Shepard cast a glare over her shoulder towards the cockpit from where she stood, Virmire's sun glaring off of the sheen of the ship's hull, cold water lapping at her boots.
"Hey, no need to go giving me that look." Joker said from the safety of his seat, leaning back. He shuttered. Damn it if she wasn't scary when cast up on the big screen. "Seriously though, stop it. I'm going to turn to stone if you keep looking at me like that then no one is getting off planet."
Shepard flipped him her middle finger before moving away, eyes falling to the horizon, hands resting on her hips. Virmire was a beautiful planet. The vegetation and the cool air, the crisp smell of the ocean; it almost reminded her of the coast back on Earth. Minus the AA guns. And the teaming hordes of geth. Thunder rumbled ominously above her.
"Please tell me there's more to you than this."
She turned towards the voice, lips pressed into a frown. "I think my crew and I are more than capable to help handle whatever the situation is."
The salarian curtly shook his head, large eyes narrowed at her. "No disrespect to your abilities, but you and your crew are in over your heads. I told the Council to send a fleet.
She crossed her arms, eyebrows pinching together above the bridge of her nose. "What do you mean 'in over our heads?'"
Considering what they had to fight through in the past months—things that exploded when they shot them, things that oozed when they shot them, an ancient alien race that spit acid at them when they shot them, a thing that spit out another thing that shot her when she shot it—Shepard figured that there was little else that could be mentioned that would be out of their league at this point. If a combined force of her team and an STG regiment couldn't take care of it, what the hell where they facing?
"First off, there's about a dozen anti-airship guns trained on your ship's signature. You attempt to take off, and you won't even have time to think about engaging your thrusters before you're shot out of the sky." She watched as he stared past her, running his eyes over the makeshift campsite that surrounded them. She knew from the intense gaze that he wasn't so much concerned with their accommodations than he was with whom he shared those buildings with. His men. His team. "That's not even considering what took out half my squad."
"The Council should have sent a fleet." He repeated, attention shifting back to her.
She was beginning to see why.
She slowly shook her head, "Unfortunately, the only thing the councilors got on the priority channel was static. They had no idea who or what to send, so they sent me." She held out her hand. "Commander Shepard of the Alliance Navy. My team and I are ready to assist in any way possible."
He gave her hand a firm shake. "Captain Kirrahe. Third Infiltration Regiment STG."
She tilted her head towards the large building that loomed behind him. "So what exactly does Saren have hiding in there that requires the firepower of an entire fleet?"
Shepard noticed him tense, his hand shifting to his pistol. "I thought you said the Council wasn't able to brief you on the situation here."
"They weren't." Her eyes darted to the gun at his hip then to his face, her own hand twitching to her weapon. "But with the welcoming party of geth that met us here, I thought it was safe to assume that Saren was involved in some way."
Kirrahe held her gaze for a few moments before letting out a drawn breath, his hand easing to his side. Everything about him seemed worn. "I'm apologize if I seem jumpy, Commander. I've had more than a few of my men come back to the camp under the ruse that they had escaped imprisonment, men that we were certain were lost in infiltration attempts." His face darkened. "They acted differently, but I assumed it was only because they had been held prisoner by the enemy. They weren't my men anymore."
"They were indoctrinated." She said as the rest of her team sloshed through the water to join up with her and the captain. She saw the muted surprise in the salarian's features when the full spectrum of her team gathered around.
His response was slow as he looked at each individual. "Yes, they were, but it means little to us now in our current situation."
"And what exactly would that be?" Ashley asked. "We had a hell of a time just getting here."
"It's a breeding facility." He stated calmly, making eye contact with her krogan squad mate. "Saren's breeding krogan."
And all eyes were on Wrex.
"What do you mean?" His voice was even, but the underlying tone screamed uncertainty and suspicion. And who could blame him? The krogan were castrated by a manufactured weapon from the salarians. Now he had one telling him that the turian he was hunting down had found a way to bypass that. Nonexistent tension found a place to root itself—right in between the Captain and Wrex. "That shouldn't be possible."
"Apparently Saren has found a cure for the genophage." Kirrahe turned his head at Shepard, though it still seemed like he was addressing Wrex. "He's practically developing an army of krogan. The facility and everything it contains must be destroyed."
Tension spiked, and Shepard prepared to throw herself between a trained agent of the STG and one potentially very angry krogan. The outcome in her head wasn't pleasant.
