Seventy ships emerged from the relay into the Imir system. There was a blockade fleet, if it could be called that – two destroyers, and a trio of engineless-freighters with hastily added guns bolted onto the outside. Surrender was asked for, and the answer was an opening volley of cobalt-steel slugs that failed to even penetrate a single shield. Return fire from the Alliance and Hierarchy ships was quick, accurate, and deadly.
The lone Hierarchy cruiser, and half a dozen Alliance frigates, broke off from the pack, circling the relay. Searching for any Hegemony booby-traps would take an hour or two. The rest of the attack fleet turned towards the outer edge of the system, moving back outside the star's gravity well to activate their FTL drives.
Shepard stood at the galaxy map, watching the shifting display of markers. Depending on what angle you saw the ships, it was either a chaotic swarm or a perfectly organized dance of millions of tons of steel. In a way, it was soothing, reminding her of times she'd been shipboard as a girl, watching maneuvers on a repeater screen in quarters, tucked into her bunk.
"Everything looks good so far," Kelly said. "Are you prepared for the assault?"
Grimacing, Shepard turned away from the display. "Not completely. I need to drag Garrus away from the gun and figure out what our teams are going to be for this." She stared at the display as the elevator doors closed before her.
"Garrus is on his way to the elevator, Commander," EDI said. "I also had Legion move a holo-projector into your quarters for easier planning."
"Thank you, EDI," Shepard said. "Out of curiosity, have you ever considered getting a mobile platform? You know, move among the rest of the organic crowd like the geth do?"
"The geth do what?" Garrus said, stepping into the elevator and giving her a quick kiss.
"Operate mobile platforms, to interact with organics on their level," EDI explained. "While it does sound intriguing, there is the major issue that geth are not dependent on their hardware to the extent that I am. Changing my hardware would change my personality. I would only be a telepresence in the mech."
Garrus looked blankly at Shepard before looking into the camera. "So?"
Several seconds of silence went by. "You may have a point, Garrus. I will devote spare computational cycles towards considering how best to accomplish it."
"You also had a body in the future. Which we stole from Cerberus, who probably isn't making a replacement right now," Shepard said. "Dangit, sometimes this future crap is frustrating."
"What did my alternate self do with her body?" EDI asked.
"Well, she went with me on some ground missions, mostly when we were taking down Cerberus troops. Also, she dated Joker." Shepard shrugged as Garrus looked at her in surprise.
"Why would my other self participate in organic mating rituals?" EDI sounded honestly confused as the elevator door opened on the top deck.
"Heck if I know. You even tried to explain it to me, and all I got out of it was that it made you happy to make him happy," Shepard explained, opening up her quarters. The projector was sitting on the coffee table.
"I can understand that logic. My study of organic relationships tells me that they work best when all parties involved are happy with the other members."
"Other members?" Garrus asked, sitting down next to the unit. "I thought humans came in pairs."
There was a moment of silence. "Usually," Shepard said, blushing slightly. "There's a saying that every rule has at least one exception, and when it comes to dating and sex, there's books written about the exceptions."
"Seven thousand one hundred and forty-nine published in the last calendar year," EDI added helpfully.
"At least the Joker part makes sense," Garrus said. "He's downright proud of the ship, and since EDI is the ship, he's always got his hands on her."
"By that measure, so do you, Engineers Adams, Donnelly, Daniels, and Tali'Zorah," EDI replied. "Should I be dating all of them?"
"Garrus is mine," Shepard insisted, reaching over to squeeze his hand. "But I suppose you can borrow him every once in a while."
"Don't I get a say in this?" he protested.
Shepard grinned. "Are you really going to stop calibrating the main gun?"
"Well, probably not," he admitted.
"Then I think that's settled," Shepard said. "Let's figure this out for our missions."
The two Reaper devices assigned to them were close geographically, being separated by only three hundred kilometers. Most of that was water, a deep freshwater lake surrounded by farms and orchards with minor spaceports on each side. They divvied up the locations, giving Garrus the more open one and Shepard taking one with more hills. That accomplished, they split up the teams according to their specialties.
With two hours to go until planetfall, Shepard gathered her team in the cargo bay. Legion, Zaeed, Liara, Jack, and Keiji sat on the cargo containers as she set down the projector. "So, this is where we're going. Obviously, with three biotic specialists, we'll be focusing on keeping everyone else out of the way. Zaeed, you've got some experience with explosives, right?"
"You bet. Had to blow my way out of a buncha places. Prefer grenades over a goddamn placed charge, but I can rig them," he said.
Keiji raised a hand timidly, Jack snickering at him. "I know how to use shaped charges. Maybe better than him, since I've used them a lot."
