So I didn’t update last week (maybe you noticed). Busy week, burnout, etc., and I wrote a chapter I just didn’t like. It wasn’t terrible; I just felt uninspired by it. So I ended up taking the last few lines I’d written and completely overhauling everything from there. I hope to keep up the chapter-a-week pace and good writing as well from here on out. That’s the plan, anyhow. Thanks for understanding the break in my schedule.
Also, a few other things: first, there is a little ceramic mug in this chapter that was inspired by a fanart called “Actually, I wanted to talk” by Dashiana of deviantart. Yes, a ceramic mug. Secondly, thank you multiplayer Rebellion expansion pack for clarifying a question I had about Cerberus augmentation, and finally, holy cow I wanted to change up some of that Mars dialog. So, I did.
Liara scrambled on her hands and knees through the air vent, cursing her situation and the foolishness that had led her to it.
She should have been more patient. She should have waited until she was absolutely certain that the way to the Archives was clear. But she had acted hastily instead.
When she had initially snuck out of her room, Liara found her way to a quiet corner and waited for a short time, trying to synch her omnitool wirelessly a local computer and send a distress call. But the same interference that had plagued the Archives all week was in full force. Liara had instead discovered that a few scattered hails had come in from Earth over the emergency broadcast channels. The messages were all cut short, but they all said essentially the same thing: Earth had been lost to an unknown enemy of terrible size and power.
Liara guessed at once what that meant.
Combined with the dust storm forming outside, Liara realized that time was running out. And so she had slipped out of her hiding place, desperate to find a way past the troopers and into the dig site. She hadn’t gotten more than a few feet before a handful of Cerberus troopers had spotted her sneaking down the hallway.
She had fought them off, firing off a stasis field to immobilize the first two, a singularity to trap the other three. She shot the guards down one by one, but then half-a-dozen more reinforcements arrived. And so Liara had taken the only sensible course of action: a hasty retreat.
Wearing her lab-suit, Liara was much faster than these soldiers with their bulky white armor and black death-mask helmets. She fired back as many biotic attacks and pistol shots as she could manage to slow her pursuers down, then jumped over a railing to a lower level of the laboratories. From there she slipped through a doorway and down a hall. There was a vent at the other end that should lead to the cargo bay, if she remembered the lab layout correctly. From there, she could get some more ammo for her now-empty pistol and re-think her plan of attack.
Liara had scarcely gotten the vent cover open when a pair of troopers found her. She threw herself into the hole in the wall, narrowly missing the shots they fired at her. And now Liara found herself scrambling through a square-walled maze, occasionally using her native asari ability to biotically teleport short distances in order to get away from her pursuers. She had scarcely gotten to the cargo bay and kicked off the cover of the vent when they opened fire on her. Shooting bullets into an enclosed, metallic space struck Liara as foolish in the extreme, but these troopers were surprisingly single-minded.
Looking down into the cargo bay, Liara spotted a handful of crates stacked nearby and jumped. She landed on the top of them, scrambled to the edge as another bullet went pinging by her head, then rolled off them and down to the floor below. There, right at her feet, was a crate of ammo.
Finally, Liara thought. A bit of luck.
She shoved a heat sink into her pistol and whirled around just as her pursuers dropped out of the vent after her. Liara shot out a singularity, and the two Cerberus troopers went floating back up into the air again. Liara shot them down cooly. When the singularity faded a moment later, she went to check that they were dead. One moved slightly. Liara walked over to him, pressed her pistol to the vulnerable spot at the back of his neck, where the helmet gave way to the flexible webbing of his body suit, and pulled the trigger.
“Nice work!” Liara heard a voice echo into the vast room. She whirled around, pistol up, biotics flaring, but then instantly stopped. Before her stood three soldiers. They wore mismatched gear, but all of it was clearly Alliance make. More than that, however, the soldier in the center of the trio had hair the color of Sol’s sun. Liara recognized her instantly.
“Shepard!” Liara gave the woman an Illium embrace, or one-armed-hug, as the humans called it. “You’re a welcome sight.”
“As are you,” Shepard replied. “We’re here to secure that data of yours and get you out of here.”
“I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear it,” Liara said. Her gaze shifted to the other soldiers and she realized that she recognized one of them. “Kaidan,” she said with some surprise. “I didn’t expect to see you.” Liara offered the man her hand by way of greeting.
Kaidan paused for a moment before he shook Liara’s hand and gave her a curt nod. Liara felt a certain coolness from the male human - it was a sentiment she shared, actually. She immediately remembered the last time that she had spoken to Kaidan. The two of them had argued about Liara’s wish to go and retrieve Shepard’s body. Kaidan had not wanted to waste time and resources to scout out a corpse, while Liara couldn’t give up hope that Shepard might yet be saved.
And in the end, Liara thought to herself, *her *decision had been the right one. The price had been high, but it had been worth it. For there was Shepard, standing there in that self-assured way that she had. Liara had to marvel a little at that. Even though Liara had seen Shepard in person six months before and had spoken with her nearly every day since, it was still rather remarkable to have the woman back.
“Liara, this is James,” Shepard said, interrupting Liara’s thoughts by introducing the third soldier. The tall, tattooed man adjusted his grip on his assault rifle and gave Liara a curt nod.
“Hey,” he said.
“Yeia,” Liara replied politely in asari. Then, in heavily accented English, she added, “Hello James. I am pleased to meet you.” While her universal translator could turn her Thessian dialect into human speech, Liara had been brought up to believe that good manners dictated greeting a species in their native tongue, if at all possible. The tattooed human, however, did not seem to notice her efforts.
“Dang,” he said, cocking his head to one side. “If I’d known you were going to join us, I’d have saved the nickname ‘Blue’ for you. But I already gave it to the major.”
Liara blinked. “I… What?”
“I’m willing to give it up,” Kaidan said. “Really. I don’t mind.”
“Naw,” James said. “Come to think of it, “Blue’ for an asari is a little predictable anyhow. It’s like callin’ a ginger ‘Red.’ But I’ll come up with something for her. Don’t worry.”
“I’m sure we were all worried,” Kaidan muttered dryly.
“What are you talking about?” Liara asked.
“Nothing important,” Shepard said, shaking her head at James. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve got bigger problems.”
“Yes,” Liara said with a frown, glancing out a nearby window at the dig site beyond. “Cerberus. They’ve taken the labs.”
