Chapter 1: Clarke
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.
Chapter 2: Tarkus
A brief news excerpt from Palaven, dated 2184
For the eighth year in a row, the lightweight bot competition was won by Palaven-native Tarkus Raetia. Raetia’s bot, “Little Cutter IX,” cleared the tournament field with little resistance, despite its limited array of weaponry including a short-range cutting laser, electrical burst rod and twin, spinning saws.
This year’s competition was as good as ever, said Raetia, a senior researcher with the Turian Engineering Corps. He was prepared for many of his opponents, whom he had scouted extensively in qualifying matches. Little Cutter IX was a new bot that he had not entered in previous competitions and the tiny, maneuverable machine was designed to specifically counter his anticipated opponents.
“My hope was to win these battles before ever lowering my machine into the arena, and all that scouting really paid off,” Raetia said. “Win or lose, I just love seeing everyone who comes out for Robo Royale each year. It’s an honor to take home the trophy again.”
There was a lot of metal around him here, and metal felt like home.
Nevermind that the metal here in this battle-blasted industrial zone of London was twisted and scorched and bent and useless. Metal was metal, and metal was the heart, organs and skin of Palaven. True, the Reapers sheared through all the metal as if it were paper, but they sheared through it a lot slower than they had through Earth or any of the other planets that had fallen before the Turian homeworld. Even now, he heard from time to time that his people were still fighting them back home.
Turian pride would see to it that if they were going to go extinct, they’d all do it with guns pasted in their hands. You only see a Turian’s back when he’s dead.
Tarkus ducked under the half ajar overhead garage door, flipping on the small flashlight mounted at his right shoulder. Half of the roof had caved in on top of this warehouse. Just as well, because it looked like some sort of plumbing warehouse, filled with useless pipes, fittings and fasteners. They didn’t need running water. Well, they did need running water, but they needed it much less than they needed many other things.
He looked up toward the ceiling, tracing the conduit that snaked across the uncollapsed parts and following it down the walls. He stepped carefully over a crate that had spilled white plastic fittings all over the concrete shop floor and looked at the electrical box on the wall.
“AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY”
The yellow warning sign was slightly askew, the top bolt having fallen out, allowing the metal plaque to rotate to the side.
“That’s cute,” Tarkus said to himself as he lifted the latch and swung open the box, looking at the breakers and the sloppy wiring that was inside. He grimaced to see the shoddy workmanship. All human engineering was pretty amateur, but this looked like something his son had put together when he was a still a little squirt.
The kid never did have a knack for building stuff, but put a rifle in his hand and he could rip things apart with the best of them. He hadn’t heard from his boy in forever. Communications were spotty at best and the 79th Flotilla was never in one place too long anyway. That, and Chellus rarely bothered to take the time to send a message home to his mother and father to let them know he wasn’t dead even during more peaceable times.
He tried to nudge Chellus toward a more stable officer’s track with a safer assignment. Or maybe moving into local training command where he could live off-base and maybe think about settling down. Tarkus had taken the initiative to poke around a find a few leads to send to his son, but the boy’s short message of response over the net was more snippy than appreciative.
Maybe they Reapers had caught up with the 79th, finally. He doubted it, though. The big, albeit technologically brilliant Reapers, were too clunky and slow to keep up with quick-striking fleet.
The wires in the panel still appeared to be in good shape, despite their tangles. He pulled his pair of snips from his belt and began clipping the good ones, pruning the ends and yanking the wire to get as much as he could out of them. As he snipped them, he coiled the wire into neat little bundles and wrapped a tie around the center of each, sliding them into his pack.
He’d have to have Clarke show him a couple of these old solar panels he was talking about. They’d need to get up on the roof, but so far he hadn’t seen too many roofs to scavenge. If Clarke’s expectations were that they might find this part of the city intact, it seemed he was misinformed. Hope had been sinking lower and lower as they walked down the narrow residential streets, seeing the leveled homes and twisted vehicles thrown everywhere. Whatever had happened here, it had been particularly more nasty than other places they had been.
Still, there was metal here. And metal was metal and could be used. Metal felt like home.
This area wasn’t bad as that plaza when the Reaper landed. If Clarke hadn’t shoved him down the stairs into the tavern as the building came down, they’d probably both be dead.
Clarke wasn’t the most organized. And he certainly wasn’t much of a planner. But the human was a hell of a fighter and had sharp sense under pressure.
They didn’t pick a fight they couldn’t win and they didn’t stick around in a fight that was turning against them. Tarkus could appreciate that. The man knew his limitations. A man should know and accept his limitations.
Tarkus never could.
He slipped the fifth bundle of wire into his pack and slid the snips back onto his belt. He’d better be getting back before the others came looking for him.
Clarke had said something about a shopping mall nearby. Maybe there they’d have a tech shop where he could find some fresh circuit boards filled with all the tasty components he’d need to build something useful. Or something not useful.
If he could create something, anything, maybe it would lift the funk of destruction hanging like gloom around them.
Tarkus wasn’t sure if, mechanically, Krogan were capable of weeping, but if they were, Grog was about as close as one could expect.
The metal roof on the warehouse of the meat packers had completely collapsed. The metal was scorched. Grog was trying to lift up some of the fallen-down panels to peek inside. But even he had to be able to smell the putrid stink of rotten meat. The fume of that human food would probably give Tarkus a stomach ache just from smelling it.
“There’s no way you’re getting in there,” Tarkus said as he eyed the heap of scrap. Structurally, it was a total loss. “Even if you manage to pull that piece out, the walls are just going to cave in on top of it.”
Grog, not to be deterred, pulled the sheet metal back and tossed it aside. As promised, the rest of the metal creaked, the wreckage shifted and then with a creaking lean, the west wall began to slip and fell. A puff of dust and a wall of that rotten stink pushed out from underneath the pile.
The Krogan softly kicked a piece of broken metal back toward the fallen building and turned around, giving up.
“Hey Clarke, what’s that word you humans use? You know, the one you guys shout when something bad happens. When someone kicks you square in the quad?” Grog asked.
“I think you want ‘fuck,’” Clarke suggested.
“Yes! That’s the one,” Grog said with an appreciative nod. He turned back around toward the fallen building and squatted slightly. “FUCK!”
His bellowing roar did nothing to convince the building to be less destroyed. But it did echo across this otherwise quiet part of the city. No doubt they’d have reapers on top of them in a few minutes. His Krogan brain probably didn’t think of that. Or maybe it did. Grog seemed to like fighting.
Tarkus calmly pressed the buttons on his omni-tool as he tossed the core up into the air, watching as the drone system flickered online and it hovered up above their heads. He scowled at the power bar running in the yellow on the display. He’d need to find a new battery soon.
“Perimeter sweep, two-hundred meter radius. Tell me what’s out there.” Tarkus delivered the succinct orders to the drone and it floated away, heading out over the mangled rooftops of the buildings to fulfill its duty.
“Did you find anything useful at least?” Clarke asked him.
“A lot of junk, unfortunately,” Tarkus said. “Got some wires. Found a tube of omni-gel. Other than that, not much worth taking.”
Clarke scratched the hair on his left cheek as he tucked his right hand into his left armpit. His mouth kind of hung open awkwardly as he glanced around the destroyed street. “Looks like this was a total waste of time then.”
“The stroll was pleasant,” Tarkus said as he crossed his arms over his chest.
Clarke, at least, chuckled at that and smiled. “So what kind of grade do we get on our buildings?”
“How do humans grade things?” he asked.
“Let’s say zero to one hundred. Zero is bad. One hundred good,” Clarke said.
“Maybe like a fifteen,” Tarkus said without a moment’s hesitation. “My wife could have pushed some of these buildings over. And she was petite by Turian standards.”
Unlike his son, he at least knew Ardi was dead. Before the Primarch pulled off the moon, he had received the transmission from the homeworld. There were a few brief details. They weren’t worth reading. He knew she went down fighting like any true Turian would.
