around him with hand signals. The scope accounted for distance, elevation, and windage, so for the Turian it was just a matter of releasing all of the breath in his body, then pulling the trigger in a controlled, yet steady movement.

Thunder cracked as the Viper kicked back against its operator's shoulder, the shock wave from the round creating a breif hole in the wisps of smoke wafting over from the crashed Cerberus fighter in the hangar ceiling nearby.

Garrus was already swiveling to his next target, a Centurion in the next squad, knowing from years of experience what the result of his shot would be. The special disruptor rounds he loaded into the Viper resulted in the projectile cutting through the Centurion's kinetic barriers like butter, then continuing on through the left part of his visor, through the skull, brain, and skull again, then out the back of the armored helmet to splatter the chest of the Assault Trooper a few feet behind him.

The Turian marksman had the rifle centered on his next target at the same time the Viper's bolt had cycled, and had taken his next shot just as the Cerberus soldiers realized that they were being shot at. The next Centurion dropped to the ground just as quickly as the first, and that was when Vega opened up with the SAW. Three Assault Troopers fell in the initial rip of heavy fire, but the rest of the Cerberus formation wasted no time in seeking what cover they could and returning fire.

The shots were poorly aimed and didn't cause Garrus to flinch as his next round exploded the head of a Nemesis like a melon. Vega punished two more Assault Troopers who were behind their comrades in getting to cover with a sustained burst before he had to duck back behind his own cover and exchange box magazines.

Garrus expended three more rounds head-hunting Assault Troopers who didn't pick good enough cover and was searching for another target when a shot whizzed about a foot above his head and into the open stairwell directly behind him, ricocheting off of the metal walls a couple of times. He had already seen the shot, taken from the shadows cast from behind a cargo container in order to mask her already slim profile. Good try, too bad you missed, Garrus thought.

He did not. And her body dropped is splash of red mist and pulpy meat alongside her fellows.

The four Guardians ran out into the center of the main road, wide, heavy shields locked as they stood abreast. Spurned on by the two living Centurions, they and the remaining Assault Troopers huddled as best they could behind the protective shields, raising their weapons and firing towards the hangar while the formation advanced as quickly as the Guardians in front could move. It was a bold strategy, using your defensive abilities to try and advance as far and as quickly as possible as opposed to a more methodical, suppressive fire leapfrog through cover.

Vega had reloaded by now, and peeking out from his cover he sent of long burst of FMJ rounds towards the group of hostiles. The shield wall held unfortunately, the rounds from the light machine gun bouncing off or embedding themselves in the sturdy metal. Realizing the ineffectiveness of his current tactic, the Marine paused for a second before shifting his aim just a tad bit down. He laid on the trigger of the powerful weapon and two Guardians stumbled and fell as their exposed feet were shredded by direct hits and ricochets from the road just in front of them. Garrus sent a round through the vision slot of a third Guardian, leaving the Cerberus troopers who had been using the shield wall for cover suddenly very exposed.

Cerberus soldiers starting falling left and right as the two operatives took full advantage of the enemy's predicament of being caught in the middle of a flat road, but only a couple of seconds elapsed before the entire twenty-meter radius around the Cerberus formation disappeared in an eruption of fire, smoke, dust, and snow.

Garrus took his eye away from his scope and looked up into the air, a break in the smoke cloud from the Cerberus fighter allowing him to see the very chin of their Pelican gunship floating in the air, rotary cannon still spinning. He only glimpsed it for a second before power was diverted back to the bird's stealth systems, suddenly covering the chin of the aircraft with an active camouflage field that now looked just like the sky around it.

"This is Viper-Heavy, we are detecting no more hostiles in the area."

"Affirmative, thanks for the assist," Garrus said, taking a moment to eject the low magazine on his Viper and exchange it for a fresh one. "Commander, how is it going inside the base?"

There were a couple of seconds of silence before Cortana answered him. "We are currently engaged in combat with a rather sizable Cerberus response force, if you would please hold for one moment Mr. Vakarian."

The Turian couldn't help but roll his eyes. Cortana got on his nerves sometimes; he wasn't used to being around an AI that had so much… personality.

"We're done here." It was Shepard, and he sounded displeased. "We've secured what data we could get."

"And the scientists?" Garrus asked.

A pause. "Dead," replied Shepard matter-of-factly. "Killed by their own soldiers before we could get to them."

Garrus frowned, but it was Vega who spoke what they were all thinking. "Fuck."

Once they were back on the ship, Shepard went up to his quarters without so much as a word to the others. He set his Avenger down on the large center table heavily, followed by his Carnifex. He then set about the tedious process of removing the pieces of his armor, letting each drop to the floor as he disconnected them with a thud. Once the outer armor plating had been removed, he started to peel off the form-fitting black bodysuit, going from the neck down. He had gotten the tight undersuit off to his hips before his door suddenly opened, which reminded him that he had forgotten to lock it behind him in his trance-like state.

Shepard turned to see that it was Liara, still fully armored minus a missing helmet. She strode up to him with such speed and presence that it caused the N7 to take a step backwards out of reflex. "This is going to stop, today."


