The second-worst part about nightmares is that deep inside, somewhere past all the fear and pain and complete terror, a part of you knows that it's all a dream. A dream perhaps induced by memories, but a dream nonetheless.
The worst part about nightmares is that even though a part of you knows it's a dream, you still try to change it.
To be fair, my nightmares aren't so much scary as they are hellishly terrifying. Night-terrors, yes, let's call them that. I've had them for just about as long as I can remember, and every year seems to add new ones. But they all start the same, no matter what.
Like I said, I know it's not real, I know it. But it all feels so real, and the memories come flooding back with a bang. And I do mean flooding. As usual, the first thing I notice is the dirty brown water spraying down from the broken sprinkler heads above me. The room, once so vivid in my memory, is reduced to a simple grey concrete concoction. The room isn't the important thing, it's what's in the room. The water's rising up, somehow the door got jammed and I'm stuck waist-deep in ever-rising water, trying desperately to keep my best friend's head above the viscous stuff. Absentmindedly I wonder how healthy it is to be in it, but most of me is worrying about Lara. "Hang in there, we'll get out." I hear myself say.
As usual, in my dreams, rather then actually reliving it from my perspective, I seem to take an observer's role, watching from a little ways above. I see myself, seventeen, red-headed and skinny as a lamp-post. Clinging to my best friend's body. Already the water is turning red from her blood. I'm not even sure where she was hit, just that she was. I can hear Peter and Andre outside, shouting and banging on the door, trying to force it open. But all I focus on is Lara.
Nineteen, pretty, prettier than me by a longshot. Purple hair that everyone laughed at, while at the same time secretly wishing that they could be brave enough to dye their hair that color too. She's smiling up at me through blood-stained teeth. And the water's lapping up her cheeks, ever closer to her mouth. I try to lift her higher, but even though I'm decently strong (considering the fact that I'm a street-kid), I can't lift her high enough. Somewhere a part of me screams, I know how this ends. She dies. My best friend dies. But the scene quickly fades away.
Now that my mind's in full-on night-terror mode, I begin to make the hellish journey down memory lane, each scene bringing back old wounds. I go from Lara's blood-stained smile to some barren rock of a world. I hear the murmur of the others around me, and again my view pans, giving me a good view of myself. My hair's cut short, now, though still as red as ever. I've got a little more meat on me, benefits of eating stuff that didn't come out of a trash-heap. I'm dressed in some sort of combat-hardsuit, assault rifle in my hands, my purple eyes scanning the area. Andre's there with me, and I can feel his tension seeping in. Something's wrong on this world, everything's too quiet. Andre . . . my heart takes a lurch as I remember where this is.
I try to scream, to yell for Andre to run, for the rest of my unit to run. But my dream-self's mouth doesn't say the right words, she's stuck in replay-land and instead of giving warning of what's coming next, she simply mutters something cynical to Andre. He gives a smile and my heart takes another lurch. I'd forgotten how beautiful his smile was. But too late, there's the animal roar in the distance and the ground begins to shake. Andre's smile falters, his dark brown eyes look worriedly to my dream-self. All around I can see the other marines giving each other nervous looks. Something bad is coming.
The scene changes again, though still the rocky little world, but now the silence is broken by screams and gunfire. There I am, armor smoking and seeming to dissolve before my very eyes. I know it hurts, I remember the pain. The big wurm's acid would have dissolved me if I didn't have the armor and barriers. Tears are running freely down my face, I was nearly scared out of my mind, I remember with a shudder. but there I am, dragging Andre's bloody, mangled body towards a rocky spire, he's alternating between coughing up blood and yelling for me to leave him. I marvel at how strong he was, to still be conscious even though the wurms had caused him so much harm.
My throat tightens, which I know is what happened to my younger self as well. I couldn't tell him, though he was dying. I'd known Andre for years, he and I were in the same street gang with Lara. I'd never told him that I was beginning to suspect I might be in love with him. I was always awkward and clumsy with words. So instead, younger me just doggedly drags him towards the rock, pulling him to safety her only concern, though the acid was still slowly eating away at her armor.
Again, I know how that story ends. They found me, days later. The rescue party of Alliance marines sent in to find out what happened to my unit. I remember being delirious and malnourished. I'm one of those semi-rare creatures, a human biotic, able to manipulate mass effect fields through a combination of my mind and cybernetic implants. But on the flipside, I burn through a lot of energy, and though I hadn't learned to use my abilities very well by then, I'd still been running from the monsters for days. Covered in dried blood and three-quarters naked with chemical burns over the majority of my body, I must have been quite a sight. But too late, on to the next stop of my little tour. I try to wake up, I don't want to see any more. But the dream continues mercilessly onwards.
