“Lilith, we’ve got a problem.” Kaidan frowned as a colonist bumped into him rudely, causing him to fall a step behind the woman he spoke to.
“Still can’t calibrate the targeting matrix?”
“Those defense towers towers are useless if we don’t figure it out.” Kaidan shook his head, scowling.
Though Lilith seemed to think this was no big deal, Kaidan was getting worried. It had been almost a week since the contracting team had finished building the towers, a week since they had picked up and left Horizon.
Yet, in spite of spending his every waking hour in the colony’s plaza trying to get the targeting systems set up correctly, Kaidan still could not make the guns fire straight. He thought he had accounted for the trace amounts of silicone suspended in the upper atmosphere that interfered with the new comm link and the radio-targeting long-range scopes, but what had worked on paper simply wouldn’t work in reality.
It was strange. This system shouldn’t be any different than any of the others Kaidan had set up. Only the environmental factors had changed, but Kaidan had calibrated for worlds with much harsher conditions than these. Horizon’s mild weather – barring the occasional summer storm like the one gathering above – should have made these calibrations a walk in the park.
Instead, Kaidan just kept banging his head against a configuration wall. He would adjust the targeting parameters, save the changes, then the moment he went to fire up the GARDIAN lasers, all systems would fail. He’d log into the user interface only to find his settings had never taken hold. That happened every damn time. He figured it must be a bug, only he couldn’t pinpoint where in the software that things had gone wrong. He had checked and rechecked the code. He had tried every work-around he could think of. He could get the systems to accept any number of targeting vectors, they just wouldn’t save those vectors when he went to fire the guns. It was almost like the stupid systems didn’t want to be calibrated, like they kept shifting parameters deliberately to keep the GARDIAN offline.
Since he couldn’t pinpoint the bug, Kaidan almost suspected sabotage. But that didn’t make any sense. The team that had set up the GARDIAN towers had opened the crates right in front of him, and those crates had been sent, sealed, straight from Alliance command on the Citadel. So unless one of the anti-Alliance colonists could code and hack and had a degree in planetary meteorology and had managed to elude the security cams that he’d set up to watch the plaza, Kaidan just couldn’t see how this kept happening.
The delay wasn’t winning him any friends, either, not that his previous six weeks on Horizon had made him popular to begin with. The longer he went without being able to make the Alliance’s expensive gift work, the less the people here wanted it – and the more they began to whisper that it was really all a giant monitoring device sent to spy on them for the alien Council.
Kaidan was trying his best here, but nothing was working and he was exhausted. He had been working late into the night, every night. Today, he had worked from sun-up until lunchtime, when Lilith had arrived to ask him to help get the old comm system back online. The slow connection to the extranet had broken, making everyone in the colony jumpy. As Kaidan followed her towards the grange, Lilith looked back at him with a frown.
“You look terrible,” she said.
“Thanks,” he replied with a scowl.
“Mark said you look like a well-armored bum,” she said lightly, evidently trying to make a joke, “the way you hang out in the plaza all day with bags under your eyes.”
“A bum?” Kaidan frowned, rubbing his chin. “I shaved this morning.”
“Once you fix the comm system, you should go take a nap,” Lilith told him.
“Can’t,” Kaidan replied, “I need to get the GARDIAN up and running.” As he walked along, he did his best to ignore the angry glares cast in his direction. The streets were full of people sitting at makeshift picnic tables, all taking their lunch break. Harvest time was a big deal out in the colonies, Kaidan had noticed. Even the schools had been closed for the last week so that everyone could pitch in.
“Right,” Lilith said. “Well, I didn’t want to come and interrupt you, but getting our comm systems back online takes priority.”
“Yeah. Okay.” Kaidan said with a bitter laugh. “Surprised people haven’t tried to blame that one on me, too.”
Actually, he already guessed that they did. Horizons wasn’t exactly on the grid, but it did have an extranet link. The colony paid so little for bandwidth, however, and they were so far down on the list of VIPs needing a connection to the extranet, that the link was like going back to the old days of dial-up connections back on Earth. It took a full hour to download a single vid mail from Citadel space.
As a result, Kaidan didn’t use the link to check his mailbox, since his encrypted messages from Alliance command assumed a certain level of bandwidth. He didn’t mind being offline until he got the new GARDIAN comm link up, though. Other than getting the occasional letter from Lisa, there was nothing to look forward to in his mail. Besides, the colonists would have despised him for taking up their precious extranet time. For the more sentimental types, the comm link represented their one connection to their former homes. To folks like Delan, it was the only concession that there even was a galaxy beyond Horizon.
Kaidan figured this current problem with the comm link was probably just old technology going bad. He knew it was important to take care of it – they were completely without the ability to send messages, even distress calls, until it was back up. He knew well enough that the GARDIAN lasers had nothing to do with the comm link crash. The new system and the old operated on totally different frequencies – or they would when he got the new system working. Kaidan just hoped this comm silence wasn’t interference from off-world – an eezo-freighter leak or a broken comm buoy. In that case, they might be off the grid indefinitely.
