"Victory is always possible for the person who refuses to stop fighting." - Napoleon Hill
Chapter 19 - The Citadel: Last Stand
VIGIL did not reveal anything that was new to me.
My squadmates however had their worldviews shattered.
The Citadel… a trap? A relay deep into the unknown of dark space? The Keepers, an entire race of Reaper servants?
Unheard of. Invalidating multiple thousands of years of perceived truth.
I do not remember all that much, but I do remember the shock in each of them. Perhaps none more than Liara. But even Wrex seemed stunned, for the lack of a better word. And that… that was downright frightening.
My omnitool kept on glowing, absorbing all of the presented information. I half expected the recording to be corrupted. It would have fitted my luck perfectly.
VIGILs description of the slow, methodical and ruthless method of the Harvest was almost sickening in its own right. Absolutely void of emotion. Perhaps even because of this, all the more impressive. And not in a good way.
The Reapers followed a pretty straightforward strategy. Scatter the central government, isolate each world from each other… and then, with the prey having nowhere to run, a slow and methodical purge. No surrender offered, no mercy granted. Efficient. Make of that what you will.
I remember hanging back a bit, arm slightly outstretched as to maximise the quality of my recording, and having my gaze torn between the ancient construct and my squad. I noticed Shepard doing the same thing and felt slightly reassured, but at the same time, the knowledge that Saren was slipping from our grasp with each passing second was only adding more fuel to the fire.
My trust in the inevitability of 'canon' had eroded significantly since Virmire.
"What did the Reapers get out of this?" Shepard sounded… irritated. Astonished and angry at the same time. "Why do they keep repeating this pattern of genocide, over and over?"
"The Reapers are alien. Unknowable. Perhaps they need slaves or resources. More likely they are driven by motives and goals organic beings cannot hope to comprehend."
As impossible as it sounds, VIGIL seemed to show signs of impatience with the next sentence.
"In the end, what does it matter? Your survival depends on stopping them, not understanding them."
And this is where you are wrong, I thought to myself, lips pressed to a thin white line behind my mask. But did not dare say anything. It was neither the time nor the place.
In all the catastrophe VIGIL spoke of, there was also a spark of hope. Ilos had stayed hidden for long enough. A few Protheans survived the invasion, only to find themselves too few to rebuild their species. Instead, they undertook a suicide mission, one last great sacrifice to halt the cycle, stalling the Reapers by reprogramming the Keepers and the Citadel. The only reason why we still had the sliver of a chance at all.
To my great discomfort, I did not understand why my squadmates showed signs of anger at how Vigil gradually shut down all non-essential stasis pods, effectively killing off the majority of Protheans on the planet. I was neither emotional about it like Liara, Shepard or Kaidan, nor sarcastic like Wrex. If anything, I was calm like Garrus. The calculus of war. The sacrifice of the few hundred to save the whole - uncounted generations in the future of the whole galaxy. A philosophy the Turians were all too familiar with.
It all seemed logical to me. Cold logic and the ruthlessness mathematics of war on a scale unexperienced by any current civilization. But it made sense.
The Conduit was indeed a link to the Citadel. And at the same time, part of the mechanism that denied the Reapers their prize. SOVEREIGN's mission was that of a sentinel. They planned to use slaves and allies to open the portal by force. Predictable allies, as only machines like the Geth could be - AI or not. And, finally, the Beacons that carried the crucial information and had dragged Shepard into this conflict found mention as well.
I can't phrase it any differently - VIGIL's story was compelling. But time was not something we had in huge supply.
"Saren's had enough of a headstart - grab that data file and download any information you can! Double-Time!" Shepard ordered us, seemingly coming back to this plane of reality. I can't blame her.
As she, Tali, Liara and Kaidan went to hastily split up their duties and download as many files as they could, VIGIL continued.
"The one you name Saren has not reached the Conduit. Not yet. There is still hope - if you hurry."
And hurry, we did.
We were on our way back to the Mako a few seconds later.
I cast one last gaze at VIGIL which faded out of existence as we left.
I saluted and offered a silent farewell.
After 50.000 years, its duty was completed.
Now, it was down to us.
My memory of the race for the Conduit is hazy. But it was a hellish ride, that I remember quite well.
The first few meters felt like nothing extraordinary. Then Shepard realised what was going on. And then, everything exploded. Or so it felt like.
