So, yeah, about my oath never to write fanfic...
Anyway. This is a sequel of sorts to my first story Helpless, but there's no need to read it unless you want an introduction to my Shepard (I lovingly think of her as a toughass with some severe Emotional Issues). It was inspired by a casual detail I threw into that story about one of Shepard's ex-boyfriends, which grew up to a raging plot bunny with teeth like the Monty Python vorpal bunny. (I had to write the story, because the bunny was eying my ankles hungrily.) The title will make sense eventually.
This is planned as a three parter, but depending on how verbose I am feeling, may become a four or five parter. if it threatens to become any longer than that I will seriously end it with 'Rocks fall. Everyone dies.' I swear. I'm trying to bite things off in manageable chunks here.
(Note to self: write shorter author's notes.)
Oh, yeah, I don't own anything. Bioware owns everything. Including my soul. (But I'm hoping to get that back.)
Dead Man's Switch
Part One: The Purple Grass of Mindoir
So here she was again.
'Again' really wasn't accurate. After all, Meg Shepard had never been in this exact position before, in a civilian transport approaching Mindoir, en route to unveil a monument to those who had died during the raid thirteen years ago. But it felt the same somehow. Some sort of dreary inevitability, the thought that no matter how fast she ran, how brave she was, how many medals she won, she would never outrun the demons of her past.
"It's a beautiful place," gushed her seatmate, an elderly gentleman with hair as delicate as strands of frost and the general gentle, unformed look of one grown soft with age. "The grass is purple, you know."
"I know," she said without thinking, before she paused to consider that she didn't have to say anything. She could have pretended she was listening to music, or asleep, or engrossed in the vids that were run incessantly on civilian transport lest the passengers become bored and mutiny, or, god forbid, start wondering why space travel cost so much. She didn't have to answer.
She answered anyway, just to be polite. Because she felt the need to be polite when surrounded by civilians. God, she hated civilian transport, with the endlessly chirping vids, and the tiny seats, and the parade of flight attendants wondering if they could fluff your pillow. It was, however, a sad necessity for a soldier sometimes, as Alliance transport existed for Alliance purposes, not to ferry Alliance personnel all over. That did not help her loathing. Worse still, now there was a chance she might be recognized. She was on far too many newsvids these days. Hell, the damn flight had started their in-flight entertainment with a brief item on the heroic Cmdr. Shepard, daughter of Mindoir, heroine of the siege of the Citadel, able to leap a tall buildings with a single bound. She had pushed her shades far down her nose, shrunk into the shadiest corner of her seat, and prayed to all the deities she didn't believe in that no one would recognize her.
Apparently it was her lucky day. Her cunning disguise of shades and civvies had yet to be penetrated. Granted, there were the two teenage girls two rows back speculating on who she might be, since she was wearing shades indoors, but all their suggestions so far were vid stars that were far bustier than she was.
Shepard was pretty sure they didn't realise she could hear them.
"Such a lovely place," continued the man vaguely. "It's recovered very well from its troubles, you know. Is this your first visit?"
"I grew up there," she replied. "Lost my entire family in the…troubles." She winced inwardly at the note of hostility in her own voice. There was no reason to take anything out on an old man. She just increasingly wanted to be left alone. She wasn't a poster girl or media celebrity or flight hostess. She was a soldier and a damn good one.
And the deeper she got in the more out of place she felt in the civilian world, around normal people who didn't know what lurked in deep space, who'd never seen blackened and burnt bodies in the wake of invasion, or who had never stood on a rooftop on Virmire, waves pounding below, and decided which friend to leave to die.
She was only here because she had been ordered to, anyway. She was suffering from a severe case of bureaucratic whipleash. First she and all her crew had been sent on leave to evade the press while the Alliance got its story straight, and then she, and only she, was recalled for a debriefing that lasted approximately fifty-seven hours, fourteen minutes and thirty-six seconds over six days, and then instructed to come here. The Council didn't want her on any expeditions until they had some leads on finding the Reapers (although how they were to find a lead without sending her somewhere she had no clue, although she had to admit she had no idea of where to start looking), the Alliance didn't want to send her anywhere when the Council might want her, the Citadel was still absolutely crawling with reporters, the engineering corp had suddenly decided the Normandy was rather overdue for tests, to see how the ship had stood up to its first mission—all this, and more, led to her sent off on a short trip that was essentially a photo op. Something to keep her out of harm's way, chance for some good press. Such a sad coincidence it happened to be on the world where her whole family had been slaughtered.
"I'm sorry," Hackett had said to her after he had broken the news of her next mission, such as it was. It was a sure sign it hadn't been his idea, since he rarely apologized for sending her trotting all over the universe on Alliance errands. Then again, his errands usually weren't this frivolous.
