“Oh sh…,” Shepard broke off, staring at her reflection in the window of the shuttle. Behind her pale face, she could see an endless sea of stars. But the thing that most had caught her attention was –
“I’m bald,” she gasped. She ran a hand over her head in wonder. “You…I…” She blinked again. “I’m bald.”
“It doesn’t look so bad,” Jacob offered. He shifted in the seat across from her. Outside of the window, the Lazarus station receded quickly into the distance. Shepard ignored him and kept staring at her reflection.
“Why the haircut?” she asked at last, slanting a glance at Miranda. The brunette tossed her own long hair over her shoulder and gave Shepard an unsympathetic shrug.
“Your body had endured a lot of trauma,” the Cerberus officer explained. “Burns, impact. It was rather remarkable that we were able to salvage you at all. Your hair – what was left of it – was in the way. Wilson and I needed to focus on getting you back to life.”
“So you shaved me,” Shepard said blandly. She frowned at Miranda, then at her own face again. “How long have I been like this?”
“Your epidermis took a while to fully regrow,” Miranda said clinically. “And that was only after we upgraded your muscle and bone with a synthetic weave to make them stronger.”
“A weave?” Shepard held up her arms and turned them this way and that. No wonder she’d felt so tender – and so strong. Her arms felt a little like steel cords – with electric cables of biotic energy flowing through them. As Miranda detailed some of the other upgrades, Shepard blinked in surprise. She sounded more machine than human, now.
“Both eyes had to be replaced?” Shepard repeated, feeling a little ill.
“Yes,” Miranda nodded. “I understand this is the second time your right eye has been replaced. The original work was a little faulty. There was a slight imperfection in the right eye: vision was degrading faster than in the left and I’m not sure if you had even noticed it, but there was a color difference, too.”
“I had noticed,” Shepard nodded. Kaidan had noticed too, once upon a time. He’d commented on it, asking why her left eye was greenish and had a slight ring of hazel around the iris, while her right eye was blue-gray. From a distance, he hadn’t been able to tell, but up close…
Shepard frowned and tilted her head to the side. What would Kaidan think of this new look of hers? She hoped he had been serious when he said he had never been impressed with women who prettied themselves up. Right about now, she didn’t look ‘pretty’ at all.
“You hair had only recently begun to grow again,” Miranda told her, breaking into her thoughts. “We hadn’t planned to wake you up for another few weeks yet.”
“I still would have been a billiard ball,” Shepard said wryly.
“You have some hair,” Jacob pointed out. He looked a little out of place in the conversation.
“Some,” Shepard agreed. “Not a lot.”
“Based on what I knew of you from your files,” Miranda said, raising an eyebrow, “I didn’t think you’d care.”
Shepard thought about that. It was true that she hadn’t noticed her hair was gone until just now. It wasn’t like she’d checked on it first thing. But then, waking on an operating table, worrying about her crew, dealing with the biotic amp upgrade, the mechs, Wilson’s betrayal and now this hasty exit from the station had distracted her. It wasn’t like the Lazarus station had a bunch of mirrors lying around, either. If it had seemed a little cold in the facility at first, she’d assumed it was because she’d woken in a lab after sleeping on steel.
On the one had, she knew it didn’t really matter. She had never been a vain woman. Until Kaidan had come along and thought she was beautiful, she’d never much thought about her looks at all. But this… She glanced at her reflection again. She looked like a… War camp survivor? An early twenty-first century cancer survivor? A rescued slave? She looked like some kind of survivor, anyhow. It was a fierce look, but one that suggested to her that one had endured much pain rather than inflicted it.
That was why she didn’t like this, she thought as she tried to turn her head to see the back. She hadn’t chosen it. Not that she’d ever been very choosy about her hair. She wanted it out of her way, and that was as far as she thought about it most days. Hell, in her fight against Saren, she’d had no time for a haircut. She had started the mission in need of a trim and ended it in even worse need of a trim. Her hair had always grown quickly, which mostly just annoyed her. Now, however, she found herself wondering how quickly this new cut would grow out – and what it would look like when it did.
“I don’t care about the hair,” Shepard said at last, wishing it to be true rather than knowing it to be true. “It’s just that it…well, it’s just a glaring indication of the fact that…” She tried to think of how to finish that sentence.
“Things have changed,” she finished lamely. That was an understatement, she thought. If what Jacob had said was true…
“It’s really been two years?” she asked. “Two years? I’ve been gone that long?”
