Shepard didn’t have a lot of regrets. The ones she did, however...they mattered a lot. She wished she could apologize to Wrex, to the Rachni queen. She wondered if she should have shot Wreave. She
she should have shot the Illusive Man a hell of a lot sooner than she had.
But mostly she wished she could have seen that tropical island with Garrus. Adopted ten krogan babies. Raised a battalion of sharpshooters and ne’er-do-wells. Hell, maybe, in time, they could’ve given Jack’s kids a run.
Garrus had been wrong, there was no bar in heaven. No clouds or golden gates, either. Death was darkness, and a promise of pain if she dared so much as to approach the line of consciousness.
So she didn’t.
Was death the same for all species? If not, she wished she were a Drell. Maybe for them death was merely an escape back into their perfect memories. But then, what memories did she have to escape to? Even those few stolen moments with friends were tainted. Everything in her life had been connected to the Reapers. To Cerberus. To one grisly moment or another. It had never bothered her before. Did it now?
She wished that she could see them; look down on them like she promised...but everything was so dark.
The tapping of gentle talons against her cheek forced a groan from her lips, and her eyes to open. What little she could discern from the shadows was awash in blue, blurry, and mis-shapen. It was an improvement over the dark, at least.
Shepard blinked in slow succession. As her vision sharpened, blossoms of pain erupted through her body: bruises where she’d been tossed about like a ragdoll in a hurricane, the sharp tug of tight skin against clotted blood, and a throb between her eyes so heavy it made them water. She hissed.
Inch by inch she lifted her head until she could face the Keeper standing over her. It chirped and clicked at her, waving its four little arms. Shepard groaned and closed her eyes again, her forehead resting against the warm blanket beneath her.
Once again the Keeper poked her cheek.
She tried to slap it away, but couldn’t. After several more prods, Shepard re-opened her eyes.
The Keeper met her gaze, then its antennae bobbed and it performed a quick little hop and jig, the likes of which she’d never seen from a Keeper before. Then it scuttled over her.
Biting back grunts of pain, Shepard wormed her way onto her elbows to look after it. With her vision cleared she realized she was lying in the wreckage of...a hull? Giant pipes made up most of what she was laying on, decorated by piles of structural beams, platforms, and debris. A frankenstein generator was affixed by a stretch of fresh welding to the pipe a few feet from her head. A faint hum told her it was still running, probably responsible for the translucent blue dome shimmering around her.
Turning her head, Shepard found a pool of water collected between ‘her’ pipe and the next one over. It wasn’t much, but it looked clean enough.
Trying to move her arm was like reaching out to a phantom limb; it was several tries before she could slide across the chilled metal and down to the water below. Her fingers had barely grazed the top when she slumped against the pipe, panting and tired.
A tip-tapping across the pipes heralded the Keeper’s return. It moved around her this time, and bent to scoop water into a small bowl of warped metal. Patiently, it waited as Shepard forced herself back onto her elbows.
With the Keeper’s help she drank what little she could swallow, then sank again upon the pipe. The Keeper clicked and whirred at her some more. It reached out and the strong, stringent stench of medi-gel engulfed her. It was followed by a pressure over her body—another blanket, she thought, but the light was fading once again. Or was that...
There were no fires in her dreams, now. Only cold.
Shepard stood among the trees and shadowed figures, watching as the snow fell. Sometimes there were voices: Garrus, Tali, Joker, James. But mostly there was nothing. No one.
She stood with the shadows of the dead and wondered Why . Sure, the Catalyst had explained it....At least, it had tried. It would be lying to claim she truly understood. All she knew was that it seemed like there was only one viable option in the end.
If you had to perform the brutal calculus of war...what was one, insignificant life next to trillions?
Except she was beginning to believe she wasn’t quite dead.
At first Shepard thought there was only the one Keeper. Gradually she realized there were five.
As her eyes adjusted to the blue light of the generator it became possible to distinguish between them. The first she now called Adam, as much for Mordin’s homage to Eve as the fact that it seemed as generic a Keeper as any of them. The second she deemed Lucy for the patch of red atop its head. A third was “Short Stuff” because he was smaller than his fellows and had lost half of one antennae. Speedy was the fourth; ironically for the fact that he limped along at a snail’s pace. Last was Larva, who never came to her alone. This one was always watching whichever of the others it was with and mimicking them, like a small child might its parents. She’d never claimed to be an overly imaginative person.
They came to her in turns, bearing gifts of water, food, or medi-gel. Somehow they were able to walk outside of her safe little bubble of life support, stuck to the walls of the hull like they had built in mag-shoes. Maybe they did.
The blankets they’d wrapped her in were the ones designed to insulate against cold in case of temporary Life Support failure, usually kept in emergency panels hidden around the citadel. They wouldn’t last against the hard freeze of space—nothing would—but between them and the generator tapping into the old LS systems, Shepard was kept warm enough to survive.
It could have been days or weeks that she drifted in and out of consciousness. Time was meaningless here. She woke when one of the keepers came to shove bits of stringy, cold and raw meat between her lips, or pour water down her throat, then fell back into the comfortable torture of dreams. There, at least, was an escape from the blinding pain wracking her bones.
“Won’t last, y’know.”
Lilo’s grin belied the resolve in her voice. Three years Shepard’s elder, the ten-year-old Lilo shared her sister’s freckles, dark skin, and heavily lashed eyes. But that was where their similarities ended. Where Shepard was heavily boned and short, even for a seven-year-old, Lilo was tall, made of wire and whipcord. Her dark brown hair hung to her shoulders in dirty, disheveled locks, and there was a smear of what looked to be machine oil across her twice broken nose.
The beam they sat on was rusted through and missing in places, but it held them well enough. Gaps in the tin roof of the old warehouse allowed enough light for Shepard to see the machinery littering the ground below. Most of it was useless; the working parts had been salvaged years ago, the rest left to rot. Just like them.
Shepard followed Lilo’s gaze up, through the nearest hole in the ceiling, to where the moon hung barely visible in the polluted sky. “Naw,” said Lilo, and she drew an arm around Shepard’s shoulders. “Can’t. Needs fuel, just like you. You gotta wake up, Maki.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Think’a Liara.” The arm around her shoulders tightened, shaking her. “Think’a Tali. Kaidan. Edi. Garrus .”
Shepard snorted. “You’d hate Garrus. He’s a Turian.”
“Think’a me , then.”
This wasn’t how this memory was supposed to go. Frowning, Shepard met her sister’s cold, dead eyes.
She startled and the world was lung-wrenching pain. Lucy clicked and whirred over her, little talons prodding at Shepard’s cheeks and shoulders in the flickering light.
Biting back grunts and groans as her she forced her muscles to work, Shepard levered herself up on her elbows and squinted at the shields.
A rush of adrenaline got her onto her feet, and to the generator. Sinking to her knees, she fumbled with what looked like a control panel. It wouldn’t open. None of the panels would. Even if they did, what could she possibly do?
Lucy tap-danced at her left, drawing Shepard’s attention. The little creature pointed frantically behind them, until Shepard looked back.
A moment of hope seized Shepard’s throat, only to break in a sob when she realized the person being pointed at was a corpse. But it was a corpse with armor.
Using the generator to pull herself to her feet, Shepard limped over and fell beside the body. An Alliance soldier; 103rd division. The name on her breastplate was too scarred over to read, but it looked like it might fit well enough. Hopefully the suit’s LS system was still functional.
The Keepers were probably better judges of that, anyway.
A faint crackle from the generators signaled that she didn’t have much time. Her fingers tugged at the straps and buckles, prying them off the long dead woman. Space had kept her corpse from deteriorating, but the flesh was turning black from cold.
Next, Shepard began to remove what was left of her own armor. She nearly lost her stomach as she peeled away the leg pieces and pants. Pulling one of the blankets to her, she wiped away as much excrement as she could. Done, she tugged on the fresh armor. It was a little big in places, tight in others, and decidedly uncomfortable against her sores and bruises. The helmet, however, fit perfectly.
She hit the button for the LS. For one long, terrible moment nothing happened. Then a familiar, low-frequency tremble ran from her toes to her head. A puff of fresh air blew against her face.
A second later the generator died with a short-lived puff of smoke.
Shepard grabbed on to the nearest beam as her body floated from the hull. Lucy scuttled to her, and offered a claw. Shepard took it.
As they ventured through the husk of what was once the Citadel, Shepard began to realize they were out at the furthest point of one of the arms. Holes were punctured into the hull itself at random intervals, likely the effects of stray beams or shrapnel.
Through one such gape she got a good look at the Earth below. There were no more fires, no smoke. But there was a lot of black, and no sign of ships.
“One day,” Lilo should have said, “We’ll be up there. You ‘n me. And everything will be perfect.”
Another generator, another little bubble of safety. Adam had just finished installing it when Shepard and Lucy reached the crook of hull the Keepers had picked out. This place was backed on two sides by large, intact walls, and was properly floored at least. Water was leaking out a nearby pipe. As soon as gravity was once again in effect the liquid poured into a basin that had been welded to the floor. How much of it had already been wasted out into space, Shepard wondered.
Inside the LS field, the weight of the armor was beginning to take its toll. Shepard shut the LS system off, then fell on her ass. Lucy hovered at her side, clicking nervously. Waving her off, Shepard tugged the helmet off and put it aside.
Despite the premium water was at, Shepard knew she needed to get herself clean. Cleaner than this, at the very least.
Piece by piece Shepard divested herself of clothing under the curious gaze of the Keepers. Naked, she cupped water in her hands and tried to wipe her legs clean. Adam disappeared for a moment, then returned with the same cup-like piece of metal he had had before.
“Thanks,” Shepard tried to say; the result was rusted and wrong. Even in the dim light she could tell that her skin was all the wrong colours. Deep black bruises were edged by smaller, sallow patches. Gashes and abrasions generously littered her legs and arms. Open, festering wounds were running with pus.
Though her body screamed at her, she squeezed the puffy skin around them until the fluid from the sores ran bloody again. There were no bandages, but...
Lucy held up a new canister of medi-gel. Tears pricking her eyes, Shepard accepted it and scooted her way backward, out of the pool of disease left upon the floor, before applying it.
Only then did she curl into a ball beside the generator and pray for sleep.
The light in her cabin was usually on, even when she was sleeping; Shepard hated the dark. Tonight it was filtered through the fish tanks she’d never bothered to use, flickering over her desk and the empty model pegs. Someone, hard and warm, lay behind her.
A smile rose to Shepard’s lips, and she covered his hand at her waist. “Are you awake?”
His arm tightened around her. He did not respond.
“Yeah,” she said, “I wouldn’t want to talk to me, either.”
“Do you really think I’d blame you?” Garrus’s voice was a whisper through a winter tree, but it was Garrus. Letting herself relax upon the mattress, Shepard closed her eyes.
“No. You would understand. You usually do.”
“Only usually?” He laughed against her neck.
“Yeah.” Smirking, Shepard moved his arm and turned to face him. Her scream was drowned by the roar of the marauder.
Shepard fell off the bed, scrambled to her feet, and dashed into the office. Gun. Gun. Where was her fucking gun?
Certain the marauder was right behind her, she looked up to find...nothing. Panting, palms pressed so hard to the desk there was a sucking noise when she lifted them, Shepard stared at the empty bed. “...a dream?”
“It all is.” Lilo stood at the fishtank, dirty hands and forehead against the glass. In the fractured light her appearance was almost ghoulish, with shadows highlighting the hard angles of her malnourished body. “You know that, don’t you?”
“I...” Shepard carded her fingers into her hair, tugging at her scalp. “I should be dead.”
“WHY?” Jumping back, Shepard starred as the corpse of her sister lurched toward her. Lilo’s limbs moved like a puppet on strings, miming her rage with twisted fingers and contorted, hateful snarls. “This is whatchu want? Is this whatcha fought for?”
“I fought for them!” Shepard sank to the ground and pulled her knees to her chest. The ghoul fell upon its bony knees and hands to crawl the rest of the way to her. Its fingers left chills against her skin. Lilo crossed her arms over Shepard’s knees and rested her frost blackened chin atop them.
“Can’t save everyone, Maki. Y’really oughta know that by now.”
"Then what makes you so sure I can save myself."
Her skeletal hands cupped Shepard's face, and Lilo's blazing brown eyes filled Shepard's vision. "I did not teach you to lay down and die."
"But you did."
Shepard woke to the world trembling around her. She groaned and rubbed her face as a wave of dizzy nausea made her reel.
Familiar talons prodded at her arms, and a piece of metal was laid in her lap. On it was a small pile of pink and white pulled, raw flesh. Not the most appetizing thing in existence, but she'd eaten far worse. This was probably the same whatever-it-was they'd been giving her all this time, anyway. And it might settle her stomach.
Her shaking hands made it difficult to eat, but under the watchful gaze of Short Stuff she managed. That seemed to please the little Keeper, for its antennae bobbled and it jigged in placed. Then it took the empty "plate" from her and scuttled off again.
A clean blanket had been tugged around her sometime while she slept, but she was still cold. Pulling it tight, and slipping it underneath her so that her ass was no longer against the metal hull, Shepard leaned against the wall and waited as her shivering gradually abated. At least she was able to stay awake this time.
