There is a swelling storm
And I'm caught up in the middle of it all
And it takes control
Of the person that I thought I was
The boy I used to know
But there is a light
In the dark
And I feel its warmth
In my hands
In my heart
Why can't I hold on
It comes and goes in waves
It always does
Waves by Dean Lewis
At the end of the week, Garrus had his final scheduled appearance at Spectre Status. There was a chance they'd do another at the end of the Cynosure anniversary celebrations, but they weren't settling on a solid schedule until after that.
With the emotional battles Garrus had been put through recently, he was definitely ready to fight and kill something, even if it was virtual.
"Up to 11, gentlemen," he instructed the game masters after suiting up.
"Let's do this!" Vega exclaimed. Kaidan, who'd jumped in to join them for this event, also stood at the ready with his gear.
"We think we've finally caught up," one of the salarian game masters replied. Garrus remembered his name was Lirart. "You adapted to your improved battle skills from the synthesis faster than we improved our coding abilities."
"But your skills improve slowly over time," an asari named Viellmey explained. Most of the other staff called her Mey. "For the game development, it's more like nothing happens until there's a big break, and we think this one might have finally pushed us past you."
"We'll see about that," Kaidan replied, squaring his shoulders.
"It's been a while since I've had my life flash before my eyes. That would be fun," Vega chuckled.
"Enjoy the ride then," Mey said, waving and smirking.
The three of them entered the arena, confident as ever. Even though most of the crowd noise was suppressed, cheers filtered through. Large screens all around the room displayed views of the crowd as well as of Garrus, Vega, and Kaidan. Though they couldn't look directly at the audience, they still scanned the screens and cameras, waving and acknowledging their fans.
"I don't think I'll ever get used to being a celebrity," Kaidan said, their audio feeds not yet being broadcast to the crowd.
"I much preferred being the sidekick to a celebrity," Garrus grumbled.
"Don't worry guys, I'll make sure the crowd feels appreciated," Vega replied, flexing and holding some triumphant poses.
"You know they can't see your muscles through the armor, right?" Kaidan said, raising a brow.
"Yeah, but they know what it means," Vega answered, and Kaidan chuckled.
The screens went dark, everything but their armor pitch black as the game readied. Then words flashed across their HUD: "Objective: Grounded." This meant at a random interval, a target would travel towards a shuttle while enemies provided cover, and the Normandy squad had to break through the shielding to either kill the target or destroy the shuttle. Most of the time, either Vega sent a frag into the shuttle, or Garrus managed to snipe the target.
The landscape loaded up, the roof of a large warehouse with a shuttle on the far side. Immediately after, the enemies spawned: soldiers with heavy weapons and heavy armor and 3 Atlas mechs.
"That's new!" Vega exclaimed as he darted into cover. "Usually we only get two Atlas' and it's at the end." Their audio switched on now so that their commentary would be broadcast.
"Oh, this is going to be fun," Garrus smirked, making it into cover just before a missile landed nearby. "Give me some crowd control, boys!"
Garrus sent some overloads to the Atlas' to get enough cover for them to thin the crowd a bit.
"This is a good day to have a biotic buddy!" Vega laughed.
"You're welcome!" Kaidan said as he swept three enemies into an Atlas, causing it to stagger.
The battle raged on, but before the target even came onto the field, Kaidan was taken out. His gear shut down to eliminate him from the battle.
"Ever wonder if people watch us to learn our weaknesses?" Vega asked, making a veiled, playful jab at Kaidan.
"If I've got a Spectre mission like this coming up, I'll select my team a little differently," Kaidan fired back.
"And I'll choose my weapons more carefully," Garrus grunted, struggling with the low fire rate of his sniper. He switched to his assault rifle but it lacked the stopping power, and an Atlas swiftly took out Vega with a missile. Not long after, Garrus was also overtaken. The scenery powered down and a locker on the side of the room opened up to let them adjust their equipment.
"Total K.O.! I don't think that's happened in the first round before," Vega said, beginning to fine tune his weapon mods. Despite the loss, they were all grinning, and could hear the excitement from the crowd.
"I could use the beatdown," Garrus said, rolling his shoulders.
"It is good therapy," Kaidan replied pointedly, watching the turian. Garrus gave him a look but didn't continue the conversation.
