* A/N * - This chapter has been posted as the first in a new story, "Beyond." I've added it here as a teaser/preview, and also so that anyone who was being alerted to updates will know that the sequel has (finally) begun.
Thanks to some good observations by reviewers, I've also made small tweaks to the end of the epilogue for clarity.
The Archangel I
Garrus Vakarian pushed himself to his feet. His body felt like it had just been used as a railgun slug, but pain meant he was still alive, at least. That, or he would be having words with the designer of the afterlife. His eyes were adjusting slowly from the blinding brightness of the Conduit to the near-darkness of the Citadel. "Well, this isn't quite what I expected."
"What were you expecting?" a voice asked from his right. A ray of light lanced out as Liara T'Soni activated her omnitool.
Garrus looked away from the renewed glare. "To be dead, mostly."
She was silent for an uncomfortable moment. "It doesn't look like anyone else made it up behind us."
"Comm's awful quiet, too." He reached up to key on his mic. "This is Garrus. Liara and I have reached the Citadel. Anyone up here with us, report in."
Only silence replied. Not even the faintest crackle of static came back while he waited to the count of three. "This is Vakarian to Hammer, all teams check in." Still nothing. He switched frequencies. "Hammer to Sword. Any unit on this channel, acknowledge."
With rapidly dwindling hope, Liara tried her own comm unit, but met with no more success.
"So. Two of us against whatever the Reapers have stashed in the Citadel." Garrus chuckled. "I like these odds."
Her head turned towards him, the backlight shrouding her face in a halo of blue shadow. She didn't say a word.
"Liara… Look, I'm sure he—"
"Don't," she cut him off sharply. "We've got a job to do."
Garrus' mandibles twitched in a turian approximation of a grimace. He should have known better than to joke here, now. At least with her.
Keeping his rifle out, Garrus switched on the barrel light. He swept the beam about slowly, trying to get a sense of their surroundings. They had arrived at a place he didn't recognize, which was not much of a surprise, even to a veteran C-Sec officer. They were in the middle of a wide and empty platform, the same faintly reflective grey as most other surfaces in the Citadel. They were too far from the edges to see over, but there appeared to be a shallow ramp on one side. They began walking towards it, and what little sound their footsteps made seemed to vanish into the emptiness around them.
The Citadel was eerily dark. The arms were still closed, judging by the uniform but almost imperceptible glow from the structures lining the inner surface. Beyond the dimness, there was something about the sight that made him vaguely uneasy. Considering they were two beings alone, stranded in the middle of a gigantic station built and now reclaimed by the Reapers, that level of discomfort hardly even registered.
As they neared the ramp, the station's natural curvature brought some of their surroundings into view. The ramp led down to a wide walkway, which extended in opposite directions as far as they could see. Their lights revealed a second ramp directly across the path, which led up to another platform identical to the one they were standing on. As they moved down the gentle slope, looking in either direction revealed more ramps in the distance, leading down instead of up. Even those features were at the barest edge of their sight, but the path itself seemed to go on, as straight and long as eternity.
"It looks like the keepers have been busy." There was something about the scale and symmetry of the whole arrangement that made his plates twitch.
"This path seems to run lengthwise along the interior of the arms, somewhere above the wards," Liara observed. "We need to move towards the Presidium, and hope the Citadel Tower and master control panel are still accessible. We can re-open the Citadel from there."
"I don't know about you, but I'm having trouble getting my bearings."
"The arrangement of the lights is… unfamiliar," Liara agreed, a note of apprehension creeping into her voice as she looked above, trying to judge their location. From any of the wards, the warm orange glow of the adjacent arms was a constant spectacle. Their ordered tracks of streets and structures formed constellations as familiar to a Citadel resident as the stars of any terrestrial homeworld. But there was nothing recognizable in the long, stark rows of light above their heads now, and nothing warm about their hue of faint, cold blue.
"I know the keepers are hard-working little bastards, but something's not right here."
