7. Excessive Force

The Garden of Eden Hotel had a total of ten floors, with ground level through to level nine open to all hotel guests. The tenth level was accessible only through the use of a passkey. As Shepard rode up to the ninth floor, she stared fixedly at the slot the key would go into. It almost seemed to be mocking her. Soon, the doors opened and Shepard stepped out into the hallway. Doors leading off the hall were spaced at regular intervals along both sides of the hallway but there was nobody else around. Then motion in her peripheral vision caused Shepard's head to turn to the left, just in time to see a tall man in a rent-a-cop type uniform push through the door at the end of the hallway and out into the stairwell beyond. Walking rapidly to catch up, Shepard saw the faint flare of a lighter and realised the man was taking a quick cigarette break. Pefect she thought as she lunged forward, grabbed the guard by the shoulder and spun him into the wall of the stairwell as, behind them the door clicked shut. The guard grunted and tried to put an elbow into Shepard's stomach. He stopped as he felt the gun barrel press into the back of his head.

"What..." the man gulped visibly, sweat beading on his forehead, "What do you want?"

"Access key to the penthouse level," Shepard said quietly. "Don't try to be a hero. You're not being paid enough to risk your life trying to stop me."

Sweating freely, the man said, "OK, OK, just let me get it-" his words were cut off as Shepard put him into a sleeper hold.

"I think I'll get it myself, thanks all the same."
The man fell into a heap as she stepped away from him. Shepard quickly frisked the unconscious guard, relieving him of the passkey as well as his radio. The radio was going to be a problem, she belatedly realised. If the guard didn't check in or respond to his superiors, they'd come looking for him. Once they found him, they'd realise their security was compromised. Shepard cursed as she realised she'd effectively given herself a time limit and didn't even know how long it was.

Carefully easing the door open a crack, Shepard carefully peered out at the hallway beyond. A young couple were just leaving their room and heading to the elevator. Once they were out of visual range, Shepard silently re-entered the hallway, tucking the gun back out of sight as she did.

Back inside the lift car, Shepard inserted the key into the slot at the top of the rows of glowing numbers. As the elevator made its all-too-brief trip upwards, Shepard tried to centre herself. She breathed deeply, hoping with each exhale to rid herself of uncertainty and fear. She couldn't afford to freeze up now, not when she was so close. The elevator doors slid open and Shepard stepped out onto the black and white marbled floor. Up ahead was the door to the penthouse suite proper. No guards though. Shepard couldn't decide whether this was a good or bad thing. Good in that she still had the element of surprise. Bad in that she had no clue as to the force composition of the enemy. You idiot, Shepard. A combat veteran walking into a situation completely blind. And still you were a Spectre for five years? The Council really must have been desperate if you were their last best hope.

With an effort, Shepard silenced the voice and strode up the hallway, boot heels clicking on the polished floor. Halfway to the door, a discreet fire alarm button set into the right hand wall caught her attention. "Break glass in case of emergency," Shepard said to herself. Raising the butt of her pistol to shatter the panel, she decided her missing daughter constituted an emergency.

Despite everything that had happened in the last little while, Lauren struggled to keep her eyes open. The reality of her situation had finally set in and she felt fear unlike anything she'd ever experienced before now. Her mind, frayed almost to breaking point was trying to shut itself down and just drift off somewhere, it didn't really care where. It just wanted out. Lauren reached up with her free hand and slapped herself in the face as hard as she could. "No way, uh uh, you do not get the option to just curl up and die, girl."

Since chaining her to the towel rail in the bathroom, her captors hadn't so much as glanced at her. Lauren was deeply thankful for that much at least. She was a pretty girl. They were men. The thought of rape was when her mind first began to shy away from reality. At first she had struggled vainly against the cuff around her right wrist but stopped when the metal first chafed at then broke her skin, blood oozing from the wound.

