Ch. 3 - Citadel

It was hard to miss the three massive Reapers leaving their defensive posts at the Beam. As he brought the shuttle in towards the open space in front of the alien edifice, Cortez found himself hunching over the controls in a futile attempt to seem less conspicuous. The Reaper IFF was still doing the trick though, and the big ships never slowed in their ascent. He wondered fleetingly if the Reapers could even see, like their Leviathan creators, or if they were wholly automated and relied on mechanical sensors and radar.

He brought the shuttle to hover above the place where Shepard had ordered them away, and began a close quartering of the ground from less than 20 feet. At least that way he wouldn't have to see faces - instead he could rely on the transponder beacon from Shepard's omni-tool. He'd completed two traverses of the area with no results, and was preparing to start another sweep closer to the beam when he caught movement from the side viewscreen.

His heart hammered wildly for a moment before he saw that the person who was waving frantically up at him was not only shorter than Shepard, but wearing an amalgam of armor and equipment that had absolutely nothing in common with N7 issue. As he turned the shuttle, he saw another figure - slender, glowing and most definitely NOT wearing anything resembling armor - join the first. As he landed, he suddenly recognized them both from Shepard's farewell party. Zaeed Massani - the foul-mouthed merc who had worked tirelessly with Garrus to turn the apartment into a death trap; and Jack - the even fouler-mouthed biotic Shepard had recruited to help against the Collectors. It figured the two most deadly and crazy people Cortez could imagine were the first ones on the scene.

He opened the door, and they piled inside. "About guddam time," Massani growled. "I was beginning to think all your precious Alliance troops had just decided to curl up and die." He wiped a hand across his face, smearing blood and soot into a bizarre parody of battle paint. "What a fucking mess. Hell of a good fight, though."

Jack let the nimbus of raw power surrounding her die with a grateful sigh. "Damn, Cortez, and I thought I was supposed to be the crazy one. Figures you'd be the one out here helping Shepard ... considering," she smirked knowingly. "So, where is he?" She glanced suspiciously around the overstocked cabin.

"Gone," Steve said flatly. "I was looking for his ... for him when you flagged me down." He wasn't prepared for their reactions.

Both Zaeed and Jack laughed derisively. "And who exactly said he's dead? They sure don't know him very well," Jack said seriously after a moment.

The mercenary chimed in. "I heard small arms fire just a few minutes ago, just before I reached the edge of this clearing," he said. "Sure as hell wasn't those fucking Capital ships, and the Reaper troops' weapons have a different sound."

Steve felt the first small stirrings of hope. "Well, Major Coates was on the general frequency, and he claimed everybody in the last push was dead, but he wasn't actually here. Look, do you really think Marcus made it in?"

Jack nodded. "Shepard's too much of a stubborn asshole to give up. I'd bet you one million credits he's already ridden that beam up to the Citadel."

Steve remembered his last conversation with Shepard, and knew what he had to do.

"All right, then that's where we're headed. Strap yourselves in. I have no idea what kind of ride this is going to be, but I'm betting it's going to be a rough one." He was struck by an inspiration. "Say, Jack, can you extend that protective barrier any further out than just around you?"

The biotic smiled again, remembering, and her voice softened slightly. "Of course. That's how I protected us in the Collector base. What do you have in mind?"

Steve explained as his fingers danced over the control panels, bringing the shuttle up and turning it toward the beam. "I've heard the Reapers have been sending both live captives and corpses up, which hopefully means there's some kind of atmosphere wherever the beam terminates. Besides, it's on the Citadel, so there should be an artificial environment still working. But just in case, if you can shield the shuttle, I think it would be a wise precaution."

She nodded, all business, and stretched her hands out to either side, summoning the barrier. Immediately, the crackling blue nimbus spread and passed through the metal skin of the shuttle, encasing it in a shimmering sphere.

Massani grunted, settling comfortably into his seat. "This is a bit ironic - us charging off to Shepard's rescue for once. Let's make sure he never lives it down."

"Gladly," Steven muttered. Ready or not, Marcus, I'm on my way.

With a deft motion, Cortez sent the shuttle directly at the base of the beam, where it was widest. The world went blue-white, and a strange, warbling hum assaulted their ears. The inertial dampeners, strained by the powerful energy of the beam, wavered, held, and then collapsed. It felt like they were being thrown endlessly upward against the ceiling, then suddenly, the bottom dropped out of everything as they came to a bone-shaking stop. The roof of the shuttle crumpled downwards almost a foot, and the screeching of compressed metal was deafening. The door sprang open, forced outward by the impact.

