Earth - Approximately one year after the end of the Reaper War
It hurt to run.
Danton could feel every single molecule in his body cry for respite, but he did not stop. He could not stop. Not now. It just wasn't his time.
Each time the thought came into his head for him to slow down a bit, perhaps ease the pain in his legs some, another part of his brain overrode that foolish notion and urged him on, begging for him to keep going – to speed up at least, for god's sake.
Danton's throat itched fiercely, like he had poured liquid fire down it. His breath came in rasps, his lungs straining to tear the air out of the sky itself. His mouth was agape as he ran, allowing saliva to drool freely down his chin. As he whipped his head from side to side, flecks of spittle flew everywhere, some splattering down his damp shirt. Sweat poured into his eyes, irritating them as the salty drop dripped into them. Tears joined the mix, brought on by panic and adrenaline, not sorrow and anguish.
He clutched at his chest, wheezing as his feet flew over the crumbling rubble of the street. Danton managed a hacking cough, almost bringing him down to the ground. His feet kicked at a loose stone, sending it clattering over the cobbled pavement. He continued going straight, past the cloud of dust, through the thoroughfare, and almost ended up into the Vltava, his feet barely skidding to a stop as he wheeled his arms to halt his momentum.
The dirty waters of the River Vltava had been like this for more than a year now. Once a sparkling ribbon of blue, the arrival of the Reapers had completely thrown all of the debris of the old city of Prague into the water itself, staining it the dirty brown color it was today. Danton had never seen the historical town in all its glory before, having spent most of his childhood on the Citadel, but he had seen pictures of times more fortunate in the area, when Earth was still relatively untouched by the hands of the machines.
Whereas the magnificent architecture would normally loom above the short houses of the downtown area, now there were just shells. Stones and other sorts of rubble now piled up in the streets, still waiting to be excavated after all this time. The historic district had been cleaned up by this time but the surrounding neighborhoods still looked like a ghost town. Apartment doors were kicked down, every single window on every floor smashed to bits. Any paint left on the walls had been scuffed or blackened by fire. A constant shroud of dust clung to the dying city, coating its residents in a reminder of what they used to have.
That dirt is what Danton wiped from his face as he nervously teetered on the edge of the wall that separated the sidewalk from the diseased river. Bouncing his weight from foot to foot, the human's eyes scrambled around before he found a footbridge, just a short distance away to his left. Thanking whatever deity was looking out for him, he bent over to cough up a lung before he tenderly resumed his prior pace again.
As Danton crossed the bridge, the warm autumn winds tugged at his coat now that he was out in the open. No longer in the brown mist, the sun was allowed to shine freely between the patchy clouds overhead. It was a beautiful day in Prague, the morning promising better things to come later. He could even see the towering steeples of the churches over the broken homes, flocks of pigeons orbiting around them like they were magnetically bound to them. If he listened hard enough, he could swear that he could hear the rumblings of a normal city.
Danton's moment of mental relaxation only lasted five seconds in real time, though. The gravity of the situation tugged at his subconscious, pulling him back down to the ground. Remembering why he was here, Danton now focused fully on running, not daring to look behind him. It did not matter how much his chest ached, or how badly he wanted to throw up, he could not stop unless he was absolutely sure that he was safe. As much as he appreciated the scenery, it mattered little to him in the grand scheme of things. He needed to get to the safe zone; Argeir would have troops that could protect him. All his life he had been sheltered by more powerful men, his purpose only to provide an extra step so that others could make the climb. Argeir was just the latest in a long line of masters, but a just master he was, and Danton was in the position to test the limits of the man's justness
Reaching the end of the footbridge, Danton hopped over the hood of a skycar, its body cracked, its windows bashed to hell. Yet another casualty of the Prague Rejuvenation League's laziness, but such sights were common in practically every city on the planet. Hell, in the galaxy even. Jumping off the transport, Danton's foot caught on a broken brick that had been hidden behind the skycar and he finally went down, rolling along the rough terrain, his knees smacking painfully on the concrete.
Gasping angrily, Danton gingerly pushed himself back to his feet, his palms scraped, his knees banged up. Blood was now starting to ooze through his jeans, due to him skinning his legs. Now with a slight limp, curses were barely uttered as he hobbled forward, intent on reaching the sector of the city under Argeir's control. It was only a few more minutes at this pace and he would be home free. Full of hopeful thoughts, Danton was therefore shaken from them as a snap shot past his ear, causing him to instinctively jump to the side as the bullet from a sniper rifle passed feet from his body to embed itself into the stone pillar at the opposite end of the cobbled road.
