Chapter 109. Victory At Any Cost


27. April 2417 AD, HSASV Budapest II

The Budapest II – spitefully named after the very same HSA vessel lost in the same operation that had costed them Saren Arterius' loyalty – was a ship that technically didn't exist.

Although part of the Scott-Line of new heavy cruisers and funded by the HSAN, it was absent from records thanks to a simple trick: officially, it had gotten destroyed in a fortunate (but fatality-devoid) transit mishap that just happened to occur a day before it would have officially entered service above Elysium.

The story went the following way: The experimental autopilot VIs (conveniently tested for the first time aboard the Budapest II) which had responsible for putting the unstaffed ship on a course to Elysium had screwed up and launched the multi-billion credit investment into a nearby star by missing a decimal eighteen months ago.

Such an accident had of course never actually occurred. But to avoid uncomfortable questions about the whereabouts of one of humanity's state-of-the-art warships and to give Cerberus the opportunity to refit the Budapest II with everything needed to make it a mobile headquarters for its strike teams, it had to look like it did – even if it put the navy's RND department and Arcturus into a tight spot.

Unlike the Normandy II – which they had been able to comfortably build in HSAIS' own shipyard aboard Cronos Station, a Scott-Class was too large to be assembled outside of the large yards above Mars or Shanxi that had also spawned the Kilimanjaro and her sisterships.

Therefor they'd thrown the eggheads and tie-wearers responsible for the project under the bus and ever since then put the Budapest II and its custom additions to good use.

One such addition was the lab in which Commander Thomas Holderman was standing right now.

"Well damn," the older Cerberus operative murmured as the final results of the compound analysis of the ash he'd brought with him came back.

It was exactly what he'd suspected.

The remains were a near exact match to the half-metal half-organic material found within the skin of the reaper-fied remains of the dead husks secured on Eden Prime. "You got all you need?" he asked the sole technician manning the room with him and steering the various autonomous drones doing the actual work. That was another add-on Cerberus had added after hijacking the Budapest II: the ship was designed to be manned by less than a skeleton crew thanks to an army of VIs running most systems and drones completing the tasks that required human operators. It was a necessity born of the fact that Cerberus lacked personal and that suitable recruits, especially for their naval arm, were rare to come by.

The fact that it came in handy when handling potentially dangerous reaper-tech was just an added benefit really.

"Yes. You can destroy the sample now."

That's all he'd want to hear ever since picking it up.

With a press of a button, the shielded container he was looking at was bathed in flames hot enough to fully destroy the already burned remains. As the fire – fueled by the same white-phosphorus that the HSA used in its Hibana bombs – burned, Holderman looked at the technician. "Send what you have to the director. Attach it to my clearance so he knows it's urgent and flag it as priority one at my discretion," he let out a sigh.

"Right away."

The fact that someone was making husks again couldn't get stuck waiting in the que.

"Here's to hoping no unlucky son of a bitch runs into these things again."

Or that they were the right kind son of a bitch if they did.

Undead cyborg-freaks with guns, s-vests and body armor…

Outside of the Strike Teams, he hadn't met a lot of people who'd be able to handle that sort of thing and most of the ones he had met were dead by now.

Well.

Dead or taken a bullet to the head, gone a little of the rails because of it and then funded a rogue state in the Terminus.

But that was a different mess altogether.


Two Hours Later, 27. April 2417 AD, Mirage of Halegeuse

The captain of the Mirage, a salarian with a grey complexion that turned darker towards his horns, was standing with his back turned to Miranda. But before he ever turned away from the holoscreens in front of him, she knew what he'd say.

The sigh gave it away.

"And?" the Cerberus operative asked, watching as the alien folded his arms behind his dark-red uniform.

"Were right," he said after briefly closing his eyes. "Object caught in orbit around Mnemosyne is a derelict Reaper."

She had eagerly been expecting to hear those words, but she wasn't going to let that show. Especially not with Captain Haugen standing in the same room as her. Eagerness implied a lack of certainty, after all. And she'd been nothing but not certain about her conclusion.

Prior to just now, they'd spent the last couple of days working through the readings taken on ML-2 and travelling towards the star system the batarians had been pointing their reaper-fied radio telescope at. So even before laying eyes – or in this case the spy probe's cameras – on the ship Miranda had been sure of what they were searching for.

Another Reaper wreckage.

Just like the Leviathan of Dis.

Just like what little remained of Sovereign.

This was perfect.

No.

Better than perfect.

It was exactly what they needed.

"Out of curiosity," she began. "How similar to Sovereign is this ship? Are there any noticeable differences?"

While the question seemed strange at first, Miranda didn't ask for no reason.

She never did.

Although Sovereign was officially designated as a Leviathan-Class ship, the little data they had gathered on the vessel found on Dis and the much larger mountain of information collected in the wake of Sovereign's destruction had made one thing abundantly clear. Barring the optical similarities, weaponry and general design philosophies, Sovereign and the Leviathan of Dis couldn't have been more different ships. Calling Sovereign a Leviathan was like comparing a human frigate from two hundred years ago to a Kilimanjaro-Class; if both were capable of annihilating the Destiny Ascension by their lonesome that is.

"Damage sustained on vessel makes it impossible to tell," the salarian replied before a beeping sound and the voice of a sensor technician calling out for him caught his attention.

"Sir! Detecting an additional vessel in the vicinity of the Reaper!" the greenish salarian declared

"Batarian craft?" the captain retorted, prompting Sergeant Undrak, the Recon unit's commander now that Enrykis was dead, to stiffen.

"No," the technician responded somewhat slowly before turning his head and looking directly and Miranda and the ASOC officer standing next to her. "Human-made merchant vessel. MMC-3481 Messina," Miranda's eyes narrowed. MMC. An HSA merchant marine craft. That implied at least a semi-official tie to their government in the form of a transportation license and an entry in the HSA's ship register; something that was becoming rarer now that human companies were starting to migrate their headquarters to Citadel-Space for the sake of a larger market.

It also implied a researchable background.

She'd get on that as soon as she was done here.

"Huh. Guess someone beat the Hegemony to the punch," Captain Haugen injected. While others might not think much of his choice of words, Miranda was certain that he'd forced himself not to say 'four-eyes' precisely because a batarian was currently standing next to him and – again due to Enrykis' death – technically his equal in regard to his position within his unit.

"I'm sure Amon's pawns won't be far behind your people," the red-brown striped batarian responded with a shrug.

"All the more reason to act fast and decisive," Miranda stated. "Prep your teams for boarding operations. I'll meet you in the hangar in forty," she caught Haugen's look and before he could ask if she was serious about boarding a Reaper, she course-corrected. "I'm talking about the Messina, naturally." She figured that'd kill any comment he wanted to make.

She figured wrong.

"Ain't so natural after the calls you made on ML-2," the taller soldier said with folded arms before turning on his heel – no doubt because he knew that this wasn't the kind of discussion to have in front of an entire salarian naval crew and a turian Recon NCO.

After the batarian had left as well, Miranda turned back to the holographic representation of the Reaper and the much smaller trade vessel.

A human ship flying under HSA colors in immediate proximity to a Reaper wreckage sought after by the Hegemony.

… this would be interesting, wouldn't it?

When she was sure no one was looking, she bit her lip.

Haugen's fears weren't unwarranted.

Her interest in the Reaper was there; not in regard to boarding it but in regard to studying its corpse. There was a lot they could learn from such a vessel if they managed to salvage it.

The only problem now was that she was certain that Haugen would see that differently.

But that was a bridge she'd cross when she got there.


Twenty Minutes Later, 27. April 2417 AD, Mirage of Halegeuse, Hangar

After leaving the bridge and passing the bad news that Lawson would once more be joining them on to Phantom, Haugen and the rest of his team had made their way to the hangar and started to put on their gear next to their turian allies.

"This is fucking stupid. We should just blow both of 'em up and be done with it," Mav muttered while strapping on the chest piece of his modular armor. Now that they weren't marching through a frozen hellhole, they were back to the usual green-brown suits instead of the artic ones – albeit with the small addition of a fully sealed, vacuum proof under suit and helmet due to the risk of getting spaced during a spacing operation.

"With you on that one, man," Miller added while inspecting the seals on his helmet.

"Didn't figure you'd be the one to skip out on a fight, Miller," Hofmann injected as he fastened the straps of his backpack.

"That's because I usually don't. But if there's a risk of me getting mindfucked by some weird alien spaceship-jellyfish lookalike that goes on to make me shoot all of you in the back…" the soldier trailed off. "Yeah, no. I'm good to pass that one up if I get the chance."

"You know we aren't boarding the Reaper itself, right?" Haugen's second-in-command countered. "As long as we don't get cozy with the actual wreckage, we should be in the clear."

