• Published 14th Feb 2015
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Mass Effect: Gathering Storm - Meluch

When a Prothean Beacon is unearthed on Eden Prime and a rogue Spectre starts a galactic manhunt begins. When the Elements of Harmony are found to be missing, a coming storm threatens to destroy everything.

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Chapter Thirty - Peak 15

Chapter Thirty - Peak 15
Noveria, Pax System, Horsehead Nebula
April 16, 2183 CE

Shepard woke to quiet knocking at her door, returning to wakefulness nearly instantly. Her bed was sweaty, and she her pajamas weren’t much better. Groaning, she laid their for a second, before there was another knock at the door.

“Yeah, yeah.” Rolling out of bed, Shepard stumbled to the door. Opening it, she found a young turian standing in the doorway, pushing a cart overflowing with covered trays. “Uh… Hello?”

“Good morning, Spectre,” the turian greeted her, his mandibles flaring in a smile. He was dressed in a bellhop’s uniform, perfectly pressed, with the hotel’s logo embroidered over the right breast. His talons were covered in white silk gloves, and there wasn’t a stain present on them anywhere. “The overseer thought a good breakfast before you set out would get all of you awake. We will set up in here, if that’s not a problem for you.”

“No…” Shepard blinked the sleep out of her eyes, her mind struggling to process what was happening. She cleared her throat, stepping aside. Her gut wasn’t warning her, and she had seen the security precautions the hotel took on the way in. There was no way that he was an assassin, nor was he trying to poison her or her crew. “I guess not?”

“Very good, ma’am.” The turian pushed the cart inside, and he was followed by several more waiters, two humans and an asari, pushing their own carts. Another pair of turians followed after them carrying two folding tables, silk table coverings draped over the tables. Shepard could only watch as they quickly and efficiently started to set up a buffet of quite delicious food.

Staring, Shepard took a breath, glancing down at what she was wearing. She was suddenly very glad that she decided to wear pajamas to bed. That could have been embarrassing.

Not that her ratty kitten pajamas were much better.

Shaking her head, Shepard turned and headed to the bathroom. She needed a shower, and she might as well get ready for the upcoming day.

While normally she could get in and out of the shower in less than five minutes (it was a necessity for a marine, much less an N7 Operator), but she’d taken the rare chance to luxuriate under the water with no rush to be anywhere, and it was heaven. From there, she’d taken the time to get her armored under-suit sitting just right. Even with the amount of money her’s had cost, it still chafed like the typical marine’s if you didn’t have the time to get it just right. Her hair, she just threw up into a loose bun. It was one of the few styles she could wear that looked good and didn’t hurt under her helmet.

Walking out of the bathroom, Riley felt lighter than she had in years. The luxury wasn’t something she needed, and she could always live with less, but it was always nice to act like a civilized being. She paused when she found most of her crew standing around her room, half of them holding plates and eating breakfast, the rest of them piling food onto their plates.

“Hi…” Shepard schooled the surprise from her face, standing straighter and holding her head high. Scootaloo called it her Commander pose. “When’d you all get here?”

Garrus looked up from what looked like a turian breakfast burrito, gesturing his thumb out the door of her room. “They said there was food.”

“Yeah.” Shepard walked over and looked over the tables. The human and equestrian food was instantly familiar. Eggs Benedict, quiche, crepes, and others. The asari plates were a bit more different, but it all smelled wonderfully delicious, making her stomach growl. The vast majority were aquatically based, with delicate fish and sauces drizzled over them. The turian breakfast (and quarian, by the simple fact that Tali could only eat dextro based foods) was much smaller, with only two dishes. There was the breakfast burritos that Garrus was eating, and a smaller dish of what might have passed for purple pumpkin slices on Earth. There were several pitchers of fresh squeezed orange juice, and pots of fresh coffee, imported directly from Hawaii.

Wrex had simply piled food from every tray onto his plate, amino acids be damned.

“Hey Riley!” Rainbow was in the middle of fitting a second egg into her mouth when she caught sight of her sister, waving. She tried to smile, but it didn’t go very well, with the two eggs in her mouth and everything. It actually came out more like, “Gfhuy Wiley.”

“Don't speak with your mouth full, Rainbow,” Riley reminded her as she took a plate for herself and piled it high. The one great thing about being a biotic was that she was able to eat pretty much whatever she wanted whenever she wanted. As a biotic, she could pretty much eat cake everyday all day and gain no weight. With the amount of power she could throw around, she burned through more calories than she really wanted to think about. She had used that ability more than a few times to make Rainbow jealous, stuffing donuts in her mouth while complaining about how much weight she was losing.

“What?” Rainbow cocked her head, raising an eyebrow before realizing what she was talking about. “Oh!” Rainbow swallowed both eggs practically un-chewed in a feat of immaturity that would not have been unheard of from their little sister, who was only seven. “Sorry.”

“Real classy there,” Riley said with a scoff as she put one of the nicer looking asari dishes on her plate. “You’re not a filly anymore.”

“Yeah, you're one to talk.” Rainbow pulled her plate closer, starting on her crepes, which had a rather larger than normal helping of whipped cream piled on top of it. She was just waiting for the moment to tell one of Riley’s more embarrassing stories. There were more than a few, and she’d listed them categorically from: ‘Riley mildly annoyed me,’ to, ‘Oh you didn’t, and I’m going to make you wish you hadn’t forgotten that I know everything about you, and yes, I just went there.’

Rainbow was very aware that her list needed work, and she planned to work on it.

Riley just rolled her eyes, picking at her plate, but then Liara walked in. She blushed, turning away from the asari. Liara didn’t even notice, saying her soft greetings to everyone in the room before walking over to the table.

