Before the Leviathan wearing what was left of Vincent Callahan's body had finished speaking, Shepard had her gun pointed directly at its—his?—head. It did not flinch. It watched her with unblinking, reddened eyes. She doubted a bullet would hurt the insidious consciousness harbored within, but the placebo effect on her own nerves couldn't be ignored. She didn't have to look over her shoulder to know Garrus had it—not him; it no longer seemed human enough for that—in his sights, too.
"Is this how we are repaid? You knew our price; you knew what we would demand," continued the creature. Its stillness unsettled her. "Did we not help? Did we not seek out your enemies and destroy them? Were we not the friends you needed, Shepard? The enemies of your enemies?"
"Get out of my head," she snarled, the words burning her tongue like they were laced with poison. It wasn't the same as the bizarre, blackout experience she'd had beneath the waves on Despoina, no strange watery landscape populated by faces and voices from her past, but they were her words, her tone, the justification she knew damned well she'd fallen back on more than once during the course of the war. She bit the inside of her cheek, because what she really wanted to do was check to see if her nose was bleeding.
She'd never liked Vincent Callahan's laugh. He'd always sounded like he was laughing at instead of with; he'd sounded as if he took genuine enjoyment in any unpleasantness that happened to someone, anyone, other than himself. When the creature laughed now, the slow wheeze of a deathbed confession, her finger twitched, longing to pull the trigger. Point and shoot.
A bullet that wouldn't solve anything, but would prove to the Leviathans that they could rattle her. She stilled her finger. She stilled her thoughts.
"Your mind belongs to me."
"No," Shepard said. "It doesn't. We played that game once. I'm not keen on a repeat. Next you're going to say something about breaching the darkness. Maybe 'you've come too far'?" She forced herself to look into the thing's eyes, forced herself not to blink. "Except you've been sitting here waiting for us to show up. For some time, if the state of that host is any indication."
"It is weak. You are all weak."
She nodded as though it made a valid point. "Yet here we are, standing on our own two feet in a galaxy empty of Reapers, doing what you in your infinite superiority never could." She smiled a death's head smile. "How many Cycles did you hide from your creations? How long did you tremble in the shadows, waiting for the death you made, the death that wore your own face?"
"Your arrogance will not save you."
"Ahh, but you called it confidence, before. As I recall, you said it was singular." She laughed. A real laugh. This, at least, was familiar territory. This was like the snap her hardsuit seals made, like the click of her guns fitting into their holsters. This was humping a pack almost as heavy as she was through treacherous jungle or desert or mountains. This was like coming home. "Please. Back me into a corner. You witnessed how well that worked out for the Reapers. Go on. Give me a push. See how hard I push back."
Movement at Shepard's side made her turn her head, though the aim of her weapon never wavered. Nicholas' eyes were fixed on the creature wearing his father like an ill-fitting suit. Shepard had seen her own father's corpse on Mindoir—had seen the fire, the bubbling paint, the blood—and her imagination had pulled no punches when it came to filling in details she hadn't been present for. Horrific as that memory was, it couldn't compare with Nicholas' present. He could not hide from this.
It was like watching the vid Jack had taken on the Empire, and having to see her own lips form words she knew she'd never have spoken. Uneasy.
"Dad? Dad, we're going to—It's going to be—You can fight this."
The thing about platitudes. Even Nicholas didn't sound convinced.
She'd spent a lot of time hating Vincent Callahan. She'd hated the way he looked at her, like dessert he wasn't allowed to eat but might try to get a taste of if no one was looking. She'd hated the smell of his cologne, always mixed with cigarette smoke and the scent of stale sweat. She'd learned the tread of his footsteps, learned how to make herself still and small and patient to avoid him. She'd spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to twist one of his wandering hands behind him, forcing him up on his toes until he begged. She'd spent a lot of time wondering just how high-pitched a squeal he'd utter if she kneed him just right.
She'd never wished anything like this on him.
Nicholas reached out a hand. The Leviathan's rictus mouth smiled.
Shepard didn't admonish, didn't confront, but the single word was laced with the kind of command that sent any good soldier instantly to attention. Nicholas was a very good soldier. "We're going to move out, people. Callahan, with me."
The Leviathan's smile soured. It didn't move. She didn't think it could, not anymore. "Shepard," it said, with a note of almost-pleading she found oddly satisfying. "We are not finished."
