Pop. Snick. Pop. Snick.
Shepard sat staring at her arms, folded across her chest. Jack sat across from her, her thumb flicking open and shut the top of some sort of lighter. Shepard had never seen the woman smoke. It was probably just something that she kept on her person for kicks and mayhem – like that knife Shepard was sure Jack had concealed in her right boot.
Pop. Snick. Pop.
Shepard scowled, remembering back to the mess they’d just left behind.
” This is where they brought in the new kids,” Jack said. “They came in those containers. They were messed up and starving, but alive.”
” This is…unbelievable,” Garrus said in awe.
It was. It had been.
Shepard gritted her teeth. She always knew that for a biotic, she’d had it pretty damn good, but today had just nailed that point home for her once again. She hadn’t gotten ID-ed until she was old enough to handle the shock of being different – for the most part. At the time she’d been too busy coping with the fallout from Mindoir to worry much about the biotics. In truth, the biotics had been her saving grace. She took to expressing herself through her new-found powers as another child might do with an instrument. When she felt angry, she practiced throwing things. When she felt sorrow, she tried to lift things. It was hard to feel helpless when you focused on making things fly.
The foster parents were former Alliance, so they had no problem with the powers. They were more concerned with her attitude, her refusal to talk or open up. Shepard was still amazed that she hadn’t completely cracked back then, filled with rage and sorrow as she was. She supposed the love and strict upbringing that she had known on Mindoir were to thank for that. The conscience her mother and father had instilled in her kept whispering to her that she needed to use these growing powers to make things right.
After all, the shrinks didn’t help. Of course, that might have been because she skipped therapy sessions constantly. Instead of walking from school to counseling, as she was supposed to, she would go out to an abandoned lot near the football fields and practice. Talking about Mindoir didn’t help; thinking about the blood and the fury and all five minutes she actually remembered of the attack didn’t help. Getting a nosebleed while hurling rocks at old beer bottles: that helped. Fracturing her arm while pulling the fender off of an old, broken-down car: that helped. She wasn’t a junkie for pain, exactly, but something about forcing herself through the side effects of the energy made her feel stronger.
At eighteen, she enlisted, grateful to get away from the foster parents’ hovering. She was sent to biotic training, but she’d already gathered so much power that the instructors almost didn’t know what to do with her. While the other biotics tried to make objects float, she was struggling not to destroy the room. She slowly had to teach herself control. She’d sometimes lie awake for hours, keeping the nightmares of batarians at bay by making her dog tags hover in space just above her bed. It freaked out her roommates, to say the least, when they caught her at it.
But even as Shepard spent most of her training apart from the other biotics, she heard rumors of what happened to the others. All the biotics in the Alliance had a story: the day they’d been fighting on the playground and then found they’d nearly killed the other kid. The day they’d suddenly found themselves on the far end of the room with no memory of how they’d gotten there. And everyone had a story of what kind of training they had gotten - if any.
Kaidan had a story like that. He once said his parents never knew how bad he had it. He had been a first-gen case: one of the very earliest kids pulled into an Alliance-backed program. Only the Alliance hadn’t overseen the program as closely as it should have. And Kaidan had been one of the lucky ones.
But the worst stories were ones that no one knew the details about. The men and women who made it into the Alliance were mostly stable and sane. The stories about what happened to the kids who got sold into slavery, sold into labs and such – those ones were only whispers. Every biotic in the Alliance always wondered, “What if?” Because, of course, no matter how bad it had been to learn you had biotic powers, at least if you were enlisted, you had gotten past the dangerous part. Now you could fight, now you could serve, now you could have some kind of dignity. At least you worked for an organization that valued your skills and you got fed enough to keep your strength up. But the kids who ended up in the labs – those children were like phantoms that no one wanted to think about.
And Jack had been like that. The abandoned Teltin Facility was housed a building that the jungle was trying to reclaim. But even the vegetation growing in at every corner could not hide the history that had been left behind. It had taken all of five seconds in that place for Shepard to feel how very wrong it was. Garrus felt it, too, and as for Jack – Shepard’s eyes flicked to the woman sitting across from her.
She didn’t know what to say to Jack. In truth, she felt the best thing to do was what Jack wanted: explore the place, face the past – and then plant a bomb in it and blow it all to hell.
Only what they’d found down there was not exactly what Jack had expected.
” The Illusive Man requested operation logs again. He’s getting suspicious. But when we deliver results, he won’t care what we did.”
” Sounds like this facility went rogue,” Garrus observed as Shepard shut down the holographic log.