“Yeah,” Kaidan said, with a short, bitter laugh. “We noticed. Quite the welcoming party.”
“You already ran into them?” Liara asked. “Then they must have control of the shuttle landing pads, too.”
“Not anymore,” Shepard said with grim satisfaction.
“Yeah,” Kaidan said, slanting a glance at Shepard. “We took out that group, at least.”
There was a harshness to his voice that caused both Shepard to frown. She turned to glare at him and Kaidan looked quickly away. Liara wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but she now sensed a tension between the two of them. Their posture, the set of their mouths, even the slight crackle of their biotics spoke of some underlying frisson.
Liara had to wonder at that. Surely Kaidan wasn’t still angry about Shepard joining Cerberus? She had heard about the reunion on Horizon from Joker, but she hadn’t imagined that Kaidan would hold a grudge this long. Humans to forget about things rather quickly, after all. At least, they seemed to forget about things quickly to an asari way of reckoning.
It then occurred to Liara that perhaps Kaidan was upset because of what had happened to Earth. Yes, Liara told herself, that was probably what was going on.
“Let’s get going,” Shepard said, casting a glance at Kaidan that might have been worried or it might have held a warning. It was rather hard for Liara to read Shepard, after all. She was almost as difficult as read as Kaidan was. The tattooed soldier, however, was much easier to understand. He nodded as if eager to get back into the fight.
“Bring it on,” he said in approval.
“Not this fight, James,” Shepard said, turning to him. “I want you to head back to the shuttle.”
“What?” James frowned.
“I need you at the exit in case Cerberus tries to cut us off.”
“Shepard,” Liara put in, “If James has the time, I could use my crates of, ah, gear loaded onto the Normandy.” She gave the word special emphasis so that Shepard might catch her meaning. “I can set up a base of operations as long as I have the crates numbered five and four. They contain my VI drone and my vidpanels..”
“Right,” Shepard said, apparently understanding at once. “James, you heard the doctor. Get those two crates to the shuttle and be ready to pick us up on the other end of the labs.”
“Oh, so now I’m playing bellhop while the scientist joins the fight?”
“The *scientist *helped us take down Saren,” Kaidan put in before either Shepard or Liara could say anything. “She can handle herself. Get her gear and get back to the shuttle.”
“Okay, okay,” James grumbled. “I get it. I’m not invited to the biotic party.”
Shepard opened her mouth as if to say something, but her words were cut off by a flash of sparks from overhead and the sound of voices shouting from behind a door up above on the balcony. It appeared that Cerberus had found them again.
“That’s your cue to get the hell out of here, James,” Shepard said, giving the tattooed man’s shoulder a shove. “I’ll cover you.”
“Right,” he said, “Have fun storming the labs, guys.” He stowed his gun away and ran for the airlock. Under the bravado, Liara thought she detected a note of childlike sadness at being left out of the mission.
“You ready?” Shepard called to Liara as the asari took cover behind a tank.
“To get payback for what happened here?” Liara shouted back. “Of course, Shepard.”
A spray of bullets rained down the hallway, exploding Shepard’s barrier in a burst of blue and white.
“Heads up!” Kaidan shouted, yanking her back into cover against the doorframe; Liara dropped down into cover at their feet.
“So Liara,” Shepard mused loudly over the rattling sound of gunfire coming down the hallway, “Do all Prothean archeologists protect their dig sites with frickin’ gun turrets? Or is that just you?”
As if to emphasize her point, the gun at the end of the hall fired another round of bullets past the doorway. The wall beyond was so riddled with holes as to resemble the far end of a firing range. This was definitely not what she had in mind when Hackett had sent them to Mars, Shepard thought. She’d been planning on boring labs, dull scientists, and a lot of dust - not this state-of-the-art warren of airlocks and hallways.
“This is the largest trove of Prothean data the Alliance officially ‘owns,’” Liara returned. “These are merely the automated defenses. Unfortunately, Cerberus seems to have appropriated them.”
“That’s an understatement,” Shepard said darkly. As proof, a corpse lay at the far end of the hallway, wearing a suit of Alliance armor. They hadn’t found a single live guard yet. It seemed that Cerberus’ attack had been as brutal as it was effective.
Beside Shepard, Kaidan peeked around the corner, then fired a blast from his omnitool at the turret. The gunfire did not let up for a second. Kaidan ducked back against Shepard, his armored shoulder smacking against her own. Barrier still flaring all around him, Kaidan scowled and shook his head.
“That thing is hardwired in the back to protect it from a frontal assault,” Kaidan said. “We’re going to have to flank it.”
“Great,” Shepard grumbled, adjusting her grip on her pistol. Then she realized she wouldn’t need a gun for this next bit, anyhow. She set the pistol to shut itself up into a more compact mode and clipped the gun to her hip. “I’ll take point.”
“Shepard, are you sure…?” Liara began.
“Of course I’m not,” Shepard replied. “But when has that ever stopped me?”
“Shepard!” Kaidan hollered, but she didn’t listen. Instead, she fired up her barrier with all the strength she could muster and ran for the end of the hallway.
Shepard was thankful she’d she’d been training for this kind of thing, at least. She might have had virtually no practice firing a pistol or using biotic attacks lately, but at least she could run like hell with a barrier on.
The turret shot out her barrier at the same time Shepard dropped into cover behind a metal-sheeted railing just inside the room. From here, she could see a few other places she could use as cover: more railing panels and a cluster of abandoned crates. Shepard ducked and rolled to the left, found a safe spot, then waited just a moment before continuing on. She had just reached a corner where the turret could not turn to her when a door before her opened. Out came another pack of troopers, submachine guns at the ready.
“Shit!” Shepard hissed, ducking behind a desk. A bullet went pinging over her head, shattering an abandoned mug and spraying coffee all over her. Half of the mug landed on the floor at her feet and Shepard read “I 3 Science” written on the broken ceramic.
“Shepard!” she heard Liara call from down the hallway.
“I got this!” Shepard shouted back, gathering her biotic power into both her fists.
But before she could attack the troopers on her own, Kaidan was suddenly right there, throwing himself into a forward roll to land right at Shepard’s feet. He jumped up and shot out a reaving attack. The Cerberus troopers stumbled back screaming as the distortion field tore them apart a the molecular level, shredding even their armor. Shepard followed his attack with her own, throwing her biotic power as dual warp missiles into the mix. She and Kaidan both ducked as their combined biotics sparked a dark energy explosion. The soldiers were blasted apart; broken armor and gore splattered all over the room.
