Nor shall this peace sleep with her; but as when
The bird of wonder dies, the maiden phoenix,
Her ashes new create another heir
As great in admiration as herself;
So shall she leave her blessedness to one,
When heaven shall call her from this cloud of darkness,
Who from the sacred ashes of her honour
Shall star-like rise as great in fame as she was,
And so stand fix'd.
-Henry VIII, Act V, Scene V
The bar was doing a good job drowning out the sound of the Galactic News broadcast, and each time the bartender increased the volume, the drunken and sober alike rose their voice to join the clamor.
Elisha leaned closer to her companion, straining to hear over the competition that was taking place between flesh and technology. She braced her elbows on the table, her chest nearly pressed against the sticky top as she lifted out of her chair. “I can’t hear you,” she shouted needlessly.
Jeks contorted his lipless mouth into what she thought was a scowl and blinked big, black eyes at her. If he meant to harangue her about the location she picked - a favorite of his before they ever got down to business - his quick tongue reply was lost in the roar of another, louder voice.
“Hey!” a big man yelled, two meaty fists the size of Elisha’s head crashing down on his table with enough force to cause the drinks of his companion to slosh. The inharmonious crescendo of voices petered to a murmur. “Look,” he commanded.
The bar followed his gaze to the screen that took up one wall.
“-drive core was breached when an unknown ship-”
Elisha and the rest of the bar watched in silence, the wreckage of the Normandy floating across the screen, the hull ripped apart and pieces of her interior splayed across the void of space. Across from her, Jeks sucked in a ragged breath. All around the bar, patrons offered their own sounds of sorrow, gasps, and murmurs, a forceful but whispered, “ah fuck.”
The human woman on the screen was hyper-focused, her pupils dilated as she read the text that was no doubt being supplied just off-screen. High definition and droid mounted cameras came with their drawbacks; everyone watching could see this woman’s panic, her eyes darting back and forth as she rushed to get the news out.
“Commander Jane Shepard, Hero of the Citadel and the first human Spectre”- a photo of the famed commander appeared in the upper right side, the woman looking smart in her blues -“has been reported dead.”
The woman pressed on, details about the rest of the crew and total casualties, but it was clear no one cared about anything else she had to say. Everyone was speaking at once, the shock of the situation escalating from the silent to noisy kind.
“I met the commander once,” someone began the table over, the boast met with an incredulous snicker by others.
“-the krogan tore about the bar before-“ someone else was saying.
“Wow,” Elisha sighed. She looked at the screen once more and noticed a red banner scrolling across the top of the screen: COMMANDER SHEPARD DEAD it declared. “I guess being a hero doesn’t stop one good shot at your ship from killing you.”
“Yikes,” Jeks moaned, “that’s a little morbid.”
She shrugged and took a sip of the drink she had been neglecting. It was too sweet, sticky and viscous, and she smacked her lips to keep them from sticking together. Jeks squinted one eye at her, then looked at the newsfeed. “Has anyone ever told you that you kind of look like her?” he asked, motioning with his head towards the screen.
They had switched to a new photo, this one less staged than the Alliance headshot. Shepard was wearing a black hard suit, a crisp - it had to be freshly painted, right? - red line on her right arm. She was looking over her shoulder as she stepped onto the Normandy, one hand raised in what could have been a wave or the beginning of a profane gesture. Her expression was blank, carefully neutral if Elisha had a guess at what was going on in her head, her signature red hair pulled high and tight in a bun. There was a turian in blue armor a step behind her, and another human woman was waiting just outside the airlock. The other woman looked grim despite wearing what appeared to be pink armor, her arms crossed and hip cocked as she scowled, presumably, at the camera.
Elisha rolled her head, letting it dip from left to right, her eyes following the motion while he watched her performance, unimpressed and unblinking. “That’s not true,” she tutted. And she had heard it enough times to be unimpressed with the comparison.