He hadn’t been able to recall the last conversation they had. Maybe it was that one about replacing the stove? He had been off-world for a conference. He told her he would take it apart and try to fix it when he got home. She made sure to point out he had been saying that for at least two months. He got short with her and she hung up the call. That’s the way it had been for far longer than he cared to admit because he just couldn’t let things be.
His omni-tool blinked and he pulled up the alert, checking the video feed. The drone was bobbing up and down -- he would need to tweak its fields to steady it when he got some time -- and locked onto a small group of humans walking down the highway.
“Got some survivors,” Tarkus said as he zoomed in the feed. “No armor. Lightly armed. Not soldiers. They look young. At least compared to you, Clarke.”
The human sent a dismissive smile back his way at being prodded at the same time as he patted Grog on the shoulder and tried to console him about going hungry another day. The Krogan muttered something and nodded, then slapped Clarke hard enough on the shoulder that it made the human stumble.
Clarke caught his feet and rolled his shoulder back, shaking his head. “Probably some stupid teenagers,” he said. “Let’s go get them before they get themselves killed.”
Tarkus didn’t know what qualified as “stupid teenagers” on this planet, but the three they had intercepted on the bridge certainly seemed to fit the bill.
The girl complained even more than Grog and the two boys were even more arrogant than Chellus had been at that age. The difference was that Chellus could back up some his boasting. Those two had nearly soiled themselves when Vorn came up behind them with his rifle trained on them and demanded they surrender. He was sure the boys would remember the encounter differently if they lived long enough to tell someone else about it.
In comparison, the company of the dead husk on the counter that he was poking around in with his tools was both charming and welcome. The husk didn’t speak, at least. Although it did twitch hard once when he tapped a node with his screwdriver, so much so that Tarkus startled and put another round from his pistol into its brain just to make sure it was dead. Thankfully no one saw him jump. That would have been embarrassing.
The video game shop inside the Brent Cross Shopping Center was one of the less destroyed storefronts in the large mall. They had gunned down the husks just outside the shop and Clarke had agreed to give him an hour or two to poke around with the reaper tech while the others scavenged through the shops, many of which looked like they had been looted.
A little bit of tinkering would ease his wearied soul.
Tarkus glanced up at the promotional display for Arcturus Defense 3 - Betrayal again, shaking his head at the cardboard cutout of fictional Alliance hero Jack Charger exchanging pistol fire with an imposing black-clad Turian. The humans had made some liberal choices with their Turian antagonist General Annihilus. The ridiculous caricature wore uselessly exaggerated spiked armor, had snarly fangs badly in need of dental treatment and had some swirling black ball of biotic nonsense in his left hand. And of course, he had a long, wicked scar across one eye.
The game boasted “The most realistic gunplay on any console!” Tarkus had dabbled with Arcturus Defense 2 - Venegeance on the Citadel and found its mechanics to be clunky and babying. Apparently humans needed a hyper-masculine protagonist with oversized guns that did unrealistic amounts of damage in order to feel like they were capable of conquering the galaxy. The humans had been lucky the Council had stepped in during the First Contact War before the Hierarchy really got moving. Then the humans might have been playing some game like “Earth Defense” or “Extinction.”
Sadly, everyone was being forced to play a real-life versions of extinction.
Without Shepard, the Crucible and the galaxy-spanning alliances forming, the Turians stood little chance of surviving. The humans, by comparison, stood no chance.
“Find anything interesting?” Bug was folding up his long gun and tucking it behind his back as he stepped lightly into the shop.
“Everything about these reapers is interesting,” Tarkus said as he carefully touched the husk with the tip of his voltmeter. Although it was clearly dead, he was still picking up electrical readings from the components. This husk was smaller, might have been a human woman at one time, and the least damaged of the group of five they had killed while exploring this part of the mall. “I wish I could get my hands on a live one.”
Bug’s eyes kind of squeezed shut as he smiled again. “I don’t think anyone would like that,” he said, his words a quick, condensed chitter.
“I do have an unusual opportunity here,” he said as he picked up his pliers. “It looks like this processing node is still at least semi-active.”
He pushed the metal tips into the open chest cavity of the husk, turning his shoulder slightly so the light from his lamp illuminated underneath the chip. He offered the blunt probe with his other hand to Bug. “Take this and come over here. I need you to hold this part open while I extract this.”
The Salarian wrapped his fingers around the tool and pressed it down, holding back the shreds of metal and dead flesh to create a small gap in between the two ribs. “Just like that,” Tarkus whispered as he ducked down, carefully nudging the pliers underneath the still humming processor. These reapers were full of safeguards that would kill key components upon tampering, so he had to be careful. He picked up his snips with his free hand, cutting away some of the melted flesh around the corner so that the piece could start lifting away.
“Get your pistol out,” Tarkus said. “And when I say, pump a shot right into the heart over there. I think if I clip this while the rest of the system is experiencing a more critical shock, I can get it out without burning it up.”
“Copy that,” Bug said, slipping his sidearm out of the holster at his hip and pressing the barrel down to the twisted heart that was less flesh now than it was tangled metal and cords that snaked in and out of the breast like creeping vines.
“I’m ready,” Tarkus said, positioning his snips. “Let me know when you’re ready to hit it.”
“Firing on my mark,” the Salarian said, all business as always. “Three. Two. Mark.”
Tarkus’ face got splattered as the muffled round pumped into the husk’s chest, but he was too occupied making the two small cuts he needed. A pulse of static burst out of the severed ends of the circuit as he lifted away the undamaged core.
Tarkus lifted it out of the cavity, holding it up in front of him in the beam of light. He could feel that swell inside his chest, that mix of happiness, pride and accomplishment as he looked at the squarish piece of metal slightly smudged with blood. It would feel even better once he could figure out what he wanted to do with it.
“Yes. That will work for me,” Tarkus said as he palmed the item and slipped it carefully into a static-free bag.
He glanced down at the dead husk and shoved it onto the floor. It hit with an unceremonious thud. Done. Nothing more to be gained from that.
“Now if I can just get my hands on a few -- what does Clarke call them? Mo-biles? -- we might get somewhere,” he said triumphantly as he stepped over the dead husk on the floor. “Let’s head back. But first…”
He reached out and tipped over the cardboard cutout onto the floor, face down, so no one could see it.
“Did you hear how he made peace between the Quarians and the Geth? I mean, come on man, the fucking Geth?” the brown-haired male teenager said.
“Dude, I know, it takes some balls to do something like that,” said the blonde-haired male teen with the shaggy hair.
“Shepard is so fucking cool,” brown said. “I bet he gets so much pussy, wherever he wants, whenever he wants.”
“You know it,” blonde agreed. They punched fists together. “I mean, after you fucking disintegrate falling into a fucking planet and come back to life? Free V. Anytime. Anywhere. Chicks gotta be falling on their knees.”
The female teenager scowled and tried to pretend like she wasn’t listening.
Tarkus carefully tapped at his omni-tool, running through the diagnostics on the reaper processor he had tapped into. He would have to be quick, because he was tapping out these pathetic mobile batteries quickly with the intensive decryption program.
Clarke and Dess had found a mattress shop on the top floor of the mall, tucked into a somewhat defensible corner. The entryway into the anchor store had fully collapsed, so the only approach was down the wide corridor. Between large planters, stone benches and kiosks in the center walkway, there was plenty of cover packed in. And the shop had plenty of new, clean, comfortable mattresses. They wouldn’t get an opportunity to bed down like this for a while.
Still, Tarkus had taken time to set up both of his sentry guns, Spinny and Grinder, outside. Just in case. There was something he didn’t like about being backed into a corner. The auto guns would give them a fighting chance if someone tried to pen them in.