There was no time to coordinate, all Shepard could do was to step on the throttle and make it count, as Garrus in the turret chose his targets at will and fired cannon and coaxial machinegun in an effort to keep the Geths last desperate attempts at bay.
There were just too many targets to shoot them all, and we did not have the luxury of time to take it slow and methodical. The Conduit was ceasing to operate. We were down to literal seconds.
Tali's fingers moved so quickly, it was impossible for me to see any individual movement. She tried to balance out the energy, overloaded the engine, diverting maximum power to the drivetrain yet trying her hardest to keep the shield systems running.
It only helped for so long.
Alarms blared as the barrier collapsed, my auxiliary cam died immediately, I was blind to what was happening.
I only felt the impacts of a lot of rounds.
One of the Mako's greatest advantages as a fighting vehicle was the extremely well angled, hardened armor, causing most low calibre rounds to simply bounce off into the ground or tires. The rubber could withstand massive punishment from small-arms fire, soaking up the grains of metal like a sponge.
But even then, I could hear how the sheer volume of fire gnawed at the plate.
The air seemed to be forced out of my lungs as something that had to be a missile struck us, only a few centimetres separating my head and the hull where it hit. By the grace of Lady Luck, it didn't hit flat on - the explosion was not directed against our armor.
But rung my ears and left me concussed.
A few degrees of angle higher, and my head would have been caught in a blast of directed plasma, shrapnel and molten metal.
Helpless as I was, I could only close my eyes and hope - pray, really - that Garrus and I had not messed up, that our hurried attempts to repair the damage of Virmire had been worth it, that nothing hit the suspensions, the hydraulics, the hastily patched-up turret…
"Ten seconds to Conduit!" Shepard yelled over the intercom. "Brace for impact!"
I barely heard her, dazed as I was.
Ten seconds have never felt so long.
I desperately clenched my teeth and grabbed my safety harness with both hands, the daze turning into pain pulsating all over my head.
Out of all sudden, I felt the familiar pull in my stomach.
The engine screeched as the tires lost contact with the ground…
I smelled burning plastic.
Something, I dimly realized without emotion, is off.
I was slow to come back to my senses. When I did, I regretted it immediately.
I hung upside down and could barely move. Not because of the safety harness that held my body in place - but because every move seemed to tear open something.
I vaguely remember the others shouting, crawling out - but I couldn't move.
Raven is down!, I heard from a galaxy away.
Remember, the voice in my head said. You must remember.
What do I have to remember? I idly wondered.
Get him out! Quickly! There's fire!
You must remember.
I almost understood what that voice wanted. It would be so obvious if I just saw it.
What was I missing that I couldn't?
Those were my thoughts as Kaidan crawled back in, cut me out, and dragged me out.
I blankly stared at him, not really understanding what was going on - aside from being largely unable to move, I felt strangely okay.
That is, until he took a syringe from my chest pouch, found the small access port in my armor and rammed it into a vein.
With the hiss of the needle discharging its content, I abruptly returned to the here and now. A quick but hefty surge of fire made me hiss, then the drug did its job and the pain subsided. Mostly.
In its place, I felt heat and the cool ground my head rested on. My mask was still sealed - and yet, I smelled fire and blood. And saw the centre of civilization set ablaze.
Gunfire in the distance - and right next to me.
Reflex and instincts took over. I rolled onto my belly and stood up. Sudden pain forced me to kneel and wince. I pulled my rifle from my back, but there were no more targets left.
Shepard and the others had gotten rid of the few Geth around. The few puddles of grey had to be the leftovers of Husks.
A look behind me - our Mako was done for, no doubt. The automatic fire extinguishers had done their job, but the scorch marks remained. It was flipped on its roof, at least three of the tires were destroyed and part of the armor plates had disintegrated, to the point that even the core structure was falling apart. Even Commander Proof couldn't take that kind of punishment.
You must remember, repeated a voice in my head.
Overwhelmed by everything, I ground my teeth and screamed out silently.
"Raven, you're injured. Badly."
Shepard had to make a split-second decision - and she excelled at those. Behind her visor, I saw her lips thinning, not wanting to say the obvious.
I grunted and could only watch as Kadian proceeded to help Liara back on her feet. I was still on a knee and tried to get my head to stop spinning. It was only thanks to copious amounts of drugs that I wasn't just bending over, emptying my stomach on the floor.
