|Hearts and Minds
Author: R-I-C-A-R-D PM
A loosely connected series of scenes exploring the relationships between Commander Shepard and her Cerberus 'allies' from varying perspectives.Rated: Fiction T - English - Shepard (F) - Chapters: 14 - Words: 40,682 - Reviews: 35 - Favs: 43 - Follows: 36 - Updated: 06-18-10 - Published: 02-20-10 - Status: Complete - id: 5763716
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The attack was sudden and unexpected and the Cerberus crew was caught off guard. Alarm klaxons blared, scrambling the crew to red-alert status. It would not be enough. Eerily calm amidst the chaos gripping the Normandy, EDI's voice cut through the confused babble of the crew. "We are under attack. Collectors have boarded. All crewmen are ordered to arm themselves and assume defensive postures."
On the edge of hysteria, Kelly half-expected the AI to add That is all. For several precious moments, the yeoman stood by her station, unable to move. Crewmen raced past her, jostling her as they ran for the armory. Hadley paused long enough to grab her shoulders and shake her. "Come on!" he yelled into her face, "The Collectors are boarding and I ain't winding up like half of Horizon! Move!" Grabbing Kelly by the elbow, Hadley propelled the young woman to the armory.
Eyes wide, Kelly attempted to suppress the keening in her mind. Moving quickly, Hadley grabbed a rifle, stuffed thermal clips into his pockets until they bulged almost comically and pressed a Tempest machine-pistol into Kelly's hands. Though her hands shook and her face was ashen with fright, the yeoman took the weapon and felt calmer as she methodically inserted an ammunition block and thermal clip into it. While Kelly would never win any awards for her marksmanship, now that she was armed she felt slightly more in control of her own fate.
Nerves singing with tension and adrenaline, Kelly's senses seemed heightened - sounds were crisper, colours sharper, her immediate surroundings more defined. Kelly's palms felt damp and she took a moment to wipe them dry on her clothing before once more gripping the SMG. From beyond the closed doors leading to the armory, Kelly heard muted shouts from the crew, screams of pure terror and the chatter of gunfire. Moving slowly, Hadley and Kelly left the room and the sounds of combat amplified. From the tech lab came a long burst of full-auto fire then a pained shriek as something untoward befell the shooter.
Kelly gulped, feeling the rapid beat of her pulse in her throat. Voice shaky, she asked Hadley in low tones, "Are we going to die?"
Hadley turned his face towards hers and she saw grim fear in the taut lines there. Kelly knew she was lucky he'd stopped to snap her out of the funk she was in. Shrugging, Hadley replied, "Likely we will but I ain't aimin' to make it easy on these mothers." Kelly nodded and, looking momentarily at the deck between her feet, took a breath and stepped forward a pace. After that first step, walking towards almost-certain death or worse at the hands of the Collectors became a little easier.
The hatch linking the CIC and lab cycled open and one of the insectile aliens strode through. "Oh God..." Kelly gasped. The quartet of glowing eyes flickered as the Collector silently observed the humans for a few moments. In those few seconds, Kelly had time to note with mounting dread the extra limbs protruding from the thing's torso and the wings folded flat atop its carapace. The alien swung a long rifle-like weapon to bear and Kelly had time to think Shepard brought one of those back from Horizon before Hadley pushed her roughly to the deck. An intense energy beam seared the air overhead, scoring molten lines through opposite bulkhead.
As it fired, the weapon emitted a high-pitched whine and Kelly felt it reverberating through her skull. The yeoman felt Hadley's weight shifting atop her and cringed at the burst of gunfire as he opened up on the Collector. The insect-like creature reeled back, ichor erupting from numerous wounds and collapsed with a chittering squeal. Ears ringing, heart pounding, Kelly climbed to her feet and turned to Hadley. "If you hadn't pushed me down...I don't know what would have happened."
Hadley waved off her thanks and instead turned his attention to the elevator. Something was moving about in the lift shaft, claws skittering for purchase on the metal walls of the shaft.
The pair of Cerberus crew backed away from the lift until progress was halted by the bulk of the galaxy map display. Oh God oh God oh God the scared little girl inside Kelly's mind spoke up. With an effort, Kelly made her shut up and eyes narrowed, focused her attention on the elevator doors. Metal tore as more of the aliens brought their strength to bear on the inside of the doors. With a final tortured shriek, the Collectors wrenched the doors open. The invaders were too numerous to count and the rear of the shaft was obscured by the writhing mass of insect-like aliens as they scrambled over each other, intent on claiming the crew.
