A/N: So, this took a lot longer than expected, since I had to do a full rewrite, but I think it speaks for itself. If you have questions, please visit the Discord and my team of Loremasters can answer them all.
I rarely indulge in anvil dropping. I do so in this chapter for the best of reasons: I said a long time ago that the point of the grimdark was to see it defeated, instead of dragging it out as in Warhammer. This is the first down payment on that.
Read the following authors when you get a chance, you won't regret it: SLotH4, Nolanstar, Xabiar, Pallan Minerva, Aberron, TungstenCat, Exstarsis, and YukiKazami.
Never surrender. Never yield. Never forget.
When the stone and steel that we have built up in our lifetime comes crashing down as molten rain, when the blood of our friends and families flows through the arcologies, when our ships burn broken in our skies and the cries of the mourners echo on every colony, that is when we pick each other up and fight even harder.
We do so not as Americans or Germans, not as SA citizens or distant colonists – but as humans!
We will not die. We will face death, and we stand, shoulder to shoulder, facing the twisting, black storm before us, not with hesitation or fear, but with squared jaws and clenched fists, and we shout out in one voice, brothers and sisters, to those who would tear us apart:
"Our light will not be extinguished!"
-the Message, the plea from Earth during the First Contact War
"I'm Emily Wong, and this is ANN Nightly News. Tonight, we're at the C-level docks of the Citadel, waiting with a vast crowd for the arrival everyone has been talking about since the Fall of Ilium: Baroness Sara Shepard."
Emily Wong walked along the edges of the docks as the viewcast followed, her conservative outfit of a black bodysuit under a long ash-gray sarong and sash blending in somewhat with the gray environs of the Citadel. In the background, a throng of individuals packed the elevated galleries and open spaces of the docks, held back by a line of C-Sec officers.
"Speculation has been almost as rampant as the memes put out by the extranet as to the nature of the Butcher, and the reveal of her being Sara Shepard – long thought dead – has shaken many and driven many more to question her authenticity. The fact that Shepard appears to be leading Cerberus – also believed to be destroyed, ironically by Shepard herself – has led some to question the events and role that Shepard played in purportedly destroying the group in the first place."
Wong's eyes narrowed as her voice took on an ironic tone. "Meanwhile, the High Lords of Sol have sent noble emissaries, including Prince Charles Windsor. Rumors also seem to indicate the disgraced former President, James Windsor, is also being sent. The Japanese Emperor has thus far said the High Lords will consider if this is really Baroness Shepard only after careful investigation by those who knew her, including members of the military such as General von Grath, Commodore David Anderson, and even one of Shepard's old N7 teammates."
There was a loud sound of increased murmuring in the background and Wong touched a subdermal earpiece, then smiled. "…We are now receiving reports from the Citadel Defense Force that the Widow Relay is registering a mass arrival, and that the Cerberus ships have…"
She trailed off as she stared into the purple mists of the Widow Nebula, eyes widening at the sight that emerged in a baleful corona of mass effect luminance.
The central ship, in hues of gleaming white and brassy gold, was given an almost lurid purple sheen by the Widow Nebula. It was a dreadnought, nearly as large as the turian dreadnought that made up the CDF's relay guard, with long lines of GARDIAN turrets and arrays broken up by winglike spars riddled with missile and torpedo tubes. The design was only vaguely similar to human ships, having an almost salarian feel to the outflung wings and elevated, armored command deck.
Even as it arrived, no less than a dozen heavy-cruisers in Cerberus colors arrived through the relay. The ships were arrayed in a literal hexagon that mimicked the Cerberus insignia; the display of jump drift measured in mere kilometers stunning all who watched them arrive.
The initial transmission of the ships was broadcast live, with Wong regaining enough composure to link it to the ANN broadcast:
"Citadel Fleet, this is Task Force Alecto, escorting Baroness Sara Shepard and Baroness Liara T'Soni-Shepard to meet with the High Lords representative and the Citadel Council. Please provide us with a docking beacon line and clearance to approach the Citadel."
Wong swallowed as she spoke again. "…In mythology, I believe Alecto was one of the Furies, and the harbinger of punishment and described as a being of… implacable and unceasing anger. We can only hope that her anger is directed towards the Collectors and the geth."
Mura Nakiga's features tightened as he watched the broadcasts from the Citadel, his cigar cold and forgotten in its ashtray. "If this shit doesn't kill the bitch, this is not going to end well."
Across the battered table from him, Ishana T'Koro gave him a thin, nervous smile. "We knew that much when we signed up with P. I'm still not sure this is the right move to take. I know she's a threat, but… wouldn't doing this when everyone isn't watching be a better idea?"
He gestured to the screen. "What choice do we have? They're already falling all over the bitch. If she's legit, there's nothing stopping her from wiping us all out. She's usually on a goddamned stealth ship, and even the Spectres couldn't find her until she wanted to be found. This is the only place and time we've got to hit her, and with the crooked Spectre getting the guns and missiles on board, the only chance we'll ever have to hit her when she's not ready for it."
Ishana sighed. "I know that much, Nak. But the whole thing hinges on a lot of 'what-ifs,' and I prefer to trust known tides, not windfoam. If she goes after the kids, if the shot doesn't kill them or the crash doesn't kill them, if Special Response doesn't make them, if—"
Mura cut her off. "Again, what choice do we have? C-Sec has the place locked down hard. Rigging the lifts was tricky enough, but they're gonna have, what, three hundred or more CDF guys there, plus Spectres, snipers, and who knows what else?"
He rubbed his eyes. "The single shot we have at this is drawing her out and then hitting her with enough fucking anti-tank missiles to splatter her good."
Mura snorted, picking up the cigar to light it, then continued. "Look, I'm not gonna sit here and say it's the best plan. You figure if P. comes up with something, it's fuck-ass crazy at best. But it does have a better chance of working than sitting on our asses and hoping she won't come kill us – or ruin our business. You know that. So, is this about the plan, or the kids?"
He puffed on the cigar, and Ishana sighed. "No. I'm not about to cry over a pack of fucking orphans being blown to shit, or the morals of blowing up a lot of people for distractions. I'm all for killing that bitch Shepard, or whatever the hell she is, before she starts a goddamned crusade. It's P.'s addition to the plan that worries me the most. Killing – or trying to kill – Uressa is going to fuck us, hard. I can't even convey how much she is adored by my people. They will never stop looking for anyone who kills her."
Mura nodded. "Not much different with humans, actually, given it was Uressa who fucking saved us from the spikes. No offense, Danix."
The turian sitting at the table with them merely flicked an amused mandible. "No flakes off my plates, Nak. My family was already outcast disgraces long before you showed up. But…" He trailed off, then continued, his vocals unmeshing a bit. "We said we needed Shepard gone, and P. gave us the stuff to get it done in terms of access – the Spectre on the take, the C-Sec guys, the ships, all of it – as long as we also took out Uressa. Even sent his own people in to pull the triggers, so… why? P. is pushing us to do this for two reasons. One, he hates Uressa – always has. But the bigger reason is that he's not stupid – he's got to be planning to pin this on someone."
The turian leaned back, his facepaint catching the light from the haptic screen in shining lines. "Doesn't make a lot of sense to front us ships, cash, and men, just to set us up when it's his own people on the Citadel and all we did was smuggle 'em in."
Nakiga sighed. "My worry isn't really that P. would sell us out. He's already placed an order for thirty thousand fucking turian clones, God and Victor only know the fuck why, I'm not gonna ask. But like Ish said, the asari are going to be angry as fuck if Uressa gets killed… and a lot of people inside the organization know we made the moves to let it happen."
Ishana's expression tightened. "Just so we are clear: the plan is that we blow up the shuttles, then blow the lifts. Once Shepard goes to save the kids, drop the doors and blow the plasma conduits. No one is gonna get that door open, so we expect Uressa and a bunch of Spectres or whatever to get down there, in the open, out of any cover – and then P.'s people light them up with anti-tank missiles and all that."
Nak nodded, and Ishana's expression turned into a scowl. "Nak, I was a little child when Uressa stopped a goddess-be-damned tidal wave. A bunch of missiles are not going to stop her."
The human chuckled softly, dumping his ashes again. "Oh, I know she's strong and all that. But I doubt that's gonna matter, because the second set isn't just normal missiles. No one is gonna shrug off a pair of fucking eezo-fouled M/AM missiles. All we need to worry about is making sure nothing ties back to us."
He glanced across the table at Danix Tarasi. "The guys who set this stuff up and did the smuggling run are still on the Hot Night on the Town, right?"
The turian nodded. "Yeah. I have them on hot-standby to evac P.'s people."
Nakiga crushed out his cigar. "This goes wrong, blow the ship. We clear?"
Danix frowned. "…That's killing our own people, Nak. Gonna look bad to our people."
Nakiga's cruel visage parted in a cold smile. "Isn't it handy that P. has a reputation of killing off his own guys?"
Shepard watched as Cerberus fighters swirled lazily around the Ironic Gesture, the dagger-like fighters flitting in and out through the fleet as the pocket dreadnought – almost three-fourths the size of the turian dreadnought following it – surged forward toward the main Citadel docks under the watchful sensors of the Citadel Fleet, the other Citadel ships following at a distance.
