Fight for the Lost

By LuxDragon

Scifi / Action

Subject Zero

Location: Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Nubian Expanse Nebula / Dakka System / Pragia

"Here you go," Gardner said as he passed Jack her usual pair of trays.

Jack took them and inhaled the scent, closing her eyes as she did so. "Smells great."

"I try," he said gruffly. "Restocked while we were at the Citadel. Top of the line stuff."

"Thanks," she said and walked past the other Cerberus crewmen in the Common Area. After more than a month, they hardly batted an eye at her anymore. A couple even went out of their way to greet her, though it was something stupid like, 'morning' or 'hi'. She didn't bother replying to them.

As far as anyone went, the cook was probably the only Cerberus crewman that Jack liked and interacted with on a daily basis; outside of Shepard and his squad anyway. On top of cooking food that was way better than the crap she had in prison, he was no-nonsense and tough, seemingly unafraid of her since they met. Add to the fact that he was probably the most laidback person on the ship and she couldn't muster any real grievances against him.

After consuming her usual calorie-laden meal to satisfy her biotic diet, she reached under her cot and pulled out the datapads Shepard had given her and started reading again. It was pointless though. She had memorized just about everything she needed to know, but it settled her nerves a bit. The anticipation that she was going to destroy the place that destroyed her life was at the forefront of her mind.

"Jack?"

Heaving a frustrated growl, she looked up reflexively, but knew that the source of the disembodied voice of the AI was pretty much everywhere. "What?" she impatiently asked.

"Chief Zorah wishes to speak to you at the Armory. She says that your requested project is complete," EDI said over the intercom since there was no place for her avatar to appear in the sub-decks.

Her anger forgotten, Jack tossed the datapads under her cot and jogged up the stairs. She made a mental note to get the food trays and hand them back to Gardner later.

"Hey," Jack called out when she finally entered the Armory.

Tali looked up from her work and waved her over. She turned toward Jacob. "Could you give us a few minutes?"

Jacob glanced at the both of them in confusion, but nodded all the same. "Uh… sure. I'll just be at the head or something…"

Jack stepped aside and allowed him to leave. He gave a tight nod in return and didn't pry into her business, something he should be grateful for.

"So what did you call me up here for?" Jack asked once they were alone.

Tali shifted to the side to show that she was working on a shotgun. Jack's shotgun.

That immediately got her attention. She ran up and looked down at her weapon. "Holy shit, you really did it?"

"Just installed it," Tali replied. She tapped her leg cast. "I have a bit of time on my hands now."

"Does it work?" Jack asked as she picked it up and turned it in her hands to see if there were any real visible differences.

Tali shrugged. "Don't know. I'm not a biotic. We'll need to test it to know for sure."

"And how the hell are we supposed to do that?"

Just as Jack posed her question, Shepard walked into the Armory. "Hey, Tali. You needed me for something?"

"Hi, Shepard. I wanted to ask permission to test my invention," Tali requested.

Jack glared at the quarian, but her ever-present helmet hid her expression. She either didn't see it or did and ignored it.

"For what?" Shepard asked.

"Remember that ammo converter I told you about?" Tali asked.

He nodded.

"Since I had some free time, I managed to finish it. Here." Tali held out a blocky, complicated looking component and held it out to him. "You can attach it to your own assault rifle or sniper rifle. I'll make more for your other weapons soon."

Shepard grimaced. "That's the ammo converter for Warp Ammo, right? Just like the Collector Guardians use?" he asked as he took the converter from her.

"Yeah… is something wrong?" Tali asked worriedly.

"Results from my medical tests. My eezo nodules are growing like tumors," Shepard said neutrally. "They're causing phantom pains in my arm now. Chakwas told me, well, pretty much ordered me to stop using biotics for a while."

"Whoa, shit," Jack said in amazement. "Are you fucking serious? Can eezo nodules really do that?"

"Only if you're part of a Cerberus experiment designed to bring the dead to life," Shepard answered dryly.

Tali's body language suggested that she was stricken and struggled to stand up. "Are you going to be okay? I mean is there—"

"Mordin, Chakwas, and Miranda are all looking to into a few ideas that might help. For now, there's nothing they can do but map out how fast the nodules are growing and give me a timeline," Shepard said. He placed a hand on her shoulder and calmly pushed her back down to sit.

"Or a deadline," Jack morbidly said. For a guy that seemed like he was given a death sentence, he looked really, really calm.

Shepard just shrugged in reply to her pessimistic interpretation.

Jack shook her head and made another mental note to visit Chakwas to see if there's anything worth checking over as well. The last thing she wanted was having her biotics turn against her, and since she was once part of a Cerberus project…

Tali was still fretting, but after a few more reassurances from Shepard, she managed to calm down a bit. Considering that he was dead a few months ago, he bragged that if Cerberus brought him back once, they could do it again.

"Remember, I'm also technically undead, which is why I'm probably leading this mission," he joked.

"Seriously, Shepard; There's something fucking wrong with you," Jack decisively said.

"Coming from you, that actually means something," he quipped. "Should I be worried? I think I'll worry a little bit now."

Tali huffed in annoyance at Shepard's cavalier attitude towards his own life, but accepted the fact that his health was in good hands. With her worries eased for the time being she asked, "We need to make sure that the ammo converter is working. I'd rather not put it to the test in the field."

"How sure are you that this'll work?" Jack asked warily. Now that the novelty had worn off, she was holding her gun a little further away from her body. Untested stuff always made her cautious.

"I told you, I'm not an expert in biotics. I had to consult with Mordin and Samara to make sure my theories was correct," Tali said defensively. "If this works, it's a brand… almost brand new technology that will change biotic combat," she said, amending her words since all she did was reverse-engineer tech the Collectors already utilized.

"Instead of relying on biotic techniques, biotics can rely on guns a little more if they had this ammo converter," Shepard said thoughtfully.

"Cerberus doesn't know about this, right?" Jack asked harshly.

Tali crossed her arms. "Of course not. Everything I did was on my own personal server, unconnected to the ship, that AI, or any Cerberus monitoring devices."

"Good," Jack praised.

Shepard cleared his throat. "I'll clear the hangar and have some targets set up. I'd like to see this in action myself."

~o~O~o~

Jack grinned when she finally put down her M-27 Scimitar. The steel plates she was shooting at were mangled and twisted, much like how the unstable mass effect fields would have done. The fact that she was tearing through three inches with only a few shots gave her a new appreciation for Tali's expertise.

Nice…

Shepard was looking down at one of the discarded plates with a critical eye and an appreciative nod. "Looks like it works."

"Hell, yes," Jack readily agreed.

"How're you feeling?" Tali asked.

Jack blinked at the question. "What?"

"Remember that you're feeding your own biotics into the converter. Essentially, you're creating the necessary mass effect fields around each shot. The converter just makes sure that the rounds are properly modified and that the gun won't… well… explode," Tali explained. "The real explanation is bit more technical than that, but don't worry! The strain shouldn't be too much."

Jack looked down at her shotgun before looking up. "I don't know. I feel fine. It's not like I'm feeling tired or hungry or something."

Tali sighed in relief. "I suppose that means everything is working," she stated happily. "I'll make a smaller one for your pistol and have it ready by tomorrow. We'll test it then."

"Its good work, Tali," Shepard praised. "Any chance you can make more for the other biotics on our squad?"

She adjusted her crutches uncomfortably. "Actually, Shepard… um… I'd rather not."

"Why not?"

"I only did it because Jack asked me too and it's for the good of the mission. But I can't get past Cerberus' crimes, not after their attack on the flotilla," Tali said. She appeared set in this issue. "I'm sorry, but there's no way I'm giving this to anyone else."

Shepard looked like he wanted to argue, but relented at the last moment. "Alright, Tali. Don't worry about it. We've done well enough before, anyway."

Privately, Jack was glad. If he forced the issue, she'd steal the shuttle and bail at the first opportunity. There's no way she'd want to work with anyone that wanted to make Cerberus stronger. "I'm with her. Just because I'm helping you, doesn't mean I'm helping them."

Shepard seemed to recognize that and let the matter drop.

When he and Tali started talking among themselves, Jack turned to leave. Before she could get more than a few steps, Shepard called out to her.

"Jack? The shotgun?"

She turned around and glared. "I'd rather keep it with me."

