A/N: I'm not dead! In between this and the last publication, I had several occurrences that rendered me incapable of providing an update, and I apologize once again. However, I'm back now, and with the release of Mass Effect 3, and the eventual disappointment associated, I've been struck with a level of inspiration I haven't felt since I first began to write on here almost two years ago. I'm not going to jinx myself again, but I do plan on having chapters come out at a much quicker pace. (Granted, ten months shouldn't be a difficult benchmark to improve my time on). I'll just keep my fingers crossed that I don't sever my arm in some freak bicycling accident before then. Thank you for patience, and I hope you enjoy, at long last, the next True Identity installment.
The setting sun casts its final rays across the landscape, projecting elongated shadows of everything within its sight. The ship hovers just before it, eclipsing the star, keeping its last vestiges of warmth from the dying whose bodies lie like tattered rags across the landscape. Its tentacles twist ominously back and forth, its design like nothing I've ever seen before. Like no one ever has, judging by the looks of horror on the faces of all who surround me, expressions surely mirroring my own.
"What the Hell is that?" asks a lone voice, unleashing a torrent of confused questions, crashing around me from every angle. My own voice fails to join the chorus, jaw hanging open at the imposing sight. Something about the ship is wrong; it's movements too sudden, too erratic.
I turn my thoughts back to the inky black of memory, trying to recall anything from the ether, as I had done with the geth, their image clearly now cemented in my head. But nothing jumps forth, the starship even more terrifying in its continued anonymity.
"There's no way we can take this bastard down," Williams calls from the front of our merry band, shutting down the fearful murmurs with the clear authority in her voice. There is the slightest edge to her own speech, a hint that betrays her cool front. "We need to keep moving forward, focus on eliminating the geth resistance."
Once more, I find my head swiveling to survey the crumpled bodies behind us in the crumbling hall, pieces of synthetic machine mingling with the flesh, blood, and bone. The geth bodies still crackle with their approximation of life, so newly cut down by our sudden attack, our push forward to the exit of the crumbling ruin that stood grand and imposing only minutes before.
I look back to the front of the small company; see the nervous glances of the soldiers scanning the empty field ahead for signs of hostility. Nothing makes itself immediately apparent, but a sense hangs on the air, as if the world is merely tensing itself for an inevitable eruption.
The strange ship still hangs on the stifling air. Backlit by the star, it is ringed by a halo, glorious and terrifying in its apparent transcendence, its grand mystery.
I look to find Ashley standing separate from the group, holding a conversation seemingly with herself, until she turns, and I reveals the previously hidden hand held up to an earpiece nearly indistinguishable from her own skin. Lips move, but the voice that issues forth is lost amongst the chaotic din that dominates the landscape. The sound clashes noticeably with the dead air, the cacophony at odds with the leaves of trees that remain perfectly motionless against the rapidly approaching dusk. The screams are still present, imprinted upon our ears by our submersion in that hall of death and pain. But they are muffled, concrete walls separating us from them, the agony now simply adding a subtle ambience to the roar of engines overhead, and the omnipresent gunfire.
The latter seems to come from everywhere, but we can see nothing, only the geth ships that hang like ornaments upon the clouds, the unfathomable behemoth quietly observing from their center. Watching. A word not often associated with a ship, a structure of simple metal. And yet, watching seems to be the only word to describe the sensation that creeps down my spine, sets the hairs on my arm on end. It is the feeling of being observed carefully, methodically, by eyes that, no matter where you turn, do not grant the simple comfort of allowing you to meet their gaze. Judging by the uncomfortable shifting in the small group around me, others share these same thoughts.
The last idea is a comfort, albeit a small one amidst this destruction. In that old story, Adam managed to survive, create humanity, because there was another beside him. Maybe I will survive, because even as Hell invades Eden, I am not alone. For a moment, the significance of my thought escapes me, before it strikes me suddenly, realization widening my eyes for me.
The all-encompassing nothingness that is my past has let this memory slip through, a crack in the hard shell. The story of Eden.
All of a sudden, I can feel a sense of elation, excitement choking off my words. Even with most of myself still locked away, the very fact that memories still remain sends my heart racing. I can finally be a whole person again, even as unseen bullets tear through the air, hope is newly reborn. And as the gunshots once again force their presence upon my ears, I tightly grip the one small pistol I've been allowed to carry. My true self is trapped away somewhere, and I'll be damned if I don't see my own story unfold.