She looked over the food, gingerly picking at what she didn't recognize, but she was an archeologist and all for trying new things! She had one of her PhDs in anthropology, and while she was sure that her professors weren’t speaking about alien breakfasts, but that didn’t matter.

As it was, she wasn’t going to rely completely on dishes she had no familiarity with and took a bit of crab porridge from Armali, just to be familiar.

“That looks appetizing,” Riley said, sidling up to Liara. The asari jumped in surprise at her sudden appearance. “Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s alright,” Liara said, a purple blush on her face. She glanced at the crab porridge and answered her question. “And no, it doesn’t look at all appetizing, but it tastes quite delicious.”

“Try the crepes. They’re delicious.” Riley took a bite of her own, savoring the burst of strawberry in her mouth and the Nutella filling. It was pretty much a desert masquerading as a breakfast, but she didn’t really care. Biotic, after all.

Riley blinked in surprise as Liara took her fork and stole a bite of the crepe from her plate. She watched as Liara’s eyes widened in delight at the taste.

“It’s good!” She said around the mouthful. She was quick to get one for herself, ignoring the dopey grin on Riley’s face. “I think I’ll have one for myself.”

“You’re giving me a toothache, Shepard.” Wrex said, going back for fourths. He could eat enough for five humans.

Breakfast had lasted nearly an hour, and everyone had split off to get armored up before meeting in Shepard’s room ten minutes later to head down to the garage together. They were met in the hotel’s lobby by a Hyland-Sorah security guard, an asari by the name of Malitia Atevus. Wearing the uniform of a captain (and boy did it rankle that private security had better uniforms than the Alliance), she led them to the garage and towards a pair of humans working on an M30 Grizzly painted black and grey.

The M30 Grizzly was a vast upgrade over the older M29, though it hadn’t received as widespread a deployment as its predecessor or the M35 Mako. Built for long hauls, it had the capability to comfortably house ten soldiers for a week without any support. It was outfitted with a cannon that was most often attached to frigates, capable of erasing almost anything it could encounter on the battlefield out of existence.

Though it was too big to fit on most Alliance ships, the M30 was still outfitted with jump jets for atmospheric insertions. Only dreadnoughts and cruisers were capable of carrying them, and because they weren’t capable of entering atmospheres, the builders of the M30 had had no other choice but to make it space ready.

“Mr. Weyland is our top mechanic,” Malitia said, gesturing towards the older of the two humans. “He'll get you settled and prepped for the ride.”

“Thank you.” Shepard shifted her helmet to under her other arm so she could shake Malitia’s hand. The way she held herself screamed dangerous, and Shepard was glad that she wasn’t going to have to fight her.

“It was my pleasure, Spectre Shepard,” the asari said before turning and leaving the garage.

“Alright people.” Turning to her team, Shepard pointed towards the Grizzly. The back was open and waiting for them, and Mr. Weyland and the other human looked like they had finished up with the preparations. “Get loaded up. We’re leaving in ten.”

Without any protest, the team lined up to load into the Grizzly before going to speak with the mechanic. Seeing her coming over, he straightened up to greet her, a flash of recognition in his eyes when he sees her. “Well, well, well. The first human Spectre, showing up in my garage? What are the odds?”

“Considering that you're the one with the key to the wheels I need, I'd say the odds were pretty damn high.” Shepard tapped her fingers on her helmet, eying Mr. Weyland. He was maybe sixty, his hair just starting to go grey, but with the gene-mods out there, he was probably only a third through his life. He was just old enough though that he might not have received any, or refused.

“A Spectre with humor?” Weyland laughed in amusement. “Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You meet many Spectres here?” Shepard leaned forward, interested to hear his response. Extremely interested.

“A few.” Weyland shrugged, far more cagey than he had been a moment ago.

“Saren Arterius?” Shepard asked, watching his response carefully.

“Big bastard, isn’t he?” Weyland smirked, and Shepard had all the answers she needed.

“He's giving me a lot of headaches,” Shepard said diplomatically, glancing away, though she didn’t let him out of her peripheral vision.

“That's better than normal,” Weyland said, laughing. “Usually he leaves people with a hole through their skull.”

“He tried.” Shepard shrugged.

“And you're still here?” Weyland sounded more than impressed. Shepard swore that there was actually a little bit of awe in his voice.

“Nukes just aren't as scary as they used to be.” It wasn’t really an answer, but Shepard wasn’t sure that she wanted to give him one. You never knew who might be working where.

“Sounds like quite the story.” His voice filled with curiosity, Weyland sounded eager. Too eager.

“Classified, I'm afraid.”

“Too bad.” Rubbing his hands on a rag thrown over his shoulder, Weyland looked more than a little disappointed.

“She’s good to go?” Shepard glanced back at the Grizzly. It looked every bit the beast it was named for.

“As well as it can be.” Weyland shrugged in as little of an apology as he could give. Noveria was brutal in the way few environments were, and as much as you could try to acclimatize a vehicle for weather, there was only so much you could do. “There aren't really any high capacity vehicles designed for this environment. As long as you don't let anything freeze over, you should be fine, even with the storm.”

“Don't let the big tank freeze, or we all die. Got it.” As part of her N training, Shepard had gone through cold weather training and graduated with top marks. She knew how to work in environments like Noveria. It was her job, after all.

“That's about right,” Weyland said, nodding. Pointing at the Grizzly, he put his hands in his pockets. “It's got supplies for a week off the grid, though I'd suggest not getting to the point where that's needed. Just follow the computer, and it'll take you right to Peak 15.”

“After a leisurely drive through a storm that could freeze you or me solid in under a minute.” Rolling her eyes, Shepard did her best to not laugh.

“Sure, there's that, but you don't seem like a woman who's afraid of a little chill.”


“Just put your hand here,” Weyland said, holding up his datapad, a handprint directly in the middle, “and I’ll give you command access to the Grizzly.”

