Been a while, huh?
Interregnum left Garrus on a pretty dark note; it's a story that started from the ending and worked backwards, always under the shadow of its inevitable climax. But the nice thing about stories is there's always more of them, and I thought Garrus's story deserved a little closure.
So, exactly four years to the day since Omega and Alpha, and to celebrate the release of Andromeda (and a personal original fiction project of mine; PM me if you want details!), here's the last thing I'll ever do with Garrus Vakarian, before I leave the poor guy in peace. Join him now on Menae, in the early days of the apocalyptic Reaper War – and the last days of the world as we know it.
It's been a good run, but everything dies, baby, that's a fact...
- The Naked Pen
MASS EFFECT: RESTORATION
The righteous path is straight as an arrow
Take a walk and you'll find it too narrow
Too narrow for the likes of me
'Up Jumped the Devil' - Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
The world is ending.
Garrus Vakarian watches the sky flicker with ancient fire, the unholy light of extinction. It seems to him that the universe itself is blackening at the edges, curling in itself, starting to smoke. Ready to blaze.
A titanic sphere of silver has laid fiery claim to the horizon, dripping with sparks that are cities turning to cinders, capitals crumbling to ashes. Palaven is burning.
He watches black giants stalk the rock wastes of Menae, charting distant paths across a grey ocean. Something in the dreadful slowness of them hints at their size, these mile-high cathedrals of steel and death. The footsoldiers of the apocalypse.
I told you so, he thinks, checking the silk-smooth action of his rifle again, as if it could have decayed in the half-minute since he checked it last - but these are times of entropy, he supposes, the days when the fragile order of the universe finally fractures. When genocidal machine abominations lay waste to the galaxy and whole worlds heave and break and end, perhaps the truly unthinkable will happen, and Garrus Vakarian's rifle will fail him.
He smiles bleakly inside his helmet. Like hell.
They're fifty klicks from Cadurus Base yet, their bristling convoy winding through canyons and gullies, safe as can be from the marauding Reapers and their crimson eyes, ready to swat anything airborne down with a flick of their gaze. From time to time their cover runs out and they dash across open ground, their heavy-duty transports grinding rock to dust under three-metre wheels. Their luck has held, which in Garrus's experience means that the vindictive gods of chance are huffing on their dice and eyeing the table, readying one last, fatal throw.
The bastards play to win.
Comms from Cadurus are down. Yenaxos, the base they abandoned two hours back, is surely gone by now, overrun by the inexorable advance of the Reaper front line. In the past - he checks his 'tool - sixteen hours, he should have died four times. Five, if he's feeling charitable.
He glances up at his burning planet and squints at the speck of firelight that marks his native city, once home to millions.
Garrus is not feeling charitable.
But this is the arc of his life, bending an endless slingshot maneuver around the black well of death. He and death are well acquainted, enjoying the kind of slow-burn friendship that gravitates inevitably towards intimacy. It's an embrace he's dodged for years. A dozen times or more, he has felt those icy arms closing around him. They seem to grip more tightly each time, and his miracle escapes grow ever more implausible.
If he survives this, this grand, operatic shattering of worlds, he figures he's earned a vacation. Somewhere nice. Somewhere not on fire.
Well, not too on fire. He'll settle for smouldering.
Beyond the tinted window of the transport he sees sheer black drop away on either side as the convoy blasts across a narrow bridge of stone. Without warning, his mind flings itself into the dark and back to Omega, as it so often does, to the bridge and the siege, to the day some semi-vital component deep within him jerked and groaned and broke. He feels that cracked gear jar within him every day of his life.
He wonders if that's why he has found the coming of the Reapers so… manageable. He's lived through his personal apocalypse already. Now that it's come for everyone else, it's almost a relief. Better a soldier than an angel. Soldiers are born to fall.
They're afraid of him. In a good way, he supposes, looking round at the armoured figures lining the walls and swaying from ceiling handholds. None look his way. Fear is useful, sometimes. Omega taught him that too. The same brushes with the Reapers that have granted him his absurdly lofty position in the Hierarchy - promoted from fringe crackpot to generalissimo inside an hour, and all it took was the end of the world - have lent him mystique. Garrus Vakarian, the man who saw it coming. The doomsayer. Prophet of the end times.
Death has rubbed off on him somewhere along the line. Maybe it was Sovereign, years ago now. Maybe it was Omega. Maybe it was Harbinger, and the mad assault on the Collectors' base. Maybe it was everything. He's developing quite a patina, an enviable collection of scars on body and mind - but none of them ache like Omega. No other knife has cut so deep.
He looks out on the apocalypse and thinks: it's been a weird few years.
Shouts bristle over comms, and the transport jolts. Garrus's head jerks up, and martial instinct flickers through his hands like lightning through the thunderhead, slotting modules and clips together with lethal ease until his half-disassembled rifle is whole once more. It saves his life. Again.
The Reaper destroyer plunges out of the sky like a graphical glitch in reality, an alien slash of black crunching through rock on tenebrous legs, dust whipping around it as a glaring red eye swivels their way.
Garrus dials up his kinetic shields.
Plasmatic scarlet fire lances out and contemptuously pierces the transport ahead of them, crumpling one side and exploding the other. Bodies wheel into the black, followed by the burning wreck of the transport. Shouts go up on all sides, a storm of panicked motion.
Garrus adjusts his crash straps.
He watches pursuing fighters rake electric trails across Palaven's brimstone shell, screeching in to bombard the Reaper with relativistic ferocity. It won't work. He's already resigned to the pit, where the match-head fire of the wrecked transport is already out of sight.
The red flame blooms again and slices, shredding aeons-old rock with casual abandon. Whoever's at the controls makes a valiant effort to cross the bridge before it's too late, but he can hear the cracking in the bones of the moon, feel it juddering up through the mighty wheels, sense them skidding on crumbling stone and losing control.
Just in time to avoid the deathly touch of the Reaper's red fire, which flickers tonguelike overhead and tastes nothing but dusty air, the bridge breaks and pitches the transport into the abyss.
Lucky us, Garrus thinks, as he braces his head between his knees.
The driver wrestles with the fall, firing emergency thrusters that bounce them sparking from wall to wall, a landslide at their backs, their fronts, their sides as they tumble wildly into the black. Garrus, reasoning that they're not doing him much good at the moment, closes his eyes inside his helmet, and loses himself in the spinning of the world.
Reminds me of Shepard's driving, part of him thinks. What part? The same part as always, the little nub of immortal bravado that keeps him up and moving when death comes swirling down. He was surprised to find it survived Omega. He wonders if it will survive him, if death will burn away his body and spirit but leave a disembodied whisper of sarcasm, rippling mordantly across the universe.
I wonder if anyone else thinks like this.
Then the impact - the last impact, in truth, after a staccato hammering on chasm walls and dislodged rock - though even this is not the last, but simply the most.
These thoughts drift back to him in the split belly of the transport, amid the blood-blue glare of warning lights through smoke and the shrilling of alarms, as he dazedly raises his head, realising he's hanging almost upside down amid a slew of bodies, some stirring weakly.
Six, if I'm feeling charitable.
Releasing his harness, he falls to the floor-ceiling and fumbles for his gun, starts dragging the nearest lump of motionless armour to safety through the ruptured door. He emerges onto grey shelves of rock, lit by the snarling fire consuming the transport, and takes a step—
—almost into a fresh abyss.
He drops the soldier – who's already dead, he secretly knows that – and windmills his arms, barely keeping upright, barely keeping his gun. The wreck of the transport is perched precariously on a rock outcropping, the jagged mouth of the canyon grinning toothily at least a hundred metres overhead. A sliver of burning Palaven shines down. He can still hear the otherworldly hum of the Reaper.
Well, this isn't great, he thinks, which is the natural signal for things to get worse.
He's too busy looking up to think about down. When he glances up at the scrabbling, scritching noise on the edge of hearing, he sees nothing, and only when it grows so close that the echoes resolve into a noise below him does he look again into the chasm.
Husks are swarming up the walls, metallic mouths glinting with metallic teeth, and a hundred hungry flat steel eyes fix on Garrus.
Didn't know they could do that, he thinks, impressed.
No way up, no way down. He spins, looking for an exit.
'Husks inbound,' he says over general comms, in the vague hope that others aren't yet incapacitated. No reply. He can't save the injured.
There. A gash in the wall, maybe nothing but a shallow gouge in the rock. Maybe a tunnel. Certainly better than being overrun here and now.