"We don't have time to wonder about the industry of the keepers. Or the Reaper's sense of aesthetics, for that matter. There, that way; it's faint, but that looks like the Presidium ring." Without another word, she started moving.
"Liara, wait," Garrus said, grabbing her by the elbow as she reached the foot of the ramp. "This station is almost fifty kilometers long. We could be walking for hours."
She ripped her arm from his grasp, glaring at him as though the laws of space and time were inconveniences he had personally established to block her path. "Then we had better start moving. Or do you have a better idea?"
"Look around, get our bearings. Try and find a working elevator or transport. An abandoned taxi, maybe."
She spun away, simmering with frustration. "Yes, I'm sure that after having been deposited in the middle of a rearranged Citadel, we'll conveniently come across a taxi to deliver us straight to where we need to go."
"Let's face it, stranger things have happened. Hell, maybe we'll stumble across a big red button labeled 'press here to kill Reapers.'"
"Nothing would make me happier. But we're not going to find anything standing here, are we?"
"True enough, but one step at a time. Let's see where one of those down ramps leads." The utter silence of everything beyond their footsteps was disturbing. Garrus fought back the urge to keep looking over his shoulders. He settled for shifting the reassuring weight of the rifle in his hands, but couldn't push away the feeling that he was being watched. If he hadn't already spent years of his life living on the Citadel, he might have worried that he was experiencing the first signs of indoctrination inside what they could no longer forget was a Reaper construct. Right, Garrus. Way to think positive.
Somewhere amidst all the tunnels and alien ships and labyrinthine complexes, he had once asked Shepard how he always found his way around. He had not expected the answer "when in doubt, go left." Even now he wasn't sure whether or not the Commander had been serious, but the habit seemed to have stuck. He and Liara both turned to head down the left ramp when the path branched off. They weren't more than halfway down before their lights began to reveal vague shapes in front of them. They weren't much farther than that when they stopped to share a look of mutual disquiet.
The ramp split apart below them, forming a new path parallel to the walkway above. This edge was bordered by a railing, tightly packed with control panels, the same ubiquitous kind that the keepers manned throughout the Citadel. These were dark and inactive, with no sign of keepers themselves. Behind every terminal was a translucent cylinder, made of a glassy material that seemed oddly ethereal, lit from behind by the faint blue glow of the wards.
And within each of those cylinders, framed by that halo of soft light, was a human.
"By the goddess…" Liara breathed.
"I guess now we know what they were using the Conduit for."
The cylinders seemed like smoother, more refined versions of the rough, insectoid pods that had held human colonists and the captured Normandy crew back on the Collector base. Garrus resisted the urge to reach out and touch them. Memories of flesh blackening and melting flashed before his eyes, accompanied by the screams of men and women as they were broken down to feed the growth of the human Reaper. It was no small relief seeing that these pods were all independent, with no wires or tubes to be found. In fact, he could find no structure supporting them of any kind; each cylinder was floating, perfectly still, in mid-air. As he leaned over the rail for a better look, the near-inaudible hum of a low-power mass effect field provided an answer to that question, but a single look down brought him up short, and not from vertigo.
"There's more below. Look!"
They stood in front of the uppermost row of cylinders, but the pods were stacked one on top of another, extending downwards beyond the range of their handheld lights. A more thorough look around revealed additional ramps leading down, tiers upon tiers of central pathways branching down into sidewalks that provided access to the pods and their control panels. It wasn't an unreasonable leap of logic to assume the opposite side was configured just like this one.
"Just how high above the base of the wards are we, do you think?" asked Garrus, a sickening feeling gathering in the pit of his stomach.
"There could be dozens of levels," Liara said, shining her light into one of the cylinders to examine the occupant. As best they could tell, the humans were unconscious but alive. "Even hundreds."
Garrus aimed his rifle between the two nearest cylinders, illuminating more faint shapes in the distance. "I can see more stasis pods. It looks like another set of platforms and walkways, maybe ten meters between this row and that one."
"You were right, Garrus. The keepers have been busy."
