"Close your eyes…I want you to completely relax." Soft soothing words were the only noise in the warm space. All he could feel were the cool fingers resting on his forehead, the smooth thumbs resting on either temple. The room smelled of spice, the exotic fragrances flowing through the open windows weren't cloying however, but instead hinted of the alien world beyond these four walls. He could just hear the cranes calling over the thrum of passing flight craft as they passed through the green space of the Presidium. And the water, he could hear the murmur of voices out there, beyond the thick, white walls. Diplomats, traders and people, each murmuring in hushed tones, their feet making little noise on the marble and metal floor. Cafes were full of people, their conversation light and jovial. The Hanar speaker continued to murmur in the back of his head, its words full of a buzzing murmur. Several C-Sec officers talked in cold hard voices on the large bridge while a lone, Red armoured Krogan stood in the shadow of large statue of one of his race, calmly waiting, his weapons stowed and cold on his back. A quarian, a rare sight on the Presidium lent on a railing, watching the cars fly by, her face covered but the faint glimmer of eyes below were ever watchful. He could positively smell her, his sense were running free as the clinical but exotic scent flowed freely through his mind.
"I told you to empty your head of all other except the memory you wish to share. If I wanted to see mundane lives full of flickering flights of fancy and nothingness, I would just tap into my receptionist." The Asari who he lent against chided him, her knees and upper leg warm beneath the back of his head.
"Sorry." Shepard said, creasing his brow, allowing the calm relaxing thoughts come back. Time passed, the light never dimming, the birds never stopped calling and the water continued to flow. Below the consort's office, the men and women talked in hushed voices, occasionally raising their eyes to the ceiling and letting their minds guess at what was occurring within that scented room.
"Do you want to remember, Commander?"
"Do you want my mind to become with yours so that I may see this thing which burdens your soul."
"Yes." That was uttered with a little more force.
"I want you…" white spots began to run across the Commander's vision as the fingers pinched at the flesh of his face "…to show me…Everything"
"You mean that figuratively, right?"
Everything went white and all Shepard felt was weightlessness. It was quite a pleasant feeling; the vast nothingness around him was a white light but it wasn't blinding, it was empty, was the best way to describe it. He didn't feel afraid; he didn't feel upset or saddened by all this He felt…well. He didn't feel anything. He felt Numb.
"Shepard…" the voice was all around him, in his mind and his body as he tried to focus, his consciousness trying to break from his grasp. He could feel things tight around him, pulling his arms to his sides. He could still move them, but it felt confined, restricted perhaps. Encased….that was it. This seemed all too familiar. The smells of the presidium were gone, replaced instead by a biting cold, the air coming stale and recycled.
"What…?" This didn't feel right; something was resting on his shoulders, his body felt heavy. There was something surrounding his head, a thick solid object which closed around his jaw and was pulled tight over his ears.
"Wake up you Daft Twat!!" Shepard's eyes snapped open as the voice crackled over the internal speakers. Before him, consoles twinkled. They were basic admittedly only minor holographics but he doubted the Pod would be coming back from its one way trip so he doubted the Alliance minded. It was a tight fit; he was well tied into his chair forcing him into a nearly upright position, the standard Alliance Issue Mass Rifle digging into his elbow each time he tried to move. Out the reinforced glass door of the pod, the ship's exterior curved away above him, a mass twinkling lights and pylons. Other Drop Pods hung from glittering cradles as below the storm wracked world of Altema 7 rolled by, the hurricanes and dust storms leaving clear trails across its surface.
"And finally the sleep beauty himself awakes. C'mon Sarge' we don't want you to miss all the action."
"Kiss my Arse, Charlie." Shepard cracked his neck and slammed his fist into the side of his pod. The thing swayed under the jolt, the harness holding firm as beside him, just visible through the reinforced glass, Corporal Charlie Mason waved back, his bearded face split by his white, well cleaned teeth as he grinned. "…with the amount of time we've been hanging, I've got to do something more then stare at your face."
