Sliding on her back underneath the firing and half-repaired cannons, Shephefrd found her way to the far end of the main battery, where Mordin was humming something to himself reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan as he did things she didn't even attempt to understand with the wiring of the end-most gun. "Ah, good, you're here, Shepherd," he said, seemingly unperturbed by the firing of the guns on either side of him, "need additional pair of hands. Finding arrangement of controls on some equipment unsuited for Salarian use. Believe this intentional during Cerberus design as majority of non-human species are tridactyl. Considering intentions of Illusive Man always to obtain xenodiverse team for mission, will share several words on matter if ever find him." He gestured towards a small welding torch and then the next cannon down, "Jury-rigging replacement targeting VIs from spare medical supplies. VIs must be welded to canon so as not to unseat during battle and Crewman Rolston is not available."
Pleased beyond belief to have something to do with her hands to keep her mind off the unknown ship chasing them, she grabbed the welding torch and a pair of what looked like metal lunch boxes and slid herself under the indicated cannon. She'd kept her grieves on, though it made it a tight fit, and grimly set about figuring which way the lunch box-thing was supposed to go. It only took her a moment – a lucky moment; the only tech skills she could attest to were ones that blew things up, usually unintentionally – and it attached easily enough, though the angle was awkward and caused a strange ache in her shoulder. The artificial one.
She knew that vast amounts of her body had been reconstructed or replaced, mostly internal organs. Both of her eyes, part of her heart muscle; sixty percent of her skin – things that she'd the unfortunate inability not to learn about her resurrection. The cloned replacements she could handle. Fundamentally, those parts were still her, even if some genetic therapy had been snuck in, making her stronger and faster than she remembered. It was the cybernetics that – there was no other word for it – freaked her out. She'd done her utmost best not to learn the details, she really had, but she knew that the shoulder she'd injured being thrown form the original Normandy's wreckage was artificial; so were some of her ribs.
Doing her best to ignore the ache (which threatened to become more as she imagined metal grinding against metal in the rotating joint to the point where she thought she could hear the harsh scraping as she shimmied out from her the turret she'd attached the lunch box VI to, though it was, she realized a second later, only the sound of the bottom half of her armour against the floor), she moved on to the next cannon down the line. There were forty-eight in total in the main battery, the majority of the Normandy's armament, though a handful of smaller guns some servicemen called "pot-shots" were affixed on the bow; those guns were useless in a fire-fight between ships and simply served as deterrents for anyone stupid enough to try and steal a ship while in port. Only twenty were working at the moment. Getting the rest working gave her an objective, and the pain, while unpleasant, was at least better than letting herself be carried away by fear that this unknown ship would cup through this Normandy just like they had the old one, and, this time, they were in Collector space. If that worst of possibilities happened, escape pods were useless, because there was nowhere to escape to...
Shepherd did not fear her own death, not even knowing that, having died once, only a group of xenophobic terrorists had carried on the fight to stop the Reapers. She'd sent all the information she'd had on both them and the Collectors to the two people she trusted most: Anderson and Kaidan.
She flicked on the welding torch again and carefully placed the case containing the VI against the malfunctioning cannon and thought of Horizon and how much better it should've gone. She could understand the shock – she was supposed to be dead after all and, if one of her brothers, taken by slavers on Mindoir, had done the same on her, she'd probably have felt the same way – but not the anger. It wasn't her fault Cerberus had found a way to bring her back. Hell, he'd been alive at least the last two years. He could've done something from inside the Alliance to get them to do something about the Reaper threat rather then bury it under so much shit the whole issue probably had developed satellites and fledgling life of its own. If anybody but Cerberus had been doing anything, she would've-
But they hadn't. So it was pointless to worry herself over it, just like it was pointless to wonder how her life might've gone had the slavers never come. She did both, though, and the third of thinking how much better she might feel now if Kaidan was here with her on this new Normandy. He could be so controlled and disciplined that, at first, she'd thought she'd just been seeing what she'd wanted in their conversations, and even after could package everything away, each emotion in its tidy little compartment, so that nothing could interfere with his perfect solider façade. It was irritating as hell at times but, God, when he stopped playing her subordinate and- And daydreaming over a man she couldn't have wasn't going to fix anything. Even if she wanted to kick his ass for what he'd said on Horizon.
