14. Cutting to the Chase
Just when you think that you're warm, you're getting colder
Just when you think that you're fine, soon the unspeakable scene will unfoldBirds of Tokyo, The Unspeakable Scene
"Physical installation of the IFF is complete, Shepard. However we must properly integrate it into Normandy's systems. I recommend taking the shuttle to access your next destination."
EDI's statement drew no undue reaction from the CO beyond her ordering Miranda to assemble the team in the shuttle bay. Though I didn't say anything, the presence of technology acquired from the wreckage of a thirty-seven million year old Reaper worried me. Everyone in Cerberus was aware of Reaper indoctrination and if further proof of its insidious nature were needed, we only had to read the reports from the shore party. Fragments of logfiles and the video diary entries of the science personnel stationed on the Reaper painted a horrific image.
Within a period of weeks, simply remaining in close proximity to the wreck broke the minds of the poor souls stationed there. Then there were the husks, the grim physical remains of the staff. Now a piece of that Reaper tech was aboard the ship. 'Just' an identify friend or foe code, enabling the Normandy to pass through the Omega-4 relay unharmed but...Lying in my bunk, unable to sleep, I wondered what it would feel like, falling further and further under Reaper control. Would a person even know something was wrong or just accept it? Shepard's highly-classified debrief following the attack on the Citadel revealed that Saren believed himself and Sovereign to be 'partners' and that, if organics submitted to the Reapers, proved their worth, they would be spared.
Unsurprising that the Alliance and Council would rather suppress the truth, if they chose to believe it at all.
As she walked towards the elevator, I wished Shepard luck. She turned briefly towards me and saluted jauntily, that wry smile on her face, the one that seemed to say 'everything's just fine.' Even as I smiled in reply, I felt a shiver down my spine.
The return to awareness was a gradual thing; I felt as though I was in some deep, lightness abyss, slowly rising to the surface – whether I wanted to or not. I became aware of sounds but they were far away and unimportant. At the same time, a calm, yet insistent voice spoke to me from inside my own subconscious. Something has happened, Kelly. You need to wake up. You need to remember. Instinctively, I shied away from the voice, tried to block it out. I didn't want to face it...whatever it was.
Kelly – Shut up.
You have to – I said shut up.
My nagging subconscious tried a different approach – I never realised how insistent and annoying it could be. When the voice spoke again, it wasn't the usual internal dialogue a person has with oneself. It was Shepard. Open your eyes, soldier! You think this is a joke?
Even as I attempted to formulate a reply, a scream ripped across the veil of numbing blackness, sundering it. The scream carried no words; it was more like all the pain and hurt in the galaxy given voice. The scream rose higher, building to a crescendo before falling abruptly silent. My eyes opened, revealing a sight my forebrain had a hard time comprehending. Immediately before me was a dull orange glass-like structure, a window of some kind. I swallowed; my mouth and throat felt arid and looked around. Some kind of...tube?
Kelly, Shepard again. Try to stay calm.
I pressed the palm of my right hand against the inside surface of the glass and it was cool against my skin. "Hello?" I called out and felt immediately stupid for doing so. I balled my hand into a fist and pounded on the glass, feeling my composure slip with every hit. I took a deep breath, yelled, "Somebody help!" Nothing except the echoes of my own voice, mocking me. Panic set in, a combination of awakening somewhere unknown yet obviously extremely unsafe and growing claustrophobia. The container I stood in possessed the dimensions of a coffin.
Beyond the confines of my cell, I saw pipes and tubes of varying diameters overhead, running the length of the room until they disappeared into the gloom further out.
Of their own accord, my hands continued to pound on the glass, fingers scrabbling for purchase, searching for some hidden seam they could pry open. Even as my hands pounded and scraped, I began to recall the circumstances that had led to this point.
A Collector vessel, the same one responsible for the destruction of the SR-1 warping into real-space above the Normandy.
EDI calmly telling the crew the ship has been boarded and to take up arms.
Joker limping past, face ashen and grim."Shit, shit, shit!" Indeed.
Hadley and Matthews beside me, assault rifles ablaze, attempting to repel the insectile aliens.
Hard, chitinous talons gripping my legs, pulling me into the open elevator shaft. Blood on the cold deck. Mine. Screams. Mine.
I came back to myself seconds later, or perhaps days. I slumped back against the inside of the tube, utterly spent. Perhaps drawn to the commotion I was making, a Collector appeared outside my prison, quartet of glowing yellow eyes peering in. I felt my eyes well up and before the sobs could take me, I slammed myself against the glass, pressed my face against it and eyeballed the thing outside. Channelling Jack, I heard myself say, "Fuck you."
The alien's head cocked to one side as it contemplated me. Then its head exploded. I recoiled, pressing myself back against the tube as outside, the Collector's body fell to its knees as though in prayer before collapsing sideways. Unwilling to see anything more, my eyes squeezed shut, tears coursing down my cheeks.
