“Some souls die in battle. Some die in their sleep. And some die for no reason at all.”
They assume they know her. Assume they know what she thinks, how she thinks.
They underestimate her.
It’s a mistake she can use to her advantage. She knows what they see: pretty face, competence under fire, commendations, the N7 designation that’s somehow been twisted from proof she’s a trained killer to an emblem of honor they mistakenly believe makes her trustworthy.
A white letter. A white number. A red symbol. Stripes. The kind of thing enterprising assholes stick on t-shirts or hoodies or baseball caps and sell to idiots like Conrad Verner, idiots who want to feel like somebody, who want to be part of something they could never earn on their own merit. They have no fucking idea what that letter and number and symbol signify. She suffered through seven levels of hell to earn them. She learned to go without sleep, without food. Her body was trained to kill. Her mind was trained to follow orders. She was broken down in ICT. Broken down, built up. Remade.
She has been made and remade over and over. They see a survivor, a warrior. Sometimes they see a diplomat, more fools they. They don’t see the truth. They see what they want to see.
That’s a mistake she can use to her advantage, too.
She knows what she is. She’s a weapon. Point her and shoot.
She kills the asari first.
Asari are never easy targets. Damned biotics. Get too close and they’ll rip you apart. She doesn’t trust anything that can kill without dirtying its hands.
She doesn’t trust anyone who trades in information, either. She’s learned that lesson the hard way. What’s the saying? Power corrupts? Who holds more power than the Shadow Broker? How can she be anything but corrupt?
They’re all taken in. They think the asari is working for them. So she waits, biding her time. Planning.
She is patient. Has always been patient. Most people don’t see that, either.
When it happens, the ship is nearly empty. Shore leave on the Citadel. Shore leave, as if the war can wait while they’re dancing and drinking and watching asari strippers. Shore leave, as though the Reapers aren’t systematically destroying every shore in the galaxy.
The asari trusts her. Foolish mistake. She looks up from her bank of screens and smiles a broad, sweet, pleased smile. The wide eyes don’t have time to fill with either understanding or tears. Before the blue glow can materialize, the Shadow Broker is dead.
She covers the body with a sheet because for a moment—just a moment—she sees the girl from Therum on the floor and not the monster that girl became.
The lieutenant is easier. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and she’s already had time to take his measure. When the lieutenant thought they were dancing, she was watching, gauging, finding him lacking. His eyes have been filled with doubt since they left Earth; for all his musculature, he isn’t strong enough to survive what they need to survive.
When she takes him down, she does it fast. He feels nothing. It’s not difficult.
She knows she’s doing him a favor.
She considers throwing the Prothean out the airlock just to be poetic, but settles instead for holding him facedown in his pool. She is stronger than she looks; it’s yet another mistake they make when they judge her at a glance. Whatever words he might speak about her failings and flaws drown with his breath.
He probably dies thinking how primitive she is.
In her cycle, a commander brooks no mutiny on her own ship.
In her cycle, she has to do every goddamned thing herself.
The woman huddles in the corner, face buried in her bare knees. Her scalp is covered in a fine stubble of new growth. The room is bare. The bed is a shelf attached to the wall, and it holds no pillow, no blanket. There’s no other furniture.
The woman lifts her head to glare around her empty, white surroundings. A moment later, she’s on her feet, back to the wall, half-crouched in a fighting stance. She moves fast. She’s naked.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” says the new doctor, incredulous. “After everything she’s done? This indignity is beneath us.”
“She knows six ways to kill a man with a shoelace,” the second doctor replies, looking up from his datapad. He’s older. His expression is bored. “You don’t want to know what she could do with a blanket, a pillow, a pair of pants. They haven’t invented a straightjacket that will hold her. They haven’t invented sedatives that’ll keep her under. Trust me, it’s better this way. The first time she tried to escape, she took out three marines before we even knew she was out. Two of them were biotics. It was… well. Be glad you weren’t here then. And don’t insult us by questioning the security measures we’ve taken. You have no idea how much blood is on her hands.” Behind him, the woman in the cell begins to pace, either unaware of or unconcerned by her state of undress.
She paces like a soldier, like a commander, shoulders back and hands linked behind her. She moves like someone used to giving orders, used to having those orders followed immediately. And yet she’s smaller than the young doctor imagined she’d be. Shorter. Thinner. Just cords of muscle over bone, scarred skin stretched taut over it. Too many scars. He has reviewed her medical records several times and knows they don’t have injuries enough on file to account for all the trauma her skin bears witness to.
“We were both at Huerta when she stopped that huge geth ship,” the younger man says, unable to keep the accusation from his tone. “We’d probably be dead if not for her.”
“Stories are stories,” the second man says. “Heroes are just people with stories attached to them. And people break. Whatever she saw later? Whatever it was that drove her past the Omega-4 and then out into the Bahak? Whatever made her do what she did? I don’t think she’s coming back from that. But they want us to try. Because she was a hero once.”
Inside the room, the woman pauses, stiffens, every muscle in her back going rigid. For a moment, the young doctor thinks she’s seizing. They’ve been warned about the possibility. It’s in the notes. She is packed full of tech and cybernetics even their best minds can only half make sense of, and anyone who might know how she works is off the grid. Or dead.
