Shepard walked into the cargo bay, found the empty space where mats had been set up as an exercise room.
Alright, Shepard, let’s see if you can take me.
Take you, Kaidan? I think I can take you well enough.
She squeezed her eyes shut and held on to the memory: she and Kaidan had spent many afternoons down in the SSV Normandy’s cargo bay, a cramped space, but the only place on the ship where they could practice their biotics between missions. On at least one occasion, however, their practice had ended with the two of them making a hasty exit to the elevator, and then to her quarters afterward.
Shepard sighed. All that time, she had been with Kaidan, she had worried about people finding out about the two of them. Now that he was gone, however, she could only wish that she hadn’t worried so much. She should have tossed the damn regs out of the window and figured out some way to keep him with her every night.
She would find him though, she thought. She knew Anderson thought he was doing what was best, but being put off like that had really made her angry.
” Does Ka – does Commander Alenko think I’m dead? Does everyone think I’m dead? Or do they think that I’ve been undercover with Cerberus all this time?”
” I don’t know, commander,” came the enigmatic reply. “We received a lot of conflicting reports.”
” Well,” she said, torn between using Anderson as a messenger and keeping him out of the loop between her and her former lieutenant. “If anyone asks, tell them that I was out of commission all this time and I’m back now. And please let my former crew know that I need help with my mission and I will recruit any of them that I can.”
” Sure, Shepard,” he’d said, and from his tone, she knew he didn’t plan to pass on either message. “I’ll keep an ear open.”
But without telling him more, she couldn’t ask for more.
She was grateful, at least, that Anderson had asked her to explain rather than simply sending out a Spectre to take her down. That’s probably what the other Council members had wanted to do. She suspected that he had gotten flack for trusting her, seeing as how he had learned that she was with Cerberus.
Yeah, she thought, frowning. Rumors that she was with Cerberus.
Funny how those rumors had traveled to the Citadel faster than she had. It seemed that someone had told Anderson she was alive – probably before she had even woken up to get to him in that short a time. She guessed at once who had done it. It made sense, after all, she realized, for the Illusive Man and friends to alienate her from her former allies by making them think that she was in Cerberus’s camp. It was pretty smooth operating, if you thought about it. Now everyone who once trusted her would think she was a traitor. She was getting more tied up in Cerberus’ coils every day.
Shepard looked at the empty space. Taking off her boots and socks, she set them aside, then stepped onto the mat. She stripped off her officer’s jacket and tunic as well, until she stood wearing her pants and tank-top bra. She breathed in through her nose, let her eyes slide shut.
An empty space. A place to move, a place to think this through. She needed to put the puzzle pieces together.
As she breathed out through her mouth, her eyes snapped open. Her hands shot straight out – strike to the clavicle. Step sideways – snake down, up, punch to the solar plexus. Sweep, rising kick. Breathe.
She felt the ship shift slightly as it pulled away from the docks. She had come down here the moment she’d returned to the ship, barking an order at Joker to get them the hell off the station as quickly as possible. He’d seemed alarmed, but did as she asked.
” What happened?” Joker had asked.
” They stuck their heads up their asses, to quote our mess seargent,” Shepard replied. “They didn’t even give me a chance to explain about the Collectors or anything. Only positive outcome of this whole debacle is that we got groceries. And I bought a fish.”
“A fish?” Joker sputtered.
“It’s pretty,” Shepard replied.
” What about me?” a laughing voice had asked. “You recruited me, too, didn’t you? Aren’t I better than a fish?”
Shepard had sighed and tried to paste on a polite smile.
“Welcome to the terrorist cruise ship, Kasumi. Find a place to stay and settle in. It’s going to be a long trip back to Omega.”
She shook her head. Joker heard her mutter as she wandered away, “What a waste of time.”
Shepard finished the form and went directly into another. She got only a few steps before she realized that she needed to punch something other than air. Crossing to the interface on the wall, she programmed up a series of moving punching bags to fly at her head randomly. She ducked the first padded bar, and effectively blocked the second. Soon she was sweating profusely as the computer stepped up the drill to meet her speed and skill.
They hadn’t even invited her up to the damn Council Chambers, she thought, bitterly. They had spoken with her via hologram, just as they had when she came to the Citadel for the first time as nothing more than an Alliance commander – a war hero, but virtually unknown to the alien races.
She supposed that had been more a security measure than anything, but it was still pretty damn insulting. She had saved them, but they obviously had thought she might try to put a few bullets into their hides. Well, hell, if she had been on the Council, confronted with a once-dead Spectre now working with Cerberus, she would have thought the same. Only Anderson had trusted her enough to meet with her in person. She was honored by that, even as she had to shake her head at his foolishness there.
Then again, he probably had a sniper stationed somewhere out in the Presidium. The man might have been her mentor, but he wasn’t stupid.
” You are with Cerberus now,” the asari had said to her – or rather, the asari’s hologram. “You are working with an avowed enemy of the council. This is treason. A capital offense.”
