A/N: Originally posted as it's own chapter, but someone informed me that was a no-no...so...
In the insurance industry, this is open-enrollment season, where people have to get their coverage for the year finalized. That means from now until New Years will be utterly crazy. I'm not sure how much updating will get done between here and there, aside from the next STG Investigative Report which will come out Christmas Eve as a present to my readers.
There will probably be one update to the Cerberus Files: Humanity and maybe one to the Cerberus Files : Aliens for the Turian intro. Not sure yet. OSABC will probably not see an update until after Christmas.
So, since I'm wasting an entire chapter on an author's note, I'd like to take time to give thanks to the people who gave me the inspiration to write this much. Without them I would have stopped writing this train-wreck a long time ago. All have encouraged me to continue this effort through messages, PM's, and ideas. Especially after the loss of my job and my mother's illness, as well as certain people who dislike AU's, your words were very important to me.
I appreciate EACH and EVERY review I get, so please, if your name isn't on this list don't be offended, it just means I haven't used an idea you've given me.
Above all else, my personal heroes:
Jay8008 ,who says I inspired him to write, good god
Setrus, the Maestro of settings, and who changed my opinion on Tali
Melaradark, which started me thinking about a 'dark' Shepard in the first place.
Progman (should get a co-authors credit at this point)
Michael1110 (without which neither this story nor the documentation would have been finished)
SherryE (One of my oldest fans. Totally getting a cameo somewhere)
nimiraj12 and Sollus (The official fan-girls of the Premiseverse. I accept no others!)
Hewhoislost (You simply MUST read Two to Tango)
S058 (who left much encouragement)
NarwhalWarlord (Still not on your favorite author's list , I see :/ )
Yoholic (is Admiral Yonis Chu!)
AlexN7 (says the nicest things!)
NonSolus (always interesting questions)
rjohanek (Army lifer, mad respect)
Shigan (reviews are always insightful :D)
Octoberskys (Navy for LIFE)
KeithFraser (If you go in for Code Geass, btw, an EXCELLENT author)
Druzhnik (Very interesting works)
And of course,my muses, Owelpost, Wordrkrush, and Bebus.
As for OSABC...
There will be two or three chapters prior to Ilos, then Ilos takes up at least two. The fight at the Citadel is likely to be five or six chapters long, the aftermath two or three. Then there is the post-story and Bring Down the Sky (which is utterly changed), culminating in an epilogue.
If all goes well, OSABC II: Downfell (may change that title, ideas are welcome) should see revision outlining completed by late January and the prologue chapters as early as February. Estimated length is 140 plus chapters clocking in at around around 800,000 words.
The Cerberus Files will be worked on as I get research done (I'm about a quarter of the way through the turian research. Studying birds, Roman military stances, stoicism, Romanian and Balinese history, postmodern super-flat art, and the effects of cosmic radiation on amino acid chains...it may be a while).
The next two works will come out around May/June 2014. I will also (finally) update the Reaper doc (Fear Unrelenting, Seen Darkly) after ME 1 is complete.
Commissar Jiong was beginning to wish he'd taken Commissar-Colonel Kayne's advice about not sticking one's head into the line of fire in search of glory.
Like all Commissars, he'd been adjusted to be superior to the marines and naval personnel he oversaw. Gene mods, implanted armor, augmented senses, metal-laced bones, and cyberware was only part of it. He had a gray-box in his head full of tactical and combat data, nineteen years of compressed military training hyper-hypnotically implanted in his thoughts, and chemical adjustment to remove fear and doubt from his mind.
It seemed he would need all of those advantages to get out of this hellscape alive.
The battle had already gotten off to a bad start when their MAKO was blown right off its wheels and into pieces, leaving one Marine dead and the rest banged up. If not for Telanya's biotic lift at the last moment, the cockpit might have crushed Williams just as it had Anders. As they piled out of the smoking wreck, they came under immediate geth attack.
Under heavy fire, the marines hesitated, and Jiong roared encouragement as he lead the charge. His Commissariat battle armor and sub-dermal plating had let him shrug off the several hits he took, and his enraged swing of his neural mace into the head of one of the geth had sent the machine flying back.
Tali's Reegar shotgun was very effective against them, their metallic bodies acting like a natural lightning rod, letting her fry them with a single blast. Wrex had waded right in, firing his shotgun in wild abandon and backhanding a geth with a crushing blow to the head that knocked the eye-lamp out of its socket and send it whirling in dizzy patterns.
Wrex laughed and blew it apart with another shotgun blast.
The fight that had followed was short, ugly, and ended with Williams and three of her marines wounded, Wrex with ugly arm and shoulder wounds, and Tali with a long burn from a geth flamethrower, luckily on her new cyberleg.
Williams had led her team off, leaving him with the tiny quarian and the giant krogan., but as Jiong and his team began moving towards their own target, they found what was left of the other STG team that had led the assault. Two of them lay torn and dead, the third had climbed atop some rubble and was firing desperately at one of the krogan-rachi creatures.
Wrex was enraged by the corruption of the krogan he saw attacking the salarians, and Jiong was about to go to the salarians' aid, when a roar brought his attention around to the charging krogan-rachni monstrosities that had just brutalized the other salarian STG soldier. The lead brute tossed aside the half-chewed and ruined corpse of the unfortunate salarian, slinging it to the ground where the body came apart in a mess of green ichor and bent, twisted armor plates. With a roar it charged Jiong's team, along with a second one.
The second immediately ran headlong into Wrex, who roared out his own challenge as he met it with multiple shotgun blasts. The first two did nothing but crack the armor plates bolted to the gruesome creature, the third blew a crater the size of a soccer ball into the things chest and drew a louder roar.