"Shit!" Jack screamed, but she held the barrier. Massani was up out of his seat, weapon drawn and pointing out into the darkness outside. It was quiet, but there were sounds coming from outside the shuttle. Unpleasant, liquid sounds.

The shuttle's systems were almost totally fried, but Steve was able to get a reading. "Radar and communications offline. Okay, looks like we've got a breathable atmosphere, at least. Thanks, Jack. Things would probably have been a lot worse without the barrier." Relieved, the biotic let the shield drop. That's when the smell hit. Thick, fetid and horrific. It was the stench of rotting flesh, old blood, and death.

"Smells like the fucking Collector ship," Zaeed gritted. "Not something I'd ever wanted to experience again." His attention never left the open door. "Hey, some kind of lighting is coming on out there. I can see, a bit." He made a spitting noise. "Damned lot of bodies - piles of 'em. And those creepy little Keepers messing about."

Cortez nodded, unable to speak. He remembered a similar scent emanating from the abandoned Collector pods on Ferris Fields. Not again, you bastards. You can't have him, too! He dug fingers into his leg, using the pain to focus.

"Okay, we need to get moving. There's no telling what the Crucible is going to do when it goes off, and I want to be ready to bug out of here just as soon as we find Shepard. This bird isn't going anywhere ever again, so we need another transport. From visuals, the beam was aimed at the base of the Citadel, which means we shouldn't be too far from the docking rings - maybe somewhere in the Keeper tunnels."

As he spoke, Cortez was calling up schematics on his omni tool, and soon he had a fix on where they were by focusing on the shuttle's emergency transponder. He frowned. "Well, that's not good. Apparently we're directly under the Presidium tower, which means a hell of a hike out to the docking bays. At least once you're there and you've gotten a lift, you can fly it back following the umbilical. Hopefully by then I'll have linked up with Shepard and we can figure out a rendezvous point for evac. Try your best to get a shuttle, or maybe even a transport - something spaceworthy, at least. No telling what we're going to be facing, and I don't want to lose all this equipment - especially the medical stuff."

Jack snorted, and muttered something about "Shepard getting his ass shot off again." She stared at the pilot. "So, wouldn't it be better to have one of us come with you? I mean, no offense, but the old fart and I have a lot more front-line combat experience than you do."

Steve grinned as Massani growled something incomprehensible. "I really don't think there's going to be much in the way of threats on this end of the line - I mean, nobody's ever seen a Keeper do anything aggressive. But when you get to the docking bays, I'm guessing it's going to be a little chaotic, at the very least. There might be Reaper troops, or a bunch of panicked civilians looking to get the hell out of town. Either way, I think the two of you will have your hands full. Don't worry, I can handle myself."

"Okay, okay, just checking," the biotic held up her hands in mock defense. "So, dead end the way we need to go... and my amp needs time to cool down before I can do any major damage." She trailed off as she eyed the mini-gun. "Oh, aren't you a cutie," she purred, patting the barrel.

"Gotta watch the blowback, though," Zaeed cautioned her. "I'll handle the gun, and you keep a barrier up again so we don't get shrapnel in our faces."

While they spoke, Steve checked his breather and made sure his suit integrity was still solid. He stowed an e-suit in a backpack, plus a dozen medigel vials, and Chakwas' brandy, then slung his shotgun on one side. He balanced it on the other side with a Valkyrie, which was Shepard's weapon of choice.

When he was finished he turned to watch the merc and the biotic work. They made one hell of a team, he had to admit. Zaeed aimed the mini gun at the juncture of the wall and the ceiling, hoping to punch a hole through to an actual accessway, and Jack created a small, intense field just behind the muzzle of the gun.

The merc fired the gun, maneuvering it in a tight circle, then stopped to check his progress. There was a circle of weakened material almost three feet across spanning both the ceiling and wall.

He sighted on the center of the area, then kept up a steady stream of fire until the gun did an automatic overheat shut down. Debris pinged and popped off of Jack's shield for a few seconds afterward. When the smoke cleared there was a nice-sized hole into the upper level, and actual station lighting was visible, a cheerful sight after the ominous red emergency lighting of the tunnel. Zaeed grinned in satisfaction. "I'd say that was a pretty good omen. All right, Little Jack, let's go shanghai us a cruiser or something with teeth. First, though, salvage what we can from the shuttle." His good eye lit up as Steve silently opened the storage lockers.