Shepard did as he asked and the datapad scanned her handprint. As soon as it was done, Weyland typed in a few commands, and just like that, the Grizzly belonged to Shepard.

“Wish I could come with you.” Putting his datapad back in its holder at his belt, Weyland clapped his hands together. “There’s nothing like a Noverian storm. They're fun.”

“You've got a strange definition of fun.” Even as an N7, driving in Noveria wasn’t her idea of a good time. It was dangerous in the extreme, and her job was to mitigate danger when possible, stacking the odds as much in her favor as possible.

Finished, Weyland and the other technician headed towards the warmth of the interior garage. Shepard watched them go before walking over to the Grizzly, climbing up the ladder into the interior.

Stepping inside, Shepard had to pause and take in the ridiculous luxury of the Grizzly. It definitely wasn’t stock, she was sure of that. The Alliance would never put in the amount of upgrades that she was seeing. The perks of working for a private company with a higher GDP than some planets that were out there, it seemed. Everywhere she looked she found the Hyland-Sorah logo.

The inside of the Grizzly was spacious, considering that it was a vehicle meant to take a hell of a pounding, and to dish out more than it ever would take. The armor was starship grade, and had probably cost more than she ever wanted to imagine. Holo-screens lined the walls, and everything was painted in orange, black, and grey.

Lining the interior of the rear cabin were eight chairs, four on each side. They faced inwards, and were self-molding to their occupants body, cushioning as much as they restrained. The fatality rates for vehicles with such seats were noticeably lower compared to the bucket seats that were standard in the Alliance. They were upholstered in orange, and the seat-belts were linked metal, painted matte black.

Tali, Liara, and Rainbow were already buckled in. Rainbow was busy playing a game on her omni-tool, while Liara was fiddling with the straps on her chair.

“Hey, Liara,” Shepard said, catching her attention. “Don’t mess with it.”

“What?” Liara blinked, looking up at Shepard in surprise. It took her a moment to work through what she had said. “Oh.”

“Who buckled you in?” The buckles weren’t a simple construction, and they were far more complicated than they had any right to be. That was the military for you.

“Oh! Yes, Chief Williams helped me.” Liara looked thankful, but a little confused.

“Then you're good.” Shepard patted Liara on the shoulder. “Don’t mess with them.”

“It’s too tight,” Liara said, scowling at the buckles.

“That's the way you want it.” Shepard resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Civilians were never any good with the military way of things. Life was soft for those who had never served, and she struggled to remember what that was like. It felt like so long ago that she had had sleepovers with Twilight and Rainbow. It seemed like an eternity. “Any looser, and you're liable to break yourself if we get in a fire fight.”

Liara paled at that and immediately let go of the straps.

“Don’t worry!” Shepard laughed, shaking her head. “We all know what we’re doing. We won’t let anything happen to you. It’ll be like a road trip.”

“Road trip?” Her nose scrunching up in confusion, Liara glanced at Tali and Rainbow to see if they knew what Riley was talking about.

“Ugh!” Rainbow groaned, burying her face in her hooves. “Road trips are the worst.”

“I don't have any idea what the two of you are talking about either.” Tali said as much to Liara as to Shepard and Rainbow. She looked at the two of them, waiting for an answer.

“Right,” Shepard nodded, looking at them. She laughed, glancing at Rainbow. “Quarian and Asari. I guess its more of a human... and Equestrian thing.”

“What is a road trip?” Liara asked again.

“Well…” Shepard thought for a moment, trying to figure out what to say. She bit her lip, shifting her helmet to under her other arm. It got heavy every so often, and was unwieldy when it wasn’t attached to anything other than her head. “It’s a vacation. You get in a car, and it has to be a car, not a shuttle or anything that doesn't ride on at least four wheels, and you stuff it full of your family and/or friends, and you head off to some distant location.”

Liara frowned, thinking about that, and not quite getting the appeal. She raised a brow, her nose still rather scrunched. “And… that’s it?”

“Yep.” Shepard popped the last syllable.

“I don't see the appeal.” Tali shook her head, wondering just what was wrong with humans.

“Nobody does.” Rainbow agreed, already back to playing her game. Though she’d only gone on one road trip with Riley before she shipped off to bootcamp, it had been a struggle for everyone involved. “They're the worst.”

“Buck up there, sister,” Shepard clapped Rainbow on the shoulder, laughed. “Cause you're stuck with all us crazy folk till we reach Peak 15, where we'll probably face something that's intent on killing all of us, or eating our faces.”

“I like my face where it is, Shepard.” Tali stared at Shepard, deadly serious.

“Don't we all.” With that done, Shepard headed further into the Grizzly, out of the main cabin. She hit the button to close the door as she went, sealing it up tight.

Coming out of the rear cabin and into the gun compartment, Shepard found Garrus and Ashley calibrating the guns to their own liking.

The gun compartment of the M30 Grizzly was a marvel of engineering and mathematically perfect thanks to the salarian design team that had helped designed them. It was able to freely swivel three-hundred sixty degrees, allowing the massive cannon on top to fire in virtually every direction. That didn’t include five feet around the entire vehicle, but that was mostly thanks to the fact that the turret couldn’t lower far enough.

Garrus had claimed the main gun for himself, while Ashley had taken control of the four smaller mini-guns recessed into the Grizzly's body. They were capable of raising up, providing complete cover to the Grizzly from anyone who might try to approach the tank, taking up the slack that the main cannon couldn’t protect from.

“You two are certainly getting cozy.” Shepard had to duck under Garrus’ chair, which was suspended from the ceiling, as she made her way towards the pilot compartment.