Although he would need to look at Grinder again. Despite taking the thing apart three times, the gun still made an awful grinding noise like something in the motor was catching every time the barrell spun up. If he fixed it, though, he’d have to give the gun a new name.
“Just grab the back and their head and…” the brown-haired one started thrusting his hips with one hand in front of his groin. His buddy laughed.
Tarkus looked over at Grog, who even looked unimpressed at the lewd display, despite doing something similar the day before. He looked up from the diagnostic readout scrolling by, having had enough.
“Hey!” he shouted, letting the flanging in his voice vibrate as he raised his volume. The two boys startled straight. “There’s a lady here. Show a little respect. And shut up, before I shut you up.”
If Ardi had seen that happening, she would have shouted at them until she fully emasculated both. If Chellus had been doing something like that, Tarkus would have hit him across the mouth. The humans should consider themselves lucky, either way, that they were just getting a quick, verbal scolding.
“OK,” the blonde one said.
“Yeah, sorry,” the brown added.
“That’s ‘Yes, sir,’” Tarkus admonished, just as hard and serious as he forced his black-streaked mandibles to push out a little from the sides of his mouth.
“Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!” The brown one rolled the other way and curled up on his mattress. The blonde one retreated to the other mattress and laid down, looking at the ceiling.
He kept his eyes trained on both, and when neither spoke for a few peaceful seconds, he returned his eyes to his screen. The decrypt had finished and the data was his for the taking. The Reapers were good, but not good enough to outsmart a little Turian ingenuity.
Tarkus laughed to himself as he cracked out a can of his dextro rations. They tasted like garbage, but garbage from home was better than garbage from Earth. And he deserved a little celebration.
He tapped the button to have his VI start searching for anything of note as he dug his small collapsible fork into his can of pinkish-brown meat paste that filled the canister. He got the first forkful to his mouth, taking in the glory of the garbage-tasting gunk and stopped it stuck halfway in his mouth. His tongue slid the mushy paste off the utensil and he quickly swallowed.
“Uhhh, Clarke,” he called out, turning his head back toward where their human leader was chatting with Dess on one of the larger beds. “Clarke, you better come look at this.”
Hovering in front of him in the soft orange holographic glow was Earth. And above it, the image of hundreds of Reapers and a narrow, dart-like structure that he recognized all too well.
“What is it Tark…” he started to say, but as soon as he caught a glimpse of the hologram, he stopped. “What the fuck is…”
“The Citadel,” Tarkus said, spinning the 3D image, looking at the unmistakable ring at the far end. The arms of the Citadel were all closed, tucked and sealed tightly together. But there was no doubt, the massive station was clearly above Earth.
“Why is the Citadel here? How is it here?” Clarke asked. “I didn’t even know the thing could move.”
“Don’t know,” Tarkus said, punching a short string of code into his tool. “Let’s ask the Reapers.”
He hit the button, sending the short ping out. He was connected through the husk’s core, so he hoped that it would look like an inquiry from the ground, from a friendly, and not from the hacker behind it pulling the strings.
Lines of code sprung up, data packets going out and coming in, his tool encrypting, decrypting and translating. His eyes tracked as it all flew by, before the fragments cleared and began clipping together. Then the translated response started becoming clear.
“It’s just arrived,” Tarkus said. “Today. Here.”
“No, Clarke,” he said ignoring the question. “It’s here. Literally here.” He changed the map, changing views to the overhead of London and the beam it showed transmitting between the orbital station and the city.
Clarke’s face was scrunched up as he looked at the images, trying to figure out what was going on. “I know where that is, it’s…” he stopped as the image began to crack up and collapse. “What’s happening?”
“I’m losing the connection,” Tarkus said as he began punching keys. The code was scrolling faster and faster. His encryption was being pushed. He could see a small amount of smoke beginning to rise from the husk core as it got hot and began to burn the fabric of the mattress below it. “Bad. That’s bad. Very bad.”
“What? What’s wrong?” Clarke asked as he looked at the sizzling husk core.
“They’re in ,” he said.
His fingers flew across the keys, trying frantically to pull up extra walls. He wasn’t going to get another chance like this. He needed a data dump, to pull whatever he could off the core before it burnt up. But the system was rapidly degrading and someone, no, something, was hooked in on the other end. The download was transmitting rapidly, fifteen, twenty percent.
And then the screen blanked out.
And that low-frequency scream came across the system. That fear-inducing rumble. His tool seized up.
And where his interface was, now there was just the red holographic outline of a Reaper, it’s tentacles slithering and reaching out through the digital toward him, that bone-chilling vibration rattling through him.
I see you, Turian, the hologram seemed to say to him.
Tarkus pulled his pistol and shot it into the husk core, shattering it to pieces and blacking out the Reaper hologram before him. Still, the system on his omni-tool was a wreck. He heard the crackle of electric and the humming of machines as he lifted his head to look up at Spinny and Grinder, their joints pivoting and barrels spinning, before both guns seized in a fit of sparks and smoke. Both sagged in death.
“We need to get out of here, Clarke,” Tarkus said as he looked at the fried guns in the corridor. “Now.”
The wailing, high-pitched shriek of a banshee told him that it was already too late. The piercing scream perked up everyone’s head, all eyes fixed on the corridor, the only way in and the only way out of the mall now.
Tarkus knew he had a bad feeling about this place and now he knew why.
Vorn was already on the move, clicking a clip into the bottom of his rifle as he quickly marched past them toward the door. “I’ll try to keep that banshee occupied,” he said simply, as if it would be no big deal. He stepped out into the hall with blue fire wicking up around his body. As the shell wrapped around him, he lurched forward and was gone, the flash of light followed seconds later by the sonic crack and boom of his biotic departure.
“Can you get those guns back online?” Clarke asked.
Tarkus looked at the smoking sentries in the hall, standing like they had already been defeated.
“You better hope so,” he said, glancing down at his tool. The entire thing was still scrambled. No doubt the Reapers on the other end had trashed it. It wasn’t ready now, if it would ever be ready. He slipped it off his wrist and tossed it onto the smoldering mattress. “I need your tool.”
Clarke unclipped it from his wrist and handed it over without protest. Bug was already rushing out of the mattress store and setting up the tripod for his rifle on the thick stone and tile planter. A moment later he was already opening fire.
“They’re here!” Bug shouted from the hall, pumping a second and third shot down the long, narrow corridor.
“Shit,” Clarke swore as Dess pushed his rifle into his hands and she bolted out the door to join Bug. “We’ll do our best to cover you. Get the guns back online.”
“I’ll get it done or die trying,” Tarkus promised.
He was dodging fire the second he got out into the corridor as he spied multiple targets coming down the lane. The cannibals were spraying fire all over as husk after husk charged past the storefronts, their mechanical rotten arms flailing as gunfire tore them down before they could overrun the others.
Tarkus slid behind Grinder, snapping Clarke’s omnitool onto his wrist as he pulled the back panel open. He blew into the compartment, forcing the smoke out as he peered inside to survey the damage. His eyes flew over the components, noting spots of damage in the circuitry where it had been overloaded by the hacked burst from the Reaper. As his eyes glanced over it, his hands were working independently, checking the hinges on the gun and spinning the barrel to make sure it wasn’t jammed.
Nothing wrong mechanically. Some minor damage done to the electronics. Power shot. Likely a software issue. He slid the tube of omnigel out and began pressing the nozzle to the board, squeezing beads of gel out sloppily in his haste over the damaged areas and counting on it to do its thing to repair the busted up connections.
“Make connection, TurTech Sentry Gun Model 42A032B Mark II, model numbers 00152-14630 and 00152-18939. Authorization Tarkus Raetia, TEC Level 5, ID 5554555. PIN 9093.” He rattled off the voice commands to the tool as calmly, clearly and quickly he could with the background noise of gunfire, biotics and the crackle of tech attacks blaring just a few feet away.
