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The Half-Life of Element Zero

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The Half-Life of Element Zero photo Escape pod_zpsibh5camu.jpeg

 

Chapter one

 

Looking back, Helen realized that the first warning sign had appeared on the third date.

The first two dates had been fine. More than fine, really. Clinton was funny and charming and easy on the eyes. He was a great storyteller. He owned a software company that wrote tech programs for omnitools.

That was how they'd met. Helen was part of the first wave of L3 biotics in the Alliance. After paying her dues over several tours of duty, the Alliance had transferred Helen to Vancouver, where she researched wetware for biotics. Clinton's company had been hired to adapt omnitool programs for biotic soldiers. Helen had been part of a test group of Marines to put the new programs through their paces.

Helen was not used to attention from men, especially not men with black hair, olive-green eyes, dimples and perfect teeth.

She’d had few relationships. Helen was very short, with pale skin and an unremarkable figure. Her mouth was too wide for her face. She'd gone prematurely gray in high school, not long after her biotics came in. Her eyes were a muddy, slate color. She was no great beauty.

Or so she'd been told by the few boyfriends she'd ever had. Granted, that conversation tended to happen after they'd seen her biotics in action, but she saw herself in the mirror every day. She certainly saw no reason to disbelieve them.

So when Clinton asked her out, of course, she'd said yes.

And on that third date, they spoke about his previous relationship. He told her it had ended because his girlfriend cheated on him. “I'm a big believer in full disclosure,” he said. “It takes a lot to earn my trust. It can take even more to keep it.”

Helen reached across the table for his hand. She wasn't exactly sure what he meant but oh, how she wanted him to trust her.

Clinton looked at their clasped hands. Then, without lifting his head at all, he raised his eyes to hers, so that he was looking at her from underneath his long, dark eyelashes and goodness, it had made her heart flutter.

“I really want to trust you, Helen. Can I?” he pleaded. “Can I trust you?”

“Of course you can,” Helen breathed. “Whatever it takes.” And Lord help her, she meant it.

He kissed for the first time that night. And if he wasn't as good a kisser as she'd hoped, it hardly mattered when he looked as good as he did.

They had sex after the sixth date. They were fooling around on his sofa. Things were getting pretty hot when Clinton reached into his pocket and pulled out a condom.

“Oh,” Helen said, surprised. “I, um, wasn't planning to do that quite yet.”

Clinton's face turned hard. He scowled down at her. “Are...are you fucking serious? What is this, some kind of cock-tease, power play bullshit?”

Helen propped herself up on her elbows. “What?” she said, deeply confused by his reaction. “No, I'm just not sure I'm ready. I mean, I want to eventually but we haven't—”

“No, you're just like all the others,” he pushed himself off of her. “You said I could trust you, but you didn't mean it.”

Helen found the next thirty minutes very, very confusing. Clinton made all kinds of outrageous accusations against her. She was trying to manipulate him. She was trying to control him. She wanted to fuck other guys. She was fucking other guys.

She spent the argument mostly reeling from one accusation to the next. None of her denials seemed to matter. And mostly, none of his anger made any sense to her.

But when he called her a whore, she'd had enough. “Yeah. We're done,” she said.

Clinton panicked as she'd headed towards the front door. “Oh my god, Helen, oh my god, I'm so sorry. Please don't leave. Please!!”

He begged her to stay. Begged. He even wept, as he tearfully explained that he was so sorry, that he didn't mean to lose his temper like that, but he'd just fallen so in love with her and she was so beautiful and he couldn't handle the idea of her leaving him, because he really, really loved her and he did trust her, really, and just, she was his everything. And on and on.

Helen got so swept up in it all. Nobody had ever told her they'd loved her before, not romantically, anyway. Certainly, no man had ever wept over her, or begged her not to leave. Making up with Clinton, and having sex just...kind of happened.

As the relationship progressed, more warning signs appeared. First, he pressured her to move in with him.

“I can't, Clinton. You know I have to live on base. It's required.”

“If this was something you really wanted, you'd at least be willing to ask for an exception.”

“There aren't any exceptions.”

“But you haven't even asked,” he said. And it went on like that for weeks.

Then, just when she thought that issue was resolved, she started missing messages and communications from her family. Her parents lived on Eden Prime, and she spoke to them at least a couple of times every week, and often more. When a few weeks had gone by without hearing from them, she called.

Nearly the first words out of her mother's mouth were, “Sweetie, why haven't you called? Is everything alright?”

"What do you mean?” Helen asked. “I hadn't heard from you in a couple of weeks, so I was calling you.”

It didn't take long to realize that the reason none of her parent's calls had gotten through was that their ID had been blocked, and that the increasingly frantic messages they had been leaving were getting automatically deleted.