“If the Alliance knew how to calibrate their guns, I wouldn't have to change anything, would I?” There was a tone of long suffering in Garrus’ voice. He was so deep inside the operating systems for the cannon that Shepard wasn’t even quite sure of what he was doing.

“This isn't an Alliance Grizzly, Vakarian.” Ashley was actually offended, and Shepard had to keep herself from laughing.

“No?” Garrus hit the Systems Alliance logo engraved into the arm rest of his chair. It might have been retrofitted by Hyland-Sorah, but it still bore the remnants of its previous owners.

“The Alliance sells its surplus—“ Ashley tried to explain, but Garrus interrupted her.

“So you're acknowledging that it's an Alliance tank?” Garrus asked, peering down from his seat to look at her. Ashley just glanced up at him, her expression somewhere between a glare and a scowl.

“Well…” Searching for words, Ashley found herself losing the argument and didn’t at all like what she was saying.

“And because it's an Alliance tank,” Garrus continued, ignoring Ashley’s frustration. “We can both agree that the guns haven't been calibrated correctly in at least a year.”

“You sound excited, Garrus.” Shepard wasn’t at all invested in Ashley’s argument, nor did she actually care about protecting the Systems Alliance.

“Not excited…” Garrus frowned, thinking about it, before going right back on what he’d said. “Okay, that's a lie. I find it relaxing. The guns should be ready by the time we find ourselves in need of them.”

“And if we tried to fire now?” Shepard asked, suddenly worried.

“We'd be throwing rounds down range with a ten percent deviation from the expected target.”

“Ten percent?” Shepard boggled at that. For the amount of money Hyland-Sorah put into upgrading the tank, you’d think that they’d want to make sure their guns could hit what they fired at. With a ten percent deviation, you might as well be shooting a gun blindfolded.

“Bunch of slackers,” Ashley said, snorting and shaking her head.

“I want these guns in working order, Chief.” Shepard scoffed. At least that was something the Alliance could do. “Make it happen.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am.”

Shepard continued on.

Stepping through the door into the pilot’s compartment, Shepard smiled at the massive holoscreen that wrapped around the front of the Grizzly. It gave the illusion that you were sitting there in the open air, and was one of the perks of the Grizzly over the Mako. The Mako simply had a thick window that wrapped around the front, making the driver rely more on their instruments their own vision. Instruments were always a good thing, but sight had its advantages.

Shepard paused when she found Wrex sitting in the copilots seat, while Kaidan was sitting at the navigations spot off and to the side on the right.

“You can drive, Wrex?” Shepard asked, leaning against the pilot seat.

“A krogan who doesn't learn how to drive growing up on Tuchanka ends up food for a Maw.” He mimed a car being eaten with his hands, crunching and grinding an invisible car between his palms.

“Lovely little world you have there, Wrex.”

Wrex laughed as Shepard slid into the pilots seat, setting her helmet on the stand next to her chair.

“No, it's not. It’s an irradiated ball of death and fury.”

“You really want us to do this, Commander?” Kaidan asked, his nervousness clear in his voice. He turned in his chair, meeting her gaze.

“What?” Shepard buckled herself into her chair, settling into the comfort of her chair. It was surprisingly nice. “Taking a nice leisurely drive? Who wouldn't want any part of that.”

“This is Spectre Shepard. We’re ready to depart for Peak 15.” Shepard activated the comms, speaking to whoever was on the controls.

Through the holoscreen, the three of them watched as the garage door opens. They could see the moment that the warm air was frozen in its place and snow whipped inside, lashing against the Grizzly. They could't hear anything from inside.

Bringing up the controls and swiveling them around to a comfortable place for her, Shepard started the Grizzly, the power reactor activating underneath the gun cabin.

“You have the coordinates, Lieutenant?” Shepard asked over her shoulder.

“Yes, ma’am.” Sure enough, a quick look confirmed that Kaidan had the map pulled up on his holoscreen, separate from the main one in the pilot compartment.

“Make sure we don't get lost,” Shepard warned him, giving him a quick glare. “Consider that an order. None of us really want to get lost out here.”

“If we do,” Wrex said, meeting Kaidan’s gaze. Kaidan shifted uncomfortably at what he saw. “I’ll eat you.”

Kaidan blanched at that. Shepard glared at Wrex, but he just laughed. He simply didn’t care. When you got to a certain age (964, thanks for asking) you simply gave up caring.

“Right.” Turning back, Shepard throttled forward. “Let's get this show on the road.”

“I hate road trips.” Wrex crossed his arms, scowling.

The Grizzly entered the storm. For a moment, the wind threatened to toss it over, but after a moment fighting against it, it steadied. Shepard pulled onto the mountain road, and started the long journey towards Peak 15, past Port Hanshan.

Before taking her own seat, Liara had taken the chance to peek into the other two compartments of the Grizzly, and she was glad that she wasn’t needed anywhere but the rear cabin. Seeing Riley had made her feel bouncy, for lack of a better word, but that feeling had left rather quickly as soon as they had left the smooth pavement of the garage for the icy road to Peak 15. Liara gripped the arm rests of her chair, wincing at each bump and jostle of the tank. She clenched her eyes shut, scared out of her mind.

“There’s not really any reason to be so afraid,” Rainbow said, still playing the game on her omni-tool. Liara was rather put out to find that she wasn’t visibly affected by the Grizzly's uneven movements.

“That's easy for you to say.” Liara clenched her eyes shut as they went over another rather large bump, and she could’ve sworn that they got some air. “You’re a pegasus. You're used to storms.”

“Yeah, pushing them around.” Rainbow scoffed, rolling her eyes and shutting off her game. She was a Wonderbolt, and she’d flown in some of the worst storms that the weather factory could produce for training. The bouncing of the Grizzly was nothing but a nice excuse for a nap. Not that she’d tell Liara that. She felt an evil grin spread in her mind, and she decided to mess with the Asari. “It’s not really the same as sitting in a tin can while my big sister does her best to drive us off a cliff.”