Even with my eyes shut, I was still aware of my surroundings and registered sounds and movement outside. More Collectors?
"Get them out of there! Move!" Shepard?
Eyes opened as wide as possible, I renewed my assault on the glass. Miranda's familiar dark haired form appeared before me, face twisting in effort as she fought to wrest open the tube. Even as she cracked the glass open, tendons standing out in her neck, I felt an almost-delicate stinging sensation on the back of my neck. A cloud of dark particles engulfed me. No, not now, not like this. I dug my feet in and launched myself at Miranda even as the stinging intensified, blood slicking my neck. My feet caught the lower lip of the tube and I fell forward as the rest of Shepard's team fought to wrench open other tubes.
The senior Cerberus officer wrapped an arm around my shoulders and half-carried me out, laying me gently on the uneven ground. I raised a shaking hand to my face and it came away bloody. As I stared unblinkingly at the palm of my hand, a droplet of blood fell and splashed into my eye. Above me, Miranda turned and shouted, "I need medi-gel!" I let my hand drop to my chest, breath coming in short gasps. My eyelids were so heavy. What would it hurt to close them for a few moments?
My head rocked to one side and I gaped at Miranda in shock. "You slapped me!" I said, feeling oddly offended.
Mordin appeared at her side, clutching packs of medi-gel. His large eyes blinked at me. "Appears you got her out just in time. Damage superficial, will make full recovery." I gasped as he applied the cold gel to my face and neck. The analgesic properties of the medi-gel removed all feelings of pain even before my mind could properly process them. I lay back on the hard ground, staring up at the pipes and tubes lining the ceiling. Once more, Miranda entered my field of vision, this time extending her right hand. I clasped it with both of mine and she pulled me to my feet.
A wave of vertigo swept over me and I stood, eyes closed, head down, struggling to breathe evenly. After a few moments, the feeling receded and I looked around. Besides Miranda still supporting me with one arm as well Mordin and Shepard I saw the rest of the ground team and the Normandy crew. I imagine the shell-shocked expressions on their faces was mirrored in my own. Dr Chakwas stepped forward, "Shepard...You came for us."
"Nobody gets left behind," she replied, voice filtered through her helmet.
The commander placed a hand to her helmet's comm receiver before keying her omni-tool, broadcasting the transmission. Joker. "Commander, we've got enough systems back to make a pick-up but we'll have to land back from your location."
"Systems?" Ken asked, "What's wrong with the ship?"
Jack smirked at the engineer, "What isn't? We had to fly through a fucking junk yard to get here. The ship's pretty banged up." Her face hardened as she added, "Made the sons of bitches pay for it though."
My shoulders slumped. We were safe for now but if the ship couldn't get us back...Shepard apparently possessed greater hopes than I did. "Mordin. I need you to escort the crew back to the Normandy."
The salarian nodded and keyed his omni-tool. "Joker, require landing co-ordinates." After a moment he nodded to himself began hustling the crew away from the immediate area.
I hesitated. "Commander?"
She strode towards me, eyes unblinking behind the visor. "Remember at the start of all this you told me you trust me implicitly?" I nodded. "Go with Mordin. We'll be back in time for tea and biscuits."
I couldn't help but smile at her. "I'll put the kettle on."
"Bollocks," Kenneth breathed as we came upon the SR-2. It was as though some giant had taken to her with a can opener, leaving gaping rents through which the interior was visible. I swallowed hard as I stared at the shimmering kinetic barriers, all that stood between Normandy's internal compartments and hard vacuum. The still-intact parts of the hull appeared to have taken heavy damage. To Mordin, Kenneth asked, "What happened?"
The salarian shrugged as he led our group to the airlock. Over his shoulder he replied, "External damage less severe than it appears. Mostly. Collectors launched attack drones, got inside cargo bay." He paused, "Destroyed them."
"I hope the Commander gives those vermin what for," Rupert muttered darkly as he lined up outside the airlock. The group was too large for us all to enter the ship at once, requiring us to linger outside. "And if they've damaged the plumbing-"
"We're all in deep shit?" Kenneth put in, eliciting nervous laughs from the crew. "Aye, the semi-solid waste has well and truly interfaced with the air recirculators!"
I could have hugged the man; knowingly or not, his 'whistling past the graveyard' humour was lifting all our spirits.
Inside, the ship was in disarray. Everything not secured to the deck or bulkheads – datapads, OSDs and the like – lay scattered across the floor. In the mess, the force of the impact had jarred the refrigerator doors open, spilling supplies. Bananas lay in a puddle of milk. Needing something to keep my mind off what had happened, I set to cleaning the mess, mopping up the spill with a dish cloth. All around me, other crewmen were similarly engaged, each doing their part to put the ship back in order. Part of my mind kept wanting to return to that confined space of death. I closed my eyes as a shudder rocked me.
