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Daughter of Fate

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Blackheath, Australia

“Activate code Lawson-foxtrot-oh-nine-six. Day…one hundred and eighty-nine. Subject has shown marked improvement over the past week. All vitals are now stable. Brain activity remains erratic. It is possible that its unconscious mind is fighting the treatment. As a result, the project continues to fall behind schedule. Despite my assurances, doubts have been raised from above as to whether Subject 57 was ever a suitable candidate for Blackheath. Fuck them. I know she’s perfect.”

Oriana Lawson sighed as she swivelled her chair away from the monitor and rose to her feet. As always, she was instinctively drawn towards the operating table at the centre of the lab. The pale, unmoving form lying there had taken over her life – both her waking hours and her dreams – for the past six months. The need for success went beyond what she had promised to her superiors, to something far more personal. Of all the subjects she had worked on during the Blackheath Project, this one was by far the most important.

Ashley Williams. Alliance Captain. Second human SpecTRe. Killed in action on Chasca.

Almost reverently, Oriana reached out and traced her hand along the body’s jawline, not quite touching, but close enough to feel the electricity that radiated from within. A smile teased at her lips as that feeling reminded her of what she had done. Despite her years of hard work, the powers that be had been ready to pull the plug on Blackheath. As early as next month. They refused to believe that the failure lay in the quality of the subjects. Instead, the blame had been foisted onto her. Her methods questioned. Her intellectual capability – no, her genius, brought into doubt. 

Now, Blackheath was finally coming to fruition.

Her musings were interrupted by the sound of the door opening. With an irritated frown, she watched as Hernandez, one of her lab techs, walked blithely into the room. Hernandez was focussed on a data pad in his hand and didn’t notice her presence. Oriana was forced to clear her throat.   

Hernandez visibly jumped in response. "Dr Lawson. I’m…I didn’t realise you’d be here.”

It was her scheduled day off, of course he wasn’t expecting her. However, Oriana had long since let her work consume her to the point where time spent doing anything else felt wasted.

Already annoyed at having to share the space with someone else, she was in no mood for social niceties. “I’m the Project Lead, why would I not be here?”

"Yes of course. My apologies.” He ducked his head in a furtive nod, clearly wishing that his boss hadn’t decided to come into the lab. “Um...would you still like me to continue with the tests on Subject 57 that were scheduled for today or did you have other plans?"  

“Scrub those, we’re running a full stability analysis.” Oriana turned her attention back to the body. “I need to ascertain whether Subject 57 can cope with an intensified bout of treatment.”

“But…I thought you said yesterday that we’re weeks away from reaching that point,” Hernandez offered uncertainly.

Oriana couldn’t keep her irritation from her voice. “I know what I said yesterday, but unfortunately we no longer have the luxury of weeks. People are nervous. They need to be reassured that we can deliver what was promised on schedule.”

“Understood,” the lab tech said, his tone had now taken on a resentful edge, no doubt at having to participate in an analysis that would take the better part of seven hours. “I’ll start prepping her.”

Oriana remained standing by the biobed, watching as the woman’s eyelids suddenly twitched. It was nothing new. Over the past month, Subject 57 had started dreaming. Out of a possessive curiosity, Oriana wished she could glimpse into those dreams. Were they about the woman she had been? Or was the treatment constructing visions of the life she would lead.

Cocking her head to one side, Oriana lifted her hand and placed it against her subject’s cheek. The skin was ice cold. Gently, she dragged her thumb upwards. A smile creased her face as the eyelids twitched more rapidly in response.

In one moment, Oriana was staring down at a pale, unmoving form, the next she was staring into a pair of wide, dark, frightened eyes. Oriana’s rigorously schooled composure slipped. For a moment, she could do nothing but stare, lips parted in surprise. Her project had suddenly become a conscious person. This should have equated to success, but it was one full month ahead of schedule. The requisite tests had not been carried out. The realisation that she was potentially watching six months of work go down the drain, snapped Oriana out of her shock. As she reached towards the monitor to administer a sedative, she found her wrist encased in a vice-like grip.

The project…Williams, was fixated on her, lips moving urgently without sound. Oriana tried to step back, but Williams’ grip was such that she would have had to wrench her arm free.  

“I-I…need you to remain calm, Captain Williams.”

It felt strange to speak to someone that she had known as little more than a slab of meat for so long. Strange and exhilarating.

“Mi…an…ah.” 

The sounds were little more than a rush of air. Even so, Oriana felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. “What did you say?”  

With a surprisingly display of strength, Williams suddenly lifted herself up onto her elbows.  Oriana was unnerved by the intensity in her patient’s gaze. The woman was staring at her as though she was a lifeline. The look went beyond mere recognition to something far more intimate. 

“Miranda.”

The voice was still hoarse, but this time the name was unmistakable. It was enough to knock the air from Oriana’s lungs. As realisation dawned, she stopped fighting against William’s grasp on her wrist and fought to keep a shocked expression from her face. Instead, she reached up and pressed her free hand against Williams’ clammy cheek.

“It’s alright…Ashley. I’m here. You’re somewhere safe.”

As the panicked look in the subject’s eyes subsided, replaced by an obvious relief, Oriana felt her jaw clench. The barely conscious revelation marked a flaw in the treatment. A memory that clearly should have been excised along with the other ‘deviant’ thoughts in William’s brain. Even though Oriana knew she could not possibly have anticipated this eventuality, it was still a failure that could derail her success. 

“I was dreaming…something-” Williams paused, searched Oriana’s face. “Promise me…don’t leave me.”

“I promise.”

