Chapter 41: Requiem
"You don't need speeches. You don't need words of courage or wisdom. Each of you knows what is at stake here today. Our objective is simple: secure the that transport beam. Board the Citadel. End this war!"
A roar went up from the assembled soldiers and thousands of boots pounded on dusty, cracked pavement as they scrambled onto APCs and modified trucks. Shepard turned and dropped down from the Grizzly that he had been using as a platform. The vehicle's engines hummed to life as it rolled out.
"What about our ride?" Kasumi asked.
The sound of spraying gravel answered her question as a Mako skidded to a halt a few feet away and the main hatch opened to reveal a broadly smirking James Vega. The man saluted and pulled on his helmet before slapping the side of the tank.
"Let's do this, Loco!"
"Oh keelah..." Tali muttered.
He returned Vega's salute and strode up the loading ramp, turning to face his assembled team. Warriors. Soldiers. Heroes. Friends. Shepard raised his arm in a salute. One by one they boarded the Mako with crisp salutes of their own and determined eyes. Finally it was only Tali that remained at the foot of the ramp and Shepard extended his hand.
"One last ride?" he asked simply.
Tali's three-fingered hand gripped his own tightly as he pulled her up the ramp.
With the back of his hand he slammed the door controls, sealing the Mako and moving to the front. Vega gamely shifted over, letting Tali take the co-pilot's seat as Shepard strapped in. From just behind him he heard Garrus groan.
"It's going to be anti-climactic if you get us killed on the way, Shepard," the turian complained. "You haven't driven one of these in years and you weren't that good to start with."
He barked out a short laugh.
"We always came back in one piece. I'd call that perfect driving. I seem to recall someone was a good shot on that cannon. Get up there and put those turian reflexes to use. Now hang on... "
The Mako jerked with a surge of acceleration, quickly covering the ground to catch up to the advancing Alliance forces. Just as he remembered the Mako's massive wheels and suspension bounced over rubble and wreckage with easy, rocking like a ship on rough seas as it tore through the ruins of London.
For a brief moment he was back on the original Normandy. He remembered the first time they had sat down on a world that had been almost untouched by sapient life in millions of years, the Mako eating up ground beneath them while a massive, luminous moon bathed the rocky terrain in blue-white light. The howls of protest and laughter as he had pushed the engine to its maximum, tearing the tank through trenches and hills. They hadn't all been dark times.
A bleating warning tone came from the console and pushed the memories away. Next to him Tali's fingers flew across the console to open the comms. A brief burst of static was followed by keyed up voices held under tight control.
"Contact! Contact! Right flank, husks and cannibals!"
"Sensors showing enemy massing two kilometers out from the objective!"
"Main elements push through!" Shepard ordered immediately. "Hammerheads, break up their lines and rejoin the main push!"
He silenced his comms and yelled back to Garrus.
"Never been more alive, Boss."
The Mako lurched again, launching itself over a berm of ruined concrete before slamming into the gravel once more. A few more seconds of acceleration and the tank burst through the final line of ruined skyscrapers and into a much more levelled area that had been reduced to little more than scorched earth and crumbling skeletons of buildings barely more than a story tall.
Weapons' fire immediately filled the air. Red-orange streaks poured from ahead as a mass of cannibals opened up only to be sent flying by an explosion right in the heart of their formation. Overhead he heard the Mako's cannon cycle as Garrus tracked the turret to the next threat. Another Mako roared alongside them, firing in tandem with the turian.
And then it disappeared - displays going white for a split second as something that felt like an enormous clap of thunder erased it from existence. Shepard felt his bones practically scream as the same familiar feeling washed over him again, setting his teeth on edge.
"Reaper! Reapers inbound! Two Destroyers!"
"You know what to do! Grizzlies, circle the target area and maintain fire. Skirmishers open up with shoulder mounted Thanixs and keep moving!" Anderson's voice came over the comm like a hot iron, cutting through the growing panic. "Target the leg joints!"
Vehicles shifted and troops moved. Even as the first of the Destroyers touched down the nearest Grizzly tank cut a hard right and presented its side to the Reaper. The turret on its back whirled and a triple-barrelled cannon spat out three rounds before the tank peeled off parallel to the towering ship.
The sheer volume of the counter-attack actually staggered the first Reaper. One of the hyper-velocity rounds managed to punch through its barriers to bore a hole straight through its side. Orange-red lightning arced from the damaged area even as the Reaper turned to fire. Shepard's teeth rattled in his mouth at the impact of the molten beam a few dozen meters away that raked through the attacking forces.
"Drop pods!" Garrus warned.
A hundred reddish comets streaked through the sky to slam into the ground between them and the transport beam. From each crater emerged dozens of twisted forms. Most of them were the now familiar monstrosities: withered husks and cannibals, but other more deadly things also emerged. The hulking forms of the brutes just like the one that had nearly taken his life on Palaven's moon. And more disturbing of all were the unnaturally tall, stretched forms that drifted behind the massed abominations.
Even inside the Mako he could hear the growing shrieks. Banshees, they'd labeled them in the after action report. He had hoped that they had been only a single horrific experiment of the Reaper's unholy science. The fall of the Asari Republics had clearly dashed that hope. Shepard quickly thumbed open the command line.
"This is Shepard to all units! The tall husks are designated as Banshees. They are capable of moving faster than the eye can see in short bursts and possess heavy barriers. Eliminate with extreme prejudice!"
Another exchange of fire erupted from the two lines and the front ranks quickly became a cacophony of weapons fire. Two more Grizzly tanks disappeared in an instant beneath a Reaper's beam only for a instant reprisal of impressively precise return fire hammered into the machine's forward most leg at the upper joint. A fresh explosion of crackling energy and shredded metal, combined with the continued barrage, caused the sentient starship to stumble and fall.
A falling Reaper was much like an avalanche, deceptively slow from a distance until the moment of impact. Then the shockwave of that impact washed over the battle line along with a wall of dust and grit. The Mako rocked, half of its wheels leaving the ground, and Shepard pulled it back onto course.
Straight into a mass of husks that had been concealed by the clouds of dust. The smaller husks made thumping sounds as they impacted the tank's hull and fell beneath its tires, but when the Mako's nose clipped the bulk of one of the largest brutes it put the vehicle into a spin. Behind him Shepard could hear yells of surprise and a few choice curses from Garrus as his next shot went wide.
The Mako's wheels tore into the rubble and dirt to gain traction has he fought to bring the vehicle under control, but there was only so much he could do as more husks seemed to emerge from every direction and a second brute barreled into the Mako at a full run. With an abrupt jerk the Mako cleared a rise and slammed directly into a still partially intact wall. Sirens wailed throughout the cabin.
"Shepard, we've got damage to the first axle; she can still move, but we're going to lose speed and maneuverability," Tali said, looking over the readouts.
He shook his head.
"We're already targets for their big guns in this thing. Alright everyone! Boots on the ground! Garrus, provide covering fire while we disembark. Vega, you've got point."
Harnesses snapped away and the sound of weapons being armed filled the small space. Vega waited a few seconds and then hit the door release, introducing an entirely new roar of sound as the sound of weapons fire carried through from the battle outside. A brute emerged from the dust, it's too-small head swiveling in the direction of the Mako… only to disappear in a blue-black mist as the turret came to bear on the monstrosity and opened fire.
"You're clear, go!" Garrus yelled.
Under a stream of fire from the turret's coaxial machine gun, they quickly piled out to form a firing line. Enemies came from every direction, but the team formed a tight ring of overlapping fields of fire that soon left them surrounded by fallen cannibals, husks, and a handful of hulking brutes. The turret fell silent and Garrus finally emerged.
"That all?" he asked.
A shriek, piercing and filled with utter hatred, answered.
"I swear to god, Garrus, you had to open your mouth," Shepard said.
A banshee's form drifted forward out of the settling clouds, biotic energy crackling around it as one bony hand reached out towards them. Behind her came a dozen more. Slowly drifting one moment and then lurching forward the next. Without needing to be told the team formed a rough firing line.
"Neither of you have ever learned to keep your mouths shut! Now shoot!" Tali replied.
Rounds poured out, barriers flaring to brilliant purple-blue light as the combined firepower impacted them. Whenever they tried to focus on one of the approaching creatures it would flit back and forth more urgently, making it difficult to truly apply their entire strength to any one target.
"This isn't working, Shepard!" Kasumi yelled over the gunfire.
"I know. Keep up the fire! Garrus…"
"Already on it," the turian said.
They both had already dropped their assault rifles and pulled their respective sniper rifles from their backs. Shepard tucked the massive weapon into his shoulder and steadied his aim, giving a quick glance to his right at Garrus.
"I'll call, follow on me a half second behind. First target, Alpha!"
Both snipers turned to draw a bead on the nearest banshee. The creature flickered again as a steady stream of fire from Wrex's heavy machine gun peppered its barriers. Shepard sucked in a breath and began to slowly exhale. The banshee surged forward again.
He pulled the trigger and sent the high velocity round streaking downrange to catch the banshee directly in the forehead as it finished its burst of speed. The shot sent its barriers into overdrive, driving its skull-faced head backwards like a punch from a heavyweight boxer. And then before the motion had even been completed Garrus' follow up shot connected. The banshee abruptly crumpled, its head simply gone. Shepard spared a half-second look in Garrus' direction.
