The cool, evening summer breeze held in it all the smells of the English countryside, sweet scents that were hitherto unknown to Shepard as she stood, metal crutch in hand, surveying the scene that lay before her. Pale green meadows, their daytime vivacity somewhat dulled in the silvery twilight, flowed in endless blankets before her, untouched by the broad strokes of destruction. If there was one safe haven left in the galaxy, she was sure she had found it – this was the smooth face of Earth, away from the craters and ashes that gutted once great cities and scarred verdant landscapes with slashes of fire. Trees whispered to one another along the breeze, the secrets of the woods, generations old, safe in their charge. It was unnervingly quiet.
She hadn't expected the silence to be problematic; her orders were to recover and recoup her strength, so that she could eventually be of help when she was needed. Two months had stretched into nothingness, and the downtime had moved quickly from restful to maddening. Barring her regular visitors – doctors, soldiers with food parcels, her psychiatrist – there was nothing and no-one to distract her from the worst of her memories; the fallout from her most difficult decisions, those do-or-die moments that strayed into conscious thoughts, the pressure and instability – all of it hung above her head like the sword of Damocles; just a thin, horse-hair of sanity left her clinging to the world.
It seemed it was to be her fate, left alone to consider horrors in a place so nakedly beautiful, without the scant comforts she had eventually taken for granted. Liara would hate this place - too much useless land, nothing much interesting to see or to do. Aesthetics were unimpressive to her; there always had to be something more lurking below the surface, only then would a place be interesting enough to hold her attention for more than a few minutes. She sighed, and the breeze lifted her breath into the darkening evening sky, carrying it away into the stars above until it dispersed into nothingness; Liara was lost to her now – even if, by some miracle, she too had survived. There was no use in reminiscing; she would never again be the person the asari loved, no matter how hard she tried.
Her eyes gazed above, through the turquoise skies dotted with twinkling, distant planets that shone like miniscule diamonds in a vast, velvet cloth, a nightly ritual that had persisted since her childhood days; how she had yearned for the stars then, safely observing through the lens of a simple colonial life. Her name had been written in the stars, once; a small, selfish part of her mind wondered how she would now be remembered. Death was a whitewash where every bad deed or word was cleaned, where every crime was exonerated. Few people spoke ill of the dead, unable to defend themselves as they lay, cold and inanimate, in the dirt beneath their feet – instead, humanity in particular poured their ire into those they could find. The ones left standing, the people at the top who allowed thousands beneath them to perish, whether justified or not: both would bear the brunt of the collective loss of entire races, would bear witness to the forensic analysis of decisions made in the heat and blood of battle, battered by questions until they lost everything or disappeared out of sight, out of mind.
They had no idea what it had taken to save the lives that were left; dwindling remains of once vast civilisations were the timid fruit of her labours, and the price? Innumerable casualties. The loss of entire worlds; entire races wiped out with relative ease and merciless efficiency.
Anderson's life had been the most difficult price to pay. Paralysed with indecision, her head pounded as the Illusive Man's poisonous words beat their rhythms in tandem with the pulsing tendrils of indoctrination snaking through her mind. She should have taken him out while she had the chance, not stood around debating politics, exchanging irrelevant philosophies with a madman. The sight of her arm being raised without her command, the numbness that surrendered her control and pulled the trigger, Anderson's willingness to accept his fate as he faced the barrel of her gun – these were not things that could simply be forgotten. It left a bad taste in her mouth, of burning metal and flesh which burrowed into her mind, tainted everything she saw with the memories of all she lost. Those things would never leave her; the peace of the countryside was no place for a ruined soldier. Her mind buzzed mildly as she slipped into her regular reveries, whirring with what she had assumed were synthetic implants courtesy of her previous employers, though she feared it to be something insidious, something unkind, and it angered her. The extent of the Reapers' indoctrination, and its lasting effects on its victims, had yet to be established. Waiting to see what would happen was beginning to frustrate her, though the military had insisted upon taking it slowly, apparently to maintain her 'good health'. They clearly had not considered her restlessness in this most considerate of approaches, preferring to view her situation from their safe perch, away from the realities of conflict – a theoretical understanding seemed all the top brass had ever been capable of.
Talks with the military psychologist, Dr. Chen, had been less than productive. She had found herself, when faced with his genteel, bespectacled face, nestled underneath a thin sweep of white hair, caught in a different sort of paralysis. Words, which had always come with ease and eloquence, had become impossible to voice, clotting in her throat or escaping only in murmurs. There was too much to discuss, an asari's lifetime of pressures, losses and victories endured in three short years. When she opened her mouth to speak, words faltered; all the terrible events pushed themselves into her conscious mind almost at once, and the terror gripped her relentlessly.
Fear. There was something she hadn't expected in victory; but where the outcome of war was either life or death, life after the war held a plethora of unknowns. She had persisted for so long, drawing courage from those around her where she found herself lacking; now she was here, with the air that smelled too clean to be real, where the quietness mocked her in its serenity.
She turned her back on the world outside, shuffling into the darkened cottage, her crutch clicking with jarring regularity as she moved. This was no place for her.
The timing of the Illusive Man's death could not have been worse.