Spectre Status also had commentators to go with their banter, and as they were adjusting one came into their helmets for an interview. They mostly got some extra trivia and insight out of the Normandy Elect, and luckily were excellent at their jobs. Every now and then they would visit with Garrus and Vega in the staff area. The voice was turian and female, meaning it was Sillonia Gratius asking. The other commentator was a human male, Dolph Mincer.
"Alright boys, after an outcome like this, how does one restrategize? Tell us about what tactics you'll be using going forward."
"I'm switching to some shredder ammo to get more splash damage. Ultimate crowd control," Vega replied.
"I'm not changing anything. I'm perfect," Kaidan joked, earning a laugh from Sillonia.
"But first to go down," Dolph pointed out.
"With any squad, or even solo, it's about knowing your specialty and role and then performing to those strengths. I'm equipped right, but will definitely be bringing more to the next round, now that my heart's beating faster," Kaidan explained.
"My heart beats faster when Sillonia laughs too," Vega interjected, earning incredulous looks from Garrus and Kaidan.
"Not the least bit discouraged I see," Sillonia purred.
"Not at all," Vega replied. "Though I'm sure the game masters are feeling quite pleased with themselves."
"Garrus, you and Commander Shepard both utilized sniper rifles quite frequently, right? Did that ever become a disadvantage?" Dolph asked. Garrus paused for just a moment.
"There are a couple different snipers that have lower damage, but higher firing rate. They're one of the best ways for a sniper to get versatile. We'd coordinate our weapons and mods before each mission and didn't ever run into any issues. Of course, it still created a situation where your third squad member needed to be just as specifically chosen. Crowd control, as I called out at the beginning of the round, is where snipers need the most help. Shepard and I could never do that as effectively as some others," he explained.
"Who would be your top pick for that?" Sillonia asked.
"A krogan," Garrus answered quickly, then shrugged and smirked. "But these guys are okay too."
They all chuckled and soon they were starting up the next round, same objective, same enemy numbers and strength. This time they played it a little safer and made it much further, but the target emerged without near enough time to clear numbers and easily made it to the shuttle to claim the victory for the game developers once more.
The third attempt they all had to truly fight like it was more than a game. They took more calculated risks and gave it everything they got, and came away with the victory. Virtual fireworks burst in the sky of the landscape and the three combatants cheered. The win felt more like a real win when it took that much effort.
But the event had just gotten started; they usually did at least 3 different game types for each appearance. Next up was Delivery, which was like the mirror to Grounded. This time, they would have a virtual ally attempting to escape, and they needed to keep them protected and alive.
The round began and immediately they were holding their ground well, but barely chipping away at the Altlases. Within minutes there was a notification saying the ally was on the field, unusually early for this game type.
"Look alive!" Garrus grunted, ducking down into cover to locate the ally. It was entering from the corner nearest him, in generic armor that was colored blue instead of black.
"It's all you, man," Vega replied. "Where do you want the cover fire?"
"Make the Atlases your priority, they'll obliterate the shuttle," he answered, switching to his assault rifle. As Kaidan and Vega kept the Atlases busy, he popped out of cover to take a wave of foot soldiers before jumping next to the allied VI where it was paused behind cover.
"Hello there," he greeted it just for fun.
Get ready to roll.
Garrus blinked and for a moment everything around him disappeared; had he really just heard Shepard's voice again...? The VI wasn't even looking at him, just staring at the last piece of cover before the shuttle.
"...what did you say?" he breathed.
"I said we've got one Atlas down but they're getting close," Kaidan shouted.
Garrus shook his head and came back to the present moment. He stood and fired at the foot soldiers closing in on his position, watching the VI dart for the next wall out of the corner of his eye. He side-stepped, tracing it's steps as he continued to lay down fire.
He leaned against the next wall of cover, his heart pounding for all kinds of reasons. Before he could catch his breath, the VI once again charged out of cover and towards the shuttle.
"Crap, it's making the last push, give me all you've got!" Garrus shouted, trying to get out in front of it.
He cringed when he saw the enemy forces. The foot soldiers were swarming the shuttle. Kaidan and Vega took out the second Atlas, but Garrus couldn't hold the soldiers on his own. Kaidan broke off and came to aid him, leaving Vega alone to distract the Atlas.
