Miranda Lawson was a project manager at heart and she knew it. She preferred to have a hand in every aspect of what she was working on, start to finish. It was very much a control thing, probably something she had inherited from her father, she reflected bitterly. She didn’t mind lending a hand to help with the Crucible when needed, but it wasn’t hers. It was a collaborative effort. A patchwork hastily constructed the labor of thousands of individuals, none of whom were able to comprehend the scope of their contributions. It stressed her out more than she cared to admit. Working on her own at the very least gave her the opportunity to step back and focus on something else for awhile. Perhaps it was morbid to consider, but she wanted all of her affairs in order if the worst happened.
With her network of contacts it wasn’t difficult to find the re-purposed fuel depot. The Alliance had started using whatever existing structures it could find to help defend the few remaining systems they controlled. Abandoned mining stations, unoccupied raider bases - any place that could be left behind just as quickly as it had been rediscovered.
She made her way through the mess hall, eyes peeled for the woman she was looking for. Thankfully, Jack wasn’t a difficult person to find; her voice tended to carry.
Shepard had told her what to expect, but Miranda still found herself more than a little surprised. Jack’s hair had grown out, though the most striking thing about her was not her appearance. The biotic was seated at one of the dining tables surrounded by a dozen teenagers. She was laughing and grinning. “Happy” would not have been a word Miranda would have thought to associate with her, but it was the only word that fit.
Miranda walked past casually, making eye contact with Jack before continuing on, not wanting to cause a scene. Jack’s expression immediately changed. The joke she was telling stopped dead in its track and was replaced with a scowl.
After exiting into a hallway, Miranda waited. Jack was only a few seconds behind her and wasted no time with pleasantries.
“You’ve got about ten seconds before I beat your ass into next week,” Jack said, waving a glowing fist inches from her face.
“It’s good to see you too, Jack,” Miranda replied cordially.
“Talk, Lawson. Now.”
“I have intel I thought you may be interested in. The location of a Cerberus research facility.”
She took Jack’s silence as an indication that she had reconsidered her time-limit and continued.
“It’s a valuable target, but I’m expecting more firepower than I could handle alone. I thought maybe you would want to come along for old time’s sake.”
Jack’s eyebrows furrowed. “What’s your game, Lawson? What do you gain from this little field-trip?”
“Same as you,” Miranda said. “Payback. The Illusive Man has spent the last several months making my life hell and I intend to return the favor.”
“Don’t think sticking a middle finger to your old boss is really worth it.” Jack looked back at the mess hall doors. “Besides, I’ve got other priorities now.”
“That’s surprisingly mature of you,” Miranda observed.
Enraged, Jack was already storming off. “Fuck you. Take your skinny little catsuit and revenge trip, shove it, and leave me alone.”
“Jack wait,” Miranda called after her. “There’s something else. This cell was conducting biotic research... under the direction of several of the scientists responsible for Pragia.”
Jack stopped abruptly and paused before turning back around. “Fucking lead with that next time.”
Calling the shuttle ride uncomfortable would have been an understatement.
It wasn’t how Miranda preferred to travel, stuck in a cramped space with a woman who had threatened her life on multiple occasions. Leaving Cerberus had dealt a devastating blow to the resources she was used to, but she was still able to call in favors as needed. The soreness was something she would just have to deal with.
And then there was the metaphorical elephant.
They had not parted on the best of terms. In fact, Miranda was fairly certain they’d never had a civil conversation in all of the time they had known together. Nearly a year without interacting had caused the mutual animosity to grow stale, but not evaporate completely.
As difficult as it was to admit, it went both ways. She had made more than her fair share of assumptions and had said plenty of malicious things. It had taken returning from the Omega-4 relay for Miranda to truly respect her and even then, she had never admitted it. Her own culpability aside, Jack was an incredibly difficult person to like. It was one thing they had in common.
“Is that a new tattoo?” she asked Jack, trying to break the terse silence.
Jack rolled her head over to look at her. “Bite me.”
“I’m serious. I don’t think I’ve seen that one before.
