Miranda Versus the Normal Life
I pride myself on being unshakable. Unflappable. Able to handle anything that comes my way without flinching. I don't freeze. I don't panic. I just don't. It's how I survived Father's cruel and brutal idea of ch—well, let’s call it training, I never had a childhood. It's how I mustered the courage to run away. It's how I accomplished countless tasks and assignments given to me, either by Father or by Cerberus.
Then I got the e-mail:
I've been picking up some disturbing chatter this month. Search inquiries over the extranet, hacking into civilian and government databases, vacations by numerous people who went to different places shortly after receiving funds from the same accounts. Over the last week, this activity has all abruptly focused on Illium.
It is highly probable that your father or his agents have a solid lead on the whereabouts of the girl you tasked me to monitor.
I have begun preliminary planning for extraction scenarios. Please contact me as soon as possible with additional instructions.
For the first time I was shaken. I just sat there, staring at the e-mail. Then I flinched at the gentle chime my computer usually gave when it finished a download. I tried to open the attachment, but I couldn't move. My mind was racing, caught in a perfect storm of sheer unadulterated panic.
I didn't know what to do.
Knowledge is power.
Governments use it to further their agendas and deal with other powers. Militaries use it to plan and carry out missions and campaigns. Corporations use it to develop their products or move against competitors. Students use it to complete assignments and pass their exams. People use it to plan their itineraries, map out vacations, juggle their schedules, decide which restaurant to go to or even where to buy that ever-so-important cup of coffee or tea.
I did my research before leaving my father. It was clear that I didn’t have enough money to buy the resources I needed, not for the long term anyway, so I had to make a deal with someone who did. Several years passed while I quietly watched, listened and gathered as much knowledge as I could to assess all the potential candidates. Official witness protection programs were eliminated almost immediately, due to their overabundance of bureaucracy, lack of resources and vulnerability to politics. Not to mention the fact that I’d breached their firewalls in less than a minute.
Governments were just as bad, if not worse, than the witness protection programs they ran. Enough said.
The organizations that tried to legitimize their status by calling themselves private military contractors were another option. On the one hand, they were not burdened with red tape. On the other hand, they didn’t have quite enough resources for my needs. Besides, they were far too unreliable, given their primary focus on the bottom line.
As for the mercenary groups, the ones who focused more on getting the job done than public relations, most of them were too small. Of the top three, the Blood Pack lacked the patience and discipline for what I needed (besides, they smelled. Almost as bad as any random spot on Omega). That left only two candidates. The Blue Suns had the most organization, discipline and manpower, not to mention a proven and well-deserved reputation for getting the job done. I actually found myself favouring Eclipse, to be honest. They tended to favour more stealthy, subtle and intelligent approaches as opposed to more brute-force tactics—or so they claimed; my research had indicated that their actual operations tended to go either way. Still, there was no denying that they had the widest range of resources. What they lacked in sheer numbers or operational discipline, they made up for with a stunning synergy of cutting-edge technology and extensive application of biotics—something that I personally found very appealing. Ultimately, I found that all the mercenary groups were far too unreliable, given their demonstrated history of reneging on their promises when a more lucrative, albeit short-term, opportunity presented itself.
Private corporations tended to be easily swayed by their own need to pander to marketing trends and, once again, public opinion. I needed something more reliable. Something bigger. Something greater and purer than the fickle whimsies of the present day.
Once I’d made my choice, it was just a matter of waiting for the right opportunity to present my offer. I used that time to make my preparations. Quietly setting aside credits, in hidden accounts as well as a sizeable stash of hard currency. Acquiring multiple false identities that I could adopt and drop. Memorizing itineraries for travel providers—official, illegal and other. Planning for any and all scenarios—from the one where my primary choice accepted my offer and all its conditions, to the ones where they declined and I had to fall back to one of my secondary choices, to the worst-case scenarios where my father found out—or my primary choice ratted me out—and I had to make an emergency exit.
Then October 10th rolled around.
Somehow, I managed to get through the rest of the day. Finished my reports, submitted my findings. I even went on a mission. Some distress call that Shepard picked up in the midst of his rampant strip mining. Naturally, I was pondering all the scenarios that could help me deal with the very thing I had dreaded since I had fled from Father's clutches: the scenario where he had a strong lead on my sister’s whereabouts.
I had already sent and received confirmation of my request for Cerberus aid to relocate Oriana and her foster family. I’d contacted an old friend—my only friend from the past—to start watching for any unusual activity from my father. Still, that was not enough. Ever since I joined Cerberus, I had been watching over Oriana. I had personally screened and approved of her foster family. Prepared contingency funds should they fall into any financial difficulty—which they didn't. While Oriana and her family weren't above splurging from time to time, they made sure they had sufficient funds to pay for the necessities of life—basic and otherwise—and invest in a wide range of stocks and funds, with plenty left over to save for the proverbial rainy day.
I watched with some degree of pride as she excelled academically. In some way, I wasn't surprised—we did share the same genetic code, after all. But her environment and upbringing might have instilled some tendency or willingness to coast along. To my secret delight, she didn't do that. She had the drive and discipline to focus on her studies, while having plenty of time to focus on other extracurricular activities. The only covert intervention I ever had to do while Oriana was growing up was cut through a little electronic red tape here, make it easier for them to find some nugget of data or subtly correct a minor error on their tax returns.
It was that same watchful attention that insisted I had to be there in person when Oriana and her family departed to start the next chapter of their lives. The next chapter of their normal lives. No matter how many times I told myself otherwise, some part of me insisted that I had to be there and personally make sure that they were safe. It was clear that I wanted, no, I needed to make sure that Oriana got safely away from Father.
No matter how I calculated the variables, no matter how many ways I looked at the situation, I kept coming to the same conclusion: I...
I needed Shepard's help.
Granted, Shepard was already en route to Illium to recruit a few candidates the Illusive Man had selected—a drell assassin named Thane Krios and an asari justicar known as Samara. Even if I were to assist him, I could easily slip away afterwards. Invariably, Shepard would get distracted with some shopping—I had never seen a man so fascinated with shopping, even if those kiosks tended to sell weapons or military-grade equipment—or some random stranger’s sob story, which would buy me time to make sure Oriana got away safely. Hopefully everything would go according to plan. If it didn’t…
Well, that was the problem, wasn’t it?
I couldn’t afford to assume or hope that the best-case scenario would occur. Not with Oriana’s life and happiness at stake. I had to assume that things might go wrong so I could prepare accordingly. In this case, such preparations required my personal intervention. While I was certainly capable of handling the situation, the simple fact was that the odds of success would be dramatically improved if I had backup. Working with Shepard over the last few months had proved that. But I couldn’t just go off and hire some mercs that I’d never worked with before. That lack of unfamiliarity could get me—or worse, Oriana—hurt or killed. So either I reassigned some Cerberus assets to meet me at Illium or I’d have to ask Shepard for help. Which meant telling him about my sister.
I didn’t know which part scared me more.
The Cord-Hislop Aerospace Annual Banquet was—and still is—one of the most important and influential events in Alliance space. Every year on October 10th, it would attract, wine and dine leaders and influential men and women from every political party and major human technology company in the Alliance. It was a closed-door event where people would give each other false smiles, offer empty platitudes, pat their own backs and stab everyone else’s. It also meant everyone was dressed in the most elegant of clothes, custom-tailored and most definitely falling in the category of ‘if you have to ask, you most certainly can’t afford it so please move along,’ That tended to engender a certain arrogance and pretentiousness that I found both understandable and aggravating. Suffice it to say that I had mixed feelings about all that.
