So Does it End
Now the party's over
The last stone is cast
Your days of destruction
Will surely be your last
Kittie - Die My Darling
Jack seethed with anger. The Teltin facility on Pragia was now nothing more than a radioactive crater surrounded by dense jungle. Feeling the shockwave from the firestorm buffet the shuttle as it burned towards the Normandy for pick up, the young biotic had experienced a moment of savage joy.
The place in which she'd been imprisoned as a child, the place she kept returning to in her nightmares was gone. So why did she still feel such anger and resentment? Jack and rage had been friends for a long time. When all else had been taken from her - her childhood, her innocence, her rage had always been there, bitter yet comforting.
"Well," the Cheerleader said at length, as the Kodiak entered the Normandy's shuttle bay. "Now that that's behind us, maybe we can get on with more important things?"
"Behind us?" Jack repeated quietly. Shepard regarded her silently. Jack leaned forward aggressively, getting right in the Cerberus woman's personal space. To her credit, Miranda didn't flinch. Her blue eyes stared into Jack's hazel eyes. "Bitch," Jack said in that quiet voice, "I'm just getting started."
Miranda made no reply. Shepard gave a frustrated sigh as Jack settled back on the bench seat. "You know," the N7 operative said as the shuttle touched down on the deck, "I thought letting you blow up that facility would have put an end to this hostility."
"Guess you're not as bright as you look, huh?" Jack sneered. Without waiting for a reply, the tattooed woman hit the door release, lunging through the hatch before it was even half-open. Her boot heels echoed from the metal decking as she strode away.
Miranda too, moved to exit the shuttle but paused as Shepard lay a hand on her forearm. "Listen Miranda," Shepard began. "The reason I brought you along on that mission was so you could see what Cerberus is capable of."
"It wasn't Cerberus," Miranda interjected, "Not really."
Shepard gazed at her through narrowed eyes. "Whether the Illusive Man was aware of the operation or not is immaterial. Jack believes it was a Cerberus op and you being the ranking Cerberus officer..." The Spectre trailed off.
Miranda finished the other woman's train of thought, "Makes me the logical target of her anger. I understand, Commander."
"It may be difficult but try to keep things between the two of you non-murderous. At least until after we destroy the Collector base," Shepard said as she and Miranda left the shuttle.
"I won't be the one to start anything, Shepard but believe me when I say that if Jack starts something, I will finish it."
Shepard rolled her eyes. "You need to unwind some, Miranda. Hadley's got a copy of Blasto the Jellyfish Stings and the crew's watching it tonight. You should come along."
"Waste two hours of my life on a vid about a hanar Spectre? I'll pass."
Shepard smiled and shook her head as they entered the elevator.
This one cannot remember if its heatsink is over capacity. It wonders if the criminal scum considers itself fortunate.
As one, the crew of the Normandy doubled over with laughter. Blasto had been promoted as an action-adventure film but the dialogue and setting were so over the top it was nigh-impossible to take seriously.
"Oh, I love this part!" Hadley exclaimed.
Shepard laughed so hard she was soon short of breath, simultaneously laughing and gasping.
"This is a gross misrepresentation of the hanar people," the normally unflappable Thane said angrily as the film came to a close.
"Yeah," Shepard answered, "But damn it's funny."
As the holoprojector in the crew quarters flicked off and the crew began filing out of the room, Joker's voice spoke over the loudspeaker. "Hey Commander, Jack and Miranda are having a...disagreement. You might want to head them off before they tear out a bulkhead or something."
"I'm on my way, Joker."
"Take pictures," the helmsman quipped.
It didn't take Shepard long to find the scene of the disturbance between Jack and Miranda - all she had to do was follow the sounds of furniture slamming into bulkheads and raised voices. Shepard strode through the open doorway of Miranda's office in time to see a blue-glowing Jack hurl a chair at Miranda. "I'll smear the walls with you, bitch!" she yelled.
Miranda nimbly sidestepped the airborne chair and it thudded heavily to the deck behind her. Miranda extended her right arm, tensing the muscles in sequence as she readied her warp. Miranda's concentration faltered as Shepard entered the room, pistol in hand. Unhesitatingly, Shepard aimed the weapon at Miranda's head while she held her left hand palm outward to Jack. The cabin suddenly seemed too small with the three women aglow with biotic coronas. The air around them crackled and shimmered as their respective mass effect fields clashed with one another.
