Title: Mass Effect - The Soul Behind The Name: Chapter 10
Author: Reellifejaneway2 (Joanna Knowles)
Game: Mass Effect Trilogy
Characters/Pairing: Kaidan Alenko & FemShep (Kira Shepard)
Disclaimer: Mature Themes (language). Mass Effect and all its characters are the intellectual property of Bioware/EA.
I glance down at my omni-tool to see that it’s almost four in the morning. I swipe the back of my hand across my eyes, desperately trying to ignore my body’s growing demand for sleep. I spent several hours just walking in the dark, but that was before midnight. Finally, I returned back to my dingy apartment and settled down with my datapad. What had at first been a simple idea has now become a fully fledged memoir. I don’t think I’ve ever written so much in all my life.
Of all the things I had dreamed of being in my life, the word ‘author’ had never really fit with me. The Memoirs of Major Kaidan Alenko. It sounds more like a B-rate drama than a biography.
There are many kinds: The ones that haunt your waking hours with hopes and ambitions; others that cloud your vision and make you lose all track of reality. Some dreams are beautiful fantasies, a journey to a distant world with old friends waiting to sweep you away on wild adventures. Then there are the dreams that shatter your sleep with terror.
I am one of many unfortunate individuals who suffer from the latter. The nightmares haven’t stopped since the Battle of London: Every morning I wake in a cold sweat, the lingering image of Shepard facing Harbinger seared into my memory. The worst part is knowing that I’m one of the lucky ones. I have heard of many soldiers who came home from the war with much worse things than nightmares. The injuries don’t stop at your skin. They burn into your soul, eat away at your conscience and annihilate your joy. Some of the men have been so damaged psychologically that they can barely speak. Others teeter on the brink of self-destruction, every passing hour sending them further and further towards that fatal abyss.
In comparison, I’m almost grateful for the nightmares. They are a far kinder punishment, and one that I can bear with relative ease.
I lean back against the head of my cot, groaning for what has to be the millionth time as the angular wooden board digs into my spine. I shift my weight, reaching for a thin pillow to prop behind my back before settling back once more. The datapad is getting heavier in my hands. I’m fighting to stay alert – Emily needs this chapter tomorrow afternoon. Eventually I decide that the battle simply isn’t worth fighting and I give into the desire to sleep. I let my tired head fall back against the wall, closing my eyes against the exhaustion settling across my eyes.
I smile as a warm breath washes over my neck, and my heart leaps as Kira’s familiar lips press tenderly against the corner of my jaw. I know she’s only in my mind. She is far away, lost to me. But at least in this world halfway between sleep and waking, I can feel her touch, hear her voice...
“I missed you today,” I sigh, relishing the thought of her beside me.
The beautiful phantom wraps her arms around me, nestling her forehead into the crook of my neck. “I missed you too.” After a few moments, Shepard lifts her head and glances down at the datapad in my hands. “What are you working on?”
“Nothing,” I smile at her mischievously, hiding the screen behind me so she can’t read it.
Kira’s mouth twists into a knowing grin. She raises her brow – I can see she’s accepted my challenge. “If it is ‘nothing’, then why are you so keen to hide it from me? I wonder.” Shepard runs her hand up my chest, a teasing glint alerting me to the fact that she’s making plans for my undoing.
I decide to beat her to the punch.
Kira lets out a surprised yelp as I start tickling her stomach. She doubles over, swiping at my arms in a futile attempt to escape. But it’s no use – I’ve got her firmly pinned down, and tears begin to form in her eyes in response to my relentless attack.
“Kaidan! Stop!” She chokes out between bursts of laughter.
“Not a chance,” I smirk. “I may not get another chance to do this, you know.”
She sobers at this, staring up at me sadly as my hands fall still. “I’m not gone yet.”
“So you keep saying.” I reach down and push away her messed hair from her forehead. “But one day you will be, and I’ll have to come to terms with that.”
Her eyes are so beautiful – rich mahogany irises plead with me not to send her away just yet. “You were always strong, Kaidan. You will be again.”
“And what if I’m not?” I whisper, that old aching hole pushing aside all the warmth in my soul. “Kira, when you’re not here, I lose half of myself – the better half.”
She wraps her arms around my neck and pulls me down so that my cheek is resting on her chest. Even though I know I’m only dreaming, the sound of her heartbeat is so clear, so strong. Her lungs rise as they draw in each new breath; she’s so real in that moment that I can feel the reassuring warmth of her skin against me. “I’m not gone,” She promises, her hand running through my hair. “There is still hope – hold onto that. It’s your choice, Kaidan.”
I nod gently, staring up into her eyes as the fog of sleep presses down on me. “Will you be here when I wake?”
“Always,” She promises, her sad eyes brimming with unshed tears. “I promised you that I would be waiting for you, and I am. You know where to find me – I’m where I’ve always been.” Her fingers dance across my heart before moving up to cup my chin in her hands. “So don’t you about forget me, Major.”
“Never,” I pledge, the words escaping my mouth in both the dream world and the real one.
In my mind’s eye, her red hair falls across her neck as she kisses me. I fall away into the depths of darkness, her words lingering, echoing across the void...
