Part 4, Chapter 6 of Valkyrie

The first fight sequence goes by so quickly in the game that I didn’t realize how many questions I had about it until I went to write about it. Why can’t Anderson contact the Normandy? Why does Kaidan say that he’s ‘almost to the Normandy’ twice? What are the rest of the soldiers doing during this fight? And what is up with that one kid? (You know which one I mean.)

Anyhow, this is my take on things.

Oh, also Language. It is the end of the world. I expect some folks would cuss.

*“You know what the difference between a soldier and a civilian is?” Kaidan’s father once asked after about three too many beers. *

“I’ve heard this one before,” Kaidan replied, still working on his first beer. They were sitting on the deck, looking out at the Armistice Day fireworks over English Bay. “A civilian never does more than he’s paid to do.”

“No,” his father shook his head, oblivious to Kaidan’s sarcasm. “No. You’re bound to a life of service. That’s what it is. You follow orders; you do your job right. You belong to humanity now.” He trailed off and squinted, as if he could see his words, hanging in the air before him, and found them deep and ponderous. “You belong to humanity…”

“I take it this is your way of saying ‘congratulations on making it through Basic,’” Kaidan said, glancing over at him.

*“A soldier’s life isn’t his own.” His father nodded sagely and took another pull of his beer. “That’s the true meaning of duty, son, right there.” *

“Holy shit!” James muttered, looking around the wreckage.

“Yeah,” Kaidan said, his voice barely audible over the continued roar of the Reaper outside.

Kaidan let his barrier drop at once and looked around the now-destroyed mess hall. Where the window had been a moment ago, the building was now torn open to the world outside. The tables had all been tossed to the far end of the room, a tangled mass of metal and plastic. The cook who had just been serving them a moment before lay in a crumpled heap in the rubble on the other side of the lunch counter. Kaidan jumped over the counter, dropped to a crouch and rolled the man over. Dead. Damn . Kaidan’s long-disused medic’s training came back to him instantly as he scanned the room for other survivors. There was no one else visible in the mess hall, but there were a number of people clambering out of the wreckage in the hallway beyond.

At that moment, Kaidan realized the attack extended much further than the mess hall.

“Shepard,” he breathed. A second thought followed the first: “Dad.”

“What do we do?” James asked him.

Kaidan wanted to say that they needed to get to Shepard and make sure she was okay. He also wanted to say that he should call his father and warn his family to leave town. But he knew better than that. Personal concerns came second to duty in a crisis. Every soldier knew that. If he made Shepard his goal right now, he was bound to lose the ability to think clearly. So Kaidan shoved that desire away and made himself picture the most rational course of action instead.

Thankfully, the most rational course of action wasn’t too far off from protecting Shepard anyhow.

“We get back to Anderson,” Kaidan told James, heading for the door. “He’ll have orders for us.”

“We aren’t going to reach him that way,” James said, pointing past him. Kaidan followed his gaze and saw that the skybridge back to the other building had been blown away.

“Damn,” Kaidan breathed. He shook his head, then thought of another idea. “I’ll hail them. Figure out where they need us.” He brought up his omnitool, but stopped when he saw a notice he had half expected:

State of Emergency declared.

Initializing emergency protocols: Please stand by.


Unable to access AllliaNet.

Please contact your network administrator.

“Network administrator,” James said, peering over his shoulder. “Damn it, that building was the one with all the tech guys in it. Now it’s shot to hell.”

“They’re trying to sabotage communications,” Kaidan muttered, remembering a similar tactic from all those years ago on Eden Prime.

Back then, of course, Kaidan had been standing right next to the soldiers he was fighting with. Now, however, he needed to reach Anderson and Shepard wherever they happened to be on the battlefield. He tried to acquire a secure comm channel and found nothing but static.

Kaidan frowned. If central dispatch was down, that meant he was reduced to directly hailing Anderson’s omnitool via unsecure point-to-point connections, not unlike the old days of walkie-talkies and radios. It was a backup system that he’d never used before. Soldiers were discouraged from using such communications except in a dire emergency - though if anything counted as a dire emergency, this would be it.

Thankfully, as a major, Kaidan had access to all the higher-ranking officers’ omnitool addresses. He hailed Anderson’s ‘tool at once. Mercifully, the man answered immediately.

“Major Alenko, is that you?” his voice crackled over the comm.

“It’s me,” Kaidan said, relief seeping into his voice. “Looks like our secure comm links aren’t working.”

“Looks like it,” Anderson agreed. “What’s your status?”

“Uninjured, but surveying a lot of damage,” Kaidan replied. “They’ve taken out the mess hall. Casualties are high; the soldiers are regrouping. What’s happening over there?”

“They’ve taken out the entire Defense Committee,” came the grim reply.

“My God,” Kaidan rasped out.

All those admirals - dead. He had just been talking to them, too. Kaidan nearly choked on his next question: “And Shepard?”

“She’s right here,” Anderson replied. “A little dazed, maybe, but she’s on her feet. Everyone else just stood and stared as the Reaper came down from the sky. She’s the only other one who had the sense to run.”

Kaidan let out a breath. Yeah, that sounded like Shepard. Thank God, too.

“We’re coming for you, sir,” Kaidan told him. “The bridge is out, but if we take the stairs down…”

“Don’t,” Anderson said shortly. “Debris is blocking the door. We’ll have to go through the windows. I’m trying to reach the Normandy, but they aren’t answering.”

“If the stealth systems are engaged, they wouldn’t,” Kaidan replied, remembering how things used to work on the old SR1. “It would give away their location to answer an unsecured communication.”

“Right,” Anderson said. “In that case, we need to get to them on foot. Can you get there?”

Kaidan glanced up at James to see the lieutenant had heard that question. James nodded. “That way,” he mouthed, jerking his head toward the hall.

“We’re on our way,” Kaidan said. Beside him, James suddenly tensed.

“Good,” Anderson replied over the comm. “Shepard and I will meet you at the landing zone. Anderson out.”

Kaidan turned to James. The man’s mouth was now hanging open.

“What?” Kaidan asked James, letting the comm link drop. Then he looked over his shoulder and his mouth also dropped open. But unlike James, Kaidan had a good idea of what he was looking at and his reaction was one of horrified recognition, not dumbfounded disbelief.

Two white hands grasped the ledge where the sky bridge had been a moment before. Then those white hands hauled an equally white body up into the hallway. The thing looked like a corpse, forced to life by the cybernetic tubes and wiring holding its rotting body together. And in fact, that’s exactly what it was.

Even as Kaidan watched, a second husk joined the first, and then another and another. The few soldiers that had crawled out of the rubble readied their weapons. The husks rushed into the hallway, a blur of flailing limbs and open mouths. The other soldiers fought back as best they could, with guns if they had them, omniblades if they did not.

Kaidan immediately gathered his biotic energy and rushed into the fray. He tore apart one husk with a reaving biotic attack, then slashed at the other with his omniblade. Instead of going down, however, the injured husk grabbed him by the shirt and shook him so hard that Kaidan’s teeth rattled together. Kaidan fumbled for a moment, his face turned aside from the roaring mouth, then he wrenched his arms free and slammed the husk in the face with a biotically powered punch. The thing went down in a heap on the floor. Kaidan scarcely had time to breathe before another husk launched itself at him, slashing the air with long fingernails. Kaidan stumbled back, pain flaring suddenly across his chest.

Just then, a shot rang out. The husk’s head exploded in a fountain of black and blue gore. The body fell limply to the ground and twitched once. Kaidan took a deep breath, then looked over his shoulder to see James had leveled a gun at the fallen creature.

“What the hell is that?” James asked, staring down at the still, white corpse. His eyes were wide with what appeared to be a mix of fear and fury. “Is that thing human ?”

“Not any more,” Kaidan replied. He absently brought his hand up to his aching chest, then looked down at himself. The husk had torn his shirt, leaving scored nail marks across his chest. Thankfully, they didn’t look too deep.

“You aren’t going to turn into one of them, are you?” James asked. His hands twitched a little, like he was about to lift his gun up to point it at Kaidan, but had caught himself just short of doing that.

“No,” Kaidan shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that.”

The way it worked was much more horrifying, Kaidan thought. The Reapers pinned humans on spikes, running them through with so-called ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ in order to shoot live victims full of cybernetics. The process killed them and turned them synthetic all at the same time.

“You sure?” James asked.

“I’m sure,” Kaidan replied.

“Okay,” James said doubtfully. He then blinked and cocked his head to the side, as if seeing Kaidan for the first time.

“You’re a biotic,” he said.

Kaidan raised an eyebrow at that. “You just noticed this?”

“I noticed before,” James said defensively. “I just didn’t think about it when you were keeping shrapnel off of us with that barrier in the lunch line.”

“Yeah, I guess you were a bit distracted, what with losing your sandwiches and all,” Kaidan said, completely deadpan. James just blinked at him, then he laughed.

“I guess so,” he said, chuckling. “Huh.” He looked around, sobering instantly. “So, um, you gonna need a gun or are you just gonna keep flinging that blue stuff around?”

“I could use a gun,” Kaidan said.

“Right,” James replied, still looking a little dazed. He glanced around, then spotted a guard who lay in the wreckage, impaled on a length of rebar. Ignoring the dead man’s twisted corpse, James snagged the guy’s assault rifle. He also grabbed the soldier’s second pistol and handed it over to Kaidan, then snatched up the few grenades on the guy’s belt and carefully stuck them into his own.

Kaidan accepted the gun without comment. He quickly checked the heatsink and sights to make sure it was in working order. Kaidan then looked up and out of the space where the skybridge had been just a minute ago.

