Heads or Tails

Chapter 21 of Ghost in the Machine

Two hours before the attack on Therum

Shepard hated Therum long before she laid eyes on the desolate, maroon disk through the open viewports in the bridge. There was a nearly imperceptible tug in her gut as the Normandy fired the last thruster sequence to put them in orbit. The engines wound down, and time seemed to halt in the motionless silence.

And then, despite all her efforts, it started going backwards.


A week back.

Crimson dawn on Eden Prime. One man lost, one man gained. The air trembles with the unbearable rumble of mass effect engines and the monstrous geth ship ascends above the bloody clouds. Then the dead rise. Half human, half machine, mindless, but murderous. Fluorescent oils spill instead of blood. Alenko lights up like a Christmas tree and the collateral biotic field penetrates her dormant nodules. An itch that can never be scratched, deep beneath her overworked muscles, it forks like lightning and sets her mind and body ablaze.

A month back.

Last night on the Trafalgar. She’s as drunk as everybody else after the farewell party. Maybe more, if the swaying decks are any indication, but not drunk enough to hallucinate. Still, when the door to the cabin she’s been sharing with First Lieutenant Humfrey “Ham” Norton opens and the rush of stale, warm air from inside brings with it the unmistakable sticky beat of skin against sweaty skin broken only by occasional throaty grunts of Private William Riley who is taking it from behind like a champ, on all fours, right there on the floor – the first thing through her mind is that she’s passed out somewhere and is having some kind of fucked-up lucid dream. They stop and turn in the direction of her slack-jawed figure. Riley is wearing a drunken, blissful expression, and Ham smiles at her before finishing them both off in four savage thrusts. She can’t look at them. She can’t look away. The heat in her face burns her cheeks and that’s what sobers her up enough to close the door before awkwardness ensues.

A year back.

The bowels of the decommissioned turian dreadnought Eleutheria: no light, no gravity, no sounds other than the heavy hammering of her mag-boots and the rustle of her breath, confined to the vacuum-sealed helmet. Captain Anderson, in command of a special N7 detachment running this gig, is walking next to her and the beams of their flashlights intersect every so often. She’s taken a good look at him before they were deployed. The youngest graduate of the N7 program, a veteran of the First Contact War, and if the rumors were true, friends with the new Ambassador on the Citadel. Shepard wants to make an impression. And when bullets start flying, she gets her chance. As usual, all the carefully laid plans go to shit faster than she can say oh fuck, and they find themselves hopelessly outnumbered and nearly surrounded. Shepard pulls the decoy trick; they fool the bastards into believing there are three more squads moving to surround them, and use their attempts to out-flank the false-positives on their combat scanners to plant the bomb and get the fuck out of there without a single casualty.

Two years back.

First time on the Citadel. It fails to impress her, but Nihlus does not. After the interview, she pops a medigel to patch her palms. One of those horrible moments in a faceless, nameless and genderless restroom, when you look in the mirror and realize you have no idea who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing. When you feel like you’re watching yourself through that poorly-disguised security cam on the ceiling. Is that what happened to Kyle? A word surfaces in her memory, one of those fat, many-lettered things her shrink sometimes liked to throw at her like grenades. Depersonalization. She frowns at the jello on her hands and washes it off.

Five years back.

Blood and chaos in the tunnels under the parched surface of Torfan. Hot, dark and stuffy, smoke and blood cluttering the standing air. Heavy combat boots drumming over durasteel floors. Gunfire lighting the slave pens, empty, they’re empty, thank god they’re empty. Until they are not. Dawkins is a goddamn pussy and his hand is shaking as he glues the barrel of his pistol to the forehead of a trembling, kneeling turian. Shepard pushes him aside and administers the shot herself, pulverizing the poor bastard from under the chin upwards. Some of the stuff reaches the light-bulb hanging from the low ceiling and the scene becomes painted in a ghastly azure.

Ten years back.

The shrink’s office on Arcturus Station is filled with the smell of dusty old paper. He has floor-to-ceiling shelves full of old books and other old things. Among them, one never fails to catch her eye and she often stares at it while they talk. It’s a small water-pipe, seemingly fashioned from a single slab of bluish moon-stone. When the talking gets heavy, its beauty comforts her. And when it gets boring, she fantasizes about seeing the shrink stoned. She’d pay good credits for that.

“You didn’t answer my question,” he reminds her.

“Hmm? What was the question?”

“Why don’t you write to her? Here, do it right now.”

There’s a paper writing-pad with a pencil in his outstretched hand and her incredulous gaze goes from his eyes to the offering and back to his eyes. She’s supposed to be the crazy one here, not he.

“What?” he says. “Don’t tell me you can’t write.”

She snatches the pad from him and the pencil takes flight, all the way to the door, rotating elegantly about a perpendicular axis. Shepard’s thoughts promptly fly away with it, to the mechanics behind helicopter suspension and other interesting helicopter-related things: air superiority, surveillance, near-ground missions. By the time she fetches it and sits back, she’s forgotten what they were talking about – again.

“Just a few lines,” the shrink says patiently. “To tell her you’re fine.”

Am I? She looks at the water-pipe again. Jo would love that color.

“I’d rather type,” she says aloud. The shrink appears to consider it, then nods, and the paper pad is replaced by a data pad. Her heart is drumming strangely. She clenches her teeth and starts typing.

Dear Jo…

Twenty years back.

The kitchen in the third or fourth rented apartment she remembers. Daddy is cleaning up after breakfast, and Mommy is ambling around the living room, tidying up. They are talking about something boring that Shepard readily classifies as ‘politics’ even though hardly a word is actually getting to her ears.

“Can I wash the dishes?” she asks, but they don’t hear. Their voices have been rising steadily and now it almost sounds like another fight. Daddy wants to move to one place, and Mommy, to another. It’s all the same to Shepard, though the words ‘settle down’ sound like something she might like.

“I’ll be careful,” she adds, but it falls on deaf ears. She has something in her hand, and now she studies it. It’s a fork. She’s standing right behind Daddy. One well placed stab, and…

He screams. “Jesus!”

The incriminating weapon drops on the floor and takes an eternity to settle, making that awful clanking noise that echoes off the naked floor tiles. Mommy comes around from the living room with a pair of intensely green, all-seeing eyes, like search-lights on a moonless night.

“She stabbed me in the butt!” Daddy yells, but there’s more disbelief than anger in his tone. “With a fork!”

Mommy looks at Daddy, who’s rubbing his skinny behind, then at the glaringly obvious fork on the floor, and at last at Shepard. And bursts into laughter.


But only a shadow of a smile ghosted over Shepard’s face at the memory. She had gotten a lecture that day. About how sharp things are dangerous and how she shouldn’t stab people in the ass with them, even when they are ignoring her. Shepard always hated to be lectured. But she had taken it like the brave little trooper she’d been, even if she had spent the rest of that day pouting.

To comfort her, Daddy had produced the coin. A big one, with Grissom’s head on one side and the logo of the Alliance on the other. Little did he know that, when he told her to toss, he was handing her a weapon of mass destruction. One that would obliterate his family. That would desecrate and butcher his wife, shoot him between the eyes while his baby son was being smothered under a pillow, burn his house to the ground, and leave his eldest child with nothing but an old sidearm, a trembling little sister to take care of, and a profound feeling of dark guilt that no amount of therapy could ever erase.

“Heads for Mindoir, tails for Therum,” Daddy had said. “You choose.”

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