"Delta Two, please repeat your last."
"…-tain…approaching zone one. All clear."
"Confirm, Delta Two. Has the Destroyer been eliminated?"
"Roger, Alpha One. Clean hit with the Thanix. No th-….standby."
"Repeat, Delta Two. Say again?"
"-amn!...got…interference. Multiple bogies inbound! Engaging."
"Delta Two. Hold position. We're on our way."
"Neg-…. Continue to the rendezvous! We'll hold them off!"
"Maintain present heading, Delta Two. We need to reach the beam with the group."
"I copy, Alpha One. Moving to- wait…Harvester! Get down! GET DO-"
Shepard breathed out as he rested his back against the interior of the transport. He closed his eyes, savoring the temporary respite that he'd won while fighting for his life in the streets. The APC jolted, sending the commander airborne for a second before the vehicle found a smooth patch of road that was untarnished by the intense warfare.
Not five minutes ago, he and his squad were pinned down in the middle of an intersection by Reaper forces, masses upon masses of converted beings trying desperately to halt them in their tracks. He recalled wading into the slaughter, bathed in gore as he dispatched wave after wave of husks and other Reaper troops. They had been living beings once, independent and free. Now they were slaves to their will, resigned to their fate.
If he had been alone, he would never have made it out alive. Even over the screaming of banshees, his friends had not wavered, giving him the strength to persevere in light of unfathomable odds. He was proud of them, proud of all of them. To his left sat his best friend, Garrus Vakarian, a turian who he had known since he became a spectre for the Citadel Council. The two were practically inseparable, both yearning for order in the galaxy and each respecting the other's abilities while occasionally trading friendly banter in the mess.
Leaning on his right, however, was the lithe form of a quarian, draped in black and gold armor. Tali'Zorah vas Normandy, his chief engineer, his friend, and his lover. Shepard could not see her expression behind the frosted purple of her visor, but he could feel the anticipation radiating from her body language. She was on edge, they all were. But most of all, she was scared at losing the human that she currently relied on for support.
Having been part of Shepard's crew for a long time, Tali recalled the feeling as she watched the Normandy SR-1 explode into flames from a Collector attack. She vividly remembered watching the view from the escape pod and slumping in her seat as she thought that her commander had been ripped from her life forever.
Two years later and, despite the overwhelming evidence, Shepard walked through a door on a human colony, Freedom's Progress, and Tali's whole life was turned upside down in an instant. She initially didn't believe that he could be here, that he was alive, but he had reassured her otherwise and her heart had soared. She was overjoyed that he had returned from the dead but even more so, she felt something different then, that there was a hole in her life that had a piece missing. She did not understand it at the time but she had slowly progressed towards deeper feelings toward Shepard, feelings that she was unable to emote on her own.
As if the galaxy was listening to her thoughts, their paths happened to collide when Shepard had been talking to her and he suddenly indicated his interest in her during the middle of a conversation. All the blood had rushed from Tali's head at the time and she was unable to form a coherent word at the fact that he wanted her and no one else. She could not understand it, even though she was extraordinarily happy. How could he have fallen for her? She was only a silly girl and he couldn't even see her face. The more she thought about it, the less sense it made. However, despite that part of her brain that was telling her that she was getting her hopes up, he had repeatedly emphasized that he wanted to be with her, overcoming her natural instinct to duck away in embarrassment.
It had been one of the best moments of Tali's life when she realized that her feelings were reciprocated in force and was one of the reasons that she was right next to him now, to ensure that no one would ever take him away from her again. She pulled on his arm to reassure herself of this fact and Shepard gently put an arm around her shoulders, making her relax as she adapted to his comforting presence. She was still scared but beneath her burned a confidence that was not there previously three years ago. Shepard had taught her to be brave, even when death stared you in the face. She would not break, he needed her as much as she needed him.
As much as Shepard himself was calmed by the quarian's soft touch, he still worried about his other crewmembers. He had sent the majority of his crew across different sectors of London, dividing them up into three teams, with the purpose of meeting at one location, a landmark that was new to the skyline: a beam, created by the Reapers that served as a transport to the Citadel, which now hung overhead in Earth's atmosphere. The Reapers had moved the immense station here after they had been alerted of Shepard's plan to dock their weapon, the Crucible, to it in a final effort to rid the galaxy of the Reapers once and for all.
