eponymous_rose: (ME | Victus)
eponymous_rose ([personal profile] eponymous_rose) wrote2012-11-04 02:29 pm

[Mass Effect] Home Fires Burning (5/8)

Title: Home Fires Burning (5/8)
Word Count: 5,500 (this chapter)
Characters: Hilary Moreau, Aeian T'Goni, Solana Vakarian, Lantar Sidonis, Garrus Vakarian, Liara T'Soni, Donnel Udina, Dehkarr, Jeff "Joker" Moreau
Rating: T
Warnings: Canon character death, violence
Spoilers: ME3, from start to finish.

Summary: Khar'shan, Tiptree, Citadel, Palaven, Earth. Five tales from the Reaper War. This is the way the worlds end.


Steel and Shadows: 1. Past Continuous

The mood during the shuttle ride was quiet, anticipatory, practically dripping with suspense. Solana Vakarian stretched out so her legs were propped up against the opposite bench, paused for dramatic effect, then yawned hugely. The grizzled officer sitting across from her – Captain Hardass, she'd dubbed her – edged completely to one side of the bench, staring at her offending feet with a sort of dawning horror.

"I wish you'd take this more seriously," Hardass muttered, and shoved Solana's feet to the ground. Magnanimously, Solana opted not to pursue the issue, instead straightening in her seat. After all, she'd made it through just enough of basic training to remember how to sit properly, much as four years of slouching behind a desk at Hierarchy Intelligence had fought to break that habit.

"Captain, if I took this seriously, I would've hid under my desk the second I heard the words 'Vakarian, you're wanted at the front'. There would have been a lot of whimpering involved. Not much in the way of personal dignity." The shuttle jolted in some turbulence – they were coming down in a dust storm – and Solana waited until they leveled off before leaning back again. "This way, I can at least pretend to be impressive. Keeping up the family name, you know."

Hardass took on a thoughtful expression, visibly sizing her up, and Solana kicked herself mentally. Yes, by all means, do invite comparison! A distinguished ex-cop with endless friends in high places, a hotheaded but charismatic task force leader, and oh, right, that other Vakarian, the one bravely desk-jockeying her way to total invisibility, what was her name again?

In the space of a few seconds, Hardass had gone from staring to glaring, obviously expecting Solana to apologize for being less of a badass than anticipated. Hah. Solana drew her mandibles in tight, squinted her eyes, and shot an identical expression of disapproval right back at Hardass. Sure, it was petty, but it was also fun, and it kept her mind off just how much distance currently separated her from her safe, secure, wonderfully boring desk.

Hardass looked away first, cleared her throat, then flicked a datapad into Solana's lap. "I assume you got the ten-second debrief before leaving. We've picked up a little more information since then, but not much. Crashed ship we're headed to has been identified as a shuttle from the carrier Taelus, which reportedly went down with all hands four days ago. Two days before that, the captain reported picking up a lone survivor from a damaged shuttle."

Paging through the sparse data, Solana cast a quick glance up at Hardass. "I assume this is the guy who's asked me to pay him a visit?"

"Affirmative. He reportedly stole a shuttle from the Taelus and disappeared shortly before the attack. There's a theory in there from your division that suggests the possibility that he was indoctrinated, some sort of advance guard for the Reapers."

She had to laugh. "Now, that's what I like to hear. Not only am I being called out to the front, it's to visit a possibly indoctrinated madman who may be responsible for the deaths of hundreds." Solana blew out a breath, then paused, paged back. "Says here we don't have confirmation on his identity."

Hardass shrugged. "The surviving reports named his clan markings as generic ones, common to lots of little colonies out in the middle of nowhere. Figured he was just a refugee looking for a heavily-armed escort home. He refused to give his name, had no ID on record, and generally acted paranoid. He was unarmed, but he did physically assault a sergeant who tried to examine his belongings."

