Mass Effect: Sole Survivor

I'm a firm believer that writers should always keep everything they've written. Who knows - maybe you'll actually find a use for an old piece of writing at some point! But I think the best part of saving your work is being able to go back years later and see how much you've improved over time. As much as I hate some of the early stories I wrote starring Ziva and Co., I've kept all of them because, while weak, they are the very foundations of those characters.

I've mentioned a couple of times that I got my start writing fan fiction. The majority of it was Star Wars (usually KotOR or a story starring original characters in an Original Trilogy setting) but there were other sources along the way too, everything from Jurassic Park to Mass Effect to some of my favorite TV shows. I was looking back through a folder of old writing a couple of days ago and found the fanfic I wrote after my very first playthrough of Mass Effect that stars my first Shepard during the mission on Akuze.

For anyone unfamiliar with the series, when you first start the game, you're given a choice between three different background profiles for your version of Commander Shepard, one of which is Sole Survivor. The story behind this profile is that your character accompanied a group of marines to a planet called Akuze where a new Alliance colony had mysteriously ceased all communication. It turns out this cease in comms was due to a thresher maw attack, and those same threshers proceeded to wipe out the entire group of marines except for Shepard (hence the "sole survivor" title). Throughout the game -- and the rest of the series -- you learn that the threshers may have been placed there on purpose to wipe out the colony.

There's no official story for how it happened or how many threshers there were, and thus this background profile has been the topic of a lot of fan fiction over the years. I became so invested in researching the backstory for this particular fanfic that I became terrified of thresher maws, and therefore I nearly had a stroke when I learned you had to fight one in Grunt's loyalty mission in Mass Effect 2 (and don't even get me started on the whole Priority: Tuchanka sequence in ME3, although that part is badass enough that I got over it pretty fast). I have since memorized all the thresher locations in the first game so I can try to drive around them. I remember watching my sister play for the first time and she started driving across some flat ground on Trebin without a clue what was about to happen and she nearly peed herself when the thresher appeared. Good times.

ANYWAY. I digress.

Without further ado, here's "Mass Effect: Sole Survivor." I wrote it during the summer of 2012 during one of many writing slumps when I was working on Nexus. It's a little rough in places, but it's still one of my favorite "old" pieces of writing -- and, at 7,130 words, also the longest -- and I thought it would be fun to share it (especially because I've been craving Mass Effect like none other lately but we won't even get started on that). 

And yeah...all the included screenshots are from ME3 because I was a noob the first time I played and all the shots of this particular Shep from ME1 and ME2 are ruined by subtitles.

Mass Effect: Sole Survivor

The last container of medi-gel clattered to the rocky cave floor, empty. Lauren Shepard gritted her teeth and began massaging the injection site -- the long gash extending from her left hip up to her ribs -- as hard as the hypersensitive skin would allow. Her hand came away bloody; the wound still hadn't mended completely. That's what happened when a very limited supply of medi-gel was made to last much longer than it should. What she really needed was a fully functional med lab where she could lie in a comfortable position with proper dressings. At this rate it wouldn't be long before she no longer had a need for one.

Three days. That's how long she'd been holed up in the little cave. It was hardly more than a crevice between a pair of large rocks, with enough space to fully extend her legs only if she was sitting bolt upright. She'd spent most of her time flat on her back with her legs scrunched up, turned slightly onto her right side with her armor's soft underlay pressed against her wound. That was the position she held now, eyes closed, mouth wide open as she inhaled and exhaled the stifling afternoon air.

The planet was called Akuze. Shepard had never been there before -- hell, there were a lot of places she'd never been. At twenty-three years old, she was the baby of the squad of marines that had come to Akuze to investigate a distress signal. But, despite her young age, she'd just graduated from the Interplanetary Combatives Academy with N7 status, and she had earned it. The other soldiers had all been part of the ICA as well -- most of them were N4s and N5s, she believed -- and accompanying them on this investigation had been her first major post-graduation mission. The powers-that-be had said it would do her good to take charge of a squad and maybe make use of her biotic abilities as a Vanguard. Shepard scoffed. Things definitely hadn't gone as smoothly as they'd all hoped.

A commotion outside the cave drew her attention; the ground began to tremble and a tremendous roar echoed off of the hills surrounding the valley below. A second roar followed in response, this one higher in pitch and louder. The creatures had returned.

