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Whatever Shape Your Burdens Take
By A.P. Stacey


Chapter I : It's difficult to stand on both feet, isn't it?

Kinetic barriers flared into existence; disintegrating the incoming rounds which hit their mark with brilliant flashes of blue and coruscating purple, reducing the surrounding cityscape to a barely-visible silhouette. Errant bullets exploded chunks of brittle concrete already worn away by the wind and the rain, covering anything and everything below in a pall of choking dust.

Giving way to the natural instinct to duck as a section of the ruined wall ahead shattered into powder and brick, Shepherd threw herself to the ground. Wiping the mud free from her eyes and coughing her lungs clear, the Spectre pressed a fingertip against her earpiece and struggled to pick out anything more than white noise.

"Now would be a good time Garrus!" She hissed, turning her face away from a billowing cloud of vaporised mortar. A high-pitched screech almost forced her to tear the earpiece away, eyes clenching shut at the painful whine. "Garrus! Respond!"

"Shepherd – I'm still transiting to a fire point," The Turian replied finally and almost reluctantly as if bothered by the interruption. "No opportunities to target as yet."

Personal barriers flashed into existence as the wall Shepherd leant against fractured under the impact of a high-velocity round, breaking apart under the assault and leaving nothing between the Baatarian thugs opposite, their rifle scopes and a certain Spectre's back. A deafening hail of rounds punctured the air where the wall had stood a moment before, too quickly and too many for the commander's barriers to cope with alone.

The N7 armour sounded a warning even as a single round broke through the battle-plastic; ignoring ineffective shielding, shredding flesh and tearing muscle before finally being stopped by the bone of the arm. Throwing herself to the side and dragging her face across splinters of shattered brick, Shepherd gnashed her teeth together, enduring the agonising seconds it took for the N7's auto-injectors to cut into her wrist and deliver their cocktail of clotting agents, stimulants and morphine.

Whether down to nerves cut by the bullet, the numbing effect of the anaesthetic or a combination of both, Shepherd cradled the useless arm in her lap. Chin tucked in to avoid the whizzing shots surrounding and (literally) painfully conscious of the lack of kinetic barriers, she was in no position to leap the divide and chase down the mercenaries like some Krogan locked in bloodlust.

Ignoring the pain of shifting her arm to bring the one good hand remaining up to her ear, Shepherd tapped the frequency open. "I don't care if you can't see the end of your own mandibles, Garrus! Shoot something! Give them someone else to worry about!"

Ever business-like on the battlefield, the former C-Sec officer kept it short. "Understood."

The song of an automatic armour-piercing Turian sniper rifle was a mixture of the deafening clang of the high-calibre rounds as they punched through solid metal, the panicked cries of surprised thugs throwing themselves into cover and the aimless, ineffective return fire of those same mercenaries trying to hit what they couldn't see.

Effectively prevented from wielding anything larger than a pistol in lieu of having two working hands, Shepherd checked the compact weapon's heatsink and drew a good lungful of air into her chest. Crouching with knees bent to almost touch the ground, she pushed off against the mud as a second volley of sniper fire reverberated about the shattered warehouse; re-directing virtually all of the mercenary fire away towards the ghostly Turian hidden somewhere in the upper level, out of sight.

Blackened fragments of twisted metal and the scorched rubble once making up the walls of the warehouse sank deep into the mud, underneath the force of the heavy boots pounding through. Shepherd cleared the remains of a support girder standing three feet off the ground with a single leap, her remaining good arm tracking two pairs of eyes in one head as they widened with surprise and struggled to bring their rifle to bare.

Effectively rendered silent by the concussive bangs of Garrus' sniper rifle, a snap more fitting to breaking a branch from a tree took the Baatarian off his feet, a single pistol round delivered between his four eyes. Throwing herself to the mud below, she pressed her back up against a storage box long since looted and left to rust, blue eyes watching a second mercenary as he popped his head around the edge of the box to find his comrade-in-arms.

The second Baatarian rolled his eyes, dropping to his knees and crawling over to the still-warm corpse. Setting about picking it clean of weapons, credits and anything of value, he was considerably richer for all of the five seconds it took Shepherd to deliver her heavy boot to the side of his exposed head.

Settling for the heatsinks the unconscious and the dead wouldn't have any further use for, Shepherd cleared the thick reams of mud from the pistol's cooling baffles. "Keep it up Garrus – I'm closing in."

The deafening bangs from above continued, with a pause only long enough for the Turian to acknowledge. "Understood. Be careful."