My reverie is interrupted by Williams, standing assuredly before the group, hand removed from her earpiece. "This wasn't just a sudden attack," she begins, looking slowly about the group. "I think most of us had that figured out from the beginning, but reports from across the colony have confirmed it. There were coordinated strikes across the colony, from our main base just now, the town center, the research base, the hospital," she lists, trailing off, eyes lowered to the ground. "This was a clearly pre-meditated assault, and an all too god damn effective one." The final phrase is spat out contemptuously, everyone present able to discern the bitter taste of the words as they pass her lips. "The entire colony is being split apart. The geth are spreading out from central pockets in the most advantageous locations. How the Hell they got out from behind that Veil is anyone's guess, but they've murdered our comrades, our sick, and our innocent. There are going to be officers trying to decipher the motives of this attack, but as far as we're concerned, I think it's currently irrelevant. If we're wasting time running blindly looking for answers, that only gives them more time to butcher us. We aren't many here now, but we aren't the only survivors. A resistance is already underway within our primary outpost, and is making surprisingly quick work of the enemy hostilities. More will be joining us shortly, and until then, we work as a strike team. We aren't prepared with ammunitions or numbers enough to take on a retaliatory assault. I want this quiet." As if to demonstrate her final statement, she ceases to speak. The words are replaced by action as she silently pulls out a small pistol. She spins, and begins to slink forward, hidden within the tall, sweeping grass. Her mouth moves with the smallest of motions, as if in silent prayer.
After a moment's hesitation, fearful of disturbing her brief reverie, Graham Corey steps up beside her. "We should probably head out now, unless we're going back to clear out the base." His voice is contrite, apologizing preemptively for his advice.
Her words are softer, and I focus, try to separate them from the wind breaking like waves across the landscape. "We can't." Her tone mirrors that of Corey beside her, and genuine grief darkens her eyes as she turns to cast a final glance at the military camp. We begin to creep forwards; at long last, the burning smell of drifting smoke begins to fade, ever more dispersed by the quickening winds that begin to lash angrily about the compound.
The building itself is soon hidden behind a hill. A collective sigh nobody knew was being held is slowly let out. Only with the site of the onslaught lost to vision could we breathe a sigh of relief. Guilt grips me once more, thinking of the man, of how many more like him there could be. A single thought forces itself upon me, strikes the movement of my legs, and they stop of nearly their own accord. Logic, even willpower seems helpless to impede, much less stop it. Nearly without so much as registering the movement of my own lips, I hear my voice sharp and clear.
"Stop!" The single word is a gunshot. Nine pairs of eyes whip towards me, several creasing in suspicion. I repeat the word unnecessarily; give myself time to consider my thoughts. The stares shatter my concentration, waiting impatiently for words I can't seem to form. Deep breath. After a second's hesitation, I fix an image in my head to steel my thoughts. Now with free access to my innermost thoughts, the eyes once again attach themselves to a body, that of the man as he is dragged away once again. His life is now trapped in an endless cycle, the stumps of his legs forever staining those white tiles. Only the blood makes its way through the dust that coat them. I shudder, want to close my eyes, turn away, forget. But I keep them open; force myself to look upon the consequences of inaction. And the words come rushing back as if from a wellspring.
"Stop." I direct my attention to Williams. "You said there was a resistance underway?" She nods her head, eyes boring into my skin. For a moment, I almost clam up once more, but the memory continues to play across my vision. "Wouldn't it be more effective to take the base before the geth can set up a more stable foothold there? So you can recapture the utilities to mount a stronger defense?"
"Are you so naïve to think that option hasn't already been considered?" There is a venom in her voice, the near whisper hinting at danger the words alone could not suggest. "Do you think we would willingly throw our people to the wolves because the possibilities weren't thought up?" Slowly, the anger and accusation drain from her speech, leaving it distant and melancholy. "All the ships that can still fly are in the air by now. We're here to protect the civilians, not each other." Her voice drops once more, Williams's words are now directed solely at herself. "Soldiers die."
"But I'm trying to save more!"
"Shut the fuck up." The new voice is cold, and I feel my eyes narrow as I turn to face the speaker.
"How can you not see that this is the best option?" I shout back angrily. "I'm sure you've all heard the story by now. Is this because I had the misfortune to wind up on one of your apparently very well defended ships, at the worst time possible? Although, after all the shit I've been seeing here, I'm not sure there's really any opportune time, to be honest."
"Let me ask you a question," the other man responds. "Do you think, today, that there's the distinct possibility that every single person you've formed any connection with in the last 5 years is going to…going to…Fuck!"
"You alright?" somebody asks him.
"No! No I'm not motherfucking alright. Look the fuck around you, for Christ sake! I saw a guy run through by a rebar, back there. How long's it gonna be before it's some you know, or I know? What are you going to do if you see your best friend with his intestines hanging out?"
"Kowalski, Man, it sucks, but we did sign up for this when we enlisted…" the other man speaks up once more.
"Don't try to fucking justify this shit to me! Nobody enlisted for this. They enlisted to get paid, not to have their heads blown off, or to get their bodies cooked in a fireball. I'll keep fighting here, but it sure as hell ain't because I'm looking for a god damn paycheck. But if you can honestly look me in the eye and say that this is what I enlisted for, to see my friends and family get fucking slaughtered, then I hope you're the next to die."
Silence settles upon the small party, the man breathing heavily, eyes darting around as if waiting for an imminent attack from the group itself. The only things that greet him are a slow wind that has begun to set in with the night chill, and the sound of distant thunder storming vengefully up from the valley, the noise rattling towards us.