Jack nodded, a feral glint in her eyes. "Space pirate time it is," she agreed. "Okay, Cortez, give us your transponder code and Shepard's, too. We've already got the shuttle coordinates as a guidepost, so we should be able to swoop in and scoop up your asses from whatever shit-storm Shepard's gotten himself into this time. He ain't dying on me yet - he owes me credits." She and the merc raided the weapons locker, and took e-suits at Steve's urging.

After syncing up their omni-tools for communication, the trio split up. Jack used her biotics to float herself and Zaeed up through the opening.

"I'll be guddamned. You just let me use the mini-gun to stroke my ego, didn't you, Little Jack?" Massani muttered in mock outrage. Jack waved back down through the opening, winking at Cortez.

As their voices faded, Steve took a few breaths to center himself. Even after being processed through the rebreather unit, he imagined he could still taste the foul outer air. Suddenly, something brushed against his leg and he swung his shotgun up, triggering the lighting unit. The light glittered off the large unblinking black eye of a Keeper as it resolutely reached toward a pair of legs poking from beneath the crushed shuttle. Fighting nausea, he sidestepped the creature and began walking, swinging the light in a slow sweep. More Keepers lined the tunnel - piling corpses and body parts into disorganized heaps. And always in the background there was the squelching, liquid sound. He gritted his teeth and pressed on, doing his best not to imagine Robert's face on every corpse he passed.

The further he went, the louder the rushing sound grew, and soon he could see channels on either side of the tunnel were carrying blood and other, less identifiable fluids. The Keepers continued to ignore him, for which he was profoundly grateful. The things had always bothered him with their insectoid movements.

"How you doing, Cortez?" Jack's voice crackled on his comm. An odd whooshing noise was audible behind her voice.

"Fine, I guess. Feels like I've walked miles already. I think it's all the bodies," he replied quietly.

"We've lucked out on this end," Jack continued conversationally, as if nothing could phase her. Then again, after what she's been through, probably nothing could. "We found a tram junction. Nothing seems to be running right now, but there was a small maintenance trolley that we've gotten up and running. With any luck, we'll be at the docking ring within five minutes."

"I guess I'd better get my ass in gear, then," Cortez replied. "Try to check in with me once you're there and have eyes on the situation."

He had just taken a few steps when he heard it. A gunshot, most likely from a pistol. He remembered what Massani had said about "small arms fire," and grinned slightly. He started moving faster, and before long, the red emergency lighting was giving way to a somewhat brighter illumination coming from further down the tunnel. He heard another shot and began to run flat out.

Abruptly, the walls and ceiling opened up into a massive trench, filled with what appeared to be reactor fins. The two channels spilled their gory contents into the depths, and he could see and hear even more of them to either side. There was a narrow walkway that led down into the trench, bridging the gap to the other brighter light was coming from there. He switched off the light on his shotgun and started across.

"Jack, Massani - hurry up! I've heard gunfire and I think I'm ... there, wherever 'there' is."

"Don't worry, we're on our way. We'll save both you Boy Scouts." It wasn't Jack, but another woman's voice, and damned if it didn't sound vaguely familiar. He shrugged, and started climbing the steps on the other side of the chasm.

When he reached the platform, he paused, stunned. The view was mind-bending and vertiginous. He was looking out and "down" at the arms of the Citadel. Lights indicating cars and shuttles were moving back and forth, so evidently some sort of normal function was still in effect. He shook his head and brought his gaze closer. There were two shapes, unmoving. He rushed to the one wearing military gear, and bit back disappointment as he saw the older man's face. It was Anderson, the Admiral from the shuttle - and Shepard's former commanding officer, he remembered. A glance at the other corpse was equally unrewarding, and unsettling, as well. The man's face was twisted and burned and veined through with cables. Both had pools of blood under them, so that would seem to explain the gunshots, but only the mutated man had a weapon.

Steve shook his head angrily. Where is Shepard? What am I missing? There was a trail of blood leading to a large console, but the blood abruptly cut off in a straight line. There was a slight indentation on the floor, as if there had been something resting on it. He raised his gaze and saw a platform about 30 feet above his head. And then he heard it.