Williams’ face suddenly contracted into a mask of confusion and pain, probably in response to the treatment. “Miri, wha…my head hurts like it’s splitting-”

The display next to the biobed drew Oriana’s attention before the weak cry from Williams’ lips that signalled she was in pain. Oriana glanced over her shoulder, where the lab tech had only just been alerted to the situation unfolding. “Hernandez! A little help?”

“Holy crap, she’s awake?” Hernandez joined her, momentarily stunned into inactivity.

“Clearly, you idiot! We need to get her back under now! Her neural pathways are degrading by the second.”

“Who…?”

Oriana looked back to the woman who still clutched at her. Williams’ was still staring searchingly at Oriana. Now, her eyes opened wide in realisation as the unfamiliarity clicked into place. She knew that Oriana wasn’t her lover. 

“Not Miranda.” Williams was clearly scared, but her voice was tinged with anger. Her other hand snapped out and she seized Oriana by her clothing. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Captain Williams, you need to calm down!” Oriana’s voice was tinged with pain. Her wrist felt like it was going to snap. “Hernandez, what the hell are you doing? Sedate her now!”

His hands shaking, Hernandez finally managed to jam a hypospray loaded with sedative against Williams’ neck. The crushing grip on Oriana’s wrist gradually relaxed and she was able to reclaim her limb. Even as she cradled her reddened wrist in her other hand, she checked Williams’ vitals. 

The silence that descended on the lab was punctuated only by the sound of breathing. In Hernandez’s case, great gasps – as though he had been running for his life. Oriana’s own were quiet and rapid, almost drowned out by the thudding of her heart in her chest. It wasn’t a response out of fear, rather one of anger. Frustration and loathing. Mingled together, it made for a dangerous combination. For the purposes of the Blackheath project, this revelation changed nothing. Especially if no one found out about it. On a personal level, however, it meant so much more. She held the subject’s life in her hands. An individual who had clearly meant something to the infamous Miranda Lawson. Her older sister. 

Killing Ashley for a second time would be effortless. A few seconds was all it would take to destroy the life that she had restored.

Would destroy that bitch to realise that she had lost you a second time? Oriana smiled as she thought it.

Terminating the subject was a fleeting thought, replaced by the knowledge that there was something worse than death. The far more satisfying prospect of erasing all sentiment that existed between the two women. Oriana felt a palpable thrill in the pit of her stomach. A smile crept onto her face.

“Dr Lawson?”

Fuck. In her excitement, she’d forgotten Hernandez had been witness to everything. That was a problem. Albeit an entirely solvable one.

“Do you have any idea what she...the subject was talking about?” Hernandez ventured, still quietly gasping.

Oriana looked him in the eye. He was clearly shaken by the incident. “Jumbled nonsense, no doubt due to the treatment. Nothing that cannot easily be solved.”

He nodded, entirely trusting her judgement. “What do you need me to do?”

“Nothing at present.” She reached out and pressed her hand to Hernandez’s forearm, squeezing gently. “Why don’t you go get some air, Jake? Take half an hour at least. You look like you need it.”

He let out a nervous breath and nodded eagerly. “I think I’ll do that. Thank you, Dr Lawson.”

Oriana waited until the door closed shut behind the lab technician to turn her attention back to the unconscious woman lying on the table in front of her. Once again, she pressed her hand to the subject’s cheek. The skin was hot and clammy as she swiped away a single tear that had leaked from beneath Williams’ eyelid.

“Even in death you are full of surprises, Captain Williams,” she mused to herself.

Although Oriana wanted to linger and savour the moment, there was a great deal of work to be done. A renewed sense of excitement coursed through her body as she returned to her personal terminal. In a matter of minutes, she transferred the security feed to a storage device, before scrubbing all traces of it from the lab’s log.

She clutched the small device in her palm as she connected to Blackheath’s security chief. Besides the record contained within, there was only one other person who knew anything about what had happened.

Security Chief Rattan’s face appeared on the screen. “Dr Lawson, what can I do for you?”

And Hernandez’s employment was about to be terminated.

“Chief, I need you to urgently send a team to arrest my lab tech, Jake Hernandez. Unfortunately, I’ve stumbled across evidence that he has been selling information about our work off-world.”

“Understood, Dr Lawson,” Rattan nodded, already pushing his chair away from the monitor. “I will attend to this matter personally.”

Oriana swivelled delightedly in her chair. She lifted the storage device up to eye level, running her fingers over its innocuous surface. The video it contained meant little on its own, it was barely even inflammatory, but to her it meant everything.

The ultimate ammunition against the sister she had never met. 


 

Ten months later…

Armali, Thessia

 

The morning air carried a distinct chill, but it was a crisp, clean cold. Almost pleasant. Clad in form-fitting commando leathers, Shepard felt it only on her exposed skin – just her cheeks and her right hand. Her left hand, impervious to the cold, simply tingled with anticipation. Her eyes slid closed and she pictured her surrounds in her head.

This was Liara’s ancestral home. Her home now. Although scarred by war, it was still massive and imposing. Shepard stood in the ruins of the South Wing, destroyed during the War. The walls still surrounded her, towering above, but the ceilings and everything they had contained had collapsed into a pile of rubble. Exposed to the elements for months, the ruins carried with them a reminder of everything that had been lost. They seemed a world away from the rest of the house, which was slowly but surely being shaped into a semblance of its former glory by Shiala and her staff.

Over a year had passed since she had fled the facility in Alberta as a shadow of her former self. Although her recovery had felt agonisingly slow at times, in reality it had been surprisingly rapid. She would never ‘return to normal.’ These days, ‘normal’ meant little to her. While she still recognised herself in the mirror, there were days where she could no longer be sure of her own identity. Days where she believed that Evan Shepard had died during the explosion of the Catalyst and the human shape that had been recovered beneath London was someone – or something – else. The person she had been before the War, was gone. The Catalyst had moulded and shaped her into someone – or something - altogether different.