"Shit, storm's comin'," somebody laughs nervously, his words doing nothing to ease the tension that has settled down upon the assembly, only thickening with palpable weight that arrives with the approaching storm. The scene is frozen on the slope of the hill, the world holding its breath for the next thunder clap that never seems to arrive. As we stand stock still, as if the slightest jostle could shatter the illusory tranquility that has settled about us, an ashen trickle crawls up the sky, slowly becoming a stream, a river.
"Christ in Heaven." No other words are needed. Ten pairs of eyes are all glued upwards in terrified transfixion as a column of flame climbs behind the blackened debris that heralded its coming. "I wish we could go back to your storm theory now."
"We need to get down there." Ashley Williams's voice is solid, stoic. A force to be reckoned with amidst the silent, horrified confusion. "Now." The final word is spoken calmly, but there is a certainty behind the statement that no one is left in doubt that it is much more than a simple request.
The grass underfoot depresses beneath my step, pools of mud reaching upwards, tugging at my boots, the sound squelching like broken tissue and tendons. The soft wind continues, a god send after the oppressive stagnation.
A soft rustle comes from the grass nearby, but a quick turn of my head reveals nothing but the gentle undulations of the grass. Slight misgivings press upon the back of my mind, but I push them out of sight. We continue our mad rush down the slope, slowing only slightly as the ground begins to rise once more, the newest hill extendins upwards what appears to be only a few dozen feet. Just enough to obscure our vision until we crest the top. We are greeted by dozens of black gun barrels, the single eye boring into us in imitation of those that hold them. Geth line the long valley, staring coldly, unblinkingly at our small party.
For a moment, life once again seems locked in place. Sound exits the scene, before swelling to a violent crescendo amidst a cascading wash of brilliant, blinding light. I barely register the sensation as the ground rushes to meet my body, only noticing I have fallen when I try to rush forward. The sound of gunfire, at first so loud that the sound seemed to hold a weight of its own, is now distant and restrained, nearly hidden behind an incessant buzzing. I shake my head, but it does nothing to clear the underlying tone that seems to permeate my very existence. I roll onto my back, and stare transfixed at the flashing lights of the gun muzzles, signaling to each other, vibrating to the sound of white noise.
Beneath the near impenetrable buzzing, I register the sound of crumpling metal, and watch, transfixed, as one of the geth platforms collapses to the Earth, bowing gracefully its farewell. A sharp intake of breath distinguishes itself just above my prone form, as one of the men attempts to mirror the tragically beautiful descent. His own death is unpracticed, not gaining the benefit of experience of that of his brothers and comrades. His figure slumps grotesquely to the ground. Warm blood splashes across my face, and I blink rapidly as the fluid stings my eyes.
The contact shatters the surreal scene that has fallen about me, my mind finally absorbing the meaning of the situation. A burst of adrenaline overwhelms my senses, silencing the fear instantaneously upon its arrival. The world crawls by as I scan down my body, searching for an injury that I never find. My sigh of relief sends resounding echoes reverberating inside my head, the volume replacing the distant, monotonous thrumming of the outside world. I place a hand against the side of my head, and as I pull away, I see blood on the fingertips.
My thoughts are quickly ripped away from the sanguine liquid that glistens in the rapidly fading half-light as I see a second figure drop morosely to the surface. As his eyes slowly seal, the long grass sways comfortingly against his cheek. I struggle to tear my gaze away from the scene, but there is something hypnotic in the serenely horrific image. Slowly, the hint of a melancholy smile inches its way across his face, free at last from the horror.
I jerk my hand before my face, shuddering at the images imprinted on my mind. They lay atop one other, permanently etched upon my memory. The man's severed legs still stain the ground, even as I try to hide it behind my palm.
"What in fuck's name are you doing?" a voice hisses in my ear. Kowalski has dropped beside me, inching his way along the valley. The tall grass hides his prostrate figure.
I open my mouth to respond, but he cuts me off with a wave of his hand and that same harsh whisper. "You know what? We can work that out later. For now, you come with me, help me out here. And after I'm done talking, we both shut the fuck up; keep these motherfuckers' attention off us."
"What exactly is it that you're proposing?" I ask.
"What the fuck I just say? Come on, stay low." He begins to snake through the grass, propelling his body forward slowly with his hands. As I follow, it takes a moment to register that sound has returned to the world in full, bullets exploding from the barrels of guns with painful force. Metal grates resoundingly against metal, and there is an agonizing cry as it tears through flesh. I stare resolutely at the slinking form just before me, praying that if I am only intent enough, the surrounding horror may vanish.
"Hey, what's going on here?" Graham Corey asks suddenly, his voice materializing beside my prone body. I move my hand from my face to look; the man crouches in the grass beside where I lay on my stomach, my head tucked beneath one arm. Blood trickles from a gash near his temple, intermingling with the beads of sweat that have begun to form.
