AN -- thanks to Reikson and Drakependragon and to everyone who's been following along with this monster of a project since its beginning -- I hope the ride continues to be a fun one.
The shuttle dropped though the atmosphere of Horizon, with Jacob at the controls looking through the virtual windscreen nervously.
The entire ground team could see the Collector ship as they headed for the outskirts of the Colony, the huge thing hanging motionless in the air like some twisted Christmas decoration.
“How the hell does it DO that?” the former Corsair breathed.
“Sovereign was the same way,” Joan murmured. “Apparently, the Collectors possess the Reapers ability for finely-tuned manipulation of mass-effect field distortions.”
Jacob wasn’t the only one on edge.
Liara had been less than happy at being left behind, especially since Shepard was about to throw herself headlong into danger again.
Feron, who was still recovering from his own captivity and torture, had offered to mind the store. But Willow had been clear; the datafeeds required the kind of constant attention that his injuries and current condition would not allow.
Liara’s order for a network-wide status update had informers and sources calling on a near-hourly basis out of fear that the sweet gravy train of being a Shadow Broker agent might be coming to an end.
Willow would’ve been more than happy to take up her role again, but Chakwas refused to let her leave. Well, she’d given Willow leave to TRY and go, but the witch had taken four steps toward the door and promptly collapsed.
“Will wonders never cease?” Chakwas said a dry smirk. “Clearly, a God-like magical ability is no replacement for proper bed rest, a good diet, and a lengthy rehabilitation regimen.”
So, not only was Liara effectively stuck on Hagalaz, but Willow was similarly trapped on the Normandy as Joker spooled up the FTL drives and headed the ship toward the Osun mass relay for the trip to Horizon.
“I wish I could be going with you,” Liara said miserably as the Normandy departed.
“We’ll be fine, babe,” Joan replied through comlink.
Now, over Horizon, Xander took another look at Shepard. Her thousand-yard stare revealed little, but he’d long since earned the nickname that Caleb had given him so long ago. The One Who Sees saw something in Shepard’s eyes that bothered him.
“Liara loves you, boss. You know that.”
“Yay for me,” the Spectre-Slayer seemed inconsolable.
Morinth had been listening in, and her predatory grin lit up her face more than the dark energy of her biotics ever could. “Not to worry, Alexander,” she drawled. “If the good Doctor can trust us with her most precious possession, then I intend to make sure not a hair on her beloved’s head sees harm.”
“Hey,” Zaeed snapped. “Head in the game, Shepard,” he rasped. “You can ’ave your li’l lover’s drama when our collective arses ain’t bein’ dropped into Hell’s own fire.”
“Hey, back off, grandpa!” Xander sneered.
“No, he’s right, Xander.” Shepard thumped his chest lightly. “We have a job to do.”
She closed her eyes and Xander shivered when they opened again to reveal that all trace of warmth was gone from those arctic gray orbs. Her lips opened wide in a death's head smile.
“There she is,” the old mercenary cackled. “That’s the ball-bustin’ death machine that I’m followin’ into a Goddamn war.”
For all Xander's experiences, watching Joan put on her ‘game-face’ was almost as scary as any demonic transformation he’d ever seen.
“Jacob, status report.” Shepard growled.
“I’m putting you down a few clicks from the UFO over the main settlement!” the former Corsair yelled over the whining of the shuttle’s engines.
Miranda looked up from her scans of the surrounding area. “The Seeker Swarms appear to be clear of our LZ, so we should have a few minutes before they notice us!”
“Understood! Good job, you two!” she shouted, turning to Mordin. “Are you sure about these shield upgrades, Mordin?”
The old scientist blinked at her before shrugging. “Never tested outside controlled conditions of lab. Could fail completely; hence, why I wanted to come along. But, should offer us protection.” Clearing his throat softly, he added, “In theory.”
“In theory?” Garrus parroted nervously. “Spirits guide and guard us.”
Xander snorted. “Great, the Doc’s being theoretical and now Garrus is suddenly being spiritual? This is gonna be a red-letter day, I just know it.” Checking his omni-tool’s offense and defense apps for the millionth time, he activated his hi-ex mod on his Revenant.
“Wanted guarantees?” Mordin seemed surprised. “Even if tested inside lab, still needed to be deployed against Collectors. Risk inherent with any untried military hardware. Reminds me of good old days in STG.”
“That brings us to sunny point number two,” Shepard nodded. “So far, the Seekers only seem to attack humans. Every human member of the squad could end up being paralyzed at some point. Garrus, you’re my number-two for this op, savvy?”
Garrus blinked. Xander leaned over and hissed, “Old Earth way of asking if you under-”
“I gathered as much,” Garrus snapped at him. “Shepard, are you sure about this? What about Xander and-”
“Sidonis wasn’t your fault, Garrus,” Shepard interrupted.
Shepard raised her finger. "Not. Your. Fault;" Joan insisted, "I need someone that I trust to lead the second team. Someone I know will put the mission first, and that’s you; simple as that.”
