Chapter 1: Flow
Time seems to slow.
It happens, more and more often, in the heat of battle. Flow, the psychologists call it. The perfect moment when mind and body come together completely, effortlessly, in service of a task. Her gun is an extension of her arms, her eyes and ears and other senses drive it without conscious thought. Her armour is a second skin, weightless, strong, servos and actuators responsive to her every motion. Her feet propel her nimbly throughout the battlefield, over obstacles large and small, sprinting sliding kicking. And, behind it all, her brain watches and waits, determining new tactics and developing orders that her mouth issues with calm authority.
There is a joy in it, in flow. Should you not delight in perfection? Savour each sweet moment with fierce pride?
Sometimes, when the spell breaks, she feels sick at the slaughter she has so effortlessly wrought. At others, she feels triumph. Pleasure. Relief.
She's never been sure which is worse.
This is different, though. When she flows, she is barely in her body. She is the battlefield, in every spent clip and sudden movement. Here, now, her world is limited to herself. She can feel heart beating, too fast, too fast. Her blood rings in her ears, taints her mouth. Each breath is an agony, her ribs cracking and popping the way Rachni corpses do when you tread them underfoot. Other pains. Burns beneath her flaking armour, hot and tight. Warm blood leaks sluggishly from her side. Her ankle wobbles, taking her knee with it. Her arm grinds, her shoulder freezes, her fingers stick out at unnatural angles and her vision blurs, darkness creeping in at the edges.
And she is tired. So very tired. The light calls to her.
She takes a step forward, every muscle protesting, joints burning with agony. And another. A third and fourth follow before she looks up, one final time.
Earth fills the sky.
Reapers hang heavy above the destruction, ungainly vultures in the night. Around them flit glittering shards of light and dark to dance and die in silence. Geth fighters. Alliance frigates. Quarians and turians and salarians and asari and a half-dozen other races in a myriad of ships. Fighting the hopeless fight to the last man, all because of her. Because she had spent over a year working, begging and cajoling and wheedling and pleading to finally make them understand what was at stake. Because she, herself, had fought.
She looks back down at the branching path before her. Three options. Destroy. Control. Merge. But they aren't options at all, not really. They're simply three flavours of genocide.
"No," she says, so softly she's not sure she formed the word.
"No?" The child of light sounds confused.
She glances down the path to her right and the red glow and thinks of the geth and the quarians, sharing a world once more. Of EDI, freed from her shackles to fly the stars and find herself.
"No. This is wrong."
"This is the only way."
She glances to her left, remembers the bowels of the Collector ship and the face of the newborn Reaper, remembers Saren and Benezia and the beatific release in their eyes in the heartbeat before they died.
The Illusive Man's eyes are blue. Were blue.
"The only way that you know."
"It is the only way to prevent all organic life from being exterminated. To end the cycle, you must choose."
Ahead lies the light. It calls to her still. She can feel the hum of it in her bones. In her mind. She stares at it for an eternity, and then down at her broken hand. Dull grey is visible through the red tears in her skin; there are wires where tendons should be, carbon instead of calcium bones. She is already a hybrid thing, and not because she willed it. The Reapers' abominations, twisted amalgams of synthetic and organic, are a still larger violation. Mindless. Soulless. Uniform.
And then she remembers the stark beauty of the geth server and the echo of their memories in her mind. Her fingers flex and tremble and her hand is still a human thing, made by humans for a human. She remembers the Crucible itself, the impossible completed in months as dozens of races brought their unique skills and talents and resources to bear. The build site had been all noise and mess and arguments, equal parts discovery, desperation and frustration.
Her mind drifts to her crew. Her companions. Her friends. Garrus. Tali. Liara. Not one among them the same. Not one of them without conflict. And yet it's only thanks to them, working in concert, that she stands here, in this place, at this time, able to make this choice. Together they have faced the incomprehensible, done the impossible.
Chaos. And from chaos, a kind of order. Neither the stagnation of perfection nor the destruction of unfettered anarchy, but balance.
"Then the cycle will continue. The Crucible will be destroyed. Reapers will consume you. And at the end of the next cycle they will return."
"Then you must choose a Solution."
She smiles and shakes her head sadly as she turns back to face the boy-god. His expression slips from benign tolerance to confusion and then into petulance.
He will never understand, she knows in this instant. The embodiment of Order, it is beyond him.
"I already have," she says, almost dreamily.
Her arm drifts up of its own accord.
"You can't control us anymore. We will take out place among the stars. Your time, your order is over. There will be growth and change and life and chaos-"
Her finger caresses the trigger and pistol flicks off a single shot.
"-and it will be wonderful."
And there is triumph. Pleasure. Relief.
Her chest heaves and she jerks awake, spluttering, spitting blood and teeth. It hurts to breathe. Hurts to think. Someone is screaming in her ear, voice tinny, frazzled with static and mad with desperation. She ignores it and stares into the sky instead, trying to get her bearings.
The sky is on fire. Dark shapes move beyond it, sleek and unfathomable. And, in the near distance, a pillar of light. It calls to her.
There is something she has to do. Something important.
She struggles to sit up, debris cascading down from her chest armour. Cracked, splintered and peeling in a dozen places; it falls apart completely when she fumbles at the emergency release catches. Her helmet, casing cracked down the middle and equally useless, follows. She can smell sweat and blood and smoke and other dangerous things. Death.
Another minute of clumsy effort and her legs are free. They've fared slightly better, but the release pins on her left leg armour have bent and jammed and the actuator on the right is shot, simultaneously paining and hobbling her.
With that effort, though, she is spent, and she lies back against the rubble, eyes closed, listening to the sounds of battle. The pop-pop of small arms fire and the solid crack of a sniper. The reverberating whuuum and sizzle of beam fire, the roar of rockets and concussion of grenades. Screams and whimpers. Howling wind. And, beneath that all, the bone-deep rumble of Harbinger on the move and the unearthly bass scream of his weapons' fire. The other sounds die a little more after each blast, the chaos of the battle slowly giving way to silence.
Silence. Peace. Order
The realisation hits her like a thunderbolt, memories flooding back, and she sits bolt upright in horror, ignoring the pain.
They'd been in her head.
They'd been in her head. The Reapers had been in her head.
She forces herself over, getting first one knee beneath her and then the second.
The Reapers had been in her head.
She is standing, now, swaying, stumbling, running towards the pillar of light. The ground falls away beneath her feet; she flies. Shadows lurch and loom towards her; they fall behind, screaming in fury. Projectile fire cracks and hisses across her path; she ignores it, to focused on her goal to care and too enraged to notice if she did. The world slows and the blinding beam rushes forward to meet her through the red mists of her fury.
They had been in her head. They had tried to control her, make her surrender. They had tried to make her give up at the very last, after all she has done and been through.
She will kill them all.
Chapter 2: Spotter
Garrus swears and struggles to free himself from underneath a pile of rubble, including a slab of concrete the size of a pool table. His face is on fire. It's even worse than when he took that damn rocket to it on Omega - he must have lost a mandible at the least, but doesn't dare reach up and check, even if he could. Concussion too, from the feel. He's probably lucky that he didn't lose an eye. And, ah yes, his chest carapace is broken. He can feel the pieces grinding together as he squirms, trying to wriggle free, and his breath leaves his mouth in one pained hiss.
He swears again, with more feeling, when he realises can't escape, not without help. One of his legs is caught on something, and he can't move it, the rest of his body or the rubble enough to get it loose. Not for the first time he wonders why the hell his people evolved to be so damn spiky. Certainly, being equipped by nature to impale your enemies upon your extremities is a wonderful thing, but it's a distinct disadvantage in tight spaces. Attempts to clear away the crap above his head prove just as futile; pinned as he is, he can't get the leverage to lift anything more than a few inches.
Panic starts to set in. He's trapped. He's trapped in the middle of a warzone to end all warzones and he doesn't know where Shepard is. He's supposed to be with Shepard. Shepard and Vakarian, storming hell together. That's how wars are won.
He renews his struggle with new fervour, and is rewarded by an agonising pain in his leg, a cascade of dust from above and a voice:
"Vakarian? Vakarian, do you live?"
"Javik? Javik, is that you? Over here!"
He hears uneven footsteps getting closer, concrete and stone crunching under heavy boots, a grunt of exertion and then a piece of sheet metal comes away. He stares up, blinking through the rain of dust and dirt, into the face of the last Prothean.
Javik looks as bad as Garrus feels. Worse, even - he's missing an arm from the elbow, and his overlarge head with its blinking yellow eyes is splattered with gore and marred by burns from beam fire.
Garrus doesn't bother with niceties. He doubts Javik would care in any case.
"Where is she? Where's Shepard?"
Javik grunts and heaves another piece of rubble away, enough so that Garrus is able to sit up at least, and points.
On the opposite side of the crater, he can see a familiar shape staggering upright, one hand to her head, the other dangling uselessly at her side. Relief washes through him as she begins to move, stumbling at first but quickly gaining speed until she is hurtling down towards the Citadel beam. That relief quickly turns to horror as he realises, first, that she's not wearing her armour and, second, that Reaper reinforcements are charging down their own side of the crater towards her.
They'll be on her in seconds, and she doesn't seem to have noticed them. She doesn't even have a gun.
"No," he breathes.
