Chapter Fifty-Three: The Battle of Nine Navies Pt. VII

"At range, killing is professional. Up close… it's personal."

- UNSC Marine Corps Unofficial Handbook


UNSC Valiant-Class Super-Heavy Cruiser Yorktown

Close Quarter Battle. CQB.

Captain Damien Skyheit remembered the small unit tactics courses he had taken in boot camp and officer candidates school. He remembered the hours and hours of classroom time going over dynamic entry strategies, inherent risks, and room-clearing tactics like how to hold an angle, peek a corner, and move his weapon around confined spaces. He remembered the countless drills and practice, stacking up against a hard wall with four - five others, setting the breaching charges, and rushing into unknown confines with eyes opened and MA5B raised.

Most of all, he remembered how much he had "died" - how often the powerful anesthetic from the training rounds had paralyzed his limbs or entire body, indicating simulated grave injury or death whenever he would go through a watched door, down a hallway that ended up being too exposed, or clearing a corner quicker than he should've. Skyheit recalled dying more often than not during those drills, the lesson being hammered home each time that close quarter battle was a brutal, dirty affair where pure luck and violence of action weighed as much as practiced tactics and honed reflexes.

But that had been boots-on-the-ground stuff, and he had been on a naval command track. He wouldn't be clearing rooms strapped into a chair in a CIC or on a command bridge. Engagements between ships in the endlessly expansive void of space took place at the thousands and tens of thousands of kilometers, and Skyheit thought there was a certain nobility to that. At those distances each decision required thought and patience, and there was time for real tactical moves and countermoves. A chess match, compared to a bar fight.

Skyheit's gaze flicked to his heads-up display. He checked his oxygen status, again — a habit that he never was able to shake whenever he was in a sealed hardsuit. Reassuring, thick green letters glowed back at him, forming the word 'LINKED'. A snaking carbon fiber tube reached from his back oxygen tank and hooked into a nearby access port directly into the Yorktown's life support system. As long as the tube remained connected, the ship would keep his tanks topped off.

Decades ago, as a freshly-minted Second Lieutenant straight out of the Reach Naval Academy, Skyheit's first assignment had sent him to the outer colonies. He served as the Executive Officer under a Captain Petrovsky of the Gorgon-class Heavy Destroyer Reyes as the vessel conducted long-range patrols of civilian shipping lanes. During his first tour he had learned a lot from his Captain, a grizzled veteran of UNSC actions against Insurrectionists and pirates. Skyheit had adopted his mentor's calm stoicism into his own command style, as well as Petrovsky's by-the-book approach to combat.

Skyheit had been in the Navy a long time. He was nearing sixty — his short, well-kept beard was as much silver as black, and the crease-lines on his forehead and at the corners of his mouth had become more pronounced over the years. It took him longer to shake off the after-effects of cryosleep, and his knees would ache at the end of a lengthy shift. Skyheit was aware that at his age he was somewhat of an oddity in the service. The brutal war of attrition the UNSC had fought against the Covenant for over three decades meant there weren't many older officers like him still around, the Old Guard of the United Nations Space Command.

He knew and had known Captains who didn't lock their ships down into strict condition one during combat like he did. Most of them were younger than he was, some had even grown into command during the era when UNSC ships came equipped with reverse-engineered energy shields as standard. Unfortunately, when the harsh reality of ship-to-ship combat in hard vacuum came calling, several of those Captains had wound up dead, along with their ships and crew.

It pained him that Admiral Lasky was like that, preferring the freedom to stride around the Infinity's expansive bridge to the more restrictive protective measures laid down long ago in tried-and-true UNSC combat protocols. In Skyheit's mind, Captains and Admirals were supposed to set the examples for their ships and fleets. He knew that the Infinity was the most well-armed, well-protected warship that the UNSC had ever built - but break through the advanced shielding, slip past the point defense systems, target just the right section of bow… and a single enemy round could hole the bridge, killing everyone inside who wasn't wearing a sealed suit and helmet.

"They've taken the bait," said Second Lieutenant Faln, the Yorktown's Comms officer. Faln was strapped into her crash chair in a hardsuit like Skyheit, the Marine guard, and the rest of the bridge crew. Her voice was close and clear in Skyheit's ear, the words coming through his helmet radio over the bridge crew's secure comm channel.

"Picking up tracking data," Lieutenant Kiwasa, the Sensors officer said next. The edge of restrained adrenaline in her voice was unmistakable. "Two Destroyers, burning hard after the wolfpack. Updating the TacBoard."

Skyheit's eyes flicked forwards to one of the bridge vidscreen displays visible to him. On it, a map showed the layout of the surrounding area and the reported positions of friendly and enemy vessels. He grimaced just looking at the board. Skyheit had exhaustively poured over the complete history of Rannoch, the Quarian, and the Geth while the Allied offensive to retake the planet had still been in its planning phases. He knew about the Morning War, and how the Geth had pushed the Quarians off their homeworld, forcing them to become generational galactic nomads. That was more than three centuries ago - and since then the Geth had been busy.

The main focal point of combat between the Allied Geth and the Reaper/Heretic Geth coalition since the hostilities started was a grouping of massive Geth orbital complexes that hung above the intersection of Rannoch's equator and prime meridian. Shipyards, docks, refineries, server clusters, warehouses, orbital tether connections, and other structures were staggering in size and scope, several times larger than the substantial Turian Hierarchy shipyards the Allied Fleets had defended at the Battle of Despara. Skyheit could easily imagine the thousands of Geth warships in-system being pumped out of the orbital facilities.

"Angala, hand off MAC control to Venus," Skyheit said.

The Yorktown's weapons officer replied quickly and professionally. If Lieutenant Angala had any qualms about giving his two biggest guns to an AI, he didn't show it. "Aye sir. Venus, you have the guns."

"I have them," Venus confirmed in her usual melodic tones. Her avatar was standing on the bridge's central holotable, looking up at the graphics of their operational section of Geth rings. She reached up, pointing at a particular section of space, holographic silken robes cascading around her arms and shoulders as she moved. "Trajectory projections place our targets here - and here - within the next thirty to thirty-three seconds."

The initial battle between the Allied advance force spearheaded by the Infinity and the UNSC and the Reaper/Heretic Geth had started near the midpoint in space between Rannoch and the system's Mass Relay. As the fighting went on, the hammering of UNSC MAC rounds and the flanking attack by the Arbiter's Vanguard had forced the Reapers back closer to the planet. The Allied Geth had used the opportunity to make a large push to gain control of the orbital complex cluster, and with a significant amount of losses they had succeeded - but not before a dozen Reapers had burrowed into the nooks and crannies of the complexes like ticks.

Someone had to dig them out or they would continue to pose a threat to the rear of the newly formed Allied battle lines. As the sturdiest capital ship that was small enough to maneuver through the maze of space thoroughfares throughout the Geth structures, Captain Skyheit and the Yorktown had drawn the duty of commanding the task force that would hunt these last holdouts down. His wasn't the only UNSC ship in the task force. Like the Yorktown, the UNSC's two Marathon-class Cruisers and four Halberd-class Destroyers were also leading Geth Frigate wolfpacks as they slowly worked through the complexes.

"Wolfpack is taking fire," Kiwasa said. "One Blue Geth down… now two."

There was a reason why Skyheit's mind had reached back to the memories of his CQB training. He likened their current environment to a city setting, facilities divided by main roads of open vacuum, breaks between the orbital structures making small side roads and alleys that branched off the main thoroughfares. The UNSC Yorktown was currently tucked into one of those side streets, her port side hugging the wall of an inactive Geth ceramics refinery.

It was urban warfare, but instead of clearing a room, he was clearing a swath of Geth orbital structures. Instead of an MA5B, he had a Valiant-class Super-Heavy Cruiser.

"Fifteen seconds," Venus said, voice smooth as still water.

Skyheit put through a comms request down to Engineering. The Yorktown's Chief Engineer, Chief Garnett, answered almost instantly. "Captain?"

"Chief, as soon as you feel those MAC rounds gun the reactor. Get our coils recharged ASAP."

"Aye sir," Garnett replied, and Skyheit closed the link.

The current tactical plan relied on the Yorktown retaining some semblance of the element of surprise while the Frigate wolfpack drew the two Reaper Destroyers close to the Yorktown's hiding place. The UNSC ship was running as quietly as a fifteen-hundred meter Super-Heavy Cruiser could, using only enough power for energy shields, passive sensors, basic-life support, and to hold a full charge in the two MAC's electromagnetic coils. Active systems produced waste heat, which escaped out into the vacuum where it could be contrasted and seen against the absolute zero of space. While artificial gravity was useful, the generators on UNSC ships were notoriously power-hungry and could generate enough heat to get them detected. Skyhiet had ordered the Yorktown's artificial gravity turned off for now, confident in his veteran crew's training and ability to run the ship in zero-G.

Venus blared the ship-wide alarm. "All hands, brace for imminent combat."

The seconds counted down.

Eight Geth Frigates screamed past the front of the Yorktown's ambush spot. The wasp-like ships were jinking, juking, and corkscrewing in evasive action, two Reaper Destroyers hot on their tails. Despite their small size and agility, the Reaper's targeting systems were impeccable, and Skyheit watched two more frigates burst into flames as they were cored by magnetohydrodynamic beams.

With inertial dampeners offline to conserve power, the Yorktown jolted hard as the Venus fired the first MAC, pressing Skyheit back into his crash chair. The rumble of stern maneuvering thrusters came immediately after the shot as the Valiant-class counteracted the force to stay in position.

The MAC round smashed into the first Reaper Destroyer following the Geth wolfpack the instant it crossed in front of the Yorktown's hiding place, with such precise timing that only an AI could get right. The round struck right where it was intended to hit, thirty meters above the machine's central red eye. Allied Naval Intelligence had determined that area was where the Reaper's central processing equipment resided, one of the two spots that almost guaranteed an instant kill or immobilization on an effective strike. The other area was the large Element Zero core housed deep in the bellies of the Reaper ships, but Skyheit didn't want to risk causing a core detonation in such relatively close confines. Common sense told him that would not be a good idea.

The second Reaper Destroyer came into view a split-second after the first on the same pursuit course. Venus fired the second MAC, but this Reaper had seen his comrade die in front of him, and now knew what waited around the corner. There wasn't enough time or space to radically change course, but as the Destroyer came around the corner it already had two secondary magnetohydrodynamic beam emitters leveled at the Yorktown, and had pulsed its dorsal maneuvering thrusters to shift the ship downwards in an attempt to throw off the coming blow.

The hyperdense ferrec-tungstun slug took off nearly the entire top third of the Reaper, but it didn't immediately kill the vessel. Skyheit rocked against the impact gel of his chair as the double-punch of the Destroyer's weapons hit the Yorktown's bow energy shields.

"Archers!" Skyheit barked, but Lieutenant Angala was already ahead of him, hands flying over his console as he released Archer missile batteries. He felt the vibrations in the deck as missiles burst from their launch tubes away from the Yorktown. With a quick burst of onboard maneuvering thrusters the missiles oriented themselves towards their target, then their main engines flared to life, rocketing them forwards.

