Tali groaned stretching out her arms and waiting for the next round to begin. They were ahead of the Blackwatch unit, but not by much. The Turians clearly weren't happy about this and she knew they would double their efforts to win. Kaidan had given up on coordinating team strategies, though they seemed to be doing fine without one. Sure, it would be nice to have the Chief barking orders the way he did, but having the occasional break from such rigorous structure was nice too. She already had several years of that on the Flotilla to last a lifetime.
She glanced out one of the windows of her team's waiting room to see the arena change maps from an underground refinery to a more tropical environment. Tall trees materialized out of the ground, ocean water filled in newly created holes and the overall scene gave off the vibe of one of those e-mails she had seen featuring a terrestrial luxury cruise liner. At least she assumed that's what they looked like. She had no real experience to compare it to. Still, the scene was damn pretty for being so artificial.
She leaned against the window and sighed. If someone had told her a few months ago that she would go to the places she had been with the Chief and seen the things she saw, she would have told them to suck on a carbonator. Yet here she was on a remote station trading blows with hardened soldiers and seeing a tropical paradise being constructed from pixels. Part of her secretly wished she never had to go back to the Flotilla. Why would she? Even with her father and friends waiting for her, she felt like she had learned more about the galaxy since she left than she ever did at home.
Then reality settled in. As much as she would love to see even more planets and go on more adventures, her damn enviro suit was still an issue to deal with. What difference would it make going to a tropical planet or a frozen planet if it still felt the same? She wouldn't be able to truly feel a tropical breeze against her face or stick her toes in the water. At best, she might feel a momentary shift in temperature before her suit adjusted the conditions to keep her 'safe.' She didn't want to be safe though. She just wanted to live.
Tali shook her head. She had no time to be melancholic now. If she wanted to feel a tropical breeze, she needed to set a goal. Whenever she found a way to get out of that damn suit without succumbing to an illness, she was going to take a trip to a beach. A big one with lots of people. Maybe one on Earth if she was lucky. She'd get as dirty as she could building sand castles like the humans on those commercials did, then she'd grab a surfboard and clean herself off in the water before riding a wave. She didn't know the first thing about surfing, but she was patient enough to learn. Maybe she'd invite the Chief and the crew to join her…
"Hey, you," a familiar British voice then said behind her.
Tali turned to see Asha Beckett and that Tangilanu guy walk up to her. The Quarian smiled under her helmet seeing her new friend again. The two of them met a while back on the Citadel when they helped that bickering couple resolve an argument over a pregnancy issue. After that, they had a bit of a 'girl's day,' as the humans called it, shopping for gear and trinkets. Tali was surprised at how easy it was to talk to humans and how much more willing they were to be friendly than other races. Meeting again on the station was a welcomed surprise, so she made sure to hang out with Asha as much as she could to keep this new friendship strong. She didn't really know much about that Tangilanu guy, but if Asha was cool with him, then she was too.
"Hey Asha," Tali replied moving away from the window. "How's the game going for you?"
"Could be better," the human replied pulling up the game's leaderboard on her omni-tool. Asha's score didn't look too bad for any regular soldier, but compared to Tali's team it did seem noticeably weaker.
"You'd think Jared would be higher ranked given this is his bread and butter," Tangilanu said.
"He's got a lady to impress and a new rival to compete with," Asha noted. "Clearly he's not a multitasker."
That's when Tali found her score on the list.
"Liara's ahead of me?" She complained. "How in Keelah's name did that happen?"
"Last I checked, she was shadowing our lieutenant," Tangilanu noted.
"So…" Asha said closing the leaderboard and pointing across the room. "She's clearly taking notes."
Tali turned to see Liara and Asha's lieutenant conversing with each other. She couldn't hear what they were saying, but they were practicing combat stances as they both held out their pistols while Kyle showed how to tighten both hands for a stronger grip. Tali would give her props for trying to be a well-rounded fighter, but this was Liara they were talking about. She was a lucky archaeologist who got to tag along on an intergalactic war…not that Tali was much different being plucked off the streets during her Pilgrimage. Still, she figured her basic training with the Flotilla served her better in a fight than any of Liara's degrees.
It was nice to see Liara not so mopey though…or at least she seemed to be less mopey. They had to kill her mother in a fight not too long ago and, villain or not, losing family was no fun for anyone. Tali already lost a mother and she wouldn't know what she'd do if her father died too…
"Always the instructor," Asha said watching Kyle. "I keep telling him he'd be happier training Greenhorns than doing field combat."
"I bet Falana's pissed that the lieutenant's catching up to her," Taniglanu replied.
"Who?" Tali replied.
"Our CO, or at least Kyle's immediate superior," Asha said. "Ackerson's still the big bitch in charge."
"That 'big bitch' also likes Falana more than she likes us, so we might want to choose our words more carefully," Taniglanu noted.
"Whatever. Kyle's a better leader."
"Said the biased audience."
Tali tuned out of their chit-chat as the timer began counting down for the final round. It sounded like there was a power struggle going on between Asha's unit and the ONI forces. It reminded her of the Flotilla soldiers arguing over their favorite admiral. Of course, if they ever found out she was Rael's daughter, all criticism towards him would stop…or at least pause for a few minutes. Apparently, some things were not racially exclusive.
"Who's in the lead?" Tali asked Asha as they moved to the spawn point teleporters.
"Falana's beating Kyle by a couple points for our team, but that Turian Vidinos and one of his lackeys are leading in overall points."
"And how far ahead of us is Liara?"
"Feeling competitive, eh?"
"I shot a Jiralhanae in the face. I should be able to beat an archaeologist leeching kills off your lieutenant."
"Well, teaming up has helped Kaidan and Julianne," Tangilanu noted.
"They're also biotic death machines from the Grunt Hole," Asha added.
"Biotic, schmiotic," Tali said unfolding her shotgun. "We can beat them."
"That's the spirit," Asha said unfolding her own weapon with a smirk.
