[A/N - So, yeah. Hi. It's been a long time. You really, really should consider re-reading the previous two or three chapters, as I last updated almost a full year ago. For additional thoughts or notes, see my author profile.]
Jack burst forth from the blackness in the same manner she had entered it - with distantly-felt pain, swinging fists, and a blaze of adrenaline-fueled dark energy.
Blue light crackled over her skin, dancing and sizzling like a droplet of cold water in a red-hot pan. Flailing blindly, she sent two layers of blankets and a pillow flying away from her - and struck her heavily bandaged fist on an unyielding metal wall.
The knuckles in her already-swollen hand went crack, and the fierce burn that followed stole the breath from the half-awake biotic. Limply, she collapsed onto her back - before arching up again with a strangled gasp, as her brain began to receive fresh signals of agony from all directions. Her shoulders, her arms, her chest - all protested.
Disoriented, she started to roll to her side, intending to curl into a ball - when that movement hurt as well. Everything hurt. Jack groaned raggedly as she squirmed in place, unable to find a position that didn't cause torment.
"Ffffuck! Fuck!" she hissed - even the act of contorting her features in reactionary anger to the sensations only added further discomfort, her face swollen and aching.
Panic-fueled memories flooded her - waking up on a grimy, threadbare cot in the darkness.
The smell of damp concrete, rusted steel, and the beginnings of mold as the jungles of Pragia-
Oh fuck, no. Fuck fuck...
Jack panted through a tightly-clenched grimace, spraying flecks of saliva as she warred with panic and her own disorientation.
She felt taped bandages on her torso tug at her skin. Gritting her teeth, she seized upon her meager amounts of self-control and forced herself to lay still - and the intense discomfort slowly diminished.
Didn't know what that shithole was called until I was off-planet.
Didn't have a name from the inside.
So I ain't th-
"Wha...what?" a bleary voice questioned, even as a shapeless black form rose up just beside her.
"Graaah!" Jack exclaimed, recoiling away. The movement stabbed fresh agony into her ribcage and left arm, and a pulse of glowing dark energy emitted from her that echoed her surge of fearful adrenaline, strong enough to rattle objects in the room and briefly illuminate the face of her intruder.
"Jack? Oh. S'just me," Kelly Chambers muttered sleepily as she hauled herself to her knees, her movements sluggish and stiff. The yeoman exhaled a pained sigh as she rolled a sore shoulder.
The ex-convict swallowed down her surge of anxieties and forced herself to slowly settle onto her back, failing to entirely suppress a groan.
"Shut up." Something was tugging at her arm, and by feeling blindly she discovered a tube set into the crook of her left elbow. Jack's teeth bared instinctively as her fist curled around the intruding intravenous.
"Don't-", Kelly began, as the biotic furiously ripped the offending needle free, heedless of the sting and the hot trickle that ran down her forearm.
"Fucking doctors. Keep your shit out of me," Jack rasped, tossing the thin plastic hose aside and struggling to sit up.
"You almost bled to death, Jack!" Kelly protested, restraining her with one hand to the biotic's shoulder. "That was a blood expander, and hydration." Jack slapped her hand away, but relented and slumped back again. Kelly reached out and snapped on a low-powered desk lamp.
Jack winced, turning her face to the wall as the sudden light stabbed at her eyes.
"Fuck off with the light!"
"What? This is barely...oh." Another tap halved the intensity of the illumination, and she began rummaging through her dresser. "Sorry, your eyes are still sensitive. Dr. Chakwas injected a solut-"
"Injected?" the outraged convict thundered, raising back up to an elbow, her eyes tightly shut.
"Would you rather be blind for a few weeks?" Kelly snapped, finally frustrated with the biotic's noise and endless objections.
That halted Jack's momentum, and she took another deep breath to calm herself.
Kelly tossed a small cloth that landed in the center of the biotic's chest. "Tuck that into your arm, unless you take pride in bleeding pointlessly."
Wordlessly, the convict scowled as she did as she was told. "Needles in my eyes. That's creepy as fuck," Jack finally muttered. "Fuck are we?" Shielding her eyes from the lamp with an upraised hand, she cracked one open cautiously, peering at the redhead.
