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March 10, 2013
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(Contains: strong language)
Dark Horse
(A story set in the universe of Mass Effect, during the Reaper invasion.)

“So how’s mom handling this whole ‘evacuation’ thing?”

Christina smiled as the girl rolled her eyes, her sigh of exasperation barely audible over the terminal’s speakers.  Their mother hated it when they did that, more so because they both did it so often.  “That good, huh?”

“She’s arguing with the dockworkers because they say we can only take one bag per person.”

“She probably packed up the whole damned house, right?”

“I’m surprised that the car didn’t bottom out on the way here.  Seriously, how can she think that our baby blankets qualify as a necessity?”

“Don’t be so hard on her, Candy, she’s just scared.”

“Candice,” the younger sister corrected her, “and she’s always like this.  Over-reacting, getting all emotional; it was too embarrassing to stand next to her.”

Christina smiled, thinking back to her own teen years for a moment; her mother had always had a knack for making her feel like the whole world was staring at them.  It seemed like little had changed over time.  Of course, Candice must have seemed like a severe case of déjà vu to their mother; they may have had different fathers, but they were practically clones.  Looking at her sister in the monitor screen, Christina may as well have been looking at herself eight years prior, albeit with longer hair.

“Just take care of her, okay?  Jason can’t do it on his own, as much as he tries.”

“Yeah, yeah.”  Candice gave another roll of her eyes and Christina had to struggle to keep from smiling.  “Hopefully, dad’s got her calmed down so we can get this show in the air.  It’d be so much better if they’d just let us go on your ship.”

“My ship is a freighter, Candy, not a passenger liner.”  She made a point to keep talking, even while Candice tried to correct her on the name again.  “We’re simply not equipped to take on refugees, even a few of them.”

“At least mom would have room for all of our stuff, there.”

“Yeah, if we gave her her own cargo bay.”  Christina smiled as her little sister laughed.  She leaned back and stretched in her seat, then let out a heavy sigh.  “Anyway, we’re going to be in line for at least another hour before they load us up with food and other supplies, so you’ll probably be leaving the system long before I do.”

“Yeah, and off on such a great adventure aboard the Amazing Grace.  That thing’s like twenty years old!  It’ll be ‘amazing’ if it gets us off the ground.”

“Try to contain your enthusiasm, sis.”  Christina smirked, then raised a hand to put her fingertips on the screen, over her sister’s cheek.  “Give me another call when you’re on the ship, okay?  I’ll–”

She was cut off by the abrupt and painfully loud emergency klaxon engaging.  She winced at the audio assault, but, thankfully, it didn’t last long; it was only intended to get the crew’s attention, not deafen them.  The flashing red light in the corner of the room assured her that the problem hadn’t gone away and that the alarm was no accident.  The question, then, was what had triggered it.

“What’s going on, Chris?  What’s with all the noise?”

Christina didn’t answer, just held up a hand in front of the monitor to quiet her sister.  A few seconds later, as expected, the Captain’s voice came over the intercom to explain the nature of the alert.  The emergency alarm was typically only used in the event of pirate attacks, which was highly unlikely while they were in orbit around an Alliance colony.

“All hands to stations!  Local Alliance forces are engaging an unknown hostile just outside the second moon’s orbit.”  The captain’s voice was more than familiar after serving on the freighter for three years, but Christina had never heard so much tension in the woman’s tone.  “It’s– it’s tearing them apart.  This is it, people.  The Reapers are here.”

A chill ran through her body and her heart raced at just the thought of those nightmarish monsters being in the system.  “No… no!  They said we had at least two days before they got here!  They said we had time!”  She stood from her seat, shouting at the ceiling, as though her denial could convince reality to be otherwise.

“Chris, what’s going on?  What’re you–”

“Candice!”  Christina swung back to face the monitor screen, leaning over to grab hold of it with both hands and staring straight into her sister’s eyes. “You have to get mom onto that ship!  Leave everything and get onboard!”

“But–”

“I don’t care if you have to carry her, just go!”

She didn’t wait for a response, terminating the call before propelling herself towards the door.  By the time she’d entered the red-lit corridor, she was in full sprint, her booted feet pounding the deck as she darted past other crewmen.  She didn’t stop until she came to the bulkhead door which led to the bridge and, even then, only long enough for the door to slide open.

The bridge held a strong resemblance to a beehive that had been poked with a stick.  Old man Ryker manned the defense system, getting the automated batteries online – for all the good that a couple of light turrets would do them – and Misha was shouting out constant updates from the battle telemetry.  Garrison was at the com station, filtering through the audio traffic and passing critical info on to the captain, while the lone quarian on board, Cor’Vada, was at the engineering console, ensuring that all systems were at peak efficiency.

Sitting in her command seat, at the heart of it all, Captain Elena Richardson-Vada calmly took it all in, giving the occasional order even as she charted a course that would get them out of the system.  “Nice of you to join us, Ms. Brisban.  We might have need of your services, shortly.”

Christina didn’t know how the woman could manage deadpan with the galaxy falling apart around them, but she was grateful for something to grab on to beyond the complete and total panic welling up inside her.  “Yes, ma’am.  Got here as fast as I could.”

She was still breathing heavily even as she slid into the pilot’s seat and brought up the virtual interface controls.  The engines were operating perfectly, all systems were green and, most importantly, the ladar was showing that there was half a planet between them and the invading hostile.  The lack of Alliance military signals was, however, more than a little concerning.  “Where are the Alliance cruisers?”

“They’re gone.”  Elena replied flatly, not even bothering to glance up from her calculations.

“They left?!”  Christina turned around in her seat to look at her Captain, horrified at the thought that their military would abandon them in such a crisis, but it was far worse than she’d thought.

“Not willingly, girl,” Ryker explained in his typically gruff manner, “the last one was just shot down.”

