It has been said that in absence of light, a single spark will ignite like a blazing sun. Such was our hope until we watched it stamped out. Now we run to our end.
– from The Cycle of Rebirth, Chapter 41, Verse 7
I was wrong.
The subway did go further than I thought, but the last half mile of it was buried. We climbed up from the collapsed street and made our way north along the Delaware, stopping only to clear a few reaper forces here and there. We dare not take on too many of them, just picked off one or two as we went so we could get by without being detected.
“Go ahead punk, make my day,” Foren said as he sighted on our next happy customer, a husk blocking our path between two crumbled apartment buildings. I sat next to him with my back against a burned out car. Leah was at my right and offered me a nutrient bar. I took it with a sigh.
“I better get used to these,” I muttered as Foren’s shot echoed through the air. I winced, the blast of the sniper rifle’s discharge making my ears ring. Fishing out my sound dampeners and putting them back in my ears, I took a bite of the bar. It sucked, tasting just like the color brown.
“Enemy eliminated,” Foren said, his voice a highly nasal whine. It sounded comical but laughing at an armed member of the STG seemed like a bad idea. Leah and I rose and unholstered our weapons and the three of us made our way north again.
“So, Foren, how are you liking Earth?” I asked, feeling the need to say something in the silence that followed. Aside from quoting movies, Foren was the quietest salarian I’d ever met. It was downright wrong.
Leah frowned at me but I ignored her. If she was going to pull this silence shit with me, I was going to talk to someone else. Foren turned his large, watery eyes on me and blinks.
“It is destroyed,” he said.
“Not all of it,” I said and indicated an aircar that was mostly intact. “See?”
“Is everything always a joke to you?” Leah asked, pushing ahead. Foren blinked once more at me and then moved on as well. I stood there for a few moments, watching them go. I looked back the way we’d come, studied the swathes of destruction and the building-sized reapers that were culling humanity.
I felt something inside of me sink down, submerge in a despair I desperately wished to avoid and so I turned away again. Leah was waiting for me and when I looked at her, I knew that not everything was a joke.
The building containing the comm station was harder to find than we thought. Their massive antenna was gone. We found it half a block south lying in the smoldering remains of a family home. The family who lived there was beyond saving.
We approached the front door cautiously. Barricades were set up and Foren suggested there might be snipers on the roof. From the lack of reaper forces in the street, I was inclined to believe him.
Foren took up position behind us, a good two hundred meters from the door and in good cover. Leah and I approached slowly and in plain view of any snipers. We kept our weapons ready just in case, but we got all the way to the door without incident. I was just about to buzz in when a voice called down to us.
I looked up and saw a helmeted head looking down at me. She wore the armor of an Alliance soldier and had a sniper rifle eased onto her shoulder. I supposed I’d owe Foren a beer after this was all over.
“Yeah!” I shouted up. “Lieutenant James Wolfe. Lieutenant Leah Kearney,” I indicated her with a wave of my hand. “We’re here to see someone about a code tag,” I called up. “Uh… Colonel…” I realized just then that I never got his last name. That was a bad habit of mine. Thankfully, Leah saved me.
“Colonel Frank Sullivan sent us,” she said.
“Colonel?” the woman said and then laughed. “Oh man, David is going to love this. Get inside before more of those things come back.” She turned, glancing to where one of the huge reapers was cutting a swath through downtown. “Or one of those get here.”
Foren came up behind us, staring blankly up at the woman but said nothing. Instead he went right on passed us to the door. “A salarian?” the sniper on the roof asked.
“Long story,” I said, though it wasn’t.
Inside, we were led to a stairwell by another soldier in armor who explained that the communications center was downstairs in the basement. The two upper stories were a mess, with glass blown in everywhere, furniture shredded and overturned and pieces of the wall missing or cracked. The devastation was complete and I was beginning to wonder how we’d ever rebuild should we have the chance.
