A/N and Intro:
Welcome to OSABC II : That Which Cannot Die.
TWCD is a continuation of my AU rewrite of Mass Effect 1, titled "Of Sheep and Battle Chicken". This story covers the period of time from Shepard's death and the recovery of her body, the entirely of Mass Effect Two, and my own take on the DLC.
I'll warn you right now: when I say AU I mean fucking AU. I have taken a shotgun to canon in every possible way, and if you think I changed things up in the first and second stories, oh gawd.
That means you will be completely lost if you haven't read the first two stories – and if you click my profile, you can see other supporting documentation that fleshes out the back-story of the universe, such as the Cerberus Files, the Systems Alliance Order of Battle, and the Encyclopedia Biotica.
None of these are required reading, but if you ever wonder why salarians operate in bullet-time, asari have biotic lightsabers, Cerberus can run a taco stand, and the entire universe is a vile, conspiracy ridden shithole that makes 40k look like My Little Pony...you may wish to check them out.
In case the story summary eluded you, this is Fshep/Liara. There are other pairings, but it's not a romance fic. (Sorry ladies. If nimraj12 asks me real nice I might try my hand at a gushy romance, but it would have to be Mshep/Miri or Fshep/Kaiden for me to pull it off.) The other pairings are rarely if ever conventional – you'll see things like Joker/Tali, Chakwas/von Grath (finally), Jack/Morinth, and the first actual Kasumi/Taylor that is more than Kasumi-chan pervving on Taylor's abs.
Things you will see is a different take on Shepard's resurrection, the Council's reaction to said resurrection, the Alliance still acting like assholes, and a much more intelligent plan to the Collector attacks than "hurr durr throw yourself through a relay that kills everyone lolzors". Goddammit, Bioware. You'll also see some pretty hectic fighting, but more of a focus on exploring, on learning about the characters, and about the Reaper threat.
And of course, god-stomping the crap out of batarians. That never gets old.
Things you will not see include a stupid Council, moronically evil Cerberus, weak-ass turians, or pretty much anything that Bioware half-assed. The story runs on the Rule of Crazy Awesome, so in game terms the setting is a mix between Insanity and Easy.
It's also a story about the difference between revenge and justice.
As an aside: This is rated M for strong language and heavily violence. While there are a number of sexual innuendos, there are no explicit sex scenes in this work. Given my version of Shepard's proclivities, that's probably for the best. Nothing is MA (and if you think something is, let me know and I can take it out. NO, there will NOT be lemons or any of that shit off site, do you know what the hell Shepard's kinks involve? Ugh.)
As with ATTWN, there are five arcs.
The first arc is something of a prologue, going over what the major characters are doing, framing the setting, and allowing me to explain just how in hell you can bring the dead back to life.
The second arc covers the 'primary mission' – figure out what the hell the Collectors are up to.
The third arc is sort of my take on Lair of the Shadow Broker. This is going to be where the rule of Crazy Awesome takes the driver's seat and takes us right over the side of the cliff. Answers are questioned, questions are answered, and Shepard goes from merely angry to really, really pissed.
The fourth arc is about the 'secondary mission' – more details later. No spoilers. :D
The fifth arc is the closing arc, the take-down of the Collector Base, and a showdown with the Council.
The appropiate music for this book is on Youtube, search for "Epic Legendary Intense Massive Heroic Vengeful Dramatic Music Mix" VOL I through III. And the rest, I guess.
This one is dedicated to Griffin, Charlene, Michael, Lais, Ahmet, Alyssa, Quintin, Sherry, James, Rob J, and of course Yonis. You all know who you are.
PS: For all the PM's about the trumpets, you're thinking along the wrong lines. I give you one important hint: Vorlons. LAWL.
THE FIRST ARC : DO NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH YOU CANNOT PUT DOWN
'You may want to rethink your clever plan. You had her killed once already and all you did was piss her off.'
-Garrus Vakarian to Harbinger
The office, like much of the base was cold, sterile.
White walls, trimmed in black, gleamed under the hard banks of overhead lights, the tile floors spotless. Every surface had the pristine appearance of a facility built to exacting specifications, no expenses spared. The room was luxuriously appointed, the best technology and the most comfortable extras, but it remained a place of cold, deadly science.
The air smelled of antiseptics, ozone, and the barest hint of corruption.
Miranda hated that smell. No matter how they adjusted the filters, the barest touch of rotting flesh somehow lingered, as if a reminder from God at the abomination they were performing.
She cleared her thoughts, sitting in her offices aboard Aristeas Station. She disapproved of the fixation the Illusive Man had with ancient Greek mythological naming, but the name was ironically appropriate in certain ways.
As usual, her mornings were all the same. Wake up and perform her usual aerobic workout, mental exercises and memory games. Review all the work orders for the nanite groupings Vigil oversaw in the nightly builds. Examine chemical and biochemical compound reads from the clones and implement any framework changes into the subject. Spend a good twenty minutes reviewing their progress thus far and marvel at how far they had come. After just over two years of hard work, Miranda was starting to believe they could do the impossible.
This wasn't just cheating Death. It was mugging him and making off with the goods in broad daylight.
The challenge at the beginning had been one of scale. They had to revive the dead, and the subject in question was the single deadest person Miranda could imagine.
Sara Ying Shepard had died in a manner almost too gruesome to contemplate. Literally burned alive while being smashed by the wreckage of her own ship, choking on her own blood and with her oxygen cut. The crime syndicate that extracted her body from the wreck of the Normandy had no reason to be very careful, rendering all her extremities useless. Being frozen solid was just a final indignity.
The Illusive Man's original plan was to resurrect Shepard just as she was, a normal human woman with perhaps a touch of corrective cyberware or bionetic implants. That had been tossed out three weeks into the project.
Almost eight percent of Shepard's brain mass was gone. Her heart and lungs were crushed. Less than twenty seven percent of her skeleton was intact, and her body was so ruined as to be beyond the help of any regeneration device. Every single organ was damaged, her remaining leg was mostly a frostbitten stump, and her remaining arm had been mangled so badly that the left hand could touch the left elbow.