Helen had recently updated the security software on her omnitool, so she wrote it off as her not paying attention to her settings. Granted, that was unusual for her. Helen may have been an adept by training, but she researched wetware in no small part because of her intuitive grasp of tech. Still, it just seemed like a coincidence. She changed the settings and forgot about it.

Then Clinton slowly but surely turned their dates into interrogations. How had she spent her day? Who was she spending it with? Why hadn't she called him back right away?

A lot of what she did was classified, which Clinton well knew. But even if she'd worked as a cashier in a convenience store, she would have pushed back on this. She'd grown up on a farm, she busted her ass every day, and her job was her own damn business.

Much like the argument over living together, Clinton took far too long to accept the truth.

“How do I know you're aren't fucking around on me?” he demanded one night, after he'd ruined yet another date by picking a fight as soon as they got back to his apartment.

“You don't, Clinton,” she said. “It's called trust. And I'm tired of trying to prove a negative.”

She left that night and didn't talk to him for a week. She thought about how toxic things had become, how controlling he was getting. She thought all of the arguments and ruined evenings.

Then he called and apologized. “I appreciate that, Clinton, I do,” she said. “But I think it's best we call things off.”

Clinton had sobbed, begged, and badgered. Please, no she couldn't leave him. She couldn't . He could change his behavior. If she could just talk to him one more time, so that he could clear the air, that's all he would ask. If, after that, she still wanted to end things, he'd leave her alone forever. Promise.

Against her better judgment, she met him for dinner.

He had clearly gone out of his way to give her the full-charm offensive, taking extra care with his appearance, and being so careful with his tone. He spent half the night looking up at her through his eyelashes like she was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

It had nearly worked, too, damn him and his pretty green eyes. She was actually considering that maybe she should give them another chance, when Clinton let slip something that he should have never known.

Two days earlier, Lieutenant Katarina Kowalsky, an L2 biotic in Helen's research unit, had had a seizure. She and Helen had been training with the new software when it happened. Helen had written up the incident report, and sent it to their CO and to the infirmary. Nothing earth shattering but highly classified, as was nearly everything having to do with the health of the L2s.

At dinner, Clinton was talking about the issues with designing tech for biotics designed to be placed inside the human body, and how the presence of biotics changed every equation, and how biotic abilities were still so poorly understood. It had actually been a lovely conversation because one thing she and Clinton had always done well together was talk shop.

Then he said, his voice overflowing with concern, “I'd hate to see you drop to the floor during a routine training exercise, and start foaming at the mouth.”

Helen's opening sentence in that highly classified incident report she’d filed, just the day before? It had ended with,  “...during a routine training exercise, Lieutenant Kowalsky dropped to the floor and began foaming at the mouth.”

Something finally clicked into place. Helen sat quietly through the rest of dinner. When Clinton left to go to the bathroom, she walked out of the restaurant, hailed a cab and headed back to base.

Clinton called her before she'd even made it to the end of the block. She blocked his calls. They got through anyway.

She showed Clinton's picture to gate security, explaining that he was a huge security threat. Then she found her CO, and told him everything she knew and everything she suspected.

The fallout was quiet but brutal. Every biotic on the base had omnitools with Clinton's programs on them. Those all had to be confiscated, scrubbed and, in some cases, destroyed. Worse, the Alliance found hundreds of subroutines infecting the systems on the base that had been in place almost since they'd hired Clinton's firm. He could have, at any time, simply shut the base down, had he been so inclined. And they could only guess at how much classified information he had downloaded and saved for himself.

For better or for worse, though, his main obsession seemed to be focused on Helen, and nobody else.

He'd gone through her emails. He'd listened to her calls. He'd installed spyware on her omnitool, including a program that had turned it into a passive camera, that he'd turned on at his leisure to spy on her.

Clinton, who had likely cottoned on to the fact that Helen had turned him in, vanished.

Helen found herself targeted for an official (but classified) inquiry of wrongdoing. The Alliance placed her under barracks restrictions for several weeks while they completed their investigation. Her only outside communication was with her parents on Eden Prime (whose home and farm was thoroughly searched by the Alliance, as well.) Even then, any call was recorded and analyzed.

During the investigation, Helen had to answer questions about every little argument, discussion or off-hand comment she'd ever had with Clinton, including a few discussions they'd had during their more intimate moments. (Yes, the term “get you off” was sexual in nature. No, it did not refer to being acquitted of any potential criminal charges. Yes, those were her “real” breasts. Yes, really .)

It was mortifying and invasive, and Helen came out of it feeling violated on a molecular level. She found herself repeating a mantra from her early days in the Alliance. “Don't cry. Don't bitch. Don't blame.” It was the only thing that kept her from falling apart in front of everybody else.

