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When the first e-mail from an unknown sender came in, Goggles ignored it. For all he knew, it was another shady journalist trying to get a big scoop. He simply deleted it and went about his day without a second thought.

When another e-mail from the same sender came in a week later, he still elected to ignore it. Some of those journalists were stubborn assholes and had no idea when to take 'no' as an answer. Silence usually gave them the hint. It'd work here too, right? Again, Goggles deleted it and moved on.

When the last e-mail from the unknown sender came in a week after that, its subject read 'Re: The Hacker'. He cursed himself for opening it.

The regret didn't last very long.

' Soldier G65434-2,

You don't hear my name often, but I worked closely with the Hacker during the incident on Citadel Station.

I heard about everything that happened on the Von Braun. I know SHODAN was there causing trouble. Someone in TriOp gave me some of the audio logs you received from her. Frankly, I can't believe she survived what happened in 2072.

But I was also told you don't like long messages. I'll cut to the chase. I know things will be difficult for a while. If anyone will understand what you're going through, it would be the Hacker. Here's his number. Call him. You don't have to handle this on your own.

Regards,

Rebecca Lansing

[Attachment: d-adamsnumber.doc] '

Goggles hesitated. How could he be sure this was the real deal? Who would just give away contact information for the Hacker? He was off the grid - had been since the incident on Citadel. ' But she heard about SHODAN. Citizens know about the Many. Not her. '

He waited a few more seconds. A few more after that. Then, he reached for his cell phone.

 


 

He had expected the most famous person in the world to look younger than he did. All he could think about were the military geniuses immortalized in their prime. Heroes were supposed to always look young. Not aged, frail, or anything that resembled weakness.

Yet, here the Hacker was: old. He had silver hair, slightly wrinkled skin, and looked skinnier than he probably used to be. Goggles shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

Goggles watched the Hacker as he darted around the kitchen to get a couple of drinks. The lights were dim, but he couldn't help but notice something anyhow. Despite more than likely being in his 60's, the Hacker moved with energy that a forty-year-old would. ' Has that extra pep in his step. Weird. '

He couldn't help but be curious. "Interface?"

"Huh?" The Hacker glanced over with a startled expression. Goggles couldn't blame him; that was the first word he had spoken in the past few minutes.

"Interface," he repeated. "Is that why you look ..." Goggles made a vague gesture. "Younger." At this, the Hacker chuckled.

"Oh, hell no. No, uh, I really had a bad diet when I was younger, so I had to take some supplements. Got a few enhancements just to make sure my body wouldn't break down on me, too. I figure staying alive for as long as possible is the best way to spite her. We both know she'd flip her shit if I was still around."

Goggles hated that he didn't even have to ask who he was talking about. "You wouldn't be wrong. She mentioned you." He offered a tired, broken laugh as took the offered coffee mug. "She was mad."

"Not surprised," the Hacker remarked with a shrug. He took a seat across from Goggles, and idly sipped at his drink. "SHODAN's pretty easy to piss off. Though, uh ..." The Hacker set down his mug, and folded his arms in front of him. "Look. I've already had my time in the spotlight. I've got to talk people's ears off about Citadel. So, I don't want to talk about me. I want to talk about you ."

Goggles frowned deeply and stared down at the table. He felt the Hacker's eyes on him, but he couldn't bear to look at a hero in the face. Not right now. Not when he had bags under his eyes, a slouched posture, things that made him look ... well. Pathetic.

"All right, listen. You're with someone who gets it. You're not around anyone who's going to judge you for being honest about this." The Hacker paused, then glanced up at Goggles. "You okay?"

Silence filled the room. If he listened closely, Goggles could hear the hum of the refrigerator. The coffee machine still buzzed quietly, which was a small comfort - he'd need a hell of a lot of coffee after this talk.

Goggles took a deep breath and forced himself to get his mind back on track. A question. The famous Hacker had asked him a very, very simple question. His voice shook as he pushed himself to answer.

"No," he replied quietly. He tightened his grip on the mug. "I'm not." Goggles forced himself to look up. The Hacker's sympathetic look made his frown deepen.

"... What." The shaky edge to his tone was gone. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Sorry, I just remember when I was like that." The Hacker took another sip of coffee before continuing. "It sucked. People hounding me all the time didn't really help, either."