His talons scrabble furiously at the ground either side of his body and, miraculously, come up with gold: his rifle. Or, rather, the rifle Shepard had given to him. Black Widow, Spectre-issue, top of the line, she'd left it for him to find in the Battery after their impromptu shooting match on the Citadel. The bright yellow ribbon and matching bow adorning it were, apparently, her idea of a joke (Shepard has never been a natural comedian), but she'd evidently put some thought into the gift. It came pre-equipped with his favourite mods, and the stock is engraved with a short, four-word phrase in one of Earth's few remaining non-Standard dialects: L'audace, l'audace, toujours l'audace!
His hand brushes over the words.
Audacity, audacity, always audacity. He'd had to look it up.
"They're coming," Javik says. He doesn't mean reinforcements. Things are moving in the darkness behind them, chittering and growling. He doesn't have time for them.
"Keep them off of me."
He wipes the blood from his brow, braces the rifle, picks his target, closes his eyes and exhales.
"Come on Vakarian," he says quietly to himself. "Show her how it's done."
The husk nearest Shepard all but explodes in a fountain of gore. The next shot takes two out at once - one through the head, one through the throat - and he feels a small glow of satisfaction. He might not be able to chase after her, run at her side, but he can damn well make sure that she gets to where she's going. A cannibal appears: his first shot takes it in the shoulder, spinning it around; the second, through the back of its head and the third through its spine. He's lining up the next kill before it falls.
He can hear the sounds of battle behind him - the scream of a banshee and Javik's answering howl of rage. He ignores them, his world narrowing to the view through his scope, time slowing as his slips into the old, familiar rhythm: aim, fire, reload. Marauder. Husk. Husk. Brute - can't kill it, cripple instead. A trio of cannibals. Ravagers lining up on the crater lip. More husks.
His every shot is perfect, and none of the monsters get close enough to touch her. And then... and then his last clip is empty, his rifle hot to the touch, and she is through.
Shepard hurtles headlong into the beam which winks out instantly, plunging the crater into a sudden darkness that leaves him blinking. A few seconds pass for the change of circumstances to sink in and then Harbinger - the only word for it is screams. The very earth resonates with the explosion of sound, and the noise is such that Garrus is forced to drop his rifle to try to protect his hearing despite his combat dampeners. Even then, when the sound dies and Harbinger launches itself into the sky, he's left deafened, dazed and reeling from the assault.
He curses, because it seems appropriate, and then again, with more feeling, when he realises he can't hear himself speak. A third, much shorter burst of profanity follows when Javik's limp body hits the ground heavily beside him, rolling slightly down the incline, and he looks up, over his shoulder, into the maddened, dead eyes of a marauder.
It's been a good life.
Chapter 3: Waking
She has no idea how long she's been walking for. Minutes, hours, days... her entire life, perhaps? It's almost as if time has become something that only belongs to other people, something that she discarded along with the bulk of her armour back on Earth. There is ever and only the never-ending now, and she is propelled along it by the simmering fuel of her rage, buzzing in her head and tingling throughout her body.
She will kill them all.
The Citadel corridors through which she staggers are completely deserted. On some deep, distant level, she realises that this is completely wrong: when planning Hammer, they'd discussed what they were likely to find aboard the sealed station, developing scenarios covering everything from millions of trapped, starving civilians to a fully-fledged Collector installation. A ghost-town was not among their projections. Then again, they'd also planned for more people to reach the Citadel than one solitary, desperate, dying Spectre.
As if in response to her thoughts, she hears a groan and a faint voice ahead.
"Shepard? Shepard, is that you?"
Her rage fades, to be replaced by a relief so strong that her knees go weak with it.
"Garrus!? Garrus, I'm coming!"
She forces her battered body into a broken, lumbering run, rounding the last corner to burst out onto the light, airy expanse of the Presidium commons. She looks around wildly for him.
"Where are you?"
He's slumped on a bench overlooking the waterway that cuts through the heart of the district, near one of the waterfalls. His rifle is at his feet, scored and scratched.
"Followed you up," he says as she approaches, and coughs. There's blood in it, from the sound. "Didn't want you to hog all the credit."
"Well, credit goes where it's due," she counters with forced cheer, coming to stand alongside him. A glance and a decade's worth of combat experience are enough to know that he's in a very bad way. Too bad a way to survive. His armour is missing in a dozen places, his jaw broken, mandibles torn, and there's too much blood, streaking his face, pooling at his feet. She shudders to think what's hidden behind his remaining armor, and his own exoskeleton. He sways slightly as he tries to sit up straighter, slumping straight back into another coughing fit.
"Heh," he grunts when it subsides. "Well, at least I made it here with you. Hell of a view."
The two of them stare out over the Presidium. It's beautiful, green and blue and vibrant. The trees and bushes rustle in the wind generated by the ventilation system. Birds coo and whistle to each other from high reaches; warmth and light beat down from the sky-strip above.
If she closes her eyes, she can imagine, for a moment, just for a moment, that she's back on Earth.
"You look like hell," Garrus says gently, interrupting her thoughts.
"Look who's talking. I thought I told you to duck."
"Well, I was a bit preoccupied trying to, you know, stop an obviously suicidal Specter from getting blow all to hell and dooming the universe. Seriously, though, you should sit down for a moment. Take a load off." He clumsily pats the seat beside him. "Get your breath back."
She shakes her head, wincing as the motion causes pain to flare behind her eyes.
"Can't. If I sit down, I won't get back up."
Garrus looks up at her. His eyes are clear despite the plain he must be in.
"Would that be so bad?" he asks softly, "To just... sit here and let all... slip by?"
She's tempted, in that moment, so tempted that she can hardly breathe for the thought of it. It would be just so easy to take up the seat beside him and pretend to be someone other than who she was. They could sit, together, in this empty, timeless, beautiful place and let the galaxy burn. No-one would ever know.
She wouldn't have to pretend very long either. She can feel herself dying by inches.
It would be easy for a single ship to get lost up there, wouldn't it?
A shared smile of longing and regret. And love.
Yeah, it would.
To find some place very far away where you could spend the rest of your life in peace, and happiness.
A light kiss, another smile.
Right now, there's no place I'd rather be.
Her eyes fall back open and she comes to sudden stop. She wasn't even aware that she'd closed them, or that she’d started moving around the bench.
"Garrus, I can't."
"Shepard-“ His hand darts out and grabs her arm. His grip is like a vice. "-stay with me. Please."
"I have to go!" she insists, struggling to break free.
"Stay," he insists in return, pulling her towards him with surprising strength. His voice cracks and wavers. "Please, Shepard. I... I don't want to die on my own."
"Garrus, if I don't go now, everyone will die." Her own voice, she hears, has become rough with the emotion that threatens burst her chest, and she throws everything she has into breaking his grip. She fails. "Everyone. You have to let me go. Please."
"Stay with me. Please."
Her pistol is in her free hand before she realises that she’s pointing it at him.
"Please, Garrus, I'm begging you. Let me go. Don’t make me do this."
"I... I can't," he says, and she looks at him - really looks at him - for the first time. His eyes are blue. Too blue. The blue of Saren. "I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry too," she whispers, tears blurring her eyes. “I’m so sorry.”
"I'll be waiting for you."
The crack of the shot is far too loud and final.
Her head is going to explode with it. Someone is driving red-hot spikes through her eyes and into the back of her brain. She falls to her knees, hands pressed to her skull, fighting the overwhelming urge to just bash it against the nearest hard surface until it stops. And then, just as quickly as it comes upon her, it's gone, shadows swimming out of her vision, allowing her to stand back up on trembling legs.
She's on the Presidium, in the heart of its night cycle. Fires flicker in the distance, plumes of smoke climbing and curling up towards the sky-strip. Beside her is bench on which Garrus sat, just moments before. There's no Garrus, however. In his place are a clutch of Salarians, barely more than hatchlings, half-buried under the body of an asari, their late and equally mutilated protector. Their dead eyes stare, unseeing, at the projection of dark and swirling clouds.
Shepard throws her head back and screams.
Chapter 4: Upended
The marauder screams as the blade tears through it, starting from its belly and ripping upwards, out through the shoulder, with enough force that it's lifted clean off its feet before flesh and bone and exoskeleton give way completely. Garrus can do little more than stare in open-mouthed surprise as the now-lifeless corpse is flung aside like a ragdoll, spraying him with more blood and other viscous things.
Seconds ago he'd been certain he was going to die. Now this. He struggles to make out the face of his saviour through the smoke and darkness, and his shock redoubles when he does. What are the odds..?
He's never been so glad to see a krogan in his life, let alone this krogan.
Wrex flicks blood from the shotgun's bayonet with nonchalant ease, grins and says something to him as the rest of the krogan squad fans out, surrounding them in a protective circle.
"What? I can't hear you!" he shouts - or hopes he shouts - gesturing towards his head.
Wrex leans down towards him and fairly roars in his ear. He can just make out the words.
"I said: are you just going to lie on your ass all day, Vakarian? We've got a war to win!"
Two from the squad peel off and start clearing away the remaining rubble trapping him. Within mere seconds he's free. He wiggles his feet cautiously, testing, and concludes that the damage could have been much worse. His armour did its job for once. Standing, though, will be the real test.
"Well, actually I was just thinking about retiring here," he says shakily, accepting Wrex's outstretched hand. "I think I'll put the house just over... there. Something light and airy."