It was chaos out there. Screams and sirens blared; buildings had toppled. The Reapers stalked among the skyscrapers, and down in the parking lot, dozens of people foolishly ran toward their cars. Even as they did so, a cluster of husks ran after them, leaping from car to car like cats chasing after scampering mice. From up here, Kaidan could only watch as a husk swung its arms once, twice, and then took a woman down to the ground and tore her apart in a spray of blood. A lump formed in his throat, even as his mind swept the image away, shutting it behind a door, along with his feelings.

He couldn’t take that in, Kaidan thought. He couldn’t feel anything about any of it right now. He couldn’t even worry about those people or his father or his stepmother or even Shepard and Anderson. He had a mission and he couldn’t afford to think of anything more than seeing his duty done.

Kaidan took a breath and allowed years of training and deference to orders take over. He would have to become like a machine in order to do battle with these machines. He’d have to be like a machine to carry out his duty now.

Get to the Normandy. That was his mission.

Kaidan motioned to James and the two of them took off for the stairs.

The software contractor winced and ducked as an earthquake-like rumble shook the building. That didn’t sound good. Down here in the basement with the servers, it was sometimes hard to tell what was going on above, but that actually sounded ominous.

“Initializing emergency protocols,” a cool VI voice spoke into the quiet. “Activating server room lockdown.”

“Wait, what?” The contractor looked up, then his horrified gaze slid to the doors. He leaped to his feet and ran for the exit, but a second pair of metal storm doors slid into place. He barely got his hands out of the way in time to keep his fingers from being sliced off.

“Shit!” the contractor hissed. He hit the comm link on his omnitool and snapped into it. “What the hell, guys? I’m still down here!”

There was no response. The contractor cursed again, this time more colorfully, then he fired up his omnitool to hail the comm tower control room.


Unable to reach central dispatch.

“Oh, shit,” he grumbled.

Great, he thought. Now he had no way of knowing what was going on up there or how long he’d be left to rot while this ‘emergency’ passed by. With his luck, it was probably just a test. Though there had been that shaking rumbling thing. And now, just there, there had been another tremor. It couldn’t be a volcano, could it? He knew Vancouver’s mountains were all really volcanoes, but he hadn’t heard anything about possible explosions. Given how advanced seismology was these days, there should have been a warning on the Alliance News Network this morning at least. Instead, there had been nothing but talk of people having trouble reaching the extranet.

So maybe that was it, the contractor thought. The guys up there must be trying to stabilize the links to the Sol comms. It probably wasn’t anything too serious, he assured himself. It was probably just enough for the guys up there to forget he was down here and lock him in for who knew how long.

Not that it mattered, he thought darkly. He had no plans beyond work for the day - or the night, for that matter. He had no one waiting at home for him any more. So why not lock the chronically-single guy in the server room overnight?

Still, the contractor thought, he had no intention of going all morning without coffee. He’d left his double-shot espresso outside on the bench, not wanting to risk spilling it on the servers. It was killing him to think that his brew was going cold just on the other side of those locked doors.

The contractor considered his options. He could get himself out of this a little faster if he just pushed back a bit. And he did know how to push back. He used to be Alliance, after all. He remembered how the systems worked. That’s why he’d been hired on in the first place.

The contractor configured his omnitool to directly access the server and logged into the communications network:

State of Emergency declared.

Initializing emergency protocols: Please stand by.


Unable to access AllliaNet.

Please contact your network administrator.

“What the crap?” the guy blinked. That had to be a mistake. Even as he thought that, another blast sounded overhead. He sure hoped that didn’t mean that there had been a major hardware fail in the comm tower. Maybe that was the source of the extranet trouble he’d heard about? It would also explain the lockdown protocols.

But if this was an emergency, then the Alliance emergency communications VIs ought to be kicking in. Only it looked like they weren’t. And since he couldn’t reach the network, he couldn’t get hold of a network administrator.

No, he was just stuck down here with the servers and his omnitool, interrupted in his work to upgrade the Alliance’s omnitool software. However, he thought, brightening, that did give him access to a list of all ‘tools on the network. Surely he could contact someone directly. He just needed to know who to hail.

“Okay,” the contractor said, searching for a list of all online personnel. “Who’s left up there? Get ready for a roll call, guys.”

“What the hell are you doing , EDI!” Joker shouted, throwing his hands up in exasperation. “Are you planning on keeping us here until the hangar comes down around us?”

“I have engaged our stealth systems, Jeff. Our presence should go unnoticed.”

“They could see us in here, EDI!”

“It appears the Reapers are alerted to the presence of organics by heat signatures or broadcast signals. Only co-opted platforms with pre-existing optical units - such as Husks - will ‘see’ us.”

“The Collectors didn’t have any trouble tearing us a new one when we were stealthed a few years back,” Joker countered. “And those are actual Reapers out there this time.”

“That is because the original Normandy’s stealth technologies were rudimentary,” EDI replied “The old stealth systems were based on Prothean technologies - and so also on Reaper technologies. Also, you did not have me installed on the original Normandy, Jeff. By observing the Collectors and adapting their identify friend-foe protocols, I have made appropriate adjustments. Provided we keep a low profile, I believe we will be safe.”

“Believe?” Joker gaped at the control panel.

“Our odds of remaining undetected are 99.97% or better,” she clarified. “At least for a short time.”

“We don’t have time!” Joker scowled. “We need to get out there! Out there in the fight!”

“I am monitoring comm chatter,” EDI replied. “While stealthed, I do not wish to accept a direct hail, but I detected an unsecured communication between Major Alenko and Admiral Anderson. It seems they are on their way here.”

“What?” Joker said. “Kaidan and Anderson are on their way? Well hell, why didn’t you just say so in the first place? ‘Stay put, Joker. Your friends are alive and kicking.’ That would have been helpful.”

“I was in the process of saying this when you…”

“Whatever. Okay, let’s get things ready to go.”

“Unfortunately, we are stuck,” EDI told him. “We cannot lose the docking clamps from inside the ship and all spaceport personnel have either vacated the premises or are dead.”

“Ugghhh,” Joker groaned. He looked out of the window and could see the short, squat command tower from here. It was a good quarter mile down a tarmac.

“And we’ve got a skeleton crew that isn’t exactly handy with guns,” Joker said miserably. “Can’t send them out there and expect them to live.” He scowled and ran his hands through his hair.

“Damn it all! Where’s a ground team when you need them?”

Kaidan and James raced down the emergency stairwell, taking the steps two at a time. As they reached the landing, James yelled out a string of cuss words and Kaidan stopped short.

Coming the other direction were a couple of five-eyed something-or-others that shot bullets out of their hands .

“Dear God,” Kaidan muttered, throwing on a biotic barrier.

“Watch out!” James yelled. He shoved himself against the wall of the stairwell, and returned the monsters’ hand-bullet fire with a round from his assault rifle. Kaidan joined in with pistol shots and the first creature dropped to the ground.

Instead of advancing up the stairs, however, the second creature just turned to its fallen comrade and ate it. Kaidan and James stood there in shock for a moment.

“What the fuck?” James gaped. “You don’t eat your fellow soldier. You sure those things used to be human?”

“Don’t think those were,” Kaidan said calmly. Thinking on his feet, he used the monster’s momentary distraction to give himself time to come up with a new tactic. He quickly configured his omnitool to turn his basic pistol shots into cryo rounds. It was a bit of a hack; it would only allow him to use the snap-freeze attack every few seconds. Still, a frozen cannibal-thing would sure be easier to crack open with biotics or bullets than a moving target.

Kaidan finished his work and fired off a cryo blast. The cannibal froze with its mouth half-open around the other cannibal’s head. At the sight of the iced-over monster, James recovered himself enough to run down to the landing below and shatter the thing with a strike from the butt of his assault rifle. The sound of breaking ice filled the stairwell.

James and Kaidan exchanged a grim look, then, by silent agreement, jumped over the bodies and continued on down the staircase.

The last few flights were empty. Kaidan and James burst out into the hallway, ran down a passage, and finally came to the east hangar of the Vancouver Spaceport. The Normandy was in there, the only ship in sight. She was hanging above the concrete floor, suspended by three docking clamps. Alone above the wreckage in the hangar, she looked rather like some sacrificial offering to the gods of spaceflight. Below her milled half-a-dozen of those five-eyed cannibal things and a handful of husks.

“Hey!” James yelled to them, displaying more bravery than sense, “Leave our ride alone!”

The Reaper ground forces turned at once. The husks came running, the cannibals let out a scream. James just roared back and lobbed a grenade at the advancing husks. Kaidan pulled a reave transfer on one of the cannibals and then ducked down into cover to dodge the bullets that came flying back at him.

“Alenko?” Kaidan almost didn’t hear the comm link over the gunfire. “Alenko? Can you hear me?”

Kaidan snapped off a cryo attack to freeze a charging husk in place, then fired a round of bullets into its head to shatter it. He ducked back down below an overturned crate and let James take out the next husk with assault rifle fire.

“Here sir,” Kaidan replied.

“I’m setting up a comm frequency,” Anderson said. “Patching in Shepard.”

“Kaidan,” he heard Shepard say, sounding remarkably calm. “You all right?”

Kaidan let out a breath. The relief he felt was like taking a sip of water while running through the desert. He was still parched, but the sound of her voice made his throat feel just a little less tight.

“Fine,” he replied. “We’re almost to the Normandy. Lieutenant Vega is with me. We’re taking heavy fire.”

“We’re on our way,” Anderson said. “We…” The words broke off in silence.

“Anderson?” Kaidan called. “Shepard?” But the link had dropped in a crackle of static.

Kaidan scowled and looked at his omnitool, but didn’t have time to configure it for a new channel. James was running low on thermal clips beside him and there were still a handful of husks left running at them. Hoping beyond hope that Shepard would pull through, Kaidan turned his attention back to the fight in the hangar, feeling like his throat was dry all over again.

