Sniper training was, in a word, boring. She was sure it would be better once she could actuallyhold the rifle instead of just watching some old guy in a uniform pet his, but right now, it was pretty damn boring. For the thousandth time, she cursed that stubborn streak that had made her and her cousin enlist the day they’d both turned eighteen instead of going through an officer candidacy program, like her mother had wanted them to. Her baby cousin, a whole three hours and twenty-six minutes younger than she was, hadn’t wanted to bother with any specialized training once they’d finished their grueling basic training course; leave it to Ari to jump right into the fray.
Elliot Shepard shook her head and smiled as she headed toward the mess; that was Ari all over. Shoot first, ask questions if she got around to it, except when they’d been younger, it had always been punch first, and then kick the guy for good measure. She hadn’t exactly been popular on the Einstein, or on Arcturus, when Hannah Shepard had taken a posting there so the girls could finish their education somewhere a little less haphazard than a ship, giving the battle-worn Ari a little bit of stability in a life turned upside-down. Elliot made a note to call her mom later that night, see how she liked her new ship, just check in. Someone pushed by her, running on the way to the mess, and she sighed. The food was good, sure, but it wasn’t worth all that.
A second, and then a third person brushed by her, running, and Elliot froze, remembering the Einstein, being sixteen again, when the entire ship had seemed frozen in time as they’d watched the news footage coming in from Mindoir.
Please, no, not another attack, she thought as she ran towards the mess, where a comm-screen would be showing the news around the galaxy. Surely, if something like that was actually happening, the fleet would be mobilizing, they wouldn’t just be sitting here. Her stomach was full of lead as she pushed her way into the packed mess hall, and she knew that her prayers would not be answered. Every eye was glued to the screen, where carnage was already playing. A woman’s voice was narrating the events, and Elliot forced herself to listen, to focus on the now and not get lost in memories of Mindoir, of being the first ship to respond to the distress call - of her cousin, broken, battered, orphaned, alone, having survived something that she couldn’t even imagine. Aunt Rebecca and Uncle Matt - gone. Friends, home - gone.
Elliot shook her head and pulled her attention back to the screen.
“It’s actually quite incredible,” the woman was saying on the screen. “I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s practically a one-woman army. As soon as the attack started, she started barking orders, she mobilized our defenses, made sure the colonists were sent to safety, and since then she has been standing on the frontlines of the battle, almost single-handedly holding back the brunt of the invasion.”
Elliot couldn’t help the swell of resentment at this unknown woman on this unknown world. Where had she been when Ari’s family had been killed? When Ari’s home had burned? As the uncharacteristic thoughts flashed through her mind, the camera zoomed to the city’s defense structure, where a group of batarian slavers had clearly intended to attack this world and had found more than they’d bargained for. The city’s militia was putting up one hell of a fight, Elliot was forced to acknowledge, and standing, as the reporter had said, in the front of the fray, was a lone woman in civilian clothing, holding an assault rifle and making good use of it.
Her long, dark hair was falling out of the bun she’d clearly had it in, and the sight tickled something in Elliot’s memory, but she shoved it aside, refusing to let her memories of her cousin’s tragedy ruin this woman’s heroism. The resentment was washed away in a rush of absolute pride for this stranger who had done so much for these colonists, and Elliot smiled. This was humanity at its finest. She joined the rest of the soldiers in the mess as they applauded the mystery woman, until a flare of blue caught her attention on screen.
The sounds around her fell on deaf ears. A single, perfect singularity, followed by precise shots - it wasn’t uncommon, of course. It was standard, textbook procedure for Alliance Marines with biotics - disable them with biotics, finish them with ammunition. If she’d heard it once, she’d heard it a thousand times during basic. But combine that with long, black hair falling from a bun…
“Where is it?” she asked the person nearest her, hoping that her hearing would return so she could prove herself wrong.
“Elysium,” he said, grinning. “Look at her go! They’re saying she was an Alliance soldier on leave and she just took over! Look at her!”
“Oh, I’m looking,” Elliot said, her body shaking in terror. “Arien Elizabeth, you are in SO much trouble.”
“You know her?” the Marine next to her asked, and she nodded.
“My cousin,” she admitted. “Corporal Shepard.”
“I know who you are,” he said, laughing. “Who’s she?”
Elliot shook her head. “No, I’m Corporal Elliot Shepard. She’s Corporal Arien Shepard. And she was supposed to be taking a vacation. God, mom’s going to kill her for this.”
“Hey, you pendejos!” the Marine shouted, turning to the room, and Elliot took a moment to appreciate the width of his shoulders. “Shepard knows the girl! It’s her cousin! Raise a glass to the Shepard cousins!”
“One hundred thousand percent your fault,” Elliot muttered to her cousin, who looked into the camera and smiled before she threw a textbook shockwave into the invasion force. “Show-off.”
For the next hour, Elliot tolerated the congratulations of her fellows, particularly the brawny private who had insisted on passing around not one, not two, but three bottles of tequila, giving everyone a pleasant buzz. She was pretty sure most of the Marines were more than a little drunk, and she was also pretty sure that her cousin had just gotten her very own fanclub, and its founding member was sitting next to her, narrating the entire event while she tried desperately not to remember the last time Ari had been in a situation like this.
“Looks like reinforcements finally showed up,” Vegas said. At least Elliot was pretty sure that’s what he’d said his name was. “She made it! Damn, that woman’s a badass! I’m telling you, Ellie, I’m gonna marry your cousin someday!”
Elliot snorted, both at the nickname (something only Ari called her) and the sentiment - it definitely wasn’t something men usually said about her cousin. Plus the thought of calling her cousin Mrs. Vegas was just too funny. The vid was panning away from the battle and showing the colony, and Elliot knew it was time to call her mother, and wait for Ari to call her. It was going to be a long few hours.
