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Old 2012-12-30, 11:43   Link #1
LoweGear
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Join Date: Oct 2006
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[Fanfiction] Mass Effect 3: The Miracle At Palaven - by Kei

First off, this particular story isn't mine; it's an ongoing work by author Kei at the Spacebattles forum. Nonetheless this pic is so criminally underrated that I feel it deserves more exposure than it has.

I'll let the author's own words describe the work:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kei
The Miracle at Palaven is a Mass Effect 3 fanfic that expands upon the Codex Entry detailing...well, the Miracle at Palaven. I was actually rather excited to discover that I might be the first to write a story about this after making searches around several fan fiction communities and finding no such fanfic. As you have noticed, The Miracle of Palaven is written in the format of an in-universe book about the Battle of Palaven during the Reaper War, Of Steel and Talons: The Battle of Palaven, first published by Arena Nyscirius two decades after the Reaper War, written from historical records and interviews of many veterans who survived the battle. The format is largely inspired by the book Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, but also taking cues from Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War by Mark Bowden. In-universe, the part detailing the Miracle at Palaven (and it will be a rather lengthy piece of writing) consists of Chapters Twelve and Thirteen of the book, and when it is published on FanFiction.Net and some other places upon completion, it will be published as a two-chapter work.
Without further ado, here's the fic itself, reposted with permission.

********************

Select Excerpt from Of Steel and Talons: The Battle of Palaven by Arena Nyscirius (2214 CE Edition) (Edited for Human Reading)
Licensed to Kaidan Alenko Secondary School, Kithoi Ward, Citadel

=12=
Preparing for a Miracle


Operation: WHISKEY CORRIDOR was, according to official press releases, a mitigated tactical setback, an operation that encountered significant obstacles before it was quickly scaled back in favor of other operations. In [Captain Irrena] Ixius’ opinion, WHISKEY CORRIDOR was a complete disaster. It had been a daring, ambitious plan that had been chosen in favor of two other cancelled operations, PHANTOM SNOW, a highly coordinated and organized retreat from low-priority defensive positions on Menae so the fleet could bombard the Reaper forces overrunning the area, and STARDUST SONATA, a coordinated counterattack against skirmishing Reapers targeting the shipyards around Nanus.

Admiral [Irix] Coronati had been confident that if he could just open a direct path to the Trebia mass relay, it would streamline logistical considerations between Palaven space and all other turian military resource holdings across Citadel space. But as well-equipped and well-trained as the turian fleet was, it could not match the alacrity in which the Reapers coordinated with each other and responded to threats. An operation that required split-second timing amongst turian starships to isolate and outflank individual Reapers between Palaven and the Trebia mass relay was doomed to fail when Reapers could – and did – dance around turian warships and regroup, despite the fact that the turian starships generally outnumbered each Reaper vessel five-to-one.

The failures were not due to the shortcomings of the turian fleet, each ship filled with well-trained, well-disciplined, and experienced officers that represented the best Citadel space had to offer, of which [Ixius’ carrier] the Example was no exception. The crew had manned the Example admirably, responding to their captain’s commands faster than any other group responsible for navigating a kilometer-long could, and Ixius had never seen such a superb performance from any carrier crew until WHISKEY CORRIDOR.

Still, in spite of this, the Example had fared poorly in the operation. It had been outflanked by two Reapers, and only survived because the Dominion had posed a much more tempting target when the dreadnought moved in to support the Example. Deck Two had been breached and damaged so badly that its entirety was exposed to the vacuum, and declared off-limits until their return to the docks of Nanus could facilitate flash-repairs. More than three-fourths of the carrier’s fighter-bomber complement had been lost, all of their drones shot down. The turians performed exceptionally, but they were only organic. Orders from Coronati went to fleet CIC, which was passed through military tactical networks to individual ship communications officers, then to their captains, then to the bridge officers. That was to say nothing of individual ship CICs reporting rapid-fire updates to the captain, which was hectic enough even with VI assistance. The Reapers, in contrast, had virtually no communications delay, controlled their weapons and navigations as if they were extensions of the body, and instantly responded to any situation simultaneously.

WHISKEY CORRIDOR created a salient from Palaven towards the Trebia mass relay across nowhere that needed to be defended. What had meant to be coordinated isolate-and-destroy operations against the Reapers along the “highway” ended up as a disaster as Reaper ships simply winked in-and-out of FTL faster than turian vessels could follow, and flanked the corridor from every possible vector. Two days into the operation with nothing to show for his progress aside from barely managing to secure no more than thirty percent of the planned corridor, Coronati finally called an end to the fiasco. Two hundred and fourteen ships had been committed to the operation, but only one hundred and eight-six had made it safely out, and that wasn’t even counting the ships that were heavily damaged. ¹

The only measurable success they had was that the Reapers no longer maintained a defensive perimeter around the Trebia mass relay. They had attempted to guard the mass relay religiously to cut off reinforcements and logistical lines, but after taking losses from the continuous stream of self-guided warp bombs being sent by out-system turian forces through the relay, the Reapers had retreated to a minimum safe distance to intercept the bombs before they could do any damage. The navy was deprived of a way to take potshots from across mass relays, but at least the Reapers staying far away from the relay meant out-system reinforcements could arrive in the Trebia system without having to worry about being instantly shot down.

The Example had been amongst the first ships to return to Nanus for repairs, giving the crew two days of rest while shipyard engineers managed to make miraculous repairs to the extensive damage to the ship. It was the only piece of good news that Ixius could walk away with from WHISKEY CORRIDOR, aside from the fact that they were all still alive, as it meant they were not in the long queue of ships waiting for the docks to empty up. The engineers and dockworkers in the shipyards orbiting Nanus worked on little sleep, because while ship crews had downtime between shifts and during repairs, damaged vessels kept docking in for the repair and resupply crews. Their docks were always full and with many more ships waiting in orbit for repairs and resupply, outpacing the rate of even the engineers’ miracles. They were constantly being shot at by skirmishing Reapers, made worse by the fact that they were unarmed stationary targets protected only by a defense of dreadnoughts and their escorts. Their food supplies rarely ever arrived on time due to supply ships being ambushed or diverted by the enemy. They had been spending nineteen hours out of every twenty in vacuum-sealed, hot, uncomfortable armor for weeks due to constant attacks that depressurized parts of the shipyards, depressurizing only to eat or relieve themselves. They were woefully undermanned because High Command gave greater priority for replacements to the warships, and the shipyards needed to have specialists that were not easily replaceable. Yet when the engineers gave the promise that the Example would be combat-worthy again in two days, Ixius knew they’d keep it.

But that was not enough to stop the chain of bad news that kept flowing in. Casualty reports were staggering. One of the downed Hierarchy ships had been a dreadnought. Nanus was beginning to see a supply shortfall as supply routes between Palaven, Menae, and Nanus were obstructed by Reaper forces. And, for the first time since the war started, Ixius was told she was on the waiting list for replacements for the crew she had lost. Previously, almost every ship that returned to dock after a sortie or operations had its casualties reoccupied by a line of waiting reservists almost immediately. That the navy was told it’d have to wait by High Command could only mean that the brass was losing faith in the navy’s attempts to assert aerospace superiority over Palaven, or that there was a manpower shortfall. Or, worse, both.

It was in light of all this that Ixius desperately hoped for good news when [the Example’s executive officer Commander Patrus] Castellus contacted her in the captain’s quarters while she was resting. Unfortunately, her prayers were not answers. “Captain,” her X.O. started bluntly, “I have bad news and even worse news.”

The bad news was confirmation that High Command had decided not to give the navy priority on replacements. As far as the deliberative bodies were concerned, the navy had made three costly attempts – the Fifteen-Minute Plan, Operation: IRON HAMMER, and Operation: WHISKEY CORRIDOR – with very little to show for it. It was unsurprising that High Command was now doubtful of the navy’s capacity to maintain orbital superiority for much longer, even if the entire war effort went towards replacing the navy’s losses. There was also General [Minin] Resvirix’s own lobbying to consider, his insistence that conventional warfare was useless against the Reapers, and that his own ground forces were necessary to hit the enemy where they least expected it. He might’ve been right, but that cost the navy resources.

What this effectively meant for Ixius and every other captain and admiral in the fleet, however, was that their losses would not be replaced for some time, that resources would not be diverted to another ambitious naval operation, and that the fleet would be doomed to limp around for days, making runs between Palaven, Menae, and Nanus. Far more frustrating, however, was the implication that the Hierarchy was having manpower shortages, if they were as far as to mention that the Example wasn’t getting immediate replacements. “Are reinforcements not making it?” Ixius asked, dreading the answer.

Castellus’ reply was so even, Ixius wasn’t sure if he was feeling sarcastic or genuinely dismayed. “They are. That’s the even worse news. They’re krogan.”

¹ Contrary to popular belief, warships are rarely destroyed in battle; vessels and their crew are highly valuable assets and difficult to replace, and therefore ship commanders are rarely ever encouraged to make sacrificial plays. FTL drives provide near-instantaneous retreats at will, and most ships will escape a battle when their shields approach danger levels. The majority of space battles in history were considered “decisive victories” not when the enemy fleet was destroyed, but when the enemy retreated from the defense of an unmovable target or area of operations. Losing twenty-eight ships in a single operation was considered to be a massive loss even when compared to the overall size of the Hierarchy navy, and was a symptom of Reaper magnetohydrodynamic weapons that defied traditional naval logic by being able to destroy even shielded dreadnoughts in one direct hit, giving ship commanders no safe window within which to make a FTL jump to a point beyond the weapon’s reach.

*****

Commander Serona Ravakian was anxious. She had been pulled out of deactivation – because honorable turians never truly “retire” from the military – to rejoin her old unit, the premier turian special operations unit Blackwatch, when the Battle of Palaven moved groundside. It had been weeks since she had last heard from her husband, who was trying to take care of their three underage children. Their last known location, [the city of] Seruvia, was one of the major flashpoints of the ground battle, with the turian resistance and Reaper forces waging full-out war in an urban environment. And more than half of her unit was already being moved off-world by orders of Primarch [Adrien] Victus to assist in other flashpoints in the galaxy, leaving Ravakian with only 2nd Platoon. The arrival of the krogan only compounded her mounting worries, and was not appreciated at all.

Ravakian was accounting for inventory with her unit in the hangar of the Example when the first shuttles carrying the commando reinforcements arrived. Turian activity came to a standstill when the occupants emptied out of their shuttle, dozens of krogan stomping down the corridors formed between the rows of shuttles and fighter craft on the carrier with instantly-recognizable krogan swagger. Eyes stared at the bizarre scene of the Tuchankan aliens onboard a Hierarchy military vessel, a combination truly made in hell. They had heard about turian involvement in bringing the krogan to the fight after the heroics on Tuchanka, of course, and warily accepted the fact that their historic enemies were now tentative allies. But to see any of them, never mind dozens, strutting across the hangar of a Hierarchy vessel in orbit over the turian homeworld was another thing altogether. They were shock troopers, massive, towering soldiers wearing heavy armor, carrying heavy shotguns, their belts clipped with grenades of all kinds. The cavalier and flippant way they carried themselves – the way they brandished their weapons with little regard for safety or all the expensive, sensitive, and potentially explosive components scattered all around the hangar – was utterly alien to the conservative, disciplined turians.

It would not be until hours later that Ravakian learned about it, but the reinforcements were from Clan Urdnot, known as Malgus Company, which would soon be joined in the following days by similar krogan commando outfits in the form of Arrae, Dranek, and Nith Companies. It was the hope of Primarch Victus and krogan leader Urdnot Wrex that Urdnot commandos – who were at least personally loyal to their relatively liberal clan leader, if not tolerant of alien races – would cooperate more fluidly with Hierarchy forces and thus pave the way for the less forgiving non-Urdnot commando units to integrate into a steady turian-krogan military framework. Ravakian, however, couldn’t see anything that could remotely be paired with the words “cooperate”, “fluidly”, “forgiving”, “integrate”, or “steady”. The engineers were smart enough to step out of the way, and her own Blackwatch operators were too professional to play games of hubris, but many of the soldiers and pilots were spectating not-so-casually as they looked the incoming krogan up and down, as if sizing them up for a fight, something their passing guests were all too eager to reciprocate.

Ravakian’s executive officer, Lieutenant Derlude Helsrang, was unrestrained in his frankness. “Great,” he muttered to his commander as the krogan marched by. “Now we’re all going to die before the Reapers kill us.”

It was not the first time Ravakian’s career involved krogan, regardless of whether it was with them or against them. Much of Blackwatch’s history, in fact, had revolved around deniable operations that involved krogan mercenaries in one way or another. She was familiar with what krogan commandos were capable of and respected their capabilities, but she didn’t hold them in awe. Ravakian accepted that the individual toughness displayed by krogan physiology granted them greater leeway in operational audacity that other races had to compensate via teamwork. Krogan commanders that had survived the ages also benefitted from their long lifespan, and had accumulated centuries of experiences from battles no one else other than the older asari have seen. But the arrogance, bloodlust, and overconfidence of the krogan, to say nothing of their complete lack of discipline save alpha male authority, bordered on the comically incompetent. Ravakian recalled a mission where, as a lieutenant at the time, Blackwatch hired krogan mercenaries to act as decoys, draw attention away by simulating mercenary gang warfare. The “simulation” ended up occurring several days in advance in the planning room, when a casual insult from one krogan ended up starting a free-for-all headbutting brawl between the four krogan mercenary leaders in a room with turian Blackwatch officers. Ravakian had tried to step in to stop the fight, but her commander stopped her, escorting the officers out of the room as the krogan “worked out their differences”. By the time the turians went back in after the sounds of crashing and krogan bellows had stopped, two of the mercenaries were dead, another unconscious, and the last slumped against the corner of the room, bleeding out. Needless to say, the turians didn’t get a krogan diversion for that operation.

As the leader of Malgus Company, Urdnot Nakmor’s attitude towards the turians was similar. He acknowledged that the krogan ought to learn a thing or two about turian discipline, given that even turian mercenaries generally tended to follow orders despite personal misgivings, a stark contrast to what Urdnot considered to be mewling and grumbling amongst many of the krogan rank-and-file. But like everyone else, the turians was small, soft, and fragile, at least when compared to a krogan. They were overly reliant on technological advantages, using it as a crutch, which dulled their instincts and capabilities in combat, something Urdnot considered unforgiveable. Take away their tech, and the turians were only so much meat. Where the krogan dared to try new strategies, the turians were staid and uncreative. News of three successive major failures on the navy’s part only reinforced the stereotypes in Urdnot’s mind, as did the sight of the turian wounded scattered across the ship. The Example’s medical bay was at full capacity, so further casualties had to be placed wherever there was room, or somehow tough it out.

The sight of so many limping turians was horrible for morale, and no ship would logically keep so many of them around while in active combat. But the Example’s problem was shared across almost every other ship and installation around Palaven space. The surface of the planet and the two moons were flooding with Reaper troops, and casualties could not be sent there. The space stations and orbital elevators around Palaven were filled to the brink with civilian evacuees; the Hierarchy had told them to get as far up into space as possible to expedite evacuations, but the turians soon found themselves with few ships to spare to get the civilians out of the Trebia system. The stations were also flooded with the military wounded, which was where High Command had relocated them in the first place; the same went for the bases on Menae and the shipyards of Nanus. There was an overwhelming amount of wounded amongst the Example’s crew, as well as the pilots on board, as well as the ground troop and Marines being ferried by the carrier, simply because there was nowhere else to put them.

But the krogan had not undergone that problem, they did not know the context, nor did they care for any other explanation than their own. As far as they were concerned, the turians were weak and battered and bruised, the krogan were being called upon to save the galaxy from their troubles again, and that gave them the supreme, uncontested right to gloat mightily. They were here for glory and because their clan leader said so, not out of any love for Palaven or the turians. The Marines wondered who came up with the idea of bringing krogan onboard the Example; the army might have appreciated krogan reinforcements more, but the navy had never asked for krogan assistance, felt they did not need them, and this attitude managed to seep down to even the lowly Marine NCOs and the navy technician. “We needed more ships and bigger mass accelerators,” Serviceman Second Class Lanus Vadim explained the prevalent thought amongst navy personnel at the time. “If we absolutely had to, we can bombard Palaven, purge it clean of Reaper ground forces, and rebuild. But until we destroyed Reaper ships, we weren’t going to be going anywhere, and the krogan sure as hell weren’t going to help us with that.”

Ravakian and Helsrang didn’t think that way, and they were pretty sure the Blackwatch 2nd Platoon agreed with them, that the navy was writing off the ground battle too quickly, and that having any extra assets was always a boon, regardless of whether or not it was what they wanted. What they were most concerned about, however, was unit cohesion. On the best of days, Ravakian would have to make sure a turian and a krogan didn’t kill each other if they were in the same room. Now, High Command was trying to tell them to play nice because the krogan were somehow essential to the overall war effort, something that might’ve been easier to stomach if Malgus Company hadn’t been so insufferable. They had a live grenade on their hands, and now Blackwatch could only hope it exploded while the turians weren’t the ones holding it.

The only thing that the turians were remotely thankful for in terms of the krogan arriving was that they had done so with a ridiculous amount of ordinance, especially in the form of special ammunition and grenades. The industrial bases that produced infantry weapons and supplies were largely on the surfaces of Palaven and Menae, neither of which was safe – even by turian standards – to approach solely for infantry supplies anymore, given that it didn’t look like the Marines were getting any action anytime soon. This meant what limited ordinance that wasn’t being given to groundside defenders on Menae were being allocated down a predetermined list of ships, and Ravakian had a feeling that board the Example was pretty far down that list. If Tuchanka lacked anything, however, it certainly wasn’t anything that killed people. Malgus Company had stacked their transports full of specialized ammunition and explosives, and Urdnot had the presence of mind to order his commandos to share the surplus.

