Chapter Thirty-Five: Hunting Illusions Pt. IV

Of favored races

Best of noble warriors

Would make Her most proud



"That is what the sensors are saying so far. No life-signs detected within the complex. Infrared and thermal imaging are clear. Nothing larger than small animals moving within ten square kilometers."

"And the seismic scan?"

"Coming back in a few seconds."

The grimace that had been solidified on Commander Shepard's face for the past two hours somehow deepened. He was standing to the side and behind of the pilot's chair in the Normandy's cockpit, looking over Joker's shoulders at the sensor reading playing across the pilot's haptic interface.

There was an crewman sitting in the co-pilot's seat beside Joker helping manage the incoming sensor data. Warrant Officer Mitchell, Shepard remembered. Formerly served on the bridge crew of the SSV Kilimanjaro, Admiral Hackett's flagship. Born on the Citadel. Twenty-seven. Married. First kid on the way.

Like a good Commander, Shepard knew every member of the naval crew that actually flew and fought the Normandy, all forty-three of them. When going through the debrief of the Collector attack on the Normandy, Alliance Brass didn't hesitate to assign a the better part of half a platoon of Marines to serve as dedicated ship security. Out of the twenty-four men and women originally assigned to the post, only six managed to escape Earth, with the rest perishing on the surface defending the ship as she hurried herself for takeoff during the pitched battle with the invading Reapers.

The other thirty-seven were all naval crewmembers or engineers that had been lucky enough to already be on the Normandy before Earth had to be abandoned to the Reapers. For a ship that dimension-wise was more similar to a light cruiser than a stealth frigate, the standard crew load was designed to be around one hundred personnel, Naval and Marine. They were operating with less than half of that number. Such was war.

The man didn't look at Shepard, the only acknowledgement being a quick 'sir' before diving back into the haptic interface in front of him. Shepard didn't blame him for his avoidance - recent events had put him in a very uninviting mood, and he had no doubt it showed on his outward features. He didn't care, there were far more serious things occupying his thoughts at the moment.

"Finished," said Joker, pressing twice on the screen to bring the new seismic data to the forefront. "Uhh, that's strange. EDI, what are we seeing here?"

The SSV Normandy, being the System's Alliance's most advanced stealth and reconnaissance ship, had some of the best sensor tech available in the entire galaxy. They had actually launched a small drone to the surface near the Cerberus complex of Horizon, which embedded itself into the earth and proceeded to generate small seismic waves through the dirt and rock. When these waves returned, the drone's software would use the incoming data to map out any subterranean complexes. What Shepard and Joker were seeing now was nothing more than a huge, yet simple box situated directly underneath the above-ground complex.

EDI didn't miss a beat. "It is construction specifically built to defeat sensors. I have never encountered a design this vast before. Clearly Cerberus spent an enormous amount of time, effort, and funding building this place. I suspect that the main portions of whatever operation Cerberus had really going on here are not located within the above-ground complex, but below-ground and away from any prying eyes or sensors."

"So, we've got no way of knowing what might or might not be inside that gigantic Cerberus box?" Joker summarized, leaning closer to the display. "Great. Sounds like the perfect place for a trap. I mean, they have to know we're coming at this point, right? What do you think Commander?"

There was no answer. "Commander?" Joker asked, twisting in his seat to look behind him. He saw Shepard striding away across the deck of the CIC, more than halfway to the elevator by now and well out of earshot. The few crewmembers walking around the deck made quick efforts to get out of the way of the Commander's fully armed and armored bulk. Joker realized that Shepard wouldn't have heard anything that he had just said.

He sighed. "I hate it when he does that."

Commander Shepard was standing in the open cockpit door, one hand grabbing the frame to support himself as the transport shivered while passing through the last of Horizon's upper atmosphere. The other was clutching the pistol grip of his Avenger rifle, pointed downwards to the deck. He watched as Cortez banked the shuttle through a grouping of pearl-white clouds as he aligned them with their course to the Cerberus facility. He turned back around to look into the troop bay, where the rest of his ground team were strapped into their seats.