"But ain't it a picture, Sarge."
"No it fegging ain't…" Shepard grimaced as he sat back in his seat, trying to straighten his legs "…slap a nice body on ye', remove that ugly mug perhaps. In fact, I'd swap you for the real set any day. That would make my view more pleasant."
"Been eyeing up the Asari again 'ave we, Sarge. I'd of thought you'd of swung one of those Biotics our way by now."
"All a matter of time, Corporal…" A pod a few pods down swayed slightly, a helmeted head appearing in the quickly frosting glass. "…for know I wish they'd just fix the bleeding heating in ole' Betty."
"You still naming your Pods, Frank."
Behind the frosted glass and armoured face plate, Frank Jeffries face creased into a smile.
"I've got to give each Pale Horse a name, it just seems fittin'"
"I dunno…" Charlie flexed his arms, flinching as he banged his elbow against a jutting arm rest "…D'ravit!! I just don't want to get too attached to the thing before it gets scattered across the ground. Just seems a bit pointless to me, you barely get to know the thing."
"But they have soul, and personality."
There was silence, the Shepard and Mason both leaning forward in their seats to get a clear view of Frank.
"You've been staring into dark spaces for way to long Corporal Jeffries." Shepard said.
"Giving it a Fegging Name…" Charlie rubbed at his sore elbow, shaking his head at his elder "…it's just a quick drop then a sudden stop. That's it, not really time to get acquainted if you ask me. Its like a finely balanced ice cube or a rather ugly, burnt piece of glass, it falls, it smashes, we fall out."
"It's not as if you're going to buy it lunch or anything…" Shepard murmured.
"…take it to a hotel…"
"…spend a rampant…"
"Alright, alright! You've 'ad your fun." Frank sat back, disappearing from view.
"And if you feel that way in kind and don't believe it's working out…"
"I'm going to fegging blather you in a minute…"
"…I'm sure if another pod isn't available, there's plenty of packing crates or ammo crates on offer."
Expletives echoed across all comm. lines, the static clearly audible as Frank lent to close to the Intercom panel, Charlie chortling away as the older man screamed down the line back at him.
"Sergeant Shepard!" Another, younger voice cut through the others. From one of the nearby pods, a visor caught the light as it occupant inched forward, trying to make the pod swing as little as possible, lest he threw up. The youthful face behind the clear visor wide eyed and pale, Private Elliot being the youngest soldier Shepard had ever served with. It seemed quite likely that he'd lied about his age and the Alliance wouldn't have checked. They were too busy trying to stay ahead of the Alien races, let alone focus their attention on the well being of the troops. In a bid to accelerate the growth of the Alliance Military Forces, Command seemed to have lost sight of the little people, those who made up the numerous forces.
And those who were hanging above a vast warzone under that dark sky.
"Is it time yet!?"
"Give it a little longer, Kiddo…" Shepard said, smiling grimly from behind his own visor. "…don't get too impatient to get dumped into hell, rook."
"Its James, Sir! My name, Sir…James Elliot!"
"Its Private Elliot, Rook." Shepard grimaced as he snarled over the intercom. "…you're rook until you've come back from one jump. For now, you're a number, that's all. Friendship is for people who come back."
"Good…" he said, Charlie shaking his head from his own pod. "…you come back, Rook and then we'll be on first name terms."
"Understood…" there was a brief pause. "…but Sarge!?"
"What is it, Rook?"
"Why do they call us the Gallowmen?"
Shepard sighed into his breathing mask, the glass fogging.
"Because we drop…"
"…and come to a sudden stop." Charlie broke through the static.
"And some of us don't come back..." Frank murmured just on the verges of Shepard's hearing.
"Do you think we'll all come back, Sarge?"
There was a pause as the others looked at each through the thick glass.
"We always come back, Rook."
"Bullying the Newbies again, Shepard?" Moira Stuart's sharp tones filtered into Shepard's hearing as the squad medic's pod twirled in space, its occupant moving in her seat.
