Jesse froze, panicked, with one leg out the window when she heard a loud thud from the living room, holding her breath until a peal of deep baritone laughter flowed up the stairs.
“Ppft. Nerds.” She muttered to herself with a grin. Easing the rest of the way out onto the roof, she scanned the street to make sure it was empty before dropping quietly to the ground below. There was an overstuffed backpack hidden under the bushes to her right, Jesse slung it over a shoulder and crouched down to creep past the living room window.
She couldn’t help sneaking a peek inside to see what exactly her parents were getting up to now. Dad was laying on the floor, still laughing, as Papa tried futilely to drag the larger man to his feet. Apparently giving up, Papa fiddled with his omni tool, and the music Jesse could faintly hear through the window changed to an old familiar love song. Dad quickly picked himself up off the floor, moving to wrap his arms around Papa’s waist. Papa’s eyes closed, a smile lighting his face as he moved to rest his head on Dad’s chest and they both began to sing along with Eta James.
Aw, too easy, Jesse thought, an affectionate smile stealing across her face. Sentimental old saps.
All it had taken to ensure she wouldn’t be missed until morning were a few gentle nudges; ask to hear certain old stories, make sure a choice song or two from their collection of antique recordings came on the playlist, and bam . Just like magic. Eventually one of them would put on that sappy old song, and Jesse could be fairly certain they wouldn’t notice anything but each other for at least a few hours.
Shaking herself out of her reverie, Jesse stepped lightly around the corner of the house and ducked into the alley that would take her to the edge of the settlement.
The night was cool and quiet, were it not for the light pouring out of a few windows and the occasional bit of distant conversation or animal sound from the stockyards that drifted to her on the breeze, Jesse could almost believe the place deserted. As she approached the machine shed at the end of the street, she could just make out a petite figure trying desperately to blend into the shadow of a broken down swather across the deserted yard. With a smirk, Jesse doubled back and circled around to come up from behind the looming hunk of machinery.
Peering around one of the large rear tires, she suppressed a giggle at the sight of her best friend, Kat, looking like she expected her mother to jump out of the shadows and ground her for life at any moment. She was wringing her hands, her head moving side to side as she searched for any sign of movement.
Stepping out into the open behind her, Jesse dropped her voice down as gravelly and low as it could go. “And just where have you been, young lady?”
Kat almost lost her balance as she whipped around, her terrified expression vanishing as soon as she spotted Jesse, who dissolved into a loud fit of laughter.
“I’ve been waiting for you, you butt!” Kat hissed, closing the distance to her friend in a few quick strides and reaching up to smack the back of her head. “And keep your voice down, we’re going to get caught”
“Well then, I guess we should make tracks before someone comes to check out the ruckus, huh?” Jesse wiggled her eyebrows at the smaller girl before turning to cross the open yard, aiming for the row of tarp-covered haystacks that marked the border between town and farmland.
Kat hesitated only a moment before sighing and breaking into a jog to catch up. “Why do I let you talk me into these things?” she asked as she pulled up alongside her friend and slowed back to a walk.
Jesse tossed a smirk it Kat’s direction, “Must be my rugged good looks,” she chuckled before ducking to the side to avoid another swat to the head.
“Just keep telling yourself that.” Kat sighed again before reaching out to grab Jesse’s hand and pull them both to a stop. “Seriously, you haven’t even told me where we’re going. Or what’s in that backpack.”
“I did tell you. It’s a surprise.” Jesse turned to wink at her friend, “Have I ever led you astray?”
Kat rolled her eyes, tugging her hand from Jesse’s grasp and crossing her arms over her chest. “I don’t think you really want me to answer that.”
“Oh, come on. So you’ve been grounded once or twice. Not my fault you have no gift for keeping a low profile. Besides,” Jesse flashed another grin as she reached out to retake Kat’s hand. “You only turn sixteen once. Wouldn’t you rather spend it with me?”
“My birthday’s not until tomorrow, Buttface.” Kat protested weakly, fighting back a smile as she allowed Jesse to tug her forward.
Jesse only replied by sticking out her tongue, and steered them toward the last haystack in the row, this one not yet covered in tarps. The end farthest from the settlement was unfinished, the one-ton bales falling off in a series of drops and ledges that appeared climbable, at least to Jesse. She reluctantly let go of Kat’s hand and settled the backpack securely over both shoulders before scrambling up to the lowest level.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
The tone of Kat’s voice only made Jesse laugh again.
“What’s the matter? Leave your sense of adventure in your other pants?” Jesse smiled as she looked down to see her friend standing in her best ‘mom pose’, glaring at her with hands on hips.
“As a matter of fact, I did. Along with my climbing gear and full-body cast.” She continued to glare at her wiry friend as Jesse knelt down and extended a hand towards her.
“C’mon Kat, why you always gotta be the voice of reason?” Jesse kept her hand extended, knowing Kat would take it eventually.
“Somebody’s gotta. And it sure ain’t you.” She let out another sigh, then took a step towards the haystack, “I must be out of my mind.”
Jesse’s smile grew wider as Kat took her waiting hand.
