Shepard stepped out of the elevator, reached for the doorway to her quarters – then stopped. Running her fingers through the short strands of her hair, she leaned back against the wall, slid down and landed on the ground with her legs out before her. She sat there for a moment, hands in hair, elbows on knees. Then she lifted her head and held her hands out before her.
Five fingers , she thought. More like monkeys than any other sapient species – I wonder what turians make of that. They probably think it’s weird .
She ran a hand through her hair. Dead protein strands , Garrus had once called them. It was a strange thing to have, when you really thought about it. The purpose of hair was rather minimized after so many years of evolution. It was now a thing of vanity, not warmth and survival as much.
“So why humans?” she murmured aloud. “Why?
Shepard saw her hands were trembling. She’d gone through this after many battles: dealt with nerves that simply would not calm down. In the past, she would glare at her fingers, seeing the tension and continued shock a kind of weakness and she would take deep breaths and will it away. But now she looked at it clinically, just allowing the shaking to continue. As she stared at her hands, she recalled the mission they’d just completed, the place they’d been, the things they’d seen – and what they’d learned:
“My God,” she had whispered into the quiet, grave-like ship. “The Protheans didn’t vanish.”
Protheans , Shepard thought, looking down at her shaking hands. As a child, she’d been taught that the ancient race was the pinnacle of civilization – what all space-faring species aspired to. They were compared in human circles to ancient Greece, ancient Rome, to the civilizations of China. Each race had their analogues and still, the Protheans surpassed them all. Yet, Shepard herself had uncovered the truth of their pitiful destruction. And now she had found proof of their continuing bondage: the Protheans had been enslaved by the Reapers, genetically modified until they became the Collectors.
*But why? * She wondered again. * Why?*
Shepard had studied slavers. She had taken out several trafficking posts in her time as a special forces operative and she knew how those crime rings worked: prey on the weak, establish known routes of trade, grease hands to keep those routes open, and move faster than the local law enforcement. But this, what the Collectors were doing – or rather, what the Reapers were doing – made no sense. Slavers were after money, their clients were after workers. It was despicable, but simple: the ultimate goal was to turn people into labor. But the Reapers appeared to be creating laborers for the sake of…creating more laborers? Without knowing what the workers were needed for, there was no way to know why they were needed in the first place.
And why humans?
A fragment of what Harbinger said popped suddenly into her mind:
“Human. Viable possibility, impressive genetic malleability.”
He had shouted that in triumph as he threw dark energy about, possessing the bodies of the other Collectors seemingly at will. At the time, Shepard had filed his words away as something peculiar, but even now she could make no sense of them.
The only thing she could make sense of was that the Collectors had to be stopped. They had room enough in their ship to fill it will all the citizens of Earth – and Shepard had a sinking feeling that was just what they planned to do. She knew she needed to build up her team and find a way through Omega 4 relay so that she could stike the bastards where they lived. And now she knew where that base was, though it’s location boggled the mind.
There was another thing that made sense now, too. And that was that the Illusive Man could not be trusted. He had shown his hand today, allowing them to walk right into a trap. His damnable disregard for her, the crew, even EDI had been made abundantly clear.
Shepard smiled grimly. It was funny, actually. Somehow, his betrayal put her in a good mood – or rather, in a determined sort of mood. It was a hell of a lot better than a brooding mood. His stunt reminded her of where she stood: she was Cerberus’s tool, and the Illusive Man would use her as such. She had worried about getting comfortable with the enemy, but now that she knew just how little she mattered, she wouldn’t forget it. And there was something else that had happened because of this, something she was willing to guess even the Illusive Man hadn’t counted on:
He’d pissed off the entire crew with his little stunt.
Shepard’s eyes narrowed as she smiled. Yes, he had drawn lines, whether he realized it or not. Miranda had been stunned to hear of the Illusive Man’s involvement. Jacob had looked fit to be tied. Joker was furious, Kelly disturbed, and Garrus, not surprisingly, had a wry joke to make about the whole thing as he’d taken his place at Shepard’s side during the debriefing. Shepard wondered if the scales were finally falling off of everyone’s eyes. They had certainly fallen from hers.
