Darkest Hour – Chapter 1

I stood amidst the corpses of friends and allies, their blood everywhere soaking the walls and fields. The gore was so unimaginable I was helpless before it and fell to my knees with shaking hands and uncontrollable tears.

The world cracked and fell away. There came a light, a brilliant, blinding light to erase our world. I stared, transfixed, my gaze torn away from the face of my mother. My memory yet burns with the memory, her lips frozen in that terrible light with the last syllables of my name upon them.

From the heavens, came our Hell. I saw them as great shadows with one giant eye. They descended and fell upon the land and I knew the face of death.

The end had come.

– from The Cycle of Rebirth, Chapter 12, Verse 14

Chapter 1

 Just when I’d thought my day couldn’t get any worse, the world decided to end.

The bastard came down right over City Hall, digging giant tentacle appendages into Penn Square like an omni-blade through butter. I watched, dumbstruck, as the damn thing obliterated William Penn’s bronzed visage from the face of the Earth. I raised my M-3 and fired at that red eye until my thermal clip was full. The act of ejecting it woke me from my idiocy just in time to grab the nearest gawking civilian and haul him bodily into the cafe I’d just come from.

The street exploded into a million fragments of superheated polycrete and old fashioned masonry. I kept my head down and managed to kick over a table just in time for the shards to embed themselves in its plastic exterior. Another blast ripped through the air with a deafening sound that ripped a scream from my throat.

The world went red and burned away to a stark white nothing. I felt something pop in my ears and a sudden silence overcame me, followed by a high pitched ringing. For a heartbeat I thought I’d died, but my vision returned enough to see the world through flashes of light and darkness.

The cafe no longer had a wall and the ceiling was gone. I could see daylight above me, several hundred stories of building ripped open like a serrated can. Debris fell all around me, crashing into the street, into parked cars, and worse… into people.

One tumbled toward me. The man I’d pulled into cafe with me was alive and pointing, screaming though I couldn’t hear a thing. I Reached and my body pulsed with Eezo nodules, connecting and amplified by my L3 implant. It felt like I’d just downed a whole jug of coffee in one go, my body vibrating with its need to release the pent up energy. I extended my hands and forced it out, the mass effect fields grabbing hold of the falling rock and tossing it just off line so it crashed into the street instead of where we lay.

I fell back onto the floor, exhausted from the effort. I wasn’t the most powerful of biotics and never would be. That’s why they did what they did and gave me what they gave. I reached over and brushed my fingers across the omni-tool embedded in my forearm. Muscle memory activated the keys I needed and a flood of medi-gel released itself into my implanted pathways. My ears popped and sound flooded back in.

I was up and grabbing my M-3 in one heartbeat. In two I’d activated the glowing tech armor the Sentinel Project had gifted to me at the expense of so much humanity. Small projectiles rained down on me as I leaped through the hole that was the cafe’s wall and into the street, without a single one touching my flesh.

Outside it was worse. The sky lit up as a dreadnaught caught one of those damned beams amidships and exploded. It’s aft tail assembly spun wildly to earth and took off the top fifty stories of One Liberty.

“Move!” I shouted to anyone who could hear me and ran. The destruction that followed was catastrophic. A deafening, unceasing roar ran on the winds of a dust storm that soon enveloped me and turned the world a uniform gray. Buildings were crashing, collapsing, and people, thousands or millions or more, were dying. Shamefully, I could only summon up fear and pain for one.

She’d said no, but it hardly mattered to me in that moment. I had to get home and ran, dodging falling debris when I could and letting smaller bits bounce off my tech armor. I felt the pressure of those hits press against the mini-ME fields resonating in my skin, the silicon pathways the surgeons implanted running on overtime and pure adrenaline. I’d need to sleep for a week after this. A week with, or without her.

A crowd of people was running toward me. I tried to wave them away, shouting to turn around and run. They paid no attention to me and ran like death was on their heels. As the dust cleared, I saw that it was.

Those things were everywhere. Some of them, husks as I’ve come to know them in training, looked like humans, horribly distorted with blue, ephemeral lights that blinked like electronic veins. Others looked like things of nightmare, twisted forms with huge, bulbous bodies resembling collected tumors of cancer pustules. When they opened their mouths, the scream nearly unmade me.

I fired my M-3 and the head of a humanoid creature exploded. It fell, twitching to the sidewalk but before it was still, the others were rushing forward.

Shit. Now I just had to piss them off. Such a goddamned hero.

I shot two more before Reaching with my biotics, tossing one into the air a few meters with a Pull and Pushing another into those behind it. I couldn’t do anything truly fancy, not like she could, but it got their attention.

“Not my best idea,” I heard myself say and bolted down a side alley. I could hear them following, their elongated, claw-like hands scraping on the polycrete walls of the buildings on either side. I heard screams as well, human screams. Not all of those things were following me, but there wasn’t anything more I could do, not just yet. I had to get home, get my armor and my M-15, something more powerful than the pop gun I carried when not in uniform.