” He didn’t say what they hid,” Jack snapped.
” I don’t see the Illusive Man missing much,” Shepard said, frowning. “He must have guessed, at least.”
” Exactly,” Jack said, nodding firmly.
” You never know,” Garrus said. “He follows you pretty close, Shepard, but who knows how closely he watches his other projects?”
” Bullshit,” Jack said. “How could he not have known about this? About me?”
” I don’t like it, either way,” Shepard murmured. “Why was that computer turned on, anyway?”
The facility had just gone on and on, a maze of buildings and bloodstains. Jack muttered here and there about the places she remembered: the docking bay where the kids had been brought in, an arena where she had been forced to kill other children with her biotics, the first place she had ever seen sunlight, and then, they found the rooms she did not remember:
” Why is there a morgue?” Jack asked. “This was a small facility.”
” I’m saying, some sick son of a bitch killed a lot of kids,” Garrus said. “And then he checked his work.”
” Bullshit,” Jack said. “I had the worst of it, and I made it out alive.”
At the end of it all, they found the truth: Jack had been the reason for the whole facility. The entire point behind killing so many children was to study the results and make, Jack, Subject Zero, into a super biotic. Countless biotic children had died to grow her powers – children stolen by slavers, children sold by their parents. Shepard could feel bile rising in her throat as she had stood there, listening to the logs. She wondered if she had known any of those lost children – if any of them had been from Mindoir. There had been two boys from her school, brothers, who had just started to show biotic tendencies at the time of the attack. They would have gotten a good price, she realized.
Pop. Snick. Pop.
And then, in Jack’s cell, they found a man. He had grown up here, a lab-rat for Jack’s sake. He had been drawn back to Teltin for the same reason that they were: to see what it was that Cerberus had wanted from this carnage. Only his search had driven him insane. The situation had been resolved much better than Shepard had hoped, given Jack’s instability. But as Jack had walked around her room, looking at all the broken pieces of her childhood, Shepard could only listen and frown. There was nothing you could do about things like this, Shepard realized, even as it cut her to the heart. Sometimes, she thought, things just happened and they were ugly. And what the hell could you do about it?
Jack raised her eyes and met Shepard’s. She had such sad eyes, Shepard thought. For everything that there was about her that was tough and hard and violent, there was a pleading in Jack’s eyes that she had never managed to hide. And yet, for all that, Jack was a fighter. Shepard didn’t agree with it entirely, but she respected that Jack had never quite allowed herself to be broken. She supposed she saw more than a little of herself in Jack - and of what she might have been.
Shepard’s lips set in a line and she nodded at Jack. She banged on the door behind her and in response to that cue, the pilot set off the bomb they’d left behind. The small shuttle pitched for a moment as the blast echoed behind them. Jack looked around wildly, then settled herself against her seat. Her shoulders relaxed a fraction as her childhood cell was blown away.
“Commander,” Councilor Anderson stood and waved Kaidan into the spacious office. Kaidan entered slowly, and not only because of the bright lights. Even now, his headache pained him, but it was the three other people in the room who made him cautious. One was in an admiral’s uniform, one was in plain clothes, and one was Ambassador Udina. Kaidan kept his face neutral, much as he wanted to frown. He had thought this would be a private meeting.
“Commander.” The nondescript man in plain clothes stood. “Good to finally meet you.”
Kaidan started as he recognized the man’s voice at once. “Admiral Hackett,” he managed, shaking the man’s hand. Even as Kaidan looked into the officer’s face, he found it completely forgettable.
“The Admiral came up here on short notice,” Anderson said. “You’ve met Rear Admiral Mikhailovich, I believe.”
Kaidan tried to place the man.
“Your Commander Shepard once gave me a tour of the old Normandy,” the man said. “Tragic waste that.”
“Yes sir,” Kaidan murmured, shaking his hand as well. It felt strange to think of the Normandy attack now. His mind still registered it as a horrible tragedy that he didn’t want to talk about, even as another part of his mind knew that Shepard had lived and what had actually happened to her was another kind of tragedy altogether.
Kaidan shook Udina’s hand to be polite, then sat down at the chair clearly left for him. They sat in a circle, but it felt like he was facing an interrogation. Immediately, Kaidan began to sort out his thoughts, preparing them like armor to be placed on. He couldn’t let them know about the email he’d sent to Shepard, couldn’t let them know about the rachni data he’d received. He couldn’t let them know about his relationship with Shepard and above all, he had to keep himself from acting any more distraught than any other soldier would be to find out about the seeming betrayal of a respected superior officer.