Reaching one hand down beneath the blanket, she felt along her legs, wincing where her fingers scraped bruises and sores. The medi-gel was helping close the least of them, but the worst areas were once again sticky with pus and blood. Another wave of nausea drew her hand away. Shepard curled in on herself, waiting for it to pass. She couldn't afford to throw up, it would waste too much water and food.
What the hell was she eating, anyway?
The citadel seemed to be in complete ruin. If there was anyone else alive, wouldn't the Keepers have already taken her to them? Besides, they would have all been killed when the Reapers took control...wouldn't they? There had certainly been enough bodies...
A sudden numbness spread through her, starting from stomach and extending to the very last fibers of her hair. No, she didn't want to know. No, no...
Adam whirred and clicked at her, its little arms waving at the plate in distress. Larva and Speed had brought it to her a while past. Shepard’s immediate reaction had been to lose what little had already been in her stomach. At least she’d managed to get to the edge of the containment field first, she thought. Her tiny space between the wall and the generator was yet comparatively clean.
Now that she knew there was no going back. Her stomach rolled in alternate directions: first nauseous at the idea of eating more of that, then growling with hunger, and back again to nausea.
“I’m not eating that,” Shepard muttered at the Keepers for the upteenth time. They were all hovering around her; it was the first time she’d seen all five at once. Their clicking chatter suggested that they were talking to one another. Could they even understand English?
Adam picked up the plate and thrust it at her.
She slapped it out of his talons. “Do you know what that is ?”
The other four scuttled backward, whirring excitedly. Adam’s skin began to bubble.
“No.” Shepard held her hands up, shook her head. “No, no. I wasn’t attacking you , I just...!”
The Keeper’s skin boiled and slid, revealing a hint of mechanical parts beneath just before they, too, became goo in a puff of hissing, bubbling muck and smoke.
Larva approached the mess, stopping just short of touching it, and whirred softly.
“I’m sorry—” The Keeper’s head jerked up. It stared at her a moment, then scuttled out of the bubble and into the darkness beyond. Looking about, Shepard realized they were all gone.
For what felt like days, Shepard remained huddled by the generator, staring at the piles of dissolved Keeper and human flesh. Or maybe it was volus. Or turian. Or Batarian. None of those made it any better. She couldn’t imagine it was asari, at least. Not blue enough.
Sleep might have helped, but for once couldn’t. Her eyes closed and her body would spasm to wake her. All the while her hunger grew.
The stream of water dried to a trickle, and the level in the basin was gradually dipping. Shepard tried to drink as little as she could, but with the injury and the lack of food it was difficult to control her thirst as well.
Maybe the meat was batarian. She’d never really liked batarians. Or elcor. There were elcor on the Citadel when...
Despite herself, Shepard licked her lips.
The pile of meat was deteriorating. There weren’t flies here to eat it, though. No roaches or silverfish or any of the pests present on worlds to break down waste. Neither was it cold enough in her little bubble to preserve the dead flesh the way it was likely being preserved through the rest of the ship.
Shepard wished there were roaches. Those she’d eat— had eaten—without reservation. Of course, here those roaches would in turn be feasting on the dead. Wouldn’t that be nearly the same thing, if only vicariously?
“What does it matter? They already dead.”
“ Were people,” Lilo corrected, arms crossed. She was alive this time, standing near the edge of the bubble. Her face was peaked, sure, but it was normal. She stared at Shepard with the same, hard expression she’d had the first and only time Shepard had balked from eating what Lilo brought her. “They’re good for you,” she’d insisted then, and hadn’t stopped staring until Shepard had swallowed the half-eaten sandwich, maggots and all.
Lilo had been right. Lilo had always been right when it came to Shepard’s survival. Just...never her own.
“They’re gone,” Shepard whispered and Lilo’s lips moved in sync. “You aren’t. If they had this chance to live, wouldn’t they take it?”
Moving like weights were tied to her every limb, Shepard crawled to the pile of meat. With a shaking hand she shoved it into her mouth, one fingerful at a time. It was still tasteless and chewy, and hard to swallow around the lump in her throat. But she managed.
In the back of her head she heard her sister say: “That’s my good girl. That’s my Maki.”
She slept and woke and slept again. Still the Keepers had not returned. Staring mournfully at Adam’s remains, Shepard tried to formulate a plan around the roar of her stomach, the aching of her bones, and the swimming of her head.
Though she had a suit there was no telling how much power it retained without an omni-tool interface. Hers had been lost on Earth, and the one currently attached was passcoded to someone else’s biometrics. With enough time Shepard could bypass the security and recode it to herself. That would require an ability to focus, not to mention that the longer the bypass took, the more energy would be depleted.
Even with the suit functional, Shepard had no idea where in the Citadel she was. Neither was there any guarantee of finding an inhabitable area elsewhere in the ship. Infiltrator training and a childhood of scavenging had left her with survival skills suited to most planet-side situations. Stuck in the middle of space, however…no one would have been able to foresee this as a survivable situation.
In most cases it was recommended that the lost stay where they are and wait to be found. That implied that where you were wasn’t putting you in imminent danger. And, Shepard amended, that anyone knew to look for you.
A lack of hull punctures in this particular area meant a lack of any light whatsoever, other than what the shield cast. Like a trashcan fire, being close to the source made the area beyond seem darker than ever. From what she’d glimpsed of Earth previously, Shepard had to accept that it didn’t look like there was much, if any, space travel. She had lived through something meant to kill her. Did that mean the Catalyst had been wrong altogether?
If so, then—No.
Get the suit clean. Look for supplies. Life isn’t easy, Shepard.
Getting to her feet was among the hardest things she’d ever done, and that was including facing down a Reaper head-on. Twice.
Every bone was fit to break, every muscle wept, every fiber of her nervous system went off all in one jarring second. Shepard cried out and buckled, falling hard upon her knees and sinking to the ground with her head cradled in both arms.
For a long time she remained like that, panting and shivering. She’d been still too long; every muscle that had loosened before had tightened up all over again, a thousand times worse. She had to stretch them out. Properly, this time.
One limb at a time, Shepard reminded her body of its functions. The arms first, then her shoulders and neck, her back, hips, legs…
Feeling more Hanar than Human, Shepard collapsed against the blanket with a sigh of relief. She still hurt, and many of her wounds and sores were bleeding again, but now she could move with some semblance of her old freedom. That was something. Maybe someday she’d be thankful for it.
“Up,” she ordered. Three times she repeated this before rising. Sleep throbbed behind her eyes. Fortunately, her stomach was in league with her need to move. The ache of it helped her to drag the suit over to the remains of her water supply.
She washed the suit out as best she could, dried it with her blanket, and put the armor on piece by piece. Last was the helmet, then Shepard stepped to the edge of the shield.
The helmet wasn’t equipped with night vision, but once her head was beyond the source of light her eyes began to adjust. The cast light was enough to tell her that she was in a vast room with debris floating about—some of which was people-shaped. A chasm opened not too far from her current position, but was crossed over head by huge steel girders that seemed to be intact. None of it matched her memory of the Citadel, but she couldn’t muster any surprise.
Shepard stepped out and let herself float upward. Then she remembered the blanket.
Too late now.
Raising her hands, Shepard caught a rung of the nearest girder just before physics sent her floating back into the deadzone. With one last look at what had been her little home, Shepard tugged herself forward to catch the next rung, then the next, and the next.
The girder dead-ended into a wall, but beneath it was what looked like an air duct of some kind, large enough for a krogan to walk through.
Moving as slowly as she could, Shepard swung her feet toward the duct, then pushed herself gently from the girder and into the hole. She glided, feet first, several meters inward before spreading both arms to brace herself against the walls. When she’d slid to a stop, Shepard turned until she thought she was was facing the proper direction, and began to walk along the passage.
Without light it was difficult to tell where she was going. In fact, it felt more like death than anything had thus far. Maybe this really is what death was, she thought as she listened to herself breath, being trapped in an endless tunnel of darkness.
But it did end.
She banged straight into the wall with a yelp. Sailing backward, Shepard tried desperately to control her urge to flail. Flailing did not work in zero-g!
Through sheer will alone she went limp, allowing force to ricochet her off the floor of the duct. Once again, she braced against the walls, righted herself, and continued back down the tunnel. This time she was able to extend a hand in front of her and feel the wall before she reached it.
Ducts didn’t just end, did they?
Reaching up, Shepard sighed in relief to feel nothing above her. She took a deep breath and jumped.
Hands raised above her to prevent a repeat of her last mistake, Shepard almost didn’t register the light ahead until she realized she could see the outlines of her hands. A beam stuck out the opening. She grabbed it before she passed, then pulled herself hand by hand out of the duct and into a surprisingly open area of the wreckage.
“It seems my calculations were incorrect,” said the Catalyst.
Before her were the power cells she could have blown to smithereens, the conduits where she might have taken control of the reapers, and the platform that she had jumped from. They’d been blown apart from one another, now resting in a ring around the circular platform where Anderson’s body still laid, answering her unasked question about where that room had even been located.
The glass separating the room from space was a web of cracks in most places, though a few areas were still clear to see through.
As Shepard pulled herself further into the room her hands and arms grew heavy. Then her entire body slammed into the beam.
“Gravity is still in effect here.”
“You could have mentioned that,” she muttered. It was another few minutes before she pulled herself to her feet. “How?”
“The ship still retains emergency power in several areas,” the Catalyst said, from wherever it was. Its voice was rather…omniscient. “The supply is limited without the ship’s main generator online but the system was designed to support life for hundreds of sentients for at least a thirty days in Earth measures. There are no longer hundreds of sentients, so it should last for some time longer.”
“But there’s no…” Shepard glanced behind her at the shaft.
“This system is far more sophisticated than personal shielding. In these areas there will not be a noticeable line unless there is a problem. At the moment, there is no such problem.”
Shepard shifted and the beam creaked. It tipped inward.
Taking a deep breath, she jumped for the nearest pile of debris, right on top of the control conduits. Shepard slipped, slid, and stopped on a large chunk of intact platform just as the beam above gave way. It crashed into the rest of the debris, throwing up a cloud of smoke.
Slowly, she climbed back to the top of the pile and pulled herself up onto the platform. Anderson and the Illusive Man were exactly as she’d left them, he former slumped at the middle of the platform, the other sprawled on the ground. With a painful grunt, Shepard knelt by the admiral’s body. She touched his face, stiff and lifeless and beginning to turn green.
“There’s air in here?”
Shepard shut down the suit’s LS system and took her helmet off. Whaddaya know, she thought, the bastard was telling the truth. At least about this.
“What other areas of the ship have life support?”
The console behind her sprang to life with several all-too-cheerful chirps. Shepard stood, watching as warning screens flashed and were summarily dismissed. Finally, the screen rested on a familiar map of the Citadel. At first everything was a typical orange, then some areas became black, red, or, rarely, green.
“The green is what has life support, right?”
“Yes,” said the Catalyst. “Areas the sentients marked as emergency holding in the event of a high-level power failure, such as what we are currently experiencing.”
“I could kiss whoever thought of that,”she muttered.
“They are likely dead.”
“Thanks for reminding me.”
Frowning, Shepard took a step back from the console and looked up, much as she had when speaking to EDI aboard the Normandy. As used to AIs as she was, it still felt strange to speak with someone she couldn’t look at. “No one knew this place existed. How was this a marked as emergency holding?”
“It was not. My power source is normally separate from the rest of the ship. This was lost shortly after your Solution was enacted. However, like you, I am programed to do what is necessary to sustain my own life. Most of my circuits were not damaged in the fight, and those which were have been repaired by my remaining Keepers. They patched me into the power reserves. When my sensors indicated an organic intruder, I activated shielding and life support for the immediate area.”
“I thought your purpose was to kill organics?”
“A new solution has been written.”
Shepard rubbed her temple with one hand, the other arm wrapped about middle. The adrenaline that had taken her this far was beginning to wear on her, and her stomach still gnawed at her spine. Shaking her head to clear it, she blinked again at the consol. It was beginning to blur.
“I…I need to sit down.”
The Catalyst didn’t reply, but the console crackled and died. Taking that for acceptance, Shepard plopped beside Anderson’s body.
Earth hung huge outside the view-port, beautiful and blue. A field of debris still hung around it: fighter ships, reapers, unidentifiable chunks of space junk…but nothing could detract from the sight of a hospitable planet. She prayed there were others left alive to appreciate it.
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t do it,” she whispered, though she knew that Anderson couldn’t hear. “I hate them, but I couldn’t do it. There were too many consequences.”
Try as she might, Shepard coudn’t imagine what Anderson would have said to this. All she knew as she let sleep overcome her was a heavy sense of disappointment.
Consciousness meant dizziness and uncontrollable shaking. Shepard stood at the console, eyes closed and praying the world would stop spinning.
“Y’lost alotta blood,” Lilo whispered, “Y’need to eat more.”
“Eat what ?”
Lilo jerked her chin toward Anderson and the Illusive man. Swallowing bile, Shepard grimaced and turned back to the console. “That is..what is wrong with you ?”
“Not you.” Glaring at the console, given that the Catalyst no longer had any other visible form, Shepard made fists against it. “The map again, please.”
The Catalyst complied, but there was the strangest sense of confusion to its voice when it said: “Other than yourself, I am the only one preset.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Her gut rolled as she tried to make sense of the multi-coloured map. “OK. Green is good. What are the others?”