He touched the plastic nozzle to the last spot of noticeable damage and ducked down, rushing across to the other side of the hall to attend to Spinny. The omni-tool buzzed and responded in a woman’s voice. “Model 00152-18939 connected. Unable to connect to 00152-14630.”
“Give me a second,” he said to the tool, but more to himself as he lifted the back plate on the other gun, seeing noticeable more scorching on the board than on the other and began applying the gel to the damaged spots.
“Watch the right flank!” Clarke shouted.
“I got it!” Dess shouted back and Tarkus could hear the crackle of her ripping a singularity open as he watched the small bit of smoke pull away from the gun toward the right side.
Grog was roaring, sounding almost like laughter after each blast out of his shotgun and the crackling of electric and buzz of husks falling. There was a rumble as a biotic combination burst on the right side of the hall, no doubt the Krogan playing off Dess’s singularity.
“Come on you pyjacks! Get out here and fight if you don’t want to die!” Tarkus lifted his eyes, seeing Grog yelling back at the teens cowering behind a mattress. The Krogan’s yelling only caused them to duck down and out of sight. Grog turned back to the fight. “Fucking cowards-” the burst of shotgun fire drowned out the rest of whatever he was yelling.
Tarkus smeared the last of the gel inside of the panel, tossing the tube over his shoulder and onto the floor. “Attempt reconnect with 00152-14630.”
He pulled his Carnifex and poked his head out from behind the sentry gun, tracing a husk rushing up the hall. The gun jumped in his hand as the powerful round struck the husk, stopping its advance a few meters ahead of Bug. The Salarian turned his gun, the shot from the long gun splattering the husk’s head off its shoulders.
“Model 00152-14630 connected. Guns offline. Critical protocol failure. Systems inoperable.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, I know,” Tarkus said as he brought up the keypad. There was no time to figure out what exactly was damaged. It would be quicker to just scrap the whole thing and start with something crude.
“Initiate quick format. Dump cache. Establish live connection.”
He could see the shimmer of blue light as the barrier stretched from wall to wall of the corridor, its shifting, liquid-like form deflecting incoming fire.
“Do you see Vorn?” Clarke called out.
“Negative,” was Bug’s quick response as his rifle boomed again.
“I won’t be able to keep this barrier up for long,” Dess already sounded desperate and tired, Tarkus thought.
“How’s it coming back there Tark?” Clarke called out to him.
His fingers were flying across the keys, scripting line after line of code, creating a rudimentary firing protocol. The targeting would be for shit and it wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between friend and foe, so he hopped that Vorn didn’t come right back into the middle of the crossfire. He could overcharge the motor and push the firing rate to max at a risk of overheating the thing, but he needed a lot of cover, right now.
“This is delicate work, Clarke,” he responded. “Can you keep it down up there? I’m trying to concentrate.”
“How much longer?” Clarke pressed over the chitter of his rifle.
“Two minutes!” Tarkus shouted back. He really needed more like four or five, but he doubted Clarke would want to hear that. The human would think he could hold the line for two minutes. He would try to hold it for two minutes.
He hoped none of the reapers would try to hit either of the guns with an overload. He didn’t have time to try to build in any protection against a tech charge. Full forward shields, no backup, no power spared for recharge. Full power diverted to firing systems. Dissipate extra heat through the chambers instead of through normal cooling ports. That would add a little extra pop toward the ordnance at the risk of melting the entire front of the gun into a useless blob of metal.
“I can’t… hold on…” Dess’s voice was laced with exhaustion as the blue light of the barrier collapsed and fell.
A few errant shots whizzed past his left shoulder as the barrier collapsed before him. A third ricocheted off the side of the gun, a loud ping as the shot bounced off wide and shattered the glass of the mattress store. The teenager girl within screamed as the glass broke.
“Where are my guns, Tark!” Clarke shouted.
“They’re coming!” He shouted it back. Field of fire, 45 degrees left, 45 degrees right, 30 degrees up, 10 degrees down. Bypass and skip firing on any chambers where obstructions or damage are detected. Emergency shutdown if 75 percent of chambers are unable to fire.
“Marauder. Right side, fifty meters,” Bug said coolly across the comm. “I don’t have an angle on him.”
“Moving!” Clarke shouted back. Tarkus could see him roll from cover to cover out of the corner of his eye, the human lifting his gun back up and planting shots down field.
“My shield is down!” Dess said over the din of her submachine gun chittering.
“Husks breaking through on the left!” Grog shouted. A blast of shotgun fire. Tarkus could feel the pulse of Grog’s tech armor bursting. “One coming your way, Tark!”
The charging husk had its arms over its head, screeching as it shambled toward his position. Tarkus lifted the Carnifex from his side and fired two rounds into the husk, watching as it crumbled to the ground, where he put another two rounds into its back to make sure it stayed down and slipped the pistol back into its holster.
“Tark!” Clarke’s voice was strained.
“We can give you ten!”
Good enough. It would have to suffice. He punched the button to upload, watching the bar quickly shoot across the display as the rough program uploaded into the guns. He looked out from behind the cover, seeing dozens of cannibals and husks baring down on them, the glowing of marauders, once-Turian, once his people, at the far back of the lines supporting them.
“Program uploaded. Guns online,” the voice from the tool relayed as the turrets lifted on their hinge and turned toward the field, but as he expected to hear the hum-whirr of the guns spinning up, instead he heard nothing. “Warning. Insufficient power. Firing protocol halted.”
The reapers were nearly on top of them now. More fire sprayed around him, striking the back wall behind them. Clarke ducked down as a shot nearly took off his head. Sparks were flying off Grog’s armor as round after round plunked into his shield, the blue field fading and collapsing. He kept shooting, even as the shots began to strike his armor.
His own shield lit as it stopped a shot, the crackle of blue static washing momentarily across his field of vision.
This was his fault. He had gotten them into this mess with his tinkering. Was it really worth peeking in on the Reapers, just for that minute, just because he could? Was it better than creeping around this dead city, skittering from building to building in the shadows and trying to keep just out reach?
The enemy was here now. They brought the fight. They wanted the fight. A Turian never turned down a good fight, not even when the odds were out of his favor. Palaven had gone down in flames but gone down battling every last second of it. Ardi had gone down fighting. Chellus was out there fighting.
He had never turned down a fight, with either of them, or anyone.
Maybe that’s why both were half the galaxy away and he was here instead. Maybe that’s why TEC was working around the clock on the Crucible and he was here instead. Maybe that’s why he had decided to follow Clarke around instead of returning back to Turian command.
He had promised Clarke that he’d get those guns firing. There was only one way left to get that done.
No one would say that Tarkus Raetia wasn’t a true-blooded, proud Turian.
He stood out of cover, lifting his Carnifex and picking his targets, firing down the field as he stepped to the exposed middle between Spinny and Grinder. He didn’t blink as the shield stopped shot after shot, the barrier stressing under the load. Close enough to get both guns, he hoped.
“Get down!” he shouted to his squadmates.
As his pistol clicked empty, he let it fall from his fingers and hit the button on the wrist tool.
The jolt of energy discharged, the electric field crossing both of the guns.
Tarkus grimaced as he heard the grinding noise in the right gun as the turret spun up, soon drowned out by the beautiful high-speed music of the guns spraying death down the narrow corridor of the mall.
Clarke pressed his body hard into the edge of the planter to avoid any shrapnel bouncing around as the turrets mercilessly shredded the reapers. He couldn’t hear a thing as the auto guns roared and could barely see anything beyond the bright flash of light and smoke coming off the rapidly spinning barrels of the turrets.
He glanced left to Dess, who was huddled up behind a bench, breathing heavy but unhurt. Bug was crouched down, white-hot fire spraying just above his head but calmly sitting with his rifle across his lap, waiting for his next opportunity. Grog to his right was brushing blood off his shoulder where a shot had strafed him.