Clad in a thin white undershirt and matching pajama bottoms, the yeoman sat back on her bare heels. "My room. Or office. Both. I guess Cerb...they wanted a private place where people could come and see me, if they were...well, if they wanted to talk. You never..."
Kelly's words trailed off, and she rubbed the back of her neck, before reaching up and making a futile attempt to tame her wild bed-head. "Well, no. Of course you didn't. Most don't. Just Kasumi. And-"
"What, I didn't swing by for a fuckin' chit-chat? Fuck's wrong with you?" Jack growled. "Why am I even in here?"
"Dr. Chakwas needed the space in the medbay, and my room was closest," Kelly reported in a monotone. "And she asked me to stay with you in case you woke up early. Something about difficulty in guessing sedation doses for biotics, and you waking up alone."
"Or," she added quietly, her brows creasing in thought, "perhaps she didn't want me to be alone, either."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." Turning her head away from the lamp, Jack lifted her arm - pausing the motion as the limb protested, aching fiercely - and probed the bandage that covered the left side of her face. Wincing as she found a sore spot, Jack squinted at the wrappings around the hand that had punched the wall. It was throbbing painfully in time with the ache in her head, and she noted fresh red spots leaking through the white synthetic fabric.
With a resigned sigh, the biotic fell back into the comfort of the mattress - before snapping back into alertness, lurching to one elbow. "Shep-!"
"Shepard is...fine," Kelly replied, hesitating slightly on the last word. "He's in his cabin, the last I heard."
Jack turned her face away, concealing her relief. "Fuckin' idiot is a death-magnet," she finally grunted, and missed Kelly's cringe. With a grunt, the biotic heaved herself into a sitting position, swinging her legs out and putting her bare feet to the chilled metal floor.
Dizziness took her, and she leaned forward to rest her elbows on her knees, eyes closed. "Ugh. Dizzy. Remember...explosion. Glass. Fighting. Turian. Christ, my head hurts."
"Low blood pressure," Kelly responded, robotically. She sounded distant, now. "And dehydration."
"Oh yeah?" The bandages on her hands crinkled as she pressed her palms into her eyelids, in an effort to keep them from pushing out of her throbbing skull. "Then why I gotta piss?"
Kelly sighed, stood and hooked an arm under the biotic's. "Not in my bed, thanks," she replied, dryly. "Let's go. Maybe ten steps."
Nearly fainting with the effort, Jack staggered to the washroom, leaning heavily against the Normandy's yeoman and muttering curses the entire way. Entering the lightless washroom, Kelly thought better of activating the illumination and simply deposited the slender biotic on the toilet.
Jack leaned against the simple military sink that was beside her. The chilled stainless steel that pressed into her temple was a welcome distraction from the nausea churning her stomach. "Pants, moron," she croaked. "Why I gotta...think...of everything?"
"You're not wearing any, moron," Kelly retorted. "You can't even tell when your bony ass is hanging out?"
Jack looked down, squinting with a single eye in the gloom.
Ink-marked legs, bare and lean, poking out from under a sadly inadequate medical gown.
"And," Kelly continued, heatedly, "Maybe you should stop your stupid complaining. You're lucky that Zaeed kept you alive long enough for Dr. Chakwas to get to you. You get to wake up and breathe today. You get to-"
The biotic's head came up, lip curled into a half-sneer. "What's your fuckin' problem, Cerberus?"
Surrounded by the glow of the lamp behind her, the outline of Kelly showed her shoulders slumping. "You don't…?"
"Sarah. Sarah's dead." Kelly backed out of the room and closed the door, leaving Jack in the blackness.
The darkness was a comfort, and it allowed Shepard to indulge in a simple fantasy: That he was alone. One man on his otherwise empty vessel.
Hey lay on his cabin floor, parallel to the foot of his bed and shirtless. Above him, his enormous skylight to passing space was dark, the retractable plate armor engaged and blocking the view.
Absently, he wiped the back of his hand across his face, smearing the droplets of sweat that dotted his upper lip. A slick, hot layer was between his skin and the metal floor at his back.
All was still and silent save the muted vibration in his bones, the breath of a living ship in the floor under his flesh. That, and the occasional burble from the empty fish tank that provided the sparse illumination in the room.