“Black areas have been reported as missing or otherwise breached. Red are areas still attached to the ship, but are affected by the hull breaches. Orange areas are sealed, but lack power. These could be reactivated, were they patched into the power grid.”
“Which would drain the grid at a faster rate,” said Shepard.
There was something tugging at the back of her mind; something that screamed of obviousness no matter that she couldn’t seem to figure out what it was. Shepard put her head in her hands, tugging lightly at her scalp. “OK. I need to get to a green area,” she muttered, “If they...they were meant to be...then there should be supplies...”
“I can highlight known emergency caches on your omni-tool. Be advised, the Keepers have already opened many of them, for you and the other survivors.”
Shepard’s head jerked up. “There are others?”
“Seven beside yourself.”
With a faint ‘blip’, seven blinking red dots appeared on the map. Three were concentrated in the one of the green zones--what looked to be Huerta Memorial Hospital--but the rest were scattered. The closest to her position wasn’t in a green area at all. Neither could Shepard decipher what the area may have been. One of the factories? Kithoi ward, possibly.
She tucked both hands behind her head a moment and let her eyes close. Some of the dizziness began to seep away as she took deep, methodical breaths. When she lifted her head, the fingers of her right hand brushed against something hard beneath her skin, just next to her earlobe.
Subcutaneous comm implants were standard military regulation, these days. Normally it was covered by enough fat that Shepard barely felt it when she tapped it into receiving mode. Distantly she wondered what she had to look like if she could feel it so plainly, but the thought was covered by a sudden wash of hope.
She tapped it.
“Gah!” Another tap shut off the burst of static, but the volume left a ringing in her ears.
That either meant the Normandy was out of range, or was...Her gaze drifted to the field of debris just outside the view-port. Nothing drifted by with a scratched up “SR-2” painted on its side, but that didn’t make her feel any better.
“If you would patch me into your--”
“Your omni-tool, Shepard.”
“It isn’t mine,” she said, looking down at her gauntlet. “And it’s locked. I need to hack it.”
She should have done that before she left the generator, Shepard realized. It had seemed like a gamble, but now it was going to be damned impossible.
“Power it on. Please.”
Shepard clamped her lips shut. Though she still felt like arguing, the sheer novelty of the Catalyst saying ‘please’ was enough to get her to comply. “If you fry it, I’ll find a way to fry you.”
“Of course you will.”
The omni-tool popped to life. Shepard barely had time to note the screens and code flashing over it before it settled on a welcome screen. For one moment the name written across the top was “Yolanda Mars,” before the screen blipped and “Maki Shepard” took its place. A small warning icon was flashing over the power indicator.
“I have uploaded the map and rewritten the tool to your biometrics. I also took the liberty of forming a communications link between us.”
“Communications. We need to send out a distress signal, or radio anyone nearby.”
“I am afraid I cannot do that at this time.”
She backed away from the console, glowering at it. “And why not?”
“External communications were severed when I reasserted control over the Citadel.”
“To keep anyone from calling for help,” Shepard surmised.
“Can’t you turn them back on?”
“You misunderstand,” the Catayst said, “They were physically severed. We did not care to risk any potential survivors being able to re-establish a connection.”
Rubbing her face with one hand, Shepard nodded. “Right. Of course.”
“It is possible that repairs could be fashioned for the main communications hub, however the Keepers’ first priority is restoring the main generator’s functionality and closing hull breaches.”
“And how long is that going to take?”
“At current work rates it is estimated to take six months, four days, and three hours. The current power reserves will be gone by that time.”
“Meaning that you’ll be dead.” Shepard smirked.
“No. For all that I have undergone Synthesis, I am still synthetic at my core. I may lose power, but it is the same concept as an organic losing consciousness. It does, however, mean death for all organics on board.”
There were too many questions. Shepard sat down again and put her head between her knees. “Ok. ...Synthesis. I thought you said your calculations were wrong?”
She lifted her head stare at...well, the console. “Any idea how?”
“I have a theory,” said the Catalyst, in a bemused tone Shepard wasn’t used to associating with AI, “that it has something to do with your synthetic half and the Synthesis itself. I am still running through previously rejected scenarios for variables I may have dismissed unduly. I am not accustomed to being wrong.”
“You’ve murdered trillons of people. I’d say you’ve never been anything else.”
“Morality and logic are not the same thing.”
“Yeah. One lets its followers become monsters.” Shepard shook her head.
“Perhaps we should like to discuss the religious genocides your species has committed against its own.”
If the Catalyst had been able they would have been glaring at one another. As it was, Shepard felt the hair at the back of her neck stand up and the uncomfortable weight of an invisible, rather angry presence. For the first time in her life she couldn’t dismiss the feeling as superstitious nonsense, and it unnerved her.
Rubbing the back of her head, Shepard climbed again to her feet. “OK, OK, lets just...agree to disagree.”
“Is that not Human code for ‘I’m right, no matter what how many valid arguments you make?”
“I am starting to really regret that jump,” Shepard replied through gritted teeth. She returned to the map and focused it on the area she was in. There were several maintenance shafts that fed into it, such as the one she had used. From what she could tell, they were the only way in or out of this section.
After a deep breath, she said: “You called them your Keepers. Does that mean you can communicate with them?”
“Yes. They are, in effect, a part of me. You might compare them to your blood cells.”
She scoffed. “Alright. Can’t you order them to fix the communications first?”
“Can you tell your blood which cuts to heal?” The Catalyst seemed annoyed, now.
“Wouldn’t they have been changed by Synthesis as well?”
“They have been. You are alive.”
“I’m guessing organic lives are at the bottom of their priority list?” Shepard drawled, arching a brow at the console.
“But you didn’t override it?”
“No. They made that decision on their own.”
There was still something she was missing. Shepard tapped her fingers on the console and attempted to burn holes through it with her eyes. Lilo stood just inside her peripheral vision, arms crossed and one toe tapping a steady staccato.
“I can’t think with you doing that!”
“I am not doing anything.”
“Not...” Shepard sighed. Then it clicked. “Wait. You said you are programmed to preserve your own life.”
“But you don’t require power to live. Why are you wasting power by keeping your systems active?”
There was a pause that felt almost like a sigh. Or maybe that was just further signs of the fact that she was losing it. Shepard tried not to think about that too hard; it was surprisingly easy. Finally, the Catalyst said, “Despite the Synthesis, I believe there is still a high probability that any sentient whom finds me will attempt to overload my systems.”
“You are different.”
How many times had she been told that? Too many. The old, familiar weight settled across her shoulders, threatening to drive her to the ground. Somehow she kept to her feet, but Shepard no longer understood how...or why...she bothered.
“I will keep most of my functions dormant, but I would like to remain aware as long as possible. For defensive purposes”
Swallowing her annoyance, Shepard took a step away from the console. It was helping her, she reminded herself. She might need that help. “Where is the communication hub?”
The map highlighted a section white. It was in the Keeper’s area of Kithoi ward, and very close to the other blip. “Your fellow organic has also tried to repair this port.”
“Well...they’re about to get some help.”
“Be advised, I do not believe you have enough remaining suite power to reach his location.”
“Funny how the shit you believe turns out.”
Shepard hadn’t thought she’d be relieved to return to the bowels of the ghost ship. The Catalyst’s room—for lack of a better identifier—had only put her more on edge, both for the creature itself and the corpses within. Still the darkness brought its own issues.
There was no sound at all. Not a whisper of air, not a clashing of debris, or even the faintest tap of Keeper talons. Shepard had thought she was long since used to the quiet of space, but that wasn’t true. However quiet she’d found ships and stations to be, there was still the little hum of a life around you, the residual noise of other lifeforms moving in close quarters. If you tried hard enough, you could usually hear the sound of someone walking floating up the vents.
Her feet touched ground. Quickly, Shepard found the top of the next shaft and swung herself in before she could be thrown upward again. According to the map, this tunnel normally would exit onto the maintenance catwalks by one of the business parks. Now it was a black zone.
A grate was still in place at the business end of the tunnel. There was an equal chance that hitting it would just send her backward, as there was the possibility of it coming loose. Bracing her hands firmly against the sides of the shaft, Shepard lifted one foot and bit back a yelp.
Several deep breaths later, she gathered her wits and tried again. Her foot slammed against the grate. The force knocked the bottom of the grate loose, and sent Shepard sailing backward. Hands still tight against the sides of the shaft, she got her feet down and kicked off the bottom to go forward again.
The grate fell away when Shepard sailed into it, and together they floated out into the dead zone.
A steady rain of curses pounded through Shepard’s skull as she scrambled and caught the catwalk railing with one hand. It was a job to pull herself closer to it, securing both hands around the rail, then over it and back onto the walk itself. For a long moment Shepard just stood there, eyes closed and panting.
When she opened them, she wished she hadn’t. Shepard had expected a hole torn in the Citadel’s arm. She hadn’t expected the alliance frigate.
It was a smaller gunship, probably only fifteen to twenty crew, but its landing field had torn out several levels of what looked like apartment and office space; not factories after all. A long, jagged scar ran down the hull, following the path the frigate had taken. In its wake hung countless corpses amid the industrial wreckage.
“There seems to be a minor gravitational field present, due to our proximity to the planet,” Catalyst said in her ear. Shepard startled, and almost missed the rest of what it said: “It should keep you from floating too far away, provided you do not propel yourself directly into open space.
She’d forgotten the damn comm link.
“Fantastic,” Shepard muttered.
Nervously, she glanced at her arm but did not bring up the Omni-tool. Was it better knowing or not knowing?
Not, Shepard decided as she glanced to either side of the hole. There was enough room on either side that, assuming she could force doors adjar where needed, she could take that route through. The easier way was to just float straight on through. A tiny bit of force would be all she needed, but if she ran into anything it could change her trajectory and send her flying off in whatever direction.
Wetting her lips with a dry tongue, Shepard walked down the catwalk, eyes on the debris field before her. Eventually she found a flight line that looked relatively clear of large objects. Taking a deep breath, Shepard climbed carefully over the railing and settled herself with her back to it.
"Easy," she breathed, and kicked herself away from the rail.
At first it was like a waking dream—nightmare, Shepard corrected herself. Definitely a nightmare. Drifting along in the twilight, a range of stars overhead through the skeletal beams of a mortally wounded station, and only the sound of her own breathing in her ears, Shepard almost forgot about the ticking time bomb of her suit, the hunger sapping at her strength, and the sandpaper of her throat. Until she passed close by the cold blackened body of a small child.
Any identifying markers were gone, as was one of the child's feet and half its arm. The remaining arm had a death grip on a ragged teddy-bear, whose smile seemed to mock Shepard. She shuddered and closed her eyes until she was past.
The next body she neared was alliance, decked in a suit that damn near matched the one she was wearing. More alliance appeared the closer she got to the crash site. Now she could see what had caused the landing: the back end of the craft had been cut clean open. A Reaper's work no doubt.
There was no telling where the back end had ended up—maybe out with the rest of the wreckage, maybe plummeting to Earth to drop on war-ravaged citizens. Shepard sighed. She almost missed the first warning beep, followed closely be a second, more urgent one.
She was no where near the other side, either. Frantically, Shepard's mind raced though her body remained carefully still. What to do? What to do...?
Was this it? After everything she'd done this was the end of her.
It was almost a relief.
"Maki," Lilo snapped.
There was a body directly in her path; another alliance soldier. This one bore her sister's face, glowering at her through its helmet. Unable to stop her motion, Shepard collided with the corpse. Just like the first, this one's suit was the same, standard issue model that infantry used.
The beeping in her ears grew louder with every passing second. Thick fingered and sluggish, Shepard tore at the arms of the corpse, fumbling for the power cells. Finally, she got the cover off. Two slim—and completely dead—charges fell out.
Shepard didn't waste time swearing. The collision with the corpse had knocked her slightly off course, and in a moment another ex-soldier was in hand. Once again, nothing. With the beeping screamed in her ear, Shepard drifted through soldier after soldier.
The beep flat-lined as she grabbed hold of another corpse. Shepard exhaled hard as her fingers fought with the paneling. This time an orange light answered her.
In another instant a fresh burst of air hit her face. Shepard had to remind herself not to breath too deeply, not yet. The suit needed a moment to finish it's recycle, get the system caught up. When it had, she let herself sigh and take stock of her renewed situation.
Drifting in a field of very helpful corpses. Right.
She was steadily drifting toward one edge of the rift, rather than the end of it. As she passed bodies, Shepard continued looting their power supplies. By the time she grabbed hold of an intact support beam, she’d found four active charges and stored them carefully in the ammo pouches. It wasn’t like she had a gun.
Hanging by the beam, one foot locked around a bare rebar jutting from the wreckage of someone’s apartment, Shepard surveyed her position. There wasn’t any convenient, clear trajectory that would carry her straight through the rift, but she could bounce herself down the length in a zigzag. Calling up her omni-tool, Shepard flipped through to the map. She frowned.
The dot she was after was just on the far side of the rift. Exactly where it had been....well, what felt like hours ago. Curious, she pulled up the calendar and clock.
“A month?” Suddenly she felt dizzy again. “How...?”
“I have a theory.”
Shepard swallowed a sigh. “Is there anything you don’t have a theory about?”
After a moment, the Catalyst said, “Only that which is fact.”
Shepard dispelled the omni-tool interface, then found the best alignment for her next jump. She pushed herself from the wall before she said, “Alright. Go ahead.”