Father had told me in advance that I would be accompanying him to the CHAAB, as it was informally called. I liked to use that acronym in private, mostly because Father would disapprove if I said it out loud. All right—especially since Father would disapprove if I said it out loud.
But I digress.
Naturally, Father didn’t ask for my opinion or consent. It was simply accepted that I would be attending. Mostly to parade me around as his heir apparent. And boast at how my analyses had accurately foreseen that Daedalus Shipping had dangerously overextended itself through a series of hasty and poorly-planned acquisitions, thus paving the way for a protracted strategy—designed by yours truly—which enabled a hostile takeover by Father’s nascent empire. And use my genetically enhanced physical appearance as a distraction to tease out company secrets and negotiate deals that would not have occurred—or would not have been so beneficial to Father. Suffice it to say I had no mixed feelings about being used like a pretty little siren that was trotted out when needed.
For once, however, I was actually looking forward to an event like this. Mainly because I had an agenda of my own. First I had to dutifully follow Father. Smile on cue, say all the right things at all the right times and endure the inevitable stares from men and women who were surreptitiously admiring—or blatantly ogling—my assets. Then I was released to wander off on my own, exchange pleasantries, mine through all the gossip for any tidbits of information and be ogled some more. All while keeping a surreptitious eye on Kieran Ryker, CFO of Cord-Hislop Aerospace.
Then it was time to make my move. Ryker was just finishing a conversation—and his champagne. I walked towards him, carefully picking a path that wasn’t too direct or straightforward, but ensured that I would arrive just as his companion left. Not to mention passing by a waiter to take a pair of champagne flutes.
Naturally, my timing was impeccable. “Mr. Ryker,” I greeted him. “Enjoying the festivities?”
“I am, Miss Lawson,” he replied. “And thank you,” he added, taking the flute I offered him.
“You’re welcome,” I returned.
“Are you here on business?” he asked. “Did Henry secure the construction contract for us? I didn’t think even a man of his considerable influence could pull enough favours, given the terms of our bid—between you and me, they were a bit too much for any reasonable person to swallow.”
“Cord-Hislop Aerospace will have to make some more concessions,” I admitted, “but you will win the rights to build the next Alliance dreadnought. Father should be helping revise the final draft as we speak.” And acquiring another sample of genetic material to construct more daughters in the process, I silently added. Ryker didn’t need to know that, however. “But that’s not why I am here. I’m here because I want a private talk with your boss.”
Ryker gave me an uncertain smile and took a hasty gulp of his champagne. I winced—one simply doesn’t gulp champagne. “I don’t understand. I thought you—”
“Your real boss,” I interrupted.
His smile flickered, just for an instant. His eyes shone with a mixture of panic and recognition. My sources had informed me that Ryker had a lousy poker face, but I hadn’t realized it was this bad. I would have to remember this. “I don’t understand,” he repeated, taking another large gulp. This time I suppressed my wince.
“Don’t give me that,” I told him with a withering look. “Cord-Hislop Aerospace has been a front for Cerberus since its inception. You’re the senior Cerberus agent, so you have direct access to the Illusive Man. I want to meet him.”
Again with the smile, the look and the gulp—the champagne was more or less gone by this point. “The Illusive... I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t,” I sighed, having expected this possibility. “You’ve never acted as an intermediary before, have you? Small wonder: you only got promoted last week.”
“But... how did you know... I mean...”
“Let me simplify things for you.” I made a circular motion with my wrist. A blue aura of biotic energy shimmered to life, pulling a dessert from a nearby table towards me. Stuffed peach, if you must know. I manoeuvred it until it was right in front of his eyes—and directly above his champagne flute—before squeezing my fist. The biotic field slowly collapsed, squeezing the juices out of the peach and into his flute. Then I released the field and allowed the remnants of the dessert to fall. Ryker flinched when it plopped into his flute. “I want to talk to the Illusive Man,” I repeated slowly. “Now.”
His eyes heralded his resignation. “This way, ma’am,” he nodded jerkily, making a speedy bee-line towards the nearest exit. I followed, albeit at a more sedate pace. Someone had to maintain some composure, after all.
He led me to the elevator. I could hear him hyperventilating as he pressed the button for the 20th floor, thanks to my genetically enhanced hearing. I could smell him sweating as well, thanks to my genetically enhanced sense of smell. More’s the pity.
I followed him out of the elevator and down the hallway to his office. If all went according to plan, he would open a real-time comm channel to the Illusive Man. If not, I’d have to give another demonstration of my biotics—this time on a certain anatomical region.
Thankfully, none of that was necessary. Ryker turned on his computer, opened the channel and fled without saying a word. Fine with me. I sat down in his chair and sniffed when I ran my hands over the armrests—faux leather. How cheap.
Before I could spend any more time pondering why a man of Ryker’s means would be so miserly, the screen abruptly darkened and I took my first look at the Illusive Man.
He was sitting in a chair, surrounded by holographic screens. Behind him was a large star—was he on a starship or space station? Perhaps a virtual display of some sort. He was wearing a charcoal grey suit: single-button closure, chest pocket, four-button cuffs. Judging by the cut, it was likely from Giuli Vorn. 2000 thread count at least, probably 2200. His hair was a lighter shade of grey, more silver, and close-cropped. His eyes...
...his eyes were steely blue, positively glowing with a fiery light. Too bright to be natural. Genetic enhancement? Possibly prosthetic. I shelved that thought for another day—there were more pressing matters.
If he was surprised that Ryker wasn’t on the other end of the comm channel, he didn’t show it. “Miss Lawson.”
Of course he recognized me. Knowledge is power, after all. “Illusive Man,” I replied.
“You’ve heard of me,” he stated matter-of-factly. “From your father, no doubt.”
“He is one of your greatest and most influential supporters,” I acknowledged. “Though identifying Ryker as the most expedient way to contact you was done entirely on my own. I apologize if I have inconvenienced you.”
The Illusive Man waved it aside. “It’s always good to know the limitations of my operatives,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
Straight to the point. Fair enough. “I’d like to work for you.”
“Interesting. Your father never mentioned this during our last communiqué, which suggests he doesn’t know.”
“No, he does not,” I confirmed. “I want to leave him, but I will need protection from the inevitable reprisal. Cerberus is best suited to provide that protection.”
“And why would Cerberus want to incur the wrath of one of its ‘greatest and most influential supporters’?” the Illusive Man asked. “He would, no doubt, withdraw his considerable support and financing if we took the linchpin to his legacy and nascent business empire.”
“You can always find another source of financing and influence,” I shrugged. “What you can’t find so easily is someone genetically engineered to be faster and stronger than 99.995% of the human population. I can also heal faster than any other human, even with the latest genetic modifications out on the market, and can either shoot a mech’s head off at a hundred metres or crush it with my biotics.”
Actually, it’s more like 105.9 metres, but he didn’t need to know that.
“As impressive as you might be on the battlefield,” the Illusive Man admitted, “it still seems a hefty price to pay for the loss of your father’s support.”
"Oh I am much more than some elite soldier," I rebutted. "Even elite soldiers don't necessarily have my biotic potential, much less an IQ of 181. They wouldn't be able to predict the vulnerability of Daedalus Shipping, nor could they plan and execute a hostile takeover. And they wouldn't be able to determine why the mission on the Geneva..." I stopped myself before I could say 'failed.' "...resulted the way it did," I said at last."
"The Geneva," the Illusive Man repeated.
"SSV Geneva," I nodded.
There was a pause. For a moment, I wondered if one of my worst-case scenarios would come to fruition.