Liara, Garrus, Vega, and the Master Chief were all looking at Shepard, ready for him to start speaking now that he'd turned around to face them. The lighting strips running along the floor and ceiling of the Kodiak's troop bay flickered on to a steady red. Five minutes until they arrived at their landing zone.

"Alright everyone, listen up," Shepard started. They hadn't had time for a proper briefing in the War Room like usual, so this one was being done on the fly - literally. "The location of this facility, codenamed: Horizon, was discovered by the Master Chief during his infiltration earlier today. On the surface, it's being advertised by a shell corporation that EDI linked to Cerberus as a 'safe haven' for those wanting to flee from the Reapers."

Shepard's voice lightened up a bit. "We also know there's more to this place than that. This is where Miranda was brought after she was captured by Cerberus. Something here took away our friend and turned her into a Cerberus agent. We're going to find out what."

"Surface sensor scans from both the Normandy and Viper-Heavy are showing no activity in the area, either in the complex building itself or the surrounding area. However, a seismic drone we deployed found this -" Shepard transmitted the seismic scan images to the HUDs of each in the squad, " - a huge, scan-proof box that can only be shielding some kind of below-ground operation."

"Our primary objectives are as follows: Once inside the complex, find a way below-ground. Find out what exactly Cerberus is doing in secret, and find out what the hell they did to Miranda. Both Vipers will be on overwatch, as well as the Normandy in low orbit."

"This entire place has 'trap' written all over it," remarked Garrus dryly.

Shepard nodded slowly. "Cerberus certainly knows we're on the warpath by now. We'll just have to try and be ready for anything. If there's a trap, we spring it, destroy it, and push right through. Cerberus hasn't been able to throw anything at us yet that we haven't been able to deal with."

"And if Miranda is here?" The question came from Liara, who was making sure that Shepard could feel her gaze. Shepard held it for a moment, but then turned his eyes down towards the deck of the Kodiak, pressing his lips together firmly.

"Capture if possible." The Commander's voice was low, weighed down by difficult thoughts. "Kill if necessary."

"Commander?" It was Cortana.

"What is it?"

"EDI and I were working through the extranet to try and find information about Horizon. There are ads all over Human-focused sites for Horizon, claiming that it's the only safe region of space for war refugees. The true location is never mentioned, other than vague, idealistic descriptions of the planet and surrounding systems. Yet for a substantial fee you can 'secure you and your family's safety for life in these turbulent times'. Their quote, not mine."

"Human-focused sites?" Vega repeated. "That doesn't make sense to me. Why wouldn't they try and reach other races who are just as affected by the war?"

Garrus answered that one matter-of-factly. "Because Cerberus is a Human supremacist organization."

The troop bay lighting strips switched to yellow. Two minutes. Cortez palmed the shuttle door releases, sunlight and cold wind readily accepting the invitation to enter. The Master Chief, who had been as still and silent as a statue thus far, undid his restraint straps and took a crouching position besides the right open door, peering down towards the ground below. It was nothing but thick, green tree-tops of dense forests currently.

"There's no way those refugees had any idea what they were really getting into…" James, warm anger already percolating through his tensed muscles.

"Do we know how many came here?" Shepard asked. He could see Woods purse her thin lips behind her clear helmet visor.

"Just over twenty-five thousand."

There was a pause throughout the shuttle as they let the gravity of those words sink in.

"You're telling me there are supposed to be twenty-five thousand people down there, yet we can't detect a single trace?" Vega asked, fielding the question on everyone's mind. "And there's only seven of us going inside?"

Shepard frowned. It was becoming a common gesture. "Yes. We're not going to let Cerberus continue to hide what they're doing here."

There were a few more seconds of contemplative silence.

"Master Chief," Shepard said, "What do you think?"