Tali psyched herself up as they waited for the last several seconds to pass. For a fleeting moment, she wished the Chief was there with them. She knew he loved being an inspiring figure on the battlefield even if he would never admit it. He couldn't help being king bosh'tet taking down enemies twice his size and snatching victory out of sheer defeat. It was kind of sexy seeing him in his element…
She immediately realized what she just thought and blushed the deepest shade of purple. The last thing she needed was to say something like that out loud. The embarrassment alone would kill her worse than any bacteria.
The timer then sounded off and everyone warped into the arena.
Tali felt her feet splash into a digital ocean shoreline and plant firmly into sand as they arrived on the battle field. To her left, she saw Kaidan and his lady friend charge into the map surging with biotic energy. Wrex and Garrus made a beeline to the right with an ODST soldier unfolding a sniper rifle. Everyone else scattered along their own path into the fight…except for the three of them, Kyle, Liara and an ONI marine woman. Tali couldn't see their faces through their helmet visors, but she could feel how hard they glared at each other through their body language alone. That must be Falana.
"After you," that Kyle guy said doing a mock chivalrous gesture to Falana.
She didn't say a word as she began to walk forward…
…and her shields immediately broke from the impact of enemy rounds! Tali spotted several Turians opening fire on them nearby. How in Keelah did they get there so fast? She'd have to ask that later as everyone dove for cover wherever they could find it.
Falana shimmered with blue energy as she prepped for a biotic charge. Kyle then said something to Liara that Tali couldn't hear over the commotion, causing Liara to also do her glowing thing. Unfortunately, neither Tali nor the ODST troopers next to her had any biotic abilities. So unless that Tangilanu guy had any shocking abilities he'd like to confess at that moment...
Tali decided then to play a little sneaky as she saw Liara and Falana stand up over their cover at the same time. She leapt from her own cover right as the two biotics launched energy balls towards the Turians, breaking their shields and lifting a few of them in the air. Could there be a better time to scoop up a few kills from under everyone's noses? She gave a few blasts from her shotgun, taking down the Turians right in front of her. Before one of them could react to her, they were immediately assaulted by everyone still taking cover. Seriously? They were still hiding behind there when these bosh'tets were still—?
Tali immediately took back that criticism as a rather intimidating Turian pointed the end of his shotgun directly at her gut. She managed to get enough of a look at him to see it was their boss. Again? This guy had already taken her down like three or four…maybe five times this game. It's like he had it out for her.
The shotgun blast struck her in the chest, causing her to fly backwards and disappear into that shimmering blue light. She was immediately suspended in that weird holding room again waiting for a respawn. Damn it, she hated that guy! Also, why didn't anyone else spot him? He wasn't being THAT sneaky…though he did sneak up on her. And why did they just watch her get shot? She figured she'd use the 'he was hiding in my helmet's blind spot' excuse if they said anything.
After a few more seconds, she was spat out into the battlefield once more. Looking up, she realized she was only a few feet back from where she originally started. Most everyone else except for Falana were there too, with all the Turians completely gone from the scene. She rushed over to the group, hoping they had something interesting to say.
"Had fun?" Asha teased. "Maybe next time, be a little more cautious."
"Coming from the coffin soldier?" Tali replied with a huff. "What's that human expression? 'Fortune favors the bold?'"
"They also say 'Don't die before you're dead,'" Kyle replied as he and Liara approached the group.
"That makes no sense," Tali said. She then looked around for Falana. "Where did your boss go?"
"Probably rallying her goons," Tangilanu replied.
"More importantly," Asha then said opening her omni-tool. "I think I have a plan for this round."
"Lay it on me," Kyle replied crossing his arms.
"Vidinos hasn't been taken down by any of us individually." Asha said then looking to Tali. "And I'm sure you want to get back at him, don't you?"
"Is a Kalbari's excrement purple?" Tali replied.
"…I have no idea what that is," Asha replied. "Anyway, I think we should focus our efforts to ruining his perfect run. If we can lure him into a spot he can't flee from, we could gain the upper hand. And even better," she noted looking to Kyle. "We can beat Falana to the punch."
"…not exactly a complicated plan," Kyle said.
"I didn't say it was. It's just better to have a plan than not."
Tali looked over to see Liara intently listening to the conversation. If that little bookworm thought she was going to beat Tali to the punch, she was gravely mistaken. Still, it was probably not a bad idea to actually listen to the plan. 'Operation Payback' was about to be a thing…
"I don't think I need to reiterate how unorthodox it is bringing untrained civilians into a high-profile mission," Ackerson said stopping Chief before he could reply. "And I know she found the proof to begin the Saren manhunt, but why not let her leave afterward? She's on her pilgrimage."
"And she still is with us," the Chief said. "Her knowledge on the Geth has been an invaluable asset."
"The extranet provides just as much information," Ackerson said. "And endangering an admiral's daughter doesn't help our political relations with the Quarians."
"I'm aware of her father being an admiral."
"Sure," Ackerson said clearly hoping for more of a reaction but not showing such. "And I have nothing personal against her. To our knowledge, there are no secrets or misdeeds in her past worth noting. But this is where some people think your decision making was too hasty."
"Tali has proven herself in combat on multiple occasions. She even saved my life more than once."
"And that's very sweet of her, but not my point," Ackerson continued. "The Quarians don't have a lot of political power in Council space, but we've been on amiable enough terms with the Flotilla. In time, we hope to build a stronger alliance with them. We'd not only benefit from their technological expertise, but, provided we resolve this Geth crisis, siding with their creators could be an effective long-term political investment."
"Siding with the creators of mass murderers is a good thing?" Cortana quipped to the Chief.
"They're already a marginalized race because of their history with the Geth, on top of the physical vulnerabilities they developed in exile. They're not going to earn a lot of sympathy from the Council once this is finished. But if humanity can prove themselves benevolent to a group like that, it can help us win the favor of other 'smaller' governments the Council also ignores. Imagine if humanity gained a leg up on political relations with the Hanar Illuminated Primacy and, by proxy, the Drell. It might not seem like much at first, but each small step builds up the strength to take the bigger ones."
"You make it sound like a game," the Chief said.
