"It's focusing on me," Shepard shouted, jamming a fresh heat sink into her SMG. "I'm going to run. Keep shooting and stay out of its range."
"Understood," came Garrus's clipped reply. Massani drawled something rude-sounding but the crackle of the Praetorian's lasers sliced his words out of the air. The crate at Shepard's back disintegrated. She hit the ground and rolled.
The creature hummed above her head, legs twitching, eyes flickering with electrical discharge. "Sniper rifles. Open fire," she yelled, and took off running.
Her boys, bless them, did their duty. She ducked behind a shipping container, panting, but the penetrating hum and the smell of burning grass caught up with her. She swore and pushed off towards another container, the lasers hissing at her heels.
"Get out of there, Shepard. It's right on top of you."
"Trying," she snapped, and scrambled for new cover.
Massani chuckled, unconcerned. "C'mon, Shepard. Can't you move those pretty legs any faster?"
She didn’t bother dignifying him with a response, and instead popped her head out to survey the field. The crack of a high-caliber rifle echoed across the lawn, and a chip of plating fell away from the creature's armored forehead. It didn't seem to notice; it kept floating towards her, its blue-white lasers slicing over the empty earth, burning a path for it to follow.
She ducked back and peeked around the other side of her cover. A splotch of yellow shifted between crates on the wide end of the field. Massani. Fragile cover, but as long as the monster kept targeting her, maybe it wouldn't matter.
Garrus’s scope flashed in her peripheral vision. He’d picked himself a spot in the corner, not far ahead from her, nestled in a gap between stacked shipping containers. Hard for bullets or lasers to get into, but even harder for him to get out of. If she kept running and weaving she'd just bring the monster right on top of him, and he'd be fried to death inside his sniper's den.
She should have kept a better eye on them. Massani could handle a little fire, but Garrus—
The monster's hum grew louder, vibrating inside her clenched teeth.
Fuck. Well, maybe she could handle a little fire, too.
If her Cerberus upgrades actually got them all out of this alive, she’d buy Lawson a very expensive drink. She holstered her gun, drew a deep breath, and took off running back the way she had came. Directly into the path of the Praetorian.
"Shepard!" Garrus yelped into her comm, at the same time Massani shouted "The hell are you thinking, you daft bitch?"
Lightning crackled around the creature's glowing eyes. She counted down the seconds as it swelled up— was it inhaling? Its mouth opened, a searing white. It was full of glowing skulls. She shook her head at the oddity. Fucking Collectors. The twin lasers touched down, fizzed against her shields. It felt odd, a little itchy, like pulling off a staticky sweater.
Her feet pounded against the earth. Her shields flickered and collapsed just as she ran underneath the monster's hovering body, ducking in between its segmented legs.
It couldn't shoot her through its own body, but it hummed and thrashed all around her. She didn't want to stick around to see whether those knife-edged limbs were just for show. Dimly, she heard Garrus's voice growling something untranslatable in her ear. A rifle cracked, then another. The Praetorian ignored them. The massive body slowly spun in place, sniffing her out. Static fizzed in the air.
There was a steel container a bit ahead and to her left. She sprinted towards it without a second thought.
Mistake. The Praetorian fired at her immediately.
The smell of burning plastic drifted up through her helmet. Her back felt hot. Really, really hot.
She'd miscalculated. The container was right there— but the thing was too close for her to stop, it was right behind her, she could feel it humming in her bones, the crackle of lightning as it charged up for another burst.
"Shepard!" Garrus's anguished voice.
"Idiot," barked Massani.
Her back seared. Massani was right, she was a daft bitch and an idiot, and now she was going to die an idiot's death. She felt her flesh bursting and bubbling, splitting open like rotten fruit.
Her breath stuttered out as her lungs depressurized. Horizon's grassy fields and purple skies fragmented into sparkling blackness. It felt gentle, familiar. Like falling into the stars. She tried to lift up her hand to touch one, but her arm— her arm wouldn't—
If I have to tear you apart, Shepard, I will.