Danton's momentum hurled him through the window of an abandoned storefront and he cried out as shards of glass cut into his skin. It was not plate glass, thank god for that, but safety glass that fragmented into granular bits. The cuts were all superficial anyway, but it looked to Danton that he had just wandered through a slaughterhouse. Dripping even more blood, Danton staggered through the empty pub (he now recognized that it was a pub that he had wandered into) and blindly pushed through the doors, desperate to reach an exit. Throwing his weight into a charge, he burst through the next gateway and stumbled back outside into a shadowy alley, just a few meters away from where he had originally entered. He edged back further a bit to make sure he was out of sight from the main road and, his body finally reaching its limit, finally bent his head and vomited onto the dirty pavement.
A sickly smell came to Danton's nostrils, causing another wave of nausea. He spat the remains of his digested breakfast from his mouth, wiping it with his sleeve and wincing at the foul aftertaste. Danton felt rather faint as he straightened up and he temporarily lost his balance, stumbling over so that his back was against the wall, supporting him.
A quick rattling from the end of the alley caused him to jolt in alarm. His hand shot inside his coat but he relaxed as soon as he saw two children, a boy and a girl, quietly shuffle their way out of a nearby refuse bin, covered head to toe in dirt.
Danton relaxed the grip on his pistol as he watched the children scamper off, frightened by the bleeding and vomiting man. Orphans, he guessed. Beggars torn from the civilized world thanks to the holocaust the Reapers had brought to Earth. The city was probably full of them, a complete underground filled with homeless people struggling to gain back their old lives most likely existed in every city that was war-torn. This probably was not a place for him to linger. He needed to get moving again.
He did not want to risk going back out into the main road again, so Danton followed the path the children had taken. He walked amongst the rubbish, watching his step so that he would not pierce his foot on a stray bit of glass or trip on another brick.
A crossroads in the alley soon came up, but thankfully, one of the routes showed light at the far end. A way out of the gloom. Now grinning, Danton crossed over a sea of broken pallets as he headed for the exit, the rotted wood snapping when he put all of his weight on the boards. Trying to walk faster despite the debilitating cramping in his legs, he could not help but limp regardless of how close he was to safety. Now he had a good idea of where he was - Argeir's sector was just over the next set of apartments. Danton wanted to cheer when he finally burst out into the sun, despite the fact that his exertions had just about robbed him of his voice.
Somehow, he had ended up in a small courtyard. An old fountain stood tall and proud in the middle of a raised pool, the stone green with moss and the basin completely dry. The vegetation in the squared away gardens had gone wild, branching out in all directions without anyone to tend to them. The trees swayed in the slight breeze, dropping their orange leaves at the faintest flutter. Grass sprung up between the cracks of the brick walkway, green tendrils desperately groping for the sun.
Danton momentarily frowned as he searched for a way out of here, but his despair quickly died as he spotted another alley at the opposite corner of the courtyard. A smirk on his face, he passed by the rows of park benches and his fingertips had only brushed the edge of the pool that contained the fountain when another sharp crack set his ears ablaze and Danton's leg gave out from under him, causing him to pitch forward.
He screamed in pain, rolling over and finding to his horror, that a hole the size of an acorn had now formed in the back of his right calf. Whatever had entered had gone completely through his leg, bursting a wider hole out the front, splaying his shattered bones in every direction. The sensation was too much for him to register all at once. Danton could already feel his skin start to grow cold, clammy. The onset of shock, he realized.
With shaking hands, Danton managed to push himself backwards until his back was sitting against the pool's edge. He tried not to look at the blood leaking out of his leg, which was now numb and useless, laying at an awkward angle. He searched all around the courtyard for the person who did this to him. He knew they were close by, they might even be within a hundred feet of him!
Not knowing if the wound was mortal, Danton summoned up a reserve of courage and began to grope for the pistol that he kept holstered within his jacket. But as soon as he slipped his fingers underneath the lever, barely brushing the hilt at that point, a voice echoed across the enclosed area very clearly.
"Don't even think about it."
Danton considered his options for only a fraction of a second. The words made no difference to him at this point. Clenching his teeth in a foul grimace, he firmly grasped the handle of his weapon and drew it out as fast as he could, despite him not having a visual on his pursuer.
It did not help that his pursuer had a visual on him.