Wrex just shakes his head, and hauls him, wincing, to his feet.
"Can you walk?" The krogan's voice comes through more clearly this time, and Garrus realises he can just - just - make out gunfire around them. From totally deaf to only mostly deaf. His day is getting better by the second.
He tests his weight on his previously trapped leg and finds it stiff but otherwise good to go. He just wishes he could say the same for the rest of him. The rift in his chest has re-opened and he suspects it's going to start really hurting any moment now. Worse, the euphoria of fear and adrenaline are rapidly fading, leaving behind fatigue and a lot of nasty little chemical by-products. He's aware that he's trembling slightly from their wash. Wrex, at least, has the good grace to pretend not to notice.
"I... I think so."
"Good, 'cause we're going to be running in a minute. Northern flank's collapsing. We're falling back to a better position before we're up to our asses in harvesters or worse." He pauses, hesitating to ask the question, and then nods once towards the dark centre of the crater. "Shepard make it?"
Garrus manages a smile, and then wishes he hadn't when what remains of his face reminds him of the indignities so recently inflicted upon it.
"Of course Shepard made it. It's what she does."
"Of course." Wrex grins, scoops up Garrus' rifle and throws it to him in one fluid motion, followed by a few spare clips. Then his expression sombres again. "Wish I'd got here sooner. I should be up there."
Garrus sighs, thinking of the lone running figure. Of Shepard, battling her way through whatever hell lies on the Citadel, without him. Without any of them.
"You and me both. And Javik-" The two of them look down at the wrecked, lifeless body of the last Prothean and Garrus sighs again. There's no time for speeches. "Well, at least it's how he wanted to go."
Wrex nods, rests a surprisingly light but companionable hand on his shoulder, and then turns back to his squad.
"All right you bunch of miserable pack of vorcha! We're done here. Fall back to the FOB."
"Fall back!" one of the younger, less scarred Krogan shouts back, alive with bloodlust as he mows down husk after husk with his brothers in arms. "Krogan don't retreat! I'm not-"
Wrex grabs the youth by his hump as he starts to charge forward, away from the group, and hauls him bodily around so that they're face to face. He jabs with an angry finger up towards the sky.
"Shepard's up there right now fighting to give us a better future. You just want to throw that away? We fall back, we live, we kill Reapers and tomorrow our sons will tell stories of our glory." He releases the youth with a hard shove and spits at his feet. "Well, mine will at least. Your choice."
She makes it to the elevator, trying hard not to pay too much attention to her surroundings. To the mountainous dead. She's already lost the contents of her stomach once, and she can't afford to do so again. The effort of being sick had been nearly enough to end it, there and then, and it took every remaining shred of her willpower to get back up onto her feet once more after collapsing.
It may still prove enough to end it, anyway. She can feel her body starting to shut down. There's blood in her mouth again. She can't feel the fingers of her left hand. Fine tremors wrack her, and there's a pained whimper hiding behind every shallow breath. She wants nothing more than to sit and sleep. There's nothing left now, not even adrenaline. Not even rage. Just dreadful purpose.
...will... kill... them...
She should have stayed with Garrus. But Garrus... Her head swims as she struggles to remember. Garrus hadn't really been there. They were in her head. She has to remember that. The Reapers had been in her head. She can't trust anyone she sees.
She presses the call button, noting absently that she's leaving a smear of blood behind, and rests her head against the cool metal surface. Her eyelids start to droop, and she forces them back open, staring with fixed, mute fascination at the display, counting down along with it, trying to remember what each level holds. She's only seen this part of the Citadel in her briefings. 15th floor - some famous drell art gallery or another. 13th has a moderately-sized C-Sec office with two holding cells and a small armoury of non-lethals. Banking on the 10th. Restaurants and shops on the seventh - it's the one with the overhanging balcony with the glass floor. Bureaucrats and more bureaucrats on the fifth and fourth. And on the third...
She actually laughs when the lift comes to an abrupt halt two floors above her and stays there. It's a clear case of either laugh or cry and, in the end, she actually does both, letting it burble forth even has she jabs clumsily at call button again and again. She's come all this way, only to be thwarted at the last by a recalcitrant elevator? Why does the universe hate her so damn much?
Because you fight the natural order of things comes the answering thought. It's not her own. Too deep. Too smug. Too knowing. Because you do not know your place.
Her anger flares back to life, exploding out from her heart like a supernova. She knows that voice. It even has a name. One word. One fucking word.
She. Will. Kill. Them. All.
She straightens as much as she's able, wipes her eyes with the back of a gauntleted hand, and punches the elevator call button so hard that it shatters. Seconds later, the lift answers her summons, and she limps through the open doors.
Tali and Legion are there, waiting, talking. They look up as she moves towards them.
"Shepard! Excellent timing. We've got something to show you. You know that Reaper we blew up on Rannoch-"
The door closes behind them. The pistol is warm in her hand.
Chapter 5: Turning
They lose three of the company during the retreat, two to a banshee's kiss and the other to the jaws and crushing embrace of a brute. Garrus is only saved from joining them by Wrex, once again, who picks him up bodily and carries him for a good half-kilometre's worth of sprinting over rough terrain until they meet up with other retreating forces.
The indignity of it is almost enough to make him wish that the Reapers will win; if they live through this, Wrex will never let him live it down.
And if the furious retreat hasn't done any wonders for his self-esteem, it's done even less for his chest. And his head. Garrus is seeing stars and leaning on Wrex for support by the time they make it back to the FOB. Shaking. Sick. Wheezing. But his people expect stoicism from their leaders, and, quite by accident, he's found himself counted amongst their number. So he ignores the pain and draws himself up as best as he's able, striding towards and then through the gates under his own power.
It's pure chaos inside, despite the best efforts of the NCO's to shout and bully things into line. Beyond overcrowded with the remnants of Hammer, the place stinks of fear and grim determination and too many bodies crammed into too small a space. Soldiers of a half-dozen different species look up from checking weapons, preparing defences and tending to the wounded as Wrex and Garrus force their way through the throng. Evidentially some of Shepard's magic has rubbed off on them: some of the weary stares contain flashes of recognition and hope that are at once inspiring and terrifying.
They're almost at the path leading up the CIC when a grey and purple blur separates itself out from amongst the milling horde of dazed and determined soldiers to slam into his chest, wrapping him in a hug that is far too strong for a figure so slight. The hug is welcome, more or less; the impact, not so much. For a moment he's certain he's going to pass out from the pain.
"Garrus! You're alive!"
"Gnngh. Tali, easy-"
"Oh! Keelah! You're injured!" She releases him from the hug and quickly steps back to look up at him, giving his head a chance to clear. "I'm sorry."
"Just a few scratches," he assures her when he can breathe again, really wishing that this was, in fact, the case. "Some medi-gel and a few staples and I'll be fine."
"That's good," she says. There's a smile in her voice, almost giddy. "You'll need your strength for when this is all over, because I've decided that I'm not quite done using you yet."
"And here I thought it was just a summer fling." He finds himself grinning - or as close to grinning as he can currently manage - back. It is good to have somethi- someone to come back to. Wrex though, is rolling his eyes at the two of them, so he moves onto a less personal topic of conversation. "How are things here?"
"Could be better. Could be worse. We're holding our own at the moment, but we're picking up a lot of movement across the river. It looks like they're getting ready for a big push-"
A new voice interrupts before Tali can get much further into her analysis.
"Garrus! You're alive. Thank the Goddess." It's Liara, approaching cautiously. Her face, so often an impassive mask these days, is full of unguarded fear, and her customary white and blue armour streaked with smoke and blood of several different colours. "We heard that someone made it through the Conduit, but I haven't been able to confirm-"
"It was Shepard. She made it," he assures her before she can ask the question, reaching out to gently squeeze her shoulder, and watches the fear change to equally unguarded relief. It's a stark reminder of both how young she is - relatively speaking, of course - and how this war has changed her. Changed them all, really. Funny to think that, just a few years ago, he'd been a hot-headed C-Seccer without a much to look forward to other than a promotion or two, maybe, and the slow, steady march of disillusionment and dissatisfaction.
If you'd told him then that, one day, he'd be halfway in love with a Quarian and fighting alongside her and a motley coalition of other aliens with the fate of the universe at stake, he'd have laughed himself sick. And he would only have laughed even harder if you'd told him that he'd be one of the de-facto leaders of said coalition, or that, together, they'd defeat impossible synthetic abominations, end wars centuries in the making and just generally take names and kick ass. If you'd told him his best friend would be a human, an extra-judicial goddamn Spectre and the finest soldi- the finest leader he'd ever meet, perhaps the best that the galaxy would ever see, he'd probably have died.
And that, he realises suddenly, is where it's all horribly wrong. Shepard made it to the Citadel, sure, but she'd made it alone. He's supposed to be at her side. Damnit, they're all supposed to be at her side. She is Shepard, and he is Vakarian, and that is Tali and that is T'Soni and that is Wrex and somewhere out there are Grunt and Kasumi and Miranda and Jack and Jacob and more, and all of them, together, make one hell of a team. Her team. Shepard's team. But they're scattered, and Shepard's alone. And, while Shepard on her own might be able to move mountains, she can move stars with her team at her back.