Vice Admiral [Certisius] Lantiar boarded to make inspections. It was an unwelcome development because Ixius had to run the ship tighter than it already was in preparation for the vice admiral, and “tighter” was probably the last thing the crew of the Example needed, considering half of its passengers were now casualties, walking or actual. Ravakian hoped that the vice admiral would at least address the issue of the krogan, but Lantiar made a point of ignoring the krogan commandos, told the men to “keep it up”, promised to get them groundside soon, and left. As far as the commander felt, Lantiar was in the optimal position to try and get everyone on board the Example to work together, and he had squandered it.

Helsrang wasn’t so optimistic. “I doubt it would’ve changed a thing,” he said years later. “If anything, trying to talk about how the krogan were ‘one of us’ now probably would’ve stirred the men into simmering anger. No one forgot about his personal clusterfuck that was WHISKEY CORRIDOR, and no one was about to forgive him for it anytime soon.”

Still, it wasn’t all bad news. Ravakian reasoned that the krogan were here by personal entreaty of Victus, and if the primarch himself was now committing the krogan to Palaven, it meant there was going to be some kind of play soon, a chance to get real ground beneath her feet where she could take the fight to the enemy. In everyone’s opinion, it couldn’t come soon enough.

*****

When the primarch had promised Admiral Coronati a “special consultant” to help plan the upcoming offensive, tentatively codenamed Operation: SLENDER SCALPEL, Ixius personally hoped it wasn’t [Commander Garrus] Vakarian, a consideration made largely for Coronati’s sake. Although she wasn’t privy to the details, she understood that any consultant personally dispatched by the primarch would be given much leeway in the planning process, supposedly due to superior experience in a particular field of expertise, a leeway even the admiral couldn’t ignore or easily override. While turian officers were accustomed to shelving their personal reservations in the face of superior orders, Ixius knew that Coronati would not be pleased at having to stomach a Victus-backed Vakarian. The admiral made it no secret that he held the commander’s checkered past in contempt, bore no love for the man’s lack of command experience, and considered Vakarian’s sudden promotion to commander of an anti-Reaper task force to be made through dishonest backroom deals with the late Primarch [Velarius] Fedorian.

In consideration of this, Coronati had preemptively declared the Example the hosting ground of the strategy meeting instead the Defender, despite the fact that Victus had refused to specify who the consultant actually was. It was undoubtedly a snub in anticipation for an unwelcome choice for a special consultant, having the congregation take place on a subordinate’s vessel instead of the admiral’s own flagship. Ixius personally did not mind, but that meant the burden of increasing on-ship security was squarely on her. She did not doubt its necessity; until two weeks ago, turian-krogan relations were virtually nonexistent, and all the krogan on her ship were making everyone nervous.

When the special consultant finally arrived, however, Ixius realized that her worries would be magnified despite the fact that it was not Vakarian. She ended welcoming a turian she had never heard of, Demetrius Risithi, when he and his escort finally arrived on board the Example. A quick search for his profile, however, made Vakarian’s own record look pale: Risithi had been promoted to the rank of commander years ago before earning two demotions for unethical conduct on the battlefield, details classified. He spent the years afterwards working as a highly-ranked strategist for the Blue Suns mercenary group, working up a resume of equally dubious ethical standards. “To Coronati,” Ixius declared, “Risithi was little more than a criminal suddenly given official power. I was certain the admiral was going positively apoplectic in his quarters, raging that the primarch was manipulating him into accepting Vakarian as an alternative.”

Ixius did not know it, but Risithi’s assignment as special consultant was made largely out of political concerns. Although the genophage had been cured due to no small part of turian assistance, many of the krogan dispatched to Palaven had, until weeks ago, bore a vicious grudge against the turians for the Krogan Rebellions. The animosity was barely kept in check by the threat of the Reapers, but Victus had decided that the krogan forces dispatched to Palaven would trust High Command as far as they could throw them. Risithi was hoped to be a stepping stone, a Blue Suns officer who had working relations with the krogan of Blood Pack, which in turn had no shortage of krogan members returning to Tuchanka upon hearing of the genophage cure. If the turians’ new allies weren’t about to trust the Hierarchy, then the hope was that they would at least have a stable working relationship with Risithi, who had no problems working with Hierarchy forces.

Risithi’s influence in smoothing out wrinkles between the turians and the krogan was questionable. Malgus Company were no less scathing towards him than they were to any other turian, even though it seemed that they were at least more willing to discuss business with the special consultant, who in turn largely seemed unbothered by the commandos. The turians, in turn, acknowledged Risithi’s presence and new rank as part of the provisional brass, but there was an undertone of animosity towards a turian who had gone mercenary. “Risithi was treated better by the turians than they treated the krogan, and better by the krogan than they treated the turians,” Castellus, who made several trips through the decks to inspect conditions aboard the Example (despite knowing there was little he could do about it), acknowledged. “But I doubt it worked as well as whatever the primarch or High Command had in mind.”

But Ixius wasn’t remotely worried about Risithi; he was several steps above her paygrade, and – as far as she was concerned – Admiral Coronati’s problem. Her problem, more so than any other, was trying to maintain discipline on her ship. Maybe it might have been less of a problem had the krogan been introduced onto the Example several weeks earlier, but with much of her original crew now largely casualties, many of the men and women on the carrier – regardless of whether they were naval officers, servicemen, ground troops, or other soldiers relocated to the Example because the Hierarchy had nowhere else to put them – were barely men and women. The old, grizzled officers that remained were holding it together, but it didn’t change the fact that they were vastly outnumbered by young replacements barely out of Basic. The replacements were well-trained and qualified to whatever roles they were assigned, but they were also brash and impetuous. Between the threat of the collapse of galactic civilization and watching their planet burn below without any idea of the fate of their families, treating the krogan “with respect” was placed on a backburner. In fact, it was probably more accurate to say that some went out of their way looking for a fight to alleviate the mounting tension.

“Even in times like these, you couldn’t stop egos from flaring up,” [Service Chief Solana] Optimi remarked. There was a lot of sizing upon on both sides, turians and krogan in their little groups, quietly discussing what each group could do to the other, often separated by no more than a single hallway when these “discussions” took place.

It was inevitable that a fight would break out. It was considered nothing short of a miracle, in fact, that the Example had been fight-free for the first two days. But on the third day, a turian got into a fistfight with a krogan. Details of who threw the first punch were lost (or at least purposefully stricken from the record for the sake of public image), but results were predictable: The krogan outweighed the turian several times over, but the turian was nimbler, and the krogan wasn’t particularly mindful of who else he struck with his near-misses. A single fistfight had turned into a brawl, and it took Ixius sealing the bulkheads and beginning to vent the atmosphere on the deck before the belligerents considered the sudden lack of oxygen to be of greater priority than their bruised egos (and, presumably, before onboard Marine security opened fire). It threw Ixius into a very uncharacteristic rage, because as much as her dressing down of the turians who had been involved was “probably more worthy of an extranet video streaming upload than the time one drunk servicewoman got into a fistfight with Admiral Coronati” in Optimi’s opinion, the captain knew little would be changed at the end of the day simply due to the much more prominent pervading issues that had allowed this breakdown in discipline to occur in the first place, and Urdnot Nakmor seemed completely unenthusiastic in making any kind of reprimand or taking any kind of disciplinary measure against his own krogan.

Ixius did not have long to fume. A call to general quarters was made; Reaper capital ships were attempting to snipe at the fleet defending Nanus. The fleet was just outside the Reapers’ effective targeting range, but a task force still needed to be swiftly assembled to chase the sniping Reapers away. Every now and then, an enemy ship would get very lucky and actually hit something.

This time, a Reaper got very lucky. A shot from a magnetohydrodynamic weapon glanced across the Example. The shot didn’t physically connect with the ship, but it penetrated through the carrier’s kinetic shields instantly and nearly flash-melted a section of the hull. The heat was sufficient to instantly cook Second Lieutenant Kericlus Quril, Gunnery Chief Nis Oridani, Gunnery Chief Feran Argovian, and Engineer Iridin Nephitis to death. Operations Chief [Telana] Cyrion was critically injured by the subsequent chain explosion; she survived, but lost her left leg above the knee.

Cyrion’s incapacitation really shook up [Operations Chief Lonn] Syphiat. Cyrion was the only person left on the Example who had graduated with him in the same class at Basic, as everyone else they once knew was either KIA or MIA. Seeing her unconscious, bloodied, and missing a leg in the Example’s medical bay nearly broke him. Like almost every other Marine, Syphiat was on the edge, sitting on a ship he couldn’t get off, unable to take the fight to the enemy, just waiting for the next Reaper shot to gut them before the Example ever had a chance to fight back. This was a slow death, one by a thousand cuts, as attack after operation after skirmish slowly whittled away the crew. And stagnation was getting to them, with so many injured and medical supplies running low. Syphiat could barely take it anymore. Castellus gave him a mandatory three-day rest period in hopes he’d recover, despite knowing that Syphiat – like almost every other Marine – had been resting with little to do for weeks now. The executive officer could only hope that making it an official order would help psychologically.

Defending celestial bodies was possibly one of the most demoralizing aspects of naval warfare. Fleets needed to be arrayed to defend a planet or moon or large installation, and that meant any missed shots were likely to bombard the defended target behind them. It was a tried-and-true strategy that had been ruthlessly employed by the krogan against the turians during the Krogan Rebellions, and it was happening again more than fourteen centuries later with the Reapers replacing the krogan. The enemy took potshots against ships surrounding Nanus, knowing that even though their targeting systems did not go as far as the effective range of their weapons, the moon behind the turian fleet was sufficiently large for the Reapers to hit something. This was exuberated by the fact that Reaper targeting systems had a much greater effective range than turian ones, leaving the Hierarchy exceptionally frustrated by the sniping interlaced with skirmishes that attempted to cut off the expeditionary vessels targeting the sniping Reapers from the fleet defending Nanus and its shipyards. As Castellus described it, “I think it’s safe to say we swiftly became the most chronically depressed generation in the entire history of the Hierarchy Navy.”

*****

News of WHISKEY CORRIDOR’s failure sagged the morale of resistance groups groundside on Palaven. In [Draxen] Achtus’ opinion, it came at the worst possible time. An electronic communications blackout to conceal the positions of the resistance made it difficult to confirm anything, but the fact that a harvester ship landed a kilometer north the day before spoke ill of the situation. Not only did it mean more Reapers were managing to make it past the fleet, it also meant that the Reapers had deemed the population of [the city of] Khronus broken, if they were going as far as to implement a program of surrender. Without sending a runner or risking the Reapers locking into their communications signal, it was impossible to tell what was going on in the other parts of the city, and whether or not the turians there were really being rounded up.

Achtus desperately wanted to say that his cell would never break, but he knew it was dangerous to settle into that sense of false security, especially given how badly things were going groundside. It was becoming increasingly difficult to carry out operations with any real chance of survival or success. Turian resistance in Khronus, like almost all other turian resistance in cities across Palaven, was harsh, swift, and overpowering, able-bodied citizens spending as many of their waking hours hammering the enemy virtually non-stop with a near-inexhaustible supply of conventional ammunition. This made Palaven unique in that it was a homeworld that never “fell” to an actual attempted Reaper invasion; whereas the majority of Thessia and Earth’s defenses fell within hours of Reaper ships arriving in system, Reaper forces never managed to accomplish the same feat on Palaven, which resulted in the highest concentration of Reaper forces than anywhere else on the galaxy.

It was difficult to say that this did anything for morale on the side of the turian resistance, however. The amount of manpower and firepower the turian resistance was able to mount was absolutely staggering, achieving a level of resources and professionalism that could rival conventional armies. Fighting in Khronus and on Palaven in general was absolutely non-stop; ordinance going off had long become background noise. But the problem was that the Reapers had the capacity to match that firepower and manpower. The turian military and population in general had lived for centuries under the general conceit that the might of the Hierarchy was unstoppable. Victory was not a question of whether or not the Hierarchy could crush enemy resistance, but how much of the Hierarchy’s resources could safely be diverted to a conflict. Yet here was one of the most intensive, destructive, devastating urban campaigns ever, the Hierarchy fielding every possible resource to fight the Reapers. The military and the citizenry unleashed a concentration of firepower far greater than anything anyone had ever seen in their lifetimes. And the greatest claim they could make to that effort was that they were holding the Reapers at bay. It was far more than any other race could achieve, but it was a blow to the turian psyche and ego, the equivalent of an unrivaled heavyweight boxer who was throwing out the heaviest punches, who could land the harshest of blows on his opponent, only to watch the opponent shrug those punches off and match him strike-for-strike. This was hardly a phenomenon that was unique to the turians – any military force would be hard-pressed to say they were encouraged when their absolute best efforts could only achieve “parity” – but using the Hierarchy as a comparison underscored just how intense the entire defense of Palaven was.

This was why – in addition to no real claims of victory beyond questionably successful defenses against Reaper forces – Achtus found the failure of WHISKEY CORRIDOR to be highly distressing to morale groundside. It was in light of this that, despite himself, he found himself somewhat eagerly anticipating the arrival of [Hierarchy Defense Intelligence officer responsible for liaising with the Khronus resistance cell] Nillin, who somehow arrived unscathed at their base of operations. It wasn’t to say that they didn’t jump through the usual loops that had long colored their meetings since the war began. They would greet each other, Nillin would ask for intelligence on Reaper forces, Achtus would try to bargain for it, she would remind him about rank and dying for the cause, and he would voice his limited resources and how much he could actually spare for an HDI operation of which details were kept from him, of which Nillin refused to divulge more than she deemed necessary, which was very little.

The interaction between Achtus and Nillin was not uncommon amongst turian resistance cells scattered across Palaven. The civilian population was numerous, heavily-armed, and determined to make Reaper forces fight for every inch of Palaven, but they were aware that the outgunned resistance cells were only a stopgap measure until the military could spare reinforcements to fight battles groundside. Resistance leaders like Achtus had a love-hate relationship with military intelligence officers like Nillin. He saw her as a glimmer of hope, that High Command had not forgotten about the deactivated civilian population, and that Nillin’s presence meant at the very least that High Command believed the situation groundside could still be salvaged.

Still, the relationship was very one-sided; so far, the intelligence officer had consistently demanded for new intelligence on Reaper movements and force compositions, and asked for Achtus’ subordinates for her own operations or that of High Command, men and women he subsequently never saw again. Nillin offered nothing in return save vague promises that High Command was apprised of the developing situation groundside, and reinforcements would be sent the moment they were available. Like almost all turians in resistance cells across Palaven, Achtus had no reservations dying for the cause, but between Nillin refusing to give the resistance any information, and constantly taking valuable men, women, and resources from them, and there was the lingering frustration that High Command in general and the HDI in particular were treating them as disposable pawns and sacrificial tools.

This was not entirely fair to the HDI. Intelligence analysts in the Hierarchy were aware of Reaper indoctrination at the time, but they did not have solid facts and figures, only old reports that were difficult to corroborate with present reality so far. They did not yet understand how indoctrination worked, only that it worked as some kind of brainwashing process that slowly deteriorated higher thought functions. Like salarian intelligence, the HDI did not enjoy sharing only partial information that it could not confirm. This was doubly so for the civilian resistance on Palaven; agents like Nillin did not know if resistance leaders or their closest lieutenants were indoctrinated, and one stray detail making it back to the Reapers could foil weeks of planning. Wrong and exaggerated information could also cause a panic. But neither was she inclined to explain why she was so secretive and keeping information from resistance leaders like Achtus; it was just HDI operational philosophy, and the public just had to get used to it.

Nillin represented the new breed of HDI agents: Young, creative, adaptable, tech-savvy, and more than a little arrogant. They were a generation that allowed the Relay 314 Incident and the subsequent war with the Systems Alliance to make an impression on their youths, had the Vallum Blast as the most distinguished item in their dossier. They were a generation that chafed under what they considered to be bullheadedness, stubbornness, and military-mindedness of their superiors. If a humanity that had only discovered mass effect technology decades before could fight almost as well as the Hierarchy in the Relay 314 Incident, and if turian separatists could crash a ship traveling at FTL speeds into Taetrus with little trouble, then it was as good a sign as any that offensive technologies were far outstripping those of defensive ones, that keeping Palaven safe could no longer be measured by the number of dreadnoughts they had or the sophistication of their defense systems. They were a generation that believed in PERSINT (personnel intelligence), who believed in agents on the ground to eliminate threats before they developed, a generation of military intelligence officers compared more to salarians than turians. But the brass continued to pour the lion’s share of funding into the navy, and the turian intelligence community resented it, resented the lack of flexibility, resented the fact that no one else up the chain of command – the people who funded the HDI along with the rest of the Hierarchy’s military – “got it”. It accumulated in a generation of intelligent but elitist and perhaps a little insular turian military intelligence operatives who treated everyone else in the military with contempt, and did not care who else happened to be splashed by the acid of their flippant, secretive attitudes.

Nillin’s questions were fairly par of course, which Achtus’ eventually answered anyways for the greater good: Status of resistance cell, Reaper troop numbers and movements, an estimate of how much longer they could hold on, an appraisal of the situation overall. Achtus personally wondered how much of this information was even remotely useful anymore, as it didn’t seem like the Hierarchy was willing – or even could – dispatch the military groundside to take advantage of the intelligence he was giving Nillin.