“Later, Vegas,” she said, standing and heading for her bunk. She’d aged about fifty years in the past two hours, and she still had hours left to go before she could sleep. She’d barely made it to her bunk before the base’s VI alerted her that she had an incoming call, which she had patched through to her omnitool.
“I was sort of hoping you were still in training,” Ari said from half a galaxy away.
“One hundred thousand percent your fault,” Elliot repeated, shaking her head. “I’m sure Mom’s already got one hell of a lecture planned for you, so I’m not going to bother with it. You’ve aged me years today, Ari. I had to drink tequila with your future husband while you smirked at a camera.”
“Is my future husband good-looking?” she asked, and Elliot laughed. “And why tequila?”
“He’s built like a brick shithouse, can’t seem to remember anyone’s name, and I’m pretty sure he said his name was Vegas,” Elliot said, watching her cousin’s mouth drop. “Gorgeous, though.”
“The CO of the relief party said the Kilimanjaro is on its way,” Ari said, sobering the mood.
“Explains why she hasn’t called me yet. She’s been too busy pulling every string in the Alliance to get her ship rerouted to pull your ass out of the fire on this one.” Elliot shook her head. “Honestly, Ari, there’s only so much that Mom and David can pull you out of.”
“I did what needed to be done, Ellie, and you would have done it, too,” she said. “I couldn’t just let them die - how could I let that happen to anyone else?”
“I know, baby cousin,” Elliot said, wishing she could wrap her big, tough cousin, the one who towered over her by a good four inches, in a hug. “Anyone would have done it. It’s just that since it’s you, and your record hasn’t been exactly stellar, it’s going to take a hell of a spin to not make this into an interstellar incident. Of course, the fact that my entire division was cheering for you, drinking shots to the Shepard cousins, might be in your favor. I’m practically famous just for being related to you.”
“I’ve been saying it for six years, and I’ll say it again - you military types are fucking strange,” she said, shaking her head.
“Better include yourself in that one,” Elliot reminded her. “I’ll be sure to pass on your love to Vegas if you give Mom a hug and a kiss from me - don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be in public. I’ll call you both tomorrow, but I’m about ready to pass out.”
“That’s what you get for trying to get my future husband drunk,” Ari said, grinning at her. “Get some sleep. As soon as I get back to my room, I’m not moving for at least sixteen hours. I swear there are reporters everywhere, and if one more person says ‘Corporal Shepard, I would love an exclusive!’ I’m going to punch them - and it will probably be on camera.”
“Try to refrain from causing another interstellar incident,” Elliot said, rolling her eyes. She looked at her cousin’s face, the dried blood, matted hair, and dark circles all telling the story of how harrowing her day had been. “Seriously, Arien, get some sleep. Love you, baby cousin.”
“Love you, too, you old hag,” Ari said, and even in the poor quality of the omnitool, Elliot could see the tear that dropped down her cheek. “Promise I’ll call you tomorrow. Promise I’ll call you and Aunt Hannah every day.”
“I know, Ari,” she said, reaching out to touch her cousin’s face on the screen. Ari reached out her own hand and touched her screen as well. It was something they’d started doing as children, when their parents would have calls once a week - the first time they’d wanted to see if they could feel each other through the screen. Now it was just a reminder of how far they’d come, how close they’d always been, even through those long-distance calls. “No more promises, sweetie. Sleep. Before you fall over.”
Ari nodded. “Night, Ellie.”
“Night, Ari,” she said, and the call disconnected. She closed her eyes and let the tears of pure relief come. Arien was safe, her mother would be there with her soon, and if the Alliance was going to cause any trouble, between them, Hannah Shepard and David Anderson would sort it out. Arien would be okay.
Chapter 1 written by Neph. Elliot (Ellie) Shepard is Petri's Paragon, Vangaurd, Spacer, Sole Survivor Shepard, while Arien (Ari) Shepard is Neph's Renegon, Adept, Colonist, War Hero Shepard.
Feel free to follow us for pictures, Petri's sketches of the fic, playlists, and general ramblings about the story on tumblr at torchsongfanfic.tumblr.com
Chapter by NephthysMoon, ThePetrichist
Chapter 2 was written by Neph, and focuses mainly on the aftermath of the Skyllian Blitz. In this chapter, we start to get an idea of who Arien Shepard is, and perhaps why the Alliance is less-than-pleased with her.
“Keep your nose clean, I said.” Hannah Shepard, red hair just starting to silver at the temples twisted up into an elegant knot at the back of her head, green eyes flaring, was pacing in front of her ex-husband’s niece. “Keep your head down, I said,” she added, shaking her head for good measure and throwing a withering glare at the still-grime-covered black-haired, blue-eyed Marine in front of her. “Stay out of trouble, I said.” She pivoted and began her brisk stride across the length of the room for what must have been the fourteenth time when Arien finally piped in.
“Oh, can it, Aunt Hannah!”
Green eyes narrowed dangerously as she looked between the Corporal standing in front of her and the Captain leaning casually against the wall, watching the scene avidly. David Anderson had already reprimanded the young woman, and now it was her turn. “Excuse me, Arien Elizabeth?” she said, her voice dangerously low. “Did you just tell a superior officer to ‘can it’?”
“No,” the girl denied, and Hannah raised an eyebrow. “I told my aunt, who is acting like an overprotective shrew and nothing like a superior officer, to ‘can it’. Face it, if it were anyone else who had done it, you wouldn’t even be here, let alone be giving this lecture. I’m not even in your chain of command!”
“But it wasn’t anyone else,” Anderson said, stepping in. “It was you. It was Corporal Arien Shepard. You’ve already caused one interstellar incident with the batarians since Mindoir, and there is absolutely no guarantee that we can keep you from being court-martialed for this. If it were anyone else, you’re right, there wouldn’t even be an issue. But it’s you.”
