Chapter 1: Prologue- Colonist
Layla narrowed her eyes as if that would help her see better in the dimming daylight, carefully applying her soldering iron to the wiring on the detonator she was building. Normally, she would have stopped by now rather than strain her eyes, but Robert was expecting her to be done in the morning and she just had a little more work left on the circuit board. The lights in the barn were on, but they were dim and flickered annoyingly, hurting her eyes almost as much as trying to work in the dark.
“Layla, sweetheart, are you in here?” a voice called from the front of the barn, hidden from the workshop Layla had claimed for herself.
“Back here, mom!” Layla called, not lifting her head from her work. Almost… Done! Satisfied, she set the soldering iron back in its cradle and shook out her hand as she admired her work. A quick flick of the switch monitored by her omni-tool showed current running through the circuits exactly as it should.
“Layla, are you building bombs again?” her mother asked, exasperated, as she leaned against the doorway.
“Um, well, yes,” Layla admitted, then hurried to speak over her mother’s long-suffering sigh. “But this time I’m getting paid to! Robert asked me to make something to take care of that stump in his south field, so I just finished building this to vaporize it all the way down to the roots!”
“Is it going to blow up?” her mom asked, raising an eyebrow at her daughter.
“Well, it shouldn’t, but I made a remote detonator just in case,” Layla said, holding up the completed circuit for her mother before enclosing it in its plastic casing, making certain not to pinch the wire that led to the device. “Anyway, at least this time what I’m making will be helpful, instead of just sitting around here. And it’s profitable! And if it works as advertised, I might end up making more for other people in the colony. Talitha said that her dad is having trouble with his back and needs to take down that old barn.”
“Talitha’s dad will manage without you blowing up his property, young lady,” she said sternly.
“But if he asks, and he pays…” Layla said, grinning when her mom grimaced. They needed the money after they lost most of the northeast field to those weird not-locusts that were becoming more problematic every year. The colony was planning to hire an outside contractor to study the bugs and figure out how to keep them away from their fields, but it wouldn’t happen until planting season.
“Sixteen and already crazier than her father,” she muttered, shaking her head at her daughter. Layla hopped off her work stool and kissed her mother’s cheek.
“That’s because I get it from you!” she sang, then dodged the swat at her backside, giggling. Layla had gotten her dark red hair and moss green eyes from her mother, as well as her penchant for trouble. From her father, she’d gotten her wide cheekbones and sharp jaw and small chin and talent for tinkering. She kept their equipment running at peak efficiency in between building bombs and trying to invent a drone to auto-fertilize their crops with less work for them.
“Go wash up, Layla. It’s time for dinner,” her mom said, a smile breaking through her false sternness.
After thoroughly washing her hands, arms and face, Layla bounded into the kitchen, where her father was already seated and her brother was about to clamber onto his chair. She swept him up and kissed his face as he giggled, then hugged him to her chest.
“And what have you been up to today, Jake?” she asked her little brother.
“Today I had a test!” he told her. “I had to recite the alphabet and count up to one hundred!”
“And how did you do?” she asked, grinning at his chubby cheeks and messy strawberry blond hair. Where Layla’s hair was straight and sleek, Jake had messy curls falling into his eyes. She loved them.
“I got it all right!” Jake cried, bouncing himself excitedly in her arms. Layla gasped in delight and spun him around.
“I’m so proud of you!” she cried. “Only five years old and you already know your letters and numbers!” She leaned in to whisper in a conspiratorial voice, “Maybe in a few years you can start helping me in the barn!” Jake giggled as Layla set him in his chair and pushed it in, then sat beside him. She chugged from her water glass, suddenly aware that she hadn’t taken a break since just after lunch. She met her dad’s eyes over the rim of her glass and smiled at his grin. He thought her bombs were all good fun, especially after she set off a bunch of homemade fireworks for Jake’s last birthday. It had gone really well, and the fireworks were so impressive that she was still getting requests to make them for their neighbors. Layla didn’t often blow up something that wasn’t supposed to blow up.
“Alright, you two, stop plotting to blow up all of Mindoir,” their mother admonished as she settled herself at the table.
“Come on, mom,” Layla said, rolling her eyes. “I’d need way more than the scraps in the barn to blow up the whole colony!”
“So you admit you’ve thought about it!” her mom teased. Layla laughed and chose not to answer, just to annoy her.
They were halfway through their meal when an alarm sounded on the other side of the colony. Everyone froze, then they all stood up, chairs scraping the floor as they rushed to the door. Layla scooped up her brother and carried him with her as they all stepped onto the porch. In the fading light of day, on the western edge of the colony, a ship that didn’t belong to the Alliance or any of the colony’s usual contractors was landing. It was big, bigger even than the one that had brought Layla and her family to Mindoir when she was three years old, and she didn’t recognize the shape of it.
But her father did.
“Batarians,” he hissed, and her mother gasped.
“Where is the Alliance?” she whispered, a hand over her heart as they watched dozens of shapes swarm over the fields towards the main part of the colony. “Shouldn’t they have seen the ship coming?”
“Batarian slavers never travel in just one ship,” her father replied, and Layla looked at him sharply, fear beginning to take root in her chest. Slavers.
