Commander Shepard, hero of the Citadel, destroyer of the Collector Base, curer of the Genophage, and all-around verber of the Capitalized Noun, was fighting a losing battle with herself.
The shuttle bay seemed strange, now that she was sizing it up for tactical strengths and weaknesses, all waist-high crates and soft cover and lines of sight she'd never really had to notice before. Granted, yesterday her biggest concern had been to make sure the latest shipment of Super-Yum Brand Levo Protein Bars was properly unloaded and stocked. Now she was fighting for her life in a hijacked ship making a beeline at FTL for the nearest mass relay, most of her crew was stranded back on the Citadel with nothing to tell C-Sec but a rather flimsy story about Commander Shepard's evil twin, and her damn hamster was about to be given away to the galactic humane society.
No wonder the place seemed a little off, like a... well, like a twisted mirror image of something familiar. And why do I get the feeling I'm going to be getting a lot of mileage out of that particular comparison today?
She risked a glance around the corner of her makeshift cover, and had to throw herself out of the path of a glimmering fireball that passed so close she could've sworn she smelled burning hair. Times like these, she missed her plain old Alliance-issue helmet. Oh, the Cipritine-manufactured visor she'd picked up on Sur'Kesh was fantastic for boosting her shields and making very clever use of her omnitool shortcuts, but at the end of the day, there was a lot to be said for a nice, mindless layer of ablative armor encasing one's skull. Especially where fire was involved.
The whoomph of an incendiary grenade on the other side of the bay, near the remaining shuttle, marked Ashley’s position, and it only took a moment to pick out the glint of Garrus's rifle amid the higher-stacked crates at the back of the room. With one quick glance toward the source of the last attack, Shepard moved up one set of crates, keeping level with Ashley's rate of advance.
With a flick of her eye toward an icon in her HUD, she activated the private comm link to her squad. At least the randomized frequency would ensure the clone couldn't copy that. "How're we doing?"
"No problems here," Garrus said, his voice just a bit too loud, and she grinned. He had to be piping music through his visor again. "Can't see the clone, but I've got a visual on Brooks down Ash's way."
"Yeah," Ashley said, "I noticed. That Crusader has a kick like a mule. Just about took down my shields in one shot."
Shepard winced. "You need backup? They've been pretty much leaving me alone out here. I'm trying not to feel insulted."
She could hear the grin on Ashley's face. "Nah, let me play bait, Skipper. This is the most fun I've had all week."
"Funny," Garrus said, "I was just thinking the same thing."
Shepard snorted. "You two are strange, strange people."
Garrus, true to form, spotted the opening and took the shot. "Oh, we learned from the best."
"Ouch." Shepard darted a glance around her crate, watching one of the remaining CAT6 heavies veer off toward Ashley's position, and took him down with a quick tech burst, followed up by half a clip from her Hurricane. "You're lucky I'm such a benevolent, caring, forgiving CO."
"Absolutely, ma'am." Ashley's tone was the picture of innocence.
When Garrus spoke again, his voice was somewhat more subdued, punctuated only by brief pauses as he lined up his shots. "Any word yet from, well, anyone? Not that I don't have absolute faith in our ability to take back the ship with, uh, just the three of us."
Shepard shrugged, more to herself than because he could actually see her. "I wouldn't expect there to be. We're out of range of personal comms, that's for sure. I'm sure they're all having a nice chat with C-Sec, clearing everything right up."
"I can never tell if you're being sarcastic or needlessly optimistic," he said, but the grin in his voice belied his exasperated tone.
"Maybe the Council can help us out on this one," Shepard mused, moving up past another set of crates.
"My vote's on sarcastic," Ash put in. "Nobody's that optimistic."
"Sarcasm is the last refuge of--" A flash of movement out of the corner of her eye was enough to jolt Shepard back a pace, just as a sniper's shot impacted the crate where her head had been a moment earlier. "Damn," she muttered, and drew back to reconsider her line of attack, watching for the shimmering outline of a cloak. "Still at least one sniper around. Unless... don't suppose that was you taking a shot at me, Vakarian? Again?"
