Silence descended over the Mako as it pulled to a stop along the forest's edge. Ashley, predictably, broke it first.
"Don't like the look of this, Commander," she commented, pressing her lips together skeptically as she peered out at the densely packed vegetation. "We drive forever over a bunch of flat nothingness to track down this distress signal, which just so happens to be coming from smack dab in the middle of a dark, creepy forest?"
"According to the sensors, the woods cover a pretty good area, thirty square kilometers at least," Kaidan reported, glancing up from the instrumentation panel to look sidelong at the behemoth trees, standing silent and imposing like sentinels guarding a palace door. "It's not that big a stretch to think of a ship crashing in there." A twinge of doubt colored his tone, belying his words.
Shepard's gaze hadn't wavered from the forest. Though her face was expressionless, the bulk of her armor couldn't conceal the tension in her shoulders, and her fingers twitched almost imperceptibly against the panel.
"Everybody out," she ordered after another moment, tearing her gaze from the tree line to glance back and forth between her squadmates. "We'll have to go in on foot. Keep your eyes open."
Entering the forest was like stepping onto another planet, the sky disappearing and the atmosphere sliding into browns and greens so dark that one shade blurred into another. Kaidan almost swore he could feel the temperature drop despite his armor's automatic body heat regulation. Next to him, Ashley muttered something under her breath—Kaidan wasn't sure if it was a prayer or a curse—and tightened her grip on her assault rifle.
For three Alliance marines trained to navigate unforgiving terrain, the trek was relatively short in spite of the forest floor strewn with branches and gnarled roots. The pace slowed as they approached the wreck of the downed passenger carrier, ugly black scorches marring the twisted hull.
"No sign of survivors or geth, Commander," Ashley reported as soon as the perimeter was secure. What little light was able to penetrate the forest canopy glinted off her helmet as she shook her head. "It doesn't make sense. Someone had to activate that distress beacon."
Shepard, slowly circling the downed ship, came to a sudden halt. "Wait. Did you hear that?"
Kaidan instinctively froze and listened, rewarded a moment later by a muffled thud not far in the distance.
"I don't think that was a geth," Ashley said, her frown barely visible in the murk of the woods.
A second thud sounded, followed by a third, now closer together. Kaidan moved forward to flank Shepard, his eyes widening as branches ahead of them began to shiver and bend as though blown by a sudden fierce wind.
All three marines stood rooted to the spot, staring as the mass of leaves and bark gave way to scales, beady eyes and a gargantuan pair of jaws.
Ashley's own jaw was hanging slack. "Is that a…"
Kaidan swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly as dry as Therum.
In front of them, the creature that looked exactly like the old imagined renderings of Tyrannosaurus rex turned its head slowly toward them, revealing the mangled torso of a geth shock trooper dangling from the massive jaws.
"Don't move," Shepard ground out, her lips barely twitching as she issued the command, but it was too late. With one twist of its head, the rex flung aside the remnants of its last attempted meal, the hapless geth trooper flopping gracelessly to the ground like a well-loved rag doll. Though Kaidan normally would have hesitated to assign human-like expressions to a gigantic reptile, he was positive the rex's eyes were gleaming hungrily as it took another booming step forward.
"Back to the Mako!" Shepard barked. "Go!"
Kaidan needed no further encouragement.
As he turned tail and began to flee, he was vaguely aware of Shepard yelling at Joker through the radio to pick us up, now! but the pilot's response was cut off by the loudest roar he'd ever heard in his life. His mind went blank, registering nothing but the pounding of his feet against the ground, and with every second he expected to feel the rex's teeth crush his armor like a peanut's shell.
It seemed to take an eternity to reach the forest's edge, yet it almost came as a surprise to burst out into the sudden abundance of wide-open space. Momentarily disoriented by the blinding sunlight, Kaidan concentrated on just keeping his legs moving in tandem until he had regained enough equilibrium to swing back around toward the Mako. Ashley was hard on his heels, and Shepard, he saw with a wave of relief, had already reached the vehicle.
No sooner had the three marines piled into the rover—the tiny space thick with harsh panting breaths and streaming curses—than a nearby branch gave a tremendous crack. An outraged roar reverberated through the Mako as the rex bulldozed out of the woods, its every step a minor seismic tremor.
Like all else, the Mako leapt to attention at Shepard's command, and Kaidan's head slammed back against the seat as the vehicle spurted forward as though propelled from a cannon.
"ETA three minutes." Joker's voice was tight over the intercom, though it registered dimly in Kaidan's mind that the pilot would have no shortage of snappy commentary if they survived this incident.
If they survived. He realized he was counting down seconds in his head, and he gulped.
The Mako swerved and skidded suddenly, as though the ground was shifting beneath it, and Kaidan realized the rex's head was swiping against the vehicle. Next to him, Ashley began hollering something, and Shepard was hunched over the steering controls as though she could make the vehicle go faster just through sheer physical contact. The dinosaur's footsteps had fallen into a booming rhythm, each impact jarring Kaidan's teeth together, and for one brief moment of absurd clarity he imagined some officer clad in dress blues visiting his parents' house in Vancouver. Mr. and Mrs. Alenko, we regret to inform you that your son was eaten by a T-rex on an uncharted planet…
"Williams, the cannon!" Shepard snapped out the order, her fingers a flying blur over the instruments, coaxing out every bit of speed the rover possessed. Kaidan forced himself back to reality, moving to help Ashley as she scrambled to position herself at the weapon's controls. They were rewarded a moment later by a sound that fell somewhere between a roar of surprise and a squeal of pain.
"Got him square on the nose, Commander," Ashley reported. "Looks like he's dropping back a little bit."
Her face set with determination, Shepard gunned the controls again and the Mako responded, the rex's pounding footsteps fading as the vehicle increased the distance. The Normandy appeared seconds later, and though Kaidan wasn't particularly religious he nearly found himself likening the ship to a guardian angel swooping down from the heavens.
Albeit a rather mouthy guardian angel, with Joker's predicted commentary starting up as though on cue.
"So, Commander," the pilot drawled over the radio as soon as the Mako was safely on board. "First human Spectre, and now the discoverer of dinosaurs? Think they'll give you the Nobel Prize for that one?"
Shepard climbed out of the Mako, a mixture of weariness and relief crossing her face now that the ordeal was over. "Doubt it, Joker," she replied, shooting a wry half-smile at Kaidan across the Mako's roof. "I guess extinct is just a relative term."