“Nice work,” Shepard said curtly.
“This isn’t a solo op,” Kaidan told her, his gaze stern. “Stop leaving me in the dust.”
Shepard found herself torn between a word of thanks and a sharp retort. On the one hand, Kaidan was right. He could keep up with her just fine and she ought to be relying on him more. Having Kaidan on her team again was incredible. She had fought with biotics since: powerful biotics, controlled biotics, but none of them had Kaidan’s strong, steady frequency, not unlike solid Earth on which her own biotics could stand.
On the other hand, there was a definite tension between her and Kaidan now, a tension that had begun back on the Normandy when they were suiting up and then boiled over for a moment there before they’d run into Liara. Kaidan was clearly angry about Cerberus being here, and while Shepard didn’t blame him for that - she was pretty pissed off, too - he seemed to be blaming her in this passive way that was totally not helping with the mission. As a result, Shepard kept leaving him behind so that she could charge into the fight, as if leaving a pile of Cerberus bodies behind her could prove her loyalty to the Alliance, once and for all.
But Kaidan was right. Charging ahead on her own made for poor tactics, especially when she had such capable biotics fighting with her. And as much as Shepard wanted to clear the air, she knew that now was not the time, what with these troopers guarding the way before them. Shepard grabbed her pistol off of her hip, waited a second as it went through the automated unfolding process, then went to snap a head sink into it. Kaidan held a thermal clip out to her before she had even realized she was out of ammo.
“Thanks,” Shepard said. Kaidan just nodded. Behold the soldier in action, Shepard thought. Kaidan certainly had that cold concentration down. Now she needed to do the same.
Shepard snapped the sink in her pistol, and then, by silent agreement, she and Kaidan ran around opposite ends of the crates into the smoke, both of them with barriers flaring.
Past the smoke screen, Shepard found a heavily armored soldier with full shields blazing. The centurion shot at Shepard with an assault rifle; she ducked down behind a crate for cover, and at the same moment, Kaidan overloaded the man’s shields with his omnitool. Shepard used the momentary distraction to jump up above cover and grab the guy by the shoulder. With a roar, she yanked the centurion over the desk, slammed him to the floor, and used a biotic punch to smash his helmet into his face. The body twitched once, then went still.
“My God!” Kaidan exclaimed in surprise.
Shepard ran on into the room, yanking the two troopers off of their feet with a pull, then ducked under their flying bodies and ran straight for the turret controls. Without any time for fancy disarming tech like Kaidan might be able to manage, she just gathered up her biotic energy and slammed her glowing fist into the control box at the back. The resulting electrical pulse blasted off her barrier in a flash. It also detonated the biotic pull behind her. The two troopers went flying out of the door at the far end of the room and Shepard was thrown back into the wall.
Shepard sat up, shook her head and blinked her eyes. Her head was ringing, and she had no memory of landing on the floor. She supposed she had knocked herself out for a second there. Kaidan was running over to her. Liara was right behind him.
“Are you okay?” Kaidan asked sharply.
“I’m fine,” Shepard said. “Is that the last of them?”
“All hostiles down,” he replied.
“For now,” Shepard added, shaking her head again. It was still ringing awfully hard.
Liara looked relieved and turned to the control panel for the tram station beyond. Kaidan walked up to Shepard and stretched out his hand to help her to her feet. Shepard took the offered hand and found herself jerked right up against Kaidan’s chest.
Their ceramic armor of his breastplate smacked against her own with a dull thud. And in spite of all those layers of protection, Shepard immediately felt herself blushing to the roots of her hair.
Well, Shepard thought, looking down at Kaidan’s chest. This is awkward. And yet, she had to admit, it was also not entirely unwelcome.
Oh God, Kaidan thought, looking over Shepard’s shoulder at the wall, his throat going utterly dry. He really shouldn’t have pulled Shepard to her feet this way. Because now that she was flush against him, even the heavy armor between them couldn’t dull the attraction between them. Shepard’s mouth was right next to his chin, and he could feel her breath against his skin. He didn’t dare pull away from her and look at her face, for fear that she might get the wrong idea and think he was about to do something else - like kiss her. Not, he thought to himself, that he would ever do such a thing. Not on the battlefield in the middle of a mission, for crying out loud.
Though even as Kaidan thought that, even as he continued to stare over Shepard’s shoulder and listen to her slightly halting breaths, he had to admit that the idea had crossed his mind. It seemed that he could hold off the attacks of a whole room full of Cerberus troopers, and yet something about Shepard always slipped right past his armor.
There must be something wrong with him, Kaidan thought, that he could simultaneously be attracted to Shepard and angry with her. But then, both attraction and betrayal alike were weapons Kaidan had few defenses against. For the former, he was simply trying to keep his head when around Shepard, and as for the latter, well, he hadn’t quite made his mind up about her yet on that score.
Because back there at the start of the mission, he and Shepard and James had come around the corner from the shuttle landing zone and found a group of Cerberus troopers executing Alliance soldiers. And for a moment, for one horrible moment, Kaidan thought Shepard had led them into a trap.
Of course, the next second, Shepard lobbed a cluster grenade into the midst of them and sent the troopers scurrying for cover. James had shouted his approval and tossed a grenade of his own down the hill as well. Shepard had then rushed into the fray with biotics blazing and pistol firing and that had pretty much put to rest Kaidan’s fears that she had some part in Cerberus’ presence here.
And yet, Kaidan still felt uneasy. This was Cerberus they were dealing with, after all. The Mars station was littered with corpses. The terrorists hadn’t been content to shut down the labs or gas the scientists or lock them up. No, they’d systematically killed everyone here: civilians scientists and military personnel alike. All those bodies served as silent evidence of the lengths that Cerberus would go to to achieve their goals.
So even though Kaidan knew that Shepard was not responsible for this attack or what had happened on Earth or any of it, the fact that she had once worn the same symbol as these Cerberus troopers made it difficult for him to keep his anger in check. It was like the same dust storm that was raging outside of the Mars labs was raging inside of Kaidan, too. Red dust whirled in his mind, getting into every chink in his emotional armor and obscuring his vision. So even when Shepard pulled away from him to look up at his face, Kaidan simply could not bring himself to look her in the eyes. His deepest fear was that he might not see Shepard inside that body, but someone else entirely.