“Yeah. It was the first thing I did when we got back.” Jack looked down at the small mass relay tattooed on the back of her hand. “A reminder, I guess.”
“I don’t know how you stand it. I’ve never been good with needles,” Miranda admitted. “I have thought about it though. Maybe a small flower or something on my ankle.”
Jack snorted. “Basic bitch.” Just as soon a smirk crossed her face. “We’re not here to make nice,” she said, crossing her arms.
The shuttle began to shake as they entered the atmosphere.
Jack looked back at her and nodded, ejecting a thermal clip from her pistol.
They had barely made it off the landing platform when a half-dozen mechs started firing at them. Had she been alone, she would have opted for a stealthier approach. As Jack ran ran at the sentries, screaming in anger, she figured she had made a good call.
It was like falling back into an old routine, as Jack’s brute strength matched Miranda’s calculated strategy. The simple mechs didn’t stand a chance.
Smiling wildly, Jack ripped the head of a mech with a biotic field. “What?” Her demeanor changed in an instant when she caught Miranda staring.
“It’s nothing. You’re just really in your element.”
“Just nice to stretch to stretch my amps a bit.”
“I can imagine that this is a lot different than what you’re used to.”
Jack shrugged. “I guess.”
“Shepard told me what you’ve been up to. It sounds like you’re doing good work.”
“Yeah, well I wasn’t so sure about that. Didn’t have many other options and I still have no clue what I’m doing.”
“I don’t think anyone knows what they’re doing, especially now.”
“Everyone except you, maybe. You’re always five steps ahead of everyone else.”
“We can’t all be as perfect as - Hey, get down!”
Before Miranda could register what was going on, Jack tackled her. From somewhere behind them, the an Atlas’s mortar exploded.
“Come and get me!” Jack shouted, jumping back onto her feet and running at the manned mech.
Reinforcements arrived, as Miranda should have known they would, but she could scold herself for getting distracted later. Still wobbly, she got up and crouched behind a low wall, covering Jack’s vicious attack.
Once, Jack’s ferocity and apparently lack of control deeply concerned Miranda. Had it been her decision, she would have left the anarchist and criminal in her cryogenic cell. But it hadn’t been her call. And had it been, she would have been wrong. Jack had proven her worth time and time again, more than living up to her reputation.
Wiping blood off of her visor, Miranda turned towards Jack. “For what it’s worth, it seems like you’re doing a good job.”
“Seriously, knock it off with the mushy crap,” Jack snapped back. She shot the access panel and the front doors flew open.
The facility was built like a compound, with most of the lab stretching out beneath the main entrance. Alarms blared in the background, signaling an evacuation. With Jack tearing through the mostly empty hallways, it almost reminded her of Pragia.
From what she had been told, the entire facility should have packed. It was one of the few remaining outposts Cerberus still controlled and they’d barely seen enough people for a skeleton crew. The few scientists they had found hadn’t been particularly talkative, instead preferring to shoot. On closer inspection, the remaining soldiers didn’t seem in much better shape.
Something was wrong and Jack must have noticed it too.
After throwing a table through a window in a break room, she turned to Miranda. “You think they left anything behind that’ll tell us what the hell happened?”
“If you can find a computer, I should be able to learn something.”
In an impressive display of biotics, Jack pulled the doors to an adjacent lab open. Had it been anyone else, Miranda would have thought she was showing off. “After you, princess.”
At the terminal, Miranda got to work.
“They’ve probably updated security a few times since you left.”
“I know all of Cerberus’s secrets,” Miranda said mysteriously and reached under the keyboard, where a list of passwords was written down
“Damn. That can’t be safe.”
“It doesn’t need to be,” Miranda said, already glancing over the backlog of reports that had piled up on the monitor since the last time it had been used. She started skimming over notices about cryptically named projects for anything that would shed light on why the facility had already been mostly evacuated.
“Anything actually sensitive is encrypted, so most security measures are a strain on day-to-day oper- Hold on.” She looked closer at the screen. “The first alarm was triggered over a week ago.”
Jack practically shoved her out of the way. “Where?”
“This containment cell,” Miranda replied, pulling up a map of the lower levels.