He reaches a decision without quite consciously realising that there was one to be made. His hand drops from the asari's shoulder.
"Liara, get everyone you can find together," he says with sudden, sharp authority. "Ash, Kasumi, Zaeed, Grunt - all of them. Pull whatever strings you have to, burn every favour you're owed, I don't care. Get them here." Without giving her a chance to speak he turns back to Tali. "Tali, we'll need someone to punch us a hole through to the Citadel. Shouldn't be too hard - most of the Reaper's interest will be focused on the Crucible when it gets here. The Geth might be our best bet - they'll talk to you. Wrex," he turns back to the krogan, "supplies. I need to get patched up and then I'm going to see about getting us a shuttle and a pilot worth a damn. I want to be ready and waiting when Shepard opens the Citadel arms.
"She got herself up there, but we're going to make sure she gets back home in time to watch the fireworks."
Cronos Station. Miranda's in the Illusive Man's vacated chair. But that's not right. Shepard's sure she brought EDI and Liara along on this mission: EDI because she insisted and Liara because Shepard owes her some sort of closure after Thessia. But they're nowhere to be found. And Miranda's not even supposed to be on the Normandy. And wasn't she, Shepard, just... someplace else?
Her mind skids and skips away from the thought.
"Have you ever thought about it, Shepard?" Miranda says suddenly, swinging around in the chair. "Really thought about it?"
"Thought about what?"
"We have an opportunity here to become more than human. To become gods. An existence measured in billions of years."
"Miranda, you're sounding like your old boss," Shepard snap with uncharacteristic, sudden anger. "I don't like it-"
Virmire. Ash, looking off into the distance. Kaiden dead at her feet.
"Sunset and evening star / And one clear call for me! / And may there be no moaning of the bar, / When I put out to sea."
"What's that from?" It sounds vaguely familiar, but she can't pick it. She can quote a classic or two (and a dirty limerick or ten), but poetry is Ash's passion, not hers.
"'Crossing the Bar'. Tennyson. You know, 'Charge of the Light Brigade' guy..?" Ash prompts, seeing Shepard's blank expression. "It's about accepting death gracefully, even welcoming it. He always considered it his best work."
Normandy. Bridge. Joker smiles at her, without any of his usual good humour.
"I don't know what you want me to say, Shepard. Sometimes life deals you a shitty hand. You've just got to put on your big-girl pants and suck it up."
Tuchanka. Mordin standing at the base of the Shroud, looking up, pensive.
"Ah, Shepard. Excellent timing. Important decision to make. Appreciate your advice-"
Pragia. Jack reaches out towards her, fear in her eyes behind the anger.
"Shepard, I've had to fucking fight every fucking day of my life. I'm... I'm tired of it all. I just want-"
Samara cups her cheek, smiling sadly. Solemn eyes.
"Your people have a saying, Shepard: to everything a season. A time to live and a time to die-"
Chakwas places a restraining hand on her chest.
"Shepard, I can't help you if you won't relax. Just lie down. For once, don't fight me on this-"
Kasumi, hands on her hips.
"Shep, I don't like it either, but sometimes you've just got to hold your nose-"
Zaeed. Citadel. Fuming.
"Damnit, Shepard! Bloody well listen-"
"Shepard, we need-"
The pistol in her hand grows hot, the rage burns deep within her heart and the tears just keep coming.
Chapter 6: Embrace
Liara ducks and braces against the too-thin wall, even as her inner archaeologist cringes and fumes. The historic buildings of London are simply not capable of taking the kinds of punishment modern weaponry can dish out, and it's absolutely criminal to see such careful, functional preservation and restoration work being destroyed. Not that she needs another reason to hate the Reapers, seeing as they've given her so very many (most of them, admittedly, rather more personal) but...
The whole building shudders violently and creaks around them as it tries and fails to absorb the impact, filling the air with dust and showering them with loose fragments of brick and mortar, slivers of wood and shards of metal.
On the other hand, she considers as they wait for the all-clear, perhaps she shouldn't actually be upset by the property damage. 'Historic' is such a relative term, after all. The building in which she, Tali, Wrex and Vega currently shelter, dating back a few hundred earth-years, would be considered a very recent structure by the standards of her own people. She certainly wouldn't usually bother thinking in such a limited timescale. She's rather more comfortable thinking over thousands, rather than hundreds, of years.
"Go go go!"
The four of them burst out from cover and begin their sprint up the devastated laneway, weapons drawn and firing at the horrors that jump out towards them.
But, she has to concede, even as she helps put a half-dozen husks out of their misery, these aren't the works of her people, nor were they built to their standards. Frankly, the ultimate problem is that humans, like all the other shorter-lived species, don't build to last. The 'old' ends up being continually replaced by the 'new', so anything that survives even half a millennia is considered an accomplishment. But, perversely, perhaps that's why her own people have seen their technological superiority erode so steeply over the past few generations: the renewal process takes much longer. Is that yet another trade-off for their longevity?
She skids to a stop beside Tali, crouched behind the remnants of another wall, and catches herself examining the exposed architectural structures while they wait for the remainder of the squad join them. Sometimes, she feels, it would be truly nice if she could turn off the analytical part of her brain, even if only for a little while. It doesn't seem at all appropriate to be speculating about construction techniques when they're in the middle of a battlefield and Shepard-
And Shepard is alone on the Citadel, facing Goddess knows what.
Her heart lurches hard in her chest as she allows herself to complete the thought. Maybe she is better off distracting herself with architecture and pointless over-analysis. Distracting herself with anything. Or perhaps, she kicks herself mentally as another artillery strike sails overhead, she should really just be paying attention to staying alive.
Focus, Liara. That's what Shepard would tell her if she were here. Focus, get the job done and get back alive. Get Shepard back alive. She will. And then she'll never let her go again. Losing her once had been bad enough.
Garrus does a quick head-count, and, when satisfied that everyone is accounted for, sticks his head over the wall for a look at what lies beyond, ducking back quickly.
"Ok, the park's just up ahead," he says. There's a slight hitch to his voice, and she wonders, again, just how badly injured he was when he first came back in. Worse than he'd let on to Tali, certainly - she'd overheard the field medic trying to order him to sit and rest. "Pairs this time. Tali and I will take point. T'Soni, you're with Ash. EDI, stick with Vega. Wrex, you're on your own in the rear. There's almost no cover, so watch your footing, watch your fire and watch each other."
Liara feels her heart start to race again as Tali and Garrus vault over the wall, and she and Ash and the others rise to provide covering fire. Garrus was right about the lack of cover: the two buildings, one red brick and one pale stone, that once stood either side of the end of the laneway have been reduced to ungainly piles of rubble, prompting another wince from her inner archaeologist. At least there's no time to dwell the loss, this time. At first she's too busy picking off Reaper forces pouring up the street towards them, and then she and Ash are running furiously, heads down, across the roads themselves to the comparative safety of the park. Liara slides hard up against the charred remnants of a tree trunk, popping her thermal clip, reloading and standing in one fluid movement, and then it's her turn to provide covering fire once more.
They'll make a commando of her yet, it seems.
The plan had seemed so simple, when they'd set out. Starting at the FOB in Westminster, they'd cut through St James Park and then down to the fortifications in Trafalgar Square. They'd be running into the heart of the fighting doing so, but they'd be running with their own forces, behind their own lines. From there, they'd be able to head down into the old Charing Cross station and hitch a ride back to the supply dump at Regent's Park - far enough away from the main body of fighting to let a shuttle land and depart with some semblance of safety. There they'd meet up with Cortez, Miranda and the other half of the squad, coming in from the west. After that, it was a simple matter of flying to the Citadel, rescuing Shepard, destroying the Reapers, having wild victory sex and living, as the humans say, happily ever after.
The others, of course, would not get the victory sex. At least, not with Shepard.
But it's taking too long. She knows it in her head, even if her heart refuses to quite admit it. The Reaper's promised push arrived just as they were setting out, breaking the Alliance lines entirely in places and leaving them porous in others, and the squad found themselves fighting, unsupported, as often as running towards their destination. It's taken almost twenty minutes just to reach the first park, and the fighting will only get worse as they close in on the Square. Their only saving grace is that no-one has been further injured - yet. If they don't make it to the Citadel before the Crucible fires...
Wrex completes his own dash across the street, collecting a few stray shots that ping away off his shielding. Garrus gives him a moment to catch his breath, and then they're moving again, leapfrogging north through the lifeless park from tree to dead tree, kicking up ash and leaving swirls of dust in their wake, dispatching their foes with practised ease. They're covering ground, making up time, and Liara starts to feel a little more confidant. If they can make it to the edge of the park, they'll have less than five hundred meters to go, if they head straight down the Mall, or a little longer if they detour through the back streets for better cover.
Their burst of progress seems too good to last, and it doesn't.
They have only seconds of warning before the harvester lands, heavily, in the centre of the group as they cross the muddy remnants of a lake, sending them all scrambling for what little cover remains in the desolate parkland. Liara finds herself diving down behind a rock barely large enough to shelter her prone body, and quickly tucks her legs underneath herself as the harvester sprays the ground around her with both cannons. The shots rip by so close overheard that she can feel the wind of their passage, and her shields flare in response.