Shepard met her eyes with a hard stare of his own. She privately thought that he looked hot, though she'd never admit it. "That rule isn't from Cerberus, Jack. It's mine. All weapons in the Armory. I'm already letting you keep your pistol, but I'm not giving you that much leeway."

Before she could argue, Tali limped between them. "Jacob doesn't know about the converter. Despite the fact that he's Cerberus, I believe he's a man of his word. He won't scan or look into it if he ordered not to," she said with a glance at Shepard.

He nodded.

Jack clicked her tongue before nodding acceptance as well. The only reason she agreed was that Taylor was a soldier through and through. Follows orders and shit like that. She dropped her shotgun on the deck and left.

~o~O~o~

The next couple of days felt stifling. It almost made her feel like she was in her cramped cell again, back on Purgatory. Cabin fever. She'd taken to leaving her spot in the subdecks and waste time in the open area of the hangar. Either she ran laps or exercised at the gym to occupy her hands. Once she got tired, she flopped onto her cot and used her omni-tool to link into the extranet. It was slower than using the Normandy's connections, but with that Cerberus AI, she wasn't taking chances.

She ran a few searches on Cerberus for the hell of it. Not surprisingly, there wasn't crap to be found. Nothing on the Teltin facility, Illusive Man, or even the cheerleader.

Bastards always did know how to cover their tracks.

She signed up and got banned from the Citadel Newsnet forums and at Galactic Champion Poker 2100. She didn't care. Most of those assholes were trolls and cheaters anyway. She watched a few vids on recent current events… then got back up and exercised again. Anything to distract her and the feeling of weakness that threatened to break her down.

The closer they got to Pragia, the more she wanted to turn around and go someplace else. Far, far away.

"Are you alright?"

Jack blinked back to the present and turned her head toward Chakwas. "You're the damn doctor. You tell me."

Chakwas showed no indication that Jack's rough demeanor nettled her in any way. She continued to manipulate the SMART Scanner's holographic projection. Currently, it was focused on Jack's brain. "I can tell you what's physically wrong, but you look like you're having some troubling thoughts as well. Would you like to share?"

"So what's 'physically' wrong with me?" Jack asked, ignoring the question.

"Here's how this works: I test, I study the data, I interpret the results, and then I tell you what's wrong. Currently, we're on the first step. I know patience isn't one of your virtues, but I still need a bit of time," Chakwas replied as she continued to look through images. "So what were you thinking about?"

"None of your damn business," Jack retorted.

Chakwas shrugged. "If you wish."

Jack snorted, but held her peace. She liked Gardner well enough, but only because he made the food and never pried into her life. He was tough, but a bit boring. For better or worse, Chakwas was a bit more interesting; though Jack had a hard time wondering if she liked or hated her. Unlike the fucking witch doctors at Teltin, Chakwas looked like she genuinely cared about her patients. She was the first doctor in a long time that Jack allowed to be treated by. Unfortunately, Chakwas was also nosy and had this thing, this uncanny ability, to make her feel guilty or something whenever she snapped at her.

After a few silent minutes, with Chakwas making notes in the nearby terminal and Jack sitting still in the chair, the ex-convict finally relented and spoke again.

"I-I… fuck it. I was thinking about the past."

"It does have a way of sneaking up on us," Chakwas commented.

"No shit," Jack grumbled.

"Almost finished," Chakwas assured. She tapped a few more holographic commands.

Jack barely heard her. "It's just… do you know where we're going?"

"The news has traveled around the ship. Details vary of course, making much of what I hear unreliable at best," Chakwas said. "As far as I've been able to ascertain, we're going to a Cerberus facility. Other than that, what I've heard ranges from the underwater secret base or hollowed out volcano the Illusive Man calls his home, to a laboratory that's dedicated to discover the secret of immortality."

For some reason, Jack found herself grinning.

"I'm glad to make you laugh, even if it is at me," Chakwas said. "Up. You're done."

Jack stood up and started dressing. She loved feeling of clothes on her back again, especially ever since Purgatory…

Shaking her head to rid herself of those memories, she quietly continued putting on her clothes. The childhood memories returned with a vengeance in place of her previous thoughts.

"We're going to the place that made me what I am," Jack confessed.

Chakwas turned away from her terminal to face her patient fully. "Why?"

"I want to bring a bomb into my cell. I want to turn that fucking place into a smoking hole in the ground with my cell at ground zero," Jack snarled.

Chakwas nodded. "I see… however, I sense there is more to it than that." She cocked her head to side and observed Jack with an observant eye. "Are you feeling… apprehensive, perhaps?"

Jack snorted, but turned her head away. She couldn't meet Chakwas' eyes. "What the hell are you talking about? I'm not afraid of anything."

"I didn't say afraid. I said apprehensive," Chakwas corrected. "That means you want to do this, but you don't want to go there. Am I right?"

Again, Jack snorted in distain, hoping that her show of bravado would derail the doctor. Chakwas' raised eyebrow and expectant stare said that she could see right through her though.

"I've read reports on the aftermath of only a few Cerberus experiments, two years ago. I pray that what happened to you wasn't as inhumane, but I doubt that's the case. It seems that the horrors inflicted on you have left their mark in more ways than one," Chakwas gently said.

"I just…" Jack started to say before growling and kicking one of her boots across the room. She started pacing, feeling her nerves fraying at the edges."I don't know why the hell I want to do this. Teltin's been abandoned; nothing but a fucking garbage dump. A hellhole in the middle of nowhere. Why am I wasting my fucking time with this shit? There's nothing there, probably nothing left."

"It's a place that made you what you are and memories like that won't fade easily," Chakwas said. She turned her chair around to face Jack and crossed her arms and legs to ponder the situation. "It's obvious you feel resentment to what happened to you—"

"Really? No shit?" Jack sarcastically shot back.

"—if your attitude towards Cerberus is any indication," Chakwas continued as if Jack hadn't spoken. "And now you're on a Cerberus vessel, undertaking a Cerberus mission. You're a woman that prides herself on her ability to stand on her own, to survive without help. Now it's almost like you're right back to where you started: Cerberus. You want some measure of control again."

Jack stopped pacing and paid a little more attention now.

"For you, Teltin is where it all began. You still feel trapped by its influence. Your biotics, your bursts of rage, even your borderline obsession with everything that happened to you all stems from this facility," Chakwas said patiently. "If destroying the base was so simple for you, we could do it from orbit. Or if the explosive is powerful enough, just placing it anywhere would suffice. However, you seem adamant that the explosive be placed in your cell. You yearn to be free and you're hoping that in the act of destroying Teltin will achieve this. No more memories, no more pain, and no more ghosts. You might even be hoping to find some measure of closure."

For once, Jack found herself at a loss for words. She wanted to rage out against the doctor, citing that she wasn't into this psychobabble bullshit. She wanted to admit to her that everything she said was true. She wanted to be left alone. She wanted to hurt the people that hurt her. She wanted to cry. She wanted revenge…

She wanted to be free.

"Do you really think blowing that place up will help me?" Jack asked quietly.

"I truly don't know," Chakwas honestly replied with a shake of her head. "You're someone that needs activity. You need some sort of physical act that helps you get a handle of the situation. You're not patient or deliberate; you're spontaneous and unpredictable." She paused and regarded Jack thoughtfully. "In my personal opinion though, I think this might help in some way. You are a strong young woman. You have to be, to endure what's been done to you."

Jack said nothing. She glanced at Chakwas for a moment before turning away. She crossed the room, picked up her boot, and slipped it on. "Hey… you're not going to tell anybody about this, right?" she asked.

"Doctor-patient confidentially. Even EDI doesn't have ears in here until I call for her," Chakwas answered. "I promise, anything you say will always remain between the two of us."

"Even Shepard?"

"Even Shepard. His job is to ensure the safe operation of ship and crew. If you don't pose a danger to either, I don't have to tell him anything."

"He said if I wanted to go down by myself, I can," Jack confided. "To Teltin, I mean."

"Do you want to?"

"Do you think I should?"

Chakwas shrugged. "I can't tell you what to do. I doubt you'll listen to me if I did, now that I think about it," she joked.

Jack cracked a smile and started lacing up her other boot.

"This is an uncomfortable subject for you. If you value your privacy over comfort, then you should go alone. If you want someone to… how shall I put it…? 'Give you a push', then I'd recommend asking Shepard to accompany you," Chakwas advised. "There's no one I trust more. Well, besides Joker, but I doubt you'll appreciate any help our helmsman can hope to offer."