A persistent, low-contrast and translucent option wheel was in perpetual existence in the lower-left corner of his vision at all times, present since his awakening from Tela Vasir's overload attack.
Artificial vision. Since I woke up, I've not seen a single thing with human eyes.
And never will again.
By adjusting his depth of focus, he could "hover" his pinpoint of vision over it - initiating quicksets of visual settings.
Electronic nodes in my skull. This could be...recorded. Transmitted. Not a single moment to call my own.
[High light gathering selected]
Shepard actually squinted against the sudden surge of luminance and grainy detail of the walls around him.
He cycled the modes again. And again.
It was like scratching at an itch that would not be soothed.
[30 - 120 THz visible]
Remote kill-switch? A tiny explosive charge hidden in the implants. The instant I go sideways on Cerberus-
[False color overlay - low opacity]
Artificial colors flooded into his vision - the slightly elevated warmth of the washroom leaking under the closed door in a splash of orange. The chill of the aquarium a deep black-purple.
-it would be all over. I'd never feel it.
Her override code accepted, the security panel of Shepard's door flipped to green and slid open with a muted hum. Despite her stiletto heels, Executive Officer Miranda Lawson skillfully stepped inside with little sound.
The lights were dimmed to minimal levels, and deep shadows, cast by the meager light of the unpopulated fishtank, coated the walls of the room in impenetrable blackness. A shimmering reflection from the floor gave evidence of wet footprints. He'd taken a recent shower, and the air was humid, yet strangely cool. A cold shower.
A furtive sideways glance confirmed that the light in his washroom was off, while his work desk was illuminated only by his logged-in console, sitting below his model display shelves. In an instant, her painstakingly-designed, exceptional vision pulled the glowing amber words from the screen.
Dear Paul and Alice Patel,
I am incredibly saddened to inform you of the death of your daughter, Sarah April Patel, during honorable service as a rotation pilot aboard the vessel Normandy SR-2.
During a brief shore leave, an unexpected combat action was initiated by forces hostile to us, and Sarah courageously exposed herself to enemy fire in defense of myself _
The blinking, uncaring cursor abruptly ended the sentiment in mid-thought.
Distantly, Miranda drew a parallel to the sudden, unexpected cessation of Sarah Patel's own life.
A beat passed. "Down here," Shepard replied, his sleep-roughened voice rolling out of the darkness from the general direction of his bed. Her eyes moved in that direction, and the aquarium cast just enough sapphire light upon the white sheets to show that it was empty.
Untouched and perfectly smooth, sharply creased and with neat hospital corners.
A soldier's bed.
A fleeting memory that involved Jacob - surprisingly welcome, if but for an instant - pressed against her mind, only to be firmly turned away.
Carefully, she descended the two steps to his sleeping area - feeling her way in the darkness as her vision adjusted - stopping abruptly as she realized he was at her feet. Miranda looked down on the silent Normandy captain with cool, lapis-blue eyes and raised an inquisitive brow.
"Did you already take the time to do housekeeping, or did you sleep on the deck?"
From the floor, Shepard returned her scrutiny with a mismatched silver-and-crimson gaze. "Deck."
"I buzzed your door three times. I was growing concerned."
"I could have been sle-"
"No, you could not have been sleeping, Shepard," the Cerberus officer interjected. "While onboard your vitals are closely monitored. You are aware that the Normandy isn't just a stealth frigate - it is the current, mobile site of the Lazarus Project. Your-" Miranda hesitated, editing her choice of words, "Restoration is still a work in progress. The responsibility for your overall health, even above and beyond Dr. Chakwas, ultimately falls on me."
"No. No, I never really thought of it that way," he replied, slowly. "Just when I was starting to like this ship, too." Shepard made a dismissive wave of his hand. "Anyway. You're here to report something?"
"Yes, but first - you're overheated, still." Not a question.
The subtle red glow from his right eye flickered as he blinked, and one corner of his mouth twitched.
"I think you're hot, too, but let's keep this professional."