"I'm sure that's what Saren Arterius was thinking as well before he went full-on-nutjob and tried to kill the entire galaxy for his new Reaper-pals," the younger ASOC soldier responded with a spin of his helmet, unaware that the volume at which he'd said the turian's name collectively made the Recon troopers pause their own pre-mission routine.

Haugen however noticed and caught a glance from Undrak.

It wasn't a longs-stretch that just about every turian in this hangar had grown up aspiring to be like Saren Arterius – at least until Eden Prime. He hadn't just been a Spectre. He'd been the Spectre; the Hero of the Citadel and the shining example of a turian soldier.

To hear his name (and fate) invoked before an op like this.

… not good.

"Because of what happened to Arterius, we know that we aren't going to board the Reaper. No matter what," Haugen declared – loud enough for both Phantom and Recon to hear. "As long as we stick to that, we'll be fine."

… unless of course the Messina was full of Reaper-tech as well; a possibility he had had in the back of his mind ever since seeing how strangely close the ship was orbiting towards the Reaper wreckage.

But he wouldn't say that out loud right now.

"Miller," Haugen said, quiet enough for the turians to overhear.

"Yes?"

"Do us a favor and keep your doubts to yourself for now, alright? Undrak's guys already have enough on their plate after the last op, last thing they need right now is to get second thoughts. They're Recon, yes, but I don't know them nearly well enough to tell if they can blend out what you're putting in their heads right now."

The dark-haired man paused his equipment-checking and scratched his beard.

"You know I'm right, boss."

"You are, but you're also tough enough to do your job even when you're scared shitless," he threw a glance at the Recon unit. After drawing the conclusion that he had no idea how old Undrak was, he'd gone ahead and checked. He, like most of the Recon unit, was in his early twenties. With them going through turian military service, that still meant that they'd served several years on active duty already, but it also meant that none of them had been on this as long as Phantom Squad.

They weren't totally green, which had already been a relief. But other than having had their baptism by fire prior to ML-2 and some of them getting their teeth cut on Eden Prime, only a few had been part of the unit long enough to see plenty of action. A skirmish with pirates here, a forward deployment to curb a slaver gang there, … but nothing comparable to what Phantom had seen over the years.

None of them were even out of their mandatory fifteen years and thanks to a stroke of bad luck, it had been Enrykis and the most experienced ones who'd fought in the Blitz that had ended up dead or injured on ML-2.

Now all they were left with was a bunch of relatively fresh-spec-ops going on a mission with a bad enough feel to it to make someone like Miller – who he'd literally see wrestle a Varren in the ruins of Mindoir - nervous.

That was dangerous, especially if Lawson would try to be in charge again and even more so if he turned out to be right and the Messina was just as much of a Reaper-trap as the actual ship.

"Just keep a lid on it, alright?" he finished.

"Copy that, Sir."

"Staff Sergeant Jordan Miller getting cold feet," Mav muttered. "Never thought I'd see the day."

"You aren't," Miller protested.

"Sure sounded like I did just now. Hey. You need some extra socks? I think I still have some-" Mav began before the hissing of a door (and the sound of her voice) behind him announced Lawson's arrival.

"Captain Haugen, a minute please," the Cerberus officer announced, prompting Haugen to frown at Phantom.

"Ah shit. Here it goes," Hofmann whispered. "Try not to kill her?"

"Or maybe do, it'd certainly improve our life expectancy," Miller added.

"Now, Captain," Lawson reinforced after only a moment had passed.

He sighed and clipped his helmet to the webbing on his chest.

"I'll try my best," he returned without specifying who he was answering. Haugen walked to where the woman was standing – the salarian shuttles that'd bring them to the Messina- and braced for another tedious conversation. "How can I help you, Miss Lawson?"

"I just came back from checking the records of the Messina. There's something you should know about that ship," … he didn't like the sound of that. "According to official HSA records, the ship flying under the designation MMC-3481 Messina as well as its entire crew of eighty-six went missing in January. Back then it got blamed on pirates or an accident… but considering where we just found it…"

"It might've been something worse," the blonde ASOC officer finished before adding two and two in his head. "I'll just ask you upfront. Does Cerberus think that this is the reason all those ships have gone missing? Why our colonies are being attacked by those bugs?"

They (as in his team) hadn't gotten an official briefing on the subject yet but with New Canton Colonial Watch having successfully defended against the assault – and Vuori having gone out in a moment of nuclear defiance -and him still knowing certain people from Fourth Battalion and First Battalion who'd been at the respective grounds zero of the attacks after the smoke had cleared… there had been rumors among the army's elite troop for some weeks now regarding the current events.

While it certainly harmed their public image of being quiet professionals, Haugen had to admit that the fact that ASOC operatives made a habit of passing gossip on to each other had come in handy for a change. It gave them a bit of a head start when it came to intel; which was very useful when one worked as part of an organization that loved secrets and compartmentalization as much as the HSA's armed forces.

Lawson seemed stunned for a second – which was a rare and enjoyable sight.

"How do you know about that?"

"Soldiers aren't mindless machines, Ma'am. We talk to each another. Especially when shit starts getting weird," he repeated his question. "Is this the reason why all of that's happening? Is it-" he nearly said the R-word. "-them?"

Lawson looked him in the eye for a second, then she glanced at the floor. He was sure that it was a faked reaction, but he didn't mention it.

"We aren't sure," she began. "But we think so, yes."

Honesty.

It would've surprised him if he wasn't familiar with how spooks tried to manipulate people like him. One didn't stay in special operations for nearly twenty years without picking up on some of the tricks of their HSAIS or Cerberus counterparts.

Still, he appreciated it.

"So the Messina went missing and now it's here, orbiting a derelict Reaper," he stated before throwing a look back at Phantom and remembering his own concerns – which were even more likely now. "Are you sure that we should board that ship?"

"Under different circumstances, I'd say no. But we're in a race against time," Lawson responded.

"So you keep saying," Haugen pointed out.

"Because it's true."

"I know."

"Then why do you keep asking?"

He wouldn't get a better chance than this to address the issue, hence he did.

"Because I need you to finally understand that you aren't playing a war game anymore. You're putting actual lives at risk. Enrykis and his men weren't just speedbumps on the road to your goal. They were lives. Lives you lost because of your decisions on the battlefield," he looked down at the operative. Everything about her suggested that she'd had decent combat training – but her actions showed that whoever had trained her had neglected to teach her what it meant to be part of a unit. "We all signed up for this. We all know what's at stake. We'll all go and do our jobs," he looked back at the assembled soldiers, realizing that their conversation had drawn observers. "But if you keep pretending like we don't matter, like our deaths are inconsequential," he went on, "then these men won't follow you much longer, no matter your rank."

Lawson was silent for a second and he briefly wondered if he'd gotten through to her.

Then she opened her mouth and shattered his hopes.

"That's why you're here, Captain. They'll follow you. So all I need to do to get them to follow my orders is make sure that you listen to me," she took a step closer to him and pulled on her helmet. When she was parallel to him and facing the assembled soldiers, she went on. "And between you and me, I think we both know that there's no way you'll let personal animosity against my methods get in the way of stopping the end of the world. You're too good of a soldier to ever even consider that."

He turned his head to face Lawson and briefly the image of him packing up the Recon troopers' personal items flashed before his eyes.

That was officially enough.

"Whoever taught you to lead fucked up big time."

"Did they?" the Cerberus operative responded. "I think my results speak for themselves." She was about to walk away when he extended his arm to stop her. "What is it?"

"Anyone ever tell you about the advantage of being a good soldier?"

"Enlighten me, Captain."

"I made a lot of friends over the years. Friends with admiral bars and general stars who happen to play in the same league as your boss and who've had me over for dinner to tell me how much they value my contribution to my unit and how badly they want to see me get some stars of my own. One fuck up, one unnecessary casualty, one moment of me even getting the impression that you aren't doing everything possible to keep these soldiers alive… and you'll find out the hard way that I can do more than kick doors and shoot guns."

"You're very bad at threatening."

"Yet I'm serious."

"Get ready to board the shuttle, Captain," Lawson responded coldly. "That goes for you too," she said towards the assembled soldiers.

Neither Phantom-Squad nor Undrak's Recon moved.

"Not before you acknowledge what I just told you," Haugen stated.

There was a stare-off and he had no idea how long it lasted.

But then Lawson cracked.

Or at least pretended to because she was tired of finding out which of them was more stubborn.

"Even if I believe that it goes without saying. Fine. I won't put any of you in any kind of unnecessary danger. Now get on board of the shuttles."

Again, no one moved.

Truth be told, he hated undermining someone's authority or putting them on the spot.

But in Lawson's case it had been unavoidable and a long time in the making.

He unclipped his helmet, pulled it over his head and watched as his visor polarized itself.

At least until Haugen repeated the order.

"You heard the operative," he declared before first looking at Phantom and then at Undrak's men. "Get ready to spin up. We've got work to do."


