Chapter 1. Hazard Pay
As Rannoch falls to the geth around him and the Quarian Conclave sounds a general retreat across its worlds, a Spectre turned contractor embarks on a mission crucial to saving the people of the desert city Nedas Azhana.
"What I remember most about the day the Migrant Fleet left Rannoch is how quiet and sudden all of it happened to the people living here on Thessia. From one day to the other, the quarians just abandoned their homeworld. A six year long war with billions of deaths, ended in a single day. All the people that died because of it? Forgotten in the span of a few years. Words can't describe how haunting that was at the time. Even a hundred years after this tragedy, it still serves as a grim reminder of why we may never again create artificial intelligences meant to ease our lives. They may very well end them instead."
~Matriarch Jalira T'Kal, 1996CE, while remembering the 100th anniversary of the de-facto conclusion of the Geth War during a memorial held in Serrice.
"As we stand at the eve of a new threat to the galaxy the scale of which has not been seen since the Krogan Rebellions, it is paramount that we recognize what has to be done and not remain idle while our enemy plots our defeat. United we will stop the onslaught the geth will bring to our allies, to us, to our colonies, to our cities and to our people. United we will face this new enemy if he decides to test our resolve and not waver until victory is secured. United we will uphold the order we all swore to protect until our dying breath and united we will each do our duty, even if we pay the ultimate price. For the Council. For the Hierarchy."
~Primarch of Digeris Celos Heritas, 1896 CE, in a public address during the emergency summit held in the Hall of Primarchs shortly after the departure of the Migrant Fleet and before announcing his retirement as a Primarch and reinstatement as a general in the 77th Digerian Legion before their deployment to the fringe world of Lestral.
1896 CE, Rannoch, Nedas Azhana
That was what he understood the translation of this city's name to be. As he looked at it from his ventage point, the cold desert air that was brushing against his brown features making his breath clearly visible against the dark night sky, he found it rather accurate.
Endless plains of sand and limestone seemed to surround the spaceport and the adjacent buildings, all of which had been battered by artillery fire and aerial attacks and besides the enormous underground canal system going through the city's natural caves, some of which had already been destroyed or occupied by their enemies, the only thing that supplied Nedas Azhana with water were supply transports, which had stopped coming weeks ago due to the geth shooting all of them down, and water recyclers, of which fewer and fewer were working with every passing day.
"Xatanus!" he heard someone call his name, causing him to turn around and look at the other white-armored Final Wave operative that had climbed to the top of the spaceport to reach him, Lieutenant Ulian.
"Yes?" Karian Xatanus asked much more quietly, not feeling like having his voice echo out to every geth sniper platform in this part of Rannoch. Unlike with organics, he actually believed them to be capable of hitting him from halfway across the region.
"They're moving up the launch to right now," the other turian explained while catching his breath, his green-marked face showing a hint of exhaustion. "An entire geth corps just broke through the southern perimeter and they're heading for Nedas Azhana right now," as if to reinforce that statement, the sound of quarian engines spinning up now became audible, the slender shapes of what little remained of the soldiers that once belonged to the Conclave's 174th Heavy Lance rushing out of their improvised barracks alongside the local milita forces and heading for what was left of their vehicles and tanks.
"An entire corps you say?" he wondered as he observed the faint flashes of distant blue explosions likely marking the geth vanguard annihilating their forward observers with the same ruthless efficiency that had been driving the annihilation of their creators for the last six years, something the Council and even his own people had chosen to ignore in favour of fortifying their own borders instead of crushing the geth as long as they still could.
"Yes. I just talked to command. They want us to secure the evacuation ships and get as many of these civilians out of here as possible."
"And then we're supposed to pull out as well."
"Out of Nedas?" This was their last bastion on the continent. There was nowhere else they could retreat to.
"No," the turian shook his head. "Out of Rannoch."
"What?" he asked, his pale yellow armigerian facial markings twitching in confusion with the mandibles they were tattooed on.
"This is no longer a regional evacuation or a tactical retreat, Xatanus. The quarians are abandoning the entire planet. They'll evacuate anyone they can and then they'll bomb the geth into oblivion and hope that there's something left to inhabit at the end of it."
Three years as a hastatim.
Four years in Blackwatch.
Another three years as a Spectre.
With that kind of resume he had assumed there was nothing he hadn't seen.
Yet the last three years of fighting the geth with the Final Wave, a private security company that rented people like him to the highest bidder, in this case the ever more desperate Quarian Conclave, just seemed to shatter that assumption a bit every day.
"They're giving up Rannoch?" he wondered as a mixture of local milita and Conclave army veterans began pouring out of the spaceport's main gate below, moving into pre-established defense positions around the old colony ships preparing to take off on the large landing strips behind him, hoping to brave the geth onslaught long enough for the others to escape.
"Xatanus, I spoke to Haestrom Command. It's an order for all quarian worlds. The Conclave's giving up every planet that's left. They're pulling out Veil entirely."
"I see," he muttered as the blue plasma explosions got closer and were joined by the orange and red ones of the few experimental plasma launchers that hadn't been captured and upgraded by the geth yet.
So that's how this war would end. No grand blaze of glory, no last offensive, no fight until the last man died on his feet, still holding on to the legion's flag with his dying breath. Just the quarians tugging their tail between their legs, cutting their enormous losses and running away from the geth in the hope of escaping their inevitable deaths on Rannoch.
Honestly, he couldn't blame them for it.
They weren't stubborn like his own people. Unlike the turians, the quarians weren't going to draw a line in the dirt and chose a hill to die on simply because someone had told them that even if just one of them was left in the end, they would be the victors of this war.
"Where do they want us in this?" the former Spectre asked while idly unfolding his sniper-rifle and taking a knee on the open roof to get a better grasp of the situation. As he waited for an answer, he watched a distant quarian position taking small arms fire, his cross-hairs zeroed in on their fortification inside one of the larger rocks right until it disappeared in a bright blue flash, the last defiant rocket fired by it adding the squad occupying it and the geth shooting them, who perished in the rocket's explosion not a second later, to the already billion high body-count of a genocidal war that just about everyone seemed to be comfortable with letting happen.
"For now with the governour," the other Final Wave mercenary explained. Next he gestured down the way he had come from. "He'll give us our assignment."
"What happened to our commander?"
"She insisted on joining the defense out there."
Then she was probably as good as dead already.
Just another pointless paycheck more to split up on whoever may walk away from this.
"Works for me," Xatanus shrugged while rising to his feet, his rifle once more folding itself into a smaller, easier to carry box that soon found its place on the back of his white armor. Picking up his helmet from the ground and pulling it over his face, watching the HUD boot up in the process, he then nodded to his comrade. "Lead the way, Lieutenant."
As he followed the turian down the stairs and back into the interior of the spaceport, Xatanus passed by a large window once more offering a good look at the battle unfolding in the desert around them.
"Spirits, they'll be slaughtered out there," the other mercenary observed as a line of quarian hover tanks left the gate below.
"It's their fault for going up against them outside of the city," the Spectre muttered, causing the other turian to merely shake his head in disapproval.
"What would you have them do?" he asked as a company worth of light infantry jogged out after the tanks, "Let the geth into the city and risk losing the colony ships?"