She knew him well enough to catch the little anxious quaver in his subharmonics, but he hid it well, drawling, "Please. I'm a professional. But you have to admit, Shepard, two of you on the battlefield? Things might get a little confusing."
"Oh, God," Ashley said, "please tell me we're not going to do the clone thing. You know, where you and the clone are out of sight for a second, we round the corner, find the two of you wrestling on the ground--"
Garrus cleared his throat, emphatically.
Ashley ignored him. "--and we have to figure out which is the real Shepard?"
Rolling her eyes, Shepard tossed a sentry turret over to keep the sniper busy while she moved up again. "We're wearing different armor, and she doesn't have any of my memories. Plus, much as it pains me to admit it, she's better at being angry and menacing. She'll also probably be the one shooting at you. Shouldn't be too hard to spot her."
"Unless you two keep up the comedy routine," Shepard muttered, "in which case I'll probably be the one shooting at you."
Generally speaking, she was a little more of a hardass when it came to comm chatter, but this was the sort of situation where too much silence meant too much time to think, and staring across a battlefield at yourself was the sort of thing you wanted to avoid thinking about at all costs. Besides, they'd been working as a team for so long that most of their strategy was verging on instinctive. There wasn't much to be said.
"You know," Ashley said, and paused to lob out another inferno grenade, "I can't help feeling there's a metaphor in this somewhere. ‘Through a mirror darkly' and all that."
Inching out of cover, Shepard could see Ash now, moving for a better flanking position. "Got visual on you, Ash. Nobody on my six, so they're pretty boxed in."
"Shepard," Garrus said, voice low and tense, "trio of heavies, straight ahead. I'll set you up."
She shifted her focus to the three in question just in time to watch a chain overload jump from one to the next – they didn't seem to have kinetic barriers, but she knew from experience that those jolts of electricity were agonizingly distracting, and two of the three dropped their omnishields in shock. With a quick command on her omnitool, she sent a fireball their way and watched as the energy played off the sparks of electricity rising from their armor, setting up a minor explosion that knocked them to the ground. One didn't get back up again. Another was helped down with a shot from Garrus's sniper, and Shepard obligingly emptied the rest of her Hurricane's clip into the last one.
"Hm," Garrus said, as though he'd barely noticed the interruption, "how about 'she who fights monsters'?"
Ash gave a startled laugh. "Nietzche? Seriously?"
"Knew a guy back at C-Sec who was obsessed. You have to admit, it seems a little apt just now. Staring into abysses, seeing abysses staring back..."
Shepard raised her voice. "Do you two clowns really have to deconstruct the narrative right this instant?"
"Vital for morale," Ashley said.
"Although I suppose you and I could do it later, Shepard," Garrus said, and his voice was the verbal equivalent of an eyebrow waggle. "Over a few stiff drinks?"
Rolling her eyes again, Shepard sent her sentry turret over to cover her right flank. "Debriefing, huh? All right. Just so long as the drinks aren't the only thing that's stiff."
Silence for a few moments, broken only by the rattle of assault rifle fire and the occasional ker-chunk of Brooks' Crusader shotgun. Then Ash said, "Thanks for that mental picture."
"Uh." Garrus cleared his throat, but he rallied, valiantly. "Is that a promise, Shepard? Because I think--behind you!"
When she was a kid, Shepard's parents had taken her with them on a routine infiltration run to a market on a little space station somewhere deep in the Terminus Systems. There'd been an ancient mirror for sale, asari design, and she'd stood in front of it and made faces at the too-serious eyes staring back at her, until her mother had quietly picked her up and taken her away, just as the first alarms had blared and the gunfire had started. Family outings in those days had always been a little weird.
Now she turned and saw those eyes reflected back at her once again. Moving like she was in a dream, she raised her arm, activated her omniblade with a twitch of her muscles, and blocked the downward-sinking blade that would've done some serious and lasting damage to her ability to breathe. The jolt of the impact rattled up and down her arm, and the clone pressed her advantage, leaning in close and shoving Shepard back against the crate, effectively minimizing her maneuverability.