“Two years and twelve days,” Jacob said with a nod.
“You’ve been dead that long,” Miranda corrected.
Shepard glanced at Miranda. The woman gave new meaning to the words “icy bitch.” As Shepard had been referred to by exactly that title a few times herself, she figured she would know. Miranda was beautiful, almost ridiculously so, with long hair that Shepard was suddenly a little jealous of. She wore an outfit that Shepard felt would better suit a hooker than anyone who was planning on running or using a gun. But as Miranda had recently done both, Shepard couldn’t say much about her taste in clothes. Shepard’s intuition was that Miranda was cold. However, that made her easy to read. The woman didn’t seem terribly good at deception.
Jacob, on the other hand, seemed decent, but he also struck her as a follower who was uncertain of himself. That actually made Shepard trust him less than of Miranda. The man shifted uncomfortably under her gaze. He clearly was less happy about blithely telling Shepard how much of her life she’d just lost – both literally in the sense of having died and figuratively, in the sense of having been gone so long.
Back on the station, Jacob had revealed that he and Miranda worked for Cerberus, the rogue, human-centric organization that Shepard had always considered to be a bunch of terrorists. In a strange change of policy, Cerberus had decided not to kill Shepard, but instead to bring her back to life after she’d been killed by some other mysterious enemy, and now were wanting…well, something. Shepard just wasn’t sure what. But she doubted they had brought her back to life just to send her back to the Alliance with new N7 gear and this wicked haircut.
“What does Cerberus want with me?” she asked, suspiciously. “Is this whole thing part of your ‘build a super-soldier’ crap?”
“While you are a remarkable soldier,” Miranda told her, “We didn’t bring you back just because you can fight. That is part of it, but we needed you specifically: your knowledge, your skills, what you have seen…”
Shepard suddenly remembered some of the audio files she had found while stumbling around on the station, trying to get to Miranda.
Initial progress is slow. We are making a shift to bio-synthetic fusion…
The project has gone over budget. Over five billion credits so far…
Our orders were clear: we are to bring back the subject exactly as she was. The same thoughts, the same memories, the same morals. If she is somehow not the woman she was, then the project will have failed…
At the time, Shepard had not understood it. She had been too busy shooting at mechs to process the fact that all that chatter was about her .
“What I’ve seen?,” Shepard asked. “Are you talking about the beacon? About the visions I saw on Eden Prime?”
“You remember,” Miranda nodded. “That’s good.”
“So it *is * about the beacon,” Shepard pressed.
“That is part of it,” Miranda admitted. “But your friend, the asari, also saw the visions – though I suspect she didn’t see them as clearly as you did.”
“Asari?” Shepard frowned. “You mean Liara? You know her?”
“We know…of her,” Miranda said, looking away. Shepard’s eyes narrowed at that. The woman was lying, but about what, Shepard could not tell.
“Is she all right?” Shepard asked immediately.
“I told you before,” Jacob said. “Your crew is fine.”
“You told me they were alive,” Shepard said. “That’s not the same thing.”
After all, she thought to herself, Jacob had told her that the world thought she was dead. That meant her crew thought she was dead. What that had done to them – what that would have done to Kaidan – she couldn’t imagine. She wanted to turn this stupid shuttle towards Alliance space at once and go find him – go find all of them. But for the moment, she was being treated likes something between a hostage of Cerberus and an honored guest. Until she knew more about what was going on, she couldn’t very well go making demands.
Furthermore, something warned her that she shouldn’t show too much concern for her old crew. Personal ties could be seen as weaknesses, as liabilities. Until she knew how far Cerberus would go to get her cooperation in this unspoken scheme of theirs, she really shouldn’t let them know just how personal some of those ties were.
“So this…Illusive Man,” Shepard went on, quickly, “If he didn’t clone me to make some super soldier, then he brought me back because he wants…what?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” Miranda said. “He will explain it better than I.”
“Evasive is really annoying,” Shepard told her. “Especially in a long shuttle ride.”
“We’d tell you more if we…” Jacob began.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” Miranda cut him off.
Shepard let out a breath. “So how did you manage to bring me back?” she asked, suddenly remembering her strange dreams from the times she woke up. They seemed fuzzy now, but she could still recall that there had been something curious about them, more real than reality, if such a thing were possible.