Bursts from the Destroyer's close-in laser weapons stitched the bow shields of the Yorktown, but the UNSC ship answered in kind, heavy deck guns and rotary point-defense cannons directed by Venus pounding the unshielded Reaper's hull plating.

Two dozen Archer missiles slammed into the Destroyer a second after the missiles had lit their engines, the Reaper not able to defeat the weapons with its point defenses or effectively dodge in the close proximity. Without kinetic barriers to protect it, and already structurally compromised from the initial MAC round that had taken off the top of its chassis, the Destroyer cracked and shattered into pieces under the weight of the high-yield explosive warheads.

There was peace for a second - then power from the reactor flooded into the Yorktown, and reports from his bridge crew started flying in.

"Two down," Sensors said. "Geth wolfpack is forming back up."

"Capacitors recharging," Weapons reported. "Archer pods A and Z empty."

"Shields holding at 73 percent," Venus said, calm like she always was. AIs didn't go through combat adrenaline dumps like the rest of the Human crew on the bridge.

"MACs first, then shields," Skyhiet said, setting the energy management priorities of his now fully-powered ship. "Any damage Venus?"

The AI shook her head, "Negative."

Skyheit let the pleasure of an engagement gone well wash over him, but only briefly. The Yorktown had outmatched the two Destroyers from the start, it had only been a matter of getting the Reapers to leave their hiding spots so that they could find and destroy them. He widened his tactical display to show the entirety of the Geth orbital complexes and checked the progress of his other hunting parties. There had been some other engagements, and several other Reapers destroyed. Allied Geth losses were high, but the other UNSC ships were in the green other than one of his own Halberd-class Destroyers reporting energy shield emitter damage following a scrap with a Reaper Destroyer.

"Good work everyone," Skyheit said, giving his crew the compliments they deserved for the successful ambush. "But we're not done yet. Venus, as soon as our MACs and shields are charged full, bring us back down to quiet running. We still have a Sovereign-class to find."

Skyheit had split the complexes into different sections, assigning an individual hunting group to clear each one. Allied Naval intel had seen two Reaper Destroyers and one Sovereign-class burrow into the orbital structures in his section. The two Destroyers were expanding debris clouds in front of him, leaving only the Sovereign-class to search out and destroy.

Only a Sovereign-class Reaper. Only a ship five hundred meters larger than his own, which had been cyclically harvesting all significant life in the galaxy for who knows how long. It wasn't even just a ship - the Reaper was an entire, individual living intelligence with the knowledge, experience, and lessons from thousands of wars and tens of thousands of battles contained within its memory.

The problem that they had though, in Skyhiet's mind, was that the Reapers didn't know how to lose.

After endless victories resulting in galactic harvest, and facing thousands of different iterations of civilizations and technology, triumphing every time… when the Reapers had discovered that a single well-aimed MAC round from a UNSC ship was enough to outright destroy them - Skyheit wondered how much of a shock it had been.

The UNSC on the other hand, was well familiar with the concept of loss. They had been losing for thirty years before the unexpected end of the war with the Covenant. They had come this close to losing it all… losing Reach, and almost losing Earth - first to the Prophet of Regret, then nearly again to the Didact years later.

Darwinian attrition had turned any UNSC Captain and crew who had made it through those trying times into skilled, if lucky, sailors. Captains like him, and crews like the Yorktown's. Throw in top-of-the-line combat refits - energy shields, the newest Titanium-A3 armor plating, the latest series of cruiser-sized MACs, a faster slipspace engine, superluminal comms, a retrofitted sensor array, and an upgraded power grid to compensate for it all - and the Yorktown was a match for almost any.

Skyheit remembered what it had been like to fight on the wrong side of three to one odds. It's why he didn't show mercy to their new enemies.

"MACs recharged and reloaded," Lieutenant Angala reported.

"Pushing the shields back up," Venus said shortly after, rerouting the power used to recharge the coils into the Yorktown's protective field. Skyheit watched the percentage steadily tick upwards before turning his attention back to the tactical map of the area on the holotable. He plotted the ship's next moves in his mind, the routes they could take through their section of the orbital structures, places where a Sovereign-class Reaper could be hiding…

The Reaper Destroyers had likely transmitted the Yorktown's ambush location to the hiding Sovereign-class, but Skyheit didn't want to go full-power yet. He could still reposition and run passively, do some more steady, methodical searching. Skyheit sent a nav course to the helmsman. "Helm, take us out. Nice and slow."

The Yorktown calmed as the reactor cycled back down, and the ship's maneuvering thrusters gently pushed the ship out of its ambush den into one of the large pathways of vacuum between the orbital structures all around them. Debris from the two dead Reaper Destroyers littered the space, and the Yorktown's shields sparked as jagged pieces bounced off of it. The six remaining frigates from the Geth wolfpack formed up around them - infantryman huddled around a main battle tank in the middle of a city street.

"Ahead slow," Skyhiet ordered, and again it was only the silent jets of gas from the maneuvering thrusters that moved the bulk of the Yorktown along the vacuum.

They crawled along through the Geth complex, slicing off angles as they turned corners one degree at a time, every puff from the thrusters a measure of calculated caution. The Blue Geth frigates acted as scouts, peeking around corners or investigating those orbital structures in their paths that had internal spaces large enough to hide a ship. When they returned with sensor readings clear of anything that could be a Reaper, they would form back up with the Yorktown and the group would move on to the next stretch of structures to clear.

That was, until two Geth frigates didn't return.

"Try again," Skyheit ordered.

A moment passed, then Second Lieutenant Faln shook her head. "No response."

"Here is their last reported position," Venus said, placing two small, blue dots on the TacMap graphic of the structures. "Warehouse complex, alloy storage."

"Big enough to hide a Reaper?" Skyheit asked.

"The warehouse is four cubic kilometers in volume," Venus said. "Depending on how empty it is, yes, a Sovereign-class could fit inside."

Skyhiet nodded, the action slower in the null gravity. The marked location was just around the corner and down a hallway, orbitally speaking. "Here we go. Let's get this bastard."

He sent the orders to his crew. The Yorktown quietly pied the corner, found nothing, and floated into the wide vacuum thoroughfare. The warehouse was five kilometers down on their left side. The UNSC ship rotated to be nearly parallel to the two sides of Geth 'buildings', and started floating sideways down towards the warehouse.

The bridge was that kind of bated quiet that Skyheit had only ever experienced on the precipice of an anticipated engagement. All focus was on the approaching warehouse, and the Reaper that could be waiting inside.

Two massive metal doors comprised the front of the warehouse, split horizontally. Skyheit could see from sensor data that the door was just barely open at the seam, but not wide enough that a Sovereign-class could have fit through. Unless, it had opened the doors enough to slip inside, then tried to close them behind it.

"That's where the Geth frigates made entry," Venus said.

The Yorktown came to a halt in front of the doors, a scant five kilometers between the end of its bow and the warehouse's doors.

"Anything from passives?" Skyheit asked Kiwasa.

"No sir," his Sensors officer responded. "There don't seem to be any signals coming from inside, not even Geth frigate black-box signals."

Skyheit pursed his lips - he had a decision to make. He could send some of his remaining frigate escorts through the gap in the warehouse doors to investigate inside, or he could light up the Yorktown's active sensor array.

Six of his ten attached Geth frigates had already died up to this point in the hunt. Skyheit knew that the Geth had more warships in-system than any other part of the Allied Navy, but he didn't want to waste resources if he could avoid it.

"Alright everyone, prepare to go active on my mark." Skyheit said. "Venus, get the ship ready to go to full power. You find that Reaper, you core it with the MACs."

A chorus of "Aye sirs," washed over the radio channel, and Skyheit took a deep breath, exhaling it slowly.

"Mark!" he ordered.

At once, the Yorktown's high-powered radar and LiDAR arrays shot radio and light waves through the gap in the warehouse doors. The waves bounced throughout the interior of the warehouse in a split-second before returning the data to the sensor suite's receivers, where it was interpreted and streamed to the bridge.

The active scan showed the Reaper inside, tucked into the back-left corner of the warehouse.

Venus fired the Number One MAC.

Nearly the entirety of the left warehouse door exploded outwards, rushing right towards the Yorktown.

The MAC round pierced through the bulk of the warehouse door like it was tissue paper, but it did nothing to stop momentum of the square piece of thick metal door that was coming towards their bow. The Reaper had laid a counter-ambush.

Venus took emergency control of the Yorktown, and Skyheit was thrown against his restraints as emergency thruster packs detonated at the port-front and the starboard-rear of the ship, spinning it ninety degrees to be parallel in the orbital street. She fired the main drives the instant after, and the Yorktown shot forwards. Even with the UNSC AIs immeasurable reaction time, their evasive actions were too slow. They had been too close when the door detonated off its connections and started rocketing towards them. Venus initiated the emergency high-impact protocol of the bridge crew's crash chairs.

Skyhiet's web restraints automatically cinched tight, pressing him hard into the back of his crash chair. Impact gel expanded out around him and the bridge crew from specialized emitters in their chairs, like personal airbags.

Several hundred tons of metal door slammed into the rear third of the Yorktown at speed, and the effort to absorb the kinetic energy overloaded their shield emitters. The protective barrier broke like glass, and although slowed, the warehouse door still struck the hull with force.

The Yorktown rang like a gong and Skyheit's bones shook, even enveloped as he was within the impact gel. A portion of the holotable's TacMap had been repurposed to show a graphical representation of the Yorktown, and Skyheit recognized the alert symbols indicating hull breaches at the port-stern of the ship. Starboard-side maneuvering thrusters screamed as Venus fought to arrest the ship's newly imparted momentum, and keep it from crashing into the Geth orbital structures opposite the warehouse.

The Reaper charged them, using the fragment of warehouse door for cover. It shot around from behind the door at their port side, its main magnetohydrodynamic emitter red hot. The Yorktown's MAC round had wounded it, a low hit had broken its kinetic barriers and tore off several of the Reaper's tentacle-like legs.

"Hit it!" Skyheit managed to yell.

The Yorktown's portside point defense cannons and heavy deck guns opened up on the Reaper. Lieutenant Angala released all of the portside Archer batteries and more than three hundred missiles rocketed away from their tubes towards the danger-close target. The six Geth frigates remaining in their Wolfpack screamed inwards on attack runs towards the new threat.

The violent ruby beam of the Reaper's main weapon gouged into the unshielded port side of the UNSC Yorktown. The stream of superheated metal struck against the Titanium-A3 plating and was halted for the briefest moment - before the armor reached its heat transfer capacity threshold and buckled under the weight of the Reaper's main weapon at close range.

The beam pierced through several outer decks in an instant, filling the confines of every space it passed through with superheated slag.

Not content to sit still and continue to get stuck like a pig, Venus used her engines and thrusters to swing the stern of the Yorktown downwards and started rotating the ship around its spinal axis, doing her best to dissipate the blow from the Reaper's main weapon across a wide swath of the UNSC ship's broadside armor belt. Still, Skyheit could see on the graphical display of the warship that a large section of dorsal and portside decking had been compromised. Dozens of shield emitters on the damaged sections had been destroyed, as well as several weapons emplacements and more unfortunately, the crews that served them.

