If there was one thing fiction gets right, Ashley mused, it's that Special Forces tend to find strange ways into places.
But rappelling up part of an aqueduct system - specifically a vertical tube large enough to hold a few people - was somewhat unusual even by that standard. Assault rifle in hand with a rappel line added to the bottom in place of a flashlight, she slowly made her way up, one pull at a time.
Behind her, Jenkins was trying to do the same, but the lack of familiarity was clear as he was trailing behind considerably. He started to mutter curses as they kept going, and Ashley felt a similar irritation. Shepard and the rest of the Imperial forces were suppressing the garrison as a distraction, trying to use grenade launchers and dummy rounds to avoid killing the colonists with sergeants equipped with shotguns keeping any of the strange husk-like creatures - code named Creepers earlier - at bay.
"How much further?" Jenkins muttered over their closed comms, kept at short range to avoid detection and with full vacuum seal on their helmets.
"Another five meters," she answered as she saw the maintenance ledge they were rappelling towards. It was not too far from where the gates were, but they were going to need to breach into the bathroom.
"For you or me?"
Biting back a sigh, she just reached further up the rope and tugged. Marine training covered the use of rappels, but they did not practice with it nearly as much as special forces did. They had to be able to do it tired from twenty hour days, hungry, and after having been shot up by training drones at Rio, and that was just the first tier of Interplanetary Combatives Training. It was something she hadn't needed to do for a while, but she had done it enough that it came back quickly.
As she reached the end of her lined and pulled up, she saw Jenkins following her, four meters behind and with his new rifle banging on his back. Letting him continue to climb up, she checked the wall with her omni-tool and placed the needed breaching charges as she could hear the sound of another volley of gas grenades going off in the distance.
Hope they have enough, she wondered as Jenkins made it up.
"How… do you do that?" he asked.
"Far too many twenty hour work days," she retorted as she pointed to his position on the breach as she primed the charges to go off. "You ready?"
"Just watch my back then." Ashley activated the detonators and the charges detonated, leveling the wall and showing them a stone bathroom, though what waste systems it had was ruined as the stonework fell in and kicked up dust everywhere. Moving forward, Ashley grappled a nearby colonist who had seen it and knocked him down, covering his mouth before he could scream and holding him down until he passed out.
"Keep moving, the gate controls are fifty meters north and it's a maze of hallways."
"Wait, do you hear that? Someone's already coming!" Jenkins warned and Ashley nodded - she could hear a slow shuffle coming towards them. The two of them quickly hid behind what crates were around until they managed to pass a few of the Creepers.
"It's like someone decided normal Husks weren't ugly enough," Jenkins muttered as the things shuffled past them, towards the aqueduct pipe. "Looks like they're searching for something though."
"Are they even smart enough for that?" Ashley whispered - mostly from habit as the fully sealed hardsuits also kept noise inside.
"Well, those turian husks fight with actual tactics and asari husks seem to act sort of rally point for the others..."
"Point taken," she admitted as they waited a moment to let the Creepers pass before moving on. It was slow going through the rooms, particularly as they had to regularly find an alternative route either due to Creepers that seemed to be standing guard, or the section was sealed. Colonists - mostly non-combatants with light sidearms - Ashley was able to knock out quietly and Jenkins locked them up in the nearest crate or storage locker.
But as they moved forward, it seemed that more and more there were Creepers guarding rooms to cut off their passage, and from several angles too. They moved, but always it seemed to be a position to cut them off from moving further. After the third occurrence in a minute, Ashley felt her gut tightening.
"Jenkins, you were right."
"Them being able to think. It's been too close too many times by now."
"Heh, yeah. Also, it just me or do they change patterns every time we knock someone out?"
"...God damn it."
"The Thorian. What's to say it it can't tell what happens to its thralls?"
"...We're in deep shit, aren't we?"
"Hope not, we just crawled out of that… alright, let's see if we can't use that to our advantage."
Jenkins nodded, pointing towards one colonist who was moving what looked like a crate of grenades. Now they're organized in that, Ashley bitterly noted as she slid a gas grenade from her waist and flung it towards the colonist. It exploded into a cloud of blackish green and the man dropped the crate, falling backwards.
"So much for stealth…" Jenkins muttered before Ashley grabbed him and led him back, both hiding behind a large wall. As expected, a pair of the Creepers came by to look at the fallen colonist, and by this time the pesticide had faded. More came in from other angles in pairs, and even one of the militia with a shotgun. Satisfied that they had their answer, the two marines then began to move towards the gatehouse around the distracted defenders.
"They know something's wrong," Ashley muttered as soon as the two were out of sight. "But not what's wrong."
"So how long until they find out?"
"Not much longer, come on!"
Finally arrived at the location that had been marked as an access to the gatehouse. Except for the fact that instead of door, there was a wall.
Ashley knocked on the plaster and realized that it was far too new as she was able to push it in a bit. "They must've closed it up and made an alternative route," Ashley muttered as she unhooked a disc from her belt. "Not properly set, though."
"Blow through it? They're going to know we're here…"
"Once the gates are open we just need to hold until Shep arrives."
"I hope you're right… well, I've got a full belt of gas grenades, so I'll deal with anything that comes from behind."
"Thanks," she answered as she affixed the grenade to the wall and primed it, then pushed Jenkins back as it began to count down.
Moments later, it detonated and she stormed inside. A colonist was manning the consoles, but a quick punch to the face that dropped him to the floor rectified that and Ashley accessed the control panel and opened the gates.
"The gates are opening now, I repeat the gates are opening now!" she reported as soon as she switched back to the command frequency. "And hurry, they're onto us!"
"Understood, hold the line until we get there!" Shepard answered, followed by more commands being shouted before the line closed.
Jenkins took up a position on the rubble of the wall, shotgun and grenades at the ready while Ashley checked the lock on the intended route in. It didn't seem to have a proper locking mechanism, so she took up a position as she saw several soldiers with Creepers up front moving towards them.
"And here we go," Ashley muttered irritably as she saw the soldiers taking up firing positions to cover the husks. Grabbing a gas grenade and fingering it for contact detonation, Ashley opened the door and flung it in before closing it again. Bullets shot through and a few nicked Jenkins' kinetic barrier, but the door took the rest and the expanding gas cloud took out the Creepers.
"Gotcha," Jenkins snarled as he popped a Creeper coming his way with his shotgun. "Hey Commander, think we could just set the gas up as a barricade?"
"Gas doesn't last too long," Ashley noted as it was already clearing on her side. She had managed to get through to two of the closer soldiers who collapsed, but the other four were still there, and holding position to suppress. Yet despite having seen several of their friends get dropped, they remained near-motionless, barely shaking even as they kept their position and no sign of verbally trading off orders.
"Huh, they're backing off," Jenkins noted after he threw a grenade at a couple Creepers. "Think they're afraid of the gas?"
"No, they're waiting for something," Ashley warned as she stayed in cover, regularly peeking out to see what they were doing, but they seemed to be holding.
That is, until she saw a different kind of armor. "Uh oh," she muttered when she caught a glimpse of Kaidan. "They're sending our friends in!"
"Great," Jenkins muttered. "Okay, uh," he paused as he glanced back, then towards her. "You go full Spectre and take 'em, I keep the crowd busy?"
She threw a glare his way, even if she knew it wouldn't be seen through their helmets, but she couldn't disagree with the sentiment. She could see Wrex, Kaidan, and Nihlus taking up positions with silent and near-synchronous precision, though Wrex was unarmed. When both his hands glowed to create a barrier she understood why. Then Kaidan and Nihlus' omni-tools activated and they reached around, two discs shooting towards the door.
"Heads up!" Ashley warned, "They're hacking the door open!"
"Oh great! Got company this way too!"
Wrex was about to charge, but suddenly a disc flew in behind the forward aimed barrier and black gas covered the hall. The door opened, but when it did Ashley saw all three of her team and the four Imperial soldiers on the ground… and Tali walked in behind, holding a grenade launcher.