The auto guns stopped firing, the one on the right spinning down and stopping. The one of the left looked like it was on fire as flames were crackling out of the housing on the back. Bug already had his gun back up on its perch, glancing down the field.
The Salarian peered down the scope and then lifted the gun. “We’re clear.”
“We need to get out of here before they regroup,” Clarke said. “Hug the right wall. Down the escalator and out. I’ll contact Vorn.”
“Copy,” Bug said.
“Got it, Clarke. I’ll clear a path,” Grog said and lumbered over his cover, chugging away.
“I’ll get the kids,” Dess said as she skirted past him toward the storefront.
Clarke pushed himself to his feet, looking at the burning auto gun now fully engulfed in flames. No doubt Tarkus would pissed about losing such a valuable piece of tech.
“Good work, Tark,” he said, only then spotting the Turian slumped on the ground, a pool of dark blue liquid pooling around his head. “Tark!”
He crouched down, lifting the Turian’s body and immediately noticing the dead, dull, black eyes in his head. A single shot had pierced his right cheek, a neat, blue, bloody hole just beneath his eye. His body was heavy and limp.
The omni-tool at his wrist was still on, the orange interface blinking silently. Clarke slowly lowered Tarkus back to the ground, lifting his left arm and looking at the list of commands that had fired to get the guns working. He unclipped the tool from the Turian’s wrist, clipping it back around his own as he read.
Initiating protocol “Work Or We’re Dead”
Error: Insufficient power
Command: Transfer power from personal shield
WARNING: Shield utilization detected. Disabling of shield may result in personal injury or death.
Confirmation required. Discharge shield? Y/N: Y
Preparing for discharge...
The still body of Tarkus Raetia on the floor was an indistinct shadow behind the rhythmic blinking of the cursor waiting for the next command, the electronic heartbeat he had used to give his machines life.
To give the rest of them life.
Chapter 3: Vorn
Systems Alliance Prison Record
Offender ID: 2081-1289HS-0003945
Name: Vorn Deagh
Location: ESCAPE -- WARRANT ISSUED
Date of sentence: 09/23/2181
Description: Drug Trafficking w/ red sand enhancement
Term in Years/Months/Day: 25 / 00 / 00
Jurisdiction of Conviction: Earth/European Circuit/United Kingdom District/London Magistrate
Estimated Release Date: 07/05/2204
It is pity he feels as the last shots from his rifle pierce the dead blue flesh and the banshee melts in a burst of blue and black fire.
Who was she before and what kind of life did she lead?
The white tendril of smoke follows like a tail as the spent thermal clip spins toward the ground, bouncing with a ping as it strikes the tile floor. It twists, the red-hot metal cooling in a moment’s time until it lies dead and dormant on the floor with a brutal, simplistic beauty.
Vorn slides a fresh clip into the bottom of the rifle and listens to it click and lock as the last of the blue fire dissipates into nothingness.
He had studied her drawn and snarling face, the twisted crests, the bloody jaws and the burning eyes. He took them all in, remembering each detail in that brief moment when time seemed to stop on the precipice between his charge ending and the rest of reality catching up to him. The Asari was fully a monster. Whatever she once was, gone. That knowledge detached him from the work of surgically pointing the tip of the rifle at joints and systematically dismantling her piece by piece.
He would remember her face, as he remembered so many.
He checks the faces of every dead cannibal they leave in their wake, hoping not to see the familiar features of his beloved among them.
In his prayers every morning, he gives thanks that he does not see her. He prays, even though his prayers will never be heard and answered.
“Vorn? You still alive out there?”
There is no noise in the background behind Clarke’s voice. Only his words, breathy.
There is more to the question than could be answered.
“Yes,” he responds.
A short pause. “Good man. We’re getting out of here. East side exit. Will you be able to meet us out there or do you need help?”
This wing of the building is quiet and dark. Once this place had been alive. The broken storefronts speak of a better time. Now it is dead and cold.
Everything appears lighter than it actually is and in the silence of the building. He can hear the quiet mechanical twisting in his head as the artificial eye moves back and forth and adjusts for the darkness, tricking his brain to see light that is not there. His field of vision is painted in broad strokes of damnation.
He lives only so that she could live.
Khar’shan is destroyed.
If she is gone, he will follow.
He touches the button on his comm to respond in the affirmative, letting the digital tone speak for him. He turns the rifle around, pressing the barrel to the cold metal of his upper left eye. His finger touches the trigger as he balances the gun in his hand.
Will he see her, when this is ended?
He cannot know for sure.
There are others who need him, for the moment.
He lowers the gun, turns and walks toward the exit.
The fan of red blood flies out of his brother’s head, spraying across the back wall and ceiling of the kitchen.
He tumbles backward, his skull striking the edge of the table before he bounces into a pile on a floor.
They hadn’t even spoken a word to him.
Pulled the pistol.
Now the gun is in Vorn’s face, finger pressed tightly on the trigger.
“I am tired of chasing people around,” the man says. “I want my credits and I want them now.”
Charak hadn’t even had a chance to make excuses this time.
He had come here, looking for help.
He was beyond helping.
Vorn is glad he had told the little girl to hide in the bedroom, so that she didn’t have to witness such brutality at such a young age.
“How much does he owe?”
“Four hundred thousand,” the man with the pistol says. “And a car he destroyed.”
“I don’t have it,” Vorn says.
There was little to gain from honest work on Khar’shan beyond rectitude, which held little value in the failing Hegemony.
The response is the clicking of the hammer being pulled on the gun.
“That didn’t work out well for your brother.”
“Take my vehicle, if you want it. Whatever else you want, take it. You don’t need to hurt anyone else.”
Possessions are temporary.
Life is priceless.
The thug pulls back, his arm bending at the elbow as he lifts the pistol away from Vorn’s face.
“That’s a start,” he says. “You’re going to work for me, until you work off your brother’s debts.”
He has little other option.
“I will work for you.”
The man holsters the pistol.
“I’m happy to see you’re reasonable.” He turns to the other two men wielding short-barrel shotguns. “Strip the house. Take the girl.”
“No,” Vorn pleads. “Let me take her somewhere safe. She’s just a child.”
The holographic image fizzles and fades in Clarke’s palm. He settles back down onto his chair, seeming exhausted. The six chairs stand in a ring so that each might look at the other. One chair is empty. The human rubs his hand across the hair on his chin.
It is a curious habit of his. He seems to do it when he is thinking, considering. It means indecision.
The message from the System Alliance leader was short and desperate.
One final push.
All survivors to gather at the following locations.
The galaxy will make its stand here in three days time.
Vorn wonders if the humans will survive that long, having broadcast their message across all channels. The Reapers would be listening and they will surely go there to meet them. They will seek to stamp out the last of the resistance before the armada can arrive. Whether that armada stands a chance at all is an unanswered question.
“We have to go,” the Asari says confidently. Then her eyes change as she looks at the human. “Don’t we?”
“If they’re going to fight, I want to be there,” the Krogan declares. His head lifts and his shoulders push back, a sign of his confidence and strength. He is a fighter, through and through, and has no fear.
“It will be a bloodbath, little brother, even if it does succeed,” the Salarian says. He fidgets too much. His eyes move constantly. They only slow when he closes them in a sign of contentedness. He is more difficult to read, because he is deceitful. He looks often at Vorn, because he knows that he is being watched.
“So what, we just sit on the sidelines, big bro? Just sit here and let them fight our battle?” The Krogan’s wide-set prey eyes narrow in a challenge.
“I did not say that,” the Salarian answers, because his words are carefully chosen and deliberately narrow. “I only commented that it is likely we will all perish if we go.”
“I’m not afraid of dying,” the Krogan answers.
“I did not suggest you were,” the Salarain replies, once more stopping short of saying what he truly thinks and means.
