Finally a foray into Mass Effect territory, and style-wise, somewhat different again from my other stories. As always, Bioware owns nearly everything. A reminder of the rating - mostly due to language, for the moment. Reviews are always welcome.
Chapter One: Echoes
The black sky above was full of stars, and the cold stillness pressed in on all sides. Slowly and carefully, she made her way down the slope again and felt the give of the snow beneath her heels. She brushed past the clinging ice and saw how the tiny crystals fled into the brittle air.
In the closed pouch at her waist, the dogtags clanked and jangled, and she tried not to think of their names.
Her boots slid against the hard curve of the ice, and she stopped, steadying herself. She let herself look at the high black spars that reared up, the ragged pieces that had been her ship, had been their ship.
The fires and the bright, slicing beams from the Collector ship had torn the patterns that she could see in the wreckage. The fall onto this snowbound white planet had done the rest, scattered the bits of her ship across the uneven, pale landscape like broken glass. She stopped again. She pressed one gloved hand against something the colour of charcoal, something that had been part of a floor or a wall or a door, she supposed. It was solid and as unrelentingly cold as the air that plumed against her helmet.
Bits and pieces, she thought, and her throat tightened. Bits and pieces of lives, and all of them trapped in the ice. She let herself linger a heartbeat or so longer, looking at the jagged dark edge of it. She gripped it hard, hard enough that it bit into her palm.
She had remembered it, eventually, in strange jolts and bursts of memory. She had remembered it sitting with her head between her knees and her gut heaving and hoping desperately that neither Taylor nor Lawson needed her.
The floor giving way beneath her and the smoke all roiling against her visor and Joker's harsh uneven breathing over the comm and the lurching awful knowledge that the ship was about to die.
"Commander Shepard? Are you in there?"
Fucking Lawson, she knew, her voice clipped and curious and her hands already knocking at the locked door.
"Yeah," Shepard said. "Yeah."
"Commander, we need to go. Now."
Another breath, and another, and slowly the blackness slipped away from the edges of her vision. She dug her fingers into her palms and looked at the small room, stared at the details of it until they burned. Walls and a door and a sink. Walls and a door and a sink and the rest of the small Cerberus station wrapping around and beneath it.
That was all she needed to care about now. Breathing and how to keep doing it and figuring out just what Cerberus wanted from her.
She swallowed past the thickness in her throat. "Yeah."
She slogged past the grey arches again, metal spearing up through the snow. The measured sound of her own breathing matched her steps. Somewhere behind her, the debris lay twined between ice and rubble and rock. The cold was worming its way under her skin and every breath she took tasted of it. At the shuttle, she dragged herself up the ramp and thumped twice on the cockpit door. The shuttle lifted off smoothly, and she sat near the small window and made herself watch as the white wastes fell away.
She stepped onto the Normandy at the change of the late shift. She strode up to the cockpit and was greeted by Joker's pale, shadowed face when he spun the chair around.
"Done," she said, before he could say anything, before he could say anything that might be comforting. "Got them all. And tell Hackett I put up his memorial for him."
"Will do, Commander." Joker's head tilted, and his eyes darted away from hers. "Did you get Pressly's?"
"Got them all," she repeated.
Later, in her cabin, she sat with her feet up on the desk and glared at the sprawling grey empty space. Enough room to lie down between the couch and the small table, and the glimmering empty aquarium could have happily housed half a shoal of something big. She tapped her fingers against her elbows and leaned back in her chair until she thought she could feel the thrumming pulse of the engines.
The cabin was too big, and she hated it.
It and the blinking datapads beside her feet.
"How long til whatever the hell it is that I'm doing tomorrow?"
"A little over seven hours, Shepard," EDI responded with laconic, glass-edged timing.
She wasted half an hour in the shower, eyes closed beneath the rushing fall of the water. Hot enough almost to hurt, hot enough to make her scars prickle and twinge, and she stood there until the back of her neck ached. As an absent-minded afterthought, she rubbed shampoo through her hair and fumbled for the nearest towel. Afterwards, she wrestled her damp arms and legs into the sleeveless top and shorts she usually tried to rest in. Another six steps had her on the bed and half under the clean white sheets and sliding into uneasy sleep.