Painfully, Kelly's right index finger clamped down on the trigger. The machine-pistol spat a volley of rounds into the horde of Collectors, muzzle flash illuminating her surroundings like a strobe light. Beside her, Hadley fired in short bursts, driving the aliens back only to have more take their place. The Tempest emitted a series of dry clicks as the thermal clip expended its last heatsink. Kelly glanced down at the weapon for a moment as she ejected the spent clip. Movement immediately in front of her made her look back up, into a quartet of glowing yellow eyes. "No!" she screamed as inhumanly strong arms grabbed her and dragged her to the open lift shaft.
Screaming for help, Kelly's fingers scrabbled for purchase on the smooth bulkheads. Hadley ran at her but was knocked sideways and out by another Collector. Frantically, Kelly kicked back, feeling the sole of her boot connect with somehing solid and for a moment, the iron grip around her loosened. For the barest of instants, Kelly dared to hope she could escape as she planted a foot onto the deck and attempted to lunge away from the pandemonium behind her. Unyielding clawed hands tore into her calves and ankles, ripping clothing and flesh.
The yeoman's face twisted in agony, tendons and muscles burning with effort, fingers scratching futiley at the deck. A split ran the length of a fingernail before it tore away from the nailbed entirely. Her own blood, smeared on the cold metal deck was the last thing Kelly saw before the darkness claimed her.
Screams. Wavering shrieks. Endless prayers, some whispered, some screamed from hoarse throats to echo back again and again, mocking the supplicant. Occasionally the cries and moans were replaced by a yet worse sound - a horrendous thick sucking sound as though a titanic being were slurping up a fruit smoothee through a straw. This analogy was the closest Kelly's mind was able to produce, traumatised as it was. In the tube to her immediate left, a male colonist's face and head was suddenly engulfed by what looked like a cloud of black particles.
They're eating his face Kelly observed, utterly detached from the situation.
Fortunately the colonist was either unconscious or already dead for he uttered not one sound nor made any effort to dislodge the nanomachines as they pureed his skin, flesh, muscle and bone. By the time Kelly realised she could close her eyes and witness nothing more, the process was complete and all that was left of the man was sludgy and red. Kelly squeezed her eyes shut but couldn't block out the sucking sound.
"You're going to need therapy after this," she told herself, voice calm and matter of fact. She paused before adding a caveat. "If there is an after, that is."
Eyes still closed, Kelly tilted her head back until it rested against the the glass-like surface of the tube. Her short red hair was slick with a substance resembling a clear slime. A trickle of the substance slid down the back of her neck and was absorbed by the material of her uniform. Inside the tube, time had ceased to mean anything; it might have been days or weeks since she'd awakened here or merely hours. Beyond the amber-tinted confines of what was likely her final resting place, tubes and pipes of varying diameters hugged the ceiling, their lengths disappearing into the gloom of the vast hive-like structure.
Upon opening her eyes for the first time days? hours? ago and finding herself trapped, Kelly had thrown herself against the glass-like structure encapsulating her. Her screams reverberated from inside the tube, hurting her own ears. Her fists pounded against the thick membrane to no avail. Eventually she slumped back, physically drained. Aware now that escape was at best, unlikely, Kelly closed her eyes and waited.
"We're going to get them back," Shepard spoke the words with quiet determination. Standing tall at one end of the long table in the debriefing room, Shepard's gaze traversed the room, her eyes meeting those of the team she'd assembled. Miranda and Jacob nodded silently. Mordin paced back and forth, mind and body both in constant motion. Garrus stood by Tali and not for the first time, Shepard wished she could see the quarian's face. Grunt slammed a fist into the palm of his other hand, felt rage bubble away inside him like liquid fire. Those bugs had taken his Battle Master's krantt and like cowards, they had waited until Shepard herself was not there to challenge them. "I'll tear them apart, Shepard," he vowed. "This I promise you."
"Fuckin'-A," Jack put in. The tattooed woman turned a hard-eyed glare on Miranda. "And when this is over..." Jack let the threat hang in the air, making a throat-slitting gesture. Miranda met the other woman's gaze silently.