Clarke’s fingers pinch at the corners of his mouth as he squeezes his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger. Then he releases it. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Isn’t this why we all stayed?”
Vorn stayed because he had nowhere else to go.
He had been locked in the human prison, confined to the alien wing, wearing the bright orange jumpsuit they had bestowed upon him. He shared a cell with another Batarian, a pirate who had killed two people during a failed raid of a cargo shipper. The man boasted often, talking constantly of what he would do when he got out, except that he was never supposed to get out.
Vorn did not speak to him or any of the others. He went from his cell to the showers to the mess hall for breakfast to the common room to the mess hall for lunch to the recreation yard to the mess hall for dinner and then back to his cell for the night. He had followed that routine silently every day for five years of the nearly nineteen he would need to serve before his own release.
Then came the day when the walls of the prison shook, when there was a great rumbling outside. It was the day when the power went out, when guards corralled everyone back into their cells and locked the doors. And then the red beam tore through the walls of the prison.
He got his first look at the Reapers descending from the sky, floating down like spiders on silk into the city of London. The sun was shining but the city was darkened with the smoke of destruction.
As they all fled toward the mangled walls of the prison, toward escape, freedom and certain death, he struck his cellmate across the back of the head with a chunk of concrete as they ran. As the man hit the ground, Vorn quickly grabbed either side of his head and twisted until it he heard the bones of his neck crack and separate and for the body to fall limp.
He prayed as he ran for cover that he would be forgiven for doing wickedness in the name of justice, as he been forced to do for many years of his life.
“This is why we all stayed,” the Asari agrees with a nod that is distant as her mind wanders far, far from the room.
“Then we fight?” Clarke asks.
He raises his eyes first to the empty chair, lingering there for a moment, then turns to the others.
The Turian had been sad and lost. He spoke with humor to try to mask that he was far away from home and alone here on Earth. Vorn wondered if he went to his end willingly, or if he only paid his life begrudgingly.
“Yes. I want to fight,” the Krogan says without hesitation.
The Salarian gives a short nod of approval.
The Asari smiles. “I’m with you, Clarke.”
Clarke turns his head, looking at Vorn. His eyes are unsteady. The human never looks at him for long. He only looks in quick glances before averting his eyes. He does now, as he always did, and turns his gaze toward the rifle resting on the floor.
The Asari looks at him too now. Her large, light eyes are full of innocence and salvation. He can see his beloved reflected in her. She is the kind of virtue he has willingly blackened his own soul to protect.
“I will fight,” Vorn says. The Asari’s small smile at his words warm him.
Clarke wrings his hands together and nodds, as if accepting a conclusion he had known would be reached but did not want to follow himself.
“Then we’ll fight.”
The young man rolls on the floor, clutching his abdomen to try to soothe his broken ribs.
They had kicked him more than a dozen times after taking the container of red sand.
It is only half as much as they demanded.
The order is simple.
The pistol is thrust into his hand.
His fingers wrap around the handle as if by instinct.
Vorn points the pistol at the young man’s head.
He considers for a second, then lowers the gun.
Another man places the barrel of the shotgun against the back of the man’s head and fires, exploding his skull into the warehouse floor.
“Do not disobey me again,” Jorvan scolds with blazing fury in his eyes.
When they return, he calls Vorn into his room.
On a single monitor, he sees her, sitting at a table with a man looming behind her.
“Little star,” Vorn says as he presses his fingers to the screen as if he could reach through it to touch her cheek.
“I want to come home, Uncle Vorn,” Aja says and sniffles.
Jorvan interrupts as he pulls the screen out of reach.
“When I tell you to do something, I want it done. Everyone does what I say or they suffer the consequences.”
The man steps behind Aja in the screen.
“Take one of her fingers.”
Strong hands hold him down into the chair.
Aja shrieks as the man grabs her wrist and hold it against the table.
Vorn is screaming.
It won’t happen again.
He will do whatever they say.
Don’t hurt her.
Aja wails in horror as they carve her smallest finger off her right hand and present it in front of the camera for him to behold.
More white dust settles on the shoulder pads of carefully polished midnight blue armor as bullets strike the concrete barriers.
“God damn bitch,” Clarke curses to himself as he pops another empty clip out of the bottom of his rifle.
The resistance has been exceptionally thick ever since they started south. Clarke had decided to try to keep on the divided avenue as long as possible as it would be the most direct route toward the Alliance forward base. It is turning out to also be exceptionally dangerous.
Vorn peeks over the edge of the low retaining wall, spotting even more reapers closing in on their position.
Clarke touches the button on his comm. “Give me an outlet out of here, Bug.”
“Searching,” the Salarian responds over the channel as the sound of sniper rifle fire quiets for a moment.
Clarke glances over the wall again, ducking quickly as white hot fire flies over his head. He shakes his head as he punches another clip into the rifle, locking it. He mutters to himself as he works.
“Grog, flank wide right. I’m going left. Pinch them into the center of the street. Dess, when they get close, give them a pull. Then Vorn, you do your thing.” Clarke delivers the orders concisely and confidently. He touches the button on his comm again. “Time’s up, Bug. What do you have for me?”
“We’ve got to get off this avenue,” the Salarian responds from his perch on top one of the apartment buildings. “Multiple contacts further down the road. There’s no way we can fight through that. I’m picking up some chatter that Alliance teams have secured a position southwest of here at a ‘Kensington Palace?’”
“You know, I’ve always wanted to visit a royal estate,” Clarke says to no one in particular.
“You heard him. Once we buy some breathing room, we’re heading southwest to rendezvous with the Alliance garrison. I’ll stay back and cover the retreat,” Clarke says. He begins to crawl to the left flank behind the cover. “You know, we’re going to pass right over Abbey Road. No time to stop for souvenir photographs, though.”
Vorn looks blankly at Clarke as he crawls past into his position. “Earth thing. Abbey Road. Beatles. Greatest music to come out of England ever. I’ll have to give you all an education when we’re not being shot at,” he promises as he takes his position on the edge.
“A little Here Comes the Sun would do us all some good right now…” he mutters to himself. “All right, Grog, ready? Let’s give these reapers a little hell!”
“That’s what I like to hear!” The Krogan bellows and pops out of cover, his shotgun spraying downfield. Vorn hears the sound of Clarke’s rifle chittering to his side and the buzz of shields as they stop projectiles.
Vorn lowers his head, planting a kiss upon the tiny, metal ring wrapped around his smallest finger. It is plain and silver and unornamented. It is not the one she gave him. They took that away in the prison and he could not get it back. Even as an imposter, it brings him the same comfort. She would understand.
“Dess! Hit them now!”
The thin, flexible white armor is soundless as the Asari stands, as gracefully as flower petals rising and opening to the sun. The blue flame sparks around her hands as she moves in the precise, practiced patterns required.
Vorn touches that place in his mind, reaching for the cold, intrusive metal jammed into the depths of his brain. He feels the eezo. He can feel it pressing like little pebbles in his veins, scraping their way toward the surface. He holds his teeth together at the grating pain as the energy phases through his flesh and gathers across his limbs.
He holds it there in the sphere he imagines around him. He shapes it carefully, forming it like a shell around the front of his body, wrapping it around him. The blue fog covers his field of vision as he is encompassed within the field. Through the hazy azure lens, he beholds the world, glancing at the Asari frozen in time, nothing but the slowly emanating waves of the mass fields around her hands shifting and twisting.
He can see the frozen muzzle flash around Grog’s shotgun He can count the individual red-hot pellets spilling from its mouth. The smoke from the burning building hangs still and solid as if it were a single, black puff of fiber being pulled from the gaping gash in the side of the structure.
There is nothing here but a quiet peace, a moment caught in between the destruction as he sits on the edge of time, waiting for it to all collapse and begin again.
Vorn stands. He hoists the Argus into his palms. He glances down the field at the dead and torn limbs of husks floating in the hazy biotic field. He sees the transformed, mutated, defiled, deformed Batarians lifted off the ground.