The dreams woke her before the alarm did, and she kicked her way into her fatigues with brisk, practiced rhythm. A deck down, she found the mess hall almost deserted. Mercifully, Gardner only nodded to her when she went in search of coffee and something suitably bland for breakfast.
A familiar shadow slanted across the table, and Garrus said, "Shepard."
He nodded back to her, and as silently, he sat opposite her, a tray between his hands.
She stared down into her half-empty mug and murmured, "Alchera."
"That's what the planet was called. I only knew because Hackett told me."
Garrus tipped his head to one side. "You alright?"
"Yeah," she lied. She lifted her head and looked at him, looked at the livid scars that curled around one side of his face. "Just tired, I guess."
"Want to talk about it?"
"Yeah. No." She shrugged and eventually, she said, "It was cold there. Very cold. Everything was blue and white. Bits of our Normandy everywhere. Bones of it."
For a long moment, Garrus stared down at the table. "What did it make you think, seeing it?"
"Not every day you get to go to the place where you died." She grinned, horribly, and pushed on despite the thickness in her throat, the strange burn behind her eyelids. "Well, I suppose technically I didn't die there. I guess I got it somewhere just outside the atmosphere."
This time, Garrus said nothing. Instead, he stayed wordless and patient, and his blue eyes stayed pinned on hers.
"It was cold," she said again. "That's all I can think about. How cold it was. Is that weird?"
"Yeah," Garrus told her, and she heard the sliding, wry note in his voice that meant he was gently amused. "Very weird."
"Thanks, Vakarian. You're so supportive."
"That's what I'm here for."
"Yeah." She snorted. She swung around on the chair and rolled her shoulders. "Sure it is."
"So why am I up this early today?"
"Because you're volunteering to help me take Jack out to an old Cerberus facility."
"Not that I'd dare complain, but why?"
"Because she wants to blow it up."
Garrus laughed. "Fair enough."
She sipped at the cooling dregs of the coffee. "Zaeed and Grunt will be with us. Jack swears blind the facility's gone dead."
"But who'd know."
"You read my mind," she said, and smiled.
Other words floated between them, the Cerberus names and Cerberus colours of the ship, their ship, and she wondered if there would ever be time to talk about it properly, talk about Cerberus properly. Hell, she thought. There'd already been time, time between Omega and here, time between the day he'd walked out of the medbay with half his face stripped away and this day, this day that was not really a morning, except that the ship cycles told her it was. But they had too much to do, and her mug was empty now, and she had to head into the CIC and give the order to start swinging the ship around towards Pragia. So she nodded to Garrus and pushed the mug away.
As always, she waited and watched while they punched in the co-ordinates, and she let Chambers bounce through her usual ritual and replied that yes, she was fine, and yes, she probably looked tired, and yes, it was probably because of the lighting. She turned away from the young woman eventually, murmuring some excuse, and strode back through the cavernous high archways of the ship.
Too high, she thought. Too big, too much space, too bright.
She strapped her armour on piece by gleaming piece, and when the familiar weight of it was snapped into place across her shoulders, she breathed out slowly. The weapon harness was next, and the heavy wrap-around belt, and as always, she ran her fingers over the rifle and the solid weight of the pistol.
"Shepard," EDI said, and her blue globe flickered into life.
"Ten minutes, Shepard."
"Thanks, EDI," she answered, automatically. She rolled her shoulders beneath the encasing press of her armour and yanked her gloves on. "I'll be right down."
Pragia, as it turned out, was a jungle hellhole masked by squalling sheets of rain and a humidity level that fogged the inside of Shepard's visor. After the shuttle's readouts promised the air was breathable, she swore and tugged her helmet off.
Beside her, Jack was a bundle of venomous energy, and more than once, Shepard snapped at her to stay in place. Inside the facility, the pitted walls reeked of mildew and something older, something rotten. Puddles slicked the floor, and Shepard watched as Jack prowled through them, her feet sweeping up small surges of water. More of it fell in dripping curtains from the gaps in the roof, ribboning the bright lines and swirls of Jack's tattoos, running down her shoulders.
