Since Dr. Chakwas was the only other person who spent any time in the medbay, Solana didn't bother looking up when she heard the doors open. She called out a cheery greeting, assured the good doctor her leg was doing fine and only paused when, instead of the doctor's pleasantries, she was met with silence. Her gut twisted and, suspecting what she'd see when she turned, she delayed just moment longer, like a child convinced if she didn't see something, it wouldn't be true.
But the truth was her brother, trailed by a stony-faced Zaeed, settling his burden—his all too familiar burden—on one of the beds. The truth was that Shepard didn't move, didn't murmur, and if Solana hadn't seen the faint rise of the commander's chest as she breathed, she might've thought bringing her to the medbay a futile gesture. Shepard was too pale and too still and Solana's breath caught as she thought no, not again, not again, he can't do this again. Garrus ran a hand over Shepard's brow, pushing limp curls back from her cheeks. Then he lifted his face and Solana wished he hadn't, because the truth written there was heartbreaking, and she knew him well enough to see right through the grim mask he wore. He was clearly floundering, moving only because it was his duty, a part of him already drowning. She had no idea how to help. No idea at all.
"Where's Chakwas?" Garrus asked. To his credit, he didn't snarl or snap; he sounded only old beyond his years. His hand trembled as it closed around the bed's railing. He looked smaller out of that ever-present armor, thinner than she ever remembered him being, and without the metal encasing him, the shift and shudder of his posture was all too evident.
She'd have run to find the doctor herself if she thought her still-healing new leg could take it. "Crew quarters," Solana answered. "Even she has to sleep sometimes. She's only been gone about an hour."
Garrus nodded a command, but Zaeed didn't need the urging; he was already through the door and jogging away before the gesture was half-finished. Garrus' chin dropped, his mandibles drooping, but the despair lasted only a moment and was replaced with stoicism. Solana wondered how long he could keep it up. Wondered what would happen when he couldn't do it anymore.
"Dad?" she asked.
"Will be here shortly. I've told Grunt to let him pass."
"The Alliance won't like that you've posted a guard on one of their ships."
"It's Shepard's ship," he replied wearily. "It's my ship. The Alliance can screw itself with its own faulty intel."
"Not faulty," said a new voice, and Solana, startled, glanced at the opening door just in time to see not the doctor entering, but a pair of strangers. The human was thin and definitely limping, and even though Solana still had occasional difficulty telling one human face from another, she was certain she'd never met this woman before. Alien or not, she'd have remembered the eyes. Those eyes regarded the medbay with cool precision, like a squad leader looking to find fault and pleased to see everything in order. For all her demeanor of superiority, however, it was not the human who spoke, but the asari guiding and supporting her.
The asari looked entirely too young to be wearing such a weighty expression. Hell, she couldn't be more than a hundred and fifty; practically a child by asari standards. And yet something in her eyes dared doubt, and Solana found she could not. They were all older than they had any right to be. Wars had that effect. "It was compromised intel. As we well knew, since we planted half of it." The asari sighed, her steps small and slow to accommodate her companion's pace. The human looked as though she needed a wheelchair even more than Solana herself did, but something about the steely, determined line of her spine kept her from offering it. "They did exactly what Shepard thought they would do, Garrus. You can hardly blame them. It was what she planned for. Moira Callahan showed her hand and relaxed her guard. We were able to stage the rescue that needed staging. Shepard would—will—consider this a victory."
"At what cost? At no point was I told this part of a plan." He glanced down at Shepard and Solana looked away, not wanting to play the voyeur; some moments weren't for others to witness. Some grief was too personal for an audience. "Were you? Is this the outcome you expected?"
The asari shook her head, her own grief palpable. "Of course not. But Shepard's been through worse. She'll—of course she'll make it through this."
"Will she? Has she?" Garrus asked. It didn't have the ring of the rhetorical. "You didn't see the war in her eyes before you two showed up. She was a stranger, and a dangerous one. I think she meant to kill me."
"It wasn't personal," said the human, her voice clearer and steadier than her battered appearance would have led Solana to believe it would be. "You merely stood between her and the targets she was intended for. Admiral Hackett. Primarch Victus. Urdnot Wrex. She was a loaded gun pointed at three of the most powerful figures in the galaxy, but the finger that should have been on the trigger was… restrained. Because I restrained it myself. To the best of my ability." The woman took a step toward Shepard, but without the asari's arm to hold her up, she nearly fell. Solana saw her jaw clench, but no other outward sign of pain or discomfort or even of shame creased the woman's features. "Shepard… she should recover. If my calculations—if everything—she should recover from this."
