The Long Walk

Chapter 6 of The Suicide Mission

This time Garrus was smarter. He insisted until Tali agreed to rescan this section of the station on a frequency slightly lowered for increased penetration; he offered to calibrate her omnitool himself, but she said no, in not so many words. She softened a bit when it turned out his instinct had been right, and allowed him to unjam her shotgun. An old friend, that weapon. Perhaps too old, but now was not the time to debate sentimentalities. The parallel chamber they were to traverse sported a grid of catwalks similar to what they had seen in the waste processing unit and Garrus wasn’t about to waste the opportunity.

They climbed several stories up using service shafts before emerging above what appeared to be a long, cylindrical cavern going on farther than an unassisted eye could reach. Thick white vapor covered the floor ways below and the catwalks were slippery with condensation. There were suspicious orange lights pulsing at irregular intervals under the fog, revealing lazy wisps that ghosted even to where they were standing. Some two hundred meters ahead, there was a shielded chamber to the left. The shield seemed to be partially collapsed, though; its watery blues and the sharp ultraviolets only Garrus could see shimmered, blinking in and out of existence, and after some seconds of staring, created an illusion of directed motion: it looked like the shield was flowing down in tattered, glowing rags.

“What is this place?” said Jacob.

“If I’m not mistaken, it’s the heat recycling plant,” Tali replied, flashing her omnitool to take readings before Garrus slapped her hand down with more force than he’d intended. But that was damn stupid.

“They don’t know we’re here yet. Let’s not advertise.”

“I’m sorry, Garrus,” she said. “This place makes me nervous. I’ll switch to night mode.”

But Mordin was faster. “Scan complete,” he said under his voice. “Bad news. Reading elevated levels of ionizing radiation. Safe here. But not there,” and he pointed towards the shielded chamber. There was no way around it, if they were to get to the other side and meet Shepard. Garrus frowned.

“The heat processing unit is probably powered by some sort of an M-AM reactor,” Tali said, arching her body over the railing for better perspective. “It looks like the shield can’t draw enough power and the radiation is escaping through the gaps.”

“When you say not safe,” Garrus said, addressing the question to Mordin, “what exactly do you mean?”

“Irreversible tissue damage resulting in slow and painful death from radiation sickness. Not recommended.”

There was a brief, motionless silence. Then Jacob shifted weight from one leg to the other. “I guess we didn’t name it the suicide mission for nothing. I say we make a run for it.”

Five shiny helmets turned to him as one, and although there was no way to tell what went on under them, Garrus had a pretty good idea, biting down his own smile. Jacob didn’t lack courage, that much no one could deny. As if reflecting his thoughts, Zaeed patted Jacob’s shoulder. Garrus could almost hear the veteran’s voice: there, mate, there.

“Maybe we can reset the shield remotely,” Tali said, already scrolling through the darkened interfaces on her omnitool. Garrus watched hopefully, but he could already guess the outcome. Had they been able to tap into the internal controls of the Collector base, this whole mission would have been unnecessary. And indeed, after a minute of tense silence that seemed to stretch into an eternity, she waved her head and put her hands down.

“What if we just blow up the damn thing?” said Zaeed.

“Core collapse likely to cause antimatter containment failure,” Mordin mused. “Cataclysmic consequences. Desirable result, but not the kind to increase our chances of survival.”

At that the intercom broke open and Shepard’s voice delivered a string of syllables barely understandable over the noise. “In po… Garrus, you… everywhere. The com… here they co…”

“Something’s interfering with their comm,” said Samara. Helpful, that. “Either the swarms, or the biotic field. Or both.”

Biotic field. Garrus looked at her, an idea forming in his mind. “Samara. Can a biotic barrier protect from radiation?”

“Not from these levels. I could erect a field to fortify the shield, but I’m afraid it would fail in seconds. I am sorry.”

 “Don’t be. We’re all doing our best.” He took a deep breath, making the decision. It was the only way. In the privacy of his helmet, he smiled. There was no fear: he had lived a full life, a recent development as it might have been, and if it was to end here, he would die with no regrets. “I’ll go down and reset the shield manually.”

“Garrus, that’s crazy,” Tali whispered. “You can’t…”

“Not crazy” Mordin cut in, typing something on his darkened omnitool. “Didn’t account for turian natural resistance. With personal shields calibrated to protect vital areas… survival theoretically possible.”

“But if we mess with the controls, the Collectors are sure to find us,” Jacob said.

