They say we are the lucky ones, we who survived the first cataclysms. To live a life alone amid so much loss is to die a hundred thousand deaths. Those who perished in the beginning and did not know this suffering, they are the lucky ones.
– from The Cycle of Rebirth, Chapter 1, Verse 8
Three days ago Leah and I had dinner with Rachel and Elani across the hall. Rachel was a biochemist working for the University of Pennsylvania. She was an amazing cook, blending local custom with off-world traditions in ways I couldn’t begin to understand. We had prime cuts of sirloin marinated with butter and Seguthi sauce from Thessia, Elani’s home world. I could still taste it if I allowed myself.
We found them in the bedroom, Rachel’s hand still grasping Elani’s. Ebony skin intertwined with light blue, coated in dark blood. They’d put up a fight but it was clear they’d been overwhelmed. Several husks lay around the bed, and I could feel the latent residue of eezo in the air. Elani’s biotics weren’t strong by Asari standards and Rachel was only a lab tech. They hadn’t stood a chance.
I finally tore my eyes from the sight when Leah put a hand on my shoulder. A deep sense of loss came over me, not just for losing new friends but that two lives so intertwined would be removed without reason or need. Elani spoke with me just last night about their plans to travel once Rachel had sabbatical. She wanted to take her to Thessia and then to the Citadel. I reached for Leah’s hand, reflexively, but she moved away.
“Come on,” Leah said and we left the room. On the way to the door I found an image recording of the two of them in John Kennedy Park, standing in front of some old piece of art that simply said “Love.” The simple cliché of the image made me smile and I tucked it away into my belt. If there was ever a memorial here in Philadelphia, I’d make sure it was added.
We found no other survivors on our floor. What apartments weren’t abandoned during the attack had nothing but corpses within. We left via a service elevator that was out of commission, climbing down the access ladders and using our biotics to slow our falls.
Throughout the short trip down we said nothing to one another. A rift made of unresolved conversation separated us to the point of uncomfortable silence. Despite the carnage that was happening all around us, I couldn’t bring myself to say anything to her or touch her. The loneliness of those few minutes was almost unbearable. Why couldn’t we bring ourselves to say even a few words to one another as humanity was being wiped from existence?
Husks and a few cannibals, which looked like a kind of mutated batarian, were the only moving things on the ground floor. We hurried into cover and with a few short hand gestures created a plan of attack. It wasn’t much of one, but it worked before and we decided to go with it.
Leah opened with a well placed Singularity, the ME field immediately snaring a number of the husks in its gravitational grip. I gathered up my biotic energy and expelled it at the floating husks. Leah’s Singularity was so strong that the impact of my Throw detonated the ME field and tossed the husks several hundred meters into the sky, down the street or through the crumbling walls.
Leah’s next biotic attack struck like a freight train, exploding along a thin track to my left, tossing the husks aside. My Tech Armor flared as I left cover, finger depressing the trigger of my rifle in short, controlled bursts.
My breathing slowed and heart-rate leveled out. Several husks fell under my fire but a few got through to claw at my armor. I let them, feeling the tug of their attacks but confident in my shields and Tech Armor. I also had Leah and without fail, the sound of her explosive Warp removed one of the two husks on me. The second I gutted with my omni-blade and fired into its chest as it dropped.
We ran, knowing we had to get out of there before more arrived. The cannibal roared and raised an arm in our direction. A powerful blast erupted from it, destroying a support pillar just a few inches behind me.
“Go!” I screamed to Leah before launching myself into a slide behind some fallen debris. I came up firing, my shots well aimed and catching the cannibal in the head. The first few shots ricocheted off some kind of hide but the next few wounded it. Dark ooze sprayed from the wounds and its roar told me I’d severely pissed it off.
Then it fired the grenades.
“Oh shi-!” I managed to get out before the explosives went off. The shockwave tossed me back, rolling and bouncing off rock and fallen husks. My Tech Armor was all that saved me from serious damage as I careened off a crumbled wall and landed on polycrete shards. Shaking my head to clear it, I got to my knees in time to see the thing eating a husk.