Now, slumped on the tiled floor, her arm suspended painfully above her head, it was all she could do to keep herself awake. She felt a dull heat spreading over her face where she'd slapped herself and considered doing it again; at least the pain would keep her up. For a while at least. Though she struggled mightily against it, her head dropped forward, chin resting on her chest and she dozed.

Only to jerk awake an unknown amount of time later, to the sound of fire alarms and raised voices from outside the bathroom door. Fire? Oh great, that's all I need! Could this day get any worse? Seriously, could it?

Oh right, the threat of rape. Shuddering, Lauren climbed to her feet, her right arm exploding painfully into pins and needles as she did so. Her ears began to ache from the volume of the bells.

"Hey! Hey! Kidnappers! You coming to let me out of here or what? I'm no good to you dead, you stupid-" Lauren's mouth fell open as she heard what may have been gunshots from somewhere outside.

With the girl secured in the bathroom and contact made with the illustrious former Captain Shepard, One decided it was time for him to relax for a while with a snifter of nice brandy. The whole operation so far had gone rather smoothly, the sound beating of his hirelings by the girl notwithstanding. Yes, One thought to himself as he swirled yet another another glass of brandy around, things were well in hand. By this time tomorrow, he would be five million credits richer and- his train of thought was rudely derailed by the sound of the fire alarms.

"The management of this establishment had better have a good reason for scheduling a fire drill now," he said as he stood up. Two, Three and Four all looked around in confusion, guns out and seeking threats.

One sighed and carefully placed the brandy glass back down on the bar. Good help was so hard to find these days. "Go and see what the fuss is and put those stupid guns away, do you want to alert the entire building to the fact that we are engaged in criminal activities?" he said, raising his voice to be heard over those blasted alarm bells.

"What about the girl?" Two asked as the others departed.

"It isn't as though she can go anywhere is it?" One replied.

"But the fire?" Two protested.
"There isn't a fire, you ingrate, it's simply a drill."

"But what if...it isn't a fire and it isn't a drill?"

"Two, what are you suggesting?"
"Sir, do you honestly think a former member of the Spectres would just accept having her daughter taken from her? If I were her, I'd think using a fire alarm to draw out the enemy would be a good idea," Two explained. He could faintly hear the girl yelling out from the bathroom.

"That is possibly the single most intelligent thing you've said, Two," the boss replied. "Go and join the others, I'll stay here and-" One broke off as he heard gunshots from the front of the penthouse.

Amid the clamour of the fire alarms, Shepard stood calmly a dozen metres from the door, gun held in a two-handed grip and waited. She didn't have long to wait, as after less than a minute, the heavy wooden door opened, and, framed in the doorway, a plain looking man in his mid thirties. Close behind the first man was a second, this one with an obviously recently broken nose. A quick smile, little more than an upward twitch of her lips touched Shepard's face as she observed her daughter's handiwork. The man in the lead gaped at her for a moment, before fumbling inside his jacket.

Deep breath in, squeeze the trigger on the exhale. Shepard snapped off two shots and the man stumbled back into the room, collapsing against his fellow kidnapper. Two bullet wounds appeared high up on his chest and blood spurted out onto the floor, staining the carpet. The broken-nosed man got his gun up and Shepard dived to one side, firing as she went. Both rounds smashed into the door jamb, splinters flying in all directions. From her position on the floor, Shepard braced her right hand on her left wrist and fire again. This time her aim was true and the second man fell back, futilely attempting to stem the arterial spray from his throat. More blood stained the carpet, shockingly bright against the cream pile.

Shepard scrambled to her feet and, using a biotic barrier to augment her suit shields, entered the penthouse.

Lauren cringed back against the wall as far as the handcuff chain allowed her as the gunshots rang out. She looked up, eyes wide as the bathroom door opened and the man calling himself One appeared, with a gun of his own in hand. Wordlessly he gripped Lauren by the shoulder and hauled her upright. Keeping the gun trained on her, One unlocked her restraints before pulling her in front of him and holding the gun to her head.