I nodded. I knew what was coming. And it made sense. My injuries were worrisome, but not lethal. Kaidan said so. His voice soothed me.
With the help of some painkillers, I could still function as a rifleman. At the same time, neither I nor the others could afford me as a burden. Especially with the spacewalk that was coming up, even though no one else knew about that bit.
A simple, logical conclusion.
"Get… to Saren. I'll try and... hide somewhere."
"We can't leave him here!" Tali said, in a way that I can only describe as flabbergasted. "Raven's hurt, and there are Geth everywhere, and - "
"And you need to… get to Saren!" I said loudly, wincing as my ribs hurt.
"Raven and I agreed that I would leave him here if he would slow us down." Shepard sounded emotionless. She did not like anything about this either.
What could have been a rather emotional moment turned even more interesting by my omnitol suddenly blinking. I cast a confused look at it, realized something, then looked up at Shepard in astonishment.
"That's... Crow! Was-?"
Before she could add anything, I opened the channel. In the literal heat of battle, I had almost forgotten about him, but now that I remembered, I needed to know what was going on.
"You're alive! Where… are you? You… okay?"
For some reason, he spoke German. Gunfire and static almost made it impossible to hear him, but I understood him regardless.
"Am at the Embassies! Have Udina and a few others here! We're fighting Geth! Where are you? Where the fuck did you come from?"
There was no time to wonder how he had ended there and in combat. Especially considering we had agreed on him staying in the Wards, keeping his fucking head low, no less. But it made obvious to me where I had to go, now that I was incapable of following Shepard to Saren. Impressively enough, Crow had even managed to stay in persona while contacting me.
I quickly translated to Shepard, then added with rising anxiety: "I'll get there... Help them. Get Saren. Quickly!"
I could almost taste Shepard's dislike in the air.
"You can't keep on, you need a medic ASAP!"
"No time to argue!" I coughed, rightening myself up. I've had ample opportunity to study my body. I could still keep on, I knew as much. And the risk Crow was in was real. But at the same time, there were more people at his location. People that could help me. The Embassy area was close. I could do this.
"Get after Saren! I'll… get through it. I'll help the survivors."
For a few seconds, my world seemed to only consist of Shepard's face.
"Give Garrus half of your 'nades. Then get over there and do what you can. Nothing flashy, okay? We're almost done. Don't throw away your fucking life."
"I'll be okay, Shep." No promises were made. We both knew that that was impossible. I opened the channel to Crow again, speaking English to warn him that we were listened to.
"Don't ask, long story! I'm with… Shepard! I'll get to you ASAP! Don't shoot me, please."
I heard him exhale loudly. Why would I join him, and not chase after Saren too? Those questions had to wait, though.
"Gotcha. You've certainly got a knack for making things interesting."
I grinned in relief. If, in what had to be his first firefight, he was still mocking me, the situation could not be that bad. Didn't answer any of the questions in my head, but still, not a total catastrophe.
"You bet, son. With you shortly… Raven, out."
My breathing stabilized. As I gave Garrus half of my remaining flashbangs and incendiaries, I grinned.
"Shoot that rat in the face for me... will ya?"
"Consider it done. Good Luck." He nodded, suddenly stretched out an arm and gave my shoulder a small push. "Don't be stupid, got it? And when we're done, I'll buy you and this 'crow' the drinks."
I merely nodded. Crow would love this. And the slightest bit of motivation was something to cling onto. If you don't believe me, try being pushed to your physical, emotional and mental limits at the same time. Not recommended for a reason.
Shepard had, in the meantime, got what she needed from the Citadel's VI Avina. As she turned around and gestured for everyone to ready up, she gave me a last stern look.
"Stay safe, Raven."
"Understood, Commander." I saluted. It felt like the right thing to do. "Give 'em hell."
"You too. And stay alive."
I waved once more, then turned around accompanied by some last shouted comments by the rest of our squad.
I probably was followed by my comrades' worried gazes. And didn't want to. They began their final chase for Saren, and I followed the path to the Embassies as fast as I could.
Whatever the hell Crow had found himself in, I was not going to let him down. Too much depended on it.
The walk over to the Embassies was quite eventless.
