AN: One bout with Covid and I was suddenly very happy that I had about 16.000 words done already. A special double post with another Halo crossover because screw it, why not!

Chapter 47, where we're finally going to Palaven.


"Lemme ask you all a question. Is a military not entitled to its own tank designs?

No! Say the salarians. Quality over quantity, they must be bleeding edge!

No! Say the turians. They must hover and fire mass accelerators!

No! Says the Alliance. What are tanks?

We at the United Nations Space Command rejected those answers; instead, we chose something different. We chose the impossible. We chose…THE M808 SCORPION MAIN BATTLE TANK, A FAST AND POWERFUL WORKHORSE THAT HAS BEEN IN SERVICE FOR THREE CENTURIES!

Gather round. Look at this. This is a classic. This is culture. This is an armored beast that has succeeded in jungle, plains, desert and especially urban settings! There is nowhere to hide where the Scorpion's weapons can't reach. Dirt cheap to make and maintain, yet still packs a punch. This beast has infinite modularity. Perfection.

Armies love high ground! Most armored vehicles hate it, but not the Scorpion! This tungsten-breathing monster has four independent treads that are ALL synced via a computer system, allowing the tank to effectively grip most surfaces well enough to ascend nearly vertically. Think you can run with your Mako? THINK AGAIN! With an action radius of 750 kilometers before needing refueling, there is nowhere you can run where the Scorpion can't find you.

But that's not all! Our patented death-dealing doses of daily armor can be manned by 2 tankers or a single Spartan! The weakest versin with Its ninety millimeter cannon fires forty kilograms of pure, concentrated fuck-you in the shape of a kinetic penetrator at hypervelocity! Its armor is so incredibly sloped that it might as well be flat, made of heavy titanium armor plating making it incredibly resilient to damage from small arms and plasma weapons. All of its glorious munitions are stored inside of an unmanned turret. And best of all is the post-war Active Protection System that projects a temporary near-indestructible bubble shield capable of stopping all but the heaviest starship-grade ordnance – just don't ask it to recharge any time soon afterwards.

Within UEG space, it is a widely accepted FACT: tank beats everything!"

- Sergeant Major A.J. Johnson on the proper application of motivation


Sunlight shone down upon the assembly in the Hollows. The krogan had gathered there, every Clan, all the Clan, from the largest to those at the fringe. They had been arriving ever since Wrex put out the word that they were going to take their future back. Even now, as the Great Unifier of Clan Urdnot returned, dignitaries and Clan chiefs kept arriving. There should have been a hundred feuds and grudges to fight out, yet none of the krogan so much as glared at each other.

Wrex spoke to them. Not like a conqueror or Battlemaster. He spoke to his people like a leader, bringing context to the salvation this day had brought, speaking of concepts no krogan Clan chief had ever uttered before.

Gratitude. Humility. Honor.

As alien as these concepts must have been to some of the krogan, none spoke against Wrex. None spat their scorn at his vision. How could they? These were the ideals of the Unifier who had done the impossible. Here was the leader who had cured the Genophage.

Thinking back to the first days on the hunt for Saren, Jane was amazed at how much her old friend had changed. The merc who had once fought and killed for credits now bellowed to his people about the enormous debt they had incurred, just like the Council once had to them.

"Krogan of Tuchanka! Will we be a danger to the galaxy that brought us these friends? Will we bring ruin to the galaxy OUR children will inherit?"

His people roared a resounding, unanimous "NO!"

"Or will we find our honor again and swear to build instead of destroy," Bakara continued. "Protect rather than kill. Will the krogan stand rather than fall?"

"YES" The krogan roared, their approval shaking the very earth itself.

Jane watched it unfold. Hope, it seemed, could come from the strangest directions. Before this day, she could have never hoped to see the krogan reform – truly, deeply reform – on such a level. After today, the krogan would build schools. They would build laboratories. Libraries.

She found Grunt standing amidst the enormous crowd, listening solemnly to what Bakara had to say.

The krogan had been a people once. After today, they would be once again. No longer would brother kill brother, father strike down son.

This gathering had gone on for nearly an hour. Shamans recited oaths for the chiefs to swear in. Bloodlines were honored. Poems recited.

Promises made.

The Commander almost started to feel like an outsider. Having John stand next to her though kept that feeling at bay. This was just as much their victor as it was that of the krogan.

Even now, the Spartan kept his helmet on. Jane would have thought that being swallowed by a thresher maw husk would have induced some claustrophobia in the man, but apparently not. Maybe he didn't feel comfortable showing his face, what with the thousand or so krogan around? A stray weapon discharge could have disastrous consequences, but Jane was all but certain that would not happen.

"You know what Wrex is going to do with the name 'Spartan', John?" Shepard said.

He craned his head towards her. I'm listening.

"He's going to immortalize it. To every krogan born after today, 'Spartan' will mean 'Dragonslayer'."


Jane shrugged. "It's a translation thing. The closest word we have for the ancient krogan dialect for thresher maw translates to dragon in the UEG language."

"That's better than Demon," he coyly replied.

"Isn't it?" Jane said, smiling. "You helped save an entire species from extinction, Master Chief. Wasn't the first time, I know, but…they aren't human. And you still did it."

"I was just doing what needed to be done."

Shepard subtly shook her head. "Many people would disagree. Purely pragmatically, the krogan can only aid us on the ground, and the biggest battles will be fought in space. I know your opinion on the krogan. Back then, you could have let both Wrex and Bakara die. But you didn't. You could have died instead."

He considered her words for a moment. "It's not up to me to condemn an entire species. Even if it was…I couldn't have let them die. Not if I could have acted instead."

Again, Jane wanted nothing more than to reach out to him and show her affection for him in some way – any way. But she couldn't. It was so like him, to value the lives of the people around him to such a degree.

So, she settled for taking his hand instead.

It ended when Bakara and Wrex bade the krogan to venture forth and start tearing down the old and rekindling the new. Shamans to spread the word. Mothers-to-be to start new families.

Shepard expected the two Urdnot leaders to leave with their people as well. Instead, they lingered, and Wrex beckoned them to join.

"Long time ago, my father betrayed me," he said, taking them to a slab of stone in the center of the chamber. "In this place. His own son. He tried to kill me. So I had to kill him. Right over there."

Jane remembered what happened. The old krogan warlord Jarrod. Wrex had told her once. The dagger buried in his father's chest was not the only thing Wrex had left behind that day.

She walked past him, taking a good look at the platform. "I can't imagine having to kill my own father."

"That's what the Genophage reduced us to," Wrex continued somberly. Animals. But you two changed that today, both of you."

"Now we'll fight for our children, not against them," Bakara continued, now standing side by side with Wrex. "None of this would have happened without Mordin, or you two. Commander. Spartan."

Wrex chuckled. "Mordin said something about gathering seashells after this was over. Maybe we'll name one of the kids after him. One of the girls of course. Hehehe."

Jane smiled. Little Urdnot Mordin, battle-sister to Grunt.

"I want to thank you again in person," Bakara said. "What you two achieved today should have been impossible. You saved our species from the Void. Nothing can weigh up against that."

"But maybe packing up and heading to Palaven will be a start," Wrex added enthusiastically. "Because I meant what I said! The krogan won't be the bullies, mercs and killers we used to be. We're fighting for something greater now. We'll fight for peace – and we'll fight to keep that peace!"

"Thank you Wrex," Jane replied. "I know you'll make this work. If there's anyone who can, it's you."

The old krogan beamed at her. "Hahaha. We'll have to expand eventually. Rebuilding takes time and resources and Tuchanka's got plenty of time, but…"

"I'd say helping to defeat the Reapers would be worth a new planet," Jane laughed.

"Or ten," Wrex said with a wink. "You haven't seen how fast we can pop them out."

"Wrex…" Bakara admonished him.

Wrex spread his arms in a manner that clearly said he had no idea what he just did wrong. "What? With the Genophage cured, we'll have a lot of catching up to do!"

Bakara merely shook her head.

"Apart from…that…what will you do now?" The Chief asked.

"Spread the hope you have given us," the Shaman somberly replied. "Your Shipmaster friend has freed Tuchanka's skies from the Reapers. Even now, there are clans gathering in the Kelphic Valley. I'll go speak to them and make sure this gift isn't squandered. What about yourself?"

"Me?" John asked, puzzled.

Bakara nodded. "You and the Commander must be weary. Surely you will take a moment together before heading into the next fight?"

Jane cocked an eyebrow,

"Grunt has told us the stories about you and Shepard," Wrex added.

The Shaman stared at them as if they had just explained everything. When she realized she hadn't gotten through to them, she continued, "We will celebrate this our own way. Is this not an occasion for you two to enjoy as well?"

"Stories?" Jane repeated. "Celebrate?"

Wrex uttered a very dark chuckle. "I'll tell them, Bakara. Why, Shepard, stories about his beautiful Battlemaster and her indomitable consort -"

Jane could feel a light blush spread across her face. Grunt! "I'm sorry?"

"Wrex," Bakara hissed. "That's not how he formulated it, Commander. Grunt was just impressed with how close you two have grown through the heat of battle. He believes a romance has blossomed between you two."

If possible, the Commander felt herself turn an even deeper shade of red at that. "Wait, that's not – we haven't – "

Wrex chuckled again. "I told you, they're meant for each other but they're idiots about it. Think about it Shepard; you two are each humanity's greatest heroes. Your children would be legendary."

It took the Commander a few moments to process just what the krogan pair were saying. She stared at them blankly before her eyes widened. John for his part turned to look at her.

"Listen to yourselves," she replied, frustrated that she even had to explain this. "We're at war. There is no time or even room for love or romance in a war – "

"Oh, but you're wrong, Commander," Bakara gently interrupted her. "Love and war always come together. They are the peaks of our emotions. Beauty and ugliness. It symbolizes unity and hope; a reminder that even in the darkest times, happiness can still exist. Our time is fleeting and perilous. We might perish tomorrow."

"Not to mention, you've got something very special to return home to," Wrex said, nodding at John. "'Course, Bakara's right. We could all die a horrible death soon. That puts things into perspective."

Jane wanted to fire back a scathing reply to Wrex about his own perspective, but she didn't. The old krogan was right, of course. Damn him.

There was nobody she trusted at her side more than John. Sure, she trusted every member of her crew with her life, and Garrus and Tali had been with her every step of the way. But what she felt with John was…it was different. She could be vulnerable around Tali and Garrus, but…she wanted to be with him. It was a physical need, one she hadn't felt since she was a teenager struggling with her hormones. His close relation with Cortana only made matters more exciting for her. In her book, having two people to love was better than having one. It was only fair – after all, she didn't have anyone for a majority of her life. She'd been alone since Mindoir.