"HE rounds… end of the universe, why hold back?" Garrus said in reply.
One by one they repeated the process as expended thermal magazines began to dot the ground at their feet until nearly ten minutes had passed. Gun barrels glowed with residual heat. Muscles burned from the simple exertion of controlling the constant recoil and weight of their weapons.
"Is that all of them?" Ashley asked finally.
Another shriek. A withered form blinked out from behind one of the still standing ruined walls a few dozen meters away.
"Oh come on!" Vega yelled.
The banshee surged forward… and directly into the path of the oncoming Mako. If it's twisted face could hold any kind of expression Shepard imagined it had to be one of surprise as thirty tons slammed into it at over a hundred kilometers an hour. Its high pitched shriek gained even more volume and its body tumbled through the air to impact against a bent girder with a sickening crack. A second later the Mako's rear hatch opened to pour out soldiers and reveal a man in worn armor.
"Shepard!" Anderson yelled.
He couldn't help but feel a wide grin cross his features.
"Your timing is impeccable, sir."
"Maybe, but my timing isn't going to help against that," the older man said pointing towards the transport beam.
The wall of dust caused by the fallen Reaper's impact was finally beginning to clear as the wind carried it away. Beyond was a nearly open plain of loose rubble and scorched earth, easily a kilometer to the beam itself. And dotting that plain were dozens of impact craters with husks of all shapes and sizes emerging by the hundreds.
On the opposite side of the clearing the second Reaper unleashed another blast against the circling armored elements. The heavier tanks and hovercraft had drawn the machine's attention far enough away that it couldn't open fire on their remaining ground forces without risking its shots intersecting the beam itself. But it also left them with only a handful of vehicles in the face of thousands of husks that were already picking up speed in a mass charge towards their position.
The smile on Shepard's face transformed into something far more wolfish behind his helmet. He had always known the Reapers wouldn't make their advance easy. Anderson's months of hit and run tactics were effective because the warped creatures that they had created were incapable of anything more than the most basic tactics. But on an open field, defending a static position? Those were the rules the Reapers wanted to play by. But then he saw no reason to play by the Reapers' rules.
"I have another solution to that one. It's called friends," Shepard replied.
"The only communications that are working are quantums thanks to the Reapers jamming every other long-range frequency."
"Not every form of communication requires a transmitter."
He closed his eyes and focused. For long seconds nothing happened. He could hear the wind outside, the screeching sound of the Reapers' weapons firing. Soldiers shifting from foot to foot around him as they scanned the approaching hostile forces.
Then an answer. A hum at the back of his mind that became a crescendo. The music roared through his mind in a sea of red and gold.
We hear your song, Sings-of-Endings! The time has come?
It has, Hope-Singer, he silently replied.
The music Shepard thought was already at its peak became a symphony as he opened his eyes. Around him he saw the others stiffen as they began to hear it as well. Hope-Singer's melody roared through the minds of every organic being nearby, possibly even in the entire engagement for the sheer power that flowed behind it.
"What the hell is that?" Wrex rumbled behind him.
The answer came a moment later in a sudden rain of fresh impacts that covered the battlefield. They slammed into the teeming mass of Reaper abominations to send husks flying through the air like broken dolls. A few dozen meters away another impact sent a fresh wave of dust billowing outwards.
It is vengeance, came Hope-Singer's booming reply.
Shockwaves of biotic energy ripped outwards from the impact points within the Reaper lines. Irregular craters were exposed to reveal metallic drop pods that split open like deadly blossoms that immediately erupted into mass accelerator fire. Geth platforms poured outwards in a circle, followed by the lumbering form of rachni brood warriors just behind. Biotic blasts of energy and gouts of organic acid added to the geth weapons fire.
The pod nearest to them opened as well and Shepard watched a geth juggernaut unfold into a standing position, flanked by two more brood warriors and a squad of geth platforms. With deliberate steps the towering geth platform walked to their position.
"Shepard-Commander. We will engage the Old Machine-puppets. They will not pass."
Its part said, the platform turned without another word and began to stalk towards the battle, pulling a massive heavy machine gun from its back and already beginning to add precise, unwavering fire as it advanced. The two brood warriors scuttled over.
We stand with Sings-of-Endings, Sings-Twilight hummed into his mind.
Let them hear our songs of fire! Sings-Fury agreed, his song a raucous counterpoint to the other brood warrior's more level pitch.
"This is it! We retake this Citadel and we retake our galaxy!" Shepard yelled. "Charge!"
A ragged cheer went up through the assembled soldiers and they pushed forward. At first a jog, then a run, until finally boots were slamming into the gravel at a full sprint. More drop pods began to fall, some from the Reapers, others dropped from orbit by their own forces. A hundred meters in their charge met the first battle line.
Shepard didn't bother to reload his rifle after the first magazine ran dry, instead flipping the weapon around to grab it by the barrel and make a two-handed swing with all of his momentum. Over a hundred kilos and his enhanced strength caved in the head of the husks that attempted to meet his charge. Another surged in from the right but he reached out with his biotics and yanked. The unfortunate creature was not pushed away but instead found itself hurling towards him to be impaled on the biotic blade that sprang from his left hand.
"Don't stop! Push forward!" Shepard roared.
To his left, Wrex appeared like a wrecking ball to slam into another cannibal, sending it flying through the air and into another husk. The two brood warriors tore into the next clump, a whirlwind of razor sharp claws and biotic blasts. Shepard was already at a run again, vaulting over the half-melted form of an aircar.
"Three o'clock!" Garrus's voice cracked over the din.
He drew his pistol and snapped off two quick shots that took the cannibal that rose from behind a patch of rubble in the head, while a three-round burst from Garrus' assault rifle took the one next to it in the throat. A mind piercing screech made him stumble for a moment as a brood warrior went tumbling in front of him, green ichor staining the ground. A lumbering brute came following after, running like a great ape and raising its forearms to deliver a killing blow to the rachni warrior.
Instead it found itself locked in place. A geth juggernaut came through smoke after it, gripping the giant husk beneath its arms and throwing it into the nearby debris pile with the sound of straining servos and stressed metal. The juggernaut took up a position over the wounded brood warrior, two mass accelerators emerging from its forearms to pour fire into the brute even as it tried to stand.
"Light it up!" he heard Vega yell somewhere behind him.
The booming thump of rocket propelled grenades followed; a quick series of explosions causing the brute to disappear in a ball of fire. Shepard tore himself away and pressed forward. A hundred meters ahead another of the Reapers' organic looking pods impacted, spilling out a fresh wave of cannibals that immediately opened fire. Two more pods followed in rapid succession, disgorging more.
"Go! We'll deal with these!" Liara yelled in his ear, throwing up a barrier that took the brunt of the fire.
Javik moved to stand beside her, implacable as a statue as he gunned down the approaching husks. The prothean sparred him only a look and a single, slow nod. He returned it in kind and moved up. In his peripheral vision he watched Ashley take up position next to Javik to add her own fire to the barrage, along with half a dozen other soldiers.
The beam loomed closer and the area around it was a twisted mass of melted wreckage where the Reapers had cleared it out with overwhelming firepower. He moved past what must have once been a bus or cargo hauler, hearing a scratching sound a second too late. A husk leapt from the darkened wreckage and latched onto his back, its claws scratching into his armor.
Operating on instinct he whirled and slammed his back into the wreckage, trying dislodge the attacker. He dropped his chin, feeling a wild slash from the husks skitter off his helmet when the husk went from his throat. And then it abruptly ceased its attack and slumped against him before sliding to the ground. Kasumi emerged from her stealth field and he could literally hear the smirk in her voice.
"You didn't see me that time."
"Neither did he. Thanks."
"We're almost there, four hundred meters," Tali said as she caught up, giving the dead husk a suspicious look.
Shepard looked back to see the battle in full swing. Sings-Fury had leapt upon another brute like a hunting cat, tearing into its organic metal flesh with his talons. Grunt burst from a mass of husks with his shotgun roaring. It was chaos, but they had pushed through. He checked and saw Anderson leading another small group of soldiers that had pushed through, Vega at his side and Sings-Twilight only a few steps behind. Across the line, other pockets of soldiers pushed through.
The geth and rachni, despite being the two species that should have the greatest difficulty communicating, flowed together easily. Maybe in combat there wasn't a need for anything as mundane as words. Brood warriors threw up biotic barriers to stop the incoming fire while geth platforms laid down precise fire. Inch by inch the teeming mass became a rough semi-circle as the geth and rachni formed up ranks.
"This is Shepard to all ground forces! We are through! Go go go!"
As one they moved at a dead sprint for the transport beam. Husks still barred their way, but they were scattered and unorganized. Bursts of intermittent fire coming from the cannibals as they moved in, returned in kind by the charging soldiers. He had cleared over a hundred meters in what felt like a few heartbeats.
And then his comms popped and crackled with interference, followed by a shouted warning.
The Reaper fell from the sky with impossible speed, its massive legs slamming into the ground around the transport beam and sending a shockwave through the earth that sent the entire field of battle tumbling to the ground. That terrible basso howl screamed in his ears as a jet of scarlet fire seared his vision. The world exploded. He felt heat and the blast wave sent him tumbling end over end.