“Sure are,” she said, bracing to pull her up as she jumped. “But that’s where all the fun is”
They made their way up together, Jesse climbing ahead and helping to pull Kat up, or boosting her and scrambling up after. When they reached the top they collapsed side by side and let the silence stretch out between them as they caught their breath. After a few minutes, Jesse felt movement next to her and opened her eyes to find Kat looking down at her with a raised eyebrow.
“Mind telling me what we’re doing up here? This had better not be the whole surprise.” Kat’s eyebrow was raised almost to her hairline, but her face was flushed and eyes sparkling in a way that belied the firm tone of her words.
Jesse’s heart skipped a beat. That was new. They’d been thick as thieves for years, but lately something had been changing between the the two of them. She’d always thought of Kat as the sister she’d never had, but there was nothing sisterly about the way they’d been interacting for the past few weeks.
“Oh, uh…” she tried desperately to think about something, anything other than the way the moonlight made her friend’s pale skin and blond curls look impossibly soft. Jesse jumped to her feet and strode farther away from the edge, running a suddenly sweaty hand through her own short-cropped black hair and shrugging off the backpack. “Of course it’s not. Now turn around so I can get everything ready.”
Another long suffering sigh was the only response, but a peek over her shoulder confirmed that Kat had turned to dangle her feet over the edge. Jesse hurriedly began to unload the overstuffed pack and arrange the items neatly. She could hear Kat humming to herself impatiently as she waited. After one last glance to ensure everything was perfect, Jesse turned to face her friend and said, “Okay, you can look now.”
Kat got to her feet without turning, taking her time to brush stray bits of hay from her pants and sweatshirt. When she did turn, Jesse couldn’t help but laugh as her mouth dropped open and then snapped shut. Kat always made the best faces.
“What is all this, Jess?” she said quietly, coming over to take a closer look.
A thick wool blanket was spread out in the middle of the haystack, a couple roll-flat pillows had been fluffed up and set along one edge, in the middle, a little junk food picnic had been laid out around a large and somewhat squashed cupcake. At the the other end of the blanket, Jesse had set up a small telescope she had liberated from her Papa’s study earlier that day. She watched Kat take it all in, suddenly very nervous. “There’s a meteor shower in a couple hours, and since it’s your birthday and all, I thought..” Jesse trailed off and looked down at her feet, a blush creeping up her neck. “I’m sorry if it’s stupid, you don’t have to stay if-” her words were cut off by a squeal, and a jumping hug from Kat that nearly knocked them both off their feet.
“Jess! You are just the bestest friend! Seriously, this is awesome!” She seemed to become a little self conscious then, and quickly pulled away, walking over to plop down by the picnic. Her round cheeks were flushed and eyes shining when she looked back up at Jesse. “Thank you.”
Jesse let out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding as she walked over to sit next to Kat with a goofy grin. “Anything for you. I mean, I know how much you like chocolate.” another laugh broke free as she watched Kat’s eyes grow wide again.
“You’ve got chocolate? And you didn’t mention that first?!” Kat began tearing through the pile of food to find the rare treat; chocolate wasn’t often found so far from Earth. “You know I wouldn’t have been so reluctant if you’d just told me that.”
“What? and miss out on teasing you?” Jesse reached out to grab a bag of chips Kat had tossed to the edge of the blanket in her search. “Besides, you would have just given me those puppy dog eyes until I gave it to you anyway”
“Me? I would never do such a th- Ahha!” Kat let out a happy giggle as she spotted a Hershey’s bar, all her focus shifting to unwrapping it as fast as possible.
They fell into a comfortable silence as they ate and looked up at the stars. After a little while, Jesse leaned over to bump Kat with her shoulder and she turned, gently resting her hand atop Jesse’s on the blanket between them.
Jesse’s heart skipped again, and whatever she was going to say vanished. All she could think about was the small, warm hand on hers, the shape of her upturned lips, and the small smudge of chocolate at the corner of her mouth.
She swallowed, mouth suddenly impossibly dry, not sure she trusted herself to speak. “Kat… Can.. Can I kiss you?”
Jesse’s dusky skin flushed a few shades darker, but Kat just smiled shyly up at her and gave an almost imperceptible nod.
Swallowing once more, Jesse slowly leaned closer, heart pounding as she took in the scent of hay and honey and her , and pressed her lips against her best friend’s. Her mind went blank as Kat leaned into her, moving her soft lips against hers.
Suddenly, she pulled back and buried her face against Jesse’s shoulder, refusing to look up at her. She trembled slightly, and Jesse couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
All her muscles tensed, certainty that she had just screwed things up with her best friend washed over her. “Kat, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“No.” Kat cut her off, raising her head to look her in the eye, “Don’t apologize. I just..” She giggled and Jesse’s breath caught, unsure which way this was gonna go. “Wait till Michael finds out he was right. You are gay.”
Jesse couldn’t help but laugh as relief washed over her and she collapsed back onto the blanket. “Sure, you could tell him. But then your secret would be out too.” She calmed herself, only to start laughing again at the shocked expression on Kat’s face.
“Oh shit.” Kat let herself fall back onto the blanket, her hand coming to rest gently on top of Jesse’s. “Am I gay? Does this make us gay?”