The Spartan swiveled his head back inwards, finding that all were looking upon his opaque faceplate. He was well aware of the level of weight and respect that he and his opinions carried amongst the team by now. He'd been fighting for longer than most of the team, save for Liara, had been alive.

Chief looked over the ground team. Shepard, Vega, Garrus, professional soldiers, highly-trained, battle-tested, and trustworthy. Liara, though not a member of any galactic military branch, was a master of defensive biotics, had incredible combat awareness, and when she got in sync with Shepard's own biotics, the two could summon a level of biotic power equal to the directed fire of an entire heavy weapons platoon.

Then there was Doctor Woods. Internally Chief hadn't agreed with including her on the mission, but it was Shepard's call to make, not his. He had also internally disagreed with Admiral Lasky's decision to put a xenobiologist on a vanguard combat/reconnaissance warship, even if logically he understood the given reason of studying and reporting on the abundant amount of sentient races in this 'new' galaxy. Chief also knew about Woods' brief stint with ONI, yet when he and Cortana had tried to dig deeper into it they had come up with nothing but general descriptions of 'contract work'. Cut off from their 'home' galaxy, there weren't even any other UNSC data systems for Cortana to trawl through, just the central local networks of the UNSC warships under Lasky's command. Cortana did know that there was a Sahara-Class Heavy Prowler that had participated in the Victory at Despara out there somewhere, yet with no way to digitally contact it from her relative isolation on the Normandy, she wasn't discovering anything from that anytime soon.

The Master Chief did not hold the Office of Naval Intelligence in high regard.

In the end, the assignment had separated him from Blue Team, his fellow Spartans, people who he understood and who understood him better than anyone else ever could. He definitely didn't appreciate that, but it wasn't in his nature to say no to Admirals, especially ones like Lasky whom he respected.

The other UNSC elements on the Normandy, Cehack and Dalton with Viper-Heavy, and the Huragok Engineer had all proven themselves extremely beneficial to the Normandy's mission. Yet, when Chief finished his impromptu examination of the Normandy ground team, as his eyes came to rest on Doctor Woods he couldn't help but think of what he would give to see Fred, Linda, or Kelly in her stead.

Woods was an unknown quantity, and in a setting where the unknown could very well get you killed, that made the Spartan uneasy. Soldiers lived on information. They thrived on it, strove to obtain it in any way possible, and the Master Chief was no exception. In that regard, the mission itself also made Chief uneasy. What was Cerberus hiding in that sensor-proof underground structure? Where are the twenty-five thousand refugees that were reported to have come here? The Spartan had a strong suspicion that the answer to both questions weren't good ones.

However, the rest of his new team had grown on him, and certainly proved themselves time and time again in this hectic and unpredictable war. Above all else though he had Cortana, and nothing has been able to stop them yet. His artificial companion sent a light warmth along the back of his head, signaling her mirroring of his thoughts.

"We get in, accomplish our objectives, and get out," Chief responded after that brief second of thought. "Something's not right here. We'll have to be careful."

There were nods of agreement all around. They would be quick, efficient, and smart. In and out. A master of reading body cues and expressions, gained by spending an enormous amount of time encased in armor, Chief could see a layer of tension lift off the collective shoulders of the ground team, including from Shepard.

It was at that moment when Chief realized that his role in the team had changed. He was no longer just the heavily armored tip of the Normandy ground team's spear. It seemed he'd transitioned to the role of the team's wisened, steady NCO whose words had weight with enlisted and officer alike. It wasn't an untrue archetype. It mirrored the dynamics of his commands of the Spartan-II's. But those were his Spartans, his brothers and sisters, and these were not.

The Master Chief didn't know how he felt about this new development.

The troop bay light strips started flashing yellow once every second. Thirty seconds until touchdown. The Spartan brought his mind back to the mission at hand, reaching for the now familiar sleekness of his rifle, the Adaptive Combat System, the best of USNC R&D. It had quickly become his favorite battle implement. A rifle designed to integrate seamlessly into his suit and HUD, the ability to choose at will the caliber and rate of fire of his weapon was an enormous tactical advantage, all in one package and with minimal baggage, since it's ammunition source was the power being generated by his Mjolnir itself.