The Reaper's point-defense laser network pulsed expertly, swatting more than half of the Yorktown's Archers out of the vacuum. The enemy ship tried to duck back behind the warehouse door to shield itself from the Archers it couldn't shoot down, but Angala had been expecting that. A couple of dozen missiles couldn't make the course corrections and hit the warehouse door, blasting large chunks of metal out of the heavy piece of impromptu cover. The rest of the missiles burned on maneuvering thrusters and arced around the door, then accelerated back towards the Reaper. Another salvo from the Reaper's point-defense lasers took out more missiles, but Archers that got through the screen started striking the unshielded hull of the malevolent AI.

The Sovereign-class was fast maneuvering in the tight confines of the combat space, it's advanced mass-manipulating drive core outclassing the Yorktown own thrusters. It popped around the opposite side of the warehouse door, close to the Yorktown's stern. It was obvious the Reaper was going for the less dangerous end of the UNSC ship. Archer missiles continued to impact all over the Reaper, but the ship was undeterred. Once again its main weapon started to flare hot, no doubt targeted on the Yorktown's exposed engines.

There was no way that Venus would have been able to turn the ship and bring its Number Two MAC to bear in time, even with the ship's remaining emergency thruster packs. So, she didn't. The Yorktown shifted and pointed her stern directly at the Reaper, offering up to their enemy its dream target on a silver platter.

Deep in the Yorktown's main reactor, Deuterium and Helium-3 atoms fused, generating a stable and abundant supply of superheated plasma within a magnetic containment field. The plasma was channeled through a series of exhaust manifolds towards the engine housings, where it was then vectored out of the ship's massive nozzles - directly into the face of the Reaper behind them.

The Reaper's frontal plating heated from cold black to superheated orange-white in less than a second as it was enveloped by the Yorktown's drive plume. It's response was strikingly organic, flinching away from the heat source as quickly as its own reflexes could allow, raising the remains of its tentacle appendages in front of it. The Reaper retreated, front turned to molten slag, Archer missiles still blasting away portions of its beleaguered hull. It stitched the side of the Yorktown with its point-defense lasers once again as cover as it fled.

One of those lasers holed the bridge.

Skyheit's helmet was too late in shifting the visor to its maximum darkness setting, and his vision exploded with light. Alarms started going off in his helmet - the vacuum warning, and two medical alerts. He blinked hard and fast trying to get his vision back, and as shapes and colors started returning to him, he heard Venus in his helmet earpiece. "Target retreating, bringing MAC Two around. Corporal Delevaux is dead, and Lieutenant Faln requires assistance."

Skyheit's eyes shot over to Faln's station, and through the receding bright spots he could see her strapped into her chair, arms flailing. He saw what the problem was: on its way through the bridge the laser had vaporized Faln's physical life support connection. He could see wisps of vapor swirling into the vacuum from near the connection between her suit's embedded O2 tanks and the external connection line - she was losing atmosphere.

Skyheit hit the emergency release on his crash restraints and oxygen connection, shouldering his way out of the impact gel. The Yorktown was still moving around him as Venus lined the ship up to face the fleeing Sovereign-class, so he took another second to be sure of his trajectory before he pushed himself off towards her station in the zero-G.

Faln was panicking, her hindbrain putting all of her focus on the fact that she was losing precious air, but skipping over that she'd need to get out of her restraints before she could do anything about it. Skyheit didn't blame the young sailor one bit, and put a heavy arm around her chest to signify - help is here. Faln reduced her flailing a bit and Skyheit reached to a specific compartment on his hardsuit, withdrawing a quick seal patch. He located the suit breach and slapped the patch onto it, seeing a red status alert on Faln's helmet visor change to yellow, then green.

His comms officer's immediate crisis temporarily resolved, Skyheit looked back towards the main bridge doors, where the Marine guard's own crash chairs were. Corporal Delevaux's lower torso and legs were still strapped into the bottom half of his crash chair - the rest of him, including the top half of his crash chair - was gone. Skyheit could see the laser's entry hole, and he traced the trajectory past Second Lieutenants Faln's station, and then found the exit hole in the corner of one of the bridge's Titanium-A3 viewport shutters.

One dead. Had the bridge not already been depressurized and its crew sealed up in hardsuits, it could have been all of them. Lieutenant Kiwasa and the Marine bridge guard Sergeant were already out of crash chairs and going for emergency hull patch kits to seal the bridge back up.

He turned his attention back to the TacBoard. The Reaper had made it a good distance down the main thoroughfare they had been brawling within, but it had a problem. According to the schematics of the orbital structures, there weren't any more "main roads" or side alleys that the Reaper could duck into before the Yorktown lined up its second MAC. It couldn't just go "up" or "down" to flee the confines of the complex either - the Arbiter had tasked a CCS-class Battlecruiser to overwatch Skyheit's operation with its energy projector and plasma torpedoes for Reapers trying that exact strategy, and it already had three kills.

Venus was just a couple of seconds away from getting their next shot. Seeming to become aware of its quickly approaching fate, the Reaper stopped moving forwards, spinning around to again face the Yorktown.

Skyheit wondered what was going through whatever the Reaper used as a mind. Was it disbelief that it was about to die? Anger that after thousands of successful cycles, it had been beaten? Or was there some kind of pride there, for having taken its pound of flesh from one of the deadly UNSC warships?

The Yorktown fell silent once more, its bow now perfectly aligned at the Sovereign-class Reaper. The fight had been quick, violent, and personal - all of the explicit characteristics that defined Close Quarter Battle. His ship had been wounded, and some of his crew had been injured and killed. It was the closest the Yorktown had come to having a real problem while engaged in combat with a Reaper, but Skyheit had to admit that the vibrance of the fight had left him with a sort of euphoric exhilaration that he hadn't experienced since the war with the Covenant.

Skyheit looked at the visual of the Reaper's melted front through the Yorktown's sensor readouts on the TacBoard. Its main weapon had clearly been disabled by the engine flare, slagged just like the rest of the hull around it. He found one of its large red "eyes" that was still visible around the melted metal plating, and he stared deeply into it.

The Reaper raised its remaining two appendages in what Skyheit interpreted as a shrug. You got me, the Reaper said to him. He nodded almost imperceptibly, even to himself. It had been a good fight, but it was over now.

He gave the order. "Fire.

UNSC Infinity

Second Lieutenant Lauren Wyn shifted in her seat as the tram started to slow, grabbing the small duffel at her feet. The tram's system dinged pleasantly as it arrived at its destination, the digital readout above the door displaying the stop point. Secondary Hanger A-14.

The few others in the tram moved to allow her a path to the opening doors, a couple nodded politely at her, but some were too buried in datapads or on comms channels that they didn't pay her departure any attention. Wyn didn't recognize any of them - she worked Second Shift, and it was the middle of First Shift. The Infinity might have been a small city in its own right, but of the eighteen-thousand plus people who called the ship home, she only really ever interacted with people from her own shift, whether it was during downtime or while on duty.

Wyn stepped alone into this particular corridor of the UNSC Infinity, using the strap to shoulder her bag. It felt lighter than she thought it should have, and in her mind she again went through the contents inside. Three BDUs, an extra pair of boots, underwear, basic toiletries, her datapad - the essentials. Kai, her small stuffed toy cat that she had won at a fair back when she was young… and the commendation box holding the medal the UNSC had awarded her mother. Nothing was missing, and she again realized that when it came down to it, there wasn't much she actually owned that hadn't come from a Quartermaster.

She started walking. The corridors running near the outermost parts of the ship, closest to the skin of the hull, were usually empty compared to the main passageways running throughout the midsections of the Infinity. She'd never been in this part of the ship - her life and work keeping her within her own bubble deeper within the heart of the Infinity. Her steps echoed down the long, uniform hallway, the rhythmic noise shepherding her mind into introspection.

She had mixed feelings about leaving the Infinity. Or… at least, she thought she did. When she had first gotten the news, her assignment to the pride of the UNSC Navy had felt like equal parts reward for how hard she had pushed herself in Officer Candidates School, and equal parts a stroke of incredible luck. It was the ship that would have bulwarked the Covenant, the ship which led the fight against the Didact, and the ship which housed the best the UNSC had to offer

Wyn had pride in her ship, just like everyone else who served aboard the Infinity, that was a given. She had a good group of coworkers, a competent command staff, friends, and time enough in between shifts to take full advantage of the Infinity's varied amenities. Watching old movies on her datapad under a tree in the ship's atrium had been a favorite of hers.

The problem she had slowly come to discover over the last eight months since she had deployed on the Infinity, and had especially come to the forefront after they were thrown into the unexpected war against the Reapers, was that she didn't know if she had pride in her own job. She had been assigned to the Infinity's Signals Intelligence Corps as an aide, a common role for freshly minted Second Lieutenants like herself. There she would assist and learn from a senior officer, gaining knowledge and experience.

At least, that's what she had hoped for. The reality had been more disappointing once she had been attached to her Senior Officer. Colonel Illich was brilliant in his intel job, which was good for the UNSC, but less so for her. Illich did the vast majority of the actual work, leaving her the more menial tasks of writing reports, double-checking data, running errands - and of course, making coffee. Wyn had expected to be doing most of that anyway, but her Colonel was just so… involved with the work that she never felt like she had an opportunity to give real input.

So she wrote reports, double checked data, ran errands, made coffee, and watched Illich work. Then, as she walked back to her cabin each night, she passed by confident Marines, FlightOps workers in their rainbow of colored BDUs, weapons techs in their heat-resistant Nomex jumpsuits, sometimes an armored Spartan-IV standing a head taller than all the rest… and wondered if they felt as unimportant as she did.

When Commander Shepard had offered her a position on the Normandy as part of his newly-forming special operations group… she had leapt at the opportunity.

Everyone in Admiral Lasky's wayward faction of UNSC knew Commander Shepard and the SSV Normandy. It was his ship which had hosted the first meeting between the UNSC and the Systems Alliance, back during those first days after what the crew called The Transport. The Normandy had traversed the galaxy to help turn the tide against the Reapers in several different theaters, hunted down Cerberus after their attack on the Citadel, and most recently had helped lay the groundwork for the Allied invasion of Rannoch.

She wanted a more direct role in the fight, and Shepard had come along holding a silver platter.

The only other person she saw in the corridor leading to Secondary Hangar A-14 was a electrical technician elbow deep in a wall panel, muttering under his breath while adjusting a kind of diagnostic tool. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, saw her Second Lieutenant insignia, and threw a half-hearted salute with the hand not occupied in the panel. Wyn returned it, flashing the tech a quick smile before he turned to focus back on his work. She was an officer, yes, but only a Second Lieutenant. A Butterbar. She generally got the minimum level of military decorum from other non-commissioned personnel she encountered, but she was okay with that. It was expected.