“There’s a shuttle at the spaceport,” her mother said, beginning to head back inside. “If we can get to it, maybe we-“ She was interrupted by a sudden explosion, an orange fireball lighting up the darkening sky. The sun always set slowly on Mindoir, but the sight of the spaceport blowing up made it seem like the sun had made a reappearance. “Oh,” her mother said inanely.
Suddenly, Layla was being pulled back into the house by her father, her mother on their heels. “Layla, you have to get out of here,” he said urgently as he grabbed her backpack and started stuffing water bottles and all the medigel in the house into it. “Take your brother, find an FTL comm link somewhere- or fucking build one, whatever it takes- and tell the Alliance what’s happening. They’ll come for us if they know we’re in trouble.”
“What?” Layla asked, able to do nothing more than comply as her mother wrestled Jake into his jacket and then got her into her own. “You’re coming with me, right? Dad? Mom? You’re coming, too, aren’t you?”
Her dad gave her a brave smile, but his eyes were wet with tears. “You’ll move faster with just the two of you. I know you can run like the wind, Layla. Use that skill. Use everything in your arsenal to keep yourself and your brother safe.” He strapped their only pistol around her waist and she started to understand; they’d stay behind and buy what time they could for their children. Tears started to fall.
“I love you,” she told them. Her mom handed over her brother, and she clutched him tight. He was silent, crying, and she wasn’t sure how much he understood. Her parents both embraced them.
“We love you, too,” her mother whispered, her voice thick. “Be safe. Find a comm link, contact the Alliance, and don’t be afraid to blow up some batarians on your way.”
“Head south, then circle around the colony to the spaceport,” her dad told her, hustling her toward the back door. “See what you can find there, if there’s anything left. If you can get off planet, do it. If not, find a way to send a message. But always stay out of sight. Don’t stop for anyone or anything. Just keep running. We’re counting on you, sweetie. I love you. Go!” And he shoved her out the door, backpack on and her brother in her arms, and locked the door on her.
Layla ran. For two days, she didn’t stop except to pull out a water bottle for her or Jake. She didn’t rest, she didn’t sleep, she just ran through the forest that surrounded the colony, heading ever northward. Sometimes she would pass close enough to farms and houses to hear the screams, to smell the smoke, to fear for her friends and family and neighbors. But she didn’t stop, not for anyone, because she knew that she was their only chance of getting a message out. No one else in the colony knew as much about technology as she did. No one else could take a bunch of scraps and junked pieces from the smoking ruins of the spaceport and rebuild an FTL comm link. If anyone was going to have any chance to get out of there alive, Layla would have to make it to the spaceport.
Layla finally made it to the spaceport near dawn of her third day running. She hadn’t rested even for a moment and she was drooping with weariness, Jake asleep in her arms. She pulled out her last water bottle and took scant sips from it even though her throat felt like sandpaper and she felt like she could drink a river dry.
The spaceport was a practically a crater. Whatever the slavers had used to blow it up had been effective. Layla picked her way carefully through the debris, looking for anything she could use and always on the lookout for batarians. Weirdly, there didn’t seem to be any at the spaceport. Maybe they thought that anything useful had been destroyed, or maybe they were so confident that they had the whole colony rounded up that they didn’t bother posting a sentry. Or maybe she had no idea what she was doing and someone had already radioed in that she was poking around.
Layla finally hit the jackpot when she went poking through the shuttle. It would never be space worthy again, its engines and most of its back end completely fried, but it had been snug in the newest part of the hangar so some of its systems had survived.
Jake woke up when she put him down on the only intact seat to start prying open the comm panel. He blinked up at her with his big blue eyes and she sent him as reassuring a smile as she could and handed him their last water bottle, letting him drink the rest of it.
“I’m hungry, Layla,” he told her in a small voice.
“I know, Jakey, I’m hungry, too,” she told him as she rifled through the maintenance compartment for the tools she needed. She pulled out a screwdriver triumphantly and began attacking the comm panel. “I need to send out a message, remember? We’re in trouble, but if I can get this message out then we’re going to get rescued. Once I send out this message we’ll go find some food.”
If she could find some place to stash her brother for a couple hours, she knew she could sneak into the colony and break into a house and grab something for them to eat and some more water. She had to, or they wouldn’t make it long enough to get rescued.
The comm panel opened with a screech of protesting metal and Layla froze, listening for any activity outside, but all she heard was the crackling of a few fires in the rubble. With a deep breath, she set down the panel and started digging into the guts of it until she found the parts she needed. She set them down on the floor of the shuttle after sweeping away as much debris as she could, then yanked out bundles of wires. The FTL comm was pretty badly damaged, its wiring fried, so she needed to rewire it from scratch. She didn’t have a proper soldering iron in the maintenance compartment, so she’d have to use her omni-tool and hope she didn’t burn up the replacement wiring.
“I have to go pee,” Jake said while Layla was stripping the casing off the ends of the wires. She gestured with her chin to an empty corner of the shuttle.
“Go pee over there and try to make sure it doesn’t get near my work,” she told him. He made a face.
“Ew!” he cried, and she shushed him.
“We don’t have a choice, kiddo,” she reminded him. “I need to finish this as fast as possible so we don’t have time to go hunting for a working toilet. I doubt we’d find one in the spaceport, anyway.”
