MASS EFFECT: DARK SAGA
*Chapter Thirteen: Enemy Within*
Shepard's mouth ran dry as he caught sight of the turian body on the monorail platform. Again he reasoned that it couldn't be Nihlus, that a Spectre would not let himself be ambushed but there was no mistaking the dark armour and skin. Even the Spectre's brilliant white face paint was achingly clear in the Mantis' scope. Nihlus was indeed dead and a quick glance saw Alenko too was rapt with astonishment.
'Are you sure it's him, Commander?' the lieutenant asked softly.
Shepard nodded, though he did not respond for fear of showing the extent of his distress. It would have taken a great deal to bring Nihlus down and knowing there was a force out there capable of killing a veteran Spectre brought a knot of fear into Shepard's stomach.
He quashed it quickly, knowing to let it take root was to bring defeat. Instead he looked to Williams and forced a quiet authority into his voice, 'How's your marksmanship, Chief?'
'Damn good, Commander,' she replied confidently, 'As good as a marine's should be and then some.'
'We'll engage from a distance. Focus your fire on the geth but if those Husk creatures wake up, they're the priority. Lieutenant,' he said, turning to Alenko, 'you make sure those things don't get close.'
The air around Alenko shimmered slightly and he bobbed his head. His forehead dripped with sweat and Shepard could see how hard his body had been punished thus far. Biotics may have been able to control forces beyond that of any human but the strength needed to do so was immense. Still, there was no weakness in Alenko and Shepard clapped him on the shoulder, pleased.
'We've got one shot at this,' the commander told them, his eyes hard, 'We thin their numbers at range then move in hard, but no grenades. We've already encountered survivors so far and the last thing we want is a stray explosion taking out a group of civvies hiding nearby.'
'What's your part, Commander?' asked Williams.
Shepard laid a hand on his sniper rifle as an answer. 'Take cover, both of you. Alenko, stay between us. Mind your spacing but don't spread too far out. We can't afford to get separated.'
Alenko and Williams nodded their understanding and as one, the team rose into a jog, cresting the hill and each heading for a piece of cover. Williams chose a dark cube of rock to the far left and just ahead of her, Alenko hunkered down behind a fallen tree. To the immediate right, Shepard spotted an overturned prefab, one of several that burned, belching inky smoke into the sky.
When he was certain they hadn't been spotted, Shepard took another look at the station. It was much closer than he'd anticipated and momentarily he questioned his own plan. The geth would not miss at this short distance and the Husks were frighteningly near. Closing his eyes for a second, he released his doubts through a deep breath of sour air. There was no time now for second guesses.
Breaking cover, he took a knee and levelled his sights on the rearmost geth on the platform. It was waiting, he could see, cold and patient and still but he had seen it first.
He squeezed the trigger.
Shepard's rifle bucked in his shoulder and the geth's optics exploded in a shower of white. Barely had it fallen when Shepard was forced back behind the prefab as a torrent of pulse fire collided against it, like an ocean wave upon rocks. The bolts of energy spat and fizzled on metal and plastic, and Shepard pursed his lips against the heat.
Williams joined the fray, emerging to expertly rest her rifle on the rock for stability. More geth fell and their returning fire became scattered and sporadic - more so as their numbers were ground down.
After only a few seconds, the grinding snarl of the geth spikes tore the air and Shepard's fingers tightened their snaking grip on his weapon. He risked a look toward Alenko.
The lieutenant was ready, his body bent into a crouch that would allow him to spring quickly from behind his shelter.
The first of the Husks began to run as soon as its feet hit the ground. With lurching, staggering steps it ascended the hill, slipping on loose mud as it screeched and wailed. The sight of it sent a shudder through Shepard's body and he blinked hard to ignore them and remain focused on the geth.
As ordered, Williams shifted targets and her rifle shredded the Husk in moments, though more followed in its wake. Shepard counted half a dozen of the grotesque synthetics from the corner of his vision as they lumbered up to his position.
His Mantis shook and another geth tumbled down the station's access ramp with a gaping hole in its chest, a streak of white blood painting the ground beneath it.
Still the Husks came and Williams had only managed to drop three of them. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Shepard marvelled at the ruthless ingenuity of the geth. Not only had they found a way to turn their enemy's dead against them but the Husks were perfect shock troops - impervious to pain, fear and utterly expendable.