"Fuck. Off." She hurled a vicious, desperate Warp into the Collector's fiery eyes. Its flesh shredded and flaked into ash. Garrus chuckled behind her.
She shot him an annoyed look, which he ignored. He crouched, sighted and fired in one smooth movement. Downfield, a drone's skull burst into fragments.
Nice, she thought. "Something funny, Vakarian?" was what came out of her mouth instead.
"You're in rare form today," he said, and slid in a fresh clip. "Usually you have to shoot them up a bit first."
"Yeah, well, I'm up to here with this stupid place," Shepard growled, tracing a line just below her eyebrows. "That glowy fucker's deliberately trying to piss me off. And it's working."
"Hmm," Garrus said, and executed another drone. She frowned and turned away.
She was tense. It was weird. Even when she was in the shit, she never felt— whatever she was feeling right now. Not nervous, but—
Massani splattered the last one with a quick burst of assault fire, then stood and stretched out the kinks in his back. "Clear."
Garrus scanned the field through his scope, looking for stragglers. The silence settled over her like a great itchy blanket.
Shepard fidgeted with her armor, poked around for fresh heat sinks. Checked her radar, then checked it again.
"Don't get cocky and wander off, now," Massani drawled. "Bet there's more coming."
"Bet you’re right," she muttered, eyes trained overhead, just waiting for the Praetorian to drop in on them.
She was already on the move by the time the two men saw it. "Scatter! Stay out of range!"
"Fucking christ," said Massani, running for cover.
I'm getting you this time, you four-eyed motherfucker, she thought, glaring up at the monstrosity.
"What the hell is that thing?" Garrus said, in horrified wonder. Shepard's stomach did a sharp twist.
What? He should know. Why didn't he know?
If he didn't know— why did she know?
"Let's kill it first, then we can form a committee to investigate," she heard herself retort.
Garrus clicked his jaw at her in what she had come to recognize as a turian noise of exasperation. (He clicked his jaw at her a lot.)
Had she said that to him last time? She couldn't remember.
Wait— wait. What the hell, "last time"? They'd never fought any Collectors before landing on Horizon. Something was messed up. Her brain was screwing with her.
Shepard shook her head. Fixing her screwed-up brain was a Lawson problem. Killing monsters, on the other hand, was a Shepard problem. She reached for her pistol.
The Praetorian hit hard, but god, was it dumb. Massani cackled as she coaxed it after her, leading it in slow spirals around and around the gun tower.
"Fine time to play Ring around the Rosie, Shepard. Weren't we here to save a colony or something?"
"Aww, Massani," she purred. "You feeling left out?"
"'Ring around the Rosie?'" Garrus repeated. She heard him exhale into the comm. His shot rang out a second later, striking between two of the monster’s glowing eyes.
"Children's playground game," she replied, ducking behind a container as the twin lasers scythed through the air. "Hey Massani. Less waxing goddamn nostalgic, more shooting your goddamn gun."
"Cerberus isn't paying me enough to put up with your sass." His bullet cracked into the creature.
She'd taken a few good shots where bits of her had popped out as she darted from cover to cover. At this point her toes were probably held on more with Medi-gel than skin and bone. A bit of her Carnifex had gotten melted before she could pull it away.
She was annoyed at herself for that. Taylor would be even more annoyed when she dumped it on him later.
But she was alive and mostly unharmed, playing dance partners with a terrifying floating Collector construct. Garrus was tucked safely away where he could do what he did best, and Massani was— well, Massani was being an ass. All in all, it could be going a lot worse.
She straightened up behind her cover, shook off the last of her weird attack of deja vu, and got ready to move. She had this.
If only it would stop that fucking humming.
"I think we’re getting close, Shepard," Garrus said. "It’s looking a little unsteady. I’ve got it lined up for an impact shot." He breathed out into her ear again, and his rifle cracked across the field.
A thump. The humming stopped. Shepard frowned and popped her head out, her pistol trained forward.