"For example. Fighting door by door and block by block is an effective strategy," besides with the geth quickly gaining orbital and aerial superiority it wasn't like the odds of the ships making it off Rannoch were high to begin with. Might as well make the end costly for the enemy instead of burning to their deaths in the lower atmosphere.
"Over here!" he heard a quarian-accented voice shout as they reached the improvised command center inside the spaceport, which itself was one of the few structures that still remained largely intact thanks to the strong kinetic barriers it had been outfitted with. As he looked at the holomap showing the masses of purple surrounding them, Xatanus grew more certain that this battered city might finally become the figurative hill he died on.
"Gouvernour," his companion greeted through the commotion of the room, the few military officers who hadn't joined the upcoming fight all doing their best to improvise a reaction to the sudden geth attack.
"Lieutenant Ulian. Finally. I've been waiting for you."
"Apologies, I merely collected the Spectre," Ulian explained. "I figured we could use his skill set."
"And right you were," the quarian in a set of beaten light armor, which he had probably scavenged of a corpse some time ago if the dried purple blood staining it was any indication, nodded. With a swipe of his hand, a map of what Xatanus recognized as the water system built into the caves below the city appeared. "Ten minutes ago, a team of geth infiltrators broke through one of our barricades inside the canals. Before they were killed, the team of engineers defending the pathway reported that the geth are carrying a plasma bomb with them and heading straight for the central collection chamber. They are going to try and detonate the warhead right underneath us. If they succeed, the main cave and a good chunk of the canal system will collapse."
"Bringing down the spaceport and half the city with it," Xatanus figured.
"Exactly," the governour nodded. "What I need you to do, Ulian, is to take a team down there and ensure that that doesn't happen. There's no point in our forces trying to buy time for the evacuation to happen if the evacuation site vanishes in a sinkhole," manipulating the map so that it showed a more detailed depiction of the cave, the quarian touched another spot on the hologram. "A team of our rangers will support you. I ordered them to stay out of the fight for now and hunker down in the collection chamber. They'll be waiting for you once you get there."
"Understood, governour. We'll head out right away," Ulian nodded.
Xatanus had assumed that there were no elite forces left on the continent besides the odd two hundred Final Wave operatives still active as of yesterday morning. Sure, they were no Blackwatch or Cabals, but they'd do their job well. That was if they were still alive by the time he and Ulian got down there.
"All Invictus call-signs," Ulian's voice rang from both next to him and the radio installed in his helmet. "Gear up and rally in front of the northern canal entrance. It's time for you to earn your pay."
Unfolding the Vindicator rifle, a weapon that was only now starting to become standard issue in the turian military and that he had only gotten his hands on prematurely due to his former position in Blackwatch, Xatanus waited for the Final Wave lieutenant to finish what he was doing before falling in behind him.
"In case this goes very wrong, you wouldn't happen to know how to defuse a bomb, would you?" Ulian asked, breaking the comfortable silence they had walked in for most of the way to the entrance.
"Not the geth kind," he replied truthfully. Turian, batarian, salarian? Those wouldn't be that much of a challenge. But a modified quarian model? Running on the experimental plasma technology they seemed to have developed alongside the geth? There were easier ways to blow him and the rest of the city up.
"As always, very reassuring," the lieutenant replied as one of the two gates of the barrier that had been built at the canal's entrance was opened to them by a militia soldier, a quarian boy that couldn't have been older than fifteen. Smiling a reassuring smile to the kid Ulian and Xatanus now stood inside the makeshift-checkpoint the quarians had installed after the first geth raid had come from inside the caves.
The turian decided not to reply to the comment. After all, he hadn't come to Rannoch to be reassuring. He had come here because he knew how bleak the situation was and how tired he had been of it all. Of playing pretend and watching the synthetic apocalypse unfold in the Veil. Tired of looking away just like everyone else. Nothing less, nothing more. No monetary desire, no escape from something even worse, no search for a moral counterweight to the hundred and more times he had crossed every line.
When the second gate was opened to them by the same quarian kid, the one salarian, one other turian and two batarian still living members of Invictus Squad were already waiting for them. From there on out Ulian wasted no time to lead them inside, steadily following the marked pathway leading to the central collection chamber through the darkness of the otherwise maze-like cave. Only the rare moon light shing through small holes above them, the humming of the ventelation shafts installed every now and again and the distant sound of war echoing from a distance kept them company. Otherwise they were completely alone.
"Looks like the whole place is drying up," one of the batarians observed as he looked over the thin railing of the bridge that the squad was curently crossing. The half-natural, half-artificial construct below them was mostly empty, only murky, roughly waist deep waters still flowing inside the sloped canal. To Xatanus it looked far from drinkable.
"After sustained damage to the main pipe, system can only operate at twenty percent of capacity," the salarian tech specialist explained. "Unless repairs are made, Nedas Azhana will be dried up this time next month."
"Good thing we won't be around for that then," the other batarian, a broud shouldered individual with an equally big machine gun and a heavy set of armor, figured. "I can't wait to get off this rock."
Unlike Xatanus, he, who's name the former Spectre hadn't even bothered to learn, had only been here for two months. In the past, he might've pointed that out to silence his complaints but at this point he no longer cared. Besides, if his expectations for the mission were correct, the batarian wouldn't survive their encounter with the geth one way or another. Carrying a squad support weapon tended to make one a prioritized target for their deadly aim. It was the reason why their heavy weapon specialists seemed to be exchanged quicker than most Terminus governments and why he had stopped keeping count after Invictus had lost five machine gunners in five subsequent firefights.
"Just another few paces to our objective," Ulian informed them as Xatanus alternated between looking up ahead to where rays of moonlight were shining through a ventilation shaft and observing the canal and the water below it. While they might've been made of metal and electronics, he didn't put it past the geth to try and jump them from the water. Not needing air and being able to remain perfectly still for as long as necessary basically made them the perfect ambusher and many of his now dead colleagues stood as a testament to how inventive the synthetics could be in regards to finding new ways to kill people.
"And please," the lieutenant sighed, likely remembering the same incident with one quarian militia man that Xatanus was thinking about right now as well."Watch your step from here on out. I wouldn't put it past the rangers to have booby-trapped this entire area," it was solid advice. Land mines and trip wires didn't discriminate between geth, Conclave soldiers or Final Wave contractors. At least not anymore. The stockpile of smart munitions the quarians had used before the war had run dry nearly four years ago, the much easier to produce 'dumb' explosives having taken their place early into the war when attrition had become the deciding factor of the conflict.
"So what's our actual plan here, Sir?" the batarian machine gunner asked as he stepped over a gap in floor in front of the turian Spectre, the crack it originated from going down further than Xatanus could see. "Just hunker down in the chamber and wait it out?"
"Yes. Those are our orders," Ulian nodded from up ahead. "You'd do well to follow them," he added.
"Don't you think it's a waste of our talent to stick around and guard the bomb once we trash the geth carrying it?"
"Not if you want to survive," the third turian of the team, an old Palavani who was just about as silent as Xatanus himself and went by the name of Vellan, added with a mutter. With the exception of Ulian, he was the only one he felt a real sense of comradery to because he was one of the few who had managed to stick around for longer than the usual six months it took for a Final Wave operative to die on Rannoch or be redeployed to another quarian world.