Shepard had not come unprepared, however.
'Alenko, now!' he yelled.
Alenko rose to his feet directly in the Husks' path and with a grunt of effort, loosed a broad, rippling blue wave of biotic energy.
The impact echoed across the hillside and shook the wall next to Shepard as the remaining three Husks were hurled back, thrown off their feet by the force of the wave. Two crashed against the barriers edging the station while the other slammed into one of the remaining geth, the bodies of both machines broken and crushed.
Shepard dispatched the final geth soldier with calm precision, and as the final report of his rifle ebbed away a great calm fell upon them all. It was the distinctive numb joy that always came with survival and Shepard always relished it, no matter how many times it came to him.
'Clear,' he announced and with a firm gesture, brought Alenko and Williams to him. 'Looks like we have the monorail station. Let's get down there and find whatever trace we can of that beacon.'
Alenko met his eyes with a trace of hesitation. 'What about Nihlus? The geth might be using his body as bait to lure us into a trap.'
Shepard ran his gaze across the mangled carcasses of geth and Husks littering the hill and station platform. 'I'd say we've already sprung the trap, Lieutenant but don't let your guard down.'
'Who is this 'Nihlus' you keep talking about?' Williams asked, 'Is he another member of your team?'
The question brought a subtle glance from Alenko, his eyes asking Shepard a silent question. After a moment's consideration, Shepard nodded. 'I think you've earned the right to know, Chief. Alenko, take point while I bring her up to speed.'
The more Shepard explained, the less it made sense, even to him. They had landed on Eden Prime with one goal - to retrieve the beacon - but between the smugglers and the crazy scientist, it seemed something was amiss in the colony even before the arrival of the geth. That part of their discussion that made Williams frown pensively, her eyes becoming distant as she mulled over thoughts and events from before the attack.
As they approached the monorail station, she voiced her concern, 'There's definitely something weird about how quickly they ambushed us. One minute the skies were clear, the next we're being ripped apart by those things. It all happened so quickly. Too quickly.'
'Sabotage?' Shepard ventured. He ascended the access ramp and his boot crunched against the outstretched arm of a geth trooper.
'I can't think of any other way to explain it. A colony of this size may not have much in the way of static defences but after the Blitz, we sure as hell have enough sensors out there to trip an alarm at the first sign of a hostile ship.'
From a few paces ahead, Alenko chipped in, 'And that geth ship certainly fits the 'hostile' bill.'
The thought unsettled Shepard and he could think of nothing else as he scanned the dead, empty station. 'Whether we're dealing with sleeper agents, infiltrators or something else entirely, something must have shut down the colony's early warning systems from the inside. It's the only possible explanation.'
'And whoever it was will be long gone by now,' Alenko concluded gravely.
Shepard's eyes drifted to him for a moment in agreement before resuming their appraisal of the station. The place had been wrecked, with shipping crates scattered like spilt sand across the platform and fires burning in every corner. There were no bodies though and Shepard felt a pang of remorse for the dead. No doubt they had already been taken away to be converted into Husks.
With only the crackle of flames to break the gentle murmer of the wind, Shepard lowered his weapon. 'Spread out and search for the beacon,' he said.
'Any idea what it is we're looking out for?' Alenko asked with no small amount of irony.
Shepard winced slightly and shrugged in admission of the fact that he didn't have a clue, 'No idea, but something tells me we'll know when we see it. Just look for anything out of the ordinary.'
Out of the ordinary amid a burning colony and the corpses of a long-forgotten machine race, he added mentally. Alenko was right to point out their folly - their whole situation was insane.
Rather than search for the beacon immediately, Shepard strode to the right, where the platform curled around the main structure, which was no more than a rigid series of thick support columns. It was there he recalled seeing Nihlus and again, on seeing the turian's body, Shepard felt a tug of loss. He knelt beside it and his fingers traced the hole that had been put in Nihlus' forehead before coming away dark and sticky with blood.
This wound wasn't caused by a geth weapon, Shepard observed. That alone was cause for alarm and his senses pricked at a sudden and real sense of threat. Someone had shot Nihlus with a standard weapon - the same shot he'd heard before discovering Doctor Warren and Manuel.