Suriel Station, floating in the calm, dark space of the Shadow Sea, away from the prying eyes of Alliance-protected colonists, had been something of a priority project, and cause for a rather bitter envy among Cerberus scientists. Blessed with what could only be described as a truly unlimited budget, this most secret of laboratories had focused its research on the integration of organic and synthetic, producing some of the most sought-after tech both within and outside the organisation. There were rumours, circulated through the usual cell-on-cell snooping that had proved endemic with their operatives, that the Illusive Man himself had once been a project of their skilled surgeons and engineers, the perfect melding of metal and flesh, a shining symbol of the advancement of humankind above all other races.
They were known as the Azrael cell or, more colloquially, the angels of death; all Cerberus synthetics and hybrids were linked to this small, close-knit group of geniuses, and the power of life and death, through the maintenance and control of every synthetic part of their body, was left in their steady, careful hands. For almost ten years, this same group of scientists had maintained a careful watch over their steadily growing flock; only once had they had to intervene directly in the life of a subject, and that was to save him. Though they were curious, unethical even, the ancient Hippocratic oath still fixed itself in their minds, grounding them; it allowed a keen sense of culpability, of perspective. An unexpected death, if nothing else, was a waste of life and resources; far better to save those they could, to reprogram if necessary, rather than cull with unnecessary cruelty.
News of their leader's death had reached them quickly, without any manual intervention. A simple message had found its way to Dr Lanore's terminal, spoken by the man himself:
"I have failed. You will be persecuted. Go your own way, preserve what you can; for the sake of humanity, continue your work. Remember me."
Her first thought was that of some elaborate hoax, probably from one of her assistants – Mika had always been annoyingly adept at practical jokes, and his level of tech understanding could only be described as formidable. But she had seen a lot of fakes in her time, even creating some of them herself, and when she considered it again, within a split-second it
became unequivocally real. These were the end times, and it was time to take action.
As if her thoughts alone had willed it, a hive of sirens bleated through the cool air, destroying the peace they had enjoyed. This was it then: Code Black. The training Cerberus had provided for such circumstances didn't quite cover how to deal with a real, tangible fear of death at the hands of your enemies, but it had given her plenty of practice where shooting things were concerned. The desk drawer opened smoothly as her hand hovered above it; a gleaming, unused pistol lay waiting inside. There had been no news of a breach, but it was better to be safe than sorry.
A voice sounded in her earpiece. "Lanore? Are you there? What just happened?"
"Gather everyone in the mess hall Mika. Quickly!"
The small crowd of specialists surrounded the few tables the mess hall had been furnished was, and it looked less sparse that it usually did. Most of them spent little time here, absorbed in their important work of galactic consequence, so it was odd to see it so full of people. As she approached, she was surprised to see that only a few of them appeared to be holding pistols like hers, fiddling nervously with them, clearly uncomfortable – she had thought all staff were given a standard-issue pistol, for their own protection. It was probable that only a couple of the other doctors had knowledge of the Illusive Man's death but, as the de facto leader of the Azrael cell, it fell to her to break the news and maintain order. Their collective, quiet mutterings hushed as she stood before them, her finger resting on the trigger of the gun that she held by her thigh; it provided little comfort.
"As a few of you will have been made aware, the Illusive Man has been killed," she declared, attempting a neutral tone that disguised the sadness and fear creeping into her mind. "I received a message approximately ten minutes ago stating this – the sirens have now been silenced, as you can hear, and this station needs to stay hidden. We have already sustained heavy losses in our shock troop divisions, and it is our job to stop any more fatalities while we can."
"We're on our own now," she continued, her audience silenced by shock and grief; the loss of their heroic leader would be a hard one to overcome. "But, as I know you'll agree, we need to continue our work. The work is of paramount importance. To do this, we need supplies – food, water, materials for repairs, fuel cell material…the list is long, but not unachievable. Wilson, how much time have we got before our generators stop?"
"A month, maybe six weeks," he said, his voice strained as he calculated and recalculated familiar formulae in his mind. "If we power down, we can route our juice to where it's needed most."
A murmur of agreement followed, the last easy decision before the hard ones presented themselves. What were they willing to sacrifice – who were they willing to kill, for the greater good? In the wake of the Reapers' destruction, fuel was going to be hard to come by, and fatalities would be a necessary evil.
"The first priority has to be Lazarus," a small, English doctor called out, the butt of his gun just visible in his labcoat. "We swore to protect her, for humanity's sake."
"But Earth is safe now," another piped up. "She's not needed anymore – why should she be prioritised above anyone else? What good is she to us now?"
A row threatened to break out, the good natured murmur of agreement dissipated by hostility and a clash of moral compasses.
"Dr Langley, Dr Marshall – each of your concerns will be considered in due course. We're not at life or death at the moment, please let us at least save those discussions until they are needed."
Neither of them replied, though they took pains to shuffle slightly away from each other, like two small boys protesting at a scolding from their mother. Lanore took a deep, cleansing breath, unconcerned by the small crowd of scientists and engineers that watched her raise a tired hand to her brow.
"Meetings will be held. We need to establish a contingency plan, so let's get that done first. I will not jeopardise everything we have created because of a few petty arguments. Langley, Wilson, Richards, Greenbank, Mika – all of you come with me. The rest of you, please return to your usual tasks. The show must go on."