Jack stood up straight and nodded. "I'll think about it."

"I'll call you when I've finished looking through the results of your scan," Chakwas promised.

"Just tell it to me straight, am I looking at good news or bad?"

Chakwas turned to her terminal and looked through the preliminary numbers. "Well, according to…" she trailed off and sighed. She swiveled her chair to face Jack again. "Bad," she bluntly said.

"Fuck," Jack said with a disparaging scoff. "Story of my life."

~o~O~o~

A few hours after her talk with Chakwas, Jack finally sought out Shepard. He was down in the hangar, working out in the gym. A few off-duty crewmen were loitering about nearby.

"Hey," Jack greeted.

"Hey," Shepard grunted back as he pushed against the barbell near his chest.

Jack looked at him appreciatively while he worked out. Currently, he was wearing a pair of sweats and a tank top that showed off his build. A thin sheen of sweat covered his exposed skin as he did his reps. The weights he was lifting were nothing to sneeze at either. The man looked like he could go toe-to-toe with Grunt.

She licked her dry lips and tapped his sneaker with her boot. "Can we talk?"

Shepard exhaled slowly as he pushed the barbell up and locked it in position before sitting up. "Sure."

"Privately."

He nodded and picked up a nearby towel to dry himself off. Standing up, he gestured that she lead the way.

She led him to an empty space near the Kodiak and crossed her arms. "We're a few hours out now, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"You really meant it? When you said I could go alone?"

"You make a decision?" Shepard asked.

"I don't know how to rig the bomb. I'm gonna need some help with that. Last thing I want to do is get myself blown up trying to wipe this place off the face of the galaxy," Jack said. It was mostly the truth. She really didn't know how to work the bomb and if it was as powerful as the cheerleader said it was, she wasn't sure if she wanted to mess with it.

The real truth of it was that she hated her idea now, but she didn't want to back away and look like a chicken shit. Seeing as how Shepard seemed to have a good head on his shoulders, he might give her a bit of help, maybe even be a bit useful.

"You mean the DX-57?" he asked.

"Yeah. Is it really that powerful?"

"One of the most powerful conventional bombs you can get without going nuclear," Shepard said.

"It's supposed to be heavy too, right?" she asked.

"70 kilos. That's about 150 lbs., something like that," he answered.

"I'm going to need someone to carry it all the way to my room," she said.

"You're asking me to come along and be your pack mule?" Shepard skeptically asked. His smile showed that he wasn't offended.

"If you wanna tag along, I'm not going to say no," Jack flippantly said.

If he saw through her bluster, he didn't make an issue out of it. He nodded and said, "We should be there in a few hours. You know how to pilot a shuttle?"

Jack nodded.

"Then it'll be just the both of us. No need to get Hawthorne and Goldstein involved. You and I can go down in the Kodiak."

"Fine, whatever," Jack said. She turned around and headed back to her cot to pick up her armor. Before she ascended the stairs, she turned back to Shepard. "And don't fucking slow me down."

He gave her a half-assed salute and rubbed the side of his nose with his middle finger before cleaning up his workout area.

Asshole.

For some reason though, she still smiled all the same.

~o~O~o~

Location: Nubian Expanse / Dakka System / Pragia / Teltin Facility

"You're a better flyer than you are a driver," Jack said.

"What does that mean?" Shepard asked. He looked offended at her comment.

The Kodiak shook a little as it underwent atmospheric entry. All things considered though, it was pretty smooth. Hardly any turbulence.

"Your driving sucks. That's what I mean," Jack retorted. "At least it looks like we're going to get down in one piece."

"Are you sure about that?" he asked.

"What the hell does that mean?"

Shepard smirked. "It always starts off like this. We could just be going through some slight turbulence. And then explode."

Jack glared at him. "You're a sick man."

"Coming from you, that means nothing."

Jack looked down at the display in front of her. "I can't believe I forgot how much I hate this place," she muttered as she tapped a few buttons into the navigational computer.

Shepard said nothing as the shuttle cleared the atmosphere. He leveled it out and followed Jack's course, piloting the shuttle toward a structure that was almost buried in plant life.

"See the landing pad?" she asked.

"I see it," he said.

"Had to be on the roof or the vegetation would overgrow it in a few hours," she explained.

"Captain, I am picking up thermal signatures everywhere, except at your landing zone," EDI informed.

"Interesting…" Shepard commented. "Something's distorting the sensors."

"It's a secret Cerberus base. They built their equipment to last. Assholes," Jack said.

"That's not what's interesting. What's interesting is that there's no thermal signature at our landing zone. If they wanted to keep this base hidden, they screwed up. Having an empty spot is as bad as having a hot one," Shepard explained. "You're supposed to blend with the surroundings to become invisible."

"So what?" Jack asked.

"Either the equipment is malfunctioning, or someone is using it and they don't know how to read the instructions," Shepard said.

"You think someone's here?"

He shrugged. "When the Alliance abandons an outpost for a different location for some reason or other, we still keep eyes on the old one. Pirates, slavers, or mercs usually move in after a couple of months. We swoop in and take'em out."

"So you think some fucking idiot is calling this place their home?"

"Outposts are small and numerous, but abandoned bases are pretty much considered headquarters for lowlife scum. Places like that, especially if they're abandoned in a hurry, tend to be somewhat hidden, defensible, and stocked with useful stuff sometimes." Shepard checked the scanners and windows. "I don't see any other ships though. Could be something, could be nothing. Maybe the local wildlife messed with the equipment. We'll find out soon enough."

The Kodiak dipped lower as Shepard brought it in for approach.

Jack swallowed and clutched her harness. This time her feelings had nothing to do with Shepard's piloting. "It was a mistake coming back here, Shepard."

"Relax. We're not going to crash. This thing can practically fly itself," he joked.

"Ha-ha."

"Seriously, though. You okay?" he asked.

"I'm fine."

"Look, we'll just walk in, set the bomb, fly out, blow it up," he summarized.

"Right. Let's just get on the ground," she said. Suddenly the shuttle fell a dozen feet, causing her to shout in surprise. "What the fuck? !"

"Yeah, that part will happen, one way or another," Shepard said with a straight face.

"You son of a bitch!" Her anger momentarily overrode her reservations. Whether that was his purpose or not, she didn't know.

Great, so either I'm grateful or pissed at him. Fucking prick.

He tapped on several buttons and the shuttle slowly descended this time. It touched down on the landing pad with only a slight, but noticeable bump.

"Damn it. Hawthorne or Joker would've done better," Shepard muttered. "Guess I'm a little rusty."

Rain pattered on the hull and windows. Jack got up and walked toward the cabin, slipping on her helmet as she did so. The heads up display ran through its checklist and diagnostics before signaling that the status of her Terminus Assault Armor was normal. The info changed to the current status and moved to the corner to be as unobtrusive as possible while still able to provide combat data.

She opened the door and stepped out, ignoring the rain as it splattered against her armor. "Come on! Let's just get in there and plant the bomb in my cell. I want to watch this place burn."

Shepard followed suit in his Kestrel armor, also fully helmeted and sealed. He started making his way toward the stairs.

"Hey! What about the bomb?" Jack called out.

"Not yet. I wanna secure the area first. If there's someone living here, I don't want to give them a new toy to play with. If they're smart, they'll keep it for themselves or sell it. Either way, they might be able to disable the DX-57 before we can detonate. If they're stupid, then they're liable to blow us up fiddling around with it while we try to fly away," Shepard said. He was holding his assault rifle across his chest loosely.

"If it's not one goddamn thing…" Jack complained. Still, she reached behind and pulled out her shotgun. Thinking about it a little more, she kinda hoped there was something or someone here. A live-fire test of her new Warp Ammo on some poor unsuspecting bastard would help settle her feelings at being back at the gates of Hell.

They waded through the thick sheets of rain down a set of stairs and ramps to the only open door. A light was shining above it.

Jack entered first and looked around. Nothing familiar struck her, though she did spot some similar portable cells Purgatory used on the right side of the room. "I never saw this room. I think they brought new kids in these containers. They were messed up and starving, but alive." She paused a beat before turning toward Shepard. "Usually."

Shepard wiped the water off the faceplate of his helmet and said nothing. He walked deeper into the room.

Jack cleaned the water off her visor as well and followed, taking in everything and trying to sort out the latent emotions this facility brought out.

In the second half of the room they were in, Shepard was fiddling with working terminal.