No one could offer an explanation on how this beam acted as a transport, only that it was directly in the line of sight of the station and that forces were pouring from the light unscathed. It wasn't much but it was the only plan they had.
The orchestrator of that part currently sat across from him. David Anderson, Admiral, was sitting upright, face grim as he spoke.
"From here on in, it's a straight shot to the beam." His leg was jittering nervously in anticipation, not that anyone could blame him.
A man near the front of the vehicle scowled, "A straight shot with Reapers trying to crush us along the way." Shepard did not know the man, Major Coats, all that well. Anderson had made the brief introduction when he had first made landfall and proceeded to skip any niceties entirely, moving straight on to business. From the way he handled himself and the confidence with which he gave orders, it was clear that the major was very capable at his job.
"We just need to get a handful of troops through," Anderson assured. "That's all we need."
The APC rocked as it swerved over more potholes in the ground, sending everyone lurching to the side. Garrus huffed in annoyance as his bulky armor clanged against the side of the vehicle, not allowing his back to extend fully.
"That all?" the turian commented dryly.
Anderson sighed, "We knew this was going to be a gamble at best. But we had to try."
Shepard nodded, gently extracting himself from Tali's grip as he stood, "I…can't think of anyone else I'd rather do this with. My mentor, my friend, and…Tali."
Tears starting to form behind her visor, the quarian stood to match him as she fiercely embraced the human. "J-John," she gasped, unable to form any more words as her fear overpowered her motor functions.
Shepard sat back down as he returned the gesture, being that ever present rock for Tali to cling to. She sniffled and shook her head apologetically as the rest of the people in the vehicle briefly looked away, trying to give them a moment of privacy.
"We'll get it done, Tali," he assured. "Don't be scared. I'm here for you."
"We'll face it together," she said, voice a little stronger. "I've been with you all this time. I'm not backing out now."
Shepard mentally frowned. As much as he respected her decision to come with him, he was still racked with indecision. This was going to be a dangerous mission, what if she got hurt? Would it make sense to send her away? Would she understand his reasoning? But he pushed his thoughts aside as he realized that she was willing to die because she loved him so much. What she said was true, she would let nothing get in the way of them being together, not even himself.
Garrus coughed loudly as he now stood, stretching out to rid himself of the back pain that he recently developed from sitting in the uncomfortable seats.
"Feels like this fight's always been ours to finish," he groused. "Had I known I would be in this deep at this point, I might have passed up your offer to go after Saren."
Shepard grinned, "Despite your complaints, you stubborn turian, you would still regret not getting into the thick of things. You always relished a good fight." He strode over to the armored turian to give him a bear hug, to which Garrus responded to just as forcefully, both wrapped in a brotherly lock.
"We're in sight of the target," Coats called out before frowning. "Ericson, you blasted idiot, can't you see there's a pothole right in front of you? To the right, dammit!"
"Sorry sir," the driver said sheepishly. "Thought it was part of the road for a second."
"If you had hit that damn thing, it would have disabled the vehicle."
Anderson banged on the hatch as the vehicle slowed on top of a small hill, "All right people, this is it."
Everyone in the APC clambered out as the admiral was the first one to step out the door. The cool air of London washed over their faces and they stopped in their tracks as they looked towards where the front of the vehicle was pointing.
Tilted at a downward slope, about half a mile away, shone a bright beam of pure blue light as it extended to the heavens. Three huge columns, Reaper in design, flanked it in a triangle formation as they too blotted the sky with their reach. The beam was situated in the middle of a shallow crater, the sides pockmarked by bits of debris and wreckage, with ash coating the entire landscape.
Tali cocked her head, "Wait, are we not going down there?" From her vantage point, she could see vehicles of every make and model lining around the crater as they prepared to make the next move. Ground troops were nervously mingling about beside them but their group was making no such preparations.
Anderson shook his head, "We don't need to go down there yet. We only need to wait and see if any on our side make it."
"It puts us out of harm's way for once," Shepard agreed. "It looks like it will be enough so much as-"
He groaned as the voice filled his head, the feeling like it was grating inside his mind. He dropped to a knee as Tali knelt beside him, worried.
"Shepard? John, what is it?"
"It's…not good…" he gritted.
"What? What's not good?"
Shepard tilted his head to meet her gaze, "Harbinger."