Christina’s eyes went wide at the senior crewman, her mouth hanging agape.  Was it even possible?  Three cruisers destroyed in as many minutes?  Ryker met her gaze evenly, nodding slightly before returning to his duties and leaving Christina to her own.

Her gaze snapped back to the holographic controls floating in front of her, fingers dancing across the keys, dials and displays as she began positioning the ship for departure.  Two of the other freighters that had been waiting in line ahead of them had already jumped to lightspeed and there was every reason to be joining them en route to the nearest relay.  “I’ll have an escape vector momentarily, Captain.”

“Thank you, Ms. Brisban.”  Elena’s face showed little emotion and her voice carried even less as she listened to the various reports, simultaneously viewing as many of the data feeds as she could manage.  “Cor, is everything ready on your end?”

The quarian turned from his console to nod to his wife, his helmet bobbing slightly with the motion.  “Aye, Captain, we are ready for FTL.”

For the love-birds to keep it so formal told Christina that they were as scared as she was, but none of them could afford to give in to their emotions; a cool head was the quickest way out of there.  “We’re set, Captain.  I’m bringing her around and we’ll be gone in about ten seconds.”

“Make it happen.”  The order came even as Misha reported another explosion on the sensors – in the atmosphere over Circe’s colony, this time.  Another few minutes and the Reaper would have a firing line on the settlement itself.

“Captain,” Garrison shouted from the communication console, his voice trembling as he turned to face the woman, “there’s a distress call coming from Circe’s spaceport!  It’s got some static, but he’s saying that there are evacuation ships still on the ground!”

Elena’s silence only lasted a few seconds, her lips pursed tightly, but every heartbeat felt like an eternity to Christina, until the Captain finally replied in a flat tone:  “Patch it through.”

“–anyone out there?  We need immediate assistance!  We’ve got two cruise-liners full of civilians!  For God’s sake, is anyone left out there?”

Christina felt a tightening in her chest as she listened to the plea.  The man on the vid-screen was probably around fifty, his brown hair going grey and lines around the eyes, but the desperation in his voice also showed on his face, weighing it down and making him seem far older.  He was looking for a glimmer of salvation, but was there really anything that they could do?

“This is Captain Richardson-Vada of the Dark Horse.  We’re still here, but not for long.  The Alliance ships have all been destroyed; all we can do now is run.”

“Thank God!”  The man straightened up instantly, leaning towards the camera as he grasped at the thread of hope with both hands.  “I’m Captain Baratovsky of the cruise liner Veles.  That—that thing is almost on top of us!  The Bengali tried to run for it, but they didn’t even make it out of the atmosphere.  We need help!”

“We’re not really in a position to provide that help, Captain.  We’re a freighter, not a dreadnaught.”  Elena kept herself rigid, both in posture and in tone, her voice wavering only a moment as she began speaking again.  “If you transmit your crew list to us and we’ll see that it’s provided to next of kin.”

“You don’t need to fight it, just, maybe… lure it away so we can escape.”  Baratovsky licked his lips, looking downward for a moment before returning his gaze to the screen, staring at Elena.  “I’ve got nearly three hundred colonists on board the Veles and the Amazing Grace has another two hundred more.  I’m routing this transmission through the colony com-tower, but sooner or later, that thing’s going to find us.  We may only have minutes!”

Christina’s eyes went wide at hearing the name of the second ship, her heart skipping a beat.  She had been so focused on preparing her own ship to escape that she had simply assumed that the evacuation ships would be right behind them.  She had been a hair’s-breadth away from abandoning her sister and mother to a nightmare brought to life.  She turned in her seat to look back at her Captain, suddenly understanding Baratovsky’s desperation all too well.  “We can’t just leave them!”

Elena reached up to mute the screen and slid the display off to the side before turning to look at Cor and Ryker.  The quarian hung his head while the human simply frowned, but their Captain wasn’t accepting silence.  “Would they even give chase to us?”

“Not bloody likely, Captain,” Ryker replied with a scoff, then motioned towards Misha’s scanners.  “They’ve completely ignored us and the other freighters that were in orbit.  Their target is the colony itself.”

“Ma’am,” Misha added softly,  “there are also dozens of smaller ships swarming around it.  They seem to be spreading out, though.”

“Those would be their fighter craft, I’m guessing.”  Elena brought up the ladar scans to her own console, examining the flight patterns of the smaller vessels.  “They’re fast.  Short of FTL, we’re not out-running them.  The main ship wouldn’t even have to bother chasing us.”

“And our auto-turrets aren’t going to do more than tickle that thing’s armour, assuming we could even get within range.”  Ryker growled out the words.  A veteran of the Alliance himself, he hated the thought of abandoning so many, but he knew a no-win situation when he saw one.  “We’d be as well off ramming the damned thing; we’d have a better chance of damaging that monstrosity and it’d get us dead just as quickly.”

“What if we rammed it at lightspeed?”  The words escaped Christina’s lips before she really even had a chance to consider them, and they drew a lot of dubious looks from the others.  In retrospect, she knew the suggestion was not simply insane, but downright suicidal.  “I didn’t– I mean, we could set the course and pre-program it and then use the escape pods, right?  We’d just have to override the safety protocols and–”

“Can’t be done, Chris,” Cor cut her off, though he kept his tone calm, “the safety protocols are hardwired into the FTL drive tech.  They can’t be by-passed without compromising the whole system.”

“And autopilot wouldn’t be sufficient, regardless.”  Ryker folded his arms across his chest, snorting derisively.  “The range on that thing’s main gun is astronomical.  By the time we had a clear run at it, we’d already be in it sights.”

“It’s a moot point,” Elena added, leaning forward in her seat, “as I’m not about to abandon my ship.”

“Captain– Elena, please!”  Christina was halfway out of her seat, pleading, even though she had no clue what any of them could do.  “My family’s down there!  We can’t just–”

“Damn it, Christina!”  Elena stood, cutting the younger woman off with more anger than she intended, her own frustration with their situation wearing at her composure.  “Don’t you think I want to help them?  There’s nothing we can– Cor?  What’ve you got?”