Five Minutes Later, 27. April 2417 AD, Enroute to MMC-3481 Messina

Miranda was sure of one thing: what had just happened was inconsequential, at least on the grand scale of things.

It didn't matter that she; someone who had literally been designed to be perfect at everything; had just gotten shown up by someone who for all intents and purposes had just been born as an average human who happened to have fallen into an unaverage career.

As long as Haugen followed orders, she'd get what she wanted.

That was all that mattered.

To that end, she'd play his game for now; care for the lives put under her command. Let him think he'd gotten to her – be empathetic.

If that meant he felt like he'd just won some kind of dominance or proven superior to her, then that was his flawed perspective – not her loss.

He was still doing what she wanted him to do, so she was still the superior.

… right?

As the pilot announced that they were making their final approach to the hangar of the Messina, a cargo-hauler roughly the size of a light cruiser, Miranda shook her head.

Of course she was right.

Being wrong wasn't something she'd been designed to be.

She never misjudged or miscalculated. It wasn't part of her DNA.

Haugen was still doing what she wanted him to do and that was all that mattered, even if an outsider might see her taking his words to heart as a sign of weakness or an admission of failure.

This wasn't a popularity or dominance contest. It was about getting a job done, nothing more, nothing less.

She was used to people not liking her or thinking badly of her. It kind of came with the whole 'being engineered to be superior' concept and the jealousy others felt when standing next to her. Because of that, she usually sent people like Haugen – who could inspire others because he was just as average as them and therefore not intimidating- to do her bidding.

There was more than one approach to leading and hers was this one. Working behind the scenes and from the shadows was exactly what Harper had taught her to do and what Cerberus was intended for; so why exactly was she even wasting thought-capacity on the notion that one of a couple of hundred identical ASOC-officers drawn from a cadre of thousands of identical human spec-ops soldiers didn't like her?

It wasn't worth the effort.

Right now she needed to focus on the task at hand; figuring out what the batarians had wanted to do with a derelict Reaper and get behind the reason why a missing human ship – which had been believed to have been abducted by the Collectors – was orbiting that very Reaper and if it was somehow connected to the latest findings of the Strike Teams, which she'd omitted to mention from Haugen after he'd decided to test his position and get uppity.

Pieces of Sovereign had gone missing.

The director had told her a few days ago after knowing about it for a few weeks and having determined the extend of the problem.

… and now here she was.

Headed for a missing human vessel orbiting a derelict Reaper.

She didn't need to have been born with an engineered genius intellect to see how this might help out their conundrum.

"Docking now, get ready!" the salarian pilot announced.

And so she did, ignoring the nagging voice that was asking her what she'd do when Haugen inevitably stopped following orders and they clashed over the fate of the distant Reaper.


Meanwhile, 27. April 2417 AD, MMC-3481 Messina

Haugen jumped out of the door of the shuttle as the first man and took in his surroundings.

They were standing in the passenger-hangar of the cargo-hauler, which was much smaller than the actual cargo hangar and had thus been determined to be the better point of entry. It was easier to cover and easier to land in than the presumably loaded, three-hundred-meter-long cargo bay that made up most of the Messina.

As Phantom and Recon assembled around him and the salarian shuttles took off, Haugen took note of the dominant feature of the hangar; a jet-black craft reminiscent of the newest type of stealth Kodiak – if a Kodiak was armed that is.

The gunship lacked any kind of markings and if not for the faint crack in the frontal armor plating – which looked like an impact of a high-caliber round – and the spots of ash on its floor hinting at a previous atmospheric entry it would've been spotless.

"I think I know who took the ship," Undrak observed as he walked up to Haugen. "Your team or mine?" the insinuation was clear, he was asking who'd board the craft and trigger any possible booby traps.

"Mine, you go ahead and secure the rest of the hangar," Haugen retorted and Undrak nodded. "Miller, you're it."

"Copy," the younger soldier said before taking point and walking towards the presumed entrance at the side of the craft. When they got there, they found a hatch release in the exact same spot as a Kodiak and when they pulled it open, they found an empty interior also identical to that of a Kodiak – barring the seat cushions. Kodiaks didn't have those.

"Any way to tell how long that things been sitting here?" Haugen asked Mav.

"We could try to access the flightlog," the ASOC operative responded while Haugen turned his attention to the rest of the hangar. There were the expected transport craft of whichever contractor had used this vessel prior to it going missing and there were plastic tarps strapped up to divide the hangar and interrupt sightlines. But that was for Recon to handle, not him.

"Try it," he ordered before looking to Miller, who was scratching his combat knife against the exterior of the shuttle.

"The fuck you doing, man?" Hofmann asked, noticing the same strange behavior.

"You ain't seeing it?" Miller retorted.

"Seeing what?" Haugen asked.

"The paintjob," Miller stated before wiping his fingers against the paint he'd scratched off and then pointing at the dark-green alloy he'd revealed. "Navy-aviator-green. This thing's a repurposed HSAN ship and I bet you that if I start scratching on the tail, we'll even get a fabrication number."

Haugen looked at the ship and then back at his soldier.

"Good catch."

"I've got my moments."

"Mav, you got all of that?"

"Yup. Stolen HSA ship, copy that," the man replied from the interior. "Shuttle's been parked here for a month, by the way. But everything before then has been deleted, so I've got no idea where it came from."

"If a ship came here way after its disappearance, someone's been using the Messina ever since it got abducted," Lawson suddenly injected from behind them. He'd been wondering when she'd speak up.

"Seems like it," Haugen returned. "Question is who?"

"If I were to guess, I'd say the same people who tried assault the batarian base on ML-2. There's no way that the Messina just happens to reappear in the same system the batarians were interested in," the Cerberus officer stated and he agreed. If their earlier argument had changed anything, she didn't let it show – at least not during the mission. "Setting aside the who, I'm far more interested in how they got a Kodiak. As far as I know, UT doesn't sell to anyone but the HSA. They get paid a lot by Arcturus to keep their tech exclusive, kind of like Hahne-Kedar Robotics."

"Yet here we are," Haugen responded.

"Mhm," Lawson acknowledged before both of them were hailed over the battlenet of the turians.

"Captain, this is Sergeant Undrak," he could hear his voice through the radio and through his helmet, telling him that the batarian was close. "I think we've found something you ought to see."

He oriented himself to where the batarian's voice was coming from – behind one of the tarps – and then nudged his head for Lawson to follow. This probably concerned her as well and since she'd follow anyway… he might as well cut things short. They crossed the hangar and walked up behind Undrak, who was clad in the black-red armor of Recon. With no environment to adapt to, their optically-active armors hadn't changed their appearance.

"What did you find?"

"That," Undrak responded before kicking aside the top-cover of a crate and revealing a pair of Sentinel drones; the intelligent security drones the HSA was testing in the CIP. "Guess the Messina was hauling Hahne-Kedar prototypes when it got abducted."

He was inclined to agree, but then remembered something crucial – where they were standing.

"If it was transporting the drones, shouldn't they be in the actual cargo-hangar?"

Undrak looked up and was about to say something when one of the drones suddenly spun up from inside crate, levitated on their face level, turned to look at them, revealed a hidden gun in its belly and – just as Haugen brought up his rifle in realisation… was subsequently crushed by a purple impulse curtesy of the Cerberus operative standing next to Haugen and Undrak.

Not a second later however, other crates hidden behind other tarps began to start whining and from there on out, all hell broke loose.

Hofmann was the first to seemingly register the problem they were in.

"Group up, backs against the shuttle! Watch your lines of fire and engage the boxes! Light 'em up!"

It was a decent call and Haugen had nothing to add. That was why Hofmann was his second, he always knew exactly what to do.

As soldiers rushed towards the shuttle and pressed themselves against it to avoid being shot in the back, the first drones started to fire. It was small arms ammunition, but it was accurate and it drew an immediate reaction. Bursts of gunfire erupted from Phaestons, Valkyries and the gauss LMG of Phantom-Squad and both drones and soldiers got hit in the brief exchange of fire. He wasn't entirely sure how long it lasted – it couldn't have been more than a few seconds – but when the whole ordeal was over, a turian with a bleeding leg, a failure of Haugen's shields and lots of metal junk were the end result.

"Sound off!" he ordered and one after another, all soldiers and Lawson reported their status.

No dead.

They'd gotten lucky.

Exceptionally lucky.

"Do I need to point out the obvious or did everyone already figure out that someone launched those drones from within the ship?" Undrak growled. During the retreat he had somehow ended up next to Miller, the arguably worst person to be with if you happened to be batarian.

"Nah I think we're all clear on that, genius," the ASOC sergeant responded while Haugen looked at the drones lying in front of them. If this had been a planned ambush, there would've been more of them. Or maybe whoever had set the trap hadn't expected several shuttles worth of special forces.

Either way, Undrak was right.

Someone was on board of the Messina and they'd just showcased their hostility.