For all that she shared with Liara during their melds, these were fears that she managed to keep deeply buried.

Shepard drew in a deep breath and forced her attention back to the present. The ruined wing had been given over to another purpose entirely – the one which currently had her poised and ready.  The faint tang of salt filled her nostrils, accompanied by the less salubrious whiff of mould and decay. She became aware of small sounds filtering through the silence – light scrapes, rustling – sounds that were barely there, but gave away a great deal.

Her eyes snapped open at the same moment that she threw herself to one side. A baton whistled through the space she had just occupied. Her hand snatched out and seized the weapon. With a violent tug, she wrenched her opponent off balance. There was a strangled, surprised cry as the body pitched forward. The asari landed on her back, staring up at Shepard with a bewildered expression on her face. A split second later, Shepard was moving. Her boots barely made a sound as she vaulted up onto a fallen pillar.

Movement caught her eye, shadows in the darkness up ahead. Legs pumping hard, Shepard sprinted the short length of the pillar before launching herself off the end. She tucked her body into a compact shape, somersaulting down to the floor level. She landed behind her next two targets. The first she caught unawares. The asari went sprawling, unconscious before she hit the ground. Her companion responded with her own weapon, rounding on Shepard, catching her squarely in the stomach with the baton’s point. Although winded, Shepard barely doubled over and recovered quickly. The two of them traded blows, back and forth without giving any quarter.

Shepard had fought asari before, but she’d never spent such a dedicated period of time training with them. She’d quickly learned that they didn’t use their long life-spans as an excuse to slack off. Commandos trained every moment as though their lives depended on it. Consequently, she’d spent most of her first months on Thessia covered in mottled bruises and aching in various muscles she hadn’t known she possessed.

No doubt her training partners had expected that to simply be the state of being. After all, how could a human hope to best commandos who had been training for hundreds of years? Slowly but surely, Shepard proved them wrong. She’d always been a quick study, especially when it came to physical combat, but her prowess went even further. The stamina and strength she’d possessed as a marine didn’t just return, it improved astronomically.

Although evenly matched in terms of skill, Shepard battered the asari with her sheer physicality. Eventually she knocked the baton from her opponent’s grip. Shepard danced away from the follow up kick, dropping into a roll as she recovered the fallen baton. With batons in both hands, she delivered a furious set of blows that left her opponent with no opportunity to counter-attack. Shepard felt some remorse as she delivered a cracking blow across the asari’s temple, but it was short-lived. She’d been on the receiving end of far too many batons during her first months to give any quarter now.

There was one further opponent lurking in the shadows. Shepard knew that she would receive very little warning when the move came. All too often it had been the whistling of a baton through the air a split second before it collided with her head. Once, a deliberate chuckle before her legs had been swept out from beneath her. Regardless of what form the first move took, Shiala was a formidable opponent.

Liara’s former tutor, once resident of Feros, voluntarily took part in Shepard’s combat training. Shepard suspected that Shiala’s motivation wasn’t entirely magnanimous. The green-skinned asari seemed to take a great deal of enjoyment in her work, more so when Shepard ended up in a groaning heap on the ground.

The attack came from above, pre-empted only by the faintest glimpse of a moving shadow. Poised and ready, Shepard darted to one side. A fist sailed harmlessly into the space she had just occupied. Her counter-move was a swiftly timed kick, catching Shiala in the ribs. There was a surprised ‘oomph,’ before Shiala recovered quickly. Shepard was immediately on the defensive, parrying several jabs and narrowly avoiding a wicked left hook that would have knocked her off her feet. As well as concentrating on avoiding being hit, Shepard had to stay on her feet. Finding purchase on the rubble was challenging. The asari was always one step ahead, using her speed and agility to avoid Shepard’s blows. It was like a dance, a dance where one partner had no sense of rhythm and didn’t know the steps.

Shepard could see the knowing twinkle in Shiala’s eyes. She changed tactics. The trick was allowing the asari to get in close, restricting her movements. When it came to sheer brute strength, Shepard would always have the upper hand. The final move came amidst a flurry of strikes that sought to disorientate rather than disable. Shepard deliberately caught a blow to the side of her head. It disrupted Shiala’s flow. Shepard used the hesitation to her advantage. Swiftly delivering a knee to Shiala’s stomach. The asari dropped to her knees. Before she could regain her feet, Shepard swooped forward, knee pressing against Shiala’s chest, driving her into the ground.  

“Yield?” Shepard growled, giving no room for movement even when poised to win. She’d made the mistake of easing up too early and paid the price for it several times over.

Shiala’s piercing emerald green eyes were narrowed with fury, but she offered up a taut nod in response.

Shepard grinned delightedly and bounced to her feet before helping Shiala up. “Not bad for a morning’s work, huh?”

“You are insufferable when you win,” Shiala muttered. 

“And you’re not?” Shepard countered as they picked their way out of the rubble. “Let’s agree that we’re both competitive?”

“Some more so than others.” Shiala’s follow-up was barely audible.

Thoughts of a breakfast of galactic proportions filtered into Shepard’s head as her stomach growled. She was lamenting the absence of pancakes from the asari diet when it felt like she’d walked into a solid wall. With her arms flailing uselessly, she was lifted from her feet and swept backwards several metres – all in the space of a second. It was accompanied by something that sounded suspiciously like a yelp of fright. It came to an end when she landed hard on her backside before sliding to an undignified halt against a pillar.

