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A Pretty Taste For Paradox

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It is her first night.

First, she thinks, because everything is new. There is no continuity. The reawakened world shines with an aura of careful manufacturing.

Miranda’s full report on the Lazarus project blinks in Shepard’s hand. Unread. Certain questions: cybernetics, brain death, the reincarnation of the soul… have answers that Shepard would rather leave beneath the skin.

Her body is every inch as impressive and uncomfortable as the ship. Re-engineered by terrorists, the vessel is both hollow and wildly out of proportion. Splendid, gleaming, and incorrect in every detail.

At the apex of this insane aggrandizement sits the crowning jewel - Shepard’s private quarters. Bigger than most apartments on the Citadel. Everything tight and military about the original has been replaced with palatial excess. Normandy’s graceful turian bones - replaced with a braggart’s trophies. The beating heart of her crew - replaced with an AI.

Shepard is supine on the plush mattress. She tries to sleep, but finds it difficult while drowning in the grandiose blue light of an aquarium fit for a zoo.

Whatever the Commander is now, she is fighting different monsters altogether. The victory against Saren: hard won and entirely pointless.

She tries to force the sleep to come.

It won’t.

Her eyelids won’t close. She can’t look away from the inescapable panorama above her bed. There it is, inches away. A gaping view of the firmament. The pitiless black coffin where she had asphyxiated and watched the SR-1 burn alongside her, a picture window into her own personal Hell.

Breathtaking.

 


 

Miranda’s advice is too sensible to ignore, no matter how badly it chafes.

The Professor is Shepard’s first personnel acquisition. So far, his dossier is the only one that makes any sense at all. If she is forced to do the Illusive Man’s dirty work, the least she can do is start with a man of science.

But naturally, this scientist is nothing like a man.

Instead, he is salarian in the extreme. Pale and sharp as a scalpel, capable of curing literal plagues. He is enthusiasm personified, and he never stops talking.

Vaguely, Shepard recalls that the occasional salarian believes in reincarnation. A wheel of life. She thinks about this while she slots his cure into a pair of giant rotating fans. Finds it difficult to think about much else when the blades spin up and fill the air with another chance. Omega’s Gozu District: born again.

He tells his assistant to consider killing people in the name of the greater good, then turns to Shepard and talks about surprises.

Shepard’s wheels spin. She dwells on cycles of rebirth, but doesn’t ask.

He’s a serious academic with a fondness for violence, and it’s a stupid question.

 


 

Mordin Solus eagerly adds his name to her duty roster and immediately moves into the tech lab.

At the end of her shift, when her reports are filed and her other excuses are spent, she wanders. Needs to avoid her quarters, pathetically digging for distraction from the view upstairs, no matter how flimsy. To delay the inevitable repetition in terror, she goes to see how the Professor is finding the new facilities.

He’s missing.

EDI gives away his location. The AI’s voice echoes through the lab with refrigerated concern.

“Doctor Solus, I suggest that you extricate yourself from the housing of the electron microscope.”

“Wonderful advice,” agrees the housing of the electron microscope.

In a personable voice, no less.

Shuffling, a mild bang, and then the Professor emerges from the large cabinet underneath the lab equipment. In his hand, he holds a sleek piece of tech. It looks expensive, even for the SR-2.

“Yes… wonderful advice," he reemphasizes, turning the Cerberus listening device over in his hands. "Unfortunately, selective hearing.”

Was that a joke?

He blinks, meets her eyes and grins with his wide, crooked mouth. Weighs the bug up and down a few times. As if hoping to guess its weight and win a prize.

“Impressive. Fanciest yet! Will return to sender.” The grin widens. “Destruction of private property: bad first impression.”

 


 

They find what remains of Garrus.

Even after Chakwas brings him back from the brink, something is left unfixed. He makes a joke, his once bright laughter muffled by gauze, and then he disappears. Welcoming aboard the shadow of an old friend does little to help Shepard feel at home. 

Too often, she stares at the locked door of the forward battery and worries.

It has only been a few days since they last saw one another. Celebrating his reinstatement at C-Sec, they’d met at a rowdy bar in the Lower Wards for a round of drinks and banter. So clear in her mind: his sharp turian smile, all his bravado and bullshit.

Only a few days… somehow stretched into two years.

Now he only pretends to be cheerful, and avoids conversation altogether. He hides behind his duty; a lone sniper factoring in the Coriolis effect as the world rotates through his crosshairs. Gone, the young rebel who had enlivened the SR-1 with outrageous stories and too much sass. In his stead, the SR-2 has a stone Archangel, always on watch.