Garrus bent his head. This time it wasn't in despair, but anger. His eyes flashed a warning when he raised them a moment later, but any demand he might have made was curtailed by the door opening to admit Dr. Chakwas and Zaeed. The latter remained outside as a guard, evidently to ensure there would be no untimely interruptions. Chakwas touched his arm gratefully as she entered. The doctor had thrown a jacket over the soft, loose clothing she'd been sleeping in, and though her hair was standing up in a manner completely at odds with her usual polished and professional appearance, her eyes were clear and focused and fixed immediately on the prone figure of Shepard. She didn't pause, didn't so much as look around, heading unerringly for the occupied bed and pulling up the interface of her omni-tool as she walked. Garrus stepped aside, hovering an arm's length away.
"What happened?" she asked.
"You'll have to ask Lawson," Garrus said, the frustration and pain so evident in his subharmonics that Solana flinched. No one else did; she supposed they couldn't hear it the same way she did. Shepard would have reacted, though, she felt certain. Please. Please, don't do this to him. Please, not again.
"Law—" Chakwas glanced over her shoulder, caught sight of the newcomers, and her eyes widened. "My God, what have they done to you?"
The name was faintly familiar, but Solana couldn't place a context for it. Before she could follow the niggling thought to any sort of conclusion, Lawson waved a dismissive hand, her mouth twisting. "Superficial and cosmetic, for the most part. Extremely uninspired torture. The Illusive Man could have thought up worse in his sleep."
"Torture?" the doctor gasped, turning away from Shepard to blink her startled surprise Lawson's way. "By whom? And to what purpose?"
Lawson frowned, lifting her chin in the fallen commander's direction and limping, with the asari's help, to the bed opposite. "I'm well enough," she said. "Look to Shepard first. She should merely be sleeping. Very deeply." When her gaze found Solana's, no hint of a question sparked in their blue depths. "You must be Vakarian's sister. Miranda Lawson."
Solana blinked, not able to hide her surprise. "Oh. Miranda. The one they couldn't find. The—the one who left the book."
"It should not have taken so long," the asari said, and though she didn't have subharmonics, Solana had no trouble picking up the regret. The smile she offered was small and preoccupied. "I'm Liara. Dr. Liara T'Soni. Archeology."
"An archaeologist who finds missing people?" Solana asked. "That's a bit out of the usual purview, isn't it?"
Garrus huffed a breath. It wasn't a laugh. "Liara's also—"
"An information broker," Liara interrupted smoothly.
"An information broker," Garrus repeated, bland. "A very good information broker."
Liara's smile widened slightly, until her gaze caught the commander. Then she ducked her head and bit down on her bottom lip, shoulders slumping. "Not quite good enough, this time, I'm afraid."
"Introductions aside," Chakwas murmured, pushing her free hand back through her sleep-tousled hair and leaving it in even further disarray, "might someone take a few moments to explain what the hell happened here? She seems well enough—no more broken bones or threats of seizure, at least—but comatose is not precisely a normal state. If I'm to risk waking her, I need to know what to expect."
Garrus cleared his throat and looked at Chakwas without letting his gaze drift down to the bed. "Shepard and I were separated briefly; she wanted a private conversation with her… mark. I had her in my sights the entire time; I'm certain she wasn't drugged or physically attacked. I… saw her lose her temper."
"Shepard?" Chakwas asked, her tone rising sharply. "Shepard lost her temper?"
Garrus nodded, settling into a kind of easy parade rest, like a soldier giving a report. His subvocals wavered, but not enough to affect the quality of his voice—calm, controlled, dictating facts without editorializing them. "By the time I got back, something strange had happened. She complained about a smell. I didn't detect anything unusual, but there were a lot of people, a lot of perfumes. Some flowers. Then she—changed. Went unnaturally still. Her eyes. I've seen hints of that look in her eyes before, but never directed at me. It was like a switch flipped and all that was left was the… was the killer, without any of the… person."
