Mass Effect: Crux – 6: September’s Children

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2012 by danceswithronin

Think back, the days we laughed
we braved these bitter storms together
Brought to his knees he cried
but on his feet he died

Make it stop, let this end
eighteen years pushed to the ledge
It’s come to this, a weightless step
on the way down, singing…

It’s always darkest just before the dawn
so stay awake with me, let’s prove them wrong.

– “Make It Stop (September’s Children)”, Rise Against

Image

Jeff, why do you have to leave?

It’s my job. Somebody’s got to protect the illustrious and infamous Commander Shepard, right? Who better than her trusty pilot?

But I’m scared. I don’t want you to go.

Joker stared at the interface of the Normandy without seeing it. All he could see were sprawling plains and farmland under an arching blue sky, colonial houses popping up like mushrooms between the homesteads. His father sitting hunched at the kitchen table in his houserobe and slippers, flicking his finger idly over datapad news and drinking a cup of coffee as sunlight burned fog off the dawn fields. All he could hear was the sound of the dog’s wagging tail, smacking the base of the fridge, and the quiet incessant hum of the generators.

“Tiptree Station, this is the Normandy, do you read? Over.”

Kssssssssssssssssssssh.

“Tiptree Station, this is Normandy, does anybody read? Over.”

Kssssssssssssssssssssh.

“They are not going to answer, Jeff.”

Joker whirled on EDI where she sat in the co-pilot’s seat staring at him, suddenly furious with her unflappable calm and not knowing why. “I know that. Don’t you think I know?”

“Then why—”

“Because maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you’re wrong, ever think of that?” he snapped back, hating the way his voice sounded. How helpless, how useless his rage was hundreds of lightyears away from its source. Earth meant almost nothing to him, wasn’t anything but a planet he had seen in school vids growing up. It was not his home. His home was burning. But it wasn’t the homeworld, it was just some agricultural hamlet in the middle of Boonfuck Nebula…so nobody cared. Or so it seemed to him.

“I’m sorry, Jeff.”

Joker sighed, rubbing both hands over his face wearily. Shepard wasn’t the only one who was having nightmares lately. For months after Shepard was spaced, Joker had been plagued with terrible dreams of the Normandy going down. They always changed – in some of the dreams, the Normandy exploded around him, causing him to shoot upright in the dark, heart pounding against his rib cage like he would burst through his chest. In other dreams, he tried over and over again to grab Shepard’s hand, but he was never close enough. He didn’t wake from these as often, they only repeated like some terrible loop in his mind as he tossed and turned, but when he woke the next morning his pillow would be damp, as if he had cried in his sleep.

Those dreams had been replaced lately by fields of fire.

“No…I’m sorry, EDI. I’m just stressed out. I shouldn’t be taking it out on you. It’s not your fault.”

“I understand.”

“I mean—” Joker’s eyes flicked to the comm link with a sudden flash of paranoia. The last thing he needed to do was have a breakdown over the intercom. He looked back at EDI, her calm eyes. She was perfectly still, like a luminescent statue, waiting with inhuman patience for him to speak. Back when she first integrated into her body platform, those periods of stillness bothered him. Now he didn’t know how to feel. He loved so many things about her, but it was moments like this, when she sat like that – he could almost hear the whirring of gears in her mind as she looked at him in cool alien assessment, and he wondered how she could understand what he was feeling at all, outside of biological stress markers.

“Look, I know. I know, okay? But if they’re gon—dead, what is there left to fight for? I mean, great, we destroy the Reapers, awesome. Cupcakes and parades for everybody. But my home is fucking history. How can we ever win against something like this? Over seven hundred and fifty cycles before us, and not one of them stood a chance.

There were a few beats of silence before EDI got up and stood next to him. Her hand lighted gently on his shoulder. Neither one of them spoke.

“It’s going to be all right,” EDI said, her voice soft.

Joker shook his head, slowly. “Somehow…I don’t think so. Not this time.”

“You have to have faith in Shepard.”

“Yeah, well…you haven’t seen her die.”

~ ~ ~

Gabriella Daniels checked over the propulsion systems for the fifth time, doing built-in tests on the sensors, drive core, antigravity. She was already sure that everything was running at one hundred percent, but she could never resist verifying just one more time. For her, it was the equivalent of holding your breath driving over a bridge or kissing the roof of a car running a yellow light.

Donnelly leaned up against the opposite terminal, his arms crossed over his chest, watching her with bemused impatience. “So you do realize tha definition of insanity is doin’ tha same thing o’er and o’er, expectin’ different results? Adams and the others are already at the bridge.”

“We’re about to warp right into the middle of a war zone, Kenneth,” she replied, running her finger down the scan numbers one more time, scowling in concentration. “It doesn’t hurt anything to be careful. We might not get another chance to check.”

She started to run one last functional verification. She heard Donnelly walk over, and his warm weight was suddenly behind her, his arms around her waist, his lips against the back of her neck as he spoke, sending a shiver down her back.

“All systems are green, dove. Green as grass. We better get up to the bridge before Hackett comes on-board. I’ve never met him before, I want to see.”

She waved the terminal to idle, then turned around into his arms, staring up at his face.

“If you insist.”

Donnelly took her right hand in his, then slid his left one to her waist, rocking back and forth to the undulating sound of the drive core with a soft smile. “Oooo, look, they’re playin’ our song.”

Gabriella laughed, laying her cheek against his chest as they pantomimed a dance in the quiet.

“You know, Gabs…It’s not just your legs that are spectacular. Although I have to say, they are singularly fantastic. It’s you. Everything about you.”

Daniels wrapped her arm around him, drawing him close with a mischievous grin, her interlaced fingers tightening in his, his palm warm against hers. “You’re not just saying that ’cause it’s the end of the world?”

“Weeeell…not gonna say that dunnae factor in, but no. I should have said it a long time ago.”

“You wouldn’t rather spend your last day with an asari matriarch, the communications specialist, or a sexy robot, or—”

“Ack, Daniels, now yer just bein’ mean.” He moved his hand from her waist and tipped her chin up, looking into her eyes with solemn affection. “Nobody but you.”

She smiled up at him. “You really mean that.”

“Aye.”

Her smile faded, and she laid her head back down against his chest. “Kenneth…are you scared?”

“A’course I’m scared. Only a fool wouldn’t be. Mandy is a powerhouse, but against these things? There’s no way for us to be sure,” he replied, his voice a rumble against her chest. “But if anybody can do this, it’s Shepard. And Joker. That boy is not called the best pilot in tha Alliance Fleet for nothing.”

“And if we don’t make it?” she whispered.

“At least we know we’re not going to get dragged away by those things again, like we would if we were going planetside with Shep and the others,” Donnelly said, his voice suddenly rough with remembrance. “No, girl, if we go down in this one, it’ll just be a boom, flash, and nothing. But if you go, I go. I won’t let you go into the dark alone, Gabby.”

“Ken—”

“Hush, love. Be still a minute.”

They were.

Finally, Donnelly’s omni-tool beeped, breaking the silence, and he checked it. “That’s Adams. We better get moving.” He kissed her gently before breaking their embrace. “Let’s go. Don’t throw in the towel just yet. We have a lot of fight left in us still. We have a lot to fight for.”

Donnelly turned from her and started to walk to the elevators. When his back was turned, Daniels moved her hand down to the subtle swell of her belly, as if she could protect the secret there with the sheer force of her hope. She closed her eyes.

More than you know.

~ ~ ~

“Hey Esteban, you ready to go kick some serious ass?!”

James Vega was pumped. After checking his equipment one last time in preparation for the final drop, he spent a few moments shadowboxing in the cargo bay, waiting for Joker to summon all hands to the combat deck.

Cortez was doing a flight check on the Kodiak. “I wouldn’t be so excited if I were you, Vega,” he replied, hooking up a diagnostics kit with careful precision. “You saw what Earth looked like before we left. Can you imagine what it looks like now?”

James undercut an imaginary cannibal with his imaginary omni-blade, throwing in a roundhouse kick for good measure.

“Well that’s what we’re here for, yeah?” ‘Welcome to Earth.’ POW.”

Cortez dropped down onto a roller and slid under the shuttle’s chassis. “You guys just be careful, okay? I’m serious. I don’t want to have to go down there and pull your ass out of the fire.”

“Sure you wouldn’t enjoy that ese? You worry too much.”

Cortez snorted, and James saw his hand come out from beneath the shuttle to flip him the bird. “Oh, you’re funny. Such a wit. Why’d you ever become a jarhead? You should have gone into stand-up. And it’s not that I worry too much. It’s that you don’t worry at all.

Vega walked over and went down on his hands and knees next to the shuttle, coming down to eye level with Cortez, smirking. “Let’s just put it this way, Esteban. The day you have to switch over from flying space taxis to shooting stuff is the day when I’ll get worried.”

“I’m serious, James.”

“Me too, brother.” Vega reached his hand beneath the shuttle, and Cortez clasped it tightly. “I know if you’re there to back us up, we’ll get out of there.”

“You just better be sure that when I call for extraction, all of you guys get to the LZ. No man left behind.”

“Never.”

~ ~ ~

Shepard stood on the CIC, gazing down at the three-dimensional galaxy map which swirled there. Reaper-controlled systems circled the Sol system in an ominous spiral. More than she could count in a minute. She stared into the hologram, feeling her eyes sting with exhaustion, aware of the eyes of the crew on her. Her expression was neutral, but it was a mask. She held a scalding cup of coffee in both hands without drinking it.

The boy stood on the CIC beside her. He was barely tall enough to see the display, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t need to.

You know you’re never going to win. None of this will matter in the end.

“Shut up,” Shepard muttered.