"I'm going to say this once," Shepard said, voice laden with quiet fury.
"Shepard-" Miranda began, intending to tell the Commander to lower the weapon.
"Shut it," Shepard flicked a glance at Jack as the tattooed woman opened her mouth to speak, "Both of you." Addressing Jack, Shepard ordered, "Pick up the chair."
"What?" Jack demanded and flinched as Shepard swung the gun around and fired a shot past her head. The report of the firearm was very loud in the cabin.
"Cerberus protocol is clear, Shepard," EDI said pleasantly. "The discharge of firearms on this vessel is expressly-"
"Shut UP!" Miranda, Jack and Shepard snapped. The tension in the room eased; the biotic fields dissipated and Shepard lowered her gun but kept it in hand. Grudgingly, Jack pushed past Miranda and hauled the chair back to its original position. Shepard pushed Jack into the seat, shoving her back as she struggled to rise.
"Sit down!" Shepard ground out. Miranda remained standing. Shepard merely looked at her, right eyebrow raised. With a sigh, the Cerberus officer seated herself behind her desk. In an effort to project an air of calm, Miranda neatly folded her hands together on the desk. Jack slouched in her chair, booted feet splayed before her on the floor. The N7 commando stood in the doorway, keeping them both under a constant fierce gaze.
"So," Shepard began after a moment, voice deceptively light. "Who'd like to explain what's going on?"
"The Cheerleader won't admit what Cerberus did was wrong!" Jack burst out.
"And so you decided to come up here and make her see the error of her ways with violence?" Shepard observed.
"Fuck you. I don't need to justify myself to you," Jack replied heatedly.
"As I explained before, Commander," Miranda replied smoothly, "It wasn't a Cerberus operation, not really. But clearly," Miranda nodded at Jack, "You were a mistake."
Jack half-rose from her chair but clearly thought better of it as Shepard casually raised the sidearm. "Screw you," she spat at both of them.
Adopting a conciliatory tone, Shepard said, "This mission is too important to let our feelings get in the way."
"Fuck your feelings!" Jack shouted. "You have no idea what Cerberus did to me, what they put me through." For the briefest of moments, the mask of insolence and hostility Jack presented to the universe cracked, allowing a glance at the broken girl behind. Shepard looked meaningfully at Jack then to Miranda, eyebrow raised. The Cerberus operative sighed.
"I can put aside my feelings...until the mission is over," Miranda eventually conceded.
"Me, too," Jack replied, by now firmly in control of her emotions. "I'd hate for something bad to happen before I have a chance to filet her myself!"
Shepard clapped her hands in mock delight. "Goody, now we can all go back to the business of saving an unappreciative galaxy."
Jack grunted and flung herself from the chair and out the door, boot heels reverberating from the deck as she walked to the elevator. Miranda sighed as Shepard settled herself in the seat recently occupied by Jack. "She's going to present us with considerable difficulties after this mission is over, Commander," Miranda observed. She paused several moments, lending her next words added weight, "If she survives the mission." The Cerberus woman leaned forward, emphasising the point.
Shepard shook her head emphatically. "Absolutely not, Miranda."
Miranda blew out an exasperated breath. "Don't be naive, Shepard. You and I both know that a clash between myself and Jack," Miranda's lips curled in a sneer, "Is inevitable."
Shepard folded her arms. "So I should allow you to shoot Jack while she's sleeping?"
Miranda shrugged. "An injection would be cleaner."
"I'm not having this conversation, Miranda," Shepard replied and left the room.
The Cerberus operative waited long enough for Shepard to reach the elevator and clear the deck before pressing a button set into her desk, shutting and locking the door to her office. Another button press activated the room's security system, ensuring her privacy. At her console, Miranda composed a short, pointed note to the Illusive Man: Request permission to terminate 'Jack.' Miranda encrypted the message and hit the send key. Presently, the Normandy was within range of a comm buoy and the message was sent instantly.
Less than a minute passed before the console bleeped, signalling an incoming message. With some trepidation, Miranda opened the message from the Illusive Man. His reply was equally short and pointed: Permission denied. Termination of Subject Zero AKA Jack runs counter to current objectives. Miranda sighed to herself. "Very good, sir."
"Hey Commander," Joker greeted his CO without looking around.
Shepard paused mid-step. "How did you know it was me?"