“As I mentioned previously, you were not quite organic, even before the Synthesis. Neither, of course, were you synthetic. It is an ingenious mixture, actually.”
“I’m sure Miranda would love to hear that.”
“Ah, yes. Miranda Lawson. She is also an interesting specimen—”
“If you’re going to work with organics, you really ought to start referring to us like people, not lab rats.” Shepard frowned. The similarity to her conversations with EDI was not lost on her. But whereas those conversations were based upon mutual trust and respect, Shepard still couldn’t be certain the Catalyst wasn’t up to something. Still...
“Of course,” said the Catalyst. It continued, “Did they ever tell you how they reconstructed you?”
A cold pit which had nothing to do with hunger settled in Shepard’s stomach. She waited until she caught the next wall, found a handhold, and had plotted out her next jump. “They told you?”
“The one you called the ‘Illusive Man’ was under my influence. As were his databases.”
Right. How had she forgotten that? “No. Miranda never gave me the details.” Neither had she asked for them. Memories of those damn Shepard V.I.s still haunted her sometimes, somehow managing to beat out Husks in terms of nightmares.
“Most of your skeletal structure was either replaced or reinforced by more a durable, synthesized-organic material, including the majority of your skull. I believe this is part of what saved you from further injury when the beam backfired. It was mere chance that the blast blew you back into the Citadel, rather than the atmosphere.”
Swallowing a bitter response, Shepard pushed herself off a little harder than necessary. She flew back across the debris field.
“The particular compound used was based on Turian plating, refashioned to work with human biology. Cerberus has used it in several projects since, including the revisioning of their battle units.”
This time Shepard just shook her head; there was no point in correcting it.
“Unlike them, you were also made a host to a—I believe your people use the term ‘next generation’—form of self-replicating nanites dedicated to improving your natural regeneration rates.”
“I did noticed I was healing faster.” At the time she had convinced herself it was just her mind playing tricks.
“They are not quite AI, and were probably not affected by the Synthesis.”
She grabbed at the wall before it could bounce her backward again, managing to find foot and hand holds in the damaged metal. “Probably?” A creeping sensation worked through Shepard’s body as she imagined millions of living, thinking creatures within her very blood.
“I am ninety-three-point-seven-seven-six percent sure. Rounded. I am still calibrating for margin-of-error on my initial predictions.”
“Miranda, what the hell,” Shepard muttered. Another push, easier this time, and once again she was gliding over the canyon. A couple more jumps ought to do it, she thought, and relaxed a little. “So they kept me from bleeding out?”
“Most likely. Again, this is theory. I lack the proper testing equipment.”
And she was very, hugely glad of that. It was all too easy to imagine the Catalyst as a Saleon or Henry Lawson. Worse were the memories of what those doctors had done: the bodies of their patients, their cooly impersonal notes...The last thing either of them cared about were the people they were supposedly helping.
Distracted by her own thoughts, Shepard floated face-first into a beam. She flailed, and narrowly a wire hanging from the level above. Using that, she hauled herself back to the beam to pick her route.
“That’s it, huh?”
“The Keepers played a large role. Had they not altered their programing, or had you been in a true coma...Too many variables.”
Mordin’s voice echoed unbidden in Shepard’s ears. The Catalyst reminded her of him, too, though Mordin had always been careful to remain just on the moral side of curious. Most of the time. She was beginning to hate the Catalyst.
“I wasn’t in a coma?”
“You were delirious. I would not be surprised if you do not remember much of that time.”
Something told Shepard she was damned glad she didn’t. Her last jump across the gap took her over the twisted remains of the frigate. Its nose was black as pitch and exploded outward in several sections. Support beams and rebar had shattered through the front viewport. Shepard hoped the pilots had had the good sense to abandon their stations before they’d hit. They probably hadn’t.
At long last she found another handhold against the vestiges of the inner hull. A maintenance ladder stood nearby, still welded to the metal. Level flooring proved to be lower-income homes, though they weren’t at all comparable to the slums of Zakura ward. This would have been the rough equivalent of an apartment complex, and, if her memory served, was largely a batarian space.
A hysterical giggle bit at her lips. What would the batarians have to say about a Human frigate dropped on their heads?
Her way through the maze of apartments and halls was slowed at first by destruction, and makeshift barricades she could only imagine had been built when the reapers took the station. Along the way she managed to salvage a flashlight, a child’s backpack emblazoned with a cartoon elcor, another blanket—though not of the thermal variety—and a set of clothes that looked as though they might fit. Gradually the obstacles thinned until she found herself strolling down a boulevard with only the flashlight to guide her.
The boom of the first gunshot sent her jumping for cover—which, in zero-g, meant the rafters.
“You just try that again you spindly little fucker! I dare you!”
“Bailey?” Shepard shouted. Her voice was choked and hoarse, and completely inaudible beneath the crack of another gunshot.
Using the maintenance catwalk, Shepard continued toward the noise. She rounded a corner just as a Keeper came around the bend below, frantic, limping, and fizzing. The little guy had just enough time to glance at her before its legs dissolved. It was Speed.
“Come back here,” Bailey was shouting when Shepard found him a little further down the hall. He was waving his fist at nothing in particular, gun clutched in one hand. Unarmored, and with dry blood caking his clothes, Bailey looked more zombie than human.
He didn’t seem to see her, instead pacing the perimeter of his blue-shielded bubble and muttering to himself. As much as she could relate, Shepard had to admit that this didn’t help her impression of him. Neither, at this point, was she willing to cross zombies off the list of things that could potentially happen.
“Bailey,” she said again, and managed to duck the answering bullet. “It’s me , goddammit; it’s me!”
“Shit.” Bailey held both hands up, gun swung loose from his thumb. “You scared the piss outta me.”
“Favour returned,” Shepard promised. She climbed over the rail and cast herself into the shielding. Unprepared for the return of gravity, she stumbled the landing and Bailey caught her arm.
“I haven’t seen anyone else in a week, at lea—” Bailey dropped her arm when she pulled her helmet off. “Shepard?”
Shepard offered him what she hoped was a smile. “Can I pick a new name? That one’s getting worn out.”
For a long time they just stared at one another, each a little dumbfounded. Then, Bailey pulled a military ration bar from a backpack laid next to the generator. Shepard’s eyes stung as she accepted it, peeled the wrapper back, and practically inhaled the first half. The second went down a fraction slower, if only for Lilo chiding in her ear: “Stop, Stop, Stop! You’ll make y’rself sick! D’ya wanna lose it?”
“Yeah, I know the feeling,” Bailey muttered, looking away. He sat near the edge of the perimeter, facing outward. The gun still hung loosely in his hands, but his shoulders remained tense and his eyes watchful.
Shepard sunk next to the generator.
“Don’t take this the wrong way...but I’m gonna hazard you’re not here with a rescue this time.”
“No,” Shepard confirmed, “I was on the Citadel when...” She waved a hand toward the wreckage.
Bailey cast a dubious look over his shoulder. “I didn’t realize the Normandy was docked when the Reapers came.”
After a shake of her head, Shepard realized that Bailey probably had no idea what was going on outside. She sucked in a deep breath, closed her eyes, and started with the Illusive Man.
All during her story Bailey’s back remained to her. Shepard had been through enough military debriefings to be able to edit out the personal areas without hesitation. Perhaps, some vague portion of her mind thought, she should be editing out more: alliance intel, war room decisions, strategy. But it wasn’t until she reached the Catalyst and its choices that she stumbled.
Bailey turned to look at her.
She tried to regard him with the air of a Commander, the sort of personal pride, responsibility, and fearlessness she'd had for so many years. She failed.
Instead, Shepard's shoulders drooped and the tired ache behind her eyes redoubled its efforts. Bailey had been a trusted friend for years. Maybe not as close as her crew, but...
She told him of the Catalyst and its choices. And though she stumbled over the potential consequences, she aired them, too.
“So you blew the fuckers to bits.” He actually smiled. Then their gaze locked, and gradually that smile vanished as realization dawned. "...why?”
Shepard tangled her fingers into the greasy, knotted mess it had become. Resting her elbow on her knee, she stared at him. Why couldn't she? It was a valid question, and the answer one she didn't fully understand herself.
Slowly, she found herself saying, "They didn't have any choice. No more than we did. They were us, once...in a sense."
"You felt sorry for them." His mouth hardened to a line.
"Yes. But I..." She shook her head. "It wasn't just them. It wasn't even primarily them. It was EDI—you remember EDI, right? She helped save you once—and the Geth...Destroying the Reapers meant wiping all of them out, too, and any other AI that may have been out there, like EDI, perfectly safe but having to hide because organics are so damn elitist sometimes. Who was I to kill all of them when I had a perfectly viable alternate? Who was I to choose who lived and died? In the face of all that, I didn't...I didn't..."
By the time she finished she was shouting and sobbing, all at once. Shame creeped upon her, and she ducked her face from view. It wasn't right or fair to dump all of this on him. But why did she have to carry it alone? Why did she always have to carry it alone?
"So you just...did nothing?"
"What?" She lifted her head and found him still staring at her, something like disgust on his face. "Of course not!"
"Then how are you here? Didn't you say the only other ways were to—" Bailey cut himself off; his brows furrowed.
"To kill myself," she replied steadily. "It was supposed to."
The disgust was gone, but in its place was...pity? Sorrow? Or maybe he was just tired. So was she. Finally, Bailey shook his head. He turned himself back around. "Get some sleep, Shepard. Looks like you could use it."
“I owe you one,” he replied shortly. “And t’be honest, I don’t much like talking to myself.”
She scoffed. “Yeah. That’s for damn sure.” Settling back against the warmth of the generator, Shepard finally gave in to the exhaustion tugging at her bones. The last thing she remembered saying was: “Hey, Bailey?”
“Call me Maki.”
Just wanted to apologize for some spelling errors that were in the previous chapters (primarily "elkor" where it should have been "elcor"). They've been fixed, and I'll try to keep that from happening again. XD
The first order of business was to find a functional suit for Bailey. He’d been stuck in the bubble at least a week; the hull leak had been slow in this area, only recently drained out. “I was lucky I had my rations with me,” said Bailey, kicking the near-empty backpack. “Though I had to, well, ration a lot more carefully than I had been.” The look he gave her was significant.
“Where did you find those?”
“There’s emergency caches all over the Citadel,” he said, not realizing she already knew. “‘Course, most of them have been cleared out by now. Still some preserved food in the apartments, too, I’d wager, if we can get to them.”
After a pause, he fixed her with a confused look. “What’ve you been eating?”
“The Keepers were bringing me rations,” Shepard said quickly, hoping she wouldn’t puke, and went for the edge of the bubble. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
As she floated away, Bailey shouted at her back: “You’re working with them?”
Why had Bailey been shooting at Speed? The question tumbled around her brain as she traced her steps back to the frigate. It didn’t really seem like him to lose his cool unnecessarily. Though he had been in this mess a hell of a lot longer than she. Maybe it was just getting to him?
Not that she could really throw stones in that regard.
Visions of her sister still danced at the corners of her vision, fading away anytime Shepard tried to focus on them. And they were only that: visions. Illusions. Lilo was dead, she knew that. She’d been there.
Shepard continued to ransack the apartments as she went through them. There wasn’t much more than what she’d found her first time through, though, and not any food at all. That was either strange, or...Realizing she wouldn’t be able to do this in front of Bailey, at least for a while, Shepard sucked in a breath.
“There are only seven survivors, besides me?”
She left the apartment pantry open and continued out the back door into an alleyway. “Were there more?”
“Yes. Quite a few, actually. The guerrilla forces held relatively large enclaves throughout the Citadel for some time.”
Shepard sighed. “What happened?”
“Hull breaches, primarily. Some were hit directly, others were in zones with slow-leak issues, such as where your Commander Bailey is. He is lucky the Keepers found him. They would appreciate it if you could stop him from attacking them.”
“Why does he think they’re a threat?”
Pausing at the next broken airlock, Shepard waited for the Catalyst to respond. She crossed her arms and resisted the urge to tap her foot. Finally, she snapped, “Catalyst?”
“I do not know.”
Shepard’s eyes narrowed. “That’s awfully convenient. Anyone ever tell you you’re a terrible liar?”
The wreckage was easier to swallow the second time through. Briefly, Shepard wondered what that said about her. She’d seen far too many battlefields, she thought. Too many dark and twisted laboratories, too many slaughterhouses...just, too many. Yet, somehow, it had never seemed to get any easier...until now.
She surveyed the floating field of corpses for one that looked like it might suit her purposes. The body would have to be drug back; it would be difficult to get a suit off in zero-G. Not that she had ever tried.
Get to one of the walls like before, aim herself to pass just by a corpse, and drag it along behind her until she hit the opposite wall. From there, she could get back down exactly as before.
It seemed a viable plan, anyway.
Corpse wrangling was never going to be an Olympic sport. If it were, Shepard thought she’d have earned at least a bronze. Though a bit more difficult than her initial speculations, the jumps proved easier with each successive attempt. In a relatively short amount of time she had three candidates, all roughly Bailey’s size. She cut loose a length of wire with her omni-tool, bound the bodies by their ankles, and pulled them along behind her as she headed back inside.
“Rodger,” Shepard said as she rolled the first body toward Bailey, “Likes long walks on the beach and jogging in the summer. Coulson, here, is a nerd with a heart of gold who hopes you won’t laugh at his collection of mint Captain America playing cards, and Cael—”
Bailey was staring at her.