“Shepard,” Garrus whispered, his voice low so as not to carry across the combat deck. A warning. She heard him come up behind her and let him take the mug of coffee from her hands to set it aside, turning over her palms. They were bright red – she hadn’t even noticed the ceramic was burning her.

“Are you okay?”

You couldn’t help me. You couldn’t help Thane. You couldn’t help Mordin. You can’t help anybody.

She sucked in a deep breath, then shook her head, as if brushing off the remnants of a bad dream. She closed her eyes, counted to ten, and then opened them again. The boy was still there, staring back at her in silent accusation. She glanced pointedly in another direction, pretending to be distracted by something on the display, then turned to look at Garrus. She smiled and hoped that it didn’t look as forced as it felt.

“As okay as I can be, I guess.”

Garrus didn’t look convinced. “Shepard, I—”

Suddenly, Joker’s voice came over the intercom. “Commander, you’ve got a priority message from Hackett, requesting to come aboard.”

“Permission granted,” Shepard said. She gave Garrus a world-weary, crooked smile and clapped him on the shoulder before moving her hand to his neck, laying her palm against it briefly as she looked up at him. Normally she didn’t go in for displays of public affection – a holdover from their time with Cerberus, when acknowledging their relationship made her uncomfortable even around her own crew – but there was no point in worrying about it now.

“There’s my cue. Coming?”

And then she was gone, pushing past him, the overhead lights glinting off of her armor as she went to meet Hackett at the docking station. The salutes of the crew as she passed almost gave Garrus whiplash to watch.

Garrus was not religious, but he bowed his head for a moment before he followed her, to whatever end waited for them.

Please…help us do this.

Mass Effect: Crux – 5: The Show Must Go On

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , on April 26, 2012 by danceswithronin

Empty spaces, what are we living
for? Abandoned places, I guess we
know the score…on and on, does
anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero, another mindless
crime, behind the curtain in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore?

- “The Show Must Go On”, Queen

Careful! Hold fire!”

Bailey was so focused on mowing down the group of Reapers advancing towards the phalanx of Citadel Defense officers across the Presidium commons that he almost didn’t see the small boy standing among the tables in front of Apollo’s Cafe. He jerked the muzzle of his assault rifle sharply down in his left, lifting his right fist upward. The gunfire on either side of him ceased immediately, except for Shiddef, who aimed carefully and fired two more shots. The head of the last husk in sight, which was crawling towards them, claws scrabbling at the ground, exploded in a shower of blood and bone.

Holding his rifle at the ready, Bailey loped forward across the Presidium with the sound of the others’ boots in his ears as they followed. He leapt over the corpses of Reapers and people alike, trying to keep from tripping over them without having to look too hard at the slain. The entire area seemed deserted except for the scattered dead, of all species. Bailey saw a couple of C-Sec officers as he passed by, their uniforms almost unrecognizable under the blood. He kept his eyes on the boy, willing himself not to look down and recognize who they were.

Boy! Hey, boy!”

The child, dark-haired, dressed in a white sweatshirt that was now splattered with dark maroon, was turned away from him, towards the entrance to the cafe proper. He did not move, or act as if he heard Bailey at all. He stood perfectly still with his hands held up to his ears, standing among the corpses.

After what seemed like an eternity, Bailey finally reached him, letting go of his rifle with one hand to reach down and turn the boy around.

The boy’s expression was completely blank, as if he was a doll instead of a human being, ice gray eyes empty as they stared back up at Bailey with indifference. He did not lower his hands from his ears. There was a dark patch on the front of his pants where he had wet himself. He could not have been older than six.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Bailey whispered, kneeling next to him, keeping a sharp ear out for approaching danger even as he came down to the boy’s level. “You’re okay, we’ve got you now.”

The boy didn’t answer. He stared through Bailey as if he wasn’t there at all.

There was a sudden burst of shattering glass, and Gaelan’s voice rose in a high scream. Xaleb’s voice rose behind Bailey, strident. “Hey Boss, we got Reapers!”

Bailey cast a quick glance over his shoulder and saw that another group of husks and cannibals had come barreling through the shattered glass of a storefront, gobbling inhuman screeches and roars. In the blink of an eye, two husks dragged Gaelan down, ripping and tearing. His men fired in unison, and Bailey thought it was a miracle they didn’t shoot Gaelan along with the husks crawling over him. At the sound of the renewed gunfire, the boy let out a heartbreaking keening whine and dropped to a rocking crouch on the ground, closing his eyes.

“Keep those ears covered kid.” Without further hesitation, Bailey holstered the rifle over his shoulder and scooped the boy up in a fireman’s carry, throwing the child over his left shoulder, holding him tightly, and drawing the pistol at his right side. He walked forward, aiming for headshots, feeling helpless rage well up in him as he looked into the twisted faces of the things. They were an abomination against the tranquil beauty of the ruined Presidium. Bailey found himself remembering having a sandwich on the park bench not two hundred yards from where he now stood in battle, looking out over the grand arching walls of the station, staring into the hologram of the sky, listening to the easy banter of the store clerks and—

Get off my colony you bastards!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, and put the beasts down, one after the other.

It seemed like an eternity, but it was only the span of a few minutes. When the wave of monsters was finally finished, the parting shots seemed to hang in the air, reverberating in the stillness. Gaelan was moaning on the ground next to the dead husks sprawled around him, holding his abdomen as it poured blood. Bailey saw the shiny coil of his lower intestine through Gaelan’s splayed fingers.

Shit.

Bailey set the kid down none-too-gently on the ground and dropped to his knees at Gaelan’s side, holstering his pistol – the boy simply collapsed on the ground like a sack of rags, curling into the fetal position. He put his bloodied thumb in his mouth.

“Hold on, Gale. Xaleb, carry him.”

“No,” Gaelan ground out between clenched teeth, his voice gasping. His eyes bored into Bailey’s, fervent. “You can’t lose the firepower. Just leave me a gun.”

“Fuck that,” Bailey snarled. “Xaleb, get him.” Xaleb started half a pace forward, then stopped, unsure of who to listen to.

No.” Gaelan grabbed the front of Bailey’s uniform in one fist, bringing Bailey’s face close to his. He grimaced with the effort. Bailey could smell death on his breath, the stink of spent adrenaline and failing organs. “No…no sir. You get that kid out of here. You can’t carry us both.”

Bailey gave a furious shake of his head. “No. I’m not going to leave you, son.”

“For now. Just for now…” Gaelan insisted, looking over Bailey’s shoulder at where his brothers in uniform stood helplessly watching. His eyes rolled back to Bailey’s face, wild. “For now…you get them out of here. Leave me a gun. Help me hole up. Then…if you can…come back.” His grip on Bailey’s uniform weakened, and he swallowed. “Please.”

“Okay. Goddamnit, okay.” Bailey shrugged the C-Sec officer’s arm over his shoulder, pulling him to his feet, and Xaleb moved beneath his other arm. Gaelan screamed at the effort, one loud piercing shriek that tore at Bailey’s heartstrings, almost making him change his mind and order Xaleb to grab him after all. Rivulets of bright arterial blood marked their path as they half-dragged, half-carried the wounded C-Sec officer to the door of the weapons store next to the one where the Reapers had burst through. Its glass front was still intact – a small miracle against the destruction that littered the Presidium walkway. The other officers followed and held the entrance, watching their flank. Fisato stayed outside to watch over the boy, without being asked.

Together, Bailey and Xaleb pushed open the door to the shop. All of the officers jumped as they heard a voice, loud in the dead silence. A cheerful, throaty female voice come over the intercom.

My name is Commander Shepard, and this is my favorite store on the Citadel.”

Amazingly, Gaelan let out a ragged laugh, then groaned. “Great. Perfect.”

Xaleb and Bailey carried him behind the counter. There were no bodies here. A watered-down drink and a splayed magazine sat on the counter, as if whoever had been tending the store left in the middle of their shift when the invasion began.

Bailey helped prop Gaelan up against the backside of the counter while Xaleb broke the glass countertop along the store’s side display and started removing boxes of thermal clips, storing them in the backpack he had grabbed from the C-Sec office for their extra ammo. He removed the clip from his heavy pistol and replaced it with a new one.

Bailey started to grab his medi-gel pack, but Gaelan grabbed his wrist. His fingers were slippery with blood as shook his head, his gaze never breaking.

“No, Commander.”

“You know, I’m sick of you boys telling me no, now,” Bailey said, his voice hoarse as a hot lump rose in his throat. He tried to sound angry. “First Tacori, and now you wanna get uppity too. If I want to give you medi-gel I’m damned well going to.”

Gaelan shook his head. “Save…it. Please.”

“Son-”

Please.”

“I…okay. Christ,” Bailey whispered.

Gaelan loosened his grip on Bailey’s wrist, leaning back against the counter, his eyes closed. “Good…man. Give me…give me a goddamned gun.”

Silently, Xaleb handed down the heavy pistol, and Bailey put it in Gaelan’s bloodslicked palm, curling the officer’s fingers around the trigger. Gaelan looked barely conscious enough to pull it. Sweat stood out on his forehead like opals in the store’s fluorescent lighting, and his eyelids fluttered. “Thanks. Now…get the hell out of here. Get that kid. Get—get all of ‘em.”

“We’re coming back for you, Gale. Do you understand that?” Bailey asked, his voice fierce. “Tell me you understand it. I’m not leaving until you do.”

Gaelan smiled weakly. “You’re…coming back, Commander. But first…you gotta go.”

“All right. Sit tight. Keep quiet.” Bailey said, standing up. Gaelan’s bloody handprint stood out on the front of his uniform like a brand. “We’ll be back as soon as we can.”

“Yes sir.”

