Chapter 1: Chapter 1 The Wounded Warrior
Mass Effect and all its characters are Bioware/EA's IP.
This is the first chapter of story arc covering the Citadel coup from the point of view of those who witnessed it first-hand. Although Ashley Williams and Thane Krios are the most recognisable names in the story, many other ME characters' points of view have been included in the story to offer the full picture of what transpired on the Citadel.
The events depicted in the first two chapters occur in the hours leading to the Cerberus coup, the following entries will offer an insight to the Council assassination attempt prior to Shepard's arrival at the Citadel. You will find constant references to in-game information, texts and lore that will help the reader to connect the unraveling events that the player did not see to the actions of which Commander Shepard was directly responsible.
The narrative will help the reader to understand Williams' difficult position as she faces an almost no-win scenario where her Oath of Service to the Alliance and her sworn loyalty to the Council as a Spectre will clash in an unexpected way.
SPECTRES AND ASSASSINS
CHAPTER 1: The Wounded Warrior
An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
Arous'd and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarm, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail'd me, my face droop'd and I resign'd myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass'd heroes, was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?
"The wound-dresser", by Walt Whitman (Published in 1865, Drum-Taps)
- Ashley Williams, Huerta Memorial Hospital -
Four hours before the Attack
Frantic activity surrounded Lieutenant Commander Ashley Williams as she walked down the hallways of Huerta Memorial. Physicians and medical assistants dashed past her as a new batch of injured patients had just arrived to the facility and were rushed to the required specialists. Williams was on her way to one of the several scheduled medical check-ups with Dr. Michel, who was supervising her rehabilitation. Ashley could detect the ominous burden of defeat in many of the soldiers' dark, haunted eyes in this place. It had been nearly a month since she had been brought on to the Citadel, completely unconscious and with severe head trauma; she could not remember leaving Mars or arriving on the Citadel in critical condition. The bruising in her face, impossible to conceal with a thin layer of make-up, was proof that not everything had gone smoothly in that apparently simple intel retrieval operation. Officially deemed a success, the death toll after Cerberus' brutal attack on the Archives made that alleged small victory feel like anything but, particularly at a personal level.
By the time Williams had come out from the coma and regained full consciousness, the medical facility was already stretching its resources thin, if the nursing personnel conversations she overheard were true. As the Reaper invasion extended its tentacles to more sectors and systems, the hundreds of incoming patients became more diversified: turians and humans were now accompanied by considerable numbers of asari combatants, and a steady number of salarians. She noticed there were very few batarians, and it was understandable since the Reapers had almost obliterated all their colonies in the first wave. Despite the hard work and endless shifts from all the multi-species Huerta specialists, the death ratio was staggering.
Not many flesh wounds when you were fighting the Reapers.
The vague Alliance reports on their mission in the red planet she had accessed through proper channels lacked the classified information Dr. T'Soni had unveiled while working for the Alliance government. Liara and Shepard had presented a seemingly top-secret project to the Council, something that those in the know referred to with the code-name 'Crucible'. That was as much as her clearance level allowed her to dig out, since it was considered classified by the Alliance, her pay grade and service branch did not need to know about it, just like most Council citizens would be kept in the dark to avoid leaks. It all made sense though, it was the only way to keep the project safe from indoctrinated agents and saboteurs. As the events from the squad insertion in the Mars archives replayed in her mind, the revelation that a secretive terrorists organisation like Cerberus had become a major player in this conflict was a very serious and unsettling complication. It was easy to spot a Reaper dreadnought, but Cerberus spies could move comfortably among humans while pursuing their nefarious agenda.
Garrus had preferred not to say much about it in the messages he had been sending to her terminal, and had wished her a fast recovery on behalf of the crew. Vakarian had let it slip that the Council was still skeptical of their findings, despite all their efforts and that he felt like a pissed errand boy sometimes. Safe exceptions like the strong human and turian relations in the dawn of the war, there were serious concerns regarding the first tactical disagreements between other species. The immediate Reaper threat had already started to crack the alliances the Council was supposed to uphold, too many signs of dissension when the war had only begun.
When your back is against the wall... Ashley hated to have been so right about this expected course of action by the alien governments.
Like most public waiting areas and concourse levels, this part of the hospital had vid-screens where recovering patients, medical staff on breaks and visitors could keep up with the war situation, as patchy as the reports were. The ANN had a phlegmatic and unemotional Alliance reporter who kept repeating the latest headlines and developments, plus the odd non-classified action by the Council militaries, the updates were rare.