If one ignores the fact that the entire Presidium had turned into an inferno, making me dodge the odd piece of debris and trying my best to ignore the half-charred corpses around the area.
And I was, for the first time, attacked by Husks.
And I can tell you that these Reaper victims are incredibly fucking ugly.
And that staring them in the cybernetic eyes is quite unsettling.
The mixture of painkillers and stimulants had been injected properly into my body. As often as I checked, the numbers were clear.
The fact that I still felt pain pulsating through my body was… unsettling. And I was incredibly tired. Something, some part in the back of my head, was not responding to the environment. For the lack of a better word, I… glitched out, on occasion. My memory faded.
But I could still fight. As the husks found out, to their distinct displeasure.
I quickly got rid of three of them with shots to the upper body. Nothing fancy, but solid impacts more or less ripped out whatever cybernetics the Dragon's Teeth had filled them with. Quite gory.
Two lone Geth Troopers had to be removed as well. They had enough time to fire a few shots into my shields, but in the end, the Mattock put them out of commission as well.
I checked my surroundings as often as possible. For someone who had lived here for a while, the Presidium must have been in a nightmarish state. But for someone who had followed Shepard through half the galaxy, it was a simple matter of recognizing where enemies could be hiding. Ignoring the destruction and the, for the lack of a better word, ambience for the sake of a more tactical view.
I wasn't sure if I liked this changed perspective. But it was certainly helpful.
A sound. Feminine. Sobbing?
Reflexes told me to turn around, training my sights on a small shop.
For a single dreadful second, I thought Banshee.
Then I realized that it didn't make any sense, on multiple levels, and carefully approached. All my senses on high alert.
Banshees don't sob.
My initial guess had not been as far off as I thought. Two Asari. One on her knees, holding the hands of another laying on the floor. I recognized the dress - but only from the game. The pink-ish piece of cloth typical of Sha'iras employees might have appeared alluring - another time.
Neither of them was in any good condition, but the girl on the floor was worse off. Alien blood. Streaks of purple were all over the place. It looked like the Consort's adept had carried the other one all the way here.
It took a few seconds to realize who they were. My eyes widened behind my mask, but ultimately I held on to my emotions.
Not taking any chances on them panicking, I looked around to secure the area, lowered my gun and came even closer, maybe five meters total.
One was now whispering to the other. Strangely, she was the one sobbing.
"It will be alright, sis… it will be good…"
Turns out, sometimes cliché words are not quite as cliché as you might think.
If I left them there, they would not last much longer. Blood was in the water, Saren's forces were closing in. If their goal was to create as much chaos and devastation as possible, to slow down and disrupt as much of the Citadel as possible - then they were doing a stellar job.
"Hey." I said, out of cliché answers.
She spun around, eyes looking me over the way you would expect from a wild animal.
"I am Private Raven, with the Alliance." I said and kneeled, carefully not to make any sudden movement. Always keeping the unknown in my line of sight. As I was trained to.
"Do you need help? I'm a medic, I can help you."
Her only response was a nod. She did not break into equally cliché pleas to save her sister, which I appreciated very much.
I couldn't help but to grin weakly as I patched up the cyan-coloured Asari curled up on the floor.
"This is not how I imagined meeting you again, Miss T'Maris."
Saphyria writhed, her brown eyes dark in suffering. I am not sure if she recognised me. With my mask, chances are she didn't. Her sister, who had to be Nelyna, stared at me, eyes hollow. I helped Saphyria up on her feet as the painkillers started working and then took the lead myself. I cleared the area in front of us, then gestured for Nelyna to follow me and drag her sister further. It was only a hundred meters, give or take, but it took us five more minutes.
At this moment, I didn't think about how this char surviving would help Shiala rebuild the Feros colony. Maybe. Perhaps. If my guesses were right. As far-reaching as the consequences could potentially be, I only thought of the chance to redeem myself by saving lives. Call it Shepard's not-so-subtle influence.
And that I would not, under no circumstances, let this chance go to waste. The chance of making up for my perceived failures and saving an Asari who had, by chance, left such an impression on me would not go to waste.
As I said prior: Those small goals in life are what keeps you pushing if you're already on the edge. It is so easy to lose perspective, when you're suffering injuries yet also try to think about your grand designs for years in the future. These were not just numbers, they were people.