Wrex got dangerously close in Kirrahe's face, and Shepard was quickly trying to come up with the best way to break the two apart that didn't involve her physically taking a shot, but if it came down to that, it would be nothing more than a test of reflexes. So what would she like to be shot with? A few shots from a pistol? A point-blank hit from a shotgun? Neither if she had the choice. The rest of her crew shifted uneasily, a few reaching for their weapon. "Destroy the one thing that could help my people? I'd rather die than see that happen."
Kirrahe stood his ground. The salarian had a daring sort of courage, she'd give him that. "But that would mean letting the krogan go as they once were. We cannot make that mistake again."
Or maybe he was just stupid.
"We are not a mistake!" Wrex barked and Shepard was almost sure that Kirrahe was going to be lying in a pool of his own blood before she could even think move, but to her relief he stalked off to the far end of the beach without another word, leaving the rest of them to exchange tentative looks. She frowned.
"Anyone else think it was a bad idea to piss off the krogan?" Garrus sighed, voicing what they were all thinking.
Kirrahe looked unfazed. In fact, she'd say he actually looked frustrated, like Wrex's reaction was entirely her doing. "Is he going to be a problem?"
"He wouldn't have been had you not thrown oil onto the fire." She was dumbfounded by his sheer tenacity and borderline suicidal comments. "Were any of those jabs really warranted? I would imagine you have enough angry krogan out for your blood at this point to try adding more to their ranks."
"We all need to be onboard if we are to destroy what Saren has built here. And it's best that he finds out now than later."
"Even if he shot you?" Tali commented from the back. Shepard almost smiled.
After spending so much time with Wrex, all of them had become the slightest bit sympathetic to the krogan's plight in some degree. It was hard not to when he followed almost every stereotype that existed about the krogan, but at the same time shattered pretty much all of them to pieces. He was a complicated individual, but they all liked him.
"Everyone just calm down." She gave a single nod to Kirrahe. "I'll talk to Wrex, but while I'm playing cannon fodder, I take it you and your team have a plan?"
"We did, but we should revise it now that you're here. Might give us a few more options to play with."
"If you wouldn't mind, I'd like my squad to be a part of the planning. They're some of the best in their fields and know the strengths and weaknesses of our team. They'll be able to add some valuable input."
"I don't see why not." He pointed across the way. "We'll be over in that tent once you're through talking with the krogan, and please talk to Commander Rentola if you need any provisions. We're starting to run low on a few things, but I doubt that we'll be here for much longer, so help yourself."
"Thank you. Just give me a minute with my crew." Once Kirrahe left to rejoin his regiment, everyone shuffled around so that they were in a small semi-circle in front of her. She took a moment to meet each attentive gaze before giving her orders.
"Tali, after we have a definite plan, do a check of our supplies. I'm giving you full access to our funds, so purchase whatever you think we'll need. Garrus, please help her with this. Liara, talk with Joker and see if there's anything we can do to make sure the Normandy is ready to fly. I don't think she took any hits from the AA guns, but you can never be sure. I have a feeling we're going to be using her. Lieutenant Alenko and Chief Williams, see if you can help the salarians with their preparations. They've been here for a while and have taken quite a hit. Any load we can take off their shoulders is one less thing they have to worry about. After everything is done, we'll meet back up here before we head out for the assault. Understood?"
A murmur of yeses and aye ayes followed and she gave them their leave before she focused on Wrex, a towering problem on its own. How the hell was she going to convince him to give up the cure that would save his people?
"You really think this is a good idea?" Ashley interjected from behind her. "He looks like he's about ready to blow."
She didn't take her eyes off him. "I can't exactly leave this be, Chief."
"He's volatile enough as it is, Commander. Pushing the subject might force him over the edge."
"As would ignoring it." She peered over her shoulder with a shrug. "Besides, it's Wrex."
"Exactly. It's Wrex." Ashley crossed her arms, and looked out into the shallow waters. "I think you should be prepared to—"
"No. That's not even an option on the table."
Shepard faced her, adamant, her jaw set. "Williams, I will not put Wrex down like he's some sort of diseased animal. He's a part of the Normandy's crew, and as such he deserves more than that."
Ashley didn't waver. "I don't deny that, but how far do you think he's willing to fight for this? Something that would mean power returning to the krogan and no longer being under the boot of the Council? Would he be willing to take you down if you were to stand against him?"
Shepard didn't answer right away. "Let's just hope it doesn't come to that."