Solana was paging more quickly through the report, drawing on her training to absorb the relevant details without getting bogged down in the repetitive crap people threw in to meet pagecount quota. "Says here he just stuck out his leg to trip the sergeant and picked up his bag when it was dropped. That hardly makes him a menace to society. And this also mentions that the order then went out to have him sedated and questioned."

Hardass shifted a little uncomfortably. "It's wartime, Vakarian, and our own people can be turned against us. You have someone sneaking aboard your ship and acting strangely, you start getting ideas."

"Fine, yes, granted, but it could explain why he ran. Can't say I'd have stuck around to enjoy the show." Solana finished the report and tossed it back to Hardass. "Timing with the Reaper attack could just as easily be coincidence. Spirits know we're losing enough ships as it is. If you pick a ship at random, it's pretty much bound to explode within the week. I'm surprised there's not a report here calculating the statistical probability of just such an outcome."

"There are perhaps some oversights in the report," Hardass said, and beneath her sullen tone Solana thought she'd caught a brief glimpse of startled respect. Damn right. Wasn't twenty-third in my class at the intelligence academy for nothing. "Regardless, we've set up a perimeter of snipers around the shuttle. No clear shot as of yet, but they'll be ready."

"So if it turns out this guy really is indoctrinated, he'll get gunned down immediately after he kills me," Solana said. "Thanks. That's real comforting."

"Your quick but incredibly painful death will be avenged."

Solana snorted. "Ah, so you do have a sense of humor. I'd rather it wasn't at my expense, mind you, but I'll take what I can get."

The shuttle jolted violently, snarled in some particularly nasty air current. Solana felt her whole body clench in response, even as the shuttle's tremors began to die down. All of a sudden, the thought of a horrible, painful death at the hands of this mysterious thief didn't seem half as funny.

"So, uh, we're sure he really did ask for a Vakarian and not, say, a Valarian? They lived down the road from us when I was a kid. I think one of them delivers self-sealing stem bolts to the outer colonies. He might just really, really want some self-sealing stem bolts."

"We're pretty damn sure," Hardass said, without a glimmer of humor. "Spelled the name for us and everything. Claims he has 'intelligence vital to the fate of the Hierarchy' and will only deliver it to a Vakarian. Anyone else tries to enter the shuttle without his permission, he says he'll off himself and destroy the data. Thus dooming the Hierarchy, presumably."

"And we think he really does have something?"

Hardass shrugged. "It's hard to know, but he did read off the first five characters of a secure, coded message. Unless he's a deep-cover operative, he'd have to be exceptionally lucky to guess that information without the message in hand. Given the current state of affairs, it really doesn't seem worth the risk. Besides, you were relatively close by, and it wasn't exactly a strain on resources to send you out here."

"You're doing a lot of dancing around the word 'expendable', there."

"Active service members and intelligence agents share the closest of professional relations," Hardass recited, a little smugly, Solana thought. "Speaking of which-" She dug into her bag and came up with a Phaeston assault rifle. It took Solana a moment to realize it was an offer and not a threat.

"Oh! No, I'd rather not make an overt show of force." In the interest of maintaining an appearance of badassery, Solana neglected to mention the seventeen concealed blades intelligence operatives carried on their person at all times. "The reports say he was wounded in the crash. Pointing a rifle at him might make him tempted to return the favor. Kinetic barriers and armor are enough for me." To emphasize her point, she thumped her hand against the light armor she'd donned during her hasty departure. She could swear the motion kicked up a cloud of dust, and wondered vaguely how long the suit had been hanging in her closet.

Hardass rolled her eyes and, after a moment's thought, added the Phaeston to her own already-considerable arsenal. When she turned back to Solana, her eyes were narrowed in an expression that was obviously meant to be intimidating. "And you're sure you can't think of who this person is? He never contacted you?"

Solana couldn't back down from an opening like that; she snapped into a stiffer posture and drew on her best borrowed-from-the-vids super-spy tone of voice. "The information that has been released to you is complete and correct, Captain. Anything else falls into the realm of speculation."

