Indoctrination Devices, Indoctrination Devices Everywhere
15th July 2186 CE
Westlock, Promavess Continent
I hated waiting. It left someone alone with their thoughts, and before combat, that was an incredibly bad idea. A hundred different scenarios played out in my head. In all of which, I died in horrific ways.
See? Doesn't really do wonders for your morale does it? And judging by the set faces of the rest of my team, it seemed like they were having similar problems.
Asari High Command Special Operations. That's who we are. AHCSO. Not very famous, like those fancy Alliance N7's, or the Turian Hierarchy's Blackwatch, but we get some pride in knowing we're the equivalent for our people. We can kill as well as any team of Spec Ops Commandos.
Most of us used to be on the other side of the law before we joined the armed forces. They don't really teach you how to march around or how to respond in correct form to your superiors when you're pirating. Though two of my team used to be with Eclipse, and they drill a bit more discipline into their soldiers than usual.
Still, I like to give the people under my command some free reign. Personally, in the middle of a fire-fight, I'd want a friend to have my back, not some soldier you order around. It's a policy that's worked amicably in my favour for around 30 years of service.
However, that doesn't stop High Command from transferring my people around. The only person I still have from my original squad is my good friend Neaira Cala. The rest of the squad is relatively new. Well, relative to my lifespan. I've only known them for about 5 years.
The shuttle gets knocked around a bit. Probably by some unexpected winds, as there wasn't much Reaper activity in this sector when we were deployed. Neaira's gun slips as she gets jostled. Her Disciple Shotgun falls to the metal floor, and slides over to my feet. I pick it up and examine the exquisite, hand-crafted weapon. Yeah, hand-crafted.
Ever since the Justicars released the schematics to the whole military, the gun has been mass produced in factories. But Neaira's weapon is one of the originals. I think it's one of the thousand that are currently in circulation. So how did she get hold of something that rare? No idea. She still won't tell me.
Her past is a touchy subject that even 30 years of close friendship can't properly crack.
But anyway, I hand back the elegant weapon and she nods in acknowledgement.
The vid screen mounted on the wall behind the cockpit sparks into life. An annotated live feed of the main continent on this small colony is shown, along with deployment orders from the Captain on our ship. Four shuttles are all we have until reinforcements come in.
And a whole planet to evacuate.
Two teams were being sent to the capital, and the largest concentration of civilians. Another was being sent to hold the spaceport in another city close by.
Me and Neaira were briefed of our mission upon our Cruiser, the Kastoria. But for the benefit of everyone else, a short message was displayed beside our objective on the map.
'Retrieve an important artifact from the town of Westlock, and then assist with evacuating the local populace. Note that retrieval of artifact takes priority. Coordinates are attached…'
Evacuating the whole colony was going to be tough, but compared to what was going on in the rest of the galaxy, it seemed simple. But then again it always does, doesn't it? Unfortunately for us, in reality, simple doesn't exactly mean easy.
"Two minutes until we hit the ground Tescani! Be warned, Reaper scouts have been spotted"
The voice of our pilot stops my mind from going back into the continuous cycle of picturing worst case scenarios.
That's what our call sign is by the way, Tescani. Tenuva are the ones going to make sure the ships get off this planet, and the two teams being sent to the capital are Serrice and Armali.
Armali are pretty special, I should say.
They're an infiltration team made up of six highly trained snipers. Urban combat is their speciality. They're kind of famous for their ruthless efficiency back on Thessia. I'm not saying I'm jealous, because what they accomplish on a regular basis is simply outstanding, and no-one on my team can snipe nearly as well as them….but, alright, maybe I am a little envious. However, fame and recognition can get you unwanted attention in a lengthy war. And I don't see this war finishing any time soon.
Our shuttle touches down on the ground and the starboard loading bay doors slide open.