Shepard picked herself up gingerly. Thankfully, her limbs appeared to function. It wasn’t hard to identify the source of the attack. Matriarch Calis, still wreathed in a bright blue corona, made no attempt to hide what she’d done. Or appear apologetic about it.

“I thought this session was strictly no biotics,” Shepard protested, a hint of petulance in her tone.

“It was.” Calis replied, her blunt tone reflecting her expression. “However, I deemed that you were becoming overconfident. This was a reminder of your fragility.”

“An unnecessary reminder,” Shepard snapped. “How about next time I’m being an arrogant ass, just tell me?”

Calis regarded her carefully. “I do not think so. A demonstration was eminently more satisfying.”

As Calis turned and walked away, Shepard was sure she saw a smile appear on the Matriarch’s face. Perhaps the old battle axe has got a sense of humour after all, she mused. Although apparently, it’s at my expense.

“Your situational awareness needs work.”

Shepard was rubbing her smarting backside when she heard the comment. She glanced up to see Liara leaning over the railing of a balcony overhead, a broad smile on her face. “Please don’t tell me you saw that?”  

“Not all of it,” Liara replied breezily. “Just the surprised expression on your face as you were flying backwards.”  

Although she could have easily taken the nearby stairs, Liara flared a brilliant blue. In a movement that was both powerful and graceful, she vaulted over the railing and dropped down to ground level alongside Shepard. There was no sound as her boots hit the ground.

“Now who’s the one showing off?” 

Shepard sank down onto a nearby bench. The surface was hard and unyielding, but she was grateful to be able to take the weight off her legs. While commando leathers allowed unrestricted movement, the lack of padding was a serious drawback. Liara remained standing, a teasing smile lingering on her lips.  

“You have been working extremely hard over the past few months,” Liara said as she folded her arms across her chest.

Somehow Shepard had managed to get a hole in her leathers, just over her knee. She absently plucked at it while mulling over an answer that wouldn’t draw Liara’s patient ire. “There are people out there counting on me to get back into the fight. Speaking of which, have you heard from the Normandy?”

Liara shook her head. “You already know as much as I do. If that tip panned out, they will be due to hit the outpost in the Nemean Abyss in a few hours. There is nothing more that we can do other than wait.”

Shepard opened her mouth to speak-

“And do not even think about saying you wish you were with them,” Liara interrupted, as if on cue.

“C’mon, do you seriously think Miranda won’t kill Varek on sight if he’s actually there?”

“She’s with Jack,” Liara offered, as though that was the only answer required.

Just hearing it sounded strange to her ears. Shepard would have never believed that a time would come when Jack would be the instrument of mercy and reason to Miranda’s irrational vengeance.

“I’m worried about her. Miranda, I mean. She hasn’t stopped since Ashley’s death. She needs to come out of the field. Take some time to process.”

“You know she will not agree to that,” Liara said with a sad shake of her head. “Our best hope is to mitigate. Jack has proven herself to be an able leader. We need to trust that she can hold the crew together and keep Miranda in check.”

“You’re right, as usual.” Shepard sighed. “I’m just going a little stir crazy with nothing to do.”

“You have not forgotten about tomorrow? Liara asked pointedly.

Shepard frowned deliberately. “Why, what’s happening tomorrow?”

Liara’s expression shifted in a heartbeat, halfway between irritation and anger. “Evan, this meeting with Councillor Tevos has been scheduled for weeks-”

“Relax,” Shepard interrupted quickly, especially knowing that Liara was on the verge of a full-blown lecture. “It was just an ill-timed joke.”

“All of your jokes are ill-timed,” Liara grumbled.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Shepard continued. “How can I when I’ve been dreading it for weeks?”

“Tevos may be intimidating, but she is not unreasonable-”

“I’m not intimidated by that bitch.” It was Shepard’s turn to interrupt. And she did so swiftly, almost scathingly.

Her face was stormy for a few moments, reflecting her feelings towards the asari councillor. Even though it had been a lifetime ago, Shepard could not forget Tevos coldly informing her that there was insufficient evidence to prove Saren’s treachery. Their mutual animosity had continued in subsequent meetings, leading to Shepard throwing Tevos’ offer of reinstating her to the SpecTRes back in her face. Unfortunately, Tevos was the logical choice to be the first individual in power to be informed that Shepard was still alive. After all, she was hiding in Tevos’ back yard.

“I’m dreading losing my temper and disappointing you.”

“Any slight on your part could do more than simply disappoint me, Evan,” Liara replied calmly. “We need allies.”

Shepard nodded. She looked up at Liara with a determined expression. “I know. And I’ll play my part.”


 

Asteroid 34-Delta, Nemean Abyss

Moving silently didn’t come easily for Jack. She was a creature of noise and destruction. Of fire and light. Preferring not to fight from the shadows, but to ensure that her opponents knew she was coming. It was satisfying to see the terror in their eyes.

Things changed. And Jack was changing. No one could accuse her of not being able to adapt.

There was a flash of movement up ahead, beyond the shadows. The rap of footsteps. Sluggish. The footsteps of someone that was bored. Bored and more than likely inattentive. Jack didn't bother to flare. Bare hands would be enough. There was time only for the gestation of a shout as she struck - wrapped her hands around the guy's head, muscles coiled. One savage moment. A few beats of silence.

Jack heard purpose-like footsteps behind her. An extra pair of hands helped her grab the dead guard and drag him back into the shadows. He was unceremoniously folded and shoved into a narrow crevice in the rock. Jack met a pair of flashing dark eyes. Unlike Jack, Tasha Kurin was well suited to the darkness. The commando didn't make a sound as she left Jack to press forward.