“You haven’t forgotten how to shoot, have you?” Anderson shouted. Shepard slammed a spare heatsink into her gun scowled at him.

“Why bother to shoot them?” she snapped. “Those husks are running away from us. Gonna save my heatsinks for the stuff coming at me.”

Just then, however, something caught her eye, moving across the rooftops. Shepard whipped her head around and saw not a husk, but a child, dashing for the penthouse apartment of the building below them.

You cannot save him .

The thought went through her head before she could even rationally analyze it, before she could even see who that child was. She didn’t get a chance to look more closely, however, for just then, the kid slipped through the doors into the apartment and a trio of husks clambered up the side of the building and onto the roof.

Shepard dashed to the ladder leading to the roof below and slid down. Anderson followed close behind. Shepard unloaded her clip into one of the husks. A second husk turned to her, but it blew apart as Anderson fired a concussive shot into its midsection. That left the third husk. Shepard pulled the trigger of her pistol, then heard a tell-tale click.

“Aw, damn it,” she grumbled. That’s what came of wasting clips. With a snarl, Shepard slammed the pistol down on the husk’s face, then side-heel kicked the thing off of the roof. It went flying in a very satisfying way, all flailing arms and legs.

“Heh,” Shepard smirked, looking after it. But then her gaze swung upward, to where a Reaper was splashing through the waters of the bay, creating small tidal waves in its wake. It turned toward them, its red laser optic swinging right at the building.

“Shit!” Shepard hissed, running and sliding for cover.

The beam hit the ground twenty floors down, then ripped up the side of the complex. At the same time, the windows of apartment beside her - the apartment the child had just run into to hide - burst open in a rain of fire and glass.

The blasts rocked the building all the way down to the basement. The contractor tried not to think overmuch about just how much concrete and metal rebar was stacked above him. Unfortunately, his understanding of civil engineering and mathematics was conspiring against him:

*If the average skyscraper weighs about * 3000 tons per floor * and this building is twenty-three stories high…*

*Shut up, shut up, shut up! * he told himself refusing to think along those lines. Instead, he turned his attention to the list of personnel left up there. Or rather, he was watching the list of omnitools online at the moment. A few of the names on the list flickered to green as the soldiers attempted to set up point-to-point communications with one another. The majority remained red-lettered and silent:

Admiral Abrams offline.

Admiral Anderson offline.

Admiral Cooper offline.

Admiral Chan offline.

Admiral Evanovich offline.

Admiral Koyev offline.

Admiral McLaughlin offline.

Admiral Smythe offline.

Admiral Thomasin offline.

Rear Admiral Akawa offline.

Rear Admiral Michalovich offline.

Rear Admiral Lansing offline.

Rear Admiral Song offline.

Captain Adams online.

Captain Bahdwar offline.

Captain Banks offline.

Captain Christoph *son * offline…

The list went on and on, off the screen.

The contractor swallowed hard. That many of them were offline? He certainly hoped that didn’t mean that many people were dead . For that many of the brass to be out of commission, well, that was just unthinkable. No, it must be a mistake.

He hoped so, anyhow.

Quickly, the contractor set up a query to search for the omnitools that were still online . That list was much shorter. The names flashed up, then flickered away as the people out there tried to hail each other, then spoke for maybe a minute at most before their comm channels got cut down.

That worried him. Volcanoes and failed hardware couldn’t actively seek out and shut down point-to-point communications systematically. It all pointed to one thing: this was an attack. Something was out there - a very technologically advanced something - and it was cleverly breaking down the Alliance’s ability to coordinate a counter attack by keeping their communications offline.

The soldiers out there were fighting blind, the contractor thought.

Watching the omnitools flicker online and then off, he almost thought he saw a pattern to the madness: the links on higher frequencies would go down first, then the lower frequencies, then the the reverse would be true. It was like someone was sweeping through with a firehose, he thought, washing away the links in steady bursts of static. Maybe if he had more time to analyze this, he could adjust for the tactics….

Suddenly, the contractor stopped short as two new names popped up on to the list of online personnel:

Admiral Anderson online.

Major Alenko online.

The contractor blinked, and then a brief, humorless laugh escaped him.

“Son of a bitch,” he said. “You didn’t even tell me you were in town.”

Typing furiously on his omnitool, the contractor tried a direct hail using an old omnitool address. Maybe, he thought, he could finally figure out what was going on out there. But because the contractor wasn’t Alliance any more, the emergency protocols blocked him from getting through. Apparently, only someone with high-level clearance could hail a ranking officer’s omnitool in a time of crisis.

With a determined glint in his eye, the contractor tried a different tack. After all, he’d been sent here to set up omnitool firmware, right? That meant he had a backdoor into every ‘tool on the network. And what he was planning to do might be considered a breach of contract, but hey, what was it they said about desperate times and desperate measures? Besides, what use were his more nefarious skills if he never got to use them?

“A hacker’s gotta do what a hacker’s gotta do,” he muttered as he typed. “All right, Alenko. I hope you remember your old pal, Dean.”

Kaidan started as his omnitool started chiming wildly. He looked down to see an omnitool notification pop up, then another and another. For a moment, Kaidan thought it might be Anderson, contacting him again. Kaidan dropped below cover to check his ‘tool. But instead of a message, he saw something else entirely:

AlliaNet FirmWare Upgrade Notific…(cont.)

Software updates? Kaidan thought, blinking at the notification. Now? Hell of a time for that. James was shooting down the last of the Cannibals and Kaidan wasn’t about to let up his support fire to deal with a software upgrade, of all things. Instead, he glanced around the side of the crate to fire off another round from his pistol.

As he did so, Kaidan heard another software notice arrive, then another and another.

Kaidan ignored the pinging, concentrating instead on a pair of cannibals that were happily devouring their fallen husk brethren. Kaidan tore into the one with a reave attack while James shot it with assault rifle fire. That left the second one to charge them both. It got hold of James and clutched at the Marine’s throat. Kaidan rushed over and grabbed the husk from behind. It clung to James, but Kaidan pulled its head back as far as he could and sliced the creature’s throat with his omnitool. The blade narrowly missed James’s arm and the husk fell to the ground. James rubbed his now-raw neck and glared at Kaidan.

“A little close there, Blue,” he remarked.

“Blue?” Kaidan blinked.

“Yeah,” James said. “‘Cause you’re throwing blue and glowing blue. You know, Blue.”

Kaidan looked down at himself and let his biotic barrier drop. “Very original,” he said.

“I thought so,” James said. “Watch it next time.”

“If you don’t want them at melee range, then don’t fire at the thing I just reaved,” Kaidan replied evenly. “Haven’t you ever fought with a biotic before?”

“No,” James replied.

But before Kaidan could say anything about combining attacks with a biotic for maximum effectiveness, Kaidan’s omnitool went up in another round of chiming from all those notifications.

“What’s up with that ?” James asked.

“No idea,” Kaidan said, turning his arm over to look. Now that the fight was over, he figured he’d better disable the updates and try to contact Anderson again. He brought up the latest message and actually opened it this time. At once, his eyes went wide.

AlliaTool FirmWare Upgrade Notification:

HEY ALENKO! It’s Dean. Emergency channels are down, but I got a link open on channel 8937. I’m at AlliaNet Server lab01-bank15-cpu398. Get on this frequency now. I need to talk to you!

“Oh my God,” Kaidan murmured.

“What is it?” James asked.

“A friend,” Kaidan replied. “Guess he’s our tech support.”

“Tech support would be good right about now,” James said, nodding.

Kaidan punched in the frequency and hailed the computer at once. All he heard was static.

“Dean?” he called. There was a moment’s silence, then…

“Alenko!” The voice was crackling with static, but it was definitely Dean’s. “Geez, took you long enough.”

Kaidan let out a sigh of relief. “What’s going on?” he asked.

“Could ask you the same,” Dean’s voice replied. “I got locked in the…” The comm link suddenly went dead.

“Dean?” Kaidan didn’t even have time to feel worry, for immediately his omnitool pinged with another update. Kaidan opened it at once.

AlliaTool FirmWare Upgrade Notification:

FFFFUUUUUU…. Channel 7094. Same machine.

Kaidan actually chuckled at that. He dialed in the new channel.

“Son of a bitch, that got shut down fast,” Dean snapped the moment he got on the comm. “Hadn’t had that channel open more than a minute…”

“Where are you, Dean?” Kaidan asked, interrupting the guy.

“Locked in the central server room,” Dean replied. “What the hell is going on up there? I got nothing from the comm tower and what I can see from here is list of omnitools that are offline and there’s a damn lot of them…”

“Reapers,” Kaidan said grimly, cutting him off. “They’re here.”

“Reapers?” Dead repeated. “That’s…That’s…” There was a long pause in which Kaidan wasn’t really paying attention because he was looking around, trying to make sure the coast was clear in the hangar bay. Then Dean broke back into his thoughts with, “Yeah, that actually explains it. Same jamming frequency as the Citadel attack. I knew that story about the geth being to blame for that was bullshit. Geez! You’d think the brass would have adjusted the VI protocols at least.”

“Anderson said he wanted to,” James put in. “I’m guessing he never got authorization.”

“Well it damn well shows on this end,” Dean said, apparently overhearing James’ words.

Kaidan gritted his teeth at that bit of information. It seemed that there was a lot of preparation that simply hadn’t happened. It wasn’t like *he * could have done anything about it, Kaidan thought. He was just in charge of his one unit, after all. Still, it stung to think of how unprepared the Alliance was, to think of how they should have been listening to Shepard’s warnings from the beginning.

At the thought of Shepard, Kaidan felt worry seize him again. He ruthlessly pushed that thought aside.

