Queen's Gambit, Book 1 - "Gone with the Sun"

Chapter 18 These three remain


The Living

The world gently infused into a dreamless, timeless state. There was white everywhere. Puffy pillow. Crisp sheets. Glowing panels in the ceiling. Soft noises and an occasional metallic plink.

How fascinating. I'm still here. There seemed to be a complete absence of threat.

Did she need to deal with the noises? No urgency. Fluffy sensation embedded in a cotton cloud. There was something very desirable about being able to drift away into something resembling sleep again. The universe had been altogether too busy for too long. She turned away from it for a little longer.

Returning to consciousness was a prolonged series of gentle dips and rises from that world of cotton wool, till at some point she felt another presence close by. A door opened and closed. Gently nudged by her reviving senses, she became gradually aware of a chair, and a person reading.

She still didn't want to move, but her eyes began reporting a coherent view of the world. Which did seem spartan and military, yet very peaceful. That incongruity sparked a wider overall interest in her surroundings.

Oh boy. I'm in trouble now.

A severe-looking woman, her hair pepper-and-salt, in blue-grey fatigues, was making marks on old-style paper with an old-style pencil. These were still popular on board ship and in colonies (at least where paper could be had or made), for art, personalia, or communications untraceable digitally.

Steps approached and a figure in dark clothing appeared, an older man with scars in an officer's fatigue tunic. Not an unkind face. Perhaps it was time to wake up. She opened her eyes fully and tried to lift her head. She was in a hospital bed, angled up slightly.

"Ow." Fully awake now, though parts of her clearly preferred sleep.

The woman turned to look, and smiled, suddenly radiant, the dour impression vanishing. Frost leaving a Canadian window in the morning. She exchanged glances with the officer, who spoke first.

"Welcome back to the living, child. One has heard so much, yet so little, about you."

She began trying to sit up. He offered a hand, gently pulled her forward, the two of them tilted the bed up further and rested pillows behind her back and neck. Now she could sort of sit up. The officer looked back at the woman. "So. How long has trouble been awake?"

"She's only just woken, I think. Her eyes were closed two minutes ago." She showed the man her paper pad. There was a drawing of a beautiful sleeping woman, but – wait, that's me? "Oh!"

Way too flattering. She didn't have eyelashes like that. Her appearance – she patted her hair. It was longer, a little, it had filled out. Someone had shampooed it, too, it was puffy. Was she more blonde than redhead again? Damn.

"Hannah! Where am I?" How original, not. "I mean, Admiral Shepard? Is this the fleet? Chloe said something about the Orizaba?"

"Indeed yes. Steven, there should be a chair by the bed next door. This is the celebrated Ms Hannigan. Dr Michel would like to see you… Kelly… but she's a bit busy, another doctor's in charge of you."

Oh no. Deep, deep do-do. 'Steven' returned with a chair and sat next to her. She couldn't help an automatic reaction, covering her mouth with her left hand and beginning to point. Suppress that, stupid girl. "So you're – you must be Shepard's boss? You look a little different from the holos."

"I had more hair back then, and it was darker. Pictures don't do you justice either, young lady. Do you feel like talking to us? Your Doctor Chloe was able to tell us a little, John had said a lot more but it was difficult to credit, and Lieutenant Moreau threatened us with an unending stream of bad jokes if we kept you to ourselves, you will have to see him at some point."

"Jeff said that? He must be all right." Turned to the woman. "And I know you must be upset with me. This is your ship? And Admiral, this is your fleet! Why – I mean – what do you want with me? I've left Cerberus. Am I in trouble again? What have I done now?"

"Whoa, whoa there." Hackett had a twinkle in his eye as he waved her worries away. "The Cerberus thing is an old story…"

That was a weight off her shoulders…

"… Some Spectres pardoned a small number of defecting Cerberus staff, including you, so you're safe from the Council, and I've ratified it for the Alliance. That's not the trouble you're in, missy…"

… Although it sounded like she still had some kind of misdemeanor to answer for, but not to a firing squad. He was smiling when he said that…

"… What do we call you, anyway? Felicia? Hannigan?"