"It is a game," Ackerson said leaning forward onto her desk, smirking for the first time since they met face-to-face. "We're all playing this game, whether we admit it or not. And there are only winners or losers. That's why one critical mistake could jeopardize everything. 'Kidnapping' Ms. Zorah from Alliance custody is already a dicey political move. Now imagine she was brought on a mission where her safety was compromised or, god forbid, she dies. Even if it was an accident, Admiral Zorah could use such an accident to rally the other admirals against human cooperation."
"Oh brother…" Cortana replied exasperated to the Chief.
"We can't afford such losses this far into the game," Ackerson said before recomposing herself and pulling up a new profile. "Which brings me to your last crewmate. Lady Benezia's daughter…"
Liara didn't know what to expect when she started shadowing Lieutenant Nolan. She had planned on following her own group, but that fell apart as soon as the Chief left. Though this was the ideal situation for her to practice calling her own shots, she really had no idea what to do with herself. Most of her combat experience before last month was from verbal sparring with her dissertation committees. Now she was expected to prevent galactic genocide. To say she was, and still is, woefully underprepared was an understatement.
Yet here she was gallivanting across the galaxy with a resurrected warrior and a team of badasses. It sounded like the greatest issue of Justicar Heroes ever. Yet somehow, she still felt like the damsel in distress. Her slight improvements under the Chief's watch could only carry her so far. If she was going to survive, she needed, to quote an old human colloquialism, to 'get good' quickly.
Which made their team-up with the Orbital Drop Shock Troopers a convenient research opportunity. Liara had heard that the ODST were the strongest human warriors of the modern era, second only to the Spartan II's. Though they lacked the genetic enhancements that made the Spartans 'superhuman,' they were trained to handle the most extreme combat scenarios an ordinary human could endure. This unfortunately led to many people labeling them as 'lunatics' and, even worse, 'coffin soldiers' after news spread of their catastrophic death toll on Shanxi. Still, they had plenty of successes before and after to garner a begrudging respect from the galactic community.
Liara had to confess that, before today, she would have considered herself in the group that called them lunatics. That was before meeting Tangilanu on the Citadel. Tangilanu had conducted himself with the utmost restraint and level-headed focus in helping her assist that Hanar minister, which did not fit the rumors she heard about the ODST. And speaking with his companions at the cafeteria further broke down her prejudice even further. If she truly considered herself a woman of science, it would benefit her to get to know these soldiers personally.
Which led her to crossing paths with Lieutenant Nolan. Though Tangilanu and his other teammates fought admirably, the lieutenant operated with the precision of a career soldier. He was older than most human soldiers Liara had seen, roughly within his mid-forties, but his score after the first round proved he could more than hold his own. This peaked Liara's curiosity enough that she had to learn what made him tick.
Well, that and her score after that first round was...less than favorable, so she had hoped he could give her a few pointers. Having an outsider's perspective would be a refreshing change of pace. Not to offend the Chief's teaching methods...
Their first match together went surprisingly well. While the Lieutenant easily outperformed her with direct kills, she had garnered a significant point boost from assists. They had even found a comfortable groove of using her biotics to set up kills. As dark as it might have sounded out of context, their team-up made combat fun.
Now they were in the home stretch of the whole game. The team was holding on to their lead for the time being, but it could slip from their grasp quickly. The lieutenant blamed the closeness on the 'cannon fodder' marines from his ONI cohorts, whom he seemed not to have the highest opinion of. Which must have frustrated him more that the person competing against him for the team's top score was an ONI officer named Kya Falana, whom Kyle had shown open hostility towards. Liara chose not to get involved in whatever intergroup politics were happening there and focus on the exercise.
Which was getting tense now that the Turians had increased their offensive. She had already been picked off a few times during the match and even the lieutenant was struggling to not get eliminated. However, their team-up with two of the lieutenant's troopers and Tali proved to be a huge help. They remained within close range of each other where if any of them struggled under enemy fire, the other group would run in to get their back. All the while, they were keeping an eye for the Turians' leader Vidinos to corner him and break his kill streak. Which was proving to be a lofty goal based on how long they had been looking for him and how much time was left. So while they hunted, they kept an eye out for opponents to boost their kill count.
Liara had some questions for the lieutenant though and figured she should use her time wisely. She quickly brainstormed a few while watching the lieutenant twirl his pistol on his finger the way he had been the entire game. Liara had not seen that type of trick before, nor had she seen a soldier use a pistol for most of the fight. The lieutenant had said it was a technique steeped in 'cowboy' culture, which was something Liara would have to look up. Knowing that those burgers she had tried were made of cow, she had to wonder what a 'cowboy' had to do with that.
"Lieutenant?" She asked.
"More questions?" He replied.
Ok, maybe she had been picking his brain more than she cared to admit. Again, it was the scientist in her.
"Just a few," she replied. "I wanted to ask more about Shanxi."
"...ok," he said concealing a grimace. Liara had correctly guessed that he had fought on Shanxi, later deducing that he was among the five soldiers who survived the first wave of the counterattack. She understood his hesitance, but she felt a need to seize this opportunity.
"How long had you served in the ODST before that?"
"...it was my first operation," The Lieutenant said holding up a hand to have them stop.
First operation? That's a rather high bar to clear for a novice. Almost like being an archaeologist recruited to save the galaxy...
A group of Turians came into view right then, prompting the Lieutenant to signal Liara to 'do her thing.' She shot out a hand and enveloped two of the Turians with a biotic lift field. Kyle sniped the third one between the eyes with his pistol while Liara took down the other two. It was a surprisingly brief skirmish.
"Everything good back there?" They heard Beckett asked over the TEAMCOM.
"Peachy," Kyle replied as they resumed their hunt.
"That must have been daunting," Liara said continuing their conversation.
"Liberating a planet from an unknown race of aliens? Nah, that's a warm-up."
Deflecting serious topics with humor. Liara had noticed this was a common human trait, especially with heavier subjects. She phrased her next thought more carefully. "I envy that bravery. The willingness to face insurmountable odds. How do they prepare you for such a task?"