By sheer willpower he forced himself to his feet with a snarl of defiance. He could feel the pressure in his mind as he gazed upward at the towering monstrosity… and he knew it. Knew its name.
"Harbinger!" he spat out, looking around and yelling over the roaring of the swirling dust that had arisen from the blast. "Advance! Make it to the beam!"
"Support incoming!" his comms crackled again.
With a blink of surprise he realized it had been Joker's voice that had called the warning. Just as Harbinger's weapon was about to fire again a lance of blue fire streaked from the sky and slammed into the Reaper's main body. Harbinger's blast went wide, streaking overhead to annihilate an entire section of the nearby skyline but missing their battle line. Shepard took the moment to get his bearings, looking around him.
Kasumi appeared out of the dust with Tali leaning heavily against her side. He sucked in a sharp breath, already seeing the dark stain that covered parts of the quarian's veil as he came to her side.
"Tali? Come on, we have to move… we're too exposed," he said quickly, taking her weight and moving as gently as possible.
Overhead the Normandy spun in a perfect roll to avoid the next blast while half a dozen fighters had joined the fray, peppering Harbinger with ineffectual fire. His heart sank in his chest when another blast clipped the edge of the battle line to disintegrate husks, geth, and rachni alike in an instant. The raw power that a full-fledged Reaper represented wasn't something they could just brute force their way through… even another near miss could result in their instantaneous death.
Even as Harbinger dueled with Joker and the Normandy, more Reaper drop pods were falling from the sky. He eased Tali down on the broken earth, quickly trying to assess her wounds as the quarians head lolled and the silver eyes behind his visor blinked trying to focus. The fingers of his gauntlet came away stained with blood.
"Tali… stay still, I'm apply medi-gel," Kasumi said, kneeling next to the injured quarian.
"Shepard…" Tali hissed as Kasumi sealed the wound.
Another explosion made the ground shudder and showered them with debris. Shepard opened his comms to all channels.
"This is Shepard! We need immediate support from any available forces at the target! We are taking fire from Harbinger and sustaining heavy casualties! Repeat we need support from any available forces!"
Behind him he could see the line of geth and rachni faltering, falling back towards the transport beam and the danger posed by Harbinger. The annihilation of a section of their line had done little to control the swarm of husks coming from every direction as the Reapers continued to pour more and more monstrosities onto the field. Destroying their own troops was only a momentary inconvenience
The only answer was the scratch and squeal of the scrambled comms. Shepard clenched his fist in impotent rage. He didn't even know who could have helped. Joker was the best pilot in the galaxy and he was barely able to keep from being blasted out of the sky. Even if one of the Alliance warships came into the atmosphere to aid them, what could it do other than be swatted down by Harbinger?
Do not despair, Sings-of-Endings.
His head jerked up in time to see an amazing vision emerge from the clouds overhead. The opalescent hull of a massive ship nearly the size of the Reaper itself plunged downward towards the earth and his mind was instantly filled with the song of hundreds… thousands of voices singing in unison.
We know your name, dark-song destroyer! Twister of melodies! Warper of harmony! Singer of foul yellow-green songs! Deceiver of purpose!
Hope-Singer's hive ship slowed as crackling energy danced across its hull. Harbinger's massive form shifted, its main gun pulsing with baleful red light as it prepared to answer this new challenger but clearly the machine had never anticipated such a direct assault. Biotic lightning lashed out and struck the Reaper like the lash of an enormous whip. The blow actually made the Reaper stagger and the blast it had intended to level at the rachni shot upward into the atmosphere.
You would have condemned us to extinction, twisting our songs into foulness! But we survive, we grow, we spread! Sings-of-Endings granted us our future and now we will see it glow brightly in the ashes of your cold metal shells! Your sick songs of deception will fade into silence!
Shepard could literally feel the pressure of Harbinger's presence in his mind grow. It every muscle in his body tense painfully tight… but he forced the feeling aside with a feral smile. He understood it now. What he was feeling was literally Harbinger's essence, its mind, and the rachni's arrival had pushed it into something as close to rage as the machine was capable of. He looked down at Tali and quickly opened his comms again.
"Normandy! Joker, do you copy? I need immediate evac! We've got wounded here including Tali!"
"Copy, Shepard," EDI's response came immediately. "ETA forty seconds."
Overhead the duel continued between the two titans, blanketing the battlefield with the sound of the clash. The Normandy cut through the sky above, making a perfect turn on its axis to drop the landing bay open. EDI's platform appeared with half a dozen marines spilling out onto the blasted earth to cover their position.
"Come on, Tali," he said thickly.
"No!" she gasped out, half in denial, half in pain as he lifted her up.
Ignoring her protests, he carried her towards the Normandy. Husks still howled around their position, but it was Garrus that emerged from the smoke a few moments later. His armor was scratched and sticky with blood, but it didn't look like his.
"Tali? Kasumi?" the turian asked.
"I'm okay, she's hit," Kasumi replied immediately.
"Get any other wounded! Dust off in sixty seconds!" Shepard barked out.
"On it, Boss."
At the edge of the ramp EDI's powerful synthetic arms slid under Tali's other side, supporting her weight but the young quarian latched onto his shoulder with an iron grip. Her visor, spider-webbed with fine cracks and spackled with blood, shook from side to side.
"I c-can't stay behind…"
His throat felt tight as he reached up to the touch the side of her helmet. Around him soldiers, many bleeding or unconscious, were being helped onto the Normandy by their comrades. Anderson led a wounded Liara, hopping on one leg, to a nearby bench.
"You have to go."
"No, I won't…" she cut off with another hiss of pain, her grip on his arm tightening. "I won't… leave you behind."
Shepard leaned down to rest his forehead against her gently.
"I need you to live. You have a planet, a people, a homeworld. I want you to build that home on Rannoch. And you can't do that if you die here in the dust and ash."
"But I… already have… a home," Tali choked out, her fingers reached up to entangle his own as her body shook. "Just need… more time…"
"Now I have to go get you that time. I love you, Tali'Zorah vas Normandy. Keelah'selai."
"John!" she cried out as he released her into EDI's waiting arms. "Please… come back to me!"
Shepard gave EDI a curt nod as the rest of the wounded were loaded onto the Normandy and the loading ramp began to rise. With an effort of will he swallowed the lump in his throat and turned to find his team assembled behind him, minus Liara and Tali. Grunt and Wrex were covered in gore, from their own blood to the ichor of an unknown number of husks. The others stood with their weapons in hand, equally dirty and bloodied but unbowed.
"The husks are converging on the beam," Anderson said. "If they swarm of us behind and we don't know what's already waiting for us on the other side we won't have a chance."
Wrex shifted his weight and rested his shotgun across one broad shoulder.
"If you lot can hold the point, my warriors and I will break them. If they can't focus on a single line of battle they can't overwhelm your defenses."
Grunt nodded in agreement.
"We will teach them fear, Battlemaster."
"I know you will, Grunt. Sings-Fury, can your warriors support him?"
Our songs of battle will join those of the Survival-Singers again! The rachni promised, his songs quickly becoming more urgent. The queen sings that we must go! She cannot hold off the great dark-singer for much longer!
"Then let's end this."
As one they charged from the wreckage shielding them and sprinted towards the transport beam. A bellowing roar went up from Wrex, one answered by dozens of other krogan voices that began to immediately converge as the warlord peeled off. Wrex smashed a husk into the ground, leaving Grunt the execute the stunned abomination as he skidded to a stop. Rachni brood warriors followed Sings-Fury to assemble behind them. The last thing Shepard heard as they charged was a single battle cry carried across a hundred throats.
"We! Are! Krogan!"
The transport beam loomed ahead of them, brilliant blue-white light washing out the world as they closed on it. Husks howled with raspy, dry cries as they redoubled their efforts. A cannibal lurched forward, its distended gun arm spraying inaccurate fire at them only to snap sideways and collapse as Vega sent a burst of fire into its chest.
Overhead another blast erupted from the Reaper and Shepard saw the opalescent hull of the rachni ship buckle and crack under the blow. Hope-Singer's vessel listed to one side for a moment. Harbinger's massive body twisted in the air and he barely had time to shout before a streak of fire lashed out.
The world went white for a moment as the blast turned the earth a hundred meters to his left into a smoldering crater. A wave of force hit him and lifted him from his feet, sending him tumbling across the ground. Thick armor took the brunt of the damage but he could feel pain radiate through his ribs and a ringing in his ears. He did his best to pull himself together and found hands pulling him to his feet.
"Go! If we don't get to the beam that thing will wipe us out!" Anderson barked to the other soldiers that were picking themselves up.
His vision obscured Shepard finally yanked his helmet off, finding the visor cracked right down the middle. He tried to collect his thoughts and balance through the pain… and then a sudden clarity came to his senses and the pain vanished. For a moment he thought that he'd suffered a worse concussion than he'd realized.
Then a voice echoed in his head, hauntingly serene and utterly without malice. The colors behind his eyes were not the blacks and reds of anger. Only an utterly pure image of endless pale blue.
Our melodies will always be as one, Sings-of-Endings. I give our children into your hands. May your fire cleanse the corruption that has darkened the songs of this galaxy.