“It’s been too long, Kaidan... Too long...”
I try to move my hands, but they’re frozen. Cold darkness presses in all around me, shutting out the air.
“How have you been?”
A mocking laugh bounces off the walls of my tomb, repeating over and over...
I try to scream, but the sound never leaves my throat. My lips are dry. I am desperate, wanting to cry out for help, but I know that no matter how hard I try, nobody will hear me.
Two years! My mind rages. I stretch out my hands, clawing at the empty space, searching for something to grab hold of. You left me behind – let me think that you were dead for two years!
Kira’s voice floats to me, and my stomach lurches at her insidious accusation.
“You didn’t come back for me, Kaidan. You didn’t even try to find me.”
I can barely breathe. That’s not what I wanted!
No! Kira, no!
Suddenly a gloved hand appears and grasps my open palm. With a swift pull, I find myself standing once more in that compound on Horizon.
“Why are you doing this?” I persist, searching my surroundings for any sign of her. “Shepard! Answer me!”
She’s here, standing right in front of me now. Her hair is messed, strands of her fringe falling across her eyes as she stares up at me wickedly from beneath her brows.
“Cerberus brought me back,” She growls, and in a split second I find that her hand is wrapped around my throat. “They are working to humanity’s best interests.”
I gasp, stumble back and trip. Shepard stands over me, her face twisting in delight at my helplessness.
“Come with me, Kaidan,” She hisses, “Come back to the Normandy. It will be just like old times.”
No! I scream in my thoughts, fighting to keep a hold of my senses. “You... Are not... Shepard.”
“Let go of him!” Another voice rings out, and my captor instantly releases her grip. I fall to the ground. Strong arms wrap around me, and heaving deep breaths of relief, I stare up into that familiar face.
“I’m here, Kaidan,” Kira tells me softly, touching my cheek lovingly. She looks exactly the way I remembered: auburn hair, smooth porcelain skin... “I’ve got you.”
I reach out to her.
In that moment she transforms: hideous, trailing scars breaking through her skin and winding across the side of her face.
I let out a cry and push her away, dizzy and terrified by what I’ve just seen. “NO! You can’t be...” I grasp my head, overwhelmed by a pounding migraine. “You’re not my Shepard. You’re not Kira.”
“Kaidan, it’s me!” She rushes toward me, and out of instinct, my hand flies to my holster. I draw my pistol and level it at her head. Kira’s mouth falls open in horror. “No... Please, Kaidan. Don’t do this!”
The other Shepard – the impersonator – reappears now. Her hair has darkened into a shade of murky grey, and her eyes have started glowing red. Her skin, now an eerie shade of white, is sickeningly deformed by all those scars. I’m struck dumb as I watch the red claws spread like knife-trails across her body. The sight makes me want to be sick.
“Do it,” The deceiver taunts, her voice distorted by a throaty growl. “Pull the trigger. Kill me!”
My hand is shaking... I can’t think straight. I look back at the other Shepard standing in front of me, and instantly my heart tells me that she’s real. Somehow, she is the woman I fell in love with. Nothing makes sense except her.
But the dark apparition is still taunting me. She circles me, her hands creeping along my shoulders as her claw-like fingers scrape at my skin. With a hiss in my ear, she repeats her previous command:
“Pull. The. Trigger.”
My hand begins to move of its own accord. I fight it, desperately trying to release my grip on the gun. But something stronger than me is at work, and I’m utterly powerless to stop it.
“Kaidan!” Kira looks up at me through wide eyes. She stares in horror as the shadowy figure places more pressure on my finger. “Please, stop it! It is me – Shepard, remember? I can prove it! Please just give me a chance!” She turns to scream at the ghoul, “Release him – he’s not the one you want! Take me if it will satisfy you, but please, let him go!”
The villain throws her head back and laughs, “Oh I’m having too much fun to let you go now.” She leans in and breathes against my skin, sending a chill up my spine. “Do it. Now.”
Time slows down as I watch the events unfold. The gun goes off, the sound of the shot resonating across the compound. For a long moment, Kira’s face is frozen, her eyes locked on mine, drilling into me. All I can see in those dark irises are betrayal, a deep ache that nothing will ever heal. Then, the light in her eyes slowly begins to burn out.
Almost instantly I’m set free. Dropping the weapon, I throw myself forward to catch Shepard as she collapses.
“No... No, Kira, I’m so sorry!” I cradle her tenderly, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Please, fight it. Stay with me.”
All the colour has faded from her cheeks. Blood trickles from her lips, and her breaths are getting weaker. She forces her eyes open. “I wish I could.”
“Don’t let go!” I cry, pressing my hand against the wound. I pull her upper body upright, letting her shoulders rest against one arm as the other tries to stem the flow of blood from her stomach. “What have I done? Oh no... What have I done to you...?” Bitter tears rush down my cheeks.
Kira’s weak hand grasps mine, pulling it away from the bleeding wound. She shakes her head weakly, “It’s too late... I... I’m sorry...” She struggles to suck in one last lungful of air. “Don’t... forget me.”