"Give me some credit, Commander," he scoffed. "I hear people walking up and down the deck all day. I think I'd know what your foot steps sound like by now."
"Anyone ever tell you you have too much time on your hands?" Shepard commented, half smiling as she leaned against the bulkhead beside Joker. For some unfathomable reason, the Cerberus designers hadn't seen fit to supply a co-pilot's position, with only quietly humming consoles where one should have been.
"You sort things out between Miranda and Jack?" Joker asked, glancing at Shepard.
"Yes," Shepard replied evenly. "They're the best of friends of now. Jack offered to braid Miranda's hair."
Joker turned his seat around to fully face the Spectre. "Really?"
Shepard smirked, "No. Actually they're only about three heartbeats away from slaughtering each other."
Joker turned back to his instruments. "Who do you think would win?"
Shepard appeared to give the matter some thought, crossing one ankle over the other. "I'd say they're fairly evenly matched. Jack has more raw biotic potential. Miranda has more training and discipline - something Jack is sorely lacking. Assuming Jack doesn't kill her in the first exchange, I think Miranda would have a real chance of beating her."
Both helmsman and Spectre turned as footfalls rang off the deck. "So glad to see you rate my abilities so highly, Commander," Miranda said dryly. "EDI informs me that the Reaper IFF is almost installed."
"Operative Lawson is correct," the AI put in. "I will need some time to fully calibrate and test the system however. I suggest taking the shuttle to your next destination."
Shepard nodded to Miranda. "Assemble the team in the shuttle bay. I'll be along in ten."
"Certainly Commander," the Normandy's XO replied and headed for the elevator at a fast walk.
Watching Miranda depart, Joker asked the Commander in lowered tones. "So, do you think they're real?"
"Are what real?" Shepard answered.
Exasperated, Joker snapped, "Her funbags!" He held his hands in front of his chest as though cupping over-sized mammaries.
Shepard snorted laughter. "Funbags?" she echoed. "What are you, twelve years old?"
"Well, what do you call them?" Joker protested.
Shepard leaned in close to the helmsman as though about to impart the wisdom of the ages, her lips slightly parted. Joker inched away as far as the confines of his seat would allow. "Breasts," Shepard eventually answered and laughed softly at Joker's defeated expression.
In the space of a few days, life aboard the SR-2 Normandy had changed irrevocably. A Collector ambush had resulted in the loss of the entire crew with the exception of the helmsman. Miranda didn't believe Joker made up for the loss of the rest of the crew but Shepard insisted on standing by him. The Spectre's loyalty to her crew had been the stuff of legend during her time in the Alliance. Presently, Shepard's team were assembled around the long table in the debriefing room. A holographic image of the enemy base, gathered from data captured from the crippled Collector vessel hung in the air.
A maintenance or ventilation shaft of sorts offered a way to sneak a single person through the interior of the structure to allow the rest of the team to enter.
"Practically a suicide mission," Jacob declared, "I volunteer."
Miranda shook her head, "I appreciate the gesture but we need a tech expert to navigate the shaft. Shepard, who do you want to send?"
"Tali," Shepard replied immediately.
The quarian nodded in acceptance. "I won't let you down."
Miranda nodded, "I'll lead the secondary fire team-" she began.
"Hey!" Jack said loudly from her corner of the room. All in attendance turned to look at her. "Nobody wants you in charge, Cheerleader."
Ignoring the tattooed biotic entirely, Miranda raised her voice in order to be heard. "You need somebody able to command respect through experience, Commander."
Shepard's eyes moved back and forth in their sockets as they scanned the room. Her sharp gaze settled briefly on Miranda and Jacob before finally turning to Garrus. Miranda felt neither surprise nor disappointment at the decision to place Garrus in command of the fire team. The turian was tough, dependable and most importantly, from Shepard's perspective, trustworthy and loyal.
As Shepard brought the briefing to a close, Jack stared hard at Miranda. When she was sure she had the Cerberus woman's attention, Jack pointed to her before slowly running her forefinger across her throat. Miranda ignored her, knowing that the assault on the Collector base would be a mere prelude to the main event.
"Come on, you bastards!" Jack shouted as a seemingly endless wave of Collector drones assailed the rear-guard position. Gunfire, deafening in such close quarters cut the drones down even as more lunged over the bodies of their fallen brethren. The drones chittered and squealed as they died. Jack ejected a spent thermal clip from her shotgun, cursing as the heat stung her fingers. Beside her the drell popped up from behind cover long enough to loose a volley from the machine-pistol in his right hand as his left directed a mass effect field, throwing several more bugs backward.