He wonders if any of these are her.
The eezo burns and he can feel the sharp, electrical stabbing on the implant in his head. This world, this moment, it could never last. Nothing so perfect and beautiful could exist forever beyond a few, fleeting moments.
His body lurches forward, hurled through time and space. Vorn turns his shoulder and places his finger on the trigger. He remembers that the recoil on the gun jumps sharply upward with each of its three rounds.
There is a flash of light.
The force rumbles through his body.
The shell around him collapses, time accelerating moment by moment as the blue fire dissipates, objects begin to fall toward the ground and the creatures begin to move. He stumbles to plant his feet firmly back to the earth in that final moment of transition.
And then he hears the crackle and boom as time resumes in full force. The twisted Batarians fly away, their bodies flailing wildly as they careen through the air. Their bodies crack and crumble as they strike the buildings and fall lifeless to the street.
Vorn hurdles the missing chunk of asphalt, a few paces away from the synthesized Turian leader. It sees him, it moves its pulse rifle as the biotic flames collapse its shield. It is too late, as Vorn swings the rifle down, pointing it at the V where the chest plates meet.
He pulls the trigger. The gun kicks upward hard. The three high-powered rounds strike in chest, collarbone and head. The Turian teeters backward and falls. Behind it, two husks. Vorn begins to backpedal, his feet carefully stepping back one at a time as he jams the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and pulls the trigger again, punching through the grey dead guts of the first.
The second is hit from the left side, the concussive shot blowing it backward and away. The comm in his ear flickers to life.
“Six targets inbound to you Vorn.” The Salarian’s voice is quick and chirpy. “I’m falling back. Get out of there.”
He can see them rushing down the avenue, the blue, dead eyes and broken jaws spilling unnatural light out of them. He rips the power through his blood again, feeling the eezo tear through him as he forces it in a rush to his hand. He pulls it off the hand of the rifle and drives it down into the pavement, driving the shockwave forward.
“I’ve got you covered.” Clarke’s voice is confident in his ear, and the burning red hot rounds fly past toward the approaching cannibals.
He cannot see their faces.
He hopes she is not among them.
Vorn turns on his heel, leaving them behind, as he retreats.
“He’s got eezo blood.”
The doctor throws a datapad onto the table.
Jorvan picks it up and leafs through it.
He lifts his head and smiles.
Vorn has killed six men in his name.
“Let’s make use of that,” Jorvan decides. “Implant him.”
When Vorn awakes from the surgery, he can feel the throbbing pain from the poorly patched red cleft in the back of his skull.
He tries to lift his arm, but cannot move it.
His legs are paralyzed, too.
“That’s normal,” says the large Batarian sitting in the ripped chair in the corner.
He is one of Jorvan’s enforcers and he wears battered, worn military armor.
Vorn tries to speak, but he feels a sharp pain in the side of his head.
“Everything you knew how to do,” the enforcer says, “you’re going to have to learn again.”
He stands up, holding out his hand and summoning a little blue smoke around it, lifting the chair off the floor and letting it fall.
“And more,” he finishes. “You’re biotic now. Either you’ll learn, or you’ll die.”
He can’t die, yet, because she’s not safe.
He dabs the blood from under his armpit as he tries to shift more of his weight to his own legs.
The Asari is tired.
He told her that she owed him no debts. He had only done what was necessary. But she insisted. So he reluctantly wrapped his right arm around her shoulder and allowed her to help carry him.
The medigel is effective as it snakes around the sheared pieces of armor and knits its way through the flesh. Ahead of them, the large red-brick building is battered but standing and stalwart, with heavy guns planted on the roof and the subtle glint of shields peeking out of the many tall, broken windows. Clarke said this was a palace. It appeared more like a fortress.
And a graveyard.
The yard surrounding the long approach from the twisted gates is littered with bodies. Most of them are reapers. A few are human. There is crisp, green grass in the places that are not pockmarked by burns or craters.
The others are several meters ahead because he is slowing their pace. But for once, there is no need to rush as they are within the Alliance’s sphere of protection.
“Thank you,” the Asari says quietly as soldiers emerge from the large front door of the palace to meet Clarke.
“No need,” Vorn says as he looks at the slick, near-black blood that coats his fingertips. He lowers his hand and drags his fingers across his thigh plate to wipe them clean.
“I mean it,” she presses. “I don’t think I would have made it without you.”
The brute smashed through the wall, not even phased by the blast of ice from the Krogan’s omni-tool. She was too close. Her biotic energy twisted the beast’s armor, but there was too little time and too little firepower in her hands to stop it.
He charged ahead as its large, clawed hand came down toward her. There was no time to maneuver away and as time came back around him, there was little he could do to avoid it slashing through his left side. He ignored the pain, bursting his power around him just enough to stagger it backward as he raised the rifle in his hands despite the agony and separated its right arm at the shoulder.
By then, both Clarke and the Salarian had turned their attention to the brute, shredding it from angles until it teetered and fell, shaking the floor under its girth.
Vorn stumbled to a knee, pressing the keys to begin the auto-inject medical sequence in his damaged suit, clenching his fist around the small ring on his littlest finger as the others cleaned up the last of the reapers. It was their last fight before arriving here.
“You would have done the same for me,” he says. She couldn’t have. She shouldn’t, if she had the opportunity.
The Asari smiles and dips her shoulder slightly in fatigue. He slides his arm from behind her neck and steadies himself, letting her know that he is capable of making the final few steps to the palace on his own. She nods in relief.
“I noticed you don’t really talk to the others,” she says as her eyes turn up to look at the numerous snipers perched on the roof the building. “But you’ll talk to me.”
Vorn looks at the roof too and notices as one of the guns turns and points toward them. “You remind me of my niece, Aja.”
“Is she safe?” She asks. It’s the first question everyone asks when the survivors speak of their loved ones.
“I don’t know,” Vorn says. It is a version of the truth. It is more optimistic than he believes, but she does not need any more darkness than that which hangs around them. “I haven’t spoken to her in more than four years.”
“Oh.” The Asari shifts uncomfortably.
“I was imprisoned here,” he confesses, not because she needs to know but because he wants to tell her. “My crew was trying to bring a shipment of red sand to Earth. The humans were waiting for us. We were surrounded. I chose not to fight.”
“Oh.” She says it again. “I didn’t realize you were--”
“I have done much that I’m not proud of,” Vorn says.
He has ended eighty-nine lives in Jorvan’s name. He stopped counting the cases of red sand long, long ago. He does not know how many had been bonded into slavery because of his actions. The number is in the hundreds. He prays it has not eclipsed a thousand.
“What matters is you’re setting it right now,” the Asari says cheerfully. She smiles again and nods to try to make herself believe it. Her light cannot help but shine outward, unable to be contained.
“And for what it’s worth, I’m glad you came back for me,” she says. There is a deep sadness in the words and in her eyes, that dims the spirit within her. The loss of her in that moment makes Vorn feels the darkness too.
He can hear the motor in his artificial eye twisting open wider as they come under the shadow of the blasted brick manor. The quiet mechanical twisting inside his head is hollow and dead. It is a reminder of what he has given to keep her safe.
He has lost a quarter of his soul.
Twelve dead lie on the floor.
These, he has killed in his own name.
His blood aches and smolders as he expels the used clip from the bottom of the gun and opens the first door.
The children cower in the corner when they see him, bedecked in armor and carrying a smoking gun.
They are emaciated and terrified.
In the third cell on the right side of the hall of the slave’s quarters, he finds her.
She is as scrawny and frightened as the others.
He tosses the gun on the floor, descends to a knee and opens his arms.
A moment later, her tiny, shaking arms are wrapped around his neck as he holds her bony body close to his chest.
“I never gave up on you, my little star.”
She wouldn’t ever be safe with him.