The girl, and even though she was considered an adult at her age, the two in front of her would consider her a girl until they were buried, took a deep, steadying breath. “Let me see if I understand this,” she said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her tone. “Slavers attack a colony world, which I help defend, but because the slavers are batarian, and I’m known to have issues with batarians because - oh, that’s right - they also destroyed the colony world that I was born and raised on and slaughtered my entire family like animals - I’m the one in the wrong?”
“You were off duty,” Anderson reminded her. “You did not have the authority to take command of a civilian militia.”
“Begging your pardon, Captain,” she said, “but under Paragraph 2-10 of the Alliance Command Policy, in the event of an emergency, the highest-ranking officer, cadet, or even junior enlisted Marine among troops at the scene of an emergency is to assume temporary command and control of all soldiers and troops at the scene until relieved of duty by higher-ranking Alliance personnel. Even off duty, sir, I was the only Alliance personnel on scene. It was my duty to assume command of the civilian militia until an Alliance officer relieved me, regardless of the rank of the civilians in that militia.”
Hannah and David stared at the girl who had once punched a batarian ambassador in the face during an interstellar broadcast. The code she’d just quoted was ancient, going back hundreds of years, drilled into the heads of every cadet to pass through the Alliance - and most of Earth’s military divisions before that. Seeing that she’d finally gained some ground, she pressed her advantage.
“Most civilian militias are under-trained and under-armed,” she continued, very obviously blinking back tears. “I wasn’t going to let anyone else be a victim to slavers while it was in my power to prevent it. For once, the Alliance’s godforsaken code was actually on my side, and I knew it, so I stepped in, and I did what I could to stop them. If they want to court-martial me for that, they will have a hell of a fight on their hands, because I will throw every single paragraph of the Command Policy at them, and I’m positive I can find someone in the Law Corps who will be willing to go toe-to-toe with them on this one.”
The sound of a throat clearing from the doorway drew their attention, and all three stood at attention, snapping off crisp salutes to the man who stood there, a small smile on his face. “That won’t be necessary, Corporal. At ease, Shepard, Anderson.”
Admiral Steven Hackett strode into the rapidly shrinking room and looked at the wiry young woman, taking in the grime that covered her from the battle hours before, the long, black hair that was valiantly clinging to the bun she’d put it in long before the battle, and the bright, vivid blue eyes that spoke defiance despite the respect on her face. It was exactly what he liked to see in a hero, but more than that, it was exactly what the people of Earth, and of the colony worlds, loved in their heroes; and right now, Corporal Shepard was humanity’s darling, even if she was the Alliance’s least favorite embarrassment.
“Corporal, you’ve been assigned three weeks’ administrative leave on Earth, where you will be awarded the Star of Terra for your actions here,” he continued. “There was a strong recommendation, given your history, that a reprimand be placed in your file and you be restricted to quarters for the first week of your administrative leave, however, I can and will have that stricken, given the circumstances. As you so aptly put it, the Command Policy not only allows for situations like these, it was your duty.” He smirked, and then turned to the other two. “I won’t lie to either of you. Corporal Shepard made a lot of enemies when she knocked out that batarian ambassador. A lot of people in the Alliance consider her an embarrassment who has escaped discharge only because she has friends in very high places, whether she realizes it or not. In addition to Captains Anderson and Shepard,” he said, turning to look at Arien again, and giving her a wink, “Prime Minister Shepard was quite vocal in his protests against your discharge. After what I saw when my fleet got here today, you can add Admiral Steven Hackett to your list of allies, as well, young lady.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” she said, ducking her head. “But I don’t want anyone sticking their necks out for me.”
“They’re our necks,” he said, waving her concerns aside. “I’ll be frank with you. If you were any other soldier, the Alliance would be bowing down and kissing your ass. If your cousin had done what you did here today, the Alliance would build a statue and rename the colony after her. But you drew guard duty on a day that the gods of war weren’t looking out for you, and a lot of people with a lot of shiny brass on their chest want you gone. You proved today that you’re a damn fine soldier. You’ll bend the rules until they can’t bend anymore, but you’ll get the job done.” Hackett and Anderson exchanged dark, veiled looks. “You’re the kind of soldier the Alliance is going to need, Corporal. After Earth, you’ll be transferred directly under Captain Anderson’s command.”
He stuck his hand out, offering it to the stunned young woman. “Thank you, sir.”
“You’re welcome, Corporal,” he said. “I expect to hear great things from you.”
Once in his quarters, Steven Hackett looked over his intelligence reports and allowed a rare smile to cross his face. In the aftermath of the discovery that humanity was not alone in the galaxy, games of political intrigue had become far more complicated than do-gooders like Hannah Shepard would ever realize. He respected Hannah, even cared about the woman, in his own way, and he admired the hell out of her accomplishments, the least of which was not the fact that she’d raised two of the most incredible soldiers he’d ever seen.
Anderson was only slightly better at the game than Hannah, but his morals got in the way. Still, better Anderson than a snake in the grass like Udina, who didn’t give a damn about anyone but himself. How that man had risen so high in the Alliance Parliament - Steven shook his head. The real reason he was pulling young Arien Shepard’s ass out of the fire was simple, and exactly the one he’d told her: humanity would need soldiers like her in the coming years.
The Alliance was full of fools and yesmen. It would need leaders. It would need men and women who could look at the facts and see the truth. And if it involved getting their hands a bit dirty, well - he needed - the Alliance needed - men and women who would tighten their bootlaces and get down in the mud. You could always wash your socks out afterwards.
The problem with people like Anderson and Hannah Shepard was that they couldn’t do it, and Udina, who would probably be appointed to represent Earth to the Council in the next election, well that slimy bastard never remembered to wash his socks when it was over.