As if on cue, an enormous object, two kilometers long, hurtled out of the sky to land right behind the beam, sending the ground quaking as dust flew from where it made contact. Straightening on its huge appendages, the Reaper known as Harbinger seemed to gaze everywhere at once, yellow eyes glinting maliciously.
You cannot win, human.
A roar filled the air, sounding like an amplified rendering of a garbage lid. Shepard covered his ears against the audial assault, groaning as his mind was invaded by the unwelcome presence. He clutched his head as Tali looked over him, Garrus in a state of confusion.
Despite the noise, Anderson raised his omni-tool to his mouth and yelled, "Hammer squads, go, go, go!"
The order given, hundreds of vehicles suddenly sprung down towards the beam in the center of the crater, some firing on the massive Reaper to distract it. Instantly, a beam of red shot from the undercarriage of Harbinger and merely touched a Mako, causing it to detonate, disintegrating the soldiers running alongside it. In the wake of several bursts along its armor, a second beam materialized and simply swiped across, downing three Mantis gunships in the air.
The cycle will continue. The harvest will not be delayed further.
With machine precision, the Reaper continued to expel red death, never missing as it hit vehicle after vehicle, man after man, each one ceasing to be after they were pelted by Harbinger's onslaught. It was a better fate than indoctrination.
Anderson grimaced, "We're going to need a distraction." He raised his tool and activated the comm, "Sword, we need a diversion. Send all fighters to my coordinates and fire at will."
"Acknowledged, Admiral," came the curt response. "ETA four minutes."
"Admiral," Coats warned. "With that Reaper decimating everything in sight, we won't have four minutes before it turns on us!"
You will know pain, Shepard.
Shepard looked up, finally processing the terrifying sight before him. The Reaper stood victorious on the killing ground, no living soul stood in sight. The legs on Harbinger bent slightly and he knew what was going to happen the second before it did.
"Move!" he yelled, grabbing Tali and hurtling away down the hill. The APC they had been standing next to exploded, metal showering their position as a mixture of red and orange flame spouted into the air. The blast knocked Shepard to the ground as he rolled a few feet, Tali torn from his grasp. He gasped for air as the ash threatened to constrict him.
Rubbing his head, he looked over to see Tali lying beside him. Concern gripping him, he stood up and proceeded to run a hand along her body, checking for injuries.
"Are you hurt?" he asked. "Talk to me, are you okay?"
Tali nodded faintly, "I…I'm fine. A little shook up, but fine."
Shepard detected some hesitation in her voice and wordlessly activated the scan function on his omni-tool as he briefly swiped it across before addressing Tali, "You're not fine. You've got a cracked rib and a minor suit puncture."
"It…it's nothing," she gasped, desperately trying not to show her pain. "The breach is sealed and the rib…is fine. I can still fight."
"Shepard!" a new voice called. He looked up to see Anderson, a little singed but otherwise fine, with a familiar turian draped around him. He exhaled in shock as Garrus was gently laid to the ground.
"How bad is it?"
"Broken leg, but he'll survive."
"Gone to rally another wave but we can't do anything with that Reaper in that position."
"Shepard," Tali pleaded. "We can wait for a bit and then I'm-"
Shepard didn't acknowledge her as he cut her off, speaking into his comm, "I need a pickup at my location, does anyone read?"
"What?" Tali asked, confused. "Why-"
"I'm inbound to your location now, commander," a familiar voice burst through the interference.
In spite of himself, the human smiled, "Cortez? Is that you?"
"Affirmative commander. Grabbed a spare Kodiak after I'd shaken off the shock. Should be right on top of you in no time."
Shepard grinned as he spoke, "Just don't get shot this time, Cortez."
The man on the other end laughed, "Never again, Shepard."
True to the man's word, within moments the familiar boxy blue shape of the Kodiak shot through the skeletons of the nearby neighborhood and set down, out of Harbinger's line of sight. Shepard and Anderson grabbed each of Garrus' arms as the turian groaned, carrying him over to the shuttle. As Tali bent over to strap him in, Shepard leaned into the cockpit and quietly spoke to Cortez. Out of her peripheral vision, she could see the dark skinned man nod slightly, as if he was nervous about something, but what, exactly?
Shepard quickly moved past her without so much as a second glance, quickly stepping off the shuttle to rejoin Anderson outside. When Garrus was securely in place, she patted the side of his head as she moved to join Shepard. However, before she could accomplish that, the door to the shuttle slid shut, cutting her off from him.
