Shepard died on a Tuesday.
When she gasped her last breath Kaidan's name was on her lips. All the moments she would never get to live flashed before her eyes.
Awareness ceased for an age but suddenly returned in a maelstrom of pain and scattered thought.
Sometimes she was alive. Sometimes she was dead. In that lab she was Schrodinger's pet cat.
Shepard was a hideous creature, reanimated by technology. She was broken, flayed and raw.
In the hazy borders between life and death, Shepard dreamed.
Pain came to her in spurts of burning agony. Her bones were broken, tubes burnt her throat, her skin was rough; peeled away and there was a strange tightness across her belly. There were moments of reprieve too - when the pain was fogged away, crowded out with anesthesia. Sometimes she almost preferred the pain to the unreality of the drug heavy dreams.
She dreamt of Joker, miraculously unbent and unbroken by his disease. Tali's laugh, distorted by her suit made her split lips smile. Her heart thumped a sickly, weak beat at Garrus' dry jokes, the turian's pink margarita she made him drink clutched in his talons and the retort of his precious rifle in her ears.
In some distant part of her mind she knew it was all imaginary but when the brain is damaged, imaginary is as good as real.
Liara was there too, apparently fascinated by braiding Shepard's hair, smoothing a cool blue hand over her feverish forehead. Wrex told her to be tough and brave, his booming, mocking chuckle echoing in her ears. Anderson clapped a steady hand on her shoulder, he believed in her and she felt comforted. Ash called her Skipper, her cheeks prettily flushed pink. Her hands were stained with her assault rifle's cleaning fluid. Shepard knew she was dead like her and missed Ash like a severed limb.
Most of all, she dreamt of Kaidan. Kaidan's whiskey colored, puppy-dog eyes. He lifted his scarred lips in a secret, shy smile. Shepard imagined the sweet taste of cereal and the heady rush of pleasure when the forces of gravity bent to their combined will. Her dream-self kissed him on the cheek in the mess of her ghost, dead-forever ship. Shepard felt the texture of his hair when she ran her fingers through it.
A fluttery heart began beating in tandem with hers.
Shepard would cry if she had the tears, the pain always returned and she floated, cut hopelessly adrift. Flame and white hot stabs of pain were her new loyal companions.
She dreamt of the surreal, of the world upside down, of space and pain and confusion. There was no real memory here, no sense of time. Maybe her personal Purgatory was constructed from crystal prisms, scattering her worst memories into bright and piercing things.
There was a black dog biting at her heels. Red pooled, ghostly blood was behind her eyelids - it was red, it was red, it was red. Her mind dwelt on small details, texture and harshly conceptualized color. Ash burned to pieces, a cruel play on her name, and the flash fry of a jerry-rigged nuclear payload. It burnt her eyes out of their sockets, the light so bright.
She left had Ash to die so he could live.
In another nightmare Saren choked her, his hand squeezing her throat so tight like a vise. A red monstrosity boomed his assertions at her, an insect to be squashed. Organic life was a mistake. She was a mistake. Vanguard of their destruction. For a moment she was afraid, and believed it.
Her squad died screaming on hellish Akuze, Toombs' tortured eyes blaming her. Shepard's dream-self shot him with shaky hands to stop him blaming her. His brains splattered on her face, in her mouth. Kaidan's eyes stared. It was red, it was red, a raw tattoo, it was red, stop it, stop it. It hurts.
Shepard wanted to die.
Her brother, her little boy was there. Milo's small emaciated body was ravaged by drugs. She lived her life again, her greatest failures laid bare. She watched him for hours. He was laid out on a cold slab. Scabs were vivid red against his dead white skin.
Why wouldn't it stop? Wasn't death supposed to be nothing?
There were voices sometimes. A woman and a man. She didn't like them. When they were around so too was the burning pain and the biting-sharp needles.
"Progress?" The voice was female, clipped and controlled.
Machines beeped competing with the clatter of medical tools. There were two beeps, one quick as a hummingbird and the other sluggish.
"Slow. We risk killing them both by preforming too many procedures at once. More skin grafts should be next. Tell the lab to start more cultures up in prep." The male sounded annoyed.
Shepard didn't care. The words were meaningless. The only thing to pass her eternity of agony, her private hell, was the oblivion of drugs. She smelt antiseptic, it stung her nose.
Somehow, tortuously slowly, her existence got easier over time. The pain became less frequent and biting. Her confusion and vivid dreams faded.