- Damn right it wasn't going to come to that. Not if she could help it. Ashley didn't like it, watching the Commander knowingly walk up to a krogan who was emotionally compromised and likely to snap her neck should she say the wrong thing. Shepard was good, but Ashley couldn't help but doubt that she was that good. Hell, she liked Wrex, but he was furious, and trying to talk down a furious krogan was like trying to stop a train with just your bare hands. Ashley wasn't going to stand by while the Commander knowingly courted death.
This was it. A cure for the krogan, a way for them to start to rebuild again. And that damned salarian wanted to blow it off the face of the planet. The mere thought made his blood sing for a kill, rage threatening to boil over. He could kill every salarian in the camp and then…he heard footsteps. Heavier than a salarian—not that one had the quad to face him. No hesitation. He didn't have to turn around to know who it was.
Far off chatter filled the silence, waves casually reaching up to the sand where he stood. He waited for her to say something. It seemed like she always had something to say.
- Ashley shifted her weight, trying to get comfortable in the brush, though the rock underneath the thin layer of dirt made the task nearly impossible. Not that it mattered. She wouldn't be laying there for long. She peered through the scope of her sniper rifle. Perfect. Just the right angle. No other casualties if it came to it. No one blocking her shot.
She stood toe to toe with him. "Wrex, just listen, please! You're smarter than this!"
He had had just about enough of talking. All it did was waste time, time he didn't have. He drew his shotgun and pointed it at her, and she stared him down without a flinch. She didn't even blink. Impressive.
"No, you listen Shepard. The line between friend and foe is pretty blurred from where I'm standing. I like you, but this is the survival of my people we're talking about, and you want me to throw it away!"
Her weapon remained holstered, her voice steady. The damned human refused to stand down. He respected that.
"Saren's just using them for their brute power and strength, just as the Council did when they used the krogan to fight the rachni. He doesn't care about restoring your people. He only cares about how he can use that to his advantage. Wrex, he may have found a way to cure the genophage, but these krogan serve him, not themselves and definitely not the krogan race."
Wrex let out a low growl.
"If Saren has his way, no one will be around. Not even the krogan."
- The sun beat down on Ashley, sweat beading above her brow. She shifted again and focused. The crosshairs fell onto his head, just below the boney rust colored fringe on top of his head.
His hand tensed on the trigger, resistance meeting the pressure.
"Trust me Wrex."
A glint caught his eye, and he turned his head, ever so slightly. Only a cropping of rocks stood in the distance…He snorted.
- She saw the muscles in his arm twitch, his shoulder prepare for the recoil of a gun. She bunked down, lining her sights up. A sanguine gaze met her own. Her hand tensed on the trigger, resistance meeting the pressure.
Wrex heaved a sigh, the muzzle of his gun slowly lowering. He was going to regret this someday.
"Fine Shepard. We'll do this your way, only because you haven't given me a reason not to." He held out his hand. "I'll follow you because I trust you."
She grinned, clasping his hand with a vigor that could rival any proud krogan. "Then let's make sure I prove myself worthy of that trust."
He knew she said something else, but his attention was on the cropping of rocks in the distance.
- "Why do you keep fighting?"
Wrex snorted awake, slipping from his position on the wall. He caught himself and readjusted, shifting his shoulders, trying to find that comfortable spot again. He crossed his arms, closing his eyes. He had almost drifted off to sleep again…
Wrex huffed and scowled at the small human. She stared right back. Ashley was her name, the one who always insisted on checking his weapons. She did good work. "What's that supposed to mean?"
She shrugged, glancing down to tinker with something. "It seems to me that you're always talking about how you wanted to help your people, but then turn around and say it's a lost cause. So I wonder why you keep fighting if it's so useless."
He closed his eyes again. Why was everyone on this ship always so damn curious? "Because."
She laughed. "Because? C'mon Wrex, you don't do things just 'because.'"
He peeked an eye open. "Why did you join your human military? Didn't you tell Shepard that your family name was dishonored or something?"
Her face changed and she blinked, pushing the parts away from her as she looked down at the table. Better yet, she was silent. Good. Maybe she would drop the subject and he could attempt to sleep…
"Williams is a laughable name in the Alliance." She said quietly. "But it's my name, and my duty to uphold." She faced him, with her chin held high, fiery determination burning in amber eyes. "I will make everyone who doubts know that Williams is a damn fine name to be proud of. My family's past shouldn't dictate what our future is. That's why I joined the Alliance. To shove my boot up anyone's ass who thinks otherwise."