Jack looked back over her shoulder. It was an unnecessary habit. The individual moving stealthily down the ladder did not need her concern. Clad in a skin-tight black combat skin, hair braided back, Miranda Lawson cropped into a crouch at Jack's side. Jack nodded towards the dead guy and held up one finger. Following the sound of a strangled grunt in the direction Kurin had just taken, Jack added a second finger. Two down.

Miranda responded with a taut nod. So far, it had been almost effortless. Jack wasn't about to jinx the operation by thinking that it was the smoothest one yet, but it wasn't far off the mark. They'd been doing it for almost a year after all. Using intel gathered from previous raids, combined with the analytical power of the Shadow Broker, they'd infiltrated five outposts supposedly connected to Varek Kor'Amon. They’d taken each one down, even as security tightened in response to their actions. However, so far, they had found only echoes of the Batarian himself. It was almost as though he were one step ahead of their every move. While Jack simply viewed it as the noose tightening around the bastard, she knew that it weighed heavily on Miranda. Her friend was almost single-minded in her pursuit, believing that responsibility for Ashley’s death could be laid at Kor’Amon’s feet. Almost being the operative word. Jack had done her best to temper Miranda’s need for vengeance. The task was getting harder with each passing month.

There was no sound as Miranda moved off in Kurin’s direction, leaving Jack to wait for the last member of their small squad. In the silence, a muffled cry sounded like a shout. Even as Jack looked upwards, a split second later, a dark shape fell to Jack’s right and landed in a tangle of limbs. The clatter of armour on metal made her wince. The silence returned, aside from a quiet shuffling as Traynor reoriented herself after falling down the ladder. Jack had to bite her lip to restrain herself from uttering several choice words in response.

Instead, she unceremoniously dragged Traynor to standing and pressed her finger to her lips. Jack could only hope that the sound hadn’t been as loud as it had seemed.

{What the hell was that?}

Miranda’s urgent whisper dispelled that hope. There was nothing further over the comm, as several loud shouts down the tunnel told Jack that someone had heard Traynor’s ungainly entrance. The shouts were quickly and efficiently silenced by Kurin and Miranda, but the damage was done. The situation escalated when the corridor was suddenly and completely bathed in a harsh, unnatural light. Jack blinked for a moment. Someone had turned on the lights.

“Well, there goes our element of surprise,” she muttered, turning to look at Traynor. The Ops Chief’s embarrassment had already given way to fright. “Stay behind me…and try not to trip over anything else.”

“Shit,” Traynor whispered. “They’ll have time to scrub the mainframe!”

Jack couldn’t resist a smirk. “Not if I get you there fast enough. Now move!”

With a sensation akin to euphoria, Jack flared a brilliant blue. Their loss of surprise should have bothered her, but this was a dance that she understood. Fire. Light.

Breaking into a run, she chased the sounds of violence further down the corridor.

Some things didn’t change.

 


 

 

Although a failure in terms of their overall objective, their latest mission wasn’t without its successes. Another of Kor’Amon’s cells had been put out of action, with the only casualty being Traynor’s confidence (and dignity). Despite coming up empty in terms of the Batarian general himself, they’d gathered valuable intel. Not to mention the bloody good time Jack had managed to have despite things not going entirely to plan. Save for bruised knuckles on account of refusing to wear gloves, she was unscathed. 

The crew were in the process of flushing out the few surviving mercs – non-combatants. A sorry looking pair of turians and a scowling batarian were under the hawk-like gaze of Gunnery Sergeant Natasha Petrova.

“What are we doing with this lot, ma’am?” the Gunny asked as Jack walked past.

“Lose ‘em,” Jack paused for a moment, staring down the batarian with a scowl of her own. “There’s a perfectly good crevasse over there. Looks deep enough.”

Jack couldn’t help but feel a sense of satisfaction as the batarian’s scowl disappeared behind a look of pure terror. All four of his eyes widened almost comically.

“Was thinking the same thing myself,” Petrova replied.

Jack turned to leave, but not before catching Petrova’s corresponding wink. Whatever their new purpose had shaped them into – pirates, bounty hunters, vigilantes – the Normandy crew had not become cold-blooded killers. Or at least in Jack’s case, she wasn’t about to let her sensibilities rub off on the people under her command. Save for Tasha Kurin, all were ex-Alliance, still used to rules, regulations and a sense of honour. Jack would have pushed the mercs into the crevasse without pause, satisfied that she was tying up loose ends. Instead, they’d be dumped on the nearest inhabitable rock.

Nevertheless, the raid’s aftermath wasn’t pretty. It never was with this kind of work. Kor’Amon’s followers weren’t neophytes. Just a year earlier, they would have all been fighting on the same side against the Reapers. Even before that, they would have been some of the most hardened mercs, eking out existences on the fringes of civilisation. Just the sort that were ripe for recruitment to a cause like Kor’Amon’s. One that promised them power, and a chance to tear down those they viewed as overlords.

It had been difficult to see the carnage in the dark. Mostly it had consisted of sounds. The slicing of skin, following by the gentle patter of blood on a hard surface. A barely audible grunt, the only sound made just before death. In the light everything was revealed for what it was. There was a lot of blood. Splatters against the wall – some with brain matter mixed in. Wide swaths on the floor where some unfortunate sod had tried to drag themselves into hiding or towards help. Thanks to Cerberus, Jack couldn’t remember a time when these sights would have bothered her. Due to her recently discovered ability to ‘give a shit,’ she had developed an awareness of its effect on others.

There was one person who found life as a vigilante more challenging than most. Jack found Traynor in front of a bank of monitors that looked as though they were several decades old, her fingers working feverishly across the out-dated manual interface.