Bailey took one of the thermal clips and refreshed his rifle, glancing at Xaleb. The other officer looked back at him, his expression troubled. “Okay. Let’s go.” He turned and walked out of the store, hearing Shepard’s insincere chirping voice at his back. Xaleb followed him out. The others looked at him expectantly. Bailey was struck suddenly with how young they all looked.

They’re not young at all, Bailey. You’re just getting way too old for this shit, his mind opined.

“Are we really just gonna leave him here, Commander? What about when those things come back?” Tuza said, looking back at the store with uncertainty. “Won’t they…I don’t know…smell his blood or something?”

Not if they come back…when.

Bailey reached down and picked up the little boy, throwing him over his shoulder again without ceremony. The boy didn’t make a sound now. “We’re coming back. But first we have to get this kid and all of those people trapped down in Purgatory out of here. T’loak and Epson aren’t going to be able to hold out forever.”

“I…yes sir.”

“Move out.”

Bailey started walking across the commons again, holding the boy tight with one arm and redrawing his pistol with the other. For a split second, he had the dreadful thought that the others wouldn’t follow him at all, that they would simply stand there and stare at his back as he walked away, appalled at his callous abandon of their brother. Then he heard their footsteps fall in behind his own, the methodical clicking of replaced clips.

He felt a chill as they crossed back across the commons, heading towards the apartment complex where the main elevator was. They passed a pair of Keepers dragging a mangled body as if it was so much trash to be carried to the incincerators, completely unperturbed.

The silence was eerie, almost more frightening than the cries of the reapers themselves. Bailey found himself hoping that the months of drills and public service announcements after the invasion of the geth – and more recently, the attempted Cerberus coup – had finally paid off, and that most of the people in the Presidium were already off-station in the evacuation shuttle pods that were scattered throughout the hubs of the Citadel’s major residential areas. But he knew it was equally likely that the silence was born of the harvest.

Please…please let the elevator be working, Bailey prayed, shifting the weight of the boy on his shoulder, which was beginning to ache. The thought of trying to fight their way through the dim stairwells on the backside of the Presidium made his guts roll.

They were in luck. The elevator doors opened without a hitch. They filed into the elevator, staring out onto what was left of the beacon of galactic civilization.

The elegant voice of the elevator’s VI spoke as if nothing was wrong. “Welcome, Commander Bailey. Which floor would you like?”

“Four.”

As you wish, Commander.”

Bailey tried to to pretend he didn’t hear the gunshot that came from the direction of the storefronts as the elevator doors slid closed, but he couldn’t.

Mass Effect: Crux – 4: Fight With Tools

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 24, 2012 by danceswithronin

Find that it is time to
breath, build, bend, and refine you
We sky tenants
give it all but won’t give up
Radio soul antennas
radio to lift spirits
Call sign commando
m.o. is independence
Scream till the walls fall,
dissolve all the limits.

- “Fight With Tools”, Flobots

Image

Tali’Zorah nar Rayya vas Normandy sat in the corner of the Normandy’s engine room, much as she had six months before, and two years before that. She sat close enough to feel the ever-present humming mass effect field energy radiating off of the drive core, which bathed her in a bright blue light that made her feel like she was underwater, staring up at the sun.

Even though as soon as she boarded, Shepard offered to set her up in one of the private rooms off the crew quarters on the third deck, or even in her own quarters, Tali declined politely, opting instead to sleep in Garrus’s old bunk in the forward battery since the turian had made a more or less permanent move into the prow where Shepard slept. It was a development that she found strange, and when she first heard, she felt a strange pang of what could only be envy…but in the end she couldn’t help but be happy for them. They were her friends, strong and idealistic and good, and if they were good for each other, that was good enough for her.

It wasn’t that she didn’t want to stay among the crew – they seemed like nice enough people – but they were not the crew of the Normandy that she knew.

That was the part that bothered her, more than anything else. So many things on the Normandy were the same, but different at the same time. As much as she had hated and distrusted Cerberus, when Shepard flew black and yellow, the Normandy was filled with aliens – the ship might have been operated mostly by human troopers, but the soldiers that Shepard trusted, the ones she wanted at her back, were the ones who were not.

Things were different now though. This crew was Alliance through and through – stiff, formal, courteous enough…but not friendly. The war had made everyone grim and distrustful. Tali quickly learned that the story of Gerrel firing on Shepard spread through the crew quickly, though she was sure it hadn’t spread from Shepard herself – the commander wasn’t one to hold a grudge. Shepard was the punch-and-forget type. Still, every time Tali saw one of the human crew looking at her for a few moments longer than necessary, she felt like they were replacing her face with his behind the mask. And then there was the eavesdropped hallway conversation she overheard where one of the crew was cursing over a lost augmented reality visor, and a joke was made about “quarian thieves”…

So one of the Admirals of the Migrant Fleet hid in the engine room, as she had what seemed like so many years before, when she was young and known as vas Neema instead of vas Normandy.

Chiktikka, who was hovering idly around the engine room casting golden shadows as she blipped and whirred, dropped down to face level with a chirp, speaking in her pleasant little-girl voice.“Tali’Zorah, you have an incoming communications link from the Rayya.”

Tali looked up from the datapad of fleet stats she had been studying, then stretched and stood. It wouldn’t do for whoever was on the other end of the line to see her crouched like a shy child in the floor. She smoothed the cloth of her helmet, then took a deep breath. “Okay, patch it through.”

Chiktikka cast a life-size communications VI. When the image came up and she saw who was on the other end of the line, she dropped her datapad in surprise, distantly hearing it clatter on the metal deck.

Kal!”

We’re all dead anyway…just make them pay for it.

The quarian marine stood before her, the hologram flickering. “In the flesh, ma’am,” Kal’Reegar responded smartly, snapping her a salute. “Well, not exactly the flesh, but you get the general idea.”

Tali leaned back against the railing and stared, listening to the steady hum of the Normandy’s drive core behind her, struggling for words. Her legs trembled with the sudden force of her relief, and only the thought of what Kal’Reegar would think of her if she displayed that kind of blatant weakness kept her from going to her knees in shock. The silence stretched out.

“…Ma’am?”

“I told you not to call me that,” Tali burst out, seeing Kal’Reegar flinch back in the hologram at the strident sound of her voice. Movements jerky with barely-withheld emotion, she leaned over to pick the datapad up, then suddenly brandished it at his image as if she would strike him with it like a puppy caught with a chewed shoe, were he actually standing before her. “The Alliance News Network said that you died on Palaven!”

He snorted. “Does Shepard believe everything she gets in her email? If she does, I have some lovely beachfront property on Haelstrom to sell her. Communications are spotty on Palaven, they can’t keep their intel lines open, that’s one of the reasons I was down there in the first place. In any case, rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. As you can see.”

Tali felt relief leak away and slowly be replaced with warm anger, filling her. Anger felt good, drove back the tears which were pricking at her eyes. “Damn it Kal, this isn’t funny. That message included a statement from the Primarch himself about it. How were we supposed to know any different?”

Kal’Reegar lowered his head slightly and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. “We were missing in action for four days. Lost our communications hub in mortar fire. I don’t blame the turians for thinking we were dead. I lost most of my men. Six guys just to suit ruptures. I had a breach myself, and barely made it out of there. I didn’t think I would, but we had a krogan melee squad catch our signal flare on radar. I’m sorry you were worried.”

She threw her free hand up in exasperation, resisting the urge to hurl the datapad across the room, glad for once to have the exosuit mask to hide her expression. “I wasn’t worried, you stupid bosh’tet, I was sad. They said you were dead. I thought you were gone…all of you…you were the only one left. And now all you can do is call me up like you never left at all, making stupid jokes. I never even got the chance to say goodbye, or be careful, or anything.”

“I’m sorry.”

Tali balled her hand into a fist. She never wanted so badly to throw herself around his neck and hug him. Tell him how glad she was that he was alive. But she was an Admiral. She couldn’t do that even if he was physically standing in front of her. So, instead: “I could strangle you.”

Kal’Reegar laughed quietly. “A marauder already tried that, ma’am. It didn’t take.”

“So what happened then?”

He shook his head. “We never would have made it without those krogan. The reapers had us pinned down, and I thought for sure that we weren’t going to make it. So when they said they were going to try and send in an evac, I told them not to bother. I’d already lost half my guys by then.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

“Admiral, I couldn’t ask them to sacrifice an entire platoon just trying to save six guys, two of which were probably so sick at that point they wouldn’t have made it out anyway. So I told them no. It’s called an executive decision,” he added, his voice soft.

She pointed a finger at him. “Don’t tell me about executive decisions.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Tali brought her hand up to her helmet as if she had developed a sudden migraine. This isn’t going how I wanted at all…I’m so happy he’s still alive. So why am I so angry?

“So…krogan?”

He nodded, visibly relieved at the change of topics. “Yeah. One minute I’m laid up against a wall in a busted satellite station, listening to a harvester trying to beat down the door and holding this delirious guy Tasi’s head in my lap, thinking, ‘Man, sure would have been nice to see the homeworld before I went down, wish the last thing I saw wasn’t going to be a turian recruitment poster’, and all of a sudden we hear someone yell, ‘For Tuchanka!’ outside. They mopped those reapers up in ten minutes, tops. Almost shot us when they burst in though. Sort of trigger-happy fellas.”

“Yes, I served with a couple of krogan on the Normandy. That sounds exactly like them,” Tali replied, wondering where Grunt and Wrex were now. Were they even still alive? She hoped so.