It was kind of pathetic, really, Shepard thought, that something as simple as Kaidan helping her to her feet could turn her into a speechless idiot. Standing here, like this, with his one hand in hers, the other around her waist as if they were ready for some courtly dance, she really couldn’t think straight. It didn’t matter to her Kaidan was in full armor and so was she. Plastered to him from breast to groin like this - never mind that said breasts and groins were covered in a half-an-inch thick of ceramic plating - thoughts of Earth, Cerberus, even the Reapers grew rather dim.
It reminded her far too much of a similar moment years ago, when Kaidan had found her sitting against her armor locker, angry and frustrated. Back then, he’d offered words of comfort and pulled her to her feet. And then he’d almost kissed her. So just now, when his gaze finally shifted to her face, searched her forehead, her cheek, her chin, before finally settling on her mouth, well, Shepard just had to lean in and…
“They’ve locked down the tramway,” Liara said suddenly, breaking the spell.
Kaidan stepped away from Shepard with a sudden start, as though she had burst into flame.
Huh, Shepard thought distantly. That’s how this moment had ended last time, too. And it was for the best, she told herself. Really, it was. Kissing Kaidan in the middle of the battlefield was insanity. She drew herself up and brushed a hand down the front of her breastplate, as if smoothing out a wrinkle in the reinforced ceramic.
“I have no idea how we’re going to get across to the Archives now,” Liara went on, her back to them both, her eyes locked on the security feeds. “If there weren’t such a bad storm outside, I’d suggest…” She turned around and saw Kaidan and Shepard standing there. No doubt she guessed something was up - or had been up - because she immediately stopped talking and her great blue eyes widened a little.
“Ah-um.” Kaidan made a slight coughing sound like he was clearing his throat as he stepped further away from Shepard. “Well,” he said, “Here’s another idea: we could grab a short range communicator off of one of these guys.”
“For what purpose?” Liara wanted to know.
“We can call the squad on the other side and convince them we’re Cerberus. We tell them all the Alliance forces are dead and ask them to send a tram over for us.”
“That just might work,” Liara said, blinking. “Very clever of you, Kaidan.”
“Very clever,” Shepard said, nodding in approval. Kaidan glanced at her briefly, then swiftly looked away.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll go see if any of these guys has a working device. ‘Course, your biotics didn’t leave me much to work with, Shepard.” With that, he wandered out into the cargo bay after the two troopers that Shepard had sent flying out of the room.
Shepard watched him go. Her eyes immediately dropped down from the lights at Kaidan’s shoulders, following the articulated ‘spine’ of his armor and down to his rear end. The suit wasn’t quite as flattering as his casuals were, Shepard thought absently, though that was hardly the point of armor, after all.
“Kaidan has become very capable,” Liara observed, drawing Shepard’s attention. Shepard looked over at Liara sharply, wondering at the tone of the asari’s voice. For a moment there, Liara sounded quite admiring of Kaidan. Shepard found herself growing strangely jealous.
“That he has,” Shepard said warily. To her surprise, Liara laughed a little.
“What?” Shepard asked.
“You,” Liara said, shaking her head with a smile.
“No,” Liara said. “The plural ‘you.’ I was speaking of you and Kaidan both. But human speech doesn’t make the distinction, apparently.”
“Some languages do,” Shepard told her. “You’re coming across in English though, which is a notoriously inadequate language for expressing anything important.”
“Ah,” Liara said. “I see. That does explain things.”
“Explain what?” Shepard repeated.
“Never mind,” Liara replied, schooling away her smile. “If you can get a tram sent over, I’m going to grab what little data I can from my centralized files. Once we get to the other end, I doubt I’ll have time to grab anything other than the data about the Prothean device.”
“Good idea,” Shepard replied. She left Liara at the console and went out into the other room to find Kaidan standing before one of the fallen Cerberus troopers.
“No booby-traps on his armor,” Kaidan said, running his omnitool over the man’s body. “No name or ID number registered with his suit, either. Standard issue submachine gun and a sabre - they didn’t even give him an omnitool. It’s like they didn’t want anything on him that might identify him.”
“Sounds like Cerberus,” Shepard muttered. “They like their people disposable.”
“Except for you,” Kaidan said, his voice low and bitter.
“Don’t kid yourself, Alenko,” Shepard replied, crouching down before the fallen trooper. “I cost more and had a came with an extended warranty, but the Illusive Man planned to use me like any tool.”
At his dark brows drew together, Shepard realized that perhaps wasn’t the best thing to say. She glanced away and focused instead on unhooking the trooper’s helmet lock, exposing his pasty, blue veined neck.
“Whoa,” Shepard said, half to Kaidan, half to herself. “Didn’t we just kill this guy?” She fumbled with the helmet lock before her gloved fingers found the release latch.
“Huh,” Kaidan said, running his tool over the man again, this time on the different frequency. “His body is in some weird state of internal decay. It’s not rigor mortis though, it’s…”
Shepard finally unlocked the faceplate and pulled it off. Then she jumped back so suddenly that she lost her balance and landed on her backside.
“Holy shit!” she cried.
“Oh my God,” Kaidan echoed.
Shepard stared at the body before her, her mouth hanging open in shock.
She was looking at a Husk. Or rather, she was looking at something that was almost a Husk. The trooper had been capable of speech and some degree of rational thought when he’d been fighting and cussing a few minutes ago. But inside his mask, his eyes were dimly glowing with a dying phosphorescence, and his face was crisscrossed with prominent veins and tubes and other evidence of major cybernetic enhancement.
On top of all of that, the body stank like an open sore. Shepard dropped the faceplate to the floor and covered her nose and mouth with her gloved hand.
“No wonder these things don’t stay down when you shoot them,” Shepard said, feeling her stomach turn. “That thing is more machine than man now.”
“So we’ve been fighting armored Husks?” Kaidan wanted to know.
“Not exactly a Husk,” Shepard said. “But they definitely did something to him.”
“And by ‘they’ you mean Cerberus,” Kaidan said, his voice low. Shepard turned to see him standing there with his omnitool up, a glowing holograph of the dead trooper spinning like a miniature statue above his ‘tool. There were so many glowing lines inside the scan of the corpse that it looked more like a wiring diagram for a robot than the measure of a human’s insides.