There's a second heavy impact on the ground, and then a third, and then she can barely hear Garrus' shouted orders in her headset over the sounds of the harvesters as they tear up the earth around them all. When she risks a glance over her temporary and rather inadequate shelter during a momentary lull, she sees that it's not just harvesters, but ground forces as well. A lot of them.
She curses inwardly, and switches to her Hurricane.
The next few minutes fly by in a blur. She's too busy trying to stay alive and keep everyone else alive to properly register everything that happens, and, later, she only remembers the battle in flashes. Wrex, leaping atop a harvester to turn its cannons against the other Reaper forces before blowing its brains out. EDI and Ashley bonding over inferno grenades. Herself, throwing singularity after singularity and mowing down everything that threatens to get to close to Tali, busy hacking into the corrupted geth Prime units. Vega, dodging a brute's charge with surprising grace for a man of his bulk, then watching it explode seconds later - he'd dropped a grenade into a chink in its armour. Garrus, wielding his rifle like a club to smack down a marauder getting too up close and personal, then flipping it back over, as if nothing had happened, to shoot out a cannibal threatening an oblivious Wrex. The expected and unwelcome arrival of Reaper reinforcements. The entirely unexpected and completely welcome arrival reinforcements from their own side, in the form of an Eclipse squad, complete with mech and rocket launchers.
The tide of battle turns quickly after that.
Liara's working with Vega to take down the seventh and hopefully final harvester when it happens. The banshee's upon her before she or Vega can even register the scream, and she stumbles backwards, falling hard. It grabs her forearm in one taloned hand, pulling her upwards with such force that her shoulder dislocates. She screams - she can't help it - as it continues to pull, holding her arm above its head until she's dangling, feet off the ground, muscles and tendons taking the weight meant for bone. With its other hand, it shoves a charging Vega away with a blast of biotic energy that sends him flying, then rips off her helmet so that there's nothing between its dead, black eyes and her own. The stench of it is overwhelming, like something long dead, but that and the pain from her arm are nothing at all compared to the pressure on her mind.
It wants in. She can feel it battering against her limited mental defences, wearing them down quickly, trying to force a meld, even as it begins reaving, stealing her physical energy. Darkness creeps in at the edges of her vision as she struggles to keep her mind free from it, sick with revulsion but outmatched. Her gun falls from her hand. She can hear voices behind her, people calling her name, and the sound of projectile fire slamming into a biotic shield, but remains caught in the monster's gaze, can't turn away to see them, find the words to respond. Out of the corner of her eye, over the banshee's shoulder, she sees movement, armoured figures charging towards her - but too far away to help in time. Her mind begins to buckle, and images start to seep through into her consciousness from the abomination, too fast to process, all of them horrific, grating much like the message stored on the Prothean beacon Shepard found that first drew her-
The thought is like a switch, and her body abruptly takes control of proceedings without any further input from her mind. She swings her free hand up onto one crusted collarbone, uses it to push her chest up and back, taking weight off her damaged arm, squares her body, arches her neck and, surging forward, brings her head down as hard as she can manage against the skull of the banshee.
The crack of it is clearly audible in addition to being clearly felt, and the banshee actually drops her, staggering backwards slightly. She doesn't give it time to recover, but presses the attack, charging forward with a biotically charged fist that explodes on contact with the creature's jaw, sending it flying. She takes two more steps towards it, finds that her feet are having a hard time staying underneath her, takes two uncertain steps backwards and then falls over sideways.
She's staring, blinking rapidly, at her closed fist when the first would-be rescuer reaches her. The leader of the mercenaries, a stocky asari clad in unmarked and slightly antiquated heavy armour, stops, hands on her hips, to look down at her. Vega is but a step behind.
"I thought you said you didn't headbutt people."
"Well, I thought I'd give it a try, just once," she says, looks up at the two of them, and starts to laugh hysterically. Blood is pouring down her forehead. She can't feel her right arm. And she suspects she's going to be very sick in a second. "I am a quarter krogan, after all."
Aethyta grins through her visor.
"That's my girl."
It shocks her awake, like a slap to the face or the first plunge into the sea on a stormy morning.
She's flying, untethered, buffeted this way and that by a series of silent shockwaves. Spinning. Tumbling. Arms and legs outflung in futility.
They spin past her in a blur of colour. Pinpricks of white in the darkness. Savage reds and brilliant oranges as the Normandy tears herself apart. Dull blue from the planet below.
Harsh, shallow breathing - her own. The steady, quick thrum of her pulse in her temples. Hissing static from her comlink.
Not from her comlink.
For one of the few times in her life, she panics, twisting and turning and trying desperately to find the source of the noise, and quickly confirms her fears:
She's venting into space.
It begins with a faint vibration, escalates to rumbling friction, and then she's falling, accelerating into the heart of the inferno.
She can't die like this.
So much undone...
A pair of cool arms wrap around her from behind and the pain fades into darkness.
"Shhhh. Shhhh. It's ok. You're safe. I've got you."
She leans back in the familiar embrace, trembling, letting her racing heart slow and the tension fade from her body. When she finally opens her eyes again, she's standing on firm ground in tranquil twilight, soft motes of pink and white light dancing in the air around her.
"Did you fight the whole way down?"
"Yes," she remembers, and turns in the embrace to bury her head against the asari's shoulder, wrapping her arms around her waist, as if the smell of her, the feel of her can blot the memory away. "Until I couldn't anymore."
"Why?" A hand strokes her hair. She shudders.
"I wasn't ready to die."
"What of now?"
"Are you ready now?"
She considers the question and answers honestly. She tries not to lie, not to her. She deserves better.
"I don't know. Maybe. I'm tired of fighting. I think... I think I just want an end to it all."
There's a pause, as if Liara is giving her response equal consideration.
"Perhaps we can make one, then."
"Make one? Make one what?"
The hand not stroking her hair runs down her arm to where it's linked with its partner around Liara's waist. When they come apart at her touch, Liara takes her right arm by the wrist, gently guiding the hand there to the pistol at Shepard's hip.
Her fingers close reflexively around it, unholster it, and she draws back enough to look her lover in the eyes. They're blue. So blue she could drown in them.
A wave of grief washes over her, strange and unexpected.
"Liara... Please. No." It comes out as a whisper. "I..."
Liara smiles at her, matching her sadness, and unthreads her fingers from Shepard's hair to place a finger on her lips, silencing any further speech.
"Don't be afraid. It will be alright, whatever you choose."
With that she leans forward and presses her lips to Shepard's. Her fingers slip from Shepard's wrist to cover her hand, drawing the pistol up further still, until its muzzle hovers between them, wavering back and forth, back and forth.
Eternity rushes towards them. The world goes white.
Together, locked in the kiss, they squeeze the trigger.
Chapter 7: Quake
You never quite get over the sheer size of them, the Reapers. Even the destroyers, tiny in comparison to something like Harbinger, seem to go on forever, dropping down from the sky to slam into the earth like the fist of an angry god, then rising again, on segmented legs each longer than the old Normandy, to lay waste to everything around them. The sheer power of them, the speed of their attacks, the amount of damage they can do and shrug off... Next to a Reaper everything seems so... insignificant.
That, Tali knows, is exactly the effect that they're aiming for. The Reapers have always been as much about psychological as physical warfare. You're supposed to feel awe, feel fear, think "how can we possibly defeat that" and give in, give up in the hope of a quick and painless, rather than long and torturous, death. She's felt like that before, herself, on Rannoch and at other times. But she knows now that they can be defeated, knows it in her bones and in her soul that this will all end and she will go home. Shepard has killed them before, will do it again. What's more, the quarian people, her people, know what it is to be threatened with extinction. For more than three hundred years they have taught their children the appropriate response: to spit in its eye, to refuse to be cowed and to come back stronger, cannier and more determined to survive than before. That the Reapers are too large and their eye too well-armoured for her to spit in is only a minor setback: she is Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, and she has an M-920 Cain. It's a more than adequate substitute.
She only gets one shot off before handing the weapon over to Wrex, better able to handle the recoil, but it's one extremely satisfying shot. The surprisingly quiet pock and the hard kick of the shot, the moment of breathless, waiting silence while she picks herself back up off the ground, the thunk of the shell impacting against armour and then the brilliant, blinding explosion, felt, seen and heard. The only way it could have been better was if it did actually kill the thing. As it is, the destroyer simply shudders, and again when the second and third Cain shots lance out from their company, and starts to turn ponderously to face them. The ground quakes with its every step.
"Well, that got the bastard's attention alright," the leader of the commando unit remarks to Garrus as the two of them peer up the street at the Reaper in their way. "Make your run. We'll draw its fire."
She moves to go back to her squad, only to be stopped by Liara, who places a hand on her shoulder. The younger asari still hasn't quite recovered from her encounter with the banshee: she's a bit dazed and disorientated, her right arm in an impromptu sling and her helmet off while they wait for the medi-gel to work its magic. The commandos' medic had been surprised that the damage from the head injury, at least, wasn't worse, but Liara has been unfocused enough that the squad had found themselves shepherding her carefully through the rest of the park and to their current position, behind what James says is an old human war memorial.
A strange idea - her people have had few wars and certainly never built memorials to them. The memory has always been enough.