Jack hurried them past empty grey blocks of stone, and when she muttered, "They kept kids in here,", Shepard swallowed.
She remembered other places, places like this, held suspended in space on tiny remote platforms. She remembered the twisting, seeping creatures that had been taken from Feros and grown, and Admiral Kahoku's body, and when Jack struggled to open another door, Shepard rammed the butt of her rifle against the panel until the door slid wide.
Deeper in, the air was misted with hanging curtains of moisture, and when an armed party of vorcha hurtled through a half-broken archway, their feet slipped and scraped against the tiles. A volley of well-placed shots took down the first wave, and Shepard sank down to her knees, her shoulders against an upturned crate. Beside her, Jack's slim figure buzzed and blurred, and a burst of blue energy seethed through the vorcha, sweeping them aside. As smoothly, Shepard uncoiled and aimed past Jack's rigid shoulder. Her next shot took a vorcha clean through the throat and one of Garrus' pinned the last one to the floor.
It was easier now, she thought, as she flanked Zaeed through the next archway. Easier and understood and each shot cushioned into the bracing weight of her shoulder, and her muscles obeying as she spun and dropped again, head curved beneath the slope of a fallen beam. Easier now that she had relearned the rhythm of it, the half-instinctive, half-trained pattern of it, of how to listen and look, always listen, even if the air was a crackling wild mess of gunfire and noise. Always listen, she thought, listen between the layers for the single tiny sound that could save.
"Commander, get down," the woman's voice snapped again. "Now."
Awkwardly, she complied. Her shoulders smacked hard against the wall, and she breathed in slowly. She made herself pause, made herself marshal her thoughts. Her head was reeling, and whenever she touched the raised, painful lines on her face, she felt the wet slide of blood or sweat or both. The pistol was heavy in her other hand, and when she raised it, the muscles along her arm trembled.
"Next corner, Commander," the woman said, and her voice drove into Shepard's skull. "Two mechs. Fifteen feet and closing."
She gritted her teeth. She tried to lift the pistol and tried to stand up at the same time and her stomach flipped. Out loud, she swore, and when the woman asked if she was alright, she shook her head and did not respond. She tipped her head back against the wall and listened. Listened until she could hear it, the familiar metal scrape as the mechs walked, both of them keeping to the same tempo.
She turned, then, turned until her shoulders twinged, spinning out into the corridor. She got off two shots before the muzzle climbed away from her and the third bit uselessly into the wall. Desperately, she flung herself back and listened again. The woman said something else, and Shepard ignored her. She braced herself, and a single motion had her out in the corridor again.
She knew the mechs' height, knew their gait, and knew how they fired.
She lifted the pistol, and the first shot burrowed into one of the mechs at throat height. It toppled, shedding sparks, and she squeezed the trigger again and again until the second one fell beside it.
Arms shaking, she lowered the pistol. "Still here."
Another wide, low-roofed room held debris and vorcha, and krogan, all four of them charging at startling speed. Zaeed and Garrus slowed two of them, heavy rounds thudding with punishing impact. Shepard crouched and focused on the third, each controlled burst whittling away at its shields. Beside her, Jack screamed something, and a shuddering wave of blue energy tipped the fourth krogan onto its side.
As fast, Jack was on her feet and moving.
"Shepard," Garrus said, and straightened, his rifle lifting with measured, careful grace. "I've got you. Go."
Without thinking, she shoved upright and bolted after Jack. Two shots rang out, whirring past her shoulder, and the krogan dropped. Another hail followed, and she heard the vorcha as they hissed and shrieked. Shepard cleared the distance to the last doorway, and through it, she slowed her pace. "Jack?"
"In here," she called back.
Cautiously, Shepard trailed her voice until the corridor snaked round and into a small room.
A small room that held Jack and a man, a man on his knees with his face all shiny with perspiration, and Jack's pistol lodged beneath his chin.
"Explain," Shepard said.
"He's an old friend," Jack spat. "He was here too."
Another child, Shepard understood as Jack spoke of fights and injections and the drunken whirling pleasure of it. Other children always watching and pointing and whispering. Glass that had rattled and shook under Jack's fists and never given way. A table that became a shelter and hid her from everything except the needling bright lights. Another child brought in like so much flotsam, and turned into a Cerberus statistic.