She didn't want to be alone ever again.

Bakara, being a woman herself, did not miss the turmoil raging within Jane. "If there is nothing there, that is it. But if there is, it would be a shame to let that go to waste, Commander. Let that be my advice to you."

"Thank you for the advice, ma'am," John politely said. His voice was completely neutral and utterly polite. "We'll take it into consideration."

Bakara bowed respectfully to the Chief. "I hope you find success in your coming days, Master Chief."


"We'll see each other real soon, Shepard," Wrex said. "Gonna show those turians how it's done, right?'

"Exactly," the Commander muttered distractedly. "See you around, Wrex."

They slammed their forearms against each other once more – Wrex held on to her for several moments longer and met her gaze, expressing his emotions in a way he simply could not with words – then let her go. "And you know what they say, Shepard. People who slay together, stay together and lay - "

"I got it Wrex!" Shepard interrupted him.

He chuckled again, and gave her a wink with his unscarred eye. He and Bakara watched them leave,

Shepard had sent the others ahead already. Mordin was utterly exhausted. He wanted some time to let things sink in, maybe save the lives of a few badly wounded turians while mulling it over.

A lifework undone, a life's purpose fulfilled. He deserved it.

As the two armor-clad figures entered the Kodiak, John took his helmet off and clipped it to his belt. He stared at her intently for several long moments, as if looking for something. It made her feel uncharacteristically nervous.

"So…" She started.

"Do you agree?"

Jane blinked. She suppressed her instinctual response – deflective sarcasm veiled as humor – and took a moment to actually calm down and think. He deserved an honest answer. "You're going to think I'm selfish."

A part of his mouth curled upwards in a wry little smile, but when he replied his voice was hard and resolute. "Never."

She sighed and rubbed the back of her head. "The timing's horrible. We just cured the Genophage and we're about to hit Palaven like a goddamn nuclear explosion and there's no saying how the Reapers are going to respond to that." She paused to take a breath, running her fingers through her hair. "I don't know how to feel about this. I meant what I said before we hit the Collector Base, but I…"

John approached her slowly. He didn't say anything, and gave her the time she needed to express. Or to vent. It felt like a bit of both.

"Of course Bakara was right. And Wrex as well. We might well soon die anyway; it would be a shame not to give in to these feelings."

He stopped just within arm's reach. "What feelings?" He softly asked.

Frustration bubbled up within her throat. "I don't know!"

He blinked at the harshness in her voice, but did not flinch. He gently cupped her right hand between his gauntlets and looked at it for a moment. "Do you want to find out?"

Jane kept silent for a few moments, staring at his hands. Why was this so hard damnit? She was the one who first suggested it! Why was she struggling now? "Yeah," she replied, hating how meek her voice sounded. "I want that. And I agree."

Gently, carefully, he brushed a few strands of hair out her eye. "Let's try to make it work then."

His words sent a jolt of excitement through her body. She looked up at his eyes. He looked so sincere.

Well enough alone. She smiled lightly.

With the last of the Reaper forces pounded into glass, the shuttle ride back to the Normandy was a smooth one. The looming silhouette of the CAS-class assault carrier was oddly comforting. Knowing that there existed warships capable of going toe-to-toe with the toughest of Reapers and come out of it without even a scratch should help everybody sleep a little better at night.

The military clock said it was somewhere around 22:30 by the time the crew finished cleaning their weapons and gear. Apart from some minor scrapes and burns, there were no serious injuries among them. Cortana had slapped together an after-mission report for Admiral Hackett in the time it took the Commander to sneeze, so that angle was covered as well.

Mordin left for the medical bay the moment the Pelican touched down in the hangar bay. The turian Cabal squad had managed to beat back the Reapers, rescue Tarquin Victus and then aid him in dismantling a bomb that would have shattered the krogan solidarity and goodwill. It was an amazing feat, but Victus's Ninth Platoon had incurred horrible casualties accomplishing it, and two of the Cabals had almost died . A trail of bluish blood trailed all the way from the Kodiak to the elevator door.

Shepard frowned at the blood smear. Slowly, the facts started to sink in.

They had cured the Genophage. The krogan would return to their former glory. They'd need resources and new worlds to inhabit. What would happen if Wrex or Bakara died? Who would take over when that happened? If the future of the krogan species depended on the actions of one person…had she just laid the groundwork for a second Rebellion?

Even if the krogan chose the absolute worst possible moment during the war to turn on their allies, neither the turians nor the UNSC would let that pass. They'd put the krogan down hard and…that wasn't even taking into account how the sangheili would respond to that betrayal. Between these three nations, the krogan would be finished off.

Another genocide.

Jane shuddered. That wouldn't happen. Clan Urdnot would not allow it. The Shamans and clan chiefs wouldn't allow it.

It would work out. It had to.

Even though you have caused another diplomatic incident doing so? A little voice in the back of her mind whispered.

Fuck off, we'll make it work, she told that voice.

Steve carried a bucket of water and a mob. John wordlessly moved to assist him, while the rest of the squad split up to take care of the after-action maintenance. Liara, Vega and Williams went to the crew quarters to whip up a calorie-rich meal, while the rest stayed in the hangar bay to maintain weapons and gear.

Shepard watched them for a while, then decided to check up on Mordin after all.

Things were a mess all the way up to the Med Bay. Turian blood all over the ground, mixed with Medi-gel and pieces of crumbling armor. Mordin had the turians place one of their wounded to a bed against the back wall and the other to a bed under the window. The other two cabals both sat on a bed near the doctor's workstation in various states of undress. Three stood all the way in the back, helping the old salarian doctor with removing pieces of armor from one of the wounded.

Jane silently entered the Med Bay and assessed the situation with a quick glance. Both the turians were a bloody mess. One of the cabals was in a particularly bad shape. Her arm was missing from the elbow down. A myriad of lacerations covered one side of her body, some of them still showing shards of debris jutting from her crumbling armor.

An engineering drone refit for surgeries helped Mordin remove her armor. The doctor's hands were a blur as he exposed the wounds, applied a bag of solutions to keep her from bleeding out and began setting down his surgical tools.

The other casualty was the Kabalim; their squad leader. The other two turians worked feverishly to remove her chest plating and give her an IV drip as well. The woman had caught a burst of mass accelerator fire to her side. The rounds had penetrated her armor into her chest and abdomen.

Her undersuit was soaked with Medi-gel and blood.

"…hasn't sealed properly," one of the cabals muttered as she applied another dose of Medi-gel. "Plating's broken."

The other cabal scanned her comrade with her omni-tool. "Fractured ribs. One of her lungs is punctured, but that foam sealed the wound."

"Kallen?" Muttered the Kabalim. "How's…is she okay?"

"Blast trauma severe. Amputation least of our concerns. Suspect damage to organ tissue. Major shrapnel damage. Suit kept her from life-threatening trauma," Mordin rattled off as he hooked up a second bag of fluids and began expertly applying hemostats. "Cortana, all shrapnel mapped. Please start removal of foreign objects. Trust the sterile field generator still performing?"

"Mordin, do you need assistance?" Shepard offered.

"Ah, Shepard. Have given pain medication and hooked up fluid replacement compatible with turian biology. Triage easy, patient completely unresponsive. Amputation clothed, under control. Blast trauma…troubling. AI support invaluable. Situation strenuous but under control."

"What happened?" Shepard asked.

"Stay here, assist the doctor," one of the cabals muttered to Three. She clasped her Kabalim's hand and gave it a squeeze before stepping towards Jane. "Commander? I'm Laelea Achtus, acting Kabalim of the Eleventh Crèche. If you have a moment?"

Jane cast a hesitant look at the Spartan. She wasn't sure she felt comfortable leaving him alone in a room of aliens. "…yeah, of course."

Outside the Med Bay, the cabal quickly brought Shepard up to speed about their mission. She laid out the details from their retrieval of Lieutenant Victus all the way to the successful dismantling of the bomb.

"Asari infiltrators," Shepard mused.

Laelea nodded. "Don't know if it was official Council business or not. Given your encounter on Sur'kesh…someone was real eager to keep the krogan from recovering."

"You said it was an asari Spectre down there?"

"Three took care of her."

"I'm sure he did," Jane muttered. It didn't make any sense; why wouldn't the STG just put one of theirs in charge if they wanted to keep the krogan down that bad?

Unless, of course, this particular piece of obstruction didn't come from the salarians at all.

More asari skullduggery. Fun.

"You said Three took care of the Spectre?"

"He did. Very likely saved the Kabalim's life." Laelea glanced over her shoulder, watching as Mordin's outline moved from one patient to the other. "Kept the Spectre alive enough to talk, but she took some kind of suicide capsule while we took care of Tatilia. She was dead before he could interrogate her."

"Guess death is preferable to betraying their masters…" Shepard mused. "I didn't know Three was trained for interrogations."

"He's…odd, even for a human. We doubted your call to attach him to our squad, you know."

"I got that impression, yeah," Shepard said, crossing her arms.

The cabal didn't miss that. "Foreign fighters in a Cabal group? It's not done – has never been done in the Hierarchy's history. Naturally, we wanted to get rid of him at the first opportunity," she said, clicking her mandibles in what Jane took to be amusement.

"I'm guessing something changed your mind?"

"Yeah. Chances are the mission would have failed without him. That Spartan, when he was down there with us, it was like…" She struggled for the right words for a second. "As if the Reapers weren't even there. Like they couldn't touch us, no matter how hard they tried." She shrugged. "He's the reason we've got two wounded instead of two body bags and a failed mission. So I guess he fits in just fine."

"They do that, yeah," Shepard replied. "When you've got a Spartan looking over your shoulder, things are different." She hesitated, thinking she should say something else, before deciding to let things rest for now. "You should head back inside. I'll take care of the aftermath."

Laelea nodded dutifully, then headed back into the Med Bay.

Shepard watched her leave. She had hoped that the turian culture would resonate with Three, make it easier for him to cross that barrier and work towards overcoming his trauma. From the looks of it, that was working out fine.

Now she just had to -

"Commander, Shipmaster 'Kusamai is waiting in the decontamination room," EDI's voice chimed from a nearby intercom.

Jane inhaled sharply, forcing herself to stay sharp and alert. "Right. On my way."