Rainbow got exactly the reaction she was looking for when Liara squeaked and sunk further into her seat.

“Shepard isn't going to drive us off a cliff.” Tali tried to reassure her, but it didn’t really do any good.

“Easy for you to say. You haven't lived with her.” There was some truth to that. Rainbow had had more than a few close encounters with death as a passenger stuck with Riley driving.

“We’ll be fine, Liara.” Tali reached out, taking Liara's hand, patting it comfortingly. Tali almost immediately regretted that when the asari gripped it so hard it felt like her bones were cracking. “The Commander knows what she's doing.”

“Of course she does,” Liara managed to say through gritted teeth. She let go of Tali’s hand when the quarian did her best to pry it away.

Rainbow laughed at that, but a glare from Tali (and how she knew it was a glare no one would ever be able to say) shut her up. Rainbow sighed instead, her ears pinning back against her head. “She’s not going to drive us off a cliff. This isn’t really that bad, and it could be a lot worse. She didn’t make Commander for no reason.”

“Yes…” Liara looked up at the ceiling of the Grizzly, praying to the goddess that it would all be over soon. That prayer of course, would go unanswered as they had a full day of driving before they arrived at Peak 15. “Yes. I’m sure you're right.”

“Her crashing isn't what you need to be worrying about.” Rainbow said.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Liara spun to look at Rainbow, her eyes wide.

Rainbow just smirked and went back to playing her game. Liara looked to Tali for clarification, but the quarian just shrugged in response. Sighing, Liara settled back into her seat, closing her eyes and praying again to the goddess that the journey would be over as quickly as possible.

The upside that made Noveria so valuable to the companies that preformed their highly dangerous experimental work was also what made it so difficult to get anywhere. The freezing cold kept any containment breaches from getting much further from the front door of the facility, and there had never been a wide scale planetary breach. On a smaller scale, facilities had been lost and purged, but that was simply the fact of doing business.

The Grizzly was simply not made for the type of temperatures that ravaged the planet, and it took all of Shepard’s skills and more than a little bit of help from Garrus and Ashley to keep it from freezing over. That would have been as good as a death sentence.

As it was, the drive wasn’t at all pleasant. It took all of her concentration, and even then, she felt exhausted after just three hours of driving. Wrex took over from there, and though she’d never admit it, he was a better driver than her. It was just his age and the amount of time he had to practice she reassured herself.

They took to switching off every three hours, using the time in between to rest and prepare for doing it all over again. The visibility was practically zero and they were relying on the navigation to guide them down the winding roads safely, and at a crawl only three-fourths the speed Shepard would have preferred.

Shepard took the chance lunch in the rear cabin with Liara, Tali, and Rainbow during one of her breaks. When they had found what had been packed for their meal, they had all wondered at just who the company was trying to impress. Lunch was prime rib with mashed potatoes and green beans, with a hay burger substitution for Rainbow, and a turian dish for Tali and Garrus. It was a far cry from the military rations that they were all used to, much less the decontaminated food paste that was Tali’s regular meal.

After lunch and a short nap, Shepard had returned to the pilot’s compartment where she took over from Wrex to give him a chance to eat.

The drive marched on, and it took every bit of her concentration to keep them safe on the icy mountain road. Pavement was impossible to maintain in such conditions, and the original builders hadn’t even bothered. They’d just blasted a pathway into the mountain and did their best to make it relatively level. It was a constant battle to keep it from disappearing into the snow and ice.

As they got closer to Port Hanshan, Shepard tried to make contact. There were no responses, and the Port was completely silent. She had debated whether or not she wanted to stop and investigate, but they were racing against time. Matriarch Benezia could leave at any moment, and that simply wasn’t an option. With no other choice, and an odd feeling of worry in the pit of her stomach, they continued on past and onto the main road to Peak 15.

The road to Peak 15 was even worse than the one to Port Hanshan. It hadn’t been cleared in the past week and the snow had already begun to form drifts too big for the Grizzly to plow through. They were forced to an even slower crawl as they had to navigate around them, threading the winding road towards the base of the mountain, heading down while praying they wouldn’t fall off the side.

It was Wrex’s turn to drive, and he was doing a rather impressive job, considering that the holo-screen was practically completely white from the falling snow whipping against the front of the Grizzly. Shepard was buckled into her seat, though she was as relaxed as she could be with the tightness of the restraints. She was keeping a careful eye on the status of the tank. The hydraulics were getting a bit too close to freezing for her comfort.

Her mind wasn’t fully on her task though. She glanced at Wrex, tapping her fingers against her armored leg. “Spanish… Really?”

“Si.” Wrex looked at her and cracked a warm smile.

“Huh.” Shepard nodded, thinking that over. She couldn’t help but ask another question. “You don't speak french, do you?”

Wrex didn’t answer right away, turning back to the holoscreen. He laughed, grinning as he glanced back at her. “I know a Thessian language from an island called Nefrane that would make any frenchman blush.”

“You're just full of surprises, aren't you?” Shepard wondered just what other secrets Wrex was hiding. He’d seen more than she even wished to think about. There was every chance that he’d been alive at the same time that Pope Celestine III called for a third crusade.

That was certainly hard to wrap her head around.

“I'm picking up something strange on the scanners.” Kaidan spoke up from behind her. There was a hitch in his voice, and he sounded nervous.

“What is it, Alenko?” Shepard glanced back at Kaidan, sitting up straighter, getting ready for anything.

“I’ve got missile lock!” Kaidan shouted, his eyes widening in surprise.

Without even a second of hesitation, Shepard instantly transferred the Grizzly’s controls back to herself, pushing its speed to the limit.