“That can’t be good,” I said and fired again and again until my thermal clip was full. As I replaced it, I saw my shots hadn’t even touched it. It was re-growing hide on its skin, thickening with each moment it ate.
“Really, really not good.”
Leah’s biotic Throw was so powerful the cannibal didn’t even have time to make a sound. The blast ripped by me and sent the creature tumbling away, bits of hide and ooze and plate spraying everywhere.
“Don’t let it eat,” Leah said, helping me up. “They heal.”
“Good to know,” I said and we hurried on. An entrance to the old subway system was a block away and we made use of abandoned buildings for cover. The reapers were everywhere, as thick as a marathon run on some streets. They crowded in places where human screams could be heard. We couldn’t help them, I knew that, but every dying voice made me feel guilty for living.
Just up the street from the subway entrance, I crouched and surveyed the area. It was surprisingly free of reaper forces. Glancing at Leah I gave her a questioning look. She leaned close to me, so close I could smell the soap still on her skin despite the smoke and dust we’d come through.
“Friendlies,” she whispered, explaining the lack of reaper forces at the mouth of the entrance. “They said they’re holed up just inside the tunnels.”
“Ready when you are,” I said, matching her whispered tone.
We launched ourselves over the low wall we’d hidden ourselves behind and began to run. The street was empty with just twenty meters to go. Soon we’d have a breather, a moment to digest what the hell was going on and what to do about it.
And then something threw an aircar at us.
I saw the vehicle hurtling toward us at the last moment and dropped, knocking Leah off her feet and pulling her down just in time. I’d just begun to think that something seriously had it out for me today when I saw the thing that tried to kill us.
It was the size of a heavy fighter craft with metal plating and implants of blinking, pulsing blue energy plugged into almost every part of its body. It looked like it might have been a krogan if you’d slapped on a few hundred pounds and mixed in some turian for good measure. When it charged, it flung aside cars, debris and husks like they weighed nothing at all.
In that moment I had a small epiphany: I did not want to be punched in the face by one of those. Not a stellar epiphany, or even a helpful one, but one I knew I had to make good on. If I didn’t, I’d be dead, so I did the only thing a sane man would.
I rolled to my feet and pulled Leah up behind me. Only the smallest shred of thought let me keep hold of my assault rifle as I grabbed Leah’s hand and poured on the speed. Eight meters to go and the thing was nearly on top of us. It was then that I had another epiphany and this one over-ruled the first.
“Second year, Jump Zero, ready?” I shouted at Leah.
“What-? Jim, no!”
I didn’t wait to see if she fully understood and stopped, shoving Leah ahead of me and then gathering up enough biotic power for one small Throw. She understood even if she disagreed and had gathered her own power around her, lessening her weight and hopping off the ground at the same instant I unleashed my Throw.
Leah flew backward and I saw her Barrier form around her. In that instant I also saw the look on her face. She did not want me to die. Well, at least that’s one question answered.
The thing hit me like a freight train. My shields and Tech Armor exploded into sparks and electronic fizzles and snaps. The smell of burned ozone filled my nose and my body felt generally abused by the eezo nodules being stressed to their breaking points. Hitting the ground and rolling like a rag doll knocked the wind out of me and I lay for a moment gasping for air and shaking the stars from my eyes.
I didn’t like what I saw. The creature was preparing another charge, smashing things out of its way to clear a path. My body was still recovering from the shock of that last hit and it would be several seconds at least until I could draw on anything. By some miracle my rifle was still in my hand, no doubt due to the superb and noble tactic of having slept with it during Boot Camp. I once joked to Leah that my M-15 got more action than she did.
I raised myself groggily to my knees and aimed my rifle. One bright aspect of this situation was that I wasn’t likely to make that joke again. The rest of it was all bad. “This is going to suck,” I murmured and began to fire.
