The Prothean skyway creaked and moaned above dead cityscape. Wind whistled and wailed at this altitude. There was no further sound than this; no thudding drill, no vehicle traffic, no engines, and no more gunfire. Feros again subsided into solitude.
A glimmer appeared. In the day's last light it flashed red down through the dirty cloud layers.
The Kodiak shuttle was the first of the craft to make entry.
Its pilot steered a wide circle of the main colonial outpost, where the broken pieces of a freighter lay scattered on an alien rooftop.
The shuttle picked up the dim transponder signal: MSV BOREALIS.
Other information scrolled on the craft's display, rushing by in walls of text. The operative stabbed a finger through the glowing orange text, said "there, go back" and the Kodiak pilot made the descent. Voices spoke from the other crafts.
The Kodiak shuttle swept down, eased off, and its fading engines whined over rubble and smoldering embers. It sat clean and sleek among the wreckage of Zhu's Hope. Then the seals popped. The hatch opened.
The operative was the first to step out.
His helmet turned slowly over the wreckage, the blasted-out chunks of ancient masonry, and the strewn geth platforms. There were strange heaps jumbled down by the freighter and it wasn't until he picked out the shape of a shriveled black hand that he knew what he was seeing.
"I expected bodies," the operative remarked. "But I didn't think he'd stack them so neatly."
"Makes sense, I guess," the assistant offered. He was the third to come out.
The kid was second- hunched over, hands scrabbling wildly at the front of his faceplate.
"I think he threw up in there," the assistant said.
"I told you to use the oxygen, not the filter." The voice of the operative came lazily through his faceplate, hissed and transmitted through the frontal vocabulator. "Bet it smells beautiful, don't it, kid?"
The assistant hesitated, looked around, and then went with another to the hardsuit figure down on its knees. Well that would teach him, wouldn't it?
The operative gazed about, impervious to the all-pervading reek. His scanner showed only the signals of the descending dropship craft. In a matter of seconds the place swarmed with Cerberus personnel. A ready team went point and the operative went for a stroll. He did not even bother to touch his own weapon.
He was disappointed.
ExoGeni had come so far with the specimen. Farther than anyone back at the office had even thought. An ancient species, an extraordinary ability- of course it came with pain, but they would find a way once it was done to minimize discomfort. The discovery on Feros outweighed whatever brutish scavenging the colonials made among the ruins, already picked over time and again by the dregs of the galaxy.
Now all their progress ended in blackened bodies and charred rubble.
The operative went his own pace while the forward team gained ahead.
Bodies everywhere. Burned and twisted beings with limbs in a humanoid configuration. Human, or some of the creatures produced by the species?
"Sir, it's Jeong," buzzed one of the gunners.
The operative followed the pointing barrel, up, up, up to a pair of boots backlit by the setting sun.
Ethan Jeong was so bloated that his skin split and burst around the ropes. His body was unburned, unmarked, left alone. Left as a message.
"Oh a good old fashioned hanging," remarked the operative. "Frontier justice, how quaint."
The point man turned to him, breathing heavily through his faceplate. "What are your orders, sir?"
"We'll take what we can."
"And what about the rest of the colony?"
The operative blinked. "What colony?"
Above the dirty cloudcover, the towering skyscrapers, and beyond the orbiting unmarked vessel, the bodies of the Theseus System continued their silent revolutions. The mass effect relay stood out as a speck against the local gas giant. Light-years away, its twinned relay branched off into another and another, where in a sloppy band of asteroids the SSV Normandy found its way.
The frigate nosed past the seemingly gentle drift of rocks. If on the chance that one struck, the present troubles would mean nothing.
Commander Shepard stood in the glow of the communications room.
Choppy signals rendered Donnell Udina's outrage into bits and chunks.
Shepard stared at the flickering, skewing holograms of the human ambassador and the ExoGeni representative. He wore his dress blues, a blank expression, and a thick bandage already compromised by the upwelling of viscous dark fluid.
"I don't have time for details," he said, "and I don't have anything to say in front of her."
A fourth voice broke in. "As the assistant to ExoGeni's Chief Executive, I'm here to try and understand what happened in our frontier community."
"I didn't know corporations were afforded the right to listen in on Alliance military communications."
Udina sniffed. "You can't decide to be an Alliance soldier when it suits you, Shepard. You answer to the Council. You answer to me."
"First of all, I didn't say anything about being an Alliance soldier. I'm an Alliance marine. And I already answered the Council."
"You hung up on them."
"Spotty connection out here unfortunately." Shepard lifted a hand to touch the bandage on his face, like it itched. His first two fingers were taped together and held immobile. "But I hope you got my report. The one about ExoGeni's gruesome medical experiments on a captive colony."
"Mr. Shepard," the ExoGeni representative replied, "we've read your rep-"
"Commander," Shepard corrected her. "Lieutenant Commander."
"Commander Shepard, we've read your report and your allegations are simply.. well, you will understand if it's hard for us to believe."
"Yeah, kind of crazy," Shepard said. "That's why we took plenty of pictures and video feed. And one of your personnel was able to pass on some information to us. Just in case you choked it out of the Theseus comm buoy."
"Are you referring to Dr. Baynham, who is, I might add, currently under investigation?"
Udina cut in. "What happened down there? Saren.. "
"ExoGeni discovered a lifeform in the ruins on Feros. They shipped in some scientists to conduct experiments on it and the colonists. They were studying some agonizing medical infection."