Jiong lost track of it as he dodged a heavy blow from a fist the size of his head. Again he lashed out with the neural mace, at it's highest setting, but even his augmented strength did little but inflict a glancing blow against the thick armor. Jiong used his biotics to leap back as the krogan hammer punched downwards, it's meaty fist connecting with the ground hard enough to send a spiderweb of cracks across the concrete.
Tali emptied her Reegar into the kneeling brute, electroplasma wreathing it in licking, crackling energies, but it barreled through them. Tentacles flipped and waved, as a heavy beam of energy lashed out, scoring a line across the surface of Tali's armored envirosuit. She hissed and sidestepped, but the krogan-rachni closed the distance as she did so.
Cursing, he threw his neural mace at the thing with the hardest biotic throw he could muster. It landed with a satisfying crack against the thing's knee, the head of the mace detonating with the force, electrical discharges coruscating over the monster. Blackened and scorched by the electroplasma blast of the Reegar, it lashed out with two tentacles at Jiong.
His hands had already gone for his flamethrower though, and it spat hot white phosphorous and enflamed slurry into the air, spilling and igniting in a hellish cone of blue-hot fire. The abomination screamed as it's appendages melted, but the scream turned to an enraged roar, and to Jiong's disbelief it walked through the fire towards him.
He triggered the level two ignition, glowing aluminum particles venting into the mix, but even as the armor plates on the thing melted and ran like wax, it yelled and struck out with a flaming fist. Jiong's dodge was not quick enough this time, and he was sent flying, flames scattering and dissipating as his weapon fell from his hands.
He landed heavily, and the burning nightmare was charging him at top speed. With a stammered curse, he flung out a shockwave, staggering and slowing it. It staggered on, agony entering the noise of it's continued yelling, and he lashed out again with his biotics, using a push to try and force the thing back.
Incredibly, after several seconds, it began advancing again. Jiong's arms shook as he strained himself, anchoring his mass to the ground and throwing everything he had into the field of energy, trying to hold it back. It's baleful, multifaceted eyes glowed and collapsed from the fire raging over its surface, and he noticed with faint shock that it's mouth was full of long, needle like teeth rather than the flat grinding teeth of a normal krogan.
A yell and an explosion rocked the beast, it's leg collapsing as Tali launched omni-grenades from her omnitool, each one small but packing a large punch. The second and third landed on it's back, and it finally fell, still groaning and yelling. Jiong used the last of his biotic energy to lift up a large piece of pavement and hammer it into the thing's head, splattering it.
He exhaled shakily, and looked up to see Wrex duck a clawing tentacle before tearing it out of the creature he was fighting. It slammed a clawed hand against his chest, but he merely took the vicious hit, instead dropping his shotgun and grabbing the head of the beast. With a krogan war-cry, he pulled back, and literally tore its head off its hulking shoulders.
It staggered, blood fountaining in all directions in a gory spray of orange, before staggering towards Wrex, the remaining tentacles seeking. With a disgusted noise, Wrex dived out of the way, his hands gathering up his shotgun as he did so. Three booms rang out as he fired, and finally the thing fell, twitching and spasming.
Jiong shuddered, and realized that the one he'd downed was still moving slowly as well. "What does it take to kill them?"
Tali sprayed her shotgun fire over the one Wrex put down, and with a final silent shake, it collapsed. Orange ichor, thick and smoking, began eating into the concrete of the plaza, and Wrex shook his head again. "Disgusting. Only Okeer could have come up with something so mocking and offensive to everything it means to be krogan."
Wrex turned as the last salarian finally manged to shoot its opponent to death. With an exhausted sigh, the salarian dropped to the ground, panting. Jiong stopped to pick up his flamethrower, and then moved over to him. "You okay?"
The salarian took off his helmet, revealing himself as Commander Rentola. "By the Collapse, what are these things? If they got into the wider galaxy they'd slay everything, and they don't even have guns!"
Jiong nodded, glancing about. "They came out of the building we were supposed to check. You should fall back to the group headed to the GTS tower, they might need help. We'll see what we can find and then get the hell out."
Rentola nodded. "Be careful, human. That may not be the last of the things."
Jiong lead Wrex and a limping Tali towards the building, moving from the shallow cover of rubble to the deeper cover of smaller side buildings. Close up, the reinforced walls could be seen to have external bracing, as if containing something within. He noticed as well that the building had turian script over it's doorway. His omnitool translated it as "Hot Lab".
"Wonderful. Get ready you two, I'm going for the door."
Wrex grunted, lifting his shotgun. "What are we looking for, anyway?"
Jiong began hacking the door, applying several runtimes to the lock. "Anything that can tell us what Benezia is up to, her ultimate target, or where this Ilos place is."
Wrex shook his helmeted head. "That's easy...she's gathering an army. She's going to attack somewhere, but she has no vehicles, no siege weapons. All these things we've seen are urban types. She's probably going after the Citadel."
Tali shrugged. "Or some other space station,or perhaps a city, Wrex? We can't afford to guess..."
The big krogan shot her a sidelong look. "You stab one krogan and you think you're some kinda military expert..."
Jiong tuned out their good-natured bickering, even as he considered it's ramifications. From what little he knew about the krogan – Commissariat xenotraining did not cover them heavily – they were brutal, simple warrior types. But this Wrex seemed more nuanced and much, much more clever than most of his kind, and strangely affable, in a warped, mercenary fashion.
Was it due to Shepard? Another question he had no answers to. The reports from the Commissariat observers aboard the Normandy had been … inconsistent. Shepard had nightmares, was cool, efficient, and lethal. She didn't actively encourage teamwork...but everyone wanted to impress her, get that tiny little nod of respect. And though he'd intimated otherwise, despite their loyalty training, not a single one of the observers had reported Shepard's liaison with the asari doctor – that had come from the audio pickups they'd installed to monitor the turian and the asari, and had been an unexpected bonus.