For a long moment she just looked at him. She was tired. Fifty-seven hours of briefing. Four hours debating Eden Prime. Ten on Noveria ("Couldn't you have left the Rachni Queen to the damn Council?"). Five on Thernum. Fifteen on Virmire alone ("Marines died, commander. We need to know what happened. We owe that to their families.") Five on Feros, seven on Ilos, four on the Battle of the Citadel, and seven wasted on all manner of bickering. It was more exhausting than any battle she had been part of. Even the endorsement of her decision on Virmire--"You preserved the objective, and saved the ranking officer, who is, face it, as a biotic a more valuable asset to the Alliance than some grunt."--hadn't made her feel better.
It had only made her feel worse. 'Some grunt.' So that was to be Ashley's eulogy.
Damnit, she really felt like shooting something.
In the absence of a gun, it was her mouth she shot off. "I don't have to go."
Hackett looked tired, too, his skin sagging around his eyes. He was too military for his shoulders to slump, but his posture had lost its crispness. The briefing had just ended, and the comm stations where the absent brass had popped in still buzzed faintly, the way they buzzed as they cooled down. They stood in a long room by the embassy, stale and shuttered. Once it had a magnificent view onto the Presidium, but the window had been shut up to hide the current view, of rubble and twisted metal, sap and blood. Even now, weeks after the battle, the occasional stretcher, bearing a body bag filled with any number of indeterminate shapes, still went past. Shepard had been told there were bodies so mutilated they had to DNA test to determine species.
"No," he agreed, "You don't have to."
The evenness of his reply should have been a warning. But she was too tired, too close to snapping. Sometimes she forgot words were as dangerous as a loaded gun. "I could just tell you all to blow it out your ear."
She was seething, too, because they had referred to Hackett as her 'handler' in the briefing. It was accurate, no doubt, but she hated feeling 'handled.' It made her feel like a farm animal, like the sheep her family once kept on Mindoir.
"You could," he agreed. "But, honestly, Shepard, do you have any idea what sort of shitstorm you're about to step into? I don't mean the Reapers. I mean being the biggest human hero the universe has seen. The politicians will want you to do what makes them look good. The military will want you to get results. The media will want you to make a story--and they only like reporting heroics for so long before they get bored and look for some reason, any reason to tear you down. The people will want a hero, and they don't understand very well that even heroes have to be human. So, Shepard, you've become a political football. Congratulations. Enjoy it. In the meantime, pick your battles carefully. You, of all people, should know that. Save your breath, your energy, your political currency for the ones that matter."
"It'd be easier," she shot back, "if people stopped giving me assignments that didn't matter."
He looked down to his datapad as if he had not heard her, and said, "Keep in mind, yes, some privilege comes along with success. If you...do something outside the realm of military regs, the brass will likely turn a blind eye to it...unless we are made to see."
Kaidan, she thought, with a sudden leap of her heart. The problem she was unwilling to deal with at present. Hackett couldn't have just offered her the answer?
The admiral still do not look at her. "If you do something like that, better make sure it doesn't end up on the vids. Then we'll have to do something." He punched a button on his datapad, and snapped, "Dismissed."
She had spent eleven years following regs faithfully...well, almost. Had she really just been told that the brass didn't care if she slept with one of her lieutenants as long as no one found out?
Perhaps it was about something else entirely. She half-hoped it was. She didn't even want to think about the Alliance brass possibly thinking about the idea of her having sex.
In any case, in the end she swallowed her pride and went to Mindoir. It had nothing to do with orders, or Kaidan, or picking her battles. She went for one simple reason.
She had to prove to herself that she was not afraid.
The old man did not recoil at the hostility in her tone. "You are such a brave girl," he said, and lightly brushed her arm with his fingertips, his skin doughy against hers.
She almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. Girl? She was almost thirty. And a marine. Couldn't he tell? Wasn't it obvious what she was, even in civvies? Her muscles were hard beneath her clothing, and even with civvies she wore military-issue boots. A keen eye could spot the bugle of a small pistol tucked into one of those boots. And then there was the scar, a ridge running from one cheek to another across the bridge of her nose, the legacy of a dead squadmate's blood, laced with thresher maw venom, splashing through the gap in her helmet's visor.
She glanced down. The man's sleeve had fallen away from his wrist, exposing a puckered scar that drew the skin together in angry patterns. It was the sort of scar that was rarely an accident, especially in the days of medi-gel. It was the scar of someone who had been attacked, and left to die, the healing process began before a doctor could reach them.
Perhaps she had been recognized after all.
"You're very kind," she said.
Even after thirteen years of dedicated rebuilding Mindoir was still a backwater colony; the spaceport planetside wasn't large enough to handle a full size civilian cruiser, so that meant docking on an orbiting station and the passengers being shepherded to smaller transports to make the hop to the planet surface below. Most of the passengers weren't even disembarking at Mindoir anyway, but bound somewhere larger. Or less tragic. Since they had everyone on the station anywhere, they put them through customs there, which for many of her fellow passengers seemed to be a rather extensive process. For her, it was not. She spent a few minutes debating whether or not to barge through using Spectre authority, only to decide to play it by the rules, which was why she was irked when she flashed her ID at the customs officer, who gaped, gasped, and choked out, "Go right through, ma'am." Despite the fact he wasn't military and didn't have to call her ma'am.