The old fashioned safe was as anachronistic in this digital age as the papers he kept in it, but when he opened the combination lock and pulled the thick files out, he felt a wash of security come over him. Paper files couldn’t be hacked; even the best security programs, the custom-built ones, could be bypassed by a skilled hacker, and the information he had in these files - well, it was enough to remind him that his own socks weren’t exactly pristine.
The tip-off, written in his contact’s elegant script, was taken from one folder and put into the new one he’d labeled on the way to Elysium: Arien E. Shepard. He knew who Lawson was, who she worked for, who her father was. That the information was exactly what he’d needed to fast-track Hannah Shepard’s niece’s career did not lessen the blood that had paid for it. His socks were looking a little reddish-brown now, but he was only doing what had to be done.
Saren Arterius had ruined humanity’s chance to have a human Spectre almost twenty years ago, but he’d set in motion a chain of events that Steven didn’t think could be stopped - not without something bigger than he was.
Steven Hackett knew what he was: he was an old soldier who’d made contacts over the years, contacts that had provided him with information that had helped the Alliance, which had made him look good and gotten him promoted as far up the ladder as one man could possibly expect to go, but he was not, despite his title, an inspiring leader.
And the information he had gotten from his contacts in Black Ops all those years ago, the information that was now funneled through Lawson - that information told him that he needed leaders. He needed symbols for humanity to rally behind, to follow into hell and back, and be martyrs for the cause, if that’s what was what it took.
And he needed those leaders completely, one hundred percent focused on their task.
With a sort of clinical interest, he realized that if he took this next step, the blood might never wash out of his socks, but there was still one more test he needed to run. If she passed, then he’d have two weapons in the fight to come. If she failed - well, he’d have one very, very focused weapon. And that might be even better.
He picked up Elliot Shepard’s file, and drafted a letter to Lawson. Just as Conatix was a shell company for a lesser-known human-supremacist movement, sometimes - just sometimes, that human-supremacist movement acted as the black ops branch of the Alliance, a front for the things they couldn’t publically do - expose children to eezo, for example, in order to boost the number of human biotics who would have nowhere to go for work but the Alliance military. Only sometimes, though, he reminded himself. When the situation was desperate, and called for the most desperate of measures - like forging the sword he would need to wield in the upcoming war - the war his contact had been warning him about for years.
It was supposed to be an entirely ordinary mission, aside from the fact that the entire colony had gone silent. The official report, and what they’d been sent in to confirm, was that it had been Batarians--after all, what else would wipe out an entire colony and leave absolutely nothing behind?
Elliot sighed, fidgeting in her armor as they went through each building, searching for any trace of what had happened. Of all the Marines there, she was the one who would best know what to look for--after all, the incident on Mindoir was burned into her memory like it had happened yesterday. Batarians usually left sheer destruction in their wake, but here there was no sign of a struggle, no blood, hardly any indications of gunfire. Something wasn’t adding up, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on it, like a word on the tip of her tongue.
Frowning, she opened the door to the next building. She blinked, noticing a datapad sitting beside a half-empty cup of coffee and a plate of what looked like standard colony breakfast rations. The cup of coffee hadn’t even spilled. If this was Batarians...wouldn’t there be more chaos?
The confusion on several other Marines’ faces confirmed that the general feeling of unease that had begun pervading the atmosphere earlier that afternoon wasn’t just her imagination when they made camp later that night. She knew that most of them had seen the broadcast of the Blitz the previous year, where Ari had made her name during a Batarian attack of the kind that was supposed to have happened here, and she knew that they were all thinking the same thing - what had happened on Akuze was something completely different.
Yawning, she climbed into her tent and pulled off her armor, setting it beside her bedroll. Temperatures on Akuze tended to drop drastically after sunset, and she shivered at the now-firsthand knowledge of this, pulling on the sweatshirt she’d brought with her and curling up as tightly as she could. She was in for a long, cold night.
It was the noise that woke her. A loud rumbling, followed by the startled yells of several Marines from across the camp. She shot up, scrambling out of the bag and grabbing her sniper rifle. Was it just an earthquake? She didn’t think there were earthquakes on Akuze... What was--
The ground burst open in front of her, and a thing rose out of the ground, towering over the camp. She took stock of it as quickly as she could--almost like a snake, with small legs lining its sides, and tendrils protruding from its gaping maw. She let out a startled yell as it swung above them, diving for cover and taking aim.
Her shot hardly left a dent on the creature, and she swore as her rifle beeped, signalling that it would be a while before she could fire again. She sprinted to get behind the creature--did it have a back, she wondered?--and then swore again as it spat a green substance over half the camp. The screams told her all she needed to know. Acid. This thing could spit acid.
She swallowed, biting back another curse. That blast had just taken out a quarter of the camp, and with it a third of the unit. “Lieutenant Okida!” she yelled, trying to make herself heard over the chaos. “We need to--”
Another chorus of yells rose from the Marines as a second creature burst from the ground, this time immediately spewing acid over half the camp.
Okay, this is starting to get seriously bad. Do we even have a chance against these things?
Her rifle stopped beeping, and a plan began to form in her mind. Scrambling to the nearest tent, she went through it, swearing when she nearly tripped over the fabric and found only a bedroll underneath. She darted to the next one, scattering the fabric and finally managing to find what she was looking for. Three grenades, which she stuffed into the pocket of her sweatshirt, and a knife, which she shoved into her boot.
“Run” she yelled to the three men who were desperately firing a hail of bullets at the creature, and she gathered her biotics into the largest charge she could muster. With a feral yell, she launched herself at the--the Maw, was all she could think of it as--and used her momentum to propel herself onto the creature and up behind where the acid-spewing orifice was.
You are an IDIOT. Funny how her inner voice sounded a lot like her cousin in that particular moment.