"Who would've thought Wrex was a lot less scary possessed?" the quarian quipped as Shepard, Liara, and three more soldiers came up behind.
"I wouldn't count that as being less scary," Liara retorted as she moved up, holding a grenade in her hand as if she was about to pie the first thing that jumped out in the face with it.
Ashley looked at them, then shook her head. "Great timing."
"Clear on this side," Jenkins reported as he glanced back. "For now."
"They're falling back towards the colony itself," Shepard reported as she gestured up with her head. "They've given up the gate, especially since we just managed to get Tali close enough to hack the turrets…"
"Hey, is Wrex drooling?" Tali suddenly asked, nudging the krogan with her foot. Ashley looked down.
"Huh, so he is," Shepard noticed as she also glanced down. "Let's not take an embarrassing picture of the oversized biotic killing machine?"
"I wasn't going to!" Tali insisted, taking a step back.
Clearing out the colony took far less time than expected, primarily due to how effective the gas was and how much of it they were able to bring to bear, though they had exhausted much of the supply. Within a half hour they had broken all resistance, and mopping up was well underway.
"Lieutenant, how many casualties?" the duke snapped as they regrouped at the colony's center.
"Two dead, four with minor wounds, and one critically wounded - medics are stabilizing her now."
"And the colony?"
"One confirmed dead, a couple others wounded from stray fire and shrapnel, and everyone else is either being knocked out as we speak or bruised from collapsing. Considering what this could have been…"
"I know," the duke answered with a heaving sigh as he looked up. "Alright, get everyone into position. The geth are going to attack again once they get their house back in order…"
Kneeling next to one of the more wounded colonists, Etel nodded as her scan finished. "He'll be fine, I think," she explained as she stood back up and turned to Williams.
"Still no sign of Garrus though," Williams warned. "You don't think?..."
"Dead? Nilhus would've mentioned that to make it sound more desperate," Etel shook her head. "Maybe he's guarding the Thorian?"
"I'd rather have Wrex as a bodyguard," Jenkins added as he was walking over, now carrying a grenade launcher and a bandoleer of gas grenades, "Though there's something to be said about a sudden but inevit…"
A thin trail of blue and an unmistakable sound cut his train of thought off.
The next thing they knew Jenkins was on the ground, his kinetic barrier breaking and the bullet wedged through the side of his neck guard, blood spraying before Jenkins could cover it with his hand as he bit back the pain.
Etel threw up a biotic barrier as a second shot whizzed past, Williams grabbing Jenkins' fallen grenade launcher and lobbing a high-arc shot. The next thing Etel saw through the barrier, someone in blue on a balcony above vanished in black gas.
"Got him!" Williams called as she lowered the grenade launcher.
"That answers that," Etel muttered as she let the barrier fade and the two turned to check Jenkins, omni-tools active as Williams held the soldier steady while Etel applied the medi-gel to the neck wound and the second wound that had torn into his shoulder.
"Fuck, that hurts!" Jenkins growled as the medi-gel kicked in. "And - ah shit, there goes my NBC."
Etel glanced down as Williams helped him up and realized what he meant - the expanded pack, consuming the space where his sniper rifle normally went, had a large gaping hole in it. The standard environmental control unit at the center of his pack was still intact, but the expanded capabilities had been compromised.
"We'll get it fixed before we move on," Williams reassured as he was back on his feet, "though you should get checked by a real doctor."
"Ah medbay, my home away from home…" the marine sighed as he shook his head. "So uh, how much time we got left anyways? We took a while…"
Williams checked a timer on her omni-tool, exhaling sharply. "Yeah, they're out of time. Give me a moment, I need to call Anderson…"
As she walked off and Jenkins made his way to the nearest available medic, Tali walked up to her. "Anything?" Etel asked as she turned.
"Nothing useful; they scrammed the system of anything we could use, and used a much better program than what ExoGeni had."
Etel exhaled, glancing over towards Williams. "Looks like we might be here for a while. The Normandy's going to get a message to pull back."
"Great," Tali groaned. "How long will they need to come back?"
"You know the Commander, Alliance specs…"
"There's operational security, then there's keeping us in the dark about timing that can save our lives. What happens if she catches a bullet and we need to know when the Normandy can come back?"
Etel shrugged. "I can't fault her loyalty."
"Maybe not, but that won't help us at all if we can't plan for the Normandy coming back."
"Doctors," Anderson said as he stepped into the medbay.
"Ah, Captain. Good timing. Gone through data," Mordin answered as he and Chakwas looked up from the screen, and all of them were sweating from the heat.
"Unless ExoGeni is exaggerating or faked this," Chakwas supplied, "and I see no reason for either to be case, landing the Normandy would have given this 'Thorian' exactly what it wanted." She wiped her forehead, beads of sweat flicking off with the pass. "Of course, we don't know if Nihlus was actually affected or not when he called."
"I know," Anderson sighed as he shook his head. "But if we don't hear anything soon…"
"Captain," Joker's voice suddenly cut in over the intercom, "Commander Williams is on the line."
"Patch her through to the medbay," Anderson ordered and a comms station next to Chakwas' desk lit up. The doctor activated it, and Ashley's voice cut into the room.
"Captain, how's the Normandy holding up?"
"If you need a pickup, now's the time."
He heard her sigh tiredly. "Unfortunately, we're not done down here. Nihlus, Wrex, Garrus, and Kaidan are unconscious, but until we've dealt with the Thorian…"
"Dangerous to hold, lack proper facilities." Mordin cut in. "Could work on such while waiting."
"One heat problem at a time, doctor," Anderson warned as he put a hand on his chin, running through the possible scenarios. "Unfortunately, there's nowhere we can hide to dump our heat. If we have to pull out, it may be some time until we can come back."
"We'll make due," Ashley answered. "Actually… any word on that liberation fleet?"
"Nothing directly, but…" Anderson stopped as a plan started to form in his mind. "We'll link up with the fleet. We've taken some passive scans and can give them the latest update, and while with them we'll be able to vent our heat safely."
"Something to add?" Mordin asked.
"Nothing the Captain doesn't already know. Alright, we'll keep going down here until you can come back."
"Be careful," Anderson warned as his imagination, which had ran far too wild as they digested the information that had been sent, prodded at him again. "Whatever's down there, I don't want to lose you to it."
"Me neither… Williams out."
The console dimmed again and Anderson exhaled, mostly due to the heat. "Joker!"
"Get us to the relay and out of system, we're pulling out."
"Aye Aye, setting course." There was a moment of silence before Joker cut back in. "So uh, we're going to be able to find them later if the Empire isn't striking back yet, right?"
Anderson paused. "We've got a resourceful team down there, they'll find a way to signal us." Which was no answer, but he had to project at least some confidence as an officer.
"Let's hope so."
"Who is he?" Williams asked as they stepped into a small hospital, an isolated room where a man was strapped down on a gurney. One of the Duke's medics had found him, and that he was resisting the Thorian.
"David," the man weakly responded, twitching rapidly. "Can't… hold… forever… like thorns, but…"
Etel turned to the medic. "Get him some painkillers for God's sake!"
"No!" David shouted, the medic hesitating at the sudden outburst. "The pain reminds me! Reminds me… reminds me…"
"Reminds you of what?" Etel asked, taking a step forward and half-crouching so she was eye level with him.
"That I'm alive… there's a passage-" he was suddenly cut off, screaming in pain.
"Where's the passage?" Williams asked quickly.
"Lab!" David shouted, being interrupted by bouts of pain as Etel and the medic moved to try and hold him down. "Behind room! Hidden! Walls!"
"That's enough, get him some sedatives!" Etel ordered.
The medic turned to grab it, Williams taking his place in keeping David down until the medic was able to inject David, who stopped struggling and settled into a seemingly peaceful sleep, compared to what he had been suffering before hand.
"That'll keep him out for an hour," the medic explained as he shook his head. "Not a lot to go on, though…"
"He was in too much pain," Etel shook her head. "It's enough, we just need to find the lab he mentioned."
