"Spacefold complete," Edie reported.
Joker sat back slightly from his console. "And that, ladies and gentlemen," he said with satisfaction, "is how we do that." He let out what would've been a cheek-puffing sigh if he'd had cheeks to puff. "Gonna be a while before I hear 'welcome to the Quarian Union' again."
"How long until we're within transporter range of Paragon?" Shepard asked.
"Ten minutes, 'less you want us to do another microjump," Joker said.
"No, that'll do. We need to get ready anyway." She got up and pressed the all-call on her conn arm. "Tactical personnel, gear up and get to the comm room on the double." Then, closing the channel, she said to Joker and Edie, "See if you can get me some scans of what's going on down there while we suit up."
"Aye-aye, Commander," Joker replied. "We're pressed for time right now, so you can tell me how awesome I am later," he added magnanimously.
"I'll do that," Shepard replied, deadpan, as she followed the others to the door. There she paused in the doorway, looked back, and said, "Joker?"
"You're awesome," she said, and left the bridge.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act III: Renegades of Paragon
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
and Geoff Depew
©2013 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The Surprise's tactical communications room was a tight fit with all the new fighting personnel they'd picked up in the Scandia system, but Shepard wasn't going to complain about that. She had a feeling she was going to need all of them.
"OK," she said, powering up the holotank in the middle of the briefing table to display a map of the combat zone. "We don't have a lot of time, so listen up. This is the capital city of Paragon colony, imaginatively named Paragon City. The Collectors' cruiser has landed here," she pointed, "near the edge of the city, in a district called Baumton."
Kaidan Alenko whistled as the holomap zoomed in on the trouble area, revealing that the Collector ship's landing had devastated the district. The Collectors had parked their enormous vessel right bang in the middle of a cluster of skyscrapers, flattening some outright, while others were broken off partway up and/or leaned crazily. At this resolution, smoke could be seen pouring from the city's wounds.
"The area's already a near-total loss," Shepard said. She adjusted the view, panning across the cityscape at the same zoom level before stopping on a neighboring area. This was a similarly urbanized zone, with its own, as-yet-undamaged skyscrapers. "The neighboring borough of Steel Canyon, on the other hand, still has a chance. " She glanced at a data readout scrolling along on her omni-tool—which was proving just as handy, and just as easy to grasp, as Tony Stark had promised—before continuing, "This is the city's financial district—mostly offices, some light industrial, a few apartment buildings. It's Friday afternoon down there, so we're looking at something close to a half-million people."
"Out of how many in the whole city?" Zaeed Massani wondered.
"Ten times that, at least," Arna Alenko answered him. "This is no stage-one colony. Paragon is the oldest EA settlement in the Traverse, and by far the most populous."
"They've never hit anything anywhere near this big before," Garrus Vakarian mused.
Shepard nodded. "I know. Either they've gotten very ambitious... or they're getting desperate, though I couldn't tell you why. Not really important right now. Mordin, where are we on the seeker countermeasures?"
"Technically complete," the salarian scientist reported, "but never tested at large scale. Probably work. Can't guarantee it."
"Well, we'll have to hope," Shepard said. She zoomed in a little more, framing the district in the holofield to the exclusion of all else. At this scale, the grainiest indications of activity could be seen, in the form of glowing red specks that indicated some form of hostile activity. There were three spots on the map where these specks seemed to be most concentrated. "Based on the scan returns we're getting, it looks like they've finally hit some serious resistance—no offense, Arna."
Arna shook her head, looking gravely at the map, arms folded. "None taken," she said. "It's true. We didn't last long."
"There seem to be three main disruptions to the Collector activity in the district, here, here, and here," Shepard went on, indicating the three red areas. "We can't tell from this range what they're up against, but they seem to be bottlenecked on the north AND south ends and something big is going down in the middle. We'll split into two teams, beam down, assess the situation, figure out who to help and how we can do the most good." She looked around the table, then made the call: "Garrus will take Vega, Mordin, Tali, and the law firm of Alenko & Alenko to the northern hotspot. Do me a huge favor and don't get Tali killed. Jack, Grunt, Liara, Zaeed, you're with me; we're heading to the south. Once we secure our IPs, we'll move toward the middle and take on the situation there from both sides."
"Uh, Commander?" said Joker's voice on the overhead. "We might have another problem."
"What is it, Joker?" Shepard asked.
The holotank display switched to an orbital view of the planet. For a second nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary; then the view zoomed in on the planet's western limb, revealing that a second Collector ship was in orbit.
"They have two of those things?!" Vega blurted.
"Looks like it," said Shepard glumly.
"That one must be here to cover the other while they round everyone up," Arna reasoned. "Even if they hadn't hit resistance, they must have figured collecting that many people would take long enough that Earthforce might get here to investigate before they can finish."
"Joker, can we do anything about that one?" Shepard asked.
"Nnnnot right away," Joker replied. "You might recall we just jumped like halfway across the galaxy? Gonna take the main engines a while to recharge. The wave motion gun won't be online for at least half an hour, and I don't think we've got anything else that's gonna win an argument with these guys."
Shepard thought it over for a second, then nodded. "OK. Just get us into position to beam down, and then stay out of sight."
"Roger that, Commander. ETA three minutes."
Edie put Shepard's team down a block or so from the southern hotspot, in an alley between a couple of low buildings that turned out to be retail premises. Weapons at the ready, they edged onto the street, checking both directions. Paralyzed citizens were scattered around, most still standing where they'd been stung, a few—probably those who had been running flat-out and had some momentum—lying in strange positions, like discarded store-window dummies with their arms frozen in fake gestures. Swarms of seekers darted here and there, searching for more victims, but they didn't seem to notice the new arrivals. While Shepard and the others scanned their surroundings, a group of the robot insects buzzed right past them without showing the slightest interest.
Shepard keyed her com. "Shepard to Mordin. Looks like your countermeasures work, at least for the moment."
"Seeing the same here," Mordin replied. "Gratifying."
"Are you within sight of your hotspot?" she asked.
"That's affirmative," Garrus reported. "Looks like the action's centered around some kind of light rail station—public transit, most likely. Not sure what's going on there yet."
"Keep me posted. Shepard out." She nodded to the rest of her team. "Move out."
They moved cautiously down the street, leapfrogging from doorway to alley, toward the unmistakable sounds of battle emanating from the west. Ahead of them, the broad boulevard they were on was crossed by another that came down a steeply angled ramp from the elevated area to the south. In the angle formed by that ramp and the high ground behind, they could see a cluster of old-fashioned red-brick buildings, starkly out of place against the sleek chrome-and-concrete modernity of the surrounding skyscrapers, and what appeared to be a pitched battle being fought among them.
Next to Shepard, Liara chuckled softly. Shepard glanced a question at her; she returned the glance, then turned her eyes back to their apparent destination and said,
"It's a university. They're always the same where Earthpeople settle."
"Hah," said Shepard. "Something in our cultural RNA. Red brick equals venerable."
By now they had reached the last building before they'd have to cross the intersecting street to reach the campus. Keeping low, Shepard led them across the street to the corner of the first red-brick building. They worked their way along the building's frontage; when they reached the other side, she held up a hand to halt the group, then leaned quickly out to have a look.
What she saw did indeed look like a small college campus. The building she and her team were standing in front of was at the corner of a paved plaza, in the center of which was a large ornamental sculpture (of what, she had no idea—whatever abstract concept the artist figured a sphere with a slot cut out of it would convey). A hundred yards or so across, the campus featured another building like the one they stood by on the opposite side. At the back, facing out to the street, stood a somewhat larger building with a more ornate facade that said "admin building" to Shepard's eye.
In the plaza itself, apart from the sculpture, there was presently a pitched battle being fought between a force of Collectors and... well, Shepard wasn't really sure what. Humanoids, but green-skinned, most of them sporting short horns on their foreheads. They were dressed mostly in ratty jeans, T-shirts, and old leather jackets. A number of them had cheap handguns, blaster pistols, or black-market SMGs, but others carried only improvised melee weapons like tire irons and baseball bats, and still others apparently felt no need for weapons at all. While Shepard watched, her tactically-trained mind rapidly processing the scene, she saw a couple of them shrug off direct hits from the Collectors' assault-rifle-like weapons and deck their assailants with punches or thrown rocks.
"Oh, just what we needed," Zaeed grumbled.
"You know what these guys are?" Shepard asked him.
Zaeed nodded. "They're called Trolls. Abusers of a combat drug called Superadine. I've known some guys in the merc business who swear by the stuff. Do the right amount, it give you bullet-resistant skin, borderline superhuman strength, deadened pain response for a couple of hours. Do too much, it does all that, turns you green, and makes you a hyperviolent idiot. Permanently." He shook his head. "Never thought it was worth the risk myself."
"Well, at least they're fighting the Collectors," said Grunt philosophically.
"Let's give them a hand with that," said Shepard with a faint smile.
"Be careful with these guys, Shepard. I'm not exaggerating, the amount of 'Dine these guys must have taken to make them like this—it'll have left them with the brainpower of angry toddlers. If that."
"Noted," Shepard said. "Let's go."
The arrival of Shepard's heavily armed, professional strike force from an unexpected flank broke the Collectors' position, throwing them into disarray. They regrouped quickly, but not quickly enough to save themselves being overrun, and within a few minutes none remained alive in the plaza—at which point, as Zaeed had warned, Shepard's team found itself faced on two sides by violent, amped-up combat-stim addicts.
"Now just hold on a minute," Shepard cautioned them, aiming her Mattock dead at the nearest one's forehead. "We're not here to fight you guys. We're on the same side here."
"Who you?" one of them—the biggest one, his muscles almost bursting out of the threadbare Superconducting Supercolliders T-shirt he wore—demanded.
"My name's Shepard," she said. "I'm here to fight the Collectors." She made one of those on-the-spot snap decisions she'd been famous for, back in her first life, and added without missing more than one beat, "And I want your help."
The Troll scowled at her. His was a really advanced case; in addition to the huge muscles and stubby horns, the drug had caused his lower incisors and canines to grow to absurd size, so that they jutted out of his mouth even when it was closed and distorted his speech. She could make him out clearly enough, though, as he demanded,
"Why we help you?"
"I told you," Shepard said patiently, "I'm here to fight the Collectors. If you join me, you can help me do that. Working together, we can get them out of your town that much faster."
The biggest Troll folded his arms across his massive chest and sneered, something his dental configuration made it almost impossible for him not to do, anyway. "Trolls not work for you," he snarled. "You soft. You weak. Trolls only follow strong leader. Like Atta," he said, jabbing a thumb into his own chest. He shook his head. "An' Atta not follow you. You nothin'."
Beside and a little behind her, Shepard heard Liara chuckle and mutter in a low voice, "(One toke, you poor fool? Wait'll you see those goddamn bats.)"
Grunt half-turned to Jack, not taking his eyes off the slowly advancing Trolls, and demanded, "Are we just going to stand here and let them flank us? I thought you said this battlemaster of yours knew what she was doing."
"Relax," Jack replied with an easy smile that completely belied the increasing tension of their situation. "Watch and learn, my young apprentice."
"Do you really want to do this?" Shepard inquired as the Trolls closed in. "Your hometown's being invaded, people are dying, and you want to play power games instead of getting to work and saving the place? Fine. I'll play." Stepping out of her squad's tightening little group, she stowed the Mattock, balled her fists, took up a ready stance, and said flatly, "Let's go."
