Strong arms wrapped securely around Chakwas as she jerked awake, a choked-off scream scrabbling for purchase in her throat.
She was trapped.
"No!" she screamed, struggling to break free.
"Easy, sweetheart, easy," a familiar voice soothed, the arms around her loosening fractionally. A stubbled jaw pressed against her chin, and the scent of eau de cologne and clean sweat settled around her. "It's OK, Karin, it's just me. I'm here," a familiar voice murmured in her ear. "I'm here, sweetheart."
"Greg!" she gasped, relaxing into his embrace, craving the security of his close presence.
"It's OK, it's OK. You were having a nightmare." He held her tightly, sensing her need, whispering soothing nonsense into her ear until her terror unlocked.
Sucking in a deep breath, she patted his hand. "I'm all right," she assured him. "Thank you, dear heart." Greg released her, letting her sit up, then recaptured her hand with his as he sat up beside her.
"Damn it," she whispered.
"That's the worst one you've had for a while," Greg commiserated.
"It was the Collectors," Karin told him unsteadily. "The abduction. When they took us all from the Normandy."
"Try not to think about it," Greg soothed.
"I have to," Karin replied, dropping a kiss on his arm. "I have to process it, Greg. We're all of us still decompressing from the horrors we've seen. Left bottled up, traumas will only fester. Like any wound, they need to be examined, cleansed, and treated."
Greg nodded. "Then talk to me. Why now? You were having nightmares about this on the Citadel, before the war—why would they resurface now?"
"I guess it's because of Charlie," Karin admitted. "Telling the story still has the power to wound, it seems." Closing her eyes, anchored by the warmth of Greg's hand on her arm, the sense of his closeness, she opened herself to the memories.
The battle stations alert sheared through the stillness of the midwatch.
Karin started, the datapad she was reading clattering to the floor. "EDI? What on Earth's going on?"
"We are under attack," EDI replied crisply. "The Collector vessel that has been tracking Shepard since Alchera has intercepted us."
"How is that possible?"
"There was a tracking program embedded in the IFF retrieved from the Reaper in Mnemosyne. Once activated, it transmitted our coordinates to the enemy, enabling them to locate us. I have engaged countermeasures, however, we are about to be boarded. Please take appropriate measures to defend yourself, Doctor."
Icy fear washed through Karin at the AI's words. In all her years as a serving military officer, she'd never had the misfortune to be on a ship that had been boarded, but a lifetime of drilled discipline galvanized her to action. Before she had completely thought it through, she'd hurried across to the one locker in the medbay she'd never had cause to open. Flipping the catch, she threw back the door and picked out a pistol and a shield generator. Clipping the generator to her lab coat, she activated it and primed the weapon, thanking God that she had no patients that could be used to compel her obedience.
"EDI, have you informed Shepard and the others?" she demanded.
"I have, however given their remove from our position, the shore party will almost certainly arrive too late to influence the outcome of this engagement. Excuse me, Doctor. I do not have the bandwidth to continue this conversation."
Swallowing her fear as best she could, Karin hurried to the door of the medbay and stepped out, only to be met with a cry.
"No!" Rupert Gardiner ran across to intercept her, an assault rifle looking woefully out of place in his gentle handyman's grip. "Stay inside, Doc!" he commanded shrilly. "We'll cover you from out here."
Karin shook her head. "I'm better off out here, Rupert. I don't want to get cornered."
Gardiner wasn't listening, however, shoving her back into the medbay with the brute strength of panic. "Stay in there, Doc. I won't let them get you."
"Rupert, listen," Karin objected. "We have to get out of here, find some of the others."
The only response was the doors beeping as Gardiner locked her in from the outside.
"Rupert? Rupert, open this damn door!" Karin bellowed, hammering her fist against the unyielding metal. "Right now!"
A terrified scream sheared through the wail of the alarms, followed by a panicked staccato rattle of assault rifle fire.
"EDI, unlock this door!" Karin demanded.
The AI did not respond.
"Damn it all to hell."