"And then find how to open the passage before the geth come back strong…"
"Really?" Ashley groaned staring at their discovery. "I mean, really? Behind a painting?"
"Well, to their credit, it's so obvious a hiding place that nobody would think to look th..." Shepard admitted before suddenly stopping herself.
"Etel, are you giggling?" Tali cut in.
"Trying not…" at that point the knight simply laughed.
Ashley sighed, shaking her head. They had turned the Landing's analyst lab upside down trying to find the way in, until Liara had knocked the painting down. Although an accident, it had revealed a hidden switch that caused the wall to slide out of the way.
"So how did it get out?" Giselda asked.
"Let's find out," Ashley nodded to the guardswoman as she stepped down the passage, flashing the walls with her omni-tool's light until she found another set of controls which had two settings - open and closed - and was set to the former.
"Okay, I'm going to try closing it on my end! Everyone clear?"
"We're clear!" Tali called back.
Nodding to herself, Ashley switched the control to 'off' and the passage sealed behind them. Shepard tried to say something, but it was muffled too much for Ashley to hear until the knight switched to comms.
"I think that worked, Commander."
"Which raises the next question," Ashley started as she opened the passage again. "How do we seal this up?"
"Can't we disable one side?" Liara offered as Ashley came back up.
"I should be able to sabotage the other side, then we just need someone to stay here," Tali agreed.
"I can do that," Giselda offered. "Just call when you're ready to come up and we can do a humanity check."
"Works for me," Ashley nodded as she grabbed the grenade launcher and turned to Tali. "I'll keep an eye on the passage while you work."
"Shouldn't take too long…"
After Tali had done her magic on the panel they did one last check of their extra filters. Once they were sure that they hadn't been compromised, they grabbed the heavy weapons loaded with almost all the remaining gas and made their way down.
"Shame we had to leave Jenkins behind," Liara commented as she shined a light on the stonework from her omni-tool, a gas sprayer in hand.
"With compromised NBC and no time to repair it properly, we didn't really have a choice," Ashley admitted with a sigh. She would have preferred to have him - he never gave up. "Look at it this way, if this goes south, we've got someone who can liaison with the Normandy."
"If this goes south we'll have a much bigger problem than Alliance information security," Tali retorted.
Ashley considered responding before letting the matter lie. Especially as the new stone passageways were much more covered with strange plant-like tendrils and the odd dormant - and partially dismembered - Creeper in the way.
"Creepers were well named," Tali muttered as they entered a larger room with alcoves in the walls. "Was this some sort of prothean bio-lab?"
"If it is, I wonder what'll end up being downloaded into Shepard's head this time," Ashley answered, half grinning.
"I'm getting a bit sick of all the doom," Shepard grumbled. "Maybe this time it'll be tabloid rumors… at least that we might be able to get some credits out of."
"Fifty-thousand year old rumors, exclusive here!" Ashley chuckled as they moved through the next passage. "I bet Joker knows someone that'd pay for that."
"I can think of much higher brow buyers, ones less given to sensationalism." Liara muttered as her eyes kept darting between the dark corners, gas sprayer at the ready. "Also, Shepard, are you sure you need the flamethrower?"
"Well, if the Thorian happens to be immune to the gas," the knight admitted with a shrug. "Besides, what holy text doesn't mention cleansing fire against abominations? I think the Thorian counts."
"I'd prefer orbital fire, at least when it's on our side," Ashley remarked as they left the lab and moved further down - and was there light at the end of that passage?
There was, and the last room was dominated by a large central air shaft with a massive bulbous organic growth suspended over the chasm by numerous tentacles latched into the superstructure. Facing them was what Ashley had to assume was the creature's face, with had more tentacles on it than any of Earth's stories of eldritch horrors.
And standing on the threshold before it was a green skinned asari, who turned to them as they approached and started to speak raspily.
"More flesh comes to cower before the Old Growth? Bow, and the transgression may be forgiven!"
"I bow to none but the Emperor!" Shepard declared.
What? Ashley thought incredulously as they stopped to look at her. The strange asari ahead of them kept going, though.
"Never before has Old Growth seen such arrogance in such a short time! Upon whose claim do you trespass upon the Growth?"
Ashley lowered her voice, hoping it was low enough the asari wouldn't hear it over their helmet comms. "Keep the thing talking, we'll look for any weak spots."
"We do not seek conflict," Shepard answered, "However, we are-" she was cut off when a Creeper dropped from the ceiling, tackling her to the ground and began to attack her helmet. Liara was first on the uptake, a stream of gas obscuring the knight but the Creeper disintegrated, as did others that jumped down after them.
"Did you really think Old Growth would not recognize such simple tools of metal?" the green asari laughed as Shepard reached for her augmented rebreather. "The Old Growth predates all Flesh. It has seen Flesh rise, it has seen it fall. Again and again, the Old Growth has communicated with those it has deemed worthy of its its presence."
More of the Thorian Creepers started crawling out of the stonework, in some cases literally.
"The Old Growth knows of the Flesh's weak tools of Metal, how they hide behind them, fearing the Old Growth as they should. They will not save you. As happened before, so shall happen again. In the end, Metal and Flesh bend to the will of the Old Growth."
"You will toil and when you are no longer useful, you shall feed the Growth as…"
Suddenly a jet of flame cut it off and the green asari screamed before falling backwards into the central shaft.
"You talk too much," Shepard snarled as she rose, and battle ensued.
Etel turned her flamethrower against the first wave of Creepers, the four strong team quickly cleared the first wave with fire and shots from Tali and Williams' grenade launchers. As they waited for the gas to dissipate, they were taking up firing positions, daring the Thorian's minions to attack them again.
"Damn it, it's Noveria all over again!" Williams growled.
"At least they're a lot easier to take out!" Tali retorted as she checked her ammo. "How many do you think it has?"
"Let's not find out, cover me!" Etel ordered as she moved forward into a position where she could attack the Thorian's head directly, aiming the flamethrower and igniting a steady stream of incendiary gas towards it.
The Thorian howled in pain at first, and the knight allowed herself to grin. No matter how advanced we are, the fear of fire is primal.
She closed the fuel line to take a look at the damage and found herself taking an involuntary step back as the burned surface of the Thorian was already healing itself and it began to retch again, spitting out another green skinned asari.
"The Old Growth laughs at such attacks!" it began as a deep rumble echoed through the ancient structure, coming from the shaft. The bulbous form of the Thorian began to bloat before retracting in the same pace.
Feeling her gut tightening the same way as she did when her mother caught her with her hand in the cookie jar, Etel glanced back to see the Creepers had resumed their attack, but again were being kept at bay by the gas.
"You claim to endurance," the asari thing continued, "but the endurance of Flesh is nothing next to that of th..!"
Etel threw the creature into the chasm again with biotics, cutting her off, but the Thorian continued what had to be laughter.
"So that didn't work, it's laughing off our attacks!" Liara screamed as the Creepers were gathering for another push.
"Got any other ideas?" Tali asked as several more Creepers moved in and another volley of grenades kept them back.
Still, it felt like the groupings attacking them this time were smaller and as Etel looked further back she saw that most of the Creepers had instead stormed into the passage out. Taking up positions in cover, the frozen faces of the creatures stared back at them as the Thorian's retching laugh stopped again.
The four women turned, another green asari dropping out from the Thorian's mouth to address them.
"That's just not right," Williams growled as she aimed her grenade launcher at it.
"The Old Growth is eternal, unending in its strength," the clone started. "Your strength wanes, while the Old Growth endures."
"We're not dead yet," Etel shot back as she checked the flamethrower's remaining charge and winced as she realized it was almost empty.
"Not yet," the clone tilted her head. "How much ammunition did you bring?"
Etel fired the flamethrower, expending the last of its charge into the clone, causing it to panic and collapse on itself. "Anyone have an idea?"
"The vines!" Tali exclaimed as she pointed, "the vines holding it! They've got to be structural!"
"What do you mean?" Williams demanded as another two Creepers charged from down a set of stairs and she took them both out with a gas grenade.