Her body goes limp in my arms.
A scream tears from my throat. I hold her lifeless form closer, my lips pressed against her forehead. I rock back and forth in a desperate attempt to fend off the numbing agony. Don’t leave me here – not again! But as I look down at her peaceful face, I know that she’s already gone.
I killed her.
A strangled cry escapes my lips as I wake from the nightmare. My arms are wrapped around my crumpled pillow and sweat trickles down my skin leaving a cold trail. I’m frozen in fear.
It was just a dream, I try to tell myself, slowly dragging my mind back from dark places. C’mon, Alenko, get a grip. It was a nightmare, that’s all.
I force myself to sit up. My limbs shake terribly as I reach for the light switch, but at least with the faint light of the overhead lamp, I can see that I’m in the passenger quarters of an Alliance transport – not on Horizon like I’d dreamed.
It’s been just a little less than a day since I saw her, but time seems to have passed so much more rapidly than that. The shock anaesthetized me to it all – the rescue team’s arrival, the questions from doctors and military personnel. I barely remember anything that happened after I walked away. I left her there, angry and hurt. It’s eating me alive. The only thing I can see is her watching me as I walk away, the look of betrayal in her eyes...
I cover my face with my trembling hands, breathing a shaky sigh.
Why did you have to be with them?
After all these months of grief, seeing her alive had been the miracle I’ve been longing for. But she isn’t my Kira anymore. Not really.
You choose Cerberus, Kira. Cerberus! You joined with the enemy and left me out here in the cold.
I’d be lying if I said that Shepard’s offer to join her crew hadn’t been tempting – it had been. I wanted more than anything to be with her again. But what if, like in my dream, she’s a fake? An impersonator? A clone? The thought is sickening.
But now that I think back, there is an even more horrifying possibility: What if that was my Shepard? What if that was the same Kira I fell in love with two years ago? And after everything I said...
Hell. She must hate me.
I force myself to stand on unbalanced legs, falling against the wall of my small compartment with a loud bang.
At that moment, the com flares to life.
“Commander Alenko, we’re due to arrive at the Citadel in just under an hour. Can I arrange ground transport for you?”
“No thanks,” I manage to tell the transport steward, swiping at the droplets of sweat running down my forehead. “I’ll be fine.”
The channel falls silent and I spend the next five minutes staring down at my shadow, contemplating my next move.
Finally it hits me: There is one person who knew it all. One person who could have given me the answers before the nightmare on Horizon unravelled. Anger swells up inside my chest, pushing aside the aching loneliness almost instantly.
Looks like it’s time to pay a friend a visit. I need answers.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
My voice booms across Anderson’s office, bouncing off the walls and almost visibly colliding with the Councillor. He jumps, his dark eyes levelling with mine.
“Alenko – you’re back. I heard about what happened on Horizon...”
I slam my hands down on his desk, leaning into his personal space. I’m not even bothering to hide my fury. “You knew. All this time.”
No sooner have the words left my mouth than I see Anderson slump in his chair. The mask of denial is a transparent one – one which I can read through so easily.
“Shepard came to you didn’t she?” I spit out the words with growing ire. “How long ago? Hell, Anderson, had I even left for Horizon? You could have told me!”
Anderson’s face falls and he looks down at his hands. After a long pause, I hear the faintest whisper: “No.”
“No?” I push away and cross my arms. “Is that it? That’s all the explanation I get? What the hell is that even supposed to mean, Anderson?”
“No, I couldn’t tell you.”
“No.” Anderson stands up and moves toward me, his arms hanging limp by his sides. Pronounced lines appear across his forehead, evidence of extreme stress on his part. He looks utterly defeated, and suddenly I feel my anger abating out of pity for the man. “Alenko, we both heard the rumours. We both wanted to believe she was alive. But I always knew the chances...” His voice trails off as he raises his hand to his forehead.
“How long ago?” I repeat my question.
“The day after you left.”
I let the air escape my lungs, feeling suddenly relieved that Anderson’s mission hadn’t been a set-up. “So she didn’t steer you toward Horizon.”
The Councillor’s eyes widen. “Is that what you thought?”
“I... I don’t know what to think.” I sink down onto a chair, staring out the large windows across the glistening white presidium. “I just encountered a ghost.”
Anderson turns away, pacing the room anxiously. “I gather she told you...”
“About Cerberus?” I groan. “Yeah. She did.”
“Alenko, she has good intentions.”
“Good intentions won’t save her from a knife in her back!” I exclaim in frustration. “Does she really think that Cerberus is just going to let her walk away once she’s done? Even if she stops the Collectors, Cerberus will have a plan. I know them. I’ve seen what they can do. Shepard is practically signing her own death warrant by working with those vipers!”
Anderson points to a file on his desk. “Open it.”
A chill rushes through me as I hesitate.
The Councillor picks up the folder and holds it out to me. “If you want to save Shepard, then you need to read this.”
My hands shake as I accept the offering. “And how do I know it’s not another Cerberus trap?”
“Because this information came through a very reliable source.”
“An old friend – one with powerful new connections.”