The use of advanced cybernetics could correct some issues, at least on a purely physical level, but just cramming her full of replacements would only give them a zombie thing with a rotting brain. Much more would be required.
It took over seven months and well over three hundred million credits to even be confident that they could restore her physical form in any way. Entire companies were bought out and new technologies researched. Scanners with picoscale capabilities. Nanites that could read and reconstruct DNA on the fly.
Biotic cyberware – known as blueware – would be required as well, for Shepard had been a biotic prior to death and that ability made up a large part of her arsenal. Each piece had to be custom designed, fitted carefully into a plan of action that was mostly theoretical and dependent on breakthroughs in human medicine that didn't even exist.
When they'd started, she thought the project was impossible.
That was when Jack Harper changed the goalposts.
Now they just had to bring her back. It had to be her – her mind, her personality - but he was willing to accept that she might have memory loss, or be so cybernetic that she wouldn't even technically classify as human. The Systems Alliance considered anyone over forty-five percent cybernetic to be impaired, and legal limits restricted any conversion past 55%.
Every scenario they saw would require at least 75% to 80% conversion. Maybe more. And so the planning had begun, and the arguments.
The psychology of Shepard had to be carefully researched first. The chief psychologist had pointed out Shepard suffered from many issues before her death, and simply stuffing her organs and brain into some kind of freak-show cybernetic body, ala Richard Williams, would end up in failure. Shepard already saw herself as a monster and killing machine at one point, and dehumanizing her – especially given the loss of her wife – would only create additional mental issues.
Nor was that the only challenge. Even with cybernetics, they wouldn't solve all the issues. While Project Osiris had created artificial organs, the efficiency of such devices was still hotly debated. Some of the research showed that high percentage cybernetic conversions suffered more mental decay and what was known as cell-memory drift the more they were 'disconnected' from biological systems.
Miranda felt this was a load of spiritualist hooey, but the data didn't lie. You could literally plot the amount of cancer, the lifespan and mental stability of the Alliance's veterans with cyberware along a line corresponding to their cyberware percentage.
Shepard's exposure to the Prothean Beacon had also damaged her mind on some level – they didn't know how well she could hold up without the constant prop of her bondmate, Liara, who was now very dead. Trellani said she could try some things, but serious thought was given to making some kind of clone of T'Soni, or even engaging some other asari to bond. Trellani shot that idea down and spent weeks poring over stolen texts and interrogating asari priestess brutally captured by Kai and Pel, before personally and sadistically executing each one.
She claimed she could fix the issue, and Harper said it was handled.
Unfortunately, that was only the mental problems. On a physical level, merely re-cloning and replacing tissues wouldn't work either. The damage to the brain would require several cybernetic systems to correct and monitor, and Shepard had done something before death that had left many of her cells highly irradiated – Joker thought it was probably the explosion of the Kyle class torpedo she'd damaged the attacking ship with that might have caused that. A full clone replacement attempt usually resulted in multiple cancers. Every clone had to be DNA-examined, genome proofed – which reduced their yield and meant they went through a truly sickening amount of clones during the project.
Worse, no clone could be created with the nervous modifications and alterations to the lymphatic system caused by eezo exposure. Even if they could expose a prenatal Shepard clone to eezo, they couldn't wait for it to grow to full size, nor could such things be merely swapped over. If they could have done that, humanity could create biotics at will. Luckily, most of Shepard's original eezo nodes remained, and while they couldn't clone new ones, they could induce additional nodes in the body while she was functionally dead at little to no risk, boosting her power – but only by utilizing her real, natural body tissues where possible.
Finally, there was always the ugly fact that fully cloned tissue seemed to decay and age faster than 'natural' tissue. They still didn't know why, and Vigil was unhelpful, as Inusannon bio-science had never seen this issue, but even with its help they were unable to overcome the issue completely. Vast banks of clones were flash grown and harvested for healthy cells, which were used to create more clones, but none of them would be fully viable.
They could cheat – a little – by culturing existing, surviving cells without heavy damage. But that would be painstaking work, with any imperfections resulting in starting over from scratch. Vigil was confident they could come up with a clone Shepard that would last, but Harper rejected the idea.
He didn't want a copy. He wanted the real thing, no matter what it cost or how much effort it took. He would compromise on many things, but not on that. And so they began.
Shepard's original body – or at least her torso and head – would have to be salvaged, strengthened, and augmented. The design specifications were simple, but daunting. Shepard would need strong protection on all internal organs, as they would be far more fragile with the type of repair and patch job she was undergoing. Sub-dermal armor, arterial mesh, nanorepair systems, onboard medigel systems – anything and everything that could mitigate damage would be used. The skeleton would need heavy augmentation and bracing, not only to support the cyberware and myomer musculature, but to shield the carefully vat-grown replacement marrow and small nanofactories that would enhance her blood.
Shepard's eyes were gone, and no one had ever mastered making new purely biological ones that were more than cosmetic fillers, so she'd end up with cybernetic replacements there. Her hearing was still functional, once the nanites repaired her delicate inner ear bones, and nothing would be wrong (or changed) about her smell or taste. But additional vision mods and hearing augmentation was built into the empty cyberskull they planned to put her brain inside once it was done being fixed.
They'd spent a month getting the exact coloration of the eyes down, and six days on the subtle folds around the eyes that hinted at Shepard's Chinese heritage. Miranda shuddered when she remembered the four hours they spent on the damned teeth. Or the endless fucking tedium of checking and rechecking the damned hair. None of it was hooked to the body, but it all had to perfect before that point, anyway.
Every detail had to be perfect, not just for psychology's sake, but so that there could be no accusations of Cerberus genning up some kind of monstrous fake. Every bit of the flesh from Shepard that could be salvaged was, carefully bathed in nutrient growths, and overlain where feasible.