“Reapers. Sweet Jesus,” Dean murmured over the comm. “Oh, God, do you think they hit Vegas, too? Because that’s where Katie…”

“Dean,” Kaidan cut him off. “I’m sorry, but I’m in a hurry. I don’t really have time to talk.”

“Right,” Dean said, “Right, of course not. If it’s the Reapers… Okay Alenko, if you can come get me, we can get this thing stabilized. If I have your help and your clearance…”

“I can’t,” Kaidan said sharply. “I have another mission.”

“Okay,” Dean said. His voice now sounded oddly hollow. “Mission, right. Son of a bitch. The Reapers. I just hope she’s… Doesn’t matter. Listen, Alenko. Whatever’s out there - the Reapers - whatever - they’re fucking up the emergency channels but good. I’m watching these signals get blocked one by…”

There was nothing but silence as the link dropped again. This time Kaidan waited for a just a moment before his omnitool gave him the next frequency to use.

“Damn, that’s annoying,” Dean said. “Okay, first thing I need is to get into the system. Can you give me access?”

“You don’t have access?” Kaidan asked.

“I’m just a contractor now,” Dean grumbled. “Took your advice, which was shit, by the way… Never mind. Look. I may not be Alliance any more, but I’ll do what I can to pick up the pieces. Just give me access and I’ll see what I can hack together. And if you can get someone to come bust me out of here, I’d appreciate it.”

“I don’t have access,” Kaidan replied, “but I know who does. Patching him in.”

Anderson ducked under Shepard’s arm, then stopped as his omnitool comm link blinked bright gold.

“Anderson?” Major Alenko’s voice came over the comm.

“Yes, Major?”

“I’m patching in a friend,” Kaidan said. “I think he can help us with the comm situation. Request that you accept his transmission.”

“Accepted,” Anderson replied. A moment later, a new voice came over the comm, sounding slightly less composed than Kaidan had been.

“Admiral Anderson? Um, this is Ben Dean. Used to be Technicians Chief Dean, worked on the Citadel? I’m a contractor for the Alliance.”

“What’s this about, Mr. Dean?”

“I’m in the server room,” the guy said. “The comm staff is all dead - I think. I’m not sure. I’m going to try and stabilize our comm channels. The Reapers keep cutting through our frequencies. It’s like whack-a-mole.”

Anderson blinked. “What now?”

“They find our channels, they take them down. They’re doing the same thing with any sustained point-to-point unsecured channels like this one. The Alliance comm VI is switching the emergency channel every time we lose connection, but the Reapers just find the new one and shut it down. I’m going to try and override the emergency VI, see if I can find some way of jumping channels before the Reapers figure out what frequency we’re on. I’m gonna try and get us some uninterrupted broadcast time at the very least.”

“Good,” Anderson said, feeling a small jolt of hope at the man’s words. It was hard to think of communications when he and Shepard were fighting hand-to-hand against husks, but clearly they needed communications back online as soon as possible. Many soldiers lives depended on it - many civilians, too.

“There’s one problem,” Dean went on. “I need authorization to override the emergency communications VI and start messing around in the systems. I’m just a contractor, so I don’t have access.”

“Understood.” Anderson hesitated for only a moment before giving the man clearance. While it was a irregular to give a contractor full access to the systems, even one who was former military, Anderson decided that this was clearly a case where necessity trumped protocol. As far as Anderson was concerned, this Dean had just demonstrated in about thirty seconds that the Alliance shouldn’t have let him go so easily in the first place.

“Thanks sir,” Dean said. “I’ll see what I can do. Also, I’m, um, sort of locked in the server room. If I could maybe get out of here and not starve to death in a room full of machines, that would be great.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Anderson replied. “But I have a pressing priority right now.”

“Right,” the contractor muttered. “Okay. Thank you, sir.”

Anderson dropped the comm link, then looked behind him. But instead of Shepard standing right there, waiting for him, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen. She hadn’t even followed him through the door. Anderson tamped down a sudden flare of worry and went back to find her.

Calm down , Shepard told herself as she crouched before the vent. Take a breath. Don’t freak this kid out. You act sharp with him, you’re going to scare him away.

“It’s okay,” she said aloud, trying to soothe her tone, make her face look less like the fierce battle-mask she knew had settled upon it moments before. “I’ll get you someplace safe. We can look for your parents from there. You won’t find them in that vent, you know.” She tried to smile, to make it a joke, but the kid was clearly having none of it.

So like Matthew , the thought went through her mind. He never believed your bullshit stories either. He always saw right through you.

Shepard could only hope this kid was the trusting type. Because if this boy didn’t come with her, he wasn’t going to make it. It must be some kind of a miracle that he’d survived the blast that had rocked the building moments before. Hiding in the vent seemed to have worked for him though, because he didn’t have a mark on him.

Shepard stretched her hand out to him, but the boy just glared at her, his eyes huge and luminous in the darkness.

“You can’t help me,” he said, his voice hollow, full of despair.

Shepard blinked at the kid, his words surprising her so much that she dropped her outstretched hand.

Of course I can help , she almost said in reply. I’m Commander Fucking Shepard, kid .

But of course, she didn’t say that. She instead opened her mouth to say something reassuring, mother-like even - something totally at odds with the raging inferno of anger and stress inside of her, when the groan of a Reaper sounded through the air. The roar seemed to shoot right up through Shepard’s implant wires and right into her brain. She winced and squeezed her eyes shut against the sound, swinging her head around to peer out the open window.

A Reaper claw was closing in on the building; they were running out of time. This child was in danger and she had to get him to safety. She had to. Even if she managed to save no one else, this boy, this child who looked so much like Matthew, so much like the brother she couldn’t save, she had to get him out of here, had to…


Shepard blinked and stared. Looking up, she saw Anderson was glaring down at her.

“What are you doing?” he asked sharply. “That’s no way out.”

Shepard was about to reply that there was a child here who needed saving, but then she turned back to the vent and realized the boy was gone.

Shepard’s heart leaped into her throat. Surely the boy hadn’t gone into the vent? For God’s sake, there was a warning sign *right there * on the wall with a rather grotesque graphic of a human head being split open by a bolt of electricity. Shepard briefly wondered if macabre signs like that were just a Canadian thing, or an Earth thing. Even if the kid couldn’t read, he had to understand that .

But maybe he hadn’t seen it. Maybe, even now, he was stuck further in there, or had taken a deadfall into darkness…

“Shepard!” Anderson shouted nearly in her ear. “We can’t fit through there. Come on, there’s a passage here.”

He headed for the doorway that led from the apartment into the complex beyond. Shepard took one last glance down into the vent, half wishing the child would return, but knowing that he wouldn’t. She looked back down into the vent, then stood and followed the admiral around the corner.

And even though she told herself that she had to move on, she couldn’t help but shake the feeling that she was doing something horribly wrong by leaving the boy behind.

Spaceports were usually noisy places, full of the roar of mass effect engines and voices broadcasting what ships were cleared to land and leave. But aside from the battle in the skies overhead, the hangar and the tarmac beyond were eerily still.

“You think anyone is still alive up there?” James asked doubtfully, looking at the Normandy. His voice was little more than a whisper.

“Dunno,” Kaidan replied softly, trying to figure out how difficult it would be to get a gangplank up to the Normandy’s port entrance. The only ramp he could see was tangled and lying in the wreckage below.

“Alenko!” A voice shouted through the silence. At the same moment, the port entrance to the Normandy slid open. Joker stood there in the doorway, an assault rifle in hand.

“Joker!” Kaidan cried back hurrying across the empty docking bay.

“And there’s our answer,” James said, following Kaidan.

“You okay in there?” Kaidan asked.

“Fine,” Joker shouted back. “Actually, not fine. The docking clamps,” he pointed up, and Kaidan slowed as he registered the grips.

“We’re trapped in here like a volus with a broken zipper,” Joker explained. “EDI can’t get us loose from here. Emergency lockdown to keep enemies from stealing ships and all that shit. Like that kind of stuff matters with the Reapers,” he added scornfully. “Not like husks could figure out how to fly this baby.”

“Where’s the override?” Kaidan asked.

“You see the comm center tower?” Joker said, pointing. Kaidan followed Joker’s gaze to a bunker about five hundred meters down the tarmac. “You need to get in there and manually override the systems.”

“Oh great,” James grumbled. “We’re going out there on foot ? Through hordes of husk things? You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Come on,” Kaidan said, turning to James. “Cover me.”

Kaidan just hoped that by the time he and James returned, Shepard and Anderson would have reached the hangar. It was easy enough to forget about Shepard when he was fighting Husks, but Kaidan knew it would be hard to keep his focus if he was just sitting on the ship, waiting for her.

“Wait!” James said, his eyes lighting up. He turned and pointed at something just to the side of the bashed up gangplank. Kaidan followed his gesture. A baggage tram hovered just above the ground there, its mass effect thrusters still engaged. Apparently, the vehicle had been abandoned in great haste.

James grinned and his eyes gleamed.

“I have a better idea,” he said.

“This is a goddamn mess,” Anderson grunted, pushing his way through the debris cluttering the apartment stairwell. “They just wiped through our defenses, took out central dispatch. I never got the new emergency comm protocols put in, but I doubt even *that * would have helped.”

“We knew they were coming and we did what we could,” Shepard said flatly.

Yet, even as she said the words, they rang hollow. Shepard herself was overflowing with regret: regret over six months wasted in the detention wing, regret over one year with Cerberus that she hadn’t used more wisely, regret over being with Cerberus in the first place… Regret over failing to persuade that one child back there to come with her, regret that he was now lost on the battlefield, alone.

“True enough,” Anderson said quietly. “We have to move forward now.” He sighed and took a deep breath. “And since you and I are the only ones who survived that last meeting of the Defense Council, we’re the only ones who can carry out a plan.”