My eyes widen. What does he know that I don’t? “Enough secrets, Anderson. Who is your source?”
The Councillor sighs in defeat. “Liara T’Soni.”
My mouth falls open in shock. “But... I haven’t heard from Liara in years. What is going on here?”
“Let’s just say she knows first-hand that Shepard really is who she claims to be.” Anderson nods toward the folder. “Take a look for yourself.”
“Before I do, is this on or off the record?”
“Off. Alenko, that information is not to leave this room.”
I nod, trying to fight the urge to shiver. I flick open the file, biting back a cry of shock as I find dozens of photographs: Some are obviously retrieved from security vid footage, while others are the masterful work of an assassin’s scope. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the connection between them.
The first photograph, bearing the grainy texture of a vid, has captured the inside of a laboratory. My eyes immediately dart to the white and gold symbol on the wall, before settling on the table in the centre of the room. A table nearby is strewn with burnt armor plating, but even with the charring I can see the distinctive white and red N7 stripe down the right arm pieces. Two people in white lab coats are leaning over a body. I choke as I recognise Shepard’s face, but what are they doing? Are they operating on her? Building a clone? Maybe altering an operative’s face... No matter what the explanation, she’s almost perfectly identical to the Shepard I knew and loved – my Kira. Except I can see more of those glowing scars across her skin, the only indication that the procedure is not quite complete.
As I look closer, I realise that Kira’s hand is reaching up. She’s not asleep!
“Anderson, where did these come from?” I hold up the picture, my heart racing. “What the hell was Cerberus doing?”
“Look at the next one,” comes the cryptic reply.
The next image was taken on Freedom’s Progress – again, security footage. I immediately recognise the compound from the files that Anderson had shown me a few weeks ago. Shepard is crouching behind a crate, grasping a grenade launcher in her hands. But that’s not what catches my eye. It’s what’s on the roof across the compound. I lean in, trying to get a clearer view of the strange shadowy figure. “There’s someone watching her!”
“And the next one,” Anderson repeats, and I obey, a growing sense of foreboding clutching at my heart.
Omega – the slums, obviously. Then the Citadel, outside the embassies; but with every picture I find that my eyes are seeking out that ever-present shadow on the upper balcony. And there it is, looking down at her with glinting, hungry eyes. I shuffle the pictures in my hands, examining the newest one: Horizon. My cheeks flush with heat as I see Shepard and I embracing, completely oblivious to our treacherous spectator. My blood runs cold when I see that black figure crouching on the upper balcony of one of the houses. The lens of this hidden camera caught it all.
“This was just two days ago,” I murmur breathlessly. “Liara is fast. Do I even want to know how she got this information?”
The answer comes in the form of a very slight shake of the head. “You said it yourself, Alenko: Cerberus is not just going to let Shepard walk away from this.” Anderson puts a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “But they don’t know yet that we have this information. We’re one step ahead of them. Liara has reason to believe that this man is working for the Illusive Man personally, and that he’s been assigned to take out Shepard as soon as she shows any sign of doubt.”
“But why?” I blink in confusion, “If the Illusive Man dedicated so much of his own time and resources into Shepard, why would he assign an assassin to eradicate her? She’s practically one of his own.”
“Because he knows the real Commander Shepard – and he knows she’s out of his control. Kira will turn away. One day she will rebel against his orders, but when she does, he will try to use every other option he has before ordering that assassin to pull the trigger,” Anderson tells me. “But it’s more than that, Alenko. If Shepard is a clone, or a Cerberus operative, then why would he need an assassin to watch her?”
This suggestion makes my head reel, and with sudden horror, I stand and back away from the Councillor. “Then... Then it really is Kira.”
“According to Liara, yes,” Anderson nods. “Don’t ask me how they brought her back from the dead, because I honestly don’t know.” He looks earnestly into my face before asking, “Do you see why I showed you?”
I nod, sucking in a shaky breath. “What do you need me to do?”
“I’ve already spoken with the head of the Alliance Special Task Force,” Anderson says quietly, leading me from his office and down the empty corridors of the embassy. “Shepard is incredibly valuable, Alenko. Not just personally to you and I, but as an informant.”
My cheeks flush even redder at Anderson’s comment, but despite this, I decide it’s best not to address the issue. I pull down my jacket sleeves a little further as we step out onto the presidium. “I have the feeling there is more to this than you’re telling me.”
“And you’d be right,” the Councillor concedes. “I can’t possibly talk about all the details, but I will tell you that there have been three instances now of Shepard turning over valuable information to the Alliance – behind Cerberus’ back.”
A shudder rushes through me. “So the Illusive man has definite suspicions about her. Okay, so what now? We can’t protect her, not officially. She’s a traitor.”
“Shepard knows that she’s in danger,” Anderson says quietly as we pass the Krogan monument. “She never said as much, but I just know that she’s uncomfortable working for Cerberus. And I get the feeling that if we know about this stalker, then she probably knows too.”
I stop dead in my tracks. “If Kira is aware of the stalker, then she’s going to do something, Anderson. I can feel it. Danger is like a flame to her, and she’s the moth. She goes straight for it and never thinks twice about the consequences.”