The Spartan peeked his head out of the troop bay door just a little more, using the magnification on his helmet optics to try and get a good look at their quickly approaching LZ. The main aboveground complex structure came into his view, placed in the middle of a huge, circular clearing in the thick surrounding forests. It was a substantially large building, at least six stories tall. Volume and square footage analysis from Cortana predicted that two UNSC Marathon-Class Cruisers could comfortably fit inside, and that wasn't counting the number of small outbuildings dotting the perimeter of the main complex, nor what was underground.

Behind him Chief heard weapons and armor shuffle as everyone made their final checks. Shepard was speaking to Viper-Heavy, who had deployed shortly before, as they had to stealthily recon the landing zone. "Confirm visual and instrument scan."

"Roger, visuals and instruments are showing no activity at the landing zone, or anywhere around the complex." The Master Chief noticed that Flight Sergeant Dolton's voice was missing the usual layer of 'flyboy bravado' as it was known amongst UNSC ground forces. Dolton seemed uneasy, on edge, like himself.

The complex loomed ever closer as they made their final approach. Chief had to admit he was a bit incredulous. How many resources did Cerberus have available to itself that it could afford and construct such enormous operations? How many warships and soldiers could they possibly keep throwing at them? Not only this enormous complex on Horizon, but also the myriad of other high-tech, well-disguised and well-guarded military and research bases that the Normandy crew had been attacking these past few days. Then there was the Cerberus attack on the Prothean Mars research base, the attack on the Citadel during the first Reaper War Summit that had resulted in the death of Turian Councilor Sparatus, and then of course the Miranda situation… For what was initially described as a 'minor' Human splinter group had somehow turned into a major issue for not just those on the Normandy, but also the entire war effort.

The Kodiak began to flare out for the landing approach. The bay lights started flashing "GO" green. Cortez didn't touch the ground, performing a standard combat drop of hovering a few meters above the ground for the troops to disembark, even though the LZ was 'clear'.

The Master Chief was the first to hit the ground of the planet Horizon, his boots leaving heavy indentations in the soft green grass and earth. The rest of the squad had stacked themselves behind him and followed in the Spartan's wake. They advanced several meters forwards in low crouches, fanning out into a loose semicircle as Cortez pulled the Kodiak up and away to join Viper-Heavy in aerial overwatch.

They held their positions as the oscillating reverberations of the Kodiak's mass effect drives faded out of earshot. The Cerberus complex was about two hundred meters away across mostly open field, along with a few small outbuildings closer to the facility. Shepard had debated having them land closer, but wanted the extra space on approach to give more time to observe and think on the strange circumstances surrounding the mission.

Chief was at the very 'front' of their semicircle, rifle trained on the complex as he viewed it through his optics. Cortana would prove, as she often did, to be invaluable here. The size of the building also corresponded with an equally large amount of windows, balconies, rooftops, far too many to be covered at all times by their small team, even with eyes in the sky. Cortana wasn't bound by the physical limits that the rest of them were, and could co-opt Chief's optical systems to keep her own 'eyes' on the hundreds of places that the rest of the team could not.

The air felt heavy with silence, evident even through everyone's sealed suits. There was no wind. The blades of thick grass that surrounded the complex stood still and upright, like a drawing that had been sealed to time, instead of real life. There weren't even any sounds of local wildlife, usually present no matter which life-sustaining planet you travelled to. The entire atmosphere around the complex seemed artificial, cold, and lacking.

Shepard had spent enough time observing, he decided. "Staggered single-file. Master Chief, take point. Garrus, the rear. Keep eyes on those windows and outbuildings as we approach. Move out."

The squad started out at a quick yet steady pace, falling out into Shepard's requested formation.

"We going in through the front door?" questioned Vega.

"Front door," Shepard affirmed.