"What he said," the lieuenant replied. "The bomb's far too dangerous to be left out of our sight. All it takes is one geth making it to the switch and that's it, Nedas Azhana comes down."
"If one bomb can take down an entire city, it sure sounds like there's something wrong with it's design, no?"
"By the pillars. Would you do us all a favour and stop talking for once, Eluam? Orders are orders. There's no point in questioning them, " the other batarian said frustrated from his place right behind Ulian, not bothering to turn around this time.
Like with many other things about their society, the batarian sounded rather turian in that moment. In a way it briefly made Xatanus wonder what could've been if the other species had not been made up of entitled nobles undeserving of their power, arrogant scum unaware of their actual place and barbaric slavers without the hint of morality in equal proportions. Instead of being trained to shoot at batarian-shaped targets ever since the first time he had held a rifle as a child, he and many other turians might look differently at them then. Maybe the values that they did share such as obedience, loyalty and a sense for duty that seemingly extended equally far than that of the turians would've led to a very different galactic history. One that didn't see the two species standing on the edge of war during every minute. One where the turian military wasn't ready to lash out into a devastating campaign of subjugation at a moment's notice and condemn billions to death.
But as quickly as it had come, the moment where he imagined another world passed, allowing his focus to return to the objective and only the objective.
Listening to his companion and not uttering another word, the batarian machine gunner marched onward in silence, again leaving Xatanus to focus solely on the rhythmic beating of their feet hitting the ground. It was something he found comfort in. As they continued to walk parallel to the water stream below, the Spectre turned mercenary began noticing the taint of deluded but fresh red blood running alongside what little liquid still remained in Nedas Azhana's canal system and underground rivers, the broken body it belonged to, a mangled mess of a quarian woman wearing torn-up remains of the fatigues used by the Conclave's armed forced, followed swiftly.
"Looks like blunt trauma," the salarian member of their team figured when the body passed them.
"When they want to stay quiet, geth infiltrators don't use guns. But they haven't warmed up to blades either," Ulian began to explain from personal memory. "So they just stick to beating you to death with what they have. If you don't want to end up like this guy," the lieutenant said to the rest of the team as Xatanus inspected the broken skull and crushed torso of the quarian while noting the horrendous position her arms had been bent into, likely to literally break the quarian's vain attempts at defending herself. "I suggest you keep your eyes open for the spots that just don't look right when light hits them. Chances are it's a geth using an active camo-field," watching as another body followed the quarian woman, this one cleary belonging to an adolescent member of the militia, Ulian averted his eyes, again showing Xatanus that despite all his bravado and talk, the lieutenant wasn't like him. He couldn't look into the still open eyes of the dead kid, see the fear still trapped in them and feel nothing. Unlike Xatanus, he wasn't stone. He hadn't crossed that threshold yet, hadn't learned that there was no honor in what they did. And for his sake, Xatanus hoped that Ulian never would. It was a lesson the Spectre would've traded back in a heartbeat.
"Let's hope that the rangers had better luck than them," the lieutenant finally muttered more quietly.
Watching for as long as it took for the bodies to pass his field of vision, the turian Spectre continued to follow his group deeper into the caves until Ulian raised a fist that stopped the group's advance on another metal bridge shortly before their way into the main cave. Now noticing what the Spectre had already noticed a few paces ago but chosen to stay quiet about because frankly, it made no difference to their assignment if the rangers lived or died, the salarian spoke up.
"Too quiet?" he figured.
"Exactly," the lieutenant nodded slowly as he lowered his rifle and pulled a canister that had been magnetically locked to his lower back prior to now. Upon being activated by the press of a button it turned into a small drone which, thanks to a miniscule eezo core, floated to meet the eye of the turian squad leader and remained there, ready for instructions. "Let's figure out why," Ulian muttered before pulling out the remote control of the machine, a necessary down-grade to other, more advanced means of reconnaissance that was owned to the geth's liking of taking over anything even slightly autonomous. While the Final Wave operative steered the drone ahead, fixated on the screen built into the remote, his older batarian comrade waiting behind him took point in his place, his rifle aimed into the empty tunnel in front of them.
As it turned out when a deadly flash of blue errupted from a dim tunnel up ahead, that was the last choice he'd ever make. Tearing through his shields and armor with a dozen shots each, the tell-tale rapid fire of a geth pulse rifle riddled the contractor's abdomen with accurately placed, miniscule rounds that also tore into Lieutenant Ulian, who by sheer chance and a slightly taller statue was hit in the hip instead of the torso before tumbling down the side of their bridge and sliding down the steep side of the canal below.
Before their leader touched the water, the operatives of Invcitus Squad who hadn't been caught in the initial ambush did their best to get out of the line of fire. While the salarian and batarian machine gunner tried to charge forward to the little cover provided by another junction at the bridge's end, Xatanus and Vellan simultaneously chose to take their chances with voluntarily jumping the railing and sliding down into the canal themselves right as the rounds tore into the other two While it was far from an ideal position, it was a horrible one really, it was the instinctive choice he had made in an equally horrible situation and now he had to deal with it.
As he hit the surface of the water, subsequently finding out that he could luckily still stand in it and that his estimation of it being waist-high had been accurate, he aimed his Vindicator at the faint blue flashes coming from the geth shooting at his allies. The precise bursts that left the by now well-worn weapon first produced a bright spark, the tell-tale failing of a kinetic barrier, and then, shortly before overheating, ushered in silence.
Silence that was quickly followed by Vellan dragging himself through the waist-high water to where Ulian had hit and subsequently sunk into the canal, his injured state, his heavy armor and the fact that turians were the anti-thesis of species with a water affinity like the salarians or hanar meaning that by now he was already starting to drown.
"What are you staring at, Spectre? Help me!" the older turian roared as he moved to the portion of the canal water that was rapidly staining with blue blood in search of their leader, snapping Xatanus out of the confusion of the ambush only having consisted of a single geth platform. Setting his feet in motion while Vellan grabbed something in the muddy waters, Xatanus wasn't sure why he had frozen up like this just now. He usually didn't have a problem with making sense of a situation while doing something completely different. As the palavani dragged the lieutenant from the water and leaned him against the steep sidewall of the canal, Xatanus contemplated what had just happened alongside retrieving his first aid supplies and beginning to work on the lieutenant, returning back to his usual self.
Why had there only been one geth?
Had the rangers destroyed the other ones?
Had it pulled back?
It certainly hadn't succeeded in its mission, otherwise they'd already be dead thanks to the plasma bomb.
Doing his best to stop the bleeding at the lieutenant's hip by wrapping the blood clotting fabric turian medics had used and improved for centuries over the wounds and trusting that it would seal the miniscule holes as intended, Xatanus repeated the process for the exit wounds on the back of Ulian's hip while continuing down the logical path, not letting himself be distracted by the dark-blue stains still appearing on his gauntlets after five layers of the medical bandages.
So it had to be a lone survivor.
If that was the case, why was the platform still around? If it was the lone survivor, the programs inside should've abandoned the drone after the fight and returned back to their collective intelligence to report on what had happened and come back stronger, cheating death in the progress. That's what they always did. He had seen it happen a hundred times.