Both women exchanged glances and tore off down the hallway.
Whatever Cerberus had been doing, it was heavily involved in Reaper tech. Of course it was. She should have anticipated that.
As they started to descend, the signs of corruption became more apparent. Every room was filled with corpses, their steady blue glow contrasting with the red emergency lighting. Grotesque tendrils of corrupted technology snaked through the labs as if feeding off of the destruction. Monitors and terminals had been fried Jack became more and more frantic, with no other concern than moving forward as fast as possible.
They had both seen enough of Cerberus’s handiwork to guess at what lay on the other side of the final door.
The room was a dimly-lit cell, barely ten feet across and surrounded in broken observation glass. In the center, a child-sized figure had been strapped to a chair before being completely overtaken by Reaper control. Everything was covered in the elaborate circuitry and tech, fusing the chair and corpse to the ground and over-taking the amps and cables that had once monitored life-signs.
“Did you know about this?” Jack whispered. When Miranda didn’t respond, she repeated herself, louder. “Did you fucking know about this?!”
Before she let Miranda respond, Jack threw her fist into the wall, leaving behind a massive dent.
“I had no idea, I swear.”
Jack punched the wall again, this time letting out a blood-chilling scream.
“I am so sorry.” She went to place a hand on Jack’s shoulder, but immediately thought better of it.
The room was eerily silent. For once in her life, Miranda couldn’t figure out what to say. She had seen terrible things on Horizon and knew the things that Cerberus was capable of, but she hadn’t anticipated this. In some ways, it seemed minuscule in comparison to the rest of their atrocities. Yet, this was something she couldn’t compartmentalize.
After several minutes, Jack stood and gave one last look at the emancipated husk. “Whatever. It’s over now.”
“I said it’s over.”
After that, Miranda had not expected to see Jack ever again, much less the next day.
“We need to talk,” Jack said after arriving at her cabin without warning. She pushed past without waiting for an invitation.
“It didn’t go how I expected,” Miranda said.
“Are you sure about that?” Jack shoved a tablet into her hands.
It was a report. One of her own.
She remembered writing it vividly. They had barely arrived back at the Normandy after Pragia and Jack had already started screaming at her. Miranda had always considered herself a patient, measured woman. There was no doubt it was not her finest moment, but the person she was that day scared her now.
The memories were still fresh in her mind, over a year later. She felt like she was viewing them through someone-else’s eyes. The decrepit building, haunted by ghosts living and dead. The overgrown dormitories.
Then, she saw the mistakes as simple miscalculations, not the horrors that they truly were. She rationalized it. She understood it.
Miranda Lawson saw Pragia and thought she could have done better.
She had told the Illusive Man as much. Whether or not the newer facility had been constructed on her advice or if it was entirely unrelated, she would never know. It still felt as if there was blood on her hands and that was something she would have to live with.
Jack had always been right about Cerberus. It had taken Miranda over half of a year of being on the run to see the organization she had dedicated her life to for what they truly were. What she had been. What she was trying to undo.
There was no way Miranda could have put any of that into words.
Instead, she sighed. “Where did you get this?”
“You’re not the only one with fancy connections,” Jack said, sitting down and kicking her feet up on the couch.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“You pulled me away on that fucked up little trip of yours. Now you’re going tell me why.”
Miranda looked down at her hands. The words did not come easy, but they needed to be said. “What Cerberus did to you was wrong and I apologize for anything I said in the past to minimize that. I thought that this would be a chance to make up for the things that I said and how I treated you, but that clearly backfired.”
An pitiful apology. But it was a start.
She no longer looked at Jack and saw a shell of a woman hollowed by anger and excess. Jack had taken the terrible life Cerberus had thrown her into and fought her way to a better one. She’d made something of her life, unapologetically.
“Clean up your own mess next time,” Jack said, heading towards the door. “But hey. Thanks. I... didn’t hate punching shit together again.”
Miranda smiled softly. “At least it wasn’t each other this time.”
At that, Jack laughed. “I’ll see you around, Lawson,” she said and shut the door behind her.