“There are bathrooms in the spaceport,” Jake protested.
“Not anymore, kiddo,” Layla told him. “The bad guys tried to blow it up, remember? I saw what little is left of the bathrooms on the way in. There’s no toilets left. Go pee in the corner.” Still grumbling, Jake hopped to his feet and did as she asked, making sure the stream flowed away from where she was working. When he came back he sat on the floor with her, watching her work with big eyes. He was covered in ash and soot from the fires in the spaceport, his hair getting greasy from lack of washing. She knew she was much worse, covered in layer upon layer of sweat and dirt and grime from running and digging through the ruins for anything salvageable. This was by far the worst experience of her life so far. Even though money was sometimes tight, she’d never gone hungry before.
“Power source, power source,” Layla chanted to herself as she searched the shuttle, the FTL comm link as ready as she could get it. The shuttle did not provide any more help, unfortunately, since its engines and thus its power had been destroyed beyond repair. “Shit!” she squeaked as she realized that they’d have to wade back out into the debris in broad daylight and pray to God that there was a power source somewhere in the wrecked spaceport.
“Okay, Jake, I need you to hold this very carefully,” Layla said, handing Jake the repaired comm. He did as she asked, holding it exactly where she placed his hands. Then she picked him back up and carefully left the shuttle. She saw no one around and spared a moment to be grateful, to think that maybe she could pull this off without getting caught, before she focused on where to find power.
“The central control room,” Jake murmured, so quietly that Layla had to take a second to make sure she understood him. Then her eyes lit up and she kissed his forehead.
“Jake, you’re a genius!” she whispered to her brother and began to pick her way through the debris toward the spaceport’s control room. Without any ceiling and most of the walls collapsed, it took over an hour to find the right place in the small spaceport. When they finally found it, Layla frowned at all the rubble. She saw several broken computers, no screens up and most of their frames ruined. She took another step inside, hoping she was wrong, that something still had power. She was about to give up hope when she disturbed some debris and a spark flew by her foot. Power! Layla set Jake on his feet and started digging, tossing away rocks and pieces of desks and chairs until she finally reached the floor and the exposed cable that had thrown the spark.
“Okay, now to patch us in,” Layla murmured, and caught hold of the rubber casing on the cable. With the help of her omni-tool, she dialed down the power it was outputting so she didn’t fry her jerry-rigged FTL comm link, then carefully connected the wires. The comm flickered to life! She grabbed it and had Jake hold the antennae at the position her omni-tool said would get them the best range, then set it to Alliance frequencies. No way was the signal making it out of the system, but there were always Alliance patrols in the area. Right?
“Please, God, let there be a patrol in range,” Layla whispered to the sky sincerely, then switched on the mic. “If anyone can hear me, this is Layla Shepard in the human colony of Mindoir. We need help. Batarian slavers attacked and the colony is in danger! Please, if anyone can hear this, send the Alliance! I repeat, Batarian slavers have attacked and are rounding up the colony on Mindoir. Help us, please!” Then she turned off the mic, set her message on a loop, and secured the whole thing in the rubble as best as she could. The antennae was wedged between rocks to keep it at the right angle, and the rest of her comm link, held together by duct tape and prayers, she settled into a niche between a broken desk and part of a wall. Hopefully it would go undetected long enough for the Alliance to hear it. Hopefully she’d cleaned up the signal enough that it even could be heard.
“Alright, Jake, that’s all we can do,” Layla said, dusting off her hands. “Come on, let’s see if we can find some food.”
In the end, Layla was forced to leave her brother under a bush with strict instructions not to come out for anyone but her. It was a terrible hiding place, but it was all she could find. It was getting dark by the time they made it back to the colony and she felt like she might faint if she didn’t get some food soon. It had been three days since dinner, after all. Jake wasn’t quite as bad off as she was, having spent the whole trip in her arms instead of running, but the hunger was taking its toll on him, too.
Layla had to crawl into the colony to stay under the cover of the crops and avoid being seen. The first house she came to she recognized as Talitha’s, and she had to clap her hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing. Poor Talitha. Did the slavers have her, or had she gotten away? Was she even alive?
“Are all the slaves in the other ships yet?” a batarian asked, making Layla freeze where she knelt at the edge of the field, peering out at the house and planning her approach. Her hand moved toward the pistol at her hip, but she’d never fired one in her life and wasn’t sure she knew how, or if she could hit what she shot at if she did.
“Yeah, the last of them went up in a shuttle a few minutes ago,” another batarian replied.
“How many of us are staying here tonight? Why can’t we just go?” the first one asked.
“Boss wants us to see if there’s anything worth salvaging, then cover our tracks,” the second one replied. “Besides, staying the night won’t be so bad! I found a bunch of shard wine in a cellar! Come on, I’ll show you.” They moved off as Layla struggled with her temper. That was Talitha’s family cellar they were raiding!
When she was sure that the batarians were safely ensconced in her best friend’s cellar, Layla moved out and kept low to the ground as she ran toward the house. The back door had been kicked in and there was a smearing of blood near the kitchen. Layla retched, but with nothing in her stomach all she could do was heave painfully. She’d never seen so much blood before.
