Chapter 30: Missing Pieces
A crate flew past his head, forcing Shepard to spin on his heel and grasp it in a biotic field before throwing it back in the direction it had come. It had been a clever ploy, however, as the moment he turned around a second bulky cargo container was hurtling straight toward him. On instinct he threw himself upward in a biotically assisted leap.
Controlling the field that surrounded him, the Spectre threw himself all the way to the ceiling of the cargo bay and shoved off as if he was operating in zero-g, grabbing two of the heavy crates as he dove and managing to send each flying in a wild arc across the open space of the bay. Both came to an abrupt stop in midair a second later, dropping to the deck with a loud clang.
We are the winner, Sings-of-Endings?
Shepard used another small surge of biotic energy to slow his fall and land on both feet, falling into a crouch to absorb the impact. He stood and wiped sweat from his face, nodding at the brood warrior that was positioned opposite of him in the bay. Sings-Twilight's pedipalps swayed back and forth lazily. Crates were strewn around the rachni but none had made it past the hulking rachni's form.
"You got it. Zero to one," he said.
This... game-song is interesting. It is a concept that warriors and queens do not practice.
"Really? How did you learn to use your biotics after you were… well, hatched I guess?"
Memory-song teaches us how to manipulate the fields. Queens and elder warriors drive younger warriors to practice until we can replicate the abilities we see in the memory-song.
"This is more fun, though, eh? They certainly seem interested," the human asked, gesturing towards the support beams above where half a dozen rachni workers appeared to be observing them with rapt attention.
This vessel is a largely new experience for all rachni. The small ones have discovered that as this is not a true hive-ship; they lack sufficient tasks to occupy all of their non-resting hours.
"You mean they're bored?"
We do not comprehend all of the emotional states of the two-legged singers but yes, we believe they sing... 'boredom'-songs? Twilight agreed hesitantly.
"I am sure we can find something for them to do," a familiar accented voice interrupted.
They will cause no mischief, Devotion-Singer, we provide songs of assurance and peace.
Shepard turned his head to give Tali a smile. The slim quarian had her arms crossed as she approached, shaking her head.
"It's alright. I've gotten used to them. Even if your people are a little too close to spiders for my taste the workers have been very useful. EDI says that her internal systems have never been so pristine since the Normandy left drydock," the quarian said and then poked at his bicep. "As for you… a message came through the QEC network. It was high priority but not emergency flagged. You'd know this if you hadn't disabled your omni-tool."
"Sorry; didn't want to get distracted. Trying to get anything past Twilight is impossible even with my full concentration."
She didn't bother to respond, merely giving him a dry look that said she was waiting for an explanation. It was amazing how easy it was to read her mood just from the way she leaned her body or the faint tilt of her head. Shepard smiled inwardly. Practice apparently did make perfect.
"It's a simple game. The starboard side of the cargo bay up to the armory is my side, the port is Twilights. There were a dozen empty cargo containers total. Each one that got past and touched the wall counted as a point for the other guy."
We were victorious.
He heard the faintest sound of amusement from Tali and suppressed his own grin as best he could at the tone of the rachni's statement, all awash in pale blues and greens in his mind's eye. Clearly Twilight was pleased with his success despite typically being the more stoic of the two brood warriors that had accompanied them.
"I see. And this explains why you are covered in sweat and Urz is chained to the leg of the armory bench?"
"Ah… yea, Urz kept trying to catch the crates. He couldn't manage to bite them but then he just started kind of tackling them. As for this?" he asked, wiping away some of the moisture from his face and gave Tali a lopsided grin. "Turns out biotics are damn hard work. Especially when your opponent is a brood warrior."
The engineer rolled her eyes.
"So you say."
He took a step closer, his grin growing more devilish.
"Besides, I seem to recall you saying something about liking me when I was all 'worked up'..."
"I… that is… beside the point!" Tali stammered and quickly crossed her arms over her chest. "You should… get cleaned up and check with EDI about the… the message."
"Guess I could use a shower," he muttered, enjoying his teasing of the flustered quarian.
From the way she bounced slightly on her toes and swayed in place for a moment Shepard knew his little jab had been successful. If there was one thing Tali had come to adore since discovering life outside her suit it was water, specifically showers. There were days when he wondered if he would have to drag her out of the shower in his cabin, but that typically just ended with him joining her under the water. The other reason she had become more than a little fond of them.
After a long pause she finally spoke up, voice tightly controlled.
"You are an evil man, John Shepard. I am going back to work and ignoring you… oh, maybe you should check on Garrus? Kasumi said everything was fine, but he just seemed a little on edge after what happened on that stupid mining station."
"Garrus? Our Garrus? Got shot in the face with a rocket and was walking around the next day Garrus?"
That earned him a glare from Tali with her hands planted on her hips.
"Just do it. The two of you are entirely too alike."
She paused once more and shook her head.
"Have fun doing diagnostics," he quipped.
Tali didn't bother to respond, leaving him standing in the cargo bay as she walked away. From the way she walked it was clear the quarian was doing her best to make sure he didn't leave the engagement entirely unscathed either, stopping just before entering the lift to give him a little sway of her hips and a look that said he was definitely going to pay for his moment of fun later one way or the other. There were worse fates.
Songs of the two-legs are strange. So many violets and reds, but not of anger. Your songs are ever changing from moment to moment!
Twilight's mental voice snapped him out of his daydream and brought him back to reality. The Spectre coughed and rubbed the back of his neck.
"We are… interesting like that. I'm going to go get cleaned up. Thanks for the training, Twilight."
We enjoyed the game-songs. We will teach the game-songs to others in time.
"Glad to hear it."
He had almost made it to the lift himself when Twilight's mental baritone sang into his thoughts once again.
May your mating songs be fruitful, Sings-of-Endings!
