It was impossible to run. The sand, stained red-orange with the setting of Temu, Seshata's sun, kept slipping underfoot, making the ground precarious and footing uncertain. His knees ached from falling so many times; his right side - the one facing the leeward side of the dune and its precipitous drop - was sore from many tumbles, and he was sure that same ankle was broken, though that had happened back in the city, when he'd landed awkwardly after jumping the tallest of the sand barriers.
He had to run. That was all he knew. If he followed the crest of the dunes for thirty li into the ergs, he would arrive at the place where the old ships where kept. Not all of them, only the scientific vessels, the ones that had been built to study the comet-that-wasn't. He had had them hidden there, far from the city, where they would not be salvaged for parts, like the common vessels in the spaceport. They were too important to his work, and had been hidden away so that, one day, when the problems with the relays were finally over, he could start his tests again... He was the only one who knew about them, him and the assistant who had moved the pair of sleek, silvery vessels from the spaceport in the first place. If he got there, he could escape.
But, even over the sound of his ragged, rasping breath and his heart, pounding like ancient drums in his ears, he could hear it. The buzzing. It was growing louder and he could feel the gentle zephyr of wings beating near his skin the instant before the stingers broke through the flesh and a sharp, icy-hot pain flooded through his leaden limbs. A scream of purest, primal pain caught in his throat, and he stumbled, his body tumbling unhindered down the dune as more and more of the cursed creatures alighted on him and sent new and fresh waves of-
Gasping for breath, scrambling at her chest, she blindly stumbled from her bed and made it, somehow, to the head before her coughing and sputtering turned into dry heaves. A hand blindly searched for something to cling to and she found, after a moment's searching, herself stumbling into the shower alcove; her fingers gripped the cool, smooth surface as if the touch alone would anchor her to this reality as her other arm came up to do the same. For a moment, she even pressed her forehead to the wall, but only for a moment, as she finally gave in to the burning in her limbs and sank to her knees then, unable to keep balanced there, slipped sideways into a corner that was farther away than her senses told her should be. Her shoulders rose and fell frantically, trying to force air into her lungs, to calm the thundering of her heart, and, for a long moment, there was nothing but the memory of muscles that would not move but could still sent a single message of pain (that could only be described as the ache of acidic build-up in overworked muscles multiplied a thousand fold, or the pins and pricks of a sleeping limb similarly treated) to a source that could do nothing for them and the fear that she would die, again, as a new pair of lungs failed her.
Though it seemed to last a lifetime, the agony quickly receded into something she could bear. Not that that meant much, as she was reminded invariably (as she slowly lifted her head) of the last winter she'd spent on Mindoir, when she'd been sent into Lumière Sainte on her own for some reason before the snow had completely melted and had slipped on a slick spot on her way home, breaking her left leg just above the ankle. Not, of course, that she had admitted the leg was broken, not at first. No, after a long moment's pained hiss, Shepherd had proceeded to walk the mile or so she'd to go unaided, though a couple of neighbours had noticed her limp and offered to help. At home, she'd told her father that she'd just sprained the foot (which she'd honestly thought at the time) and it wasn't until nearly a week after the fact, when Maman had overheard Yves pestering her into getting it checked out if it was still so sore that she couldn't do her chores she was dragged to le docteur in town at all; Maman might never have realized that Helene was injured at all if her brother's 'pestering' hadn't evolved into a shouting match that had distracted her from her work. That had been two, three months before her sixteenth birthday, and it hadn't even been a month after that when the raiders came... She squeezed her eyes, already shut, even more tightly, and tried to block out the memory. Ever so slowly, she raised her hand to search for the knob-
The shower sputtered on and she let her arm, exhausted, fall back down. The spray fell somewhat onto her stomach, though escaping droplets found refuge on her cheeks and eyelids, but she didn't care: the water was warm and wet and very much not desert, which was what she needed at the moment.
It was a long moment.
It was not the first time she'd woken up to a nightmare, or even this particular dream, and it seemed the one constant she had in her life these days. The Normandy was now into day six of what was, or so the C-Sec engineers claimed, at least a fortnight of repairs; whatever minutia she was required to deal with during the day, whatever tedium (and, by turns, rage) she had to fight as she waited for the Council to come sort of decision, by 0200 ship-time she'd run out of meaningless activities to undertake and be forced, by sheer lack of anything else to to, to bed. She'd sleep for ninety minutes, maybe as much as two hours, and then she'd have The Dream. Before, on the original Normandy, the Prothean vision had haunted her once or twice a week. Before that, it had been the Blitz or the raid once or twice a month. On this Normandy, they'd been almost nightly; since the Omega 4 relay, they'd all been about Caretaker before the Reapers had stripped away his body and made him into their cybermechanoid slave, when he'd still been a Prothean, on a planet that had been called Seshata at a time when her own species was just one of a number of unremarkable hominids on an blue-green planet far from the Prothean homeworld and any place of interest to it. That the dreams were worse than Before, that she took to be another given. Oh, Miranda claimed Cerberus had brought her back perfectly intact, but you couldn't just die and come back and expect to be exactly as you were before.