The batarians had raided the kitchen, but Layla found some granola bars at the back of a cabinet. They were stale, but it didn’t matter. She’d take anything that was even remotely edible. She shoved them in her backpack and started filling water bottles at the sink.
“Hey! What are you doing in here?” one of the batarians called, a half-empty bottle of shard wine in his hand. Layla didn’t hesitate, just dropped the bottle she’d been filling and bolted. She slammed through the front door just as a bullet pinged the wall beside her and sprinted for the fields for all she was worth. She took a convoluted, winding route, hearing the pair of batarians yelling for her all the while. When she reached the dense forest their voices faded to nothing, but she didn’t slow. Still winding around crazily in the hope that they would lose her tracks or even lose interest, Layla made her way back to her brother. He crawled out of the bush as she ran up, and she scooped him up into her arms and kept running.
“Key, kiddo, here’s a granola bar,” she said, pressing one into his hand as she ran. “It’s stale, sorry, but it’s all I could find.”
“Why are we still running?” he asked as he tore into the bar with his teeth.
“Got to get away from the colony,” she told him. “It’s not safe for us there until help comes.”
But she couldn’t get far, maybe another mile, before the dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. She stopped and leaned against a tree, then slid down its trunk until she was sitting. She pulled over her backpack and ripped open a granola bar for herself, handing another one to Jake. She passed him a bottle of water and kept one for herself, but she knew they were in trouble. She’d only managed to fill three bottles before she’d gotten caught. There was a river not far away, she knew. They used it for irrigation. It wasn’t exactly sanitary, but she figured that if they got something from it the Alliance medics could fix them up after they’d been rescued. And if the Alliance wasn’t coming, they had bigger things to worry about than potential parasites in the water.
Layla and Jake polished off the granola bars and were still hungry, leaving them with another problem. It wasn’t one that could be fixed right away, not after how close she’d come to getting shot. She’d have to make her way to another part of the colony and try again tomorrow. For the moment, though, finding that river was the most important thing. They could go a lot longer without food than without water, after all.
“Layla, you haven’t slept,” Jake said as she dragged herself to her feet and settled her backpack. He held onto her willingly enough when she picked him up again. “You have to sleep.”
“Can’t sleep, kiddo,” Layla said, though she was dizzy with exhaustion now that the adrenaline rush of running for her life had worn off. “Got to get to the stream. We need more water.”
“You’re gonna burn out,” Jake protested. Layla smiled at him.
“I just have to hold out until the Alliance gets here,” she told him, though she wondered if her message would even get to them. What if the batarians had set up signal blocking? “It shouldn’t be long, kiddo. We’re gonna be okay.”
Unable to get her exhausted limbs to cooperate, Layla walked towards the river instead of running. She had a stitch in her side from all the running and her legs were on fire. Her arms felt like lead weights, her brother three times heavier than he should be in her grip. She knew she was dangerously close to burning out, but every time she looked at Jake’s big blue eyes and messy blond curls she found the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
They reached the river at dawn, pink and orange light tinging the sky beyond the trees, and Layla fell to her knees in front of it. Jake sat beside her as she dunked her face in the river and drank as much as she could. When she came up for air, he was sipping out of his cupped hands. She dunked her head again. When she came back up, she shrugged off her backpack and split the empty bottles between them.
“Help me fill these up, okay?” she asked, handing him a bottle. He nodded and unscrewed the cap obediently, then submerged it in the river. “Then we gotta move again. Can’t stay anywhere for long.”
“But they don’t know we’re here, do they?” Jake asked, putting the full bottle in the backpack. Layla thought about the shard wine and the bullet that almost killed her, but she wouldn’t tell him about it.
“We don’t know that, kiddo,” she finally said. “It’s safest to just keep moving.”
“But you need to sleep,” he said again. Damn, she must really look bad if he kept at it like that. True, she couldn’t feel most of her face and the idea of simply collapsing was looking more and more agreeable by the minute, but in order to protect them she had to keep moving.
Half the bottles were filled when Layla heard a twig snap behind them. She had the pistol out and aimed in that direction almost before she could think and the two batarians who had found her in Talitha’s house the night before froze in shock for a moment before one of them fired. The shot didn’t hit her, so Layla pulled the trigger on the pistol. Nothing happened for a moment, until her fumbling finger found the safety and clicked it off. Shots rang out as she emptied half the clip at them. Amazingly, she actually hit them, both of them. One went down with a bullet in the middle of his eyes and the other took two to the chest. Both were dead in seconds. Layla fought to keep precious food and water in her stomach as she stared at the men she’d just killed, their blood pooling on the foliage.
“Jake, are you okay?” she asked, her eyes still stuck on the dead as if magnetized. But when her brother didn’t answer she turned away from what she’d done. And she didn’t see Jake. Instead, she saw half of her little brother’s face, the rest of it spattered across the ground and leaking into the river like red paint.
And she vomited. She heaved into the river until nothing but bile came up, then heaved some more, sobbing all the while. When it finally passed and the tremors were all that remained, she pulled her little brother’s body into her arms. His blood soaked her hands and arms as she smoothed his riotous curls until they were matted with blood, her tears falling onto his face slowly cleaning away the red and the dirt and the ash. She shook, numb, cold, wishing for oblivion, unable to move or think, just holding Jake’s little body.