She pulled the grenades out of her pocket, hurriedly pulled the pins, and shoved them under the Maw’s crest, hoping they’d stay. There was no time to waste now; there were mere seconds before everything would turn into a fiery hell, so she steeled herself and jumped, using her biotics to protect herself as much as possible before she hit the ground.
She laughed as she landed (her right leg making an uncomfortable and somehow less terrifying snapping noise, though she hardly noticed) at the exact moment the grenades went off. The creature let out a screech and she looked up just in time to see the aftermath.
What remained of the creature’s acid cascaded down around her. She screamed as some of it hit her already broken leg (the rapidly-setting pain and inability to bear weight had given her battle-brain the information and years of training had processed it), hissing as it burned through the jumpsuit. She scrambled backward frantically, snatching at the fabric of the tent she’d landed on and doing her best to wipe it away, but the damage was done--the bone was definitely broken, in several places as best she could tell, and the acid damage was an angry red and had gone too deep to simply patch up with medi-gel. The camp around her was in ruins--while the creature’s death throes had somehow saved everything but her leg from the shower, her half of the camp had not been so lucky. Admittedly there had been hardly anyone left, as the acid had already done its deadly work, but she knew from the complete, ringing silence around her that whatever--whoever--had been left nearby...was gone.
I can’t let that get to me now - I have to save the others - Okida, Toombs, where are they, is anyone still...
A slow, creeping certainty began to wash over her, fueled by the absolute silence of the ruined camp, the absence of the second maw, the complete and utter lack of human presence anywhere in her vicinity - there was no one left.
“No,” she whispered. “No - this can’t be happening, it can’t…I’ve got to…” Desperately she opened a radio channel. “Ground team to Tokyo, do you read? Tokyo, this is Corporal Shepard, requesting...immediate extraction…” The hissing and soft beeping on the other end was the confirmation of all her worst fears. There was no signal; it was being jammed. She had no way to contact the ship, and they were due back at the LZ in...six hours. She swallowed and spared a glance to her leg (the sharp, stabbing pains reminding her that she needed to do something about it), the camp was in ruins, the squad was gone, and there was another one of those things still out there - she had no assets left.
“I have to get out of here,” she mumbled, formulating a plan. She turned to the collapsed tent next to her, which had mostly escaped the Maw’s acid, and moved the piles of fabric aside, searching for anything useful in the wreckage. To her relief she found a water bottle, a medical kit, and even a set of dry (albeit several sizes too large) clothing.
Pushing herself backward until she was safely away from any acid, she pulled off the completely-wrecked clothes she was wearing and began putting the other set on, pausing only to use the water bottle to clean as much acid as she could off of her leg before it could do any further damage or sink into the clean fabric. Once dressed, she gritted her teeth and reset her leg. She screamed, her head spinning at the sudden burst of severe pain, but managed to push through it. Vision finally clearing, she applied as much medi-gel as she dared to the wound and wrapped it in bandages, then used what was left of the tent to rig a makeshift splint. She blinked back the tears which finally threatened to fall. It was tempting to just lie down and hope that the Tokyo would -
Now is not the time, Ellie! Ari's voice yelled in her head, and the thought alone put a small, sad smile on her face as she picked herself up, switching the safety on her sniper rifle on and using it almost as a cane as she hobbled to where Okida’s tent had been to retrieve the distress beacon. It would be useless here, but it could come in handy if she didn’t make the LZ in time. Which, she admitted to herself, looked more and more possible with every passing second as she limped around the remains of what had once been a camp of fifty Marines, but she had to try. Running through what else she would need, she grabbed Okida’s belt - the LT had been a biotic, and had carried extra ration bars with him at all times, something she would desperately need if she hoped to survive for more than a few hours. She checked the belt, satisfied at the number, and pleased to also find a small bottle of water and some purification tablets, then grit her teeth and set off.
When her omni-tool beeped a sixth time she knew she’d failed. She’d known she was moving slowly, but it must have been slower than she’d thought. In her rush to get out of there, she had forgotten that the colony had been located in a valley, and the LZ was somewhere up above, in the hills surrounding it. She’d also forgotten, due to her armor’s built-in cooling system, that Akuze, a desert planet with very little plant-life or water, reached near-boiling temperatures during the day.
“Who builds a colony in the middle of a giant desert, anyway?”
Somewhere in the back of her mind she remembered that her unit had been supposed to check in that morning, let the Tokyo know that everything had gone well and they were en route to the LZ as scheduled, but because the signal had been jammed…
Her blood suddenly went cold as she realized what the implications of all this would be. Her unit hadn’t reported in as scheduled, and there was complete and utter carnage back at the colony, and--
And here she was, some undetermined distance from both the landing zone and the campsite, more than a bit lost, with only a few ration bars, severely injured and, as far as she could tell, going into shock.
The more she thought about it, the more she realized how desperately she needed to rest if she had any hope of making it out of jammer range--she knew those things were getting better and better all the time, and she hadn’t gotten a signal any of the times she’d stopped and tried, and if she didn’t give herself a break she’d wind up collapsing, and a lot of good THAT would do her. There were some of those rare trees up ahead--maybe that would provide a bit of shade, possibly some water. She dragged herself the last fifty or so yards, and slumped against the trunk of one of them with a weary groan, burying her face in her shaking hands.
It was time to be honest with herself. If she didn’t make it somewhere the distress beacon wouldn’t be jammed, she would die. Especially considering her best shot was going uphill.
You are NOT giving up.
“Shut up, Ari,” Elliot mumbled. She knew it wasn’t really her cousin, of course, but she was glad that she was still coherent enough to find some way to encourage herself, even if it did almost seem like it was on the edge of going crazy. Whatever worked, right?
Unwrapping a ration bar, she took stock of her surroundings. “Okay. Where am I? How far am I from the landing zone?” she asked herself, looking around to try to find familiar landmarks. The navigational function on her omni-tool wasn’t working due to the jammer, so she was going to have to go by memory.