"Sever the vines, it drops!" Tali shot back.
"The stairs!" Liara called as she pointed towards them, "They lead up!"
"Right, follow me!" Etel called as she led the way, Liara spraying quick bursts of the gas over her shoulder as Tali and Williams moved up behind, keeping any Creepers from following them with grenade fire every time a few tried to rush.
As they made it up the stairs, the gunfire died down for a moment as the latest group had expended itself. "Okay, so we found it. Now what?" Liara asked as she discarded the now empty gas sprayer in favor of her pistol.
"Give me a second…" Tali answered as she strode over and activated her omni-tool. "Let me take a scan, but if I'm right…"
"Kinda looks like it's gripping the wall," Williams commented before taking up a firing position as they could already hear more of the Creepers gathering.
"I think it is," Etel agreed. The vine was a thick and dull brown like the rest of the Thorian, but where it met the wall it seemed to branch out, like roots gripping the soil of any other plant. "Do you think we can force it loose?"
"Let's find out," Tali said as she pulled the grenade launcher around and fired directly where the Thorian's vines gripped the wall, obscuring it in a black gas. The gas covered the vines and they heard the Thorian howl, but it died down quickly. Then the gas had dissipated, revealing that the blackened vines were already returning to normal.
"... now I'm wishing we brought explosives," Etel groaned.
"Why?" Liara asked as Williams' grenade launcher discharged into another few Creepers. "We knew we would be fighting the Thorian, isn't stocking up on as much gas as we could carry a good thing?"
"Yeah, but… well, how else would you get this thing to lose it's grip?" Tali asked as she turned to make sure the steady stream of new Creepers was in check.
"Blow up the… oh," Liara admitted. "So... what now?"
"The gas still hurts it," Etel pointed out as she frowned. "Maybe it'll weaken it enough for the two of us to pull it back with biotics?"
"Maybe…" the asari admitted as she looked at it. "But I ran out of gas on the sprayer…"
"A pair of grenades should cover it enough," Tali said as she knelt to look at the other side. "Yeah, each of you take a side and pull when I give the word!"
The two nodded, Etel ducking under the vine and taking a quick stock to gauge where she needed to apply the pull.
"Okay, get ready… now!" Tali called as she fired two grenades from her launcher in quick succession.
Etel focused, feeling the feedback from her implant as she managed to focus the mass effect field into the gap, however small, between the vines and the wall. Straining as she pulled back, the vine finally came loose and the knight stumbled. Unable to recover due to the weight of her NBC gear, she hit the ground and almost panicked as the vine came flying away past her before vanishing into the pit below.
And then the Thorian screamed, shaking the foundation and throwing Williams off balance, her grenade going slightly wide as a Creeper tried to tackle her. Etel pushed herself back up, slightly dazed from how she hit the ground, but before she could get up Williams had thrown the Creeper off and unloaded her pistol into the monster.
As the Creeper collapsed, Williams' pistol was beeping angrily from overheating, and she climbed back up while recovering her grenade launcher. The next group of Creepers was much larger, but Tali was on the uptake first and fired her last three grenades into the mass, leaving nothing but a pile of collapsed plant fiber in the doorway back.
"Good thing we brought the gas," Liara remarked as she pushed herself back up. "Otherwise we'd be doomed."
"How much ammunition did you bring?" the asari clone's taunt echoed in Etel's mind as her gut tightened.
"Tali, Ash, how much ammo do you two have?" she asked.
"Launcher's empty," Tali admitted. "And I've got four or five other grenades left."
"Three in the launcher, ten on the belt," Williams answered. "But if it's running out of…" the marine trailed off before cursing. "Damn it, it's wasting our ammo!"
"And we can't keep pulling the vines off," Liara retorted. "Maybe shooting the next group would do it?"
"Let's hope these incendiaries work," Etel muttered as she looked down at her shotgun. "Okay, we save the biotics to force clusters together…"
"And only gas them when there's a lot, guns otherwise," Williams finished, switching to her own shotgun as the launcher hung awkwardly on the back of her waist.
Their progress suddenly became much slower as they moved on, as the Creepers were quite durable against small arms fire. Although the incendiaries in Etel's shotgun could burn them away and Williams' shotgun tore through the legs of the creatures, without the gas as a primary neutralizer the damage they inflicted was far less fatal. Even with their legs and arms shot off Creepers still tried to move forward or bite at their ankles.
"What the… another clone?!" Etel shouted as they saw a green asari ahead. And this one was glowing blue…
Etel suddenly found herself flung backwards as the biotic field slammed her back into the ceiling. She immediately struggled back, trying to break the fields keeping her flying upwards as she saw Liara step forward.
The young archaeologist pulled the clone close with biotics, leaving Etel to fall as the clone's concentration was broken, but as Etel pushed herself up at a run she saw Liara put the pistol to the clone's head and fired. The clone stayed down, spores leaking out of the bullet holes like a gas tank, and Liara's eyes were wide as she looked at it.
"Nice job!" Williams congratulated as she decked another Creeper that got to close and kicked it off the ledge. "Keep moving, this thing's not going to run out anytime soon!"
Their progress remained slow, but they quickly began to find the rhythm to the groups, and steadily began to take apart the Thorian's structural support. Each tendril that was pulled fell into the chasm, gravity pulling the Thorian further. And the further they got, the more desperate the attacks became. The Creepers and clones were thrown in as soon as the Thorian could make them.
And as they reached the top, they found the last tendril as they had only three grenades left.
"Make it count, we'll cover you!" Williams shouted, tossing her belt over as she and Tali took up firing positions on the doorway. Grabbing it, Etel set the grenades onto the vine and discarded the mostly empty utility belt.
"One last pull," Etel nodded to Liara. "On three. One! Two! Three!"
The grenades detonated and the two biotics forced apart the tendril, releasing it from the wall with a snap and it quickly began to slide down, almost dragging Tali with it and knocking aside the Creepers rushing in.
With a scream, and a loud series of thuds as it bounced along the walls, the Thorian fell down into the shaft and the remaining Creepers collapsed, spasming on their own until finally becoming still.
"We… by the goddess, we made it!" Liara gasped, collapsing onto her knees.
"Think so," Williams said as she looked around, then leaned against the wall.
Etel dropped to her knee, allowing her tired body to rest if only for a moment. Exhaustion always set in when the danger passed, but she knew the job was nowhere near done.
"Hell of a girl's night out," Ashley remarked as she glanced around. "Guess Jenkins is better at driving then we thought."
Etel laughed, weakly from the exhaustion, shaking her head. "If we ever get shore leave…"
"If," the Lieutenant-Commander added with a shrug as she looked to her discarded utility belt and recovered it.
After they caught their breath, they began to investigate the rest of the chamber to make sure that the Creepers were dead and to check for other surprises. As they made their way to one of the upper chambers, they found several strange pods, organic and fleshy with severed tendrils that had snapped lying along the ground.
"Got some weapons here," Tali added as she found a couple in a sac that was half ripped open. "Looks like a mix of asari and geth weapons."
"Taken from an earlier attack?" Williams asked as the quarian shrugged back.
"Maybe. For all it's bluster about simple metal tools, it bothered to keep our tech."
"Let's grab a few if we can, might help our R&D guys out…"
As the two had their back and forth on the matter, Liara walked up to one of the other pods and then immediately backed off with a gasp, covering the rebreather on her helmet as if trying to stop herself from puking.
"What is it?" Etel asked as she turned.
"It's, it's an asari! Or at least…"
"... what's left of her," Williams finished she had hurried up to look, then glanced to the side briefly.
Etel stepped forward and had to fight down her own gag reflex - in the pod was a heavily decomposed body floating in an off-green fluid.
"God, I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Is this what that thing meant by 'flesh freely given'?!"
"I think so," Tali growled as they started checking the others.
"It must be some sort of digestive system…" Liara started before trailing off.
"Like a fly trap has," Williams agreed. "But who'd want that?"
"Come on, you haven't seen that when looking for…" Tali started before pausing. "You know what, I have no right to comment on that."