But then Nillin’s questions became a little more specific. She asked if the Khronus resistance could still smuggle people and material in and out of Reaper prison camps; Achtus indicated that it was becoming increasingly difficult, but still possible. Then came the question of whether resistance members could get into Reaper capital ships and harvester ships. Achtus had seen no shortage of turians – some who had been rounded up by numerically superior forces, others whose willpower had been broken by Palaven falling apart around them, and leaders who tried to save their own subordinates or tried to find some avenue of negotiations – being allowed onto Reaper vessels with doors practically thrown wide open, but it would almost certainly be a one-way trip.

Then Nillin asked if it was possible to smuggle in military ordinance into the Reapers, and declined to specify precisely what that military ordinance was. That caught Achtus’ attention.

The Reapers that had been accepting surrenders and negotiations had largely allowed the turians to bring a degree of personal belongings. This was not an example of the Reapers being merciful, nor were they indicative of plans to maintain long-lasting prison camps. Rather, by permitting captives to hold onto their belongings, which the Reapers themselves didn’t need, the conquerors cultivated a false sense of survivability, the captives believing that the Reapers had no intentions of just killing them if they were allowing for personal items such as food and clothing to be brought with them. Achtus was fairly certain that he could smuggle items into the camps by sneaking in, or through resistance members pretending to surrender if it came to that. Bringing in military ordinance, however, sounded like a massive hurdle, and Achtus told Nillin as much. She told him to try and experiment with this anyways, and assume it was going to be the next operational goal before departing, leaving Achtus a little stunned.

“What was that all about?” [Khronus resistance cell lieutenant Derithi] Gianthis asked as he watched Nillin leave their hideout.

Achtus’ reply was succinct. “I think HDI wants to blow up a Reaper from the inside.”

*****
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Old 2012-12-30, 11:45   Link #2
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*****

New orders came down from the turian brass: The krogan were assigned military ranks despite not being a formal military force, and all turian officers and enlisted were to treat them as allied officers, saluting superior krogan officers and addressing them as “sir”. This order had been difficult to formulate at first because the krogan had been unenthusiastic in adopting traditional military ranks. Urdnot Nakmor had reputedly begrudgingly accepted the very turian idea out of amusement; assigning all of his commandos new ranks that did not exist before sounded like a hassle to him, given a streamlined krogan chain of command that would seem abridged to almost any other armed force, but he humored the idea of turian soldiers and officers saluting him.

The move had been made in order to consolidate a semblance of authority that the turians were expected to recognize. It was also the kind of move that the brass tended to make without input from the enlisted, and became a highly unpopular order for the turians, with no small amount of anger when it was swiftly discovered that the krogan received no similar set of orders. Refusal or liberal interpretations of these regulations were commonplace. Officers, unenthusiastic in enforcing the mandate but pressured by the brass, cracked down and punished offenders, who went from ignoring the krogan to giving highly sarcastic salutes to pretending not to see krogan officers to avoiding them altogether.

The krogan, on their part, milked it for all it was worth. Their officers freely “took walks” down the Example whenever possible, deliberately wading through the denser areas and badgering the turians who ignored them or didn’t disappear quickly enough for salutes and addresses of “sir”. Corporal [Loriq] Ordinix described one instance where he was rotated for guard duty on the Example’s bridge, “And this krogan major stepped through the door. I was surrounded by bridge officers who probably bore no more love for the krogan than I did, but I didn’t want to risk one of them being a stickler for the rules, so I saluted dutifully. The krogan walked down half the CIC, stopped, suddenly turned around, then walked out the way he came, and I saluted again. I thought maybe he was lost, or maybe he had forgotten something, but ten seconds later, he stepped back in, and when I didn’t salute, he stopped right in front of me and glared at me expectantly with the widest shit-eating grin I’ve ever seen. Not wanting to make a scene, I saluted again. That bastard made three more trips in and out of the bridge within a minute, making sure I saluted each time, until he finally left me alone. Which worked out for everyone involved, I guess, because, on the sixth time, I swore I was going to punch him in the face if he tried for seven.”

Turian-krogan tensions didn’t stop there. It was always a given that, without the timely application of extreme measures, someone was eventually going to get killed between the turians and krogan at each other’s throats. While neither race were strangers to extreme measures, the turians didn’t have the time or resources, and the krogan didn’t have the motivation. Who or what instigated the fight has long become a matter of he-said-she-said, but the end result was the same: Corporal Viridia Murtinix was killed when one of the Malgus commandos got into a fight on the engineering deck.

Murtinix’s death set off a firestorm of rage on the Example. The turian enlisted wanted the krogan offender’s head on a platter, but Urdnot refused to get involved in a “children’s squabble”, Ixius could not intervene without authority from Coronati, Coronati could not intervene without consulting Victus, and Victus could not intervene without endangering the turian-krogan alliance. The turians were simply ordered to follow protocol, that this was an unprecedented diplomatic, military, and political situation, and that everyone was just going to have to bear with it until then. “It was my first time serving when I felt a Hierarchy crew actually came close to mutiny,” Castellus recalled. “The crew usually felt Captain Ixius was an excellent commanding officer, but after Murtinix, there was prevalent sentiment that she and the rest of the navy brass were incompetent and impotent.”

Casualties were mounting. The amount of wounded had long outstripped the capacity by which the doctors and medics aboard the Example could take care of, and now there was an insufficient amount of even the most basic of medical supplies: Medi-gel, anti-biotics. Many of the wounded who had suffered from easily-treatable wounds were withering away due to the lack of treatment and infections that were beginning to spread around the ship. There were calls to quarantine the wounded, but the reality was that there was nowhere they could put the casualties. [Lieutenant Tarquin] Siritii described what it was like: “You could not get from point A to point B without tripping over at least three guys sprawled against the walls, some of them your own guys, others High Command told you to take on because there was no space left on our orbital facilities where everyone was now crowded. You watched them cough and cough as their wounds got worse, as the infections spread, as they got sicker and withered away and died. And all this time, you’re wondering if you should put on your helmet so you don’t catch whatever it is passing around as well, or if that’d hurt the morale of those already in pain.”

Amongst the Example’s many tasks was funeral duty. Each ship looked after their own casualties, and the war was producing them in droves. Glancing hits from Reaper weapons were generally catastrophic, but if anyone could gain any questionable sense of comfort from this, it was that most victims of hull breaches would be spaced or flash-incinerated, allowing the crew to designate the crewmember as MIA rather than KIA. It was only a formality, of course; everyone knew the chances of survival were slim-to-none, especially since [combat search and rescue] was virtually nonexistent at this point. Very few turians held onto the false hope that MIA crewmembers had any chance of survival. But as Siritii observed, “There were few things as heart-wrenchingly final as a funeral service with sealed caskets shot out into the great beyond.”

The Example had no chaplain, and had been largely reliant on the few volunteers shuttling around Nanus’ shipyards for funeral services. These men worked tirelessly to see that the deceased were laid to their final rest, but even forgoing rest themselves was insufficient for their dwindling number to make it to every ship on time. Captain Ixius had submitted a priority request for a chaplain upon the final hours of the Example’s repairs, and – when it was clear that the chaplain could not make it before the Example had to vacate the docks to make way for other ships – had privately begged the shipyard crew to drag out repairs for just an hour so a chaplain might make it. But there were simply too many damaged, limping ships outside waiting for repairs and resupply, and the repair crew couldn’t in good conscience acquiesce to Ixius’ request.

Castellus stepped up when the Example pulled out of Nanus’ orbit, and surprised the crew by revealing he had religious training, volunteering to lead the military funeral in the absence of an actual chaplain. This was actually only true if one liberally interpreted his tertiary education certification in Pre-FTL Palaven Religious Studies as “religious training”, but Castellus saw no compelling reason as to why he had to clarify this to the crew.

Nonessential personnel gathered at the hangar where the men were assembled rank-and-file before the procession of metal caskets. Among them was Optimi, who had been roused from her sleep for the funeral service. Perhaps it was the fatigue, but she couldn’t feel particularly partial towards the service. In fact, Optimi felt that a lot of the emotional impact that had been part of losing comrades and having some closure to it had long been lost. “It was the fifth week since the Reapers arrived at Palaven,” Optimi said, “and already we had somewhere just under two dozen funeral services because there was the pervasive fear that if we couldn’t honor the dead now, we wouldn’t be able to honor them ever.” Watching her friends and comrades die had become so routine now that she had gotten used to it, although whether it was just futility getting to her or some kind of defensive mechanism that protected her from the emotional pain, Optimi did not know. “This kind of nonstop war absolutely burns the care out of you,” she declared.

Despite this, Optimi was impressed with Castellus’ eulogy: “The stone upon which we built our temple, the ash to which our comrades and our fathers and our forefathers have been reduced; it is they who watch with eyes unrelenting. Those who come after us may forget this day, but those who came before stand vigilant even after life, joined by the spirits of those who departed before us. To those who were born kings and those who were born paupers, we march to the same end, answer to the same destiny, stand before the same question asked of us when we join expectant brothers- and sisters-in-arms: Did we, in our final moments, stand as valorously as they did, worthy to stand beside the spirit of Palaven itself? Did we, in our final moments, ensure that their greatest sacrifices were not in vain?”

The list of names of the deceased was read, small looks of pain and loss crossing the faces of the assembled whenever someone from their unit was mentioned. “We’re used to thinking about a dinner table with a forever empty seat whenever we lose one of our own,” Optimi observed, “but this time around, it was getting difficult to imagine anyone ever coming back to that dinner table. Or if the table would even still be there.”

*****

The plan proposed for Operation: SLENDER SCALPEL was audacious, complicated, and daring. This was probably why Coronati rebuked it on principle, along with many other principles that revolved around Risithi proposing the operation plan to the strategy meeting.

Coronati’s displeasure was not entirely unsympathetic, putting aside his prejudice towards Risithi. His taste for audacious, complicated, and daring plans had long since soured after three unsuccessful instances of such conducted by the navy, the Fifteen-Minute Plan, IRON HAMMER, and WHISKEY CORRIDOR. Insofar as he could tell, High Command was taking away resources that could’ve gone to the navy, and giving them to the army so that they could replicate a recipe for failure with fewer resources.

The basic outline of the strategy was a simultaneous, planetwide ground assault led by turian military forces, a diversion that would allow krogan commandos to stay clear of Reaper attention and pass of warp bombs to resistance cells across Palaven. These bombs would then be smuggled into Reaper capital ships, and be detonated simultaneously, allowing for turian military forces – which would be acting as a diversion until that moment – to be reinforced by krogan commandos and retake swathes of territory on Palaven that no longer had ship support. This entire ground campaign would be supported by turian fleet action, not only limited to deploying turian troops back onto Palaven from the atmosphere, but also keeping orbital Reaper ships occupied, preventing them from turning their attention to the key objectives groundside.

Despite his reservations, Coronati could agree on Risithi on several strategic points. First, the navy was not going to contest the Reapers fleet in a fair fight, not with the situation as it stood at the moment. In almost every orbital engagement, the turians had been outmaneuvered and outgunned despite outnumbering the enemy, made especially evident with WHISKEY CORRIDOR when they tried to isolate individual Reaper vessels. Risithi’s suggestion was that they would have to settle for individual results that would fall short of what the navy could accomplish, but with proportionately less costs; the accumulation of these operations would hopefully make a dent in the Reaper war effort all while keeping losses relatively low. And although it wasn’t precisely Coronati’s preferred priority target, he could also understand why Risithi designated groundside Palaven to be the most important theater of battle at the time of planning. The admiral considered Menae and Nanus to be of greater logistical importance in terms of war materiel, but acknowledged that an operation on Palaven would slow the harvesting of turians on the planet, thereby freeing up reinforcements that could be relocated to more important theaters of war.

What Coronati heatedly objected to, however, was the fact that Risithi’s strategy was a complicated multi-phase, simultaneous, clandestine operation planetwide that would involve the navy, the army, the resistance, and the krogan. The Hierarchy’s record at black operations wasn’t as stellar as that of the Salarian Union, but it wasn’t nonexistent or pitiful; nevertheless, the turians historically did not have much experience in planetwide special operations simply because they historically never had enough special operations outfits available at any one time in any one place to carry it out. The only instance that even came close to resembling an operation on this scale in recent history was the insurgency on Taetrus, which was less ambitious than what Risithi was proposing by several orders of magnitude. It was hoped that the slack would be picked up by the turian resistance and krogan commandos, which Coronati found to be offensively unrealistic, given that the resistance was generally considered to largely be a stopgap measure to stall the Reapers until the army could dispatch troops to liberate Palaven region-by-region, and krogan commandos were traditionally considered to be as discreet as the vorcha were traditionally considered to be intelligent.

Putting them altogether in a single planetwide plan without prior experience or training between the groups involved was outrageously foolish, argued Coronati. He went as far as to threatening to withdraw the support of the fleet altogether, which would’ve necessitated the potentially embarrassing intervention directly from High Command, if not Victus himself. But Resvirix supported the strategy if only because it gave him the bulk of available Hierarchy resources, [Director of Hierarchy Defense Intelligence] Vice Admiral [Ptolemus] Cerivix agreed if only because he felt sidelined by the navy not using the HDI to maximum potential, and Urdnot was just as happy dedicating krogan troops groundside on Palaven as he was having his commandos return to Tuchanka. Captain Ixius was a traditional ally, but she was at the meeting largely because it took place on her ship, which afforded her room to speak that nevertheless would be drowned out by all the rank everyone else pulled. That left Coronati alone in his dissent, and while the plan’s supporters eventually agreed on a compromise with the admiral, it was clear to everyone that the essence of SLENDER SCALPEL would move forward.

Furthermore, Coronati was furious at what he considered to be political maneuvering behind his back. If Cerivix and Resvirix’s easy approval of Risithi’s strategy had not been enough of an indicator, the fact that the vice admiral hinted he already had HDI assets in place and that the general had already been organizing ground forces in orbit was telling. The army and the HDI, Coronati reasoned, had been keeping information from him since even before WHISKEY CORRIDOR, and he believed (not entirely incorrectly) that Cerivix and Resvirix had signed off on Risithi’s strategy long before the special consultant had arrived on the Example. The strategy meeting, therefore, was a farce, and only being held because they needed to sell the idea collectively to Coronati and get his navy.

Risithi’s strategy for SLENDER SCALPEL may have been the most practical given the circumstances, but it was unable to skirt several serious shortcomings when it came to keeping in step with reality. The first was that they had no system of delivery. It was clear that any bomb had to be delivered by ground personnel, which the strategy meeting concurred would be best achieved through the turian resistance. That being said, although Cerivix indicated that the situation was “developing in a positive direction”, it still meant the rest of the strategy was being concocted while the key component remained an uncertainty, to say nothing of HDI’s reluctance to admit strains between their liaisons and resistance cells groundside. The second was that they did not have enough transports to ferry a minimum amount of troops groundside. With virtually all offensive ground operations stalled, shuttles and other forms of trans-atmospheric transportation had long been repurposed for logistical operations and ferrying supplies. SLENDER SCALPEL, despite being an operation given the highest of priorities, could only take so many before the entire turian fleet came to a standstill due to lack of supplies. Similarly, VI simulations of multiple runs using what transports they were promised to ferry the amount of troops needed to carry out the operation did not show optimistic results, as many of the shuttles would already be shot down in the first run.

Risithi proposed a daring alternative to the second problem: Gliders. The Blue Suns had been using them for some time for operations requiring a certain degree of stealth in atmospheric infiltrations, where traditional flight with no exothermic engines would defy electronic and thermal scanners. They were launched from cruisers and dropped into the atmosphere in pods, where they would eventually deploy into lightweight, individual gliders. The Blue Suns had adopted them out of necessity due to their unconventional tactical doctrine, but the Hierarchy had not used them for several centuries. This necessitated several specialists from the former having to coach officers from the latter, an arrangement that was not particularly well-received. Hierarchy soldiers were not particularly amused at taking instructions from mercenaries and entering the atmosphere in what was essentially an unshielded single-man pod with wings inside. The motto that planners tried to circulate amongst the enlisted – “our fathers flew into battle with these centuries ago” – comforted no one.

By the time it became necessary for High Command to evaluate SLENDER SCALPEL and the progress made on it, Ixius – a not-so-casual observor of the holo-conference held with High Command – was almost certain that there was no way the turian brass would sign off on the operation, even if it was backed by an admiral, a vice admiral, and a general. Somewhere along the lines, she had hoped that Risithi, the main architect of the plan and therefore the person responsible for explaining the gist of it to High Command, had become a bit more subtle and diplomatic than the average turian after spending so much time away from the Hierarchy. She found herself distressingly disappointed when Risithi ended up being as blunt as any other turian in his explanation: Drop troops across Reaper-controlled territories planetwide in gliders that have not been used conventionally in centuries, have them cover krogan commandos arriving in shuttles so they can infiltrate into said territories and hand off explosive munitions to the turian resistance, and have the turian resistance smuggle said munitions into individual Reaper ships on the ground despite the fact that HDI still had no idea if the resistance was actually capable of such.

In her book Soldiers of the Cause, war historian Stephanie Richie provided what was possibly the most accurate sentiment in Ixius’ mind by the time the holo-conference was over: “Only a military executive body that had been humiliated for weeks; that had tried every conventional, orthodox, and reasonable method available to them; that discovered the very existence of their civilization on the brink of collapse; that had found itself in the final straits of desperation; would pay any heed to an outlandish, costly, and questionable strategy being offered by a mercenary with no experience in planet-scale, joint-services operations.”