“Three missiles incoming, Commander.” Kaidan warned her, switching his console away from navigations to scanning. He transferred a copy of his console to Shepard’s secondary screen.

“Garrus, Chief! We’ve got missiles incoming,” Shepard warned them. Taking in more information than seemed humanly possible, Shepard spun the Grizzly around and forced it to drive backwards just in time to see three missiles streak just past the front of the tank.

“We see them, Shepard.” Garrus’ voice crackled over the comms, just as the big gun opened fire, followed by the point defense mini-guns. One explosion! Two!

A third missile struck the Grizzly’s shields, knocking the tank off balance, onto one set of wheels before it crashed back down with a solid thump.

“Shit!” Shepard pulled the controls to the right, forcing the Grizzly back onto all its wheels.

“Hah!” Wrex laughed, more than happy to be under fire. It wasn’t a fun time until there were at least three explosions. That included included weddings. “Now this is what I signed up for.”

“What's shooting at us, LT?” Shepard asked, her voice having grown deathly cold.

“It looks like missile emplacements are hidden on the mountain side.” Kaidan swore when he realized the extent of the problem facing them. “There’s a good chance they’re lining the rest of the road, ma’am. It’s what I’d do, and they’ve certainly had the time.”

“Garrus, you hear that?” Shepard asked into the comms. “Take them out before they even know we’re here.”

“Got it, Shepard,” Garrus responded.

“Take them out. Make me proud.” With no time to shut the comms off, Shepard weaved the Grizzly around another pair of incoming missiles as Garrus and Ashley opened fire. In the distance, one of the missile emplacements exploded in a brilliant burst of fire and sparks, visible even through the thick snow. Driving through the mountain had suddenly become a deft ballet where a single misstep would result in death for all of them.

Wrex crossed his arms, already bored with the whole ordeal. Explosions were fun, sure, but with nothing for him to do, he can only watch in disinterest as a missile flew by less than an inch in front of the window.

He just grunted in annoyance, crossing his arms and resting his head back. “Wake me when its over.” Smacking his lips together, he let out an impressively loud snore.

“Wha…” Shepard glanced over at Wrex, then back at the road, then back at him, completely incredulous. “Are… Are you taking a nap.”

“Shut up,” Wrex said grumbling, turning away from Shepard. “I’m sleeping.”

Shepard didn't know at all how to react to that, and instead just focused back on her driving.

In the distance, another one of the missile emplacements exploded, and Shepard cracked a grin. “Nice shot, Garrus.”

Shepard paused for a moment, time seeming to slow down around her. She could have sworn that she saw the individual snowflakes as they flew past her. Looking over, a thought lodged itself in her mind. It was a quiet thought, but it stuck there. Biting her lip, she pondered that thought, and it turned into a plan.

Time sped up and Shepard spun the Grizzly to the left and sped up even more, pushing the Grizzly into the redlines.

“Uh…” Kaidan glanced at Shepard, then at his monitor, then back at Shepard and out the holoscreen. “Shepard, the road is that way.”

“I see it.” Shepard said, her voice as calm as could be.

Kaidan waited a moment for Shepard to turn back to the road and the incoming missiles that were flying right at them. Of the two options that Kaidan saw, he was much happier with the missile filled one. “Uh… Shepard.”

“Yeah?” Shepard asked, glancing at him with a smile on her face.

“What are you doing?” Kaidan sounded like he wanted out of the Grizzly as quickly as possible.

“Shortcut,” was all that Shepard said.

With no other preamble or ceremony, Shepard drove off the side of the mountain with the smile still on her face.

The tightness of the restraints kept her from shifting at all in her seat, and she kept her hands over the controls. She grinned as the screams of everyone in the Grizzly wafted their way up to the pilot's cabin. Everyone that is, but Wrex. He just shifted in his seat (restraints be damned) and snored louder in protest.

The Grizzly fell and fell and fell, and then Shepard fired the jump jets. Everyone was jerked back into their seat as their slowed dramatically, before settling onto the ground.

The screaming continued, even as Shepard drove a few more feet forward, stopping just before the entrance of Peak 15, and the burning wreckage of a Mako.

“Hello there, this is your Commander speaking. I’d like to thank everyone for flying Shepard air. Please keep all arms and legs inside the vehicle until the fasten seatbelt sign turns off. Thank you, and welcome to Peak 15.” Activating her comms, Shepard shut off the Grizzly.

Shepard turns the comms back off and hit Wrex in the shoulder. “Wake up, Wrex. We’re there.”

“You’re a worse driver than I am.” Wrex grunted, cracking an eye and glancing up at her.

“I like to think of it as efficiency.” Shepard said with a shrug. Unbuckling, she climbed out of her seat and picked up her helmet from next to her. She paused when she noticed that Kaidan was stuck to his seat, his knuckles white as he stared right ahead at his monitor, seeing straight through it. “You okay there, Alenko?”

He just groaned, a pitiful sound that was halfway between a death rattle and a thankful prayer that he was still alive.

“LT?” Shepard asked again, giggling at his reaction.

“I…” Kaidan pulled his fingers from his armrests, glancing up at her. His face was paler than normal, and his pupils were tiny. “I’m fine, ma’am."

“Yeah, good.” Shepard clapped him on the shoulder. “We're here. Come on, let's get going. We've got a job to do.”

Shepard left the pilot cabin as both Kaidan and Wrex started to get out of their seats, Kaidan far more shaky and scared and the Krogan.

Stepping into the gun compartment, Shepard found Garrus and Ashley struggling to get their bearings, though they were both doing a lot better than Kaidan. Ashley looked like she couldn’t decide whether or not she had enjoyed the fall, or wanted to throw up.

