Summary: The Doctor thought he could do no more harm to the universe. It takes a fresh perspective to show him he is dead wrong. Doctor Who meets Mass Effect.
Storm on the Horizon
Chapter Eight - Common Sense of Self
It wasn't the old-fashioned intravenous needles jammed into her skin at uncomfortable locations, or the restraints on her wrists, waist, and ankles. It wasn't the bright, sterile lights shined directly in her face, or the flickering holographic panels floating above her like some sort of child's drawing. It wasn't the sharp metallic taste in her mouth or the dull throbbing pain of her tongue, teeth, and the inside of her cheeks. It wasn't even the ever-present antiseptic smells wafting past her.
What woke Shepard up was the beeping. The irregular, high-pitched staccato of a cardiometric device, placed right by her head, forced her through the fog of sudden consciousness and into the realm of painful lucidity.
She groaned as she opened her eyes. Another horribly familiar ceiling.
At the edge of her hearing, she could pick up a hushed murmuring. She turned her head - as much as she could with the strap set firmly around her forehead - towards the gathered mob at the opposite end of the medbay.
"...n't make eye contact, whatever you do."
"Can she hear us?"
"Is it still Shepard in there?"
"She's looking at us she's looking at us."
She rolled her eyes and pulled gently at the restraints, testing their limits. "You-" She was interrupted by a coughing fit. "You guys can untie me now," she said, weakly.
"No, don't engage," she heard Joker say from over by the door. "Rookie mistake."
"Shepard, we're all worried about you and we're glad you're okay, but you were hit with some sort of internal neural scrambling device." Garrus walked into her field of vision, making sure to keep out of potential arm's reach. "Something that Cerberus set up. We just want to make sure you're still you. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Come a little closer and ask me that again," she growled.
"It's her!" Garrus shouted gleefully. He motioned someone over and the two of them started unstrapping Shepard from the bed.
"What happened?" Shepard asked, sitting up as soon as she was freed enough to do so. Beside her, Mordin - who must have been the person Garrus called over - started taking readings with his omni-tool.
"Encephalographic recombination," he said. "Caused by pinpoint long-range activation of hidden Cerberus cybernetics. Killswitch."
Shepard glared at him. "I thought you and Doctor Chakwas found all of them. The spinal shock column, the arsenic patch, the... what was it?"
"Napalm generators in your sinuses," supplied Mordin helpfully. "Ingenius. Must discuss fabrication designs with Miss Lawson, thank you for the reminder."
Garrus and Shepard exchanged a look.
Mordin huffed in indignation. "Academic interest only! Would never consider practical experimentation." He paused, blinking twice. "Would never find volunteers, in any case. Too messy."
"But you got all those out," said Shepard, eventually. "And you looked for more! I was in and out of surgery for a week!"
"That wasn't a fun week for anyone," Garrus agreed, grunting in pain when Shepard smacked him in the arm.
"Must have been more. Project Lazarus still classified, even in Cerberus databanks. Only full access at the highest channels."
"And if Miranda gave us everything she knows, then there's only one other person who might have secret knowledge," Shepard said, grimacing.
"The Illusive Man," acknowledged Mordin. "Bad news, had trouble locating offending circuitry. Enmeshed completely in nervous system. Decentralized."
"It would have killed you if the Doctor hadn't found a way to stop it," said Doctor Chakwas, coming around with a glass of water.
The water was a gift from heaven, Shepard decided as she sucked it down greedily. She hadn't realized how dehydrated she must have been, even with the IVs. She gestured vaguely towards the needles and Chakwas dutifully began removing them - albeit reluctantly.
"So what's the real situation with me?" Shepard asked after draining the glass and taking a few much-needed breaths. "You wouldn't have strapped me down for all that."
That must have been the cue for the audience at the doorway to quickly file out, Joker grumbling the entire time as he struggled to keep up with the crowd.
Garrus shared a look with Mordin. "Well, basically, not only was the device giving you seizures, but there was a distinct possibility it was hooked up to your brain, which meant that there might have been some sort of control mechanism for when you woke up." He held up a hand to forestall any interruptions. "Yes, we know 'Lucy wanted you to be exactly as you were, but he's exactly the kind of person to have backup plans for his backup plans, you know this."
Shepard nodded ruefully. She probably should have been surprised at not being surprised, but at that point she wouldn't have been shocked if the Illusive Man himself had shown up to explain what he did.
