When they come back to the silent white halls of an empty ship and EDI tells them that the crew is missing and that they should set course for the Omega-4 Relay now, she has to close her eyes and press her face to the bulkhead to hide the fact that she is laughing.
The air is thin.
It is to be expected, of course – it has all been vented, recycled, must be slowly pumped back in to fill the empty corners and chairs, the vacancy in the mess hall, the silence up on the bridge. The quiet. She can hear the scuff and clink of Mordin setting things right in the laboratory where all his test tubes and experiments were blown awry in the draft, the professor muttering under his breath about loss and salvage and give and take while Legion takes inventory in a cool, mechanical monotone. Emotionless. She can hear scuff and clink from the armory, too, same noises but rougher, more metal and less glass, no words; just weapons tested, loaded, set aside, stood at attention. Preparation. The sterile air is growing thick with gun oil, with anticipation.
Alexandra Shepard breathes it in, breathes it out, oil and smoke and medi-gel and the lingering Collector musk of death she knows too well, that empty scent of space. Breathes in and out and listens and listens. In the space where the chatter of the crew usually sits she can hear her heartbeat, far louder than normal without the dulling static of the bridge. It’s all brass and platinum on Cerberus steel, artificial, cybernetic, thump and piston-thump of alive, alive.
They’d come to fix that.
She knows it; knows it had been another surgical strike, another attempt on her life, another attempt that had failed, and, really, this is getting quite ridiculous.
She draws up her legs, slouches down low, curls over herself on the metal steps leading up to the galaxy map, and listens to alive thunder over and over inside her skull.
Her team had tried to fill the silence, of course. They’d put on music to take up the void, a horrible mix of old and new. The only thing important was that it was loud, thundering, dust-shaking, that it filled up the space where the crew used to be, that it kept them all from thinking. It had succeeded admirably at the first and failed miserably at the second. Alex could still hear her heart over the pounding bass, could count the seconds by the beat and realize that they weren’t ticking by nearly fast enough, and so barely ten minutes had gone by before she’d pounded on the wall and yelled at Joker to turn it bloody well off.
So now she has nothing to count the seconds by, just her breaths of the too-thin air as they fly on, empty space through empty space.
They are a long way (days, hours? It’s not important. A long way) from the closest relay, a long way from the Omega cluster. There is more empty space in the corner of her vision where Kelly usually stands, there is an empty silence behind her where all the crew usually stands, there is alive inside her Cerberus heart, and they are a long way (hours, minutes?) a long way from setting this right.
She bangs on the hollow frame of the stair. “Joker, can you get us there any faster?”
“No-can-do, Commander.” She can hear the strain in his voice, both the broken-rib one and the one less concrete, and it makes her wince. The silence that follows is empty of explanation, of his customary joke, of anything, and it’s that – probably – that makes her give a frustrated little half-laugh, half-growl, makes her say what comes next.
“Sure you can,” Alex adds, twisting to look over her shoulder at the nose of the ship, the red-shift blur of stars before them. “Just – I don’t know, open the airlocks and jettison some extra weight –”
She means it as a joke, consciously at least, but there’s no answering chuckle from the cockpit. It’s just space in the air, a smear of dark Collector-ichor on the wall, and EDI blipping barely into life before her with a silence that could only be reproachful.
“…Sorry,” she adds.
EDI fizzes slightly in the corner of her eye and Alex sighs and resettles herself. “Bad joke,” she mumbles, voice low enough for only the AI to hear. “I’ve gotta remember to stop being too hard on the guy.”
“You are to be commended on your eagerness to retrieve the crew, Shepard,” says the AI, and it’s not the first one that Alex wonders if a machine can be mollifying.
She looks up, eyebrow raised. “He said that?”
“Several people have said that. Miranda in particular, despite what she would have you believe.”
“…You’re spying on us again.”
“I am always listening, Shepard.”
“Yeah. Creepy.” She rolls her shoulder, wincing as the joint pops: there’s an unpleasant grinding there, a faint squeak that feels almost metallic, another lovely gift from Cerberus. She reaches for the data pad at her feet, taps it against the stairs. Ping. “You get Chamber’s files?”
“Need I remind you that this is a violation of privacy protocol numbers–“
“Yeah, yeah. EDI. They’re dead. Chambers won’t have any more problems with me hacking her shit, trust me.” She grins, humorless. “Okay – if they’re not dead, I’ll deal with the fallout later. Christ, EDI. I won’t be bossed around on my own ship by my own goddamned ship.”
There is a second of silence. Another. It is an eternity for an AI, Alex knows. But she wants this. She knows she does. They have spent the whole mission tying up loose ends, it seems, finishing this bit of personal business or that, manufacturing closure, and it’s about damn time she got some closure on her own.
“Give me the files, EDI,” she repeats, all Cerberus-steel in her throat.