Shepard's voice, raised in anger and grief. And ... he strained to hear ... a child's voice?

"Marcus!" he shouted. "Marcus, I'm here. Where are you? How can I get up there?"

There was no reply, and he approached the control panel, searching for a button or switch that would lower the platform.

He was still trying moments later when more gunshots rang out. Many, this time, in quick sequence. Then there was a blinding flash and a dull WHUMP of displaced air from the upper level that slapped him down onto the floor. Secondary explosions continued for several seconds, accompanied by a rain of debris that flew outwards, although some pieces landed alarmingly close to him. The light from the fire grew more intense as he stared upwards in despair. So close. So fucking close.

Cortez' ears were ringing so badly he didn't hear the whine of the ship swinging in close until his comm unit blared into his skull. "What the hell was that? Dammit, get your ass over here so we can get up there!" Blinking, he looked over his shoulder and saw a sleek, deadly looking private transport. The door was open, and Jack was beckoning frantically.

He climbed to his feet, wincing. Something might just be broken, but now is not the time to find out exactly what. He was hobbling painfully forward when something like a giant warm hand closed around him and pulled. He was deposited unceremoniously on the floor of the transport. He could see the back of the pilot's head - tentacles. Blue. Asari.

"Liara? What the hell are you doing here?" he muttered dazedly.

The pilot threw a contemptuous glance over her shoulder, then smirked. "Sorry, Boy Scout, but you're WAY off." The engines roared as she pulled on the steering yoke, sending them aloft and into the heart of the explosion.

"Jeezus, Cortez, do you have a death wish or something?" Jack asked, sitting beside him and slapping a medi-gel doser into his neck. He blinked up at her, then focused on something on the ceiling. There was a symbol painted there. Rounded black rectangle impaled with a stick ... He blinked again, and it came into focus. Omega

"Oh shit," he groaned.

"You got that right," Zaeed chimed in cheerfully. "Now what are we heading into? Besides another big guddam mess?"

"I heard him; Shepard. Sounded like he was talking to a kid, but what the hell would a kid be doing down here? Then lots of firing, followed by that explosion." The medi-gel had worked, and he sat upright. For the first time, he noticed the main compartment of the ship was filled almost to bursting with people. Asari, humans, even a few Batarians. A blonde girl with her hair in a ponytail sat huddled in the protective circle of a Turian C-Sec officer's arm, eyes wide and frightened. She gasped slightly as the ship landed.

"All right, we're as close as I'm willing to risk my ship," Aria snapped. "Massani, I know your reputation. You stay in the seat and be ready to get us out of here on a heartbeat. Who else is coming?"

Jack helped Cortez stand. "We're ready."

They stepped out into a hellscape of destruction. The Crucible loomed overhead, and the power surge pouring up into it was a glaring, flickering orange reminiscent of lava. The Asari glanced at it and frowned. "That definitely does not look reassuring. Let's hurry this up. Where do we start?"

Cortez checked his locator. Finally, there was a reading. And of course, it was in the middle of the biggest pile of rubble. "There," he pointed.

At once, the two biotics began lifting and flinging huge chunks of debris, lofting them effortlessly over the side of the walkway leading to the right. Steve opened his backpack and got out the e-suit. The readings he was getting from Marcus were so faint it frightened him, but apparently Jack and Massani had been right. Shepard was just too stubborn to die.

Finally, they uncovered him. Blood streaked his face and body, and his armor was shredded, but with the last weight removed from him, his chest heaved once, sharply. That was all it took. Steve crowded forward and laid out the e-suit and opened it. He looked at Aria. "Could you please do what you did for me?"

She laughed and instantly Shepard's body was raised and then gently lowered into the e-suit. Cortez hit the emergency medi-gel option on the keypad then sealed it. If Shepard had held on this long, chances were good he'd pull through.

A loud hum filled the air around them, and the column of light ascending into the Crucible started pulsing.

"That's our cue," Aria barked. "Let's move!"

Jack threw another barrier around them and Aria's TK brought Shepard floating along behind. As soon as they were in the ship, Zaeed slammed the hatch controls and steered the ship away from the platform. As they moved, they all saw the arms of the Citadel moving, but they didn't stop at the usual configuration. They kept moving, back and outwards, like a giant flower.