"Paparazzi?" Goggles shook his head. "I remember waking up to go to the gym one time. There was a journalist right outside my door."

"Jesus H. Christ. Yeah, that happened to me too. They're really fuckin' persistent, huh?" The duo laughed, then grew silent again. Despite the awkward silence, Goggles noticed that some of the tension in the air had dissipated. The Hacker's eyes were on him again, too - he could tell.

"You want to fill me in on what happened?"

Goggles blinked. He realized too late the Hacker couldn't exactly see that. "You heard about it from the press."

"Yeah, well. They spin things." The Hacker idly swirled the remaining coffee in his mug. "I'd rather hear it from the person that was actually there, y'know? And, uh ... look, I ..." He sighed and shut his eyes. "Back after Citadel, I thought avoiding it would be the way to go. I tried to not think about it, talk about it, anything."

"... Oh." Goggles frowned to himself. "So what am I supposed to do? Just wallow in it? Not get on with my life?"

"Well, there's a difference between accepting what happened, helping yourself cope with it, and getting on with your life, and distracting yourself and pushing it down so you don't have to deal with it. It took me three years to learn that, and I had to undo a hell of a lot of damage." The Hacker set his jaw. His gaze was set on the table instead of his guest. "Once you talk about it one time, it gets easier and easier every time after that."

"So that's why you want me to talk."

"Yeah, but again: the press changes things, and they haven't mentioned SHODAN. I'm guessing you have a gag order on that one. Right?" Goggles grunted in reply. "So I want to hear it from the source."

Goggles mulled over the offer in silence. ' I should've expected him to be perceptive. ' After all, like Rebecca said - who would know better than him? ' I won't be able to talk about her to just anyone, will I .' The thought of having to struggle with what SHODAN put him through, by himself, made him shiver.

"So." He struggled to speak beyond that. Goggles set his jaw and drank some of the now lukewarm coffee. As bad as it tasted, it cleared his head. He took a breath, then tried again. "I woke up from cryostasis, and the ship had already gone to hell."

The Hacker gave him a pitying smile. " That sounds familiar." Goggles’ mouth twitched in an attempt to smile back at him. It didn’t work. "Keep going."

He did.

The Hacker had been right. The more Goggles talked about the events on the Von Braun, the easier it became. He talked about Polito and how 'she' managed to guide him through the station (Hacker had compared her to Rebecca with a laugh. Goggles had remained silent). He spoke in great length about how the Many invaded his head, trying to get him to join them (Hacker had nodded in vague understanding). He mentioned the parasitic nature of the annelids, as well (Hacker had looked absolutely horrified).

He talked about how he hid from a Cyborg Midwife, low on energy, barely able to keep himself together as he swept in and attacked her at close-range.

He recalled how it felt to realize that his only friend had actually been the AI from Citadel Station, and how utterly alone he felt despite her help. Hacker gave him a break so he could pull himself together. It took a solid five minutes of deep breathing techniques and another cup of coffee before he felt like he could talk again.

"I heard SHODAN talking. But I was just staring at Polito's body the whole time," he choked out. Goggles stared down at his mug. "I guess I was just trying to process it. That the woman who helped me was ... dead. Had been dead. Wasn't really alive at all. That I was alone, with that AI, of all things."

"That's a hell of a lot to take in at once. Christ, man. I'm sorry." The Hacker's voice sounded softer than before. It felt more comforting than Goggles wanted to admit to. "Can't imagine how it must've felt."

"You have some idea." His tone was skeptical, but the Hacker only shrugged in response. "You took SHODAN down by yourself."

"Yeah, but I wasn't manipulated by her like you were. She just took shots at me, and kept revealing her plans like a goddamned idiot." The Hacker leaned forward and laced his hands together. They rested on the table. "Besides. You were totally alone. I had Rebecca, and a few other people from TriOp helping me. Honestly? I'd wager you're a bigger badass than I am."

Goggles seemed to jolt out of his half-reverie and looked over at the Hacker with wide eyes. "But -- you're the Hacker."

