It was just after dawn when the alarms started blaring.
Sharon was awake in seconds, and dressed and armed only minutes later. As she ran out, the halls were drenched in flashing red light. Arine met her on the way to the heart room. "What's going on?" she asked, straining to be heard over the alarms.
"We've been breached."
"Breached? As in-?"
"As in, a whole fucking squad of batarians is pouring into this building from outside. I'll give you all the details, but first, we need to reach the heart room. Come on!"
Siani and Visin were waiting for them, the latter looking terribly anxious. "It's about time you got here," she remarked accusingly.
"Where's T'Shar?' Sharon asked.
Thedala looked like she was about to snap, but Arine answered, "I sent her ahead to close the outer blast doors-"
"You sent her to die!" Visin screamed.
Siani put her hand on Visin's shoulder, in a vain attempt to calm Visin down. "I'm sure she's fine, Theda, only one of the outer doors is breached, so only a few batarians-"
"Oh, just shut up!" Visin snapped, pushing Siani away so vigorously that the other girl nearly fell over.
That got Arine's temper flaring, and she started towards Visin. "Don't you dare-"
"Enough." Sharon said, as loudly as she could without yelling. The others stopped what they were doing. Thedala started sniffling. "I need to know what the situation is. How long ago was the breach?"
"One hour ago," Visin said, "Me and Miri were making rounds in the outer hall. They blasted one of the windows. Some of the glass hit Miri, but then Arine came running and ordered me to leave her..."
"One of the glass shards grazed T'Shar's side," Arine cut in, "but it only grazed her..."
"She was bleeding!"
"It was only a trickle..."
"You left her to die to save your pet!" Visin snapped. Siani cringed.
For a brief, horrible moment, Arine looked like she would punch Visin's lights out, but the moment passed without incident. Instead, Arine calmly responded, "Siani's the only one here who knows how to operate the Pantaphon. She's the only one who can activate the security protocols. She's the only one who can save Miri."
Thedala tried to prepare a retort, but couldn't. She started to cry.
Christ preserve us, Sharon groaned inwardly. I do NOT need this shit right now. "Arine, there are blast doors at the entries to the inner corridors, right?"
"Go close them."
"I have the command here..."
"Which won't mean anything if the batarians manage to reach the inner corridors. Go."
Arine looked apalled, but left all the same.
She marched up to Visin and took a firm grip on her shoulders. "Theda," she said, as gently as possible, "Theda. Look at me. No, not at your feet. At me. Theda, I know you're worried about Miri. That's understandable, but right now, I need you to help Arine get the inner blast doors closed. Otherwise, it might be that none of us survive"
"But, then Miri will be stuck in the outer halls..."
"She's a lot tougher than she looks."
"Why don't you help Arine with the inner blast doors, if they're so important?"
"Because there is a chance that Miri could reach one of the inner blast doors before they're closed, and I'm concerned that Arine might just close the door on her to buy the rest of us some time."
That shut Visin up, and she hurried out.
"That was a bit low, Commander," Siani remarked. "Arine would never-"
"I know, I know. But I needed her to get out there. With any luck, she and Arine will be racing each other to get those doors closed." She took a breath. "Now, I need you to-"
"Activate defenses. Right away, Commander." With that, the diminuitive asari scurried off into the Pantaphon chamber.
"Good girl." Finally alone, Sharon slumped down onto one of the benches. A few seconds later, the alarms finally died, though everything remained bathed in red light. Emmanuelle massaged her temples. We're only five minutes into this, she thought. Still plenty of time for the shit to hit the fan.
"Commander, can you hear me?" Siani's voice piped in through Sharon's omni-tool.
"I hear you. What defenses do we have?"
"We-" She was cut off by a sudden hiss-SHUMF sound.
Sharon looked around and saw that the doors to the heart room were now sealed behind metal panes. "What the hell just happened?"
"I activated the emergency defenses. The heart room's been sealed."
"What if Arine and Thedala need to get back in?"
"There's an emergency passage in the cafeteria below us. It has to be opened manually, though, and from our end."
"We need to warn them. If the batarians get into the inner corridor, they'll be sitting ducks."