Dying alone on an alien world was a fear held by every operative and Shepard doubted Nihlus was any different. He had not known the man but he'd sensed he and Nihlus were the same. They had both been agents devoted to peace, and both had done terrible things to achieve it. There had been a weight of regret in Nihlus' eyes that Shepard understood only too well. Now those eyes stared blankly up at the red sky, empty and soulless.
'A turian?' Williams said, breaking his contemplations. She stepped up to Shepard, her eyes fastening on Nihlus from beneath her visor. 'He was in your squad? Why would the Alliance need alien help?'
There was a trace of emotion in her voice, though Shepard could not pinpoint exactly what it was. It hardly mattered while Nihlus' body lay cold on the ground. Shepard turned to her. 'He's a Spectre. The Council sent him along with us to retrieve the beacon.'
'The Council? Why do they-' Something passed over Williams, as if she wanted to shout but she restrained herself at the last moment. Shepard waited for her to continue, but after several moments she only firmed her mouth, pressing it into silence.
'Do you have something to say, Chief?' asked Shepard, his eyebrows raised.
Williams' lips opened but instead, Alenko's voice came from the other side of the station, stealing her response.
'Commander! We've got a survivor here!'
Shepard's gaze lingered on Williams for a few seconds longer until he was forced to move past her. He jogged over to Alenko, who stood beside a fallen stack of crates. Next to him, looking frightened beyond reason was a young man in grubby work overalls and a thick, short-sleeved jacket. His skin was waxen and pale, and he watched nervously as Shepard approached, his hands fidgeting and twitching in front of him.
Shepard's nostrils flared at the heavy stench of sweat upon him. This one had been in the thick of things, he was certain, and could tell them much. Still, Shepard kept his senses sharp and alert. Nihlus' killer was on the loose and for all he knew, this civilian could have shot him in panic.
The commander held up a palm as he neared. 'Calm down, we're not going to hurt you. We're with the Alliance.'
The young man narrowed his eyes. 'Soldiers?' he asked brusquely.
Shepard's own eyes flinched a little at the response. It was not difficult to assume his team were marines but the word was spoken with an edge of suspicion. The civilian constantly shifted from one foot to another, unable to keep still for more than a moment.
'We're here for the artifact they dug up on the other side of that hill,' Shepard said. 'What do you know about it?'
The man shrugged. 'I wouldn't know anything about it. I'm just a dock worker, I worked over at the space port on the other end of the monorail line, right where that alien ship landed. That's where those...those things came from. They just poured out of the ship and swarmed over the place, killing everyone they could. The marines here never stood a chance.'
'You saw the attack?' Shepard asked.
Hanging his head, the man seemed reluctant to answer. He swayed slightly, though whether it was from exhaustion or hesitation, Shepard could not tell.
'I saw everything. I hid in a crate before they reached me and I had to...I was forced to listen to the screams. I still hear them now when I close my eyes, those people begging for mercy. I….how can this happen? Who'd want to attack Eden Prime?'
Shepard let the question slip by. There was no answer he could give that the civilian could understand. A low rumble spread through the crimson clouds, perhaps thunder or the engines of a ship. It made Shepard look up to see a flurry of glowing embers rising from a nearby fire, lifted by the wind until they danced hypnotically.
The commander swallowed as old memories surfaced and he brought his thoughts back sharply to the now. 'Who are you?' he asked, suddenly eager to move on. 'What's your name?'
Again, the man gave him a wary look. 'Why do you want to know?'
'We're rounding up survivors,' Shepard lied, 'We need names to compile a casualty list for when Alliance reinforcements arrive.'
'You don't look like one of the marine garrison. I know a few of the boys from the two-twelve. I've never seen you before.'
Williams took a step forward and Shepard was glad to hear her voice remain firm, 'He's just transferred here from the fleet. I'm with the two-twelve, Captain Danning's platoon.'
'Danning, yeah,' the man murmured, nodding to himself, 'Yeah, I know the guy. Ran a few shipments by him before….before all this.'
'Shipments?' Shepard questioned. He gave the man a hard look, making him hesitate.
The civilian bit his lip gently as he reached up to scratch under his collar. 'Yeah, there's always an Alliance officer on duty over at the space port. They keep an eye on security, sign off on the occasional docking permit, that kind of thing.'