Yes, the Illusive Man had shown his true colors today: reminded her and every member of the crew what he was. He was a man bent on getting whatever he wanted by whatever means.
Though, Shepard added to herself, cocking her head, she still wasn’t quite sure exactly what he really wanted. If he was just trying to stop the Collectors, then she could almost see his point. But she was willing to bet anything, even the 5 billion credits she was indebted to Cerberus for her new body, that there was more to it than that. She just wished there had been more time to explore the ship. It was a nightmarish place, and yet, there were answers hidden there. After all, it was the same ship that had hit Horizon – the same ship that had hit the Normandy…
Shepard shuddered. God, she was glad that Kaidan had not been taken away in that thing. If he had, he’d likely be dead, just another broken body in a heap. She felt a flood of relief once again to know that she had saved him - regardless of how he had reacted to her afterward.
With that thought, Shepard glanced to her wrist. She had half a mind to boot up her omnitool and write another message for him when the doors to the elevator slid open and Miranda walked out.
“Lawson,” Shepard said, looking up at the woman in mild surprise.
“Shepard!” Miranda jumped, clearly not expecting the commander to be sitting on the floor. “What are you…?”
“Just thinking about your boss’s little stunt,” Shepard replied, hauling herself to her feet. “What are you doing up here?”
“I need to talk to you,” Miranda said, looking from the commander to the camera in the corner above Shepard’s head.
Shepard considered the woman a moment, then shrugged. She walked into her room and let the doors slide shut behind them. She turned and leaned a hip against the desk, folding her arms over her chest.
“So,” she asked. “Is this about what we saw down there or…?”
“It’s about Illium,” Miranda said, glancing about nervously. “Did Mordin really pull all the devices in your room?”
“You ought to know,” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow. “You get clearance for all the surveillance footage.”
“I do,” Miranda said. She hesitated, then asked: “Are we headed to Illium at last?”
“Yes,” Shepard nodded. “By way of a few stops. We should be there in about ten days.”
“We…I…” Miranda shifted nervously. “I need to be there within the week.”
“Care to explain why?” Shepard asked, curious at Miranda’s obvious distress.
Miranda turned to consider Shepard’s fish tank, ““I find myself in the uncomfortable position of asking for your help, Shepard,” she said, softly.
“How so?” Shepard asked.
“I…” Miranda paused, her face still turned away. “I…have a sister.”
“A sister?” Shepard softened at once as images of her own sisters coming to mind. So often she had thought of them, of what they might be doing. They would be finishing university now, if they had lived. Shepard realized she had never considered Miranda having family, but then, she hadn’t really considered Miranda much at all.
Apparently, Miranda did have family. The woman laid out her reasons for wanting to get to Illium and oversee the transfer of her sister from one safe house to another. Shepard listened in silence, then when Miranda had finished, she took a deep breath.
“I believe I owe you an apology, Lawson,” she said. “I don’t always like your boss, but I’d been letting that keep me from making sure that my XO was alright, and that was wrong of me. We’ll get there in time to make this transfer, count on it.”
Miranda blinked a few times. “Thank you, Shepard,” she said at last.
“However,” Shepard said. “Next time, just tell me this kind of thing up front. If you’d mentioned your sister…” She broke off, realizing that there might have been another reason for Miranda’s hesitation. “Does the Illusive Man know?”
“He’s overseeing the transfer, yes,” Miranda said, slowly. “But he thinks I’m overreacting. He didn’t want me to side track you from our mission in any way.”
“I see,” Shepard said tightly.
She did see. The Illusive prick had probably bought Miranda’s loyalty in exchange for seeing her sister safe. That he would use her family as ransom, as bait, just pissed Shepard off. She tried to keep her voice neutral as she said: “I can see why this would upset you. We’ll take care of it. Is it possible to make the transfer…without involving Cerberus?”