"But you don't have to worry about that now," Garrus was saying, "because the Doctor and EDI found the transmission frequency and are actively blocking it out. Also, your Reaper tissue is slowly eating what bits of it we could find. That's why your heart monitor is going crazy over there." Garrus parted his mandibles in an expression she had come to recognize over the many missions they had done together: embarassment. "Also, you have Reaper tissue. So that's a thing that happened."
Shepard had already frozen. "They. Put. What?"
"EDI discovered in Lazarus files," Mordin said. "Intention was to use possible genetics against them. Taken from Sovereign. Killswitch most likely option in case you went slasher movie on them, either for being consumed and turned, or..." Mordin took a deep breath, practically savoring the next word, "...revenge."
"So you can see why we'd want to take precautions," Garrus added.
"That was... smart," Shepard admitted. "Inconvenient, but smart. Is there any way to get this shit out of me?"
Mordin shook his head. "Not easily. Not without full files, which only Illusive Man possesses."
"Then we'll get them from him," Shepard said.
Garrus tilted his head quizzically. "How? It's not like he'll be easy to find. He kept switching hideouts after Miranda defected."
Shepard stood up, leaning on the nearby bulkhead to steady herself. "He's here. Big meeting of the largest governments in the galaxy, why wouldn'the have found some way to tag along?" She frowned. "Though Mom's already called it off, I take it?"
Garrus suddenly became enamored with the electrocardigraph readout next to Shepard's bed.
"Not... exactly," Mordin said, scratching the back of his head awkwardly.
Shepard felt her headaches returning. "Alright, fine. Just tell me one thing. Where is the Doctor right now?"
"...and that is why, for the benefit of your descendants and your ancestors, a multi-ethnic cast for Les Misérables should always be considered."
Shepard didn't even bother to hide her groan of dismay when she hobbled off the shuttle in the Destiny Ascension's hangar bay. The Doctor was there, as Garrus had indicated, and he was currently being interrogated by her absolute least favorite reporter.
"Would you at least agree that this musical is an important part of Earth culture?"
"Oh, most definitely," replied the Doctor, grinning like the madman that Shepard was starting to understand he actually was. "Out of all the stage productions of all the different cultures in the universe, I have to say that it's my absolute favorite. Brings a tear to my eye every time."
"Then you'd agree that such a cultural icon must be kept out of the hands of races that have no context or appreciation for such works of art."
"Miss al-Jilani, have you ever seen a production of Les Misérables?"
The reporter blinked. "It's such an important part of Earth's history that-"
"Yes, yes, but have you seen it?"
"Not since high school," she admitted.
"Well, there you go! It's such a stunning critique of classism and bigotry with a backdrop of oppression and breakaway hit singles. Just try to imagine a young-but-talented quarian girl cast in the role as Éponine Thénardier," said the Doctor, balancing his accents beautifully. "There wouldn't be a dry eye in the house."
"It's clear that you aren't taking this interview seriously, Doctor," said the reporter. "What about the allegations of a potential affair with Commander Jane Shepard, formerly of the Alliance military?"
The Doctor caught Shepard's eye and grinned, but gave no other indication that he had seen her behind Khalisah al-Jilani. "Oh, the Commander? We~ell, I don't like to kiss and tell..."
"So there is substance to these rumors?" pounced al-Jilani excitedly.
"I wouldn't so much say 'rumors', mind you," said the Doctor, clearly enjoying himself. "After all, these kinds of things sneak up behind you, don't they?"
Shepard rolled her eyes, but silenced her footsteps as she made her way behind the reporter.
"How about the claims that she is, and I quote, 'A frigid ice queen with a vendetta'?"
"That's a rather striking claim," answered the Doctor. "Wouldn't you say so, Commander?"
Al-Jilani shook her head. "I won't fall for that one again, Doctor-"
"I'll answer these questions, Khalisah," said Shepard, mere inches behind the reporter. It was every bit as rewarding as she had hoped; she swore that the woman's feet rose off the ground at least two feet as she whirled around.
"Commander Shepard!" said the reporter, barely managing to compose herself. "If I might have a quick-"
"The Doctor is a consultant to my current mission, nothing more," Shepard said in her Public Appearances voice. "Said mission is currently classified, pending a review from the governments that make up Council space."
"And the rumors of romantic entanglement between yourself, the Doctor, and Lieutenant Alenko?" pushed al-Jilani.