The day Helen was officially cleared of wrongdoing, she was told that her promotion from Lieutenant Commander to Commander was being placed on indefinite hold, and that she had been transferred to the Terminus Systems, effective immediately. She would now help the Alliance chase slavers and Batarian smugglers, which were usually the same thing.

Helen kissed her cushy R&D job goodbye, and went back to combat for the first time in five years.

It wasn't too awful, she told herself, at least until she could find something else. She had no great love of combat but she was good at it. And the hazard pay would be nice. She would make a go of it.

That sort of tenacious, “can do” attitude lasted right up until her first shore leave, on Omega. Clinton showed up and caused a scene while she was having drinks with her squad.

“How the hell did you find me?” she demanded.

"Oh, you're never getting rid of me,” he said, with a malicious grin.

She tried to have him arrested—he was wanted by the Alliance, after all—but the Batarian security guard who answered her call shrugged and said, “This ain't Council space, sweetie. You got no jurisdiction here. You wanna bring him in? Hire a bounty hunter. Better yet, get registered as a bounty hunter, and do it yourself. More fun that way.”

Her CO was sympathetic but unable to do anything, either.

Clinton did everything within his power to hound, harass, threaten and terrorize Helen. He hacked her Alliance email. He hacked her private email. He sent threats, demands and rants about how she was destined to be with him, about how much he loved her, about how much he wanted to kill her. He hacked into all of her accounts. He showed up on most shore leaves not in Council space.

Helen tried all kinds of ways to hide. She died her hair black to make her less noticeable in a crowd. She changed her passwords every single day. Her bank account was hacked so often that the Alliance finally set up a dummy account with a banker in Vancouver, who dispersed her funds for her.

Her friends, family, and colleagues were harassed, too. Some of them received emails or voicemails from Clinton, vowing that nothing would keep him and Helen apart.

Then Saren and his Geth attacked Eden Prime and killed her parents. Actually, it was worse than murder. Her parents had been husked, a new and unwelcome term to add to her vocabulary. She saw the security vids from the planet's surface. For the first time in years, and for weeks on end, Helen sobbed herself to sleep at night.

After she returned from bereavement leave, the Alliance did an about face on her promotion. She made Commander and was offered her old job back on Earth.

She declined. She was way too angry to sit at a desk anymore.

Tours of duty came and went. Commander Shepard killed Saren and his Geth. Shepard said, out loud and on camera, that Saren had been the puppet of that giant drop-ship, which was actually a sentient being. Just as the story started gaining traction, Shepard was killed. Any talk that Shepard was Brilliant but Mad was replaced with talk that Shepard was Heroic and Dead.

On the two year anniversary of her pparents'death, Helen traveled to the Citadel for a memorial service for the victims of Eden Prime. The speeches were mostly about Nihlus Kryik. The Asari announcer mispronounced her parents' names.

And, because the universe hated her, Clinton announced his return to Council Space by grabbing her arm, and saying in a low voice, “Guess you'll have to talk to me here , won't you, Commander?”

Unfortunately for Clinton, the years of near-constant combat, his own terrorizing of her life, and the emotional toll of the memorial shredded any sense of restraint Helen might have once shown. She Warped his armor, then proceeded to punch his face bloody until C-Sec pulled her away.

They were both arrested. Clinton escaped from custody within a couple of days.

The Alliance was sympathetic, and explained her situation to C-Sec. They never pressed any charges against her. Still, she was officially a problem, and an embarrassment. She took a General Discharge, Under Honorable Conditions.

Her old CO from Vancouver, who had a crazy ex of his own, pointed her in the direction of the Andromeda Initiative. “They'll stuff a new implant in your head. It's dangerous as shit. You might not survive. You'll never see the Milky Way again,” he wrote, “but it puts an entire galaxy between you and that fuckin' nutjob.”

Helen thought about it for less than a minute. “I'm in.” she wrote back. “Just tell me where to sign up.”

 

* * * *

635 years later

Everybody on the Nexus knew about Christian's devotion to his wife.

Christian Parker was a nice young man who worked so hard to keep the Nexus up and running. He never left, not even during the uprising, because he was faithfully waiting for his wife, Helen.

Helen was with 20,000 of her fellow, frozen passengers, a year behind on the Ark Hyperion. To hear Christian tell it, Helen was perfect. Beautiful, jet black hair, creamy skin, and slate-colored eyes. Smart, funny, popular—Helen was everything he had ever wanted in a woman.

He showed her picture to everybody. He talked about how they first met; their first date; where they got married; and what they planned to name their children.

“I miss her,” he would say, with tears in his eyes. “I miss her so much .”

In reality, Helen had never heard of Christian, but she was all too familiar with her ex, Clinton. And as far as Clinton was concerned, Helen had some reckoning to do.

She’d led him on and on for months about how he could trust her. Months . Then the traitorous bitch had turned him over the Alliance. More unforgivably, she'd dumped him .