He grimaced and returned his attention to the door. He'd have time to figure out how a bloody-handed sarcastic psycho managed to get such performance out of humans and aliens later. Jiong finished hacking the door leading to the building they were supposed to check out, and standing, kicked the door in.
He really, really hoped Benezia had died in the collapse of the main building's front facing. The Commissariat had no real intel on Saren, but the Justicars – in a sign of the respect between the two groups – had forwarded what they knew of the former Lunarch to the High Commissar, and Jiong had been sent a copy. Benezia was a nightmare opponent, far stronger than Saren, and probably crazy as shit at the moment.
So it was with relief that as doors opened, it wasn't filled with chanting asari. Instead, the room beyond was clearly some kind of lab, much as the sign above the door proclaimed. Huge towering tubes of green liquid ran from floor to ceiling, dozens of them, each one holding deformed krogan, twisted asari, or even bizarrely mutated vorcha. A huge table, twenty by thirty, dominated the room, covered in haptic diagrams of organ systems and displays of the asari brain.
The south wall of the room was segregated into several work spaces, each one facing an open-bay holding cell with force-field walls and an array of experimental and surgical tools hanging from articulated arms in the ceiling. The cells only contained an array of dead salarians and asari.
The far wall of the room was covered in computer banks, and in one corner was a heavyset desk, with a micro-frame built into one side. A shelf with some knickknacks – a potted asari plant, books on genetic engineering, a framed portrait of an a human woman – hung above the area.
From behind the desk, Jiong heard a faint breath. He stopped, eyes narrowing, and drew his flamethrower. "The Perdition flame unit usually throws mere plasma, but the Commissariat prefers a white phosphorous, napalm and powdered aluminum mix. If you don't come out unarmed, you'll find out why."
A gasp of terror was heard, and an asari in a lab coat over a dress stumbled out from behind the desk, her hands empty of weapons and held out. "No! Please! I'm unarmed! I'm not a threat!"
Wrex leveled his shotgun at her. "You're working with Benezia. That makes you a threat and stupid."
Jiong chuckled. "While I certainly agree with you, my large friend, perhaps this person can find a reason to convince me to not learn the melting point of asari flesh."
Wrex glanced aside at the flamethrower. "You even cook my meals for me? Yeah, we're replacing Alenko with you." His helmeted head swung back to face the asari. "Talk, or I'll try medium rare asari."
The woman fell to her knees, eyes wide with horror. "N-no! I'll talk! I'm Rana Thanoptis, of the Lifeshaper clan. I was hired by Binary Helix to work with their bio-sciences division, but they flew me out here and told me to work or they'd kill me! Please, I didn't want to have to do anything, but I had no choice."
Jiong shook his head. "Death is a choice, Ms. Thanoptis. What exactly is being researched here?"
The asari sagged. "How to combat indoctrination, and designing the Destroyers."
Jiong glanced back over his shoulder at the tubes. "I am presuming the Destroyers are the rachni-krogan abominations we've been seeing? Why in the name of God would Saren and Benezia wish to create such things?"
Rana licked her lips nervously. "They were … impossible to indoctrinate. Something about the mixture of krogan and rachni hormones. It started as a way to find a method for reversing indoctrination, or at least resisting it. But they also wanted an army independent of the geth, I think, they mentioned that several times. They figured out how to get around the genophage's blocks on cloning."
Wrex lifted his head. "They cured the genophage? Tell me! How!"
She gestured sadly to the tanks. "Not a cure. A side effect of combining them with rachni. Something about the combined genetics doesn't let the genophage throw off DNA markers when being clones. I don't think it does anything to the childbirth issues...and, well, they aren't … sentient. What is left isn't really krogan or rachni. They implant geth technology into them and slave them to Benezia's will...although she took several of them and implanted them with cyberware from Nazara as well."
Jiong raised his eyebrow. "Nazara, yes. Nazara was mentioned by another asari that served Benezia, but we have no clue who he or she is."
Rana closed her eyes, shuddering. "Not who. What. It is the black dreadnaught. It lives, speaks. It's terrifying. It's voice is like feeling yourself dying slowly...pieces of your mind slipping away. Just being around it makes you start hear voices...see things, think things."
She shook her head, as if to clear it. "Most of my work was...trying to find away to stop indoctrination. I experimented with sonic fields, nanites, chemicals, even greyboxes and blueboxes. Benezia took most of my research earlier today... I've just been waiting for them to leave and hoping they wouldn't kill me like they did the prisoners and Ganar Droyas."
Wrex growled. "Another Ganar. Has Okeer been here as well?"
She shook her head. "N-no. He never comes in person, but he sends krogan as … test subjects, in return for payment and supplies. And Droyas...was killed. The geth came in and executed him, along with the test subjects. They didn't even stop when he screamed for mercy..."
Tali folded her arms. "Is there anything you can tell us that's useful? Where is Benezia? What else is in this building?"
Rana's expression fell. "I .. Benezia has an office in the next room, I can unlock it. It used to be Saren's, I think. It's where they kept some of what they'd learned about indoctrination. She's not there, though. The rest of the building is a sublevel – it's the assembly line for the Destroyers. Once we finalize production we can make tens of thousands of them in a few weeks time..."
Jiong shuddered. The geth they had were bad enough, even a few hundred of these monsters would tear through an entire battalion. "We have to destroy this place, then. It's a good thing we brought a bomb, but I don't know the yield on that, and this place is heavily armored. We'll have to go down there and plant bombs as well."
Rana's eyes widened. "A b-bomb? Blow the place up? I … you have to let me go!"
He shook his head. "Go? Go exactly where? The bomb is eezo laced, it's going to obliterate everything in two hundred miles. We already blew the landing field up. How would you get away?"