“We didn’t get to the plan-making part,” Shepard reminded him.

“So we do that now,” Anderson said. “I very well might be the last admiral left in Vancouver. We need a plan of counterattack and we need it now. I don’t have time to form another committee and debate things.”

Shepard felt a chill wash over her. Just thinking of all those dead admirals made her realize how completely leaderless the Alliance was right now - not just here, but likely everywhere.

“Okay,” she said, trying to push that thought from her mind. “So what’s our plan?”

“We need to get you to the Citadel,” Anderson told her.

“We need to get us to the Citadel,” Shepard corrected. “You and me together will have much better chance of convincing the Council than me alone.”

“No,” Anderson said, shaking his head. He fixed her with a look, forcing her to meet his gaze. “I have to stay here.”

Shepard scowled. “No. You said it yourself: you’re the last admiral in all of Vancouver. You need to go to the Council and speak for the Alliance.”

“It’s *because * I’m the last admiral here that I have to stay,” Anderson replied.

“The hell you do,” Shepard snapped. “You were a Councilor, for God’s sake. They’ll listen to you more than they will listen to me.”

“I was a Councilor,” Anderson countered. “Past tense. I’ll do what I can here, buy you some time. We’re going to need the entire galaxy to fight together to stop the Reapers. You know that. Go talk to the Council. Get all the damn races of the galaxy to help us if you can.”

“Anderson,” Shepard said, feeling desperation explode through her chest. “I am the last person who can pull of that kind of politics. You saw that mess back there with the admirals. I’m no good with words.”

“Words won’t sway the Council,” Anderson replied. “I know that. I tried words for years. It’s the ability to show them strength, to get things done.”


“No, Shepard, listen to me,” Anderson said earnestly. “It has to be you. You’re a Spectre. That means you can do what the Alliance can’t. I know how treaties work. Sometimes war makes for strange bedfellows. We need someone who can do whatever it takes to save humanity. You can command authority within the Alliance and yet, as a Spectre, you aren’t entirely bound by our protocols. You have a foot in both worlds and that’s exactly what we need right now.

“Besides,” he added when she opened her mouth to protest, “We’re going to need someone to get us some more intel on the Reapers, and that means special ops. You know I’m too old for that. Let me do what I do best. I can lead these people. And that means you need to leave.”

Shepard pursed her lips, considering his words as the Reaper’s groans shuddered through the air.

“I don’t like it,” she told him, frowning.

“I’m sure you don’t,” Anderson replied. “But I’m making it an order.”

“You can’t treat me like a free agent one minute and then order me around as if I was under your command the next,” Shepard said irritably.

“Watch me,” Anderson replied, steel in his tone.

Shepard started at that, then chuckled and shook her head. Anderson was playing both sides here, but that didn’t mean he was wrong to do so. In fact, she could see that he was right. She was both Spectre and commander, both inside of the Alliance and outside of it all at once. And that really did put her in the best position to go get help from the Council.

Now she just had grow a capacity for diplomacy between here and the Citadel in order to pull that mission off.

With a sigh, Shepard gestured at the narrow ledge before them. “All right, I’ll do it,” she grumbled. “Meeting adjourned, sir?”

“Meeting adjourned,” Anderson agreed, stepping back to let her pass. “Let’s get you to the Citadel.”

“By way of Mars,” Shepard told him, edging out onto the narrow walkway. “I need to pick up T’Soni before the Reapers take the Sol system.”

“Yes, you mentioned Mars,” Anderson said, slanting a glance at her. “What’s the asari doing out there?”

“Liara is researching the archives,” Shepard told him. “She thinks she found something. I’m hoping it will help us defeat the Reapers.”

“A weapon?”

“A device, actually. Something weapon-like. Liara was going to tell Hackett about it, but I’m not sure if she was able to reach him.”

“I see,” Anderson said, considering her words. “And how do you know all this?”

“Uh…” Shepard frowned as she looked down at a blasted-out stairwell. She tried to think of a way to avoid mentioning EDI’s role in all of this. It wasn’t that she wanted to lie to Anderson, but she also wasn’t comfortable blowing EDI’s cover just yet.

“James said you also knew about the Normandy’s retrofit,” Anderson pressed. “Who’s been feeding you information? Was it Joker?”

No , Shepard thought, but close enough.

Just then a shudder rocked the building. Shepard nearly tumbled, but Anderson caught her and helped her right herself.

“Thanks,” Shepard said tersely. She took a breath and continued on.

“So it was Joker, right?” Anderson asked again as they continued off the ledge to the safe space beyond.

“He had help,” Shepard replied enigmatically. When Anderson’s eyes narrowed on her, she gave him an apologetic look. “You didn’t think I’d just sit by and do nothing while I waited for the brass to get it together, did you? You were gone; they weren’t listening to me. I had to do something.”

Something like guilt flashed over Anderson’s face and Shepard hurried on.

“Sorry if I abused my ‘one phone call from jail’ privilege,” she said. “I just hate being in the dark. I’m sure you can sympathize. But I wouldn’t do anything to compromise the Alliance. You know that, sir.”

Anderson considered her for a moment, then nodded.

“I trust you, Shepard,” he said. Shepard let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. Well, that was one person who did, she thought. It wasn’t much in all this battle, but it meant a great deal just now.

“And if you say you need to go to Mars,” Anderson added, “Then we’ll get you there.”

“Here we are,” James said, parking the baggage cart by the communications bunker. Kaidan looked up at the small, two-story tower. It was built entirely of cement, with heavy windows about fifteen feet above their heads.

“Let’s do this fast,” James said. “Those damn husker things could come up on us any second.”

“Yeah,” Kaidan said, climbing down. He turned to the door, then frowned.

“No good,” he said. “We’re locked out. I don’t have clearance.”

“Great,” James grumbled. “We got all the way over here and we can’t get in?”

Kaidan tried synching his omnitool up to the glowing red latch panel once more, then frowned as nothing happened. “Damn,” he grumbled. He immediately punched in the comm frequency to hail the Normandy, then stopped himself.

“Ugh,” he said. “I can’t hail the ship directly.”

“Why not?” James asked.

“Stealth mode,” Kaidan explained. “The VI won’t allow outside hails.”

“I have found away around that problem, Major Alenko,” a friendly feminine voice suddenly said over the comm. It took Kaidan a moment to place it.

“Uh, Evie?” he asked.

“EDI,” the voice corrected. “While the Normandy is stealthed, I am bouncing this signal off of Jeff’s omnitool. He is standing at the port side airlock with his hand stuck outside the door.”

“Bet he’s loving that,” James muttered.

“The bunker is in lockdown,” Kaidan replied, ignoring James’ comment. “Storm doors are engaged, and I don’t have clearance to get through the lock manually. Does Joker have authorization codes?”

“He does not,” EDI replied simply.

“Damn,” Kaidan said. “Okay, maybe Anderson…”

“If you will allow me,” EDI’s put in, “I believe I can help. Please move yourselves to a safe distance. Ten meters ought to suffice.”

“Ten meters?” Kaidan repeated.

“I will attempt to blast the doors open with the Normandy’s Thanix cannons,” EDI explained.

“Holy shit!” James cried, grabbing Kaidan by the arm. “That thing’s gone crazy!”

“I have not gone crazy,” EDI said primly as the two soldiers raced for cover. “Nor do you need to be alarmed. I assure you, I am an excellent shot.”

James and Kaidan ducked behind a concrete barrier that lined the landing pad just as the Normandy’s cannons swiveled around.

“What the hell you doing on that ship, Joker?” James shouted, as if Joker could hear him from across the tarmac. “Programming the VI to shoot guns? What are you thinking?

“Firing,” EDI informed them.

A moment later, an explosion burst the silence of the spaceport, followed by the clinking echo of debris landing all over the concrete.

“The door is clear,” EDI said helpfully as Kaidan and James headed back to the bunker. The two soldier slipped through the hole EDI had punched through the doors and hurried up the stairs. Whatever else Joker had done, Kaidan thought, surveying the strategic blast, it appeared that he’d programmed EDI to be a crack shot.

“I need you to find the master traffic control station and disable the docking clamps,” EDI informed them as they rushed up the stairs into the upper level of the comm tower.

“Disable the uh…What now?” James frowned at all the panels in the room. Every spare inch of space was devoted to haptic displays save for a narrow band of windows and the floor. Even the ceiling was covered with control units.

“Got it,” Kaidan said, finding the controls and typing at the keyboard. “I’ve… Damn it. I still don’t have clearance.”

“Shit,” James hissed.

“I can hack the systems, Major Alenko,” EDI said. “I cannot get access remotely, but if you can establish and forward a data link via your omnitool, I believe I can get access.”

“Okay,” Kaidan said, plugging his omnitool directly into the control panel, “I can get you hooked up to the computer, but hacking it is going to take…”

“Done,” EDI announced. Her pronouncement was punctuated by a movement to their right. Kaidan and James looked down the length of the tarmac and into the open hangar bay, where all three docking clamps had popped off the Normandy at once. The thrusters engaged immediately, leaving the ship hovering in the air right where it had been held a moment before.

“That EDI is something else,” James muttered to Kaidan. “Dunno what mojo Joker’s been working on the VI core.”

“Yeah,” Kaidan said doubtfully. “Though I wonder if it was Joker or Cerberus doing the programming. He’s never had the patience for coding before.”

“Well, he has the patience for EDI,” James replied, “Actually, I think he’s taken a little too much of an interest in her. It’s kind of creepy, the way she acts almost like a real person.”

“I heard that, Lieutenant,” EDI said over the comm. James jumped and then gave Kaidan a look as if to say, See what I mean?