At last, she dragged her gaze away and looked at the batarians she’d killed. And suddenly she was shaking with rage. Her little brother, only five years old, was dead because of them. Those two were dead now, too, but hundreds more were looting her home, had hurt her friends and neighbors, stolen them from their homes.
But Layla could make them pay. No one knew all the paths and hiding places in the colony better than her, especially not some batarian slavers who’d only been there for three days. And no one could make something blow up better than she could. Their trick at the spaceport? Child’s play compared to what she had in her damn barn. If she could get to it, if she could get to all the explosives and incendiary devices and fireworks she had built, she could set off a chain reaction, house to house, and take out the entire colony. If she placed her explosives next to generators and set it off using the remote trigger for her most recent bomb, she could take them all out and maybe even live past the event.
It took Layla only an hour to get to her barn since she didn’t bother going around. Taking little-used side paths and just cutting through fields, powered by massive amounts of adrenaline, she made it in record time. And, wonder of wonders, her stash of explosives was thus far untouched. After chugging a couple of the water bottles, she emptied them all out of her backpack and filled it instead as many of her bombs as she could. Some of them had to be altered to make a bigger bang, but most would work just fine as they were. She even grabbed the fireworks, figuring that an explosive was an explosive when positioned just right. She set out again after only half an hour.
It took most of the night and a lot of careful creeping around, but eventually Layla had a bomb set on every property, most of them within range of a generator or fuel tank to cause secondary explosions, all of them within range to set each other off. The last one, the one she’d finished just before the slavers attacked, she placed in her own house. With the detonator in hand, she retreated as far as the wire would let her, about two hundred feet away. She could only hope it would be far enough to let her survive the blast. With rage in her heart and the sky just barely turning pink from the dawn, Layla hit the detonator.
The initial blast was enough to knock her off her feet, a secondary explosion almost immediately following it as her family’s generator blew, which triggered the next set of explosions. It went on and on, the blast waves threatening to shatter her ear drums until she finally just lay down on the ground and watched as dozens of fireballs and countless fireworks lit up the sky and her home burned. She listened with a fierce grin as batarians screamed in pain, set on fire by the explosions. They went quiet quickly, even as smaller explosions continued to boom in the dawn as the fires found new things to burn. Layla stared up at the sky, the same color it had been the night the slavers came, and finally allowed herself to drift off.
The voices came to her as if through a curtain of water, fuzzy and indistinct for a few moments.
“I’ve got a pulse. She’s alive!”
“Damn! How did she survive all this?”
“Look, a detonator. Handmade, by the looks of it.”
“What? You mean she blew this place to hell?”
“Looks like. Over three dozen batarian bodies counted so far, and we can’t even get into some places because the fires are still burning too hot.”
“Damn! This is one badass kid!”
“Watch it, Crenshaw!”
“What? I’d love to know how she did it!”
“Looks like she’s waking up. You might find out.”
Layla coughed, her lungs feeling like they were filled with ash. “Are you… Alliance?” she asked, her voice a harsh croak, unrecognizable to herself.
“Yep, we’re Alliance. We picked up a distress call while on patrol,” one of them answered.
“Good,” she said. “Wasn’t sure the signal made it out.”
“That was you? You jerry-rigged that FTL comm link? Damn!”
“Seriously, Crenshaw? Pick another word! I’m tired of that one.”
“What other word applies to this situation?”
“Huh, good point. I guess.”
“So you’re Layla Shepard?” the one with authority in his voice asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Have you been on your own since the slavers hit? Where’s the rest of the colony?”
“Colony… got taken to the ships,” Layla answered slowly. “Wasn’t alone. My brother…”
“There aren’t any ships around but ours now. The slavers must have fled when the explosion hit. Where’s your brother, Layla?”
“Dead,” Layla answered, trying not to remember the sight of his single glassy eye and all that blood. “Shot. I shot back. Killed two. Came back for my bombs. Blew them all to hell.”
“Pistol on her hip, sir.”
“I see it.” A gentle jostling followed as they took her gun. “Well, Layla, you’re one hell of a survivor. We’re gonna take you to our ship and get you some medical attention. Our scans indicate that you’re severely dehydrated and malnourished. How long have you been out here?”
“Don’t know,” she told them. “Four days from when they hit… to when I set the bombs. Don’t know how long since then. Unconscious.”
“You’ve been more than five days without food or water? Damn!”
“No, had water. Some food. Threw it up when my brother… Had water.”
“You’re one hell of a kid, Layla,” the commander said again.
“Not a kid,” she protested. “I’m sixteen.”
“Alright, not a kid,” the commander agreed easily. “Come on, let’s get you out of here. Tell you what, though, if you finish school okay, in a couple of years the Alliance would be damn lucky to have you.”
“Get paid to blow shit up?” Layla asked, smiling weakly. “Count me in.” She let herself drift away from consciousness again.
Chapter 2: Decision
A decision to shape a galaxy...