"Just got to keep them on their toes, Stuart."
"You'd better not start laying into him as you usually do, Sarge."
"Yes Mum." The disembodied voice of Moira floated back from her pod as she replied and sent the intercom crackling. It involved swear words.
"So how many jumps have you done so far, Sarge?" The rook was back, leaning from his seat to look through the portal to Shepard's own pod. He lent back, breathing deeply as he tried to think.
"This would be the Sarge's 45th I would believe…" Charlie spoke up from his pod as Frank nodded sagely from his own. "…I'm on 35, Frank's on…"
"…I'm on 50, youngling." Frank folded his arms.
"One day that luck'll run out old man."
"Hopefully you won't be around to see it, boy." Frank chuckled as he set his chin back into his chest, trying to catching a glimpse of the world below. Within his pod, pictures of family and friends looked on with smiling faces as the fifty five year old Drop Trooper, set his jaw, eyes twinkling in the star light and looked down as ever to his next fight, his next war and perhaps…
It would certainly solve the issue of retirement. It wasn't as if his pension was overly generous and it would just seem so boring. Shepard and Charlie had their lives ahead of them, he had…well, a quick drop and a sudden stop.
Charlie looked on from his own pod, his beard tucked away into his helmet as the group sunk into silence. There'd been more, much more. But they were all gone, gone into dust, blood or paperwork. Simple numbers now in some vast overbearing army. A machine. The alliance always hinted to the fact that they could only operate in small squads, their limited Navy meant that they had little choice on the matter. But now, it was all about man power, to become numbers while Command sat around and discussed politics.
He ground his teeth. He really hated politicians.
Time passed, Shepard checking his gun by his side as the storms continued to roll by below. A wrecked ship passed by beneath them, its engine cores sparking as ruptured metal sent a drifting debris field trailing behind it like some slow comet. No one said anything, just an awed hush spread across the comm. network. It was clear to see the Alliance markings spread across its ruptured hull as blue fire erupted from the drive coils. It passed by, leaving nothing but empty space. No sign of its passing existed, it just had been…and now it was gone. Shepard strained at his harness, trying to catch some last glimpse of the wreck, but it was gone from view, to forever orbit the planet till it would eventually come to rest.
At some point, somewhere, something was going down. Shepard folded his arms and looked on as around him, other soldiers shifted in their pods, deep in conversation or in prayer, their thoughts going to a bored and uninterested god.
"Sarge…" Mason lent back in his chair, his breath sparkling in the cold air "…what are we doing in this little part of the Galaxy?"
"Well, it all began with a few raids by Pirates onto this sector. A few menial little excuses for attacks from the terminus systems. Big hoohaa about whose job it was to clear up the mess so the colonists armed themselves and fought off the pisspoor excuses for raiding parties themselves while the council bickered and complained. Thankfully the colony was rather sizeable, nearing the size of one of the Citadel's own habitation areas so the local militia held their own for some time. But then out of the Black came a whole load of Hell. It seemed that the Pirates had become a little distressed by the resistance they were facing and dropped a shitload of ordinance down onto the planet. Recon says it was chaos from that point as the Slavers, Pirates, Marauders, Raiders and god knows what else descended down onto the planet and mopped up the last of the civilians who dared put up a fight."
"The council got a little shifty at this point and decided it would be worth having a little squint to see what was going on. Basically, our friends from the terminus systems decided to use the ruins as a staging post and in that fact pose a direct threat to citadel space. So the council called in a task force, i.e. us, a few Asari and the Turians."
"This makes the Alliance seem as though we're callaberating with each other which in turn, makes us look good."
"That would be 'them', Sarge." Charlie murmured over the intercom.
"Sorry, it makes them look good as they gloss over the mission, the death toll, enemy death toll, yadda yadda."
"Usual story then." Frank flexed his tired muscles in his pod, Charlie groaning as Shepard finished speaking.
