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Salvaging from Strife (Chapter Cover Art)

Salvaging from Strife
Chapter 4
[]


Ruins of Feros[]

Feros
3080


Although the air outside had once been breathable, the Word of Blake bioweapon had rapidly spread across Feros after its release and still contaminated the atmosphere years after. Unwilling to forsake the planet, the Star League had built SLAG Base to continue their operations. It was a large bunker complex, sealed against the toxic atmosphere and hardened against weapon damage. From what Jenkins had told her while testing his new equipment on Omega, the Star League Archaeological Garrison was a proud symbol of human unity and resilience in the face of adversity.

SLAG, Tali had quickly concluded, was not very friendly. Aside from herself and a few other members of the Star Hunters, she had encountered only humans in the bunker complex. Mutters and hostile stares followed her like old acquaintances through the corridors, with a fair amount directed towards the other species as well. She was careful to remain in the company of Aurigan or mercenary guards when outside the Dawn Cormorant.

The hostility was not restricted towards outsiders alone. Smithon had joked the situation in the bunker complex was the Inner Sphere in miniature. Tali could not disagree with the observation. The garrison had fractured into barely coexisting territories, different factions marking their claims with graffiti and scowling patrols. The largest contingent of soldiers was divided as well, bearing armbands with either the jagged insignia of the Star League or the fist and sunburst of the FedCom. The idling salvagers and assorted other personnel stuck in the base while Saren was engaging the human religious fanatics were not improving matters. Weapons were not being brandished openly yet, but Tali suspected it was merely for lack of an excuse.

As much Tali would have preferred to hide in the Aurigan starship, she had her duties. The Star Hunter's offensive was facing fierce resistance from the Word of Blake so far. With field repairs considered unfeasible, damaged Mechs were being brought into SLAG facilities for repair and rearmament. What spare time was left was spent processing battlefield salvage, hauled in by contracted salvagers from the frontlines.

Currently, the mood in the Mech bay was somber. The broken form of Lassie One's Jenner laid on its back on the other side of the bay, where Head Engineer Virtanen stood overseeing the recovery of the cockpit. Tali hadn't known Lance Commander Plitzky well, having seen the short man only a few times in the Mechbay, but it was the first death since she had joined, and a sobering reminder. Two other pilots had been wounded in the same battle and evacuated to SLAG for emergency treatment. Reserve pilots had already been flown out to their damaged Mechs, under orders to reinforce the current push immediately.

Jenner Light BattleMech (by Karyudo)

Jenner Light 'Mech

The Shadow Hawk Tali was working on was too damaged to take part. In addition to everything else, a lucky shot had torn off the left knee, crippling the Mech. The pilot Freeman had ejected safely, and his comrades had destroyed the Urbanmech responsible, but that did little to improve the state of the Mech. Given her skills, she had been assigned the daunting challenge of restoring the entire kinetic barrier system with a pile of incompatible components. Were Smithon not busy installing a salvaged Tomkah mass accelerator in place of the wrecked autocannon, she would have suspected hazing from her senior colleague.

The airlock cycled open with a chorus of klaxons, and a familiar Locust loped into the Mech bay. The Mech parked in an empty cubicle, where a pair of Aurigan engineers were already waiting. Jenkins climbed out of the Locust once the Mech was secured and made his way towards the Shadow Hawk.

"Take a break, Tali," Smithon had noticed Jenkins coming over and descended from the Mech. The two humans clasped hands briefly when Jenkins reached her, the engineer making some quiet enquiry.

The Mechwarrior replied, loudly and exuberantly enough for neighboring cubicles to hear, "Bonesaw bagged the Black Knight that killed Blitz. Commander says we've driven them off now." He turned towards Tali and continued with a weary grin, "You're probably going to work on it when the contract's over. The Mech had some weird mods on it."

"Stop giving her more work, Birdbrain," Smithon jested, rudely jostling Tali's suit. "you'll scare her off before we return to Omega."

"It's fine, Smithon." Tali protested mildly. "I'll just stop repairing his Locust if he keeps bothering me."

"Good luck with that, Tali. Nobody else knows what you did with the refit," Jenkins riposted. He eyed the Shadow Hawk, wincing at the exposed innards, and commented, "Don't think the Hawk will be needed soon. The Word has only one push left in them if we did our recon right."