"Want a tour, Commander?"
"No, thank you, Taylor. I'll find my own way around."
He nodded. "Whatever you want. I'll be in the armoury if you need anything."
They had given her the whole of the loft deck, she understood, and Taylor's smile had widened even more when he told her. There was plenty of space, she understood, and she should spend some time going through the weaponry inventory. Instead, she made her way to the medbay, and when she saw that it was true, that it was Chakwas in the chair, she swallowed.
"Commander Shepard," Chakwas said, and smiled. "Good to see you."
"Good to be seen, Doc."
The silence stretched between them, tremulous and thin. Shepard looked at the doctor, at the white and black Cerberus uniform. Chakwas and yet not quite Chakwas, and she wondered why that bothered her.
"So," she said, and flopped into the spare chair. "Tell me. Why the uniform change?"
"Soon," Chakwas answered in that same incisive tone. "Sit up here and let me have a look at you."
"Operative Lawson informs me you've been taking it too quickly since waking up."
"Waking up." She scrubbed a hand through her hair. Her hair that was too long and brushing the back of her neck and the top of her shoulders and suddenly she knew she wanted to change it. "Yeah. Waking up."
"Shepard," Chakwas said, softly.
"Yeah. I know. I'm good."
"He's here and he shouldn't be," Jack snarled. Her arm tightened around the man's neck, hauling him half off his knees. "He's part of this place."
Shepard looked at her, at the way she was hunched around the man, holding an old piece of her past between shaking arms. "Do what you need to."
For a long moment, Jack froze. Eventually, her fingers locked in the man's hair and yanked his head back and a single shot blew half his face out. She let the man fall, and Shepard followed her, followed her into the small room that had been all the world of her childhood.
"Strange," Jack said, in that forced, odd tone that Shepard knew she used when she was wrestling with herself. "Just a room."
"In a way. It's also not just a room."
"No prison psych bullshit, Shepard. You promised."
She allowed herself a small smile. "Yeah."
Jack's eyes flickered again, wide and limpid. She looked at the walls and the ceiling and the old pitted marks near the door. Her hands jostled against each other. "Come on," Jack said. "Let's go see if this place looks any prettier when it's exploding."
Four hours later, Shepard worked the last of the strain from her muscles and noted that, when she finally stepped off the treadmill, her eyelids were pleasantly heavy. She endured dinner down in the mess hall, and half-listened as Hadley sniped at Gardner and the two kids from engineering rallied to Gardner's defense.
Afterwards, in her cabin, she checked the last report left on her desk, apparently forwarded from Lawson, and concerning yet another tiny human colony somewhere, plucked clean of people and left empty.
Humans, she thought, and sank into the chair.
Always humans, and always small planets, and all of them lifted and taken into those coffin-shaped things she had seen on Horizon. She remembered the way the mild warm wind had stirred the pale yellow grass between the housing blocks there, the way the silence had slipped into the gaps in the doorways and wrapped around her until her every nerve was screaming.
She turned, her hand hovering over the comm station. Garrus would still be up, she was almost certain. They could trade training horror stories, or shamelessly one-up each other, or gossip about their new employers.
But he'd be busy, or he'd be tired, and besides, it was different now. They both knew it was different, because of Cerberus, and Omega, and what had happened over the white wastes of Alchera.
Instead, she tapped three numbers into the comm station and said, "Joker?"
"Getting my beauty sleep," he replied, immediately.
"Like hell. You never sleep."
"Yeah, well. What can I do for you, Commander?"
"Did Hackett respond?"
"Yeah," Joker said, quietly. "Said to say good work and thanks."
She lifted her hand off the button and stared at the back of her knuckles, laced with scars. She looked at the desk again, with its rows of books and the medal case and the framed pictures.
It was an echo, she thought. They were all echoes. Echoes of something that had once been, thrown back at her now, distorted.
She glanced at the books again, grabbed one with a brightly-coloured spine. She flipped it over and saw that the cover was as luridly decorated. Almost amused, she curled herself in bed and eventually, she fell asleep, her fingers jammed between the pages and the overhead lights still on.