Shepard didn’t even get her mouth open to protest before Anderson said, “That’s going too far. Shepard’s a hero. I’m still a part of this Council and I’m not going to let this whitewash continue.”
Shepard gave him a grateful, if wry, smile. This conference was truly getting worse and worse by the minute.
” Maybe there is a compromise,” the asari suggested. Nothing official, given your ties,” she glanced nervously at Miranda and Jacob. Shepard gritted her teeth. Those two refused to leave her alone at all, and she hadn’t wanted to start a fight over it right in the middle of the Citadel. “But we can reinstate you as a Spectre,” the asari finished.
” And that means…?” Shepard asked. Clearly, her usual cool manner was failing her again, because she was sounding testy.
The asari explained what she had in mind. Shepard frowned.
” So, basically, you do nothing,” Shepard said. “You give me no help at all, no team, no weapons, no ship. You then expect me to take the ship Cerberus gave me,” she pointed in the vague direction of the docks, “and work with their operatives,” she jerked her thumb at the black-and-white-clad pair standing behind her, “all to risk my life in a suicide mission about a threat that faces the whole galaxy?” She stared at them in amazement. “And for all that you’re going to ‘kindly’ not take me to trial and kill me?” She shook her head. “That’s so good of you.”
” Is this that human sarcasm?” the turian councilor asked. “Because if it is…”
” No,” she shot back, “this is human disgust. Sarcasm was you with the…” she held up her fingers to mimic his movement of a few minutes ago, “…air quotes thing.”
” Shepard,” Anderson said warningly. His tone sounded like that of her father, now long gone. It brought her back to the present at once, though.
” Alright,” she said. “I see the position you’re in. But mark my words, the Reapers are the real threat and you will have to face that threat soon enough. I just hope it’s not too late already.”
She took a deep breath. “Reinstate me then,” she said. “And if you can, I would appreciate it if you could keep a path clear around me so that I don’t cause too much collateral damage.”
The turian councilor snorted, but the other two nodded.
” Very well,” the asari said. “Welcome back, Spectre.”
Shepard hit the next punching bag so hard she bent the bar inside. The computer stopped suddenly, the screen blinking to indicate that something was broken. Shepard shook out her hands and looked down. She’d split the skin on several knuckles. Somehow, that made her smile. This too-smooth skin was just another reminder of the new body. She didn’t have any callouses. She flexed her fingers again and crossed to the computer to try and program it to give her some other type of punching bag.
” I told you they wouldn’t do anything,” Miranda had said as they got into a cab bound for the Zakera Ward a few minutes later. “The Alliance isn’t even helping human…”
” Lawson,” Shepard snapped at the woman. “You will keep your comments to yourself.” Miranda blanched.
“If nothing else,” Shepard went on, “I just gained our mission some kind of legitimacy. Cerberus ought to appreciate that. So you had better just shut up and let me handle this.”
” Fine, Shepard,” Miranda nodded.
” That’s ‘Aye, aye ma’am’,” Shepard told her. “Now where do we meet this thief-woman you mentioned?”
In retrospect, the thief-woman, Kasumi, had turned out to be alright. That said a lot about this mission though, that the person Shepard trusted most from her ground crew was a thief she’d only just met. She wasn’t sure about the woman’s heist plan. That sounded just crazy. Shepard wanted to get some business taken care of on Omega first before going in for that.
Yeah , Shepard’s eyes narrowed. Omega .
So she was going back to the place where she had begun. This drive out to the Citadel – three days across the traverse – and she was going right back to where the Illusive Man had wanted her to be from the start.
Shepard sucked on her bleeding knuckles and scowled. This wasn’t her style. She wasn’t any good at this…what had Kaidan once called it? Cloak-and-dagger stuff. She was a Marine. She knew tactical precision, she knew cool logic. She also knew that insane rush of just reacting, animal-like, in fight and somehow seeing everything moving slowly around you and fighting as though it was just what you did, not what you had to think about. She knew what it was to survive.
But her methods were direct – always direct. She had spent her life under the operating assumption that if you held the line long enough or flanked the enemy quickly enough, and threw enough grenades, well, hell, that usually won the day. Situations like setting a bomb in a genetic lab, fighting through endless mazes of crates in a warehouse – she knew this. But trying to figure out what evil-genius Illusive Man was going to do when he held all the cards, had been awake the two years that she had been out and clearly had been planning for this moment all that time…
Well, she was just plain…
Until she had spoken with Anderson, seen doors closing in her face right and left: first the Council, then the Alliance, then finally, painfully, Anderson himself, she hadn’t realized how much she had counted on their help. Without even realizing it, she had come to the Citadel hoping beyond hope that the Alliance or Council or both of them would welcome he back with open arms, and with them at her back, she’d tell Cerberus to shove it – and then go about taking care of the Collectors on her own terms.
But that was not at all what had happened. Those groups had called her a traitor, essentially, then tossed her back to the wolves – or the three-headed dog, rather – with the barest promise not to kill her for it.