He yanks grenades from his belt, dashing them into the transport. At least he can deny the Reapers more footsoldiers. Better death than their profane resurrection. Using low gravity to his advantage, he scrambles up onto the immobile wheels, retreats a step – better make it two – and leaps, the shadowed gulf yawning below him, even in this feeble gravity reaching up to drag him down—
Garrus slams into the gap, scrabbles, grunts, and reels, buffeted by the explosion's fiery gust. The husks won't stop, he knows, so neither will he. Not now, not ever. Not with the revenant dead at his heel.
Armour scrapes at bare rock as he forces himself further into the gap. For a moment he dreads that it narrows to nothing and that he'll be trapped, but the harsh light of his omnitool reveals a crack he can just wedge himself through, armour and all. The growl and scuttle of husks rises behind him. No time to panic, just concentrate on thrusting through limbs, head, torso, gun, through the crack, into the tunnel, away from the Reaper forces.
His boot snags on an outcropping, and dead hands seize it.
Cursing, he trips, falls, pivots on the ground, catches sight of half a dozen twisted, demonic faces howling at him through the crack in the rock. More hands fall on his leg, dragging him back.
He fumbles with his rifle, switches mode, fires.
Light and noise explode around him. Full-auto fire shreds the husks, severs grasping arms and ventilates sunken chests, and he jerks free, scrambling upright as the thermal clip pops hissing to the floor. An amputated hand still clings to his ankle, and he kicks it loose. It splats against the rock wall like a limp, fleshy spider, trailing bloody wires.
God, the sound of them, the horrible echoing shrieking, like the cries of the damned wafting up from some deep hell.
The tunnel widens beneath his pounding boots. Rock spurs and crusted crystal formations flicker under his flashlight. It leads him to a metres-high sheet of stone, and somehow he scrambles up it, wedging boots into minute toeholds. They're still coming, he can hear them, like the roar of a dead ocean.
Tunnels branch and multiply. Garrus refuses to worry about finding his way back and plunges into them at random, taking lefts and rights with abandon. Deeper and deeper into Menae's maze he sprints, lungs aching, wondering if he'll ever see the sky again.
Light betrays him. In the dreamy strobe of his flashlight, what looks like a patch of clear ground is anything but, and his boot plunges into ankle-deep gravel. Swivelling, flailing, he scrambles towards safety, but too late, the ground is shifting around and under him, moving with dreadful slowness, carrying him away—
He's not sure what happens next. Something gives way, or perhaps was never there at all, but either way he's sliding, pulverised rock bellowing around his helmet as he skids down a slope that wasn't fucking there a moment ago, but there's no light outside his 'tool and he's lost the tunnel he came from, and all he can see is tumbling, bouncing stone all around him as he rushes down into darkness at speeds he can only guess at.
Sudden impact dizzies him, snatches the light away. Without armour, he'd be paté, he thinks giddily, still deafened by the roar of shifting rock, and tries to move. He can't. Gravel has settled around him, on him, encasing him in hard-packed stone. Entombing him. The roaring fades, ceases. Silence hammers down like a meteorite.
No need to panic, he thinks, panicking.
Left arm, left leg, right leg, immobile. Frozen. Right arm—
Well, his fingers are moving, which is something. They've been good to him, those fingers. You can do a lot with fingers.
Right now, he can wiggle them, and that's about it.
He imagines his hand sticking out of a mound of gravel and laughs inside his helmet, only slightly hysterically.
Oh, hang on. Idiot.
His visor is linked to his rifle. His rifle is – well, it's somewhere around him. Possibly pointed at him, in his rocky tomb, in which case he's about to shoot himself. It would be a fitting end, all things considered.
Here goes nothing.
Without his 'tool, he's stuck with emergency eye control, which is a pain in the ass. Being buried alive is a bigger pain in the ass, though. He's never fired his rifle remotely before, and it occurs to him that it might not work.
In which case, he's really fucked.
Painstakingly, he finds the right submenu, overrides safety controls, maximises internal cooling systems to give himself as many shots as possible before heat buildup melts the damn thing, and fires an exploratory shot.
At least, he thinks he does. He doesn't hear it, or see it, or feel it.
Another shot. Another. He thinks he hears something now, walled into what might well be his grave, but is it his imagination?
His rifle feeds back its data. He notices that it cooled faster after the third shot than the first or second. Some clear air around it?
Well. He effectively has unlimited ammunition. Now that he has clear air, his rifle will cool down between shots, even if it takes a few seconds each time. And he has nothing else to do.
For what he measures as an hour but what feels like, oh, maybe a brief geologic era, he fires, waits, fires, waits. The cooling does speed up, marginally. After an hour, he can hear the shots, muffled drum beats somewhere – below and to his left? He's pretty sure he's facing up, at least. Or maybe not. No way to tell.
He wonders if the gun will give out before he suffocates. Or maybe he'll escape and find his way back to the surface only to discover a dead wasteland, the Reapers' victory completed while he struggles below, an insect in amber.
Garrus Vakarian, the last man in the galaxy. That'd be something.
His visor flashes an alert. Someone nearby is broadcasting on an open frequency. He stops firing, shuffles painfully through menus until he can tune in.
'...alive in there? I repeat—' Female voice, but odd. Distorted somehow.
'Yes,' he says, not quite trusting his own voice. 'I'm alive.'
An intake of breath on the other end of the line. 'Identify yourself.'
He suspects he outranks whoever it is, but somehow this doesn't seem like the time to bring it up. 'Garrus Vakarian. I'm, uh—' He can't remember his official rank. Special Advisor to the Hierarchy or something like that. Not the time for wordy titles either. 'Stuck,' he settles for. 'I'm stuck.'
'Yeah, we figured that.' Another voice – male, deep, rippling with the same distortion.
Another man speaks up. 'Hey, I know that name. Aren't you the Hierarchy's Reaper expert or something?'
'The Citadel guy?' A fourth voice, female again. He begins to recognise something common to their tones. Cheerful bravado, the voice you use to flirt with death. 'I saw that movie. Wasn't great.'
Oh, hell. He'd forgotten about the movie.
'We'll get you out, sir,' says the first voice. Sounds like a commander to him. A hand grips his fingers, and he can feel gravel being shovelled away from his hand.
'Good,' Garrus says, then wonders if that sounds too harsh. 'Thank you. You are?'
'Dead.' The first man.
'Oh, yeah, we're all dead,' the second woman says airily.
The second man laughs. 'Dead as dead can be.'
'Cut the chatter,' the commander snaps. 'Give me a hand—'
Poor choice of phrase, Garrus thinks, but hands lock hard around his exposed forearm and heave. He doesn't move for a moment, but soon he feels some subtle shift in the gravel around him, some mechanical hold slipping, and suddenly he comes sliding out of the gravel to land unceremoniously in a heap on top of black-armoured figures, shadows silhouetted by stark white light.
'It's a boy,' someone says sardonically.
There's an awkward few seconds as the pileup separates. Garrus stands, his legs weak from motionlessness, brushing gravel from the ridges of his armour. There are seven figures around him, all turian, all armed, all in featureless black armour. It's not standard infantry gear.
One steps forward, salutes. 'SK-145, commanding officer, sir.'
It means nothing to him. 'You have a name, don't you?' he says, trying to make it half a joke.
'Not any more, sir. My designation is AAL-145-Tau.' She gestures around the group, clustered in a loose semi-circle. 'AAL-145-Gamma, Mu, Zeta, Sigma, Kappa, Chi.'
It clicks. For a moment he wonders if they're special ops or even a cabal, but the truth is less glamorous.
'You're a Dead squad,' he says.
'Like we said,' says the second woman, the one pointed out as Zeta. 'We're all dead here.'
The Dead Legion. He's never encountered them in person – but they've never been fully deployed, at least not since the Krogan Wars. Desperate times, he thinks bleakly. If the Dead are on the march, the end times really are here.
Every turian jailed in Hierarchy space has the option of joining the Dead Legion. Something like one percent of them do. The Legion is for life. Your name and identity are wiped away. You never see your friends and family again. You're trained, but only so much. Not enough to be elite; not enough to stop being expendable. Only enough to be useful on the battlefield.
The ultimate penance. The Dead surrender everything to the Hierarchy, and sooner or later, they die for it. Have they opened the prisons, Garrus wonders? Have the Hierarchy realised how hot the breath of apocalypse blows on their necks? The Reapers have their subverted armies; the Hierarchy has the Legion. Being dead isn't enough to keep you off the front lines any more.
What have they done, these seven? What shadows overhang their pasts? It's guilt that fills the ranks of the Legion, guilt that drives them to volunteer to die, hoping to find some redemption in service. It's a few coins against a mountainous debt.
He's never liked the idea. Something of the absolutist flickers in him still, the purist impulse that made him an angel; made him fall. Kill them all, it whispers to him, like it always has. Scum like them don't deserve to live.