The AI flickers, blips away, and the data pad fizzes to life in her hand. Alex feels her lips curve into the shadow of a smile. Kelly Chamber’s psychological reports – most of them, she’s already read, already had Tali or Kasumi hack the paltry encryption that the yeoman put on her outgoing messages to the Illusive Man, but there were other files here, other files that weren’t supposed to exist, that she’d told the yeoman never to write. She taps her finger to the name, watches Alexandra Shepard fizz at the press of her nail. Stripped free of all its layers of encryption. The latest reports have not been sent to the Illusive Man and she tucks the data pad under her arm with a bare chuckle.
It is not important what they say. It is not important that she reads them. It is important, merely, that she has them, that she knows – and that the Illusive Man will not, that no one will, because they’re hurtling with minutes or hours to spare toward their death on the far side of a red-shifted relay, and this time she is taking all her secrets with her.
In the shower, she traces the surface of her body, touches fingertips to her scars. Lines of red bleeding through pale. The Lazarus Project stripped her skin away from her and gave her back a newborn’s in return, white and unblemished, untouched, all its memories of Earth and basic training and Saren scrubbed away. They’d replaced it with surgical wounds. Clean and precise. Geometric and mechanical. Her fingers find the wedgelike patterns on her spine, parallel lines and rectangles along either side of her vertebrae that outlined nerve upon computerized nerve. She fits her hands over the incisions on her abdomen, the spidery lines on her legs and gridwork on her knees where bones had been replaced, the orange-glowing nicks on her knuckles that sting where the water touches them. Open red flesh.
There’s supposed be pain, she knows, constant and low-level and bearable, but the medi-gel worked into her suit and into the marrow of her major bones denies her even that.
She touches her face, the ragged scars on her cheeks, presses her hands against her closed eyelids until stars and exploding relays burst against the black.
She wonders how much time they have before Omega.
Hopefully it’s not very much.
The water is blessedly warm and the noise it makes is blessedly loud. It keeps her from thinking. Keeps her heartbeat from filling her brain. Keeps her from remembering, too, the words she’d read on the data pad before she’d tossed it aside. Disturbed, she’d read. Destructive – that was bloody true, damn bloody true, but it’d been preceded by self, and that was – well.
That was true too, probably, dammit.
But no – that’s Thane’s word, all wonderfully alien and exciting and desert-baritone warm on his lips, taking the word from her mouth and twisting it into new meanings. Siha, new language. She runs her fingers through her hair and spends an instant imagining green-scaled fused ones doing the same (it would be new for him, too, because she doubted drell women had hair like humans did, this would all be new, she’d never get him into the steam-filled shower like this but he’d mentioned a desert and the sun presented new and decadent opportunities, it would all be so perfectly new).
(Except it won’t happen, because they’ll both be dead before the day was out).
(She catches her lip between her teeth, finds her brain stuck on skin with hallucinogenic properties, finds herself wondering and perhaps regretting).
Enough is enough. She is Alexandra Shepard, after all, goddammed savior of the Citadel, and she does not ever look back.
Disconnected had not been in Chamber’s psych report, anyway, but the other words had. So many of them. It had gone on and on, in worrying clinical terms, and Alex had barely skimmed half of it before she’d put it down with the muttered justification of an ache in her eyes that the cybernetics made downright impossible. She simply had not wanted to read anymore. Had not wanted to read the words at the end of the report, couched in question marks but still glaring up at her: unstable, unreliable, unfit, recommend remove from active duty.
(It was probably true, but -)
(It would probably even be a relief, a wonderful retirement, ignoble and fitting, but -)
It wasn’t important.
It wasn’t important because Chambers was dead, or good enough, and pretty soon this entire ship would be too. Blown to bits in the relay or cooked in a flash or shot out of the sky, all of Chambers’ careful psychological reports spooling out into space. Chambers and Chakwas and the rest of the crew melted down and turned into Collector sludge; everyone else, merely dead. Lawson, Taylor, Massani, Vakarian, frozen and set drifting into the black. Turning into pretty little shooting stars like she once had. Dead. Krios, irrevocably dead. He’d be happy about that.
Alexandra Shepard, dead.
Self-destructive, the report had said. Alex smiles at the clean white walls of the shower.
Dead would spare her the indignity of recommend remove from active duty, in any case.
She turns off the shower and steps out before the steam can clear and before she can catch sight of the glow of her scars in the mirror and be reminded that she’s already been dead once, and it didn’t fucking take.
When Thane comes to her a few minutes later, he is not the only one who is surprised. She has counted on the assassin to be solid and calm in the face of what they are about to do. It is why she likes him. Seeing him afraid rattles her more than she is willing to show, and two hours before a suicide mission is not the time to be alone with fear.
Perhaps that is why she allows him to stay.
He does not need to tell her he cares for her, because they are adults and not sentimental children, and because two hours before a suicide mission is not the time for such sentiment, either. It does not matter if it is truth or lie.
It does not matter if her whispered be alive with me tonight is a lie, either, or a bitter joke, or possibly a plea.
What matters is her hands on her, his fused fingers running through her human hair, the alien taste of his skin in her mouth. And the fact that her body is exquisitely and violently alive again, for a moment at least, along with the Cerberus bright alive thundering along inside her skull; alive, even if her mind is off with the crew she’s coming to save or watch die and the Relay waiting for them, glowing red as one of her scars in the dark.