Stepping over the dispatched pair below, she made use of the numerous holes and breaks in both sides of the storage container to allow her to glance straight through and catch sight of the target. Clad in cerulean-blue armour sculpted about the shoulders and waist, the warlord was certainly garbed as one would expect from a rich Baatarian eager to show it. He Stood almost seven feet tall with a broad, bony chest – a fearsome opponent without considering the powered armour he wore which lent him a skin stronger than her own N7 suit, inclusive even of its kinetic barriers.

The triple-barrelled pistol he wielded would surely count as a heavy weapon in the hands of any mere human, were any mere human able to fire it without losing an arm to recoil. Even the armour's sophisticated dampeners built into his broad legs forced the warlord to take a step back with every shot. An out-and-out duel over distance was not an option.

As if to reinforce this point the warlord tracked an imagined target across the upper floor, squeezing the trigger before his hand had even come to a stop. An entire gantry crossing the vast expanse between the warehouse's walls sheared from its supports in writhing flames; crashing through storage crates, below, as a molten tangle of white-hot metal and boiling off the water present in the mud to fire great gouts of steam into the air.

As if the Baatarian ringleader himself was all there was to worry about, a half-dozen of his warband were spread-out in a crescent shape ahead of their paymaster. Settling down into the mud Shepherd spread felt the slight weight of her last remaining grenade in her palm, a flash-bang.

"My Kingdom for a little thermite paste," She sighed, twisting the remote detonator free of the grenade. Under cover of another barrage from above, Shepherd cast the flash-bang over her head – eyes straining through the shattered storage box to catch sight of its landing point. Fingertip tapping gently against the detonation button held in hand, the Spectre watched the ordinance sink into the muddy quagmire.

Shepherd tensed her arm as the warlord raised his weapon and took aim, driving the flat of her palm against the detonator as he squeezed the trigger. Clamping her gauntleted hands against her ears she turned her face away from the impending blindness. The deafening roar of super-heated air assaulted the commander's senses a moment before the blast front of the warlord's super-pistol sent her pitching forward, driving her face down against the mud.

Rolling onto her back and spitting her mouth clear of wet earth, Shepherd's eyes opened to take in the smoking crumpled remains of the storage crate she had leaned against a moment before. Nostrils flaring at the unmistakable tang of burnt flesh, she forced herself to one knee and snatched up the pistol half-buried in the mud.

The warlord shook his four eyes clear, blinking away the blindness which had redirected his aim from the upper levels and the sniper lying on his belly to accidentally incinerate his own honour guard. Grunting in irritation, he pressed a boot against the nearest blackened Baatarian corpse – foot passing through the flesh, muscle and bone without the slightest real effort.

From the edge of his vastly superior peripheral vision, a pale face shimmered and flickered in a boot print filled with brown water. cocking his head to the side, he saw a reflection of red hair and black body armour and a single chance to avoid the glinting pistol being brought to bare against the back of his skull.

The enormous Baatarian stooped over awkwardly as the corpse laying prone ahead over a crate jerked violently, rearing up in response to the bullet which had been destined for his head passing into and through its burnt thigh. Bringing his pistol-turned-artillery piece to bare, a second bullet scraped against the underside of the barrel and forced the weapon from his armoured hand.

Great gouts of steam blew the caked mud from the sides of Shepherd's pistol, heatsink overwhelmed and warbling uselessly in alert. Ejecting the spent sink to melt its way through the quagmire below, she got no closer to replacing it than tearing it from the webbing when an enormous fist crashed against her chestplate – taking the commander off her feet with enough force to break the battle-plastic and crack the skeletal support underneath.

Without the benefit of anything as helpful as a mass effect field the full weight of the N7 armour was turned against Shepherd, sandwiching her brutally between a ceiling support which brought the Spectre to a sharp halt behind and the force of the shattered chest plate pressing against her ribs. Fracture lines danced around the depression left in the centre of the chest piece by the enormous Baatarian gauntlet, gouging shards of broken armour free and raining them down into her lap.

Her mouth filled with the bitter metallic tang of blood, spilling over slack lips and running past her chin in crimson lines all the more striking against the commander's pale skin. Resting the back of her spinning head against the ceiling support, Shepherd could not find enough wits about her to do much more than pant in a desperate attempt to ignore the searing pain of each breath as it pushed broken ribs wider apart.

The warlord did not bother to search for the enormous pistol he'd (unintentionally) taken out the entirety of his elite guard with earlier, hardly needing anything so destructive to put down a mere human – even a mere human who had by all rights already been killed once before. Driving armoured boots a foot into the slick mud with every powerful, thudding step, the Baatarian fixed all four eyes on the slouched figure gasping for air pathetically at his feet.

He half-laughed, half-snorted at the sight before him. "So you're the Champion of the Pinkskins; Spectre and all-round war hero!"