"What do you know about the SSV Geneva?" he said at last.
"An Ensign Elizabeth Shafai from Alliance Supply and Procurement sent an e-mail last week which stated that the SSV Geneva was carrying an unusually high volume of antimatter and detailing its exact route," I said. "Unfortunately, her e-mail was traced and decrypted in time for the Alliance to send the SSV London to intercept the Geneva and thwart the theft. Plus, the lone survivor from the Geneva theft identified Cerberus as the sponsor. At least all other parties were killed or committed suicide before capture."
The Illusive Man didn’t reply at first. The only hint that he heard me at all was an almost imperceptible tilt of his head. "Concise and accurate," the Illusive Man said at last, a note of approval in his voice. "Do you have any thoughts on how this could have been prevented?"
"Ensign Shafai should have done a better job of hiding the e-mail," I replied. "Either by using low-priority channels that don't face as much scrutiny or by masking it as a more innocuous message. The team that boarded the Geneva should have picked a more remote region to intercept the ship—Horizon, perhaps. Someplace where the whole thing could be more easily passed off as a random pirate attack. And a little more manpower would have helped. I’d say at least three more soldiers to eliminate any opposition plus another technical expert familiar with starship engineering or antimatter transport. Preferably both."
The Illusive Man raised his right eyebrow. Only by a millimetre, but that was enough to tell me that he was impressed. "How did you find all this out?"
"A little hacking here and there," I shrugged. "Just enough to gather the facts, come to a conclusion and determine how things could have gone differently."
Then the Illusive Man leaned forward, his eyes narrowing. "And why are you telling me this instead of informing the Alliance? What guarantees do I have that you won't go straight to the Alliance with your discovery after concluding this conversation?"
Clearly, he was intrigued. "To answer the latter, you have no guarantees," I admitted. "Only my word that I am more interested in helping Cerberus than the Alliance, which brings me to your first question: I am talking to you, demonstrating what I can do and offering my services because I believe in what Cerberus stands for.
“Unlike the Alliance, Cerberus is not hidebound by bureaucracy and red tape. It is not restricted by the need to have everything approved by committees and commissions. It does not pander to galactic opinion or concerns that it must slow its progress so as not to alarm or offend the other races. Cerberus wants to advance the development and progress of humanity—socially, technologically, politically—and is willing to do whatever is necessary to do so. It realizes that we won't do humanity any favours by being meek and timid. No, the only way to realize our potential is to be bold, willing to take risks. Willing to do whatever it takes."
The Illusive Man leaned back in his chair after I finished. I suppressed any signs of surprise as he dug into his pocket, pulled out a cigarette, inserted it between his lips and lit it. Smoking was exceedingly rare, but not entirely unheard of. I watched as he leisurely inhaled and patiently waited for him to make the next move.
"Let's say I am interested," he finally said in a puff of smoke. "That I am willing to risk alienating your father and losing all his considerable influence, contacts and funding in favour of taking you in as an operative and shielding you from his grasp. How soon would you be ready to depart?"
"As soon as you give the word," I replied.
The Illusive Man looked amused. "You're awfully confident that I would say 'yes'."
"Not confident," I corrected. "Just prepared."
"I see," he nodded. "Well, I will have to think about this offer. Rest assured, however, that I will get back to you within one solar day," he added, tapping a console.
Glancing down at my omni-tool, I verified that a new set of comm protocols had just been downloaded. "Understood," I replied.
"There is one more thing," I added just before the Illusive Man signed off.
"There is a young baby who I will be taking with me," I said.
"Ah. The latest of Henry's 'genetic dynasty,' I take it."
"Quite," I said tersely. Did everyone know about Father's obsession? "As my final condition, I would like your personal assurance that Oriana will be given to a good, caring foster family that can and will give her a normal childhood and upbringing. I also want Cerberus to offer Oriana the same protection from my father, up to and including thwarting any of his attempts to find her and relocating her and her foster family if necessary."
"And if I refuse?" the Illusive Man asked.
"Then my offer is off the table," I said firmly.
"I'll be in touch. A pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Lawson."
"The pleasure is all mine," I assured him. "I look forward to your reply.”
The Illusive Man reached over and terminated the communication. I let out a breath, one I hadn't realized I was holding. That had gone as well as I could have expected.
Now all I could do was wait.
That was a lot easier than I’d thought.
I had finally mustered the courage to tell Ms. Chambers that I wanted to talk to Shepard. Based on his usual habits, I predicted he’d arrive somewhere between 1430 and 1445. While I waited, I thought back on all the events that had forced me to this point. Clearly, I had failed. If I had done my job, Father and his agents would never have found Oriana. I would not have been forced to activate my contingency protocols to relocate Oriana and her family from the life they knew. I would not have had to ask Shepard for help. To tell him my deepest, most cherished secret.
He arrived at 1431. I took a deep breath and told him everything.
To my surprise, he listened. About how I had a sister. How she was the real reason why I’d joined Cerberus of all organizations. How everything I’d done, everything I’d sacrificed, was to give Oriana the best possible chance for a normal life. Free from the harsh, uncaring cruelties about a selfish man who was more interested in creating a damned dynasty than the happiness of his children. How that life, that normalcy had suddenly been threatened. How I needed his help.
He asked questions, of course. There were times when I’d found his incessant curiosity to be exasperating or annoying. Once or twice, it was even endearing. But this time, it was, well, comforting. It showed he was taking it seriously.
More than seriously, when I think about it. There was a… a sincerity in his words. It was clear from the start of our conversation, after I’d forced myself to admit that I needed his help. His reply was short and to the point—“What’s going on,” he’d said—but the intent was clear: he considered me a part of the crew. A part of his crew. Even after knowing what I stood for, what Cerberus stood for, he had never turned away my aid. Never brushed me off or ignored me. And he wouldn’t start now. He was genuinely concerned about my situation and actually wanted to help. It was quite surprising, to be honest. When I first met him, I thought this sincerity and concern, this interest in the people around him, was an act. How had I gotten to the point where I was now accepting his word without question? Where I didn’t have any doubts whatsoever?
Perhaps it was the fact that I had gotten to know him. To see him, in person as I shared my deepest, most personal secret. To see his body language as he started with concern. To gauge his sincerity simply by looking in his eyes. To hear his tone, his voice, his words as he promised to help in whatever way he could.
I can’t quite describe how I felt when he agreed to assist me. It was like my body suddenly hummed with this surge of… relief? Gratitude? Warmth? Something.
What was just as striking, if not more so, was what he didn’t do. He never showed any hesitation in offering his assistance. Never held this over my head as something that the perfect Miranda Lawson had failed to fully anticipate or properly prepare for. He didn’t extract any favours or force any deals in exchange for his cooperation. It was so strange to have someone volunteer his help so freely. No one had ever done that before.
Not since Niket, anyway.
As it turned out, I didn't have to wait long at all. The Illusive Man sent an e-mail a few hours after Father and I returned to our headquarters/home at Lawson Towers, which suggested a few possibilities. Perhaps he was very decisive in making his decisions. Perhaps he had been watching my progression over the years and had made tentative plans to recruit me all along. Or perhaps he had made up his mind, but wanted time to verify my story before making the offer. Whatever the reason, he sent an e-mail to my omni-tool, which alerted me with a loud beep. I scolded myself for neglecting to set it to vibrate. If Father had been around, his suspicions would have been aroused—thanks to his obsessive need for control, virtually no one contacted me without his approval. Even the few friends that I had managed to cultivate had to contact me through more secure channels.