Shepard gave her best slow, predatory smile, and sauntered into al-Jilani's personal space. "Are none of your business, Khalisah, and any further inquiries will be considered hostile. Do I make myself clear?"
To her credit, the reporter barely quavered, though Shepard's enhanced eyesight did catch the tightening of al-Jilani's neck muscles in a hurried swallow. "Perfectly clear, Commander," she said. "Can I get an interview once the review board has made their decision?"
"I don't know, Khalisah," said Shepard, turning her back and walking away. She motioned for the Doctor to follow her. "Can you?"
They had made it halfway across the hangar bay before Shepard's enhanced hearing picked out al-Jilani's voice, sputtering to her camera about the indignities of reporting on a Citadel ship and the increasing corruption of Earth's best and brightest.
"Is all media like that, Doctor?" asked Shepard when they had reached the security checkpoint for the Destiny Ascension.
"Like what?" chirped the Doctor, all innocence and high-pitched curiosity.
"Like that," said Shepard. "Getting all crazy where the military is concerned, trying to make out every offensive action or tactical strike as something horrible that can be spun to suit the opinion of the week."
"The media is many things," said the Doctor mysteriously, "but the one thing it always agrees on is its attitude on this." He shook his head. "Can't say I blame them. War. War never changes."
The Council chamber was overcrowded to the point of exploding. Across the raised dais, three long tables were set up to accomodate the myriad heads of state, pushed together for what might actually have been the first time in the history of the universe - or at least, Shepard reminded herself in a bitter realization, since the last Reaper cycle. It was evocative of the old United Nations summits from pre-Relay Earth, minus the translators and the rows and rows of flags.
In front of the dais was a podium - presumably for Shepard herself. It was angled perpendicular to the tables, giving whoever was at the podium equal view of the heads of state, the Citadel Council seats at the far end (raised even higher, because of course they'd be looking down at the proceedings while framed beautifully by the brown dwarf's throes of almost-stardom, easily visible through the tall segmented viewports throughout the chamber), and the throng of spectators, reporters, and floating holocams occupying the main floor.
That was what was unsettling Shepard the most, she decided as she and the Doctor walked towards the podium. The crowded floor. It was a mix of heights, colors, and (despite the air scrubbers running at full tilt) smells, combining the spicy aromas of turian skin with the unfortunate musk of too many humans in close quarters. This was punctuated by the rotting meat she had come to associate with krogans, a salty chlorinated presence of hanar, and an occasional whiff of disinfected microfibers, indicating the presence of quarians and volus, the latter not readily visible with the reporters crowding the stage and everyone else towering over them.
"I can't believe I can tell who's out there by smell," Shepard lamented, stepping around a pair of hooded men in engineering coveralls who were taking away an extra table from the dais.
"Can you? Blimey, that's useful," said the Doctor, raising his eyebrows. "Is that new, then?"
"Cerberus enhanced my senses when they rebuilt me," said Shepard, frowning. "It was never this strong, though. I could tell you what that guy had for breakfast."
They reached the podium in silence, listening to the excited murmuring of the crowd to their left. Cameras flashed and spotlights threatened to blind both of them, before a pair of security officers rushed to the front rows and calmly explained that yes, this was a public hearing but they were never promised a public seeing, and they could still see the proceedings provided that those on-stage could see as well.
"Well?" asked the Doctor.
"What did he have for breakfast? If you don't tell me I'll be wondering all day."
Shepard rolled her eyes and closed her eyes, remembering the scents on the engineer's breath as he passed by. Sugar and processed wheat, milk, artificial fruit flavoring... "Some sort of cereal. I'm not sure which."
The Doctor grinned. "Oooh, now there's a skill. War's over, you can go into entertainment. Fairgrounds, that sort of thing. Do me next?" Without waiting, he breathed heavily in Shepard's face.
"Oof, warn me next time you do that, will you?" she said, glowering. "Gardner's waffles. He makes them every Friday."
"That's fantastic that you can pick that out like that," said the Doctor. He frowned. "But today's Tuesday, isn't it?"
Shepard turned back to the podium, allowing herself a small smile while the Doctor sputtered indignantly. Whatever he would have said next, however, was drowned out by the sudden deafening silence as the Councillors took their places on their ego-platform.
"So, Commander Shepard," the Turian Councillor began, his mandibles pressed tightly against his skin in a sneer, "tell us why you have summoned us here to this... place."
