Alright, here we go…
There was liquid fire racing through his veins, hot, as if he were injected with molten lava. He gritted his teeth to keep from screaming. Screaming meant weakness, Spartans cannot show weakness. Instead, a muffled groan escaped his locked teeth. The restraints held firm, but the waves of pain were unbearable. He began to squirm, his hands clenching his fists as beads of sweat accumulated on his forehead and dripped onto the table.
He barely registered the slim figure on the table to his left, twitching spastically and letting out shrill screams dripping with pure torment.
Finally, the agony became too much, he roared as he thrashed on the table. The fire was burning hotter and hotter. Tears started to blur his eyesight. Suddenly, a restraint broke and his right arm burst free, lashing out violently. Then, another restraint followed suit and released his other arm.
His higher thinking evaporated as the burning climbed to a new level of excruciation. The only thought that held long enough in his head without being washed away by the pain was to escape the burning. His body jerked and writhed as he forced himself off the table. But it was as if his body no longer responded to his commands.
To his immense relief, the pain slowly, but gradually subsided. It was then he heard the loud, continuous beeping of one of the monitors, sharp and clear. He tried to rise, only succeeded in making his shoulder twitch. With a great amount of willpower, he planted his hands onto the ground and pushed himself upward, his arms trembling from the effort. It was then he noticed his own vitals monitor was still beeping normally, which could only mean…
A frosty chill shot up his spine and eyes widened in horror as he made the connection. The figure lying on the table beside him had grown silent.
"No, no, no…" he whispered to himself.
The words the Chief told him rattled around in his head, "Don't make any friends, because they'll just disappoint you by dying."
His arms gave out and he collapsed onto the cold, hard metal floor of the room. With the last ounces of strength, he gripped the table and dragged himself up. His eyes met a pair of dull, glassy ones. "No, no, no, no…" How could've this happened? "76." He whispered. The pain had subsided into a dull throbbing, but a new aching flared deep within his chest.
He rested a hand on her cheek and remembered all those times when the two spoke eagerly about receiving their augmentations and graduating from the Spartan IV program. Her eyes sparkled with life and brilliance then, but now that was gone, replaced with that blank stare, retaining none of its original vibrancy, the way it will remain forever more.
With two shaky fingers, 77 reached out and closed her eyelids and said his goodbyes. The silence of the room was broken by the sound of choked sobs.
He barely registered the hand resting on his trembling shoulder. Only when he ceased sobbing did a familiar voice speak to him, "Spartan, wake up Spartan…"
77 looked up to see a pair of bright silver orbs staring down at him from behind a visor of violet glass.
The Spartan jerked awake to the sound of someone calling his name, no, screaming his name. He opened his eyes and saw Tali's visor inches from his own. But something burned in her eyes, despair? No, it was fear. Disoriented and only half-awake, 77 groaned and clutched his head as a steady pounding wracked his skull. In an instant, everything came flooding back to him, the mission to investigate the distress signal, the pirates, the Varren, their new guest, and now Tali's eyes hovering above him.
He bolted upright and reached for his knife, his combat instincts kicking him awake. He scanned the cave for enemies, when he found none; he noticed the claw marks on the cave floor where there were none the night before. 'Did I do that?'
"Spartan, are you okay?" Tali regarded him as if he were a rabid Varren.
"Yes," he said hesitantly. "Yes, I'm fine." He repeated, this time sounding more firm.
His gaze then traveled to the Quarian lying still beside the smoldering ashes of the fire. "Has she said anything else yet?"
"No. She still hasn't woken up yet."
The Spartan nodded in acknowledgment. "Keep an eye on her. I'm heading out to find food," he said as he stared out into the diluted light of the morning sun.
Shepard gripped the controls hard as they made their violent descent. He saw the first volley of rockets slam into one of the escape pods nearby, igniting its fuel source and making it erupt into a miniature supernova. The Hammerhead's hull shook violently as it tumbled through the atmosphere, threatening to come apart at the seams.
The Commander struggled to steady their deadly downward plunge to no avail. 'A few more seconds… just a few more seconds.' With each passing moment, the number of pods dwindled as the ground grew closer. Shepard furiously manipulated the controller in an attempt to level out and slow their rapid descent. Miraculously, their freefall did lessen into a controlled plummet, but it was far from enough to make it a soft landing.
"Everybody brace for impact!" The Commander shouted.
