Shepard stepped out of the Kodiak, her heart slamming against her ribcage.
The harvest had begun.
Quite literally, the fields surrounding the small knot of buildings in the valley before her were striped with the tell-tale quilt of threshed wheat. But only half of the fields were cut, the rest still full of grain, bending in the wind to create a rolling, golden sea about the colony of Horizon.
Shepard took a breath to steady herself, and with it, smelled the brittle scent of grain and dust. She knew this smell so well. It brought her back to her childhood – to Mindoir – to people gone and buildings emptied.
Only that had been a rain of blood and fire. This place was being plucked as they stood here, plucked and harvested by that ship .
She recognized it, even at the far end of the colony – rock and wire. She had gotten a good view of it all those years ago when she had been falling towards Alchera, her vision failing from lack of oxygen.
It was the same kind of ship that had killed her. And she’d be damned if she let it kill Kaidan.
“We’re ground side,” Shepard called into the comm link on her suit. She looked up to see a couple of wicked-looking defense towers in the distance. The Collectors must have struck so quickly that no one had time to fire the guns, she thought with a frown. Still, those towers would be extremely useful if they could reach them.
Shepard took a quick glance at the buildings, trying to map a way through the maze in her head before heading down into the colony. Already she began to form a map of the area, tactically thinking about the best place for cover, the easiest way to flank the enemy and avoid being flanked.
None of this was going to count, however, unless they could actually get into the colony. And right between her team and the outlying buildings was a great, black cloud of seeker swarms. Shepard booted up the new shield interface on her suit, then slid a heat clip into her pistol and cocked it.
“Mordin,” Shepard snapped, speaking into her comm link. “You sure you certain these armor upgrades will keep us safe from the seeker swarms?”
“Certainty impossible,” Mordin replied blithely. “But in limited number, should confuse detection, make you invisible to swarms.” Shepard nodded, though Mordin was not there to see her.
“In theory,” Mordin added a moment later.
“In theory?” Garrus said doubtfully. Shepard heard his voice on the comm link as well as thrumming from right beside her, where he stood at her shoulder. “That sounds promising.”
“Experimental technology,” Mordin explained. “Only test is contact with seeker swarms. Look forward to seeing if you survive.”
Sometimes, Shepard thought, she loved that amphibious alien. And other times, she just wanted to strangle him.
“It’s now or never then,” she said grimly. “We need to move.”
“At your back, Shepard,” Miranda replied. Shepard nodded to the Cerberus officer and the three of them headed out for the colony.
Shepard had hesitated to bring Miranda on the mission given their last outing together, but the woman had insisted on coming along. She had asked to be allowed to see for herself what was happening and Shepard had found that she couldn’t say no to that request. Still, she was glad to have Garrus to make up for Miranda.
“Keep your guard up,” Shepard told her team, nodding to the sky. “Looks like these suits are working after all, but… shit !”
Shepard ducked behind cover as a horde of Collectors came out of nowhere. Well, if she had thought their shuttle landing zone was secret, she now stood corrected. Shepard peered around the side of the wall and got her first look at the things that had attacked her all those years ago…
They were like…bugs. Big bugs made of hard plates over lean, pink muscle. They reminded her of a cross between a beetle collection and something she’d find in a butcher’s shop. They stank, too, like rotting meat. She didn’t want to think overmuch about how they had come by that smell.
And they were biotics. She could feel the power rolling off of them: a kind of honed, dark energy, the likes of which made her teeth tingle. Suddenly, bringing Miranda along seemed like a really good idea after all.
“Barriers,” she called to the Cerberus officer. “Not shields.”
“Damn,” she heard Garrus shout from her right. “I’m going to be worthless in this fight.”
“You’re never worthless, Garrus,” she assured him. “Just be ready with a concussive shot when those barriers go down.”
“Right, Shepard,” Garrus nodded and cocked his gun.
“Alright,” Shepard called to Miranda. “The one crossing the field – now!”
From her position behind a crate, Miranda nodded, then leaned out from cover long enough to shoot out a warp missile. Shepard readied a biotic throw, but then caught herself in amazement. Miranda’s pulse had only brought down its barriers halfway. Shepard gaped for only a second, then tossed another pulse at it. The second direct hit only just broke through the thing’s defenses.
“Garrus!” Shepard called, ducking behind a low wall. “Now!”
“Concussive shot?” Garrus asked. “Ready.”
A small explosion told Shepard the shot had found its target. She lept up from cover and managed to blast the thing’s head off with two shots from the Canifex. A rain of bullets from other Collectors tore right through her shields in a second. Shepard ducked behind cover, again, her mind reeling.
