“How is Shepard?”
“How is Shepard?” A snort accompanied these words. “How do you think? She’s a goddamn machine.”
Lieutenant James Vega didn’t bother to look up from his breakfast tray as he spoke. He’d managed to fit two plates, a coffee cup and a glass of orange juice on the small rectangle of plastic and already, he had eaten his way through most of the meal. The pancakes were gone, as were the limp rashers of bacon and the oily hashbrowns. Only the undercooked eggs and two burnt pieces of toast remained. Across the table sat Admiral David Anderson, a single cup of coffee in his hands.
“A machine?” Anderson asked. “A machine how?”
“Just that,” James shrugged. He took a bite of the eggs, then made a face and quickly washed them down with a swig of orange juice. “I mean, I could see it for a while. A week or two. But it’s been six months. Six months . And every day, she does the exact same thing, more or less. It’s unreal.”
There was a pause as Anderson took a sip of his coffee. “What is she doing, exactly?” he asked.
“Well,” James said, looking up at a point in the air above Anderson’s head, “She wakes up at the same time every day. And it’s damn early. She gets dressed and reads until I show up. She reads a lot.”
“What’s she reading?”
“Boring shit,” James snorted. “I mean, stuff.” He coughed and gave the admiral a sheepish look. “Alien languages. Prothean legends. And she listens to this sad-ass Colony Western station when she isn’t listening to the Alliance chapel broadcast.”
“The chapel broadcast?” Anderson said, a little surprised. “Well, I guess we all find our ways of coping.”
“Yeah, I guess,” James said doubtfully. “So I get there and then we go out to Old Stanley Park. I stand in the cold and she sticks her headphones in and runs for an hour.”
“What? Just out in the open like that?” Anderson asked in mild surprise.
“The brass seem to think there’s enough security on the compound,” James replied. “Me, I don’t like it, and not just because any sane person would be doing their running indoors this late in the year. But I guess they figure she needs some fresh air. Anyhow, after an hour of running, she does some biotic martial arts shit on the green and finishes off with another two laps on the Oval. She stops by the mess hall and scarfs down two energy bars and a litre of water, then she hits the gym and lifts weights for an hour. Hits the showers. She comes back here to the mess hall, sits by herself and eats a lot . More than me, even. Has three coffees in a row.”
The lieutenant picked up his own coffee cup and drained it, then rolled it back and forth in his hands as he continued:
“She goes back to her room, changes into her dress blues, visits the parole office to petition for a hearing. Gets denied. Petitions for a meeting with the Defense Council. Gets denied. Petitions for access to Alliance archives and intel. Gets denied. Petitions for permission to visit the firing range and practice with live ammo. Gets denied. Every damn day she gets denied.”
Anderson nodded, as if he expected that. James set down his coffee cup and went on.
“She goes back to her room, changes back into her casuals, lies down, sticks her headphones in, takes a nap. Wakes up exactly an hour later, goes to the mess, eats something, drinks a coffee. Then she goes to the gym again. Spars with the VIs dummies and beats the hell out of them. Freaks the shit out of the guards. I mean…” he cleared his throat. “She’s been working on this biotic punch that’s pretty impressive. I wish they’d let her fight the other detainees. That would be a nice change of pace.”
Anderson frowned slightly in disapproval at this suggestion, but James did not seem to notice. He just picked up a burnt piece of toast, then reconsidered eating it and set it back down again.
“Then she uses the climbing wall if it’s open. Otherwise, she runs on the gym track since it’s dark out by now. Hits the showers again. Eats again. Has one coffee. Goes back to her room early. Starts in on some biotic meditation ball thingy that creeps the hell outta me and that’s when my shift ends.” He held his hands out to his sides and if in surrender. “That it. That’s what she does. Every damn day. Every damn week.”
“You want a more detailed report, I can write it up for you. But that’s about it. I don’t know how she hasn’t gone insane yet. Hell, I’m going insane just watching her do it. I’m *dreaming * about her doing this stuff. I mean, not like that ,” he amended quickly. “Not, you know… Just, the only break I get is to hit the pub in the evening and I get the weekends off. Other than that, it’s like watching the same vid over and over and over. Like torture, is what it is. “
There was a long pause as Anderson considered his words.
“Insane, huh?” the admiral replied.
“Yeah,” James said, taking another bite of eggs. “I’m seriously going insane.”
“I mean Shepard,” Anderson clarified. “You’ve been watching her all this time. What do you think of her? Regarding her sanity, that is.”
“Not sure what to think,” James said, setting down his forkful of eggs. “I know a lot of folks think she’s nuts but me…” He trailed off, still staring at his eggs.