*****

With the HDI having set up resistance cells at key battlegrounds worldwide for SLENDER SCALPEL, Achtus found himself saddled with new tasks and new responsibilities. Among these responsibilities was the collection of intelligence on Reaper forces across as much of Khronus as possible. This included troop capabilities and movements, Reaper ship activity, population displacement. Everything that could be recorded and analyzed, the resistance collected. This was easier said than done, as the majority of the resistance were fighting Reaper forces nearly nonstop to prevent the enemy from gaining ground, to ensure that these reconnaissance missions were possible.

And as if Achtus needed any more pressure, Khronus was the capital of Carratine District, and it fell upon the local resistance cell to collect intelligence from neighboring cities in Carratine before passing it along to Nillin. In the event personally handing off intelligence was not possible, a communications antenna nine kilometers south of their headquarters was the fallback option. The Reapers had not destroyed the antenna, as the position had been deemed indefensible by the Hierarchy and abandoned before the Reapers could turn their attention to it. Achtus had ordered the resistance to steer clear of the area to prevent the enemy from taking notice of the dormant antenna in case the backup option was ever needed.

Given [Miridi] Kylonis’ background, Achtus tasked her for leading the project of finding a way to smuggle materials – and, if possible, agents – into Reaper camps. She had been serving time for smuggling weapons in-and-out of Hierarchy space for years, so Achtus figured it was time to put those skills to use.

Getting into the camps was ridiculously simple, as one simply had to surrender. The question, however, was how to get in with the materials desired, and how to get out. Long-term observation of the camps had kept the resistance informed of several aspects of the plan. Like many campaigns of perpetual genocide in the history of the galaxy, the Reapers permitted their prisoners to retain some of their belongings, a form of false reassurance that they might survive the ordeal, a psychological setup that would make their prisoners less likely to rebel instead of fight for their lives. Omni-tools, radios, and communications devices, however, were confiscated and destroyed to ensure no one transmitted images or videos of conditions inside the camp. Some weapons, the resistance had observed, had actually been permitted, presumably under the assumption that those who retained them would not be actually capable of doing much damage to the occupying forces anyways. This theory fit well with the fact that the Reapers considered their soldiers to be disposable, and that a self-regulating “guard unit” could enforce the peace and snoop on fellow prisoners far more easily than their own Marauders, especially with the aid of indoctrination.

Assuming that they were going to smuggle bombs into the Reaper camps, however, Kylonis would have to find a way to get explosive materials into enemy-controlled territories. This meant, at the very least, they were going to have to test how strictly the Reapers enforced security measures over belongings brought into the camps. The plan was divided into three parts. Team One would focus on creating an exfiltration path out of the camp while Team Two would focus on finding a way to infiltrate the camp without being discovered. Meanwhile Team Three would test how well the Reapers screened the belongings of surrendering individuals. Kylonis had determined that the best way to smuggle a bomb in would be to do so in inconspicuous components, which would then be assembled on-site. Therefore, before proceeding with the bombing campaign, they would first need to figure out what materials they could safely get into the camps by surrendering. To do so, Kylonis waited for Team One to complete their task before having Team Three “surrender” at random intervals, each of them carrying random objects that resembled the inconspicuous components common bombs could be broken down to. Once Team Three completed their tasks, they would then rendezvous with Team Two inside the camp, and escape the camp through the route Team One had prepared in advance. If Team Three remained within the camp for more than six hours, then they would be considered contaminated by indoctrination and lost.

Kylonis’ project turned out fairly interesting results, particularly on the part of Team Three. Some of it was fairly obvious, with automatic and high-power weapons being confiscated and destroyed, leaving most turians who bothered to bring weapons with them light, outdated handguns. Intact explosives were out, as grenades and charges were taken away. Several knives were permitted, although monomolecular swords were predictably out. It was the mundane items that gave the resistance some humor, however. Betting pools had been organized beforehand for most ridiculous item confiscated and not-confiscated. [Xiphis] Portillis won the “confiscated” betting pool with a bottle of spine treatment gel for male turians. “The Reapers have this thing against being pretty, I guess,” he theorized. “No wonder the Marauders are so bloody ugly.”

Portillis’ lighthearted comments and the organized betting was a stark contrast to the survivability rate of those who volunteered or were selected for Team Three. Operational security was paramount, and that infiltration/exfiltration routes remained intact was deemed much more important than the survivability of resistance members. It was the kind of ruthless calculation made possible by hardened turians backed into a corner; even if the intel didn’t make it back, having their infiltration/exfiltration routes intact meant the resistance could try again at a later date. Team Three kept their incursions manageable, but not many were able to make it out. Some were kept under watch and could not make the six-hour time window. Others were harvested before then. Survival rates amongst Team Three were as low as forty percent.

Reconnaissance teams did not fare much better in survivability despite being ostensibly less dangerous. On a squad-based level, enemy tactics were ruthlessly efficient but highly predictable, with virtually no variation or creativity amongst individual soldiers. On a strategic level, however, the Reapers were highly able strategists, and fluidly assigned, committed, and diverted their own assets with effortless efficiency. Between instantaneous communications between individual Reapers, their unparalleled processing capabilities, and their completely obedient soldiers, they could afford to change plans every second with little hindering them other than material concerns. The implementation of their strategies was limited only by their imagination, and Reapers were very imaginative. This necessitated near-constant surveillance on their activities, and near-instantaneous analysis of these strategies to keep up with the Reapers. This also meant that recon teams were often being outmaneuvered by their enemies. Most recon patrols venturing outside resistance-controlled territories didn’t make it back.

[Yreen] Ekyriat and [Inthira] Smirian were pulled for scouting duty. For a scouting assignment, they had a fairly quiet sector by Palaven standards. North was close to Roshea County, where another cell was last reported to still have things under control. They had barely got there, however, when thunderous explosions caused them to dive for cover. In truth, the explosions were a full two kilometers away, but they had been so large that they seemed anything but far. The two watched in awe as several high-rises began to disappear from the horizon in the direction of Roshea. Smirian remembered that the resistance there had supposedly wired explosives onto several of their buildings as booby-traps against Reaper forces. She had expected it to be something along the lines of mining several different floors, not collapsing high-rises onto the streets. In spite of the destruction Palaven had suffered under the Reapers, watching those towers sink into the cityscape impressed her.

When the rumbling finally stopped, there was an eerie atmosphere of quiet, or at least a level of quiet that had not been heard by the Khronus resistance since the Reapers first landed on Palaven. Smirian speculated upon the possibility that the Roshea resistance cell had successfully ambushed Reaper forces in the area, and suggested they find another vantage point to confirm this. Ekyriat wasn’t entirely keen on the idea nor optimistic about their chances, but agreed it could be something to report back to base, linking up new lines of communications and logistics with their comrades up north. They began making their way across Palaven’s abandoned cityscape.

A Marauder spotted them from across the street and swiftly directed the fire of several Ravagers at them. Searing energy bolts chased after them, pelting their surroundings as Ekyriat and Smirian made a full retreat indoors towards the ruins of an office floor “with all the enthusiasm of two schoolgirls”. The world exploded around them as what seemed like dozens of Ravagers concentrated their barrage at them, firing in distinctive salvos that shattered the cover they sprinted through into thousands of pieces of shrapnel. The two turians somehow managed to reach the other side of the building and jumped out through the window, landing clumsily on two stories below where they were safe from enemy fire, courtesy a building between them and the Ravagers. They ducked and covered until the sounds of incoming fire faded out. Somehow, save for a few scratches, they were entirely unharmed. The two looked at each other and grinned.

Their misadventure caused enemy reinforcements to start patrolling the area with greater vigilance, but a combination of caution and alacrity allowed them to avoid those patrols before they could be sent. They finally arrived at a high street overlooking the rubble of what had formerly been several high-rises, once majestic buildings having toppled into the chasms of Roshea’s lower streets. The quiet was eerie; Ekyriat and Smirian crawled their way through to avoid detection while the former reconnoitered the streets below with her scope. If the two scouts had any expectations of a resistance victory in Roshea, however, they were bitterly and chillingly disappointed. Marauder hunt-and-kill teams were in the streets, patrolling the surviving walkways as they moved amongst the bodies of dead turians strewn across the area. Every now and then, the Marauders would come across a resistance fighter desperately clinging onto life, a situation the Marauders would swiftly remedy with a burst from their Phaeston assault rifles. And that was if the Cannibals didn’t get to them first; Ekyriat decided against giving Smirian her scope.

Wordlessly, Ekyriat and Smirian snuck back to base. The Reapers held firmly onto Roshea.

*****

General Resvirix brought in the 43rd Marine Division for the operation before they were shipped off to standby status in preparations to liberate Earth. This was, in almost everyone’s opinion, one of the best decisions made by the brass since the conception of SLENDER SCALPEL. The 43rd was famed for interracial relations with the armed forces of other Citadel races, holding frequent joint-exercises with their allies. Their officers all had some level of diplomatic training, and their NCOs were considered to be much more patient and tolerant of non-turian combatants. Their arrival couldn’t have happened sooner; the 43rd came onboard the Example, as well as accompanying carriers Eternal, Resolute, and Whirlwind, just days before the other krogan commandos of Arrae, Dranek, and Nith Companies arrived. Many amongst the newly arrived krogan were, if possible, even less fond of the turians than those of Malgus Company. Even the 43rd was pushed to the limits of their patience. “And if the 43rd was tempted to call it quits,” Optimi said, “I probably would’ve shot the krogan bastards long ago.” Thankfully, the new companies did not arrive onto the Example.

The 43rd arriving was, to the enlisted, a spot of good news in what was considered a stream of bad news. In accordance to preparation for SLENDER SCALPEL, on-ship fabricators had been producing as many gliders as possible, but it wasn’t enough to accommodate the amount of turian troops projected to participate in the operation, all of them without any experience with gliders. The Hierarchy managed to give them Zerrion District, still completely under Hierarchy control, as a mock landing zone for practice, but said practice was also limited by the highly limited amount of shuttles available to ferry landed troops back onto the Example. Most turians only had a single chance; few had two. The single organized mass exercise ended in a disaster. Forty percent suffered some form of injury due to improper landing, sixty percent landed over five kilometers off-target, and half of those who landed off-target found themselves beyond the confines of Zerrion District, ending up instead in territories where the Hierarchy were contesting the Reapers. The only consolation the turians could derive from this was that, by tradition, a terrible dress rehearsal led to a great opening night.

News that the volus were now actively part of ground troops and special forces came in. Whoever had leaked the news probably intended it to have it raise morale at best, or to give everyone else a good laugh at worst. Instead, it served mostly to depress almost everyone on the Example. “It’s all gotten bad enough where we have to count on the volus for ground troops?” Ordinix moaned. “Forget it, we don’t have a salarian’s chance on Tuchanka of winning this war.”

Another fight between tense turians and krogans created the most serious harm to a belligerent since Murtinix. As the Example practiced aerobraking against Palaven’s atmosphere in preparation for doing the exact same thing in SLENDER SCALPEL, a krogan gunnery chief tore off one of [Corporal Carrodi] Scradius’ mandibles in a heated fight in the Example’s hangar. Adrenaline numbed the pain, and Scradius was still trying to get at the jeering krogan and his comrades, nearby turians restraining Scradius more out of concern for the fact that he was bleeding profusely out of his face than any reluctance to watch the corporal tear the krogan apart. Ravakian and Helsrang were tense, their discipline intact but watching as red began to surface amongst the turians nearby. An escalation was all it needed for the situation to go from bad to worse, and for someone else to be killed.

Scradius wasn’t a green replacement, but he had just about had it with the war in general and the krogan in particular. The stress was making discipline almost impossible to enforce, and breakdowns were becoming increasingly frequent. This was especially evident where communications were concerned. Despite the fact that blackouts were becoming increasingly common, whether it was to free up bandwidth for military transmissions or because the Reapers were systematically destroying communications infrastructure, officers and soldiers began to underperform as they took time and energy to hoard communicators and computers, attempting to contact or at least ascertain the fates of their loved ones, with tech officers rarely reporting the offenders, assuming they weren’t also complicit in unlocking the communications channels to begin with. With the threat of instant death via Reapers hanging over everyone’s heads, there was no penalty or punishment the officers could implement that would dissuade the turians from skirting communications regulations. ² “It’s easy to get a turian to die for the cause,” noted Optimi, “but it’s harder for her to get family and friends to do it.”

Back in the hangar bay, Scradius was still missing a mandible and still trying to tear the throat out of the offending krogan. Urdnot happened to be going amongst the commandos, and appeared in the midst of things, calmly demanding an explanation. Helsrang doubted that the commando leader heard anything intelligible in what amounted to a shouting contest amongst every turian and krogan in range, but the sight of furious turians, jeering krogan, Scradius missing a mandible, and the missing mandible in the hand of one of the Malgus commandos explained everything Urdnot needed to know. Urdnot ordered the commando to chip off a piece of the plate on the commando’s head as compensation. The latter talked back, emboldened by his supporting comrades. Urdnot stressed that this was not negotiable. The commando chose to crush the mandible under his foot.

“What happened next was the most fantastic headbutt I have ever seen from a krogan,” Helsrang recalled the moment. “The sound was so loud and so sharp, everyone around suddenly took a step back in shock, and I was almost certain one, if not both, of the krogan had cracked their head plates.” The offending commando was instantly on the ground, where Urdnot punched him again, stunning him, before cracking a piece off the commando’s head plate and tossing it before Scradius’ feet, who barely had the presence of mind to pick it up.

The Malgus leader then proceeded to drag his victim across the hangar even as his surroundings went deathly quiet, everyone realizing that something was happening but unable to make reasonable sense out of it. Still stunned and in a daze, the commando sporadically tried to struggle, but Urdnot simply smashed the man’s face in every time that happened, reducing his reptilian features to a bloody splash. Finally, having made his way across half the hangar bay, Urdnot tossed the offender into a lower maintanence airlock, and wordlessly spaced him.

“I suspect that Urdnot Nakmor had problems with the asshole long before,” speculated Helsrang years later, “and was using him as an example to definitively demonstrate what happens to people who try to countermand his authority, and maybe to people who try to disrupt the fragile cooperation we had.” Regardless, he found himself impressed by how Urdnot dealt with insubordination.

Urdnot wasn’t done. Moving to a nearby console and shoving aside the turian who had been manning the controls, the commando leader zoomed in one of the Example’s cameras at the spaced krogan, had the VI track the man-turned-atmospheric-projectile, and put the video feed on one of the hangar's large overhead displays. Turians and krogan alike watched in silence as the victim, clearly still alive and flailing, began to enter Palaven’s atmosphere, turning into a shooting star as the air began to ignite around him and immolate him. Krogan were naturally tougher than most other races, but atmospheric reentry was a fairly heated affair. Had his suit been properly sealed, there might have been a miniscule chance the krogan commando could survive the intense friction against Palaven’s atmosphere, but this was not the case. His kinetic barriers visibly shorted out in a flash, followed shortly afterwards by the intense heat swiftly immolating the commando into ash before there was nothing left to burn up in the atmosphere. By the time the show was over, Urdnot had managed to cross the hangar, returning to where the altercation had taken place.

He stopped right in front of Scradius, before the watching eyes of turian servicemen and krogan commandos still trying to make some sense out of this. “Do we have a problem here?” Urdnot asked the turian corporal.

Scradius was still shocked and dazed, and the adrenaline was beginning to make way for the pain, but he stood his ground and steadily replied, “Not anymore, sir.” The commando leader grunted in approval and stomped off.

From that day onwards, any and all instances of turian-krogan violence stopped onboard the Example.

² Except certain death. During the Battle of Palaven, Captain Jadichus Orendor of the Integrity authorized his Marines to summarily execute any turian who broke regulations. The summary execution of four servicemen on the destroyer almost pushed tensions and resentment past the boiling point, until Orendor was relieved of duty by his executive officer, Carudas Solidis.

*****
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*****

As promised, Nillin returned to Khronus with demolitions experts. These men and women were responsible for instructing resistance members in specific roles of the operation about how warp bombs worked, what their major components are, how to handle one with care, and how to assemble one together. The shortage of warp bombs in Palaven space meant the warp bombs that would be used for the operation themselves would have to be flown in from out-system after being triple-checked, as the Hierarchy was not willing to risk the success or failure of SLENDER SCALPEL on the possibility that even one of their bombs might be a dud. In the meantime, the demolitions team intended to train the Khronus resistance with model components of the bombs in question.

The basic idea was to smuggle in parts of the warp bomb piece-by-piece at an ideal size. Too large and conspicuous, and the Reapers might realize something was up; too small and complex, and it would take forever to rebuild with all the other parts of the bomb inside the Reaper ships. Having discussed the results of smuggling items into Reaper camps via surrender with Kylonis’ teams, the demolition specialists were fairly certain that the arming device itself could be separated into five easy-to-carry parts that were easy to conceal, easy to mistake for harmless hardware, and easy to reassemble quickly. But the most difficult part was smuggling in the element zero required for the warp bombs. It was the core of the explosive, the kind of material that would set off all sorts of bells and whistles at spaceport security; now they had to find a way to smuggle that into a Reaper, which was likely far more advanced that a commercial security scanner.