And suddenly Shepard remembered another holograph scan - the one that Mordin had done on her when they’d discovered just how far Cerberus’ ‘reconstruction’ of her went. Shepard’s hand went to the back of her neck and she brushed her fingers over her amp jack. Clearly, she wasn’t a thing like this guy here, Shepard told herself. Her eyes didn’t glow for a start. But then, when she thought about that damn camera in her head, and all the other tech they had stuffed inside of her to bring her back, she shuddered.
“They did this to their own guy?” Kaidan asked.
“Or maybe he’s just a clone or something,” Shepard suggested. “There are an awful lot of these troopers.”
Kaidan made a soft sound, like he was gasping or choking. There was a tension in his voice that was as unmistakable as the biotic flare on his shoulder when he said, “And if Cerberus rebuilt you, Shepard…”
He didn’t finish the sentence, but Shepard knew what he was thinking. She knew, because she had wondered the same thing for nearly a year now: How could she be sure she was the same person she’d been before the Normandy went down? Miranda had said Shepard wasn’t a clone, said there wasn’t a control chip in her mind. But if her body was completely different now, and stuffed full of cybernetics on top of the native organic tissues, then how could Shepard actually be the same person anymore?
Shepard swallowed back a wave of nausea that had as much to do with the stinking corpse as it did with her own fears. Asking questions about her identity while staring at her reflection in the mirror was completely different than having Kaidan ask the same question while he avoided looking her in the eyes. She found she didn’t like the latter at all.
“I’m not like that thing, Kaidan,” Shepard said with a confidence she did not feel. “I mean, yeah, there’s…tech in me.” She suppressed a shudder at the thought of just how much. “But it’s not like that. I smell a lot better, for one thing,” she added trying to make a joke of it.
“Very funny,” Kaidan said sarcastically.
“Come on,” Shepard said, waving a hand from the dead trooper to herself and back, “Look this guy. Do you really see any Cerberus family resemblance between me and him?”
“It might go deeper than the skin,” Kaidan said darkly.
At his words, Shepard half expected Kaidan to turn that omnitool of his in her direction and scan her with the same cold efficiency that he’d displayed for the past hour. She knew that he wasn’t likely to find the graybox in her head, not on his own. The Illusive Man had hidden the thing in such a way that even Mordin, Dr. Chakwas, and Miranda had missed it in standard scans. Shepard debated whether she should tell Kaidan about it as an act of good faith, or whether that would freak him out even more.
“Shepard, this man’s prefrontal cortex has been tampered with,” Kaidan went on in disgust, still gazing at the omnitool scan of the dead man. “His ability to reason and think creatively has been hampered, and that’s in addition to a level of genetic alteration that’s completely beyond what Council law allows for. They’ve made him into a monster, and then they took away his will to resist orders.”
Shepard felt as if her blood was turning to ice water. “They did what to his brain now?”
Kaidan’s eyes grew troubled as he continued to study the holograph, deliberately not looking at her.
“It’s nothing more than I expected,” he said, softly. “Look, Shepard, after Horizon, I studied Cerberus - everything I could find. I wanted to understand… I wanted to know…” He shook his head, then started over again. “You remember back when we fought them, all those years ago? They were running experiments on remote worlds, turning innocent people into Husks.”
“I remember,” Shepard murmured. She remembered all right: empty pre-fab colony buildings, littered with the corpses of children and parents alike. It was things like that which had made her rage so hard against Cerberus the entire time she had been trapped in their web.
“There were rumors,” Kaidan said, “that Cerberus wanted to create some kind of super-soldier. I saw reports - high level stuff that, well, I probably wasn’t supposed to see.”
“You did a little hacking, Kaidan?” Shepard asked, raising an eyebrow.
“I dug up everything I could,” he returned evenly. “And I found reports that Cerberus was studying the effects of indoctrination. They were using Reaper signals to break down the human mind along distinct channels, trying to use that technology as a means to control their own troops. They wanted to make sure that once someone joined Cerberus, that person stayed Cerberus for life.”
“They did what?” Shepard gaped at him.
“The was no proof though,” Kaidan went on, “just hearsay. Because every time someone defected from Cerberus long enough to report to the Alliance about it, that person usually ended up…”
“Dead,” Shepard finished for him.
“Yeah. So if Cerberus was protecting their secrets like that, if they really were messing around with Reaper indoctrination… Hell, if they put that kind of tech into you…”
Shepard shuddered. Okay, she decided. She should definitely wait to tell Kaidan about the camera in her head until they were back on the ship. And maybe she should get him a drink and make sure he was sitting down at the time, too. She would probably need a stiff drink herself in order to get through talking about it. But the tech inside of her and the tech inside of this Frankenstein look-alike at her feet was not the same thing, Shepard told herself, firmly.
“What they did to me was…extensive,” Shepard admitted. “But it didn’t go that far. They wanted to use me, sure, but they wanted me as a commander, making decisions, not just a grunt following orders.”
Kaidan didn’t look convinced.
“Hey, I’ve seen indoctrinated people,” Shepard told him. “I’ve even just seen people like Miranda, who wasn’t brainwashed exactly, she’d just come to believe in Cerberus’ cause. Either way, I’m not like that, Kaidan. My mind is my own.”
“Are you sure of that, Shepard?” Kaidan asked doubtfully. He let his arm drop, and the omnitool powered down with the gesture. “How can you be sure your mind is the same when your body is so different? Your biotics are overhauled - you’re an L5 now, for God’s sake. You don’t have a scar on you. Shepard, you don’t even have freckles on your shoulders anymore.”
“I don’t…” she broke off, stymied at that last one. “Freckles?”
“I…” Kaidan started, then looked away with what seemed almost like a blush. “When you were suiting up…” He didn’t finish that thought.
“Oh,” Shepard said distantly. And here she thought Kaidan had been ogling her body in the same way that she had been ogling him. Instead, she supposed that Kaidan had been checking her for modifications, while she had been checking out his ass. That was embarrassing, to say the least.
“It’s the skin weave,” Shepard explained, trying to sound casual. “They had to regrow it or the scar tissue…” She broke off when she realized that Kaidan was now eyeing her warily. “Its not the same,” she insisted.
“But how can you be sure?” Kaidan asked her. “How can you be sure you didn’t get programmed into becoming a sleeper agent for that Illusive Man you mentioned?”