The town is situated in a lush, green valley. A thin, light blue mist lies low to the ground, and obscures our vision. Great forests of evergreen trees surround the town, containing the mist and making it literally impossible for it to dissipate. I can hardly see anything past a kilometre. We dismount the aircraft and fan out in a loose circle.
We split off into two squads like we always do in reconnaissance missions. Omega, the smaller of the two squads, was led by a commando by the name of Triara F'Ilo. F'Ilo prefers a close combat style. She has an extremely powerful charge, and her barriers are spectacular. But she hasn't trained in many other offensive styles of biotics. So the two other members of her squad are Eria Illian, who specializes in mid-to-long range combat, and Anaya D'Scrol, a technician. They need someone with the tech skills to open doors...
I walk into the open space separating the two halves of our squad.
"Alright, you've all read the mission parameters. Alpha Tescani," I regarded the people designated Alpha, "we find this thing, flag down our shuttle to pick it up, and then help Omega defend the landing zone for the frigate that's coming to evacuate these people."
Turning back to face the part of the team assigned Omega, I continued. "Omega, the actual parameters say you are to secure the LZ for the civilian frigate coming in. But there still might be some people stuck in the town. You are to help and protect anyone you find, but not to go out of your way to search for trapped civilians."
The three Asari nodded, and began checking their weapons one more time.
"Preliminary scans show some light Reaper activity, so everyone, stay alert. We all know what to do in case of a direct engagement, move out."
Omega Tescani headed down the hill. As they walk off towards their primary objective, deciding to take a direct path through the center of the town, the shuttle ascends back into the sky. The pilot probably thought it would be a better idea to hide in the fog rather than wait here.
I set a waypoint for our objective, and relayed it to everyone else's HUD.
I was told that the artifact was accidentally discovered by a local palaeontologist trying to ascertain the history of Tiptree's ecology. The human apparently described it as large, dark blue, and with glowing tendrils. We were told to assume that the artifact is some sort of Reaper indoctrination device, as it seems to match the descriptions of previous discoveries. Asari High Command responded to his requests to 'get the thing the hell away from here' by sending us. They told him to keep it hidden in a secure location and away from the contact of sentient beings.
But Westlock wasn't what you'd call…up-to-date. It was a rural area, with farming as the main source of income for the thousand or so residents. There were around ten times more domesticated animals here than people!
So the palaeontologist had no better idea than to isolate the artifact from the town by keeping it in the furthermost farmhouse from the town centre.
And that's where we were headed.
The waypoint informed us that the farmhouse was about 4 kilometres to our northeast. We could either go through the town, which was the quicker route. Or go around the back, which would be longer, but perhaps safer.
I had been on active duty for nearly two weeks now, so maybe my judgement was clouded, but I ordered Alpha to go through the town. I also contacted the palaeontologist, it turns out his name was Dr Campbell, to let him know we would be at the farmhouse within the half hour. Then off we went too, slogging through the ankle deep mud.
Neaira and her shotgun were on point as we cautiously entered the outskirts of Westlock. The pre-fabricated housing modules were the typical kind usually found on small colony worlds in the Attican Traverse. Drab grey, made of poor metal and containing only the bare necessities needed to scrape out a living. All of them were empty, and clear of belongings.
"There should be some sort of spooky atmosphere here," Neaira commented as she swept behind a building and into an alleyway with her weapon. "…but I'm just not feeling it today"
"Well done, you're finally numb to war" retorted Kaia Eratyra. The 600 year-old Matron was as experienced as they got these days. She was actually recognised by the rank of Captain in the Lusia branch of the Eclipse Sisterhood. She had around 100 years of 'clean' mercenary service under her belt when enlisting in the armed forces. Her previous experience had gotten her straight into the Special Forces. Armed with an M-76 Revenant LMG and a high end omni-tool, she was also officially our mechanic and technician. "Happened to me about a century ago" she muttered. I found her cynical outlook in life rather depressing. It had only gotten worse recently.