Damn, these things were tough . How they hell were they supposed to reach Kaidan in time if it took all three of them working together with specialized attacks just to bring down one Collector?
Still, Shepard thought, her mind instantly going into tactical mode, the Collectors did have weaknesses. They weren’t using their biotics to attack, for a start. Even now, as she watched them fight, she saw that they all had the same type of barriers and standard issue guns. They seemed to fight as a collective, not as individuals. It was disconcerting, but it made them predictable, and predictable could be exploited.
And she would have to exploit them fast, she thought. Kaidan was here somewhere, and every second lost might be the one that cost him his life.
Shepard gripped her gun and swallowed her fear. Worry would get her nowhere. She simply had to size up each target and do what she did best:
Fight like hell.
Kaidan didn’t know if it had been mere minutes or hours – time seemed to have gone strangely still in this frozen hell.
He didn’t know *how * he had been paralyzed exactly, didn’t know *why * he and the colonists were being kept here, waiting in silence, but he could guess at many reasons and each one was more terrifying than the last. He tried to think of who could do this, what groups could possibly have this kind of technology – Cerberus? Some merc band? Perhaps the mythical Collectors, of whom he had heard little except for rumors and whispers? Kaidan thought of them all, but simply couldn’t come up with any answers.
His vision grew blurry as his eyes grew increasingly dry. He couldn’t blink, couldn’t move at all. It was like being held in a stasis field, only the pressure seemed to come from inside as well as without. He tried to use his biotics, tried to move, to run, to scream, hell, to blink, but nothing happened.
He could do nothing but stare down the length of his assault rifle, absently wondering why he’d grabbed this gun this morning instead of his usual pistol. Not, he realized, that a pistol would have helped. He hadn’t known what he was fighting until it was upon him. The first few minutes of the attack had been horrifying. But then, silence descended – silence only punctuated by the endless buzzing of those giant insects.
And the waiting was worse.
Shepard stared down at the bone-white corpse before her, tubes running from it’s mouth, along the inside of its elbows, down it’s legs, and shuddered.
“It’s like the Husks on Eden Prime,” she murmured, remembering that day as though it was yesterday.
Kaidan had been at her back then. It was the first day she’d ever seen him fight, and that day she’d been highly impressed with his resolve in battle. In a few short hours he saw a friend die, saw cilivian and marines alike being turned into monsters like this once before her, and yet, he had kept fighting with a grim set to his mouth and a determined look in his eyes.
That day had ended in exploding pain for her, and when she had woken at last in the med bay back on the Normandy, it was to look up into the lieutenant’s deep, brown eyes, and instead of seeing violence or anguish there, she had seen…gentleness.
It had astonished her.
For all the sadness that Kaidan had seen in his life, it had never changed him, never made him bitter. Shepard had admired that about him from the first. It was one of the things about him that had crept under her guard, making her think of him as she had no business of thinking of a fellow officer. And in the end, it was one of the things that she had loved best about him: He had always been strong, principled to the core – and yet, so unbelievably gentle.
Shepard pushed that thought aside. She didn’t need to get lost in reflections on gentleness. Quite the opposite.
Right now, she needed to be brutal, if only to get through this mess before her and to save Kaidan.
They were coming.
All over his holographic display, Kaidan could see large red squares now among the tiny red triangles, red enemies out there, moving through the swarms of insect drones. He saw two red squares approaching a green square. He realized that meant that something was approaching a colonist some twenty meters away. Kaidan saw the red squares surrounding the green, and then the green was…dragged off of his radar.
The colonists weren’t being killed, he thought with some surprise. That would have snuffed the green entirely. No, the colonists were being taken alive. Another green square was pulled off of the radar, then another, then another and another: green squares carried off by the red.
Kaidan struggled even more against the invisible bonds. Whatever those red squares were – whoever they were – they did not register in his suit’s database. His dry eyes scanned the holographic display, trying to read more clearly. He kept wishing he could blink. As far as he could tell, the things weren’t human. They didn’t register as any goddamn thing, not turian, not batarian, not even vorcha, which sometimes threw low-end scanners for a loop because of their self-evolving capabilities.
But his suit was Spectre make, Alliance software. Even so, “Species Unknown” kept flashing along the bottom of the display.
Unknown ? Kaidan thought, fighting a rising sense of panic in his chest. He had stayed numb so far out of complete and utter shock, out of a strange sense of helpless wonder. But now, as the red squares drew nearer and nearer, he began to become frightened. What the hell could possibly register as “unknown” to his computers? The gene scanners in his suit were the same make as the ones used by customs in C-Sec. His on-board databases were full of classified Alliance. He should be able to identify any individual, any faction, any species. So if these…whatever they were that were approaching him, were not registering at all…
Then Kaidan had no idea what he was dealing with.