“Found anything useful?”

Traynor was so intent on her work, she hadn’t noticed Jack’s approach. She jumped, clutching her chest in fright. The old Jack would have openly disdained the Ops Chief’s lack of fortitude for their work. Traynor had been military, but she was no solider. The role sat uncomfortably on her slender shoulders. Yet, for all her fragility, she was damn good at what she could do. And, in a way, Jack envied the fact that Traynor still possessed empathy and a conscience. They were luxuries that she’d had to do away with a long time ago. Or perhaps she’d never had them to begin with.

On seeing who had surprised her, Traynor quickly composed herself. “Nothing yet, ma’am, although I’m confident there will be some useful information. They destroyed the mainframe, but there wasn’t enough time to completely scrub their back up systems. It’s all here, I just need some time to dig it out.”

“You’ve got an hour, capiche? Then we’re bugging out of here before any of Kor’Amon’s friends arrive.”

“Righto, I’ll do my best.”

Righto? Jack fought to keep a sneer from her face. Who the fuck says righto?

“And ma’am, I’m sorry about earlier. I could have screwed up the mission-”

“Screwed up is putting it mildly, you could’ve gotten us all killed-” Jack stopped herself mid-tirade. With an impressive amount of self-control, she held back a flurry of expletives. “Just pay more attention next time. It’s called stealth for a reason.”

Traynor looked relieved. “Aye-aye, ma’am-”

Jack rolled her eyes. “And quit it with the ‘ma’am’ already. This isn’t the damn Alliance anymore.”

Pleased with her little pep talk, Jack absently wondered where the mercs that inhabited this shithole would have kept their booze. She was poking around in some footlockers when she heard urgent footsteps in the distance. They were the kind of footsteps that signalled nothing good. And they were getting closer. She sighed as her fingers closed around the motherload - a nearly full bottle of Krogan Brandy.  

Jack ignored the footsteps for as long as possible. She prised the cork out of the bottle with her teeth. It stubbornly refused to budge for a few moments, then popped out with a satisfying sound. A decidedly rotten aroma seared her nostrils. She flopped back onto some merc’s rack, kicking her feet up just as a decidedly out of breath Lieutenant Grenier approached.

“Whatever it is-” Jack waved the bottle under her nose, already getting high off the fumes from the booze. “-I have every confidence that you can deal with it, soldier-boy.”

Grenier reminded her of Jacob Taylor. She’d always liked that guy, despite the fact that he’d always driven her to boredom before he opened his mouth. Grenier was cut from the same cloth. Solid. Dependable. Fairly pleasant to look at. The kind of guy you could fuck a few hours before a suicide mission and think nothing of it. Someone who’d throw himself in the path of a fucking Praetorian’s laser beams without a second thought.

“I’m sorry. It’s Ms Lawson. I tried, but-” Grenier ended it with a shrug.

That changed everything. No further explanation was needed. With a muttered expletive, Jack slammed the cork back into the bottle. She tucked it back into the foot locker for retrieval at a later point.

“Where?”

“The shuttle pad.”

“Follow me, but keep your distance,” Jack advised. “No need for both of us to be in the firing line.”

Over the course of their hunt for Kor’Amon, there had been a gradual but discernible shift in power. The original intention had been for Miranda to ‘captain’ the Normandy. With her leadership experience, it had made sense. However, almost from the start, it had become clear that Miranda’s head wasn’t in the right place. Since Ashley’s death, she’d retreated further into herself. Jack gradually found herself stepping up to fill the void.

When it came, Jack’s realisation was swift. The crew were wholly taking orders from her. Miranda didn’t argue, simply saying that Jack was doing a good job. That was true enough (she was doing a bloody good job), but it was destroying her to see the former Cerberus operative reduced to a shadow of her former self. The Miranda she’d first met on the Normandy SR-2 had been a different person. Jack had hated that woman, but eventually she had grown to respect her. Now, that respect had morphed into something altogether. Jack didn’t want to dig too hard and try to define what she felt for Miranda, but it went deep. And it was intense. She was beginning to understand what feeling like that entailed.

Things were so much simpler when I didn’t give a fuck, she mused.

She bounced on her heels impatiently. The elevator up to the docking bay was taking an eternity. That was another thing. Anxiety was a new experience for her, one she didn’t particularly like. On the rare occasion that she gave into it, she could always trace its origin back to the damn Cheerleader.

Her old self would have told her to run. She wasn’t duty bound to the Normandy…or Miranda. But for all the irritation and inconvenience, Jack didn’t want to be anywhere else in the Galaxy.

The elevator doors had barely opened before Jack forced her way through them and out into the small docking bay. Grenier was forgotten behind her as she broke into a run, having already laid eyes on the source of the trouble. It was easy enough to spot.

Miranda, magnificently wreathed in a corona of blue, stood on the edge of the platform. Her arm was extended, fingers clamped around the neck of a petrified human. His legs kicked helplessness over the abyss below him. The guy was wearing filthy coveralls – sure sign of a grease monkey. Three others wearing similar garb knelt nearby, heads bowed, none willing to look up in case they wound up next.

Even as Jack watched, too far away to do anything, Miranda jerked her fingers open in a simple, deliberate movement. The grease monkey dropped like a stone. The echo of a drawn-out, blood-curdling scream was all he left behind. Before the scream faded, Miranda was already dragging her next victim to his feet. She ignored his protests as she dragged him towards the edge.

Jack recognised the single-minded determination on Miranda’s face as she sprinted up the steps onto the platform.  Before Miranda could haul her next victim out over the ledge, Jack snapped into action. Her biotics flared with the movement as she reached out to grab Miranda’s wrist in a vice-like grip.