Shepard decided the only way to respond to that was to not respond at all, instead simply unlatching Urz's leash from the armory table and giving the big beast a scratch behind his head spines before heading to the elevator. He punched the button to close the doors and silently reminded himself not to flirt in front of rachni, any rachni, ever again.
"You're much more suave when we're about to die," Kasumi teased.
Garrus flexed his mandibles nervously and tried to think of something intelligent to say. He failed.
"You're not having second thoughts are you?" the thief asked.
Her tone was still light and teasing, but he could detect the hint of nervousness behind them in the way that her breathing quickened ever so slightly. They were standing in the pale glow of the gunnery bay's lights as Kasumi idly traced the neckline of his armor. He was once again left searching for words. He wanted to tell her just how wrong she was, how her scent was alluring in this close proximity and how he'd wished he hadn't taken so long to realize what he was feeling.
"Sorry, I'm just… I was never one of 'those' turians," he said at last. "I don't actually know what human women like. Or want. If you were a turian woman I'd be complimenting your fringe or… spirits I'm bad at this. Worst of all, my best friend is human and I don't dare ask him."
She left out a small sigh of what he hoped was relief and gave him an amused look.
"You're trying too hard, Scars. We might not have plates and mandibles, but human women aren't entirely different. Compliments always work no matter the species."
"Well if that's how it works then... your waist is… very supportive. And your fringe… hair looks nice?" he tried, reaching up to brush one of the jet black locks that hid beneath the small woman's hood.
"It's a start," Kasumi laughed. "So now that you've experienced it, what's your opinion on this strange human custom of kissing?"
The turian leaned down, his face now very close to hers.
"I'm starting to like it."
Human lips found his own and all he could think of was that he really was at least getting the hang of this particular custom. His turian instincts wanted him to nip and bite but this had its own advantages, especially in the small pleased sounds that came from Kasumi when he reciprocated and placed his hands on her hips, squeezing.
Everything in the moment was perfect. And then Garrus heard the most terrifying sound in the world.: the sound of the gunnery bay doors sliding open with a hiss. In an instant adrenaline flooded his system and his thoughts scattered as he began mentally kicking himself. He hadn't locked the doors! He had never needed to lock the doors before. Why hadn't he thought of that?
"Shepard!" Kasumi gasped, stepping back. "Um… hi?"
Of course it was Shepard. Who else could it possibly have been to make things anymore awkward? His father? Maybe.
"Boss… you just… I was checking her ah… stealth circuitry. In the hood…" he stammered. "You know, after everything that happened…"
"Right. And then his mandible got caught. In the hood," the thief added, waving her hands about as if she was making a diagram.
"And since she relies on it so much I thought it would be a good idea. To check. So… yea," Garrus concluded lamely.
Shepard chuckled quietly and smiled. It was a warm, happy smile. Mostly. There was definitely a tinge of amusement there. Maybe a little vindictive glee.
"I'm happy for you both," the Spectre said at last. "I was supposed to be coming to check on your because Tali was worried, but it sounds like you've got someone to look out for you."
Stepping forward, Shepard clapped him on the shoulder and gave Kasumi a quick squeeze, whispering something in her ear that even Garrus couldn't quite catch. At least, unlike his human counterparts, Garrus didn't have to worry about blushing. It was a small comfort.
"Thanks, Shepard," he managed to say.
He turned to leave only to pause with his back to them both, opening his omni-tool. A good thirty seconds passed in silence, leaving Garrus staring at the Spectre's back quizzically. Finally Shepard closed his omni-tool and slapped the door controls.
"You're welcome, Garrus," Shepard said over his shoulder.
"What did he say to you?" the turian asked after he'd left.
"Nothing… what was he doing on his omni-tool, though? I couldn't get a good look."
Before he could answer, and make the obvious observation that Shepard very rarely said 'nothing', his own omni-tool made a soft bleat, informing him that he'd received an extranet message. He tapped his inbox with one talon to find a message from Shepard that simply said 'you'll be needing this'. Then he looked at the attachment.
Scales and Skin: Human-Turian Relations, Allergic Reactions, and the Dangers of Chafing by Dr. Mordin Solus
"Shepard!" Garrus yelled.
"So this was your doing, EDI?"
"Affirmative, Shepard. With the loss of Dr. Garneau our only remaining lead on the location and nature of Leviathan is the late Dr. Bryson's daughter, Ann," the AI explained. "She earned her degree in xenobiology three years ago and joined her father's research team after you were taken into Alliance custody."
He frowned at the memory of the wasted months but quickly brushed the thought aside.
"And we can't locate her?"
EDI shook her head, a gesture that was beginning to actually look natural. When she'd first obtained her new body her attempts at copying mannerisms of the crew had seemed stilted and forced, but as time continued to pass it became harder and harder to not think of her just like any other organic member of the Normandy.
"Unfortunately with the data loss sustained during the attack on Dr. Bryson's lab, too much was lost. The only discernible pattern was located by Specialist Traynor: multiple requests for research permits on remote asari worlds."
A harsh beep drew his attention to the airlock, the light flashing from red to green to indicate a seal. He nodded at EDI and the airlock door slid open. Standing on the other side was a tall asari woman clad in burgundy leathers and familiar golden highlights.
"Commander Shepard," Samara said. "It is a great pleasure to see you once more. I had feared when last we parted it might have been for the last time."
He smiled and took a step back, motioning her inside.
"It's good to see you again too, Samara. Come aboard… it sounds like we have a lot to discuss."
"Samara?" a voice came from his left. "You're okay!"
His chief engineer sounded slightly out of breath from the quick jog she must have taken to make it from engineering to the command deck in such a short time. To his surprise Tali quickly ducked past him to give the justicar a hug, one that Samara returned awkwardly but with a smile.
"Hello, child. I had hoped you would still be aboard."