A strange thing happened when it charged me. My life didn’t flash before my eyes or anything, but four automatic weapons did. They came from the direction of the subway entrance. I didn’t have time to see whom all it was, I just kept shooting until my thermal clip was used up.
By then its armor was nearly gone and dark ichors leaked from half a hundred wounds. It came on but it was stumbling. It was time to go for broke. I stood up, finding my legs and dropped my rifle. From both arms, my omni-blades extended, and I charged toward it.
I pulled inward, drawing on what little biotic power I could and lowered my weight. My jump took me over the thing’s weapon arm and onto its head. At the instant I drove my omni-blades into its skull I used a Throw to push myself against it, driving them deeper.
The blades shattered as I twisted them. The movement of my left arm sent searing pain throughout my body, but my adrenaline let me shrug it off for the moment. Gunfire concentrated on the creature from one side and I felt it topple to its side, screaming and howling. Sheer luck kept me from being crushed beneath it and I hit the ground and rolled away.
I was coughing dirt and blood when gentle hands pulled me up. Leah supported my weight as we made our way to the subway entrance. It felt good to have her there, to depend on her again. We’ve always been a team ever since Jump Zero. Even during this last year, when we were apart, I felt like she was with me and a part of me. So why is she so different now?
We were met at the entrance by three men in Alliance armor. One of them was carrying my rifle, which I was grateful for but found I had no words with which to thank him. I felt dizzy and clumsy and a dull pain began to throb throughout my chest and left shoulder. Beneath my armor, I felt omni-gel filling gaps that had been torn in the plating. Perhaps I’d been wounded far worse than I thought.
It was dark in the tunnels and my eyes refused to adjust. With each step the scene became fuzzier, words slurring together in a jumble of noise. Where I’d seen three men in armor, I now saw twenty.
“Stay awake,” Leah said and I was lowered to the floor. Once I was down, I felt it, really felt it. The pain threaded its way from my ribs on the left side, up and down my left arm and into my shoulder. The pain was faint at first, reaching me through a haze of numbness. It grew quickly until it was a blazing inferno of agony with each breath I took.
I cried out which brought Leah and she knelt in front of me. She’d taken her gloves off and her warm hands were on my cheeks. It hurt so much, just sitting there and I was suddenly shamed by tears that cut tracks through the dirt on my face.
“It’s going to be all right Jimmy,” she said, leaning close until our foreheads touched like they used to back on Jump Zero after the surgeries. Back then, it was Leah who would cry and need someone to share her pain.
“Stay with me,” she whispered.
“Always,” I managed to say.
I heard someone say something about a punctured lung. There was a pinching sensation on my neck as someone else came briefly into view. Medi-gel flooded my body. It’s cool, comforting sensation eased the pain in my ribs and arm. I concentrated on Leah’s face, on those stormy gray eyes that now looked so concerned, that didn’t want me to die.
“He was wounded earlier,” she said to someone I couldn’t see. “In the back, husk claws and teeth. I dosed him but…”
“Leah,” I said, my voice taking on urgency. “We have to talk… have to know…”
“I know,” she said. “We will but not now. Jim? Jimmy, open your eyes! Medic!”
Darkness came on me, wrapped me in a blanket of exhaustion and coated me with the crash of too many adrenaline highs. Leah’s voice was a lullaby, indistinct but melodic. Distantly, I thought she might be panicking.
Memories flashed before me like still framed photographs. I was a kid standing outside the barn with my sister, making her favorite bear dance. My mother looking sick and gray in the hospital the day I found out my eezo exposure had given her a terminal disease. Me standing at a desk, signing onto the Alliance. Jump Zero as I saw it through the portal of my first starship. And then I see Leah, skinny and petite with her long dark hair and her hand grasping mine. She’d just asked if it would hurt. That day I promised her I’d never leave her. Never.
A murmur of voices filtered through to me as if through water. I pushed through the past toward them, a drowning man in a sea of memory. I needed to be back there, with her, protecting her. I promised.
I opened my eyes.