The fact that Shepard was worried about the same thing didn’t improve her mood any.
“I guess I can’t be sure,” she said, honestly. “The only proof I have that I’m not brainwashed is that I hate the Illusive man with a fiery passion that borders on homicidal rage.”
“I’m serious, Shepard.”
“So am I,” she returned. “Just what is it you’re accusing me of, Kaidan?”
“I’m not ‘accusing’ you of anything,” Kaidan replied. “I’m just trying to figure this all out.”
“Really?” Shepard snapped, truly reaching the end of her patience. “Because it seems to me like you’ve already made up your mind. And frankly, if you really think I’m Cerberus sleeper agent, then you should not be standing there, arguing with me about this. If you think I’m compromised, Kaidan, I mean really, truly think it, then you need to take me out.”
“What?” Kaidan blanched.
“I would rather die than be Cerberus’ puppet,” Shepard said fiercely. “I would rather die than become trapped inside of a cage in my own mind. So if you really think I’ve gone rogue, Kaidan, or that I’m indoctrinated or whatever it is you think, then for God’s sake, put a gun to my head and pull the goddamn trigger.”
Kaidan shook his head. “Shepard,” he said, “I didn’t mean…”
“You can’t have it both ways, Kaidan,” Shepard interrupted. “You either trust me or you don’t; you either follow me or you take me out. There is no middle ground.”
“It’s not that simple, Shepard,” Kaidan said, his brows drawing together. “You know it’s not that simple.”
“Yes, it is,” Shepard insisted. “Don’t you see…?”
“No, I don’t see,” Kaidan interrupted sharply. “All I’ve got is a dust storm.”
“A what now?”
Kaidan scowled and shook his head. “I heard reports that you were alive,” he clarified, “reports you were with Cerberus. I heard what you said on Horizon and got a handful of emails from you that confused me more than anything. All I’ve got from you is words, Shepard. But when I look at your actions, I see a woman who left me alone for years, who then showed up out of nowhere, keeping company with terrorists. So from where I’m standing, I don’t see much at all.”
Shepard just blinked at him, completely unable to think of anything to say. Or rather, it was because she could think of so many things that she ought to say that she couldn’t pick just one of them out of the jumbled pile in her mind.
“Is that what this is about?” she managed after a moment. “Are you mad at me for leaving you?”
“No,” Kaidan said hastily, not meeting her eyes. “Well, maybe a little. I don’t know.”
He let out a breath and ran his hand through his hair.
“I wish I could believe you,” Kaidan said. “I want to believe you,” he said more quietly, as if he was speaking to himself now. “I want to believe that the woman I followed into hell and back, the woman I lo…” He caught himself and shifted his gaze to the corpse, lying there on the floor.
“I wish I could be certain, Shepard,” he said. “But I can’t see into your mind. All I’ve got is what I see from the outside. And the more I’ve seen of you, the more I know of you, the more confused I get.”
“What can I possibly say to convince you then?” Shepard said, bewildered. “Where do I even start?”
“I wish I knew,” Kaidan said, half to himself. “I guess I need time. Time to see if I can trust you, time to figure out who you are - what you are… It will be like getting to know you all over again.” He continued to gaze down at the dead trooper as he added:
“You’ve changed, Shepard.”
“So have you,” she replied, realizing at the same moment she spoke the words that they were true.
“Yeah,” Kaidan said, softly. “I know.”
The bleak expression in his eyes made Shepard feel incredibly hollow. It hurt so badly, she thought, to feel like she was the same inside, and yet look out at a world that had changed so much. It hurt even more that Kaidan was clearly aching, and that he was aching from a wound that she had dealt him. But there was hardly enough time to staunch that wound right now. She could only hope to put a tourniquet on it until they could have a proper conversation about the past. And right now, the only tourniquet that Shepard could think of for this pain was that of bad jokes.
“Fine,” Shepard said. “If you need time, I’ll give you time. We’ll get this data, take it to the Citadel, and you’ll see that I mean to help the Alliance beat the Reapers - and Cerberus - once and for all. And for you,” she added teasingly, “for you, Kaidan, I’ll even manage to be civil to the turian councilor. Maybe. Unless he does that air-quote thing at me again.”
She slanted a glance at Kaidan and saw that this actually got a slight smile from him. That was a good sign, even if he was still looking away from her.
“You sure you can manage that, Shepard?” he asked in that raspy voice of his. “Diplomacy was never your strong suit.”
Shepard let out a breath, relieved to see he was willing to see the humor in this situation, at least.
“I’ll do what I have do,” she replied. “I can see I won’t be able to convince you any other way. You always were the most stubborn man in the galaxy,” she added with what she hoped came across as a playful tone.
“Me?” Kaidan said, his surprised exclamation ending on what sounded a lot like a laugh. “This coming from you, Shepard?”
“I am far more calm, rational and open-minded than you will ever be, Kaidan,” Shepard said, raising one eyebrow teasingly. “Anyone can see that.”
Kaidan chuckled as Shepard turned from him and reached for the the Cerberus trooper’s helmet. That dead soldier lay dead there, like some grotesque Halloween costume stuck inside of a suit of Cerberus armor and here Shepard was, making a joke about the whole thing. That was so very her, Kaidan thought, absently.
That thought brought him up short. A moment ago, she’d been demanding that he kill her if he truly thought she was compromised. Then she had sworn she’d prove her loyalty to the Alliance with a fierceness that impressed him. And now she was teasing him. None of this was calming the dust storm inside of him, but Kaidan felt that somehow, out of that inner haze, he had spotted a familiar silhouette. He just hoped that when the dust settled, he would find himself looking at Shepard, and not a stranger.
“What are you doing?” Liara said behind them, striding out of the control room. “Haven’t you got the tram sent for yet?”
“Uh, something came up,” Shepard hedged. “We’re getting to that now.” She snagged the helmet communicator and fired it up.
“Um, hey there,” she said into the comm link. “This is…uh…Delta team.”
She suddenly switched off the comm and frowned. “Oh crap,” she said, turning to Kaidan. “We should have had you do the talking. All these troopers are men. They’re going to wonder why their guy had a sex-change mid-mission.”
“One of these troopers could be a woman,” Liara pointed out. “You can’t really tell with the heavy armor.”
“And it’s kind of hard to tell a boy Husk from a girl Husk,” Kaidan added, his voice deadpan.