Wrex barked a laugh, one that turned a couple of heads as it echoed around the hull and actually made her jump. He grinned. "Exactly."
She shook her head. "What do you…" And then realization slowly dawned. "Oh."
"Everyone—even me—has written my people off as mindless brutes capable of nothing but death." He paused. "Well, we do kickass like no one else, but we were once warriors of honor, something to be respected, not mercs hired for a handful of credits. If someone doesn't smack some sense into the krogan, if someone doesn't get them focused on the right things, we'll die out, just like the galaxy wants us to. And I'll be damned before I give those salarians or turians the satisfaction."
Ashley nodded, a smile slowly creeping up to her face. She turned back to her work. "I like you Wrex."
He chuckled, getting comfortable. "You're not half bad yourself. For a human."
Shepard bit her lip, staring at the map that was under her palms. It didn't matter where they attacked from or how they split up their miniscule amount of forces. The plan was risky. So damn risky.
She looked up at Kirrahe. "STG or not, your men are going to get slaughtered."
"This is a fact that each and every one of them is aware of, and we aren't exactly scientists in a lab, Commander. We can hold our own."
"I don't doubt it, but damn it…" She shook her head at the map, frowning. "Three heavily guarded outposts, a fortified front, god-knows-what waiting for us on the inside." She pushed herself up. "And no time. This is a blasted suicide run."
Kirrahe grimly nodded. "It is indeed. Which is why what I have asked of you is difficult. If you were to decline—"
She held up a hand, stopping him. "No. If this plan has any chance of succeeding, then we need to work together. You'll have someone from my team."
But who to send? She had already decided that it needed to be an Alliance soldier. Better to have someone who knew Alliance communication protocols like they knew their own name, which all Alliance soldiers did, ground into their heads during—
"I volunteer, Commander."
Her eyes shot up, seeing that Kaidan had stepped forward, coffee eyes brimming with nothing but the smoldering loyalty of a devoted soldier. He was more than capable; a strong leader and a fine officer of the Alliance, used to the pressure of commanding a squad. He would be—
"Not so fast LT. Shepard is going to need you to arm the nuke." Ashley crossed her arms. "I volunteer, Commander."
Standing tall and proud, it was obvious that she lived to serve. Ashley survived Eden Prime when no one else from the 212 did, had more than proved herself during her time on the Normandy. She was a fine soldier of the Alliance, and Shepard trusted her with her life. She would be—
"With all due respect Chief, it's the Commander's decision."
Ashley rolled her eyes. "Why is it when someone says 'with all due respect," what they really mean is 'kiss my ass?'"
"Both of you!" Shepard snapped, lips twitching as she tried not to smile. She took a breath. "Just calm down. Lieutenant, I appreciate the enthusiasm, but I really do need you to arm the bomb. I'm pretty sure if I even look at it, the stupid thing will go off prematurely. They didn't exactly teach us Nuke 101 back in Brazil."
Ashley laughed, knowing exactly what Shepard was talking about. "I have a hard time imagining Gunnery Chief Ellison doing that."
Ellison with bombs? Nuclear ones? Christ, if he had had access to anything of the sort, Shepard was convinced that most of her class wouldn't have made it to graduation. And after some occasions, she probably would have been with the lot of them that were ashes in a pile somewhere. Just because Ellison had acknowledged her ability to lead, didn't mean they got along.
She shared a smile with her before she got serious. "Captain, I'm sending Chief Williams with you. She experienced and one hell of a soldier. All I ask is that you bring her back in the condition I send her out in."
"I'll do my best, Commander."
But no promises. She didn't like it, but it would have to do. She couldn't ask for any more.
She tapped two spots on the map, points of interest where their forces needed to focus their assault. "While we're at it, I want you to split the remainder of my team between two of your diversion squads. It'll give us a little more in the way of firepower and it's better than having them wait around on the ship."
"The shadow is on the ground. I repeat, the shadow is on the ground."
Ashley crouched beside Kirrahe, awaiting her orders, rhythmically switching the safety on her rifle back and forth. It felt strange, knowing that she wasn't going to be in the thick of it with Shepard at her back. She looked up, surrounded by unfamiliar faces. It was a feeling that wasn't all that foreign to her, having been moved from post to post for years. She never had the chance to set down roots, nor get particularly close with the people she served with. But under Shepard's command, she had developed more than a strong bond with the crew; they were like her second family now.
The captain motioned for the squad to form up tight on his position.