Atta stared incredulously at her for a second, then grinned jaggedly and gestured his men back. They obeyed, some reluctantly, most eagerly, falling back and forming a ragged cordon between Shepard's squad and the street. Shepard, in turn, indicated that her team should take up a position on the steps of the biggest building. This left her and Atta most of the plaza to work with. The Troll's snaggletoothed grin became something like a leer as he cracked first his neck, then his knuckles, before moving toward her with his fists upraised.
"Me am break you," he said.
"We'll see," Shepard replied.
She let him make the first move, which he did without hesitation, taking a swing that made an audible WHUMP against the air as it passed over her head. All power and absolutely no technique, just as she had expected. She turned the duck into the first part of a counterattack, ramming one of her fists into his midsection. Even with her armored gauntlet on, this was a bit like punching a durasteel bulkhead. The Troll sneered and took another swing. Shepard backpedaled, narrowly avoided taking that one on the chin, and then got down to business.
She had never had any personal use for the more flamboyant, technical martial arts. She'd known several truly outstanding practitioners of those arts, and she knew they were for real, not just flashy stunts invented for the vids, but they simply weren't for her. She wasn't a warrior monk or a battle philosopher; she was a soldier. Always had been, always would be. In her first life, she had studied plenty of hand-to-hand fighting methods, but she'd always concentrated on the most direct and efficient techniques available, the ones with a minimum of fuss that would do the maximum damage. In Valhalla she had gravitated naturally toward others of a similar persuasion—and in Valhalla there were some all-time grand masters of screwing up the other guy's shit.
Now, up against a man who was perhaps a foot taller than she was, twice as broad, and possibly three times as heavy, she couldn't help but remember her afternoons in the Valhalla courtyard with the greats—Fairbairn, Lichtenfeld, Lee, Pechkolnakova—sparring with one while another lectured on the critical difference between fighting for sport and fighting for one's life. Those had been hard, painful days, occasionally days that had seen her put out of action entirely until the next day's sunrise revived all Valhalla's warriors and put their hurts to right, but they had also been very, very valuable.
Now, for instance, they enabled her to outmaneuver, outthink, outlast, and outhurt this monstrously mutated specimen, evading the worst of his blows, absorbing the ones that could safely be absorbed (and judging the difference between the two with expert precision), and hammering his defenses until even he started to feel the injuries she was inflicting. Within a couple of minutes he was blowing like a maddened bull, his increasingly frenzied attacks taxing even his body's endurance. By the third, the blood had started to come.
Watching the boss at work—and what a long time it had been since she'd had a chance to enjoy watching such a comprehensive ass-kicking—Jack glanced to her left to see what Grunt was making of it. She was pleased to see that he was transfixed, standing there rigid-bodied like a hunting dog on point, his blue eyes wide as he took in every angle and vector, every blow and dodge. By this point Shepard was working that Troll (stupid name, Jack thought, they're obviously orcs) like the heavy bag, avoiding the tempting trap of his bony jaw and jagged teeth to work his midsection with blow after punishing blow from her armored fists.
Only once did he catch her out, a bad read of his body language and a bit of blind luck conspiring to put Shepard right in his path for a full-power hit—one which sent her crashing into the base of the plaza sculpture, shattering its marble cladding in a cloud of pulverized stone. Atta raised his fists and laughed triumphantly, only for the laugh to choke off into a querulous noise as the dust settled, Shepard straightened up, and he realized that it wasn't triumph at all.
She wiped the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth with her thumb, gave him a smirk, and then strode briskly back into the fray, the trace of humor disappearing from her face like a lamp turning off.
Thirty seconds later, the Troll leader hit the ground. For several moments after impact, he stayed there, stretched out full-length, face-down on the pavement. Presently he stirred, groaned, gathered in his limbs, and started pushing himself upright. Seeing one of Shepard's boots in front of his face, he raised his eyes... and found himself looking right down the barrel of the Carnifex handcannon she'd drawn while he was out, and past it to her grim, slightly bloody face.
"Now I'm done screwing around with you, pal," she said flatly. "I haven't got time for it and neither does your city. One way or another, we're through here."
Atta stared up at her in blank disbelief for a second, then smiled slightly with bloody lips and nodded.
"You strongest," he said. "We good. Trolls follow you."
The other Trolls didn't seem to find this in any way dismaying. In fact, they seemed eager to get back to it, raising their weapons (those who had them) and cheering.
Shepard held his eyes for a couple of seconds, then withdrew her sidearm and helped him up. As she set about rallying her new troops and preparing them to head north, Jack took another look at Grunt, who was staring at the commander's back, slackjawed.
"Grunt? Hey. Nirn to Grunt," she said, poking him smartly in the middle of his armored forehead.
"Huh!" he said, seeming to return from someplace. He blinked at her, rubbed the spot she'd poked, and then shook his head. "Yeah," he said distractedly. "Let's go."
At the north end of the district, Garrus and his team closed in on the embattled monorail station, taking stock of the situation. There were fewer Collectors here and more of those robotic zombie things—a slightly different type from the ones Kaidan and Arna had seen on Eden Prime. These, in addition to charging headlong at their targets and trying to rip them apart with their bare hands, could produce some kind of electromagnetic pulse discharge, sending electric shockwaves blasting out in all directions around them as they swarmed into the melee.
Their opponents seemed to belong to either a street gang or a very large punk rock band. Armed to the teeth and obviously up for as big a fight as their alien attackers cared to bring them, they were dressed to a man in ripped leather and denim, spikes, chains, big stompy boots, and obscene T-shirts such as Jack would have appreciated, and most had Day-Glo hair in various aggressive, spikey styles. And—
"They're all cyborgs," Arna muttered. "What the hell's going on?"
And so, Garrus saw, they were. Robocyborgs of the OLD school, not sleek modern synthoid cyborgs like Joker; in fact, most of them looked like they'd built their cybernetic parts themselves, possibly in a high school metal shop. Some sported huge electrical generators on their backs and various improvised electrodes with which to wield those generators' output. Others had replaced one or both arms with crude robotic limbs, often ending either in massive hammerheads or great jagged scrap-metal claws. There were even a few enormous, heavily armored specimens who seemed to have gone the full body replacement route, except for their heads, such that they resembled junked battlemovers topped with giant punk rocker bobblehead heads.
"Let's ask 'em," Garrus replied, and without further hesitation he waded into the fray.
James Vega had, down in his secret place, had his doubts about this bunch he'd been hooked up with. Shepard's old crew from the Normandy, he'd read about, and he knew they were big trouble—or had been, 100 years ago; but his team was also saddled with the ancient salarian scientist, the quarian teenager, and the Earthforce gropo, a representative of a martial subspecies for which Vega, like most WDF marines, had little respect. As they entered combat, he figured he'd be spending most of his time trying to keep the deadweight alive, since neither Vakarian nor Alenko Sr. seemed to be too worried about it.
That lasted about five seconds, which was the length of time it took for Mordin Solus to pull a pair of M5 Phalanx heavy pistols from Christ only knew where under his lab coat and start just straight-up fucking annihilating the robozombies. The old salarian moved with an almost frightening fluidity as he flowed with the rhythms of the battle, never quite where the enemy expected him to be, and it seemed like every time he fired, he hit his target—usually in the head. Jesus, thought Vega, is he a scientist or an assassin?
Similarly, back in the armory on the Surprise before the mission, he'd noticed the quarian kid, Tali, going through the weapons racks with every appearance of absorbed concentration. Not requiring armor, she'd spent the full available time on this task before settling, with a satisfied little noise, on the oldest weapon in the shop. This was an ancient Bryar blaster carbine that some creative soul had chopped down into a scattergun—a weapon-and-customization combo that had, Vega had been told, been very popular with certain WDF special-ops type in the old days, which was presumably why the IPO Chief had included such a thing in this ship's arsenal.
Vega had considered sidling over and cluing the kid in that nobody without extensive small-arms training could reasonably hope to accomplish anything with such a weapon, that it was more of a prop for badass movie heroes than a proper battle implement, and that she'd probably be better off just sticking with the Ares Predator VII she'd selected as a sidearm. There hadn't really been time, though, and she didn't give the impression that she was the sort of person who'd welcome such well-meaning advice from a stranger anyway, so he'd let it be.
Now he saw how wrong he'd been, because—though little more than a child—the quarian girl handled that thing like a commando. She knew exactly what she was doing with it, and that was blowing the friggin' robozombies damn near in half whenever one threatened to get close to Solus. Wherever he moved, whatever he did, she had his back, and anything hostile that came within that chopped Bryar's cone of lethality got blown to red-hot ratshit.
That left Alenko Jr., as he'd mentally dubbed the Earthforce trooper. Vega had expected her to be a plodder, all procedure and no spark. Earthforce Marines weren't expected to be creative, flexible problem-solvers like their Salusian or WDF cousins; their job was to point and shoot. Earthforce doctrine called for amped barriers and massed line-of-battle formations, overwhelming the enemy with numbers and firepower. Singly or in small, scattered groups, their troops were practically useless—uncreative, unadaptable, like Scorpio turrets that consumed rations.
This young woman was... not like that. In fact, as she entered the battle alongside Vakarian, she seemed to mesh her fighting style with his pretty much automatically. He had a Kassa Locust SMG in each hand and was going almost as thoroughly gun-kata on it as Solus, albeit with a greater volume of fire and less pinpoint accuracy. Arna, seeing him take point, had instantly, instinctively stepped into the role of his marksman, using the greater range and knockdown power of her PPG rifle to brilliant advantage. From time to time they would deliberately foul each other's firing arcs to get a positional advantage on the target of the moment, but such was the instinctive rapport they'd achieved that there was never any danger of a friendly-fire incident. This was a trick that was far easier to conceive than to execute, as Vega knew from experience.
OK, he thought, I stand corrected.
Alongside these two perfectly paired teams, Kaidan Alenko and Vega went their own ways. Once he'd overcome his surprise at how well the others were doing—which, since he was nothing if not a professional, took only moments—Vega got down to the messy business of using his BR55 to keep the team's left flank clear, while the elder Alenko's biotic shockwaves, tech-tool incendiary bursts, and handcannon fire made life hazardous for any enemy who thought of trying them to the right.
The punk cyborgs were initially startled by the sudden appearance of this team of heavily armed interlopers, but it didn't take them long to cotton onto the fact that the newcomers were taking on the Collectors and their cyberzombie minions—at which point they seemed content to let them work and continued their own battle against the invaders.
Between them, they cleared the plaza in front of the tram station of enemies in fairly short order. There was little doubt that more would come—from here, the looming bulk of the Collector ship could plainly be seen among the tilted and shattered towers of Baumton, maybe a mile to the northeast—but for the moment, they were able to get a bit of a breather.
Mordin put his pistols away and crouched to examine one of the wrecked robozombies. Kaidan went to one knee next to him, regarding its metallic death's-head face and weirdly embedded circuit traces with distaste.
"What are these?" he wondered. "Some kind of bioroid? The Collectors seem to be using them as shock troops. Uh, no pun intended," he added, remembering their electrical attack.
Mordin eyed the creature for a few more moments, then replied, "No. Not bioroid. Cyborg. Originally human, I think. Organs, nervous system, most of the body's internal water extracted and replaced with infiltrative cybernetics. Subject becomes... robotic husk."