An admiral, a captain, and an ambassador all sat down together at a boring table in a boring meeting room trying to look for all the world (and beyond) like they were having a boring meeting to discuss boring things that would have little impact overall. They were, however, making a decision that day that would eventually reshape the entire galaxy.
“Well, what about Commander Shepard?” the captain put forth after dozens of other names had been discussed and rejected.
“You’re too attached to that girl, Anderson,” the ambassador. “Ever since your squad found her on Mindoir, you’ve been-“
“Anderson’s personal feelings aside, Udina, Shepard’s record speaks for itself,” the admiral interrupted.
“Admiral Hackett, you know he only put forth her name to-“
“She proved herself during the Blitz,” the admiral interrupted again. “Held off enemy ground forces until reinforcements arrived. Shepard is the only reason Elysium is still standing. She risked her life and got her whole squad out safely.”
“Shepard was born in the colonies, ambassador, she knows how tough life can be out there,” the captain continued. “She knows what humanity is trying to achieve out here in the galaxy. She knows how important it is.”
“She’s a hero to humanity, ambassador,” the admiral added. “She’s a credit to our race and to the Alliance.”
“Very well,” the ambassador finally conceded. “I’ll make the call.”
Chapter 3: Synthesis
A choice to make, three options. Survival in one way, not as what she is. Death likely but not guaranteed in another way. But one way, to end the cycle, to bring peace, will bring death. Yes, that is good.
“Synthesis…” Layla said musingly, clutching her bleeding side as though she could keep her entrails in place through sheer force of will. “Will it kill me?”
“You will die here no matter what you choose,” the Catalyst told her. She laughed derisively.
“That’s not true,” she told it. She’d already figured it out. She nodded to the left and the beam of blue light. “If I choose control, my consciousness survives to shape the future, though I won’t be myself anymore.” She nodded next to the mechanical coils burning red hot. “If I choose destruction, I may survive out of sheer stubbornness and the ridiculous luck that follows me around despite the loss of my artificial enhancements. Right?” She stared the apparition down, daring it to contradict her.
“You’re right,” it admitted after a moment.
“Then synthesis,” she repeated. “Will any part of me have any chance of survival?”
“No,” it told her. “Your entire being will be ripped apart. For a split second, you will be everything, everyone, both organic and inorganic. And then you will be nothing at all. No part of you will survive.” Layla nodded and the Catalyst looked at her curiously. “Does this affect your decision?” it asked her.
“A bit,” she admitted. She had nothing left to lose, so why not tell the truth? “I didn’t want to choose control because I don’t want to survive at all. But destruction won’t solve anything and will even damage the chances of the Quarians without their geth allies.”
“But all organics strive for survival,” the Catalyst said adamantly, the edge of a question in its tone. “That’s why you’re here.” Layla shook her head.
“No. I’m here to ensure everyone else’s survival,” she told it. “My own… Well, I’m ready for the end.”
“But you are not at the end of her life, not by half,” it reminded her, sounding confused. “Why would you want to die for this?”
She smiled at it a little sadly. “Maybe you’ll understand once I throw myself into that beam,” she told it. “Maybe you’ll understand that there are reasons to keep going, to find any way to survive. And there are some reasons, some times in life, when death is the better option.” She sighed and felt more blood trickle out between her fingers, but she’d gone numb, her body shutting down in shock. “I am so tired,” she admitted, sounding as exhausted as she truly felt. “I am tired and hurt and I don’t want to relive everything I’ve seen and done during this war every night for the rest of my life. And… And someone is waiting for me.” She allowed herself a wistful smile, the memory of endlessly deep eyes and a warm green smile flashing behind her eyes. “I have to go meet him.”
“You believe in an afterlife,” the Catalyst said, sounding as though it understood. Layla found that unlikely. “There isn’t one.”
“How would you know?” she asked it. “How would you possibly know what happens after an organic dies? You can’t know.”
“Neither can you,” it told her.
“No, I can’t.” She looked at the beam again, the one that would mean the end of the war forever, the end of the cycle, and the end of her life. “But I believe. I will see him again when I die.”
She said no more, simply threw herself forward. At first, she could barely manage a limping walk, but she called on memories of Thane to give her strength.
His deadly grace as he fought, his body obeying his every command almost effortlessly. The way the sunlight had haloed him as he stood over Nessana’s body and prayed for forgiveness. His voice as he spoke of the sea. His voice as he spoke of his wife. His voice and his face and the emotion in his eyes the first time he called her siha. The way his lips had tasted the first time they kissed, dry and soft and slightly salty from his tears, a vague sense of scales across his body. The way it felt when he entered her body, completely different than with a human but even more pleasurable, new friction, new feelings, all of it perfect.
Her limping walk became a run, gaining speed, his eyes all she saw. She threw her gun aside; she didn’t need it anymore. Her fight was over. She took a running leap and spread her arms as she fell. The energy caught her, suspended her, arrested her fall. She felt as it penetrated her every atom, taking her apart at a molecular level, and closed her eyes.
Thane as he fought beside her. His fear every time she had a near miss. His grateful grin when she caught him and kept him from sliding off the edge of a falling platform. His dazed look as she moved aside the metal beam that had trapped him, the way he shook his head to clear it and kissed her quickly before they moved on. As the pain became intense, that was what she thought of. And the pain didn’t matter anymore as she remembered his tender embrace, all the many ways he’d called her siha, all the many ways he’d shown her what that meant to him.