“And that’s where you come in.”
Anderson directs me toward a small alleyway, running behind one of the lower consular buildings. I blink rapidly as we step into the shadows, fighting the bright spots flashing across my eyes as they adjust to the sudden darkness.
A few moments later, we reach a dead-end. Or at least what looks like one. Anderson brings up his omni-tool, and after pressing his thumb against the screen, a tiny red light flashes. A concealed panel glides open, revealing a steel door. Another beam appears, and scans us both from head to toe.
“Stand as still as you can – it’s just scanning for unauthorised materials,” Anderson reassures me.
By now I’m realising that Anderson is involved in much more than just the Council.
“No wonder you’ve been avoiding Udina,” I breathe, the implications hitting me like a punch to the gut. “If he gets wind of this...”
Even in the semi-dark, I can see the confirmation of my suspicions reflecting in the Councillor’s eyes. “Then I’ll be booted off the Council, and most likely, retired – and I’m don’t mean in a villa by the beach.”
As we step into the elevator, Anderson reaches into his pocket and hands me a sealed folder. A new clearance pass falls onto my sweaty palm. Anderson grasps me by the shoulder, “As of this moment, you are Major Kaidan Alenko, commanding officer of the 1st Special Operations Biotic Company.”
My jaw slackens a little. “Major? And I only just got used to being called ‘Commander’.”
“According to the official files, this is a group of talented students, and you are their new teacher. You were selected by the Alliance for the job due to your talent and experience. But even the Alliance will acknowledge that this group is a covert one: students or no, to the rest of the world, these people don’t exist.”
The elevator doors glide open and I find myself standing in a large office. The lighting is dim, and computer terminals are aligned along every wall – it almost reminds me of staring into the tiny eyes of an insect, all these shimmering screens reflecting light. Anderson nods at a few security guards before leading me into a side room. He locks the door after us and opens a large cupboard at the far end of the compartment.
“Here, take these.”
I accept yet another package – this time, a bag containing a change of clothes. “A new uniform? Next thing you’ll be telling me that I have to move house and change my face too.”
“I wouldn’t go that far,” He laughs. “Don’t tell me you’re not up for a little bit of espionage, Alenko?”
I let a reluctant grin play across my face. “What was it Shepard said – I am a romantic who joined the military for the dream? Maybe she was right after all.”
“Well, you might not be calling this mission a dream once it is over.” Anderson passes me a large duffel bag. “I’ve called in a few favours. Managed to scrounge up a few weapon mods, some tracking equipment, and a top-of-the-line code breaking kit. You’ll need them.” He indicates at the bag, “You will want to change now.”
I obey, accepting the new set of blues that Anderson hands me. “Talk to me, Anderson. I’m flying blind here.” My gut twists. “This ‘Special Company’ of mine isn’t actually a group of students at all, is it?”
“No.” The Councillor is still flicking through the contents of the duffel bag, pulling out various items: An omni-tool upgrade pack, a new pair of boots (which I’m guessing have some kind of tracker in the sole), and a wrist-watch. The Councillor indicates for me to extend my wrist. I do so, and he clasps the silver chain around it. I frown. “What’s this for?”
“It’s a tracking beacon,” Anderson enlightens me, “So I can keep track of your position at all times.”
Finally, with my new uniform and accessories in place, my friend turns to me with a sad smile on his face. “Here’s the deal: The operative stalking Shepard is a chameleon – they can change their face and their names just as easily as we can change our shirts. Liara did manage to find out that is that the assassin is communicating with the Illusive Man, but that is all she could tell me. But if this creep is going after Shepard, then the chances are we won’t know it’s them until they’ve already fired the gun.”
I swallow nervously. “Anderson – Shepard’s planning on defecting, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know. All I know is that when I get the signal, we’ll need to move quickly.”
I put a hand to my head. “So where do I come in?”
“You’re the man in the shadows,” The Councillor says, his voice lowering. “Shepard will need somebody to keep her safe, and if she’s planning on going through with her plan, then she’ll need the best. That’s you. Your job is to watch and to make sure nobody gets close enough to her to hurt her. Do whatever it takes.”
“I’m guessing that you haven’t told Shepard about my role yet?”
“And I don’t intend to.”
I gawk at him in disbelief, “You can’t be serious!”
“She can’t know,” Anderson insists, shaking his head firmly. “I have already arranged for a personal bodyguard and safe accommodation for Shepard, but trust me on this, Kira will be safer not knowing about your role in this. Alenko, if her behaviour indicates to the stalker in any way that he’s been discovered, then it will blow the whole operation.”
“Then how do I catch this assassin without being seen?”
“They’ll do the work for you if you wait long enough. They will only come out in the open when they’re ready to take the kill shot – and that’s when you’ll need to be there.”
Anxiety wells up inside my stomach, and I fight the nauseating sensation that’s crawling up my throat. “And who is this bodyguard?”
“I believe you two already know each other – James Vega?”
I nod, rubbing my eyes absently. “Yes, the survivor from Fehl Prime. I didn’t realise he was involved in this scheme.”