The world heaved. Beneath me the sidewalk cracked and rose. I was tossed off my feet and tumbled down the growing hill of macadam and stone before it split open. The sound was worse than any explosion. It was like a giant bone being slowly cracked in half. Afterward, a hypnotic, relentless hum tried to worm its way into my brain. My implants kept a good deal of it out but I still felt it like a needle in my mind.

The Reaper came down right over me. Its legs split the street and the shock-wave of its landing caused the world to buck and tremble. Overhead I saw the front cannon of the exploded dreadnaught crash into the back of the Reaper. It ignored it as if the giant, forty ton piece of metal had been a gnat on its arm.

I don’t know how I got to my feet, or even how I kept running, but I made to the end of the alley and then another and another. Everything was in chaos. Bodies were everywhere. I saw them laying in the streets, hanging through windows or simply half-buried in rubble. Seeing the dead children was worse, small frames smashed flat like bags of red jelly.

I tried the radio again, hoping she would pick up at home but nothing happened when I keyed our frequency. The lines were down and even my Sat-Com links were offline. I wasn’t reaching the New Jersey or anyone in command anytime soon.

So that was it. I’d make it back to the apartment on my own, find her if she was still alive and grab my things. Then, what? I didn’t think about it very long, there was nothing to do about it anyway, so I ran.

The attack was everywhere. It wasn’t like the wars I’d studied or conflicts I’d been part of with the Geth. In those instances an attack came, destroyed a lot of things, killed a lot of people, and then it was over. The dust settled and rescue began. Not here. The Reapers destroyed and killed and kept on coming. There wasn’t going to be any dust settling or rescue after the fact. It was fight or die.

Our hotel’s block was bad. One of the buildings was toppled and crashed into the one next to it. Debris still tumbled down to the street and not all of it was rock. A man struck the pavement ahead of me with a wet slap and I prayed he’d already been dead. Without looking at him, I crossed the street.

It was deserted except for a few husks which I put down with some well-aimed shots from my M-3. I was alarmed that they took so many well-aimed shots to put down. I really needed to get to my locker so the weapon could be armed with some more substantial ammunition.

The front of my building was decimated and I ducked down behind a fallen wall when I saw husks and a few other… things about. I couldn’t see any other survivors, at least not right away and decided a frontal assault was not in my best interest. Glancing up, I saw that the third floor’s wall was missing. I could start there instead of the front door.

Moving with all the stealth I could manage, I threaded my way from debris pile to debris pile until I was close enough. She could have made the jump from where I’d started but I wasn’t as powerful. My Eezo wasn’t as prevalent and in turn, the ME fields I generated couldn’t reduce my mass as easily. So, I got as close as I dared and let my biotic amp fill me with giddy, shaky power.

The nimbus surrounded me and I’d be spotted if I wasn’t quick. I let it build quickly and then released it, the ME fields lowering my mass. For a brief time, I was nearly weightless, much like the technique vehicles use to stay aloft. I turned, gathered my feet under me and jumped while giving myself a biotic push.

The ground fell away and the third floor rushed toward me in greeting. I’d overshot it slightly and flipped halfway around, my feet landing solidly on the wall above the opening. My biotic discharge was fading quickly so I reached beneath me, grabbed hold of the top of the destroyed section and flipped myself down and inside.

“Like a goddamned super-hero,” I said, feeling rather proud of myself until a husk appeared, screaming its head off. I brought my M-3 up and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened except for a rapid beeping, telling me the thermal clip was full.

My biotic amp was still overloaded from the stunt I’d just pulled off and any Pushes I was hoping for were still seconds away. I screamed my head off too and ran at it. I figured, what the hell, I might as well go out with some gusto. My omni-blade whipped free and I drove it straight through the thing’s eye socket. Unfortunately, this didn’t kill it.

The weight of it toppled me backward and we rolled right to the edge of the building. I could feel the forty meter drop just millimeters away and kicked upward with my left leg, swinging the husk over me and off the building. I grabbed hold of the ledge as I tumbled after it. The flaking polycrete and cement held and I hauled myself back up.

Below, I could see a whole lot of those damned things looking up at me.

It was definitely time to move. I booked it through the floor, changing out my thermal clip just in time to blow the stuffing out of another husk at the lift. The lift wasn’t working, of course, so the stairs had to be used. I hoped there wouldn’t be any more of them since that clip was my last. I thought I’d been paranoid carrying around three of the damned things today. Crime in Philadelphia was bad but not that bad.

The stairs were clear and I rushed up to the seventh floor where my apartment was. I swung open the door and charged in, only to pull up short. Thirty husks stood there, milling about, scratching at walls and doors and looking generally creepy.

“It just isn’t fair,” I said to no one in particular. “This was my vacation.”

I gathered up my biotic power again and Pushed. The closest husk was blown backward, toppling a few of his fellows. Then they all rushed me. My tech armor would keep their claws and teeth off my skin for a little while and my omni-blade would serve me better in close-quarters so I dropped the M-3 and started hacking away.