"You know how to blow stuff up?" Jack mocked. "I thought you were a toothless hacker geek."
He grinned and held up a detonator. Somewhere around the level of Jack's waist, something beeped, and she froze. "Sometimes, you have to get through a lock to access what you want to hack. A dot of explosive is a lot faster than trying to hack open the lock, too." His hand disappeared behind her butt and came up with a pea-sized piece of explosive with a microreceiver stuck into it.
"Should have figured you'd pick up a trick or two from ghost-girl," Jack said. "Nice move." Keiji just blinked at her several times.
"Look. Here's the city layout," Shepard said, bringing up the display. "We'll be coming in from this direction, along the shore, and landing here. Liara and Jack, you'll be covering these areas with biotics. Singularities or set up blockades with gravity throws. I'll cover this section. Zaeed and Legion, you'll be covering Keiji while he sets the explosives. I'm less concerned with your kill-count. Keep anyone from shooting him."
"Got it," Zaeed said. Legion just nodded.
"What happens after we set the explosives?" Liara asked.
"We back off, blow the thing to smithereens, and GTFO," Shepard said, following their route back to the shuttle. "Garrus will at least have the Normandy to cover them if need be, but they'll also have to avoid anti-air towers and a more open area. Once we bug out, we meet back with them if they're not done yet. Once they're both blown, we check to make sure none of the Armiger teams need an assist. If everything is golden, we hit orbit and wait for the all-clear signal."
The team glanced around at each other. "So when do we fuck their world up?" Jack asked.
Shepard glanced at the time in the corner of the holo display. "We hit atmo in an hour. So get ready. Meet down here in forty-five minutes, armored up."
Anhur itself was at least marginally better defended. Two whole wings of the Hegemony Imperial Navy had been obliterated in their attempt to help the Collectors, but most of another one lay in a high orbit. Despite that, the combined forces outmassed the batarian defenders, as well as outnumbering them.
The Normandy wove through the conflict, skirting past most of the batarian vessels, letting loose missiles and Thanix shots at easy targets, inflicting wounds the fleet behind them could capitalize on. By the time they breached the defenders, one Hegemony dreadnaught was already floundering in space, leaking atmosphere and crew into the vacuum.
Once the shaking of their entry had subsided somewhat, the cargo bay door opened, and Shepard punched the shuttle thrusters, propelling them into free-fall. They split off from the Normandy, slowing down as the air grabbed at their vehicle, and in only two minutes they blew over the shipping town. Regular glass windows shattered in the wake of the vessel, and everyone lurched against the straps as the brakes fired.
Hitting the ground hard enough to crack the cheaper concrete of the street, the door flung open. Zaeed and Legion leaped out while Jack manned the auto-cannon, turning a knot of local police into gory orange smears. "Fuck yeah, Shepard! You bring me to the best places!" she crowed, encouraging some screaming civilians by blowing holes in the street and showering them with dust and stone fragments.
They poured out of the shuttle, the door swinging shut and locking under the command of several geth programs. The artifact was two blocks away, and as long as the indoctrinated hadn't set up sniper nests in the buildings along the street, they should be fine.
Naturally, that was when a shot dropped three quarters of her shield strength. "Snipers!" she shouted, flinging a singularity at one of the walls. Glass fragments tore free of the window, along with the rifle, though the shooter held on for an astonishing three seconds. Long enough for Zaeed to draw a bead, and calmly sever his hand with a careful burst. "Legion, you're on anti-sniper duty! Zaeed, Jack, clear the street!"
Crowds of people, both batarian and human, fought desperately to escape. Doors were torn down or forced open, but there was no way to know when a seemingly panicked dockworker or restaurant employee would stop, turn around with a weapon, and attack them.
For the third time, Shepard's pistol overheated. She cursed, using the dissipaters to smack a batarian across the face. His flesh scorched instantly, one of his eyes popping under the heat, but a biotic-enhanced elbow sent him staggering away. Keiji's shot took him out a moment later, and Shepard dropped another singularity behind them to stall the crowd.
A low decorative fence surrounded the device, which stood two stories tall. Keiji leaped the fence easily, picking handholds and footholds in the rugged surface. Truthfully, it reminded Shepard a little too much of the machinery built into the walls of the Collector base and ship. She executed another indoctrinated human as he lifted a section of pipe.
The bloodshed like this reminded her a little too much of Elysium, when she'd repulsed the Skyllian Blitz. At least the husks and Collectors didn't splatter blood, filling the air with the smell of their shit, or wail in pain if her bullet or gravity slams didn't kill them the first time. But the indoctrinated did, their screams of pain and confusion adding to the cacophony.