“Get on the damn ship!” Joker’s voice suddenly sounded over the comm link. “I got a couple docks workers in here and one soldier, but that’s not going to hold us for long. More of those husk things are on their way.”

“Why don’t you come get us ?” James countered.

“Because we’re hiding in here,” Joker shouted back. “The big ones haven’t noticed us yet. I want to keep it that way.”

“That damn hangar is going to come down on you…” James started.

“Move it,” Kaidan said shortly to James. He turned and ran back down the stairs to the waiting baggage cart, James at his heels.

James jumped in the driver’s seat and glared down the empty stretch of tarmac. “This is insane,” he stated. “If all the other ships are out in the fight, then why the hell aren’t those ships *doing * anything?”

“Because of that,” Kaidan replied, pointing.

In the distance, a single Reaper stood in the bay, decimating a squadron of Alliance fighters. The Reaper’s targeting optic swung around wildly, like an eyeball with no nerve connection to its skull. Its laser blasts tore through the sky like a slim, red knife. A few Alliance ships fired back, but their attacks made no difference. Even when a dreadnought fired a full cannon blast, the Reaper’s kinetic barriers shivered and sparked for only a moment before flashing back into place.

“We’re going up against that ?” James gaped.

“Just get us to the Normandy,” Kaidan said, elbowing him. Then he punched in a point-to-point frequency to hail Anderson.

“Anderson?” he called.

“Major Alenko,” The voice sounded over Kaidan’s comm just as James whirled the baggage cart around. Kaidan had to drop his hands for a moment to grab the seat to keep from falling. The movement made the comm link crackle.

“We’re in sight of the spaceport,” Anderson’s voice was nearly lost in static. “ETA, three minutes.”

Kaidan barely heard this status update. For just then, a ball of fire, like a small comet, crashed onto the tarmac. Several creatures popped up from the wreckage: more of those husks, and more of those cannibal things. James veered hard right as the Reaper ground forces opened fire, but there was little he could do to hold off the attack. After all, they were racing along the length of the tarmac in a *baggage * cart.

This is insane , Kaidan thought, tossing on a barrier and trying to push it outward to guard as much of the cart as he could manage. This is absolutely insane.

“Headed to the Normandy,” Kaidan informed Anderson via the comm. “We’re taking heavy fire.” He did his best to hold on as James steered sharply to the left. A few bullets pinged off of the short windshield in the front of the cart. Just then, a blast overhead caught Kaidan’s attention and drew his gaze skyward.

“Oh God,” Kaidan said, half to himself. “They’re going to take down the dreadnought.”

And they did. The giant Reaper out in the harbor focused all its energy on the flagship of the Vancouver fleet. The dreadnought’s barriers crackled, its hull buckled, and then the massive ship exploded in a rain of debris.

“Evasive maneuvers!” Kaidan shouted as large chunks of the ship rained down on the spaceport. Thankfully, the first few chunks took out the cannibals, but there was still more metal falling.

“Evasive maneuvers?” James hollered back, turning hard right in a move that dodged a length of ship hull but nearly toppled Kaidan out onto the concrete. “What the hell do you think this is, Blue? A Hammerhead?”

“Get moving!” Joker shouted, his voice suddenly sounding over the comm. “You guys need to double-time it.”

“This thing doesn’t do double time,” James shouted back.

Kaidan could only hold tight as James weaved the cart around the tarmac. He kept his biotic barrier against the rain of shrapnel as best he could manage, as well. A moment later, the cart ducked under the cover of the hangar. A couple of husks were clawing over the wreckage in the hangar bay, making for the Normandy. As James brought the cart to a screeching halt, Kaidan took one husk down with a few shots from his pistol. Then Kaidan jumped down and tossed the other husk so hard it flew over the ship and smashed into the wall on the far side of the hangar.

“Come on,” Kaidan said to James, nodding to the Normandy airlock.

“What the hell?” James yelled after him. “If the Reapers can take down a fucking dreadnought , then getting into a ship - any ship - is suicide.”

“That’s an order, Lieutenant,” Kaidan shouted back, clambering over a pile of rubble to reach the Normandy’s gangplank. Before him, an anxious-looking Joker stood in the port airlock.

“Get the hell in!” the helmsman yelled. Even as Joker spoke, the ship shifted downward just enough to place the doorway on level with the crumpled ramp. Kaidan scrambled up the gangplank and hauled himself into the ship, then reached down to help James in after him. The second they were in, the ship’s door slid shut.

“Who’s flying this thing?” James asked, looking up at Joker.

“EDI,” Joker replied. “And me, too, in a minute.”

“And we’re going out in that ?” James asked, pointing out the cockpit windows.

“No,” Joker told him. “We’re gonna wait here for Shepard and Anderson and then we’re going to head out into that.” He seemed a little more cheerful now that the ship was actually free from its docking clamps.

“Oh, and Alenko,” Joker added, “Welcome aboard and all that protocol shit.”

“Thanks,” Kaidan replied with a slight smile. Joker returned it, then his expression grew serious.

“You do realize you’re the XO, right?”

“I…” Kaidan blinked. He hadn’t realized that, actually. It had been a long time since he’d served as a ground team based out of a ship. Also, the Normandy looked so similar to the old one, for a moment, he’d almost believed himself to be in the role of lieutenant again.

“Well, you’re the senior officer for, like, five minutes until Anderson gets here,” Joker corrected himself.

“Right,” Kaidan nodded. Joker stood and hobbled back to the cockpit. Kaidan turned his attention to James.

“Please tell me you have guns on this ship,” he said, glancing around at the empty deck and the half-open crates everywhere.

“We got guns,” James replied. “The armory is down in the hold. It’s not well stocked, but it’s stocked. But that’s not going to count worth shit if this bird gets shot down.”

“Joker, are the cannons ready to fire?” Kaidan called out.

“The cannons are in working order,” EDI informed them, “but Jeff and I will be more effective at keeping us stealthed if we do not have to calculate targeting trajectories as well.”

“Then we do that manually,” Kaidan said, turning to march down the command deck toward the CIC. “James, can you handle the ship guns?”

“Sure,” James said, falling in line behind him.

“Good,” Kaidan said, nodding at the nearest station. “Get ready to shoot anything that’s not human that gets near the ship.”

“Just hope that damn thing is set to go,” James grumbled. “I’m no good at calibrations.”

“Is that the only way to the armory?” Kaidan asked James, pointing at the elevator.

“Unless you want to crawl through the vents,” James told him, sitting down at the gunnery station.

“Stairs are faster,” Kaidan said half to himself as he headed to the elevator. “Leave it to Cerberus to add something slow.”

A woman looked up at Kaidan as he came walking by the galaxy map. Kaidan instantly recognized her as the woman who had been standing outside of the Normandy yesterday, the one who had allowed him aboard. She looked terrified, her eyes wide.

And he was the XO, Kaidan remembered suddenly. He was in charge of all of these shell-shocked people, if only for a few minutes. The realization had him halting his steps and heading to the CIC.

“I’m Major Kaidan Alenko,” Kaidan said to the woman, nodding by way of greeting. “You are…?”

“S-specialist Traynor,” she stammered.

“Right. How many people have we got aboard?” he asked, looking around. No one else, other than James, stood on the command deck.

“Umm, I think… Seven, sir,” she said. Kaidan noticed her hands were shaking. “Wait, no. Counting you and the other soldier…”

“Okay,” Kaidan said, cutting her off. “That comm link working?”

“Yes, sir.”

Kaidan took a deep breath and hit the comm switch.

“This is Major Kaidan Alenko,” he said, his voice coming out cold and raspy over the comm. “We’re waiting here for the arrival of Admiral Anderson and Commander Shepard. All able-bodied personnel get to your stations. Anyone with ground team experience report to the shuttle bay. Be ready for battle and await further instructions.”

Kaidan let out a breath. “Alenko out,” he said, and let the link drop.

“Any word from Kaidan?” Shepard hollered to Anderson. She jumped up above cover just long enough to toss off a singularity that caught several of the cannibals into its orbit. At least that skill wasn’t too rusty after all her time in jail, she thought with some satisfaction.

“Trying,” Anderson replied. “It’s hard to find an open channel when we’re fighting these goddamn things every few seconds.” He fired off a concussive shot, knocking a cannibal off of the pier into the water. Shepard unloaded a clip into the flying mass of cannibals caught in the singularity and popped another heatsink into her pistol.

“Hold them off,” Anderson shouted to her, “I’m going to try hailing the Normandy again.”

“Roger that,” Shepard agreed. She jumped up and tossed off another singularity to keep the advancing enemies at bay.

“Normandy,” Shepard heard Anderson saying between bursts of her gunfire. “Our escape route was cut off. We have to reroute. Do you copy?”

The other end of the comm was lost in static.

“Normandy, come in.”

The only sound was roars from the Reapers and gunfire from the Cannibals. Shepard swore as her barrier got shot out and she dropped below cover next to Anderson.

“Lost him,” Anderson said right beside her. “And I can’t seem to find another open channel. Looks like we need another way to contact them.”

“Unless they shut that new signal down, too,” Shepard muttered. But Anderson had jumped above cover himself now and was too busy shooting to hear.

Overhead, another ship exploded. Just there, Shepard thought, probably a hundred soldiers had been shot down over the harbor. She immediately tried to rein in that thought, to keep her mind from wandering, but she couldn’t seem to find her usual battlefield detachment.

How the hell was a soldier supposed to survive a fight like this? Shepard wondered. For that matter, how would a civilian survive?

A civilian wouldn’t, obviously. The thought occurred to her at once, bringing with it the image of that child’s face, that little boy who had hidden in the vent. He was just one among many who would die because Earth wasn’t ready, because the Alliance had failed to prepare. Because she had failed to persuade them.

You cannot save him.