Shepard snatched up her pistol -- the only weapon she'd managed to grab as she'd fled the base camp -- and worked her way into a sitting position. It was doubtful that the creatures could see her, but she was still leery about moving around or showing her face. She cautiously peered out through the rocks and studied the two worm-like monsters protruding from the ground on either side of the camp. They were thresher maws -- she recognized them from the vids they'd shown during basic training. As far a she knew, the Systems Alliance had never encountered one in the wild. They were rare, solitary creatures, and it was odd that there were two of them in the same area much less on the same planet.

They stood over ninety feet above the ground, having burst up from their tunnels where the rest of their massive bodies remained. Swaying back and forth, they surveyed what was left of the camp, roaring at each other and clawing at the air with their tentacle-like arms. The scene hadn't changed at all since they'd killed the fifty other Alliance marines three days earlier -- the bodies were still strewn everywhere, the structures demolished.

The only explanation Shepard could think of for their periodic reappearance was that they knew she was still alive. Maybe they could smell her, or maybe they had seen her retreating into the hills. Either way, she understood that they were searching for her. This was a problem, considering her pistol was no match for the threshers' thick hides. Even biotics wouldn't do much good against them, and judging by the pounding in her head, her implant had been damaged anyway. Worrying about fighting them off was pointless, however, if she wasn't alive to do it -- the only nourishment she'd had were the ration bar and half-empty water container she'd had on her person when she'd escaped. The food wrapper and empty bottle lay on the ground beside the three depleted medi-gel containers. If the starvation and dehydration didn't get her, her wound would.

"Get up," she commanded her body, feeling only slightly better as the medi-gel began to kick in. She rocked up onto her knees then forward onto her stomach, her head pointed toward the cave entrance. Her wound screamed at her and she groaned, rolling back and forth until she found a more comfortable position. From here she had a clear view of the threshers and the path to the camp. She doubted they knew where she was, but if they figured it out, the last thing she wanted was to be taken by surprise.

So far they hadn't come any closer than the base of the hill. Perhaps the hillside was too steep or rocky, though it seemed unlikely that such large creatures were incapable of burrowing through it. Quite frankly, Shepard didn't care why they stayed away so long as they did. She peered down at the massive hole at the bottom of the hill, one of many exits from the threshers' elaborate tunnel system. The field and base camp were riddled with them, as was the remainder of the colony the marines had originally come to investigate. Looking back on it, they should have known better than to set up camp out on the open flat ground after seeing the mounts of dirt and overturned trailers in the settlement.

The thresher maws had shown up out of nowhere three days earlier -- technically three and a half, considering it had been the middle of the night. Shepard and every marine with her were trained to adapt to any circumstance, but protocol tended to go out the airlock when half the people around you were dead before your eyes were even open. She'd been off duty at the time, enjoying the view of the night sky from the edge of camp. She didn't remember falling asleep, but she'd awakened to what she thought was an earthquake, only to find a hundred feet of angry space worm looming over her. Her first instinct had been to find cover, but one look at the crushed cargo crates and dead bodies told her that staying put would mean instant death.

She'd taken off running, not daring to look back at the growling threshers. She'd arrived at the base of the hill without realizing it and had started climbing, stumbling, crawling, climbing some more, until she'd slipped into the shadows between some rocks and found herself in the cave. Only then had she noticed the warm, damp sensation spreading over her left side. Judging by the putrid slime that had covered both the injury and her armor, she guessed the wound had been inflicted as the thresher had emerged from the ground.

Shepard sighed and made herself as comfortable as possible in her new position. The scene before her was identical to the one she had observed three nights earlier, complete with the occasional double vision as her head spun. A full moon had given her a perfectly clear view of the maws as they thrashed about, destroying equipment and devouring bodies. And there they were again, illuminated this time by the scorching late afternoon sun.

Her mind wandered as she watched them. Maybe she had no family, and maybe she didn't have many friends, but she still felt she had a purpose, a need to press forward. She'd managed to stay alive this long, right? So what sense was there in giving up now? She may not have known each of the soldiers who had died, but they were still her comrades and she was proud to have served with them. There was obviously nothing that could be done for them at this point, except maybe see to it that they hadn't died for nothing. As sole survivor, the responsibility was hers.