"So it's the usual Drill, we drop, we land. There's a main thoroughfare marked here and here" A rotating holographic image flickered into life each of the pods, Shepard highlighting each section of the tiny orange glowing 3d image. Streets rippled under his fingers, buildings breaking up from the image as it rotated slowly above the projector.
"As soon as we hit ground, I need a RV point set up just here…" there was fizz and a single golden sigil began to twirl over a large complex "…that's an old shopping arcade. It's pretty clear of tangos at this moment in time. It was pretty badly hit by the first bombing run and several buried gas and power mains in this area means that pirates are giving it a wide berth."
"Gas mains, great." At least we've been given snowblind rounds for this drop." Mason murmured as Moira tutted, semi agreeing with plan as Shepard ran a quick diagnostic.
"I guess the other squads are coming down all over the shop?"
"Most have the RV points set by top brass. We've been given a little more Leeway…" Shepard stirred the image with one finger. "…however the main objective is right here." He tapped a wide open space set at the centre of the urban area.
"A space port?"
"That's where their ships are docked and that's where they're operating from. We hit that area hard and we're in the monies. If not, then the Alliance will waste this place from Orbit."
"Why the hell don't we do that right now instead of been stuck here?"
"Because there are civilians…" Moria rattled the intercom box, obviously going through her medikits "…they've been bringing in lots of slaves and seeing the lack of willing buyers out here, I'll put money on the fact that their using them as a shield against us."
"All right, I bet against…" Charlie rattled from his pod.
"Done, I call five credits on that."
There was another brief rattle. Shepard came acutely aware of money changing hands.
"Your bets are getting worse every time. That one was positively ghoulish."
"Gallows humour, sarge. Best way to make money."
Their conversation was cut short as a long rumbling judder echoed through the pods. Sirens began to call as the ship began to roll, its beacons rising up as it wings peeled back.
"Here we go…" Shepard pulled his harnesses tight as the judder increased in rhythm, his gloves locking around the two hands on either side of his seat. Above his heads the engines whined as around him, other pods were been lowered into position. "…remember, remain calm, don't panic, the ground will come up a bit fast…"
"Feg yes it will." Charlie yelled over the rumble of engines as blue fire began to ripple from beneath all the pods held in position across the flat surface of the ship's belly.
"This is Squad 1 ready." Voices began to sound over the comm. link, some fearful, some ready, some angry and some….were quiet and restricted.
"This is Squad 2."
"This is Squad 4…" a strong irish accent sounded through "…an may I just add, what a fine day it is to be goin' down there to whip some arse for Ulster!"
"Squad 5 here."
"Squad 6…" Shepard intoned "…are we all good to go?"
"Fired up and ready." Charlie murmured as Frank ground his teeth and tightened his grip.
"Ground teams are been deployed as we speak." The rough tones of the squads were replaced by a hard, crisp female voice of the command centre "…Asari Biotics are been dropped imminently."
Fluted wisps' of light whipped past the edge of the ship as she spoke, heading directly for the storm wracked world below. Ships too, moving in quick succession shot down into the clouds and were lost from sight.
"There go the Asari…" Frank shouted over the rumbling engines as more and more pods were lowered into position "… and the turians are going down in ships. Looks as if we're the only ones jumping the gallows then!"
"This is Zero 5. I have confirmation of targets rising into orbit." The nose of a small white frigate rose into view, Zero 5s Captain quickly pulling from the drop zone in a cloud of blue fire.
"We read you Zero 5…" the crisp tones echoed again "…good hunting."
"Understood Command. Ground teams, things are going to get loud."
"555, Zero 5" Shepard sank further back into his seat, lest the gravity drop would tear his legs from his joints as other squad leaders replied.
"This is Zero 7, we've got increased wind-speed on ground level."
"Positive on that one Zero 7?" Shepard opened a channel as Command whistled and clicked, the V.I system whirring to itself as the Pods began to deploy.
