A/N: Hey all. To my loyal followers, I wanted to say that, sorry, but I did not add 7 new chapters to this story. I just made minor changes to the first 7 chapters. Nothing vital to the story line changed, so you don't have to reread them if you don't want to, but I wanted another chance at those lines that I couldn't seem to word quite right. Hopefully, the changes will improve the writing and flow a little bit. Thank you for your patience!
Chapter 1: Freezer Burn
I was in pain.
But it wasn't a sharp, biting pain or even a dull, throbbing one. This was a hesitant one—like it was screaming at me from some great distance. Why was I in pain? My mind was slow to respond, sluggish. I grew frustrated and then slightly panicked. I should know something. There was something important to remember about the pain. But what?
And then it grew closer—the little screams—like wind was quickly sweeping away the fog. My insulation from the hurt was leaving. Everything seared. It felt like my skin and muscle were being pinched off everywhere at once, all the way through to my bones.
After a moment, I realized that I was moving. It wasn't much, just a gentle swaying from side to side. And I was on my stomach, the shifting pulling roughly at my tender skin. I was being carried over someone's shoulder. Who was carrying me? Just as this question occurred to me, we stopped. There was a clanging metal sound followed by some strange growling and grunting. What the hell was that? I needed to wake up and open my eyes! I needed to figure out what was going on! I couldn't remember anything!
My heart started to speed up, the urgency creeping slowly through my body. Then, my vision finally began to clear and I realized that I was being put inside of something, and not gently. I was being stuffed in something loud and metallic. It popped under my weight, the sound echoing loudly.
It was an air duct.
The grunting became more urgent as the scene's details came crashing down on me. I was in some dark air duct, the artificial wind whipping my long, loose hair. I could barely move, my limbs sluggish but rapidly recovering. And the growling was coming from the two Krogan just outside.
I think it was supposed to be a scream, but all that came out of my mouth was a sort of choked gurgling sound as I came face to face with the reptilian alien. One of them hefted a shotgun as I attempted to claw my way up the duct out of their sight. I forgot how loud guns were. The shot ripped through the air and then my left foot. It still worked, though, so I must have only gotten caught by the edge of the pattern. With more clanging, I saw the barrel being shoved roughly in after me, but the Krogan's hump wouldn't let it see inside. He began to pull the trigger, firing half a dozen shells into the sides of the duct indiscriminately. If he hadn't been such a horrible shot, I'd have been in real trouble. There was more grunting and growling from the opening and I did my best to stay still. If they heard me scrambling, they might have begun shooting again but they couldn't look in here, so if I stayed quiet, maybe they would leave.
Luckily, after just a few minutes the metal grate was replaced and heavy footsteps faded into the distance. I sighed in relief and let out a small whimper I'd been holding back. I'd been shot in the leg by a Krogan! I was somehow in Mass Effect—or Mass Effect was here, I wasn't sure which—and I don't remember how it got that way.
I needed to think. I had been sitting at home, about to fall asleep on my husband's lap while he watched Survivorman or some such thing. But something happened. Something big. What was it? I needed a clue of some sort. Okay, well I was wearing…was this my PT uniform? I blinked in surprise. That memory was two weeks before drill. Why would I be in my Army stuff?
I suddenly felt my heart drop into my stomach.
A space pod crashed.
It crashed in the field next to my apartment while I was on my way to work. There had been somebody inside and I tried to get them out, but the alien was long dead and I got sick from exposure to the body. That's what the Army doctors had said when they quarantined me. And a week later I—
Suddenly, I heaved, convulsing and vomiting there in the air duct. There wasn't much in it, considering I hadn't been able to keep anything down while I was in quarantine, making the bile burn my throat. Oh God, I had died! Then how? How did I get here? Was this just the future, or another place entirely? And what was I supposed to do now?
My husband's voice broke through my mind, refocusing it. I had to go. They knew where I was, and as long as they knew that they could shoot me again—could kill me again. Then an injured foot and an uncertain plan of action would be the least of my worries. I didn't have to find somewhere familiar or even somewhere safe, I just had to get somewhere else and stay hidden.
I began to slide down the duct, staying as quiet as possible. It didn't support my weight very well, so it was slow going, but I began to take stock. My head was spinning from the effort of just moving and I was shivering violently. I just felt so awful. But I also felt stronger. Like when you're getting over the flu and you can tell that the worst is over. Hopefully I wasn't still dying. I needed to hide until I'd recovered.