- Shepard lightly kicked the generator, scuffing the gray casing with her boot. The comm station quietly hummed above their heads. She pointed at it, moving to get a better look. "Can you shut it down?" Tali peered up. "It would take a few minutes for me to bypass their firewalls and security, but it's definitely possible. I might even be able to jam their signals from here, make communication and coordinating between separate units much more difficult." "We really don't have the—" Three shots, followed by the sizzling of dying electricity cut her off. Kaidan was holstering his weapon by the time she turned to see the smoking remains of the generator. She blinked at him. "Alright, that works too." Kaidan shrugged, falling in behind her and Tali as she took point, pushing onward towards the facility. "You were about to do the same thing." True. She was about two seconds from firing on the generator herself before he had, but she wasn't going to admit to it. "Really?" "I recognized that look in your eye." "Okay." Shepard nodded slowly, and then glanced over her shoulder. "And what do my eyes say now?" Kaidan smiled. "We should probably pick up the pace."
The geth line suddenly broke, a weak point developing in their formation. Ashley lobbed a grenade, the resulting explosion tossing flecks of building scattering.
"Take advantage of that opening!" She ordered, popping up from behind cover and gunning down three geth in the matter of seconds. A hail of gunfire from around her decimated what was left of the enemy squad, mechanical corpses littering the path ahead. Weird…the geth weren't acting as a cohesive group, coming at them in wave after wave. They were broken up, acting individually and sporadically. And while they still had the unending numbers, they were remotely easier to take down. It had to have been Shepard running interference. From her experience, geth didn't miraculously malfunction. Someone else had to be pulling the strings.
A few shots quietly echoed off the surrounding walls of the complex before a lull settled around them. It felt like the air, thick and sluggish. It was dangerous, and pauses like this made Ashley squirm. Stop moving for too long and it actually tired out the muscles more than constant warfare would, but not take a break for long enough and it risked having them caught half-cocked, not nearly ready enough to handle the next assault.
She stood, bending her legs so that they wouldn't get stiff. Have to keep the blood flowing, the adrenaline pumping. Don't relax. Relaxing meant death.
Ashley locked eyes with Kirrahe as she checked with the rest of the team for any injuries. It was a passing glance, but one that shone of resolve to get as many men as he could to the end. It reminded her of someone else.
His eyes flicked ahead and he bunkered down. "Enemy patrol sighted! Get into positions!" His voice carried and commanded respect, all signs of fatigue—however small—were instantly gone within each soldier, even herself. It surprised her to some degree, having been so used to the softer spoken scientists and doctors. But that determination? That persistence? He defied every stereotype that could have ever existed about the salarians and she found that she was quickly becoming fond of Kirrahe.
"Time your shots!" He called out, "No unnecessary risks, and no heroics! Your one and only goal is to get to the next checkpoint!"
- Ashley dug deep, stretching her legs and pulling all the energy she could muster to make the final sprint for her momentary release. Her breaths were short and ragged, more gasps than anything now. Almost there. Twenty more feet. Thirteen feet. She was almost there…and then she tripped, throwing her entire body stumbling forward.
This is it. I'm gone.
Ashley waited for the end as she desperately tried to recover her stride. She waited for that dreadful noise that would tell her that her shields were drained and waited for that first searing hot pain of a round tearing through her armor. But it never came. She looked farther up the incline once she her back was firmly planted against the rock to see why she was still breathing. Barely. Running down towards her and catching the geth in a deadly cross-fire was the Alliance's onyx clad version of a guardian angel.
The resolve to get to the end. To live. Ashley pushed her back against a wall and peered around, a fresh squad of geth—easily twenty units—advancing on their position. She let out a controlled breath and took aim. Yeah, she could definitely understand that.
- The alarms rang through the building. "We're in." "And the salarian teams?" Tali faced Shepard, hand wavering over the console. "They should be receiving less resistance now that we're going to be taking some heat off of them." She nodded, silently directing Kaidan to take position on the side of the door, opposite to where she was. "Good. Now we don't know what's waiting for us beyond this door, so watch your backs and play it smart." She nestled the butt of her rifle into her shoulder and relaxed. "Tali, open the door." Shepard and Kaidan rounded the corner into the large room in perfect unison, instantly targeting their fire on the lumbering krogan who had been a second too slow in registering what was happening. He crumpled to the ground.
They just kept coming. Ashley dropped one after the other, but the geth just kept pushing. Relentless bastards.