"Careful," I whisper in response, gladly accepting any opportunity to avert my attention from the dropping bodies, from my own imminent death that hangs above my head like the sword of Damocles. "This bastard might eat your soul if you don't shut absolutely the hell up. Of course, he wouldn't phrase it so eloquently."
"Of course not," Corey responds dryly.
"Hey, fuckhead, quit dicking around and follow me," drifts Kowalski's voice.
With a quick wink in my direction, Corey shifts his position to respond. "Son, I am your superior officer, and you will address me as such!"
"My apologies, Lieutenant," Kowalski drawls, turning fully to look back over his shoulder, "but I've been here one hell of a lot longer than you. Eight Goddamn years I've been in the rotation, six of them on this damn piece of shit rock. If I haven't earned the right to move up in the food chain, at least give me the leisure of bitching about it."
"I'm fairly certain they've glossed over your surely glamorous file primarily out of concern that you're an incompetent asshole," Corey shoots back sarcastically, flashing the slightest hint of a smile at his own words. "Damn, I needed this conversation," he continues, looking over his shoulder at the line of soldiers still exchanging lead with the machines. "I'm a god damn officer, and I can't even watch people die."
"Nice to know one of us here is so fucking Zen," Kowalski shouts back, not hearing Corey's final statement. The man has disappeared further ahead than ever as he continues to slink on his stomach amidst the grass.
"Have to keep a clear head, son. If you lose it now, were in Christ's name would we be? Call me insensitive, but I'd prefer to stay out of a damn mass grave for the time being, because make no mistake; that's where this is heading."
"Son, now? Position's going to your head again, Lieutenant. Last time I checked, I'm a bit ahead of you on the nova front. Eight years, remember?"
A bullet whizzes past my ear, splashing my face with the slightest traces of warm blood. Corey winces, and puts a hand to his head, slowly. They come away damp. "God damn bastards clipped me again," he mutters to himself, looking up at me before continuing. "I swear to God, by the time this over, those metal fucks will have my skull well and truly aerated."
"Maybe it'll relieve some of the hot air that's collected up there," comes Kowalski's distant voice once more.
"I think it's time we started following your advice," Corey responds with a sudden firm finality. "Quiet from here on, before they can make good on my prediction."
Corey and I begin to pick our way forward, staying carefully hidden in Kowalski's wake, pressing our bodies flat against the grass already cracked forward from his weight. It sways tall on either side, the strangs whispering amongst themselves, as if relating stories to be hidden from any nearby ears. I pray silently that they deem to continue obscuring our slinking bodies.
Slowly the sounds of gunfire grow distant, the echoes in the hills ringing as loudly in our heads as the sounds fresh from their barrels. The cries surround me, pressing in from all sides. My elbow scrapes through the dirt, turning up small foreign creatures from the damp earth. They scuttle madly in drunken circles, clicking the small pincers together that hang from the tops of their heads in fear or annoyance at their disruption.
A sharp pain rolls down my arm as if in a wave of fire that disappears as quickly as it comes. I slam my fist instinctively against the burning skin, feeling something give beneath my fingertips, as the pain suddenly spreads into my hand. Recoiling in shock, I yank it into view, and glance in mute horror at the claw that pierces the skin, blood seeping from around the ragged entrance. "Shit!" I mutter, voice rising several octaves in pitch.
I feel Corey bump into the bottom of my boots, his eyes widening as he sees me lying still. "God damn it," he hisses, pulling himself forward as quickly as his arms will allow. "Are you alright? What happened?" In response I hold up my hand. There is a moment of stunned silence before his face contorts into a wicked snicker. "Hey, Kowalski, get your ass over here for a second," he forces out, the sound short and sharp.
"Thanks, I could use a bit of free time. Not like I have anything better to do," he responds, turning his body around painstakingly in the grass.
"What the hell are those things?" I whisper, my voice remaining unnaturally high in pitch despite my efforts to suppress the fear.
"Looks like you just had a run in with some local wildlife, son," Corey laughs.
"Are they poisonous?" I ask.
"Very," Kowalski grunts, sidling beside me on his stomach, a look of hopeless sympathy stretching across his face. "If we had any doctors, I could run you there now, but with this situation, I'd give you about ten minutes to live. I'm so sorry. I wish things could have worked out differently." My eyes widen in sudden fear, and I feel my body begin to tense up, shivers running involuntarily down my arms, the poison beginning to take effect.
As I glance up, I see Corey looking at Kowalski, shaking his head while trying to stifle a laugh. "You are an asshole," he forces through the chuckle caught in his throat.
"Wait…it wasn't deadly? I'm going to be okay?" I choke out, trying to force down the panic tightening my chest.
"As a matter of fact, you will. But let this be a lesson to you," Corey adds, "never, and I emphasize this, take a word that this prick ever says seriously."
"Corey, why do you always have to spoil my fucking good time?" Kowalski asks with feigned anger.
"It's because I'm an Officer. We have to keep all you jarhead pricks on the level. Although to be honest, by this point you're more or less a lost cause. I may just have to put a bullet to you myself."
