Chapter 35: Solipsism
Beneath the spires of Illium a woman stood apart from the crowd. She watched her memories pass by in the shadows of strangers. Beside the holographic trees she stood; tall, tapered like a sword. A cup of coffee hung listlessly in her hand, the list of repairs and procurements she had so carefully noted already gone, having taken her no more than just a few hours of work. It was a quiet disappointment that the day had passed by so quickly. It was a far overdue repair and resupply drop, full of the sort of routine tasks that can soothe a disquieted mind. To a passer by she may have looked like a woman who needed a break and perhaps decided to have one over coffee and a wide view of the shipyard. Reality couldn't be further from the truth.
Shepard watched the workmen moving their skilled hands over the Normandy SR-2. Asari, turian, salarian. Their forms were tiny in the distance, their arms moving in miniature as shields were scanned, irradiated dust was cleared from wings, and Joker's bent form stood vigilant. Not a finger touched the ship without his watchful eyes surveying for fingerprints. She stood watching him observing the workmen, but inside her was the keen awareness that somewhere uncountable colonists were being culled. It burned guilt within her heart. She drank her coffee. It tasted like ash.
From where she stood she could see the city lights glide over the silver body of her ship; glances of color in fuchsia, vermillion, and emerald. A breeze pushed through her hair. The night wind took her to somewhere else. A familiar voice. Calm, certain, and buzzing in her ear. The darkness of the night faded around her, becoming snow once again.
"Target marked. Take the shot."
Seven years ago the target was still so far away. She could still see it, bucking wildly in the ice slewn wind of the unforgiving Trategian wasteland. The lines of Nihlus's shadow leaning over her as he spotted – hard and black, making her hands shake more violently than the cold. Spectre sniper training, remedial level. She could ghillie, she could track, but she just couldn't keep her hands still. She knew she could never be a sniper, but he still made her try.
She knew she couldn't do it. She couldn't. The universe was too big and the target too small.
But he still made her try.
"Do it, Jane."
"You can and you will. Breathe."
"I can't do it – it's moving too fast."
"No arguments. On my mark. Three, two, one -"
The datapad exploded into shards as it smashed against the wall of the Normandy's bottom deck in a biotic blue flash. Jack's eyes were embers in the dark. Wolflike. Wounded.
"What the hell is wrong with you!?"
"Me? ME? You hand me some neutered horseshit on Cerberus typeface and YOU ask what the fuck is wrong with ME!? "
She could still see just the way Jack's dark eyes slitted, the words dripping poison from her lips. She looked like a snake when she wanted to, thought Shepard. Jack the gorgon demigod. Jack the hand of Hades. With her bald head and her demon's eyes, the tattoos that glistened on her lithe body like scales. What was so familiar, what was so unnerving, consuming – what, what? She watched the wiry young thing pace, violent and angry as any inmate in spite of her almost delicate frame. Ignoring the splitting sound of swears and refuse being blasted around the room, Shepard focused on Jack fixedly, almost seeing her face move in slow motion. Her lips spitting the words. There was something so familiar there.
"Calm down? There wasn't shit in that file. You lied to me. You fucking lied to me."
"I didn't know. I gave you what they gave me."
"And you trusted them? Cerberus? You actually fucking trusted Cerberus?"
Their eyes met in the dark.
"I didn't have a choice."
Jack the gorgon. Jack the serpent spitting truths wrapped in venom.
"That's never an excuse."
Shepard's heart sank beneath the dark holes in the grated floor. The fear that gnawed at her from the moment Jack had made her demands as the Purgatory twisted to its death around them had been affirmed. The files Shepard had requested from Cerberus in return for Subject Zero's participation were useless. Whatever truth there was to be known was far from her, from Jack, and from the pieces of the datapad on the floor.