How could she have forgotten about that? Shipmaster 'Kusamai had detected the successful dispersal of the cure the moment Mordin succeeded. He'd contacted her immediately, asking to meet face to face again to discuss their next steps. She had offered to visit him for a change, but 'Kusamai had declined, citing that she had just returned from direct combat and he had not, so it would only be proper for him to make the journey.

Jane hadn't argued with that. Wandering through the haunting corridors of an enormous Covenant warship was just about the lowest thing on her to-do list right now, right above kissing a Hanar.

"Save you a bite, Commander?" Vega offered as she strode past him on the CIC. She could see the white edges of a chef's hat sticking out of his pants.

"Sure, won't be long," Jane replied before entering the elevator.

The Commander couldn't see how they would have completed the mission without the Condemnation on their side. If the Reapers had succeeded in killing Mordin, Eve or Wrex, if the Shroud had been too damaged to use, if the Cabal squad hadn't succeeded in dismantling that bomb…this entire thing could have been for naught.

It worked out in the end. That was all that mattered.

Garrus was already at the airlock when it opened. "Welcome back to the Normandy," he said, "Commander Shepard is on her way."

He stepped aside and the three massive sangheili stepped aboard. Jane instantly recognized the Shipmaster in his shining white combat armor. An even larger sangheili followed him inside, clad in an imposing – if impractical – golden armor.

Jane instantly recognized him for what he was: a Zealot. The Chief had told her about the Zealot Order once. These guys were serious. Their shields were the toughest out there, capable of shrugging off hits that would have instantly killed any other sangheili or Spartan. Any sniper targeting this gold-armored warrior would soon find their day ruined.

The third sangheili who left the decontamination chamber wore a different armor than the other two. His was a very dark maroon, almost black, and much sleeker. The helmet covering his entire head ended in a downwards curve. His eyes were only identifiable as two glowing blue lights. His shoulder pads mirrored that curving projection, both of them ending in an upwards spike.

This one stayed behind the other two. Unlike the Zealot, who seemed to make an active effort to fill the entire hallway with his massive, eight feet tall chest, this sangheili actively tried to make himself as small and unnoticeable as possible.

Jane considered the notion of a shy sangheili killing machine and had to stop herself from snickering. That wouldn't go over well.

"The Shepherd of Nations," the Zealot said. His voice was as booming and deep as that of Wrex, but it sounded a lot smoother. "We meet at last."

The Commander blinked. Was it just her, or did her name grow longer with each sangheili officer she met? "And you are…?"

The Zealot brought his fist to his chest and craned his head down in a curt bow. "Field Master N'thyt 'Sakam, the architect of the Reapers' demise on Tuchanka."

"The Field Master wished to partake in our meeting," the Shipmaster said. "He has important details to share."

Jane managed to keep a straight face. "Uh-huh. The War Room is this way. If you would follow me?"

"How fares the krogan people? I trust they hold true to their oath?"

"They kept their word. Their leader is gathering troops already. They're going to link up with the Hierarchy in a couple of days."

The Shipmaster growled with satisfaction. "Good."

This marked the second time a pack of fully armed and geared-up sangheili warriors strode through the Normandy's hallways. And as the Commander and the Shipmaster engaged in what could generally be considered small talk, the black-clad sangheili actively met the gazes of the crewmembers at their station, his helmeted head craning from left to right as he took in every detail around him.

In contrast, the Zealot marched through the hallway with an air of arrogance Jane hadn't seen in his species before. She almost thought it was funny, until she recalled just what a member of the Zealot Order had to have done to gain that title. Arrogant bastard or not, this sangheili had personally slaughtered his way to his position. He was a warrior every bit as dangerous and lethal as the Master Chief was, fueled by religious fervor and unfettered by the cruelties he had to commit. She saw it in the way he carried himself, too; his attitude radiated an air of confidence and authority.

She wondered if Garrus saw it too. Turians communicated more through sounds than with body language, but Garrus was razor-smart and had spent more than a few years among other species. Chances were he knew exactly what he was dealing with here.

Shepard led the sangheili 'delegation' to the War Room. Garrus followed her inside, and the Zealot was quick to march to the center of the room and claim it as his own through sheer physical presence.

"I have taken the liberty of patching the holotable for compatibility with the sangheili technology," EDI reported.

"Thank you, EDI,' Jane replied. "Alright, let's get started."

Field Master 'Sakam went first. Because of course. He took a few minutes to explain the approach of his battalion, the resistance they had encountered and his own force deployment. To his credit, he really had drawn in an enormous amount of the Reaper ground forces. Normally, when military forces got into a one versus one fight, someone had made an enormous fuckup, but 'Sakam had faced the Reaper forces even when they outnumbered him two to one and he had crushed them.

Interestingly enough, the Field Master didn't even bother to detail his own actions, even though he'd led his battalion from the frontline. Arrogant, but not conceited. .

"These," the Field Master continued, gesturing at the grotesque insect-like forms of the Elcor husks, "were the enemy's artillery. Their weapons were far superior to the rest of their arsenal."

Shepard studied the Reaperfied aliens for a moment. "Weaknesses?"

'Sakam snorted. "We scorched them with overwhelming firepower. Narum?"

The third sangheili stepped out of the shadows and approached the holotable with a cautious gait. "Their weapon is powerful and accurate," he started, circling the holographic display with slow steps. "Yet it is vulnerable to disruption. If the weapon is damaged and fires still, the consequences are dire."

"That goes for everyone on the battlefield," Shepard replied. "Anything else?"

"Perhaps," the sangheili replied. "Their main weapon is their only one. If you swarm them with infantry, they must depend on their escort. Without it, they are vulnerable."

Standard anti-artillery attacks, then. Storm them with infantry, or use counter-artillery. Even then, the idea that the Reapers had finally filled that blind hole in their combined-arms operations was fucked up enough. Add in those varren husks and you had a receipt for disaster. Artillery to keep them pinned, fast movers to rip them apart.

They're stepping up their game, she realized. "Noted."

In turn, Shepard brought her guests up to date about the next step in their campaign against the Reapers.


"The turian homeworld," the Shipmaster said. He wasn't quite able to pronounce the name correctly. It came out like toorian. "Our brothers have operations there too."

"We met them," Shepard replied. "Never did figure out where they came from."

"We have a stealth ship in that system," the Shipmaster candidly replied. "To gather information on our foe. We have been waging this war from the beginning, Shepherd."

"With the Master Builder, yes," the Commander replied, wincing when she remembered the few months of unchecked control the Forerunner had had. "What happened to him?"

The Zealot and the Shipmaster both exchanged a forlorn look. "We think the King of the Ancients lost, bearing the full brunt of the Reaper forces."

Shepard remained silent. That opening battle would have been in batarian space, where the Reapers came pouring through the Relay from dark space. If she recalled correctly, the Master Builder had united both the former Covenant factions as the batarians into one fleet. For the Reapers to still have still broken through…

"How many Reapers were there?"

"Thousands," growled the Zealot. "Many thousands."

Thousands. Thousands of Reapers? The same monsters that had taken the entire Citadel Defense Fleet plus an Alliance fleet to destroy one?

Jane suddenly felt unsteady on her feet. She had suspected this before, but always managed to rationalize it away. But…thousands of Sovereigns? Even with the full force of the krogan, the UNSC and the Covenant species, how were they ever going to win this?

"…fleets scattered through the galaxy. Patrolling our core worlds, engaged with the filthy jiralhanae," the Zealot continued. "A strategic withdrawal was ordered before our losses got too severe. Even still – "

Shipmaster 'Kusamai stared at her, as if he knew exactly what was going through her mind. "Numbers are not everything," he said, his heavy voice surprisingly gentle. "Our flame burns still."

"We're going to need a bigger flame," Jane replied. She placed her arms against the holo-table and sighed. "Alright, first things first. Shipmaster, after today, there will not be a leader in the galaxy who doubts your honor or the integrity of your words. What is the status of the rest of your fleet?"

"Hunting down individual packs of Reapers in turian space," 'Kusamai replied. "They are ready for battle, Shepherd."

Good. The sangheili had four of those Dreadnought-sized corvettes and two Ascension-sized cruisers in the ready. John had told her that a single such cruiser could carry an entire invasion force. Thousands of sangheili, thousands of those little grunt guys. If they were going to get anything done on Palaven at all, they would need a lot more.

"And the other sangheili?" She pressed. "What of the Arbiter?"

Field Master 'Sakam sharply turned his head towards the Commander, eyes narrowing. "You…you know?"

"The Master Chief spoke about him," Jane calmly replied.

"The Demon is here?" The Zealot demanded, his reptilian eyes searching the shadows of the War Room as if he expected the Chief to be hidden in the shadows with them.

"Peace, N'thyt," 'Kusamai said with a hint of amusement.

The gold-clad alien crossed his arms over his massive chest and snorted. "There is only war, Oso. But I remember our allegiance."

Jane watched the exchange with interest…and a modicum of unease. "I've got two Spartans in my team, Field Master. Could be more in the future. Threats against them won't be tolerated."

Surprisingly enough, 'Kusamai merely chuckled and said, "Ballads have been written about the bond between the Demon and the Arbiter. It is what it is."

"He is a hated enemy," 'Sakam growled in protest.

"The champion of the people we have sworn to protect," the Shipmaster rebuked. "Meditate on this, N'thyt. Yes Shepherd, the Arbiter lives still. He rallies the remaining fleets as we speak. He…" For a moment, the silver-plated warrior hesitated. He clicked his lower mandibles and shook his head. "The rest is not relevant for now."

"Right," Jane said, deciding not to dig deeper there. "Try to contact him if you can. We're going to need everything we've got to take back Palaven."

"We shall see to it, Shepherd," the Shipmaster replied. "I look forward to discussing stratagems with the Shipmasters of the other species."

"I'm…sure the feeling is mutual," Jane said, internally wincing. She could already see 'Kusamai trying to discuss the battle of Palaven with the Union and Hierarchy admirals. Casually talking and discussing shield strength with aging Alliance admirals. And…ah shit, how would that go over with Hackett and Harper?"

"The matter is settled then?" the Zealot asked impatiently.

'Kusamai held up a slender, armored finger. "One more matter. Narum?"

The third sangheili silently stepped towards the holo-table, bowing respectfully towards her. His footsteps were near silent.

"This is Nar'Sarum. He is a stealth expert; an infiltrator, a saboteur and an assassin," the Shipmaster explained. "It was his ilk who softened up the Reaper forces for our main assault. He has offered to serve you directly in combat."