"Yeah, good luck, Sergeant. You might want to hurry up with that shit, because as it stands now, I think the geth may beat you to it."
"Look," Corey says, lowering his voice. "I don't care if I have to resort to necromancy. If you leave this world, I'll be the one conducting your grand exit. And for the record, it's Lieutenant. Slip up again, watch me court martial your ass so hard these geth'll find sympathy for you."
"I hear ya, Sarge."
As he opens his mouth to respond, Corey's words remain unspoken, replaced instead by a sharp intake of breath, fresh blood trickling down his right cheek.
"Fuck!" he shouts to himself. "Got me again."
"At least it's on the other side of your face from the last graze," Kowalski adds. "I've heard the ladies love some good symmetry." His voice no longer has the mocking humor of only moments before, his features slowly turning white.
"That's it," Corey says firmly, his voice gaining a harder edge. "From this point on, shut the Hell up, and for real this time." He turns to me, adding, "Now, you, I know we know jack shit on who you are, beyond what you've told us, and that is fairly sparse information. But you haven't shot us in the back as of this moment, so I'm going to trust you. If I so much as think you're about to turn on us, though, I won't wait for a court trial. I'll execute you here and now. And by the way, if it so pleases you, now might be a good time to start using more of those biotics we saw back near the hangar. We could use a few more of those in the Alliance, especially now. Don't waste your target practice."
"Sure thing, Sergeant," I respond, grinning weakly.
"Huh, you know, maybe this guy ain't so fucking bad after all," Kowalski interjects.
Without a further word, the three of us slink forwards once more. In the sudden silence, the world once again grows oppressive, and I can feel my breaths coming short and shallow. Thoughts begin to whip through my head in an indiscernible frenzy, disappearing before I can process their meanings. As the images continue to force themselves onto me from behind my eyes, one slowly grows apparent. Bloodied knives hang over a table, the fluorescent lighting overhead casting the image into cold, mechanical relief. A man stands in the corner, dusting his hands on a lab coat. His face is gaunt and sallow, all traces of humanity washed away with the shadows by the imposingly artificial illumination. He nods at someone beyond my field of vision and swivels upon his heel, disappearing from view.
I claw at my hand, wishing desperately to vacate this hollow, haunting world and return to the simplicity of flying bullets, and I feel myself jerk back to reality, savoring the sensation of wind sweeping through my hair. As the sun strains to push its rays across the landscape, through the clouds that blanket the atmosphere, I am struck by the beauty of the world itself. As the grass about the three of us shortens, I can see valleys extending far out of sight in gentle waves. So far in the distance that it cannot be said if it was real or mirage, crystal water reflects the weak rays, its surface catching the light. The beams play across its surface as if caught up in an ethereal dance.
My attention is thrust violently back into reality. I feel the ground give way beneath my fingertips. It begins slowly, the dirt shifting at my hand's touch, a strand of grass pulling its root free from the soil, before it collapses completely. My stomach drops as I watch my body fall into the newly opened chasm, and it feels as if the world has dropped away. My leg lands first, and I inhale as a wave of pain tears across the neurons within.
I raise my head slowly, blinking flecks of dirt from my eyes, forcing the new area into focus. Kowalski sits up on the opposite side of the collapsed structure, rubbing the back of his neck. "Son of a bitch," he mutters to no one in particular.
I take in the surroundings; the dirt walls appear to be impacted, shaping to a rounded contour beneath. Despite the natural façade, it seems human.
"Welcome to the tunnels, my friends," Corey grunts, extricating himself from a pile of earth that had fallen on his chest in the fall.
"Wait, where?" I ask, picking myself from the dirt floor, careful to keep pressure off my left leg.
"The tunnels," he says again, and noticing the look of confusion still plastered across my features, continues. "These used to be irrigation ditches when I showed up here for my first tour. Not long after that, there was a huge storm, and some sections caved in. Seeing as the rest was unusable, the colony just decided to fill it in and start from scratch. They wanted to move deeper into the valley anyway, were pushing for it since I first showed up, and that gave them the opportunity."
"And they couldn't have these scars tearing up the land, so they hid them beneath some grass. Which they evidently should have planted thicker, and with more support. God damn morons," Kowalski adds, once more massaging his neck.
Our eyes are pulled up to the sliver of sky that looks down on us through the new skylight above as the sound of a roaring engine roars in reverberating echoes between the rounded walls that stretch above our heads. A small ship skims nearby overhead, my hair whipping to the side from its wake as it passes. Before it disappears from view as quickly as it arrived, I am just able to make out the word Normandy set upon the side of the ship in pronounced white lettering.
"Poor bastards," Corey sighs, shaking his head. "From the direction, I'd guess we got a couple reinforcements coming in. Everyone's getting torn to pieces." For a moment his face is stiffly firm, trying to maintain the composure under pressure he had displayed since the ambush. But in a moment, it crumbles away, just as the dirt that had once lain above this small hollow canyon had moments earlier.