Turning from the shocked Turian, Shepard waved Miranda over to her from the shuttle’s copilot seat as she was smoothly replaced by Kasumi.
The genetically-engineered woman was sporting glossy black-and-gold armor that looked far more protective then her normal bodysuit.
"My compliments to your tailor Miss Lawson." Shepard commented.
"Is that a tactical assessment or aesthetic observation?" Miradna asked with a smirk.
"Can't it be both?" Joan shot back, “Now Mister Taylor, you are my getaway driver. Take the shuttle outside the Collector’s dampening field! Wait there for our all-clear signal!”
“Understood, Commander!” He sounded worried.
Joan turned to the thief, "Take care of him Kas make sure he doesn't do anything heroically stupid."
"...or stupidly heroic." Xander snarked.
“Relax!” Shepard reassured Jacob. “You Kasumi Tali and Legion are officially the cavalry! If anything goes wrong, Garrus and the rest of the squad will draw the seeker swarms away from your LZ! Hopefully, you’ll be able to make a run and try and retrieve as many of us
“I’d feel better if I was going in with you, Commander!” Jacob observed.
“…and I’d feel pretty damn stupid if we all end up sedated and helpless! There’s an MG turret hidden beneath the far seat, so Kasumi can provide covering fire if needed!” she yelled back.
Running her tongue across her teeth nervously, the Spectre added, “Tell you what; I’ll bring you along on our next extremely-dangerous away mission against the Collectors into unknown and hostile territory!” That seemed to mollify Jacob, if his nod was any indication.
The ground team had everyone. Shepard had even pried Tali away from engineering, although Legion’s inclusion might have had quite a bit to do with that choice.
The fiery little Quarian seemed determined to be there when Legion’s treachery manifested itself. The fact that their resident Geth had done nothing but cooperate had done little to dissuade the young mechanic from her suspicions.
Thane balanced the weight of the M-29 Incisor that he’d chosen from the ship’s armory.
Xander eyed the deadly weapon. Its deadly efficiency seemed a tad at odds with what he’d seen of the Drell assassin in action. Plus, Soldier-Boy was still bubbling away within the depths of his mind since that fateful Halloween so long ago and it wanted answers.
“I thought you liked getting up close and personal?” Xander whispered.
“I serve the needs of each of my clients individually,” the deeply-spiritual assassin seemed to shrug. “Some require a personal touch. Others prefer a more… impersonal method.”
“I’m pretty sure Shepard’s fine with however you take care of business.” Xander noted.
“I’m sure you’re right, but I wasn’t talking about Shepard,” Thane gently chided him in that reverberating voice of his. “I was talking about our clients; in this case being-”
“-the Collectors.” Xander grimaced as he finished Thane’s thought. “I’ve always been a little creeped out at how the best assassins I’ve ever met make their profession sound like they’re Citadel shopkeepers.”
“I once spent a few weeks on the Citadel as a shopkeeper myself.” Thane shrugged. “I sold Executor Pallin several formal suits; he tips quite generously.”
Xander seemed more disbelieving than anything else. “You were on the Citadel for a few weeks posing as a tailor, and the head of C-Sec never suspected?”
“Why does that not surprise me?” Garrus snorted from where he was sitting on Xander’s left.
“All right, guys, focus!” Shepard chuckled at their banter. “Garrus, grab Thane, Zaeed, Grunt and Morinth! You’ll be circling ’round the far side of the colony! See if you can’t get to that ship from its blind side!”
Morinth’s face fell. “Commander, I should be with you, you might need my powers at your side!”
“I’m sure that I might
need you, but I know that Garrus will
need you.” Joan shrugged, popping her neck. “You’re the reason he’ll be there to cover our asses if our mission goes sideways.”
Garrus saluted her. “You can count on me, Shepard! If that thing has a soft spot, we’ll find it!”
“…assuming it even has a soft spot to find!” Xander observed over the howl of the shuttle’s engines.
“Jack, Mordin, Xander, Miranda, you’re with me!” the Spectre decided. “Vakarian, if anything happens, make a beeline for that ship and try to at least tag it so we can track it out of system!”
“Understood,” the renegade Turian nodded, just as the shuttle finally landed.
Tali and Legion were staying behind on the shuttle to provide covering fire as necessary. Between her shotgun able to tear enemies apart at close range, and the Geth platform’s selected weaponry providing medium- and long-range covering fire, this mismatched pair could pick off any incoming forces before they became enough of a threat.
As the squad moved out, the two teams scattered.
As he wandered down the silent corridors formed by the prefab units on either side, the eerie silence reminded Xander of the many nights that he’d spent patrolling Sunnydale’s graveyards.
The immortal Scooby flinched and started at every creaking noise, expecting something to come out of the shadow to attack him.
“Jesus, Xander, calm the fuck down,” Jack hissed. “You’re making ME nervous.”
“Don’t you feel it, Jackie-boy?” he snapped back. “Something’s watching us.”
“That’s just your nerves, this place has you spooked.”
“He’s right… I can feel it, too,” Miranda muttered.
“Everyone stay tight,” Joan hissed.