"Alright, I want two squads. One to take the bridge, the other to secure the engine room," it was standard boarding practice. "Sergeant Undrak, pick some of your men and send them and your XO to head to the engine. The rest of us and Operative Lawson will head for the bridge and see if we can figure out who's trying to kill us."

"Copy that," Undrak nodded before pointing at two of the Recon soldiers, one a tall and spindly one, the other one with a blood-stained arm. "Tharrus, your team and Heran's are heading for the engine. Mine will accompany the Captain. Radio in if you need back up, then we'll divert."

The two turians nodded and then disappeared behind the tarps and into the direction that the drones had come from. Haugen and the others meanwhile made their way out of the personal hangar; stumbling into what had clearly once been the crew quarters and social deck.

The emphasis here being 'once been'.

As soon as the doors pulled open, Haugen was glad that he was wearing a helmet.

It spared him the scent of corpses.

The room that connected to the passenger-hangar of the Messina was roughly twenty meters in diameter and had probably been used for gatherings prior to becoming what Haugen could only describe as a slaughterhouse similar to the inside of the slaver barges on Mindoir. Tables and chairs once attached to the ground had been thrown to the sides to make way for blood-covered metallic stretchers and plastic tarps. At the same time, humans – who judging by their yellow uniforms and what little writing was still visible on them used to be the crew members of the Messina – were displayed on said stretchers in various states of dismemberment with all kinds of wires and machinery attached to them.

"Spirits," one of the turians from Undrak's squad exclaimed.

"They were experimented on," Lawson stated coldly before walking over to the closest stretcher where a woman who couldn't have been older than thirty lay with both her arms chopped off below the elbow and her head literally cut off above her mouth.

"This isn't experimentation, this is a production line," Haugen corrected while taking in the sight of a man with his jaw replaced by metal and an orange cannister attached to his chest, which was also covered in metal. The alterations to the bodies looked different, but only because they were different people. At their core, all changes were repeated. That's not how experimentation worked.

He took a closer look at the device.

… was that an incendiary pack?

… was this what the abductors had been doing?

Turning the Messina's crew into bombs?

"Who'd do something like this?" Undrak went on as he looked at a human who's torso appeared to be encased in black armor-steel. One look at him and the other Recon soldiers was all Haugen needed to tell that this was the first time they'd gotten so close to something this barbaric. He'd keep that in mind from here on out. "Normally I'd blame Hegemony slavers, but they usually don't touch anything below the neck," the Recon soldier went on before accidentally kicking over a bucket and spilling blood over the floor. He cursed but then noticed something. "Is it just me or does all of this look remarkably fresh?"

In response, Mav wiped his hand on one of the empty stretchers and produced a bloodstain on his gauntlet.

"Hasn't fully dried yet. Guess we interrupted them," the ASOC soldier figured before wiping the blood on the grey wall of the social room.

"Some of the stretchers are still empty," Miller observed while strolling around the room; eyes always on the door they hadn't gone through yet. "Did this just turn into a rescue op?"

"We're here to figure out how this ship is related to the Reaper it orbits," Lawson injected. "But if we can secure witnesses, we will."

Not what he had expected, but then again she hardly ever reacted like he expected.

"There's what? Fifteen of 'em?" Hofmann went on. "You said it had a crew of eighty-six right?"

"Yes."

"So we can still maybe save seventy-one," Hofmann concluded. Similarly to Miller, he was moving but alert.

"If there aren't any more rooms like this one that is," Haugen pointed out before a radio transmission from the turian squad sent to the engine room came through.

"Engine secured, Sir," a flanged voice announced. "Be advised, we found clear signs of sabotage. Someone cut the ship's drive off from the rest of the systems and turned off its collision prevention program. Kind of like they were trying to turn it into a kinetic weapon."

Again, Haugen added two and two together.

"Did they also plot a course into Mnemosyne?"

There was a short break, presumably used by the turian to check Haugen's inquiry.

"Yes, Sir."

He looked at Lawson.

"Someone's trying to end this," he figured.

"Or destroy the evidence after they were dissatisfied with the results," she retorted before bringing up a map of the ship. "If there weren't any drastic alterations to the Messina, the bridge should be located two levels above us. For obvious reasons, I don't recommend that we take the elevator," she stated. What stood out to Haugen wasn't the information however, it was the way she presented it. It was a suggestion, not an order. Maybe he'd hit a nerve after all? "But before we get to that," she trailed off and Haugen caught what she was looking at. Cameras set up by one of the empty tables. "I suggest we take a look at that," without another word, she got to work and wandered over to the table.

"Agreed. Mav, Miller, take one of the Recon guys and cover the doors. Hofmann, you and the rest of Undrak's squad are on recovery duty. Data drives, terminals, bag anything that could have something useful on it. Sergeant, you're with Lawson and me. We'll take a look at that table," he was consciously assigning one of his squad to a bunch of turians because it was now evident that his earlier fears were about to be confirmed.

There was definitely something strange going on with the Messani and considering what they were orbiting… he'd need his men to step up and lead the less experienced Recon troopers. Without trying to discredit them, now was the time for Phantom to use its experience with nightmarish shit like this and take charge of the situation.

Individually, every one of his men had ten or more years of warfighting to look back on and they had each seen the absolute worst the galaxy had to offer. That ought to be enough to keep their heads in the game. Even if slavers and whatever was going on here were two entirely different beasts, the butchery was similar.

… at least kind of.

Undrak and he followed Lawson and by the time they got there, the Cerberus operative had already brought up a video.

"They clearly weren't expecting visitors. The file wasn't even encrypted," she explained while the scene of a living man being strapped onto the table by a bunch of people clad in greenish biohazard suits that disguised their appearance started to play off.

The person was justifiably terrified and begging and screaming to be let go, probably because he could already see what had happened to the people on the other tables. His captors didn't comply. Instead they fastened the restraints, which in present-day had been unbuckled, and jammed a syringe into his heart. Considering his reaction, that had probably been a sedative. His struggling ceased and the chit-chat of the people in hazmat suits became audible.

"Starting subject fifty-six," so much for saving seventy-one people, "Subject, thirty-five year old male, arcadian-born, no noticeable health-anomalies," one of the figures listed while holding a table that Haugen could now see lying on the very metal stretcher they were standing n front of. "For the record, the declared aim of this operation is to achieve full conversion," Haugen looked at Lawson at the mention of that word and judging by the brief glance she gave him, they had the same thing in mind. "Step one, removing unnecessary vulnerabilities. Bonesaw and the conversion kit, please-" suddenly, a whole lot of gunshots could be heard through the recording, telling Haugen that what he was looking at hadn't been some days ago but literal minutes. He watched as the man got unstrapped from the stretcher and clenched his teeth as the surgeons carried him off into the direction of the bridge.

"Those bastards are still here," he muttered before making a rallying gesture with his hand. "Listen up, everyone. This is now officially an SAR-op. We'll retrieve the crew and detain whoever's doing these experiments. Rules of engagements are clear, non-lethal takedowns on everyone who looks like an egg-head, killshots on everyone who's looking to kill us, scorched earth if its Reaper-tech," he then turned towards Undrak. "Tell your men at the engine to get ready to reset that collision course. Before we leave, I'm setting this ship on a direct course into the Reaper."

That statement prompted Lawson to step in.

"The Reaper could be an invaluable asset to our scientific effort to stopping the Harbinger."

"Or it could turn everyone who steps onto it into Saren 2.0. I'm not taking that chance, give the order."

"Roger," Undrak nodded before relaying his orders.

"I'm not saying that we need to board it, I'm saying that we need to think before we make a mistake."

He looked at Lawson.

"You know the directive of our Task Force. We don't handle Reaper-tech, let alone an actual Reaper."

"There are ways around that directive, Captain. We recovered Sovereign's pieces with drones, we can do the same with this wreckage."

He didn't have time for this discussion and after ML-2, he was also done listening to Lawson's directives. He'd already watched a whole bunch of promising soldiers get disintegrated because he'd listened to her. He wouldn't have this entire operation his conscience.

"Who's to say it's even a wreckage?" Haugen responded. "What if you start messing with it and it decides to wake up? What do we do then? Hope we avoid it long enough until the entire CDF shows up to save our ass?" he went on. "We're destroying that Reaper while we have the chance. End of discussion," he looked at the trays and butchery around him. "Besides, I'm sure whoever did this took more than enough readings to satisfy you."

"Nothing beats the real thing, Captain. If we can get our hands on another Reaper-"

"If fragments can indoctrinate people, what do you think a mostly functional Reaper is going to do to us?" she was silent for a moment. "Exactly. It's going down today," he turned away from Lawson and pointed towards the door leading to the bridge. "Stack up and remember, non-lethal if you can afford it. This ship and everyone on it are a treasure trove of intel," just because he wouldn't go along with Lawson's extreme option didn't mean that he'd lost sight of their objective. They were here to figure out what was going on and the best way to do that was to ask the people who happened to be cutting apart humans.