“Perhaps,” Miranda said, hopefully. “I would like to…” She nodded. “Maybe we can manage that.”
“Let’s try,” Shepard said. “The less people in on your secret, the better, right?”
“Right,” Miranda nodded. The two women looked at each other for a moment, a kind of, strange quiet understanding settling over them. The Miranda broke it by saying:
“I don’t recall that picture of Commander Alenko being part of the original decor.”
Shepard whirled around, belatedly realizing that her proximity to the frame had triggered it behind her back. Well, damn , she thought. That certainly ruined any illusions she’d tried to construct for Cerberus regarding how well she was getting over Kaidan.
“Did you put it there yourself?” Miranda asked. Her voice was cool, almost disinterested – almost. But Shepard knew curiosity masked by icy tones. She was a master at it herself.
“You have something to say, Lawson?” Shepard asked, her voice equally cold.
“No, I…” the Cerberus operative paused, then seemed to make up her mind. “I already knew what kind of a relationship you had with your – lieutenant.”
“Oh?” Shepard asked, tightly. How? she wondered. Was it before or after Horizon that I tipped my hand to Cerberus?
“I rebuilt you, if you remember,” Miranda said, raising an eyebrow. “In my initial scans of your body I found some foreign…DNA.” The woman glanced briefly to Shepard’s crotch before raising her eyes again to her face. The slightest blush touched Miranda’s cheeks. Shepard was sure the blush that crept up her own face was anything but slight.
“Holy shit,” Shepard gasped, her cool demeanor suddenly gone. “You’re kidding, right?”
“I ran an analysis,” Miranda said quickly. “I wanted to know what we were dealing with.”
“You wanted to make sure I hadn’t been man-handled, you mean.” The implications of the word suddenly took on multiple connotations. She frowned, feeling a little sick.
“Precisely.” Miranda nodded. “I couldn’t be sure what had happened to you. As we were going to be using your DNA to re-grow organs and such, I needed to make sure all the DNA I was using was – yours. When I found…” She paused, looking for the right words, “…anomalous DNA samples, I was concerned.”
“I can imagine,” Shepard murmured. “So you found…”
She couldn’t bring herself to say it. She knew that what she and Kaidan had been doing just hours before the attack on the Normandy and she just couldn’t find any words that didn’t seem to cheapen that last moment between them. In truth, they’d only broken regs on the ship a total of three times and she could remember each moment with heartbreaking clarity. It seemed wrong, somehow, that it had come to that. What Kaidan had been to her was so much more than sex, and yet, in the end, all that had been left of their relationship was…
Shepard pressed her fingers to her eyes, fighting back both a headache and tears. “So, you ran a test on said…DNA…and…”
“The match came back from the Alliance database as Commander Alenko’s.”
“My God,” Shepard murmured, letting her hand drop. Of all the conversations she really never thought she’d be having, discussing ‘proof’ of her relationship with Kaidan with a woman she barely knew and only slightly trusted was certainly one of them. “Does the Illusive Man know?”
“No,” Miranda said flatly. “No one knows about that but me.”
Shepard looked at her in surprise. “You didn’t tell him?”
“Not about that, no,” Miranda said, shifting a little on her feet. “I didn’t think it was his business to know. Or mine, really. I thought that if it became an issue, I would address it. But until that time, I felt that whatever you had been doing in that regard was your private life – your past private life.” She added. “So unless it threatened the mission, I would not say anything.”
“It won’t threaten the mission,” Shepard said swiftly. “And I would greatly appreciate it if you didn’t say anything to anyone.” She paused, feeling suddenly uncomfortable at the thought that she was now, somehow, in Miranda’s debt.
“I didn’t think it would,” Miranda replied. The two women considered each other.
“How does he know?” Shepard asked. “The Illusive Man, I mean. He must have known about me and Kaidan before Horizon. How?”