A shadow fell across her face. The creature reared up like a monstrous horse, its long, scythe-like legs unfolding around her, tips brushing against her shoulders. Its armored skin shimmered violet.
She shoved its legs away and scrambled back, firing desperately as she went.
It dropped down on her with the force of a bomb. Her skull rattled and her vision went black. Fucking hell, not again.
Time passed. She couldn’t tell how much. She was on the ground, and it was dark. Something wet and cool was running down her face. She reached up a hand to wipe it away. Her fingers squished into pools of gelatinous slime.
Oh. Those were her eyes.
"Shepard," Garrus said again in her ear, desperate. His voice was shaking.
It'll be okay, she tried to tell him, but her lungs had liquefied.
The humming started again, deafening, shaking her body down to her agonized bones. She heard alien joints whirr and click, felt her mangled nerves shrieking, as the monster unfolded itself and rose off of her.
Her ribcage splintered under its foot. Hot, sticky bubbles rose up in her throat, popped between her lips.
The humming grew fainter as the creature moved off, searching for her teammates.
I'm sorry. It'll be okay. I'll do better next time.
She flowed smoothly from cover to cover, drawing the monster after her in an effortless dance, slicing into it with her scavenged particle beam when she had the opportunity, keeping her head down when she didn't. She took zero chances, and wasted none at all.
"Shit," Massani said, reluctantly impressed.
Garrus's rifle flashed in the distance. "Shepard. Are you sure Cerberus didn't implant some kind of chip in your brain?"
She frowned, a little unnerved, as she slid behind a crate. "What? Why?"
"It's strange, watching you lead it around like that," he said, his voice low. "It's like you know what it’s going to do before it does."
She huffed. "Give me some credit, Vakarian. You don’t need mysterious powers to outsmart this thing. It’s just a dumb animal."
"Animal?" He made an amused-sounding clicking noise. "Shepard, it's got laser cannons mounted to its face."
She fired another white-hot burst from the Collector rifle and kept moving. "Okay, not an animal. Hybrid synthetic-organic abomination. With lasers. It's still dumb. I'm smarter."
"You're sexy as hell, is what you are," Massani rumbled. "Been a while since I saw anyone control a battlefield like that. I need a cigarette."
"Simmer down, Massani. This thing isn't dead yet."
She sidestepped a laser that got a little too close and jogged backwards, firing as she went.
"Shepard," murmured Garrus's voice in her ear as she slipped into cover. "It's looking unsteady again. Get some more distance. I'm taking a concussive shot."
Something twisted inside her at his words. Don't, she nearly cried out, flooded with the certainty that their world was about to shatter into pieces. Everything— the colony, the mission, their lives— hinged on this moment, this razor-edged precipice.
She hesitated only for an instant. As soon as she had noticed it, the premonition faded away. Garrus's plan was tactically sound. "Do it," she said, and turned and ran.
His rifle snapped. Her feet struck the earth, once, twice, and she felt a biotic pulse slam through her, throw her to the ground.
Shit— too close. She hauled herself upright and into cover. She’d miscalculated. Overconfident in her foot speed. She'd have to tell Massani off for swelling her ego.
Garrus spat out a word with a lot of evil-sounding consonants. "Shepard! Are you all right?"
"It's picking itself back up," Massani warned.
"I'm fine. Point me towards cover." She didn’t want to risk poking her head out to look.
"Stacked containers ahead to the north-east," Garrus replied. "Jump over the one right in front of you and you'll see it."
She took a deep, ragged breath. "I'm running in two seconds. Be ready to unload everything you've got."
That razor-edged feeling was back, and her heart was quaking in her chest. She was astonished to realize that she was absolutely fucking terrified. The firefight was still, all things considered, going pretty damn well. What the hell was wrong with her? She'd spent half her life in firefights. She had no time for this kind of bullshit.
The buzz of the lasers grew louder and louder.
She inhaled, then exhaled. The buzz cut out. She ran.
Behind cover, she trembled, gasping.
"Shepard?" Garrus's gentle voice in her ear. He’d heard her.
