As one, we rose against the coming darkness with blade in hand. One by one we fell, each life like a star snuffed out of the night sky. Those who remained huddled in prayer with eyes closed and hope so frail that one word might shatter us all.
– from The Cycle of Rebirth, Chapter 13, Verse 1
Jump Zero, Five Years Prior
“What do you mean she’s problematic?”
“Mister Wolfe, I assure you we did everything we could to make it as easy as possible-“
“Again, what do you mean she’s problematic?”
The doctor stood in the doorway, his gray hair perfectly in place, his features flat and unreadable and his clothes unrumpled. I found it unsuitable that a man fresh from two hours of surgery should look so pristine and unworried. They won’t let me see her.
He sighed. “Are you family, Mister Wolfe?”
The question angered me even more. “What? No I’m her friend-“
“Then during visitation hours you will be able to see her all you want. Now I really must get back to work.” He turned to leave but I grabbed his arm. Immediately, two solders pulled me away but my biotics flared to life. I drew it in, felt its power grow in my pores, within my very blood as my adrenaline kicked it into overdrive. I reached out and Pulled. All I managed to do was draw the doctor’s pen from his pocket. It floated uselessly toward me.
The doctor didn’t even blink. “You are a fortunate one, Mister Wolfe. Your L3 implant is tried and tested, our procedures for implantation very well practiced. Miss Kearney’s L5 is not. That is all I am able to tell you.”
I was made to wait in my quarters, pacing the small cubicle without even the extranet to keep me busy. Jump Zero was offline during the implantation period, cut off from the Alliance worlds so homesickness wouldn’t take root. It didn’t help.
Sneaking out was impossible. Posted at my door were two Alliance marines. One of them was biotic, I was pretty sure I could sense that. Biotics knew other biotics. Eezo does something to you. You stand differently, fidget in a way that other biotics would understand. When I came near another biotic, there was just this electro-static field that I passed through and even through the wall, one of those guys out there had one. It was the one on the right. He had the look, the stance, the fidget. My door’s viewing screen to the outside wasn’t great, but it was enough to know.
So I sat and waited for hours. It was 0100 when the guards knocked and told me I could visit the medbay. I didn’t thank them, didn’t say a word. I ran to her, like she’d run to me in that first week when the tests began. She’d been so much like my sister then, weak and innocent and scared. In the past two months she’d grown into something else, someone I couldn’t live without.
She lay unconscious on a bed in the ICU. I was allowed as far as her contamination ME field and sat in a stiff chair. Her eyes were closed, her skin pale and feverish. They’d cut off her long, black hair, leaving only stubble. I stopped a nurse and asked if she’d be all right.
“The surgery caused some minor cancer to pop up along her occipital lobes. It’s been treated and we’re just watching for more in case it comes back.”
I thanked her and sat, watching through the wavy, translucent barrier between us. Her breath came in long, slow draws through her narrow nose and out through chapped lips. She was a horrid sight but I didn’t care. The young woman laying there was Leah Kearney, my Leah Kearney. She needed me but there was nothing I could do, so I prayed that she would be strong.
An hour later, I woke with a start from my dozing. I didn’t realize I’d drifted off and looked up. Leah’s eyes were open, her head turned so she could watch me. She was smiling very faintly as if to say I see you there. You haven’t abandoned me.
I swore I never would.
She stared into my eyes, her expression one of panic and desperation. I opened my mouth to speak but no words came. Pain did, in droves. It flowed through my body like water loosed from a crumbling dam. I cried out, the first sound I was able to make.
Medi-gel was applied. I felt its effects immediately, numbing the pain and cooling the parts of my body that felt like they were on fire. My vision blurred and I felt the darkness come back, washing over me and comforting me. I tried to fight it, tried to come back and stay there but it was too much, too quickly.
The next time I opened my eyes, she was sitting nearby. I felt her fingers in my hair, smoothing it away from my eyes. The Navy would be pissed to know it’d gotten so long. It was completely out of regulation, but I could have cared less.
“I thought you’d left me,” she said very quietly. When I looked over at her, she looked away. Her hand withdrew as well, folded with the other in her lap.
“Yeah well, tried my best,” I said and out of reflex, I tried to sit up and, surprisingly, found that I could. I was a little stiff, and there was still some lingering pain in my shoulder and side but nothing too terrible. The back of my left hand had some interesting scarring I couldn’t remember, blackened scabs that looked completely hideous.
“You were turning,” she said without looking at me.
“It seems husks can… infect humans, like the spikes they use.”
The very notion made me sick to my stomach. I’d been turning into one of those things? I pushed it away and swung my legs off the makeshift cot I’d been laying on which was just empty ammunition containers with a sheet draped over it.