"Understood," Hardass said, coldly. Solana grinned inwardly at the imperceptible shift in the balance of power aboard the shuttle. She'd always been crap at the paperwork side of this job, but when it came to people, she could manipulate with the best of them.

Five self-congratulatory minutes later, the shuttle dipped sharply into a dive and landed with a shudder that made her wonder whether all the competent pilots in the Hierarchy had been killed already. When the rumbling died down, she stood and stretched her limbs, ostensibly to work out the kinks of the shaky ride, but also to stall for time. Maybe if she stretched long enough, the guy in the shuttle would get bored and leave, or die of his injuries, or something, and she could go home. She'd seen the reports; she knew full well they were only two kilometers from the full-sized Reaper demolishing the resistance in Rocam City. That was way, way too close for comfort.

Hardass was already wearing her helmet, standing at the shuttle's airlock, and she was looking at Solana funny, which meant the whole stalling-for-time thing had probably gone on long enough. Right. Solana donned her own helmet and strode past Hardass, going for a cool-and-collected attitude. It lasted about the time it took her to take three steps out of the shuttle.

Two kilometers away was not far enough.

Even through the dust whipped up by the storm, her helmet's simple visual scanners were able to pick out an indescribably massive shadowy figure, a hazy blob of darkness that tapered away at the top. Occasional blasts of bright red light cut through the darkness, leaving glimmering after-images in her vision. What she'd taken for grit kicked up by the wind was mostly smoke from a dozen massive fires burning in the distance, casting the horizon with an ominous orange glow. And then there was the sound of the thing, a low trumpeting that echoed across the space between them, the blast sucked this way and that by the wind, distorted into a shrill cry here, lowered into a dull roar there.

"I've changed my mind," she said, and turned to face Hardass. "I think the whole hiding-under-my-desk-and-whimpering plan had some real merit, and I may have dismissed it too quickly."

Without a word, Hardass picked her up and turned her around so she was facing the monstrosity again. "Come on," she said. "Let's get this over with so we can get you out of here."

Solana couldn't really argue with that, so she ignored the whimpering at the back of her mind and stepped forward. Hardass had drawn her rifle and was marching forward to meet a group of soldiers, who were clearly terrified and wanted to get the hell out of there. Mentally paging through the less critical reports she'd read in the shuttle, Solana recalled that this platoon had been in the process of systematically withdrawing from the area when the shuttle had gone down nearby, stalling their retreat. Lucky them.

Their leader, a young lieutenant, practically exuded relief at having a superior officer on the scene. Ah, to let someone else make all the decisions and do all the screwing-up for you. Solana thought fondly of her own supervisor, working in a nice clean orbital office that the Reapers hadn't bothered hitting yet. Then she stopped thinking fondly of him and started hating him a little. Maybe more than a little.

After a few moments of standard military pleasantries, during which Solana mostly occupied herself by being terrified, Hardass beckoned her over, then pointed to a plume of smoke rising behind a nearby sand dune. "He's just down there, won't let anyone get closer. They've been trying to keep him talking, but he's fading in and out. Sounds like he's pretty badly wounded."

Solana winced. "I assume there's a medic somewhere in this outfit, and you're not just planning on shooting him the moment I get him outside?"

Hardass crossed her arms, cocking her head to the side. "You're really out to spoil our fun, aren't you?"

"You're not half as funny as you think are. I'll be in touch," Solana said, and picked her way across the sand before her better judgment could remind her that running away was a much better plan.

The distant roar of the Reaper was more and more chilling the further she got from the others, and even the smaller sounds grew louder, the little nervous catch in her breathing, the grit of blowing sand against her armor, the uncertain crunch of her footsteps. She shivered, fingered the hilt of the knife rigged on a snap-wire up her sleeve. It didn't seem like much comfort against... well, against this.