Achtus had Kylonis knock heads with the demolitions experts, sharing what the smuggler’s team had already learned in terms of smuggling things into Reaper camps with Nillin’s people. It took a little improvising and a bit of ingenuous engineering, but the brainstormers eventually managed to reduce the warp bomb down the six decently small components, bar the element zero, which would instead be smuggled in through infiltration routes instead. The HDI agent later pulled Achtus aside and informed him that the Khronus resistance cell was very much ahead of the other cells in terms of preparations, that her experts had learned a great deal from Kylonis’ team, and that whatever the two sides work out here was likely to form the template that the demolitions experts will share with the rest of the resistance and HDI.

Specific details of the plan were eventually formed. Each Reaper camp would have three teams of infiltrators, one “surrendering” and two sneaking into the confines (requiring that the Khronus cell find a second infiltration/exfiltration route). All three teams will be carrying a set of bomb components, but only the two infiltration teams would be carrying the element zero that formed the core of the warp bomb, as it was decided there was no way surrendering forces could get it into the camps without them being confiscated (and the HDI feared detection of element zero would instantly reveal the resistance’s objective to the Reapers). Once inside, all resistance infiltrators would eventually converge inside the Reaper ship, shooting their way in and holding positions if they had to, where hopefully enough components for a warp bomb for at least one bomb were smuggled in instead of intercepted.

It was a sound plan with several strong risks. A major question was whether or not surrendering forces could smuggle bomb components in. They were the team that had the safest chance in, so the question was whether or not six small pieces of a warp bomb was truly sufficient to get past Reaper forces accepting a turian mass “surrender”. This consideration of caution was made despite the fact that if neither of the two infiltration teams could get in with the required element zero to detonate the warp bomb, they were screwed anyways. Nillin needed members amongst the resistance to test if they could smuggle these six components into camp without them being taken away by the Reapers, and also the Reaper ships itself. Achtus asked for volunteers, stressing that those who still had legal dependents, such as children, were barred from submitting their names.

No one pretended that this wasn’t a one-way trip. Kylonis’ Team One might’ve been able to exfiltrate the infiltration team responsible for testing the possibility that bomb parts could be smuggled into a Reaper ship, but Nillin insisted that letting the Reapers know about the infiltration/exfiltration path was not worth the risk, while Kylonis stated the unlikelihood of being able to leave a Reaper ship once the team actually went inside. There was the expectation that anyone who made it into a Reaper ship would not be allowed back out again. Nillin went a step further: Volunteers facing imminent capture should commit suicide – preferably by high explosive, to ensure lethality and to destroy any evidence that was their bomb components – to deny the Reapers any intelligence on the plan, a consideration made in no small part due to the HDI’s perpetual paranoia about Reaper indoctrination. There was a very serious fear that captured resistance members would be indoctrinated and spill the entire plan.

The infiltrators not being able to leave the Reaper ships, however, meant that if resistance scouts could not visually confirm it, the only way an infiltrator could get word out as to whether or not they succeeded was by radio. It would have to be a strong, encrypted, narrowband transmission to a specific, pre-determined location to cut through Reaper jamming. That risked revealing resistance positions at headquarters, however, so it was decided that the scouts would be a proxy. Infiltrators would radio a code to confirm the success or failure of their infiltration attempt to scouts maintaining overwatch from a distance, with “diamond” for success and “blue sky” for failure; “kitchen” was code for the infiltrators deeming it impossible for the assembly and detonation of a warp bomb inside a Reaper ship to occur, hopefully followed by an explanation of why. The scouts, in turn, would launch a flare, blue for success and red for failure, to relay the answer to resistance leaders waiting for the signal kilometers away, hopefully before Reaper forces pinpointed receiving end of the transmission and sent hunt-and-kill teams. To allay suspicions during the operation proper, for the three days that the resistance spent making preparations, resistance members fired off flares of all colors at random intervals two hundred meters away from the camp. Unsurprising, this attracted fire from Reaper forces every time, but the turians hoped the Reapers would become “used” to this phenomenon and assume it was for some entirely different purpose.

In the meantime, it was demolitions training for the resistance. Some of them were certified explosive technicians, but most of those in the resistance had long since been rotated out of active duty after their tours of duty, and they have never seen the latest, state-of-the-art bomb models the technicians brought in. It was three days of studying manuals, reading (and, in a few cases, re-reading) the theoretical principles of warp bombs, and tinkering with the bomb components themselves. Nillin’s people insisted that the resistance be able assemble and disassemble the bomb blindfolded; Smirian thought it was just old-fashioned drill instructor nastiness until Nillin reminded the resistance members participating in the exercise that they had no idea what conditions inside the Reaper ship would be like, so it was best to assume the worst.

The resistance was told that the actual warp bombs would be delivered to them by ground forces currently in orbit during Operation: SLENDER SCALPEL, and that the military would have to depend on the resistance to deliver the payload, with the former not having had the same experience with sneaking ordinance to Reaper camps. Despite this, the resistance infiltrators responsible for smuggling in the element zero that would be the core catalyst for the bomb wasted little time in drawing straws to see which unfortunate soul got to carry around the radioactive, combustible material.

Three days after Nillin brought her demolition experts in, it was time for the Khronus resistance to test whether or not bringing a bomb aboard a Reaper ship was actually possible. Ten volunteers were selected to make what was almost certainly a suicide run. They were given their last meals, which didn’t amount to much, given the food available at the time. Smirian recalled that the volunteers ended up eating quite a bit of beans, aged meat, and junk food. “It was still better than the processed shit the rest of us stomached, though,” she admitted. “So it seemed like a luxury at the time.”

Most of the volunteers took their impending deaths with a relative degree of calmness. Part of it came from fighting this war, the idea that they were already dead. Still, as Achtus made rounds between the volunteers, he couldn’t help but notice there was a lot of quiet, introspective moments, a lot of deep breaths inhaled and exhaled, a lot of nervous, scared trembling. “There was a lot of pent-up stress inside,” Achtus explained. “There is no dishonor in dying for the cause, but few would actually wish to die in such a way.” When it came time for them to march off, every resistance member they passed stood at attention and saluted, honoring their sacrifice to come.

To minimize the presence of clues and to ensure the infiltrators retained their radios, the volunteers were smuggled in via Team Two’s infiltration path instead of surrendering to Reaper forces. Scouts in nearby buildings provided overwatch, prepared to receive a success- or failure-code from the infiltrators once they were inside the Reaper ship. It was tense for everyone involved, but Achtus felt that the anxiety was greatest for those who remained at resistance headquarters, who had absolutely no way of telling how the mission was going and when results were coming in.

After what felt like an unending number of hours of waiting and staring at the Khronus cityscape, the resistance finally spotted what they were looking for, a blue flare launched from a building from the direction of the Reaper camp. The building was instantly destroyed by a Reaper magnetohydrodynamic weapon, killing everyone inside, resulting in an operation with virtually no survivors (unless one accounted for Team Two, who delivered the volunteers into the infiltration route). Despite this, there was a great sense of relief that something was finally going right as Nillin saw it appropriate for her and her experts to move on from Khronus and oversee progress amongst the other resistance cells. The Khronus resistance still had to continue collecting intelligence in preparation to sending them off to waiting orbiting forces, but – for the most part – the preparations groundside were completed. Now, it was up to the ground troops in space to get their game together before they could take the fight to the Reapers.

*****

“The quarians,” Optimi declared in my interview with her in 2189, “are the most glorious bosh’tets in the galaxy. I wouldn’t necessarily want them beside me on a ground assault, but I sure wouldn’t mind having them replacing our admirals, because they’re very good at flying and planning.”

Optimi was referring to the Bosh’tet Express, so named because Admiral Han’Gerrel vas Neema of the Heavy Fleet allegedly called the quarian captains of the Civilian Fleet proposing the plan before the Admiralty Board “crazy bosh’tets” (whether it had been in praise or in ridicule is a matter of heated debate amongst servicemen of the present day Rannoch Home Fleet, as Admiral vas Neema refuses to clarify to this day). News of an end to quarian-geth hostilities came a mere three days before Migrant Fleet signatures suddenly began to appear in-system. The vessels were ships from the quarian Patrol Fleet, and they were escorted in by a fleet of geth warships that fought off Reaper stragglers. The quarians took advantage of their skills in navigating unconventional stellar routes to avoid the Reapers from the Trebia mass relay to Palaven; for centuries, quarian ships were often intercepted by patrol ships on main traffic routes simply for being quarian, so their captains had long since mastered the ability to swiftly navigate detours to avoid patrols. In the Reaper War, this became a highly coveted ability as the need to skirt around Reapers became ever more important.

Using a combination of traditional navigation, precise FTL jumps, and impossible daring, the quarians accomplished in several hours what the Hierarchy failed to do with two days of WHISKEY CORRIDOR: A complex and temporary but highly effective and elusive logistical line was established between the Trebia mass relay and Palaven, as well as several smaller mass relays near the system to prevent overreliance on a single path that could easily be cut off. This was done despite the fact that the ships of the Patrol Fleet were largely civilian frigates and freighters converted to military use, heavily outdated, and being held together more by prayer than by bolts. To their credit, many key components of their ships had been replaced with highly advanced geth parts, but they were almost universally all using the same ships that were often centuries old, and not all ships had been retrofitted with a mish-mash of geth parts by the time the Bosh’tet Express started.

The geth stayed behind to keep the path in and out of the Trebia mass relay open for as long as possible by harassing the Reapers (a decision made to prevent an organic-synthetic incident from shattering the already-fragile alliance), while the quarians rushed their way for Palaven. Communications were established; the quarians would maintain a fast, rapid, and steady stream of ships from the Skyllian Verge to Palaven to help evacuate turian civilians and wounded to safety, but the ship captains needed immediate docking clearance with all turian space stations, shipyards, and vessels to load evacuees. In an unprecedented show of alacrity even for the usually decisive Hierarchy, docking clearance was given at all sites within the minute.

The assistance of the quarians was, as far as the turians were concerned, a godsend. Hospitals, clinics, medical centers, triage sites, and shelters across Palaven, Menae, and Nanus were ridiculously overpopulated with the wounded, and the Hierarchy barely had any more ships to spare to evacuate their injured anywhere else. The Citadel also had little space left, forcing turians to take care of their own in refugee shelters at the docks. Many of the civilians had evacuated to orbital facilities where evacuation would be much easier than from the surface of Palaven, but they had been stranded there, overpopulating space stations and shipyards because the navy had no ships to spare. The quarians, however, showed up with the largest fleet in the galaxy. Their expertise in space management ensured that they packed as many turians as possible into their ships in relative comfort. Although they possessed outdated medical equipment, the quarians were reputed to take hygiene and medical matters far more seriously than any other race due to their weakened immune systems. Reaper activity in the Perseus Veil was low, Rannoch had no shortage of space, and those being evacuated comforted themselves with the promise of fresh dextro food in quarian space, rumored to be in short supply on the Citadel.

Turian-quarian cooperation was insanely efficient. Turian aerospace traffic controllers arrayed available turian warships into optimal mass docking formations and cleared the docks and hangars of their vessels and installations, and both sides quickly kept track of which ship or facility still had casualties, which of those ships or facilities had an available dock, hangar space, or airlock the moment it was free. Other turian ships were given the order to buy time for the Bosh’tet Express and to defend the logistical line at all costs, alternating positions as more warships freed up. Minutes before docking, quarian crews electronically sent waiting turian teams with blueprints of their most common ship classes and diagrams of how to most efficiently stow evacuees on those vessels. Crews on both sides established routes on turian ships and installations upon which evacuees would be transported to the quarian vessel, ordered everyone else to stay clear, then forwarded maps of the routes to the next docking quarian vessel. The quarians gave the evacuees concise, competent orders, and the turians obeyed instantly without complaint. Their naturally pragmatic social attitudes complemented each other perfectly.

In the hangar of the Example, turians and quarians alike worked as a well-oiled machine. Crews not involved with the evacuation watched in awe as the quarians jumped from their ships the moment they landed or docked, running alongside turian escorts to the medical bay and anywhere else they stored their wounded as every turian from the lowliest serviceman to Captain Ixius herself gave them the right of way without fail. Doctors and medics on both sides quickly exchanged medical files and supplies, while volunteers kept to their right sides and rushed past each other with gurneys and supply carts, occupied or otherwise. The quarians astounded the turians in how the former were able to swiftly stack more stretchers in the Example’s elevators than the latter have ever thought possible without stressing any of the patients, and then un-stack and unload them just as quickly. When the crewmembers of the first quarian ship to dock with the Example realized they were going to have to wait for the carrier’s elevators to come back up after carrying the first batch of injured down to the hangar bay, they declared it was “too slow” and made for the staircases and maintenance accessways instead. The turians were no slouches, and by the time the third quarian ship docked with the Example, they were keeping up with the quarians.

Turian ships fought harder like never before. Castellus recalled the feeling: “We were all pushing ourselves to our utmost, probably even more than during Operation: WHISKEY CORRIDOR. As soon as the quarians took our casualties, we rushed the Example to the fray, in front of Palaven, in front of Menae, in front of Nanus, wherever we were needed so we can give everyone in the back some time. There was a real sense of hope, the first ever since the war started. If there was a chance to buy the Bosh’tet Express just one more minute so they could evacuate another ten thousand turians, by the spirits, we were going to take it.”

To Siritii’s surprise, there was no shortage of quarian children amongst the relief workers. Many of the children, with no real attachment to their recently reclaimed homeworld of Rannoch, decided that sticking with their families was more important, and volunteered on the Bosh’tet Express. Quarian parents had to ask the turians to refer to the relief effort as “the Keelah Express” or simply “the Express” in front of the kids. One soldier forgot about that, and was instantly treated to a crowd of quarian children around him cheerfully shouting “Bosh’tet! Bosh’tet!” until a quarian adult came along and scolded them.

But the children were volunteers first and foremost, and they pulled their weight alongside the adults. As Siritii passed by the medical bay when the quarians were evacuating the severely wounded aboard the Example, he watched as a turian medical assistant handed one of their wounded to a team of a quarian woman and two children. The patient was lying on a gurney, a pilot having suffered severe burns and looking like she was in shock and in pain. As the turian assistant transferred relevant medical records to the quarian woman via omni-tool and gave some last minute details on the patient’s status, both children began to change the pilot’s bandages after expertly applying medigel, dextro-based antibiotics, and painkillers. One of them, a girl, began to softly sing what Siritii suspected to be a quarian lullaby beside the turian’s ear. By the time the three carted their evacuee away, Siritii thought the pilot looked like she was at peace.

“I decided right then and there that the quarians had the best children in the galaxy,” the lieutenant stated flatly.

The turians weren’t the only ones fond of quarian children. Perhaps the genophage cure and the subsequent promise that they could have children again played some psychological role, but the krogan were notably much better-behaved when the children volunteers were around. While helping with supply runs across the hangar, Vadim gaped at an unbelievable sight: A massive, ugly, heavily-scarred krogan commando happily giving a piggyback ride to four laughing quarian children at once. “That krogan probably would’ve tried to murder me,” Vadim lamented, “but I should’ve snapped a picture first thing, because when I told the guys back in my platoon, no one believed me.”

Operations Chief Cyrion was one of the wounded the quarians were evacuating from the Example. As she was being carted to a waiting quarian ship that would take her to the relative safety of Rannoch, Syphiat was there to walk her to the hangar. “You better take care of yourself, Telana,” he called after his sister-in-arms as they loaded her gurney onto the quarian shuttle. “Spirits know I’m going to have to pull your weight on Palaven.”

Cyrion grinned despite the pain. The fight was over for her, and the Reaper War would end before she recovered. “I’ll be lounging on a beach on Rannoch, with a fruit drink in hand while cute young quarian girls fawn over me,” she declared. “I think I’ve got it made.”

Syphiat asked the quarian doctor taking Cyrion away to take care of her. The doctor assured him that quarians treated medical matters “with grave seriousness”, and promised that Cyrion would be fine. Syphiat remained in the hangar to watch the quarian ship leave the Example for the “Expressway”, feeling conflicted as he finally turned around and walked back to his quarters. He was immensely relieved that Cyrion was going to be alright and felt a great weight being lifted off his chest, but there was also a rather final realization that everyone from the old days was gone, and now he was alone.

With roughly eighty percent of all evacuees and casualties around Palaven’s orbit and on Menae and Nanus evacuated, the quarians eventually had to end the Bosh’tet Express when geth warships and their Heavy Fleet reinforcements reported that they could only keep the Reapers at bay from the Trebia mass relay for another hour. With little fanfare or fuss, Patrol Fleet Vice Admiral Rion’Vael vas Orlani informed Hierarchy High Command that they needed to terminate operations, that their evacuees would be transported to safety, and that the Migrant Fleet would provide further support to the Hierarchy as soon as possible. The last docked quarian ships were loaded, and they disappeared back through the Trebia mass relay as quickly as they had appeared before anyone could thank them, leaving behind a small contingent of Migrant Fleet Marines and their transports to assist with operational security.

The Bosh’tet Express accomplished a feat never before seen in the history of the galaxy: In twenty-eight hours [of a standard Palaven day], around ten thousand quarian ships (two out of three ships of the Patrol Fleet, with several volunteers from the Heavy Fleet), some of them cruisers but most of them frigates and freighters, ferried out fifteen million turian civilian evacuees and military casualties. In most cases, a quarian crew filled their ship with an average of three hundred evacuees – most of them wounded and in need of careful assistance to even move them – from a turian ship or installation before undocking in just twenty minutes. Most ships made five runs back and forth in total, a handful managed six.