The room was lit by a few glow-lamps hung on the walls and looked to be an old maintenance room of some sort. Water leaked from just about every hole in the wall and there was good half-inch on the ground. I guessed we were in the subway still and the water mains above were leaking.
Leah stood up from where she sat on another empty box and helped me up. For a long moment we just stood, facing one another. She tried to look away but I reached up and drew her back with my finger on her chin. I’d nearly died, become a reaper abomination and despite the world coming to an end, all I wanted to do was kiss her. I wanted some damn sanity in this completely impossible situation.
“Not now,” she whispered after a moment, sensing my need. She rested her hands on my bare arms and squeezed gently. Then we were embracing, a sudden need to be close. I was thankful we were both alive and just needed to feel her there, to know she was real and whole and healthy. Her arms were strong and squeezing me tightly, nothing like that frail girl from Jump Zero.
Someone clearing their throat made us move apart. I looked to see a salarian standing in the doorway. Tall and thin like the rest of his race, he was dressed in battle armor and held a folded sniper rifle in his arms like one might carry a baby. His large eyes darted between us rapidly and I looked to Leah for an answer.
“Jim, this is Foren Erastus. He’s the one who treated you while you were out.”
I blinked despite myself. The salarian looked more like a SpecOps soldier than a doctor. My confusion must have been plain because Leah went on. “Foren was a medical advisor to a unit here in Philadelphia prior to the attack. He was… curious about human interactions and wanted to learn our ways.”
“So why do you look like an N7 recruit?” I asked him, looking around for my upper body armor. I found it on another covered box and began to strap it back on.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything,” Foren said in quick, but passable English. I frowned, feeling as though I’d heard someone say that exact same thing before but shrugged it off.
“Thanks for saving my ass,” I said after I secured my chest plate and clipped my upper arm guards in place. “I didn’t fancy being a blue circuit board.”
“You ain’t got time to bleed,” Foren announced and marched out of the room. I clipped my forearm guards on and raised a brow to Leah, who shrugged.
“He’s been watching a lot of old vids to… learn about human interaction,” she said. “Don’t ask him if he’ll be back.”
“Got it,” I said and found my rifle. After securing it to my back and snapping up my helmet, I paused to look at her. She shook her head. “Later.”
“We’re not going to get many chances. It’s the end of the fucking universe.”
“Don’t talk like that. Something is happening. The Commander they were talking about on the vids? Shepard? Well they say she’s on her way to get help from the other races.”
I grunted in response. Shepard. Yeah I’d heard about Shepard all right. Majorly screwed up something in batarian space and wiped out a whole sector. The Alliance Navy was dealing with the fallout for months. It came near to all out war because of her stupidity. How the hell do you blow up a whole sector?
“She’s a hero, Jim, they’ll listen to her.”
“They made her a Spectre, then she went to work for Cerberus last I heard. Cerberus, Leah.”
“You didn’t seem to think Cerberus was so bad when they treated your sister.”
“That was different!” I said and knew I’d let my anger get the best of me. Cerberus was wrong. That maniac Jacqueline Nought exposed all kinds of things about experiments Cerberus did to biotics, biotics like me and Leah.
“No, it wasn’t,” she said. Her voice was soft and I knew she was trying to talk me down. She touched my arm, drew me around and caught my eyes with her own. “You did what you had to do to save Kylie. I never second guessed you. Not once. You did what you had to do, even when it took you from me.”
I sighed, shaking my head. “Fine, okay, so she’s going to get the fleets. Even if she does it’ll be too late. What the hell are we going to do?”
“Come with me.”
We left the little room where I’d been recovering and walked through a very narrow passageway. Cold water ran down the walls and we splashed through several inches of it on the floor. Up a tight, narrow stairwell we ended up in a larger room more brightly lit and crowded with people. Some were in Alliance Navy armor while others wore uniforms and armor of the Earth Home Guard. There were a few civilian-clothed folks about as well.
A group was huddled around a well lit table and going over detailed battle data. I heard them say a few numbers and scattered resistance pockets when one looked up.
“Ah, L-T,” said an older man with close-cropped gray hair and full beard. He was dressed in an older version of the Alliance Navy duty uniform. The rank bars made him out to be a colonel but the sigil was ten years out of date. I saluted him.
“Retired, a decade now,” he said, waving me down. “I’m just Frank now. You and Lieutenant Kearney are the ranking Navy personnel I’m afraid.” He indicated a young woman in Alliance Navy blues. “I am Lance Corporal Eberly, L-T,” said the young woman. “Alliance Marines.” She saluted me and nodded. Introductions were all well and good but were they going to give me a plan? I doubt it.