"If we see one, remind me to congratulate it… after I shoot it. What do you want to bet that every ward has been reconfigured just like this? They could fit the whole population of Earth in here."
The asari's eyes narrowed, and she began speaking quietly to herself. "Three meters tall, one meter wide, half-meter space on each side. Forty-five kilometers in length… thirty thousand pods per row." She glanced over her shoulder, shining her omnitool towards the containers on the opposite walkway. "Sections twenty meters across, ten meters between… interior circumference forty kilometers…"
Garrus was too curious – and perhaps a little impressed – to make any of the quips that came to mind and distract her, so he just listened as she continued rattling off numbers under her breath. When she finally stopped whispering, she blinked once, twice, and finally looked at him.
"Not just Earth. It's a rough guess with a fair bit of rounding, but there could be forty billion of these pods. With room to spare."
"I'd check your math, but with just six fingers and six toes we'd be here a while."
Garrus slung his weapon into the crook of his elbow. Cradling his chin, with his free hand, he began walking down the row, lost in thought. "What are the Reapers going to do with forty billion stasis pods? Palaven, Thessia, Earth: all reports we've gotten indicate they reprocess most organics on the planets where they find them. They could move the Citadel around to collect stragglers and small colonies, maybe, but that seems… inefficient. And it's not storage, because they always leave the Citadel for the next cycle to discover."
Liara followed a few steps behind him. "We may never know. And it won't matter at all if we don't get the arms open and let the Crucible dock."
The turian smiled. "Now this is strange. Here I am pondering mysteries of the universe while you remind me of the objective. It's been a long time since Ilos, hasn't it?"
They quickened their pace, staying on the path next to the stasis pods. The whole structure seemed to lead them towards the Presidium ring in the distance, and showed no signs of deviating. Garrus studied the faces as they passed in a blur, if only to relieve the uniformity of the other scenery.
"I was so foolish then," Liara said wistfully. "We've come across more landmark discoveries in three years than entire generations of archaeologists make. I could have spent a lifetime on each of them."
"But then you'd never have found the next one."
"I was wrong about you back then, you know," Garrus offered.
"What do you mean?"
"When we were first working together, against Saren, I didn't know quite what to make of you. That VI we came across on Ilos, what was its name…? I'd have put a year's salary down that you'd tell us to leave you behind."
She smiled. "It was… a thought that crossed my mind. I suppose I did get more than a bit off-track, begging to stay and speak with Vigil even as Saren invaded the Citadel… But I kept going."
"That you did."
"And we'll do the same thing here, won't we?" she asked, her voice one part hope, another part resignation.
"That we will."
She actually laughed a little. "You're not much for speeches, are you?"
"Tried it out on Omega. Never did find the knack for it, especially considering what I had to live up…" his voice trailed off, bringing Liara to a stop beside him.
He pointed at the nearest stasis pod. "Am I seeing what I think I'm seeing?"
Liara gasped. In the nearest pod was a humanoid shape, but the body was definitely not human. The outline of a wide, sloped skull stared back at them. "That's a Prothean!"
The contents of the pods had abruptly changed. They found another Prothean in the next cylinder, and another, and yet more down the line. "Javik's going to be in shock when he hears about this. I think I'll have EDI take vids."
Liara knelt next to the nearest console. "This doesn't make sense." She brought her omnitool to bear, and began trying to link up with the keeper interface. "How could the Reapers have hidden a cache of Protheans on the Citadel for so long?"
"Maybe they stumbled across another sleeper cell, like Eden Prime." He floundered about for another explanation, but found his mind going blank. None of them had known what to expect when they had started their desperate charge towards the transport beam in London, but the reality was fast becoming surreal. More than anything, it was making him long for something to shoot at.
Liara gave a cry of delight as the console she was poking at flickered to life. "Now, let's see. Maybe I can access some kind of log…"
No more than a few seconds had gone by when an electric crack erupted behind them. Liara nearly fell off the path in shock, and nervous energy had Garrus turned with his weapon at the ready before the sound had even faded. He was a bit nonplussed to find a keeper scuttling towards them, the edges of the walkway around it sparking with a blue light that looked oddly familiar.