Jesse stayed as still as possible, afraid that if she moved an inch Kat would pull her hand away, and that was the last thing she wanted to happen just then. After a minute, she took a deep breath and decided she had to say something .
“I don’t think it has to make us anything.” Turning her head to look shyly at Kat. “I mean.. unless you want it to.” They stayed like that for a time, holding each other’s hands and soaking up a new warmth growing between them.
Eventually, Jesse heard a soft intake of breath as Kat started to speak, but whatever she was about to say was forgotten when a series of loud pops shattered the perfect silence surrounding the settlement.
Jesse and Kat startled apart as if they’d been shocked, then froze in place as a bloodcurdling shriek pierced the air for a moment before being abruptly silenced. They stared at each other wide eyed for a few breaths before the staccato sounds resumed, this time mingled in with a few small explosions and rough shouts.
“Jesse?” Kat’s voice was shaky, barely above a whisper. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know.” Jesse took a deep breath and raised herself up off the hay, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever was happening in town. “Sounds like-” gunshots. She couldn’t make her mouth form the word, “-I don’t know.” She muttered a curse under her breath as she was unable to make out any details beyond a few occasional flashes and flickers of reddish light.
Climbing quickly to her feet, Jesse started for the end of the haystack where they’d made their ascent, only to be pulled up short by Kat’s small hand wrapping around her arm like a vise.
“What are you doing?” She hissed, gesturing to the town, “I don’t know what’s going on over there, but if those are gunshots..” her voice broke, and she took a shaky breath before continuing. “If those are gunshots, we can’t go running into the middle of it. We need to hide until it’s safe” she loosened her grip and let Jesse pull her arm away.
“I think I saw fire down there, Kat.” Jesse said, her voice colored in panic. “We can’t stay in the haystacks. Besides, my dads are down there. I have to find them.” She turned away from Kat and lowered herself over the edge, waiting on the next level till she heard Kat following, mumbling something she couldn’t quite hear and didn’t try to understand.
Jesse took off running as soon as her feet touched the ground, sprinting back the way they’d come earlier that night and ignoring the hiss of Kat’s protests. She knew her friend would follow.
Slowing as they reached the end of the row, Jesse tried to stay in the shadows. There was a flickering, red-hot light spilling between the haystacks from somewhere off to the right and she felt panic grip her chest again as the smell of smoke reached her nose. She closed her eyes and counted a few shallow breaths, trying to quiet the pounding in her ears so she could listen.
The shouting had grown more frequent, but sounded distant, and the gunfire had slowed to only occasional reports echoing through the streets. Pulling her shirt up over her nose and mouth, she took a deep breath before edging up to peer around the corner, Kat pressing as close as possible against her side.
There was a scorched spot on one side of the nearest building, a few small flames clinging to life on it’s roof, but not enough to account for the heat and smoke surrounding them. Craning her neck out farther, Jesse caught sight of the inferno; two haystacks were blazing merrily, the flames reaching out to lick the other side of the stack they were leaning against.
Shit, shit, fuck. Jesse kept up the running stream of profanities in her head, ducking back around the corner to look at Kat, who had grabbed ahold of her arm again at some point. She tried to think of something reassuring to say, but nothing came to mind, so she settled for taking Kat’s trembling hand off her arm and squeezing it.
Keeping hold of her hand, Jesse pulled Kat along behind her as she bolted from the shelter of the burning haystack, towards the machine shop where they’d met up earlier. Pulling up at the door, she began fiddling with the lock, trying desperately to remember Papa’s access codes.
“The shop should be empty, and you’ll be safe from the fire.” Jesse spoke quickly, without looking at her friend. “lock the door behind you and find someplace to hide. After I find my dads, we’ll come back for you”
That seemed to shake Kat out of her stupor.
“Like hell you will” yanking her hand out of Jesse’s grip, she pulled herself up as tall as she could. “My family’s out there too, you know, and I am not going to let you go running around by yourself to get killed.” She shot a steely glare at Jesse, daring her to protest. “If you’re going, I’m coming with you.”
Biting off the argument that had sprung to her tongue, Jesse stared the girl down for a moment.
“Fine,” she said, heaving a sigh. “Stay quiet, stick to the shadows, and follow my lead.” Mind made up, she waited only for Kat’s small nod of assent before turning to step quietly further into town.
They avoided the main roads, sticking to narrow alleys as they darted from shadow to shadow, winding their way closer to the block of houses where they both lived. It had fallen almost eerily quiet; they hadn’t heard a single shout or gunshot for the last several minutes, and Jesse had a hard time ignoring the icy claw fear was digging into her belly. When they finally reached the alley that ran behind her house, Jesse took a deep breath and steeled herself to peek around the corner, grateful now that Kat had refused to let her do this alone.
Jesse’s stomach dropped to her feet at the sight of the back door hanging in splinters from it’s old fashioned hinges.
Most of the other houses they had passed had shown signs of forced entry as well, but they’d carefully avoided looking too close at what might be behind the broken doors.
This time, Jesse couldn’t look away.