“I don’t know,” Miranda said, her face growing troubled. “He knows…everything, it seems. I have no idea how he gets his information.”
“He doesn’t know everything,” Shepard told her. “He has blind spots.”
“True,” Miranda said. “But he doesn’t like to be reminded of that. It makes him angry.” Shepard blinked in surprise. That had almost sounded like a friendly warning.
“I suppose he could have found out any number of ways,” Miranda added after a moment. “Hotel records, a bought crew member… That picture,” She raised an eyebrow. “As for myself, I found nothing in any official files. The Illusive Man was the one who informed me that he suspected ties between the two of you. His suggestion was why I first checked the Alliance DNA database when I found…”
“Right,” Shepard cut her off quickly. “I’m glad you didn’t have to check the Cerberus database.” She added with a shudder.
Miranda looked at her, eyes troubled. “Shepard…I…” She broke off and frowned.
“What?” Shepard stiffened at her tone. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to like what she was going to hear next.
“I checked your DNA regularly,” Miranda said, fixing her with a look. “I want you to know that. So I’m sure that no one…”
“Manhandled me?” Shepard said, unable to suppress a shiver of revulsion.
“Yes,” Miranda nodded. But then she looked away.
“What?” Shepard prompted, her stomach knotting.
Miranda paused, then said, “Wilson worked on you when I wasn’t there. I didn’t know that until…recently.”
Shepard felt the knot tighten. “What does that mean?” she asked, her voice flat.
“It means…” Miranda let out a breath. “I don’t know what I means.”
“So he could have…” Shepard couldn’t finish.
“No,” Miranda said, shaking her head. “I was running scans on you constantly. And Wilson, for all his faults…” She shuddered as well. “The Illusive Man oversaw the whole process. It seems that he…tasked Wilson with cloning your reproductive cells.”
Shepard felt only marginally relieved. “Why, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” Miranda told her. “I think…I suspect he was trying to save your genetic data to build…”
“Actually,” Miranda said slowly, “I can’t help but wonder if the Illusive Man planned to…”
“To what?” Shepard asked, guessing several possibilities, each of them worse than the last.
“I…I don’t know,” Miranda said at last.
“You think he might have wanted to grow whole pack of Shepards,” Shepard said, unable to hide the disgust she felt. “To make clones of me like your father made you as a clone of himself.”
Miranda looked at her, her pale eyes full of worry. Then her gaze flicked to the picture on Shepard’s desk. Shepard’s mouth dropped open as an awful realization dawned.
“No,” she said. Her blood felt like it was freezing in her veins. “He wouldn’t.”
“I’m not certain what his plans were,” Miranda said hastily. “I just…speculated.”
“You speculated ,” Shepard repeated, her heart thundering in her chest.
Miranda just shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“The Illusive Man showed a ridiculous amount of interest in Kaidan,” Shepard managed at last. “You think he was…”
“You don’t know that,” Miranda said. “ I don’t know that.”
“But he might have considered…”
“Wilson once…” Miranda grimaced, then went on. “He once asked me how difficult it would be to obtain genetic material from the Alliance Command medical facility. They keep blood samples on file, there.”
“For identification purposes and major re-constructive surgery,” Shepard nodded. “Yes, I know. But those files are guarded…”
“Not as well as you’d think.”
“You had Kaidan’s… blood ?”
“No,” Miranda shook her head. “Wilson had nothing…on hand.”
Shepard realized her hands were fisted at her sides, flickering with biotic energy. “You’re sure?”
“Quite sure. I hacked – I gained access to Wilson’s logs. He hadn’t gotten very far in the process. From what I can tell, he only managed to salvage your DNA and he was speculating on the possibility of gaining additional genetic material from…from suitable candidates. Commander Alenko’s name was on his list.”
Shepard just stared at her.