Water again. Though cleaner than the first time. I glance around the scene, frozen for a moment in time. My dream-self is older now, almost thirty. Still red hair, it should have been in a pony-tail, or cut short. But by that time, military regs weren't exactly on our priority-list and it was almost to my neck. My body is lean, lithe and muscled, clad in a solid-looking combat suit. What skin I have exposed is now deathly pale. A side-effect of the Maw acid from Akuze, personally, I think I look like a red-headed corpse
But here, from a slightly different perspective, I see a different view of myself. My eyes stand out more, with the pale-white skin. Here I can see a small measure of the beauty others' say they see in me. Not traditionally beautiful. But the pale skin, red hair and purple irises do make for a unique look. I'm standing in some sort of facility, near a power-station, it looks like. The water isn't deep, and is either part of a cooling system or some hydro-power unit, I don't remember which.
In the distance, grey, man-sized machines move with deadly purpose, gunfire echoes out. The Geth are advancing again. I can see my dream-self frown deeply. I remember the anger. Nothing about that mission was going right. We had to blow up the facility, and the Salarian unit had given up their own ship's drive-core to serve as a make-shift bomb. Somewhere out in the facility, the reptilian Salarians were making a final stand agains the endless machine advance. In the distance I could see Kaidan Alenko, a man I'd come to respect and . . . my heart gave another lurch. Yes, I'd fallen for him too. Two years older than me, brown/black hair and kind eyes, I loved his eyes.
"No." I whispered, though my dream-self couldn't hear it. I knew how this story ended as well. He died. Kaidan, my faithful second-in-command. He and I had talked, we wanted to try, to see if we could work out some sort of relationship. I was emotionally damaged, to say the least. But he had been willing to push past that. And there he was, telling me to go, to save the Salarians, he still had to set up the bomb.
It was only later that we'd learn another Geth ship had been lurking out of sight, waiting to swoop down on the bomb-site. We'd gone to cover the Salarians, and Kaidan had radioed that he was being overwhelmed. And then, though I could hear the gunfire over the radio, his ever-calm voice told me, "Go, save Ashley and the Salarians."
I hear myself give a cry as though shot, "Kaidan." My dream-self pleads.
"By the time you get back, I'll be dead anyways. It's been an honor, commander."
And then I wake up with a scream of terror.
The room's dark, pitch-black, in fact. My body feels tight, constrained, and covered in sweat. Yeah, just another night, no different than any other. I sigh and shake my head, a quick turn of my wrist brings up the glowing holographic display of my omni-tool, lighting up the area. Theoretically, compared to where I'm used to sleeping, this room is a nice change-of-pace. It's got a comfortable bed, a breathtaking view of Vancouver during the day, and twenty-four hour room-service. I hate it. Of course, technically I'm not allowed out of it, house arrest and all that. And the twenty-four hour room-service is brought to you by your friendly Alliance Marine corps corporal. So that's not exactly amazing, either.
I sigh again and shake my head, trying to calm my racing heart. Concentrate on my breathing, like my old mentor taught me. The thought of the grouchy old Turian brings a half-smile to my lips. Without Raiven, I wouldn't be half the soldier I am today. He was my first experience with a non-human, and while he was completely terrifying in his own way, I learned a lot from him. The omni-tool's clock display says it's a little past two, and I already know I'm not getting back to sleep. So I roll out of bed and flop down to the comfy floor like a brick, have I mentioned that I'm about as graceful as a sack of wet potatoes?
I grabbed my swimsuit from the pile of clothes sitting next to the bed, and then pad softly out to the door and open it. The first night I'd been here, the marine on duty had burst into my room when he'd heard me scream, ready to defend me from whatever horrible monsters were obviously hurting me. Now, three months into my stay here, he greeted me with a polite smile and worried eyes. Obviously, a pale woman who regularly shrieked out in terror during sleep was not what he'd expected from the great Commander Shepard.
"Going swimming again, Commander?" He questioned, ever-polite and proper.
"You know me too well, Corporal." I replied with a somber half-smile. In theory, I'm not allowed to leave my room except when called to the committee chambers to answer yet more questions. But I got sick of pacing around my room for hours on end, and the marine was probably equally sick of hearing my pained cries. So the young corporal and I had come to an understanding. He let me wander the facility, which was huge and mostly empty at night, as long as I didn't try to actually leave it. I suspect Admiral Hackett had something to do with my nightly freedom, but I wasn't going to question it. Kindness or lulling me into a false sense of security, I didn't care. I hated being caged. I now made a regular habit of going down to the swimming pool and trying out my luck in the water.