“But you?” Anderson prompted.
“I dunno. She knows I’m not supposed to be friendly and all, so she doesn’t say much. But when she does talk, well…” James raised his eyes to the admiral. “She seems pretty lucid.”
“Lucid,” Anderson repeated.
“But given what she’s seen, what she’s done…” James shook his head. “I thought those sons-of-bitches were lying, that that vid was lying. But if she really did do it… If she really did blow up a relay…”
“Three hundred thousand Batarians died,” Anderson said softly. “All to buy us some time.”
“And that’s time we’re not using,” James snorted. “The brass still don’t believe her, do they?” He shook his head again. “They must think she’s a monster.”
“They don’t know what to think,” Anderson replied. “Her psych eval was textbook, but they’re convinced she knows how to get around the tests. That’s why I wanted to get your opinion. You’ve been watching her all this time. How do you think she’s holding up? Truthfully now.”
James shifted uncomfortably. “Pretty well, I guess.” He paused, then leaned forward and spoke low. “But honestly, sir? There’s something a little strange about her, and it’s not just her weird-ass schedule.”
“It’s just, I dunno. It’s scary to be around her some days. It’s like she’s in constant training for the apocalypse.”
“Technically, she is,” Anderson said grimly. “We all are.”
“Yeah, but…” James frowned and hunched his shoulders. “I see how she looks at things sometimes: like she can see everything going up in flames in her mind. At first I thought it was PTSD, but it’s not quite like that. It’s more like she’s looking forward , not back. I’ll be honest with you: it’s freakin’ me out.”
“It’s probably inaction,” Anderson said, thoughtfully. “Some of us aren’t meant to be stuck inside four walls all the time. I know that better than anyone.” He looked up and met James’ eyes. “But, hopefully, now that I’m back, I can get it sorted out, get Shepard back into the fight where she belongs.”
“She’ll be glad to hear that, sir,” James said, nodding with approval. “She keeps asking me when the Normandy will be done with the retrofit.”
Anderson froze and his eyes narrowed sharply. “How does she know about that? That’s classified.”
“Uh,” James blinked. “I thought someone must have told her. She asked me to take her gear over there just last week. Joker was waiting for me and said he’d put it in her locker. I thought it had all been authorized.” He looked genuinely confused.
Anderson glared at the lieutenant a moment longer. “Hmm,” was all he said. He looked up at the clock, then back at James.
“Speaking of Shepard, doesn’t your morning shift start now?”
“Huh?” James whirled around and looked at the clock, then scowled. “Ah, damn,” he said, shoving a mouthful of cold eggs into his mouth. He grimaced, swallowed and stood. “Good talking with you, sir.”
“Thank you for taking time to meet with me, lieutenant,” Anderson replied, shaking his hand. “And say hello to your charge for me.”
“Maybe you should visit her yourself,” James suggested. “She doesn’t get much company.”
Anderson frowned. “That’s unfortunate. But I don’t think that’s wise just yet. The brass is keeping a close eye on me as well. Please pass along my apologies.”
“Yes sir,” James said, saluting. He then picked up his tray and paused.
“By the way, sir,” James added. “The brass had better hope they’re right about Shepard being crazy.”
“Why’s that?” Anderson wanted to know.
“Because if they’re wrong, we’re all screwed.”
Breathe , Shepard commanded her freezing lungs. Just breathe .
All around her, the trees stood as silent guardians. A few leaves clung to the branches, each vein outlined in an armor of delicate frost. The rest of the foliage lay crushed on the ground, coated with mud and crusted with ice. There were no geese flying through the clouds overhead, no children playing among the trees, no elderly men sitting on the iron bench by the path. Shepard found herself alone in the frozen morning.
The cold knife of the morning air sliced her nostrils, serrated her lips, and rattled down into her chest. Icy wind whipped her cheeks, pressed a stinging kiss to her lips, scored her throat with each indrawn breath.
Shepard raced through the park, arms pumping at her sides, legs scissoring out a brutal pace. A biotic barrier coated her body in a sheen of blue. The energy rippled slightly, the pattern like looking at sunlight from underwater. Once, she could only keep up a protective mass effect field for a short time, but constant training had changed that. Now, she wore a barrier like a second skin whenever she went outside.
Breathe , she willed herself again. Breathe .
Breath was a funny thing, Shepard thought distantly. It wasn’t like a heartbeat, that went on without exercising will over it; nor was it like her leg muscles that ran because she wanted them to. Rather, breath was one of those things she could pay attention to or not. She could let it slip by, or she could hone it, use it, direct it. Breath was not unlike life itself, in that regard. There was a time when she had gone through life without thinking. But that had certainly changed in recent years. Now, there was too little time left to treat any of it cheaply.