"I'm not on duty," she said (because she really was a goody two shoes despite herself, wasn't she?). "I'm not using Spectre authority."
"That's all right, ma'am," he repeated. "Go right through."
"I'm carrying four guns," she pointed out, just for the sake of clarity. "Am I allowed? Do you have firearm restrictions?"
"Ma'am, you can bring whatever you want," he said. "On or off duty." His ears reddened for a moment. "Although…could I get an autograph? My sister'll love it. My family lives planetside, and you can see your family's old farm from our kitchen window."
She bit her lip at that. She still owned that farm, technically. There had been no one else to leave to inherit it. For many years, it had been more an empty title than anything, a parcel of land in a colony no one wanted to live in. As the rebuilding effort had put down roots, it had began to regain some value, and she'd had an handful of offers over the past few years.
She wasn't ready to sell it yet. But heavens knew what sort of shape it was in these days.
She relented and signed the autograph for him. As she disappeared through the doors toward the ground transport, she heard someone complaining behind her, "But you let her go right through!"
She found herself wishing for the days of being a normal soldier again.
She didn't recognize Mindoir, not at first. The spaceport was glossy and shiny, and the shapes of the buildings were nothing like the Mindoir she remembered; too sleek and modern. But the gravity was just right, her body adjusting to it in a way that said welcome home. As if this was the only planet in the galaxy whose gravity was just right.
It was the smell that undid her, though. She had never realized Mindoir had a smell. But it did, a faintly spicy scent of that queer purple grass, mingled with a trace of ozone and rich damp earth. It was a faroff smell here, fighting through smells of the settlement, eezo and humans. It made her think of her parents in the fields, and lazy summer days, and walking home after school with friends long since dead.
Her stomach tightened at the thought. If she had been someone who cried, she might have cried then. But she did not allow herself to cry. Too much weakness. So she simply stood there, waiting for the Alliance officer who was to pick her up, feeling more forlorn than any battle-hardened marine had a right to.
She was half-tempted to turn and run. She didn't have to be here. But being here wouldn't kill her.
The night before she left the Citadel she had spoken to Kaidan. Briefly, because he was still in Vancouver with his family, and in the aftermath of the battle for the Citadel, bandwidth was precious.
"Are you all right?" he had asked.
"I'm fine." It was a lie. She hadn't realized it was a lie until she had said it.
He knew it was a lie, too. She could read it on his holographic face.
He hadn't said anything. He was good at not saying things, until something really needed to be said.
And she was really good at leaving things unsaid. Which wasn't quite the same thing.
So this was Mindoir now. When she had been a kid, it had been simply a farming outpost, the town uncreatively named after the planet. There had been a small school, a corp store that sold farming implements, and a military garrison--and that had been pretty much it. Now there were stores; stores large enough that people milled about them, shopping. The spaceport was a respectable size for a minor colony, with a small parking lot leading to a wide road, properly paved, that ran down between the stores and past them to a hulking building that could only be the new garrison. Having it on the opposite side of town from the spaceport seemed rather impractical and possibly even dangerous, unless the garrison had docking facilities itself, which seemed unlikely from its apparent size...
And on and on her mind went, observing, analysing, cataloguing the differences. She wished it would stop. For the first time, she wished she smoked. Many soldiers did. They had formulated a synthetic replacement for the dangerous nicotine decades ago, to make cigarettes safer if you just really wanted to breathe in smoke, but many soldiers still smoked the real stuff. They said it calmed their nerves, and, besides, medical science could always grow you new lungs these days.
It'd have given herself something to occupy her hands with, too.
Instead she leaned against the spaceport wall, bag slung over her shoulder, and watched the people leave. The kindly old man left in an expensive looking hovercar, black and sleek and shiny. That was something new to Mindoir, too--expensive cars. Or hovercars in general. It used to be a world of utilitarian farm vehicles. The pair of teenage girls sat in a patch of grass to chat and giggle, as if knowing their ride would habitually be late. A woman about her age, vastly pregnant in a way that looked extremely uncomfortable, leaned against a wall, too, resting her back. Some travellers were greeted with hugs and squeals of delight. Shepard waited.
A broad-shoulder man, clad in nondescript dark armour that tended to be the mark of security guards in colonies the universe over, had stopped to speak to a young man; a young man who looked as lost as she felt. His eyes were wide and unfocussed, and his hands were shaking.
That's odd, she thought. He hadn't been on the transport with them, and he had seemed to wander in from neither the town not the spaceport itself. His slight figure was lost in the long coat he worn, but a few bulges poked through the fabric---
It was then the bomb went off.