The plan seemed simple enough: kill the thresher maws. Assuming help ever arrived, there was no way an evac shuttle would be able to land anyway unless they were gone. Besides, eliminating or at least crippling the threat might bring the soldiers' families some closure. Shepard knew it would bring her some. 

The real issue was that launching any sort of offensive against the monsters would require more than just a pistol. In addition, it didn't take a genius to realize that the chances of living another day were slim unless she could refuel her body and get her hands on more medi-gel. Shepard swore under her breath and lifted the blood-soaked wad of underlay long enough to examine her wound again. The bleeding seemed to have slowed a bit thanks to that last injection, but purple tendrils had begun to spread under her skin away from the gash. She didn't really care if it was poison from the threshers' slime or an infection -- either way, it was bad.

All of these needs -- weapons, food, water, medicine -- required a trip down into the camp. The thought seemed absurd, but the longer and harder she dwelled on it, the more she liked the idea. Staying put guaranteed a slow and painful death, while going for supplies at least gave her a chance for survival. Besides, if she was going to die, she preferred to go out fighting.

Shepard was startled out of her thoughts when each of the thresher maws let out one last roar before retreating into the ground. If she looked carefully, she could get a general idea of where their tunnels were based on the subtle cracks that appeared in the earth as they burrowed. If they followed their behavior pattern, she wouldn't see them again until late the next morning. So far they hadn't appeared during the night, except for that first encounter of course. She would make her move under the cover of darkness.

That darkness wouldn't come for another couple of hours. The sleep Shepard so desperately wanted wasn't forthcoming, so she busied herself finding the most comfortable and practical use for her armor until it was too dark to see. She checked and re-checked her pistol, estimating the number of desperation shots she might be able to squeeze off should one of the maws appear. The concussive rounds probably felt like the plastic pellets as far as they were concerned -- she wasn't sure how much point there was in even being armed.

The sky was a grayish-blue and the first stars were visible when she finally hauled herself out of the cave and propped herself up against a large rock. She sat there for a long time, straining to see in the dusky light as she listened to the chirps and shrieks of the nocturnal creatures coming out of their daytime hideouts. A cool breeze drifted by, sending a chill down her spine as it met her sweaty skin. It had been hot in the cave, thanks to the sun beating down on the hillside all afternoon, but the dizziness and headache told Shepard that she was also feverish. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, wondering if she'd even make it to the bottom of the hill. 

It was at least an hour before she got moving. The process was slow and involved more crawling and scooting than walking -- at times she wondered how she'd ever gotten up to the cave in the first place. Favoring her left leg seemed to help ease the pain in her side, at least a little, but it made balancing on the steep terrain rather tricky. She stopped frequently to rest and survey the area for danger. The moon was still large and did a fair job of illuminating the vast expanse of flat ground where the colony and camp were located. All was quiet, at least for now. 

Shepard hadn't the foggiest clue how the threshers tracked their prey. Perhaps they could smell her, or maybe they could feel the vibrations as their quarry walked above them. Either way, she hoped a single person on foot would be harder to detect than a group of fifty soldiers and their equipment. 

Her foot gave out on some loose rocks and she tumbled down the remaining twenty feet to the bottom of the hill. Fire shot down her leg and up into her shoulder, numbing her to the point that she couldn't have cried out if she'd wanted to. She gritted her teeth to keep from coughing against the dust she'd stirred up and held perfectly still, expecting the threshers to be upon her in moments. Several seconds passed and nothing happened. Minutes went by -- still nothing. She lay there for a good half hour, staring at the sideways view of the camp through tear-filled eyes and wondering if she was crazy for even trying.

She'd already accomplished a lot in life, from redeeming herself after a trouble childhood on Earth to achieving the coveted N7 status. Nobody would blame her for giving up now. But then, giving up was the one thing she'd learned to never do. There were still things she could do, places she could see. She slowly got back to her feet, hoping they would all be worth the trouble she was going through to stay alive.

The field -- or, more accurately, the threshers' nest -- remained still and quiet under the silvery moonlight. Shepard took her pistol from its holster and held it at the ready, sweeping her gaze over the landscape with every unsteady step she took. She stole periodic glances back to the hillside, wondering if she'd be able to outrun the creatures should they appear, though she doubted she could run if she tried. It wasn't long before she was past the point of no return.

