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15 Thargelia 3364 AR (21 January 2198), Cerberus Facility/Kerotis

A great many things happened very quickly.

Liara and Miranda slammed a biotic bubble into place, coordinating as if they had practiced together for years. Then they began to fling warps and handgun fire at targets of opportunity. Vara drew her sword and made a wide cutting motion, producing an intense wave of force to lash at the enemy. Ashley had no biotics, but her rifle hammered away, tearing apart husks by the handful.

It wasn’t enough.

Too many husks. The battlefield gave them a chance to stay under cover until they were ready to pounce. They were climbing the racks on either side, and dropping on the team.

An observer might have seen the blue-white light of biotic discharges, the white bursts of gunfire, slowly pressed back by a tide of black, and then entirely overwhelmed. Darkness.

Then . . .

Flash.

An eruption of light, blinding, electric white, like the first nanoseconds of a nuclear blast.

Husks flew in all directions, some of them in more than one piece. Then, in the space they had abruptly vacated, four women remained. Vara, hunched around the pain of a sudden snapped rib, her sword gripped tightly in her hand. Ashley, snarling, driven to one knee, still firing at anything that moved. Liara and Miranda standing, Liara’s right hand in Miranda’s left, their other hands flung outward to generate that enormous biotic surge.

Liara’s face wore a rather startled expression, as if she hadn’t expected such a dramatic result. “I have an idea,” she gasped.

“I’m – open to – suggestions,” said Ashley through gritted teeth, between bursts of gunfire.

“The control console. Come on!”

Then Liara was off, her corona blazing like a star, hurling husks to all sides as she struggled through the crowd. Miranda lunged to follow, while Ashley and Vara fought side by side as a rear guard.

Moving further into that mass of death seemed like a bad idea, but Miranda soon saw an advantage to it. For one thing, there were no racks of containers close to the control console. As soon as they reached it, the ghastly rain of groaning husks from above stopped. She could feel the reduction in pressure against her barriers.

A husk got through, clawing at her face, nearly tearing the visor off her helmet. Three shots at point-blank range discouraged that one.

She heard a wailing screech. The banshee’s corona ignited, and it began a series of flash-steps to cut them off from their target.

Ashley couldn’t react, engaged in holding a score of husks at bay with gunfire. Liara and Miranda peppered the banshee with their own small-arms fire, but it shrugged that off as irrelevant.

Then Vara found herself free for an instant. She swung around, a surge of medi-gel covering the pain of her injury, and lashed at the thing with her sword. One wave of force hammered at it, then another.

It recoiled.

Then Vara sprinted forward, her corona suddenly bright with power. She leaped up, planting one boot on the top of the control console to push her soaring into the air.

The banshee howled at her, a sound to split skulls and send the bravest soldiers cowering in terror. Then it brought one vicious claw around, ready to tear out Vara’s guts.

Somehow, in mid-air, the commando evaded the thing’s swipe. Her sword swung once again, too fast to see, like a bolt of lightning in that dark place.

The banshee’s corona went down, a fraction of a second before Vara’s blade cleanly lopped its head off.

Vara made a perfect three-point landing, sword at full extension behind her, as the banshee collapsed.

All right, Miranda admitted to herself, that was rather impressive.

“Miranda, I need help,” Liara gasped, mounting the central dais and looking down at the control console.

Miranda nodded. “Anything.”

“I’m not going to be able to concentrate on my share of the biotic barrier, and hack through these systems, at the same time. Take my hand.”

Miranda obeyed, part of her mind listening to Ashley and Vara as they defended the console.

Liara looked up, her eyes gone black as night, holding Miranda’s gaze through their helmet visors. “Now. Embrace eternity.”

Just like that, Miranda felt Liara’s consciousness crash into her own. It wasn’t a gentle thing, prefaced by slow and pleasurable intimacy. The asari was in deep combat mode, all icy concentration over a carefully buried current of raw fear.

Manage my biotics, as well as your own.

For one of the few times in her life, Miranda felt uncertain. She knew the biotic disciplines, knew her own biotic potentials, as well as any human alive. She was one of the first humans ever to develop biotic potential, and she had received the best of training and implant technology. Still, even with Liara’s memories to call on, what the asari suggested was utterly outside her experience.

You can do it, Miranda. It’s the only way.

Then Miranda saw what Liara planned. For an instant, she was caught between admiration for the audacity of it, and sheer terror at the possibility that it might work. Then she threw caution to the winds, and sent agreement across the link.

Liara immediately turned away, to focus on her omni-tool and the console.

Miranda stood behind her, eyes closed, both hands resting on Liara’s shoulders. Their minds remained linked, awareness shared, and it made both of their tasks easier. Liara could concentrate on breaking the Cerberus network’s security, imposing her will on the machine. Miranda could call on both of their biotic potentials, erecting a powerful bubble to protect the whole team, sending warps and singularities out into the darkness. They could even help one another with a flicker of thought, suggestions and encouragement flying back and forth across the link.