The Turian and the Drell clung to the passenger supports for dear life as the ground rushed up to meet them. The entire crew was jerked out of their seats as the Hammerhead violently collided with the earth, leaving behind a great trail of smoldering dirt and rubble.
Shepard grabbed onto his pilot's seat and tried to pull himself up. But as he straightened himself up a wave of nausea hit and forced him back onto his knees. The Commander noted with dismay that his helmet visor had cracked when they hit. Tugging off his damaged headgear, he surveyed the rest of the Hammerhead's cabin. Thane and Garrus were both passed out on the floor, both were alive.
Shepard climbed back into his seat. He breathed a sigh of relief as the holographic display lit up and his controller flashed green as a sign of its activation. Running through a scan of the Hammerhead's functionality, Shepard smiled with satisfaction. The tank's engine and propulsion system were intact. The outer infrastructure took moderate damage from the crash, but it would hold until repairs were absolutely necessary.
Shepard turned around at the sound of his two squad mates stirring. Garrus was rubbing his head as he shook himself awake while Thane was silently checking himself for injuries.
"Judging from the jackhammer going off in my head, I'm guessing we're still alive?" Garrus asked.
"Yeah Garrus, we're all still in one piece." The Commander replied, "Thane?"
"Only minor bruising, but otherwise intact."
"Good." Shepard grasped the controls once more, "Now here comes the hard part." He grabbed his rifle and smashed it against the tank's hatch until it came loose enough for him to pry open.
"Garrus, Thane, you're our eyes and ears on this one. Nobody sets foot back on the ship until we find those two."
77 stalked through the dense forest, his eyes glued to his motion tracker. His senses remained sharp, but his mind was elsewhere. He couldn't help but have those two silver orbs flash through his head every once in a while. 'Why?'
They didn't belong in his waking nightmares. They didn't belong with the faces of the dead he visited almost every night. In fact, they didn't belong in his thoughts at all.
A faint rustling of leaves in the bush ahead of him snapped the Spartan from his thoughts. He sank into a predatory crouch and drew his trusty knife as he slunk towards the noise. Approaching swiftly and relentlessly, he readied his blade as he neared the source of the disturbance.
77 jumped back as a flurry of animals exploded from behind the bushes and flew off into the sky. The Spartan loosened his posture as he let out the breath had been holding.
He took another deep breath, and only then did he note the hint of rotting flesh in the air through his helmet's filters. 'A dead animal? Most likely.' He pressed on, the heavy scent of decay growing thicker with every step. He paused when his gaze rested on the small patch of dried blood resting at his feet and trailing away deep into the forest. 77 knelt down and took a whiff of the dark red stain. There was no mistaking it, this blood had belonged to a human, B positive, and it was only about a few hours old.
As 77 followed the trail of blood, he came to a point where the smell of rot overpowered his filters and made him choke. Before him was a mound of decomposing flesh. Atrophied human limbs, shredded pirate uniforms and civilian clothes were the only thing identifiable in the mess. The limbs struck out at awkward angles from the bodies that looked almost as if they had been melted and then stuck together in a goopy mass.
The Spartan slowly backed away. He'd seen a lot in his years of active duty, but he'd never seen anything like this. He figured he was about three miles out from the camp, whatever animal that did this was probably still close.
Suddenly, the hairs on the back of his neck rose as he felt several pairs of eyes watching him. 77 spun around searching for the source of the anomaly. His heart pounded against his ribcage, something felt off, very, very off.
'You should go warn Tali.'
'Yes,' he thought, 'I have to tell Tali about this.' He began to run, and only when he put some distance between him and the aberration did he realize that the voice in his thoughts was not his own.
As 77 came to the cave entrance, Tali jumped as she reached for her own blade, standing over the frightened Quarian defensively. As soon as she saw that it was him, she fell into a more relaxed stance.
"77, what's going on?"
The Spartan frowned under his helmet, "I don't know." He then told Tali of the mound of eviscerated human bodies, but he kept the voice to himself. The Spartan didn't want her and the Quarian to think he was crazier than they already thought he was.
"And also, the pirate uniforms I found at the Mound were different than the ones on the group we met at our landing." 77 spoke, immersed in thought.
"Wait, did you say there were human bodies?" Tali inquired.
"It could be the work of the Collectors, the ones who've been abducting entire human colonies."
"It makes sense, the classic bait-and-trap trick situated in a largely human-populated system."