"What about the outbuildings?" asked Garrus. "There's at least three we'll be passing on the way in."

"Chief, do penetrative scans when we get in range. If we pick something up we investigate, if not, we keep going."

"Roger," the Spartan replied.

They kept moving, passing the one-hundred yard mark. One outbuilding was quickly approaching, a short, one-story cube structure, with plain metal walls. The Master Chief toggled his Promethean Vision and watched as the scan penetrated the buildings on its outwards circular projection. It didn't pick up anything noteworthy inside.

"Negative," Chief relayed to the rest of the squad, and they kept moving. The Cerberus complex filled most of their front view by now. It looked like a cross between an office structure and a high-tech residential living tower, with a sort of modernist austerity that was the popular architectural style of the time. In large block letters above the entrance loomed the words: HORIZON: Live Your Best Life.

There was still no calls of movement from anyone. The team approached, scanned, and cleared negative the second outbuilding they passed. It was at this point when they started seeing the trash. It was littered around every so often, whether it was discarded clothing, luggage bags, or food and drink scraps. It was all laid about the grass, unmoving, vague clues to the mystery that was unfolding before them.

The third outbuilding, nearly identical to the last two, came into range. Chief activated his Promethean Vision once again, but before the scan could get more than halfway into the building it abruptly shut off. Not before the Spartan thought he caught the slightest glimpse of two, Human-like figures.

"Possible contacts," Chief called through their squad channel, calm as always. He changed his direction to approach the outbuilding, and Cortana immediately gave him a status report on the sudden sensor shutdown. The set of micro-hardlight crystals within the scanner's activation apparatus had shattered, likely just from routine usage, Cortana hypothesized. It would be inoperable the rest of the mission, until they could get back to the Normandy for more thorough repairs. Unlucky? Yes. A bad omen? Maybe.

He noticed Shepard started following behind. "Everyone else, halt and establish security."

The Chief and Shepard found the door, a simple slide-to-the-side with a waiting green access pad. So, there was still power, at least here. They both filed that information away. Shepard, on the other side of the door, looked into Chief's faceplate. The Spartan nodded. Ready.

Shepard palmed the door release. The room was small, a supply storage area, and above all it was empty of anything resembling a human. Chief knew that he had seen something. The tech had never given him false readings before, yet it had malfunctioned right at that exact moment. There was a first time for everything, and Chief had had it ironed into him long ago not to rely solely on technology.

Shepard looked at him, pointing a finger towards his helmet, raised eyebrows visible behind his clear visor. "Equipment?"

"Possibly. My Promethean vision malfunctioned mid-scan. It's out of action."

The Commander frowned. "Let's keep moving."

The rest of the distance was crossed without incidence. Aerial overwatch continued to confirm no movement or life-forms other than themselves. The team stacked up behind the large set of double doors, then burst inside with weapons raised, trying to be ready for anything.

Nothing met them except a deserted lobby, scattered with the same kind of detritus and debris that they had found earlier, but this time with the occasional dark, faded bloodstain…

The lights were dim, but they were on, indicating there was still power throughout the main complex as well. Soft classical music from somewhere wafted through the dead air like seabirds on a thick ocean breeze, the only external sound they'd heard yet.

"Find a working terminal or computer for Cortana to try and get some schematics. We're going to need them," Shepard ordered.

It didn't take them long. and Garrus called out from what was labelled as a floor manager's office, where there was a holo terminal blinking in an idle status. They all quickly abandoned their search and rejoined with the Turians, Chief moving into position for Cortana to bridge herself into the network.

A few seconds of anxious waiting passed as the Artificial Intelligence started cracking her way through Cerberus security screens. Shepard used the brief lull to get a status report from EDI on the Normandy. Still no orbital or atmospheric activity of any kind except their own since they'd arrived in-system.