Unlike the krogan or biotic human, Thane made no outward display of emotion. He stood slightly apart from the others, hands clasped behind his back, studying Shepard. This would be a true test of the human's character. From what he had observed of her so far, she would acquit herself well in the coming battle. Samara too quietly watched the Commander. That one so young had accomplished so much impressed the justicar immensely though the battle was not yet won.
For his part, Zaeed said nothing; fluffy speeches weren't his cup of tea and the mercenary had yet to encounter a word that could stop a bullet. He leaned against the bulkhead, muscular arms crossed over his chest and watched Shepard with his good eye. Though she made a good job at hiding it, Zaeed could see she was tired. Saw it in the dark circles beneath her eyes, read it in the slight slump of her posture when she thought nobody was looking. We're all dead already,he thought to himself. A person who hadn't seen what Zaeed had seen over the years may well have attempted to jump ship by now but Zaeed had made a deal with Cerberus and a mercenary was only as good as his last job. And hell, there was always the chance, no matter how slim that they'd live to see the other side. It'd be a hell of a story to tell if he did make it.
"It's fine," he replied through gritted teeth.
"You're no good to us if you can't concentrate on your job," Miranda snapped. Shepard regarded the Cerberus woman coolly. It was clear from the set of Miranda's shoulders and the tightness of her jaw muscles that she still held Joker responsible for the loss of the crew.
Joker turned the seat around so he could look Miranda full in the face as he spoke, "And I'm even less good to you if I'm high on painkillers." Joker knew he was pushing things, moreso than usual, given Miranda's present mood but after witnessing the Collectors firsthand, the worst Miranda could do didn't seem that bad by comparison. Before the Cerberus operative could answer, Joker had turned his seat back around.
Miranda's fists clenched and she opened her mouth to deliver a stinging rebuke only to feel a hand close gently around her forearm. Shepard shook her head, mouthing let it go. Miranda sighed and Shepard released her arm. Miranda turned her gaze towards the space beyond the cockpit windows. Travelling at FTL speeds produced a riotous display of shifting colours as the frigate's emissions blueshifted. Past the swirling colours the Omega-4 mass relay hung in the void pulsing a malignant red. Ringing the vast structure were the lights of countless hazard beacons warning ships away from the area.
"Approach vector confirmed," Joker reported levelly, "Relay is hot."
As she cruised within activation range of the relay, brilliant arcs of blue-white energy lashed out at the Normandy, dissipating as they pulsed across the vessel's exterior. Inside the cockpit, Shepard and Miranda both shuddered involuntarily as their biotic amps reacted to the relay's mass effect field. Bracing herself for the snap, Miranda extended a hand towards the bulkhead, wincing as a visible spark of static electricity leapt from her fingertip to the metal.
Joker shifted in his seat as the relay loomed ahead of them like the eye of some titanic entity. "I am a leaf on the wind," he said softly as the Normandy neared the threshold. "Watch how I soar."
EDI's spherical avatar flickered into existence, "There are no trees or leaf-like objects in space, Mister Moreau."
Joker and Shepard looked at each other. "That was a joke, EDI," they chorused. The Normandy jumped.
Kelly couldn't remember the last time she'd spoken with her sister or even how long it had been since they'd exchanged emails. Given the yeoman's current situation, such things suddenly felt very important to Kelly. I'm sure I emailed her the last time the ship was in range of a comm buoy. And she had, she remembered asking how their parents were, was their father recovering well from his shoulder surgery. But when had the Normandy last been within range of a comm buoy? Days ago? Weeks? Months even? Kelly didn't know and sudden hot tears started from her eyes at her own inability to remember something so simultaneously trivial and critical.
What kind of person was she, that she couldn't remember the last time she'd contacted her family? Kelly sniffed and wiped the tears away with a hand. Kathryn would understand, Kelly attempted to reassure herself. The Chambers siblings were alike in that regard - both deeply compassionate, understanding and accepting of others. Though Kathryn was older by two years, the two women were so physically similar they were often mistaken for twins. When they were younger, Kathryn joked that it was lucky she always wore her hair longer than Kelly's so people could tell them apart.
Kathryn would be shattered to learn of her sister's demise. It's OK Kelly wished she could tell her, I may die but it's in the service of something greater than any of us. You have to believe that. Even as Kelly attempted to project those thoughts towards her sister, the background sounds she'd managed to ignore until now were shattered by agonised shrieks as yet another captive was reduced to mush and siphoned away. Kelly cringed at the close proximity of the sounds.