"The hero of the Skyllian Blitz!" He shouted, offering a mock-bow at her presence. "Every Baatarian should offer you a thanks – you put an end to a century wasted with embassies and diplomatic meetings and running around after the Council like Vorcha playthings. If it hasn't been for Pinkskins, we'd probably still be on the Citadel along with weaklings like the Elcor and the Jellyfish arguing over mining rights and settlement permits!"

The warlord stooped over, wrapping his gauntlet about Shepherd's throat with just enough pressure to elicit a frown of pain on the semi-conscious Spectre's face. "You freed us, Pinkskin! Freed us to concentrate on the most important thing in this pitiful galaxy – Credits. Money. Wealth. That's all that matters. Every Baatarian should thank you ..."

Without the slightest real effort the enormous alien hauled Shepherd to her feet, breaking a third rib on the jerk upwards and staining his armour red with the crimson running freely across his gauntlet. He leaned forwards until the bridge of his nose practically driving against the commander's, teeth bared in a snarl.

"I could have made a lot of money from those Pinkskins you saved," He hissed. "I lost even more money in the men you killed saving them. All those credits weren't missed too badly when I heard you'd been spaced though – how does it feel to choke to death?"

Shepherd squeezed her eyes open and shut, as if that would vent the pressure building inside her skull, fingers beginning to feel heavy and stiff. The numbness floated upwards passing beyond her knees and waist, the ever-diminishing oxygen still in her body being redirected ever-closer to the brain. Unable even to cough for the grip crushing her larnyx, bloodshot eyes rolled up towards unconsciousness and oblivion.

Hardly the weapon of choice in hand-to-hand combat, the Turian sniper rifle was nonetheless sturdy enough to emerge the winner in a contest against the Baatarian skull. Buried too deeply in the simple, "honest" pleasure of killing the warlord could offer nothing beyond a cry of surprise as he staggered away from the impact clutching his temple, desperately trying to stem the purple ichor which ran freely over his features from torn flesh and muscle.

Shepherd fell heavily towards the floor, saved the indignity of breaking another rib only by the strong arm of a former C-Sec officer and the power pack attachment point on the scruff of the N7's armoured collar. Coughing frothy blood clear of her throat she felt the familiar burning of cramp set-in, freshly-oxygenated blood arriving to wash away the waste products left to poison her muscles. "I softened him up for you ..."

Garrus nodded, snatching up the buckled rifle from the mud by the end of the barrel and driving its stock into the brdge of the Baataran's nose. The mercenary fell to one knee, face slick with blood pouring from broken cartilage and lacerated flesh. Perhaps a little too eager to close range and finish the fight, the Turian hefted the broken remains of his weapon and made to bring it down directly across the head of the warlord.

A powerful gauntlet crashed into Garrus' armoured chest – effortlessly passing through kinetic barriers designed to stop bullets rather than lunges and shattering the protective carapace over the Turian's front. He doubled over, wheezing loudly in pain as the Baatarian brought the flat of his wide knee up to crash against the sniper's face. Broken mandibles flapped feebly against Garrus' jaw as he staggered backwards, desperately shaking his snout as if that would clear the fog from his mind.

The fog was cleared – along with conscious thought – by the flat of the warlord's boot as he drove it against the Turian's skull. For a few moments Garrus teetered, arms held limply by his side with head angled to stare at the upper levels he had unleashed chaos from, so effectively, earlier. The mud provided a surprisingly gentle landing as he fell backwards, sinking into the boggy earth limply and unaware.

Shepherd dug her fingertips into the churned ground, dragging herself, her broken armour and the broken ribs beneath across the mud and towards the fight so slowly as to be as well waiting for the planet to revolve beneath her. Glassy blue eyes followed each blow and rolled to the side to watch Garrus as he fell to the earth below, limply. Unable to bring herself any further forward the commander rolled onto her back, giving aching lungs a small respite.

Face virtually painted by his own spilled blood, the Baatarian wasted no time in snatching up the sniper rifle which had so effectively broken his nose and skull earlier. Once, twice and three times he brought it down against the defenceless Turian – smashing bone and cartridge and pausing only to deliver a hard stamp against the already-shattered chest.

After the seventh strike, Garrus' chest stopped rising and after the eighth impact it fell empty.

Four eyes found Shepherd's two and did not bother to hide the raw hatred, the seething disgust and the impending pleasure of the kill-without-honour. Breaking the twisted rifle into two halves with his armoured hands, the warlord nonchalantly tossed the debris over his shoulders and stalked towards the Spectre.

The Baatarian raised a thick, armoured, slab-like boot up into the air. "Let's see you return from this, Pinkskin."

The boot hovered for a moment over her face, filling the entirety of Shepherd's vision and everything she knew. When it came back down to earth a moment later, she knew no more.

Part 2

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