"A trigger?" Chakwas asked, lifting her omni-tool and tapping notes furiously into it. "The conversation she was having? The smell she complained of?"
"Seems likely. I'll be asking Moira Callahan about it just as soon as the rest of the team assembles."
Because Solana was looking at her closely, she saw the way the doctor froze, like prey sensing an unexpected predator. "Surely not the Moira Callahan Shepard… spent some time with? In her youth?"
Garrus turned to face the doctor fully, crossing his arms over his chest. "You know about that?"
Chakwas smiled a sad smile. "Dear boy, there's little enough I don't know about the commander. Tight-lipped as she is, some things cannot be erased from a personnel file, and a ship doctor's privilege runs deep."
"Surely you noticed that, while Shepard never entirely trusted Chambers, she did—does—trust Karin," Miranda offered mildly. "That trust was something of an anomaly."
"I don't need to be reminded how much maneuvering Cerberus did to placate Shepard," Garrus snapped. "I was present for most of the fallout."
"My presence, at least, wasn't placation," Chakwas insisted. "Certainly not on my part. They approached, I considered, and in the end I—I thought that if they'd managed the impossible, the commander deserved—needed—a friendly face. Especially given her distrust of medical and mental health professionals." She sighed. "Moira Callahan. She would not have appreciated a return of that piece of her past."
"She didn't," Garrus said, with just enough threat to make everyone in the room glance his way. "But Callahan's only part of the problem. Whatever she set in motion, it was Lawson who halted it. Rather definitively. As you see."
"I did wonder what brought these two here. Other than the medical attention Miranda so obviously requires, brave face notwithstanding. What happened?"
"Lawson told Shepard to stop, and she dropped." His gaze hardened as it found Miranda. "Why?"
Miranda glanced down at her hands, though her expression gave little away. When she lifted her eyes again, she met Garrus' frustration head-on, as though it were something familiar. Perhaps it was. Solana wasn't sure she could have been as unmoved in the face of it. "Conflicting programming," Miranda said. "I'm—I'm sorry. It was the only thing I could think of."
Garrus' eyes narrowed. "You keep apologizing, but you've neglected to mention what for. What the hell did you do, Lawson? Exactly?"
"Is this a conversation you mean to have in present company?"
Her brother's mandibles pulled tight to his cheeks, though he gave no other outward sign of his annoyance. Miranda sighed and turned a pointed look Solana's way.
"Sorry," Solana said, "I'll leave."
"Stay," Garrus ordered. Solana found herself curbing the urge to salute.
Miranda frowned. "Can we—"
"Don't finish that thought," Garrus said, so calmly it made a shiver run the length of Solana's spine. Miranda acquiesced with a slight inclination of her head. Solana wasn't sure she'd ever seen a war come to a swifter resolution.
"How much does she—" At Garrus' immovable frown, Liara turned to Solana and rephrased the question. "How much are you aware of?"
Solana shrugged uncomfortably. "I helped Shepard with the book Miranda left," she replied. "I know she suspected some kind of deep corruption and she—they—she and my brother decided to, uh, manipulate things on the ground. To draw out that poison, as it were."
"Poison," Miranda mused. "Accurate enough."
"I was still looking for Miranda," Liara added. "And had been ever since Garrus first asked me to locate her. I kept running into dead ends. Very suspicious ones. When Kaidan arrived he explained that Shepard wanted me to very obviously look in several of the wrong directions, in the hopes of deflecting some attention from my real aim. And hers." A pained spasm contorted her face. "He also told me how recalcitrant Maya Brooks had been. I apologize, Garrus. It wasn't my intention to make things worse."
Garrus flicked his mandibles and Liara shrugged, answering his silent question. "I found her in an Alliance lockup. Plotting her escape, no doubt. She—whatever else she is, you have to admit she knows... the mechanics of Shepard. I wasn't certain how… how badly off Shepard might be. I thought you could… convince Brooks to help, if she proved reluctant." The asari's wide eyes found Solana and her lips turned up in a faint smile. "Your brother can be… very convincing."
Solana snorted, but couldn't quite bring herself to smile in return; just now her brother looked very menacing indeed. Grimacing, he said, "Brooks is a damned parasite, Liara. But I… suppose I understand. And it was good of you to enlist Samara. Brooks will trifle with anyone and anything, but Samara, at least, appears to be immune to her."