Jane blinked a couple of times. A sangheili on her ground team?

"If you would have me, Commander," Sarum told her, still bowing, "I would be your dagger, to search out the hearts of those who would harm your design. Your foes would not see me coming."

Shepard stared at the infiltrator, not sure what to say to that. She felt sorely tempted to decline; Spartan-003 was more than capable of doing those things, and he wasn't a walking, breathing reminder of the atrocities of the Human-Covenant War to John, Avery and Cortana.

…on the other hand, their operations had just barely avoided a hefty kick in the nuts for the second time in a week. She didn't know for sure who had been doing the kicking, but she did know that she needed some capable nut-kickers herself. A seven feet tall invisible bulletproof alien assassin was definitely a good co-conspirator for that.

John and Avery knew the stakes. They hadn't protested when she had entrusted the Normandy to the sangheili. It would be all hands on deck for Palaven. As for Three…well, she would just have to hope he'd be too busy with the Cabals to really notice.

"If you can follow orders – mine and of those around me – I don't see why not," Shepard decided.

She offered a hand to the bowing infiltrator. He looked up, then stared at her extended hand, as if unsure what the gesture meant.

After a few seconds of visible hesitation, he took her hand as if it were a porcelain cup and very softly shook it.

"Welcome to the crew, Nar'Sarum."

"You will not regret this, Shepherd of Nations," the sangheili solemnly stated.

"Please stop calling me that," Jane muttered, barely able to keep from rolling her eyes. She was starting to regret this already.


Things were quieting down on the crew quarters. Vega had burned most of his energy – along with some of the provisions – whipping up an all-amino-inclusive meal for fifteen hungry soldiers of five different species. After an intense – and somewhat awkward – dining session, everybody was starting to wind down a bit, although they hadn't quite reached the threshold for the party mood yet.

Things had gotten a little tense when Shepard strolled on deck with a towering sangheili warrior standing next to her, covered head to toe in dark, menacing armor, just when the rest of the crew thought they could kick back and lower their guard.

Everybody, I want you to meet Sar'Narum…

Garrus, having been around the Normandy since its inception as the SR-2, had been through that routine about half a dozen times already. A perfect krogan fresh out of his tank, a ruthless drell assassin, a very dangerous asari Justicar and even a genetically enhanced alien-hating human super-soldier or some regards, the Commander was like a little kid bringing back stray animals.

Hungry, apex predators.

Nevertheless, shaking hands with a geth sharpshooter still qualified as the strangest first meeting he'd ever had, so Garrus didn't see why he couldn't welcome a sangheili assassin either.

His compatriots…didn't exactly share the feeling. While the lovely ladies of the Eleventh had never met a sangheili warrior before Tuchanka, Liara had.

John, Avery and Three also had. And where the former two had extensive experience working together with the elites, Three didn't. Hell, it was probably a miracle that the Spartan had remained as calm as he had. Garrus doubted anything short of a combined Stasis barrage could have held him if he'd decided that violence was the only solution.

As things went, Sar'Narum was sharp enough to realize that trust couldn't be freely given; it had to be earned. So he politely excused himself and left for what would be his personal quarters – a full deck away.

"Just what I always wanted. My own enormous, invisible alien swordmaster buddy," Vega said as he slammed down several bottles of heavy alcohol on the table. "Cheers!"

And just like that, things went back to normal. Three, probably aware that he was now the new owner of several concerned stares, simply crossed his arms and leant back in his chair with his eyes closed.

Garrus kicked back and listened to the various ongoing conversations around him. Having some other turians around was a welcome change of pace. That half of them were still bedridden after their latest op put a hell of a damper on their mood, however. He couldn't think of a way to start a conversation that wouldn't end with him awkwardly coughing and excusing himself again.

Damn shame. These cabals were very good looking, and their Biotics would certainly make things interesting.

Maybe he'd come up with a good knock-knock joke to break the ice. It would have to be a really good one though, since he was far from the most interesting person on deck to listen to.

Johnson was at it again.

"You learn to go with the flow. One day you're dying in a galaxy far, far away, next thing you know you're being taken care of on some sort of colony in the ass-end of nowhere by weird-skinned alien babes. Was good while it lasted, 'till the tax collectors came knocking. They didn't have their papers on 'em, so I gave 'em a light and they buggered off."

"Wait, I have a translation, hold on," Cortez replied. He inched forwards in his seat. "Gangsters came for protection money. You set them on fire and the survivors ran for their lives."

"I fail to see how this will help me understand their politics," Liara meekly replied.

"No, no, the man's got a point," Vega said. "Some things you just gotta accept, doctor T'soni. Don't waste time and energy overthinking them."

"Really?" Ashley said, raising a skeptical eyebrow. "And did that help you find the…weird-skinned alien babes…Vega?"

The marine pulled his broad shoulders up in a shrug. "Got me there. Chief, you woke up on the other side of the galaxy too, right? That happen to you yet?"

All eyes went to the armor-less John, sitting at the corner of the table next to Avery. He blinked at the audacity of the question, then leveled a gaze towards Mordin. "I woke up to doctor Solus one day."

A round of laughter erupted at the Spartan's dry remark.

Without looking up from his datapad, Mordin said, "Flattered by the comparison. Unfortunately, not interested in pursuing romantic relations. Must apologize."

Garrus snickered and took another sip of dextro-amino brandy. What knock-knock joke could stand up to the sheer charisma already contained on this deck? No, he would strike when the time was right.

Shepard sat perched on a kitchen table, munching on one of the few remaining candy bars. Her crimson hair was loose in waves around her neck. It carried a peculiar scent, likely from a long shower session.

Human hair was one of those things that made them unique. It carried a unique scent, which made it easier to distinguish between them. Maybe that was why he had never really struggled to tell her apart from Annah. Her clone smelled…different. Garrus wasn't sure what it was.

Avery smelled different too. His short-cropped hair always smelled like ash, fire and that addictive plant called "tobacco".

"Damn Chief, you're making enormous leaps here. Straight from slaying giants to flirting with salarian doctors?" Shepard quipped. "Didn't know you had it in you."

"It seems the Spartan is full of surprises," Javik commented. "In my cycle, slaying megafauna would have been more difficult. The thresher maws were smaller, but their stomach acid much more potent."

That got a good laugh out of the Commander.

They cracked open another stash of contraband after that. Things like that would never have flown on a turian ship, but the Normandy wasn't exactly a strictly military vessel.

Besides, Garrus thought as he casually lobbed a bottle towards Pollux, I'm not exactly a model turian myself.

Copious amounts of alcohol finally got Pollux and Laelea to open up. Being a gruff angry type and a professional veteran respectfully, the two ladies seemed to gravitate towards Johnson.

Garrus, meanwhile, finally found himself face to face with Spartan-003. Well, not exactly face to face. They'd both taken a seat with their backs to the Main Battery room. Garrus did so because it had become his new house. Three probably did so because he wouldn't have to watch his six.

Which was fine. Turians didn't judge.

"So," Garrus started, feeling particularly lucky that evening. "Haven't had the pleasure to sit down and have a proper talk yet. Got off Tuchanka okay? Heard the mission went hairy near the end."

The Spartan stared at the glass in his hands. Wearing neither his armor nor a murderous scowl, the super-soldier looked…normal.

As normal as a ghostly-pale genetically enhanced killer could be, that was. Apart from those little details, Three looked young and uncertain. Definitely smaller than the Chief and…Spirits, if Garrus hadn't known better, he would have thought that the man had never even had a drop of alcohol before, considering the way he stared at his glass.

"We had casualties," Three hesitantly replied. "The Ninth, but we too."

"Nasty business. Heard about that," Garrus replied, astounded that he'd gotten a Spartan to react to his questions. "Mordin said they'd recover, right?"

His time at C-Sec had taught him that humans communicated with subtle hints and tells of their body. Nonverbal communication was this big thing, including micro-expressions and muscle twitches. It made up about seventy percent of their total communication.

Three could have been hewn from stone for all the nonverbal stuff he showed. "They will. But their injuries could have been prevented."

Garrus took a swig of his own drink, savoring the burn. "So you do care?"

Those bright eyes of his shifted towards Garrus questioningly. Or at least, he guessed it was questioningly. Spartans didn't seem to communicate like humans.

"From what I've seen, you never cared particularly about aliens," Garrus continued. "It was the same with the Master Chief, really. Everything alien reminded him of the Covenant. Took him literal weeks to get used to."

Three looked back at his glass again.

"And I know that turian Cabals can be quite a handful," Garrus continued. "They're reclusive and very elite, as they keep reminding others of."

"They're difficult," Three said with a small voice. "But on the battlefield, that didn't matter. It shouldn't be relevant. It was Shepard's order."

"Maybe. From what I've seen, you somehow earned their respect."

That earned him another look from the Spartan.

"They tolerate you," Garrus explained. "You'd be standing near them, and they wouldn't move away, or shove you away. Especially near their wounded. Turians get…protective of their own. A tight group like the Cabals? They're practically family. Even closer than that. Strangers aren't welcome in their bubble. The fact that you were in their midst as they tended to their own and didn't try to chase you away? Tells me enough."

Three seemed to consider that. "Is that so."

"It is. Sooner or later they'll ask you to spar more with them, I'd imagine."


"Because…" Realization set in and Garrus had to bite back a chuckle. "Ah, you don't know? Turian physiology has a…certain quirk. Call it a flaw. Turians register stressful stimuli the same. Tension, stress, emotional distress, it all builds up to a certain point. Our bodies can't handle it the way humans can."

"You're saying you can't naturally process stress?"

"Not passively. So when turians get worked up, we spar to get rid of that stress. If we can't spar…we find another way to ease tension." Garrus let his voice trail off, expecting the Spartan to catch the meaning of his words.

Three stared at him blankly. "Another way?"

Ah. Things had gotten awkward again. "You see, it's…ah…" Garrus distinctly recalled the Master Chief being blissfully unaware of matters such as these as well. It was the strangest thing; if men like Vega were any indication, human soldiers couldn't pass a day without cracking at least four different sex jokes in the morning. It wasn't a UEG-biology thing either; Avery always knew what the ladies liked.

Three looked at him expectantly.

Where is Jack when you need her? "If sparring can't satisfy a turian's stress levels, they often resort to a different method to ease tension. I don't mean to make you blush here Three, but turians get promiscuous to ease their stress."

"Promiscuous? As in wanton, disorganized?" Three asked.

