"It's a damn mess." Anderson rested his elbows against the railing, hunching his shoulders as though to stave off a backache. Aral, feeling the old persistent stiffness building in his own spine, could relate.
They were staring at a writhing sea of air traffic: Jacksonian freighters edging up alongside massive alien transports, Citadel Security flitting among the wavery lights of ships still emerging from the wormhole, exhausted and baffled jump-pilots weaving between the station's impossibly massive ward-arms.
Take a wormhole jump to hell, indeed. Aral pressed his fingers against his lips to keep from twitching a smile. "I've seen worse."
Ivan's first priority was to find the bar. His second priority, upon finding the bar, was to run away. At speed.
Aliens. Big angry-looking spiky guys. Blue ladies with head-tentacles.
He wheeled around and ran right into a young man wearing a bizarre, tight-fitting uniform. The look of annoyance on his face faded instantly into a smile. "Ah. New guy."
"Er," said Ivan.
"Yeah, tell me about it." His grin widened, and he offered a hand; dazedly, Ivan shook it. "Jacob Taylor. Trust me, you've got nothing to be worried about here. Just keep your head down."
"Um," said Ivan.
"The fuck are you doing?"
Mark, jolted from his bored inspection of the ship's underbelly, turned so fast he stumbled. A girl, clad in a twisted parody of Betan-chic tattoos and not much else, was glaring at him from a particularly ill-lit portion of the stairwell.
Howl memorized the scars woven through the ink, and Grunt jittered at the raw expanse of unclothed skin, but it was a deeper, darker self that stirred just at the edge of consciousness. Killer stared out through Mark's eyes, like calling to like.
The girl, after a startled moment, broke into a slow smile.
"Three sisters?" Elena gaped, then flushed as Ashley grinned at her.
"They're a pain in the ass," she said, fondly. At a chime, she glanced down at her omnitool, where a new message titled Horizon security report flashed. She skimmed through it, then looked back to Elena. "Sorry. Alliance liaison's work is never done. Anyway. You an only child?"
The ghosts of sixteen replicators wavered before her mind, before they were smeared decisively away by baffled Ivan and grinning Miles and serious Gregor. "I had family," she said.
"Yeah," said Ashley, her easy smile fading. "Family. I had that, too."
The creature had a jagged crest that looked like it had been carved from solid rock, and Taura thought instantly of a stone gargoyle, solid and unyielding. Watching.
"Yeah? What do you want?" Even his voice was gravelly, guarded.
"Your Commander told me to come introduce myself," Taura said, and watched with interest as his expressive face wavered from mistrust to confusion, and from there to… hope?
"You too, huh?" he said, with a covert glance back at a large glass tank in the corner of the room.
Taura bared her teeth in a smile. "Yeah," she said. "Me too."
"You seem a little puny to be some great ruler," Wrex said, glowering down at him. This close, Gregor could feel the echoing rumble of Wrex's voice in his own chest, but there was a reassuring tinge of humor behind the mockery. He waved a hand to keep the trigger-happy ImpSec men at bay.
"We humans do tend to the puny," he said, deadpan. "I wouldn't hold it against us."
Wrex snorted a laugh and backed off. "Well, if Shepard vouches for you, we're with you. You got a way out of this?"
Gregor smiled slowly. "Let's see what happens."
"You must surely appreciate the need for accurate security briefings." Simon spread his fingers against the desk, leaning in. Lawson shrugged and sat back at her console.
After a beat, she glanced up at him. "You're just keeping busy while your boss runs amok. Trust me, I know the feeling."
He held her gaze, and she relented with a sigh. "The first thing you should know, I suppose, is that I've had extensive genetic modifications. Not my choice. I was designed to be flawless."
Simon firmly suppressed a wave of unease, letting his eidetic chip take notes, carefully, precisely. Perfectly.
"I understand you're a mother," Samara said, "and a warrior."
Cordelia offered her a chair, trying to hide her surprise: she'd made an effort to meet the entire crew, but Samara had been elusive. "Not a warrior anymore," she said. "Not in the way you mean."
"How did you," Samara said, and stopped, staring down at her hands. Hundreds of years old, Shepard had said. Cordelia had the strange impression she was looking at a very young woman indeed.
"How did I stop fighting?" Cordelia guessed, and Samara's gaze snapped up to meet hers. Cordelia exhaled, slowly. "I started living."
"So, uh," Elli said, and waved a hand expressively at Garrus. "What's with the face?"
"Subtle." His mandibles twitched in what she was coming to recognize as a lopsided grin. "It was a gunship rocket, actually."
"Huh." Elli chewed on a thumbnail. "Plasma arc for me."
"Huh." He did a perfect double-take. "Wait, really?"
"Burned my face clean off." That was a barefaced lie: nothing had been clean about it. Still. "Naismith sprang for the upgrade."
"Huh," Garrus echoed. After a moment, he added. "Someone should really start a course on the fine art of ducking."
She snorted a laugh.
It took only a few weeks for the assorted boffins of both universes to work out a solution, a gateway back through the damaged wormhole. Disappointingly fast, Miles thought, but he bravely kept the mournful sighs and dramatic exposition about missed opportunities to a minimum.
Standing in the Normandy's airlock, he grinned at Shepard, who managed an exhausted little half-smile.
"Thanks," he said. "For putting us up. And, ah, for putting up with us."
"A double-dose of the usual chaos was a little much." Shepard managed a passable imitation of a lazy ImpSec salute. "Watch yourself out there, Admiral."
Reflected in those tired eyes, Miles could just make out a bleak, endless expanse, enemies glinting like stars in the fathomless deep. He squared his shoulders and snapped off a tight, Alliance-standard salute. A series of inane quips died in his throat. "Just… just keep moving, Commander. Harder to hit a moving target."
Her smile broadened into something genuine. "Haven't stopped yet."
The airlock finished cycling. He turned on his heel, slung the duffel over one shoulder, and limped out into the reassuring glare of the Citadel, bold and loud and alive. His ship was waiting. Forward.
He didn't look back.