A little relief stole some of the tension from Liara's expression. "Oh, thank the Goddess. I did hope as much."
"And Shepard?" Chakwas urged. "Miranda?"
Miranda's brow furrowed, and she clenched the edge of the gurney. "They—Moira and her ilk—told me they had my sister. That they'd taken her in when the war displaced her. It was plausible. I knew about Shepard's years between Mindoir and the Alliance, of course; she never spoke of it, but I'd seen the same confidential files Karin referred to. And I… I owed Shepard." She took a deep breath, audible in silence broken only by the faint hum of machinery. "They already had her by the time they brought me in. I imagine they wouldn't have involved me if they weren't at loose ends. She was… not well. Perhaps not as mortally injured as she was after Alchera, but it was a near thing." White-knuckled, she glanced at the ceiling, then over to Shepard once again. "They didn't just want me to heal her body. They demanded I plant suggestions. Commands."
"Brainwash her," Garrus growled.
Miranda nodded. "They wanted her for a purpose, Garrus. It was that purpose or death. It would have been worse if they'd attempted to do the work themselves; I was able to mitigate the damage. Though I fear Shepard will not thank me for it when she learns the method. They wanted one thing. I wanted something else, without it looking like I'd tampered with their plans. I was trying as best I could to protect her."
"Oh, Miranda." Chakwas pinched the bridge of her nose and closed her eyes, but did not look wholly surprised. "You didn't."
"Shepard told you, then."
"Like I said: I earned her trust. She told me. Wanted me to make certain you hadn't done it anyway."
"You wouldn't have found it then, even if you'd looked." Miranda's steely gaze slipped, dropped, and she bowed her head. "I knew it would have to be undetectable. And not removable. Or else what would have been the point?" When she raised her head, she wore the look of a prisoner facing her execution with as much dignity as she could muster. "During my work on the Lazarus Project, I wanted to implant Shepard with a control chip. To ensure her compliance. Her loyalty. The Illusive Man overruled me then, but I… had the technology. So this time I used it."
"You did what?" Garrus snarled, his fists clenched as though just looking—just begging—for a target to hit.
Though a little of the ice in Miranda's eyes had melted, she was still resolute. "I didn't have time to come up with a better plan," she explained. "If I'd had months, a year… perhaps. They watched me so closely. I told them it was a broken but necessary piece of her cybernetics and then I programmed the chip to override the orders to kill. I knew it was flawed. I'm still not certain what would have happened if I hadn't been present to give the command to stop in person. I—I couldn't account for all the variables."
Garrus went carefully and quietly still. "And, what? This new Cerberus, or Terra Firma, or humanity first group wanted Shepard discredited? Is that why they had her… reprogrammed? Is that why they wanted to turn the Hero of the Galaxy into its destroyer? To buy time for themselves in the ensuing confusion?"
"Oh, Garrus," Miranda said softly. "Moira Callahan may be the figurehead of a paltry and relatively powerless new humanity first initiative, but she's a pawn as much as Shepard is. She just doesn't realize it. Neither of them do. If only Shepard had left well-enough alone. Turned back. Let those sleeping dogs lie. Don't you understand? They know her. They've known her for months. You've-surely you've read the reports. You were there, for God's sake. What better deflection, what better way to stir up the chaos needed to reestablish themselves as the unchallenged overlords of the galaxy? By turning Shepard against her own allies, they all but ensured that chaos. By the time the species stopped fighting amongst themselves, the Leviathans would be firmly and completely in control once again."
"No," Garrus said, so numb and so hollow his subharmonics gave Solana no clues at all. She shivered, cold for no good reason. No one met anyone else's eyes.
"They have been patient. Shepard woke them, pressed them into the fight. Now? Now they want their due," Miranda insisted. "Tribute does not flow from—"
"A dead race," Garrus said. He stared at Miranda for another long moment, wearing an expression of intense query Solana was far more used to seeing on her father's face. Finally, with careful crispness, he asked, "Are you compromised, Lawson?"
For the first time, Solana saw fear in the woman's eyes, and her cheeks paled further beneath the bruises. "I don't think so. But how can I know? How can any of us know? Did Shepard? Do you?"
"Spirits," Garrus whispered, bowing his head and lifting a hand to hide his eyes. "Spirits, Shepard, what have we done?"