"Spirits, I think they hit him with bleeders," Vellan muttered what Xatanus was starting to figure out himself. In addition to the miniscule holes each mass accelerator round produced, anti-personal ammunition, or as the turian military called them 'bleeders' had the nasty tendency to split up into even even tinier pieces that, if one was as unlucky as Ulian, shredded everything alongside the wound canal and further increased the damage done to an organic target. If that was the case, it was a good thing Ulian had gone unconscious. Someone who had the misfortune of being hit by bleeders and staying conscious died a very painful, screaming death unless treated immediately. It was the reason why they had been outlawed by the Citadel Council and the reason why he had opted for them on most of his past assignments before Rannoch. They were hauntingly effective at killing people.
"He won't make it like this," Xatanus said as he stopped the treatment to look at his now blue gauntlets before reaching for the a small pillbox gifted to him by a grateful volus scientist he had saved from a Terminus warlord some years ago. Pressed into the oval shapes was a highly experimental, highly effective and possibly deadly blood clotting drug. He had intended to save them for personal use if he ever had the misfortune of being hit by his favoured ammunition. That had been eight years ago. No one had even come close to making him bleed since then. The way he had pictured it, he would've retired without ever using a single one of them. But now there was his commanding officer fighting for his life in front of him. If there ever was a moment to shatter that picture and figure out if the pills really worked the miracle they promised, it was now.
Prying open the green-tattooed mandibles of the unconscious lieutenant and forcing him to swallow one of the dark-green pills, the brown-plated turian glanced at his lieutenant. "Bring him back to Nedas. If he keeps bleeding, give him more of these," he said as he pressed the pillbox into Vellan's hands. If this went as he expected it to go, he'd have no more use for the pills either way. "If he goes into shock or stops breathing, hurry up."
"And the mission?" Vellan offered as he slung the officer on his back and reached for the standard-issue ascension cable on his own belt, throwing it up to the bridge where it successfully locked itself in place as the forceful pull the turian gave it a moment later proved.
"I'll handle the bomb," Xatanus assured him while helping the palavani lift Ulian on his back before pulling out his own ascension cable and climbing up alongside the palavani."See to it that our lieutenant gets proper treatment." Or a proper funeral, depending on how the pills turned out to work.
"Understood," the other turian nodded as he turned the way they had come and broke into a brisk run. "May the spirits guide you, Karian Xatanus," he heard him call before his figure vanished into the dim shadows of the cave.
That made a faint smirk spread across his face. Considering what he had done in the past, he doubted that would would be the case. The spirits valued honor, integrity. Core turian principles. He had kicked all of those with his feet during his career as a Council agent. As he checked his Vindicator to see if the heatsink had cooled down properly, which it had, he moved forward to find out what had happened to the rest of Invictus, the acid-green stain of blood a few paces in front of the bridge's end already giving him a good idea of the salarian's fate.
"You still alive, batarian?" he asked cautiously as he spotted the barrel of the machine gun glinting in the moon-light behind up-ahead after passing the corpse of the salarian specialist, his torso and neck shredded by the same bleeder rounds that had hit Ulian, leaving them as a mangled, bloody mess.
Depending on the bomb he could've used the operative's expertise. Now he'd have to improvise.
"Batarian?" he called again after a moment of consideration, pleased to find no geth pulse fire pouring down on him from another angle.
"Pillars. I have a name you damn bastard. It's Eluam," he heard a groan right before the machine gun was pulled from beyond the corner of the artifically carved entrance that according to his HUD would lead straight to their actual destination. Taking this as his all clear, Xatanus moved up and found Eluam sitting inside the corridor. His chestplate was dented but intact, the heavy armor succeeding in stopping the bleeder rounds. But the armor on his left armd had been removed so that a cord could be pulled tightly around his biceps to stop the blood-flow to the wound below. A primitive but efficient solution for ammunition designed to bleed someone out. If Ulian hadn't been hit in the hip, Xatanus would've considered this kind of treatment as well. "What about the rest of Invictus?" the machine gunner inquired as he used his weapon as a crutch to rise from a big puddle of dark-red blood. Blood loss like that easily should've knocked him out, yet here he was, on his feet and by the looks of it ready and eager to fight.
"The lieutenant got hit bad, I sent Vellan to bring him back to Nedas," Xatanus explained as he moved up a bit more to confirm that the geth that had ambushed them was really destroyed. "The other two are dead," he added as he kicked the jet-black drone lying on the stone belo whim and noted the additional armor-plating and detection equipment attached to it. A new kind of platform? Maybe one for advanced infiltration missions like this one?
"Shit," the bataria-,no, Eluam, cursed under his breath before slinging the heavy weapon around his good arm and nodding down the entrance that would lead them to the central collection chamber. "This way, right?" he asked before straightening his back and marching onward into the corridor with a ceiling barely high enough for the turian to stand up straight.
"Yes but you're too injured to fight," Xatanus observed as he followed into the complete darkness of the route to their objective, noting the irregular dark drops of blood that were dripping from the batarians arm onto the ground of the canal's inner workings, the night vision of his helmet presenting them as an almost black anomaly in the otherwise green surroundings.
"Don't pretend to know my limits, Xatanus," Eluam replied, purposefully using his name to spite the turian Spectre. "Besides, whether Ulian is here or not, a mission is still a mission and orders are still orders," he added with a determination that convinced the turian that despite his earlier talk, he was really committed to what they were doing.
Thus the two returned to marching in silence, both keeping their eyes open for another ambush. As they made their way through the stone corridor, which in addition to being uncomfortably tight and uncomfortably dark also seemed to have never been intended to be used by anyone other than a small, nimble quarian, they passed a few rays of natural moon light every now and again. Peaking through some of the small, circular, glass-less holes cut into the walls allowed the turian to tell that they were currently walking over a completely dried up canal. Instead of being filled by water it was filled with destroyed geth platforms and dominated by an abandoned but still intact quarian barricade. Probably the remnant of an earlier attempt of infiltration the militia had managed to beat back.
"Look. I think that's the chamber up there," the batarian noted as the first rays of light, this time artificial, became visible at the end of corridor. "Think the quarians made it?" he asked as they closed in on the end of the corridor before quickly pointing down to the ground and making two awkward steps over something. "Watch the tripwire," he quickly added as Xatanus noticed the fine line on the ground as well, the two eyes he lacked in comparison to the batarian only allowing him to see it when he was almost right on top of it. Breathing a sigh of relief as the low ceiling above him disappeared, Xatanus took in the enormous cave that was the central collection chamber. Expanding a hundred paces into each direction and still being supported by enormous stone rods carved by the founding fathers of Nedas Azhana, it was a bland of nature and technology made up of four, easily seventy paces deep pools meant to be filled up by the large aqueducts coming from the now destroyed pipelines that had been built into the cave systems of the desert region. Furthermore additional structures had been built into the stone walls on each side and rows upon rows of lights hang from cords suspended between the metal hutts and walkways, going up and down all over the place.