Garrus took a breath and then downed half his glass. Don't laugh at the clueless super-soldier, Vakarian. It's not classy. "I think Tatilia can explain it best. Why don't you ask her when she's feeling better? It might help you prevent those sparring matchups."

"I will," Three said, looking back at his glass. "Thank you."

"Hey. No problem. Mind if I ask you a question?"


"From what I understand, the Chief's fellow Spartans are all around his age. You're younger. Are there different generations of Spartans?"

Three frowned lightly. "That's…very classified."

Garrus downed the rest of his drink. "How very classified?"

"If I told you the complete story, I'd then have to shoot you. And then ONI would have to shoot me."

Garrus hid his sudden and extreme discomfort behind an expression of mild amusement. "Sounds very classified."

"It is. Now I'm on the Office's hit-list already, but knowing this will just be dangerous to you."

"Hmmm…understandable. Anything you can tell me? Got a name I can call you by? Calling people by their serial number got old around the second week of the Chief, and Spartan isn't specific enough."

The Spartan proceeded to stare at him with an expression Garrus really couldn't place. All sorts of uncanny.

"Not asking for a name. I know how personal that is," Garrus quickly explained. "But you maybe got a nickname we can call you? Something your…" Garrus cut himself off, realizing that asking him about his family might not have gone over well. "…associates call you?"

The Spartan leant back in his chair. "I…don't think I do."

Which told Garrus all sorts of things he really didn't want to think about at that moment. "Don't worry. We'll get you a suitably-embarrassing nickname eventually."

Two shots of liquor later and the crew quarters suddenly sounded a lot noisier. Vega and Cortez disappeared for a minute, before returning with a table they had stolen from Liara's office. The pair sat down with Liara, Ashley, Mordin and Javik and started explaining the rules of some sort of human card game.

It instantly reminded Garrus of Jack and her insistence to slap the word "strip" to every card game they played. Shepard had been game that one time, but Tali hadn't been very interested. Of course, once Zaeed and Jacob caught wind of it, things deteriorated very quickly.

Garrus reclined back in his chair and just watched things for a moment. Johnson and the two cabals switched places, the girls telling him about their unit, their ways of operating and recent engagements while the old marine sat and listened. Asked the occasional question, downed the occasional glass of booze in one go, that sort of thing.

In the meantime, Garrus didn't miss how Shepard and the Chief had taken a corner of the room for themselves. That got his hopes up all right, but when he inched a bit closer to hear what they were talking about, it wasn't quite what he had been hoping for.

" – no trace of her," Cortana's voice said. "She's not in UEG space. But ONI has reported heavy geth activity beyond the Perseus Veil, and the quarians are acting awfully secretive about their movements. It might be possible that they're preparing to take back Rannoch.

"Idiots," Shepard hissed. "I told them not to do it! I told them that the geth don't want to fight!"

"I haven't been able to reach Legion either. The distance is just too vast. I can't get through to their network."

"We'll find her eventually," John said, as calm as ever. "What about the rest?"

Shepard sighed. "I've had contact with Miranda and Jacob for a while now. They're safe, although Jacob's kinda late with his latest update. Get this; they're both saying that the Illusive Man is scaling down on his operations. Cells got disbanded, laboratories dismantled."'

"Do you think he's putting an end to Cerberus?" John asked.

"Maybe he's had one too many bad encounters with alien tech to risk it. The last time someone fucked with the wrong stuff… he'd be smart to stop meddling with things he doesn't understand."

Garrus supposed someone must have given the Man a very stern talking-to.

"The last time I spoke with him, he gave me Three's location. That was back when the galaxy was still hunting down Minerva's fragment. With all the different species and factions going to war, I guess he finally decided to pull the plug."

"We'll see," John replied. "Cortana?"

"Right!" Cortana's chipper voice continued. "I've put in a transfer request for doctor Chakwas, Kenneth and Gabriella."

"Adams is finally getting his reinforcements," Shepard laughed.

"Exactly. I haven't been able to find Kelly though. A lot more people managed to escape the Citadel than we thought, but the Council is still putting together that casualty list. I know for a fact that Thane managed to get off."

"Let me know the moment you've tracked him down," Shepard said. "I don't think he has much time left. The treatment you and Mordin theorized could be his only shot."

"I've got my eyes and ears open. I managed to track down Kasumi and Zaeed in the meantime. I've gotten them the clearance they need to make it to the Lambda Serpentis system, but the Reapers are encroaching on the systems they'll have to travel through. It might take them a while."

"It'll be good to have them on the team again. Samara?"

Cortana remained quiet for a moment. "Things are heating up in the Asari Republics. Dozens of their confederacies are drastically shifting their policies. Matriarchs are disappearing. More and more citizens are radicalizing. 'Thessia first' has been trending on their official chat rooms and forums for months now. The last time I heard anything about Samara, she'd killed one of her fellow Justicars and vacated the area before officials could arrive."

Spirits that was bad. With the war ripping apart the galactic community, this was the perfect opportunity for those witches to stage a power grab.

"Goddamnit," Shepard hissed. "Samara, what are you doing?"

"Is she okay?" John asked.

"The cameras lost track of her. Either she knew exactly how to spoof her electronic trail, or the asari have terrible home security. Your pick."

"This is insane! We should be uniting against the Reapers, not watching as other species devolve into a civil war!"

"Not much we can do about that from here," the Spartan calmly replied. "Let the politicians worry about that. We've got our own battles to fight."

Shepard sighed with exasperation. "I know, I know. I'm just…I'm worried. Including that incident with the Office of Naval Intelligence, I've got two massively powerful organizations skulking in the shadows that could be after my crew. Even picked one up from Earth as we left. She wasn't even indoctrinated…not by the Reapers at least."

John kept silent. Maybe he didn't know how to respond to that?

Garrus was about to stroll up with all of his charismatic swagger and ask the Commander if she wanted another drink when the Spartan suddenly spoke up again.

"For every powerful enemy you have, there are three allies willing to fight them. We'll get through this together."

Hmmm…together? Garrus wasn't sure what to think about that. There wasn't anyone in this damn galaxy he respected as much as her. Then again, John came a very close second. As long as she was happy.

Why the hell not? They both deserved a shot at happiness.

So Garrus let them be.

Spirits knew the storm was about to get a lot worse.


The Normandy made a quick stop at Pinnacle Station, a reworked command and control station for Council forces. Cortana had provided Karin, Kenneth and Gabriella with security access and personal quarters there, ensuring they would remain safe.

The Master Chief hung back as Jane enthusiastically greeted her old crew members at the airlock and smiled inwardly. Hearing reports that they had survived the Citadel was one thing. Actually seeing them back aboard the ship was completely different.

"Master Chief," doctor Chakwas said the moment she spotted him standing by the elevator. "It is a pleasure to see you again!"

She offered him her hand, which he took without hesitation. "Likewise, ma'am."

"I heard the most dreadful stories at Pinnacle Station. I just have to know. Cortana, is she…?"

"Alive and still kicking," Cortana replied through one of EDI's intercoms. "And very pleased to see the same goes for you, doctor."

The "new" crewmembers wasted no time reporting to their new stations. Knowing Chakwas, she would demand for Mordin to immediately bring her up to date about the two patients in the Med Bay. Kenneth and Gabriella meanwhile would have to report to Adams.

John didn't know the senior engineer very well, but he did know that Adams was a hardworking, no-nonsense specialist who knew this ship like the back of his hand. With his workforce effectively tripled, he would be able to get that much more done in case of an emergency.

Nevertheless, he would have much preferred Samara on this mission. The Justicar was serenity itself, even in the direst circumstances. Her immense combat prowess and biotic mastery made her almost as tough as a fully equipped Spartan – and her thousand years of experience would have been invaluable to have on hand.

He worried about her. If the Inner Circle wanted her dead, they would not have to waste manpower hunting her down. They could just park a warship in orbit and shell her location until nothing was left.

The Master Chief had a terrible feeling that the Inner Circle would stop at nothing to destroy Jane. She had crossed them too many times. They would murder everything and everyone she loved to get to her.

The sooner they got the old crew together the better.

With the quick rendezvous at Pinnacle Station done, Joker wasted no time in navigating the frigate through the Relay, back to the Condemnation and on to its original course.

With that taken care of, the Master Chief updated his mission agenda and military clock.

18:15 Hours, July 30, 2553 (Military Calendar) / Aboard CAS-Class Assault Carrier Condemnation – SSV Normandy-SR 2, en route to Rally Point "Anvil"

About one hour until they arrived at their destination, it seemed. He had timed everything perfectly.

The Coalition leadership had been gathering forces for the upcoming Palaven Campaign for weeks. While the Normandy's crew had kept themselves concerned with getting the krogan aboard, the military leaders of the UEG and the Citadel races had been laying the groundwork for an invasion the likes the galaxy hadn't seen in a thousand years.

In many ways, the assault on Palaven would be a testing bed for many revolutionary ideas and concepts. It would be the first true application of the lessons learned during the last years of the Human-Covenant War. the UNSC would be testing their updated naval doctrine, newly developed systems, hardware and equipment and support structure. Since the majority of the goals had all been devised with integrated AI support, this would mark the first true clash between the UNSC Smart AI's and the Reapers themselves.

John was certain that it would be the same for the Council species as well. The return of the Reapers had caught them completely by surprise, but they had to have some sort of secret military R&D projects to use against the Reapers, didn't they?

"Hey," a voice came from his left. "Wanna hang out?"

"Let's," he replied. "Need a distraction."

Jane had foregone her usual N7 hoodie for a simple black shirt and sweatpants. They made her look pale, especially so with the deck's lighting, and that made the heavy bags underneath her eyes that much sharper.

Her hair was still damp from a recent shower, hanging loosely around her shapely face. "Come on," she said. "Let's head to the lounge. Don't think anyone's there yet."

"Not? Let's make sure."

Things had quieted down on the crew deck. Mordin and doctor Chakwas were likely going through some late-night ideas with each other. Many of the others had already retreated to their cots.

Which was perfectly fine with John.

Shepard keyed the door open and barged inside. "Looks clear to me. I'm pretty sure nobody's hanging around with their cloak on."

With a pang, John remembered how uneasy he used to feel around Kasumi for that exact reason. Thinking back, he couldn't exactly pin down the moment he stopped feeling uneasy around her for that. At some point the trepidation and stress just…stopped rising whenever he was around her.

The same went for Grunt…Thane…especially Garrus. During his time on the Normandy, they had gone from potential alien threats to people he could rely on. People he could trust to watch his six.