The quarian sighed in relief. "So that means the planet is finally safe?"

"What? No!" Smithon and Jenkins both exclaimed in surprise, before Jenkins elaborated, "There are still plenty of those mad zealots around. Saren just wants something the Word of Blake hid on Feros. A hidden cache, perhaps." Smithon chuckled, some private joke Tali didn't understand. "Whatever it is, the thing is fixed and hard to move. All the Star Hunters were contracted for is securing a foothold, so Saren can reach his target."

"The Word are scattered across the city." Smithon elaborated. "The only safe places on Feros are SLAG and where the salvage operations are. Everywhere else, you might run into them."

"Wait, why isn't the garrison here fighting the Word of Blake? Aren't they enemies of the Star League?"

"They did when SLAG was first founded. It was covered by our newsfeeds, avenging the dead of Feros. I think the commander took part in one or two operations himself. There were too many battles, and always more Word of Blake forces." Jenkins briefly fell silent, glancing towards the Jenner. "At some point, SLAG changed its focus to defensive operations instead. There was some outcry, but it died down quickly when the Word of Blake mostly just kept to themselves. Most of the troops departed after that, those left are enough to defend SLAG base and what expeditions are sent out. SLAG losses have been light, and the Word takes care of most alien or illegal competition to SLAG."

"It's not our problem anyway." Smithon dismissively stated. "It's about dinnertime anyway, pack up and get some rest, Tali."

Jenkins coughed awkwardly. Tali glared at him, and he cautiously spoke, "Well, you know how I said nobody else could figure out what you did?"

At that moment, one of the engineers investigating the Locust yelled over towards them, "Hey, Birdbrain! What the hell did the bosh'tet quarian do?!"

Smithon sighed and made a rude human gesture at them. "Go over there, Tali." she grumbled, "Birdbrain just volunteered to cover for you."


Investigating the deeps corners of ruins[]


There was an ancient story from Terra of a famous dropship that kept getting damaged. Every time a part broke down, the Techs would replace it, but the miserly owners also repaired the broken pieces and stocked them in a depot. Over its long years of service, every single bit had been exchanged, hull, weapons, internals. Eventually, somebody looked into the depot and found there were enough pieces to assemble a new dropship in the orbital yards. When the construction was complete, there was some debate whether the new dropship should be given the old name, having been completely reassembled from the original vessel. In the end, the authorities gave it the honour, and added the numerals 'II' to the name of the other dropship.

As far as Jenkins was concerned, his Locust would never suffer the same conundrum. For starters, damaged armour wasn't worth preserving. Besides, with all the modifications and refits the poor girl had undergone since she left the Aurigan Reach, who would decide what the original was?

It certainly would have been nice to have a spare Mech though, just in case. He was sorely feeling the lack of firepower with her current configuration. Not that he was supposed to brawl with the big boys. His job was recon, but it would have been a lot easier if he didn't have to run from the Word of Blake all the time. At least his Locust was fast enough to escape, even in the urban wasteland.

Years of decay had left the roads of the city covered in deep layers of rubble. What intact bridges and highways had survived around the skyscrapers were demolished during the last few days of fighting. The towering monoliths were not in good shape either, the Word of Blake having shelled the buildings early on with LRM fire to deny dropships a safe landing site. In a testament to their durability, the skyscrapers somehow still stood, although they were now nearly strategically worthless. Calypso, Polythemus, and Scylla still perched above on standby, their sensors struggling to penetrate the haze of dust and smog breath them.

Jenkins reached the next waypoint and turned again, his Locust waggling her MGs at some krogan mercenaries in passing. After the initial frantic assault and Mech battles across the operational area, combat had stagnated into a slow game of cat and mouse. The Star Hunters roamed the surface and larger tunnels establishing a wide perimeter, while infantry hired by the Spectre searched the buildings and underground labyrinths, stretched thin by Word of Blake fanatics and the crazed survivors of their bioweapon. The defending zealots had a frustrating knowledge of local terrain and were surprisingly well-coordinated, finding and exploiting weaknesses at every opportunity.