Ack. The forged IDs, on top of ticking off Hannah Shepard. She wished she could speak to John about this. Maybe he could keep her from the wolves, if he survived. At least she wasn't facing prison, or worse. Was Hannah after her scalp? No, she'd been drawing her with some… sympathy? Maybe she wasn't mad. Was Hackett after her or Harkin? But I'm in some kind of proper hospital, not a brig infirmary. They hadn't really threatened her yet, and it would have been so easy.

She fell back on her father's prescription. When in doubt, just be yourself.

"Well, John said to make myself scarce, but you can call me Kelly."

She beamed at them. Hackett blinked, turned to Hannah Shepard. "They weren't kidding." Hannah nodded vigorously. 'Trouble' felt her cheeks burn. Maybe a bit too much myself.

Never mind that for now. "Admiral, I mean Hannah, I guess John made it?"

There was an immediate drop in temperature. "In a way, yes. Though, there's only so much we can do right now." Oops.

"We think once some basic issues are dealt with, we may have to cold-sleep him for a little while, till certain implant repairs are possible again."

"Oh." She felt briefly deflated, but – "So he's alive though? Can I talk to him?"

"We'll take you soon. But not to speak, dear. There is progress, but he's asleep for now, and some time to come."

Whew. By the time the shuttle had reached the infirmary, the last word from Chloe, while Chakwas stuck a needle in her and the world went spinning round, was "Stop worrying, sweets," damn woman and her sense of humor, but you never knew.

"You are among the very few who can. See him, that is, or even know he's alive. We are trying just as hard as we possibly can to keep the fact of his continued existence a secret. There have simply been too many strange things happening."

"There was some unlikely rumor about… a clone?"

"No rumor." There was a knock at the door. "Come in, Doctor" said Hackett. But it wasn't Chloe, it was Dr Chakwas. "Karin! The Illusive Man's not around any more."

"I know, Kelly. Tactus would like to see you."

"Can I? Is that alright, Admiral?"

Hackett looked severe. "Perhaps, but you're in a similar case to the commander. Would you like to see him, dear?"

"Please!" What was all this dear business?

"Very well. Chloe tells me he'll make trouble if he doesn't see you alive and happy. I'll have her impress on him the desirability of ignorance. And Moreau… he's heard something… but the fewer who know, the better. I hope he can keep a secret."

"He can. When lives depend on it."

Hannah seemed to accept this. "Good. We don't want wild stories being broadcast. Or any kind of story. At least not all the truth. I'm sending nearly everyone who might be curious away on actually fairly important stuff that happens to be far from the citadel. For a while."

"Same here. Tactus is the imponderable. He will already have told the Primarch some inconvenient tales. But I don't imagine for two seconds it would be smart to keep him out. Young lady, please do what you can to impress discretion upon him."

Dr Chakwas jumped in: "Steven. Besides Jeff, don't tell the Normandy crew… yet. Most never knew Kelly anyway. Keep them so busy they stop thinking about Shepard."

"Right. They can wait a little longer. You debrief Moreau, Karin. I'll have a word with the Primarch, too."

"Very well, Admiral… but in other news, Fleet Security detected Kasumi boarding a shuttle en route here. Zaeed has heard C-Sec sent certain persons on patrol and is threatening mayhem. Bailey is not impressed."

"We'll speak to Mr Massani. And Bailey. Let Ms Goto think she hasn't been spotted."

"Good luck with that," said the patient. This sardonicism was ignored.

"Get Miranda to track down Kasumi, then she can see our young delinquent. I have things for them to do if they can refrain from squabbling, and by the time they get back their partner in crime can be elsewhere."

"I never!"

"We know, we know. Doctor, will you need assistance?"