She'd not slept through the night since-
But the past was the past was the past, and allowing herself to dwell on what she had lost would get her nowhere. She had to remember that.
So she went through the routine she'd developed for nights like these, when she woke up in blind panic, unable to operate except on instinct. (It had been instinct she had worked on back on Mindoir, when she had been in the fields, sulking, when she realized she could no longer hear the large native chauves-souris singing, as they would do constantly throughout the spring, much like the fringillidès of Earth, or so she'd been told. Though she'd no reason to fear anything back then, she'd gotten to her feet and begun to run towards the road when a small shuttle had passed overhead, close enough for her to know without knowing how that it wasn't anything of human design. She'd never had any reason to be afraid on Mindoir, but somewhere, buried deep within her genetic code, remained the fight-or-flight response that kept her ancestors alive long enough to bring her to this point, whatever claims pacifism they may have adopted at the moment, told her then to duck beneath the cordon de royat, amongst the old, dry vines that were slated for pruning sometime this week, if-). Once she settled her heart to a more regular beat and forced her lungs to breathe more quietly, she slowly moved her arms and legs, proving to herself that she was as uninjured as she was when she'd gone to sleep, whatever her dreams might have tried convince her otherwise. Then – always too soon, so that she felt light-headed and had to steady herself as the black faded from the edges of her vision (-she didn't know until afterwards what had happened, or why, only that the aliens had come. She hadn't even a name for their species until, describing their greenish, four-eyed faces afterwards, an Alliance solider had given her one: Batarians. All she'd known then was, whatever their reasons, they had released a orange-tinged gas above Lumière Sainte that made her cough and sputter as she got deeper into it, though she'd pulled the front of her kameez over her nose and mouth, and her vision to darken at the edges-) – she climbed to her feet and stripped off her now well-sodden nightclothes, leaving them balled-up in a corner of the stall; only after she'd washed every trace of the cold sweat from her skin would she collect them and take them to the sink where, wrapped only in a towel, she'd knead the water out of the fabric, unable to miss her reflection in the room that EDI, knowing her place in the routine well, had by this point dimly lit and trace with her eyes the things that reminded her that things were not a they once were. As if she could ever have forgotten. They had tried to hide them, the doctors, but she knew: her shoulder moved too easily (and, when she was paranoid, with a metallic grate); her wrist and trigger finger took too long to tire; her skin was criss-crossed with hundreds of tiny, impossibly straight scars that too readily formed patterns to her regrown eyes. When she'd wrung the garments to her satisfaction, she'd take the sleeveless shirt and tight-fitting shorts she'd left to dry the night before from their hanger and replace them with this night's pair. She'd dress and, twisting her hair (waist-length when she'd died, now several inches longer; she'd toyed with the idea of cutting it, but she was still too much a child of Mindoir to carry the thought through. Kes was the one kakar she had kept to any extent, though more out of habit than the spirit of the kakars) into something more manageable, return to her bedroom in search of something to occupy herself until the hour became something more reasonable she could pretend to have slept to.
This night, EDI announced, "It is 0348, Commander," as Shepherd padded out of the bathroom and straight to her bed, pulling the blankets off and wrapping them around her before heading to the terminal. "It is recommended that human biotics get between 6.9 and 7.3 hours of sleep a night."
She hit the 'wake' controls on the holo-keyboard and said nothing. Rather than glow brightly for use, it remained dark; this, however, wasn't immediately concerning, given her level of tiredness. That, and she still regarded holo-anythings with a mixture of amazement and suspicion, for all she'd tried the last thirteen (no, fifteen, fifteen. She must remember those two years from which she could remember nothing at all and count them into her reckoning. It was 2185. She'd been alive again for four months and three days; should know the year by this point, now that it was nearly over. She could remember everything else – couldn't forget everything else – but-) years to learn the technology her colony had declared anathema.
"You have accumulated less than seven hours since we arrived at the Citadel six Earth days ago."