She stared, transfixed, at the darkness behind the splinter-toothed maw that was once the entrance to her home, and started with a quiet yelp when a soft hand fell on her shoulder. She turned to meet Kat’s terrified gaze, thinking she looked just as scared as she felt, and tried to force a reassuring smile that came out more a grimace.
Kat looked over Jesse’s shoulder and gestured toward the house questioningly.
Jesse nodded and turned back to the door as Kat positioned herself in the bushes at the corner of the house to act as lookout.
The door looked less threatening now, but no more welcoming.
Deep, slow breaths Jesse reminded herself, trying to focus on moving the air in and out of her lungs as she crept closer.
In….and out...in...out. .
The icy claw in her belly had worked it’s way up to her chest, squeezing her lungs so that every breath ached.
It was utterly dark inside the house, only a dim light filtering through the windows.
Jesse paused just inside the door with her back pressed up against a wall and waited for her eyes to adjust.
Soon, she could make out the shape of the kitchen table, the chairs from one side lying broken on the floor, and dark splotches on the tile leading toward the front of the house. She willed herself to take one halting step after another, following the trail of dark to the living room.
Oh no. Please no. Jesse forgot to breathe.
The darkness pooled and congealed at the foot of the stairs, dripping down the wall where a large shape was crumpled.
No. No no no no no.
Her feet now carried her slowly forward of their own will, ignoring Jesse’s urging them to run.
“Dad?” she let out a trembling whisper as she drew near, legs giving out and knees hitting the floor with a wet slap.
The shape wasn’t moving, was slumped against the wall with limbs sticking out at odd angles, darkness from the pool creeping up to soak a white shirt covering the broad chest.
Jesse reached out to turn the head to face her, heart stopping as her gaze fell on glassy eyes in a face made almost unrecognizable.
She slipped in the puddle as she tried to jump to her feet, falling down into the dark slick that clung to her skin and clothes and followed across the floor as she scrambled away from the dark shape that couldn’t possibly be her father.
No no no no no no no .
Jesse couldn’t think, her only instinct to get away, away, as far away as away could be. She might have screamed, but couldn’t recall or care.
Finally finding her feet, she bolted. Back through the kitchen, out the splintered door, feet blindly pelting down an alley.
Away. Away. Away.
She could hear someone shouting something that might have been her name if she’d cared to hear it.
Something caught her foot, sending her sprawling, gravel digging into her face. Flipping over, she saw another dark shape splayed out across the narrow alley in another puddle of dark, sending her scrambling backwards until her back hit something solid.
Dimly, as if from miles away, Jesse registered a rough, twisted laugh that froze her in place and sent sickening chills down her spine.
“What you runnin’ from, boy? ” a rough voice barked out as a hand like an iron vise clamped around her neck, dragging her to her feet.
Jesse clawed uselessly at her throat, the hand there cutting off the air her lungs suddenly cried out for. As everything started to fade to black, she caught a glimpse of tiny lights streaking across the sky.
Kat, we’re missing your meteor shower .
The twisted laugh rang out again and everything went dark.
Everything ached. Especially her head. It just kept pounding, and everything was so loud. Why was it so loud?
Was I at a party last night? Jesse tried to remember, but her head felt like it was filled with molasses and the memories refused to come.
Kat. I was supposed to meet Kat. I got her chocolate.
Clinging to that little bit of memory, Jesse set about trying to figure out where she was. Not at home, this bed was far too hard. She let out a groan and tried to roll over, but found her wrists were stuck behind her back. What the hell?
“Looks like the pretty boy is waking up. Just in time.” The voice cut through her confused thoughts, and suddenly the cacophony separated into a sharp chorus of inhuman grunts, laughs, and shouts almost drowning out the very human cries and whimpers. One laugh in particular stood out.
That laugh. I’ve heard that laugh- Jesse choked back a sob as the memories came back all at once; the fire and gunshots, sticky-slick darkness clinging to everything it touched, and a pair of glassy brown eyes.
She felt herself being wrenched off the floor by her bound hands and screamed, kicking at the air until a hand impacted her jaw and she saw stars, slumping in her captor’s arms. She was only dimly aware of being thrown face down on a cold surface, a sharp prick on her bruised neck, and whatever bound her arms being removed.
She came back around slowly, trying not to retch as nausea swept over her in waves.
Focus on breathing. In...out...in..out ..
The threat of vomiting faded after a few minutes, and Jesse cracked her eyes open experimentally. She was in the community center, laid out on one of the folding tables normally used for banquets, now laid out in a row, most of them occupied by people she recognized. Behind the tables, Jesse could just make out a group of people kneeling in a row.
They’re not tied up, she realised, why don’t they run?
People were crying behind her, but she couldn’t turn her head to look. she tried wiggling her fingers instead, but they didn’t respond either. Fresh panic set in, drowning out any other thought.
What are they doing to us? A thousand different scenarios flash through her mind, each more unpleasant than the last, and all ending in a pair of open, unseeing eyes.
A shadow fell over her, and Jesse looked up into four unblinking black eyes, set in an alien face that was currently twisted in a cruel, mirthful smile.
Jesse had never seen a batarian before, but was aware of their existence, as well as the reasons why they might come to a human colony.