"God damn it!" he shouts, thrashing his fist against the dirt wall repeatedly. Blood forms on his knuckles, staining the dirt as it is shaken loose to the ground. In the midst of the sudden frenzy, Kowalski hurries behind Corey and grabs his arm, ceasing the relentless hammering before yet another inevitable impact.
Corey spins on his heel with a wild look in his eyes, and for the space of a second, I think him about to lash out at Kowalski. However, the animalistic rage quickly drains from his face, leaving him shaking his head in shame. "God damn it," he repeats, exhaustion permeating his words. "I'm sorry," he adds on, casting his eyes everywhere in the small space, save for the man standing at his shoulder. "If anyone of us has a right to be upset right now, it's you."
"I wish I could," Kowalski answers, staring determinedly into the dusty floor. "But my tank's dry. I already lost it once, back before the ambush. And I don't know, I just think reality somehow hit home, you know? I have to keep my shit together, if not for me, than for her. And as much as the jokes helped before we fell into this pit, I think something jarred me here, got my head in the right place. I'm fighting back, and I'm getting her through this alive." With the faintest hint of a sad smile, he adds, "I've been watching after her since she was six. Do you think I'm gonna stop now?"
"If you did, I'd ask who cut off Aaron Kowalski's face and stitched it onto this motherfucker."
"To be fair, it already looks like someone might have," I interject. The two turn to look at me, Corey stifling a chuckle, Kowalski merely shaking his head in disappointment.
"If you're going to take a crack at my good lucks, try writing the punch-line yourself. Works much better on an audience."
"Right," Corey speaks up, once more with a commanding authority, wavering only slightly as he continues. "The rest of the group we were with didn't look prepared to survive a prolonged arms conflict, and the only way to see it through the other end, I would assume, would be to run. There's no going back, everyone's already gone. From this point, I believe we should," he begins before trailing off, biting his lip in sudden uncertainty. He pauses a second to collect himself, exhales towards the thin line of sky above, now obscured by a mournful gray as night draws closer and closer to its onset. The fading day seems to press a sense of urgency upon him, and when he turns his gaze back to us, the words have reformed upon his lips. "We're going back."
I wait a moment to see if anything would follow, but the words hang in place between us. "I thought you said that was off the table?" I question apologetically, instinctively backing up as I speak the words.
"Not to the ambush site," Corey answers. "Before, when Ash told us there was a resistance movement at the base…I say we head up there. We'll do a lot better off if we aren't isolated. Plus, the sooner we get these machines off this planet, the sooner we can find Virginia."
The last words are directed at Kowalski, and I see his shoulder stiffen at the name. "Don't worry," Corey reassures him. "They're focusing on the military. Hard to take a colony when you're being bombarded with more bullets than in a Turian shooting gallery. Virginia will be perfectly fine, wait and see."
"Yeah," Kowalski responds half-heartedly. "I'm sure you're right." He breathes deeply, steeling himself, and gives himself a reassuring nod. "Okay. Let's fuck shit up."
"There's the Aaron I like to hear," Corey smiles, slapping him across the shoulder. "Let's earn our salary."
"There's a salary involved?" I ask innocently.
"Not for you, my friend. You just earn our undying gratitude," Corey shoots back over his shoulder as he begins his progress down the tunnel, searching for a possible exit.
"Let the Sergeant over here talk you up all he wants," Kowalski says from the corner of his mouth. Winking, he adds, "A ten dollar crack whore is still a ten dollar crack whore, no matter how much you compliment her flexibility." He draws the last word out, savoring every syllable.
"You're just jealous that I can pick up ten dollars with every client," I say back.
"When did I show you my account? I make at least 15 a session, average, and that's a conservative estimate. I got a pretty face."
"Yep, you're beautiful," Corey shouts back, already a fair distance ahead. "But let's worry about you two's happy sausage party time, at least until we clear out the geth. Sound like a plan?"
"Just as long as you give your time to Ol' Ten Dollar here. No offense, Lieutenant, but you ain't my type," Kowalski answers.
"Kowalski, I'm sick of your disrespectful attitude. I am your commanding officer, and if I ask, you will take it like a champ."
Before he can receive a response, Corey pulls up short, his face growing serious, inspecting a portion of the rounded wall that encircles us. "Here," he says, spinning to face Kowalski and me.
I glance over the wall, but can't make out any difference from the homogeneity of the many feet of our dirt cell that we have already passed by, save for a few uneven crests reaching their way up the wall. However, my unvoiced question is quickly answered as Corey steps beside the ridges, and begins brushing dirt away. Small clumps fall in haphazard spirals to the ground. Behind them, small pieces of rusted metal begin to make themselves apparent, the white paint that had evidently once covered it yellowed and chipping away. As more of their earthy veil is swept aside, the projections begin to take shape, conforming to a slightly rounded mold, each end wrapping in upon itself.