She reached the crest of the dune and paused, staring down at the shuttle. It had clearly come down hard, half-buried as it was, but it seemed to have fared pretty well, all things considered: she could see the flickering glow of the auto-repair systems even from this distance. More to the point, she was reasonably sure the cameras were working, which meant she was probably being watched.

She opened the little file in her head she'd dubbed 'everything's-gone-to-shit' and scrolled through her options for approaching the ship. Most of them seemed to end badly for everyone involved. She ran through the list again, sighed, and mentally crumpled it up, instead opening a comm link to the shuttle. Oh, this is going to be fun.

"Dear sir or madam," she said, and took a skidding step down the dune. "It has come to my attention that you are in unlawful possession of Hierarchy property, to wit, one shuttle, comma, crashed."

The comm link crackled to life, and a soft, dazed voice came over the line. "The fuck?"

She flailed her arms, turning a stumble into a controlled slide down the steepest slope of the dune, then raised her voice again, dignity mostly intact. "Uh," she said, "I don't know if you've noticed, but there's a really big Reaper out here, maybe getting closer. You called, I'm here. Let me in or come outside, I don't care which. We need to leave." She'd managed to resume a regular walking pace at the base of the dune, and couldn't suppress a little triumphant flicker of a grin as she finally came up beside the shuttle's main hatch. So far, so good. When in doubt, confuse everyone you can.

The comm link was open – her helmet was patching through heavy breathing other end that definitely wasn't hers – but no reply was forthcoming for several seconds. When he spoke again, his voice was stronger, more suspicious. "Wait. Who is this?"

"Solana Vakarian." She racked her brains for something suave to say, and could only come up with: "I don't usually make house calls."

Another baffled pause. "Garrus is married?"

"What? No. At least I don't think so. I'm his sister." And it just figured that Garrus was wrapped up in all this somehow.

"Huh," he said, contemplatively.

On the horizon, the Reaper blasted something into atoms. Solana could swear the ground shook. "Look, I formally request-" Another blast. This time the ground really did shake. "Fuck it. Open the fucking hatch. Please."

She could practically hear the cogs turning in his head, could pinpoint the exact moment he realized he'd run out of options. A strained sigh echoed over the line. The hatch opened.

She'd already taken several quick, nervous steps into the shuttle by the time her brain caught up with her body. She froze.

The shuttle's interior was a mess. The faint smell of sweat and blood spoke to the fact that the air circulators had been offline for at least a few hours, and as she took an uncertain step back, her foot crunched on one of the ration bar wrappers littering the ground. The craft's sole occupant was huddled at the back of the cargo hold, sitting on the floor with his back propped up against the bulkhead. He was younger than she'd expected, a couple years her junior at least, but his clan markings were already faded and marred by a series of scuffs and scars. There was blood running down the side of his head, and he held his left arm at an angle that didn't look at all healthy.

He was also, incidentally, pointing a pistol at her.

She recognized it as an M-358 Talon, which would be more than enough to take down her shields and blast a sizeable hole in her armor at this range. Mentally opening a file on the weapon, she scrolled through it with a ridiculous, detached calm. Favored by Cerberus operatives, apparently. Either he'd stolen it... or the whole indoctrination theory was more likely than she'd feared.

The knife up her sleeve, not to mention the sixteen other blades concealed on her person, seemed woefully inadequate.

"Is-" Her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat before trying to speak again. "Is that really necessary?"

He blinked at her, then glanced down at his pistol as though he'd forgotten about it. He lowered it a fraction, then raised it again, a bit uncertainly. "Look, just... I may be a bit out of it, but I'm pretty sure I can hit you from here, double-vision or no. So just sit down for a second and let me think."

Solana sucked in a deep breath, then perched on the edge of the bench across from him. Her training, before she'd made the welcome transition into the more desk-bound part of the job, had addressed situations similar to this one. Well, okay, maybe 'having a nice chat with a guy who may or may not be under the mind control of a race of ancient machine gods' wasn't explicitly written up in the manual. After a moment's thought, she pulled off her helmet so she could at least look him in the eyes. To her surprise, he glanced away almost immediately.