“Lieutenant I won’t lie to you,” Frank, the retired colonel, said. “Philly is lost. The mayor and most of the city’s Guard is dead or scattered. Our communications to Alliance Command is cut and those damn things are slaughtering everyone in their path. We can’t hope to hold out for long.”
I nodded. “So what’s the plan then Colonel?”
“Frank, damn it. And it’s hardly a plan. We did get one transmission before it all went to Hell. One of our Comm Stations in north Philly intercepted a beam from Mars. Now I know what you’re thinking, why is Philadelphia intercepting beams from Mars.”
I wasn’t in fact, but I nodded anyway. Nothing would seem strange today.
“It was beamed to all Alliance channels apparently and one of my nephews caught it while scanning for something or other. He’s in the Navy, like you. Anyway he says it came in with a tag.”
“What kind of tag?” I asked. Tags were used to annotate beams that were intercepted from other sources, such as encrypted codes from an enemy force that we needed a Signals team to translate or something. They were never given over an open channel, but today was a very special day.
Frank took a deep breath and looked to Leah. I raised a brow at this, turning to look at her too. She straightened and looked me in the eye. “It said that the code encrypted in that beam is vital to defeating the Reapers.”
Of course it was. It made perfect sense to me that on the day of the invasion, we’d find the deus ex machina to take them down. It was like I’d walked into a bad novel.
“Who sent it?” I asked, figuring it was the safest thing I could ask. This might all be a trap.
“Someone named Liara T’Soni,” Eberly cut in, then blushed. “Uh, Sir. She’s an asari who works with Commander Shepard.”
“Is she trust-worthy?” I asked, glancing to Leah. She nodded. “I was contacted by one of her agents during this past year. It led me to you on Darius.”
Darius. I frowned at that memory but wiped it from my mind and took a breath. “So what’s on this encoded message?”
“Can’t say,” Frank said. “None of my boys over there can decode it.”
“And lines are down so we can’t call for assistance,” Eberly said, and once again blushed. “Sir.”
“So you’re telling me we have information vital to the resistance and no one can figure it out?”
“Stick around,” Foren said, detaching himself from the wall where he’d been standing. I hadn’t even seen him there. He glided toward the table and put his large, slender hand on the map. In the other he still cradled the sniper rifle. “I’ve got this bitch.”
“You can decode it, Foren?”
His large, wet eyes blinked and then focused on me. “I eat unfathomable codes for breakfast.”
“Okay,” I said and looked around the room. “So we just need to get the Comm Station to send us the codes.”
“Won’t work,” Frank said. “Tried it. We’re cut off. You’re going to have to get there yourself.” He jerked a thumb behind him. “Access tunnel is that way, it’ll take you north toward the old 95 corridor and along the Delaware. If you’re lucky, you won’t even come in contact with any enemies. The Comm Station is in the UN-1 building near Lexington Park.”
I knew where that was. I’d been there before with mom and dad when I was little. I also doubted the old subway line would go that far north and we’d have to find a skycar to get us from the old 295 system into northeast Philadelphia. That wouldn’t be too hard, I hoped.
“All right. Leah and Foren, you’re with me. Frank, you and Eberly keep tight here and I’ll try and get the Comm traffic up and running again. Keep trying to get Naval Command on the horn and let them know what’s up.”
“Sir,” Eberly said, stepping forward. “Allow me to accompany you. I want to help. I’m a good shot, sir.”
I looked at her, tall and brawny and full of youth and inexperience. She’d have something to prove, be overzealous and emotional when in contact with the enemy. No, she’d just end up dead if I took her with me.
“Corporal, I need your expertise here, guarding the Colonel and the team here. Can you do that?”
She looked heartbroken but nodded, saluting me sharply. “Aye aye, sir!”
“Foren, how good are you with that sniper rifle?”
The salarian stood up straight and his weapon unfolded itself into a Widowmaker, deadly, sleek and powerful. One of those weapons could blow a hole through two armored soldiers and still severely irritate a tank.
“Say hello to my little friend, lieutenant.”
I took that as a good sign and nodded. “Well, let’s move. Frank,” I stopped and saluted to him. “Today you are a Colonel. Consider yourself reinstated.”
“You can’t make that call L-T but I’ll pretend that you can.” He saluted me and I saluted him back. Then we shook hands. “Good luck, Jim.”
“You too,” I said and we passed the table with its various maps, scribbled on with markers and omni-pointers. Leah pulled open the door and cracked a glowstick over her head. Ahead the tunnel was pitch black.
“In nomine Patri. Et Fili. Spiritus Sancti,” Foren said and I smiled and went in.