The quarian’s posture had stiffened – only slightly, but the Captain had long ago attuned to the subtleties of her husband’s body-language.  He looked at her, then closed his eyes and released a sigh.  “I’ve got an idea, but it’s a terrible one.  I mean, I think it’ll work, but it’s still a bad idea.”

“Spill it.”

“I can’t bypass the safety protocols, but I might be able to trick them.”  Cor looked towards Misha’s station, where the primary sensors linked into the rest of the ship’s systems.  “If I can convince it that there’s nothing in front of us, it’ll let us make the jump to luminal.”

“Except that you would have to do it manually.”  The Captain’s face went void of expression as Cor nodded once in response.  “Do you really think that you can make it work.”

“Yes.”

Elena nodded, then sat back down on the command couch, bringing the communication screen back around in front of her.  “Make it happen.”  With the flick of a finger, she re-opened the link to the Veles, though she noted that there was less interference on the signal; it was no longer being re-routed through the secondary transmitter.  “Captain Baratovsky, we may be able to clear your way, but I need your word that you’ll retrieve my crew before you leave.  They’ll be in five escape pods.”

Baratovsky’s face lit up at the renewed contact, even before she’d finished speaking.  “Captain Richardson-Vada, you have my oath; I will leave no one behind.”

“Then be ready to launch on my signal.  I have no idea how much time this will actually buy you.”  She ended her transmission to the Veles and activated her own ship’s internal speakers.  “This is the Captain speaking.  Abandon ship; all hands to the escape pods.  The starship Veles will retrieve you before leaving the system.  You have one minute to reach the pods.”

With the press of a button, the emergency klaxons again rang throughout the ship, though they were muted on the bridge.  Elena straightened in her chair and let out a slow breath before speaking again.  “Misha, Garrison, Christina; it’s been a pleasure having you among my crew, but it’s time for you to go.”  She cast a look at Ryker, but didn’t waste her breath; he wouldn’t leave and she knew it.

Garrison looked at Christina with his mouth agape, then towards Elena before standing from his station.  “Captain, you can’t be serious!  This is flat-out suicide!”

“And you have about forty-five seconds to avoid being part of it, Mr. Moore.”  She looked at the young comtech and clenched her jaw, barely parting her lips to add “Go.  Live.”

Garrison opened his mouth to speak, only to shut it again and cast his eyes to Misha.  She was embracing Ryker one last time, her pleas that he join them politely denied, and he noticed that Christina had made no move to leave the pilot’s chair.  “Misha, we need to go.”  Moving to take her hand in his, he guided her towards the bridge’s port escape pod, stopping only briefly alongside Elena for a last goodbye.  “Captain, it’s– it’s been an honour.  Give them hell.”

Seconds later, the pair were ducking through the hatch, soon to be ejecting from the ship, but it was her pilot that concerned Elena the most, by that point.  “Chris, you need to go.”

“You need a pilot.”  Christina’s flat response was barely audible over the alarms, her focus locked in on the additional telemetry she was re-routing from Misha’s terminal.

“I happen to be one, you might remember.”

“You’ll have to update the FTL data in real-time.  You can’t fly effectively while you’re doing that.”  She fell silent while she opened up a virtual window focusing on the position of the Reaper and its smaller vessels, then slid it up to let it float just over her primary screen.  The Captain hadn’t debated the facts, but Christina still glanced back at her, one corner of her lips curling into a smirk.  “Besides, you can sail this boat; I can make it dance.”

Ryker snorted, then silenced the alarms with the touch of a button.  “All pods are clear of the ship, Captain.  It’s just the four of us, now.”

“Oops – I guess I missed my chance to leave.”  Christina turned back to her controls, activating the navigational thrusters.  “I’m bringing us away from the pod trajectories.  Hopefully, it’ll keep them from being noticed.”

Elena frowned at the younger woman, then shook her head.  “You’re every bit as arrogant and stubborn as when you walked on board three years ago.”

“Reminds me of someone else I know.”  Cor raised his masked head from behind the navigation console to look at Ryker, who simply nodded his agreement, but a glare from his wife sent him ducking back down.  Concealed beneath the helmet, though, they knew he was grinning; his sense of humour was unquenchable, even in the face of death.  “Oh, look at all the work I have to do; I’d better get to it.”

“There’s still time, Chris, and one pod remaining.  You’re still young, you–”

“Why didn’t you ask Ryker to leave?”  Christina cut her Captain off with the question, which silenced Elena and left her security officer to answer it for her.

“I abandoned ship once before, when I was a lieutenant with the Alliance.  My captain stayed behind to cover our escape.”  He pursed his lips and sighed at the memory, his gaze locked onto the controls in front of him.  “He kept on fighting with a crippled ship and managed to hold the Turians off until reinforcements arrived, but in the end, he died; he suffocated as smoke filled the bridge.  He had no time to put it out and no one else to do it for him.”

“So, if you had stayed…”

“I swore an oath that I would never again leave anyone behind.  I’d rather die in here than live out there.”

“Yeah,” Christina spoke as she turned back to her controls, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Elena looked at Ryker, then at the back of her pilot’s head before snorting dismissively.  “Then strap yourself in, Chris, because you’re about to become a combat pilot.  We’ve got inbound.”

Christina snapped her four-point harness into position, letting it cinch her snugly into her chair.  “Affirmative, Captain!  I’ve got full power to subluminal engines and am preparing for evasive maneuvers.  What’ve we got, Ryker?”

“Two of the smaller craft, closing fast.”  Belting himself into his own seat, Ryker started the defense turrets tracking, but held his fire as he awaited an opportunity to do some damage.  “Erratic flight paths.  They’re quick as hell and going to be hard targets.  I’m keeping the guns silent to see if I can catch one by surprise.”

