Now I'm watching my life flowing in the dark
Like streams of fear running through my heart
And it's wearing me down until I'm gone
Soon I'll join the endless whirls of stars
And I fall (something is dying, yet something is born)
deeper into the unknown voids
And I fall (when will I find my silent dawn)
into infinity like a burning star
I fall like a burning star!
Wintersun - Starchild
Dying is strange.
And she had died twice in less than four years, she knew more than most about dying, and it was incredible how different circumstances changed the way you feel, while you die.
The first time she had died, her mind had been flooded with fear and panic as she suffocated amidst the debris of the Normandy, but now it was different, calmer. It was like floating in water, peaceful even, a long, absurd lucid dream with a part of the Citadel she had never seen, Anderson and the Illusive Man, like an angel and a devil of the old cartoons of the 20th century she used to watch when she was a child, trying to convince her to either control or destroy the Reapers. And then that ghost that talked and talked…
It had only shut up when bored out of her mind she had shot that damn power conduit. The ghostly child had said it would destroy the Reapers, it was good enough for her, even if it was just a dream that would never come true. She just wanted that nightmare to be over and rest in peace. She had done everything she could and then some more to stop them, but that was enough, she couldn’t take anymore of that.
She just wanted to die in peace. For real this time, no Cerberus hijacking her plans for the otherworld again. A quiet, simple death, one last thought to her loved ones and then oblivion.
Liara would probably kick her ass for just thinking about dying, but at this point, there wasn’t much she could do. Not anymore at least. Also, Liara was young, she had centuries at least to forget her and find someone to love again, she would move on and live a long, happy life, somewhere in the galaxy, rebuilding what the war had destroyed.
Yeah, that wasn’t a bad last thought. Liara living a happy, long life with someone at her side, and tons of little asari children to keep her busy.
Just… one last breath, just one more, and she would move on to the unknown.
Captain Shepard’s last battle: dying, and stay dead.
Just one more breath...
It took Miranda Lawson three days to reach the crater in London where Shepard had last been seen, at the last desperate charge of the Alliance against Harbinger, three days after the Reapers had all crumbled where they had been standing, along with a number of other things like large portions of the Geth. Three days since they had lost contact with the Normandy and the crew.
“Miranda!” shouted Gunnery Sergeant Williams behind her. “Slow down! It’s still dangerous down there!”
The former Cerberus agent stopped on top of the steep incline that led down to the deepest part of the crater and looked down at the rubble at her feet, a mix of concrete, steel and bodies piled up in small mounds and larger stacks here and there, a desolate vista that made her heart skip a beat or two. In the bright gray early afternoon light, with the dust from the war still hanging in the air partially obscuring the sun it looked even bleaker.
“She’s here!” she yelled in reply, looking down at her Omni-Tool. “Shepard, she’s here! I’ve got to find her!”
“Miranda, she’s dead. How can anyone survive that blast?”
“If there’s someone that could survive in that chaos, it’s her. Come on, help me!”
Cautiously, the two women started walking down into the crater, followed by Vega and an unknown Alliance footsoldier. Miranda had managed to convince them to come with her to look for the Commander, after the Alliance had declared her Missing In Action without even trying to look for her. She couldn’t take it, it wasn’t right. She deserved better than being buried and forgotten under the common rubble. No way in hell.
Her Omni-Tool flashed a little red dot, but there was something that disturbed the GPS signal. After having rebuilt her, out of excessive zeal she had installed a tiny tracking device in one of the many implants that helped her live, after the Lazarus Project had managed to bring her back from the dead. Not the control chip they had talked about weeks prior, just a short range location device, for… cases like this.
“Do you have a precise location?” asked the unnamed soldier behind her.
“Unfortunately, no. Something is disturbing the signal, I fear that EMP burst, or whatever it was, of the other day may have fried more than the Geth and the Reapers. She should be there though!” She pointed at a large pile of rubble beside a toppled MAKO west of them. “Any words from the Normandy?”
“Not yet, Miranda,” replied Vega. “High ups are still trying though. I’m sure they’re gonna call in soon.”
“Let’s hope…” she added, barely a whisper on her lips.
On the way to the area where the GPS was leading them, they took care of tagging all the bodies they encountered, scanning their dog tags and marking their locations in order to facilitate their retrieval once the Alliance got down to that. Scattered as they were, it would take at least a week before they decided to start dealing with the dead. In a way, tagging the location of dead bodies to hasten the process was an attempt to justify their goose chase for someone who was very probably dead, no matter how important for morale could Shepard be. Not that anyone cared, even Admiral Hackett, usually very preoccupied with making sure casualties of war were properly and swiftly taken care of, was more concerned with the living.
We need those who breathe , he had said during a meeting, a couple hours after the sudden collapse of the Reapers, while everyone was still trying to process the sudden silence that had fallen on the battlefields, after months and months of wailing, deafening noises.
And in the silence, they searched, because despite the slim chances, they all hoped they’d find someone alive, in that desolate pit, even though their expectations were lower than hell itself.
“Miss Lawson, why is Commander Shepard equipped with a locating device?” asked Vega, as he moved a large chunk of rubble from a pile.
“For reasons like this. It’s short range, about two miles of radius, nothing major. Cerberus didn’t want to lose her while on a mission, in case something went wrong. I had been ordered to implant a control chip too, but I refused. We needed Shepard, not a puppet ready to jump at the Illusive Man’s order. But I wanted to know where she was.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he replied. “And useful. Do you really think we can find her alive?”
Miranda sighed. “I don’t know. I’m hoping against hope. The vitals check systems in the spinal implant seem to be malfunctioning, or I would know. And her bondmate isn’t here and we can’t contact her, or we would have T’Soni’s to help us.”
“What has Liara to do with this?” asked Ashley.
“I’m not an expert in Asari physiology, but I bet long time bondmantes form a sort of connection between them that works even at long distances. If we had a chance to get in touch with the Normandy, even just for a moment, we could know if Shepard’s alive with a fairly accurate degree of certainty.”
“Even after three days?”
The former Cerberus operative nodded. “Even after three days. And now that you mention it, why have you waited for so damn long to go look for her?” She knew her voice sounded harsher than she had meant, but when she had arrived in London, just a few hours prior, and had been told that no one had thought about looking for Shepard, that had pissed her off to no end, and she was having a hard time controlling her feelings for the way the Alliance was dealing with her. Or not dealing with her, to this point.
“We had other orders, Miranda. We are bound to the decisions of our superiors, we can’t just go where we want or do what pleases us.”
“Well, excuse me but I think your superiors fucked up about this.” She kneeled beside a body and scanned the tag. Chris Johnson, 32 years old, from London. Miranda chuckled, a bitter sensation suddenly creeping up in her throat. He had died defending his home, down to the city he was born in. “I can understand leaving the dead for later, I understand the reasoning behind that decision, but leaving Shepard behind? Alive or dead she’s important for the morale, why the hell do you think Cerberus went all the way through to resurrect her, rather than pick just another soldier to lead the fight against the Collector?”
“Because she’s a symbol,” said Vega. “Yes, I understand. It’s just that… well, it’s been three whole days and then some hours. Even if she survived the initial blast she can’t possibly be still alive!”
“We don’t know that! Not until we find her.”
They scoured the crater for a good hour, finding a large number of bodies, all dead unfortunately. Exhausted and discouraged, the four stopped near a pile of large chunks of concrete to rest for a moment and regroup.
“The GPS signal is still bouncing,” explained Miranda. “But there’s not much else we have to check. Either we find her or…”
“Or the blast incinerated her, and we may be lucky if we find her tags.” Finished Vega. “Got it. Then let’s go back at it.” He turned around and kicked a rock from a large stack. Beneath it, a hand, covered in bloody scrapes and dirt, motionless. Sighing, he kneeled beside it and set his rifle on the ground. “Here, another one.”
“Together, come on,” said Ashley, also letting gently go of her own weapon and trying to help the soldier lifting the large slab of shielded concrete torn away from a Systems Alliance governative building, that covered the body, only to let go a few moments later. It wouldn’t budge, it was too heavy for them.
“Let me,” added then Miranda, as a blue hued field emerged from her body and floated around her as she used her powerful biotics to aid them. That way, with the combined effort, the slab moved easily to the side, to reveal the body beneath it.
It was then that Miranda’s Omni-Tool beeped like crazy, the GPS signal finally free to be captured and give a precise location.
The body wore a disheveled N7 armor, once grey but now blackened and charred, melted in some places. The visible skin was covered in cuts and burns. The wild mop of bright red hair was streaked redder in places, caked in dried blood.
“Shepard!” exclaimed Ashley in disbelief, while Miranda rushed to her side.
“Please be alive…” she pleaded, running her Omni-Tool over the body to scan for even the faintest sign of life in the Commander. “Come on, please be alive! The galaxy needs you!”
She was afraid to touch her, given the precarious position in which she lay. Her right arm, what was visible from beneath rocks and metallic debris, was clearly broken, her legs were still crushed beneath a boulder. The neck, though in an awkward position, didn’t look broken, but there was a fat chance the spinal implant they had to install in her neck during the reconstruction had been damaged. The spine seemed all in one piece too, at least from her point of view.
The scanner was taking a long time to give her data, and what little it gave her was inconclusive, as if her Omni-Tool was damaged too. Body temperature was low but not enough for a three day corpse, incoherent with actual ambient temperature, but there wasn’t cerebral activity, or at least none that the scanner could pick up, and there wasn’t a pulse.
“Damn…” she cursed, changing the settings, asking the scanner to go deeper, looking for even the minimal electric current flowing through the muscles, until she finally decided to check Shepard’s pulse manually. She pulled the glove of her suit off with her teeth and holding her breath, she gently placed her fingers at her neck and held them at the pulse points for a few seconds.
The longest seconds of her life.
She felt something beneath her fingertips, but waited some more. Another, brief pulse, the tiniest twitch of Shepard’s carotid artery. Then another.
And then, a lock of bloodied, matted hair in front of her face moved, with the distinct pattern of an exhaling breath.
Releasing the long held breath, Miranda screamed of joy.
Floating. She couldn’t describe the sensation like anything else. It was like floating in a shallow pool of water.
It hadn’t been like this the first time. There had not been this feeling of calm and quietness, the unlikely lullaby of a cold, dead battlefield, just the silence of space and the deafening wheezing of her own struggling, ragged breathing. Not this time.
At times it was quiet, other times she could hear unfamiliar noises mixed with the familiar sounds of shuttles and vehicles. The random gunshot from time to time. Silence again and then more unknown noises, like the droning thrumming of the Normandy she heard from her personal cabin.
The whispers in the background were gone though. That was nice.
Floating was nice...
Miranda’s voice echoed in the crater and everyone stood still, looking down at the seemingly lifeless body surrounded by rubble and debris.
“What?” asked Ashley, incredulous. “That' can’t be right!”
Miranda leaned closer to Shepard’s face and checked for her breathing pattern. “I’ve got heartbeat and breathing, shallow but stable!” she declared. “We need a medical shuttle!”
Ashley nodded, and her Omni-Tool lit up around her wrist. “Base camp, this is Gunnery Sergeant Ashley Williams, I need med-evac at the Charge Crater STAT!”
They heard some statics before a distorted voice replied. “Copy that Gunnery Sergeant. How many?”
“Just one, but she’s in pretty bad shape!” yelled Miranda to be heard through Ashley’s Omni-Tool. “Could you patch me through?”
She nodded and pushed some buttons on the holographic interface to transfer the communication from her to Miranda. “Patient is currently unconscious, she’s breathing on her own, regular but shallow. Heartbeat is slow and irregular, I can’t get a read of the blood pressure or cerebral activity, my scanner seems to be fried. She needs a trauma team and immobilization for cervical spine and right arm. Legs are currently hidden, I don’t know their conditions but prepare for anything.”
“Copy that. But who’s talking?” asked the operator.
“Hey, concentrate on the task at hand!” she rebuked. “We’re talking about Commander Shepard here, not my former Cerberus affiliation!” They all heard a loud gasp on the other side of the communication. “She’s been here for three days, abandoned! Get the evac shuttle here now!”
Another gasp and some scrambling and static later, the operator spoke again. “Shuttle with trauma personnel inbound. ETA 2 minutes,” the man replied,his voice snappy and clearly unhappy to be ordered around by a former high ranking Cerberus operative, but Miranda couldn’t care less. She was still fighting with her Omni-Tool to get a decent scan, to no avail.
She let out a small frustrated grunt. Somehow it got damaged, she would need to acquire another one, or spend precious hours repairing it, time she didn’t have.
“Shepard?” she called, gently. “Shepard can you hear me?”
Swallowing a lump that had formed in her throat, Miranda pressed her knuckles on her sternum, rubbing hard. There was no reaction whatsoever from painful stimuli. Furthermore, she felt the thick piece of cartilage shift more than it should have as she pressed, causing her to think there was also a thoracic trauma. She was no medical doctor, but she had spent enough time with many during the two years of Project Lazarus to know that Shepard was more dead than alive, even without the scans, and this time she probably beyond her abilities to bring her back.
Given the state of disarray of the galaxy and the lack of proper medical facilities, the chances she would not survive the night, after three days abandoned out in the open, weren't very high.
“I’ve done it once, Shepard. I don’t think I can do it twice…” she murmured as the shuttle finally arrived. It landed about fifty yards away from them. As soon as the engine was shut off, the side door opened wide and five people ran out of it carrying a vast array of medical equipment in their hands and strapped to their backs. If only Doctor Chakwas were here...
“What do we have?” asked a woman probably in her fifties, with short cropped hair and the most tired look Miranda had ever seen on someone’s face.
“Woman, thirty two, unresponsive. Heartbeat faint but regular, same for breathing, multiple surface wounds all over, minor burns, broken right arm, possibly multiple broken ribs. Unknown status of neck, back and legs.”
“We’ll take it from here, thank you Miss Lawson,” replied the woman, with a smile. “Commander Shepard can you hear me?” she tried, the same as Miranda a few minutes prior. The team went through the same gestures, checking pulse, breathing and response to multiple stimuli, while one colleague scanned Shepard’s body, with a functioning Omni-Tool. Miranda suddenly felt a pang of jealousy over the working tool. She watched, powerless, as they poked, prodded and removed debris from Shepard in order to gain access even to the parts of her body covered by the rubble.
She gasped, when they uncovered the legs. The thick N7 armor had absorbed some of the damage, but her right leg was unnaturally twisted. Please don’t be an exposed fracture… she thought, barely keeping herself from gasping a second time when one of the army medics shoved something that looked like a miniature crowbar and pried open the right grieve, exposing the damaged lower leg.
It wasn’t an exposed fracture. She sighed in relief, as infection was less likely to set in with no deep open wounds. The scrapes and burns were more than enough.
Behind her, both Ashley and Vega observed in silence, she could only try and guess what was running through their minds. It couldn’t possibly be much different than the dreadful thoughts rushing through her own mind, even though hers were more concentrated on what cybernetics could be broken and how to repair them.
Maybe she could still find a backup of the schematics and the procedures used during the Project at Cronos Station? That would help immensely.
If she could reach Cronos Station. Actually, if Kronos Station still existed at all.
“Alright, we’ve got to move her and set her to the stretcher. We need to immobilize the spine and neck,” said the doctor in charge of the team.
“Excuse me, doctor!” exclaimed Miranda. “She has a number of cybernetics implants that got installed after she… nearly died in a spacing accident. I fear some of them may be damaged.”
The doctor looked up at her, clearly skeptical. “And you know that because…”
“Because I designed most of them. I… I was the leader of the Cerberus team that brought her back to life when the Normandy SR1 was blown up,” confessed Miranda.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the doctor looked up at her and then around the team, before nodding. “Alright. What implants are we talking about?”
“Extensive. Two spinal implants to repair spinal cord damage, one at C4 and one at L3. Left side of both mandible and jawbone, bilateral artificial corneas, left optic and auditory nerve. Part of her liver and stomach, pyloric valve, left lung is artificial too… uhm…” she was trying to remember everything artificial they had to put in Shepard’s body in order to revive her. “A number of joints have been reconstructed mostly on the left side. Spleen had been previously removed so we didn’t tamper with that too, and…”
“Calm down, you’ve told us what we need to know. The spine looks fine, I’m worried about the neck though, scan’s inconclusive but I fear the worse. We’ll have to monitor heartbeat and breathing as soon as we turn her head straight to fit the neck brace. Are we ready for emergency intubation?”
One of her colleagues nodded and waved a large plastic package in her hand. “Yes ma’am.”
“Very well, now we slide her off the rock keeping the neck in position. Are we ready?” Everyone around Shepard took their practiced positions and slid their hands beneath her body, while the team leader kept Shepard’s head stable. “On my mark… Now!”
Quick but delicate, they moved her from the semi-sitting position to lay her down on the concrete. As soon as they set her, the team leader waved her Omni-Tool over her again, while her other hand still held Shepard’s head. “Alright, there’s no change. Blood pressure, breathing and heartbeat are stable. Sanchez, insert an IV then set up the stretcher, start saline and broad spectrum antibiotics. Bernini, take care of the leg, Hunt, you’re on the arm. Nguyen, help me with the neck.”
“Are you going to intubate her?” asked Miranda.
The doctor shook her head. “No, not if it isn’t strictly necessary. If the C4 spinal implant is still working, she should keep breathing on her own. If it’s damaged could you repair it?”
“It shouldn’t be too hard if I get the materials. It was a simple neural bypass after all.”
“What were you bypassing?”
“The spinal cord was partially severed when she was spaced.”
The doctor nodded. “I see. Well, that changes everything. I should have guessed, when you mentioned a C4 implant. Let’s hope it’s not broken then, but we’ll have to intubate as a preventative measure at this point. Nguyen, be ready with the kit. Sanchez, prepare for RSI.”
The slightly older medic nodded and started preparing the drugs needed for rapid sequence induction, a procedure needed to quickly put a patient under anesthesia before tracheal intubation. He grabbed three different vials from his bag and loaded a quick syringe with their contents, and injected something from a preloaded syringe in the IV bag connected to the cannula stuck in Shepard’s left arm. After that, he pushed the syringe at Shepard’s neck and shot the mix of drugs straight in her bloo.
Only then, the doctor gently rotated her neck to face straight upwards and checked again the breathing. “As I suspected, she has issues breathing now that we moved the neck. Laryngoscope and endotracheal tube,” she ordered, using one hand to open her jaw and extended the other to her colleagues to be handed the tools.
Miranda could only watch, grimacing through the whole procedure, averting her eyes when they temporarily set the broken bones and placed the damaged limbs in splints. Once the endotracheal tube was set, they attached it to a bag valve and the doctor started pumping hair into Shepard’s lungs, while the others slid the scoop stretcher beneath her and secured her to the structure with thick straps and buckles.
“Where are you taking her?”
“For now, Alliance camp hospital. There we can at least stabilize her and treat at least the basic injuries. For anything more than that though, we’ll have to wait. We don’t know if there’s still a functioning hospital left on Earth, let alone off-planet facilities,” the doctor explained. “There’s not much else that we can do at the moment, we can just hope she doesn’t get any worse than this.”
“I’ll be frank, she’ll be lucky if she survives the night. Even luckier if she wakes up at all. We’ll need to do a full neuro assessment, but if she already had a spinal injury, given the state of our medical supplies and facilities…” she sighed. “I fear for now we can only make sure she’s comfortable until…”
Miranda nodded. “She’s done for. I see.” Her mind was already flipping ideas back and forth, trying to remember Cerberus locations around Earth that could have gone undiscovered and that could be used as medical facilities for the time being. London was a pile of rubble, but the rest of the world? Maybe there was some place less populated that had survived or at least had suffered less catastrophic damage. Where was that French research lab located?
“We’ll be going now. You can come to the hospital and assist her, if you wish,” said the still unnamed doctor. “Someone should stay with her, it would be unfair to her, to be alone now, after she’s done so much for everyone of us.”
Throwing a look behind her at Ashley and Vega, Miranda nodded again. “We’ve got that covered.”
About two hours later, the trio had made its way back to the Alliance base camp where they had set up the military hospital. They had used what remained of one of the largest hospitals in London, and the medical team that had taken over from the evac one for Shepard was still working inside a closed room. The door was ajar and sometimes they could pick up a few words, but nothing much intelligible.
For the better part of that time since she had been loaded on the evac shuttle, Ashley, Vega and Miranda had waited outside the ajar door, trying to keep themselves occupied. Vega was pacing nervously, Ashley could barely keep her legs from trembling while Miranda was trying to repair her Omni-Tool with a few scraps she had salvaged on the way back to the camp. Indeed, a few parts of the scanning component had been fried and needed to be repaired.
What the hell was that EMP blast though? Miranda asked herself, as she shoved a chip she had scavenged from the Omni-Tool of a dead soldier into the right socket, hoping it was compatible with her own.
“I had no idea you could design cybernetic implants,” said Ashley at some point, breaking the tense silence.
“I don’t have a formal degree, but I studied electronic engineering when I first joined Cerberus. Even before, I always tinkered with circuitry when I was a child. And I taught myself the basics of coding by the end of kindergarten.”
“That’s a strange hobby for a child!”
“My father hated it. I did it to spite him and I found not only a hobby but knowledge that would help me a lot in life. Field repairs to weapons, Omni-Tools and vehicles are quite useful skills when you’re on the run.”
Ashley chuckled. “Sure they are. I admit that other than swapping official modules I’ve never even tried to do much tinerking. Never saw the usefulness to be honest.”
“You always had the chance to go through official stores or Alliance issue weaponry and gear. Illegality on the other hand…”
“I see. Maybe now that the war is over I could learn.”
“Stick with me and maybe I could teach you a thing or two. Any news about the Normandy?”
Vega shook his head. “Not yet. I’ve tried myself, I asked headquarters to keep me posted if they heard from them, but word is the relays are somehow damaged and off planet comms are down or nearly so. At the moment, no one is going in or out the system, and no one has heard from anyone that wasn’t in the Sol system too.”
Miranda sighed. That was really bad news. Damaged relays meant little to no movement, no provisions, no way to try and reach Cronos Station to gather the old Project Lazarus data and the schematics of the implants. Sure, she could make them again from scratch, design and all, but having the data would surely speed up the procedures.
If by the time she got everything she needed to even start planning the cybernetics there was still a Shepard to use them on.
Finally, the door opened and a woman wearing a papery gown came out, snapping the cords to tear the protective garment away and throwing it in a large trash can beside the door. “Here for Commander Shepard?”
Everyone stood up and walked towards her. “I’m Doctor Sophie Wilson, I’m in charge of Commander Shepard. Right now she’s stable, her right side took a bad hit, both leg and arm are fractured and there are six fractured ribs, four on the right and two on the left, but they’re all simple fractures that should heal. One lung had collapsed, thankfully the artificial one held on and managed to keep oxygen flowing. From a purely physical standpoint I’ve seen worse, there’s a minor head and facial injury, but those should heal with time. Now, speaking about it, you got to her just in time. She was severely dehydrated, trauma team started liquids right away and that stabilized blood pressure and heartbeat. Right now we’ve got to keep an eye on infections and make sure the lung doesn’t collapse again. She’s got drains and tubes pretty much everywhere and she’s not out of the woods, far from it, but she could fare worse, given the circumstances. What I’m worried about is the neuro scans we did.”
“About the spinal damages and the damaged implant?” asked Vega.
“That too, but I’m more concerned about her brain scan. We’ll have to do a complete and deeper EEG if we come by the equipment, but…” she sighed. “Excuse my French but it’s completely fucked up!”
Through her own Omni-Tool, she showed them an EEG. “You see, this is a normal electroencephalogram of a patient in a coma, peaks and dips and some valleys.” She fiddled with her fingers and brought up a different file. “This is Commander Shepard’s, taken a few minutes ago. I’ve never seen anything like this, it looks like every single synapse in her brain and brain stem has caught fire and someone threw Napalm on them!”
The diagram has completely different from what Doctor Wilson had defined as standard, it looked more like a seismograph during an earthquake. The peaks were too high and the dips too low, with no valley in between. The analogy of the synapses on fire was pretty on point.
“I’ve never seen anything like this!” exclaimed Ashley. “Do you have an idea why it looks like that?”
Doctor Wilson shrugged. “I have no idea. I was hoping Miss Lawson here could tell me if it was a complication of being revived the way she was, after being spaced.”
Miranda shook her head. “No, every EEG we’ve performed during the reviving and every check up afterwards was normal,” she explained. “But I’ve seen something similar, some time ago.”
“Where?” asked the doctor.
She shrugged her shoulders and brought up her own Omni-Tool. “In automated scans recovered on a Cerberus vessel, some months ago. They were a science team studying a derelict Reaper, to acquire technology and knowledge that would help us fight them. When Shepard arrived to investigate why they had gone silent, she and the shore party found all personnel dead, and the personal and scientific logs were all point into one direction.”
“And that would be?”
She opened up a file from her report on the retrieval of the Reaper IFF. “Indoctrination.”
Something had changed.
The noises were different and muted, the smells different. Even the light, though she couldn’t open her eyes, was different. Everything was duller and warmer, more comfortable somehow. There wasn’t cold stone beneath her head, but something softer, like a pillow.
Was she at a hospital?
Wasn’t she supposed to be dead though?
Damn. Did Miranda resurrect me... again?
Joker shook his head and sighed. “No Liara, nothing new. Technicians are still trying to get a status report out of the ship, but with EDI knocked out we can’t do much,” he explained. “We crashed six hours ago, give us time!”
“Yes, but why did we crash?”
“Wish I knew!” he exclaimed. “Something… shifted in the back of the Normandy and I couldn’t keep speed and route. Then EDI shut down and all navigation sensors went awry. And we crashed. That’s all we know for now.”
Liara glanced at the Cerberus robot EDI had installed herself into, still sitting at her usual place by his side, immobile, as if someone had pulled the plug on the AI. “Did anyone check on her?”
Again, he shook his head. “We need to get the engine and the comms up more than we need EDI right now.” His voice faltered, mentioning the AI and her relative usefulness. “We’ve got to get back to Earth as soon as we can.”
“What does Engineering say?”
“We say we’re trying to start things up!” came Tali’s voice through the intercom, clearly flustered behind the mask. “We’re all working Liara, but this is serious. The Drive Core seems undamaged, but it turned off and needs to be started up again, that takes time!”
“What about comms? There must be a way to contact people off planet!” exclaimed Liara. “Also, where are we?”
“Comms are disabled as long as we’re running on the emergency generators, all energy is needed to keep up vital systems going, and start the core again!” said Daniels. “The moment we turn on the core again, we can try to contact the closest Alliance ship. Or whoever’s still out there listening.”
“As for where we are, we’re on Zorya,” added Joker. “In the Ismar Frontiers. We’re actually not that far from where we went after the Blue Suns chief with Zaeed a few months ago.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Not in close vicinity, but it’s not a heavily populated planet, with a bit of luck they just forgot about it. It’s mostly blue collar workers in the mining and metallurgical industry that live here. A few towns, and a number of spaceports for export. Nothing fancy though.”
Puzzled, Liara looked down at him. “And how do you know that?”
“Contrary to popular belief, I actually listened to what EDI said, when she spoke to me.”
She smiled and gently patted his shoulder. “I never thought you didn’t. I just had no idea you talked about geography. Take care Joker, I’ll go check on Garrus.”
“Since you go down to Infirmary could you please ask Doctor Chakwas if I can come down later tonight? I think I banged something when we crashed.”
“Sure, no problem. I’ll let you know, but I doubt she’ll tell you to wait to come down. You know, she has a sweet spot for you.”
“Yeah… I just don’t want to take advantage of it. Go now, we’ll try to get the ship in running order.”
Walking back towards the elevator, Liara couldn’t help but let out a defeated sigh, as she observed the crew bustling around every corner of the CIC, busy doing diagnostics and repairing whatever they may find broken. There were people everywhere, even in ventilation ducts. Sparks were flying as techs welded things back together to patch things up. Pretty much every deck was the same, everyone was doing their best to get the Normandy back in flying condition ever since they had got themselves back together after the emergency crash, hours prior.
With the elevator out of commission, she had to use the service chute to get down to the crew quarters. The infirmary was not packed as she had expected, but there was a short line in front of the door. People sporting visible damage, like bloody cuts or bright red burns were lined, waiting for a slap of medigel on their wound before going back to work. Samantha Traynor was among them, a bloody piece of gauze wrapped around her left hand. “Hey Sam, what happened?”
“Oh, good to see you Doctor T’Soni,” she replied, startled. “Nothing much, I stabbed myself with a screwdriver trying to do some repair to the comms antenna, outside. Some medigel and I’ll be fine. How are things in CIC?”
“Sparks are flying, everyone is working, I don’t know what to do and Joker is trying to keep it together for the sake of the crew, but the fact that EDI has turned off really put him on edge.”
Traynor nodded. “I hope that once we get the core running we can turn her on again. We can do without her, but EDI makes everything way faster.”
“Do you have an idea why she shut down like that?”
The comm specialist shrugged and winced when the movement disturbed her wound. “A number of reasons. Whatever… hit us destabilized a number of systems, turned off the drive core and made even one of the best pilots in the Alliance crash land on a planet. It’s a miracle we’re alive.”
Liara chuckled. “Don’t tell Joker that. He thinks he’s the best pilot in the Alliance. I’m going to check on Garrus now. Take care, Traynor.”
“Will do, Doctor T’Soni.”
Inside the crowded infirmary, Doctor Chakwas and her aids were treating the wounded as quickly and efficiently as possible before setting them back to work as soon as they could. On a secluded cot on the far side of the room, Garrus was sitting up, an arm wrapped in tight bandages and secured to his chest with a sling. He looked battered and tired, but despite the wounds he sustained, he seemed to have kept his spirits up, at least from the outside.
“Hey Garrus, how are you holding up?”
“Hey there,” he grumbled. “Holding up fine. The Doc said it was bloody but not life-threatening. I’ll be fine in a week or two. How about you?”
She shrugged and sat beside him on the cot. “Fine.”
The Turian gently nudged his elbow into her ribs. “Come on Liara, you’re awful at lying.”
Smiling, she nodded. “I guess I should have chosen my trade better then.”
“The Shadow Broker doesn’t lie. Maybe its agents do, but the big boss? Nah. But seriously, how are you?”
Liara clutched the lapels of the N7 hoodie she had stolen from Shepard’s cabin and pulled them up to her face. “I’m worried. Something happened, but I don’t know what.”
“You think she’s hurt?”
“I don’t know, it’s strange. It… a feeling. I know she’s not alright, that I’m sure. And she’s on Earth alone while we’re stranded on the Goddess knows where.”
Straining against his wounds, Garrus wrapped his taloned hand around her shoulders and pulled her closer to him. “We’re not stranded. And she’s not alone! Ashley and Vega are down there with her, I’m sure whatever happened they’re taking good care of her.”
Liara sniffled a little, trying to swallow the lump in her throat that made talking very hard. “I… I don’t know, I just have a bad feeling. It’s not that I don’t trust Ashley or James… I don’t trust Jane! You know how she is!”
Garrus nodded. “Humans have an old metaphor to describe people like her: battering rams.”
“And that would mean?”
The Turian shook his head and brought up the Omni-Tool and tried to access the Extranet, only to receive an error message. “Damn, it’s offline. Anyway, if my memory doesn’t fail me, a ram is an animal on Earth, with curved horns and a quick temper. They like to headbutt things.”
Suddenly, and unexpected even to herself, Liara laughed. “Goddess, that’s a good one.”
“Yeah, how many Krogans has she headbutted?”
“For all I know, just one,” replied Liara. “But she told me she wanted to headbutt that journalist that kept pestering her… what was her name…”
“You mean Al-Jilani? Wait, when did that happen? Was that recent?” asked Garrus.
“No idea,” she said. “She told me a couple of weeks ago, while we were eating in the mess hall. She didn’t mention when it happened though, must have been while she was on the Citadel on her own, you know… doing things.”
“Was there ever a moment when she wasn’t somewhere doing things? I thought that my obsessive calibrations of the weaponry were a bit too much, but it helped me unwind. Shepard is always somewhere doing stuff. Does she ever sleep?”
“She does, but not for long. About four hours per night, she said she slept enough while she was dead.”
In that moment, Doctor Chakwas decided to intervene in their conversation. “And I was very worried about that!” she interjected. “Commander Shepard came to see me quite a few times because of her inability to sleep and for recurring nightmares. I told her I could prescribe her a pharmacological treatment, but she didn’t want to impair her thinking with drugs.”
“That’s very much like Shepard,” commented Garrus.
“Very much, yes.” Doctor Chakwas waved her Omni-Tool over him. “You look much better, how do you feel?”
“Much better, Doctor Chakwas. Can I go back to work?”
Sternly, she nodded. “Sure. Mild activity, don’t overdue and don’t lift weights for now. I’ll see you again tomorrow for the antibiotics. You should be fine if you don’t overexert yourself. Now go!” She slapped the Turian’s shoulder, lightly. “Let someone else occupy this cot.”
He slipped down the edge of the bed, setting his feet on the floor with a loud sigh. “Thank you, Doctor Chakwas. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Good. And be careful. The Normandy is a bit of a hazardous trap right now. You too Liara, don’t worry too much about the Commander. She can take care of herself.”
“Last time she told me that she got spaced, Doctor Chakwas.”
The doctor cringed a little. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. But don’t be afraid, whatever happened down on Earth, she’ll be alright.”
The lights then went out, there was a long silent moment and then a loud whine and a whirring sound from downstairs. “What’s going on now?” asked Garrus aloud, then the lights turned on again, and the silence was filled with the familiar, soothing sound of the drive core in the engine room. “Seems like Tali can indeed make miracles happen!” he went on then, before a discharge of static came from the intercom.
“Engine room to all areas of the ship!” came the excited voice of the young Quarian. “We have managed to restore the drive core, we’re back online! Samantha, can you or any of your team check on the comms?”
“Can someone reboot EDI?” cried Joker after that.
In that moment, Samantha Traynor marched inside the infirmary, wounded hand still wrapped in bloody gauze, and walked towards the AI core, in the back of the infirmary. “Tali, Sam is checking on EDI now,” said Garrus through his Omni-Tool. “Her team’s on the comms.”