The structure is in ruins, like everything else in the area, great stone blocks torn from their intended resting places and the heavy bronze statue broken, pieces scattered and partially melted. The initial sight of it had an odd effect on the humans in the group. Tali had noticed it in the change in their body language first, in James' white-knuckled grip on his gun and Ashley's unusually tense movements, and then caught the look that passed between the pair. One of those distinctly human expressions that she still has trouble deciphering, it seemed to communicate an entire idea in the tilt of their heads and the flickering of their eyes. Their body language had changed again after that, suddenly serious, almost predatory, as if everything up until now has been a training exercise. They're quieter too, banter gone. She doesn't know if any of the others have noticed.
"Stay alive out there, dad," she hears Liara whisper to the mercenary.
"I've got a thousand years of experience in not dying, kid. It's habit-forming." The mercenary's own hand covers Liara's briefly. "You stay safe too." With that, she turns back to the Eclipse unit. "Alright you motherless whores! Let's go show this overgrown pyjak that you do not fuck with the asari. For Thessia!"
A roar goes up from the mercenary unit, and they break from the cover of the monument, out into the street, and are quickly lost to view amongst the smoke and rubble. The Reaper, though, follows their movements with apparent ease, and it's not long before a brilliant red beam lights up the sky, answered by another short barrage of Cain fire.
"So... that's your other parent, huh?" Tali finds herself asking Liara, as they wait for Garrus to give the order to move out.
They'd talked, a lot, about family, back when they'd first joined the Normandy, back when they were both so young, naive and more than slightly star-struck by their new CO. Liara had sometimes spoken of a longing to meet her unknown 'father', and fretted about being the reason she'd left, particularly after the events of Noveria. For Tali's part, the asari had been the first person she'd ever met who really understood what it was like to be the daughter of someone as important as her own father, and the pressures it put upon you.
"Yes. She is."
"Explains a lot."
Liara grins back at her, equal parts pride and embarrassment, before ramming her helmet back on her head. With her slightly unfocused eyes and blood-streaked face, this flash of the old Liara is actually a bit disconcerting.
Garrus glances back over his shoulder at them.
"Ok people, you heard the nice lady: let's go."
It's against every instinct Tali has to run straight towards the Reaper guarding the end of the Mall, fixed, though it is, on the commando unit somewhere in the ruins to the south of them. They dart across the blackened and cratered road first, to the comparative shelter of the remnants of the buildings on the other side, hugging the remaining walls and piles of rubble. There's no subtlety, no finesse to it: they simply run, heads down, lungs burning, until those buildings fall away completely and there's nothing between them and their destination but a preoccupied Reaper.
She's not the only one to look up in wonder as they run beneath its body, dodging its legs and scrambling to stay upright at it shifts and repositions, tearing up great chunks of earth and making the ground shudder violently. Up this close, she can see all the fine detail of it, the way the armour plates taper and twist around fragile-seeming joints, the oily reflection of light from various dripping fluids, the dangling pods and sensor arrays and stranger things that she can't put a name to. It all speaks of alien and sleek malice and makes her thankful for the protection of her suit. Imagine going near that thing with naked skin! Her own crawls at the thought.
Past the Reaper now, through the debris-strewn gap that was once an archway, and into the large open space beyond. There are supposedly fortifications here, but she can't see much evidence of them, at least not anymore. Smoking ruins, yes, dead bodies aplenty... but the Reaper has been busy. And it brought friends.
The horde hasn't noticed the squad yet, which is the only mercy in the entire situation. Mainly husks with a few marauders mixed in for good measure, they've packed themselves thirty, forty deep around a single set of circular formations, just a few hundred meters away in otherwise open space. More husks pour in up the street from the east, and the mob visibly swells as they watch.
Tali has a sudden sinking sensation that's evidentially echoed by the rest of the squad.
"Don't tell me that's the station entrance," Garrus groans.
"One of them. Another one's just-" Ash says and comes to a halt, pointing at a collapsed building. "Was just over there."
"I can hear turret fire," Vega adds, and when Tali listens for it, she can hear it too, coming up through the ground. "There must still be people alive down there."
"Well, let's go say hello."
At Garrus' signal. Wrex empties the Cain into the mob, but it's very much akin to dropping large stones into a pool of water: a series of big splashes, quickly swallowed up and soon forgotten. They use up their entire remaining compliment of grenades to similar effect and, in the end, are forced into close combat to make any sort of progress. Garrus forms them up into an outward-facing wedge with Wrex and Liara at its heart, the two of them using their biotics to literally shove their way through to the station entrance, flinging the enemies in their path aside like broken toys. The rest of the squad focuses initially on keeping everything they miss back at a safe distance, and then just on keeping anyone from getting dragged away and the abominations press closer and the biotics' blasts weaken. It's difficult, dangerous, frantic work, as much hand-to-hand as gunnery, and all the while Tali is uncomfortably aware of the Reaper at their back.
It only gets worse when they force their way through the shattered defensive structures and reach station entrance itself. Walking backwards down a flight of cluttered, blood-slick stairs into screaming, echoing darkness is not an experience Tali longs to repeat, much less doing so while fighting off monsters that claw and tear at her suit, leaving it tattered and her bleeding. Quarians are simply not built for frontline combat. Desperation and adrenaline have given her the necessary strength to do her part fending off the horde, but she knows that her body will exact a steep toll for such abuse in the hours and days to come. Too many ruptures in her suit (and in such unsanitary conditions!) topped by too much physical exertion. But she'll last until they get Shepard back. She can be as sick as she likes after that, because she'll be going home.
The stairs lead to a short, straight tunnel, piled high with bodies and scored with bullet holes. Here the going is simultaneously easier and harder. On the positive side, they only have to worry about reaper forces coming at them from two directions rather than all of them, but there's no light, no room to maneuver, the floor is slick and jammed with dead and dying Reaper forces, and, to cap it off, they're being shot at by their own side. Bullets tear up the piles of meat and Reaper tech littering the passage, shatter tiles, chip concrete, ping away off their shields.
"Friendlies inbound! Friendlies inbound!" Vega roars above the din as the squad flattens themselves against the tunnel walls as best they're able. After his second bellow, the turret fire dies away and they push forward again, step by agonising step. The closer they get to the end, the thicker the bodies lie upon the floor, and by the time they reach the gate, they're packed so tightly, piled so deep that the squad has no choice but to climb over them. Mothers, father, sons, daughters; they crunch and slide and twist underfoot, tangling their feet like damp rags.
Tali tries very hard not to think about it, but suspects she'll have nightmares about the whole thing for years to come.
When they finally reach the comparative safety of the underground outpost, they're all very much the worse for wear. Wrex all but collapses against the wall beside some antiquated ticketing machines, breathing hard, eyes closed. Liara's pale and shaking, cradling her damaged arm. When she removes her helmet again, blood runs freely from her nose, oozes from her forehead. Vega and Ash have fared better, but are visibly tired and bleeding from dozens of cuts, small and large, and several panels have been torn from Vega's armour. Tali's own skin is starting to itch and burn around the numerous tears in her suit, the sensations only partially subsiding when she triggers the emergency medical system, flooding her system with a potent cocktail of antihistamines, antibiotics and antivirals. She will pay for this new abuse later, too, she knows - it's the system of last resort and she will never be able to use this combination of drugs again - but it's preferable to being put out of action now. Even EDI has not gone untouched by the battle, her once flawless 'skin' blackened, scratched and dented. They're all covered in blood, mud and worse.
Garrus is wheezing and coughing as he seeks out the commanding officer. Tali remembers his earlier injury, and wonders, again, just how severe it was. Certainly worse than he'd pretended. She had a fair idea of how to read him now, and his movements have more than once been stiff with the anticipation of pain.
"You're Shepard's team," the salarian pants, hastening over. He and the other Salarians are in no better shape than their own squad. "We heard you were coming through. You don't have much time. We'll hold them off long enough for you to get a good start. When you reach the other end, use this." He presses a detonator into Garrus' hand. "It'll bring down the entire tunnel."
"Major-" Garrus protests.
"Our orders are to hold at all costs. You're a turian, you under-"
"Screw your orders!" Garrus says urgently. "You're an infiltration unit, so be smart about this! We can collapse the entrance, get everyone out and blow the tunnel when we're all clear on the other side." When the Major hesitates, Garrus presses harder. "You'll be a damn sight more useful alive and helping to hold the line at the supply dump than dead or worse here."
Tali is so very proud of him in this moment. Ok, in all honesty she's been proud of him throughout the entire flight from the FOB, but advocating that someone else disobey orders because it's the smart thing, the right thing to do must run against every instinct he, as a turian, has. Shepard, Tali knows, would be proud too. She's taught them all well.
After another pause, the Major nods, and turns back to his squad.
"Men! Prepare to fall back. I want charges set-"
There's a series of thumps and world shakes, dust cascading down upon them from the ceiling above. Hard on its heels comes a chorus of unearthly screams and other cries from beyond the station entrance, and the flow of husks and marauders down the passageway towards them, reduced to a trickle by the squad's brutal advance, abruptly returns to a flood.
Kirrahe looks them, then at the squad, getting back up onto its feet, then back at his men.
"I need a volunteer to man the turret while I set the charges." He's moving towards a sealed crate before he finishes speaking.
There's a brief argument amongst the salarian team, and then a lieutenant steps forward, saluting smartly.
"Thank you Lieutenant. The rest of you, get going. We'll join you as soon as we're able."