Etel did her best to ignore the implications as she was checking the last of the pods when she saw the last one. "Good God, this one's alive!"
She looked it over; whoever the asari inside was, she was still breathing and her skin was mostly intact. Etel just needed a way to open the membrane without killing her. After checking to make sure she was not connected to anything, Etel activated an omni-blade and cut the pod open halfway before immediately leaping back. The pod collapsed open, the digestive fluid spilling and splattering onto her boots and leggings, but the asari slumped out of it and Williams caught her, pulling her out of the pooling fluid and taking an omni-tool scan.
"Anything?" Etel asked.
"Vitals are weak, but I can't say anything else with what I have," she answered as she gestured for Liara to take a scan as well. "Besides getting her some new clothes, what're we going to do with her?"
"We can't leave her here, and she might have information we need," Etel answered. "We'll have to…"
A loud crash suddenly cut them off and as Liara jumped in a panic, Tali took cover, with Etel and Williams both drawing and pointing their guns to the center.
As nothing followed up, Tali poked her head out and slowly made her way to the edge.
"I think the Thorian finally hit the bottom!"
"How far down does this go, the planet's core?" Williams asked incredulously.
"The ruins on Feros did actually go down into the planet's mantle…" Liara started.
Etel shook her head as she undeployed her shotgun. "As long as it's dead, I'm not worried about it anymore. What's your opinion on our new friend?"
"I'd say a shot or two of medigel," Liara suggested. "the skin looks to be burned."
"Digestive fluid," Williams nodded. "Best make sure she doesn't collapse on us."
"Right," Liara muttered as she held her omni-tool over the other asari. A few moments later, she stirred. Etel dropped her hand to her pistol, holding it ready, but the asari did not immediately leap up as she half expected, instead looking around.
"I'm… I'm free?" the asari asked, face blanking as she stared around.
"For now," Williams remarked as she held her shotgun closely. "Who are you?"
"Commander, she just…" Liara started.
The other asari sighed. "I suppose thanks for releasing me will need to wait."
Etel reached out and moved Williams' shotgun away. "Who are you - and what were you doing in there?"
"My name is Shiala," she explained as she slowly pushed herself back up, pausing regularly as she rose to make sure her captors were not trying to stop her, "I serve… I served Matriarch Benezia. And when she found Saren, I followed her."
"Why did she join Saren?" Liara asked, stepping forward. "Why is she…"
"She found him when we went searching for the Collectors," Shiala explained. "He approached us, telling us that he could speed the mission along, that he had recent contact with them. She hoped to figure out that mystery, and as she saw the influence Saren was beginning to wield amongst them and the geth, she joined him to guide him down a gentler path."
"Well that didn't work," Williams snorted as she glanced at the Thorian's chasm. "Benezia's raving like a fanatic."
"Yes, we all came to believe the cause as time went on even as we simply waited deep in geth space," Shiala conceded as she looked down. "The strength of his influence is troubling."
"Asari Matriarchs are some of the most intelligent and powerful beings in the galaxy," Etel retorted as she was trying to piece together what Saren had done, "How was Saren able to brainwash one?"
"Or brainwash Saren, for that matter," Tali added. "Didn't Nihlus say something about his skepticism?"
"He did," Williams nodded. "So, how'd this happen?"
"Saren too is a servant. He took us to a massive ship, a dreadnaught unlike anything I have seen. Even the Destiny Ascension is dwarfed by it's power. Ancient, powerful, bearing the scars of countless wars. It appears to be a ship, one that influenced the geth's own designs, yet it is more than wires and bulkheads…" she trailed off for a moment. "I can't quite explain it - it's more than a VI or even a true AI, but almost organic in its ability to think. You, you have to experience it to understand."
"So what, it's a living dreadnaught that can control minds?" Etel asked, not sure if she believed it yet her gut was telling her she was right.
"That may be the best way to describe it," the asari nodded. "It's influence is subtle - it takes days, weeks, or even months, but soon you forget other things. We all fell under its influence, no matter what brought us to him. Benezia's hopes for guiding Saren became advising him on the most effective way forward. The geth outright worship it as an 'Old Machine'. The krogan who came still speak of revenge, but as the enforcers of the Reapers reborn, not a rebuilt krogan empire."
"Enough that a battlemaster is raving like a cultist too," Tali added as she took a step back. "What are we up against?"
"Sovereign," she answered, "and a race to the Conduit."
The room fell silent save for the dripping of water and the remains of the Thorian shifting as it began to decay, and Etel found herself wondering. The vision on Eden Prime was jumbled, but the death, the destruction, the pain… but was it the Protheans' last desperate hours? And if so, what did she need to sort it out?
"So," Williams finally said as the silence was becoming too conspicuous, "Why were you in that thing anyways?"
"Saren needed a way to understand the visions of the beacons," Shiala explained before glancing to Liara. "I imagine that you too are after such, given you rescued Benezia's daughter."
Liara shifted uncomfortably. "Yes, well…"
"So how did the Thorian factor into it?" Etel weighed in. "That thing was ancient, but why did Saren make a deal with it?"
"He tried two beacons, one that gave him the vision and another to try and fill any gaps, yet even then he could not understand. When he learned of the Thorian, he hoped to gain an understanding of prothean physiology."
"That's it!" Liara gasped, "That's what we've been missing - prothean technology was built for it - remember what I said about interfacing it through ours?"
"A shortcut to get around it, right?" Williams asked as they turned to look at her.
"Exactly, but Shepard here has, well, part of that. She understood the panel on Therum, and that shard…" she stopped as the marine quickly put her hand across her throat in a quick warning to her.
"Your caution is understandable," Shiala nodded, "Saren's rage was considerable when Benezia returned empty handed from Noveria, but I can supply to you what he got from the Thorian. An intricate understanding of what it means to be prothean - their history, their culture, their very existence. It is a way to understand the signals the beacon implants into your brain. A cipher, so to speak."
"And the Thorian had it?" Etel asked.
"Much as a plant takes the nutrients of a decomposing body, so too did the Thorian consume the protheans when they fell. It predates them - millennia of hibernation broken up by centuries of frantic activity - and it would have done the same given time. The Thorian passed it to me, and I then passed it to Saren."
"So, you can pass it to us as well?" Etel could feel her gut tightening - there they went again, using her as a data drive for prothean relics and information. Suck it up, you're the only one who can, she told herself even if it did little to reassure her.
"It's the only way - it cannot be described anymore than you could tell a creature without eyes what colors are." The asari glanced side to side. "If I may?"
"We really should have Mordin check first," Williams growled, "Last time we tried…"
"Sharing memories is no worse than the usual melding process," Liara cut in. "And well, we may never get another chance at this. It's a risk worth taking."
"If you try anything funny, I have a shotgun," Tali added, glaring at Shiala.
"I'll try to be careful," the ex-commando said as she held he hands out.
Although hesitant, Etel disengaged one of her gauntlets from her armor and held her hand out. The former commando began to recite something under her breath, probably amping herself up for it, then gripped her hand and Etel was propelled out of her body again as the ex-commando's eyes went black.
The vision was much slower this time - less distorted sensations, something more physical. Some part of a body being slowly replaced with wires and synthetic hardware, a city on fire with its inhabitants vanishing in the flames, and something else in the shadow of a planet - some sort of sea creature with a dark exoskeleton, it's tentacles reaching out to grab before the vision faded.
Suddenly back in the dingy ruin, the trickle of water and the flicker of flames left behind by the earlier battle ringing in her ears, Etel blinked, seeing Shiala step back and stare at her, eyes no longer black.
"Shepard, you awake?"
"I'm fine Williams, just," she had to stop herself for a moment, "tired."
"You're looking a bit woozy, maybe we should've waited-" Tali started.
"I'm fine," Etel rubbed her head, which was aching worse than a hangover. "Just got a lot going through my mind right now." She winced as she saw her hand - now covered in the mess that had stained their armor when they had fought the Thorian's hordes.