But in his mind's eye he sees spaced slavers wheeling sightless into the void, and, just for a moment, Sidonis's head in his crosshairs, and he feels the familiar jolt in the battered machinery of his heart. Too far, he thinks distantly, too far…
Who is he to reject the dead? They have every right to reject him.
'I guess this is what you call an equal-opportunity apocalypse,' he says, with deadpan acceptance, and a couple of the Dead chuckle over the open line. 'All right – Tau. What the hell are you doing down here?'
As he speaks he circles the mound of gravel that was almost his grave. He sees what he's looking for immediately: a gunshot crater in the tunnel wall. He traces it back through the air, finds the place where his gun must be, and starts digging with his omnitool.
'Asset retrieval mission, sir,' Tau says.
'Asset— what assets could there be down here?' he says, then realises where he is. Menae. Mystery moon of the Hierarchy, layered with strata of secrets and classified government projects. The stuff of conspiracy theorists' dreams.
'We don't know, sir.'
'No, I guess they wouldn't tell you,' Garrus grunts, and finally uncovers his rifle. The gravel around it is still smoking, and molten rock has solidified in odd trickles near the barrel, but it's still functioning. Good enough. 'How'd you find me? Hear the gunshots?'
'Yes, sir.' Tau calls up a basic omnitool and glances at it. 'Sir, we're on a tight schedule—'
'Then lead on,' Garrus says. He reflexively checks the action of his rifle. No way he's getting back to the surface alone, not with husks roaming the dark, but he knows the Dead won't drop their mission to escort him to safety. Nor should they. Which leaves only one option. 'I'm coming with you.'
Mu, the laconic first man, laughs darkly. 'Great, he's coming with us.'
The distortion in their voices is unsettling. Some filter in their helmets is robbing them of any last shreds of individuality. As they make their way through silicated rock passages, following paste-on lights the Dead have stuck to the walls to mark their way, he tries to tell them apart.
Tau, steady and composed. He wouldn't be surprised if she's been military all her life. Mu, taut with fatalist sarcasm; he knows he's not getting out of this war alive. Zeta he finds odd, like she's vibrating on a different wavelength to the rest of them, her every word and action slightly off somehow. Her bravado is brittle.
Chi doesn't say much, but in the impatient brusqueness of her movements, her clipped responses, Garrus can feel anger coming off her in corrosive waves. Kappa's scared, that much is obvious, but he's reinforcing his limited courage by treating everything as a joke. Not unreasonable. He and Mu have a little rapport going, nudging each other, trading muttered jokes. At least, Garrus thinks they're jokes. Gamma's another strange one, moving with a jerky nervousness, subvocalising little grunts and half-words over the channel half the time, but whenever he speaks, he sounds deadly calm.
And then there's Sigma, silent save for monosyllabic acknowledgements, moving with a soldier's economy and a guerrilla's fluidity. Ex-paramilitary, maybe. A merc? With the helmets, it's impossible to tell for sure, but Garrus feels like Sigma's watching him.
Rock tunnels turn rapidly to metal ones. Old-fashioned plasteel plates have been slammed into place to form rough passageways, far below the surface of Menae. The lights are out; only the sweep of their flashlights illuminates the way, sending shadows ghosting across the walls. This is ancient history, Garrus knows, some long-abandoned network of tunnels connecting forgotten facilities. He can feel the accumulated weight of centuries of secrets pressing in on all sides.
'What are we retrieving?' he asks Tau.
'We don't know,' Zeta says, in a cheerful sing-song voice. 'Assets!'
'Anything that's not nailed down,' Mu says, and Kappa snorts.
With a long-suffering sigh, Tau ignores her squad. Garrus suspects she has no real power over them. They're all dead, after all.
'We have an encrypted file, sir,' she says. 'If we make it to our destination, it'll be unlocked and we'll know what we're looking for.'
Chi grunts. 'The bastards won't even tell us what we're after.'
Sounds familiar, Garrus thinks, then recognises the opportunity to win some friends.
'Nothing new there,' he says. Fine pillows of rock dust shaken loose over the years cover the floor, and their footsteps kick it up to swirl and billow in their flashlight beams. 'C-Sec, Hierarchy, Dead Legion… doesn't matter what uniform you wear, nobody tells you a damn thing.' That gets him some grunts and chuckles of approval as they trudge on through the abandoned corridors. He may not be one of them, but at least he's not a complete outsider now.
'Hey, Vakarian,' Kappa says. 'You've seen these things before.'
'So on a scale from one to—'
'—doomed,' Mu says drily.
'—yeah, one to doomed, where are we sitting?'
'Tough one,' Garrus says. 'Us personally, or us generally?'
Kappa lets out a quiet little trickle of laughter. 'Oh, we're doomed. Even if we make it out of here alive, they'll just send us somewhere else to die. That's what we're for.'
'But the species?' Gamma asks, the first time he's spoken without being directly addressed. 'The galaxy?'
Garrus thinks back to Sovereign, the Citadel, the Collectors, Harbinger, but it's Ilos that keeps washing up on the beach of his mind like driftwood. The Protheans themselves, hammered to dust and bone by the Reapers. A united empire of a galaxy, welded together by a race fighting with one purpose, one focus… and they lost.
Sooner or later, the light always goes out.
'Closer to doomed,' he says honestly.
Silence envelopes them for a minute or two.
'So the Battle of the Citadel really was Reapers?' Zeta says. They come to a fork, and Tau consults a map on her omnitool while they wait.
'Yes,' Garrus says. 'Well. Just one Reaper, actually.'
Zeta clicks her teeth together, barely audible over the channel. 'Hot damn!' she suddenly bursts out. 'Shepard was right!'
'Shepard was right,' Garrus says.
'Huh.' Zeta looks sidelong at him, her scratched helmet visor glinting in the half-light. He can tell she's grinning. 'Guess we should have listened.'
Overhead, there's a distant rumbling boom, the sound of a far-off mountain falling over, and a fresh drizzle of dust comes floating down from the ceiling. They pause for a moment, then continue once it's clear they're not being buried alive just yet.
'Seems like there's no point saying we told you so,' Garrus says.
They encounter more obstacles on their journey through the endless array of tunnels. Ancient doors, sealed shut by failed electronics, have to be burned through. Elevators are long gone, forcing them to loop back and find stairs. Cave-ins block off some passages entirely. After the fifth of these, even cool-headed Tau is frustrated.
'Damn it,' she hisses, striking the wall with an armoured fist as she turns back from the unforgiving rock blockade. 'We can't afford this.'
She stalks past Garrus, stabbing at her omnitool. 'All right, people, listen up,' she says, gathering them into a semicircle. 'This whole interchange facility is compromised. Good news is there are reinforced service tunnels that can take us the long way round.'
'Can't wait for the bad news,' Mu says.
'Can it, soldier,' Tau snaps.
Mu salutes. 'Canning it, sir.'
'The bad news,' Tau says, over Kappa's muffled chuckling, 'is that they directly connect to the natural tunnels. We might encounter resistance.'
No security measures? Garrus thinks, but of course there aren't. Menae has been the government's secret playground for centuries, millennia. Why bother securing tunnels against non-existent invading armies? What power could possibly land troops on Palaven's moon?
We did tell you so.
So. A long trek through dilapidated service tunnels, probably infested with husks, with only a handful of half-trained criminals on his side. Amid the apocalypse.
Well, he's had better weekends.
As they make their way through a succession of identical passageways, Garrus's visor flashes up a notification. The standard Citadel date has just ticked over. It's Urdnot Wrex's birthday. Would you like to message him?
The ridiculous mundanity of it makes him smile. Good old Wrex. What he wouldn't give to have the violent old bastard here now. Birthdays are a big deal to the krogan thanks to the genophage; just because the world is ending is no reason to skip out.
Happy birthday, big guy, he types, setting the message to send once he's hooked into the relay network again. Then, as an afterthought: Hope you're not dead. If you're not, I'll buy you a drink. If you are, I guess I'll buy me a drink.
It occurs to Garrus that he might be dead by the time it sends. Maybe he'll die down here and they'll drag his body out, and his omnitool will blast the post-mortem message to the stars. Maybe they'll both be dead. Something about the idea of one dead man sending birthday wishes to another appeals to his sense of humour.
It's easy to forget he's in the middle of history down here. The Hierarchy's conservative enough to build all its tunnels in the same style despite the passage of centuries. If they venture down some routes they would encounter – well, nobody knows; that's the mystique of Menae. Secret Prothean artifacts. Mind-control devices. Revolutionary starship engines. Wormhole generators. A secret alien city. Gum that never loses its flavour. Garrus remembers stumbling across the conspiracy sites at age nine, then trying to convince his father that turians had actually first visited Menae tens of thousands of years ago and that the Hierarchy was hushing it up. He smiles at the memory. Whatever his father's flaws, putting up with bullshit was not one of them.