Wyn saw the large double-doors to the hangar bay, clearly labelled as they were, and hit the access controls on the side. The doors slid open and she stepped into the hangar. Even for a secondary hangar the space felt large, big enough to house four, maybe five Pelicans comfortably. It was just another reminder of the scale of the UNSC Infinity.

She thought the hangar was empty until a shift of motion in her peripheral vision caught her attention. She looked to her left and found a man in blue and white-striped armor sitting against the wall just to the left of the doorway. The man had thick black hair, shaved close near the temples where Wyn could see there was some kind of implant. There was a duffel bag at his left side, and a collapsed rifle lay on the deck on his right.

The man took a deep breath, then cracked open his eyes and looked up at her. "Hey."

"Hey," Wyn replied, looking around and finding no one else. "Are you - waiting for the Normandy?"

"Yes…" the man said, smiling warmly in the way that naturally puts someone at ease. "Yes I am. You're UNSC, yeah?"

"Yeah, Signals." she said, nodding. Wyn recognized the Systems Alliance seal on the shoulder pauldron facing her. She then made the connection to the implants just above the ears - remembering Commander Shepard had them too. "Alliance? And a biotic?"

"Guilty," he said. "The blue magic is a neat party trick."

Wyn smiled, feeling herself relax in the Alliance man's presence. She knew almost nothing about him, yet just the fact that there was another person here meant that she didn't have to be alone with her dueling thoughts on deciding to leave the Infinity - a small comfort.

"Still got a few minutes before the bird gets here," the man said. His voice was warm and smoky. He moved his rifle to the other side of his body, making space in case she wanted to sit down.

She took the invitation. It would feel good to sit down, she had just come directly off of a twelve hour shift on her feet. She sat down on the deck a respectful couple meters away from him, putting her own duffel at her feet. She laid her back and head against the wall, relishing the cool of the metal against her scalp and the exposed skin of her upper neck. They sat there in silence for several seconds.

"You know for most ships, the 'quiet place' is a half-empty supply closet in an out-of-the-way deck, or whichever part ends up being furthest from the drive core," the man said. He gestured out towards the hangar with a wide, expansive wave. "Here, you can have a whole hangar to yourself."

Wyn looked around. It did feel strange… space on ships was usually at a premium. She remembered the Vostromo, the freighter-turned-refugee ship that had evacuated her off of Arcadia before the Covenant had glassed it. She had been twelve at the time. On that ship, the corridors were cramped enough to where two people going the opposite direction had to twist to get by each other. Even for her, at twelve years old and much smaller than the average adult, the vessel had felt cramped almost everywhere.

"The Infinity is the only ship I know of that has an atrium with real trees," Wyn said. She felt a quick pang of sadness, not knowing when she'd get to watch a movie under her favorite oak tree again.

The Alliance biotic chuckled. "Certainly no trees on the Normandy, I can tell you that."

"You've served on her before?" Wyn asked. She straightened up a little, if this was a veteran crew member of the Normandy then he almost certainly held a higher position than she would on the ship.

"I served on the Normandy when she was still the SR-1," he said, turning his gaze away from her. Wyn saw his amiable expression darken just a bit, a familiar expression to her. Grief, or sadness, a soldier's loss. It was gone after just a second, and he turned his kind blue eyes back on her. "Yeah… the Normandy and I go back a ways. I'm Kaidan."

"Lauren," she said in return.

"Lauren, from Signals," he said. He gave her a sideways smirk. "So… how did he get you?"

"Who?" Wyn asked, "Rear Admiral Shepard?"

"Rear Admiral..." Kaidan shook his head, scoffing. "There's no way he goes by that. Everybody knows him as the 'Commander'."

"Yeah, Shepard," he continued. "The Infinity seems like a prime gig. What did he do to convince you to give it up? Don't tell me he danced for you?"

"No…" Wyn said, laughing quietly a bit despite herself. Just the image of Shepard dancing in his hefty plated armor was more than a little amusing,

Kaidan feigned relief. "Good. We would have lost you right there."

"Oh no," Wyn said, "Is it bad?"

Kaidan sucked in a breath. "It's…. It's something, that's for sure."

They let the humor of the moment wash and cool between them, Kaidan spending some time reading a message that had come in on his omni-tool.

"Have you been away long?" Wyn asked. Anchoring the center of the Allied battle-lines and a central command hub point, the Infinity had a constant stream of shuttles, transports, and even small warships travelling through its expansive hangar bays. She assumed that the Alliance man was coming back to the Normandy, and just using the Infinity as a transit point. She added some clarification, just in case. "From the Normandy, I mean."

"Couple of months," Kaidan said. "Got wounded in an explosion during an Op shortly after the war started." He tapped the implant on the side of his head. "Fried my old implants. Had to get wired with new ones, learn how to use them properly - hell, took longer to do that than it did to recover from the actual injury."

"Back up to speed now?" Wyn asked.

Kaidan flexed a hand out in front of him, and his palm shimmered with blue/black energy. As he worked his fingers the energy gained shape and mass, turning into a slowly spinning sphere suspended just above his upturned hand. Wyn stared into the ball of swirling energy with wonder, watching the eddies of color, energy, and matter controlled by deft movements of Kaidan's fingers. She knew what biotics were of course - she had read the briefing docs and watched the vids - but what the Alliance man was doing did look closer to magic than anything else she had seen in her life.

Kaidan recognized Wyn's entrancement with his simple biotic display, snapping his fingers and dissipating the sphere. "That's kid stuff. Most of my repertoire is limited to battlefield application. But if you thought that was cool, the things Shepard can do would blow your brain right out of your socks. He's as talented as they come."

"He's a biotic too?" Wyn asked, surprised. "I didn't see any implants like yours when he was on the Infinity yesterday."

"You wouldn't have," Kaidan said. "The Commander's implants are internal."

Wyn racked her brain trying to recall the information from the general biotic briefing documents Naval Intel had sent to main-line UNSC personnel like her after their arrival in the new galaxy. "Internal, like the ones Asari have?"

Kaidan shook his head. "Asari don't need implants. All of them are biologically capable of biotics from birth. If you're Human though, it's external implants on the temples, always. Unless you're Shepard - he's the only special case I know."

"What makes him special?" She realized that she was asking a lot of questions, a conversational habit of hers that showed up when she was nervous. She was genuinely curious, both about the subject of biotics and anything to do with her new commanding officer.

Kaidan looked up towards the ceiling of the hangar bay, finding some features and fixating on it for a minute. "That's a long story, and not really mine to tell. There are a lot of things that make the Commander special though. You'll find out." He took a deep breath, letting it out in a long sigh through his nose. "God am I ready to get back. Feels like I missed out on so much of the war… only to come back at the end."

"You think this is the end?" Wyn said. It had only been a few months since the Reapers had attacked, but cut-off from her home galaxy and on her first deployment, it had felt much longer.

"Feels like it, doesn't it?" Kaidan said. "Intel docs going around are saying this could be the upper limit of the number of Reapers that have invaded the galaxy. All of us, versus all of them, here - in one system? Why would the Reapers commit this kind of force unless they were playing to win? Why would we be committing this much force if we didn't think we could win?"

He made sense, and Wyn nodded in agreement. She remembered the Battle of Despara, the "Turning Point of the War'' as it had been called after-the-fact by various galactic media outlets. The Reapers had attacked the Turian chokepoint system and its vital shipyards with under two hundred vessels. The last figures she had seen pass through the Infinity's SIGINT unit showed over a thousand Reapers currently in-system.

"I hope we end up on the right side of the aftermath," she said.

Kaidan slapped the deck of the hangar bay with one hand. "If we had some more ships like this, it wouldn't be as much of a question."

"The Infinity is one of a kind," Wyn said, "Unfortunately."

"Still, I'd go back to my L2 implants in a heartbeat if we could get another round of these beauties popping up out of thin-space right when we need them the most," Kaidan said. "I'm talking about some real Deus Ex Machina shit."

He shook his head, chuckling a bit to himself before growing more serious. "You know, I was on Earth when you all got here - the UNSC and the Covenant - however the hell that happened. First contact meeting was held on the Normandy… I was there a room and a half away, commanding a squad of Marines ready to go in fast and loud in case things went bad."

"Thank god they didn't," Wyn said softly. She didn't need to expound any further.

"Yeah," Kaidan said. Wyn could see in his face that he was recalling his own memories of the frantic defense of the planet and the harrowing escape from the system. "If the Infinity hadn't been there helping to hold the line in orbit for as long as we managed to, a lot more people wouldn't have made it off of Earth. I haven't thanked anyone from the UNSC for that yet, and now here you are, so…. thank you."

Wyn felt a tightness in her chest at the sincerity of the man's words. She didn't deserve that thanks. She didn't deserve even the tiniest part of credit for any Systems Alliance life saved just because she happened to be one out of eighteen-thousand people on the Infinity. What had she been doing throughout the heated, desperate defensive bid to buy time when the Reapers had attacked Earth? She had stood by and watched her CO Colonel Illich utterly dominate the SIGINT unit in the wake of the new threat. "Sure," she ended up saying, "Just glad we did some good."

The conversation slid into an amicable silence, both content to sit there enjoying the moment of peace within the chaos of war. Kaidan's omni-tool chirped, alerting the man into motion. "Bird's coming," he said, stretching out his arms and gathering up his weapon and bag.

She got to her feet, shouldering her own bag. Kaidan's rifle collapsed and compacted into itself, an intriguing mechanical process that Wyn had actually never seen before, and he attached it to a magplate on his armor's back.

A blue and white shuttle in Systems Alliance livery floated gently into the hangar, bringing with it an oscillating whine-hum that did something strange with Wyn's inner ears. Mass Effect drives, she reminded herself. It was nothing like the ubiquitously loved engine roars of the venerable Pelican, that was for sure. The craft looked like a brick, and as it turned parallel to present its starboard side she saw the thruster housings attached to the raised stern and sloped bow firing precisely.

It was among one of the ugliest shuttlecraft she had ever laid eyes on, but when she glanced over at Kaidan, the grin plastered on his face was as if he thought it was the prettiest belle at the ball. The shuttle set down on the deck and the side-door slid open, beckoning them forwards as the drive idled.

Kaidan beckoned her forwards with him, and the pair walked together. "The Combat Cockroach," he said venerably of the shuttle, "Every Alliance Marine's favorite sight."

They stepped inside and Wyn immediately recognized the interior as ubiquitous to every other troop transport she had ever been on. Cramped crash-seating against either side of the troop bay, with two rows of thick hand loops running down the center of the ceiling for standing troops to hang onto. At the front of the transport an open door led to the cockpit, a dark brown skinned man in a Systems Alliance pilot flightsuit leaned against one edge, grinning. "Major Alenko!"

"Steve!" Kaidan said with enthusiasm, going up to the man and clasping forearm warmly.

Wyn's eyes widened, and she felt a flush of redness color her cheeks. Kaidan was a Major? She had been talking with him as if he was a fellow Second Lieutenant, not an officer rating three levels above her.