Fifteen minutes of padding through halls in my bare feet and I reached my destination, the gigantic swimming pool in the lower levels of the building. I quickly stripped out of my big fluffy bathrobe and donned my swimsuit, trying not to catch my reflection in the water. Pale legs, arms and well . . .skin. I'd gotten used to how I looked, but some days I still had trouble looking at what I'd become. I was just about to take an awkward dive into the pool when I realized that there was someone else there. Not ten feet away from me stood a little brown-haired girl in a dress, wide eyes staring trance-like at me.
I froze, not knowing what else to do. I hadn't seen any children around here before . . .she must have been one of the officer's children, maybe newly arrived. We regarded each other with caution, both knowing that we probably shouldn't be here at this time of the night. Finally, realizing I wasn't going to call a marine to take her back to her room, she spoke. "Why is your skin so white?." She questioned solemnly, a sincere child-like tone giving credence to the fact that she couldn't have been more than eight or nine.
I finally found my voice, "Acid. From a Thresher Maw." I croaked hoarsely in reply.
The girl scrunched up her face. "Um . . . if you got burnt with acid, wouldn't you be all melty?"
a pained half-smile crept across my face. "I had armor, and barriers. They reacted badly with the acid, messed with my skin pigmentation."
"Ah." Came the solemn reply. She seemed to mull this information over, I wasn't even sure if she understood what a barrier was.
"Your face is glowing." She announced, big blue eyes sparkling in the dim light of the room.
I reddened slightly, I hadn't realized she could see the glow. "Your eyes, too." She added on a moment later.
"I've got cybernetics." I responded softly, unable to raise my voice any louder. "A lot of them."
"Why?" came the simple reply.
"About three years ago, I nearly died. Got spaced." Really, I'm not even sure why I'm telling her this. Would she even understand? "I was hurt, badly. Some people used a lot of cybernetics to heal me. Now, you can sometimes see them under my skin." I didn't add on that they'd fixed more than my face. I might not look like much, five-eight, thin as a rail and pale-white skin. But my cybernetic enhancements gave me tremendous strength, when I needed it. I'd taken on massive creatures in hand-to-hand, and won easily. Not something many humans could claim.
The little girl seemed to strike upon a revelation. "You're commander Shepard. Aren't you." She stated with the utmost assurance.
I nodded slowly, "You can call me Tess, or Tessa, if you'd like."
'I'm Mooollly." The girl replied with a nervous swaying of her body. I smiled as she elongated the word, giving it a "moo" sound.
"Is it true you blew up a relay and killed a lot of Batarians?" she questioned suddenly. "My mommy says you're a crazy cyborg terrorist bit .. . bitc . . ." She frowned, eyes turned downwards as though to look at her lips.
Before she could finish the word, I interrupted. "Bad woman." I helpfully supplied.
Molly nodded, "Yes. She also says that you're an alien-lover who's . . ." She paused and then continued slowly, as though reciting something she'd heard. "Screwing a Turian. What does "screwing" mean?"
I couldn't help but chuckle at the child's innocence. "It means that a Turian and I are very much in love." I explained. A small lie, as that most definitely wasn't what "screwing" meant. But a part of me desperately wanted to keep Molly's child-like innocence intact, if only a little longer.
"Is he nice?" She asked suddenly. "What's his name?"
"His name is Garrus, Garrus Vakarian. And . . .is he nice? Sometimes." I replied thoughtfully. "More importantly, though. He's good."
Molly nodded, seeming to accept that answer.
"So . . ." She drawled slowly, seeming to go down a mental check-list of things one should ask a suspected war-criminal. "Why'd you blow up a relay and kill all those Batarians?"
And boom. There was the question I'd been wrestling with for the last three months. What exactly had possessed me to explode a Mass Relay? Wiping out a Batarian colony with close to three hundred thousand inhabitants. I tried to actually compute that number in my head, realize how many sentient creatures were dead due to my actions. Something in my brain always rebelled against the number. I'd killed people before, lots of them, in fact. But always in combat, always when they were trying to kill me back. Somewhere in the back of my head, the cold rational part of my brain spoke. I'd done it to slow down an invasion. The Reapers, sentient starships of immense power, were on their way back into the galaxy. Coming to kill everyone. I wanted to laugh at that. It sounded like a bad plot for a C-grade holovid at best.