And here he is, deep in that legendary maze of secrets. It's a little underwhelming. Just corridors, a uniform warren of transit pipes. Nothing is reused on Menae; they just abandon it, seal it off, forget about it. Until the end of the world.
He's beginning to feel comfortable among the Dead Legion. He knows what it's like to lose everything but the will to fight. Still, though, he can't help but wonder just what they've done. He considers asking Tau privately, but he decides to ask in the open or not at all.
'So,' he says, as they approach the service tunnel entrance. 'Am I stepping on some secret Legion code if I ask what you did to end up here?'
They walk on in silence for a few steps, and Garrus begins to think he's just made himself the enemy.
'No code,' Tau says, then hastily appends: 'sir. Some of us talk about. Some of us don't.'
Garrus nods. 'I'm guessing you don't.'
'Correct, sir,' Tau says, without looking his way.
'Good luck getting it out of her,' Kappa says. 'Must have been something real bad, the way she clams up about it.'
'That's enough, soldier,' Tau snaps.
Kappa chuckles. 'All right. Hey, Vakarian, you ever heard the phrase "don't speak ill of the dead"?'
'Sure. Human saying.'
'Is it? Seems like anyone can say it to me. But there is a rule. Once you're dead – dead for real, brain all over the wall or whatever – we don't mention you again. Ever.'
'Death's the end,' Chi says. 'That's your debt paid. Nobody gets to hold what you did over your head any more.'
'Remind me what you did?' Kappa says cheerfully.
Chi doesn't answer for five long seconds. 'Parking ticket.'
Garrus snorts in amusement. 'Let me guess. You parked in the Primarch's spot. On top of his car.'
Laughter ripples across the channel, but Chi stays silent.
'I poisoned my brother,' Zeta says, as if remarking on the weather. 'Only I got the dose wrong. Fumes got half the restaurant. Three dead, forty hurt, me included. Woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. That was a hell of a Unification Day, I can tell you.' She sighs, sounding more exasperated than regretful. 'Wish I'd just shot the fucker.'
'Want to know the kicker?' Kappa says, nudging Garrus with his shoulder. 'In the Legion, they put her on kitchen duty.'
'At least I still killed him,' Zeta says, and, to Garrus's bafflement, fist-bumps Gamma. 'Go on, Kaps. Confess your sin.'
'Well,' Kappa says slowly, and exhales. 'I bombed a freighter.'
'Or, to be more accurate,' Mu says, 'he didn't.'
'They found it before it went off,' Kappa admits.
'What kind of freighter?' Garrus asks.
Mu lets out a bark of laughter. 'This is the best part.'
Kappa sounds embarrassed. 'Armax. I was working for Haliat, competing for the same contract out in the colonies.'
'And what was in the freighter?' Mu prompts.
'You may be wondering,' Mu says to Garrus, 'how you can fail to blow up a freighter that's full of explosives.'
Garrus smiles thinly. 'It crossed my mind.'
'The answer: be Kappa.'
'Yeah, yeah, fuck you too,' Kappa mutters. 'That's me, then. The bomb bomber. No blood on my hands, though.'
That seems to be a barb aimed at Mu, who grunts in acknowledgement.
'Dead civilians,' he says to Garrus after a moment. 'I'd say I was a scapegoat. But I wasn't.'
Garrus senses that's all he'll ever know.
Chi, Gamma, Tau, and Sigma remain mysteries. Sigma more so than the others; Garrus knows nothing at all about him. Tau isn't talking. Chi seems equally reticent. Gamma—
—begins speaking just as Garrus starts speculating.
'I killed people,' he says, his voice matter-of-fact. The service tunnel is becoming more rock than metal now, the veins of Menae shedding their protective sheaths. 'Eight of them, out on Deinech. Terminus world, not much in the way of law enforcement.'
'I know Deinech,' Garrus says. It's been little more than one year since he set foot there. It feels like seven.
Gamma nods, half-mutters something under his breath, clears his throat. 'The rain was getting under my skin and corroding me from the inside out. I had to stop it. If I killed the right people, the ones that brought the rain, it'd stop, and the clouds would part. I was the holy avatar of the sun, you see. It told me to kill them, in the voice of Hilan Hex. You know, the old movie star?'
'I know Hilan Hex,' Garrus says, but more guardedly this time. Gamma's tone is perfectly calm and sane. Garrus begins calculating how quickly he could kill Kappa if it came to it. The others weren't reacting.
'They didn't catch me,' Gamma says, almost wistfully. 'I collapsed on the street, woke up in a private hospital – some healthcare magnate had opened up one of her hospitals to the poor, and they were scraping up charity cases off the streets. Apparently it was all because her daughter had been murdered.' He pauses. 'By me. She didn't know that. But they found a tumour in my brain, and operated to remove it. Hilan Hex never spoke to me again.'
As Chi burns through a door sealed by the passage of centuries with a dazzling nanonic cutter, their shadows flicker and dance on the walls.
'I was a free man,' Gamma says distantly. 'In a sense. With the tumour gone, the madness lifted. I didn't want to murder anyone any more. But I remembered what I'd done, and that's a guilt too heavy to live with. I couldn't just blame the tumour, you see. Not when I remembered the heat of the blood on my hands, and their faces. Spirits, their faces. No forgetting those. '
Understanding clicks for Garrus. 'So you joined the Dead Legion.'
'Living with that on your conscience isn't really living. I thought about killing myself. I guess I am killing myself. But in the Legion…' He trails off, shrugs. 'Maybe I can do some good before I go.'
'There's a few like Gamma,' Kappa says, into the ensuing silence. 'Volunteers. We call them Suicides.'
'We're all volunteers,' Mu says.
'You know what I mean, man. We got caught.'
Zeta hauls a half-open door back with a grunt and a screeching clank, which drown out whatever Mu says in response. Garrus thinks he hears the words 'turned myself in'.
'Wow,' Zeta says, as she steps through the door. Garrus soon sees why.
The tunnel's gone. The floor's still there, strewn with rock rubble, but the walls have collapsed. Darkness arches high overhead and swims dizzyingly below, and when Tau sweeps her flashlight down to see how deep it runs, the wan finger of the beam doesn't find the bottom. They pause at the door, swinging their lights around to map the vastness of the cavern they've emerged into. Narrow ridges rise up, barely a metre across, to form swirling paths across the gulf. Stalactites and rock pillars lunge down from high overhead.
'Shit,' Chi whispers.
'Watch your step, people,' Tau says. 'You fall, nobody's coming for you.' She taps her omnitool, bringing up a map. 'OK. Follow me.'
They inch out from the safety of the tunnel into the swelling darkness of the cavern, by unspoken agreement swinging their flashlights around to stave off the sense of oppressive blackness. Garrus can feel his heartrate inching up, beat by beat. Even with seven flashlights scouring the depths, the darkness is overwhelming.
Slender bridges over endless dark pits, he thinks. My life in a nutshell.
Before they've gone fifty metres, Chi puts her foot down on a flat piece of rock that instantly crumbles. She cries out as pebbles shower the abyss, flailing, and for an awful moment it looks like she's about to go over. Gamma and Sigma lunge for her, manage to haul her back without falling themselves, and the whole group pauses as they stand frozen, listening to the stones rattle down into the gulf.
'Fu–uck this!' Chi shouts. 'Fuck this moon! They built secret fucking science labs down here and they couldn't give us a fucking safety rail?'
Mu's on one knee, crumbling rock between two armoured fingers. 'This looks recent,' he says, looking up at a fractured stalactite. 'The big Reapers landing must be sending shockwaves all the way down here.'
'So this whole place could collapse any moment,' Kappa says, without enthusiasm.
'Probably.' Mu stands and punches Kappa's shoulder. 'But we're already dead, aren't we?'
'We're going to die on this rock one way or another,' Zeta says, and steps past Tau, striding purposefully along the winding path. 'Quit being babies about it.' She keeps muttering as they begin to follow her. '"Oh, I'm an expendable piece of meat in cheap armour whose job is to get killed usefully, but I can't possibly take risks, oh no…" Just fucking deal with it already! Now let's go get killed.'
'She's…' Kappa starts to say to Garrus, but just shrugs instead.
'Is she going the right way?' Gamma asks.
More detours and dead ends confound them, sometimes forcing them to turn back and inch single-file along barely half a metre of path. Garrus finds the blackness comforting, in a way. If it's dark, he can't see the bottom, so he can pretend it's only a few metres. That makes keeping his balance easier.