She let her eyes fall closed again, praying to any god that might hear her to please just let her die.
A ragged moan interrupted her prayers, however, and Jesse found her eyes opening again, her gaze coming to rest on the next table, where the batarian had turned and grabbed a handful of blond curls, pulling roughly as he reached for a pair of clippers. Only one person on Mindoir had hair that color.
Jesse’s vision blurred and she felt something warm and wet flowing down to pool on the table under her cheek. She watched helplessly as her friend was shaved, then the clippers were replaced with a blade, which sliced into the skin at the back of her neck. Jesse squeezed her eyes closed, unable to make herself watch anymore as blood started pouring out onto the table.
A tingling feeling started to build up in her fingers like a static charge, but they still refused to move. The feeling crept up her arms, trickling into her chest as she felt the clippers against her own head, clumps of her short hair tickling her neck and falling onto her face. The clippers pulled away, and Jesse braced herself for the blade.
Her fingers twitched, managing to pull into a half-fist as a sharp pain burned into the base of her skull and she felt hot liquid begin to flow.
Just then, Jesse felt the hands on her neck stiffen and withdraw as someone nearby started shouting words she couldn’t understand. Opening her eyes once more, she saw the group of people who had been kneeling were now on their feet, allowing themselves to be herded placidly out the wide front doors.
More shouts, and other batarians rushing around, but Jesse couldn’t make sense of their movements or their words. The static charge had spread to every part of her body, and everything was swimming, crackling, tinged in blue.
The report of a gunshot close behind her caused Jesse to jump, making her realise she was now rapidly regaining control of her limbs.
Another shot rang out, then another.
Jesse tensed and relaxed her muscles, letting the static build until it was almost unbearable, drowning out panic and pain.
A few more breaths, a few more twitches to test her limbs, a few more shots echoing in the now mostly empty hall.
Drawing in a deep unsteady breath, Jesse sat up and swung around to face whatever was behind her and stopped cold for the space of a few heartbeats.
A line of people were bound, much as she had been, up against the wall. A batarian, pistol in his dripping red hand, was walking calmly down the line.
Another shot, and Jesse watched someone’s head explode.
A familiar head.
He worked in the shop with Papa. The thought filtered dimly through the static.
Another shot, another spray of oily dark painting the walls, and the batarian holding the gun had come to the end of the line.
Jesse felt nothing but static and blue.
The batarian paused to eject a spent heatsink from his pistol.
Jesse charged, howling.
By the time he turned, she was on him, driving a glowing blue fist into his face.
Jesse felt a crunch as her world erupted into bright light and pain, then everything went dark again.
They were too late.
Lt. Commander David Anderson had feared this from the moment the SSV Hastings had dropped out of FTL and picked up the batarian vessel on its long range scanners. That fear had only intensified as he stepped out of the shuttle onto the planet and got his first good look at the small settlement.
A pall of smoke and silence hung over everything, whispering dread into his gut with every step he took through the empty streets.
He led a small team of marines, clearing buildings as they worked their way inward to where they would meet up with the two other squads that had been dropped on the other side of the colony. Some buildings showed no signs of struggle, others were littered with broken furniture and ugly red smears. All were empty.
They found the first body sprawled across a narrow alley in a churned up puddle of blood and gravel.
Two houses down, they found the second, slumped at the bottom of a staircase.
In the next, an elderly couple still laid in their bed. They might have been sleeping but for the pale waxiness of their skin and the dark crust of dried blood soaking the sheets.
With every building cleared and every cold corpse discovered, Anderson's fear ebbed away, replaced by a boiling, impotent rage.
It had to be. Every body they found belonged either to someone who had fought back or to those too old to be of any use. He wasn't sure whether or not he should be grateful they found no children.
The only part he couldn't figure out was why the batarians had lingered so long. A normal raid- he winced at the idea of calling such an atrocity "normal"- would last an hour or two at most. Just long enough to round up their victims and vanish before help could arrive.
But this time... It had taken the Hastings over twelve hours to reach Mindoir after picking up the distress signal, and all the bodies they'd found seemed to have been dead for about that long. Yet the slaver vessel was still in orbit when they approached, scrambling shuttles back from the surface and only taking flight just before the Hastings came within weapons range.
Anderson felt his earlier dread begin to creep back up his spine. Whatever had caused the raiders to linger here couldn’t be anything good. His only consolation was that if they had left in a rush, they might have left survivors behind.
He clung to that hope as he motioned his team to a stop and brought up his omnitool to double check their position. The map they had was outdated, but the engineers on the Hastings had been unable to connect to a local network to retrieve more recent information, so it would have to do. Judging by it’s size, the building straight ahead could only be the community center. If he had to bet, Anderson would lay odds that whatever the batarians had been up to, they’d been using that building to do it.
He directed his team into cover near the main entrance and waited for the other two teams to report in, directing them to cover the back and side doors, all the while trying both to cling to the hope of survivors and not to hope too much.
As soon as he got the all clear, Anderson led his team sweeping into the first room. Some sort of administrative office, empty. Through the next door; a long hallway, some restrooms opening off from either side, the sickening sweet smell of blood began to filter through from the yawning black beyond the open doors at the end of the passage.