More planning was done on what extra features to include in the body that would be used. Some things – gyroscopes in the wrists, protective features against small arms, choking, poisons – were obvious. A low powered pulse stabilizer was Trellani's suggestion, that would stop pulse suppressors and grenades, although not phase disruptors and disruptor rounds, from blocking her biotics.
Clones were made, exposed to horrific death scenarios, and the damage to the brain modeled and examined carefully. The corpse itself was injected with stabilization nanotechnology, as well as something the Inusannon AI known as Vigil created called a 'serenity matrix', some kind of energy field that prevented cellular decay for short periods of time.
The planning began to take on more and more complex aspects, as new people were brought in under heavy scrutiny and some of the first new tools came online. More cultures of cells were taken and examined. The body was laid out and carefully debrided of damaged flesh too wrecked for salvage, while any remaining harvestible cells were cultured. Shattered bone fragments had to be extracted, one by one, in painstakingly delicate operations too fine for the human hand or even most VI's – Vigil itself performed these.
Injections of nanite-laden serum and medical omnigel, packed with building materials, vitamins, amino acids and other less salubrious materials were carefully placed at certain points. The head was left in stasis panels while the body was literally cored, carefully prepared, and set aside. Each organ was given its own critical examination, and the liver, stomach, and kidneys were written off as losses and replaced with cloned replacements, augmented by cybernetics such as filtration systems, chemical analyzers, and a small device that could automatically discharge both clotting and anti-clotting agents.
The badly damaged heart was augmented with cloned tissues and corrective cybernetics, wire mesh and plastic sheathing wrapping around it. Microscopic robots stiffened dead muscular tissue, and nutrient baths and regeneration machines worked on it. The lungs were flash-cloned a dozen times and various models tested and examined, augmented with even more complex and intricate built-in filtration systems.
Miranda had to stop for three months and learn, alongside her slowly growing staff, the delicate details of cybernetics from a sneering Vigil. But the Inusannon biotechnology was literally millenia beyond the best technology the Alliance had, and she put up with the thing's insults. The cybernetic devices they created were 'living metal', capable of regeneration and rebuilding on their own.
Months passed. Entire teams were formed – doctors, biotechnological specialists, cybernetics experts. Two Nobel-Manswell prizewinning biologists joined. The limbs were given to one team, the primary organs to another, and so on and so forth. The progress reports she sent to the Illusive Man became less defensive, more assertive.
The shape on the table began to look less like a mess of meat and tubes, and more like a robot spliced with a human. An entirely new operating theater, highly automated and designed with Vigil's specially programmed VI's in charge, was built at staggering cost. The integration of flesh and metal began, with every cybernetic system overlain with living flesh or a bionetic equivalent. No expense was spared in making the results feel as natural as possible, down to the point where Miranda and one of the cloning techs had a screaming argument over how bouncy her ass should feel to the touch.
Somehow, a recording of this got to Pel, who made endless jokes about it. Miranda offered Kai Leng anything he wanted to stab the other Cerberus agent, and two days later Kai sent back a picture of Pel having suffered a fall down several sets of stairs with his new cyberarm busted and spurting out hydraulics in all directions.
The image had made her smile, if only for a day. She still had it as as screen saver on her portable terminal. The next day she was back to the grindstone, struggling with learning the field of hematology and why Shepard's blood had to have certain elements.
Entirely new fields of medicine were discovered as the new year rang in. Blood chemistry blended with biotechnic developments as they came up with a synthetic blood that would augment natural blood.
Clones were created, harvested, disposed of. One of the key researcher shot themselves, the ethical and legal implications of what they were doing too much for them to handle. Another one went crazy and Taylor and Ezno put him down, throwing the body out the station airlock when they were done.
Miranda realized she wasn't eating enough, but her days blurred together as they worked. Weeks swept by, as progress crawled. Two of the doctors on the ocular implant team ended up having a torrid affair and the woman getting pregnant. Arguments about bringing families to the station were shot down by Ezno with his trademark cold glare.
By the late third of the year, they had ... something. A monstrous body, slowly being reshaped back into a human form. Every possible flaw was examined. Meetings dragged on for hours about how to handle possible attacks. Side effects. Unexpected setbacks and plans were constantly adjusted. Some of what they were working on now was so far beyond known medical science that the teams coined their own words for elements of the work. The alien mix of nanotech living metal and bionetic artificial flesh was mockingly named 'Sheep's Clothing', for example.
Miranda pleaded with Harper to do more careful screening of people with a habit of making horrible puns.
As progress advanced, Wilson's work on the gray-box continued. Vigil had some method of mapping out the neural pathways of Shepard's brain, and combined with Wilson's own research, the possibility that they could accurately save almost all of Shepard's memory – and personality – was rising to close to one hundred percent. Still, it was painstaking, tedious work – thousands of connections were needed, and these were carefully stored on the gray-box, even while swarms of nanites laid billions of chemical trails between neurons, trying to balance the electrochemical balance of the brain once more to that of a living being.
Vigil had said the Inusannon could be revived from death in this manner, although he admitted Inusannon physiology was far stranger than human physiology. Wilson worked diligently, even if in Miranda's opinion he bitched far too much and was too cautious in his approaches.
Two months ago, the breakthrough had happened. Wilson had found a chemical sequence that seemed to produce neural reactivation in the brains of clones killed and left for dead for several hours. It was a mixture of drell mental proteins, mapped to the human genome with coding to mimic the drell genetic pattern as closely as could be achieved with human DNA.
The mixture was tested for weeks on a dozen clones before Miranda went to the Illusive Man for authorization to use it. They'd all held their breath as the gray-box was installed, the microscopic leads threaded through the brain, and the serum injected.
They'd nearly panicked when they realized they were seeing faint neural activity, but Miranda had kept her cool, focusing the team on the integration. A grueling and marathon surgery of twenty five hours had reunited Shepard's brain with her now overhauled body. Nerves were reconnected. Blood vessels clamped shut by nanonic doors were reopened.