Tali straightened herself up, stepping back and nodding.
"I am vas Normandy. This will always be my home," she said, glancing at Shepard. "Not always an easy home. But home."
"That is all one can ask for," Samara agreed. "I wish this reunion was under better circumstances. When EDI contacted my order I realized that the Goddess had united our paths once again. We have much to speak of."
"We do," Shepard said, and activated his omni-tool. "This is Shepard. I need the ground team assembled in the war room in five."
Quick greetings were exchanged as the others entered, though a little explaining was required regarding EDI's new body and their large rachni ally. In typically pragmatic fashion Samara simply accepted these new facts and moved on. There was something to be said for justicar single-mindedness.
"The reason for my presence is a simple one. I believe I know the location of the woman you seek," Samara began, getting right to the point. "A month ago my government received a request from a human researcher to visit our most restricted worlds. With reluctance we agreed in light of the war and the human government's insistence that this woman's research was crucial to the war efforts."
"Upon examining asari records it appears this individual was Dr. Ann Bryson," EDI explained. "It appears that Dr. Bryson and a small team of researchers were following another lead on Leviathan that led them to asari space."
Garrus rapped his talons on the table in thought.
"What would she hope to find on an asari world? Your people are the oldest space faring race in this cycle… by now I'd think you would have figured out anything that had been left behind."
"I do not know. But the world that Dr. Bryson requested to visit is highly restricted. Two days ago all communication with the monastery on Lesuss ceased. I was sent to discover what had happened and… ensure its sanctity."
"Wait, monastery?" Tali asked. "What kind of monastery would be on a restricted world?"
The thin smile on the justicar's lips didn't reach her eyes.
"Lesuss is home to the Monastery of the Ardat-Yakshi. It is the world where my people's genetic shame is hidden away from the rest of the galaxy. And it is where my two remaining daughters have lived out their entire lives."
"Then we had better not waste any time. Joker-" Shepard began.
"Course already laid in, Commander," the pilot interrupted over the comms. "There's only a single relay between us and asari space. Time on target six hours, seventeen minutes."
"You heard the man. We've got no idea what we're going to find down there. Prepare accordingly," Shepard ordered. "Everyone is on deck for this one. Samara, you're welcome to check the armory for anything you may need. Once a part of the team, always a part of the team."
She inclined her head in a faint nod.
"Thank you, Shepard."
A dozen possibilities for what awaited them on Lesuss flashed through his head and he sighed.
"Don't thank me yet."
Shepard snapped the last seal on his gauntlet and gave his fingers an experimental flex to make sure everything was in order. Beside him Garrus and Tali followed much the same ritual, each clad in the glimmering black of their rachni treated armor. He heard a small sound of amusement behind him and turned to see Samara standing with her hands at her back, smiling at them.
"It would seem your penchant for symbolic armoring has spread to the others," she observed. "I believe you would have made an excellent justicar in another life."
"I don't think he has the chest to pull off your outfit," Kasumi interjected slyly. "But he'd look pretty in the gold."
He merely rolled his eyes and lifted his pistol from the workbench, sliding it home into the holster at his hip.
"I'm not going to complain either way. If I'd had this stuff on Omega I might have ended up with a few less scars," Garrus said.
Joker's voice over the comm interrupted their pre-mission bantering.
"We're in system… and you're not going to like it, Commander."
"What have we got?" he asked.
"I'm showing a Geneva-class cruiser in orbit around the planet's moon. It's not alone. There's also a Reaper in orbit of the planet itself, one of the smaller destroyers. Looks like the cruiser is keeping the moon between it and the destroyer"
"An Alliance ship here too?" Tali suggested.
"No such luck. The readings are all wrong… it's Cerberus," Joker confirmed. "I don't know how the Illusive Man got all these ships, but I know an Alliance ship when I see one."
The situation had gone from bad to worse in only a few sentences. A lone destroyer was, in truth, not much of a threat in space. The Normandy's main guns could cripple the smaller Reaper's with a single direct hit, and without other vessels to support it there was nothing stopping them from approaching in stealth and catching the machine with a sucker punch. Cerberus' presence was the wild card.
"Joker, I want you in close. We're going to have to go in quietly with the shuttle, but if that Reaper looks like it's going in for a landing you're going to have to take it out. Once it gets on the ground we won't be able to use the main guns."
The last of the team had arrived in the form of Twilight and EDI. Unlike the rest, neither wore any sort of protective gear. EDI's synthetic body didn't care about vacuum and Twilight had informed him that brood warriors had long since evolved to function in almost any atmosphere. He motioned for the team to load up.
"Cortez, you're following Samara's lead. She'll get us where we need to go."
"The monastery is the only artificial structure on the planet. If you approach from the southern quadrant the canyons and rock formations will provide cover from visual protection," the asari explained. "It will, however, require skill to navigate."
Cortez nodded and deftly piloted the shuttle out of the hangar bay.
"Don't worry about that, ma'am," he replied. "I'll get you in and out again."
He didn't disappoint. Within minutes they had punched through the atmosphere. The shuttle seemed to sway back and forth like an ancient sailing ship on violent seas while Shepard did his best to focus on Samara.
"What sort of defenses were in place here?"
"Minimal. Those that have expressed the traits of an Ardat-Yakshi are forbidden to leave the monastery, but security is almost entirely automated. A single squad of commandos is stationed here to deter any pirates or other raiders foolish enough to encroach on asari space."
"Even after the war began?" Tali asked.
"This world was considered to have no strategic significance," Samara explained calmly. "The Reapers have only now advanced deep enough into our space for the planet to be close to the front lines, and with no military infrastructure or significant population we had no reason to believe it would come under attack."
"If the Reapers and Cerberus are here at the same time… something changed," Garrus said.
The asari nodded sadly.
"So it would seem."
