Name: Greggory Clarke
DOB: May 15, 2148 (38)
Birthplace: London, Great Britain, Earth
Rank: 2nd Lieutenant. Discharged 2179. Honorable with disability.
Information: Enlisted with Systems Alliance in 2166. Academy graduate 2170 and commissioned. Deployed for service in Skyllian Verge. Wounded 2178 in assault on Torfan. Medical records indicate development of panic disorder following medical recovery. Discharge requested and granted on basis of disability. Current affiliation with London Resistance Force.
He cringed as he watched the wall of another flat crumble and fall, spilling bricks and furniture into the street.
Clarke could hear the techno-buzz vibrating through the floor, that low-frequency rumble that hummed around the reaperspawn. He exhaled slowly, ignoring the knot building in his throat as he lifted his fingers, stretching them one by one as he reset them on the handle of his rifle. His index finger settled back on the stiff trigger as he peered down the short scope of the Vindicator.
“Targets are in the clear. I have a window, on your order.” The short, punchy words crackled in the comm in his ear. He closed his right eye and opened his left, glancing up to the roof across the plaza. He couldn’t see the Salarian in his perch, but he knew the muzzle of the long-gun was just barely hanging over the parapet. He shut his left eye again and reopened the right.
Clarke shifted his gun, lining up the crosshair in the center of the bulbous head, the glowing, blue-white eyes and maw of the cannibal shuffling down the avenue. He closed his mouth, holding the clump of stress in place somewhere between swallowing and vomit as he looked over the once-Batarian features.
Once, he had eyed down a similar target with his rifle and had justified to himself that it was monstrous enough to pull the trigger.
“Prepare to fire on my count,” Clarke whispered into his comm. “Three. Two. Mark.”
The Vindicator gently kicked in his hand, that familiar bounce as it spit three rounds down into the street. He watched the sparks and blood fly as the cannibal crumpled to the pavement. A second, booming shot echoed through the deserted streets as the sniper’s shot pierced through another.
The street erupted with gunfire, rounds criss-crossing from all four directions, the hopeless reapers caught in the crossfire. The gun swung in his hands, the high-pitched sound of three rounds passing the barrel all crammed into one deadly chitter. Blue biotic explosions burnt like dark flames, the illumination of colorful sparks and static following each open as the squad shredded their enemies.
When the last of the spawn fell, Clarke slowly lowered his rifle and placed it on the floor of the blasted-out living room, sitting back and exhaling. He wasn’t sure if he had been holding his breath for the length of the firefight, but his fingers trembled as he rolled them in and out of fists to try to force them to stop shaking.
“Clarke, are you OK?” Dess’s soft voice broke through on the private channel, a note of concern tucked in between the sounds of her heavy breathing. “I don’t see you.”
He swallowed, forcing the lump down. As it felt like the dry wad scraped its way down, he coughed, the sour and bitter taste of bile spilling across his tongue. He spat and touched the button to respond.
“I’m fine,” he lied. “Thank you. I’ll be down at the rendezvous in a second.”
He scooped up his rifle, carefully stepping over the remains of furniture, shattered picture frames of a young family and the dirt and wet that had blown in through the broken windows and headed for the stairwell back down to street level.
To the streets of London, his home.
“It’s a good thing us Krogan can go weeks without eating a good meal,” Grog said, tossing the empty tuna tin into the growing pile of garbage in the center of the corner bedroom. “Because this stuff isn’t getting the job done.”
He pounded his fist against his abdomen -- how many stomachs did Krogan have, anyway? -- and groaned again. Scavenging for rations had become a chore, even with the city nearly abandoned. There were empty homes and shops everywhere, but between the destruction, roving patrols of reaperspawn and weeks-long power outages, finding something to eat at all had increasingly become a challenge.
“I don’t know, little brother,” the Salarian said as he sipped the salty water out of the edge of his can. Clarke had told Bug time and time again he was supposed to dump it before eating. Bug preferred not to waste it. “Reminds me of my younger days, hunting minnows by hand in some of the shallow pools on Sur’Kesh. Much saltier, but still, just like home.”