She was standing in what Miranda called the 'observation station,' and gazed out thick armaglass windows at the Citadel, when Tela Vasir walked up behind her. "Keeping an eye on things, Shepard?"
Shepard glanced at Tela as she half-turned to face her. The Spectre had recovered from her injuries on Ilium, although her jaw still bore an ugly scar trailing up her tired features, and was wearing a Cerberus single-suit with armor plates. The asari's eyes met hers, ringed with something like wary guilt, and Shepard forced herself to smile.
"…Just thinking, Tela. About how the fuck I got to this point, and what happens next. Are you ready for this shitshow about to happen?"
Tela chuckled. "For what it's worth, yes." She walked up to stand next to Shepard, staring at the Citadel and the fleet. "…I fought for centuries to uphold the Citadel Accords. No support from the family, until I was famous, and then I was just a fucking… jobber to them still. I never got on with the big-shot Spectres running the show much except the old lady, but for a while I was… okay."
Tela's expression tightened, her hands gripping the observation deck's railing tightly. "I lost myself in killing and doing shit I knew was wrong. For what? To finally be treated like I mattered? Never happened. I was an asset, not any different than Au— …than Aethyta."
Shepard tilted her head. "And now?"
Tela faced her. "I got you killed, Shepard. The whys don't matter. The excuses are just fucking excuses. I could mouth some fish-wise asari saying about shores and waves, but we both know that you had enough people betraying you that having family do it must have been…"
She trailed off, and Shepard sighed after a long moment. "Family is still a concept I'm trying to fit my mind around, Vasir, honestly. My own parents sold me to sex slavers, and when I went back to confront my father about it, he literally said to my fucking face that I was a mistake that he never wanted. Li's family treated her like shit for decades just to be fucking assholes. Not seen a lot of good 'families,' so I'm not sure what to expect from 'family.' "
Tela's expression fell further. "…That's fair, and it's fucked up too." She exhaled. "What I'm saying, I guess, is that when I walk in there next to you, no matter what I've done to support them over the years, the Council isn't just going to look the other way about what happened. The only way you can prove the Broker set you up to die is admit what I did, and they're not going to simply let that go with a slap on the wrist."
Shepard thought about that for a long second. "I get the feeling there's a lot about the Spectre program I don't know."
Tela snorted. "Heard of the 'Gang of Four'?"
Shepard looked back in confusion, and Tela nodded. "Not surprising. There's a lot of things going on there you were never briefed on. One of them is that Spectres who get other Spectres killed get executed. We have our own… clean-up crew, so to speak."
Shepard glared. "Then why in hell was I sent after Saren instead of whoever the fuck was supposed to have handled that mess? People of mine died chasing that pointy-faced asshole!"
Tela gave a bitter smile. "They were occupied chasing down the Spectres he subverted, and the whole thing was political bullshit. That's… what I'm saying here. The Council isn't going to be happy to realize I was compromised, and they're going to want to trawl through every op I was on."
She turned to face Shepard fully. "So, if you want to know if I'm ready for this 'shitshow,' you need to ask are you ready for the Council to offer you a fucking political deal? When it gets out that I betrayed you to the Broker, it will be just one more thing to shame House Vasir, one more thing to put suspicion and distrust on the Spectre program, all of that. I expect them to do some shady shit like offer you 'Spectre-status' without any of the actual benefits if you turn me over to their custody."
Shepard looked hard at the asari, blue eyes seeking something for long moments, then glanced away. "…Li says you regret doing it, but that it really doesn't matter. I've had a lot of people… use me for their own ends, then throw me away. My parents. My gang. The Alliance, my adoptive mother, my own commanders. In hindsight, with what you are saying about the Spectres and the Council, I guess they did too, huh?"
Sara looked at her hands, deceptively normal, and smiled faintly. "Yet you came back anyway – knowing how Liara might react. Or I might react. I guess you could say you came back for your mom, but—"
Tela shrugged asari-style. "My life is an empty wreck, Shepard, with no meaning, no higher purpose. My only enjoyment is fucking writing fantasies where people live happy lives, governments are boring and sane, and no one dies. I'm not gonna go on about my situation, not the point and it's not an excuse for what I did. But I came back because I wanted to try and do one thing fucking right before I go out."
Shepard's smile faltered. "…Knowing they'd kill you?"
Tela gave a bitter laugh. "Not like many people would care, Shepard."
Before Shepard could say anything, quiet footsteps caught both of their notices, and Shepard turned to see Liara walking up. "It would matter to us. If I have not been overly demonstrative of that, I am still reeling from having my life returned to me… but we would care."
Shepard smiled almost helplessly at seeing Liara, and reached out a hand, which Liara took. "Everything okay?"
Liara nodded slowly. "Yes, Ms. Lawson is finishing up final preparations for our landing." She turned to Tela. "I was… going over something Sara said to me. Earlier. None of us – not myself, or you, or our mother, or even Sara herself – is blameless and without flaws. It is still… hard, I suppose, to reconcile my view of you as my sister."
Tela merely looked at her, and Liara continued. "But as you have just said, you came back knowing that even if my Sara – or I – did not kill you for what you did, the very act of confirming our words would subject you to their wrath. You could have done a live transmission, instead of standing next to her."
Liara's smile was tremulous, but sincere. "I do not know if you are going to be forgiven. I don't know if I know how to yet. But we cannot expect happy endings if we continue to cling to what broke us and not what remade us."
Tela stared for a long moment at the two of them, then her gaze fell. "I'll do… my best. I haven't forgiven myself either. The excuses I made at the time, the justifications, they didn't fix anything."
Liara's voice fell, becoming soft. "No. They do not, a fact I am now discovering for myself. But at least you have a chance to set right what you… broke." There was a lingering tone of something bitter and tired in that last word, but Liara shook her head. "And regardless… Sara is not likely to let the Council kill you."
Shepard snorted. "Yeah, fuck that idea. I owe you an ass beating, not a fucking execution." She turned back to the window. "Shit… they're landing now. Funny. I never knew if I'd actually get this far, you know."
Tela looked confused, and Liara frowned. "What do you mean, Sara?"
Shepard waved a hand at the Citadel. "When he, uh, woke me up… Harper's pitch was to kill the Broker and then convince the Council to help us 'stop the Reapers.' When he made it, he had only a hunch the Collectors were involved, and no real proof of anything. And the likelihood was low the Council would even bother to listen to some dead person working for Cerberus, right?"
She gave a laugh that, to Liara, felt and sounded slightly brittle. "Now I'm here and we're… okay again. And I have proof, and support, and yet I'm nervous as fuck and flipping out over actually doing this. Wondering if David or von Grath or someone else will deny me or tell me I'm not the real Shepard. Wondering if this is just a waste of time and they'll tell us to get fucked."
She turned to face Tela again. "Wondering if someone else will do the math that works out to double-crossing me for their own ends is better than supporting me."
At this, Tela gave a hard bark of laughter. "Maybe they will, bondsister. And maybe the impulse of the Council, especially Tevos and that fool Thin'Koris, will be to not heed your words. And yet I hope they remember that every time they haven't listened, they were wrong. If they don't, then they are bigger fools than I thought."
Liara laid her hand on Shepard's shoulder, leaning against her. "They are fools, yes. But they are not willfully blind at all times. Remember that Udina has always supported you, and from what Garrus has said of your conversation with the Primarch and the Palavanus Prince, that Sparatus may support you as well."
Liara squeezed Sara's shoulder. "And while I understand your fears of how old friends may react to you… I cannot for a moment imagine that David Anderson would act against you. And even if that happens, I am with you."
She glanced aside at Tela. "Just… please make sure to keep her safe."
Tela gave a grim nod. "I'm hoping this won't be stupid, everyone will see reason and we all get out. But if something goes wrong, I swear they'll not get to either of you until I'm dead."
Sara felt some emotion she couldn't quite identify flow through her, and kissed her wife on the temple. As she did so, the ship shuddered from the launch of two large landing pinnaces.
Shepard pushed away from the embrace with Liara, and exhaled. "Well, we're about to find out how stupid the Council can get. That's the troops Harper sent along to escort us, time to head down to the launch bay and get this clusterfuck on the road."
She paused, then smiled. "After we swing by medical to pick up first aid kits."
Liara's faux eyebrow tattoos rose. "Is not that a bit… paranoid, Sara?"
Shepard chuckled as she walked away, the two asari following her. "Better safe than sorry, hon."
"Welcome, viewers, this is Relanews, and I am Vashin Masare. Tonight, we're at the vast docks of the Citadel, eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of Sara Shepard. Her fleet has arrived in a staggering display of jump accuracy, and now we have only to see what happens when she touches down."
The asari anchor glanced at the floating drone cams, giving them a sultry smile as she began walking to her right, the crowds lining the dock-way an ever-shifting background of motion and noise. Her outfit was daring, even for an asari – semi-transparent shimmersilk over an extremely tight bodysuit, that was almost indecently low cut across the front… and the back. Her voice was almost purring as she continued to speak to the drone cams while she walked.
"Accompanying Shepard will be Matriarch Uressa T'Shora, who has met with her privately, and already confirmed her identity to a limited degree. Uressa was the only matriarch besides Suliasia T'Soni to have attended Shepard's hand-fasting to Liara T'Soni, and, thus, had private conversations she could use to verify this was indeed Shepard of the Dancing Kanquess. Of course, her demonstrated mastery of that – fighting Tetrimus on Ilium – is all but certain confirmation, as no other human has been taught that particular variant."