"If we're dealing with the Collectors here, then we have to get into contact with Shepard." Tali frowned, "But we have no means of communication."
"There were monsters…"
The two both turned their attention to the Quarian. "There was fire, with falling, lots of falling, yes…" She turned to face them with tears shining in her eyes, "I was the only one when they came for me… I was alone when the monsters came for me…"
"… and there was that voice."
77 suddenly stiffened. So was he not going crazy after all? Was it an effect this planet gives? If so, then how can he and Tali escape it? Does Tali hear the Voice as well? So many questions ran through his head.
"Go on." Tali gently nudged the Quarian's trembling shoulder. "What happened next?"
"Then… then…" She suddenly froze, her eyes wide and unblinking.
"They will come." The Quarian said in an eerily calm voice. Then she began convulsing spastically, screaming something in a language 77 could not understand. The Spartan tried to pin her to the ground, but she was much stronger than she looked. The Quarian shoved 77 away and immediately went for Tali's knife.
She was quick, but Tali was quicker as she kicked the knife from her reach and prepared to wrestle the Quarian. Not expecting her strength, Tali was knocked to the ground as the Quarian screamed and clawed at her from above. 77 grabbed her by the head and ripped her away from Tali. He had to end this now; the threat had to be neutralized.
The Spartan lifted the Quarian into the air and slammed her faceplate into the rock wall.
"No!" Tali cried as there was the sound of shattering glass.
But still the Quarian fought. She managed to squirm out of the Spartans grip and face the two once more. Tali gasped as she saw the person behind the visor. The Quarian's eyes were glowing metallic blue, pulsing wiring and cybernetics were visible, and an insane smile was plastered across the width of her face. A Quarian-turned monster. 'The work of the same group that left the mess outside,' the Spartan deduced.
77 prepared once more as the Quarian charged at him. In one swift movement, the Spartan grabbed her and used her momentum to propel her into the side of the cave. He didn't expect it when she landed with her feet planted firmly against the wall and leapt at him again. Her body slamming against his with the force of a car sent the Spartan toppling down onto the cave floor.
The Quarian's hands then found 77's neck and squeezed. The Spartan saw stars bloom in his vision as he tried to pry her hands from his neck. Tali, in an attempt to put an end to the melee, wrenched the Quarian's head back and jammed her knife down her trachea, eliciting a ear-piercing screech soon dying into a labored gurgle as genetically engineered blood gushed from the wound. 77 took this chance and sent his fist flying into the Quarian's exposed face. There was a loud crack as his blow connected, snapping her neck sideways with enough force to shatter her spinal column.
The Quarian went limp and collapsed against 77's body. With a disgusted grunt, the Spartan shoved the corpse away from him and wiped the blood off of his visor. Tali took a moment for everything to sink in. 'That had been a Quarian once.' She thought somberly, 'Repurposed by the Reapers and made into soldiers and slaves.'
The Spartan stood, "We have to move, the enemy is now likely to know our position." And not a moment too soon he spotted three red dots on his motion tracker converging on their location. "We have to move now." Tali scrambled to her feet and together, they burst from the cave running full tilt deep into the forest, away from the terrible cacophony of battle-shrieks crying out for blood.
As the small group proceeded through the foliage, Thane suddenly stopped and cocked his head, "Commander, I think I heard something."
"I think I heard it too." Garrus said, "And it didn't sound too friendly."
"Alright everyone stay sharp, Thane?"
"It came from that direction," the Drell assassin pointed.
The Commander swore, "There's not enough space for the tank to maneuver." Using the butt of his rifle, he smashed the tank hatch open and climbed out. "Garrus, you've got guard duty. I need you to stay behind and protect the tank, Thane, you're with me. Lead the way."
The Drell nodded and took point as Garrus scanned the trees for movement. The duo slowly made their way deep into the treeline. And not a moment too soon, the Turian spotted two extra silhouettes from the scope of his rifle. "Commander, two unknowns inbound on your 'ten."
Both Shepard and the Assassin spun to face the oncoming enemy barreling down upon them, their trigger fingers already easing back the firing mechanisms.
The sprinting Spartan barely had enough time to register the two new dots that had appeared on his motion tracker directly ahead of them. 'I have no time for a course correction, I have to break through here.' 77 leapt and grabbed hold of a low-hanging branch, launching himself into the air and down onto his enemy.