"The enemy forces seem to fit the description of 'reapers', a term first used by a disgraced Commander Shepard during the war against the geth"
Yeah, 'disgraced'... Get your facts right, if you knew half the truth about the threat we are facing... Ashley told herself, while wondering how much longer the ANN news would keep sugarcoating the all-out war engulfing the galaxy; the people in the Presidium seemed to live in denial, they went about their business as if the the fleet parked outside could handle a Reaper attack. These folks could not even imagine the true nature of their enemy, the 'real' enemy they were actually losing to. Commander Shepard had been right all along, and no media outlet, human or alien, seemed to give him the credit he deserved. She understood they were trying to avoid chaos and panic, but life in the main hub of galactic civilization continued as if there was nothing to fear outside the hospitals and clinics, as if people were not dying by the millions... it really bothered her.
What some of them had witnessed... the death and horrors of the war were hidden from the general public in places like this one; it was almost like they wanted to hide the seriousness of their predicament within the walls of places Huerta Memorial or in the refugee sectors. It truly felt like a burden, to know about the Reapers and then listening to the decaffeinated 'official version' the authorities were sending out through the media. This was not the type of war where there were victories and defeats. To survive another day, that was as far as the term 'victory' went these days.
Williams was particularly worried for her family. She did not want them there on the Citadel, but where could she possibly tell them to go? Fighting the urge to tell her family more than what she was allowed to, Ashley tried the best she could to calm down her sisters and her mother. She wanted to reassure them that it would all be fine, to tell them there was an ambitious plan already in motion, overseen by a great Alliance hero like Admiral Hackett and with some of the most brilliant scientists and engineers committed to it; needless to say, this was out of the question. It was going to take a colossal effort to complete it in time if the reapers continued to expand so fast, work was around the clock. Meanwhile, they were held in this Reaper construct, a beacon that would sooner or later become the target of the unfathomable behemoths.
She tried to put all these thoughts aside as she pushed a button and the door to doctor Chloe Michel`s office opened for her with a metallic hiss.
"Please, Lieutenant Commander Williams, come in", she said, welcoming the marine.
Dr. Michel stood up and walked her to a comfortable seat as Ashley readied for one of her regular medicals. Just getting out of the claustrophobic hospital intensive care rooms ten days earlier did not mean she was fully healed. It had all hit her as a train wreck: waking up with painful and limited mobility in her extremities, recurrent headaches that seemed to have nested at the base of her neck... Feeling useless did not help either; she felt like climbing the walls while reading reports coming from the frontlines (none were too good); she managed to read a few snippets from Shepard's logs to Alliance command from the Normandy, the non-classified ones. Her personality traits made Ashley one of the worst patients the doctors at Huerta could come across. Just being idle in a mostly civilian station, while being pampered by nurses like she was a weak glass ballerina was really killing her.
The only good memories of those days while were the visits. Her sisters and her mother had come often, but the most important thing that seemed to keep her pushing hard for recovery was reminiscing of Shepard's reassuring words to her, by her bedside. He wanted her in the team, he had said, like old times. Right now, she felt restless most of the time, without an assault rifle, without enemies to shoot at or soldiers to lead.
Dr. Michel, whose family hailed from Geneva, Switzerland, was one of the most competent doctors in Huerta Memorial and she had clearly taken a special interest in Williams. After all, they had met when Ash, together with Commander Shepard and Staff Lieutenant Alenko, had first visited the Citadel in 2183 and helped her out of a tough spot . It had also marked their second encounter with a agent Garrus Vakarian, who would eventually become an integral part of their quest to bring down Saren and stop Sovereign. She was a young doctor, in her mid-thirties, with bright, silky red hair and beautiful light green eyes. Ashley thought her calm and soothing voice probably the kind many wounded soldiers appreciated to hear, a sign that they were still alive and clinging to hope.
The physician checked her vision, the pupils' reaction to light, her reflexes, possible numbness or pain when extending and rotating Ashley's limbs and upper body muscles. She nodded approvingly as she moved on with the different stages of her medical tests, and the Alliance officer started to feel reassured. Maybe they would allow her to return to active duty, finally...
Then came the worst part... After removing the top of her uniform, Williams grimaced and did hurt when the doctor pressed the skin over her vertebrae and shoulders. She forced a neutral facial expression, trying to cheat through the medical and pretend she was not feeling any discomfort. Would not all servicemen worth of calling themselves marines try to push through the pain just like she was trying to?