The Salarian’s eyes closed, a small smile creeping across his lips as he tipped the tin back again slightly as if he were sipping a midday tea in a cafe as if the world weren’t burning all around them.
“I guess it’s not too bad if you’re used to sucking up swamp water and eating grubs and worms and flies, big bro,” Grog grumbled. “Let’s talk when you’re four times as big. I’m a man! I need a real meal!”
“Maybe if you laid off the ‘real meals,’ you wouldn’t be four times as big,” Tarkus quipped as his hands slowly moved off his stomach as if it were inflating like a balloon. “And at least you can pick up something and eat it without having to figure out if it’s going to burn a hole in your gut.”
Tarkus picked up a can of the tuna and scanned it with his omni-tool for effect, not quieting the audible buzz that indicated it wasn’t safe for Turian consumption. He followed that up with the can of baked beans, which buzzed too. He lifted the half-empty bag of hot dog buns and scanned those, which didn’t set off any immediate alarms.
“Joy,” he said unenthusiastically as he crammed a smashed clump of bread into his mouth.
Tarkus only had a few cans of his own rations left, but he was trying to conserve them as long as possible. They hadn’t crossed paths with any Turian platoons recently, not this far north in the city, anyway. Most of the forward force that had arrived on the planet were sitting alongside the Alliance brass south of the Thames.
“You both whine too much.” The quiet observation was followed by the crinkling of plastic as a hand dove back into a box of crackers, slowly pulling out a handful and slipping them silently into his mouth.
Vorn sat on an overturned waste bin, back turned to the rest of the group, a few feet from the corner where he could look out the windows on both the north and east walls of the bedroom. His body was turned slightly to the left, slightly favoring the north side as the Batarian divided his four eyes on watch. His pistol sat resting in his lap as he otherwise quietly munched.
“What I would do for a big, burnt varren haunch,” Grog fantasized, holding both his hands to the side of his face as if he were tearing into it. “Crispy and charred on the outside. Still red and bloody on the inside. Chew that thing down to the bone. Chug about a gallon of burner. Then find some pretty little thing and get this quad off!”
“That’s disturbing,” Tarkus said as he scanned a once-frozen microwave burrito that caused his scanner to buzz and blink red before tossing the foil-wrapped thing back onto the floor. Clarke wasn’t sure that convenience store burrito wouldn’t burn a hole in his gut if he ate it.
“How about it Dess? I swear I’ll be gentle,” Grog offered, eyeing up the blue-skinned woman.
She smiled politely as she took a sip from a can of lime-flavored seltzer water she had found in the dented fridge in the kitchen. It was warm, but unopened. She said she liked tart things. “No thank you, Grog.”
“Come on,” Grog pleaded. “I think you’re the only woman left on the planet.”
She was the only woman they had seen for a week or two, at least, Clarke thought. They certainly hadn’t seen many Asari at all. There were a few teams of commandos who had come in to scout out the city before the rest of the Citadel allies arrived. Word was Shepard would be coming before the end of the month. If that was the case, the Reapers didn’t seem too concerned about it.
“I’m sure some of the reapers we’ve been killing were female at some point,” Clarke chimed in. “But you’ve got to work on your courtship, Grog. A little subtlety, a little tenderness.”
He glanced over at Dessia and gave her a little wink. She grinned, covering it up as she brought the prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwich to her mouth and took a bite. He looked back over to Grog. “See?”
Grog shook his head. “It must be the hair. It’s the hair, isn’t it?”
Clarke ran a hand across the soft curls of his blonde and brown beard and glanced sideways at Dess again making a kissy face. She feigned fanning herself as she chuckled while chewing.
“Yes, Grog. It’s the hair,” she said between bites.
“I knew it!” the Krogan said slapping his knee.
“Batarians have fine, thin facial hair too,” Bug offered.
Vorn didn’t indicate that he heard, although he almost certainly did. He was always listening and watching. His hand dipped down into his box of crackers and returned at the same pace toward his mouth.