She whirled to face Cortez but the pilot had locked himself in the cockpit, isolated from anyone. Her mouth open in shock, she could now see Shepard's face, downtrodden with regret. She threw herself at the door banging on it with her hands in the hopes that it would miraculously open. A sob came out of her throat as she opened a private channel to the man on the other side of the door.
"J-J-John…why?" she said quietly.
"I had to make sure you would get out of here, Tali," he said, voice slightly cracking. "It was the only way."
"B-but…I can't leave…please," she was starting to cry, tears falling unseen behind her visor. "Don't…don't leave me behind…"
"I…" Shepard wilted. "I need you to make it out of here alive. I needed to know that you were safe." He walked over to the side of the shuttle, to the window to which Tali's gaze was glued. He lifted a hand to touch the glass, her hand moving to the same place, separated by just the pane. "Get back to Rannoch, build yourself a home."
"But…John," she cried. "I have a home."
Through the glass, she swore she could see a solitary tear from his eye but he quickly wiped it away as he pulled his hand back, "I love you, Tali. Never forget that."
"I love you, John," she pleaded. "Come back to me."
Shepard stepped away from the shuttle, eyes never leaving Tali as he did so. He raised his comm as he spoke to Cortez.
"Get out of here, Steve."
"Roger that," came the somber reply.
As the craft lifted into the dark sky, Tali couldn't help but be reminded of how she felt two years ago when she last saw him on board the Normandy when it was destroyed. To see him now shrinking in the distance opened the floodgates, her bottled emotions all rushing out at once as she collapsed on the floor of the shuttle, bawling as the feeling of helplessness surrounded her. The miserable sounds that came through her voice modulator went by unfiltered as she started to shake in her sorrow.
John…please live. Come back to me. I need you.
"You did the right thing, son," Anderson said gravely as they ascended the hill again.
"It doesn't feel that way," Shepard muttered darkly.
"Then focus on what feels right for you," Anderson indicated. "We're about to win this war so don't give up on me yet, soldier."
"Aye, sir," Shepard straightened.
Suddenly, a roar of thrusters powered through the empty air as five SX3 fighters screamed out of the clouds, their main guns blazing with energy. Reaching the top of the hill again, they could see that Harbinger was now focused on engaging the nimble fighters as they scurried around its beams.
"We gotta move!" Anderson yelled. "That's the distraction!"
Grunting, both men dropped down a small ledge and after an initial hesitation, took off at a full sprint. Despite the heavy armor, Shepard managed to keep pace with Anderson but it was having an effect on his stamina as he was starting to tire a lot quicker. He still hadn't regained all the energy he'd lost from fighting in the streets earlier and now he was paying the price.
Harbinger still hadn't noticed the two tiny humans scurrying towards the beam but by this time had downed two of the fighters that were swarming it as it started to comprehend their attack patterns.
Anderson was now several meters ahead. Occasionally he would look back at Shepard but he just waved a hand to further him on, now was not the time to focus on everyone. It was every man for himself. Sweat was pouring into his eyes as his breath rasped in and out. His legs burned as he put one foot in front of the other, his heart was racing so fast he thought he would go into cardiac arrest if he kept this up. And it still looked like they hadn't even made it halfway yet.
An explosion a hundred meters away caused him to glance to the right as he ran. It was the last SX3, Harbinger had nothing to distract him now. The Reaper loomed over the two, letting loose a powerful roar that shook Shepard's bones.
You are nothing but an annoyance.
A burst of red flared in front of him as the beam struck. Clutching to his combat instincts, he rolled to the side as death passed by only inches away. Another roar struck as Harbinger readied for another attack. Two beams this time exploded the ground but he merely ran in the opposite direction, weaving between the redness as they missed again.
Shepard was heaving as his breath did not seem to come back. He couldn't stop now, the beam was right there. He was going to make it.
His foot caught on a stray piece of shrapnel and he let out a yell as he tumbled. His hands shot out to catch his fall onto the broken concrete, shouting as the impact reverberated through his arms. He started to scramble to his feet, but not before the familiar voice rendered through his head once more.
Shepard's body was too tired to even move. He clutched his side as he gazed upon the beam that was bearing down on his position. The red, mixed with the blue from the beam, was so beautiful. He smiled as his world started to heat up.
I'm sorry, Tali.
Shepard's world flared red hot before he faded into blackness.
"Did we get anyone to the beam?"