"You, like this," Liara continued, looking him up and down with a half-scowl.

The Commander's face was set in stone. "They need to pay. He needs to pay."

"He will. But do you know who is paying now? Despite what we, and especially you, did down in that base to those Cerberus troopers, we are the ones that are going to end up paying the real price of your attitude."

As incensed as she was Liara didn't allow Shepard a chance to interrupt her. "I know that they've killed our friends. My heart aches every time I think of Ashley. But what this - what this - rage has turned you into. Uncaring, cold, tactically unwise - not even an attempt from the commander of the ship to give a pre-mission briefing, not to mention not even being bothered to attend the debriefing. Do you want to know what we pulled from those data records? Research on indoctrination. Long, detailed, comprehensive research on indoctrination. Stuff that I need to discuss with you, but I can't, not with you like this."

She pressed her palms against the Commander's chiseled chest. Her gloves were cold against his skin. "I need the Shepard that you're the best at being. I need you to communicate, and be involved, and to lead dammit. The Normandy needs it, and as much as you may not want to hear it, the war needs it too. You need to take all of this anger and turn it into a positive drive that's going to help us going forwards, not hurt us."

It was the reaction she had been hoping for. Shepard's stony facade crumbled, the combination of her tender physical touch and heartfelt spoken words breaking down barriers that the man had been trying so hard to keep up. She saw emotion in his eyes once again, saw the hurt, anger, fear, and exhaustion set within them.

"When's the last time you've slept John? And I mean really slept."

"I try, but the dreams, and the thought of the dreams, they keep me awake." His defense was meek and tired, but she didn't think any less of him for it.

"We have thirteen hours until we reach our next target. So, plenty of time for me to remind you that I know exactly how to put you out like a light," Liara said softly. During a meld Liara had the very real power of being able to suppress the REM sleep of her partner for that night, and that was exactly what she intended to do. She led Shepard to the bed and gently laid him on top, then began adding her own pieces of armor to the pile that had already developed on the floor.

UNSC Valiant-Class Super-Heavy Cruiser Yorktown

En Route to Namoros, Delphine System

"Five seconds to arrival."

The simple string of words uttered calmly by the Yorktown's resident AI, Venus, sent waves of tension and adrenaline throughout those posted on the ship's bridge. The relative safety and familiarity of the seven dimensions that comprised slipspace would soon be ripped away, soon to be replaced by battle and chaos. Most can't handle the hardships of the deadly uncertainty that was warfare. Others however, like Yorktown Captain Damien Skyheit, thrived on it.

"Three - two - one."

The striking miasma of swirling energy and void that was slipspace was removed from them like a cloth from a table as the Super-Heavy Cruiser jolted back into realspace. Though the addition of energy shielding in their last retrofit was greatly appreciated, how Skyheit wished that the improved Shaw-Fujikawa tech implemented on the Infinity and her Strident escorts had made their way down to him before he had been thrown headfirst into this other galaxy of strife and destruction. Though the lightyears per day statistic was quite similar, the Infinity her escorts possessed the only kind of human-build drives that made slipspace travel as silky smooth as it was for the Covenant.

"Information people, start feeding it to me," Skyheit said, unbuckling himself from his chair's crash webbing and striding over to the bridge's central holotable, where his bridge crew and Venus were working very quickly to establish a real-time picture of the operations zone.

A picture had already been established previously, thanks to the efforts of one Salarian intelligence device stationed at the far end of the system. Namoros was a fertile planet about the size of Mars, covered by lush plains, rolling hills, and criss-crossing rivers. It was one of the Turian Hierarchy's two major breadbasket worlds, the second thankfully being behind the line at Despara that the Reapers had been stopped by. Intel from the Salarian satellite, designed to detect and track local spacecraft, already gave them the strength of their enemy.

Waiting for them were eight Sovereign-class Reapers, and twelve of the smaller Destroyer variety. Their last known position of the entire formation before the Yorktown jumped to slipspace was in geosync above the largest city on the planet, the city of Kalen. Twenty hostiles, Skyheit had thought, and a lot of us.

Indeed, numerically the Reapers were heavily outnumbered. Battlegroup Yorktown had remained mostly intact prior to Lasky's split of the UNSC forces between Theater Operations Groups A and B. Given the relative power of the Infinity to really anything in the galaxy at the moment, the Admiral had requisitioned only two of his four Halberd-class Destroyers, still leaving him with two Marathon-class Cruisers, six Paris-class Frigates, and the Yorktown as well. Then, of course, there were the Turian and Alliance warships numbering just under four hundred, spread out in front of the UNSC contingent of ships in their formations, hulls black as the space around them since the system's sun was currently obscured behind Namoros.

"Captain, all twenty Reaper ships from pre-transit imaging are accounted for, still holding in geosync over Kalen."

"Have they reacted to our presence?" Skyheit asked.

"No sir, not yet."