Eventually a space was cleared just in time for the allied VI to reach the shuttle, but the Atlas was training it's sights right at it. Kaidan didn't see it in time to adjust his shielding. Garrus jumped in front of the shuttle door just as it closed and a missile fired. The missile hit him, the game armor sending shockwaves through his body that knocked him onto his back and out of the game. A boom and Vega's "got it!" told him the Atlas was down as he watched the shuttle successfully escape into the endless, virtual sky.
As the map cleared and the audience clamored, Kaidan reached Garrus and offered him a hand up. Garrus took it and rolled his shoulders. The commentators came back into their audio.
"Spectacular showing! That VI certainly wasn't waiting for you," Dolph said.
"Missions don't always go the way you'd expect," Kaidan agreed.
"Garrus, I'm guessing it's easier to make a life-risking decision in the game than if this were a real mission?" Sillonia asked.
"I've taken a missile like that and lived before," Garrus shrugged. "But really, there's an aspect this game doesn't convey, and that's the briefing and debriefing of missions. A briefing would've told me whether this particular ally escaping was worth my putting my life on the line for. I just acted as if it was."
"Wouldn't all missions for a Spectre or someone on Commander Shepard's crew be vital enough to call for you to lay it all on the line?" Sillonia inquired.
"As far as effort, yes, but not always to the point of death," Kaidan pointed out. "Not every mission will have someone trying to kill you, anyway, so there's no point in going in with that mindset."
"It's about the big picture, too," Vega interjected. "Information that's very important, but that you might get another shot at? Don't throw away the asset that you are for that. Getting Shepard to the beam that would take her to the Crucible to end the war? That's worth laying down your life for, and a lot of people did, all respect to them."
"Amen to that," Dolph said.
"I take it you three would have done the same if it had been needed," Sillonia said.
"Absolutely," Vega agreed.
"If only Shepard had let me," Garrus grunted. A pause followed, most of them caught off-guard by the comment.
"Let's do an intermission and get some water," Kaidan suggested, saving them all from the moment.
Vega and Garrus agreed that would be a good idea and they all headed into the staff room. Waiting for them was the two game masters from before, Lirart and Mey, looking smug. Squad deaths and failures weren't completely unheard of even for the Normandy team, but they'd often go weeks without one, and today they were down four deaths, a loss, and only one victory.
"Go ahead and gloat; you guys did good," Vega chuckled.
"This is the best training I've gotten in a while," Kaidan agreed.
"Honestly, seeing you guys in action is a pretty great reward in and of itself," Lirart admitted.
"That being said, we designed a new game type that would work better for a three-man squad than two. It hasn't been run with real combatants before, but we'd love for you guys to debut it and test it out," Mey told them.
Garrus, Vega, and Kaidan all exchanged looks, shrugs, and nods.
"Sure, let's do it," Vega told them.
"Great! There will be instructions on your HUD as you go. We're still working on finessing the briefing, but we've been calling it Triple Threat for now," Mey explained.
"We won't give away too much, but it's designed to create a close-quarters scenario, so we recommend shotguns and pistols," Lirart advised.
"Well that's certainly different," Garrus said.
"Designed with you and your snipers in mind," Mey told him with a wink.
"Of course," he chuckled.
After they had all refueled and swapped their equipment for close-range encounters, they headed back out into the arena.
"Maybe a little less veiled death wishes, Garrus," Kaidan added at the last minute, his tone gentle. "Those don't tend to be entertaining." Garrus's mandibles twitched.
Their audio feeds switched on and the whole arena went black, save for one highlighted area. "Proceed to starting point" appeared on their displays, so they did. Once there, black walls and a low ceiling constructed themselves around them, with one hallway leading out a short ways before turning.
"I'll bet you anything this is a stealth mission," Garrus muttered, seconds before a new message appeared on their display: "This begins as a stealth mission." Vega groaned as he swapped out his shotgun for a pistol which the game conveniently silenced for them.
"I'll take point," Kaidan said, as Vega and Garrus followed on his heels. Soon they reached a slightly larger room with three different hallways. Their display said: "Follow your objective." A small compass-like symbol appeared at the corner of Garrus's view.
"Let's go," Kaidan said. The three of them headed off in three separate directions. Garrus cleared his throat as they all turned to look at each other.