"Don't be a needlessly difficult arse," Miranda sighed, turning and opening the door of his mini-cooler. "May I? A cold shower may help you feel better, as you've discovered." Miranda reached past Shepard's Earth-imported beers and took a bottled water. "Elevated temperature is a side effect of your regenerative system recovery, not a symptom of illness."
"Help yourself. And it's getting better, this fever or whatever it is. But the cold floor still feels pretty good - especially on my back. I discovered that falling out of a nine-story window and landing on a marble statue isn't my favorite thing."
"Really? Garrus' report described it more as 'tackled a juggernaut asari Spectre through the glass', as opposed to 'falling'." Opening her water, Miranda sat in one of Shepard's guest chairs. "Regenerative systems needed some time to reach a useful mass, then multiplied exponentially. You're past the peak of the curve, and headed back down to your baseline - barring complications, of course. This brings with it your general core temperature. Have you urinated?"
Shepard rolled his head to the side, fixing her with a crimson eye that managed to appear bemused. "Excuse me?"
"Please, Shepard," Miranda replied, sipping her water. "This isn't a first date where you have to be mindful of a green bit in your teeth. I re-assembled you on a table from your bones and up. I am uncomfortably familiar with every millimeter of your body, inside and out."
"Thank you, now I get to know that all over again." Shepard adjusted his posture, slipping his hands under his head. "Fine. Yes, I did. It was...gray."
"Waste material from the self-replicating process. You should eat high-mineral and calorie-rich foods for the next several days."
"Are we talking about nanobots, again? My favorite topic."
Miranda's fingers lightly drummed on the side of the plastic bottle. "No, it is not. I offered to answer every question you may have, and you've dodged the conversation more than once."
"Denial. Avoidance. If you're generous, it's a tactic designed to allow me to function without distraction or 'undue distress'. Me being a consummate and heroic professional, according to the Alliance PR machine." Shepard shrugged. "You can call it what you'd like in your reports. And, speaking of..."
"Fine, have it your way. First, Thane is off the grid. A blood trail leading away from T'Soni's residence lead to an elevator, and vanished after that."
Shepard nodded, thoughtfully. "I imagine he has fallback positions on nearly every populated world of significance. Still, it worries me he didn't find a way to contact us."
"There's more. Shortly after your creative exit from T'Soni's residence, a new player entered the field. A young drell presented himself to Garrus. He claimed to be a friendly, and he knew Garrus' name. He'd also vanished by the time the firefight had ended. I get the sense you have a guess as to his identity."
"No, I'm not remotely certain of anything. Private conversation."
"Further, he may have contributed. The sniper position that was the origin of the shots that took down Liara's double - according to initial forensics - a body was found there." With a flash of orange light, Miranda activated her omni-tool and began scrolling through notes with a forefinger, still holding her water. "A batarian lying a puddle of blood, his throat wide open. Bladed weapon. Law enforcement has already identified him, yet he's not a sniper by trade, nor was a long rifle present."
Shepard's brow furrowed. "Spotter, maybe. So we're missing the shooter."
"Perhaps not. Another body turned up that was a known sniper. Just outside of where you were tracked down by Kasumi-"
"Kasumi!" The N7 soldier looked up at the mention of the thief's name. "How is she?"
"Surgery was successful and she's sleeping in medbay. She'll be offline for a week, at least, but she'll recover. Back to the suspected shooter. A turian, well-known enough that the police comm traffic was briefly abuzz with the news. Named 'Dros'. It's fortunate he was carrying a few typical ID items, as he was pummeled to a wet paste."
Shepard nodded absently. "And Liara?"
Shepard looked up in surprise. "Gone? But, she was with Garrus. Vasir had a monitor showing her original vessel interior, and I saw them. They were looking for me."
"Gone," Miranda repeated. "She was reportedly unconscious when Garrus brought their 'car to the rest of the team - at your location - to await Dr. Chakwas' arrival. At some point, she slipped away while other people were being tended to."
Shepard shook his head. "I don't remember any of that part."
"You passed out shortly after contacting the Normandy. Your healing systems were running out of control. You being hit with an Overload attack was something we never had time to test and devise a defense against-"
"Especially effective against shields - and synthetics," Shepard mused, pointedly.