The promise of the unedited story of Pragia had been Shepard's only card in convincing Jack to board the escape craft in the destruction of the Purgatory. But now it was lost. Just that simple thing was all she needed, and it was so far away. As the commander watched the hatred brim in Jack's eyes, those dark portals which gave her an overwhelming sense of deja vu, she felt shame. Shame that she had failed her, shame that she had believed even for a second that Miranda would be truthful, just this once.
Miranda. Docking the Normandy on Illium for repairs had been her idea, and Shepard – too ragged from running from system to system to chase Harbinger and the Collectors to no avail – had not questioned her motives. The ship was beginning to lose its virgin factory direct gleam. Joker had lamented just that morning of the cockpit lacking "that new ship smell" to Shepard's amused chagrin over her coffee, (which as when times had become uncertain on the Normandy SR-1, had become the cornerstone of her nutrition.) The sunless interstellar days had all begun to filter by too fast. The datapad and the calendar were becoming increasingly frenzied with objectives that seemed to arise out of nowhere like wildfires needing water. The Collector attacks on human colonies had begun as a trickle and become a deluge. Horizon, Harbinger, The Collector ship. The dead were piling in their graves but she was no closer to the truth. Why was it happening, and would it ever end?
In his house at R'lyeh, dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.
The flesh is a machine.
The flesh is a machine.
Blood on Thane's lips. He tried to hide it. He tried.
His machine was failing.
The light fading from Sidonis's eyes.
The silver letters of Kaidan's name, shining on a placard.
She had none of it.
In the basement of the Normandy a promise lay broken on the floor.
Miranda; watchful, raven Miranda. Writing on her datapad, sending her reports. The head of the Lazarus project knew something Shepard did not; the feeling was unshakeable. For all of Miranda's pragmatism, Shepard could no longer dismiss the anxiety that Lawson was watching every move she made. And while Shepard led the crew she had spent months building into danger after danger, oversaw every new upgrade to every conceivable weakness of the Normandy, and spent her evenings plotting resource probe launches for every planet they passed by – there in the darkness was Miranda Lawson, hanging on to some truth she refused to share. The betrayal of Jack's request for the dossier of Project Pragia had been the last straw. Shepard sipped her coffee, invisible in the crowd. She heard the memory of her dead instructor's voice once again whisper in her ear.
Clear your mind.
Far away she watched the port-side doors slide open.
Observe without judgment.
A turian whisper on a planet filled with snow.
Violet light ringing through Miranda's hair, unmistakable even a half-kilometer away.
Three fingers sliding onto her shoulder.
She turned – fist raised – she swung -
Garrus Vakarian caught her fist in his hand.
Their eyes met, grey in blue. His low rumble. Velvet in her ear.
"I've been looking for you."
"Dammit Garrus," she breathed, adrenaline searing through her veins as she caught sight of him, startled as if she had seen a ghost, "you should now by now not to sneak up on me."
The turian tilted his head, surveying her through his one eye in that alien way of his. She knew turians did that sometimes when they were considering or thinking. A foreign body language. Look through one eye, swivel the head slightly, look through the other. It was for the same reason they all shot with both of their eyes open. To see from every angle. But then again, turian eyes didn't have parallax.
Nihlus had told her this.
Garrus lowered her hand, but still held it. A heaviness rang between them as the movements of Illium floated by indifferently. She felt his fingers quietly begin to stroke her palm. His visor stung her vision with its brightness. She focused past it to look at him closer, and there she saw fire flicker in his eyes.
She looked around, paranoid that someone would see them together. He saw the fear in her, radiating from her skin. The turian surveyed the crowd with a quick look and silently guided her to the shadows of a docking platform around the corner. The wind was warm even in the high altitude, but cold enough so that when he moved closer to her she could feel his body heat even through his armor.
His hand, his long fingers, slipped across the small of her back igniting the skin beneath her clothes. Her heart was racing; public – it was too public. Even aboard the ship they had to be careful, so careful to hide in plain sight. She could only sneak past Miranda's office so many times a day to slip into the battery. There were only so many days a week when she could answer his soft knock on her door in the middle of the night; only so many times he could pin her against the hard railing down by the drive core when the engineers were away. At about 3 am the drive core room was the best place to be on the Normandy if you wanted to leave the sheets but didn't want to worry about noise or interruption.