Used as a coping mechanism for the distressing sensation, she avoided focusing on the doctor's voice or actions completely. Her mind kept going back to Shepard's words: "Ash, it's always been you. When we didn't see eye to eye, I gave you as much time as I could, that's done now. I'm not doing this without you. I need you". She remembered she almost broke out in tears at the end of that visit, in the solitude if her hospital room. She had felt the urge to embrace Shepard right then and there, but she could barely move at the time. It had been the first occasion, for a brief moment, where everything had seemed as simple and honest as their last night together, before the Collectors' attack and the destruction of the SR-1 tore them apart. In hindsight, it would not have been a very professional reaction, but in a hospital as tragically busy as Huerta, nobody would have cared.
Dr. Michel tapped a few keys and a device projected a rotating holographic image of Williams' skeleton. She zoomed in to observe her spine and the shoulders area with more detail. The bone fractures looked completely fixed now.
"You seem to be making a full recovery. And much faster than I thought when you were first brought in, Lt. Commander."
Her concentration was brought back to reality, Dr. Michel was once again talking to her, but there were no good news for the L.C.:
"Unfortunately, we should be conservative in regard to your return to action. I know you have been working out and sparring in our facilities under the supervision of our staff, but you aren't cleared for more intense exercise yet, I'd prefer if you took two more weeks, just to be sure your body is strong enough. I am still amazed your neck did not just break with those impacts. Your hardsuit saved you from irreversible damage"
The physician's prognosis hit her like a hammer. She had begun to think doctor Michel had already made her mind after a few minutes into these visits, that she simply followed a strict protocol to keep the semblance of being considering all factors. The disappointment set upon Ashley's somber face with a disconcerted frown.
"Doc, are you sure? I feel fine, my target-shooting practice and psycho-motor evaluations show that I am..."
"Lieutenant Commander,"- interrupted Dr. Michel, always with a polite and respectful tone, but firm as ever, "I am a civilian doctor, but I know the kind of combat scenarios you would be engaged in. I am seeing other wounded soldiers and reading field reports every day. It would be irresponsible for me to declare you completely apt for duty. I know you can fire an Avenger from cover as well as anyone else, despite your status. But If I cleared you now and you had to fight for your life in close quarters combat, you would not be at 100%. Some of the problems derived from your head trauma could return. That is why I would like you to be under observation for two more weeks. The war won't be won or lost in the next 14 days. And do not try to pull your Spectre status on me, others have already tried."
Chloe let a friendly smile form in her tired face. She only had Ash's health in mind, the officer conceded.
Deep in her heart, Ashley knew the doctor was right, she was in no shape to fight a husk, a cannibal or a marauder in close quarters, and she was prone to early fatigue in her training sessions. She thought Alliance command had an interesting way of naming those reaper abominations, but the nicknames had stuck and everybody used them now. If she was weak on the battlefield, in the middle of a perilous operation, it could put other soldiers in serious danger. In a hypothetical do or die deployment she could become a real liability for her squadmates, a distraction. In a position of command it could mean the death of her team.
"Alright doctor, I'll come back in two days. Meanwhile, I will be going back to the gym and get ready for when you change your mind."
Williams knew Dr. Michel would be impervious to her protests and requests, she had tried all these tricks before.
The marine had to give Chloe Michel credit for putting up with her bad mood with so much patience and compassion. The doctor was seeing terrible things in the pavilions where extremely gravely injured patients were cared for; having to listen to another gung-ho soldier asking to be 'patched-up' and sent back to the 'trenches' was probably something she could live without. She too realized that complaining would have been selfish and unbecoming of an Alliance officer.
Strolling down the halls of Huerta Memorial was a terrible sight, even for the jaded eyes of a veteran soldier who had already seen so much death and destruction. There were many coma-induced servicemen, their bodies ravaged by horrifying combat wounds. The worst for any person with a heart was the crying of soldiers and civilians from all species; she could not take the proverbial "Shepard told you so" off her mind. All of them had families, loved ones, many had lost everything and everyone they held dear, Ashley realized how lucky she had been so far. She wondered if this could have been prevented with better preparations, if only...
Shepard's words had not been the only reason she wanted to get out of the hospital so badly. Williams had seen other soldiers brought in who had not been as lucky as her, they were the ones who deserved their undivided attention.