The team took position on the door leading to the rest of the ship.

"Phantom, camo up. We're on point," he instructed before slowly vanishing alongside the rest of his squad. "Sergeant, I want your men to give us a ten second head start. If we take fire, we'll look for cover or hit the dirt. Only engage from this room and don't take any risks," he turned towards Lawson, who could see him thanks to their allies' HUDs being linked to their suits and outlining them for them to avoid friendly fire. "You're on support duty. Protect Recon with a barrier if they take fire."

A 'yes sir' from Undrak and a brief nod from Lawson was all the acknowledgement he'd need.

"Hofmann, door," he instructed. If he had the layout right, they should be walking into a broad hallway with a stairway connected to several sleeping rooms now. That meant a lot of doors, which meant a lot of angles.

He'd already been expecting to find something bad after the last room; another slaughterhouse or another ambush for example.

Hence Miller's cry of 'Contact front!' didn't surprise him.

.. what they were taking contact from however did.

Standing halfway on the stairway was a two-meter-tall cybernetic monstrosity. The bits and pieces of torn yellow fabric suggested that the thing had once been a crew member, but that was about the end of the similarities. Instead of a human face, the thing's head resembled a black helmet with bluish eyes and instead of a normal body, its torso was akin to heavy armor which he'd found rather familiar – at least in the millisecond or so he spent looking at it before focusing on the assault rifle in its now cybernetic hand, dropping to the ground and aligning his Valkyrie with its head.

As instructed, Phantom and he hit the dirt and Recon started to light up the creature and as expected, the combined fire from four Phaestons and four Valkyries was way too much for anything of that size to handle.

In one second the cybernetic monster tried to shoot at them, in the next it went up in a blaze he'd last seen during the Blitz.

He thought back to the body on the stretcher.

'Definitely incendiary packs', he thought.

"Guess we know what the point of those experiments was now," Mav muttered while Phantom rose to their feet in synchronicity.

"Guess we do now," he responded before glancing to each of his sides. "Mav, Hofmann, take a room each as we go, I don't want any of those things sneaking up on us. Miller, we're holding point and advancing. Sergeant Undrak, shuffle in behind us and follow my guys into the rooms. Lawson, barriers."

"So, we gonna address the elephant in the room?" Miller muttered while Mav and Hofmann breached into the first two rooms and sounded off that they were clear.

"Said elephant being?" Lawson responded.

"The armor on that thing we smoked just now. Exact same get-up as the mercs on ML-2 except for the whole incendiary pack thing."

So he hadn't imagined that part in the heat of the moment.

"Are you sure?" Lawson retorted as they continued their slow advance. "One suit of black armor tends to look like another suit of black armor, especially when you're being shot at after witnessing a traumatizing sight."

"First off, none of that shit back there qualifies as traumatizing in my book. Secondly, I've got five sisters and I've been doing this for twelve years, Ma'am. I know my colors and my armors. They're the same guys."

Before Lawson could object – which he was sure she would since Miller was 'just' an ASOC squaddie and not a Captain, Haugen chipped in.

"He's right. The guys that got wasted on ML-2 had the same gear as that thing," they passed another set of doors and got another set of 'room clear' calls.

"I'm sure the surgeon team will be able to answer that question," Undrak muttered from behind them. "If they don't explode as well themselves that is."

"You tryin' to jinx us, batarian?" Miller replied.

"No, only preparing us for the inevitable. Where there's one incendiary pack, there's another."

"Suicide bombings and chopping up humans. Good old four-eye traditions, eh? Feeling home yet?"

Truth be told, he was surprised it had taken Miller this long.

Haugen was about to interrupt but since Undrak didn't seem to care and Miller clearly didn't feel the need to deliver another provocation, he stayed silent.

Lawson however couldn't help but inject herself into the brief exchange of blows.

"It's funny you'd call them batarian traditions considering we've been doing that to each other much longer than they have," the Cerberus operative said coldly. "But I guess they don't mention that part during TN-Hardliner rallies, do they?"

"You're seriously going to mock my music taste during a combat op?"

"I'm not mocking what you call music, I'm pointing out your skewed world view and how it affects your ability to work with our allies."

"The fuck you know about my world view?"

"Only what you've shown so far but that's already plenty enough to make that statement."

Another truth be told, he'd been wondering when the more … unique … believes of half of Phantom Squad would get picked up by their Cerberus attaché.

As their CO, Haugen obviously knew what ideology Miller (and to a smaller extend Mav) subscribed to. It had never been a major issue. The HSA's army and especially the units stationed on Terra Nova were filled with people sharing those or even more extreme. But setting aside the fact that those views were widely accepted in their social circle, their believes were something he'd always kept in the back of his mind because if one wanted to get technical, half of what that ideology preached was a direct contradiction to the Human Unification Charta – the HSA's constitution.

Miller only snorted in reply to Lawson's statement.

"Show me who's doing that shit to my people and I'll put a bullet in their head. Four eyes or two eyes, makes no difference to me."

"Damn right. You fuck with one of us, you pay the prize, no matter who you are," Mav added.

As far as Haugen was concerned, that was all that needed to be said. Miller could believe whatever he wanted to believe as long as he did his job the same way he always did.

Hence, he'd put a stop to it before Lawson tried to further distract the soldier. (Not that he actually believed that Miller or another member of Phantom would engage in a conversation at the risk of distraction that is – they were far too professional for that.)

"Save the political debates for the debrief," Haugen instructed before setting his first invisible foot onto the stair and looking at the ash left behind by the body. "Anyone want to sample that while we recon the stairs?"

"On it," one of the turians declared from behind.

"We've got drones, you know?" Undrak responded, clearly offering Recons' skillset for the task at hand.

"I know," Haugen nodded, "but no offense, I trust my eyes more in close quarters."

"None taken."

"Follow us when we're upstairs."

"Will do."

While the turian knelt down and scooped up some of the contents, the rest of Phantom Squad (which had cleared the last pair of rooms by now) linked up back with Miller and Haugen and started to ascend the stairs. Since they didn't want to compromise their camo, all of them took a large step over the ash spot and since they'd all practiced this scenario a thousand times over, they were at the top of the stairs in no time and staring down a door that had clearly been breached by the same brand of slap charge the marines used for their boarding operations. The scorch marks on what used to be door's lock were identical in shape and scale and it was unlikely that another explosive would produce this exact pattern of destruction.

"Boss," Mav began. His voice sounded slightly off – uncertain even. He was seeing what Haugen was seeing.

"Our demo charges, I know," the captain responded before taking a deliberate look at the pattern so that whoever reviewed his helmet camera footage would know what they were seeing. "The bridge should be up ahead and we haven't run into any of the surgeons or the rest of the crew yet," he declared over the shared battlenet and after a glance at his HUD confirmed that Recon had caught up. "Get ready to take fire. Same plan as befor-"

"Sergeant Undrak, we've been engaged in the engine room!" the voice of a turian suddenly declared over the tell-tale rattling of Phaeston's being used like light machineguns. "I've got thirty plus hostiles bearing down on my position, cybernetic enhancements and small arms and they clearly don't give a crap about taking fire," he went on. "We need backup, urgently!"

He threw one look at the batarian Recon commander.

"Go help your men. And call the Mirage. Tell them to send their naval infantry. One platoon, half to help you, half to secure our evac," he instructed. "Phantom will handle the bridge."

"If we leave you, you'll be vastly outnumbered. They've only reported thirty hostiles. That still leaves at least forty crew members and whoever else is unaccounted for," Undrak stated. It wasn't a protest, just a fact.

"We do our best work when it's ten of them for one of us," Haugen retorted. "Go."

The Recon soldiers didn't need to be told twice.

"You should go with them and help. Only thing you're doing up here is compromising our approach," he stated as he watched Lawson remain.

"Unlike Undrak, I'm not naive enough to actually believe your ASOC bravado," why was it that every time he made a risky call someone had to point out that stereotype? "Besides," Lawson went on before walking in front of Haugen and heading towards the bridge. "Now that Undrak's gone, you won't have to worry about me endangering their lives, do you?"

He narrowed his eyes behind his visor but followed her nonetheless.

"This isn't the place for that discussion."

"There's no discussion to be had. You made yourself clear," Lawson retorted before a ripple of biotic energy went through her arms and she yanked the next door from its frame and sent it flying into the bridge without even spending a second detailing her plan, which came back to bite them as soon as they stared down several more of the modified crew members, the team of unarmed surgeons and a pair of figures in the same set of black armor but without the whole mutilated-monster-look.

He didn't need to give the order to engage. Phantom and Lawson did all of that on their own.

While his men took cover and started firing at the cybernetic crewmembers, Lawson decided that gunfights weren't something she'd waste her time on.

