Alliance News Network – December 15th Broadcast
Gail McKenna (Anchor 1): Welcome back, viewers. Some unexpected developments to share with you all in the political sphere: if the Senate's proceedings for their vote on the CAHMF-1 bill were not stirring up much of a fervor as expected, then what occurred this morning probably ended up exceeding everyone's expectations.
Zach Velasquez (Anchor 2): You're right about that, Gail. On top of the already hectic protests occurring outside of the Reichstag as citizens voiced their frustrations towards the looming decision to potentially have the Alliance secede from the Citadel Council, a commotion in downtown Berlin began brewing when forces from the Chimera private military corporation began embarking in a pursuit against the one-and-only Commander John Shepard, who had recently returned to Earth to present his own testimony towards the critical vote today.
McKenna: Several pieces of military-grade hardware, including tanks and gunships, were rendered inoperable as the Chimera troops chased Shepard and his reunited team through the Berlin streets, ending only when the reclusive commander reached the Reichstag and endured a brief standoff with the Chimera forces. Although several members of the private military outfit were killed in the chaos, no innocent civilians were injured.
Velasquez: Thank goodness for that, Gail. According to local reports, Shepard and his crew were actually trying to take preventative measures to limit such collateral damage, knowing that their presence in Berlin would likely stir up some trouble.
McKenna: And also, due to a well-timed information leak that has been attributed to Icelandic hackers, Senate majority leader Raynor Larsen was implicated today in a sprawling scheme to conspire with Chimera being utilized as the Alliance's de facto military force. Fellow senators were quick to denounce the actions of their colleague and I'm being told that they plan to quickly vote on terminating the Alliance's contract with Chimera as a result of this conflict of interest.
Velasquez: Shepard himself was apprehended by local police forces—we're expecting to be told the exact nature of his charges within the next few hours, but many believe that the commander will certainly be cited for his role in placing civilians in danger during his skirmish with Chimera, although from this reporter's point of view, that seemed to be unintentional on his part.
McKenna: I'm with you there, Zach. We'll just have to hope that the justice system will treat our long-lost commander fairly. We hope to have more for you all later as the day goes by. Now, a word from our sponsor, Fentora, and how you can get a good night's rest through responsible medication!
Raynor Larsen, finally at his wit's end due to boredom, had started to embark upon the oft-tried method of pacing back and forth around the small room that confined him in a futile effort to ward off the demons his wandering mind so liked to dredge up in the absence of stimuli.
The room he was in was a blistering white—floor, walls, ceiling, and a singular door. All hard surfaces and no comfort with the exception of a pathetically thin mattress splayed out onto a bench in what was a poor rendition of a cot. The place could metaphorically be described as coffin-esque, but admittedly, there was enough room in this place for him to walk around and stretch in all directions without banging his body into anything. Claustrophobia would not claim him here, at least for now.
Aside from the cot, there were only a few more items that adorned the room that were also patently incommodious and uninviting in terms of luxury: a toilet/sink combination off in the corner, a wide table that was bolted onto the floor, and a singular chair that sat in front of the table. All three items were made out of the same cheap stainless steel similar to those found in quotidian locker rooms. The entire presentation was low-tech. There had not been much effort into dressing up this cell to make it seem the least bit inviting to its tenant.
It was a cell, Larsen had determined, although he had no idea exactly where he was. This was certainly not a Chimera facility, he knew that much. Larsen had been able to remember with remarkable clarity just about all of the events that had transpired leading up to the moment when he had been forcibly sedated by a paramilitary member of that unknown cadre. Although the area where he had been pricked and medicated no longer bothered him, the bruises on his jaw and abdomen, the results of Shepard's punches, still stung.
Larsen tentatively touched the area on his jaw where Shepard's fist had impacted. A well of fresh pain gave an eager stab, making the man wince. There was no mirror in the room for him to look at, but Larsen suspected that the afflicted site was probably a magnificent shade of purple and black by now.
There had also been an annoying moment when Larsen soon realized that he had been changed out of his rather expensive suit and into a nondescript cream-colored outfit that was slightly snug, almost like a jumpsuit, but baggy enough to allow him to breathe properly. The pricks who had dumped him here had most likely disposed of his suit while he had been unconscious—Larsen had half a mind to chew out the next person he saw in an irate fashion, upset over the loss of his clothes, but he knew that showcasing such theatrics was not going to help him out here.
This was no longer his world. His life was now hanging on someone else's whim.
An hour passed by with nothing occurring. Then another. Truthfully, this was only Larsen's impression that time was proceeding normally in his head. His omni-tool had been taken away so he could not use it to check his chronometer. Without a reference to the outside world, what might feel like an hour could very well be fifteen minutes in real-time. There was no clock in this room either, which only served to drive Larsen further into madness from being kept so solidly in the dark, metaphorically speaking.
Ever since awakening, Larsen kept on trying to think of things to pass the time. He sulked about the events of the past couple days—especially taking a good moment to curse Commander Shepard for his remaining years after he completely wrecked Larsen's timetable and gutted Chimera's infrastructure thanks to that little invasive stunt and those meddling friends of his. He also devoted several insults towards the Legionnaire, lamenting the operative's inability to follow through on his programming actions by failing to subdue Shepard in the end. The cyborg had evidentially bitten off more than he could chew, finally, but that bastard was probably having the last laugh at Larsen's expense anyway—the Legionnaire had been wanting to die for so long that his failure probably had come as a relief for him. Ironic, in the end the operative had gotten what he had wanted while Larsen had everything taken away from him.
Oh, if the Legionnaire were alive right now he would be howling with glee at Larsen's predicament.
Still the silence endured. Larsen hummed a few tunes to distract himself. He tried to play a few mind games, but each attempt to stick to a solid distraction failed miserably. An idea to search for hidden monitoring devices in the room offered a good way to occupy himself for around an hour, because Larsen was a victim of watching too many espionage films and he figured that any spy worth their salt would embed a bevy of recording devices in a prisoner's cell. After finding nothing, Larsen was still not completely deterred as he figured that his captors had hid their devices rather well and that it would take some smarts to locate them all, let alone just one.
As he was tapping his slipper against the floor while sitting upon his cot, Larsen's ears perked up as the deadbolts to the door fluidly slid open. He straightened as one of the all-black troopers—very much of the same ilk that had brought him to this place—stomped in and stood in front of the metal table, a glossy visor masking the soldier's expression.
Larsen stood, partially in interest, and the trooper gave a subtle gesture towards the chair. An invitation to sit.
The captive did not take the offering just yet. "Where am I?" he asked the soldier.
The masked trooper gave no response, which incensed Larsen further.
"You have no right to keep me here like this," Larsen growled. "I am a senator of the Alliance and only the Alliance has the authority to detain me. You can't—"
Not at all unnerved by Larsen's hasty declaration, the trooper entertained the prisoner for a bit before he, still silent, reached into his pocket and withdrew a tiny, black disk. The soldier bent over and gently set the disk on the table, giving it a little tap for emphasis.
Larsen ceased speaking as soon as he spied the disk. "What the hell is this supposed to be?"
"Just sit down," the trooper finally spoke, his vocabulator automatically distorting his voice so that it came out in a deep rasp. "You'll see soon enough."
The soldier then briskly turned on a heel and walked out of the room, slamming the door shut to leave Larsen alone again. The ex-senator grimly appraised the disk upon the table and slowly brought out the chair so that he could sit down, like he had been told. There was nothing else to do, in any case. Might as well humor his captors. It would also give him a grateful distraction from his current ennui.
The disk, reacting in some way to Larsen's presence, softly brightened as a blue ring upon the object's face gradually warmed like fire trapped under ice. A tiny beam then pierced upward from the center, widening in a thick fan in the air that warped and condensed into a flat screen, one that Larsen realized was not unlike the screen of a holo-console.
A cursor icon then began blinking patiently upon the screen, emitted from the disk. Larsen looked upon the cursor in a blank fashion. Was he expected to type something out on this screen? There was no keyboard or anything for him to use. As he began scanning around the room for something of input, the screen gave a soft bleeping sound, drawing Larsen's attention back to it.
Then words started appearing upon the screen as the cursor began to type them out, letter by letter.