The newscaster smiled again, as two large black and gold pinnaces touched down, the rear of each one splitting open and lowering. "It looks like her security teams are touching down first and… and…"
She trailed off as a line of figures emerged from each pinnace. Leading each was a massive elcor, bearing a heavy omni-barrier projector in the shape of the Cerberus emblem, followed by twenty figures, helmets carried in one hand to show their features.
Turians, some with facial marks of famous clans or high families, marching forward with heads held high, wearing turian-style black and gold armor with the Cerberus emblem.
Asari, mostly clanless, but one or two with clan Steelshape or Hearthwatch markings, in lightweight armored bodysuits of black and gold, with two-handed warp swords of the same colors visible over their shoulders. Each one had a white and gold facial marking in old Asaric, reading 'the triune moon-wolf,' the closest asari translation to Cerberus.
Quarians in articulated warsuits, wearing reiks of black and red and gold hexagons, marched behind drell in long black and gold coats, similar to those of Remembrance Dancers, with golden bracers and cross-belts of throwing daggers.
Salarians, each marked as Lythari, in slender, armor-plated bodysuits were swarmed by pale golden drones, and carried vicious-looking sniper rifles, walked next to krogan. The krogan were broad and wide, clad in thick black armor with gold and white highlights, clutching oversized ODIN shotguns, scaled to their frame, each carrying a krogan-style banner with korogish runes reading 'Slayer of the Eldest and Warmaster.'
Mixed in among them were half a dozen humans, of course, some with the graying hair, somber expressions, and the hard gaze of clear veterans, others grinning like fools and clearly enjoying the crowd's response. All of them wore the same Cerberus colors as their fellow soldiers, two carrying more banners, these bearing a simple phrase: 'Talionis Quod Iustitia.'
The crowd roared – in approval, in confusion, in dismay, and in exultation – howls of outrage and delight, with chants of "Shepard! Shepard!" and "Butcher! Butcher!" being counterpointed by, of all things, krogan chanting "Warmaster Shepard!"
Vashin regathered her composure with a shaky looking smile. "…And, as we can see, this Cerberus is certainly far less bigoted and anti-alien than the last iteration. We will have to wait and see what other surprises Shepard has in store for us."
The drone cameras zoomed in on the ranks of Cerberus soldiers as they came to a neat stop, then faced each other, and took two steps back in unison. The lead elcor did something with his omni-tool and a pair of gold haptic lines leapt down the ranks of soldiers, forming a box at the last landing pad, where, presumably, Shepard's own ship would come down.
The turian behind the left-most elcor tapped a comm-link, his words audible over the noise of the crowd. "Hammer, this is Shield. Cordon in place, we are ready to receive."
It took Sara, Tela and Liara more than a couple of minutes to reach the launch bay – the Ironic Gesture was huge, and was designed to make boarding it an absolute nightmare, which meant there was no direct elevator to the bay. As they passed by stations for mechs, ceiling-mounted turrets, and kinetic blockades built into the hull of the ship, she began thinking what going after the Broker would be like.
Probably going to be a goddamned nightmare, she thought sourly, though I'd honestly be happy with just blowing the fucker's ship out of space, we need to capture his data archive or whatever the fuck he has. Not like I mind beating him to death personally, but getting there… will be ugly.
She broke off her thoughts as the pair entered the launch bay of the ship. The bay of the Ironic Gesture was huge – it could launch two wings of fighters as well as hold four combat pinnaces, plus a pair of hovertanks and what looked suspiciously like a GREAT WHITE MBT with changed armor pieces and a retrofit to hover pads. Shepard wasn't sure exactly why she'd ever need a freaking tank, but then again, she'd already used one on Horizon, so maybe that wasn't a bad idea.
The bay was already a swarm of activity, mostly around the pinnace they'd take to the Citadel. Two of the pinnaces had already launched, while the fourth would remain on board with the shuttles, all loaded with mechs – and the Black Blades – in case of more serious issues.
The third was being checked by a handful of Cerberus techs while Shepard's people were clumped into a group near the nose of the pinnace. Miranda broke away from talking to one of the engineers to approach Sara and Liara, even as Tela moved off to do a final check of her gear.
Miranda's expression was a mix of tense and tired, and her voice reflected that. "We're just about done loading everything. I regret Commander Pressly didn't come along, as he is better at some of the organizational details than I am, but we should be ready."
Shepard smiled. "Pressly thinks of everything, but we don't know what we're running into here. We needed someone who could use the Normandy to get us out if need be. I don't like running without him anymore than you do, but…" She shrugged. "Anyway, where are we at then? I came down when we saw the troop pinnaces leaving."
Miranda nodded. "So far, we have yourself, Liara, Tela Vasir, Garrus, Telanya, Dr. Solus, Grunt – along with Aethyta – as the 'Council Group.' Lord Galen and his daughter will also escort you and then break off after dealing with the High Lords. Jack, Mierin, Mirala, Sidonis, the Black Blade Smiya, as well Kai Leng and Theo Pellham, are the 'bodyguard group.' Mirala, Smiya, Kai, and Pel will all be in full-body Cerberus armor as all have… let's say 'legal issues.' "
She gestured toward the Citadel. "Mr. Volinski and his… partner… will be following at a distance. They have the infowar packets created by Erash and Dr. Solus and will be ensuring there are not any 'incidents' caused by infowar techniques against the group. In case of… severe problems… the rest of the Black Blades are on board and will perform a biotic assisted combat drop, with the mechs supporting them. I will remain on board to command the Ironic Gesture and transmit the alert call for backup from Vansaris if needed."
Miranda took a deep breath. "I want to remind you again that you are not healed, Shepard – and for that matter, neither is Doctor T'Soni. I understand why you cannot appear in armor – and yours is still wrecked anyway – but your heatsinks are at less than thirty percent, your rib spars and subdermals are still damaged and breached and you're still on rad purgative drugs and your reaction times are slower. Please let the bodyguard team handle things if something goes wrong."
Shepard pursed her lips. "I'll be careful. I got a lot on the line here too, Miranda."
The Cerberus agent grimaced, then touched her earpiece. "The security team has landed and secured the touchdown point. It's time."
Shepard smiled again, and nodded. "Alright. Get everyone on the pinnace then. And thank you for getting it all organized."
Miranda walked away briskly, and Liara sighed. "I am more than a little nervous at doing this, Sara. I know we've made plans if things go into the deeps, but… I also remember them locking down the Normandy when we were about to go after my mother. We don't have anyone to remove the traffic lockdown this time."
Shepard smirked. "Relax. I know Vigil said he isn't coming along, but if that nut doesn't have one of his units already on the blasted Citadel, I'll eat my hat. Besides, Tela is a badass. Between her and Grunt – plus the bodyguards – we'll be fine. Let's get loaded up. We have a no doubt wonderful conversation with the High Lords, and I need to go get my boss back."
Vehkis Stylgos was not, strictly speaking, a Shepard 'fan' in the way a large part of the crowd around her was. But she was certainly a fan of melodrama, and this event looked to be interesting in that regard.
She would guiltily admit to being something of an Archangel fan, however. As she gazed around her at the crowd, she realized she was in the minority.
Many of the people standing near the C-level docks were here because Shepard had freed them or their relatives from slavery. Others came because she had made fools of the Council and Alliance in showing the colony attacks were not 'slavers,' while still others were here to cheer on Shepard, or protest her presence, but most simply wanted to see if it was really her, and to find out what had really happened.
The turian female flicked a mandible as she set up her drone array, even as the bulk of the massive and armored pinnace lowered itself to the designated landing area. Compared to the other two pinnaces that had disgorged that living propaganda honor guard, this one was nearly a half a dozen meters longer, the cockpit literally a giant armaglass Cerberus insignia inset into the nose of the vessel.
She tapped her omni-tool. "Hail, turians and our other watchers. I am Vehkis Stylgos, Hierarchy News Systems. We're here on the Citadel, as Sara Shepard and Garrus Vakarian arrive to verify their bold claims and meet with the Citadel Council. So far, we have had a fine show of dominance and pomp, now it is time to see if the meat in this vorthisa sausage is as good as the sauce is."
She redirected her drone camera toward the dock, where it joined a literal hovering cloud of drone cams and remote recorders, and let her voice unmesh in harmonics to indicate sardonic amusement. "Whatever else can be said about this new incarnation of Cerberus, one must admire the sheer drama they are invoking in this presentation."
She fell silent as the pinnace's side split open and down, forming a ramp, and a figure in white and gold descended. Sara Shepard's expression was cool as she descended, the lights of ten thousand drones and the roar of ten thousand people not even impacting her regal appearance.
A baldric of white and gold hung from her, holding a sheathed blade that was no doubt the short but fearsome blade of black she'd been seen wielding in the many videos of her. Her hair was longer than it had been in her previous life, and her movement was somehow more lithe, an almost unnatural smooth precision to it that only added to the feeling of both grace and danger.
Beside her, the features of Liara T'Soni were impassive and cool, the silver-inset cybernetic eye giving her a fierce aspect, her own outfit a mirror of her wife's. Behind them both, drawing murmurs from the crowd, was Tela Vasir, her own distinctive Spectre armor missing the Spectre cape and done in shades of black and gold.