“Strange guys, but tough as hell,” Kal’Reegar went on. “Never met one up close before that day. Saw a couple of ‘em on my Pilgrimage when I passed through Omega, but steered clear. Anyway, they grabbed my men who were unconscious…or dead…and just threw them over their shoulders like they were nothing. The battlemaster – Drau Leto, he said his name was – pulled me up by one hand and said, ‘What are you bubble boys doing here? Don’t you know reapers eat quarians for breakfast?’ Cracked him up. They kept asking us if we were hungry, and laughing. I didn’t get it, really. Must be a lizard thing. We were hungry though. Too bad we couldn’t eat any of their rations, and didn’t have any of ours left. Finally got something when we got back to a turian FOB. They’re the ones that gave us a ride back to the Fleet. By then, the news had already gone out that we were all dead. You should have seen their faces when those krogan brought us in. You’d have thought they saw a pack of ghosts.”

“As far as we were all concerned, you were.”

“Yeah…I’m sorry about that, Admiral. Really. I thought that, once I got back to the Rayya, you would have been one of the first people informed. I was so busy trying to debrief and inform the families of the guys who didn’t make it, I didn’t even think to call you personally.”

Tali closed her eyes. She remembered having to do that for her fallen squad back on Haelstrom. Go to the parents of the slain, watch their mothers fall to their knees in distraught disbelief, their fathers cry. It was her responsibility as their leader, just as it was Kal’Reegar’s. She suddenly felt selfish for her expectations.

“No, I’m sorry, Kal. I’m sorry you had to go through all that. You barely make it out alive, on a mission that will have the whole Fleet calling you a hero, and all I can manage to do when I find out is snipe at you for not letting me know sooner. I know you had more important things to worry about.”

“Frankly, ma’am, I thought you had more important things to worry about than a grunt like me.”

“Maybe I do, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care what happens to you. Just because I’m an Admiral now doesn’t mean that I can suddenly start thinking of you as…I don’t know…some kind of pawn.”

Kal’Reegar looked to either side of him, as if checking to see if others were listening to their conversation, then looked back at the VI interface. “Hold on, Admiral. I’m moving this to someplace a little more private.” He reached down to push a button, and the interface went idle. After a few moments, he came back up on the VI. “Sorry, things were getting a little crowded. But back to what I was saying…pardon my insubordination, but that’s exactly what it means. We went out there to get that station back up, and we knew that there was a strong chance we weren’t coming home. Lots of us didn’t. But we’re marines, Tali. That’s what we do. So other people don’t have to.”

She sighed. “So I take it you would be insulted if I asked you not to take those kinds of missions anymore, and sent someone else in your place?”

She could hear the smile in his voice, even though she couldn’t see his face. “Highly insulted, ma’am. Outraged even.”

“And you can’t promise me you’ll be careful?”

“I don’t like breaking my promises. Especially to you.” He looked up again, then back at her. “I’ve got to go. Someone’s calling me, sounds important. I’ll call back, I have a battle strategy to discuss with you. I can tell you from the get-go, you’re really not going to like it, but I want you to listen to it with an open mind before you give me your answer. And don’t worry about me, Tali. I can handle things on my end, for better or worse. You just focus on doing what needs to be done. No matter what it takes. We’re all depending on you and Shepard to see this through.”

“Kal-”

The interface went dark.

“Goodbye,” Tali whispered. “Be careful.”

She took the front of her mask off and wiped her tears away quickly with one hand, waving the mask back and forth to defog it in the other.

“What are you doing?”

She let out a small exclamation of surprise at the sudden sound of a curt, accented voice behind her, and jerked around to face it. Javik was leaning in the doorway of the engine room with his legs and arms crossed, watching her with clinical, scowling interest. She thought he looked surprised to see her with her mask off, but it was hard to tell.

“So quarians are still attractive in this cycle after all. I am not surprised. Is that not dangerous for you to do?” he asked, his tone disdainful as he peered closer at her. He stepped forward. “Are you crying? …You are a military leader among your people. You should not cry.”

“Yes. No.” She sniffed, clipping her mask back into place and resetting the air filters, waving a dismissive hand at him in frustration. “Why, what business is it of yours? Did you come in here just to make fun of me?”

“No, not just. The Commander asked me to ‘grab you’ and bring you to the combat deck. I will assume that is a human figure of speech. I would rather not ‘grab you’, if it is all the same to you. I do not see your shotgun, but your drone is targeting me.”

“Stand down, Chiktikka,” Tali mumbled, turning away.

“What are you so upset about?” Javik asked, after a few beats of awkward silence.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Yes, I’m not a former commando from a race vastly superior to your own, who has seen the destruction of my entire species. What would I know about the stress of leading men into battle?” he replied without missing a beat, deadpan.

Tali turned back to him. “I…I’m sorry. That was rude of me. It’s just that I haven’t even been an Admiral for a year yet, and already they’re asking me to make the kinds of decisions that are going to get people killed. I don’t know if I can handle that. I don’t know how Shepard does it.”

Javik looked at her coldly. “It is your duty. If you were not capable of carrying it out, you should never have accepted the responsibility. Do not ask why, simply do what must be done. The Commander knows this. She would send you to your death against impossible odds without a second thought, and she has done it before. She is your friend…but she is a warrior first. You should emulate her in this regard. If you do not, none of your people will live to see the end of this war.”

The Prothean stepped forward and embraced her. It was brief and rough, but Tali forgave that. It was a gesture 50,000 years out of practice.

He drew back. “Now stop crying, and come. I would rather you not blubber if you’re going to walk beside me. I have a reputation to uphold.”

“I…can’t believe you just hugged me.”

“Hmph. Me either. Hugs were punishable by death in my cycle.”

Tali stopped and stared at him. Javik cast a jaded look back at her over his shoulder.

“That was a joke.”

Mass Effect: Crux – 3: Prayer of the Refugee

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2012 by danceswithronin

So open your eyes, child, let’s be on our way
broken windows and ashes are guiding the way
Keep quiet no longer, we’ll sing through the day
of the lives that we’ve lost, and the lives we’ve reclaimed.

- “Prayer of the Refugee”, Rise Against

Image

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph the hanar from Zakera.”

Commander Bailey felt the blood drain out of his face as he took in information from the terminal, watching as the different blocks that signified each sector of the Citadel on the screen went dark or red, a blinking exclamation point. He fought to keep his expression neutral, feeling the heavy gaze of the three dozen C-Sec officers which had managed to report back to headquarters bearing down on him, but it was damned hard not to show his dismay. Where are they all coming from? Every ward? They’ve breached every ward?

His omni-tool beeped, and he pressed the comlink button. The holographed face of Epson, one of his top lieutenants, popped up like a flickering ghost. Last time he checked the duty roster, it showed Epson as off-duty for the next two days. As such, Bailey had not been surprised that he was not one of the ones that showed up after the first wave of attacks, as Reapers poured in through every weak link in the Citadel’s chain of defense. He was surprised now.

“Epson, thank the Maker. What’s your status?” Bailey said.

The human C-Sec officer whispered into his comlink, as if he was hiding somewhere. His voice was almost hidden behind heavy static and the sound of someone screaming in the background. “Sir, we’re holed up in the storage warehouse in the backrooms of Purgatory with Aria T’loak. We’ve got a bunch of people from the club here with us, maybe fifty, maybe a hundred, I don’t know, it’s hard to tell. We’ve lost power. They already broke through our barricade at the front.”

“Casualties?” Bailey asked, afraid to hear the answer.

“It was a massacre, sir. We don’t have nearly enough firepower left to make it through, and it’s too dangerous to try and get this many people out anyway, they’re terrified. So we’re staying put for now. T’loak has been holding them off, and we have a few not-so-legally armed people in the crowd, but even Aria’s getting tired. I think…we’re running out of time. I know we’re running out of bullets. And they just keep coming. We’re locked up for now, but I hear them at the door.”

.damn. “Have you heard from anyone else?”

“No sir.”

“All right. Hang tight son, we’ll get someone down there to back you up. Keep me updated if you can. Help is on the way.”

Bailey stood up and steeled himself, running a hand through his hair before scowling at the Citadel Defense Force. Or what was left of it. “Alright, ladies and gentlemen, in case you haven’t noticed, the shit has officially hit the fan. So here’s the plan. Split up into teams of four and hit the Presidium, Purgatory, the docks, Huerta, and the embassy. Two teams per floor. Every else is divided between the wards. I want everyone to take a bag of backup clips and an alternate gun, too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be down to beating these things with a club.”

He turned to a tall turian with red facial markings at the front of the group, who kept looking anxiously at the desk terminal, his eyes reflecting the blinking red lights of the interface. “Tacori, I want you and King to secure the embassy and the Council.”

The turian raised his serious gaze to Bailey’s face, then shook his head. “Sir, let me lead a team to the refugee camp at the docks. It looks like most of the Reaper forces are coming in through there, and the civilians down there are defenseless. There’s this girl…she’s all alone down there. I promised that I would protect her.”

They promised they’d come get me, no matter what they had to do. But it’s been so long…

“Negative,” Bailey replied, scowling, pointing at the turian’s broad chest. “We don’t have time for this personal shit, Tacori. There are going to be a lot of dead little girls before everything is over if we don’t keep organized about this. You and Riath are the only ex-Blackwatch I got right now, and the best guns. I need you to secure the Council first and the Presidium second. We have to watch out for our own people. I hate to get grim, but it’s probably too late for most of ‘em down at the docks. Even if it’s not, I can’t throw away my best men on a suicide run. I’m sorry.”

“With all due respect, screw the Council, sir,” Tacori barked back, advancing on the C-Sec commander standing in front of him, mandibles working furiously. The turian towered over him by a foot and a half. “Those people down there have nothing left. I’m not going to let them die like animals just because the Council was too stupid to listen to Shepard. If they had, we wouldn’t even be in this mess to begin with. So let them protect themselves for a change.”