[ [ [ YOU MAY SPEAK. ] ] ]
Larsen instinctively gulped. He had heard of such interactions before. There were always rumors of black-box-type conversations that occurred with devices like these. One person hid behind a veneer of text while the other was free to speak to their heart's content. Of course, the person behind the keyboard on the opposite end of Larsen was obviously an intermediary, just an unknown face in a sea of unknown faces all beholden to the same master.
There was some indignation that Larsen felt at being shunted aside to speak to some nobody like this, especially in such a format like this. As a senator, he felt that he was owed more as a courtesy. This was more like an insult to him.
Biting his lip, Larsen felt that, insult or not, he had to go along with this. Adopting a deferential air, Larsen gave a weary sigh as he rubbed at the bridge of his nose before responding.
"I want to speak to him personally," he growled out, still feeling the bite of irateness. He waved a hand, indicating the screen in front of him. "This… whatever the hell this is… I won't do this. I want to talk. Face-to-face."
[ [ [ THIS IS THE CONVERSATION. THERE WILL NOT BE ANOTHER CHANCE. ] ] ]
Terse and to the point. Larsen dearly wanted to offer a few more rebuttals but it soon sank in that he held very little bargaining power in this place. As a prisoner, his captors could let him sweat in here for as long as it took. Larsen was not so arrogant to assume that he would hold out forever—everyone had their own breaking point. Knowing the man in charge, he had an infinite amount of patience. He could wait. Larsen could not.
"So… what does he want with me?" Larsen asked while he leaned forward and folded his hands atop the desk, now a bit more cooperative.
The screen rapidly bleeped as the response was typed out.
[ [ [ THE TRUTH, MR. LARSEN. THE TRUTH IS ALWAYS DESIRABLE. ] ] ]
"I… don't know that I could give him anything that he doesn't already know. He watches the news. He keeps close tabs on things. It's obvious, isn't it? The Council's destabilization? It's ruined. Dead in the water. Shepard… he managed to intervene in our—"
[ [ [ NO. ] ] ]
Larsen froze, sweat creeping down his neck, ice-cold. "N-No?"
[ [ [ SHEPARD DID NOT INTERVENE. HE WAS PROVOKED. DRAWN INTO THIS CONFLICT. YOU SANCTIONED THE INITIAL ATTACK. ] ] ]
All correct statements, though Larsen was loath to admit it. This intermediary was already going for the jugular, whoever they were.
"I… I… I did. I had no choice. Shepard was the key to achieving our main objective! His knowledge was going to expedite our plans. I had to try to bring him in for questioning! It's not my fault that he resisted when he could very well have surrendered into my custody for a day."
[ [ [ YOUR MAIN OBJECTIVE. NOT OUR. SHEPARD WAS NOT A FACTOR IN THIS STAGE. HE WAS NEVER CONSIDERED TO BE A VITAL COMPONENT OF THIS ENDEAVOR. YOU KNEW THIS. ] ] ]
A lengthy pause occurred then the screen blinked again.
[ [ [ THE PLAN WOULD HAVE BEEN ACHIEVED WITHOUT SHEPARD. HE WAS UNNECESSARY. THE OUTCOME—WHILE SEEMINGLY INTERMINABLE—HAD A THRESHOLD. YOUR ACTIONS HAVE NOW EXTENDED THAT THRESHOLD. ] ] ]
"Fuck you!" Larsen spat, his anger overriding his initial fears. "I told your boss straight out that I would be unable to keep myself from Shepard if he kept on delaying. That bastard had been living consequence-free for too long!"
[ [ [ YOU WERE SPECIFICALLY ORDERED TO KEEP AWAY FROM SHEPARD. YOU DISOBEYED THAT ORDER FOR A PERSONAL VENDETTA. ] ] ]
"Shepard was an Alliance soldier. He was an Alliance issue. I could pursue my own agenda while not overlapping with yours!"
[ [ [ AND YET YOU ENLISTED CHIMERA TO AID YOU IN YOUR AGENDA. THEIR INVOLVEMENT WAS NOT RECOMMENDED FOR SUCH A MISSION. ] ] ]
Larsen scoffed, an ugly sound. "Probably because they were so incompetent at their jobs. Your boss was the entire reason Chimera came to be in the first place. It was his money that started everything. His equipment, his soldiers, his technology. Even that damnable Legionnaire was built from all of the research that he had privately accrued."
[ [ [ YES, IT WAS DISAPPOINTING TO DISCOVER THAT YOUR LEGIONNAIRE HAD BEEN DESTROYED IN THE CONFLICT. ] ] ]
"That was not my fault. That Legionnaire was a pompous, cocky, son of a bitch. He made repeated mentions of his desire to be more insubordinate and took a distinct sort of pleasure to irritate me at every turn."
[ [ [ BECAUSE, IN THE END, THE LEGIONNAIRE DID NOT TRULY WORK FOR YOU. HE WORKED FOR US. ] ] ]
"He was supposed to be my tool!" Larsen banged his fists down upon the table, which dented due to the piece of furniture being made out of a relatively thin metal.
[ [ [ SO ARROGANT. YOU HAVE NOT LEARNED FROM YOUR MISTAKES. YOUR DISOBEDIENCE HAS BEEN NOTED. WHICH IS WHY THERE IS NO REASON FOR YOUR INVOLVEMENT TO BE RENEWED FOR THE FUTURE. ] ] ]
The room fell so quiet that the only sound was the terrifying throb of Larsen's own eardrums. It sounded like dim screaming to him. Swallowing was painful. His fingers became stiff, lethargic, almost as if arthritis had set upon them.
"Is that what this is all about?" Larsen's voice fell to a whisper as he looked around the room, craning his neck for emphasis. "You abducted me as a way of… closing out my partnership? You realize that I still have the capacity to serve? He came to me and I helped him for years! I… am… a valuable asset to his—"
[ [ [ YOU ARE NO BETTER THAN A PEON. YOUR FAILURE HAS RESULTED IN A SEVERE SETBACK FOR THE FUTURE BY SEVERAL YEARS. YOUR HASTY MANEUVERING HAS ONLY BEEN A DETRIMENT. ] ] ]
"No… you don't understand. Just… let me talk to him! Let me explain it all! I… I am the reason Chimera exists today!"
[ [ [ CHIMERA HAS SURVIVED WITHOUT YOU IN THE PAST. IT WILL SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU IN THE FUTURE. ] ] ]
"And who will run Chimera without me?" Larsen's tone grew snide as he leaned in further towards the floating screen. "Not that pathetic twerp of a man, Koenig?"
[ [ [ YOU NEED NOT CONCERN YOURSELF WITH KOENIG. ] ] ]
A thin wisp of breath exhaled in the form of a dry laugh from Larsen. "I have enough cause to distrust him. His last words to me carried the threat of him turning against us. Selling us out, as a matter of fact."
[ [ [ WE KNOW. ] ] ]
"You… know? Then why haven't you done anything about it?!"
[ [ [ WATCH. ] ] ]
The blinking cursor then vanished upon the screen, leaving only a bare background for a fleeting moment. Then the picture shriveled and abruptly switched over to what looked like an overhead camera feed. The video was now displaying a security camera's footage of a hospital room, judging from the rather antiseptic and barren appearance of the furniture that adorned the place.
The main focus the camera exhibited was upon the bed against the wall. Lying within the bed, lightly dozing, was a man in a neck brace whose face was covered in several thick bandages—garnered from that glass bottle being broken over his head. Even from such a distance, Larsen recognized Erich Koenig right off the bat and a fresh surge in his gut broiled uncomfortably. Despite having clobbered the man in a cathartic fit of rage only days prior, the mere sight of the young imbecile made Larsen's blood pressure begin to rise regardless.
From the room, there was a click, and Larsen was able to behold the door to Koenig's hospital room open up—he then realized that this clip was not a recording, but beamed to him live. Four men, decked out in the same bulky and obsidian-black armor that had belonged to the group that was holding him here now, moved into the room in a stealthy manner. Larsen's hand unconsciously covered his mouth as the disguised soldiers began to form a semicircle around Koenig's bed. They carried automatic rifles, all the same model, and their heads were all helmeted—the exact same circumstances that Larsen had undergone. The injured Koenig was still asleep in his bed and had not realized just yet that he had visitors.