Once though, it snuck up on her; like an unwanted cloying friend. Her body was heavy, her back muscles were tight. They clenched in repeated, measured agony. Little fingers poked through her skin, setting her blood on fire. The acid of the Thresher Maws on Akuze was a summer breeze in comparison. The voices raised in urgency, in panic, in bizarre excitement. Distantly, Shepard heard a strange baby wail. She wished it would shut up, she was on fire again and the cries intensified the pain.
With a monumental effort her eyes fluttered open. Shepard would tell someone, ask them to make it stop. She was a Commander, people listened to her. She would make them stop.
A dark-haired woman with blue eyes hovered over where she lay, there was a bundle of blue blankets cradled gently in her arms. Her cold eyes ignored Shepard, they were fixated on the squirming, squalling bundle.
"My god, Miranda. I think she's waking up." The male said. He sounded surprised.
"Dammit, Wilson! I told you your estimates were off. Run the numbers again. You're lucky it survived." The woman's voice was angry. "It's earlier than he would have liked."
"It's not my fault Miranda, her biotics burn the meds off so quick." Wilson whined.
"Excuses. You should adjust and calculate accordingly. Sedate Shepard. Properly this time." The voice named Miranda was waspish.
"I need to report to the Illusive Man about the procedure. Get the nurse to clean her up while I'm gone. I'll take care of him but I'll need to organize transport to another cell soon."
"Fine." The man dripped resentment from every syllable. Once Shepard heard Miranda's heels retreat from the room, the man mumbled under his breath. "Yeah, yeah. Don't get attached now, you prissy bitch."
There was a prick of her skin, the pressure of a depressed plunger and she drifted back to her dream world; lulled by silence and drugs. Those cries were gone. Her sense of time warped and stretched. A second lasted an eternity and whole days passed in the space of a breath.
The next time Shepard awoke it was to the woman screaming at her to get up and put her armor on.
Blearily she stumbled upright, her body not her own anymore. Everything ached, her hips, her chest, her breasts and her very bones. Shepard's skin was cracked, like spider-webbed ice, cybernetic implants seeping through. A gun felt foreign in her hand, geth thermal sink technology unfamiliar.
Alarms were blaring and she had a headache. She pawed through the closet, finding armor hanging there. It fit her perfectly, molding to her form like a second skin. It was dark blue; they'd even noted her preferred style - Alliance colors. She still missed her old lightweight jumpsuit.
Her training was kicking in, Anderson had always told her: "Shepard, you get some armor and a gun and half your problems are already solved. Then all you need to worry about is getting out alive."
Shepard's second remarkable life had begun and nothing was ever the same.
The voice named Miranda guided her through the door. Shepard moved warily but swiftly, her steps measured.
Shepard paced into the next room and the mechanical whine of a mech was the only warning she had to throw herself behind some boxes.
"Someone's hacked security, Shepard! You'll have to fight through." Miranda blared on the intercom, static kept cutting in.
"Thank you mysterious voice, that's abundantly obvious!" She snapped back.
Shepard could see the facility was overrun, and the inhabitants mostly dead. She shot the mech in the head and took it down but as she dashed to the next room, she had to fairly skid across the floor in her haste to avoid more.
'Great. Not an easy escape then.' Shepard thought bitterly. Escape and evade was usually a specialty of hers, the mechs were a nagging annoyance. Why were they even attacking? Mechs were usually a manpower boost to supplement a security detail.
Shepard's true strength had always lain in her biotics. Despite Kaidan spiking higher than she could, her main advantage was she wasn't afraid of what she could do with her gifts. When they'd sparred, the cargo hold had turned into a place gravity didn't exist. Mostly she'd win, her use of the environment superior. He held back too much. A well thrown crate, a distracting Warp and she'd have him. She learnt to compensate for her lesser power by using creativity, setting up Singularities to funnel enemies into kill zones or Pull them from cover.
Now her greatest strength failed her. An attempted Pull against another mech contingent surged out of her with far too much force; it was like a tsunami when what she really wanted was a soft river.
The burst of biotics was far more than she should have been ever capable of with her L3 implant. The surge blew her backwards, her own dark energy rippling along her skin like a dog suddenly biting its master.
"What the hell did you do to me?!" She shouted impotently at the speakers; but it was useless. Miranda had fritzed offline. Shepard threw herself behind cover again. Her pistol was all she had. She was handicapped in a way she hadn't felt since she received her implant as a teenager.