“Nothing was done,” Miranda assured her. “Wilson said in his logs that he wasn’t sure if your tissues were responding to the injections meant to repair the reproductive cellular damage. All viable samples he had were lost in the destruction of the Lazarus facility.” Her lips twisted in a sneer. “He took no pride in his work, the way he was ready to dump you the moment that you didn’t react to his treatments in the way that he wished.”
Shepard stood there, just trying to take all this in. One thing now seemed crystal clear to her:
“That was the Illusive Man’s back-up plan, wasn’t it?” she practically spat the words. “If you hadn’t been able to bring me back, he would have…what? Made a clone of me? Made a child from me? A child from Ka…”
She couldn’t say it, couldn’t even wrap her mind around it.
“Oh my God,” she murmured. “I cannot believe this. Your boss was actually thinking of building…from Kaidan and me…”
She swallowed hard, willing herself not to throw up. There were theories that biotic powers could be passed down genetically. Biotic power, at root, came from mutations in the nervous system. However, there was no conclusive proof that anything other than in-utero exposure to element zero could cause biotic powers in humans. But if anyone would try and create a biotic baby in a lab and raise it from birth to soldier – well, it would be Cerberus. This was the organization that created Jack, after all.
“Was he going to hold the child hostage to make me do his bidding?” Shepard spat out, “Or did he plan to have it take out the Collectors in my place?”
As she spoke, she suddenly realized that the stakes here were higher than she had known. If she failed, who knew what the Illusive Man would do to ensure success? She could only hope that Miranda was right and the lab samples had been fully destroyed. But there were other copies of her DNA out there, for all that she knew. There were probably still samples on file with the Alliance, and there were probably samples on this ship. And if she were to die and they brought back her body…
No , she thought, firmly. She’d wasn’t about to let her body fall into Cerberus hands again. She’d survive this so-called suicide mission and get back and warn Kaidan…
Of what? she thought wildly. Warn him that being with you is probably the most insane and dangerous thing he could possibly do with his life? Warn him that the Illusive Man is considering the both of you as raw genetic material for his unknown, but, no doubt, crazy plans?
The thought just made her sick.
“Commander Alenko was just one of many names on Wilson’s list,” Miranda told her. “There were even other women on that list. It was simply a database of preferred human DNA. It wasn’t just about you.”
That made Shepard feel marginally better – until she realized what Miranda was actually saying.
“Wait. What? “ Shepard gaped at her, appalled. “You’re telling me that…” She stared at the woman, her eyes widening. “Your boss was planning to grow a goddamn *army? * My God, he’s just like the Reapers – building tools for his battles!”
“The Illusive Man is trying to protect humanity!” Miranda said, her tone defensive and angry. “He wanted to compile databases on DNA from known heroes, trying to pinpoint what it is that makes humanity unique. He wants to save our species by bringing out the strongest traits in our race.”
“You were trying to create a fucking ubermench!” Shepard shouted back. “Just admit it! You were…” She stalked away from the desk, then back, the picture flickering on and off behind her.
“This!” she shouted at last, grabbing a fistful of her short, golden hair. “Once humans wanted this! And they tried to… breed to do it. They killed to make the human race over in their own image. It was madness then, and it’s madness now!”
“We’re not even remotely like…”
“Nazis?” Shepard laughed bitterly. “I can see a number of parallels. It doesn’t matter if its blonds or biotics you’re aiming for, it’s still wrong .” She sucked in a breath and shook her head. “Lawson, I know that you think you’re doing the right thing, but if you actually believe that crap then you’re walking down the same path as murderers.”
“Promoting genetic strength is not the same thing as…what you’re suggesting,” Miranda said, lifting her chin. “We need to survive as a species. You know this. That’s the only thing that really matters.”
“No,” Shepard said, stopping short, her voice low and steady. “We need to live . And if we can’t do that with dignity intact, then we might as well be lost to the Reapers.” She turned to Miranda, her eyes glittering. “If the Reapers take our DNA and turn us into monsters or if we do it to ourselves, the result is the same. There is nothing to be gained by surviving if we lose the very thing that make us human.”