'There,' Tau says, after what seems like an hour. Their starting point is far behind them; the cavern extends for what must be kilometres. She's pointing at a faint red light pulsing in the distance. 'The tunnels must restart there. We can get back inside and work out where the hell we are.'
'We're in the underworld,' Chi says flatly, 'and we're never getting out.'
'No way back,' Zeta starts singing, out of key. Garrus recognises the tune; top of the charts a month ago. It seems a lifetime ago now. 'Baby, you crossed a line, now you're out of time, so there's—'
'Give it a rest, Zee,' Kappa says. 'This ain't CitIdol.'
'Well, maybe it should be. Hey, hang on—' Zeta pauses, and Garrus can see her peering down into the pit below.
He hears her sudden intake of breath, and he's starting to move before she shouts.
Tau reacts with commendable swiftness too, taking Zeta at her word.
'Head for the tunnel,' she says, in calm, clipped tones that instantly cut off the confusion brewing over the channel. 'Prepare for a fight.'
Chi's laugh hacks through Garrus's ears. 'Finally!'
Garrus is moving all the while, rifle at his shoulder, scanning back and forth as he follows the group as swiftly as he dares. He's seen nothing yet, and glances at Zeta's back, wondering if she's jumping at shadows—
—which is when the first shot hits him.
Kinetic barriers repel the blow, but he's off-balance anyway as he hunts for a target. There. Shots flashing up from below, from a cave opening in the wall. Marauders, flanked by husks. He fires, drops one, and ducks low, hunkering down as he runs to avoid fire.
Hands scrabble at the edge of the path ahead of him, gnarled and blue-black. As the husk hauls its head into view, he slams a neck-breaking kick into it and sends it tumbling down into a shifting sea of glints and growls.
Gunfire comes shrieking up to claw at them, chipping away at his barriers. Someone hurls a grenade into the dark mass below, and the orange explosion only illuminates just how much trouble they're in.
'Oh shit!' Kappa yelps. He's firing as he runs, not even looking, just spraying fire into the seething husk ranks – and in slow motion, Garrus sees hands loom up, seize his ankle. Kappa shouts in dismay and falls face-first, desperately trying to yank his foot free, but two hands have become six, eight, and they're hauling him down.
Garrus is metres away when Mu steps in, seizing Kappa under the arms to haul him back.
'No you fucking don't,' he snarls, but standing still makes him a target for the marauders. Gunfire rakes across Mu, blasts through his shields, puts a hole in his head. Garrus sees Mu's head snap back, and as his lifeless body slumps back and over the other edge of the path, Garrus dives full-length for Kappa—
—too late. Their fingertips brush as the husks haul Kappa down.
Garrus tries to scramble upright, but the hands are coming for him now. Someone grabs him around the waist and heaves him up, tearing him free of the husks – it's Sigma, shoving him in the back, forcing him onwards towards safety. His opaque visor reflects the flashing of his rifle.
Someone is screaming.
Kappa's gone, but not dead. As Garrus dashes over the last few metres of tunnel and through the door, Sigma comes through a second later, and Tau hammers on the control panel to seal it behind them. All the while, they can hear Kappa shouting and screaming over the radio. The door slamming shut has cut off the sound of the husks. Kappa is all they can hear.
'Turn it off,' Gamma says desolately to Tau. 'For fuck's sake, turn it off.'
Tau looks around at them, then opens her omnitool. Before she can do anything, Kappa's screams are cut off. Not by radio failure, or anything electronic; Garrus hears the visceral severing noise that puts a merciful end to Kappa.
Zeta slumps against the wall, repeatedly pounding her fist on her knee. The dull metal clanging echoes away down the tunnel.
Once you're dead, Garrus remembers Kappa saying, we don't mention you again. Ever.
'Thanks,' he says to Sigma. 'Saved my ass back there. I owe you one.'
Sigma says nothing. He just nods, slowly.
'We have to keep moving,' Tau says. Even she's rattled. Garrus sure as hell is. He keeps seeing the helmeted form of Kappa in his mind's eye, sucked down into a darkness bristling with a hundred arms and a thousand teeth.
As if to underscore her point, a new clanging starts, drowning out Zeta's fist. It's on the door. As they turn, it multiplies, metastasizes into a deafening hammering. Garrus imagines the horde of husks outside beating on the metal, and reflexively checks the action of his rifle. That, at least, is still working.
'Sounds like rain,' Gamma murmurs.
'Tau's right,' Chi says decisively. 'Let's go.'
She takes the lead, and one by one they fall in, throwing glances over their shoulders at the ceaseless pounding.
'That door won't hold forever,' Garrus says.
Gamma makes an odd little grunt in the back of his throat. 'What does?'
More tunnels, but they're different now; a different era, Garrus suspects. Their pace is quicker now, keeping them at a slow, sustainable jog, and soon the hammering on the door is left behind. These tunnels are whiter, more substantially walled, less clogged with debris. A few lights are even still flickering, hooked up to some moribund power grid. The doors are more willing to open.
'We far away?' Garrus asks.
'No,' Tau says. She's dropped the 'sir', he notes with approval. No room for rank down here. Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they were all equal now.
'This had better be worth it,' Chi says.
'It won't be,' Gamma replies.
Sigma's silence is starting to get to Garrus. He keeps forgetting he's there, until they turn a corner or come to a door and Garrus catches a glimpse of an extra black-armoured figure in the corner of his eye. Sigma is never quite in view, and always has a line of sight on Garrus. Watching my back? he thought. Doesn't exactly feel comforting. Give me the crazy solar-powered serial killer any day.
More than once, they pass doors stuck permanently open, leading into gaping black corridors. Nobody vocalises what they all know: there are a hundred possible ways in for the husks.
'Here,' Tau says abruptly, and brings them veering off down a new passage. it rapidly widens into an unlit foyer, four walls and four doors. A basic plaque on the wall reads: PROJECT 7-82-16 "SPRINGTIME".
'Springtime,' Zeta says, peering at it. 'That's nice.'
Garrus sweeps his flashlight around the foyer. One door is marked 'ELEVATOR'; it's open, but there's no elevator beyond it, just a plain metal tube. No way out. When the place was abandoned, they probably never brought the elevator back down.
'Anything?' Gamma says to Tau.
She shakes her head. 'Not yet. Guess we need to go further in before they tell us what we're looking at.'
'They want us neck-deep in the shit before they turn the lights on,' Chi mutters.
On the other side of the main door, they find the first body.
'Cool,' Zeta says, poking the desiccated carapace with her foot. 'Well, I guess everything was fine here. No problems at all.'
It's wrapped in the decaying remains of a bloody lab coat, Garrus notes. He can see an ID card clipped to the front, and he pulls it loose to read it, wiping off decades of dust.
'Doctor Semeron Egerousi,' he says aloud. 'Mean anything to you, Tau?'
'Not yet. What killed him?'
'Good question.' Garrus moves the body with a clang. Everything but the essential metals and bones has rotted away. The carapace is smashed inwards at the back of the skull. 'Ah. Gunshot wound to the back of the head. Execution-style.'
'Who executes a scientist?' Gamma mutters.
Garrus stands, brushing off his hands, and turns his flashlight on the corridor ahead. He can see streaks of ancient blood on the floor, leading up to Dr Egerousi's corpse. And something else.
The C-Sec man in him takes over.
'This doesn't make sense,' he says. 'He was only shot once. We'd see it on the carapace otherwise. But he was moving.'
He indicates the floor, and Tau shakes her head. 'Someone could have moved the body.'
'Look closer,' Garrus says, and squats down next to some marks on the floor. Long, shallow scratches on the metal, recurring over and over back down the corridor, mingled with the blood. Three of them.
'No way,' Chi says.
Zeta checks the body's talons.
'Way,' she says faintly.
'So you're saying he was shot in the back of the head, then dragged himself across the floor,' Chi says. Even her posture radiates disbelief.
'I'm not saying anything,' Garrus says. 'The evidence, however…'
Chi scoffs. 'What, you're a detective now?'
'He was a detective,' Zeta points out. 'Didn't you see the movie?'
'No, Zee, I was in fucking jail.'
'Shut up,' Tau says tersely, and they do. 'Vakarian. Sir. Are you sure?'
Garrus sighs. 'I don't know. Maybe there's an explanation. But we need to keep moving.'
'Agreed.' Tau consults her 'tool again. 'I've got a basic floorplan. The backup generator ran on eezo, so in theory it should still be working. We can get the lights on.'
'Do we want to see?' Gamma says to nobody in particular.
They find a few more bodies on their way. More scientists, executed with a single gunshot, apparently moving after death. Egerousi seems to have made it furthest from the same starting line. None of them have stayed stationary. There are even shaky footprints in dried blood.