The tall, dark-skinned man pursed his lips together contemplatively. Out of the forward viewport he saw hundreds of pinpricks of light increase in intensity as Turian and Alliance ships began to maneuver into the master four-layered, half-sphere formation. Frigates and fighters made up the outer layer, a fast and flexible screen. The Hunter-Killer groups, specialized formations of Frigates and Destroyers centered around a single UNSC counterpart, made up the second layer, ready to dart out and take advantage of any opening they could find. The third layer comprised of more Destroyers and Cruisers, providing fast-acting firepower to react to enemy thrusts. Lastly, the fourth layer consisted of the heavy Dreadnoughts and the UNSC capital ships, who would provide the long-range killing blows that was one of their only advantages in space.

"They're moving away Captain," said Venus, the AI looking at him from the holotable with milky-white arms crossed, folds of her flowing white toga whispering in an imaginary air.

"Away..." Skyheit parroted, still engrossed in all of the information flowing from the Yorktown's bridge stations into his ears and onto the holotable. "Wait, away? Away from us?"

"Yessir, and they're gunning it hard on the harshest vector to the edge of the gravity well as they can take," replied his sensors officer. "Wait Captain, we're detecting something else - their launching fighters which are heading in our direction."

"It's a diversion tactic," Skyheit concluded quickly. "They're sending their fighters just to buy them time to retreat. How many?"

"Four hundred and twelve," was the reply.

Skyheit nodded. Intel said that those Reaper capital ships could carry an entire wing of fighters, so he wasn't entirely surprised. "Weps, get me a firing solution for two pods of Rapier. Comms, pull the Frigates in the first line back, but tell our fighters to close and engage."

Even though he was just a Captain - Senior Captain in command of an entire battlegroup, he reminded no one but himself - it had been decided that Skyheit would have tactical control over space engagements so as to more efficiently take advantage of UNSC firepower. Though it caused some rumbles within the ranks of Turina command, Skyheit didn't care, and was at least glad that the overall strategic operations of Theater Group B fell to Systems Alliance Admiral Hackett. He was moreso satisfied that Hackett was Human, thus would be easier to relate to and deal with over what would surely become extremely stressful times in the near future. It also didn't hurt that the man was damned competent and knew what he was doing. A solid leader in his book.

"Captain, missile solutions ready."


A flurry of thuds buffeted the deck of the Yorktown as twenty-four Rapier missile were propelled out of their launch tubes by the sudden release of compressed gas. As soon as they cleared into vacuum each of the missiles fired their liquid-fueled propulsion engines, blasting them dozens of meters away from the ship before their guidance systems, which were receiving constant telemetry data from the Yorktown, altered their courses and sent them accelerating towards the approaching enemy strike craft.

The Rapier's were a descendant of the venerable Archer missile. Instead of relying on raw explosive power to eliminate their enemy targets, the depleted uranium warhead shell of the Rapier was meant to turn the missile into a giant fragmentation grenade in space, deadly verses strike craft and small ships, as well as light armor.

Skyheit watched the motes of light and wisps of smoke dart through the formation with effortless precision, easily overtaking the squadrons of allied fighters closing the gap as well. The Reaper fighter formation, recognizing the incoming threat the missiles posed, broke off into individual evasive maneuvers, becoming more akin to a swarm of insects than a coherent formation of strike craft.

The missiles closed in mercilessly, at this point guided by the cold, ruthlessly capable subroutines of Venus. Detonating ahead of the oncoming swarms, the shaped charges within the Rapier warheads directed the masses of depleted uranium shrapnel within cones, open sides facing the Reaper Oculus fighters. It was as if the first few ranks of Reaper fighters hit a solid wall of metal, being torn to absolute pieces in fractions of as second. When the remaining hostile bogeys emerged from behind the clouds of debris, there were two hundred and thirteen less of them.

Skyheit had little interest in the subsequent fighter battle, knowing how in that aspect of the war, they thankfully far outclassed their enemies. Instead, he watched the twenty red holographs on his holotable quickly exiting the system. Leaving the system without a fight… it interested him so much because it's exactly what he would have done if the situation was reversed. In the face of overwhelming odds, retreat if possible and rendezvous with stronger forces further back. Given how blindly the Reapers charged into the Allied defenses at the Despara Shipyards not to long ago, this was certainly a severe change in strategy.

It wasn't long before the enemy fighter count turned to zero on the holotable, and not long after that the Reaper warships cleared the gravity well and jumped out of the system.

He allowed things to calm for a couple of moments after the flurry and chaos of combat ops before continuing with his next order. "Bring in the ground pounders."

With that, a message was sent to the group of ground assault ships and rapid-deploy troop carriers sitting just a moment of FTL away. They would jump in system and send in the first wave of shock troops that would secure the capital city's spaceport. The warships of the Allied navy would stay and hold guard over the system while this occurred, until the second wave of occupation troops arrived. These soldiers, standard Army formations, would use the beachhead established by the shocktroopers and begin planet-wide operations to eradicate Reaper ground presence. After the first wave shock troopers had switched places with their Army relief and were back on their ships, they and their warships of Theater Group B would travel to the next planet in line on the march to Palaven.

Captain Skyheit clasped his hands behind his back, unsure how to feel about his first 'victory' in this ambitious, and honestly desperate, offensive push of theirs. Whatever emotion he may or may not have felt, he knew for damn sure that it would only get harder from here.