Kaidan blinked, instinctively recoiling slightly. "They're converting human corpses into these... things?"
Mordin shook his head gravely. "Doubt they're corpses when the process begins," he said. "Certain... signs. Won't burden you with details." He drew in a deep breath through his nostrils. "Diabolical."
Before Kaidan could respond to that revelation, one of the punk cyborgs (the kind with the electrical gizmos on their backs) detached himself from his regrouping colleagues and crossed to them, declaring in a metal-tinted voice,
"B0i, R w3 gl4d 2 C U guyz! Plz t3ll m3 U br0t m0Ar d00dz."
Garrus blinked at him. "... Excuse me?"
"M04r d00dz, y0? BKUP, br0! 1nv4d4z g0tz teh numb4z 0n u5, dig(1)? W3 g0tz 2 g3t pl4y4 2 1n 0n th15 4ct10n t00t 5w337 0r w3 4ll g0in d0wn."
Garrus and Kaidan looked blankly at each other. "I have no idea what this guy is saying," said Kaidan.
Arna stepped past him, slinging her rifle. "Excuse me, Colonel, I speak 1337," she said. Then, addressing the cyborg directly, she declared, "Wut h0, br4h. W3 R t0tz up 4 m04r, y0? T4k3 u5 2 ur l337r, h0m35L1c3." She cleared her throat and looked vaguely embarrassed. "Uh, as it were."
The cyborg regarded her for a second, then grinned and stuck out an electrified hand. "W3lc0m3 2 P4r4g0n, grrlfr3n!" he declared. Arna gritted her teeth and shook the hand, enduring a bone-jarring shock as the price of diplomacy, and the cyborg went on, "Y0 s0y 0hmt0wn, d00dz. C0m3 w/m3."
Shrugging to each other, the Surprise team followed him through the ranks of his colleagues, across the plaza, and to the edge of the concrete-clad bluff on which the tram station stood. Here, with a little free space around them, stood the two most remarkable figures Garrus and his squad had yet seen on this, a day for remarkable figures.
One was a robot, hulking and broad-shouldered, with a turret head that resembled nothing so much as a mailbox, a left arm that looked like it had been scavenged from some kind of industrial digging or grappling machine, and no legs, hovering instead with a low hum of repulsorlift modules. The other was a small, slim humanoid female in slightly ratty punk clothes that were less biker and more raver than the others', including stripey tights under a frayed miniskirt, chunky sneakers, and a vest-and-hoodie combo with a stylized skull printed on the back. She had carrot-orange hair drawn up into a sort of abbreviated Pippi Longstocking 'do with what looked like a pair of hose clamps, and as they approached she was surveying the cityscape to the south through a battered pair of OnoSendai binoculars.
"Y0, b055g4l," said their guide. "H3lp4z 2 C U."
"Thx, 0hmt0wn," the redheaded girl replied. She kept studying the downtown area for a moment, then collapsed the binocs, stuck them in one of the several pouches on her belt, and turned to face them. Unlike many of the others, she had no obvious cyborg parts on her face, which was youthful and, Garrus figured, if you were into that kind of thing, pretty well adorable. He now noticed that her left arm was fully robotic, from the shoulder on down, though it at least ended in a proper hand instead of an improvised melee weapon of some sort.
To his relief, when she addressed him it was in Standard of a sort: "Hey! You guys came along just in time. Can I interest you in a suicide mission?"
Kaidan laughed. "I think we already signed up for that just coming to this town today," he said.
"Yeah, point," the girl conceded. "Anyway, hi. Name's Gaige, and these—" She made a sweeping gesture that took in all the cyborg punks. "—are my boys, the one and only Frrreakshow!" (This got a spontaneous sports-team-style cheer from the assembled punks.)
While Garrus made introductions, Mordin took a closer look around at the members of the Freakshow, plainly impressed by what he saw.
"Fascinating," he said, partly to Tali, partly to himself. "Self-modifying cyborg subculture. Probably outlaws—ostracized by society, maybe preyed upon by other, more overtly criminal groups. Fight to defend selves, establish internal pecking order as well. Internal strife probably limited, though. Cybernetic adaptations point to mutually supportive society—members of group with weaponized arms, for instance, likely unable to feed selves, must rely on less heavily modified colleagues. Cyborg technology gives resistance to Collector seeker swarms. Naturally defending turf."
Gaige laughed. "Ten points to the team from Sur'Kesh U!" she declared. "Though there's more to it than turf. I mean, the Canyon's not exactly our natural habitat, you dig? But this is still our hometown, and, y'know, what're you gonna do?" She shrugged, then turned to Tali. "So hey, are you, like, Tali as in Jen'squarianfriendTali?" she asked. "Because otherwise it's like reallyreally weird that a quarian named Tali would happen to show up on Paragon right when we're being invaded by the killersonic bug aliens Jen's been helping herquarianfriendTali track for the past like six months or whatever."
Tali tilted her head. "You know Jen?"
"Pretty much my best friend, apart from Deathtrap here," Gaige replied, gesturing to the robot. "We got a lot of shared interests. Robots. Weaponry. Robots with weaponry. Robots using weaponry to teach explodily violent lessons to anyone who thinks they can fuck with us. That kinda thing." She grinned. "Nice to meet you. So listen, me and my boys are gonna head downtown and take on the bugs' main force before the next wave of robozombies gets here. You guys wanna come with, we'd love to have ya. Anyways, if you're lookin' for Jen, that's where you'll find her. These dudes really, really want a piece of her for some reason."
Near the center of the borough, amid the tallest of the skyscrapers, there stood a gigantic monumental statue depicting a burly man in old-fashioned battle dress—a hero, perhaps, of some long-byegone war, though judging by the style of his clothes, one that was SO long-byegone that it probably predated Earth Contact, let alone the colonization of Paragon. This was a mystery Shepard decided she would have to ponder another time, because as her squad approached the area from the south and Garrus's bore down on it from the north, there was plenty more to do than consider anachronistic space colony monuments.
If the University had been the site of a pitched battle, the downtown area was an outright war zone by the time Shepard's teams arrived. The facades of the buildings were torn and pitted, slabs and chunks of rubble scattered in the cratered streets. How the statue hadn't been reduced to scrap by now, she had no idea, but it was still standing tall despite all the carnage around it.
It stood on a raised platform, maybe three steps up from street level and large enough to accommodate a few dozen people. The platform was surrounded by rank upon rank of robots, some roughly human-sized and carrying weapons intended to be carried by people, others great hulking mecha-scale things with integral weapons. All were facing outward, shoulder to shoulder, blazing away at wave after wave of Collectors and those robot zombie things as they tried—and tried hard—to overwhelm the position.
"I hope those mechs have good IFF," Zaeed remarked dryly. "How do we play this?"
Shepard opened her mouth to respond, but just as she did, a group of Collector air infantry buzzed in from the east, spotted them, and attacked. Her squad and the Trolls scattered for cover, which was plentiful enough amid the chunks of building and wrecked cars that were strewn all over the area.
Most of them had those rifle-type weapons, but one—if they had such things, Shepard would have guessed it was some kind of officer—unslung a much larger, curiously shaped weapon from its back as it found a perch atop a building ledge, then drew a bead on one of the Trolls. Shepard's eyes went wide as, entirely against her expectations, she recognized the weapon.
"That's—!" she cried, then turned and yelled to the Troll, "Get down!"
"Huh?" the Troll replied, glancing at her, and then the Collector fired—not a burst of plasma-jacketed flechettes, against which the Trolls' hides had proved more or less invulnerable, but instead the keening brightness of some kind of directed plasma beam. The Troll screamed as the beam burned straight across him, then went down in two smoking pieces.
"Fuck!" Jack cried, gathering herself to charge the creature, but before she could do so, Shepard had vaulted her cover and was storming across the space between. The Collector pivoted to face her, its beam splashed across her barriers, splintering and carving furrows in the already ravaged street, and then she was taking one bounding stride onto its perch and driving her left fist into its four-eyed face with all the might that had recently laid down the king of the Trolls. The Collector dropped with a crunch like a size-450 shoe coming down on a man-sized roach, yellowish ichor splattering.
"I'LL take that—" she declared, snatching the beam weapon out of the air as the slain alien's hands relaxed on it; then, with the kind of ease that spoke of long experience, she shouldered the weapon and turned it on its previous owner's colleagues, cutting four of them down before they could even think of reacting.
In cover beside Jack, Grunt watched all this, a look of dawning epiphany slowly replacing the thoughtfully distracted air he'd had since the University courtyard fight.
"... i get it," he mumbled as Shepard commandeered the weapon.
"Huh?" said Jack.
Grunt blinked, looked at her, and then grinned, his big flat teeth on full display—a look of pure krogan delight across his whole face.
"I get it!" he roared, slapping the receiver of his rifle with his free hand. "What Okeer was trying to accomplish with that stupid tank. All that crap about tactics and war philosophy. I only knew 'battlemaster' as a word, a, a definition. I didn't know what one really was. Not in here," he said, tapping his chest. "And now I do."
Jack half-grinned at him and patted his near shoulder. "Very good, Keindokrii," she said. "You've taken your first step into a larger world." Then she raised herself up, pistol in hand, and pegged a few shots the Collectors' way. (Even distracted as he was, some part of Grunt's internal database of martial things automatically noted that her weapon was a Maliwan Inflammatory Aegis: incendiary, good against armor and flesh, kinetic barriers not so much.)
Seeing him still woolgathering, Jack clouted his shoulder a bit harder and said, "C'mon, sport, back to work. Boss needs covering fire."
Grunt looked quizzically at her for a second, his lips silently forming the syllables of the peculiar name she'd just called him; then he shook his head and started shooting as well.
The rest of the Collectors recovered fast from whatever shock they might have experienced at Shepard's maneuver, regrouping and returning fire. Shepard took the better part of valor, springing down from her perch and dashing back to Jack's position as their bullets whined and zanged from her shields. She cleared the slab of concrete just as the overtaxed barriers dropped; one round sparked from the shoulder of her suit before she got fully into cover.
"How the hell do you know how to use that thing?" Jack demanded.
Shepard grinned. "Used to have one! Remember?" she said over the cacophony of battle. The air around her shivered as her barriers recharged; then she popped up and raked the beam across the aliens' formation again, bisecting two more and nearly incinerating a third.
"Found it in a flea market on Omega in... I forget, the 2230s sometime," she went on as she hunkered down beside Jack again. "Never had any idea where it really came from." She shook her head, still grinning. "It's a funny old galaxy sometimes."
"Garrus to Shepard," came the turian's voice on the com.
"Go ahead," Shepard replied.
"We're in position on the north side of the big fight. Our local contact says Tali's friend is probably in the middle of it, controlling the defenders. What's your call?"
Shepard opened a tactical map plot on her omni-tool, thinking for at least the 40th time in the hour or so she'd owned it that she couldn't really imagine how she'd gotten by without it all this time, and studied the situation for a few seconds, then started rapping out instructions, both for Garrus and his team and for those around her.
"Squad Two, split into fire teams and take them from the northeast and northwest corners. Deploy your local backup wherever they can do the most damage. Zaeed, Grunt, you take their southeast flank, see if you can draw off some of those bigger zombie things, then double back. Watch out for their shoulder cannons, they'll give you a hell of a wallop," she added wryly. "Jack, the southwest corner is all yours. Maximum carnage. I need that Purgatory touch."