"No...please," Lauren whimpered as, finally the veneer of sarcasm cracked and the awful reality of her own mortality sank in.

"Move," her captor hissed into her ear and forced her out of the bathroom.

Shepard stepped carefully over the corpses in the doorway, sweeping the room from left to right as she moved. Before her was a lounge area with leather-upholstered furniture and decorated with oil paintings and vases. No gunmen or girl to be seen. Shepard moved through the lounge, turning towards a closed door that probably led to the kitchen area. The door swung open and without much surprise, Shepard observed a third man emerge with a gun trained on her. For a moment, neither one moved. The man wore a look of weary resignation as he and Shepard locked eyes.

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry it's come to this," Two said calmly as the former Spectre stared hard at him.

"Where is she?" she replied, fighting down panic.

"Couldn't you have just paid us the ransom like the boss asked? Did you really think you could just come up here like some avenging angel and-" Two grunted as Shepard hit him with a biotic throw, slamming him heavily against the refrigerator. The gun clattered to the floor and he lunged forward to grab it.

Shepard aimed carefully and fired.

A scream tore its way from Two's throat as his most of his right hand disappeared in a red spray.

"Where. Is. She?" Shepard ground out as she stood just out of reach of the man. His face was ashen and he was attempting to staunch the bleeding by pressing his hand into the fabric of his clothing.

Two moaned wordlessly, rocking back and forth in shock. Shepard raised the gun a final time.

"That's quite enough of that," warned the cultured voice from behind her. Shepard turned slowly and let out a gasp as she took in the sight of the middle-aged man in the suit using her daughter as a human shield. Shepard's right hand opened and her sidearm fell to the floor.

"Lauren," she said in a voice barely above a whisper. "Oh baby, I'm so sorry I couldn't protect you."

Lauren shook her head, "Not your fault...I shouldn't have gone out for that run. I'm sorry."

"Yes, yes, this is all very touching," One interjected, "but there will be plenty of time for recriminations later, Captain. You're extremely lucky I didn't simply execute your brat a soon as you began your futile attack."

"Please," Shepard began, a lump forming in her throat. Tears began to spill from her eyes. "I'll do whatever you want, just please don't harm her."

"Whatever I want, hm? Best be careful what you're offering Captain; you could leave yourself open to all sorts of nastiness."

"You said you wanted five million credits? Look, just let her go free and I'll wire you every last credit I have."

"It's rather too late for that, don't you think?" One replied, pressing the gun barrel more firmly into the girl's ear. She turned her head away, eyes squeezed tightly shut. "After all, I gave you the opportunity to end this all without violence and you threw that opportunity away."

Fighting against the almost overwhelming fear and panic that was trying to grip her mind, Shepard continued trying to negotiate for her daughter's life, "Take me, then."
"What?" Lauren's head whipped around to face her mother and her eyes went wide. She gasped as One's gripped tightened.

"I'm sorry, baby. I'm doing this for you," Shepard said quietly, then addressing One, continued, "Let her go. Take me instead. Sell me to the batarians, use me as your own personal whore, I don't care just let my daughter go!"

"No! You can't do this, not for me," Lauren yelled. Both she and her mother were weeping now.

"Lauren, my darling girl, I'd die for you, if it meant you'd be safe," Shepard said.

One barked a harsh laugh, startling them both. "You disappoint me, Shepard. Why would I trade away one perfectly good piece of merchandise for another, when I could have both?" Chuckling softly, One continued speaking, seemingly oblivious to the near-identical expressions on the faces of mother and daughter: determination and a rising tide of rage. "But I do like the way you think, Captain. The batarians? Yes, for you they would be willing to part with considerably more than five million credits. Especially if I can offer them your child as well. Tell me, has she been deflowered yet?"

"You make me sick, you old bastard," Lauren hissed.

Ignoring her, One removed the gun from the side of his captive's head and swung it up to point at her mother. It was all the opening Shepard needed. A blue-white glow suffusing her body, Shepard raised her right arm and a mass effect field threw both One and Lauren across the room.