She ignored it. Nicholas turned to face her, his gaze flicking over her shoulder every few seconds, like he couldn't believe what he was seeing, hearing. Like he didn't want to believe it. She couldn't blame him. Didn't.
"We're not here for this," she said softly. "We can walk out of this room and not look back. Your call, Callahan."
He closed his eyes for a count of three, and when he opened them again she recognized the potent mix of despair and regret and dawning certainty she saw there. "What will happen to him?"
"Honestly, I can't say. I know you've read the report. The miners recovered, minus ten years of memories, but this doesn't seem like the same thing. This is more like what happened with Garneau, and even he—his body wasn't treated this way." She shook her head. "Human beings are remarkably resilient. I just don't know how much—if any—human is left in there."
"We can't bring him with us like this."
To his credit, it was neither a question nor a plea. If not for the pinched lines of distress at the corners of his eyes, she'd have said they were merely the words of an officer calmly assessing the situation and finding no clean and viable solution. You have to choose.
She'd probably had lines around her eyes not unlike his when she'd turned to the right and made the Intelligence's choice with a series of bullets and an explosion.
You have come too far.
"Shepard?" Garrus' voice, steady, his question asking more than just for her attention.
"Not yet," she replied. "It's not going anywhere."
She gestured sharply, and Vega peeled off toward the door, followed by Liara. Garrus backed out, gun still raised. Nicholas didn't look back, though the line of his shoulders told her he wanted to.
"This ends one of two ways," she said, each word held like a knife to a hostage's throat pressing tighter and tighter. She only wished they had the power to draw blood. "One? You and your people come to your senses, pull your heads out of your tentacled asses, climb down off the pedestals you think you deserve, and figure out a way to live in this galaxy without turning everyone and everything around you into automatons. That's the harder way. I get it. No one likes change."
The bloodshot eyes didn't blink. They had the vague, unsettling mistiness of a corpse's eyes, of a husk's eyes minus all the tech.
"The second way is I do to you what I did to the Reapers, no holds barred, no quarter given. I dedicate my life to hunting you down no matter where you choose to hide, and exterminating you."
"Bravado." It bared Callahan's teeth, yellowed and stinking. This close, the smell of rot and shit was overwhelming, so much worse than cologne and sweat and cigarettes. "You are not what you were. If not a servant to our needs, a slave to someone else's. It is not life. You have no authority over—"
The face she'd hated disappeared in a mist of red so instant and shocking it took half a heartbeat for her brain to register it had been shot—not by her—and took a moment more to realize the headshot had been perfect, straight between the milky eyes.
Hand already closing into a fist, she turned on her heel and snapped, "Garrus!"
But Garrus stood in the doorway, just as she'd directed him, and instead of pointing at Vincent Callahan, his gun was fixed on Nicholas. Nicholas' own weapon remained clenched in an unwavering hand, pointed at the place where the thing that had been his father now lay in a crumpled, headless heap. "It was attacking you, Commander," he said, with only a faint waver in his voice. His eyes never left her face. She took a step toward him, shoulders level and jaw set.
"It was unarmed, Lieutenant."
"It was attacking you," he repeated stubbornly.
"Well, he's not wrong," said Garrus. "Still. Kneecap might've done just as well."
Shepard swallowed her furious reprimand, swallowed her frustration, swallowed even the small part of herself that agreed and hated that she agreed, and said, "Unless something's actually got a gun or an omni-tool or a grenade, assume that I can handle it."
"Then, even if it does clip her, she usually bounces back," Garrus added.
"Says the turian who took a rocket to the face." She started to inhale deeply, but the stink of death—unnatural and rotten—halted her. "I know what you did and why you did it, Lieutenant. I know it wasn't easy, and you didn't do it to flout my orders. Don't do it again."
Stepping closer, she pressed her palm to the top of his pistol until he, leaden, lowered it. Then she dropped her other hand onto his shoulder. He blinked at her, as if he'd been seeing something else standing in her place. "I worked in communications," he said. "I worked in Intel. I was never on the ground. I read, but I—it's different when you're—"
"It's never easy. Your first or your fiftieth or your five hundredth. You assessed the situation and you did what you thought you had to do. You are a credit to the uniform, Lieutenant, and I know that means precisely jack shit right now. It's good that it wasn't easy. It's good that it hit you. Later, you'll have time to think about it, to talk it out, to deal."
"But right now the mission comes first," he said, a little life returning to his tone. "Aye, aye, ma'am."