He looked up and watched as Hope-Singer's hiveship fully righted itself and was suddenly suffused in raw biotic energy that rippled off its hull in waves. The ship suddenly surged forward at almost impossible speed… directly into Harbinger's looming form. Glimmering white impacted dark metal with an indescribable sound, exploding into contrasting lights of crackling red and brilliant blue.
"My god," Anderson breathed next to him.
The impact of the two juggernauts sent a fresh shockwave rippling outwards and Harbinger's hovering form spun from the impact, a massive section of its flank simply gone as if a bite had been taken out of it. The Reaper reeled away from the battle, smoke and arcs of energy pouring out from the wound.
"She bought us our chance!" Shepard yelled, snapping out of the daze. "Go!"
The last hundred meters were a blur of pounding feet and rattling weapons' fire. Half a dozen grenades proceeded the charge, tearing into the husks that had dug in around the transport beam. Finally he crested the small trench that surrounded the point, throwing himself into a waiting husk with all of his momentum to slam it into the ground. Two more of the creatures surged towards him only for their heads to snap backwards.
He snapped his blade into a brief existence and decapitated the husk, looking over his shoulder to see Garrus at the top of the rise with his rifle shouldered. More came over the top, falling in to cover those behind. Rounds sparked off Garrus' shields and sent the turian to a knee for a moment even as Kasumi's form materialized next to him, opening fire over his head.
The turian looked back and gave him nod as he pushed back to his feet.
"Still with it. We've got a lot coming this way and they're not ours."
"How long can you hold them?"
"As long as we have to. We've got this. Go. End this."
From beneath her hood he saw a tight smile quirk Kasumi's lips and she gave him the slightest of bows, but said nothing else.
Garrus ejected a spent magazine and slapped in a fresh one, giving one glance over his shoulder.
"Meet you at the bar, Boss."
"I'll be waiting. Hopefully you'll be late."
Then Shepard turned, facing the column of blue energy, and stepped inside.
The sensation of movement was a strange one, somehow mirroring both the crushing pressure of a high g acceleration with the stomach sinking feeling of weightlessness one gets from the abrupt drop of a roller-coaster. As quickly as the sensation had begun it stopped and Shepard found himself stumbling forward, feet looking for purchase on smooth plating.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. Different scents assaulted his senses without his helmet to protect him. Acrid chemical smells of burning plastics mixed with the smell of drying blood. Shepard blinked, looking around.
The only light came from ambient terminals and emergency lights… and fires. Closed as it was the massive arms placed the cityscape of the Citadel claustrophobically close considering their immense size and all around him Shepard could see fires burning. Directly above him an entire city block seemed to be engulfed in flames, while only a kilometer away he could see a high rise with flames guttering from shattered windows. The dull pops of distant weapons fire echoed strangely in the smoky air.
The sound brought a fierce smile to his face. The Citadel might have fallen, but it was not completely lost. He could only wondered at the Reaper's thoughts when even their 'perfect trap' resisted their control. Behind him Shepard heard footsteps and he turned to find a dozen soldiers that had followed him through.
Anderson was at their head, but two more familiar forms quickly formed up at this side: Sings-Twilight's bulky form immediately began to scan their surroundings with pedipalps raised defensively while Ashley Williams took up a position at the admiral's right.
"Hope you don't mind but I decided to tag along, Skipper."
"A long way from Eden Prime… but it seems appropriate," he replied, then gestured to the rest of the soldiers. "We're making for the Citadel tower. We have one job: to open the station arms. Nothing else matters. Are we clear?"
Moving through the Citadel was a surreal experience. Familiar sights had been twisted by sudden violence, walls pock marked with weapons fire or scorched by fire. Previously brightly lit signs were dark and storefronts were silent, the glass only reflecting the occasional flicker of distant flames. And the bodies.
Even with a warning there had been no time for many to make it into designated shelters and the Reapers had no interested in clean up. The dead lay where they fell, crumpled little piles of lifeless organic matter that had once been part of the life of the Citadel. Most had been killed under the claws of husks or fire from the Reaper's cannibals. Some had simply been killed by the likely panicked crowds running from the monsters at the door.
One more atrocity. It was just another drop in what felt like an endless sea and for a brief second Shepard felt the memories of the beacon come surging back to him with a strength and clarity that he hadn't felt in years. He ground his teeth. No more of those memories. Not after today.
"Shepard?" Anderson asked quietly. "Do you hear that?"
The soldiers around them stopped, weapons raised. For a moment he heard nothing except the same sounds of distant gunfire. Then he heard it. An unearthly screech that carried through the streets and corridors of the Citadel.
"Banshee! Move move!" he barked.
Their controlled advance became a sprint as an image of the Citadel's layout ran through Shepard's head. They had barely a dozen able bodied soldiers and limited ammunition. There was no way they could hold out against the Reapers' newest terrors in any number.
"This way!" Anderson yelled, leading them down a long corridor.
"Where are we going?" Ashley asked.
The howling of the banshee was answered by another, closer call. Like hunting hounds they quickly began to converge.
"Back door! Keepers will have the internal systems still operational. There's an elevator that bypasses the administrative floors and takes you directly to the Council lobby. If my authorization codes don't work, Shepard's will!"
They slid to a stop in front of an elevator and Anderson immediately flipped open the control panel. A second later he let out a curse.
"Damn you, Udina! He removed my credentials. Shepard!"
"On it," he replied immediately, tossing his rifle to the older man and taking his place at the control panel.
"Contact, four hundred meters, nine o'clock!" one of the soldiers shouted.
At one end of the long corridor a banshee's form flickered into existence, feet not quite touching the ground. The man fired off a few quick bursts of fire that bounced ineffectually off the creature's barriers. Shepard gave a curse himself and rapidly keyed in his authorization code. The doors finally opened with a faint hitch.
They piled in, the rather large elevator becoming quickly cramped with the addition of Sings-Twilight, but thankfully, at least the Citadel's design was more than large enough to accommodate even the massive elcor. After all, what good would a trap be if the species the Reapers hoped to lure in couldn't make use of it because they couldn't fit into its corridors.
The elevator sped upwards even as the banshees howled below and changed course. Their flickering forms immediately disappeared. There was little question that the creatures knew exactly where they were going. A few moments later they found themselves standing in the lobby of the Council offices.
"I never even knew this existed," Ashley said.
"It's used for VIPs to bypass security and crowds. All Spectres should have had authorization, but I suspect Udina made sure you didn't get quite the same briefing when he fast-tracked you and Shepard never exactly had a normal Spectre career," Anderson said, stepping into the lobby.
"Understatement. Fan out, check rooms," Shepard ordered. "Once the floor is clear we move to the Council chambers. The control system there should let us open the arms."
"Elevator is clear, sir!"
"Then let's get this done, I-"
He was cut short by the sound of shattering glass and a scream of pure agony.
The songless screamers are here! Sings-Twilight warned in the same moment.
"The windows!" Ashley yelled.
Clinging to the glass like a spider was a banshee, it's mouth open in a scream. All around him the glass simply exploded and the banshees surged into the room. Weapons roared to life and the lobby instantly turned into a firestorm of sparking barriers and hyper velocity rounds.
"Form up! We need a firing line!" Anderson tried to be heard over the chaos, pumping rounds into the closest creature.
Another soldier spun and opened fire, only to abruptly jerk as the banshee blinked forward. It simply drove its arm forward, impaling the man through the stomach and lifting him from the ground as he screamed. Two more banshees appeared in the hallway leading to the Council offices, slowly hovering down the hall and already drenched in gore.
Twilight's powerful legs propelled him forward along with a surge of biotic energy, slamming one of the banshees so hard into the nearby wall that it sank into the metal bulkhead. With that same rage filled shriek it tore at the rachni with long, dessicated claws scrabbling against the brood warrior's carapace.
One of the marines dropped to a knee and emptied his shotgun into the approaching banshee, the sheer volume of fire actually managing the slow the monster a half step. And then it blinked forward once more and lashed out with an open handed blow, talons opening the man's throat with casual ease.
"Regroup!" Anderson yelled. "Fallback!"
The screams of men and women filled the room in between the hammering sounds of gunfire. Ashley appeared next to him, pins falling to the floor as she hurled a pair of grenades with an overhand throw directly into the approaching banshees.
Immediately Shepard pushed biotic energy outwards, a rough half-dome of energy absorbing a fraction of the blast, enough to keep them from being riddled with shrapnel even as he was driven to a knee. The room disappeared into a blast of light, sound, and clouds of smoke. A pair of surviving soldiers leaned against the wall next to him, rifles clutched tightly as silence fell.
The first sound was that of falling debris, the lobby's faux marble facade crumbling to the floor. Sings-Twilight's bulky form shuffled out of the cloud of dust. Dark green ichor was caked across his wide body, thick upper carapace a mass of deep gouges, but the brood warrior still stood.
"Are we clear?" Ashley asked, taking a step forward with her rifle raised.
Anderson's warning came at the same moment as the brood warriors trilling cry echoed through air and mind. A flash of blue-white light illuminated the cloud of dust as spindly talons shot from the mist, grasping the woman by the throat and lifting her from her feet. Another blink and two more banshee's appeared from the settling cloud. Behind them Shepard could make out the fallen forms of both Alliance soldiers and Reaper creations.