The crowd's murmurs turned to fierce cheers as Uressa T'Shora followed a moment later, trailed by her Godtalkers, her simple robes and shawl giving her an almost defenseless air as lights shone down on them.
Garrus Vakarian emerged – setting off fresh roars in Pavaas – followed by a pair of asari, then a massive krogan. Several humans – one gray-haired and poised almost as well as Shepard herself, and several other younger humans – followed, then another turian, several asari, and a quarian. C-Sec security, clad in their blue uniforms, formed a heavy line of bodies leading toward the main docking security area, even as Shepard and her people kept themselves centered in the midst of their own troops.
No one missed the flash of Spectre capes in the crowd here and there, but none of them stepped forward – instead, a C-Sec officer in the uniform of a senior detective stepped out of the C-Sec lines, his salarian features composed and calm. Beam pickups on many of the camera drones caught his words.
"Welcome to the Citadel, Cena Shepard, and to your people. I am Senior Detective Forlan Simras."
Shepard inclined her head, while Garrus gave a chuckling grin. "Forlan! Spirits it's good to see you! But you look like you aren't happy to be here. Didn't you miss us?"
Forlan gave his old partner a droll glance. "I'll be happier when we're off this blasted dock where any sniper could shoot you and get clean away, Garrus." Turning back to Shepard, he exhaled. "The Council has agreed that your, ah, escort can carry their arms on board, along with the C-Sec security escort, but we did request you come unarmed."
Shepard fixed her gaze on the smaller salarian, her expression stern. "And the entirety of my party is unarmed, Detective. However, even if the Council has decided I'm not a Spectre any longer, I am a member of the Lords of Sol. And given the fact that you cannot guarantee there are no Broker agents among your forces, I am well within my rights to retain my warp sword."
She smiled. "If that's a deal breaker for the Council, that's too bad. I will talk with my peers in the High Lords and depart."
The salarian sighed. "Very well. Please follow me." He turned sharply and moved ahead, and the massive turian in the left of the formation barked out a command.
"Shield Company! Forward!"
The C-level of the docks were more commonly used for mass disembarkation – cruise liners, colony ships, and the like. That meant they were well-equipped to handle both crowds of people as well as boasting the most sensitive scanners on the Citadel. The pinnace landing area was elevated above the main docking gantries for larger ships, and the C-Sec cordon kept back the crowd as Shepard and company made their way down the broad ramps leading to the scanning area.
Beyond the scanning area was a broad arch that led to the Citadel Wards themselves. Normally fully open, the door was half shut and manned by CDF guardsmen and quarian techmarines, with more CDF units behind in case of trouble.
The crowd themselves, some ten thousand-strong or more, were therefore in the vast spaces between the docking gantries, with an excellent view of Shepard. Behind them and below them were additional docking ports – these were added on to the dock, made of normal materials and not the unnaturally silvery metal of the Citadel. More shuttles were arriving even as Shepard moved toward the scanner, disgorging more people to watch.
Shuttle pilot Contrexor Valataxis knew this part of the docks very well. He'd been a transport spotter and pilot for a good thirty years with C-Sec before retirement. He'd been one of a number of volunteer pilots tapped by C-Sec to help with traffic for this mess of an event, and his personal contribution had been running shuttles toward the area of the docks where they planned to let the news media and others speak with Shepard.
He touched the controls of the shuttle he was flying. This was the last batch of passengers, and special ones – all of them were children, most of them saved from the Umlor Pirate Group by Shepard herself, who had no parents or guardians. Almost five thousand such children had been recovered, and the Citadel Orphanage Association was being careful in placement.
These children had already suffered so much, and the last thing they needed was uncaring foster parents or guardians. This group had some of the more troubled individuals… but they were sweet kids from his point of view. Some turian, some asari, some human, and even a pair of salarians – brother and sister. All were pressed against the cool synthglass windows of the shuttle as Shepard moved forward, expressions of awe and delight on each tiny face.
"Shuttle X4934, this is Shuttle X9593. I am coming in on landing zone six, please let me drop my passengers before landing, how copy?"
Valataxis tapped his comm-link, glancing at the shuttle ahead of him. "Good copy and acknowledged, X9593. Will hold position in a circular pattern, let the kids get a better look from up top, over."
"Sounds good, X4934. Got a load of kids myself, and… what? Sensors just lit up—"
Valataxis' eyes snapped to the status panel in alarm as it lit up.
Warning: LADAR lock detected.
He barely had time to react as two brilliant lines of light lashed out from the dark and shadowed recesses of the access and fueling tubes above the docking area. One hit the other shuttle with a glancing blow, shearing through the port nacelle and dropping it to the ground with an ugly crash. Given the shuttle had barely been a dozen meters up, the passengers were probably shaken up but alright.
His own shuttle was a hundred meters in the air when a beam of hellfire smashed into the drive unit, and he immediately lost motive control. He slammed the emergency comms beacon with one hand as he triggered the survival mode equipment with the other, his voice thundering with command.
"Citadel Control this is Shuttle X3934, we have been hit by anti-air fire from the fueling gantry and are going down, requesting immediate medical and rescue assistance. I repeat, we are—"
The second blast carved into the cockpit and the signal broke off.
Shepard was a mix of nervous, delighted, and dismayed at the crowds screaming her name. Sure, when the whole mess with Benezia was done there'd been crowds, but this was beyond insane – there were places where C-Sec was being pushed back by sheer numbers.
And yet, for the first time, she wasn't a shaking wreck at the idea of having them look at her, or see her. She wasn't… ashamed of who she was, or worried about what they thought. Maybe death had burned that out of her.
Or maybe the dark and bitter truths about the much greater evils of the leaders of the various races made her own crimes look small by comparison.
Tela was in front of her, unarmed but with clear readiness for trouble etched on her features, while the mass of Grunt walked behind her. Liara walked beside her, wincing every so often and showing a stiffness to her expression. Her cybernetic legs were still 'settling,' and there was a low throb of pain from having to walk, but they wouldn't integrate properly without such exercise.
Shepard had to deal with it as well, as part of their new bond-link, and she gave her wife a supportive smile. "Just a bit further ahead."
Liara's voice had an edge to it. "Athame forbid they offer us an aircar. Then again, this is probably Harper's idea. Parade us around like toys, have people 'ooh' and 'ahh.' "
Shepard smothered a grin. "You didn't used to be so sharp-tempered, love."
Liara glanced at her, an oddly mysterious smile crossing her features. "And you used to end up a tongue-tied wreck with crowds. You know we get to talk to the media before we get to see anyone, right?"
Shepard gave an exaggerated groan, drawing laughter from several of the group. "Sure, laugh it the fuck up. Wait until—"
She broke off at the sound of explosions, turning to the left, seeing one shuttle go down hard and the other blasted twice and tumbling from the sky. "The fuck?"
More explosions rang out, screams coming from the area where lifts connected the shuttle docks to the main area, as the three elevator lifts were blasted and fell to the shuttle area almost a hundred and twenty meters below, even as the second shuttle crashed, skidding across the decking in a trail of sparks and smashing into a wall and then bouncing to a stop.
Garrus was next to her in a second, his visor clicking as his cybernetics zoomed in. "Oh, spirits. That shuttle clipped a plasma conduit coming down."
Even as he spoke, black-armored figures erupted from the crowds, weapons drawn – Spectres, she realized a moment later. She could recognize a handful of them, but before they could do anything, raking fire from the dark spaces in the superstructure above flashed out. It impacted against the kinetic barriers erected around the docks landing area, but some of the crowd was beyond that, and the blasts stitched through them, leaving screaming and injured civilians in pools of blue, red, and green.
Shepard grimaced. "Fuck." She turned to Forlan, who had two slender fingers touching his comm implant, his sparse features set in grim lines, and waited for him to speak.
The salarian sighed. "We are to stay put, Shepard. There's at least one, perhaps two individuals in the fueling gantries with anti-air weapons – Special Response is firing back." He pointed at a group of officers in armor, most with long rifles, firing back at the gantries. "We've brought up the collision kinetics, so they can't hit us here, but…"
She frowned. "But what?"
Forlan made a sharp inhalation. "The shuttles were both full of children. Children you and your people freed from the Umlor pirates. The first shuttle landed badly but everyone aboard is alright. The second one, we have no contact – and the access lifts were blown up in secondary explosions. It will take more than twenty minutes for C-Sec Disaster teams from Fire and Chemical or Medical Services to reach the shuttle."
Shepard pushed past him and several of her Cerberus troopers to look into the distance. Below – more than a hundred meters below – the first shuttle had skidded to a safe stop in the middle of the landing zone, but the second shuttle had landed at an awkward angle. Her cybernetic eyes zoomed in to maximum resolution, taking in details… and the faint but noticeable blue glow of the plasma conduit tube running near the shuttle.
It had landed inside one of the external docking bays, and she turned back to Forlan. "That plasma conduit it clipped is going to fail and blow the fuck out. What happens then?"
The detective met her gaze evenly, his voice dull. "That part of the docks is an add-on – not the weird metal of the Citadel itself. If there's a hull breach, blast doors will lock down the area to prevent outgassing and explosive decompression."