“I know I saw these trees. They were...they were about...an hour away from camp, at the pace we were going. But...a ways over. Wow, I went off course.” She swore vehemently. “That puts me who knows how long from the LZ. But the ridge...anywhere up there would probably be a good place for the distress beacon...and if they wind up searching for survivors, there might be someone looking there, once they figure out that there are jammers. That’s my best shot, isn’t it?”
Groaning again, she got to her feet. “This is one thing that’s not your fault, Ari,” she muttered to herself as she pushed forward again. “I cannot blame giant, acid-spitting, snake-centipedes on you.”
The hours dragged on, and she grew more tired and anxious, but she was sure she was getting closer. She’d tried periodically to get a signal in the hopes that she wouldn’t have to keep going much longer, but it wasn’t working, and not for the first time she wondered if there was more than one jammer keeping communications from getting in or out. “Who’s doing this, anyway?” she spat. “Who would want an entire colony and a whole squad dead?”
Still, she kept trying, kept walking, and kept picturing Ari yelling at her to keep going, like she had back when they were seventeen and preparing for Basic. You’re stronger than that! Keep it up! Come on, you old hag, you can do better than that!
At least that put a smile on her face, which was wiped away when she realized that the Tokyo had probably arrived and the camp was probably already under close scrutiny. Ari would probably think she was dead. Worse, she’d probably have assumed that Batarians were involved when their unit didn’t check in. Ari and Batarians were just a bad combination all around, especially when family was involved.
She finally let herself sit down to rest again as Akuze’s sun began to dip below the horizon. It was a relief, that was for sure, but she knew what was coming--her night in camp had definitely confirmed that the temperature drop was severe. Her best bet was to just get up and keep moving, but she was so tired and dizzy. She could eat and drink a bit of the water she’d found (the last of it, she realized, inspecting the small bottle with a frown), then close her eyes for five minutes - she could set her omni-tool to make certain she’d get up. After her quick meal, she punched in the command, curled up, and closed her eyes as she tried to forget the pain.
The tool beeped, and she opened her eyes blearily. “Okay, five minutes is--what?” she mumbled, noticing the time on the readout. It had taken the omni-tool beeping on and off for twenty-five minutes to wake her, and the temperature had dropped dramatically during that time. She sighed painfully, pulling herself to her feet and forcing her now-stiff joints to get moving. Her leg throbbed a warning and she gritted her teeth, determined to ignore it as she moved forward again. Despite the ration bars, hunger was gnawing at her stomach. She vaguely realized that her pace was starting to slow, but she kept pushing forward, stopping every twenty-five yards or so to test for a signal. She couldn’t keep going much longer in this condition, she knew, so it was now or never. Find a signal, or die trying.
She finally dragged herself onto the top of the ridge and slumped to the ground exhaustedly, looking back down at the colony. Everything looked rather like ants, she reflected dizzily. Yes - there were the soldiers she was expecting, swarming around two dead Maw creatures. So they’d encountered the other one. It had been a good call getting out of its range, then. By now, Ari probably knew it hadn’t been Batarians, but considering she’d left all her gear at the camp, and she was now sitting on a hill with the LZ nowhere in sight, she was sure it hadn’t tempered her cousin’s rage. Come to think of it, how far off course had she gone? She wasn’t sure. She wasn’t even sure, at this point, how long she’d been walking. She scowled, her eyesight blurring as she fought her way onto her good knee. The movement used up the last of her strength, and, completely exhausted, she dropped back onto the ground. She couldn’t go any farther. If there wasn’t a signal here, it was all over.
The...the beacon is….my last...last hope, she thought, dimly realizing that she had pushed herself too hard to make it to this point; both her body and mind were rapidly shutting down. Got to...try…
She pulled it from the belt, hands shaking violently as she set it down and switched it on. To her complete and utter relief, the light, instead of emitting the sputtering red of a jammed signal, blazed green.
“I made it,” she mumbled, slumping back onto the ground. “They’ll...be on their...way...soon…”
Don’t sleep. Sleep is bad. Ari again. Elliot groaned. You need to stay up.
I’ll try. ‘S gonna be hard, but I’ll try.
This chapter was written by Petri.
“They should have checked in by now.”
She knew she wasn’t telling Anderson anything he didn’t already know, but it wasn’t just his team ashore – it was her cousin. Ellie was the only reason she was alive, let alone in the Alliance, and she’d had a bad feeling from the moment Anderson had told her she would be staying shipside for this mission.
“Another two hours, and if we haven’t heard from the team, you can go down and raise all the hell you want,” he said, not looking from the reports in his hand as he waved a hand at her dismissively.
Fucking Batarians, Ari snarled. An entire colony silenced, and they sent in a squad to ‘investigate’. She didn’t need to investigate – this was just like Mindoir and Elysium. Fuck the Alliance, and fuck Anderson, too. She was done waiting. The bastards had taken her parents and her home – and now they’d taken her cousin. Even if Ellie was still alive, she was a slave. And there was absolutely no way Arien Shepard was going to leave her cousin, one of the two family members she had left, in the hands of those slimy fucks.
She shimmied into her mesh bodysuit and started strapping the pieces of ceramic plating that formed her armor on over it. As each piece clicked into place, she took a deep breath and sunk further into the place in her mind that had grown overnight when her homeworld had been attacked. Deeper and deeper inside her own mind, until Ari Shepard was just the shell, and the monster that she was so afraid of was let out to play. She could feel the neural nodes lighting up as she started glowing, her biotics reacting to the absolute rage that was all that was left of Arien Shepard.