It was difficult, performing so many biotic feats without a single control gesture, without even looking at the targets. Still, Liara had done it before, first against Tela Vasir, and then in any number of other tense situations. She showed the way, a display of biotic mastery that awed her human partner.

So, while the tempest still raged around them, while Ashley and Vara continued to push themselves beyond the limits of mortal endurance, Miranda and Liara held the calm center. The eye of the storm.

It seemed to take forever, but it was likely less than a minute before Liara spoke. “All of you, give me a link to your helmet cameras and omni-tools.”

Miranda simply opened her eyes and tapped at her omni-tool for a moment. Vara did the same, accustomed to obedience. Ashley was more skeptical. “What good will that do?”

“Trust us,” said Miranda.

Ashley swore, but she took an instant to open her omni-tool.

Liara began to pull down gigabytes of data: imagery, audio, sensor readings, medical readouts from their armor. Everything that had happened to them in the past hour or more, and then a live feed. All of it went to the console, to the Cerberus communications network, and then out.

What is this?” demanded the enemy’s voice, speaking for the first time since the battle had begun. The pressure let up for a moment, as if the enemy hesitated in confusion.

Liara ignored it, putting the finishing touches on her work. Then Miranda sensed the sudden severance of their link, leaving her gasping, feeling unaccountably lonely in her own head. Liara took over maintenance of the biotic barrier around them, without a break.

“What did you do?” Ashley asked, her rifle silent for the moment.

“It’s very simple,” Liara said, closing her omni-tool. “I’ve posted all our records to the extranet.”

What?”

Vara nodded slowly, wiping a weary hand across her visor. “No matter what happens to us, the galaxy knows there’s a Cerberus installation here. Dabbling with Reaper tech. Making husks out of humans and asari. When people see this down on Thessia, the reactionaries are finished. They’ll be lucky to get off the planet alive.”

Miranda caught Liara’s eye, and saw her smile.

Well, yes, that’s part of what might happen.

Do you think this will save you?” Jana’s voice demanded. “By the time anyone gets here, Alliance or asari, there won’t be anything left of you but more husks for them to slaughter!”

“Oh, great.” Ashley sounded more weary than angry.

The battle resumed.

After a time, Miranda began to wonder where Jana Cartwright was getting all these husks. She had lost count after the first fifty or so they had destroyed. At least she could now guess where the Cerberus personnel who had built and manned the base had gone. As for the asari-husks, well, the Black Hand had control of at least one asari polis, and doubtless needed some way to rid themselves of dissidents.

At least she only had the one banshee. Not too many ardat-yakshi among the asari victims, it seems.

Miranda fought, back to back with the others. The husks continued to attack, frenzied now, as if their guiding intelligence had gone mad with a desire for revenge.

Four husks hit Ashley at the same moment, knocking the rifle out of her hands and bearing her to the floor. She came up a moment later, fighting with her fists and feet, looking ready to sink her teeth into an enemy’s throat if nothing else would serve. Liara bought the Spectre a moment’s grace with a warp, and Miranda recovered her weapon for her, all without a pause.

Vara was growing weary, she had to be, but she didn’t seem to be slowing down at all. Her sword, and the biotic force she had learned to channel through it, proved a devastating weapon against Reaper foot-soldiers. She whirled and struck, dancing like Kali on the corpses of the slain.

Miranda and Liara fought back to back. For the most part, they tended the barrier that slowed the enemy’s advance, and fell into a rhythm: Liara would place a singularity in the middle of a mass of husks, then Miranda would detonate it with a warp. The whole room echoed to the sound of explosions, one every few seconds, as fast as Liara could place the singularities. Their sidearms were almost a distraction, an extra morsel of destructive power when their biotics had to lapse into a rest state.

It wasn’t enough. Against an unlimited supply of Reaper creatures, it could never be enough. Sooner or later one of them would stumble, and fall, and be torn apart. Then the rest, in short order. It was the last moments of the Battle of London all over again, with no way to strike the creatures at their source.

“At least we’re taking an honor guard with us to Valhalla,” Ashley panted, in a brief lull between waves.

“Couldn’t ask for better company,” Vara said, smiling grimly at the rest of them.

“Don’t give up yet,” Liara told them.

Ashley gave her a weary glance. “Why? Do you know something?”

“She always knows something,” Miranda concluded.

A new flood of husks came into the room from elsewhere in the facility, and they had no more time to talk.

In the last few moments, Liara eyes caught Miranda’s, and something in them drove her to do something she had never done before in her life.

I love you, she breathed, so Liara could read it on her lips.

The asari smiled, a gesture of warm happiness on the edge of destruction.

Then the noise came, and everything stopped. It sounded like a huge horn, blasting away in the bitter air outside, deafening, rattling the walls and floor.