"It's good to see you," the pilot 'Steve' said to Kaidan. "Almost couldn't believe the news when we heard you'd been approved for active duty again."

"Me neither," Kaidan said, tapping one of his biotic implants on the side of his head, "These new L5's were a mother to get used to."

"How are the migraines?" Steve asked.

Kaidan's smile widened. "Gone. Who would have thought that it would only take major head trauma to get rid of them?"

The pair laughed, and Steve looked past Kaidan to Wyn. He stepped past the former to greet the latter, the smile still on his lips, genuine. "Lieutenant Steve Cortez," he said, holding out a hand to her. "I fly this ugly brick."

"Second Lieutenant Lauren Wyn," she replied, shaking the offered hand. "Signals Intelligence."

"SIGINT?" Cortez said, raising an eyebrow. "No wonder Shepard snagged you, we've been looking to fill out the War Room staff ever since the Reapers showed up. Well, let's get this show on the road, the Commander is waiting for you both back home. Find a seat and strap in, ride won't be that long."

The two passengers did as instructed as Cortez returned to the cockpit and shut the door behind him. Wyn took a seat opposite of Kaidan. "Major Alenko, I apologize if my candor towards you earlier was too casual - I was unaware of your rating."

Kaidan waved off her concerns with a dismissive hand. "Apology not needed. I forget about it too honestly, don't even keep the insignia on my armor. You'll learn pretty quick that rank isn't that important on the Normandy - whether you can do your job or not is."

The shuttle vibrated around them and the drive sounds increased in volume, Cortez spinning the craft to point back out towards the hangar shield doors and the space beyond. Leaving the Infinity was uneventful. Kaidan had his rifle on his lap and was working over it to pass the time. Wyn wished she had a weapon to do the same, mainly for her hands to have something to do, but her MOS on the Infinity didn't rate a sidearm.

There were no viewports in the troop bay, so Wyn instead occupied herself by imagining what the space looked like outside, and the massive battle that was taking place above the tans and browns of Rannoch. She imagined the streaks of brilliant color that MAC rounds, mass accelerators, point-defense lasers, plasma torpedoes, energy projectors, and magnetohydrodynamic beams were carving through the vacuum, each its own individual promise of destruction.

Before Wyn knew it Cortez's voice crackled over the dropship's intercom. "Coming in, wheels down in twenty seconds."

Kaidan unfastened his restraints and stretched, putting his rifle on a magplate on his back and picking his bag up from the seat beside him. Wyn did the same, noting the shuttle's drive noise change as Cortez brought it in for a landing.

"Piece of advice?" Kaidan offered, stepping over to the side door. The Kodiak settled down with a gentle bump, signifying their arrival on the Normandy. Wyn nodded at him earnestly. "It's a small crew. If you're here, it's because the Commander wants you here. Earn that faith."

The shuttle door opened and Kaidan stepped out, letting out a grunt of satisfaction as his boots hit the deck. He turned in towards the interior of the shuttle bay, a wide grin spreading across his face. Wyn stepped out behind him and looked in that direction, quickly putting the pieces together. There was a small welcoming party for the man: a Quarian, an Asari, a Turian, and Commander Shepard himself. They threw up arms and shouted warm greetings, gestures which Kaidan returned, before both groups rushed together for an obviously heartfelt reunion.

She had seen several Turians, Salarians, Asari, and even a few Krogan in the halls and hangars of the Allied Fleet's central command ship, but this was her first time seeing Quarians with her own eyes. The other species of this galaxy had become more of a common sight on the Infinity as the struggle against the Reapers had gone on, but the Quarians had just recently joined the war effort.

The Quarian who currently had her arms wrapped around Kaidan in an embrace looked like a female from her shorter height and her slimmer build, her black environmental suit decorated with stunning pieces of intricately patterned violet cloth. She pulled away from Kaidan and Wyn saw the opaque shading of her enclosed light purple visor. The Turian in the group was tall, above six feet, and had a myriad of scars criss-crossing both his thick, angular armor plating and nearly one entire side of his grey-skinned, blue-striped face. Wyn had been entranced by Asari as a whole ever since she had first learned about them, and the one in Kaidan and Shepard's group was no exception. Her azure blue skin and eyes were striking, as was the sleek, form-fitted armor she wore. Wyn wondered how old she was, she certainly carried herself with obvious confidence gained from years.

Wyn had stepped around to the side to let Kaidan have his moment, and in an attempt to stave off the creeping awkwardness from being a sixth wheel, she took a look around the Normandy's shuttle bay.

Easily the most eye-catching thing within the space was the sharp-lined jet-black of the UNSC Stealth Pelican Gunship on the floor-inset landing pad opposite of them. The predatory craft aggressively drank in the light coming from the bay's ceiling, seeming to darken the entire space around it. Full missile racks hung beneath its stubby wings, and the under-nose turret was unmistakable to anyone who served in the UNSC.

In the far right corner of the bay she saw forty or so Quarians gathered around makeshift tables and benches, all with weapons or equipment in varying stages of disassembly for spot maintenance. The suits these Quarians were bulkier, layered with extra armor plating and compartments for gear or ammunition. Migrant Fleet soldiers? Marines?

"Lieutenant Wyn!"

It was Shepard, looking in her direction and beckoning her over. His distinctive combat armor had been cleaned and polished since she had last seen him on the Infinity, and the white-bordered thick, red stripe running down his right arm naturally drew the eye. He looked better-rested compared to when she had seen him earlier on the Infinity - the dark circles under his eyes were mostly gone, as was his skin's waxy pallor of fatigue.

Wyn straightened, marching in perfect step over to Shepard and his group. She stopped in front of him, snapping to attention and pressing the blade of her right hand to her temple in a salute. "Read Admiral Shepard sir! Second Lieutenant Lauren Wyn reporting for duty as ordered!"

Shepard straightened himself as well and delivered a return salute that was so crisp it could have come straight out of a drill manual. "Welcome aboard Lieutenant, at ease. First things first - Commander is fine."

Kaidan gave Wyn a knowing look as she came out of attention to parade rest in front of her new CO. Shepard pointed to each of his group, "Let me introduce you. Lieutenant Wyn, meet Garrus Vakarian, Liara T'Soni, and Tali'Zorah vas…?"

Shepard looked to the Quarian with an eyebrow raised - Tali - who hugged Shepard's arm briefly before saying, "vas Normandy."

"Vas Normandy," Shepard finished. "And you've already met Kaidan."

Everyone in Shepard's group looked at her with warm expressions, smiles, and bright eyes. It didn't feel like she was on a warship meeting the members of an important military inner circle. Instead, the air of familiarity and comfort that the group projected would have seemed more at place at a backyard barbeque.

Tali walked up to Wyn and took her hand in both of hers. "It's good to have you Wyn. Find Warrant Officer Kame'Janta when you get up to the War Room. He's one of mine - he'll help you hit the ground running up there."

"Thank you," Wyn said, looking into the purple faceplate and the lighter spots on the surface where she imagined her eyes were. She thought it would be strange talking to an opaque faceplate instead of a face, but the Quarian's demeanor and mannerisms were so friendly that she found it didn't matter.

The Turian, Garrus Vakarian, shook her hand next. "Another member of Shepard's merry band of misfits. He didn't dance for you, did he?"

The Asari, Liara, laughed out loud suddenly and quickly put a hand up to her mouth. Shepard's nostrils flared and he curled his lip into a sneer directed at the Turian. "One more mention of that and I'll have you scrubbing off carbon scoring on the landing pads with your toothbrush."

"You can use mine sir," Wyn said to Vakarian, "It's electric, might save you some time."

The Turian broke ranks with Shepard's group and went to stand beside Wyn instead. "I like her already! Been here not even two minutes and already has my back - I don't see anybody else offering to sacrifice their toothbrush."

"You also don't see anyone else teetering on the edge of insubordination," Kaidan said.

"Insubordination?" Vakarian said, tone dripping with faux indignation. He shot Wyn a sideways smirk. "Pretty rich coming from the guy getting just back from an all-expenses-paid, two month vacat -"

Kaidan snapped his fingers, and Garrus stopped mid-sentence, frozen within a shimmering blue energy field. Wyn jumped a little from the surprise of the action, stepping instinctively away from the biotically petrified Turian.

Shepard looked to Kaidan with eyebrows raised. "That's new. L5's?"

Kaidan nodded, left hand engulfed by swirling blue-black energy. "Yep. My peaks are lower than what I had with the L2s, but my scope of powers is a lot wider now."

"And the migraines?" Liara asked.

"Gone," Kaidan said, smiling. "Almost makes my 'vacation' of surgeries and brain rewiring worth it." The Alliance biotic flicked his hand again and the biotic field around Vakarian disappeared.

Free from his constraint the Turian shook his head, side mandibles flaring. "Alright, that wasn't fair. Didn't know you could do that."

"Just trying to keep you on your toes Vakarian," Kaidan said, sharing a smirk with Shepard.

Shepard stepped forwards to Wyn, laying one hand on her shoulder. "Good to have you here Wyn. The tour might have to wait, I want you reporting to our next mission briefing in fifteen minutes."

He turned and pointed inwards towards the back left corner of the bay from where they were looking. A large, black-haired soldier was there standing over a wide, well-lit table, working on something she couldn't make out from this distance. Behind and around the table were several tall lockers and stacked crates of varying sizes. "That's Lieutenant Vega, go see him to get issued the rest of your kit. Once you're done, he'll take you up to the War Room. We'll talk again after the briefing."

Wyn bobbed her head. "Yessir."

Shepard waved at the rest of the group, and they all followed him towards the elevator at the rear of the bay.

"Hey, where's Wrex?" Wyn heard Kaidan ask. "I'm not important enough for him or something?"

"He's down dirtside cracking skulls," Garrus answered. "Don't take it personally. Not even Shepard could pull him away from this fight."

The conversational tones among the group shifted from light and jovial to quick and professional - the reunion was over, now it was time to work.

Wyn let them get a good distance away so that she wouldn't be eavesdropping, but she noticed something as the group walked. On each of their upper left arms was a uniform black, shield-shaped unit patch. At the center was the red profile of some animal she couldn't make out from the distance, along with white lettering at the top and bottom of the patch.

She started towards the table Shepard had pointed her to. The man working there exchanged some words with Shepard as he passed, and looked her way. He looked relaxed and approachable, and he waved her over to the table as she got closer. "Hey."

"Hey," she replied. Now that she was closer she could see what was on the table - a partially put-together UNSC M739 SAW.

The man nodded down at her, the thick cords of muscle in his neck shifting with the motion. He didn't stop working on the SAW, tending to the maintenance of the large weapon with surprising delicacy for someone his size. "Name's Vega. Saw Cortez bring you in with Alenko. Commander wants you geared up, huh?"

"He does," Wyn said, "Told me to get the rest of my kit here."

Vega gave her a once over, pursing his lips when he finished. "That all you have? BDU's and a duffel?"

She nodded. "Yeah, what else do I need?"

Vega let out an easy laugh. "Quite a bit chica. Gonna need to get you a hardsuit and weapons at minimum."