'God, how does anyone get anything done without mass effect fields!?' She thought, chagrined.
Despite her ungainly new body the muscle memory gradually returned. The heavy pistol was her saving grace. Well, in addition to the sweet-ass rocket launcher she managed to snag from a dead guard. Despite her sour mood that at least made her lips quirk in feral glee.
She moved deeper into the station. Lights flickered hellishly; dead bodies lay in pools of crimson blood everywhere. As she ascended a flight of stairs, a masculine voice screamed, "Shepard!", but when she turned to help he was stuck behind the glass wall that separated them.
"Hang on! I'll get through to you." She turned to the wall console, frantically trying to open it to no avail. Everything was locked out and she had never been good at hacking. She had usually relied on Tali, Garrus and Kaidan for these situations. She was far too slow.
"I'm gonna find another-" She cut off in horror; a heavy mech appeared behind the frightened man and fired into his back. Shepard flinched as the blood splattered directly onto the glass in front of her, and the mech walked off hunting for new targets. The corpse lay there, hopelessly punctured with multiple rounds.
What was going on? Where was her crew? Where was Kaidan? If she was injured, surely he'd be around somewhere?
Confused panic drew her further in; she needed to escape this place desperately. She felt jumpy, confused and exposed.
The sound of biotics had her heart pounding in sudden hope but as she ran through the door she quickly realized it wasn't Kaidan. There was a large, dark-skinned man firing over a railing at more mechs, occasionally Pulling them across the void of two balconies.
Shepard approached him cautiously. "What is going on here?! Who are you?"
"Commander Shepard?" He wheeled towards her, surprised. "Things are bad if Miranda's got you running about. You weren't supposed to be up yet."
"You never answered my question." Shepard just barely resisted the urge to turn the gun on him. He wouldn't answer her questions if she threatened him; she sensed he wasn't the type to scare easy. But Shepard was not the type for endless patience, if he didn't tell her what she wanted to know she would make him.
"Sorry, the name's Jacob Taylor and your guess is as good as mine. How 'bout we take care of the mechs shooting at us and I'll fill you in on the way to the shuttles?"
Shepard didn't answer; she popped up and in rapid succession felled two mechs with her pistol. She watched enviously as Jacob Pulled the last two over the rail to fall far below them. She wanted her biotics back, their normal reliability. Eventually, it fell quiet and she turned to him, holstering her pistol and raised a single eyebrow expectantly.
"Ok. I'll give you the short version. Your ship was attacked, you were killed. Dead as dead could be. When they brought you in here, you were nothing but meat and tubes. Our scientists have been working for two years to put you back together. Welcome back to your life." Jacob said it with no attempt at sugar coating. Her life and death was just bland facts to him, rattled off like a report.
Shepard stumbled back a step, shocked. Dead?
Gasping, no air, no purchase, no gravity for her to twist, no light. Pain, lungs screaming for relief, cold. A broken ulna, Intai'sei, a sunlit apartment, I love you, red dust, amber and blue flares. The last spark of her dying brain seared his smile on her retina.
She'd died. She'd really died. How could she be here, now, with a second chance?
Shepard pulled herself back to Jacob, the acrid metallic smoke in the air making her eyes water and nose sting. This was real, right now, not some surreal flashback.
"What about my crew? Were there any other survivors from the Normandy? What about Lieutenant Alenko?" She knew she sounded anxious but she didn't care. He could think whatever he wanted about her. Anderson had always told her to have more control over her emotions, practice a better poker face. But Anderson wasn't here now, no one trustworthy was.
"I heard he survived. The asari, and the quarian, too. Pressly and a few servicemen from the lower decks didn't though." Jacob answered.
Shepard felt like she'd been punched in the face.
Her crew and Pressly. Sweet old Pressly with his pictures of his granddaughters and constant arguments with Joker she was forever breaking up.
'No. This is all wrong.' She thought, desperately denying this horrible new reality.
"Where are we? This isn't an Alliance facility. I see no soldiers, no chain of command." Shepard demanded, feeling her temper spark. Kaidan had always called her a firecracker; she burnt so bright and brash. This whole situation seemed suspicious to Shepard; who had the funding for a station like this, if not the Alliance?
"I can't say much more for now." Jacob's eyes slipped away from hers. "But you should know that the Alliance abandoned you. They declared you killed in action and covered everything up. And if we don't get out of here soon…they'll be right."