"That's a positive, recommend a pause on Jump."
"That'd better be a negative on that one Zero 7." Shepard swore as like buds breaking from branches, the pods burst away from their cradles, blasting away into empty space and shrieking down toward the surface.
"Command, we've got a negative on drop. Please Advise?"
Static hissed, empty of all human voices.
"Command?! Command?!" Shepard slammed a fist into his arm rest.
"The powers that be, ain't listening…" Mason ran his hand over one wall of consoles.
Space came roaring up around him as the pods were blasted from their cradles. All they could feel was the rattle of the orbital winds and shriek of the engine reverberating through the pods.
"Weather conditions are FUBAR! Squad Leaders, prepare for Insane storm conditions!!"
"That's a positive ID on that weather…" a strained voice echoed through the intercom as Shepard's pod hit the atmosphere in a blast of fire "…taking action."
"Good to hear from you Benny!"
"It'll take more then a bit of rain to get rid of me, Shepard" there was a laugh on the other end of the line.
"Height, 1000,000 feet and counting…." Moira's voice cut through Benny's jovial remarks "…hitting second atmospheric layer now!"
The pods jolted as behind, more black dots followed, ejected from the single, white clad Alliance vessel, and behind that, clad in silver carapace and twinkling with many orange lights, the Destiny of Ascension hung ready.
"Firing first jets…" Shepard felt gravity slam down before it was gone, the pod smashing through the atmosphere. Fire ran freely along the windows and black metal of the pod.
"Jets firing…" Charlie's dull tones sounded through the static "…damn, this feels GREAT!!!"
"Hold the enthusiasm soldier. You'll need that when we get down there!!"
"Never grows fegging old!" Frank was yelling over the screaming jets as sound and gravity kicked in.
"This is Team 1, we've landed and deployed, no sight….wait, we've got tangos."
"Good hunting, One" Shepard snapped his head back as the pod increased in speed, pressing him back into his seat.
"Squad 2, ground level. Feg, we've got foxtrots all over, engaging."
"Don't you die on me Gunney…" Shepard slammed back into his chair as they hit the jetstream "…you still owe me that drink."
"Don't you worry your little cotton socks on the issue." His voice disappeared in the noise of battle before cutting off abruptly. Shepard ground his jaw.
"We've got heavy winds on the jet stream…" Moira was barely audible over the winds and the rattle of the engines "…I'm seeing metrological spikes all over the board."
Shepard felt himself go cold. "Can you pinpoint the spikes in wind speed?"
"We're heading toward one right now Sarge!"
"Alter trajectory, 15º on my mark…" the others fizzled in agreement "…our LZs have been compromised. Wind speed….increasing."
"This is Zero 7…" the ship captain came back online as Shepard wrenched a handle to 'on' position on the console "…Squad 6, you're heading toward a Storm Cycle, suggest altering course."
"Already on it, Zero 7."
"Things are going FUBAR as the weather's concerned. And you've got a shitstorm of trouble beyond it."
"Deploy chutes…" large crystalline canopies broke from the engine compartments and spread black plastic and metal into the winds. They hit the cloud layer with a shriek, the rockets firing to slow the pods. Shepard could feel the slightest of tugs as the wind caught the pod. "…change trajectory…now!"
The pod jerked to one side, the others' following suit. The storm reared about them like a vast thing, the winds sculpting it into new, horrific shapes as the clouds swiped at the passing pods.
"This is squad 3, we're down, taking heavy fire, requesting assistance!"
"Understood Squad 3, do what you can for now."
"No we're frigging not…" Charlie muttered over the winds.
There was a jolt as the parachutes detached and disappeared into the cloud. And then they were through, through the clouds and through the storms. Winds plucked at the windows and sent the pod twirling; Shepard felt his stomach lurch, the pod slamming him hard into the walls, consoles coming loose.
"You all right, Sarge!!!!?"