Thankfully, my error had not jeopardized my mission. Looking around to make sure I was alone, I quickly activated a jamming program that would disrupt—temporarily, at least—any surveillance devices in the area and reset all functions in my omni-tool to vibrate before opening the e-mail client. The e-mail that downloaded was fairly brief:
From: Illusive Man
I am pleased to inform you that, after careful consideration, I have decided to accept your proposal and its conditions.
The MSV Typhon will be waiting for you at Sydney Starport, Docking Bay 94. It will depart at 0300 hours.
I deleted the e-mail after memorizing its contents. Then I opened a comm channel. It took a full minute before someone responded. “Hello?” someone said groggily.
"Niket. Secure the channel."
“Secure—what? Who is this?”
“Niket,” I sighed. “Wake up and secure the channel.”
There was a lot of grumbling, muttering and rattling. Something fell over, eliciting a string of curses. “Channel secured,” I heard at last. “You know you’re the only one who insists on securing her communications to this extent, Miri. Even the Alliance doesn’t use this much encryption.”
“Which is why any idiot can bypass their firewalls,” I replied. “Much less—”
“Yes, yes, your father,” Niket sighed. “I was there when he berated you for being 0.01% off in your financial projections last month—in public. And when he pulled you away from your night off after working for a full week on that takeover thing.”
Right, I’d almost forgotten. “Yeah,” I said slowly, “didn’t you have an interview with Daedalus Shipping?”
There was a derisive snort. “If you can call it that. ‘Daedalus Shipping is in a phase of rapid expansion, thanks to its brilliant and revolutionary plan. We are on the verge of becoming the premiere shipping company for the Alliance—and if our agenda fails, it’s because guys like you didn’t measure up to our high expectations.’”
“They said that?” I asked in disbelief.
“Verbatim,” Niket confirmed. “First time I was glad I didn’t get a call-back for a second interview. I…” Whatever he was going to say was pre-empted by a yawn. “Sorry. It’s… Miri! Do you know what time it is?”
“To the second.”
“You know, you’re the only one who calls me this late. Or early.”
That brought a smile to my face—a genuine one, that is. Niket was the only one who could do that. “What about all the women in your life?”
“Aside from you, there are only two who would call this late. Early. Whatever. Neither of them are my friend.”
I could say that about the thousands of people I’d met. Tutors, acquaintances, colleagues, business partners, business rivals… none of them could be considered a friend. You don’t get assigned friends by your father. You don’t get asked to investigate or use friends to further one of several agendas. You don’t keep friends at arm’s length in case you have to betray or cast them aside.
Over the years, I’ve cultivated a few contacts that one might call friends. In secret—if Father found out, he’d either ruin their lives to teach me a lesson about the follies of misplaced trust or forcibly extract information that could be used as leverage to ensure my compliance. Most people knew that, which made it even harder to find real friends. Niket was one of them. He was the only one who would tolerate my waking him at odd hours. The only one capable of looking past my physical appearance and see a lonely girl who just needed someone to talk to. The only real friend.
He was also the only one who let me tease him. I decided to take the opportunity to get some teasing in. It might be the last chance I’d get. “Are either of those friends keeping you nice and warm?”
“No, they’re not like that.”
“But there is someone who’s like that?”
“I didn’t say that!”
“You didn’t have to. So who is it? April?”
“I don’t swing that way!”
“Will you stop it?!?!”
I laughed. I couldn’t help myself—it was just too funny to rile him up like this.
“You really need to get away from your father,” he sighed. “I swear, every time he pisses you off, you deal with it by waking me up and venting. Or making fun of me.”
“Not true,” I corrected. “I also recite phrases in my head in multiple languages. Stuff like ‘extenuating circumstances,’ ‘patricide,’ ‘temporary insanity’. That sort of thing.”
“Miri, that’s kinda creepy.”
“Would you like to learn how to say ‘justifiable homicide’ in batarian? It’s really quite simple once you wrap your tongue around the first syllable.”
“Scratch that: it’s really creepy. You definitely need to move out sooner or later. It—”
“How about now?”
“—isn’t healthy to… wait, what?”
“I’m leaving. Now.”
“Now? Like now now? Like right this second?”
“Anywhere between this second and an hour from now. And… um… I really need a favour.”
“Geez, a little warning would be nice. I’d have grabbed a nap if—”
“I just found out a few minutes ago. If I gave you any warning, Father might find out.”
“He’s going to find out once you go AWOL. How the heck are you going to stay away from him once he unleashes his goons?”
“I may have found some protection.”
“Like witness protection?”
“Something like that,” I hedged. “The less you know about it, the better.”
“Whoa. Wow. Um. Huh.”
I decided to give him twenty seconds of monosyllabic utterances. Thankfully, he only needed ten. “So, like, what do you need?”
“Are you still doing part-time pizza deliveries?”
“Uh, yeah. Though you picked one weird time for the munchies.”
“Actually, I was more interested in whether you had access to the garage.”
Niket was always quick on the uptake. “You need a lift?”
“No!” I quickly said. The last thing I needed was for him to pick me up and wonder why I was carrying Oriana with me. I hadn’t told him about her. The less he knew, the better. Both for the success of my plan and his own safety. “Look, I don’t want you to get into any more trouble. You’re doing too much as it is.”
“What are friends for?”
“No,” I repeated. I couldn’t get him involved. Any more involved, that is. He deserved better than that. “It’s too dangerous. I just need access to an skycar. Can you get one?”
“Yeah, I think so. Pizza shop’s closed by now. When do you need it? And where do you want me to park it?”
“One hour. Across the street from our second drop-off point.”
“You mean outside—”
“Don’t say it!” I snapped.
“Right, right. Never know who might be listening, even over a secure channel. Sorry.”
I felt bad for snapping at him. This channel was supposed to be encrypted, after all. “I’ll program it to drive back to the pizza shop garage and wipe the navigational computer’s memory after I get to… to my destination. You know, so you don’t get in trouble.”
“Can you do it?”
“Of course I can do it. But…”
“What?” I asked.
“This is for real? You’re actually leaving? Running away from your father?”
“Isn’t it going to be tough? You’ve grown up never wanting for food. Had a swanky roof over your head. Credits to buy whatever you need or want.”
“Father’s reminded me of that every minute of every day,” I replied coldly. “That he’s given me everything, so I have to work to earn it. To show I deserve it. To pay him back for his investment. Do you know what it’s like to wonder what price you’ll have to pay for the bed you go to sleep in at night? To have a meal and wish you could just pay for it with credits instead of some impossible task to be determined in the future? To be afraid to ask for anything because your own father will consider it a loan that you have to pay back with interest? To rub every mistake and failure in your face as yet another example that you don’t deserve everything you’ve been given?”
“No,” Niket said at last. “I guess not. Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
“Forget it,” I sighed. “It’s just… this is what my life has been like. A very pretty, very expensive cage that I was born in without any choice in the matter. Now it’s time for me to break out.”
“You’re right. Sorry, it’s… well, we’ve talked about it for so long. And now you’re actually doing it. It’s hard to—will I ever see or talk to you again?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I hope so. I’ll have to cut ties to almost everyone and everything. But I’d like to have at least one good link to the past.”
“I’m setting up a way for us to stay in touch,” I promised.
“That would be great,” Niket replied. “But don’t let that get in the way of packing up.”
“I just finished,” I said smugly, fingers flying over the keyboard.
“Of course you are,” he laughed. “You’re probably setting up some drop box or something for our chats as we speak.”
“You know me too well,” I chuckled fondly as I entered the last series of commands. “I’m just about done, by the way.”