"Looks like we're splitting up," Vega shrugged.
At that moment, what looked like a wall slid open behind Vega and revealed a hallway, but in front of it was an enemy raising it's own pistol. Garrus acted first and with a perfect headshot, the enemy fell to the ground as Vega whipped around to face it.
"...and the walls move. Great," Vega grumbled. The hallway he was initially going to follow closed, and he added, "Guess I'm finding out where this guy came from."
Garrus looked a little closer at the enemy before it disappeared. It was sleeker, not meant to be the heavy tanks they faced in full-on combat situations. It remind us him of the Cerberus phantoms.
"Happy hunting," Garrus said with a casual salute, then headed down his own hall.
Just a few feet on the other side, the opening closed behind him. It was eerily quiet, something he wasn't used to in Spectre Status. After a couple turns, he walked up to one of the walls and put his hand against it.
The tech was fascinating to him; he knew there wasn't really a wall there, but the virtual barrier triggered a reaction in his gear to create the illusion of impact. He pushed harder and felt it get stronger, like small mass effect fields within his gloves. If he ran at it full force, he'd likely go through and cause it to glitch or the game would shut down entirely, but it was very effective. He was sure the calibrating for the pressure and resistance took quite a bit of testing.
He turned to continue down the hall, took one step, then paused. He whipped around just in time to see an enemy stepping out from a hallway that had opened behind him and beat it to the trigger. It fell with a dull thud and Garrus turned to continue towards his objective.
"Heads up. They might flank you, so watch your back," he said to Vega and Kaidan. They acknowledged his advice and he continued on his way. Twice more enemies appeared out of walls near him, and several more times the walls simply changed, forcing him to make his best guess on how to reach the objective. He supposed the shifting hallways were how the game masters made up for wanting more space than they had.
Both of the others exclaimed over his helmet at once, causing him to freeze.
"I'm not an AI!" Vega shouted.
"Neither am I!" Kaidan fired back.
"You're supposed to be following your objective!"
"Did you flank each other?" Garrus laughed, imaging them flailing as they squabbled.
"I didn't know the wall would open and there he'd be," Kaidan defended.
"Well I'm gonna go this way," Vega said definitively.
"You do that," Kaidan sighed.
Garrus chuckled again and continued on his way. It wasn't too long before the hallway opened up into a wider room with a terminal in the middle of it. Cautiously, pistol half-raised, he stepped towards it. There was a single function available on it, so Garrus attempted to activate it, but just gained a message on the screen: "Wait for your squad."
"I'm at a terminal... looks like we need to activate them all at once," he said, looking around the room warily. He began a slow pace, trying to keep aware of the full room all at once.
"We're working on it," Kaidan assured him.
Garrus settled with his back into a corner, eyes on every hallway but also knowing a new hallway could open from anywhere. A few closed and opened, but no enemies appeared.
"I'm there," Vega said. "Geez this gives me the creeps. I like it better when they let me know they're there and just run at my bullets."
"I've gotta be close," Kaidan said. "I've had like five enemies show up."
"It's been rather quiet here," Garrus said curiously. He stepped carefully out from the corner, headed for the terminal. When he was looking towards the middle of the room, suddenly he had his pistol ripped from his hands. He whirled around, instinctively falling into a sparring stance, and saw an enemy standing there, tossing his pistol behind itself, then mirror him, ready. For a moment Garrus just stared at it; he didn't even know the game could do this kind of encounter, but it was brand new...
"...alright then," he muttered. "Let's dance."
Get ready to roll.
The enemy lunged forward, striking with fists that Garrus barely managed to sloppily block, taking a couple steps backward. The mechanics were surprisingly accurate and he would've taken a moment to appreciate the impact detection and input had he not been under attack.
"Alright, I'm ready. Let's do this," Kaidan said in his helmet as Garrus blocked two more. He managed to swing out once which was effortlessly blocked and countered with a kick. Garrus jumped backwards to create some space and catch his breath.
"The VI learned how to fistfight," he grunted. "I'll let you know when I get my pistol back."
Get ready to roll.
"Stop it," he hissed, lunging forward. He was ready to end the round, but the VI continued to block or dodge. He didn't know what was in his head but it seemed to be getting worse.
"Garrus, you there? Waiting on you," Vega said.
"Did you not hear me?" Garrus growled between blows.