The door of the AI core slid open with a hiss and Traynor went straight to the console that commanded EDI and started fiddling, one handed, with the holo-key board. After a few moments, she scrunched her forehead in doubt, tried a few more keys and commands, then kneeled beneath the console. She pulled on a handle and a circuit panel slid away from its compartment, along with smoke and a few sparks. “What the…” she started, but never completed the sentence. She started moving components around, testing if cables and circuits were dislodged. “No. No come on! I’m not letting you do this EDI!” she cried.
“Do what?” asked Liara.
“This!” she repeated, louder this time, more desperate. “What the hell EDI! What the fuck happened to you!”
“What are you talking about Sam?” asked Joker through the comm. “What’s wrong with EDI?”
“I… Joker, I don’t know… the processors, the RAM modules… it’s like a power surge damaged them!”
“You mean she’s fried?”
Sighing, Sam nodded. “Yes, Joker. She’s fried.”
Yes, Miranda had definitely resurrected her, there was no other explanation.
Or was there? What if she had never died in the first place?
It couldn’t be, could it? Not after that blast, that should have been enough to melt down the plating of a Mako, how could she be still alive?
There was no way in the Galaxy she could have survived that. What happened later with Anderson and the Illusive Man, and that ghost… that was just a nightmare her brain conjured in her final moment, it had to be.
There was no other explanation, nothing else seemed reasonable.
But…but if… ugh, why couldn't she remember words?
No, it was no use. Thinking was too hard. Sometimes her mind felt clear as ever, but most of the time… it was just floating in silence.
Doctor Wilson led the trio inside the room where Shepard rested. They found her the way they were expecting, lying motionless on a cot, tubes and bandages everywhere they could see, covered in a thick grey blanket. Half her face was hidden behind the tape that held the endotracheal tube in place, the rest was bruised and cuts. Despite everything, she looked peaceful, as if simply asleep after just another scuffle against space pirates.
“Please, sit,” instructed the doctor, gesturing towards a few scattered chairs piled up in a corner of the room. “I’m sorry for the poor conditions of the hospital, but this is the best we could come up with, given the circumstances. Now, Miss Lawson, tell me more about… what did you call it?”
“Indoctrination,” she replied, grabbing one of the chairs and sitting down, quite gracelessly. Up to that moment, she hadn’t realized how tired she was, running of the fading fumes of adrenaline. “It's a process the Reapers use on organic beings to force them to do their bidding.”
“And they do it how?”
“No one really knows. There are speculations, but nothing really concrete. There’s is some literature, but it’s scarce and mostly based on anecdotes. What we know is that being too close to Reapers and artifacts ascribable to them causes an incremental change of brainwaves over time, to a point where the indoctrinated becomes a thrall to the Reaper’s will. If the indoctrination happens at a slow pace, the person is unaware of the changes, thinks the ideas they come up with are their own, still think they’re in the right, like Saren Arterius, the SPECTRE, about three years back. He was still self aware and he thought he was doing the right thing for the Galaxy, while in reality it was Sovereign commanding him in order to bring forth the invasion in a less… gruesome way.”
“Less gruesome? From what I know, the Reaper you called Sovereign caused extensive damage to the Citadel, and thousands died.”
“That’s true,” intervened Ashley. “But in a way, the plan was going to be less gruesome than what had happened before, with the Protheans. We’ve come to learn that the previous invasion and culling of the Prothean race took many years, enough that they managed to both devise, but not complete, the Crucible and put many of their own in stasis, in order to survive the invasion and reclaim the Galaxy once the Reapers were gone.”
The doctor took a deep breath. “Well, I guess that on a galactic scale, it is less gruesome , to an extent. But back to the Commander, is this indoctrination reversible?”
“Same as how it happens, we don’t know if it’s reversible,” Miranda responded. “Maybe in the first stages, but I have no idea about Shepard. The sparse literature I’ve read about indoctrination talks about different stages, with the latter ones being those most destructive. At that point, the indoctrinated person becomes a shell, with no will of their own and will stop even performing the most basic function like eating and drinking.”
Doctor Wilson shoot another look at Shepard, unconscious in the bed. “So it’s basically like being in a coma, but with the minimal degree of consciousness, enough to perform the tasks ordered but not enough to keep care of themselves.”
“For all we know, yes.”
“Alright, now down to the real question: why would the Reapers want to indoctrinate Commander Shepard? And how long as it been going on?”
Miranda, Ashley and Vega looked at each other, all with puzzled expressions stamped on their faces. “Again, we have no concrete idea,” she replied. “But… I do have a theory.”
“And that would be?” prodded Ashley.
“Well… to put it down as simply as I can, they got beef with Shepard.”
Vega chuckled. “You don’t say!” Vega chuckled. “She and the crew of the Normandy, under one banner or the other, single handedly thwarted their invasion plans twice !” he went on. “I guess they tried to drag her on their side, I don’t know, as a form of revenge?”
“Are Reapers even capable of being that petty?” asked Ashley. “Shouldn’t they be the most advanced intelligence in the universe?”
“Oh believe me, I’ve met my fair share of extremely intelligent people that can be petty as fuck!” he replied.
Miranda nodded. “I can vouch for that. I can be a petty bitch when I want!”
“That would mean you know how to be kind…” muttered Ashley.
A long, awkward moment of silence followed the remark, but despite the situation and the not so veiled insult, Miranda laughed. Soft and not for long, but she laughed. And Vega followed, only a little louder. “Good one, Lieutenant Commander, good one. I’m surprised you didn’t aim for the extreme intelligence claim.”
“That’s because I know you’re really smart, Miranda, no need to joke about that claim. You are extremely intelligent.”
Taking a deep breath, Miranda smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment, Lieutenant Commander.”
Doctor Wilson looked at the three of them, puzzled. “Is there something I should know?”
“I’m a former Cerberus operative, doctor. I defected roughly a year ago. And Lieutenant Commander Williams doesn't like me. Rightly so, I may add, I’m not going to argue with her about my past, but we’re not here to talk about that. What are your plans, currently?”
“As of now, damage control,” replied the doctor quite bluntly. “We’re low on everything, from antibiotics to splints for broken bones. Comms are still spotty, we don’t know if other cities are in the same situation or if we can call in more supplies. It’s a miracle we had enough to settle her for the basics of life support. If we were in standard circumstances, we would of course try more than damage control, but for now, we can only make sure Commander Shepard is comfortable and not in pain, as much as we can. If she holds on until we get better diagnostic equipment and treatment options, we’ll devise a more detailed plan. At the moment…” she sighed. “She’s stable, but I don’t know how long it will last. She took a bad beating, physically, but I’m worried about neurological decay.”
“Because of the probable indoctrination?”
She nodded. “Yes. From what you’ve told me, I’m mainly worried about that. I’ll need to consult a neurologist as soon as I can find one and get them to check on the Commander. Do you have anything else about indoctrination, or know where I can find some literature?”
Miranda fiddled with her Omni-Tool. “I have something here, mostly the data from the Cerberus facility I mentioned earlier. I suppose I could go and check if the London cell is still standing and their computers are still connected on the Cerberus mainframe. Maybe I can pull something else out of there.”
“Wait a sec!” exclaimed Vega. “There was a Cerberus cell here in London?”
Miranda nodded, fiddled again and pulled a holographic model of the world, with hundreds of little dots on it. Most of them corresponded with major cities and urban conglomerates. “Cerberus was everywhere, even in the Alliance. They were worse than mold, and stank as much.”
Doctor Wilson chuckled. “I like the comparison.”
“It took me a while to understand it,” she explained, plain and concise. “But I’m not going to apologize or scourge myself for my past, I’ve got enough to do on my hands now as it is. I need to remake the spinal implant, the C4 lesion might be incomplete, but it’s enough to impair functions below that level.” The doctor nodded, approving. “For that, I will need the specs and they are uploaded in the Cerberus network. But before that, we need to find out where the hell the Normandy is.”
“I’m on it,” said Ashley, standing up. “I’ll go back to HQ and check on progress there. There must be a way to contact others outside the system, we can’t be completely isolated from the rest of the galaxy.”
“I’ll stay here then,” added Vega. “She shouldn’t be alone now. Even if she’s unconscious.”
Miranda nodded. “Then I’ll go and check if the base is still in working order and try to retrieve as much as I can. Just, one more thing Doctor Wilson: on the worst case scenario, what will happen to Commander Shepard?”
The young woman sighed and folded her arms across her chest. “Worst case scenario, she gets an underlying infection we can’t detect because we don’t have ways to do any test and the antibiotics we are using now aren’t the correct ones. On top of that, she was terribly dehydrated and I’m fearing for kidney function, though for now it seems to be still in working order. We’re trying to get our hands on a nasogastric tube for feeding, but even if we get the equipment, I don’t know if we can get the formula. And then there’s to take care of decubitus sores.” She took another deep breath and looked at the bed behind them. “Unless we get some equipment in the next couple of days, I doubt we’ll be able to hold onto her for more than a week. Two tops. She was clearly in great shape before this and that will help, but she’s gonna need fluids and calories if we want to even try to reverse the neurological damage. We can provide the fluids, for now. I’m not sure about the energy.”
Miranda let out a soft grunt of frustration. “Very well. I’ll go look for whatever I can. Maybe if I can find a shuttle I could try and reach one of the research labs Cerberus had in France. Or any other facilities I can get to.”
“You think you’re going to find something useful?” asked James.
She shrugged. “Who knows. I don’t even know if those places still exist, but you know… hoping is free, am I right?”
Thinking was becoming increasingly easier, even if it was for just a short time. There was still a layer of thick fog wrapped around her head, but it was slowly dissipating. By process of elimination, she had realized that she was indeed alive, only in some sort of suspended animation. She had very brief moments of clarity, short periods of time she could indeed form coherent thoughts and actually think about what was going on, sometimes even capture snippets of what happened around her, mostly doctors talking medical gibberish. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t open her eyes, just struggling against something so simple made her drowsy and made her slip quickly into the thick, black silence.
Again… damn this is getting hard…
As she drifted off to sleep again, the last coherent thought she could muster went in a completely different direction.
I wonder how Liara’s doing…
With power restored, the crew of the Normandy doubled their efforts to get the ship airborne again, while Traynor’s team tried to raise anyone through comms, both short and long range. Up to now, three days, maybe four after they had crashed, they had obtained only statics. Liara was doing the same, trying to contact her agents, those who were still alive, and getting her usually continuous feed back into action.
Even her efforts amounted to zero results, for now. No contacts from her people, even Feron, and no data flowing on her screens. Everything was silent, save for the low hum of the engine and barely audible whisper of Glyph moving around, helping her the only way he could: hard and silent.
“Glyph, could you analyze the quality of the signal we send and the signal we receive? Just to check if everything’s in working order.”
“At once, Doctor T’Soni,” it replied. moving to another side of the room where they had installed their specific transmitter for her Shadow Broker affairs. She looked at the small levitating orb for a moment as it worked its diagnostics routine and waited, patiently, for its reply. “Doctor T’Soni, I can confirm the transmitter is indeed in working order, we’re transmitting at full power and the receiver is at 100% capabilities.”
“So there’s no apparent traffic, at our current range, I see.” She rubbed her eyes with her fingers. “We do depend on the Normandy’s comms though for longer range communications, maybe we should try and see if Traynor needs help with the repairs.”
“It would be advisable, Doctor T’Soni,” the VI replied. “If the Normandy’s comms systems are somehow defective, ours would suffer too.”
Liara nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”
Standing up, she swayed a little bit and had to steady herself holding the edge of the table in front of her. Little food or drink and even less sleep were taking a toll on her. She could almost hear Doctor Chakwas reprimanding her, telling her to take care of herself. If not for her, for Jane. She’s waiting for you on Earth, I’m sure , the doctor had said. Don’t waste yourself, or she’s going to be very displeased with you .
She chuckled, amused by the thought of a very disappointed Shepard, seeing her down in weight.
If she seems me again…
There was still that nagging feeling in the back of her mind, that something had happened to Jane. Something bad. It was almost as if she could feel it, her pain and anguish, when she slept. The few, sparse hours she would randomly manage to get some rest, albeit plagued by nightmares.
“Will I ever stop dreaming about London?” she asked herself.
“According to the resources available to me, traumatic events like those you’ve experienced tend to leave a deep mark in people, Doctor T’Soni. I would advise you to seek counselling as soon as you can.”
She chuckled. “Thank you Glyph, it’s very considerate of you.”
“I would also suggest you take better care of yourself. If my observations are correct, you skipped a total of seven meals out of the customary nine you should have had in the past three days and you lack sleep too. Should I call Doctor Chakwas and ask her to prescribe a drug aid?”
“There’s no need, I’ll ask her myself. Thank you again, Glyph. Could you please notify Samantha Traynor that I’m coming up to speak to her in about an hour?”
“At once, Doctor T’Soni.”
She grabbed the hoodie she had stolen from Shepard’s wardrobe and donned it. A quick sniff made her realize it needed to be washed, and she was already in dire need to take a shower, so before anything, she headed upstairs, to Shepard’s cabin. As she walked out of her room with some clean clothes in hands, she noticed the bustling activity around her. People were running around the crew quarters, some were grabbing a quick bite before going back to work, others were coming off their shift and there were those who were just starting their own.
Even Cortez had decided to emerge from the shuttle bay and was sitting in the mess hall, a cup of coffee in one hand and a datapad in the other, deeply immersed in his reading. She didn’t want to disturb him, but as she walked past the hall to the elevator, he raised his head from the pad and smiled at her. “Doctor T’Soni! It’s good to see you!”
Liara smiled in return, weary. “Likewise, Lieutenant. How are you doing?”
“The shuttle bay is too silent without Vega constantly tinkering with his weapons or hitting the bag. I was getting lonely down there. You?”
“Tired, hungry and in need of a shower.”
He smiled again. “I can’t do much for two of them, but I can invite you to share a bite with me. Sit down, I’ll bring you something. Coffee or tea?”
He stood as she sat down and returned a while later with a tray with two cups and two bowls. “It’s oatmeal day, sorry if it’s bland.”
She shook her head and took bot the bowl and the mug he offered her. “I’m hungry enough I could eat a roasted varren, oatmeal will be just fine. How are the repairs going?”
He shrugged his shoulders, then shook his head. “Without EDI directing the show, we’re flying blind,” he admitted. “We have to run all diagnostics ourselves and that takes time. We find new damage by the minute, things that must be repaired before we even try FTL travel. And then there’s the fact that we can’t seem to contact anyone in the Galaxy, and that’s spooking me to no end.”
Liara had a hard time pushing a thick lump forming in her throat, the comms breakdown was a sore spot for her. “Yeah, don’t tell me.”
“You’re worried about Commander Shepard, I understand. I can’t tell you, in good conscience, not to, just… don’t beat yourself too much about it.”
“I should have stayed, Steve. I should have jumped off the Normandy like Ashley and James.”
Gently, he took hold of her hand. “No, you shouldn’t have. James and Ashley disobeyed a direct order, and I’m sure Shepard is pissed to no end with them. And she would be royally enraged with you, if you had stayed.”
“She would, but at least I would know what happened to her. It’s killing me, Steve.”
He nodded. “I bet it is. Just have faith, Liara. She’s in good company down there, I’m sure Ashley and James are taking good care of her, whatever happened. They are probably nursing the worst hangover of their lives now, I bet they found some pub still in working order and drank all the beer they had in stock.”
Liara snorted, trying to hold back a laugher. “Yeah, that sounds like Jane.”
“And James. And Ashley. Those three are dangerous around alcohol, they have no restriction!”
“True!” She sighed. “Did she ever tell you about that time she managed to drink Wrex under the table?”
He was taken aback with that concept. “What? How?”
“He choose a much higher ABV liquor than her, just because he’s a big ass Krogan and she’s a puny skinny pyjak . He underestimated her resistance. And he collapsed at the seventh shot.”
“Wow, that’s… remarkable!” he commented.
“To say the least. Beating a Krogan in a drinking contest… that’s not an everyday feat. Even for another Krogan.”
“Yeah… now now, eat your oatmeal and drink your tea. I’ve got to go back to work soon.”
“Thank you Steve, I needed that.”
He smiled, squeezing her shoulder. “Anytime, Liara. You’re welcome down to the shuttle bay, if you need some company.”
“Will do, Steve.”
She quickly finished her breakfast - apparently, she had remained awake working through the night again - and took the elevator up to Shepard’s cabin. The door slid open with a hiss, and automatically her hand went to the aquarium controls to feed the fishes. It was the first thing Shepard did, every time she walked in her room at the end of the day. She was pretty proud of her aquarium, as a spacer kid, growing up on ships she never had the chance of having a pet like a dog or a cat, she had always been stuck with fishbowls. When Cerberus added the aquarium to the captain cabin, she had been more than happy to scour through shops here and there to get new colorful creatures to fill it. She cared a lot about their health, so Liara was doing her best to keep them going. Luckily, they hadn’t suffered with the blackout as it hadn’t lasted long enough to cause permanent damage or worse, the complete annihilation of the ecosystem.
“There you are” she whispered. “All fed and warm.”
Slowly, she took off her clothes and threw them in a messy pile on the floor beside the door to the ensuite bathroom, before she stepped in and opened the faucet. The initial rush of cold water hit her like a biotic blast in her face, waking her up with a start from her drowsy state, and as it warmed up, the water actually turned into a soothing sensation on her skin.
Not wanting to deplete the hot water supply of the Normandy, she made quick work of her shower. She grabbed Shepard’s body wash from the shelf beside the faucet and chuckled. Despite being the savior of the galaxy, multiple times, and hero of the Citadel, the one person among all charted worlds in the Milky Way that could not only afford but get sponsored deals for anything and everything, she still used Alliance Issue standard supply. From clothes to hygiene products, she wasn’t different from any other Alliance Private.
Down to Earth, the humans said.
If there was anyone that was down to Earth that would be Jane Shepard, born and raised on a spaceship. Sometimes the Galaxy worked in strange ways.
“Goddess, please let her be alright…” she whispered, letting the tears she had kept tightly to herself finally fall and mix with the water cascading over her. Leaning against the wall, she let self control go and unloaded the anguish that had piled up in the past few days. Just a moment to let it out, before she put on her Shadow Broker mask and got back to work with renewed energy.
Just one moment…
In reality, it took Liara a little more than a moment to get a grip on herself and stop crying, but when she managed to do so, she did it with confidence and grit. This wasn’t a good time to break down when everyone else was going above and beyond their capabilities to get the Normandy in working order.
She quickly rinsed herself, grabbed a towel from the rack close by and wrapped herself in it, then she walked out of the bathroom. The restorative power of washing off three days of grime made her feel like a new person. Sure, the stress hadn’t magically been erased and she still needed to sleep, but her mind was clear enough to actually think coherently about what she could do to help Samantha fix the comms.
Now finally dressed and energized, she threw the dirty clothes in a bag for laundry, got a new hoodie from Shepard’s drawers and went down to CIC to look for Specialist Traynor. One of her team directed her to the exterior of the Normandy, as she was checking the antennas on the outside of the ship.
The air outside was cold and crisp, with a gentle breeze barely moving the fronds of the trees. Liara took a deep breath, as she stepped outside the main door of the Normandy, then she took hold of the rungs of the ladder just outside the door and climbed on the top of the ship. She had never been there, never seen the Normandy from that perspective, and it was a little strange. It looked smaller, from the outside.
Careful not to slip on the sleek surface, she walked towards the back of the ship and found Traynor sitting cross legged on the hull in front of an open panel, with circuit boards, tools and cables scattered around her, as she carefully extracted a component from another board. Her left hand was still bandaged, but she moved it with ease.
“I see your hand is improving!”
“Oh, good morning Doctor T’Soni! Glyph had warned me you wanted to talk to me. How are you doing?”
“I forgot to sleep, Glyph said I skipped seven meals out of nine in the past three days and I realized this morning that I hadn’t showered since the crash,”” she replied sitting down beside her. “Other than that… not too bad.”
Sam grimaced. “Uh, tough times. Don’t forget to take care of yourself, or Commander Shepard will be mighty angry with you, when we get back to Earth.”
“If we get there in the first place…”
The comms specialist sighed, set her tools on the hull and gently clutched her shoulder. “We will, Doctor T’Soni. We’re just trying to make sure we don’t blow up as soon as we engage FTL speed. Joker pulled a miracle out of his hat when he managed to crash here without any major damage. With the drive core out of commission and without EDI.”
“Speaking of which, any idea why she fried ?”
“None,” replied Sam. “The funny thing is that every single memory bank is fine, those are intact. It’s the main processor that held the majority of her code that simply burst. Thing is, I doubt we will be able to rebuild that piece, it was a one-of-a-kind piece and without the original code, even with all her memories still stored we can’t access them because our software would be incompatible with her programming.”
“No one ever thought of reverse-engineering her code I guess.”
Sam took the circuit board she was repairing in one hand and with the other she fished in a small clear plastic bag full of different chips, looking for a good one. “No one ever thought we would suffer a EMP burst that powerful.”
“Did it cause issues even to the comms? Glyph and I ran some diagnostics earlier and our signal seems to work, but there’s no traffic.”
“Actually, there’s a lot of traffic, it’s just that this little bastard of a component here is giving false readings.” She pointed at the open panel in front of her. “I had a revelation last night and came up here first thing in the morning. I was right: there are a number of fried chips here that need to be replaced.”
Suddenly, Liara felt a surge of hope deep in her chest. “Do you mean we could get back online soon?”
She nodded. “As soon as I replace these chips here, we should be back online. Five minutes or so, I think. I’ve already replaced most of them, and this time I used surge-proof components. Cerberus slacked a little when it came to some components.”
“They had already poured billions of credits between reviving Shepard and rebuilding the Normandy twice the size of the original, cut them some slack.”
“Do you have an idea how much it cost them?”
“About five billions, between the two projects. But that’s not even their most costly feat.”
Sam raised an eyebrow, curious. “What are you talking about?”
“About a year ago, right when the colonies started disappearing, they shoved a lot of money in the Andromeda Initiative, to colonize that galaxy too.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It wasn’t public domain, but to make it short the Initiative built what they called ark ships to hold hundreds of people in stasis for the six hundred years required for the journey. Cerberus was very low key about their involvement, but they did fund the project with a lot of money. Rumor has it that the Illusive Man’s daughter herself was embarked in one of the arks.”
“Wow, being the Shadow Broker sure has you constantly up to date with all the important news, uh?” Traynor pushed a chip in its socket and then shoved the board into its connector, then closed the panel. “One moment please…” she fiddled with her Omni-Tool and all of a sudden Liara’s own tool came alive, with a huge number of notifications popping in rapid sequence as three days of backlog unloaded all at the same time.
“Yes we are!” Sam exclaimed, triumphantly. “I’m not sure how far we can reach, that depends on comm buoys, but we’re online!”
Liara tried to make sense of the huge number of messages coming up, but they were too many, so she ordered Glyph to sort them by importance, when she and Traynor received a local call from Joker. “Liara, are you there?”
She pushed the button to reply. “I’m here Joker.”
“Come down here, as soon as you can.”
She stood as quickly as she could and walked back to the rudder heading for the main door. “What’s going on?”
“I’ve got Aria T’Loak on vidcom, she’s trying to patch through Miranda from Earth!”
The shuttle the Alliance was so kind to lend her, thanks to Lieutenant Commander Williams was surprisingly in good conditions, given the situation. When Miranda arrived in Stansted Mountfitchet, suburb area north of London, she managed to locate the building where Cerberus hosted its local cell quite easily. It was a bit run down and damaged, but it still looked in working order. Being so close to the local spaceport, it wasn’t a densely populated area, mostly industrial buildings with very few houses. With no population to harvest, the Reapers seemingly had concentrated on more densely crowded areas and let go of that place.
She parked the shuttle on the street in front of the building and stepped off it. The air was cleaner there, even considered the relatively little distance from the destruction of London, there was less dust hanging. In the east, there were large clouds gathering, it looked like it was going to rain by the time she got back to London.
“Exactly what Shepard needs, a leaky roof over her head…” she mumbled, as she walked up to the door. Surprisingly, her ID codes still worked. The Illusive Man was quick to erase her from the ranks of Cerberus when she had defected, in light of his willingness to keep studying the human Reaper, but apparently he was not so fast at actually erasing her from the databases.
“Finally something goes well,” she kept talking to herself as she opened the door. Inside, despite the layer of dust covering the floor and furniture, everything was still as the operatives had left it, no looters or Reapers coming to steal and pillage things. On the upfront, it was just a commercial business, if she remembered correctly it was posing as an import/export company, what she needed was below deck, so to speak. Pretty much every single local cell was built the same: a respectable company on the front, but if you knew where to look, you could find either a hidden door or a disguised trap door, and that’s where she needed to go.
She didn’t even need to look for long, it was there, hidden in plain sight, the traditional trick of the moving bookshelf. “Classy…” She found the button to move it even without using the Omni-Tool. The shelf slid away from the wall and she pushed it enough to be able to move beyond the frame and into the dark corridor. The bright white light turned on as soon as a motion sensor picked up her movements, so the power was still there. “Even better… now let’s hope I don’t find a fanatic holed up in here ready to shoot me!”
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. At the end of the corridor there was a biometric scanner that again let her pass, another sign that the higher ups had completely forgot to revoke her access to Cerberus resources, and finally, she was where she needed to be, the main room. From there, she could access the whole Cerberus Network, or whatever remained of it, and locate every single resource she would need to make sure Shepard could have every shot at getting back to health, despite the grim prognosis offered by the doctors that had treated her up to now.
Cerberus had a number of interests, one of them was medicine. With waging war, came also the need to treat the wounded, and there were hospitals scattered around the Galaxy funded by Cerberus that would treat them without outing them to authorities. After all, they were criminals, standard hospitals could very easily just refuse to treat any of those who were affiliated with the organization and call the police, so they had built their own network of hospitals and places where they could be cured without risking incarceration.
With a sigh, Miranda sat at the console and turned on the computer in front of her. She either needed a tub of coffee or there days of continuous, dreamless sleep, ever since the Battle Of London she had got little of each and it was messing up with her body and her brain.
As the computer booted and grabbed her access ID codes from her Omni-Tool via the wireless interface, she leaned her elbows on her knees and massaged the back of her neck, trying to push away the tension from her muscles and tendons. “God I hadn’t been this tense since Shepard woke up too soon in the lab…”
In that moment, her Omni-Tool beeped, signalling an incoming call. It was Ashley. “Lieutenant Commander, everything alright?”
“ As good as it can be, Miranda. Have you reached the Cell? ”
“Yes, I’m in. Computer is booting and doing a series of automated downloads. I think it was turned off months ago and there’s a subroutine that updates databases automatically when it gets turned on again.”
“ That means you’re online, right? ”
“Yes I am. Connection is slow, but it seems in working order. Why?”
“ Because techs here managed to get off-planet connection running again and I wanted to tell you. ”
Wow, that was quick. Well, three days in the making, but surely a lucky coincidence. “Thank you, Lieutenant Commander, I appreciate the heads up.”
“ Please Miranda, call me Ashley. No need for formalities. ”
She smiled, briefly. “Will do, Ashley. Have you heard from the Normandy?”
“ Not yet, we’re looking for their signal, but we don’t know if comm buoys are damaged or still working, long distance comms may be hindered still. They’re working on it. ”
“I may be able to help, do you want me to come and see if I can?”
“ No, take care of Shepard. Concentrate on her, we’ve got this. ”
“Alright then. Seems like the computer is up and going, I’ll get back to it. Call me if you need anything.”
“ Likewise, Miranda. Williams out. ”
With that, Miranda delved in the data the computer had managed to download. There was still some stuff being grabbed from the servers in the background, but what was important was ready to be accessed and downloaded locally.
First and foremost, she checked the local inventory for medical supplies. The building stocked only basic things like bandages, antiseptic, some doses of antibiotics and general first aid drugs, but it was better than nothing. She took a mental note to raid the supply, then moved to look at the most recent files. Updates from various cells had been uploaded regularly up until about a week before, which coincided with Shepard’s assault at Cronos Station. The network was still in working order, probably because the headquarters hadn’t been completely destroyed, but everything was working at steam engine speed, it was going to take a while to access data that wasn’t available in the hard drives.
Sighing, she started looking for the Lazarus Cell data. The package was easy to find, there were some files already saved, but the biggest chunk was online, and it was almost six petabytes of data. “God almighty, did I file that many reports?” Nevertheless, she started the download, that alone would have taken hours to complete. Then she looked for all the data she could find about indoctrination, another few petabytes of stuff she had never seen, all new research that had been performed and compiled either while she was too concentrated on reviving Shepard and fighting the Collectors or after she had defected.
“The Illusive Man was really into it…”
It unnerved her, seeing how low the organization had come. What once stood for the betterment of the human race, an ideal she could go by with little to no moral qualms had become just as bad as the Reapers, ready to devour its own species and morphe its population into something unrecognizable only to prevail over the other galactic races. That was not what she had signed up for. She knew the Illusive Man could be ruthless, but in his sometimes overly pragmatic ways he had always made logical assumptions and according decisions, but after he had tried to convince Shepard to spare the human Reaper, her certainty about his real motives started faltering.
And when Shepard showed her a thing or two about personal responsibilities and turned herself in to the Alliance over the Alpha Relay incident, she had quit Cerberus on the spot. Not even a resignation letter, she just stopped reporting in.
Then Reapers came, her father tried to kidnap Oriana again , shit hit the fan real quick and well, there she was, downloading data and scrapping medical supplies to keep Shepard alive.
“If it happens a third time Jane I’m leaving you to die. I don’t care if you’re a symbol or whatever, I can’t devote my life to keeping you alive, I’m not that resilient!” she exclaimed as she typed another search on the computer.
When the result list came up on the screen though, she shook her head. “Who am I kidding? Of course I would come and resurrect her, again… Commander Jane Shepard, what have you done to me?”
She could almost hear her voice in the back of her head. That’s friendship, Miranda!
“Yeah, right…” On the screen in front of her appeared a list of Cerberus facilities that could hold the necessary equipment needed to keep Shepard alive for a little longer. If the stocks were up to date, she wouldn’t even need to go to France, there was a medical facility up north, in Edinburgh. A couple hours tops and she would have everything she needed for at least two weeks, maybe more, enough time to get to the hospital in France with a bigger shuttle and haul both supplies and machinery to London. She was sure the Alliance military hospital would appreciate some free diagnostic equipment, courtesy of racist bastards that wanted to stop everything the Alliance stood for.
Call it karma.
I wonder how many agents and operatives are still alive… Miranda thought while she filled a few plastic bags with every single piece of medical equipment that was stored in the safehouse. Well maybe…
She pushed a few buttons on her Omni-Tool and called Ashley. “ Everything OK? ”
“Yes, just fine. I’ve got some supplies that I’m bringing back to the hospital and I’m downloading some stuff about indoctrination for Doctor Wilson. And there’s some things I can go and pick up in another safehouse in Edinburgh, mostly diagnostic equipment. Listen, I was thinking there are probably a number of Cerberus agents out there, maybe I can transmit a message on our emergency channel and try and rally some defectors into joining the rebuilding effort with the Alliance.”
She heard a sigh on the other line. “ I don’t know Miranda… it’s not a bad idea, but I think the admiralty should vouch for it before I tell you to go ahead. We’re talking about Cerberus. ”
“I know, that’s why I asked. Maybe I could transmit something more on the line of helping where they are, not necessarily come out as Cerberus and put assets into good use.”
“ That’s a better option, one that I can authorize myself as a SPECTRE. Do you think someone will answer your call? ”
“I have no idea, I don’t even know how many are still alive, it’s possible I’m the only one, but it’s worth a try. I’ll record it at once.”
It was a quick message with no navpoint or specific indications on what to do and where, just an invitation to lend a hand wherever they were and in any way they could. And of course she added a little jab about the fact that Cerberus was done and they basically had no other alternative, as politely as she could of course, she didn’t want to upset anyone to the point they would do exactly the opposite of what she was asking. That would mean she had failed.
She sent it to the main computer and set it up for continuous transmission on the emergency channels, hoping there was still someone out there to listen to her plea. She wasn’t counting on it, but it made her feel better, maybe someone would take heed of her recommendation, switch sides and lend their help to rebuilding the galaxy, not just Earth.
With that done, she went back at packing the medicines, until her Omni-Tool beeped with an incoming call. But it wasn’t coming from Earth, it came from…
“Omega?” She exclaimed, accepting the call. “Hello?”
“ Ah, so you guys are still kicking down on Earth! ”
“ The one and only. Now, Miranda, do you mind telling me why the network on Omega is flooded with your heartrending message? ”
“What? Wait a second I…” Then she remembered that Cerberus had successfully invaded Omega and that maybe the emergency system was still in place. It was a damn tough piece of technology, very hard to erase from a network. “It’s Cerberus emergency channel, it must have remained dormant since Petrovsky’s invasion!” she explained. “I’m sending you a code to deactivate it, station-wide.”
She sent the code and waited a few seconds for Aria to receive it and input it. “ Now that’s better. ”
“I’m sorry Aria, I wasn’t thinking about the emergency network overriding Omega.”
“ Oh I’m sure about that. I guess you already have enough on your hands. How’s the situation down there? ”
“Well, more dead than injured, half of Earth is a pile of rubble and smoke, the other half is a warzone, we have no government and all the resources the Alliance had were poured in the Crucible. How’s Omega?”
“ We’re holding up, we got hit by something that nearly turned off every single one of the damn reactors that keep Omega up and running, but we’ve got at least life support running fast. ”
“Even there? I thought that EMP burst caused damage only down here!”
There was a long moment of pause. “ Wait a second, are you telling me that the same burst that hit Omega also hit Earth? How’s that even fucking possible? ”
“I haven’t got the faintest idea Aria, I thought it was something that malfunctioned on the Citadel.”
“ The Citadel isn’t exactly very close to Earth either… ” replied sarcastic Aria.
“Actually, it’s orbiting over Earth at this very moment.”