“Bull rush them, Chris.”  Elena had already begun assembling data for the jump to luminal, but split her focus to monitor the Reaper’s drones.  “Try to avoid their fire, but don’t get fancy until Ryker takes his shot.”

“Aye, Captain!”  Christina’s gaze was locked on the forward view screen, watching the two dots as they rapidly approached.  The instant she saw an indication that they were opening fire, she hit the port-side thrusters and shunted the ship out of the beam’s path.

“They’re coming into range.”  Ryker picked out one of the drones and linked the turrets to lock on to it, adjusting their aim slightly.  “Christina, on my mark, I’ll need about three seconds of straight flying.”

“Three seconds of being an easy target, coming up.”

Ryker grunted, but his concentration remained firmly keyed on the targeting display, his fingers resting on the controls.  “And… mark.”

Christina abruptly deactivated the maneuvering thrusters, leaving the Dark Horse on a straight-line trajectory as she silently counted down three seconds.  Her eyes flicked over to a screen showing one of the enemy drones coming up along their starboard side while another displayed the second drone coming around from the rear.  They were certainly preparing to fire, but she forced herself to wait out the allotted time, despite the pounding of her heart.

Just as her countdown reached one, Ryker’s turrets went live, throwing out a crossfire at the drone to the rear and stitching it with laser fire.  It veered off almost instantly, but he knew that its shields had taken a beating.  “How do you like that, you mechanical bastard?”

Christina already had the ship rolling away by the time it came back for another attack, but as good a pilot as she may have been, freighters simply weren’t designed for agility.  “I think you pissed ‘em off, Ryker!”

“They’re too damned maneuverable for me to finish it off, though.”  Ryker growled  as he struggled with the turret controls, trying to make them adjust more quickly than they were designed for.  “I can’t get a bead on them!”

“Then you’re gonna be really happy to hear that we’ve got another bogey inbound.”

Elena looked up from her calculations and narrowed her eyes at the tactical screen to her left.  “That’s an Alliance interceptor signature!”

Christina would’ve cheered, but she was too busy dragging a three-hundred meter ship through a barrel-roll.  She had been hoping to clip one of the drones with a wing, but they were too quick for such a tactic.  “I hope that they’re a better shot than Ryker.”

“How many times have I requested an upgrade on these turrets?”

“Work with what you’ve got.”  Elena watched the ladar screen, managing a smile as one of the drones vanished from her sensors.  “Our new friend just took out one of those Reaper drones, so try to finish what he started before our shields completely cave.”

Ryker opened his coms even as he continued to track the remaining drone, speaking to their unexpected ally.  “This is Dark Horse to Alliance interceptor.  I’m going to herd that tin can back towards you.  Be ready in two.  One.”

With the press of a button, Ryker opened up both turrets with an extended burst just in front of the drone, forcing it to make a quick turn which landed it in the interceptor’s sights.  A few moments later and the second drone was destroyed.

“Yeah!  Nice shooting, Alliance!”  Christina settled the ship back into a more steady course, directing them back towards the Reaper capital ship.  “Now we just have to fight through a couple dozen more of them.”

“Captain Jayce Stewart, Alliance Navy, at your service, Dark Horse.  What’s your status?”

Elena gave a faint smile at the man’s deep voice coming over the coms, opening up her own to reply.  “Much obliged, Captain.  Our shields are holding on by a thread, but all damage is superficial.  I didn’t think that there was anyone else still out here.”

“I withdrew to make some in-flight repairs and by the time I was done, so was the fight.  I overheard your conversation with the Veles.  You really think you can distract that thing long enough for them to split?”

“That’s a negative, Captain.  Our intent is to destroy it.”  Elena let the statement hang for a moment before answering the obvious question of how.  “We’re going to hit that son of a bitch at light speed.”

“You can do that?”

The incredulous tone wasn’t surprising, nor could she blame him for the doubt, but she had faith in her husband’s abilities.  “We’ve got a plan in motion, but we’ll need to be right on top of it to make it work.  We could sure as hell use an escort, if you’ve got nothing better to do.”

“Lady, you’re crazier than a krogan ballet recital.  I’m in.”

“Glad to hear it, Captain.  We’ve set a course and we think we can avoid the big guns, but those drones will tear us apart.”

“This bird’s being held together by duct tape and happy thoughts, but I’ll do what I can.  Can’t have a bunch of civies showing more guts than the Navy’s best and brightest, now can I?”

“You won’t have to wait long to show us what you’ve got, Captain, we’ve got four more bogeys inbound.  We’ve also got a lot of work to do on our end.  Dark Horse, out.”  Elena deactivated the com channel and brought her FTL-plotting screen front and center, but there wasn’t much more that she could do, personally, until they were closer to making the actual jump.  “Cor, what’s your status?”

“My status is annoyed.”  Cor lifted his head from behind the primary navigation console, his frown hidden behind his mask, though the faint glow of his narrowed eyes could still be seen.  “It’s bad enough that human designers never provide enough room for helmets, but Christina’s flying is bouncing me all over the place down here.”

“Hey, I was trying to not get shot down!”  Christina frowned, then stuck out her tongue at the quarian.  “You’re just ornery because the Captain was talking to Mr. Sexy Voice out there.”

“He does have a sexy voice, doesn’t he.”  Elena offered a wry grin to her husband, enjoying the brief moment of normalcy, however illusory it may have been.  “How much longer, Cor?”

“Honestly, I think it’ll only be a few more minutes of preparation.  The last step will have to be done immediately before engaging the luminal drive.”

“Good, then get back to it.  Our mechanical friends out there will be on us in less than two minutes and we’ll be in clear line of site with the Reaper in a little over six.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.  But first thing’s first,” Cor paused to put his hands up to his helmet, unlocking it from the suit before pulling it off, sterilized air hissing as it escape the broken seal.  “If I’m going to die, I’d rather it not be because my head’s too big.  Not like I need to worry about infections, at this point.”