"Joker to Hawkeye, what's the status?"
"Can't you see the video feeds from where you are?"
"Yeah, but that's no fun. I need the Madden play-by-play. Explain to me exactly what's going on in exquisite detail, because it's not like you have anything else to do."
"Come on down and see for yourself, then."
"Don't be like that, Hawkeye, I'm much too classy for that."
"Spirits alive, Joker, you watch hanar porn while you're flying the ship."
"It's classy hanar porn. They have monocles and top hats on. It's real avant-garde."
"Joker, Kaylee. Get your damned nonsense off this channel or Keelah help me I will replace your entire folder with whatever Jack thinks is funny at any given moment."
"...so okay, have a good mission you guys, I'll let you work in peace."
"...remind me never to piss you off, Kaylee."
Tali shook her head and closed the comm channel. The boys were restless, she knew, and it was always better to nip those conversations in the bud before they got out of hand. One time she had walked into Engineering during the weekly poker game and the conversations she had stumbled across had made her want to defragment her suit multiple times in a row. What was even worse were the gestures the men were making, too. But she had put a stop to that the moment she pulled up a chair, asked to be dealt in, and started telling stories of her own.
The boys didn't seem to like that. Not even when she started joining in with the gestures. After that, while the poker games continued, she was able to work on the engines in peace, with only normal ship's gossip accompanying the peaceful hum of the drive core.
"Kaylee, Hawkeye. Council's agitated, but I'm not getting audio up here."
Tali moved closer to the ventilation grate, trying to peer through. "Shepard's doing her usual speech."
"The one about how the Reapers are everyone's problems and the Council should get their heads out of their asses for once?"
"That's the one. She really didn't need to be here for this, any of us could have done it by now. Ninth Shadow, are you in position?"
"I still do not understand the meaning of these code-names the Doctor picked out for us."
"Nine, Hawkeye. Code-names are used in case enemies are listening in, so they don't know who you really are. Also there's this great moment of supernatural dread-"
"Yes, thank you, I am aware of the reason for code-names. I simply don't understand why he picked these out for us. Are they a matter of Time Lord cultural significance?"
"You should ask him, Nine."
A flickering light on her omni-tool grabbed Tali's attention. "Hang on, I'm reading an energy spike on the dais. It's... I don't know why I didn't pick it up before-Kheelah sa'lai!"
The comms erupted in a hiss of static, and Tali hurriedly turned hers off before the sonic shriek shattered her faceplate - or, more importantly, her ears, which were still ringing as she tapped her helmet to try to reset the circuits.
An arm snaked around her throat and pulled her away from the grate, and a serrated knife was pressed to her stomach. "Hush now, little girl," growled a low, rasping voice. "Just be still and calm, and I won't tear a hole in your skin and leave you to the infection."
Tali went rigid. "My suit will close down on the wound."
The knife slid slowly across her stomach, and Tali watched in horror as it almost casually parted layers of fiber and mesh. "How deep will it seal? I could always let you bleed out before your medications kicked in. Just be quiet and watch."
Outside the vent, there was a thunderous roar of applause as Shepard concluded her speech. Tali's comm crackled back to life, and Garrus's worried voice kicked in. "-lee? Kaylee, do you read?"
The growling voice chuckled. "Answer him."
Tali cleared her throat. "Hawkeye, Kaylee. There was a bit of static, but I'm fine now. What happened?"
"Shepard did her 'We stand together, or we hang seperately' routine. Brought a tear to my eye. Aren't you supposed to be monitoring it?"
The knife pressed closer. "Yes, yes, I'm absolutely fine, there's nothing to worry about here," she babbled, praying that Garrus would take the hint.
"Acknowledged, Kaylee. We'll sit tight."
Tali suppressed the urge to sigh in relief, clicking off the comm. "What are you going to do?" she asked her captor.
The voice chuckled. "Your little friend, out there on the podium? She's upset my employers, and I've arranged a little surprise for her when the meeting is over."
The knife started carving shallow grooves into the mesh overlay of Tali's environmental suit. Integrity alerts started flashing in her helmet's visual display, but she dismissed them as a distraction; it wasn't like she needed to knowhow many millimeters it would take to rupture her containment. "What kind of surprise?" she asked, trying to keep the man talking.
The chuckle returned. "Let's just say that Shepard's final speech will be a major hit with her audience. They'll have a blast."