The success of the Bosh’tet Express wasn’t restricted to numbers alone. “You could not believe what twenty-eight hours of the Bosh’tet Express did for us,” Siritii explained. “Morale was soaring. Not only were ships and stations everywhere sudden free of the disheartening sight of more casualties than we could possibly treat, there was the knowledge that our comrades were safe and in good hands. Popular opinion of the quarians changed overnight in the Hierarchy. Yesterday they were filthy vagabonds cheating the rest of us, now we were universally raising glasses to ‘the best bloody bosh’tets in the whole damn galaxy, may their air filters remain forever clean’.” ³

As they watched the last of the quarian ships leave Palaven, [Lieutenant Arius] Sevihierax remarked to Siritii, “A bunch of malnourished quarians does in a day what a turian spaceport staff does in a week. I think we just leveled the playing field.”

³ In 2188 CE, all quarians who participated in the Bosh’tet Express were awarded Silver Wreaths, the second-highest Hierarchy award that can be legally granted to non-citizens during wartime. Except for the children volunteers. They were awarded Orders of Trebia, the highest Hierarchy award that can be legally granted to non-citizens during wartime, marking the first time any quarian or non-adult was given the honor.

*****

The Bosh’tet Express was invaluable to the war effort, but it was a support operation, and it didn’t change the fact that the strategic goal remained the successful execution of SLENDER SCALPEL, which by nature was an offensive operation. The planners had ironed out as much of the plan as was reasonably possible for an operation of this scale. Vice Admiral Cerivix confirmed that, bar last minute operational complications, the resistance could smuggle the warp bombs into Reaper ships. Issues of operational security came up, with the vice admiral insistent that individual units be given information on a need-to-know basis, which was as little as possible. This prevented possible indoctrinated moles from piecing together the whole puzzle. Risithi protested against this, arguing that knowing what they were responsible for and what was at stake would encourage the soldiers to fight harder, but he was rebuked by Coronati, who berated him for thinking turians wouldn’t die for the cause or fight any harder because orders did not come with explanations.

To the common infantryman, the finalized version of the operation was presented as Operation: FORWARD FLAME. According to their briefing, turian and krogan troops would begin a simultaneous, full-scale assault on key areas of Palaven, expanding from territories that were both still held by the resistance and in close proximity to relatively intact strategic assets. The primary objective of the operation was to reach and hold designated points of their respective areas of operations, eliminate any anti-air threats, and defend all positions while engineers could be transported planetside to repair and reactivate major defense infrastructure, allowing the turians to retain custody of their major weapons and defenses, including automated turrets and ground-based anti-ship cannons. Secondary designated points further into Reaper territory – notably where the Reaper ships themselves were – were to be captured as well “should the opportunity arise”. This, of course, was the actual primary objective; assuming SLENDER SCALPEL succeeded and the bombs detonated inside the Reaper ships, the turian-krogan main force were to move into those areas immediately and hold them.

Coronati refused to rule out the possibility of air support, but did stress that they would not be widely available. The carriers involved in the operation, the Eternal, Example, Resolute, and Whirlwind, had cleared out most of their fighter craft to accommodate the landing troops for SLENDER SCALPEL, meaning fighter and gunship support would have to be rerouted from Menae and Nanus, a difficult proposition at best. Orbital bombardment from capital ships was possible, but would be limited to very small time windows; the Reapers still had orbital dominance of Palaven, and although the Hierarchy navy was successfully finding chinks in their defenses from time-to-time, all orbital bombardment action by available capital ships was likely to be limited to quick strafing runs.

FORWARD FLAME was not a random operation created out of thin air. Rather, it was a Hierarchy war game simulation established after the Krogan Rebellions, in which Offensive Forces were to hypothetically retake territories on Palaven occupied by the Defensive Forces posing as krogan units. Key changes would be made to FORWARD FLAME to adjust for the fact that the Defenseive Forces were now Reapers, not krogan, but the primary idea behind the deception was to occupy Reaper attention. HDI judged it very likely that the Reapers had long cracked significant parts of the Hierarchy’s military data archives, meaning they likely knew about the original FORWARD FLAME simulation. If the Reapers were to intercept communications – and the HDI fully intended to facilitate that – indicating that the Hierarchy intended to put that exact scenario into action, and if a turian-krogan ground force was there to sell the illusion of enacting another full-scale conventional attack, then that would improve the chances of the special operations units responsible for handing off the warp bombs to the turian resistance. For purposes of operational security, the vast majority of military units on the ground would not be informed of SLENDER SCALPEL’s actual objective or even its existence until thirty seconds before detonation.

The shuttle issue was barely mitigated. Coronati and Resvirix had moved heaven and earth to get the number of shuttles and landing craft necessary for the operation. The Bosh’tet Express had helped take a tremendous amount of priority tasks off the waiting list, but it didn’t change the fact that shuttles and small craft had already been vastly overwhelmed by concerns revolving around logistical supply. As much as the planners of SLENDER SCALPEL were the architects of Palaven’s defense, their rank and responsibilities did not override High Command’s authority, and High Command could scarcely ignore the logistical needs all across turian space for a single operation. But Coronati and Resvirix had used every political trick in the book to “convince” enough transports to be diverted from logistical operations to support SLENDER SCALPEL, or at least promised that they would be available when the operation was carried out. They were still short on transports, but the bulk of available ground forces in orbit would at least be able to land, or at least attempt to do so.

More and more krogan were arriving in-system to assist with the general defense of Palaven. Not commandos, these were heavily armed, heavily armored frontline troops that would be operating independently from Arrae, Dranek, Malgus, and Nith Companies, accompany turian conventional forces to make a planetwide push as part of FORWARD FLAME (the irony of having krogan allies on a plan originally meant to fight a hypothetical krogan invasion was not lost upon SLENDER SCALPEL’s planners, and they wisely decided to neglect mentioning the point). After being briefed by the krogan commando companies, they were then ferried to flashpoints planetside in preparation for FORWARD FLAME, where the turian main force would be joining them. Some of the krogan departed in shuttles, and the spacecraft that managed to make it back into orbit was instantly commandeered by Coronati for SLENDER SCALPEL. It didn’t amount to much, however, as many of the krogan, having been transported to Palaven by ships belonging to the Blood Pack mercenary group, had chosen to land on Palaven instead by drop pod, a consideration likely made due to the fact that shuttles generally weren’t designed to accommodate squads of krogan at once. Single-man pods were “shoved off” Blood Pack ships where they made swift drops into the atmosphere, an eezo core the only thing that stopped each drop pod in time before they became mass accelerator rounds.

The drop pods were as dangerous to the rider as they looked. Even before the Reaper War, death rates of krogan riding them tended to be as high as twenty percent, a number that shot up to thirty-five percent in the Battle of Palaven. Many of the pods came in too hot, sometimes literally; casualties were generally either the result of hitting the ground at supersonic speeds or not being properly shielded against atmospheric friction. But the drop pods required no individual training or disassembly. Unlike a glider, which required a turian to be trained in its usage before even thinking about harnessing themselves onto the contraption and finding a safe landing zone, a krogan simply needed to climb into a pod and hope the crew of the ship dropping the pod was having a good day. Whereas gliders required its occupant to unharness themselves before retrieving weapons and equipment from the glider’s compartment, occupants of a pod entered and left with all their weapons and equipment on hand. The convenience of the drop pod caused more than one turian to wonder aloud why the Hierarchy did not have a similar vehicle. (The standard krogan response to this became “because you don’t have a quad”, to which a turian comeback went “at least we won’t be losing ours”.)

But a situation quickly arose. Vice Admiral Cerivix was contacted by the Khronus resistance cell through a quantum entanglement communicator at an abandoned research facility, which the resistance had taken a detour to access. The communications antenna that was meant to send groundside intel to the fleet was damaged, none of the resistance members were certified to make the necessary repairs, and the QEC they were using did not possess the bandwidth necessary to upload the massive intel packet before Reaper forces descended upon them. Usually, Agent Nillin would’ve been responsible for the handling of the intelligence, but she had fallen out contact, presumably remaining dark while her demolitions experts knocked heads with other resistance cells she was responsible for. (It was discovered after the war that Nillin was killed in action at this point in time.) Aside from the intel, the communications antenna was the designated asset that was responsible for broadcasting “leaked” turian strategic communications for all of the Carratine District, which Khronus was the capital of. The antenna being inoperable put the entire Carratine segment of SLENDER SCALPEL at risk.

If they had more time, Cerivix would’ve proposed that the upload be postponed until an engineering team accompanied a military escort could be ferried down to make repairs. They did not, however, have more time. The timetable for SLENDER SCALPEL had little margin for error, and the mission planners were still waiting on the resistance’s vital intelligence on local enemy movements across the entire Carratine District for tactical details. The most practical option at this point was to fly in team to pick up a copy of the intelligence package, then return to the Example. This was a dangerous gamble at best, as VI projections of any shuttle attempting to successfully land on Palaven was distressingly low, never mind a return trip. Carratine District was simply too saturated with enemy AA emplacements. Landing a team outside Carratine District to meet up with the resistance would take too long, and would be no less dangerous. But Cerivix insisted the intel was vital, Resvirix agreed, and so turian fleet communications exploded as the navy attempted to find out who actually had available shuttles – which had not yet been given to the operation – to make the pickup.

The increased traffic attracted the attention of the detachment of Migrant Fleet Marines left with the fleet by the Bosh’tet Express, who were quickly appraised of the situation and volunteered for the job. As every Migrant Fleet Marine was a quarian, and every quarian was a technician, they reasoned that even if a return trip proved to be impossible, should a landing be achieved, an alternate strategy of repairing the communications antenna was very much feasible. But with the Hierarchy still unable to deploy their own ground assets and krogan allies quite some distance away, the quarians would be going in alone with no ground support, and only tentative backup from orbiting Hierarchy ships. Coronati promised that reinforcements would follow “as soon as possible”, but emphasized that he could not say when this would actually be. But the quarians were not phased, so a rendezvous point between the quarians and the resistance was set at the communications antenna. On the Example, the turians began to grimly watch through the Example’s cameras and satellite feeds as half a dozen quarian shuttles descended into Palaven’s atmosphere, into hopelessly hostile territory.

Leading the team was Migrant Fleet Marines Lieutenant Kal’Reegar.

*****
__________________

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*****

Until the quarians declassified the details in 2196, one of the best-kept secrets of the Defense of Palaven was the fact that the geth had, in fact, been involved in the campaign beyond the Bosh’tet Express. This was a fact that had been kept secret even from Primarch Victus, and known only to Admirals Daro’Xen vas Moreh and Zaal’Koris vas Qwib-Qwib, who believed geth assistance to be invaluable and essential, but feared negative turian reaction to synthetics participating in the defense of their homeworld. It was also a decision made unilaterally without the input of the rest of the Admiralty Board, and entrusted to the group of Migrant Fleet Marines left by the Bosh’tet Express over Palaven.

While writing this book, I had assumed anything I could mention about the Defense of Communications Relay 227 would simply be from the official statements released from the turian and quarian governments. After the quarians declassified the details, however, I dared to try to contact the geth who had been involved in the defense, the ones that had survived. I fully expected to receive a polite rejection for any number of reasons. I did not expect a geth survivor, Trinity, to offer time for an interview. Due to their ability to share data, any geth could’ve answered my request, but Trinity insisted on meeting personally, giving me a personal, detailed eyewitness account of what happened at the Defense of Communications Relay 227.

It was thanks to the geth that the quarians were able to learn of the situation with the relay in the first place. As soon as the quarians received operational approval from the turians, Reegar had six of their landing craft descend into Palaven’s atmosphere, with two remaining with the turian fleet to bounce communications and – secretly – to allow the geth to transfer themselves to safety when their defensive positions would inevitably be overrun. Having recently been upgraded with Reaper code, the geth were able to fool Reaper sensors with friendly signatures for half the trip. By the time the enemy was able to confirm that the incoming signatures were actually quarians, the shuttles had already managed a low angle of approach, making it difficult for them to be hit by anti-aircraft guns. Local anti-air weaponry were still able to focus fire on only six quarian shuttles, but it was thanks to the geth that few of them were direct hits.

This sentiment, however, was of little comfort to the quarians inside the shuttles as Reaper anti-air weapons swiftly shot down their landing craft, and even prodigious quarian flying couldn’t cause them to avoid what could generously be called a crash landing. The survivors of the crashes picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and made for the rendezvous point half a kilometer from Communications Relay 227. Only half of the Marines made it to the designated rendezvous site: Staff Lieutenant Kal’Reegar; First Lieutenant Jun’Malon vas Qwib-Qwib; Second Lieutenant Oro’Xen vas Moreh; Operations Chiefs Erin’Domo vas Idenna and Kor’Veera vas Rayya; Service Chiefs Kee’Mora vas Ferris, Xin’Mora vas Ferris, and Koric’Uldinn vas Penin; and Corporals Keel’Numa vas Lorenz, Nal’Reema vas Solphya, Les’Uzgar vas Uryyn, and Quil’Verma vas Noric.

The area around the relay was deserted and devoid of Reaper forces, but Reegar doubted it would remain this way for long, as the enemy was certain to deploy hunt-and-kill teams to look for stray quarians on the turian homeworld. With their Khronus resistance contacts still supposedly enroute, Reegar demanded that defensive positions be set up. In the meantime, Lieutenant Malon and Operations Chief Veera were to assess the damage to relay and determine what repairs were required. Service Chiefs Kee’Mora and Xin’Mora, a brother-sister duo of snipers, were perched atop a high-rise as lookouts, where they would watch for their resistance contacts as well as enemy forces.

The immediate issue with defending the communications relay was that the area was strategically indefensible, which was why turian ground forces had abandoned it in the first place. A handful of high-rises across six city blocks flanked the relay, but the relay otherwise sat in the middle of a plaza full of open ground that offered little cover for large groups. More importantly, it allowed a numerically-superior enemy to basically swarm a group of twelve defenders, if not take potshots at the relay. Reegar decided to remedy this by having the Marines scout out the remains of the high-rises before setting shaped charges at key structural points. The idea was to create an improvised fort by turning the buildings into fortress walls, giving Reaper forces a handful of avenues of attack where the quarians could bottleneck them (too few openings, the defenders reasoned, would make the trap too obvious and encourage Reaper forces to avoid the bottleneck entirely with the vast resources they had). It was the kind of maneuver that required precise mathematics, intimate familiarity with architecture and construction, and precisely controlled demolitions, a job the quarians were suited for. That didn’t stop Lieutenant Xen from wryly remarking, “What kind of ‘controlled demolition’ involves high-rises across six city blocks?”

The demolition, however, was a last-measure resort. The Reapers were likely actively looking for the quarians, but given the distance from where their shuttles had been shot down across the area, the Marines figured there was still time before the enemy found their precise location. Removing several high-rises from the horizon wasn’t going to help conceal their positions. Therefore, the first order of business was deploying an inner defense with a prototype system codenamed Rosethorn. The product of a cooperative technological venture between Migrant Fleet Special Projects and the geth, Rosethorn was effectively a GARDIAN package shrunk down for ground operations, a vast network of redesigned quarian and geth turrets connected to multiple processing units inhabited by geth runtimes, among them including Trinity. The network could be stretched across vast distances, each turret coordinating with its neighbors to produce optimal defensive firing patterns. The geth were uplinked in real-time to quarian combat interfaces in their enviro-suits, meaning Rosethorn could also coordinate the turrets in conjunction with the individual movements of each Marine. More importantly, it possessed the capability to shoot down approaching Ravager ordinance, providing a shield against long-range attacks by Reaper forces. Combined with a portable kinetic barrier generator encompassing the relay, and the Marines had a formidable defense to complement a squad of twelve in protecting what was otherwise a vulnerable target sitting in the middle of nothing.

Malon and Veera returned to report that four quarians would be needed to repair the relay; more than four wouldn’t significantly expedite the process, projected to take less than three hours. Reegar gave them Service Chief Uldinn and Corporal Noric, tasking everyone else to either finish deploying Rosethorn or set the explosives that would topple the surrounding high-rises and turn the area into an acceptable defensive position. Other explosives and landmines were set around the area to thin out approaching Reaper forces when the need arose.

Forty-seven minutes into the operation, the Mora siblings reported spotting their resistance contacts on approach. Reema and Uzgar were sent to confirm their identities and escort them into the area of operations, where a team of four turian resistance fighters briefed the quarian defenders on local Reaper activity, dropped off surplus ammunition and ordinance, and handed over the intelligence packet that was causing so much trouble in the first place. The packet was massive, containing detailed data on weekly Reaper activity that resistance cells had collected all across Carratine District, covering just under three hundred thousand square kilometers of ground on Palaven. Mission planners needed that information to best coordinate SLENDER SCALPEL. Without it, the turian-krogan forces dropping into Carratine would be fighting blind. Quarian and geth communications devices linking back to the fleet could expedite the transfer of the intelligence package, but the absolute bulk of it required nothing less than a relay.

The members of the Khronus resistance offered to fight alongside the Migrant Fleet Marines. Reegar thanked them for the offer but declined, as he wanted to maintain the image that they were a small nuisance to the Reapers, an impression that was best sold if there were only quarians amongst their numbers. Defending the relay was more important and the Marines were vastly outnumbered by the enemy anyways, so the best defense would be stealth and deception, for as long as they could maintain it. Reegar did accept the offer for the extra turians to help with setting up explosive traps, however, which allowed for the bulk of their defensive preparations to be completed seventy-two minutes into the operation. The turians were finally convinced that leaving the defense to the quarians was the best option at T-plus seventy-five minutes. ETA on repairs on the relay was still at one hour and a half.