“I know,” Dess teased. “But I think Vorn is a little out of my league. He’s too much of a bad boy for me to handle, right Vorn?”
The Batarian raised his left fist up to his side to signal his agreement.
“Where to next?” Bug asked, pinching a bit of the shredded tuna between his thin fingers and pushing it into his cheek like chewing tobacco.
Didn’t really matter, Clarke supposed. The entire city was a mess. The entire planet was a mess. They couldn’t move too far in any direction without running afoul of reapers prowling the streets. The assimilated monsters shambled down about every lane of the city at one time or another. Thankfully none of the big ones, the giant, miles-tall, squid-looking ones had landed recently.
The last time that happened, one of those beams had sheared three blocks of buildings into rubble in just a few seconds. The Resistance had flanked the reapers, penned them into a open-air park and been cutting them down mercilessly. Then that thing had landed and burnt the whole place down. If Clarke hadn’t kicked down the door to an underground pub and dove in, the whole building might have come down on top of him as the roof and walls fell into the street.
That was more or less the end of the organized London Resistance Force. In one heavy-handed blow, a single black demon descending from the sky had shattered what little shreds of hope they were all hanging onto to restore some semblance of freedom and safety in London.
The resistance fighters scattered. If they stayed separated, they couldn’t all be decimated at the same time.
They could just be decimated more slowly, with less fanfare.
The local comms were nearly silent now, both because everyone was afraid to stay plugged into the system too long and because there just weren’t many people left to use it. And there never seemed to be a shortage of new reapers on the streets.
“Well since Grog is being a big baby about food,” Clarke said as he punched up his map off his wrist tool. Grog narrowed his eyes at that.
“There’s a meat packing warehouse in this industrial area near the reservoir. Probably spoiled, but we might find some deep frozen or cured meat so he can gorge himself.” Clarke turned to his Turian companion. “Sorry, Tark, that stuff will probably kill you.”
“No, don’t worry. It’s fine. I’m really enjoying this flavorful, ‘hot dog bun,’” he said sarcastically as he read the label off the plastic bag.
“A lot of those warehouses do have some old-style solar panels on them, though,” Clarke said as he shut down his map. He and everyone else was paranoid that the reapers were so deep in the system that every search, every message every location ping was being monitored. “We might be able to scavenge something useful and you can rig us up some power.”
Tarkus took the last of the hot dog buns out of the bag and tossed the plastic into the garbage pile. “I did always spend more time in the shop than in the kitchen back on Palaven,” he said and crammed the last of the buns into his mouth.
“If we can get a reliable power source, I can see if some friends can make a supply drop,” Bug said. He was never really specific about who his “friends” were, but he always talked about them as if they were just hanging out waiting for a phone call.
“And we’re probably less likely to run afoul of more reapers if we’re close some water,” Dess said. “Although it didn’t sound like the water did much to help Thessia.” Her eyes dropped with a sudden sadness at her own mention as she took another nibble of her sandwich.
“Does that sound good to you, Vorn?” Clarke asked. The Batarian didn’t answer. Clarke clapped. “OK, Vorn is on board too.”
Clarke reached into his pocket and pulled out the bag of M&Ms candies, giving the brown pouch a shake and glancing around the room. He ripped a corner off and poured a few into his hand, popping one into his mouth. He offered it forward and Dess stuck out her palm as he dropped a few in.
Bug shook it off. Grog nodded and Clarke tossed one into his giant, open mouth. Tarkus pulled out his scanner, but Clarke pressed two candies into his hand without letting him. Vorn didn’t turn around.
“You know, they made these specifically for soldiers way back when,” Clarke said, as he tossed another piece into the side of his mouth. “Regular folks couldn’t get their hands on them. A treat just for fighters spilling their blood all over the world, back when us humans only killed each other. Back in the day London was getting the shit bomb out of it daily.”
That was ancient history nowadays. His ancestors had lived somewhere in Britain during the war. No one could remember whether or not some generations-old Clarke fought back then. It wasn’t a military family. He had been the first, a kid sitting and looking up at the sky and thinking about human spacecraft zipping from relay to relay out there, visiting worlds that had only just been discovered.