“Well, I thought it was funny.”
He scoffed and bent to start stripping the bodies. “Been working on that, have you?” From the suits, Bailey managed to cobble together one that fit somewhat correctly. One of the units still had power, so their meager reserves were kept intact. After switching out “Rodger’s” Omni-tool cuff for his own, Bailey powered the suit on and ran a quick diagnostic. “Seems functional.”
“Great. You were working on the comm-hub?”
Bailey’s head jerked up. He frowned. “I didn’t mention...”
“Lucky guess.” Shepard shrugged. “That’s what I came down here for.” She wasn’t such a great liar, either, but Bailey seemed to believe her. Or, if he didn’t, he kept it to himself. Bending, he grabbed his pack and pulled it on, then shoved the helmet over his head.
He fastened his gun to the hip-holster, and lead the way out of the barrier and down a tunnel just behind them. It was long and dark; Shepard pulled out her flashlight to see dead advertisement boards, closed doors, and blank terminals. Offices, probably.
“The Ward’s main operations are just down here,” Bailey said, “though what we need is in a maintenance area.”
“What’s the situation?”
“Fuckers cut straight through the boards. Can’t patch them together, too precise. So, I’ve been digging around for replacements. A lot of specialized tech, though.”
“There are others, though, aren’t there? In the other wards. Maybe we could cobble a single unit from—”
“Thought of that,” Bailey interjected as he shoved open one of the doors. “They blew the others to pieces. This’s the only one left.”
Frowning, Maki followed him through rows of cubicles. Data pads were hovering over desks, along with chairs and a collection of alien workers. The door at the back of the room lead to another hall that branched off into smaller, personal offices. At the far end was a smaller security room with a maintenance ladder descending into a hole in the back corner.
“Why would they just leave the one?”
“I wouldn’t rightly know,” Bailey gruffed. He glanced at her over his shoulder.
Bailey slid down the ladder first. Shepard followed, and found the barrel of a gun in her face.
“Bailey.” At this range her shields wouldn’t matter. She focused her gaze on his face, trying to see his eyes through the darkness of his helmet.
“I want to trust you,” he said evenly, “You pulled the entire Citadel’s ass out of the fire a few months back. You’ve helped me keep order. Hell, you’ve saved a shitload of people all over the galaxy. Killed a lot, too, though.”
“What’re you getting at?”
His silence seemed conflicted. Eventually, he grated out, “All I know is you show up on this godforsaken hole looking like you’ve come straight out of Hell, tell me you saved the Reapers, and you’re working with the goddamn Keepers. I can overlook the Cerberus thing. This...I’m having a hard time with this, Shepard.”
“What did the Keepers do, exactly?”
“What didn’t they do?”
His shouting bothered her even less than the gun waving in her face; it was amazing the things you could get used to. So she just stared at him. Slowly Bailey’s shoulders began to relax. “You don’t want to shoot me.”
“Want to?” His laugh was airy, desperate. “No. I don’t want to. Not a lot of ‘want to’ in my life these days.”
“Yeah? We ought to form a club.”
“You don’t get to act like that!” The gun jabbed the air just shy of her helmet. “You had more choice than most of us get in a lifetime. Several lifetimes! Over half the coverage coming in about the war was just what Commander Shepard decided to do now. Cure the krogans. Save some reaper-bred rachni? Now you flip a coin and save the reapers, too. Over some AI, no less.”
She shouldn’t have opened her mouth. Shepard cursed herself for ever being so stupid. Maybe he had a point, too. Yet somehow...she just couldn’t feel sorry for it. In itself, taking that fall wasn’t something she regretted.
“The Keepers,” he said slowly. “They’re...They’re tools of the reapers.”
The gun quivered with rage. “When the Citadel sprung a mind of its own the Keepers...Oh they didn’t kill anyone, sure. Probably can’t. Didn’t stop them from falling on the dead, though. They swarmed the corpses, tore them apart, carried them off...somewhere.”
“The Keepers have always taken bodies to the vats,” Shepard snapped. “You know that, Bailey.”
“No! That wasn’t...It wasn’t...” He put a hand on his helmet. Slowly, the gun lowered. “It just seemed...”
“Malicious.” Keeping her voice soft now, Shepard reached for his shoulder. He flinched away, and she dropped back. “You were under attack. People were dying. I would have thought the same.”
His head lifted, but it was impossible to read his face through the darkness of his helmet. When he didn’t say anything, Shepard continued, “I’m not going to tell you I trust them entirely. All I know is that I would have died weeks ago if it weren’t for them. And that generator that kept you alive? That was their work, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t...it was just...”
“I’ve seen them build one.”
He shook his head, and backed off a pace. Gesturing behind him, Bailey muttered, “The hub’s over there, in the corner.”
After a pause he added, “I need a moment.”
“Wait.” Shepard stopped Bailey by the arm as he started to move off into the darkness of the maintenance tunnels. “Your gun.”
Maybe it was his confusion or the old authority returning to her voice, but slowly Bailey held out the weapon. She took the handle and after she said, “You did just pull it on me. There’s nothing to attack you here,” he released it.
She set the gun to her shoulder holster, then went to find the hub.
When she judged she was well enough alone, she whispered, “There’s a Reaper on the ship, isn’t there?”
“No,” said the Catalyst. It was lying.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men...Shepard tossed the fubar’d circuit board on top its fellows and sighed. They’d spent hours going over every inch of the hub. Whatever had done this may not have blown the thing to bits, but it had certainly rendered it unusable, just as Bailey had said. It was probable that they could refashion something from other systems, like he’d been trying to do before he’d gotten stuck. Shepard had to admit she didn’t really know what she was looking at, though.
“Lets get out of here,” she said eventually, and Bailey followed her back toward their little bubble. Along the way they paused to ransack the offices. This time they had some better luck: a collection of protein bars someone had stored in their cubicle and a five gallon jug of water that hadn’t been opened.
“I had a wife down there. Earth,” Bailey said as they sat chewing a couple of protein bars.
“Ex-wife,” he corrected a moment later. “She couldn’t deal with C-sec and its priorities. My priorities.”
Shepard watched him from the corner of her eye. His conflict was still obvious in the way he wouldn’t quite look at her and kept his distance, but she could deal with conflict. Beyond that, Bailey was mostly his same efficient self in what little there was to be efficient about.
“There were still survivors,” Shepard assured him, knowing full well how little that probably meant. It certainly hadn’t worked on Garrus.
He shook his head. “Iris wasn’t the type,” he said, then flinched. “Sorry, I shouldn’t—”
“You’re used to evaluating soldiers.” It wasn’t a tendency she could judge him for. Every Commander learned to do it, to size others up on their probable ability to survive under pressure. Hell, how many cadets had she watched walk into battlefields, knowing full well that that they weren’t coming back? And that was with combat training. It wasn’t often she was surprised, though she was always happy when it happened.
Bailey tossed the wrapper of his protien bar, uncaring for where it landed. “So, Comm—Maki. What’s the plan?”
“I think the best we can do is find the others.”
He sat upright, staring at her. Shepard called her Omni-tool to life and pulled up the map. His dot had disappeared, but the six others remained. She explained the colour code as he stared, frowning at the display.
“I knew the Citadel had self-contained zones, but...I guess at this point I didn’t think there was anyone else. You’ve always been an anomaly.”
“The hospital looks like it’s the closest.”
Shepard nodded. “Either way, they’ll have power.”
They tied the wire she’d wrangled the corpses with to the stoppered neck of the water jug, then pushed it to the edge of the barrier. In another moment they were on their way with their water supply floating behind them like a bizarre balloon.
Without outside transport the wards were only connected by the Presidium ring. A security checkpoint had to be passed through to enter or exit, but with the power out and no guards they were through in a heartbeat. Shepard had expected there might be bodies here; the long hall that connected the presidium to the ward was a perfect bottleneck if you were trying to hold ground. There were none. The entire place had long been picked clean, and the same was true for the Presidium itself.
Bailey paused by a viewport to stare at the bleak destruction of the inner ring. Some bits of destruction floated here or there, but mostly the ring was just...empty. What had been lush, vibrant gardens and lakes was now little more than crispy black tendrils clinging to the hull. There was no water all.
Tagging his shoulder, she nodded toward the elevator.
It took some doing to work it open. In the end they had to find a flat bit of metal to pry the doors apart. Once parted, however, they stayed put, revealing the dark shaft beyond.
“Looks like it’s parked at the docking bay,” said Bailey, leaning over the tunnel.
“Good. Won’t get in our way.”
Shepard floated into the tunnel, grabbed the service ladder, and pushed upward. Someone had marked the floors from the inside, and at 03 she grabbed the ladder again. “Shit.”
Right behind her, Bailey grabbed the middle wire and hauled himself up to her level. “What’s wrong?”
“Two things. One, how do we get the doors open, and two, what about decompression?”
“There are mass effect shields in place to prevent decompression,” the Catalyst reminded her.
Simultaneously, Bailey said, “There are supposed to be self containing barriers, otherwise the survivors using them would probably kill themselves. The doors, though...”
Shepard nodded. She gave them a good, long look. The same trick as before could work here, of course, but that had been difficult enough with a floor beneath them and space to work in. Here, in the confines of the shaft with nothing to bounce off of but very close walls...
And that didn’t help them at all if the people inside were as jumpy as Bailey had been.
“Da, da, da-da, da,” Lilo sung in Shepard’s ear.
Shepard reached out to rap the well-known tune on the door. Nothing happened. After a moment, she tried again.
“Maki,” Bailey said after the third repetition.
Two knocks responded before she could.
Shepard grinned. “Pizza,” she shouted. “Open up!”
No one answered. This time it was Bailey to rap on the door. Two knocks came back in reply, but try as they might they couldn’t hear anyone shouting in response. “Maybe it’s too tightly sealed,” Bailey said, but he sounded hesitant.
Bailey had been looking the door over as Shepard knocked. He grabbed her before she could descend for the bar, and tapped a small box at the bottom of the door. “Locking mechanism, controls the whole thing Should be able to break it.”
Shepard nodded. A close examination proved it was fragile enough. She drew her gun and beat the butt against the lock. After four hits the lock floated away. Together, they slid the doors apart.
“AH!” They slammed back into the far wall. Shepard lifted the gun and the husk crumpled to the floor. Green lights bobbed in the darkness of the hospital, rushing toward the elevator.
Heart jack-hammering in her ears, she felled the forerunner. She pulled the trigger again. It clicked on empty air. The remaining husk dove behind an upended stretcher.
They moved into the hospital and gravity took effect with a vengeance. Tripping over the dead husk, Shepard caught herself on stinging palms and scrambled back to her feet. Though the clip was empty, she kept the gun ready in hand as she circled around to where the husk hid.
It was still there, hands over its head and trembling like an abused puppy. Shepard frowned. Bailey wrenched a broken piece of chair from a pile of debris and approached from the other side. She held a hand up to him, and he paused.
“There’s something...” It was hard to think with the adrenaline pumping through her ears, but Shepard was sure there was something she was forgetting. Something important.
The husk peeked one glowing green eye at her through its fingers.
Bailey and Shepard startled, each looking about before their gaze rested again on the husk. “Did that thing just—,” Bailey began.
“Please,” it whispered again, “Don’t hurt me.” Its voice was as dry as a desert wind, and as robotic as Legion’s...but the emotion was unmistakable.
It was still human. Shepard looked up, gaze falling on the two she’d killed. They were human.
She dropped the gun.
Her name was Yvonne, and she had been a nurse on Freedom’s Progress. “I knew what my body was doing. I could see it. I could hear the..the thing in my head, telling my body what to do. And I couldn’t...”
An emoting husk had to be just about the weirdest damn thing she’d ever seen, and that was including husks just existing. Shepard squatted as close as she dared to the creature—Yvonne, she reminded herself—well aware that Bailey was pacing by the window with a metal pipe in hand.
Yvonne stared at her circuit-marked, skeletal hands. “God help me, I tried,” she whispered. “I can still...I can still hear them screaming...”
A crash erupted behind Shepard. She looked to find Bailey’s pipe jutting out of a newly shattered potted plant. Bailey slammed one fist against the window and leaned his forehead against it.
If anything Yvonne looked smaller now, curled in on herself and once again shaking. She hid her face against her knees and it was a moment before Shepard realized the woman was whispering something. Leaning closer, it proved to be “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” over and over again.
Shepard slipped her backpack off, intending to go for the blanket stored within. Instead, she came up with the shirt and pants she’d scavenged. “Here,” she said softly, holding them out just enough that the fabric brushed Yvonne’s leg.
Yvonne’s head jerked up and Shepard tensed all over again. Then those strange green-glowing eyes focused on Shepard’s offering. She took them gingerly and held them to her chest, a hoarse sob ripping at her throat.
Shepard got up as Yvonne hurried to dress herself.
Bailey was glowering at the ruins of the Presidium when Shepard approached him. He glanced at her through the reflection on the glass, then turned and walked away. Looking out the window herself, Shepard studied the emptiness of the Presidium. If she craned her neck to just the right angle she could see the Earth from here, glowing and brilliant blue.
“The reaper’s prolly alive, too, y’know,” said Lilo. Her reflection regarded Shepard with cold eyes. Maki’s lips pressed into a thin line.