“Close enough.” He lifted his thin shoulders into the air and put up a hand before saying, “But hey, what does that matter now? No fame in looking like a dead war hero.”
“Whoa! Talk about morbid,” she teased with a toothy grin.
The mood in the bar had shifted again, and even with the news flashing images from the destruction of the Citadel, the jaunty vibe and shouting had resumed. There wasn’t anyone in the bar who wasn’t in some way touched by what Shepard and her crew had done during the battle of the Citadel, but war heroes could only hold their attention for so long. The news would be on repeat for weeks, there would be public and private ceremonies to honor the commander and any other lives lost this day, and at more appropriate places. The most they could do here was drink to the honor of the dead human.
“Enough talk, period.” Jeks brought his omnitool to life, the orange glow casting his face in an eerie pallor. He tapped on the ghostly keyboard with the nubs of his fingers, and within seconds, Elisha had received an alert. She tapped at her own omnitool, listening with a smile as her companion, Bekir, confirmed the credit transfer.
“A pleasure,” she said with feeling. She rose to her feet, stretching her arms above her head and hearing a pop as her left shoulder protested. “Dock 372.”
Jeks stayed seated, relaxing into the chair and motioning with two fingers for one of the staff to bring him another drink. “Wars never end, and neither does business.”
“You’ve always been my favorite client,” she told him, dropping her voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper. “I’m sure you’ll be in touch.”
She didn’t wait for Jeks response, eager to get to her ship and skitter back to Omega. The cargo had been difficult to procure, and Jeks had rewarded her handsomely for the added risk he assumed she had taken to get it. Even without the bonus, it was a fat paycheck and would get the repairs she and the crew needed. Some of those repairs would come in liquid form, something from Thessia maybe. The team would love her for that. They might even do what she said for once.
The thought brought a smile to her lips. If ever there was a way to a smuggler’s heart, it was alcohol.
Dr. Wilson reran the simulation. He was past the point of denial where he hoped watching it again would miraculously produce a new, more favorable outcome. Now he watched it as a punishment.
The holographic model of Shepard stretched before him, the orange lines that represented the parts of her they could fix intersecting with gaps, black holes in the data where nothing was being transmitted. Her head was missing from the hologram. Well, more specifically; her brain. If he wanted to, he could prop the body up, manipulate the cybernetic implants in her arms and legs to give her the appearance of movement. With the help of someone at the controls, the Shepard puppet could walk across the room, all elbows and knees, lurching forward like she was being pulled along a string. It wasn’t far off from the truth.
The door slid open, the sharp snap of heels giving away Miranda Lawson without her needing to say anything. Wilson changed the view without a word, bringing up the scans of Shepard’s brain and enlarging them across the holo-emitter. There was a small, rectangular mark on the scans, the implant showing up as a black spot where it was attached to her cerebellum, another buried in the prefrontal cortex. Hidden from view were the wires running between the two and branching out into the other areas of the brain, a paltry mimicry of the neural network they had lost.
“She’s useless to us like this,” he said, even though he didn’t need to. He had worked with Miranda long enough to enjoy seeing her disappointed, and he was rewarded when her mouth pressed into a thin line, her frustration gouged deep in the lines of her face. “We have a puppet, and for all the money we spent, we could have built an army of VI programs that can do as much as she can right now.”
“Would you say it’s a lost cause?” She turned to the doctor. It was a dangerous question, one belied by her casual tone. She might as well be asking him if he didn’t like dinner, if they should order something. Only in this situation, there might as well be a gun to his head, because if she didn’t like his answer, she would probably kill him on direct orders from the boss. No, honey, the charring adds flavor.
He considered his words carefully, but there was no use in denying the inevitable. He had been working in the dark, isolated ward for nearly two years, his work too high risk to allow him communications with anyone outside the staff he was provided. He had even been forced to wear their ugly uniform, black and orange. It was unflattering and he hated it.
With the finality the situation merited, he looked at her and gave a curt nod. “It isn’t possible.”