"So you're admitting you're old?" asked our designated marksman (markswoman?) Kala Nera. She stood at the back of the formation, guarding our backs. Her powerful Alliance manufactured Black Widow sniper rifle was on her back, whilst she made use of a Carnifex Heavy Pistol in the close confines of the town streets.
"Old? I still have half a lifetime to enjoy, love." Eratyra stopped suddenly and faced the rest of us, then looked Nera directly in the eyes. "That is, if we survive this damned war".
"Your pessimism is beginning to piss me off" Nera countered without breaking stride. She had voiced what was literally on my mind. Eratyra just shook her head with a frown before following Neaira again.
"Seriously? You think we have any chance of winning this? Giant metal squids from space that can invade your mind and turn you into monsters. Who don't have supply lines? Don't have any exploitable weaknesses? Against hmm…" She began to count off on her fingers, "A race that has power through politics, which means jack shit in this war. A race of scientifically minded amphibians with the best technology in the galaxy, but who don't want to help. A race of vagrants who have the biggest fleet in the galaxy, of which most are civilian vess-"
"We get the idea" I interrupted her little speech. "If you didn't think we could do this, then why are you here?"
"Because I don't know what else to do. I've been fighting as long as I remember. It's the only thing I can do." She said through clenched teeth.
I'd had enough. I leaned forwards, grabbed her by her shoulders and spun her around. The rest of Alpha Tescani moved on ahead without us.
"Well then Lieutenant, if it's the only thing you can do, then at least do it properly. I know it's been a hard few weeks, losing your mother couldn't have helped-"
"Damn right it doesn't"
"Listen! You've been doing this as long as I have, don't you realise you're bringing the morale of the entire unit down!?"
Eratyra just huffed in acknowledgement.
"Look, you aren't the only one suffering in this war. Everyone has lost someone they know to the Reapers. Everyone! The only thing the affected can do is move on. If the whole galaxy stopped and mourned, the Reapers would be walking over us already. The only way for soldiers like you and me to honour the dead is to give the Reapers some f**king payback!"
It seemed to work. I believe I have a way with words. Eratyra gripped her gun harder, and nodded once as I continued, "So, come on then, must be at least a couple of 'em in this town"
Neaira, Nera and our combat medic Paramythia Kavos were crouching behind a low metal wall when we approached them.
"Hostiles up ahead, Commander." Neaira motioned with her gun's extended barrel, "Two of the smaller Turian things and a couple of Human husks."
Eratyra and I took cover on either side of Neaira, as Nera switched to her sniper rifle and back-pedaled slowly until she was behind the southern wall of a building. Eratyra smirked and looked at me pointedly.
"Careful what you wish for Ma'am. But for the record? This is the first time in two weeks I've actually wanted to see some of these bastards."
Yeah, I guess I do have a way with words.
"Got a positive on the Marauders" said Nera, looking through her scope.
"Fire whenever you're ready" I replied. This was her forte. I decided to let her shoot first.
Three shots rang out in succession before I leaned over the wall.
There were no Marauders in sight, so I aimed at the group of husks only now reacting to Nera. My standard issue M-15 Vindicator Battle Rifle spewed out bullets in bursts of three. It only took two or three bursts to bring down a single husk, and I'd taken down two before Eratyra joined her fire to mine. The last one had had enough time to accelerate into a sprint, so my last shots missed. Neaira simply lifted the husk and threw it back with a flick of her hand. It landed with a thud a couple of metres away, cracking its skull apart and pouring thick black liquid all over the ground.
"Clear," Nera called out, "wait…"
The husk that had been thrown began to get back up, and crawl towards us. Nera shot the thing centre-mass, blowing it apart in a grisly show of flesh and metal.
"Now, it's clear" She laughed. Why she found that funny, I don't know. I've had more close calls with those things than any other Reaper infantry. They could jump on you, locking their legs around your waist in such a fashion that you simply could not push them off. The only way to kill them then was to shoot them off. And try doing that when you have a hundred kilo zombified human trying to claw your eyes out.