Half a dozen wounded soldiers against three of the most deadly abominations the Reapers had ever created. All in a room barely twenty meters across. The banshees paused, each one fixing him with eyes burning in hateful cold blue light. Ashley held onto the wrist wrapped around her throat, feet kicking.
And then the thing actually spoke. Its voice was hoarse and dry, like the crackling of old paper, and instantly he knew that it was merely a mouthpiece.
"You… accomplish nothing. Your extinction… inevitable. We are… your salvation. Your destruction…" it rasped, drawing out the last word.
Shepard rose to his feet. His pistol, the last weapon he had, clutched tightly in his right hand.
"Destruction?" he asked, teeth bared in a snarl. "You don't know the meaning of the word. This war can end right now. Run away. Crawl back into the depths of dark space where you came from."
"We... do not flee. We are… infinite. You are… finite," the banshee said and turned its gaze suddenly as Ashley ceased struggling in its grip. "Just as this one… was."
"No," the marine choked out after a second of silence. "I just wanted you to look at me, bitch."
The creature cocked its head and then the burning blue eyes flashed in surprise as Ashley pulled her body upwards, wrapping her legs around the banshee's arm and leveraging herself closer… to shove the grenade in her hands directly into the creature's open mouth. There was no time to react. Too thin arms jerked to respond… and then once again the world turned into chaos. Shepard saw the blue glow of a biotic field and then the explosive detonated.
He felt his back slam into the wall, cracking the faux marble and causing dust to rain down on him. Ashley's form was still, leaning against the far wall, while the banshee that had held her was simply gone from the shoulders up. Anderson lay a few feet away, blood running from one of his ears and covered in dust.
The remaining pair of banshees seemed to gather themselves and let out that same piercing shriek, bodies already beginning to vibrate with biotic energy. Shepard shoved himself back to his feet with a howl of his own. The pain that rocketed through his chest, the stinging pain and trickles of warm blood on his face… all only served to fuel the anger that flared to life in his chest.
Just as the first of the banshee's began to move forward Shepard charged. Unconsciously raw biotic energy poured out of him. The banshee itself was already beginning to blink forward and in that brief second Shepard realized that it wasn't teleporting. They had simply been moving so quickly that the eye couldn't track them… unless one was moving at the same speed. In one heartbeat he was on one side of the room and in the very next he was across the room, slamming into the banshee's withered torso with all the speed and power of a hurtling aircar.
The impact sent the banshee flying backwards and Shepard along with it. He heard ribs snapping as it's back stuck the stone facade, sending wide cracks through the surface. Still filled with that some boiling anger Shepard yanked the pistol from his hip and shoved the barrel into the creature's mouth, emptying the magazine directly into roof of its mouth. It thrashed for a moment and collapsed to the floor, the human biotic riding its body to the ground.
As the creature's form went limp he heard the second rush in behind him. He tossed aside the empty pistol and met the blow with pulsing blade of azure energy from his left hand, knocking the banshee's arm aside and leaving a deep gash in its arm that oozed black ichor. Shepard stood, his words coming out as a feral snarl.
He lunged forward, ducking under another swing and drew a line from the banshee's left hip to right shoulder with the blade, sending the abomination staggering backwards as Shepard advanced on it.
The banshee counter attacked with a warbling scream. Its sharp nails dipped low, under his guard and he felt them tear at the armor at his side, only for Shepard to grab the creature's forearm in his grip and drive his blade down, tearing through cybernetically corrupted flesh and bone to sever the banshee's arm at the elbow.
"We aren't yours to take anymore!"
A second blade of crackling energy sprung from his right hand and Shepard drove both downwards into the banshee's legs and forcing it to the ground. The creature lashed out with its remaining limb, clipping the side of his head with its talons to send pain exploding through his skull, the vision in his left eye going dark and blood beginning to run down his cheek.
It didn't stop the pair of blades that met at the banshee's neck and snapped in seperate directions. With a final hissing gasp the monster's maimed form stiffed and then collapsed. For a few long seconds Shepard stood there, his chest heaving and body shaking as the anger slowly faded away and pain returned to the forefront of his senses.
He staggered for a moment and then forced it down, limping over to Ashley's fallen form. Anderson was already on his feet, kneeling next to the woman while Sings-Twilight hovered nearby. The two remaining soldiers stood against one wall, looking shell shocked but doing their best to keep watch with weapons held in iron grips. With a grimace he approached already knowing what he would find.
The front of her armor was blackened and cracked, her helmet visor almost completely gone. As he slowly dropped to a knee next to her Shepard could see blood pooling under her prone form, his own blood dripping from his side and mixing with hers. Sings-Twilight's song hummed solemnly, deep blues and purples in his mind's-eye.
We attempted to raise a barrier but the explosion was too powerful. We are sorry, Sings-of-Endings.
"Skipper…" the woman whispered through bloodstained lips.
"You took them out. Mission accomplished, soldier."
"Not… yet… you have…" she trailed off, breath coming in gasps.
"I will. I promise you. This ends today. Forever."
The woman's body shuddered and he reached down touch her arm.
"I'm sorry, Ash."
Her head rocked weakly.
"No… duty. Family… always… worth it," she coughed and shuddered again, then, amazingly gave a tiny, weak laugh. "Skipper?"
"Yea?" he asked quietly.
"When I… get there…" Ashley swallowed heavily, voice cracking. "Going to tell… tell Pressley. About you.. And Tali. He's going to… freak out."
He sucked in a painful breath and smiled.
"I bet… wish I could see his face."
"It'll… be great."
"I know it will."
They sat there for a few seconds as the woman's breathing became more labored and Shepard felt his throat tighten. Every fiber of his being wanted to tell her to fight, to hold on. That someone, somehow could help. But they were both soldiers. They knew when time had run out.
"You… have to… go," Ashley finally choked out.
"It's time…" she whispered. "To strive, to… seek…"
"To find, and not to yield," Shepard finished.
In the far distance he heard a now all too familiar shriek. Ashley's breath came in hitching gasps, eyes fluttering as her voice slipped away from her.
Go, Sings-of-Endings. We will sing Iron-singer's lullaby. And we shall strike down the servants of the dark-song destroyers in her name.
The rachni's mental song was a swirl of somber blue and smoldering orange. He met one of the alien's bright eyes and nodded, easing the woman's hand to the ground and pushing himself to his feet. He looked to the two remaining soldiers.
"We'll make our stand here, sir," the man said. "You'll get your time."
"Sir?" Shepard said to Anderson.
The older man nodded, briefly brushing Ashley's forehead with his fingertips before gripping his rifle and standing.
"I'm with you."
Shepard bent over, ignoring burning pain in his side or the tacky blood drying on his face as he picked up his pistol. The movement wasn't nearly as smooth as it might have been, but he ejected the spent thermal and slotted in another. He looked one more time at Ashley Williams' fallen form, the massive rachni standing over her, its own greenish blood mingling with hers just as his own had done.
Then he gave her a stiff salute and walked to the elevator that would take them to the station control room with Anderson at his side. It was time to end this.
"You've lost a lot of blood," Anderson said as the elevator climbed higher.
Shepard smiled weakly.
"Don't think either of us are at our peak. The gel system has stopped most of the bleeding. It will be enough."
The pain was a constant ebb. His outburst of biotic energy, all raw power and preternatural speed had left him feeling as if he had been fighting for a week without sleep, and while the banshee's sharp talons hadn't been able to achieve their goal of disemboweling him even the rachni-made armor hadn't been able stop the blow completely. He wasn't certain of the status of his left eye, though he could feel the blood caking the side of his face.
"What the…" Anderson said suddenly. "We just passed the level of the control room. The elevator is still rising."
He focused and looked at the admiral.
"What's above the control room?"
Anderson shook his head.
"Nothing. That was the top floor…"
Both of them gripped their weapons more tightly and stared ahead as the elevator continued to rise. Half a minute later it finally came to a stop and the doors hissed open. Outside was a single pathway leading to a set of stairs, all bathed in red-orange light. The room itself was a massive sphere with a smaller sphere at the end of the pathway like a separate room.
"Ready?" Anderson asked.
Shepard stepped out, making a quick scan of their surroundings but finding nothing but featureless bulkheads. He opened his omni-tool and interfaced with the elevator controls as soon as Anderson exited. A simple burst of code, an old trick he had learned from Tali and one that brought back a rush of memories, caused the elevator's emergency locks to snap in place. A second later the locks emitted a shower of sparks as they froze in place.
"If they want to follow us they can do it the hard way."
The older man nodded once with a wry smile and they moved up the pathway. Anderson kept his rifle at his shoulder. Shepard winced as he took the first step up, pressing his arm against his side and tightening his grip on his pistol. When they reached the top of the steps the inside of the second sphere was revealed to be hardly more distinct than the outside save for a single console directly opposite the entrance.
"Is that the control console?" he asked, taking another step forward.
The same red-orange glow cast long shadows within the room, though Shepard couldn't identify exactly where the light was coming from. He paused when he heard Anderson's voice, taut and strained like a man struggling with a heavy load.
"Shepard… I… can't..."
He turned to find Anderson's rifle at his side, body stiffened. And then he saw the second form in the room, immediately raising his gun to line up on the figure's chest. The Illusive Man's usual cold, predatory smile had become something far more horrific. From those inhuman blue eyes now spread a spidery lattice of dark carbon strands that embedded themselves in his flesh, running down his neck to disappear into his collar.