“We downloaded your brain functions as electrical impulses into our computer as a backup system as we reactivated the cell activity in the brain tissues. Then we…” Miranda went on into a rant of technobabble that had Shepard wishing she knew a little bit more about medicine than her basic first aid classes had taught her.
“But that’s…” Shepard shook her head. “Okay, so you rebuilt my body and my brain wasn’t totally fried. But what about…?” She broke off. “Ah, hell, never mind,” she muttered.
“What about what, commander?” Miranda asked.
Shepard considered her for a moment, then said, “I guess I was just wondering about my…well, me . My…soul, consciousness – whatever it is that makes me…me.”
“Soul?” Miranda blinked. “You believe in a soul?”
“I do, actually,” Shepard replied. “I guess you didn’t need to believe in it to bring me back. That’s…interesting. I feel like myself…” Shepard broke off, deciding that she’d said too much. She resolved to keep her visions of the meadow to herself. They were probably just dreams, and they were simply too personal – and pleasant – to share with these two characters.
“I didn’t realize you were religious,” Miranda said, frowning. “Your parents were, I know. But you didn’t register a preferred religion on your Alliance application.”
“I was sort of pissed off at the universe at the time I enlisted,” Shepard said.
“You never once attended a service,” Miranda went on.
“I went to chapel all the time,” Shepard told her. “I went when no one else was there and it was quiet. It’s a good time to think.”
“And to pray?” Miranda pressed.
“Occasionally,” Shepard shrugged.
“To what god?”
Shepard thought about that. “I’m not sure,” she answered, honestly. “I figured it didn’t really matter what I called him…her…it…as long as we were on speaking terms.”
“This didn’t show up on your file,” Miranda said, frowning.
Shepard raised an eyebrow. “Yeah, well, I’d like to think that there is more to me than what’s in the file. What does it matter to you, anyhow? What I believe is my business.”
“Not when I’m trying to bring you back exactly as you were, it’s not,” Miranda told her. “How can I compare your current state to your past one if I didn’t know this detail?”
“And just what would you do if you had failed to bring me back correctly?” Shepard wanted to know. “Terminate me?”
Miranda’s lips thinned and she looked away. *Cerberus hasn’t changed at all, * Shepard thought. And Miranda was really bad at lying.
“Your personal beliefs may greatly affect this mission,” Miranda said. “I just want to know what we’re dealing with.”
“You’re dealing with me,” Shepard told her, ice creeping into her voice and gaze. “I suppose you think I should be grateful to you for bringing me back, but I assure you, I will continue to act as I always have, judging by my own conscience first. That is what I have to answer to in the end.” The irony of her words struck her immediately. In some ways, she already had answered to her conscience. Well, if she had to do it again, she wanted to keep said conscience clear.
Oddly enough, her words seemed to please Miranda. The woman smiled a little. It was not a terribly warm smile. “That sounds more like the Shepard I read about,” Miranda said.
“Glad to know I have a fan,” Shepard replied wryly. Well, at least her cold attitude had gained the Cerberus woman’s respect, Shepard thought. That was good to know. Silence descended upon the small shuttle. Outside, the stars shone cold and clear.
“Before we meet the Illusive Man,” Miranda said after an awkward pause, “we really should see if your memories are intact.”
“Come on, Miranda,” Jacob groaned, “More tests?”
“The Illusive Man wants to know that Shepard came back exactly as she was,” Miranda told him. “Ask the questions.”
“This is ridiculous,” Shepard frowned. “I don’t see how answering a quiz is going to confirm that I came back okay.”
The two Cerberus operatives ignored her. They began to ask her questions about Mindoir, the Blitz, then about Ashley’s death. That last one made Shepard bristle, but she answered it all the same. They then asked about Captain Anderson – Councilor Anderson now – and Shepard’s role in saving the entire galactic Council from the Reaper threat. Shepard answered the questions, all the while wondering how the two Cerberus agents thought that any of this was proof that she’d come back with her head on straight. Clearly, neither of these people had a degree in psychology.
“Come on, Miranda,” Jacob said at last. “Enough with the quizzes. Shepard’s fine. And I can personally vouch for her skills in combat. Shepard was amazing back there. Even disoriented as she was, she saved our butts and got us out of there.” He turned to Shepard with an approving nod. “I was wondering if one soldier could really make a difference,” he said, “but if that soldier is you, I can see it will.”