The thought chilled her. The deep groan of a Reaper seemed to shudder through the soles of her running shoes, and only Anderson’s cursing brought her back to the present.

No, she couldn’t save that kid, Shepard thought. But that wasn’t her duty right now. Her duty was simply to take the next step, to fight on to the spaceport. She just had to reach the Normandy, had to reach Kaidan. She couldn’t take on any other responsibility than that - not just yet.

Shepard gathered her biotic energy again and jumped back up into the fight.

“What do you mean you can’t find them?” Kaidan demanded.

“J-just that,” Traynor stammered. “Anderson and Shepard aren’t even trying to reach us any more. I don’t have anything to work with.”

“Damn it,” Kaidan scowled, hanging on to the edge of the CIC for support. The immediate question was whether he should wait here or try to hail Shepard and Anderson directly. If he did that , however, he would risk giving away the Normandy’s stealthed position.

The other possibility was that they could go out looking for Anderson and Shepard, but Kaidan did *not * like the idea of attempting a search-and-rescue mission in the middle of a battle zone. He had experience leading a ground team, had plenty of experience training a ground team, but he had never been in charge of a space-faring vessel before. There was a reason he’d been made a major and not a captain. While he knew a good deal about the systems on Alliance ships and remembered much about the old Normandy, taking charge of this vessel and directing her out into a firefight was going to be touch-and-go at best.

Kaidan knew he had a difficult decision coming, but he tried to push it from his mind. The very thought of it made him ill. Because if Anderson and Shepard didn’t reach them soon, Kaidan was going to have to order the Normandy out into the fight. And if they failed to find Anderson and Shepard out there in the rubble of Vancouver, then Kaidan might just have to give the two of them up for lost.

“Here, sir,” Shepard said, unearthing the radio from a pile of debris. “Think this thing will work?”

“It’s got a secure ship-to-ship emergency communications link,” Anderson nodded. “We can use it to hail the Normandy directly.”

As Anderson knelt by the radio, Shepard spotted an assault rifle lying in the wreckage and went to claim it. She swiftly checked to see the weapon was working, then found a few heat-sinks and shoved them in.

“Normandy,” Shepard heard Anderson say. “This is Anderson, do you read?”

There was a crackle, then Kaidan’s voice cut through the harbor air, low and calm: “Admiral. What’s your location?”

Shepard let her shoulders relax a fraction. If Kaidan had reached the Normandy, he was one step closer to safe. And all of them were one step closer to making it out of this battle alive.

“We’re by a downed gunship in the harbor,” Anderson told him. “I’m activating its distress beacon. Send support.”

Whatever Kaidan had to say in return was lost as the comm link went down.

“Major!” Anderson shouted. But static was the only answer.

“Anderson?” Kaidan called. The link had been lost. The beacon’s signal had also gone up in static.

Kaidan felt fear slice through him once more. Every time these comm frequencies cut out, it took a year off of his life. He just hoped this was another case of interference of the radiowave kind, and not the bullet-related kind. God, he hoped Dean got this problem figured out quickly.

“Traynor, did you get their location?” Kaidan asked.

“Yes, sir,” she said, voice quavering. “I located the coordinates just before the it cut out.”

“Joker,” Kaidan called into the comm, “Get us to Anderson and Shepard.”

“Got it,” Joker replied.

“ETA on our rescue?” Kaidan asked him.

“I’ll try and make it a minute,” Joker replied. The ship shuddered as the thrusters engaged and punched them out of the shuttle bay.

“That’s damn long if you’re measuring time by bullets,” James shouted from his station, drawing Kaidan’s attention. “They could be corpses by the time we get there.”

Kaidan couldn’t even think of that.

“You stay on the ship’s guns,” he told James, “I’ll get ready to meet them at the door.”

“May I recommend that you use the shuttle bay, Major Alenko,” EDI put in helpfully. “Given the relative size of the port side airlock, it would be easier for Jeff and me to…”

“Got it,” Kaidan said. With that, he hurried into the elevator and punched the button for the hold.

The blasts above had grown more frequent and Dean seriously hoped the stairs weren’t blocked. To die down here of suffocation or starvation, well, that would really suck. He imagined that he could probably rig up some sort of way of electrocuting himself so he didn’t have to suffer, but it would be a little tricky to manage what with the overload failsafes on the servers.

Geez, Dean thought to himself. Even when he was contemplating being buried alive he was thinking like a geek about it. No wonder Katie had left.

“It’s the end of the world,” he muttered to himself, “And what am I doing? I’m sitting in a server room, playing QA, that’s what I’m doing. It’s fucking armageddon and I’m still fixing someone else’s bugs.”

Just then, the lights in the room flickered out. The servers dropped to backup generators, continuing to wink and flicker in the dark. A VI voice promptly announced:

“Power failure on levels one through twenty-three. Please evacuate according to emergency procedures.”

“I’d like to,” Dean muttered into the near darkness. That was probably his cue that the building had collapsed on him. Or that he’d been left behind. Or something.

Dean tried not to think about it and turned back to his work. If he died down here, the least he could do was be useful before his time came.

Scanning the network, Dean checked frequency after frequency. When he finally found an open one, he got ready to open up an emergency channel. He had done a few calculations from his broken communications with Alenko and Anderson. Looked like comm links were lasting, on average, about 26.4 seconds. It wasn’t much, but if the soldiers kept their conversations short, they just might be able to get info through to one another in short bursts. And when that link got shot down, Dean could observe it and learn how to keep it up for longer than that.

“Okay boys,” he announced to the empty room as he set up the channel and prepared the VI notification. “There’s your comm link. Use it while you’ve got it.”

“Emergency broadcast channels enabled,” a synthetic voice said cheerfully. The omnitool announcement was loud enough that Shepard could hear it above the roar of the Reapers and the hail of gunfire.

“We’re online?” she shouted to Anderson.

“You have… twen ty… fivesec onds…to communicate. Thank you,” the VI’s voice added.

“Or not,” she grumbled.

“We’d better use it while we have it,” Anderson shouted to her.

“Yes sir,” Shepard hollered back, taking that as her cue to provide covering fire. She tossed out a shockwave to push back the advancing Reaper ground troops. Over the sound of the cannibals falling to the right and left of that biotic explosion, she caught snippets of Anderson’s speech into the comm link.

“This is Admiral Anderson… Vancouver is compromised. All ships, evacuate civilians… Rally to your posts…communications irregular… Expect further instructions… Damn!”

Anderson’s last expletive carried over the roar of the Reapers as the link cut out. He jumped up to shoot a concussive shot into a cluster of cannibals and send them scattering. Then he dropped below cover, grunting as bullet grazed his shoulder. Shepard shot down the cannibal that had hit Anderson, then dropped down beside him.

“You all right?” she asked.

“Fine.” He said, shaking her off. He didn’t look fine, but Shepard didn’t say that.

“Shit,” she said, looking down at her gun. “I’ve got just one clip left.”

“Me too,” Anderson said flatly.

Shepard cursed again. The Cannibals were coming in quickly now, and while her barrier could hold for a short time, Shepard knew that dashing out into this kind of gunfire to get more clips was simply suicidal.

Come on, Kaidan , Shepard thought. *Where * are * you? *

Kaidan stepped out of the elevator into the hold and took a quick look at his surroundings. The place was huge, big enough to fit a Kodiak shuttle and a full armory and training space as well. As Kaidan glanced around, a single soldier came hurrying over at once. He wore the usual Alliance guard’s armor, helmet and all. Kaidan couldn’t see the guy’s face, but his every movement spoke of nervous energy.

“Private Yelankov, sir,” the guy said saluting. “Reporting for duty. I’m not part of the Normandy though, sir, I just got on board when the spaceport got hit and Joker said…”

“Get a gun and get ready to lay down some support fire,” Kaidan said, shortly. He’d found that direct orders were often a relief to soldiers in uncertain moments like these. He also suppressed the urge to ask the guy if he was a decent shot. Unfortunately, he was all Kaidan had.

“Yes, sir,” Yelankov replied, saluting. He headed to the far end of the hold. Kaidan turned to the armory and traded in his pistol in for an assault rifle.

Given how little time they had, Kaidan decided not to suit up. He also refrained from wondering what would happen if he failed to get to Anderson and Shepard in time. His duty was to get the two of them on board and he would.

He had to.


Shepard hissed in a breath as her barrier was shot out with three quick bullet bursts. Anderson hit the offending cannibal with a concussive shot, but two more were on its way. Shepard yanked one off it’s feet with a biotic pull, then slammed it the other direction with a warp missile. Anderson held the other off with gunfire until Shepard could gather enough energy to send a second missile of biotic energy after the first.

She was pulling biotic attacks too quickly, Shepard thought, and her body was growing feverish with the effort. She knew that she couldn’t keep this up much longer - not without rest, not without heatsinks, not without support. She’d been saving her last few bullets, but just then a situation required them. A cannibal came out of nowhere and rushed Anderson. Reacting on instinct, Shepard pulled it biotically, but then ended up with the damn thing landing right at her feet. Shepard kicked the monster with the soft sole of her sneakers, then fired the last three bullets from her pistol into its wide, glowing mouth. The light inside of it faded, leaving a rotting corpse behind.

Great , Shepard thought, looking down at the twisted body. That was the last of her bullets. Both pistol and rifle were now empty. All she had now was her biotics, and Anderson didn’t have anything.

Shepard whipped her head around and saw that even more Reaper forces were advancing.

Where the hell is Kaidan? she wondered desperately.

Just then, a blast rocked the other end of the pier. The advancing cannibals burned in a blast from a Thanix cannon. Shepard was so surprised, it took her a moment to realize that it wasn’t friendly fire from the Reapers. She and Anderson had just been saved.