"We can't. The emergency defenses have also cut off contact with anything outside of the heart room. It's to keep invaders from hacking into and disabling the defenses. This will remain in effect for... four hours."
"Remember, these defenses were designed by my grandmother, who was very paranoid back before my mother killed her. In an emergency, she would have sent all other personnel out and left only herself in the heart room."
I hope there's a special hell out there for your paranoid bitch grandmother, Sharon thought. "Where's the emergency passage?" she asked.
"In the cafeteria sub-basement. I've uploaded a map to your omni-tool. Just follow it."
When she came back into the room, Siani was staring at the screen, and looked more pale than Sharon believed possible for an asari.
"Babe? What wrong?" she asked. When Siani only gave a whimper in response, Sharon walked up and looked over the girl's shoulder. "What's- oh shit..."
On the screen were Visin and T'Shar, or at least, parts of them. Their heads had been cut off, and not cleanly; their headsman had hacked away at their necks. Some of their fingers had been cut off, others had been flayed, and some were quite noticeably lacking fingernails. Patches of skin had been flayed from their arms and legs.
"Oh dear Jesus..." Sharon murmured. "What the hell happened to them?"
"The heads," Siani said.
It took Sharon a moment to realize that both of the heads were still there; they barely looked recognizable. Their torturers had cut of the noses, lips, scalps, and eyelids, and the eyes had been gouged out.
That night, Emmanuelle dreamed of corpses again. As before, she sank into an ocean of dead bodies, but this time, there were four more - Arine, Thedala, and Mirole, as well as the batarian torturer. And this time, Charlotte did not intervene at the last moment. Instead, Arine pulled her deep under the water, and glared at her accusingly, through empty sockets. It should have been you, the dead woman screamed, her hands tightening around Emmanuelle's throat, IT SHOULD HAVE BEEN YOU!
Emmanuelle awoke with a start, and it was only after regaining her breath that she remembered where she was. And then she heard faint, forlorn singing:
Dwyd radym wedi,
Yir guly ternol,
Guda zelun plinydeg,
Ond habusi geli urofan...
What the hell? Emmanuelle did not recognize the language, but there was no mistaking Siani's voice. She followed the sound.
Fengyth cal gyen, ferheden dod.
Hyni grus ziscu a malis...
She ended up in a courtyard at the rear of the complex. Siani was there, standing in front of a lit brazier. On the other side of the brazier were two unlit pyres. One pyre bore both Mirole and Thedala. The other bore Arine. All three bodies had been carefully wrapped like mummies. "Babe?" she called out.
Siani appeared not to hear her. She continued her song, staring almost transfixed at the fire. And then she began slowly walking closer to the brazier.
Dwe, edig noros,
Dwe, bediz crani,
Dwe, ji gonsone,
Dwe, ije hauni...
"Babe!" Emmanuelle caught Siani's arm just before the girl walked into the brazier.
Siani turned around, looking confused. "Oh. Commander. I... I forgot to wake you, didn't I? Forgive me. What with all that happened today..."
"That's alright, babe. I'm more concerned about the fact that you were about to collide with a fire."
"What...? Oh, the brazier. It's only a funeral rite."
"Babe, it's... what, 2 AM? Have you been at this all night?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"If you wanted to do this tonight, you could have woken me. I don't sleep well anyway. I would have been glad to help."
Siani looked as though that idea hadn't even occurred to her. "That would have been smarter."
Emmanuelle just stared at her, this tiny asari girl dressed only in a nightgown who hadn't the slightest idea why anyone might be disturbed by her behavior. She is completely fucking lost without Arine, she realized. She sighed. "So what is this funeral rite?"
"It's a traditional Imerian cremation. Arine always wanted one. I owe her that much. I... don't know what Miri and Theda would have wanted, but I thought they would appreciate being on the same pyre... right?"
"I'm sure they would appreciate that."
"I prepared the bodies, and sang the song... there's words you're supposed to say, but I've never been to a proper Imerian funeral, so I don't know what they are..."
"I'm sure Arine would understand. Miri and Theda would probably just want it to be over with so they can go find a room in the afterlife."
That earned a small, sad smile. "Just the cremation left, then. You'll help me? You do Miri and Theda's pyre. I'll do Arine's."
"I'll do Arine's pyre."