Rana bit her lip. "Lady Benezia has a ship, a transport, at the back of the base behind the Tower of Nazara. The landing bay is dug into the hill. There's a passage that runs from here to the Tower's sublevel, leading to it.."
Jiong cursed and hit his omnitool. "Shepard, Jiong here. Benezia has a ship near the main building, she might be making a run for it."
The tool gave no reply, only static, and Jiong cursed again. "Dammit. Get that door open, asari, and we'll see about not putting a round in your head when we leave. Tali, go with her, secure anything you see valuable." He turned to Wrex. "You have explosive charges? Plant a few in this sublevel, I'll be down to help shortly."
Wrex nodded. "What are you going to be doing up here?"
Jiong pulled two short black items from the side of each calf, twisting their tops. A bright red light lit up on each of them. "Taking samples of whatever the hell they were doing. For all we know they've already loaded ships full of these things. Any weaknesses I can find will be useful."
Wrex grunted, motioning the asari ahead, and followed, Tali trailing behind. Jiong approached the nearest tube, running his two-piece scanning array over it, and tapping his omnitool. "Commissariat field log, encoding Capricorn. Possible genophage cure in combination of krogan and rachni traits. Obtaining full DNA scan. Recommend securing research from Noveria in light of this development."
He waited as the the array hummed quietly, the lights turning green after almost two minutes, and he replaced the scanners in their niches in the sides of his calf armor, kneeling to do so. He was about to stand when the tank on the end gave a shudder.
He drew his flamethrower and walked closer, keeping the nozzle trained in that direction. One of the malformed asari was twitching in her tank, and as he watched the status displays went from green to red. The bottom of the tank opened, flooding the floor with foul-smelling greenish-black liquid, and she slid from the tube to land on the floor, hacking and coughing weakly.
Naked, she was similar to most asari, except for a faint tracery of cybernetics under her skin. In places the skin had turned necrotic, black corruption spreading in long lines edged with blue-lit metal. Her eyes had been torn out and replaced with a wide band of metal, and her right arm had erupted in plated, chitinous growths.
Blind, she coughed again, and turned her head to the sky. "I … am free. The voice calls, but my body is his already."
Jiong frowned. "What happened to you?"
She gave a wide, unnerving smile, displaying blackened spike-like teeth. "I was the student of the wheel, yes. I wanted to see as the mystic, to see the Wheel turn, to see the spokes as they cast aside choice, yes. So I touched his mind, as he sat, and I saw, oh … I saw. I saw what comes, shambling in from the dark, dripping slime over your head in the pitch black. I saw the fires, and the death, and the screaming. Asari, salarians, turians, humans, batarians...melting, blending."
Jiong felt a thrill of horror crawl up his spine at her cracked, barely sane voice. "What is coming?"
She turned to face him, spreading her hands. As she turned he saw an insectile leg growing out of her side, and the trickle of black fluids from her nipples. The skin on her right side was discolored and bruised, hints of machinery grinding away under the rippling surface. "I saw a Darkness. It ate light, made gravity turn to water. Time ran backwards, stars melted, planets became as clouds. I saw it eat everything, one little bite at a time...and as it ate us, we kept fighting each other, covering our eyes with our hands."
She coughed again, something thick and ropy dribbling from her mouth. "I have no eyes...and I see you, little man of rules, hiding his fear behind a coat and a hat, praying big brother would stop the rapes and the nightmares that daddy puts into you. I see you, all of you, and I should not see so much of you, so many angles and different parts...all smeared up in a cloud of maybes..."
She spread her hands. "...in one of those maybes, you will grant me absolution by fire."
Jiong set his jaw and pulled the trigger on his flamethrower, engulfing the tortured asari in bright, cleansing flame. She didn't even scream as it hit her, flesh crisping almost instantly, cyberware flaring and snapping in small pops, instead throwing her head back as if in ecstasy.
The corpse slumped smoking to the floor, and Jiong finally killed the stream. "What in God's name..."
Still curiously shaken, he'd not moved five minutes later when Tali, Rana and Wrex found him still standing there, a look of wondering horror on his face. Rana looked at the voided tube and shuddered herself. "Those were the experiments they did on an asari woman who used to be the student of a Wheel Mystic. She … tore out her own eyes after the first set, and Benezia tried blending her with both rachni and Reaper technology..."
Jiong made the sign of the cross over the corpse. "No one should suffer such horror. We can review whatever you found later. I'm leaving some charges behind in the lab, then we're headed out to try and link up with Shepard's team. I can't raise her on my omnitool and that has me worried, and after this I simply wish to leave."
He turned and placed the still warm tip of the flamethrower to Rana's chin. "Cross me even once, asari, and you will join her in death. Otherwise, if you are obedient and don't get us killed, we will simply arrest you and turn you over to the Justicars."
Rana nodded, a tear sliding down her cheek. "Compared to this, that would be a mercy."
Benezia strode through the tunnel, not even noticing the blood slowly seeping from her leg. She had the information she needed, the Device was charged, and it was time to depart. The fact that she wasn't doing it in slow exultation of her soon to come ascension was an irritation, but only a minor one.
Her foes would be all dead or worse in a few days, after all. Her priority was survival, so that she could enjoy her revenge.
Normally, she'd have gone out and destroyed whoever had wrecked her base in such a manner, but the reports she was getting from what was left of her forces on the ground were alarming. She had no idea of how many attackers there were, how'd they located her base so fast, or how long it would be until Nazara arrived. With most of the Triune dead or dying, and the majority of the geth already loaded aboard the strike fleets, staying and fighting over the base would be useless.
She hated having to leave the Destroyers, as they would have come in handy in the days after the Reaper return as insurance, but she'd become less and less worried about the Reapers double-crossing her after tasting their power firsthand. They had no need to. They could obliterate the galaxy, why stoop to lying to a mere mortal speck?