The Mora siblings had been calling out positions of Reaper hunt-and-kill teams since they were put onto a lookout position, but it was eighty-seven minutes into the operation when the first Reaper forces, a squad of Marauders, finally breached the perimeter of the quarian area of operations. Multiple patrols were converging on their position as part of an efficiently systematic sweep of the area, and it was difficult to conceal the engineers making repairs unless progress was halted, which was not an option. Taking out the Marauders quietly with omni-blades was also pointless, as enemy forces were networked to the Reapers, who would instantly know that contact with individual ground troops were lost at a specific location. With little recourse, Reegar gave his Marines on the ground permission to open fire. Three seconds later, coordinated gunfire from Marines and turrets had cut down half a dozen approach Marauders. It also alerted the other patrols in the area, now aware of a more concise location of the quarian defenders.

Within ten minutes, an extended firefight between Marine and Reaper forces was slowly escalating. Repeated incursions allowed the Reapers to confirm that the quarians were attempting to defend a communications relay, and therefore would not displace. It also indicated at a broader strategy, not just of desperate quarians trying to run and hide. This cause the Reapers to deploy reinforcements much faster than Reegar would’ve liked; instead of a gradual buildup of enemy traffic as he had hoped, entire combat groups were now being redirected towards the quarians.

But the quarian defense was highly efficient. Between the excellent marksmanship of the Marines and the geth-run Rosethorn system, the small waves of enemy attackers had yet to breach the defensive perimeter. This also deceived Reaper forces into a misstep; judging by limited data from their own ground troops that were being swiftly eliminated, the Reapers overestimated the number of quarians on the ground. The Rosethorn turrets misled the Reapers into believing that the Marines numbered in the dozens, and the enemy sent platoon-sized units in an attempt to pacify the area of operations. The saturation of Reaper ground troops in the area, however, only served to maximize the effectiveness of the traps the defenders had left around the perimeter, and entire Reaper squads were being lost at once. This likely would not have happened had the Reapers realized the quarians numbered only twelve.

Unfortunately for the Marines, the Reapers had cannon fodder to spare, and by T-plus 122 minutes, the quarians had exhausted their outer perimeter defenses, allowing swarms of Reaper forces to begin rushing into the area of operations en masse from all directions without worrying about explosive traps. Enemy fire became intense, coming in from everywhere. As the Mora siblings covered their tactical retreat by providing sniper support, the Marines were forced to fall back to secondary defensive positions, within the confines of where the explosives-rigged high-rises were projected to collapse.

Operations Chief Domo noticed that Corporal Uzgar was still leaning over cover at their primary defensive positions with her rifle shouldered to fire at approaching enemy forces, even as Reegar was ordering a retreat to secondary defensive positions. Domo called for Uzgar to retreat; the corporal didn’t move. The operations chief slid over to tap her subordinate just in case Uzgar had not heard, only to watch the corporal slump over upon physical contact, dead; she had already been shot in the head, a round having cracked a clean hole into her forehead, marking the Marines’ first casualty.

Becoming encircled in an indefensible position with no cover, the quarians remote-detonated the explosives hidden within the surrounding high-rises two hours and six minutes into the defense. The effect was immediate: Quarian Marines cheered excitedly as the buildings came down in their projected vectors, toppling onto at least a hundred advancing Reaper footsoldiers and crushing them under tons of steel. It interrupted the enemy advance and forced them to regroup. More importantly, with the communications relay now surrounded by makeshift walls with only three “entrances”, a static defense was much more feasible now, giving the quarians a chance to focus fire.

Reegar, however, was far from ecstatic. As far as he was concerned, the Reapers had forced their hand. Had things gone the way the staff lieutenant had hoped, the enemy would’ve continued to assume that they were up against only a small number of quarian holdouts. He wanted to remain an inconvenience to be dealt with offhand, not a threat that must be crushed immediately. Of equal importance was the fact that his strategy might have provided them with a better chance to displace from their current location and go into hiding once the quarians no longer had to defend the relay. With a successful mass ambush, however, Reegar now had to worry about the Reapers focusing on his Marines and deploying an entire army to decimate them. It made escape impossible, leaving a static defense as the only option. More pointedly, he worried about a nearby Reaper ship deciding to end the entire charade by blasting the area with a magnetohydrodynamic weapon.

Reaper ship-based bombardment did not come, however, as the Marines were still alive by T-plus 136 minutes. They did not realize this at the time, but Admiral Coronati had deployed a naval task force to harass Reaper ships over Carratine District in an attempt to draw as many of the ships away from the quarians as possible. The allied forces did not realize this at the time, but the Reapers had also decided against simply destroying the communications relay with a magnetohydrodynamic shot. Having engaged in conventional combat with the turians for weeks, the Reapers were concerned by the involvement of the krogan and the quarians, and redirected focus on gathering intelligence of their current operations. They pursued what must’ve seemed like a win-win strategy for them at the time: Even if ground forces failed to eliminate the quarians and collect their data in time, then Reaper ships still stood a good chance of intercepting whatever data was being transmitted through the relay anyways. It was a reasonable strategy that ultimately gave the Reapers no strategic advantage (and, in fact, passed the advantage directly into the hands of the allied forces), but this is an analysis made in hindsight, and no one – not the turian fleet, the quarian Marines, the geth runtimes, or Reapers – had the full picture of what was happening at the time.

With no sign that the Reapers were simply going to melt them from the air, the Marines were looking at a new ETA of thirty minutes before the relay would be repaired. It was reason to be optimistic, except for the army of Cannibals, Marauders, and Ravagers that was swiftly gathering beyond the walls of the quarians’ defensive positions, ready to charge in and overwhelm the defenders.

*****

The turian fleet wasn’t sitting idly as the quarians defended the relay. Coronati, Cerivix, and Resvirix monitored the situation in real-time feverishly from their ships as the mission timer counted inexorably towards the three hour marker. Coronati had sent a fifteen-ship task force to harass Reaper vessels in orbit over Carratine District, slowly drawing the enemy away from the quarians as reinforcing Reaper ships took off from the ground to aid their allies. Fleet CIC kept track of the task force’s progress even as it maintained surveillance of the situation on the ground. When the quarians had been shot down, Coronati thought it was all over; when the Reapers discovered their positions at Communications Relay 227, he was certain of it. Yet the mission timer was showing T-plus 148 minutes, repairs were nearly complete, and the Marines had lost only Corporal Uzgar.

With cameras on ships and orbital facilities directed towards Relay 227, the turians had an excellent overhead view of the area of operations. They were ineffective as CIC due to Reaper jamming signals, but passed along bird’s-eye intelligence groundside whenever they could. It wasn’t pretty: Hundreds of Reaper forces were gathering outside the “walls”, testing the quarian defenses. The Reaper had numbers, but they didn’t waste troops even though they had manpower to spare. Knowing the Marines were dug-in but isolated and without any reinforcements nearby, the Reapers knew they had the time to be cautious, to conserve manpower and wait for rallying reinforcements from Roshea.

It didn’t mean Reaper forces sat there passively. An increasing number of Ravagers were being put on high-rises half a kilometer away to bombard the area of operations with rockets. The Rosethorn system intercepted them efficiently, but that meant much of the turrets were occupied shooting down enemy ordinance instead of focusing on the infantry push on the ground. This, in turn, allowed for Reaper forces to target individual turrets instead in the face of diminished return fire. The Rosethorn system lasted for much longer than suspected, their small size making each individual turrets difficult targets to hit, but the infinite patience of the enemy swiftly began an inexorable and systematic chain of destruction, with each downed turret diminishing the quarian’s ability to focus fire and repel invaders from the area. Angry lines crisscrossed across the plaza as the Migrant Fleet Marines played a deadly game of king of the hill.

Turian bridge officers winced as they watched Domo suddenly collapse violently onto the ground while dodging a grenade too close for Rosethorn to safely intercept. Xen and Corporal Numa quickly began to pull her back towards the relay, and the turians breathed a sigh of relief as they saw Domo still moving; her suit was breached by multiple shots and she was bleeding, but the operations chief was still alive and conscious. Xen propped Domo up against some crates so she could still provide covering fire for the engineers. Her enviro-suit was compensating for the breach with medi-gel, but it needed repairs fast, repairs that were not available right at the moment.

At T-plus 163 minutes, the turian communications officer on board the Defender shouted that a direct link with Communications Relay 227 was established, that the quarians had completed repairs on the relay. The intelligence packet was swiftly being uploaded to the turian planners, who were segregated from the excitement of the moment as to put the final finishing touches on SLENDER SCALPEL. In the meantime, Cerivix began sending outdated general strategies for FORWARD FLAME down to Relay 227 using encryption codes likely to have been cracked by the Reapers a week ago. It was a counterintelligence ruse meant to achieve two objectives. The first was to pique Reaper interest in the relay, enough for them to try and intercept the communications instead of simply destroying the relay and its quarian defenders. (It was ultimately not necessary, as the Reapers had already independently decided against destroying the relay in hopes of – ironically – intercepting communications.) The second and more important objective, however, was for the Reapers to be aware of FORWARD FLAME and the impending conventional offensive. Certain details of the operations on the intercepted plans were deliberately engineered to inaccurate in order to give FORWARD FLAME an actual chance, but the point was to have the Reapers be aware of the impending offensive, in hopes that such a focus would draw attention away from the real objective, SLENDER SCALPEL.

The mood in the fleet was electric. Live video feeds of the quarians’ defense were being patched to screens in common areas. At first, the turians wondered what insanity had possessed their new allies for the Migrant Fleet Marines to descend to enemy-occupied Palaven. But as the hours began to pass, rumors of their actual objective flowed through the crowds, and confirmation that the quarians were still holding their own came in, and the turians began watching with all the excitement and anxiety of a pivotal sports game. “Those were some really intense hours,” Optimi recalled. “We were all gathered around the screens, cheering as the turrets intercepted another salvo of missiles, called out when enemy Marauders got too close for comfort as if the quarians could hear us in orbit, collectively breathed a sigh of relief when one of the snipers took care of it. You don’t see that kind of tension amongst turians watching a fight, except maybe at the Army-Navy game.” Ground troops on the Example repeatedly asked with mounting frustration for some of their number to evacuate the Marines, or at least reinforce quarian positions.

General Resvirix was among those who wanted to aid the quarians. No extraction plan had been formulated when the quarians went groundside because everyone expected it to be a suicide mission. However, as three hours clicked down on the clock, as the quarians managed to send the vital intelligence packet, as the kill count on both sides looked like two hundred-to-one, it didn’t seem to be that much of a suicide mission after all. The quarians looked like they still had a chance. But even if Resvirix had the shuttles necessary to make the trip down to Palaven, the chances they and their turian passengers would be shot down were far too high, and the Hierarchy still needed those assets for SLENDER SCALPEL. The safest way to reach the quarians was for ground forces already on Palaven to push towards their position, hopefully creating a corridor through which the quarians could be evacuated. Cerivix was not keen on the plan; the closest allied unit, a krogan battalion led by Jorgal Kurdu, was fifteen hours away according to VI projections, and there was almost certainly no chance the quarians could hold on for that long. Furthermore, the vice admiral considered it to be a needless advance that would draw unwanted Reaper attention, which could put a dent in the numbers necessary to carry out SLENDER SCALPEL. And the Khronus resistance cell could not be contacted, having returned to communications silence since confirming their impending rendezvous with the quarians on Palaven now. But Resvirix refused to abandon the Marines without a fight, and so the krogan battalion was given the order to march.

On the ground, Jorgal wasn’t given an explanation as to why the position at Communications Relay 227 was important, not that he needed it when he was told the quarians’ situation. “Any lone squad of suit-rats holding off a fucking army for three hours and still going strong is worth saving, if only so they can have a second shot,” he declared. He had his battalion roll out in the direction of the communications relay.

*****

With the Relay 227 repaired and the intelligence packet uploaded to the fleet, the quarian engineers – Malon, Veera, Uldinn, and Verma – could redirect their attention to repelling invaders. Their help was sorely needed, with the Reapers still pressing against the quarians, looking for a lapse in their security before they overcame their defenses and overwhelmed their positions.

From a doctrinal level, the quarians had no business holding onto their position for as long as they had. Migrant Fleet Marines were trained to handle threats from as far away as possible, a logical consideration made due to the general unwillingness to engage at a range where their enviro-suits were in imminent danger of being punctured. In theory, all Marines were also trained in close-quarters combat to deal with a boarding situation on the Migrant Fleet, but rarely was this ever put into practice, as the average quarian Marine saw more shootouts over mining rights on a planetoid than boarding actions on the security-obsessed Migrant Fleet. To the average Marine, any shootout that was happening at a distance closer than long-range was very, very wrong. Also theoretical was the quarian doctrine of using sophisticated technologies to confound their enemies, with heavy reliance on VI cyber-warfare suites, attack drones, and turrets. In reality, quarian logistics had always been hampered by their limited resources and frugal use, meaning the average Marine was rarely encouraged to use anything more than the rifle in their hands unless things were going very, very wrong.

Things were going very, very wrong right now. They were deep in enemy-controlled territory with no hope of backup, and vastly outnumbered with nothing in terms of support or evacuation. It was the kind of situation that required nothing less than the acceptance that all of the Marines were dead men walking to overcome an overpowering sense of despair. They were almost certainly not going to be evacuated in time, they were almost certainly going to die, so the only thing they could do was to take as many of the enemy down with them.

A grenade landed close to where Veera was prone in a crack on the ground. It was too close for the geth to detonate it prematurely with a turret, and Veera was under too much fire to make it safely to the closest available cover, a wrecked aircar seven meters away. Instead, he tried rolling over to the grenade in an attempt to throw it back, only for the explosive to detonate just as he had picked it up, killing him. Verma, who had moved up from the communications relay to better keep enemy forces down with his shotgun, was also pinned down by enemy fire behind some crates and couldn’t make it closer to the relay even as the squad was slowly forced to give ground. He was attacked by two Marauders that engaged the engineer in a hand-to-hand fight. The corporal managed to somehow keep both of them at bay until he disappeared under a wave of advancing Marauders. Still, Reegar thought he saw two last flashes from shotgun muzzles flares come from Verma’s last known location.

Sniper cover was becoming increasingly difficult to provide. The Mora siblings, who had previously been leading the kill count by a wide margin due to their elevation advantage of their sniper’s perch, were being bogged down by continuous harassing fire now that an increasing number of Ravagers were amassing half a kilometer away to the south. With every shot they took, they needed to displace to elsewhere in the high-rise; three seconds later, salvos of rockets numbering in the dozens slammed into the general area where they had been. The geth did what they could to intercept the rockets with the Rosethorn system, but there were too many rockets, much of the ordinance was beyond the range of the turrets, and the geth also needed to reinforce groundside positions.

Another group of Ravagers took up position another half a kilometer to the east, flanking the high-rise the Mora siblings were in. These rockets were completely beyond the range of the Rosethorn system, and slammed into their targets with full fury, causing the entire building to shudder and list. There was half a minute of silence on the radio. “Kee’s dead,” Xin’Mora finally announced over the radio with more calm than one might expect of someone who’s brother had just been killed. Moments later, the structural supports of the high-rise gave away, and the building came crashing down in a cloud of dust and steel, crushing Xin’Mora under the debris.

The quarians were now without sniper support or overwatch. They had the turian fleet trying to maintain an observational position in orbit, but updates from them were impaired by Reaper jamming and were sporadic. With much of the Rosethorn network down, the Marines were no longer quite so shy about using explosives, not having to worry about blasting their own equipment in collateral damage, and quite desperate to stem the tide and create some distance between themselves and the enemy main line of resistance. Quarian return fire came in the form of rockets, launched with the kind of enthusiasm that came with a desperate desire to burn through that supply as quickly and efficiently as possible, giving the marksmen more chances to pick off enemies at range. But utilizing heavy weaponry also made them more vulnerable to incoming enemy fire, and although fire-and-forget systems on the rockets allowed the Marines to expose themselves only briefly, many of the shots penetrated remarkably strong quarian shields, puncturing their enviro-suits. More than half the survivors were wounded and leaking blood. To make matters worse, cover was becoming an increasingly important concern and an increasingly lacking commodity. The further the quarians fell back to the communications relay, the more vectors they gave up for Reaper forces to attack from, and the area had been pretty open to begin with. The Marines needed a better tactical position to defend, now that they were virtually pressed together in a tight circle around the relay. “Jun!” he shouted to his highest-ranking engineer. “Give us some cover!”

Malon, who had been attached to the team personally by Admiral Koris, understood Reegar perfectly. She and Uldinn swiftly shaped their charges and attached the explosives onto Communications Relay 227, which had completed its purpose of transmitting the intelligence packet to the fleet and was therefore of no further use to the quarians. The two engineers were no further than five meters away from the charges when they were remote-detonated, and the rest of the squad wasn’t much further either, but so well-directed were the explosions that no one was hurt, and the relay tilted and toppled precisely in the direction the quarians needed it to: In the direction of Corporal Numa. Of course, the pylons didn’t hit the team’s FNG, although Numa was none too pleased about it (“You fucking bosh’tets! You almost fucking killed me!”). Now the quarians had better cover from which to fire back at the enemy, ducking in between the relay’s pylons.