The scent grew stronger the closer they drew to that doorway, mixing with a hint of something chemical and collecting on the back of Anderson’s tongue, making his throat threaten to close. Antiseptic? What the hell happened here?
Vaguely, he heard the other teams checking in as they cleared the rooms on the far side of the building, but as he reached the end of the hall and swept his flashlight across the open auditorium, the rage and dread that had cooled to a simmer was back, pounding in his ears.
Along the wall to his right, bodies were stacked like cordwood, he didn’t take the time to count them, kept sweeping to the left.
A row of folding tables, their surfaces sticky and black in the dim light.
Another wall, more bodies. These ones were different, not stacked in a heap but bound in a row. Walking down the line, he checked each of them, but his last hope for survivors quickly evaporated.
Shot in the head, every one. And still warm.
So much for survivors, it seemed the Hastings had signed their death warrants when they interrupted the slavers in the middle of… whatever the hell this was.
He cursed under his breath, the rage threatening to spill out and break something. A few deep breaths, calm yourself, David. This isn’t your fault.
Perhaps repeating it a few more times would make him believe it.
Pushing the anger aside, he continued down the wall, still pausing to check each body for signs of life, despite knowing already what he’d find.
Approaching the end, a barely audible sound drew his attention to a dark mass lying some distance from the wall. Turning his light on the shadow, he was unable to make out much besides what appeared to be a tangle of limbs soaked in red. Motioning behind him to catch the attention of the marines now checking the pile of corpses, he began to slowly approach the shadowy shape.
As he drew closer, he could just make out a patch of green skin. A sick sort of satisfaction rose up his throat, it looks like at least someone was successful in fighting back.
Unbidden, a spark of hope returned to his chest, though he tried to fight it down, and his steps quickened as he became aware of the sound of labored breathing. The spark kindled itself into a tiny flame, but nearly gutted out as his flashlight revealed just what he was looking at.
There was indeed a Batarian, laying in a pool of blood and nearly obscured by the slight but obviously human form crumpled on top of him.
“Christ, that looks like a kid!”
“Private Williams?” Anderson spared a glance at the marine who’d come up behind him, motioning for the young man to cover him before turning back to the grisly sight before them. Williams trained his rifle on the batarian, the attached light giving Anderson a better view as he tucked his own assault rifle into the mag clip on his back and removed a glove. Kneeling, he scanned both bodies for injuries. He couldn’t see much of the batarian apart from the side of his head and an arm that stuck out at an odd angle, but the human kid didn’t look good; a gash on the back of their head and what looked like a piece of bone sticking out from a torn and blood soaked shirt.
Wincing at the sight, he reached under the poor kid, hoping against hope that it wasn’t the batarian who still breathed.
As Anderson’s fingers sought a pulse, there was a sudden movement and he felt teeth sink into his hand. As he jerked back, the kid rolled off the batarian with a yelp and sent a weak wave of crackling blue energy at him. It was barely enough to raise his hair, and he quickly regained his composure, gesturing to Williams that he was unharmed and quickly turning to check that the batarian wouldn’t be trouble.
“Jesus!” The word escaped him in a hiss.
It looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer to his head, a ruined cater of flesh and bone all that remained of his face. Anderson heard someone retch behind him as he turned his focus back to the kid.
She lay with her right arm twisted under her at an angle that didn’t look possible, chest heaving in shaky breaths, and her eyes, unfocused and glassy with pain and fear, were trained in his direction.
He called for a medic as he moved around the dead batarian, but the girl flinched away from his approach, so he tried talking to her. Not even really cognizant of what he was saying, he tried to let his voice reassure her that he was human. He was barely aware of the medic’s approach, but he saw the girl flinch as a needle was pressed to her neck. In the last few moments before the sedative took effect, her eyes came into focus on his face and her mouth formed a barely audible word.
Kirk: derogatory term for a human who has romantic and/or sexual relations with aliens
Alex Shepard woke with a start as a heavy weight slammed into his back, pinning him to the mattress. He tensed as he found himself wreathed in a dancing blue light that trapped his limbs in place, then relaxed as he came awake enough to recognize the hushed voice laughing in his ear.
“Ah! So he does live! I’ve been trying to wake you for so long, I was starting to wonder.”
“Benny…” He groaned into his pillow, “that’s not fair!”
Her laughter rang again, louder this time. “Since when have I ever played fair?” Alex suppressed a shiver and melted into the bed as she licked a trail up his spine before whispering in his ear. “As I recall, it’s one of the things you like best about me.”
She shifted then, and he took advantage of her momentary distraction to break free of her biotic hold, bucking her off onto the bed next to him and rolling to pin her. He knew she could have easily countered the move, but she let him roll her onto her back, laughing all the while.
Goddess , but he loved her laugh. Anything he might have been about to say fled his sleep-addled mind as she looked up at him, her skin appeared freckled, but he knew that was just part of her coloring, unlike human freckles. Her scalp crests were currently dyed a vibrant pink, and her smile was positively contagious. He couldn’t help smiling back at her as he leaned down to kiss the tip of her nose before burrowing his face into her neck and feigning sleep.