Standing there in the field, she was the tallest object for three hundred yards in any direction. Other than the occasional rock, the area was completely flat and was covered by a thin carpet of yellowing grass. With the remainder of the planet as rough and rocky as it was, this terrain was an ideal location for starting up a colony. It had worked -- it had been nearly two months since the little settlement had been established, and there hadn't been any problems. The cease in communications had been sudden, meaning the appearance of the maws had also been sudden. What, had they been introduced to the area? Had they been lying dormant underground only to be awakened by some unknown stimuli? Shepard dismissed the thought; the fever was obviously going to her head.

As she neared the dilapidated camp, she began to form a plan of action. The first step would be to find whatever was left of the communications grid and activate some form of distress signal. Even if she didn't survive, someone might at least come to investigate and realize what had happened. Step Two: find more medi-gel. She wouldn't be able to complete her little mission if she couldn't walk. Step Three would be acquiring food or water, whichever came first. Then she would see what was left in the weapon lockers. In order to stand a chance against the maws, she would need some heavy artillery. Surely she would find a grenade launcher or something of the sort. 

The thought occurred to her that she should search for survivors, maybe find someone who could team up with her, but the longer she considered it, the more pointless it seemed. She'd been watching the camp like a hawk for the past three days -- if there was anyone left alive, surely she would have seen or heard something. 

One of the threshers' holes was the last thing standing between Shepard and the camp. She gave it a wide berth, treading more cautiously than ever, and kept her eyes fixed firmly on it. The thing was at least fifteen feet across and descended deeper than she cared to know. She'd be screwed if one of the monsters decided to show its face right then.

The camp could more accurately be described as a temporary staging area, a small collection of equipment and armaments the marines had set up while investigating the nearby colony. Shepard approached carefully, skirting around some empty cargo containers that had been knocked over during the attack. A couple of the big generator-powered lights were still functional, though they flickered and spat sparks, and she used them to navigate her way through the wreckage.

The thresher maws had emerged in at least three places within the camp itself, destroying everything within a twenty-foot radius of their holes and covering it all with their acidic slime. The stuff reeked, and when combined with the stench of dead bodies, it was almost too much to handle. Shepard would have vomited had there been anything in her stomach. 

An odd sensation coursed through her body when she caught sight of the partially-intact communications console. She realized it was joy; after three days of hell, she'd almost forgotten what it felt like. It was all she could do to keep from sprinting -- or at least gimping -- toward it and screaming into the comm system. She took a deep breath to steady herself, wincing against the pain in her side as her rib cage expanded. 

One half of the communications console had been smashed, probably by one of the threshers' tentacles judging by the acid still dripping from it. The other half, the half responsible for long-range communications, had a dead marine draped over it. Whether he had been hurled there or had been in the process of trying to send out a distress call, Shepard wasn't sure. She reached out and checked for a heartbeat just to be sure, though it was hard to feel thanks to the pulse that pounded mercilessly through her own body. 

Feeling rather conspicuous standing there in the open, she took the soldier by the collar of his armor and pulled him off, lowering him to the ground as gently as possible. The control panel was covered in blood and more acid but it appeared to still be intact. Activating the distress signal was one of the easiest tasks the console could perform -- the system was designed to be accessed quickly and by the most severely wounded of soldiers. A single switch waited under a clear plastic cover, and Shepard wasted no time in flipping it.

A bright orange shaft of light suddenly shot up into the sky, startling her, and the console buzzed three times. Shepard dove to the ground and held perfectly still, expecting the worst. When nothing happened after a minute or so, she wondered if she'd imagined the whole thing. But the orange beacon remained, blinking on and off in an SOS pattern. A white indicator line on the console's screen jumped up and down in sync with the flashing, showing her that the signal was indeed transmitting off-world. 

Step One seemed to have gone smoothly enough. She turned and surveyed the camp again, looking for one of the familiar red cases that held the medi-gel she so desperately needed. In addition to the three individual injectors each soldier carried, the detachment of troops was required to carry one med-kit per every ten bodies. That meant there were at least five available, though whether any of them were still intact after the thresher attack remained in question.