Now, knowing what I didn't know back then, I am still proud of what I did back then. Or, rather: Especially proud.
I made a vow to see those two innocent civilians survive the day.
Why did I care so much? That's an explanation for another day. All I'm going to say now is that Naivety - and this surge was nothing else - can be a blessing and a curse.
"Friendlies incoming!" I shouted, waited for them to stop firing in my general direction for a second, then rounded the corner. After my experience on Feros, I expected some overly nervous rookies firing on anything that moved. Fortunately, I was mistaken.
Instead, I was greeted by the sight of Crow in the armor I had given him, my old Avenger-VIII at his side and five other riflemen seeking cover behind tossed-over tables and the like. They wore standard Alliance markings. Further in the back, on the stairs leading up to the embassy offices themselves, two Turian C-SEC operatives checked their weapons, and what appeared to be an Asari Huntress did the same.
An interesting sight, to say the least.
Crow looked, dare I say, like a fresh recruit thrown into the deep end. Had I worn standard armor back when I first met Tali, that's exactly how I would have looked like. Way in over his head.
That is both a compliment and an insult.
"Good to see you."
I smiled over the half-lie. His bloodless face scared me.
Yes. Definitely in over his head, and knowing it.
I gestured at the two Asari following me. "Come, get to safety. Move!"
Nelyna increased the pace, gasping for air and holding her barely conscious sister tightly. The Huntress had put her gun back together, noticed her two compatriots and rushed down the stairs to help them - only to freeze mid-movement and look past me, eyes widening.
I spun around just in time for the rounds to impact my chest barriers and got on my knees, seeking cover behind a notice-board. It's glass shattered and covered me in shards, the holographic display fizzled and went out with an electric hum. The foundation was made of steel and covered me as I brought my rifle up.
"RUN!" I yelled, crawled to a corner and returned fire at the Geth shooting at us from the other side of the Citadel Lake. They were clearly visible against the smoke, easy targets, even at two hundred meters.
Six other guns joined me, covering me as I rose with a wince. A swift glance around, I sighed in relief as the Huntress led the two sisters up the stairs. She limped, had undoubtedly been hit - but the three of them were alive. That's what counted.
Pushing my back against the cover to cool my gun, I looked for Crow - and found him, spitting bursts of fire from his Avenger. Exhaustion, focus and determination - that was what his face betrayed, lips pressed thinly, eyes glinting from the muzzle-flashes and hair glued to head with sweat.
He did everything right, as far as I could tell. Five-round burst for suppression, pause, three-round burst for accuracy, pause, five-round burst for suppression, cover, cool off gun and recharge shields if needed.
Soon enough, the Geth on the other side fell silent. I used the precious few moments until they would start again - there was no doubt they would - to get out of my hole and drag myself to allied lines. If you could call them that. Glass splintered and cracked as I stepped on it, the sound of fires crackling went right through my speakers, the masks noise suppression failing.
Twenty steps up and I stood before Crow. I think my mask unnerved him. As the highest-ranking Alliance marine - by her insignia, a Captain and member of the Alliance Embassy Security Detail - asked me to identify myself, I removed the hood and told her who I was.
She ran a quick check - and stopped. "You're with Lieutenant Commander Shepard? You're marked as 'AWOL'. I'm supposed to arrest you on sight."
I grinned lopsided, but gave Crow a curious look. He quickly shook his head and gestured with his rifle. Didn't tell 'em anything. Ask me later.
"Captain, Shepard's here. As is our target, ex-SPECTRE Saren. Shepard and the rest of the crew went after him, into the Council tower. I'm injured and was sent here to help you if I can. You can arrest me if you wish, I will not resist."
"Don't sweat it, Private. I'll take whatever extra guns I can get." She sighed and cursed under her breath. "Situation's FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition), as you can see," she told me when I asked her - politely - for a general status update.
"The Citadel Defense Fleet is nearly wiped out, and most of C-SEC's gone too. We've lost contact with HQ fifteen mins ago and have been holed up here since. The Embassies are easy to defend."
She rolled her shoulder. It already made cracking sounds. Her armor had seen better days, too. The helmet made it impossible to see any facial features.
"We even gave every civvie who knew how to shoot our sidearms, but if we don't get reinforcements soon, we're done for. We can't make a push either, there's just too many Geth. Can you contact your Commander?"