“They’ll find us anyway,” Zaeed replied. “And I’m not hearing any alternative ideas. If none of you have anything useful to add, let’s get going. I for one wouldn’t want to keep Shepard waiting.” He grunted. “Now that would be a goddamned suicide.”

If anyone laughed at that, they hid it well. Garrus looked around, starting to feel the grim excitement in the increasing pitch of his voice. “Right. Let’s do this. Fan out to the sides,” he gestured to the left and right, as the catwalks ran in two parallel lines along the chamber. “If we’re attacked, I’ll cloak, but you’ll have to divert their fire from my position.”

“Cloak will fail quickly due to radiation,” Mordin said. “Shields as well. When that happens, make haste. Minimize exposure. Losing leader, always bad for morale.”

Tali elbowed into Mordin’s side, and some nervous chuckling ensued.

Garrus hurried along the wall. If he pressed close enough to it, he could avoid the wide beam of death shining invisibly through the failing shield. He’d configured his suit to beep at every detection, so he didn’t need the numerical display on his visor to tell him he was already being bombed by way more than the comfortable 200 CPM of Palaven at noon. In fact, as he approached to some twenty meters of the reactor chamber, the beeping that had so far been frenetic but still discrete turned into a continuous high-pitched howl and he switched the damn thing off. It wasn’t helping.

Ten meters now, and he stepped on something that crushed under his foot with as sound that made him think of a plastic part fallen off from machinery, but he couldn’t afford the time to investigate. He hated the fog that pooled on the floor, reaching his knees. It felt like wading through a bad dream and he kept waiting for some Reaper-repurposed monstrosity to jump out at him and end his own brand of a suicidal run with a fucking heart attack.

Yeah, yeah, keep talking, smartass, he censured himself. CPM was in the order of five digits now and increasing feverishly with every step. He noted that his breathing had become very fast although he was far from tired. He stepped on another broken part: he was getting close. Something must have blown, damaging the shield, the flashing, blinking shield that was seriously going on his nerves now, leaving azure stripes all over his field of vision. Six digits. Seven digits. Stay, stay. Good boy.

Eight digits. Damn.

He was almost at the corner when the suit informed him that his kinetic barrier was depleted.

“Look… a big red… entrance,” Tali’s voice instructed through the radiation-induced noise. Look for a big red button near the entrance. Nine digits, and his heart started hammering in his throat like crazy. He didn’t want to die, least of all falling apart on some hospital bed, not now that things had finally started working out for him. There had been a time when he… didn’t care whether he lived or not, to put it mildly. But it wasn’t like that anymore. It hadn’t been like for quite a while now and there was a human he had to thank for it. A human who gave him life, not once but twice now and he owed it to her to keep it and use it the best way he could.

Still, the only way led forward.

He reached the corner and his CPM display went into scientific format. Shit. A glance inside, and indeed, there was a fist-sized red button on the wall, staring back at him with unhidden malice. He took off and extended his sniper, waited a second for a gap in the shield, held his breath and slammed the button with the butt of the rifle, hiding as much of his body as he could on his side of the corner. But as the strike connected and he jumped back into relative safety, the hum of machinery he had hardly been aware of till now suddenly ceased, and with it the sickly bluish twinkling of the shield. Instead of solidifying, it was… gone. Cold sweat suffused between his plates.

 “Hit… you have…it again!” Tali was screaming. Hit it again, you have to hit it again! He sprang into motion and repeated the exercise. But when he struck the button this time, all hell broke loose: the shield sprang into life and threw him back into the middle of the chamber, the solid ceramics of his hard-suit taking the gist of the electric shock, but even while still in flight, he lamented the loss of his favorite weapon behind the blue curtain. And then as he hit the hard cold ground and dived under the disgusting fog, a pandemonium of shouts and curses started streaming through the intercom, superfluous and a bit over the top, really: he could see the enemy just as well as they could see him and the burst of rounds that he took in the back as he rolled away for cover that existed only in his wishful thinking, testified to that with mock certainty. But at least his suit was quick to recover, and he had shields, and kept breathing.

For now.

The voices yelling at him got lost beneath the hail of fire as his men started shooting back and he found himself lying under a veritable river of light trailing over the mist, but one voice was loud and insistent enough to get through the haze of confusion: “Cloak! Garrus, cloak! Cloak, damn you!”

Cloak? Yeah. He knew there was something he’d forgotten.

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