"I've found the way down. It's a bit of a roundabout route, transmitting now," Cortana said. They didn't waste any time getting moving, Cortana putting waypoints and pathways in all of their HUDs. The AI continued listing off her findings as the squad swept through the remainder of the expansive lobby and into an adjacent corridor travelway. "A majority of the building is residential units, with accompanying office spaces, and recreational areas. There's also a substantial barracks section, large enough for an infantry battalion or two by estimation. We're heading to the Administrative section, which is through and upwards of some of the residential decks. There's a number of security cameras still working around the complex, but no activity on any of them."

The Normandy ground team was working through the main corridors, stairways, mezzanines, and office and residential hallways with quick efficiency. As they travelled deeper into the facility the sense of dread that had been percolating in the pits of all of their stomachs grew steadily larger. Something had to have gone terribly wrong here. Twenty-five thousand people, where were they? Where was Cerberus? What was really going on beneath the surface here? As they passed room after room of time-stopped dioramas of people's lives - cereal bowls and boxes set out on a table, a matching set of clothing set out on a bed, a book held open to the last page by the corner of a tablet - these questions and others started worming their way around the minds of the ground team.

These questions were on the mind of the Master Chief as well, yet his main concern was of something else. He had an urgent alertness to him, determined not to miss any detail that could reveal anything hidden amongst the abandoned labyrinth of the Horizon complex. His mind had been pulling memories of his encounters with the Flood, especially the first time on Installation-04, when he had been searching for Captain Keyes. The similarities of the two situations were evident, and that was what put seeds of unease in his own gut. He grimaced. He did not like thinking about the Flood.

After a few increasingly intense minutes, they finally arrived at a pair of double doors tucked in the back corner of the Administrative wing, which like everything else they'd seen thus far, looked like it had been abandoned in the middle of the workday. There were no handles, codepads, or central haptic interface, just a seam in the middle. They could see light coming out from underneath bottom seam with the floor. Shepard was about to ask for ideas, when the Master Chief stepped forwards, shouldering his rifle. He managed to find some purchase in the seam, and everyone else got the message, stepping back to give him room and leveling weapons towards the doorway. With the tension of muscles amplified by the near-silent whine of armor servo-motors, the Spartan began to slide the door apart.

They all stood there, weapons raised, adrenaline ramping up through their systems. Halfway open the door catch released and suddenly both doors slid the rest of the way open. The Master Chief jumped backwards at the sudden movement, getting out of the rest of the squad's line of fire.

Nothing came at them except light.

The Master Chief moved inwards, followed by Shepard. It was a large viewing room, with three walls of floor to ceiling glass, and a ceiling that seemed to be made of mostly transparent metal.

There was a central terminal in the middle of the room, which was flashing a dark, ominous red. They stepped forwards carefully, noting that they could see nothing but darkness beyond the tall windows.

"Any ideas Doctor?" Shepard posited, slowly walking towards the central terminal, lips turning downwards.

"Some kind of biological experiment?" she replied, quickly and bluntly. "Would explain the mass amount of refugees, i.e. test subjects…"

The Master Chief, who had walked to a window panel, fiddled with his visor settings to try and see if he could gain some vision past the blinding contrast of bright light inside the viewing room and pitch black beyond. His mind registered one sight, a row horizontal, human-sized cylindrical tanks, then many things happened in a very short amount of time.

Cortana, having been trying to access the viewing room's terminal and finally try and answer the questions on everyone's mind, broke through the Cerberus firewalls. In an instant, her standard unit of thought, she understood what had been going on here. She only had time to do one thing: flood the Master Chief's system with adrenaline, epinephrine, and a massive dose of urgent warning.

The Spartan, eyes shooting wide as he realized that things were very, very wrong, turned his head just in time to see the ceiling shatter above them. Bodies started to tumble through the air down towards them. 'Spartan Time' was in full effect for the Master Chief now. There were dozens of them coming down, Chief guessed, rifle raising faster than any other human eye could possible see, yet still much too slow for himself.