"Hardsuit?" Wyn asked. "And weapons, plural? I'm just a Signals officer."

"Wouldn't matter if you were the janitor," Vega said. "The Commander does it different on the Normandy, especially in theater. Everyone in a hardsuit, everyone with a weapon."

That was certainly different to Wyn, but she remembered how Kaidan and all the rest in Shepard's group were in hardsuits, as were the Quarian Marines in the other corner of the bay. She suddenly felt like a sore thumb in the comparatively meager protection of her UNSC BDU's. "That is different," she said.

"Yup," Vega said. "First Normandy, the SR-1, was ambushed and blown apart. Lot of unprotected crew died to vacuum exposure before they could get to escape pods. Then, the second Normandy was boarded by alien bugs. Shepard and the ground teams were away, and the majority of the naval crew didn't carry weapons. The bugs took the armory, the rest - didn't go well. Commander doesn't make mistakes twice. Everyone in a hardsuit, everyone with a weapon."

"I see..." Wyn said.

"What are you qualified on?" Vega asked. "We've got plenty of UNSC gear. Hardsuit is gonna be an Alliance model, but we'll get to that."

"Pistols, shotguns, DMRs," Wyn replied. She had worked hard and was proud to have gotten her Sharpshooter qualification badges during her evals during basic training.

Vega bobbed his head, turning and searching through a stack of crates behind him before grunting with satisfaction, having found what he was looking for. He set down a black metal crate on the table between them, popping the seals before turning it around to Wyn. She opened it, and set deep into the grey protective foam were two weapons that she was intimately familiar with - a BR-85 Battle Rifle and an M6H Magnum.

She picked up the Magnum first, the weight of the weapon and shape of the grip exactly as she expected it. The pistol was stored with slide forward, so Wyn racked it back and locked it open, peered inside the chamber to confirm that it was empty, and confirmed again by sticking her pinkie into the ejection port and the empty magazine well. "This is an M6H2, the new version," she said, turning the weapon over to examine it again. "It's got that smoother slide action, and a twelve round mag instead of eight."

"That's a big ol' round you guys use in those," Vega said. "12.7x40mm, that's nearly a .50 cal coming out of that thing."

"Need the power to break through shields, but the recoil-management systems are superb. Feels like shooting a .45," Wyn said. She hefted the Battle Rifle out of the crate next, racking the bolt and locking it open, the peered down into the chamber though the ejection port to check for a round just as she had done for the Magnum. She flipped the covers off the telescopic sight at the top of the carrying rail, sighting through at the deck to confirm the scope was undamaged.

"Good?" Vega asked.

"Yeah," Wyn said. "Good." She had been worried that she might have to learn new-to-her Systems Alliance weapons tech when she transferred to the Normandy, but having two solid UNSC workhorses at her back was already making her feel more at home.

Vega motioned for the Battle Rifle, and Wyn handed it to him. He hit the rifle's bolt release to close it, then produced a loaded magazine from a different crate and firmly slid it into the weapon's empty receiver. He walked back to the row of lockers at the wall, pointing to Wyn, then pointing to the locker. "Locker five." Vega opened it, storing the rifle in a rack. "Rack C. Remember that."

He shifted the weapons case, putting some more items on the table - an empty hardshell pistol holster, a hardshell dual magazine holder, and three loaded magazines. "Long guns are kept in Condition Three in the racks. Sidearm stays in Condition One at all times. Questions?"

Wyn shook her head. She knew what it all meant. Her rifle would need a round chambered before use, but her Mangum was to have a round in the chamber, safety on. Nothing unusual to her, UNSC shipboard weapons regs were similar.

"Armor time," Vega said next, looking up and down her body in that professionally analytical way a tailor would. He went back to his stack of crates and cases, saying over his shoulder, "I think I've got just the set."

The big Alliance man came back with an even larger crate, yet he hoisted it onto the table with as much ease as he had the smaller weapons crates. Again, he popped the seals on this crate, opening the lid and turning the interior to face Wyn. "It's designed to be simple. Undersuit goes on first, then the armor on top. Plates latch onto their correct undersuit spots, it's pretty intuitive. Commander wants you suited up, there's a spot over there where you can change. If you need help just give me a shout."

"Thanks, I should be able to manage," Wyn said, closing the case. She was well familiar with the process of donning a hardsuit, UNSC basic training had seen to that, it had just been a while since she had needed to put one on. The case was not nearly as light as Vega had made it seem, but she managed to make her way to the secluded corner he had directed her to and started changing behind a stack of containers.

"Hey, looking good!" Vega said when Wyn emerged a few moments later. "Alliance colors suit you."

"Thanks," Wyn said, shifting her arms as she continued to test the armor. It was much larger in surface area than standard issue UNSC combat plate, cutting down severely on exposed areas around the joints, inner arms, and inner legs. Though it covered much more of her body it didn't feel much heavier than what she was used to.

Vega pointed to the suit's helmet that she was holding in one hand. "Try on the bucket."

Wyn slid the helmet over her head, noting the hiss of air as the suit sealed itself. The visor was clear and wide, with good front and peripheral visibility. She saw Vega bring up his omni-tool, and tap it a few times while looking in her direction. In the top right corner lines of diagnostic code started streaming down as the helmet's software booted up.

"We've got a UNSC software patch for Alliance armor systems, should give you a UI you're familiar with," Vega said. "Keep it on your body If you're not wearing it, there's an attachment point on your beltline."

"Yes sir," Wyn said, sliding the helmet off and clipping it to said attachment point. She furrowed her brows when she saw Vega giving her a strange look.

"Sir? We're the same rank, save the 'Sirs' for the Commander," he said.

Wyn cocked her head. "The Commander said you're a Lieutenant. I'm a Second Lieutenant."

"Are you?" Vega asked. A knowing smile started to creep up the side of his lips. "That's not what I heard him call you when you got here."

"I… I think so? It's my UNSC rank," she said.

Vega shook his head. "Sure, but this here's an Alliance outfit you've joined. Enjoy your field promotion Lieutenant. Come on, strap on your sidearm and let's head up to the briefing."

As they walked the short distance to the elevator Vega exchanged some pleasantries with a couple of the Quarian soldiers taking up the corner opposite them, and a couple nodded at Wyn herself. She noticed that all of them had the black-and-red unit patches on their arms as well.

"Quarian Marines," Vega said as they stepped into the lift, the large door sliding shut behind them. "Shepard kinda just adopted them after they lost their ship earlier in the war. Normandy is meant to carry a Marine complement anyway, but we had to bug out from Earth without. I'm glad to have them along now, some tough pendejos."

He punched the button labeled CIC, and the lift started moving. "Hey," Wyn said, "Could I ask a question? Maybe a little strange?"

Vega raised an eyebrow. "Sure."

"The Commander..." Wyn started, "His dancing?"

The big Alliance man let out a deep laugh which filled the interior of the lift. "Ay, dios mio, you've already heard?"

"Is it really that bad?" Wyn asked.

"Think about the worst dancing you've ever seen, and I mean throughout your entire life" Vega said, "Then - multiply that by at least a factor of two. That's the Commander."

Wyn had a hard time believing that the Commander's dancing could be any worse than the girl she had been dating in high school dancing with her during senior prom… She still remembered the bruises that popped up all over her feet the next morning from being stepped on so much.

The lift beeped as it arrived at the CIC deck, the doors sliding open to reveal to Wyn the Normandy's Combat Information Center. There was a large central platform right out in front of the lift, with station chairs occupied by suited-up naval crewmembers - Humans and Quarians - along either inwards curving wall. A holographic of the planet of Rannoch hung suspended in the center of the CIC, colored dots, labels, and symbols of every kind representing the Allied and Reaper forces currently fighting over the Quarian homeworld. The deck looked fully staffed, but she heard no words being spoken, orders being given and acknowledged, or even automated system alerts or notification. "It's quiet…"

"Yep," Vega said. He tapped his own helmet, attached to his beltline like hers was. "CIC crew are buttoned up their entire shift, they use their internal helmet comms. Comes natural for the Quarians. You'll be doing the same thing with your War Room crew."

Vega turned and started to the right, Wyn following close behind. They approached a security checkpoint manned by two Alliance Marines who waved Vega through but stopped her before she went through the blue-light security scanner.

"One second Leuitenant, just have to verify your biometrics and key them into the security table," one of the women said. It was actually fifteen seconds, but soon enough the guard waved her through the checkpoint as well. "Welcome aboard ma'am."

Vega had waited for her on the other side. "We'll make sure to get you the real tour later."

The pair travelled down the rest of the corridor before making another right to a set of heavy-duty circular doors. Set above the doors in bold, block white lettering read WAR ROOM. Vega touched the lock symbol on the center of the door.

It was fairly dark inside, and Wyn blinked her eyes as they adjusted, following Vega as the two sidled up against the room's outermost wall. There were a lot of people - mostly Quarians and Humans, currently spread throughout the chamber's upper and lower levels, with several gathered around a central holotable much like the one she had seen in the CIC. After her eyes adjusted she easily picked out Commander Shepard by his distinctive red-and-white arm stripe down in the lower level, along with the rest of the group who had met Kaidan and her when they had arrived.

The Commander looked up in their direction when they entered the room, nodding in their direction before straightening up. It was amazing to see how quickly those attending the briefing halted their quiet conversations and put their eyes forwards towards Shepard. He hadn't even spoken, yet he had the entire room's attention.

"Alright everyone, let's get started." His voice was as distinctive as anything Wyn had ever heard. It filled every part of the War Room; the man radiated the kind of command presence any good officer aspired to achieve - even when just starting a briefing. "Welcome to the first combat action of the 7th Allied Special Operations Group - Operation: ICEPICK."

The holotable image above the circular projector table in the recessed main level changed to show the planet of Rannoch as a whole. "As you can see, the bulk of Allied and Reaper forces have now engaged in earnest, both in space and on the ground. With the battle in full swing, CINCAFLEET Hackett has created the 7th ASOG for the purpose of conducting asynchronous warfare in support of conventional Allied forces."

The holoimage changed to show a replay of a graphical representation of the Allied Vanguard's assault on the Relay, and the Reaper transmission base. Shepard continued. "Twenty-eight hours ago we hit and destroyed one of two Reaper signals transmission bases which are being used to target and convert Allied Geth to their side. While we have seen a noticeable decline in the rate and amount of Geth falling under Reaper sway, it is still occurring at a higher rate than we expected."

As Shepard spoke, he turned and looked at those in the room, seeing everyone, acknowledging each individual's presence and attention. "Now, the second Reaper base is deep within hostile controlled territory and would be an extremely hard target. Since the Geth represent one of the largest Allied combat forces in-system, it is imperative that we try to further slow the rate of Reaper influence leading to Geth defections. In that vein, we have discovered an alternate target of interest. Legion?"

A Geth strode up to the holotable from an outer edge of the room. Something about the way the humanoid synthetic moved, both naturally smooth and unnaturally precise, made the hair on the back of her neck stand up a little. She knew that they were allies in the fight against the Reapers, and the fact that there was one on the Normandy wasn't in itself surprising. The gaping hole in the middle of Geth's chest - which somehow didn't seem to impact function - didn't help her strange feeling towards the thing.