"Negative, our entire force was decimated. It's too much! We need to regroup! Fall back to the buildings!"
He was not dead. It seemed the gods of war had other plans for him yet.
Shepard groaned as the voices flitted through his communicator. White spots were playing with his vision, he was unable to discern anything for a few seconds. He recognized Coats' voice on the comm, Anderson said that he'd retreated to rally another group.
Interestingly, Shepard saw a huge form fly from its position on the ground, its yellow eyes ablaze. Harbinger. The Reaper was leaving the fight. Why was that? Was it pursuing Coats, thinking that it had properly dealt with him? Or was it leaving to go somewhere else, the Citadel perhaps?
Was that where Anderson was now? He had been in front of Shepard the whole time, and he wasn't with him now. Did he make it to the beam? Did that mean that the Crucible was in place?
He desperately wanted to be with Anderson. He needed to witness the final moment together. Shepard tried to sit up, but yelled as pain shot through his body. He spat blood from his mouth as he now looked down at himself.
His eyes widened in shock, the chestpiece of his armor was completely melted, the form distorted all out of shape. His gauntlets were gone, leaving the skin underneath slightly singed and cut up, but not too bad regardless. He felt his face and his hand came away bloody. Evidently there were some cuts to that area that were oozing blood. His side ached, he couldn't tell if he had broken a rib or not but his breath was coming in short gasps.
He got to his feet, fighting a wave of dizziness as he stood. His back did not want to seem to stand erect so he had to hunch forward until the pain had been lessened to its fullest extent. He put one leg forward and winced as a clearly broken ankle was unable to support his full weight. Stumbling through the pools of water that collected around the base of the beam, he continued to limp as he set it in his sights.
His pistol was still attached to his belt, the only weapon that was, and he unhooked it with his right hand, hanging it loosely by his side. Red was starting to creep into his vision, he growled as it was starting to constrict, a headache was starting to form. Desperate to peer through his haze, he could see that, from behind a large piece of building, three husks had suddenly burst from their hiding spot. Shepard immediately raised the pistol and brought it so that the sights fell across the head of each husk. Three shots loosed, three bodies fell, all of them now missing their heads.
Mumbling in determination, he limped forward some more, the red now enveloping everything that he could see. He raised a hand to try and somehow wipe away the intruding filter when at that moment, he felt a pain in his left side and fell heavily to the ground.
He shouted as his knees connected with the concrete and looked up to see a marauder leveling a rifle at him. Without thinking, Shepard pointed the pistol and squeezed once. The marauder stumbled backwards as its shields dropped and finally fell as one more shot burst apart the ex-turian's chest, watery, black discharge spewing everywhere.
Shepard groaned as he felt his side where the bullet had hit him. His shield generator must have been fried because it had cleanly passed right through him. He was bleeding heavily but he had no medi-gel to stem the flow. There was nothing he could do about it now as he got to his feet once more and pressed on, determined to reach his glowing objective.
His foot made contact with a smooth surface as he approached the beam, there was a vibrating in the air, a pulse that was rushing through his ears. He stumbled forward, pace increasing as he held out a hand, trying to touch what awaited him on the other side.
The light was overwhelming as Shepard felt like his body was being torn apart one molecule at a time. It was enveloping his entire being, he was now part of the brightness. Opening his mouth, he screamed as his presence vanished from the earth.
Well, well, well, didn't expect me to be back so soon, huh?
Working on the last bunch of stories, I had gained the confidence that I would be able to write my own alternate ending to Mass Effect 3.
That's essentially what this is: a headcanon. It will be loyal to what you see in the games, but from what you could already tell, I have changed up things a bit and they're only going to get more interesting from here.
Chapter updates will be a little more sporadic this time around due to a few events in my schedule taking priority but this will be completed within a few weeks, despite it being half as long (chapter-wise) as anything that I have previously written. But that doesn't mean that I don't intend to skimp on detail. I plan on this being as comprehensive as I can make it (but your standards and my standards are two completely different things) so stick around for a bit.
This will be fun to write as it is my first time writing a Shepard based story and the fact that this is going to be more accessible for casual ME fans.
I'm curious to know what you think of the switch so drop a review if you like what you see (...or if you hate it. That is the other half of reviews I guess).
Enjoy the ride and I'll see you at the end!
Edit: apparently there was another story that went by the name I had initially set so I changed it. Sorry for the confusion!