“You’re advocating a purist genetic line?” Miranda scoffed. “Typical colony attitude.”
“No,” Shepard shook her head. “You can’t get away from what’s happened in genetic tech over the last hundred years, even if you wanted to. But there’s a world of difference in choosing to enhance our lives and just manipulating our species so that we can advance the human race into the future. It’s the decision that matters, Lawson. You’re talking about growing humans like plants or animals. But it ought to be about choice, and about the ability we have to love one another - and let life grow out of that.”
Shepard shook her head and glared at the wall, unable to continue, almost unable to breathe. This – all of this – was disgusting, horrific.
And suddenly, she thanked God that Kaidan wasn’t a part of it. She was… glad that he had walked away on Horizon, glad that he was far away from this manipulation, glad that his name had only been on a list and he hadn’t been mined for DNA. Bad enough that she was wrapped up in this body-rebuilding, Cerberus mess, but if Kaidan were to be caught in this web… Or a child – his child…
Shepard found herself staring at the wall, feeling as though all the breath had been knocked from her body.
“You have to convince your boss to leave Kaidan alone,” she told Miranda. “No more of this. No more of these…experiments.”
“What makes you think the Illusive Man listens to me?” Miranda asked, her voice surprisingly bitter.
“Just…” Shepard didn’t know what to say to that. “I want Kaidan safe. I don’t want Cerberus hounding him anymore. I’ll get the job done. Just don’t involve him. If I have to walk away from him to do that…”
“I suggest that you do,” Miranda said, her lips pursed. “Given what the Illusive Man was considering as an alternative, we can’t afford to have you distracted by Commander Alenko now. We have a job to do here.”
“I hadn’t forgotten, Lawson,” Shepard said, her eyes narrowing. “And while I take reprimands from my subordinates when they are right – and on that count, I admit you are right – I do not take kindly to manipulation or disrespect. And I most certainly want you to keep your paws off of me and my DNA – and Kaidan. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly, commander,” Miranda said, stiffly.
Shepard glared at her, then asked, wearily. “You swear that everything was destroyed with the Lazarus station?”
“I believe so,” Miranda said. “But I’ll make sure. I’ll see if I can ha – if there are any further reports. And maybe Mordin can check as well.”
“You mean he can hack as well,” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow. When Miranda said nothing, Shepard softened to her just a bit. “I would appreciate you, keeping all of this…quiet, Lawson,” she said.
“Of course,” Miranda agreed. “I don’t wish any of this to be…known.”
Shepard looked at Miranda, considering the woman for a long moment. She wasn’t sure how much of this humanity-first crap was really Miranda talking or simply the parrot-talk of a desperate girl. Perhaps Miranda clung to the ideology of this organization simply because they helped her escape a hurtful situation and protected her sister. And in that moment, Shepard realized that there might be a woman hiding behind that outrageous uniform who was worth counting as an ally.
Shepard let out a breath. “I thank you for telling me all this, Miranda. This can’t have been easy.”
Miranda merely nodded in reply, but her shoulders seemed to relax.
“I’ll set a course for Illium,” Shepard continued. “Be ready when we get there.”
“Thank you, commander,” Miranda said. She looked like she was about to say something more, but then she simply nodded. She and Shepard shared a glance, then the Cerberus officer nodded and left the room.
Shepard stared at the door for a long moment, then dropped into her chair. Her mind was whirling and she felt like she needed a shower. She looked at Kaidan’s picture, her throat constricting at the sight of his face. She tried to think of a future with him – a child with him…
And she failed. While she was in Cerberus’s hands, she simply couldn’t think of being with Kaidan, because how could she possibly drag him into all this?
I’m trying to get free of them, Kaidan, she thought, gazing at his picture, her heart too full to identify what, precisely, she felt. I’m trying. Just, please, keep yourself safe, and, if you would,
wait for me.