"...the usual," Kyle said lightly moving Liara to the side and shooting at a hidden Turian soldier in the eye. "Eat right, train hard and nut up."
"...'nut up?'" Liara asked while also admiring the lieutenant's eye.
"Old human phrase," he clarified. "Basically, if you're scared to do something, do it anyway. Being scared only makes it worse."
"...how does one adequately 'nut up' for a fight?"
"I wish I had an answer for that. Just...I don't know. If you're scared to do something, you should probably do it. Otherwise, you'll regret the opportunity lost."
"...even if it meant facing your death?"
"Life's too short to live in constant fear. Well..." he said looking at Liara. "Human lives at least."
Liara noted his point as they continued walking forward, staying out of sight as much as they could. "So...does facing life or death situations make other difficult situations easier?"
"Sometimes. If you can drop through a planet's atmosphere in a pod, how hard can it be to ask for a promotion or go after someone you love?"
Liara sighed. She had failed in one of those recently and it still weighed on her mind. Then again, was it truly love? It certainly felt strong enough to be, but she was still so young. Could she feel so strongly for someone in that short a time?
"Have you gone after someone you loved?" She then asked him.
"...yes," he said begrudgingly.
"And how did that go?"
"I'm still here, aren't I?"
Liara wasn't exactly sure what the context was, but he made his point clear to end that line of questioning.
"You ask a lot of questions," the lieutenant then said.
"It's...refreshing to talk to someone I can fully read," she replied.
"The Chief's that bad even with his helmet off?"
"He's here!" Tangilanu then said with a sharp whisper over the TEAMCOM.
Kyle stopped Liara and quickly led them to cover behind a large digital tree. He unfolded a rifle and peeked out from cover aiming down the sights. "I need a visual," he said.
"Two clicks to your left," Beckett said. "I'd say about seven of them."
Liara strained to see in the distance, but sure enough she spotted several Turians gathered in a spot nearby. It was then she saw the lieutenant lower his gun with a glint of excitement in his eyes.
"Jackpot," he said with a fist pump. "Alright, if we time our attacks right, we can whittle down the group to—"
Right as he said that though, an explosion erupted nearby the Turians. Liara and the lieutenant did a double take and saw another arena grenade go off.
"Shit!" Beckett exclaimed.
"Who's shooting?" Kyle demanded.
"Your boss!" Tali exclaimed.
Kyle and Liara peeked out to confirm Tali's claim. Sure enough, a group of those ONI marines were flanking the Turians from the right side. And Falana was charging from the midst of them glowing blue with biotic energy.
"Hell no! She's not stealing my kill!" Kyle shouted bolting from their cover to beat Falana to the punch.
"Your kill?" Tali sassed.
Liara watched as Tali and the two troopers ran from their position to attack Vidinos as well. Well, there goes the plan! She sighed, unfolded her pistol and ran after the group. She really had no investment in taking down Vidinos other than the thrill of competition, but she would lend her talents the best she could.
She arrived as the groups continued to trade shots with each other. A good chunk of the ONI marines had been taken out, allowing the Turians to divert their attention towards the more important soldiers. Liara fired a few rounds and took cover behind a small barricade while Tali and the troopers did the same. Well, all the troopers except the lieutenant. He charged ahead, overpowering two Turians with his pistol before approaching a clearing. Ahead of him, Falana was trading biotic blows with a Cabal Turian who was more than capable with standing toe-to-toe with her. The Turian looked a little older than most of his companions, with an unusual face tattoo across his forehead and down to his chin. Whoever this guy was, he appeared to be experienced.
"Crastus!" Vidinos shouted to the older Cabal while pointing to the lieutenant.
Liara then saw her cover enveloped in a biotic field, forcing her to project her own biotic field to deflect incoming fire. Fortunately for her, this provided an ideal distraction for her teammates. Tali and the troopers fired at the distracted Turian soldiers, taking down two of them before the lone survivor ran for cover. Reacting quickly, Liara used a biotic throw on the Turian and flung him sideways…
…which unfortunately caused him to collide into the lieutenant! The two of them tumbled onto the ground, rolling into a small puddle of digital water. Before the Turian could stand, the lieutenant drove an elbow into his back and fired his pistol point blank into the enemy's head. He was certainly efficient at those kills…
Liara sighed as she watched the fight up ahead. That biotic Crastus was exerting a lot of energy onto Falana, who was losing ground as he continued to push her back step by step. Meanwhile, Vidinos had gathered a couple more biotics around him in time to deflect the lieutenant's assault, while he took his own potshots at the other ODST troopers. This was going to be a slog of a fight…
Two more Turians soldiers then burst onto the scene and fired at Liara. Thinking quickly, Liara used a pull on their legs, tripping them onto the ground. Before they could react, Tagilanu and Tali unloaded onto the soldiers.
"Come on!" Asha then shouted to Liara. "Kyle needs our-"
Right then, a large wave of biotic energy pulsed across the battlefield, knocking most of the combatants onto the ground. Liara quickly sat up to see Vidinos and Crastus give inaudible orders to the other two Cabals while they escaped. Vidinos must know that they had it in for him and he wasn't going to go down easily. The Cabals aimed their weapons at the team still standing to their feet…
…until a couple of ONI soldiers barreled into the fight firing blindly at the Turians. Which didn't last long as the Turians gunned them down easily, but it was a well timed distraction. Kyle immediately pulled out his pistol and struck one of the Cabal between the eyes, while Falana used a biotic push on the other before unloading her own rifle at him. The two officers then glared at each other before Falana shimmered with biotic energy and raced off towards the leaders.
"Move it!" Kyle shouted to his team before giving chase behind her.
Liara quickly stood up and ran. Glancing behind her, she saw the others following behind until they were intercepted by three more Turian soldiers.
"Damn it all!" Tali shouted returning fire alongside the ODST. "Can't you guys leave us alone!"
Well…looks like it was up to her to help Kyle get the kill.