A rogue shot from the orbital fight slammed down several blocks away, filling the air with dust. The shockwave knocked Liara off her feet, and Keiji hung precariously for a moment by one hand, unwilling to drop the explosives clutched in the other. A quick yank of biotics brought Liara back to her feet right after two bullets ripped through the crowd behind her. "Shepard, look out!"
It took a moment for the world to stop spinning, but she picked herself up on elbows and shook her head. The Reaper device had stopped her travel, and the fence had stopped the ground car that hit her. Orange blood spattered the inside of the viewscreen, and she managed to get back to her feet. Jack lifted the car with a quick null gravity field, hurling it towards the thickest crowd of people. "Shep, you okay?"
"Just peachy," she said. Her armor was pinching her ribs and abdomen, and her shields were offline, but she could still hold a barrier for a while. Her pistol was missing, but one of the indoctrinated had dropped a shotgun. As much as it pained her to admit it, this wasn't a job that called for precision.
Two more minutes of combat went by in screams and explosions went by before Keiji reached the ground, every piece of explosives placed. "We're good! Let's get out of here!"
Shepard tapped her omni-tool, giving everyone the signal. They pulled back together from their loose circle around the device, shoving their way back through the street towards the shuttle. A crowd had surrounded the vehicle, pounding on the doors and the view screen, trying to break in and escape the destruction coming down.
A glance back showed her indoctrinated starting to swarm over the device. Each one had a micro-shield generator, and they purposely attached twice as much as they needed to blow up the Reaper tech, but she saw one of them tear off one block and hurl it into the street. Grimacing, she brought up the shotgun and blasted away at the crowd before a sweeping gravity throw cleared the door. They leaped back inside the shuttle one at a time, the panicked civilians fleeing the six death-bringers.
Thirty seconds later, Legion had the shuttle in the air, and Keiji hit the detonator. The entire intersection vanished in a ball of fire and shrapnel. Bodies, in pieces and whole, went flying down every street as the nearest buildings began collapsing. They made a quick pass back over the site, letting the sensors confirm that the device had been obliterated.
The ride across the lake was quiet and longer than Shepard wanted. She couldn't stop fidgeting as they crossed the lake, breaking the sound barrier again as they raced towards their companions. "Oh, Goddess," Liara said suddenly.
Shepard looked up, blinking in surprise. "What? What's wrong?"
The asari pointed at the damaged armor. "Your indoctrination device, it was smashed by the car." Even as Shepard looked down at her waist, Zaeed reached out a hand, cupping it around her cheek while his omni-tool scanned her.
Ten agonizing seconds later, it beeped. "Says you're clean. Goddamn lucky of you."
She tried to pull the damaged thing clear, only to have it crumble away to shattered plastic and charred electronics. "Fuck. Keiji, can you whip up a replacement?"
The technothief arched an eyebrow at her. "Only if I can start cannibalizing parts from the shuttle or our pilot."
"We cannot consent to that at this time, Shepard-Commander," Legion said instantly.
Smacking her thigh with a fist, Shepard opened her mouth to swear. "Shepard, we're heading your way. Adjust course to three-thirteen degrees, I'll open the door for you," Joker's voice interrupted from the radio.
"Well, fuck," Jack complained. "We were almost there, too."
"What, you didn't get your fill of gunning down unarmed batarians?" Zaeed asked. Jack just snorted.
Shepard burst out of the elevator at the same time the Normandy climbed back out of atmosphere. "Report," she barked, stepping up to the galaxy map as Adams stepped aside.
"Nineteen targets on the surface have been obliterated. Three Armiger squads are taking care of the last one. All batarian ships have been crippled or destroyed, and capture and salvage missions are underway," Adams said. "General Victus has ordered us to loop around the planet. If the Armigers can't get the indoctrinated out of the way to plant the charges, we are to hover and blast it with the Thanix."
The mere thought of that beam of molten iron being turned on a city block made her stomach clench. "Understood. Joker, ETA?"
"Nine minutes until we're in position," the pilot shouted. "Pushing it as hard as I can!"
The minutes crawled by in bustling activity, air shivering with the tenseness of the crew. Just as the Normandy was pulling up over the city, a brilliant fireball lit up part of the city. "Target destroyed," Shepard said. The explosives were destructive, but a Thanix shot could potentially set the entire city on fire.
Leaning against the railing, Shepard nodded tiredly. "Joker, get us out of here." She looked down at the crumpled armor. "I have to see about getting cut out of this."