Another shot rang out and this time, Danton's pistol fell to the ground, the brushed metal now flecked with red. Danton could only stare at the new hole in his body, now smack-dab in the center of his palm, as it too began to bleed. Numbly, he clutched his hand to his chest and squeezed it with his other hand, trying to stave off the pain which was now starting to approach in waves.
"I told you not to do it," the voice chastised.
Near delirious from the paralyzing agony, Danton yelled as his body began to spasm. "What do you want from me?!"
"You know what I want."
That was only half-correct, as Danton's brain was too addled from his wounds to think clearly. "L-Look," he protested, "I…I have no idea what you w-want, okay? Is…is it money? Drugs? Wh-What is it?!"
"It's simple," the voice growled dangerously. "You have information. I want it."
Danton laughed in disbelief, perhaps brought on by his injuries. "You're going to have to be more specific than that," he gritted. "Maybe…maybe you and I can work something out-"
The ca-CHUNK of an assault rifle's thermal clip being ejected was so loud it was almost like it was done right next to Danton's face. "If you keep on stalling, Danton," the voice warned, "I'm going to put a round in your other leg."
"Okay, okay!" Danton screamed, now using his good hand to grasp his leg which was starting to penetrate the haze of adrenaline as it throbbed angrily. He didn't even want to know how this person knew his name. "Just give me some help here! What do you fucking want to know?!"
"What do I want to know?" the voice repeated in amusement. "It should be obvious. I want to find someone, but to do that, I need to know what you know."
"Who?" Danton gasped, now worried at the spreading pool of blood his leg was creating. "Who do you want to find? I...I could help you with that, maybe? Just give me a name and I'll see if I know how to find him! C'mon, who do want to find?"
"I doubt that a delinquent like you would have such knowledge. But, we'll see if your memory can be jogged. The person I want to find is-"
Danton's breath was now coming in miniature gasps as the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. The name...the voice...it was all starting to make sense now. But...it's impossible... Mouth dry, he scrambled to find words. "It…" he whispered, "it cannot be. You…you can't seriously believe that he's still around! You have to know that he's dead! The man's been dead for a year now!"
"No, he is not dead. On the contrary, he is very much alive. But such things are beyond your concern. Allow me to further highlight the severity of your situation so that you know how serious I am."
With a crunching noise, Danton's gaze flickered to the left and his eyes widened as he saw his aggressor walk from around the fountain, cradling an Avenger rifle in their grip. This person was smaller than Danton, but they managed to blot out the morning sun as they stood in front of the injured human, which made them seem like a skyscraper, and Danton a tiny ant. They wore an ornate suit, one saddled with a collection of belts and clasps. Frayed fabric wrapped around a body suit that almost looked like rubber. A long gray cloak was thrown over this person's head, draping down across their right shoulder. Danton could not see this person's face, for it was obscured by a purple visor, showing only an illuminated pair of glowing white eyes.
"You…" Danton gasped. "You're…"
"I know who I am," Tali'Zorah replied evenly as she lifted the rifle so that the long barrel was aimed precisely at the human's head. The quarian held the weapon without so much as trembling, perfectly handling the weight as her frightened prey squirmed underneath her gaze. "And now you're going to help me with something I currently do not know."
"W-W-What?" Danton muttered meekly.
Tali took a step forward and pressed the barrel of the weapon against the whimpering man's forehead. "You're going to help me find John Shepard."
A/N: Well, I'm thinking that I'm back.
...Sort of. I got the idea for this story and the sheer idea impacted me so profoundly that I had to at least write the beginning of it down. Unfortunately, I will have no choice but to leave the story at that for the moment. As I am currently in the middle of another story for another section of this site, I do confess that it would really play havoc on me if I tried to produce two stories at once. I'm not much of a multitasker. So, I'm only uploading this first chapter at the moment and since I haven't even outlined anything else for this narrative, I will have to come back to it later.
Think of this as more of a concept chapter, if you will, as I will be able to get a good analysis of initial expectations from this first offering. Now that this part has been published, I will have some incentive to come back to this story sometime in the future, after I have finished a few projects that I have on the sideline. Now, fair warning, there's no telling for how long that will take. It might take a month or few, but I do fully expect myself to come back to this later when I have the time. Besides, the very idea of the direction this story will go excites me tremendously. Trust me, there is plenty of motivation for me to return to this and finish it up.
For now, you have your leverage over me. Tell me what you think of it!