But I'd faced a Reaper, a starship so big it put the Alliance's biggest Dreadnought to shame. I'd helped to kill it, as well. That had been . . .what, four years ago? Or was it five. I couldn't remember. Since then, I'd been in more fights than I cared to think about, I'd been spaced, had nearly died, and been brought back with more cybernetic enhancements than you could shake a stick at. Whatever that meant. So I knew, however cheesy it sounded, that they were coming. And I'd run into a choice, destroy a Mass Relay and delay the Reapers for . . .we figured maybe another six months or so. Or let them take the relay intact and invade our galaxy.
My mouth opened and closed a few times. And I wondered by what chance I'd run into this little girl, who so perfectly mirrored my own confusion about the situation. Finally, I spoke, my voice soft and wavering. "I thought it would save more people in the long run." I half-whispered.
"is it going to?"
I shook my head, feeling as though I were crumbling under the questioning. Nothing in her voice was accusing or hostile, and yet each question felt like a hammer to the side of my chest. "I hope so." Was all I could manage.
And then there came the soft sound of footfalls on tile, and both Molly and I turned to see a figure advancing from the nearest hallway. A thousand different emotions exploded in my heart as I recognized the figure. Ashley Williams. Once upon a time, she and I had been the best of friends. But we'd grown apart. Nearly dying and being brought back from the edge can do that, apparently. I'd never told her, but I was always a little bit jealous of her looks. Some sort of Latino ancestry, I'd always thought, with long brown hair that seemed to look good no matter how she styled it. She was dressed in some sort of blue-ish jumpsuit, like a cross between the inner lining of a combat suit and some sort of formal business wear. And yet . . . she made the slightly bizarre outfit look good.
"Miss Brighton, your mother is probably wondering where you are. You shouldn't be down here at this hour." Ashley said, the regular volume of her voice breaking whatever sacred silence Molly and I had shared for a few precious moments.
Molly nodded once, "Of course, miss Williams. I'll go right now." She half-turned and waved shyly at me. "Bye, Tess."
I gave her a smile in return, "Goodbye, Molly." And then the little girl scampered off. Leaving me alone in a strained silence with my former best friend. My mind flashed back to what we'd said when last we saw each other, and pain lanced through my body at the memories. The little colony of Horizon. She'd practically called me a traitor. Before I could stop it, a slow-burning anger born of her hurtful words lashed out. "What do you want?" I asked bitterly, already regretting the words as they left my mouth. I didn't want to fight with her, I wanted to hug her and tell her how much I'd missed her.
She crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side, "Ouch, Skipper. Harsh words."
"No worse than what you said to me last." Came the reply before I could stop it.
Ash was silent, for a moment. Before nodding her head. "Fair enough. I wrote you an apology letter." She added on quickly.
I winced, I'd read her letter, and it was just like her. Straight-shooting, from the heart. But still . . . "You practically called me a traitor." I muttered, eyes staring at her feet. This conversation hadn't started well, and I didn't think it was going to get better.
"What was I supposed to do, Tess?" She asked, her voice rising, exasperated. "You were working with Cerberus. A terrorist organization. Do you remember when we hunted down their operations and destroyed them? They were the enemy! And then, you died. I saw you get spaced. And two years later you're back, and working with them?"
The words hit home, my body shuddered with their invisible impact. "They saved my life, and Mal's." And there I felt, rather than saw, Ashley recoil at the name. She and Mal, my sister, had never gotten along. "And they were working to save the human colonies." I added on, my words feeling hollow and empty.
"Ah yes, Mal." Ash replied, anger in her voice. "Don't you see, Tess. Your sister is a poison!"
That particular comment brought my eyes up from where I'd been staring intently at her feet. I could feel them narrowing in anger. "She is my sister, and I'll thank you not to speak of her in that manner." I replied icily.
"Well how would you like me to speak of the woman who's turned you into a monster, then?" Ash replied angrily. "When we first met, on Eden Prime, you were an Alliance Marine, through-and-through. You saved my life, Tess. I owed you bigtime for that, but I wanted to be your friend. You were a good, honest woman."
The words stung, the implication that I was no longer good or honest hanging openly in the air.
"And then your sister joined the crew, and I got worried. For goodness' sake, Tess. She's the Butcher of Torfan!"
"She is my sister." I replied, voice still cold. I'd grown used to people's bewilderment over my relationship with my sister. Most didn't understand. Ashley shook her head, her open, honest face clearly showing confusion. "She got you to work with Cerberus. Cerberus, Tess. They're responsible for the Thresher Maw attack on Akuze that wiped out your unit. You know that as well as I."