Locust (on the Run - by Marco Mazzoni)

Locust Light 'Mech

Case in point, the radar scrambled without warning, overwhelmed by intense jamming. Jenkins brought the Locust into cover, checking through multiple sensor feeds. There had been no sign of Word of Blake activity reported nearby, and infantry patrols had swept the area just an hour ago. The rubble in the area was a maze of rooms and halls, unsuitable for Battlemechs. Carefully, Jenkins backtracked until he established a radio connection to the battle net.

"Lassie Four to Shephard One. I'm running into heavy jamming. Trying to locate the source. Don't think Mechs, terrain doesn't fit."

"This is Shephard One, I copy. Take care."

Warily, Jenkins guided his Locust onwards again, eyes glued to his sensors. Nothing else moved on his monitors as he penetrated deeper into the jamming, entering a maze of walls and debris. His unease only grew as his cameras picked up scorch marks and metallic remains. They were worn, probably from the first retaliatory campaigns from SLAG.

At last, he ran into a dead end. The jamming was originating from somewhere below him, but he could not get closer. Time to use the drones then. He chose a dark corner to hide his Locust. While she crouched amidst the millennia-old ruins, Jenkins slowly activated the drone control system.

Tali had not managed to fully integrate the drones into his cockpit controls. He hadn't understood her monologue when she explained, but apparently the alien software didn't work properly with the Mech systems. Instead, she had bolted an additional monitor and controller into his cockpit and rerouted the data feed from the hardpoint into a small alien computer. It was an impressive piece of engineering, but some technical jargon meant the Mech couldn't move while the drone was active.

With a quiet click, the alien drone detached itself from the mount and descended through one of the myriad cracks on the surface. The signal quality fluctuated due to jamming but remained stable enough. It made its way through the collapsed interior, until it emerged into a semi-open corridor.

Mummified bodies in ComStar uniforms lay scattered across its path. The grainy feed thankfully concealed the grisly features he didn't need to see. Judging by the stains, they had died violently. Further along, the gateway to the next area was blocked by rubble, so he began a detour through another hole. The image quality detoriated steadily as the drone travelled further, until he could see nothing more than outlines and vague shapes. It must be close to the jammer now.

Jenkins repositioned his Locust a few times, trying to improve the connection. Tali had mentioned setting up a drone relay, but he hadn't yet figured that option out. A few times, the link cut off entirely, before restoring after a minute or so. There were other signs of former ComGuard presence he could now recognize, half-buried prefabs and rusting trailers. There was no new sign of Word activity, which only unsettled him further.

The drone picked up audio. It was muted, blocked by walls. He ordered it to follow the sound, until the translator could begin deciphering the noise.

"Keep trying. We must retrieve the Cipher." Turian. Not recognised. Jenkins knew the bioweapon brainwashed aliens and humans alike, so it was probably a scavenger, kidnapped by the Word remnant.

"I cannot feel a mind here, Saren. You ask me to meld with a corpse." Asari. His mind reeled more at the name. Was the Spectre working with the radicals against their back? It could be a translation malfunction, or maybe the jamming wasn't hostile after all. The drone couldn't get any closer to the speakers, the next wall too solid to circumvent.

"The Thorian must be alive. The thralls are still protecting it." The turian again. The meaning of their conversation was indecipherable to Jenkins.

The asari spoke again. "It isn't actively commanding them. If there were a brain, it is long gone. What is left is mere tissue without thought, running on instinct. I…no, there is an echo left in the nerves. Give me a moment. Nothing, just the same command from the Thorian as the other tendrils. 'Protect me'." The aliens were speaking in riddles. He recorded their dialogue, nonetheless. A better translator, or maybe a native speaker, could provide some clarity.

"Spirits. Unless a Prothean appears, this was our best chance to find the Cipher."

"Saren, we found something." A third speaker, asari. There was audio of footsteps moving away, vibrations in the ground. Jenkins ordered the drone to follow. It darted around obstructions and blockage, chasing after the mysterious strangers. After far too long, it finally reacquired their voices.

"…track down the project. The humans must have left agents on the planet. Start with the medical center. Interrogate the researchers and recover their database." This time, the translator identified Saren. An asari spoke, but the drone failed to pick up her words. "Did you forget who I am, Benezia?" Saren spoke again.