“Then it’s time for me to get going. Unless there’s anything else I can do.”
“No,” I shook my head. Not that he could see, of course. “That’s about it.”
“Okay. I’ll have the skycar ready in—”
“Actually, wait,” I suddenly said before Niket got off the line. An idea had just occurred to me. “Maybe there’s something else you can do.”
After all he had done, I couldn’t believe things had ended the way they did.
Ever since this debacle began, Father had been one step ahead of me. He’d traced Oriana to Illium before I found out his search had intensified. He’d hired Eclipse mercenaries before the Normandy docked at Nos Astra. The mercenaries had entrenched themselves at every possible checkpoint between me and my sister before we’d had a chance to talk to Lanteia.
If it wasn’t for Shepard, I would have lost my sister. I meant it when I said that Father never planned for someone like him. He might have been decent at long-term strategy, but he excelled at improvising tactics on the spot. I had never met anyone who could size up the situation and create a plan of attack quite as effectively as Shepard—the part where he threw the first squad of Eclipse mercs off-guard and reduced their numbers by killing their leader and dropping an overhead cargo crate on top of them was particularly inspired.
Shepard was also the first one to figure out just how Father had been one step ahead of me. Wondering who this friend was, wondering if he could have been turned by Father. He never flat-out accused him of being a traitor, no doubt because he didn’t want to stir up any mixed feelings without conclusive evidence, but the doubts were there. I hadn’t told Niket about Oriana—or Cerberus or anything. Despite the drop box I set up, I hadn’t exactly made much of an effort to keep in touch with him, nor had I checked up on him to see how he was doing. I had been too busy burying myself in my new life. In fact, I hadn’t sent him an e-mail in over a year.
If I had made more of an effort, I would’ve found out how he’d started his own business, only to declare bankruptcy a year later. Every attempt he’d made to make a name for himself had failed, mostly due to circumstances out of his control. It wasn’t all bad—he’d managed to scrape enough together to keep a roof over his head, food in his belly and a small amount of credits in his account. But never enough to escape a life of uncertainty, where one slip could send him crashing down into poverty. Small wonder that he had grown increasingly desperate.
I don’t mean to excuse his actions, not entirely. He did betray me and Oriana, after all. Even when he knew just how bad Father was. He made that choice. But if I had helped him the way I had helped Oriana, if I had trusted him with my secret, maybe none of this would have happened. Maybe he wouldn’t have succumbed to Father’s offer. Maybe.
All I knew for certain was that Shepard was right: I did still care for Niket. That was the only reason I felt so betrayed when I found out he’d sold me out for a price. That only reason I felt so relieved when he tried to redeem himself for his errors. The only reason I felt so… so angry and furious when Enyala—the leader of the Eclipse mercs Father hired—so callously ended his life.
In the end, when the fighting was over, all I could do was stand there. Stand there over Niket’s body and think how, despite his betrayal, I would miss him. Perhaps because of all the times we shared. Perhaps because how he tried to correct his wrongs by helping me and my sister. Just like he helped me all those years ago.
I checked the chronometer on my omni-tool. 0011. I’d planned to be on the move by now, but grabbing my supplies had taken a little longer than expected. Not too long, but enough that I missed my window of opportunity and had to wait for the next one—five minutes later. Five minutes of fidgeting, re-checking, re-calculating and second guessing. Hopefully things would go more smoothly from here on out.
Palming the door controls, I poked my head around and looked both ways. Even though I’d confirmed the schedules and patrol routes of Father’s guards 2096 times, I couldn’t resist. A last-minute shift change, some guard ahead or behind schedule, any such variable could ruin my plan. And I couldn’t afford for my plan to be jeopardized. Not this time.
No one was in the corridor, though, so I quickly moved to the nearest sculpture. A knight carved from white marble from one of Father’s supporters. I crouched behind it and counted to six before jumping to my feet and running around to the other side of the knight, taking advantage of the small blind spot between the two vid-cams in this section of the corridor. Closing my eyes, I let out a breath and counted another eleven seconds before running to the elevator. The private one, keyed to Father’s DNA, retinal scan, thumbprint and voice-enabled password. All of which were easy to obtain, especially since I’d been planning for this night for the last ten years. Father would be loathe to admit it, but he had a dandruff problem—which made it ridiculously easy to obtain DNA samples. His daily lectures on what I was doing wrong and how I wasn’t perfect yet usually involved staring into my eyes and gripping my chin to make sure I didn’t squirm away. A careful application of ocular cam-lenses onto my eyes ensured that I could capture a perfect snapshot of his retinas, my infallible memory helped me determine which area of my skin to scan for thumbprints and a customized program installed on my omni-tool recorded more than enough data to replicate his voiceprint. As for the password, I knew Father had a penchant for Greek mythology. Tonight’s password, for example, was ‘Bellerophon.’ The hardest part was devising a way to deliver the DNA sample, retinal scan, thumbprint and password within ten seconds—a piece of cake, in other words.
I knew better than to actually use the elevator, though. Father’s guards weren’t exactly geniuses, but even they knew that the private elevator didn’t move unless: a) Father was in it or b) an unauthorized party or parties—that is, anyone but Father—was using it. Now it would be child’s play to hack the security cameras or countless other systems, but I didn’t want to exercise that option unless I had no choice. I had already hacked the mainframe several times to set up my escape plan. Any more hacks, especially unnecessary ones, could leave enough digital footprints and tracks that Father’s computer security could trace. I hadn’t taken such care to memorize the schedules of each and every security guard, not to mention the blind spots of all the vid-cams, just for fun.
No, the reason—well, the first reason—I had targeted Father’s private elevator was so I could gain access to the elevator shaft. Yes, the one with motion sensors, laser beams, DNA scanners, kinetic barriers—to help cushion unexpected falls and impede unexpected visitors—and several other security features. Temporarily disabling every one of those systems was actually safer than tapping into the mainframe. As an added benefit, I could actually reach every one of those systems without risk of setting off the alarms. All I had to do was determine the inverse frequency of the kinetic barriers and I could generate a hole with my biotics, one large enough for me to pass through. Similarly, opening a hole in the kinetic barriers guarding the control systems for the sensors, laser beams and DNA scanners allowed me to upload a file of junk data. It would take time for the control systems to purge that data, time I could use to slip by undetected.
The second reason was that the private elevator shaft provided more elbow room and easier access to all the built-in security systems than the ventilation ducts. Even if I wanted to squirm through the ducts, I couldn’t: based on my calculations, my genetically enhanced ass would keep tripping the laser beams. Yes, even when unclenched.
I glanced at my chronometer when I reached the bottom of the shaft and silently cursed: 0029. Two minutes behind schedule, which meant that one of the guards would be close enough to hear the elevator doors when I opened them. My original plan wouldn't work anymore. I'd used up any leeway time that had been factored in rappelling down the elevator shaft.
Good thing I'd come up with a backup plan.
I bypassed the lock on the elevator door controls. Simple for someone of my talents. All I had to do was confirm the bypass. I closed my eyes, I took a deep breath and counted down from three...
This was it.
Everything was about to change.
For my sister.
Triggering the bypass, I jumped through the elevator doors. The guard whirled around, his eyes widening as he saw me charging towards him. He fumbled for his pistol, then reached for his comm, evidently deciding that shooting the boss's daughter on his own initiative wasn't the best idea. While he was making up his mind, I fired off an EMP at him, temporarily disabling all the electronics and weapons on his person. Before he could do anything else, I hopped onto a nearby crate and put one foot on the wall. Pushing off, I whipped my foot out, catching him right in the neck.