Her fingers, once they had finished with the armor, deftly put her hair into its customary bun, the motions so ingrained after all these years that it didn’t require thought. The weapons locker in front of her blew open with a flick of her glowing blue wrist, and she reached in for her favorite assault rifle; Ellie always said the Avenger M-8 looked like a water pistol, but there was something comforting about the rifle in her hands.
Perhaps it was the way it fit so perfectly into her long, feminine hands. Perhaps it was the name – Avenger – one who inflicts punishment in return for an injury or offence. Or perhaps it was just that this was the rifle she’d been given by the militia on Elysium, the one that she’d made tally marks on for each time she’d gotten the better of the batarian bastards, as vengeance for her parents.
The monster was humming under her breath as she pulled the rifle from the locker, her fingers stroking over the words emblazoned on its side, tracing the tally marks. She reached for the knife she kept on her tactical belt, and snapped it open.
She looked at the knife glinting in the lights, and an eerie smile graced the monster’s lips, lips that had stopped humming and started singing, softly.
Light eats night and all I never said, reminds me what to do before I’m – to see you, to touch you…
The monster continued singing as she used the knife to carve another tally into the side of her rifle.
From somewhere deep inside the monster-who-was-a-girl, a soft voice drifted up: this is for Ellie you sons of bitches.
The monster led the ground forces towards the colony site, the blue of her biotics lighting the area around her, showing her the destroyed campsite, the mangled bodies. Ari tried to shout, to take control, because it wasn’t right – batarians didn’t leave this kind of evidence, but the monster ignored her, hunting for its prey.
She signalled the team to return to the Mako, and the last soldier had just shut the door behind himself when the ground started to rumble.
“What the hell is that?” Aikens shouted, pointing at the giant tentacled worm that had sprung from the ground not twenty feet from them.
“I think we know what happened to the colony,” Stephens muttered.
“Kill that mother fucker!” the monster screamed, and the Marine on the tank’s guns launched a volley of fire into the thing. “Go! Go!” she screamed as the worm screamed and spat a trail of acid towards them.
Aikens slammed the Mako back, narrowly avoiding the stream of acid, while Stephens continued to fire into it.
“Where the fuck did it go?” the monster screamed as the worm disappeared into the earth.
“It’s behind us!” Stephens shouted, turning the guns on the creature again.
Aikens drove around the creature, avoiding all but the final blast – the thing fell back into its hole and didn’t resurface.
“I think we got it,” Stephens said, as the console burst into flame.
“Everyone out, go, go, go!” he said, and the monster and Stephens pushed their way out of the sparking tank as it burst into flames. She could hear Aikens screaming from inside, but Stephens held her back.
“You can’t save him, Shepard,” he said as she struggled against him.
“Find that jamming signal, disable it, and get Anderson down here,” she growled when Aikens finally fell silent.
“Aye, aye, ma’am,” he said, snapping off a quick salute before marching away.
As she looked over the destroyed tank and campsite, the monster slowly receeded, and all that was left was Arien, broken and heartsick.
This is what we've come to call rage monster!Ari - Petri drew a fabulous sketch of Ari marking up her rifle, which you can find on the torchsong tumblr. In case you're curious, the song the rage monster is singing is 'Before I'm Dead' by the kidneythieves
Quick pronunciation guide to Arien's name:
Are-ee-in, and the shortened Are-ee are correct.
Air-ee-in and the shortened Air-ee are not.
She will potentially throw you across the room for mispronunciation.
This update is so long in coming that I cannot even apologize.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Why is it always you?”
Arien turned away from the observation pane in the theatre over the surgery, where even now Alliance medical personnel worked to save her cousin’s life, towards the smoky voice that had spoken.
She snapped to attention and executed a salute. “Admiral Hackett, sir. Gunnery Chief Arien Shepard, sir, reporting on the incident on Akuze.”
“At ease, Gunnery Chief.” Hackett walked over to the plasteel window and looked down on the figure on the table. “You can report in later, Shepard. Tell me, off the record, what happened.”
Arien leaned against the railing, deciding to treat this as an informal account she would give to Anderson or Hannah. “Ellie led the platoon on the recon mission. They missed their overnight check-in. I wanted to bring another squad down, but Anderson wanted to wait. When they missed their second check-in, I took a small team down and we found the camp destroyed. We thought it was slavers at first, but there was something wrong. I can’t pinpoint what was off about it – the destruction was typical of slavers,” she said, forcibly biting back ‘batarian bastards’, “but it was something else. It looked like someone had sprayed acid all over the camp. Before we could investigate, a giant worm-like thing just erupted out of the ground and started spitting acid. The acid got one of my men, but the rest of us managed to make it into the Mako.”
She would remember Enos’ dying screams as the acid ate away at his flesh until she died.
“It was a tough son of a bitch. After we got it, we found a second one just outside the camp, across from where we entered. We executed standard clean-up procedures, trying to sort through the scene. We found no survivors. And then Anderson called us with the location of the emergency beacon. It was six klicks outside the LZ on a plateau. We humped to it the beacon and found her.” She gestured towards her cousin. “Her leg – sir, there’s no word for it but mangled. She’d managed to fashion herself a crutch and she’d dragged herself six kilometers to get out of the range of the jamming device. She was severely dehydrated and she’d lost over a liter of blood. If she hadn’t managed to get the beacon on when she did, she wouldn’t be here, sir.”
“Hannah’s on her way, kid,” he said, patting her shoulder in what was probably meant to be a comforting fashion. “Hold on until she gets here. Do we need to have the medics take a look at you?”
She shook her head. “No, sir. I’m just tired. I – we didn’t bring a stretcher. I – uh – I levitated her. With my biotics, I mean.”
“You’ll both receive a Star of Terra for this one, Shepard. I’m also going to personally recommend you both for ICT. In the meantime, I’m putting you on convalescent leave. It’s not exactly regulation, but in the short time I’ve known you, you work better with her at your side than apart. Like peas in a goddamn pod, only she’s got a healthy respect for the regs.” Hackett smiled, and she figured maybe he didn’t hate her for her lack of respect for said regulations.