Shepard willed her breath to rise up to meet the ache in her muscles, the gnawing worry that threatened to take over her mind most days. She rounded the corner and broke out from the close cover of the trees and onto the green. She slowed her pace and put her hands up above her head, biotic barrier still shimmering. Looking around, she saw only one figure in the distance. Her personal guard stood by the side of the clubhouse, staring off at the bay. As usual, he looked bored and slightly inattentive.
And that suited Shepard’s purposes just fine.
As she let her hands drop to her sides, Shepard switched on the headset that curved behind her ears. It crackled for a moment, then a man’s nasal voice droned:
… What I really lack is to be clear in my mind about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act. What matters is for me to find a purpose, to find that which the Divine wills me to do …
Shepard tuned the voice out, instead stretching her arms up, reaching until she stood on her tiptoes, then lowering her arms only to stretch them back up again.
…the crucial thing is to find a truth which is truth for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live and die…
She had repeated her exercise only a few times while the man read on, then suddenly, his voice cut out. There was a moment of silence, then:
Shepard paused her stretching for just a moment and allowed herself a small smile. The voice on the other end was soft and musical, familiar to Shepard as her own.
“Hey Liara,” Shepard murmured, keeping her eyes on clubhouse beyond. “What’s new?”
“Nothing good” Liara said. A distinct note of worry marred her oft-cool voice.
“What’s wrong?” Shepard asked. As she spoke, she dropped her arms and began one of her biotic energy routines. It was not unlike tai chi, only with a crackling barrier flaring from her like the corona from the sun. As an added bonus, the increased flaring obscured the movement of her mouth. As an added precaution, though, Shepard worked hard to move her lips as little as possible.
“Is it the Reapers?” she asked, softly.
“I don’t believe so,” Liara said, a frown evident even over the comm-link. “It’s just that a few of my agents have failed to report in for several days now.”
“Is that normal?” Shepard asked, worriedly.
“For Batarian space? Yes,” Liara sighed. “Communication is always tricky where the hegemony is concerned. I’ll send another agent to check up on it, but intel has been hard to come by out here on Mars. In fact,” she added, “I may be off the grid for a while.”
“Why’s that?” Shepard asked.
“As you may recall, EDI is running our communications through the Sol comm buoy and back again…”
”…and feeding it directly to my headset while making the signal look as if it’s an in-house Alliance frequency. I remember. I may not be able to come up with this kind of spy-vid stuff on my own, Liara, but I can follow simple instructions. So what’s the problem?”
“This link has been receiving a lot of static this morning. I cannot tell if it is coming from the Sol comm buoy, or if it has to do with the power fluctuations here at the Archives. Also,” she added with a slight edge to her voice, “it is becoming difficult for me to link into the extranet without arousing suspicion. One of the newer additions to the team keeps interrupting my work.”
“Does some poor scientist have a crush on you?” Shepard teased, trying to lighten the mood.
“No,” Liara replied rather coldly. “Dr. Eva is not exactly cordial. She’s simply underfoot at the wrong times. As a result, this may be my last conversation with you for a while. I need to focus on my research and avoid suspicion.”
“Ah,” Shepard said. As she continued into a pivot and strike, she tried not to feel disappointed. Her talks with Liara had been her one link to the outside. Once again, she felt her hard-won calm fading. The frustration that always simmered below the surface in her threatened to spill out. Her barrier flared a dangerous shade of blue-white.
Breathe , Shepard told herself.
She exhaled, slowed down her routine again, and tried to focus on what Liara was now saying.
”… not exactly what I intended to find, but it is something,” Liara was telling her.
“What’s something?” Shepard asked, returning to the task at hand.
“I’ve found something here in the archives,” Liara replied. “It’s some sort of, well, I’m not sure, exactly. The trouble is converting of the units of measurement into galactic standard. The dialect used on the inscriptions is pre-Metaconian in nature, despite the fact that this Prothean outpost would have been founded long after those wars. I wonder if this was not a safety measure against…”
“Liara,” Shepard interrupted. “The short version.”
“Right, sorry,” Liara cleared her throat. “I have found blueprints of some sort.”
“I’m not sure, exactly,” Liara admitted. “It’s some sort of machine.”
“A weapon?” Shepard asked hopefully.
“I’m not sure. Whatever it is, it is enormous in scope. But that must be a mistake in my translation. The numbers I’m getting are simply too large to be believed.”
“The Reapers are big bastards,” Shepard murmured. “Figures it would take big guns to take them down.”