"Where the hell did it come from?" he demanded, even as the mottled green being strode brazenly between them. It moved as though they weren't even there, exuding indignant indifference as only a keeper could.
"I have no idea," Liara said, shuffling backwards to allow the keeper access to the console. It settled in front of the dim blue interface, and with two quick jabs of its upper limbs, the screen went as dormant as the rest of the stations along the railing. The keeper turned and stalked back past them with no sign of acknowledgement whatsoever.
"Let's follow—" Garrus began, but in a sizzle of electricity and a streak of blue light, the keeper was gone. "—it? The hell?"
"The pathways… appear to be miniature mass relays."
Garrus grumbled, and very nearly sent a rifle round back along the pathway out of sheer spite. "You know, I'm really starting to think the Reapers didn't build this place to guide our evolution. I think they really built it just to screw with us."
When the voice boomed forth from everywhere and nowhere at once, it took a lifetime of fiercely-drilled fire discipline to keep Garrus from pulling the trigger just to make sure he still could. However, when a staggeringly immense shape materialized from thin air above them, a single shot rang out. It did nothing but slice the air through the shimmering light of the kilometers-tall form of a Reaper.
"Asari. Turian. Progressed species two and sixteen of the current cycle. Your presence here is…" the Reaper's booming voice paused for a long moment. "Premature."
Garrus blinked, rifle still trained on the projection that filled the hollow of the Citadel above their heads. Having something to point his weapon at, even if he couldn't hit it, was a small comfort in a rapidly deteriorating situation. "Was the Reaper just at a loss for words? If so, I could almost die happy right now."
"Organic. Your death is inevitable. Your happiness is ephemeral. You stand in ignorance, and grasp at irrelevance."
"Garrus, we need to move. Now. If it knows we're here…"
"Your presence was never unnoticed. You would already be dead, if it were necessary to destroy you. It is not. However, you will not be permitted to interfere with the preserved."
"The preserved?" Garrus glanced over his shoulder at the endless rows of cylinders hovering behind them. "You mean the stasis pods."
"The legacies of cycles past must not be disturbed. They are the priceless remnants of each of their respective civilizations."
"Priceless?" asked Liara, confused… and a little curious. "I don't think I've ever heard a Reaper place any value at all on organic life before. Quite the opposite."
"What are we to you, tools left on a shelf, the ones not handy enough to be put to use like you did the Collectors? Or just trophies?" Garrus spat. "And what does that make you, the Reapers' museum curator?"
"Neither. Like all organics, you cannot fathom the scope of our mission. I am Sentinel, guardian of the covenant between synthetics and organics."
"What covenant?" Liara asked incredulously. "No species I know agreed to submit themselves to you. The Protheans fought you. The cycles before them fought you. And we fight you even now."
"Your struggles are the thrashings of untamed beasts. Instinctive. Chaotic. Futile."
"You will forgive us if we don't take your word on that. Garrus, let's go. It's only trying to stall us."
Liara's eyes narrowed. "How so?"
"You are no longer relevant to the fates of your species. Your presence here precludes your involvement."
"Like hell," Garrus barked. "We're here to make sure your Citadel opens wide for a dose of organic relevance."
"Come on, Liara. Either it's going to kill us or we're getting the arms open. I'm not going to stand here and let it talk us to death."
With a distant rumble, the arms began to open.
Turian jaws were not designed to reach the floor, but Garrus was by his own admission not a very good turian. "Well," he said, "that was easier than I thought."
"Garrus…" Liara said. "Oh, goddess… Look."
The arms of the station spread apart to reveal the space beyond, but it did not take an astronomer's knowledge to recognize the wrongness of the view. There were no stars. There were no constellations. There were no distant planets. There were no ships, and there was no battle. There was no Earth.
There was only the Milky Way itself, filling the horizon and beyond, a spiral spectacle of white and gold and more colors beyond counting, and the border of deep, consuming blackness that surrounded it all.