You picked a hell of a time, kid. “Goddamnit, we have to maintain order on this station. That means preserving the chain of command, no matter how we feel about the politicians. If this government falls, everything will be chaos whether we manage to save the Citadel or not, and right now that’s in considerable question. I gave you an order. I expect you to follow it. ”

The turian shook his head again. “I’m sorry sir, I can’t comply with that order. When this is all over, if I make it out, you can have my badge,” he replied, turning his back on the commander as he took his assault rifle down from his shoulder. “But I intend to keep my promise.”

He walked out of the C-Sec office. One of the other officers took his shoulder, meaning to stop him, but he shrugged it off roughly, the door sliding closed behind him.

“Do you want me to go get him?” King asked.

Bailey sighed, closed his eyes, and shook his head. “No, let ‘em go.” He looked up. “Zhush, Ico, Osmi, Riath, and Kiat…follow that fool. Make sure he doesn’t get his dumb ass killed, I might need him again before all of this is over. You guys get down there doubletime and see how bad the docks are. Kill all of those bastards that you can, and report back in by omni at 2145. If you run into more mess than you can handle down there, don’t be too stubborn to fall back. Save who you can, and leave the rest. King, take your team to the embassy apartments and get the Council to safety. Shouldn’t take more than a small team, they’re all bunched together. Whatever safety you can find. Bring them back here to the Spectre office and lock down there if you have to. Xaleb, Gaelan, Fisato, Olitax, Tuza and Shiddef, you’re with me. We’re going down to get those people in Purgatory.”

“Yes sir.”

The rest of the officers saluted Bailey, and he felt his heart sink, knowing from their expectant faces that they wanted more from him. Some heroic speech. But he wasn’t Shepard. Until Cerberus arrived on the station, he considered any day where he didn’t have to fish a krogan out of the Presidium fountains or stop a fistfight between visiting dignitaries to be a good day. Nothing had been the same since.

He felt a dozen cliched sentences come to his lips and fall away. He knew that they would ring false.

“I don’t know what to say, people. This is the big one. Be careful out there. God help us. Dismissed.”

~~~

Grwaaaaaaaaaaagh.

BOOM. BOOM. BOOM.

Kelly Chambers held her pistol at the closed door of the dock warehouse in E29, feeling her hands shake as she listened to the Reapers bellow and scrabble and shriek behind it. Behind her, a group of refugees – human, turian, and batarian – pressed themselves as far back against the far wall as they could manage, huddled masses staring in horror at the only thing that stood between them and a grisly death. Kelly could hear one of the batarians leading a prayer in a language that she couldn’t understand, his coarse voice barely registering over the terrified sobs of the people around him.

At either side of her, a few of the refugees who had guns were standing at the door as well. Waiting. It was already dented inward in a few places, reminding Kelly of the way a soda can looked when you crushed it in your hand.

What could do that? What could possibly be strong enough to do that? And how can we ever fight it?

A teenage girl was pressed behind her, hiding her face between Kelly’s shoulderblades. She could feel every cry vibrating against her, the girl’s hysterical sobs echoing in the small room. “Please…please don’t let them get us…please…please…”

Kelly heard her voice as if from a distance, preternaturally calm. “Don’t worry. We won’t let them through. I’m not going to let them get you.” Part of her was standing there in the heat and the dim shadows, sweat pouring down her face, the red laser point on her pistol one of the only sources of light, but part of her was back on the Normandy, listening to Hadley scream, watching her crewmates dragged away. Looking into the thing’s face, its glowing yellow eyes…that voice…its claws on her, dragging her away too, its grip pitiless.

Do not be afraid. This is your genetic destiny.

“Fuck that,” Kelly said under her breath, barely seeing the batarian standing next to her turn at the sound of her voice in the darkness.

GRARAAAGH.

Shepard. Think of Shepard. Shepard wouldn’t be afraid, and neither am I.

The girl clutched at her, shaking. “Please….please…I don’t want to die.”

It’s not the dying I’m worried about, it’s the getting dragged away, Kelly thought, and tightened her grip on the butt of the pistol.

Suddenly, there was a barrage of gunfire on the other side of the door, and shouting. The refugees trapped in E29 grew quiet and listened, but all noise was muffled, distorted by the sound of the warning sirens and the ringing aftermath of shots.

Something was scrabbling at the door again.

Stop or I’ll shoot!” Kelly screamed, realizing the absurdity of it. As if a Reaper would care, or answer.

Citadel Defense Force! The mechanism is jammed, we’re going to blow the door, please step back and turn your faces away!”

Kelly turned away from the door and moved back as far as she could, pressing the girl’s face to her chest and blocking the girl with her body as she felt the shockwave from the blast. She turned to see the orange glow of omni-tools as the C-Sec officers on the other side worked the door. It finally jerked back with a low groan, sliding halfway open.

The blonde girl clinging to her looked over Kelly’s shoulder with terrified apprehension, and then – remarkably – Kelly watched the girl’s face light up with delighted surprise as the officers began to press forward, shoving the doors even further open.

Tacori!”

Kelly turned and watched as the girl threw herself against one of the turian C-Sec officers with a force that looked like it should have tumbled him over, but it didn’t. The refugee girl threw her arms around his neck, pressing fervent kisses all over his face. He let out a rumbling, flanging laugh and hugged her tight with one arm, holding his rifle in the crook of the other. He was slathered with black blood and other unidentifiable fluids, but neither of them seemed to care.

“Hey girlie.”

The two of them moved to the side as the C-Sec officers ushered the rest of the refugees out, one of the officers in the back watching to make sure the group wasn’t flanked by another assault. Dead Reapers littered the ground at their feet, their faces twisted into a rictus of hate.

“I thought you were dead! There were so many of them, and we saw dead C-Sec everywhere, I thought…” The girl started crying again, hugging him like she would never let him go.

“Hey, hey…don’t do that.” Tacori looked down into her face, his hand pressed soothingly against her back as she held him. “I said I was going to come check in on you. I promised, didn’t I?”

“Thank you,” she whispered, burying her face against his chest.

Tacori looked over at Kelly Chambers when he noticed her watching them. “You okay?” he asked her, then glanced down and saw the pistol in her hand. He smiled, his head tilting with amusement. “You’re the one that yelled out at us. What was that? ‘Stop or I’ll shoot’?”

Kelly let out a shaky breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “Guess if you were a Reaper, it wouldn’t have mattered much, huh?”

“Yeah, well, still…that was pretty gutsy.”

“I learned from the best.”

Mass Effect: Crux – 2: Shine On

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , , , on April 21, 2012 by danceswithronin

Hold on, hold on
don’t be scared, you’ll never change what’s been and gone
May your smile shine on, don’t be scared
your destiny may keep you warm

‘Cause all of the stars have faded away
just try not to worry, you’ll see them someday
Take what you need, and be on your way
and stop crying your heart out…

- “Stop Crying Your Heart Out”, Leona Lewis

Shepard clipped down the last set of latches on her armor, then stepped back and held out her arms with derisive exaggeration. She had spent almost an hour buffing the scuffs and dents out of her armor with Zen-like concentration, and in the dim lights of her quarters it now seemed to glow with an inner light, every blip from the idle private terminals at  her desk blinking off of it like sparks of fire.

“So? How do I look?”

Garrus smiled a little at the tone in her voice – half cheerful, half exasperated, all exhausted. Even with her armor freshly repaired and her hair brushed until it framed her face in smooth shining waves, he couldn’t help but see the dark circles beneath her eyes, how pale she looked, the way her hands had trembled as she wielded the polish.

“Like you haven’t slept in three weeks.”

She scowled at him, and when she spoke again her voice was more exasperated and less cheerful. “Vakarian, I’m going to give you a protip and tell you that when a human female asks you, ‘How do I look?’,  honesty is completely optional.”

“In that case, you look amazing. Victorious. Uplifting. A paragon of loveliness and hope.”

“Thank you.” She sat down on the bed and rubbed her hands over her face.

Garrus started to walk over to her, trying to figure out what to say, but he was interrupted by a ping as someone requested entry. Garrus walked over and tapped the button, sliding the door open. Kaidan Alenko, outfitted for battle, managed a mild expression of surprise when he saw who was on the other side.

“Oh…Garrus. I didn’t know  you were here, I just came by to deliver a message to Shepard. I didn’t mean to interrupt anything. I should go.”

“No worries, you’re not interrupting anything,”  Shepard said, getting up off the bed to walk over to him. “I was just getting ready to dock with the  Muzyka. He said he wanted to board and I can’t meet with the admiral of the Fifth Fleet looking like I rolled out of a rachni nest five minutes ago. Bad for morale. You wanted to talk to me about something?”

Kaidan snorted softly. “No offense ma’am, but I think propriety is going to be the last thing he or anyone else is worried about right now. The reason I came is that Liara sent me by to ask you to meet her in your quarters on third deck. Something about a project?”

The beacon. “Yeah, I know what she’s talking about. I’ll meet her.” She put a hand on his shoulder. “How are you holding up, Kaidan?”

“As well as can be expected, I guess. Still haven’t got any news from my family in Vancouver. You saw what it was like there, Shepard.”

“Don’t worry, Alenko,” Garrus said, putting his hand on Kaidan’s other shoulder. “You’ll hear from them.” They stayed that way for a moment, and Shepard reflected on how long she had known both of them, since the very beginning. She remembered when Kaidan was just a nervous first lieutenant with a crush, Garrus when he was nothing more than a naive young police officer tangled in red tape. We’re grown up now, she thought, the sentiment raising a strange, poignant mix of pride and sadness in her. Everything we’ve done has been leading up to this. 

“The longer I live without hearing from them, the less I believe it,” Kaidan replied, his voice almost a whisper. “But thanks. Both of you.”

Garrus clapped his shoulder gruffly. “Yeah, well, what are friends for?”

Shepard let her hand fall away. “You better go check up on Joker and get an ETA on our meetup with the Fleets. I have to go check on Liara and make sure that everyone else is ready to go.”

“Aye aye, Commander.”