Shepard crossed his arms over his chest, making his armour scrape. 'So if you worked at the space port, why aren't you over there now? I can't imagine it was easy to sneak through miles of hostile territory, just to hide behind those boxes?'
'I-' the man faltered, his mouth ajar. He looked from Shepard to Williams and back again. 'Okay, I wasn't actually at the port when the attack started. I was here on business.'
Shepard stared at him, his gaze filled with a sudden certainty. 'I know what kind of business you're into,' he said, his voice dropping to a menacing growl, 'Powell.'
'Wha-? How did you know my-'
Powell held up his hands and almost cried out as Shepard gripped him roughly by his undershirt. 'Cole told me all about your operation. How you steal weapons and supplies bound for the marine garrison, just to sell them on.'
'No!' Powell yelped, 'No, you're wrong!'
'Am I?' Shepard seethed, 'I had a long chat with Cole and the others. I know you're their contact on the docks, that you alter manifests, shipping logs but it doesn't stop there, does it?' His eyes bored into Powell with palpable force, giving his words a weight that made the young man tremble in his grip. 'You had some other way of getting those shipments planetside, didn't you?'
Behind him, Williams stepped forward, her voice shaking with fury as she glared at Powell through hate-filled eyes. 'You son of a bitch! All this time we've been here and you've been stealing weapons, weapons that could've saved marine lives here today!'
'We didn't know!' Powell spluttered, 'How could we know?'
Williams raised her voice, 'That's your excuse? You didn't know?'
Her hands were balled into white-plated fists and Shepard could see she ached to lash out at the smuggler who had jeopardised her unit. He was almost tempted to let her but Alenko reached out, placing a hand on her arm to ease her back.
'Come on, Chief,' he said, softly, 'He's not worth the trouble.'
Williams spent several long seconds with her gaze lingering on Powell, her every breath hissing through clenched teeth. Finally, she relented with a grunt of disgust.
Shepard brought Powell closer and murmured, 'That soldier lost a lot of friends today. You're lucky I don't let her take her grief out on you.'
'I'm telling you, I didn't know any of this was 'gonna happen! We just wanted to make a few creds on stuff we thought the marines were never going to use.' Powell waited for Shepard to release him but the commander's grasp remained firm and after a time, Powell swore under his breath. 'Okay, you're right. There was no way we could move that many guns just by forging a few documents. Cole came up with the idea of waylaying the freighter earlier on before moving the weapons onto a shuttle.'
'Which you could land in heavy terrain, well away from prying eyes,' Alenko finished.
Powell bobbed his head. 'Yeah, but that still left the problem of remote sensors picking the shuttle up on approach. We...me, Cole, all of us - we all have jobs. We knew we'd be missed if we disappeared so we couldn't meet the shuttle too far out.'
Shepard's response was weighted with bitter realisation, 'So you shut down the colony's early warning system to let the shuttle through.'
The sound of the truth was too much for Powell. His eyes met the ground in misery. 'It was only for twenty minutes, just a small window. I'd already decided I didn't want to do it anymore, that this would be the last time. How was I supposed to know that ship was there, waiting?'
Shepard's knuckles curled around Powell's shirt further, tightening it around his neck. He stared at the man furiously. 'There are no coincidences, Powell. One of you must have given some signal, some clue to let the geth know the defences were down.'
Frowning, Alenko moved close to Shepard and spoke quietly, 'Commander, I have a hard time believing the geth just happened on the planet as its sensors were out but...do you really think any of these people working with the geth is any more plausible?'
The question revolved in Shepard's mind and he too could not picture it.
To their surprise, the reply came gasping from Powell's lips, 'Th-they did have someone working with them. A turian!'
'What the hell are you talking about?' Shepard asked, his expression twisting with doubt. With a rough jerk, he released Powell.
'There were two turians,' Powell huffed as he fumbled with his shirt, 'One arrived first, he was...it looked like he was directing the geth - that's what those things are, right? The other, he came later. He met the first one just over there. He called him Saren.'
'Saren,' Shepard repeated. His eyes moved searchingly, analysing the name. It sounded oddly familiar.
'The other turian knew him. He lowered his weapon, turned his back and...' Powell paused to shake his head in shock, 'And Saren shot him.'