Ashley stared up at the ceiling, her eyes as wide as Miranda had ever seen them. “Is that . . .”

It came again, sounding even closer. Not God’s instrument, for all its mind-shattering volume. The devil’s, maybe.

Every husk in the room simply dropped dead.

In the sudden silence, Liara stepped up to the console and pressed a control. “This is Liara T’Soni,” she said to the Cerberus systems. “Please state your intentions.”

The response came at once, a basso-profundo voice, coming over their helmet comms as well as the Cerberus channel. “The harvest has been terminated. We are non-hostile. Our present directive is to deal with the abuse of technology stolen from us. Please do not interfere.”

“We have no intention of interfering. However, our mission requires us to recover certain information from this facility, information that is not relevant to the stolen technology. Will you grant us one standard hour to complete our task?”

“You may have one hour. Please advise us if you require more time.”

“Thank you.”

Silence.

Ashley stared at her. “You knew. You knew the Reapers would come.”

Liara nodded slowly. “Say, rather, that I hoped they might.”

How?”

The asari caught Miranda’s eye, a knowing look, full of secrets that they shared. “Well. They were quite meticulous in cleaning up after themselves, after the war. I thought they might be interested in this last piece of Cerberus, still trying to apply the technology from Sanctuary. So, I posted everything we had to the extranet. Everyone reads the extranet.”

 

They found Jana Cartwright in the computer core. Quite literally. Once she had been a healthy woman, vital and alive. Now she was a thing, her body invaded and corrupted, embedded into the computer core like a malignant parasite. Her arms and legs were gone, replaced by circuitry and life-support connections. Her skin had cracked and peeled across most of her face and torso, exposing the ghastly blue glow of Reaper machinery. She still breathed, her eyes still stared out at the world, but she was no more responsive than a sponge.

“Indoctrination effect, very intense, at close range,” Miranda concluded, after she performed a physical examination of the remains. “Her mind is gone. That must have been how the Reapers overrode her control signal for the husks. Although I imagine she was well on her way even without their intervention.”

“The tool she tried to build turned in her hand,” Liara observed, still working with her omni-tool to pull data out of core storage. “Just like every other radically dangerous experiment Cerberus ever carried out. That story should be an object lesson for the entire galaxy for the next thousand years: some short-cuts to power come with far too high a price.”

“Amen.”

Liara sighed, looking pensive as she worked. “I’m still wondering how she got off Cronos Station. My network never found any evidence that she was still active, not since the war.”

“She was always brilliant and talented,” said Miranda. “Maybe when the Illusive Man finally ordered her to implant him, she saw what might happen. Laid plans to escape with the technology, left behind a cloned corpse to fool the Alliance’s forensics teams. Does it matter?”

“Only in the sense that I appreciate tying up loose ends.” Liara checked her omni-tool, and nodded to herself. “It’s all here, Miranda. Financial transfers, shipments of weapons, all directed to the Black Hand and to certain powerful asari. Black Hand leaders came here for consultation more than once. Once we publish all of this, it’s over. Dissidents and democrats will drive the reactionaries out of power. Not just in Armali, but all over Thessia.”

“What about Cerberus?”

“I’ll have to do some deep analysis . . . but yes. I already know what the answer will be. Cerberus is finished.” The Shadow Broker gave Miranda a look of quiet, but very deep, satisfaction. “You and I are both going to be free to follow our hearts, it seems. For the first time in twelve years.”

“A lot longer than that, for me.” Combat armor was an obstacle to the kind of embrace Miranda found that she wanted. She settled for reaching out and putting a hand on Liara’s shoulder. “Thank you.”

“Thank you, Miranda. For everything.” Liara took a deep breath. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

 

They left the computer core, and walked with Ashley and Vara through the empty corridors of the last Cerberus base, and then out onto the bleak surface of Kerotis.

Miranda paused for a moment, looking up at the three Sovereign-class Reapers that stood silently around the place, waiting for a signal. She stared at the nearest one, and wondered.

If I called out to Shepard now, would he answer?

It stood there, only partially visible in the murk, the upper portions of its body vanishing entirely. A presence more felt than seen: black, alien, motionless and silent.

Liara was right. Whatever governs that thing, it’s not truly Shepard anymore. It can’t be.

Still, she succumbed to a perverse impulse, and waved to it. Then she turned to follow the others.

Soon, two Makos rolled across the landscape, seeking an extraction zone where Normandy could safely recover them.

As soon as they were clear, the Reapers behind them began using their main cannon to take the Cerberus facility apart. They did not stop until they had dug a crater in the ice, a kilometer across and five hundred meters deep, and nothing was left large enough to see. Then they departed, sending no further communication to Normandy or the Shadow Broker ships, vanishing at speed out into the eternal night.

Miranda lived for another two hundred years, but she never saw any of the Reapers again.

Beginning of Story: [Arrival]
Previous Chapter: [Battle on the Ice]
Next Chapter: [Seclusion]
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