She straightened up, clenched her shaking hands into fists. Fuck this. Fuck her stupid brain trying to tell her she was going to fuck it all up. She knew exactly what she was doing. She was Commander fucking Shepard and she was here to murder the Collectors and there was no reason for this poisoned, leaden feeling in her chest, telling her she was making a horrible mistake.
That stupid creature was ninety-five percent dead, and she was here, kicking ass with a giant fucking gun, one hundred percent alive.
She stepped out into the open field and leveled her particle beam at the Praetorian.
She heard Garrus shout her name, as if from a great distance.
She felt her shields fizz and hiss and sputter out. Her armor bubbled and smoked. Whatever. She kept her finger on the trigger. She knew her math.
And if I’m wrong, the thought flashed past her and vanished faster than a blink, It’s fine. I’ll just do it better next time.
Three seconds later, the Praetorian had disintegrated into glowing embers, and Garrus was sprinting towards her, long legs carving up the distance between them. She grinned up at him, feeling oddly weightless.
The strange, cold fear had vanished. What had she been so afraid of? She couldn't remember anymore. It didn’t matter.
Garrus skidded to a halt in front of her, his hands hovering in mid-air— as if he wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her hard, but thought she might kill him if he tried. "Are you completely fucking insane— gave me eighteen separate heart attacks—"
She just beamed at him. She probably looked like a lunatic. She was fine with that.
He sighed and stopped, put a hand over his face. One baleful blue eye glared out at her from between his fingers. "...What the hell, Shepard."
Massani ambled up behind him, shouldering his rifle. "Daft bitch," he said, but it sounded like a compliment this time.
Then Kaidan stepped out. Her relieved, welcoming smile faded at the look on his face.
"I thought you were dead, Shepard. We all did."
I was, she opened her mouth to say, but the words stuck in her throat.
The cold fear had sunk its claws back into her heart. She felt dizzy, deoxygenated. Of course she did: her chest cavity had been crushed, her skull cracked open, her skin burnt black and peeling. She'd seen the wreckage on Alchera. She'd seen Lawson's notes.
She couldn't shake the feeling that she'd seen herself, only a few minutes ago, in multiple pieces strewn over the ground.
No one ever came back from the dead. She knew that. Virmire. Edolus. Akuze. She knew it very, very well.
She glanced away. Long, pale grass rustled and shivered in the wind. Clouds massed, low and dark, over the empty buildings. The air smelled like smoke and ozone.
If this was a hallucination, it was pretty thorough.
"It's been too long, Kaidan," she heard herself say, finally.
His face darkened. "Is that all you have to say for yourself? Two years and you just act like nothing’s happened?"
"What?" She raised her hand to her face. "No. Listen, I—"
—What? What else was there to say? She had no idea what the fuck was going on. As far as Shepard was concerned, nothing had happened. There'd been no one for it to happen to.
Who was this bitter, hard-edged man standing in front of her, anyway? She barely recognized him. It pissed her off.
She could tell Garrus was trying not to stare at her in appalled fascination as she floundered, burning bridges left and right.
Massani just lit up a cigar, watching them with open amusement.
Kaidan glanced away. "I loved you, Shepard."
Her heart ached for him, this handsome, furious stranger.
"Goddamnit," she muttered under her breath. "I’m sorry, Kaidan. I didn’t mean to leave you. I was—" No. "—It wasn’t my choice."
Then one of them, or both of them, brought up the ugly specter of Cerberus. It went downhill from there.
Her Kaidan would have tried to be logical, to understand, to draw her out, even if he didn't like what she had to say. He'd had that singularly rare combination of compassion and cool-headedness.
She'd— liked that about him.
New Kaidan apparently preferred to yell a lot and make sweeping generalizations.
New Kaidan stormed off. Her Kaidan lay dead and buried.
Garrus reached out a tentative hand and patted her arm.
Shepard looked up at the sky, blinking, wishing faintly that the Praetorian were still alive. Maybe if it killed her, she could start over again.