"What is that?" Jack asked.

"I think this terminal connects into the mainframe… I'm just opening a port for EDI begin mining the data. I want to know what the hell Cerberus was doing here," he explained.

"Connection established. Data mine in progress," EDI reported.

"Done. Let's go."

Jack nodded and walked toward the only other door in the room. The moment it opened though, she heard a voice. "Someone's down there!" she hissed, activating her radio to avoid detection.

Shepard pressed up on the other side of the doorway and peeked through. "It's just an active security console. It looks like a looping message."

They both relaxed and walked in.

The image was of a Cerberus security officer. It flicked in and out view, but the sound remained somewhat clear. It looked like he was talking to someone at the time of recording. "The Illusive Man requested operation logs again. He's getting suspicious," the hologram said.

"When we get results, he won't care what we did. But if he knew…" a voice warned.

"He won't find out," the officer said.

When the message replayed again, Shepard reached out and turned it off. "Another rogue facility. Great."

"What makes you think this place went rogue?" Jack asked harshly.

"What makes you think it didn't?" Shepard calmly returned.

"Look, he didn't say what they were hiding from the Illusive Man. For all you know, they were making red sand here too," Jack retorted.

"Were they? You were here after all," Shepard pointed out.

"Hell if I know," Jack said. She brushed past him and went into the next room.

She recognized the next area immediately, even as dilapidated as it was. The arranged fights, the transfer of kids in their portable cells, her breakout… The door she had escaped through to the other landing pad was overrun by the root of some tree that was growing through the middle of the floor, though. There were vines, enormous leaves, and other plant life infesting the entire atrium.

"Jack?"

"I remember escaping to this room. Fighting here," Jack said emotionlessly. She pointed up at the broken skylight that the rain poured in from. "I saw sunlight through the windows in the ceiling. Only a half-dead guard between me and freedom."

'P-p-please! D-don't k-kill me… please…'

"He was begging for his life," she said in remembrance. She walked into the room slowly, taking everything in.

Her brooding thoughts were interrupted by the sounds of varren howling.

Around a fallen container, four varren were rushing at them. Their jaws were snapping wildly as they charged.

Jack waved her arm and unleashed Shockwave. The biotic attack tore through the animals with the sounds of explosions and broken limbs.

The varren started howling in pain now, rather than anger. Soon, even that tapered off to whimpering as they tried to stand on mangled legs.

Shepard walked up and used his pistol to end their suffering. Four shots later and the only sounds again was the storm outside.

"Varren. The Bloodpack uses varren," Jack said.

"Maybe," Shepard said. "But those varren looked wild. If they were tame, there should be a vorcha or krogan looking after them. Giving them orders."

Jack didn't bother arguing. If there were mercs here, she'd deal with them. If not, fuck it.

Stepping over the varren corpses, she paused at the next area and looked around. The concrete rails that used to form an arena had either fallen over or were in broken pieces now. A nearby puddle of water created from a hole in the ceiling resembled the blood pool that was there when she beat a kid so hard, he practically coughed up his all of his blood.

"This looks like an arena," Shepard observed.

"Yeah. They used to stage fights here. Pit me against other kids," Jack said. Her smile was feral. "I loved it. Only time I was ever out of my cell."

"They pitted you to fight against the other kids?"

She nodded. "I was filled with drugs. Got shocked when I hesitated," she said before smiling again. "Narcotics flooded my veins when I attacked."

"They actually rewarded you for attacking?" he asked in disbelief.

"I still get warm feelings during a fight."

"The hell was wrong with these people?" Shepard muttered.

"I don't know," Jack said uncaringly. "Doesn't matter now."

"How often did they do this?"

"I was in a cell my whole life. Sometimes they took me out and made me fight. Filled me with drugs. Other stuff," Jack said impatiently. She didn't bother telling him what the 'other stuff' was. "Time gets funny in a cell."

"Any idea what they were studying?"

She shrugged. "Hell if I know. Maybe that's how they got their kicks."

"So it was just you?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean the fights. They just wanted you to fight or did the others fight each other?"

"Look, I said: I don't know. I kept getting moved to different places or just thrown back to my cell," Jack snapped. "Come on. We've wasted enough fucking time."

She marched past him and through a nearby door. Now that she had her bearings, the path back to her cell almost felt instinctual. She hated that feeling.

Soon, it won't matter.

The hallway ahead had several doors. Most were unreachable though. Either the doorways were buried in rubble or the hyper growth of the local fauna obstructed the way. They had to vault over a bunch of plants that were in the way as they continued exploring.

"Hold on," Shepard called out.

Jack turned around to see him moving some leaves aside. Underneath was another security console.

After moving enough vegetation, he tapped a few buttons and another flickering hologram appeared.

It was another Cerberus officer and he looked frantic. "This is Security Officer Zemkl! The subjects are out of their cells! They're tearing the place up!" He paused when he was forced to duck down as chair flew over his head.

"Your breakout I take it," Shepard commented.

As if to answer his statement, the guard stood up and looked around quickly, tightly clutching his shotgun. "Subject Zero is going to get loose! I need permission to terminate! I repeat, permission to terminate!"

Permission? What the hell does that mean?

Another voice answered, though neither saw him. "Negative! All subjects besides Zero are expendable! Keep Zero alive!"

"Understood! I'll begin the—"

Jack snarled. She ran up and turned the console off. "That's not right! I broke out when my guards disappeared – I started the fucking riot!"

"From the look of things, sounds like there was a lot more going on; more than what you remember or knew anyway," Shepard observed.

"The other kids attacked me. The guards attacked me. The automated systems attacked me," Jack listed off furiously. She jabbed him in the chest with her finger. "That doesn't leave lots of room for interpretation."

"Sure it does," Shepard calmly countered. "The guards were ordered to subdue you and take you alive. So, yeah, they did attack you in some way. Automated systems were probably set to the same thing or it got messed up during the riot. As for the other kids, well… if it were me, the only reason I'd attack you was because you're the one attacking me. Did you ever think about that? Our little spat back on Purgatory?"

Jack glared, but her helmet prevented Shepard from seeing it.

"And you did fight them beforehand. They might've resented you for it. Or maybe they went to you for protection during the riot. You heard the recording. 'All subjects are expendable'. They were going to kill'em all. If you were the strongest, they might've thought you were their best chance to survive," he theorized. "There are plenty of ways to see a situation differently. The only way to know what really happened is to keep looking around."

Jack scoffed disbelievingly and pushed past him. "Y'know what? Fuck you! You weren't here, all right? !"

Shepard said nothing more and followed her quietly.

They were forced to wander a bit now. The path Jack remembered was obstructed in several places, forcing them to take a more roundabout way. They ended up taking some stairs downward in the hope that it would go under and around, eventually taking them back up again. At the very least, she remembered her cell overlooked the cafeteria where the other kids ate at, meaning it was on the upper levels.

"Look at that," Jack said. She used her shotgun to point at a couple of varren carcasses that were in the middle of the hallway. "Fresh kill. Both were shot."

"Company, then. Radios only," Shepard ordered. "Let's see who we're dealing with."

"So who do you think is here?" Jack asked tensely.

"I'm hoping for mercs or pirates. Slavers means hostages, which always pain in the ass to deal with," Shepard replied. "Normandy, do you copy?"

"Joker, here. You're five-by-five."

"Get the XO to the deck. We might have a party down here."

"Aye, aye. Calling the XO."

"What the hell, Shepard?" Jack asked. "We're not—"

"Just having the others ready," Shepard interrupted as he took point. "If there's only a few, we can handle it. If this is a base of operations for a major group of bad guys, we might need reinforcements."

"Shepard? Miranda here."

"How many can the Hammerhead seat?"

"We've modified the Hammerhead. It can hold up to five now, albeit uncomfortably. One pilot, one navigator, one gunner, and two others. Grunt would take that number down to four."

"Who's certified to drive it?"

"I am. Jacob hasn't taken the time to train himself," Miranda said.

"Select four others besides yourself and stand by. I'll let you know if we need backup," Shepard ordered.

"Understood."

They finally reached the bottom floor of the base. Jack spotted some bloody footprints. "Hey, check this out."

"I saw them earlier. Vorcha." Shepard peered around the corner and spotted a single door.

"Blood pack?"

"Probably."

The door was already open, but only because it was stuck halfway. They crept inside when they heard voices and hid behind a metal table.