Jack's smile was a little bit feral as she replied, "Oh hell yeah."
"Liara, you and I are going right up the middle. We'll see if we can't reach Tali's friend and help her secure her position. Atta?"
"Yeah?" her erstwhile sparring partner said, perking up.
Shepard grinned at him. "You guys break stuff."
Atta's ugly, battered face took on a look of unadulterated delight. "You got it," he said, bumping knuckles with her.
"OK, then," Shepard said. She collapsed the Collector beam weapon into its idle state, noting with satisfaction that it did that just like her old one too, then stuck it to the vacant magmount in the middle of her back, drew her Mattock, and watched with satisfaction as all her squad members' icons flicked from STANDBY amber to READY green in her Kuwashii visor's HUD.
"Let's bring the pain," she declared. "Ready... steady... go!"
On the north side of the battle zone, as Gaige gave the word for her forces to advance, Ohmtown climbed atop the tallest bit of rubble he could find, raised an electrified fist in the air, and bellowed,
"Fr34k! _Fr34k!_ FR34K5H0W—H000000000!!!1!!"
With a roar like a medieval army, the rest of the Freaks poured into the square, unleashing their full capacity for mayhem. Surfing the wave of an onslaught like this, Squad Two's pair of fire teams were able to hit the corners of the square with precision hidden by the chaos, like razor blades concealed in a boxing glove.
If pressed, Jen Rossum would have had to admit that the situation was not playing out exactly as she had hoped it would. Oh, it was still under control, at least as much as it ever had been, but getting trapped in Blyde Square hadn't really been part of the plan. She'd been hoping to make it as far as the University, there to rendezvous with Professors Keyes and Netrinov and find out if they had any ideas, beyond hacking every armed or armable mech in the city and setting them all on the invaders. The unexpected Troll uprising had made that seem like a less than terrific idea, and Blyde was the best of the various unappealing fallback positions. It had served her well so far, but shit was getting pretty real up in here now. Plus side, she seemed to be getting backup from Gaige and the Freakshow now. Minus side, it seemed the bug aliens were only redoubling their effort.
Next to her, Universal Robot No. 76 sensed a perimeter incursion, turned, and demonstrated the sophistication of its conditional situation assessment programming by not ashing the human and asari who were making their way around the statue, even though they didn't have IFF tags. Instead, it traversed its incineration cannon slightly and ashed the two hunchbacked super-zombies that tried to follow them through the cordon and up onto the platform.
Neither one seemed particularly fazed by the fact that the huge robot had just launched gouts of flaming death over their heads to take out their pursuers; instead of commenting on it at all, they hunkered down on either side of the person who was the obvious focus of all this activity.
She was human, Caucasian, in her mid-teens, maybe 16 or 17; petite but athletically built, dressed in grey combat trousers and a black sleeveless T-shirt marked with a stark white pair of interlocked gearwheels, fingerless gloves and black PF Flyers. Despite her youth, her jawline-length, straight, center-parted hair was snow-white, and either it was natural or she'd done a very meticulous job on her roots and eyebrows. Blue-eyed and fresh-faced, she seemed a bit out of place at the epicenter of an apocalyptic robots-v.-aliens firefight, but then again, she did seem to know what she was doing as she commanded the robots—with an omni-tool, Shepard noted—to cover different sectors and adjust for losses.
She also had, Shepard was a bit surprised to see, the most preposterously high-tech-looking rifle it had ever been the commander's privilege to see. This was made of a silvery-grey alloy and, upon closer inspection, seemed not to be one item so much as a collection of smaller devices held together in the shape of a rifle by mutual inclination and some orange light. The giant weapon her robot had used on those two robozombies had a very similar aesthetic. They were unlike any weapons Shepard had ever seen before, even in Valhalla, and she felt an automatic, involuntary desire to try one of them out.
"Howdy, strangers," the white-haired girl said. "76—around back." In response to the command, the hulking robot stepped around the statue and moved to engage the enemy back there, supporting the Trolls and the rest of Shepard's squad.
Shepard nodded acknowledgement. "You must be the person everybody's come to see," she quipped. "Name's Shepard. I'm with..." She hesitated. "Tell you what, let's get into that later."
"Jen Rossum," the girl replied. "I'm with myself. 'Scuse me a second." So saying, she raised herself up, shouldered her rifle, and took careful aim through its hovering telesight. Her right eye glowed that same orange—some kind of cybernetic targeting aid, Shepard guessed—and a moment later she popped one of the "officer" Collectors in the head with a bolt of energy (its color, by this point, unsurprising) that flatlined the alien's barriers in a single hit. The Collector started to traverse its particle beam toward her. Coolly, as if she had all the time in the world, she tracked her target in turn, then blew him away with at least five degrees of arc to spare.
"Boo-yah," she said, then dropped back to one knee and turned to Shepard. "So hey, backup's nice, but a plan for getting out of here would be nicer."
Zaeed Massani edged around the statue, blazing away at a group of Collectors with one hand while he prepped an incendiary grenade in the other, then lobbed the grenade and piled in next to Liara.
"It's getting pretty goddam sporty over on the other side," he reported. "Grunt, Jack, the Trolls, and that one giant mech have all pretty much gone berserk. Safer for sane people over here," he said with a slight smile, then ducked involuntarily as a stray Collector round whanged off the statue's colossal ankle above his head and added, "Relatively speaking."
"I'm guessing that's a big 'no' on the 'plan for getting out' part," said Jen ruefully. She rezzed up her omni-tool and punched in a few codes, causing the increasingly ragged formation of mechs around their position to tighten up and fill in gaps. "I got another group inbound from Atlas Park, but with the Yellow Line down they have to walk," she reported. "Probably not gonna get here in time to be any use, but what the hell."
"How did you get control of all these mechs?" Liara asked. "They don't all belong to the same organizations. I've seen some with police markings, others bearing the livery of various mercenary organizations—even corporate security divisions."
Jen smirked slightly. "And they all bought their mechs from Rossum Industries," she said, indicating the gearwheels logo on her shirt. "Which means I know all the back doors in their operating system."
"I always knew you'd use that power for evil one day," said a redheaded punk girl as she scrambled up onto the platform from the front. "Gawdamn, girl, these critters want a piece of you or whaaat," she said, making the last word into a short operatic performance.
Jen's smirk became a grin as she reached down and clasped the redhead's robotic left hand, hauling her the rest of the way onto the platform with it. "Hey, killer," she said. "See you got the guys into the party."
"Yeah, we'd'a been here sooner, but—" A Collector particle beam split the air above her head, blasting a LOKI-class mech to bits; she ducked, turned, yelled, "I am talking!" and hurled a grenade. The blast scattered Collectors and husks, damaging the beam-wielding Collector's barriers. A moment later an enormous flying robot torso detached itself from the scrum near the front of the Freakshow's flying wedge, swooped through the opening in the alien line, and finished the Collector "officer" off with a swipe of its enormous left hand.
Zaeed looked like he'd been hit in the face with a fish. "Gaige?!" he blurted.
The redhead blinked, looked around Jen, and then stared in amazement at him. "Daddy?!" she said.
Shepard and Liara glanced at each other.
"He has a kid?" they asked in unison.
Zaeed slapped a fresh magazine into his Sentinel and started picking away at the nearest group of husks, doing his best to clear them off Kaidan's team as they approached from the northeast.
"What're you doing here, sweetheart?" he asked as he worked. "I thought you were heading for Pandora."
Now back-to-back with Jen, Gaige pulled an old Vladof Havoc machine gun (haven't seen one of THOSE in a while, Shepard thought irrelevantly) from her back and opened up on the Freakshow's main opposition with rather less accuracy than enthusiasm. "Well, I was," she said over the roar of the gun, "but it was late and I was tired and still a little freaked out about the whole Marcy thing and, you know, starts with P-A, I bought the wrong ticket and ended up here." She shrugged while still firing, which didn't help her shot groupings any. "Worked out so far!"
"Are you even aiming?" Jen wondered.
"Nope," Gaige replied gaily. "My dopamine level is off the cha-ha-haiiin," she added with another operatic flourish. Without even seeming to cease fire, she pulled off the Havoc's ammo box and slapped on another one. "I couldn't aim if I wanted to! And I don't want to anyway! Smash the system!"
"Y344444H!!" cried several of the nearest Freaks.
Jen glanced at her. "OK, whatever. Psycho," she said, but she was smiling slightly as she said it.
By this point, thanks in large part to Zaeed's supporting fire, the Squad Two element of Kaidan, Mordin, and Tali had made it almost to the center of the square. From here, through the crowd of battling Husks (as, thanks to Mordin's description, she had now come to think of them) and robots, Tali caught a glimpse of a familiar sight up on the central dais, at the feet of the giant statue: a black-clad, white-haired figure standing next to a wildly rock-and-rolling Gaige, providing much more considered covering fire with an advanced energy rifle of an unfamiliar type. It was ONLY a glimpse, in this swirling melee, but that was enough to confirm for her that they weren't too late.
She blasted down a Husk, turned to face the center of the square more directly, and powered up her omni-tool. Beside her, providing running cover for her and Mordin, Kaidan saw her do so and wondered what she was planning to do with it. If pressed for a guess, he'd have said he expected either an EMP or perhaps an incendiary plasma burst (two of his own favorite tricks with his somewhat less advanced combat engineer's tech-tool)—but what happened instead was quite different. In the air above the tool, what at first appeared to be a schematic hologram of some kind of camera remote appeared. As if sketching in systems from the inside out, the image rapidly gained resolution, one layer building on another until the device it represented almost seemed physically present—
—and then Kaidan noticed that it was casting a shadow.
"Go get 'em, Chikktika," she declared, pointing, and the remote darted off with a faint warble of repulsors, skimming above the melee and heading straight for the statue.
Unnoticed by anyone, one of the Collectors at the periphery of the fight took notice, stopped what it was doing, and watched the whole procedure intently... and through its eyes watched something far more capable of giving what it had just witnessed the consideration it deserved. Over the next few dozen milliseconds, this intelligence reviewed the scene its drone had just observed, taking the "footage" apart and examining it in meticulous detail. It considered the implications, weighed its options, made a decision, and then spoke four words:
"I am assuming control."
The blast wave released by the sudden possession of one of the Collector troops by their ultimate controller knocked down several others and killed a couple of Husks, but the burning alien didn't seem to care. It shoved one of its stunned colleagues out of its way, levitated above the general melee, and launched one of those concussion blasts Tali's way. Thanks to a shouted warning from one of the Freaks, she dodged it, barely, but only at the cost of sprawling headlong to the ground.
"We are the Harbinger of your ascension," the alien intoned. "Do not resist."
"Boy, are you in the wrong town," Gaige remarked. "Deathtrap—ake him out!"
Silent and implacable, Deathtrap moved to obey its mistress's command. The Harbinger, as it apparently liked to be called, fired another concussion blast. Deathtrap shouldered it aside and clobbered the Harbinger an enormous backhanded blow with its left hand, sending the creature flying. It halted its flight short of hitting one of the nearby buildings and extended a hand. A much larger blast than before emerged, ripping outward with such a slipstream that it flattened a line of Freaks between the Harbinger and its target. Struck full-on by this force bolt, Deathtrap was hurled clean across the square, scattering a group of Husks like tenpins. Before it could recover its electronic wits, more of them had swarmed over it, burying it in a small forest of flailing cyborg limbs.