Shepard turned the corner, then stopped short at the sight before her. Two colonists stood frozen before her, one trying to help the other up. About them, a field of dark energy flickered, gold and black, like a sunset shot through with smoke. Shepard felt the energy like a cage: pinning the victims into place, pressing in on them from all sides, holding them like chains running through their very nerves.
“My God,” she whispered.
“It’s some kind of stasis field,” Miranda said. “Pins them in place.”
“They’ve been like this a long time,” Shepard murmured.
And Kaidan is likely the same, she thought. If he’s still here. She had seen the pods lining the streets. They had shot dozens of Collectors as the monsters had tried to put the colonists into them.
Shepard fought the panic rising inside of her. If Kaidan was trapped like this , then all his skills would do him no good. She needed to focus, needed to find him. She needed to…
What the hell was that?
Shepard picked up the object in the hands of the Collector corpse before her. She turned it this way and that, then, pointed it at a small tree. Cautiously, she pulled what appeared to be a trigger.
A beam of pure energy shot from it, nearly blinding her with it’s intensity. Shepard let go of the trigger at once. The top of the tree fell over, neatly cut from its base in a perfect line.
“Shit,” she murmured. “That’s useful.”
“It’s like a miniature Thanix,” Garrus said in amazement. “This is what I was thinking of building for the Normandy’s guns.”
“Take it with us,” Miranda said.
“Yeah,” Shepard replied, handing her grenade launcher to Garrus and strapping the new weapon to her back. “Yeah. I like this thing.”
“But I don’t know how to use the launcher,” Garrus said, frowning at Shepard.
“Learn,” she replied, helping him shrug into the harness.
“Save the ammo in that Collector gun,” Miranda warned. “You don’t know what we’ll find in this place. There could be worse than drones and Husks about.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Shepard replied. Under her breath, she added:
“And anything that tries to take Kaidan gets this laser in the teeth.”
He had to get free.
Kaidan strained against the unseen bonds, pushing with all his muscle and biotic might. His biotic energy, the kick he had tried to use just before he had been frozen, pulsed over him, like hot water trapped against a damn of dirty ice. His vision became a haze of blue as biotic energy flared up from his eyeballs. Kaidan pushed and pushed, and still…nothing.
He heard something behind him: a sort of muffled cry. Someone had managed to make a sound, a sort of soft whimper that was little more than taking a breath. He was surprised that he could hear it at all above the relentless buzzing of the drones. But then he heard footsteps, and shuffling and a kind of…clicking. It was rhythmic, yet slightly irregular, like Morse Code, he thought.
And then, suddenly, he saw it.
It was hideous. The thing was like a cockroach on legs. It’s swollen, heavily plated head was filled with glowing yellow eyes, like the face of a spider, and it’s lean body was humanoid, all corded muscle. It’s long fingers were like daggers. It looked like an arachnophobe’s nightmare.
Kaidan couldn’t run, couldn’t cry for help. He could only stand there as the thing came closer and closer, all the while staring at him with great, glowing eyes. Kaidan watched as the creature moved slowly towards him, considering him. To his horror, it cocked its head as if it knew him.
Then, suddenly, it curled up as if in pain. For a moment Kaidan felt hope leap within him, thinking the thing had been shot. But then it flew up into the air about four feet and light exploded from all corners of its body, like magma under a skin of cooling lava. It’s many eyes brightened, and it looked like it was being filled with fire.
ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL.
Kaidan felt the voice like he had felt the inital sound of the attack: inside his own skull, screaming the words right into his brain. The thing it dropped to the ground, still glowing. It stumbled for a moment, as if disoriented, then, slowly, ever so slowly, it looked up and began to walk towards him.
WE ARE THE HARBINGER OF YOUR PERFECTION.
If Kaidan could have screamed, he would have. The voice hurt . It cut into his head, chilled him to the bone. He felt like he should recognize it, but it bit so deeply into his mind that he could not think clearly enough to place it.
PREPARE THESE HUMANS FOR ASCENSION.
Kaidan wanted to plug his ears, to block out that voice, but he could not. It seemed to tear into his head, to lodge itself into the heart of him. Fear, more paralyzing than the field that held him from without and within, kept him still. The glowing one walked towards him, trailing a cloud of dark biotic power behind it. It considered him with those flashing eyes, leaned in as if to touch him and then, suddenly –
DIRECT INTERVENTION IS NECESSARY ELSEWHERE.
The thing stumbled to its knees. The voice grew fainter, now coming from outside of Kaidan’s head, and no longer within.
Kaidan didn’t understand what that meant, didn’t understand why the glowing figure had suddenly lost its light. But he felt a vague sense of relief as the voice’s echo trailed away.