Shepard wasn’t quite sure how to take the compliment, especially coming from a Cerberus flunky. In the past, Cerberus had probably wished she wasn’t such an effective soldier. She settled for a curt nod in return.
“We did alright back there,” she agreed. “Though I could have done without the implant upgrade. That was quite a trip to test out a new biotic system under fire.”
“I intended to give you a manual,” Miranda told her. “Unfortunately, the manual got fried along with most of the hacked systems.”
“A manual ?” Shepard asked. “For biotics ?”
“Of course,” Miranda said. “I learned my own biotic skills from a manual, mostly, and also personal trainers. I understand you got training from the Alliance.”
“A lot of good that did me,” Shepard snorted. “I made up most of it myself.”
Miranda considered this. “I see,” she said. She lifted her chin and gazed down at Shepard with narrowed blue eyes. She looked as though she were glaring at something unpleasant, Shepard thought, not at all someone that she had just spent years studying and rebuilding. Well , Shepard thought, they say that familiarity breeds contempt .
“Now that you are awake,” Miranda said, slowly, “I find you much as I expected you, and yet…not at all what I pictured.”
“That’s suitably vague,” Shepard said.
“I have studied your files, all news vids…”
“Well there’s your problem there,” Shepard said, rolling her eyes, “I hate the press…”
“Commendations, even personal statements, when I could find them. And yet, I could never quite put the puzzle together. There was always this…unexplained nature to you.”
“I don’t know how to describe it, exactly,” Miranda said, looking at Shepard now as if she was something in a test tube rather than a person sitting right across from her. “Your genetics, for example. I kept thinking I would find something different, something that set you apart. But aside from your unusually fair coloring, there is nothing remarkable about you at all. Your parents made a point of leaving you entirely genetically unaltered. In fact, you were almost as primitive – genetically speaking – as our twenty-first century ancestors. I wondered if perhaps the lack of interference allowed for some anomaly of beneficial genetic mutation, but I found nothing to support that theory.”
“Wait,” Shepard said. “You brought me back to life to check out my genes ?”
“No,” Miranda shook her head. “But as I was bringing you back, I kept looking to your genes to understand what it was that allowed you to accomplish everything you had with Saren and Sovereign. I kept looking for the key, but never found it.”
“Sometimes, Ms. Lawson,” Shepard said, “It’s not what you fight with, but what you fight for , that makes the difference.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I have skills, it’s true. They kept me alive to keep moving forward. But in the end, the real thing that drove me through the Blitz and Eden Prime and everything that came after it was the fact that there was a bad guy with big guns and he had them aimed at innocent people.”
“And you chose to step into the line of fire,” Jacob said, admiringly.
Shepard shrugged. “I was already stuck in the middle. You’re not too much of a hero if you fight on when there’s nothing else to be done. Besides, a lot of other people were right there with me.”
“But you led them,” Miranda replied. The woman’s face took on a strange expression. “The capacity to lead and the drive to move forward, that is what I was looking for. It’s in the genes – all of it. It’s what gives us our capabilities, makes us what we are. There is nothing that we can accomplish that is not coded for.”
“That’s bull,” Shepard said. “Sure, genes play a role. I know I’m as stubborn as my dad and feisty as my mother. But a lot of who we are in life is what we do with it – what we choose.”
” So you didn’t choose to become a hero,” Miranda said.
“True,” Shepard admitted, “I became a hero because the Alliance wanted good PR.”
“Exactly,” Miranda nodded, “And the reason you lived through the situations that you did was because of your skills. You survived Mindoir because of your biotics; you survived the Blitz for the same reason. Those skills that saved you are based on your genetics.”
“And the reason the galaxy is still around,” Shepard pressed back, “Is because I had a damn good crew. Speaking of which, I’d like to find them.”
Miranda and Jacob exchanged a glance. Miranda’s face did not change, but Jacob shifted nervously.
“What?” Shepard asked sharply.
“You can ask the Illusive Man about that,” Miranda said. “We’re nearly to the station. When we get there, you can get cleaned up before your meeting with him.”
“Fat lot of good that will do me,” Shepard muttered, rubbing the back of her shorn head.
“I think you will find, however,” Miranda added, “that the crew of the Normandy have all moved on. It may be time for you to look for new allies.”
“Allies with Cerberus?” Shepard’s eyes narrowed once more. “Not a chance.”