The figure ahead was quick to respond with a hail of bullets as soon as the Spartan went airborne. But the rounds bounced off his shielding harmlessly as he bore down on the enemy. To his surprise, the slim figure was incredibly agile, rolling out of the way before 77 could successfully pin him to the ground. The moment the figure recovered, a fresh barrage of assault rifle rounds peppered the Spartan's shields once more. 77 made a grab for the enemy's weapon, but instead of grappling like he expected, the figure discarded his rifle and sent a kick to the Spartan's head. 77 barely had enough time to duck, and was soon was met with a string of lightning fast blows, forcing him back into a defensive stance. Whoever he was fighting was precise and coordinated, completely different from the Quarian husks he had been previously fighting who were wild and sporadic.
He dared to glance down at his motion tracker and his eyes widened in further surprise, the three previous hostiles in pursuit were on the radar once more and were rapidly closing in, and not only that, but he had been engaging with friendly units. In the time it took him to register all of this, Thane lunged and landed several successive strikes on the Spartan's solar plexus.
Tali drew her knife and was about to engage the Drell as well, until a loud, but familiar voice broke through the chaos.
"Spartan! Thane! Stand down, both of you!" Shepard bellowed.
Everything stood still. Both the Assassin and the Spartan froze in their tracks and Tali nearly dropped the knife she was wielding. Time itself seemed to freeze as 77 and Thane both focused their unblinking gaze on each other.
Garrus was the first to break the silence, "Sorry to interrupt your nice little reunion, Shepard. But you've got three, no, five more hostiles heading your way fast."
Right as the first Quarian husk broke through the foliage, it was suddenly flung back with a hole the size of a soda can punched through the center of its visor. "Make that four."
The entire team jumped into action as the remaining Quarians threw themselves at them. Shepard gunned one of them down by emptying an entire thermal clip's worth of rounds into the belly of one of them at point blank range. But as soon as he was done firing, the Quarian crawled to its feet once more and charged. Shepard only had time to blink in surprise before he found himself on his back holding off an angry Quarian husk erratically clawing at him, leaving deep gouges in his armor. A large spray of synthetic fluids suddenly spewed from the side of the Quarian's head and Shepard could feel its form go limp. The Commander gave Garrus a glance of appreciation who was smirking behind the scope of a rifle with a smoking barrel.
Tali held her knife steady as she faced off with another Quarian husk, this one looked no older than sixteen. 'So young…'Tali thought as the husk stumbled towards her. Her heart pounded, her hand felt a slight tremor run through its clenched tendons. The husk was so close that Tali could see the milky, empty eyes behind its cloudy visor. She tried to make her body move, but her feet were rooted firmly into the ground, her arms felt as if they were made of stone.
Tali squeezed her eyes shut. "It's just a husk, not a Quarian, just a husk, just a husk, just a husk…" She muttered under her breath over and over again. Yet that did not slow down its approach nor did it work to unfreeze Tali's limbs. She snapped open her eyes again when she heard two successive 'cracks,' the Spartan stood before her, the husk of the young Quarian in his hands with its neck twisted at a horrible angle and a broken bone jutting from the center of its forearm, nearly breaking through its suit.
Tali did all she could from throwing up what little remained of last night's dinner. The Spartan spared a brief glance down to the lifeless corpse in his hands before he tossed it away and settled his gaze on Tali. He saw it clearly written in her eyes: terror, disbelief, but most of all, fear. Exactly how a marine would look at a Spartan IV back in the UNSC.
Tali fell to her knees and her knife clattered to the ground next to her. Even as she closed her eyes, she could see the blank stare of the dead Quarian husk, as well as the one with the shattered visor. Tears leaked from the corners of her eyes, of all species, why was the one targeted her own?
77 only stared listlessly as sobs shuddered through her form. It wasn't long before his attention was redirected to the Commander.
"What the hell happened here? And how the hell did Reapers get their hands on Quarians?" Shepard asked.
"There is no doubt, there are Collectors stationed planetside, however we have not spotted any so far," 77 replied "The distress signal's shutdown has not yet been confirmed. The Quarians may have been lured here just as we were."
"Alright Spartan, we're pulling out. Cerberus reinforcements should clean up the rest of this mess. Garrus, get Tali up on her feet so we can get out of here."
"What about the defense system?"
"EDI should already have that covered."
It looks as though I have died from a horrible, horrible accident and have been revived by the magical wonder of reincarnation with little memory of my apparent death.