I was back on the floor and on the run as the hapless guard hit the ground. I'd made it about ten metres when the second guard showed up, no doubt attracted by the sounds of all that running. Grabbing my pistol, I opened fire. It's normally impossible to fire with any accuracy when you're running, but I'm not normal. The flare from my bullets hitting his kinetic barrier blinded him, allowing me to close in and deliver a precise biotic blast, shattering his helmet and—more importantly—sending a shard of his helmet right between the eyes and straight into his brain.
Whipping around the corner, my eyes registered two more guards. Without thinking twice, I lifted my pistol and fired two shots at a certain pipe running along the ceiling. Super-chilled coolant gushed out, pouring over the hapless guards and freezing them on the spot. Two more shots shattered their bodies in a shower of frozen water and blood.
The last two guards were outside the doors to the birthing chamber. I knocked their weapons out of their hands with a gesture and a flare of biotics. The closest guard took a swing at me, which I dodged effortlessly. I ducked under his predictable backswing, moving around him so I was between the two guards. The second guard tried a couple feints before trying to deliver what would have been a devastating punch to my midsection, if the positioning of his feet hadn’t given him away. I blocked that, moving to my left and back. If I had calculated correctly…
…I had. The guard attempted a roundhouse punch to my face, overextending ever so slightly. Before the guard could recover, I grabbed his outstretched arm, bent, pivoted and sent him flying over my shoulder and into the second guard. The pair fell backward into the control panel with enough force to smash the delicate circuitry behind it, causing an explosion that fried their bodies and—more importantly—the door controls.
Stepping over their twitching bodies, I entered the birthing chamber… and paused. I'd studied the blueprints, but it didn't prepare me for this. Everything was white. The floor, the walls, the ceiling. The bio-banks that held all of Father's genetic samples. The genetic sequencers that he'd used to eliminate every possible flaw and calculate the optimal combination of genes. The maturation tubes for accelerated growth. The surgical equipment for neonatal surgery and element zero implantation.
And, most importantly, the pod that held my sister.
As I got closer, I saw that even her clothes were white. Her skin, too. Just like mine. I glanced at the overhead monitors and breathed a sigh of relief as I saw that all her stats were normal.
Oriana opened her eyes as I approached. They were blue, like my own. She smiled as she saw me. That brought me to a halt. She was my genetic twin. My sister. But she was so small. So innocent, so trusting. It was hard to believe, even with all that I knew, that we were related. But we were related by blood. I reiterated my silent promise that that would be all that we shared. I vowed that she would never know the pain, the suffering or the hellish training that I had endured. She would know a normal life, one with trivialities, conventional problems. Maybe even lo… well, affection at the very least.
"Uh... hi," I said at last. "My name is Miranda. I'm your sister."
"I, uh, I know you don't understand me. You probably won't even remember any of this."
A cooing sound escaped her lips.
"But I'm going to get you out of here."
I dropped my knapsack to the ground, opened it up and pulled out the tools I needed. It only took me twenty seconds to get everything assembled and prepared. Standing to my feet, I started to turn around when I heard a giggle. I looked back. She was chortling away and clapping her hands. Apparently crouching down and disappearing, only to stand up and reappear with a baby carrier around my chest and a harness full of explosives in each hand, was close enough to ‘peek-a-boo.’
A smile slipped out—the giggling was kind of cute. Then I walked away. Or tried to—I only made it three steps before a cry rang out. I rushed back to the pod. "Shh," I hushed.
She stopped crying. I started to walk away.
She stopped as soon as I came back. "I just have to set something up," I tried. "I'll be right back."
She didn't buy it. I wracked my brain for how to stop the waterworks, generating and eliminating possibilities until only one option remained.
Oriana giggled as I fastened her into the baby carrier. She gurgled as I uploaded the computer virus from my omni-tool into the birthing chamber's computers, wiping out all of their contents. She babbled as I attached the explosives to the computers, the sequencers and the rest of the equipment.
I permitted myself to take one last look before priming the explosives and leaving the chamber. As I jogged down the corridor, I mentally reviewed my plan. Once the explosives went off, the VI would immediately trace the blast. As soon as it determined that it came from the birthing chamber, a signal would be sent to recall the main elevator—not Father's private elevator, the main one that I'd passed when dealing with the third guard—to the third floor, where a squad of guards would be waiting to take it down. I had to be on top of the main elevator car before the VI sent the recall signal. I crossed my fingers and prayed—an unusual act for me, but one that seemed appropriate—that I wouldn't face any more delays. With all the shielding and electronic counter-measures on this floor, I couldn't remotely detonate the explosives, hence my decision to use a countdown timer. If I was impeded in any way...
Thankfully, all of the guards I'd taken out were still down for the count and there were no new guards in the area. Father had evidently thought that, given all the security measures on the other floors, only five were warranted down here. He hadn't factored in my little act of rebellion. I skidded to a halt outside the main elevator and started bypassing the lock. As the doors hissed open, I glanced down at my sister. The rhythmic bouncing of my jogging had evidently lulled her to sleep.
Entering the elevator car, I generated a small biotic field and directed it towards the floor. Slowly, I began to levitate, taking care not to wake Oriana. Releasing the biotic field, I reached up, opened the elevator car hatch and grabbed the edge before gravity took over. I swayed back and forth for a moment before reaching up with my other hand, getting a firm grip on the edge and pulling me and Oriana up. Closing the hatch, I checked my chronometer. The explosives should be going off just about... now.
The muffled thump reached my ears just before I felt the tremors underneath my feet. About three seconds later, the car started rising. The ascent seemed to take forever, but the car finally slowed to a halt. I moved to the ladder lining the wall of the elevator shaft, taking care not to make any noise that might alert the guards entering the car below me—or worse, wake up Oriana. Then I got onto the rungs, held my breath and waited.
It took a full minute before the car began to descend instead of the usual thirty-one seconds. I suppose an attack at the heart of Father’s precious little dynasty caught everyone off guard. It was a minor challenge to coordinate my movements so I could use my omni-tool to override the elevator door controls, keep a firm footing on the ladder rungs and make sure Oriana stayed asleep. Nothing I couldn’t handle, however.
With a hiss, the doors opened. I carefully stretched my foot off and gingerly placed it on the floor of the corridor outside. I closed my eyes, counted to three and pushed off the elevator ladder with my other foot. As I’d expected, the move propelled me into the corridor of the south side of the third floor. A sudden movement at my chest brought something to my attention that I had not expected—how easy it might be to wake up Oriana. “Sshh,” I hushed. “Go back to sleep, Oriana.”
To my alarm, she started to fidget. Oh no, this was the worst possible time for her to be doing… whatever it she was doing. There was something else I had to do, but first I had to settle Oriana down. Of course, I hadn’t the slightest idea what to do. My education had covered a wide range of topics, including sexual education, anatomy and physiology, and developmental biology. Looking after babies, alas, was not one of them. All I could think of was hold Oriana close, rock back and forth and say something in a sing-song voice (The Krebs cycle, if you must know. Basic biochemistry always made me doze off, though I blame that less on the material and more on the instructor).
Oriana gradually settled down, her eyes fluttering shut. I breathed a sigh of relief. Now all I had to do was override the security cameras on this floor before—
“ALL SECURITY TO LEVEL THREE! MIRANDA HAS MY NEXT DAUGHTER! STOP HER BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, BUT ORIANA IS TO BE RECOVERED UNHARMED!”