Heartened by the small success, she struck up a tone that was as conversational as she could muster. "There's a pretty big Reaper out there. Why don't we finish this discussion far, far away from it?"

The pistol wavered again, and he craned his neck to look past her out the opened hatch. "Is it that close?"

As if on cue, the Reaper's wind-distorted roar whistled past. "Close enough." He'd flinched at the sound, and now he was starting to tremble, staring down at the pistol in his hands with wide eyes. That's probably not good. "Okay," she said, a bit desperately. "You wanted me here, and here I am. I think I deserve a bit of an explanation, at least. I'm Solana Vakarian. Who are you?"

"How do I know?"

"What?"

He shifted against the bulkhead behind him, straightening up a little, and waved the pistol in the air as he spoke, confirming her vague suspicion that he hadn't made it through enough of basic training to have proper trigger discipline and safety protocols drilled into his brain. "How do I know you are who you say you are?"

She stared at him. "I haven't shot you. Didn't even bring a gun with me. That's probably a good sign." She shifted her weight, not really sure if she was warming to her topic or just babbling out of nervousness. "I can't say I'd really thought about having to prove my identity. I mean, I kind of figured that if someone was asking for a Vakarian, they'd probably know what we all looked like. You, uh, you didn't really think this through, did you?" That got a choked laugh out of him, and she smiled cautiously in response.

"I worked with Garrus for a while," he said, and then the words were coming faster. "I have some sensitive information, and he's pretty much the only person in the galaxy I can trust right now. But I figured he was probably off being fucking heroic somewhere, so I thought maybe his family would be the next best thing." He gave a little shrug, then winced and half-curled around his injured arm. The pistol's barrel tracked down towards the ground.

"You don't have anyone else you could contact?"

He shook his head. "First time on Palaven. Hell of a day to visit."

The shuttle rattled with another not-so-distant blast from the Reaper. "Yeah," Solana said, and made a conscious effort to relax her hands from the tightly-clenched fists resting on her thighs. "Look, I'd love to play tour guide, hear all about this vital information of yours, but that'll be kind of hard to do if we've both been vaporized. Or," she added, "if you shoot me."

Again, he shot a confused look at his pistol, and after a moment's hesitation, he let it drop to the floor. Solana couldn't entirely conceal a sigh of relief. "Right," he said. "Sorry. I'm not-" He sighed, swiping at the blood running down the side of his head. "This hasn't been the greatest day of my life."

Solana gripped the edge of her seat as the ground shook again. "Join the club. Straight answer – who are you?"

He exhaled slowly, still not meeting her eyes, and she realized his hide had gone pale, seeming to draw color even from his scales. "My name is Lantar Sidonis. I worked with Garrus after Commander Shepard died. You know, on Omega." He paused, looked at her, obviously expecting some reaction. Solana opted for staring at him like she had no idea what he was talking about, which was easy enough, since she really did have no idea what he was talking about. She'd tried doing some prying the last time Garrus had come home, but after the tenth round of questions-and-pained-silences, she'd decided to back off. If he'd spent those two years on Omega, that explained a lot. She'd wondered about those new scars...

"Okay," she said, after the awkwardness of Lantar's insistent stare was getting to be a little much. "What's this data of yours and why are you so fired up to deliver it to a Vakarian?"

He shook his head, obviously puzzled at her non-reaction, then brought his good hand up again, stared blankly at the blood on his glove. "I... I was just trying to help out, you know? Be a good turian for once in my fucking life." But the words rang hollow, and it took her a moment to realize why: there was no real bitterness or anger in his voice. Despite the stale air in the shuttle, she couldn't suppress a shiver. In recent months, she'd learned very well what aching, bone-deep loss sounded like.