Damn it , she thought. She had been dead .
Only no one seemed to believe that. They all thought she had been undercover, or brainwashed to join Cerberus. Their reasoning was as wild as one could imagine, but all theories agreed that she had been alive all that time. She had hardly understood why no one seemed surprised to see her, but after seeing the ‘official’ Shepard merchandise in a Zakera Ward store, she began to understand. She had become…not a legend, but a mockery. She was on par with bigfoot and the leviathan of Dis. Who the hell would believe her now?
She would like to think that the Illusive Man had engineered this all, but she suspected that wasn’t entirely true. He had just known the way the wind was blowing, and it apparently was blowing her right back to Omega, right back to his plans, right back to the Collectors.
He knew the path. He had the map. And she was going to have to walk a long, long way to get to the end of all this.
With the computer unresponsive, Shepard turned back to the mat. She would have to content herself with forms again, because she certainly couldn’t go back up to the crew deck when she was this tense. She’d likely snap at someone and take out a wall.
Taking a deep breath, she started in on a routine she had made up herself. It was a mix of biotics and punches, intended to enhance her strength and extend her reach. As she worked through the form, she relished the movements, the way her new muscles responded so quickly, so readily. Her biotics were coming along, too, growing more controlled every day, such that she could risk letting out a little more power each time. This new body of hers was incredible. They’d rebuilt her well.
That thought made her pause.
Her parents had hated the idea of genetic manipulation. To their strict code of what was right and wrong, tampering with creation was an evil not to be borne. But after Mindoir, she’d had quite a bit of reconstruction done to save her life, and she’d had to accept that some things outside of her parent’s code were – necessary. Maybe it was best they weren’t here to see this. This body was amazing, but it would have shocked them.
As for what she thought about the new body… well, it was a body. It looked pretty much the same, so that was alright, too. Her mind was what worried her, yet that seemed to be intact. She could think and reason and that was something, at least. She didn’t feel anything…missing. And she felt in her gut though that she was still – herself.
It was a start.
She slowed down and dropped into a seated position, legs crossed on the mat. Placing her hands on her knees, she let her eyes slide shut and began to take deep, slow breaths. She had never been very good at emptying her mind to meditate, but the action seemed to help her slow her thoughts.
So what comes next?
The future was a tangle. She was surrounded by ropes: she saw that now. Cerberus and their lies, the Alliance and the council and their hesitation. Her crew…
Her mind wandered at once to Kaidan. Where was he? Was this mission he was on dangerous? Had he heard these Shepard-sighting rumors and had they bothered him? Did he know she was truly alive?
Shepard frowned. Anderson wouldn’t tell her about Kaidan because she was with Cerberus. Until today, she hadn’t realized how much the association would keep her divided from her former allies. She sincerely hoped that she would be able to find Kaidan, but then again, she realized this wouldn’t be as easy as she had hoped. He had thought she was dead and he thought Cerberus were terrorists. The news that she was with them was clearly going to shock him. If only there was a way to get a message to him first…
But even as she thought it, she knew it was too risky. The Illusive Man seemed like the kind of guy who would happily use Kaidan to get to her. If he knew how much Kaidan meant to her, he might do anything to the lieutenant – er, staff commander – to keep Shepard in line. It wasn’t a risk Shepard was willing to take just yet. Until she knew what Cerberus was really after…
Because clearly Cerberus wanted something from her. They couldn’t have brought her back just for her benefit. She was being used again – but why?
Cerberus needed political standing, perhaps. They were suspect. Their methods were – more than harsh, as Yeoman Chambers had said. They had been diabolical in the past. But if Cerberus wanted to get involved in the mainstream, they needed an in. From a PR point of view Shepard knew she was about as pure as Cerberus was dirty. Or at least she had been before she died. Sure, she had some bad press, too, but after saving the Citadel, she’d been considered a hero – again. Maybe Cerberus wanted to use her as their poster girl to make them look good. That made sense. She knew that game.
But Cerberus clearly was trying to tie her to them, exclusively. They didn’t want to get in nice with the Alliance or Council, and they weren’t apologizing for anything they’d done before. So maybe she was a tool, and not a symbol.
She was pretty damn sure, however, Cerberus’s deep and abiding concern for helpless colonials was not the real story. They’d killed enough colonials to disprove that theory.
Ropes and more ropes, she thought.
Well, the best way to untie a knot was to follow it through all its loops and turns, then find the end, and work back. She’d get it untied somehow, and get loose of Cerberus. The key lay with the missing colonies.
She frowned and opened her eyes.
Missing colonies. Missing people – children and parents and… Damn .
If Cerberus knew how to pick a sensitive spot with her, they’d found it. She could not turn her back on those people, no matter how much she hated the circumstances of her return.
Alright then, she thought, standing, and feeling centered once more. With or without the Alliance’s help, it was time to start tracing these ropes to their tangled ends.