We were let into a large room with half a dozen communications terminals beeping and buzzing and Alliance personnel moving frantically between them. It was chaos, if ordered chaos. The soldier who showed us in took us through that room to another where a huge man stood looking down at a holographic display of the city. A few others stood around and their uniforms suggested technicians or analysts.
“Lines are down in these places,” he said, touching areas of the display. That voice. I knew that voice. “We’re going to have to send teams out to establish a manual link-“
The big man stiffened and turned. He had a big round face covered in several days of bright red beard. His hair was cropped short and looked like a rash on his pale skin. When he saw me, his lips split into a smile filled with bright white teeth that were in bad need of straightening.
“Holy shit, Mutt!”
There was no time to react, in an instant he had picked me up in a bear hug and was squeezing me so hard my Tech Armor could have shattered. He laughed in a bellow and set me down heavily.
“Hah! What the fuck are you doing in Philadelphia you fucking idiot?”
Leah stared at us, shifting her gaze between me and David Harrow. I shrugged and coughed out an answer. “We were on vacation between assignments,” I said and indicated Leah. Dave regarded her and whistled slightly before giving Leah a showy bow.
“You must be Leah,” he said and then I saw him shift his gaze to Foren. “The hell is a salarian doing here?”
“Foren Erastus, STG,” Foren said and folded up his sniper rifle to place on his back. Then he leaned against the wall and crossed his thin arms. I waited for a bad movie line but nothing came.
“Uh huh,” Dave said. He appeared to remember other people were in the room and scowled at them. “Get me some damn coffee, all of you. The world is ending and I’m fucking empty! Go!”
I’ve never seen techs run so fast. Once they were gone, Dave chuckled and sat against the map table. “Fresh out of C-School, the wee lambs. It’s adorable. Now, Mutt, why is it I haven’t seen you since our little party with the Geth on Ringer’s World?”
I shrugged. “I got a little busy.”
“I heard. Put you into the N7 program, poor fuck.”
“Yeah, so what the hell are you doing running a station like this?”
Dave moved his massive shoulders in a shrug that moved his whole body. “Took a sniper bolt to the leg during all that Geth clean up. They said I could spend my last few years in the service in a cushy job and I figured I’d come help out my uncle.”
“Frank is your uncle?” Leah asked.
“On my mother’s side. The smaller side,” Dave said with a chuckle. “Anyway, enough chit-chat, what brings you to Hell?”
“Transmission from Mars. Must bring back. Will try to decipher,” Foren said in clipped, highly accented English. I glanced over at him, realizing why he used quotes. Until that moment, I wasn’t sure if other races even had their own languages or we just got lucky with a universal one.
“Ah, that,” Dave said and went over to a console, picked up a datapad and keyed something onto it. A few moments later he brought it to Foren. “Here. We can’t make heads or tails of it.”
Foren said nothing, taking the pad and feeding the data into his omni-tool. We stood and watched him for a few moments while he fiddled with settings and data began to scroll through his display. He looked up at us.
“Need time. A place for quiet?”
Dave nodded towards another door. “Databank room, no one will bother you there. You can link into any of our systems from the terminals inside if you need.”
“I’ll be back,” Foren said in a rough semblance of some quote I barely recognized. As he left, Dave eyed me with an amused smirk on his face. “Did he just…?”
“He does that,” I said just as one of the techs came back with four cups of coffee. Dave took two and offered us the rest. I accepted, needing a pick-me-up but Leah declined.
“Sir, should we get back to it?” the tech asked, looking at the map table.
“Nah. Get to work on forming some teams who can get to those spots. We’ll develop a plan in a few minutes.”
Once the tech went to follow his commands, I eyed Dave’s uniform. “Major? I guess I ought to salute you.”
“If you do, I’ll kick your ass, Mutt.”
“Why do you call him that?” Leah asked. Her voice sounded stronger and less irritated than it has been all day. The stress of needing to accomplish a task always wore on her and perhaps, now, she could take a moment to breathe.
“Why?” Dave said, looking confused. He holds a hand out to me. “Look at him. He’s a fucking mutt. What are you anyway? Half-japanese, half-irish, half-mongrel?”