Though the rear-guard was holding its own for the time being, it was only a matter of time before the squad, already running low on thermal clips was reduced to dealing with the bugs hand-to-hand. "Come on, Shepard!" Jack snarled as she cut loose with a shockwave, topplinc several of the aliens. Before they could regain their footing, Grunt felled them with a long burst of rifle-fire. If the bitch dies before I have a chance to take her apart, I'm gonna be really pissed off! Jack thought as the fighting continued.
The bitch didn't die for which Jack felt an unexpected emotion: gratitude. The Normandy, having suffered extensive damage during the incursion beyond the Omega 4 relay was currently docked at one of the many facilities owned by Aria T'Loak, Shepard having come to an agreement with the Queen of Omega.
The crew, still reeling from the shock of their abduction had been granted an extended period of leave on Omega. Miranda opted to stay on the ship to oversee the repairs. Jack brooded in the Pit, the dimly lit sub-level below Engineering. Audible over the quiet hum of the ship's drive were the sounds of the work crews as they replaced the damaged sections of the hull. Jack sat up on her cot, snatched up her sidearm and clipped the shotgun to her belt. It was past time to pay the bitch upstairs a visit.
Miranda well knew Jack would take this opportunity to come for her; remaining aboard to oversee the repairs merely a ruse. Miranda had ordered EDI to alert her if Jack made any moves away from Engineering. When the message finally arrived, Miranda felt at peace with herself and what had been accomplished. "Operative Lawson, Jack is on her way."
"Very good, EDI," Miranda said calmly, eyes closed. Her hand rested on the pistol on the desk. Miranda's eyes were still closed as the door to her office slide open with a mechanical sigh.
Even as Jack surged into the room, biotics flaring into life, Miranda's eyes flicked open and she dived from her seat, snapping the pistol up and firing as she hit the floor. Jack's barrier flashed blue-white as it deflected the gunfire. Jack brought her shotgun to bear on Miranda even as she scrambled to her feet. Operating on an almost instinctive level, Miranda reinforced her barrier, wincing as the shotgun boomed. Against an unshielded target, the blast delivered at close-quarters would have been fatal. As it was, Miranda's barrier flared and collapsed as it absorbed the kinetic impact.
Pressing her advantage, Jack strode further into the room, ejecting the spent thermal clip as she went. Miranda knew down to the microsecond how long in optimum conditions it took a user to reload a Liebershaft Eviscerator shotgun and she intended to make the most of her narrow window of opportunity. Jack reeled back and grunted in pain as Miranda unleashed a warp field, following it up with a volley of pistol shots. Jack fell back against the bulkhead with at least one bullet wound, eyes wide with pain. Weakly she attempted to raise her sidearm, crying out as Miranda kicked it from her hand.
The Cerberus operative locked her forearm around Jack's neck and applied pressure, cutting off the circulation. Face set in a grim mask, Miranda held on as Jack thrashed about, attempting to dislodge her. Soon, however, the tattooed woman slumped to the deck, unmoving. Unwilling to risk an ambush, Miranda maintained her grip for another minute until she was satisfied that Jack was really unconscious. Warily, Miranda knelt on the deck to retrieve her adversary's pistol and shotgun, ejecting the ammo blocks from each and locking them in her desk drawer. After that, she cuffed Jack's hands and feet together.
Miranda stood, smoothed out the rumples in her uniform and tucked an errant strand of hair behind her ear. With Jack secured in her office, Miranda stepped through the empty corridors of the ship to the debriefing room.
"Miranda," her erstwhile boss said in greeting. "This is an unexpected pleasure." A line of static rippled through the Illusive Man's image before stabilising. The Illusive Man raised the ever-present cigarette to his lips and drew deeply on it. The end glowed red, momentarily illuminating the lower half of his face.
Miranda shifted her weight from hip to hip, feeling a dull ache from her encounter with Jack. "I have something you may find of interest," she answered coolly, her defection from Cerberus hanging between them, unspoken.
"Do tell," the Illusive Man invited, crossing one leg over the other and sipping from a glass of liquor.