“It was a recent development,” Anderson tells me as he puts my old uniform and pass into a storage box.
“And what about my ‘students’?”
“They will be undercover operatives, working alongside you, acquiring new intel for you to follow up – and they’ll be your back-up, should the situation become out of hand.”
“Sounds like all that’s left is to bring in the Normandy.”
“As soon as I get the information, I’ll notify you.” Anderson exhales nervously, “I just hope that Cerberus doesn’t get to her before we do.”
I stretch out my shoulders and head for the door. “I’ve got this, Anderson. I won’t let you down.”
My old friend puts a heavy hand on my shoulder. “It’s not me you are doing this for, Alenko. Shepard needs you, even if she doesn’t know it yet. By God, Kaidan, promise me you’ll keep her alive.”
A tremor of self-doubt rocks me even as I nod my confident reply: “I don’t like this. But I promise you that I’ll do everything within my power to protect her – no matter the cost.”
As we step back out onto the Presidium, the Councillor shakes my hand. “I’m glad that you’re the one in charge of this. And I’m saying this as your friend: please be careful.”
I shove my hands in my pockets as he walks away. After Anderson retreats back into the warm corridors of the Embassy, I begin the long stroll back to my sky car. A cold breeze washes over me. The Citadel is usually warm with its high-tech climate control systems. But right now I could be standing in the middle of a desert and it wouldn’t help. The chill is spreading through my bones and seeping into my chest. I remember this feeling. I struggled with it on Eden Prime, the night before Virmire, and in the hours after Shepard stole the Normandy...
If this is all true, and Shepard really is who she claims she is, then it’s up to me to protect her from Cerberus. But deep down, I’m terrified. They’re a whole organisation. I’m just one man.
Finally it dawns on me: What if Shepard’s message address is in the file Anderson gave me? What if I could get through to her somehow? A lump rises in my throat. What would I even say to her? ‘I’m sorry for being angry, but I still don’t trust you?’ I can’t even warn her about the Cerberus threat. And then there is the possibility that Cerberus is monitoring her communications. What if she has been brainwashed into giving them intel on the Alliance? Worse: What if my anger toward her has convinced her that Cerberus really is on her side...?
I have to get through to her somehow. I have to try!
I lift my arm, bringing up the com-screen on my omni-tool. My fingers hover over the keys nervously. Should I...? It’s a big risk. But if Anderson is right, and the woman I loved is still alive, then it’s a chance I have to take.
I bite back my nervousness and begin typing:
Definitely not! Keep it simple... Just tell her the truth.
I'm sorry for what I said back on Horizon. I spent two years pulling myself back together after you went down with the Normandy. It took me a long time to get over my guilt for surviving and move on. I'd finally let my friends talk me into going out for drinks with a doctor on the Citadel. Nothing serious, but trying to let myself have a life again, you know?
I bite my lip, thinking about the reaction that is bound to follow on her end. Truly, I feel like such an idiot now for going on that blind date with Chloe Michel. I mean, it didn’t even go anywhere. But what will she think of me reading this? I don’t want to sound like I’m guilty, but hell, I just want to explain. I take a deep breath and press on.
Then I saw you, and everything pulled hard to port. You were standing in front of me, but you were with Cerberus. I guess I really don't know who either of us is anymore. Do you even remember that night before Ilos? That night meant everything to me... maybe it meant as much to you. But a lot has changed in the last two years and I can't just put that aside.
But please be careful. I've watched too many people close to me die -- on Eden Prime, on Virmire, on Horizon, on the Normandy...’
I hesitate. The words ‘I wish things could were different’ are just too cliché, but right now, I wish I could just rewrite history, save her from that horrific death and wrap her in my arms again.
I wish I had kept you safe. I wish I hadn’t left you behind. And the truth is... The truth... is...
I desperately want to tell her that I still love her. I want to be able to warn her that an assassin is watching her. But I know that I can’t – not directly.
I couldn't bear it if I lost you again. If you're still the woman I remember I know you'll find a way to stop these Collector attacks. But Cerberus is too dangerous to be trusted. Watch yourself.
When things settle down a little... maybe... I don't know. Just take care.
I stare at the screen for a long time before finally psyching up the nerve to hit the ‘send’ button. The instant the message disappears, my gut sinks like a stone. My mind is so confused, and the pain in my head is agonizing.
I wish I could change everything.
“Oh Kira,” I moan quietly, “How did we get here...?”
I turn my pre-occupied eyes toward an advertisement post, my eyes staring off into the pixels absently.
“How can I possibly keep you safe?” I say to myself, imagining her on the Normandy somewhere, blissfully oblivious to the brewing danger. “I don’t even know if I can trust you, Shepard. How do I know you’re the same woman? How do I know Cerberus isn’t controlling you – or changed you somehow? Anderson trusts you, and I want to believe him, but I need to hear it from you. I just... I just don’t believe it yet.”
I push my hands back into my pockets and start to walk away, pausing only as a nearby news terminal flares to life.
“And now I’m speaking with the Savior of the Citadel, Commander Shepard.”