“Shepard…” Garrus started, his voice surprisingly calm considering. Shepard wondered whether the Hierarchy gave training in appearing unflappable. “A warning would be appreciated before you drive us off mountains.”

“What? A warning?” She scoffed, waving a hand at them and rolling her eyes. “That'd take away all the fun.”

“I'm all for sudden mortal terror as the next marine, Commander,” Ashley chimed in, her voice full of the shakiness that Garrus had managed to school out of his, “but I'm with the Turian on this one.”

“Deal with it, Chief,” Shepard said, not at all caring about what they were saying. “I made a command decision, and you will grin and say thank you, ma’am.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Ashley rolled her eyes. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Come on. Get moving.” Before they had a chance to respond, she was walking through to the rear cabin, only to pause when she found that Liara had thrown up all over the floor. Rainbow was already unbuckled from her seat and rubbing her back, and Tali was trying to get her to drink a cup of water.

“You okay there, Liara.” Shepard asked, looking at the Asari worriedly.

Liara just groaned in response, holding her belly and looking rather more purple than normal.

“I think I speak for all of us, Shepard,” Tali said, looking up at her, “when I say that we are requesting you never drive ever again.”

“You enjoyed it. Don’t lie, Tali.” Shepard stepped over the mess of half digested prime rib on the floor, the knelt down next to Liara. She patted her knee. “Take deep breaths, Liara. You’re fine. I’m fine. None of us died, and we got where we needed to go at least five hours early, while neatly overstepping all of the missiles on the road we so neatly sidestepped.”

“Some warning would have been appreciated.” Liara looked up at Shepard, glaring up at her, though there was no real bite behind it.

“I'll keep that in mind.” Shepard smiled apologetically, standing to her full height and sealing her helmet on over her head. “Now come on. Your mom is waiting.”

“Yes, of course.” Liara nodded, taking a deep breath. She reminded herself why she was here: to try and save her mother, and that was more important than her mild discomfort at a sudden drop without any warning. “You’re right, Shepard.”

“I’m ready.” She picked up her own helmet and put it on her head, carefully easing it over her crest.

As the door lowered at the rear of the Grizzly, Shepard was hit by a wave of air far below freezing that cut its way through her armor and her under-suit, and she felt goose flesh popped up all over her body. She shivered, then jumped out of the back of the tank, her gun at the ready. Ashley and Garrus were the next out after her, covering her blind spots as Shepard took a few steps forward towards the entrance. The garage next to it was torn to pieces, revealing the interior airlock was burning inside.

Motioning her team forward, she lead them towards the first garage door. The hole was more than wide enough to walk through and they might as well use it if it was there.

Shepard was the first inside, and Ashley and Garrus helped her clear the room before motioning for the rest of them to follow. It was empty, save for the lingering remnants of the signs of life that filled it.

“Williams, get the door.” Shepard gestured towards the controls for the two sets of garage doors, interior and exterior.

Following the order, Ashley headed up to the controls while the rest of the team stacked up against the walls, providing clear lines of fire into every area of the room beyond. After a glance from Shepard, Garrus made sure to put himself between Liara and the second door. He was already at the back of the group, his sniper rifle out and his breathing steady.

Looking at Ashley, Shepard motioned for her to hit the controls, and she hit the button. With a groan, the door started sliding upwards, letting out a wave of warm air that began to fight a losing battle against the below freezing temperatures of the outside that was already leaking in.

The room beyond was completely dark, and their helmets automatically activated infrared vision with overlays of the room beyond. Unlike the older twenty-first century optics that used to be so common, the modern optics integrated into every helmet the Alliance issued wrapped the wearer in near three-hundred sixty degrees of vision, making it easy and even comfortable to use without the narrow fields of view that plagued older generations.

They stormed into the room, nearly silent, Garrus hanging back to provide covering fire.

It only took a moment to confirm that there wasn't anyone or anything waiting to ambush them.

“Stay frosty,” Shepard murmured over the comms, then motioned for Ashley to follow her up the staircase leading to the decontamination chamber and the welcoming area. It was up a small flight of stairs and a long walkway suspended over the ground.

It was quiet. Too quiet.

Something had gone terribly wrong, and Shepard thought for a moment that she could hear the building itself screaming in protest.

Reaching the end of the hall, they stared at the door leading into decon.

Ashley looked to Shepard, waiting for her signal to open the door, her shotgun at the ready. As Garrus and Wrex stacked up behind Shepard, she nodded at Ashley.

Stepping forward, she activated the door, and it slid open instantly.

What met them on the inside was not what they were expecting. The walls were coated with a dark, dripping resin, green so deep it was almost black, arranged in strange, alien patterns spreading everywhere. The forms of what might have been guns had been toppled over, covered over by the resin on the floor.

“What the hell?” Ashley recoiled, jumping back as she raised her shotgun.

“Quiet,” Shepard barked, her own rifle raising up. She glanced back to see Liara and Tali hanging back at the edge of the stairs, Rainbow hovering over them. She gestured them forward. “Liara. Up here.”

“Yes?” Liara ran up to get to Shepard's side, eager to please in whatever way she could.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” It was a long shot, but if anyone was going to be familiar with the weird and the unfamiliar, it would be the archeologist who visited the worlds on the fringes of the galaxy.

Liara looked in at the decon room and frowned. Shepard could imagine her nose wrinkling in disgust under her helmet as she shook her head. “No. Never.”

Looking into the room, Wrex shifted uncomfortably, then reached into a pouch at his belt and pulled out his marker. He stepped forward catching everyone’s attention. “Everyone hold out their arms.”

“Not now, Wrex,” Shepard said, waving him back.

“Yes, now, Shepard.” Wrex stepped right into her personal space, holding the marker up and uncapping it. “We're doing this.”

“You going to explain why?” Shepard asked, looking at Wrex and then his marker.