I decapitated the first one and gutted a second before spinning away from another that tried to tackle me to the ground. They were all over me in seconds, pressing on me, pushing me to my knees. I shouted, trying to stand again but their combined weight was tremendous. I slashed low at a few but in the end it was too much.

It was time to go for broke.

I mentally overloaded my tech armor and it exploded in an outward circle of electrical power. The weight on me was gone in that instant but so was my safety. I had to get out of there and fast.

Leaping over the first of the fallen husks, I tuck-rolled beneath the swing of another and cut its legs out from underneath of it with my omni-blade. I never stopped moving, ducking, slashing, killing. There were so many of them, too many of them in the end. They caught me five meters from the door of my apartment.

I felt the claws go into my shoulder. There was a stinging, biting pain that was hot and cold at the same time. The wrongness of it was the most palpable sensation. Pain I was familiar with. The Sentinel Project gave you plenty of opportunities to become acquainted with it, but this pain was corrupt and hideous. It crawled beneath your skin like worms made of electricity.

A second sank its teeth into my upper arm. I cried out and slashed but my omni-blade broke apart as my body’s electro-energy fields became disrupted. My tech armor was still seconds away.

Suddenly we were airborne. I hadn’t seen or heard the Singularity emerge but there it was beneath us. I was floating in biotic power so familiar I would have known it anywhere.

Leah stood in the hallway, the door to our apartment open. She was dressed in her armor, the freshly minted “N6” emblazoned on her shoulder. She reached a hand out and Pulled me away from the Singularity just before she unleashed a Warp so strong it cracked the walls with its biotic explosion.

Of the husks only pieces remained while I lay gasping on the floor. Leah knelt next to me and without a word injected me with a healthy dose of medi-gel. At once the pain and wrongness of the wound dissipated and a comfortable peace came over me.

“Get up,” she said. “We have to get going.”

I struggled to my knees and looked back at the destruction she’d wrought. As always, her strength in biotics amazed me. Even way back at Jump Zero, she’d been so strong and without her, I’d have never made it through that acclimation process. I’d have gone insane.

“Do you always have to bash your way through things?” she said as she helped me to my feet. “You have to be the least delicate biotic I know.”

“Half-biotic,” I muttered and tried not to look at her. If I looked into those gray eyes I’d lose it right there in the hallway. Some big-bad N6 I am.

“I need my armor,” I said quickly and moved into the apartment. The place was littered with husk corpses, or what remained of them. Everything else was in chaos. The kitchen table upturned, cabinets smashed wide open and chairs flung everywhere. In the bedroom, broken glass trailed from the bathroom. I glanced from that to the bed, where the small box still lay, undisturbed.

“I was in the shower,” Leah said when I glanced at it. I nodded, very slowly, and went to the closet. That was mostly intact by some grace of the Maker. I slid out my military trunk and keyed the lock. It slid apart with neatly folding metal plates and revealed my blue service armor. Leah helped me into it as fast as we could and I grabbed my M-15 rifle stored at the bottom and slid it onto my back.

“So what do we do now?” I asked, finally looking at her. It was a bad question to ask. Her sharp features gave her a hawkish look and when her eyes narrowed, she looked very dangerous. Her short, black hair was a mess but even that didn’t soften the look. I coughed. “I meant, Command isn’t responding.”

Leah grabbed the extra thermal clips for her pistol and slid them into her belt. When she looked back at me, her features had softened. “Command is gone. Vancouver is gone and so is London.”

I couldn’t believe it. The Alliance Navy was stronger than that, it had to be! Sure, Admiral Hackett had given us a warning about these damned things before but… could they really be that powerful? I’d seen the destruction in the streets but this was Philadelphia, not Vancouver, where the military power was at its peak.

“I was able to get through to local channels though. There’s a resistance holed up beneath Independence Park. We’ll have to take the old subway system. It’s where we’re needed most.”

“What about the fleet?” I asked. “Hackett is up there, we have to reach him.”

She shook her head and walked for the door. “The fleet is gone, Jimmy. Let’s go.”

I stood there, unable to move. The fleet was gone. Those words sounded surreal to me, impossible. The fleet, the power of humanity itself that helped destroy Sovereign, was gone.

“Are you coming?” Leah called from the doorway. She couldn’t see me standing there, my shock plain and the day’s events finally breaking through my control. I knew myself enough to know that if I didn’t move now I’d fall and never get up again.

I looked back at the bed. It was a mistake, maybe, but I had to. The box sat there like a solitary monument to a world I’d known just a few hours before. I picked it up and stared at it. Inside was the ring she’d refused.

“Jim?” she called again.

“I’m coming,” I said and slipped the ring out of its box and into my most secure pouch. I walked from the bedroom and left the rest of it behind.

That morning I’d asked her to spend the rest her life with me and she’d said no. Now our lives were looking to be very short and if this was the end of all things, then I would end it with her.

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