Shepard turned back to the scene, as more of her party moved around her, Uressa T'Shora coming up to her side. "Can nothing be done, Detective? Surely there must be shuttles…"
Forlan shook his head. "Only the handful of shuttles conveying special guests were allowed, and these two were the only ones active. We did not want any shuttle or aircar traffic in the area to avoid… terror attacks. We're trying to route vehicles here but…"
Several C-Sec officers had gone running, and Forlan sighed. "Officers are running for vehicles now, but it's still going to take a few minutes. And—"
He broke off as another detonation sounded, this one at the far entrance to the concourse. At least one of the running officers was caught by the blast, and two more flung back as what sounded like micro-mines went off in rapid succession.
The chirpy voice of Nirin sounded in Shepard's internal comm implant. "Shepard-sama, Estê-kun and I are picking up a lot of hack scripts being run. Someone is flooding the C-Sec net to lock down response teams from getting here. Sensor nets are reporting explosions all over the Wards, and someone is jamming the internal comms. Estê-kun thinks they're trying to get you to panic and move out into a vehicle, which they could attack."
Shepard's jaw tightened. "There's nothing to be done? That's not going to work, Detective."
The salarian spread his hands. "I cannot think of anything. We removed all aircars from this area on purpose, so we don't have a way to get down several hundred meters without the lifts. Fire and Chemical Response is working but by the time we get down there…"
Shepard kicked off her power supply, and Liara immediately looked up. "…Sara?"
Shepard half-turned to kiss her on the cheek. "Tela, take care of Li for me, okay? Got something to do."
Liara reached out, but Shepard was already gone in a flash of blue light.
Emily Wong's face was grave as the reports came in on her omni-tool, her voice quiet. "C-Sec has said the shuttles just shot down on the Citadel adjacent to the C-level docks were filled with children here to see Shepard, children she had saved from slavery at the hands of the Umlor Pirate Group. More bombs have gone off."
She gestured to her left, where thin trails of smoke and screams alike rose into the air. "More than thirty people were killed when all three lifts leading to the shuttle docks were destroyed by bombs. Explosions have gone off near the docks, and now bombs are reported as having detonated in the Wards themselves. And if the reports we're getting now are accurate, C-Sec disaster response units won't be able to get here for another twenty to thirty minutes.
"It's unknown at this time if this is an attempt on Shepard's life or—"
She broke off as she looked into the distance, and then the drone cam's view blurred, focusing on the crash site of the shuttle, and the streak of blue that came flying down from on high.
Zihal Juui focused on not panicking, keeping his arms around his sister as she cried.
The salarian boy was just four years old, old enough to know he was probably going to die but not quite old enough to know what to do. It wasn't the first time, though. Their parents had been killed in a slaver raid, and his sister and him taken to Umlor itself, tossed in a cage with a dozen other salarian younglings.
He'd stared death in the face then, and the Wheel had brought forth salvation. The Butcher had torn through the monsters like they were mere bad dreams after too much short-milk. She had killed the batarian with the nerve whip, and she had knelt down before he and his sister, the blank-faced helmet mirroring their faces, with a gentle voice.
"You'll be okay now. Can you stand up for me?"
He and his sister had been carried by the Butcher herself, carried to a shuttle. Fed, clothed, and sent to the Citadel. He knew it would take time to find any relatives of his – he did not know why but he knew his family was odd somehow. No one wanted to discuss the word 'yindo' with a kid, but he had started putting two and two together.
But then the Butcher had been revealed… and then she was going to the Citadel, where they were. The matron of the orphanage, an old asari, had browbeaten C-Sec into making sure the children had a chance to see their savior, in the flesh.
He had been so excited… and now this.
The shuttle was torn open, and most of the other children had some injuries. His own leg was twisted, as he had thrown himself over his sister to protect her. The pilot was alive, but hurt bad. His voice was getting weaker and weaker as he tried to keep the other children calm.
The blue glow from behind them grew stronger. Zihal had studied a lot before he'd been taken by slavers. He wanted to make things, to build them. He knew what that was, he knew what plasma was.
No one was coming to save them, this time. That wasn't right. That wasn't fair.
He could almost hear his father: "The wheel is not fair, it merely is, son. Never expect goodness. If you want it, you have to make it with your own hands."
He bowed his head, against his sister, closing his eyes.
A dozen gasps a second later made him open them, glancing out the window along with his sister, as a different blue glow impacted the decking.
Shepard's body had started moving before she could really think about what she was doing, and then she was falling in midair and kanquessed again, and again.
She hit the ground with a massive impact, her damaged blueware misjudging the clearance needed. She groaned as something snapped inside her body, but spat and stood up anyway, forcing down the pain.
She could feel alarm and fear and panic from Liara, but she kept her mind clear as she looked at the shuttle. It was more than nine meters inside the external bay area, well within the doors that would seal shut if the conduit blew up. She could see children moving around inside, staring.
Thank God. At least some are okay. She tapped her comm-link. "Garrus, tell C-Sec to hurry up with the goddamned backup. I'll make sure this fucking plasma conduit doesn't go up, but they need to shut this thing off."
The turian's voice was both dry and worried. "And how exactly are you going to do that, Sheep? Give it a stern talking to?"
She smirked as she moved forward. "I could handle a reactor, I can handle a single conduit."
Liara's voice sounded as if it was fraying, and Shepard could feel the edge of dread and fear and panic from her. "Sara, please be careful. You are hurt – I felt that landing – and your biotics—"
Shepard took a deep breath, focusing as she brought up her biotics as Trellani had shown her. "Marazul, I can't let a shuttle full of kids who came to see me die and do nothing. I… I can't."
There was silence, and then Liara's voice, tired and slow… and calmer. "…I know, Sara. Just please… be careful."
She exhaled and nodded, and biotic light leapt up around her. The conduit shuddered and the metal ruptured explosively, a spear of superheated annihilation launching forth at her and the shuttle behind her.
Vashin Masare had lost all control of her expression as she watched, as the crowd watched, as millions of viewers watched.
She saw the conduit explode and plasma erupt outwards, blasting forth to wash over the shuttle and Shepard, and then she felt her jaw drop as the human stopped it cold, pale biotic light pouring off of her as she slowly walked forward.
She finally found her voice. "…The… that is, Sara Shepard has somehow kanquessed more than a hundred stanlengths to the shuttle crash site and appears to be using a channel invocation to contain a plasma fire. Given the size of that conduit, the strain must be immense…"
She paused, then really thought about what she was looking at. At the actual risks. At the actual situation. A dozen thoughts passed through her head, but only one made it through her lips.
"…I have a hard time believing that anyone but the woman who risked her life and those of her loved ones to save us a few years back, who died saving others rather than her own life, would risk her life for a small number of orphan children.
"Perhaps I am merely naïve." She watched as the plasma fire raged, and the small figure in white and gold stood there, unbowed, unbroken. "Or perhaps the universe is merely so used to evil that actual good seems… unreal."
Then her mouth fell open, as a second streak of biotic light flared.
Shepard felt her knees beginning to buckle, as alarm after alarm sprang up in her HUD. The plasma emerged in a rush, and it was all she could do to hold it back. She'd thought she could push it back, use the heat to reseal the conduit itself.
That wasn't going to happen.
The heat was nearly unbearable, and she felt the skin on her hands begin to blister from the sheer power of the forces she was holding at bay. Her heatsinks were already glowing in her back, and a trickle of blood had dripped from her nose, marring her dress uniform with a garish slash of crimson.
She only smiled, and raised her voice. "You kids just stay put… got this thing under… control…" A moment later hot pain lanced through her, and she felt her Channel failing.
A blue hand clamped to her arm, and another rose in a gesture, as plasma snarled and twisted balefully, the heat around her like a suffocating weight. Lit in the garish luminance, Tela Vasir's expression was grim, a bruise on her face and scuffs on her armor visible. "That landing from a charge was a bit rough."
Sara did not know what to say, or feel, and instead just gritted her teeth, as the two of them pushed back. She lost track of how long had passed, or how much agony raced through her nerves as the blue fire howled for release, until with a final pulse of power that nearly pushed past her, the plasma fire went out, the hot gasses evaporating a moment later.
She fell to her knees, breath ragged and gasping, and her vision flickered for a second, barely aware of Vasir panting on the ground next to her. Then she heard the roar. With an effort, she forced herself back to her feet, helping Tela up, and turned.
The entire rim of the upper docking area was alive with the crowd, who were cheering and yelling. Liara's voice sounded in her earpiece. "…Goddess, that was too close, Sara. Are you alright? And Tela?"
Shepard nodded, wiping her mouth. "…Mostly. Miranda is gonna kill me. Might need to go back to the ship early, I fucked up something landing and more of my heatsinks are messed up, I think."
Tela's voice was equally wry. "I'm pretty sure I broke my ankle on the landing, never kanquessed that far before in gravity. Other than that and my hands being burned, I'm okay."
Liara made an unhappy sound. "I'll let Miranda know. C-Sec is routing more shuttles here, they'll come pick you and the children up. Special Response and several Spectres are moving towards the area where the weapons fire is coming from and will handle them… so please, no more heroics."
Shepard half-turned, and nodded. "Good. Tela and I will make sure the kids are okay."
She clicked off, and slowly limped over to the shuttle. The main entry hatch was half-melted by what looked like some kind of energy blast, the windows crazed with cracks and discolored.