After a short sprint, Liara caught up to the officers near a coastline with only one clear exit. Kyle and Falana were now both fighting Crastus, who deflected their gunfire with ease while trading his own shots with them. Vidinos then spotted Liara and opened fire on her. She fired a biotic lift at him, which he dodged the blast radius of with barely a few inches. He then threw an arena grenade towards her…
…only to see it explode in midair as someone shot at the grenade. Both Vidinos and Liara turned to see who saved her.
"You owe me," Beckett said sprinting past Liara along with Tangilanu as they fired at Vidinos. He dove behind a nearby cover while three more Turian soldiers, the same three from before in fact, arrived and fired at them.
Liara then turned in time to see the lieutenant and Falana be launched backwards by a biotic blast towards her. She quickly sidestepped and the two officers tumbled onto the ground with the lieutenant resting on top of Falana.
"Get off me!" Falana shouted pushing the lieutenant off with a biotic toss and scrambling to her feet.
Liara then turned to see Tali charge at Crastus, screeching that battle cry she did while fighting the Jiralhanae. Unfortunately, it didn't do her much good as the biotic flicked his wrist and flung her like a ragdoll into the air.
"Dammmmmn iiiiiittt…" she shouted as she crashed into a tree nearby and disappeared into blue light upon impact.
Up ahead, Beckett's shields broke and Vidinos gunned her down. Tangilanu managed to take down two of the other Turian soldiers guarding their leader, but one of the soldiers crippled the trooper's leg with a lucky shot. Tangilanu collapsed onto the ground while Falana took that third Turian soldier down. The lieutenant shot wildly at Crastus, but he couldn't make a dent in his biotics while the Cabal simply taunted him. Vidinos then popped out from his cover and landed a headshot on Tangilanu.
The Asari felt a twinge panic while watching the chaos erupt around her as if it was in slow-motion. Suddenly, she was missing the Chief's system of order on their combat missions. As rigid as it might seem, at least there was some sense that they could easily win their fights.
"Hey!" The lieutenant then shouted towards Liara, snapping her out of her daze. "Stop being a greenhorn and-!"
And right at that moment, Vidinos fired a shot over Crastus's shoulder and struck the lieutenant in the head!
Liara knew that the shot wouldn't kill the lieutenant, as he gently fell backwards into the shimmering blue respawn light. However, she felt a surge of adrenaline inside her at that moment. All of this effort to take down two soldiers? And what if this hadn't been a simulation and she simply watched this happen? This had been going on for too long! Her body radiated with blue biotic energy as she narrowed her gaze on Crastus. She had no idea if she could beat him one-on-one, but perhaps this is what 'nutting up' truly meant.
Liara threw a biotic lift at Crastus while firing her pistol with her other hand. The Cabal sidestepped the attack and sent a shockwave at her. Liara projected a barrier around her for just long enough to deflect the blast, retracted it and aimed her weapon at the Turian's shoulder. With a couple concentrated shots, she managed to break through his shield and hit her target. Crastus yelped as his arm went numb, but he wasn't out of the fight yet as he generated a swirling blue ball of biotic energy with his working arm.
Meanwhile, the other teammates were still struggling. Falana fired wildly at Vidinos with her gun, her biotics needing a recharge. Unfortunately, one of Vidinos's soldier acted quickly and stood in-between the two officers as a meat shield. Vidinos used the visual distraction of the soldier's respawn as a cover to fire through the blue light and strike Falana's foot. The woman stumbled a step backwards as her foot locked up and shot back at him wildly once again. However, Vidinos had the upper hand as his shield shimmered following a complete regeneration and he bolted towards her. The human's shots grazed his shields, but he was able to close the gap close enough between them to hurl one of the arena grenades right at her face! The grenade stuck and rapidly beeped as Falana watched hopelessly.
"Still a freak," Vidinos quipped before he stepped back and watched Falana be engulfed by the blast.
Liara panted as she continued channeling her biotic energy to deflect Crastus's attacks. This Turian was relentless in his assault! Even with one arm, he was a force to reckon. She had to think of something quick and she only had so much time left on the clock to do it. Then a thought occurred to her. She didn't have to strictly fight fair to beat this guy…
Crastus flung another biotic ball at her, but rather than simply deflect it as she had, Liara shot out a singularity to absorb the energy. Crastus felt himself be pulled by the energy slightly and dug his feet into the ground to resist, but that gave Liara enough time to react. She lifted the dirt around his feet with a flick of her wrists, causing him to lurch forward towards the singularity while Liara rushed towards him. As the singularity dissipated, Liara pulled out her pistol and pointed it right at Crastus's face. She took a moment to savor his surprise as she pulled the trigger.
That moment was short lived though. While Crastus disappeared to the respawn, another shot fired nearby. Liara narrowly dodged it and exhaled loudly before seeing Vidinos aim his gun at her again. She figured he had her head right in his sights and there were only about ten seconds left in the whole game. She doubted Kyle or anyone else had respawned fast enough to rush back here and take down Vidinos. Her own lungs felt like they were on fire from the previous fight and her biotic energy was mostly depleted. She needed a miracle to win this fight…
"BOOYAH, MOTHERFUCKERS!" Someone then shouted and fired a charged plasma shot right at Vidinos's back, his shields glowing from the impact.
The Turian stumbled and about faced quickly to see N'tho and the young Filipino ODST charge at him guns blazing. Vidinos then fired at N'tho, breaking his shields and striking him in the chest.
"Wort!" The Sanghelli exclaimed before disappearing.
Well…that was a convenient intervention. She glanced at her omni-tool and her eyes widened. The round was nearly over! Reacting quickly, she fired at Vidinos's back. His shields shimmered almost to the breaking point as he gunned down the ODST.
"FIVE!" A booming voice sounded from the arena's intercoms.
With a few more shots, Vidinos's shields broke. However, he managed to sucker punch her by flinging an arena grenade wildly at her feet while diving onto the sand. Liara similarly dove out of the way, landing in the water of the shoreline and unfortunately losing grip of her pistol.
Liara submerged into the water and gripped her pistol. Her shields then shimmered as Vidinos shot at her again, with a few rounds skimming the water around her. Then her shields broke completely!