Without warning, the drone emerged into an open space. The garbled feed showed a perplexing tableau. A turian surrounded by asari, turning to face the camera. ComGuard equipment with flickering monitors. A large plant-like growth protruding from a wall of rubble. The signal cut off abruptly. Jenkins doubted it was the jamming.

He sat there in his dormant Locust for what felt like an eternity, heart hammering rapidly. This was all way above his pay grade. Saren, attacking the medical centre? That meant he was attacking SLAG, where Lady Arano, Tali, and so many others were. Jenkin's training kicked in, pushing through the numbness. He had to warn the Commander, warn the garrison. The Locust came to life again under him, faithful and loyal.

The jamming was intensifying, previously silent encrypted channels going active. They knew he was there. If the Spectre was anything remotely like the holovids, he had likely already identified Jenkins from the drone alone. He needed to move. The Locust burst out of cover, fleeing towards the Commander's last known position. If there was one thing the Mechwarrior knew about his ride, it was that she was good at running.


When bitter enemies meet[]


On the tactical map, Lassie Four's IFF slowed down abruptly. It still moved at a decent pace, but the mass effect core was clearly offline. It cleared another block, then vanished abruptly. A yellow marker languidly popped up, marking his last known position.

"Lassie Four, come in. Jenkins, respond!" Rosby's voice was still calm and collected, but Shephard knew it was only an illusion. The new, omnipresent jamming was obscuring everything beyond visual range. Contact with their mercenary allies had been lost almost immediately. The Star Hunters were blind.

"This is Shephard One to all units. Fall back to Rally Point Beta," Shephard overrode Rosby, following his own command as he continued, "dropships, prepare for emergency takeoff."

A priority signal pinged on his comms unit. The Spectre Saren rarely communicated with the Star Hunters, preferring a hands-off approach, but Shephard's translator recognized the voice all the same.

"Commander Shephard, status report." the turian demanded the moment the channel opened.

"One of my light Mechs is missing, Saren. Widespread jamming everywhere! What is going on?!" Shephard yelled back. He eyed the ruins around them as his lance blazed on. There were too many ambush positions, too many blind spots.

"Your employee ran into a Blakist ambush. My other mercenaries inform me there is a large Blakist offensive." Saren coldly replied. "Bring your dropships to ground level, now. I am finished here, and I happen to have a new offer for you."

"And just what offer exactly?" Shephard growled.

There was a brief pause on the other end, before Saren named a disturbingly high number, "or the equivalent in element zero at Citadel prices, paid at once upon completion. All I require is your dropships and sellswords for one raid, right now, no questions asked. There will be no evidence or MRB records, nobody will know you were there."

"How do I know the deal's legit?"

"Because I will be leading the raid myself. Take the deal or leave it, I have no time. I am on my way to your flagship already. Tell your crews."

A turian gunship emerged from the low-altitude fog of war, climbing upwards towards the skyscrapers. With no Word of Blake threats nearby, the pilot was confident enough to leave the protective jamming and haze near the surface for the sake of speed. Data streamed in from Shephard's sensors, giving him distance, velocity, the friendly IFF of the aircraft. The trajectory and timing matched.

Shephard didn't hesitate, cutting the link to Saren and ordering his comrades, "Shephard Lance, open fire." His autocannon spat out a stream of shells towards Saren's gunship, joined by lasers, missiles and projectiles from the other two members of his lance. Little more than debris rained down to join the surface of Feros.

The Spectre opened the comm channel again.

"Ah, so you do know." Saren's voice was disappointed, resigned. "I suspected as much."

"No, I just killed you." He was too far from Bravo. Rosby's lance was still minutes away. The scout Mechs were spread out, isolated.

"You didn't. An eye for an eye, as you humans say. You just killed four of my men."

"I don't care about them, beakie, just you."

"Touching. Consider yourselves lucky, mercenary. My offer was genuine. There will be safeguards against any further rebellion, but you can still walk out of this rich and alive, with more than enough money to buy a hundred replacements. Or you can die. Power down your Mech."

"Never," Shephard spat venomously. "not after what you did."

"A pity. I had such high hopes for the Butcher of Torfan." The line broke off.

Above, explosions rippled through the skyscrapers. Screams from the trapped crews filled his cockpit as they plummeted, the dropship engines still warming up, too late, too slow. Warning chimes of hostile targeting locks joined the nightmarish din.


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