“Something like that,” I said with a smirk. “You’re what, half-giant?”
He laughed. “God I wish.” With that he looks up at the ceiling. In the distance there’s a rumbling and a high-pitched whine. Everything shakes at the sound of something massive crashing to the ground.
“We heard that whatever is on that missive has information on stopping them,” Leah said. “Foren thinks he can unscramble it.”
“Is he good?” Dave said.
“I don’t know,” Leah said. “What other choice do we have?”
Dave looked at me, as if he was expecting me to speak up. I frowned. Somehow, I knew what he was thinking. I’d have thought of it too if I hadn’t been so full of medi-gel and stims today.
“I don’t even know if she’s alive,” I said finally.
“The reapers aren’t hitting the outlying farms and towns yet, they’re culling the cities first. There’s a guy named Anderson, an admiral, who’s trying to organize a resistance out west. She’s alive, Mutt.”
“Kylie,” Leah said. “You’re talking about Kylie.”
“That little girl can solve technical issues I can’t even comprehend,” Dave said. “It’s too bad she’s… well that… damn we could use her here.”
“My sister doesn’t even know where she is half the time, Dave. She’s got problems.”
“Yeah, bless her heart.”
“Can she decipher this if Foren can’t?” Leah asked me, touching my arm. “I knew she was a savant of sorts, with machines and drones but… this?”
“I don’t know,” I said. Memories of my sister came to mind in rapid succession, how she built her first drone at just five years old and programmed it to bring her snacks. I remembered how she’d come out of her seizures spouting code for projects. What I remembered most was seeing her sit in a dark room and staring at a computer screen. She’d do it for hours, and no one could draw her away. There were times I’d sit with her but she didn’t even know I was there.
Foren opened the door and stepped back inside. I was not an expert on salarian facial expressions but I already knew his answer was bad. Dave seemed to catch it too.
“No good,” Foren said and he seemed to slump. “Game over man.”
“No, it isn’t,” I said and walked over to him. I took the datapad from his thin fingers and slid it into my pack. Then I pulled the salarian to his feet and looked back to the room. “We’re going to need a car.”
“We’ll take mine,” Dave said with a nod. “Just let me grab my gear.”
“You’re coming?” I asked, though the thought of having Dave along was a relief. “Your leg?”
“It’s the end of the world, Mutt. I’ll deal.”
I raised a brow at him as we followed toward the equipment lockers. He didn’t say anything while we stocked up on thermal clips and medi-gel. His armor was a massive collection of plates I was certain weighed a ton.
Leah, Foren and I stowed the rest in an armored airtruck that was parked in the garage while Dave spoke to his team. He’d said the truck didn’t fly too high but we wouldn’t need it to. Foren didn’t say a word the whole time. He didn’t even question our plans, but he was coming with us. Getting to be a regular squad here, I thought with a bit of satisfaction. It felt right somehow to go on one last mission with Leah and now Dave.
“I’m driving,” Dave said as we piled in. “And Leah? Keep Mutt from talking. Worst backseat driver in history.” I chuckled as the truck maneuvered its way out of the garage. “Will your team be okay without you?”
“Yeah,” Dave said. “Told them to get out anyway. The city’s lost. They’ll rendezvous with Colonel Renston out by Harrisburg if we’re lucky, maybe we can establish a link with this Admiral Anderson.”
I looked out the window as Dave accelerated away from the building. The reapers were coming down in force. More and more of them landed and where they touched down, destruction followed. I saw building after building fall, memories of growing up here rushing back to me. I had to turn away.
Leah took my hand and squeezed. She was just being comforting, I knew. This wasn’t her home like it was mine, but I was thankful for her support.
The metropolitan area turned into fields and trees as we fled the city and still reapers were everywhere. Foren picked off a number of them with his rifle from the hatch on the top of the truck when we couldn’t fly high enough to avoid them.
We’re coming Kylie, I thought, allowing myself to really think of home for the first time since this all started. I smiled a bit. My sister, savior of the human race.
It had a nice right to it.