It wasn't life. But it wasn't death any longer either. Now they merely had to finish what they started. The celebration had gone on for several hours that day, she remembered.
She glanced up at the status repeaters for the medical bay. No changes. A flicker of a smile crossed her face as she remembered the glow of fierce pride she'd felt. The drinking, the night with Taylor, the rare and proud smile of Jack Harper – it had been a good night.
Now, a month later, they faced new problems. The body had to synchronized with the brain, and the eezo nodules carefully interlaced with both the nervous system and the blueware. A single mistake in one of the nine operations would ruin Shepard's biotics forever.
Assuming that the body on the slab ever woke up. Miranda finished her green tea and walked over to the heavy window in the wall, looking out over the medical bay.
Nude, Shepard seemed to merely be sleeping. The life support docket still extracted waste and kept her breathing, her blood pumping and her other needs taken care of. Robots monitored every system constantly, with human oversight at every level – no failures could or would be tolerated.
Only the most extreme care had been taken to attempt to restore her wrecked body to what it was. Some scars were missing, which Miranda did not think Shepard would miss. The body itself was ...entrancing. The cocoa toned skin rippled with finely tuned muscles, concealing the carefully placed sub-dermal plating covering many of Shepard's vitals. Those muscles were mostly artificial myomer – much stronger than human, and they'd never tire or produce waste products. Still, even laying there, she radiated a sense of power, of dark sensuality.
Miranda didn't envy Shepard's looks...exactly. But no one looking on Sara Shepard would think she was any kind of cyborg, that was certain. Too much attention had been spent on the tiniest details.
The breasts had to be rebuilt, and Miranda had found to her chagrin that Alliance records didn't include bra sizes. Miranda had erred slightly on the side of caution – she didn't think Shepard would complain. Reconstructing the other sexual organs was trickier. Vigil had argued there was hardly a need to compromise the hip region with such things, but Miranda had violently and vehemently disagreed.
Bad enough Shepard was sterile. Flash clones were incapable of producing viable ova in any case, and it didn't seem fair to somehow unsex her without her consent. Oddly enough, it had been Matriarch Trellani's agreement that won that particular argument.
Trellani's job, when it came time to wake Shepard, would be to try to stabilize her mind. Harper had been furious when he learned Liara T'Soni was dead, and Trellani had repeatedly warned that they were taking a serious chance that Shepard might become suicidal or depressed upon learning this. When Miranda suggested simply hiding the truth, the Illusive Man had shook his head.
"The one thing we cannot afford with Shepard is to lie to her. She won't accept that, or having things hidden from her. To make this work, we will have to play by her rules – her ability to accept and deal with things."
It had lessened none of the load on Miranda's shoulders, knowing that even if they brought Shepard back, they could still fail the moment she awoke.
More testing, more lab work, endless examinations. More cybernetic installation, more blood work, more samples. Every day was a new set of data to examine, to review, to see if they were missing something critical. Vigil had gone over the body of Shepard several times, scanning closely, but never found anything out of place.
Now all that was left was the final stretch, and seeing if their dark miracle would actually get up off the table and live...or if their work was in vain after all.
With a sigh, she turned from the window. It was time for the meeting.
Exiting her office, she walked through the wide corridors of the base towards the primary meeting room, nicknamed the Shit Pit by the less than eloquent members of the research team. The name came from the dark brown carpeting in the room, the sloped walls, and the constant amount of arguing and disagreement that occurred in the meetings it hosted.
The station itself was paranoia made manifest. It was built inside a massive asteroid, tucked into a ragged chain of other asteroids in the 'hot zone' of a neutron star. Electromagnetic radiation and torrential storms of hard x-rays would have normally made it uninhabitable, but the entire asteroid was hollow, the crust fortified by sixty feet of lead and filled with a quarter mile of graphite-fortified water. It also huddled behind a more massive asteroid that had been impregnated with iron over the course of months by nanites sprayed into the dark face of the stony body.
The station itself was relatively small. Three floors of medical labs, cloning facilities and testing labs. A floor for the medical operations, and one floor for offices and meeting rooms. Three floors of living spaces, entertainment facilities, exercise rooms and the like. A hangar bay that was actually a huge box on rails that moved from the base itself to an external mounting point, each end of the bay a giant airlock.
The outer shell of the base was a defensive deathtrap, manned with the bizarre, carved statues Vigil created and somehow animated, along with various mechs of the Illusive Man's own design, a maze-like layout studded with traps and false leads, and five floors of a completely fake base dedicated mostly to producing various equipment unrelated to the real project. Harper was sure the Broker could infiltrate his forces given enough time, and had taken every reasonable and unreasonable precaution.
Only those scientists willing to have a cortex bomb installed in their head and undergo a shallow link and screening by Matriarch Trellani could work on the project. The rewards Harper dangled in front of them were blindingly attractive: ownership of patents and designs, shares in the new GenSynth corporation that had been fronted to prototype much of the more esoteric technology, cash rewards, and more.
Of the nine specialist doctors leading the project, only two - Wilson and Chambers - knew their patron was Cerberus – the rest thought this was a highly classified Alliance black project. There were no Cerberus logos on anything, no black and orange armor suits. Even the security force Taylor and Ezno ran so carefully wore standard Alliance uniforms.
The people staffing the base were mostly not 'real' Cerberus, either. Explaining Vigil to some of them had taken more than a few days, but everyone got used to it, and seemed to be pleased the Alliance had 'gotten one over' on the Council. The cover story – that the Alliance had stolen Vigil, that Shepard was being brought back to life per the orders of the High Lords, that the technology would advance human science and power – was lapped up. Some of the scientists, after all, had been involved in other black projects.
The presence of Trellani was handled by the amusing act of the asari dressing up as a Commissar, and Miranda was always sourly impressed by how much like one of those nuts she could act.
She even carried one of those outre flamethrowers around.