Another long pause. “ That’s not possible. ”
“You’re free to not believe me, but I swear it is. Here, I’ll send you the data…”
“ Wait a moment! ” Aria interrupted her, briskly.
For a long moment, Miranda heard someone talking to Aria, too muffled and disturbed by static to hear what they were saying. The pause got longer and the conversation more heated. “ Just one moment Miranda. ”
“Oh well, I haven’t got much to do anyway…”
She waited, hearing noise of commotion on the other side of the line, voices being raised, orders shouted and even shots fired. What the hell is going on? Finally, Aria came back to her.
“ Listen Miranda, don’t ask me how or why now, I have the Normandy on call. I’m trying to patch you through! ”
She felt her heart skip a beat. “They’re alive!”
Longer moments of clarity came with some pros but a lot of cons.
The pros were mostly related to the self awareness, despite being limited to hearing what was going on around her. It was muffled and it felt like she was underwater, hearing conversations that were happening on dry land, but sometimes she could hear more clearly. From what she had gathered, she was indeed in a hospital, somewhere on Earth. Maybe, she had no idea. That meant she hadn’t died and they were making sure she wouldn’t kick the bucket in the immediate future.
That was also a pro.
The cons though, they were starting to outnumber the pros.
She was starting to dream again. It wasn’t floating in the deep end of the pool anymore, just dark silent nothingness that enveloped her mind and shut it down for a long while. Images were now coming up, distorted shadows from her memory. As she drifted off after that minute or two she was somehow aware of her surroundings, her mind conjured some of the worst things she had seen in her life. Reapers, husks, people she cared about dying, the whole package, before she finally could feel herself shut down.
Suddenly, she had come to dread the wakefulness and crave the silence, the dullness, the dark.
It wasn’t worth it.
Throwing carefulness to hell, Liara dashed inside the Normandy, through the CIC and into the war room, finally colliding with the console that controlled the vidcom. It took her a moment to notice the slightly disturbed holo of Aria T’Loak, the Queen Of Omega, flickering in the projector.
“ Doctor T’Soni, it’s good to see you again! ” she quipped.
“Same here!” panted Liara. “How’s Omega?”
“ We’re holding our own. Now, I bet you’re more interested in speaking with Lawson rather than me, so I’ll take my leave and patch you through. ”
“Wait, how did you manage to contact her?”
Aria sighed. “ Long story short, there’s still some Cerberus tech we haven’t flushed out, she sent a message through their emergency channel inviting their agents to lend a hand wherever they can and it broadcast even here. We backtracked the signal and got in contact with her. Almost at the same time, we received a SOS from the Normandy. ”
“ Which I haven’t launched! ” exclaimed Joker through intercom.
“ You AI must have, I don’t know! ” Aria replied, terse. “ It was set for continuous transmission on every emergency channel possible. It probably reached Palaven and Thessia too, we just replied faster. Now, Miranda’s signal is audio only and it’s pretty disturbed, we’re trying to clear it up a little bit. Patching it through, and I’m out! ”
“I’ll try on this side too!” said Traynor behind her. When did she arrive?
A discharge of static filled the room, and Liara grimaced at the annoying sound. “ Normandy? Normandy do you copy? ”
“We do Miss Lawson!” replied Traynor as she fiddled with the commands of the console. “Audio only, but we copy. Are you on Earth?”
“ Yes! Yes I am. I’m currently in a Cerberus safehouse, north of London. Liara, listen… Shepard’s alive! ”
The Asari felt her heart skip a few breaths and tears well in her eyes. “She’s alive?”
“ Yes… ” There was a long pause and despite the static and disturbances, Liara knew there was something Miranda wasn’t telling her. “ Yes, she’s alive. She’s unconscious and battered, but she’s alive and she’s being treated in the Alliance camp hospital at base camp. ”
She barely kept a gasp from coming out of her throat. “What do you mean battered? What happened?”
“ We don’t know for sure because of lack of diagnostic equipment, we know she has a number of fractures, most importantly some ribs, right leg and arm. We know that one of the spinal implants we put in her back is malfunctioning and she can’t breathe on her own right now. ”
“She’s on forced ventilation?”
“ For now, yes. I’m trying to download the schematics of the implants from the archives of the Lazarus Project so I can rebuild it, but damn you guys did a number at Cronos Station! The download speed is abysmal! ”
“We’ve got a full copy of the Cerberus archives too,” said Traynor. “Shepard felt it would be a good thing to save the data, just in case.”
“ And she was right! ” replied Miranda. “ Listen, I know what we’ve done is despicable on many levels, but let’s not throw the baby away with the bathwater, there’s useful stuff in there. ”
“Yes, I understand, but back to Shepard. What’s the prognosis?” interrupted Liara, snapping a little more than she had intended. It was already a miracle they could even talk to Miranda, there was no need to get angry at her like that.
“There’s no prognosis, they don’t know enough to formulate one,” she explained. “That’s one of the reasons I’m here, to look for medical supplies. As soon as I’m done with the download I’ll head to Edinburgh, there’s a Cerberus facility that should have portable diagnostic equipment. They’re short on everything, maybe I can scavenge stuff Cerberus won’t need and put it to good use.”
“So you’re telling me that Shepard is possibly paralyzed, she can’t breathe on her own and you don’t know why?”
She heard Miranda sigh on the other side of the line. “No, Liara, I’m telling you that we know why she can’t breathe, but we don’t know the details because the doctors don’t have the equipment to know more than that. They’re making differential diagnosis using only Omni-Tool scanners while in a standard medical context Shepard would need an array of exams and scans that cannot be performed in a camp hospital.”
“Then tell me what you know, please!”
There was something wrong. Miranda Lawson wasn’t one to beat around the bush, Liara had come to know it a long time ago, when they had coordinated the exchange of Shepard’s body after she was spaced when the Normandy SR1 was attacked by the Collectors, and that was exactly was she was doing in that moment. She was beating around the bush.
“ Alright, ” Miranda conceded. “ What we know… left leg and arm are fractured, she has bilateral broken ribs and signs of major chest trauma. Her still intact lung, the one we weren’t forced to replace with a cybernetic implant, collapsed because of pneumothorax. There are signs of a concussion, mostly abnormal mydriasis and of course the unconsciousness. Her spine took a bad hit, hence the malfunctioning implant, I’m talking about the C4 one, the one in the lumbar spine seems to be in working order, that's why she’s not autonomously breathing. She has scuffs, abrasions and cuts, a black eye and a cracked mandible, a possible whiplash neck injury. She was severely dehydrated when we found her and kidney and hepatic function are being very closely monitored. They couldn’t perform any other test, this is all they know because that’s what they could get to know. She’s under saline drip and wide spectrum antibiotics because they don’t even know if she has an infection. Listen, I can send over the medical chart so you can show it to Karin, but this is as much as we know now. ”
Liara closed her eyes and ran her hands over her face. That was bad, and they were stranded in the middle of nowhere with no specific idea of when the Normandy would be FTL ready. Every single injury Miranda listed felt like a stab in the gut, but being so far away from her, when she needed her the most? That was heart wrenching.
“ Liara, listen to me. I’m doing the best I can to ensure that she’s treated the way she deserves. I’ve spent two years of my life bringing her back from the dead, I’m not letting her go so easily, believe me! Now, where are you? ”
“On Zorya,” she replied. “We just managed to reactivate comms. The Normandy sustained extensive damages and the crew is repairing them.”
“ I see… EDI, would you give a status report to a non-Alliance officer? ” The silence that followed the request was thick and tense “ Uh, EDI? Everything alright? ”
“Miss Lawson, I’m afraid I have to tell you that EDI is not functioning at the moment. We were hit by a EMP burst that unfortunately fried her core processors and its RAM modules,” said Sam.
“ What? No, wait a second, EDI’s core is shielded, she shouldn’t have any issue even with the strongest burst! ”
“I can’t explain it either, but right now she’s offline.”
“ Fuck… ” she cursed. “ Alright uhm… let me think… Joker, do you have any idea how long it will take you guys to reach Earth? ”
“ Right now, I doubt we’ll finish repairs for FTL travel in less than five days, three if things speed up a little bit. Then we’ll have to see if the relays are in working order. Whatever hit us, it came from the relay when we jumped out of it. ”
“ Right. Specialist Traynor, I’ll send you my access codes in case you need them, but you should be able to open files you’ve downloaded from Cronos Station without a problem. Look for Project Blue Moon, it should contain all the details of how EDI is built and programmed. Maybe even a backup copy of the source code, but I’m not sure about that. ”
“Oh, thank you Miss Lawson! I’ll look into it as soon as I can.”
“ I’m not saying you’ll be able to repair her, but you can at least start making plans on how to repair her. Joker, don’t worry, we can rebuild her! ”
“ Miranda, if you start quoting The Six Million Dollar Man I’ll cut you out! ”
She laughed. “ Maybe I should quote The Two Billion Credits Woman, I know that project better than that old 20th century TV show. ”
That made Liara chuckle, a moment of levity in the midst of all grief. “And the quote would be?”
“ Reviving someone from death is a mess, it takes way too much time and resources, I’d like to keep her alive so she can make a full recovery and if I have to build custom implants from scratch or scavenging Reaper tech all over Earth to keep her alive damn right I’m gonna do it! ”
“She’s in good hands,” replied Liara. “I knew that back then and I know it now. I trust you, Miranda.”
On the other line, they could hear a sigh. “ Thank you, Liara. It means a lot for me. And again, thanks for the help with my sister. ”
“It was a pleasure. By the way, how is she faring?”
“ Surprisingly good, thank you. She’s in Rome now, or what remains of it. I’ll probably go pick her up one of these days and take her here in London. I think she would be more helpful here than there. ”
“If she’s half as smart as you, Oriana could be helpful everywhere in the Galaxy.”
“ Believe it or not, she’s a lot smarter than me. Listen, do you think we can establish a straight connection without having Aria to bridge for us? ”
“ That would be nice, Lawson, you guys are using a lot of bandwidth we could really use for own comms! ” interjected Aria. So, she was still listening in, she wasn’t out as she had said before.
“Working on it!” exclaimed Traynor. “Just a few more moments, I need to backtrack the signal back to Earth, but I have to redirect through a number of buoys and it’s taking more time than expected… and done! I’m connected to the main Alliance comm buoy in Sol. Joker, you know what to do!”
“ On it! ”
“Wow!” exclaimed Sam, swiping a messy lock of hair from her eyes. “This morning is turning out to be less crappy than expected, don’t you think Doctor T’Soni?”
Liara nodded. “It’s not… ideal,” she conceded. “But it’s better than what I was expecting.”
“ I can confirm. Now that I know you guys are fine maybe I will sleep tonight,” added Miranda. There was relief in her voice, Liara could hear it clearly even through the slightly disturbed communication. “ If buoys work it means the relays aren’t damaged, right? ”
“I wouldn’t count on it, Miss Lawson. Interplanetary comms theoretically work even without the relays, they are built not to rely too much on them, I have no way to know if the relays are involved right now or if we’re transmitting straight buoy to buoy, not without EDI to run her analysis program,” replied Sam. “For all we know, the relays could be laying in pieces.”
“ I see. Joker, how long would it take to reach Earth from your position without the relays? ”
“ At constant FTL speed, if we can get the fuel and other supplies regularly and don’t experience any breakdown, we’re talking weeks. Maybe months. It’s not something I would like to go through, to be honest, I have no idea if there are depots still working in the galaxy! ”
“ Got it. Guys, I’ve got to go, downloads are done and I’ve got some supplies to deliver before I head north to Edinburgh. I’ll ask Ashley to get as much info on the relays and their operativity as possible, then send it your way. We’ll keep you posted about Shepard, alright? ”
“You better!” exclaimed Liara.
“ Will do. I will send copies of the medical chart to Karin too, just in case. She’s been taking great care of Shepard in the past, I’m sure she’ll appreciate if we keep her in the loop, she could have some tips to send our way. Take care. Lawson out. ”
“ And on that note, it was nice to see you’re all alive and well… sort of. Keep us in the Terminus Systems posted too! Omega out! ”
The vidcom turned off and the room fell silent, save from the thrum of the engine downstairs. Liara leaned against the banister that separated the holoprojector from the rest of the area and rested her forehead on her palms, elbows planted on the metallic divider. “She’s alive…”
She felt Traynor give her a gentle squeeze of her shoulder. “She’ll be fine. The Commander is the most resilient person I’ve ever met. She’ll pull through splendidly. By the time we get back to Earth, she’ll be up and about being her normal self and wanting to help others.”
Her shoulders sagged a little, but she nodded. Sam was right, Shepard was one tough cookie if she had ever seen one, she would pull through in no time. And Miranda knew what she was doing, she wouldn’t let her go so easily, after she had spent so much time and effort bringing her back.
She was in good hands, of that she was sure.
“Everything will be alright, Doctor T’Soni. It may take some time, but we’ll be alright. Everyone of us.”
“It’s good to see that even after everything you’ve been through you’re still optimistic about our outcomes. It’s… refreshing.”
Sam shrugged. “What can I say, there are enough Debbie Downers in the Galaxy. I know it won’t happen tomorrow, in the blink of an eye, but I can still hope that, one day down the line, we will rebuild what we lost and be better than before. And why not, maybe even the Shadow Broker will help us get there.”
God, what the hell was that annoying sensation? Like a dull, rhythmic throb on the top of her head.
But, was it her head? Or another part of her body?
She didn’t even have the faintest idea if she was still whole or if she was just a brain in a jar, floating in formaldehyde for the entertainment of some squid-like hyper aware artificial intelligence?
If it hadn’t hurt so she would have thought it was funny.
Wait a moment, was that a headache?
It hurt too much to even try and rationalize if it was a headache or a sprained ankle. And the voices… God James could you stop talking for a moment?
But of course not, the beefy marine was constantly bragging about his guns but the most exercised muscle in his body was his tongue. He was probably a sleep talker too…
And now that she thought about it, what the hell was he doing wherever they were, wasn’t he on the Normandy? Was she on the Normandy? No, wait, that didn’t make sense, she would have heard Doctor Chakwas, not that other medic that kept talking about all her neurological readings made no sense and that her brain was fried.
As the throbbing got worse and worse by the minute, drowning every sound, Vega’s voice got distant until she couldn’t hear it anymore. Time for some new nightmares then…
Thank God there the video quality of that call ws abysmal, because lying to Liara about Shepard’s real condition was gruelling. Miranda Lawson often prided herself in the tight control of her emotions, one of the few things her father’s strict upbringing she actually appreciated, but when they closed the comm, she couldn’t help but fall back on the chair in the middle of the room and start crying. How could you tell someone that the person they loved was in a coma and that the Reapers had probably scrambled her brain like eggs for breakfast, beyond any possible repair? How can you break a news like that to anyone?
Good thing she had never followed her father’s plan of her becoming a trained medical doctor, because she wasn’t really sure she was cut for that part of the job, despite her moniker Ice Queen if she got attached to someone, and she had got attached to Shepard, she actually cared for their wellbeing. Losing Shepard would mean the galaxy would lose their hero, but to her meant to lose a friend, Liara would lose her bondmate and every person of the Normandy crew would lose someone important.
She managed to keep it short and controlled, and she got back to work immediately. There was no time to waste.
She gathered the supplies and the hard drives she had used to download the data and headed back the shuttle. She didn’t even care about shutting the doors behind her, whoever was in the area and could need a safe place to stay could have used that house. If there was someone in the area, that was a big if. She loaded the bags in the back of the shuttle and headed back to the Alliance base camp.
Once there, she noticed nothing much had changed. The first thing she did was taking the supplies inside the hospital and delivered them to the first Alliance soldier she could find.
“Could you please take these?” She handed him the large bags. “It’s basic medical supplies I managed to find in an old Cerberus safehouse.”
The man happily relieved her of the heavy plastic bags. “Sure Miss Lawson. And thank you, I’m sure these will come in handy.”
“I think I can find more, just give me time. Anyway, have you seen Doctor Wilson?”
He nodded and pointed her at a hallway to their left. “Down there, he’s treating a patient. By the way, we’ve got off planet comms back online and we heard from the Normandy. They’re alive and well, just need for some repairs to the ship.”
Not wanting to burst his bubble of joy, she smiled. “Thank you for letting me know, it’s a relief. I’ll be going now.”
He gave her a quick nod and moved to take the supplies where they were needed, while she headed in the direction he had told her looking for Doctor Wilson. She was checking on a patient, but it didn’t take her long to finish the consultation and come to her. “Miss Lawson, I thought you were going to look for a Cerberus safehouse!”
“That I did, I just returned!”
The medic frowned. “How long has it been?” She checked her watch. “Jesus, it’s already seven PM!” she exclaimed. “You been gone for a long while then!”
Miranda nodded. “Time flies when you’re busy. Listen, I’ve grabbed all the data Cerberus had on indoctrination. They did extensive research on it, the Illusive Man wanted to control the Reapers and they did unspeakable things to refugees on Horizon, for that I can’t do anything but apologize.”
“Miss Lawson, I know about Sanctuary. I also know that you weren’t involved and that you actually tried to stop them. You don’t have to apologize, not to me at least.”
“I know, but I’m not proud of that anyway. I haven't had the time to check everything, but I know they did research on how to keep indoctrinated people functioning. I suggest you could start from there.”
Wilson nodded and accepted the hard drive Miranda handed her. “I will. Can I share what I find? I have requested a neuro consultation for the Commander, but the closest neurologist I could find is currently stuck in Berlin. She should manage to arrive in a couple of days, but if I share the scans we did on Shepard and these data maybe she’ll be able to get a better picture by the time she gets here.”
Miranda nodded. “Share whatever you want, it’s not a secret research anymore. Cerberus is dead for all I care. Maybe there are other people in the same situation and other doctors like you are trying to save them too, sharing this kind of information will be useful to everyone.”
“Thank you, Miss Lawson. I have no updates on Shepard at the moment, she’s stable, for now. It’s the best I can tell you.”
“I see. Listen, when I got those data I manage to find some basic supplies and I brought them here. Also, I’ve located a Cerberus location that was used as a hospital, in Edinburgh. It should be stocked with equipment you don’t have here, at least records I was able to access say so. If you could make a list of what you need I could go and grab what you need if I find it there.”
“Miss Lawson, I can make you a list in five minutes, but you need to sleep. And eat. When was the last time you stopped and rested?”
She took a moment to think. “Uhm, before the assault I think, I’m not really sure. “
Shaking her head, Doctor Wilson grabbed her hand and checked her pulse, then pinched the skin of the back of her hand. “What’s your resting heart rate usually?”
“Mid fifties, I think.”
The medic let out a grunt. “It’s seventy two now. And you’re just standing in front of me, doing nothing but talking. You’re dehydrated and you’re probably in an extreme calorie deficit. Have you eating anything after the assault?” Miranda shook her head. “And you’re a biotic? I wonder how you’re still standing at all! Come with me.”
The doctor headed further down the corridor, dragging Miranda by the wrist. “Doctor Wilson, there’s no need…”
“Yes there is. I need you able bodied and awake if I have to keep Shepard alive. You know her inside and out, all the implants and other bits of cybernetics that Cerberus put inside her, I need that knowledge.”
“Well, I put those cybernetics in…”
She nodded. “Not only that, you designed most of them! Here…” They had arrived in what looked like a massive storage room in what was once a hotel hall, and she knelt beside a number of boxes and started rummaging inside a box filled with packets and packets of MREs, meal replacements, supplements and energy bars. “Allergies or other things I should know about?”
Miranda shook her head. “No. I’m not a fan of soy based protein.”
Doctor Wilson nodded. “Noted. Here, take this!” she threw her a thick bar wrapped in blue foil. “Just for starters. Then, you and I are going to talk about what kind of facilities you can get access to, what kind of equipment they store, where they are and how long will it take to make those facilities operative.” She grabbed a few more items then stood up. “Come with me, I’m starving myself.”
It wasn’t much, but it was food, it looked more than edible, and she was famished. Without hesitation, she tore the wrapper and sank her teeth in the high protein meal replacement bar Doctor Wilson had given her and followed her through a maze of corridors. If felt like they had walked for six blocks, but in reality it was just her body realizing that she was worn beyond its natural abilities to withstand exhaustion. As she slowly chewed on the bite in her mouth, she blindly followed the doctor, paying very little attention to where they were going until, somehow, they got to Shepard’s room.
“Oh, we’re here.”
“Yeah, I think Lieutenant Vega hasn’t had anything to eat too, I don’t want too many people falling ill due to malnutrition if I can help it.” She pushed the door open with her shoulder and walked in. James was not alone, Ashley had come back from Alliance command and they were sitting on either side of Shepard’s bed, both clutching their assault rifles in their hands, hard, as if they were trying to stay away from each other, while still being polite and friendly. Tension between them could be cut with a breadstick. Doctor Wilson stopped in her tracks when the two Alliance soldiers suddenly stopped talking when she entered the room. “Is there something more I should know?”
The two of them exchanged a nervous look. “No!” they exclaimed at the same time.
“Uh, alright…” the medic shrugged it off and threw an MRE bag to James and another to Ashley, then turned and handed one to Miranda, while she was still eating the protein bar. “Eat up, and then find a place to sleep. You three are going to Edinburgh tomorrow at first light.”
“Wait, what?” asked Vega. “Why Edinburgh?”
The medic’s order caught Miranda by surprise too. “You don’t even know what’s there!”
“I’ll make you a list and you three are going to get what you can find, but you can’t go alone, Miss Lawson. You three seem quite competent at finding things together. Also, you don’t know what’s out there, we haven’t heard from Edinburgh in days for all I know so I want you to look at each other’s six. I will have more than enough on my hands treating Commander Shepard, I don’t want to have to cure you three too.”
Speechless, Miranda decided not to argue with that assertion and took a seat on a chair placed against the wall. “If the Alliance Command is alright with this…”
“They better be,” continued Wilson. “We’ve got way too many wounded, I don’t want anymore. I’d feel better if you’d go together, after all you’re going to retrieve supplies for us,” she explained, picking a chair for her own and opened her own MRE. “I would love to go with you, but we’ve got no surgeons to spare at the moment, I can’t leave.”
“Oh so you got what you were looking for?” asked James, punching one of the portions of his MRE to break the seal and let the chemical reaction warm his food. “Oh, by the way, we got word from the Normandy.”
“I’ve heard. Any words on the relays?”
Ashley pitched in. “Not yet. Alliance Command was more focused on getting off planet comms back online. I think they wanted to be able to coordinate every troop that' still alive, rather than just blindly send a scout party to the edge of the system to check on them.”
“Makes sense,” replied Vega. “We’ve already lost enough people, we can’t just move troops around like we have more to spare.”
“And that’s exactly why I want you three to go together to Edinburgh,” added Doctor Wilson. “Speaking of which, what kind of equipment do you think you can find?”
Miranda pulled the list of stock she had found at the safehouse and started reading. “There are at least two portable X-Ray machines, a number of ventilators, various supplies, also beds, cots, and such. The data says the facility was last visited about six months ago and that some stocks have been resupplied, mostly antibiotics and other medicines. There should be also a CT scanner and an MRI, those are going to be tough to move though.”
“But we desperately need those…” Doctor Wilson mumbled. “Listen, you go and take everything that’s not nailed to the ground. If those scanners are still in decent conditions, I’ll ask the higher ups if they can send some techs to retrieve them.”
Vega looked at Ashley. “You could always ask the SPECTRE here, in case the high ups don’t listen to you.”
“If it helps Shepard, I can give the order right now,” she added.
Wilson nodded. “It will help a lot, not only Shepard. I still have to understand the indoctrination you talked about, but a CT scan will surely help us a lot understand her brain’s conditions, if there’s damage and what kind of damage we’re dealing with. You think you can find the equipment for nasogastric feeding? She won’t last long without that.”
“It wasn’t listed, but I’m hoping to find something,” replied Miranda.
“And if we don’t find it there, we’ll scour every Cerberus location we can get to with one fuel tank,” added Ashley, with a smile.
“You’re a SPECTRE, you get free fuel!” joked Vega. “Say the word Doc, we’re out for supply run tomorrow.”
Due to a number of circumstances, from this chapter on the illustrations will be fewer, not one each chapter. Things happened and shipsnthenight has got important things to do with university, and illustrating each chapter was becoming too time consuming.
The headaches came and went, she basically got one every time she gained the little awareness she had, just like the nightmares.
What was worse, she had no idea, she couldn’t decide. The headaches felt like someone was hammering an ice pick in her head, but they didn’t last that long, she usually lost consciousness way before the pain got unbearable, the nightmares on the other hand, they seemed endless.
Thessia, Horizon, London… she relieved them again as if she was actually there, back in the middle of the battles she had so narrowly escaped alive, only they were much worse, with more Reapers and less ammo to face them, she was surrounded by death all the time. The face of every single person, human or alien, came to haunt and taunt her, asking her why she hadn’t saved them, she had let everyone die.
You were too late! they would yell, angry. You are not good enough! Her ears resonated with their screams of pain and anguish as they died again and were transformed in Husks in front of her eyes and attacked her. Most of the time, she had no ammo to defend herself, so she fought with her bare hands, but they were too many. No one came to help her. Her friends were dead too, laying on the ground around her, their bodies piled up in tall mounds all over, the last thing she would see before the cold darkness enveloped her once again, much to her relief.
When the news broke on the Normandy that Shepard was alive, no matter how battered or in precarious health, turned the mood completely inside out. Everyone on board did a complete 180°, they got more cheerful, they started talking more and even the repairs got faster. The ship still needed extensive work, but they were progressing much faster than before the news was delivered. Efforts were doubled on every front and in three days, the Normandy was back up and running. The hull was a bit of a patchwork of pieces scavenged from run down mining complexes around, it was ugly, but it worked.
They were ready to fly.
And yet, there was no word by Alliance Command on the relays. They were in constant contact with what remained of the chain of command and they had got word of other Alliance ships in the area, all damaged and in need of repairs like the Normandy. They had managed on their own and were now waiting for news. They knew they couldn’t all converge back to Earth, no matter how badly they wanted to see their home again, there was no way the little infrastructures remaining back home could house all of them, but everyone, on every single ship that had survived the last battle against the Reapers wanted to go back and help with the building, no matter what. And when the repairs were done, that desire to go back got even stronger.
And so did the frustration.
When Hackett was told that they were ready to return to Earth if the relays were working, he had ordered them all to stall, to stay in place and wait for further orders, but with nothing left to do but standard maintenance, the Normandy crew was quickly growing restless by the moment. Three days after the ship had been declared FTL ready and Hackett had ordered them to stay put, the brewing energy was growing closer and closer to mutiny, and with both the Captain and XO absent from the ship, as no one had even tried to step up and take their roles, the crew was left to their own means.
Those means worked as long as they had to repair the ship. With the ship in working order, someone was already talking about mutiny.
“But Sam, is it mutiny if there’s no captain to mutiny against?” asked Liara.
Sam shrugged her shoulders, but said nothing. They were in EDI’s room, in the back of the med bay with Doctor Chakwas, Joker and Cortez, just discussing the latest news incoming from Earth, while Sam was trying to run every kind of diagnostic software she had on EDI’s boards and processors, in the attempt to at least restart some of the basic programming.
“Technically, it wouldn’t be munity then,” replied Cortez. “We’re currently without a commanding officer and XO. No one stepped up to act as such. Chain of command is a mess and I doubt they know what to do themselves. I don’t think it would be a court martial case if we disobey the stay-put order, but we surely get into some trouble.”
“Yeah, like being grounded for the next ten years!” said Joker. “Or stuck in office jobs for the rest of our careers. Dishonorable discharge?”
“And who would discharge us?” added Cortez. “Hackett? I really don’t think so. We’re the Normandy crew, not just another crew. We have an advantage on that. We’re Shepard’s crew, I doubt he would do something so extreme as discharging us, honorably or not so much.”
“Well Steve, I’d love to keep my income, if you don’t mind,” finally replied Sam. “If the rest of the crew will decide to disobey Hackett, I’ll support them, but if they ask my opinion on it, I’m not into it, at all.”
“What about you, Karin?” asked Joker. “You’ve been in the Alliance longer than us, you know Hackett better, what do you think will happen if we just head back to Earth and to hell with the orders we were given?”
“You want my honest opinion or should I sugarcoat it a little?”
“Brutally honest please.”
“You’re looking for lots and lots of trouble if you leave now. If Hackett told you to stay put there’s a good reason. What if you try to use a relay and it fries us like a wedge potato in hot oil?”
By the look on his face, it was clear that Joker hadn’t thought about that possibility. “Oh. You think we’re stuck because they don’t know how the relays work?”
Doctor Chakwas shrugged. “It’s a possibility. Also, I doubt they have room enough for the whole fleet down there, let alone the food to keep us all alive.”
“At least Joker landed us on a planet with edible food. Only Garrus and Tali need to tap into the rations, and there’s a year worth of them in stock,” said Liara then.
“And I’m sure if we look around a little more we can find stuff they can eat too,” continued Chakwas.
“Are we even planning on staying here that long?” asked Cortez then. “I mean, I get we have been told to stay here, but for how long? We may get the green light to return to Earth in a couple of days!”
“Or in a couple of months!” said Joker. “We don’t know what’s going on with the relays and when they’ll be functional again.”
“ If they can be functional again,” interjected Liara. “We don’t have much data on that, though I can try and intercept something from the Alliance, maybe we can get a better idea of their status.”
Everyone looked at her, shocked at something she had said.
“Wait a second!” exclaimed Sam, slipping out of the alcove she had snuck in to check other parts of EDI’s circuitry. “Are you telling me you haven’t tapped into the Alliance comms?”
“I have a backdoor, but at the moment it didn’t feel right to gather intel and information when the situation is what it is. I haven’t tapped anyone else, not even the Krogans or the Turians,” she explained. “Out of respect. I could, I mean, I have backdoors everywhere and agents ready to start gathering all the intel I want or need. Should I?”
“Yes!” they exclaimed in unison.
“Liara, do you understand what kind of advantage we would have if you tapped into their comms and started gathering intel?” asked Karin. “We could be ready hours before we get the official green light to leave the planet and return to Earth!”
“Yeah! We could already be in orbit rather than in dry dock on the planet! Do you have an idea how faster than the others we could be on our way to Earth if we knew Hackett is going to give us freedom to move?” said Joker. “At least six hours before anyone else even starts preparations for take off!”
Sighing, Liara fiddled with her Omni-Tool. “Glyph, could you please open the backdoors of Alliance Command and start gathering intel?”
“ At once, Doctor T’Soni. Do you want to open the backdoors of all other races? ” asked the little round VI in the room opposite of where they were sitting.
“Yes, but concentrate on Alliance Command. Everything you get about the relays and their current status, from any source, please forward it immediately.”
“ It will be done, Doctor T’Soni. Do you need anything else from me? ”
“Yes, could you please ask Garrus and Tali to come here? I think we need their consultation too, if we are going to mutiny or not.”
Cortez chuckled. “Why haven’t we called them in the first place?”
“I tried,” said Liara. “But then I heard strange noises coming from the battery and I didn’t want to disturb them.”
Joker snorted trying to suppress a boastful laugh and his hand shot at his ribcage as he doubled over. “Please Liara don’t make me laugh like that! Did they have to sterilize the battery?”
Chakwas smiled for a moment. “Indeed they had. It took them three days, but they did.”
“Is it even possible for them to… you know…” asked Sam, quite evasive.
The older doctor nodded. “With a bit of care and effort… there are vids about that, Fleet & Flotilla is a lovely love story about a Turian and a Quarian, it has happened, they’re not the first.”
“I wonder if a Quarian and a Krogan could have a relationship…” said Joker. “I mean, Quarians are so lithe, both males and females, while even female Krogans are massive! How would that work?”
“Well, Shepard showed me a very old vid series about a fairy tale parody and there were a donkey and a dragon in a stable relationship!” replied Liara. “With a bit of effort and care I’m sure it can be worked out.”
“You make it sound so easy…” said Sam. “Wait a second though, you said a donkey and a dragon? Did Shepard make you watch Shrek?”
Liara nodded. “Yes, I think that was the title. It was funny, though she had to pause often to explain some details that are rooted in human culture.”
Joker, Cortez and Sam exchanged a look and they all chuckled. “Who knew the commander was one for very old very funny children vids filled with dirty jokes and naughty bits,” replied the pilot. “Also, those are really, really old vids, they’re so old they were still called movies at the time!”
“Early 21st century, right?” asked Joker. “Wow, back in those days I would have never survived past infancy. Maybe even childbirth, actually.”
The door hissed open and Garrus and Tali appeared. “And now you survived a Reaper Invasion, you should be proud!” spoke the Turian. “So, Glyph said you’re deciding if you will approve or dismiss any possible mutiny movement in the crew. What’s the consensus?” he asked, sitting on the floor beside Liara, while Tali started helping Sam with the repairs of EDI’s core.
“Right now I’m fully against any mutiny,” explained Chakwas. “We don’t know why we were told to stay here, but all the major reasons I can come up with are pretty compelling.”
“On the other hand I’m not totally against disobeying and at least get in stationary orbit,” Joker went on. “At least we could test the hull repairs and perfect them before we launch at FTL speed.”
“I’m not against it, if I have a say,” added Tali. “If we can at least make a test run on the engine and the repairs we’ve done, I’ll feel more confident about using the relays, when we’ll be allowed to actually move from the cluster.”
“Liara’s also tapping into Alliance comms so we can get a headstart on any future order,” explained Cortez.
“And that’s nice,” mumbled Garrus, rubbing his shoulder. He had got a pretty bad hit during the last assault, but he was doing a lot better, while still in pain. “Any news on Shepard?”
Chakwas shook her head. “Still unconscious, but she seems to be stable. Given her conditions and the lack of adequate equipment, it’s a good thing at the moment.”
Liara shuddered for a moment. Every update, or lack of thereof, they got on Shepard was at the same time the highlight and the worst part of her day. When she managed, Miranda would call them, but most of the time it had been quick short messages with the updated medical chart. Karin would analyze that and report Shepard’s conditions to her. Which was usually what she had just said.