Another explosion racked the tunnel, this one from more south. Beside her, Ylana cringed. "We have to hurry, Matriarch."
Benezia only smiled. "The tide cannot be sped nor slowed, faithful Ylana." She opened the door at the end of the bare concrete corridor with a wave of her hand, the ring on her finger communicating with the cypher-lock. It slid away, revealing the docking bay and the smooth shape of her personal ship, the Crescent Moon's Dance.
"Make sure the ship is in readiness, Ylana. I have to ensure the safety of the Device." She turned away, heading to the charging station in the corner.
The Device, a modified Prothean beacon, glowed a sick, bright red, its interlocking security precautions finally destroyed by Nazara's codes and viral attacks. The thick cables connected to the base of the platform it sat upon were the first thing to go, as she used her biotics to simply tear them away. She removed the braces that held it in place, and finally typed in her security code to have the base unit unlock the actual pylon, which fell to the ground next to her with a hollow clang.
"Fallen. Much like your makers. But you have one, last useful task to perform, little tool."
She was about to move the pylon when her omnitool lit up, and the tired voice of Huntress Ushan, the last of her inner circle, sounded. "Matriarch...we are outmatched. We have slain but a handful of whoever attacks, and too many were killed in the opening minutes of this assault for us to reorganize. We have fallen back to the Gathering Hall. What is your will?"
Benezia paused. "What is the enemy doing?"
Ushan's voice turned hard. "They have occupied the other two GTS sites. One group is coming out of the Tower of Nazara, another group just exited the Hot Lab. The geth remaining are attacking both GTS sites heavily, but I just saw a human frigate touch down near the power stations, so we can assume they are still in enemy control."
Benezia's lips curved. "A human frigate you say. Black and silver? Normandy is the name?"
"...yes, Matriarch. That is the ship. They appear to be … unloading something."
Benezia's eyes narrowed as she thought. For Shepard to have trailed her this quickly either meant the human had information beyond her means, or that they knew roughly where the base was anyway. Had they captured Saren, tortured the location out of him? Was it possible Shepard was in league with the Old One that worried Nazara so much? Or did the human simply have all the blessed luck of a dark-eel in a nest of dartfish?
And unloading something?
Too many questions.
"Fall back towards the docking bay. I am only going to wait five minutes, if you are not here we are leaving. There is no telling what they brought with them, and this may be merely the vanguard of a fleet arriving."
Ushan shouted orders. "Yes, Matriarch. Your will." She clicked off, and Benezia sighed, before turning to the still-glowing Device.
She lifted her arms, exerting the Art, and the Beacon slowly lifted from the ground, held aloft by her power. She carefully began to walk back towards the ship, turning it lengthwise so it would fit into the ship's small cargo bay.
She smiled. Let Shepard run wild. Once she had opened the way to the Conduit, nothing could stop her plans. Not ships, not armies, not the decayed plans of the Matriarchy, and certainly not one stupid little human.
Masterson groaned as he helped Haln up the sloping deck of the cargo-bay, even as off-duty ops alley techs, clad in spare Onyx armor, used a mass effect pallet to haul the large, boxy device the salarians had pulled from their ship-core off of the Normandy and down towards Alenko and Cole.
Piles of dead geth and krogan littered the narrow spaces between the power stations, and more krogan, geth and the occasional asari slumped in death over the rubble of the nearby barracks or against the walls. Alenko was hurt, having been shot in the leg and the shoulder, but he'd patched himself up with medigel. Cole was smoking a fresh cigar, a bloodied medigel bandage stuffed into a splintered puncture of his armor just below the right lung, and blood running from his knee joints. "That's it, nice and easy. You drop that goddamned thing and there won't be shit to wipe up."
Alenko shot him a sour look, glancing around a moment later. The GTS towers had been taken, and had swatted geth gunships out of the sky with ease, the missiles and guns having exceptional power. With the Normandy swooping in, her GARDIAN arrays had suppressed the attackers, with most of them having withdrawn to the building on the east edge of the compound. Joker had put a few missiles into it, but sporadic fire still came from it, answered by the distant booms of sniper rifles from the salarians and Williams' marine team.
The ops techs levered the bomb into place, and Alenko limped over to it. "Think you can cover me while I set this up, Master Chief? Masterson and Haln are done in, and none of these guys is equipped or trained for a firefight."
Cole merely nodded, checking the loads on his Revenant. "Yeah. I'm good." He squatted into cover, even as the sailors hightailed it back onto the Normandy. Alenko exhaled and tapped his omnitool, unfolding a haptic screen and bringing up the dark-energy regulation interface on the bomb unit.
"This is going to be dicey...have to hack my way past all the safety interlocks and then set it in a recursive power loop. Then have it force-intake energy from the tokamaks..." Alenko muttered quietly to himself as he worked, while Cole scanned the horizon.
Shepard's voice crackled on the comm. "Status of the bomb."
Cole answered. "Just starting the set up, ma'am. Had to evac Masterson and Haln, both are touch and go. I'm covering the LT while he works."
Shepard's voice sounded tense and tired. "Hurry. The black ship may be incoming, and Kirrahe isn't sure how much longer we can keep the GTS towers hacked. The geth are landing more units out of range of the GTS turrets, to the north. Be wary of incoming."
Cole nodded to himself. "Evac plan?"
Shepard was silent a long moment. "Hate to do it to you, but you'll have to be next to last. Once we evac the GTS towers, the geth will almost certainly regain control quickly. We'll pick up Vega's unit first, then Kirrahe and any surviving salarians, then you, and pick up Williams' on our way out. We lost a MAKO, and the other MAKO took a hit to the side that has the launch comps scrambled, so having both GTS teams punch up to orbit is a no-go."