Garrus had told her this.
He leaned in to her. She felt his warm breath sinking near her neck; the clicking of his palate purring in his mouth. She moved the hand that held the coffee cup and blocked his chest with it, squirming slightly as she caught his eye. The anxiety in her was too much to ignore.
"We can't," she whispered, looking at him seriously, "I know it's been a while but - "
He slipped his fingers around the cup, pulled it from her hand, and threw it on the aluminum floor.
"Too much caffeine, Shepard. It's making you edgy."
She went to twist away from him, trying to get a glimpse at the Normandy, but he held her hand firmly. She could feel his talons pulling on her wrist.
"I can't – someone will see!" She hissed, visions of sordid tabloid pictures racing through her mind. Nihlus's voice – so clear it hurt – No one will take you seriously. The faces of the Council, the way they looked at her polite concern, they didn't so much listen as they did tolerate her, as if she she had dementia or some other mental illness. The Asari councilor's blue fingers moving, "Ah yes, "Reapers." Nihlus's eyes, bottle green, the disappointment reaming through even from beyond the grave, throwing her twenty-six year old hand back at her, a scathing hiss,"How dare you. I'm your teacher."
"You'd love that."
Cold steel on her back, warm metal-leather skin on her breasts, her neck, the smoothness of armor, slippery rough scars sliding down her face, the slice of a plated mouth slipping down, down, nipping at her ear, the fingers that pushed her back, pinning her, the hard leather lips biting harder – the pressure the no, no we can't, and the claws and the scent of him and how tall, how tall, he blocked out the stars, the anxiety, all that lay beyond and there was only the present, and there was only his hands pushing and he leaned, he leaned, and no and no but she craved to say yes, she said no but meant yes, don't stop – hard, harder – her hand on his gun and his fingers in her hair, pulling, his native tongue slipping those words in her as he kissed and yes, no, yes – tongue, tongue and his breath and the scent of him so different and strange and the long black nails sliding down, down, mind higher, mind floating above, evaporating, going, going – don't stop, don't stop, don't stop – Archangel...Archangel.
"Shepard, what are you doing here?"
Garrus put his hand on Shepard's shoulder, and she jolted. She turned around, the coffee cup swinging in her hand, her fist flying but he caught it. She was breathing, her eyes were wide, wide like she had seen a ghost. Wide like she had awoken from a dream. Concern sparked across the turian's eyes, what the hell?
"What's wrong?" he asked, but she only stared, shaking.
He shook her, his face coming closer, searching her eyes.
He held her hand tighter, peering into her like dark water. She wouldn't look at him. Her lips went to move, but said nothing.
Garrus took the coffee from her hand and set it on the railing. His eyes glanced around the crowd, and quietly, subtly, he led her around the corner to a docking platform, watching over her shoulder the whole time. Shepard's mascara spattered eyelids searched the shipyard as the turian gently coerced her atrophied body into movement, but no, no. She had missed her. Miranda. Miranda was gone.
Her grey lenses found his. She swallowed.
She hadn't slept. Harbinger. The colonists. The Collectors. The blood on Thane's lips. The broken codex. Ghosts. So many ghosts. So many dead. Too many dead.
She hadn't slept.
"I think I'm losing my mind."
Six warm fingers, six steady fingers on two steady hands, a sniper's hands, closed around her ten. He leaned in close, his eyes and his voice blocking out the stars, blocking out the trickle of debilitating memory. The past faded. The future was gone. It was the present. She could still see him walking away from her on the Citadel to never become a spectre, the image of him fading as she died, the only thought in her mind of what could have been and what she'd done to him - and Garrus, I'm so sorry but there he was. There he was, so close and his eyes and his voice and the warmth of him, and his mouth was moving and he was saying,
"The whole universe has has lost it's damn mind. Now tell me what's really wrong."
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