"Spirits guide you, Major," Garrus says, clasping the soldier's arm.
The Major smiles back, tightly.
"I've never been one for spirits or gods. But thank you. And if we don't make it back, tell them that we didn't flinch or falter here, today. We held. Now go."
There's nothing more to say after that, and the squad runs further down into the warm, dank darkness, leaving the sounds of battle behind them, echoing down the old, tiled tunnel walls. They're just boarding the waiting supply car when the entirety of the bunker-like structure shudders violently, and the sounds of an explosion reaches their ears, distorted and muffled and echoing back in upon itself. They wait after that as long as they are able, longer than they should, then reluctantly set out once more.
The rest of the trip to the supply drop passes in darkness and silence.
Her chest heaves and she jerks awake, spluttering, spitting blood and teeth. It hurts to breathe. Hurts to think. But she has to think. She has to remember. She has to...
She has to kill them.
She lifts her head muzzily. It comes away from the floor panelling with a tearing sound, sticky with blood, and she carefully rolls over, onto her back to stare down the length of her body. Oily black shadows swim in and out of her vision. Through them she can just make out a narrow corridor, an open-plan office and, at the end of it, the firmly shut, secured doors of Citadel Point Defence.
She's made it. Almost made it.
It takes forever to crawl up the corridor and through the office. She has to concentrate on every single motion. Lift an arm. Reach out. Plant it down. Slide a leg forward. Lift the other arm. Reach. Plant. Slide. Her trembling arms give out twice, and she finds herself lying, panting, pressed up against the warm, carpeted floor, struggling to summon up the energy to keep her eyes open, let alone move.
She has to kill them.
It's the only thought that keeps her going, lets her find a sturdy chair and use it to slowly, painfully, drag herself upright. She stumbles from there, weaving back and forth, towards the door, then props herself up against it long enough to place her hand to the door scanner.
"Emergency override." Her tongue is thick and clumsy in her mouth, her voice little more than a croak, and she leaves a perfect, bloody handprint behind.
"Emergency override accepted, Spectre Shepard."
The door hisses open and she all but falls through. She feels drunk. Punch drunk. Hard to focus. Head lolling. Vision blurred. Darkness at the edges. And pain. Behind it all, behind her eyes, the pain.
She has to kill them.
She staggers forward, unsteadily, towards the opposite wall. No, not wall. Blast shield. Glass or similar with metal beyond it. Would normally look out into space, or the Citadel's closed arms. She rests against the cool, slick surface and ponders her next move. Left or right? Left? Offices. Probably not. Right? Consoles to the right. Comm. units. Work spaces. Right.
She pushes away from the glass and wobbles and weaves her way over, blearily scanning the active boards for something, anything that looks familiar amongst the dozens of screens. In the end, she must have passed the right console at least three times before what's displayed on it actually registers with her brain.
Citadel Automated Defence Systems.
With shaking fingers, she reaches out and, one by one, changes the setting for each sector of the station defence grid from 'active' to 'inactive'. Bit by bit, the console display, mirrored on the larger status display behind her, goes from green to red, then dark. The blast shield protecting the room retracts with a rumble, and then she realises the whole station is vibrating as the Citadel's great arms begin to unfurl once more. Light slowly filters in, pale blue and beautiful, cutting through the harsh red of emergency lights.
She watches the earthrise, awestruck, distantly aware that she's crying again and not caring one whit.
She's done it. Now all she has to do now is destroy the console, and she can rest. Finally, she can rest. It's all up to them now.
She casts one last lingering gaze down at Earth, draws her pistol in one trembling hand, aims it at the console and... hesitates.
That's not right. Why is she hesitating? A second thought, a second question comes belatedly: why does she need to destroy the console? There's no one else alive on the station. The headache, faded in her moment of triumph, returns in full force, and she whimpers, pressing both hands to the sides of her temples. The pistol in her right is a burning hot, hard weight against her skull. Hot like she's overloaded the thermal clip, like she's been firing it for hours.
Don't be afraid...
She lowers the pistol and stares at it through the haze of exhaustion and pain and blood loss, and remembers. She'd shot Liara. She'd shot her in the head at point blank range, felt the shock of it, felt the sigh of her last breath against her own lips, held her body tightly as it went slack against her. She'd had to choose, and, at the last possible instant, she'd chosen herself. She'd killed Garrus, too, watched the light go out from his eyes. And Tali. And Mordin and Wrex and Jack and Thane and Ashley and everyone else. When push came to shove, she picked herself, every time, just like she always has. Was it just the needs of the mission, or is she really just that selfish? Why should she live when so very many others have died, often because of her, if not at her own hand?
The pain is getting worse. There's a terrible, overwhelming pressure in her head, as if it's simultaneously being squeezed in a vice and torn open from the inside, and the pistol is burning her hand from blisters to black. She falls to her knees heavily, sending another lance of pain throughout her battered body, sitting back on her heels, swaying, rocking back and forth. Her head falls forward, her pistol arm hanging loose from her side, her other hand fisted in her hair, pressing at her temple.
But had she killed them? Really? She has been to so many places. Seen so many things. Seen so many die. It's all a jumble in her head. What is real? Can she answer that? The Reapers have been in her head. This all might be another trick. What is real? What is real?
She is real. The Reapers are real. Pain is real. Beyond that...
It takes so very much effort to lift her arm, to bring the pistol up so that it rests in her lap, letting it burn her flesh. Squeezing the trigger, with the muzzle pressed against her thigh, takes even more.
When she opens her eyes again, she's standing over the automated defence control console, one hand braced upon it, the other upraised, wreathed in biotic energy, ready to come crashing down. The board is green, the blast doors closed, the Citadel locked tight. Her body trembles and twitches with the strain of not moving, not bringing the gathered power down to bear.
You prolong the inevitable the voice comes, unbidden, to her. I sense your weakness. You are vermin. You are bacteria. And you will bend to my will. As have all who came before you.
Time seems to slow...
She can feel heart beating, too fast, too fast. Her blood rings in her ears, taints her mouth. Each shallow breath is an agony, her ribs cracking and popping the way rachni corpses do when you tread them underfoot. Other pains. Energy slowly consuming her arm, leaving burns, hot and tight, where there's still flesh to feel and nothing at all where there's not. Warm blood leaks sluggishly from her side, her nose, her thigh, her other arm. Her ankle wobbles, her knees quake and her calves and thighs and back burn and tremble with fatigue. And her head...
Her arm, unbidden, starts to descend down towards the console. She strains against it, strains to stop it with every fiber of her being. She has come so far, endured so much, and she will not fail at the last. She will not do this thing.
"Like hell I will."
With a scream she flings the accumulated energy at the blast doors, and brings her good hand down upon the console once more, sending section after section of the defence grid from green to red to dark, the display behind her echoing the cascade of colour. The blast doors retract, the station rumbles and, for the second time, Shepard stands and watches the earthrise.
There are no tears, not this time. There are no feelings left to be had other than grim satisfaction. And when it is done, when the Citadel arms are fully extended, she collapses, almost gently and, finally, finally sleeps.
Chapter 8: Regroup
The Regent's Park station has been repurposed as a field hospital, and the squad has to pick their way through and around the wounded soldiers and frantic medical personnel. They detour past a dying asari, tended to by her stoic sisters, step gingerly over a line of groaning humans laid out on blankets, pause while Wrex steadies a young krogan having his leg amputated by a harassed-looking salarian. It's swelteringly hot and humid, and the stale air condenses on the walls, drips from the ceiling as they climb the seemingly endless stairs in silence, up and out into the relief of the cool night.
At first glance it seems as though everyone left on their side has had the same idea to fall back to the Park and its supply dump. The chaos is even worse than at the Westminster FOB, with entire companies jostling for space and supplies. But, as they weave and wind their way through the scrum, it becomes apparent to Garrus that there is some kind of order to the proceedings. For every weary, depleted unit that trickles in, another reserve musters out. Attack craft land, refuel, rearm and return to the fray in a never-ending stream to the north. Humans too young or old for the front lines run messages, fetch ammo, hand out rations and serve hot tea in steaming mugs. Squads form ragged queues at quartermaster's huts while a horde of quarian technicians, gunsmiths and armourers repair, refurbish and salvage what returning equipment they can, others fixing and upgrading geth platforms. Tracers flash out from drell snipers atop the battlements, AA guns thunder and elcor squads pound around the perimeter, VI-driven cannons blazing.
Garrus has never seen an elcor equipped for war before, let alone a whole company of them. The sight, however, immediately moves them into his personal top-ten list of things he'd rather never face in battle. Or in any other aspect of his life.
They shamelessly abuse their various levels of authority to queue-jump and pilfer stores, coming away with spare clips, replacement grenades, weapon mods, medigel and energy snacks, distributed as needed amongst each other while they continue forward at a brisk pace. Wrex, as Vega notes, brings new meaning to the term 'six pack' when he cuts the top off a block of a half-dozen energy drinks and downs the lot in one go.
It's a clear sign that, between the resupply and the chance to rest on the trip up, they're all getting a much-needed second wind. Even Liara and Wrex are looking better, leaving Tali as the main focal point of his concern. She'd waved away his comments after she cribbed additional suit patches from the quarian techs nearby, saying that the damage was already done and that there was no point in worrying about it now. He still can't help but worry, though, at least a little bit. He has some thoughts as to what the numerous remaining tears in her suit mean for the future, and they're not happy ones. He'll have to make sure she gets to Chakwas or a quarian doctor immediately after they get Shepard back.