Larsen was not so sure that these men were here purely for a social call, though.
Back on the screen, Koenig began to stir after about ten seconds had passed, sensing that he was not alone in his room. Still the armed soldiers stood by, as if they were going to be patient enough to allow Koenig to see what was going to happen next.
Sleepily, Koenig rubbed at his eyes and, upon fully registering the four armored men in his presence, he jumped upon the bed—the most natural reaction, Larsen had to admit. Koenig frantically scrambled his gaze in all directions, his puny brain struggling to come up with a clear reason for this intrusion and apparently managing to come up with nothing.
"How the…" Koenig's voice came out tinny through the screen and Larsen swore that the man sounded more annoyed than afraid. He got some clarification shortly after as Koenig continued talking. "The fuck are you all doing in here?! I asked for someone to make a pub run four hours ago! Can you not see that I've been waiting here… asleep? Where is my pint? Can someone give me my—"
Koenig would never end up realizing that the men who had barged their way into his room did not work for him and were also not here to make a food run in his stead. Midway through the annoying man's ramblings, all four men, on cue, lifted their weapons and aimed them squarely at Koenig.
Even through the screen, the crackling roar of the weapons was alarmingly loud.
Koenig's body jerked and spasmed as he was riddled with bullets. Blood sprayed out in all directions, drenching the walls, sheets, and floor. Licks of flame illuminated the spurting red liquid as everything in Koenig's vicinity soon became painted red. He ended up being shot so many times that by the time the soldiers were finished, Larsen could not tell if what remained in that bed had ever been a person. Koenig's face had been completely shot off, his skull caved in. His torso was so pockmarked that it was impossible to discern one bullet hole from the next. Blood leaked from the torn-apart corpse, dribbling in thick rivulets to the ground. The blanket that covered Koenig, or what was left of it, slowly grew darker and heavier as the blood soaked into it.
The screen calmly switched back to the text page, leaving Larsen slightly dumbstruck in horror at what he had just witnessed. He had never liked Koenig, but even he had trouble justifying that sort of brutality as a comeuppance for the man's mistakes.
"Well…" Larsen finally coughed out, trying to seem nonchalant. "I… what is there to say? It's not like he didn't get what he deserved."
[ [ [ HIS FATE WILL SUFFICE AS A MESSAGE. SUCH IS THE PRICE FOR BETRAYAL. ] ] ]
"Then… what happens to me? Am I to be disposed of so callously?"
[ [ [ YOU ALREADY HAVE BEEN DISPOSED OF. YOU ARE NO LONGER IN CONTROL OF YOUR DESTINY. ] ] ]
It was the calm and dispassionate words that had been selected to be shown on the screen that really served to tick Larsen off to no end. Or perhaps it was the ever-growing feeling of powerlessness that had finally strained upon him so hard that he finally snapped.
"Okay, that's it!" Larsen raged as he levelled a finger straight at the screen, even though the action probably did no good. "'No longer in control of my destiny?' You cocksucker. You have no authority to decide when I might cease to be useful. I'm tired of speaking to a fucking intermediary! I don't want to talk to… whoever you are! Give me a direct channel to the precursor. Let me speak to him! Who are you to dictate what happens to me?! You're just a messenger. You have no idea what's going on!"
[ [ [ IS THAT WHAT YOU THINK, MR. LARSEN? ] ] ] The screen's chilling text slowly spelled out. [ [ [ THAT I AM NOT AWARE OF WHAT IS AT STAKE? ] ] ]
"Yes!" Larsen spat. "I won't be condescended to by a lackey!"
There was a distinct pause as Larsen waited for a reply.
Then the screen finally spelled out the next line.
[ [ [ AND WHO IS IT THAT YOU THINK YOU HAVE BEEN TALKING TO THIS WHOLE TIME? ] ] ]
It was distinct manner in which the printed words were chosen that gave Larsen pause. The man read the sentence three times over, each time his breath proceeded to escalate. He felt hot and cold all at once as a creeping numbness began to affect his extremities.
"You're…" Larsen swallowed. "You're not just an anonymous subordinate, are you?"
[ [ [ NO, I AM NOT. ] ] ]
"You're him, aren't you?"
[ [ [ MY NAME, MR. LARSEN. YOU ARE FREE TO SPEAK MY NAME IN THIS PLACE. KINDLY DEMONSTRATE THAT FREEDOM FOR ME. ] ] ]
Larsen's lips quivered. He found that he barely had enough breath left to speak.
[ [ [ VERY GOOD. DO I HAVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION NOW? ] ] ]
Nothing in Larsen's head could have prepared him for this. Past mistakes, all hurtling through him in taunting spirals, ate at him in glee for his arrogance. He slowly began to lean away from the screen, his jaw half-open, eyes already glazed in terror.
"My god…" Larsen whispered to himself.
[ [ [ NOT IN THIS DOMAIN, MR. LARSEN. ] ] ] The screen dispassionately wrote.
The still air seemed to take pleasure in the trembling Larsen within the walls of the room. The being on the other end of the screen fell silent, relishing its position while his captive tried and failed to come up with something—anything—to say.
One last sentence then appeared upon the display.
[ [ [ BEHIND YOU. ] ] ]
A rash of violent feverish energy—scalding blue light—abruptly warmed Larsen's back. The former senator froze as he was helpless to watch the screen disappear of its own accord. The hairs upon the back of his neck now stood on end, as if exposed to an electrical charge. His skin felt dry and glowing, like he had been standing out in the sun for too long.
Sluggish, almost in a drunken manner, Larsen rose from his seat and turned on the spot, laggardly dragging his gaze along before he would behold a most terrible sight.
From out of thin air, in the middle of the room, a glowing shape stepped its way out of what appeared to be a tear in space and time. Ragged edges ripped through existence, pulsating as they shimmered while glowing symbols in an unfamiliar language twinkled in meaningless matrixes, tumbling forth in a torrid downpour. The conflagration had appeared without warning, without reason. In an empty space in the farthest corner of the galaxy, a presence made itself known, no matter how impossible it seemed.
The light cradled the tall and imposing figure that now calmly stepped towards Larsen. He was tall, armored from head to toe in black and chrome plating. A hardshell suit, modified to exhibit counterpressure on its wearer. Experimental tech, something that Larsen had never laid eyes on before. A long and thick coat—no, a cloak—tumbled over the figure's shoulders, where additional plating had been placed over the fabric to broaden his frame's appearance. Electricity crackled from his gauntleted fingertips, sizzling and sparking. The wealth of unknown symbols flew around this man like a shield, protective as swirls of what appeared to be a fluid, yet gaseous, mist trailed in their wake.
It was the figure's head that intimidated Larsen the most. They wore a helmet over their face, completely obscuring their features. The helmet itself was comprised of an open-view visor, dome-shaped, that Larsen remembered was common for EVA missions in the depths of wild space. The visor itself was colored a thick silver, dully reflective and segmented along critical points. No sound escaped from the tiny vocabulator at the base of the helmet, completely silent.
The energy field continued to warp its way around the man, giving him the appearance of a hologram. Larsen continued to stand ramrod straight, perfectly still, as his eyes widened to their full breadth.
"Please…" he could only say to the mysterious figure. "I…"
The man gave Larsen no more chances. As quick as lightning, the shimmering form thrust out an armored hand and Larsen gagged as powerful fingers wrapped around his throat. It was no hologram. This was real. The figure easily lifted Larsen up off the ground, leaving his feet to dangle in midair.
Larsen beat at the arm, but his blows upon the sparking surface glanced off, completely ineffective. He gagged, beginning to turn blue, his lips still pathetically moving as he tried to sound out a final plea, but the air had finally departed his lungs.
Then Aleph spoke in a booming voice.
"The Tranquility is nearly upon us. For the trillions tied to its fate, they will accept the horror without fear. For the trillions spared, their hope will assuage their mourning. But you, Mr. Larsen, will not bear witness to it. Prepare, for I offer you your escape."
Something from Aleph's fingers tickled Larsen as a nearly imperceptible jolt ran into the human's body. Invisible currents seared up fleshy pathways, drawn to a locus point as bright as the sun. Cells disintegrated, veins withered, and tissue crumbled as the discharge from the energy vortices unleashed within Larsen's body met in hellish maelstroms. Scrambling through skin, blood, and bone, the hidden arcs collided somewhere in the brain en masse, causing a chain reaction to begin—a process that, once started, could not be stopped.