Lieutenant Jorgensen, another wounded marine who had been recently brought to the same hospital wing from one of the war hot zones. The young man had needed surgery to have one of his legs amputated below the knee and was impatiently waiting for a cybernetic replacement. At this time, an Asari nurse stood by his stretcher looking at the scars. The officer showed his eagerness to rejoin his unit, while she kindly explained it was going to take time for him to get used to the implants and recover full coordinated mobility.
Thankfully, Ashley Williams had another responsibility to focus on; one that did not require her to leave the Citadel, but challenging nonetheless. Councillor Udina had nominated her for the Spectres. It was also surprising that the Council had seemed so amenable to comply with the politician's request in such an expedite manner, when it generally took months of supervision by a veteran agent to be green-lighted. She did not know how much it had been a real recognition of her value in the fight against Saren and saving the Citadel while serving under Commander Shepard, or as a reward for the secretive missions she led in the Terminus systems for two years after the Normandy team split up?
What if it was just a convenient political maneuver by Udina, for some unknown, ulterior motive? Shepard had been very supportive when Ash had told him she had accepted: "You are a fine soldier with an impressive record. You deserve this", that had meant a lot to her. She was struggling to cope with her feelings after two years where she had shut herself from any kind of romantic interest. She opened that door, after repressing that facet of her life for most of her career. She felt lost again and, temporally, she did not have her military life to her give direction... to help her forget.
Three Hours before the Attack
Back in her room, Ashley Williams activated her Alliance Navy terminal. The dark screen showed the Alliance military branch emblem, two arches forming an "Alpha" letter with three stars in-between. She had received a number of communiques from the Alliance Command and the Spectres, but there was no personal messages from her family or friends.
The Citadel, the self-proclaimed center of space civilization, was a mess at this moment. Her induction ceremony days earlier has been everything but 'ceremonious', with barely a few witnesses present including Udina and the three alien Councilors. It really appeared as if they were just eager to be done with the formalities to take care of their own species' problems. So much for the 'glamorous and beautiful superstar Spectre agent', as her sister Abby had jokingly nicknamed her.
Williams had already gone through some basic Spectre security protocols and emergency procedures training, mostly through holovids and at times with Jondum inspection of terminals and rapid transit elevators only accessible for high clearance security personnel was a critical component of her training that had to be handled with the presence of senior agents. Most of the Council Spectres were on assignments outside the station, and that made her chuckle: neither the Alliance nor her liaison in the Spectres wanted or needed her out there yet. It was a definitely humbling experience, but in a not so satisfactory fashion. She was still wearing her training wings on the chest of her tight-fitting blue vest, a reminder that she was not a fully-fledged operative like Bau or Shepard, even if she had acquired all the privileges that came with the position. It was a rather strange feeling, not wearing the Alliance fatigues. she could not wait to get back in her heavy navy blue armor and shoot things.
After a few moments of glancing over battle reports, the door bleeping light and a soft melodic tone indicated she had a visit, although she was not expecting anyone at this time.
"Door, open", she said to the voice-recognition device. There, timidly standing by the door, she spotted the slim figure of Sarah, the youngest of her sisters.
"Sarah! Come in!", Ashley stood up and gave her a tight, welcoming hug. She did not feel the same reciprocal enthusiasm coming from her sister's slim arms.
"Sit down on my bunk... I'm sorry this place is a mess, I rarely stop here long enough to fix it"
"It's okay sis, I just needed to talk", said Sarah. Her face was somber, and the cheeks of the grieving widow looked bonier that usual. She had stopped eating when the news of her husband's death had hit the family like a train wreck, and the unforgiving war just made the mourning harder to reconcile with the miraculous feeling of being alive for another day. Ashley handed her a cup of freshly brewed coffee, one of the few luxuries she had as an Alliance officer.
"I...I can't take it anymore, I wish I were stronger, I wish I were more like you ". The young woman stared at the dark brew while holding the mug between her hands, the rising steam gave the small room a very familiar scent.
"The smell of coffee in the morning always reminds of me of dad, especially when he was getting ready to ship out. You remember too, right?".
Sarah nodded, her face seemed to lighten up slightly thanks to the memory of their father
"And you remember how dad would talk to each one of us, and tell us to take care of each other because every time he left, there was a chance he would not come back"
"Yes, he used to tell me to be obedient and listen to you as if you were my second mom"
"Huh, he really said that? Well, then I've to say you were never very good at following orders". Williams sat on the bunk, next to her.