"Fine…!!" Shepard snapped the sunscreen down over his face, hiding his cold grey eyes before pulling the flak shield down over the Perspex visor, the shield hissing as the servo motors drove it back into place. It was thick piece of black carapace, broken only by a thin clear slit which spread from eye to eye across the its matt black surface. "...fegging piece of standard issue shite"
Below, the city burned, vast plumes of smoke rising from burning tracts of industrial areas. Barbed and rusting ships hung above the fire, spines adorning the outside of the flight craft which hung like devils above the fields of hell, their cargo bays open as large cylindrical cages were winched up into their holds. People cried from inside the cages, pale arms clawing from within as they tried to escape. And there were firefights, muzzle flares rippling through the city streets, the tiny flashes of blue and white light. And there were rounds in the air, the flick and snap of passing shards breaking through the rumbling engines. And then it seemed to all go silent as a small mushroom cloud engulfed a street several thousand metres away, lights flickering within before it was gone, torn away into the winds. Noise rushed back in as the atomic blast gave way.
"Woo…!!" Charlie exclaimed "…they've deployed Atticus Cannons!!"
"Eyes on the prize soldiers, don't get distracted by all the new toys."
Marauders and Pirates ran through the streets below, the smoke mixing with the clouds and mixing the sky a muddy red. Asari, Turians, Salarians, Batarians and humans all looked up as the pods descended like comets from the red sky. In mismatched armour, they stood and shook their fists at the sky. He could see their faces, small angry and cruel specks below.
"Wind speed increasing!!"
"Brace!!!" Shepard shouted over the screaming engines as the brakes engaged. "Brace for Impact!!"
And then the pods seemed terribly far away…Shepard's world was turned upside down as the pod tumbled away as the cross winds smashed the pods off course.
"We're off course….!" Charlie could be heard yelling as he spiralled out of control. "…the winds got us off course! Shepard!! What….crrrrrk…..do…….Sar……….Crrk"
Shepard seized the jump handles on either side of the portal, the g-force pressing him back in his seat as the pod began to whirl, brakes engulfing the underside of the craft as they desperately tried to slow him down. He hit one of the black plumes of smoke and increased speed, the buildings whipping by underneath as streets, ruins and fire shot by beneath, and then…
"Badbadbadbadbadbadbadbad…." Shepard slammed his head back into the seat, the engines rising in pitch "……!!!!!!!" he slapped the intercom box, trying to get some response for the blank expanse of silver metal "…Mayday, Mayday, this is Squad 6 lead, we're going down and off course. This is a mayday, can anyone, anybody please advise…." Silence was a rather annoying response to his predicament. "…this is mayday, mayday. Is anyone, anybody…please respond. This is Sergeant Andrew Shepard, of the Systems Alliance; I'm going down off course. Is anyone in this area?"
"You are about to experience a crash…" the VI system's smooth voice was the only other noise in the space, his only reply and rang annoyingly in Shepard's ears "…please brace for impact. Insufficient data on target landing area for reconciliation. Prepare for Blind Landing."
"Yeah, ye' talking but it ain't helping!!!" He broke a small glass panel beneath his chair.
"You have activated the Loud Handle…" The VI's calm tone seemed much too relaxed for his liking "…are you sure you wish to follow through with your action?"
He didn't answer, the lever below jumping up into his grip he wrenched the handle upward. A second chute deployed, Shepard felt as if his shoulders had been ripped from his shoulders, the wide black emergency chute's metal fibres dragging the pod backwards. This caused him to bounce painfully off the roof of the pod the resulting force tipping him forward into the glass. That nearly shattered the glass, his face plate holding for now. Dazed, he watched the ground coming up to greet him with burning, but open arms. And through his head, the only word he could hear, just before the black came to drag him back. It wasn't said, it wasn't screamed, it wasn't the name of some loved one, it wasn't some regret, it just suited the situation well. It was the only two words Shepard could summon up as the pod decided it wanted to dig a deep trench out of the planet's surface and was dragging him along with it.