Larsen gave a choking gulp before he jerked once and fell still. Something let go inside his head and, all at once, a gigantic gush of blood started to flow from the man's nose, splattering the ground below. Larsen's legs kicked feebly in his throes, as more blood spilled from his mouth, trickling out of the corners. His eyes turned completely bloodshot and leaked red-stained tears. Blood dribbled from his ears as well, running vivid trails down the sides of his head.
The man had practically disintegrated in Aleph's hand.
Aleph made no other noise as he held the dead body of Larsen very still, exhibiting no fatigue as he continued to carry him aloft. The shielded visor offered no hint to his mood. There was no joy, no pity, no regret.
There was nothing.
Mercilessly, Aleph's fingers opened to deposit Larsen upon the floor. The body made a fleshy splat as it hit, spraying blood everywhere. Mysteriously, what blood had originally sloughed off onto Aleph had all disappeared by now. The figure was completely pristine with not an article stained about him.
The enormous man then waved an arm, and a wave of energy—the very same kind that had brought him to this room in the first place—washed over him like a cleansing surge. In seconds, the vortex had consumed the enigmatic person, leaving no sign of his presence behind as he inexplicably disappeared from all existence.
Left alone, Larsen's body leaked precious blood upon the cold tiles.
"…and earlier today, the body of Senator Raynor Larsen, who had fled authorities following the revelation of documents tying his illegal activities to the private military corporation Chimera, has been found dead in his Monaco apartment this morning. Police have not issued an official statement for the reason of death as of yet, but paramedics at the scene are unanimous that the cause was either a coronary failure or an ill-timed aneurism brought on by a suicidal overdose. We will have more details…"
Rannoch – One week later
"I see them!" Roahn jumped up and down upon her perch, nestled between the branches of an onosho tree, several meters above the ground. "Garrus, I see them!"
Garrus saved the page on his omni-tool that he had been reading before shutting it off and stood up from the stone bench just underneath the canopy of the tree. His gaze lidded towards a neutral angle to spy what Roahn had been referring to: a fast moving ground vehicle was cutting its way across the cliff-side path towards their location, raising a cloud of dust in its wake from its spinning wheels. Putting a hand up to his eyes to protect him from the glare of the sun, he looked up to spy the young quarian jittering excitedly above him in the tree.
"Okay, Roahn," he replied with a laugh. "I see them too. Better come down from that tree before you break your neck."
The girl immediately complied but took her time in clambering down the aged tree. She constantly had to maneuver herself to avoid being pricked by the razor-sharp leaves of the onosho. Even though she was wearing an enviro-suit, she could still feel the discomfort of minor stabbings through the material. Her boots gripped gnarled knots upon the trunk and she eventually made her way down with ease.
The quarian dusted herself off as she dropped the last few feet. The muted blue colors that wrapped around her suit were partially caked with brown dirt. The glistening silver of her shin guards were still scratched from the events back in Germany. But more glaringly, Roahn's helmet was still uncovered, making her look almost raw and helpless, with her sehni having been destroyed in the fighting a week ago. Even though staring at a quarian without a sehni was not at all taboo, Garrus could not help but avert his eyes if he looked at Roahn for too long. It simply did not feel right to be staring at the girl, realizing just how vulnerable she was.
Roahn took off to greet the new arrivals while Garrus stayed behind to deal with his own demons before joining the girl. The obelisk near the bench, closer to the base of the tree, commanded his attention. Flowers and wreathes from visiting admirers had been draped over the tombstone, throwing splashes of color upon the deep black monolith.
Respectfully, Garrus stepped around to the front of the onyx-black slab, folding his hands as he read the glowing Khelish script that beautifully spelled out the title of his dear friend.
Tali'Shepard vas Rannoch
Gone. She had not even reached the halfway point of her thirties. Claimed by an insidious sickness that neither her nor her husband could have anticipated would have struck. Garrus dipped his head, taking a moment to breathe in the dry Rannoch air. It had been too long of a gap since he had seen Tali—this was the first time he had ever visited her grave site. Just being here, in this place, there was an aura around the whole scene that weighed heavily upon him, almost like the ground he walked on was holy.
That chipper attitude of hers. That ceaseless determination and loyalty. And of course, that shotgun she always carried, never afraid to use it as a means to end a touchy conversation.
Damn, he missed her.
Garrus was dubious that he could muster any words in his vocabulary to explain his absence to the grave. He liked to imagine that, knowing Tali, if she had the ability to see him right now, she'd understand the long wait.
Affectionately, he patted the top of the grave, letting the warm dust cake into his fingers.
"Don't worry," he spoke to the stone. "I'll see you again."
A cool sea breeze bit at the turian through his clothes, causing him to shiver slightly as he finally turned away from his friend's final resting place. He adjusted the sleeves of his shirt, as he looked out towards the ocean. The morning light was hitting the sea at such an angle that watery ripples of light continually wafted in his direction, alternating between allowing him a magnificent view and completely blinding him. While Garrus found the overall temperature of Rannoch to be conducive to someone like him, a turian, he had to admit that the chill that naturally sailed over the land from the nearby ocean produced a dip in the climate that was just enough to cause him discomfort.
The turian turned away from the sea and fixated his gaze towards the construction site that was situated several dozen meters from the cliff's edge. A maze of scaffolding and building materials were all grouped up around the foundation of a house made out of natural stone and tempered steel. When Garrus had first arrived on the scene a few days ago, he had come upon the charred remains of what had been a lofty and comfortable home, the abode his best friends had lived in for more than a decade. Blown to bits by Chimera over a month ago, barely anything had remained in the wreckage that gave any indication as to what the building had looked like in the past.
Entrusted with the original plans, Garrus had been tasked to travel to the capitol city on Rannoch to recruit some laborers to rebuild the house back to the way it had once looked—on the original site and with the exact same materials. Not knowing at all about the going rate for quarian laborers, Garrus had approached the local union and had requested a quote for the resulting work. He honestly expected that he would be dropping several tens of thousands of credits for the labor, but he had been absolutely floored when the quarian foreman had quoted him a price of around nine thousand credits instead. The quote gave Garrus mixed feelings; although the price was an absolute steal for such a large project, the turian felt like he would be taking advantage of the quarians who were trying to eke out a living on this planet. After a quick reference back to normal Palaven labor rates, Garrus had offered the foreman 30,000 credits for the job and had been promptly swarmed with grateful hired help as a result. "How much?!" Garrus had recalled the foreman exclaiming. The way the quarian's voice had cracked one would think that he had won the jackpot in the lottery.
Watching the workers now build the house back up, brick by brick, Garrus felt a swell of pride at observing the work ethic of the quarians. No nonsense, barely a complaint, and they were fastidious in making everything as perfect as possible.
This house would be perfect.
The turian then made his way to the driveway's end, where Roahn was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the vehicle. The three-wheeled off-roader cycled to a stop slowly, so as not to blow any choking dust upon the people standing outside.
The driver's door to the vehicle and James Vega stepped out. Like Garrus, he had swapped out his armor for a more casual attire, although the human's choice of clothing was strategically picked presumably to show off his superior deltoids. James squinted his eyes and spotted Garrus, whose hand was perched on Roahn's shoulder, keeping her still. He waved to the two.
"Did you have any trouble getting here?" Garrus called out as he approached the car with Roahn at his side.
"None that we could tell," James said. "After we left Earth, everything was smooth sailing from that point on."
"You stick to the game plan like we said?"
"Perfectly. Did everything to the letter. We made sure to take random hops around the relay network, spending almost a day in separate systems to throw any pursuers our trail. After that, we headed over here."
"Is…" Roahn interjected as she stood on the tips of her toes, trying her best to peer through the windshield of the car. "Is he…?"
The side door to the vehicle then made a hissing noise as it swung open upon tortured hydraulics. From inside, the passenger stumbled for a bit before they swung their legs out, worn shoes depressing upon the cracked earth.
Shepard then stood up, a knapsack over a shoulder, his bushy goatee gleaming white. A black eyepatch now covered the area where his eye had been put out by the Legionnaire. But the man was all smiles as he concentrated solely upon one individual out of the entire group.