As the sounds faded, Kelly's tired eyes focused on the movements of figures rendered blurred and indistinct by the surface of the tube. Kelly shied away as far as the confines of her prison would allow, believing the newcomers to be Collectors. As they came closer, the figures resolved themselves into familiar forms and Kelly was convinced her mind was offering her images of what she desperately wanted - rescue. Kelly squeezed her eyes closed, opening them only when a muffled voice shouted, "Get them out of there!"
A series of thuds reverberated throughout the immediate area as Shepard's team frantically assaulted the exterior of the tubes, seeking a way to open them. A sharp crack and hiss of escaping air heralded Kelly's imminent release. Even as Shepard's armoured hands pulled her from the cocoon-like prison, Kelly felt the touch of minute particles on the nape of her neck. The cloud of nanomachines descended and a fine mist of blood erupted from the back of Kelly's head and neck. The yeoman fell to the floor, scrambling forward on hands and knees, face contorted in agony.
Above her, voices raised in near-panicked shouts called out "Close the damn tube!"
"Get some medi-gel on her, now!"
Over-riding all other voices was Grunt's. "Eat this!" he roared, firing a full-auto burst from his assault rifle at the cloud. Whether through sheer good fortune or the fact that Kelly had already left the tube, the swarm dissipated. The yeoman collapsed to the ground, shivering uncontrollably, feeling trails of her own blood sliding along her neck and throat and pooling on the floor beneath her. As she attempted to roll onto her back, Shepard and Dr Chakwas knelt alongside her. Though in shock herself, Chakwas immediately went to work assessing the damage.
"The injuries appear to be superficial for the most part. I need medi-gel to stop the bleeding and a unit of tetrahexine to counter the shock. Stat!"
As Chakwas administered the medi-gel and drugs from the squad's first aid supplies, Kelly's eyes locked with Shepard's. "You came," she whispered.
Features composed behind her helmet visor, Shepard answered, "Nobody gets left behind."
"Hell, Commander," Gardner put in, "We are sure damn glad you came by when you did."
"Let's see if you feel the same way when you see the state the Normandy's in," Garrus quipped.
"Yeah," Grunt added, "Joker crashed it real good."
Ignoring this critique of his piloting abilities, Joker informed the squad, "We've got enough systems back up to make a pick up but we'll have to land back from your location."
Miranda shook her head, "No. We've come too far to turn back now."
For an instant, Kelly felt a surge of raw hatred for Miranda. Was the success of the mission so important that she was willing to just walk away from her crewmates? Shepard crossed the distance between herself and Miranda so quickly, Kelly almost didn't see her move. The N7 operative slammed Miranda against the wall, biting off each word. "Nobody. Gets. Left. Behind." Miranda shoved Shepard backwards and for a moment, the two women seemed about to come to blows.
"Wow," Donnelly said, "Here I am thinking I'm about to die in the most horrible fashion I can imagine and suddenly I have front row seats to a cat fight! Me-ow!"
For the next several seconds, the entire crew, Miranda and Shepard included were seized by a fit of frantic laughter. Kelly chuckled weakly. Shepard sighed to herself and turned back to Miranda. "Sorry I pushed you against the wall."
Miranda shrugged, "I probably had that coming," she conceded.
Jack snorted, "And the rest."
Shepard gestured for her team to fall in and her squad assembled quickly and professionally. "All right, we're not quite done yet. Mordin," Shepard nodded at the salarian, "I want you to escort the crew back to the Normandy."
Mordin nodded and activated his omni-tool, "Joker, please provide co-ordinates for extraction." When the data had downloaded to his omni-tool, Mordin made his way past each crewman, quickly touching each one on the shoulder as he counted them off and matched them with the crew manifest he'd long since memorised. Chakwas, Chambers...must keep eye on that one, has suffered injury...Daniels, Donnelly, Gardner, Hadley, Hawthorne, Matthews...
"All crew present and accounted for, Shepard," the scientist announced. He paused to take a breath, before adding, "Ready to move."
As Kelly and the crew assembled alongside Mordin, Shepard issued orders to her ground team. "I'll take a small squad with me into the heart of the base, the rest of you hold this position. Garrus, Lawsie, with me."