In one moment four altered crew members were trying to fire upon her, in the next she'd used the broken door; accelerated by her biotic abilities; to cut them in half and spill what little remained of their guts onto the floor. There wasn't an incendiary pack explosion this time around, probably because the halved creatures continued to fire their weapons at them until she smeared them all over the floor.

As Haugen shot at one of the unmodified figures in black while doing his best to avoid hitting the surgeons – something Lawson had also ignored since her cleaving door move had killed a couple of them as well – the ASOC captain noticed something about the way these two foes moved.

It was human, familiar even.

… did those guys have their training?

Were they shooting at HSA spec-ops operatives?

There was only one way to be sure.

"Non-lethal on the two guys in armor!" he ordered before a round cracked of his shields despite him rapidly switching positions and still being perfectly invisible.

They knew how he fought and they were shooting at where they would go in his place. As another glance to his left and the electric flaring of Hofmann's shields confirmed, it wasn't just his bad luck either. There was a method to this.

As another bullet punched through the working station his second-in-command was using for cover, Hofmann flinched.

"Fucking hell. Those two guys are like us, aren't they?"

"They definitely have our training!" Haugen confirmed with a louder than necessary shout. "But I haven't heard of ASOC guys going rogue," he went on before remembering what they'd just seen in the room below and grimacing at the memory of what Enrykis had talked about prior to landing on ML-2.

Cooper-Wells CFB.

Because of the sheer devastation of the fighting, they'd never recovered some of the bodies of the ASOC and NSOC soldiers killed during that raid. Now here they were, fighting people who knew how to battle an ASOC squad and happened to work for someone who clearly liked stuffing cybernetics into dead or dying humans to get them to do their bidding.

The thought alone sent a chill down his spine and for that reason, he blocked it out and focused on the fight that was rapidly shifting in their favor thanks to Lawson revealing her devastating offensive capabilities. While one of her hands glowed purple and held several more altered crew members in the air, the other held a pistol and dispatched said crew members with precise headshots before moving on to the kneecaps of the surviving surgeons.

… they could have used that firepower on ML-2 but just like their disagreement and Miller's political views, that was a discussion to be had during the debrief.

Since the Cerberus operative clearly had crowd control covered, Haugen would focus on what he could realistically achieve: confirm his suspicion on the two anomalous enemies.

"Mav, Miller, suppressive fire on the two normal looking guys. Shatter their shields. Hofmann, you flank right, I flank left. No risking lives, if they aim at you, kill them. Execute!" With the order spoken, Phantom Squad complied. A Valkyrie and a gauss LMG opened fire and two barely visible figures darted into opposing directions to flank the pair of enemies hunkered down at the other end of the bridge where the floor sank a level to accommodate more working stations. As they moved, Haugen and Hofmann both had to dodge gunfire from the quickly diminishing number of crew members and jump over injured surgeon staff. All the while, he overheard a transmission of Undrak reporting that they genuinely needed the salarian back-up to arrive and that Recon was taking casualties because more and more of the crew were starting to appear out of the cargo-hangar; apparently alongside more drones.

He blocked that out as well and readied himself to aim his rifle at the exposed side of one of the unknown shooters in the very moment he saw their shields collapse under Mav's and Miller's gunfire.

Haugen's sights aligned with the figure's hip right as the figure realized that he'd been flanked and his finger pulled the trigger right as the figure turned.

In Haugen's mind they were decent disabling shots and the blood flowing from where he'd hit the soft side of the leg and shoulder armor confirmed as much.

But the two soldiers clearly had a different idea.

It all happened in a flash, literally.

One moment they were standing in the room; the next the exterior wall of the ship exploded and sucked them, the surgeons and the bodies of the killed crew members out. From the way the two had tucked up and braced for the vacuum exposure, Haugen knew instantly that this had been the pairs plan all along.

The blast would've evacuated Phantom and Lawson into he vacuum as well, if not for the fact that standard procedure during HSA boarding ops was to have their boots magnetized precisely because of a scenario like this.

As Haugen grabbed a hold of the surgeon flying by him – which sadly enough had been killed in the fight – he waited for the emergency blast shutters to shut or the air to fully leave the room, whichever happened first.

This time around it was the blast shutters.

The sound of steel hitting steel returning was the first sign that the atmosphere breach was closed and from there on out, he didn't waste a single second. He dropped the dead surgeon and started jogging.

"Engine room, now!" he ordered. "Undrak, do you still read me?" he called through the radio while already rushing towards the stairs. In addition to really wanting to save whatever was left of Recon, he also really needed to eliminate the possibility of the Messina getting launched into Mnemosyne or worse (if the altered crew members were capable of reprogramming the engine computers and aware of the ship's presence) into the close-by Mirage of Halegeuse.

Undrak gave no reply, so he went on to the next available source.

"Mirage, this is Phantom-Lead. I've lost contact to the troops guarding the engine room. There's a chance the Messina will go in for a suicide maneuver."

"Have been monitoring your communication. Already considered that possibility," the salarian captain responded directly. "Be advised, naval infantry detachment has met resistance in the passenger-hangar. Drones from the cargo hangar and modified crew members. Progress to engine room has been slow and my platoon leader is already asking to abort due to a lack of life signs from Recon. Suggest you get to evacuation zone before the window closes."

Haugen had only one response to that.

Hell no.

"Is he seriously telling us to leave Recon behind?" Hofmann growled. "Does he know who he's talking to?"

"If he is, he can shove that order up his ass," Miller responded.

"Damn right. No man left behind, not even the four-eye," Mav nodded.

Even if his mind had already been made up and he knew what Phantom would expect him to do in this situation, Haugen was glad to hear his team share the sentiment out loud.

"Negative Mirage, we're diverting to the engine room," Haugen responded before stopping dead in his tracks after noticing that Lawson had ditched them in favor of staying on the bridge and realizing that he was looking at an elevator shaft which would no doubt connect to the level of the engine. "I hope you feel like fast-roping," he told his team before pulling out a breaching charge and slapping it on the door in the hopes of this working like he intended it to work. First they'd blow open the elevator to eliminate any booby traps on the door, then they'd blow the elevator to eliminate any traps in the actual cabin and then they'd rope down to assist Recon.

"Phantom-Lead, I will not jeopardize the safety of the Mirage's crew for your sake. If the Messina enters a collision course-"

"You'll blow us out of the sky, yeah I got it," he stated before detonating the breaching charge on the elevator door and throwing a demolition satchel into the empty cabin. "Fire in the hole," he warned before a small explosion sent the cabin crashing down several levels.

"Undrak, if you can read me, we're coming through the elevator that just crashed. Don't light us up."

Another voice came alive over their channel.

"Captain, I'm ordering you to retreat," Lawson spoke. "The Recon team is dead. We need to leave while -"

Whatever else Lawson had wanted to say was cut off when Hofmann removed her from ASOC's squad network. Next, he hooked his rope in next where Haugen had hooked his in.

"If I'm going out, it's not to the sound of her bitchy voice," the sergeant said with a shrug.

"Amen to that, brother," Mav responded before repeating himself and hooking in alongside Miller. "Amen to that."

"Yo, if we survive this," Miller began before Phantom lowered themselves through the shaft, "you think they'll give us a medal, a court martial or both?"

"Neither if we're lucky," Haugen said before pulling out a flashbang and tossing it through the door. He didn't actually know if it would do anything considering what they were fighting, but now that it was thrown, it was too late to take it back.

Next he pressed his rifle against the side of his hip and kicked himself off the elevator shaft's interior wall to allow for a dynamic entry into the engine room level just in time for the bright explosion – which was of course canceled out by his helmet.

When he came flying through the door, the first thing he hit was the back of one of the cybernetically altered crew members with his boots. The second was his Valkyrie's trigger. He probably emptied half a thermal clip into the back of the yellow uniform until the thing stopped twitching, showing just how badly they could've used Lawson down here. In retrospective, he also realized how lucky he'd gotten that the creature hadn't just incinerated itself alongside him. As he kicked the body around, he realized why.

They weren't finished like the one on the stairs.

Half of the crew member still resembled a human not encased in black steel.

Whoever was controlling these things had probably drafted this one out of desperation and involuntarily saved his life.

Without passing another thought on how close he'd gotten to widowing his wife Sam just now, Haugen moved up alongside Phantom. With the possibility of them currently being set on a collision course, 'slow is swift' had long since been thrown out of the window. They rushed down the corridor, gunned down another pair of yellow-clad cybernetic monsters – one of which exploded – and then breached the engine room where they found a lot of dead Recon soldiers and a distinctively batarian-looking Recon member repeatedly stabbing his combat knife into the face of a particularly large monstrosity. When they arrived, it was still twitching but after another five or six stabs to the cranium delivered by the burly batarian, it died.

Or well. Died again.

From the brief glance Haugen got of it, it looked like a fusion of several larger humans all grafted together to form a colossal frontline soldier. There were blue husk-like tubes running all over its arms, a body-sized gun had replaced its arm and tumorous growths were extending from its spine to form a sack that looked like it was made up of human faces.