If I wanted to stay hidden then I needed new clothes and some medigel. Money and a weapon wouldn't hurt either, but I was less inclined to steal those.
As I continued, the pulsing music of a club began to make the air hum. Damn, this duct was loud though, even with some cover sound. I needed to get out of it soon. I lucked out as I came up to the next grate. It was some kind of dressing room, probably for the club's strippers. It had clothes, a medical station on the wall, and, for the time being, it was empty.
The grate was screwed into the wall, but through a careful use of my dogtags, I managed to get it undone. At one point, a couple of Asari stumbled out of a bedroom nearby and, judging by how loud the music got when they opened the door, into the club. I froze, but they were probably too drunk to have noticed me anyway.
When the grate finally came loose, I cleared the room they'd just come out of as an escape route and put the duct cover back in place. The strippers' quarters was full of stuff, from costumes to romance novels, but it was all surprisingly organized. The skimpy pink outfits were hung up neatly in lockers with names on them, though about a third had been replaced with more everyday outfits. I was reluctant to take those but some had spare clothes folded above them, so that was a possibility.
I snuck immediately to the medical station and grabbed a syringe. It said to inject the gel as close to the wound as possible so I peeled off the needle safety latch and reluctantly stuck it in my calf, releasing a breath as relief flooded to the wounds. It would probably be a while yet before I'd be walking without a limp, but for now, this was good enough.
It wasn't until I started rifling carefully through the drawers of the enormous make-up stand that I saw it. It had a pale, wide-eyed face with dark black marks criss-crossing it. They almost looked like turian marks, but it wasn't a turian—it was me.
My heart started to beat again as I realized that it was just the mirror on the back of the make-up counter that had scared me. Still, those black marks were strange. They weren't tattoos or anything, were they? I fingered them lightly. Two thin strips went from the middle of my forehead down to the tip of my nose where they tapered off. Branching off of these were thicker lines that traced across my cheekbones and up just outside of my eyes, coming to an artful curl a little shy of the ends of my eyebrows. I really hoped that it was just paint, but I couldn't even feel it. Still, I had to cover it up. Whatever else it was, it was unusual and would draw attention to me. Luckily, the make up here was good and, although it took a while to find the right shade among a mix of blues, it covered up the black marks like they had never existed. I kept the little container.
After that much time wasted, I knew that I had to move fast. I searched through the drawers, finding a scattering of small electronic devices that looked like they'd fit in my ears. I took one of these too, hoping that it was a translator.
Feeling guilty, I pilfered a pair of olive drab cargo pants that just barely fit and a black ¾ sleeve t-shirt. Suddenly, I was glad for all that weight I'd lost being sick that week. I was lacking a bit of the muscle that I was used to, but these skin-tight clothes wouldn't have fit me otherwise. I was still a little chubby yet, but my shortness left me a little wiggle room. I also took the black boots that had been left in the bottom of another locker, which looked to be about the right size, and marveled at how good my injured foot felt already. My old PT uniform went into a trash shoot that I was hoping would lead to an incinerator.
But I was out of time. I'd been here far too long already. Shoving the makeup in my leg pocket and the metal piece in my ear, I snuck out into the club. I was in a lower hallway that circled a main level where bartenders were serving and lights were flashing. A bright neon sign read 'Afterlife'. Damn. Omega was not a place you wanted to be unarmed. I made my way up there and pushed through the crowds, relieved when I heard words I recognized. So that thing was a translator. That was one less thing to worry about.
Now I had to find out what to do from here. I needed food that my stomach wouldn't reject and a place to bed down and recover. To get those things, I would need a job. It would probably be best to head to the markets. There had to be someone hiring there. A restaurant would have the nourishment I needed, which would be good because I hadn't eaten anything since three days before I died. But I would rather not work there while I was sick, even if I was nearing the end of it. I should look for a sales clerk position or something.
I slipped out of Afterlife, past a krogan bouncer, and down the hallway to the left. The music was bearable now, and I did my best to listen carefully to the conversations going on around me. The door on the right led to the markets, right?
"We put the girl in the air duct. She was up and kicking, but a couple of shots quieted her down. Blood can still spread that White Fever, right?"