For a moment, as her feet suddenly parted company with the floor, Lauren felt a sensation of weightlessness. She was faintly aware of One's pained shout as he too was thrown back into the lounge area. In the brief period she spent airborne, Lauren had time to wonder just how much of her biotic ability her mother had hit them with. Then she slammed into the floor and stopped wondering.

God, what have I done? Shepard took an unsteady step forward, shaking uncontrollably. She seemed to see the world through prisms of light, her vision clouded by the tears that coursed down her face. Her daughter's captor lay on the deep pile carpet, left leg bent underneath him at an unnatural angle. He moaned in pain as he tried to move away from her. A few feet past him rested Lauren. She had landed on her back, arms and legs sprawled about her, her long hair fanned out around her head like some piece of abstract art. Lauren's wide blue eyes were open and she stared without seeing at the ceiling.

"No, no, not my little girl," Shepard sighed to herself over and over as her knees gave way, spilling her onto the floor alongside her daughter. Shepard pressed shaky fingers against her daughter's neck, feeling for a pulse. She wept with relief as she felt the life-affirming throb beneath her finger tips.

"You're going to be OK, baby. We're going to be OK."

Lauren's eyelids flickered open and shut several times as she painfully came back to the here and now. She felt a dull ache at the back of her head but other than that, everything seemed fine. She just wished her mother would stop crying over her. Could she be any more embarrassing?

"God, what the hell did you do?" she managed to say, focusing on her mother's tear-streaked face.

"Lauren," she replied, wiping her eyes, "I thought I'd lost you." Shepard looked into her daughter's eyes, filled with such an overwhelming feeling of relief and joy that she thought her heart would burst.

Clinging to each other for support, the two women staggered unsteadily to their feet. Lauren looked over at her erstwhile abductor and winced at the sight of his leg. By now, One had managed to drag himself painfully towards where his gun had fallen from his grasp.

Despite the circumstances, Alison had to laugh. "You just don't know when to quit, do you?"

Shepard the Elder quickly moved to stand over One and slammed her boot heel into his hand. He whimpered some more.

Shepard savagely ground the boot heel, and the hand trapped beneath it, into the carpet. One screamed as his bones popped. Lauren looked away, feeling ill. She knew her mother'd had a reputation for the use of excessive force on occasion but this was the first time she'd actually witnessed it. But on the other hand, after what they'd both been put through, maybe busting the guy up was justified.

Pinned beneath Captain Shepard's heel, One thrashed about futiley, trying to free himself. His left leg was an unending torrent of pain and his right hand wasn't much better. Looking up into the woman's eyes, he knew she wasn't finished with him yet either.

Keeping her weight firmly on her right leg, a small, sadistic part of her enjoying the man's wails, Shepard quickly leaned over and picked up the gun. It fit neatly into her hand. Straightening up, Shepard looked down at the man who'd organised to have her daughter taken from her, trying to summon up some shred of remorse or pity for what she was about to do. Nothing was coming.

Without looking around, Shepard said just loudly enough for Lauren to hear, "Look away now, sweetheart. I don't want you to see this."

"Oh God," Lauren said and resolutely turned away from the sight of her mother slash angel of death. She stuck her fingers into her ears for good measure. Even so, the sound of the gunshot made her jump.

Looking down at the contorted body, blood spreading rapidly from the head wound, Shepard struggled with herself to feel something, anything. But aside from the feelings of unconditional love she felt for her daughter and the relief that she was unharmed, Shepard felt nothing. No grief for the men she'd murdered, and no pity for the sole survivor she'd left in the kitchen with his ruined hand. She honestly didn't know whether that made her any better than the men who'd abducted her child.

Shepard slowly turned to see Lauren, standing with her back to her, fingers still blocking her ears. The sight was almost comical, given the surroundings. Pausing only long enough to retrieve her weapon, Shepard returned to her daughter, swept her into her arms and carried her out and home.

The End