Miranda was fairly sure one reason for the security was that most of these people would have to die once the project was completed. That didn't bother her as much as it might have, two years of the most ethically questionable science in human history eroded one's sense of outrage.
As she entered the Shit Pit, she suppressed a grimace at the decor once more. The room was circular, with seats for nine people. The table was brown wood-grain and plain armaplast, but the walls were colorful pale brown pastel colors designed to promote calm thinking. The thick brown pile carpet was comfortable, but utterly wasteful. The big haptic displays on the walls were currently displaying status reports, Shepard's life-signs, and a real-time view of her nude body still on its life support table.
She took her seat the table, slightly early as was her usual habit, and focused her thoughts. As she was doing so, the far door slide open, and the nominal head of security, Randal Ezno, walked through the door. His blue eyes swept across the room in a quick search for threats, just like they always did, before he closed the door behind him and sat in his chair.
She didn't like Ezno, but she didn't dislike him either. He was just ... very stolid. Cold features, cold voice, cold actions. He was a good leader, disciplined and certainly more professional than Pel or Kai Leng. He was nearly as much of a stickler for procedure and accuracy as she was, and drilled his people hard. If not for the fact she had more than a bit of an attraction to Jacob, she would have considered him an ideal chief of security.
But since she did prefer Jacob to this unfeeling wall of a man, she often found herself comparing the two. Jacob led through his own determination and will, inspiring his men to do better. Ezno's icy demeanor and inhuman level of perfection in every aspect of combat was almost demoralizing. He dismissed failure as a sign of incompetence, and expected everyone to adhere to his own standards.
His lack of empathy was useful when it came time for security to tighten, however. He was the only one in the room with no true medical knowledge, but his insight into combat augmentations – and his own experience, with cybernetics, biotics, and weapons – often let him make not only useful but practical contributions to the discussion.
She met his blank gaze with a polite nod, waiting for others to enter.
It only took a few minutes for most of the team leaders to enter and get settled. She reviewed them mentally as she prepared for the meeting.
Wilson himself was at the far end of the table. Short and acerbic, given to outbursts of frustration and a tendency to 'throw shit at the wall until it stuck', he was still brilliant with neurology and neuralink programming, if hopeless at more basic medicine. His development of the mapping techniques for force-filling a gray-box – and having those memories capable of merging back into a human mind without the usual sythesia – was key to the project. Wilson was sloppy and slovenly, but only with his personal appearance – his notes and research materials were immaculate, his testing eccentric but strict, and while he was inclined to do things by the seat of his pants more than Miranda liked, he also produced results. As usual, he was more occupied by his cup of coffee than his surroundings, eyes mostly glued to his padd as he reviewed baseball scores.
Next to him, Doctor Chandar Gayan was reviewing his own notes. A dark-skinned man of Indian extraction, he was the team lead for hematology and oncology. The amount of modified genetics, cyberware, and other foreign materials they were cramming into Shepard's corpse would cause severe toxicity and feedback issues, and Gayan was the one trying to avoid or mitigate those. His dapper appearance was set off by the coldness of his eyes and his deep, booming voice, which always sounded as if he was selling something. Unlike everyone else, his lab coat was worn atop an immaculate three piece suit of the most modern and stylish cut, his dark hair was always freshly trimmed, and his strong cologne was a constant identifier of his personal presence.
Doctor Natalia Kyursko sat next to him, in a conversation with Doctor Kelly Chambers. The bombshell blond Russian woman's flirtation with Chambers at any possible moment was more rumor mill grist for the base personnel – hardly surprising. Kyursko could favorably compare with Miranda herself in terms of the way she carried her supermodel looks, but unlike Miranda was outgoing, extremely friendly and had a roving eye and a reputation for playing both sides of the isle. She'd been playing sweet-glances with Chambers since she'd gotten here a year and two months back, her background in muscular systems and myomer integration valuable to the team, but so far Chambers had shot her down for the often rumored liaisons Kyursko was famous for.
Chambers herself was the one team member Miranda was truly ambivalent about. Kelly was Cerberus – she was the Illusive Man's personal psychological specialist, and far more dangerous than her innocent, bubbly personality would reveal. She looked as if she was twenty six but was far closer to forty, and her sparkling green eyes danced with mischief that Miranda instinctively distrusted. As the team psychological and mental therapy specialist, she would be busy alongside Trellani stabilizing Shepard when she woke up, but her input had been critical in how they chose to rebuild Shepard.
It had been Kelly who had gone to the trouble of recreating Shepard's Tenth Street Red tattoo, and who had demanded they save both the strange notebook of designs and drawings in the stasis pod and the multicolored hammered gold bracelet on her remaining arm. Miranda was amused when Trellani backed Chambers up, and she grudgingly admitted she mostly distrusted Kelly because she got along so well with that asari ... person. It didn't help that of all the team members and researchers, only Kelly's file was unavailable to Lawson.
She hated being in the dark, and the few times she'd gotten testy with Kelly, it was readily apparent the psychologist was more than capable of dismantling Miranda's own fragile mental state with a handful of words and a dismissive smile. Miranda would have gladly removed her if she wasn't so useful – and kept that dreadful Kyursko woman from hitting on her.
Ignoring the two of them, she swept her eyes past Ezno to the rail-thin figure of Doctor Carla Andira. A slender woman with dark black hair and intelligent eyes, Andira's ancestors had been Brazilian, a dark mark on her entire life so far. Struggling to find funding for her research into exotic applications of nanotechnology and immune systems, she'd been snapped up by Miranda and was the only one of the non-Cerberus team leads she was considering salvaging after the project completed. Andira was as driven as Miranda herself, something of an introvert, and completely without ego – willing to compromise when it was needed, but standing firm when she knew she was right. Always helpful and positive without being bubbly, the young doctor was probably Miranda's favorite, and surprisingly the only real friend she'd made in her days here.