The tricky part, Kaidan thought, would be getting any decent answers out of these men while protecting all those secrets.
“You saw Shepard on Horizon,” Udina began at once. It was a statement, not a question.
“Yes,” Kaidan replied. The four men all looked at him to elaborate, but he did not.
“Well?” Udina asked, impatiently. “Go on.”
“Sir?” Kaidan asked politely.
“What was she doing? What mess was she causing this time?”
“Udina,” Anderson said, wearily, “I have allowed you to be a part of this meeting. Don’t make me regret that.” He turned his gaze to Kaidan. “Your report said you met Shepard and she was working for Cerberus.”
“With Cerberus, yes,” Kaidan corrected. His words surprised him. He hardly knew why he had said that. Mikhailovich just laughed.
“Is there a difference?”
Kaidan said nothing. Anderson looked at him pointedly.
“Well, commander – is there a difference?”
“I’m not…certain,” Kaidan said, slowly. “She’s trying to stop the Collector attacks.”
“Collectors?” Mikhailovich blinked. “Aren’t they some kind of…well, myth?”
“No myth,” Hackett said, shaking his head. “Unfortunately not.”
“Tell us what happened,” Anderson said.
Kaidan did so as briefly and clearly as he could. He recounted the seeker swarm attack, then the arrival of the Collectors how they had taken half the colony. He showed them the video he had of the plaza attack. Mikhailovich frowned at it and muttered something about idiotic colonials. Hackett just shook his head. Anderson barely moved a muscle.
“Then Shepard got the GARDIAN systems back online and shot their ship,” Kaidan finished. “They retreated and she left.”
“And just how did she happen to get there in the nick of time?” Udina asked, suspiciously.
“I don’t know,” Kaidan replied. He still didn’t know that. He wished he had thought to ask her at the time. As that thought passed through his mind, he remembered their meeting and the ensuing argument - all of the angry things he had said and Shepard’s incomprehensible replies. And then, of course, his mind trailed back to that one, small, baffling kiss…
“Commander?” Hackett prompted. Kaidan looked up to find he’d fallen silent.
“I asked, are you sure it was her?”
“My suit’s sensors…” Kaidan began. He waved at his arm. “I didn’t have it recording, but it was her, certainly.”
Mikhailovich snorted. “Or a convincing clone.”
“Not on our suits,” Anderson said. “But even so, do you think it was her, Commander? You worked with her for a long time.”
Anderson and the other men all turned their eyes to him. Kaidan nodded at once and said, “Absolutely sir. I don’t doubt it.”
Anderson nodded grimly.
“Nor did I,” he agreed. Kaidan looked at him in surprise, then had to fight back a sudden rush of fury.
That’s right, he thought. Anderson had known that Shepard was alive. He had known and not told him.
“How long did you know, sir?” Kaidan managed at last.
Anderson said simply, “Not for very long. And not for certain until recently.”
“Since shortly after you left for Horizon,” Anderson replied.
Kaidan nearly choked on the news. Only the fact that two admirals and an ambassador were sitting in front of him stopped Kaidan from shouting something inappropriate at the councilor right then and there.
“So Shepard is working for Cerberus?” Mikhailovich said. “Why?
All eyes turned to Kaidan. He swallowed, then said, “She said she was working with them to stop the Collector attacks.”
“But why?” Mikhailovich asked again. “Why them?” He folded his arms across his chest and he looked very displeased.
“Maybe because the Council and the Alliance aren’t doing a damn thing about these attacks,” Anderson suggested, frowning.
Kaidan watched Anderson closely. Anderson had sent Kaidan to set up defense systems on distant colonies on over ten different worlds. The councilor had given Kaidan this project in order to protect human settlements and to investigate the source of the colony attacks. For a while there, Kaidan had begun to wonder Anderson didn’t want to do any more for those colonies, but maybe his hands had simply been tied all this time by the politicians and the brass.
“I’m not sure why Shep – she – joined Cerberus,” Kaidan said at last. He thought briefly of what Shepard had said – something about being in a coma, being rebuilt. But he didn’t say that. He didn’t know what that meant, so he felt it was best not to bring it up.
“So she just disappeared and joined terrorists for the fun of it?” Mikhailovich asked. “Or maybe the pay?”
“I told you she was unstable,” Udina muttered.
“You didn’t ask her why she was with them?” Hackett asked just as Anderson warned, “Udina…”
“I…” Kaidan didn’t know what to say to them – to any of them. The entire story was all jumbled in his mind. “I was too shocked to find out why she was with them,” he finally said. That was true, at least. “I asked if she was with Cerberus… She didn’t deny it. There was a ship…”
“A ship?” Mikhailovich asked. “What ship?”
