Tidbit Tuesday: Tactical Retreat, Part 2


I hoped I didn’t sound as breathless as I felt. I hadn’t had too many opportunities to practice my cool composure over the last several months. What else could I say to the man I loved, the man who’d already dismissed me once, who’d never even sent me a message after I’d survived my suicide mission and returned triumphant, much less while I’d been imprisoned in his home town?

He couldn’t have contacted me directly but surely he could have gotten a message through Anderson. He hadn’t. I still missed him so badly it hurt.

He looked down at me, his face coldly neutral. “Shepard.” Where was he hiding those eyes, the ones that had softened when he’d looked at me, the source of those looks that I dreamt of at night? He’d had them on Horizon. They’d flashed at me for a few long moments before he’d stuffed his feelings behind his good-soldier façade. No hint of them showed now.

“It’s good to see you,” I said, wishing there were time for so much more. Was this distance because of Cerberus, because I’d destroyed the Bahak system, or had it simply been too long? He’d been kept away from me through one circumstance or another for almost four years. Had he moved on without me?

We stood for a moment in awkward silence, everything we could have said and done and been hanging between us. I noted the major’s insignia on his uniform and started to congratulate him but Anderson had come to find me. He rushed me off to our meeting before I could find my voice. As we walked away I heard Vega ask Kaidan if knew me.

“I used to,” he answered flatly. The ambivalence stabbed me for a moment and then Anderson swept me around the corner and into the high-ceilinged command center where the powers that be waited.

The doors closed behind me and I faced the high command of the Alliance. They wanted me to give them answers, to tell them what to do. More than anything they wanted me to tell them that the looming disaster was not what they knew it was.

As I was no longer a member of the military and thus not theirs to command I made no bones about arguing with the lot of them. I did so for an hour until, disgusted by the whole thing, I told them that I had nothing else to say.

There were no easy answers because Humans simply could not fight the Reapers alone. We had to convince the Council that the threat was real. Before the committee could make any decision, however, the world exploded.

Bases had been going off-line progressively deeper into our system and suddenly, there outside the window-wall, the enemy arrived. Terribly familiar legs loomed out of the roiling clouds created by the Reaper’s descent into Earth’s atmosphere like some kraken of legend surfacing.

Calling to everyone to get away from the glass, Anderson and I sprinted for the door. I hoped the walls would protect us to some degree but I never made it that far. The Reapers had data far beyond what I’d hoped: this one knew precisely where to hit the Alliance to cut off its head. The first shot blew out the window and flipped the dais, committee and all, across the room right at us.

I went down hard, helped along by something that thudded against the back of my head. My last thought as I plunged into black was that even the Council couldn’t dismiss the Reaper threat after this.

It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes later that I opened my eyes. The fresh air streaming into the room swirled smoke and half-charred papers from the devastated interior out over a city that erupted under blast after blast from the creatures still descending out of lava-red skies. I rolled to a crouch, my head throbbing, and surveyed the room.

Bodies lay, twisted and half-buried, in their Alliance blues. Some stirred feebly, others remained unmoving in spreading pools of ash and blood. Fire licked at the remains of the raised table at which the Committee had sat, feeding on carpet, paper, and cloth. Anderson’s voice came from behind and I answered absently, eyes still on the carnage.

He loomed out of the ash and tugged me to my feet. “Move,” he ordered. “We’ve got to get off the ground.” The moment I stood he tossed me a pistol and pushed me toward the door. We couldn’t do much for the folks in this room but Anderson’s comm unit still linked him to someone who apparently promised all was not yet lost.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the compound on the way through in the car. We’d floated through security with little more than a cursory glance at Anderson’s ID and a snappy salute. I’d been too busy looking at the sky, wondering what they’d done with my ship, to worry about the ground. Had Anderson not been there to guide me through the burning aftermath of the Reapers’ arrival I have no idea what I would have done.

As it was we ran through half-destroyed buildings, forcing malfunctioning doors and confronting death and husks everywhere. As many ruined colonies as I’d cleared, as many blasted modules as I’d fought through on dozens of worlds, these buildings presented a bigger challenge. Their dizzying heights and sprawling lawns spoke of permanence, of people with the time and freedom to build what their vision dictated rather than assembling pre-built cubes for maximum efficiency.

All of it burned. What I wouldn’t have given for a good set of armor and a helmet! Protected by only the gold rope on our dress blues Anderson and I ran, hoping to beat the destruction to the end of our path despite the chaos all around us. Everything screamed at me to hurry: husks swarming, flames crackling, floors collapsing.

I hadn’t the faintest idea where or with whom we were intended to meet so I did what I’d done whenever Anderson had told me to fight: I fought and I followed him. He’d never led me astray in all the years I’d know him. He’d stood before me or beside me through everything, since well before we’d taken the Normandy on its fateful first flight. He was the father I’d never had and he was all I had left.

I found a moment in our wild flight to wonder what had happened to Kaidan and Vega. They’d had plenty of time to leave the building we’d been in while I’d argued with the brass but the Reaper’s beams had torched whole swathes of the base. For all I knew the two had lain dead under debris where I’d last seen them, a new friend and a lost love both gone. Then Anderson snapped me into focus again, hurrying me through the wreckage.

The new-minted admiral showed me just how well an N7 could perform a decade after his last firefight and ten kilos heavier than he’d been. My head cleared as we went, the pain dulled as if left behind in our headlong rush. If anyone could clear this mess and make a rendezvous it was us.

Thank heavens it was a military base: everyone had been armed. We dashed into another building and, barely slowing, retrieved clips from the corpses we found strewn across our path. Searing heat rushed down the corridor and I vaguely wondered whether my hair or my borrowed uniform would catch fire first.

Every second a new danger loomed. My pulse beat at me, screaming “go, go, go” to my brain. Anderson shouted the same, alternating between imprecations and encouragement. If we were going to live we had to run. My body dumped adrenaline by the liter into my bloodstream, feeding my sense of urgency as much as the flames and death through which we raced.

We came out on a waterfront and took great, whooping breaths of the cool, salted air. Reaper forces had tumbled the docks like straws. Anderson tapped at his ear. “We’ve got to find a radio. The interference is too strong.” Shuttles bobbed among the platforms and the tail of a ship jutted farther out, one wing crumpled back across the fuselage.

Reaper carriers blanketed the city, smaller versions of the two-kilometer long cuttlefish AIs I’d seen but all the more chilling for their numbers. From these ships came creatures I’d never seen before. They looked something like cyborg Turians, not husks but distorted, half-Collectorized mutants. They were also utterly insane.

Anderson and I fought, snatching clips and weapons as we went from those less lucky than we had been. My training hadn’t abandoned me any more than his had him. Speed was of the essence and we shot from the hip as we ran, pushing back waves of creatures before our determination.

The Reapers had wanted humans to make another of their number and now they’d come to the place where the highest concentration of us lived. Once they’d harvested their fill they intended to kill every sentient being in the galaxy. We couldn’t let them take us but Anderson and I couldn’t fight them with just our pistols and a couple of grenades. We had to make that rendezvous.

Finally we found a crashed ship with an intact radio. I scanned the jumbled mess of metal and wood around us, thinking of Vega and that handshake. We can do this, we’d promised one another. I intended to keep that promise, whether James still could or not.

Anderson made contact and Joker’s voice crackled back, telling him he was bringing my baby back to me. A load I hadn’t known I was carrying lifted. If I could get my pilot and my SR-2 back then I still had hope. They agreed on coordinates through increasing static but Anderson lost them before Joker could tell us anything more.

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