“I don’t know if guns that big exist, Shepard,” Liara said, doubtfully.
“Sure they do,” Shepard replied, raising her arms into guard position. “Remember that derelict Reaper that Cerberus sent me to?”
“The Reaper that fell into Mnemosyne?”
“Exactly,” Shepard turned her toe and slid into a deep stretching stance. “Well, thanks to Cerberus pulling its usual bullshit, we barely got out in time. The only useful thing we learned before the Reaper crashed into a brown dwarf was that the Reaper had been killed when it was hit with a mass accelerator. That round was fired from some sort of gun. A *big * gun.”
“Yes. The blast hit another planet, if I recall.”
“Right,” Shepard said, continuing her movements with a slow, thoughtful punch. “ *That’s * the kind of weapon we want. It took down a Reaper in a single blast. We’re going to need one of those. *Lots * of those. Maybe that’s what you’ve just found.”
“It couldn’t be,” Liara said, “The weapon you’re speaking of came from a time before the Protheans. And if the Protheans had such a weapon themselves, they would have used it.”
“Oh, right,” Shepard scowled behind her barrier. “Good point.”
“Furthermore,” Liara went on, “I’m not certain this machine is a weapon. The diagrams indicate it is meant to generate and release massive amounts of dark energy, but the exact function remains unclear. In fact, it almost appears that half of the design is missing.”
“So we don’t have much to go on,” Shepard grumbled, “as usual.” She sighed heavily. “I dunno, Liara. You’re the expert on this one, but I still think you’re wasting your time in a backwater outpost like Mars.”
“There’s a lot here in the Archives, Shepard,” Liara replied. “Give it time.”
“Time is exactly what we don’t have,” Shepard said, turning around and dropping into a crouch. “You know that, T’Soni. As for me, I’m dead in the water.”
“Still no luck with the brass?” Liara asked gently.
“It’s hard to organize a resistance when no one wants to admit that there’s anything worth resisting,” Shepard said as she slowly rose to standing. “I need more proof if I’m going to convince them to let me out of here, much less join me in preparing for war. So far, all I have is visions that only I can see and a trail of collateral damage from one end of the galaxy to the other.”
“I saw visions of the Reapers, too, if you remember.”
“Yeah, you saw them through *my * mind,” Shepard pointed out, intricately moving her hands in a trapping motion. “I need hard evidence to persuade a bunch of stubborn humans. And every day they stall is one more point for Team Reaper.”
“Yes, well,” Liara said thoughtfully, “this is why you have me on your side. Intel is what I do. I have my agents looking in every place I can think of.”
“Thank God for that,” Shepard muttered, continuing on to a sweep. She righted herself swiftly and rose up into a high strike. “Any word from the others?”
“Very little,” Liara replied apologetically. “Your ex-Cerberus team hid themselves well and I’ve been focusing much of my attention on the Archives. Also, most of my gear is still packed up in crates.” She laughed softly. “The scientists here think this is all tools for the dig site.”
“Little do they know the remains of the Shadow Broker’s base is in your trunks,” Shepard chuckled back.
“Exactly,” Liara said. “It doesn’t help that I had to deactivate Glyph. The VI was arousing suspicion.”
“Was it his uncanny habit of broadcasting government secrets to the entire room or the fact that he called everyone ‘Shadow Broker’ that gave him away?” Shepard chuckled.
“Both,” Liara replied. There was a strange crackling on her end, then a moment of quiet.
“Liara?” Shepard called, freezing mid-routine.
“I’m sorry, Shepard,” Liara said breathlessly, coming back online. “I need to get going. It seems we’re having energy fluctuations again.”
“Right,” Shepard said, “When will I hear from you again?”
“I don’t know,” Liara replied.
“I’ll have my headphones on as often as possible,” Shepard told her. “Just, you know, yell loud, ‘cause I tend to turn this station down. This theology stuff isn’t exactly my favorite soundtrack.”
“Yes, well, you should probably listen to the broadcast anyway, in case anyone asks you what you think of the Alliance’s motivational series. It might blow your cover if you cannot give a satisfactory answer.”
Shepard couldn’t help it. She laughed out loud.
“Liara, do you honestly think anyone is going to ask me my opinion on a bunch of sermons? That’s the reason we picked this topic. No one wants to talk with a religious nut. And no one wants to talk to me, either.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“It is,” Shepard replied, letting out a breath that fanned her hair from her eyes. “Seriously, Liara, you’re my one link to the outside world right now. Hell, you’re my one link to *anything * right now.”
“It won’t be too much longer, Shepard,” Liara assured her.
Shepard nodded grimly and looked up at the overcast sky.
“I know,” she said softly. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”