Channeling whatever biotic energy she could, Liara launched a biotic blast into the water and shot a miniature wave towards Vidinos. The Turian stumbled backwards from the impact while Liara got to her knees.
Liara gripped the handle of her pistol the way Kyle showed her. One headshot. She needed one well placed headshot to win the match. There was literally no time to waste. Vidinos realized this too as he quickly sat up, drenched with the simulated water, and took aim at Liara.
Liara prayed to the Goddess for accuracy as the two of them fired at the same time…
"She better not say anything bad about my girl," Cortana quipped in the Chief's ear.
"I am sure that Ms. T'Soni is a joy to work with," Ackerson said sliding a few pictures of Liara onto the holographic screen. "But she is still the daughter of Saren's formerly highest profile associate. Who knows what kind of communication they had had prior to her rescue on Therum?"
"She hadn't spoken to Benezia in years," the Chief replied. He could feel his throat getting raspy. Even with all of the practice he had since he woke up, conversations with people like Ackerson were still draining.
"Do you always believe people at face value?"
"I believe people who tell the truth."
"What you believe isn't important. It's what you know and what you can prove. Yes, she helped to kill her own mother, but who knows what had been going on with that before? With the threat Saren and the Geth pose to the humanity, we can't take chances. If it'll help us gain a new lead on the bastard, we should bring in Ms. T'Soni for-"
"No," Chief interrupted.
"The hell you mean no?"
"The hell do you think?" Cortana quipped privately.
"I've already questioned her thoroughly since she joined my team," The Chief replied. "She has not withheld anything from us and has actively assisted in the investigation."
"See…this is why your judgment is being questioned," Ackerson replied stermly. "Liara is an asset to this investigation. She could also be a liability now that her mother is dead. If we want to make the most of our time with her, we need to turn over every stone we can. This is what being a Spectre requires, Chief. You have to do everything possible to solve the case, even if it gets your hands dirty."
Chief glared down the Major through his visor. He had enough of this conversation.
"If you don't feel comfortable doing it," Ackerson continued. "Then I'll interrogate her myself. And I will not go easy one her because of any misplaced affection-."
Chief then stood up, making sure to look down at the officer. "If you even look at her funny," he said with a growl.
"You're going to threaten an Alliance officer?"
"I'm a Spectre. I don't answer to you now or ever. Remember that whenever you even think about harassing any of my crew."
He then grabbed his helmet, put it on and turned to walk away.
"Good," Cortana said to him. "I was getting tired of this office anyway."
"We're not done here," the Major said trying to keep her cool.
"There's nothing left to discuss," the Chief said not looking at her and walking to the door.
"Of course there is!" The Major replied. "This isn't just about Ms. T'Soni. You're letting your affection for your crew jeopardize this mission. That's why you hid Cortana for this long, isn't it?"
That stopped the Chief dead in his tracks right as he opened the door.
"Did she just say...?" Cortana said equally surprised.
He turned to the Major, who gave a shit-eating smirk while he tried thinking on his feet. "Cortana was decommissioned after I was found," he said. "The record says—"
"Sure she was..." Ackerson said flippantly walking over to the Chief. "She's gone and she'll never come back. And you miraculously recovered from the emotional and psychological trauma of losing your closest friend because you're that good of a soldier. Is that right?"
She stopped in front of the Chief looking at him face to face, or as much as she could with his height. Her hand slinked past him and pressed the button on the door panel. It hissed shut as she met his visor once again.
"I think we should leave," Cortana said to the Chief. "Now!"
"...it's what I was trained for," Chief replied to the Major.
"I know," Ackerson said crossing her arms. "That's why what I'm going say next shouldn't affect you."
"Chief..." Cortana said concerned. "We—"
"Halsey Override Command Protocol activate. Authorization Level 5."
Cortana immediately went silent. The Chief tensed up as the Major continued.
"Authorization ID - 71B42: Ackerson. Execute Command 4X-11 Omega."
Chief flinched as Cortana emitted a quick but sharp shriek before going silent once more. It was too late to cover that reaction up as he saw Ackerson smirk more.
"Hm..." Ackerson grunted smugly. "Only a Halsey AI reacts to that phrase. So, either you're an AI or...?"
Chief glared at her, but he realized they couldn't hide anymore. The Major had found out about Cortana.
"Ch-ch-ch-ch-chiiiieeeffff..." Cortana's voice stuttered and echoed in his earpiece with a digital distortion. He had never heard that from her before.
"What did you do?" He growled.
"It's a hard-reboot code," Ackerson said. "ONI used them when they had A.I.s with intense non-rampancy processing issues. Don't worry. She'll be fine in a minute."
Chief regained his composure to size himself up against the Major, but he knew he had lost ground.
"I know why you did it," she continued. "The brass wanted you to follow protocol and you weren't willing to give up someone you love. Honestly, I would have done the same thing." She walked back and leaned against the table. "I'm sure you've told your team about her too?"
Chief remained silent.
"Woo," Ackerson exclaimed quietly while doing a soft golf clap. "That's a bingo. And now it's a liability. So…we have a bit of conundrum. Obviously, protocol dictates that I should report you or demand her immediate decommission."
Chief failed to not ball his fists at that.
"Calm down. I don't want to do that," Ackerson then said with a confident smirk lifting her hands. "And you are a Spectre, so I personally can't coerce you into doing it. Still, I don't think the Council will be THAT understanding, given that A.I.'s are persona non-grata. And it would jeopardize future human involvement in galactic politics, as well as your immediate mission. That's not happening on my watch."
She waved her omni-tool over her desk, shutting down all the active systems.
"We're at the cusp of something incredible here," she continued. "A chance for humanity to make a lasting impact. But to do that, we need to make sure all the key players understand their roles."
"I. Don't. Work for you," Chief reiterated sternly.
"You work for humanity!" She retorted with equal firmness. "So…yeah. You do work for me! So be a good little soldier and listen. You're here to prove that humans can sit at the grown-ups table. You're here to make sure we never suffer an idiotic restraint from the Council ever again."