The ExoGeni representative said, "You're breaking up, Commander, I can't really make out what you're.. What happened to the colony?"
"You know what happened. Or you will. I'm going to bring you down. And I know ExoGeni knows. Go tell your boss that all ExoGeni vessels and escorts we encounter will be flagged hostile and exploded by the SSV Normandy. We don't want to do it but you leave us no choice."
"This is outrageous, Shepard. ExoGeni is one of the trusted names in colonial enterprise."
"Was," Shepard said.
"Commander Shepard." The representative's voice came gentler now, a silky tone. "It sounds like your ship and your crew is under considerable distress from the recent events. You are a true hero and a figure of pride for colonists everywhere. We are all saddened and shocked by the geth attack on Feros."
"Me too. Me too. I'm sorry you killed all those people on Feros."
"What are you talking about?"
"The infection. They're all dead."
Udina gasped. "There were three hundred people on Feros!"
"Shepard," Udina said, "report to the Citadel at once and we'll straighten all of this out. Plant monsters. Zombies."
"Negative. Normandy's going deep and silent. We're out here in the wide open ocean. Lot of sharks. ExoGeni will try to kill us out here if they have half the chance. They'll make it look like an accident. Or the geth. Mark my words. I'm sending the pictures and feed at the end of this transmission."
"Where we're going is my business now. I'll have some instructions later. If we run across any ExoGeni ships, I'll have to assume they pose a threat to my ship and my men. They will be dealt with accordingly."
"That sounds like a pirate's demands!"
"Don't call me. I'll call you."
The holograms winked out.
Shepard rubbed his face, looking pale even in the orange light.
"Channel's closed, commander. Sent our evidence."
"Good. Close all communications from here. They can't know where we are. ExoGeni has too much money and too far a reach."
Shepard leaned back and steadied himself against a chair. He wiped sweat along his uniform sleeve. Damned hot in the blues. Damned hot in the whole ship. Crowded. Cramped. The communications room was packed with weapons, converted to a makeshift armory for the present emergency situation. The guns could no longer be trusted to remain on the lower decks, not now, with things how they were.
"Sir," croaked one of the marines as he emerged from communications. Few of the shore team were in any condition to stand post.
Shepard returned his salute and went to galaxy map, where he mounted the stand and looked out across the anxious faces. Though she had served in the Alliance Navy for three years, Bridge Officer Melody Xuan seemed nervous with a service weapon. She would hesitate if it came to that. She resented him for what he did to Alenko. She didn't understand how it was.
"Put me in-house, Jeff," Shepard grunted.
"You're on, sir," came Moreau's voice quietly across the comm.
"This is the commander. We have what we came for. We know what Saren wanted and now we have it. We are currently in an unspecific system heading to an unspecified location where we will be met by Alliance protection and medical support. With the exception of myself as your commander, all Feros mission personnel are prohibited from this level on the ship and are mandated to remain belowdecks. This is to include Doctor Chakwas. We will respond to any abnormal behavior. In the event that I am compromised, Pressly will step in as the acting commander."
Down in the medical bay, a battered and bruised Helen Chakwas harrumped softly as she held a wet washcloth to a patient's swollen face. "Johnny holds a grudge forever, doesn't he?" she said. Kaidan Alenko arched and vomited a thin green slurry. At least there wasn't so much blood in it this time. Others weren't so lucky.
"Comm is down for the time being. It's for the safety of the entire ship. As soon as we're able, and as soon as it's safe, you'll have the opportunity to call loved ones but for now it's very important that we remain quiet and you remain dead."
Down in the messhall, down in the cargo hold, down in the vehicle bay, the bodies shifted and crammed together, the last of Zhu's Hope. People coughed. The salarian Inoste Ledra fidgeted and eyed the krogan, who gave him a warning stare. Macha Doyle moaned with stomach cramps. Blake folded up a scratchy military issue blanket and nudged it under his wife's head. Everyone wore marine PT gear; all their clothing and most of their possessions had been abandoned or destroyed.
"ExoGeni has all the money and resources out here. They'd love to make us disappear if they could. They stand to lose everything over this and they don't know the stakes we're playing for. I won't let them kill you or my crew. Hang tight, and I'll give you what you came out here to find. All I ask is your cooperation."
Joker cut the comm.
Pressly came up very quietly by the CIC stand. "Commander," he said. "We're going to have to break stealth to discharge the heat sinks very soon. There's activity in this system around the fueling platforms."
"I know," Shepard said.
Pressly was watching the trickle that escaped the commander's facial bandage. "And we're projected to run out of rations in 72 hours."
"The water recycler is back online but we can't tell what went wrong with it."
"Water tasted like piss, that's what was wrong with it."
"Oh well you're a genius, sir. That's it exactly." The old man gave a grumpy sigh. Worry lines creased his brow then. "One of the pistols is unaccounted for."
Shepard gave him a sharp look.
"It could be that Alvarez is just too tired to get the right number," Pressly said. "But.. "
"Have one of the bridge officers count again."
"Aye, commander. And we've brought the crates up from the cargo hold like you requested. A little more adjustment and we can make about twenty percent more space for everyone. Uh, more than that if we can get the krogan to budge."
"Wrex stays put. We'll stow the Mako in the airlock to free up some space. Anything else?"
"That's all for now, commander."
Shepard picked the soiled bandage from his face and scratched the itchy, bloated human bite mark. "Then I'm going to go find my new roomie."