He was born that year, the year that humanity first discovered mass effect technology. They were just babes floating around the infinite. Like babes, they hadn’t been ready for any of it.
He hadn’t been ready for any of it.
He followed the movement of the solitary husk down the sidewalk, letting it pass by as he took his finger off the trigger.
One husk wasn’t worth giving away their position, especially with Grog sleeping. It took a half hour to wake him up to the point where was worth something. The Krogan was a grump if he didn’t get his beauty rest.
Clarke should have been sleeping too, but he found it harder and harder to rest. The pops of ordnance in the distance, the hum of what few aircraft were still flying and the isolated sounds of breaking glass and crumbling buildings all kept him up. Bug never seemed to sleep and he was on the roof with his rifle watching over them all night.
Yet sitting just inside the broken window and peering out into the dark and empty buildings was somehow more relaxing than trying to curl up on a dusty, musty mattress. Seeing the distant flash of fighting, watching the occasional husk or cannibal shamble by with the bright blue lights shining from within, those were now the horrid normal of nightlife in London.
It had been a conflicting feeling to look at at the city in dark, even before the Reapers. London was old. The wealthiest parts of the city were marvelous to behold, alive with centuries of history and updated with the most modern, advanced flair. But the older parts of the city had been crumbling long before the Reapers. He had seen a lot of that side of the city, from his pitifully dank one-room apartment to walking the streets daily because he had little else to do. He once tried to pick up jobs when he could, but it became apparent that the only thing he was useful for after discharge was sitting around collecting paltry disability checks.
He had parlayed his college degree from the academy into some office work at an insurance group. He had gone on a few sales pitches, but the boss said he came off as distant and nervous in front of customers. They moved him into a cubicle processing claims paperwork where he could work by himself most days, but he couldn’t keep up with their quotas as the stress of deadlines grated on him. He resigned the position to save them the trouble of firing him.
He had been working in a warehouse in the industrial sector for a few weeks, until one of his coworkers popped off about his shaky hands. He had snapped and shown that guy how steady his hands could be as he put his fist through a couple of that guy’s teeth. The local magistrate was a vet, too, and cut him some slack by letting him off on a pretrial diversion as long as he stayed out of trouble.
He picked up some on-and-off work as a substitute teacher at a local secondary school. That was fine until he got caught in the middle of a crowd during passing period and began seizing up, barely making it to the stall in the men’s room to try to breathe before he suffocated in the wave of young, screaming kids.
It was the same story that replayed over and over and over. How many different jobs did he had in the seven years since he had been back? It had been sixteen, no, seventeen months since he last tried to work. Before the Reapers. Before everything went to shit here. Before he decided what was the point in fleeing? Before he decided that he might as well do the only thing he remembered how to do, point a rifle and pull the trigger.
Clarke turned his head to see Dess standing in the doorway, her hands pressed against both sides of the doorframe as if she were holding herself from falling in. She was out of her combat suit, instead wearing a long men’s T-shirt that draped past her hips. Somewhere, obscured underneath there, he guessed she was wearing those neon pink mesh hot pants she had scavenged out of a teenage girl’s bedroom five days back.
Her liquid blue skin seemed to fit just right in the dim blue light of night, contrasted with the narrow, lighter purple streaks that ran down the length of her crests like camouflage.
“Yeah,” he said, pointing off to the east. “There’s a battle going on out there tonight. They’ve been at it for about an hour.”
All he could see was the flashes of light in the distance and hear the quiet echo of guns firing. He couldn’t tell how far off, but someone out there was engaged with reapers. If it was an ambush, it had gone poorly, because they were still exchanging fire. Reapers didn’t retreat, so whoever it was had chosen to stand their ground.
Dess tiptoed across the floor, the balls of her bare feet stepping carefully around broken glass, her legs crossing carefully one in front of the other. She looked almost as if she floated, as if walking across a wire or carefully balancing on the surface of water. “You’ll be tired,” she said as she reached the bench before the window, slipping up onto the other side across from him and pulling her knees up close to her chest.