“Just a hunch.” He didn’t say anything further, nor did her lower his marker.

Shepard looked at him, and she saw the depth of his convictions. She didn’t at all understand it, but her gut told her to go along with it. “… Alright.”

Holding out her left arm, Shepard let Wrex take it and he made a mark on the underside of her pauldron. She motioned for the rest of them to do the same, and though they might’ve grumbled about it, they did as Shepard ordered.

“We good, Wrex?” She asked as soon as they were done, Shepard met his gaze again.

“Yeah.” Capping his marker, Wrex pulled his shotgun back out.

“Alright. Now that we’ve all got our Krogan tats, let's move, people.” Shepard stepped into the decon room, moving to the interior door’s control. “Stick close, and no wandering off.”

Shepard hit the activation button and it slid open with a groan of protest. Shepard and Ashley were the first through, and the others followed after them. Like the deco room, the hall beyond was covered in more of the creeping resin, dripping a clear slime, and it looked incredibly muggy, almost tropical. Beads of condensation slid down the wall, dripping to the floor below.

One of the ways was completely blocked off by a wall of resin (and a quick look revealed that it led to the decon controls), and the other led to an elevator.

Stepping forward, they found that the elevator was already waiting for them. It wa too small for the entire team to cram into.

“Ashley, Wrex, with me,” Shepard said, looking back at her team. After a moment of grumbling, they crammed into the elevator, Wrex taking up most of the space. There was only a single floor that the elevator allowed them to go to. “We'll hold the elevator and wait for you to come after us. We'll signal if its safe.”

“Aye, aye, ma’am,” Kaidan said, taking up a defensive position towards the decon room.

The elevator doors closed, leaving Kaidan, Garrus, Tali, Liara, and Rainbow alone in the hall. Liara shifted uncomfortably and moved closer to the middle of the group. There was something wrong with the entire situation, but she couldn’t say what it was. It made her scalp itch, and she wanted to get as far away from Noveria as she could.

“I don't like it here,” Tali murmured, shifting on her feet as she tapped the sides of her shotgun.

No one answered her. They waited for Shepard's signal, their heads on a constant swivel, guns at the ready.

A deathly screech echoed in from the garage, the resin covering the walls seeming to suck up the sound. It sounded like a chittering howl, faint, and very, very angry.

“What was that?” Tali jumped, and Kaidan was surprised that she didn’t fire off her gun in surprise.

“I don't know.” Raising his rifle, Kaidan wondered just what it was they’d wandered into.

“It better not be spiders,” Tali hissed, her voice a mixture of fear and righteous anger.

Despite the situation, everyone glanced at her.

“Spiders?” Garrus asked, cocking his head at her.

“Yes.” Tali nodded once, firm in her beliefs. “Spiders.”

“I don't believe I've ever heard a spider make a sound like that,” Liara said, doing her best to try and reassure her friend.

“Maybe they're evolving,” Tali whispered, before hissing something out in khelish that was too fast for the translators too catch.

“It’s clear up here.” The comms crackled, and Shepard spoke. “Call the elevator back down and get the hell out of there.”

Kaidan hit the button, and they all waited anxiously for the elevator to return.

The elevator dinged welcomingly as it arrived, just as the vent above them exploded from its mount.

Before anyone could react, a dark, chitinous shape reached down, grabbing Liara. She didn't even have the chance to make a sound as she was ripped off her feet and pulled up into the vents.

“Liara!” Tali shouted, jumping to try and catch the asari’s foot, but she was too late.

Rainbow was about to fly up and after her, but a look from Kaidan forced her to stop.

“Liara!” Kaidan tried to contact Liara by her comms, but all he got was silence in return.

“Alenko, what's happening?” Shepard asked, shouting over the comms.

“In the elevator,” Kaidan ordered, covering the open vent and the hall beyond. “In!”

“Lieutenant, answer me!” Shepard shouted again, but there wasn’t any time to answer.

As soon as everyone was in the elevator, Alenko joined them just in time as the doors started to close, Tali hitting the up button furiously.

“Liara's gone, Commander,” Kaidan finally said into the comms.

“What?” Shepard coughed, and she sounded shocked. “Liara?”

“Something grabbed her, Commander.” Kaidan said, cursing himself. “Came from the vents, grabbed her, and was gone before any of us could react.”

“Shit!” Shepard cut the comms.

It only took a moment before the doors were opening again, and they found themselves joining Shepard, Ashley, and Wrex in what might have once been a room with a view, but the windows had frozen over and thanks to a hole in one of them, the entire room was now covered in snow.

“What the hell happened Lieutenant?” Shepard demanded as she marched right up to Kaidan, fury burning in her eyes.

“I don't know, Commander.” Kaidan was still trying to wrap his mind around what had just happened. Whatever was happening at Peak 15 was on a whole other level of messed up.

“What did you see?” Wrex asked, pushing past Shepard to get right in Kaidan’s face.

“What?” Kaidan took a step back, but Wrex just leaned forward, deadly serious.

“What did you see?” He repeated, his voice growing quieter.

“Answer him, LT.” Shepard stepped around Wrex to stand at his side.

Kaidan stared at Wrex for a moment before nodding. “I only caught a glimpse of it. It was fast. It looked armored, strong, insectoid. I’m sorry. I didn't get a good look.”

“None of us did,” Garrus chimed in, jumping to Kaidan’s defense.

Wrex grunted, turning away to pace back and forth in agitation.

Shepard watched him for a moment before taking a breath, scowling. “We're going to find her.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Kaidan ducked his head, ashamed.

“We're going to find her,” she murmured again. Shepard nodded, drawing herself together. “No more mistakes people. Let's move out.”

Author's Note:

This is the start of the one arc that has excited me more than any other! It's going to be big, and it's going to change everything.

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