But according to Karin, given the circumstance, no news was good news, and also given the fact that there were millions of light years between her and Shepard and she could do nothing, no news meant that nothing bad had happened while she was away. At least that.
Goddess, it was getting harder and harder to sit back and wait, no wonder the rest of the crew wanted to rush back to Earth.
“Chances of recovery?” asked again Garrus.
Karin shrugged. “With proper care and equipment, high, close to 90% of total recovery with minor long term issues that could be managed. Given the current state of Alliance medical care, I’m not sure. I don’t feel confident enough to make any prediction, though I trust Miranda is working twice, if not three times harder than when she was reviving Shepard. And you know the Commander, she’s tough enough to kill a Reaper on foot, she’ll pull through.”
“I really hope you’re right, because if the galaxy loses its hero, then it’s going to be a very low blow to an already horrible situation,” said the Turian.
“Well, there’s no chance I’m going to let her go so easily,” said Karin. “I’m not going to let her kick the bucket anytime soon, and Miranda agrees with me. We’ll get her back on her feet, sooner or later.”
Liara sighed, but said nothing. No matter how much both Karin and Miranda reassured her, there was still that feeling of dread, deep down in her heart, that made her uneasy at all times, but mostly when people spoke about Shepard, in any way and it got worse when they spoke about her current health status.
Something was wrong, but maybe they hadn’t found out what it was yet. But there was something, something they didn’t know about… or something they weren’t telling her.
Chapter by IllusiveWritings
I'm sorry. We'll try to resume regular updates from now on. Life got in our way.
Ashley hadn’t even parked the shuttle that Vega was already climbing out of his seat to open the side door. “Make way!” he screamed, half hanging from the handle beside the door. “Make way, we have large cargo over here!”
“Calm down James!” exclaimed Ashley from the driving seat. “There’s more than enough room to park and to unload the cargo!”
“Have you seen that machine? That alone requires a hell of a lot of space to move it!”
“It has wheels, you know that?” asked Miranda.
The lieutenant didn’t reply, but jumped down on the pavement of the space reserved as a parking lot outside the camp hospital in the outskirts of London. Miranda couldn’t help but admire the energy James Vega had. They were all sleep deprived and they had spent the better part of the day hauling stuff from the Cerberus hospital and into the cargo shuttle they had borrowed from the Alliance, never taking a break and skipping lunch too. She and Ashley were exhausted, while James never even broke a sweat. He looked like he had slept for an entire week, ate his fill and just got out of a spa. That man was made to work hard and in harsh conditions, that was sure.
“Should I call Doctor Wilson?” asked Ashley, unbuckling her seatbelt.
Miranda nodded. “Yes,” she replied. “Most of the stuff we got is for Shepard anyway so we better get her to deal with the unloading first hand.”
“Yeah…” she fiddled with her Omni-Tool, sending a message to Shepard’s doctor. “Tomorrow we get the rest?”
“Tomorrow and maybe the day after tomorrow! I had no idea there was so much stuff stocked there, I wonder what we will find in other locations.”
“Well, I’ll make sure to get a bigger shuttle next time. Sure, if we had the Normandy at hand we could just do one sweep of all locations in one go and still have plenty of fuel to do it three other times!”
“And Joker would pester us to move things faster because he wants to fly.” Smiling, Miranda shook her head. “He's a greedy one, when it comes to being airborne.”
“It’s his only way to move freely. Gene therapy can only go so far, given the severity of his condition. Can’t blame him for that.”
“Yeah, I know. I really hope Traynor can fix EDI before they get back here, she’s been helping him a lot these past months, I’ve noticed.”
Ash chuckled. “Yeah, he’s… Happier. And to be honest, I quite like her. I can’t believe I’m saying it but I think we became friends.”
“Oh I understand very well, ever since Joker unshackled her, she has gathered enough data to grow into her own personality. It’s funny, because she was based on an Alliance project that you guys were told to destroy, when it went rogue.”
Ashley frowned, thoughtful. “You mean… wait a sec, was that the rogue VI on the Moon?”
Miranda nodded “Yep, that one, only it was a fully fledge AI, not a VI. The Alliance has some skeleton in the closet too, working on outlawed AIs like that. Cerberus recovered most of the data, what you guys haven’t destroyed by shooting at the servers, and built EDI on that. I think it was called Hannibal, if my memory still works.”
Another chuckle, bitter and dry. “I hope yours does, because mine is failing more and more as days pass! I’m surprised I still remember how to drive.”
Ashley nodded, rubbing the back of her neck with both hands. “That, also I’m worried about my sisters and my mom. You know, the usual stuff.”
Gently squeezing her shoulder, Miranda smiled. “I understand. Why don’t you go lay down for a moment? Maybe catch a nap, it will do you good. I can handle your hyperactive boyfriend there for a while!”
Suddenly, the Commander blushed. “He’s not my boyfriend…” she mumbled.
“Oh yes, sure, and I wasn’t genetically engineered to look like this. Come on Ashley, we all heard you back at the party, there’s no need to hide anymore. Also, have you seen how he looks at you? He’s smitten, enjoy it! Oh by the way, there are condoms in one of the boxes, might as well stock up on them.”
With that, she stood and walked out of the shuttle to join Vega as he unloaded boxes of medical supplies on the pavement, in neat stacks so other soldiers would come and pick them up to carry them inside the hospital. They had filled the cargo part of the shuttle to the brim with boxes and machinery, they had even managed to haul in a true hospital bed, not just an emergency cot, with a functioning anti decubitus mattress too. It was tightly vacuum packed in clear thick plastic wrap, with the air pumping unit resting in a carton box, on the bare structure of the bed beside the mattress. Those would make it easier to take care of Shepard in the long run, avoiding pressure sores and other skin issues due to prolonged immobility.
They were carefully unloading the portable x-ray machine, if you could call a half-a-ton thing portable just because it had wheels, when Doctor Wilson appeared with a small squad of doctors, nurses and other medical personnel that quickly made themselves useful, taking the boxes and scurrying inside to unpack them and put their contents to good use.
“I see your travelling has been fruitful!” she exclaimed, hands on her hips like a superhero. “You’ve found what you were looking for!”
“And then some, Doc!” exclaimed Vega cheerfully, despite the bleak situation. “We couldn’t fit everything in the shuttle, we’ll have to go back tomorrow.”
“Oh!” the medic looked taken aback. “So much stuff?”
James nodded. “That place is packed with drugs and machinery, it was a real mini hospital! Look, we’ve got even stuff that wasn’t on the list!”
“Electrolytes, IV bags, large spectrum and specific antibiotics, more medigel than we could count, even dextro drugs,” explained Miranda while she unloaded a plastic container and handed it over to a nearby soldier. “Just here there’s enough to keep the hospital going for a couple of weeks, and we’ll get more tomorrow.”
Wilson knelt beside a box and opened it, rummaging through its contents. That box specifically contained about a thousand syringes of single dose anticoagulants. Well more than enough to hold the fort for a month, considering their current needs of that type of therapy. “You said dextro drugs? Why on Earth would Cerberus stock dextro drugs?” she asked, going through a second box full of packets of medicated gauze and wound dressings. “Literally!”
Miranda shrugged. “I have no idea. Maybe they were hoping to scalp people in need, it wouldn’t be the first time. Ashley, are you alright?” she called inside the shuttle, seeing that the other woman was stalling in the cockpit.
“Yes, just a second!” she replied. “Alliance Command called.”
“Uh, alright! Doctor Wilson, are there any news about Shepard?”
She shook her head. “So far, she’s stable, nothing happened in the meantime. I’ve spoken to that neurologist I told you about, I forwarded both the documentation you retrieved and Shepard’s med chart, she’s going to study the case on the way here. Interesting read anyway!” she exclaimed, not with a slightly scolding, caustic tone in her voice. “What the fuck did Cerberus do to gather all that data on indoctrination?”
“Just as they gathered everything else. By lying, cheating, torturing and killing people,” bluntly replied Miranda. “And before you ask, yes, the Lawson you see signing all reports, it’s my father.”
That caught her off guard. “Your father? But…”
“He was a self centered asshole. He’s dead now. No, I had nothing to do with that…” She shuddered as her memory quickly flew back to Horizon and what she had seen there, chasing her father there. “Project, if that’s what you worried about.”
“I can vouch for her,” said then Ashley, coming out of the shuttle. “Actually, she single handedly worked to dismantle the project while we were working on the Reapers. I can say that without her, they would probably have committed even more atrocities than what they had already done, by the time we got there.”
James gave her a solid, but surprisingly soft, pat in the back. “Yep, without the Ice Queen here we wouldn’t possibly have made it through the structure.”
“So can I trust that you’re not involved in this type of activity? I see you care about Shepard, but if your interest is solely concerned with her, I don’t think we can keep working together.” The medic’s voice left no room for interpretation: if her ideals were still aligned with Cerberus, even for the smallest detail, their collaboration, no matter how useful, would be immediately and permanently terminated.
Before Miranda could defend herself from the assumption, something she had been prepared for the past couple of days, both Ashley and James put themselves between her and Wilson. “She’s out of it, Doctor!” he stated. “She’s been out of it for more than a year now, ever since Commander Shepard turned herself in for what happened with the Alpha relay, there’s no need for hostility, even if she had the bad luck of being related to the man in charge of Sanctuary.”
“Also, the man is dead, I’ve tagged his body myself,” added Ashley. “He’s not going to hurt anyone and sure Miranda isn’t going to resume his work, not now and not in the future.”
Miranda chuckled. “You’re free to put a bullet in my head if I do.”
“Duly noted,” replied the Lieutenant Commander. “Now Doctor Wilson, please, the source of the data is despicable, I get it, but it’s the only true research on indoctrination that anyone has done, at least the only one we can get our hands on right now. Who knows, maybe there are other people in Shepard’s conditions, maybe that research, heinous as it is, might save their lives too.”
Slightly surprised at Ashley’s heartfelt words in her defence, Miranda remained silent and studied the doctor as she slowly realized she had no other options but to trust them on her current status regarding her affiliation to Cerberus, or lack thereof. It’s not like she wasn’t expecting that kind of treatment, after all her father was quite proud of the work he had done in Sanctuary and signed every report he archived and sent to the Illusive Man himself, she was sure those data would cause a bit of a ruckus the moment her relation to the head of the project would be revealed.
God, her father had always made her sick to the stomach, but what he did at Sanctuary was so repulsive she could barely avoid retching when she thouhgt about it.
But if it helped Shepard, she would use those data, she would read them all, study them all night if it meant they could help.
In the end, Doctor Wilson nodded. “Alright, I’ll trust your judgement. I’m sorry, I just can’t understand how you two can be related, you seem so nice!”
“Well Doctor, I’ve done my fair share of despicable things in the past, I’ve lied, cheated and killed to do what I wanted or needed to, to revive Shepard too. My past isn’t spotless and I’ll never claim it is, but it’s the past. There’s a galaxy to rebuild, and I want to do my part, even if it’s just making sure Commander Shepard survives.”
Doctor Wilson sighed and let her arms fall at her sides. “It’s not like we’re in any position to let go of a helping hand. Most of all a very capable helping hand. Come on, let’s get this stuff out of the way and into the hospital, so maybe we can start treating people with full doses of what they need.”
“You had to cut dosages?” she asked, and the doctor nodded.
“Yes, mostly of painkillers and sedatives, we had to ration them for the past couple of days. Even Shepard, she’s technically not fully sedated as she should be, given the fact that she’s on mechanical ventilation.”
“Do you think she could get more normal brain waves if she was sedated properly? Have you repeated the EEG? I know it’s been just a day, but something may have changed.”
“I wanted to do another one tomorrow morning, hoping you’d find the proper drugs. Who knows what a good sedation, even if only for a short period of time, could do to a brain that suffered that kind of trauma.”
Miranda crossed her arms at her chest. “Yes, I remember that during the revival process, the moment we got neural activity the EEG could drastically change from morning to evening.”
“Exactly what I was thinking about,” the doctor explained. “Help me get the real hospital bed to her room. The sooner we get her on the anti decubitus bed, the better.”
“No one else needs one?”
Wilson shook her head as she disengaged the breaks on the wheels of the bed structure with her foot and pulled it towards her, then dragged it down the ramp of the shuttle, where Miranda grabbed the railing on the other side and helped the doctor moving it into the structure where they had housed the hospital. “People that get here either are going to walk out on their feet in a week, tops or be rolled out in a body bag. Damn, I even had to sign Admiral Anderson’s death certificate today.”
“Oh, so they found him?”
“Not exactly… they found the lower portion of his body about a hundred yards away from the charge crater, torn from the upper part. DNA results arrived just after you left for Edinburgh. It sucked, you have no idea how much it sucked.”
Miranda sighed. What a gruesome and horrible way to go… “I can only imagine. Shepard won’t take it easily, he was like a father figure for her.”
“So I heard.” They turned a corner and then another into the hallway that led to Shepard’s room.
She pushed the door open with her back and they got the structure in the room. Nothing has changed since that morning, when they had left. “How are you holding up?” asked Miranda.
“Over caffeinated and on the brink of a nervous breakdown,” Doctor Wilson admitted. “Not even during bootcamp I’ve been so tired. And I entered bootcamp before I graduated, so I was still doing my internship while doing all the field training.”
Doctor Wilson broke the seal of the vacuum packed air mattress, grabbed the plastic cover and let the mattress unfold on the structure of the bed. It crackled like a fire, but within seconds it was occupying its place on the structure. “It was, but this is worse. I can’t say I wasn’t happy when you said you were going to look for supplies because about half of the job here is having to formulate plans to make people suffer the least with the least amount of drugs in order to have some spare for the next patient.” She stopped, leaned against the railing of the bed and looked at Shepard, unconscious on her cot about two meters from them. “You haven’t found a nasogastric feeding kit by any chance?”
“We have, actually. But we haven’t found any formula. Not yet at least.”
She grimaced, gently tapping her closed fist on the railing of the bed, still looking at Shepard. Miranda could almost see the thoughts rushing through her brain as she tried to find a solution to the problem. “What did you feed her when you were rebuilding her?”
“Individual nutrients intravenously while we were trying to get her organs going, then custom tailored formula through the feeding tube when the gastrointestinal organs were once again up and running.”
“That I get, but do you remember what was inside of the formula?”
Miranda brought up her Omni-Tool and flipped through the file of Lazarus she had downloaded for this type of eventuality, looking for that specific file. “Here: initially it was mostly 70/20/10, carbs proteins and fats, then we moved to 40/40/20 later on as we rebuilt the musculoskeletal system,” she summarized what she was reading from that report. “Then again 40/30/30 once we got to the later stages and she was about to be ready to wake up.”
“Do you have the ingredients?”
Miranda shrugged. “Mostly commercially available components, like high grade protein powders and supplements. We didn’t use a medical grade formula because it is usually in a caloric deficit of the total daily energy expenditure, and we needed a surplus to support the rebuilding process of tissues and organs, so we had our in-house nutritionist customize a dietary plan for her. We also added soluble fibre to facilitate bowel movements.”
“So basically we could feed her like a bodybuilder with protein powder and dehydrated milk for the fat portion of the macros.”
“If we can’t find anything else, it should be more than enough to keep her going for a while. Simple, easy to digest, if her organs don’t fail.”
“Water it down just enough to keep her hydrated, maybe add a bag or two a day of hangover drip for the micronutrients and a vitamin complex supplementation just to be sure and we got it all, and she can piss the excess away. Excuse my French.”
Wilson nodded. “Not a problem. It sounds like a plan, at least for the moment.” She closed her eyes for a moment and stood, stretching her back. “So… Ice Queen?”
Miranda smiled. “Yeah, from what I gathered, James remembers nicknames better than actual names. That’s just mine.”
“I guess I’m Doc then. But Ice Queen doesn’t sound so… nice. I mean, wasn’t she a villain in that old fairy tale?”
“Sure she was, but she was also the titular character of a very good song from a Dutch band of the early 21st century. I don’t mind at all.”
“Sir, with all the due respect…” Cortez was doing his best, as the highest ranking officer currently on the Normandy, to deal with the Alliance Command the same way Shepard would. Thing is, he lacked both in experience and confidence, and Liara could see it from the sidelines, as he spoke to Hackett in the vidcom room. He was trying to get at least some info about the possible timing of a take off greenlight, but he was going against a rubber wall. The Admiral was deflecting every question he asked.
“With all the due respect,” he went on. “I understand that the situation is horrible, but I’ve got a ship to commandeer here, and it’s impossible to fill in for Commander Shepard. The situation isn’t the best even here, something is brewing and from what I’m hearing, most of the crew would support a blatant act of disobedience and fly back to Earth. While we’re not stranded, we’re worried, and we know we could help with the clean up and rebuilding effort on Earth, we can make ourselves more useful there than standing idle here.”
From her slightly hidden point of view, Liara saw Hackett lowering his gaze through the slightly disturbed holo as he leaned on something in the room from where he was speaking. “Lieutenant Cortez, let me be perfectly clear with you. Let me treat you like I would treat Commander Shepard,” he said, terse and guttural as usual. “Yes, you would be more useful here rather than where you are, sitting idly doing nothing but basic maintenance to the ship. But you would have to either fly here using standard FTL travel, which would take you months if you can get the fuel, or by using the relays, which at the moment don’t work. I know I’m asking a lot Lieutenant Cortez, I know that every crew of every flight-ready ship scattered around the galaxy wants to come home, believe me I’m very aware of that, but at the moment it’s better you stay put until further notice.”
Cortez grunted in frustration. He clearly wanted to rebut Hackett, but lacked the confidence to do so. Liara felt for him, the position of ad interim XO wasn’t something he had asked for, he just found himself in it, given he was the highest ranking officer remaining on the Normandy, he wasn’t ready for such a role, he had no preparation though he was more than willing to do his best to keep the crew from falling apart. Yet, he had been right when he had said he was going to handle all future calls from Alliance Command: Shepard’s role was a big position to fill in, and he wasn’t really sure he was cut out for it.
Still, he was doing a remarkable job, since he was great at dissimulating the tension as he probably wanted to tell Hackett to fuck off and that they were going to leave Zorya, with his approval or not. He clenched his jaw for a moment, before he replied. “Understood Admiral.” There was bitterness in his voice, even an ounce of disappointment, probably at himself for how he handled the meeting. “Can I ask permission to at least test the hull repairs by taking the Normandy for a quick orbital flight? We’ve been here for three weeks now, sitting on a ship that we don’t know if it’s spaceflight ready. I just want to know it’s safe to travel once we’re greenlit.”
Hackett nodded. “Permission granted. That is a sound proposition you’re making. Take care, Lieutenant. Hackett out.”
The holoprojector powered down and Steve punched the wall beside him in anger. “Is this the crap Shepard had to deal with daily?”
Liara shrugged. “And then some. Remember when we had the full Quarian Admiralty Board on the ship?” He nodded. “She got a heartburn so severe she once downed a whole bottle of antacid drug in one swig.”
“Did it help?”
“Not a bit. She had to visit Doctor Chakwas, because she wasn’t sleeping at night from the pain.”
Cortez sighed and rubbed his face with the palm of his hands. “I don’t know if I can do this…”
“It’s only for a little time. The crew needs someone to look up to and you’re perfect for that role. Without Ashley, you’re the highest ranking officer, the duty was bound to fall on you.”
“You think I’m up to the task?”
She nodded. “I’m sure. Don’t worry, it’s not like Shepard was the perfect commander she wanted you to think, she was the queen of second guessing according to her, you’ll do just fine once you get more comfortable as the leading man.”
“Then I hope I don’t develop chronic heartburn… I just wish I had someone to guide me, you know… point me in the right direction to avoid a mutiny and at the same time keep the peace within the crew. They’re quite shaken by the whole ordeal and the boredom doesn’t help.”
“I understand. But you see, even Shepard wasn’t ready when she was given the Normandy. She was assigned as the XO of the ship, before she was promoted on the spot after Eden Prime. She wasn’t expecting it just as much as you, she learned on the go. And to be sincere, she is on the ground almost all the time, it’s not like she did much as the captain of the Normandy!”
“Yeah, I know, I took her to shore and back for months. I just… I want to make her proud, you understand?”
Liara nodded again. “I know. Just remember that, like you, Jane is human and has her highs and lows and you’re allowed to have doubts too.”
He took a deep breath and released it with a slight hiss. “I sincerely can’t picture Commander Shepard having doubts. She always seems so confident in everything she does.”
“That’s because you never slept with her,” she joked, smiling for a moment. “Every night, behind the closed door of her cabin, she would overthink and second guess every decision she had taken that day. She has anxiety attacks, crying spells, moments I wouldn’t dare to speak to her because I knew she is beyond angry… she’s human like you Steve. Don’t put her on a pedestal of perfection, she wouldn’t want it.”
“Can I strive to be half as good as her though?” she smiled. “I don’t know about you, but I never had a more competent and caring commanding officer in my life. If I ever get to commandeer my own ship, I want to be like her.”
“That, I’m sure she’ll appreciate. Just don’t think she was above criticism, because she is her own worst critic.”
In that moment, Joker interrupted their conversation through the intercom. “Liara, Miranda’s waiting on vidcom for an update. She seemed pretty happy today!”
“Should I leave?” Steve asked.
Liara shook her head. “No, stay. Joker, could you tell Karin too? I’m sure she wants to hear today’s news too.”
“Will do. She’s all yours!”
The holoprojector turned on again and the flickering image of Miranda Lawson from the waist up appeared in front of them. She was sitting at a desk somewhere, hair pulled up in a tight ponytail, something very unusual for her, and she had deep dark circles under her eyes. Even her clothes were different, she was wearing a set of Alliance fatigues and a thick blue sweatshirt two sizes too big for her that swallowed her lithe form, making her appear even smaller. She was clearly exhausted, her shoulders were sagging forward as she leaned her elbows on the table in front of her. “Hey Liara, Lieutenant Cortez, how is it going?”
“We just had a very one sided not very heated discussion with Hackett on when or if at all we’ll be leaving this planet,” he explained. “How’s Earth?”
“Could be worse. We’ve got some sun today! The dust from the war is finally settling and between the rain and the wind of the last couple of days, we’re finally seeing some clear sky. But we’re not here to talk about the weather, we’re here to talk about Shepard.”
“How is she?” asked Liara, clearly excited.
“She’s stable. She’s deeply sedated, we’re letting her body heal so her brain can heal too. She had a pretty bad concussion, we’re letting things go as slow as we can. The good thing is that we’re finally moving her.”
“So you found a proper hospital!”
Miranda nodded. “Yes. It’s a Cerberus facility,” she rolled her eyes. “As you may have guessed. I was sure there was something in France, a facility similar to that in Edinburgh, but this one is bigger and even better stocked. It seems like Cerberus left everything there months before the Reaper attack, as if they had already declared Earth lost and moved all operations outside Sol. Apparently they didn’t deem those places valuable enough.”
Steve chuckled. “Well thank you Cerberus then,” he laughed. “Where exactly is this place?”
“South of France, between Marseilles and Nice. I’ll send the coordinates in a minute. A team has already left and is currently working on setting up the place as we speak, and if things go as planned we should be moving Shepard tomorrow afternoon. It was a facility used by Cerberus for gene and augmentation therapy, so it has everything we need for long term care, for her and for everyone that will need it. It isn’t huge, there are sixty beds in total, but if we can get the specialists, we could be treating at least those that have more chances of survival.”
Liara let out a relieved sigh. They were still counting Shepard among those who had the higher chances of surviving, despite the horrendous wounds she had suffered in the blast. “Are you going to change the malfunctioning spinal implant there?”
“Yes,” confirmed Miranda. “I’ll have access to a lab there for that specific reason, designing and building implants for anyone that will need them, not only Shepard. Some of the implants we used when we revived her were made in that lab, I think I can pull that off quite comfortably.” She covered a deep yawn with a hand. “I’m sorry… anyway, at the moment this is the most news I can give you, at least about Shepard.”
Liara nodded. “And how are you holding up?”
“Yeah, Miss Lawson, I don’t really want to see you burn out when you’re in charge of our commander’s treatment,” added Cortez, with a joyful smile on his face.
A smile that Miranda noticed. “I’m fine, just a little tired. I’ll sleep better once we get her to a real hospital, right now my main concern is the precarious situation she’s in. We’re working around the clock making sure all her needs are catered, but at the moment London isn’t safe at all. Buildings are crumbling right beside the camp hospital and I can’t wait to leave this place behind for a facility that has actual electricity and running water.”
“Are you getting enough sleep?”
Another nod. “I am, for my standards I’m sleeping even too much. These have been some pretty intense weeks, but as soon as we get in France, the stress should be dialed down a notch or two. Who knows, maybe I’ll get something different to eat from military rations and energy bars. There’s only so much a girl can take of peanut butter crunchy protein bars and fake mokaccino meal replacement powders. At least Shepard’s unconscious, she can’t complain about the monotonous meals.”
There was a slight discharge of static and Karin’s bust and face appeared on the projector. “Now that you mention it, are you still feeding her as three weeks ago?” she asked.
Miranda nodded. “Pretty much. She’s been responding quite well with the mix we created, there are no signs of gastrointestinal distress of any kind, blood work is good, everything considered and urine output is steady. For now, we’re quite pleased with the bodybuilder in constant hangover diet, as James dubbed it.”
Chakwas nodded. “I see. Do you think you’ll be moving to parenteral feeding once you get her to the facility in France?”
“We’re thinking about it, but for now we think we will stick to the nasal feeding tube. Her body adjusted quite easily to it, for now there’s no sign of infection, though she’s on constant wide spectrum antibiotics. We’re monitoring that aspect too, she has so many catheters, drips and drain tubes we inspect them at least three times a day to check for signs of inflammation or infection.”
“Very well Miranda. I knew I could count on you. Beware of…”
“Urinary tract infections…” continued Miranda, nodding knowingly. “We’re aware of them and we are checking bacterial load twice a day. She’s covered for that.”
“Are you supplementing for the astronomical doses of antibiotics you’re giving her?”
Another nod. “Yes. Probiotics three times a day straight through the feeding tube. I wouldn’t mind changing the source from lab grown to natural occurring through ingested food, but beggars can’t be choosers.”
“Unfortunately, you’re right. I just hope this new place will allow you to treat her better.”
Miranda sighed. “We all do, but it’s not like we’re cutting back on her treatment just because we want to do so, it’s the lack of resources that forces us to hold back. We would have proposed ten if not twenty different therapy plans to make her better, but we’re down to next to nothing in terms of both diagnostics and therapies.”
Liara couldn’t help but notice a frustration in the woman’s voice. “Do you think you could be much farther than you’re now if you had better equipment at your disposal?”
“Well, considering we don’t have any advanced diagnostic equipment right now, yes. Everything is better than portable x-ray scans and Omni-Tools from a diagnostics standpoint,” she explained. “It’s a matter of details, Liara. We can’t make plans if we don’t know what we’re dealing with down to the last cell and right now we can barely monitor her vital stats. Feels like twentieth century medicine down here, we’re reduced to splinting and casting broken bones because even Medigel is being rationed!” she exclaimed, a mix of amusement and frustration in her voice.
“How long do you think the rationing will go on?” asked Chakwas.
“From what I know, the main supplier here on Earth is trying to get back to full production, but they’re still doing major repairs to the factory. They should be ready for mass production by the end of the month, and without incoming ships right now we are sticking to what we can scavenge here and there, but there’s not enough for everyone.”
Cortez leaned on his forearms against the railing in front of the projector. “See why I tried to insist with Hackett? We have enough Medigel on the ship to last us for years, how helpful could it be to the injured people down there?”
“Oh don’t be afraid Lieutenant,” exclaimed Miranda. “There will be ways the Normandy stocks will be used, once you get here. And Tali’s expertise with anything engine or mechanical related. God I miss her!”
“Really?” Came Tali’s voice through the intercom. “I thought you hated me!”
“Wait, what?” Miranda was visibly shaken by Tali’s sentence. “No! I never hated you? Why should have I ever hated you? Also, are we being broadcasted to the whole ship?”
“Well it’s Shepard’s Daily News Compendium, of course it’s broadcasted to the whole ship!” went on the Quarian. “Anyway, I thought you hated me because… well, you know… Cerberus…”
She sighed and rubbed the back of her neck. “Tali, I’ve never had anything against aliens. Not you, not Garrus, not Liara… nothing. I actually respected you guys a lot, ever since I got your files on my desk, and my respect did nothing but grow when I finally got to meet you. I just thought that Cerberus was doing something good for humanity, and I realized I was wrong. I’m sorry I may have come off the wrong way, I know I have a bad temper and even worse personality and I wasn’t surely the most welcoming XO on the SR2, but I never hated any of you,” she explained. “I would understand if you hated me though. I mean, I’m fully aware of my past and that your opinions on me will likely be not that flattering, I understand that. Just know that I’m working even harder than during the reviving process to make sure Shepard gets back in one piece as soon as we can.”
“No one hates you Miranda!” interjected Garrus then through the intercom. “Sure, you weren’t exactly the warmest person on the crew back then, but you knew what you were doing,” he said. “And damn you did it well! Even Jack realized it, in the end. By the way, have you heard from her?”
She nodded. “Yes I have! She’s fine, all her kids from Grissom Academy are alright, only minor injuries. Last I heard she was in Vancouver. Even Grunt and Wrex are safe and sound. And Samara. Looks like we pulled off another Suicide Mission!”
Liara chuckled. “Well, once you’ve done it the first time, it’s like… what do you say on Earth?”
“Like riding a bike,” Miranda went on with a smile. “And now that you mention it, I’ve never learned how to ride a bike!”
From the room where she was sitting, they could hear some ruckus and Vega came into view behind her. “What? You don’t know how to ride a bike?”
She shook her head. “No, I never learned. I never had the occasion to do so!”
Vega shook his head. “Ahi dios mios… Esteban, I think we need to give Miranda here a dose of the childhood she never had! What do you say Ash?”
“If you can find a bike!” replied Williams in the background.
“Hell yeah I’m gonna find one! What about you Doc? Do you have bikes on Thessia?”
“I’m afraid not, James. But Shepard told me about them, and how she learned to ride them on long hallways on the ships her parents were stationed on. I don’t know, it could be something fun, once we’re back on Earth.”
Cortez smiled at her side. “As long as we can find a long stretch of road with no bumps, you should be fine. It’s really easy, once you realize that the faster you go the better control and balance you have.”
“Exactly!” went on Vega. “We’re gonna teach all these offworlders how to ride a bike! I bet Shepard will want to pitch in too!”
“Oh no please don’t pull Shepard in your shenanigans!” laughed Miranda. “I don’t want to spend more time and resources patching her up! I’m doing it for the second time in two years, I’m not ready for a third round!”
“Tell me one thing Miranda,” asked Liara then. “How did you cope with her bad habit of Charging into enemies three times her size or in large groups?”
The woman shook her head. “I think I lost ten years of my life the first time she did it in her presence. I had no idea her biotics were that powerful, or that she had such control on them, the way she used the momentum of the Charge to cause a biotic explosion and clear the way around her was astounding, I’ve never seen anything like that. And the way she regrouped? She’s so fast!” There was true admiration in her voice. “No wonder she was always so hungry after a mission!”
“Did she keep a stash of those chocolate bars in her armor instead of thermal clips even during the time you were chasing the Collectors?” asked Garrus. “I know she did this time around.”
“You mean the Snickers bars?” asked Miranda. “Yes! Once I actually saw her charging a LOKI mech with one hanging out from her mouth, it had popped out of nowhere while she was eating. She was so pissed she had got interrupted, you have no idea!”
“Yeah, she gets grumpy when she’s hungry,” said Liara. “Back when we were chasing Saren the Normandy was grounded and at the same time she had to skip lunch too in the process. She was about to bite my arm off when I went to talk to her.”
“Oh that time?” This time it was Joker. “Couple the fact that Kaidan had just died, she was pissed to no end. I’m amazed she kept her cool at the Council meeting.”
Ashley came into view behind Miranda then. “Kept her cool? You weren’t there, she accused the Council of cowardice and Udina of having stabbed her in the back for his political ploys, she didn’t keep her cool!”
“I don’t see what she was wrong about,” said Garrus.
There was a long moment of silence, before everyone on the call started laughing, a heartfelt, boastful laugh that raised their spirits and bettered their moods. “Keelah, that time was tough!” she exclaimed. “Garrus, do I remember wrong or Anderson actually knocked Udina out in order to lift the lockdown of the Normandy?”
“Oh dear, you remember very well! That’s at least what he told us, I don’t know if it was true.”
“Knowing Anderson,” said Karin from the Medbay. “It was true. That guy was a good diplomat, but he was more than able to use violence when he needed to.”
The rest of the call went on that track, until Miranda was called away to settle a few things about Shepard’s transferral the next day. After the long group conversation, Liara felt better. The fact that they were moving her to a better equipped facility meant they were still counting on Shepard making a full recovery, they just needed to know what was going on with her better in order to facilitate such recovery. It wasn’t much, but it was still better than nothing.
She kept hearing voices, on and off. Most of the time, the sounds were muffled and far away, as if she was standing two or three rooms away from where the conversation was taking place. She noticed it was a pretty regular cycle of total blackout, and she wasn’t minding that at all, and short but more comfortable moments of drowsy wakefulness. She felt like when she woke up from a deep sleep, the first few moments of awareness, when everything is still numb and far away, and then again go back to sleep. It was nice though, no dreams or nightmares this time. Just a random itch in the back of her throat, but it wasn’t too bad.
Wait a second, why does my throat itch? And who the fuck is touching my arm?
Mustering all the energies she had in her body, she struggled to open at least one eye, just one, even just a slit would be enough. It took everything she had in her, but she managed to open an eye, barely enough to take a quick glance around the room. It was nighttime, just a little light came in from the windows at her left hand side. In a corner, she could see Vega and Ashley huddled up on a cot too tiny to accommodate them both, sleeping soundly, with Ashley using Vega's broad chest as a pillow. Turns out the drunken whispering at the party before they attacked the Cerberus base weren't just whispers on shore leave. At her left, Miranda, also asleep, was leaning at the side of her bed, head resting on her crossed arms while one her hands held her outstretched arm as if her life depended on that. They all looked positively battered, who knew how long had passed since the Battle Of London, but sure enough that Vega grew a beard.
