28 June 2183, Amada System Space
I remember the day it all ended.
While Normandy dropped out of FTL, I stood working with the galaxy map in the Combat Information Center. I paid little attention, too engrossed in my research, seeking patterns in a sea of data, trying to plan where our mission might be most effective. Only part of my mind listened to the voices from the bridge a few meters away.
"Disengaging FTL drives," said Joker from the pilot's seat. "Emission sinks active. Board is green. We are running silent."
"We're wasting our time," said Pressley. "Four days searching up and down this sector, and we haven't found any sign of geth activity."
"Three ships went missing here in the past month. Something happened to them."
Pressley snorted. "My money's on slavers. The Terminus Systems are crawling with them, especially this close to Omega."
I picked up a datapad and began to walk up the corridor toward the bridge.
"Picking up something on the long-range scanners," said Lieutenant Lowe, one of the new crew who had come aboard after the Battle of the Citadel. Her voice became intent as she opened new windows on her display console. "Unidentified vessel. Hmm. Looks like a cruiser."
"Doesn't match any known signatures," observed Joker.
Finally something made its way through my fog of preoccupation. "Lieutenant Pressley, what's happening?"
The navigator glanced at me. "Can't say yet, Doctor."
"Cruiser is changing course," said Lowe. "Now on an intercept trajectory."
"Can't be," said Pressley impatiently. "Our stealth systems are engaged. There's no way a geth ship could . . ."
"It's not the geth," Joker interrupted, staring at his console. He slammed his palm down on the all-hands channel of the intercom. His voice boomed out throughout the ship. "Brace for evasive maneuvers!"
Normandy suddenly accelerated and began to sway back and forth, as Joker tried to escape whatever he had seen.
I grabbed for a safety hold on the nearest bulkhead. My eyes widened as I saw a beam of some kind of golden-white energy in the bridge viewports, passing bare meters above the ship. The beam slid off to the right, then passed above us again and fell to the left as Joker maneuvered.
For an instant I thought we had escaped. Then the entire ship bucked hard, as if we had slammed into some solid obstacle in space. I staggered, only my grip on the safety hold keeping me on my feet.
Something exploded just to my right. Hot plasma slammed into Pressley and hurled him across the bridge. He had just enough time for an agonized scream, abruptly cut off.
"Pressley!" shouted Lowe, and began to rise from her post. Just in time for another explosion to shatter her own console and throw her to the deck as well, limp as a rag doll.
Stunned and half-deafened, I realized I had somehow escaped serious injury. I stood up from my half-crouch, and saw fire pour out onto the bridge. I had to back away or go up like a torch.
"Multiple hull breaches. Weapons off-line," reported Joker. "Somebody get that fire out!"
"Joker!" I shouted. "You have to get out of there!"
He shook his head, not even glancing in my direction as he pawed desperately at his controls. "No way, Doc! We've got to get away from whoever that is out there!"
Three crewmen pushed me aside, bringing fire extinguishers to bear on the growing blaze.
I ran for Shepard.
I stopped at an emergency locker to pull out a suit of light armor, working frantically to pull it on. I thanked the Goddess for all the emergency drills Shepard and Kaidan had insisted I pass. Another horrible collision struck the ship, and then yet another. I could hear explosions in several places elsewhere in the hull.
I pelted down the gangway to the crew deck. Right behind me an enormous detonation tore out of the bulkheads, nearly catching me as I ran. A crewman fell as I passed, burning, probably already dead. Cables and conduits spilled out onto the deck, as the ship's frame took stresses beyond its endurance.
I heard a scream and saw Private Dubyansky caught by a massive electrical discharge. The shock killed poor Alexei almost instantly.
I saw Shepard, already in his hardsuit, working on a control panel at the forward end of the crew deck. I staggered, ducked aside from another explosion, and ran to him.
He finished his task and calmly locked his helmet into place. "Distress beacon is ready for launch."
I realized the air was growing thin, and foul with chemical smells and smoke. I took the moment to put on my own helmet and seal up. "You're ordering the ship abandoned? Will the Alliance get here in time?"
Another concussion nearly threw me from my feet, but Shepard lunged forward and steadied me. I felt a moment of irrational comfort at his strength.
"The Alliance won't abandon us," he said reassuringly, even as he turned to pick up a fire extinguisher and attack the nearest blaze. "We just need to hold on. Get everyone into the escape pods."
"Joker's still on the bridge. He won't evacuate." Some daimon seized me, warned me not to permit myself to be separated from him. I took a deep breath. "I'm not leaving either."
"Liara, I need you to help the crew get into the escape pods. I'll take care of Joker."
"Liara. Go." He turned his head to face me, and even though I couldn't see his eyes I knew they had turned cold and resolute. "Now."
I stood, torn between the need to obey him and the need to stay with him.
"Aye-aye," I said at last, and turned to run.
As I fled, I heard the abandon ship klaxon ring out, loud and terrible.