Weapons fire erupted again outside, pinging malevolently against the doors. Someone was trying to break in. Fear surged up Karin's throat from her chest, trying to suffocate her.
Don't panic, think, damn you!
The AI core. There was a ladder to the Engineering deck in the aft port corner. If she could reach engineering, maybe she'd be able to find backup. At the very least teaming up with more of the crew would enable them to support one another, perhaps coordinate a defence.
But even as she turned to move, she found herself too late. The door to the bay yielded to the invaders' assault, buckling inwards, and the wail of the alarms tripled in volume.
Three Collectors advanced through the gap, chittering rapidly as they brought their weapons to bear.
Karin opened fire blindly, all semblance of aim and focus deserting her in a moment of pure, unadulterated terror. The Collectors' shields flared once or twice, but the pistol wasn't heavy enough to discomfit them.
The clip ran dry, a futile clicking the only product of Karin's reflexive clawing at the trigger. Stricken, she backed up against her desk, but there was nowhere to go. She raised the useless weapon in a gesture of surrender, panic clawing at her throat. "Please," she gasped, "please… don't."
A sharp sting flowered in her shoulder, and she looked down to see a dart protruding from her uniform jacket. She touched it gingerly, bemused, as the room began to spin, and darkness rose mercifully to claim her.
She's floating, alone in the void, cocooned in an ink-dark ocean of calm. There are no stars, no sense of place. No smells, nothing to feel, or touch.
All she knows is the voice of a god.
The forces of the universe bend to us. We are Harbinger.
The voice commands all of her focus, every part of her being. It surrounds her, permeates her, demanding obedience, promising a future of limitless potential.
We are your salvation. Your genetic destiny.
Who are you? she calls.
I am the Harbinger of your perfection. Your ascendance. Cast off this mortal understanding, this insect's carapace you call life. Comprehend your place in the universe, as part of us.
Yes! She cries her acceptance into the darkness, but now, somehow, her refuge is no longer inviolate. Now, there is… pain.
Your body does not matter. The flesh is but a machine.
The darkness is splintering. The pain intensifies.
This body's pain is irrelevant. The voice has become strident, desperate. Angry?
No, she pleads. Mercy. Do not be angry with me.
And then, suddenly, she's torn away, cast out into…
Bright, stabbing light. And cold, the seeping chill that came with being soaked to the skin.
Karin squeezed her eyes shut, dragged in a deep breath, and the acrid, dry atmosphere started her coughing. As she tilted forward, her knees buckled beneath her weight. Armoured hands, strong and sure, slipped beneath her arms to lift her, then set her down on solid ground, steadying her. "It's OK, Doc, just breathe. Breathe. Take deep breaths."
Karin obeyed, and tripped another coughing fit along with a bout of retching that brought up a slimy, greyish mucus. She spat, gagging, and the hands slid around her waist, anchoring her against a solid bulk. "That's it, get all that gunk out of your tubes." The voice was familiar, husky with tension, reassuring and comforting. Karin wasn't sure she believed what she was hearing. After so long with the whispers in her head, she wasn't sure she could believe anything.
"Sh-Shepard?" she stammered weakly, opening her eyes and blinking against the light.
Garrus Vakarian stood a few feet away, back toward her, rifle trained on the corridor beyond. All around, she could see members of the Normandy's crew, sitting or kneeling, or even flat on the ground. Miranda was kneeling beside Kelly Chambers, Mordin was dispensing medi-gel to Rupert Gardiner, and other members of the ground team stood post, like Garrus, around the perimeter, keeping watch.
"Right here, Doc," Shepard replied from behind, the supportive embrace tightening for a moment into a squeeze. Karin turned around, looked full into the worried face of her friend, and felt tears of fear, relief, and gratitude well up.
"You came for us," she gasped, unable to quite believe it.
Shepard shrugged before enfolding the doctor in a solid, reassuring bear hug. "I'd never abandon my crew," she declared in a tone of steel.
"Thank you," Karin whispered, and Shepard's grip tightened.
"Christ, I'm so sorry, Karin," Shepard whispered. "Did they do anything to you? Hurt you?"