He should probably make a point of seeing a doctor too, come to think of it. He doesn't hurt all that much anymore, but there's a faint and disturbing rattle in his chest sometimes when he breathes - and that's completely overlooking the mandibles issue. The field medic who'd literally dunked his face in tub of medigel made mention of prosthetics. He hadn’t paid much attention at the time – they need to win this war, really, before he can be bothered to care about cosmetics - but, all in all, it's probably a good thing that Tali likes men with scars.
Or so she says.
"Shit, what the hell happened to you?"
They're almost at the temporary airstrip at the northern end of the park when a group of humans falls in beside them, easily keeping pace.
"It's good to see you too, Jack," he replies, glancing over at her and her students. No, not students - soldiers, he mentally amends. The students he remembers rescuing from Grissom had been little more than wet-behind-the-ears cadets, torn between terror and elation at surviving their first fire-fight. These young humans, marching in-step with the squad, are seasoned veterans, each and every one of them, straight-backed and hard-eyed. Clearly tired and completely filthy like everyone else in the vicinity, but otherwise in remarkably good condition. And every single one of them accounted for. "Any sign of the others?"
"Nah - we just got here ourselves. Came in hot from the west. Fucking Reapers are everywhere. We're all that's left of the 103rd." She shakes her head in something approaching sadness. "Lost a lot of good people."
If the students he remembers rescuing had been timid and green as new grass, the Jack he remembers first meeting had been a highly-strung ball of hatred, seething resentment and fury destined for an early, unmourned grave. While Shepard had ultimately taken her under her wing, with all that entailed, and destroying that hellhole on Pragia seemed to have brought the biotic some measure of closure, the last thing he'd ever expected to see Jack do was teach, let alone teach in a military setting. She always seemed to him like she'd be far more at home as the pirate queen she'd once claimed to have been, or maybe as one of those rare mercs who specialises in taking down slavers, rapers and other extremely undesirable undesirables.
But maybe a person's true calling doesn't always lay down the most obvious path. His certainly didn't. The same could be said for Tali and Liara, and maybe even Wrex too.
"I'm sorry," he says, not without sympathy. They've all lost of lot of good people. And will lose more before the day is out. But they will not, not if he can help it, lose anyone else from Shepard's team. He has a feeling that he’ll need them all.
Jack shrugs and states the obvious:
"It's war. Shit happens."
By now they're pushing their way down the side of the temporary grass airstrip, buffeted as much by low-flying attack craft and dropships as the crowd. The activity here is somehow even more frenetic than down the hill, with entire airframes being robbed and rebuilt in record time by swarms of engineers and techs, so desperate are they to keep up the necessary air support. Comm lines and power cables are fat snakes underfoot to trip the unwary, empty storage crates serve as temporary blast shields and the air smells of hot exhaust and eezo, cutting through the acrid, ever-present tang of ash. The chaos is such that Garrus quickly despairs of finding their shuttle quickly, but then Vega is running forward, shoving a huddle of unwary pilots out of his way.
The hulking human lifts the smaller man clean off his feet in a crushing bear hug before depositing him back down again.
"Awe, I didn't know you cared," the flight lieutenant says with a grin, not bothering the brush the specks and smudges of gore transferred from the Marine's armour to his own, rather less grimy uniform.
"Eh, all I care about is getting a ride off of this dirtball," Vega says with a relieved grin that belies such a statement. "What've you got for us?"
"Kodiak," Cortez says, banging the side of the battered craft behind him. The shape is familiar; the markings are now, a batarian designation on its side amid numerous scorch marks. "This one took a bit of a beating on the way down, but the damage was mainly cosmetic. Lots of grunt but not much of a looker. Reminds me of a certain Marine I know."
"Any sign of the others?" Garrus cuts in as the rest of the group catches up.
Cortez shakes his head.
"Ten minutes ago they were still five clicks out. Haven't been able to raise them since."
Damn. Garrus looks at his battered squad, at the equally battered kodiak and then up at the swirling, smoke-choked sky. They're running out of time.
"EDI," he says, turning to the gynoid, "get on it. Everyone else, get strapped in. We can't hang around much longer."
The squad begins to pile into the shuttle, stowing gear and checking harnesses, until only Jack remains outside with her students.
"Alright kiddies," she says, gathering them in a half-circle, "this is the end of the line. You're going to have to fend for yourselves until I get back. Rodriguez?"
"You're in charge."
A look of mingled terror and pride passes across the young woman's face.
"You heard me. Prangley, you're 2IC. Remember what we talked about: keep your heads down, keep your shields up, watch your sixes and your energy levels. And don't fu-" Jack begins and stops abruptly. "And do me proud, ok?"
"Yes ma'am!" If Rodriguez could stand any taller, she'd be floating a good foot up off the ground. "And ma'am?"
"Go and fuck them up good."
Jack grins and flips the group a lazy salute. Rather than return it, the newly-promoted Rodriguez steps forward smartly to stand alongside her mentor, turning back to face her comrades.
"First Biotic Company!" she calls out, snapping to attention. "Sound off!"
"The Psychotic Biotics!" they roar back, coming to attention themselves. It's now that they salute, ripping one off with a precision that would have made the most hardened drill sergeant cry tears of joy. "We will destroy you!"
"They're good kids," Ashley says as the boarding hatch closes and seals behind them, abruptly cutting them off from the sounds and smells of the war.
"Yeah. Yeah they are."
They all studiously ignore the fact that there are tears in Jack's eyes as she says the words.
Garrus slips up into the cockpit, taking up position on the jump seat between the two pilots' chairs.
"Garrus, I've located Miranda's squad," EDI says without looking around as she and Cortez run rapidly through the kodiak's pre-launch checklist. "They are pinned down under heavy fire and are requesting immediate evac. I've accessed the air traffic control systems to give us priority launch."
"Getting a lot of reports of harvesters in the area," Cortez says, initiating the engine startup sequence. "You might want to tell everyone to strap in. This is going to be a rough one."
Garrus nods and directs his attention back to EDI.
"Any word on the Citadel?"
"And the fleet?"
EDI pauses for a millisecond, head cocking ever so slightly to one side.
"Losses have been below predicted levels for this stage of the engagement. I believe that we are 'holding our own' for the time being."
Well, that's something, at least. He refuses to think about what will happen if the Citadel fails to open, what it means that it hasn't opened already. Shepard will make it. She will. She has to.
True to Cortez's word, the short ride is a wild one and, while Garrus is extremely glad for another opportunity to sit down and rest, the jolting and lurching of the dropship as the human tries to avoid taking too much fire is extremely unpleasant for all concerned. When the shuttle levels out again and the hatch opens as Cortez slings around for the pickup, it's on to a scene of unparalleled devastation.
London looks even worse from the air than it does from the ground, if such a thing is actually possible. The once proud skyline is a wasteland of blackened concrete and twisted steel; not one building in ten remains standing, and nothing at all more than four or five stories high. Everything is grey from falling ash or painted a hellish red by reflected fires. Barely-visible Reapers prowl between the smoke and haze, not even pausing mid-step as they spit out streams of molten metal at a respectable fraction of the speed of light.
It's still hours from sunrise.
"I don't see them!" Ashley calls out as they scan for the other squad, guns drawn. The chosen evac point is the flat roof of the tallest remaining building in the block, a murky swimming pool in its centre and a small structure of frosted glass and steel sitting area at the far end. Garrus takes it to be a residential building of some sort, but, equally, judges it more than ugly enough to have won at least one major architectural award.
"They'll be here," he says, keeping one eye fixed on the sky above where a pair of harvesters do battle with some kind of asari fighter.
The exit of the building at the other end of the rooftop bursts open and a krogan charges through. Grunt, Garrus realises immediately, and with considerable relief. The young tank-born scans the rooftop quickly and spies them, setting off in their direction all but immediately. Hot on his heels, to Garrus’ even greater relief, are the rest of the squad. He counts them off as they crowd into the increasingly cramped Kodiak: Grunt. Kasumi. The Justicar. Jacob. Zaeed.
They're missing one.
Garrus grabs Jacob's shoulder.
"She stayed back with the Spectre squad," the human says breathlessly, turning back to scan the rooftop himself. "Buy us some more time. She'll be here though. Any second now."
In fact, it's almost thirty before Miranda appears, limping backwards through the doorway, pistol drawn and firing. As she turns and begins to hobble across the rooftop towards them, still firing over her shoulder, it quickly becomes evident what has so fierce a hold on her attention: a brute bursts free from passageway behind her, shattering glass and tearing the door from its frame with seeming ease. It flings this at the human woman, who throws herself flat, a biotic shield flaring, just in time.
From the shuttle, the squad takes this as their unspoken queue to open fire on the monster, and then several things happen at all at once:
The asari fighter falls, flaming, to slam into the side of the building, taking out the brute and half of the structure along with it. The remaining harvester swoops in, cannons blazing and blood spraying, towards them. The kodiak lurches hard to one side, away from the building, sending its occupants stumbling, falling into each other. And Miranda picks herself up off the filthy tiling, forces her wounded body into a run, reaches the edge and... jumps.