"You just had the endemic ancestral memory of an entire civilization given to you," Shiala explained as she glanced side to side. "It will take some time to process it. I'm sorry, but there was no other way."
"If that's it," Williams said as she looked the way they came, "we should probably figure out what we're going to do with her."
"She knows a lot about Saren's plans - like, why were the geth attacking?" Tali pointed out.
"If you have any more questions, I would gladly answer them," Shiala nodded. "To answer that question, though - Saren ordered the geth and some of my comrades to kill the Thorian. He knows you were touched by the beacon…"
"It's not like it got shouted at his trial," Williams muttered.
"...and that you are following him. He thought to kill the Thorian before it could help you too."
"So how did you end up in that?" Tali asked, jerking her head to the pod.
"When Saren betrayed the Thorian, I was already under its thrall, and it used me to create a new form of its minions, one with biotics."
"That's just not right…"
Etel was only half paying attention to the conversation, her mind awash with things she could barely recognize. A colony, some sort of defense turret, a fleet of strange ships, diving underwater… and was that a biotic field between her teeth- No, there's not, she realized.
"Let's just get out of here," she finally said. "We'll hand Shiala over to the Duke and see about getting her transferred to the Citadel once this is all over."
"Right. And let's get her something to wear," Williams added. "Those clones were more than enough."
Far from Feros, at a rendezvous point between systems, a lone cruiser lingered. Calling it a cruiser would of course draw horror from those familiar with the Citadel's classification for ships - it was far larger than even a dreadnought, rocky in appearance. Deep inside the massive Collector ship, on a platform floating above the ship's vast storage compartments, a barefaced turian in grey armor sat, leaning his hand against his head as he was still processing the prothean's collective memories.
"What's the latest report from Feros?" Saren demanded. "Nihlus' team has cost us far too much."
"The next attack is prepared to move on Vartan's Landing now," an asari answered behind him, wearing her usual black attire. "The planetary defense force has taken control of the site, and there has been no sight of the Normandy's ground team assisting in its defense."
"They've gone searching for the Thorian," he growled. "First they stop us from seizing the Archimedes and that data on New Syracusae, then they tear through a Praetorian and Nakmor Strang on Therum, pave way for the Alliance and Empire to take back the Armstrong Nebula, and then on Noveria you couldn't even stop them…"
"My goal was to recover the echo shard," Benezia pointed out.
"And you couldn't even do that!" he screamed, his voice suddenly much deeper as he rose and grabbed her by the shoulders before the flash of anger passed and he let go.
"And now," he groaned as he stepped back, "They've taken out even more of our troops on Feros and we have little to show for it but destroyed garrisons and some ships destroyed or out of action for a few weeks."
Even as he vented the frustration, Saren had to admit to himself that Nihlus was once again proving why he was a Spectre in the first place. Very few could claim to have caused such havoc with such a small team, especially without casualties.
As silence fell over the platform save for the dull hum of the ship's mass effect fields, a geth drone flew up to them and beeped. Saren turned, tilting his head as he saw it was relaying an intercepted transmission. Giving it a nod, the drone projected two images - one of an Imperial officer, the other of an older man in battle armor with heraldry painted on.
"Duke Charles," the officer started. "What's the status of…" the intercepted transmission was garbled for a moment.
"Williams and Shepard…"garbled for a moment again, "up - the Thorian is dead."
"Thank God… the colonists?"
The answer was garbled, so the officer continued.
"Right then, you've got a geth strike group inbound…"
"Call it off," Saren growled.
"We may be able to eliminate Nihlus' team," Benezia pointed out as he turned away.
"Not with ground troops. They've cost us far too much." If the Thorian was dead, there was no point wasting any more assets on a pointless ground attack. "Order our ships to begin bombarding Vartan's Landing as soon as they have a targeting solution. All ground forces are to withdraw. Let the humans wallow in Feros' ruins."
The drone flew away to transmit the orders, leaving the two standing on the ship.
"Nihlus is crafty," Saren growled, "and his candidates are no fools. We need a plan to get rid of them when they dig themselves out."
"Perhaps we can use this?" Benezia asked, activating her omni-tool and playing one of the last pieces of audio that had come from their staging area at the ExoGeni building.
"How come I didn't recognize it?" a quarian asked, easily distinct by the helmet's filter.
"Tali, just because you're a quarian doesn't mean you know everything about them," Liara's voice answered back.
"No, but… well, I guess I just feel like I should know this. It's where I came from. Am I losing myself to the Empire?"
Shepard's voice cut in next, barely audible as it was presumably away from the recorder. "Tali, Liara, come on."
"Right," the quarian's voice answered, "Sorry, just… wondering."
Saren tilted his head. Implanting transmitters on the geth's shrines to the Old Machines was something he had not seen much value in, other than perhaps seeing how they acted for his own reference, but now it seemed to have offered something else.
"You have a plan?" he asked. "Preferably one that does not involve another battlegroup being decimated."
"We may suffer some losses to arrange it," the matriarch admitted, "but we do not need an army. Only the right ground and enough force to separate them. Then, therapy begins."
It was moments like this that Saren wished turian mouths were slightly more flexible - he always found asari and humans pulling their mouth and showing their teeth to convey satisfaction strangely fitting with how predatory a smile could be.
"Kaidan!" Ashley smiled as she strode through the room where her squadmates had been put a hand on his shoulder. "Glad you're up. Your migraines alright?"
"No," he admitted, sitting on a gurney with a hand on the back of his neck, "but when they said you went down there I was worried for you guys…"
"The Thorian's dead," Shepard supplied.
"That explains why we woke up," Nihlus said. Ashley let go of Kaidan and turned to look at him, frowning as she saw the turian Spectre. He had removed his helmet and was slumped against a wall, staring up past the ceiling.
"Are you okay?" Tali asked.
"None of us really are," Wrex grumbled. "Could use a hard drink though…"
"Later," Nihlus said finally as he took a deep breath and forced himself to his feet, scooping up his helmet. "Shepard, Williams, I want to talk to you two. In private," he added as Kaidan was starting to slide off the gurney.
Ashley glanced to Shepard, who shrugged. The two left with Nihlus, leaving the others with Tali to touch base and talk.
"Where's T'Soni?" the Spectre asked.
"Treating our new prisoner," Ashley explained. "We found an asari in some sort of digestive sac, Saren handed her over to the Thorian."
"Damn," Nihlus' mandibles twitched for a moment. "He was always willing to risk lives for intel… so, what did you get out of it?"
"A Prothean Cipher," Shepard explained as she shook her head. "Still bouncing around, but it might clear up the beacon's vision."
"Then maybe this fiasco will give us something," the Spectre growled. "On that, we need to address the scene you made with Anderson."
"I've got nothing to apologize for," Ashley pointed out with a shrug. "You were compromised."
"And did you know at the time, or was it just a hunch?" he retorted, leaving Ashley flat footed for a moment.
"We had the files and the time to take effect, so it made sense to assume the worst," Shepard cut in, covering for her.
"That's an 'assume' in there. And what if you were wrong, would you be able to live with the consequences if Garrus died of injuries because we could not abort, or if Kaidan died? Would you be able to live with that, Williams?"
"Against what could have happened had that thing started enslaving the crew?" She hesitated in finishing that thought.
"Enslaving the crew is reason enough to call off extraction," Shepard finished.
"Doesn't mean I wouldn't lose sleep if Kaidan died, though," Ashley nodded as she found her ground. "But, well… it's one of those calls being an officer forces on you."
"And one that being a Spectre will force on you," Nihlus continued as he nodded. "So, do you stand by it no matter what the consequences?"
"This isn't some wounded pride thing, is it?" Shepard asked as she folded her arms. "Because if Spectres are really that petty, I don't think I want to be one."
Damn, that came out harsh, Ashley thought as she glanced in surprise towards her. Nihlus seemed taken aback by the sudden venom too, but recovered quick enough.
"So, you both stand by this?" he asked.
"Of course," Shepard growled. "Ashley?"