Karin shook her head, squeezing her eyes shut, comforted by the implicit promise of vengeance in Shepard's tone. "No," she replied weakly. "They were just h-holding us for… processing." She spat the euphemism in disgust. "But I could hear them in my mind…whispering. I listened… dear God, I was ready to just let them take me. I wanted to serve, I…." Her tears blurred her vision, and, unable to hold them back, she buried her face in Shepard's neck and wept shamelessly as the enormity of what had almost happened engulfed her in a flood of terror.
Shepard held her tightly, shielding her, until the storm of her shock passed, then she set Karin back gently.
"Let's get you all out of here. Joker and EDI are waiting for us—the ship needs some work before we can bug out. With all of you to help, our odds just got a lot better."
Karin looked around the huddle of scared, shocked humans. Having work to do would no doubt help them, but… "How do we even find the ship?" she asked, voicing the fears of the group. "If the Collectors find us again…" she shivered uncontrollably, hugging herself in a futile attempt at halting her rising panic.
Shepard nodded decisively and looked around her squad. "Mordin, Tali, Jacob—escort the crew back to the ship."
Mordin nodded agreement, but Tali and Jacob objected in harmony. "Shepard…"
"No arguments," Shepard barked. "Tali, you're done here. You nearly got cooked in those vents, and don't think I haven't noticed that suit puncture. You've taken enough damage, and we need you, Ken, and Gabby to fix the Normandy, or nobody goes home."
Tali stiffened, and nodded. "Got it, Shepard," she acknowledged.
"Jacob, the crew needs a leader, someone in command. You're it till you're dead or someone better comes along, you get me?"
Jacob grinned at the quote, and snapped to attention. "I get you, ma'am."
"Good." Shepard looked around, green eyes suddenly blazing with righteous fire. "We're going home, I promise. Just as soon as we're done sending these bastards to hell. They are going to pay for putting you through this. They may think they're hot shit, but nobody fucks with my crew and walks away. These motherfuckers are history." She met Karin's gaze for a long moment, and the doctor nodded fierce agreement as anger surged through her, scouring away the terror.
"Kick their arses for us, Commander," she offered, and a ragged cheer rippled through the crew.
"Fuckin' A, Chakwas, that's the spirit," Jack approved with a feral grin.
"You heard the lady, people," Shepard called her team to order. "Samara, Miranda, Legion, with me, the rest of you with Garrus."
Garrus thrust his chin at Shepard. "She's Commander Shepard, and this is her favourite part of the mission. Ass-kickin' time." He primed his rifle. "Let's go take some names, Shepard," he offered, holding out a fist, and Shepard grinned as she bumped it.
"Bring it, G. I'll race you to the next checkpoint. Five hundred credits says I get there first."
"I'm gonna enjoy spending your money, Shepard."
Shepard smirked. "Your overconfidence is your weakness."
"Your faith in your friends is… oh, shoot." Garrus bumped Shepard's fist with a wry grin, and moved off, priming his sniper rifle with an audible whine. Shepard turned to Karin.
"Look after the crew, Doc. They'll need a lot of tlc. And don't let Tali tell you she's fine. She needs a good check-up, her suit was red-lining."
Karin nodded, grateful to have a professional task to focus on. "I will. Hurry back, though, Shepard. This place is evil. I can still hear it whispering."
"Not for long," Shepard promised. "I am going to burn this fucking house down around Harbinger's ears. Whatever delusions of godhood he might have, his sick-fuck little science fair ends today. Nobody else is dying in this hellhole." The blaze in her eyes intensified as she primed her assault rifle, and Karin felt goosebumps break out all over as she saw, for the first time since her resurrection, the true manifestation of Commander Rachel Shepard— soldier, Spectre, and big damn galactic hero—at the peak of her not-inconsiderable powers.
The Collectors had no idea what was about to hit them.
"We'll be waiting for you, Commander," she promised. "Good hunting."
A/N: Whew! Having a) completed drafting on my original fics, and b) battled through Andromeda, I'm getting back into my saddle here. Hope you guys are all doing well! :)