I froze and tried to lean casually up against the low wall near the voices, pretending to wait for someone as I listened to the conversation behind me. Either the Krogan didn't recognize me in new clothes and without the paint, or they just weren't paying attention, but I didn't want to show them my face and find out. From the brief glance I got, one of them was talking to his omni-tool. The voice that responded was quiet and I couldn't quite hear it, but it made him chuckle.
"I don't speak gibberish, Salarian scum . As long as it wipes out those Turians like you said it would, you'll get your son back. We spent a lot of credits on that human in her fancy antique cryo-pod. This had better pay off."
The conversation appeared to end then, because the Krogan turned to each other. "Think we should have told him his son was fed to the varren yesterday for biting you?" the smaller one with the green headplate asked. They both laughed heartily. "Well, I'm off duty now and I have a little blue beauty to see to."
"You gonna go get turned down by the stripper again?" There was the thud of playful punches being exchanged, followed by a rumbling chuckle and then the green Krogan passed by me. The other one, the larger krogan with the blue headplate headed the opposite direction, right to the markets I'd been headed to before.
So I was cryogenically frozen, I thought, tailing him from a good distance. That explained that part at least. Mass Effect was just the future. You know, a hundred and fifty some years in the future. And this idiot had bought me to spread a disease that only affected Turians—and apparently humans. Well, I prayed, let's hope I'm not still contagious.
As I hid behind a couple who were also passing through the sliding door, I saw the Krogan head toward the apartments. There weren't many people going this way, but I kept my steps light and he didn't take notice of me. Then I realized he was walking toward an elevator. Damn…I'll lose him, I thought irritably. If I get any closer, he may get suspicious of me. Just to be safe, I searched the median quickly, finding a short, jagged piece of metal in the garbage that littered it. It looked like it used to be part of some kind of locking mechanism on a crate. Whatever it was, it was all I would have, and sick or no I wasn't going to let this child-killing bio-terrorist get away from me. Shoving the improvised weapon in my pocket, I moved up to stand beside him and wait casually for the lift.
He sized me up as the elevator settled and locked into place and I let him, until I saw that spark of recognition in his eyes. "Do I know you, hu—"
I drove the metal piece deep into his eye and twisted. He was strong bashing at me with his arm, but he was too slow to prevent the attack and I wasn't about to let go of my only weapon. I took the bone crunching hit and ripped the metal piece back and forth, doing my best to shred his brain. He screamed in rage and pain and charged forward into the now open elevator in an attempt to crush me against the wall. I tried to move out of the way, but he held me in a bear hug and I took the full force of his weight against me, breaking more than one rib. My only saving grace was that he also smashed his face into the wall, driving the metal piece deep into his skull. With a shudder, he collapsed, unconscious.
I gasped, slipping out from under him and trying to remember how to breathe. Holy crap, that hurt. But Krogan regenerated. I had to make sure he was all the way dead. I pressed a random number on the elevator, coaxing the doors closed and then took his own shotgun to him. I'll spare you the details, but I can assure you, 100 percent, he was dead. I think I heaved a couple of times while searching his body, but there was nothing left to come up so I didn't worry about it too much. By the time I made it to the 29th floor, I had found everything I needed: a piece of cloth to wipe the blood off on, an omni-tool, a pistol, an omni-blade, two syringes of medigel, and a handful of credit chits. I was able to adjust the pistol holster to my belt, but with no way to carry the shotgun, save for in my hand suspiciously, I had to leave it behind.
After returning to the 6th floor (marked with a star for Afterlife), I walked quickly back toward the markets and found a dark corner to sit in while I fiddled with the orange hologram that was my new tool. I tried to memorize all the information I could, but when I found a reset function, I knew I had to do it. It would wipe all of the details, like owner and contact information off of it, meaning that I wouldn't have to answer calls from the Krogan's boss or friends. Hopefully, they'd just think I pawned it. Weyrloc Drunn was finally gone. It even assigned me a new number when I requested it and I memorized that too.
I figured out the credit chits too. They didn't seem to be connected to any sort of account. They were just like a wallet that you put money into or took it out of. I transferred all of the credits to two of them. There was really quite a bit. He must have been planning a big purchase. 2,000 went into the chit that I discreetly tucked into my boot, but I put 300 on the one that went into my pocket. That was going to go toward food. I was starving now and shaking and I barely had the energy to lift my arms.