She paused for a moment, then nodded. "We're either both right or both wrong."
Nihlus nodded, taking a step back. "Good, good… good."
Now it was Ashley's turn to frown. What was he playing at?
"I apologize for that, but I had to be certain you knew the gravity of defying Spectre authority," he explained as he held a hand out to shake. "You did well with a situation no one could have foreseen, and… well, I've never been good at this, but thank you for saving us."
Ashley tilted her head for a moment. "You were testing us, weren't you?"
"Only just now, before hand… yes, that was the Thorian," he admitted as Shepard took the hand and shook. "But this isn't the time, we'll talk more on the Normandy…"
Any further conversation was cut off by an alarm, and Shepard seemed to react first.
"God - that's a bombardment alarm!" She immediately hit the side of her helmet. Ashley tilted her head as the comms were suddenly ablaze.
"Geth ships moving into bombardment positions! Everyone take shelter!"
"There's not enough room for everyone here!" Nihlus cursed as they ran back to the hospital.
"We don't even know where the shelters are!" Shepard answered.
A plan suddenly flashed into Ashley's mind. "The Thorian!"
"The tunnels!" she answered, "We can fit everyone there!"
"There's no other way out, we'll be buried deep in…" Shepard started.
"Won't matter if we're dead!" the Spectre answered as they entered the hospital. "Grab anyone too wounded to move and get them down there!"
"I'll tell the Duke our plan!" Shepard said before running towards the command center.
Ashley did not even think and hurried inside where Kaidan was grabbing a stretcher, Shiala - now wearing medical scrubs - was helping him.
No time to ask questions, Ashley decided as she started shouting orders. "Into the Thorian's tunnels - there's not enough room otherwise!"
"You heard the commander!" Kaidan barked.
"This way!" Tali shouted as she grabbed an old man and slung him over her shoulders.
"She's Alliance!" one colonist started, "Does she…"
"Follow her orders!" another voice boomed and Ashley, grabbing an unconscious colonist Jenkins was trying to help, saw a face she barely recognized. Gavin Archer, carrying David. "She's right!"
The first slugs - long range shots with secondary batteries based on the fact she saw them sail well past the colony through the window - told them they were running out of time.
The bombardment went on for half an hour - not everyone was able to make it inside, some being hit as the analyst lab came down around them, but most who went for the lab made it. Those who went elsewhere was another matter. Even when they crowded into the remains of the prothean bio-lab and filtered into what remained of the Thorian's home, they could hear the thunder above.
Waiting was the worst part of war, and one Etel always despised. All she could do was wait, hope, and pray that they would survive. It was even worse when it came from the enemy bombarding - at any moment, her life would end through no failure of her own, just the cruel efficiency of modern warfare. And dealing with her mind flashing to ideas or random objects she barely recognized yet felt like she knew? It made it even worse.
"How's he holding up?"
"I'm fine, I'm… free."
Etel glanced over as she saw Duke Charles taking a knee next to the two Archers, David had woken up as they got him belowground, and Gavin was standing next to him.
"I'm not sure, the Thorian did a number on him, but…" Gavin sighed as he glanced behind as Etel stood over them. "He helped you find it, didn't he?"
She nodded. "He was in pain, but he managed to tell us about the lab. I think he figured his way around the Thorian's control."
"He was the first to notice something was odd," Gavin admitted as he looked back at his brother. "David, are you alright?"
"The pain… it's gone," the younger brother said as he smiled. "The thorns are gone, and the whip…"
"It's alright, it's over now," Gavin said even as the ceiling several levels up was rumbling.
"Of course," Duke Charles added with a grimace, "we'll need a way out of here now that the lab's gone…"
"There is another way." David added, "I saw a path. Covered in rubble. It can be opened."
"You remembered?" Etel asked, raising an eyebrow.
David simply looked up at her. "I listened to the geth. Remembered their paths."
"Wait a minute, you can understand the geth?" She had a hard time processing that. Even their translators had difficulty with the geth language.
He shrugged. "It's all math. One and zero, zero and one."
Etel frowned as Gavin glanced up at her, then to David.
"David," he said, "what's the square root of nine-hundred and six point oh-one?"
"Thirty point one," he answered instantly and Etel blinked.
"Mathematical savant," the duke added as he looked up at her. "But Gavin, your brother may have just opened the door to something incredible."
"Will it be quiet soon?" David asked, looking up.
"Soon, they won't be doing it forever," Gavin reassured as he took a deep breath. "But once this is all over, Duke Charles, I have to relinquish my title."
Etel took a step back. "Baron, your people need you now more than…"
"They need a leader who looks out for them, not one who drags them into his own desire for science," he spat back.
"Did you know?" Etel asked as she looked at him.
"N, no… I mean I had worries, but asking ExoGeni for help, letting them take some samples, studying the Thorian? The last scans I saw…" he took a deep breath, sharing his head. "It all seemed harmless. And the next thing I know, I enslaved every soul in my charge."
"We'll sort out who's fault this mess is later, but you wanted to pursue the sciences and had the chance," Charles weighed in as he looked at him. "And you're far from the only one to blame. I wasn't as vigilant as I should have been when I signed off ExoGeni's facilities. We'll go through the logs later."
"What logs? We deleted most of it when you came back."
"Tali found something on another ExoGeni facility," Etel offered. "I don't think we'll be able to hit it, but we can send it to the Administration and tell them to raid it, now." Assuming ExoGeni hasn't pulled strings, she thought as her uncle's evasion came up.
"Better than nothing," the duke nodded as he glanced up. Etel noticed it too - the bombardment had stopped. "Alright then. Sir Shepard, could your team escort David as he finds us a path? I'll talk to my men, see if we can't scrounge up enough flares to mark it."
"You don't want to bring everyone at once?" she asked with a frown.
"No point until you've found a path - it'll just be too confusing otherwise."
She bowed her head. "We'll get it done."
After regrouping, Nihlus leaving her and Williams in charge of leading the way out, David led them back up the stairs to a part of the wall that was collapsed in.
"So what happened here?" Williams asked.
"It's how we found the Thorian," Kaidan explained. "Then we went down, and well," he stopped for a moment. "It ended badly."
"You lasted longest," Wrex growled. "Last thing I remember was yelling at you to knock me out."
"Right, we're going to need to get this rubble out of the way," Etel looked it over. "Tali, scan it to make sure the rubble's not holding anything up. Otherwise, biotics clear it."
Tali's scan turned up nothing, so the four biotics started moving the debris until they were confident enough to simply blast it with four shockwaves. The rubble spilled out into the passage beyond, and clustered against the wall on the opposite side, but it was open and they had a way through.
"Let's start the trail here," Garrus suggested as he pulled one of the ones the PDF troops had on their belts.
As they started to move through, Etel whirled around as she heard something. To her shock, she saw two protheans looking up at something past the pile of rubble.
"Indoctrinated presence detected. Activating security protocol."
"You!" shouted a voice she did not see the source of and those two protheans whirled around, her own vision a blur, as if she was turning around as well.
"Hey, Shepard, what is it?"
Suddenly she was back to her senses, blinking as she saw all there was at the rubble: nothing but the flare that Garrus had just placed.
"I'm, I'm not sure, Williams," Etel admitted with a frown. "I could've swore I just saw two protheans over there," she pointed. "But they're obviously not."
"Maybe the Cipher's acting up?" Liara offered. "Shiala did warn us that it would take time to process. Maybe your mind has finally dealt with it enough you can actually see real memories, or maybe it's from the beacon's message."
"Maybe," she admitted as she shook her head. "I'm fine though, let's keep moving."
Nihlus nodded to David. "Lead on, Mister Archer."
The mathematical savant nodded and led them further up the stairs.
Making their way up went quickly at first, but soon they had to figure out alternate paths as the damage from the bombardment began to show. Partially collapsed passageways, loose stonework, and the occasional giant hole from the ceiling which left one in the stairs below.
And as she went, more of the images flashed before her.