Shepard turned and hobbled toward the nearest undisturbed pile of cargo. Her side hurt worse than ever thanks to her spill on the hillside and her dramatic dive at the console. At this point, she wasn't sure if medi-gel would even do her any good, but it would at least make her feel better. She snatched an unused injector from a dead soldier's belt and stabbed it into her abdomen without a second thought.

The majority of the crates in the pile were empty, but she found a couple that still contained ration bars and small water bottles. She immediately unwrapped one of the bars and stuffed it into her mouth, then followed it up with a swig of water before jamming two of the bottles into her empty holster. She would have to make do with what she could carry -- staying in the camp was not an option, but neither was hauling an armload of equipment back up the hillside. If she got her hands on a med-kit, maybe she could fill it with more supplies.

There were weapon lockers on the other side of the pile, most of which were also empty. Their contents were scattered on the ground or clutched in the hands of soldiers who had tried to defend themselves. Most of them were assault rifles or pistols identical to hers, neither of which would do her any good against the thresher maws.

A large container that was still locked caught her attention. The case was adorned with a variety of labels, indicating that the weapon it contained was both highly explosive and still in prototype stage. Immensely curious, Shepard flipped the latches and lifted the lid, wincing as its squeaky hinges broke the silence around her. Inside she found a large, bulky gun, encased in protective gel and also marked with an explosive warning label. Unless she was mistaken, it was an M-100 grenade launcher -- she'd read about its development during her training. Whoever had packed it had obviously been expecting the worst during the investigation of the colony. Shepard carefully lifted it out of the case and found that it was only loaded to half capacity. It wasn't ideal, but it might be just what she needed.

She tossed her pistol aside and look up the massive gun with both hands. It couldn't be used at close range unless she wanted to blow herself up along with her target. If she could just get it back to her hideout, she'd be in good shape. She hefted it up and secured it to her back where she might normally have worn an assault rifle. It suddenly seemed unnaturally heavy, pulling her back and to the right, throwing her off balance....

The realization that the ground was actually tilting hit her at the exact moment the first thresher maw emerged just yards in front of her. Shepard was on the ground in an instant, clutching handfuls of grass so tightly that her knuckles turned white. She wriggled closer to a pair of dead marines, imagining the second thresher bursting up right under her. She was relieved -- if such a thing were possible -- when it appeared in one of the pre-existing holes on the other side of camp. 

Shepard buried her face in the grass to keep from screaming as the nearest monster let out a ferocious roar. The sheer volume was overwhelming, making her teeth chatter and rattling her very bones. As grueling as the ICA's training programs had been, she almost missed them now. This was no simulation, not even basic combat. She, alone and on the verge of death, was pitted against a virtually impossible enemy, and in order to defeat that enemy she would have to defy all odds. It was like some insane nightmare, only it was one hundred percent real.

"You will stay alive," she whispered through clenched teeth, remembering the time she'd told herself those exact words during the early stages of N-School. She'd done it, hadn't she? She'd been invited back after every course, and she'd grown progressively stronger. She'd reached the N7 rank for a reason, and this was a situation a soldier like her would be expected to make it through.

Okay, maybe that wasn't entirely logical -- the maws could end her with the flick of a tentacle regardless of her skill and experience. Either way, reminding herself that she was a strong N7 operative helped her keep from trembling quite so severely. She tilted her head slightly, risking a peek up at the gigantic creature with her peripheral vision. There were a few overturned crates separating her from it -- that that they would offer her any protection if it attacked -- and with the dead bodies around her, she seemed to be blending successfully into the environment. The maw swayed back and forth as if ready to strike, though it seemed to be paying more attention to its counterpart than anything else.

Without warning, it retreated back into its hole, more quickly and quietly than Shepard would have imagined such large creatures were capable of. The other did the same and she braced herself, squeezing her eyes shut as they tunneled beneath her. There were several seconds of eerie silence before they each burst back up from different holes, roaring and snapping at each other for a moment before resuming their swaying.

This behavior was unlike anything she'd seen from them over the past three days. Their routine of disappearing, tunneling, and reappearing in a different place continued for what seemed like hours -- it was hard to keep track of time while lying there face-down, terrified. When they weren't tunneling or watching the camp, they were at each other's throats, squabbling and bickering, competing for something. Her, she realized -- they were fighting over her. They knew she was there and they were hunting her, trying to flush her out.