Christina found herself staring at the engineer, mesmerized by her first look at a quarian’s face.  “Wow.  You’re pretty cute.”

Cor smiled at her, but it was Elena who spoke up.  “Eyes on your console, Ms. Brisban, he’s taken.  Now prepare for evasive action.  We’ve got uninvited guests.”

“You’re right, though,” Cor noted as he hunkered back down behind the nav console, “I am pretty cute.”  He fired off a wink at Christina, then tethered himself to the floor with a mag-lock and got back to work, leaving their pilot to tend to her own task – keeping them alive long enough to get within range of their target.

Elena’s gaze flicked across the ship’s status data, noting that their shields were sitting just shy of fifty percent, then over to the tactical display.  Four drones were closing fast, holding a square flight pattern, but their Alliance escort fighter wasn’t showing anywhere on the ladar.  “Where the hell did he– ah!”  A smile curled the Captain’s lips as she realized that Stewart was on the sensors, he was just blending in with the Dark Horse’s own signal.

“Chris, our escort’s flying danger-close to us to hide his presence.  Until he breaks, I want you broadcasting your moves as you do them.”

“Aye, Captain!  Here’s hoping the Reapers are listening too closely.”  Christina opened a com signal, broadcasting on standard Alliance channels, and began speaking to the ether.  “The Dark Horse will be starting evasives with a tight barrel-roll to starboard, followed by a quick, looping roll to port.  Bear in mind that that’s ‘freighter quick,’ not ‘fighter quick.’  Commencing action in fifteen seconds.”

Even as the young pilot was giving Stewart warning of her intents, Elena had already shifted her focus to defenses.  “Ryker, put the turrets on auto and let them start firing the instant that the targets are within range.  It’s not like they’ll do a lot of damage, anyway.”

“But we can break their formation and disrupt their attack vector.  Aye, aye!”

“We’re going to need more shields than fifty.  Shut down all non-essentials, including life support to the rest of the ship.  Get some more juice into them!”

Ryker’s hands were already flying across his controls, rerouting every watt he could spare.  “On it, Captain.”

“Hold on to your shorts, people!”  Christina watched as their turrets began slicing beams of concentrated light through the space in front of the ship, setting the drones to scatter as they closed for their attack.  “Three.  Two.  One.  Break!”

Elena gripped the arm of her command chair as the ship lurched around her, her eyes never leaving the shield power display as it dropped from fifty to forty, then to thirty-five in the span of a few seconds.  She’d taken fire from pirates before, but she’d never seen her ship’s defenses so completely overwhelmed.  “Any time now, Ryker.”

The drones were nearly on top of them and, while Christina’s efforts were keeping the Dark Horse from taking the full barrage, there wasn’t going to be much left for their second pass.  Elena glanced up at Ryker, her old friend working feverishly at his controls, then looked back to her displays.  Twenty-five, twenty-one… sixty-eight?

“That’s everything I could dredge up, Captain.”

“Nice work, Gregory.  Those things’ll have to earn this kill.”  With a little bit of breathing room restored and the drones passing astern, Elena turned her attention to the ladar telemetry.  “They’re all yours, Stewart.”

The Alliance Captain had already sprung into action, catching one of the drones by surprise and tearing it apart before he flew off to get some space to maneuver, away from the freighter.  “One down and two more chasing after him, but they left one behind with us, so stay sharp, Chris.”

Christina lead the Dark Horse through a series of dives, rolls and climbs as she sought to keep the drone’s weapons from scoring a solid hit, but with the need to continue their approach to the Reaper, itself, she was limited in what she could do.  A growl of frustration rumbled in her throat, muttered curses following as she slid the ship around a weather satellite, using it to give them a momentary barrier; and a moment was all it lasted.  “I can’t dodge everything and Ryker can’t hit the damned thing, so this ride is going to get bumpy really quick.”

“It’s already bumpy!”  Cor rose up from behind the navigation console, clinging to it for balance.

“Bumpier, okay?”

“Our shields aren’t going to last more than a couple of minutes like this.”  Elena frowned at the forty-two showing on her shield display.  Worse still, the close range was allowing the drone’s beams to punch holes through the barrier and scar the hull of the ship itself.  It was no wonder that the Alliance cruisers had fared so poorly; if their fighter-craft were this powerful, a capital ship’s weapons must have been off the scale.  “Cor, are you ready for the jump?  We may have to try it from further out than planned.”

The quarian nodded to his wife, the motion visible this time.  “As ready as I can get it, but distance is our enemy.  I’ll see if I can squeeze anything else out of the shields.  There’s–”

“Hold tight!”  Ryker interrupted the engineer with a shout, taking a firm grip on his console, himself, just before the whole ship shuddered with an explosion.  “The drone concentrated its fire on the port-side turret; it’s gone.  Only good news is that it made a damned fine target in the meantime, so its shields should be in as bad of a shape as ours.”

“Small comfort when we’ve got half the ship undefended,” Elena replied, noting that their own shields had fallen to twenty-seven percent.  “Any other significant damage?”

“Negative, Captain.  Seals are all solid.”

“Good.  Chris, keep our starboard towards the enemy as best you can.  We can’t afford to give it free fire on us.”

“Trying,”  Christina was already rolling the ship in an attempt to keep up with the drone, “but easier said than done!”

“I thought you could make this freighter dance, Chris?”  Cor, having strapped himself into the navigational station’s chair, brought up displays as he searched for every watt of power that he could reroute to the shields, but Ryker hadn’t missed much.  “Captain, I recommend holding fire and putting weapons power towards the shields until we actually need the guns.”

While Christina grumbled about her dance partner stepping on her toes, Elena weighed her husband’s suggestion.  The turret wasn’t accomplishing much beyond distracting the drone, but it also wouldn’t provide that much extra power to the shields.  Looking at the ladar, she sought out a third option and activated the coms.  “Captain Stewart, this is Dark Horse.  We’re in it deep and could use a hand.  What’s your situation?”