The last two doctors were the more morally troubling of the group. Doctor David Ahankar was some mongrel mix of Scottish, Italian, Ethiopian and Samoan, giving him dark red hair, black eyes, the build of a sumo, and a surprisingly good tenor. From Arcturus, his patois was mostly gone and his accent mostly clean, but on occasion he would drop into the old tongue and unleash scathing profanity. Ahankar was the lead in charge of cloning and organ integration, a fully trained internist with six degrees and several patents under his belt. He was also an egomanical skirt chasing asshole in Miranda's opinion, and far too quick to answer any question with tests of clones that killed said clones in horrible ways. He didn't care if Shepard lived or died, he just wanted to prove his theories on clone harvesting to improve natural cellular efficiency was right.
But even he was pleasant compared to Doctor Jeremy Hyrim. A doctor from Bekenstein, his pale skin and dark hair and eyes weren't unusual, but his Jewish kippah hat and long, ultraorthadox beard certainly stood out. Ahankar was a womanizer, while Hyrim hated women and was a sexist pig when it came to anything and everything. His specialization in bone regeneration, skeletal support, and cybernetic mounting made him critical, but his inputs were rarely anything but sandpaper to the nerves. Worse still, he was the first one calling for more outrageous and inhuman modification to Shepard's body – any cost to her mind was dismissed. He was still miffed, she thought, that the whole project didn't center around a man.
She sighed, as one seat was still unfilled. As she did so, the door slid open, and the lean form of Doctor Saylish Six-Hawks walked in and sat down. His craggy face was twisted in a smile as he did so. Six-Hawks was an American Indian, a skilled bioengineer and a masterful neurologist and nerve surgeon, but his actual specialization was in biotic therapy and care. While certainly good at his job, he was almost chronically late to every single meeting, and had tendency to 'indulge' in various esoteric theories that always sidetracked each discussion and enraged Hyrim.
Miranda sighed. "It's time for the monthly status recap. Before we get started, I wish to thank your teams again for their hard work over the past week. We're now showing seventy eight percent integration on the nervous voluntary level and ninety-two percent involuntary – that means we can take the subject off life support as early as this week and set a final date for reawakening in the near future."
She forced a smile, and then continued. "However, as you all have seen the reports, we have increased failure signals as well. Neural tissue growth is barely moving at two-tenths of a percent. Scarring has once again set in across the shoulder joints and the cloned kidneys are still not filtering correctly. Shepard doesn't need to wake up with gallstones the size of a golf-ball, I think we can all agree on that."
She checked her notes. "Also, toximal gas buildup is up half a percent. We need a better way of eliminating that from the body until we get the artificial blood up and running at full capacity. We also are worried about the most recent MRI scans – we're not seeing enough neural activity, well below the planned threshold."
She looked up. "Now, let's review our current status, system by system. Doctor Wilson?"
Four draining hours later, she stood in the primary communications room, before the semitransparent QEC image of her leader.
He'd listened carefully to her report, smoking and sipping his drink as usual, and then nodded as she finished. "It sounds as if you are nearly complete with your preparations. The facility we'll be moving Shepard to for the awakening process is nearly finished, along with the support materials and personnel we'll need for her to complete the tasks I have in mind."
He put out his cigarette. "And with that being said...I have a proposition for you, Miranda. I know you've pushed yourself to the limits on this – first getting Shepard's body out of the mess at Omega, then tackling a project that challenged everything we assumed we knew about the human body and the nature of death itself, and you've risen to the challenge every time." He smiled – a rare, real smile, not his usual thinly mocking one – and she found herself helplessly smiling back.
"Thank you, sir. I have done the best I could, and while I'm not entirely satisfied with the way things ended up, I'm convinced we certainly achieved the goals you set for me."
He nodded. "You did. But as amazing as what you've accomplished is, you must realize it is only the very first, small step in a much larger plan."
He leaned back in the chair she could only barely make out. "Before I lay out my proposition, some framework understanding is needed. The Reapers are still out there. The war with the geth is grinding down, and the batarian Empire is mostly a fraction of its former might, but both are still dangerous and possibly under the control of Reaper forces. The Council, thanks to the honeyed words of the Broker, think they have decades until the Reapers strike."
He lit a fresh cigarette. "I disagree."
She frowned. She'd not been able to keep up on outside events or politics as much as she would have liked, and she knew she was out of the loop. "Is there anything specific that is worrying you?"
He nodded, slowly. "There have been, over the past year, six wildcat colonies of humans in the Traverse completely wiped out. By what, I don't know. Every one of them is simply vacated of human life, as if something came along and scooped them up in the middle of work, play, or sleep. There is no evidence of a culprit, no signs of battle, no sensor logs that give us even the slightest clue. Every one so far is reachable by FTL from multiple relays, so we haven't even got a good fix on where the enemy is striking from."
She turned that information over in her head. "It wouldn't be the geth, then, since they never bothered to hide their activity when attacking before, only their attempts at building anchorages outside the Veil."
He gave her another smile. "Exactly my thinking. I've narrowed down the possible culprits, and there are only three possibilities. Slavers or raiders, independent military of an alien species...or an unknown actor, something we've not considered."
He puffed on his cigarette."Slavers and raiders don't have the capacity for the sort of surgical precision and flawless execution I've seen. Every colony with GTS defenses was taken with said defenses firing a shot. Pets were unharmed. Twice, asari were on the wildcat colonies, and were found simply dead, of a completely unknown toxin that was administered via some kind of injection – possibly a sting or bite."
He sipped something from the glass on the arm of his chair, then set it back down. "I've ruled out alien military action for the simple expedient that not a single solitary drive trace or any identifiable weapons fire residue has ever been picked up. The only thing my ships found six hours after a raid was a hint of exotic particle traces."
Miranda frowned. Why did that sound familiar? She reviewed her memories and then looked up. "The Normandy picked up exotic particle traces right before that unknown ship attacked and destroyed it."