They quickly came across their first colonists frozen in place.
Xander reached out and passing his hand through the cloud of seeker insects, which buzzed angrily but ignored him otherwise.
Mordin nodded gravely as he ran scans with his omni-tool. “Upgrades make us invisible to small groups,” the old scientist observed. “Suggest being more careful if we encounter larger swarms.”
“You’ll have to excuse me if I prefer to stick with a good barrier,” Jack snapped.
“Any idea what’s holding these people in place, Mordin?” Shepard asked.
“Paralytic neurotoxin delivered by cyber-organic nanites,” the old scientist shrugged. “Toxin keeps subject alive but unable to move. Nanotech maintains basic life support.”
Shepard grunted. “That confirms our theory; the Collectors want humans alive, for some reason.”
Suddenly, she looked up, her entire body bristling. Xander had fought next to many Slayers in his time, too many to not know the signs.
“Eyes sharp, people,” she hissed. “We’ve got incoming. Human…” she trailed, trying to get a clear picture with just her sense of hearing. “It’s moving… strangely.”
As they watched, a desiccated corpse-like humanoid figure rounded the corner of the prefab unit. As it caught sight of them, it shrieked; a watery, high-pitched screech that echoed loudly throughout the buildings.
Miranda’s biotics reached out and hit the creature with a heavy Pull that yanked it into the air, groaning quite audibly.
“Is that- my God, that’s a Husk,” she whispered.
More groans and watery screeching heralded more Husks shuffling towards them.
“Defensive perimeter!” Shepard yelled, her eyes narrowed into dangerous slits as she brought her Mattock out to play.
The Husks suddenly broke into a loping run, barreling toward them and making noise.
Jack swept out her hand, her biotics whipping the first one hard enough to send it careening into a nearby wall as three more Husks began battering at her hastily-generated barrier.
Miranda fired off an unstable Warp that blew them apart, even as Shepard and Xander blew away several more running towards them.
Mordin began cryo-freezing some and incinerating others as quickly as his custom-designed omni-tool could manage.
Shepard blasted apart one frozen statue or burning human-shaped pillar of fire after another. Suddenly three more broke from the crowd and charged Xander.
He was engaged fighting off two husks trying to batter then way to Jack and would not react in time to the threat trying to blind side him.
Joan lashed out smashing the butt of her Mattock on one's head staggering it. She wheeled around, her leg a deadly scythe. Her sweeping kick took out the legs of the other two leaving them helpless and easily dispatched by the now focused Scooby.
Her Carnifax roared twice cutting the heads off from another two husks that had been threatening Mordin.
Shepard turned smoothly back to bullseye the still reeling husk finishing the job she'd begun with her Mattock.
"I think I'm getting the hang of this slayer-thing." She huffed.
A screeching husk flew at her Xander reacted before she did and blow it out of the air to land at her feet.
"You were saying?" Xander smirked. Joan flushed but instead of responding, Shepard opened a channel to Garrus.
“Garrus, it’s Shepard!” she shouted into the open com-channel to the Turian. “Enemy contact established! Can you confirm Husks?”
“We’ve got Husks, all right, and they’re breathing down our mivocks!” the Turian snarled.
Gunfire could be heard over the link.
“There’s a big one, it looks… wrong, somehow!” He reported. “Like a walking gun-turret, maybe! Thick armor, and it’s firing powerful shots acting like Jack’s shockwave!”
“We haven’t seen that one here yet, but we’ve got a lot of Husk activity!” she observed, her Mattock firing as quickly as she could pull the trigger. “You wanna fall back and regroup?”
“Nah; between Morrie and Grunt, we’ll be able to push ahead!” Garrus said dismissively. “Maybe we can draw some of them off you, if they think we’re the dangerous ones!”
Jack caught sight of a Husk glowing with odd red lights across its entire body. Reaching out with her biotics, she picked the thing up with a biotic field before she smashed it against a prefab wall.
The creature exploded with great force, blowing out the wall and hurling the squad to the ground.
With frenzied simian howling, several more of the glowing Husks made a beeline for them and threw themselves against Jack’s hastily-erected Barrier.
While she managed to keep the husks at bay, each explosion made her flinch visibly and her strength was obviously dwindling.
“Jack!” Xander shouted, his omni-blade out and slashing and stabbing at the husks around him. “You’ve gotta hold on, I’ll be right there!”
“Don't rush or anything dumbass!” the biotic anarchist yelled back, sweat dribbling down from her bald head as her muscles screamed for relief.
As powerful as she was, everything indicated that she had only a few more seconds before her Barrier fell and the husks would swarm over her.
Miranda was down, Shepard engaging multiple husks trying to keep the are clear so Mordin could work his own brand of battlefield magic upon the Cerberus Operative.
"Don't suppose you gotta an extra Slayer running around anywhere." Xander pleaded with the universe, forgetting perhaps that the universe listened to such prayers and when it came to Xander Harris loved to answer them in unexpected and entirely unpleasant ways.
For it was at that moment that Simone Doffler came around the corner.