Jack peered over and was a bit startled. It wasn't a table they were hiding behind. It was an autopsy bed. At least a dozen of them all over the room.

A morgue? Here? Why?

In the far back corner, there were a couple of vorcha talking to a krogan. One vorcha was by himself, fiddling around with his flamethrower.

They weren't aware of their presence yet. Without waiting for Shepard, Jack stood up and targeted the krogan. Her thinking was simple: Shoot first. Don't let the other side have a chance. Being tactful and slow like Shepard usually just pissed her off.

Starting off with Shockwave to keep everyone off balance, Jack took aim at the krogan and peppered him with a blast from her shotgun. She grinned when her first blast wrecked the krogan's assault rifle and breached his armor. The second nearly tore off a limb.

Unfortunately, she didn't spot the vorcha on the second level catwalks. He started shooting at her, stopping her attack short. The moment she took her eyes off the krogan, he entered a blood rage and rushed her.

Jack found herself picked up and slammed into a table. It almost felt like her spine snapped on impact. She gasped for air, unable to get a word out. The krogan had her pinned against the edge of the table, the small of her back arched over the top as much as she could without breaking. The krogan had his one good arm around her neck, but lacked the strength to crush her armor and windpipe. Instead, he pushed harder, trying to break her in half over table when his head exploded.

Shepard had his shotgun up and attacked head-on since Jack gave away their positions. However, his attack was halted as well when the nearby Pyro started spraying flames all over the place, even tagging one of the two vorcha that were shooting at them.

Shepard fell down with a shout of surprise and rolled away from the flames, dropping his shotgun in the chaos. Once on his back, he quickly drew his pistol and shot Pyro in the foot causing the vorcha to pitch forward. Raising his pistol slightly, the next shot went through the head as the body fell. Shepard rolled to the side to avoid the corpse.

Three more vorcha ran up to the windows from the observation room and shot through them, aiming at the humans.

"Contact left!" Shepard warned. He rolled to the side, behind another table and took cover.

"This would be easier if you used your biotics too!" Jack shouted as she hunkered down behind another table.

"It might've been over already if you waited until we counted how many of these bastards there are and used grenades instead of bull-rushing them!" Shepard snapped back. He popped out with his HMWP and killed the lone vorcha on the second floor.

Jack gripped her pistol and shot the vorcha that was on fire. Her new Warp Ammo practically caused his head to explode as well. Four more vorcha remained; one in the autopsy room that was recklessly shooting and three in the observation room, hiding behind the railings of the broken windows.

I can't believe we're getting our asses handed to us by a bunch of fucking vorcha!

"Jack! Pick up the Pyro and toss him inside the Observation Room!" Shepard yelled.

Jack looked around to see the still twitching corpse. A quick gesture and it went sailing high through the middle window.

Shepard popped out of cover and started firing his pistol rapidly. The aged metal tank started sparking from all the shots before it exploded, right inside the room.

Two vorcha started screaming when they were lit on fire while the third died from the explosion alone. The flames consumed them faster than their ability to regenerate, making them no longer a threat.

Jack stood up and flared her biotics menacingly. The last vorcha seemed to realize that he was alone and ran for the nearest door.

He never made it.

Thrusting out her arm, Throw tossed him across the room and into the wall. The sounds of broken bones were heard, but the vorcha seemed to be able to ignore it. He stood up again and started shooting wildly.

Jack responded aggressively as well. She raised her pistol and started firing back, slowly approaching toward with measured steps.

The Warp Ammo prevented the usual rapid healing the vorcha were known for since the mass effect fields continued tearing into the vorcha's body long after the bullets did its damage. After the first two shots, he staggered. The next three shots, he dropped his rifle and fell against the wall. The last shot into the head ended him.

Jack slapped the manual release on her Predator and allowed a heat sink to be ejected. The sound it made when it hit the floor seemed to echo in the following silence.

A shadow appeared in her peripheral vision. She jerked away from it, but realized it was just Shepard. He held out her shotgun.

"Feeling better?" he sardonically asked.

She snatched her shotgun back and pointedly turned her back on him. There was no way in hell she was ever going to admit that he was right.

A quick look around the room showed no further threats. Whether or not they managed to get the word out to the other mercs was up in the air. At this point, there was nothing that could be done about it anyway. "Why'd this place need a morgue? This was a small facility."

Shepard ran a hand on top of one of the metal beds. "Small… just the right size for a five or six year old. 10 at the oldest…"

"That sounds about right," Jack said.

"You said that they usually brought in kids in those containers. If this is a small facility, they must've kept bringing in kids because others died," Shepard grimly stated.

"Bullshit. I had the worst of it and I made it out alive," Jack said disbelievingly.

"Yeah, and look how powerful you are because of it. Not everyone is made equal," Shepard countered. "Not everyone can survive what these… monsters did to them."

"What doesn't kill us…" Jack muttered. She took one last look around before turning toward the door.

"I doubt Nietzsche would be so glib if he were here," Shepard muttered.

~o~O~o~

"Contact above us!" Shepard shouted.

Jack wasted no time blasting both vorcha with her biotics.

The two fell off the bridge and landed roughly on the ground. She aimed her shotgun and pumped a few rounds into them before they had a chance to figure out what had happened.

Shepard was aiming downrange with his own shotgun, putting down a small group of varren that tried to rush them in a narrow corridor.

After a tense few minutes, it was quiet again.

Shepard looked around the hallway they were in and couldn't contain his grimace. "Is your cell like this?"

A few rooms and hallways down from the morgue, there were a line of cells inside a hallway. A bridge overlooked the room, probably for the patrolling guards and scientists.

Jack shook her head at Shepard's question. She had never seen the other cells in Teltin. Just her own. All things considered, the other kids had far worse accommodations than her. Four kids to a room, with a pair of bunk beds on either side of the cell and a single toilet in the middle. No windows, just a single light in the ceiling and a heavy door to lock them in; four walls, a ceiling, and a floor to stay in every night.

She never gave a damn about the others that were locked in with her before, but strangely, right now she felt enraged for them.

"I can't believe they kept children here in these kinds of conditions…" Shepard breathed out as he looked through the rooms.

Jack said nothing. She marched onward to the other door that was still operational and cautiously opened it. No Blood Pack, but the room was familiar. "We're on the right track again. Looks like we're taking the route the guards use. Upper security catwalks. They can keep track of any trouble makers and put them down before there were any problems."

Shepard followed and looked down. "Cafeteria?"

Jack absently nodded, but had her eyes pinned to the far wall. She remembered being able to see the cafeteria from her cell window. Except now that she was seeing it from the other side for the first time… "This… it's a one-way mirror?"

"Jack?"

"My cell is on the other side," Jack said. "I could see all the other kids out here. I screamed at them for hours and they always ignored me."

"I wonder…" Shepard muttered as he looked at the mirror. Their reflections barely showed up through the grime.

"What?" Jack asked, wondering if she was going to like what he was going to say.

Probably not.

"You once told me back on Illium that they physically tortured you, to see if pain can enhance biotic ability."

"Yeah…"

"Biotics is a discipline of the mind too. I wonder if they were psychologically torturing you as well. The drugs, the separation, even your own cell seemed set up for it," Shepard said as he stepped away and walked along the catwalk.

"What do you mean?"

"The other children didn't ignore you. Your cell is probably soundproofed. It's a classic interrogation technique. Put a POW inside isolation. After a few days, occasionally, you'll give him a look at the outside world. Just a taste. He'll want out so badly, that he'll break and tell you what you want to know."

She chewed on his words a bit before asking, "You really think so?"

He shrugged. "Makes sense. This feels like a typical Cerberus operation: lavishly funded, highly efficient, and morally indifferent; with a heavy reliance on brutal experimentation and conditioning techniques in an attempt to maximize results. I've seen it in crazed rachni a couple years back."

"Gee, thanks for the comparison," Jack muttered.

"What I'm saying is that this is the kind of Cerberus operation I've destroyed in the past," Shepard said.

The next few rooms held no threats. Jack was beginning to believe that the Blood Pack had probably just stumbled into the facility and sent a scouting party to see if it had any value. After a few more twists and turns, they came upon a couple of rooms that were different from all the others.

In this case, both rooms had the kind of chairs where prisoners, or lab subjects, were securely strapped in with metal manacles before needles, drills and other sharp implements were used.

She studied the rooms carefully, trying to fit the pieces of her fragmented memory with what she was seeing now. "I must've come through here when I broke out, but I don't remember it. This is bad place," she whispered.