“The cavalry has arrived,” a self-satisfied voice sounded over the comm. Above, the Normandy flew into view over the harbor.

“Thank God,” Shepard said, relief flooding her.

“Took them long enough,” Anderson grumbled beside her.

“You know Joker,” Shepard grinned. “Always has to have a flashy entrance.”

The ship appeared to be heading for the end of a long stretch of concrete, what looked like a parking garage that had toppled into the waters of the bay. Shepard nodded to Anderson.

“Come on,” she said, and the two of them took off running for the ship.

Come on, Shepard . Kaidan thought, his eyes riveted on the woman dashing across the wreckage, willing her to run faster. Even though the coast was clear now, he felt like his heart was in his throat, watching her. It was a good thing James had taken out those Cannibals in one shot like he had, because Kaidan didn’t think she would have lasted much longer down there without the help.

Anderson followed behind Shepard, a little less skilled than she in jumping over barricades and clambering over downed buildings. Shepard scrambled up an incline and didn’t even wait for the Normandy to touch down before she jumped for the open shuttle bay. Her arms and legs flailed against the empty air as she sailed toward the outstretched platform.

The sight nearly gave Kaidan a heart attack. He reached for Shepard, fully expecting to grab her by the waist and pull her to his chest. Instead, he missed her arm by inches. She landed heavily before him, then skidded to a halt and whirled around, looking for Anderson. It was an awkward rescue, Kaidan thought absently, but at least she was aboard. In that moment, he felt like he’d finally gotten a gulp of water, for his throat was no longer bone dry.

“Welcome aboard, Shepard,” he said, citing the proper protocol greeting. Kaidan doubted she realized just how welcome a sight she was.

“Thanks,” she replied.

For one moment, their eyes met, and Shepard gazed at him with a look of pure relief. It completely matched his own.

She’s safe, Kaidan thought, absently. Thank God.

Home , Shepard thought. That was the word that went through her mind the moment her feet hit the floor of the Normandy and then again, when she turned and looked at Kaidan: home .

She pushed away that overly romantic notion at once. Kaidan wasn’t home, not any more - but the Normandy was, at least. And in reaching the ship, she’d completed at least the first step of her mission.

Now she had just a few thousand more steps to go.

“Shepard!” The shout from Anderson had her turning to look back at the admiral. He stood at the edge of the wrecked pier, gazing up at her.

“Come on!” she hollered to him. “We can drop you someplace safe.”

“I’ll head back from here,” Anderson told her. “You go on.”

“Go on?” Kaidan said, his dark brows drawing together. “Sir, this location is unsecured.”

“I know that,” Anderson snapped back. “All of Vancouver is unsecured and I need to pull together what remains of this post. We have soldiers fighting blind down here. But your friend back there on the comms may give us the chance to fix it. It’s my duty to give Earth that chance.” He fixed Kaidan with a look. “And your duty is to go with Shepard to the Citadel.”

Kaidan blinked and looked at the admiral.

“What?” he fairly shouted. “You’re not coming with us?”

“He’s not,” Shepard said, her voice low. She met Kaidan’s eyes as his disbelieving gaze flew to her, then back to Anderson.

“But that’s…” Kaidan began, but Anderson interrupted him.

“Shepard,” he shouted, loud enough for his voice to carry to Shepard, Kaidan, and the one lone soldier standing there in the hold, “As the last remaining member of the Defense Council, I hereby reinstate you as Lieutenant Commander in the Systems Alliance Navy. In your role as commander, I order you to the Citadel to get aid for the fight to take back Earth. In your role as Council Spectre, I expect you to do whatever it takes to make that happen. And you, Major,” he added, looking to Kaidan, “are to aid her in that endeavor and represent the Alliance in my place. You both have your missions. Now get the hell out of here.”

Kaidan just froze, but Shepard nodded at the orders. As she did so, Anderson pulled something out of his pocket and tossed it to her. Shepard caught the object on reflex, then looked down at it. Her old dog tags lay in her hand, worn as they ever were. Shepard suddenly remembered the moment she’d had to give these up:

“You are hereby relieved of rank, Commander, until such time as a formal hearing shall be held to judge your actions. As of now, your questionable interpretation of your duty as a soldier leaves us with no other option but to take you into custody. You are dismissed.”

Dismissed , Shepard thought. She had been dismissed for six months and now look what had come of it. Nothing had happened; no one was prepared. Shepard almost felt sick to look at the Alliance insignia on the tags now.

“Consider yourself reinstated, Commander,” Anderson called to her.

The words stung. She had been waiting to hear them for so long. To hear them like this cut deep. Shepard watched Anderson for a moment, unable to speak. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, she thought. This wasn’t how the Reapers were supposed to arrive - to find them scattered and off guard. And she wasn’t supposed to turn tail and run like this, especially if it meant leaving Anderson behind. While the man wasn’t exactly family, he was the closest thing Shepard had to a father figure in her life. To have him stay behind like this, as the world burned around him, well, it wasn’t putting the gun to him directly, but it sure felt like it.

And yet, Shepard thought, there was nothing else to be done.

“I’ll bring every fleet I can get,” Shepard told him, her voice trembling for a moment. She hoped it was with conviction, and not fear. “So you’d better damn well keep yourself alive long enough to see it. It’s gonna be a sight.” She paused, then slipped on the dog tags and tucked them into her shirt.

“Good luck,” she told Anderson. And that was her goodbye.

Kaidan stowed his rifle at his back and came to stand beside Shepard as Anderson hurried down the wreckage and back to the pier. Kaidan didn’t say anything. He couldn’t think of a single thing to say. The attack, the rescue, Anderson’s orders - all of it felt distant to his numb mind.

Because as Kaidan looked out over the city of Vancouver, all he could think was that his home was burning. Earth was burning. And he couldn’t do anything to save it.

He was tempted, so very tempted, to try and call his father’s omnitool. But Kaidan squelched that desire. By now, it was too late for a warning. And he couldn’t justify using his access to emergency Alliance channels to try and reach his family. That wasn’t how things were done. His father would understand, if he was still alive. Hell, maybe his dad was halfway to his hunting cabin right now, too busy dodging cannibals to take a call anyhow.

But as he heard the Reapers’ groans echoing across the harbor, Kaidan knew he was lying to himself. His family was probably already dead.

Shepard took a breath as Kaidan walked away.

It suddenly occurred to her that he was now the ranking officer on the ship. And yet, Anderson had clearly put her in charge of the mission to reach the Council. But rather than worry about all that just yet, Shepard decided that the first order of business was to get the Normandy out of the line of fire.

“Joker,” she snapped into the comm. “Get us out of here.”

“EDI and I are calculating a stealthed path through the Reapers forces,” Joker replied. “There’s a damn lot of them out there. Give us about a minute more.”

“We’re just sitting here, Joker,” Shepard said warningly.

“But we’re sitting here stealthed,” Joker replied cheekily.

Before Shepard could reply to that smart-assed comment, another Reaper stalked into view, massive as the buildings it was standing among. It’s great purple body seemed slightly bloated, its optical beam - a thing that was like an eye and a knife all at once - swiveled around, slicing through the city. A roar from deep inside of it shuddered the ground, rippling the waters of the bay. Down on the pier, a handful of soldiers were frantically evacuating people from the wreckage. All of that small crowd turned and looked up at the Reaper as it advanced.

And in that mass of people, Shepard saw him . Her gaze shot right to him.

The boy .

The tiny figure wandered the wreckage below, looking through the crowd wildly as if for a mother or father. She didn’t know how she could tell at this distance that it was the boy from the vent, but she was sure of it. She knew . He’d survived yet again, and still he was lost.

And then he looked up at her.

From all that distance, Shepard could tell that he had locked his eyes on her . Not a mother, not a father, but on the soldier who had tried to help him.

Who had *failed * to help him.

Suddenly, the Reaper roared again, it’s low cry seeming to twist the very air. The child whipped around and Shepard could almost feel his fear. He saw the Reaper stalking toward him; he ran for the shuttle.

Shepard found her heart was racing as the boy scrambled aboard without help. No one seemed to see him; no one seemed to notice him. He was so small, just a little victim of this great war, and she was too far away to do anything about it.

The boy got aboard just as the doors slid shut, and for the briefest moment, Shepard thought she saw him glare at her in accusation - or maybe it was a challenge. Maybe he wanted her to see that he had gotten to safety without her help. Or maybe she just imagined it.

Shepard let out a sigh of relief as the shuttles took to the air.

Her relief came too soon.

The Reaper swung its terrible eye to the escape shuttles. With one beam, it struck down the first shuttle; with a blast, it took down the second. There was a burst of fire and metal and then carnage rained down into the murky waters of the bay below.

Shepard winced against the blast, so near she felt the heat of it. But the Reaper did not turn its beam against the Normandy. Sheltered by the stealth systems, she was safe, even within view of the beast. But that child had not been.

A sensation of settled on in her chest, a sensation she knew far too well. It was the crushing weight of guilt, and the force of it seemed to press the air from her lungs. She felt guilt for all of them - for that child, for Anderson, for Matthew, for her family long gone, for all the people who had died under her watch, for all the people who were dying out there now, for all of Earth, too. She had failed to prepare them for this attack. And she had to turn her back on them now.

You cannot save them.

Shepard gazed out at the burning city, then squeezed her eyes shut and looked away. She wanted to stay. She feared to go. She was the last person who could get help from the Council. No one would listen to her. There had to be another way - there had to be someone else.

But even as she thought that, Shepard knew there was no one else. Duty compelled her. In spite of the guilt, she had to carry out her mission. And, though it felt like cowardice, her mission was to run away from the fight. Shepard turned away and let the doors close on the burning city of Vancouver.

Never before, she thought, guilt settling into her stomach like a stone, had duty felt so utterly and completely wrong.