Another few minutes of stomach churning piloting from Cortez finally got them to their destination.
"On site in ninety seconds!" the pilot yelled over his shoulder. "There's one hell of a mess outside."
"Understood. Samara, you and I will take point. Twilight, you're on rearguard with Garrus. EDI and Tali, I want you both checking every system, log, and signal to see if we can locate Dr. Bryson. From the sound of it this is now a general rescue operation," Shepard rattled off. "Any questions?"
"Me?" Kasumi asked.
"Do what you always do. Be in the right place at the right time."
With no further objections heard he picked up one of the Vindicators from the weapon rack and tucked it into his shoulder, grabbing the overhead rail with one hand. The shuttle touched down a moment later, Spectre and asari leading the way out of the ship.
Lessus' azure sky and pale blue landscape made it look as if it made for the asari. Ahead of them was building made of the same smooth stone. The idyllic image was shattered by the bodies scattered across the small courtyard that led to the monastery entrance. The stark white and black armor of fallen Cerberus troops contrasted sharply with the fewer dead asari they could see. A handful husks and other creations of the Reapers were mixed among the fallen. It appeared as if both forces had arrived all at once.
"Any communications, distress signals, anything?" he asked.
"Nothing, Shepard. There are no active signals of any kind," EDI informed him. "It is… silent."
A shuttle sat to their right on the landing pad. The door stood open. A quick glance within revealed an interior that had been riddled with weapons fire. No bodies were found, but the shuttle would clearly not fly without significant repairs.
"Alliance make," Garrus pointed out. "Bryson's transport?"
"Probably. Doesn't look like they wanted anyone using it," he agreed. "Let's keep moving. If they took the time to disable the shuttle it means they were worried about Bryson escaping."
There was no resistance when they pushed open the wide doors to the monastery. Not modern doors of hydraulics and steel, these were some kind of wood on traditional hinges. Everything looked old even by asari standards. Within, the state of things appeared no better. Just inside they found the body of another asari, this one clearly had been a commando judging from her armor. Impact points dotted the stone walls and supporting pillars.
"They attempted to hold the enemy here," the Justicar observed, nodding at the dozen or so Cerberus soldiers.
"No husks here. Cerberus must have won the initial engagement," Garrus added. "Who would fight this hard to get into a monastery full of potential biotic murderers?"
"Garrus!" Kasumi hissed.
The turian clamped his mandibles tightly against the side of his face.
"There is no need for apology. Your assessment is not incorrect," she replied sadly. "We isolate those that show the potential to be ardat-yakshi because the temptation of asari society is too great. Once an ardat-yakshi experiences the power of their deadly embrace they are lost. My daughters… they are no different."
"They are different. Morinth became a killer, the rest of your daughters didn't," Shepard said.
The justicar inclined her head in his direction, acknowledging even if not necessarily accepting his statement. As they moved further into the expansive building the situation improved little. Computer terminals were shattered, desks and tables overturned while streaks of drying blood dotted the floor in places. The one thing that gave Shepard some small hope was that they'd found few fallen asari.
Tali approached one of the undamaged terminals and after a few moments it flickered gamely to life. While he and the rest of the team secured the immediate area EDI and the engineer focused on retrieving what data they could. A few unintelligible curses told him that the search had gone poorly.
"These systems are so partitioned I can barely gain access to anything else on the system," the quarian complained.
"I am experiencing similar difficulties," EDI agreed. "I have overridden the existing security Vis, but it appears that the majority of the monastery's terminals are physically cut off from any general network. I have detected no active extranet connection."
Shaking her head, Tali gestured at the terminal she'd been using.
"Mostly I'm seeing communication logs. Various asari talking about everything from chores to banned holo-vids that they somehow acquired. The only relevant information I was able to find was a system alert that told everyone to return to their quarters."
"The individuals here are isolated from most modern media for fear that such things will increase their feeling of isolation and stimulate their desire to meld with other beings," Samara explained.
Sings-of-Endings! Something approaches from within the monastery-hive!
The rachni's mental song was full of pale yellows, confusion and worry. Whatever it was the brood warrior hadn't given it a name. Shepard's rifle snapped up to point in the direction that Twilight had indicated, the others quickly following suit.
Out of the sudden silence there was a blood curdling shriek that echoed through the stone halls of the monastery. It was an unnerving sound of unspeakable torment and rage that made every hair on his body stand on end. Around him he could see the rest of his team shift uneasily in place with the exception of EDI's synthetic form.
"What was that?" Kasumi asked, swallowing heavily.
Before he could form a response the doors on the other side of the room were slammed open, knocked clean from the hinges. There was a blur of motion, like a photo taken of an object moving too fast, and then something snapped into focus halfway between the doorway and his team. Another bone rattling scream, this time all the more jarring for its close proximity, filled the room.
The thing was taller than a krogan but grossly proportioned with rail thin limbs and a swollen mid-section. Its head was a wreath of curved blades framing a gaunt face, the mouth appearing to be opened in a permanent scream. There was little question of the monster's origins. The dead gray flesh shot through with pulsing blue cybernetics spoke of the touch of the Reapers. Beside him he heard Samara speak in a shaky whisper.
That was when he made the connection. For all its warped appearance... hands that ended in talons each the length of a combat knife, black pointed teeth exposed by its curled lips, there was a disturbing familiarity to it. It was not a nightmare created only by Reaper imagination. The creature had once been an asari.
The thing seemed to shimmer again and an instant later it had covered half a dozen meters. He shook his head, snapping out of the horrified awe that had held him.
"Take it down!" he barked.
It reached out with razor tipped fingers and began to surge again, but the instant barrage that followed his order sent it staggering backwards. Mass accelerator rounds tore into its thinly stretched skin while a massive blast of biotic energy from Twilight sent it staggering back another step. Ichor pumped from its wounds but it didn't fall. Instead it took another slow step forward.