"I knew the access ladder was here somewhere," Corey mutters to no one in particular. "Right," he adds, turning to address us. "If memory serves, the ladder for this main pipeline was fairly close to where we stationed the base, so it shouldn't be much of a trek. And before we join the mounting resistance, in case something happens, I would just like you to know that it's been an honor. Aaron, you've been a close friend since I first arrived here. I apologize, not very sincerely, but still, that I usurped your perceived position that you would never have received from anyone with even a shred of sanity. And don't worry about a thing. We'll find Virginia, and she'll be perfectly fine. And Tom," he turns, staring at me. "I may not know a damn thing about you, but from what I've seen, I don't believe you had anything to do with the attacks against us. Although I can safely say you have the worst fucking timing I have seen in anyone. But as things stand, if the Alliance continues to question you, I'd put in a good word. I'll see both of you on the other side."
"Lieutenant," Kowalski answers, for the first time giving a proper salute. "Thank you."
I nod my own appreciation, and mimic the salute. Corey returns the gesture, and as he does, I see his eyes narrow. "Let's go introduce some metal to metal, see what happens," he concludes, before rapping his hand around a rung and beginning a quick ascent. I follow his retreating form, feeling the metal cold beneath my fingers, so long forgotten by the civilized world. As I reach the top, I see a pillar of smoke stretching into the sky, choking the landscape with ash as the wind sweeps it across the rolling sea of grass. Similar spots of darkness dot the valleys that sweep outwards from the hill on which we stand. Tall buildings are enshrouded, beacons to signal for help that won't come, that will never see the fires.
Kowalski drags himself onto the grass, pulling himself to his feet. I check the pistol that hangs at my side, pull it out. My inexperience will render it utterly useless in a battle, but I find comfort in its presence, a benevolent guardian. I feel my feet sweep across the landscape, but the sensation is distant, as if they drag through water. What have I gotten myself into? The thought presses down, inescapable. I glance down, try to envision my body laced with bullet holes, spilling my life into the field around me, separate even from the funeral pyre that rages before us. No more ships move from the hangar, the arching ceiling caught in the depths of the inferno.
"Son of a bitch," Corey says, staring in wide-eyed horror at the beautifully horrific panorama laid out before us. The scene seems that of a painting, even the air lying in trepid anticipation. The strange ship continues its intent scrutiny of the scene unfolding beneath it. The air is spotted with ships dwarfed beside the great sentinel. As I watch, one is set alight, it's tail trailing a wake of orange and yellow through the air, a star falling as it mingles with the familiar world. Once familiar, before it was scarred and razed.
My eyes begin to burn as we approach the base, roiling smoke caressing my face with malicious tendrils. Before me, I see Corey pull a small face mask from his belt, align it across his mouth. He turns and motions us to hurry, a flailing arm indicating a door that remains intact. As I run forward, holding my hands across my mouth in a desperate bid to keep out the choking air that circles my head, I feel my foot catch on something, and I pitch forward. I look over my shoulder, stare in mute shock at my boot stuck across the chest of a body, torso riddled with small punctures that still leak the corpse's contents upon the ground beneath it. But my eyes are instead drawn to the head, the eyes clamped tightly shut. A mask, identical to the one Corey wears, and, as a quick glance further down identifies, Kowalski as well, encloses his pained features.
With a whisper of apology, I pull it from his face, luxuriating in the small comfort of a hiss of air as it comes free. Without a second's further hesitation, I clamp it in place, feel the air grow tighter against my face as it seals off the outside world. I pick myself from the dirt and, at long last, enter the building once more.
The uneasy calm of outside dissipates instantly. Sounds reach us before a vision, reverberating gunshots pummeling us from all directions. Instinctively, I crouch low and sprint forward, staring intently at my white knuckles that clench the weapon between my fingers. I only notice my heaving chest as I try to gasp in a breath, the taste of clean air a small comfort amidst the unseen horror. My back presses against a fallen pedestal, and as I turn to take in what little surrounding remain visible, I see two streaks of blood stretch across the tiles, just barely visible beneath a settling black powder. The memory returns in full force, and I once more see the outline of his figure being pulled away, thrashing stumps giving way to hopeless acceptance. His eyes, long since disappeared from the physical world about me, nevertheless renew their intent gaze. They cast spotlights upon my figure, illuminating me alone from the dead world around. I am overcome with the desire to abandon this place, escape the pressing unspoken accusations. My legs carry me away, seemingly of their own accord, my body simply following the lead they provide.
As I hurtle deeper within, the sounds grow louder, more concentrated, and, finally, other figures separate themselves from the surrounding fog. These seem ignorant to my sudden appearance, and I revel in their existence, something real before me to cling onto. As I allow myself to take control once more of my own mind, I register their motions, crouched behind fallen chunks of debris, holding weapons above and firing wildly. Just ahead of them, broken beams of light occasionally pierce through the fog, before disappearing beneath an onslaught of ammunition. I have found the final push. I jump into the fray unnoticed, and, as I duck my head beneath a crumpled, twisted chunk of metal, I see Corey and Kowalski enter onto the scene just behind me.