“I know,” he said as he peeked back down the street, watching the shambling husk turn the corner down a side street and out of view. He lowered the rifle, laying it gently on the hardwood floor and getting it out of his hands.
Dess wrapped her arms around her knees and rocked forward a little bit, smiling. “It’s nice of you to go looking for food for Grog,” she said.
“We’ll need him at his best, if Shepard is coming home,” Clarke said.
“You know that’s not why we’re going,” Dess said.
“Yeah,” he agreed as he rubbed his fingers across his chin and through his beard. An Alliance gunship buzzed overhead, heading in the direction of the fighting to the east. Whoever it was, they had some powerful friends in downtown.
“It really is the hair, isn’t it?” he said with a teasing look.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Dess said. “It gives you a very human look. The stereotypical man in an Asari romance novel. Young. Masculine. Brash and passionate. The kind who sweeps a young maiden right into his arms and carries her away to bed.”
Clarke snorted at the idea. “You older women… preying on us naive youngsters.”
“I’m only 130,” she said, crooking her head to side.
“By 130, our women are as wrinkly and saggy as Grog’s quad scrote,” he reminded her.
She made a sour face at that, as if she had stuck half a lemon into her mouth. It made him wish he had one of those lemon ice cups he always used to get when he’d catch American baseball games. Smooth and tart and chilly.
“That’s gross,” Dess noted.
He chuckled at the notion. They were going searching for meat for Grog because he wanted meat. And he deserved a good ham or turkey or whatever he could get his hands on. Since connecting with them a month ago, the Krogan had gotten them out of more jams than Clarke cared to admit.
Grog and Bug were like brothers. Vorn wasn’t much for chatting, but the way he flew around the battlefield and worked a rifle was like watching the orchestra flawlessly playing classical music. Tarkus had been here since Turian reinforcements started arriving and was part of the LRF company that got disintegrated when the beams started flying.
But Dess, Dess had been here to see London before. She had seen the real London, his London, not this shattered heart of a city.
She had been part of the staff at the embassy. He remembered first spotting her trying to figure out the underground map, tracing her finger across all the colored lines and looking confused. He had offered to help point her in the right direction. He pretended he was going to the same place, although he had just been planning to sit on a bench and people watch for half the day just to get out of the unseasonably summer heat.
They chatted. He convinced her to join him for a drink. She accepted. They chatted more. She asked what he did. He said he was a soldier. She asked what that was like. He explained he was a soldier. She apologized. He brushed it off. She seemed to enjoy herself. He thought she was adorably wide-eyed as a newcomer to Earth. She asked if he would like to meet her again, perhaps for lunch? He accepted.
They saw a lot of each other like that. Then the invasion happened on an afternoon while they were out sipping coffee. And Dess said she needed to get back to the embassy. He convinced her that was a mistake. She trusted him. The embassy, they later found out, was reduced to little more than glowing chunks of burning stone.
And she had seem him when he was broken, even before London crumbled.
“I hope the rumors about Shepard coming back are true,” Clarke said. “Get this thing done one way or another. Take the pressure off.”
Dess smiled and tilted her head to the other side. “You know they, me, we, all are fine following you around for however long it takes. Our fearless leader.”
He snorted at that notion, too. “Leading isn’t my thing any more. You know that.”
She leaned forward and waved her hand to try to lightly smack him, missing by several inches. “You know you’re great. This is your home. You can’t be anything but great, Gregg.”
The landing craft had bounced hard as it touched down on the surface of Torfan. They were greeted by gunfire as the doors slid open and they quickly piled out. One of the privates got caught in the neck and never even made it out of the ship.
The HUD in his visor glowed a dull green as it compensated for the dark, red boxes blinking as they marked the targets, Batarians popping up from behind cover or retreating into the caves. His eyes caught the shifting bars on the edges of his helmet, watching the shields and vital signs of the men of his platoon fluctuate up and down.