"Son of a bitch..." Shepard muttered. "Garrus!"
The abomination screamed again but at the peak of its howl the thunderous roar of Garrus' rifle retorted. Its head snapped backwards and the scream stopped, the creature's form shuddering and collapsing in on itself as they watched. Before its body could reach the floor, a tiny vortex of biotic energy had reduced it to dust.
"That… that was an asari," Tali whispered.
"Once, yes," Samara said, her voice uncharacteristically thin. "Shepard, this must be stopped."
"I know. But if there was one of these… asari husks here that means the Reapers found what they came for."
We have heard the songs of thousands of lives, some are twisted and dark, but always there is melody, Twilight hummed in the minds of those nearby, sounding shocked. It had no melody!
"It had no song? Like EDI, a synthetic?" Kasumi suggested. "At least that means it was just a machine now, right?"
The response that came from the rachni was soaked in deep purples and blacks, a feeling of pure horror accompanying it.
No, Whisper-Singer. Cold-singers possess no songs, no melody, no sound. We heard its song. It was a song without color or harmony. It only screamed a single endless note.
Shepard tightened his grip on his rifle and ground his teeth, finally spitting out a single order.
"Then we put them down."
Screams. For countless hours the screams had been going on outside the heavy blast doors that separated the main hall from the rest of the monastery. At first they had been normal enough, expected even. The Reapers had gone about the grim work, harvesting the asari as they cried out for salvation to their goddess.
Kai Leng felt his lips curl into an involuntary sneer, a voice whispering in the back of his head that it only proved the weakness of their species. It told him that if he was practical he would throw the half dozen asari that had made it into the hall with them outside, delay the Reapers a little longer.
The screams, though, had changed as time had gone on. They were no longer the screams of frightened girls. Now they were a chorus of howls that made the stone beneath his feet vibrate faintly. No, if he opened the blast doors even for a moment they would be overrun. He would not give in to such petty desires no matter what he thought of the blue skinned vermin.
"W-We can't stay here…" a voice behind him stammered.
The operative sneered at the woman.
"We cannot leave either, Doctor Bryson," he said, using her title mockingly. "Unless you prefer to be harvested like those mewling creatures outside?"
She shook her head. One of her eyes was heavily swollen and dried blood coated her lower lip. Whenever Leng moved she took an involuntary step away. Not unexpected. He had the information that he needed, but the doctor had put up a good fight trying to keep it. Leng knew quite well that everyone had their limits, though, and it only disgusted him more than Bryson had finally broken only when he began to execute a few of the remaining asari.
"No," she replied quietly, moving back towards the asari huddled in the corner.
An intelligent woman, attractive and accomplished. She could have been an asset to Cerberus if not for her misguided sympathies. Now she was just as useless to him as the asari. Part of him wanted to satisfaction of ending their lives himself, but pragmatism won out again. When the Reapers scratching at the door finally gained entrance their deaths would buy him important seconds.
"Sir, charges have been planted. The detonator has been programmed for a three second deadman's switch. Once activated, it cannot be disarmed without detonation."
He glanced at the centurion that had addressed him. The heavily armored troopers weren't augmented to the same degree as the standard footsoldiers that the Illusive Man had utilized to turn his covert operation into a standing army. Each had been an individual already loyal to Cerberus and thus didn't need quite the same… encouragement as the more green volunteers. Most had even accepted their enhancement eagerly.
"And the yield?" he asked curtly.
"Equivalent yield of two hundred kilograms TNT," the man assured him. "Successful detonation should result in sufficient force to destabilize the monastery assuming the blast does not cause an immediate collapse."
"It will have to suffice. Bind the woman and the aliens to the explosive. We cannot risk survivors," Leng ordered.
They followed orders without question, dragging the asari and Doctor Bryson over to where the metal cylinder sat in the middle of the room. Most of them were simply sniveling like frightened animals, though the last simply moved numbly. Dark blood stained her side where one of the Reaper abominations outside had sank its talons into her in an attempt to drag the asari away.
Outside the screeching quieted suddenly, causing Leng to pause and look at the heavy doors. He motioned for his men to take positions. Half a dozen were all that had survived the Reaper counter attack; he hadn't anticipated such an immediate response. After dispatching the probing forces that had arrived only moments after they had landed they had barely penetrated the monastery's defenses before a much larger and more substantial force of husks had arrived.. At the time he hadn't understood why.
"Orders, sir?" the other remaining centurion asked.
"Hold your ground. We will not allow the Reapers to gain possession of the information here. Is that understood?"
He took a step back and surveyed the room. Twin curved staircases led to the room's only exit. Six men, three asari captives and Bryson. Whatever the Reapers had created outside was clearly dangerous, but if he was correct what was left of his men would buy him approximately four and a half seconds. The husks' fixation on the asari could be counted on for another two seconds. More than enough time engage the explosive and utilize his stealth net to escape.
"You have to take us with you!" one of the asari pleaded.
At his dispassionate glare she continued.
"Please! You can't just leave us behind to those things! We're supposed to be allies… don't abandon us to… those things!"
"Just as your kind left humanity to our fate during the First Contact War?" Leng sneered. "The turians are your attack dogs, everyone knows it. You used them to put down the krogan and you would have done the same humanity if we hadn't shown that we would put up more of a fight."
"I had been here for seventy years when-"
The loud crack echoed through the room when Leng's armored fist connected with the side of the girl's face.
"You couldn't kill us with your pet monsters and so you tried to wrap us in your beaurocracy. Weaken us from within by seducing humans with your filth. Always talking of peace and stability while your kind grew fatter as we struggled for every world."
Leng took a deep breath and leaned down close to where the asari now knelt.
"One day your kind will learn their place."