Thank the Goddess I have biotics.
"Hey, Commander T'Goni, we should get going before their friends turn up" Quipped Kavos as she looked around the corpses of the dead Reapers.
"Right. Let's move."
We set off, in the same formation again, towards the farmhouse. After a short trek through more dingy alleys and empty streets, we reached the end of the town. We didn't encounter any more enemies, and our objective was visible once we were in the fields once more.
A shrill beep in my ear told me I had someone trying to contact me.
I opened the link. It was F'Ilo. I played it on our team's frequency so everyone could hear.
"This is Omega Tescani, Alpha Tescani do you copy?"
"Commander, we've encountered strong resistance in the town. Requesting back up and Lieutenant Kavos. We have injured personnel."
The way she said it all in a monotonous voice troubled me a bit. The rest of my team stiffened at the words too. "What happened!?"
"D'Scrol was nicked in the back trying to decrypt a locked door to a large office. There were trapped civilians inside. She's stable for now, but her condition is deteriorating. We're wasting time talking."
"Right, I'm sending Kavos, but Eratyra and Nera are coming with her."
"Acknowledged Commander, we'll meet them at our current position. Omega Tescani out"
I immediately sent their coordinates to the three who were preparing to go back into the town. Without a word, Eratyra took control of the small squad and started a light jog back into Westlock. Kavos and Nera fell in behind her, as they too, jogged towards our distressed team-mates. Neaira and I could only look on as they turned a corner and disappeared from view.
If I knew her as well as I thought I did, she's just about to ask wh-
"Aeain, why didn't you send me too?"
"I need you at the artifact. We can call in the shuttle and get it to drop us off at Omega's location. Don't worry, we're not sitting this one out."
"Hmph" She turned around and began walking up the incline towards the farmhouse.
I noticed that she had been acting a bit colder with me lately. It was small things like this that called it back to attention. This was a good time as any to address the issue.
She turned her head slightly towards me as she continued walking. She sighed heavily too, maybe she knew what I was going to say. "Is anything wrong? You've not been acting yourself lately…"
"Yes, I know" She said it indignantly, but with the undertone of pleading me not to delve further into the issue. But I had to find out.
"Just tell me, please"
Neaira suddenly looked away from me. Then turned around and even more unexpectedly came close to my face. She nearly unbalanced me and sent me rolling down the hill.
"It's me." She said, tears forming in her eyes. "Me. I'm what's wrong. I'm the problem."
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment or two, but then as I began to move back to ask 'what?', something clicked in my head.
It all made sense now. 30 years I've known her, and considered her a close friend, but I realize something now. Of all times.
During the thirty years I've spent with her, on and off the battlefield, there have always been moments where she expressed interest in me. Perhaps it's casual flirting in the showers, and sometimes it's downright innuendoes on a night out. I've tried to express my interest in her too. To try and show her that the feeling is mutual. She always recognises my actions too.
However, just at the point of starting a relationship, she backs away. Puts distance between herself and me. Hardly talks more than what's necessary to me. Every. Single. Time. It was a cycle of friendship, love and neglect that continued for 30 years. I couldn't take it anymore, and so I just abandoned any hopes of Neaira.
But I've just spent two weeks in near enough constant fighting with my team. That ought to get anyone worked up. And at the point where sexual tensions where just about unbearable on the Kastoria, she moves away from me again. Acts cold, distant. Indifferent.
But now? Now it's all clicked in my head.
Neaira can't be with me. It's almost impossible to stop the tears beginning to well up inside me. She sees that I finally understand and gives in to her emotions too.
"No, it can't be. They aren't real!" Though I realized how stupid and petty I must have sounded, I simply refused to believe what my brain was telling me. "No, you aren't a monster..."
Neaira simply nodded her head once, confirming my worst fears.