Wiping a hand across her face before pressing the power button once more, "Tell me something I don't know, EDI." Sometimes, she wondered what Maman would say if she knew how much tech her daughter used on a daily basis. Her father would probably understand. So would Alexandre and Yves, her two oldest brothers. But Remy, her twin...
Shepherd knew how tired she must be to think of them actively. Most of the time they... slept in her mind, and she could forget, their personae lost beneath so many fresher griefs. It made things simpler. She liked simpler: generally, fewer things went wrong.
"I believe you are aware, Commander, that you should speak with Dr. Chakwas about-"
"I've got enough stuff that isn't me without adding soporifics to the list."
"Perhaps speaking with Yeo-"
Repressing a shudder at the thought – it would be a long while before she forgave Kelly for her additions to her wardrobe - "I especially don't need a psychologist in my head." The last thing she needed would be to give the annoyingly tenacious woman another reason to think she had unresolved childhood issues, or whatever it was shrinks normally claimed as the source of all dysfunction.
"Yeoman Chambers is a psychiatrist, not a psychologist."
"There's a differ-? Nevermind. Just tell me what I'm doing wrong." She glowered sleepily at the keyboard, which stubbornly persisted in staying dim.
"You are correct in your attempt to activate the terminal, Commander."
"Then why isn't it working!" Shepherd slammed a hand through the space where, normally, the keyboard would be displayed, and gave a frustrated glare at the terminal's sleep-screen, which remained, despite her best attempts to the contrary, the horned and vaguely-sinister Cerberus symbol. The symbol's mere presence served only to aggravate her further. Les fils de chiennes! Why couldn't they have just let her stay dead? Ciel or enfer or her next life, any or all would be easier than this, this life that, ostensibly, had all the parts of a life – a job, four walls, even a clearly defined purpose – but wasn't living. Living wasn't hiding in her quarters, pretending to sleep; living wasn't twiddling her thumbs, waiting for other people to finish dawdling over decisions on things that could not have been more obvious if she tried, while enemies were descending. Or maybe it was, and she was just being naïve expecting otherwise.
"The terminal is not working because I have currently disabled its systems."
Turning to face the holographic projection (which, while being far from humanoid in appearance, somehow disconcerted her less than her screen saver), she tried to remain calm. Tried being the operative word. All she knew was that every time she closed her eyes she could see, without fail, the Collector swarm descending on the man that would become Caretaker. Only slightly more effort could awaken the destruction warned of in the Prothean beacons carried out upon her own people, foreshadowed by Saren and Sovereign's attack upon the Citadel, and begun in painful earnest during her unpleasant, but apparently not tax deductible, two year reconstruction. She had been brought back to life specifically to stop the cycle, and, now that she'd finally shaken herself of Cerberus' apron strings, her only way of doing so involved one stealth frigate and its compliment of crewmen and weaponry, unless she could convince the Alliance she hadn't been irrevocably contaminated by Cerberus or get the Council to succour their human Spectre like they would any other. As long as one or the other provided a few heavily armed ships – or an armada or two – or several of the old-style, tier-three-forbidden nuclear warheads...
Normally, thoughts of such terrible weapons would cause something to coil in her gut, but desperate times...
Shepherd hated that saying. It had been used to justify to much throughout history.
"How many planets are in the Alliance, EDI?"
"There are sixty-two colonies-"
"What about the Asari Republics?"
"The last wave of Asari expansion puts the number at one hundred and sixteen major republics a-"
"The Turian Hierarchy?"
"What about The Salarian Union? The non-Council races? The non-Citadel species? How many inhabited worlds, space stations – space ships – are there in the galaxy? How many sentient beings – that we know about?"
"Even if I had access to the census records of every FTL-capable species, Commander, it is calculated that a new species discovers FTL technology approximately one hundred and eighty-six point seven-"
"And every single one of those beings, known and otherwise, will be needlessly killed if we don't find a way to destroy – let alone find – the mass relays that will let the Reapers enter our galaxy from whatever parts of dark space they've been hiding in." Though Shepherd was trying to sound like a logician coming to the conclusion of an argument, she knew, as tired as she was and as observant as the Normandy's AI was, that her argument was more defensive than it had any right to be if it was the pure and simple truth. "I'll sleep when the mission is over."
"Your sleep deprivation will not help the mission, Commander."
"So your plan is to deprive me of terminal access in the hope that I'll catch up on lost sleep out of sheer boredom?"
The AI said nothing.
"It won't work," she said, putting an elbow where the keyboard would usually be displayed and resting her head upon it. More quietly, she muttered, "It never does."
Variations on a Theme