- "I'm going to tell it to you straight. We have a bomb. A very big bomb." Shepard put on the best grim face she could muster before staring the scientist down. "I'm going to blow this place to hell and gone with that bomb. So if you plan on living, I suggest you start running." The look of complete shock on the asari's face was almost too much to bear, and the sight of her practically falling over herself took everything Shepard had not to laugh. Kaidan chuckled beside her. "You enjoyed that." She gave him a crooked grin. "Maybe a little."
"We're getting ripped apart out here!" Wrex's voice boomed in her ear. Jaeto was down to just a few soldiers, which included Wrex and Liara. They had five, maybe six men left. "Shepard needs to get her ass moving!"
"Mannovai's squad leader is down, I repeat, Mannovai's squad leader is K.I.A." With Garrus, they were down to three.
Frantic calls were coming in from both Jaeto and Mannovai squads, casualties rocketing far above what they had planned, and for all of the ground they had covered, the geth were slowly pushing them back. They had no idea that they would meet this much resistance once inside the compound. To stay and fight would mean a massacre. But to call a full retreat would mean the same.
Kirrahe's voice cut through the chaos, like a beacon of light, steady and true. "Hold your positions! Shepard can't be far from the center of the facility now. We're in the final stre—"
Green blood splattered the surface behind, and the captain fell, the fire in his eyes extinguished long before Ashley could reach him.
- Just seeing the beacon sent a shiver of dread up her back. Unmarred and a pristine white, it filled the room with the quiet hum of energy. She could have sworn the damn thing was mocking her. "No sense in prolonging it," she grumbled, approaching it. "Commander, don't." There was an impossible amount of worry etched in his face as he shifted his gaze from her to the beacon. He was eyeing it as if it might explode like its counterpart did. Hell, he could be right. "Is it really necessary?" She chuckled, shaking her head. "Trust me, I'm not all that keen on getting my brain scrambled again either, but unfortunately, I have to." She tapped her temple. "I don't have the full picture, remember? I can't pass up this opportunity." She reached out, fingers slightly twitching from anticipation. A thought hit her just before and she stopped, looking over her shoulder. "You two might want to step back, y'know, just in case." "Just in case of what?" Tali asked, sounding alarmed. "In case it explodes." Kaidan flatly responded, pulling her back with him, his eyes never leaving Shepard's gaze until she turned back. God that man was something else… "What?!" "Long story…" Shepard mumbled and stepped forward, an all too familiar force plucking her from the ground. An unbelievable pain shot from the base of her skull down her spine, then seemed to spread through her chest and to all of her extremities. She knew this pain, knew what it threatened to bring. It fought with her, wanting to pull her into the dark abyss of unconsciousness, but she pushed past it. She had to. A million cries for mercy. A million pleas for salvation. A planet. Multiple planets. Blood. Everywhere. Entire solar systems. We fought. Burning. We failed. Miserably failed. Colossal creatures. Machines. Giant starships. We couldn't stop them. Death. Fire. They are never ending and merciless. Massive killings. Corpses everywhere. They won't stop. They will never stop. Genocide. This is a warning. The Reapers are coming. She was dropped from the air, gravity remembering its place as she fell hard on her knees. She tried to quell her body's quivering, stop herself from gasping. She wished willpower alone could ease her pounding head. She somehow managed to wave Kaidan away when he offered his hand. She pushed herself up, staggering only a little. The vision from the beacon was a full body experience. She felt like she had been sent through the ringer, every muscle aching in one way or another. She wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep, but this wasn't the place, and she still had a bomb to set and a boot to shove up Saren's ass. Tending to her weariness would have to wait, when she didn't have an audience. She hid it under a grin, pushing her hair back from her face and standing up. "No explosion. We're doing better than last time."
Shit. Shit shit shit. This was beyond bad. Kirrahe was dead, his motionless body lying next to her. Almost the entire squad was dead, scattered around. It wouldn't be long before she was—
—No. Ashley pushed the thought from her head. If she started thinking that way, she would be dead. She had a promise to keep to herself. Saren threatened her family, and she would be damned before she let the bastard bring about the end of either of them. She hurled her last grenade, and dove from cover, rolling to her feet and leading the charge up to the AA guns.
She would live.