“You did good, kid,” he added with a brisk nod before leaving the room.
Alone in the theatre again, Arien risked a glance down at the table. Ellie’s normally pale skin was ghostly in the overhead lighting. A line of deep, bright red flowed from a bag into her arm: the blood Ari donated for Ellie’s transfusion. The white of her bone wasn’t visible any longer – instead it was covered by a line of neat, precise black stitches that crossed the top of her leg several times. Ari nearly gagged remembering the sour-sweet smell the leg had been giving off when they’d found Ellie.
For those first, tenuous hours, Ari had been sure that was the last sight she’d have of her cousin in life. After, she’d been afraid it was the last she’d see of Ellie’s leg – there had been serious concerns that she would lose it.
The medics and doctors weren’t saying much, but the damage had been extensive. Right now, Ari just hoped that Elliot would be able to walk again.
She didn’t know how long she stood there, watching as the surgeons turned their attention to the less life-threatening wounds, before Hannah Shepard arrived. The stately redhead wrapped Arien in a desperate hug.
“Have they told you anything?”
Arien shook her head. “You’re her emergency contact, Aunt Hannah. I’m related, but – well, regulations.” She all but spit the last word. Arien and Alliance Regulations often butted heads – her rather sketchy formal record was more than proof of that.
“My god,” Hannah breathed, looking down at her daughter. “They said she was injured – even critical – but I didn’t expect this. What happened?”
Arien repeated the story in a dull voice – she never wanted to relive the experience again, but she knew she’d have to at least once more; her report to Hackett hadn’t been official, after all, and the Alliance lived for their bureaucracy. By the end of it, Hannah was clutching her hand so hard that Ari was sure it would bruise.
The white-coated doctors filed out of the room below, and Ellie’s frighteningly still form was wheeled out. A lovely, silver-haired woman entered, and Arien recognized her as the doctor who had taken over as soon as Ellie was brought in. A taller, balding man stood behind her – the surgeon who’d stitched Elliot’s leg.
“Captain Shepard?” she asked, and Hannah nodded. “I’m Doctor Karen Chakwas.”
“Whatever you have to say, you can say in front of Arien,” she said, when the doctor hesitated with a glance at Ari.
“As you wish, Captain. Corporal Shepard suffered a compound fracture of the right tibia, as well as third-degree acid burns over approximately fifteen percent of her body. There were several other, smaller wounds as well. We’ve set the leg and inserted pins to ensure that it heals as correctly as possible, but even with physical therapy, it’s unlikely the leg will fully support her weight. Once she’s out of anesthesia, we’ll begin a procedure to regenerate the burned tissue, but she’ll likely bear some faint scarring from it. To be perfectly honest, Captain, your daughter was extremely lucky. Either of those injuries could and probably should have killed her, but Corporal Shepard is a very resilient woman.”
Hannah swayed and Arien reached out to support her, the doctor’s words breaking over her head like so many stormclouds. That was career-ending. Elliot might manage a desk job, but she’d never be the sniper she’d trained to be. Hackett’s ICT recommendation was wasted. Tears choked her as the surgeon introduced himself and went into Elliot’s treatment in more detail. It was all she could do to keep from vomiting as the man used words like ‘shattered’ in reference to Ellie’s leg.
“Thank you, Doctor Chakwas, Doctor Howard. I appreciate the lengths you’ve gone to for my daughter, but now I’d like to see her for myself.” Hannah’s voice was firm, but Ari could hear the waver in it.
“I’ll have someone escort you both down there. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Captain Shepard,” Chakwas said as kindly as possible. “I’ll be attending Corporal Shepard until her release into a rehabilitation facility, so please, take my card, and feel free to contact me with any questions you think of.”
Howard and Chakwas excused themselves and Hannah slumped against Ari. “She’s strong, Aunt Hannah. She’ll come through this.” The words rang hollow even to her own ears.
She and Elliot shared a birthday. Born literally hours apart, on two different worlds, they’d shared a video call every year on their birthday. They’d been thirteen when Elliot had told her cousin she was going to join the Alliance as soon as she could – that she wanted to be just like her mother when she grew up.
Tears pricked her eyes; Ellie would never get that chance.
As a nurse took them through the halls of the hospital on Arcturus, she silently promised Elliot that she would do it in her stead. Arien would become a Captain, become the N7 that Ellie had always wanted to be, since Ellie couldn’t.
Elliot Shepard’s recovery was slow. Her leg was fragile and her immune system was weakened by the strain put on it by the multitude of injuries she’d sustained. She’d been twenty-three when she’d stepped on the shuttle to Akuze. She was twenty-four before she could bear all of her weight on her right leg. And then only with a crutch.
Arien had to ship out before that, and after several missions that took her out of comm-range for days at a time, she requested a desk job on Arcturus for the interim. Hackett made it happen.
Clerical work in the medical wing wasn’t exactly what she’d planned for, but it did allow her to spend a lot of time with Ellie, which was the point of the exercise.
But it was finally time to go back into the field. She’d been antsy, sitting on her ass at a desk all these months, and she was more than ready to get back out there.
She took one last look at Ellie, propped up by crutches, and waved before boarding the ship that would take her to Earth, to the Villa, and to the most difficult training of her life.
It was the newly-minted Lieutenant’s twenty-fifth birthday. It would be a long three years, with limited communication to her family and even sparser visits, before she stepped back onto the deck-plating of Arcturus Station, a Staff Lieutenant with an N7 designation and rigid control of her emotions.
Control that broke upon seeing her cousin, walking in a stiff brace instead of the crutches Elliot had been using the last time they’d seen one another.
This chapter was written by Neph.