She tried to open her mouth to speak, call them or and tell them she was alive, but the itch in the back of her throat became straight out pain. Looking up she noticed a blue plastic tube hanging above her head that bent 90 degrees towards her face and into… her mouth.
What the hell?
Before she could form another coherent thought or let panic take over her, a soft beep ringed in the room and she felt the soft but steady pull of slumber drag her down again in her long dark dreamless blackouts, and she was out like a light once again.
Transferring patients from a hospital to another was a tough job before the war, but after? With a comatose, non breathing patient? It was gruelling. All the medevac shuttles were of the basic type, no one was fitted with a full portable life support system, they had to make do with what they had. That meant manually pumping air into Shepard with an Ambu bag the whole duration of the trip.
Miranda, Ashley, James and doctor Wilson took turns at it, trying to keep the rhythm as steady as they could for the duration of the trip, which took around three hours from the moment they unhooked the mechanical ventilator in London to when they attached it back in Marseilles. During the trip, they spoke little and sparsely, limiting all communications to what was essential to Shepard’s wellbeing.
By the time they arrived in France, they were all exhausted and their hands and arms cramped in places they had no idea they had muscles. Ashley even developed a quickly cured but extremely painful case of tendonitis in her right wrist, to the point she could barely bend it because of the pain shooting up her arm. Nothing that a quick application of medigel and a capsule of ibuprofen couldn’t cure, yet it was still enough to upset her a little. And James swooped in to console her, much to her dismay and Miranda’s amusement.
And they needed some amusement, because things weren’t going so good, despite the moving. Sure, the accommodations, the supplies and the structure itself were a lot better than the run down building in London, but things were still on the ruinous side, given what they needed to provide the best care they could to their patients and what they could actually provide them.
It had been nearly four weeks since they had found Shepard and brought her back to the camp hospital, by now most of the superficial injuries had healed, only the casts remained. Those had also been changed a couple of weeks prior, from the provisional splints they had used to secure the fractures to a slightly more modern, though still 21st century tech, open 3D printed cast that allowed not only to clean the wounds that with the splints were covered and unreachable, but also to apply medigel to speed up the reknitting of the broken bones.
Yet, there were no signs of neurological viability. Yet.
Much to Miranda’s and Doctor Wilson’s relief, subsequent EEGs performed after they were able to actually place Shepard under full medical sedation showed a tiny but noticeable normalization of brainwaves. That was a good sign but till a far cry from a standard EEG of a comatose patient. It looked like the neurologist they had found didn’t seem too fazed about it though.
Doctor Lara Wirtanen was a stocky army medic with a no nonsense kind of personality, much like Doctor Wilson, and she had thrown herself into the research about indoctrination that Henry Lawson had performed for days, and having spent more than a few hours comparing the scans included in the research with Shepard’s and in a cautious way she was positive they could get something out of that brain, with time, patience and some tech. She had taken a couple of days before she came up with a plan to at least reduce the damage and bring back Shepard from her state of near brain death through a stretch of both pharmacological and surgical therapy that, if things went according to her plan, could at least get her to a conscious state in three to six months. It would require a precise administration of specific drugs that fortunately could be synthesized in the lab and at least three surgeries in the first two months alone to insert some implant that could mimic the damaged neural pathways, but she was sure the damage caused by the attempted indoctrination weren't permanent, at least according to Cerberus' data and research.
And that’s where Miranda Lawson came in, with her tech expertise.
A Miranda Lawson that found following Doctor Wirtanen’s train of thought extremely hard while she explained her plans, a couple of days after the patient transfer, both because of the thick Finnish accent and casual slip ups into Wirtanen’s native language, but mostly because neurology was totally out of her league. Even during project Lazarus, the neurological aspect of the reviving process wasn’t exactly the part she understood the most. She had the hang of the very basics, some diagnostics processes and how the nervous system worked, but hers was an engineer’s point of view, not a neurosurgeon one.
After all, letting an electron move from point A to point B via biocompatible nano optic fibre and vice versa was easy, but knowing why that electron had to go through that pathway and what signal that electron was carrying was a completely different matter. Electronics were easy enough to understand, but organics? Not so much. And since the nervous system was possibly the most complex part of the human body, one that often didn’t work exactly like clockwork but on a constant fluctuation of variables, Miranda had always left it to the pros.
And Doctor Wirtanen was a pro, specialized in Traumatic Brain Injuries and how to treat and repair such injuries, especially in soldiers. If she could describe what function a determined implant needed to perform, she could design and build it. She had done it before, multiple times, she could do it again. That she could.
It was like leading the Lazarus Project again, only this time with very limited resources and no impending galactic doom over their collective heads. She was doing it for Shepard. Because she deserved better. She deserved to live, enjoy life, see the galaxy she had saved flourish again. She deserved to be happy, live long beyond the normal human stretch of life retired on some beautiful tropical island with Liara. And then some more. That was the least Miranda could do for Shepard, after everything she had done for the galaxy, and just for her in particular.
The first week was spent pretty much doing all the tests and exams that they weren’t able to do when they first rescued Shepard, from TCs to MRIs and continuous EEGs with a decent machine and not an old portable model that felt unreliable, they checked organ function through daily blood work and urine analysis, checked the state of the still organic lung, hepatic and kidney function, they finally managed to instal a central line for IV fluids and drugs administration, which made therapy a lot easier. Between Doctor Wilson handling the body and Doctor Wirtanen handling the mind and Miranda doing the whole engineering part, they devised a plan to slowly get Shepard back, or at least find a way to bring her back to the world of the living.
As days passed, more people were brought to the facility, some in better and some in worse shape than Shepard, and with patients came more personnel and even more funding. The Alliance started channeling some money into the hospital, which was dubbed LPZ as in Legit Project Lazarus, as it was meant to save key people for the galactic wellbeing from certain death after the devastation of the Battle Of London. As one of the very few medical facilities still standing and in operating order, the former Cerberus medical research lab was now the only place where some of those who were wounded badly enough to require extensive medical attention but not enough to be declared untreatable could receive proper medical care. There wasn’t room enough for everyone, but it was a start, while other hospitals were being rebuilt pretty much everywhere.
The second week was spent rebuilding a better version of the damaged spinal implant and finally taking out the one that was broken and putting the new one in, then activating it to see if there was even the slightest improvement. They took a gamble with Shepard’s conditions by performing an open surgery on her in her state, but the payoff was greater than the risks. They needed to see if the faulty implant was the cause of the paralysis and if switching to a new, enhanced implant would get them some improvements.
And there were some, although minor, but during an EEG they tested for pin prick and painful stimuli in the upper chest and arms and despite the distortion in the waves, the could determine with a degree of certainty that the nervous impulses were travelling back and forth freely now, bypassing the damaged area through the implant. That on its own meant that if the normalization of brainwaves continued, Shepard could regain control of her breathing muscles sooner rather than later. At least that was what they were all hoping, because there was no way to tell if the therapy they were going for would allow Shepard to actually regain consciousness to begin with, let alone control over her body. For now, it all was all wild guesses and taking chances in the dark, hoping to find the right switches that would get her brain back to normal and not a jumble of misfiring neural pathways.
Week three and four were both dedicated to taking care of repairing more damage throughout the body and fine tuning the pharmacological therapy, also they began physiotherapy to avoid further muscle wasting and bone fragility.
As they worked and small progresses were made, Miranda took great care to keep Liara and the crew of the Normandy informed, mostly with quick updates via email but sometimes through longer vidcom calls. She introduced the crew to Doctor Wilson and Doctor Wirtanen, though it was mainly Doctor Chakwas that wanted to know who was treating Shepard, and made sure everyone was always up to date with her conditions, the results of every test they performed and every minor surgery they did.
That was pretty much their daily routine, be it working on Shepard or on other patients. Still, no words on when the Normandy would be allowed to start the trek from Zorya back to Earth, and everyone was getting antsy about it, maybe even more than about Shepard’s situation. At least they had that under control, despite the little but significant improvements.
Ashley was the most worried about the fate of the Normandy, mostly because she feared that they still hadn’t the relays situation working out and they were still isolated from the rest of the galaxy. They could travel between the planets of the Sol System, but that was about it. Extra system travel was apparently still a no go, comms with Thessia, Palaven and Sur’Kesh were still spotty at best, the Citadel was a wreck orbiting around Earth and no one had the faintest idea where to start to rebuild the galaxy. At least the Council was still alive, a tiny speck of hope for some interspecies cohesion when the time to rebuild galactic unity would come. As a SPECTRE, she was happy about it, but as a person, the fragmentation of the governing agencies and military organizations worried her, a lot.
She was worried enough that one day, as she reported to Hackett, she actually started acting out, to the point that Hackett had to reprimand her, and he wasn’t kind about it at all. And when he dropped by unannounced at the hospital, demanding to see her, Vega and Miranda, the three of them started fearing the worst.
He basically stomped in the atrium and ordered them to drop whatever they were doing and get to Shepard’s room immediately.
Miranda had to admit it, she was scared. It was the first time in her life, after she had escaped her father’s grasp, that she was willingly following someone else’s orders, even though she wasn’t formally part of the Alliance, she was working as one of them for mutual benefits. That made Admiral Hackett her direct superior. He could decide to boot her from LPZ anytime.
When he finally walked in the room, he looked nothing like his normal self. Miranda had never seen him in civilian clothes, not even that time he had come aboard the SR2 after Shepard had destroyed the Alpha Relay to temporarily halt the Reapers, and he was there unofficially. Gauging Vega and Ashley’s reactions, they had never seen him like this too, with long hair pulled back with too much hair gel and an untrimmed beard that spoke of a man that had little to no time to breathe, let alone shave.
Not that they were faring better than him, both Ashley and Miranda were in dire need of a haircut themselves, clean clothes were a luxury and they spent most of their waking time in old battered Alliance fatigues. James was a little luckier than them, he could quickly keep his hair in check with a razor, but for the past couple of weeks he had let go of that habit too so both his hair and beard grew unchecked. He looked like another person entirely.
He didn’t bother with any kind of greetings and quickly dismissed the salute the two officers performed the moment he walked in. “Status report,” he barked, not deigning them of a single look, not even a glare. He just walked up to Shepard’s bed and looked down at her like a father would look at a daughter.
“Nothing new, Admiral,” replied Miranda, relaxing a little. “The situation is stable, no changes have been recorded since the last report we sent in yesterday.”
He gave them a quick nod. “I was hoping for something else but we’ll make do. Listen, we have news about the relays. Most of them are now in working order, thanks to the Rachni.”
The trio gasped in disbelief. “The Rachni?” asked James. “The big ants?”
He nodded. “Yes, Lieutenant, the Rachni, the big ants that spit acid. We couldn’t really believe our eyes when they appeared all over the galaxy to start repairing them. On their own volition, we didn’t ask them to help us.”
“What about the Asaris? Or the Salarians?” asked Ashley.
“No, I’ve spoken both with Councillor Tevos and the Dalatrass, they were as baffled as we were. Theories abound, but I simply suppose they wanted freedom to move, and they are ancient enough to know how the relays work. Also, they’re a lot and reproduce really fast, they can quickly double the workforce and spread through the Galaxy for repairs as they wish. It seems that they took the past few weeks to do just that.”
Miranda chuckled. “I guess Shepard’s decision to spare the Queen on Noveria wasn’t that bad in the end.”
“They also helped en masse to build the Crucible and fight off the Reapers. They were instrumental to the winning of the war and now are repairing the relays. Most of travelling in the Citadel space is about to be declared feasible, by next week part of the Attican Traverse should be connected too.”
“That means the Normandy can travel to Earth?”
“Exactly, Miss Lawson. But not just the Normandy, though we’ll give them some privileges and make them move earlier than the rest of the stranded Fleet, the SSV Kilimanjaro is also in the Traverse, and believe me Admiral Shepard is very impatient to see her daughter.”
Miranda drew a long, straggled breath. “God, she won’t like what she’ll see when she gets here.”
“I see you came to my conclusions too, Miss Lawson. She won’t like it one bit that a former Cerberus Operative is currently in charge of her daughter’s health, nor that she’s in a former Cerberus research lab, it doesn’t matter that you committed apostasy and worked really hard to convert the place into a proper Alliance facility.”
“I know, but if it could be of any help, I’m not in charge. Doctor Wilson and Doctor Wirtanen are in charge, I’m just an engineer in this case. Legit Project Lazarus has little to do with me. I’m just a blue collar worker,” she explained, her voice strained. She really didn’t want to be kicked out of Shepard’s team, she had nothing else to do but to help her friend, no place to be other than here. It meant the world and then some to her, being able to help her back to health.
“It won’t matter to Hannah. Where do you think her daughter got her stubbornness? The moment she sees you here, she’ll throw a fit, if you're lucky. She could even shoot you if she feels like it, I’m not counting that possibility out just yet. I’m making sure the Normandy gets here first, this way you should have a little bit of a shield in the form of people that have worked with you, but if I were you I would be working on either making myself scarce when Admiral Shepard walks through that door or wear a very strong kinetic barrier, because I’m not really sure she’ll come here unharmed.”
She sighed. “I’ll make sure to be ready. Right now, my main concern is to make sure Commander Shepard’s treatment and future rehabilitation go as smooth as I can, and that’s what I will do, no matter what her mother thinks of me. I don’t actually care much about her opinion at all to be honest. You can talk to Doctors Wilson and Wirtanen about what we’re doing for her daughter from a medical standpoint, I can fill you in on the engineering side of her treatment.”
“No need, Miss Lawson, I already talked to them on the way here, I don’t need to know your side of the situation too. I wouldn’t understand a word you’d say to be sincere. I just want to make sure you’re ready to face the storm.”
“I will, Sir. Don’t worry about me. I survived a suicide mission and a Reaper invasion, I think I can survive Admiral Shepard.”
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t be so sure, Miss Lawson, but you know, you may amaze me and survive this too. But first you’ll have to deal with Doctor T’Soni, and that too will be a challenge on its own. Tell me something though: is she aware of the cause of Shepard’s conditions?”
Miranda shook her head. “No. No one on the Normandy is aware, we…” She spoke softly, before pausing for a moment to look at Ashley and Vega. “We deemed it too much to handle. It’s strictly in the need to know basis, not even Doctor Chakwas knows about the attempted indoctrination. They know we’re treating her for a massive traumatic brain injury, that alone is terrible to know, I didn’t want them to experience more anguish than necessary, and Doctor Wilson agreed with me. I’ll clear that up as soon as they get here. And yes, I’m ready to face the backlash.”
Ashley and James stood a little straighter then. “Sir, we agreed with Miss Lawson,” explained Vega. “We all thought that being stranded on a foreign planet, unable to travel here but knowing what was really going on would only add stress to the crew, and stress is the last thing they needed.”
“It is hard enough for us that are here and can monitor the situation,” Ashley went on. “For the time being, it’s better that they don’t know the real cause of Shepard’s injuries. They couldn't do much anyway, not from there. We stood behind Miranda’s choice not to tell them. We’ll take the backlash with her.”
“Well,” started Hackett. “I see you all agree on something. It’s a sight for sore eye, I’ve spent the past two months trying to mediate between warring parties. No one knows what we should do, but everyone knows where we should start rebuilding from.”
“Let me guess, their homes,” replied James.
“You are correct, Lieutenant. Very well then, I see Shepard is in good hands, I couldn’t wish anything better for her at this point. Just… be careful. Shepard’s friends can be… a handful, when they want to.”
The trio exchanged a look. “Don’t we know it?”
Time will go on and we are drifting away in the night
I´ve been searching so long, but I will find you even if it takes my whole life
But tonight I feel so alone and I know that you are forever gone
Oh time, don't fade away when I need you here, oh please don´t leave me now
Wintersun - Time (From the album Time Part 1, Nuclear Blast Records, 2012)
Everything around her moved as slow as molasses.
The blackouts were shorter, but most of the time she managed to regain that little consciousness her brain was allowed, she was alone, or it was the middle of the night and whoever was in charge that night to watch over her was asleep. It was always either Miranda, Ashley or Vega. He rarely slept though, most of the time he would sip coffee and play videogames on his Omnitool, or doing pushups in the middle of the room.
Sometimes the room was too bright, and she couldn’t open her eyes even that tiny slither that allowed her to see at least who was beside her. Other times, it was too dark and she could only distinguish dark silhouettes of people around her. Mostly, she would rely on her ears to catch up with what was going on. Beyond the steady beeping of her heartbeat and the soft whooshing of the ventilator that pumped air in and out of her lungs, there were unknown voices, footsteps, muffled whispers and keys being tapped, the scratching notes being taken on what sounded like paper - actual paper! - the rustling of linens being moved around her.
Her ears seemed to be the only thing in working order in her body. Her eyes didn’t work properly, her eyelids wouldn’t respond to her commands nine times out of ten, she couldn’t breathe on her own and of course she couldn’t move. Even her sense of smell was either muted or overpowered but the pungent stench of disinfectant and desperation that lingered wherever she was. Not to mention her sense of touch was gone. Sometimes she couldn’t feel anything at all, sometimes her skin felt like it was on fire, or submerged in a tub full of ice cold water. Her throat was parched and itchy with that damn tube shoved down to her lungs, and her nose felt like someone had poked it with a stick and had stuck another tube even up there.
She couldn’t even sigh in defeat.
Why didn’t they just let her go? Her body was wrecked beyond recognition, she knew that, she couldn’t move a muscle, she was in pain half the time and the rest she was just a hunk of meat on a hospital bed, unconscious and plagued by nightmares and memories that wouldn’t let her go, why couldn’t Miranda just let her go? She had revived her once, there was no need to do that again. From the little she had understood, the Reapers were gone, why did they need her to live.
If you could call that living .
Was it because she was a symbol? The one person that had managed, fighting nail and teeth to unite a galaxy that presented itself as cohese, but deep down was just made up of factions engaged in a perpetual cold war made of affected diplomacy and feigned respect.
Yeah, that must be the case. They needed her alive, no matter how poor her conditions, how non-livable her life was, just because she was a symbol of hope, of unity against the enemy. She hated it with all her remaining strength. Why wouldn’t they just let her die and be done with it?
Every second was a sludge, every breath the machine took for her was just another moment that inched her closer and closer to the void, and she was alone.
All she wanted was to know that the crew of the Normandy was safe and sound, that they had made it and they were going to come back to Earth in one piece.
She wanted to be sure that Liara was safe and sound and she would go and live a long life to the point that the war and the Reapers would only be a distant past lost in an ocean of happy memories. She deserved that. She would find someone to fall in love with, and maybe from time to time she’d think of her, of Jane Shepard, the lowly human that dared to love her and look up at her like she was the sun in the sky.
For all she knew, she was gone, forever, she would never see her again.
She could almost feel the shadow of nausea at the thought. The person that made her world turn could be gone, all her efforts to make sure that she would survive would have been for naught. Alright, now she felt sick for real.
She heard the steady rhythmic beeping of the heartbeat monitor get quicker and more erratic as the familiar sense of a panic attack gripped her throat and stomach, throwing her in a loop of negative thoughts that would have made hyperventilate and scream in agony had she been able too, before a low hum whirred beside her head and she felt the panic quickly receding as the darkness engulfed her once more, dragging her down to her endless nightmares, to the faces of all the people she couldn’t save that came to torment her every time she was forced to sleep.
She wanted to cry, but even tears wouldn’t come anymore.
She was alone, in the moment when she needed someone to see that she was alive the most. She needed someone to see that she was still inside that broken shell of a body, now more Geth than organic. Anyone that would look beyond the tubes, the cables, the sensors and the bandages, someone that would see as a person and not as just a patient.
Shepard desperately needed Liara, and she was not there, most probably gone forever and she would never be there with her again.
She was alone .
And it scared her more than death.
It had already been twelve weeks since they had crashed on Zorya, three full months on idling, doing absolutely nothing if not standard maintenance once the heavy repairs had been done in the first few days when they thought they were going home right away.
So they waited, both for the order to fly back to Earth, which never came, and for Shepard’s daily news. At least those came every day, though lately it was not via vidcom call with Miranda but through an email, more often than not. At least they were keeping them posted about their commander, unlike other important news they wished would come from the Alliance, that against everything the crew expected, was clearly withholding information.
Worry was quickly turning into distrust, and the seditionist sentiment kept buzzing among the personnel of every deck, echoing in every nook and cramped cranny of the Normandy. Everyone wanted to go, everybody had someone to check on, relatives to reunite with or unfortunately, deal with because they hadn’t made it. No one wanted to stay docked one day more, palms itched for some maneuvering in one way or the other. Joker himself spent most of his time at the helm, ready to take them home the very moment the green light for relay travel was given. Many had taken after him, getting again in the habit of normal operations with shifts and turns, even though there was little to do but the endless wait for an order that seemed to never come.
A grim and somber atmosphere ruled supreme on the once cheerful Normandy, little words were spoken and those that actually dared to talk did so in whispers and hushed tones, as little words as they could. Even the usually talkative Joker sat in his chair in silence most of the time, looking at the screens with all the data regarding the ship transmitted in real time, mute as a piece of stone. If it wasn’t for his eyes constantly moving left to right and up and down, one would think he was a very realistic painted statue.
Liara soon found herself dragged in the dark mood that permeated the ship and plummeted in some dark corners of her thoughts like everyone else. Working was impossible, she barely had the strength to get out of bed in the morning, the rare times she actually slept. Most of her nights were spent in front of the computers linked to the Shadow Broker’s network as the few of her agents that had survived the war slowly became operative once again and started reporting back, with an eye of attention towards the screen scrolling continuously the intel coming from Alliance Command.
Everyone on board counted on her to catch an early preview of the lift off order, but for now, everything was silent on their part and not wanting to let down anyone on the Normandy, Liara felt compelled to actually keep a continuous eye on it, sacrificing sleep and food despite Glyph’s reminders about keeping healthy habits for what would come after they would be allowed to travel.
She just couldn't bring herself to care. All she could think about was Shepard, unconscious and battered after the last assault against the Reapers, unable to perform even the simplest action of breathing on her own, stuck on a hospital bed. Wrapping her head around that was almost impossible, but what hurt her the most was the fact that she wasn’t there. She knew Shepard was in good hands and that Miranda, Ashley and James were watching over her, but still, not being there to help take care of Shepard broke her heart. It kept her awake at night and constricted her stomach so she couldn’t eat and cut the air from her lungs at random times. The few times she actually managed to sleep at night, or at random hours of the day, she would often wake breathless and with her chest so constricted it actually hurt from sheer panic.
Never in her life she had suffered from panic attacks, but now they were ever more frequent and coupled with the lack of sleep and the little food, they were wearing her out. The idling, after so many months of constant motion against the Reapers was getting on her nerves every day more. Sometimes she spent so much time in her room with only the lights of the screens to light her way that she forgot what time of the day it was. It didn’t help that Zorya had a longer day/night cycle than what she was used to, so the internal clocks of the Normandy - and her own circadian rhythm - didn’t coincide with the actual time of the day on the planet. It was just another source of stress and contempt for the whole crew.
Even the ever stoic Garrus Vakarian was showing cracks in his armor. Bursts of anger were becoming the norm and came every day more often and from more people. Cortez had a very hard time keeping everyone in check and despite his best efforts, his own temper was becoming hotter by the minute. What once was the kindest work environment she had ever been in was turning into the most toxic place to be, everyone was so on edge that the tension could be cut with a knife. The simple act of getting to the canteen for a cup of coffee sometimes was perceived by an act of war by someone who had the same idea at the same time. Heated arguments had sparked over the last piece of bread, it was awful. Not even during the invasion they had been so tense.
“Doctor T’Soni,” called Glyph at some point. “I suggest you take a break and get some fresh air. You’ve been in this room for thirty five hours and made no pause working in the meantime. A change of scenery and some food would do you good.”
Sighing, Liara shifted in her seat and nodded. “You’re right Glyph. What time is it now?”
“As per the Earth time cycle, it’s the minutes past six in the morning, Doctor T’Soni, which on Zorya’s 29 hour daily cycle translates to still the middle of the night. The temperature is a mild 18 degrees Celsius, but it’s fairly humid, I advise some warmer clothes. I’ll keep you posted for any news from the Alliance Command.”
Standing up from the chair, she felt like every bone in her body ached and every joint cracked like a piece of dry hardtack. The total inactivity and the forced deskbound job were showing up in her body too. “Thank you Glyph. I’m sure I’ll be fine with this,” she replied grabbing Shepard’s N7 sweatshirt from the back of the chair and slipped it on, zipping the front up.
She wasn’t expecting the hiss of the door to surprise her so much, it usually was drowned by the constant noise of the bustling activity of the ship, but at that hour and with the reduced activity there were no sounds to cover the hiss. It was really loud, she thought as she walked out of her room. The crew deck was empty, dark and silent. The lights in the infirmary were turned off as it was now completely devoid of patients and even Karin slept in her bunk rather than on a cot or worse, on the chair of her desk in the small ward like in the first few days after the crash, where every single cot was occupied with bed bound patients.
On the way to the main entrance just behind the helm, she found few people standing on guard for incoming communications, but most of all, she noticed that Joker had fallen asleep on his chair. The poor guy… he blamed himself for the situation, as he had been the one at the helm of the Normandy when they had crashed. He felt responsible for everything, from the crash to every casualty they had, even if every single person that had got wounded in the crash or the repairs had by now fully recovered with no lasting complications and he had no fault in anything that had happened. He still couldn’t really shake the guilt off, and he was torturing himself over it.
Shaking her head in silence, Liara stepped towards the cockpit and pulled a folded blanket from beneath his padded chair and wrapped him in it before he froze. Life support was back, but in order to spare as much fuel as they could, central heating was turned off and the ship, while warm enough for people who moved around and generated body heat on their own, but it was icy cold if they were idling or sleeping, like Joker. He didn’t even flinch as Liara gently tucked the blanket around him, so tired he was.
Once outside, she realized that Glyph’s advice about wearing an additional layer of clothes because of the night chill didn’t come out of nowhere, it was indeed cold outside, with the night’s humidity and a slight breeze that hyped the sensation. Considering she had been cooped up for more than a day in the same stifling room, the sudden drop in temperature felt even starker. She found herself shivering as she climbed the ladder that led her to the roof of the Normandy, so as soon as her hands were free, she pulled the tab of the zipper up to her neck and pulled the hood around her neck to keep the cold breeze away.
“Hey, look who got out of their room!”
Apparently, Garrus had the same idea and was chilling out on the roof of the ship, holding a bottle of what looked like Turian beer in one hand as he sat on the topmost part of the roof.
“Glyph kind of pushed me out, to be honest,” revealed Liara. “Apparently, I haven’t come out of my room in thirtysomething hours.”
She sat down beside him and drew her legs towards her chest, resting her chin on her knees. “He’s keeping count?” asked Garrus.
“Apparently. He probably has some work related safety subroutines… ever since I took control over the Shadow Broker’s role I noticed he would tell me to take a break about every five hours or so. I guess it’s some factory setting no one ever worried to disable, but it’s useful. Sometimes I do forget to take breaks.”
“Uhm, I could use the reminder. Are you getting enough sleep?”
“No,” she stated. “Are you?”
“I forgot what a full night of sleep feels like after Virmire. It’s nothing new to me.”
She nodded. “I still have nightmares about that day!”
“I think everyone who was there has them, Shepard above all. Leaving Kaidan behind like that, without any chance to rescue him? I don’t know you but it never sat right to me. And I know she still blames herself for his death to this day, even if she had no choice but that one.”
“Yeah, I know a thing or two about her nightmares about Virmire.”
Garrus chuckled. “Sometimes I forget you two share a bed. You are way too discreet, it’s not even fun!”
“Ah, the perks of dating the big boss, no one bats an eye in fear of repercussions.”
“Oh come on Liara, you two are way beyond the dating stage!” he exclaimed, then took a swig of his drink. On a closer look, the Asari noticed it wasn’t beer, it was a full bottle of hard liquor, now well on its way to emptiness. It was a feat on its own that Garrus was still coherent. “You’re practically married by human standards by now, one step away from the nice suburban home and a couple of kids to boot!”
Liara had a hard time to keep the tears in check. One of the reasons he had been hiding in her room for progressively longer periods of time was because as time passed she found it harder and harder to stop herself from crying every time someone mentioned Shepard. Just thinking about her often cut her breath short and brought on an anxiety attack that verged on full blown panic.
How she held it together in that moment was a mystery even to her.
“There were talks… about that. Sometimes we just liked to fantasize about what we would have done at the end of the war. It was our way to keep perspective, to look forward to something the next day other than just more destruction.”
“I understand perfectly well what you mean. I think it’s what brought Tali and I together.”
It was Liara’s time to chuckle. “I bet. Ashley and James too!”
“Uhm… war has a weird way of messing up people's lives. Who would have thought that following Shepard when she first became a SPECTRE would get us here?”
“Ah, not me! To be honest, if it hadn’t been for you guys I would have probably died of starvation and dehydration in that force field, I guess I was lucky enough to get here, war and all.”
There was a long moment of silence that gave Liara a moment of reprieve from the still lingering anxiety that Garrus had unwillingly conjured. She had got used to the different climate and was now actually enjoying the colder air, considering how stale the air inside the Normandy could feel after a while. Closing her eyes for a while, just listening to the sounds of the thick forest around them. The clearing where Joker had managed to land was quiet, only the noise of a few insects pierced the thick silence of the night, along with the low hum coming from inside the Normandy. Far away from the constant beeps and noises coming from her own computers, she felt some uneasiness creeping in the back of her neck, as if a weight had been placed on her shoulders and it was slowly pushing down more and more.
And that weight had a name and it was Jane Shepard and the fact that she had been wounded so badly that they were keeping her in a pharmacological coma with no plan to deal off the sedation in the foreseeable future. And the fact that she had the bone chilling feeling that Miranda was downplaying the severity of her conditions. And that she was alone in a hospital bed, a plastic tube shoved down her throat to help her breathe and a traumatic brain injury that, according to Karin, could lead to only a small percentage of success in making a full recovery. If it was bad enough she could possibly be facing a lifelong disability of yet unknown degree.
That’s what you get for saving the galaxy.
As if to distract her from the dark thoughts rushing through her mind, Garrus gently nudged her with his pointy elbow. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll get back to Earth soon. Everything will be alright, just give it time.”
“You really think so?”
He groaned. “I should hope so. It’s not like Palaven is in better conditions than Earth, all I can do is hope that things will get better, I’ve got nothing left!”
“Yeah, you’re right. What is it that humans say? We’re all on the same boat, right?” she asked.
“Something like that.” He took another long swig of liquor. “Excuse me if I don’t offer you some but I’ve read somewhere that Turian alcohol wreaks havoc in levos digestive system.”
That made her smile. “You read, or you saw first hand?”
Garrus grimaced, before chuckling. “Ehm, if memory doesn’t fail me, one shot was all it took to lock Jacob in the bathroom with the worst case of the runs Karin had ever seen. Her words, not mine.”
“Then I’m not interested in repeating the show, thank you. Just don’t drink too much, you never know when the guns will need some calibrations.”
“Ah yes… that. It has become a bit of a running joke uh? My obsessive calibrating of the weapons was my coping mechanism for anxiety. I had been wiping Omega’s floors for two years straight, never taking a moment off, and while we were chasing the Collectors there were lots of idle moments, mainly when we were travelling to the next planet following the next clue. I wasn’t used to sitting down doing nothing anymore, so I kept tinkering with the cannons and weaponry to keep my mind occupied. Just as James worked on his weapons. Now that I mention it, what are you doing to keep yourself distracted?”
“You’re saying that implying that I actually do something to keep myself distracted. Truth is, I don’t. And I know it’s bad for my health, I know that, but I can’t really bring myself to do anything else but work. It feels like if I don’t I’m letting down the rest of the crew!”
“Well, it’s not like the rest of the crew has much to do right now, beside arguing over stupid shit and talking about mutiny. And to be honest, I wouldn’t really blame them if at some point they just decided to leave. I’m kind of bored too.”
Liara was about to list all the reasons why mutiny was a stupid and dangerous idea when her OmniTool beeped. It was Glyph. “Any news?”
“Something is moving in Alliance Command Doctor T’soni,” announced the VI. “There’s incoming voice and data chatter, keywords seem to be relay and Rachni .”
She looked up at Garrus and he shrugged. “Better get back inside,” he said. “Who knows what’s incoming.”
“If I can suggest, I would inform Lieutenant Moreau. He seemed pretty anxious about receiving news from the Alliance,” added the VI as they started moving towards the ladder. “And Lieutenant Cortez.”
“We will, Glyph, don’t worry,” she replied, helping a slightly tipsy and unbalanced Garrus navigating on the slick surface of the ship. He wasn’t drunk by any means, but sure his sense of balance wasn’t exactly at its peak. He would surely be in need of a lot of water to replenish the one that would be flushed out by the alcohol the next morning. Slowly, he climbed down the ladder to the makeshift platform the crew had built outside the main entrance of the Normandy and patiently waited for Liara to join him then the two walked inside. The basic VI of the ship, the one in charge of very basic tasks such as announcing who boarded or to deliver messages that had for so long been turned off as EDI would perform such tasks in a much more efficient way had been reactivated, even though its functionality was spotty at best. It hadn’t turned on when Liara had walked out the main door, but it blared at full blast when she and Garrus walked back in. Over its plain artificial voice, they heard Joker groan as he woke up with a start in his chair. “What the fuck…” he muttered, clearly disturbed and angry.
“Sorry Joker,” said Liara walking beside him. “Garrus and I were getting some fresh air and the VI decided it was a good time to announce our return,” she explained.
“Uhm, whatever… how’s the weather?” he asked, unamused.
“Cold, but it’s nice outside. I’m gonna wake Steve,” replied Garrus before he disappeared down the CIC deck towards the elevator.
“Why would he need to wake him?”
Liara knelt beside his chair as Joker ran a hand through his messy hair and replaced the cap over his head. “Glyph has picked up a spike in comms from Alliance Command, with keywords including the relays. Maybe it’s time!”