With nary a word, Roahn ran over to her father (after Garrus had gently lifted his hand up off her shoulder). Shepard kept on grinning as his daughter ran headlong into his arms, both embarking into a fierce hug, encapsulating all of their joy and relief as both came to the conclusion that a new chapter in their life had been turned. From here on out, things would look a little bit brighter.
"Hey, honey," Shepard whispered to his daughter. "Sorry I took so long."
"Dad…" was the only word Roahn could choke out in return. Warm tears gushed past her closed eyelids, but as they were unseen, they did not last for more than a few seconds. Her father's strong arms held her, the exposed skin scarred and weathered. She clung onto Shepard tightly, fearing that her touch was the only thing keeping him tangible right at this moment.
After a minute, Roahn pulled back to get a better look at her father. Actually, she realized, with an eyepatch on, he did not seem quite so bad. There was a healthy pallor to his face and his beard was in a respectable style. Sure, there were still the remnants of scratches on his face that medi-gel had not been able to fully heal, but otherwise he looked well. If the loss of an eye had not dampened his overall mood, Roahn was unsure of what could.
Watching the two embrace, Garrus made a tilting motion with his head as he turned to look at James. "Breaking the commander out of jail wasn't a problem either, I assume?"
The human looked up to the sky as he belted out a boisterous laugh. "Actually, it was easier than expected."
"Oh? Do tell."
"More like the simplest job ever pulled. You see, the Berlin police deliberately dragged their heels when they were processing Shepard, so they temporarily interred him in the local city jail. Liara was able to pinpoint his location very quickly. You know, with her formerly being the Shadow Broker and all, finding someone was a breeze for her."
Garrus nodded sagely. "I can imagine it being a simple affair for Liara, yes."
"Anyway, we get to the jail and come up with a quick and dirty plan to spring Shepard free. Nothing too fancy, you know? We were planning on leveraging our natural assertiveness to muster our way through the jail, with hopefully minimal casualties. But… once we walked into the lobby, weapons drawn, we were in for a surprise."
"As in a whole platoon's worth of armed guards were looking right down at you, ready to fire?" Garrus pantomimed the scene with his hands.
James' grin broadened as he shook his head and raised three fingers. "Only three guards. A clerk and two disinterested patrolmen."
"Three guards? In the lobby or in the entire jail?"
"Three guards. Total."
"You are joking."
"Am not. Turns out, the Germans were not all that pleased at the prospect of keeping someone of Shepard's stature jailed. They're a much more forgiving sort than the rest of the Alliance, shall we say. Also, the Germans have a weird rule—something that a few other European countries have as well—that it apparently is not illegal for someone to break out of prison. As in, breaking out does not count against you in court."
"What? Really?" This was unheard of for Garrus. Back on Palaven, breaking out of jail was considered an admission of guilt, regardless if a crime was or was not committed. It could effectively double one's sentence in terms of severity—turians were expected to wait their turn until a trial by their peers could be formed.
James was clearly relishing Garrus' surprise. "Yep. Really. Apparently the Germans did not give a damn about Shepard's cell security, and they put him just behind a simple barrier that was easily hackable. We didn't even end up scratching the lock. The Germans just stared at us as we busted Shepard free and merely looked the other way as we ushered him out the door."
Garrus considered this for a moment before laughing in astonishment. "What is it about Shepard that inspires the best qualities in people? This… apathetic justice. Perhaps it's the opinion of the people that acts as the decisive vote for Shepard's innocence and not the Alliance. Heh, they would never stand to see him jailed on their world. Count on it."
"And good on them. Although… Shepard might have a hard time visiting Earth again. The Alliance has a long memory. They might not be as lenient as the public."
"It won't matter much," Shepard finally interrupted as he walked over, Roahn still in his arms. He jerked his head towards the house-in-progress behind them. "My home is here. I have no intention of leaving any time soon."
"I hope you'll visit more often, at least," James lightly tapped Shepard's arm. "My posting takes me outside the Local system a lot more now. Plus, the Citadel's still safe harbor for you."
"I have been away for a long time. Maybe it would do me—us—some good to get out of the house once in a while. There's still so much that I can show my family." Shepard indicated his daughter as he spoke then nodded towards Garrus. "Hey, thanks so much for looking after Roahn for me." He gently jostled the girl in his arms before he set her down. "She didn't give you any trouble, I hope?"
"This one?" Garrus reeled back a bit in mock surprise. "She drove me completely insane in the first hour. Actually, that's a lie. She was no problem at all. Incredibly well behaved."
Shepard smirked as he patted Roahn's back, who beamed from the praise. "I'm not at all surprised. But speaking of catching up, you're going to have to get me back up to speed. I've spent a week flying all over the galaxy without an extranet reference. What's the story back on Earth? Are there any developments going on that I need to be aware of?"
Garrus shot a side-eyed look at James before he responded.
"Shepard… Raynor Larsen's dead."
The human blinked in surprise, nearly floored. "Larsen's dead? That's… the strangest… uh... how? H-How did he die?"
"Heart attack, it seems."
Now Shepard scrunched up his face in disbelief. "A heart attack? That's certainly odd."
"There's more. Chimera's CEO, Erich Koenig, is also dead. Shot in his hospital bed in Berlin. The Alliance reportedly has no suspects."
"Hmm," Shepard pensively scratched his chin. "It all seems rather coincidental, don't you think? Two Chimera executives dying within a small time frame? Someone's cleaning house."
"I know what you're about to do, and I'm telling you right now, don't do it. Don't you even think about saying that c-word in front of me, Shepard," Garrus warned as he waggled a finger.
Shepard glanced back and forth and proactively placed his hands over Roahn's audio receptors. "Garrus, why the hell would I even think about saying that word right now?"
The turian blinked in a dumbfounded manner. "What… the… not that c-word! The other c-word."
Understanding and then relief flowed over Shepard's face. "Oh. 'Conspiracy.' That c-word."
"Yes, that word. We're not going to discuss anything revolving around that, Shepard. You've got a fresh start here, a new chance. Let's not mess it up, okay?"
"Hey," Shepard shrugged as he removed his hands from Roahn's head. "Fair enough."
"But…" Garrus brushed aside his worries, "there are some good developments that will come out of this. Since the person who was peddling that stupid bill to begin preparations for humanity to secede from the Council has been… well… killed…—"
"—and disgraced," Shepard pointed out."
"And disgraced," Garrus ruefully added. "All of that means that the bill is officially off the Senate table. Your people won't be pursuing that anytime soon. Also, I've been hearing rumors that Chimera is to be liquidated in short order. The Alliance immediately rescinded their contract with them after the revelation of corruption had been outed to the media. I suppose the Alliance contract was the only thing keeping Chimera afloat—they're completely out of capital. They'll be filing for bankruptcy next, the way that they're going."
Roahn yawned, the noise shaking the men from their talk of business.
"Sounds like someone's tired," Garrus smirked.
"N-No…" Roahn hastily attempted to defend as she stretched out her back. "I just… couldn't sleep all that much last night."
Respectfully, the onus of the conversation had switched over to Shepard. Garrus and Vega both sensed it in turn and immediately adopted deferential positions, their postures similarly relaxing.
"It would be best for us to let you get some time to yourselves, Shepard," Garrus said as he shook the human's hand before jerking a thumb back down the road. "We'll talk more in the morning. James and I are staying in a hovel back in the town. We know where to find you."
"Sounds good," Shepard finished the shake and then took James' hand right after. "We won't travel far while you're here. Between the two of us, we've had enough adventures. Truly, thank you for all the help you've given us."
"No problem," James said as he made a brief nod, a finespun gesture. "It's good to have you back."
"Take care, you guys," Garrus waved as he then ducked into the driver's seat of the car while James, after some quiet arguing, took the passenger seat.
After watching the car speed away, Shepard then turned back to the house, taking a long moment to simply breathe everything in. The salt air of the sea. The beckoning warmth of the sun. The quiet rumbling of distant waves. A smile still etched upon his face, he began to trudge over to the bench in the shadow of the onosho tree, where Roahn had been perched previously. His daughter now clung to his side, trotting alongside him at the same pace while she looked up at him eagerly.