Any response was lost when a loud hiss of releasing seals made Leng freeze in place. The surprise lasted only a second but by the time he had turned and drawn his pistol the Cerberus operative found himself staring at a completely unexpected sight. A surge of anger caused his blood to immediately boil.
A man stood with a Vindicator assault rifle leveled directly at him, organically curved obsidian armor glistening the bluish light of the monastery. Around him stood a familiar if repulsive sight all with guns drawn. Cerberus' once loyal synthetic, an asari justicar, even one of the freakish rachni monstrosities responsible for his failure on the Citadel. And of course the traitor's ever present shadows: his pet turian and little quarian whore.
"Shepard," he spat.
"Leng. I thought I smelled some kind of filth. I thought it was just the Reapers. I should have known it was too foul just for them. Step away from the women or I put a bullet in you now instead of later."
He gauged his chances. Reapers were dangerous but predictable. He had no illusions about the capabilities of his troops. They'd be dead before the first round had struck Shepard's shields. Moving slowly he took two steps to the side, careful not to look towards the explosive device and its detonator.
"A traitor to his species has the gall to talk about filth? You disgust me…"
"The feeling is mutual. Order your men to drop their weapons."
"Or what? You'll open fire?" Leng laughed without a hint of humor. "A stone room with four lovely captives at the center? I wonder what a few ricochets would do to asari flesh?"
Then there was a scream. Not from outside, but from his left. All attention snapped to the asari that knelt on the floor. It was the wounded one from early, she was clutching her head with her one good hand and screaming in apparent pain.
"Rila?" the justicar said above, sounded surprised, but he didn't have time to wonder.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" Leng barked at the woman.
When she looked up her eyes were completely black.
"They are coming."
Now the howling began. It was the same unnerving tone that had been grating on his sanity in the hours that they had been trapped within the monastery. It was also an excellent distraction.
"One day I will kill you, Shepard," he snarled and then barked at the nearby centurion. "Open fire!"
There was something to be said for blind obedience. As expected three of his men simply dropped where they stood the moment the words left his lips. The remainder at least managed to fire, though one died a split second later as a hooded figure materialized to his left near the asari and pumped a burst of fire directly into one trooper's exposed back. Goto. Yet another traitor.
They had served their purpose, though. Leng activated his stealth net and leapt, clearing the entire distance to the land in a single effort of cybernetically enhanced strength. The operative was forced to dive and roll as a blind swing by Shepard, his damned biotic blade crackling in the air, nearly took his head off despite his invisibility. Keeping his momentum Leng rolled to his feet and took off at a sprint.
He ground his teeth with every step, a few stray rounds zipping past him. Next time he wouldn't be the one running away. But his mission was too important to indulge in his desire to deliver Shepard his much deserved punishment. Next time.
"Leng!" Shepard yelled as he felt the invisible assassin land and run away.
The Spectre snapped off three quick bursts in the direction that Leng was fleeing, but only managed to connect with stone walls. He cursed to himself and lowered his rifle. The screams of the Reapers' new creations were already growing closer.
"Fall back into the room. EDI, Kasumi… check on the asari and Dr. Bryson. Tali, I need these doors closed again!"
As much as he wanted to put Leng in the ground once and for all there were more important problems at hand. He should have realized that the Reapers wouldn't have simply abandoned their pursuit. It had been a trap, nothing more. Get a few more victims all in one place. With luck they could hold out for a short time at least if the gouges in the stone around the door were any indication.
"On it," Tali replied.
"Cover her," he ordered, looking straight at Garrus.
The turian simply nodded, taking up a position near the door.
He jogged down the stairs to find Samara speaking to two of the asari captives. EDI was examining the large metal cylinder they were huddled around. Shepard was terrible at judging ages on most asari, but from the way Samara had reacted he had to assume these were her two daughters. The one that he assumed to be the youngest was speaking rapidly, while the other was still clutching her head.
"Is everyone okay?"
"Shepard, these are my daughters: Falere and Rila. Isala is another member of the monastery, a friend of Falere's. I can only assume that you are Doctor Bryson," Samara said, indicating the human woman.
"I am," she replied with a wince when Kasumi cut away the binders on her wrists.
The look on the woman's face: pained resignation, along with her physical condition only made Shepard regret letting Kai Leng escape even more. Clearly her status as a human hadn't saved her from brutal treatment at Cerberus hands. He could only hope that she was up to what was likely to be a hectic escape.
"Doctor Bryson, I'm Commander Shepard. We're going to get you out of here," he promised. "Are there any other survivors? Other members of your team or other asari?"
Bryson shook her head weakly.
"No… it was only myself and a small team. Only two of us even brought weapons and those were left in the shuttle. Richard… died in the initial attack. Jenna and Tomas were killed when Cerberus came after us."
"We've been stuck in here for hours," Falere interjected, shuddering. "After the first few minutes all we heard… were screams. The commandos tried to stop them, Mother… they tried..."
"We are here now, child. We will end this," Samara said.
"Shepard, we have a problem! I can't re-engage the locking mechanism! My hacking program got us in but the system is too far gone," Tali yelled from above.
He nodded, motioning for them both to cover the entrance. Samara reached out for her youngest daughter as tears began to fall from her eyes. The hand that the justicar extended was intercepted by the frantic grip of her other daughter. Rila looked up at her mother, eyes still black as night and face contorted in pain.
"You cannot stop them, Mother. They are everywhere. They are everything…"
Shepard cut in, taking the asari's arm himself and pulling her away from her mother. Her eyes raised to his helmet and she shrank back. Even through his gauntlet he could feel her violent shivering and while the darkness might have obscured her pupils from view he could still see the way her gaze darted frantically.
"Do you hear them too, Rila?"
"You know?" she whispered.
"I've been hearing them ever since the screaming started," Shepard replied. "Under all that sound, whispers and pleading, telling you what's coming?"