I gathered crewmen, shouting at them, pulling them away from their desperate attempts at damage control. Once I saw no more to be directed, I chose an escape pod for myself and concentrated on hurrying crewmen into it. For a moment I thought of Ashley, probably down on the staging deck, hopefully doing much the same.
Dr. Chakwas passed me, grabbing at the overhead bar and leaping into the escape pod, two other crewmen already inside and another just behind her.
"Everybody in! Go, go, go!"
I saw a woman running for the pod, one of the Draven sisters . . . but then an enormous fireball erupted behind her and slapped her off her feet. She shrieked and flew into the bulkhead with a sickening crunch. I thought to leap for her, but then saw the unnatural angle of her head and knew she was dead.
No one came behind her. I turned and leaped into the pod, falling into a seat and pulling the restraint down. Dr. Chakwas caught my eye, saw my nod, and slapped the launch control.
We all felt a huge slam as the pod ejected from the side of the ship. Then all seemed quiet and peaceful at last.
As soon as I could catch my breath and unseal my helmet, I reached for the control panel and began to work the exterior cameras. After a few moments I found Normandy . . . or what was left of it.
The ship was in sections. Golden beams lanced out from the invisible enemy, carving Normandy into smaller and smaller pieces, ablaze with fires and explosions.
"Merciful Goddess," I breathed, as the image shrank with increasing distance.
"I quite agree," said Dr. Chakwas. "Did Shepard . . ."
I caught her eyes, silver dulled to cloudy gray and not nearly as serene as usual. "I don't know. He went to make sure Joker got out."
I shook my head, doing my best to keep the ball of terror locked down in my belly, where it wouldn't distract me or hurt anyone else. I had to be strong for the others in the pod. "There's nothing we can do now. We just have to wait."
"And pray, if you're so inclined," said the doctor.
Oh yes, I could pray. I could sit in that cold little escape pod with four frightened humans, smelling the stink of their sweat and fear, all of us waiting for the unknown enemy to finish with Normandy and come after us. One golden beam of energetic particles and we would be atoms drifting in space. My eyes stayed wide open and my face absolutely still, but deep inside my mind I prayed.
Not a complex prayer. Very simple.
Perhaps the Goddess paid me a little attention. Once Normandy was gone, nothing but fragments falling onto the surface of a barren ice world, the unknown enemy moved on. For whatever reason, our escape pods went unharmed.
Six hours later, SSV Melbourne arrived on the scene and began to carry out search-and-rescue operations. The Alliance recovered all of the escape pods except one, which seemed to have gone down with Normandy with no one on board. I sat wide-eyed and silent as frantic crewmen opened each pod and the stunned survivors emerged. I saw Ashley alive, and Engineer Adams.
The last pod to be recovered stood almost empty. Only Joker emerged, injured and terrified and almost mad with grief.
Shepard had not made it into the pod. Joker had seen him blasted clear of the ship by a massive explosion. His last act had been to close and activate the pod so that Joker would be blown free.
Melbourne searched, but there must have been something wrong with the rescue beacon in Shepard's hardsuit. They found no sign of him: not in space, not in orbit, not on the surface of the planet Alchera. He had simply vanished.
After a few hours, Captain Mukherjee refused to linger any further. He felt exposed, deep within the Terminus Systems, and his cruiser had no stealth systems. At any time Normandy's distress signal might call a swarm of pirates or slavers down on us. Eventually he ruled that no more of our people would be recovered alive, and ordered a retreat. He offered all of us medical care, food, and a place to rest as his ship turned for its home port at Terra Nova.
In all, twenty-two of our people were declared Killed in Action.
Shepard was one of them.
I sat alone in a tiny cubicle aboard Melbourne, still in my armor, unable to muster the motivation necessary to change out of it. I stared, unable to see the room around me. I hadn't turned the lights on anyway.
I could not weep. I felt nothing. No pain, no grief, nothing but dull vacancy. My heart felt like a block of ice.
For hours I remained in that state, suspended between life and death, sitting alone in the darkness.
Then there came a thought.
Shepard might still be alive.
Captain Mukherjee had been too quick to abandon the search, to declare all the missing Alliance personnel dead so he could run for safety. No one had seen Shepard die. Not even Joker. Unlikely as it might seem, he might have escaped the wreck of Normandy.
It seemed unlikely, but it was at least possible.
Even if he had been killed . . .
There came another thought.
Who killed him?
A flicker of anger alight in my heart, there in the darkness.
I hadn't seen the enemy closely, but it had not been a geth ship. Lieutenant Lowe would have been able to identify a geth cruiser. Joker had said outright that it was something else, something strange. No gang of Terminus pirates would have been able to detect Normandy, or blast it out of the sky so quickly with such powerful weaponry.
Another player had taken a seat at the table.
Or some of their agents. We had no evidence to suggest Saren and Benezia had been their only pawns.
My mind began to work again. I felt something again. A burning need.
I rose from the chair, stiffly removed my armor, and went in search of a spare uniform. Once dressed, I would look for the ship's medical officer and then the crew mess. I might not care about physical pain, I might not feel much hunger, but I knew my body required maintenance.
I still had work to do.