While the rear-guard established a defensive position, Mordin began hustling his charges towards the relative safety of the crashed frigate. At the rear of the group, Kelly heard Shepard's team as they headed out. "You want to stop calling me 'Lawsie' Commander?" Miranda demanded.
After a moment came the Commander's reply, fainter with distance but still audible, "Nah."
Garrus and Grunt hadn't been entirely joking about the state of the SR-2. The upgraded Normandy had never been intended to make planet-fall and Kelly was faintly amazed that the craft's superstructure was still holding together. Even so, large sections of both the outer and inner hull had torn away during the crash. Shimmering kinetic barriers maintained hull integrity. Mordin saw the same stunned expressions on the face of each crewman - eyes wide as they took in the damage, mouths slightly agape and felt the need to provide some comfort. "Damage much less severe than initial impressions would suggest," he offered.
Kelly stumbled to a halt beside the professor, pain from her injuries momentarily forgotten. "Dr Solus, I can see right through into the mess hall!"
"Ah hell!" Gardner swore as he too looked through the rent in the Normandy's flank. "The oven tore right out of the bulkhead!"
"I believe it would be best if we all stopped dallying and boarded the ship, don't you agree?" Dr Chakwas said in tones meant to calm and soothe. Though as she re-boarded the frigate with the assistance of Gardner, the doctor couldn't help but think I need a stiff drink.
Joker left his seat and moved stiffly to the airlock as the first of the crew re-entered the ship. Though each of the crew stopped to offer a brief word of thanks, Joker could only shrug awkwardly at the praise. It had been EDI who'd sealed him in the engine room and opened the rest of the ship to vacuum, blowing the invaders into the ether.
Despite their recent trauma, the crew took to their stations, assessing the damage and effecting what repairs could be made onsite. Gingerly, Joker eased back into his seat and patched into Shepard's command frequency. A check of the squad's vital signs relayed from their hardsuits revealed no casualties. A lull in the shooting was interrupted by that most unexpected of sounds heard over a commline - laughter.
Joker had no trouble picturing Shepard shaking her head at whatever it was that had triggered the outburst. "You have got to be kidding me," her voice spoke from the bridge speakers, "It looks like the bastard offspring of a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101."
The helmsman shook his head at Shepard's penchant for twentieth century cinema. Given the existence of the geth, a film like The Terminator seemed oddly prophetic. The rest of Shepard's team apparently hadn't caught the reference.
"Commander, what are you talking about?" Miranda demanded and Joker found he had no trouble picturing her posture either - arms crossed over her generously padded chest, brows furrowed over her blue eyes. Joker smiled slightly - Miranda was kind of hot when she was ticked off.
"EDI, are you getting all this?" Shepard enquired. Joker glanced at the displays arrayed before him to confirm the Normandy's data recorders were indeed logging every detail of the mission.
"Of course, Shepard," the AI replied. "Might I offer a tactical suggestion?"
"Eliminate the Human-Reaper hybrid before reinforcements arrive."
"Copy that. OK, let's take this thing out."
From the moment the Normandy emerged from the Omega-4 relay into a veritable graveyard of ships, Joker had known he would be called upon to haul Shepard and her team out of the fire with scant seconds to spare. It's gonna be like Virmire all over again, he told himself, Just wait and see. With this in mind, Joker asked EDI to redirect power from non-essential systems to the engines and performed another diagnostic check. Despite the rough landing and hull damage, the ship remained spaceworthy and EDI's estimates of the Normandy's maximum velocity was ninety-one percent of light speed.
Despite his best efforts to maintain his slightly bored facade, Joker felt himself become more and more tense as he watched the mission timer. "Come on, Shepard," he muttered aloud and reached out to poke Dancing Elvis. The white-jumpsuited figure of the King affixed above the main console jittered up and down for several seconds before coming to rest once more. Another glance at the mission clock revealed only thirty seconds had elapsed since the last check. As Joker shifted his weight in the chair, hoping to find a more comfortable position and failing, the command frequency came alive with a transmission from the Illusive Man.
"We're kinda busy here at the moment," Joker muttered under his breath as he keyed the comm. "Hey, Commander. I've got the Illusive Man on the line, patching him through."
"Shepard," the Cerberus man began, "You've done the impossible."
"Not quite," Shepard answered, "We still have to demolish the base."