The now-dark creature dropped to the ground before him, still and silent – and utterly dead.
Shepard froze at the sound of buzzing in the air, then readied her pistol as she looked for cover. Funny how in less that twenty minutes she had come to know that sound so well.
Garrus and Miranda jumped behind a low wall; Shepard ducked behind an empty Collector pod. The thing stank and gave off a sort of black smoke from inside. She hoped it was as strudy as it looked, because the Collector drones were already firing rounds at her. Thankfully, the pod held together and blocked the bullets.
Shepard waited for a break in the gunfire, then popped up from cover to shoot down a drone. It took four direct shots from the Canifex to take out its barrier – she fired two more into it’s chest and the damn thing still didn’t go down.
Shepard ducked behind cover as its fellows started shooting at her again. She re-loaded her gun, then stood to finish off the drone she’d been aiming at.
What the hell?
Shepard stared as the near-dead drone suddenly shot up into the air, its arms hanging at its sides.
Hey, that looks like what happened to me when I touched that Prothean beacon, she thought, absently.
The figure was glowing, like its every vein had caught on fire.
Then it spoke.
Shepard had heard a voice like that in waking life two years ago, but she heard it in all the time in her nightmares.
ASSUMING DIRECT CONTROL.
Shepard felt as though her blood had turned to ice.
The Reaper-voice was just as chilling as before. As it had all those years ago, it felt like it was talking right into her skull.
Shepard winced in pain, then ducked behind cover as the Collector drones all turned their sub machine guns towards her. The glowing drone dropped to the ground, now radiating dark biotic energy so powerfully that Shepard could scarcely think. It crackled along her conciousness like static, drowning out every other sound but that horrible voice.
Shepard crouched behind the collector pod, looking around wildly. A few yards away Miranda lay in the grass, knocked out cold. Beside Miranda, Garrus was clutching at his side and his shields were down. Damn it…
I AM THE HARBINGER OF YOUR ASCENDENCE.
The thing’s voice sent another chill right down her spine. It seemed to snake into her brain, made her want to cower in stillness, to play dead, to hide under the covers and hope the monsters just went away. Shepard could almost feel the gun loosening in her grip, could feel fear taking hold of her like a paralysis…
Her hand tightened on her gun as her eyes narrowed suddenly.
She was afraid: truly, horribly afraid.
And fear just made the Valkyrie mad.
“I don’t want perfection,” Shepard shouted back at the glowing drone. “I like things messy.”
She jumped out from cover to warp the barriers of an encroaching drone and shot it, point blank, in the head. Two shots tore through it’s skull, exploding some kind of puss all over her. Shepard gagged from the smell, then gasped in surprise as a second drone appeared right where the first had been.
“Garrus!” she shouted, hoping he heard her. “Knock this bastard down!”
She ducked just as a concussive shot sailed over her head, slamming the drone backward into a wall. Shepard pulled the drone biotically, firing several shots into its body as it floated helplessly over her head. It fell heavily into the grass behind her and did not move.
Shepard peeked around the side of the pod to see the glowing body of the talking puppet-drone stalking her. It threw a pulse of dark energy right at her and Shepard only barely dodged it, rolling forward into a somersault and landing beside Miranda. She grabbed the brunette by the armpits and dragged the woman behind a low wall.
IF I HAVE TO TEAR YOU APART, SHEPARD, I WILL.
Shepard froze at the sound of her name. The Illusive Man was right: this was personal. That glowing thing was after her .
This situation, she decided, could be officially classifed as really bad shit.
They needed to end this, now .
“Come on, Lawson,” Shepard said, firing up her omnitool and applying a quick dose of medigel to the woman’s bleeding temple. Miranda blinked, then sat up with a start, reaching for her gun.
“Here,” Shepard said, handing her the fallen pistol. “But our biotics will be better against that thing.”
“What…?” Miranda asked, looking dazed. “That thing hit me with…I thought I was dead.” She blinked at Shepard, her blue eyes still unfocused.
“You might be soon if we don’t kill that thing fast,” Shepard told her. “Hit that glowing target there on the count of three. Got it?”
The two women jumped from cover and fired identical pulses of blue-white L5 energy at the glowing creature before them. It stumbled back at the first blue-white missile, then crumpled under the second. Garrus shot a concussive round into it’s chest and Shepard fired a bullet into its head and the thing exploded in a puff of ash.
Shepard stood there in the suddenly silent street, blinking sweat from her eyes. They had killed it that easily?
Shepard shivered as that same ancient voice sounded through her skull.
WE ARE NOT FINISHED, SHEPARD. I WILL FIND YOU, AGAIN.