Harper nodded. "Exactly. Based on what we've been able to put together from the scattered recollections of Mr. Moreau and the hull scarring on the wreckage of the Normandy, whatever destroyed her was using some kind of weapon much like the main gun of Nazara, although with a different focus. More like some form of supercharged particle stream."
He tapped a control on the other arm of his chair. "My scientists on another project tell me that it is very unlikely anyone could have reverse engineered such a weapon at the time of the Normandy's destruction...and that the 'Thanix Cannon' the turians have come up with is no where near as powerful and efficient yet. No one else had access of any kind to such weapons. To me, it implies a connection to the Reapers."
She nodded slowly, then shook her head. "That may fit, but it's weak, sir. No one will buy that argument, even if it fits the data."
Harper smiled wryly. "A sadly accurate assessment, Miranda. The new Addison Administration and President Huerta don't want to rock any boats. Why should they? They hate the very idea of wildcat colonies, and every one that vanishes without a trace only makes the rest more nervous without SA protection." His eyes narrowed, the blue circles within each iris seemingly glowing brighter for a moment. "And it reminds me entirely too much of the plans Richard and Rachel came up with to build a base of support for Cerberus operations."
She sourly nodded at that idea. It had become clear, in the years since the fall of Cerberus, that somehow Richard Williams had survived the fall of the headquarters. The so-called group known as Hades was definitely bearing all the hallmarks of his meglomaniacal actions. Cerberus was still weak, still wary of openly exposing themselves, while Hades was seemingly everywhere, especially on the outer colonies, fed up after what they saw as SA intolerance and constantly rising taxes.
Miranda shrugged. "If your surmise is right, then the Alliance still should be concerned. If this is some Reaper scout force..."
He shook his head. "Nothing so dramatic, I think. It took a great deal of digging, and more fruitless bribes and maneuvering than I liked, but I've pulled together several pieces of the puzzle." He tapped his chair controls again, displaying a different image in the QEC. "Shepard found a second Tho'ian on the ruined garden world of Eingana, wounded and nearly destroyed. On that world she found a single survivor, a Exital scientist who recorded an assault by what we've confirmed were Collectors." He touched another control and a video began to play.
A shaky image of some forest-strewn skyscraper appeared, the plantlife obscuring most of the ruin a sickly blue color. In the distance off to the left of the tower, a cylindrical ship, half comprised of arches of gray or black metal, half comprised of what looked like rock, hung in the sky. A few turian fighters or gunships flew past, but a beam of golden light seared through each one, blasting them to little more than fragments.
Hulking black creatures with tear-drop shaped heads, four glowing eyes, and insectile wings descended, firing weapons that were more of the same beams of golden energy. Turians they hit were disintegrated, collapsing to piles of smoking char and ash. Swarms of what looked like fist sized bugs choked the air, obscuring the battle.
A large group of the winged, insect-looking aliens was heading on foot into the city, cutting down anything in their path. The video ended suddenly, in a burst of static, then faded to black.
Miranda shrugged. "I fail to see the relevance."
Harper blew out smoke as he leaned back. "The ruins have, of course, been seized and sealed by the turian Hierarchy. But they ran tests on the damage to the building, and to the wrecked turian fighters. The weapon that inflicted that damage is almost an exact match to the weapon that destroyed the Normandy."
He looked at his glass, and frowned, handing it off to someone out of the pickup's cone of vision. "We also know, based on some of the information seized at Saren's base on Noveria and from bits found at Virmire, that Okeer was defiantly working with Saren. The Broker claimed to have killed him, but our ears in the Traverse have more than few rumors of missing krogan clans or mercenary groups, and we have video of what looks like a Collector vessel – nearly identical to the one in the video – operating in the vicinity of Korlus, a backwater salvage world. A world that suddenly has a large number of new krogan recruits, all supremely well trained and savage. It is possible he survived and struck some kind of deal with the Broker."
Harper dumped ashes from his cigarette, as a new drink was placed by his side. "Okeer was a famous genetic scientist and aided the salarians in the creation of the Genophage. He was also, according to Rana Thanoptis, who was captured at Virmire, responsible for the rachni-krogan crossbreeds seen on the Citadel during the Benezia Incident."
Miranda felt lost. "I'm still not following."
Harper inclined his head. "Patience. The final piece is the one that I've been awaiting confirmation on. Doctor Thanoptis and records found at Ylana's base both tell us that Collectors did business of some kind with Saren and with Ylana."
He spread his hands. "We have a very tenuous connection that implies the Collectors might be involved with Reapers and were definitely involved with both Saren and Ylana, as well as responsible for exterminating a Tho'ian. We know, based on Okeer's message to Ylana found on Lehan, that Okeer dealt with Ylana. We know, based on what little we found out, that the Broker claims to have killed Okeer, but someone is on Korlus, dealing with Collectors, possibly selling krogan and breeding new ones. The thread is thin...but I think the Broker and Okeer may be tied to the Collectors."
His eyes narrowed. "I assumed that the Broker had been involved in the sabotage of Shepard's mission and her death because someone in the Alliance ordered it, but I found absolutely no evidence of that."
Miranda folded her arms. "Saracino killed himself. I thought we assumed that was the source?"
Harper shook his head. "His bank accounts were untouched, and in any event I'm not totally convinced it was a suicide. Someone on his staff bypassed his security system overrides and left his house unsecured for over six hours the night of his supposed suicide, then reactivated it in the morning and vanished from the face of the Earth. The AIS wanted to nail Saracino and didn't follow up on this, but I think he was killed because he knew something. What he knew, remains a mystery...but he was the child of Michael Saracino and Rachel Florez."
She placed her arms behind her back and waited. "And now?"
The Illusive Man finished his cigarette. "Right now, we're in a holding pattern, until Shepard wakes up and we can see what sort of mindset and state she's in. But the Collectors are the only party who fit the evidence we have for who is attacking human colonies. Three quarters of a million people do not just vanish without a trace, and I want to know why these colonies are being hit. Biological research to come up with a weapon to use against us? Terror tactics? Something else? It's a bad time to be blind."