All in all, it looked out of place among the black-steel armors of the other mutilated people and turian soldiers that had died here.

Speaking off.

Only now that Haugen was actually standing inside the engine room did he realise that there were no survivors other than Undrak.

… this wasn't what he'd meant when he'd promised Undrak that next time would be different.

Goddammit.

"Friendlies!" Haugen declared, loud enough to get Undrak to stop stabbing and clear enough to not even give him the idea to unload his Phaeston into the new arrivals. "You it?" was the first question out of Haugen's mouth. It probably sounded cold-hearted considering he was sure that the entire rest of Undrak's unit was dead… but now wasn't the time for empathy. It was time for hard facts and hard facts only.

"We were too slow," the batarian growled before reaching for something underneath the blue monster, "and too few," now Haugen realized that the creature was lying on top of the soldier who'd secured the ashes earlier and that Undrak was trying to pry the container out of the dead soldier's armor. "They didn't touch the engine," he went on before pulling out the box and stuffing it into his own red-and-black armor. "I hope this was worth it."

Haugen looked around the devastated room and the barrels of blue and red blood spilled over its every corner. Recon had put up a hell of a stand but in a close-quarter fight against an enemy that didn't care about casualties, ferocity only got you so far.

"So do I," he whispered before leaning over the closest command console. "Mav, Hofmann, get him to the evac. Miller and I will set a new course."

His soldiers complied.

Undrak didn't.

"I'm not leaving my comrades here."

Haugen looked up from the console.

"The salarians are taking fire in the evac zone and we don't know what other nasty surprises those bastards hid on this ship. We need to leave asap. Besides, I'm not even sure we've got space for that many casualties." Again, cold but necessary.

"If these were your men," Undrak went on before kneeling down next to one of the turaisn and reaching for an ID tag embedded into the collar of his armor. "Would you just leave?"

He glanced at Phantom.

"I can't answer that," he began to type on the console and then sighed. "Collect their tags. You've got as long as it takes me to rewrite this. I'm sorry but that's all we can do here."

"Don't be sorry. We all knew what we were getting into when we took our oath to the Hierarchy," the batarian muttered in return while collecting more tags. "Victory at any cost. To the last breath and then one step more," he lingered over the body of one of the squad leaders and for a second. Meanwhile Haugen wondered what this event would do to the batarian. An event like this? It'd break most people. But a handful? They became something else entirely; something unstoppable. "Their deaths will make anyone wearing the Recon badge proud, if anyone ever hears about this that is."

Haugen looked away from his course correction and paused before the final confirmation. He wanted to be certain that Undrak was done collecting tags and judging by the look of him, he was.

"They will. After we beat the Reapers," his finger pressed down on the confirmation button only to find that he had to confirm it again because he'd just plotted a direct collision course. "Even if their bodies don't make it back home, they'll rest easy knowing they helped destroy one of them. Took an entire fleet to do that last time around. That ought to give them something to brag about in whatever afterlife turians go to," personally, he wasn't sure if such a thing even existed… but since everything about Undrak suggested that the batarian did, Haugen would go along with it for now.

"For that they'll rest with the spirits of Palaven itself."

He nodded and then re-added Lawson into ASOC's internal squad intercom. Before he set the course and faced the music for what had happened, he needed to be certain.

"Do you have what you need?" he asked into the radio, not expecting to get a reply from the entrance of the room.


Meanwhile, 27. April 2417 AD, MMC-3481 Messina

Truth be told, she should have seen this coming after earlier.

Haugen was a simple man with a simple code.

That was bound to get problematic eventually.

She'd just hoped it wouldn't happen under circumstances such as these.

On her way down here, she'd considered many alternatives to her final plan: appealing to his sense of duty (which had failed before), appealing to her technical superiority of rank (which had also failed before), appealing to his sense of reason (which was the exact thing causing him to make a huge mistake) and appealing to his personal liking of her (which didn't exist).

Hence she was left with only one thing to do.

Make him fear her.

Given his reputation, it was a long-shot. But she still had to take it.

"I do," she stated before walking over to the officer and suddenly pressing the barrel of a gun against his spine. It wasn't her first choice of action but considering the scale of the mistake the soldier was about to commit, she had to make her point in a dramatic fashion. "But I can't let you destroy that Reaper. It's too valuable. More so than any of us."

Stunned by the betrayal, it took Phantom all of three seconds to level their weapons at her. Considering how much faith Haugen had into his unit and their abilities, Miranda had to admit that she wasn't impressed. If someone put a gun into the her director's back, they'd be dead on the ground long before three seconds passed.

"If you want to keep your head attached to your shoulders, you drop that gun right now," Haugen's XO demanded, prompting the white-armored operative to let out a chuckle that she was ashamed to admit reminded her of her father.

They didn't actually think they could stop her, did they?

"You saw what I did on the bridge, what makes you think you stand a chance at stopping me?"

"Same thing that made me go down here while you were ready to leave Recon for dead," the oldest sergeant responded before pulling out his knife and pressing it against the soft part of her neck armor as well.

Smart – as she had expected from a veteran special forces operative.

"Drop it. Now." As if to reinforce the threat, the muzzle of a gauss LMG was rested on her left shoulder and a Valkyrie was leveled at her neck from in between the two angles to avoid blue on blue. She could feel its barrel exactly where her biotic amp was located and she'd lie if she said it wasn't an uncomfortable to be in. With the exclusion of Undrak, she'd now gotten the entire room to threaten her.

To be fair, she hadn't expected anything else.

Terra Novan ASOC operative might as well be a synonym of absolute loyalty in the face of certain doom.

"Tell your men to stand down, Captain. I don't want to hurt any of you," she stated, neglecting to mention that she would just that if they gave her a reason to do so – which pointing a gun at her amp was coming dangerously close to being.

"You've got a pistol in my back and you claim that you don't want to hurt us? Seriously?" Haugen replied. His voice was cool, something only someone who'd been in plenty of life-threatening scenarios before would manage to do under these circumstances.

"Think about this logically for a moment, Captain. There's so much we can get from a Reaper wreckage."

"Come on, Lawson, not even you are that far removed from the world that you think that ship's gonna be anything but our downfall," Haugen suddenly spun around. Now her gun was aimed at his abdomen and he'd clearly exposed her bluff. Someone who wanted to shoot him would've done so the second he spun.

Damn it.

Back to reason then.

"This ship alone is already worth its weight in gold in regard to intel. Now think about what we can learn from a Reaper," she raised her weapon under Haugen's chin before suddenly lowering it. She was sure that only the slow and deliberate way in which she did that first part kept the other soldiers from firing.

"Just ask Undrak over there what the Hegemony got from studying the Leviathan."

The batarian only shrugged.

"Last I heard TNI thinks they all went crazy like Saren Arterius. The exposure got them, apparently."

"And that ship wasn't nearly as complete as that one out there," he pushed his finger on the console and a timer activated. Then he looked at the gun dangling next to her hip and pushed past her with a very hard shoulder-check to reinforce his point. "If you're really gonna shoot me in the back for what I just did, shoot me. If you were bluffing, get your ass to the exfiltration and get ready to explain to an admiral why you just pulled a gun on an ASOC officer. I'm sure they'll love whatever excuse you try on them after I show them my helmet camera footage."

"Cerberus operates outside of the chain of command of the armed forces. You can't report my actions to an admiral. And even if you did, I have nothing to worry about. Our mandate permits us to take any measures deemed necessary." Miranda retorted from memory. Haugen audibly laughed.

"Lady, you just had a gun aimed at my back and told me to back down and not even that worked. Can you finally stop trying to control me? It's clearly not working. I'm not scared of you."

He was right.

And she hated that.

After turning his back against her like she hadn't just betrayed him, Haugen nodded towards Undrak. "Let's get out of here. I just set your team a hell of a funeral pyre and I'm positive you're gonna want to see it in all of its glory."

"With pleasure."

Miranda holstered her gun.

She'd miscalculated.

How had that happened?

She didn't make mistakes.

A hot anger was boiling in her and she wanted to do nothing more but unleash it… yet she didn't because somewhere, some part of her knew that Haugen had a point.

… and that opened a whole different can of worms.

"Miller, Mav, do be so kind and escort Operative Lawson," Haugen instructed before walking away.

She remained for a moment as if to try her luck. It was an empty, desperate attempt but an attempt nonetheless.

"You know, unless you wanna blow up, you really ought to move," Staff Sergeant Miller said with a nudge of his head.

"I'll be right behind you," she responded before looking at the terminal.

"Yeah right. You really think we're stupid grunts, don't you?" the ASOC soldier next to Miler, Staff Sergeant Arendse, responded before giving her a shove.

"Your decision just now supports that theory, yes," she responded with a shrug.

"Less talking, more moving," the Terra Novan demanded.