“Miranda. Stop.”

Miranda stopped, but only because she was forced too by the pressure of Jack’s grip. Although not anywhere near full strength, not enough to break her wrist, it was enough to force Miranda to loosen her grip. The grease monkey was too petrified to run and simply curled into a tight ball. Additional footsteps sounded on the platform as Grenier joined them.

Jack didn’t take her eyes off Miranda. “XO, get these assholes the hell out of here. Put them with the rest.”

In response, Jack caught the full force of Miranda’s icy cold glare. If looks could kill, Jack would have been reduced to a glistening, pulpy mess in a matter of seconds. That was inconsequential. Miranda could be pissed at her for as long as she wanted. Jack just wanted her to stop.

“Miranda, these guys are bottom feeders.” Jack jerked her head in acknowledgement of the pathetic trio being led away by the XO. “You know as well as I do that Kor’Amon wouldn’t have let them in on shit.”

“And you know as well as I do that no one is innocent in this business!” Miranda snarled in response. “They’re just as complicit as the mercs with guns in their hands.”

“But they didn’t have guns in their hands! That’s the point,” Jack retorted. She tried to temper her voice. “One which you used to understand.”

It was akin to a face off. The two stared at one another. Neither offering up any quarter. Even without seeing her reflection, Jack knew exactly what Miranda could see – the determination, tinged with far too much compassion for her own good. She’d gone bloody soft. Unfortunately, it was needed. The corresponding expression on Miranda’s face was enraged, enhanced by the dark circles beneath her eyes and the hollow cast to her cheeks. There was no hint of repentance for what she’d done.

Jack remained unwavering, eventually forcing Miranda to back down first. Jack released Miranda’s wrist.

“We’re done here?” Jack asked carefully.

Miranda gave the barest of nods in response. “We need to move out, follow up on the next lead in the Haskins System.”

“That lead was even more tenuous that this one.” Jack sighed. “Hence why it was dismissed and we ended up on this shitty rock.”

“We can’t leave any stone unturned-”

“I’m not ordering the Normandy to Haskins,” Jack interrupted, realising that Miranda wasn’t about to be dissuaded by simple futility. “The crew is exhausted and our supplies are too low.”

“Put everyone on half-rations.” 

Jack would have slapped Miranda if she didn’t think she’d end up at the bottom of the abyss like the poor soul a few minutes earlier.

“No,” Jack said firmly. “We’re going back to Omega. We need to restock. The crew needs time to unwind.”

“I don’t-”

Jack snorted. “Have you looked in the mirror recently? You don’t eat, you don’t sleep. You need to take time out as much as the rest of us.” She paused for a moment and bit her lip. “Please.”

Miranda was unaffected by Jack’s plea. “Is my performance affecting the mission?”

“No,” Jack replied angrily, irritated that being nice wasn’t getting her anywhere. “But you’re a pain in my ass.”

Jack already knew that being flippant would have little effect on Miranda she couldn’t care less. The old Jack would have told Miranda that her shtick had become boring a long time ago. But Jack was growing. Miranda’s behaviour was still as boring, but Jack knew that she couldn’t just let it go. It many ways, she felt responsible.

“Ashley has been dead for almost a year. This-” Jack waved her arm in the direction Miranda’s victim had fallen “-is pissing on her memory.”

Miranda looked like she’d swallowed something sour. “You don’t get to-”

“I don’t get to what? Make assumptions like that? Well guess what, Cheerleader, they’re not assumptions. I know for a fact that Captain Perfect would fucking hate this person standing in front of me.” Jack jabbed her finger towards Miranda for emphasis. “You even look like you’re trying to pull this shit off again, you’re off the goddamn ship. Now, the Normandy is going back to Omega. I’m going to get rottenly drunk, possibly even laid, and then maybe I’ll be able to forget that look you’re wearing on your face right now – the one that tells me you hate my guts.”

It was only at that point that Miranda showed the first signs of something. It wasn’t remorse, more like guilt. Although Miranda opened her mouth to say something, no words emerged.

Before Miranda could say anything, Jack walked away without looking over her shoulder. It was enough of a start.


 

Blackheath, Australia

Sitting at her desk, Oriana Lawson was lost in a moment of reflection. Over fourteen months had passed since Ashley Williams’ body had been brought to her. While outwardly there had been only superficial damage, the marine’s internal injuries had been extensive. Oriana had no qualms about taking pride in her achievements. She did not view it as arrogance, it was merely pragmatism. Taking a dead body and restoring it to life was one thing, but to restore that dead body exactly as it had been in life was another thing entirely. 

Oriana turned her attention to the adjoining room, linked by a wide panel of one-way glass, just in time to see a shape hurtling towards her. There was a dull thud as a man collided with the surface. His face compacted into an inhuman mask before he slumped out of sight. Oriana’s attention was immediately drawn to the individual responsible.

Ashley Williams.

There was a world of difference between the subject who had spent months on her operating table and the woman standing in front of her. While Ashley’s first victim did not rise to his feet, Oriana watched as two further assailants rushed toward the Captain. Ashley was poised to respond, calm for a moment before she erupted in a flurry of violent action.

Her fist snapped out, catching a muscular woman square on the jaw. The blow was enough to disorientate, leaving Ashley time to deal with the man who rushed at her from behind. A kick caught him square in the gut. He barely grunted and continued driving forward to catch her in a full-on tackle. Even as they both crashed against a nearby wall, Ashley was already struggling to extricate herself. She brought her elbow downwards into his shoulder three times in rapid succession. He released her, stumbling backwards and leaving himself open to her counter-attack. She didn’t make the same mistake twice. This time the ball of her foot slammed into his nose. With blood streaming down his face, Ashley caught him with a succession of jabs to his already broken nose, rounded off with a solid hook to the jaw which sent him crashing to the floor.