She gasped as suddenly she left her body, consciousness spreading across the galaxy. She saw her friends, pausing in their battles as she passed by and through them, each one heaving for breath, gravely injured. Joker desperately piloting the Normandy away from the danger. She nudged him, just a little, corrected his course to direct him to a habitable planet to crash on. They would be fine. She spread further, touched the mind of each and every Reaper, felt the consciousness of long-dead civilizations, marveled at their existence. She felt each soldier locked in desperate battle, their prayers and their calls for help, the memories of loved ones that kept them strong, kept them fighting. She saw each terrified civilian, hiding away and praying for survival. She touched each frightened child, told them they would be safe, watched them breathe a little easier. She touched each inorganic life form, including many they had not known about, and she taught them not to hate or fear. She touched every mind in the entire galaxy and she taught them synthesis. They could coexist in harmony.
I will meet you across the sea. Thane’s voice in her memory, his gentle smile. His hand on her cheek, rough and cool and so loving. His lips on her body, exploring with tender care, learning all the ways she was different and all the ways she was the same. That little hitch in his breath whenever she rubbed her cheek against his and caught the underside of his little fin, the intimacy of the moment.
Thane. He was her last thought before her body disintegrated and her soul left for a new journey.
Chapter 4: Sea
The admiral remembers.
I will meet you across the sea...
An admiral stood at a boring table in a boring meeting room thinking about the past. He touched the seat where his friend once sat and made the suggestion that altered the fate of an entire galaxy. The admiral watched the electrical signals flashing green under his skin for a moment, then huffed a laugh. If they’d known when they had that meeting what would result from it, would it have ended the same way?
“It’s the only way it could have ended,” the admiral murmured to himself. Anderson had always looked after Shepard as if she were his daughter, and even if he’d known the fate that awaited them both he still would have put her name forward to become a Spectre. She was the only reason anyone was still alive, after all. Only she had what it took to bring together an entire galaxy to defeat an unbeatable enemy, and then turn that enemy into a new ally. No one else could have done it, and he knew that if Anderson had to make the decision all over again he would have done everything exactly as he had.
It was beyond ironic that despite everything that had been destroyed during the war, all the buildings that had been vaporized, everything that became nothing more than ashes and rubble, that boring meeting room with its boring table where he once sat with his colleagues still stood nearly untouched. There was a thick layer of dust over everything and a couple of the windows were broken, but it was almost like a time capsule, like the admiral could sit in that chair where he’d sat years ago and hear the captain bickering with the ambassador.
It was beyond unfair that of the three men who had sat in this room, only the admiral remained. The ambassador deserved to be dead, true enough, but the captain, who had earned his promotion to admiral many times over, should have been standing right beside him cracking jokes about the old days. Too much had been lost in the war, too many friends and loved ones dead.
But, as the admiral watched the electrical currents under his skin pulse in time to his heartbeat and looked out the windows at their old enemy helping to rebuild, he thought about how much had been gained, as well. They had lost Anderson, they had lost Shepard, they had lost millions of others, but they had gained synthesis between organic and artificial life. They had gained the promise of a bright future for the entire galaxy.
Maybe that was enough.
Layla gasped in a desperate breath as she burst through the ocean’s surface, her lungs filling with sweet air. Her eyes burning with salt water, she swam with the waves until her feet met the shore. She knelt on warm sands, coughing and wiping the water from her eyes. The sun was warm on her skin, the air clean and sweet, and her body didn’t hurt at all. That struck her as strange for a moment, like she should be in pain for some reason, but she decided that it was perfectly okay that she wasn’t in pain.
She finally managed to blink her eyes open without the saltwater stinging them and looked down at herself. She was unharmed, her skin smooth and whole, even her callouses smoothed away. She was naked, but she didn’t feel any need to cover herself at the moment. She was simply relieved to have found the shore of the ocean.
Just a few feet away, up the beach, Layla heard a sharp intake of breath, as if in surprise, and a word whispered like a prayer on the exhale.
She looked up into eyes as deep and infinite as the space between stars, warmer than the largest sun, more welcoming than a mother’s embrace and understood that she was home. Her trials had not been in vain and her faith had not been for nothing. She was home.
Chapter 5: Thane
The moment when Thane meets Layla.
Friendly reminder that this shit is not in chronological order!
Her entrance was loud, chaotic, completely unlike what he had planned. The guard just outside the door had time to scream before she died. But that was perfect. It distracted the target, Nesanna, got her talking, kept her guards focused away from him.
The grating on the vent released with a creak far louder than he expected, but rather than pinpointing his location from the sound, they followed the echoes and a guard was ordered away. He waited for a few more moments, listened to the newcomer refuse Nesanna’s offer of money in exchange for her life with a clever line. The story of their past, though only received in pieces, was interesting. He made a note to ask her about it later, if time and circumstance permitted.
He dropped down, silent and deadly. Two were dead before they even turned, a third gone before she could raise her gun. The target died only a moment later, her gun dodged and a bullet angled up through her ribcage. It wasn't ideal; he would have preferred she died instantly with a bullet between the eyes, but he held her gently and laid her down as she breathed her last.