He tries not to weep as he hands her off to the missionaries.
He leaves her with a promise that he’ll come get her when he is finally free.
He fails to restrain himself when the door closes, she presses her small hands to the window and the ship lifts off.
Vorn does not acknowledge that he hears the jeers spoken just too loudly from the other side of the room.
The two humans are tossing cards down on the floor, playing some game that he does not know. They glance over from time to time, while muttering to themselves.
“My brother was killed in the Verge, you know,” the one with the close-cropped brown hair says. “Fucking spider-eyes raided the hospital he was working at. A hospital! Goddamn savages made a mess of the place.”
“I know,” says the other with the black hair and the targeting eyepiece pulled up across his forehead. “Did I ever tell you I one of them tried to knife me? Was working security on an eezo shipper making a pickup at Omega. I’m right there on the docks and this drunk fuck comes up and tries to shiv me.”
“You bust his head in?”
“Nah,” the black-haired one says as he lays down a card. “I was on official Alliance business. Got to be the ‘good soldier’ at all times, you know.” He tosses a sarcastic salute and they laugh.
Vorn continues to wipe down the components of the rifle, making a few minor tweaks. He had taken it from the trunk of a burned out police car. Its previous owner had probably never fired it. It showed. It was for the best. It was an unreliable weapon with its heavy kick.
“I’m surprised he’s here to kill reapers,” the black-haired one says.
“Probably gunned down a few survivors too for kicks. You know how they are,” the other replies.
Vorn has killed many humans. But he has never killed a child. And he has never taken joy from the task. He had not been born to kill. He had been engineered for it. In time, it had become a simple, mindless task.
There was no wealth nor glory to be had from it. There was no joy in watching a man fall to his knees and beg for his life, only to execute him anyway. There was no salvation in getting back in the ship and mopping the blood off his armor as he listened to the screams of women and children being corralled into the cargo hold bound for life in slavery.
Maybe he could have stopped it. Maybe he could have lashed out and turned his gun on Jorvan’s men. Maybe he could have tried to force his way into the lair, shattered walls and twisted men into pieces with the biotic powers they gave him in an effort to cut off the head of the organization and watch the arms and legs maim each other.
But he had a made a promise to her.
As long as he obeyed, he was safe. She was safe. And one day, he, too, would be free.
The Reapers had swiftly slaughtered their way through Batarian space. All of the worlds had fallen. Few refugees escaped. The military, the gangs, the free spacers were divided, which made them all the easier to break.
He had not seen her face among the dead yet.
He would not believe that she had gone to the afterlife until he knew for sure.
And then, he will try to join her.
The two men scoop up their cards and leave as another man comes in the doorway looking tired and dour. Clarke is not happy and he appears weary. He sits down, more like falls onto the floor, and pushes his back against the wall, rubbing his palms across his face.
“Shit,” he says to open the conversation. “I don’t know what I’m doing any more.”
Vorn clicks the last two pieces of the Argus back together, locks the bolts and places the gun on the floor. He does not speak.
“Things must be pretty desperate,” Clarke continues. “They’re scraping for officers to lead this attack. So they put me on the line with this fucking Major Coats. And he’s a goddamn Brit who’s been here since day one too. ‘Ohhh, we need men like you Clarke.’ ‘Ohhh, you know this city just like I do.’ ‘Ohhh, all that shit on Torfan happened so long ago.’”
His head bounces from side to side as he speaks each mocking line with disgust on his lips.
“I know what I should tell him and then when he puts me on spot, what do I do? Of course I fucking say yes!” Clarke bangs his head hard against the wall, perhaps trying to give himself trauma. But at the same time he does it, he is laughing.
He rubs his hand across the facial hair on his jaw again. He pinches his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger. He lets it go.
“Why are you following me around, anyway? Is it just ignorance? Let me introduce myself. I’m Alliance 2nd Lt. Greggory Clarke and I killed a fuckton of Batarians in a massacre on Torfan. Nice to meet you!” He extends his hand to Vorn while his face is drawn and serious despite his unusual words.
Perhaps he did not expect it, but Vorn clasps his hand and gives it one firm shake.
“My name is Vorn. Offender ID 2081-1289HS-0003945. I’m serving twenty-five years in HM Prison Wandsworth for red sand trafficking. I was previously employed for the criminal lord Jorvan, the fourth most powerful man in the Harsa system.”
Clarke swallows as he lets go of Vorn’s hand. “That’s… surprising. Although I can’t really say it’s the same thing.”
“Batarians killed humans on Elysium. Humans killed Batarians back on Torfan. Your people did a better job at it. But that is in the past, is it not?”
Clarke smirks at the question, although Vorn does not understand why. He lets go of a single chuckle, too, and shakes his head. “I wish it were that easy,” Clarke says. He quickly clarifies. “Not against you. You’ve saved my ass at least a couple times already. Just, Torfan… it’s not the past for me. Maybe never will be.”
Clarke’s right hand clenches quickly into a fist and then releases nearly as quickly. He stretches his fingers, drumming them one by way against his leg.
“Why are you fighting now?” Vorn asks. He does not know the answer. But he wants to understand.
Clarke scratches the back of his head and grins again, as if everything serious somehow had a humorous twist to it. Maybe this is just how he is, unable to process the difficult without downplaying it to a joke.
“I don’t know,” Clarke says. “Not for glory, that’s for damn sure. Reapers have got to go, for one.”
“For the Asari?” Vorn asks. He has seen how they speak to one another, how they seek one another out. He had seen the look of relief on Clarke’s face when he took the wound from the brute instead of her.
Clarke chuckles softly again. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess so. I do it for Dess. I do it for you, and for Grog and Bug. For Tark.”
“Then let that be enough,” Vorn says. He is glad to hear it. “To live and to fight for another, and not for the self, there is no greater purpose.”
Vorn believes it is the truth. It is the truth that he has made. It is the truth he has clung to, because he must.
It is enough.
Clarke nods his head slightly as he processes the words. He rubs his hand across his chin covered in hair. He pinches his bottom lip between his thumb and forefinger. He lets it go. Clarke exhales a small, contented puff through his nose.
“We’re moving out first thing in the morning,” Clarke says.
“Welcome to Hammer.”
“Where is she?”
Jorvan demands it as he drives the club into Vorn’s knee once again.
His hands clench behind his back, fingers squeezing tightly in the stun cuffs at the renewed burst of pain.
“She isn’t yours to keep.”
The defiant statement brings the club into his bloody and broken knee again.
“You killed a dozen men. MY men!”
He does not say anything this time.
The butt of the club strikes him in the center of his chest.
“I am worth more than all of them combined.”
“You are worth nothing!” Jorvan insists as he throws the club to the ground and drives his fists into Vorn’s mouth over and over and over again until they are smeared with blood.
When he is done with his brutality, Vorn lets the blood drip from his broken jaw.
His words bubble as he forces them between broken bones and bloody lips.
“Name a price. I’ll work it off.”
Speech is agony.
Jorvan laughs as he wipes his bloody fists in a rag.
“You’re right, Vorn. I’ve invested too much in you to just waste you.”
He pulls the knife out of the sheath.
“But the price for disobedience and disrespect is high. Very high.”
He grabs the back of Vorn’s head roughly in his left hand as he presses the point of the knife down.
He digs it down, driving it into the corner of Vorn’s upper left eye.
He scrapes and twists, as if he is wedging a nut out of a shell.
Vorn cannot even scream as he chokes on the globs of blood filling his mouth.
The soul lies behind the eyes.
Jorvan releases his hold as the single, black eye pops from the socket and falls to the floor.
He stomps emphatically down, crushing it into ooze.
Vorn is denied eternity.
He plants the knife in Vorn’s left thigh with a single downward stroke and wipes his hands.
“Fix him,” he commands. “He owes me a great debt.”
The price was worth paying.