I nodded and turned the radio on. "Shepard, Raven speaking. What's your status?"
It took Shepard a few seconds to answer. "E-V-A, climbing up the Tower and under heavy fire! How's it on your end?"
Okay. That is new. And not reassuring.
I gave her the rundown, then linked Captain…
What was her name again?
"Commander, this is Captain Wolcott of 908, Embassy Security. Any way we can assist?"
"Negative, Captain! You won't be here in time. This is between me and Saren."
"Understood. Godspeed, Shepard. Wolcott, out."
Wolcott addressed me directly. "You're supposed to be a decent enough marksman," she said. "Get up on the balcony of our embassy and help the others to keep the Geth busy. Maybe we can stop a few of them from going after Shepard."
She pointed at Crow. "You two know each other?"
"Yes…?", Crow answered in my stead. His voice shook a tiny bit.
"Then you two get up there. Shoot whenever you can - but keep your fucking heads low. Move it! We only have seconds!"
I nodded, turned and looked Crow in the eye.
"Wir sprechen hinterher." (We'll talk later.)
"Aye." he said and sighed. He was tired - and anxious. "Bringen wir das hinter uns." (Let's get this behind us.)
He led me deeper into the building when suddenly, my legs cramped up and gave out.
I hissed as I went on my knees and administered the last dose of painkillers and medigel. A few seconds later, the exhaustion had been pushed back, and I kept on walking - all the while avoiding Crow's gaze.
Whatever attempts I had made earlier to not let him know in what condition I was in were in vain. And it would only get worse from here.
Still, he didn't ask. Probably, he didn't dare to.
I still remembered the serene beauty the view from Udina's office had offered when I first went here. Back then, as an accomplice to Tali and witness to Fist's attempt on her life.
How times had changed. Not least because everything was on fire, damaged, or destroyed.
I paid the view no more mind than the rows of injured civilians, embassy officials and soldiers lined up alongside the corridors leading up to this place. Nor the covered faces of some of Saren's victims. Debris made it impossible to get a proper field triage center going.
Some of his last victims, hopefully. Among the first victims of the Reapers. In this cycle.
As we entered Udina's office, my vision narrowed on one man who belonged here, but definitely did not own the place. Not crouched behind some toppled tables and chairs and still cowering from reality.
He spotted me as well. At first, he didn't seem to realize who I was. Then he did. And with the realization came anger.
"Private Raven? Marines, arrest this - "
The memory of how my pistol and the armored glove gripping it firmly connected to his jaw is so incredibly satisfying. Back then, I ignored it as my vision almost turned red.
I raised my pistol again, teeth clenched and very intent on finishing the job - but Crow was faster, blocking my arms and forcing the barrel to point to the ground. I cast him an angry glance, he replied in kind.
"Lass' es. Das bringt nix' und ist's nicht wert." (Leave it (be). That isn't gaining anything and isn't worth it.)
Only now did I realize that the other three marines in the room had overcome their surprise and trained their guns at me. I cast Crow another glance, then sighed and reattached the pistol to my back.
"Fine. Have it your way."
"Alles zu seiner Zeit." (All in good time.), he said and moved out of the way - not without sparing Udina a single, murderous look himself.
Udina ignored him. Rubbing his face and finding blood where the pistol's rough edge had cut it open, his scowl grew increasingly contemptuous. His gaze at me - ditto. He opened his mouth.
I did not have the patience to listen to any potential I-helped-you-so-you-owe-me garbage speech. Patience with idiots had run out a long time ago and had not been restocked since.
"The one thing you had to do," I said, cutting him off before he could even utter a sound, "was to let Shepard do her damn job." I raised my hand, emphasizing each word with an angrily pointed finger. "That was your. One. Job."
I leaned forward, so that he could see each popped vessel in my eyes.
"And you fucked it up!"
I screamed the last words in his face. Udina merely stared back. He didn't understand. More likely, he was not capable of understanding.
I felt so incredibly tired. I had so much to tell him, but knew that any further word was a waste of breath.
At least, he looked scared and not too happy with the situation. To phrase it mildly. I took satisfaction from that.
Resisting the urge to literally kick him while he was down, I turned around to look down the barrels of a few unhappy - or astonished - Alliance marines, including a Gunnery Chief I didn't know.