It was done, and the strange woman, the one who had followed him through the towers and asked everyone she met about him, stood back and watched it happen. She did not interfere, confirming his suspicion that she was not there for Nesanna in any capacity and she was not there to kill him. If she had been, he would not have been given time to pray before she attacked.
Kalahira, forgive my sins. He said the prayers quickly, knowing that her patience would last only so long as he bowed his head over the life he had taken. The sunset glimmered orange at his back, bathing the scene in the color of her eyes. He finished the prayer, apologized for the delay in their conversation, and when he looked up he knew that this moment would burn brighter in his memory than most. It was like that sometimes, an image so striking that he was aware instantly that he would see it often until the very day he died. However soon that may be…
The orange of sundown glittered in her eyes and he thought that perhaps they were blue or even green in normal light, but for now they were every color his eyes could perceive. Even the silver of ultraviolet and a few colors unique to the hanar language shimmered in her eyes as she assessed him. And behind the incredible colors, he saw compassion. Not for the dead woman, who had earned her end tenfold, but for him. He saw understanding, sensed it in her silence as he prayed. She recognized the gesture, sympathized, yet he got the distinct impression that she did not pray as he did. Perhaps her gods were less forgiving, or perhaps she simply did not have any but could understand the need for faith.
She introduced herself first as Commander Shepard, a knee-jerk and instant thing, military training straightening her shoulders and stiffening her spine. Then she softened, stance relaxing as she crossed her arms. And she introduced herself again.
“Call me Layla,” she told him, her tongue curling around the consonants in a pleasing manner. He wondered if her given name would sound as sweet if he spoke it, but he doubted it, resisted the urge to find out. Her eyes continued to glimmer with impossible colors as she explained her mission.
Collectors, she told him, a dangerous enemy. But she gave him all the facts up front, hiding nothing, not even their slim chances of success. It was a curious thing for a military woman who worked for - no, with - Cerberus to tell a known assassin whom she had only just met that she was asking him to die for her cause. And yet she did.
But the low survival odds were of little concern to him. He repaid her honesty with his own, told her of Kepral's syndrome and his fast-approaching death. And then she seemed concerned. She asked if it was contagious, but as soon as she was assured that it was not she asked if she could help. She seemed sincere, her brows drawn low over her incredible eyes as she searched his face as though she might find her answer there. He knew that she would not. Drell were difficult for other species to read, despite their similar facial features. They were just different enough that other species, humans in particular, could not read their faces without years of practice. Turians had more luck simply because some of the ways their mandibles moved was similar.
He accepted her contract, became her weapon, and she smiled at him in sadness. He didn't understand why. Perhaps she did not approve of assassins but placed her mission above her morals in this instance. He would do what he could to stay out of her way.
After grabbing his few belongings, already packed and ready, he went to her ship. It was a grand sort of thing, high tech and new. He did his best to take in as many details as he could as he was pointed toward the briefing room. The door opened when he neared and he caught a piece of the argument the Commander was having with one of her officers. The man, another human wearing the Cerberus sigil over his heart, fell silent upon his entrance.
He turned to the Commander and found another moment that would be burned into his mind forever. Her eyes were green in the artificial light, a deep jade like the oceans of Kahje, and he found it no less beautiful than the impossible colors of sunset. Her hair was loose, deep red strands curling behind her ears. But it was her clothing that caught him the most off-guard. He had expected a uniform like that of her officer, or perhaps military fatigues. She wore nothing of the sort, instead garbed in simple cotton. The pants were fairly loose around her muscled legs, but the shirt clung to her upper body. It was not an outfit meant to impress, but to be comfortable as she worked. Her arms were left bare by the shirt but she had makeshift sleeves pulled up from her wrists to her strong biceps. Judging from the tiny, bright white scars on all her knuckles and the smears of grease, old and new, over her clothes, he guessed the sleeves were meant to protect her arms from sparks.
She continued to surprise him. In addition to being a Commander of the human Alliance and an operative of Cerberus and a compassionate woman and a strong warrior, she was also a grease monkey. He wondered if she spent time in engineering or created her own weapons, or if she merely worked on personal projects. He wondered how much her people respected her when she wore grease-stained clothing around her ship. Judging from the way her officer quelled his protests about mercenaries and assassins after only a few words from her and saluted before leaving, it seemed her appearance had little bearing on how her crew perceived her.
He was surprised again when an AI directed him to the dryest part of the ship to stay in and no one else batted an eye. The Commander watched him, gauging his reaction, but he was mostly unfazed. He had taken aid from stranger and more dangerous places before, after all. He was more interested that she allowed an AI, even a shackled one, access to her highly advanced ship.
When he bowed to her as he left, she nodded deeply back, almost a bow of her own. She showed him great respect, defending his value easily and his worth in the next breath. He reaffirmed his status as her weapon and she countered it by offering him whatever comforts he asked for. She would be different from his other employers, it seemed. He looked forward to discovering more about her.
As he made his way down to the life support area, guided by the AI, he realized that this was the first time he had truly looked forward to something for the simple joy of experience in more than ten years. This Layla Shepard would prove to be quite fascinating, it seemed.