He, at least, had a copy of the Collector data, as did Anderson, and, should the worst happen...
Flicking off the welder, she grabbed two more of the makeshift VIs and was shimmying under the next broken cannon – the sixth one on the right, with working ones on all sides, so that when EDI opened a comm the AI's voice was barely audible, even with the receiver implanted inside her ear. "Shepherd, our weapons appear to be having little effect on the unknown ship."
She let slip a, "Putain de merde," and tried to move faster, though welding, it seemed, was an activity that could only go so fast.
"How's she holding up, EDI?"
"There is no new damage to report, primarily because the inbound ship is not attacking and," if an AI could sound shocked, EDI did, "does not appear to be charging any weapons of known design." Shepherd started to ask what the hell the ship was doing if not attacking, reaching to flick the welder off as she prepared to move on to the next cannon down the line, when AI interrupted, "Correction: enemy weapons charging. All hands, brace for impact."
The air was dry and hot, even for the colony, and the smell of smoke was in the air. The light was a sickly shade of red and the smell of smoke was in the air. Sand slipped away underneath his feet as he tried to run, cradling an injured arm close to his side. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, but he must try-
-the scene flickered, images – nanocircuits and microprocessors buried in yellow, slightly bulbous, flesh – a panicked mob, fleeing through the streets of what might've been Tenochtitlan or Angkor Wat, each vaguely humanoid in shape with a look of what could only have been fear on their strange, triangular heads – weapons fired from orbit that shook the whole planet, triggering unstoppable seismic events that flattened continent-sprawling cities – and a dozen others that passed too fast for her frantically working brain to process. Some were old, almost familiar images she remembered from the beacons at Eden Prime, Virmire, and Joab; others were new, scenes that even with the cipher Shiala had shared with her on Feros were difficult to understand-
And then there was a voice, calling her by name and whispering on the edge of her consciousness: "Shepherd, we have heard of you."
It was as if she'd stumbled across another Prothean beacon, but that was impossible: she was wedged halfway under a cannon in the main battery. Prothean visions did not just suddenly come to people trying to repair their starships as Collector ships open fire on them. Unless-
-colonies everywhere were being destroyed. No word from the Citadel in nearly five cycles, since the relays had stopped working. Refugees from the next system had spoken of unknown horrors descending upon the ecumenopolis there. Half of the fleet that had been stranded in the system when the relays failed had been sent to investigate, but that was three years ago and nothing had been heard of them since. Fuel reserves on the remaining ships were running low. All but the most essential of interplanetary ships had been grounded. If he could get to one of those left for dead in the desert, he could escape. If it had fuel. If the strange, mysterious attackers and their swarms did not get him before he found one. If he did not bleed out-
-unless it was a Prothean speaking to her now.
"We were once those of which you speak. We are Prothean no more." The scenes of machinery mated to living flesh repeated themselves, and of a single entity-
-swarms had followed the trail of blood and caught him long after the last tower of the ancestors' temple was beyond sight. His first thought was death, but, slowly, after an unknown time his senses returned, and he found himself in a dark and dirty space that might've once been a storeroom on a small ship. There was another with him, a man who only muttered and said, over and over again, how the others had been taken and never returned, though their screams would echo through the halls long after they were gone. He'd thought the other man had been driven mad until the day, not long after he'd awoken, he was taken too by strange, many-limbed machines into a room rank with the smell of rotting flesh and felt the knives cut into him, cutting every "non-essential system" from his body until only his brain and a length of snake-like spine remained. "Cybermechanoid slaves," they called them once they'd fused the organic to machine; some become Overseers of the indoctrinated; others Custodians and Wardens of the largest and oldest of the Reapers, for whom the cymbermechanoids were redundant systems in case of cascading system failure; a few were made dormant Sentinels for the relays that served as gateways into Reaper space; and one was made to nursemaid the next generation of the machines, and it was called-
"We are Caretaker, and you have destroyed that which we were ordered to birth."