"The sole surviving subject of the Teltin facility has been subdued and secured in my quarters. I know how many resources Cerberus put into those studies before the operation went rogue. I wanted to offer you the chance to...acquire the results of those studies." Miranda paused before carefully enunciating her next words. "For a price."
The Illusive Man crushed out his cigarette in an ashtray set into the arm of his chair. "You're in no position to make demands of me, Miranda," he answered, voice hard.
Miranda's voice was equally hard. "I have something you want. I could just as easily release the information we have on Teltin to the media but thought I'd spare you the trouble of suppressing it."
The Illusive Man was silent for several moments, his still image interrupted by another ripple of interference. "What is it you want, Miranda?" he eventually asked, lighting another cigarette.
"Your personal guarantee that Oriana will be kept safe and away from my father. Do whatever you like with Jack..." Miranda caught herself, "Subject Zero, but I want your word."
"There are certain elements within the organisation agitating for you to be brought to heel for your...indiscretions," the Illusive Man said at length. "I can and will do all I can to keep your sister safe but those elements I mentioned may not be so forgiving."
Miranda nodded. "I understand. I'll make arrangements to leave Zero on Omega for retrieval."
The holographic image of the Illusive Man flickered out by way of reply.
They used to bring in new kids inside those boxes. They were messed-up and starving but alive...usually.
The box into which she is sealed is only large enough for her to assume a foetal position within. Inside the box, all is lightless and she cannot see her own hand mere centimetres from her face. She shifts as much as the confines of the box will allow, trying and failing to find a more comfortable position. A low hum, felt through the box gives her some context - the box is aboard a starship, the hum that of the drive core.
She takes a moment to ponder the nature of her predicament: The cheerleader had bested her. Bad enough in itself. Worse, the cheerleader spared her life. Mercy, from Cerberus? Not likely. This is what's likely: she is en route to a Cerberus research facility, not unlike the one she escaped from over a decade earlier.
Unbidden, this realisation causes her biotics to flare uncontrollably, illuminating the inside of the crate with a harsh blue-white glow that hurts her eyes. The box shudders on the deck inside the unnamed vessel's cargo hold and crashes onto its side. She grunts as her head smacks against the inner wall of the box. Fuck.
Cerberus R & D personnel observe the box dancing and thudding its way across the deck with clinical expressions. "She wasn't supposed to wake up for another four hours," states one, consulting her omni-tool's display. Turning to her companion she says, "Baseline physiology seems well beyond expected parameters."
"Hmmp," the other scientist grunts, "I couldn't care less if she's nothing more than a head on the end of a spinal column, if her biotics are that impressive." The man nods towards where the box containing Subject Zero has slammed against the opposite bulkhead, leaving scuff marks on the dull grey metal.
The first scientist cocks her head at one of the armed soldiers standing against the bulkhead beside them. "Should we have them sedate her?"
"Why bother? She'll tire herself out eventually."
'Eventually' proves to be fourteen hours later.
Though she has never formally met him before now, she knows the person standing before her with the cold lifeless eyes is the Illusive Man. For the moment, it is just the two of them in this featureless grey room; the Illusive Man having ordered out the guards and other personnel. He looks at her strapped to the chair. She glares back, tendons in her neck and arms standing out against her skin as she tests her bonds for any weaknesses but there are none.
"Subject Zero," the Illusive Man says finally, removing a silver cigarette case from his suit pocket. He pauses to light up, exhaling twin streamers of grey smoke from his nostrils. "We had such high hopes for you, initially. Then you escaped."
She remains uncharacteristically silent. Behind her hazel eyes, inside the shaved skull, her normally impulsive mind is plotting. Let them see her as passive and compliant for as long as it takes for them to let down their guard, even a little and she'll demonstrate exactly why attempting to re-establish their biotic development program is such a fucking bad idea.
"You probably don't remember," he goes on, perhaps taking her silence as an invitation to continue speaking, "I was at the Teltin facility when you were first brought to us. Even as a child, the strength of your abilities was remarkable. We have made great strides in biotic research and development in the years since, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what we've accomplished. With you once more in our grasp, we can accomplish so much more. We're going to do great things for humanity, you and I." On that note, the Illusive Man departs.
The young tattooed woman makes one final attempt to break free of her bonds before falling back, defeated, breathing harshly.
Right now, one thought above all others sustains her: her time will come around once again.
Her time will come.
Author's Note: This is an updated version of So Does it End. Hopefully with fewer errors. As always, thank you for the reviews.