Metal panels around the Geth's elongated head flicked and shifted as it spoke. "This was orbital imagery of Datacenter YJ-947 sixteen point five standard hours ago. At this time, the Collective still had contact with the site." The holoimage shifted downwards, centering in on the southern polar ice cap. It continued to zoom in, the features of the glacial fields becoming more and more defined until what looked like a small grouping of structures tucked into the ice was barely visible.

The orbital image suddenly became incredibly blurry, laced with interference. The Geth continued, its voice strangely modulated in pitch and tone. "Fifteen standard hours ago, the Collective's physical connection with the Datacenter was severed, and a large blanket of wide-spectrum electronic jamming was detected above the site. We believe that the Reapers have attacked and gained control of the site."

"What's so important about this Datacenter?" one of the Quarian's asked, a male standing close with Shepard's inner circle. "How many are on and above the planet in the first place? Hundreds? Thousands?"

"The number of datacenters is classified information, Creator 'Reegar," Legion said, "However, this Datacenter is the only one that accepts physical connections."

"The only one?" the same Quarian - 'Reegar - asked. "Really?"

"Yes. We do not require physical connections to access the general Collective or data stored within Collective databanks. It was built as a redundancy," Legion explained. "We are worried that the Reapers will try and use this physical access point to expand upon their cyberwarfare attacks following the destruction of their transmission base."

"And that's where we come in," Commander Shepard said, taking back control of the briefing. "However, there is an issue."

The image above the holotable shifted to an orbital view above the southern pole. Several red-hued icons representing enemy warships dotted the scene. "Enemy Geth have established a guard force in low geosync orbit above the pole."

There were some low whispers and whistles from among the assembled. Garrus, the Turian she had watched get frozen by Kaidan's biotics, spoke up. "A guard force, huh? That just happens to have a three-kilometer Geth Dreadnought as the flagship?"

Shepard nodded slowly. "Yes. The Dreadnought, and the thirty frigates acting as escort."

"That's a powerful resource to pull off of the front lines," the only Asari in the room, Liara said. "That has to mean something in and of itself."

"I didn't even know the Geth could make a ship that big," Vega said from besides her. The Geth looked in their direction, single lit 'eye' fixating on her for a moment before moving to the Alliance Marine.

"The Geth do not abide by the Treaty of Farixen. We are not limited by the restrictive measures concerning the number or size of Geth Dreadnoughts," Legion said. "This model of warship is the largest our shipyards are currently capable of constructing. Three are in active service, two with Allied Geth, one with the Old Machines. This particular vessel was in the latter stages of construction when the Old Machines captured it during their initial incursion into Rannoch space."

"So it's not finished?" Garrus asked. "That could work in our favor."

"The full extent of the vessel's combat ability is unknown," Legion said. "It would be prudent to operate under the assumption that the dreadnought is at full strength until we learn otherwise."

"And that's what we'll be doing," Shepard said. "Alright everyone, here are the brass tacks. Any ground team we send to break through the jamming and investigate the Datacenter runs the risk of drawing attention from the enemy ships in low orbit if detected. So, we need a force to engage those ships while the ground team steathily infiltrates the objective on the ground. Legion has already redirected two ten-vessel Geth Frigate wolfpacks to link-up with us shortly.

"For those of you who were around for Tuchanka, you'll remember Captain Praetus and the 26th Armiger Legion," Shepard continued. "Their unit's ground forces are currently deployed planetside, and HIGHCOM has approved taking four of their Assault Carriers off of the line to support our operation and provide the backbone to our flotilla."

"Four Assault Carriers, twenty Frigates, and the Normandy…" Vakarian said. "Those odd are a little closer than I'd like, even with the Normandy punching above her weight class with our Javelins and Thanix cannon."

"It's what we have to work with," Shepard said.

"Who's going with you?" Vakarian asked, referencing the away team. Wyn noticed as several of the briefing's members perked up in case their name was called by the Commander.

"A very small team," Shepard said. "It's a high-risk infiltration, less is more here. Legion, Master Chief, you're with me. Viper-Heavy will take us down."

Wyn did a mental double-take. Wait, had Shepard said, Master Chief?

"Commander?" a new voice said from the opposite side of the War Room, from the shadows. It was deep, gravelly, weathered.

Shepard turned around to face the voice. "Chief? Something to add?"

A two-meter tall armored hulk stepped forwards into the glow coming from the holotable, seeming to apparate right out of the very darkness itself that shaded the back wall of the War Room. Wyn's heart skipped a beat. It was him, it couldn't not be him. The dull green of the armor, the hexagonal burnt-orange visor, the imposing stature, it was all just like the stories she had been told - and had herself told to others. He had been so still against the wall, tucked into a recess next to one of the comms stations, that Wyn hadn't even noticed him during her first scan of the room when she had come in.

"A tactical suggestion," the Spartan said. Not just a Spartan, but the Spartan. The one revered throughout the entirety of the UNSC for fighting the Covenant, stopping the Flood, and killing the Didact. A scant few in the service had ever seen a Spartan-II, fewer still had actually fought alongside one. It seemed Wyn was going to do both. The Master Chief stepped up to the lip of the holotable, pointing at the image of the Geth Dreadnought. "A boarding action."

Shepard raised his brows. "Go on."

"The small infiltration team will leave the majority of the Normandy's fighters on the ship. Taking direct control of the dreadnought from the inside could serve to minimize the risk to the rest of the flotilla," he said.

Shepard put a hand to his chin, ruminating for a moment on the idea. "And if successful, would give us a powerful ship to use against the Reapers. It would be tough to get the Normandy into a position to deliver boarding teams during the fight. We'd have to get through the dreadnought's kinetic barriers, and disable or destroy enough of the GARDIAN point-defense laser arrays to not get carved to pieces on our approach. Legion, what's the crew complement for a ship like that?"

"Physical crew demands are light among all Geth vessels," Legion replied. "We estimate one to two thousand platforms of varying classification."

"One to two thousand…" Shepard said, letting out a lengthy exhale. He looked around the room, seeming to take some kind of mental stock. "With 'Harum and his Rangers having redeployed, we've got what, sixty fighters?"

"We don't need the whole ship - at least not initially - just the bridge and engineering," the Master Chief said. "Blue team is well-versed in boarding actions and close quarter battle."

"As are my Marines," Captain Kal'Reegar added. "Boarding Geth warships is at the top of our training priorities, right next to defending our own."

"Quarians know how to fight on ships," Tali'Zorah vas Normandy confirmed. "And if I can get into the bridge or engineering systems, I'm sure I can make some magic happen."

"Kaidan and I can provide the biotic support," Liara volunteered. "One of us with each boarding team."

Shepard started to nod, slowly at first, and then more steadily. "Alright. Let's try it. Chief, work up a boarding strategy with Garrus. Garrus? You're in charge of this - make it happen."

The Commander raised his voice to address everyone. "Okay, the plan is as follows: In orbit, the Allied flotilla will engage the enemy Geth ships and the Normandy will attempt a boarding action to gain control of the Geth dreadnought. On the ground, I'll lead the infiltration team as we scope out the extent of Reaper activity beneath the jamming, and make entrance to the Datacenter if needed. See what can be done to help the Allied Geth in their electronic warfare efforts."

There were nods all around. For her part, Wyn was surprised with how casual the briefing had been, as well as the lack reactions of those assembled to the constructed plan. Sixty UNSC Marines trying to board a Covenant warship with a hostile crew numbering between one and two thousand was clear, unmistakable suicide. Similar odds being discussed on the Normandy seemed to be like any other day at the office.

"Any top-level tactical questions?" Shepard asked. "Finer details will come down once the boarding plan is solidified."

No one spoke.

"Alright, we're go for mission in one hour. Dismissed," Shepard said. Almost all of those gathered for the briefing turned for the door with purpose, and Wyn quickly shifted along the outer wall of the War Room to clear the way around the door. Shepard locked eyes with her, motioning for her to come join him down in the lower pit of the room at the central holotable. "Lieutenant Wyn?" he said. "A word?"

"See you around chica," Vega said, turning to follow the rest of the Normandy's combat personnel out of the War Room. She saw Kaidan in the stream of leaving soldiers, and he caught her eye and smiled as he passed. She tried not to stare as the Master Chief went by, still wrestling with the disbelief that one of the legends of the UNSC was on the same ship as her. Wyn stepped down into the main recessed level of the room.

"That's a nice looking set of armor," Shepard said. He took a few seconds to examine her new suit in detail before nodding in approval. "Kassa Fabrication, I had some old plates from them - very solid, and their kinetic barriers are top-of-the-line. Vega's looking out for you. Fit well?"

"Yes sir," she said. The armor did in fact fit well, it was just that she wasn't used to wearing a full hardsuit. Semi-armored BDU's had been her standard uniform her entire tour on the Infinity. However, the Commander himself speaking well of the armor made it feel that much more comfortable.

"Good, get used to it." Shepard's demeanor shifted, and his dark brows furrowed slightly. "Have you ever seen combat on a Frigate Wyn?"

She shook her head. "No, just the Infinity. Hardly a Frigate."

"Hardly...," Shepard agreed, "The Normandy fights hard and fast. It's going to be hot, it's going to be hectic, the gravity could shift if we need the power from the artificial generators - but despite all that you're still going to need to do your job - just like everyone else on the ship."

He looked at her more earnestly now, his serious expression softening at the edges. "Wyn, there's going to be a lot of moving parts in this coming Op, comms wise. I need everything to go smoothly here," he said, gesturing around the War Room. "EDI, Cortana, and our comms techs will be helping you, but this will be your show here. Are you ready for that? Because now is the time to say something if you're not."

She took a deep, swelling breath. Was she ready? Shepard had personally picked her to be here right now, in this moment, on this ship. What had Kaidan said earlier, at the end of the shuttle ride…. Earn that faith.

When she asked herself again... she found the answer came easier than she expected. "I'm ready Commander. Put me in."

"That's what I like to hear," Shepard said, a wry grin playing across his face. "You'll do just fine Lieutenant. Trial by fire is a tradition here on the Normandy."

He reached into a compartment on his belt, then pressed one of the black and red patches into her hands. She looked at the patch and ran her fingertips over the rough material, wondering if it had recently come from an onboard materials fabricator. At its center stood a solid red profile of a Chimera in the style of an English lion from old heraldry, poised menacingly on its hind legs. The monstrous hybrid of a roaring lion had the braying head of a goat protruding from its back, and a tail that ended in a hissing snake's head. She understood the comparison - their multi-faceted special operations unit was meant to be as diverse and deadly as that same beast from ancient mythology.

7TH ASOG bordered the top of the shield in bold white lettering, and at the bottom in thinner white italics read the phrase Vires et Unitatis. Wyn reached back to her days embroiled in the works of Cicero during her Latin class in University, taking a couple of seconds to figure the right translation. Vires et Unitatis. Strength and Unity.