“Prolly,” she muttered. Shepard glanced over her shoulder to where the two corpses still laid upon the floor. It had been so easy pulling that trigger, even though she’d known the reapers shouldn’t be a threat anymore. Weren’t...
Yvonne ventured unsteadily to her feet. Her movements were decidedly human, Shepard thought, tugging at the bottom of the too-big shirt, feet and knees turned inward as her arms wrapped about herself. She ducked her head when she noticed Shepard looking.
“I’m sorry,” Shepard said, moving away from the window. There were more words behind that if only she could pin them down. They scattered before her attempts and eventually Shepard had to close her mouth.
“I...I would have thought the same,” Yvonne whispered, and did not look up.
“There isn’t anyone else here, is there?” Bailey was standing at the door to the ER, looking at the hall beyond.
Yvonne shook her head. Her head tilted to the right and she shuffled her feet. “There were...”
“We tried to keep them alive,” she shouted, stumbling backward as Bailey approached her.
Shepard intercepted him, hands raised. “Bailey!”
He stopped, one arm raised over Shepard’s shoulder to point at Yvonne. The rage slowly melted from his face, transforming to a tired simmer. “Bailey,” Shepard repeated, and put a hand to his chest, forcing him a step back. She lowered her voice, though Yvonne probably heard anyway. “Do husks talk?”
Bailey swallowed thickly, then shook his head. He carded his hand through his hair. “No. No, you’re—you’re right. Just...”
Shepard nodded, and lowered her hand. She backed off a pace, then turned to find Yvonne pressed against the receptionist’s desk. “You tried to keep who alive?”
“The others,” she said, whispering again. Her head jerked toward the ER. “They were just—just children. Malnourished, frightened. Duct rats, they called themselves.”
“They let you care for them?”
Yvonne shook her head. “No. They were scared of us. Threw things at us if we got too close.”
She glanced again at Bailey, who was as still as a statue and staring at the floor, then began to ease along the desk toward the ER. Shepard followed her down the hall, trying to ignore the wrecked rooms on either side of it. How many times had she visited Kaidan here? Thane? Even Jacob had seemed to live at this hospital in the past few months. This hospital, dark and torn, seemed to bear little resemblance to her memories.
Three little bodies laid in state at the far end of the hall, covered in white cloths. Yvonne stopped several feet away, one hand pressed to her mouth. Perhaps husks couldn’t cry, but there was an unmistakable hitch to her voice when next she spoke. “The eldest boy’s name was Fisher, I could hear him talking to the others sometimes. He’s the one who...”
When Yvonne didn’t continue, Shepard went forward and knelt beside the nearest body. Pulling the cloth back, Shepard winced. Blood splattered down the front of the girl’s body from a jagged gash cut running from ear to ear. The next child, a turian, had received similar treatment through the soft skin at the back of his head.
From the way Yvonne hid her face Shepard knew Fisher was the last. A deep gash ran through his navel and blood covered both his hands. All three were thin limbed, with bulging bellies and sunken eyes.
“They were so sick. Pneumonia, I thought, but they wouldn’t let me close enough to help them. Wouldn’t take the medicine I left them. And they just kept getting worse.”
Throwing the cloth back over Fisher’s face, Shepard stood up.
“I forced it,” Yvonne said with a touch of fierceness Shepard wouldn’t have expected. Her eyes brightened. “I couldn’t stand it. Being so close, doing nothing. And I...I was stronger than them. So...”
She dropped her head again, and the light of her eyes dimmed. “I left them alone after. Thought they might get over...I came back a little while. Fisher was still alive. Barely.”
Shepard closed her eyes a moment, then turned away. “What kind of supplies do you have here?”
“A little water, bandages, some medicines.”
“Alright.” They returned to the lobby, Yvonne following Shepard out like a lost puppy. Shepard tried to ignore the hair rising at the back of her neck, to remind herself that Yvonne was no longer mindless. Hell, Krogans were more dangerous with less excuse. “Bailey?”
“Yeah?” He’d retrieved his pipe and was pacing the front of the lobby when they returned.
“Why don’t you get some sleep? We need to re—” She paused when she caught the look he was giving her. “We need to reexamine our options. That’ll take time.”
The pipe extended toward Yvonne. “You expect me to sleep with that— her —here?”
Crossing the lobby at a clip, Shepard took the pipe from him. “I’ll keep this on me if it makes you feel better.”
His fists tightened and relaxed several times as they stared at one another. Then he looked to the husks she’d killed earlier. Slowly, Bailey backed off. “I’ll haunt you. Remember that.”
“No worries on that account.”
Nodding to her, Bailey went to the corner and drug a chair upright. He tested it with one foot, then sat down and leaned back. Though his eyes closed, it was some time before Shepard believed he was really asleep.
True to her word, Shepard kept the pipe in hand. She went to sit by the window and Yvonne followed. The husk sunk down with her back to the corner, her side pressed to the viewport. Around the same time that soft snores arose from Bailey’s corner, the lights of her eyes dimmed to a barely perceptible glow
Yvonne, more so than the Catalyst’s word, proved that the Synthesis had occurred. How it worked, or what the scientifically measurable changes were was still unknown, but Shepard couldn’t ignore the evidence of her own eyes. A gremlin giggle erupted from the ten-year-old beside her.
Lilo leaned against Shepard, solid as the day she died and just as cold. Shepard shivered but didn’t shove her sister away.
Something whisper soft touched her face. Shepard jerked away. Yvonne jumped backward and defensively held up a hand. “You have a fever!”
Shepard shook her head and tried to get up. Everything swam and her butt re-acquainted itself with the tile.
"Easy," Bailey said, kneeling beside her. He put a hand on her back, keeping her down this time. Sleep must have agreed with him, Shepard thought, if he was getting this close to Yvonne willingly.
Yvonne sat up straight again and hit the power button on Shepard's suit. Before Shepard could ask what she was doing, Yvonne had called up Shepard's omni-tool and was reading over the vital signs. "Where are you wounded?"
"Everywhere?" Shepard chuckled weakly and Bailey swore. "What? There's nothing to be done for it. Except medi-gel, which I already did."
"There could be an infection," said Yvonne. "When did you last change your bandages?"
Silence reigned. It was Yvonne who swore this time.
In what was the strongest tone Shepard had heard Yvonne use thus far, she grabbed Shepard’s arm and snapped at Bailey, “Help me get her to the examination room.”
Whether out of surprise or agreement, Bailey complied. Her head was spinning so badly Shepard didn’t bother to resist.
They deposited her on the bed Kaidan had lain in. It was then that Yvonne hesitated, hands poised over Shepard’s boot. “May I take a look?”
Barely knowing what she was doing, Shepard nodded and began to remove her armor. Yvonne helped, what was left of her nose wrinkling in disgust as she got sight of Shepard’s bruised and broken skin. Bailey whistled; whether in disbelief or commiseration, Shepard wasn’t sure. Then his eyes widened and he turned on heel. “Sorry.”
“Not really givin’ a shit right now,” Shepard said through gritted teeth as they worked her greaves off.
Naked wasn’t much of an improvement. Now she was just freezing, sweaty, and exposed. Several scabs had been ripped away by the removal of her suit, and a few of the sores on her legs and back were interesting shades of green and yellow. The stench wafting up left no arguing that it was mere “healing process.”
Yvonne tutted under her breath, turning Shepard this way and that as she examined her. “We don’t have any medi-gel,” she said finally, “And frankly, it doesn’t do well with infection anyway. But there’s other things that can work.”
The sound of Yvonne rustling through cabinets for supplies filled the little room as Shepard laid back on the table and waited for everything to stop twirling.
As much as she’d have liked to go back to sleep, Shepard kept her eyes open and on Yvonne. Though the rational part of her mind wanted to trust the nurse, the rest of her screamed that the nurse was a fucking husk. A husk intent on causing her pain, even if it would save her life.
The sores had to be drained and packed, disinfected with some sort of cream, and finally bound by clean gauze. Each scrape, no matter how tiny, was carefully covered in the same cream. The ones that were bleeding again were also bandaged up and taped in place. Finally, Yvonne presented her with a collection of pills, a cup of water, and a protein bar.
“You should have more in your stomach than this, but...”
Shepard threw the pills back, chased with a swallow of water. She ate the bar after, though Yvonne made a face about the order. “We make do,” Shepard said finally, around a mouthful.
“I need to clean these before you put them back on.” Yvonne gathered the suit into her arm. “It’ll just cause more sores otherwise.”
They hadn’t realized Bailey was missing until he appeared at the doorway, the blanket from Shepard’s pack in hand, and looking generally awkward. He did his best to look at anything but her while putting the blanket over her.
“What d’you think you’re doing?”
“Warm is better for a fever, I know that much—not that we have any of that,” he said, and took a few steps back. “Afraid you’ll have to deal with not-quite-freezing.”
Shepard shook her head. “We don’t have time for this. I need to—”
Bailey stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Maki.”
He waited until she looked up at him before continuing, “From where I’m sitting we have plenty of time. There’s...not really a lot we can do, is there? The comms are gone, most of the other survivors, well...”
Shaking his head, Bailey sighed. “If we’re lucky there’s people alive somewhere out there, and eventually they’ll decide either to save this wreck or salvage what they can from it. We got a pretty good vantage point, here. If someone comes.”
She hated waiting. But she had to admit he had a point.
“Besides, we can’t have you passing out out there. I could probably drag you back, of course. But that’d be a hassle.”
“You should’a stopped while you were ahead,” Shepard chuckled mirthlessly. She was rewarded with a smirk.
“Alright.” Stretching herself painfully out, Shepard sank back against the bed. “Alright. You win. Resting now. But we still need supplies, especially if we’re going to stay.”
“We have enough for a few days,” Bailey replied slowly.
“Yeah, but what if it isn’t a few days?”
“I trust you have an idea.”
“Mm.” Through half-lidded eyes she could see the scowl on his face and tried not to laugh. Somehow his testiness was just funny; she’d never imagined him to be such a grump. “If you want, you could go see what supplies are in the area.”
“And I’m just supposed to leave you here with that—with her.”
“You seemed like you were past this.”
Bailey crossed his arms and gave her a hard look. “I got sleep. I didn’t lose my mind.”
Sucking in a breath, Shepard held it a long moment as she thought this through. Did she really want to be left alone with a talking, thinking—with Yvonne? Chanting to herself that Yvonne was a person, not a “husk,” Shepard released the breath. “If we don’t start looking now we might run out before we find anything else. We still might. There were other survivors at first, weren’t there? Besides you.”
His brow furrowed deeply.
“Most of the houses I saw on my way to you were already ransacked,” she explained, “There were barricades in the streets. I know there was a guerrilla force on the station, I authorized it, so I can only assume...”
“Sorry. I’m just a little jumpy.”
“It’s okay.” Shepard laid back and stared at the ceiling. “I wouldn’t trust me, either.”
It was several minutes before she heard Bailey’s footsteps drift away down the hall. A moment later Yvonne returned, casting a strange look over her shoulder. “Ah, Bailey just left...”
“I told him to,” Shepard assured her.
The suit in Yvonne’s hands reeked of disinfectant, even from across the room. It was a hell of a lot better than it had been, though. “This is as good as it’s going to get for now,” Yvonne was saying as she deposited the suit in the corner, “Not the best, but...I don’t want to waste water.”
That done, Yvonne sat in the chair next to the bed and tucked her knees to her chest. It was impossible to be a hundred percent sure where Yvonne was looking, but Shepard was almost certain that glowing green gaze was focused on her. Being watched like that made Shepard's skin crawl. "Yes?"
"Oh! Sorry, I..." Yvonne sat up and rubbed a hand at the back of her neck. Eventually she looked up again. "Could I ask...?"
"Sure. Why not."
"You're her , aren't you?" At Shepard's long look, Yvonne hastened on, "Commander Shepard, that is. I...the advertisements and the vids...you just look very..."
Shepard sighed. "Call me Maki. Please."
Yvonne bobbed her head. She surged to her feet a minute later and began to shift junk around the room. It was nervous cleaning, Shepard thought, and consisted mostly of looking from pile to pile attempting to decide where to start. Eventually Yvonne began to sort through the supply cabinets, taking stock and muttering to herself.
When Shepard made to get up, Yvonne 'tutt'ed her back down again.
Swallowing another sigh, Shepard jerked her chin toward the door. “What were their names?”
For a moment Yvonne seemed lost, staring in the general direction of the lobby. Then, slowly, she offered, “Abigail. She was from Arcturus. A marine. Very...bossy. The other was Jeffers. He was new, one of the few from Earth not sent to the reaper."
"So there is a reaper."
Yvonne's eyes flashed, and her fingers twisted together. "Yes. They...they..."
"It's OK," Shepard said as gently as she could, "I know how they're made, I don't need details. Not about that, anyway."
"What do you want to know?"
"Where it is."
The cabinet rattled a little as Yvonne shut the door. She stood facing it, fingers toying with the cuffs of her shirt. When she spoke, Shepard had to strain to hear the two simple words:
A summer death was torture. Summer roasted you alive, drowned you in your sweat. When it’s that hot outside there’s only so much you can do to cool off. The river was never an option. At least, it was never an option Lilo had allowed. They’d seen the traces of parasites that wormed through the legs of the less wary, witnessed the wretched vomiting of those who’d dared to drink.