~~~

“You wanted to see me?”

Liara looked up from her desk when Garrus and Shepard walked into her office. Even under the circumstances, the archaeologist looked cool and elegant. She stood up to greet them. “Oh, Shepard. I was hoping you would have time to come down here before the Admiral boarded.”

“Yeah, Kaidan told me you needed me for a special ‘project’?” Shepard asked, with air quotes and a tired smile.

Liara smiled back, almost shy. “Yes, the beacon. I’ve already recorded everything that you’ve asked, and I know you said that you trusted me to make the call on your entry, but…I thought that you might want to record something personally. A final message, since we – you – might not get another chance. Is there anything you want to add? A speech for posterity?” Liara asked, a hopeful tone in her voice.

Garrus made an uneasy harrumphing sound, crossing his arms defensively over his breastplate. “I really don’t like this. It’s so morbid. Let’s save the eulogies for when we actually need them, shall we?”

Shepard glanced at him and put a hand on his arm, solemn and gentle. “Yeah, but if we don’t pull this thing off, there might not be anyone left to give a eulogy for us, Garrus.”

He softened, but his voice was still coarse when he answered, deadpan. “Inspiring. So what? You’re going to record it ahead of time? ‘I Shepard, galactic savior, do solemnly swear to bequeath my remains to Cerberus, my chess set to Samantha Traynor-’”

“That’s a will, not a eulogy.”

“Whatever.”

“Garrus…” Liara said.

He looked away from them both. “Your call Shepard. But this is unlucky.”

“We don’t need luck, we have big guns. That’s what I brought you for.” She turned to Liara. “What do I need to do?”

“Hold on.” Liara retrieved the gray box from where she was storing it on a shelf and set it in the center of the desk, pulling up the virtual holographic interface to activate it. “Just…stand in front of the beam – or sit, whichever makes you more comfortable – and say whatever you want to say. I’ll edit and finalize it after you’re done. It shouldn’t take long, I can have it ready before we descend.” She moved out of the way, and held her hand out to Shepard.

Taking a deep breath, Shepard sat down at the chair in front of Liara’s desk, the light of the beacon giving her face a bluish cast. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her thoughts, and then she spoke.

“This is Commander Shepard of the SSV Normandy, and the date is September 21st, Common Era 2186. In a few hours, the united military forces of the Milky Way’s sentient races will launch an assault in the Sol system against the synthetic race known as the Reapers. This scourge has ravaged our collective homeworlds. For weeks the skylines of Earth, Thessia, and Palaven have burned. Millions have died while we tried to gather a fleet of ships large enough to deal with the Reaper threat. I would give anything to bring them back, but I can’t. Many have lost their lives in this conflict – organics and synthetics alike. Many more will before the day is done. …The last five years of my life have built up to this one final fight. We go into this battle with the bitter knowledge that is no guarantee of victory, and we’re not kidding ourselves – there never was. For tens of thousands of years, the civilizations that came before us have fallen to this harvest, over and over again. Even our best efforts could still be for nothing. But whatever happens, those that follow us will remember that on this day, we all stood together. Those who were once enemies, now allied against this one common foe which threatens to utterly destroy us. We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we’ve always done what we thought was best.”

Shepard stopped, swallowing hard. She continued, fighting to keep her voice even.

“On a more personal note, I never would have made it this far without the crew of the Normandy. Not just my crew, but my best friends. Without them, I wouldn’t just be some no-name trooper, I would be dead. So let the galaxy forever remember the names of those who always stood fast to protect it, risking their lives again and again –   Dr. Liara T’soni, Dr. Mordin Solus, Garrus Vakarian, Spectre Kaidan Alenko, Gunnery Chief Ashley Williams, Admiral Tali’Zorah nar Rayya vas Normandy, Urdnot Wrex, Urdnot Grunt, Jacob Taylor, Thane Krios, Justicar Samara, the geth unit known as Legion, Zaeed Massani, Kasumi Goto, Jack, Javik, N7 James Vega, Lieutenant Steve Cortez, Flight Lieutenant Joker Moreau, and Miranda Lawson, who not only saved my life but brought me back from the dead. There are so many more I could name, so many who have brought us to this point and have fallen before us, but I don’t have time for them all. Just know that each and every one of them has made this possible. They are the real heroes, not me. Remember them. …Shepard out.”

Shepard pressed the button to end the recording and looked up. Liara was staring at her, silent tears coursing down her azure cheeks. Garrus looked stricken.

“Good enough?”

“I…yes.”

Shepard stood up and embraced her tightly. “Please don’t cry. I just wanted to say thanks, Liara. For everything.” She gazed into Garrus’s face over Liara’s shoulder. “I meant it all.” She cleared her throat, drawing back. “Right, well…we better get a move on. Still have to check up on everyone. You gonna be okay?”

Liara wiped at her eyes, giving Shepard a shaky smile. “Yes. And we’re the ones who should be thanking you.”

Shepard waved her off. “Save it. Just buy me a drink when all of this is over. I’m sure as hell going to need one.”

“When this is all over, you’ll never have to buy a drink again,” Garrus said.

“Well I guess that’s true, one way or the other.” She started out of Liara’s office.

“Shepard?”

She turned back to Liara.

“Please be careful.”

Shepard smiled. “Not in my job description.”

Garrus followed her out. Once the door closed behind them, he spoke quietly. “Shepard, if you die after dragging me all over the goddamned galaxy, I will never forgive you. I took a missile to the face and still had the courtesy to survive.”

“Duly noted.”

Mass Effect: Crux – 1: Hell on Heels

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , , , , on April 21, 2012 by danceswithronin

We’re for real about this shit…this is the remix.

Hope you niggas bought your ringside seats, ’cause it’s whoop-ass season.

- “Welcome To My Hood”, Evil Empire

“And so then I told him that if he didn’t give me the money, I was going to stick my foot so far up his ass-”

Aria T’loak closed her eyes and took a sip of her drink as she reclined on the couch in the VIP section of Purgatory, feeling the Hallex she took a half hour before pound through her bloodstream like pulses of sweet light as she listened to Grizz tell her a story she had already heard four times since they got to the Citadel. Not that she was counting. Hallex tended to do that to Grizz. He would recount every half-interesting battle story he could remember with unflappable, rambling enthusiasm. She didn’t have the heart to tell him to shut the hell up. He was such a sweetheart compared to the other thugs she ran with that it made her feel like an even bigger bitch than usual. He was a little soft, but that was one of the things she liked most about him.

Everything at the Citadel bored Aria though. Grizz told her a few days ago – carefully – that she wasn’t even giving it a chance, and maybe he had a point, but everything about it annoyed the everloving shit out of her. The Presidium, so perfect and monotonous. The embassy, filled with stuck-up paper tigers and cops who seemed dead set on making her vacation on the “beacon of galactic civilization” as miserable as possible.

The entire place was the antithesis of Omega, and some nights she missed it with a ferocity that surprised even her. As far as she was concerned, Purgatory was the only remotely bearable spot on the whole station, but the constant sight of off-duty C-Sec officers, gung-ho soldiers on shore leave, and Citadel university students pounding drinks like there was no tomorrow was wearing her nerves thin. It didn’t help that she was perfectly aware that the students were not wasting their opportunity – there might not be a tomorrow.

She missed the grumbling batarians, the mercs, the crowd at Afterlife that would poison or shoot you as soon as look at you. They might have been the biggest collection of scumbags in the Terminus Systems, but they were her scumbags. Part of her wanted to go down to the refugee docks and spend a little time with the shadier crowds, get a feel for home, but it bothered her to pass the giant memorial wall, thousands of pictures collaged together like a collective outcry of loss. She couldn’t stand looking at the shellshocked refugees, orphaned and wounded and lost.

She told herself it was because she hated the stink of the place, so many mostly-unwashed bodies packed in together, the stench of festering wounds and spent adrenaline. She really hated it because she knew that even with her pretty mixed drinks and her designer drugs and her comfortable settee in the bartenders’ quarters at Purgatory, she really wasn’t any different than they were at all.

Fucking. Stuck. So she took pills and drank until Grizz had to carry her back to her bed and paid the DJ to play anything she wanted, whenever she wanted, but underneath it all there was that darkness. Waiting.

Aria was brooding on this cheerful thought with her eyes closed and a cold drink in her hand, letting Grizz’s repetitive, soothing words wash over her with comfortable normalcy – she almost could have been back in Afterlife, if she pretended hard enough - when a female turian suddenly burst through the entrance of Purgatory, screaming. It was a sound that Aria heard even with the techno music pounding at a deafening volume, and she turned towards the doorway with elegant eyebrows raised. There was no way to ignore it; that strange keening noise – halfway between a bullet pinging off metal and a hawk’s cry – was full of unadulterated terror. In her peripheral vision, Aria saw several dancers stop and turn to gawk, their faces ghostly in the strobe lights.

“Reapers! The Reapers!”

The music cut off, and the frightened whispers rose like a wave. Sensing the crowd on the edge of a panic, Aria glared at the DJ, yelling across the bar with all of the authority she could muster. “Bellac! Turn that shit back on!” The turian DJ looked at her for a moment with open incredulity, then did as he was told. He was a quick learner.