Garrus is rotted down: two deadened eyes and half a face. Gallows humor. In his presence, the rare moments he even allows it, Shepard feels more like a corpse than ever. As if he is the statue that has been left behind to guard her grave.

 


 

The Professor revives Shepard like a blast of fresh air.

He is always available, talkative to a fault. He only allows short dosages of conversation at a time, but even when he insists on going back to his work, he chatters to himself. Lightly, cleanly, he trots across great swaths of thought all at once. Now that the Cerberus bugs have been dealt with, he doesn’t seem to care who is listening.

White noise.

A neat pair of work hours becomes an immediate custom, collaborative and quiet. One in the morning and one at night. Mineral surveys, tech upgrades, Collector data. The banality of resource management: a useful way to wipe her brain clear before the start and end of each day.

It becomes every bit as habitual as showering or brushing her teeth. An unremarked upon necessity.

Helpful, that Shepard enjoys his company. No Cerberus ties. Scars that are faded and lived-in. Most of all, unlike everyone else aboard, the Professor always appears perfectly comfortable. In his element.

Meanwhile, Shepard’s skin aches and crackles over unfamiliar cybernetics. Her body reeks of chemicals, like a hospital vat of medi-gel. At night when she struggles to sleep, her upgraded brain with its upgraded implants makes her limbs twitch and her biotics flare.

She hates this body. Feels disgusted by it. Trapped inside it.

So, she ignores it. She listens to the babbling scientist, allows her mind to drift. Precisely at the moment she feels most comfortable, it happens.

 


 

The first time, Shepard panics; certain that she is about to die all over again.

Mostly awake at 0530, still groggy and anxious from another corrupted night of sleep, her senses can scarcely be called trustworthy. She is half-dressed and hunched over Doctor Solus’ lab table, a lukewarm cup of coffee chilling near her hand.

While she reviews the plan to extract Subject Zero from Purgatory, The Professor twitters to himself on the other side of the lab. As always, her presence has no obvious effect on him. He paces back and forth, leaving a trail of his own muttered thoughts in his wake. She listens and her mind unclenches; going pleasantly numb.

Dead-ended, Solus suddenly falls silent. She looks up, startled by the pause.

Oblivious to her attention, he waves away his omni-tool. After it vanishes, he taps out a thoughtful rhythm against his forearm. The sound of his fingertips clicking over the ceramic plates of his armor is tiny, strange, and gentle.

Shepard stares.

For a few idle moments, the Professor continues his unconscious tapping, then he turns to the window. He looks out upon the void, clasps his hands behind his back, and releases a single deep sigh through the nostrils. The gesture is intensely academic, like something an ancient philosopher might have done on a clear night while calculating the circumference of the Earth. Poetic, almost.

Also, completely ridiculous.

Abruptly as the silence began, he breaks and starts whispering again. Bright and inspired, as if he’d never stopped.

There, the rush of now-familiar noise. Shepard catches a breath she hadn’t realized she’d lost, and feels as if her nerves have been struck with a tuning fork.

A shudder thrills down the length of her spine. It flares out from the base of her skull and evaporates along her limbs in sharp, exquisite pinpricks. When it is over, every hair on her body is standing straight up in alarm. Too intense and unexpected to be called anything like pleasure, it is nothing like pain either.

Glittering through her nerves, it reminds her of the tantalizing lurch of a biotic implant about to blow.

She stops breathing and lowers her datapad, too terrified to blink.

Is she malfunctioning?

A mess of rogue cybernetics going haywire. Biotic enhancements run amok. Simple insanity. The possibilities are endless and dire, and she fills with familiar dread.

Again, always, that single niggling doubt: she came back wrong.

She opens her mouth. Closes it. Tries to rub the gooseflesh from her arms. Across the room, Solus stops his private muttering.

He looks at her, blinking with innate curiosity.

“Shepard. Feeling alright?”

Despite his credentials, he does not use the tone of a researcher who wants to dissect her for fun. His voice is kind. It is the first genuine nicety she’d heard in days.

“Just tired,” she says, ending it quickly.

He picks up her coffee mug, mostly to get it away from his console, and hands it to her.

The mug is still warm, she clutches the handle and forces her fingers to thaw. The digits relax by degrees, the hairs on her arms flatten. Finally, she nods to him and takes a sip of her coffee.

He steps away, but not so far this time, manning his station on the other side of lab table.

“Here if you need me,” he says. A simple thing, but she believes him.

They go back to work.

  

  

  


  

I have a story-specific writing playlist, because I always have a playlist, haha. Enjoy!