The thought of being intentionally targeted by the creatures sent a new wave of trembling through Shepard's body. At least she fit right in among the rest of the dead bodies, contributing to the stench of sweat and rotting flesh. She inched her way closer to the soldiers beside her, even going so far as to place one of their arms over her. If she stayed put long enough, maybe the threshers would leave. 

"Stay alive, stay alive," she murmured, wondering briefly what kind of shape she'd be in assuming she survived. Would her injury cause permanent damage that would remove her from combat for the rest of her life? The thought broke her heart. Ever since she'd joined the military, she'd dreamed of serving in the Fifth Fleet and maybe even becoming executive officer aboard a ship. Serving under Captain David Anderson was her ultimate goal. He was the only other N7 soldier she'd met, and he'd been present for many of her group's ICA training sessions as well as her graduation a week earlier.

"Shepard!" He'd caught her in the hallway after the graduation ceremony. It was the first time he'd ever spoken directly to her. "Congratulations. I've got my eye on you."

She remembered his firm handshake like it had all happened the day before. She'd had to work hard at not grinning like an idiot as she'd saluted him. "Yes sir, thank you, sir."

Her goal of serving under Anderson had given her something to look forward to all throughout N-School, and it helped her now as she lay there motionless in the moonlight. 

Her attention was drawn back to the present when the communications terminal made an odd sound and began flashing green. Another shudder coursed through Shepard's body, but this time it was out of excitement. Somewhere out there, an Alliance ship had picked up on the distress signal and was trying to make contact. If the vessel was close enough to detect the beacon, help could arrive in a matter of hours. 

Shepard's mind began to race as she considered everything that needed to be done in order for an extraction to take place. Waiting there in the camp was out of the question -- if she were to be killed before help came, they would not only be wasting their time but would also be in danger of being attacked by the threshers. And the best way to deal with the threshers was to return to her hiding place in the hills and make sure she had the high ground. 

Keeping an eye on the two creatures, she slid her hand down to the nearest soldier's belt and found one of his unused medi-gel injectors. She cringed against the squeaking sound it made when she stuck herself with it and hoped the threshers wouldn't notice. Just to be on the safe side, she took another and used it as well -- if she wanted her offensive to be the least bit successful, she needed to be on her feet.

The maws suddenly ducked back underground, and Shepard braced herself as she had every other time they'd disappeared. She lowered her head to the ground, listening to the faint rumbling beneath her as the creatures burrowed. That rumbling lasted longer than usual, and when she could no longer hear it she began to sweat. She pictured them lying in wait right under her, waiting for her to move. But unless she was mistaken they'd actually been moving away from the camp. Had they left?

She held completely still for another couple of minutes, listening, feeling for the telltale vibrations that announced the creatures' arrival. Nothing happened. She raised her head and propped herself up on one elbow, waiting another few minutes before moving again. The pattern of moving and waiting continued until she had reached a half-crouching-half-sitting position and was able to look around. There was no sign of her enemy, and the distress beacon continued flashing green. Under any other circumstances she would have been relieved, but at the moment the seemingly fortunate turn of events made her skin crawl.

The double dose of medi-gel seemed to have helped. Shepard worked her way to her feet, using nearby crates for support and trying her hardest to tread lightly. She reached down and took the last injector from her comrade's belt, wondering if one last boost could sustain her until help arrived. Maybe she could speed up the process by responding to the Alliance's hail.

Moving more slowly and carefully than ever, she approached the communications console and activated the distress signal again, alerting the senders that she'd received their signal. Perhaps the prospect of finding a survivor would get them moving.

Shepard took another look around the area surrounding the camp, taking note of the gray sky in the east. The nights seemed shorter out here in the open; up in the shadows and rocks, she only got about eight hours of real sunlight. She wasn't sure how the thresher maws actually fared in the dark, but somehow the idea of leaving the camp and making it back to the hill under the cover of darkness seemed appealing.

She stared at the comm grid for another few seconds ensuring that the signal was still strong. If people responded in the efficient manner that all Alliance soldiers had been trained to, she only needed to tough it out for another hour, maybe two. The trip across the field to the camp had taken close to an hour with as slow as she'd been moving -- there wasn't a lot of time to waste.