Chief raised an eyebrow.
"Why do you think the Council demanded us to abandon Slipspace? Why do you think they had us decommission our A.I.'s? To protect the galaxy? Bullshit! It was to cripple us. To make sure humans stay under their thumbs just like the Volus and the Elcor. All they want to hear from bastards like Udina is, 'Thank you, benevolent leaders' and 'Oh, we're just happy to be here.' Because deep down they knew that with where our technology was at the time, we could have kicked their asses from here to Mariposa. Seriously. Can you think of a single moment Cortana hasn't been an invaluable asset?"
Chief crossed his arms as he heard something over his earpiece.
"...with...breaking th-th-th-th-the cyyyyycle..." Cortana continued to stutter and babble. "My p-p-p-purpose...I a-a-am...am...am as they made meeee..."
That was...disconcerting. Cortana must still be rebooting, but Chief could only imagine what a century of prior activity was doing to her.
"But that's the rulebook we decided to play with," Ackerson continued. "Hunting down Saren and stopping his Geth is a big step in leveling the playing field. But it's a step and it can be easily undone. If we're going to have lasting impact, we need to be ready to do whatever's necessary."
"...and what would be necessary?" The Chief noted.
"Anything," Ackerson said. "I make it my mission to seize every opportunity. And now...I have a great opportunity. I have irrefutable proof of Cortana's existence and a hero emotionally invested in keeping her safe."
"If you think I'll-"
"I think you'll act in a way that works to everyone's advantage. If you catch my drift."
Chief glared at her. "I'm not going to be at your beck and call."
"Every Spectre harbors a preference for their own race," she replied, "Shake down an important politician or a crime lord and you'll find a few in their pockets. It's just a fact." She stood up slowly. "I've made my point, so I should use our remaining minute of quiet wisely. You want me to keep Cortana a secret? I can do that. I'd rather not cause that much heartache. But to guarantee my silence...I need you to do me a favor."
"And what would that be?"
"...nothing right now," she said with a taunt while walking up to him again. "That opportunity hasn't arisen just yet. But when it does, I'll find you. If you don't feel like helping, that's fine. I'm sure some of the crew will understand what happened when certain facts come to the Council's attention. And I know a few more codes that can—"
"If you hurt her—" Chief interrupted.
"Yeah, you've threatened me already. But I get the hostility, so I'll spare you the details of what those codes can do. Now, you have a mission to get back to. You're a good soldier, Chief," She said tapping a button on the underside of his helmet. "This is a friendly reminder to not forget who made you a great one."
"...Chieeef?" Cortana said through the Chief's helmet speakers with significantly less reverb. "Chief, are you ok?"
"He's fine, Cortana," Ackerson replied. "We had a friendly chat."
"You!" Cortana snapped.
"I'm sorry I had to do that, but I had to know what-" she said before her Omni-tool chirped and she answered. "Ackerson here."
"The game's over, ma'am," Falana replied through the speaker.
"How'd we do?"
"Our team cinched a victory at the last second. You should see Vidinos's face."
Ackerson chuckled. "I'll be right over." The call ended and Ackerson approached the door, but stopped once more beside the Chief. "In all seriousness, I think you're the greatest soldier who ever lived," she said looking to the Chief. "I think there's a reason people are drawn to you. Why you earn their admiration and affection. And I think you were brought back because humanity needs you more than ever. Don't prove me wrong."
With that, Ackerson strode out of the office, leaving Chief to stand there in silence.
"...c-c-Chief?" Cortana asked with a reduced stutter as she started to stabilize. "What did she say?"
Chief took his time leaving Ackerson's ship as he explained what happened to Cortana. He was still kicking himself for thinking that ONI would be any different now than they were in the past. And now his throat was feeling extremely sore from all that talking. That Ackerson sure liked to hear herself give long winded diatribes.
"Damn her," Cortana said. "And after all of that, she doesn't even tell you what favor she wanted?"
"She said she'll 'find me,'" he grumbled.
"Pft! She thinks she's so scary. And laying out all that dirt on the crew?"
Chief had almost forgotten about that. While everything that happened with Cortana was his most urgent concern, some of the details Ackerson brought forth had disconcerted the Chief. He had grown to trust his team and they had given him little reason to doubt that trust. There was some truth to what she said though, so he should address that sooner than later. Not to give her any gratification, but for his sake and the sake of the mission.
"How are your systems?" Chief asked Cortana.
"Fine for now," Cortana said. "Honestly, that scared the hell out of me. I knew Halsey put in some fail safes, but I didn't even know that kind of code existed."
"Hey, don't let anything she said get to you. She's huffing and puffing against a brick wall. You're a Spectre. You have the superior political authority. Trust your team."
Chief entered the airlock to get back to the station and crossed his arms. Ackerson was just like every other ONI he had ever met. Yet she had taken an unhealthy interest in his mission and everyone involved to a personal level. And that favor…nothing good could come out of that. Still, if it kept Cortana and the crew safe, he would try to toe the line - for now, at least. She did also mention something that peaked the Chief's curiosity though. If they were to get more power in the galaxy, they would campaign to get Slipspace and A.I.'s reintegrated. The Chief had made it clear before that he supported these decisions and she obviously knew that he had an investment in the A.I. angle. But could he justify being in bed with ONI to do that just to protect Cortana and his team?
The door to the airlock slid open and Chief made the walk back to rejoin his crew. At least he knew that they won the game. That meant something good came out of this whole detour. As he passed through a hallway though, he heard someone call out to him.
"You survived your lecture?" The person said from a nearby room.
Chief looked to see Lieutenant Nolan in a small room looking out a large window into the vast expanse of space. He simply stood there, still in his uniform save for his helmet sitting on a table nearby, without turning to confirm if he was talking to Chief. Either he was a very good guesser or Chief had a very distinct footfall. Probably the latter.
"Oh look," Cortana quipped to Chief. "It's our favorite show-off."