I freeze mid-step, immediately recognising the insipid tone of the notoriously invasive Khalisah Al-Jalani. I slowly turn about, feeling the air rush from my lungs at the footage on the screen.
Shepard is standing there in front of Al-Jalani’s camera, her pale face made to look almost stark white in that hideous lighting. Her auburn hair is a stark contrast against her polished armor. She’s gone and got herself a new set by the looks of it – the plating certainly isn’t standard Alliance issue, that’s for sure. It’s royal blue, highly polished, and has stark white stripes down the front and on her arm where her prized N7 colours used to be. I don’t quite know what to make of this. Has Shepard changed her appearance for a reason? Perhaps she’s trying to distance herself from the Alliance. Or vice versa. Could she be protecting the Alliance from her involvement with Cerberus...?
I shake my head, trying to clear the jumble of thoughts that come flooding in on all sides.
Focus, Alenko – just focus.
Khalisah holds out a microphone toward Kira. “Sources claim you were at the heart of the presidium during the Battle of the Citadel. It’s fair to say that the course of the battle hinged on your words.”
The camera spins away from Al-Jalani to focus in on Shepard, and as it does, I catch a glimpse of that same dark-haired woman Shepard was with before on Omega. Cerberus. Shepard’s got guts stepping out in public like this, especially with Cerberus standing right next to her, watching her. Particularly after letting the galaxy believe she had died. This should be interesting to say the least. I’m amazed to see that Kira’s mask of calm is back in place – not even a flicker of discomfort at Al-Jalani steps into her personal space. Just the ever-so-slight arch of her eyebrow.
I laugh to myself as I watch the growing annoyance in Kira’s eyes. Careful, Khalisah.
But the painfully oblivious (or perhaps just deliberately rude) journalist presses on: “If true, you told Admiral Hackett to abandon the Destiny Ascension, sacrificing nearly 10,000 lives, including the previous Citadel Council.”
I suddenly remember to breathe when Shepard takes a step forward, straight into Khalisah’s comfort zone. The reporter’s face blanches.
“It was time for us to find our own path,” Kira replies steadily, her voice translating smoothly over the live telecast channel. Hearing her speak again sends a pleasured shudder up my spine, and I smile despite myself. “I was a colonist. I know how hard the galaxy can hit.” Shepard’s eyes narrow slightly in an attempt to hide her sadness at this thought. Her dark lashes are even more pronounced under the light of the camera, but even in this unflattering light, I can’t help but admire her. “That day wasn’t about spite,” She continues, “It was about standing up.”
Khalisah stammers, her face turning red as she searches for a way to bring the interview back around to her agenda. “But what about inter-species relations—”
Kira’s eyes close for a moment, and when they open, I catch a glimpse of that angry spark, the flaming urge to ball up her fist and slam it into that invasive reporter’s jaw. Even I’m astounded that Kira instead opts for a gentler approach. But there’s no mistaking the irritation in her voice as she replies: “We have a new Council, new friends. We took a tragic vacuum and created an opportunity.” Shepard folds her arms and smirks. “Unless, you’re saying humanity and our many partner species don’t deserve that chance to excel?” A small burst of pride wells up inside my chest as Kira leans forward slightly, closing the interview with a confident tone. “Don’t insult them. It’s beneath you.”
As Shepard turns and strolls away (with what I interpret to be a vaguely arrogant strut) Al-Jalani concludes, “Commander Shepard, first human spectre, hero of the battle of the citadel.”
With that, the news terminal cuts to another report.
The crowd that has gathered to watch the transmission begins to disperse. Two Asari begin to discuss their menu for this evening’s dinner. A Turian and a Salarian exchange details about some new fantasy game. A Volus starts complaining to a C-Sec officer about his lost credit chit. And somewhere in the midst of the tumult of emotions and memories raging in my brain, I remember that I was on my way home. Suddenly, I’m just me again: Plain old Kaidan, standing in the middle of the Presidium and trying to remember where he parked his car.
As I start to walk, I can’t help but ponder on what I just saw. Kira seemed confident, even pleased with the opportunity to show her face on a public news broadcast. But now that I think about it, there is a definite advantage to putting up with Al-Jalani for two minutes. If Cerberus thought they would simply be able to eliminate Shepard at the end of her usefulness, their mission just became a whole lot more complicated. Because now the entire galaxy knows for sure: Kira Shepard – the first human Spectre, hero of the Citadel – has returned from the dead. And I just happen to know that there is at least one person out here who still loves her.
---Meanwhile on the Normandy---
She keeps her chin held high as she strolls down the corridor and onto the lower cargo deck. The engineers watch her cautiously, and she resists the urge to growl at them as she passes.
Cerberus groupies, she sneers, turning away from the prying eyes with a shrug of complacency.
She never wanted to be here. She hated Cerberus for what they did to her, and that isn’t about to change. Most girls would have let the label overwhelm them, crush their individuality and push them into a dark corner of obscurity.
But not her. She owned her label. She had made it her strength instead of her punishment.
Because I’m Subject Zero.