Etel darted behind the railway as they passed through part of an aqueduct, looking up towards the bright light barely able to make it through from above, before stopping herself. The gunship - a model that she had no recognition of at all - was not there.
"Another one?" Liara asked as she put a hand on her shoulder.
"Yes," the knight admitted with a sigh. "Some sort of prothean gunship, I think. Feels like it was from that planet that shard left in my mind, though."
"Maybe the Cipher's finally translating what you saw?" the archaeologist offered as the two rose. Garrus was giving them a quizzical look before moving on as David led them around another bend, placing the flare to go with it.
"Good thing the geth didn't leave any surprises," Williams added. "Last thing we'd need is for that to happen in the middle of a fight."
Etel simply nodded as they moved on. They were getting closer, and Nihlus was even getting comm static now, but they still had some ways to go…
"Watch your left!"
Etel whirled around, shotgun suddenly in hand. "Varren!" she called as the memory - some attacking prothean with an orange glow along veins that seemed oddly familiar - faded and she saw the creature above.
Wrex growled at it, and the varren retreated.
"Hah! I think it remembered me!" the krogan chuckled.
"Nice job," Garrus said as he nodded to her.
"That wasn't me," Etel admitted. "I think it was another piece from that shard. Maybe the varren triggered it?"
Williams stopped, glancing at her, then to Liara, then finally shook her head. "You know what, this prothean stuff is a bit outside my paygrade."
"Above my station too," Etel admitted with a shrug. "But we'll deal with it once we're out of here."
"Don't wait too long, it's becoming too much of a problem," Nihlus growled as David pointed towards a doorway.
"Shuttle pad," the young man said. "Only looked out once. Geth used it to land units inside."
"Which means we'll be able to use it to get people out of here," Etel nodded as Nihlus and Tali set to work on getting the door open.
As it opened, things darkened despite the sunlight coming in. Not again! She silently groaned as she saw a prothean running up to her, fully armed with some sort of green glowing rifle.
"We've got it, Commander Javik! Let's go!"
"Move!" a voice she couldn't see, but felt as if it was her own, answered before the memory faded.
"Javik," she muttered.
"Shepard?" Laira asked.
"I think it's from that memory shard," she answered. "Just flashed back again, apparently those memories were from a 'Javik', a prothean commander. I think."
"If that's true then…" Liara took a step back. "Goddess, Shepard, you might've just completed one of the biggest finds since the discovery of the beacons."
"Let's worry about that on the Normandy," Williams weighed in as Nihlus stepped outside with his scanner.
"Yes, yes of course," Liara admitted as she glanced towards her. "But we may have finally found what we needed."
"I hope so," Etel answered as she put a hand on her head, which was still throbbing. "Because I'm not living my life with these random visions any more than I have to."
- After honestly far too long, this chapter is up. A combination of work, school, and also some back-and-forth on how to do the Thorian without glossing over it or doing too much repeat of what we all already know. To those who have stuck with the story despite these gaps - thank you.
- Regarding the memories - we said Noveria was going to be the start of one of the differences we wanted to work with. That was true, but Feros took far too long to actually properly 'unlock' it. Honestly that was a mistake on our part - should have put in more there earlier, or shortened up Feros. The next chapter will have that in full.
- For a Codex entry, the rest of the husks that was to be from Noveria. Bit overdue in posting, like everything this chapter.
Binary Helix Database - Husk Overview (Part II)
This is the second set of husk data, compiling our more recent information and much of our theoretical work. I hope that you never encounter some of these, but if you do these dossiers should include as much as we were able to learn from the project.
- Forward by Hans Olar to Spectre Nihlus Kryik
Banshees - Highly Dangerous! Many asari are carriers of the Ardat-Yakshi condition, which is part of why colonial asari developed such a stigma to mating within their own species. Even amongst pureblood asari however, it is fairly rare to see a fully realized Ardat-Yakshi. Dragon's Teeth bring these traits to the fore, amplifying their biotic potential to the point where the body is barely able to sustain it and making them easily the most powerful individual husk that can be encountered. Originally called "Screamers" by the lower ranked staff before undergoing an official rename following a non-screaming variant (see file BH-HA-005 for details), Banshees are terror weapons. Their shrieks serve to disorient opponents and strike an instinctive fear - a fear that is well supported by their arsenal of biotic powers including some form of biotic charge, warps, and powerful barriers. Furthermore despite their emaciated appearance, Banshees truly are the demons of the night wind that their genetics imply and can tear through even a krogan in armor with their claws.
Ravagers - Rachni Husks modified from their Soldier breed to serve as stable heavy weapons platforms. The rachni body is well suited for stability, spreading its weight across multiple evenly spread legs with enough force concentrated into each one to dig into soft terrain for reinforcement. Cannons fire high-explosive projectiles similar to High-Ex mods occasionally used on infantry small-arms. Gaps filled in with sacs to contain Swarmers, but once popped exposes an unprotected vein of caustic acid. Fortunately, efforts to modify the process to cover it have proven fruitless, see (BH-HR-034) for details.
Swarmers - Rachni modified from their Worker breed as indoor terror weapons. Possessing a single eye not unlike geth drones instead of a head, Swarmers are carried by Ravagers in their sacs to release when damaged or to ward off close quarter opponents. Capable of cutting through light armor with three pincer-like claws around the eye, they also explode into a shower of caustic acid when shot or stepped on. Extremely volatile when meeting kinetic barriers and triggers reactions from them. See (BH-HR-017) for details.
Boomers - Handle with Care; Prone to Detonation. Volus husks must be created in pressurized, ammonia based atmospheres in order to avoid subject from exploding naturally. Once complete, process adds unstable gases to the mix which explode with massive force when suit is ruptured. Extremely effective suicide bombers, more so than Abominations can ever be. Detonation tests have proven that even safety glass can be broken by these. The suits also act as a form of additional armor in the meantime, making them harder to destroy before detonation. See (BH-HV-002) for further details.
Krogan Husks - Their strength amplified by their increased size (particularly their heads and armored crests) makes them extremely powerful on the charge as a husk equivalent to a battering ram. However, so far we have not seen any particular variants of the husk other than some that have an enlarged head. We have considered calling these husks "Rammers", "Chargers", or with most support amongst the senior staff "Berserkers", but a designation has not yet stuck and was awaiting a vote when we ended our research. Given that reports indicate augmented krogan, we expect to see more of these in the field. Associated file (BH-HK-047) for the latest analysis.
Salarian Husks - Much like non-Abomination human husks, these husks lack any particular specialization, but they are noted for a different structure of control - a different 'brain' if you would - which has retained them a degree of intelligence even in absence of a controlling unit. Most husks simply bump into each other when left idle, while salarian husks actively avoid this. Fortunately, they do not seem to have any specialization as some other husk types have, but the only ones we had available to study were made on-site from corpses 'donated to science' or of 'condemned criminals'. As such, most of the research is incomplete but so long as a salarian colony is not struck they should not be encountered in any great numbers. Attached file (BH-HS-007) includes further details.
Stinger - Like our salarian subjects, we have not had any hanar 'from the field', only corpses which were almost certainly illegally acquired by Saren. However, the ones we managed to develop at Peak 15 as theoretical assets showed remarkable alacrity after impalement on Dragon's Teeth. The existing contra-gravity packs used by hanar beyond Kahje become far more thoroughly integrated into the body after huskification, allowing them incredible maneuverability. Furthermore, they were reinforced with a cybernetic skeleton to overcome the limits of their invertebrate bodies and their tentacles were transformed into electric diodes, all of which can be fully powered at once. This led to the callsign "Stinger" for the subjects. They also release a toxin gas, but nothing that standard filters were not able to handle. Fortunately, so long as hanar colonies are not attacked it is unlikely to see more than a few of these. File (BH-HH-002) includes details on the second batch we tested, which is where most of this data is drawn from.
Batarian Husks - Much like human husks, they have no particular standouts in their capabilities other than increased bulk. They do seem to possess superior visual abilities, but not enough to be a distinguishing ability. They lack a codename as a result. See file (BH-HB-001) for more details.