'What the fuck,' Chi says, as they step over two more carapaces.
Garrus sympathises. Something is deeply wrong here.
Of course, outside, the world is ending. Whatever happened here doesn't seem to matter quite so much.
'Here,' Tau says, leading them down some stairs. A substantial eezo generator room lies below, as promised. When they boot it up, the screens stay black, but the machinery jerks and whines into life all the same.
Emergency lights come on, bathing them in a soft blue glow. Almost instantly, Tau looks at her 'tool.
'Here we go,' she says. 'Asset information coming through. Let's get it and get the hell out of here.'
As they return up the stairs, Garrus thinks he can hear distant noises. Maybe it's the facility's systems coming back online. Maybe it's not. They sound wrong.
'Do you hear that?' Gamma asks.
'Is it the sun telling you to kill people?' Zeta says flippantly.
'Not this time. Listen.'
They stop and listen, with Tau silently reading her omnitool. Faint banging noises are now unmistakeable. They sound like deep-buried pipes.
'Is it possible,' Garrus says, with quiet urgency, 'that turning the emergency power on opened the emergency exits?'
Silence greets him.
'We should move,' Chi says. The noises are definitely getting louder. Closer.
'Tau?' Garrus taps her shoulder, then nudges her. 'Where are we going? Tau!'
'Hell,' Tau says faintly. 'We're going to hell.'
Garrus growls under his breath and takes the lead.
'On me,' he says. There are three doors to pick from, and he has no idea where they're going – or what they'll find. 'Gamma, watch our backs. Sigma, Zee, flanks. Chi, eyes front. Tau, you with us?'
She doesn't reply, so Garrus grabs her arm.
'Tau, you've got about three seconds,' he says, and that seems to jolt her awake.
'That door,' she says, pointing.
It's an abandoned mess area, trays still on cluttered tables. Metal carcasses litter the floor. Shot dead, often riddled with bullet holes, many of them cluster around the door. When it closes behind them, Garrus glances back to see scratches clawed into the metal by desperate talons. Under the blue emergency lights, it has the cast of nightmare.
'What the fuck, what the fuck,' Chi keeps whispering.
'There,' Tau says, and they exit through a door that takes ten precious seconds to open. The pursuing sounds seem like they're all around them now, and they're still getting louder.
Corridor. Crossroads. Corridor. Stairs. Door.
'This is it,' Tau says. Her voice is lifeless, flat. 'It's in here.'
Garrus eyes the door as Zeta tries to open it. It's nothing unusual; just a door.
But he's seen some awful things behind doors just like this.
'Zeta, get us in,' Garrus says, turning back to the corridor and the stairs behind them.
'Trying,' Zeta grunts. She rips a circuit panel open. 'Not easy. This one locks down in an emergency.'
Garrus can hear the husks now. He imagines them rolling through the abandoned facility, a tidal wave of the dead, relentlessly hunting the living.
'How long?' he asks.
Zeta's laugh is urgent, breathless. 'Don't know. A minute. An hour.'
Garrus nods, thinking. No other doors up here – just the stairs back down to the lower level.
Well, at least we've got a chokepoint, he thinks, and signals Sigma, Chi, Gamma, and Tau to follow him.
There are maybe thirty stairs in a passage two metres square. Against any living enemy, it would be almost perfectly defensible, but nothing is safe against the Reapers, against the dead.
'Clip status?' he asks, over the rising howl of husks. They share out thermal clips, equalising the number of rounds they each have before they have to fall back on regular cooling, and wait, five abreast, like ancient soldiers facing awaiting the charge.
'Don't stop firing,' Garrus says. 'They won't stop coming.'
Chi makes a noise that's half-snarl, half-laugh. 'Then they won't stop dying.'
'They're already dead,' Gamma says, and snaps a thermal clip into place. 'But hey. So are we.'
Louder and louder. The noise swells, echoing and reflecting until it's one long otherworldly shriek of inorganic hate, violence boiled down to its essential elements.
'Are we through?' Garrus asks, without much hope.
'Not yet,' Zeta says, in a gritted-teeth sing-song voice.
And, at that moment, the husks seethe around the corner.
In the blue light they're horrifying. Lifeless eyes glint for a moment, teeth shine, exposed circuitry and bone meld sickeningly together. Limbs flail. Hands reach for them, grasping.
No need for a command to fire, or even for Garrus to take aim. There's just the trigger.
Five assault rifles tear the incoming husks to shreds. The next rank scramble over the fallen and into the withering barrage of gunfire, and are trampled by the next. A deafening storm of rifle fire and husk shrieking assails Garrus like a hurricane, and he can physically feel the noise hammering up through his boots.
His first ejected clip smokes mid-air as it tumbles down the stairs.
For a moment, it feels like they're turning back the tide, pinning the husks back behind a mound of their dead, but only for a moment. The rattling flash of their guns reveals a rising flood, and the first return fire starts coming from the chest-deep marauders that have shouldered their way into the horde.
'Too many,' Garrus thinks he hears Chi say, but who can tell?
Step by step, the stop-motion upwards shudder of the husks approaches.
Marauder fire wings Garrus, almost overloads his kinetic barriers. He hunkers down, still firing, but that dulls his angle of attack so that his shots no longer penetrate to the rear ranks, and the husks barrel onwards ever faster. He takes a chance and stands again, trying to drill through the entire horde with his rifle, and it helps stem the flow for a moment.
He doesn't notice Gamma get hit, but he sees him pitch lifelessly forward, rolling limply down the steps until the horde swallows him up in the blink of an eye. Gamma is gone.
Suddenly there are four guns, and the husks scent victory.
'Fall back!' he yells over the cacophony, and they start to retreat, still firing, still swapping clips. 'Zee, open that fucking door!'
'Don't shout at me!' Zee screams back.
The husks start to appear over the last stair.
'Zee,' Tau says, very calmly. 'We have about twenty seconds.'
To Garrus's right, Sigma's opaque helmet thunders with light.
The husks advance.
'There!' Zee shouts. Garrus glances back to see the door wedged open a crack, barely wide enough for a person to fit through.
'Let's go!' he hears himself roar, and they turn to flee the wave of death bearing down on them.
It takes him a while to work out exactly what happened next.
Chi made it through the door first, followed by Sigma, Garrus's hand hard in his back. Tau held back, ushering Garrus ahead of her, and he didn't have time to argue. He forced himself through the slot, armour scraping on the door.
Ahead of him was another emergency door, this one vertical – and closing, sliding down from the ceiling like a toothed metal jaw snapping shut, as blue warning lights cycle and flash.
He remembers the icy calculation he made then. Slide under that door, leaving Tau and Zeta to die, or die himself.
As the door comes mercilessly grinding down, he swivels on the ground to see Tau topple through the first door and into the security antechamber that will become her tomb, leaking blood from half a dozen gunshot wounds. The first door slams shut behind her, but Garrus has time to see the husks overwhelm Zeta. Either she doesn't have time to scream, or she simply goes quietly.
'Tau!' he shouts, uselessly, but it's too late. The second door wipes her from view, sealing her alone in the room, the husks behind one door and the rest of them behind the other.
'Fuck!' Chi howls, and kicks the wall hard enough to dent the metal. 'Fucking—' She breaks off in a long howl of rage and frustration and grief, still kicking the wall.
Sigma clambers silently to his feet.
Garrus stays on his knees, staring at the unyielding door.
Chi's last kick echoes away, and all they can hear is the distant growling of the husks, two doors away, and their own breathing.
Garrus stands after maybe a minute, heaving his unwilling body upright. He turns to see where they are.
There are actual lights for once, illuminating the place in harsh, sterile white. It's a lab, by the looks of it, three levels high, packed with tables and terminals and machines, uncovered wires and drooping power lines, walkways and railings, ladders and glowing eezo conduits.
The walls on all three levels are lined with stasis pods. He can see turian bodies within them, suspended in pale blue liquid. There are hundreds. There must have been another eezo generator here, he realises, to keep them running all this time.
'What the hell is this?' he mutters to himself.
'The asset,' Tau says.
All three of them turn to the door as one.
'Tau?' Chi says softly.
They hear a series of wet coughs. Garrus has heard people sound like that before. It's the sound of the dying.
'Listen to me,' Tau says, at last. Garrus imagines her lying alone in that chamber, blood spilling freely out of her. 'Listen. The asset… it's in the air. Nanonic. Too small to filter out. It's in all of us now.'
'I knew it,' Chi spits. 'They sent us to die.'