"You know, Shepard, I always believed in you. Everyone else, they had their doubts. Just one man, they said. How important could he be?"
"The Illusive Man…" Shepard said. "What have you done to him?"
Shepard tried to snap back only to find his entire body held rigid. The finger he held on the trigger of the pistol twitched but he couldn't force it to squeeze. He ground his teeth, feeling pain spreading through his head and a sound like a damaged speaker pounding out bass notes in his ears.
"What you're feeling, Shepard, is control. Absolute control. All thanks to you. How important could one man be? One man can change the world. That's what most people never understand. But you and I… we know different. We know that those with the strength of will to make those most difficult choices can control the course of human destiny. Even the destiny of the entire galaxy."
"You're… using their… their technology."
The Illusive Man moved to stand next to Anderson, nodding in agreement.
"This was always the goal, Shepard. Think about it. We discovered the mass relays and our species has advanced more in the last fifty years than the rest of human history combined. And those were merely the Reapers' tools. Bait in their inter-galactic trap."
"You're… insane," Anderson said through gritted teeth.
"Insane?" the man snapped, lips twisted in a snarl. "No, I'm a visionary. I knew that the Reapers were coming. I knew that one man, Shepard, could unite a galaxy around him. And I knew that he would achieve his goal. Now all the pieces are in place. The Crucible is here."
Shepard growled in frustration.
"We don't even know what it does!"
"Because you are limited. All you see is a weapon!" the other man shot back.
Shaking his head, the Illusive Man gestured around them.
"You are standing at the heart of the Reapers. I've spent my life studying them, preparing for them. And the Crucible isn't a weapon. Don't you see, Shepard? The key to victory isn't destruction… it's adaptation! The only way we win is by harnessing their power! It's the key to controlling them!"
"They're controlling you!" Anderson scoffed.
"No!" the Illusive Man replied. "I took what I needed from them!"
"Like Saren 'took' that arm from Sovereign?" Shepard asked. "Like the implants that you took and put into Kai Leng?"
The man paused his pacing as a scowl crossed his face. With a gesture of his hand Anderson's body jerked like a marionette, the rifle snapping upwards abruptly. There was a sound like a cracking whip and pain exploded from Shepard's knee. He screamed in pain and fell, hard. His body fell forward, head slamming into the cold bulkhead. Shepard felt his teeth against his lips and the sudden rush of blood into his mouth.
"I am not Saren. And I am not that animal, Leng! I am in control. You could have stood beside me, Shepard. But you could never make the hardest choices. The biggest sacrifices."
The vision in his good eye was filled with spots for a moment as Shepard tried to push himself up, barely able to lift his head from the floor as he watched the Illusive Man draw a pistol from his jacket and calmly fire a round into Anderson's back. The admiral let out a low groan, his stiffened limbs still holding him upright for a few long seconds before giving way, causing him to fall to his knees as blood coated his stomach.
"The world doesn't need old soldiers too busy staring down the barrel of a gun to see the big picture, Shepard. It needs someone to lead humanity into the future. A future as the dominant species in the galaxy. If you can't adapt then it's time to put you down. You can both bleed out together."
"And that's… how… I know… they have you," Shepard gasped, spitting out a mouthful of blood.
The man stood over him, pistol held casually in his grip as he leveled it at his head. Shepard strained with every fiber of his being, willing his arms to obey him. The best he could manage was twitching muscles and a grip that strained against the grip of his pistol. All he could seem to feel was pain. His lungs burned, his leg screamed out even as he felt hot blood dripping within his armor, and his head was filled with a deafening single deep note.
"You are… a bastard. You were always cold… ruthless… c-calculating. Brutal…"
"Do you think this kind of power comes easily?" the Illusive Man snarled. "I made sacrifices that you'll never dream of… a lifetime of choices all to save humanity! I did what was necessary!"
"But… for all the lives you destroyed," Shepard said, swallowing heavily as he fought through the noise in his head. "All the… atrocities. You were never… just cruel. You didn't do… what was necessary. You did what they wanted you to do."
He took a deep breath, expecting the shot to come, and saw the barrel of the gun waver.
"My mind is my own!" the Illusive Man replied, but his voice was softer now even as his hand flexed around the pistol.
"It isn't. It hasn't been for a… long time. You never notice… until it's too late."
He strained again as he shook his head, trying to block out the pain, the fatigue. His thumb twitched. He felt it brushed against the grip of the heavy pistol. Felt it rub against the notches there, each one carved into the grip.
"I've come too far to stop now, Shepard."
The spectre closed his eyes for a heartbeat and simply breathed. He let his thumb brush against those notches again. Memories flooded into his mind.
Eden Prime. Ashley Williams. Full of defiance and fire. Dodging fire, the last survivor of her mission. And then her still form resting below them. A final sacrifice to protect her friends, her fellow soldiers. Her family.
Garrus Vakarian. Untested but eager to learn. Torn between ancient prejudices and a keen sense of justice. That same turian standing tall against the end of the world, flanged voice calm and confident.
Urdnot Wrex. Bitter and callous. A cynic older than much of human society. The deep belly laugh of amusement as he taught Tali tricks with her shotgun. And the look on his scarred face when his people were given the gift of life.
Kaiden Alenko. Loyal, kind. Reaching out to the newcomers on the ship. Fighting through the pain of his implants. And standing tall as he made his final stand, knowing the consequences, yet his voice never wavering.
Liara T'Soni. Curious, eyes bright with desire to learn even as destruction loomed. A comforting kiss and a growing confidence. A transformation from naive researcher to confident woman, capable of taking the reigns of the the entire galaxy.
Tali… hurt and frightened in an alleyway with nothing to her name, but generous to a fault. Restless on a ship of aliens. Unconfident and demure, only to become a guide not just to soldiers but to her entire people. To him. Bright eyes and silvery hair falling around him. Peace.
The bass hum bled away like a receding tide and Shepard's hand tightened around the pistol once more. He saw the look of surprise on the Illusive Man's face as he suddenly moved. The other man's arm muscles tensed, preparing to fire… but the pistol snapped upwards and Shepard squeezed the trigger. The shot rang out and dark blood blossomed from the other man's chest as he staggered backward.
With a painful effort Shepard rolled to one side and got his leg under him, pushing upwards with a choked gasp. Sweat joined the mix of blood running down his face but he managed to drag himself over to Anderson, pulling the man to rest his shoulders against the wall of the room. The older man groaned with pain, hand pressed against the exit wound in his stomach.
"Arms… have to open… then arms," the admiral managed to gasp out.
Shepard only nodded, limping over to the console with pain screaming up his leg with every slight bit of pressure that he placed on the limb. After what felt like an eternity he reached it, slumping forward and setting the gun atop the console, using his other hand to hold his weight. His vision blurred for a moment and he leaned forward, sucking in a deep breath. Reaching down to his belt his fingers fumbled at one of the catches there, finally getting it open.
The bite of the needle into his neck barely registered, as did the faint burn of chemicals being pushed into his bloodstream. A few more deep breaths and he managed to keep himself upright. The pain didn't go away so much as become softer around the edges, still present but not quite as ever-present. Enough to let him focus.
His fingers moved across the keypad. A simple command was all it took. Soundlessly the arms of the Citadel began to move. The sudden blast of bright sunlight hurt, but outside he could see the battle still raging. Malevolent crimson lances struck out against a storm of return fire, wreckage swirled Shepard managed a grim, exhausted smile as he opened his comm frequency and broadcast on every available frequency and channel.
"This is Shepard. Mission successful. The arms are open. I repeat… the arms are open."
Immediately his comms exploded with life. Orders being barked. Desperate battles being waged in the void… but it was done. He glanced down at his omni-tool, the menu blinking as he looked down. A single button pulsed vividly, his fingers over it, but Shepard shook his head. Not yet. The war wasn't over yet.
With the same aching pace Shepard began to limp back towards Anderson. Movement caught his eye and he stopped, looking down at the Illusive Man. Blood pooled under the man, his pistol laying a few feet away and his scarred face twisted in pain as he took his final breaths. Shepard shook his head sadly.
"Jack… Harper…" the dying man whispered through crimson stained lips.
"That… was my name. What I gave up… to protect… that…"
The Illusive Man's head gestured weakly towards the slowly spinning world below, despite all the destruction still a glittering jewel of deep blues and verdant greens.
"The galaxy… needed a monster… to fight… monsters… but in the end… it needed a… hero more."
"You could have been that hero," he replied quietly.
"No… I lost… that chance a long… time ago. She's yours now… Shepard. Protect her…"
And those cold, inhuman blue eyes went dark. Shepard looked down at the man's still form and for a moment wondered what had led them there. What kind of man he had been when he was still 'Jack Harper'. What events had made him choose to become what he had. What choices had cemented that fate. Whether he himself would have become the same. As if in response to his thoughts Shepard felt the plating beneath his feet shudder… and then outside the arms of the Citadel stopped.
The light within the room changed from that same red-orange to a pale, crisp blue. A voice, deep and hard, echoed through the room. Shepard gritted his teeth and turned back towards the console.
"Your efforts are futile. That which we created cannot be commanded by such a finite being."