The sun's light blinked into his eye and Shepard had to squint in order to see without pain. His other eye—the most grievous injury—did not cause him too much discomfort these days. His vision was severely affected, obviously, and he sometimes had trouble with discerning distances, but otherwise everything else was manageable. On the best of days, Shepard could even forget that he was wearing an eyepatch.
"I'm glad you're doing all right," Shepard said to Roahn, groaning as he lowered himself down onto the bench, dropping the backpack at his feet that he had been carrying over with him. "Dealing with this nasty business, I know it took a toll on you."
"It was… certainly something," Roahn admitted with a shaky laugh as she hopped up onto the bench beside him.
"I'm just impressed at how well you've held up. I only wish that your mother was here to see it. I know that she would surely be proud of you for how you've handled yourself."
Roahn's cheeks darkened and she fought not to break eye contact in her brief embarrassment. "Thanks, dad."
Sensing the girl's slight discomfort, Shepard looked out to the horizon, his lone eye absorbing the watery brightness before he was forced to glance away, a burn spot seared in his retina from staring out at the solar light for too long.
The human then chose the next moment to change the subject. "We still have a while to wait before things return to normal. I'm guessing that Garrus has already told you that the house is going to take some time to be rebuilt?"
"He said it might take a few weeks, yes."
"Don't worry. We'll have everything back to the way it was."
"Will it?" Roahn shifted her position so that she could look more directly at her father. The human caught the young quarian's gaze and bit his lip as she spoke. "Back to the way things were? Or… are we going to repeat the same old mistakes before everything changed?"
Now Shepard politely chuckled as he set his hand lightly upon Roahn's shoulder, bringing her in closer. "Perhaps I said things incorrectly. What I meant to say is that we're going to move on from this, together. We'll come out of it, stronger than we had been before. I now know the things that I've done wrong in the past, and I will make efforts to correct them for the future."
"Maybe you should write a book or something. Jot everything that you learned down so that you can have it all in one place."
"Funny you should mention that. Tali's old biographer actually gave me a ping after seeing me on the news. He wants to see if he can get my permission to act as my biographer—to complete the set."
"You should do it!" Roahn said as she grabbed onto Shepard's arm excitedly. "Do you know how many people would love to read it?"
"Would you presumably be one of them?" Shepard gave Roahn a sly smile, knowing exactly to what she was referring to.
"Well… yes," Roahn uttered matter-of-factly.
Shepard ruefully laughed. "We'll see, honey. We'll see."
The human then bent over as he started to rummage through the backpack he had previously deposited next to his feet. From within, he withdrew a thin package, barely over a foot in length, made out of a firm but lightweight metal.
"I saved this from the first house fire," he explained as he proceeded to hand the package over to Roahn, who accepted it with both hands, "and I've been holding onto it ever since. I could not abide leaving it behind… even after all that has happened."
"What is it?" Roahn asked, even though she could open the box at any time and find out for herself.
"Take a look. Tali had intended it for you when you were old enough. I don't think there would be a better time to give you it than now."
With shaking fingers, Roahn gently gripped the underside of the lid and lifted it away. The top part of the package slid off easily. As she set the top to the side upon the bench, she looked inside the box for a long time, awestruck to the point of being inarticulate for several seconds.
Slowly, Roahn reached into the box and withdrew a sehni. She began shaking as she held the piece of fabric in her hands, soaking in every detail. She had seen this particular article so many times it had only taken her less than a second for the connotation to click in her head. Colored a royal purple, slightly frayed at the edges, and washed nearly spotless, Roahn could behold only a few blotches where grease and carbon had smeared into the design from years of use. Then there was the sehni's most distinguishing feature: a scroll-like pattern of curling eddies and twines, like the cloudy spinning of a vortex or the churning loops of a whirlpool.
No question about it. This had been Tali's sehni.
"It's yours now," Shepard murmured softly to the girl. "Tali would not have wanted it to be gathering dust."
"It's… perfect," Roahn gasped, trembling in amazement. "Th-Thank you. It's just as beautiful as… as I remembered it. Can… can you help me with it?"
Shepard had to straddle the bench so that he could assist his daughter with her new sehni. Even with his inferior depth perception, he was still nimble enough with his hands. The sehni itself was a remarkably simple design. It had only a singular clasp where the pieces of fabric met near the collar, the only part of the garment that required any actual assembly. Twin holes on either side were intended for the wearer to slip their arms through—the fabric would then be snug underneath the armpits. Shepard had to help Roahn most with lifting the sehni over the array of breathing tubes upon the back of her helmet, making sure that the fabric did not bulge all that much as he set to work. Once that was completed, all Shepard had to do was straighten the sehni out and clasp the two ends together.
Proudly, he lifted his hands away. Aside from the blue visor, Roahn truly did embody the spirit and likeness of her mother. The girl felt at the edges of her newest adornment, almost as if she was disbelieving that she could be wearing such an important article.
"How do I look?" she asked her father.
Shepard's reply was immediate. "You look great."
"I… I don't know what to say."
"You don't need to say anything."
Roahn looked like she was about to utter something further, judging from how she seemed to be fumbling with words, when something behind Shepard unexpectedly caught her eye. Her father noticed that she was craning her head to peer around him and that her eyes were no longer focused on him as well—being married to a quarian for a while, he had learned to pick up on several visual cues in the species. Shepard similarly turned around and managed to pinpoint a small cluster of multicolored young quarians trudging along the road by the sea. One of them was waving in their direction. Even at this distance, Shepard could discern what they were saying.
"Hey, look!" One of them was loudly proclaiming. "Roahn's back! She's okay!"
"That is her!" Another cheered. "Hey! Roahn! Roooahn! You're here! Ro's here!"
"My friends!" Roahn hopped up on top of the bench and waved back with both hands. Nee, Cevni, and Zayhn—such welcome faces—were beside themselves half a kilometer away as they all realized that their dear friend was alive and well. It had not even occurred to Roahn that the other girls would have feared the worst upon seeing the remains of their house. They had left so suddenly and unexpectedly that her friends had probably thought that she had died in the house fire. Guilt plagued her for a second before her happiness overcame the emotion.
Remembering who she was with, she quickly ceased in her jubilation and adopted a more serious tone. "Dad, can I go play with them?"
A bit bemused but charmed by Roahn's politeness, Shepard really had no inkling of refusing her such a thing. "You don't need my permission for that. Go ahead and be with your friends."
No doubt grinning like a fool under her helmet, Roahn's herculean effort at masking her joy was most likely giving her some strain, but she internally let out a sigh of relief. Something suddenly occurred to her and she fumbled at her belt for an item before she held out her arm, an object gripped in her hand.
"You can have this. I won't need it where I'm going."
It was the pistol. The very same one Shepard had taken from Roahn on this planet. The same one he had given back to her on Tuchanka. It was now offered to him grip-first, folded in its inert position.
A knowing glint passed through Shepard's eye as he carefully lifted the weapon away and slotted it onto his own belt. Before Roahn turned to depart, Shepard took his daughter's hand tenderly in his.
"It'll be waiting for you when you get back. You earned it, after all."
His daughter then surprised him by unexpectedly moving forward to supply him with one more hug.
"I love you, dad," her next words floated out flawlessly.
Caught off guard, Shepard's smile grew several sizes bigger as he held Roahn tightly. Standing on that cliff, the breath of the sea swirling around them, the rustling of the leaves and the pounding of the waves all merging into one continuous sound, Shepard felt nothing less than the luckiest man in the galaxy in that moment.
A perfect connection. Seared straight into the heart of pure memory.
"I love you too, Roahn."
The hug breaking soon after, the girl left to be with her friends, but not after she shot one final look of admiration to her father. Bidding Roahn farewell, Shepard retreated back to the bench underneath the tree, back to where his wife's final resting place was located.
Shepard sat for a long while, absorbing the sounds of Rannoch while continually staring at Tali's headstone. Sitting here somehow felt… right. Like this was the spot he was meant to inhabit at this point in time. His family was here. His memories were embedded here. All he ever needed was on this world. But there was still a whole galaxy out there, ready to welcome him back. There was no need to hide in the shadows any longer. He had cast them aside, scared them off with the light. The weight off his chest had been lifted, allowing him to breathe freely. Hell, even the aches and pains that had plagued him over the years had seemed to quell themselves on their own accord.