“Comple– –ucked, Captain.”  The response was less positive than she had hoped, static bursts breaking up Jayce’s reply; what words she could piece together sounded far from good.  “–upport is fai– –gines going crit–”

“Stewart’s coming in fast and hot, Captain.”  Cor brought up a screen with scan data of the Alliance interceptor even as he spoke, quickly enlarging it before continuing.  “He’s got a drone on his tail, his engine is putting out a lot of bad signals and I don’t detect any active shields.”

“He’s coming up along our length, but I think he’s gunning for the drone that’s on us.  Ryker, can you give him any cover-fire?”

“Negative, Captain, I’ve got no line on his pursuer.”

Christina glanced at the telemetry and gave a dark smile.  “I’ve got this.”

She rolled the Dark Horse, giving the drone its first good look at their undefended flank since they lost the turret, enticing it to hold its position even as she brought up a screen for emergency systems.  Stewart made the most of it, lighting up the drone with laser fire, quickly overwhelming its already damaged shields.  There was a sense of relief as the drone vanished from their scopes, but she kept her thoughts on the last of the Reaper fighters, knowing that her timing needed to be perfect; her focus was challenged by the transmission playing over their coms.

“–ice knowing– –ark Horse.  –one’s for Maddie.”  There was a loud burst of static, followed by a pained growl and more interference, before his final words came in with crystal clarity.   “I’ll see you on the other side.”

Christina snarled as the interceptor vanished from their scopes, slamming her fist down on the escape pod override.  A split second later, the bridge’s starboard pod launched, colliding with the drone almost immediately as it skirted just over their hull, smashing through its shields.  “Eat it, you soulless son of a bitch!”

Ryker took full advantage of the opening, laying into it with everything he could muster out of the remaining turret.  There was an explosion within the automated vessel, but even in its death throes, it remained a threat, using their own tactics against them.  “Brace for impact!”

The words had barely left his mouth before the drone rammed into the Dark Horse, detonating as it did.  The bridge went dark as power to the lights failed, but it was lit all too soon by the arcing electricity from severed lines.  Christina turned her face away, but couldn’t get her arms up quickly enough to shield herself as a power surge sent her console into overload, all of her systems exploding.

The next minute or so was lost to her, all thought buried beneath the searing pain.  Red light filled the cabin from the emergency lights and a figure hovered over her, yelling her name.  It seemed like an eternity before the agony was subdued by numbness and she could focus her gaze on the woman’s face looking down at her.  “Cap–”

“Relax, Chris, let the medi-gel do its work.”  Elena held her, firmly yet gently, to the floor, preventing her from attempting to sit up.  “It won’t heal the damage, but it’ll help with the pain.”

Christina raised a hand – slowly, unsteadily – towards her face, but Elena grabbed her wrist and shook her head.  “Don’t.”

The young woman, half of her face charred to the bone, stared up at a ceiling shrouded in smoke and lit by the flickering of flames, then turned her head to look at her Captain’s black-smudged face.  “We failed.”

“Not a chance, girl.”  Elena’s eyes seemed moist, shimmering with unshed tears, but it might’ve only been the unsteady lighting.  “It’s time you got to sit in the big chair.”

Elena helped her pilot to stand and guided her to the captain’s chair while Christina let her eyes drift across the devastation.  Their once pristine bridge had blown panels, burning consoles and debris scattered everywhere.  Up towards the bow, Cor was working fervently to weld a crack in their inner hull even as their atmosphere was slipping out into space, the blue light from his torch casting an eerie glow on his unshielded face.

“Cor– Cor should have his helmet.”  Christina spoke slowly, her head swimming, as she was eased down on to the command chair.

Elena shook her head.  “It was lost in the wreckage.  Don’t worry about it, he’ll be fine.”  She swung Christina’s legs to seat her properly and strapped the younger woman in before tapping a few buttons to bring the virtual interface back to life.  The screens flickered and faded briefly, but remained.  “You can fly the ship from here.  We’ve lost a lot of our maneuverability, but you can– Chris!”  Elena shook her as the younger woman’s eyes started drifting shut, jolting her back to wakefulness, though even that seemed momentary.

“She’s going into shock, Captain.”  Ryker’s words were laboured as he approached, walking with a pronounced limp.  His right arm was tucked in tight to his stomach, his left hung at his side, still clutching an empty extinguisher.  “Let me talk to her.”

“Gregory, I–”

“Not to worry, Captain, the fires are dealt with.”  He offered her a weak smile before stepping past her, into Christine’s line of sight.  “Stay with us, girl, your work isn’t done yet.”

Christine turned her head to look at him, her damaged left eye unable to focus on the man.  She watched as he dropped the extinguisher and lowered himself haltingly down to one knee before placing his hand on her thigh.  She could tell he was hurt, but it wasn’t until he removed his hand from his stomach that she realized just how badly.

A piece of metal protruded from his flesh, the blood dripping from both it and his hand looking black in the red emergency lighting.  “Ryker?  Ryker!”  She would have sat up, were it not for the harness restraining her, but her concern for her friend was enough to clear her head.  “You need medi-gel!”

Ryker shook his head slowly, his chest shuddering with every breath he took.  “We don’t have any more.  It wouldn’t matter if we did.”  He slid down to the floor, leaning heavily against the command chair as his strength failed him.  “It’s alright, I’ll just get there a little sooner.  Save you some seats at the big table.”

Elena knelt next to him, taking his hand in hers and giving it a squeeze.  “Order us some drinks.  We’ll toast the death of a Reaper.”