"I don't think so, Admiral, I have a wheelchair outside."

"Very well. Hannah, with me, we have to put the fear of God in a man who doesn't believe." And poof, they were gone.

"That was a bit… sudden. But they were very friendly. I was expecting… I don't know, not this."

Karin was examining her, a faint grin on her face. "They don't have a lot of time, dear."

"God, not you too, what's this dear nonsense." A faint suspicion began to form.

"Ah. True. Well, it's easier when we don't know what to call you, for one thing. Here, let's get you out of bed."

She found she could stand. And breathe, but she felt a little dizzy and unwell.

"I guess I'm Kelly for now."

"As you wish."

She wobbled in front of the wheelchair and sat with a bit of a thump, Ugh.
"Or, you could call me Buttercup. My disguise is clearly slipping. Why are you pushing this thing?"

"Orderlies chat, and would remember you."

"So… where are we going?"

"Next stop is to see Dr Michel who for some reason demanded to be told when you were back with us. She's at the special trauma facility, but Miranda insists on calling it the Lazarus lab. Less than a dozen people are permitted entry. Chloe, you and I among them."

"Me!?" Fifty metres further, they branched off into another pristine white area.

"You'll see." They had to change clothing and go through barrier practice.

She was feeling better by now. Karin was watching with a critical eye. "Doctor, for heaven's sake, I'm not made of eggshells. I can walk." Her antennae were frantically signaling… something.

"Very well. With me."

They proceeded through two doors. Chloe was waiting on the far side. "Oh!" She tried to hug, but received a reminder of mortality. "I won't try that again soon."

"Are you feeling alright?"

"People are being very… kind."

Chloe grinned and hugged her. "Oof. Okay. Can I see him?"

"Right this way. Miranda and I have just finished basic work on the eyes. He's still a bit of a mess, I'm afraid. Well and truly under for some time, several weeks at least."

They entered. Miranda looked up and smiled, wonder of wonders. "Come here, you." She returned the smile, a little tentatively. "Gosh." Antennae waving faster now.

A vaguely John-shaped mummy lay in the middle of a sparsely furnished ward, the only occupant of a bed with more instrumentation than the Normandy's comm board.

"Chloe, you and I have things to take care of. We'll leave you two here a while."

"Good plan." How convenient. But Miranda did not seem quite so… fraught.

She approached in some trepidation. There were tubes, silver and white wrappings. Some gold. She sat down on the other side, and looked a question. Miranda began bringing her up to speed. Why was she super-friendly? It was… nice. But disturbing.

"… not much under the wrappings yet, but the self-flesh is making progress. It's the bones that worry me. There are hairline fractures everywhere, not healing as fast as they should. But Karin thinks she has a plan. It involves an old technique with impressed electromotive force."

"Oooh. Well met, Dr Frankenstein." That made Miranda smile properly, with the eyes. Good. It lit her face right up. But what was happening? "You seem less stressed."

"Not sure why. I'm not safe. You could have made my life a complete misery."

This was baffling. "Whyever would I want to?"

The two women sat quietly together for a few moments in a silence punctuated only be the occasional bleep of a monitor. Miranda cleared her throat. "Guess what, I've had to relinquish the primary treatment lead role here."

"Really? Any special reason?"

Miranda shrugged. "There are things which need doing. And to be honest if I kept the job I'd have to ditch my team."

"Ah. Shepard would never do that."

Miranda seemed a little absent. "I'm not him though. What he says isn't the last word."

"You don't fool me."

"No. I guess not. I received an earful about you, a few hours ago."

"Nice things?"

Miranda smiled again. "Illuminating things. They were nice, too. I'm supposed to talk to you. So you don't run off like a scared rabbit."

"That plan's a bust. I've got alarm bells going off inside. All these people being super-sweet to me? I usually have to work at that. Is it because of Shep? It shouldn't be. He thought the world of you. I could tell."