Joker’s reaction was immediate, he sat up straight and started moving hands over the console before him, flipping switches and turning knobs. “Sam?” he called softly. “Sam wake up, we need you!”
On the other side of the comm line, they heard some rustling and a groan. “What Joker?” she had just woken up, given how gravelly was her voice.
“Something is moving at Alliance Command, we need you at the comm console,” he explained.
The rustling turned into a series of thuds and grunts as she rolled out of her bunk and zipped up her heavy duty boots. “I’m coming! You guys need some coffee while I’m on the way up there?”
Joker chuckled. “I won’t say no, and I doubt Liara will.”
Twenty minutes later, the key personnel were at their posts to receive the most important message of their lives. When Hackett started transmitting his orders, everyone was ready to act.
Within the hour, the Normandy was bustling with activity and finally airborne on the way to the closest relay. Destination, Earth.
She was going crazy. She could feel her sanity slipping by the minute.
Commander Jane Shepard, the one that held it together throughout the whole war, barely and with frequent bouts of poorly managed anger you may say but still she had held it together from Eden Prime to the last suicidal dash through London, was going crazy.
Locked in her own body by some kind of injury she couldn’t understand, an injury that left her paralized except for her eyelids, and even those worked part time on their own accord, but at the same time constantly in pain all over, phasing in and out of consciousness and plagued by the most vivid nightmares she’d ever had in her whole life, she was losing it.
And there was nothing anyone could do to help her, because no matter how hard she tried to catch their attention with the ridiculously tiny movements her mauled body allowed her, either no one would notice or, when there was someone in the room, her previously functioning eyelids decided it was time for a coffee break.
It was maddening, being ignored like this. Was she just a slab of meat that they needed to keep alive as long as possible? Why couldn’t they look at her in her eyes for longer than that half second they would spend shoving that damn light in her face to check for pupillary response?
Wait, why were they checking so often? Ever since she had regained the little bit of spotty consciousness she had, they had checked for it almost around the clock multiple times a day from what she could gather. But why?
Could it be that they thought she was unresponsive due to a TBI? She remembered one of her instructors during the N7 training… something Ryder, she couldn’t remember his full name, insisting that they needed their helmet firmly secured over their heads to avoid concussions in case they got caught in explosions or fell from considerable heights, so they wouldn’t get a traumatic brain injury that would turn them into a drooling vegetable. His words.
Was that what had happened? Harbinger’s beam had pushed her back with a lot of force and the last thing she remembered before that weird dream with the ghostly kid was indeed banging her head against the rock that had stopped her fall, before more debris covered her and pinned her in place. Had she hit her head so bad that…
Goddess, no. No, it couldn’t be. Not that. Did they ignore her because they thought she was completely unconscious and they kept checking on her eye reflex to see if there were any changes in her condition?
What the fuck had they found in her that made them think she was unconscious to the point they didn’t even try to interact with her?
What the fuck had happened to her?
The waiting game had begun.
Hackett had kindly informed Ashley that he had given the greenlight to the Normandy to travel through the relays and they were expected to appear in the Sol system anytime in the next two days depending on how long it would take the crew to get the Normandy space travel ready.
Miranda was about to crack. She hadn’t been this nervous ever since the final preparations before jumping into the Omega 4 relay and again, that was about the same estimated time of waiting, only this time she wasn’t about to face a suicide mission, but the wrath of a bondmate she had willingly and deliberately lied to about the actual conditions of her loved one. She knew she was going towards something way harder than any Collector base raid, any run-in with Cerberus she had since she had defected… Liara was going to be beyond furious the moment Doctor Wilson and Doctor Wirtanen would reveal the full scope of Shepard’s injuries and conditions. Miranda knew that as soon as the word indoctrination would be introduced, she would have to bear the brunt of Liara’s wrath at being kept in the dark.
She expected mayhem, and was mentally preparing for it. She only hoped that Liara would soon concentrate her efforts on Shepard, rather than flay her with her mind. Young as she was, for an Asari, Liara’s biotics were extremely powerful and it wasn’t an exaggeration that she could actually flay someone with them and to be honest the prospect of being on the wrong end of those biotics didn’t exactly appeal to her.
A couple of hours after Hackett had confirmed that the Normandy had been greenlit to move from Zorya, she considered the idea of finding a place to hide in the facility and wait until whatever reaction Liara would have ebbed away so she could talk to her in a better state of mind, but then she could almost hear Shepard’s playful poke and prod that encouraged her to be more open, less guarded and to face her fears straight away rather than hide in the shadows and watch her life go by. It had worked with Oriana.
Damn, she was a grown woman, she could face an angry Asari, right?
That didn’t change the fact that roiling fear was twisting her gut to the point she almost felt nauseous, a sensation that wasn’t helped by the horrible taste of the rapidly cooling drink currently sitting in the mug in her hands which was supposed to be coffee but could easily be confused with dishwashing residue.
It was her turn to watch over Shepard for the night and she was trying to stay awake and work a little, but the mix of weariness and anxiety was taking a toll on her. She didn’t really want to fall asleep knowing all too well that her rest would be plagued by horrible dreams that she would definitely prefer to avoid, but also because she wanted to be awake in case the Normandy arrived. Ashley and James were asleep and they deserved all the rest they could get as they were out all day long every single day to help with the rebuilding while on the other hand Miranda spent most days and nights sitting at a desk looking at charts, programming and chugging foul coffee and stim pills until her brain couldn’t accept the caffeine anymore and shut down after a few days. It wasn’t healthy at all, but she wasn’t going to continue on such a destructive cycle for too long after the Normandy returned. She knew she couldn’t go on too long and had no intention to do so, but for the moment it would do.
It was torture, she knew it, she didn’t need anyone to tell her that she was literally torturing herself for no reason at all, she was well aware of that, but in some absurd way she felt she was somehow paying the price of her lies this way. So there she was, checking the coding of the new diagnostic software she had written for Omni-Tools for errors before she first tested it on the next nosebleed that happened in the base. What a glorious way to spend a Friday night.
Wait, was it Friday? She actually had to check her Omni-Tool integrated clock and calendar to remind herself of the date. The fact that she spent most of her days indoors in front of a computer screen chugging dishwasher residue that people called coffee didn’t help with the perception of time, at all. It was indeed Friday night, she hadn’t completely lost track of the days yet. But she had lost track of time, it was way later into the night than she had expected, almost three in the morning. Even at that late hour, sleep eluded her, there wasn’t much she could do about it at the time being, so she went back to the code.
“You know Shepard, the sooner we get you up and running the better. I miss our late night insomnia chats,” she said, mostly to herself, but deep down she was hoping that Shepard could hear her, even for just a moment, so she would know that she wasn’t alone. Who knew what was going through her head, in that jumble of messed up brainwaves that made no sense at all?
She did miss those talks though. It took them a while to warm up to each other, but during the race against the Collector they had found themselves sitting at one of the tables in mess hall in the middle of the night, sharing a mug of hot tea and a few words at first, but then those few words turned into hours spent just talking about this and that, anything they could come up with that didn’t involve the Collectors and the shit they saw every single day. They became friends very fast after that and Miranda missed those talks, she missed her friend.
With a sigh, she stretched her neck. “You know that I’m doing all of this just because I miss you, don’t you?”
Silence was the answer to her question, of course. She looked up at the monitor that showed Shepard’s vital signs on the screen and stared at the lines and numbers on it for a long, long moment. Her heart beat at a steady 32 beats per minute, the oxygen saturation was a steady 95%, up 15% from the first few days after they had found her, and blood pressure, while low, was stable. Every other parameter seemed just fine, it was just the central nervous system that was, for lack of a better word, fried.
And the crux of their current problems was finding a way to unfry it without the unlimited fundings pumped into Lazarus Project by the Illusive Man. Never in her life ever since she had left Cerberus she would have thought that she would actually miss them. Well, not them, their money, she missed their money and their resources. Not that money would help in this moment, and the resources they could provide were already been used so she couldn’t really complain but really… Lazarus Project might have been funded on blood money, but her team was beyond amazing and she missed that team, the sheer brilliance of the minds that had been gathered to make the impossible happen.
She was grateful for Doctor Wilson of course, and Doctor Wirtanen too, but they were just two and they couldn’t devote their full time to Shepard, unlike the roughly ninety people that comprised the Lazarus Project, they had to divide their attention to other patients that came and went to the facility they had put up to help with soldiers with neurological issues caused by the war. Se couldn’t really expect to make the same kind of progress they did while they were resurrecting her from the dead as fast as they did at the time.
If only they could make some progress at all though.
Changing the damaged neural bypass chip implanted in her neck had given them some improvements in neural transmittance, but not the night and day difference they were expecting. And hoping. Sure, nervous inputs moved better, but there was no sign of the brain actually computing them. They had tried to check if by lowering sedation they could get her to breathe on her own, but not even that basic impulse of drawing breath came. They tried a couple more times in the next weeks after the first attempt, but no relevant change had come. Shepard couldn’t breathe on her own, she still needed the ventilator.
She had hoped to at least reach a point that Shepard would be breathing on her own, if not some degree of consciousness already by the time the Normandy returned, but with a heavy heart she had to accept defeat and the barrage of insults and possibly powerful biotic charges that could come with the failure to achieve the objective she had set for herself.
“Jesus Christ, Shepard!” she exclaimed out of the blue. “Do you always have to do things the hard way? What do I have to do to make you wake up? Dangle a Snickers bar over your head?”
“Who knows, it might even help.”
Miranda shut her eyes tight, not daring to look up towards the entrance, to the source of the unexpected answer that had made her startle on her chair.
The Normandy had arrived, and now a very flustered, very angry Doctor Liara T’Soni stood in the doorway.
It was time to face the music.
Chapter by IllusiveWritings
I updated the rating and added some trigger warnings in the notes for some sensible topics that are touched here and will be explored more in the future. Reader discretion is advised.
I should have died there in the rubble…
Even if she couldn’t speak with all those tubes, big and small, shoved down her throat, Jane Shepard could hear the resignation in her voice inside her head. The dark tinge of despair coloring her thoughts, casting everything in the black shadow of the nightmares that by now were her only companions, both in her sleep and during the very short times she was awake and able to process what was going on around her.
She felt hollow, devoid of form and substance, an incorporeal being, just a scattered conscience incapable of the most basic human action, breathing.
Everything had been taken away from her. Her body, her mind, her agency. There was nothing left of her in the world, nothing of worth at least. Maybe her memory in the minds of her friends and family, maybe that was something that meant to them, to different extents. Perhaps there was someone out there that would remember her for what she had done, people lucky enough to be blissfully unaware of her worst moments, all the wrong decisions that by sheer luck turned out to do more good than bad… maybe they would carry a good memory of her. Her friends would have a less biased recollection of her deeds, they could bring forth her efforts towards a united galaxy.
At this point though, no matter how much she missed her, Shepard didn’t want Liara to see her like this. Could she be heard, she would ban Liara from her room, she didn’t want to be seen like this, not by Liara, not by Garrus, not by anyone that wasn’t a doctor. Even Ashley and Vega would be ousted, were it for her.
It was awkward and embarrassing. She was pretty sure she was buck naked beneath the hospital sheets and that only added to the discomfort, mostly because sometimes her fucked up nerves would misfire to the point the barest scratch of the cloth felt like someone was dragging her behind a speeding car over gravel, as if every single pointy stone was slowly picking away at her skin until it was raw and bloody. No amount of painkillers or sedatives seemed to be able to placate that pain, or so it seemed.
It seemed like there was no inbetween. It was either an ocean of numbness or the worst pain she had ever endured.
She wished she could chuckle sometimes, when the misfiring nerves finally stopped sending jumbled up messages to her brain that it couldn’t compile into something with a meaning and a purpose, because the sudden calm that followed those endless moments of agony reminded her of that one time she had actually died. She had always imagined death as something painful, a soul crushing pain that would turn into the terror of the unknown, but instead it wasn’t. It was a lonely moment, a spark that died out, a brief switch of a light and then the nothingness of the void.
Not like this. Not this painful dragging of nothingness, of growing sorrow and tears that would not come, grief she couldn’t express, pain that wouldn’t leave her be. A constant lucid dream that turned into the most dreadful nightmare with clockwork precision. The slow, inescapable fading away of sanity, the dark, dark slumber of reason when the monsters took over, when her deepest, most rooted fears dragged themselves up from her subconscious and presented themselves to her, demanding a tribute to be put to sleep once again. For a while.
The tribute was her suffering, physical and mental.
Everyone that died on the way to the defeat of the Reapers came and tortured her, poked and prodded until she gave up and relented and admitted to the shadows that she should have died in their stead. Only then they would leave her be, alone in her struggle against herself, battered, bruised, ashamed and broken beyond repair.
She would have taken a resigned breath if she could have done so, only to let out a loud wheezing sigh.
If only she could let herself go, end her own suffering on her own accord without anyone interfering… no expensive tech to revive her, no tube to force air in her lungs and food in her stomach, no chip or drug to keep her heart beating. Because that was the life she had in front of her, at least for the time being. Artificial, like half of her organs. Forced, like the oxygen in her blood. Fake, like the food that gave her sustenance.
I should have died there in the rubble… she thought again.
She fell asleep again after that, but it was a short lived nap. So short in fact, that she didn’t even have the time to have nightmares. Someone was having a very heated discussion right in her room, despite the attempts to keep voices at a reasonable volume. One was Miranda, she was sure of that, she had heard her talking to her just seconds before she had fallen asleep once again, but the other one, Shepard couldn’t really understand who the other person was, they were talking in such a way their voice came out as if from the other side of a long corridor, echoing and distorted. Until...
“You’ve got some gall Miranda!”
Wait a second… was that Liara?
“Yes, I do!” replied the former Cerberus operative. “And if you just calmed down long enough to let me explain, you would understand why I did it!”
“You had no right to keep Shepard’s conditions from me! You had no right to lie to me!”
It was definitely Liara!
Gathering all her strength, Shepard fought against her heavy eyelids to make them respond to her commands, and for once it worked. She managed to open her left eye, just a slit that allowed her to see, even if the images of her vision were blurred around the edges. Liara was at her right, at the side of the bed, her hands clutching tightly the white linens, shoulders hunched in barely contained rage, the electric purple streaks of her biotics coursing around her arms and chest. Miranda was on the other side of the bed, calm and collected but at the same time guarded, her body ready to snap and get away from danger, just in case.
God, they both looked like shit.
Liara had abandoned the elaborated lab coat she had been wearing most of the time as they tried to outsmart the Reapers in favor of a simpler attire made of the lower half of an Alliance fatigue and one of her many N7 program sweatshirt she kept in her wardrobe to fend off the cold of space. She looked tired and she had lost weight, she could see it on her face, in the slightly hollow cheeks and the dark shadows beneath her eyes, not to mention the pale skin, a far cry from the brilliant blue she was used to, it was like she hadn’t seen the light of the sun for weeks. Weren’t they on Zorya? Shepard was fairly sure she had heard Ash state that they had made contact with the Normandy and that they had crashed on Zorya, and if you stay out of the toxic areas that’s a planet that supports life, what the hell?
But then she thought about the people she saw every day, coming and going from her room, that checked on her. Everyone looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in weeks.
And in many ways, Miranda too mirrored Liara and the people coming and going, skin color aside, down to the ditching of their usual style of clothing for the spartan, rough and definitely unappealing Alliance standard clothing, ill fitting to boot. Miranda looked like she was about to collapse on the floor, death warmed over was a saying that described her pretty well.
“Listen Liara, you’re clearly very upset and you have all the rights to be, but just let us explain why we chose not to tell you!”
What the hell were they talking about?
Liara sighed, letting go of the sheets to rub her face with her palms. “Does Karin know?”
Miranda shook her head. Even from her skewed point of view Shepard could see the weariness, the absolute exhaustion that the woman was trying to hide behind her usual cool facade, opposite to Liara’s fiery anger. At what though? She still had to grasp what they were talking about. Of course it was about her conditions, Liara wouldn’t be so furious at Miranda for something Reaper related, not after so much time since they had been defeated.
That was one thing Shepard didn’t really understand though. She had heard Ash and James talk about the fact that the Reapers were gone, but they hadn’t talked about it enough in her presence for her to be sure of what had happened to them. Of course the dream she remembered having about being teleported on the Citadel, meeting Anderson and the Illusive Man… then the ghostly kid… no that was completely unrelated, something else must have happened to explain the sudden disappearance of the Reapers, too bad people still had to discuss it openly in her presence. Or at least do so when she was conscious.
“Liara, listen. You have to understand that we’re treading water with Shepard’s conditions. She’s stable now, but it was touch and go for a while. Until we moved to this facility we didn’t have the equipment to formulate a proper diagnosis and we didn’t want to give you false hopes or worse relay a wrong bleak prognosis that maybe would turn out to be wrong!”
“You could have told us the truth!”
“We don’t know the truth!” Miranda exclaimed. “We don’t know, no one here has the knowledge and the skillset to know the truth, everyone who did is dead, we made sure of it on Horizon!”
Wait, her asshole father was doing experiments on indoctrination on Horizon… Shepard thought.
What the fuck?
No, come on, it was impossible.
Did Harbinger try to indoctrinate her? Was that weird dream the attempted indoctrination? And she was reduced to that pile of hurting flesh and bones because of the damage of the indoctrination?
Well, apparently the universe just liked to add insult to injury, when it came to her.
“You keep talking about we . Who are you talking about?” Liara asked then.
“If you know about our suspects of indoctrination you must have either met Doctor Wilson or Doctor Wirtanen.”
“Yes, Doctor Wilson. She was actually there to wait for me, she said she’s Shepard’s primary provider.”
Again, Miranda nodded. “She is. She’s coordinating with Doctor Wirtanen, Shepard’s neurologist. We collectively decided not to tell you about the suspected indoctrination because we did not have enough data to be sure it was indoctrination and because we didn’t want to destroy morale on the ship.”
Liara drew a long breath, and oh how she wished she could do it too, instead of having air pumped in and out of her lungs by a machine.
“So you did it for us?” Shepard couldn't really read this last sentence from Liara. It sounded angry and defeated at the same time, as if she couldn’t stand the fact that she had been kept in the dark for who knew how long, and Shepard had to admit that she would have probably had the same reaction if roles were reversed, but at the same time Liara seemed to understand the reasoning behind the withdrawal of informations.
The Normandy crew didn’t need to know that for all its worth she was a piece of meat on a slab, they just needed to know that she was alive. On a purely medical standpoint.
“For everyone.” There she was, Miranda Lawson and her amazing pragmatism. “If rumors spread that she was indoctrinated or at the very least they tried to, how do you think the rest of the Alliance would take it?”
Shepard had to close her eye and just keep listening after that, unable to maintain control of her eyelid any longer. Damn, Miranda could be as blunt as a piece of concrete sometimes, but no matter what, she was right. Well, most of the time. In this case, as infuriating being lied to could be, she had been right. She was a symbol, and they needed to do everything they could to uphold that symbol. Shepard could be comatose, but as long as there was a chance of improvement, morale wouldn’t be as affected as if they revealed the possible indoctrination.
Shit… was that it?
If memory served her right, it could be. One detail came to her, from the conversation she had with the Rachni Queen, so many years ago on Noveria, about the oily shadows that would sing sour songs to their children, making them turn on her. Her dream had something like that, she could recall moments where the very vivid dream transformed into a less vivid and blurrier series of distorted images and echoing voices and sounds, like the dreams she had suffered through after being so close to the Reaper artifact on the asteroid in the Bahak system. And the recurring nightmares of the forest and the kid…
What if the Reapers had tried to indoctrinate her for a while and the last attempt did this because they tried too hard? She had read some literature about flash indoctrination, was it what had happened to her?
Liara interrupted her train of thoughts. “Morale would drop and all efforts to start rebuilding everywhere in the Galaxy would have paid a hefty price for it, and the crew of the Normandy would have suffered even more than the rest.”
Her bondmate could be young and at times impulsive, but in the past few years she had developed a keen understanding of some tactics used to keep the morale of troops up high.
“Exactly,” Miranda continued. “We convened it would be better to tell you all in person. I was only hoping you would have waited for the morning to come. And not because I was sleeping, just because I would have preferred that Ash and James were there, so you could have heard their point of view too. We were all agreeing on not telling you for the reasons you just listed, but I’m sure you would have been less likely to get angry if they were those .”
For a second, Shepard thought she could feel a warm, soft hand holding her right arm, running up and down the skin. It was a fleeting sensation, but it was the first time someone touched her for the sake of doing so, to comfort her, and not to examine her. Liara couldn’t know, but it was also the first time ever since she had regained a modicum of consciousness that she could feel a jab of hope that things could get better if she was patient enough.
What a turn of events, considering where her mind had wandered just a few minutes prior. And where it would surely wander again sooner rather than later, given the news about her own conditions she had just learned.
It wasn’t just a traumatic brain injury, it was worse.
“Has anyone tried melding?” Liara asked. “To try and communicate with her if beneath the indoctrination she’s still there?”
Oh that’s a good idea! Shepard thought.
“Doctor Wirtanen suggested it a couple of weeks back, when she noticed a slight normalization in brain waves when she started her neuroplasticity protocol, but we had no Asari on the team, until now.”
“Be my guest!” For the first time since Shepard had woken up, so to speak, she heard Miranda use that slightly accented lilt in her voice that always made her sound almost happy.
Shepard couldn’t wait to finally be able to communicate with Liara, to talk to her, make her know that she was still alive beneath the wounds and the scrambled brain, that she was still there, that…
But for all her expectations, she only received the worst pain she could even conceive. Like an ice pick set on fire hammered through her skull down to the back of her throat, her neck and down her spine, until her whole body was on fire, burning like a piece of wood soaked in gasoline.
I should have died there in the rubble…
I'm no doctor, let alone neurologist. It's a sci-fi context in which people can get resurrected after dying of sudden decompression in outer space. Don't think for a second that all my talks of neuroplasticity go beyond the very basic understanding of the Wikipedia page.
A distant, unknown voice echoed through the void of nothingness that was her brain in that moment, before being swallowed by the same dark empty space once again, cold and hot at the same time.
“Liara, can you hear me?”
This voice, she knew. It carried the strange and endearing Australian accent of Miranda Lawson, but it was so far away she wasn’t sure it was actually her, or just someone else that grew up in the same area of Earth. At the same time, a spark of pain coursed through her head, from the back of her neck to behind her eyes, where it turned into a dull pulsating ache.
Something cool touched her face, leaving a damp spot on her forehead and down her cheek, before being placed behind her neck where it stayed, providing both relief from the pounding headache and a slight discomfort all over her body that pulled her away from blissful unconsciousness. In the state of drowsy partial awareness, Liara felt like a low voltage electric impulse coursed through her skin, a flutter of misfiring sensations all over her body that made it had to distinguish between what was hyperstimulated nerves and actual sensation. Something had gone wrong with the meld, some kind of synaptic short circuit that severed the meld and had caused her to lose consciousness, that much she could understand even without having to ask, but what exactly had happened? At first the meld felt like it always had, a soul-deep connection to Shepard’s consciousness, a few fleeting moments of confused thoughts and sensations, then… a searing pain, comparable to a bullet shredding flesh passed through her mind and nothing else, just the void nothingness of dreamless sleep.
“Let her be, Miss Lawson.” This voice was calmer, steadier… more professional in a strange way. “Her stats are fine, she’ll come to on her own when it’s time. She took a bad blow, she needs rest.”
Could that be Doctor Chackwas?
The headache quickly started to recede to a more bearable level, but everything still felt confused and nebulous, like being confined in a dark, cramped space without the chance to orient herself. She didn’t know which way was up and which was down, if she was sitting or laying down, all her senses but her hearing were shot, and the electrical tingling on her skin didn’t seem to go away at the same speed as her headache, instead it persisted, fuelled by the rough scratching of her clothing. Pins and needles, Shepard had called the feeling she thought was experiencing now.
Wait a second…
“Shepard…” she called, her voice reduced to a whimper, foreign to her own ears.
“She’s as fine as she can be, Liara.” So it was indeed Miranda. “Can you open your eyes?”
Liara tried, managing just a slit before the white neon light hanging over her face forced her to close them again, blinded and in pain. “Light hurts.”
Something was put between her eyes and the large overhead lamp. “Try now.”
This time, it worked. From what she could understand, she was laying on a cot, with Miranda, Doctor Chackwas and another woman she had met recently hovering over her. Miranda was holding her hand up above her face to keep her from being blinded again by the bright white light hanging above her. It wasn’t ideal but it was working. “What happened?”
“You tried to Meld with Shepard,” Miranda explained while Karin checked her pulse at her wrist. The doctor’s touch, usually comforting, felt like rough sandpaper on her skin, digging into her flesh and scratching deep enough to draw blood. It hurt, but she did her best to hide the pain, realizing it was all in her head. “After about ten seconds, you dropped like someone had pulled the plug on you. You also had a seizure, which is over now, but we’d prefer to run some tests before we let you go.”
At the mention of running tests, Liara felt a lump forming in her throat, and she was sure she had done a lousy job at keeping the sudden worry and fear from flashing on her face. Miranda’s eyebrow twitching above her proved to her that she indeed had not managed to keep her emotions for herself. “How long was I unconscious?”
Karin smiled. “About two hours. We gave you a mild sedative to bring your cerebral function back to normal, the last scan showed no impaired cerebral function and a good neurological situation, it was just a transient seizure. We’ll keep you under observation for a couple of days if you allow us though. How’s your head?
Liara took a deep breath, feeling a little lightheaded as she did so, and “Could be better, but I’ve had worse headaches. I… I have no idea what happened!”
“I think I have an idea,” said the third woman above her. “Do you feel like sitting up, or at least recline a little? It would be easier without the light straight into your eyes.”
Flexing her inexplicably sore muscles, Liara felt a little stiff as she pulled herself up to a half sitting position, but nothing she couldn’t overcome. Behind her, the back of the cot was raised so she could prop herself on it and be a little more at ease. Her head spun for a couple of intense seconds and she felt slightly queasy, but it was manageable for the moment. After she got herself comfortable, she looked at the woman. “Doctor Wilson, am I right?”
She nodded. “Yes. We talked for a while on the way here. I told you about Shepard’s conditions, and I fear that what caused the seizure was indeed what afflicts the Commander, the hopefully only attempted flash Indoctrination that messed up with her central nervous system. If I’m allowed to guess, the Meld felt like a maze of short circuits and misfiring impulses, like being electrocuted.”
Liara thought about it for a moment. It wasn’t a far off comparison, but there was something else too.
“It does describe the feeling, but there was something else, like there was something trying to make sense of that mess.” The headache was making her less eloquent than she wanted, she was finding it very hard to describe what she had felt during the short but overly intense meld with Shepard. “I’m not sure if I’m making any sense myself though.”
“Not much, really. With trying to make sense of the mess, what do you mean?” asked Doctor Wilson.
Liara tried to relax, closed her eyes and drew a long breath. The pounding headache was starting to ebb into a dull ache in the back of her neck, a nuisance more than anything else, but she still felt like it would hinder her ability to form coherent ideas about what she had felt in the meld. “I don’t know, like something was fighting against the current?”
“Like conscious thoughts?” proposed Miranda, removing the wet cloth from behind her neck to soak again in a nearby basin. She wrung it and placed it back just below her crest and Liara couldn’t be more grateful for the gesture, as it brought relief both to the headache and to her clammy skin, at least where the wet cloth was placed. “As if beneath the misfiring impulses there was something more than just a scrambled nervous system?”
“I… I don’t think so,” she replied in defeat. “More like an attempt of the nervous system to heal itself. It didn’t feel like Shepard in the Meld.”
Miranda looked up at Doctor Wilson. “Maybe Lara’s protocol is working.”
Karin raised her left arm and activated her Omni-Tool, pulling up what looked like a medical chart. “How long has Shepard been on this protocol?” she asked. “It’s on the heavy side, have you thought about the possible side effects?”
“About a month now,” answered Doctor Wilson. “And yes, we’ve been monitoring hepatic and renal function multiple times a day with clockwork precision and for now everything seems in working order. It helps that half her liver and one and three quarters of her kidneys are artificial or cybernetically enhanced, that’s why the protocol is so heavy, because we know her body can handle it for now. In case things change and her organs start showing signs of fatigue, we’ll lower the dosage, but we’ve seen constant improvements in her brainwaves, at this rate in a month, maybe six weeks she could regain control of her breathing muscles and we could take her off the ventilator!”
“We’re not sure of that!” stated Miranda. “Sophie, we’ve talked about this. I know you admire Shepard and only wish to help her, but we don’t know what happened to her and if what we’re doing is going to help.” Goddess, she sounded so tired and… defeated. She wasn’t the Miranda Lawson that was hellbent on resurrecting Shepard when Liara had met her four years prior, this was another person entirely, she could barely recognize her. “What Lara devised is an extremely experimental drug protocol to enhance the innate neuroplasticity abilities of the human body, but for all we know we could be helping rewiring an empty shell!”
“What do you mean?” asked Liara.
On the opposite side of the cot she was sitting on, Karin sighed. “She means that for all they know, beneath the layer of neural damage that appears to be repairable there could not be anything of Shepard left. Unless she shows signs of consciousness beneath the paralysis, we can’t know if there’s still a Shepard to help wake up.”
Miranda nodded. “Exactly. Our theory is that the indoctrination didn’t go through all the way because from the data gathered on Horizon by my father’s group of madmen we know that the moment Reapers let go of an indoctrinated person every one of them dies. What are facing here is an active attempt of indoctrination that was somehow cut off abruptly, I guess by whatever destroyed the Reapers and half the Galaxy’s VIs. Any news on EDI?”
Liara shook her head. “Nothing worth mentioning. Specialist Traynor believes it’s a matter of processors, swapping them for working ones should revive her in her opinion.”
“Ah, good luck finding that kind of processor, we’re talking custom made quantum computing CPUs, it’s not something you find in a warzone.” With a sigh, the woman pulled at the band that kept her hair pulled in a loose ponytail and released it from the bindings. With her hair down, Miranda looked even more distraught. The usually voluminous, shiny mass of dark locks was flat and dull, and the way it framed her face made her look even paler and thinner. The dark circles under her eyes also showed that not only she hadn’t been taking much care of herself, cosmetic wise, but that she was also losing sleep on the regular. “Any news from Rannoch? Or Thessia? Palaven?”
“Thessia and Palaven are working on the cleanup and rebuilding, just like Earth,” answered Karin. “Rannoch… that’s another story though.”
“With the Geth deactivated,” interjected Liara. “They’re struggling, but you know Tali, she’s extremely creative when in need and she has managed to guide the Quarians on the planet through their own rebuilding even from the Normandy.” Suddenly, she realized the headache was gone and that the tingling sensation in her skin was subsiding too. “Where’s Shepard?” she asked them with urgency. “You didn’t leave her alone, did you?”
“Please calm down, Doctor T’Soni,” replied Doctor Wilson. “She’s in her room just down the hallway, and your friend Garrus Vakarian is with her. Don’t worry about it, she’s rarely alone, and with the Normandy finally here, I feel she’ll never be alone from now on.”
Karin chuckled. “You can bet on it, Lieutenant Cortez has already organized a shift rotation for a bedside detail for the next two weeks, and everyone on the ship pitched in, even Joker.”
Removing the wet cloth from behind Liara’s neck, Miranda chuckled and soaked it again in the bowl, handling it straight to her so she could use it as she saw fit after having wrung it of the excess water. “I’m not surprised at all.” She drew a long breath, and it sounded ragged and struggling. “Now, Liara… you should rest for a while, but I know from personal experience that you’re going to want to stay at Shepard’s side at all times. If you don’t mind though, Karin and Sophie here would run a couple of tests more on you before letting you go, and I would advise you to let them do so, just to stay on the safer side. What happened to you was scary, whatever happened had also repercussions on Shepard because both of you had a tonic-clonic seizure that we weren’t really ready to face, we got caught a little off guard and we’d prefer to check if you’re alright, even though you look fine now, we don’t know if there are going to be long lasting effects, or other side effects we should expect later.” Again, that lump of fear formed in Liara’s throat as she listened to Miranda, and she had to work double time to school her body language and facial expression not to show the sudden worry gripping her lungs and stomach, and chilling her to the bone. “Karin was talking about a complete blood work and a CT scan of your central nervous system, just to be sure.”
She shook her head, clenching her fists as she tried to keep her feelings for her, not to show them. “I’m fine Miranda. I appreciate you worrying about me, but I'm fine, I just need to see her, whatever happened will fade, it’s already going away now.”
“It will take an hour at most,” said Karin, her doctor’s voice kicking in. “Shepard is fine and well cared for, she’s not alone, you don’t have to worry about her for now. Just let us be sure that you are in good shape.”
Liara found herself twisting her fingers around the hem of the hoodie, low on her abdomen and quickly let go of that hoping no one would notice that sign of nervousness. “Karin, I’ll be fine. I just need to see Shepard and stay with her.” Her voice was cold and sharp as a knife, she knew she was sounding ungrateful and mean to them, but if there was something she didn’t want to do was wasting time with tests she didn’t need. She was well aware of her current conditions, she didn’t need to run through a series of tests to know. She was fine and she’d be fine as long as she stayed with Shepard.
Karin and Doctor Wilson tried to convince her some more, but contrary to her expectations, Miranda just agreed with her. With a chuckle and mirthless smile, she agreed. “Come with me then.” She offered her hand and Liara grabbed it as fast as she could, grateful for the kindness. Miranda helped her sit up and onto her feet. “Just promise us that if you feel unwell you’re going to tell us, we’ll run those tests only if you feel sick, deal?”
Liara nodded. “Deal.”