An empty sickness washed over Shepard and he looked carefully at Powell for a long time. 'Are you sure?' he said, 'Are you absolutely certain that's what you saw?'
Powell nodded hard. 'Positive. I didn't get a good look at Saren since his back was turned most of the time and I couldn't risk being spotted but yeah...I heard the other turian use the name over and over.'
Taking a deep breath, Shepard shot a fearful look at his team. Both Alenko and Williams mirrored him, their faces clouded with trepidation and confusion. Nihlus had been murdered and it was clear the geth were not alone. Worse - they were being led, it seemed, by an organic. The implications whirled in Shepard's mind and he had to set himself against them. His expression hardened and he turned back to Powell.
'Where did Saren go?'
Powell tipped his head to where the monorail stood and Shepard followed his gaze. There was a car still on the track, a cargo train with a string of wide, flat carriages. They were now as empty as everything else they had seen on that planet, but Shepard knew they would serve his purpose.
Without another word to Powell, he returned to Williams and Alenko. 'If anyone has the beacon, it's this Saren. He'll probably be long gone by now but if we're lucky, he'll have left some kind of clue to his destination.'
'The space port is open ground, Commander,' Williams said, her dark eyes showing an assuredness that made Shepard look at her curiously, 'The monorail passes under several bridges and from there it's an uphill battle into the docks. If the geth are still there it'll be a tough fight.'
'You know the layout?' Shepard asked as he checked over his weapons and equipment. A subtle air of anticipation had fallen over them all as each prepared for more action ahead.
'Like the back of my hand. I pulled a few boring duties up there from time to time.' Williams hefted her shoulders, and her mouth quirked into a guilty smile. 'I have this habit of looking around and judging how defensible a place is when I'm bored, like what positions I'd take or where I'd assault from.'
Shepard returned her smile, a slight tilt of his lips. 'A 'habit', huh?'
The gunnery chief looked aside for a moment, embarrassed. Shepard showed her mercy and ended the discussion, striding past her in the direction of the monorail train.
'If Saren is still here, we'll find him,' he said. 'We'll form an assault plan on the way. Let's get moving.'
As the others fell in behind him, Shepard let out a hard breath through his teeth. He winced at a pain in his right arm, though he couldn't have placed when he'd sustained it and above all else, fatigue hung like a shroud over his body and mind. He kept himself strong, for his team if nothing else and his eyes burned with the single need to root Saren and the beacon out.
He had to ensure Nihlus hadn't died for nothing.
Trees and fields moved past the monorail car in a green blur, their branches creaking and swaying in the sudden rush of wind. The dark shapes of pylons whipped overhead, each one thumping the air in a rhythm that matched Shepard's heart. His eyes followed them individually, one after the other.
He crouched in silence. Alenko and Williams were behind him and both kept their own heads forward as the train carried them over land untouched by the invasion, though all were aware of the pillar of grey smoke rising from their destination far ahead.
Shepard licked his lips and reached up to scratch his head, but his fingers stopped at the touch of his helmet. He cursed his own distraction. This was more than the subtle nerves that came with impending contact. Not since Torfan had Shepard gone into a situation with so little idea of what could possibly happen, when so much had already gone wrong.
Nihlus was dead. The beacon had been stolen by an alien race that hadn't been seen for centuries and to make matters worse, they were being commanded by a member of a Council race. Events had spun so far out of Shepard's control that all he could do was ride the train to his next battle and see what came of it. He had no idea what he would tell Anderson - if he made it back to the Normandy in one piece.
The space port appeared to their right as a metallic glimmer above the gentle peaks, growing quickly into a vast, sweeping complex of white metal. The foliage on either side disappeared in a flash, replaced by reams of pale, gleaming walls dotted with lights. It was almost blinding in its bright, clean lines - especially against the ruddy auburn of the sky.
Already Shepard could see the walkways and gantries spanning the air above the tracks and beyond them, long grey beams dragged cables up high into the air. The bridges commanded a perfect view over the entire monorail.
On impulse, he turned to his team. Both Lieutenant Alenko and Chief Williams were looking past him, their features set in determination. The sight gave Shepard some confidence and he traced the lines of his pistol's grip with the edge of his thumb, rubbing at the smooth metal in his anticipation.
The train slowed, then came a shuddering halt beside a rough, unpainted platform. Immediately, Shepard signalled with a hand. 'Move!' he ordered, 'Up to the docks, go!'