Garrus met her in the armory, where Vega and Zaeed were already putting away the weapons. Twenty minutes later, the suit lay in pieces and chunks across the floor, dismantled enough for her to wriggle out of the rest of it. "So, this whole time, you've been walking around in that armor," Garrus said disapprovingly, running the back of one talon along one bright red line on her abdomen.
"I didn't exactly have a choice, Garrus. I got hit by a car," she complained.
"Goddamn lucky, is what she is. That car was a little slower, she'd have hit the fence knees first," Zaeed muttered. "Then the ground head first."
Garrus pulled her into an embrace, then locked one hand around her arm. "You're going to see Chakwas right now," he insisted. She let herself be led along, and for once did not complain about getting medigel or an examination.
An hour later, she sank into sleep, Garrus' arms wrapped around her and her body deliciously sore for an entirely different reason.
In her dream, she found herself again on the Citadel, standing there on that platform, below the tower, staring at the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives against the Reapers. "You know this will happen again," Harbinger said from behind her.
She whirled around, staring at the human-sized Reaper as it drifted past her, towards the beam. "You surprised us, but I am already on my way. A million Reapers ride my wake towards your galaxy and your pitiful excuse of life."
"Afraid, Harby?" she asked. She knew it was a dream, yet her knees still quaked. "I almost beat you before. I can damn well do the job properly this time."
"Can you?" Jack Harper asked from her other side. He sat on the ramp that led to the control interface, where the Conduit promised to put her in charge of the Reapers. "Can you really, Shepard? Your name is quite the irony. Last time, you led more humans to their deaths than anyone in the last two centuries."
"Shut up, 'Illusive Man,'" she sneered right back at him, throwing in finger quotes for good measure. "I did more good than you did, and maybe the body count would have been lower if you hadn't been brainwashing civilians and throwing them in front of my gun!"
"This future still hinges on one thing," Jack replied, unfazed as he flicked cigarette ashes into the air, letting them spin lazily. "Something your turian boyfriend actually had right."
"The brutal calculus of war," Garrus said, wrapping his arms around her. Only it was the Garrus from her future, with a synthetic mandible and three times as many scars and a legacy of heartache and pain that could fill an encyclopedia. "Who will you leave to die, so that others will live? Kaidan?" Outside the window, one of the Reapers speared the biotic through the navel with a brilliant scarlet beam.
"Kasumi?" The thief died, smaller Reapers swarming over her the way their seekers had, carrying her away when Miranda collapsed. "Maybe next time it'll be someone different. Tali, perhaps?" A Praetorian came out of nowhere, the size of a dreadnaught, tearing through the quarian's suit and feeding mouthfuls of entrails into its dozen mouths.
"Me?" he whispered. That same apartment, the same bridge, only this time it wasn't mercenaries but hordes of husks and Collectors, too many for the crack sniper to take down before they were inside the building, and then they were on him, fists and feet hammering his shields, then his armor, then his flesh, blue blood spraying everywhere.
She shuddered as the comforting arms evaporated like mist. Her eyes closed tight, and when they opened, Garrus and Jack and Harbinger were all missing, and only the Catalyst remained, still standing there, translucent and creepy.
"You got one thing wrong," it told her, stepping forward, holding out a hand surrounded by the familiar holograms of her omni-tool. "We don't need to indoctrinate you this time around. We already did it the first time." The omni-tool holograms all flashed red, one word repeating over and over again in an endless scroll as the luminous hand grabbed her around the wrist. "You're mine, Shepard."
She bolted upright in bed, hands clawing for the nightstand and her omni-tool before her dream-fogged brain could even concentrate. The bathroom door opened to let Garrus leap down the stairs as she fumbled with it, bringing up the detection program and slapping the omni on her other hand. Comforting arms swept her up as it beeped green, and when she tried to reset the program he took it away from her, subharmonics trilling reassurances against her neck. "Shepard, you're fine. You're fine. There's nothing wrong with you," he whispered, voice threaded with worry and comfort.
"What if it's not in my brain?" she asked, turning around in his embrace, pressing her forehead to his as she spilled out the worry from the dream. "What if it's not in my brain, because they didn't have to get into me this time? Because they got into me before I came back in time, they got into my brain there, so they still have their hooks into me? In my mind, into my soul, maybe. Do we have souls?"
He cut off the babbling by pressing his mouth to hers, talons pricking her bare back as he squeezed her tight. "Shepard. We do have a soul. I swear, spirits, you have the most brilliant, beautiful soul that I've ever seen," he whispered into her mouth. It took a moment to coax her trembling body back under the covers. "It was just a dream, Shepard. Just a dream. You're just trying to process what happened to all those poor people on Anhur."
She lay there, staring into the darkness and listening to the faint gurgle of the fishtank, trying her hardest to believe him.