As if on cue, three guards came around the corner. I used my biotics to briefly lift one of them up, before letting him fall back down. Unfortunately, he only fell on one of his companions. The other one was quick enough to jump out of the way, lift his assault rifle and fire. At my legs—he evidently realized that shooting at my back carried the risk of bullet fire penetrating through my body and causing severe damage, if not death, to Oriana. Tripping me up or disabling me, on the other hand, carried less risk of injury to Oriana, who had just been given priority status by Father. Not that I cared—the only thing that mattered was Oriana.
I quickly jumped into the elevator shaft and quickly climbed up several rungs, trying to ignore Oriana’s cries. If I was lucky… yes! The guard poked his head into the shaft and looked around, confused by the echoes of Oriana’s wailing. Before he could look up, I dropped down, hands grabbing a convenient ledge, and swung back into the corridor. I swiveled on my feet and kicked outward, knocking the guard off balance. He swung his arms backwards in a vain attempt to regain his balance before toppling forward and plummeting down the shaft.
Ignoring the sounds of his screams—and, with less success, my sister’s—I started to run. Not a fast run, considering I had a sobbing baby strapped to her chest and was preoccupied sending remote commands on my omni-tool. It was only my genetically enhanced physique, years of Olympic-level training and stellar coordination that carried me safely around the corner. Bullets ricocheted off the walls, just barely missing me. Lifting my arm upward, I sent an EMP flying into the ceiling light panels and shorting them out. The backups would kick in momentarily, but that would buy me a little bit of time.
I ran down the corridor, arms pumping on either side of Oriana. I thought I was making good speed until the lights came back on. Knowing that that would make things significantly easier for Father’s guards channelled a little more energy into every step. As I raced along, I kept one eye out for any guards ahead of me and the other eye looking through the windows—there it was! I quickly extrapolated the intercept point, factoring in the lactic acid building up in my legs—a mere fraction of what most humans would experience, but still a relevant factor nonetheless. One miscalculation and things could get very messy.
The shouts behind me, followed by gunfire and shattering window panes, reminded me of something else that could get messy. I quickly broke out into a sprint, automatically recalculating my next moves to account for my increased velocity. The next couple shots were much closer. Either the guards had downloaded an update patch for their weapons’ targeting software or, more likely, they had stopped running and were focusing their fire. Unfortunately for them, they were too late. I took three more steps, moved my left arm up to shield my eyes, moved my right arm down to shield Oriana’s eyes, lunged forward…
…and burst through the window.
One might think that Oriana and I fell for an eternity. It was only 0.65 seconds of free-fall before I encased the two of us in a biotic field that slowed our descent, allowing us to land instead of flop on the skycar that whizzed past Lawson Towers. The skycar I had asked Niket to obtain for me.
It was child’s play to open the door while the skycar was speeding away, get inside, close the door and buckle up. The only unexpected part was that Oriana was no longer crying. In fact, she was giggling and clapping her hands. Apparently she’d found this part of the escape to be most entertaining. Oh, to be young and innocent...
Speaking of which, I couldn’t afford to relax if I wanted to give Oriana the innocence of a normal life. Glancing in the rear-view monitor, I could see three skycars in hot pursuit. This wasn’t as harrowing a chase as you might think, as there was very little traffic at this time of night—or, more precisely, morning. It was more a matter of racing past the buildings and turning the occasional sharp corner at an altitude of fifty metres. As I watched, a fourth one joined them—no, it wasn’t another skycar. It was an A-47 Scarab gunship. Father must have been really desperate to retrieve Oriana if he was willing to deploy an untested prototype.
Little did he know that he had just handed me my ticket to success. The Scarab had a bad habit of heat buildup, which usually resulted in overheating the engines, setting something on fire, or turning the cockpit into a slow-cooking oven. To compensate, Father’s engineers had installed a series of heat sinks and exhaust ports. A careful study of the schematics would show that one of those heat sinks—if damaged in just the right way—would clog or destroy several exhaust ports, resulting in a chain reaction that would cripple the gunship.
Unfortunately for Father and his plans, I had studied those schematics. And I knew just how to damage that heat sink. Looking ahead, I quickly made my plan and steered my skycar briefly into the oncoming traffic before drifting back into my designated flight zone. As I expected, Father’s skycars and the Scarab adjusted their course to compensate, which resulted in one skycar falling behind to the left of the Scarab. Then I engaged the skycar’s autopilot and opened the door. Ignoring all the alarms that started howling—and Oriana’s subsequent screaming—I leaned out, paused briefly, then sent an EMP soaring towards a nearby holo-ad, which exploded in a bright burst of sparks. The skycar behind the Scarab jerked to the right as the driver instinctively dodged away from the sparks, a move that sent it careening into the Scarab—specifically, right into the critical heat sink.
The Scarab careened out of control, spinning around and descending like something out of an action vid. It eventually crashed on the pavement below, taking out another skycar along the way. That left just one pursuer, who was forced to fall back in order to stay aloft. Just as I had planned.
I hit the accelerator and sped around the corner. As soon as the building had cut off line-of-sight to the last of Father’s minions, I quickly decelerated, steering the skycar towards the right while sending a signal with my omni-tool. A second skycar—one that looked precisely like the one I was driving lifted off, clearing a space for me to park. Just in time, too—no sooner had I touched down when Father’s last skycar appeared. The driver spotted the decoy skycar—courtesy of Niket—and took off in hot pursuit. I decided to give them a few minutes so Father’s men and women would be thoroughly bamboozled by my red herring. Besides, Oriana was still crying.
After quieting her down with a combination of “Ba, Ba, Black Sheep” and a recitation of the periodic table, I took off again and heading for the starport. To my future. To Oriana’s future.
To our freedom.
My eyes started scanning the departure terminal for Oriana as soon as we got out of the elevator. I didn’t know why. There was no guarantee that I would recognize her—we might have had the same genetic code, but growing up in different environments could result in vastly different physical appearances. Besides, the terminal was bustling with asari, batarians, humans and several other species, which would make it difficult to spot...
“There she is.”
I didn’t realize I had said those words out loud until I saw Shepard and the other squad members look around. To be honest, I didn’t care. All I could see was my sister. Looking closely, I could see certain shared facial features, but that was about it. Even if she had looked exactly like me, it would have been hard to tell we were related. Watching her, I saw how she was enthusiastically chatting with an older man and woman—obviously her foster parents—about something, waving her arms and gesturing with enthusiasm and animation. At one point she stopped, looked at one of the monitors and shook her head in clear exasperation and annoyance. Her posture, her very movements, they all looked so natural. So free. So... so normal.
“Oriana?” Shepard guessed.
At some point, I must have said something or nodded or gave some sign of confirmation. For once, my infallible memory failed me. All I could think of was: it had been worth it. All my struggles, all my sacrifices, all my constant vigils—they had all paid off. Oriana had had the normal life I had wanted for her. “She’s safe,” I murmured. “With her family.” A family that loved her, that cared for her. The kind of family I had never had.
A sudden emotion ripped through me, searing me with the pain of... not envy. Surely I wasn’t envious of Oriana and her happiness. I would certainly never wish that she had anything less. “Come on,” I said briskly, before I could dwell on that any further. “We should go.”
Shepard looked at me blankly. “Now?” he asked. “Don’t you even want to say hello or something?”
Now it was my turn to look at him in confusion. What did he expect? For me to walk up and say “Hi, long time no see. I’m your twin sister, even though I’m almost twice your age. I dragged you from a life of misery from the father who created both of us—and countless other rejects—in test tubes to carry on his business empire. The reason you never met me until now was that I’d been working with a bunch of pro-human terrorists to keep you safe and hidden. So what’s new?” Right, that would go over real well. That would ruin her life. Destroy the normal life I’d worked so hard to give her. I couldn’t do that. Why couldn’t Shepard understand that?