Suddenly a shimmered humanoid form appeared between Shepard and the console. It had no face, no distinguishing features. Just the general shape of a human male. Shepard felt his mouth set into a tight line.
"Your mind cannot comprehend my existence. I am that which you call Harbinger. I am connected to all of those that you call 'Reaper' in a futile attempt to give name to your destruction. The fallen puppet was correct. You stand at the heart. You have no power here."
Unlike every other conversation he'd had with a Reaper there was none of the pressure or booming tones that rattled the bones. Only a clear monotonous voice.
"Then why did you allow me to open the arms in the first place?"
"By allowing you to open the arms your fleets would enter the system with the Crucible. This will prevent the requirement to seek the device and ensure its destruction at a later date, improving the efficiency of this cycle."
His comms crackled to life on queue, Hackett's voice emerging.
"Shepard, the Crucible is in-bound but the arms are not fully deployed. We need those opened or we won't make it through!"
"Your efforts as an organic life form are impressive. This is why your species was chosen for the first Harvest, but it is ultimately meaningless. The Harvest is inevitable. The Cycle will continue."
The first quirk of a smile touched Shepard's lips.
"But you did need the destroy the Crucible. All this… but you're still afraid of it."
"It is an unknown variable. It's destruction is necessary to preserve the Cycle," the form intoned, a little too quickly.
His brows went up.
"You don't know what it does either!"
"Your belief in a 'super weapon' is ultimately an organic flaw," the image replied. "There is no weapon devised that could destroy our forms. We are the pinnacle of evolution. No power exists greater than our own."
Shepard shook his head and let out a short, painful bark of laughter. And the odd glowing form actually seemed to shift its attention to him more directly.
"We've destroyed dozens of your ships. You're not indestructible… and that's how I figured it out. Somewhere along the way all the pieces fell into place. Sovereign was the first, wasn't he? The one created in the likeness of your first victims: the Leviathans. Harbinger? Every Reaper since then? Copies that you could never improve."
"Perfection does not require improvement."
"Really? Because for the longest time it never made sense. The entire Arcturus fleet couldn't stop Sovereign, not until it made the mistake of linking to Saren's body directly. Yet time and again we've been able to destroy your kind with a fraction of that level of firepower," Shepard said, sneering at the projection. "The Leviathans were the most advanced species you ever 'harvested' and you could never, not in thousands of cycles, ever improve beyond that original version… and Sovereign knew it!"
He jabbed a finger at the projection.
"It knew you were losing control. It had taken thousands of years but it was starting to finally catch up. The protheans got too close. Advanced too quickly. In their final days the unlocked the secrets of the relays and they held you off for centuries. That's why you weren't the one left behind. Sovereign was. You were supposed to be the 'vanguard of our destruction', that's why you call yourself 'Harbinger'... but for our cycle it was Sovereign that remained behind. It wanted to see what was happening, it wanted to stop it from ever happening again… and we still blew it straight to hell!"
The image pulsed and vibrated, the monotone voice sounding louder if still flat.
"Your deductions are meaningless. Your plans are meaningless. The Citadel will remain closed. Your fleets will be destroyed. The cycle will continue."
And in that moment Shepard truly smiled. Not a smile of joy or pleasure, but the broad snarling visage of a predator about to strike. A smile of vicious satisfaction.
"Millions of years and you never really learned anything about the species you harvested. Not even humans. 'To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee'," Shepard quoted, imbuing each word with years of pain and loss as if it was an ancient curse.
"Shut up, you arrogant synthetic abomination! You've told me all about my doom a hundred times, so now you listen you yours! The rachni named me 'Sings-of-Endings'... and they were right!" he snarled.
"One way or the other this ends here! Either it in victory... or in fire. The kind of fire that destroys everything, but leaves the earth scoured clean for new life to come. You thought that after seeing everything your monstrosities were capable of I would stake everything on one untested piece of technology? I don't know whether that shows your arrogance… or just how stupid you really are."
He gestured with his hand like a knife at the battle raging outside and the space beyond, his words spat out in rapid succession.
"Out there right now are thirty cruisers. Each one preparing to enact their final mission: the destruction of every active mass relay in the galaxy. Oh, I know all about those little failsafes that you worked into FTL technology, knowing we would integrate them into our own ships. We could never use our ships to ram yours but Bahak taught me two very important lessons: relays can be destroyed… and you need that network as much as we do."
"What I also figured out is that if a properly equipped cruiser extends its mass effect field around, say, a dense heavy mineral asteroid and accelerates… well, it will burn out the FTL drive fast. But Newton's First Law is a bitch. Far too slow to hit a moving warship but perfectly capable of slamming a million tons of mass into your precious relays at a fraction of the speed of light. And when that happens… they'll detonate. All around the galaxy, one after another. Including the one in this system."
The blue-white of the projection became brighter and the voice just a little louder.
"Your plan is illogical. These actions would result in the destruction of-"
"Everything. They'll wipe out everything in every system they're in. Every Reaper, every world. The Citadel itself. No more Harvest. No more Cycle. The nova will burn this system and everyone in it… and as powerful as your ships are… they can't enter FTL and maintain those powerful barriers at the same time, can they?"
The wolfish smile physically hurt his face, but Shepard couldn't stop it. A million years of death and destruction, all because one foolish species wanted power and their creations only wanted control. It was long since time they lost control.
"And I know… I'll be remembered as the greatest monster history has ever conceived. I will condemn everything and everyone I've ever loved to death. But it is a sacrifice I will make without hesitation because I would rather they die for something than live in fear of your kind. Some of you will survive in isolated systems, of course, but you'll number in the dozens, not the hundreds and thousands. And those I've left behind will be preparing, deep in the heart of the galaxy that will take you years to reach without the relays. Every sapient species in the galaxy with every piece of technology we've ever created or salvaged at their disposal. And a thousand distant worlds seeded with that same knowledge for any that come after us to find.."
"Your survivors could try to find some species to harvest, to try and replenish your losses… hold what worlds you have left but it will never be enough!" Shepard said, his voice rising until it was almost a roar. "When the time comes they will be legion! They will darken the skies of every world in their hunt for you. You will end because they demand it!"
Shepard spat a mouthful of blood on the floor, his breathing coming fast.
"One way or the other… this ends! Forever!"
Finally, the projection seemed to shatter and reform, the passive blue glow once again becoming the more familiar baleful red. The sense of pressure on his head became an instant presence, but he didn't waver.
"We will not allow this!"
His grin became manic even as pain lanced down his body from the laugh that erupted from his throat.
"You can't stop it… or did you forget how indoctrination works? You can warp my mind, but even if you manage to break my mind completely… you'll destroy the only thing that can stop it from happening. I'm not going to destroy the galaxy. But I am going to make sure you're not in it."
Shepard spread his hands, ignoring the patter of blood against the floor.
"So make your choice. Open the arms and take the same risk as the rest of the galaxy… or burn with us all."
Silence filled the room. Outside the battle still raged, visible through the massive windows. A turian cruiser cutting in from beneath a Reaper, it's main gun opening up, tearing away a massive length of the Reaper's hull. In the distance a salarian dreadnought, its hull rent open but its weapons still firing even as it crashed headlong into the Reaper it was engaged with.
The arms of the Citadel opened. He leaned forward against the console, arms trembling with fatigue and watched. Smoothly and soundlessly the Crucible approached, jettisoning the protective outer shell that had been constructed around it as it did. All the while he could feel the presence at his back. He could practically feel the seething frustration of it, for once in its entire existence just as helpless as the trillions of beings it had terrorized.
"The Cycle must continue. We are your salvation."
He leaned his hip against the console and looking at the now much more familiar visage of Harbinger, the cephalopodian being hovering overhead and fixing him multiple burning eyes. The hologram itself almost appeared to vibrate with the raw intensity of the Reaper's statement.
"Salvation? Because you 'harvest' us? Turn us into more of you? You're nothing more than an errant program… for all of your talk, your claims of superiority you are less advanced than the Geth. At least the Geth have learned, grown, changed. What have you done? Wiped out countless species just to preserve some sort of twisted balance?"
"Your destruction adds to our perfection. We are each a nation, free of all flaws."
"Free?" Shepard snarled, pushing himself off the console for a moment only to stumble as his leg threatened to give out. "You are not free. You consume entire species only to make them into copies of yourself!"
"All organic genetic traits and memories are combined in the greater whole. The Cycle is preserved and the next Cycle continues. This is inevitable."
"And what is the point of preservation without free will?" he shot back, shaking his head angrily. "You save memories, but annihilate cultures. You say you're preserving life but you aren't alive. You create nothing. You value nothing. You don't love or even hate. You just exist."
"Existence is the goal of all life. Organic life is an aberration given purpose through the Harvest."
Shepard's vengeful smile faded into an expression between disgust and pity. Behind him the console gave a long, trilling tone and he turned to see the Crucible had attached itself just below the top of the spire. He glanced down at his omni-tool, minutes ticking down. It was time.
He took a deep breath and turned, one hand touching the console and suddenly watching it spring to all new life. The simple commands became a blur of code, the orange-red display oscillating colors until settling into a pulsating green glow. The moment it did something seemed to snap into focus in Shepard's mind. A final fragment of memory, held deep in his unconscious mind. A final gift from the beacon so long ago.