Leaning forward, hands upon his knees, Shepard soaked up the radiance the sun had to offer. Content with life, he closed his eye slowly as he let the visualization of the setting before him act as a transport to his innermost thoughts. Even with his shut eye, Shepard could easily envision the broiling sea down below, the baking crust of the ground, and the dim glittering stone that marked where his wife lay. The resulting images were so vivid that even Shepard was fooled by his own brain into thinking that he was beholding reality.
Left to his own devices, Shepard would undoubtedly return to the supposed sanctuary his memories had to offer. Torture masquerading as a haven. Evoking the circumstances of his past always drew fresh agony.
Today would be different. Shepard dove straight into the brine of his mind, his consciousness so thick it was like swimming in mercury. With nothing but newfound joy for how he looked forward to the present, he used that emotion including the love he had for his daughter as a shield against the natural afflictions his intensive recall would dredge up.
With a smile, his mind opened up.
…and he took a deep breath.
Both eyes opened as the thick and milky rays of sunlight heavily fell upon his face, warming his skin. His head swam from the familiar sensation of narcotics. Distant itches resonated upon his body, but he was too lethargic to even move a muscle to satisfy the irritations. He blinked several times in quick succession. His vision came back all white and blurry. So, he was not blind. That was something.
In his frustration, Shepard resorted to blinking his eyes even more frantically, as his eyelids seemed to be the only part of his body he could move on command. Additional context began tantalizingly floating into view within his head, giving him the wherewithal in his current state.
Where was he? Shepard struggled to reach out and grasp the tangible threads of stimuli. Sheets. Stiff cotton. A… a bed. Yes, that was it! The white light. Sterile. Slightly acidic scent. A hospital. Ah, he was in a hospital! He had been here for… some time, now. How long? A few weeks, at least.
Shepard's head throbbed. God, he thought, this medicine was strong.
The rest of the information began flowing in a steady trickle.
The Citadel. Illusive Man. Harbinger. The Reapers. Catalyst.
There had been a battle.
No… that was weeks ago. Now he remembered. He had woken up in this place a while back. The war was over. Their enemies had been defeated. He had won. But his injuries… they had done a number on him. The doctors had said that… he had spent a week in a coma, at the very least. Apparently he had been found on the Citadel, third degree burns covering a significant portion of his body. Bruises, cuts, and blood had otherwise marred what skin he had left hanging on him. Some of his organs had even shut down from the trauma, despite the extensive upgrades Cerberus had given him.
Shepard blinked again. Everything was starting to become a whole lot clearer. It also occurred to him that waking in this fashion was not a novel occurrence. He had been in and out of the operating rooms in this place, going in for several different surgeries that had resulted in his life being completely salvaged. Skin grafts, blood transfusions, and muscle therapies were just a smattering among the shopping list of procedures that had been performed on him. What had he gone in for this last time? An organ transplant… that was the most likely assumption.
Rolling his jaw, Shepard was now starting to sense the irritating sensation of gauze wrappings upon his skin. Several bandages had been wrapped around his head, over his torso, arms, and legs. Shifting his gaze downward as far as it could go, he could at least see that the medi-gel dressings surrounding his limbs were pristine, clean of his blood. The rest of the swathes applied to his person continued to insist that their presence be noticed. Shepard suspected that more than half of his body was all bundled up, like a mummy. He would have proclaimed that such treatment was overkill, but everyone in this place was worried about his health, one person especially.
Speaking of which, that one person, if he was remembering correctly, had always made sure to be the first face that greeted him after he awoke from each of his surgeries. The empirical evidence presenting a strong case in his head, Shepard rotated his neck as slowly as he dared so that he could find that one face that made his continued existence all the more bearable.
The natural reaction he exhibited upon finding familiarity in a foreign land exerted itself upon himself in due fashion: a smile.
Tali was sitting almost at breathing distance at the side of the bed, leaning upon the post that separated his mattress from her body. She was reading something on a tablet, judging from how her eyes were scrolling from side to side as she directed herself to the screen. Her slow breaths indicated to Shepard that she was at ease, completely comfortable in her environment, which in turn gave Shepard relief. If Tali was this calm at this moment, then he knew he had no reason to worry.
He let Tali read for a few more minutes as he took pleasure in studying her demeanor. She had not yet noticed that he had awakened. Whatever she was reading must be quite engrossing, Shepard figured.
Then, seemingly at random, Tali's eyes flitted upward to check on the status of her dear friend. She barely gave a start as she found that her eyes had connected with Shepard's open, blue ones. No doubt that she was pleased, regardless.
"How long have you been awake?" Tali asked as she set the tablet down.
"A few minutes. Not too long," Shepard answered. "I take it my surgery went well?"
"I didn't ask for the specifics, but I was told that everything looked good."
"What was this, the fourth surgery so far? How many more did they say I had to undergo?"
Tali fiddled with her fingers before answering. "Two, at least. But you'll be out of here in a month, they hope."
"Wishful thinking," Shepard groused as he tried to lay back, his neck now smarting. "But… things could always be worse. It's not important, anyway. What were you reading while I was sleeping? You seemed to be interested in it."
"Kasumi actually gave it to me. It's a human novel. The Count of Monte Cristo. Pretty fascinating, really. I've only gotten through a third of the book but I have trouble putting it down. It's about this young man on Earth who is wrongly imprisoned for…"
Shepard did not have the heart to tell Tali that not only had he read The Count of Monte Cristo before, but that it was actually one of his favorite books. He just found it delightful to share in the quarian's excitement. Bursting that bubble would deny him in being exposed to her joy. One of Tali's quirks was that she tended to get so absorbed in her explanations that she barely left anyone else room to butt in, but her detailed commentaries were so full of enthusiasm that it became simply infectious to listen to her talk.
Actually, come to think of it, taking in the aura of Tali's palpable energy was a sensation that Shepard soon realized that he did not want to take for granted. It was as if a filter had been lifted from his eyes. Clarity ensued in its fascinating detail. Shepard even took a pregnant pause to consider the ramifications of the impactful yet brilliant idea that had come to his head. Even through the thick haze the painkillers clouded him with, the searing bright mote of responsibility and sanity screaming at him to respond to their moral bidding.
What he did next was not just the levelheaded decision, it was simply right.
Lifting a shaking arm, Shepard tried not to show his strain as he found Tali's hand in his, gnarled knuckles gripping a suited palm. Tali immediately ceased explaining the plot of the book as she was about to voice a protest for Shepard seemingly overexerting himself, but not before he beat her to the punch.
"Marry me," he croaked out.
Tali's words were shoved back down her throat as she experienced a temporary cortical overload. The wideness of her eyes right now certainly signified the degree of shock that had imparted itself upon her.
"Marry me," Shepard said again. "I've already waited too long to say those words to you. I can't hold them in anymore."
Tali still remained silent but, ever so slowly, she encased Shepard's hand with both of hers, holding it tightly.
"You know I can't say 'no' to something like that," Tali whispered breathlessly, the look in her eyes both excited and anxious. "I could never refuse. You mean this, don't you?"
"Tali," Shepard said patiently. "Marry me. I would never joke about this to you. This is the easiest decision I've ever made. I'm tired of the fighting. Tired of conflict, of the pain. Without you, there would be nothing keeping me alive. I now realize that everything I did during the war was to get back to you. Marry me, Tali. I'll say it as many times as necessary because I want you to know that I can only foresee a future with one person in my life: you. I want a life with you. I want to give you happiness, a home, and, if it comes to it, a family."
"You really are serious," Tali was awestruck. "John…"
"You bosh'tet," Tali's voice murmured sweetly into Shepard's ear as she brought her helmeted head closer. "The one time in your life that you didn't even need to give a speech. My answer was always going to be 'yes.' I know how much you love me. It's that same intensity that I try to return back to you every day. We don't need to say it because there's nothing more to say. I will certainly marry you, John, because I don't want to have a future with you not in it."
Finding her answer acceptable, Shepard's smile broke out into a full-on grin. He fumbled his next words as he now acquiesced to her gentle touch—her hands now lovingly held his head, keeping him still. Both breathing hard, but remaining captivatingly silent, the lovers embarked into the gentle swell of their synced emotional rhythms, each discerning the powerful joy that radiated from them in fierce waves.