With respect that didn't even sound grudging, Garrus added, "Good shot."
Nicholas didn't smile, but a little tension eased. "Surprised my instructors, too. Surprised me. Different, though, when you're aiming at a cardboard cutout. And not different at all."
"Sounds about right," said Shepard. "Now, let's get what we came for, and get the hell out of this place. Every one of my instincts is screaming that something's more wrong than the silence is letting on."
"Glad I'm not the only one," said Garrus. "On your six."
It stood to reason that if the Leviathan wanted to keep control over its thralls, it wasn't going to leave the artifact out where just anyone could see it. Or break it. Still, with Vincent Callahan dead, Shepard had allowed herself the smallest sliver of hope that the Leviathan might have retreated to lick its wounds. Killing the puppet wouldn't have any lasting effect on the Leviathan puppetmaster, but at the least, she hoped for a little hard-won time.
Five minutes and a change of scenery proved her wrong.
"Shep, you've got incoming," said Kasumi over the comms. "I—at least, I think they're incoming? Can't see anything yet, but I hear footsteps."
"Keep looking for the artifact," she replied. "Liara?"
"Scanning, Shepard. The house's jamming technology is surprisingly good."
"Not that surprising," added Garrus. "If you've got credits to burn, why stop at microfilaments in the trees or military-grade automated defenses?"
Silently, Shepard agreed with him. Advanced as her own tech was, her radar showed only ghosts and shadows; blips of red where she could see no life, and nothing more than tentative guesses at what lay ten steps ahead. It hadn't picked up Vincent Callahan's signature. Hell, none of them had picked that up.
She hated going in blind.
The woman who appeared at the end of the corridor seemed vaguely familiar, though she was too young to have been an employee during Shepard's years. Unlike Callahan, she'd evidently been better taken care of; she still had flesh on her bones and her uniform was clean. Shepard lifted her pistol and peered through the sight. Gleaming brown hair was pulled back from her round-cheeked, blank-expressioned face. A spray of freckles dusted the girl's nose. Twenty-five at most. Vincent had probably made her life hell.
Her right hand was empty. The left was tucked behind her back.
"Stop!" Shepard commanded in the voice it took a rare person to ignore. "Let me see both hands!"
"Katie? Hey, Katie, it's me. Nicholas."
Katie did not look at him. Katie did not show both hands. She continued moving down the hallway toward them, one foot in front of the other, as precise as a tightrope walker balancing above a drop with no net. Her feet were small and delicate.
"Don't do this," pleaded Nicholas. "Katie, come on. Katie."
Katie took another step. Almost before Shepard registered the faint, familiar click, she shouted, "Liara, barrier!" and launched herself at Nicholas, tackling him to the ground and curling her well-shielded body over his unprotected head. She heard Garrus' shot before she finished speaking Liara's name and turned her own head just in time to catch the blue of Liara's biotics flaring up a half-second before the girl on the other side of them disappeared in a concussive flash. The barrier wavered but held. Shepard blinked the brightness out of her eyes, but dancing spots remained, light and dark, light and dark. Even the blood had vaporized in the explosion. The hallway left empty in the aftermath shook Shepard more deeply than the entire exchange with Callahan had.
"It wasn't supposed to be like this," Nicholas said, hardly louder than the breath he exhaled to speak.
"What did you say?" With the threat neutralized, Shepard sat back on her haunches, but did not take her weight off Nicholas.
His expression wasn't blank, though, when he looked at her; nothing numb or empty dulled his eyes. "We were supposed to fight the big fight and die, or, less likely, fight the big fight and emerge victorious. Right? But this? The kind of war that's fought in the shadows, that's fought in people's heads, where you can't trust your own parents, you can't trust the housekeeper's daughter whom you've known most of your goddamned life, you can't even be sure about yourself? What the hell are we supposed to do with this future?"
She swallowed the first words that rose in her mouth because they, too, were platitudes bordering on outright lies. Nicholas wasn't saying anything she hadn't, especially in her most frustrated and most petulant moments, thought herself. She remembered Katie now, of course, a pint-sized kleptomaniac who hoarded shiny things and whose giggle got her out of anything resembling real punishment. She'd had freckles then, too, and gleaming brown hair.
Releasing him, she rolled back to her feet, running a brief scan of her systems to buy herself some time. To recenter. To regret.
"We live in it," Garrus said. She hadn't heard him approach. By the sudden flinch, neither had Nicholas. "Or we roll over and die, and then it won't matter anymore."