Cole swore quietly. "Understood, ma'am. I got this shit. Make sure you get the others clear." He clicked off. "So, no pressure LT, but I'd really appreciate it if you used some of those officer boffin brains and got that thing ticking soonest."
Alenko smirked. "Trust me."
The ops alley was tense. They were taking in telemetry from drones they'd dropped before they'd landed, and the geth lines were moving, spreading. It wasn't towards the planet, thankfully, and given their long distance from the planet they'd take hours on their current course to get within shooting range. Unfortunately, they looked to be lining up to move to the relay.
"Only eleven minutes until our escape window is still 100%, sir." The comm techs voice was almost apologetic, and Pressly grimaced as he nodded, glancing over the plot.
Getting off of this world would be a nightmare. The sheer size of the geth fleet in the system was beyond staggering. Although they'd managed to blow the comms tower and thus cut off any messages, there was only a 47 light minute gap between the planet and the geth fleet, and that gap was becoming narrower and narrower. In eleven more minutes, any signals the geth on the ground had sent for help would hit the geth fleet, and all hell would break loose.
The geth would move in force to the planet, and even the Normandy's stealth system would be of no use against that many sensors at close range. Fighting past them was impossible, and unlike Feros, there were no handy gas giants to give them a speed boost, especially not when climbing out of a gravity well.
Shepard's worry about the black ship also being on the way only ratcheted up the tension and worry. So it was with great relief that Pressly finally heard the magic words. "Normandy, this is Shepard. Begin the movement. I know there's not a lot of time, but try not to light up the atmosphere."
Pressly merely nodded."Yes, ma'am." He clicked off and tapped the inter ship comms. "Helm, bring us around to the west GTS tower so we can pick up Vega's team."
Everything had been going perfect.
Then everything went to hell at once.
Williams had been picking off more incoming geth from the north when the order for the evac to begin had come across. Her team had held out magnificently, and her little group of salarians was almost uninjured. Kirrahe, exhausted and worn, had managed to stagger to their GTS tower with his team, all of them badly wounded but still capable of fighting.
The geth push had been driven back, with almost no losses, when four geth hunters had uncloaked right in their midst. Chief Hallis had no time to even scream as the plasma shotgun in the hunter's hands had blown his entire upper body apart at point blank range.
Florez had turned, his assault cannon barking and tearing apart one geth, but the other three fired. Muse was hit twice, screaming as she came apart under the blasts, and the final geth had shoved it's shotgun in Williams face.
She'd tried to knock it aside with her rifle, but instead only pointed it down. The booming report had coincided with a flash of heat and pain, and she fell, screaming in agony as plasma fire tore through her stomach, runnels of molten armor seeping down her legs.
Marines and salarians had opened up in panicked fire, and dropped two more, but not before the geth had put a blast into Kirrahe's side, sending him to the ground in writhing agony, spurts of green blood seeping fitfully from his thick armor. Telanya had used her biotics to crush the last geth almost vengefully, smashing it repeatedly against the tower's side before dropping it.
Ownby was already over Williams, tearing open packets of medigel and screaming for help. With a shudder, Telanya turned to Kirrahe, seeing his men working over him frantically. She tapped her omnitool. "Command, this is Sergeant Telanya. Captain Kirrahe and Chief Williams are down and dying. They need immediate medical attention, I repeat, immediate medical attention."
She waited breathlessly, until the tired voice of Shepard sounded. "We're picking up Vega's team now, but if we pick you up, the GTS array will fall and we'll have to dodge our way out. We haven't picked up Alenko and Cole yet!"
Before Telanya could respond, Alenko's voice sounded, hard, angry, frightened. "Commander. You have to pick up Williams first. She's dying, ma'am. I still have to set the yield differentials. We need a few more minutes anyway."
Shepard cursed. "That means recrossing the entire base under GTS fire, and we don't have a few minutes. Fuck. FUCK!" Silence.
Then Shepard spoke again. "Telanya, hang on, we're on our way. Cole, you'll... have to hold a bit longer."
Cole's voice was cool, collected, even over the sound of his Revenant firing. "No problem, boss. I'm too pretty to die."
Telanya turned back to Williams, laying on the ground, pale and splashed with her own blood. Swallowing, she lifted her rifle and turned to make sure no more geth were coming. To the south and east, they were clear, but to the north, where Alenko and Cole stood, a line of geth could be seen landing from dropships, firing as they ran.
Flying a ship the size of the Normandy in atmosphere was hard enough. Dodging the occasional GTS missile from ground units, the blasts from geth gunships, and not disrupting the atmosphere enough to be noticed and thus draw down more reinforcements was even harder.
The Normandy's flight surfaces were sluggish, the tropical air and moisture affecting the lift motivators and dragging at the airframe. Worse, none of the ships systems really had time to recover from the long heat saturation they'd endured on the trip in, and icy conditions of Noveria had thrown all kinds of things out of whack they'd had no time to fix.
So when the Normandy took the first GTS missile right to the spine, Joker could only be happy that it had taken the geth that long to hack the first turret back under their control. He fought the stick as the ship bucked in midair, grimacing, and screamed out a curse. "Goddamn it, ECM!"
The ops techs sitting in the ECM row didn't respond, sweat dripping from their faces as they fought with geth targeting systems. Dipping between two wrecked buildings, Joker brought the ship into a three-point hover next to the last GTS tower.
The figures who staggered to the Normandy's ramp looked like they'd been shot to pieces, leaving a trail of red and green that was nearly continuous. Even as he watched, sensor alarms began blaring on his console. "Shit shit shit."
He hammered the Comms control. "Commander! In system drone just showed the black ship came outta nowhere, nine minutes out! Geth are going crazy!"