Shepard walked over to another function console. This time, instead of a hologram of a security guard, a scientist was seen.

"Entry 1056, Teltin facility. The latest iteration of PergNim went poorly. Subjects One, Four, and Six died. No biotic change among the survivors," the scientist said clinically.

Jack sucked in a breath when she heard that there were more subject numbers after her own.

"We lowered core temperatures of surviving subjects, but no biotically beneficial reactions occurred. As a side effect, all subject died," the scientist reported. "So we'll not try that on Zero. I hope our supply of biotic-potential subjects holds up. We are going through them fast."

The morgue…!

"This is bullshit! They weren't experimenting on the others for my safety!" Jack snarled.

"No, it's worse. They were experimenting on them to turn you into what you are," Shepard said.

She whirled on him. "You don't get it, do you? I survived this place because I was tougher than the rest! That's who I am!"

"You had to be. You're still alive," Shepard simply pointed out. "But it doesn't change the fact that you were also the strongest biotic. It would make sense that they did everything to make sure you survived the experiments just so they could keep getting their results. What's disgusting is that they did it over the lives of other children."

Unbidden, Murtock's face floated through her conscious. She viciously pushed memories away.

Shepard looked around. "This place was almost made just for you and how far they could push human biotics."

She faintly glowed as she clenched her teeth at him. She could almost imagine that he wore a smug look underneath his helmet. As if the asshole knew everything or some bullshit like that.

If he was concerned about her show of force, he didn't show it. He merely turned back to the console and played around with it more.

The same scientist was back, but this time, the sounds of screams and gunfire could be heard in the background. "It's all fallen to pieces! The subjects are rampaging and Zero is loose! We're shutting Teltin down! What a disaster!" He looked over his shoulder when a particularly loud explosion shook the floor he was standing on. "We'll infiltrate and piggyback onto the Alliance's Ascension program. Hopefully that will—" He trailed off when he heard something else. Looking over his shoulder again, his eyes widened and he held up his hands pleadingly. "Zero, wait!"

A younger Jack appeared, her biotic aura glowing fiercely. She launched an orb of dark energy that struck the scientist, and the camera, before the log ended.

"Shepard! Those fuckers started up somewhere else!" Jack exclaimed.

Shepard shook his head. "Ascension is an Alliance funded program and civilian controlled. It's basically a school for biotic kids. They don't torture children there. Parents even come to visit occasionally."

Jack swallowed and looked around again. "A lot of this… it isn't the way I remember it."

He put a hand on her shoulder. "I know you came here with assumptions. I know you came here thinking you remembered everything. All you wanted to do is remember was everything they've ever done to you and how you're hoping to destroy it all with one big blast. Your eyes see what your mind wants them to see; that's the problem with assumptions. If they're wrong, you'll twist the truth or ignore it and none of that is going to help you now."

She swallowed again and shook his hand off. "It's… it's so strange to be back here. I feel like… I'm pissed off. I'm a dangerous bitch. But then I'm a little girl again. Shit. We're almost to my cell. Let's just make sure there's no one else and plant the bomb."

They opened the nearby door, but they both got careless. What they saw on the other side caused Jack to curse under her breath.

They raised their weapons at the relatively small force of Blood Pack. Remembering the fight in the morgue, she took the time to do a quick count and watched for any surprises. Three krogan and seven vorcha. As usual, the vorcha favored speed over armor and relied on their rapid regeneration to carry through any fight.

The krogan in charge, wearing some wicked, red glowing armor, didn't seem to care that they showed up. Instead, he turned his head slightly and spoke into his radio. "Hey, Aresh, it's Kureck. Yeah, the intruders are here. You want them dead, we have to talk creds. You promised us lots of salvage, but this place is a waste."

Out of the corner of her eye, Jack saw Shepard discretely palming a couple of grenades.

Not going to make the same mistake twice…

The krogan's overconfidence that he had enough numbers to beat them was their best shot. She looked around the room and saw that they had crates and other assorted supplies inside the room, suggesting that they were here for a while.

Hired mercs then… They don't care about Teltin.

"Fine, we'll put'em down. Then I'm coming in there and we're going to talk salvage," Kureck said. He finally turned back to them. "Get—"

Shepard tossed his grenades and ran for the nearest crate to take cover behind.

Jack split up and took to the right. The grenades took three vorcha. Their blood limbs went flying everywhere.

"Concentrate fire! All squads, form up now!" Kureck ordered. He was covered in a blue haze.

Battlemaster.

She popped out of cover and shot at a vorcha that was running down the side, hoping to flank Shepard.

He returned the favor by targeting a Pyro and detonating his fuel tank that was near her position.

The vorcha she shot went down with scream when he saw that he wasn't recovering from her attack. She finished him off with Warp, letting the unstable dark energies rip the poor bastard apart.

"Push and overrun! We outnumber and outgun all of them!" Kureck roared.

"Go fuck yourself!" Jack taunted.

Shepard sprinted from cover to cover, firing at vorcha and krogan alike, harassing them and allowing Jack to move closer almost undetected.

A vorcha appeared in front of her and managed to fire a quick burst from his assault rifle, but her shields held up. A near point blank blast from her shotgun was far more effective.

"Tighten up! I want suppression and I want it now!"

"You think an ugly son of a bitch like you can win? !"

One of the krogan threw a grenade of his own a Shepard's last position. After the explosion, he and a vorcha ran up to find that the human had disappeared.

They never saw the distortion behind the krogan or the grenade that was attached to his back.

After the gory detonation, Shepard reappeared only to be tackled by the second to last krogan. They tumbled out of sight.

"Useless, all of you! I'll kill them, myself!" Kureck roared. He staggered when his Barrier was breached like it wasn't even there. He turned to see Jack using the rapid-fire of her Scimitar to pound away at him.

"You are one stupid, suicidal, limp-dick asshole," Jack taunted. She punctuated each curse with a shot.

He turned and fired his own shotgun. Her shields barely managed to hold up. The Claymore was far more powerful than her Scimitar, but her Warp Ammo evened the odds.

No more playing around!

Jack smiled grimly and used Warp to tear through Kureck's Barrier. Her next shot started tearing up his armor and her next breached, striking flesh and organs.

Kureck bellowed and rushed at her in a berserker charge, giving into his blood haze.

Jack responded by using Biotic Charge. She easily plowed him down and slammed him against the wall. Kureck tried to get up, but she aimed her shotgun at his leg and blew it clean off, causing him to flail on the ground.

"Let's see if you like this you cock-fucking, rimjob, piece of shit!"

Her aura smoldered as she lifted Kureck up and forcefully slammed him into the wall, hard enough to make in imprint. Now he grunted as bones and organs were crushed by the mass effect fields. She pulled him out and continued to use his body to try to make a new hole in the wall several more times until his corpse was fully embedded inside the yielding metal.

She turned away and ran toward Shepard's last known position. Turning the corner, she saw the krogan was on his back with the Spectre standing over him, gripping the mercs arm.

Shepard lifted his boot and rammed it into the krogan's arm shattering the bones. Next, he stomped down on merc's throat before walking back to his dropped assault rifle. The krogan choked piteously as he tried to get back up. A quick burst into the head ended that idea.

Jack relaxed and looked around. "That's it. Only room left is my old cell. Whoever Aresh is, he's in there. I wanted to plant the bomb there anyway. Might was do it on his corpse."

Shepard shrugged and followed behind her as she took the lead. "Ouch," he couldn't help but comment as they passed by the remains of Kureck.

Jack grinned.

~o~O~o~

She could feel her smile slipping away now as they approached her cell. Her lips trembled a bit and she found herself thankful that her helmet hid her expression from Shepard.

The door opened at their presence and they entered with weapons drawn this time. There was only a single man standing inside, facing the window and staring out at the facility beyond. No doubt he saw their approach when they were traversing the catwalks earlier.

"Who the fuck are you?" Jack demanded.

"My name is Aresh and you're breaking into my home," he replied, his voice sounding distant and disconnected with reality.

It gave her the creeps.

When finally turned around to face them, it went beyond creepy. The man looked older than he probably was. His face was drawn and pale. His beard was scraggily and wild. And his clothes were unkempt and rumpled.

It was his eyes that were the worst though. They were glassy and slightly unfocused, as if he saw ghosts and shadows everywhere and people were just an afterthought. It was the look of a man haunted by demons that could never be exorcised.