Tela sighed. "Great, the door is fused shut from the blast… we can try warping out the edges and…" she trailed off as Shepard stepped past her. Her fingers dug into the metal like it was soft dirt, and with a grunt she simply tore the entire thing off, flinging it behind her casually.
Tela stared after it as it clanged to the ground nearly five meters away. "…so, when you said I deserved an ass-beating, am I going to have all my limbs afterwards?"
Shepard snorted back laughter and clambered up into the shuttle, glancing around. A turian in a pilot's slick-suit stared at her, his legs a broken mess and his right arm half-cooked by the same energy blast that had done in the door. He was in a puddle of his own blood, but his voice was still strong. "By the spirits… you…"
She grinned, and pulled out a medi-gel pack. "And to think my wife said I was being paranoid for bringing my damned first aid supply."
She turned her head to the left, to look down the shuttle seats. Most of the kids seemed okay, if injured – none of them were dead at least – and all of them looked back to her and Tela with frightened wide eyes.
"Hey. It's okay. We got the big pipe outside shut off… and the police are on the way with shuttles. I'll just hang out with you. Anybody injured or hurt?"
An asari child with purple skin and faint flowerlike facial markings, looked up at her. Her voice was so soft it was almost a whisper. "You… you could have died…"
Shepard placed another application of medi-gel to the pilot, and then moved forwards, kneeling down in front of the little asari. "Yeah, I could have. But you all came to see me. And no one dies when I can stop it."
The asari trembled. "…No one came for us. After you saved us. My family… all dead. All of our families."
Tela glanced away, busying herself with helping the pilot, and Shepard looked across the faces – turians, tiny mandibles clamped down hard to suppress shaking. A pair of salarian kids, holding each other, eyes wide and mouths little more than lines in slack faces. Four or five human kids, each one looking a mix of panicked, awed, and confused. And more asari children.
She turned back to the child in front of her. "I… lost my parents too. And no one came for me, either. But… we, Tela Vasir and I, we came. And we are not leaving… You'll be okay… things are always hard, but if you keep trying, even when everything seems dark, even when you feel like you have lost all that made it worth living, worth suffering, worth… dying for…"
She found herself wanting to cry and pushed that down. "…you will find out that sometimes the universe answers back. It did for me. And it did for you all."
The asari stared at her, and then let out a little breath. "…We're okay?"
Shepard smiled. "Yes."
And even as she spoke, the second explosion went off.
She watched with a stricken expression as a series of explosions rang out, some kind of small missile pods smashing down from the maze of airway ducts and piping above the shuttle docks. Alarms began to blare as the AVINA VI spoke in calming tones.
"Warning. Hull breach in sector C, sublevel shuttle dock 4. Please proceed in an orderly manner to the evacuation routes outlined in red by haptic waveguide. Isolation doors are dropping into place, please do not block emergency responders as they move to—"
Someone cut the VI off, and Forlan was talking to a burly and heavyset turian, while Garrus was on the comm with Miranda. Liara looked around for someone, anyone to do anything. She saw more Spectres moving, and C-Sec lines forming to move the crowd back, while flashes high above on the gantry level spoke of firefights, the occasional explosion and charred, misshapen bodies falling from the pipes and walkways high above the dock to smash into the deck below, breaking apart and revealing they were mechs.
The heavy door that dropped down between her wife, her sister, and the rest of the station was massive, five meters wide and probably nearly half a meter thick. It had to weigh tonnes. Liara walked over to Garrus, and looked up at him.
The turian met her stare evenly. "…Miranda is trying to get clearance to send in a shuttle to ferry people down, but C-Sec is being… stupid. And our hackers are telling me the door is data isolated, it can only be overridden at the door itself."
Liara looked around for someone to do something, instead watching as cops and civilians and soldiers stared at the smoke rising from the shut door as if it was beyond their belief.
She felt herself shaking, her voice a tremulous and fragile thing. "She… I… "
Garrus wrapped his arms around her, his good eye glaring in every direction, helpless and hating himself for it.
Uressa T'Shora heard and watched the distress of Liara T'Soni, and closed her eyes. She could feel the sorrow and panic, like the heat from a bonfire, and the black taste of despair.
She always had heard those things. Felt them. Seen them. And yet… failed, all too many times to act. There had always been limits to what she could do, to how deep she was allowed to draw. No matter the suffering. No matter the tumult in the waters of her soul. No matter the grievous injury to siari.
She had defied those limits twice, and the costs were high to pay. And for every time she acted, there had been a thousand such screams unanswered. A thousand echoes of this poor maiden's despair, or these few children's terror.
She had heard them many times before, and she knew with certainty that she would again.
And for all that certainty, she stood rooted in this chaos of being helpless to actually help, to find a way – any way – toward a better outcome. She couldn't move because something was different, that made the weight of all her mandates not so much disappear as step aside.
What is this? What shore am I seeing?
She'd seen it before, that far distant green shore. A place where evil was not Law, where despair was not Order, nor cruelty Wisdom. A place where the rulers were not vicious monsters…
She had recalled it upon watching the crimes she had allowed unto her Ilium daughters, she realized. Then she had seen Sara Shepard unmasked, Sara Shepard embattled with one of the mightiest embodiments of injustice in the galaxy. She had seen her own people humbled by Cerberus, of all the possible actors, and had listened to the litany of her own failings thrown at her…
And she had thought, in her innermost heart:
This should be me, and instead, I only watch.
That thought had driven her. It had eaten at her, at her guilt, her sorrow, her regrets, and it had burned inside her until it erupted, to lash out and humble her perfidious, misguided matriarch sisters.
Because she herself had been humbled by a bright, ephemeral child… a child discarded by her own people, doomed to a life of privation or malicious crime, who had beaten past all of that…
She had seen that shining child, and that long-wished for shore, and now she remembered once again the fire that had stung her so harshly all these years. It was the Message, the voice of a broken, frightened, and yet defiant mankind that had compelled her to action more than thirty years ago.
And it compelled her now, because for all of her failings, and the commands and instructions of those who crafted her mind, and the mandates there was something greater. There was the Light, and its imperatives would never die.
The Message had screamed into her soul that the Light would not be extinguished.
"No, child. It will not." Uressa breathed to herself.
There was a commotion to the left, which Liara turned to look at. Uressa had taken off her shawl, handing it to one of her Godtalkers, and was headed to the edge of the docking platform, her expression hard, ignoring the two asari C-Sec talking to her.
Liara moved to her side. "…Matriarch?"
Uressa's voice was calm, but warm. "She could use the dancing kanquess to escape, yes? As could your sister."
Liara said nothing for a second. "She could, but she won't. She's trying to figure out how to lift the door and push the shuttle out before the hull ruptures. And Tela… won't leave her there alone."
Uressa gave her a smile, a smile of something Liara could not grasp. "There are charges we are belabored with. Things we are not supposed to do, to let be known. Things that… put many at risk."
The matriarch turned her gaze below. "Last time, I had the excuse of having the Solarch and Lunarch by my side. This time I will not."
Liara didn't understand. "…You are going to do something? What? Even my mother could not have lifted that blast door. That has to weigh more than fifteen tons."
Uressa only touched her shoulder, and then she too flashed into a streak of blue.
The crowd reacted to this as well, murmurs and cheers mixed with gasps, as the matriarch came to a skidding stop, the deck smoking from her landing. Uressa stared up at the massive door, frowning at the controls to one side.
She spoke into her comm-link. "…The control panel has been sabotaged, T'Soni. Let the C-Sec people know – someone planned this."
Sielase Vensara swallowed back fear and forced a smile, as the other two asari in the cramped confines of the gantry prepared the missile launchers.
The entire crazy plot – smuggling weapons and mechs, then getting them into the access areas high above the dock, then setting up snipers' nests – had taken most of the day, and she was already exhausted. The mechs they'd brought had focused attention higher up and further away from her current location, and the last of the mechs with sniper rifles and the like were being destroyed by C-Sec and a handful of Spectres or Special Response units, gold dots blipping out on her omni-tool's display.
She wasn't sure where P.'s hackers were at, but being dragged along to manage the mechs hadn't been in her plans, and she figured she'd end up like the body behind her.
The two asari now lifting weapons were two of P.'s own Daughters, while the cooling corpse of the turian on the floor was the former SPECTRE Venthix Talid. The fool had actually thought the bribes were from the Shadow Broker and would allow him to chase glory, and they were smuggling in weapons to outfit an anti-Facinius cell with to get around the Citadel arms restrictions.
Once he'd gotten them all the weapons and access they needed, he'd been told to follow them to the bugout ship, and been quietly dispatched with a muffled Judgment pistol by one of the Daughters. Now they were sighting in the missiles, while Sielase wondered how she got mixed up in this to begin with.
The older of the two Daughters gave a breathy laugh. "Daddy was right again! The stupid bitch just charged down there. Bunch of idiots trying to fix the lift, is the second det-charge still live, Vensara?"
Sielase nodded. "Y-Yes. If they get the lift working it will detonate once it gets halfway down."
"Good, good. Have the rest of the mechs try to draw them away from our path. We're firing in three, two, one…"
Before Liara or anyone else could answer Uressa, more flashes of light erupted from the gantries above Uressa. A pair of streaks of light smashed into where Uressa stood, detonating in a violent blast that set off every radiological alarm and VI in the area. The people standing closet to the explosion recoiled from light burns even as the rest cried out in horror.