"Always cheerful, Vakarian, thank you," Shepard replied, though she couldn't help the smile half-pulling at her mouth.
Garrus snorted. "Sometimes I think about all the complaining I did about C-Sec. Rules, red tape, the petty little roadblocks I built up in my head until I was as much the embodiment of Frustration as Javik's supposedly an avatar of Vengeance. For what? To see it all burn. To walk through the empty, blood-stained halls of Headquarters during the Cerberus coup and wish for someone, anyone to start haranguing me about regulations." He shook his head, the angle of his mandibles revealing the depth of that very personal pain. "To be honest, when I think about how personally I took it all, I'm surprised you didn't pitch me off the Normandy at the first port and refuse to let me back aboard." He turned his raptor gaze, sharp and unblinking, on Nicholas. "We're in your house. We're coming face to face with your people. Right now, it feels personal as hell. But it's not. This is nothing. So we fight or we die. Here. On Earth. Across as much of the galaxy as we can reach. The Leviathans are used to getting their way. We're used to not letting bullies take what they want."
"Yes, sir," said Nicholas. "I… sorry, sir. I see what you mean."
"Don't apologize to me. You didn't hurt my feelings. Get up, dust yourself off, ignore that burning pain in your gut, and press on."
"Damn, Scars," said Vega. "Pep talks like that, no wonder they made you Counselor."
"I will shoot you."
"Lola'd be pissed."
Shepard cleared her throat and said, "Lola might be pissed, but Shepard's going to kick your ass if you keep calling her that." Garrus chuckled and she rolled her eyes at him. "Come on. No point standing around making targets of ourselves. You okay, Callahan? We've got plenty of people on the ground. Say the word and I'll send you back to the shuttle with Vega; there's no shame walking away from something like this."
If he'd answered right away, she wouldn't have trusted it; she'd have pegged it for ego or stubbornness. Instead, he thought about it. He looked at the spot where Katie had stood and then vanished; a shadow crossed his face, and she knew he was thinking of his father. "No," he said. "Counselor Vakarian is right. This needs to be witnessed. I'd like to be the one who sees what's happened here."
"Okay," she said. "In that case, you step out of line one more time and I really will see you hauled up in front of that court martial you were so keen on earlier. Follow my lead. Wait for my order. I can't afford to keep one eye on you at all times. I need them both."
"And call me 'Counselor Vakarian' again, and I'll shoot you right after I shoot Jimmy."
"A word of advice?" Shepard added. "Don't call his bluff on that."
Even though the layout was the same as it had always been, the house was a maze. In the kitchen, the cook and two of his assistants lay on their backs, staring at the ceiling, throats slit like sacrificial lambs. The cuts were fresh, the blood still warm and not yet congealed. A third assistant, still holding the knife, stood in the pantry, staring at the shelves as if he'd been sent in to get an ingredient and couldn't remember which one. He didn't attack them. As soon as he heard their footsteps, he turned and put the knife through his own empty and staring eye. Blood sprayed, hot as acid across Shepard's cheek. Her fingers closed more tightly around the gun she held.
They split up in pairs to check the bedrooms, but found only silence and emptiness, like the rooms of an abandoned hotel, clean and perfect and utterly lifeless. Shepard's old room was still white, though none of the furniture was the same. She'd half-expected to see the expensive dress she never wore still hanging on the back of the wardrobe, waiting for her, but there was no dress, no wardrobe, no white ribbons or girlish canopied bed. No artifact, either, so she backed out of the room and closed the door as firmly as she could without outright slamming it.
One of the real mechanics—the Callahans employed several, to actually take care of the cars Vincent and Nicholas had dabbled with—attacked them with a singularly useless and anachronistic tire iron, refused to answer to his name, and threw himself through the glass of a window when they wouldn't kill him.
When Vega nearly tripped another explosion, they slowed even more painfully, moving through the house like heavily-armored snails, waiting for the boot to drop from above. None of them doubted that boot's presence. They simply didn't know what form it would take.
A pair of gardeners, armed with the pathetic, commercial-grade flamethrowers used to clear brush, ambushed them, but succeeded only in singeing Vega's eyebrows; the butler, who'd once known the name, occupation and relative wealth of every person who crossed the threshold, stared through Shepard and Nicholas both before shooting himself with one of the ancient showpiece guns he'd always taken such loving care of; in the maids' dormitory, they found all ten housemaids in the throes of death, poisoned by the housekeeper who'd served them rat poison tea. The housekeeper looked very much like her daughter, leaving a corpse with a spray of freckles across its nose and gleaming silver hair that had once been brown.