"The game must be bugging. Have you had issues with audio before?" Kaidan asked.
Garrus decided to ignore the chatter and focus on his opponent. In the middle of the brawl he realized he'd fallen into a familiar rhythm and it made his stomach turn. With a growl he landed a blow that made the VI stagger backward.
"Stop moving like her," he hissed, his heart pounding in his head.
Start trusting her, her voice replied as the enemy charged at him again. Garrus was so angry and flustered it only took three more hits before he was knocked onto his back. Furious, he rolled and tried to rush for the terminal to activate it. The VI beat him there and shoved him back down with it's foot, standing on his chest and pointing it's own pistol at him.
"There's no Shepard without Vakarian."
The pistol fired and Garrus could've sworn he felt it settle into his chest along with her voice saying those words.
"Objective failed" flashed onto his helmet as the walls, and the VI still triumphant upon him, melted away.
Garrus bolted to his feet and turned for the break room, leaving the pistol behind and tearing off his helmet.
"Garrus? Garrus! What happened?" Kaidan asked, trailing after him. Garrus ignored him, his mandibles flaring as he shoved the door open. Lirart and Mey were already there, looking confused and uncomfortable. Garrus slammed his helmet onto the table.
"What was that?!" he demanded.
"We don't know why the audio bugged," Lirart said quickly.
"And we need to polish the physical combat, but we haven't had many volunteer to model for it," Mey added sheepishly. "We would've asked you but we didn't want to give away the new feature before you could test it."
"How did you get a model for Shepard?!" Garrus growled.
"Garrus, cool down," Vega hissed, stepping closer to the turian.
"Shepard?" Mey's brow furrowed further. "What are you--" She didn't get a chance to finish as Wigort, the owner, stepped into the room, clearly aware of the commotion.
"Mr. Vakarian, what's the problem?" he asked, sounding civil but stern. Garrus moved out of reach from Vega and approached Wigort, leaning in close to him as his mandibles flared.
"Was this supposed to be some marketing tactic?" he growled threateningly. "Shepard's mechanics, Shepard's voice? 'Come watch the legendary dead Commander fight her comrades'?!"
Vega grabbed Garrus's arm and pulled him out of Wigort's face, saying all he needed to with a look, but Garrus barely paid it any attention.
"We purposefully do not model anything off of one single source," Wigort replied. "We don't even use Cerberus armored enemies like the old virtual reality used to. We have never pulled from material of Commander Shepard."
"I know what I saw," Garrus snapped, "who I fought."
"You fought a glitching VI," Lirart interjected, stepping forward. "Look."
Lirart lifted an omnitool, cued up to the moment the wall opened next to him. It slid open and the VI was there, snatched his omnitool and tossed it, but the arm seemed to twist at a strange angle as it did so. They both fell into a sparring stance, but the VI's image wavered and it's legs lacked solid positioning.
"...alright then. Let's dance."
Garrus heard his own voice, then an interrupted grunt as he staggered backward. But the VI in the video was moving erratically, flailing about. Sometimes it would make contact and Garrus would appear unaffected, and others it would wildly miss but he would be blocking against impact.
Garrus's mandibles flared and twitched as he watched. He heard himself speak to Kaidan and Vega, then growling at the VI. The whole time he looked like he was experiencing what he did, but the VI's movements never matched. After he pushed it back it began moving in slow motion. After Garrus was on the ground, supposedly pinned down by the weight of the VI's foot, it was actually not even touching him, standing completely still in a neutral position a few feet away. His armor detected the pistol hit and the game ended, Garrus's heavy breaths the only sound.
Lirart closed the omnitool and took a step back, looking down, as if concerned for another outburst. Garrus's hands were flexing into fists, his mind racing.
"Then... then what happened?" he asked, his voice breaking and losing it's harsh tone.
"We don't know, but we'll do whatever it takes to fix it," Wigort replied, looking to Lirart and Mey for confirmation. They nodded enthusiastically. Garrus had already turned away, stripping the gear off of him.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "I need some air."
"Garrus--" Vega began, but Kaidan kept him back, shaking his head.
Garrus didn't look at anyone, his eyes down, as he left the staff room. He was lucky to not catch any attention as he left, in search of somewhere quieter to drown out Shepard's voice echoing through his head.