- "It's nice to see you Joker." Shepard radioed in as her ship came into view, blotting out the afternoon sun and casting a shadow across the waters. It was a magnificent sight. "Here we have one of our finest, hand-crafted nuclear bombs, for all your explosive needs. Careful now, she's a bit touchy." She rolled her eyes, watching from afar as Kaidan and some of the engineers loaded the bomb out of the docking bay. Joker was probably heaving a sigh of relief now that the monster was off the ship. Rightfully so, the thing was fucking huge. It would do the job nicely. The rest of her team—Garrus, Liara, and Wrex—had for the most part returned unharmed. Wrex even was escorting some of the remaining STG onto the ship. He had kept his word and ensured their safety, something they probably weren't expecting. All she had to do was get Ashley back and she could call it a day. "Commander? Do you read me?" It was Ashley. Shepard smiled, "I was actually just thinking that it was about time you got back. The nuke is being prepped, so time to pack up and meet at the rendezvous." "Negative, the geth have us pinned down at the AA towers." The smiled was gone. "We'll never make it." Like hell she wouldn't. "Joker, get them the hell out of there, now!" "Cancel that order, ma'am. It's too hot. The Normandy won't make it out. We'll hold them off as long as—" By the time the radio cut out, Shepard had already grabbed Garrus and Wrex. She turned to Kaidan, ready to explain herself, to hand out the order to hold on until she got back with Ashley, but there wasn't a need. Of course not. It was Kaidan. "It'll take me a few minutes to arm the bomb. Bring her back, Shepard."
"Hold on Williams, we're on our way!"
Ashley swore, partially because Shepard wasn't thinking straight, partially because the round that torn through her suit hurt like a bitch. She pressed medi-gel to the wound and gritted her teeth, blind firing from her huddled position. Everyone in her squad was dead. There was only her against the geth.
An airship buzzed overhead.
- His ear piece crackled. "Kaidan! You have a drop ship coming in hard on your location!" Bullets flew past his head. He quickly surveyed the area ahead of him, his hands diligently working on their own. "They're already here. Geth are swarming all over the place." Heat and pain erupted in his side and he dropped into the water, but he didn't hesitate in pushing himself back up. Shepard's voice, strong and steady, cut through the ache. "Can you hold them off?"
"There's too many of them." His breathing was labored. He'd been hit. He was alone. There was no way he could— "I'm activating the bomb."
"Alenko, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Why bother asking? She knew exactly what he was doing. Knew why he was doing it.
"Making sure this bomb goes off no matter what." Any of them would have done the same. Not that it made the coming decision, the one that had been quietly looming over her as soon as she had run off to go get Ashley, any easier. "It's done. Go get Williams and get out of here."
Gunfire again. Shepard could tell it was just a single weapon, which meant Ashley was alone. "Screw that! Go get Alenko and get the hell out of here!" Ashley cried out, the distinct sound of a voice belonging to one who had just been shot. She'd been hit.
Shepard found herself doing something that she rarely did. Pray. She was praying for a miracle, for something to happen in the five seconds that she needed so that she didn't have to choose, but nothing did and so she was left with a choice. Both were wounded. Both needed her help. And the only way she could face it was logically.
She saw Ashley standing tall and proud, obvious that she lived to serve. Ashley survived Eden Prime when no one else from the 212 did, had more than proved herself during her time on the Normandy. She was a fine soldier of the Alliance, and Shepard trusted her with her life. She was her friend, one of her closest, and Shepard wanted nothing more than to save her…
…And then there was Kaidan. She could see him as he had stepped forward, coffee eyes brimming with nothing but the smoldering loyalty of a devoted soldier. He was more than capable; a strong leader and a fine officer of the Alliance, used to the pressure of commanding a squad. He was a biotic, a lieutenant, the Normandy's tech specialist. Everything about him was special in the eyes of the Alliance…
…And Ashley was just a soldier, and that meant being easily replaced. Had she been sent to guard the bomb…
Oh god, the bomb. The bomb had to go off, no matter what. If it didn't, the quasi-war they were fighting was lost before it had even begun.
Kaidan was the logical choice.
Shepard leaned up against the doors to the elevator, resting her head on her arm and staring down at her feet. She needed some sort of support for the words she was about to say. "I'm sorry Ash. I am so sorry. If I could have gotten to you both…"
And despite it all, her voice was calm, soothing even. "It's alright Commander. I understand. It's been an honor." Shepard would never find another like her.
No, the honor was all mine…
The blast had knocked her off her feet and knocked the air out of her lungs, panic setting in as she tried to breathe. She could only hope that it had fried Saren and his stupid hovercraft with him…though just as Shepard had managed to pull in a few ragged gasps and Saren had picked her up by her throat, it only seemed to have pissed him off more.