The Normandy was the only spaceship he had never come to associate with pain or loss. Perhaps that was why this place felt so much like home?

He watched Jane fuss with her omni-tool. She scowled at a message and sighed. Softly. Wearily.

John silently approached her, lifting his arm and gently cupped her shoulder.

Her emerald eyes darted towards him. For a moment, she didn't seem to understand his intention.

In answer, he opened his other arm, just slightly, holding himself open.

Her eyes widened a bit when she realized what he meant. Then, she slumped against him, and he guided her towards his chest, where she rested her head against his sternum.

"What happened?" He asked.

Jane uttered a bone-deep sigh. "It's…the Reapers are gaining ground on Earth. They completely razed one of the resistance headquarters to the ground. It's…it's not sure if David made it out."

He looped an arm around her back. He could feel her breathe, steady and carefully regulated. "Anderson is tough as nails," he softly said.

"I know, I know," Jane muttered. "But…"

When she didn't continue, John said, "But he's the closest thing you've got to a father."

"He's out there on his own. Earth is alone. Soon…"

When her voice trailed off, John silently pulled her closer. She felt warm. "We're coming back for him," he said. "For Earth. One dead Reaper at a time."

A frustrated groan escaped past her lips. "I didn't want to be gloomy. Just wanted a moment alone with you."

And that was the nature of war. Loss could come at any time, at any moment. Without warning.

But John didn't say that. Instead, he brushed some hair away from her face, and said, "He has faith in you. Now, you need to have faith in him."

Shepard was silent for a few moments. "Yeah," she muttered. "You're right."

She wrapped her arms around his middle in a loose embrace and in turn, he rested his head against her neck. She was warm and soft. A comfortable feeling spread through his chest. John did not generally like being touched, but this…this, he could get used to.

Jane tilted her head slightly and allowed their cheeks to touch just for a moment before turning in their embrace. She gently brushed her lips against his.

His fingers found her cheek, softly caressing it. She seemed so calm, so confident. He felt her muscles ease under his hold, her body relax against his. Almost subconsciously, he responded by pulling her closer, resting his other hand between her shoulder blades to hold her in place.

She released a quiet sigh of delight before sealing the kiss. Her tongue lightly grazed his lips - a sensation utterly alien to John.

But with her, he would not mind more.

She broke off again, looking at him with a look of faint amusement. "I still don't really get it. Cortana can't feel through your senses, can she?"

John considered that for a moment. Back on High Charity, Cortana's pain, guilt, and loss of self had nearly overwhelmed him. His neural interface allowed the two of them to join minds on a level never seen before, but as far as he was aware, Cortana had never been able to make use of his senses without the MJOLNIR.

Then again, that had been before the Stellar Engine. He wasn't entirely sure what her limits were now. "We share emotions and thoughts…but she can't interfere with them, or any biological activities," he replied. "I think."

Jane seemed to consider that for a moment. A light blush had spread across her face. "You think?"

A ghost of a smile tugged at his lips. "If that has changed, it should be very interesting to her."

Shepard grinned. "I like the way you think." She shifted her weight on him, drawing him into a second, deeper kiss, harder and longer. John didn't protest, wrapping his arms more fully around her back and savoring the solid feel of her warmth against him. His calloused hands slowly stroked her back. The smell of her hair surrounded him. For a moment, his mind was unable to focus on anything but the warm sensation of her lips working against his. It was too much for him and somehow, it still wasn't enough.

John couldn't tell how long they lay there. Long enough that when the kiss finally broke they both gasped for air, but still far too short for his liking.

Jane fell against him onto his shoulder and breathed a soft sigh. "I've waited…far too long for that…" she whispered.

He reached out and gently cupped her cheekbone. There were so many things he wanted to say to her. Most of all, he wanted to express how much he wanted to stay there with her and enjoy what they had.

But he couldn't. There was so much left that needed to be done. Palaven was right around the corner, and they needed to be at their absolute best.

"It feels right," he whispered back.

"I don't want to go just yet," Jane continued. "Can we stay like this? For just a little longer?"

John smiled. Without another word, he embraced her again. "Just a little longer."

They stayed like that together until either Jeff or EDI would call upon them.

Protected within the armored bowels of the Condemnation, the Normandy did not even move a millimeter when they emerged from the depths of Slipspace. Nevertheless, their sensors were up and running and all the crewmembers had manned their stations. Cortana and EDI had taken the sensory input of the CAS-class carrier and disseminated it across the Normandy's systems. Everything the sangheili knew, they knew.

The instant the massive carrier transitioned back to real space, the Master Chief and Commander Shepard knew their time was up.

Twenty thousand kilometers from the Mass Relay, a large cluster of hundreds of warships had gathered at Anvil. The UNSC alone had brought in three massive Epoch-class carriers, twenty Halbert-class destroyers, thirteen Charon-class and seven Mulsanne-class light frigates, twenty Paris-class and nine Strident-class heavy frigates and half a dozen unidentified prowlers. Leading this fleet was the UNSC Terminus, a Valiant-class super-heavy cruiser and one of the most powerful warships mankind had ever built. She would have been upgraded with post-war Covenant and Forerunner upgrades to maximize her ability as a command ship.

The turians had brought in more than five times that amount. Five newly organized battlegroups, each one led by a dreadnought and a carrier and bolstered by dozens of cruisers and hundreds of frigates. The turian Admiral had personally taken the head of a sixth battlegroup, spearheaded by two state-of-the-art Dreadnoughts armed with advanced Thanix cannons.

The entire Alliance Third Fleet had arrived to supplement the turian fleets, toting a carrier filled to capacity with fighters and fire support as well as a dreadnought, eight cruisers and thirty frigates. Shuttles buzzed around the fleet, likely taking care of last-minute supply runs.

Adding to that was the legendary salarian Third Fleet, once dismissed by an Alliance admiral as a fancy collection of spy planes. The truth was far more complicated; the Third Fleet made up for its lack in quantity with the most expensive, bleeding-edge technological quality their people could afford. Even their dreadnoughts were capable of stealth.

At the center of the fleets floated six massive, uparmored krogan battle-barges. These floating slabs of steel were based on designs dating all the way back to the Rebellions. Each one carried thousands of seasoned krogan warriors and enough weapons and supplies to arm ten times that amount.

Gathered at the outermost layer of the sphere of ships was another sangheili battlegroup. The very first thing that leapt to the Chief's mind was the absolutely enormous signature of a warship he had never seen before. Its outline on the galaxy map reminded him more of the blueprint of a fuel rod gun, all bulky and bloated edges. This thing dwarfed even the assault carrier ferrying the Normandy and looked like it could have carried a dozen energy projectors. Escorting that monster was a cluster of six heavy destroyers, three CCS-class battlecruisers and eight frigates.

Those battlecruisers in particular would be crucial. With their energy projectors, plasma torpedoes and pulse laser turrets, they could engage entire fleets at once. The amount of troops they carried could overwhelm entire strategic planetary locations on their own.

There were other vessels too, smaller Council battlegroups too. Volus support vessels and – surprisingly – an asari flotilla, constantly on the move between the krogan barges and turian supply depots.

"ETA to Rally Point Anvil four minutes," Joker said through the intercom.

Commander Shepard stood at the galaxy map, impassively watching as the holographic representation of the Condemnation approached the rally point.

"Everyone has reported their readiness, Commander," the Master Chief said. "All members of the ground team are standing by at five minutes notice to move."

"Shipmaster 'Kusamai is ready for our deployment."

"Give him the go-ahead," Shepard replied.

A shudder ran through the Normandy as the massive assault carrier opened its aft launch bay. Joker expertly guided the frigate through the cavernous bay, then carefully accelerated away from the Condemnation and towards the UNSC fleet.

"Commander, we have an urgent message coming through on the QEC, coming from the Hierarchy. Gimme a moment…yeah, it's Primarch Victus."

Jane's brows furrowed. "Continue on approach with the Terminus, have us dock as soon as possible," Shepard replied. "Vakarian to the War Room. Master Chief, with me."

Garrus met up with them a minute later and the three of them made their way to the War Room. Garrus and John exchanged a look; an urgent message right before such an enormous military operation was never a good sign.

The Commander shut the door to the War Room behind her and briskly walked to the QEC room. She stepped into the center of the faintly glowing circle on the floor.

The Primarch appeared within view the instant Shepard palmed the button. His holographic image had a grimm look about him. "Commander. Thank you for answering on such short notice."

Jane turned somewhat, so that the others present in the War Room could see the Primarch as well. "Primarch. What happened?"

Victus didn't respond immediately. He took a deep breath, then averted his gaze. "The Reapers are breaking through on all sides," he started explaining. "They're tearing through the defensive line at Acetius, Palaven's capital. I…" He paused, as if taking a moment to compose himself. "Commander, they've shot down the remaining evac shuttles in that region and are surrounding the city with processor ships. Our remaining Blackwatch operatives say they'll start harvesting the population within a day."

"What!" Garrus roared. He all but dove to his feet and almost tripped over Shepard. "No, no no no! That's where dad and Sol retreated to!"

"I don't know, Vakarian," the Primarch replied with a pained voice. "The Reapers have cut all communications. If your family is still there, they are in the dark. The entire capital city is. They're alone."

"Shit," Garrus spat, his breathing growing heavy and labored. "Damnit!"

His voice was laced with a sound John had never heard before, a sort of vibration that cut to the bone. Since turians did not express their emotions with their eyes, but with their voices…


"I'm sorry, Vakarian," Victus quietly said.

Almost instantly, Mana's voice echoed through the Chief's head. "Processor ships?"

"Slaughterhouses," the Chief quietly replied. "They take the victims and process them into Husks, or break them down into biological components."

"Do we know why?" .

"Terror tactics. Building up their own forces. We're not sure."

"Are…are you going to stop them? That's what you do, right?" She timidly asked.

"Only if it's possible."

"I'm sorry to hear that, Primarch," Shepard replied, stepping up to Garrus and placing a hand on his shoulder. "But I don't see how that brings you to us. What can we do about that?"

Victus's gaze darted towards the Chief for a second. "All our assets are stretched to their limits, and we don't have enough ground assets in place," he continued in a hurried voice.

"We don't have anyone left in the area?" Garrus demanded furiously. "No ships, no ground troops, nothing?"

"The Reapers are maintaining a defensive perimeter around our capital, held by a handful of capital ships. They haven't dedicated more than four or five Sovereign-class ships, but they're enough to annihilate any reinforcements we send their way. Commander…while you were on Sur'Kesh, the UNSC Delegation and I discussed many things, including ways to alleviate the pressure on the capital without resorting to a full-frontal assault. The Master Chief knows what I mean."