In the CIC, Shepard bowed her head. With that little time, it would mean having to hope Alenko and Cole were ready the moment they got everyone aboard, that the GTS towers didn't lock them up, and that Nazara couldn't go faster than the insane speed they'd already seen from it back in Eden Prime. "Understood, Flight Lieutenant. I want your fastest speed to them, if we can avoid missile hits."
The console flashed red, and Alenko's shaking hands stilled only for a second as he clenched them. The bomb was nearly ready, but the final step was throwing him, and nothing he tried would make the assembly stabilize the power-flow he needed to detonate the entire thing.
He was about to scream in frustration when he had an epiphany. Instead of flowing the power through the eezo core, he had it tap each of the containment points, and tied that to a field-strength reduction program he had on his omni, originally used in magnetic bottle management for torpedoes. With the right fluctuation, it would start harmonic feedback –
He smiled, and half turned, signaling Cole. "Done, Master Chief."
Cole grunted, shooting down yet another geth, his foot propped up on one of the krogan-rachni monstrosities that had charged them a few minutes ago. "Outstanding, sir. Knew you could do it. Hell, even with goddamned brain cancer you're smarter than me." They'd talked about Kaiden's disorder and a possible cure, the older marine nodding understandingly at the time,but of course Cole would make a joke out of it.
Kaidan winced. "Fuck off, Master Chief." Cole's answering cackle made Alenko smile as he tapped the final instructions."
Nazara examined the chaos, the babble of the geth, the flickering, fleeting impressions he could detect. Benezia's crazed demand for revenge had tipped their hand early, leaving his sensor array exposed, but he had done what he needed with it, and it was superfluous now. He had planned to keep it around for future Harvests – it made a fine monitoring tool, after all – but he couldn't let it fall into the hands of the primitives, as they'd discover far too much about the nature of reality with such a thing.
Giving orders for the geth to open fire on it, he turned to the planet itself, seeking an avatar. Most of the servants that had been laced with Ascension protocol implants were too damaged to revive...but one was not, one of the hybrids. Reaching out, he activated it's sub-controls, and it's eyes reacted, taking in the form of two humans, and what looked to be some form of primitive eezo based bomb, hooked crudely into the tokamak power reactors.
Benezia had the Device and had not yet fled. He could not afford the delays that would come from breaching Ilos without such a thing, and he could not assume the bomb would not kill Benezia and damage the Device. He pushed more of the Power into the ruined hulk, shoving his consciousness into the ravaged body, and triggered the transformation.
The bomb would have to be stopped.
Shepard looked on in horror as they hauled Williams past her into the medical bay. The woman looked as if her entire lower body had been set on fire, and so much red-tinged medigel was seeping from the craterous wound that it was clearly not helping, the substance unable to bind together such a savage wound.
She was about to instruct Joker to move on to pick up Cole when Joker's voice rang out. "Cole's bio-monitors just went dead!"
Cole didn't even have time to react. One moment he had turned to face Alenko, as the marine lieutenant stood, the next second he was flying through the air, the back of his armor shattered and dented from the punch from the krogan-rachni thing that was standing.
"I am assuming direct control".
Kaiden stumbled back in horror. The krogan-rachni stood slowly, and it was glowing a fell, sick red, chunks of flesh sloughing off or cracking wide open as cybernetics erupted from it, deranged thorns of technology splitting bones and flesh and pulsating.
It staggered, the multifaceted eyes coming apart, revealing blank red pits, and its jerky motions smoothed slightly as it approached. Drawing his rifle he emptied it into the thing, aiming for the head, then the knees. The rounds impacted cleanly, tearing through flesh or punching through armor, but reddish wires erupted from the wounds, spiraling around them protectively.
Alenko distantly heard Shepard's voice, but his mind was on survival. He triggered his biotics, throwing the most powerful warp field he could at the thing, watching blue fire rage over its tortured form. The attack burned away it's face and part of it's arm, but that only revealed more seething, moving metal, bubbling and hissing as it converted flesh to more cybernetics.
It lashed out, sharp blades suddenly forming on the hand, metal wires coming together in a razor sharp edge, and he was too slow to dodge, his barrier shattering at the force of the blow as it carved into his right arm. He screamed and fell, watching in unhinged horror as his forearm fell away, cleanly severed.
The thing tilted it's head. "Die".
It lifted the hand-turned blade again, and then it was tackled from the side, staggering back as Cole slapped a grenade on it's back and dived away.
The explosion sent both men tumbling, and the thing roared and spun. Cole slapped his omnitool even as he drew his Carnifex pistol. "Commander, leave. We are dead."
Shepard's voice was like iron. "I'm not leaving my men!"
Alenko gasped for air, bleeding, and staggered to his feet, mind sluggish and slow.
"...Commander...go." He watched in a mix of faint, numb horror and tired resignation as the corrupted, red-shot form of the krogan-rachni brute got slowly to it's feet. One arm was missing, but the other was shifting in shape again, into some sort of long hooked blade. "Please. You can't get clear in time if you try to pick us up."
He smiled. "And I'm blowing the bomb now."
He let his omnitool fall, ignoring Shepard's voice and turned to the panel. "Master Chief...I only .. need a minute."
Cole stood, bleeding freely from his mouth. His entire back was torn, armor ripped and buckled, and he smiled with bloody teeth. "I got it, LT."
He squared himself up, lifting his cyberarm, his one good eye glaring fiercely. "Come on, you alien freak show. One sucker punch in the back is all you got? Bring your fucked up bug-turtle ass on over for round two."
The Normandy shuddered again, alarms blaring.
Shepard closed her eyes in the CIC, gripping the railing so tightly she felt as if her knuckles would tear through her flesh. Her voice was a whisper. "Take us out, Flight Lieutenant. Maximum mark."
Joker's voice was equally quiet. "Aye, ma'am."