“Does this unit have a soul?” she asks no one. She turns and looks at them. Pokes herself in the chest. Then she laughs. It is the most horrifying sound the young doctor has ever heard. He finds himself grinding his teeth in a vain attempt to banish the shiver that laugh sends down his spine. It doesn’t work.
A moment later, she begins shouting. Full volume. Rage turns her cheeks pink. Her eyes flash. She points into empty space like she’s imagining pushing at a chest. The younger doctor’s shudder doesn’t go away. His colleague pulls up his omni-tool and starts taking notes.
“Ahh,” he says, as if her words mean something. “The quarians. We wondered if she’d come back to them. It’s been a while. She’s been looping on Palaven.”
“In her delusion they’re waging war against the geth.”
“I thought her ‘Reapers’ were the ones—”
“Yes, yes. But one intergalactic war wasn’t enough. She had to make things worse for herself.” The second doctor pauses, lifts his eyes, shrugs. “She always finds ways to make things worse for herself. No one supports her in this world she’s created. Not the Council. Not her crew. No one. Last week she described in calm, meticulous detail murdering one of her oldest friends. Accused Dr. T’Soni of spying on her, of all things. Thought the good archeologist had somehow set herself up as the Shadow Broker.”
“But that’s ridiculous. I spoke with Dr. T’Soni day before yester—”
“Like I said, you put enough pressure on anyone, they’ll break. These cycles have beginnings, middles, ends. You’ll get to know them after a while. Sometimes she goes on a rampage through her own crew. We think that’s reliving that first escape attempt, but replacing our marines with faces she knows. Faces she remembers. Sometimes she talks about a weapon of mass destruction and a child and choices that don’t make any sense. Sometimes she describes the ways she’d end herself, if only she had a shoelace or a pillow or a pair of pants. Or a gun. She’s Humpty Dumpty, kid. We’re all the king’s men.”
In the cell, she sits on her bunk and clenches her hands around the metal edge until the tendons stand out in her hands. She leans into the air next to her, as if she expects a person to hold her up, like she imagines an arm around her shoulders and a shoulder to lean on.
“What’s happening now?”
“Sometimes she thinks they’re alive. Talks to them. That’s usually how we know what cycle of the delusion she’s in.”
“There’s only so much fight in a person,” she says, resigned. So resigned. The young doctor feels his heart breaking for her, and begins to wonder if he’s cut out for a job like this one. “There’s only so much death you can take before you—” A moment later her lips turn up in a brief smile, and the young doctor sees a ghost of the woman he remembers from the vids. The Hero of the Citadel, waving. Grinning. Victorious. “Cheer? Coming from you?”
“Who’s she talking to?”
“Vakarian, we think. Hard to tell if she doesn’t say their names.”
“Vakarian?” the young doctor checks his notes. “The ex-C-Sec officer?”
His companion nods. “One of the many she lost when she went through the Omega-4. If that’s not proof she’s broken, I don’t know what is. Who ever heard of a human and turian together?”
The younger man peers through the window, but she sits unmoving now, staring at the floor between her bare feet. Even from this distance, he can count her ribs and make out the knobs of her vertebrae. “You think they were—”
“The pilot says no. Dr. T’Soni insists she never saw a hint of it back on the old ship, though apparently the commander and Vakarian were quite good friends and she relied heavily on him. In her delusion, though? Definitely. Plenty of proof. Unnatural, if you ask me.”
“Maybe she cared about him,” the young doctor offers weakly. “Maybe losing him—”
“You’re not the first to think it.” He shrugs, waving a hand at the window. “No real way to tell. Look, she’ll be like this for a while now. Coffee?” The young doctor nods absentmindedly, watching the woman give orders to an imaginary crew on an imaginary ship. “She’ll keep at it until she exhausts herself. Just keep taking notes. You’ll get used to it.”
He doesn’t know about that, but he nods again as though he believes it.
He takes some notes on his own omni-tool, adding in the new-to-him information about Vakarian, about the unaccounted-for scars. He tries to imagine where they came from, what horrors her body has seen, what stories her scars would tell if they could speak. When he looks up again, the woman stands just on the other side of the two-way glass, looking directly at him. It’s eerie. When he steps to the left, her eyes follow him, even though he knows—he knows—she can’t see him.
He knows that, doesn’t he?
“Give me a gun,” she says. Orders. It’s not a plea. Anyone else in her situation would plead.
And for a moment, just a moment, just a second, he wants to do it.
She holds her hand to her temple like that imaginary weapon she wants, and pulls an imaginary trigger. He doesn’t know if the gesture is meant for her, or for him. She has scraped a red stripe down her right arm, shoulder to wrist, with her fingernails, bright against her pale skin, her paler scars. “Give me a gun, and I’ll save the galaxy.”
He shivers again. On the other side of the glass, Commander Shepard smiles, and the smile, oh, the smile is so much worse than the laugh.
When she closes her eyes, she’s not in the white room. When she closes her eyes she is in a dead forest, she is in a dead ship, she is on a dead planet and the whispers tell her to wait, wait, wait. They remind her of her failures, and they tell her to wait.
She is patient.
Has always been patient.
They’ll slip up sometime.
They always do.