"Son of a whore!" Gaige spat, blazing away at the Harbinger with her machine gun. By this point she was so amped that she had a better chance of hitting the people standing behind her than her actual target, though a number of her stray rounds did take out lesser, unpossessed Collectors in a manner which struck the observers from the Surprise team as weirdly coincidental.
Apparently unimpressed by her fury, the Harbinger prepared to strike her down as well—
—but Tali'Zorah shotgunned down the Husk blocking her line-of-sight to the creature, pointed her free hand (omni-tool interface still glowing around it) at it, and cried, "Chikktika! Go for the optics!"
With an ominous throbbing hum, the pink glow of her combat drone's own optic suddenly changed to a furious glaring orange, and a moment later, the drone emitted a shrieking stream of orange-white sparks that struck Harbinger full-on. The creature recoiled, its damaged barrier shattering, and then its body melted away like a plastic model in a blowtorch's flame. A terrific cheer rose from the ranks of the Freaks at the sight.
At that moment, which should've been something of a triumph, things started to go completely pear-shaped.
Mordin noticed them first—a new strain of Husks, appearing from side streets and alleyways with the next wave of the Collectors' apparently inexhaustible reinforcements. These looked very similar to the others, but their glowing circuit traces and cybernetic parts were red, not blue, and they moved with a certain manic energy that even their madly flailing colleagues lacked as they shoved and clubbed their way toward the front of the melee. The other Husks paid them no mind, but as Mordin observed them, he noticed that the Collectors gave them a wide berth, falling back wherever they appeared, even if that placed them at a tactical disadvantage.
Before he could communicate his misgivings about these new Husks to the others, though, they began exploding.
Whatever was nearby them—other Husks, defending mechs, Trolls, Freaks, even a few unfortunate Collectors—was blown to pieces by the blasts. Several members of Shepard's team, including Mordin, were thrown down, stunned, their shields compromised. The already ragged formation of mechs surrounding the central platform was smashed wide open—
—and as Mordin dragged himself to hands and knees, looking around for Tali'Zorah, another of his suspicions of the day was confirmed as the Harbinger possessed another Collector and renewed its assault on the platform.
"You will ascend," the Harbinger intoned, pointing to Jen, whose position was now completely exposed.
"Like fuck I will," she replied, switching her lightrifle to rapid fire and opening up on it.
Shepard picked herself up, ears ringing, and saw the girl locked in an uneven gunfight with the burning alien. Leaving her Mattock where it had fallen from her hands, she unslung the particle beam weapon she'd commandeered earlier and snapped, "Liara!"
Liara, a faint smirk on her lips, nodded and raised a hand. A bubble of blue light appeared in her palm, and another, larger twin simultaneously resolved around the Harbinger. It looked around as if puzzled as Liara, her slight smirk hardening into a look of furious concentration Shepard found slightly unnerving on that face, slowly closed her fingers around the sphere in her hand. The one around the Harbinger constricted along with it, pinning it in place.
Shepard took advantage of this suddenly static target and opened fire, pinning the Harbinger on her particle beam. The buzzing, snarling beam ate away at its barrier, then bit into its possessed flesh, sending up smoke—
—until the weapon suddenly died, its status lights and inner glow going dark as its power cell ran dry. Cursing, she stowed it and reached for her Mattock, but it wasn't necessary for her to provide the coup de grace. Jen's precise lightrifle fire and Gaige's... less precise... machine gun bullets tore it apart, following which Liara, now grinning fiercely, closed her hand into a fist. The collapsing force bubble crushed it to powder, then exploded outward, distributing what remained of it over its colleagues below as a fine black ash.
This (and the sudden, violent emergence of Deathtrap from the pile of Husks he'd disappeared under) stopped the disruption caused by the red Husks from becoming a complete rout. Seemingly confused by the development, and with their numbers greatly thinned by the Troll and Freakshow assaults in any event, the Collectors fell back, allowing the defenders a few moments' breathing room in which to regroup at the statue and consolidate their position. As Tali, still looking a bit shaken from her brush with the Harbinger's power, climbed onto the platform, she and Jen had only time for a quick hug of greeting.
"What happened?" Liara asked as Shepard examined her dead weapon.
"Out of juice," Shepard replied. "Dunno what these things use for ammo in their natural habitat. I'll have to see about getting it converted to run on HBT like my old one. What the heck was that you just did? I was expecting you to slap him with a Singularity, not... whatever happened there." She grinned. "That was badass."
"It's a variant of the same technique," Liara told her. "I learned it from the grandmaster of a volus order of Force warriors."
Shepard blinked. "You're messin' with me."
"I assure you," said Liara, "the Irunian Knights of the Cosmic Vortex are no joke."
Before Shepard could comment further, Mordin appeared at her side, dark green blood running down his face from a fresh cut beneath one of his old battle scars. "Shepard," he said urgently. "Serious problem. Believe 'Harbinger' capable of taking control of any Collector unit at will. Operating from remote location, probably aboard their ship. Also," he added, displaying a tactical sensor plot on his omni-tool, "another wave of enemy reinforcements approaching from both north and south."
Jen consulted her own omni-tool and sighed. "Meanwhile, my next wave is tangling with their southern group down near the U. Which should thin the herd somewhat, but doesn't do us any direct good here." She rearranged the formation of her surviving mechs, placing them outside the lines of Freaks to the north and Trolls to the south, then shook her head. "What I've got left here is not going to stand up to another full-court press," she reported, "particularly if they have more of those exploding things."
"OK, Freakshow, form up and face front," Gaige yelled. "Never mind the Trolls, they're not the problem right now."
"U h3rd teh b055g4l!" Ohmtown bellowed. "W3 g0tz pl3n+y c4rn4g3 c0m1n w/o 3m!"
"FR34K5H0W!" the Freaks chorused.
Shepard went around to the back of the statue and crouched at the platform's edge to be more on a level with the defenders there. "How we lookin' back here?" she asked.
"You have definitely not chosen weak enemies," said a battered, broadly grinning Grunt with evident satisfaction, then added with disarmingly uncomplicated earnestness, "I think I love you."
Jack, who was sitting on a nearby planter rummaging in one of the pockets of her coat, let out a single sharp laugh. Shepard blinked, but let it pass by, remarking only, "... Good to know. Atta?"
The bloodied Troll leader nodded. "Lotsa Trolls down," he said, "but the rest of us good to fight."
Jack, winded but exhilarated, had produced a roll of white medical tape from her pocket and was now winding the tape around the bloodied knuckles of her axe hand. "I'm good," she said, her voice slightly hoarse from all the Shouting she'd been doing. "Fuckin' A, I wish Laura was here. This is her kind of hoedown. Speaking of, did I hear Zaeed's daughter was here?"
"Apparently. Did you know he had one?"
"Sure, not like it's a secret," Jack replied nonchalantly. "They used to live on Eden-5. Vega sector, not to be confused with Eden Prime. Last I heard she skipped town on some kind of manslaughter rap. Standard bullshit that happens when mercs try to pretend they're normal cits." She shrugged. "Nice kid from what I remember."
"She's... interesting," Shepard allowed.
Mordin leaned around the colossal statue's foot. "Shepard!" he called. "They're coming."
Shepard straightened up. "Hold this side with everything you've got left. If the Harbinger appears, holler."
"Roger that, Battlemaster," Grunt replied. "If anything gets past us, it's because we're dead."
"Good enthusiasm, big guy," Jack said, "but let's ramp back on the predictions of our own deaths."
Shepard left them to it and went back around to the front. The incoming wave was just visible at the far end of the main drag, a hazy, indistinct blur at ground level and the fuzzy airborne specks of a flying Collector vanguard. Some of them had those particle beam weapons and were already starting to take probing long-range shots with them.
"H1t ur 3xc3l!" Ohmtown cried, and the Freaks began to twitch and glow slightly as the autoinjectors most of them wore pumped something bright green and faintly luminous into their veins. "L3tz g3t 1t 0n!!"
The red Husks hit them first, charging in with their hands in the air. The defenders, all too familiar with their capabilities now, opened up with everything they had, mowing the things down in their dozens. Most fell and exploded far short of their goals, but through sheer numbers, enough made it through that they punctured the mech lines front and rear, destroying many and scattering the rest. Then the blue Husks, regular and hunchbacked cannon-bearing, started in on the Freaks and Trolls. Behind them came Collectors, some with beam weapons, most with rifles. And behind them...
"... What the hell is that?" Kaidan wondered, pointing, and just as he did so Shepard heard Jack's voice, raised in incredulous alarm from behind her:
At first sight, Shepard thought the thing hovering at the back of the northern wave looked like a giant version of the seeker bugs that still swarmed through the streets around them—a seeker the size of a truck, its limbs floating a few feet above the ground. Then, as it drew nearer, she saw that its head had four glowing eyes on the front of it, all in a row, like the eyes of a Collector, and that below the head it appeared to have a cluster of circuit nodules of some kind, each covered in glowing tracery and occasional round points of light.
And then, as it came closer still, those nodules resolved themselves into a collection of heads, humanoid heads, their faces locked in a familiar metal-sheened silent scream below blankly glowing blue photoreceptor eyes. Husks' heads.
"OK, I am officially going to hurl," said Gaige. "Although, in fairness, that might just be a sign that I'm approaching the LD50 for Excelsior."
It would be a lingering regret of Virginia Shepard's that she was so busy coping with the many-headed Husk monster (later codenamed "Praetorian" in the recognition file Mordin filed with the IPO) to the north that she completely missed Jack, Grunt, and Atta's handling of the one to the south. She saw a brilliantly edited multi-angle video from Jen's surviving mechs later, but even so, she would always have the sneaking suspicion that it just wasn't the same.
The thing came charging up the street, scattering Trolls before it with force blasts like those shoulder-cannon super-Husks (Mordin's later codename: "Scion") could do -and raking their lines with particle beams similar to those wielded by the Collector officers. Faced with this mind-bendingly hideous floating engine of destruction, some of them broke and ran, while others seemed to lose whatever rudimentary tactical sense they'd previously possessed and charged, which tended to get them blasted or swatted aside by its insectoid limbs.
Jack scowled at its approach, glanced around her, and then said to Grunt and Atta, "Keep it busy for a second." While they opened fire on it, ducking from cover to cover behind the planters and lampposts, she darted behind the overturned wreckage of a box van that some of the Trolls had been using for cover throughout the fight, and climbed up onto the side, which had become the top. There, weighing her axe in her hand for a moment, she paused, took a couple of deep breaths, then settled herself and cried,
"Wuuuld... nah kest!"
This was a more powerful version of the "biotic charge" Shout she'd used on 03F8, and it hurled her off the van and out into space, where she took three completely unnecessary strides in thin air before coming down hard on the sloping upper armor of the Praetorian. Its barriers fizzled under her, slippery and unwelcoming, but she dug in the lugged soles of her Zardon Justice Department boots, forcing them down as if through thick mud, then brought the blade of her axe down with all her psychokinetic might behind it. The barrier crackled, then dropped, and the blade bit into the metallic carapace of the thing with a flash of sparks.