She looked stricken. Perhaps she thought he had a secret ace up his sleeve, or that he would beg for more time and delay the inevitable another six months. True to her nature, she recovered quickly and her expression melted into something almost serene. Her head was one that he would have given anything to peek inside.
“Thank you for your work, doctor.”
The sincerity of her voice touched him, and he was thrown off guard. She reached out a hand, and he took it. They had done good work over the past two years, even if it hadn’t been a success. What they had been able to discover would -
His death was quick. Even if she hadn’t been so close to him, she knew where to aim. She let go of his hand as he dropped to the floor, limp and losing color rapidly as he bled all over the floor. Miranda holstered her gun and tapped her omnitool, allowing it to begin transmitting her voice. “Put in motion Maiden Phoenix.”
This was the longest she had been behind bars, and Elisha was feeling the itch of claustrophobia that accompanied her anxiety. She pressed her face against the transparent barrier that separated her cell from the hallway. There were three, fist-sized holes along the top, just out of her reach, and three more at the bottom. She guessed it was to make her feel like she wasn’t trapped in a coffin, but it only succeeded in making her feel like an insect.
“Hello?” she called past the glass, her nose and cheeks distorted as she looked out.
This was unusual. It had never taken Bekir long to get her out. They had a fund put aside for bribes exclusively, and it was well padded before she had been busted.
Could there be no more corrupt C-Sec? she thought with a sudden chill of horror. She pouted for a moment, breathed on the glass and drew a frowny face in the fog left behind. The thought, as chilling as it was to a well-versed smuggler such as herself, was unlikely. She wiped away the frowny face, huffed on the glass again, redrew a happy face.
Bekir would come. He always had, always would.
Placated, however briefly, she returned to the cot that jutted from the wall and settled herself as comfortably as she could. Across the hall from her, an asari was sleeping, one arm hanging off the bed and the other propped against the wall. Although the bed couldn’t promise a level of comfort the asari had clearly achieved, Elisha made a go of resting. Propped up in the corner, it was almost like sleeping in one of the chairs on the bridge of her ship.
If she managed to fall asleep, she didn’t wake up feeling rested. The loud echo of shoes in the hallway startled her awake, chasing away the benefits of rest with a healthy dose of adrenaline. She had always been a light sleeper, but the feeling of waking up in an unfamiliar bed, blazing white lights overhead, kicked her into overdrive. She tuned her eyes to the door, taking in the two figures that stood there now.
One was slightly familiar, the human who had escorted her to the cell. He was tall and thin, lanky even, with too big hands that seemed peculiar sprouting from his bony wrists. Their walk to the cell had been taciturn and without pleasantries, but he looked frightened half to death now. All the color in his face had migrated to his cheeks, his complexion sallow in comparison to the crimson flush. From a guess at their body language, it was the woman next to him making him so nervous.
“It’s remarkable,” the woman breathed. She was staring at Elisha with a feverishly bright gaze, sizing her up like she was a buffet with too many options.
“What’s going on?” Elisha directed her question towards the guard who was waving his ID in front of the scanner. The device blinked a green light, and the door to the cell slid into the wall.
“Let’s go,” he said, ignoring her question and gesturing with one of his knuckly hands for her to step out. When she made no effort to move, he repeated the motion. “You’re being released,” he said with a barely hidden hint of exasperation, like that explained everything.
She stayed rooted to her cot. “Who am I being released to?” she demanded. Now she focused her attention on the woman dressed in white. The women locked eyes, and Elisha glowered, her shoulders rolling back and her chest puffing out. The other woman’s smile deepened, and without breaking eye contact, she tilted her head to the guard and commanded him: “go.”
The guard didn’t raise a fuss, and he made a hasty retreat, his shoes scuffing the length of the hallway.
“Hello, Elisha Cirillo. My name is Miranda Lawson. I represent a group that is dedicated to preserving humanities interests across the galaxy, and I have need of your skills.”