"You… you're Subject Zero, aren't you?" Aresh said, staring as if he could see right through her helmet. "For so many years, I thought I was the only survivor. And then I saw the wanted posters all over the place. Those eyes… I recognize those eyes anywhere."

Jack kept her shotgun trained on the man. Her finger tensed on the trigger when he took an unsteady step toward her. "My name is Jack. And how the hell do you know me?"

"We all knew you, Zero," Aresh said. A ghost of a smile appeared on his lips, but disappeared just a quickly. "All of us. They inflicted horrors on us so their experiments won't kill you. Everything," he said, as he spread his arms out, "was all for you." His eyes focused a bit more now as he stared intently into her helmeted face. "You were the question and I'm still looking for the answer."

Jack tried to swallow, but for some reason, her throat felt dry. "You're fucking crazy. I was the one experimented on, like I was some sort of thing for Cerberus to play around with! No one protected me."

"Their favorite toy," Aresh agreed with a sick smile. "No one protected any of us. The lucky ones were the ones to die."

"You were drawn here…" Shepard realized.

Jack could feel Shepard's eyes on her.

It's not the same! We're not the same!

"I tried to forget this," Aresh said, his raspy voice sounding almost reminiscent now. "But a place like this… it doesn't forget you. It follows you." He tapped the side of his head to reinforce his point, but even that simple action had a hint of dementia in it.

"And the Blood Pack?" Shepard asked, his calm voice seeming like he was at the eye of the storm. Jack's rage to Aresh's broken obsession.

"I hired these mercs and came back almost a solar year ago. We're rebuilding it, piece by piece."

"What?" Jack asked in disbelief.

"I'm going to find out what the scientists failed to do the first time – how to unlock true biotic potential in humans." This smile returned again, somehow even more disturbing than before, compounded by the wild, almost feral look in his eyes. "I'm restarting Teltin facility."

Both Shepard and Jack were stunned by his statement, but his next declaration horrified them.

"It will be beautiful."

"You're fucking sick," Jack spat out. "I want a hole in the ground. You're trying to justify what happened by actually using it."

"You'd really do the same thing to other kids?" Shepard said in disgust. "Wasn't this forced on you?"

He shrugged uncaringly. "Some were bought from poor families on Earth or kidnapped from the colonies. Most ended up here the way I did: batarian pirates."

Despite her anger, Jack idly found herself wondering how she came to Teltin.

"They did… horrible things to us. They must have had good reasons," he argued, as if he believed in what happened was for the greater good.

"There's no reason good enough!" Jack shouted. "I don't give a shit if you're nuts, but you lived it!"

Shepard glanced at her before turning to Aresh. "Speaking of which, this was a prison. How'd you get out?"

"We all attacked at once as they were taking us to the lab. They would've put us down, but Jack got loose."

That's why the guard left… fuck…

"When I came to, it was over – the guards, the scientists and all the kids were all dead." His eyes locked onto Jack again. "And you were gone."

"I stopped it. All of it," Jack growled out. "Maybe the others did have it bad, but what you're doing is just messed."

An ugly look crossed Aresh's face. He took a defiant step forward, unafraid of the weapons pointed at him. "Everything we went through must have been worth something!"

He looked like he wanted his tortured life to have meaning. To give rise to the justification of his pain. To do something about his past.

Just like me… came the horrifying thought.

Jack howled and dropped her gun. She rushed at Aresh with her fists flying. The first blow connected to his stomach, doubling him over. Her knee snapped him back up, blow flowing freely from his broken nose. Her next series of punches took a tooth or two.

Strong arms wrapped around her midsection and forcefully pulled her away. "Jack! Stop it!"

"Fuck you! Let me go!" Jack screamed. She twisted free and felt her biotics respond to her anger. She thrust an arm out at Aresh, but the awkward flailing made it difficult to use her full power.

Aresh grunted and fell to his hands and knees. He spat out blood between coughs.

She pushed away from Shepard and drew her pistol, aiming it at Aresh's head.

Before she could pull the trigger, Shepard stood in the way. "Move!"

"Look at him Jack! He's trapped in the past! You're trying to move on from yours!"

"He wants to restart this place! He needs to die!"

Despite the pain he must have been in, Aresh laughed. It sounded grating and sad, with a touch of hysteria. "Just like all the others. Dying just for you…"

"He's not a scientist and he's not a researcher! He's crazy! He's never going to be able to restart a place like this!" Shepard argued. "Look at him! Is that how you want to be? Aren't you stronger than him? Stronger than what this place has done to you? Look at him!"

Shepard stepped to side, giving her a clean shot.

She wanted to squeeze the trigger. She wanted rip him limb from bloody limb. She want to create a mass effect field so powerful, his body would explode.

But when she looked at him, really looked at him, all she saw was a ghost. Just another broken wreck of a man. But strangely, she felt a sad connection to him. She understood his pain, she lived it. Unlike him though, she survived it. But now…

She wanted to be free of it.

She stalked forward and rammed her boot into Aresh's backside. He stumbled and fell on his face. "Get up! Get up!" She screamed. She reached down and grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and hauled him to his feet. She pushed him toward the door. "Get the fuck out! Go!"

Aresh stumbled out the door, clutching his bruised midsection and disappeared down the dark corridors.

Jack turned around and pounded her fist into the window/mirror. "He's not worth chasing. None of this is…"

She saw Shepard's reflection in the window as he approached her. "You did the right thing."

"He'll probably still be here when the bomb goes off," she muttered.

"Maybe," Shepard agreed. "But that's his problem. You don't have to make it yours."

Jack took a deep breath and looked around. "Nothing's changed… but it's all different," she whispered.

She raised her fist and knocked on the glass. "I thought that room out there was the rest of the world. I'd pound and yell. Never did any good."

She turned away walked over to her bed. It was covered in dust and other things that she didn't want to think about. "Sometimes I dream that I'm back in this bed being tortured. I used to tie the sheets around my wrists and try to rip them off."

Next was her table. She felt a moment of nostalgia as she ran a hand over the surface. She had no idea why she was confessing everything to Shepard, but he was listening and not talking. For some reason, she felt… better, know that he was willing to do that for her. "I used this table for everything. It was like my best friend. I'd crawl under it to cry."

She took one last look around her room before walking back to the door. "Let's get the bomb."

Shepard nodded and fell in step next to her.

She stopped when they passed by a slight dent in the wall just outside her cell. "Over here… see this scarring on the wall? That's where I killed my first man. One of the guards tried to stop me."

She stared at the spot for a moment, remembering the feeling she had when she took her chance for freedom. It was strange, almost ironic, to be coming back after more than a decade to finish her escape and finally feel free.

"Jack?"

She turned head when Shepard called out to her.

"I'm fine. Okay, no more wallowing. Let's blow this place to hell."

~o~O~o~

They had to go all the way back to the shuttle and pick up the bomb. Thankfully, they didn't run into any more Blood Pack or Aresh on either trip.

Shepard pushed the shuttle as fast as it could go. Jack had her knee propped against the edge of the console. She kept flicking the lid on the top button of the detonator with her thumb, while she kept the safety trigger pressed with her index finger.

The storm buffeted against the Kodiak, but a few precise commands from Shepard kept them in the air.

Jack barely noticed. She kept flicking at the lid, almost as if she was autopilot. The metallic clinking sound was almost hypnotizing.

She turned her head to face Shepard when she felt his eyes on her. In the darkness, his blue eyes looked cold and hard. What he was thinking, she didn't know, but the expression almost looked sexy on him.

He gave her a single nod and turned back to the controls.

She flicked the top of the switch one last time and jammed her thumb down on the button.

The darkness was banished from the light of the explosion. The shockwave rocked the shuttle a bit, forcing Shepard to dance quickly across the controls to compensate. Jack gripped her harness and waited until the shaking stopped.

She looked down at the images on the console that the Normandy was feeding her from orbit. Just like she imagined, Teltin was gone.

More importantly, she felt as if she just killed a part of her past she never wanted to go back to again.

~o~O~o~

Location: Normandy SR-2 / En Route to Omega Nebula / Sahrabarik / Omega

After shucking her armor and stashing it in her 'room', Jack went upstairs to snag something eat. She wasn't sure if she wanted food because of her biotic diet or because she needed something to distract her from Aresh and his brand of crazy.

Once in the Common Area though, she spotted the cheerleader leaving Chakwas' office with a damn smile on her face.