(art by liberalspaceship)
Weird didn't begin to describe looking into your own eyes, she decided, and why the hell was she only remembering now that doppelgangers were supposed to be a sign of your imminent demise?
"Having trouble?" the clone murmured, and kicked down. The blow, augmented with some sort of electric shock, landed squarely on the right knee joint of Shepard's armor. With the power flow interrupted, it folded under her armored weight, sending her crashing to the ground.
Training took over. She rolled as soon as she hit the deck, and the clone overbalanced, stumbling forward a couple paces, setting her up for a perfect killshot from Garrus, back in his sniper's perch.
Give the clone credit; she knew the instant she was exposed. It was all in the eyes.
Breathing an explosive curse, Shepard slammed her left leg out straight, connecting squarely with the clone's ankle and sending her reeling a few vital centimeters to the left. The crack of Garrus's rifle was deafening, but the only real damage was a massive hole punched clean through next week's supply of Generic Brand Dextro Meal Packs.
Not a second wasted, the clone sprang to her feet and stumbled around the corner of the crate, firing off a combat drone as she went. Shepard, still winded and sprawled on the floor, just stared at it. The drone stared back, and, almost as an afterthought, sent a stinging jolt rippling across Shepard's shields.
"Shepard, what the hell!" Oh, she knew those subharmonics. Garrus was pissed.
"I'm okay." Shepard incinerated the drone with a quick omni-command, then dragged herself to her feet. Her right knee still felt strange and wobbly, even though her HUD's diagnostic routine assured her the damage to the suit had been repaired. She was shaking all over.
"I had the shot."
Shepard took a breath, pivoting carefully to glance around the corner of the crate. Two heavies, apparently the last grunts standing, were advancing on Ashley's position, although they were keeping a respectable distance; she'd been lobbing out inferno grenades every now and then, just to keep things interesting, although her supply had to be getting low by now. "I know. Where is she now?"
"Making her way back to Brooks." There was a question there, one that ran along the lines of: if I have the shot, should I take it? Shepard made an executive decision to ignore it, in large part because she didn't know the answer and she needed a few more seconds to think it through. No good came from trusting your instincts implicitly, but it always paid to give them a fair hearing.
"Yeah, I've got eyes on both of 'em now," Ash said. "I only count two more CAT6 soldiers lurking around. Shield guys."
"Confirmed," Garrus added.
Shepard exhaled. "Okay, that's what I counted, too. Add in Brooks and the... other me, and that's nearly even odds, especially since they're starting to bunch up. Let's finish this up, in case they have reinforcements waiting. Ash, you keep drawing their fire, try and keep them herded together. Garrus, move in on their right flank from as far back as you can manage, run interference with concussive shots, and keep an eye on the damn elevator. I'll move in on their left flank – lots of cover here."
"Understood," Garrus said, his tone clipped and short, and Ash voiced her acknowledgement a little less acerbically.
Shepard hesitated, wanted to say more, wanted to say, You know how you look in a mirror, and all of a sudden you go, hey, so this is who I am when I'm not living inside my skull, this is the end result of everything I plan and work for and dream about? Can you imagine what it's like to see something new there, something ugly and twisted and terrified and deeply, unfathomably wrong, every mistake you never made right there in the flesh, grinning down at you? How can you look at that and not want to do something – anything – to set it right?
Instead, she said, "And Garrus? Take the shot if you get it," because hell, her judgment wasn't exactly trustworthy on this one. "Let's retake the Normandy, travel back to the Citadel in style." She could practically hear the sigh of relief in Garrus's affirmative reply. Ash's "Hell yes!" was even less ambiguous.
An echoing rattle of assault rifle fire told her Ash was throwing herself into her role as distraction with gusto. Good. With a quick glance to confirm that the CAT6 goons were still moving toward their boss, Shepard programmed a simple trajectory for her combat drone to weave a likely-looking path toward Ashley's position – hopefully it would provide a passable decoy to help make up for the fact that she was going to be limping most of the way across the cargo bay, the long way around.