Forlan was frantically cursing, while every C-Sec officer, Cerberus soldier, and Spectre that Liara could see opened fire in a rage on the section of the gantry that the missiles had come from for several seconds before a C-Sec officer screamed "CEASE FIRE! FUEL LINES THERE! CEASE! FIRE!"
Liara tore her gaze to the deck below, where smoke still occluded where Uressa stood, then a single blast of blue biotic power lanced out of the cloud. A nimbus of blue light wrapped around a section of the upper access gantries and pulled, the metal giving a tortured shriek as it gave way. Four small bodies tumbled through the air to land with sickening cracking sounds and splattering noises.
A biotic push of air rushed out in a shockwave, clearing the smoke and revealing Uressa was unhurt, a huge amount of decking around her bubbling white hot and melted down to the under-deck of Citadel materials – but with her standing within a perfect circle of unharmed decking around her.
As if the attack was nothing more than an annoyance, she rose to her feet and spread her arms, her voice rising in a whispery chant as she began to glow with biotic power.
Shepard was out of options.
The door wasn't budging, that much was certain. Even if she'd been in good shape and with Tela helping her, lifting that monster would have been flatly impossible – core pull or no.
The detonations that had shredded the docking bay itself were not the instant death she'd expected – they had resulted in minor decompression, but it was not a complete collapse.
Tela had frantically started using some kind of biotic variant of warp to try to close the bigger rents in the bay walls, while Shepard had sighted a sign on one of the lockers reading 'Emergency Repair Supply.' It had contained several large barrels of hull patch omni-gel, and she'd gone about using it with all the speed she could muster.
There was not even close to enough to seal the docking bay, but there was enough to seal the shuttle at least.
That had taken only a few minutes, and now that both of them had done what they could, they'd fallen back to the shuttle. Shepard herself knew she could survive on her internal air tank, and that according to Miranda, hard vacuum would take half an hour or more to kill her.
She really did not want to test that out, and Tela and the children wouldn't fare well in hard vacuum even if she could – patches might last all of five minutes if that.
The soft, grinding creak of slowly tearing metal filled her ears, and she shuddered as she tapped her comm-link. "Garrus?"
The turian sounded worried. "You still okay?"
Shepard exhaled. "Yeah, but not for long. Look, the conduit already messed this bay up, and the leak is getting worse. This thing is gonna come apart sooner rather than later. Tela sealed some stuff, and I got a few patches on the shuttle, but if it goes into space…"
Garrus sighed. "I know. Look, the matriarch, Uressa – she just kanquessed down to where you are. She's trying to do something, and she at least killed some of the sire-fucking bastards who were firing on the shuttles from up top. C-Sec is still busy fighting off more assholes in the overheads, while some Spectres are trying to repair the lift, no luck yet though. And C-Sec still aren't letting Lawson send in any of our own shuttles."
He paused. "I hate to say it, but Liara says you and Vasir can biotic charge out of there…"
Shepard gritted her teeth. "Garrus, I'm not leaving these kids to fucking die."
The turian's voice was tired and angry. "You think I fucking like the idea, Sara? You did the best you could. But you'd need a spirits-be-damned miracle to get them out of this mess. Can you even move them?"
She sighed. "No. Most are shaken up but the pilot and at least five of the kids have broken legs or can't move. One might have spinal injuries. Even if I could…" she trailed off. "…it doesn't matter. I said I was staying. I'm staying."
Garrus' voice buzzed. "Dammit. I… wait." A pause. "…Thanix Palavanus is here, says he is going to help. Stay put, Sheep."
Shepard arched an eyebrow.
"Macera, you can't—"
Thanix Palavanus picked up the asari C-Sec blocking his way and set her to one side like she was a toy, then strode forward, his voice booming as he spoke loudly. "Order! You there, C-Sec, form a gunline there, and angle your fire into the support struts – drop it from under the enemy. And you two – move this line of people back, if they have more missiles the barriers won't stop the hard rads or heat from killing them."
In less than thirty seconds, the milling crowds and shaken, half-panicked C-Sec personnel had been reorganized, and Thanix pushed past them, coming up to Garrus and Forlan. "Spirits protect, young Vakarian. The Primarch and the rest are stuck in traffic, but I decided to do what I can. Why exactly is no one else down there but Uressa?"
Garrus crashed into a salute (as did every turian in Cerberus colors and all the turian C-Sec). "Great One, the lifts were destroyed. Several Spectres are trying to repair them now, but they're limited by the tools we have. None here aside from Uressa, Shepard, and Tela have the biotic strength necessary to kanquess down to the docking floor, and Fire Response is being held up by traffic – hostile hacking is crashing aircars in the Ward Transition Lanes. C-Sec is in such a snit over security they are having to unmesh the mess. It won't take long, no more than fifteen minutes…"
Thanix's vast frame shook with laughter. "By then everyone will be dead. I'll need to speak to Pallin about this." The Palavanus walked over to the edge, flicked a mandible, then stroked his chin. "And repairing the lift is stupid, if they blew it up once they almost certainly planned for any jury-rigged repairs… need an alternative."
His voice became musing. "Omni-pitons… no, too long to descend. Mag-boots? No, under gravity and Citadel metal is non-ferric. Eezo-assisted drop frame? No, no eezo just lying around… ahh." He turned, glancing around, then looked at Garrus. "Do your people have omni-gel?"
Garrus glanced at Forlan, then the C-Sec section leader, another turian, whose mandibles flicked wide. "Yes, we have some in case we had to do field fortification, Great One."
Thanix nodded. "I need all of it, now."
The police officer crashed into a salute and bolted off at top speed, even as Liara came over, looking at Garrus, then the Palavanus. "You have some way to help, Cera Palavanus?"
Thanix nodded. "Perhaps. No point trying to wait for assistance, the best thing to do is get those doors up. I helped design the damned things, so I know exactly how they work – they are hydraulic, pressure isolated with redundant backups, with various security measures to make sure they can't be bypassed. Similar to the Ward Lockdown doors. We had to bypass those things when Benezia invaded the Citadel, took a while but I figured it out. If I can get down there and do that, then lifting that thing would be easier."
Garrus looked confused. "Great one, no offense, but even you cannot leap down that far and survive, we can't get aircars here, and the lifts are destroyed. I already checked, there's no SKYTALONs anywhere near… "
Thanix merely smiled as a human in Cerberus armor and a C-Sec officer both handed him small casks of omni-gel, and cracked the first one open. "Humans, I believe, have a thing for rappelling. With all this fancy eezo tech we rarely bother with it anymore, but humans consider it… entertainment, yes?"
The Cerberus trooper, whose name tag read 'Rosera,' shrugged. "Uh, yeah?"
Thanix was doing something on his omni-tool, then triggered it and poured the omni-gel on the floor, sinking an omni-lead into it a moment later. He programmed rapidly, then picked up the harness he had omnifactured and linked it to the reinforced rope he had made, then smiled at Liara.
"I'll only be a moment, madame. Others can follow if they are careful, I'd send more biotics to help Uressa lift that big jirongi of a door." He hooked the rope to the nearby support stanchion that held up the AVINA platform, and then he flung himself off the side.
Garrus trembled, as several turians broke ranks to look over the side, only to find the Palavanus literally bounding down the side of the docking platform, descending rapidly with rope and laughing the entire way down. His voice boomed. "What are you idiots staring at? Medics, anyone with a strong back and every biotic among you – civilian, military, or not – follow me down!"
Forlan just shook his head. "Palavanus lunatics…"
Uressa was preparing to start when the boom-thud of impact disturbed her. She opened her eyes, to see the form of the turian Palavanus walking over toward her, and a line of others descending the long sides of the dock walls by… some kind of line?
Thanix's pace was rapid as he gingerly picked his way around the ruined decking, avoiding the spots still glowing white hot, but his voice was genial. "Good eve, milady matriarch. You are radiant as always; I trust you are well?"
She frowned. "Thanix. Why are you here… and how did you get down here?"
He gestured to a thin rope that descended all the way up to the platform. "Omnifactured a rope. Amazing what simple common sense can do. I'm here to help bypass this door. It's not just heavy, it's held down by tons of hydraulics."
She nodded. "I know. The control panel was sabotaged, however."
He snorted. "Same thing happened when Benezia locked down the Wards. I can bypass, I just need a few minutes. I told them to send more biotics to help lift that door. I believe it's roughly eighteen sar-stones, or fifteen or so metric tonnes."
She stared for a long second, then a slow smile spread across her features. "You are a good being, Thanix Palavanus. Perform your actions… and we will redeem the children."
Thanix frowned. "There are children in there? Some frothing shatha-hound used the lives of children in this stunt?" Uressa nodded, and Thanix gave an exhalation. "I will need a minute for this. Then we need to kill someone extremely violently, milady matriarch."
Uressa closed her eyes, reaching for the core of her power. "Normally I disdain violence, but today I believe you are correct."
Emily Wong's voice was a mix of hopeful and worried. "C-Sec reports several shoot-outs with snipers in the lower Wards leading to the docks, where a fire response unit was attacked. Reports are also coming in – the navigation VI controller for aircar traffic patterns has been hacked, with over sixty accidents and at least a dozen deaths, with the entire Ward Concourse tunnelway blocked by wreckage. Fire Response crews are responding as best as possible, but C-Sec INFOSEC has confirmed there are hackers in the comm-lines disrupting events.