I found a little place that was still open and, although the cook didn't look too happy, he made me a bowl of ramen. It wasn't my favorite food in the world, but I at least knew what it was. After watching the last two customers leave and stealing a look at their tip, I tried to give him a decent one before heading out. Strangely, spending the—let's face it—stolen chits didn't bother me. He wouldn't be using them anymore and besides, I still had to track down the Salarian he was talking to. I would need resources to do so—to save a life. But not tonight.
Most places were closed now and I needed some sleep anyway so I found myself another air duct grate and slept in there. It was noisy and there was constantly wind whipping past me, but at least it was safe and hidden. Besides, my omni-tool said that it was pushing 2:00am and at that point I estimated that I could sleep on a bed of needles. I could apartment and job hunt in the morning. Right now I was just so tired….
I slept for nearly 12 hours in that little duct and although my ribs felt much better thanks to the gel I gave myself before falling asleep, they were still very sore. I should avoid getting into any more fights.
I looked into apartments first, though it took several hours of scanning bulletin boards and hiking up stairs to finally find one of the landlords. He was a Turian, who glared down at me suspiciously. "Well, look what we have here," he sneered. "A little human girl. Fresh from the colonies, I assume? Looks like you've been acclimatizing to Omega. Rough day?"
"I need an apartment," I said firmly. "A bed and a working shower."
He dropped the act, recognizing a paying customer when he saw one. I really didn't want to break into that big credit chit I had, but if I wanted a job, I figured I should make myself presentable or at least check my makeup. Besides, hanging onto looted money wasn't the best option either.
"Something simple and cheap then, huh?" I nodded curtly and he scratched his chin. "I might have something. Most people that come through here think they're too good for it, but if you aren't picky I might as well make some money off of it." He jerked his head, indicating that I should follow him, and led me further down the hall.
The place was a closet. Literally. The bed barely fit along the back wall and was little more than a mattress. The crushed frame beneath it had clearly had the legs broken off and the only thing supporting it was a set drawers. The floor was covered in something sticky and black and the toilet barely fit next to the cramped shower. After a moment, I spotted the sink which folded up into the wall. But still, it would do.
"Give me an hour to clean it up and it's yours for only 400 credits a month."
I immediately shook my head. I had been looking at apartment prices all morning. "Nuh-uh, these are the slums. The other apartments here—the real ones—go for 600. I'll give you 200 a month, max."
He scowled. "300."
I studied him with a scowl of my own. I didn't have much experience reading Turians, but something told me he had a little give room left. "225."
He shook his head. Not that much give room then. But he wanted me as a tenant. Business must not be too good. I held up my credit chit and watched his eyes flicker to it. "I have 265 credits on this chip. Right here. Right now. The first month."
He hesitated, trying to decide if he could haggle me lower, but eventually gave in, snatching it out of my hand. "I'll draw up a contract and clean it up a bit. Come back in a couple of hours and sign it. 265 a month." He handed me some sort of access card and stormed off and I tried not to smile behind his back. He didn't really seem all that ticked. He might have gone down to 250.
"Okay, check that off the list. Apartment 345." I checked the access card, just to make sure the Turian hadn't pulled a fast one on me, but it worked fine. I did my best to memorize the location and put all of the details I could on the notes app on my omni-tool and then I headed down to the markets.
I froze on my way past the keeper's desk when I heard the name 'Shepard' on his radio. I really would like to know how long I had before Cerberus took over Omega. I hadn't played the 3rd game myself, so the details were fuzzy, but my husband had so I got the jist.
My heart tightened as I thought about him. No. Not now. Control yourself. He'd expect you to at least do that, I told myself.
I tried to keep the strain out of my voice as I pointed to the radio. "What's that about?"
My new landlord glanced up disinterestedly. "That Alliance guy, Shepard, died a few days ago. They're having his funeral on the Presidium right now. Damn humans. Think that just 'cause you saved the Citadel and the Counsel, now you deserve a parade," he spat, particularly strong disgust on his face at the mention of the interspecies group.
I relaxed a bit. It would be about two more years then before the shit really hit the fan. And now I knew that this Shepard was a paragon. That made me feel better. I leaned on the counter. "You know, Mardus," I told him, getting his name off the name plate there. "I really can't tell who you hate more: humans or the Counsel."