She barely heard when Jacob continued speaking; saying something about Miranda, Shepard's guiding voice on the radio. Her brain spun with the possibility of being declared KIA. What about Kaidan? Her friends? Anderson? Surely they had been informed she was alive. Shepard only pulled out of her shocked daze when another male voice cut in on the radio.
"Wilson." Jacob identified. The white and black-clad Agent carried on a short conversation with him that Shepard tried to follow, scooping up any intel she could.
"I know Wilson." Shepard said vaguely, her mind lost in that awful fog. "I think he was there when I woke up one time."
"He's Miranda's assistant. Come on, we should go help him."
Her only concern was getting off here and finding them all. Jacob's biotics were a poor echo of Kaidan's and when they came across Wilson she let Jacob handle the medi-gel application. As far as she was concerned, these people had nothing to do with her, just potential enemies everywhere.
She couldn't help venting her fear and annoyance into the unfortunate oncoming mechs. Her battle rhythm was off; Jacob unable to anticipate her moves or react quickly enough. Wilson was useless, hobbling around on his injured leg, his shots missing their mark.
After the mechs were taken out mostly by Jacob; the two men started speaking, arguing over Miranda's loyalty.
"Look. Just shut up." She had had enough. "I don't trust either of you. All I want is to get out of here alive. You can either come with me or get out of my way."
"Shepard, I know this is confusing but we need to work together. I've got to tell you whose facility this is. And you're not going to like it." Jacob was calm and solid but it did nothing to reassure her. Shepard found him smarmy and too smooth.
"Jacob. Is that necessary?" Wilson argued, moving in front of Jacob.
"We won't make it out if she's expecting a bullet in the back, Wilson." Jacob shot back. Wilson fell into rebellious silence. Apparently satisfied by a mute Wilson, Jacob turned to Shepard and took a deep breath.
"Project Lazarus was funded and controlled by Cerberus." Jacob said, his tone was resigned, wary of her reaction.
Shepard sighed internally. 'Cerberus, those terrorist nut-jobs. This day just gets better and better. Next thing this space station will blow up and I'll wake up in a Reaper lab….'
"Kinda makes me want to expect a bullet in the back even more, Jacob. You people are sick. But you know what? I don't give a damn as long as we get off this alive. I'll never work for Cerberus. You're deluded if you think otherwise." She hissed at the Cerberus Agent.
Shepard made them take point, holding her pistol ready. Cerberus killed her whole squad on Akuze, they had enough reach to even kill an Admiral and get away with it, she would be damned if they fooled her again.
When the disparate trio made it to the shuttles, it was packed with mechs. Shepard stuck to cover, edging her way upstairs while Jacob and Wilson bunched together and flanked the synthetics. Despite the numbers, thankfully the mechs were not exactly durable and easily dispatched between the three of them. She rushed to the shuttle bay door, the taste of freedom a siren's call.
The woman who opened the door certainly looked like a siren, with a murderously cold streak to match.
Wilson took a bullet in the brain and his blood splattered her face hotly. The red made her skin itch and phantom pain throbbed in her limbs. Her stomach muscles contracted in disgust and a little disgusted pity.
Miranda Lawson was a bitch and Shepard hated her immediately.
"That your idea of due process?" Shepard raised her gun, pointing it at the stunningly beautiful woman.
"My idea of process, anyway. He killed my staff and would have done the same to us." Miranda's eyes coolly appraised hers. Shepard felt like she was being x-rayed by them; all her faults laid bare.
Shepard met her stare unflinchingly. "That was wrong, and I don't like it but…you're my only way off this station. So let's move, unless you want me to move you by force?"
"That won't be necessary, Shepard." She did not intimidate Miranda at all; there was not a twinge of change in her impassive pale face. Jacob on the other hand, was watching their interaction with an expression of alarm, his hand twitching to his sidearm. Shepard wasn't worried about him, she could take him out in the time he took to draw his gun. His training was sloppy; her trained N7 commando status was overkill against his mall-cop's repertoire.
Shepard took a deep breath. "Good. I am glad we understand each other. Let's go, you can fill me in on the shuttle."
Shepard stalked ahead, Miranda and Jacob following in her wake. Whoever had left her to suffocate in space and destroyed her ship had a lot to answer for.
So did Cerberus, and she was not going to let them get away with it.