"And I think that's the bomb," Xatanus replied as he noticed four more black geth platforms and the footlocker-sized device lying near the point where four narrow, railed walkways met in the center of the chamber around a large pump. Quickly comparing the location to the map of Nedas, he found confirmation that they were right below the colony ships' designated landing site and that the geth infiltrators had already made it further than the governour had hoped they ever would.
"So, where are the rangers then?" Eluam asked as he brought his machine gun up and rested in on the low stonewall seperating them from the nearest collection pool, his injured arm now limply hanging by his side.
"Where I'd be," the turian muttered as he lifted his Vindicator and used its sights to inspect an abandoned looking control station opposite of the aqueducts, finding the glint of a rifle's scope looking directly at him from beyond the broken glass and shot-up walls. Waving in the direction of them and lowering his rifle so that the quarian wouldn't get any ideas, Xatanus nodded to the sniper nest. "Up there," he said.
"You here for the bomb?" a quarian voice echoed through the chamber, the emptiness of the vast hall magnifying its sound. Xanatus nodded again, stil not feeling like announcing his presence to every geth in the vicinity. "Stay right there, I'll be with you in a second!"
"So we just hunker down now?" Eluam asked as he inspected his injured arm and reached for a small first aid-kid on his belt, probably considering if he should start the more delicate treatment of his injury now. "Until the colony ships are gone?" wrapping a bandage above the injury and applying some kind of gel on it, the machine gunner slowly loosened the cord right until it began to bleed again at which point he groaned and returned things to the way they were. Bleeder ammunition really was a nasty thing and if they made it out of here, he'd need extensive nerve treatment because of it.
"That was the mission," the turian nodded in conformation before feeling obliged to inspect the openings of the aqueducts with his Vindicator while the quarian ranger, clad in a light set of armor that was covered up by a hooded, khaki robe jumped across a series of rocks of rocks on his way to them, always looking straight down.
"Pillars, did you rig the whole place or what?" Eluam called to the quarian as the latter climbed up the rocky passage leading to where they had left the entrance corridor.
"Yes," he simply nodded before removing the eyepiece that was covering half of his bluish-grey face and likely helped him with avoiding their own traps. "Corporal Kenn'Gazu," he introduced himself while hunkering down behind the stonewall the machine gun was resting on. "By the way. you might want to stay low," he explained. "The geth shot my sergeant from way within the tubes two hours ago."
"So you're in charge?" Xatanus figured as he and Eluam mirrored his movements and quickly took cover.
"Yes," he nodded again. "And you're here to take care of the bomb?"
"We're here to help you defend it," Eluam offered.
"Stall the geth until the evacuation is complete," the turian added.
"Evacuation?" the ranger asked confused as he pulled off his hood to reveal short, white hair.
"You didn't hear yet?" Eluam wondered.
"We've been living in the caves for the last four weeks. Didn't use our radios to avoid detection," Kenn shrugged. "We got the governour's orders from a milita runner. Guess he skipped some details or figured every one knew about that evacuation," looking at the batarian with his glowly, amber eyes the ranger continued. "What's going on?"
"The Conclave sounded a general retreat. Everyone that's still living is leaving," the former Spectre explained when Eluam failed to deliver an answer.
"So we're giving up the city?"
"Your people are giving up Rannoch," he said.
"And the remaining colonies," Eluam added. "We're here to ensure that the landing site of the colony ships doesn't disappear in a plasma explosion.
Shocked by the news, the quarian ranger remained silent, looking at the floor for the better part of a minute. "So this is a suicide mission, then?" he chuckled dryly. "Great."
"No. It's a delay mission. We'll follow on smaller ships," Xatanus offered what the Final Wave operatives had been told in regards to their own means of evacuation.
"Figures those damn cowards aren't ready to go," the ranger spat before suddenly kicking the ground several times and throwing his rifle into the dirt. "Six years. Six fucking years we've been fighting and now the bosh'tets decide they want to run off after all?" he wondered before rising to his feet and shouting. "Do you know how many friends I lost so that my people could live on Rannoch? How many times I watched officers sent good soldiers into their death for some miracle victory? How many-"
"No, we don't," Eluam interrupted the ranger before pulling him back down with his good arm. "And we can't change it now either. Best thing we can do is to make sure that the people still left in Nedas get out on those ships." Visibly calming down at those words and retrieving his weapon, a long-barreled battle-rifle, the ranger regained his composure.
"How long do we have to hold?" he asked while checking on his weapon's sights and removing the cover of off the red-glowing power-cell of the weapon to check on it.
A plasma rifle?
Considering their industrial centers were nothing but rubble and ashes by now, he hadn't thought the quarians had any power-cells for those left. Then again, these were rangers. One of the few units that had proven effective at fighting the geth. It made sense that the Conclave would've held back some ammunition for them.
"A couple of hours. Right until the ships are gone."
"Then we'll hold," he said after finishing his check on the weapon he had mistreated just earlier and putting the cover back on before pulling down his eyepiece again, covering the amber glow of his eyes. "I'll tell the rest of my squad, you find a good position to hunker down."
"I think this is as good a spot as any for me," the batarian machine gunner offered in return while rising from the brown stonewall and pressing his weapon into his shoulder. "Good line of sights, long ways for the enemy to move, decent cover," he started to list while focusing on the center of the collection chamber. "It's perfect."
"Except for the exposed back," the ranger added as he climbed back down. "And the booby traps right behind you."
"Those are risks I'm willing to take to protect those colony ships of yours," Eluam replied with a shrug. "Besides, we don't get hazard pay to stay safe."
"Where will you be, turian?" Kenn'Gazu asked as he stopped on the same way he had come, prompting Xatanus to look up to where a slab of stone extended from a corridor similar to the one Eluam and him had used to get there and concluding that he could definitely make the climb required to get there.
"There," he said before turning to the machine gunner. "You'll be fine on your own here?"
"More positions mean that they'll have to divide their attention. Go. It's better for both of us to split up anyway. Create a crossfire and so on."
He was right. Nodding his understanding, the Final Wave operative climbed down and followed the quarian ranger step for step through the brown stone slabs that created a pathway in the sand dotted with small mounds which he knew to be mines.
"Just stay on the big rocks and you'll be good," the ranger offered as he reached his own position. "The only trap up there is the tripwire mine at the entrance," Kenn instructed before pulling himself up on a rope thrown down by one of his comrades.
He could manage that.
Figuring that his ascension cable didn't have anything to get a good grip on in the vicinity of his desired position, Xatanus folded up his Vindicator rifle and did what Blackwatch had taught him to near perfection. He climbed up. After several minutes of muscle strain, he grabbed a hold of the stone platform and pulled himself up, laying down on his stomach and unfolding his sniper rifle to zero it on the center of the chamber. From there on out, he did the next thing Blackwatch had taught him to near perfection.