He'd sent her literally thousands of messages. She hadn't even had the courtesy to read them!

Did she have any idea how difficult she had made his life? She didn't know about the frantic extra-net searches every single time she moved. Did she even care about how rude her parents and friends had been to him when he'd call? All he'd wanted to know was where Helen was.

She didn't even know about how he'd had to uproot his life on Earth! Or how he’d spent hundreds of hours and thousands of stoled creds having to evade the law because of her.

And he still hadn't forgiven her for how she'd treated him on the Citadel.

He'd tried to catch her eye during the memorial, but she rudely ignored him, like always . It was an incredibly bitchy thing to do, after risking his freedom by traveling all the way to the Citadel. And instead of apologizing, Helen had beaten him to within an inch of his life.

Escaping C-Sec had been child's play. He'd hacked into her email and read about her joining the Initiative.

Unfortunately for Clinton, the Andromeda Initiative screened all applicants with psych profiles and extensive background checks. It took some doing, and a lot of stolen creds, but he eventually found an information broker named “Fade” on the Citadel who could help. Fade gave him a new name, a shiny new fake ID, and a sunny personality profile.

Now he was on the Nexus, impatiently waiting for the Hyperion to arrive. He could hardly wait to see her face when she woke up after six centuries of sleep, only to realize that she would never live without him again.

The Scourge, though—that was the real blessing. With so many people at the top dead or missing, he suddenly found himself a mid-ranking security officer with better-than-average security clearance. The first thing he did was backdate the records, and have them listed as husband and wife.

What he did not anticipate, however, was just how long she was going to be in cryo. When the Hyperion finally arrived, the stupid higher-ups wouldn't prioritize Helen's thaw.

As a biotic adept who was slated for potential combat, Helen's caloric requirements had her bio-tagged for slow-track thaw. “I understand your frustration,” Director Tann said, indifferently, “but we're in danger of running out of food as it is.”

And for the first time in his adult life, Clinton ran into a hard barrier that hacking couldn't penetrate. Bio-tags couldn't be faked, and no security devices could get around her biology.

He tried bribery, threats, pouting...nothing seemed to work.

When he found himself extra-frustrated by the situation, which was often, he would sneak into the cryo bay and jerk off onto her pod. “I'm doing this all for you,” he would tell her as he worked himself. “And when you wake up, you are going to be grateful, and sweet, and good...yeah, you are gonna be so good to me...”

Cryo Bay photo Chapter 1 pic_zpscsbimzfd.png

 

That was how the turian caught him—with his dick in his hand, and several weeks' worth of DNA on Helen's pod.

"I thought I recognized you.” The dual-toned voice made him jump out of his skin.

“Do you mind ?” Clinton said, as he fumbled his boner back into his pants. “I'm trying to have a moment here with my wife.”

The turian scanned the pod, and then him. Clinton did not like the look on the turian's face at all. 

"Look, 'Christian,'” -the the turian actually used air quotes, the fucker—“why don't you run along, and do whatever it is that Tann thinks you do.”

“Fuck you, asshole, I don't listen to you.”

The turian tapped his omnitool. A video started to play. It was Helen, on the Citadel, beating the ever-loving crap out of him.

“I used to be a Spectre,” the turian said mildly. “Nihlus Kryik was a friend of mine, so I was at that funeral.”

“Well, whoop-de-fucking-do,” Clinton said, his voice getting higher in pitch as he began to panic.

“I wonder what Commander Trevelyan would say if we woke her up, and asked her about her marriage. Do you think she'll be surprised?”

Clinton ran all the way back to his apartment. He checked security, and—oh, fuuuuuck, that wasn't just any turian. That was the turian Pathfinder , who was now heading towards Nexus security.

Working fast, he hacked hydraulics to move Helen's cryo unit into one of the escape pods. He disabled tracking on the escape pod, and placed it on standby. He wasn't sure where he was going to go but he needed to get himself and Helen off of the Nexus right now .

He was shoving MREs into his pack when security began to force his door open. The very last thing he did before they broke through was release the escape pod out of standby, and into space.

If he was going down, the cause of all his suffering was going down with him. The last thing Helen Trevelyan deserved was a fresh start without him.

Security interrogated him for days about his identity and the falsification of his records, before anybody thought to check on Helen's cryo unit. By then, it was too late. There was no tracking on the pod, and no vector.

Helen was gone.

The turian Pathfinder was livid when he found out. He slammed Clinton against the wall so hard that it knocked one of his teeth loose. “Do you know what you've done? You sent her into the Scourge!”

Clinton smiled wide and nodded. “Yes.”

 “It's murder,” the turian growled, dropping Clinton on the floor and looked at him with disgust. “You murdered her.”

 “Yes,” Clinton giggled, finding the turian's expression completely stupid. “Good.”