"The Counsel," he growled without skipping a beat. "Bunch of tight-assed, entitled cowards."
"You mean politicians?"
He cracked a smile. "You humans aren't much different, but at least you make yourselves useful once in a while."
"Someone has to be the cannon fodder. At least we have enthusiasm!" I told him with a wave. He laughed loudly at my retreating back, hopefully feeling better about his new tenant. But I had to get going. That Salarian was going to be in trouble really soon, if he wasn't dead already.
I made my way through the many counters of the market again, pausing between an electronics repair shop and a tattoo place. As much as I doubted that anyone would come to my rescue, the drone of voices from the crowd-from witnesses-still made me feel better. Leaning against a wall to keep my back safe and opening my omni-tool, I went to the contacts section and put in the ten digit code that I memorized as the last contacted number before I reset it. I entered it nervously. If this wasn't the Salarian, then I'd be in trouble. Well, nothing for it. I pressed enter and waited.
Suddenly, I heard a little tone and the two Salarians manning the electronics store right next to me stiffened. My eyes narrowed suspiciously as they exchanged looks, one scared and the other sympathetic.
"Answer it, Barra," the one with the orange and red-striped face ordered solemnly.
The second Salarian with the black horns began to shake. "I—I can't! The Turians haven't started getting sick yet! If I answer, they'll kill Rayalla!"
"He's been with the Blood Pack for a week. Ray is dead. Answer it."
Barra turned so that customers wouldn't see his face and brought up his Omni-tool. "H—hello?"
The voice came over my omni-tool and I sighed. "Barra, I'm sorry."
"Who is this?" I turned off my omni-tool and he blinked in surprise. "Hello?"
As I approached the counter, the orange-faced one moved to intercept me. "Welcome to Loren's Electronics Repair! I'm Loren. What can I do for you?"
Barra gasped as he spotted me. "You!"
"Barra, your son is dead," I told him, trying to keep my voice low and calm while still effectively silencing him. It didn't work.
"B—but you were dying of White Fever! You had the Turian paint on your face! How did you get it off?"
Loren grabbed him roughly by the shoulder, obviously thinking the same thing I was. I leaned forward and pointed at my omni-tool and the Salarians moved closer, playing along with my customer act. "I didn't get the paint off, Barra, I covered it up. Does it come off?"
"Maybe in a years' worth of showers," Loren answered matter-of-factly. "It isn't meant to come off of a Turian's face and they don't have porous skin like humans. I can get you something to at least change the pattern so that you don't have to walk around with a plague warning on your face."
"A plague warning….Awesome sauce."
I shook my head. "Nothing. Barra, I'm sorry. Your son was killed a few days ago for biting the Krogan's boss."
"Rayalla…." he wimpered.
"You need to scram, Barra," I told him firmly, trying to keep him focused. "If I don't end up infecting someone soon, they'll come after you."
He nodded, swallowing, and scanned me with his omni-tool. "I was a medic until the clinic closed. That's why they came to me. I'll be able to tell if you're still sick." There was a long pause as Loren and I pretended to examine my omni-tool and Barra studied his data. "Fever gone, white blood cells dropping, systems stabilizing. You're not sick. Possible cure from cryogenic freezing. Outlasted virus."
"Outlasted it?" I frowned.
"Yes. White Fever is capable of surviving extremely cold temperatures. While your cells were in stasis, the virus lived on. But without an active cell they had no way of reproducing. The virus can only survive 13 years without a host, so it died. At least, that's my theory. How long were you frozen?"
"A long time," I told him with a sigh. "At any rate, if I'm not spreading the Fever, then you need to run."
Loren nodded solemn agreement. "The human is right, Barra. You need to get your family and get off of Omega."
He hesitated. "Thank you, Loren. It been a pleasure." With a little bow, the Salarian scurried out from behind the counter. "And human, you need to update your immunizations and have your respiratory system examined for deficiencies. Find a Salarian named Mordin and tell him that Barra is calling in a favor." And then he was gone.
Mordin. Crap. I didn't think he'd be here already. "You can find him in his lab in the Gozu District."
"He has a lab?"
"Oh yeah. I don't think he ever leaves. Well, sometimes he disappears for a few days, but he's usually there, though nobody knows exactly what he's doing. I can take you there after closing, if you like."