"Thomas was on leave... Before they called him to return to HQ right away. I remember we were discussing some inane stuff. Had I known..."
"I know how you feel about Thomas. All families are being torn apart. Three years ago, I almost wasted all I had worked for when I thought I had lost someone I loved. I have lost many good friends too, it never gets any easier. I know you are struggling to understand the reason why your husband died, if it could have been avoided by any random factor. In time, you will probably blame him for not quitting the Alliance military service as soon as you two married, it's all part of the grieving process. Based on what I went through, I can say that they are all the wrong questions to ask yourself".
"What do you mean, Ash?"
"When I joined the Alliance military, dad warned me about the personal sacrifices, and how I would spend sleepless nights as soon as I experienced the horrors of war first hand. He was right, it was hell. It is very different when you join the armed forces in a time of peace. Thomas volunteered at a time of uncertainty. To me, the bravest choice he could have made. I don't think his sacrifice was in vain. All the refugees you see here, the children playing near the clinic stretchers? Their safe-conduct to the Citadel has been paid with the lives of thousands of brave men and women, like your husband. You, Abby, mom... you made it here because of him and others like him".
"How can you be so sure they were worthy sacrifices? Those enormous things, How can we fight them?"
"One of the first friends I lost during an operation was fighting these creatures' thralls. Do you remember Lieutenant Alenko? For years I blamed myself for his death. It's all classified, when we sent his family in Vancouver his belongings, we couldn't fully explain to them how his death occurred. They had to blindly believe us when we told them his sacrifice in the line of duty had been meaningful or when the Alliance publicly honored his name. All the parades and functions would never bring their son back. We would have seriously struggled explaining it all, because it took us a very long time to accept and cope with his death as well. He died making sure a very important mission was completed and we could be safely extracted from the site".
"I understand, but how can you possibly get over this? Whether you were successful or not, he's no longer with you, things are never the same. Thomas will never come back to me". Sarah started to sob, somehow she managed to keep her composure despite her skeptical retort.
"In the military, you don't just get over it. You live with it, because you have to, and because the alternative is worse. All these years later, I still wonder if we could all have done things differently. But it wasn't just us and our decisions, there is always an enemy that forces your hand. Before I had brought myself to accept Kaidan's death as the reality of being an expendable soldier, life struck me again when I lost Shepard and several other friends when the Normandy was destroyed. You and Abby know what Shepard meant to me".
"We did, we were always teasing you of what a crazy idea it was. Secretly we had bet on whether you would break regs or not". Ashley noticed that her sister was trying to change the conversation tone, she did not want to make it all sound like it only was about her personal loss. The war and the threat of extinction was not no soothing balm to a widow's sorrow, but she was a strong young woman and could see beyond the persona loss.
Ash softly squeezed her sister's arm, but did not reply immediately. Shepard's death and then the discovery that he was working with Cerberus had both made her regain her faith and crushed her spirit at the same time, all in a very conflicting fashion. She often regretted not being there for him, however insane the notion of defecting from the Alliance and joining a paramilitary terrorist group would appear. Serving on board a Cerberus ship... He had almost said, with different words, that it was a journey from which he did not expect to come back alive. Those years, she had been doing her best from as a commissioned Alliance officer, and she had kept a picture with Shepard, Alenko and Joker on her desk. The photo had been taken in the Normandy mess hall a long time ago, it felt like centuries. She had prayed for Shepard almost every night since the demise of the SR-1, she could have never imagined her prayers would be answered the way they had been.
"Look at this picture". Ashley stretched her arm and grabbed the framed picture on her desk. Things had appeared to be much simpler then, the foolish belief of an inexperienced version of herself. "This is the first thing I see every morning and the last thing I look at before lights out at night. It gives me hope, even if it's a moment in the past I can never return to. We fought, we sacrificed, we lost friends, we endured, and we won".
There was a long moment of silence, only the muffled announcements coming from the Huerta Memorial public announcement systems could be heard. They seemed like ghostly echoes coming from a distant plane trying to pervade the four corners of that small chamber, where introspection and blunt honesty between sisters had been boxed in. For an instant, Sarah opened her mouth to voice an answer, then she stopped herself and simply took a sip from the coffee while tears slowly rolled down her pale cheeks.
Ashley put an arm around her sister's skinny torso, the next thought that crossed her mind was that she had to prove herself to be worth Kaidan's life, now more than ever.
Next chapter: Thane and the Huntress.