His words were fading, turning to murmurs half-drowned by the rumble of the wind and the Reaper outside. "I turned myself in at the Citadel, you know. I tried. Not their jurisdiction, they said. Not their problem. No resources. I helped where I could. I tried. I just wanted-" He seemed to run out of steam all at once, slumping back with a miserable sigh. "I don't know what I wanted."

The shuttle shook again, and for a moment Solana thought of the storms back home, the ones that rumbled on the horizon, the ones that cast dim, flickering light over all the faraway places. As a child, Garrus had always liked watching them, perching in the highest window he could reach until Mom noticed and drew him out of danger, gently scolding. Solana had always hidden in the darkest corner of her room, trying to will the rain and the wind and the loud, angry rumbling away. If the Spirits were real – and she was still pretty much undecided on that one – the Spirit of a storm drew only on the death and suffering it caused. There was no beauty there.

The Reaper's call was louder now, and she was shivering in earnest. There is no beauty here, she thought, and stood up. Lantar watched her, but made no move for his pistol. "We have to go," she said. "Now."

He clenched his good hand into a fist, seemed to make a decision, and picked up one of the datapads lying next to him. "I have proof," he said, and tossed it to her. "I found proof that someone very important is indoctrinated."

She stared at him, then blew out her breath as she skimmed the first few lines of the file, thinking of storm clouds gathering. "Say that again."

Her sense of urgency seemed to be contagious; now his words were practically tripping over themselves. "I figured I could do some good back here – when I heard Palaven was burning, I just thought I should be there for it, you know? So I rented a shuttle and made it through the relay just in time to get hit by a Reaper. Glancing blow, systems damaged, got picked up by a passing cruiser a few hours later. I was doing some snooping around for, ah, potentially lucrative reasons." He had the grace to look embarrassed about it, at least. "And I found this note expressing concern about a series of suspicious orders that might've indicated indoctrination."

"This is from General Sarus's men," Solana said, startled. She had vague memories of a tall, jovial man with a booming voice and strikingly well-maintained clan markings. "This was meant to go out on all high-priority intelligence channels – why haven't I heard about this?"

"Didn't make it out," Lantar said. "Every one of his men was killed last week in an overwhelming attack by Reaper forces. Not necessarily unusual what with everything going on, but the man himself was conveniently absent, sending his orders from the base at Galatan Capital at the time. Medical reasons, they said, preventing him from returning to the front. Whoever dug up this message in the first place did some more digging – the communication blackout around the time this message was supposed to go out originated from Sarus's temporary command headquarters at Galatan."

"Wait." Solana held up her hand, skimmed through the message again. When she'd finished, she was a bit surprised to see Lantar obediently sitting silent, watching her. "Whoever tracked this down – why didn't they turn it in? They must've known at least for several days. All the cruisers are tied in to the intelligence channels – all they had to do was find a comm and send the message."

Lantar shrugged. "Could be indoctrinated. Might just be looking to sell the information to the highest bidder." There was no particular accusation in his voice, just a sort of vague understanding. Spirits, Garrus, what kind of friends have you been making? "I copied the information, they tried to get it back, I ran. I just-" He shrugged, gave another weak laugh. "I wanted to do something about it, I just didn't want it all to be on me. I don't generally perform well under pressure. So I figured-"

"-you'd find a Vakarian," Solana finished.

"It seemed like the best option at the time," Lantar said, a bit defensively. "I didn't think I really had any other options. And then that Reaper shot me down and here I am."

Solana put a hand out to steady herself against the bulkhead. "We have to get out of here," she said.

"Well, yes, you've mentioned that several times," said Lantar, and slowly levered himself to his feet, blinking hard. "I didn't want to risk-"

"No," Solana said. "We really, really need to get out of here. My father-" She drew in a breath. "Sarus is an old friend of my father's. They're working together at Galatan."

"Oh," said Lantar, and swayed on his feet. "Fuck. I guess I'm lucky they didn't send for him instead of you."