“True,” Shepard agreed. “What with all the implants and the shriveling, it’s not like you really notice Husk genetalia when you’re fighting them.”
Kaidan made a coughing sound, like he was choking back a laugh and Liara just looked confused. Just then, the comm crackled back an answer:
“Delta team, where the hell have you been?” a crusty-sounding voice barked over the comm. Kaidan gave her a bemused shrug and Shepard looked like she was stifling a laugh, her eyes sparkling with amusement. Liara just waved a hand, silently urging them to get on with things.
“Hostiles neutralized,” Shepard barked back in what Kaidan assumed she thought sounded like a man’s voice. To his ears, she just sounded ridiculous. “Send a tram over, uh…goddammit.” She seemed to add the cussing in for good measure.
“Roger that, Delta,” the voice snapped back and the link dropped.
“Did they actually believe you?” Liara wondered aloud.
“I wouldn’t have,” Kaidan said, snorting.
“Yeah, well, you’re a bit smarter than these clowns,” Shepard said. “Obviously these guys fell for the classic ‘join us for the free cookies and cybernetic augmentation’ ploy.”
“Cerberus has cookies?” Kaidan asked, raising an eyebrow.
“The dark side always does,” Shepard replied as she stood up. “Speaking of which, admit it: you got this little comm-link idea from that old Star Wars vid, didn’t you?”
“I may have,” Kaidan hedged, slanting a glance at her and grinning.
“And I was honored to play the part of Han,” Shepard laughed. “Don’t worry,” she added in a stage whisper. “I won’t tell Liara you stole the idea from a sci-fi vid. She can continue to think you’re brilliant.”
“It was a good idea,” Liara said. “Regardless of where he got it from.”
“Gee, thanks Shepard,” Kaidan said. “And what do you think of my brilliance?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Shepard asked slyly and she headed on down into the cargo bay.
I would like to know, Kaidan thought as he watched her walk away. Because given how much he liked the sight of her backside in that extremely flattering armor - not that armor was designed to show off a woman’s assets like that, just on Shepard it happened to do so - he really wished he knew what she was thinking. Because when they talked like this, when they joked around like this, there was no way he could think of her and that corpse there as having anything in common.
Shepard still had her sense of humor, it seemed. It had to mean something if Cerberus hadn’t robbed her of that, right?
A wall of screens hovered in the air before the Illusive Man, all dark but one. That one screen flickered a little with static, the view focused on a wide pit that was filled with several glowing pillars.
“Data has been secured,” a female voice spoke over the comm link. “It will take time to decrypt.”
“Do it,” the Illusive Man said cooly. The video on the screen before him showed a walkway, then the camera continued its way onto a circular balcony, then down a short, dark passage to a small computer terminal set into a wall.
“I am receiving transmissions from the trooper units,” the female voice said, the syllables reverberating with the slightest of synthetic accents. “They are fighting Alliance soldiers in the outer corridor. Also,” the screen tilted slightly, like the cocking of a person’s head. “my scans detect a Cerberus local area callsign.”
“What ID?” the Illusive Man asked, his usually calm voice suddenly eager.
The view of the screen righted itself. “Lazarus013.”
“Status?” the Illusive Man wanted to know.
“Graybox unit offline. Requires login…”
“Sending authorization codes,” the Illusive Man said. He leaned forward in his chair to type at a screen that appeared in the air before his fingers. “Get into Shepard’s head and get everything you can.”
“This will interfere with the Prothean data upload.”
“Prioritize twenty percent of your processing to get me Shepard’s data. Get what you can from her and the Protheans, then get out of there.”
“Order acknowledged,” the female voice said. There was a pause, then:
“Lazarus013 has entered this room.”
The Illusive Man grinned.
“Set up one more link, Eva,” he said. “I want to talk to our guests. I’ll keep them distracted while you finish your work.”
“I will need five minutes to carry out these orders,” the Eva unit replied.
“Five minutes then,” the Illusive Man said, “Patch me through to Shepard.”
“Ouch!” Shepard hissed, clutching her head. “Son of a…gun,” she said, catching both Kaidan and Liara staring at her in alarm.
“What is it?” Kaidan asked
They had just walked up to the glowing pillars of Prothean data at the center of the dig site when Shepard had felt a horrible ringing in her skull. She hoped it was just from having smacked her head on the wall back in the tram station up there. But she feared it was something else entirely.
Then there was a flicker in the air behind them and Shepard knew at once who it was.
“Illusive Man,” she hissed, whirling around to glare at the holograph. Suddenly, it was like no time had passed, and she was once against stuck in the dark while this man before her manipulated everything to his will. Maybe she was compromised by Cerberus, Shepard thought distantly. Only not at all in the way that Kaidan feared. The Illusive Man had never controlled her by directly pulling the strings, but by setting out a web around her before she even realized that she had been caught.
“This is your boss?” Kaidan asked her in a quiet aside, blinking at the holographic image that shimmered in the air before them. “He looks like a sleazy businessman, not a diabolical mastermind.”
“He only wears his horns and tail on special occasions,” Shepard muttered back.
“And you, Major Alenko, look exactly like your photograph,” the Illusive Man returned. He flicked some holographic ash off of his holographic cigarette and chuckled. “Shepard must have looked at your picture at least four times a day. Whenever she woke up, on her way to the shower…”
“What is he talking about?” Kaidan asked, his brows drawing together.
“What do you want?” Shepard snapped before the Illusive Man could reveal anything more about her and how he’d been keeping tabs on her. “Why are you even here?”
“Shepard,” Liara said, coming up behind the two humans and speaking low in the commander’s ear, “Mars doesn’t have a QEC. There must be someone nearby who enabled this link.”
Shepard turned to look into the darkness beyond the glowing pillars, wanting to get away from the Illusive Man and his poisonous talk.
“I’ll find them,” Kaidan murmured, holding her in place with one gloved hand to her armored elbow. “You keep him busy.” He jerked his head at the holograph.
Shepard nodded. “Be careful,” she said, her voice low. Kaidan nodded and walked off alone.
“Lover’s quarrel?” the Illusive Man wanted to know.
Kaidan flinched at the man’s words, lobbed so casually into the quiet of the Archives. It disturbed him deeply to think that the too-smooth head of Cerberus spoke to Shepard so casually, that the Illusive Man seemed to know intimate details about Shepard, about him, about everything, it would seem.