Miranda laughed. "Him, yes, a little bit." Came around and sat beside her, swinging her legs. "Don't kid yourself, Kelly. He would have crossed the galaxy to find you."

"He did, I guess. But not me alone. I'm just a cupcake."

"All the more delectable. I didn't think you were real, you know. You put Brooks to shame."

"Who's Brooks?"

"One of a long series of aliases. You haven't been watching the news? Kept a clone of Shepard instead of dumping it."

"I think I heard about a clone."

"Brooks - Hope Lilium when I knew her - composed the initial list for his team, but fell out with the Illusive Man when he included aliens."

"I know that name." This revelation startled Miranda a little, but she recovered:

"Well, what you might not have been aware of was that she turned out to be a frank xenophobe. Tried to substitute one Shepard for t'other. Fooled everyone, inveigling herself into the team. Overdid it, in my opinion. No-one's that sweet. Except you actually are."

"I'm not. I'm a conniving witch. I told the Illusive Man she was a conniving witch, too."

"Really? I'll get more of the story later. Set it aside for now. You've met Shepard's mother?"

"I'm so not nice. I've put husks down. One Cerberus trooper on my scent. Headshots. Shepard showed me how. Even after everything I did. Where's my gun, by the way?"

"Toombs has it. He's got it in pieces and is mumbling."

"Oh my."

"Don't worry, when he gives it back it will probably take a marauder in one shot."

"Headshot, maybe."

"Wait. You've dodged the question. Impressive. I nearly missed it."

"I liked that gun. It did its job very quietly."

"Chambers."

"Now that's the Miranda we know and love."

"Kelly!" Sharply, but she didn't mean it. She was cracking up. Good.

"Fine, yes, I met Hannah."

"She's 'Hannah' to you, eh? When?"

"Just a little while ago. And Admiral Hackett. Being suspiciously nice. Like you."

"She'd walk through fire for you. And Hackett would follow her."

"Why? This is driving me nuts."

"My dear Kelly. John loved you. That would be enough. But that's not all." Miranda took her hands in hers. "Chloe ran tests. You're carrying Hannah's grandchild."

"Oh." Pieces of the jigsaw fell into place with a clang. She put her hands to her cheeks, then over her navel. Miranda nodded.

"That's… shouldn't I have noticed?"

"Not necessarily. Not this early, at least."

Chambers thought about it a bit more. "Oh joy. And I even wondered for a fraction of a second. My contraceptive's expired."

"But you went with it anyway."

Not said meanly. Miranda's eyes crinkled. "It went out of my head. We… this is hard to explain… we got ourselves into this position – don't look at me like that, I mean Shepard was sort of in a bad place, I wasn't well myself, and he'd pulled me from an unspeakable death. We were talking, in the dark, and we… lost it. My first time. I was sore afterwards, but I felt so much better. He did too, I think. His eyes looked better."

Lost in recollection, Chambers paused. "It was wonderful. Then he did it again."

"Stop it, you're making me green."

Chambers looked down at her tummy. "Well. I suppose in a few months, I'll be an exploded pocket of flesh. He's not going to want me after that."

"Kelly, that's so… I can't begin to tell you how wrong that is. Besides," and Miranda grinned at her, "with the exercises I have planned you'll be a sylph again in weeks."

"Oh no. Have mercy."

"Sorry. I have my instructions. Boss has plans. You did ballet?"

"I haven't danced for years!"

"That's not what I hear. We'll start with Giselle…"

Time passed. Beeping monitors punctuated low conversation. After long and long, there wasn't much left to say. Summoning up what remained of her courage, she asked: "Can I touch?"

"Go ahead, Chambers. I do, too. Sometimes."

Kelly laid a hand on his bandaged forehead, wondering: Shepard, can you hear me in there?
–then whispered:

"Come back soon."


- End (of Queen's Gambit) -


This world begins again at Arc 3: "Grave to cradle"

- by the same author (under s/11385974/1/)

Friday, July 17, 2015