As it had been drilled into him, the patient hunter succeeded. Thus, for the better part of two hours, Xatanus never broke his focus, not even when dust began falling from the ceiling when the first colony ship took off above them. He stayed focused on observing the central chamber. Because of this undivided attention, it was also the turian who's trigger finger was the fastest when he spotted the slight reflection of light not being bent properly by a geth's cloaking device. In a split second, even before the rangers themselves managed to shoot, a disruptor round left the Mantis' muzzle and struck an invisible shape. Next white fluid spilled from the fist-sized hole that had been punched in the side of its torso. As if someone had shut its power off, the black geth platform dropped to the ground a few paces in front of the bomb, the moment the faint blue lights in his head shut off occuring simultaneously to the storm of mass accelerator bursts Eluam unleashed on the walkway it had come from, a series of electric chirping and flying sparks marking the numerous geth infiltrators that had slowly encroached on the plasma bomb, staying almost perfectly invisible for almost the entire way and not triggering a single one of the traps set for them. So that was the purpose of this new drone design. An improved camo system and an increased sensitivity to quarian booby traps.
As orange and red streaks shot from the position of the quarian rangers and melted some of the geth below them, the turian squeezed the trigger of his Mantis again and again, keeping just the right pace between each of his shots and not causing it to overheat once. With each shot he destroyed a drone. But also with each shot he seemed to summon more of the infiltrators.
"Overheating soon," the machine gunner informed him over their shared squad-intercom, his radio signal immediately causing more geth to focus on his position. Counting on the rangers to be capable of keeping up their sustained plasma fire, Xatanus began a calculus in his head.
What would happen first? Them destroying the geth infiltrators that seemed to indefinitely pour from the aqueducts or one of the geth reaching the bomb?
The answer seemed obvious.
That left him with only one option.
"I need cover fire," he said while exchanging his Mantis for his Vindicator and fastening the ascension cable on the edge of the stone-platform.
"Then you'll get cover fire," the batarian replied sternly before rising up despite the pulse rifles shooting on his position.
He said he'd handle the bomb.
So that's what he'd do.
Taking a deep breath before grabbing a hold of the cable, Xatanus rappelled down the stone platform fast enough that hitting the ground sent a jolt of pain throughout his legs despite the heavy armor and servo motors supporting his body. Surprised to find none of the geth shooting him yet, he seized the chance, set his eyes on the plasma bomb and began running, firing his Vindicator until it overheated and taking down several more of the drones while moving to the large pump. When he was close to reaching the pump under a mixture of plasma and mass-accelerator fire, it seemed that the geth broke their own singular focus and diverted some attention to him. One of the black drones turned its rifle on the former Spectre right before he met the cross-section in the center of the collection pools and sent of a burst of pulse fire that shaved off a good part of his barriers. However before it could finish the job, he swung the overheated Vindicator at its head, knocking it to the side with the enhanced strength his armor gave him before discarding the now bent rifle for his Carnifex, shooting two shots into the torso of the platform and leaping for the temporary cover of the pump while the covering fire continued.
Good. He had made it this far.
Quickly glancing at the map on his omni-tool to see which aqueduct would led him the furthers from the city, he was pleased to find out that it was the one right next to the geth's main point of entrance.
So much for the spirits being on his side.
Not that he needed them to be.
Taking another breath, he pulled the onyx-black blade from its sheat on his right shoulder and gripped it tightly with his left hand, still holding onto the pistol as well.
This was it.
The thing he had trained for his entire life.
As time began to slow down, the Hastatim first turned Blackwatch operative, then Spectre and then mercenary, left the safety of his pump, immediately slicing at the first geth drone with his knife while shooting the second one with his gun, intending on fighting his way to the plasma bomb some paces ahead of him. Grabbing a hold of the drone he had just stabbed and using it to shield himself from the majority of the anti-organic ammunition being shot at him from the other weapons of the other platforms, Xatanus didn't even notice the take-off of the second colony ship or the fact that the plasma fire was starting to die down. The only thing on his mind was the plasma bomb and how he could almost grab it. Shooting the last shot of his Carnifex before throwing down the drone he had used as a shield to pick up the foot-locker sized explosive, he didn't even have time to pull his knife from the black metal of the geth drone. Throwing himself back into the cover of the pump, right as his shields were depleted and the painful sting of a pulse burst puncturing his left leg shot through his body, Xatanus felt his breath quicken.
Half his plan was done.
He had the bomb.
Now he only needed to get it far, far away.
Glancing at the cooling down Carnifex, he looked up and remembered the cables suspended across the entire cave before magnetically locking the bomb onto his back much like one would carry a standard issue fieldpack.
That might just work.
Throwing a look to his left, he saw one of the thick black cords and the industrial ceiling lights attached to it leading down into the pool and its aqueduct, probably to check how much water was still flowing in them. They looked very heavy. And quarians were known to be careful engineers. They had probably accounted for some additional mass. Just in case.
He'd gamble his success on that.
Unfolding the Mantis rifle and grabbing its barrel firmly with one hand, he only popped a stim-pack before charging back the way he had come, still under the continued cover fire of Eluam's machine gun and at least one remaining plasma rifle, fighting against the blackness creeping in at the edge of his vision or the stinging in his leg.
When he reached the cable, Xatanus used his Mantis rifle to create a makeshift zipline and with a leap put Nedas Azhana's fate into the hands of its builders. Halfway prepared to fall to his premature death, he slid down at breakneck speed, barely having enough time to register that he was actually making it and only just managing to break his fall when he hit the pipe. Aware that there was a thin metal walkway connecting this one to the one the geth were pouring form, he wasted no second to think. He just ran into the dried, dimly lit canal, ignoring the pain.
"What are you doing, Xatanus?!" Eluam shouted over the radio as his reception worsened.
"Bringing the geth back their bomb," he replied before the connection broke up. Never would he have thought that he'd die fighting alongside a batarian. Then again, one couldn't exactly plan things like that.
Thinking about how funny that was, Xatanus ran.
In truth he probably only went on for a few minutes but in his head, it felt like eternity. Only when the pipes began to be replaced by the now depleted natural underground river they had drawn their water from and his HUD told him that he had cleared the spaceport and the outskirts of Nedas, did he slow down to take in his environment and notice the tell-tale sounds of geth. Falling down to his knees due to the lack of blood, Karian Xatanus could only crawl to the edge of the small hill he had ended up on. It was enough to see the hundreds of jet-black geth being assembled in the hidden facility below, ready to flood the central collection chamber with their bodies and march into city to slaughter the remaining quarians, using the main attack as a distraction of a much more devious plan.
Stopping them here wouldn't win the war. He knew that.
In fact, nothing would win the war.
The Conclave had lost. He also knew that.
But destroying those geth would give the evacuation a chance. Help stop a small part of the synthetic apocalypse he had come here to prevent. What had he thought earlier? That there were easier ways for him destroy the city than trying to disarm a plasma bomb?
It was time to put that theory to a test.
Removing his helmet to breathe in the hot, humid cave air, he discared the white piece of armor and pulled the bomb from his back instead, setting it down in front of him.
A hunter knew when his time came. That was one of Blackwatch's tenets.
Right now felt like Xanatus' time.
Tearing open a panel to expose the alien-looking interior of the weapon, the former Spectre recognized the wiring leading to the one thing every bomb had to have, a detonator. Figuring that he didn't need to be gentle or care about staying hidden anymore, he started messing with the bomb, producing a lot of noise in the process. When he finally smashed his fist onto the right thing, it started to glow blue and emitted an increasingly whining sound. Satisfied, the former Spectre picked up the bomb right as several of the black platforms appeared in front of him and the whining turned painfully loud as the detonation sequence reached its peak.