Reegar dashed over to grab Domo and haul her over to the toppled relay, but discovered that she was dead. The squad couldn’t spare anyone to treat her wounds, which were too extensive for medigel to compensate for. Her finger was still on the trigger when Reegar found her. Unwilling to leave her body to the Reapers, the staff lieutenant shoved a proximity mine under her corpse and jumped back into the relay; half a minute afterward, it detonated, taking out several Marauders that got too close. It was T-plus 194 minutes, and half the Marine squad was neutralized.

Fighter-based mass accelerator rounds suddenly rained down from the sky, causing explosions close to the Marine positions, but effectively tearing up several lines of Reaper forces. In space, the Eternal just had its drone complement restocked, and although the carrier couldn’t approach low orbit to give the quarians fire support, the hole in the Reaper defenses created by the fifteen-ship naval task force distracting the Reaper ships allowed the Eternal to sneak in two squadrons of drones into Palaven’s atmosphere. Half were shot down before reaching their programmed destination, but the other half managed to thin out Reaper ranks before being shot down themselves. (The limited effectiveness of the air strike, in Resvirix’s opinion, fortunate; Reapers considered their ground forces disposable but in no way wasted them, particularly since Palaven was proving harder to conquer than any other homeworld. Having an intact army of Marauders around the quarians was probably why the Reapers didn’t just blast the position, especially with allied relay-to-fleet transmissions already intercepted.)

The air support gave the quarians some room to breathe. Trinity assessed that there would not be a better chance for the Marines to evacuate, leaving the geth-controlled Rosethorn turrets behind to both cover their escape and act as decoys. “Creator Reegar, we advise your extraction as soon as possible,” she said. “Vessels in orbit are ready to receive transfer of geth runtimes in the event of destruction of Rosethorn platforms. No such hardware exists to accommodate equivalent transfer for creators.” (It’s difficult to tell with geth, but Trinity seemed to regard Reegar fondly. When I suggested this in our interview, she replied, “Data not available.”)

Reegar disagreed. Even if the squad wasn’t surrounded by an army, he had too many wounded to move at any speed that would outpace pursuing Reaper forces. He might have been able to boost their chances by leaving the wounded behind to cover their retreat, but even the improved chances for either escaping or remaining undetected didn’t look good enough to justify that course of action. “You people get out when you have to,” Reegar replied. “We’ll hold fast.”

The last Rosethorn turret fell silent at T-plus 210 minutes, forcing the geth to transfer themselves back to the orbiting quarian shuttles and leaving the Marines without fire support of any kind. But the Reapers still were not charging in to wipe out the last six Marines. In hindsight, Trinity speculated that the Reaper forces had yet to confirm the destruction of the Rosethorn system or the successful neutralization of half the squad. For whatever reason, though, the Reapers began to regroup outside the walls once more. This, however, was not necessarily advantageous to the quarians. With the exception of Reema, the quarians had severe breaches in their enviro-suits. This was made worse by the Ravagers firing massive amounts of salvos at the area, which weren’t direct hits but nevertheless sent shrapnel flying everywhere. The Marines were feeling increasingly nauseous, but struggled to remain lucid as they deployed the last of their normal turrets as a last-ditch defense.

The turians finally managed to piggyback communications, connecting the quarians with Jorgal, leading the incoming but distant krogan battalion. The krogan informed the Marines that his battalion was incoming to help evacuate them (and, in a show of tact not generally associated with krogan, did not add that he was still fourteen hours away). Reegar told him not to bother, explaining that damage to their enviro-suits meant they were exposed, infected, and doomed to die anyways, uttering the now-famous last words: “We’re all dead anyways. Just make them pay for it.”

Time took their toll on the weakened immune systems of the quarians. When the Reapers mounted another assault on the Marine position at T-plus 228 minutes, the defenders initially reacted sluggishly. They likely could not have held off the attacks at long range anyways, but by the time the quarians managed to bring the brunt of their firepower to bear on the next assault, the enemy was already moving into close-range. Two Ravager shots delivered a one-two punch at Malon, the first taking out her already-weakened shields and the second blasting a hole in her chest. She was too close to Xen, who got caught in the two explosions and had his arm torn off his shoulder by the blasts; he flat-lined before the minute was out.

The quarians still had one last secret weapon. Being forced to engage at near point-blank range, the Marines exchanged their rifles and shotguns for another new weapon out of Special Projects, the Reegar carbine. Despite being classified as a shotgun, it was better described as an electric flamethrower; the weapon swiftly ionized the local area in front of the weapon, creating an arc by which a powerful electric shock could then be applied, ionizing and melting anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the blast. It was particularly effective against the Marauders, who found their shields particularly vulnerable to these weapons. Holed in, the four remaining Marines systematically took turns in firing and reloading their Reegar carbines, creating a localized ion storm that stopped Reapers from overwhelming them. They had no shortage of thermal clips to burn through, and melted the enemy at close range liberally.

An enemy grenade came in. There was no Rosethorn turret to intercept it, and although the quarians saw the Cannibal that threw it, the explosive was coincidentally thrown in such a way that it bounced wildly several times against the toppled relays, defying the attempts of the nauseous quarians to catch it and throw it back. By instinct or otherwise, Reema surmised at the bouncing around had ticked off the seconds on the grenade, and that it was just about to blow by the time it hit the ground. She used what little energy she had left to jump on the grenade, landing with it buried under her stomach. An instant after, the grenade detonated, ending messily. Reema was instantly killed, but she managed to use her body to muffle the subsequent explosion, shielding the last three quarians and buying them just a few more minutes.

Reegar was left with Service Chief Uldinn and Corporal Numa, the latter of whom was a walking casualty, fading in and out of consciousness as his immune system was basically going up in flames. All three had retreated as far into the relay as they could possibly go, focusing fire on as small a vector of approach as they could. It was tactical thinking coupled with necessity, as enemy fire had grown intense without staunch quarian opposition, and it was virtually impossible to stick one’s head out without being shot. It was insufficient to really provide insufficient cover, and the Marines knew they were just awaiting the inevitability in which they’d soon be overrun. A Cannibal managed to make it past Reegar’s covering fire as Uldinn was reloading his carbine. The service chief dropped his carbine and whipped out a handgun in time, but the Cannibal had devoured its allies’ biomass and converted it into battle plating that Uldinn’s handgun couldn’t adequately penetrate. At the last second, he managed to shove the barrel of his gun between the plating at exposed Cannibal flesh, firing just as the Cannibal fired back at point-blank range. The exchange killed both combatants.

With Uldinn dead, Reegar checked for Numa’s vitals, discovered that the corporal had flat-lined as well. At the same moment, the Reapers attempted to flush the defenders – in this case reduced to one – out of cover once again by tossing in grenades. His endurance sapped and knowing he was going to die one way or another within the next five seconds anyways, Reegar scooped up the grenades and climbed out from cover and into the open, where the subsequent explosions would do the most damage to the enemy forces that were positioned right outside.

The mission timer was at T-plus 236 minutes.

*****

From orbit, the turians watched with quiet solemnness as the screen flashed once last time as Reegar’s grenades went off, and the weapons groundside went silent, with no more flashes of gunfire or explosions. Siritii recalled bowing his head along with quite a number of other turians in respect; some others even removed their helmets. “There was a lot of frustration that we were barred from helping,” he related to me. “A lot of rage about what we were going to do to the Reapers once we had ground beneath our boots again. But, above all, a lot of respect for what the quarians managed to do when we could not.”

Coronati opened a line of communications with the remaining quarians, confirming the deaths of the groundside Marines before thanking them for their bravery and sacrifice. He then asked if quarians had any wartime burial traditions. The ranking quarian officer, First Lieutenant Hama’Jin vas Ion, understood Coronati’s intent immediately, and allegedly replied, “Cremation is acceptable. I don’t think they would mind this time.”

It was the reply Coronati was hoping for. The Defender turned its broadside guns to the planet and provided a tremendous gun salute. Small ship-based mass accelerator rounds bombarded the area around Communications Relay 227, wiping out a significant portion of the Reaper forces still gathered there before the survivors dispersed and disappeared from orbital targeting systems. Watching the bombardment from the Example’s mess hall, Vadim thought, “It didn’t make up for us losing the quarians, but it was a good first step.”

News of the heroics of the Migrant Fleet Marines squad reached as far as Alliance space. In an official statement, a spokesman for Primarch Victus praised the quarians’ noble sacrifice. “Whatever our past politics, today the galaxy stands together against a single threat,” he said. “We are humbled by the sacrifice of our allies from Rannoch, and we promise to return the honor.” Cerivix was blunter in his assessment, writing in his memoirs, “By recovering mission-vital intelligence and inadvertently helping HDI sell the ruse of FORWARD FLAME, [the quarians] were directly responsible for saving countless turian lives at Carratine District who would’ve otherwise fought blind.”

Despite being told to wave off, Jorgal and his battalion still arrived at Communications Relay 227 anyways. They managed to shave two hours off the initial fifteen-hour projection, although still twelve hours too late save the quarians. Nevertheless, Jorgal had his men deploy across the remains of the area surrounding the bombarded relay to secure the position, scour for extra weapons and resources, and to find the remains of the quarian bodies if possible. In the meantime, he looked around and observed the carnage the Marines had left behind, finding himself surprisingly impressed at the results. “A dozen suit-rats hold a position for four hours and leave a fucking mountain of corpses behind. Damn.”

*****
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Old 2012-12-30, 11:54   Link #5
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*****

The Migrant Fleet Marines had died fighting, but the turians were ready to make the Reapers pay for it, with no intention of allowing the quarians to have died in vain. The Marines had gotten the vital intelligence in Carratine District, and now the final pieces of the grand strategy had finally clicked into place. Flash-briefings were given to orbital unit involved to the operation, followed with orders to make immediate preparations for deployment. No more than sixteen hours had passed since the quarians uploaded intelligence on Carratine District that the final authorization was given for SLENDER SCALPEL, and the fleet began its offensive operations. For the ground troops, it meant amassing at the carrier’s hangar bay in preparation to land from shuttles, drop pods, and gliders. Men and women began to assemble in a stunning gathering of manpower across hangars nearly a kilometer long.

In the hours before the operation was executed, Risithi managed to make contact with the krogan commandos on the four carriers. The commandos had only been told that they needed to hand off key assets to waiting turian resistance members at a specific time and place, but at Cerivix’s insistence, they had not been told of what they had been carrying or what it was going to be used for. It was argued that this was for operational security, that secrets were best hidden when as few people as possible knew about them, and that it wasn’t discrimination against their krogan allies. Risithi, who had been fighting a losing battle against this policy, unilaterally contacted the krogan commandos to fill them in, informing them of the warp bombs they’d be carrying that’d be used to destroy the Reaper ships and how important they’d be to the entire effort to the offensive campaign. The turians were far less appreciative of the news than the krogan; HDI discovered the leak very quickly, and a furious Coronati had Risithi thrown into the brig of the Defender. But the damage had been done, so CIC was given new directions to work around the new set of circumstances when coordinating SLENDER SCALPEL.

The carriers, responsible for delivering the core manpower element for this operation, was bustling with activity as legions and battalions made final checks on armor, weapons, and ordinance. With the impression that they were not going to return to space anytime soon, the turians were armed to the teeth, carrying as much weaponry as they could. Even Blackwatch, known for eschewing extra equipment in favor of speed and improvisation, was no exception in this particular instance of preparing for every conceivable emergency. [Gunnery Chief Torin] Fidellin, like many in 2nd Platoon, was carrying a Phaeston assault rifle, a Krysae sniper rifle, a (contraband) Carnifex handgun, a Hydra missile launcher, strips of thermal clips, homing grenades, anti-personnel and anti-armor mines, several kilograms of remote explosives, two monomolecular serrated combat knives, stimulant packs, three days of rations, medigel, and several radio beacons, all of which he carried on combat armor with propulsion packs. All of it was practically heavier than his body weight, “Yet it was still light compared to all the shit the engineers or the meatshields in the heavy assault legions were carrying, to say nothing of the krogan.”

Quite a number of special operations-capable units, prominently Blackwatch but also including the 52nd Reconnaissance Legion, had armor that included propulsion packs. This caused much grumbling amongst conventional forces who would be riding in gliders, as they felt they needed the rocket thrusters to safely land in case something went wrong with their gliders (which, in the minds of virtually every turian riding the gliders, was almost certain to happen). This, of course, was a great source of amusement to the units that did have propulsion packs, as the majority of them were riding down to Palaven with the krogan on shuttles.

Blackwatch 2nd Platoon rode in the same shuttles alongside several of the Malgus commandos. To Ravakian’s surprise, Urdnot climbed into the same shuttle as 2nd Platoon’s command staff, seating the commando leader apart from E Company’s commanding officers. An awkward silence descended upon the turians, who sized up their krogan allies as their counterparts did the same. Helsrang could’ve swore his hand hovered no less than ten centimeters away from his handgun. Urdnot asked Ravakian if there was anyone she had to go back to once this was all over; the turian explained she had a husband with three underage children. “Most krogan don’t get to be fathers,” Urdnot rumbled, his voice stern but surprisingly non-hostile. “This only changed lately, but I passed up my chance because I was told I was needed here. I’m only saying this because you’re supposed to be the best the turians have to offer, so now that we’re all here about to save your planet instead of mine, do not fuck this up.”

Ravakian replied, “We’ll do our part to the last man. You get the precious cargo where it needs to go, and you’ve got an entire planet in your debt.”

“And just like that,” Helsrang recalled, “the tension in a shuttle full of super-lethal turian and krogan motherfuckers deflated like a balloon.”

It may have been just Scradius, but the turian could’ve sworn that the krogan had mysteriously warmed up to him in their own way after the whole incident with Urdnot spacing the commando who tore off one of Scradius’ mandibles. The other Malgus commandos took to calling him “the Half-Jaw”, which initially caused him to bristle at first, not knowing whether they meant it as a compliment or an insult. But with FORWARD FLAME kicking off and the odds of his survival dismally low, Scradius decided to go with the former, figuring it wasn’t going to hurt anyways. It didn’t spare him from ribbing from the 85th [Assault Infantry Legion], though, who saw fit to remind him every now and then that “krogan women like scars”.

Ordinix developed a cough that wouldn’t stop. He insisted that he was absolutely fine otherwise, no sign of discomfort or dizziness, but Lieutenant Sevihierax told him to sit the operation out. The 52nd [Reconnaissance Legion] was special operations-capable, so it was accompanying the krogan commandos to deliver the warp bombs to the resistance covertly; Sevihierax didn’t want Ordinix compromising something so crucial. Fuck that, the corporal thought. This was the largest, most pivotal operation that he would ever participate in, and he wasn’t going to miss out because of a little cough. As the shuttles began leaving the Example, Ordinix waited until Sevihierax had jumped aboard his own ship before the corporal dashed for another vessel to take him groundside with his buddies. It wasn’t until the shuttle closed its airlock and began taking off that Ordinix realized he had jumped onto the wrong shuttle, joining up with the 163rd Assault Infantry Legion instead.

On the bridge, Ixius emerged on the bridge, where Castellus was already waiting for her with status updates; it would be five minutes before the first phase of SLENDER SCALPEL began, and the entire operation was waiting for the go-code, “Ayreen”, from Admiral Coronati. The executive officer jokingly suggested that it would be enough time for a quick speech. Despite expectant stares from the bridge officers, Ixius – never having been one for grandiose speeches – simply gave them the encouragement they needed, saying, “You don’t need an old hag like me telling you how to do your jobs. You keep up everything you did for the last few months, and – spirits willing – we’ll get to the other side, one way or another. I expect to watch this ship dance tonight.”

In spite of Ixius’ words, as far as the combatants were concerned, this was it, the moment of truth. More than two hundred ships were assigned to participate in SLENDER SCALPEL, encompassing the 3rd, 9th, 12th, and and 13th Fleets under the authority of 3rd Fleet Commander Admiral Coronati. The turian ground force, reorganized under the 220,000 strong 27th Provisional Army commanded by General Resvirix, would be deployed to Palaven from the Eternal, Example, Resolute, and Whirlwind, and their respective carrier task forces. Their landing and operation would be supported by fourteen air divisions from a combination of aerospace superiority fighters and gunships. The 27th Provision Army would then join the krogan ground forces, numbering around 90,000. Accurate numbers for turian resistance fighters that were assigned to participate in supporting FORWARD FLAME are impossible to ascertain accurately even to this day (especially given the difficulty of defining the blurry line between the resistance members supporting the offensive operation and those holding the line at resistance-controlled territories), but most historians put the figure between six to ten million planetwide. Assuming the primary objective of SLENDER SCALPEL was achieved and the Reaper ships destroyed, the 3rd, 17th, 29th, and 35th Armies stationed on Menae and Nanus would be transported groundside by capital ships no longer in imminent danger of being shot down on approach by grounded Reaper ships. In the face of diminished Reaper presence on Palaven, the entire Hierarchy military would then focus on reconsolidating turian positions on Palaven and implementing new defensive strategies they learned over the past months.

Logistically, this wasn’t the make-or-break point for the Hierarchy, but it felt like it. “At no point was the turian war machine so motivated beyond professional expectations to win,” Siritii spoke of the moment. “The quarians had cleared our wounded and cleared the way, we had somehow warmed to the krogan over the last week without even realizing it, and now the allied force was descending to Palaven itself to take it back. It was dicey, and everyone knew how badly the war was stacked against us, but if we could not emerge victorious from this, then spirits help us, we couldn’t win anything at all.”

*****

-More Updates To Arrive-

That's the latest of the posted story, with the upcoming snippet being the next "chapter" in the "book". Can't wait
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