I shrugged and approached them. Court-martial or not, I cared little at that point. But in silence, I thanked Crow. Getting rid of Udina that way was not worth it, indeed. All in good time, that one too.
Still, part of me wished I'd done it.
I didn't get to ask for orders. They became obvious once I spotted the next wave of flying drones over the Chief's shoulders. Sadly, I was not fast enough to warn him.
In a scene far too close to the way Corporal Jenkins had been felled on Eden Prime, the Chief paid for his moment of laxity.
Lips pressed together, I raised my rifle to join the shootout that followed - only to feel how my strength left my body, at a pace far too rapid for my liking. My aim went shaky, my accuracy suffered.
No amount of painkillers, stimulants and medigel could conceal just how much damage the Mako crash had caused, tearing open all those barely healed wounds sustained on Virmire.
Maybe, I thought with a level of unemotionality that borderline on funny, I should've listened to Chakwas for once. Or at least, spend a few minutes to actually think it over.
It was far too late for regret in that regard.
"Raven, Shepard speaking! What's your status?"
I breathed heavily. Sweat covered my face, the suit's coolant systems could barely keep up.
"Under heavy assault. The Geth are trying to break us. Guess they don't like being sniped in the rear. How's it on your end?"
I could hear the frown through the radio. I probably didn't sound as healthy as I did. Still, it was nice enough of her to check in on me - despite having her own problems to deal with. To phrase it mildly.
"I've just heard from Joker that the Fifth Fleet is inbound and has engaged Saren's fleet. Reinforcements are on their way, hold on - just a bit longer!"
I looked up. My visor showed Crow, updating his status. He had been hit, but not critically. He took it surprisingly well. Or, if the bloodless face was any indication, he was so full of adrenaline that the wound in his leg didn't even hurt. I had no medigel left to help him out.
I wished I could see the battle that happened outside that false sky. All I heard were the occasional impacts to the Citadel's superstructure. A roaring thunder, a deafening toll. The whole station was ringing.
"Copy!" I shouted against the all-encompassing hail of bullets and cut all comms. Shepard had her own battle to win. I couldn't help her, neither could she help me now.
I suddenly found myself engulfed by blue fire and took the opportunity to dive out of cover and 'empty' my rifle. I didn't hit much and the Geth were pretty much immune to the effects of suppression. Alas, the thought is what counted. Right?
If the Alliance fleet had engaged the Geth forces, and Joker established contact…
Five minutes or less.
Did the ASCENSION survive?
I waved my thanks to the Consort, Sha'ira, as she helped me survive a few more minutes with her Barrier. My mind was blank, action and reaction seamlessly flowing into each other - to the point where it hurt.
Five minutes or less.
Did I have that much left in me?
I shakingly triggered the thumb button for my last reserves. My personal combat stim surged through my body, popped the blood vessels in my eye - and drained all vitality from me, even though I could not feel it that moment.
The "Raven" part of me cried and demanded release.
Refuge in audacity.
And after all those months of trying to hold him back, of trying to hold on to myself - I allowed that release.
No matter how tested, no matter how much my body chastised me for the punishment I willed it to take, no matter how pushed beyond its limits my mind was, one truth remained. The final truth at my core, the one thing I had sworn when I simply realized how badly depression and insanity gnawed at my substance.
I would not die without a fight.
I will not die!
To lay down and die was to surrender, to be a coward, to shame all those that believed in me.
And I just couldn't disappoint them.
That's the kind of resolve you cannot train, that's the kind of stubbornness that comes from your heart and allows you to survive and thrive, no matter the odds.
Upon hearing my real name for the first time since… forever, I spun around.
Exactly the wrong move.
The right move would have been to acknowledge this warning sign and look ahead to counter any possible threat.
All I saw was that Crow had been hit. Judging by the blood spilled, it was a miracle he was still standing. I remember his wide eyes. I remember the pain in my left arm, the cold grasp of the machine that broke it, the fear encapsulating me as I failed - the resolve that manifested itself in that minute.
The one thought I yet remember is that one of us had to survive. And true to my nature, I would take the bullet for him. It was just natural.
I never felt the impact that killed me.
The only thing that I can piece together and that makes any sense is, that instead of pain, I felt relief. After all, I was… excused from the need to keep fighting.
It's just a theory born from an unhealthy dose of cynicism, however. I have no proof. My memory was long gone at that point.