"What is going on here, Shepard?" Samara demanded.
He glanced over his shoulder at the older woman.
"Indoctrination. Maybe it's the wound or maybe it's something else. But I can practically feel it now. Those monsters outside were asari once. What the Reapers can't gain by force they'll seek to gain through manipulation and fear."
"We can't stop them!"
The Spectre turned his attention back to the asari in his grip.
"We can. We have. I have," he argued, reaching up with his free hand to release the seals of his helmet. "You can hear them. They know exactly who I am. What do they say?"
Rila stared at his exposed face, freezing in place like an animal that had been caught in a spotlight. So fixated on him that she didn't even register the hulking form of a rachni moving behind her until one sharp claw touched her shoulder.
Do not listen to the sour-yellow notes, Twilight sang into their minds. Listen to the song within, listen to the songs of your brood-mother. Hear the songs of Sings-of-Endings. Deny the dark-song destroyers!
The asari suddenly went limp and would have fallen if he hadn't caught her. Her eyes fluttered, opening again clear of the jet black that had dominated them before. Tears shimmered at the corners of her eyes.
Her sister quickly moved to support her and Shepard stepped back. Samara seemed torn, her usual stoic justicar demeanor warring with her desire to embrace her children. She settled for resting one hand atop of Rila's forehead and giving a faint smile, but the moment of joy on her daughter's face was quickly washed away by fear.
"You have to go," Rila pleaded. "You have to go now! I felt them in my head… they're… still there. If you don't run they'll take you too."
The omni-tool at his wrist beeped and Shepard pulled his helmet back on, activating his internal comms.
"Boss, we've got maybe a minute before those things are on top of us if the sensors are right. And there are… a whole damn lot of them," Garrus said into his ear. "Like dozens. Maybe a hundred even."
"Understood," he replied and looked to the others. "We've got to get moving. Doctor Bryson, Rila, can you run?"
The wounded sister shook her head violently.
"No! It's too late! You can't stop them… you don't understand! They move faster than any natural being once they see you. I watched them chase down the other girls… no matter how fast we ran. And I can still hear them. In my mind. T-They hate you, Shepard. I can hear them screaming to kill you..."
"We're not the kind of give up," Kasumi said quietly. "We'll try our best to get you all out."
"You'll fail. But there's another way."
Before any of them could work out what she meant Rila reached out and snatched something from the top of the metallic cylinder. Shepard recognized it instantly. A detonator, the kind usually used to detonate explosives that were on a hardwired line to prevent any premature detonation or overriding by an enemy using military omni-tools. All he could do was watch as she pressed the button.
He expected everything to end in a burst of heat and light. A dozen regrets and things left unsaid flashed across his consciousness. But there was only silence as everyone stood completely still. The device gave a loud beep and began to hum. Rila slid out of her sister's grip and slumped down with her back against the device.
"There's an elevator behind the statue to Athame," Rila said, nodding towards the altar at the back of the room. "The…the commandos used it sometimes, we weren't supposed to know. But those of us that have been here the longest would sneak out sometimes."
"What are you doing?" Falere yelled.
"Making sure you get out alive," the other asari replied. "Mother… told me to watch out for you… isn't that right?"
"It is," Samara said, crouching before her daughter. "What have you done, Rila?"
"The human said that the device is on a dead man's switch. Once I release the trigger the bomb will detonate three seconds later. It will bring down the monastery. And all those things with it."
A screech interrupted, this time close. Shepard didn't need to ask just how close as Garrus' rifle responded in kind. He watched as Rila winced again, her eyes becoming clouded. The asari shook her head as if trying to dispel the demons that plagued her.
"Go… go now, before it's too late!" Rila yelled.
"No!" Falere screamed and lunged forward.
Samara was faster, grabbing her around the waist and dragging her towards the statue. Kasumi and EDI already had the elevator activated, motioning Samara and her daughter inside. To her credit there was no hesitation in Samara's movements, only the briefest pause as she looked back at the daughter she was leaving behind.
"Garrus, Tali! Fall back down! Double time!"
"S-Shepard…" Rila muttered.
The asari's eyes were pure black once more, but her voice did not carry the panicked tone that had dominated it previously. Her face was strained and tight, but there was resolve there. A reminder that strength was not the sole domain of soldiers and warriors.
"I'll make sure they get out, Rila. You won't be forgotten."
A strange smile crossed her features at that.
"We have always been the... forgotten of the asari. I don't… aahhh-" the woman paused as another screech caused her to clench her eyes tightly shut. "I don't care what happens… to me. But tell them. Tell them all… that the monsters that they feared… locked away… that we chose to die free, even if we couldn't… live that way."
"I will, Rila."
Rila nodded, the smile remaining on her face.
Screams now rang endlessly through the halls, and he turned to see the first of the creatures enter the room. Dozens followed behind, moving in short bursts before slowing down to an almost methodical pace. With a final nod of thanks to the woman he ran for the elevator. Inside he slammed his fist against the controls. The doors slid shut, and immediately the lift began to rise.
The elevator had just reached the surface when the explosion rocked them all, sending them reeling and grasping the sides of the lift to keep their feet. Overhead lights flickered and sparks shot from the control panel. He dropped his rifle and yanked the doors open manually.
He had just pulled himself out when a second tremor ran through the ground. The sound of screeching metal and a dull roar filled his ears. Marble beneath his feet cracked and heaved as he pushed himself into a run. A wave of dust and debris slammed into his back, knocking him from his feet.
Shepard felt hands grip him under his arms a few seconds later and drag him to his feet.
"Cut it close," Garrus muttered.
"Too close," he agreed.
Falere was standing, looking at the ruins of the monastery. Tears made tracks down her dusty face.
"We left her to die!" she sobbed.
"No. Rila made her choice. She fought against the will of the Reapers and gave her life to save the lives of others. Your life," Samara said, gazing at her daughter. "She reminded me of what is truly important."