Icy dread coursed through her veins as Miranda led Liara to Shepard’s room, cold tentacles wrapped around her stomach as the shadow of suspect clouded her judgment as she tried to decide if it was the right moment to confront Shepard’s bondmate or let it go and let her come forward on her own… but damn… if it was true, if she was right…
Usually Liara was much more composed in her mannerism, that made her extremely hard to read, but the stress and the fatigue of the past months, if not years, had torn the wall she had built around her feelings and what crossed her mind, everything showed on her face and her body language. The moment they had mentioned additional tests to make sure whatever happened when she had tried to meld with Shepard hadn’t done any damage other than the minor seizure that had lasted ten seconds tops, she had startled, her face twisted in a scared grimace and her hands had clenched the lower hem of the N7 sweatshirt she was wearing.
It could be just a figment of her imagination, the product of the poor reasoning of a brain that hadn’t had a moment of respite in years, and yet…
She had to be sure, she had to know if that crazy idea flurrying in her mind was true or just a figment of her imagination, if she was still a good a judge of character or if her over caffeinated and sleep deprived brain was fried too.
Catching even herself by surprise, she snatched Liara by her wrist and pulled her inside an empty room, shutting the door behind them and standing between the Asari and the door, making sure she couldn’t leave.
“How far along are you?!”
It wasn’t really a question, more a statement. Everything depended on Liara’s reaction.
And she froze in place, terror twisting her face and dulling the little light that still shone in her eyes as her fingers twitched again grasping the lower hem of Shepard’s sweatshirt, as if to protect something.
Or if Miranda was correct, someone .
“I… I don’t know what you mean,” Liara stammered, her voice unsteady and quivering.
“Listen, I don’t want to know the details,” said Miranda, bluntly. “I just want a straight answer. Did you refuse the tests Karin wanted to perform because you think you’re pregnant and you didn’t want her to know? Or me for the matter?” Liara swallowed and opened her mouth, but said nothing. “I won’t judge. It’s hardly my place to. But if I read you right and I’m not hallucinating, we’re talking about Shepard’s daughter, and that makes the timetable we set for her possible recovery a lot less loose than anticipated.”
“You think there’s a chance she can wake up?”
Miranda gave her a curt nod, trying to steel her face to appear as resolute as she could in front of a distraught bondmate. “I did bring her back from the dead once, didn’t I? I’m not letting Reapers take her like this. She fought too long and too hard to let them win like this. But if you’re pregnant, that gives us a lot less time to work on that. We need to speed things up quite a bit.”
“What do you mean?”
“That there’s no way in the galaxy or beyond it that I’ll let Shepard still be comatose when her daughter is born. I want her to at least sit up with enough strength in her arms to hold her. That’s what I mean!”
At that, Liara visibly relaxed, her shoulders sagged forward and covered her face with her hands. “I don’t know,” she murmured, again voice broken and on the verge of tears.
Miranda moved away from the door and closer to her. “You don’t know?”
She rubbed her face harshly with her palms and shook her head. “No, I mean… I think I am I… Shepard and I melded one last time before the final charge to Harbinger and I think I went too deep enough, enough to… you know… and I…” She drew a deep breath and started pacing up and down the storage room, fingers twisting and turning at the hem of the shirt once again, until she noticed she was doing it again and suddenly stopped, shoving them in the front pockets of the hoodie for good measure. “I fucked up.”
It was almost funny, watching the usually calm and collected Liara T’Soni, the Shadow Broker in person, flustered and on the verge of panic. If only the circumstances were happier…
“I had no idea your species could fuck up .”
“Neither did I, but also I’m barely out of teenage by my species' standards and Shepard was my first and only partner. If I actually got pregnant during that last meld, I didn’t do it on purpose. It was meant to be just a moment between ourselves before facing certain death, not a mating meld! Goddess, my mother would kill me if she was still alive.”
Miranda felt a pang of guilt in the middle of her chest, for forcing the young Asari’s hand like this. “Liara, calm down,” she said, making sure her voice was low and soft as she could. She even let go of the little effort she consciously made every time she spoke to tone down her accent to make sure she sounded as sincere as she wanted to appear. “I didn’t mean to cause you more distress than what you’re already experiencing, I’m really sorry, it was uncalled for. But you have to understand that you can’t keep something like this to yourself for much longer.”
“I have time before it’s going to be obvious,” she replied. “Asari pregnancies last fifteen Earth months, not just nine.”
“I’m aware of that,” quipped back Miranda. “But you need to take care of yourself. That was what I meant. Slow down, get some rest and start eating regularly. You have lost weight since last I saw you.”
With a sigh, Liara sat on a crate of meds and folded her legs to her chest, hugging her knees. “Miranda, I don’t know if I’m pregnant, what good would it do? With Shepard in that state, who cares how long I sleep or if I eat more? You don’t look like you’re following your own advice!”
“Well for starters I can’t get pregnant even if I want to and you’re very well aware of that!” It hurt so much to mention her planned infertility that it made her voice crack, but she needed to go beyond her own struggles and prove a point. “Also, there’s room for only one woman on a self destructive tangent in order to take care of Shepard, and that would be me!”
Liara looked up at her, still hiding half of her face behind her crossed arms. Her eyes were a mix of different emotions, but the one that stood out the most to Miranda was the confusion crushing her soul. A feeling she knew very, very well. “Shepard would kick our butts if she heard us now,” she said. “For different but incredibly similar reasons.”
“Yeah… she’d be royally pissed if she saw us bickering like this. But trust me Liara, she’d be very worried about you if she knew you could be pregnant, and she’d want you to get checked before you went to see her.”
“I know… we had talked about that, you know? For after the war. She seemed rather into the idea of having children, I don’t know if she was serious or if it was just a fantasy she was making up to keep her mind off the ongoing war, but she spoke about that often.”
Miranda felt a smile grow on her face. “I can totally imagine that.” She walked towards Liara and sat on the crate beside her. “She talked a lot about you, you know? While we were chasing the Collectors, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone happier than Shepard the day we walked into your office on Ilium, she was walking on the Moon, if you excuse the old Earth saying.”
“Yeah, she could barely hold her enthusiasm, I noticed…” she replied with a chuckle, lost in the memories for a moment. “She told me you didn’t really hit it off the right way, too.”
“Yes, we headbutted on a lot of topics, but nothing we couldn’t get over with a few late night conversations in the mess hall. How could she do what she did with so little sleep still baffles me to be honest. I’m a chronic insomniac and there are times I need to go to pharmacological means to sleep, but even I actually manage to rest more than three or four hours per night. How could she sleep so little and still be so deadly on the battlefield, I’ll never know.”
“Same. But no matter what, she always manages to make it work…” Liara took a deep breath. “You think I should get a blood work done?”
Miranda nodded, running her palm over the Asari’s shoulder. “If not for the possible pregnancy, for the seizure. It lasted just a few seconds, but it was scary. I’d be less worried if we knew whether that seizure caused anything that could be life threatening, or even just mildly bothersome.”
“I feel fine though…”
“I know,” said Miranda. “But it’s better to be safe than sorry. I don’t really want to see you as a patient of this facility. We have enough neurologically impaired soldiers to cure as we have now.”
There was a long pause that felt like it lasted a century, but it seemed like she had managed to convince Liara. “Alright, I’ll do it. At one condition though. Karin does the test, and if I’m really pregnant, no one says a word. It stays between you, me and her. Can you promise me no one but us will know, in case it turns out positive?”
Miranda nodded again. “I swear. No one will hear a word about it from me, but I urge you not to keep it a secret for too long. Tali may hold a grudge on you for not telling her right away.”
That tore a short but sincere smile from Liara. “If she hasn’t guessed on her own.”
“Ah well, she’s a good judge of character too, and she had you under her eye for longer than I have. Who knows…” Miranda drew a long breath and felt Liara leaning against her, looking for comfort she wasn’t really sure she could provide, but would try her best. “Mind if I ask you something a little personal?”
Liara chuckled. “You already figured out I could be pregnant, how more personal do you want to get?”
“I’m not an expert in Asari biology by any means, I just know the very basics, but don’t you have physiological symptoms that the meld actually worked?”
She nodded. “We do, but it’s more subtle than humans from what I understand. More experienced Asari know for sure from the start if it worked or not, it’s a matter of experience I guess, but most of the time after a couple of months one should start to experience a feeling of restlessness accompanied by random bouts of fatigue throughout the day, and I’ve had all of those for about a month now. But you know what also causes that?”
“Stress…” Miranda sighed. “But what do you think happened?” she asked then. “What do you feel?”
“That it worked.” There was little to no hesitation in her voice, despite the slight tremor that tinged her words. “I swear I had no intention to get pregnant, it just happened!”
“Hey, no one is going to be mad at you for that! Quite the contrary I believe. And I’m sorry I came at you so aggressively, it wasn’t my intention to scare you. But you have to understand that while we’re doing our best to put Shepard back together, there’s still a chance that we won’t be able to, and after what happened when you tried to meld, well… the odds aren’t in our favor.”
“I know,” Liara replied softly. “But you’re trying, and that’s what matters most. Whatever happens, we’ll make it work. We always do, after all.”
“We’re a little short on credits, but hey, at least we have medigel, that’s already a good start!” Miranda tried to put some levity in her voice, but she feared she had failed. Despite that, Liara laughed again, so she hadn’t failed that bad. “Come on now, let’s get that blood work done, Karin was worried about some kind of enzyme floating in your blood that could lead to neurological issues down the line.”
Needless to say, Karin was furious that Liara had failed to mention the possibility that she could have been pregnant all this time, and she gave her an earful of that righteous rage. Also, she loudly complained at her own ineptitude to catch the symptoms while she had her under her watch on the Normandy every single day for three months. In any case, she agreed to Liara’s terms of secrecy and then proceeded with drawing the blood sample to test.
It only took one arched eyebrow from the older, much experienced doctor to finally learn the truth.
The test came back positive.
When Miranda actually guided her back to Shepard’s room, Liara felt slightly queasy. She wasn't sure why, but suddenly, she felt like she didn’t belong there. Worse even, she was scared. Scared of what she would be told, of what would be withheld from her, scared of how she would find Shepard given the chance to spend more time with her. She had looked so frail on that bed, pale and hooked up to so many tubes and cables she looked more like an open computer than a human being. For that reason, she stalled in front of the closed door for a long moment, rocking on her feet with her hand hovering halfway between her body and the holobutton that would make the door slide open in front of her.
“Are you alright, Liara?” Miranda asked behind her.
Shaking a little, she nodded. “Yes I’m… I’m just a little worried. What if I touch her again and we both have another seizure?”
“I doubt it will happen if you don’t try to initiate a meld. Go ahead, you’ll be fine. Both of you, I promise. Doctor Wirtanen got the seizures under control, she’s as alright as she can be now.”
“You talk about Shepard like she’s going to wake up any minute now!” Liara exclaimed, suddenly infuriated. “And from what I saw she looks more dead than alive! How can you say that she’s fine? She’s anything but fine!”
Miranda, sighed. “Listen Liara, I’m trying to keep an optimistic view on her conditions, just that. I know she doesn’t look fine , but for now, her body is still working. Her heart is beating without a pacemaker, her digestive system is working, hepatic function is close to perfect and her kidneys do not show any sign of fatigue with all the medications we’re giving her. Those are great signs on their own, it means there’s still hope,” she explained. “We saw improvements in these months, they’ve been minor, but it looks like her brain function is on its way to normalization and the pharmacological protocol seems to be increasing the rate of self repair her central nervous system is capable of doing. It’s going to take time Liara, and it’s going to be frustrating, but she’ll wake up. I promise you.”
“You sound so sure about yourself, how do you do it?”
The woman smiled, the kind of crooked, bittersweet smile that made Liara realize how much pain Miranda was hiding behind the stoic facade. “Fake it until you make it, that’s how I do it. Now go inside, I’m sure whatever is happening inside Shepard’s brain, if there’s still just an ounce of her consciousness hidden beneath the attempted indoctrination, I’m sure she’ll appreciate being close to you again. Just trust yourself, and have faith in her. She’ll find a way back to you. She always does, doesn’t she?”
Miranda’s softer side was a new and welcome addition to her personality, Liara had to admit it. She had a nurturing side she had never thought she would possess, instead it was just buried deeper than anyone but Shepard had managed to reach. Oh well, it was indeed a sight for sore eyes. “One way or another… I’ll go see her now, thank you. For everything.”
She shrugged. “Anytime. Go inside. I think Doctor Wirtanen is still there. She wants to talk to you.”
When the door opened, Liara found Garrus and Vega quietly chatting on either side of Shepard’s bed, the Turian recounting the many months they had spent on Zorya and what kind of damage they had to repair on the Normandy, and how long they had to wait for even just take off and try sub-orbital flight before the Alliance Command gave them permission to actually turn on the drive core. She almost didn’t recognize the burly soldier, who now sported a rather crude buzzcut and a long, unchecked beard. He still wore two sizes too small clothes, but he himself looked like he had shrunk two sizes. Still huge, compared to the average size of a human male, and yet thinner. Way thinner than she expected.
“...So here we are, just sitting on our asses waiting for permission to fly and… hey, speak of the devil, Liara’s here! It’s good to see you on your feet!”
James stood and quickly walked towards her, hugging her tight. “Hey Doc! It’s so good to see you awake!” He sounded genuinely concerned. “I was expecting to find you guys a little worse for wear, but straight up unconscious? It’s not the way to greet a friend!”
“Believe me Lieutenant, it wasn’t my intention. How are you holding up here?”
He gave her a shrug. “Like this. Low on everything but with spirits high enough. I don’t do much these days other than do the honor guard to the Commander here, but with you finally back on Earth, my duties will likely be diminished and I’ll find myself something else to do. A hospital isn’t much of a place for a marine, but without a war to wage, finally, I can take time off fighting and be useful elsewhere.”
Liara smiled, briefly. “That’s good to hear, Lieutenant.”
“James. Please, call me James. We’ve won a war impossible to win together, we’re past formalities.”
“Alright, James then. Do you mind if I sit for a moment? Miranda said I would find Doctor Wirtanen here, is she?”
He moved so she could walk towards the chair he had previously been occupying. “She went to get some coffee, she should be here any minute now. Your arrival was a bit unexpected, most of us were asleep when news came the Normandy had landed, we’re all short on sleep.”
“It’s alright, don’t worry.” She dragged the chair closer to Shepard’s bed and cautiously took her hand in both of hers. It warm and softer than she remembered, the thick calluses on the palms and fingers from years of handling heavy guns had nearly disappeared, while the knuckles, roughened by all the hours of working out at the punching sack, still wore signs of worn, slightly tougher than the rest of her hand. It was a marvel, how much things could change in a span of time that for her was barely more than a breath.
Beneath the strong, bright neon light, Shepard looked like an entirely different person. The part of her face that was visible, not hidden behind the plastic harness tied behind her head that held the tubes shoved down her throat in place, it was gaunt and pale, the hue of her skin not much dissimilar from the stark white of the pillowcase beneath her. In contrast, despite the dullness of infirmity, her hair was still the same fiery red she remembered, just… a lot longer. Another difference Liara hadn’t accounted for, when she had imagined that moment while they were on Zorya waiting for permission for take off.
“She’s fine, Liara,” said Garrus, breaking the silence. “The seizures have stopped. Doctor Wirtanen gave her some medication I don’t remember, and she’s all quiet now, back to before. She’s as fine as she can be, given the circumstances. She’s in good hands.”
“I know, it’s just… I can’t help but feel like I caused it. What if she suffered? What if my attempted meld caused her pain?”
He leaned forward and gently grasped Shepard’s other hand, careful not to jostle the IV line sticking from its back. “You can’t know that. Don’t take it personally, it will destroy you. It’s better to think that she was sedated and felt nothing, rather than ruminate on it. She’s quiet now, that’s all that matters.”
In that moment, the door slid open and Miranda entered, followed by a stocky woman with short blonde hair and a white labcoat over an Alliance issue uniform. Both of them held two cups of coffee each. Miranda handed one to James, who nodded in thanks and quickly gulped probably half of the steaming liquid, while the other woman walked towards the bed, stopping at the foot where a removable table was in place, and placed one cup on it before handing the other one to Liara. “Good morning, Doctor T’Soni. I’m Doctor Lara Wirtanen, Commander Shepard’s neurologist.” She spoke with a thick accent Liara had never heard and her last name sounded even more alien, but her voice was calm and inspired trust, giving comfort only by the way she spoke to the person she was addressing. They shook hands. “I also aided Doctor Chakwas with your own little problem, a few hours before. Before we start talking about Shepard’s therapy prospects, could you please tell me how you feel?”
Liara felt almost like the human medic had wrapped a thick, warm blanket around her with her considerate words. “I’m… I’m still not back to the top of my form, but I feel a lot better than when I woke up. The tests Karin put me through turned all out fine, she said I just need to take it easy for a couple of days, or until I feel under the weather.”
A couple steps behind Doctor Wirtanen, Liara noticed Miranda roll her eyes for a quick, fleeting moment at the careful avoidance of the world positive when she had described the results of the tests, and she had a hard time not to throw the human a look just as annoyed and short lived, almost a joke between themselves, that was no joke at all.
The doctor nodded. “I’m glad. Plenty of rest and liquids will do wonders. I’d stay off caffeinated drinks for a while though, you know, your brain got through quite an excitement just a few hours ago. No need to jumpstart it back into action.” Liara made the gesture to hand her cup to James, who seemed eager to drink that one too, but the doctor stopped her. “And don’t worry, it’s decaf.”
“Ah, thank you. That’s very kind of you!”
She shrugged. “I dropped caffeine a long time ago, I just like the taste, so decaf it is for me. Now, allow me to explain what my limited knowledge of Reaper tech and indoctrination made me theorize what happened to the Commander. From what I understood, Indoctrination is a process the Reapers used to force us organics to do their bidding. It could be gradual and would allow the person to keep a semblance of personality, making them hard to detect when they mingled in society, but still they’d be operating on behalf of the Reapers. Also, it can be incredibly quick, but that renders the organic being in question more of a husk used as a proxy to conclude a task in a short time. I think what happened to Shepard was a mix of both.”
“Is that even possible?” asked Garrus.
“We think it is. The data you have recovered on Horizon, though despicable in the ways they were obtained, were invaluable to understand what we had in front of us when we moved to supportive care to an actual prospect of therapy. What we think happened is that Shepard has been the subject of attempted indoctrination for a while and has always resisted one way or another, and at some point, the Reapers got fed up with her resistance and tried an accelerated version. The reason they tried to indoctrinate her though, that’s a mystery I don’t think we’ll be ever able to solve and will forever remain speculative theory.”
Behind her, James barked a sarcastic laugh. “I told you Doctor, they got beef with her. Having Shepard doing their bidding would have been the perfect revenge, after she had thwarted their invasions not once, but twice!”
“Hey, you got an actual functioning brain inside that thick head of yours?” joked Garrus. “I thought it served the only purpose to keep your ears separated!”
“What can I say, not everyone can be handsome and smart at the same time, Scars!”
Everyone chuckled, before Doctor Wirtanen commanded their attention once again. “What does that mean for us? It means that we are seeing both signs of flash indoctrination and over time indoctrination in the way the brain is currently behaving.” She pulled up her Omnitool and projected a large chart over the wall. “See here? This is a normal electroencephalogram on a healthy person of the Commander’s age. Here’s the first EEG Doctor Wilson took when she was rescued,” with a flip of her finger another graphic, way less regular than the first, superimposed on the first, highlighted by a different color so they could see both graphs on all four lines. “But here, is yesterday’s EEG.” Another one appeared, and it looked like a more regular, less asymmetric and random version of the second. Nothing even remotely close to the normal one, but not as messy or unintelligible. “See these waves here? The top and third line? Those are the lines that look more damaged, and they are those that command , in very layman terms, conscious movements. Those were damaged by the flash indoctrination. Second and bottom though, they are vastly more regular and less damaged than the others, and those are… I won’t say intact, but less damaged. And they are improving quicker than the rest, but that’s to be expected, they control unconscious movements and processes, like heartbeat, digestion and such. Much simpler processes, but nevertheless essential for life.”
Liara felt more confused than before, but neurology and more specifically xenobiology weren’t exactly her forte. “And how does that help you?”
“It helps us understanding the kind of damage her brain has sustained and if… or in our case how, help her repair itself,” she explained. “You see, for the longest time, we thought that the central nervous system was impossible to repair, once it got broken in any way it was done for. Until we discovered a class of drugs that actually gave the brain, neurons and nerves the materials to repair themselves, the only issue is that it’s an incredibly long process. We made giant leaps in the past months and I’m confident her breathing motor pathways will be healed so she can breathe on her own sooner rather than later for example. For a long while I thought her brain and spinal column had somehow detached , but from what I saw since we started the neuroplasticity aid protocol, the kind of improvements we saw makes me think that nothing is physically severed, some connections are just turned off , and something that is turned off can be repaired and turned on again. What bugs me though, is the fact that we can’t know for sure, with a jumbled EEG like this, if there’s still conscious thought.”
“So she could be brain dead?”
“Possible, but highly improbable. You see, brain dead patients tend to have a number of symptoms that go beyond the coma. One of them is heart failure. Her heart hasn’t stopped beating once, since we replenished the liquids and the electrolytes were balanced once again. From that point of view, she’s as healthy as she can be, so I’m confident that she isn’t brain dead. But I wouldn’t exclude locked in syndrome.”
“And what is it?” Garrus seemed even more eager to know what had happened to Shepard and what the prognosis was. It shouldn’t have really surprised her after all, those two were like brother and sister, their friendship was so tightly knitted sometimes Liara felt a little jealous, despite knowing she absolutely had no reason to be.
“It’s an altered state of consciousness where the person is conscious, can feel, hear and perceive what goes on around them but can’t interact with the world around them, be it because they are in a vigilant coma or because their movements are severely impaired.”
“How long can a person live like this?” This time it was James that asked the question.
Both Miranda and Doctor Wirtanen shrugged. “With the proper care, indefinitely. But we should consider quality of life. Our primary goal is to get Shepard to a stage where her life will be, if not completely back to normal, at least worth living. But it’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of patience and a lot of support on your part. We usually keep a very light sedation going on, in order to avoid rejections of the breathing apparatus and the nasogastric tube, cyclically putting her down to sleep deeper in order to simulate a regular circadian rhythm in the hope regulal rest would encourage the brain to heal itself. For now, it seems like it’s working. It’s a painfully slow process, but it’s going.”
“You think the seizure could have harmed this process?” asked Liara.
“It’s still unclear.” The neurologist spoke with pragmatic sincerity, Liara felt no need to distrust her words in that moment. “The EEG we took during showed nothing more than a tonic clonic seizure, the classic signs of an epileptic attack in a sensitive person. It’s scary, but if treated correctly it is not even remotely life threatening. What worried me were the subsequent seizures of minor intensity but longer duration. She’s currently deeply sedated with a mix of drugs that not only serve the purpose of keeping her asleep, but also will reduce the insurgency of further seizures. To err on the safe side, Doctor Wilson and I decided to maintain the deep sedation for seven days from today, starting to wean her off it on the fourth.”
“Why such a precise timetable?” asked Miranda.
“Admiral Hackett has informed us that her mother will be arriving on Earth in a week’s time. I served under Admiral Shepard two years ago as the ship’s medic and I have to tell you, I don’t have the heart to keep her daughter deeply sedated as a precaution for something we can treat with lighter drugs. Just in case we see a miracle and she wakes up. Or at least gives us a sign that she’s still with us.”
With a deep sight, Liara looked back at Shepard. It was weird, despite the clear signs of illness, the dark circles around the eyes, all the medical instruments sticking from her body, she looked serene. As if she was finally taking the long rest she needed after fighting tooth and nail every single day of the better part of the year against the Reapers. Doctor Wirtanen had been cautious with her previsions, but she looked optimistic enough to infuse the spark of hope that one day, if she was patient enough, she’ll see Shepard open her eyes and she would once again bask in the warmth of those deep green pools where every single day Liara could read nothing but love, devotion and determination.
It was true, what Miranda had said about Shepard always finding a way back to her. She had done it multiple times, from coming back from the dead to coming to save her from a Cerberus raid on Mars and then again surviving the impossible oceanic depths in their research of Leviathan, barely months prior to the end of the war.
And now that they were reunited, Liara couldn’t do much more than hope for the best and assist the medics the only way she could, by funneling money and resources through her channels and contacts as the Shadow Broker towards the hospital, and by patiently vigil at her bedside.
Oh, and of course, by keeping their daughter safe the best she could.
At that point, there wasn’t much else to do.
Just another waiting game. This time, hopefully, to something more substantial than liftoff and relay travels.
The next time she came to the few senses that worked still, Shepard felt like she was floating in a shallow pool of water, warmth gently lapping at her body, like laying on a tropical beach where the sea met the sand at sundown. She didn’t feel bad, she just didn’t… feel at all. Nothing of great importance at least. She wasn’t in pain, not any more than before the last time she lost consciousness, everything was just quiet. Very quiet, both in her body and in her head. Curiously, for once her head didn’t hurt, and that was the part of her that usually hurt the most and more often. Given the splitting headache she remembered when Liara tried to meld with her, the missing migraine was a welcome surprise.
Wait a second…
Liara was there. She distinctly remembered seeing her at her bedside, hearing her talking to Miranda about…
Shit. So that's what had turned her into a boiled potato with a heartbeat. She would have laughed, if it hadn't been for the tube jabbed down her throat, and by the way, that still hurt. How could she be so damn blind and not feel the effects? She had read the literature ever since it started to pop up after Sovereign tried to open up the gates for the rest of the Reapers and they had blown it off to space junk. More reports of indoctrination turned up on her desk as weeks passed. She had watched the logs from the Cerberus ship at the site of the Derelict Reaper… she had been close to Reaper artifacts multiple times for long periods of time, it added up after all.
So it wasn't just a dream. That… vision of being teleported on the Citadel, Anderson and the Illusive Man… it was all a plot the Reapers came up with to induce her to choose the option that allowed them to survive. And instead she had just shot the thing away. The moment the ghostly kid had told her that by destroying that power conduit she’d destroy the Reapers, it was a no brainer. She shot it, and the dream disappeared.
What the hell had happened?
Did the Reapers actually entrusted her with their survival? After everything she had done to fight them off? They were really so sure of themselves to think that they’d be able to convince her to do something else rather than destroy them? Jesus Christ, they were either the cockiest bastards in the whole Galaxy or the biggest morons. The two other options they offered could have tempted her if she hadn’t seen how gruesome and horrifying synthesis could be with David Archer when she had been sent to stop the Overlord Project when it had gone FUBAR, and the even more terrifying prospect of control she had witnessed and once again torn down on Sanctuary. No, they weren’t viable options. From a certain point of view, synthesis was appealing though, the idea to merge organics and synthetics in a better version of both, but it felt just not… right. It would have been a violation of everyone’s right to self determination, forcing evolution into a biomechanical being without their consent. And control… the Reapers and their tech were just too complex for the human mind, she was sure she’d never manage to actually control them, she feared she’d be wiped away in a matter of seconds, if not minutes. Also, how the hell would that even work?
To be completely honest with herself, she didn’t even want to know. And she didn’t want to let the Reapers win, because no matter how she looked at it, if the Reapers survived, they won. Also, she had the suspect they had blatantly lied when they had told her that all non-organic life would perish, if she decided to destroy them. She was alive, though barely, and she had extensive implants that kept her alive, implants that were absolutely critical for her survival, so many in fact that once Miranda had joked that she was more Geth than human. hey all still worked. They had never stopped working, and the one that had to be switched for a new one had mechanical damage, not electronics, according to what Miranda had said after the surgery.
All she wanted were the Reapers gone, for good. Had they been destroyed? From what she had gathered from the conversations around her, yes, with no possibility of them returning, ever. They were nothing more than heaps of metal and circuitry to be used as scraps and spare parts in the rebuilding process, and that was the most important thing. Anything that had been destroyed in the process could be rebuilt. The rest didn’t matter.
Damn, what a way to wake up after who knew how long. It was strange though, she felt almost better . Not in good shape, by any means, but at least her body wasn't on fire or her head didn't feel like a Yaagh was trying to open her skull with its bare hands to eat her brain for dessert. Usually, when she woke, it was either one or the other. On her worst moments it was both at the same time, those were the days and night she truly wished she was dead or could put an end to that miserable semblance of life only to escape the pain, so bad it was. It made her nauseous at times, but her body refused to allow her even the weird satisfaction of throwing up to relieve some stress.
Now it was almost bearable. She was still trapped in her own body, prisoner of an injury she had never seen coming and hoped those around her would understand sooner rather than later, but for now, there was way less pain, just the warm feeling of floating in the sea, basking in sunlight. And from her personal perspective, that was a positive development. A very positive development, if she had to judge.
Shepard could only hope that it was a permanent thing, and that the next time she fell asleep and woke up she wouldn’t revert to her previous state of constant pain and confusion, because right now, for the first time in she had no idea how many weeks if not months, she felt like there was a sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, she would pull through. She was willing to latch on to such a small improvement in order to feel something other than the pitch black abyss of despair she had made her own home since she had regained the little conscience she was allowed by her injury.
Yeah, this was definitely, infinitely better than before.
And she just lay there, not even trying to open her eyes for the time being, basking in the warmth. Was that central heating or had someone opened a window and that was actual sunlight? It didn’t matter. It felt good. And she’d take anything good that happened to her without questioning.
Shepard had no idea how long she just stayed there, doing nothing and just… being, before she heard some movement in the room. The door swishing open, and light footsteps walking in.
“Hey Liara.” That was Tali. “How are you doing?”
Oh, Liara was in her room? What was she doing?
“Hey, I’m fine.” She didn’t sound fine. She sounded completely wiped. “Any news?”
“Not yet. Here, I brought you some tea. Miranda said you’d appreciate it more than coffee.”
Oh, that was true. As of Earth foods and drinks went, Liara was much more of a tea person, than coffee. She had a sweet tooth and the bitterness of coffee didn’t really satisfy her that much, and apparently Asari weren’t that susceptible to caffeine so there wasn’t even that, so tea it was for her, most of the time. “Thank you, Tali.”
“Have you slept?”
No response. Shepard could picture Liara smiling and shaking her head.
“That’s the second night in a row you spend with her,” Tali went on. “I know they have weaned the deep sedation off, but there’s no need to lose your sanity waiting for something that may be too far ahead down the road. Anyone of us will call you the moment we saw any change in her, positive or negative.”
“I know Tali… but think about it. If it was Garrus on that bed, would you bear it, staying away from him even just for a few hours?”
So… that’s what was happening. She had been deeply sedated for some reason and now she wasn’t anymore. For some other reasons. And Liara was at her bedside, waiting for her to wake up. Well, had roles been reversed, she would have done the very same after all, she couldn’t really tell her to get away and get some sleep, it would be extremely hypocritical on her part. What was the news she had been waiting for and asked Tali about though?
“What time is it?” asked Liara after a moment of silence.
“Just about eight in the morning, according to Earth’s time. And it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful sunny day.”
“It does. And you know, I’m happy this room faces east. With the dust from the war finally settling down, some sun will do her good.”
Oh, so that was the warmth she felt, it wasn’t the central heating! Well, that was another nice change of pace. For God knew how long she had only been able to feel a slight tingling sensation on her limbs, being able to feel temperature on her skin was almost groundbreaking.
What the fuck had happened?
“I kind of wish I could experience it myself,” said Tali. “Last time I tried, I had to take antibiotics for two weeks.”
“Oh I remember. You know, there’s a saying here on Earth, a good beginning bodes well , and if I have to predict how today will go, it looks like it won’t be that bad, don’t you think?”
“It does look like it’s going to be a good day. How is she doing?”
“Quiet night, just like the past week.” So, it had been at least a week since the Normandy had arrived. That much Shepard could surmise on her own. Now… why had she been deeply sedated? What happened when Liara tried to Meld? “Doctor Wirtanen says there were no lasting complications from the seizure, and that’s good news.”
Seizure? She had a seizure? Was that the headache she remembered?
She had seizures in the past, she remembered her mother telling her that when she was a baby she had febrile seizures and that made her pediatrician suspect she was epileptic, but she had grown it out by the time she was five and it had never happened again. Well, maybe once more, but it was most likely the Prothean beacon wreaking havoc in her head rather than a true to definition seizure. That was a migraine she’d remember for all her life, that was sure.
Only then, she realized that thinking had become easier. It didn’t hurt nearly as much, and her mind and memory were much clearer than before. Liara was right, that day was indeed good for her.
The door opened again and this time, heavier steps came in. “Hey Doc, Sparks.” That was James. “I’m heading down to town to pick up some supplies, need anything?”
Yeah, I’d love a cup of hot cocoa with marshmallows… Shepard thought.
“What kind of supplies are we talking about?” asked Tali.
“Anything I can get my hands on. We’re picking up dextro rations for you and Scars, but we’ll be stocking up on other things too. Name it, I’ll try to get it if the shipment from Alliance Command sent it. I’m going with Ash, she’ll get first dibs as a Spectre.”
Ah, finally she’s taking advantage of it!
“To be honest James, I’m fine,” replied Liara. “I don’t need anything.”
“Me either,” added Tali. “Oh no, wait a second! See if they’ve already started scrapping Reaper parts. I had an idea the other day for trying to start EDI up again, and I need CPUs.”
“Uh, you don’t want to reactivate the Reapers, do you?”
“No!” Tali exclaimed, her voice pitching up into a squeal. “I’m just trying to get EDI back up and running and quantum computing CPUs are hard to come by these days!”
“Hey, it was a joke! I’ll see what I can do. We’ll call you if we hear anything about the Kilimanjaro.”
The Kilimanjaro? What the hell is going on in Africa?
Unless… unless he was talking about the ship her mother served on.
Holy shit, her mom was coming. They hadn’t seen each other for years now, since way before the hunt for Saren. They weren’t exactly close. Not estranged by any means, but ever since her own military career had skyrocketed after Elysium, they didn’t have much time to keep up with one another. And now promoted to the Rear Admiral grade and commandeering the SSV Kilimanjaro, where she had already served as executive officer, Hannah Shepard had even less time to keep up with her daughter, as much as Shepard had little time to even just think about her mother, during her race against time to destroy the Reapers.
And now her mother was coming to… wherever they were, to visit her.
Much visiting she’d be doing, what was she gonna do? Talk to a celery stalk with a pulse?