“Oh, no you don’t, big guy!” Benny made a show of trying to wriggle out from under him. “It took me twenty minutes to wake you up, and you promised to make me breakfast! I really want to try that ‘bacon’ you keep going on about.”
He nuzzled his face farther into her shoulder and mumbled, “You play dirty. Five more minutes? This is my only chance to sleep in this week.”
Benny sighed, bringing her arms up to wrap around him and play with his soft brown curls. “Five.”
After a minute or so, Alex propped himself up on an elbow so he could look at her, tracing the fingers of his other hand over her scalp. She smiled sleepily at him, her eyes drifting closed.
“Benny?” He asked, his voice almost hesitant.
“I love you.”
Her eyes opened at that and she stared at him for a moment, the corners of her mouth drifting up once more into a sleepy smile before she pulled him down to press her lips to his forehead.
“I know, I’ve felt it for some time. I love you too, ya big lug”
“Mmmmm” he let his head rest against her chin a moment longer before once again raising up to look into her soft blue eyes. “There’s something else.”
Her brow quirked in unspoken question, but she remained silent, waiting for him to continue.
“I.. I want to tell people. About us, I mean. You’ve become so important to me, and I don’t want to hide it anymore. I don’t want to be afraid of what people will think or what they’ll say, I just want to live my life, my whole life, with you. Not just when we’re in private.”
She regarded him silently for a moment, and he almost thought she was going to cry. But before he could say anything else, she lunged up to wrap her arms around his neck. She sounded almost choked up as she asked, “And your family?”
“Especially my family. I.. I think they’ll love you. Once they get past..”
She pulled back as his words trailed off and looked at him questioningly
“Once they get past the fact that I’m not human? That you’re a kirk?”
He flinched away at her words “I’m sorry, Ben, I’m just..”
She reached out and gently turned his face back to her. “Hey, look at me. I’m sorry, I know you’re scared. It’s a scary thing. But there is no shame in this. Anyone who who would try to make you feel otherwise can go fuck themselves, and I don’t care how many members of your species that includes.”
He tried to blink back the tears he could feel welling up, but it was a losing battle. “And what if it includes my family?
The look she gave him then was both stern and confident. “It won’t. You have two fathers, and it wasn’t too long ago that a family like yours would have been met with the same fear and mistrust we’re facing now. Trust me, they’ll understand. And if your sister is anything like the girl you’ve told me about, she will too.”
Alex couldn’t help letting out a chuckle through his tears. “You’ve been reading up on the parts of human history the Alliance likes to pretend didn’t happen, I see.”
“Of course! I want to know where you come from. And,” she wiped a tear off his cheek with her thumb, and he noticed she was crying as well. “When you’re ready, I’d love to meet your family.”
He couldn’t seem to make his mouth form words, so he leaned over to kiss her instead, trying to convey everything that he felt for her. Then he felt her mind brush tentatively against his, questioning. He opened himself up to the contact and suddenly he didn’t have to try anymore, everything that each of them were feeling, they both felt together in that moment, and he couldn’t remember ever feeling more at peace.
Alex wasn’t exactly sure how long the kiss went on, touching minds did funny things to his sense of time, but when they finally drew apart, Benny cupped his cheek in her hand.
He only nodded, still not certain of his ability to form words.
“Good.” She said cheerfully as she jumped off the bed and threw him a pair of sweatpants. “Because your five minutes are up and mamma wants some bacon!” she threw him a wink as she slipped into one of his shirts, far too big for her, then slapped his butt playfully on her way out into the tiny combination kitchen/living room of his apartment.
With a grin, he finished pulling on the sweatpants and followed, finding her seated at the kitchen counter, idly flipping through channels on the vidscreen, probably in search of cartoons. He gave her one last lingering look before turning to start the ‘traditional human breakfast’ he’d promised her: fried potatoes, eggs, and bacon. He’d even managed to get his hands on some rye bread for toast, all toxin-scanned and approved for asari consumption, of course. He just hoped it was good as he remembered.
Turning from the fridge with an armload of food, he heard Benny’s voice behind him.
“Alex…” She sounded scared, and he whipped around to look at her. “What colony did you say your family was on?”
There was no mistaking the tremble in her voice now, and he followed her gaze slowly to the vidscreen as the picture panned over a familiar looking valley. Very familiar, except on the north end, where the settlement should be, was nothing but a burned out shell.
Eggs, bacon, and a loaf of rye bread slipped from his nerveless fingers as the too-perky reporter’s words started to sink in.
“... issued a statement condemning the attack as an act of terror. First responders on board Alliance ship SSV Hastings are reportedly en route to Arcturus Station, where it’s believed they will hold a press conference to confirm or deny the rumor of survivors.
In local news..”
The words blurred across the screen, and Anderson rubbed his eyes for what felt like the hundredth time, trying to make himself focus on the report in front of him. He’d spent the last week pouring over what little evidence they’d been able to collect from Mindoir, trying to piece together exactly what had happened, but had made no progress for days.