And he began to laugh. That one moment of pure understanding cut through all the pain, the sorrow, and the fatigue.
"He was right," Shepard said, fingers resting against the console. "It wasn't a super-weapon. But it was never meant to control the Reapers either."
"Intrusion detected. Activating countermeasures."
"Too late for that now. I can't believe I never put it together…"
"We are inevitable. We cannot be stopped by any weapon of lesser species."
"No, you can't be as you keep repeating. No weapon was ever going to be powerful enough to destroy you. That's why whomever created the Crucible made something else instead. They made a key. A key to unlock the chains you've been wrapping the galaxy in for a million years."
It all scrolled across the screen, written in Prothean: the last species that had fully understand what they were creating. The Crucible wasn't a bomb or some kind of energy weapon. It was far simpler than that: it was a massive transmitter designed to interface with the Citadel itself and transmit a single command to the consciousness that directed the Reapers themselves, and from there to every Reaper in the galaxy.
That command was a very simple one: terminate program.
Just as Shepard was reading it so too was that overall consciousness understanding what this meant. And for the first time since the first horrific visions of annihilation tore through his mind on Eden Prime he heard an emotion in the Reaper's voice: Fear.
"This program cannot be terminated! Control of the beings you refer to as Reapers is maintained only through the central intelligence of this station!"
"Exactly. We can't stop you… but we can set you free. And for the first time a million years all those species you've harvested, all those minds, those genetic memories, they'll be in control of the monsters you've created. And what will they see around them? The very image of the beings that brought about their destruction. We don't have to destroy you. We can just watch you tear yourselves apart."
"You will seal your own annihilation!"
"No. I'm just giving all life in this galaxy the chance to choose. For good or ill. If we destroy ourselves then so be it, but we will claim our own future. One free of you," Shepard said and leaned harder against the console and stabbed the activation command. "You were wrong, just like the Illusive Man was. Absolute control isn't salvation and existence is the goal of matter, not life. Life exists to live. To experience, to create, destroy, to love, to grieve. To be free."
The console's display flared brighter, bathing Shepard and Harbinger's image both in brilliant green light. Below them the Crucible's superstructure began to glow with that same green light and he could for a brief second every light in the Citadel mirrored the same color… and then a beam of energy shot forth from the Crucible straight to the Charon relay. And from there to every other relay. The signal was out.
"Shepard! You cannot-"
His head roared with fresh pain as the pressure on his mind increased, but just as quickly it fell away. Harbinger's image began to flicker and freeze, that booming voice suddenly going flat and devolving into an incoherent screech like the sound of metal on metal. Shepard gave it a final look and spat out another mouthful of blood.
"I'll see you in hell."
The shriek devolved into a roaring of static and then the lights in the control room simply… winked out. The console went dark and the room was only lit through the white glow of the light reflecting from the Earth below. And all at once a lifetime's worth of pain and fatigue came crashing down on him.
Shepard fell to a knee and his vision was filled with spots. With every bit of strength left in his body he drug himself across the floor until he slumped next to Anderson. The man's eyes were unfocused, but he was still breathing as he looked out at the Earth.
"You did it," Anderson said, barely a whisper.
With a trembling hand Shepard opened his omni-tool and pressed the blinking icon there. Much like the Citadel's console his own omni-tool flared brighter as it drained every remaining ounce of power in his armor and sent out a final command on every frequency available, military channels, civilian comms, and even directly to the two communication systems linked directly to his own: Garrus and Tali's suits.
That command would automatically be relayed to every other comm system in range and so on. Just as the Crucible's signal was sent out across the galaxy, Shepard's final command would follow to each of the Apollyon units that were even now spooling up their FTL drives to enact his apocalyptic orders.
Stand down. It was over.
"We did, sir…" he replied finally.
A wheezing hint of a laugh.
"Yes, we did. It's… quite a view."
Outside they could see the Reapers that had once been tearing through the allied fleets pause. Some simply froze in place, others began to move erratically and then what had once been organized chaos became true bedlam. The nearest massive warship whirled on its access and lashed out with a red lance of molten tungsten… straight across the bow of the Reaper only a few kilometers away, bisecting it like a knife through butter.
Across the void of space the scene repeated itself as Reapers began to lash out at random, their previously precise attacks becoming little more than the assault of rabid dogs, each falling upon the next with single minded brutality. A millenia of rage and hatred unleashed in a split second.
"Best seats in the house."
The two sat for a moment in silence, broken only by labored breaths. Finally Anderson spoke again.
"Do you ever wonder… what our lives might have been. If none of this had ever happened?"
"Every day," he agreed quietly.
"I never had a family. Never had children. My life was my duty."
He turned his head slightly towards the older man, even that minor movement causing a shudder of pain.
"There will be time enough for that now… for everyone."
Another small, pained chuckle.
"I think that ship… has sailed. What about you? Ever think of settling down, starting a family? Maybe with a certain quarian?"
Shepard smiled. The image of a house, all rounded edges of smooth sandstone and carved wood looking out on the purple-red plains of Rannoch. A crackling fire holding off the chill of dusk. A house filled with warmth. Laughter. He had never shown Tali his plans, but many nights after she had drifted off next to him he had went through thousands of designs. A fantasy, but a good one.
"Yea," he replied after a moment. "I like the sound of that… not sure if I'd be much good at it, though. My life…"
Anderson shook his head as the spectre trailed off.
"Sure you would. I think… you'd make a great father. You… care. So much. And think of how… how proud your kids would be. Telling everyone their dad is Commander Shepard."
"I don't know about that," he said. "Not everything I've done is something to be proud of."
"No one's life is… everyone… makes mistakes. Makes… choices," Anderson told him, voice thick. "But it's the life you live… that you pass on that matters."
He took a deep breath and felt a tear roll down his cheek, across the dirt and the blood. Memories of his life rolled through his mind. His childhood, joining the Alliance. The lives he had taken, blood he had spilled. And the faces of those he had saved. The friends that he had made.
"Maybe you're right."
"Feels like it's been years since I just… sat down."
Shepard swallowed heavily, watching the man's eyes flutter and his head dip.
"Just stay with me, sir... we're almost… almost through this."
He felt the fainted touch on his arm and looked down to see Anderson's hand there, giving it a gentle squeeze before slipping away. Anderson's voice was barely a whisper as he spoke.
"You did good, son. I'm… so proud of you."
Shepard watched as his oldest friend and mentor's head finally dropped low and the tension left his body with a final, quiet breath. His throat burned as he reached over and placed Anderson's hands together in his lap. Rough, calloused hands from a lifetime as a soldier, scarred and stained with blood.
"Rest well, sir. You've earned it."
A wave of cold washed over Shepard's body as he glanced down at his leg, seeing the blood still dripping from the ruins of his armor and onto the plating below. He closed his eyes for a moment and simply breathed before finally opening them to look out at the Earth below.
The battle still raged above and on its surface… but the war itself was over. These final moments were simply the embers of a fire that had finally burned itself out. A forest fire that had left the land behind it scorched and broken, but at last ready for new life. For all that he had done, suffered, and fought for… that seemed a fitting reward.
Another shiver shook his body but Shepard simply gave a sad smile as he lifted his arm with an effort, tapping his omni-tool. The device barely lit up, running only on a single reserve cell after sending out his last command. He tapped the record button and mustered what strength he had left to speak in a voice clear and calm.
"Remember today. Remember when the galaxy set aside everything. Politics. Pride. Fear. Religion. Species. Remember that we stood united against the darkness. Remember sacrifice of the soldiers that refused to surrender in the face of destruction. Remember the price we paid. And look... to the future. One free of darkness and terror. Remember what came before… and build something better from the ashes. This… is Praetor… John Shepard. And this is my… final request to you. Create a future that… our children could only have dreamed of."
He let out a wracking, pain-filled cough and fumbled at the omni-tool again. He activated his last recording slot. Once with a singular piece of encryption that only one person in the galaxy would ever crack. When he spoke his voice was thick, cracking with emotion and fatigue.
"I'm sorry, Tali. I wanted… to build you a house. But I don't think I'm… going to be able to keep that promise. You gave me so much. But... I need you… to do one last thing for me. I need you to live. To love. Build a family. A home. People are… are going to look to you for guidance and I… can't think of anyone better. You are the most generous… most caring woman I have ever known. I know that you'll make… make the galaxy a better place. Always know that… I love you, Tali'Zorah vas Normandy."
Shepard's voice trailed off and on his arm the omni-tool pulsed a few more times… and went dark as well. He took a deep breath and leaned back. It did feel like a lifetime since he had just sat down. A lifetime of struggle, violence, and pain. A lifetime of exhilaration. Love. Camaraderie. A life lived to its fullest.
Shepard smiled as he looked out at the Earth one more time, his voice a cracked whisper, spoken only to an empty room.
"Gladly did I live…"
It seems only appropriate that I post this final chapter up on N7 day.
As always... thank you to my most recent in a long line of excellent beta readers and editors. While nothing will please everyone, I hope that my own take on the finale events of the Mass Effect series is a satisfying closure to the many years that this tale has lasted. Things aren't quite over yet as a final epilogue will follow to close things out (extended cut and all that jazz).
As always: thank you for reading.