She bit her lip. "Understood, but ... you said you had a proposition for me?"
He gave her a flat stare. "Yes. When Shepard wakes up, the best chance we have to convince her to work with us is to give her a focus for her anger and rage. A duty to perform, once that has no morally questionable overtones. One that allows her to ... find her bearings."
He paused, examining a data-padd in is hands."Based on Doctor Chambers recommendations, I'm already putting together a crew and we've been working for some time on an appropriate vessel. What I need, however, is someone who knows Shepard's medical condition and special needs, as well as someone who can be a competent executive officer and take command of the mission if Shepard goes...off-script. I need eyes, and a presence I can trust. I need you, Miranda, to continue working with her."
Miranda nodded, although she had reservations. Before she could speak, though the Illusive Man held up a hand. "I know you must be close to exhaustion, given how you push yourself. There will be a least a little down time on this. You're of no use to me on this mission if you're so worn down as to inefficient, and once she awakes Shepard will require ... testing."
He sipped his drink. "You won't be alone either. I can't part with Trellani, but I can give you good backup – Jacob Taylor for security, and Doctor Kelly Chambers for insight into Shepard's mind." He paused. "If she makes the call, she's also authorized to try to seduce Shepard, if that helps."
Miranda coughed. "Shepard's ... ah, memory streams as recorded on the gray-box indicated she had rather extreme tastes, sexually speaking. I know those are incomplete when viewed externally but - "
He shrugged. "Dr. Chambers is well aware of that. It is only an option...one I didn't want you trying, in case that worried you such would be required."
She smiled, but weakly. She'd been tasked more than once to use her body and looks to ensnare targets for Cerberus, something she hated. The tutelage of how to do so under an alien witch like Trellani was even more humiliating, even she even made men like Kai and Pel stare at her, and Jack himself crawl to her bed.
She had caught even Richard Williams, a thing that wasn't even alive anymore, staring at her ass more than once at headquarters. Disgusting. Clearing her thoughts, she nodded. "Thank you. I'm afraid my tastes do not really run towards my own gender."
Not that she hadn't thought about it. She figured a great many women in her position probably did. But it didn't seem to have any point to it. Sexual pleasure empty of any meaning behind it was certainly a stress relief, but never appealed to her. The few men she craved the attention of were all attractive...but they all caught her eye for a different reason, mental rather than physical.
She didn't know what the hell she was going to about Jacob, and having him along would certainly complicate things. But she could figure that out later.
She exhaled. "What else do I need to prepare for to take on this task, sir?"
He sat back, expression blank, eyes glancing to one side, and she recognized his pose as one of carefully considering his words. After long moments he finally spoke. "You need to be familiar with how Shepard thinks, and reacts. I'm certainly not above using her ... but if she feels used, or worse, manipulated, Chambers thinks she will react poorly. When she asks for data, give it to her. She's not a natural charismatic leader – yet she can lead. People want to impress her, to make her react. Put her into situations where she could be double-crossed by us and show her that we won't."
He folded one hand into a fist. "Don't, whatever you do, let her anger outrun her control. Don't make us a target. If she focuses on what Cerberus has done wrong, don't try to defend the organization or me, Miranda. She's going to be fragile at first. Be her friend."
The dark haired beauty gave Jack Harper a nigh incredulous look. "That's easier said than done! She is likely to look at us as a pack of terrorists!"
The Illusive Man smiled. "No, she would have. Once she sees the position she's in, she'll start blaming people. Her mind isn't one to analyze a situation, but to react to it. She rarely chooses the wrong answer. It's almost like she has a pragmatic engine for a mind, discarding anything but what has to be done. She'll realize that the Alliance and the Council both are ultimately not going to get involved. And the people of the wildcat colonies are weak, helpless. Innocent of the misdoings of the Alliance."
He smiled. "We might imply, although we have no proof, that the Collectors are gathering some kind of slave labor force."
She thought about that, and compressed her lips. "I'll have full information on Shepard?"
He nodded. "Not just the full dossier on her. Chambers is already working hard to prepare one for her interactions with the crew, past interactions with other people in her life, and position dossiers. I'm in the process myself of figuring out what kind of tasking to give her, and what sort of support she'll need, but I'm not just going to send her out on a ship to gather a pack of killers and hurl her at the Collectors."
He sipped his drink. "That's ... an inefficient use of the six and half billion credits we've invested so far."
She nodded. "How long do I have?"
He shrugged. "I'd like to see Shepard up and running in three months, Miranda – but if you need more time, take the time. Accuracy is more important than speed. I'd like to move her out of that base of yours and into the facility to wake her up when feasible, but I'm willing to give you five more months if you need them."
Miranda considered. "We'll be able to do it in three, sir. Have you given any thought to the idea we had of a control chip?"
Harper grimaced. "I have. And after careful thought, the answer is no. The stakes are too high. If it were discovered by other parties, and hacked, it could undo all our hard work – and no matter what security we put on such an interface, it would be a weak point. If discovered by Shepard or others, it would ruin any relationship with had with her, and turn her against us."
Miranda sighed."Then I hope your facility for waking her up has sufficient security, sir."
He nodded. "Oh, it does. It will serve as a base of operations for her, so I'm hardly going to leave it defenseless. For now, keep me updated on progress. Good work, Miranda."
Somewhere between a dream and a memory, in a brain that only worked in some ways and not others, a tiny black-haired child dreamed of endless sunny skies. She felt alone, and frightened, until a blue hand reached down.
A somehow familiar face, with eyes full of love above freckled cheeks, smiled at her. "You will never be alone, Sara."
The little girl smiled, and sank again beneath the waves of awareness, drifting on a sea of shifting, rustling leaves. Tides of vast forests and a sky of spinning starships whirled overhead, with the light coming from a single vast crescent moon.
Wake up, Shepard.
Wake up, Sara.