Now that the medi-gel had kicked in she felt like she might be able to run or at least jog. Running gave her the best chance of evading the thresher maws, but at the same time the pounding footfalls would make it easier for them to track her. On the other hand, moving slowly would reduce the risk of detection, but she would be screwed if they caught on to her.

Honestly, she'd be screwed regardless of how fast she was moving if they discovered her. Opting to be safe -- or at least safer -- rather than sorry, Shepard tiptoed back to the weapons containers and recovered a pair of unused gas grenades, which she promptly strapped to her belt in the place her medi-gel injectors had once been stored. She would take her time crossing the field, and if the threshers attacked, the gas might buy her a little time to make a break for the hills. And if it knocked her out in the process, at least her death would be painless.

Making sure the M-100 was secure on her back, she began taking slow, even strides away from the camp, gently following a heel-toe-heel-toe pattern. The moon did a decent job of illuminating her path, casting each blade of grass in silvery blue light. She slowed even further each time she neared one of the tunnel exits, cautiously keeping her distance while doing her best to not stray off course. She kept her eyes locked on a particular pile of rocks, positive she recognized it from three nights earlier.

The old adage "where there's a will, there's a way" seemed to have taken on a whole new meaning during her time on Akuze. The will to live had been established early on -- that much was evident in the way she'd been alive to even make the decision to keep fighting. and now here she was, still solving problems and preparing for a rescue. 

As she walked, she found herself thinking of all the little things she had to look forward to upon making it back to the fleet. There were blankets, pillows -- oh, pillows! -- hot coffee, a big juicy steak... A hot bath was probably out of the question until her wound had healed, but it was on her list nonetheless. Thinking of these things helped pass the time, and she swore she would never take anything for granted again. 

It seemed like only a short time before she looked up and found herself within running distance of the hill. She looked back over her shoulder and watched the camp for a moment; as morning approached, it was getting easier and easier to see. Everything was still and quiet except for the flashing beacon. Things seemed to be turning out in her favor, but Shepard refrained from smiling just yet because...

...because it was amazing how quickly things could go wrong. She was running before she even felt the ground start to shake. Maybe it had been some subconscious animal instinct, or maybe she'd come to recognize a change in the atmosphere that preceded the thresher maws' arrival. Whatever the case, the hairs on her neck stood on end and a massive tingle shot up her spine, propelling her forward at a speed that surprised her.

She hadn't made it five steps, however, before the blood drained from her head and she stumbled forward into the dirt. She rolled and scrambled to her feet, keeping enough wits about her to avoid running headlong into the last thresher hole at the base of the hill. She wouldn't have fallen in anyway, thanks to the huge creature that sprang up from it just a split second after she'd made it past. 

Shepard dove behind a large rock, or maybe she was thrown there when the second thresher emerged -- she wasn't quite sure which came first. Head spinning, she got her feet under her and did what very well could have been the stupidest thing she'd ever done: she kept going. It was like that first night all over again, only this time the two monsters were right on her tail. The threshers screamed and thrashed about, vying for space and trying to untangle themselves. She didn't dare look back for fear of wasting the precious seconds while they were still distracted. 

Driven by sheer terror and adrenaline, Shepard blindly clawed her way up the hillside until the thought occurred to her that she should gather her bearings. Her cave was still above her and off to her right, and she veered toward it. The ground shook under her feet and rocks began rolling past her as the threshers discovered her and slammed their tentacles against the hill. As far as she knew, she was out of their reach, but there was still the danger of--

She hadn't quite processed the thought when a glob of acid splattered into the rocks just to her left. She flailed away from it, narrowly avoiding a second one that would have hit her in the face had she not ducked. A third glob found her leg, sizzling as it began eating through her armor. Without thinking, she shrieked and scraped it away with her hand. The fact that she had screwed up only registered with her when her palm started burning. Nauseated, she crawled into the cave and wretched.

As much as she wanted to break down and cry, she knew that staying alive required her to remain strong for just a little while longer. She detached the grenade launcher from her back and propped it up against the cave wall, taking a moment to examine her damaged hand. The majority of her palm was raw and oozing, with shiny white blisters rising up around the edges of the burn. Gritting her teeth, she tore a strip of material from her underlay and wound it around her hand, tying it in a knot as tight as she could stand. It didn't help much, but it would at least keep the blood and acid from compromising her grip on her weapon.