Sgt. Okebe, the hulking, booming leader of Raven Squad fell before they even made it inside the caves. The guns on both sides never stopped firing as the Alliance teams forced their way underground, dropping the Batarian resistance at every turn. By the time they secured their first objective, a third of the platoon had fallen.
The orders were clear. Move forward, no matter what. Medical support would bring up the rear, but if a man fell, you were to move on without him. They moved down the narrowly cut corridors of the cave system, Clarke looking down as he stepped over bodies, both Batarian and human as he pressed forward.
When the wounded Batarians threw down their weapons and surrendered, they answered by putting rounds in their heads.
By the time they made it to the last objective, by the time all of the Alliance teams converged on the final chamber, the Batarians realized there would be no quarter. Backed into a corner, nowhere to go and nowhere to run, the gunfire only stopped when the last Batarian fell slumped to the floor and there was no one left to return fire. When it finally stopped after several solid minutes of deafening noise, his ears were ringing badly enough that he could hardly hear the check-ins coming across his radio.
Only then did Clarke have time to stop, breathe, and take the time to squeeze half a tube of medi-gel into the burning wound gushing from just above his right knee. He took off his helmet and set it on the ground, so that he didn’t have to look at the horrifyingly dim HUD for a moment longer.
Of his forty-two man platoon, there were only seven left.
Clarke glanced out of the window as blue lights caught his eye again. Three cannibals were lumbering down the road and he reached down toward his rifle on the floor. His fingers curled and stopped before reaching the handle.
He closed his eyes, gripping his fingers tightly on his right hand, the tension in his knuckles burning. He lifted his left hand off his hip, squeezing his fingers in and out as he could feel the rising thump of his heart in his chest. His teeth ground together, his throat tightening as he forced himself to pull the air in through his nose.
Dess’s voice seemed quiet and distant behind the sound of the air she struggled to pull into his lungs. He could feel the arteries in his neck pumping, feel the blood coursing through every vein his body. He knew he was sitting, but he felt as if he were swaying or the bench underneath him was moving like liquid. He tugged at the collar of his shirt, the sudden rush of sweat percolating up through his skin.
“Clarke? Is it happening?”
His left hand fingers jerked rapidly in and out of a fist, the fabric of his shirt caught in between them as it crinkled in his hand and tugged tightly at his shoulders. His mouth was filling with spit. His throat was closed. His heart was racing, his pulse shooting well over a hundred beats as he began to tremble.
The cannibals on the street were no danger. Everything else was quiet. The flashes of light in the distance were far, far, away. Bug was on the roof. Everyone was here. They were all safe. There was nothing wrong.
Still, he couldn’t swallow the growing swell of panic inside of him.
Clarke opened his eyes. Dess was now sitting up, just a few inches away from him. Her mouth hung just slightly open, her face laced with a look of pity, like watching an animal with a broken leg trying to drag its way back into the woods. He hated that he made her look like at him like that.
He forced his neck to move, quickly, jerkily nodding his head up and down.
Dess leaned forward, holding her face before his, looking deeply into his eyes as she had done dozens of times before. He tried not to blink, even as he began to shake, even as his heart thumped and he could hear the blood rushing through his temples, even as he struggled to get any air through his nose.
“I’m here for you, Gregg,” Dess said as she closed her eyes. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “Just focus on my words and try to relax. Open your thoughts to me.”
Her fingertips came up, running through the hair of his beard until they brushed lightly against his cheek. He knew what was coming next. His lifeline, her grace, the only thing that could bring him down and calm his nerves. The anxiety and fear overran him, his fingers burned as he tried to force himself to unclench his fist. His throat swelled shut and he shook as the last bits of air were cut off from his lungs.
She would steal all the blackness right out of his own mind, give him her sanity and take his madness inside of her. She could do it because she was strong and he was weak. And she did it because she was nothing but goodness and he was nothing but rot.
She would make herself lesser so that he would not be consumed into nothing.
“It’ll be over soon,” she said as she wrapped her fingers around the back of his ear. Dess took a breath and when she opened her eyes, the silver irises had been swallowed by the unending depth of her dark, dilated pupils.