He held her suspended in the air with a single arm, regardless of her struggles, hand constricting around her neck, cutting off the air she had tried so hard to get seconds ago. She could feel small beads of blood roll down her neck Bastard was strong, probably because of the tech, she noticed. His eyes glowed an eerie blue, tubes made up large portions of his arms. His face looked like something out of an old Earth sci-fi vid; part synthetic, part organic. No wonder he was so easy to sway during their little banter. He was already well on his way to becoming Sovereign's slave.
A klaxon sounded—the salarians had time to throw in an alarm system?—and grabbed Saren's attention. Shepard managed a grin. Spectre to Spectre, he should have known never to take his eyes off his enemy. Her fist collided with his face and it was enough to get him to drop her.
She scrambled to her feet and readied for another fight, but Saren turned tail and retreated back to his hovercraft that miraculously was still running. Sucking in air like it was her job, she let him go, knowing that she still had a job to finish. She would get him, eventually.
She had been counting since it started to go off, and the alarm was acting as makeshift timer, going off every five seconds. She had no idea how much time she had left. Staggering over to Kaidan, she grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, her own legs shaking under exertion as she took on most of his weight. They were almost there, the Normandy flying in from the horizon. Together, they hobbled up the ramp and into the company of the Normandy crew.
She made the mistake of looking behind.
Logic was thrown out the airlock.
She could run. She would run. She hated running, hated it with a fucking passion, but she would run. If she was fast enough she could have enough time to…
He could feel her intentions radiating off of her as she attempted to pass him off to one of the engineers. He reached out and grabbed her. "Commander, we've got to go."
She wrenched her arm away. "She's coming with us. I'm not leaving her here." She reached up to her communicator. He could hear her ordering Joker to hold position until she returned with Ashley as she turned away, but he pulled it away from her and grabbed her shoulders, the device clattering to the floor. He was already losing a friend. He wasn't going to lose Shepard too.
"Cancel that order Joker."
It was borderline mutiny. Hell, it was mutiny. The very definition of it.
"What the hell are you doing?"
But he had to do it.
"Williams is staying behind so that the Normandy can get away. So that Saren can finally be caught. If you go out there now, the Alliance will lose you, and there will be nothing to stand in his way."
She pulled away and turned on her heel, striding towards the cargo bay doors that were still open, still close enough to the ground where she could make a safe jump. He caught her again, ignoring the burning pain his side was causing him and held her to him, arms wrapped around her waist.
"Shepard, she's gone."
- You made your choice.
"Like hell she is." She pushed against him. "Damn it Alenko, she's still down there! I can get to her!"
"You don't have time Commander! I can't let you go back!" He held on with all he had, but damn it, she was fighting him every step of the way.
- …I know…
"Let go of me Alenko." She growled, her attempts at escape becoming more desperate as the ground began to disappear behind the bay doors, the Normandy pulling away from the planet's surface. "I'm bringing Ashley with us!"
- You can't save them both.
"No Commander. Ashley's gone." He repeated. The words tasted sour.
"She won't be if you just let go! Just let me try!"
"I can't Shepard!"
- …I know that…
"God damn it Lieutenant, let go of me! That's a fucking order!" Her elbow came back hard into his combat suit and he grunted in pain, but it only strengthened his resolve to hold on. The Alliance needed her. The Council needed her. He owed it to Ashley to make sure Shepard stayed on the ship.
- Then why are you fighting?
As soon as the doors closed with a shutter and the ship lurched, making its ascent into Virmire's atmosphere he let his grip loosen. She took a slow step forward, and then another, staring at the bay doors. Everything about her was still.
Kaidan reached out. "Shepard…"
She spun on him, her fist coming in a blur and slamming against his jaw. He staggered back, tasting the blood as it welled up in his mouth. He almost didn't want to look at her, dreading what might be staring back at him. But he did anyway.
He expected to see fire burning behind a cerulean gaze.
He expected to see rage pulling her fist back for another swing.
But it was like he had gone back in time to a day where when all seemed lost, to a day where humanity prevailed against everything that said it shouldn't. A day where when they showed live footage of her on the holoscreen a week after, the pain in those eternally blue eyes betrayed the smile she wore. It was a day she still considered to be her greatest failure.
"The Alliance doesn't train you for the day that you have to decide who lives and who dies…
A day where she realized her best just wasn't enough.
…They just sort of throw you into the water and hope that you don't drown."
- …Because I wish I could…