Kowalski rips a rifle from where it rests on his back, pouring rounds into the distance almost as soon as the muzzle elongates in his grip. I watch the movement, follow the example. I raise my arm, trying to hold the gun clamped within steady, but tremors roll across it, sending the muzzle into a frenzied dance. I pull the trigger once, sending a bullet flying wildly before it ricochets off a nearby pillar and disappears into obscurity.
"Fuck," I whisper to myself, ducking my head back down, steeling myself. When I next peer up, I whip the gun into haze, the weapon sliding along the floor and out of sight. Deep breath. I tense every muscle in my body, feeling needles move up and down my skin. The tingling permeates my being, and a cursory glance downwards reveals a welcome sight. Ripples of blue light roll across my body, growing brighter as they extend. I heave forward, throwing all my weight behind the growing energy as I force it through my fingers. An orb of pulsating light is thrown outward, thundering into the smoke just as one of the geth figures appears. It's body is lifted as it is tossed backward helplessly, it's stiff legs comical as they scramble to find purchase on a ground that no longer maintains contact. It disappears from view, but a sound of grinding metal announces its collision with the floor, friction sending sparks flying into view, hungrily alighting upon any form within reach. I'm unable to suppress the hint of a smile that crawls across my features, savoring the sudden power. I raise my hand, and watch once more as the energy hurtles through the air, unstoppable.
Everything loses its definition as I continue, ignoring the outer world in favor of my own established microcosm, the raw power contained therein. I feel myself vaulting across the barrier before me, but I barely register my own muscles commit to the action. All that matters is this new sensation, the waves of energy hanging just beneath my skin, the disappearing color as one geth, indiscernible from the next, losing the light on their approximation of a head. Their frames crumple like paper, falling limply to the floor.
As I push forward, surrounded on all sides by the piercing sound of gunshots and crunches as bullets meet their mark, the numbers grow less and less, and the thoughtless power begins to recede. I see one last machine drop as a round breaks through its weak shields, and another tearing through its chest. For a fleeting moment, it hangs motionless, as if waiting for a decision, before slowly succumbing to the forces that tug at its form, tugging it earthward. Everyone is still as it falls, watching the descent, before erupting into a cheer as the last light is extinguished as easily as if it had been a candle. Behind it, another door is apparent, the light pouring through the shadowed outline. As it pierces the dim haze, sends it hurtling away, I raise my hand in an attempt to deflect it, the sudden dichotomy of colour burning my eyes.
I feel a hand pat me on the back, and turn to see Graham Corey, looking down at me intently. "Good job there, kid."
"Yeah," Kowalski agrees, appearing behind him. "Nice to see you doing something besides the old classic duck and cover. I could've sworn that's all you were capable of."
"You're just jealous that after my display, my affordable ten dollar moniker is going to be earning me quite a few more customers than your outrageous price tag."
Outside, the aerial battle still rages fiercely, Alliance fighters engaging the geth ships in an interweaving dance, but the sentinel has disappeared from the landscape. Ground resistance in the area has disappeared, ceasing nearly as suddenly as it arrived. Still figures dress the landscape as men sweep the area, looking for fallen comrades, the air punctuated by piercing cries as one is discovered. The sound sends shivers down my spine, and the outer air seems to grow colder.
I glance up to see Kowalski, eyes whipping about furiously, trying to catch onto something that remains infuriatingly absent. He runs his hand through his close cropped hair, trying to pick at strands, but his fingers finding no purchase. In the space of a moment, his eyes grow wide, and he sprints forward. I spin my head to follow his progress, and watch as he sweeps a girl into his arms; she looks little more than fifteen, her small arm curling around his neck, as he pulls her close, whispers soft words into her ear. His fingers pull through her matted, straggly hair, separating the strands where they have tangled together. As he turns, a single tear runs down his cheek, and he quickly wipes it away, glancing around in embarrassment. I avert my gaze, turning as I hear him whisper, "Everything's okay. I'm here. Virginia, I'm here."
As I begin to walk forward once more, I feel something tug at my leg. A young man lies stretched on the grass, forgotten amidst the innumerable dead and dying. Deep gashes are raked across his chest, staining his clothes a shade of glowing crimson.
"Stay with me," he chokes out, eyes pleading.
"Okay," I whisper, crouching down beside the man, placing a hand beneath his head. I feel him lie back against it, and close his eyes, only to pry them open laboriously. His lips move, and at first no sound is discernible, but he perseveres, and finally manages to push the words out.
"Tell me everything will be fine. Tell me I'm going to see Heaven."
The words catch me off guard, and I glance up at sky. How could he wish to see a God who allowed this to happen to him, to mock his future as his dreams, hopes, desires are all snatched away in a single moment? I wish I could share his faith, carry his hope that even at this stage, somehow everything would still right itself. That justice exists in the world.
"Yes," I say softly. "You're going to wake up in Heaven."
He smiles faintly, and once again rests his head back, and sighs. I wait for another intake of breath, but nothing comes, and his figure remains still. I place his head into the sweeping grass that sways across his serene face, the strands whispering their soft good-byes.