Aria didn’t believe the turian’s story as she sighed and got up off the couch in a languid slide to go talk to her. Obviously a Palaven refugee, the turian possessed that damned look common with most of the refugees down in the holding docks, their eyes glassy and horrified, as if they could not forget the sight of the terrible things which had doomed their homeworlds. To Aria they all looked like animals trapped on a highway median, paralyzed with fear. It wasn’t the first time since she came to the Citadel that she had seen one of them snap, mind broken. Grizz stood with her, and they exchanged a knowing look. Some of the dancers were already looking away, jaded to the chaos that had been gradually building up on the station over the past few weeks.

“Please, you’ve got to listen to me, they’re coming!”

Aria approached the raving female with Grizz at her right side. She could almost feel the sympathy radiating off of him for his fellow turian, but he said nothing and let her take the lead with unconscious devotion – it was one of his many redeeming qualities. A large part of her was exasperated with the refugee – with all of them, gods how she missed Omega - but there was no way to look into that stark unseeing fright and not feel some kind of compassion. As helpless and angry as they sometimes made her feel, she knew some of these people were her people, too, fleeing from Cerberus to one of the only safe havens left.

She kept her voice smooth and low. “What are you talking ab-”

A bellowing roar erupted from the front of the club. Aria felt it as much as she heard it, the sensation of standing too close to speakers with the bass turned all the way up, reverberating in her chest. The turian screamed again and covered her face, the sound a surreal treble counterpoint.

“What the fuck was that?” Grizz whispered.

Aria narrowed her eyes, pulling her pistol. “Something that got off on the wrong floor.” She glanced back at the female turian. “Get to the back of the club. Now. Everyone, move back!”

Almost before she could get the words out of her mouth, a monstrosity exploded through the doorway of Purgatory, something that was such an affront to the senses it hurt her to look at it. She could only catch a sense of what it looked like, though the Hallex brought each glimpse of the thing to her in hellish detail - great swathes of gleaming armor stippled with gore, metallic tubing, two-foot talons, eyes that burned in the bulk of its gigantic frame like living flame.

In one giant claw it held a salarian…or half of one, green blood pattering on the dance floor like rain and trails of purple intestine swinging as the thing moved forward in great lurching steps. It roared again and threw the corpse it was clutching at the back wall of the dance floor, where it knocked an unfortunate breakdancer cold and hit the wall with a boneshattering crunch that Aria could hear over the music. The salarian’s blood glowed ultraviolet, like an abstract painting. The strobe lights made the monstrosity look like it was moving in stop motion, something from a nightmare. It was slow, but it was coming. The crowd on the lower dance floor erupted into screams, and on hearing the shrill sound, the beast advanced towards them.

Without thinking, Aria aimed and shot at its back, putting three rounds in it. The warp ammo did no damage that she could see – she might as well have been shooting a brick wall.

“Hey big boy! Why don’t you come over here and pick on someone your own size!?”

The creature turned on her with a snuffling snarl and roared again. Suddenly it was moving, faster than she thought possible – how could something so big move so quickly? – and she felt the wind of its rush past her as she threw herself to the side, feeling the vibrations of its feet as they stomped past her face. Somewhere she could hear Grizz yelling her name, and the deafening boom of a shotgun blast.

She looked up in time to see him unload the shotgun at the beast again, distracting it, but it raised its claw and swept forward in a terrible arc. The claw smashed into him and sending the turian tumbling into the wall like a rag doll, his Eviscerator clattering across the floor with the barrel still smoking. Clubbers clawed and stampeded to the far corners of Purgatory in blind terror.

Aria scrambled to her feet, teeth beared in an unknowing snarl back at the beast, her body beginning to glow with a cold blue light as she turned to the brute.

“I know you did not just charge at me.”

She ran forward, feeling the biotic energy surge through her like a telekinetic rage-fueled tsunami. She lowered her shoulder and hit the reaper in the chest at full force, blinded by a nova of cobalt light that erupted and made the entire bar blaze. The beast went flying twenty feet, landing on the end of the smooth metal bar and sliding down it in a move that would have been comical under any other circumstances; it sent the glasses perched there flying in a cacophony of shattering glass. The reaper fell behind the bar with a thud that knocked the shelves off the wall, the dozens of bottles of liquor exploding as they hit the floor. It didn’t get back up.

Somewhere on the edge of her perception Aria could hear other things beyond Purgatory, over the sound of still-screaming mob, rasping growls and distant gunshots, but for a moment those things didn’t matter.

She ran to where Grizz was crumpled on the floor next to a table and kneeled beside him. He was trying to breathe, but dark blue blood spilled out from between his fingers at his torn throat where the beast’s claw savaged him, running in rivulets down the sides of his fringe as he choked on it. Aria held her hand over his, trying to hold the blood in, but when his eyes met hers with feverish intensity, she saw that he already knew.

“Damn it, Grizz,” she whispered, feeling his blood warm against her palm, his life spilling away. She felt hot tears prick at her eyes, unbidden, and blinked them away. “Hold on. That’s a fucking order.”

The turian did not answer, only convulsed, issuing that hissing, drowning gasp, feet beating a tattoo on the floor, his hand coming up to squeeze her arm hard enough to leave bruises. Aria looked up at a trio of off-duty C-Sec officers on the edge of the dance floor who had drawn their sidearms and were looking back and forth between her and the doorway with blatant bewilderment. The entire battle took less than two minutes.

More reapers came through the entrance now, smaller ones, some new kind of half-human, half-synthetic horror that stumbled towards her like the dead animated by some cruel puppeteer, eyes glowing. She raised her pistol and took them out with three headshots, then whipped her gaze back at the C-Sec officers.

“For fucks’ sake, are you going to stand there holding your dicks all night or are you going to help me?! I can’t shoot them all!”

Somehow her words broke the spell of shock that had come over them, and they moved into a protective formation in front of the crowd, raising their guns towards the entrance. Aria felt the grip on her arm relax and looked back down to see that Grizz’s eyes were flat and empty.

She took her hand away and wiped it on her pants as she heard a weak growl issue from behind the bar where she’d thrown the brute. She glanced in the direction of the noise, then reached down and grabbed her bodyguard’s shotgun. She reloaded as she walked across the room, and when the thing lifted its head above the edge, she was holding the barrel a foot away from its face.

She pulled the trigger and the reaper’s head exploded in a cloud of black gore. It slumped back behind the bar among the broken bottles.

“Tell your friends, you son of a bitch.”

Aria looked back at the C-Sec officers, seeing that some uniformed soldiers had joined them now, forming a line in front of the unarmed crowd. She gestured towards the entrance with the barrel of the shotgun, speaking with an authority that only came from being the pirate queen of the Terminus Systems. It was a voice that did not allow for argument.

“We need to barricade that and collect any confiscated weapons from behind the front desk. Get some tables to bar the doorway and keep more of those bastards from getting in. Move your asses if you want to keep them.”

They got moving.

Aria took a last glance at Grizz’s body, then set the warm shotgun down on the bar and loaded another thermal clip into her pistol, keeping a careful eye on the door.

So much for a safe haven.

Mass Effect: Crux – Prologue: The Space Between Stars

Posted in Fiction, Mass Effect: Crux, Retcon with tags , , on April 19, 2012 by danceswithronin

Mass Effect: Crux - Prologue: The Space Between Stars
Rated: M [for language, violence, death (maybe major character death), gore, adult themes in general]
Category: Ending Retcon, Indoctrination Theory
Pairings: femShep/Garrus, various

Foreword: I hated the end of Mass Effect 3, so I’m fixing it. This fic begins on the flight to Earth and continues on through the final conflict. It’s going to be fairly large and encompass a *lot* of different POVs. Please post suggestions and comments here or on the parent thread at Reddit – http://www.reddit.com/r/masseffect/comments/sh43m/project_retcon_mass_effect_crux/

Dedicated to Casey Hudson, Mac Walters, the wonderful staff at Bioware, and the wonderful fandom at r/masseffect. Inspired by the fanart illustrations of ghostfire at Deviantart.

And now that I’m stronger I’ve figured out
How this world turns cold and breaks through my soul
And I know, I’ll find deep inside me I can be the one

I will never let you fall
I’ll stand up with you forever
I’ll be there for you through it all
Even if saving you sends me to Heaven…

- “Your Guardian Angel”, Red Jumpsuit Apparatus

Shepard, you cannot stop us.

She woke with a silent start, hands clutching convulsively at the blankets. For a moment she could swear that she was back at the Cerberus base, her nose filled with the stench of antiseptic and her own raw exposed meat, chained by IVs, with Miranda and Wilson’s panicked voices in her ears. I was dead, she thought, suddenly chilled to her core. I was at peace. But they brought me back.  They couldn’t just let me sleep. That made her remember floating in space with the burning ruins of the Normandy reflected in her visor, her last conscious memory of the saliva on her tongue beginning to boil before she passed out in the frigid black, the hissing of her ruined airline in her ears. She turned to the left, reaching out in a darkness broken only by the glittering, indifferent galaxy overhead, but the other half of the bed was empty, the covers thrown back. She was alone.

There was  a rustle of movement from the corner of the room, and that’s when she saw him. The boy.

He didn’t look like he had in her dream in the burning woods, his skin peeling back in strips of greasy ash, his pale eyes reflecting fire. He was crouched in the shadows with his arms around his knees, swallowed up by the gray hoodie he was wearing the day he died, staring up at her from beneath the dark fringe of his bangs. His gaze was as ancient as the space between stars. Shepard wondered whether that was the look you got from witnessing your own death, and whether her own eyes reflected that same terrible knowing.