"Your being alive owes a lot to technology, Shepard, I've never denied that. Your pet quarian is already muttering about designing dampening tech for your armor. So, there was some confusion at the scene, with so many injured, as well as setting up first-stage decontam for eezo-"
"Samara reportedly tore a YMIR mech in half, exposing the core. Zaeed and Jacob took exposure."
"Jesus, that's insane. And surprisingly reckless, for her," Shepard mused.
"She also sustained a head wound just prior, so perhaps she struck blindly." Miranda shrugged, moving on. "Regardless, a witness saw an asari matching Liara's current description moving away, on foot and alone."
"If she doesn't want to be found-"
"-She likely won't be," Miranda finished. "Agreed."
Closing her omni-tool, the Cerberus officer placed her water bottle on the floor next to a booted foot. Crossing her legs at the knee, she leaned back in her chair. "So."
"So," Shepard echoed.
"We lost Sarah," Miranda stated, flatly.
Shepard froze, and there was a long silence before he released a deep breath. "Yes. Vasir taunted me with that. When she told me, the bitch really savored the moment."
"You're acting strangely unaffected." Miranda crossed her arms under her breasts. "Are you going to tell me that you're fine, and that I shouldn't worry?"
"I was about to. I'll see to the crew - talk with them. Make sure they're able to handle it while moving forward."
"'Get rid of the judgment, get rid of the 'I am hurt,' you are rid of the hurt itself'," Miranda intoned.
"The school of stoicism. The rejection of destructive emotions, and finding that virtue and reason are sufficient for contentment."
"Virtue and reason rids you of the hurt, huh?" Shepard smirked. "I thought Kelly was the amateur psychiatrist onboard."
Miranda rolled her eyes. "You're an oaf. Sometime, try reading a book that doesn't have pictures in it."
"It's a philosophy that dates back two thousand years. I'm sure they're onto something." Her head fell back against the headrest, peering up at the featureless ceiling.
"I've lost people before. I will again."
Looking down at him again, Miranda quirked an eyebrow. "That's it?" she asked, dubiously.
With sudden movement, he rose to a sitting position with a grunt. Startled, Miranda sat upright. He remained facing away from her, and she could dimly see the seam pattern of the metal floor striping the skin of his back. "No. Hell no. But that's the playbook. You swallow it down and keep going, because we don't have a choice. Every time I've lost someone, I told myself the same lie: Never again. We lost Grunt only a few weeks ago. Never again. When I found out about Sarah, I felt that punch in the stomach and said to myself: Never again."
Miranda nodded slowly. "And you'll be wrong?"
"And I'll be wrong. But the lies get me through to the next day."
With a start, Jack jerked awake - the sensation of falling jolted her with adrenaline.
Her face was still pressed into the side of the metal sink, but she'd slowly slid forward and had nearly fallen off of Kelly's toilet.
"Fug...fuck," she muttered, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Not even drunk and I passed out on the pisser."
Hitting the button with her elbow, she flushed the toilet, and moved to stand up.
Her cold, numb legs didn't cooperate.
"Ahhh, shit. Hey, uh, Kelly?"
"Fuck, c'mon! Kel! Yo, bitch, little help!"
"Fuck you, then, whatever. I'll walk my own ass back to-"
Jack lurched to her feet.
Jack pitched forward in the darkness.
And went face-first directly into the opposing wall.
"Commander Shepard? Sorry to interrupt, but-"
Shepard sat up straight, and opened his mouth, but Miranda was faster.
"I thought you were off-duty, Chambers."
"Mir-?" Kelly responded in surprise before catching herself. "I mean, ma'am, yes. I was. If...if it's ok, I'd rather work a bit. It's easier. To be busy, I mean."
"That's ok, Kelly," Shepard cut in. "You can set your own hours for a while, until you decide you're ready for normal duty."
"Sir, thank you, sir," the yeoman replied, with gratitude. "Sir, I just arrived at my station when a priority message came through for you. It's headered as Spectre business, but addressed to the Normandy inbox at large, and not unusually encrypted to your private channel, so…"
"Go ahead, Kelly."
"Sir, the Council has summoned you to return to the Citadel. For questioning regarding the death of Spectre Tela Vasir."