He got the first shot off, mere milliseconds after the ceiling shattered, the sparking blue hardlight projectile detonating one of the bodies' heads like a grenade. It was then, when viscous blue-black liquid poured out of the gaping head wound, when Chief realized that these were Husks, not just bodies. His second, third, and fourth round obliterated the unprotected torsos of another falling bodie, halfway towards falling on top of an increasingly shocked Garrus. The Spartan was surprised by the rate of fire, he hadn't remembered switching the rifle to its maximum rate of fire, but he used it to his advantage, putting three more killshots into two more Husks.

Then, they were on them. Masses of clawing, writhing, biting humanoids hell bent on beating past the kinetic barriers and armor plating of the Normandy squad to get to the vulnerable parts inside. Three, four, five Husks at least had fallen on and were assaulting each member of the ground team. As the Master Chief fired his weapon point-blank into a Husk's sternum with one hand and crushed another's head in his other, he worried that the current situation might be untenable.

It was Liara who came to all of their rescues. With incredible presence of mind, as soon as she ceiling collapsed she erected an instinctual biotic barrier around herself. Then, when Husks started colliding off of her barrier and she realized what was going on, she reacted by not only pushing the biotic barrier sphere outwards, but also fine-tuning the mass effect frequency fields in an instant to a more offensive potency. The resulting blast biotically incinerated the dozens of Husks that had assaulted the squad in the viewing room, yet at the cost depleting their shields and knocking them all to the ground.

The team struggled to their feet. Everything around them was shaking, like an earthquake had suddenly ripped through the facility. It was Husks. A deafening roar filled the air, akin to the main engines of a UNSC Destroyer firing up in drydock. It was the roar of Husks.

All present were made immediately, horrifyingly aware of what had happened to those twenty-five thousand people.

"MOVE!" Shepard bellowed.

In their comlinks, Normandy, Viper-Heavy, and Cortez in the Kodiak were all shouting urgently, their sudden warning cries overlapping and hard to distinguish.

"Commander, be advised, massive life-sign readings now permeating Cerberus complex and surrounding fields…"

"Holy shit! Roran! Fucking Husks! Holy fuck look at them all - get the guns going!"

"Commander this is Cortez, human-like figures are pouring out of… everywhere! Jesus christ - "

"Roof! Go!" Cortana cut through all of the noise in their ears, putting very clear pathways in the HUDs of the urgently retreating ground team. She had pulled an enormous amount of data and information from that terminal in the short span she was connected, but she filed it away for later. One-hundred percent of her abilities were going to the team right now.

They surged forwards, finding Husk after Husk rushing towards them from previously empty rooms and corridors. Liara and Shepard, acting as one, erected another biotic barrier just in time for several Husks to crash onto them from above, having thrown themselves off of balconies above. The rest of the squad opened fire from inside the barrier, urged onwards by survival instinct and Shepard's shouts to keep moving.

The Master Chief was operating on pure, unfiltered instinct. Decades of training and experience, thousands of combat scenarios, dozens upon dozens of 'impossible missions'. His entire being boiled down to a few actions in rapid sequence. Identify target. Sight target. Eliminate target. Move. Identify target. Sight target. Eliminate target. Move.

He was a machine in this moment, almost as much as the rifle in his hands. He was working an entire flank by himself, every shot from his ACS finding the exposed head or chest of a Husk. Cortana worked with him like she would a point-defense cannon, assigning targets out of the mob for the Master Chief to destroy, taking away the burden of target prioritization.

Vega was squeezing off long bursts from his SAW, in between heated curses of fuck fuck fuck. Chief and Garrus, their own military instincts kicking in, were working together to cover one side of their makeshift biotically armored convoy.

They were just about to make it to a central open-air staircase which would take them all the way to the upper floor, where roof access was only a couple of short hallways away.

"Up the stairs!" Shepard yelled, collapsing the biotic barrier with Liara. Trying to maintain the technique would only slow them down.