Suicide or slaughter or strike, no one they came across lived. All attempts to reason with them proved useless; all attempts to stop them proved fatal.
Shepard heard the message loud and clear. No one was safe. Nothing was sacred. These lives meant nothing, and the loss of them served no purpose save to needle her.
She'd said to push, after all. She just hadn't thought it would look like this, petty and personal and cruel. Lives as objects to be used and discarded, calculus ruthless because the mathematician simply didn't care about balancing the equation.
After the housemaids, none of them spoke.
And still, they could not find the artifact. Moira had told Garrus it was displayed publicly, like art, but though many artworks hung on the walls or stood on pretentious pedestals throughout the house, none of them was an orb. Nicholas guided them to the vaults where the real treasures were kept; like an art gallery, the Callahans had so many priceless pieces they could not be on display all at once. The vault opened at once to Nicholas' biometrics, revealing a room as cool and vast and large as the one she'd seen during the heist to retrieve Keiji's greybox.
Kasumi let out a low whistle, a thief's appreciation for loot beyond worth. After the third time they'd been ambushed by household staff, she'd left aside the unnecessary subterfuge and rejoined them, dropping her cloak. Shepard wished she could hide behind her own; all these sucker punches of familiar faces acting in impossible ways left her breathless, her control and calm split with hairline fractures.
"This is a pretty fucked up game of hide-and-seek," Vega said, eyes constantly scanning the distance. He sounded tense. He sounded sick. Shepard understood completely. "You sure we can't find one of these things closer to home?"
It had crossed her mind that this was exactly what the Leviathan wanted them to do. It had proven its point; it was in control—both literally and figuratively—and could keep throwing bodies at the problem as long as there were bodies to throw, all without hurting itself in the slightest. Resistance meant more deaths, more futility.
"We know it's here because they're still enthralled," she replied as evenly as she could. "It's a test."
"Feels like it's one we fail no matter what we do," replied Vega.
She understood that, too.
When they'd finished searching the house and its outbuildings, the sky had gone dark. The moon glowed on the horizon, fighting the cloud cover. When they'd first arrived, it had seemed quiet, but the silence was pervasive now, heavy and horrible. The silence of a battlefield, where only the fallen remained. Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. They hadn't seen one of the estate's enthralled denizens in half an hour; she had to accept that perhaps everyone was dead, and—with no more use for it—the artifact destroyed. Wrestling with the order to fall back to the shuttle, she opened her eyes and looked into the face of yet another ghost.
She'd never known his name. He'd always been called "Driver" and even when she asked, he'd only smiled and settled his hands on the steering mechanism of whatever vehicle he'd been using to ferry her about.
He'd shown her kindness, as much as anyone was allowed to show kindness without it costing them their position, their security. He'd kept contraband chocolate bars in the glove compartment; he'd always taken the long route home when he was driving her to or from one of the many appointments or photo ops Moira had set up, and that long route had always included food of the type Moira forbade; sometimes, he'd asked how she was feeling as if he really meant it.
In his arms, held like a baby, was the artifact, its surface gleaming like an oil slick. She wanted nothing more than to put a bullet through it, to see it and its eldritch power crumble into dust. As if sensing this, he raised it over his head. The darkness hid his eyes from her; she could not see if they were as blank as all the others. She did not have to. At the apex of the lift, his hands twitched and she knew they would pull away, that this moment would be the Leviathan's parting shot.
It underestimated her, of course. She did not hesitate, did not think; she ran. Her bones still ached a little, but she ignored the pain. One step, two. A deceptively fast, long-legged stride. She'd always been a good sprinter, always. Three steps. On the fourth, she lifted her pistol. On the sixth, she took a shot, grazing his shoulder. He didn't flinch, but the force drove him back and loosened his grip.
The artifact fell.
Shepard slid like a batter headed for home, and caught it.
At one time, the worst thing about this house had been the white room, white uniform, white prison feeling of the place. Those memories would fade now. These ones, of blood and loss and senselessness, so much worse, would take their place.
The driver moaned. Nicholas was already at his side, ensuring no sudden suicide or other attack could take place.
"Fine," she snarled at the artifact's swirling surface. "The second way it is."