There were other waters, though. Waters with high fences and cameras and men with flashlights. Parks held lakes where clean people played, who spat and chased you if you got too near. Those waters were not for the likes of them.
A winter death was quiet. You felt the cold at first, it lanced you like daggers through your body, but the pain would fade. Winter lulled you to sleep and stole you away where no loved one would ever find you. There were more options in winter. You could walk or run, start a fire, huddle in a packed dumpster for insulation. But winter was persistent. And if you weren’t careful, it would find you...
Shepard’s eyes snapped open to a darkened room and terse silence. Nothing moved, nothing breathed—not even her. She allowed herself to exhale once she was sure she was alone. Alone?
She sat up, wincing as some of the bandages tugged awkwardly at scabs. The blanket slipped from her naked body. Once off the bed, she wrapped it around her like a toga. Shepard frowned at the door, certain that it hadn’t been shut when she went to sleep. Come to think of it, she didn’t remember going to sleep.
Yvonne’s medicine cabinets were still in order, exactly as she had left them. The chair was still upright, the bed exactly where it had always been, and...her suit was not in the corner. Her suit was not in the room.
Footsteps raced down the hall.
Shepard went to the door, half expecting it to part for her. It didn’t, of course. A small gap was left between the panels, just wide enough for her to get a grip. She pulled the panels apart, a surprisingly easy feat for how large and metal they were, then readjusted her blanket as she stepped into the hall.
At one end were the open doors to the lobby, at the other laid four little bodies covered in cloth. A sigh broke from her lips as she looked at them. So young, so... stupid . She unclenched her hands before her nails broke skin.
Immediately the back of her mind began to list reason after reason for why the children had met their end. “I woulda done the same,” said Lilo from beneath her cloth, “Wouldn’t’a regretted it, either.” With a frustrated growl, Shepard stalked toward the lobby.
No one was there, either.
“Y’know, I really hate to say ‘I told you so,’ but—”
“You didn’t tell me jack squat.” Lumbering over to the chair Bailey had slept in, Shepard collapsed into it and put her face in her hands.
“This’s whatchu get,” Lilo continued. Through her fingers Shepard watched the girl twirl for emphasis, arms cast wide. “Always trustin’ everybody. Barely know a person and y’put your life in their hands. All. The damn. Time.”
“What would you have had me do? Rampage through the galaxy, kill everyone, do the reaper’s work for them? I did that! Remember? The Rachni...”
The apparition stalked forward, shoulders hunched and eyes intense as only Lilo’s had ever been. “The Rachni were dangerous. Damn near wiped out the galaxy! You did the smart thing.”
“But not the right one.”
A weight settled against her side. Lilo perched on the arm of the chair, swinging one foot off the edge. She pointed at the viewport. “Look. See the stars?”
Shepard lulled her head until she could see past the bounds of the Presidium Ring, out into the heavens beyond. The ring of junk was still there, but just beyond swirled the brilliant white on blue of home. “I know, I know. You and me. Perfection. Blah, fucking blah.”
A flash of light against the Earth. Her breath stuck in her throat.
Shepard was up immediately, hands pressed to the viewport and staring up as the massive ship floated past. Like Yvonne’s eyes, this one glowed green at its seams now. A tremor ran through her body that was half fear, half elation, and pure adrenaline. The Synthesis had occurred, there were still other Reapers alive. That meant there was, at the very least, a chance of getting to ground. It was a small goal, but it was more concrete than she’d had before.
She limped across the lobby to the opposite port to watch as the Reaper glided silently across what passed for the Presidum’s sky.
A duffel bag flung itself through the open elevator doors.
It was followed shortly by Yvonne, who adjusted to gravity as easily as a cat caught itself from a fall. When she noticed Shepard, she dropped the rucksack she’d been carrying, pulled her helmet off and grinned. “Bailey found supplies!”
Shepard turned her answering grin on Bailey as he stumble into the lobby. “And I found us a way out of here.”
The duffle bag held a suit for Yvonne. It was still too big—Shepard had never seen a suit small enough for her wizened frame—but better fit that Shepard’s. Husks, though cybernetically altered to an alarming degree, were yet living, breathing creatures whom couldn’t survive in a vacuum. While Yvonne wouldn’t be able to perform any complicated tasks while wearing it, she would at least be free to follow where the others went or, as she had, help cart supplies around.
Shepard was a little surprised Bailey had thought of it. “I didn’t,” he said with a shrug, “She did. Saw the suit and decided she wanted one. I figured you’d go along with it.”
“I don’t like sitting around like a bump on a log.”
It had taken some doing to convince Yvonne to let Shepard off bed rest; only the promise that she could come along had won the argument. That, and they had had to agree to shovel down some food—their first decent meal in weeks—first. A hot plate from the hospital staff’s breakroom meant it was even hot food, which improved Bailey’s attitude considerably.
Standing at the elevator, watching as the other two suited back up, Shepard felt a little guilty. Worry over Bail had kept her from revealing her plan in its entirely. That, and the infestation in her suit.
Though the Catalyst was quiet for now Shepard couldn’t be sure when or if it was still listening in. She doubted it had spoken to Yvonne, if its reasons for remaining active were, in fact, true. Then again, how much of what the Catalyst had said could she trust? Thinking about it too much made her head hurt.
Bailey’s hands moved methodically over his gear, checking it for leaks and weak points. His eyes, however, looked for all the world as though he were miles away. She turned her gaze to the Earth again, thinking maybe she would catch sight of another ship. A human one, maybe, or...just anything other than a Reaper. But the void was as empty of life as ever.
Would Bailey follow her in this? So far he’d done as she asked, even though Shepard had to admit how crazy she sounded.
“You’re sure about this?”
She jerked her gaze back to Bailey, wondering briefly how long he’d been staring at her. “No,” she admitted. “I’m not going to pretend it’s a guarantee...but I do think it’s the best shot we have.”
“Anything is worth trying at this point, right?” Yvonne clasped her hands behind her and rocked on her heels. Suited up, the only clue as to what laid behind the darkened glass of her helmet was the shielded glow of her eyes. It reminded Shepard so strongly of Tali she had a sudden, disturbing flash of all quarians as decaying skeletons beneath their masks; it was an effort not to shudder.
If she took it at face value, however, it was easier to pretend Yvonne was just another suited alien. That made her presence a little easier to swallow.
Bailey must have thought the same, for he offered Yvonne a fleeting smile. “I guess that’s true. Where are we headed?”
“Down,” Shepard said. She turned for the elevator, activating the suit’s LS just before stepping into the void. Grabbing the ladder beside the door, she “walked” herself down a level and stopped at the doors to the third level.
The unloaded gun she was using as a hammer felt like an anvil in her arms. She growled at herself and tried again. Bailey’s hand brushed her shoulder. He pointed to the gun, then held his hand out.
“You’re still sick,” Yvonne’s voice crackled in her ear. The nurse floated upside down above Shepard and Bailey, watching them. “And you’ve probably both lost some muscle mass, given how long we’ve been up here.”
Beating a lock into submission had seemed so easy just two...well, sleep cycles ago; judging ‘days’ up here was impossible. Shepard handed over the gun, glad that neither of them could see her pout.
Even Bailey had a difficult time with it. After several minutes of pounding the lock cracked open, then floated into the shaft. He put the gun on his hip holster and took one side of the doors, Maki the other.
The open Presidium Ring lay before them.
“Maki,” said Bailey with some uncertainty. He must not have been paying attention to the level before this.
Shepard put up a hand to pause the other two, keeping her hand on an inner rail of the elevator door. “I know,” she said with the most assuring tone she could muster. She needed Bailey to help her through the next door, at least. Then if he turned on her it might not be so bad. The thought still made her sick. “Do either of you have experience with zero-G in open space?”
“I do,” said Yvonne. Both Shepard and Bailey looked up. Yvonne shrugged. “I grew up on Arcturus. All spacer kids learn zero-G safety.”
That explained how easily she took to the suits, at least. “OK,” said Shepard, returning her attention to Bailey.
“It’s been a long time,” he admitted, “but I think I can manage.”
Shepard nodded. The trip through the damaged hull had been bad, but it had had the benefit of a relatively breach. The Presidium, on the other hand, was wide open.
Nothing’s ever simple, Shepard.
“We can either walk ourselves across via the guardrail, or try to make a straight shot of it.”
“Let me go first.”
Barely waiting for the nod, Yvonne grabbed the edge of the elevator and swung herself into the open faster than Shepard would have dared.
“Safety?” Bailey muttered.
Yvonne held her arms out in front of her, like a flying superhero in some old vid, as she soared across the empty platforms to the entrance of Purgatory. Scrambled for purchase when she reached the door. For a breathless second it looked like she might be bumped out into open space when she caught a crack between the panels of the door.
Much more slowly, Yvonne pulled herself up against the door. Just before Shepard could launch herself after the other woman, she noticed the doors begin to shake, then split open.
“What’s going on over there?”
“Trying. To get. This door. Open,” Yvonne replied through gritted teeth. Either Yvonne wasn’t very strong at all, or she was incredibly strong and the doors were jammed. Recalling the few times a husk had gotten close enough to hit her, Shepard was banking on the latter.
“Maybe you should wait...”
A red display flickered to momentary life just beside Yvonne’s head. “There’s. Something—”
With a yelp, Yvonne jerked backward as the doors slammed shut. This time she did fly—tumbling upward over the platform and out into open space.
Bailey grabbed Shepard’s wrist as she launched herself out of the shaft. “Shepard.”
“So will you!” He squeezed harder. In zero-g there was no traction to help her shake him off. Explicits rained from Shepard’s lips, she twisted in his grip, kicked him, but he wouldn’t let go. If only she had a loaded gun.
Frantically, Shepard scanned the skyline for some sign of the body tumbling away; there was nothing. Yvonne was gone.
Bailey pulled her back into the elevator. He let her go long enough to slam the doors closed, then tugged her after him to the hospital.
Shepard had just reached to disengage her suit’s LS when Bailey grabbed her hand again. She shook him off before she noticed it:
They were still floating. There was no more life support in the hospital.
“What the hell is in that bar, Shepard?”
She stared at the floor as he cursed her. Ten different languages, half of them not human. Standard translators were only programmed with each species’ “common tongue,” given the sheer number of languages within the galaxy. Anything more was luxury, and usually only worth it if you dealt closely with planet-bound aliens. Most spacers, of all species, had long since taken to using “unmapped” languages to curse and insult one another. Spend enough time among them and your vocabulary expanded exponentially. Some words Bailey was using Shepard knew; others she could only guess at.
Bailey kicked at a nearby pile of junk. Zero-G sent him flying heel over head, straight into the ceiling. He ‘oofed’ as he was knocked back to the floor. Shepard extended a hand to steady him; he shoved her away.
Wincing as her back collided with the viewport, she grappled and caught the divider railing between it and the counter as she was bounced back inward. He’d caught himself against the counter. Bailey glared at her; she stared at him.
There was something off about the sudden peace she felt, but Shepard couldn’t work up the energy to try and figure it out; it took everything she had just to get her mouth open. “The Keepers cut out the council-based communications but they wouldn’t have cut Reaper . There’s a Reaper being built in Purgatory. Yvonne confirmed it. It shouldn’t be active, but we might be able to get its communications online.”
“And do what?” If he hadn’t been suited she thought Bailey might have spat at her. “Hail a taxi?”
“The reapers are still operational, and friendly, now. It may not be comfortable, but they could get us to Earth.”
“How the hell d’you know that?”
“I saw one.” She gestured to the viewport behind her. “Glowing green, just like Yvonne.”
He scoffed. “So, what? The reapers are colour-coded now?”
Shaking his head, Bailey laughed mirthlessly. “I will give you that that—that Yvonne probably wasn’t dangerous. That doesn’t mean all Reapers are suddenly OK. Just cause some of them were people—”
“They were all people, that was the point .”
“—DOESN’T MEAN YOU SHOULD HAVE FUCKED US ALL OVER.”
He trembled. The only sound in the room was the quick rasping of his breath.
“All I know,” he said, the terse quiver of his voice worse than a shout, “is that the world went to hell, we’re probably going to die, and those things still exist. You were the one who said we needed to do all this. The one who kept shouting doom and hellfire till the whole galaxy finally got off its collective ass and listened. Then you got your chance—your one goddamn chance—and...
“I don’t understand. I keep tryin’. Keep tellin’ myself if I just keep on listening it’ll suddenly all make sense.”
Any other day, in any other situation, Shepard might have felt sympathy for him. Hell, she could have even empathized, tried to reason with him...Maybe she’d have been a little angry, too.
There was nothing.
“We’re wasting energy,” she said when he seemed to be done. Her suit was steady enough in the zero-g that she felt confident in releasing her hold on the partition. Punching up the map on her omni-tool, Shepard frowned. There weren’t any green spots at all. The entire emergency system had failed. Or...
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Bailey was still staring at her through the map display. She couldn’t see his eyes, but she could feel them trying to bore through her suit, feel her out. “You told us you knew of another comm-hub. Why not tell me what it was attached to?”
“You know why.”
His head sank. Nodding, Bailey pushed himself away from the counter and toward the elevator.
“Can’t do this,” he replied.
“Not trying to stop you.” He paused at the door to look back at her as she released two of the power cells she’d collected what felt like years ago. Giving them a gentle thump each, Shepard sent them floating off toward him. Bailey caught each, and stored them without a word. “Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah,” was his only reply. He slipped through the elevator doors. They slammed shut behind him.