“A copy of the Normandy,” Anderson spoke for Kaidan. “The record is on file with Citadel Control.”
Kaidan felt as if he had been punched in the gut.
“She came here ?” he practically shouted. All four men looked to him. He fought to get his voice back under control. “When?” he rasped out.
“The day you left for Horizon,” Anderson said. “That was the first time I knew for certain that she was really alive - when I saw her in person.”
“You saw her…?” Kaidan murmured. He couldn’t believe this. The day he’d left… He could scarcely process it.
The day he’d left …
He’d missed her by what? Minutes? Hours? The day he’d left for Horizon, she’d come here. He had been mourning her and she’d been on her way…to him? To Anderson? Who had she come to see, and what? And why after so long? And for him to have just…missed her…
Suddenly, a horrible thought occurred to Kaidan: this wasn’t the first time he had missed her. She had been alive, hadn’t she? That meant that somehow, she had survived that fall to Alchera. How long had she suffered, Kaidan suddenly wondered. Had she laid there on the frozen surface of that planet, unconscious until Cerberus found her? Or had she been awake, possibly trapped or wounded beyond imagining, wondering why no one had come for her – why Kaidan had never come for her?
Did she think he’d abandoned her?
Kaidan’s stomach knotted just thinking of it. Had she joined Cerberus because they were the onces to rescue and revive her? Did she feel she owed them? Did she blame him for leaving her behind when he might have saved her? And might he not have stopped all this, years ago, if he had simply had the courage to go with Liara and make certain that they recovered Shepard’s corpse?
Had she joined Cerberus because she had felt betrayed? Kaidan couldn’t think. He had missed her…by so little time…
“It is troubling,” Hackett was saying, his heavy, ponderous voice so strangely at odds with his nondescript features. “Cerberus is a powerful organization. For them to have turned our best operative against us…”
“She’s not against us,” Kaidan said as Anderson shook his head and said, “She’s still a Spectre.”
“She is?” Kaidan blinked.
Anderson nodded. “She got re-instated when she came here and spoke to the Council. Came to explain that she’d joined them to stop the Collector attacks.”
“It was a mess of a meeting,” Udina grumbled.
Kaidan grew furious. “You knew that?” he asked hotly. “If you knew, then why did you ask me about it?”
“I wanted to see if she said the same things to you that she did to the Council.” Anderson gave Kaidan an searching look. “I wanted to see if she really is just with them to stop the Collectors as she said, or if there is more to it.”
Kaidan ground his teeth together. Anderson had known Shepard was alive, was with Cerberus, was trying to stop the Collectors and the man hadn’t told Kaidan. It was infuriating, except… Well, Kaidan realized, he had been unavailable. And it was unlikely Anderson would have told him anyhow. None of these men knew what Kaidan was to Shepard – what he had been to Shepard, he corrected himself. There was no reason for them to send information about Shepard to Kaidan. To the brass, Kaidan was there to feed information about Shepard to them . To the Alliance, he was just Shepard’s former lieutenant. He’d best keep it that way.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Kaidan said quickly. “It was just…troubling to see my former…commander with terrorists. I didn’t think to find out more information from her, and for that, I’m sorry.”
“You did well, commander,” Hackett said, giving him a curt nod. “Your guns stopped the attack and now we have more information than we did before.”
“Including the information that Shepard is still with Cerberus,” Udina said. “The longer that goes on, the more political trouble will come of it.”
Mikhailovich snorted. “They’re human, at least. Better than turians or whatnot.”
“It’s because they’re humans that they’re so much trouble,” Anderson said, sternly. “They’ve caused us all sorts of problems.”
“And now Shepard is working for them.” Hackett added.
With them, Kaidan wanted to say. He didn’t know why he was clinging to those words of Shepard’s, but he was.
Anderson met Kaidan’s eyes. “This last mission must not have been easy for you, commander. I found it hard to find Shepard alive and so changed, myself. But,” he added, rising, “With any luck, her time with Cerberus will be short lived.”
“Sir?” Kaidan blinked as the other men stood as well.
“We have your evidence on the Horizon mission and will review it,” Anderson continued. “I may need you for further information, so please check your mail regularly. For the next two weeks, however, consider yourself off duty. Dismissed, commander.”
“Surely you need a break after all that, soldier,” Hackett said, kindly.
“Sir…Councilor…” Kaidan began, torn between confusion and frustration and something that felt like…betrayal all over again. “Aren’t you going to do something about the Collector attacks?”