Jack resented that Shepard had come to retrieve her, had dragged her from one prison straight into another. But at least the Commander had been decent enough to let her into Cerberus’ files. That was something. Jack had asked half expecting to be outright denied. Instead, an hour later the folder had been in her hands. Now, thanks to this stranger, she knows her name – her real name. She knows her history. And something inside her wonders if perhaps Shepard isn’t as corrupt as she had first thought.
It wouldn’t be the first time Cerberus had commandeered an unwilling participant.
Jack rounds the corner and finds herself standing in an empty hangar bay. She can hear loud thuds and yells of frustration coming from somewhere beyond the crates a distance away...
Is someone getting it on down here? The thought makes her want to go right back to her dingy corner of the engineering sub-deck, but instead her feet push her forward until she’s no more than two feet away from the crates.
Peering around the edge of the obstruction, Jack is slightly astonished to find that somebody has set up a punching bag down here. The bean-filled sack – which is almost as tall as she is – sways furiously back and forth, grunts of pent-up anger and exertion coming from a place just out of her view. Jack decides to take a closer look. She slips around the side of the crates, leaning against them with folded arms.
It is Shepard. This catches Jack off-guard. She had expected to find Jacob, Garrus even. But Shepard?
The Commander is letting all hell loose on that poor bag, sending it flying backward with her jab punch on more than one occasion. Jack takes in the scene, amazed to see that Shepard has exchanged her black dress uniform for a worn, grey tank-top and blue cargo pants. Her fists are bound up with thin straps – no gloves. That’s a surprise. And no shoes either, just bare feet. As she watches, one of Shepard’s legs arcs upward smoothly, balancing out her body as she leans down into the side-kick. Her bean-filled victim groans on its chain, and with a swift spin on the ball of her foot, Shepard lands soundlessly back on the ground.
“You’ve got some pretty neat moves – for a girl scout,” Jack teases after a moment of silence.
Shepard doesn’t even turn around. She just reaches for the grey towel lying on the crate and pads down her neck and face.
“So this is what you do for fun.” Jack shrugs, “I can see why you like it down here. It’s quiet, and nobody wants to talk to you when you’re beating the hell outta something.”
Jack frowns slightly when she hears the lifeless tone in Shepard’s voice. Before now she’s always seemed so optimistic – energetic. The sound is almost painful. “I... I just wanted to come down here and say thanks.” The decision to try and cheer Shepard up is one that Jack almost immediately regrets. But despite her sense of chagrin, she pushes the words out. “For showing me my file, that is. And for agreeing to go to Pragia.”
Shepard stops, leaning her hands against a crate and letting her head drop down in defeat.
Jack’s heart sinks, and for the first time in years, she wonders what it would be like to reach out to somebody, to help... “You know, it’s not all bad. Being on your own. But I get it – you miss him.”
Shepard’s head snaps up at this, and she turns to stare at Jack incredulously.
“That guy on Horizon, right?” Jack presses, “I saw the way you looked at him.”
“Was it that obvious?” Shepard runs her finger across her forehead, pushing away the strands of rogue hair from her sweaty skin.
“He’s pretty hot for a f... uh, a scumbag,” Jack interjects, her face deadly serious despite the strangely light-hearted tone to her words. But when Shepard doesn’t laugh, she adds, “But I’m guessing you wouldn’t be down here punching the crap out of a heavy bag if you wanted to think about him.”
The Commander doesn’t answer, just looks across the small space toward a datapad lying on one of the nearby boxes. Jack’s eyes follow the direction of her gaze.
“He wrote to you?” She prompts, beginning to understand Shepard’s unease. She curses, “That was a hell of a thing to do. Kicks you in the guts, rubs your face in the dirt and then sends you a ‘I still don’t love you’ message after?”
“Just in case I missed that point the first time around,” Shepard mutters, slamming a right hook into the bag.
There is a long, tense silence.
Suddenly the weight of the situation hits Jack, and she bites her lip. “You really don’t want to be here do you?” The words are almost a plea, a quietly-spoken cry for reassurance from the one person on the Normandy who Jack could call a friend.
Kira lets her fists fall to her sides as she turns to study the biotic’s face. “No. No I don’t.”
“Cerberus did it to you too, huh?”
Shepard doesn’t answer – she just renews her attack, her relentless anger translating into harsh punches and grunts.
Jack stares at the ground. She doesn’t especially want to push her luck. “Look, I didn’t want to invade or anything, so I’ll just leave you to it.”
“Wait.” Shepard relaxes a little. “I’m sorry. I came down here because I didn’t want to take out my anger on anyone – including you. It’s just that...” She glances down at her hands. “I never really wanted to be here. Cerberus made that choice for me. But seeing Kaidan again just reminded me... Well. I guess we’re both a little broken.” Kira shakes her head. She’s pushing the pain away, trying to be strong. “You don’t have to go, Jack.” Then, she adds with a grin, “I wouldn’t mind having someone to spar with.”
Jack throws back her head and laughs. “Hell, Shepard. You’re always counselling me – you and your part-time psychology obsession. Guess I could help you vent for a while.” She flashes a brief, wicked grin, “But don’t think for one second that this means I want to be your friend.”
Kira hands her a wrist strap. “I think I can manage that.”