'Yes,' Tau says. 'And to live. They—' She breaks off, coughs and splutters. Garrus can hear the blood in her breath. 'They made this – nano cloud,' she manages. 'Billions of little robots, in your lungs, blood, brain. They don't do anything. Until you die. Then… they come alive. If there's enough left of your body… they bring you back. No consciousness. Just nanobots, riding your corpse. You're dead, your body's a puppet.'
'That's blasphemy,' Chi says, completely seriously.
'They meant it as a battlefield weapon,' Tau says. Her voice is fading fast. 'Your soldiers die once, come back, get killed again.' She laughs, but it sounds almost like sobbing. 'Like husks. We got there first. But they couldn't tell enemies from friends. They just killed. They just killed…'
She trails off, and Garrus hears her gasp in pain over the line.
'So they shut it down,' she says. 'Covered it up. Buried it. But their test subjects are still in there… and we'll all come back now. The emergency power… brought the nanobots... back to life. We'll die… and walk again...'
Chi shakes her head disbelievingly. 'This is evil.'
'Oh, it is,' Tau mumbles. 'But look at what we're facing, Chi. Maybe – ahh – we need to be evil to live.'
'Bullshit,' Sigma says bluntly. 'That's what I thought, once. But it's better to die right than live wrong.'
It's the most Garrus has ever heard from him, and he looks at him in surprise as Tau sucks down what sounds like an agonising breath.
'Maybe. Maybe.' Tau's slurring now, the life audibly draining from her voice. 'I... let him die. Spirits help me… I let him die... for nothing…'
Then she's silent, and she doesn't speak again.
Seconds tick agonisingly by. Garrus, Chi, and Sigma exchange looks, still meaningful despite their helmets. They're waiting to know the truth.
'Maybe the – nanobots – stopped working,' Chi says, sounding numb. 'She might have been wrong.'
A harsh metallic clang makes them all jump. Someone – something – has just struck the other side of the door. The sound repeats, again and again, a steady, grim drumbeat.
All across the galaxy, Garrus thinks, the dead are coming back.
'No,' Chi says, backing away. 'No, no, no.'
Garrus turns away, sick to his stomach. He's not a religious man by any stretch of the imagination, but Chi is right. This is some kind of sacrilege. Some things are too dark to dredge up, even in times of dire need.
They have to get out.
But there's only one door.
'We've got to kill them,' Chi says, gesturing at the stasis pods. Tau's pounding punctuates her words. Not Tau's. Nobody's. 'Even if they're already dead, we've got to kill them. Blow them up, or something. I don't know.'
Sigma wanders over to a wall, where an ancient gun cabinet lies open, picked almost clean. He picks up a string of grenades, hefts it thoughtfully in his hand, slings it over his shoulder.
'We can do that,' he says.
'And die here,' Garrus says.
Sigma looks straight at him. 'Don't know about you, but I died a long time ago.'
'Yeah?' Garrus says, suddenly angry. 'So what did you do?'
Sigma doesn't answer for several long moments.
'I lived,' he says, and even through the helmet's distortion Garrus can hear the deep frost of regret. 'I lived when I should have died. Tell me, Vakarian, do you believe in redemption for sinners like me?'
'I don't know,' Garrus snaps. 'But we're not dead until we're dead. That's what I believe. And I'm not going to lie down and die.'
Sigma chuckles bitterly. 'Don't I know it.'
Garrus is about to fire back when the noise on the door suddenly explodes into a ringing din of pounding and hammering.
'They made it through the first door,' Chi says, as if they don't know already. Garrus imagines the revenant Tau being torn apart by the husks—
—and has the idea that saves his life.
'Those stasis pods are still working,' he says, gesturing.
'Yeah,' Chi says. 'We know.'
'So we let them out,' Garrus says. 'Let them take on the Reapers. They'll still die. And maybe, in the chaos, we can get out.'
Sigma and Chi look at each other.
'Fuck it,' Sigma says. 'Things can't get any worse.'
Chi shrugs. 'It's crazy. Let's do it.'
They spread out, hunting through archaic terminals for controls as the husks beat down the door. Garrus catches sight of phrases and words in the data that send shivers down his spine. 'Resurrection protocol'. 'Post-death utility'. He has always known the Hierarchy is capable of terrible things like this, but to see it in person is sobering. Sigma was right, he decides. This is going too far, even in the apocalypse. Better to die right than live wrong.
'Here,' Chi says, pointing to a console. 'We can open the pods and the door from here.'
Garrus casts his eye around the lab, looking for a place to ride out the storm. There is none.
'Open the pods first,' he says.
This is going to be interesting.
Chi hesitates for a moment, then presses a button.
There's an electronic shiver in the air. Something starts to hum.
The blue liquid in the stasis pods begins to sink. Naked turians slump within them. It's only a few seconds before the liquid drains away entirely, rushing away through concealed pipes with a harsh gurgle audible even over the hammering on the door.
'They're not moving,' Sigma says, looking at the nearest pods. Garrus follows his gaze to see a man crumpled against the clear wall of the pod, his eyes closed, wires and tubes running out of his body. Despair crashes through Garrus. Without this, there's no chance they'll get out, no chance at all.
'Then I guess we fight,' he says, just as the man's eyes snap open.
All around the lab, hundreds of dead turians jerk marionette-like to their feet, their eyes rolling madly. Their postures are crouched, animalistic. He can see their teeth. Some of them begin to claw at their pods' doors.
'Chi,' he says, in what he senses will be the last moment of calm for a while, 'open the main door and the pod doors simultaneously.'
'You got it,' Chi says, her finger hovering over the console. 'Good luck.'
'And to you,' Garrus says.
Chi nods to him, then to Sigma, then stabs her finger down.
Before the world dissolves into chaos, Garrus has time to see the pods snap open, disgorging their dead occupants. They leap over railings and vault from walkways, silently murderous, zeroing in on the trio of survivors in the middle of the room.
But he also sees the emergency door slam up, and the husks rush in.
'GO!' he shouts, and heads for salvation.
Twin armies of the dead clash shrieking around him, fighting tooth and claw, tearing each other limb from limb. A husk grabs him, jaws slavering, and Garrus pivots to throw it off as a turian woman rakes her talons across his helmet. He vaults onto a steel table, leaps over the crush to another, but loses his footing and plunges into the melee.
Amid a swarm of legs, he feels blows rain down from all sides, winding him even through his armour. Snarling, he pushes himself up and forward, ploughing through the carnage, his armour already splattered with the blood of the dead. Blind, he slams into a crate, staggers, fends off a turian diving talons-first from a walkway, catches a glimpse of either Chi or Sigma, he can't tell which, goes down again, buffeted by the current of battle, deafened by the howling violence all around him. Throats are being ripped out, eyes gouged, limbs snapped and torn off, jaws wrenched away, innards unspooled. There's blood everywhere, flooding the floor, sluicing away through gratings.
Up. Again. He sees the door, forces himself forward. He almost loses his helmet. Gritting his teeth, he drives through the crowd, going blind again as the husks blot out the light, then staggers at a sudden thinning of the melee and lurches against a wall. He's out, in the corridor, and sprints towards the stairs, still batting away distracted husks. Five of them launch themselves at him at once, and they all go down, momentum carrying them to the stairs and beyond. An avalanche of bodies whirls around him, and the stairs punch the air out of his lungs as he tumbles down them.
Somehow he rebounds to his feet even as pain blares in his brain, and an instinctive spinning kick shatters an attacking husk's skull. He trips on the piles of bodies carpeting the stairs, falls another ten feet, scrambles upright, launches himself into a flying leap and slams into a pack of husks at the base of the stairs, scattering them like skittles.
Up again and running, bouncing off walls, hunting for a way out. He still has his rifle, miraculously, the strap hooked and twisted around his neck. He looks back—
—and Sigma is there somehow, barely five feet away.
'Chi?' Garrus gasps.
'Dead,' Sigma wheezes back.
Together they hurtle through corridors rammed with husks and lit by the blue glare of emergency lights, fighting with fist, elbow, foot, knee, head, anything they can bring to bear. Garrus spots an emergency exit sign glowing red in the chaos and heads for it, finding a patch of clear ground, but a husk hurls itself onto his back and latches on around his neck. Sigma wrenches it free and hurls it bodily against a wall with a snarl of triumph.
More exit signs, more corridors. The doors are mercifully open thanks to the emergency power, and abruptly they tear out of the facility and into more rock tunnels, still half-choked with husks. A look back reveals a pursuing army of them, eyes and teeth shining in the gloom, their ceaseless howl deafening.
Sigma's still with him, incredibly, impossibly. They emerge into a cavern, race across an arching span of rock, dive into another tunnel, and blast through into another cavern, this one enormous.
There's light on the other side.
Just a little, a grey smear visible through a crack, but Garrus knows it's daylight. It's a way out.