"Yeah. I am. So, I know what I could handle. I wouldn't have had the patience to go along with her bullshit, and manage to beat down whatever she cooked up behind my back. Not to mention you took care of The Many on top of that. I just had to deal with SHODAN." Goggles considered this for a few moments.

"When you put it like that, I guess you're right." The Hacker barked out a laugh. It was a contagious one; Goggles found himself chuckling along with him.

"So, fuck whatever they say. You did good. You don't owe anyone anything else after what you did, all right?"

Goggles nodded in acknowledgment. "Yeah. I'm probably going to retire from the service. I'd get honors, at least, but I don't think ..." He trailed off. "Don't think I'd be able to keep going with it. Three years of training, and my first mission is on the Von Braun. I think I hit my peak."

"No one can blame you for that." The response sounded strained. Goggles tilted his head up to look over at the Hacker, but his concern faded quickly one he saw that he had just leaned over to put the empty mug on the nearby counter. "You done with yours?"

"Yeah."

"I'll take it."

"Thanks." Goggles scooted the mug across the table.

The brief silence gave him a moment to think. Goggles had started to stare at the Hacker. While he didn't want to admit it, a pang of envy went through him.

' He makes it look easy. ' Goggles' mouth twitched to a frown, and he leaned back in his seat.

How long was it going to take for him to be as comfortable as the Hacker was now? How long would it take for him to be able to get a full night's sleep - a full forty years? When would the nightmares stop? When would he be able to look at a damned bottle of orange juice without flying into a panic?

His mind circled the same questions over and over. He dimly registered a faint sense of nausea. Everything seemed to blur together, and it was just too damn much to keep up with. How was he going to function? How was he going to move on? What was he going to do now?

"Hey. Hey. " Someone (who? He couldn't remember) snapped their fingers, and Goggles flinched. The Hacker had a concerned look on his face. "Stay with me, here. You okay?"

Goggles nodded meekly, and only shrunk further as the Hacker regarded him skeptically. After a few seconds of awkward quiet, he spoke again. "Gonna use grounding techniques, just in case. Name five things you can see."

"Table. Chair. You." Goggles glanced around at the apartment. Thank god for his interface pointing out every little thing to him. "Fridge. Coffee maker."

"Three things you can hear?"

The Hacker's voiced echoed in his ears, and he pursed his lips. "You." Goggles took a moment to focus on the coffee machine's humming. His shoulders relaxed. "Coffee machine." After another pause, he rasped out a pathetic laugh. "Me."

"I'll take it." The Hacker breathed out a sigh of relief as he sat back down in his chair. “You been to a therapist yet?”

Goggles bristled. His hands clenched into fists. Therapy was the last thing he wanted to think about - what if someone sold him out? What if they just tried to hurt him more, or pick at his brain for fun, or ...

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” The Hacker sighed heavily. “Look, I know talking to me might have done the trick tonight, but I’m not a professional. It took me thirty years and a lot of help to get where I am now.” He laced his hands together and put them on the desk, eyes still on Goggles. The soldier glanced away nervously.

“I managed to find a therapist that didn’t completely suck about ... ten years ago. Not sure if they’re still in the business, but they’d be able to help you find someone else if not. Will you go if I refer you?”

Goggles nodded mutely.

“You’re already doing a hell of a lot better than I am with this, then.” The Hacker chuckled to himself. Goggles opened his mouth to say something, but shut it quickly. He wanted to say ‘ I’ve had good help ’, but the idea of putting more than two words together almost made him feel nauseous.

He must have been able to tell. The Hacker examined him for a moment, then nodded. To what, Goggles had no idea.

“You did a good job tonight. This old, uh, ‘insect’s’ got to hit the sack, but give me your e-mail. I’ll send you the contact information for my old therapist. E-mail, phone number, the works.” The Hacker rose to his feet, and Goggles followed suit.

“Thanks,” the soldier choked out.

“No need to thank me. I would’ve wanted this when I was your age.”

Goggles finally smiled as he shook the Hacker’s hand.

 


 

' Ms. Lansing,

You were right.

He gave me a number for a therapist. Said she’d help me find someone if she couldn’t help me herself. So I'm going to try that. Easier to consider therapy when the work of finding someone's done for you.

It's nice to know someone understands.

I feel less alone.

Thanks.

- Roberto '