Though now that Kaidan saw the man, he could begin to understand how Shepard had fallen under the power of such a person. The guy radiated power like a spider in a web, with all of them as the helpless flies. Judging by how quickly the Illusive Man had riled Shepard up and distracted her from relevant details - like who had set up the QEC link and where were they hiding - Kaidan could tell the man had a dangerous influence over the commander, whether she wanted to admit it or not.
Kaidan continued on down the walkway and to the circular balcony at the edge of the room. From here, he could faintly hear Shepard, her voice raised now as she cussed at the holograph and Liara joined in with a sudden cry. But Kaidan didn’t pay attention to what they were saying, for he now heard a slight rustling further off in the darkness. A few steps more revealed a growing light, which Kaidan registered it as a holographic panel, set into a recessed computer terminal. A woman stood in the small, booth-like space, her slim back to him, her slight shoulders hunched as she typed furiously at the haptic display.
And here was their mole, Kaidan thought with grim satisfaction.
“Hands up,” Kaidan said, pointing his assault rifle at her and speaking in a low, calm voice. The woman froze, no doubt frightened by finally being run to ground by a fully armored soldier. For her part, she was wearing heels and an outfit that was skin-tight and not very well suited to digging around in research sites.
“Step away from the computer,” Kaidan went on in his measured voice. “Hands where I can…”
The woman moved so quickly that Kaidan didn’t even see her spin around. One second she was in the booth, the next, she had vaulted right in front of him like a gymnast and kicked him full in the chest.
The kick had so much power in it that if he hadn’t been wearing his armor, it probably would have cracked his ribs. As it was, Kaidan stumbled back against the wall as the woman took off running for the door.
“Shepard!” Kaidan hollered, his breath ragged. Truly, that woman had knocked the wind out of him. As best he could, he shoved himself off of the wall and set off running after her. Shepard and Liara took off after the woman, with Shepard quickly gaining the lead in their chase. Kaidan stowed his assault rifle as he dashed out of the room and down the hallway. He caught up with Liara and the two of them ran into the nearby airlock together, threw on their helmets and dashed out into the dust storm.
Once outside, the dust swirled about with a fury, the wind tugging them this way and that. Through the red haze, Kaidan could see a biotically glowing Shepard chasing the black-and-white clad Cerberus agent along the exterior railings of the Archives.
“Dr. Coré isn’t wearing a helmet,” Liara said aloud in amazement.
Kaidan blinked. She was right. And at the same moment he registered that, Dr. Coré fired off an incendiary blast right into Shepard’s chest. Shepard stumbled back, her barrier faltering for a moment before she regained her balance and took off after the woman again. Kaidan immediately dashed after them.
“Doctor… is not… human…” Liara gasped as she ran behind him. “She is…QEC. Should…have data…on her…”
But Kaidan didn’t register any of that. He simply heard Shepard hollering over the comm unit:
“James!” Shepard shouted. “We need backup. Do you read…? Drop down on the northwest landing pad…” The rest of her order was lost to static kicked up by the swirling storm.
“Roger that,” Kaidan heard James reply as he and Liara came skidding round the corner. A shuttle suddenly took to the sky, knocking them all back with a blast from its thrusters. Kaidan ducked his helmeted head and held his hands up against the heat.
“She’s getting away!” Shepard cried.
“Not on my watch!” another voice spoke over the comm. Just then, a blue Alliance shuttle appeared as if out of nowhere, slamming into the escaping vessel. The two shuttles crashed back down to the roof. Kaidan and Shepard sprung apart in opposite directions as the machines came careening towards them. Kaidan dropped into a forward roll and skidded to a stop, then looked up to find that Liara lay beside him. When she tried to stand, her right leg buckled underneath her. Kaidan scrambled to her side and helped her to her feet. At the same time, the Alliance shuttle’s door opened and James came out with a grin and a swagger. The other shuttle was in flames.
“What the hell were you thinking! Kaidan snapped at James. “You nearly got us killed!” His head swung around, looking for Shepard. She was at the other end of the landing pad, pushing herself up onto her knees.
“Shepard said…” James began.
“Just get Liara into the shuttle,” Kaidan said, handing the asari off roughly to the other soldier. He took a step toward Shepard, but just then, a booming sound made them all freeze.
The door to the burning shuttle went flying off. Out of the flame and wreckage came Dr. Coré. Only she didn’t look like Dr. Coré anymore. Her skin had burned off, revealing a silver metallic body underneath. A golden visor glowed eerily over her face, and that face suddenly swung toward on Shepard. Her silver-lidded eyes narrowed with deadly intent.
“Shepard!” Kaidan shouted, racing for her.
But Kaidan didn’t reach Shepard in time. For suddenly, that impossibly fast synthetic woman rounded on him, grabbing Kaidan by the front of his helmet and holding him up in midair. He grabbed at Dr. Coré’s arm, but it was like trying to bend a steel pole. A resounding crack told Kaidan that she had buckled his helmet. He could feel his hardsuit systems adjust for the decrease in atmospheric pressure and a breather mask snapped over his mouth and nose. Clearly, his armor was going to automatic lockdown protocols to try and protect his body, thinking the outside environment was compromised.
Kaidan flared with biotics from the top of his head to his dangling feet, trying to get free, but it was no use. He tried to reach his omnitool, but he couldn’t see and the synthetic woman was shaking him so hard he could feel his teeth rattling in his skull.
One more crunch to his helmet had Kaidan’s head swimming with the sudden loss of air pressure and the simultaneous flood of oxygen to his breather mask. He thought he heard Shepard shout his name, thought he heard Liara gasp over the comm. And he definitely heard the next words, spoken by the synthetic woman who was holding his head in a death grip:
There was the slightest pause, then Kaidan heard the reply.
“Finish him. And make sure Shepard watches.”
Kaidan opened his eyes, and it was as if everything was happened in slow motion. Though the armor of his helmet, through the armor of Shepard’s helmet, Kaidan finally looked at Shepard, really looked at her for the first time since they had landed on this stormy planet. And in Shepard’s eyes, Kaidan saw…
A smash to the back of his head blinded Kaidan’s vision. He felt as if his amp jack had been shoved into his brain. His skull erupted in a burning pain as if his helmet had gone up in fire.
And then Kaidan saw nothing at all.