The ops plot blipped. "A ship is taking off from the base, ma'am. Asari light cruiser. We have no firing solution, it will not be in range without us overflying the bomb blast radius and entering into GTS range of the turrets..."
Shepard nodded. "Ignore it. She got away. They're dying for nothing."
Another ops tech spoke. "Geth and .. the black ship on an intercept course. We can outrun the geth but the black ship is moving at mark 95...it will catch us in two minutes."
Shepard's face twisted. "Understood. Prepare drone beacons for launch and..." She paused. What good to abandon ship, surrounded by geth and that thing?
The ops tech looked up. "Ma'am?"
Alenko tapped the final control.
"You punk-ass motherfucker, I ca – "
Alenko's remaining fist tightened as a meaty thud landed next to him, the torn open body of Cole coughing up blood. Alenko turned slowly, taking in the image of the krogan thing standing there, holding aloft the gory, torn off cyberlimb of the master chief.
Cole spat blood. "Semper fi, LT..."
His eye closed, a smile gracing his battered features, and Alenko nodded. He glanced up at the thing as it approached, and suddenly he grinned, as the console behind him beeped three times.
"Semper fi, and payback is a bitch." He had time to laugh before the monster tore his head from his body, and the last thing his mind registered as he died was the final beep that meant the bomb cycle was armed and about to go off.
The explosion was titanic. Driven by a contained mass effect field, the eezo explosion fed off the power of the fusion reactors, spinning it around and around in a tiny simulation of a collapsing star. And much like a collapsing star, when it compressed too far and couldn't generate enough power to hold in the pressure, it detonated.
A flare of bright white and blue light tore through the atmosphere in a huge conical spike, shockwaves pushing clouds away. The ground ceased to exist for miles around, flashing instantly into vapor, and beyond that cooked into magma and fused glass. Chunks of burning earth the size of dreadnaughts were hurled for miles to crash down into the ocean.
Still linked to the creature he had been controlling, Nazara was caught unprepared for the sudden death of his thrall, and tumbled out of control, slowing, attempting to compensate for the loss of a part, however tiny, of it's consciousness.
Joker pushed the ship to it's limits, slipping past the incapacitated behemoth, blazing at top speed towards the systems edge. By the time Nazara had recovered, the Normandy had flashed to FTL, out of his reach.
Nazara considered the last actions and words of the mortals, and then discarded them. Their resistance was almost as amusing as it was pointless. He detected the form of Benezia's smaller ship approaching and let it enter his body, preparing to travel to Ilos and end this long exile.
Shepard sat bonelessly in her cabin, Liara gently holding one of her hands. Chakwas stared at Shepard grimly, arms folded. "You don't have to discuss this now, Commander." Her uniform was stained with blood, red and green, and she had laid the casualty and injury info-pad list on Shepard's small table.
Shepard looked up, eyes red. "I just lost two of my bravest people, on a task that ended up not even killing the bitch we came here to get. I just learned that the black ship is an actual fucking Reaper planning to bring it's buddies here for a big BBQ. And that it has been going on for millions of years or more. I'd like to go ahead and get the rest of the bad news out of the way."
Chakwas sighed. "Masterson won't ever fight again, but he's alive. Haln is in a coma. Shots to the gut, lungs. One of his kidneys is pulped. Ownby took three slugs in the left lung and it collapsed, he's critical. Haskins got hit with a geth flamer and has third and fourth degree burns to the right torso and arm."
Chakwas glanced at Liara. "Sergeant Telanya was hit twice in the thigh and once in the upper body but is stable. Hallis is dead. Muse is dead. Jackson is dead. Montoya is alive but critical, missing a leg. Florez took dozens of shots, his DACT armor helped but he's in serious condition."
She glanced at the info-pad. "Kirrahe is alive, but lost fourteen of his people, including his XO, Rentola."
Chakwas bit her lip. "Williams is … alive. She's critical. She … was hit in the abdomen. Part of her intestines were damaged...and her uterus." A long, ugly pause. "Any child she was carrying could not have survived, Commander. I'm sorry."
Shepard looked up at her, shock and disbelief on her face. "Oh my god...no. No." Liara closed her eyes and held her hand more tightly, as Shepard began to shake.
Chakwas shook her head sadly. "I have to get back to the medbay. I'll update you as I am able, Shepard." She left the room quietly, the doors swishing closed behind her, and Shepard hung her head again, jaw tightening.
Liara gently lifted her chin. "You did nothing wrong, Sara. We...we had our choices taken from us."
Shepard shook her head. "No, I chose it all. Instead of pulling back and going for reinforcements, I pushed ahead. Because they never reinforce me. They always make me go at the target with not enough guns, not enough men. Why even bother? I'm Commander Goddamned Shepard, I can do anything if I just get enough of my people killed." She gazed at her hands, making a fist, then letting it go. "And now, an unborn kid. She won't even have that to remember Kaidan by."
Her voice was bitter, and weary, and above all else hurt in a way Liara could literally feel through their link. It made her sick to the stomach, and she pushed it down as she tried to reach Shepard. "No, that is not true. We went with what we knew. You heard Jiong. If we had not acted, my mother would have had an army of those monsters, and done Goddess only knows what with them."
Liara focused her feelings, her belief in Sara, her firm belief that the sacrifice they just made had to be done. "What happened to … our friends … is not your fault. Alenko and Cole were already dying. Even if we had gotten there in time, they would not have survived long. We would have all died, and the information we obtained..."
She trailed off, and Shepard nodded. "It … just hurts. Goddamn it." She squeezed Liara's hand back, tears traveling down her cheeks. "I.. I am going to murder that bitch mother of yours if it's the last goddamned thing I do. This I swear."
She closed her eyes again, exhaling. "This I swear."