And suddenly there are no more husks in the way. Just a long, narrow ridge of stone, hundreds of metres long, sloping away to a lethal fall on either side. At its centre an enormous pillar of rock spears upwards, supporting the cavern, with only a chokingly tight passage through it, like the eye of a needle.
Salvation is at hand, but Garrus's heart sinks. He's seen husks over open ground. They're too fast to escape.
But what option do they have except to run?
'Go, go, go,' Sigma croaks, as they run towards the light. Garrus chances a glance back, sees the husks gaining. Sees death hot on his heel once again. Feels its breath on his neck.
There's no escaping it this time.
Husks scatter like seeds from the ridge as the narrowness of the path winnows them down, sends them plummeting, screaming, into the black. Garrus looks away, concentrates on running, but he can feel himself slowing, feel his lungs giving out.
They reach the central pillar and struggle through the gap, armour snagging on the rock. For a moment Garrus is certain that he'll get stuck and be ripped apart by the coming horde, but Sigma pushes him free, shouldering him in the back.
His distorted voice buzzes in Garrus's ears. 'Run! Go! I'm right behind you!'
And Garrus runs, although he knows it's too far, that the husks are too fast. That he's going to die here.
He doesn't look back, just locks his eyes on that grey sliver of light at the end of the bridge and runs, draws up every speck of energy in his body. Knows it's not enough. The dead are coming for him.
Then he hears Sigma's voice again, and Garrus skids to a halt, panting.
'Tell me something,' Sigma says. It's not the voice of a man running for his life. There's quiet anguish in it, running deep as the gulf below, but no heavy breathing, no urgency.
Garrus looks back. Sigma hasn't moved. He stands alone in the eye of rock, thirty metres and a universe away. He's looking at Garrus.
His grenade belt hangs loose in his hand.
'Sigma—' Garrus says.
'I've got to know,' Sigma says softly. The infernal noise of the husks is drawing ever closer, rising like a deathly wind. 'Please. Do you believe in redemption? Do you believe in – coming back?'
Garrus stands frozen. A lifetime of wrestling with that question, the question, the only one, boils over him, a swirling thunderhead of crisis that roots him to the spot. So many years of plunging sounding rods into the murk of his conscience, plumbing the lightless depths of his soul, dredging it for infinitesimal specks of truth. So many dead, lives sacrificed on the infirm altar or ideals. So much blood on his hands. It's all coming to a head here. Now.
And the answer shoots up inside him like a brilliant tree of gold.
'Yes,' he says hoarsely. 'I do.'
There's silence between them for a moment, then Sigma turns his back.
'You were right, Garrus,' he says. His voice catches in his throat. 'It's never easy.'
Garrus sees him reach up and unclasp his helmet, rip it off, cast it into the dark. Sigma reaches for his grenades—
—light blossoms, and the world moves.
For Garrus, the moments that follow are pure havoc. He runs, rocks sliding beneath his feet. Even deafened by the hammer-blow of the explosion, he can hear the roar of the ceiling collapsing behind him, brought down by Sigma's destruction of that load-bearing pillar, and the ridge he runs on is juddering and quaking beneath him. Husks scream. Garrus's flashlight dances wildly, strobe-lighting the path – and the avalanches of stone tumbling down around him as the cavern crumbles.
You were right, Garrus, Sigma's voice echoes in his head. It's never easy.
Impossible, he tells himself, and keeps running, expending everything he has left, crashing through showers of pebbles and hurdling blockading rocks, throws a glance back at the disintegrating darkness behind him—
—and barrels through the slit in the rock and into the light.
It's another canyon, lit by the fiery glow of Palaven overhead, rippling with bands of impenetrable shadow. In one of those dark places he finally pulls up, his lungs screaming, and collapses to his knees.
Behind him, he sees a crack in the mountain, almost obscured by the whirl of grey dust belching through it. He's out.
His chest heaving, he listens to Menae settling, to ribs of stone cracking and reforming. The Dead Legion will stay buried forever. Maybe that's for the best. What they uncovered can sleep with them. Some things should never see the light of day.
He should call in, confirm his survival, he thinks, but it can wait. It can all wait. A few minutes just to fucking breathe won't be the end of the world. After all, that's already here.
After a time, Garrus looks up. He can see clashing fleets as blue specks, threaded together with red silk. The Reapers will make short work of even the Hierarchy fleet, he knows.
A sound, oddly familiar, buzzes on the edge of hearing. Approaching. He frowns. It doesn't sound like turian engines, but it sure as hell isn't anything Reaper. It sounds – human?
And there, overhead, tracing twin trails of eezo blue across the burning face of Palaven, comes the Kodiak.
Garrus levers himself to his feet and stands still in his pool of shadow, watching the shuttle skirt the canyon lip on its way to Cadurus Base. He smiles.
There are thousands of those shuttles in service in the Alliance. It could be anyone.
But it's Shepard, he knows – and he does know, somewhere deep in the iron of his bones. Of course it's Shepard. Who else? Who else, when the world comes apart at the seams and the galaxy quakes, would come riding in from the sky to put things right?
He sways on his feet, his vision wavering, and Menae melts away. He's back on Omega, exhausted, his mouth dry, his eyes blurring from the sheer effort of watching through that damn scope, his trigger finger twitching again and again and again as the mercs come in waves to break on his bridge, an irresistible tide. He can see the bodies of his friends. He can smell their blood, even inside the isolation of his helmet. He's going to die here, alone. Always alone.
It's been hours. Rifle in hand. Death in his mouth, in his eyes, in his ears, death vibrating through every atom of his body like a fundamental force of the universe. He's killed so many. So fucking many. One way or another, he's killed them all. Still he deals it, parcels it out, the parting gift of a falling angel. It's all he has left. You don't live through betrayals like this. You keep breathing, maybe even moving, but some light in you goes off, never to come back on.
—and then he sees a figure appearing at the end of that bridge, and croaks a laugh to himself in his helmet, because it can't be Shepard, this is just the hallucinations starting, the curtain-closing mental fireworks of a man teetering on the very edge—
—did he die there, he wonders? He's suddenly dizzy with the thought of it. Is this real? Is he lying on his back on Omega, bleeding out from half a dozen gunshot wounds, delirious in his last moments, another soon-to-be corpse in the mortuary of his friends? Have the Reapers come? Is Palaven burning? Did he—
—and it's the Citadel swimming up around him now, his rifle in hand once more as he lies in wait for his final revenge. Sidonis's head quivers in his crosshairs.
Just one smooth pull of the trigger, and that'll be an end to it. Betrayal repaid. Isn't that all he can do now? Isn't that all he has left?
But there are words buzzing in his ear, Sidonis's, Shepard's. He sees them there, face to face, ersatz reflections astride the mirror bisecting his life.
Shepard. His pole star, his true north. Sidonis. His betrayer. His greatest mistake.
His finger tightens on the trigger, just short of firing. He knows he'll have to make that call, any second now. Any second. Now.
One motion. One more step into the mire of death. Just another step in a journey he's come so very far on. Surely this one won't make any difference, won't take him past some imagined ineffable boundary, won't close off the way back. It's just one man. One kill. One bullet. One shot. One motion. How can so much hinge on so little?
You were right, Garrus. It's never easy.
And with a gulping rush of air, Garrus finds himself standing on Menae, light-headed, watching the Kodiak disappear from view.
Shepard knows the way, has walked that path before, back from the edge. Back from beyond the edge, from death itself. If there's a being in the universe that can turn the tide against the onrushing black waters of apocalypse, it's Shepard.
He lets out a quiet laugh as eezo trails fade to nothing overhead. Shepard's here to save him yet again, because that's just what Shepard does.
In a hidden compartment of his heart, a broken gear skips, jars, and—
—well. It'll never move cleanly. That's too much to ask. Too many dings and dents over the years, too much damage for a full restoration. But it's spinning again.
Garrus leans his rifle against a rock, scans the horizon, begins plotting his route towards the base. He has no idea how he'll get there, but he will get there. The dark heart of Menae will recede behind him, an overstuffed tomb better left untouched. He'll get his distance from the dead. There's life in him yet. Even when he's dead, some part of him will live on, dragged up by the deathly science buried in Menae's warren of secrets. Resurrected.
Sigma haunts his thoughts, a ghost balancing on the fulcrum of possibility. It's impossible, of course. He rejects the notion. It wasn't him. It couldn't have been.
But these are impossible days, Garrus thinks, and bares his teeth at the world burning in the sky. He feels different, somehow; new.
Spirits, he feels alive.
He picks up his rifle.
Everything dies, baby, that's a fact,
But maybe everything that dies some day comes back.
'Atlantic City' - Bruce Springsteen