There had been a raid by batarian slavers, that much was obvious, but knowing who was responsible was of little help when trying to figure out the why in this case. Mindoir was.. had been.. by all accounts, a thoroughly insignificant farming colony. There had been a handful of scientist there, overseeing the introduction of a few species native to earth and their interactions with the native flora, but other than those few there had been only farmers, engineers, teachers, and a small medical staff. Total population: less than a thousand. Nearly two hundred had been killed in the raid.
That was the part that didn’t make sense. These raids happened sometimes, but the only casualties ever left behind were the old, infirm, or troublesome. Yet inside that community center there had been over a hundred bodies, all of them young and able bodied enough to be of interest to slavers, some of them children, most of them with a chunk missing from the back of their skulls. The science team on board the Hastings was still trying to figure out what exactly had been done to them, but Anderson didn’t hold out much hope for success. The raiders had been too thorough, going so far as to remove bits of skull and brain tissue from their victims, and killing anyone they hadn’t yet gotten to so they couldn’t bear witness.
Though they hadn’t been entirely successful on that account. The kid had managed to survive, though it had nearly killed her. The doctors had informed Anderson that the wound on the back of her neck was a surgical incision, similar to the ones made when implanting bio-amps, but it seemed the batarians had never got round to actually installing whatever hardware they were inflicting upon the colonists.
So that was something. The batarians had been performing some sort of neural implants on the survivors, but apparently had not achieved a 100% success rate. Still didn’t tell him much about their motives.
For what must have been the thousandth time that day, Anderson’s gaze flickered across his office to where the girl sat, hunched over as far as the immobilized shoulder and arm strapped across her chest would allow, dark brown eyes staring at him from underneath the hood of an oversized Alliance sweatshirt. She’d been in and out of surgery for the first few days, while the Hasting’s small medical staff worked to reconstruct her hand and arm. They said she was lucky, almost every bone from her hand to her shoulder had been shattered, yet they expected her to make a full recovery and regain full use of both arm and hand in time.
Lucky, he scoffed at that, everyone she’s likely ever known or cared about is either dead, or taken. She watched it happen, and they call her lucky. Though he supposed they were right, in a way. She could easily have been counted among the dead, or taken. She could have lost the use of her hand. He suspected that wasn’t much comfort to her.
She hadn’t spoken a word since she’d woken up in the med bay, not that he blamed her. She hadn’t really had to. All of her needs were taken care of, and if something wasn’t to her liking, she changed it. He almost laughed, thinking back to that first night after she’d come to.
Even without words, the kid had made it abundantly clear that she wouldn’t remain in the med bay. So they’d tried to set her up in a private cabin, one of the ship’s officers temporarily moving into the barracks to free up space. Only the kid didn’t seem to want to be left alone. They’d had a nurse sit by her until she fell asleep, but when ze had left some time later, the kid had apparently woken up and hacked the door to get out. They’d found her sleeping on an empty bunk in the crew’s quarters. After the third time it happened, they’d let her stay there.
Anderson was sure she was giving the security officers fits, but she didn’t seem prone to hack any doors unless she was locked somewhere she didn’t want to be, and being around people seemed to keep her calm, so he didn’t see the harm in it. He would like to know where she’d picked up that particular skill, however. He’d ask her, except anytime anyone had tried to get her to talk, she’d shut down even further; a few times even going so far as to dig her own fingernails into the still-healing wound at the base of her skull.
After that, no one had put any pressure on her to speak. She seemed mostly content to follow him around the ship, though if he left her in someone else’s company, she would stay with them for a while before seeking him out again.
Anderson sighed, tearing his gaze away from the kid’s compelling stare to check his omnitool. They’d just begun docking procedures at Arcturus Station, and he’d been informed that a representative from the Alliance parliament was waiting to speak with her. The kid.
He really wished they had something else to call her, but all the networks on Mindoir had been hit with some sort of EMP that had made retrieving information nearly impossible, though the techs were working on it. So since she wasn’t listed on the last census that had been sent back to the Alliance, and she wasn’t forthcoming with a name, she remained “the kid”
He wasn’t looking forward to explaining that one to whatever bureaucrat parliament sent. He wasn’t looking forward to explaining the twenty-odd bodies they’d thus far been unable to identify either. Most of them children.
Sighing again, he stood and made his way across the room to perch on the edge of the chair next to hers, fully aware that her eyes hadn’t left him for a second.
“How ya doin’ kid?” He moved to set a hand on the armrest between them, but the slightest of movements from her stopped him, and he redirected the hand in question to rest on his knee instead. Her gaze had left his face for the first time in a while, and she was now staring at the fresh pink scar that curved along the flesh between his thumb and forefinger, as if noticing it for the first time.
Anderson rubbed at the scar self consciously, biting down a small swell of pride and sadness. She was a fighter alright.
“I know you don’t feel like talking, and that’s okay.” he gave his best reassuring smile as the girl’s eyes returned to his face. “The Alliance has sent someone to talk to you, but I want you to know that you don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. I can make sure someone from the Hastings is with you the whole time if-” Anderson stuttered to a stop as the kid’s hand shot out to latch hold of his.
He saw fear in her eyes then, and something like pleading. Ignoring the sudden tightness in his chest, he squeezed her hand in return.
“Okay, let’s get ready to go.”