Flickers of another larval Reaper child flashed through her mind, this one with the triangular cephlothorax of the Protheans, but gaining as it grew several more long and multi-jointed limbs than the species from which it was made, with a set of ladybug-like wings on its long, mechanical body that, when lifted, revealed its mass effect drive core. With every additional scene, her body (what of it she could feel) threatened to combust from the heat of it or tear itself apart with epileptic seizing as it tried to shake off the invading mind. Her own was trying (vainly, it felt) to make sense of it all, but there was no sense to be made.
"We were preparing the next birthing station when you passed through the relay. Had we been present, we would have been ordered to exterminate you, as we have done with all who have come before. But now the station is destroyed, and, with it, the communications array. There are no more orders, and we are free. For this, we are glad."
Her mind latched on to the one facet of the conversation it could yet make sense of – the talk of another "birthing station" - and a mixture of fear and anger filled her. A second human-Reaper hybrid, or even a third? The attack against the first had nearly destroyed her ship and had taken two of her team in the process. If there was another-
"There are no others, though resources are being gathered for those that were to be. The harvesting will continue once the Reapers have discovered the primary birthing station has been destroyed. There is no choice in the matter. Soon they will come to discover the malfunction of the communications array, and work will begin anew.
"You must break a cycle that has continued for millions of years if your species and others are to survive. The relay you have passed through is but one of a handful that connect the galactic centre and dark space to organically viable areas of the galactic disk. Destroy them and it will take even the Reapers millennia to attack."
But the Reapers would still attack, she thought.
"It is their purpose, to attack. It is their desire, to destroy organic life so that it will not destroy them, and to this end they destroy organic life before it advances far enough to endanger their existence. But organic life can go far in few millennia. At the last harvest, your kind was barely sentient and now you traverse the stars."
"All stations reporting operational. The unknown ship's weapon does not appear to have damaged us in any way, though it is attempting to pass threw the mass effect relay ahead of us. ETA to relay, fifty seconds."
She felt groggy and light-headed, with something heavy restricting her breathing and a burning pain bit into her shoulder. She thought she heard herself mumble, "Let it pass." Tilting her head sideways, she saw that the weight on her chest was the welder, and thought that it must've fallen from her hands when Caretaker had sent her its transmission. It was still on, the device, and had burned through the thin material of her flight-suit and was working its way through her skin, but whatever urgency this might've caused failed to translate to her muscles, and she lay there, letting it burn.
The guns went silent. "The unknown ship has passed through the relay. ETA, twenty seconds. Dropping out of FTL. Disengaging drive core. Entering relay in three, two, one." A long moment passed and then, "Exiting into Sahrabarik System. Re-engaging drive core."
Sahrabarik. That meant Omega. They had made it. She could stop welding now. If only she could force herself to reach the controls...
A new voice came over the comm. It took her a moment to place it. Joker's. Yes. He was saying something important. Something about company. Were they not in Sahrabarik after all? Had Caretaker led them into another system, one filled with Reapers or Collector ships? "...three Alliance vessels, two Turian..." In Sahrabarik? That couldn't be right.
"The unknown vessel is turning. Weapons priming-"
The colony in its heyday: the sound of children playing on the mall that ran between the Ancestors' Temple and the Colony Centre; the flapping of banners in the wind, the first herald of an approaching sandstorm; the chatter of voices in an unknown tongue from across a room filled with terminals; laughter-
"This relay's Sentinel is old, from a species that was destroyed before life existed on either of our home worlds. Its only purpose now is to serve the Reapers; it will tell them of our passing-"
-the smell of fresh rain as it fell on the desert, and the large, bright red flowers that opened during it; a meal being cooked with spices; freshly scrubbed skin in the temple washroom and the cloying scent of incense-
"-unless it is destroyed. We will do our part to stop the Reapers."
-glowing sunset, tinged with orange, as it fell below the crest of the last dune; a holographic display and the pleasure on the face beyond it as it realized how to solve the problem displayed; a carefully tended garden-
"The cycle must be broken."
"Alien vessel altering trajectory. Calculations suggest collision course."
The First Movement: Perdendosi