"So that's what you were doing," Mana breathed.

"Yes," John replied. Out loud, he said, "Primarch, the special tactics discussed with Lord Hood were meant as an alpha strike during the assault on the Arx territory. If we utilize them now, the Reapers might wisen up. They might prove ineffective in the future."

"I know," Victus said through clenched mandibles. "And if Acetius falls, the Reapers will gain millions of foot soldiers in return, and they will spread through the entire continent! If we want to hold Palaven, we need intervention, and we need it as soon as possible."

Shepard turned to face the Spartan. "Chief? What does he mean?"

The Master Chief sighed. He had hoped it wouldn't come to this. Jane would surely object. "While you were on Sur'Kesh, I discussed tactics with Lord Hood and the Primarch. With our power armor and augmentations, Spartan-003 and I can infiltrate grounded Reapers and plant high-yield explosives to destroy them on the ground. We can eliminate Sovereign-Class Reapers with minimal casualties this way."

As expected, reactions varied. Garrus' head snapped towards him. The turian looked like he had never seen him before.

Jane's eyes widened with shock, and she snapped, "Absolutely not! That's a goddamn suicide mission!"

"Cortana?" The Chief replied.

A second later, Cortana's holographic avatar appeared on the central table. "It's not a suicide mission. In fact, the BRAHMASTRA's shield and armor will shrug off anything the ground forces can throw at it."

"Not if the Reapers see them coming from a mile away! Their main cannons can destroy Dreadnoughts in a couple of hits, you won't stand a chance on foot!" Shepard protested.

"Incorrect. With its inbuilt cloaking system and radar spoofing technology, the Reapers will be unable to detect the Spartans. Their weapons are not optimized to engage single infantry units."

Jane shook her head in disbelief. "The Indoctrination inside those Reapers – "

"Will be easily nullified by the ELEMENT program within the armor," Cortana calmly rebuked. Her voice softened and she added, "These are Forerunner upgrades, Jane. Have some faith."

Visibly growing desperate, Shepard whirled towards Victus. "Primarch, Admiral Harper talked about nukes! Those are the only things that can destroy Reapers from the inside, but they'll leave Palaven devastated!"

"Not true," the turian wearily replied. "Lord Admiral Hood spoke of a nuclear device with an extremely clean nuclear blast, with a heat flash that will incinerate everything within two kilometers. If it detonates inside the Reaper, the blast will be more contained, and turians build to last."

"It will still annihilate everything within four-hundred meters," Cortana warned. "You'll need at least that amount of distance to survive."

"Commander, when I first joined your crew, you told me you would allow me my own way of fighting on the battlefield," John reminded her

Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose in growing frustration. "I wasn't talking about staging a one-man assault on a Reaper and outrunning a nuke! This is insane!"

The Master Chief replied with the utmost calmness. "It's been done before, during the war. Several times, on more dangerous targets, all performed by Spartans, all successful. This is what we do, Commander."

"Spartans make the impossible possible," Victus quoted. He refused to meet Shepard's eyes. "I wouldn't ask this if it wasn't of the utmost importance. Lord Hood has already accepted. So has Admiral Hackett. As a matter of fact, we have already discussed this extensively with the other fleets while you were on Tuchanka. It's all been decided already. The Normandy does not have a role to play in this assault yet. It can get close enough to Palaven to drop the Spartans off while we engage the Reapers."

Jane looked at the Chief with an expression of pure anguish. "You're going to be all alone, going up against an entire Reaper! What if the terrain doesn't allow for maneuvering? What if you get pinned down inside that thing and can't get out of the nuke's range? There's a hundred ways this can go wrong!"

He understood her concern, and it hurt to see her that way. But this was something he had to do.

"Commander Shepard, do you honestly believe the Hierarchy is going to ask these men to do the impossible without doing everything in their utmost capacity to support them?" Victus harked, conviction lining his voice like steel. "We have an entire combat support group dedicated to overseeing this operation. Major Kirrahe, if you please?"

At his behest, a brown-skinned salarian soldier stepped into view, stopping when he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Primarch.

"Greetings, Commander, Master Chief," Kirrahe said. "I understand your hesitation at this hour. The odds seem stacked against us."

"Kirrahe?" Shepard said, her eyes darting back and forth between him and the Primarch. "Why are you - ?"

"You were there for us in our hour of need," the major said, clasping his wrist behind his back. He straightened his spine. "I promised we would return the favor one day. It seems that day has dawned. I have no less than three STG Platoons ready to support the Spartans. We have a transport platoon equipped with stealth shuttles and one-manned recon vehicles for rapid transport between targets, an intelligence platoon for coordination and communication and a logistics platoon dedicated to providing a constant stream of supplies to the Spartans."

"You and your brother-in-arms will never be without eyes in the sky, transport or constant resupply caches, Master Chief," Primarch Victus assured them. "You have my word on this. We will do everything in our power to assist you."

Jane sat down on the edge of the table and crossed her arms. "Goddamnit," the Chief heard her mutter to herself.

Cortana's avatar hopped down on her shoulder. "It wouldn't be the first time a Spartan infiltrated a hostile warship, neutralized its crew and detonated it unharmed," she said. "And that was without Forerunner upgrades and the full might of the STG backing them up. They can do this, Commander. And the Terminus already has the gear required for them to maneuver inside the Reaper."

Jane closed her eyes for a moment. "Yeah, I get it." She took a moment to regain her composure. "What about the people stuck in Acetius? We're talking about millions of people here. How are we going to get them out?"

"We have a plan for their evacuation," Victus firmly said. "The operational order has already been sent, but I will briefly explain. As Spartans 117 and 003 infiltrate and destroy the Reapers, a detachment of sangheili will get close enough to Palaven for an orbital drop, They will insert stealth pylons across the capital, followed by their deployment spires. Their ground forces will, together with the 43rd Marine Division, retake and hold Acetius long enough to evacuate as many people as possible. While this goes on, the rest of the evacuation and relief effort will continue as planned. It is an enormously complex operation the likes of which hasn't been seen in a thousand years. Suffice to say, our best and brightest have this planned to the most minute details, Commander."

Which was a very polite way for the Primarch to say "you do your job and we'll do ours".

"We're talking about millions of people extra, not just the Arx territory," Garrus protested. "How are we going to evacuate them? And where? Won't the Reapers just blast them out of the sky?"

It dawned on the Chief in an instant.

"Covenant deployment spires are teleportation devices, Garrus," Cortana explained. "They're loosely based on Forerunner slipspace translocation technology. If we can get your people to these spires, we can transport them straight into orbiting ships. Slipspace-capable ships will take them straight to the safety of UEG-controlled space. Ships with Eezo drive cores will head to salarian territory."

Garrus slowly shook his head in apparent disbelief. "Teleportation…Spirits, I never knew…Shepard, this might actually work! We might actually get our people out of there!"

The Master Chief had seen such Covenant spires in action before. He had seen those pylons garb entire city blocks in total electronic interference, rendering them utterly hidden from any kind of sensors humanity had been able to employ. The Covenant had hidden entire armies underneath those things. It felt oddly gratifying to think about those massive installations being used by friendly forces. The enormous shields emitted by those teleportation spires alone required literal starship-grade weapons to deplete.

"The Covenant used those tactics extremely effectively," the Master Chief commented. "They can transport entire armies back and forth with them."

"Fleet Admiral Harper vouched for their efficiency, yes," Victus nodded. "This needs to happen as soon as possible to keep the Reapers from getting to those people there Commander," he continued with an urgent tone. "Everything else has been taken care of. Dock with the Terminus as soon as you can for a complete resupply. We will take care of the rest. As you'll read in the order, we will move out in thirteen hours."

"Alright Primach, I'll take care of what's in that order. We'll get ready for immediate action," Shepard said in resignation.

Victus nodded fiercely. "Of course. We will send you all the relevant dossiers, maps and intelligence reports. The Normandy will arrive with the rest of the fleets in the exact position as described in the order. I will see you on the other side."

With that, the Primarch – and Kirrahe with him – terminated the connection from their side, leaving a heavy silence in their wake.

"You said you have family in the capital, Garrus?" Cortana eventually broke that silence. "Then today's going to be your lucky day. We're going to go save their lives."

Garrus froze. He cast a shocked look Shepard's way, clenched and unclenched his fists, then uttered a shaky breath. He looked pale and small. John could all but see the rising tides of despair and hope battling for control over the turian's state of mind.

Knowing Garrus, which one would win out in the end was a foregone conclusion.

"With our IFF, we can get in close enough to send on a small force to aid the sangheili in putting up that perimeter," Jane said, although her expression was doubtful. She knew exactly what was going on in Garrus's head. "We're going down there Garrus. But we can't push into Reaper-held territory on our own."

"I'm not leaving my family there to be torn apart by husks, Shepard," Garrus snapped, his mandibles flaring angrily. "I'm not going to run off and get killed, but I can't just stay in someone else's perimeter and do nothing!"

"Garrus, there are going to be Reaper capital ships turning into nuclear grenades as an opening skirmish," Cortana soothingly said. "It's way above your weight class, and I know you can punch hard. Let's find your family without attracting the Reapers to them first, alright?"

Garrus hummed with uncertainty. Cortana's argument was textbook de-escalation. Agreeing with him while at the same time making him reconsider with neutrally stated facts, sprinkled with some humor.

"Yeah, you're right," the turian admitted, and his expression softened. "Damnit you're right. Can't lose my head over this."

"I'll forward everything the Primarch sent our way towards you and Three," Jane said. "I'll gather the squad and give them a preliminary briefing."

Garrus cast an anxious look towards the Chief. "Is there…is there anything I can do to help, Chief?"

"I need you to stay focused, Garrus," John calmly said. "It's your homeworld, your family. But it's still a larger part of the war. Stay sharp."

Garrus snorted. It sounded more shaky than usual, but it was Garrus all right. "That all? I figured you'd need someone to carry your man-portable nukes for you. Help tape them to your bicep or something."

"As much as I appreciate the offer Garrus, we'll be fine," Cortana said, her voice now coming from the Chief's external helmet speaker. "I've communicated with the Autumn's AI – nice guy – and we've got some hardware replacements to commit to. All focused on mobility."

"You always get the nicest toys," Garrus mused, before raising his hand. "Chief…John…what you're about to do - I don't know how to thank you."