"What are you talking about?" he asked, stepping forward.
Samara didn't even turn in his direction.
"The Code is clear. There is no way for an Ardat-Yakshi to live outside of a monastery that no longer exists. To save my only daughter there is only one course of action," she explained serenely, reaching down and drawing her pistol.
"My daughters. You were all so much stronger than I believed. I loved you all."
For the first time since he had met the justicar on Illium he saw Samara truly smile as she met her daughter's eyes. She flicked the safety off the pistol and raised it… pressing the barrel against her own temple.
"No!" he roared, the word leaving his throat without thought.
Just as instinctual was the biotic energy that surged through him. He knew it wouldn't be enough as soon as he did it; Samara was a justicar, one of the most powerful biotics the asari had ever seen. It would be all too simple for her to simply deflect his much less refined abilities, Cerberus implants or no.
Which left him all the more surprised when that didn't happen. The pistol was struck by the bolt of force he had lashed out with, knocked from her hands, and Samara's entire body was wreathed in a biotic glow.
Sorrow-Singer will not end her song!
He gave the rachni a quick nod of acknowledgement.
"No… there's been too much death today, Samara."
"This is the only way. I will not kill my only remaining daughter, Shepard!"
He stalked over to stand before the immobilized justicar, yanking the helmet from his head and throwing it to the side.
"The Code is a set of rules written before some of our species developed tools!" he bellowed. "Morinth was a monster. And you took responsibility for that by becoming a justicar. But your Code is words on a page! It is not an excuse to stop living your life!"
"It is all I have!" she replied vehemently.
"No. You have a daughter. One died because she couldn't control her urges. The other died to save you and her sister! Now you want to make your daughter watch you die as well? Is that the legacy you'll leave behind?"
She strained heavily against the biotic field holding her, but apparently a rachni brood warrior's strength was a match even for an asari matriarch. Finally she slumped against the glowing field.
"I swore an oath to uphold the Code on my life."
"And I swore to always obey orders. To protect the Systems Alliance and its citizens. Since then I've died, allied with a terrorist organization… as a Spectre I've committed acts that would be crimes in any civilized government," he said. "And if I have learned anything it's that there is no law, no Code, no oath that is stronger than the bonds that we forge with the people in our lives."
Samara shook her head.
"An oath to a military is not the same, Shepard. Would you not give your life for those you love? For Tali'Zorah?"
"Without hesitation," he answered.
"I am a justicar. We embody the Code because we do not waver. If instead they told you to commit murder? Genocide? Where is the line, Shepard?"
He stepped very close, meeting Samara's eyes and speaking to the justicar in a harsh whisper.
"How much blood is on both of our hands, Samara? Does your Code make it just? Or does it simply give you an excuse? The truth is there is no line. I will be drowned in that blood if in the end it means that Tali, Garrus… all of them are saved. An oath or a code is a collection of words. I have a purpose. Do you?"
Shepard stepped back and nodded at Twilight. The rachni seemed unsure but released its biotic hold. Samara kept her footing and looked at the pistol in her hand and back at her daughter.
"For the first time in a thousand years there is no monastery of the Ardat-Yakshi… if that is true then it is my duty to ensure the safety of all asari and escort any survivors to a secure location," the justicar said at last.
Falere smiled and nodded.
"I will go wherever you ask me to, Mother. Rila and I… we could have left this place. The security wasn't impossible. We stayed because we made a promise to you."
For the second time since he'd known her Shepard got to see a genuine smile on Samara's face.
"My brave daughters."
Hours later the Normandy was on its way towards the relay. Chakwas had Doctor Bryson confined to sick bay for treatment while Samara had been granted a cabin for herself, Falere, and Isala. To Shepard it felt as if he couldn't wash away the dust of the monastery, even if the suit had kept virtually all of it from his skin.
He knew that he would hear that unearthly scream in his dreams for many nights to come. Twilight's words had only been all the more haunting. He had always thought of the husks they'd killed as little more than technological zombies. The idea that some shred of the individual they had been in life remained trapped within was enough to make him feel ill.
The questions that plagued his mind were distracting enough that he didn't even notice when the shower door opened. It wasn't until he felt soft, three fingered hands wrap around him from behind that he registered Tali's presence, smiling tiredly.
"Are you okay? You've been in here for twenty minutes," she teased gently.
Shepard turned and brushed away some of the silvery hair that was now plastered to Tali's face by the water.
"I don't know if 'okay' is a phrase I'll ever feel comfortable using again," he replied. "I had their voices in my head for so long, but at least I was still me. The thought that there's something worse... every time I think this war has reached the bottom there's a darker place, just another step down."
"It wasn't all for nothing," Tali replied. "Samara lost a daughter, but she could have lost them both."
"I just hope it's enough."
Tali smiled at him, showing pointed canines. It wasn't a joyous smile, but it was warm. It reminded him of just what was at stake, remembering the words that he'd spoken to Samara. When she spoke again it was with a hand running down the side of his face, fingers grazing the stubble that marked his jaw.
"We stopped them. One more victory for the war. That's what's important."
"No…" Shepard said, shaking his head.
He leaned down and kissed the quarian soundly. For a moment he simply lost himself in the warmth, the feeling that he always got when she responded and leaned into him. One long breath of life in all the darkness that seemed to surround them. Finally he pulled back, smiling down at the quarian in his arms.
"This is what's important."
Hello to you all, I know it's been some time. As with all things I try to fit in time to write, usually life disagrees. But I was determined to get something done before the holidays arrived. As always, I hope you enjoyed. I'll hopefully have the chapter up on my website soon and as always feel free to stop by the forums and drop me a line.
Merry Christmas to all. May you receive all the quarians, mass accelerators, and pet fishdogs your heart desires.