"Welcome to the 7th," Shepard said.

It had been over three years since the Queen Mother had been set free - and her voice ached.

She had conducted many thousands of symphonies since that time, when she had been cold, alone, and with no true children to sing for. She had resigned herself to the silent sadness of her imprisonment for the rest of her days… before both chance and mercy appeared to her at once.

Though his low musics were colorless, Commander Shepard's actions were vibrant, sapphire justice. He had freed her from her captivity with one condition: that she remain out of the visible galactic sphere, lest chance more conflict with the other inhabitants of the Galactic Octave.

The Queen had agreed readily. She remembered the warm time, when she had still been an egg - when she could do nought but listen to the oily darkness of her Mothers' screams as one by one, they were silenced forever. All she wanted was to sing harmoniously to children of her own… and they would not hear such evil sounds. Of that, she was determined.

After her release from the sharp, achromatic laboratory prison on Noveria, she had found refuge in the planet's glacial rock. She burrowed down deep into the cold ice and stone using the strength of her frontal claws and razor-sharp, armored mandibles. After being certain she had gone deep enough to avoid ground penetrating radar, she found a comfortable ice cave running through the rock and allowed herself to rest.

When she woke, she knew what she had to do. The last shrieks of the empty children that had been taken from her by the Humans above had ceased at last, returned back to the Great Silence from whence they came. Without her calming musics those first false-children had become rabid with fear, irredeemable of mind, and violent of body. She wept as she sang for them, a pained, mournful melody of deep loss and promised remembrance.

She then sang for Shepard, even though she knew his aura had already left the frigid planet behind. This song was warm, and it reverberated through her cave in brilliant oscillations of pitch and tone. It filled her with hope, and a determination as hard as her outer carapace armor to make this chance she had been given worth it.

So she nestled herself into her den and did what Queens like her have been doing since their race had first emerged into the Music-Web of life. It would be a great effort in her already weakened state, and if things went badly wrong it could kill her, but it had to be done.

Ten thousand eggs poured from her lower body and into immaculately prepared hatching chambers she had carved out of the rock and ice of her cave. Thankfully it was a smooth process, her children came from her with such ease and willingness it was as if they knew she needed their arrival to go well. With impossible delicacy, she separated the eggs into two clutches and settlled herself around the hatching chambers as best as she could. She settled herself to waiting, singing gentle berceuse lullabies to her growing young as they finished the final stages of their rapid gestation within their protective amniotic-fluid filled shells.

The first of her children hatched within hours. Before all of her sisters, the mandibles of the first Worker pierced its shell membrane. She watched with baited anticipation, but did not dare to help her first child emerge. The Worker's struggle as it fought its way out of the egg would strengthen its limbs, body, and mandibles, preparing it for the harshness of whatever reality lay outside the controlled gestation environment.

When finally the Worker had freed itself from the confines of its egg, it stretched out its spindly legs and looked up at her. The tiny note of greeting that it sang to her swelled the multiple organs of her circulatory system so large she feared they might have burst from her exoskeleton.

No longer was she just a Queen.

Now, she was the Queen Mother.

Following the example of their sister, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of other Workers fought and emerged from their eggs, inspirational chords from their Queen Mother guiding them on. The Workers instinctively grouped around their Mother after they hatched and she revelled in the sensations of their soft touches on her carapace, and drank in ninety-five thousand different songs as a parched animal would the water in a desert oasis.

The Queen Mother wanted nothing more than to enjoy the miracle of her first clutch of real children, but unfortunately she knew this was neither the time nor place. First, they needed to get off the planet and find a home they could truly call their own.

She split her Workers into groups, and gave them each different tasks. The first group she sent away had the most dangerous mission - to go back to the sharp labs and infiltrate throughout the human base without being detected. The Queen Mother needed information as to what her former captors were doing in the wake of her escape. Had the humans written off her loss or did they plan to regroup and try to capture her again? How may still occupied the base? What was the structural layout of the facility like, the floorplans, the defenses, the security networks? Was there a hangar? If so, were there any space-faring vessels capable of Mass Relay transit? She had put her Worker who had hatched first out of all the thousands of others in this group - it seemed fitting.

The second group she sent back up to seal the tunnels she had created digging down through the ice-rock on her escape from the labs. The scars of Krogan accessing open hive-nests and detonating weapons of mass destruction deep inside were still fresh within her genetic memory, and she wouldn't give the Humans above-ground the same opportunity.

The next group started scouring every square inch of the underground glacial cave systems for what nutrients and clean water they could find, transporting it back and feeding it to their Queen Mother to help regain her strength. The last group set to work expanding the chambers within the ice cave in preparation for the last of the Queen Mother's children to emerge.

Her Soldiers hatched at the dawn of the next day. Substantially larger and stronger than their Worker sisters, these warriors spent their first two days wrestling and fighting with each other to whet their sharp frontal claws, armored mandibles, and harden their chitinous exoskeletons. All under the watchful eye of their Mother, of course, who swiftly separated those who took the instinctual combat games too far.

While the Queen Mother personally knew little about war and combat, the great libraries of genetic information learned from hundreds of ancestral Queens swelled full within her mind. She paused for a moment before she accessed it - a quick tendency to violence had caused her race to suffer immensely in the past. Now that there was a clean slate for her to remake her people, would she stain its pure surface with the wrathful rageur of roiling war-hymns?

There was a difference though, between the senseless sounds of conflict etched into her past, and what she needed to do now. She didn't want to cause harm, but she would need to in order to get off of this planet. The Humans in the compounds above had already more than displayed their hostile intentions towards her and her children. Their tortures had been agonizing and relentless. They were what stood between her and a new future for her race. She would go through them no matter what.

Determined, the Queen Mother drank deeply from these wells of malevolent knowledge, committing the most relevant lessons to the more present parts of her personal memory. Then, she passed down what she had learned to her Soldiers, who listened to her weave complicated musics about current weapons technology, close quarters battle, small and large unit tactics, occupied structure takeover, and naval boarding actions with rapt attention.

Her Soldiers tested their newfound skills on the native fauna of the glacial fields, forming hunting packs to track and hunt edible prey. Their greatest triumph came when together they brought down a huge, thrashing ice worm, large enough for the entire hive to feast on. As they consumed the nutritious meal in the comfort of their cave system, the Queen Mother heard a report sung from her first born Worker.

Her intrepid daughter had led a team of other Workers stealthily throughout the walls and ducting of the Human facility until they had found what their Queen Mother had been hoping for - a ship. Its shape felt wrong to her as she looked through her Workers' eyes, nothing but sharp edges and harsh lines. However, it seemed to have a cargo bay large enough to house her substantial frame, and that made it the most beautiful vessel she had ever seen.

The Human ship was both her way off of Noveria, and her only opportunity to find their new home. All that was left was to take it.

It was time. The Queen Mother stretched herself out, working blood and movement into limbs and feelers. Her Soldiers and Workers around her buzzed with excitement and anticipation, feeding off of the energy from their Queen. She asked them all if they were ready, and ten thousand unanimous voices sang back to her in harmonious agreement.

The Queen Mother led the way back up the glacial rock, burrowing up a path parallel to the one she had created going down when she had fled the base. It would have been easier to follow her past trail rather than gnashing and breaking through the hard-packed ice with her powerful claws and mandible, but she didn't want to risk running into any explosive or other kind of trap the Humans could have set following her escape. The advance team of Workers led by her first born daughter chewed through power cables and data-transfer wires, throwing the Human base into darkness as well as knocking out their security systems and sensor arrays.

Right before Shepard had arrived on Noveria, the Humans above had gotten overwhelmed when just under fifty of her lost, screaming Soldiers had broken out of containment and started going rampant with senseless aggression. Now, with five hundred Soldiers, ninety-five thousand Workers, and a fully rested and strengthened Queen expertly coordinating them all - the Humans couldn't have opposed them even if they had wanted to.

The hive swarmed into the base like a tidal wave, flowing through the laboratories, hallways, meeting chambers, offices, and atriums as dozens of raging rivers of water. They slowed for nothing, those who raised weapons in futile challenge were impaled by mandibles and sharp claws, thrown against walls by powerful tentacles, or swarmed by Workers spitting caustic acid that burned effortlessly through armor, clothes, skin, bones, and organs.

Those Humans without weapons - scientists, administrative personnel, maintenance technicians - she left alone in their terror as they cowed under their desks and hid in their supply closets. Even though some of these who she spared could have played a part in her torture in the sharp labs, the Queen Mother didn't want to condemn any more life-musics to the Great Silence if she could avoid it. She was only using violence as a last resort - it wouldn't speak well to the future she wanted for her people if the start of her dream was poisoned by the needless slaughtering of civilians.

The Humans, for their part, had quickly figured out what the hive's intended target was - the ship in the hangar. When the Queen Mother and her children breached into the sprawling hangar, there were more security personnel there than anywhere else. More than that, they had organized, finding defensible positions and setting up a few heavy weapon emplacements near the ship. The vessel's engines were hissing steam as it sat on its landing struts - she wondered if the crew inside was preparing for a rapid take-off, or preparing to scuttle it completely. Either way, she couldn't let them get the chance.

The Queen Mother barrelled into the room ahead of her children, drawing herself up to her full stature, stretching her appendages out wide. As she predicted, the attention of nearly all of the Humans turned onto her instead of her more vulnerable sons and daughters. She saw the flashes of yellow fire as the Humans fired their weapons, registering their impacts on her body as she took forwards. The projectiles from the small caliber personal weapons were of negligible concern, deflected or disintegrated easily by her armored carapace.

The crew-served heavy machine guns felt like rapid streams of incessant tapping on her shells, doing more to irritate her than to cause lasting damage to her exterior. Her only wound came from a shoulder-fired rocket that detonated near one of her feeler appendages, the long, soft tentacle blown apart by the warhead. The Queen Mother registered the pain of one of her most sensitive parts being shredded by hot shrapnel, but set it aside in a deep part of her mind. She impaled several of the Humans on her razor-sharp frontal claws, and crushed a tripod-mounted machine gun. Close behind, dozens of her Soldiers fell upon the rest.

She turned her attention towards the ship. It was time for the hive to get inside, but they would have to be careful not to damage it beyond space worthiness. In the midst of formulating her entry strategy, the Queen Mother saw a flicker of familiar movement and color on the ship's exterior.

It was her first born Worker, scampering expertly across the sleek hull of the ship on steady legs. She stopped at an airlock access panel, prying it open with some fast work of her mandibles.

Her eldest daughter was humming a tune of self-satisfaction that bordered on outright smugness. She looked at her Queen Mother, and they locked eyes. A quick series of twitches from her manipulator appendages, an expertly crossed series of wires, and the command deck airlock doors opened.

As did another set of airlock doors fifty meters down the hull.

...and the wide cargo bay doors towards the rear of the ship.

"Coming?" she sang, to her Queen Mother and the entire hive.

The tune was definitely smugness.

How about that Mass Effect Trilogy Remaster coming in May? Can't wait to replay some classic "I should go,' moments….