Solana's stomach was churning. Her first instinct was to rail at Lantar for bringing this to her, for making it her decision, her responsibility. That was also her second, third, and fourth instinct. By the time a few seconds had passed, however, she was breathing more slowly, clenching and unclenching her fists. "Okay," she said. "Here's what we're going to do."

An ear-splittingly loud roar exploded through the shuttle, accompanied by a blinding surge of red light. She blinked. She was lying on the floor, her ears ringing, her heart pounding in her ears. Her first dazed thought was that Lantar must have jumped her, but when she rolled to her side, she saw him huddled around his bad arm, keening softly in pain.

The Reaper fired again, a hell of a lot closer than two kilometers away.

Even as the ground bucked beneath her, Solana opened her comm channel to Hardass, scrambling over to slam the shuttle's hatch shut, for all the protection it could afford. "What the hell's happening out there?"

Static.

She mentally opened the new file she'd labeled 'fuckfuckfuck' and scrolled through her options, spinning to take in as much of the shuttle as she could. The autorepair's glowing indicator light – all systems go – made the decision for her. She launched herself at Lantar, all but dragging him to his feet. "Can you fly this thing?"

"Apparently I can crash it," he mumbled, and tried to pull away from her. "Lemme lie down for a second. Just a second. My fucking head-"

She deposited him in the copilot's seat, then did it again when he started sagging to the ground. Something big exploded nearby – sounded like a fuel core going up – and the shuttle jerked with the force of the blast, sending Solana reeling into a collision with the pilot's chair, too slow for her kinetic barriers to recognize the threat and cushion the blow. Even through her armor, the pain in her ribs was excruciating, and she coughed, hitting the ground on hands and knees.

"Where are we going?" Lantar's voice was high and panicky, and she looked up to see that he'd apparently pulled himself together enough to be going through what looked like an incredibly expedited pre-flight check. "Oh fuck, they're all gone out there, we're the only ones left. No other signatures."

Solana staggered to her feet, using the pilot's chair to anchor herself. "Galatan," she said, and doubled over at the renewed pain in her ribs. "We have to-"

The shuttle's engines flared, and she fell into the pilot's seat, fumbling for the emergency safety straps and feeling ridiculous for it. Lantar was murmuring a litany of curses under his breath as the shuttle rose, and Solana pointedly ignored her new mental file labeled 'ways-we-can-die-in-the-next-five-seconds' in favor of casting about frantically for an appropriately profound and meaningful last thought. She thought about Mom on her deathbed, staring at her without recognition until even that benign confusion faded with the light in her eyes. She thought about Dad, beaming at her on her last day of basic training, the last moment he could still fool himself that his daughter would be a proper soldier. She thought about Garrus, cold and angry and distant and never there, not when it mattered most.

She thought about storms that built on the horizon, storms that passed overhead, storms that moved inexorably forward in the dying light of day, cold and uncaring.

She was still breathing.

"Oh, hey," Lantar said, weakly. "We're not dead. That's neat."

Solana moved her hand to the controls, traced a finger over the figures. The Reaper was ten kilometers behind them. Fifteen. Twenty.

"Something else must have distracted it," Lantar was saying, his voice almost salarian in pitch. "It tried shooting at us once, but I dodged it. Well, I was trying to use my left hand and I forgot how much it hurt, so I hit the wrong control and we banked and it missed. That's good, right? I mean, considering we're not dead and all." He paused, thoughtfully. "I feel like I'm rambling. Am I rambling?"

Everything seemed sharper, brighter. Solana found her voice. "Maybe a little."

"Oh," he said. He turned in his seat to look over at her, meeting her eyes for what seemed like the first time since she'd entered the shuttle. "Um. I'm guessing General Sarus won't just cheerfully admit to being indoctrinated, and if your father's involved, this could get tricky. My current track record notwithstanding, I think... I think I'd like to help if I can, if we're going to Galatan. So could you let me in on the plan?"

"The plan?" Solana stared at him for a long moment, then crossed her arms on the console in front of her, buried her head in them, and burst out laughing.


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