The Chief placed his hand on Garrus's shoulder and gave him a little nudge. "You'd do the same for me. Come on. Let's go over the gear."

"Right," Garrus muttered. "Right. I'm coming!"


2 hours before departure

Jane had read the grand battleplan a total of fourteen times. It was only at attempt four that she started to understand the enormity of it all; the sheer scale and scope of what the brass wanted to achieve at Palaven There would be a thousand warships, twenty thousand shuttles, strike craft, dropships and supply ships, a million soldiers and tens of millions of pieces of equipment involved. And they all had to be micromanaged to near perfection.

Attempt six had her realize that this might well be the most audacious and complex galactic operation in millennia. The military doctrines, histories and force deployments of half a dozen different nations had been scrutinized by the biggest geniuses the galaxy had to offer, double-checked by AI's advanced enough to give the Reapers a bloody nose and then mixed together in one coherent operation involving layers upon layers of movements, attacks, feigns, tactical withdrawals and raids.

On attempt eight, she got the sinking feeling that this plan had many, many angles at which it could fall apart. Everything the generals, admirals and politicians could think up, the Reapers could predict. They were arrogant and genuinely believed themselves to be superior to anything "organics" could whip up, but they could adapt and improvise. A lot of things could go wrong here. A single mistake could snowball into a strategic catastrophe.

And then came read number twelve, during which Jane finally recognized the sheer insanity of the plan. She'd heard Cortana explain it in layman's terms before, but the grand strategy ultimately boiled down to kicking the Reapers in the nuts, punching them in the nose and then running away for a few seconds before turning around and screaming "COME AT ME BRO!". Rinse and repeat fifty times.

Finally, on her thirteenth reread, Jane recognized the brilliance of it all. Because the plan wasn't to liberate Palaven at all – the Reapers would simply send in another five-hundred ships and blow up the entire invasion force if that happened – but to contest them. This plan had been precisely calculated by the most brilliant minds – plural, since the Admirals would have certainly communicated with Minerva by nowin the galaxy to kick the Reapers hard enough to hurt them, but not hard enough to make them feel desperate. A perfectly-measured tug of total war with the end result to pull as many people off Palaven as possible.

People who could then staff the enormous amount of military infrastructure that the Hierarchy and the UNSC had left behind in their own territory.

Insane? Definitely.

Brilliant? Most certainly.

Would it work?

God, she hoped so.

When her mission clock had ticked down to two hours remaining, Commander Shepard headed back to the War Room. She entered with a steady, purposeful stride, making eye contact with everyone on her team upon entry.

John and Three stood at the far back of her team. They had just finished switching their hardware and fastening their own combat load: plasma rifle and an automatic shotgun with ten full reloads, several combat knives and half a dozen plasma and fragmentation grenades plus two sidearms. The sangheili had provided each Spartan with three antimatter charges to blast their way in – or out – of the Reapers once they had gotten close enough.

That the Covenant had produced man-portable antimatter weapons when the Council species could only use them as for warship thrusters was disturbing on a completely different level, but Shepard didn't want to think about that. Not when each Spartan also presently carried with them a one-megaton nuclear explosive device, which made the entire point moot to begin with.

"This is what we've been working towards for the past weeks," Shepard addressed her squad. "Curing the Genophage, building up our forces – this is step one. Liberate Palaven. Cortana, bring up the map."

A detailed map of Palaven's capital city appeared at the base of the holotank. STG stealth satellites and drones were constantly updating the images, ensuring its accuracy.

Her crew crowded around the projector, getting a closer look at their coming AO.

"This is Acetius, Palaven's capital city," Jane explained. "The population used to be nine million. There are only three million left. The turians fought hard, but they were beaten back. The Reapers have the city encircled and completely cut off. These things–" Six red holographic images of Sovereign-class Reapers appeared in a loose perimeter around the capital. "– stonewall any attempt the turians make to break their people out. These three million people will have been turned into husks or broken down into genetic soup by the end of the week."

Her words hit home. Garrus, having seen this process first-hand on the Collector Base, shuddered. Avery's eyes turned hard with fury, and Javik crossed his arms, staring daggers at the Reaper images. Liara averted her eyes.

"Goddamn pendejos," James hissed.

"So we're going to save these people," Shepard continued. She highlighted several landing zones in white. "The sangheili are going to drop in stealth pylons and shielded teleportation spires in key areas around the city. They'll establish an armed perimeter around these spires –" A large, purple bubble appeared around the innermost section of the city – "- and hold them. Everyone we save from the city will be brought back here, where they will be protected until we can teleport them out."

"With six of those monsters standing around?" Ashley spoke up. "We barely managed to handle one Destroyer, let alone six big ones."

"Our ships are big, but I don't think the Reapers are gonna let them through," Vega grimly said.

"Covenant ships can turn those things into molten scrap, but not without scorching the surroundings too," Johnson pointed out. "How many Reapers do we expect at Palaven?"

"Hierarchy intelligence says that much of the turian fleet is still operable," Cortana said. "The Reapers knew Palaven would never yield, so they came in force. As of five minutes ago, there were 176 Sovereign-Class Reapers and 214 Destroyers, with reinforcements literally around the corner. There's another thirty of them in the neighboring systems."

Her words fell on her crew like an anvil, leaving a noticeable silence – though perhaps shock was a better description.

Liara's arms dropped by her sides.

Vega's jaw was open. No sound came out.

Avery and Javik kept themselves contained, but the others were visibly distraught. Ashley silently shook her head, working her jaw as if wanting to say something, but no words came out.

"Fuck!" Steve hissed.

Nobody disagreed. That was easily twice the amount of Reapers that had decimated Earth.

"So how exactly are we going to get that cordon past those Reapers in the city?" Pollux asked, turning towards Sar'Narum. "We're good, but not that good."

"Very simple," Shepard said civilly. "Spartans 117 and 003 are going to blow each and every one of them up from the inside."

Another silence fell on her shocked crew, born of shock instead of horror. It lasted much shorter too; Johnson started chuckling within seconds.

"Holy shit!" James spat. He and Steve looked at each other incredulously. "Holy SHIT!"

"They what!" Ashley sputtered.

Liara gasped. "By the Goddess! Is that even possible?"

Javk narrowed his eyes. "Entering a Reaper is death of the soul. They will be indoctrinated."

"Not if they've got a lovable AI with cool tech to protect their minds," Cortana playfully replied. "She doesn't say much, but Minerva still has her eyes and ears open even here. Between the two of us, our Spartans will be fine."

Laelea crossed her arms. "I don't see it," she hesitantly said. "I've seen these monsters up close on Menae. It would take an enormous amount of explosives to destroy one effectively. More than a single man can carry."

"How would you achieve this?" Javik continued. "Such a weapon would slow you down too much. The Reaper would see you coming. You would be destroyed."

John, ever the people person, merely pulled the Fury tactical nuclear weapon from the magnetic plates at the base of his spine and lifted it so that everybody could see it.

"That," Cortana said, pointing her thumb at the device, "Is a nuke."

Everybody backed away a couple of feet away from the Master Chief with collective cries of panic or distress. Turian subvocals clashed with loud, human yelling.

James uttered a string of curses in his native language. "Are you loco?"

"Shit Chief, calm down!" Cortez cried out. "Let's talk about this."

"Wait…you've been carrying that thing with you this entire time?" Garrus said, his eyes widening.

"Everyone, calm your collective asses down," Johnson barked, his voice dripping with authority. "I don't know what kind of nukes your mommas used to carry with them, but the UNSC has been playing the nuclear game for six centuries now! That thing is probably the hardest, most secure device on this ship. Hell, you could empty our entire armory at that thing and it still wouldn't blow!"

Jane could easily imagine a bemused little smirk underneath the Chief's helmet. "The salarian STG has an entire support company dedicated solely to helping them complete their mission. With their help, Spartans 117 and 003 will infiltrate individual Reapers, plant their explosives and exfiltrate before detonating it. With the support structure in place, working together with the locals, the Reaper blockade will be broken within the hour. That's when the sangheili will retake the capital – and we're going to assist them."

"Right, got it."


"Man, wish I had power armor like that."

One by one, her squad affirmed their understanding and John put his nuke away again.

"We've all read the ultimate goal of this operation," Jane continued. "We can't truly liberate Palaven; there are simply too many Reapers in the galaxy to slug it out with. What we are going to do is contest control of the Trebia system, maximizing casualties to the Reapers while saving as many people as we can. If everything goes according to plan, the Reapers will be bogged down in a fight that will cost them more than they'll be able to replenish."

"There's going to be millions of husks out there," Ashley said, observing the holographic display closely. "We'll need to dig in hard."

"Have you seen the shit that the UNSC and Elites dumped in our shuttle bay?" Cortez replied hotly. "We could arm an entire krogan battalion with that gear."

"How are we going to get that equipment from up here down there? There will be hundreds of Reapers in the system. No space superiority means no air superiority. That means no supplies."

"We've got systems in place to ensure our logistics get through," Shepard said. "Either through those spires, or with airdrops from ships slingshotting around Palaven. Passing warships can launch hardened resupply canisters on overhead passes too."

"What about the wounded?" Liara asked. "Once those Reapers are down, we'll have to contend with millions of turians. There will be hundreds of thousands of sick, dying, wounded people."

"Protecting civilians while getting fired on is no joke," Johnson quietly agreed.

"My brothers will gain control of the city," 'Narum spoke up for the first time. "Street by street. Block by block. We are strong and disciplined. If we have to carry your wounded, we shall."

Shepard nodded at the sangheili in thanks. "We're going to bring along our entire arsenal. You've been familiarizing yourselves with plasma weapons for the past day. Any problems?"

"None Commander," the Chief replied. "The team handles them flawlessly."

"Chief, you're going to make me blush over here," Vega quipped.

"Good," Shepard said. She took a deep breath and stood tall. "We don't know what the situation is down there. We assume it's bad. So far, the Reapers have had us on the run during the entire war," she addressed her team. "We have had to run from them on the Citadel, on Earth and on Palaven. They chased us from Reach to Tuchanka. They've taken from us – each of us – our homes and our loved ones." She paused to let that sink in, then slowly shook her head. "No more. Today we are going after them. We've got the biggest invasion fleet the galaxy has ever seen and we're only getting started. From the moment those initial six Reapers blow we're going down there with maximum aggression and maximum ferocity. Today, we kicking the Reapers off Palaven!"


AN: I hope you all enjoyed this chapter. Don't forget to leave a review if you did and I'll see you all at the next update. be good people!