The threshers had stopped spitting, but they still remained at the bottom of the hill, swaying and growling again. Shepard peered out at them through a crack in the rocks -- her vision swam, but it wasn't hard to tell that they'd be able to reach her if they came any further out of their holes.

An echoing boom drew her attention to the sky. The sound was unmistakable -- she'd heard plenty of ships break the sound barrier during reentry. She caught a glimpse of an incoming vessel as it passed over the hills across the field, reflecting a bit of early morning sunlight off of its hull. For a moment it looked like a piece of it had broken off, but Shepard knew it was the little evacuation shuttle. It approached the campsite at a steady pace. 

The thresher maws heard the sound too, and she took advantage of their distraction and scrambled out and around to the back of the cave. The shuttle would do a recon flyover first, so she would have to draw its attention before it returned to the staging area. She imagined it wouldn't be too hard, considering the two massive creatures guarding her escape route. Then there was still the matter of dealing with them, which was a priority as she shuttle needed a flat place to land. She checked her weapon -- five grenades. She stuffed the two gas canisters into the empty chambers.

One of the maws disappeared and tunneled over to the camp with startling speed, bursting up right under the shuttle as it passed over. The craft veered away, resuming its flyover at a higher altitude. A momentary tingle of panic surged through Shepard's body as she pictured herself being left behind. She turned and fired a grenade up at the cliffs above her, shielding her face from the fire and debris with a free hand. That seemed to have done the trick; the shuttle turned toward her and the nearest thresher maw even shied away a bit. She began to wave her arms wildly, even going so far as to jump up and down on her good leg. It hurt like hell, but when she saw the shuttle's airlock slide open and the alliance soldier waving at her, she forgot all about the pain. 

The man was dressed in full tactical armor and was joined by two others who acknowledged her and signaled for her to make her way down into the open area. The thresher was still a factor, however, and a large one at that. And at this proximity, launching a grenade would put both her and her rescuers in danger.

Driven by a fresh wave of motivation, Shepard cycled the weapon's cylinder until one of the gas grenades was ready to be fired. Using a nearby boulder to steady her aim, she launched it down into one of the tunnel exits at the bottom of the hill. It was followed closely by the second, which bounced off the thresher maw's thick body and began emitting green smoke.

The creature let out an ear-splitting roar as the cloud of gas began to disperse and retreated quickly into its hole. Not sure if she'd get another opportunity, Shepard stepped out from behind the rock and began moving toward the base of the hill, sliding the majority of the way on her good leg. The thresher wasn't burrowing deep -- even through the dust and gas, she could clearly see the long mound of earth it turned up as it retreated toward the camp. It appeared above ground beside its mate, and the two of them continued their growling and spitting.

The shuttle began its approach again, with two of the soldiers firing uselessly at the monsters. Even if the craft could land, the maws were still fast enough that remaining on the ground for more than a few seconds was a death sentence. Shepard skidded to a stop and caught herself on a rock, wincing as fire shot through her hand and up her side. She hefted the grenade launcher to her shoulder and took aim once more, struggling to keep her vision focused. Three grenades were fired in succession, landing and detonating progressively closer to the camp. Both threshers screamed again and vanished into the ground just as the shuttle touched down. 

Shepard was moving toward the little ship without even realizing it, the prospect of safety taking complete control of her mind. The ground began to vibrate under her feet as she stumbled up to the door and started to scramble in. Someone relieved her of the heavy weapon and she left the soldiers pull her inside, trying not to put too much thought into how bad it hurt to move. She barely had time to scream the word "Go!" before something hit the hull and the ship lurched violently.

One of the marines held her steady while the other two jumped into action, firing directly downward at the thresher that had come up beneath them. The shuttle rocked and swayed but finally managed to gain some altitude, taking hits from a couple more acid globs before reaching a safe distance.

Cool morning air rushed in through the open door as they lifted off, drying the sweat on Shepard's face and the blood on her side. She lay there panting, struggling to see through the blurry film over her eyes. She was vaguely aware of the soldiers asking who she was, asking if she was all right. Mustering the last bit of energy she had, she reached to her neck and pulled out her Alliance dog tags.

"Shepard," she said. "I'm the sole survivor."

Then everything went black.