“If we do,” Mikhailovich said, unfolding his arms, “That will be classified.”
“You can’t act without the approval of the Council,” Udina scowled. “Especially not based off of information from an unstable Spectre who has joined terrorists.”
Kaidan bit the inside of his lip to keep from replying to the man.
“Your evidence is most helpful,” Hackett told Kaidan. Turning to Anderson, the admiral added, “Based on this, we should at least increase patrols to secure the traverse.”
“We’re already spread too thin,” Mikhailovich scowled. “If you would just listen to me and build up our numbers rather than throw away money on experimental technology…”
“Gentlemen,” Anderson said, his firm voice stopping them both. He looked at Kaidan, who had still not moved.
“Dismissed, Commander,” he said. His tone was quiet, but it held a warning.
“Councilor,” Kaidan said. “Admiral. Admiral. Ambassador.”
With a nod and a three salutes, Kaidan left the office, full of more questions now than when he had begun.
“You okay, Shepard?”
Shepard sighed and stretched her shoulders, then cast a glance at Garrus. The turian looked more serious than usual, and with his scarred face, he often looked serious these days.
“Yeah,” she said. “Not sure about…” She nodded to the retreating figure of Jack. The tattooed woman was walking away from the shuttle, no doubt to return to her place in the Normandy’s hold.
“Yeah,” Garrus muttered. “I can’t even…”
“You think she’s going to be okay?”
“I don’t know,” Shepard said. “I’ll let her settle in, check on her later, but…” She sighed. “I don’t know how anyone heals wounds that go so deep. I don’t know how you help. I guess Jack just put tattoos over the cuts and acts tough. She’s not a victim though, I’ll give her that.”
“She became a murderer,” Garrus said, his eyes troubled.
“I’m not sure how much of that is her fault or Cerberus’s,” Shepard said, scowling. “What would you do in her shoes?”
“Her shoes?” Garrus looked down at his feet.
“It’s a human expression,” Shepard said, smiling just a little. “It means, ‘what would you do if you were her’?”
“I don’t know,” Garrus answered honestly. “Hard to imagine.”
“Yeah.” Shepard stopped and thought for a moment. “Do turians do that kind of thing to kids? Turian kids, I mean.”
Garrus’ mandibles drooped into a frown. “Turian parents are probably harder on their children than humans are – push them more. But not…Well,” he shrugged. “there are sick bastards in any culture.”
“True enough,” Shepard agreed. “Speaking of which, I need to talk to the Illusive Man about this. I still think he knew…”
“Commander,” Miranda’s voice came over the comm. “If you’re back, I need to speak with you.”
“Would this be about Jack’s blown up cell?” Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow at the ceiling.
There was a pause.
“What’s this about Jack?”
Shepard explained where they had been as Garrus folded his arms across his chest and also glared up at the ceiling. There was a longer pause, then:
“They went rogue. They must have.”
“Right,” Shepard said, trying to hold back her fury. “With the Illusive Man’s intelligence network, he had no idea what they were doing.”
“Exactly,” came the reply.
“Bullshit,” Shepard snapped. “What was that about “Lead us, Shepard?” I tell you what, Lawson, I’m doing my damnedest to lead you, but if your boss messed with Jack that badly, how the hell do you expect this team…?” She trailed off, reining her anger back to become a cold, determined wariness inside of her.
“I keep forgetting myself with you Cerberus folks,” she muttered.
And that was the trouble, Shepard thought. One moment she found herself settling in with the crew, with the team, enjoying her regular meals and coffee and the comfort of this beautiful ship. The whole situation slowly lulled her into thinking she was working with just any other crew, any other organization. And then, something like this would remind her that the devil always sweetened his poison.
Jack’s life had been ripped away by Cerberus – and Subject Zero had been possibly the luckiest child in that hell. Cerberus could not be trusted, Shepard told herself once again. She could never forget that.
More loudly, she said,“You’ve asked me to lead this crew, and I will, Lawson. But I am not forgetting what I saw today. I don’t care how far down the chain of command that was. That was Cerberus – and you never owned up to it.”
With a nod to Garrus, she headed towards the elevator. The turian fell into step behind her.
“The Alliance makes mistakes as well,” Miranda’s voice called after her as Shepard stalked across the deck.
“Not like that,” Shepard shouted back.
Her thoughts strayed to something Kaidan had once told her about his biotic training: * The Alliance…made mistakes* .
But even so, it hadn’t been like that, Shepard told herself. Never like that.