She's happy about something. She's fucking happy about something!

It was the exact opposite of what she was feeling. Hell, she didn't even know what she was supposed to be feeling right now. Angry, elated, confused, vindicated, depressed, empowered, scared…

Vengeful.

She stomped toward the cheerleader's office and used her biotics to force the door open with a wave of her hand.

Miranda turned around when her door opened and put down a few datapads on her desk when she saw who it was. "Jack," she greeted evenly. "Something I can do for you?"

"You look awfully cheery. Wanna share?" Jack cooed mockingly.

"Not particularly and especially not with you," Miranda said evenly. She stepped away from the table.

Jack saw what she was doing. She was getting some space, just in case. She may hate her and everything she stood for, but grudgingly admitted that the cheerleader wasn't stupid.

"Is there anything else you'd like to bother me about?" Miranda asked with a hint of steel lacing her tone.

"Plenty," Jack snarled. "Like how much blood money does Cerberus have to toss at projects that tortures and murders kids?"

"That was hardly a Cerberus facility. I saw the logs EDI downloaded and the reports of the actions Cerberus took after the riot. The facility went rogue well before and a team was sent to clean up that mess," Miranda answered coldly. In contrast to Jack's heated tone, Miranda's voice seemed to chill the room the angrier she got.

"You mean kill everyone."

"Not that you care, but there were survivors during your 'escape'. The children were sent to Alliance facilities, while the scientists were… retired."

"Bullshit!"

Miranda gave her a half-shrug. "I don't have to justify anything to you. There's nothing I can say that you're willing to believe since you're far too comfortable with your own preconceptions."

"That's a laugh coming from you," Jack shot back. "You're too busy regurgitating Cerberus' bullshit that you have no fuckin' idea what your boss is into."

Miranda's eyes hardened. "Well, since it's obvious that you and I won't agree on this issue, I think you should leave."

"After everything Cerberus has done to me, I've been looking forward for a little payback," Jack threatened.

"Is that why you're here?" Miranda asked icily. "I told you: that was no longer a Cerberus operation."

"That. Facility. Was. Cerberus," Jack stressed menacingly. "Their logos. Their soldiers. Their scientists."

"It was a facility that went off the rails. Rules and safeguards exist for a reason. And what happened because they were ignored? You. That's all their work went into. And they died for it. It was nothing that Cerberus would ever condone."

"You know what? I was wrong. You really are that stupid. They still answered to your boss, the Illusive Man. Everything they did was for him," Jack said, though she spat out the Cerberus CEO's name with no small about of loathing. "You know what Shepard said? He said he took out whole bases just like Teltin. You telling me that your entire organization has gone off the rails?"

"Look," Miranda said. She picked up a datapad. "The event reports of what happened before your rampage. The Illusive Man was shutting the facility down because they've gone dark for too long. Falsified reports, unusual resource expenditures, subject disappearances. Enjoy." She thrust it into Jack's chest.

Jack slapped the datapad away and stepped back. Miranda took one cautious step away in response.

"Touch me and I will smear the walls with you, bitch!" Jack shouted. She levitated a chair and tossed it directly at her.

Miranda used her own biotics to slow it down and pushed it away, letting it harmlessly strike the bulkhead.

"Enough!"

Both women jerked their heads toward the voice.

Shepard stood angrily in the doorway. He was mostly still in full armor, sans a pauldron and his gauntlets. He boldly marched inside and closed the door to prevent any gawking from the crewmen. "Stand down, both of you!"

Jack glared at him before pointing at Miranda. "The cheerleader won't admit what Cerberus did to me was wrong!"

"It wasn't Cerberus. Not really. But clearly you were a mistake," Miranda said calmly.

"Screw you!" Jack shouted. She jabbed a finger at her and let her biotics flare. "You've got no idea what they put me through! Maybe it's time I showed you!"

Suddenly, both women were pushed back and away from each other.

Jack turned to see Shepard's biotics glow faintly as well. His left arm was up and pointed in their direction. "This is not going to happen. Not while I'm in charge."

"Fuck you. I just want her dead," Jack snarled.

"You want everybody in Cerberus dead," Shepard countered. "Except we need each other right now."

"She can't be trusted, Shepard. She'll jeopardize the whole mission," Miranda argued.

"We're already facing long odds," Shepard calmly said. "We need all the help we can get."

Looking at both them, Shepard said, "You were both there at Horizon. The cruiser. You both know what the Collectors are doing and you know what we're up against. You really think we afford to have in-fighting now? I'm not asking you to be friends, but I am ordering the both of you work together."

"Work with her?" Jack scoffed.

"She saved your life. Twice if I recall," Shepard said. "We have a mission. Our lives may depend on each other at some point, because death might actually be preferable to what the Collectors, or the Reapers, have in store for us."

"Very well. I can put aside my differences… until the mission is over," Miranda said coolly. She stepped close enough to Jack that they were almost nose-to-nose.

"Oh, she'll survive. I'll make sure of it. I'd hate to see her die before I get a chance to filet her myself," Jack said with a fake smile. She turned and stomped away.

Shepard put an arm out in front of her. "You two going to be okay?"

Jack scoffed again and pushed past him. She decided to go back to her room.

She lost her appetite.

~o~O~o~

About an hour later, Jack heard footsteps walking down the stairs. She turned her head toward her guest. As she expected, Shepard entered, this time in his standard uniform, though it still bore Cerberus' logo.

"You okay? Things got tense up there," Shepard said.

"I'm fine. Don't worry, I'll do my part," Jack replied. The last thing she wanted was to talk about the cheerleader now. "You know, I needed to wipe that place off the map. You took me there to do it and I owe you."

"I think we're even. You're helping me on my mission. With Cerberus of all things. I was already asking for a lot," Shepard said.

She managed a small smile before lying back on her bed. She could feel the comforting presence of her pistol underneath her pillow. "You know what it's like, right? To have garbage like that following you. It marks you in ways you… you don't expect."

"Or want," Shepard added. "I've made a lot of hard choices. Like what to let go."

"Hard to walk away from it," she said quietly. "You'd think it would get easier now that the place is a crater, but what else do I know."

"I never thought I'd see you show mercy, but you let Aresh live," Shepard said softly.

"He was trapped in the past, reliving it every day. You showed how that could've been me. I'm not getting stuck like that. I'm better than him and I'm sure as hell not carrying that crater around with me," she declared.

"Do you think you're different now?"

She sighed and sat up again. "I know that place is gone. Bu I still kind of want to kill every person I see." She turned her head to look up at him. "No offense."

"Like Miranda?"

"That's between her and me."

"You know she had nothing to do with you. She wasn't even in Cerberus at the time the Teltin started. And ended," Shepard stated. "I'm actually surprised to hear that you wanted to know what her thoughts were. I didn't even think you'd care."

"I don't," Jack said shortly.

"Then why does it matter to you what she says?" Shepard asked. "You already know who's responsible. Why should she vindicate that?"

"Because… well… fuck, I don't know," Jack said. "I guess…"

"You wanted someone to give a damn what happened? To you? To the other kids even?"

Jack was about to laugh, she really was, but for some reason, the sound got stuck in her throat. Instead, she snorted and turned her head away.

"I cared. And that's why I went with you," Shepard said. "With you, I'll take what I can get."

Jack found herself smiling a bit more. "You did a lot, Shepard." She shook her head. "Shit… I'm not good at this soft stuff… Just…"

"You're welcome," Shepard said knowingly. "Now let's get back to work, alright?"

Jack grinned and offered a half-assed salute. "Yes, sir, Commander-Captain sir!"

Shepard chuckled as he left.

When Jack was sure he was gone, she lied back down on her cot and whispered out loud, "Thanks, Shepard."

~o~O~o~

Author's Notes:

I seem to be getting lucky or something. First, a guy makes up the greatest Mordin song ever just as I'm typing that part up, and now Bulletstorm gets some great cuss words for Jack. I know it's a bit vulgar, but since she's the type…

Jack and Chakwas… I really don't know where I came up with that. Chakwas kinda strikes me as the mothering type, but… *shrugs*

The description of the Cerberus project came from Jack's page on the Mass Effect wikia. I take no credit over the original author.

Jack and Miranda fight… that was hard actually. I'm not entirely done with it either. That was from Jack's POV and I have to show others.

Results from my poll:

Perfect: 74

Short: 5

Long: 4

Please review!

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