Flinging the bomb forward to the assembly plant with all his strength and sending two of the drones falling down the hill again, Karian Xatanus simply smirked at the one remaining drone, hoping that the caves would mess with their usual means of escaping death. Then his thoughts went to a world far away from here, to someone he hadn't seen in forever.
"No cheating death this time, you synthetic fuck-"
1911 CE, Armiger, Rural Area of Bescianthanos
"Mom?" the young turian called out while looking up from the carefully maintained book for the first time in twenty minutes.
"Yes?" the older turian asked, leaning out from the adjacent room.
"Did you give me the right book?" Solaria Xatanus asked as she carefully studied the last pages of her lineage's history, a tradition most turians followed in the weeks leading up to their departure to boot camp and that had consumed the majority of her spare time this last month.
"Because there's a page missing."
"Oh," her mother said as her pale yellow face shifted into a strange mixture of nostalgia and sadness. Putting down what she had been doing and coming to sit next to her, she pointed to where someone had evidently ripped a page out. "That was Karian's page," for a very clear reason that realisation made her frown. If Solaria wanted to actually make it into recon as she hoped she would, she really had to start paying more attention to details like this. Shaking her head, another realisation washed over her.
"Karian?" she asked confused. She knew her entire family, down to the detail now thanks to the book. "Who's Karian?" she had never heard that name uttered a single time before.
"Karian is-" her mother cut herself. "Karian was my brother. Your uncle," she corrected. "It's no wonder you don't remember his name," she said as she recognized the confusion on Solaria's face. "You never met him. Neither did your brothers. He died before you were born and left Armiger even earlier than that."
"Why don't we talk about him?" she inquired before remembering a few pictures in her grandfather's home and going through the options why a family wouldn't mention their dead son more often, starting with the most obvious one. "Wait a minute. Was he a separatis-"
"Don't even say things like that," her mother instructed surprisingly harshly. "Karian was very dear to me. To all of us. And he was the furthest thing form a traitor you could imagine."
"What happened then?"
"He broke ties with us ," she sighed and paused, her mandibles pressing themselves to the side of her face. "He had a fight with our father, left and never came back."
"What was the fight about?"
"About putting us at risk."
"You see, Karian was different from the other people in this book. He had something not many of us have," the older turian woman said as she got up and walked over to one of the shelves, moved some boxes and holoframes of their family out of the way and retrieved a small, dark-grey container with a fading golden half-circle, no a fading golden blade, stamped on its top. "When your teachers taught you about the Unification Wars in school, did they ever mention the Blackwatch?" with those words it began to dawn on her where she had seen that kind of blade before.
"Of course," Solaria nodded. "They're the legion that helped defeat the separatist forces," she recalled from her memory. History had always been one of her favorites.
"Good, so we won't have to go through that then," her mother nodded while opening the box and pulling out a small holochip alongside an onyx-black blade. However the third item inside the box, a metallic trinket unlike anything she had ever seen a turian wear, stayed inside. As Solaria herself tried to reach for the knife, more curious about it then the colorful jewel, her mother grabbed her hand for a moment. "Careful. It's sharp. Sharper than anything you used before, " she said before letting go and trusting her to be responsible with it.
Nodding her understanding and not intending to disappoint her, Solaria slowly picked up the curved knife and noted the dozens of small lines scratched into its grip while her mother activated the holochip, producing a picture of her standing next to a taller turian in a region far too mountainous to be anywhere on Armiger. As she looked at the soldier, who was dressed in a dark-grey uniform and seemed to have a vaguely familiar face, and her mother next to him, who in the picture wasn't much older than Solaria right now, she was infected by the broad smiles both of them were smiling. At least until she noticed that the soldier was holding up the very knife in her hand.
"That's Karian and you?" she concluded.
"Yes," her mother smiled fondly, "Taken on the first day of leave he got after completing Blackwatch's training program. I don't think he was ever more proud than back then."
"If he made it into Blackwatch, why would we tear out his page? Why wouldn't we want to remember him? Talk about him all the time?" Solaria asked as she went back through the book. None of her other ancestors had even come close to achieving that kind of honor. In fact, besides a few exceptions here family's recorded history was bland.
"It wasn't us who tore out the page, dear."
"You said you had a falling out."
"We did," she nodded. "But Karian tore out the page, on the very same day he left for his induction on the Citadel. That was a couple of months before Ilanos was born," so her older brother had barely missed their uncle.
"Inductio-" she shook her head. "He was a Spectre?" the girl realised with a mandible twitch after looking up from the book, suddenly feeling even smaller and more robbed of the chance to meet someone like that.
"Yes. And he was worried that people would come after us because of it."
"Here on Armiger?" Solaria tilted her head, not sure how that would work. "How would that even work?"
"That's what I told him as well," her mother replied with a sigh. "But he had made up his mind already. So he left."
"And then we respected his wish. It was the least we could do for him," as she drifted into silence at the sight of the picture, Solaria asked something she knew was uncalled for.
"What happened to him?"
"Sorry?" her mother asked confused.
"I mean how did he die? What happened to him? Was it a Spectre assignment?"
As her mom's expression quickly changed, Solaria's expectation rose because of how long it took for an answer to come.
"No," the older turian finally spoke, breaking the suspense. "Karian didn't die as a Spectre. He died as a contractor. Fighting geth on Rannoch."
"I don't understand. He became a merc?" Solaria's brown-plated, yellow-marked face twitched in confusion. "What happened? How did he end up on Rannoch?"
"I don't know, Solaria. Like always, he never told us," her mother said with a quiet chuckle before her face became locked in a stoic expression. "When it happened, I only got this box and the notification of his death from the company that had hired him. Not what had happened or how he had even ended up fighting the geth for them. They only said that I was the next of kin he had listed as his emergency contact and that they were obliged to inform me that he had been killed in action. That's all I got. And that's all that could ever be written in that book," getting up from her seat to return to the room, Solaria watched her mother leave. "Maybe it's for the best no one brought it to paper."
"Why?" the girl asked, as she looked at the old book.
"Squeezing a person's life into a page the way we do? That can never really amount to what someone did with their life. If you could ask any our ancestors, I don't think they'd be satisfied with what's written in our lineage record."
"Because we don't get to write our own stories, Solaria," her mother shrugged, probably unaware of what that sentence would do to her daughter, while continuing her afternoon ritual of cleaning her old service rifle.
"That's really sad," the girl finally muttered before turning the damaged page around to fully look at Ilanos' entry, the latest addition to the Xatanus lineage record.
As it would turn out, that day would alter the course of her life forever.
Thirteen Years Later, 1924 CE, Citadel Station, Presidium
"Now reaching Presidium Central," the asari-like voice of the automated skycar quipped before the doors opened to the bright, prisitne surroundings of the Citadel's richest portion. "Thank you for traveling with T'Lark Transportation."
Stepping out of the car, Solaria Xatanus adjusted her officer uniform and clutched the tablet in her hand a little tighter before following the other turian soldier past the Krogan Monument, C-SEC headquarters, the embassy area and into the business region of the Presidium, coming to a halt in front of the building of the company that had once employed her late uncle, the reason she was here.