The Praetorian went berserk, bucking and twisting in the air, but Jack had hold of it now, and she wasn't going to be thrown that easily. Hanging onto the front lip of the carapace with her left hand, she braced her toes and knees against the upper surface and hacked away at it with her right. Pieces of armor flew as, teeth gritted, ragged coattails flung out behind her, she methodically chopped a jagged hole in the armor, then drew her Aegis with her left hand and started firing into the hole.
The monster's response to this was swift and violent. Its eyes and circuitry glowing brightly, it heaved itself upward, then slammed hard to the ground. On impact, it produced a shockwave that rippled out in all directions, blasting the area around it clear of trees, wrecked mechs, corpses, Trolls, everything. Grunt and Atta were blown off their feet. The young krogan regained his wits in an moment, scrambling to hands and knees—and saw Jack hurtling through the air in a graceful arc, to come down in a crumpled heap nearly twenty yards away. Her axe, flung from her hand by the blow, chunked into the pavement a few feet in front of him.
Grunt's vision went red. Roaring wordlessly with fury, he seized the leather-wrapped haft of the axe, wrenched it from the ground, and charged the Praetorian, riding his very first experience of a full krogan blood rage. The thing's barriers had recharged with that strange shockwave attack, but that hardly mattered in the face of such an onslaught; Grunt had battered them down again in moments and started in on the monstrous construct's physical form.
Atta pulled himself to his feet, shaking his head groggily, and saw the krogan whaling on the damaged Praetorian with the crazy human woman's axe. He'd put out two of its eyes and destroyed a half-dozen of its Husk heads by the time the Troll leader registered what was going on. It tried to retreat from Grunt's blows, but he kept implacably at it, his big, flat teeth gritted. Each of his blows smashed something else—another Husk head, a forelimb.
The Praetorian's glow heightened again; Atta wondered dimly whether such a thing could experience desperation, or if it was just executing a programmed response. Either way, it was plainly about to do that shockwave blast thing again, and Grunt was sunk far too deep in his frenzy to notice. Atta could relate to that, but he was (for a Troll) feeling fairly lucid himself at the moment, and as he watched he began to have the first inklings of a plan. For the moment, that involved taking cover and riding out the next shockwave.
When it came, this sent Grunt tail-over-teakettle to crash against the base of the statue; he went down hard, face-down, and took several seconds to begin stirring again. By this time the Praetorian, apparently looking to return the favor, was dragging its broken bulk toward him on faltering repulsors, powering up its beam arrays with audible whines.
Atta saw his opportunity, raised himself from his cover, and bellowed for his surviving followers to hit the Praetorian with everything they had left. This, rallied by his voice, they did, pouring bullets, blasterfire, and chunks of sidewalk into the monster's again-recharged defenses and whittling them away. When his eye caught the flicker of the Praetorian's barriers dropping again, Atta made his move: he fired his emergency reserve of Superadine straight into one of his carotid arteries.
The Praetorian began to pivot toward him, its two remaining optics brightening. Time seemed to slow down as the 'Dine slammed into his brain, heightening what neural function he had left to breakneck speed. His muscles bulged further, tearing away what remained of his much-abused T-shirt and reducing his jeans to ragged shorts. He seized hold of the object he'd been using for cover—the inert chassis of a defunct YMIR-class assault mech that had been disabled early in the battle—and, with a defiant roar, lifted its armor-plated bulk above his head.
Then, after two loping strides, he hurled the wreck straight into the Praetorian's "face", ramming it into the gap between upper and lower armor surfaces, where its cluster of Husk heads had been before Grunt got through with them. The internal structures of the Praetorian crumpled, releasing the built-up energy it had intended to use for its next shockwave-and-recharge, and then the YMIR's fusion bottle failed within it.
The resulting explosion broke every still-intact window in every building facing onto the square, reduced the Praetorian to fragments and the YMIR to atoms, and launched Atta as far as Platinum Lake, by way of the 44th through 47th floors of the Sutherland and Savage Building.
At about the same time that Jack was formulating her plan of attack, the Freaks and their allies around on the northern side of the statue were contending with problems of their own. They also had a Praetorian to deal with, but also the bulk of the Collectors' remaining forces—and, a few moments into the fight, still another manifestation of the Harbinger, taunting them and launching concussion blasts their way.
Without really thinking about it, and without so much as raising an eyebrow on any of the contentious forces arrayed on her side, Shepard stepped into command, briskly and efficiently matching her disparate forces against the enemy. Rossum's remaining mechs concentrated on the left side of their defensive line, concentrating on the lesser Husks and Collectors. Gaige and the Freaks took the center, facing off the point of the Collectors' spear—the heavier Husks and those Collector types they'd all come to think of as officers. Garrus and his team held the right against the Harbinger, sticking to the more abundant cover offered by the fallen elevated-monorail tracks and whittling away at it with precision fire.
That left the Praetorian for Shepard, Liara, and Zaeed, and when she came to after its first plunging shockwave, Shepard had to admit it wasn't their finest hour.
Her Kuwashii's chron told her she'd only been out about ten seconds when she opened her eyes to find herself sprawled against the base of the giant statue, with Liara on her left and Zaeed to her right, both of them out cold. Shepard dragged herself half-upright, punch-drunk and wobbly. The Extremis suit was already taking action, hitting her with precisely metered doses of Miraculon and Vorpanol, but her vision swam as she unlimbered her Carnifex and tried to focus on the approaching monstrosity.
One good shot, she thought. That's all I'm going to get. But her arm felt like lead and the pistol might as well have been a bank vault for all that she could lift it right now. She gritted her teeth, pushed the pain and sickness away, forcing her mind to clear through sheer force of will, but it wasn't going to happen in time.
A huge mechanical shape brushed past her, moving with a speed and lifelike fluidity that was almost shocking in a mech so large. Rossum's Universal Robot No. 76 charged straight into the teeth of the re-energized Praetorian's charge, its deflectors and armor plating shrugging off concussion blasts and particle beam fire the way a car's windshield sheds rain. Its return fire, erupting not only from the giant weapon that made up its right forearm but also from a pair of pop-up missile pods on its shoulders and a trio of lesser energy-weapon hardpoints on its left arm, tore at the monster's defenses, stripping away its barriers and then blasting away chunks of its superstructure.
A dozen or so yards away, Mordin Solus seemed oblivious to the drama playing out to his left. He was crouched behind cover, weapons in hand, watching intently as Tali'Zorah's combat drone relayed sensor information to his omni-tool. The rest of the team, striking from different points all around this corner of the square, were harassing the Harbinger, chipping away at it, making it turn this way and that as it made its dire pronouncements and tried to get a clean line of fire on any one of them. Mordin didn't join them. He stayed down, stayed hidden, and watched the sensor returns, his entire being focused on what they were telling him.
And then, when the moment was entirely right, he raised himself not just to a firing position, but fully to his feet, exposing his position completely. The Harbinger wheeled, its energy field rippling, as it locked two of its eyes with his.
"Salarian," it intoned. "Insufficient lifespan. Fragile genetic structure." It raised a hand to simultaneously dismiss him and blast him out of existence. "Useless."
Mordin smiled very slightly, very coldly.
"Exactly what you're supposed to think," he said, and then shot it in the head.
As the glow in its eyes died and its blackened carcass began to disintegrate, there was an almighty explosion, and in the half-second or so of consciousness he had left, Mordin's only thought was,
Curious. That wasn't supposed to happen.
RUR-76 knew neither fear nor curiosity. It didn't care what the thing was that it was fighting, nor why it did the things it did. All that mattered to 76's combat intelligence were the Praetorian's capabilities, its threat ratings, and whether they could be overcome with the weapons at 76's disposal.
All things being equal, the answer there would have been "no". The Praetorian's habit of unleashing devastating counterattacks and recharging its barriers when seriously challenged would make it, at best, a tedious and difficult target, with a probability of successful engagement uncomfortably below 25 percent. But at the moment, all things were not equal, because 76 had access not only to its own weapons and those of Operator No. 1, but also to the combined firepower of a dozen still-standing Freakshow Juicers and Tanks... and of D374-TP, which was, 76's entire lack of programmed ego could easily acknowledge, a highly effective combat platform in its own right.
Now the two robots timed their assault exquisitely. 76 tore down the Praetorian's defenses and administered exactly as much harm as was necessary to trigger its counterattack-and-recharge cycle, then retired, shunting all available power to its own defense systems. As it backed away, Deathtrap swung into action. The Praetorian slammed to the ground, sending out its shockwave; 76 hunkered down and absorbed the blow, skidding most of the way back to Shepard's position with a terrible shriek of cleated metal on tortured concrete, but kept its feet.
Deathtrap, which had no feet for the shockwave to blow out from under it, rode the wave instead with machine-logic precision, reached out with its gigantic industrial-lifter left hand, and pinned the Praetorian to the ground before it could rise and renew its assault. From its smaller, nimbler right arm, it produced three focused-plasma beam claws, then rammed them through the Praetorian's still-charging barriers and into its body, rending the superstructure open. The monster struggled, its limbs scrambling for purchase, but Deathtrap held it relentlessly down, ripping away much of its upper structure. A brilliant beam of ruby-red light raved from its single optic into the Praetorian's body, engulfing its inner workings in fire. The Praetorian heaved once, then slumped, its limbs going slack.
" Oh yaaaaaaaah!" Gaige yelled from her perch on the statue platform, pumping her metal fist in the air. "Awesome babes' awesome robots one, ugly-ass alien motherfucker zeroooooo."
Deathtrap held the beam on it for a moment longer, then withdrew its beam claws, turned, and glided silently back toward the statue platform and its cheering mistress. As it passed 76, which was advancing toward the wreck with its own creator at its side, the two robots exchanged a nonchalant metallic high-five.
A moment later, the carcasses of both Praetorians (and Atta's YMIR, and Harbinger) exploded.
The next thing Virginia Shepard was aware of—besides a thunderous, hollow thrumming in her head that made her feel as though her brain cavity were the size and relative emptiness of an aircraft hangar—was a scratchy sensation in her right ear. This eventually resolved itself, with a few seconds and another automatic shot of Vorpanol, into the voice of Joker:
"Commander? Commander! Come in! Awjeezdon'tbedeadagain—Commander! Can you hear me? We've got more than two problems here!"
She pulled herself slowly to hands and knees, then got shakily to her feet. Reaching reflexively for the side of her head, she felt the fingers of her gauntlet touch another metal surface and realized that part of the head-in-a-bucket feeling was because her armor had automatically constructed a helmet for her.
"No... not dead yet," she said, her voice feeling thick and gluey in her mouth. "What's... what's the situation?" As she spoke, she looked around and saw that Blyde Square was an absolute shambles, littered with shattered glass, rubble from partly collapsed building facades, smashed vehicles, wrecked mechs, pieces of dead Husks, broken weapons, and gods only knew what else. Astonishingly, the colossal statue that had been the focal point of the battle still stood, apparently undamaged. Shepard wondered abstractly what it was made of.
Around its base, wounded and/or damaged Freaks and Trolls were helping each other up or kneeling over fallen comrades. The other members of her team were stirring and clambering to their feet as well. There was no sign of the Collectors; dead or alive, it seemed they'd all cleared out while she was under.