He smiled as she stood, but his eyes were hooded, unseeing, and his head lolled against Christina’s side.  “The fires are all out, Captain.  The fires…”

A sob shook Christina as salty tears cut lines through the dirt on her face, but her sorrow was quickly replaced by a fury unlike anything she’d ever felt before.  She adjusted herself in the seat and activated the ship’s maneuvering thrusters to get them back on track.  “Course is plotted, Captain, and it looks like the Reaper’s planning to take care of us personally.  We’ve got about two minutes before we have line-of-sight and another twenty seconds until we’re cleared to jump.  Then we’ll show that fucker who the scariest species is.”

“Damn straight.”  Elena was already in motion, seating herself in front of the navigation console seconds later.  “Cor, are we air-tight?”

“In twelve seconds, Captain.”

“Good.  Oxygen levels are low, but sufficient.  Doesn’t look like there are any more drones within intercept range, so we’re in the clear, for the moment.”  Elena brought up her luminal jump calculations and quickly modified them to match their new course.  She took a deep breath and slowly let it out.  There was nothing left to do but wait.  “If there’s anyone out there that you wanted to send a goodbye to, now’s the time to do it.”

Cor turned off his welding torch and turned back towards his wife.  “You know better, love.  My family is already here with me.”  They shared a smile, gazing into each other’s eyes through the dimly lit bridge.  “I only wish I could tell my people that I died well.  With honour.”

“Make sure that our systems weren’t scrambled in the collision.  Don’t want to disappoint our mechanical friend out there.”  Elena opened up a communications window as she spoke, preparing to make a recording, then cast a wink at her husband.  “I’ll take care of granting your final wish.”

“Is that so?”  The quarian raised a brow, a smirk curling his lips.  “We’ve got less than two minutes, love.”

“So,”  Elena replied with a smile, “we’ll have time to cuddle afterwards.”

“Ugh, it’s like watching my parents flirt.”  Christina shook her head slightly, then turned her focus to the telemetry projections for their flight path.  “Captain?  We’re going to die; why aren’t I afraid?”

“Well,” Cor answered for her, “as the great philosopher D’Argo vas Moya once said, ‘Fear accompanies the possibility of death. Calm shepherds its certainty.’  Once you’ve stepped across the threshold of death’s door, there is nothing left to fear.”

Christina nodded slowly as she listened to him, understanding it better than she would’ve expected.  “Then there’s only one thing left I really need to do.”  Opening a com window to her right – keeping her unburned side facing it, she sent out a signal and waited for the response.

It didn’t take long, her sister accepting the call with a mixture of terror and excitement.  “Chris!  Where are you?  What’s going on?!”

“Hey, Candice, I just… wanted to say goodbye.”  Christina looked forward resolutely as she spoke, fixing her eyes on the ladar image of the Reaper.  “You’ll have your chance to get out of there, soon, but–”

“Goodbye?”  Candice leaned in close to her phone, her face framed by the borders of the view screen.  “They say that that alien ship was right over top of us, but now it’s moving off.  What’s going on out there?”

“We’re getting you out of there – the Veles, the Amazing Grace, all of you – but the Dark Horse won’t be going with you.  We’re going to deal with the Reaper.”

“Deal with the–  What d’you mean you’re not coming?”  The younger sibling’s voice became increasingly frantic and their mother’s voice could be heard in the background, asking many of the same questions.  “What’s going on?  What aren’t you telling me?  Look at me!”

“I– I’m sorry, Candice.  I’m going to keep you safe.  I’m–”

“Chris, look at me!”

Christina fell silent for a few moments, then slowly turned to face the com window, letting her see the damaged half of her face.  The flesh was cooked through, blackened in places, and much of her hair was ash.   The blisters had been soothed by the medi-gel and the nerves numbed, but the skin was irreparable and the ear barely recognizable.  “I’m not coming back, sis.  I’m already dead, the gel’s just keeping my body from realizing it.”

Candice’s breath caught in her throat and she nearly dropped her phone, but to her credit she didn’t shy away from the horrific sight before her.  “Chris, I– I don’t–”

“It’s okay, Candice, I’m good with this.”  She tried to smile, but only half of her face responded to the intention and she ended up just sighing.  “I have to go, there’s not much time left.  Just… do something for me?”

“Anything, sis.”

Christina reached out to touch the vidscreen floating before her, wishing she could hug her little sister one last time, but her path was at its end and Candice’s just beginning.  “Live for both of us, Candice; for all of us.  And never give up.”

“I– I promise.”  The girl swallowed hard at put her fingertips onto her own screen, as though they could somehow touch through the electrons between them.  “And it’s ‘Candy’ to you.”

The smile still couldn’t light her face like it used to, but it glowed in Christina’s eyes.  “Give my love to mom.  Be strong, Candy.  I love you.  Goodbye.”

She didn’t wait for a reply, she had no time left for conversation.  Terminating the transmission, she turned her attention back to the enemy.  “We’ll have visual in ten seconds, Captain.”

“Understood.  Assume that it’ll commence attack even with Circe’s atmospheric distortion and begin evasives immediately.”

“Aye, Captain, taking evasive action.”

“Cor, are we ready?”

The quarian, once again tethered to the navigation console by a mag-lock, lifted his head to look at his wife.  “We’re ready, Captain.”

Opening a communication systems to full broadcast, Elena cleared her throat and took a deep breath to steady her voice.  “Attention Veles and Amazing Grace, this is the Dark Horse.  We are about to engage the Reaper vessel.  Launch immediately!  If all goes well, you’ll have a clear run out of the system.  Either way, I suggest hurrying.  Just remember your promise, Captain Baratovsky.”

“Understood, Captain Richardson-Vada, we are lifting off now and have your escape pods on our scanners.  Thank you, Dark Horse, we are in your debt.”

“Then remember us, Captain.  And remember the Alliance sailors who died this day, as well.  Dark Horse, out.”

Christina banked sharply as the Reaper opened fire, Circe’s atmosphere having only minimal effect on the power of the lance of red light which streaked past the Dark Horse.  If she hadn’t already had enough reasons to avoid the Reaper’s attacks, the sheer magnitude of its firepower assured her that even one hit would be too much for them to survive.  “I don’t think our shields are going to help us against that!”

