Chapter Thirty-Four: Hunting Illusions Pt. III
"Don't look conspicuous, it draws fire."
- UNSC Marine Corps Handbook (Unofficial)
Two Months Before Reaper Invasion
Miranda woke up. White, and pain. Her entire world was white and pain. It was blinding, all encompassing, and absolutely agonizing. She didn't know how long she existed like that, only that at some point, the suffering started tapering away. Her eyes finally started to focus, and part of her mind managed to fight its way to the surface of the dull waves of pain still washing through her.
She was sitting upright in a chair, in a room with all surfaces so white that it was almost impossible to get a true sense of scale. There was a figure in front of her, also sitting. She strained her eyes at the blurry shape, trying to will away the dancing black spots clouding her vision.
It was a man, light skin, brown hair, piercing blue eyes. He was leaning forwards slightly with his elbows rested on his knees, gazing at her with clear interest. "Miranda Lawson. Can you hear me?"
The words sounded soft and distant in her ears, with a hollow ring to them, but she did hear them, and she nodded. Or, she tried to, but realized her head was restrained. She tried the rest of her body in a hurrying panic and found that applied to everywhere else as well. She was completely immobile in this chair, and she suddenly felt very vulnerable.
"You're wondering what's going on." the main said, hollow again. A statement, not a question. "Why you're in pain? Where you are? Fortunately, I have answers."
The man leaned back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. "It took us far too long to find you Miranda Lawson, but we did, just like you must have known we would."
Her conscious mind was severely muddled, yet deep down her subconscious summoned up a tightening dread in her chest each time that smooth, gravelly voice spoke. Miranda's breathing quickened, trying to recall what he was talking about, trying to remember before the white and pain…. And not being able to.
"You thought you were being so careful, but all it took was one mistake. Which you'll never remember, a side effect of the tranquilizer used by our operative. What you should remember is this: that being a Cerberus Operative is a lifelong assignment."
The word brought a flood of memories and emotions crashing down on her, it felt like getting slapped over her entire body. Betraying the Illusive Man with Shepard, spending months either on the run or hunkered down, always paranoid, and never allowed to feel safe. He had said that he would come back for her when his trial was over and he got the Normandy back - he was always so confident about that, she remembered - and that all she had to do was lay low…
"You won't be getting away again, you must know that," the man said pointedly. "You've also probably figured out that this isn't your run-of-the mill interrogation. In fact, you're not going to be interrogated at all. Too well-trained, too smart, to familiar with Cerberus techniques. Besides, it would be difficult to understand what you were saying around that gag."
Once again, the words spoken by the blue-eyed man brought sudden realization. Thick, smooth cloth pressed hard down against her tongue, and her mouth was terribly dry.
"You see Miss Lawson, it's not information from you that we want… it's you, the person, that we were after." He sat up straight, points of sapphire burning into her skull. "So, allow me to tell you exactly what is going to happen to you, Miss Lawson."
Miranda's stomach tightened in dire anticipation.
The blue-eyed man held up a black, rectangular tablet. "This device here controls the bio-implant that's now linked directly to your central nervous system."
He raised the tablet, then pressed it with a finger.
Once again, her world exploded into searing white pain. She writhed in agony and let out helplessly muffled screams from around her gag. Maintaining a sense of time was impossible, all she knew was that at some point it mercifully stopped.
The man and his flat, almost bored voice came back into her minds focus. She still could see barely more than his faint figure in front of her. "This amazing piece of technology gives us control of - you. Your nerves, your muscles, your neurons, everything that makes you tick, … it even gives us a gateway into controlling the consciousness itself. Here, allow me to demonstrate some of what I speak."
He pressed on the tablet again and Miranda's entire body flinched in preparation for the white pain, but it didn't come. Instead, she realized that the fingers on both of her hands were twitching rhythmically, but she wasn't the one doing it. Her vision darted back to the man, who was tapping the tablet and looking at her with a bemused expression. It didn't take long for Miranda to realize that each tap of the tablet made her fingers spasms, and she tried to convey her wish for the man to stop with pleading eyes.