She felt the urge to scream for Garrus and bring him running, or cover up her head with the blanket like she did when she was a spooked kid, frightened by shadows and cracked closet doors that swung open of their own accord in the dead of night. Maybe if she hid her face and closed her eyes, counted to ten slowly, she would look again and the boy would be gone. But she was more afraid that if she did and opened her eyes, he wouldn’t be in the corner anymore, but at the foot of the bed. Or right beside her, his cold fingers reaching out to touch her face. She would scream then, would not be able to help herself, and once she started screaming she didn’t think she would be able to stop. Then they would all know what she had already known for weeks.

Instead of screaming, she spoke, her voice flat and harsh with fear in her own ears. “Go the hell away.”

The boy didn’t look frightened, not like he had when he was hiding in the ventilation shaft. He smiled at her knowingly, as if the two of them shared a secret.

Shepard grabbed her Carnifex from the nightstand, flicking the safety off as she pointed it at him. Normally the safety wouldn’t have even been activated in the first place, but when he slept in the bed with her, Garrus insisted. Wouldn’t want you accidentally setting it off in the heat of the moment. When it comes to holes in my face, I don’t need a matching set.

The boy laughed at her silently, the expression exaggerated and gruesome, revealing pearly white baby teeth in a savage grin. He didn’t speak, but his eyes danced with malicious amusement, and it seemed like she could hear his thoughts. Go ahead, Commander. They won’t think you’re insane at all if you start shooting at random shadows.

“What do you want? What do you want from me?” Shepard could hear her voice rising, but she didn’t care.

The door to her quarters slid open, and on instinct Shepard swung the barrel of the pistol in its direction, her eyes wild. Garrus walked in without turning the lights on. Her sight had adjusted to the darkness, and she could see the small movement of his mandibles flare in surprise as he froze in the doorway.

“Who are you talking to?” he asked, his voice a quiet rumble. Shepard could hear the careful concern in it and lowered her weapon, forcing her arm to come down, the sinews in it trembling.  She glanced over in the corner again, but if the boy had ever been there, he was gone now. She brought her free hand across her face and closed her eyes as she heard Garrus move forward again in a whisper of rustled cloth and clicking talons to set the carafe he was carrying on the opposite nightstand. She didn’t open her eyes again until she felt him pull the gun gently from her shaking, white-knuckled hand.

“See why we leave the safety on?” he said, trying to make a joke out of the situation as he replaced the safety and reached over her to put the heavy pistol back in its customary place. When she didn’t laugh or make a smartass remark in response, he moved closer to her in the dark, sliding under the covers and reaching over to take the hand which had been holding the gun in his. They stayed that way for a few moments.

“Where did you go?” Shepard asked finally, pulling her hand down from her face and looking over at him. The expression on her face was haunted.

“To get some iced water from the galley and bring it back up here. I was thirsty. Got stopped by Vega on the way and had a quick drink with him. He insisted. Looks like a lot of the crew are taking their chance for a last hurrah.” His easy voice, trying so hard to be nonchalant, rushed over the silence in a ramble, trying to fill it. He put his free arm around her naked shoulders and Shepard turned to him, wrapping her arms around his chest and burying her face against his neck, stopping his words. He held her and felt her warm tears wet his skin with mounting dread. Shepard never cried. So Garrus shut up for a minute and let her.

After her body relaxed against him and the tension went out of her in a watery exhalation, Garrus repeated his question. “Who were you talking to?”

“You know that boy I told you about, in Vancouver.”

“The one at the embassy. I remember.”

Shepard leaned back, wiping the tears from her face fiercely, as if punishing herself for shedding them. “I wanted to save him so bad, Garrus. I thought, ‘If I can just get this one out, maybe it’ll mean something. Maybe it’ll make up for a small part of everything else.’ But when I spoke to him, Anderson…didn’t say anything. He was right there in the room with me and it’s like he didn’t even notice. I didn’t think much of it at the time, everything was chaos, the place was falling down around our fucking heads…but then the soldiers on the transport did the same thing. They looked straight through him. Like he wasn’t even there.”

Garrus settled back against the headboard, propped up by pillows. “What are you saying?”

Her voice was barely a whisper in the dark when she answered. “I don’t think he was real. But I still dream about him. And now, I see him when I’m awake, too. All the time.”

Garrus was silent. Shepard let the quiet spin out for a few moments before she elbowed him gently. When she spoke her voice was not quite steady, and her breath hitched. “Say something, jackass. I think I’m going crazy and the awkward silence is not helping.”

“Hmm. You were always crazy, Shepard.”

“If you’re trying to be comforting, you’re doing a bang-up job.”

He sighed, taking her hand in his and squeezing it. “Look, I’m not going to say hearing you say that doesn’t worry me. It does. But you’ve been through a lot. People deal with grief in different ways. You know, I wouldn’t trust you if you weren’t bolted a little loose at this point in the game. The fact that you’re questioning yourself at all is the strongest evidence for your sanity I’ve seen yet. I know you think you’re a superhero, and it doesn’t help that people go around treating you that way, but you’re not. You’re a mere mortal like the rest of us.”

Shepard shook her head. “No, there’s more to it than that. It’s like…when you see something out of the corner of your eye, and you turn to look, but it’s already gone. It’s like the cipher on Eden Prime. A warning, but nothing I can understand.”

“Have you mentioned this to Liara? Or Chakwas?” he suggested, his tone strangely delicate.

She let out a bitter laugh that sounded like it wanted to be a sob. “No, and don’t you dare breathe a word about it, either. The last thing I need before this shit goes down is the rumor going around that I’m a beer short of a six-pack.”

Garrus scowled slightly, then gave her a rough side-hug. “You know they wouldn’t tell anyone. Give us all a little credit, Shepard. We’ve been with you from the beginning, and after everything that’s happened, we’re still here.”

“I know. Still, I don’t want them to know. I didn’t want you to know either. But it’s getting worse. I had to tell someone, in case-”

Garrus turned and took Shepard’s face in his hands, bringing his own closer, his blue eyes boring into hers with somber ferocity. “Listen to me very carefully, because I hate to repeat myself. There is nothing you can’t tell me. Do you get that? Spirits, Shepard, you’ve seen me naked and with half of my face blown off. I don’t think there are many barriers left in our relationship at this point.”

Shepard reached up and put her hand over one of his. “Still doesn’t mean I want you to see me shaking apart. So many people depend on us.”

“Even more of a reason why you need someone to confide in. No one said you had to be invincible.”

She drew back and crossed her arms over her bare chest, leaning back. “Yeah, well, it’s implied. If we come so far, only to fail now…right at the end…none of our sacrifices will have mattered.”

“Sometimes it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey you took to get there.” He leaned forward, the flanging tones of his voice soft in the shell of her ear. “For what it’s worth, if this was always going to be a one-way trip, there’s no one I’d rather take it with than you. And we put up one hell of a fight.”

“If we get down there and something happens-”

Garrus put one finger gently to Shepard’s lips. “Don’t finish that thought. Turians consider these kinds of conversations before battle to be the worst kind of luck. Don’t let the hardass exteriors fool you, we’re sort of a superstitious lot.”

She took his hand from her face and held it. “Let me finish. If we get down there and I start acting…strange…not myself…I expect you to do what needs to be done. If you have to put me down to protect this mission, I want your word – your solemn oath – that you won’t hesitate. That you’ll see it done.”

Garrus lowered his head, his eyes looking away from hers. “I…That’s asking a lot.”

She squeezed his hand and put her other to his cheek, turning his face to meet her gaze. Her eyes, still bright with tears, were resolute. “That’s why I’m asking you, and not someone else.”

“Well if you start talking about how you think we can control the Reapers or how we’d all be a lot better off calculating pi for the Overlord, I’ll be sure to give your ass a swift kick back to reality. But if you’re asking me to kill you, Shepard, I’m not sure that’s a promise I can keep.”

Shepard gave a wan, crooked grin, the one that made Garrus weak in the knees the first time she had – in typical no-nonsense fashion – revealed her attraction to him. “Because you love me too much?”

“Well that, and on a more practical point, well…let’s just say that if you and I were to ever go toe-to-toe, I don’t hold many illusions about who would come out on top.”

Her smile widened. “I don’t know about that. You are the best shot on the Citadel.”

Playfully, he pushed her down and leaned over her. “Shepard, there is no wind on the Citadel. I’d never beat you in anything but a danceoff.”

“Ouch, that’s a low blow.”

He leaned closer, his voice a teasing growl. “What can I say? We turians have natural rhythm.”

“You can say that again.”

He rolled to the side and curled up beside her, embracing her in the strong band of his arms, and she leaned into him with palpable gratitude, her cheek against the plates of his chest . They looked up, watching the vast expanse of wheeling stars.

After a few moments of silence which were not awkward at all, Garrus spoke again, his voice a low rumble. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I hope so. Hope is all we have left. That and a huge superweapon that no one understands how to use. But I’m tired, Garrus. This has to end…one way or the other. We can’t fight forever.”

“We won’t have to,” he answered, all warm confidence. “We are going to go down there and do what we do best, and when it’s all over we’ll sit on our laurels and be damned entitled to it.”

“I want to believe you. So much.”

He hugged her, pressing his forehead to hers. “Don’t want it, just do it. Now that we have that settled, close your eyes. Going to be hard to shoot reapers when you’re out on your feet. And no more bad dreams. I’ll watch over you until you’re asleep. I’m not going anywhere. I promise. If I see any little ghost boys, I will shoot them in the face on your behalf.”

She kissed the scarred side of his face, her lips warm against his skin, and then did as he asked, closing her eyes and laying her cheek against his neck, her arms around his chest.

Even after her breathing smoothed into a steady, deep rhythm, her body molded against his like it was made to fit there, Garrus did not sleep. He stared into the shadows for a long time, his gaze troubled in the starlight.

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