I died, September 12th, 2183, at the Human Embassy, on the Presidium of the Citadel.
I had done my job - and lasted five more Minutes.
"For someone so focused on the small details and insisting that nothing can be overlooked," she says as she lets her hand glide, caressing the short stubbles of my beard and allowing her warmth to transfer to me, "you are pretty dramatic at times. You know that?"
I am smiling thinly, but when I open my eyes to meet hers, all that her chestnut-coloured eyes betray is pure adoration and love.
Not for the first time, I am asking myself silently how I could even hope to ever be worthy of her. Not for the last time, my heart aches with the wish to keep those eyes as pure as I can. And once more, I realize that ultimately, I can do what is within my power - but that her fate is not mine to decide. There is no such thing as a fairytale ending. Never was, never will be. And if there is, I doubt that I have earned enough Karma points in my life to make sure.
"Perfectly. That being said, I promised myself that I would not hold anything back when I would record my tale. And that is, genuinely, all I remember from that time."
"Awww." Just the right amount of adorable to melt your heart, and all of that without even trying to be seductive. "But, your readers will be disappointed. Your 'golden thread' is all over the place."
Her eyes may be as warm as they may be, but I can tell the shadow of fear. Always looming, always waiting for one or both of us to slip. I smiled. She indeed cares for me. After all, she stood by me at my darkest hours, offered that much-needed pillar to rest against, being strong when I was weak, and most importantly, vice versa.
Her love for me, in itself, is a miracle. At the same time, I know that I will not abandon her. We are both burnt, in our own ways - but together, we are stronger.
"May they think what they want," I replied, smiling. "I'd challenge any of them to do better. Some might, but I am pretty happy with the way things turned out in the end." I inhale, exhale, suddenly sobered by the ash I still taste in the air. "Even though, perhaps, my - and both our paths, for that matter - were more difficult than they should have been, if I had just stopped once to think."
"We've done what we could," she replies, and pulls me closer. I feel a myriad of unspoken words. Some of them in my support, some of them… not so much. Yet still, she is here. And she will not leave.
My smile lingers for a few more moments, then I pull her closer yet and prepare myself to finish what I started. I owe it to those left behind. And to my own peace of mind. And to the gorgeous woman at my side, no matter what tide of fate had decided to wash her there.
I am Jess Raven. And I will see my story completed, fulfilled.
"On a signal, the whole Presidium fell silent…"
A/N: Hello there. Contrary to popular belief, I am not dead. That being said, given the pure and unfiltered insanity that has befallen the whole world in the first half of this year, you are forgiven for thinking so.
To spare both you, and myself, the sap that will inevitably happen anyway, I am going to tell you a few little facts that happened in my life over the last few months.
I have finally finished my studies; including 5 Months (!) of writing my papers, instead of the usual 3. Thanks, Corona! At least, I finally earned the university degree I have spent so much time and energy to get.
I have, subsequently, been looking for a proper job. As you might imagine, this was not easy. I have looked for, and found a new apartment to live in. I found a new job to settle into - my first proper one, if you will.
I had a few friends of mine - including close friends I've known since childhood - struggle intensely with loneliness and the unfortunate consequences all the while. I had a family member at the brink of death - and a very dear friend of mine confess something to me. And another friend of mine survived a suicide attempt, only a few weeks ago. I swear to god, I have never been so grateful for a life saved and the first aid responders ultimately responsible for their survival.
I can understand any and all anger directed my way for being an incredibly slow author. I will try and do as good (or much) as I can, as I have done for quite some time. That being said, I know what kind of demons I have been facing the last - well, let us say, 8 months. If you have read the immediate aftermath of Virmire, the symptoms may sound familiar. If you do not know the demons we humans face every single day, you are forgiven. If I were religious, I'd pray that you never are forced into the same situation that I was - yet I fear that many of you are suffering from similar problems. Those months of 'lockdown' won't go past any one of us without a scar.
On the bright side, CH 19 has been released - that leaves once chapter and an epilogue. I will uphold my promise of seeing this story completed. Some of you may feel that this chapter lacks explanation, but again, that's part of the deal, and the answers will come sooner or later.
Enough of that. I thank you all for reading, and I will make sure to welcome you for the next one at some point not too late.
Take care, everyone.