“Shepard?” He pounded on the doors. Shepard launched forward, caught herself on a chair rail, and ran a hand over the metal doors, looking for a crack between them. There was one, naturally, but there was no way to get a handhold on it. How had they even shut?!
“They’re stuck! The gears won’t budge,” Bailey grunted over their coms.
A deep sound began somewhere nearby, like a grinding of gears, then stopped abruptly. It came and died three times before warning bells rang in her head.
“Get out of there!”
The whirring began again; it didn’t stop this time, but the pounding had. “Bailey?!”
A short crackle in her ear, and through the doors she could hear the elevator shoot past on the other side, racing for the top.
“Bailey!” Static answered her. Then the comm went dead.
Shepard pushed herself away from the elevator. In the silence of space, the working elevator seemed loud as a herd of elephants stampeding through the shaft. It zipped up and down along its lines, a daunting gauntlet for anyone to run. Even if she could get the doors to open there would be no getting past it.
She was trapped in the airless hospital. Yvonne had been spaced. And Bailey...Bailey was...
“More importantly,” she told herself, “Something is trying to kill you.”
“I am sorry,” said the Catalyst. “But I did warn you that I would defend myself.”
Shepard called up her omni-tool as she bumped off the back wall of the lobby. Her fingers flew over the holographic interface, more instinct than thought. The Catalyst’s voice registered a half word, something like “wh” just before the comm died.
As she neared the partition again, Shepard stuck out a foot and caught a rung. She may have severed the Catalyst’s connection to her suit, but it was still in control of the ship. How could she...Something moved in her peripheral vision.
Lilo stood in the darkened hall leading into the ER, flanked by three children wrapped in bloody sheets. As one they turned their heads to stare at her. She dismissed her omni-tool and floated toward them.
The children glided backward as a unit, never allowing Shepard to close the gap between her and them. Through the silent ER they went, the noise of the elevator dropping to nothing as they left it behind. She was only a few inches through the door when it slammed shut, an angry red lock glowing in its middle.
Each set of doors did the same as she passed, cutting her off from windows and supplies. The Catalyst must be pissed.
Her toes touched the step-rise at the back of the hall as the children stopped before her. Two of duct rats floated upward, their bodies taking on the prone forms of corpses. The third disappeared altogether. Shepard frowned.
Lilo stood before her, still, eyes smokey with death and skin turned to ash. Flakes of snow were littered through her tangled dreads. Reaching out, Shepard cupped the girl’s lifeless cheek; there was no response.
The walls of the station melted away, replaced by weathered brick and freezing cement. Snow dusted the alley, lower in places where the feet of passers by had displaced it. Maki scrambled over the fence heedless of how the broken wire at the top tore her shirt and jabbed her skin. What mattered was that she didn’t drop the precious bottle clutched to her breast.
She dropped to the ground, stumbled, and ducked behind a bag of trash just before the policeman’s flashlight swept across her. One heartbeat. Two. He moved on, thinking she’d run up the street instead.
A triumphant grin tugged at her broken lips.
“I gots ‘em,” she announced in a whisper. Ducking from her hiding spot, Maki scrambled over ice and snow to the dumpster a little further down. She could just see the broken, dirty sneakers peeking around its bottom edge.
“I done heard th’doc tellin’ some lady, her girl coughin’ like you is, jus need t’take somma these,” Maki explained as she dropped to a crouch beside Lilo and screwed the cap off the bottle she carried. She shook two pills into her hand and held them out.
“Lilo?” The pills dropped. She grabbed Lilo’s shoulders. Shook her. Begged.
She never noticed the flashlight’s return, but she kicked, and screamed, and bit as the officer pulled her away.
Blinking back the sting behind her eyes, Shepard looked up as a faint tapping noise drew her attention.
A potted plant that normally hid the maintenance shaft now hovered a good foot off the ground. As she watched, the screwed loosened from the inside, and the door swung open to emit a small, familiar pair of antennae.
Larva poked his head out, saw her, and ducked back into the tunnel.
“Wait,” Shepard called out. She couldn’t crouch to make herself seem less threatening, like she might otherwise have, and Larva didn’t re-emerge. The tale-tell tapping of his claws signaled a full retreat.
Lilo had disappeared when Sheard looked again, though the two remaining bodies hadn’t. Shepard’s lips thinned and she launched herself at the maintenance shaft.
This must have been how the duct rats got into the hospital in the first place, she thought. Bailey’s old warning about the children falling into fans or being spaced rung in her ears as she glided through the dark, trying to follow the trail of the terrified Keeper.
The passage twisted and turned, but Shepard thought she was still on track; then the sounds of her reluctant guide vanished A moment later, Shepard bumped into a dead end. For a split second she thought she might be trapped indefinitely in the dark, before she realize the duct ran downward.
It bottomed out several minutes later. Shepard caught herself on the upper edge of the next horizontal tunnel before she could be thrown upward again. There was no tapping of Keeper claws here, either, but when she stopped to listen she thought she heard a faint ‘whuff whuff whuff’ coming from nearby.
Actually, that didn’t sound good.
The obvious solution hit her like a ton of bricks; she resisted the urge to smack her face. “Pull yourself together, Maki,” she muttered and called up her omni-tool. It would waste energy, and it wasn’t as bright as a flashlight, but the faint orange glow was better than being stuck in the dark. Even as the thought crossed her mind a warning beep sounded in her ear.
Shoving herself off the back of the shaft, Shepard held her arm out before her, using the glow to light her way. Several ducts branched off the one she was in, but Shepard decided not to take them. Not yet, anyway. Her free hand trailed against the side of the passage
Then just ahead of her, something flickered.
Catching herself on the corner of one of the offshoots, Shepard watched as the flicker came again, and again in slow, methodical rotation. Slowly the fan blades began to take shape as Shepard became aware there was a very, very dim light behind them as well. This accounted for the noise, at least.
There seemed to be a grate in front of it, maybe installed to keep the duct rats from being chopped into tiny bits. Shepard drifted closer.
Stopping herself carefully on the grate, she dismissed her omni-tool and peered into the gaps between the massive fan blades. The darkness beyond was punctuated by a soft green light coming from somewhere beneath her. The chamber had to huge, she couldn’t even see the other side of it. Faint sounds echoed up to her, reminiscent of a dry dock.
Shepard took another look at the fan, and recalled her omni-tool. It took several swipes for the energy blade to slice through the metal—the blade was meant for ceramics and people, not industrial steel—before the pieces floated free into the open space, Shepard with them.
The Reaper’s glowing maw gaped at her, its neck hung broken. Lines and tubes dangled from the walls, clinging to the Reaper’s limbs like puppet strings. There were no legs. What passed for a rib cage was an open wound dripping a puddle of embryonic ooze onto the floor of what had once been Purgatory.
Its eye-lights flickered.
“Shepard. Shepard. Shepard.” The whisper came from thousands of ruined voices like an echo through a cave. She clutched her head, though that would not drown the sound.
The lights flickered again, and one finger tried to move. “Shepard,” said the voices, as though they were one, “Help us, Shepard.”
How was it even active? She stared down at the thing, feeling as though the air was being sucked out of her. The Life Support system was gone, there was no air. “How?”
“Free us,” they hissed in chorus. The finger moved again. It was trying to point.
Turning her head, she saw that one platform was still standing; the VIP lounge. A terminal had been erected there, lines feeding from it to the monstrous creation.
Shepard kicked her feet like she were swimming, and met the far wall. She bounced backward, off the ceiling, and down at an angle. With each hit of a surface she winced. Old bruises and new were complaining again, louder than ever. All the while those lights watched, silent and still.
Finally she bumped into and grabbed the cords that fed the terminal. Climbing hand over hand, she reached the rail of the lounge and hauled herself over. Clutching at the terminal, Shepard stared at the dead display. There was no power. Of course there was no power.
“Free us!” The chorus echoed again, voices young and old chiming in over one another to a slow fade. She looked at the lights of the Reaper, and knew that it was watching her. They were watching her.
“Consider your options carefully, Shepard.” Her eyes narrowed as a blue hologram took shape mid-vacuum between her and the Reaper. The chorus hissed an angry note in her ear as the Catalyst put its hands behind its back and frowned.
When she said nothing, it continued, “The Keepers have it hardwired into the life support system. I have not, thus far, been able to override them. But I will. All I require is time. If you wish to end its suffering, all you need do is wait.”
“Why do I feel like you’re not doing this out of the goodness of your heart?” Her suit beeped at her again.
“I was not lying when I said that I am sorry. But I could not allow you to contact the reapers. Your Alliance could be convinced to keep me alive for study, if nothing else. The Reapers would not be so gracious.”
“You’re just being selfish.”
“Are you not?” It looked surprised, then smiled. “You put your life ahead of mine. Why? Because I am not human? Because I have, in your estimation, killed people? You are not without similar fault.”
An object slipped from maintenance shaft she’d come through earlier, followed by a darker shadow that clung to the walls. A Keeper and a body. Or another hallucination? Shepard frowned.
“Must I remind you: you are the only organic left on this station. There is no one for you to rescue. Let me kill it, and I will help you escape.”
The Reaper’s lights flickered. Yvonne and Bailey’s faces flashed before her eyes.
“Fuck ‘im,” said Lilo.
Shepard loosed the power supply and found the emergency panel at the side of the terminal. She slammed them home and the terminal came to life. Almost immediately it flickered; the Catalyst was trying to get through.
Her fingers flew across the keys, hunting for the right commands while and blocking the Catalysts’ attempts to shut the terminal down. In the corner, a power icon quickly dropped. No. She’d beaten it once, she could do it again. Then she saw it. A distress signal.
What was one life, next to thousands? What was...
She looked up as the Reaper as its eye-lights began to dim. Its bottom opened up, fluid poured from its ribs. In her ear the beeping became a single note scream.
The last she remembered was the fluid rising quickly through the bar, the sudden silence, and Lilo’s smile approaching through the dark.
“That’s my girl. That’s my Maki.”
The world made sense in fragments: a helmeted head above her, fleshy walls covered in grime, disembodied lights dancing in the darkness. Finally there was a voice.
“You are the luckiest son-of-a-bitch to ever exist. You know that?”
Shepard groaned. “Lilo?”
“I told you, she isn’t ready for visitors.”
“She’s awake. Seems ready enough to me.”
Yelping, Shepard clapped her hands over her eyes. Opening them was a very, very bad idea. Somethings were biting into both her hands. The voice she belatedly identified as Miranda’s swore. A firm grip drew Shepard’s hands away from her face.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Miranda ordered as she adjusted whatever was tugging at Shepard’s hands. The discomfort eased. A short rustle came from above her, and the orange glow filtering through her eyelids dimmed. “There. Now you can try again.”
Peeking through her eyelashes, Shepard’s eyes adjusted to the sight of Jack leaning her elbows on the end of the bed, watching her. Miranda shifted in her peripheral vision, then returned to carefully push one of Shepard’s eyelids back and examine her pupil with a flashlight. Shepard hissed, but there wasn’t much she could do to stop it.
“And just when I thought you couldn’t be any more of a bitch,” mused Jack.
“How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Do thumbs count?” Shepard choked on her own voice. To her surprise, it was Jack who offered water, and held the cup while she drank. The look Jack gave her warned against commenting on it, so she didn’t.
“Good enough,” Miranda decided. She fiddled with a datapad.
The room was standard hospital faire: white walls, white furniture, white sheet stretched over her prone body. Beeping equipment standing just behind Miranda and connected to Shepard through tubes. If the other two women saw her shudder, neither commented.
“Ass end of nowhere,” said Jack.
“We’re in Mexico,” said Miranda. “The closest facility when the Reapers brought you in.”
There were questions in her voice, but Miranda didn’t ask and Shepard didn’t answer. Instead, she closed her eyes. “Earth. How did...who...”
“Rest.” Miranda laid a surprisingly gentle hand on her shoulder, then ruined it by saying, “You were a mess. It should be a few weeks before you’re on your feet again.”
The weight of her hand lifted. “I suppose you’re staying?”
Jack’s elbows moved, but were replaced by something heavier a moment later. A soft creak betrayed Jack’s chair as she leaned it backward.
“Right. We have orderlies if you want her removed, Shepard. Or I could do it.”
“It’s fine, Miranda.” The click-clack of heels on tile heralded Miranda’s retreat; a door shut behind them.
Though she’d only just woken, Shepard could feel exhaustion tugging at her bones. She was safe. She was on Earth. Somehow she’d made it.
“There’s a lot of questions over what you did, Shep. We’re alive, though. People are being treated. Shit’s being rebuilt. You’re alive. Just...leave it at that for now, yeah?”
Was she imagining the warning in Jack’s voice? Unable to tell, Shepard decided it was better just to do what her friends suggested. With a noncommittal grunt, she fell silent and gave in to her weakness.
What was one life next to billions? It was hers. And she was damn well going to live it.
I just wanted to thank everyone who's been reading, commenting, following, etc. this fucked up little adventure. It was so much fun to write and I'm so, so flattered that you've all enjoyed it.
There should be a sequel coming, but it may not start until next week. I'll update this note, and/or put them into a story collection if that happens, so that interested parties can easily find it. Until then, ta!
Sequel here: Empire of Dirt