"Wait, Shepard. There's another way. I've been studying the schematics EDI uploaded. A timed radiation pulse will kill any remaining Collectors but leave the technology intact." Joker felt his arms rippling with gooseflesh at the Illusive Man's next words, "We can use that technology against the Reapers."
Even over the comm, Shepard's voice brooked no argument. "That thing was an abomination. Too many humans lost their lives because of it."
"The first of many lives," the Illusive Man countered. "Without the technology from that base, how many more will die?"
Shepard's voice came back, strong and confident. "We don't need it. We'll fight and win without it."
"Don't be so short-sighted, Shepard," the Illusive Man argued, "Some would say that bringing you back went too far but look at what you've accomplished. This technology can secure human dominance in the galaxy!"
Today ze Collectors, tomorrow ze verld! Joker thought to himself.
"Human dominance or just Cerberus?" Shepard questioned, her response echoing Joker's thoughts.
"Dominance for Cerberus is dominance for humanity. I'll go to any lengths to preserve humanity, I've never backed away from that."
"Maybe but it's not worth sacrificing our humanity to do it!"
Joker nodded, impressed by strength of Shepard's conviction, undiluted through the comm. The Cerberus head seemed less impressed; his next words were tinged with panic. "Miranda! Don't let Shepard destroy the base!"
"Or what?" Miranda replied coolly and Joker easily pictured her stance: hand on one out-thrust hip, eyebrow arched over her right eye. "You'll replace me next?"
"Miranda, I gave you an order!" the Illusive Man shouted, losing his composure for the first time in Joker's experience. Clearly he isn't used to hearing people say 'no,' the helmsman thought with a smile. Might do him some good to learn the galaxy doesn't revolve around him.
"So I noticed. Consider this my resignation," Miranda returned.
"Woah," Joker breathed. "Did you see that coming?" he asked rhetorically, "Because I totally didn't see that coming!"
"No, Joker," EDI answered after a moment, "I did not anticipate Operative Lawson's reaction either."
Before the Illusive Man could respond, Shepard cut the link, underscoring the finality of Miranda's decision. "Just how screwed do you think we are, now?" Joker asked aloud.
"I do not possess the required data to determine the degree to which we are screwed, Joker."
Joker sighed and rubbed a hand over closed eyes. "Just forget I said anything."
Standing on the lip of the precipice, breathing raggedly, Garrus asked, "Do you think it's really dead this time?"
The part of Garrus' mind that always expected the worst wasn't at all surprised when the titanic human simulacrum had hauled itself up onto the platform. The former C-Sec investigator had merely looked up at the Reaper larva looming above them and said tiredly, "Crap!"
Shepard looked from the Reaper to Bella Morte and back before clipping the shotgun to her armour in favour of the missile launcher she'd taken from the armory.
"How many rounds do you have?" Miranda shouted as she took cover next to Shepard.
"Ten," Shepard replied, shouldering the weapon and locking onto a weak point EDI's scans had revealed. "Nine," she amended as she depressed the trigger. The warhead spiralled towards the Reaper on a trail of blue-white exhaust. The resulting explosion appeared pitiful compared to the sheer scale of the target.
"Crap!" Garrus had replied.
Shepard and Miranda joined the turian in staring into the abyss below them. Of the Reaper there was no sign. The Commander stepped back, gripped by a sickening wave of vertigo. The feeling soon departed and, swallowing back bile, Shepard turned away from the edge. The timer displayed in her visor's HUD gave them five minutes to reach minimum safe distance. Wordlessly, the trio ran hard back the way they'd come. A familiar inhuman voice spoke to them, calling out from the very air as they ran.
"Human," Harbinger taunted them, "You have changed nothing."
As she ran, a warning indicator appeared in the corner of Shepard's HUD, warning of the imminent collapse of her amour's seeker swarm countermeasure. A glance over her shoulder revealed the swarm bearing down on them. Still running, Shepard brought up her sidearm, spun around and, running backwards as fast as she dared, fired into the oncoming cloud. Beside her, Miranda and Garrus fired as they backpedalled, mere gestures of defiance in the face of an overwhelming foe.
"We are you salvation through destruction," Harbinger went on.
Thermal clip expended, Shepard turned and ran as hard as she could, willing her lungs to provide her with more oxygen, silently compelling her cybernetics to hold out just a little longer. "Joker!" she gasped, breath coming in hard pants, "Require immediate evac! Area is extremely hot!"