Tali, nearly overcome, lightly rested her deep purple visor against Shepard's forehead. She held off from hugging him from the fear of injuring him further.
Their eyes deeply shut, both the human and the quarian savored each other as they took in the promise of the onrushing future, seemingly destined to never break their bond apart.
Santa Cruz, California, UNAS
The sleek 8-series coupe gently rolled to a stop at the front of the residence deep in the heart of the redwoods. Sam McLeod gracefully rose from the driver's seat and walked around to open the passenger door to the car so that Nya could exit in a similar manner. Sam took a deep bow with a flourish and a snigger—clearly imitating the form of a valet while struggling to hold in his laughter further.
Nya was having trouble keeping her amusement withheld as well. She played along with the act and gracefully made a twirling gesture with her hand, offering it to her husband while uttering a snort of her own.
The two had been in somewhat of a silly mood since departing for Berlin. After spending the first day observing the craziness near the Reichstag, both Nya and Sam had found a fancy hotel and retired early, already worn out from the hectic day's events. However, when the news of Shepard's eventual escape made it onto the morning news the next day, both had found that their moods were significantly brightened as a result. They enjoyed a long weekend wandering to all the touristy areas of the city, while taking advantage of their remaining nights together for some badly-missed romance. As much as they loved their little girl, having a kid as young as Taylor under their roof did somewhat hamper their opportunities to be intimate with one another back at home. With them having their own hotel room while in Germany, there had been plenty of chances for them to make up lost time.
Perhaps all of the instances in which their affections were satisfied were the main reasons why both Sam and Nya were acting in such a close manner. Sam seemed to be casting an air of intense possessiveness as he backed the quarian up against the car while Nya herself exuded a raw sensuality as she began to place her hands upon the human's chest in a groping manner. The couple's breathed hissed out in deep pants, nearing the edges of animalistic impulses even though they were keeping their instincts firmly in check.
"If you want to have one more go at me, we can always find another hotel in town," Sam teased as he let his fingers lightly wander up the sides of Nya's neck.
"Me?" Nya pretended to act outraged. "You started this whole thing! If anyone's the ruffian here, it's you."
"Is that an official complaint? You're nearly grabbing my ass, by the way."
Nya, now alerted, lifted her hands away like she had just been burned. Apparently she had not been paying attention where she had let her hands drift to. "You… are a bad influence, Sam McLeod."
Sam absorbed the statement with an overly-knowing nod. "Admit it, you were enjoying it."
"I… uh… well… it was that bed! That stupidly large bed in the Berlin hotel! I was just… remembering how it felt and—"
"Say no more," Sam raised a hand, a maddening smile on his face. "You're just as hopeless as I am, dear."
"Ooh, I could punch you right now."
"Yeah, I bet you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Nya then came at him, not-quite-jokingly, both arms raised over her head. Sam easily caught the quarian's wrists, stared with mirth at her as she struggled, and then brought her into a victorious hug. Nya's arms beat at Sam's back, a facetious outrage, but she eventually gave into the human's charms and squeezed him back.
"You really are an idiot," Nya sighed as she teased Sam's hair with her fingers after they had separated.
"Ouch," Sam sarcastically drawled. "So abusive."
"You would tell me if it really bothered you."
"Would I? I'm not that open, Nya. Maybe you really did hurt my feelings."
"Oh, shut up!" Nya dramatically groaned as she threw her head back, earning more chuckles from Sam. The quarian truly knew that Sam was playing things up, trying to drive a reaction out of her. And, damn it all, it was working. The human knew how to push her buttons the right way, his gaslighting driving her towards a temporary insanity. Nya then spent a few seconds teasingly slapping at Sam's arms while Sam yelped out as he pretended to be hurt.
The two then quickly sobered up after they had exerted all their energy, desire still lidding their gazes. They then proceeded to grab their luggage, lock the car, and head towards the front door, their faces a little more flushed than normal.
"I hope that Taylor was all right," Nya said as they set foot onto the first stone step. "I don't usually like leaving her all by herself."
"Are you kidding?" Sam said beside her. "The kid's probably doing just fine. Ten-year-olds are very resourceful. Hell, she'll probably be disappointed that we weren't away for a longer time."
Sam's words turned out to be somewhat prophetic as the tall walnut doors swung open to allow the couple inside, giving way to what appeared to be a scene of catastrophe within.
Nya dropped the luggage from her hands. Sam similarly followed suit. The two stumbled inside, their ashen expressions becoming more and more incredulous as they tried to process why the interior of their house looked like a crime scene.
Nearly every piece of furniture in the living room was out of place. Chairs had been toppled over. Ottomans had been turned upside down. There were even several rips in the leather couch, exposing yellow stuffing. A table in the middle of the room had been knocked to the floor, spilling what appeared to have been the remains of drink glasses, judging from the stains in the carpet and the clear shards nestled in the floor. The hardwood boards were sticky with juice. Several bottles of soft drinks lay aimlessly dispersed in odd locations: on the ground, atop the hearth, and one had even made it into the chandelier.
Confetti and colored streamers joined the collection of broken glass on the ground. A board game had been apparently chucked into the corner, the figurines scattered with it. Several empty pizza boxes had been collected into a tower, which had fallen over, smearing cheese and grease into more pieces of furniture. And, if Sam was to crane his head, he could see that the fridge over in the kitchen was still slightly ajar, the remainder of the pizza slices stuffed into every single shelf the thing had to offer.
The culprit, anticipating Sam and Nya's arrival, stood directly in the middle of the blast zone, a sheepish look on her face.
"Hi… mom. Hi… dad," Taylor waved nervously. "I know it looks like I held a party here while you were gone, but… I-I can explain everything. I had… I had no time to c-clean. It… it was.. I… I just… you're going to ground me now, aren't you?"
Slowly, a white-faced Sam raised his arms up so that he could clasp his temples, two seconds away from completely losing his head.
"Taylor…" he spoke so softly that his words became terrifying, "I'm sorry, but it's the end of the world for you."
A/N: And, just like that, we're done.
Honestly, the whole time that Cenotaph was in development, I've been continually delighted and content with the sort of reception and feedback that I've gotten from all of you. Whenever I start a new project, I'm always slightly nervous at how an idea of mine might be received. I'm just glad that I've been able to entertain so many people and to share in this little adventure I've had in my head for over half a year now of Shepard and Roahn. I hope you guys enjoyed it.
You can probably determine that there was a plot thread in this last chapter that was so obviously left dangling. The reason for that is simple: Cenotaph will be eventually expanded into a trilogy. I've envisioned two more installments that will focus on Roahn as the main character, leaving Shepard on the sidelines as the torch has now been passed. I know I might have said that I intended for Cenotaph to be a stand-alone story, but to be honest, I'm not required to tell the truth around here, heh. I can pull a Romney - I can change my mind. And the truth was that as I was writing, I realized that I wouldn't mind seeing more of Roahn and having her eventually own this series. It's something that should be fun for everyone (though, my idea of fun does not necessarily mean that it will be fun for all of YOU, hahaha.
I will confess that I have no idea when I will start writing Cenotaph's next installment. Between my temporary exhaustion in writing in addition to me recently finding a new job, my free time will drastically dwindle in the near future. It may be a while before I get my life back on track, but I do aim to conquer this series eventually. When that happens, I will be changing the title of this story to Cenotaph I: The Morrow, to fit in with the new nomenclature this series will undergo (as well as modify the cover artwork to reflect that change).
Truly, everyone, thank you for your support throughout this story. I know I sound like a broken record at this point, but I cannot overstate just how appreciative I am for the reception that Cenotaph has garnered. Please drop a review when you can - I would love to hear your thoughts on this chapter, as well as this story as a whole. It lets me know what you guys really liked and what I could possibly do better the next time around.
I hope that I have entertained. Until the next time. Roahn'Shepard will return...
Aleph/Larsen's Death: "A Storm is Coming" by Lorne Balfe from the film Mission Impossible: Fallout
Tali's Sehni: "After the Party" by Edward Shearmur from the film The Count of Monte Cristo (2002)
End Title: "Ember City" by Mastodon