Joker replied, "OK, in no particular order, 'cause I can't think of any way any of these things is better than the others, I got about a half-dozen Earthforce ships burning for the lunar perimeter, that second Collector ship's breaking orbit, and I read a huge energy surge coming from about two miles northeast of your position, so y'know, two guesses what that is. And I thought you were dead, but you're not, so at least there's that."
Shepard wondered how she'd go about overriding the helmet thing, since it was plainly not needed now. Apparently that was the override procedure, because a moment later it broke up into segments and packed itself fractally away inside the suit's gorget in a way she suspected would've been very interesting if she could've seen it. She was still disoriented enough to spend a moment or so wondering how the helmet knew to avoid and/or integrate her Kuwashii when it deployed, but she didn't have long to reflect on that before something else Joker had said broke through.
"Earthforce is here already?" she asked, a fresh shot of adrenaline beginning to sweep away the fog.
"In force," Joker confirmed. "No pun intended. They haven't seen us, but the Collectors have sure seen them." Shepard heard the chime of an indicator signal on Joker's end. "Mm-hmm, and there's a giant energy spike from the point source north of you. They're getting ready to bolt."
"Fuck!" Shepard snarled, fully awake now. "Joker, hail the Earthforce squadron and relay my comms."
She could hear the shrug in Joker's voice as he replied, "That seems like a weird thing to do on a deniable ops mission, but whatever, sure, I can do that." A click, an odd digital-signal warble, and the next thing she heard was the slightly puzzled voice of an Earthforce comm officer requesting that she identify herself.
Instead of doing so, Shepard declared in her most commanding voice, "Listen closely, because I've only got time to say this once. The alien vessel that's still on the surface of Paragon is your priority. They have numerous abductees from Paragon City aboard and we believe they're preparing to launch. You need to prevent that ship from taking off or force it down if it does launch. The other one's an escort. Be advised, at least one of these ships is equipped with a Class Omega sustained beam weapon, so when you engage, do it carefully."
"Who is this?" the voice of someone on the Earthforce ship's bridge inquired, sounding more curious than annoyed. Shepard figured that was a good sign. She had been afraid that she'd get a blusterer, but this guy sounded like he might have the nous to save people first and ask questions later.
"Someone who knows what you're up against," she replied. "We can argue about the rest later. Now get to it! Shepard out." A blipping sound notified her that the channel was closed. "Joker, weapons status."
"Big gun's still down," Joker reported glumly.
"Then go in with your secondaries and do what you can," she told him. "Stay out from in front of their big gun."
"Roger that. Not getting blown to scrap is always Job 1."
Shepard commed off and looked around, then bent to help Liara to her feet.
"Well," said the asari thoughtfully. "That was... interesting."
"No kidding," Shepard agreed. "Surprise team, check in. Everybody still with us?"
In a few moments of regrouping (during which a wet and disgruntled Atta arrived, disappointed to discover that he'd missed the rest of the fight), it became sinkingly obvious that everyone was not still with them. Nobody appeared to be dead—even Jack, though even more battered and with her coat reduced to a few bedraggled ribbons of synleather hanging from her shoulders, was able to pick herself up and report to the statue—but one of their number was missing altogether.
Mordin was the first to realize it, looking around him with an air of growing dismay as the Surprise team regrouped around their commander, then exclaiming in as alarmed a tone as Shepard had ever heard out of him:
"Sonsofbitches!" Gaige cried from the statue platform. "They got Jen!"
Shepard keyed her com again. "Joker! Status on the—"
Just then a brilliant surge of light rose between the buildings to the north, making it momentarily appear as though another sun was rising over there. By the time the thunder and the hot wind arrived, much muted by distance and intervening structures, the fiery column of the Collector ship's takeoff was evident in the sky high above Baumton.
"Collector ship?" Joker replied. "Yeah, just takin' off now."
"Let Earthforce deal with the escort," Shepard snapped. "Your job is to keep that bastard in the atmosphere—"
She was interrupted as No. 76 suddenly heaved itself up from the wreckage nearby, scattering bits of concrete and Husk fragments in all directions. Its turret of a head turned upward, tracking the ascent of the Collector vessel at the top of its curving smoke column; then, without hesitation, it deployed a series of rocket thrusters and guidance vanes from within its superstructure and blasted into the sky itself. For a moment Shepard thought it was attempting the impossible, until she realized that the Collector ship's exit vector was taking it over the city. It was rising fast, but also traveling toward them as it moved downrange; if the robot calculated its intercept correctly, and had enough thrust, it might just catch the ship.
What it intended to do then was anyone's guess, but there wasn't anything Shepard could do about that now.
Gaige jumped down from the base of the statue and ran to her side, unlimbering a pair of collapsible binoculars from a pouch on her belt and training them after 76. "Go, big guy, go!" she cried, punching the air with her bionic hand.
Shepard wished she'd thought to bring something like that herself—and as she did so, her helmet popped up again, constructing itself suddenly and a bit startlingly around her head. The cybernetic user interface for the built-in teleoptics was intuitive and quick, and within a couple of seconds she was seeing what Gaige saw. 76 had, indeed, caught the Collector ship; had, in fact, grappled onto the vessel's surface with one massive three-fingered metal hand while it tore at the hull with the other. The view was unsteady and growing fuzzier all the time as the ship sped away, but she fancied she saw a puff of escaping atmosphere as the robot ripped off a panel or hatch, possibly even the blur of a Collector being catapulted into the thin upper-atmosphere air.
MAXIMUM MAGNIFICATION, a blinking indicator informed her; she pulled back, widening out so that the whole ship was in her field of view again. Come on, Joker, she thought, where are you?
As she had the thought, the Surprise came in sight, bursting through the cloud deck with her leading edges still glowing, and opened fire with the heavy turbolasers mounted at her wingtips. The Collector ship unleashed its particle beam, but Joker was ready for it. The Surprise's S-foils and their distributed repulsor nodes (cunningly fitted where her "warp wing" Cochrane coil assemblies had been) gave her hugely superior maneuverability in this flight mode, and atmospheric scatter reduced the beam's range and accuracy anyway. The Surprise dodged the blast easily, raking the much larger Collector vessel with pinpoint fire, darting away and doubling back.
Shepard was reminded of the Battle of Salu II, the way he'd used the Normandy's agility against that monstrous geth dreadnought. The scale discrepancy here was similar—both ships were a bit smaller, but the proportion roughly the same. Just watching the Surprise move, she'd have known Jeff Moreau had to be at the controls. She wondered who was doing the gunnery. Based on the fantastic precision of fire she was seeing, she guessed it was probably Edie.
A cheer went up from everyone watching the battle as the Surprise scored a particularly heavy hit, drawing an explosion and a plume of black smoke from the Collector ship's main engine—and then the giant ship began to turn back toward the ground.
Jen Rossum regained consciousness to find—to her distinct horror—that she was buried midway down in a heap of bodies. Blinded by sudden panic, she heaved herself free, scrambling away, a wordless sound of atavistic revulsion bubbling up like bile in her throat. The flash of terror only lasted for a couple of seconds before her reason reasserted itself, but it was enough to propel her halfway across the room without ever actually getting to her feet; she came to rest with her back against a low bulkhead of some dark grey alloy, panting, not sure whether she would find it more satisfying to scream, vomit, or just black out again.
She came back to herself in that position, clutching her own upper arms with the opposite hands, shivering as the post-traumatic fugue ebbed and she could think again. She forced herself to take a couple of deep breaths, tried what she could remember of the ancient Bene Gesserit litany against fear she'd read in one of Lara Langley-Croft's books on the ancient civilizations of the Rim that one time. I must not fear, fear is the—that wasn't working, so she fell back on the shorter, simpler, earthier mantra she'd learned from her friend Lauren: "Oh pull yourself tofuckingether!"
Only then did Jen notice the pain in her head. She reached up, touched her upper left forehead, winced, saw blood on her fingertips when she took them away. Remembered one of the Collectors walking down the line of captives they'd shoved her into, not paralyzed, just overwhelmed by numbers. Deckplates vibrating beneath her feet, obviously gearing up for takeoff, yet they were going about their business as if nothing was happening. The Collector pausing in front of each captive, scanning him or her with some kind of portable scanner, waiting a second; then that eerie, hollow voice speaking from nowhere in particular, a single word, deciding each one's fate.
"Rectify," it said, and other Collectors dragged that one away, out of the room.
"Repurpose," it said, and Collectors took that one away in a different direction, presumably to some different fate.
"Reject," it said, and the one with the scanner shot her in the head.
Then they left her for dead, failing mainly because it wasn't the first time in her life such a thing had happened, and this time she was ready for it. Jen Rossum, teen genius, engineer, dispossessed industrialist-heiress: a girl barely alive. Gentlemen, she can rebuild herself. She has the technology. Designed most of it herself; paid big money on New Chiba for the rest. Nanoceramic bone weave. Photonic neural backups. Cellular regen stimulator. Six million credits' worth of synthetic glands that can and do secrete a dozen of the galaxy's most popular pharmaceuticals on demand, including the ones EMTs used to treat gunshot wounds and concussion. She'd been unconscious for 143 seconds and—because they couldn't find it to remove it, and wouldn't have been able to remove it without a saw anyway—still had her omni-tool.
They'd taken her rifle, but that was workaroundable. She'd seen Shepard using one of their particle beam weapons against them, which indicated they weren't using smartgun tech. All she had to do was survive the first fight.
Jen climbed to her feet, the throbbing in her head already beginning to recede, and didn't look at the pile of corpses she'd extracted herself from as she skirted the edge of the room, looking for an exit. A moment later one was provided for her as 76 came smashing through what she now took to have been a door.
"Hey, big guy," she said, thumping the robot affectionately on its barrel chest. "You're just in time. Backup weapon, if you please."
76 deployed an armored storage compartment from its left arm; Jen reached inside and drew out her second favorite of the pre-Prothean weapons she'd taken from those Voidhunter jackoffs, the pistol-like one she'd dubbed "Boltshot" in her notes. Like the Lightrifle, it assembled itself as soon as she took hold of the grip, powering up with a comforting orange glow.
"OK," she said as 76 retracted and sealed the compartment again. "Let's go see if there's something we can monkey-wrench."
As she said it, she felt more than heard a heavy impact or explosion ripple through the vessel's spaceframe, then felt the gravity start to go a bit odd. She glanced at 76, which nodded in response to her unspoken question. Its internal accelerometers confirmed what her instincts were telling her: they were falling.
"Good shooting, Joker," Shepard remarked as the stricken Collector vessel limped groundward. "Maybe too good," she went on, a bit concerned, as the ship's descent began to look less and less controlled.
"Looks like they're coming down in a suburb called White Plains," Joker replied. "Already evacuated, I hope."
"Where's the other one?" Shepard asked.
"Bugging out," Joker replied. "Get it? Bug—ahh, never mind."
"They got past Earthforce?"
"So it would appear. I was kinda busy at the time. I mean, I've only got eight eyes."
"Fair enough. Cover the crash site while we find a way over there. Shepard out." She commed off, retracted her helmet again, and turned to Gaige. "You know a quick way to White Plains that won't tangle us up with the cops, assuming there are any left?"
Gaige nodded. "Sure do." She turned to Ohmtown and Atta, who were regarding each other with a sort of wary amity, as if unsure whether their gangs' temporary alliance still held. "You guys better fade," she said to them. "Cops're gonna get their shit together and show up here eventually. And hey—Atta. Thanks for the solid today. We'll remember that."