"Roger that, Commander. Normandy is airborne and away. ETA thirty seconds."
Lips pressed into a bloodless line, Shepard sprinted the last hundred metres, feeling a deep stitch settle into her right side and the burn of lactic acid in her muscles. The battered form of the Normandy hung aloft just beyond a sheer drop into the darkness below. Joker had brought the frigate in as close as he dared and now stood in the open airlock, providing covering fire as the squad arrived. Bullets whined and snapped above their heads as Garrus and Miranda made the jump aboard the ship, turning as they landed to provide Shepard with additional covering fire.
The Commander stumbled to her knees as a burst of fire from the pursuing Collector drones collapsed her shields and impacted her armour with enough force to throw her off balance. Pain bloomed in her left shoulder as a mass accelerator round punched through the ablative plating. As though in slow motion, Shepard observed with clinical detachment the spurt of blood erupt from her upper chest and spill down her side before her hardsuit's medical exosystem sealed the wound with medi-gel. With each intake of breath stabbing at her like knives, Shepard attempted to stand on trembling legs. Even as her kinetic barriers came back online, another bullet thudded into her side, knocking her down once more.
"Shepard!" Garrus shouted from the airlock. "Get back on your feet, soldier! I won't have you goldbricking on my watch!"
"Goldbricking?" Shepard gasped in pain as she again attempted to stand. Renewed gunfire from the Normandy's airlock door drove back the last of the Collectors, granting the N7 operative time enough to regain her feet and renew her run to the ship. The once-Spectre leaped the gap between the solid ground of the base beneath her feet and the Normandy's airlock. Two sets of arms - Miranda's and Garrus' secured Shepard as her feet thumped to the deck. Miranda slammed a fist into the control panel set into the bulkhead and the outer airlock door cycled closed, shutting out the seekers and surviving drones.
Shepard slumped to the deck, Miranda and Garrus crouched above her, concern etched on their faces. Shepard looked up at Garrus. "Goldbricking, Garrus? Really?"
The turian's mandibles quivered fractionally. "It worked didn't it?"
Joker passed his assault rifle to Miranda and slid back into the pilot's seat. "Hang on!" he called out as Garrus and Miranda aided Shepard inside the ship. "This is gonna be rough!"
"Isn't it always?" Shepard answered with a tired smile.
Miranda, Garrus and Shepard assumed wide-legged stances, bracing themselves against the bulkheads as the frigate threaded a path through the flotilla of dead ships. EDI's holographic avatar flickered into sight as she counted down the time until detonation.
"Detonation in five...four...three..."
"We get the idea, EDI," Miranda snapped. The AI fell silent and the blue orb vanished. As the mass relay bent the fabric of time and space, neatly depositing the Normandy back in the Omega system, Miranda experienced a rare moment of self-doubt.
What have I done?
The Commander turned an admiring look on the newly-resigned Cerberus operative. "I honestly didn't expect you to turn you back on Cerberus like that."
"I...I think I suddenly saw Cerberus in a new light...the way you see them. I used to believe the advancement of humanity was worth any cost, any justification but after seeing what happened to all those people...our people..." Miranda trailed off, at a loss for words.
Garrus spoke up, "Now you're not so sure?"
Miranda nodded tiredly. Coming down from the adrenaline rush of the last several minutes, she felt a variety of aches both sharp and dull throughout her body. "I need some time to think, Shepard," Miranda stated and departed the bridge, barely hearing the applause from the crew.
Shepard too felt a plethora of hurts as what they'd accomplished finally set in. "Take all the time you need, Miranda," Shepard said.
"Yeah," Joker interjected, fingers dancing across control panels. "We just saved the galaxy, I think we're owed some time-out."
The helmsman looked up as Shepard placed a comradely hand on his shoulder. "Thanks for pulling us out of there, Jeff," she said softly.
"Buy me a drink and we'll call it even," he replied flippantly.
The woman once hailed as the Saviour of the Citadel laughed quietly and left Joker to his own devices. Now the real work begins she told herself.
Thanks and Acknowledgements: Thanks go to my unofficial beta-reader vshard for making this better than it otherwise would have been. The 'Leaf on the wind' dialogue courtesy of Joss Whedon and vshard. And finally thanks to the readers who make it all worth while.