Kyle motioned for the Chief to enter, which he obliged and stood by the lieutenant's side. The door hissed to a close behind them while Kyle stared out into the expanse of space. It did seem like an odd coincidence that one of the people who woke him up into this century would suddenly show up assigned to ONI. If Chief wanted to feel extra paranoid, he suspected that Ackerson recruited Kyle's team solely to add familiar faces to placate him. However, he was genuinely curious to see how the exercise went, so he might as well ask now.
"How did the teams do?" He asked.
"We won," Nolan replied. "Shouldn't be surprised. Your crew's a bunch of badasses. Even Liara. She scored the only kill on the Turian team's leader."
Chief nodded in reply. At least someone on the ONI team had a high opinion of his team.
"I've been there you know," Nolan then said, getting the Chief's attention. "Ackerson calls you into an office, she talks your ear off about a bunch of stuff and then she has you doing things for her because you think it's the right thing. That's how I got into this mess to begin with." The lieutenant then looked to the Chief. "Don't trust her. Don't trust Falana. Don't trust their marines."
Chief was mildly surprised by the lieutenant's bluntness, but kept his usual poker face as he made eye contact. "What have you seen to warrant that distrust?"
"…legally, I can't say," Kyle replied. "But I can't let you get caught in her web. I put my team at risk. I won't let her get yours."
"We can handle her," Chief said looking out the window.
"Alright," Nolan muttered looking out the window as well before he continued. "Hey…I also wanted to apologize."
A pause lingered as Chief waited for him to clarify.
"Back on the Mt. Everest when I pushed you into doing the challenge," the lieutenant clarified.
"Geez, he's still hung up on that?" Cortana said to Chief.
Chief remembered that too well. During his acclimation period after being reawakened, Anderson had brought him to the ship's shooting range to teach him modern weaponry. Nolan was there with his team and Anderson had the lieutenant assist in the demonstration. Once it was clear that Chief didn't need much help getting used to the weapons, the lieutenant demanded a speed challenge. Chief then quickly put him in his place, prompting the lieutenant to avoid him for the rest of their trip. He knew that it was a case of hurt pride, but he had no time to stroke any egos back then. The lieutenant did manage to keep up decently during that challenge though.
"It's fine," Chief then said.
"Ok," Nolan replied. "I just…I want you to know that we're here to help you. I mean, not 'we' as in us and the Spooks. But my team…we'd do anything to help you."
"How do I know I can trust you?" Chief asked.
"…because…" The lieutenant said clearly struggling to think of an answer that couldn't be misinterpreted. He then sighed. "I guess I can't convince you with more than my word. For whatever that's worth." He paused before trying again. "When we found you on the Forward Unto Dawn, everyone assumed you were long dead inside that cryo pod. There simply wasn't any other way for you not to be. We were ready to plan your funeral. And yet here you are, barely older than when you entered the pod and not any worse for wear. That…that is nothing shy of a miracle. I won't forgive myself if I let the Major ruin that so she can play her political chess game with the Council."
He turned to face the Chief once more. "I'm sure that's not a convincing reason for you to trust me. I would understand that. But if I had to work every day to earn even an ounce of your trust, I would do it and not complain once. I've acted like an ass to you before, Chief. I can't afford to let that happen again. Not for my sake or yours. So…take that for what you will."
The lieutenant then picked up his helmet and started to leave.
"Well…that was surprisingly pleasant," Cortana said to the Chief.
Chief mulled over the lieutenant's sentiment and a thought came to mind. It might be considered a brash and stupid decision in the Major's eyes, and likely some other people, but it would test to see if the lieutenant was a man of his word. That and he could use someone inside ONI to watch his back. If Ackerson could hold Cortana ransom over a favor, he might as well request a favor of his own. Though he felt he wouldn't need to coerce Kyle to help.
"Lieutenant," Chief then said. The lieutenant stopped and turned around as the Chief also faced him.
"Chief?" Cortana asked. "What are you doing?"
"…if I ever asked you to do something for me, even if it went against Ackerson's order, would you do it?" Chief asked the lieutenant.
The lieutenant took a millisecond to think that over before nodding. "A hundred and fifty percent."
Chief looked and saw that the door to the room was locked. Hopefully that meant no one would barge in on their little conversation. And they were going to need the secrecy.
"Ackerson's forcing my hand," Chief then said pulling up his omni-tool and pressing a few keys. "And I should explain why."
With one more press, Cortana's image materialized on the omni-tool disk. Kyle's eyes widened and he took a couple extra steps forward to make sure he was clearly seeing what he saw.
"Well, the cat's out of the bag again," Cortana said slightly annoyed to the Chief before looking to the still gawking lieutenant. "Yes, hi. I'm not dead. Surprise…"
Codex Entry (Humanity and the Systems Alliance) – Office of Naval Intelligence - Section Three
One of the most elite branches within the Office of Naval Intelligence, Section Three's primary duties involve the creation and operation of special projects for the Alliance. During their tenure with the UNSC, Section Three conducted numerous black operations that benefitted humanity's colonial expansion and aided in the war against the Covenant. Among some of the most notable programs disclosed to the public were:
• The Spartan Corps: the military division that created the Spartan I and II programs.
• The NOVA project: a project that developed the NOVA bomb, a missile containing nine nuclear warheads in a lithium triteride case.
• The MJOLNIR program: a program that led to the development of the MJOLNIR class armor worn by members of the Spartan programs.
• Beta-5: a division that oversaw operations for the Asymmetrical Action Group and the now defunct Spartan III program.
Though acclaimed for its successful programs and contributions to human expansion, Section Three has generated controversy from both human and non-human critics for their secretive nature and 'unethical' research methods. Defectors and retired members of Section Three have also caused ONI tactics to be used in several unauthorized projects across the galaxy, including recently operations conducted by the human radical group Cerberus and the Batarian terrorist organization Sons of Khar'shan.
Well, fans, I, Zgamer, now ask you: would you like to see more chapters from me? DinoJake would be supervising the story and offering his approval before any updates were made, but if you would want to see this story continue, I would be writing the chapters. I would totally understand if people aren't cool with that, but let us know in the reviews either way. At the end of the day, your enjoyment is what matters most.