I looked around as Dr Chakwas lay a gentle hand on my shoulder. "I'm going to need some counselling after this is over," I deadpanned.
Chakwas nodded. "If there's anything I can do, please let me know." I nodded and she left, heading for the medbay.
Ken and Gabby stood to one side, eyeing a long tear in the bulkheads with undisguised fear. "EDI," Gabby began, "How long can you maintain the kinetic barriers?"
After a moment the AI answered, "Providing the mass effect core sustains no damage, I can maintain the barriers indefinitely."
Kenneth and Gabby looked from the torn bulkheads to each other and back. "If anybody wants us, we'll be fretting over the drive core," Kenneth declared as the pair departed.
Perhaps wanting to keep the crew informed of the ground team's progress, Joker kept the squad frequencies open and patched the broadcasts through the Normandy's public address system. From what I could tell, Shepard had led a small squad into the heart of the Collector base, leaving the rest to mount a rear-guard action, hoping to hold the enemy off for as long as possible.
Despite the dire situation, I found myself smiling at Grunt's enthusiastic – and repeated – breaches of comm discipline. "Come on! You want some of this? Yeah, take it!...I AM KROGAN!"
Over the din of gunfire, Jacob barked across the frequency, "Grunt! Shut up and focus, damn it!"
"Sounds like somebody's enjoying himself a little too much," Hadley observed as he passed through the mess, heading back to the CIC. I nodded and did my best to keep myself busy. With Rupert's help, I'd gotten the mess as squared away as possible – damaged bulkheads would require weeks if not months in dock to repair. My mind kept returning to those last few moments in the tube when the swarm of nano-machines had descended upon me and began to render me down into organic paste. If Shepard and Miranda hadn't arrived...another shudder wracked me.
Rupert looked at me, kindness and compassion in his face. "Miz Chambers?"
I rubbed my eyes tiredly; coming down from the adrenaline kick of a near-death experience left me feeling exhausted and irritable. All I wanted to do was sleep but I kept myself going, unwilling to abandon the crew now. "I'm all right," I told him. "Thanks." He nodded and returned to work. I wanted this to be over.
"You blackmailed the Illusive Man?" Miranda gasped when Shepard told her what had transpired between herself and the Cerberus boss. The strain of recent events – the destruction of the Collector base and openly defying the Illusive Man – was visible in Miranda's face; dark rings circled bloodshot eyes and her sweat-dampened hair was matted with alien grime from the base.
Shepard too looked more than a little worse for wear but found the energy to crack a wry smile. "Blackmail is such an ugly word, Miranda. I merely pointed out to the Illusive Man that, if certain classified files in my possession were made public, God forbid, it could make his position extremely uncomfortable."
Miranda's lips twitched in a tired smile. "So in other words, you blackmailed him."
Shepard nodded. "I blackmailed him."
The former Cerberus officer leaned against the mess table and sighed. "He won't let this slide, Shepard. He'll come after you." She paused a moment and when she spoke again, her tone was introspective. "He'll come after all of us."
"He's welcome to try, Miranda but you and I both know the Reapers are a far greater threat than the machinations of one man. For now, he needs us to carry the fight to the Reapers and we need him to provide intel and funding." Shepard sat at the table and tapped her fingertips together. "Once we've dealt with the Reapers, the Illusive Man is welcome to take his place in line along with all the other people I've managed to piss off since I've been back."
I resisted a near-overwhelming urge to rest my head on my arms and sleep sitting at the mess table; instead I forced myself to my feet and voiced the question on everybody's lips since we returned to the Terminus Systems. "What do we do now?"
Maintaining the finger-tapping Shepard outlined her ideas. "We fix the ship and we're painting over the Cerberus logos. Objections, Miranda?" Miranda shook her head. Shepard went on, "The Alliance and Council still maintain I'm working with terrorists so we can't go to them. Technically, we're still on speaking terms with the Illusive Man but I'd rather avoid any more contact with Cerberus than is absolutely necessary. That said, our only viable option is Omega."
"Wonderful," Miranda drawled tiredly.
Shepard smirked in reply. "Isn't it just? I'm sure a busy pirate queen like Aria has any number of odd jobs she wants taken care of in exchange for access to repair facilities. After that?" Shepard shrugged. "Haven't thought that far ahead."
I straightened my posture and saluted the Hero of the Citadel. "I'm with you, Commander. No matter what."
I'll always been with you.
Final words: I was considering an epilogue of some kind but nothing was really coming together so until and unless something does, this is the end. Big thanks go out to all those who've read and reviewed and endured the misspellings that fell through the cracks...heh, through the cracks. :)
Writing this (the actual story not this) has been some of the best fun I've had with the Mass Effect universe and I thank you all for coming along for the ride. Coming attractions...something inspired by Dragon Age II. Just as soon as the Type 2 error is sorted out.