“Keelah!”  Cor may have been looking at the backside of the displays at Elena’s console, but that didn’t inhibit him from seeing the readings shown there.  “The power of that weapon is mind-boggling!”

“Cor, I…”  Elena lifted her gaze to meet his, and she couldn’t be more thankful that she was able to meet them without his visor’s presence.  She tried to speak further, but her heart caught in her throat and she was unable to push the words through her lips.  She didn’t need to. He knew her well and knew what was in her heart, even if she could never give them voice.

“I know, Elena.  I love you, too.”  He smiled and reached over the console to press the transmit button for the message she had pre-recorded.  “Now, then, let’s go out in style, shall we?”

She smiled, the feeling genuine despite the circumstances, and she rested her hand briefly on top of his.  A massive energy beam tore through space just to their port side, obliterating the outer tip of the wing there, but she felt no fear.  If her heart raced, it was for another emotion entirely.  She looked at her displays, glancing at her calculations and the telemetry.  A few more seconds and they’d be in position.

“Cor, Christina… let’s make it happen.”

The quarian triggered his sensor override, the pilot aligned the ship, the Captain activated the luminal drive… and the Dark Horse had its date with destiny.

*****

“This is Captain Richardson-Vada of the freighter Dark Horse.  A Reaper ship has attacked the colony on Circe and several hundred colonists remain trapped there.  My crew and I are going to attempt to ram the Reaper at FTL speeds, hoping to destroy it, or at least buy enough time for the colonists to escape.

“Engineer Cor’Vada vas Dark Horse of the quarians.  Security officer and former Alliance Lieutenant Gregory Ryker.  Pilot Christina Brisban of Circe.  This is my crew – my family – and we know that, successful or not, we will not survive to see another day.  What will survive is the memory of the ship that took out a Reaper, not with firepower, but with a stark determination that would not be denied.  And when the Reapers think back to this day, they will do so with a tremble in the core of the soulless constructs that pass as their hearts.

“They see us as insignificant.  They believe us to be helpless.  They assure themselves that we can’t possibly threaten them, that the odds are unfathomable.  Well, we’re here to enlighten them as to one simple rule of life:  Always bet on the Dark Horse.  Keelah se’lai.”
As mentioned at the top of the story, this is set in the middle of Mass Effect 3's storyline (ie the video game, for those not familiar), at the peak of the Reaper invasion. Everyone's heard about them, but people still aren't prepared for just how fast the giant, robotic space-squids can move.

Random info: "D’Argo vas Moya" is an indication that I've been Netflixing too much Farscape, lately. The quote is from the last episode of season one. Also, for those of the mindset, this would be my primary soundtrack for this story: Angels on the Moon by Thriving Ivory, This is Gonna Hurt by Sixx A.M., Blow Me Away by Breaking Benjamin (with Valora) and, of course, Dark Horses, by Switchfoot.

I started writing this way back in September, but got derailed by home improvements from hell, holidays and, well, taking care of my daughter (which, if you've seen my webcomic, you'll know to be something I'm having fun with). The seeds of the story started with the thought "why don't they FTL some automated ships into these pricks?" Not in so many words, but more or less like that. Coincidentally, about a week later, I came across the codex entry talking about how the FTL tech had safety features hard-wired, eliminating the possibility. That didn't stop me, obviously, but it was good to know and it added another dynamic to the story that was beginning to form. So I set out on a quest to write a story and make the reader care about the characters, even though it’s pretty obvious from early on that none of them are going to make it out alive. Let me know if I succeeded! :)

For those that have played the game, you may have noticed that there aren't really any happy endings in ME3. Seriously, you keep having to deliver news about loved ones deaths, Sanctuary turns out to be a slaughterhouse, and even all the people on the Citadel end up dying (why did we spend so much time bolstering Citadel defenses, anyway? ;P ). When it comes right down to it, though, Mass Effect isn't about happy endings. It's not even about simply surviving (which, generally speaking, you don't) or winning a war. It's about refusing to give up, no matter the odds. It's about uniting to achieve an impossible victory. It's about drawing a line in the sand and saying "yeah, you can step across it, but you'll be missing a foot afterward." It's about the dark horse finding a way to be stronger than anyone would have ever given them credit for.

And maybe it's about hope for the future. Maybe the tale above is just the prelude to the real story; one about a girl named Candice, who takes her sister's example to heart. She strikes me as a warrior in the making. A hero for the next generation. Someone to pick up the pieces after Shepard's death. Yeah, I think she's just getting warmed up.


Mass Effect, Reapers and all that jazz are property of BioWare. All the characters are my own creations, as is the story itself. And, also, this really, really long commentary.

I hope you all enjoyed the read as much as I enjoyed crafting it.

Keelah se'lai!
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:iconlon-kamikaze:
LoN-Kamikaze Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Finally got around to reading this.

Need plague.
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:icontreyos:
Treyos Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Heh. Working on it, I promise!
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:iconlon-kamikaze:
LoN-Kamikaze Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Working on something doesn't automatically lead to its conclusion. :P
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:icontreyos:
Treyos Featured By Owner Apr 11, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
This is, unfortunately, very true.
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:iconwindsparrow:
WindSparrow Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2013
By the gracious Gods, that was Beautiful!!! Thank you for sharing that story... I'm still crying... That is now my all time favorite ME Fanfic. It was truely amazing... Thank you again!
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:icontreyos:
Treyos Featured By Owner Apr 6, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
And thank you very much for such a flattering comment! Great to hear that you enjoyed the story so much!
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:iconezri-krios:
Ezri-Krios Featured By Owner Mar 13, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Featured. [link] :-)
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:icontreyos:
Treyos Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Thank you! I appreciate the support!
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:iconezri-krios:
Ezri-Krios Featured By Owner Mar 14, 2013  Hobbyist Writer
Always a pleasure to support an artist. :-)
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