"Unpleasant, right? Not being in control of you own body? This is just a mere demonstration, and I would show you more if I could, but unfortunately we are pressed for time. This - " he waved the tablet in front of her, "- is just the prototype too. The fully realized system is going to be installed in you operation in, lets see, thirty minutes."
He looked up from the tablet and smiled coyly with his lips. "Looks like we better wrap up. You know, for so long we had thought we had reached the pinnacle of modern human medicine. So many ailments cured, so many operations perfected, so many advancements made. Yet, nothing compares to what we've managed to achieve with our knew founts of knowledge…"
The man stood suddenly, walking quickly to one side of the room - presumably where a hidden door was - before turning back towards her one last time. "The next time you wake up, you'll no longer be Miranda Lawson. You'll be nothing more than a Cerberus tool, like you should have stayed if you were smart. The parts of your consciousness that make up you will be identified, isolated, seperated, and locked away, leaving nothing but a blank, obedient mind, ready to be filled by our instructions."
Miranda writhed, she squirmed, she tried desperately to work against her restraints, but nothing gave.
"Perhaps now you understand that actions have consequences. Goodbye Miss Lawson."
Blue eyes pressed on black glass, and Miranda's world turned white once again.
Miranda woke up. Her world was no longer white pain. She could see - clearly see actually - that she was in a large room, with one side made up of floor-to-ceiling windows which gave a stunningly clear view of -
That view. That sun. She knew this place, knew this room, and worst of all, knew what it meant. She tried to look to the side, but found that her head and eyes stayed still, staring straight. She tried again, willing the action harder than she ever had before, to no avail. She tried in quick succession, each attempt more panicked than the last, to move some part - any part - of her body. She couldn't She started hyperventilating, but… she wasn't. She was breathing normally, calmly, and without distress. The disconnect between the two different mental and physical realities was sickening, and threw Miranda into a tremendous vertigo.
She instantly recognized the voice this time. The Illusive Man. Miranda turned, but not by any choice of hers. She turned around.
There he was, sitting in his chair exactly like Miranda had remembered him, complete with a glass of bourbon in one hand and a slim cigarette in the other. Miranda tried to thrash again, break past this wall forced into her mind, put up some kind of a fight against the despair of being locked within one's own body - a literal living nightmare.
Besides The Illusive Man's chair were two large, armored soldiers holding a smaller figure, a woman, tightly between them. The woman had a black cloth bag around her head, and was visibly yet futilely struggling against the strong grips of the two soldiers.
"Welcome back to the fold, Operative Lawson," said The Illusive Man. "We will have much need for you and your skills in these coming times, but first…"
He took a sip of his drink, then looked up to the soldiers and nodded. One of them reached up and roughly yanked the hood off of the woman. Her face was bruised and bloody, but Miranda recognized who the woman was, and the implications, instantly.
"Miri?" the woman said.
ORIANA! Miranda yelled, the outsides of her minds 'vision' turning black. ORI!
"Do it," he said, casually, as if to a dog.
She reached down to her belt, where locked against a magplate was a pistol. She, without hesitation, racked back the slide and raised the weapon to Oriana's head. She pulled the trigger, and Miranda shattered into a thousand pieces.
No one spoke for several long, silent seconds. Liara and Garrus's faces were shifting masks of disbelief, sorrow, and rage. Vega and two two pilots, Dolton and Cehack, looked on with steely expressions and tightened lips. The Master Chief might have well been made of marble, unmoving, gold-tinted faceplate staring straight ahead at the central holotable where the data records they had recovered from the Cerberus research station he had just raided and destroyed not one hour ago.
Commander Shepard just felt cold - as cold as the metal edges of the holotable his iron grip was at risk of deforming.
"That was the last video file." It was Cortana, her tone soft, respectful of the atmosphere of the room. They had all been watching as if through Miranda's own eyes, since said files had been lifted directly out of her nervous system.
Shepard finally spoke, his own voice sounding distant. His question was emotionless, it had to be, lest he lose control. "Do we know where she is?"
"Yes, her current assignment was among what we recovered" Cortana replied. "Overseeing the final stages of an research project codenamed: Sanctuary, on system called Horizon. One relay hop and an in-system jump, an hour and a half at maximum speed."
"Take us there."