"And you sure you'll be fine on your own?" the digerian- born C-SEC officer that had been sent to escort her asked, his green-tattooed face looking at her in expectation and probably wondering what an archivist, the literal book-worms of the Hierarchy's armed forces wanted at the headquarters of the Final Wave, the most elite and exclusive private security contractor of Council Space.
"Yes, Sergeant. Thank you. You may return to your duties now."
"My orders are to escort you all the way back to the docks, Ma'am. If you're going inside, I will wait for you to come back out again."
"I'll hurry then," she promised. Considering their secrecy, this may be a dead lead after all. No matter how promising it sounded.
"No. Please, take your time, Ma'am. Waiting here beats patrolling the wards tenfold," he offered with a friendly smile.
"I see. I'll be slow about it then."
"Much appreciated," the C-SEC guard nodded before she went inside, passed the checkpoint and stepped up to the reception where a salarian was deeply focused on his work.
"How can I help you?" he asked before looking up and recognizing her uniform. "Job interview? You're too la-"
"No. I'm here to see," she began while trying not to butcher his name. "Commander Eluam Vorhess?"
"Appointment?" he demanded quickly.
"No, but it's urgent busine-"
"Commander Vorhess is busy. Come back with appointment."
"Please if you just tell him Xatanus is here to see him, he'll make ti-"
"Come back with appoi-"
"Let her in, Val," a guttural voice ordered through the speaker system of the lobby. "I'll make time for any Xatanus," that sentence made her heart skip a couple of beats.
She was in the right spot.
Finally she'd be able to do justice to her mother's brother. To write a satisfying end to his story.
"Right this way please," the salarian said before guiding her to an office at the end of a walkway, the holographic name sign already telling her that the answers to all her questions would be waiting behind this door. Was that an optimistic overstatement? Maybe. But she had spent years trying to get to here, starting a hunt for answers based on nothing but a batarian trinket, the tales of a drunk, paranoid palavani and the hint of a digerian anti-synth extranet-activist after she had exhausted the official military records and her own family's memories.
"Commander Vorhess will have you now," the salarian secretary finally spoke before opening the door to reveal the bureau of a red-skinned batarian maybe in his late fifties that, as the most defining feature, spotted a prosthetic left arm.
"Close the door, please," he instructed after he had stepped inside. Doing as she was told, the door was closed. "So," he began. "You're Xatanus' kid?" was the first thing he asked.
"His niece," she corrected. "The daughter of his sister," looking at the face of the batarian, she came to a conclusion, "He never mentioned having a sister?"
"He never mentioned a family," the batarian said as he powered down his tablet and leaned back in his chair. "Don't just stand there, sit down," he added a moment later. Again doing as she was told, Solaria sat down.
"But you knew Karian?"
"If by knew him you mean fighting with him for two months and him only getting my name right a couple of hours before he died, then yes. I knew Karian," the batarian sighed. "Why are you here?"
"Because even if it was just that, you already know about him than most of my family," Solaria explained. "You see, I'm an archivist. I gather the stories of turians and put them on paper. It's my job to make sure we're remembered for who we were and what we did. In Karian's case, there's no page. He destroyed what little was written about him before leaving for the Spectres."
"And you came here to fix that," Commander Vorhess pointed out before reaching for his drawer and pulling out one of the thick paper rolls batarians were so fond of smoking. "Do you mind?" he asked.
"No, of course not," how coud she? This wasn't even her office. "So, on the subject of fixing that," she said while preparing her tablet and opening one of the dozens of copies she had created of this particular lineage record, each expanded on little by little. "Can you tell me what you knew about Karian?"
"Yes, but don't get your hopes up," the batarian spoke as he lit the roll and puffed some smoke out of his numerous nostrils "He wasn't that much of a talker your uncle."
"Anything helps," she assured him.
"Alright, where do I start?" the batarian commander muttered.
"You mentioned the day he died?" Solaria offered with some uncertainty.
"Right, right," he replied in his deep voice before finishing the story of Karian Xatanus.
In the end it was the story of a former Spectre who had joined the Final Wave as a regular rifleman and volunteered to fight on Rannoch longer than any other operative on the outfit's payroll, who had died during the closing days of the Geth War to not just save Commander Vorhess, the surviving members of his team and a squad of quarian special forces but also the entire quarian city of Nedas Azhana. The story of the Hastati who had become a Blackwatch operative after distinguishing himself during a rebellion on Taetrus, had carried a geth plasma bomb several kilometers through a network of canals and caves despite being badly injured to destroy a hidden assembly plant. The story of the first-born son of an armigerian industrial worker and a palvani comm-buoy technician who in his final moments hadn't hesitated to give his life for a million people who'd never know what he had done.
The story of her uncle.
"I have one more question," she said when it was all done. Reaching into her pocket to retrieve the colorful trinket, she held it up by its chain so that the batarian commander could see it clearly. "You said you were the one who collected his personal effects. I did some research on this. While I don't know what it means, it definitely didn't belong to Karian. It's carved from a stone only found on Khar'Shar. I think its yours."
When she had finished, a faint smile crossed the batarian's face.
"You caught me," he admitted with a chuckle. "It was something I added posthumously. It felt proper."
"What does it mean?" she said as she handed it to Eluam Vorhess, prompting him to extinguish the lit paper roll in his hand to inspect it.
"It's a token of Totoksha. Our ghost of bravery," the Commander explained. "In the External Forces we bury our heroes with them. So that they can prove to the other ghosts and wraiths that they gave their life for our people. That they are blessed by Totoksha. It's usually crafted by a next of kin but since I didn't know if Xatanus had any, I made it."
"But Karian didn't die for the Hegemony or the batarian people," she pointed out while writing down what she was being told. "Why make something like this for him?"
"Do you know what the Geth War thought me, Archivist?" Vorhess mused as he rose from his chair. "Batarians, turians, quarians, salarians. It doesn't matter where you come from as long as there's blood running through your veins and a heart beating in your chest," looking at her with his four eyes and another genuine smile on his lips, he handed the trinket back to her. After some hesitation, she took it back. "Your uncle deserved Totoksha's blessing," he explained. "More than anyone I ever met. He understood what fight needed to be fought and what it would take to win. Write that down on his page for me, will you?"
And thus, at the dawn of time, Totoksha looked at his brothers and threw himself into the fires of creation to forge the pillars from his bones and create the world we live in, a smile on his face.
~ Excerpt of the batarian creation myth.
This was the first Anthology for Semper Vigilo, my ongoing story I assume most of the people reading this will have read. (If you didn't, read it. Otherwise this will get very confusing.)
I don't have much to say other than that Anthologies will be a side-project from here on out.
Considering how time consuming this first chapter was, I will CAUTIOUSLY say that I'll only do two or three more in 2019, who like this one will be their own little stories. Stories that have no place in the main plot but I still want to tell. Stories that can also jump generes more than Semper Vigilo itself and stories that allow me to explore the universe I never thought I'd built.
Yeah. I don't have much else to say. No previews, no review/fav/follow count.
Just that I wish you happy holidays and a good new year.
See you around next time. Whenever that might be for SV:A.