Despite the impulse to flay both of them out of their armor suits and cancel the collision course to be able to deliver Director Harper a Reaper – which she had no doubt was exactly what her father would expect her to do - Miranda complied.

They'd see.

When the Reapers wiped their precious Terra Nova off the face of the galaxy and their sisters got turned into husks because of their stupidity, they'd all see.


Thirty Minutes later, 27. April 2417 AD, Mirage of Haleguese, Observation Deck

While Hofmann was off explaining what had happened and he was waiting for Admiral Hackett to have time to hear him out about Lawson (who was no doubt already talking to her own boss and blaming him for everything), Haugen had decided to at least give one person something positive.

Their batarian brothe-in-arms.

God that still sounded strange even when he was only thinking it.

"Five, four-" Haugen stated before a bright flash erupted in the distance. It was followed by a red explosion probably the size of a city center and it was large enough to be visible on the outer layer of the gas giant. "Huh. Guess my count was off."

"Mhm," the red-brown striped batarian murmured as the explosion expanded through the atmosphere. "You were right, Captain. That really is one 'hell' of a funeral pyre."

"A sent-off worthy of you're the kind of soldiers your team was made of," Haugen responded before reaching for what he'd grabbed on his way out of their barracks. Two beers from Miller's personal earth-beer stash. He wasn't sure what had driven him to do it and he was certain that Miller would lose his shit if he found out Haugen was sharing them with a batarian, but one thing was clear: Undrak he needed them more than Miller did. "You ever had a human beer?" he offered.

"No, only what turians think human beer tastes like. And unless you actually enjoy the taste of gasoline, I think they missed an ingredient or two," he trailed off.

"Well then," the blonde man stated before cracking the caps off on the gauntlet off his armor and handing one of the beers to Undrak. "First time for everything."

Undrak, who was also still wearing his armor, took the bottle and then raised it into the air.

"To the fallen. Until we meet again."

Haugen, recognizing the toast from a post-Blitz celebration with a squad of turian grunts, clinked his bottle against Undrak's and finished the saying.

"On the other side or in another life."

"Hear, hear," Undrak stated before taking a sip from the beer. "Gotta say. Not half bad."

"Well, topping turian gasoline isn't exactly a challenge."

"I'd offer to buy you a batarian beer in return, but the Hegemony doesn't exactly export to the Hierarchy and unless we happen to hit the Omega, I don't think I'll find a bottle or two anytime soon."

Haugen took a sip from Miller's beverage.

"Next time then."

"Next time," Undrak repeated before a bright-blue explosion overshadowed the red one and a rippling wave travelled through the atmosphere of Mnemosyne. "There goes the eezo-core," he commented before more explosions followed the rippling one and spread around further around the gas giant.

Haugen whistled in response.

"Damn. You think we set a gas giant on fire?"

"Sure looks like you did."

"Me?"

"Well I didn't set the coordinates," Undrak shrugged. "This is all on you."

"Good thing that black-ops don't go on the record then, eh?"

"Indeed," the batarian sergeant began before the atmospheric phenomenon they'd caused started to sparkle. "I don't think you want to be the guy who killed a planet, even if it's an uninhabited one."

"Nah, you're right. Don't exactly need destroyer of worlds on my resume," he said after another sip of beer.

"Besides, some mining company probably had a claim on that gas and if human paychecks are anything like turian paychecks…"

"I can't afford that insurance claim, nope. No way. Sam will kill me if I ever get that bill."

"Sam?" Undrak asked.

"My wife," he went on before realizing he'd just shared something personal with a batarian.

"I won't tell if you don't."

"Then we're in agreement."


Codex: History of the Terra-Novan Hardline (Part 1. Origins)

More often than not represented by an eagle diving towards its prey bearing claws, the Terra Novan Hardline is a term used to describe a collection of movements following an ideology that ranges from fierce pro-SAF and pro-HSA sentiment all the way towards rampant militarism, xenophobia and human ultranationalism.

Although present in one way or another ever since the foundation of the Human Systems Alliance, the Terra Novan Hardline as it exists (which many claim to be one of the most extreme incarnations yet) today traces its roots towards the pre-Fringe Wars era and has since seen vast popularity on Terra Nova, core and frontier colonies with large populations of Terra-Novan immigrants and within the ranks of the Human Systems Alliance Armed Forces; predominantly the HSA Army.

Many sociological studies (human and non-human alike) have attempted to determine the precise nature of the current incarnation of Terra Novan ultranationalism.

No two studies have drawn a similar conclusion.

While conclusions vary, there are however several key points in the development that most if not all studies have identified within the timeline of the current TN-Hardline. First and foremost: it's immediate ideological predecessor.

Starting in the early late 2360s when the situation in the Fringe Worlds started to deteriorate, former students who attended Terra Novan military academies in the late 2350s and early 2360s and had since moved on to key positions in the military and civilian circles of Terra Nova banded together and formed a movement called 'Aquila Invicta', the Undefeated Eagle.

Although briefly surveilled by HSAIS for a fear of 'deeply authoritarian, borderline fascist believes', Aquila Invicta wasn't long for this world. The movement, while initially popular in Scott and its metropolitan area to a degree large enough to give rise to several failed politician careers, quickly lost traction when its contradiction to the HSA's core values – which are deeply cherished by most Terra Novans – became evident.

But although the name Aquila Invicta quickly vanished from the political landscape of Terra Nova, the people who played a hand in its creation did not and neither did their ideas or the roots of their believes.

As the Fringe Wars broke out and Terra Novan units (some of which commanded by people with clear relations to Aquila Invicta) were sent to subdue the HSA's rebellious colonies, the same sentiment that had led to the foundation of Aquila Invicta once more took root.

While the significance of the tradition becomes evident in retrospective, the idea of Terra Novan troops painting the diving eagle upon their equipment and carrying costume standards into battle; a practice tolerated by the larger HSA military despite its clear violation against the Uniform Code; seemed insignificant at first.

At first.

With an increased escalation of the war, the reputation of brutal efficiency and absolute devotion among Terra Novan units bearing these self-selected marks; especially the elite reconnaissance units of the 26th Airborne Brigade and the 1st Army Air Assault Regiment (Nicknamed 'Triple-A' and famous for its role during the initial assault on the surface of Horizon) grew as well.

Some may refer to it as respect, others as infamy and dread.

Whereas other HSA units seeking their fame tried to mimic the performance of these units, it only took the beginning of the second year of the war for calls of war crimes against IFS troops and the Fringe's population to surface from both official IFS sources and from within the HSA. In particular units hailing from the handful of Fringe Colonies which had not joined the rebellion such as Elysium reported the excessive force with which Terra-Novan units bearing the diving eagle on their unit insignias treated their captured opponents and occupied populations – a development believed to be responsible for the continued animosity between Fringers and Terra Novans.

At the end of the Fringe Wars an influx of Terra Novan-born veterans returned home from the faraway battlefields. While welcomed as heroes by the general populace of humanity's oldest colony, the rumors and investigations that followed the war and the number of high-ranking, highly decorated Terra Novans involved in these investigations were more than enough to produce a sentiment suggesting that the vast majority of the HSA was 'too soft' for Terra Nova; an idea also championed by Aquila Invicta.

With that sentiment (re-)discovered, the first group that truly lived and preached the current brand of ultranationalism was founded on Terra Nova; a musical group made up of 26th AB veterans going by the name of Mors Ad Alto – Death From Above.

Up to today, Mors Ad Alto remains the most popular Terra Novan musical group of the post-Fringe War era with long-running hits such as 'Wings of Victory', 'Aquila Invicta' ; 'Bearing Claws' and 'Pay the Prize' and while it began as a musical group, the genre they claim to have created, the Terra-Novan Hardline, only required three years and one First Contact to take the form of a fully-fledged ideology.


A/N:

Hey, who knew, I made it before August after all!

Let me start of with saying one thing: I went a bit crazy with the codex. I know.

Good, with that out of the way, let me get to the rest of the chapter; or at least one thing.

Miranda and Haugen were bound to clash and well. This is it.

I know this is not what you were expecting when i told you the derelict reaper was up next buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut. With how SV has developed... you didn't actually expect that anyone SENSIBLE would be walking into a Reaper, did you :P?

With Legion linked up in a different way and the IFF being ... not a subject just yet and in fact coming from a completely different source than inc anon, Haugen's version of the Derelict Reaper mission had to focus on something else entirely. And since I think you're all smart enough to know what I'm talking about, I won't say anything else.

While you did get a huge chapter this time around, I want to make one thing clear (or rather I have to make one thing clear) My updating schedule will continue to be slow. I've got a lot going on and yeah... I sound like a broken record by now, I know. But I just want to keep your expectations realistic. :)

As usual, I appreciate all reviews.

For the record we're at 821 reviews, 1292 favorites and 1381 follows.

See you around next time.