And there, something in me snapped. I was used to being called a monster by now. And frankly, I probably deserved it. I couldn't deny that as my sister and I had grown closer, I'd grown apart for certain other people, most notably, Ash. But to bring up Akuze . . . "You think I don't know that?" I practically screamed at her, my body shaking with anger and rage and terror and . . . sickness. My stomach roiled over the knowledge of what I'd done. I'd worked with Cerberus because I'd had no choice, the rational part of my mind said. But the rest of me drowned that part out.
"You think I didn't have to resist the urge to kill every last one of them, hunt them all down and burn them for what they put me through?" I continued on, "You think I . . . I . . ." And there I looked into Ash's eyes, honestly worried about me, her face a close mirror to the pain in my own expression. "You think I don't know what I've done?" I whispered, legs crumbling beneath me.
Before I hit the floor, Ash's strong arms caught me and held me tight, lowering me gently to the floor. "I'm sorry, Tess. I shouldn't have phrased it like that. I'm just angry, and confused. And . . this isn't how I wanted our conversation to go. But they sent me here earlier than I wanted."
Everything seemed too loud, too vibrant. The gentle lapping of the water in the pool sounded like a roaring ocean as my mind tried to work through the emotional shock. Somewhere, inside, I'd been keeping it all pent up. The destruction of the relay had only been one more item on the pile of stuff I wanted so badly to forget. But somewhere in the fog that my mind currently was, a cold, hard voice whispered. She'd been sent. They had sent her to talk to me. My mind put together the pieces, even as I lay, shuddering in her arms.
"They sent you. The admiralty board." I whispered. To my surprise, my tone wasn't accusing. And to my fear, I realized it was just sort of dead, quiet and dead.
Ashley nodded, cradling my head in her lap, absentmindedly running one of her hands through my hair. "Yes, they wanted me to talk to you. They don't think you were alone in the Bahak system."
"They think Mal was there with me." Of course . . . it made me angry, the Admiralty board's attempts at implicating my sister. Of the two of us, she was easier to paint as a brutal mass-murderer. I could see how they'd spin it, I was a traumatized veteran who'd been corrupted by her sociopath sister into destroying a Batarian colony. That Mal was known as the Butcher of Torfan was only icing on the cake, the media would say her hatred against the Batarians had only grown since that incident. Though nothing could be further from the truth, it'd sound good. And they'd sent a woman that I'd once called best friend to try and extract the information out of me.
Of course, Mal had been with me. We'd jointly decided that blowing up the relay would give the galaxy more time to prepare. But then Admiral Hackett, a man I considered something of a father, had said we'd need to take the heat for doing it. Three hundred thousand people can't just die without repercussions. And before Mal could do anything, I'd taken our ship from drydock and turned myself in, claiming I was the sole perpetrator of the relay destruction. The Admiralty had to suspect, but I'd been careful with the recordings, and they had no actual proof. "They're going to push this, Tess. Frankly, I'd rather your sister went to prison than you. She's a bad influence. She's turning you into something cold, monstrous."
With jagged breathing and wobbly movements, I slowly pushed up and away from Ash, tears running from my eyes. Another choice was presented to me. Ashley was making that clear. She'd come, thinking to save me from myself and my dogged loyalty to my sister. Two years ago, I might have agreed with her. For the longest time, I'd not understood my sister, and frankly, she'd terrified me. But over time, I'd come to know and respect her. And without even consciously deciding, love her as well. And now a choice between Ashley and my sister. I had no allusions about my Mal. I knew she wasn't the nicest woman, or that she was even necessarily a good woman. But I realized, now, that somewhere inside of me I'd been fighting this battle for the last three months. There was no way I could keep both my friend, and my sister.
Something, somewhere inside me, clicked into place. "I'm sorry, Ashley. You've been a good friend. But I was alone in my actions, I destroyed the Bahak system, no others had knowledge of my intent." I said, my voice gaining strength. I leaned down, the shaking almost gone from my body. The sick feeling as well. I kissed my best friend gently on the forehead. "Be well, Ashley Williams. Goodbye." And with that, I turned and headed away from the pool, down the hallway and back up to my room. It was an odd feeling, having finally made the choice. I was now in this with my sister, to whatever end we could create. A slow, steady smile expanded across my face, and I nodded politely to the guard as I entered my room. Without bothering to strip out of my suit, I simply flopped down on the bed and almost immediately fell asleep.
And for once, no nightmares awaited me.