The ascension was frantic, and as he bounded up the steps four at a time, barrel of his ACS glowing white hot from usage, he peered out into the openness of the complexes bottom floors. It was a literal sea of dark grey flesh, covering seemingly every square inch. Thankfully, since the Husks didn't have the same level of coordination as living Humans, the team managed to buy themselves a precious couple of seconds of separation as they raced up the staircase.

Chief was in the rear this time, the one best suited to slowing down the horde behind them even the slightest, with Shepard setting the pace from up front.

As they passed the second floor from the top, Shepard saw something out of the corner of his eye. He stopped in his tracks, doing a double-take. Down an adjacent hallway and through a set of doors was a Human-like figure. A woman. In Cerberus armor.

He stepped towards the figure, the hordes of Husks, their distressed exfiltration, suddenly now forgotten. The door shut and locked itself behind him, he could hear the mechanism clear as day. He found it odd that he picked that up, and not the booming voice of the Master Chief keeping the squad moving upwards, having realized the decision that Shepard had made, and making his own.

Shepard knew it was Miranda. All of the pain, all of the sadness, the anger, loss, rage, the physical, mental, and emotional agony, that this…. stranger…. had caused him and his friends, it all crashed through his system and manifested itself in one way: pure, biotic energy. It was though Shepard had burst into a blue inferno, such was the maelstrom of biotic power flowing from him, and it charged directly towards Miranda.

Shepard didn't remember the impact. He did remember opening his eyes to a familiar blue-blackness. He took sharp, deep breath. He knew this place. This was the Meld.

He felt a presence behind him. He turned. It was Miranda, but not as she had been. This was Miranda, long black hair, simple smile, striking blue eyes. Casual tan pants and a black long-sleeved shirt were the only things she was wearing. She was holding her arms protectively around her, like a child would, and she looked up gingerly at him. He saw a thousand emotions etched in the lines of her face, and a hundred stories traced in the tear tracks running down her cheeks.

Shepard was frozen in place, boots made of solid lead. It occurred to the logical portion of his mind that this shouldn't be possible, that a Meld can only be initiated and maintained by an Asari. The thought was quickly discarded when Miranda stepped forwards, and hugged him.

"Shepard. I'm so sorry." Miranda was whispering into his ear, and the anguish and sorrow that Shepard could feel through the Meld was heartrending. "He found me."

"The Illusive Man," Shepard said.

Miranda pulled back, grasping Shepard's hands in hers. A deep, dark rage had overcome her expressions, but it wasn't directed at him. "He stole me Shepard. He took my mind and body, and shoved me into the back of my own being, where I can do nothing but watch."


She looked away from his eyes, down towards the 'ground' beneath them. The Meld transmitted her shameful agony straight into Shepard's soul. "I don't know... Shepard, the things that I've seen, the things that I've watched myself do..."

Miranda's head snapped back up, and her eyes bored straight through Shepard's own. "You have to stop him Shepard, before he releases Them."

"Releases what?" Miranda's strength was waning; Shepard's biotic charge against her had given her fatal injuries. It felt like she was physically shrinking in front of him.

"The Hunger," was all she said before she released his hands and started stepping backwards. He wanted to go after her, to ask for more, but he was rooted to the spot, silently watching her go.

"I'm so tired. I want to go see my sister." She gave him one last smile. "I hope you could forgive me. Somehow. Goodbye Shepard."

The next thing Shepard remembered, he was being pulled down the hallway and to his feet by a pair of olive-drab colored gauntlets, while Husks finally succeeded in breaking down the doorway. He saw the armored Cerberus woman, body mangled and broken from his biotic charge, lying on the ground a few meters away. As he was literally thrown into the troop bay of the Kodiak hovering just outside the blown out windows, he noticed that a grenade was missing from his belt.

He continued to be pulled into the Kodiak as the shuttle banked away, and his last sight before the troop bay doors slid shut was an orange-white flash as Husks flooded out of the doorway.

Miranda was finally at peace.

Utterly overwhelmed, Shepard collapsed to the deck.