The others set off at a run, as they had planned. The monorail was set into a depression in the ground and both the docks and walkways were suspended above. They were sitting ducks until they climbed the nearby stairs up to the next level and Shepard silently thanked Williams for her detailed description of the area. It may not have been perfect but he knew from long experience that even the barest plan was better than nothing.
His heart jolted as he saw a line of shimmering, metallic figures appear on the nearest bridge.
He did not wait for the deadly thudding of pulse fire to begin. Grunting, he leapt onto the platform and took a hold of the stairwell railing, hauling himself around. He sprinted up the stairs and a glance to his front showed Alenko and Williams had almost made it to the top.
On reaching the second level they immediately doubled back, slamming their bodies against the barriers that lined the walkway, and readied their weapons to return fire.
Shepard leaned into the stairs, panting as he took the last few two at a time. His team answered the geth with a volley of their own, until the air was criss-crossed with staggered streams of glowing blue. In only seconds the port had become drowned in a chorus of weapons fire.
Something pounded into Shepard's left shoulder, making him stumble. He crested the top of the stairs, falling into a roll and he raised his head immediately in an instinctive search for where the shot had come from. All he could see were the head-lamps of the geth and the muzzle flashes of their weapons, near identical in the maelstrom.
Shepard pulled himself into cover. He held his pistol up and shouted over the noise, 'Split up. Williams, hold them here. Alenko and I will move left.'
The walkways formed a gigantic ring around the monorail platform. It only made sense to counter attack on two fronts. Shepard ran a gaze over Williams. She was breathing hard but calm and in control. He knew she would hold.
Alenko rose on his heels slightly to snatch a quick look over the barrier and it spat hot chips of metal only moments later. He ducked back down again, wincing. 'I can see a few shipping containers to the far left. They should give us some cover.'
It did not need to be said. Shepard's trained eyes had singled them out long ago. Still, he nodded and tapped Williams on the shoulder with the flat of his palm, signalling his intent.
'Give 'em hell, Commander!' she yelled out and with bared teeth she fired another long burst, shattering a grey-armoured geth into sparking pieces.
Though Alenko kept as low as he possibly could, hunching down as he ran until his calves and thighs burned beneath his armour, the geth spotted the manoeuvre instantly and moved to intercept them. Frowning in disbelief, he watched as a white-clad unit pointed at him with a curved finger and the soldiers around it reacted, falling into formation with flawless precision.
'I've never seen anything like it,' he commented breathlessly, 'There's no surprising them.'
'If Williams comes through we can still beat them with the basics,' Shepard replied.
Alenko had his doubts but he did not voice them. As another flurry of rounds cracked overhead he closed his eyes in concentration and deployed a biotic barrier, the sapphire haze bringing an itching burn to his skin that would torment him for as long as he could maintain it. The scent of burning electronics was strong on the wind, overpowering even the taste of blood on his tongue that always came when he pushed his biotic amp too hard.
The longest run of the docking complex lay around a corner to their right and it was there the geth waited - a dense knot of shining metal, lights and tubes. Their view would be broken in places by the tall shipping crates littering the area yet Alenko felt nothing but sickening dread regardless. It would be a bloody struggle to take them down.
A stuttering line of rifle fire cut into the geth squad, drawing their attention and for a precious moment they focused on Williams, far across the train yard.
Shepard made a quick gesture and Alenko joined him in rushing out into the open space. Time itself seemed too slow for Alenko's senses and a familiar spike of pain worried at the base of his skull.
Not now, he told himself, trying to push the headache back. Not now!
A glancing blow rocked him to the side and he half-fell into the shadow of the wall. He pulled himself further into its shadow and lifted a hand to his shoulder to check the damage to his shields. It was then Alenko saw it, laying only a few feet away - a bulky shape hidden in the alcove with him.
The geth were forgotten as Alenko inspected the strange object. It was almost as big as a man, a bulky assembly of cables and tubes beneath an an alloy casing but it was the steadily blinking keypad on top that held Alenko's eyes.
Even though the device was clearly geth in origin, there was no mistaking its purpose and Alenko filled his lungs to shout, 'Commander! You'd better take a look at this!'
He faced the geth bomb, his heart a hammering force in his chest.