Shit, she had to deal back with the vegetable comparisons, or by the time she fell asleep again she’d refer to herself as a veggie soup rather than a human being. She could consider the return of some semblance of sense of humor a plus, but at the same time, it came with an array of terrible jokes that not only weren't funny, but they made her feel like garbage too.
Oh boy, but… really… her mother?
Let’s be clear, Shepard loved her mother, dearly. She was her role model, ever since her dad walked out on them and disappeared from their lives, and she looked up to her even to this day. But there was no way in hell she wanted her mother to see her like this. It was already hard to accept that Liara was there, and could witness her demise, when she was at the ultimate worst. And Liara had been the one to find her first when in a moment of desperation and anger she had downed a full bottle of sleeping pills chasing them down with a nearly full bottle of liquor. Never in her life, Shepard had felt like she had hit rock bottom, but also digging deeper. And the thought of her mother seeing her like this just… filled her with shame for some reason.
Somehow, she now felt the need to slip back into her long bouts of sleep. Even the nightmares were more welcoming than the thought of her mother visiting.
To be honest with herself, it wasn't that she didn't want her mother there. Shepard didn't want her mother to meet her friends. Though on the opposite side of Cerberus and their supremacist views of the world and the galaxy, her mother never hid the fact that she would have preferred a strictly human System Alliance. As a veteran of the First Contact War, though stationed in places that had seen very little action, she still had to come and trust aliens the same way Shepard did, mainly because she had never actually worked with aliens for a long period. She feared her mother's reaction if she first arrived and found her room not only guarded by, but also filled with aliens. She still didn't know about Liara, not to mention their plans to grow a family after the war, their relationship was that serious and still her own mother didn't know about it, who knew what her reaction would have been.
And Miranda? If her mother found out who she was and what her past affiliations had been, she was as good as dead. There was no way her mother would accept Miranda's presence in the medical team that was taking care of her only daughter. Jesus Christ Almighty, it was going to be a bloodbath. Despite her raging atheism, Shepard prayed to every divinity she knew of that either Hackett sequestered any weapon or that Miranda's past as one of Cerberus' top officers never came out, because if that happened it was not going to end pretty, for anyone.
But unfortunately, it wasn't something she could either predict or avoid. In her current state, she could just wait and see what would happen when her mother would finally arrive. There was even the chance that nothing worth mentioning would occur, but in the past few years, Shepard had learned to always expect the worst. So she braced herself for the incoming storm, and waited.
Meanwhile, people came and went, doctors checked on her quite thoroughly if she had to judge and spoke to Liara about medical gibberish she couldn't even fathom to grasp, but most of all, people touched her. Not with any medical reason behind the gesture, just a comforting touch, holding her hand, a brush on her forehead, just about anything was welcome to her, so starved for human touch she was. Everything would do. And even if her skin still tingled in places and sometimes felt numb, like a weird spot on the back of her right hand, between the thumb and forefinger where she could feel pressure but not movement, and oh God it was just so much better than before, it was like a dream come true.
She felt less lonely. There was almost always someone in the room with her, one or two voices speaking about anything but her precarious health drowning the whooshing noise of the ventilator or the slow, steady beeping of the heart monitor and the slight crinkling the air mattress made every time it deflated a little and inflated once again. Apparently, it avoided the development of pressure wounds on the back of her body, and it wasn’t uncomfortable. Just… annoying at times.
It was almost fun, listening to the chit chat around her. Usually she hated it, small talk had never been her forte and she rarely participated in that kind of talk, she was actually relieved to hear different, familiar voices talk about stuff that wasn’t war or medicine related. She heard news from other planets and how their rebuilding processes were going, she even heard Jack’s voice through a call Liara made to ask about the kids at Grissom Academy. She learned that Grunt and Wrex and all the Krogan on Earth had helped immensely in the initial push to clean up, given their superior strength that provided a strenuous workforce even without specialized machinery. By some kind of miracle, everyone that had started the last push for Earth was alive and that was more than Shepard could have hoped for.
Now she only needed to know how Omega was doing, and she’d have a pretty good idea of how all her friends were doing. It felt a little weird, counting Aria as a friend, but in the past year and something, she had proved to be, if not loyal at least true to her word.
At some point in the early afternoon Sam arrived and brought food and her quick banter, but no news about the Kilimanjaro and her mother’s arrival. The wait was becoming a lot longer than she had expected, but she didn’t mind too much. She dozed off at times, losing bits and pieces of conversation, but it didn’t matter. Somehow, after so much time of isolation, Shepard was just content enough with listening to her friends spending some time together on Earth instead of the halls of the Normandy, enjoying the normal gravity and not the simulated and slightly temperamental force that kept them down on the floor in deep space.
Despite the situation, everyone sounded like they were in high spirits, or at least they didn’t concentrate on the negative of the situation, but only on the positive. Conversation flowed, and her friends were happy to be alive and back on Earth. That was what she cared the most about. The calm and quiet atmosphere just felt… good. For the first time in months, if not years, Shepard felt like she could just lay back and let the world spin on its own, content with just listening, without the need for her to jump off and push to make it turn.
Not that she could have done much more than that, but still.
Then the door of her room slid open, and the conversation stopped entirely, followed by the quick scrambling of chairs being haphazardly pushed back and boots hitting the ground as everyone in the room stood up, to salute Shepard assumed.
Oh shit, that’s my mother .
Shepard recognized the sudden temperature drop in the room, the classic freezing of even the most heated atmosphere when a high ranking officer walks in the room.
Quick, sleek steps came closer to her bed, and a warm, thin hand she hadn’t felt touch her in years took her left one, while the other ran through her hair and down her neck, brushing over the mouthpiece that held the ventilator tube in place and stop just over her clavicle, her thumb rubbing circles over a patch of skin that still had altered sensibility. Or was that medical tape sticking to it?
“What happened to her?” her mother asked.
No one dared to answer. And there were people in that room that rarely shut up.
“I asked what happened to my daughter!”
The door slid open once again. “The Reapers tried to indoctrinate her.”
Damn Miranda, great timing.
“Excuse me, what?”
Oh come on Mom you must have read the memo the Alliance sent about indoctrination!
“Our theory is that the Reapers had been trying to indoctrinate Shepard for a long time and when it failed, they made a last attempt in London, after she had been wounded by Harbinger’s blast,” Miranda explained, calm and pragmatic as per her usual. “The process was interrupted when the Reapers dropped dead and this is the result. Abnormal cerebral functions we’re hoping to revert to normality.”
Ah good question, Mom .
“We have no idea, Admiral Shepard. What we know though is that there’s a chance we can bring back your daughter and we’re trying our best with limited resources.”
“I see.” Shepard heard her mother take a long breath and run her hand through her hair again. Damn that felt good… “And who are you?”
“Miranda Lawson, Admiral.”
And that’s where shit will hit the fan .
And right on cue…
“Lawson as in that Lawson? The man behind the Cerberus operation on Horizon that my men had to clean up a few weeks before London?”
Fuck, they sent my mother to clean up that mess?
“Henry Lawson was my father, and if you want to know, I ran away from him when I was barely a teenager and I was the one who actually disposed of him on Sanctuary. Our ties are limited to his last name and only to that.”
Something must have clicked in her mother’s memory, a detail or two she might have read but not fully grasp at the time but that was coming back right in that moment, because the next time she spoke, it wasn't the diplomatic Hannah Shepard that spoke, it was a fury Shepard had never heard in her voice.
“Wait a second, you are that Miranda Lawson, aren’t you? The Illusive Man’s second in command! You’re from Cerberus!”
Oh no Mom please…
“I was from Cerberus.” How could Miranda remain so calm, Shepard would never understand. “I resigned the same day your daughter turned herself in after Bahak. Our goals didn’t align anymore.”
“But they did align, at some point! Why on Earth are you here and not rotting in some kind of jail? That’s your place, not in my daughter’s hospital room!”
“With all due respect Admiral Shepard…” That was Garrus. “Miranda has all the rights to be here in this moment.”
“And who the hell are you?”
Oh don’t you dare talk to him like that!
“Garrus Vakarian, Admiral Shepard.”
“And why aren’t you on Palaven?”
God, the situation was spiraling quickly. Mustering all her remaining strength, Shepard tried her best to open her eyes and managed, with some effort, to open both enough to see a slightly blurry scene in front of her that she didn’t like. Her mother, proud and tall in her pressed admiral blues, on her left side, Garrus at her right, Miranda still just a step beyond the door. Tali and Sam were standing, rather uncomfortably, by the window behind her mother and Liara behind Garrus, a couple steps behind.
“Garrus isn’t on Palaven for the same reason I’m not on Thessia and Tali isn't on Rannoch!” exclaimed Liara. We are all part of the Normandy Crew, we’ve been for years!”
Yeah, go tell her that…
Her mother looked around, finally taking in the fact that her daughter’s hospital room had been occupied by more aliens than humans, before she had in fact entered and evened the numbers.
“And you are?”
“Liara T’Soni. Your daughter’s bondmate.”
Jeez Li… way to nail that one on the head!
Admiral Shepard now wasn’t only furious, she was confused too. “My daughter’s what?”
“Girlfriend, Admiral,” answered Miranda. “Doctor T’Soni is your daughter’s girlfriend of three years, almost four. Someone would say they’re practically married, only lacking the certificate.”
Thank you Miranda… She had saved her the awkward conversation of having to tell her mother that not only she now had a girlfriend, and for the longest time her mother had been convinced her daughter was as straight as a lamp post, but that said girlfriend was also an alien. Jesus, what a mess.
“Well, it appears that you all know my daughter better than me!” She was fuming. Shepard had never seen her own mother this pissed. It was way worse than the earful she had got after the death defying stint on Elysium during the Blitz that had earned her the Star of Terra. “That still doesn’t explain why there’s a Cerberus agent in my daughter’s room.”
“She was in charge of the Lazarus Project, Admiral,” explained Sam. “The team that actually brought her back to life after she died, three years ago. She knows your daughter’s body inside and out better than any doctor that is currently following her right now, she’s the one that put it back together.”
That didn’t help, it actually made her mother even more furious.
“So you’re telling me that not only she was with Cerberus, but she was also responsible for that blatant violation of every single medical, biological and social ethics and moral code? Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that my daughter is alive as a result, but did you just stop for a moment and think if what you did was right?”
Shepard could feel the tears stinging behind her eyelids. She wanted to stop her mother, she couldn’t bear the thought of her own mother berating her friends like that, when she knew nothing about them and their relationship, the kind of bonds they had forged under heavy gunfire.
“I did, Admiral. And I still saw more pros than cons in reviving your daughter. We needed her, and we wouldn’t be here without her. I wouldn’t be here without her either, she made me see through Cerberus' smoke screens.”
“Listen Miss Lawson, you can put up your all prodigal son act all you want, but you’re still Cerberus to me. You may dress in Alliance colors now, but I don’t trust you, and I don’t want you anywhere near my daughter.”
Mom, come on, stop now! She’s my friend!
Both Liara and Tali tried to intervene, but the Admiral shut them both up with a killer glare. “You and your people are a disgrace for humanity!” she roared. Miranda still stood defiant, but it was clear that she was hurt. “You and your people only brought us troubles and embarrassment across the Galaxy, so don’t come to me with your sudden change of heart. Your pathetic act will never fool me!”
It’s not an act! She wanted to scream and shout at her mother so loud, she was actually so angry, so furious herself that she finally felt the tears fall from her eyes after weeks or months of never actually making it. She even managed to open her eyes a little more, and the godawful metaphorical stoning of Miranda Lawson at the hands of her mother played in front of her now in full focus. She’s my friend, Mom, please stop that! She’s not like that, she’s never been like that
At the same time, as Shepard’s mother made a move to walk closer to Miranda, both Tali and Liara jumped between the two women, ready to defend the former Normandy SR2 executive officer with their bodies.
“Get the hell out of here. I’d arrest you myself if only I still carried cuffs like when I was a patrol officer!”
More screams came, and Shepard’s anger and frustration grew exponentially as the atmosphere heated up again. More tears fell, unnoticed, and she wanted to cry out and get their attention, but couldn’t. Her jaw was locked in place by the mouthpiece and she couldn’t even muster a twitch of her eyebrow to let the others know that she was alive down there, and she was listening and seeing what was happening around her, despite them refusing to acknowledge her presence.
It was Garrus that noticed the tears. He looked down at her for a moment, scratching the scarred side of his face when he must have seen something on her face and leaned closer to her. Curious, he gently touched the wet track of the fresh tears down her right cheek, his jaw fluttering in confusion, before their eyes met, and she managed to hold his gaze.
Garrus, please… look at me. I’m here, tell them to stop please! she pleaded silently.
Still silent, he held his fingers in front of her eyes and started moving it from side to side. Catching the hint, Shepard followed it, diligently, left to right and then up and down.
“Shepard, can you hear me? Blink twice for yes.”
She did. It took her almost all her self control to just get that movement done, but she did it.
His eyes widened in shock. “Do it again.”
Again, it worked. If it wasn’t an improvement, Shepard didn’t really know what was then.
“Everyone, stop!” he screamed then, standing up tall and raising his arms to gather everyone’s attention. “Stop bitching about who’s more righteous, it’s no use now. She’s awake!”
Can we just get Shipsnthenight a shoutout for how well she nailed the art? I mean, all in one afternoon! Way to kill it dude!
Garrus' words echoed in the room like the deep tolls of a bell, resounding in her ears like the shockwave of a gunshot blasting right beside her head. A flashback of a still not ready, very distressed Shepard waking up suddenly while on the operating table appeared in front of Miranda’s eyes, and a shiver of dread ran down her spine at the memory of how terrified Shepard had looked and the horror she had read in her eyes when they had looked up at her, trying to reach up to her and call for help that she wasn’t ready to give yet, before she shook it off and pushed everyone away from her on the way to Shepard’s bed.
“Shepard!” she called. When she mentioned her name, the Commander’s eyes moved towards her, responding to her voice and her own name being called. “Shepard, listen carefully. Look up.” She did. “Down now.” Again, she complied. “Look at Liara.” Her eyes seemed to sparkle when she asked to perform that action, and she quickly did that, identifying her bondmate quickly and surely. “Now at your mother.” She seemed less eager to do so, but listened and acted in accordance. “Alright, let me check a couple of things more. Blink twice for yes and once for no. “Your name is Jane Alexandra Shepard.” She blinked twice in rapid succession. “You were born at the Arcturus Station military hospital on April 11th 2154.” Two blinks in rapid succession. “You were on Elysium during the Blitz in 2176, and held the raiders off on your own to protect the colonists.” Two more blinks. “The same year you joined the N7 program and earned your ICT qualification three years later.” Again, she blinked twice and confirmed all her assumptions about her past. Time to test her. “You were assigned as executive officer of the SSV Normandy 2182.”
At that, Shepard blinked just once. Miranda had purposefully got the date wrong in order to check if the blinking was an automatic response to a random auditory stimulus and not a willingly performed movement.
“It was a year later, in 2183,” said Liara, barely holding back the sobs of relief that wracked her, as she now stood on the other side of the bed. Shepard looked at her and blinked twice. “When she saved me from the force field I had trapped myself in to escape Saren’s geth on Feros.”
A tear escaped Shepard’s eye, and Liara quickly wiped it off with a gentle brush of her thumb. “Don’t cry, love. Everything’s going to be alright.”
“She’s oriented, answers correctly to commands and her memory seems intact. I… I’ve got to call Sophie and Lara, they need to see you right now!” exclaimed Miranda, barely keeping the joy bottled as she would usually do as she pushed a few buttons on her Omnitool to send a high priority message to both the doctors. “Just… stay awake. For the love of God stay awake!” she ordered, giddy with excitement.
“What’s going on?” asked Admiral Shepard, all the rage gone from her voice, replaced by confusion.
“A miracle, I guess!” replied Miranda, speechless. “Your daughter woke up.”
Shepard blinked again, just once. It wasn’t an unconscious eye movement, she had purposefully said no to her assumption. Miranda frowned. “You didn’t wake now ?” Another single blink. “You were awake before now?” Two blinks. “But how long?”
“She can’t answer a question like that with only blinks!” exclaimed Garrus and Miranda mentally kicked herself for being so stupid, with the excitement getting the better of her. “Do you know how long has passed since London?” he went on, and Shepard blinked once.
They all threw each other questioning looks. Even Tali’s doubt was evident through the slightly opaque glass of her helmet. Was it the right thing, telling her that she’d been in a coma for more than three months now? Shepard seemed present enough, for what she had been tested, she looked coherent and present, which was another miracle on its own, but Miranda feared for the precarious balance within Shepard to actually tell her she had been gone for so long. Who knew how she would react.
Luckily, they didn’t have to think about it too long. The door slid open with a hiss and both Doctor Wilson and Doctor Wirtanen barged in. “She’s awake?” nearly screamed the neurologist, her thick Finnish accent even more prominent with the excitement of the event.
Everyone in the room, Shepard notwithstanding, nodded. “She is,” said Miranda. “And she’s coherent.”
The two medics moved towards the bed with a cautious approach, as if not to scare her. “Commander Shepard?” started Sophie, her voice low and quiet. Shepard immediately moved her eyes towards her, when she called her name. It didn't look like a fluke, she was really awake and following commands and answering her name. “Good afternoon, Commander. I’m Sophie Wilson, your physician, and this is Lara Wirtanen, the neurologist that is currently helping me with taking care of you.” Sophie had a way with patients, Miranda had to give her that. She spoke slowly and clearly, but not in a condescending tone. She wanted to be understood right from the start, and for that reason she made sure to speak in a way that could not be misinterpreted. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. Now, there’s a little bit of a commotion here…” Shepard’s lopsided wink looked a lot like an unspoken no shit Sherlock . “But we’ll try to make this as quick and painless as we can.”
Sophie grabbed a chair resting near a wall on the left side of the bed, underneath the window facing the sprawling Southern French countryside, miraculously spared by much of the damage of the war, and dragged it close to the bed before she sat and took the bed control handle from its cradle hanging from the railing of the bed. Not once Shepard moved her eyes away from her, as if she was studying the doctor. “Would you be more comfortable if we lifted the bed a little so you can see around a little better?” Shepard blinked twice. “Is that an agreed sign?”
Liara nodded. “It is. Blink twice for yes, once for no. Garrus came up with it.”
“Great idea,” replied Lara. “We’ll look for an eyetracking to voice synthesizer apparatus later, it will make communication smoother.”
“Already working on it!” said Tali, as she typed and flicked her fingers around her Omnitool, an expanding wall of code on its holographic screen stemming from the small wrist mounted computer. She and Sam looked engrossed in it, and if Miranda had to guess, they both had the same idea at the same time and had immediately started working on whatever they were concocting on their Omnitools.
Sophie sighed, relieved. “I see your friends are already a step ahead of us, I like it! Anyway, Lara will hold your head up straight as I control the bed. We’ll go up from 30 to 60 degrees and see how it goes. We’ll add a small neck brace if we see that your neck can’t support your head at that angle. Are you alright with the plan?” Again, she blinked twice, and Lara gently braced her jaw with her hands as Sophie moved the bed to an higher angle, allowing Shepard to sit up rather than fully lay down with a small upward incline. Miranda watched as Lara tested the muscle tone of Shepard’s neck by cautiously letting go of her head, keeping her hands close enough to catch it in case it lolled to one side or the other. When it didn’t happen, Lara moved away and simply stood at the bedside, waiting for Sophie to do the talking. “There you go, how is it? Better?” Two blinks. “Good. Now, we’ve got a couple of things to talk about while Lara here checks you up, Commander Shepard, and I fear very few of them will be pleasant and it will be very tough to sugarcoat what I'm going to say so please, if you feel in any way that you’re overwhelmed and you want me to stop so you can rest and process what we're going to talk about, please close your eyes for longer than ten seconds and I’ll stop talking immediately. If it’s too much, we can sedate you and let you sleep until you feel better. I’m sure you realized that, at this very moment, you are paralized.” Two blinks. “We’ll get to that at a later time. Right now, I want you to know where you are and how long has passed since London, so you can orient yourself and understand your conditions. This is one of those unpleasant things I was talking about.”
Two blinks, and Miranda suddenly found herself holding her breath and feeling like someone had dumped a ton of bricks in her stomach. She looked at Liara, who had now moved at the foot of Shepard’s bed, arms folded across her chest, and she was clearly trying to hold it together for Shepard’s sake, but it was tough for her too. Blue wisps of biotic energy flashed from her hands and up to her shoulders, she must have been extremely frustrated because Miranda knew very well how proficient Liara was with her biotics and how much control she could exert on them, seeing her lose control, even in the tiniest form of random wisps or energy, meant she was really on the verge of losing it. On the other hand, the Commander seemed unfazed, ready to take whatever Sophie would dish out. Who knew if she really was.
“First and foremost, you’re currently in a former Cerberus facility now taken over by the Alliance, near Marseilles, in France.” Shepard shot Miranda a quick, questioning look. “And yes, your friend was instrumental with the actual takeover. To be fair, Miranda back there was the one that found you, long after the Alliance had given up on you. She dragged your friends Ashley and James down on the battlefield and brought you back to the world of the living. For that, we’ll be forever grateful to her.”
Admiral Shepard suddenly turned towards her. “Is that true?”
Miranda nodded. “Yes, Admiral. Alliance Command was in shambles after the Reapers turned off, they barely had the workforce force to deal with the living they had at hand, surely they had no time nor resources to go look for those that had tried to charge the Reaper we called Harbinger. But I still received a disturbed ping from the GPS implant in her shoulder, so I was sure she was down there, somewhere. We found her beneath a pile of rubble that was probably lead coated, that was what made the ping bounce so we couldn’t pinpoint it right away.”
Sophie went on. “You’ve been under my care since that day. That was nearly four months ago.” Shepard’s eyes widened, and her heartbeat accelerated a bit, but other than that, she didn’t look too distressed. Sure, Sophie was taking the best precautions to deliver the news in the most considerate way, but Shepard was handling the situation way better than Miranda had expected. Could it be because she had been conscious all the time, so these weren’t news to her, more explanations and contextualization of stuff she already knew? “The cleanup process is undergoing and we’re slowly seeing results on that, the state of Earth is a little dreary but we’re getting there. As for you, Commander… we’re working on you just as hard. The fact that you’re awake and we’re talking is a huge improvement to just a few hours ago, and to be honest we’re a little surprised to see such a steep betterment of your conditions, we’ll have to do some tests later.”
“She pointed out that she has been awake for longer than just now,” said Garrus. “We haven’t got as far as trying to ask for how long she’s been conscious though. It’s kind of a tricky question to formulate, if it can be answered only in a binary way.”
“Well, that can be solved in a minute,” replied Sam. She was working in tandem with Tali at coding something that was probably a quick Omnitool software to allow Shepard to use her eyes to track and form words on a holoboard with letters and punctuation, if Miranda had to guess.
“We’ll get there after we got the important matters,” continued Sophie. “You see Commander, we need to make sure you know what’s going on with your health and that you understand the extent of the damage done to your body by the battle in London. As you have seen by yourself, you’re currently paralyzed from the neck down. That also means you can’t breathe on your own, or at least we think you can’t.” Shepard blinked twice. “Have you tried to breathe against the ventilator?” One blink. Sophie looked at Lara, that nodded. “You’re free to try. And don’t worry if you can’t make it, we’ll talk about it in a second.” Two blinks. Lara carefully moved her hands to the ventilation tube, where it connected to the tube down Shepard’s throat that pushed air in her lungs. “Lara will disconnect the tube so you can try to breathe through your mouth. Ready?” Two blinks. The connecting section was unscrewed and detached.
As if in reflex, Miranda held her breath as she waited for something to happen. She watched, as anybody else in the room, as Shepard lay there, unmoving, eyes darting in every direction as she tried, and clearly failed, to draw breath through the tube in her mouth. Seconds passed, and still no movement from her chest, and the saturation meter on the vital stats monitoring station dropped numbers quicker than she had expected. Shepard was trying, her heart beating faster every second as the oxygen saturation in her blood dropped, eyes screwed tight with the effort, until Lara latched the tubes together again and the positive airflow filled Shepard’s lungs once again with oxygen. Shepard opened her eyes again, distressed and in tears, instinctively looking for Liara that with a quick step over was at her side, holding her hand. More wisps of energy lifted from her hands and arms, but died down as soon as she made contact with her bondmate’s hand, no matter how inert it was.
“It’s alright Shepard. It’s alright,” she tried to calm her, with a small degree of success if Shepard’s slowing heartbeat was to be trusted. “We’ll make it work Shepard, we’ll get you back whole.”
Sophie smiled, taking Shepard’s other hand in hers. “That’s exactly why we’re here.” It was almost like Sophie was working some kind of magic, because Shepard’s heartbeat returned to a normal rate almost immediately and the distress in her eyes almost disappeared. “Commander, don’t get discouraged by what just happened.” She stopped when Lara tested Shepard’s pupils with a pen torch, moving the light in front of her eyes to check ocular motility and pupillary response.
“Pupils are fine and react normally to light stimuli. Commander, could you please look at me?” she asked, and Shepard moved her attention to the neurologist. “I’m going to wiggle my fingers in your cone of vision. Can you blink one eye independently from the other?” Shepard tried, and managed what was asked of her, despite the evident effort. “Great. I’m going to move my fingers. Blink with the corresponding eye when you see them move.”
It took them a little more than expected to perform that test, but Lara seemed satisfied. “Cone of vision seems to be alright. Edges are a little blurry, aren’t they?” Two blinks. “We’ll do an MRI first thing in the morning, there could be a bit of damage to the optic nerve. Nothing that can’t be fixed, I’m sure, but I’m fairly confident it’s just the underuse of your eyes in the past few months, it could disappear in the matter of hours, so I’m not worried. Now, let’s talk about what happened to you and what we’re doing to treat you.”
“You see Commander,” Sophie picked up. “We have pretty much certain suspects that you’ve been indoctrinated. Better, that the Reapers tried to indoctrinate you.” Two blinks. “I’ve been told that you’re familiar with the concept, that you met a number of people that had unfortunately been through the process and you know the results. We believe that the Reapers tried but failed before they were destroyed. We still don’t know what happened, but your mind held them off long enough that their attempt failed, but the botched try left you like this.”
As the two doctors spoke and relayed to Shepard the extent of her conditions, Miranda felt the weight on her stomach increase. From her place in the rear of the small crowd, she could see everyone and their reactions as they took in Shepard's reactions, as minute as they were. She could only try and imagine Liara's turmoil, at seeing her bondmate helpless and paralyzed in a hospital bed, unable to do more than simple blinks. And knowing she was pregnant didn't help the feeling of helplessness that Miranda herself was currently feeling. She had hoped that, upon waking up, Shepard would at least be able to breathe on her own, but the effort she had attempted looked herculean, and it brought nothing. Last time she had had Shepard on an hospital bed hooked to artificial ventilation, it had been easy to unhook her from the ventilator, she had started biting on the tube fairly early and looked like she was about to gnaw it away in order to breathe on her own against the external ventilation, despite the heavy medications they pumped in her system to keep her sedated as they slowly rebuilt her at Lazarus Station. Miranda wasn’t hoping for a full, instant recovery the moment Shepard opened her eyes, she wasn’t that optimistic, but at least she had been hoping that the basic functions could be performed from the get go. She started wondering if she’d ever need speech therapy… God, that would be a feat, where the hell were they going to find a speech therapist?
But there was hope too. Shepard had hinted that she had been conscious, probably on and off, for some time now, and her memory seemed intact, and she could recognize people around her, looking at them when asked to. That was a good sign.
Also, the way she was taking all that was going on around her… it was astounding. But it shouldn't really surprise her, Shepard had taken the sudden early wake up from her reviving process just over a year before remarkably well, and she was under heavy mech fire. This time, she was in peace time and surrounded by her friends and family, the situation surely helped her keep calm. Her heartbeat was slightly higher than it was before, while she was unconscious or they thought she was, but it didn't show signs of distress, just the state of consciousness they oh so had hoped would come sooner rather than later.
In a way, Miranda could draw a sigh of relief, but if this was the baseline from which they needed to start anew with rebuilding Shepard, well damn they had a long, steep and rocky road ahead of them. Shepard most of all.
It wasn't going to be easy, most of all with the time construction of Liara's pregnancy, but Miranda had vowed they'd do it, and if there was something she was good at was achieve the impossible. Also, Shepard herself had won an impossible war, against an undefeatable enemy by true grit and unbeatable tenacity, they could help her heal from the wounds caused by that impossible to win war that she had actually won.
"...So Commander, this is everything I wanted you to know about what's going on with you and what we've been doing and plan to do in the near future. Now that you're awake, we'll keep you updated with everything and stop relying on just our opinion to set the course of your healing journey. We won't do anything you don't want us to do."
"Are you sure it's a good idea?" her mother asked. "I know she's awake now but are you sure she's coherent enough to understand and take decisions about her medical status?"
Oh, if looks could have killed, Admiral Shepard would have been a pile of ash, but apparently she hadn't noticed the thunder and lightning in her daughter's eyes.
"Only a way to find out," said Tali then.
She and Sam moved closer to the bed, Omnitools in front of them. "It won't be like hearing her voice, but at least we can read what she would say," said the young comm specialist. "See this board Shepard?" Two blinks. "Alright, try to concentrate on one letter. Any letter will do."
Shepard did as told. Her eyes stopped moving and concentrated on one letter on the board projecting from Sam's Omnitool. The letters were not arranged as a normal QWERTY keyboard, but rather at the center there were the most commonly used letters in the English language, with the least used ones placed at the edges of the board. On a string above the jumble of letters, the letter M appeared.
"Great, now try another one. The spacebar is at the bottom, and there are punctuation signs close by too. Try to keep it simple for communication speed."
Shepard stared for a couple of seconds and the letter I appeared beside the M. Then an R and another I.
"Are you calling for Miranda?" Sam asked.
Undeterred, Shepard kept staring at the board and more letters appeared.
" Miri my friend apologize " Read Liara aloud. "Wait, is that for your mother?"
Everyone, Shepard included, looked at the now flustered Admiral. "Jane, what are you talking about?"
Her daughter went back to the board with renewed intent. " Cerberus gone miri good friend " There was a misspell here and there, but Shepard's thoughts were clear. She hadn't taken her mother's lashing at Miranda in stride. “ Miri does not deserve your anger .” She spelled, this time with more careful wording and spelling.
Admiral Shepard looked back and forth between her daughter and Miranda. “Jane, try to understand my point of view, as an Alliance officer I can’t let her…”
“ No ” Liara read aloud. “ You understand she friend saved me twice” Shepard closed her eyes for a moment as if to rest then went back at the typing with renewed energy. “treat fair or leave now ”
Shepard’s bluntness surprised Miranda, and she saw the Admiral grow more and more uncomfortable as her daughter spoke. While feeling slightly flattered that Shepard’s first thought was to defend her against the barrage of more than rightful accusation her mother had unleashed at her, she couldn’t really hide the uncomfortable feeling of being out of place that made her want to retreat in a dark room and let everyone else have their way while she hid from the world.
Suddenly, Admiral Shepard looked tired as she sighed and nodded. “Alright Jane.”
“ Friends too ” Shepard tracked on the board. “ And liara”
“Fine,” her mother conceded. “You’ve grown bossy in the past few years, let me tell you!”
“ Won war bein bossy ”
Everyone in the room laughed, the atmosphere in the room suddenly became a lot lighter than before and even the Admiral looked more at ease, despite the earful she had just received . “Ah well, I can’t challenge that claim.”
“No one can,” replied Liara.
“True,” added Sophie. “Now, why don’t we leave the Commander and her bondmate alone for a while? I’m sure they have a lot to talk about. Do you feel like it, Commander?” A yes appeared on the board, typed quickly and precisely. “Good. We’ll come back later to see how you’re doing and maybe give you something to help you sleep through the night, if you can’t fall asleep on your own.”
“I sent the eyetracking software to all your Omnitools, you should be able to download and install it easily,” said Tali. “Please report any bug you encounter so we can correct it, we’ll make it more userfriendly, this is rough and slow, but it should do until tomorrow.”
After that, there was a small procession to Shepard’s bed to say goodbye before slowly everyone exited the room, in order to leave her and Liara some well deserved privacy. When it came to Miranda, she gingerly approached the bed and touched Shepard’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“ Felt that ” Appeared on the holoboard shining from Liara’s Omnitool.
Miranda smiled. “I’m glad you’re awake.”
“ Me too ”
“Thanks for the help with your mother.”
“ Deserved it ”
“Still thank you. Listen, I’ll leave you two alone, I’ll come back later before they put you down to sleep, alright?” Another affirmative answer appeared on the board. “Feel free to kick me out if you’re too tired and don’t want to talk to me.”
“ Noted ”
As she moved away from the bed towards the door though, Miranda felt Liara grab her hand and pull her into a tight hug that took her by surprise. Slightly shocked by the swift move of the young Asari, Miranda couldn’t really react in any other way than hugging her in return, eyes fixed on Shepard. She wasn’t sure if it was just a trick of the light coming in from the window or of her overworked brain, but Miranda could swear that the Commander was finding it amusing, given the bright glint in her eyes.
“Thank you for bringing her back to me.”
Miranda let out a long sigh of relief. “I did nothing, she’s pulling herself back to whole for you on her own.”
“Still, thank you,” said Liara. “It won’t be easy, but I know you’ll do your best to help her.”
She gave Liara a quick tightening of her hug, before she pulled back and looked at her. “It’s what I do best after all. Go be with her, I’m sure there’s a lot you two have to talk about.”
Liara’s gaze dropped to the floor for a second, and Miranda was happy that she was the one facing Shepard, because she could read it in her eyes that Liara wasn’t going to tell Shepard about her pregnancy anytime soon, and if she had been facing the bed instead of the door, Shepard would have read it in her eyes that she was keeping something from her before she managed to collect herself. “Yeah, we do.”
“Call me if you need anything, alright?” Liara nodded and let her go. “See you later, Shepard.”
And now the real story starts, this was just the prelude!
Argh, I've been sitting on this story for nearly a decade and I finally can get down to write this! I'm just so excited!