The second opponent had regained her feet, but she needn’t have bothered. Ashley was on her in a matter of seconds. There was a half-hearted attempt to retaliate. One punch even caught Ashley in the stomach, but it failed to do anything other than anger her. Oriana watched the resulting rapid flurry of blows out of interest. There was no concern for the woman whose face was gradually being turned into an unrecognisable pulp, only for the one who was dishing it out.

From the moment Oriana had let her patient start training, Ashley had pushed herself beyond reasonable limits. It was hardly surprising. The woman was driven – even more so than she had been in her first life.

With a last, savage grunt of effort, Ashley brought her fist smashing down. Like a sack of meat, her opponent dropped unmoving to the canvas. Oriana deemed it safe enough to rise from her chair and step through into the training room.

“Captain Williams?”

At first, the woman made no attempt to respond to Oriana. Williams simply stood amid the carnage she had created, as though an unseen force had hit the ‘off switch.’ Oriana knew better. The soldier wasn’t switched off at all. It was the opposite. Like a snake, poised and coiled, on the verge of striking. Oriana had once made the mistake of touching Williams while she was in such a state. In less than a second, she had found herself on her back, unable to draw a breath with a hand at her throat. Williams had provided a half-hearted apology in the aftermath, but it was more of a rebuke. You created me. You should know better.

“Captain Williams?” Louder this time, more insistent.

As much as Oriana enjoyed basking in her own success by watching her creation in action, she did not enjoy any reversal in their relationship. While Williams still resided at Blackheath, she answered to Oriana. When the soldier finally acknowledged the summons, her posture relaxed as she turned. Her breathing had already returned to normal. Aside from a thin sheen of sweat on her body, there was nothing to indicate that Williams had been in a training session.  

“How are you feeling?”

“Five-by, ma’am,” Williams replied sharply.

The resulting sigh that left Oriana’s lips was deliberately obvious. “I’m not military, Williams, I’ve asked you to stop referring to me as ‘ma’am.”

“Apologies, old habits die hard.”

It wasn’t just an old habit. Oriana had achieved exactly what Kessler had demanded of her, the creation of the quintessential soldier. No, beyond that, the perfect soldier. Looking at Williams now, with her ramrod straight posture, it was impossible to see anything else. Indeed, everything else had been erased by months of meticulous work. Following the unfortunate demise of her lab tech in a shuttle accident a few months earlier, Oriana was the sole witness to the last vestiges of Williams’ old self.

“Excellent. There are several hours of tests scheduled for this afternoon. My recommendation would be to visit the mess first, then report back here at 1300.”

“Understood.”

Although Williams responded with a nod, Oriana knew her charge well enough to know that there was something she was leaving unspoken. “Was there something else, Captain?”

“Permission to speak freely, ma-” Williams stopped herself “-Dr Lawson?”

“Of course.” Oriana nodded in encouragement.

“These tests have been going on for months. What more do you need to know?” the soldier demanded impatiently.

“Well, firstly, we need to know if you’re ready.”

“With all due respect, ma’am…Dr Lawson, I feel ready. Every day I read reports on the rebuilding efforts of our former allies – the Turians, the Asari, they’re re-building and re-arming their forces just as rapidly as the Alliance, if not more so. If we don’t strike now, we’ll lose the slim advantage we have.”

Oriana raised her eyebrows. “It’s not your job to advise your superiors on their tactics, Captain Williams. The next time the Fleet Admiral visits, you’ll do well to keep those opinions to yourself.” Oriana knew full well that Williams would do the exact opposite. “Was there anything else?”

Williams pursed her lips in a tight line, holding back her anger. “This thing impersonating Shepard? It’s out there somewhere. No doubt building up support as well. Every day that thing is allowed to roam free is an insult to my friend and her memory. If you can convince the Alliance to approve the assignment, I know I can find it and infiltrate its inner circle. It will let me get close. Dr Lawson, it needs to be put down.”

“Absolutely not. The Alliance won’t risk you…I won’t risk you. We’ve every reason to believe that this fake Shepard is surrounded by some of your former associates – Liara T’Soni, Subject Zero. The crew of the Normandy. There are rumours she is working with the remnants of Cerberus.”

Williams lip twitched slightly at the mention of the names. “Traitors, all of them.”

Now Oriana risked touching the marine. She reached out and laid a firm hand on Williams’ shoulder. “Captain Williams…Ashley, you will get your chance to restore Shepard’s memory. In the meantime, you know the role you are expected to play.”

“They want me to be a figurehead,” Williams replied bitterly. “I’m a marine, not a goddamn show pony.”

“They want you to inspire humanity to achieve greatness.”

The marine seemed to accept Oriana’s reasoning. “I’m sorry for losing my temper – especially when you’ve done so much to get me back into shape. I just want to get out of this facility. Start doing something worthwhile.”

“I know you do.” Oriana let her hand fall.

“Dr Lawson, can I ask you a personal question?” Williams’ stern expression faltered for a moment. At Oriana’s nod, she continued, “When will I be able to see Abby and Lynn?”

Oriana forced a neutral smile onto her face. The sisters. There was a headache that she didn’t need. With the distinct possibility that Abby and Lynn had been aware of William’s relationship with her own sister, Oriana knew she needed to proceed carefully. All memory of Miranda Lawson had been painstakingly excised, she had no desire for her hard work to be unravelled by a couple of civilians.

“Soon, Ashley,” Oriana said softly. “I promise.”