Atta clearly didn't know what to say to that. After a few seconds' pause, having failed to come up with anything, he settled for a slightly awkward nod of acknowledgement, then turned and limped off to regroup his surviving Trolls. Ohmtown looked after him for a moment, then shrugged and turned to start pulling the Freaks together likewise, pausing only to bump knuckles with Gaige (and momentarily electrify her mechanical hand).
"OK," she said, turning back to Shepard. "White Plains. Follow me." She led the way across the street, toward what appeared to be a sidewalk-level access bulkhead into some underground system or another. "Hope you don't mind a little sewer action."
The Collector ship had crashed with enough force to crush homes and punch through the streets where it struck ground. Now it lay half-buried along most of its length, canted slightly upward at the rear so that its enormous single sublight exhaust loomed above shattered asphalt. This was convenient for Shepard and her team, because it gave them a way of approaching, and ultimately entering, the vessel without having to get through the tight cordon local authorities almost immediately threw up around the crash site.
It took Shepard a moment to realize that they'd arrived. For a second she thought they'd merely crossed from the sewers into a natural cave of some kind. Only when she noticed an overhead light panel flickering, and in its glow the glint of metal paneling low on one wall, did she realize that it was a corridor aboard the alien ship. Just as it looked like a repurposed asteroid on the outside, so did its interior, at least in this area, resemble a network of rocky tunnels.
"Joker, report," Shepard called.
Joker's voice, when it replied, was soaked in digital static, reduced to the audio equivalent of blocky monochrome pixels. "Got to stay off the wideband, Commander, Earthforce is looking for me. Somebody got a glimpse during the shootout and their sensor guys are real curious about us now."
"Make it quick, then. What's happening topside?"
"Earthforce put down most of a marine battalion. They're assaulting the wreck in force. If you're not seeing many Collectors down below, it's probably because they're all at that party."
"Good," said Shepard. "Maybe they'll keep each other busy long enough for us to get out of here. Stay quiet until you hear from me again."
"Shepard out." She commed off and turned to Gaige. "Anything?"
"Maybe," Gaige replied, engrossed in a holodisplay she was projecting from the back of her cyberhand. "I think DT's got 76's transponder. Two levels up and on the move." She turned to her own robot companion. "Take us there, Deathtrap," she said. Without a sound, the machine pivoted and glided purposefully off down a side passage.
"Move out," said Shepard to the rest of her team. "Stay sharp."
They moved warily through eerily silent corridors, past pieces of equipment whose function they could only guess at, weapons at the ready. After several tense minutes of methodical progress, including a climb up a ramp whose angle was made still steeper by the ship's down angle, they found themselves at the wreckage of what appeared to be an alloy door that had been smashed down by a truck.
"Gettin' warmer," Gaige observed matter-of-factly. "76 has definitely been here," she added, gesturing to the destroyed door. "And where 76 is—... ohhhh... crap."
Shepard would've asked what the problem was, but a second later she saw it herself: the room beyond the door was mainly empty, apart from something she could not immediately parse as a heap of fresh human bodies.
Vega crouched by the pile, examining a couple of its constituents at random, then looked back over his shoulder at Shepard, puzzlement obvious on his face. "They've been shot."
Jack frowned. "Why go to all the trouble of kidnapping people and then just cap 'em and dump 'em in a closet?" she wondered.
"Who knows what goes on in these goddam things' heads?" Zaeed replied gruffly.
Mordin went and took a closer look, his bearing clinical, but his voice had an undercurrent of outrage as he observed,
"Uniformed law enforcement personnel; emergency services; planetary militia members. Most directly responsible for city's defense." His dark amphibian eyes were cold with fury as he met Shepard's gaze and said flatly, "Most likely to resist captivity."
"They're culling their prisoners," Liara agreed grimly.
"Which means they must understand something about who the people they're taking are," Garrus mused.
"Oh man, oh man, oh man," Gaige chanted softly to herself, edging around the pile of bodies. "Get a grip, Jen's not here, she's not here."
Either not understanding or not caring that she was talking to herself, Grunt wondered, "How do you figure?"
Gaige blinked as if surprised to be addressed, then explained as much to herself as to him, "76 isn't here. If Jen was here, 76 would still be here too. He wouldn't leave her. Not even... not even if she was dead."
Zaeed stepped up next to her, leaning close so that the others could at least plausibly pretend not to have heard him, and murmured, "You gonna be OK, sweetie?"
Gaige tore her eyes away from the carnage, swallowed hard, and nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, I'm good. Just... took me by surprise. I'm good," she repeated. "Deathtrap, you still have 76's signal?" The robot silently nodded. Gaige steeled herself with a visible effort and said, "Right, then. Let's keep moving."
76's trail got easier to follow by this point, as it was marked by a series of wrecked doors, as well as a few dead Collectors and Husks. There was still no sign of any live enemies as Shepard and her team worked their way deeper into the ship.
The next room that they came to which contained anything of interest appeared, at first glance, to be the Collector version of a medical lab, with three things that looked remarkably like starship sickbay biobeds and several items that were recognizably computer consoles of one kind or another. One of the beds was empty. The second contained a deactivated Husk, its circuitry dark. The third...
"What the... " said Arna. "That's one of them."
No one argued. The creature on the third biobed (if that's what they were) was indisputably a Collector. Or had been, anyway.
"Looks like this guy's elective surgery didn't go so well," Jack quipped.
Mordin shook his head, examining the alien corpse with clinical precision. "Not surgical casualty. Subject already dead before incisions made."
"Autopsy?" Kaidan hazarded.
The salarian peered thoughtfully at the dead Collector for a few moments longer, then looked up and said, "Dissection."
"Why would they dissect one of their own guys? Nothing about this place is making any sense," Grunt said, sounding personally offended by the fact.
"Unknown," said Mordin. He activated his omni-tool and took some readings, then removed what appeared to be some kind of data module from the console next to the third biobed. "Possible this data will tell us, once I work out a way to access it," he added, tucking the module away in his lab coat.
As they were leaving the (medbay? Morgue? Laboratory?), they passed a heap of equipment that had been discarded haphazardly near the exit. It seemed to be mostly weapons, presumably taken from various abductees here and possibly elsewhere, their shapes jarring, in this setting, in their very familiarity. As she passed, Gaige glanced automatically over the pile, not expecting anything interesting, then stopped with a high-pitched, wordless sound as something caught her eyes.
"What?" Shepard asked.
Gaige stood looking down at the weapons pile for a second. "Is that... " she murmured, then bent and pushed a few random Avenger and MA5 rifles—standard colony militia junk, two generations behind the current specs used in "real" armies—to expose something sleek and orange that had been partially hiddden beneath them.
"OMFG it IS," she said when the weapon was fully revealed. "A genuine Vladof Patriots AR7600/V3 Frantic Revenant support machinegun. Not even on the market a week. Nobody's cracked the FRM yet." She picked up the weapon with reverent hands. "Shh," she said gently, as if to a nervous puppy. "Come here, baby. I'll take good care of you."
Prize in hand, she followed Deathtrap and led the others down another branch hallway. In the distance, they could hear combat now—the high whirring sound of Collector rifles, the snarling buzz of their beam weapons, mixed with the bark of what sounded like energy pulse weapons and the thundering roar of 76's incineration cannon. They quickened their pace. A moment later they emerged from the corridor, up another ramp, and into a room so vast that for a moment, Vega thought they'd actually gone outside.
Here they found Jen Rossum and No. 76 engaged in a pitched battle with a dozen or more Collectors (not counting the similar number of dead ones already strewn around the area when the Surprise team arrived) and a couple of those giant Husks with the concussion cannons. As such, they didn't have much time to reflect on their surroundings—at least not until after they'd helped Jen deal with the rest of the immediate opposition.
After that, and a moderately joyous reunion, they paused to regroup, reload, recharge, and gape at least momentarily at the place they found themselves in. It was a gigantic cylindrical space, reminding those who had been there of the O'Neill-cylinder Garden on Babylon 6, albeit without any of the Garden's green, inviting lushness. Instead of an expanse of livable terrain wrapped around into a seamless sky of ground, this entire area, apart from the wide strip of plated deck they stood on, seemed to be covered with thousands upon thousands of rounded chitinous nodules.
It took Jack a second to get the scale right in her head, but when she had, she said, "Are these cryotubes?"
"They do look like the pod things I saw the Collectors on Eden Prime putting people into," Arna said.
Mordin consulted his omni-tool. "No lifesigns. No indications of occupancy within sensor range."
"There must be thousands of them," said Jen, her bionic eye glowing faintly orange as she closed the other one and zoomed in on the upper level. "Tens of thousands."
"Never mind that right now," said Vega. "Have you seen Tali?"
Jen pulled her focus back to her immediate surroundings and looked startled. "No," she said. "Isn't she—" She looked at the full group for the first time. "—oh no." She called up her omni-tool and started keying it furiously. "Come on, come on... " Her brow furrowed in confusion at the result of whatever she'd done. "What?" she asked the tool. "That doesn't—..." She looked up at, or perhaps past, the pod-covered ceiling. "... son of a bitch."
"What?" Liara asked.
"She's not here," said Jen.
"What do you mean, not here?" said Arna.
"I didn't think it was a complicated concept!" Jen snapped. "Not here, as in not aboard this fucking ship! As in—" She brandished the omni-tool "—not within this unit's direct scan range, which means nowhere in Paragon City!"
"How's that possible?" Kaidan wondered. "We've never seen any evidence that they have transporter technology, and the other ship never landed..."
The deck vibrated underfoot. As Shepard's squadmembers glanced warily at each other, a low hum could be heard rising slowly from nowhere in particular.
"Uhh, Commander?" Joker's heavily flanged voice inquired on the priority channel. "Did you do something in there? Like maybe to the ship's reactor core?"
"We're nowhere near there, as far as I can tell," Shepard replied. "What's going on? They're not trying to take off, are they?"
"Not after what Edie did to their engines," Joker replied, "but their reactor output's ramping up like they were gonna try anyway. Commander, I think you guys better get outta there, I got a real bad feeling about this..."
Shepard turned to Jen. "How sure are you that Tali isn't here?"
"Positive," Jen said. "The only other way I'd be getting no signal at all is if they destroyed her biosuit—and if they did that, she's..." She hesitated. " ... still not here."
Shepard thought about that for a second, then nodded. "OK. Let's move out, then. No point in hanging around here any longer."
"You're close to another hull breach," Joker told her. "Maybe three hundred yards forward, another one of those ramps on your right. Earthforce has that area secured, they've been using it to pull out survivors. You might run into them—" The tone of his voice suddenly changed, and just as it did, the hum within the crippled Collector vessel took on a new and entirely more ominous pitch. "—but I don't think you've got time to go back!"
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Magnetic Terrapin Studios
Features Future Imperfect
Act III: Renegades of Paragon
in order of appearance
Arna V. Alenko
Tali'Zorah nar Rayya
Rossum Universal Robot No. 76
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious assistance of
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from the Mass Effect trilogy
by Gearbox Software
and the late City of Heroes
by Paragon Studios
To be continued in Act IV:
The Secret of Station 14
E P U (colour) 2013
remastered in HD