Sometimes these back-water planets were a real pain, he thought with a sigh. Lilith heard him and turned to him with a worried look.
“People out here don’t trust the Alliance,” she reminded him. “It’s nothing personal.”
Kaidan turned to her, ready to say once again that he knew that, that he appreciated her and Mark’s generosity even if the rest of the colony was too blind to see the need for protection, when he heard a very strange sound.
It was like…a deep, piercing hum. It seemed to bore right into his brain, like it was coming from inside his own head.
Kaidan blinked, trying to place that sound. He felt like he had heard it once before.
Beside him, Lilith grunted and grabbed at her ears. Behind him, he heard someone say, “What is that?”
Kaidan turned slowly, feeling the pressure of dark energy building in the air behind him. For a moment he thought it was the storm clouds gathering above, but then he realized there was something sliding through the clouds, like a zeppelin made of metal and stone.
Kaidan pulled his assault rifle from his back and looked cautiously through the scope. He was dimly aware of a crowd gathering around him, taking shelter near the hated soldier in their midst. The ship, previously distant and indistinct in the clouds, suddenly came into focus before his open eye:
Floating in the clouds he saw rock laced with wire, boulders surrounding a hub of steel.
Kaidan’s heart began to pound. Out of sheer practice, he kept his expression calm. He switched his suit into battle mode, activating full kinetic barriers and bringing up the holographic display before his eyes. A grid, a radar, and targeting aids all popped up along the edges of his vision, flickering blue and translucent. Around him, the colonists registered on his radar as green squares, their names listed last name first, first name last, at the edge of the screen.
Kaidan scarcely saw the display. His eyes were locked on the ship – the ship that looked so familiar because he had spent hours researching it, compiling information on it, gathering omnitool readings on it, watching and re-watching the few video recordings they had taken from the escape pod cameras.
It looked just like the ship that had killed Shepard, the ship that had destroyed the Normandy.
Kaidan didn’t know what that meant, didn’t know how it was possible that a ship like that could be here, now, on this colony. He wasn’t sure if it was the same ship, but it was the same type – a type that no one had seen before or since. It suddenly occured to him that whatever that ship was, he was dealing with the same force as before. Only what that force was, he had no idea.
If it was Cerberus, he thought absently, then they were all in very deep trouble.
A ship like that had taken down the most advanced warship in the Alliance navy. Horizon was a remote colony, stripped of its communications systems, crippled by broken defense towers. And he was only Alliance soldier on the planet.
“Get everyone to the safe house,” Kaidan told Lilith. He strove for calm, though he felt dread rising within him. He was outnumbered and he knew it. But he would try to save these people anyway – even if he died doing so.
“I’ll cover you,” Kaidan shouted at the people still standing, dumbfounded, around him. “Run!”
The cloud before the great ship seemed to shift and tremble. Lightning flashed, and the clouds took shape as a great black mass, growing more solid, coming closer.
Lilith did not move. She stood beside Kaidan, looking up at the approaching darkness with terrified eyes.
“Hurry!” he shouted to her.
But it was too late. The black cloud was upon them, taking the form of insects, each as large as a man’s fist. The colonists’ screams echoed through the complex, muffled over by the buzz of the swarm. Kaidan shot round after round into the cloud, belatedly thinking of his biotics. He fired a pulse into the thick of them. The blue energy tore through the black mass like scythe through grass. Several of the insects fell to the ground, bouncing a few times before they stilled. But as quickly as the biotic pulse passed, the insects filled in around the empty space, the swarm thick as before.
To his right, Kaidan saw Lilith had fallen, whether she had tripped or been pushed, he did not know. He pulled her to her feet, then cried out as something stung him in the back of the neck, right at the sensitive spot where his skin met the metal of his biotic amp.
The pain was incredible: like a puncture wound and a poison all at once. Kaidan tore the bug-like creature off of his neck, then shook his head as a fog seemed to creep over him. He threw the thing to the ground in disgust, then gripped his gun and gathered his full power to send a biotic slam into the advancing wall of the swarm.
His biotics stopped as if flash-frozen in ice. An energy field like gold fire laced with black smoke flickered over him, surrounding him, pinning his blue-white energy along the lines of his body. He found his feet were stuck, his every muscle paralyzed. He was trapped in a cocoon of dark energy, the full fire of his biotic power trapped with him.
All down the street, he could see swarms descending upon the colonists, stinging them, freezing them, leaving them on the ground where they fell. On his holographic display, for up to a distance of up to twenty meters, the buzzing insects registered as a mass of red triangles on his radar, crawling all over the green squares that were the colonists like ants on a hive.
Kaidan tried to lift his feet and could not.
He tried to open his mouth and could not.
He could only stand there like a sentient statue, as all about him, black bugs swarmed over the colony, locust come to devour the harvest.