"Uressa T'Shora and Thanix Palavanus have descended to the shuttle area. They seem to be preparing to somehow lift an isolation door, although how this would be accomplished remains to be seen. More are following Thanix to the docking level, to help provide whatever assistance that can be given to free Sara Shepard and Tela Vasir…"
A voice in the background shouted "Look!" and Emily half-turned, redirecting her drone to look at the scene below. "…My God."
Thanix snarled as he cut through another hydraulic relief line, ignoring the spatter of oils that ruined his doublet. He could hear the spidery chanting of Uressa and a feeling of… something that felt kin to lightning in the air. It stank of ozone and he could feel the spirits circling the asari, lifting their hands with hers.
As more people rushed over, he barked out commands, his voice steady. "You two, medics, prep a triage area, use the rest of the omni-gel I have left over to flash-fab stretchers. I need someone to get into the access panels to the right side and isolate all the power-leads to the motor interlocks. The rest of you – grab the graphite dust tubs there and fling it around, my radiation detector is beeping like mad and the last thing we need is to rescue the children and then have them dosed!"
He continued to split his attention between shouting orders and working on the door bypass, even as he felt a subtle static from whatever Uressa was doing with her biotics, giving a bark of triumph a moment later when the machinery gave way to his strength. "Got you, you slot-plated kirix." He tore the isolator line out, grinning as the door gave a massive shudder and groaned. "Milady, the hydraulics are down!"
Uressa heard him, lost in her own trance. She knew that there would be ramifications from this. To explain it would be impossible, and in the light of avoiding questions that she could not answer and problems that led only to more problems, she should not do what she had already set her will to do.
And yet she could not simply stand by. Not this time. Not with this situation.
She was tired of compromise and more tired of disliking the person in her mirror. So she opened her mind and her will and took a deep breath, speaking a single word in ancient asaric. "Open."
Biotic light exploded forth, outlining her body, framing the door, and it shook. The floor trembled, as tiny arcs of glimmerlight played over the door, shimmering hints of something in the air dancing around her.
She grimaced, her hands closing into fists, and her back arched as her voice thundered out. "Open!"
The door shuddered, and Thanix came slowly to his feet, eyes wide. The handful of others watched in awe as the metal decking under her feet creaked and then bent, steel warping as blue smoke and waves of energy began to radiate out from Uressa.
Yet still the door remained obdurate, and Uressa's voice held a note of liquid fury. "I call upon the many!"
Liara – and every other asari on the platform – felt the biotic shockwave of power from Uressa, a wash of pure pressure and energy that left them gasping and reeling for a moment as if something had been pulled out of each of them. Liara had never felt biotics of such titanic might, not from her mother or even the Solarch.
Forlan was staring, while Grunt had pushed past them to carefully and slowly descend down the rope Thanix had left behind for others. The last firefights between the forces of C-Sec and the mysterious attackers in the gantries had fallen silent as the crowds found themselves unable to tear their eyes away.
Uressa grit her teeth, feeling the door trying to lift, but it was so heavy. It was… beyond her. Beyond her power. She strained, and still it denied her, the sheer weight of it simply so far beyond what could be done that it left her near tears.
She bowed her head, and then heard Shepard's voice on the comm-link. "If someone is going to do something… hurry. The bay is decompressing and these patches will not hold." A murmur, and then Shepard's voice, calming and warm. "Shh. It's okay. People outside are about to get us out of here… just hang on."
A tiny, shaky voice. "I… okay. Who is out there?"
Shepard said, with no doubt in her voice at all. "Uressa T'Shora is out there. And Thanix Palavanus. So, don't worry."
A small turian voice, suddenly hardened with shocked pride. "…The High Pretarch is here… for us?"
The laughing tones of Vasir, a woman that Uressa knew all too well, was broken and without hope. "Yes, he is. And more. Just wait, she'll have that door up any second now."
The matriarch looked at the deck, and the door, and then closed her eyes. She reached, in the ways she should not reach, in the ways the Masters had denied.
She remembered the tired mother, pleading with her to save her only child, which she was not supposed to do.
She remembered the bodies from the plague, that she could have cured, and which she was not supposed to do.
She remembered the blood-spattered form of her sister, eyes wide with madness, and the last rattle of breath as she was slain, because reasoning with her was something she was not supposed to do.
She remembered holding a shaking, crying child unable to handle the hatred of her cold family, and then watching that child be taken away and turned into a monster.
Because she wasn't supposed to do… anything.
She was tired of compromise. She was tired of being a well-meaning hypocrite. And she was tired of being admired when she was weak.
The light was blinding, and even Thanix found himself taking an involuntary step back as Uressa screamed. Literal lightning erupted around her, as the very floor shattered into jagged pieces. Uressa stretched her arms wide, a runnel of purple blood leaking from her nose and mouth, and hard blue light seized the heavy, unmoving door.
And it lifted. Ever so slowly, it lifted. Millions of eyes watched the impossible happen.
A giant krogan approached Thanix, his muscles bulging under the kind of white robes that Ganar Okeer had often worn. "The door will not stay up long; can you help me push that shuttle?"
Thanix gave him a look. "…My good krogan." He turned to the others – a handful of C-Sec, several Cerberus types, two heavyset quarian Marines, a few asari, even a volus of all things – and then back to Grunt. "It would be my pleasure."
Grunt laughed. "Shepard will probably help too. Just be…" He trailed off, a look of wonder on his face, as Uressa's scream echoed.
The illumination flared a deep, strange green, and every asari on the Citadel felt something within them buckle, many falling to their knees. Liara could feel a pull of some kind, from some space both inside her and not in her body… and she didn't fight it, even as she doubled over, while Mierin was on the ground gasping and Mirala was swaying on her feet.
Uressa's eyes were pools of pure white, while faint burn marks etched into her hands. She ignored the agony, the pressure, the cuts on her legs from the broken deck. She ignored it all and screamed out defiance – and with that final shattering roar and actual biotic flames, the door rose upwards.
Shepard's eyes widened when she saw Grunt, followed by the biggest turian she'd ever seen and a small crowd of others. It took her a moment to realize that it was Thanix Palavanus.
"Quick! Help me move this thing – I'll use lift to try to make it lighter but we'll need everyone pushing!"
The krogan merely nodded, as did Thanix, while others set themselves around the craft or in the case of the volus, directly behind it. Thanix stepped next to her and gently clapped her on the shoulder. "Your bravery is equal to that of any of my kin, Shepard – and you as well, Vasir. Others may complain, but you did this for children."
He set his shoulder against the shuttle, pausing to smile at a wide-eyed turian child through the windows, and exhaled. "Ready."
Shepard let her biotics go and pushed. So did everyone else, and the shuttle shifted, then slowly began to move. Pain exploded through her as she used her biotics on the shuttle, just trying to lighten it. It scraped and buckled the cheap decking as it moved ever so slowly.
Grunt grit his teeth, the volus next to him muttering something as tinkling sounds emerged from his suit as his muscles began to break under the strain. The asari using their own biotics to enhance their strength screamed as they did core pulls, and Shepard forced herself on. She heard something in her back shatter, hot pins and needles erupting in her lower back, as Miranda came in on her comm-link.
"Shepard, you have to shut down your biotics! You are losing heat capacity!"
She ignored her voice, ignored the pain, ignored the blood from her nose, or the wetness spreading across her back. She ignored everything, putting all her strength into pushing as she lifted. She knew only those who pushed with her, and alongside her, and crying, awed and amazed expressions of small faces in the windows above her head.
Vashin Masare's voice was a whisper as she watched the scene below, watched Sainted Uressa literally set herself on fire, with agony in her voice as she screamed defiance and the door sank a bit, staggering with blood running from her mouth. Watched as turians, humans, quarians, asari, volus, and a krogan pushed a full-sized shuttle out from beneath that door, with blood staining Shepard's back as they pushed.
She had no words as the entire crowd, Spectres, Cerberus soldiers, and C-Sec, erupted into savage cheering and dancing as with a final shove the shuttle was clear. The door slammed to the ground with an ugly and deafening boom, deforming the decking that remained in place. Uressa let her arms fall and fell to her knees, smoke rising from blackened hands and blood seeping from her legs. Thanix staggered clear and his expression was pained even from this distance, while several others very simply collapsed.
The medics who were on the ground moved with alacrity, even as Vasir tiredly moved to the rear to help cut open the shuttle to remove the children. Grunt rushed over to Shepard, who had collapsed to the ground, and then he shouted for help.
Vashin licked her lips and found her voice. "It appears the second shuttle of children has been saved… but at a severe cost. Blessed Mother Uressa seems to be in pain and injured, and Sara Shepard has collapsed, with bleeding from her back and is possibly unconscious. And yet… in this blood, this suffering, this tragedy… we see something amazing. We see every species among us united not in hate or competition or plotting, but in rescuing a handful of children."
Watching as the medics moved to aid Shepard, her voice grew strained as she spoke: "…The cynical will dismiss this as drama." She wiped her eyes, her smile wavery. "Perhaps it is instead that we are seeing what should be."
In the distance, the faint whine of Fire Response sirens finally sounded.