She moved uneventfully for a good dozen meters, shifting from cover to cover, grinning as her combat drone started taking stray shots. Then Ash yelped, once, and Shepard watched her HUD with a numbing jolt of adrenaline until the shield readouts finally flickered back to life. "I'm fine," Ash said, sounding winded. "Damn near took my shields down."
A few paces later, Garrus muttered an explosive curse. "There's still a sniper down there! Just a couple meters behind the heavies, back where Brooks and the clone are holed up. Be careful. Lousy aim, but everyone's gotta get lucky sometime."
"Is that a promise?" Shepard said, by way of testing the waters.
"Oh, lord." Ashley’s eyeroll was audible.
Garrus snorted a laugh that sounded equal parts startled and relieved. "Absolutely."
"Well, hey. I don't know about you guys, but I'm motivated to get this over and done with ASAP."
“Sooner would be preferable.”
"You know," Ashley said, and there was a pause while she exchanged assault rifle fire with the heavies, "I helped raise three sisters through their teenage years, and you two are still just about the horniest idiots I can imagine--" She paused again, but this time it seemed more like a wait-did-I-say-that-out-loud kind of pause. "Er. All due respect. Ma'am."
"Uh-huh." All due respect. A little familiarity could be a wonderful thing.
Shepard glanced around the corner of the final crate, counted off the two heavies, the shimmering outline of the sniper behind them, and there--yes! Not five meters away, Brooks and the clone were huddled behind the same box, taking turns sending suppressing fire in Ashley's general direction. Perfect.
Vocal commands would have the obvious downfall of volume, so she sent Ash and Garrus the signal to attack via omnitool. Ash's grenade was perfectly placed, bathing nearly all of the enemy combatants with a wash of flame, and Garrus's chain overload detonated a series of fire explosions that actually felt warm against Shepard's skin even at this range. She took the opportunity to throw a sentry turret into the mix, and the shouting was soon loud enough to--
The deck bucked beneath her, violently slamming her into the crate at her side. She clutched at it with one hand, the other still gripping her SMG, and tried to keep her balance as the cargo bay shuddered and jolted, crates crashing to the ground.
"What the fuck was that?"
It took Shepard a moment to realize she wasn't the one who'd shouted – the clone sounded just as confused as she was. The ground pitched again, and it took her spacer-kid instincts mere moments to explode into overdrive. Attack. We're under attack!
"Who the hell is shooting at us?" That was Brooks, sounding just as panicked.
"Shouldn't you be on top of this sort of thing?" Garrus yelled, from wherever he was hiding.
Confusion to the enemy can't be a bad thing, right? Shepard moved out a little more into the open, preparing to send another burst of fire into the mess of combatants. The ship rocked again, more violently this time. Her knee gave out beneath her.
A strange prickling feeling was her only warning, and then a rough, electric jolt traveled across the surface of her shields, overloading them with a thoroughness that would've been mildly interesting to watch if it hadn't been so damn painful. She hunched against the agony, already trying to throw herself back blindly into cover, but the sniper shot was nearly instantaneous.
The first thing she noticed was that her visor had stopped working, the display just gone, leaving everything looking too-blue and not bright enough. The second thing was a weird tickling down the side of her face, which resolved itself into a tinny ringing in her left ear. The third thing could best be described as excruciating pain.
And then she was on the deck, her cheek pressed against the too-cold floor, staring across an unfathomable distance at a pair of boots, watching a slow, lazy trickle of blood stream down the slanted floor towards them. Red blood. Her blood.
With an effort, she rolled onto her back, heard the soft tinkle of the remnants of her shattered visor against the floor, and stared up into her own face, into the narrowed and too-serious reflections of her own eyes, glimmers of light among the encroaching shadows.
"Okay, yeah," Shepard said, and heard her own voice slurring. "Definitely should've gone with the helmet."