“It’s not about what I want,” I tried to explain. “It’s about what’s right for her. The less she knows about me, the better. She’s got a family. A life. I’ll just complicate that for her.”
Now Shepard looked... it was hard to describe. At first I thought it was pity, but that wasn’t quite right. It was a mixture of dawning comprehension and sadness. Sadness for me. I don’t think I had ever seen Shepard look that way before. I don’t think anyone had ever felt that way about me before. “Look,” he said at last, “she doesn’t need a full debriefing, but would it really be so bad for her to know she has a sister out there in the galaxy who loves her?”
Someone out there. Someone who lov...
Again, I felt a blaze of emotion. I looked away, reminding myself of all the reasons why it was such a bad idea to even consider what Shepard was suggesting. But it was harder to recall those reasons. All of my previous concerns were suddenly being washed away in a flood of poignant desire and longing. The possibilities seemed endless. To actually see my sister up close with my own eyes instead of through hacked vid-cams. To hear her voice, her laughter with my own ears instead of audio recordings. To talk with her and hear about events through her own words and her own perspective instead of piecing together the facts through dispassionate reports and analyses. To interact with my sister like a normal person. To be normal for once in my life. It was all I could do to stay upright.
“I... I guess not,” I whispered, belatedly realizing that I was staring at Oriana again.
Judging by his movement, I think Shepard had wanted to give me a nudge or something. Small wonder: I had been standing still for over a minute. “Go on,” he prompted, tilting his head towards Oriana. “We’ll wait here.”
I took a tentative step forward, scarcely believing what I was doing. Then another. And another. Before I knew it, I was briskly walking towards her, eagerness fuelling every step. At long last, I would meet my sister. Not as a cherished ideal to protect or watch over from afar, but in person. We could talk about, oh I don’t know, all sorts of things. Normal things.
She spotted me, of course. Small wonder, the way I bore down on her and her foster parents with such clear intent and focus. Before I knew it, I was standing in front of her. I opened my mouth...
...and realized that I hadn’t the slightest idea what to say.
I just stood there, staring at my sister. She stood there, staring back into my eyes. The eyes of some stranger who was wearing—oh my God, my usual outfit was so revealing! What must she think? Oh, this was a horrible idea. What was I thinking? What was Shepard thinking? This was all his—
It was Oriana. She’d taken the initiative to make the first move. “Do I know you?” she asked.
Somehow, that question jolted me out of my mental paralysis. At least, it gave me a place to start. “No, I don’t expect you would. You were just a baby when I helped you find your foster parents.”
Oriana’s foster parents—no, her real parents. If not by blood, then by every other measure—looked at each other in concern and wordlessly took a step closer to Oriana. Their obvious protectiveness and concern reassured me to no end. “I don’t remember meeting anyone like you,” the father—Benjamin—said slowly. “Who are you, anyway?”
“My name is Miranda Lawson, and no, I wasn’t there in person,” I explained. “However, I did screen the applicants who applied to be Oriana’s foster parents and eventual guardians. I wanted only the best for you. I wanted to make sure that you would be well looked after and cared for.”
“That sounds like a social worker,” Oriana observed. “But... you’re not a social worker. Or someone in the foster care system. If you were, you would have kept in regular contact. Personal inspections. E-mail communiqués. Even a name cited in an invoice. And your name hasn’t come up anywhere. Believe me, I checked.”
“You have?” the mother—May—asked, looking at her in astonishment.
“Oh come on, Mom,” Oriana said in equal parts affection and exasperation. “Of course I did. I’ve been checking ever since you told me I was adopted. You know I only did it because I was curious. As far as I’m concerned, you’re still my mom.”
“I’m not surprised,” I chuckled, much to my surprise. When was the last time I chuckled? Maybe during one of my conversations with Niket, back when I was a teenager. But enough about that, and all the mixed feelings that went with it. I was talking with Oriana at last. Don’t screw it up. “Curiosity is something we—”
Damn it. Maybe Oriana hadn’t noticed my slip.
“We what?” she asked. “Share?”
Damn it. I screwed up.
“Because you kinda look like me. I mean, obviously you’re older. And have nice taste in clothes. Really, they’re soooooo amazing. Very flattering, the way they show off your...” Her eyes widened. “Oh God, I’m being too... I shouldn’t have said that. I didn’t mean to point out—or imply—or... geez, this is so embarassing... um, help? Oh, shoot me now.”
She babbled when she was nervous. This was something I never knew about Oriana. This was... I had never imagined this possibility in any of my theoretical scenarios. “You have good taste in clothing yourself,” I replied, hoping to ease past her awkwardness. Through sincerity, not empty flattery—her clothes were of the latest style, yet well within her family’s budget.
“Oh, thank you,” she blushed.
She blushed. I didn’t know that either. For some reason, that made the next bombshell easier to drop. All this time, I had wondered how I would broach this particular subject, and had used my inability to calculate a reply with a guaranteed success rate as justification to keep my distance. I still didn’t have a guarantee. This could all go horribly wrong. And yet, I somehow felt that now was the time to tell her the truth. It just seemed to flow so naturally from my lips: “The reason you observe a physical resemblance is that we’re related. I’m your sister.”
May gawked at me.
Ben’s eyebrows skyrocketed.
Oriana activated her omni-tool.
“DNA scan program?” I guessed.
“Best one I could buy,” she shrugged. “Not that there weren’t any bugs. Had to modify the scanning protocols to eliminate contaminants from extraneous sources. And don’t get me started on all the work to overhaul the genomic reconstruction algorithms. I mean, really, randomly inserting nucleotides when a match can’t be determined? With no regard for whether the resulting codons would make any sense or how it would interact with the rest of the subject’s genome?”
That’s my sister. I felt so proud. “It’s funny how most of the software out there fails to incorporate simple things like that,” I agreed. “Not without buying a premium package or waiting for multiple patches.”
A beep interrupted me. Oriana looked at the results and did a double-take. “Ori?” May asked softly.
‘Ori.’ I liked that.
“The DNA scan results... it’s an exact match. Aside from a few epigenetic differences, her genome is exactly like mine. But... how... I mean, you’re so much... older... I don’t understand...”
“It’s a long story,” I interrupted gently, “and I don’t have time to tell it all. But I’d like to start. If you’re interested, of course.”
“Interested?” Oriana repeated. “All my life I’ve wondered if I had any siblings. And now the answer’s found me.”
She leapt forward and flung her arms around me. “Yes, yes, of course I’m interested.”
My arms automatically reached around to hug her. To hug my sister. Oh God, this was... this was now officially the happiest moment of my life.
Oriana belatedly remembered her parents. “Um... Mom? Dad? If you don’t mind?”
“Of course, Ori,” May smiled. “With all the delays in departure, I think we have some time to kill. You go catch up. We’ll give you some space.”
That was easier than I’d expected. At least Ben seemed a little more hesitant to trust this stranger who’d mysteriously catapulted herself into his daughter’s life. Still, it was clear that May was determined to give me the benefit of the doubt, as she tugged on Ben’s arm and practically dragged him a few metres away.
Ori and I found a couple seats at a nearby cafe and sat down. We ordered cappuccinos and pastries—she got a praline pear danish while I got a cheese and onion quiche—and proceeded to talk. For two glorious, wonderful hours. The best two hours of my life.
And it was all thanks to one man.