"That looks like the sighting lens of a gun scope," the C-Sec officer opined in a worried voice. He put his other arm around the girl and hugged her tight.

Steve knew he still had work to do if he was going to keep his promise. "We're not safe here. We've got to land this bird immediately," he stated. "If I may?" he gestured to the pilot's seat, and looked to Aria. She was looking at the e-suit that contained Marcus, and for a moment she looked almost wistful.

"All right, Cortez, I know your reputation, too. Get us someplace safe and away from whatever the hell is going on with the Citadel." She strapped into the nav seat, and once Jack and Massani had secured Shepard's e-suit into a berth, she took a deep breath. "All yours, Cortez."

At that moment, the Crucible erupted with a huge incandescent beam of energy, and the space above Earth became a maelstrom of exploding Reapers. They heard Admiral Hackett give the evacuation order, but they were just too close to the Citadel to risk a lightspeed jump. Instead, Steve sent Aria's ship plunging toward Earth in a curving trajectory, trying to put the bulk of the planet between them and what was occurring. A sheet of fire came racing toward them from the Citadel, but by then they were in atmosphere, and the worst of the buffeting was attenuated by the inertial dampeners.

They landed in a burnt out field a few klicks south of Rio de Janiero, and sat for a while, stunned at their escape. The night sky was lit with millions of points of light as wreckage from ships, both Reaper and Alliance, burned in the atmosphere.

Everybody piled out of the ship to watch the fallout. Everybody except Steve. Jack and Aria stood in the doorway and blocked re-entry, chatting about biotics and comparing notes. There was the sense of a new and more powerful Omega being hatched.

After checking the read-outs - which were still worryingly faint, but stable for the time being - Steve opened the faceplate of the suit. Marcus was breathing, slowly and steadily. Although his Cerberus implants from the Lazarus project had taken a beating, they were still functioning, and his heart was strong. Cortez opened Dr. Chakwas' bottle of Serrice Ice Brandy and tipped a few drops onto a sterile gauze pad, which he placed against Marcus' lips.

After a few minutes, Shepard's nostrils flared and his lips twitched. Slowly, his tongue licked the droplets of alcohol off his lips, and he muttered, "Damn, Karin, I thought we were going to ... wait to drink ... until..." his voice trailed off, and then his eyes opened.

"What the hell?" he whispered. "Steve?"

Cortez smiled. "Yes, Marcus. I'm here. I promised Kaiden I'd bring you back, for both of us." He leaned forward and brushed a kiss across Shepard's mouth. The brandy tasted sweet and fiery, but the kiss was sweeter and promised more fire, later. "I'm not taking one moment for granted any more," he whispered.

Shepard closed his eyes and sighed as if the weight of the galaxy had finally been lifted from his shoulders. "I like the sound of that," was all he said, but his smile stayed even after he fell asleep.

Somewhere in the Local Cluster, the Normandy sat on a jungle planet. She was battered, but still in one piece. The same could not be said for her crew.

Vega and Alenko were both despondent, convinced they'd let their friend and commander down. They knew they should have gone with Cortez, but ... and now both Steve and Marcus were lost to them.

EDI was gone, deactivated in the same pulse of fire that had destroyed the Reapers. Jeff had been suicidal after they had crashed, convinced that he'd failed Shepard again, and bereft of his newly discovered love. Only Dr. Chakwas' quick intervention had saved him - she'd been waiting by the airlock to evacuate when she saw him heading towards the aft armor locker and hit him with a mini-doser of anesthetic. His broken bones would heal more quickly than his heart, but it would heal, she knew.

She was not so sure about her own heart. Marcus had become like a son to her, and a parent should never outlive their child.

They had gathered at the memorial wall in the crew section. So many plaques, so many lost comrades. The crews of the Normandy had sacrificed so much in the previous years. Kaiden stood in front of the wall, as ranking officer and acting commander. He placed the plaque for Admiral Anderson, first Commander of the Normandy, and the Hero of Earth.

He clenched the next plaque in his hand, hard enough to draw blood. He started to reach forward, to make the inevitable admission, when the intership comm crackled to life.

"Priority QEC burst from Admiral Hackett, relay from Earth." The ensign's voice held a barely restrained note of glee.

Kaiden stopped, cocked his head, and then began to smile.

"Lt. Steve Cortez reports that Commander Marcus Shepard is alive and on Earth. And he wants to know how soon you can get his ship back to him."