Mass Effect: Shards Ch. 01byMagicMouse©
On March 6th, 2012 video game developer BioWare released Mass Effect 3 in North America. It concluded the story of Commander Shepard, a human soldier pushed by fate into a desperate battle to save the galaxy from an ancient army known as the Reapers. It ended one of the most compelling dramas in the history of gaming, a saga that effectively ended the debate about the validity of video games as an artistic medium.
Unfortunately for BioWare, Mass Effect 3 ignited a firestorm.
The ending of Mass Effect 3 was, at least from a PR and business standpoint, an unmitigated disaster. For many fans of the game, the ending was a confused, unimaginative betrayal of the spirit of a story that many people (myself included) had invested hundreds of hours in. To many, it seemed that BioWare chose to destroy, or at least mortally wound, a galaxy that many had become attached to, a galaxy with such rich characters, compelling stories, and grand potential as had not been seen before in video games.
To be sure, this was not the first time a game's ending had angered players. Indeed, some of the best games ever made had disappointing endings, such as Fallout 3 and Knights of the Old Republic 2 (another BioWare game). What made Mass Effect 3 so different is the truly, spectacularly, poor handling by BioWare of the initial criticism. Eventually, they released an updated version of the ending, which provided a significant improvement on the original ending, though the damage to BioWare's reputation had been done.
I desperately do not want to get into that debate.
It is this new and improved ending that I use as the basis for my story. I attempt to stick to canon (such as it exists), as established by the new endings, as closely as possible (with one big exception that will become obvious very shortly). To ground my readers that are familiar with Mass Effect, I assume Shepard was a shining beacon of hope, a great and noble leader who saved all that she could. I also assume she had relations only with Liara, and chose the "Control" ending in the final moments of Mass Effect 3. In other words, I assume she was my Commander Shepard (I am, after all, a bit of a sap).
To those not familiar with Mass Effect: welcome to a brand new world.
The shuttle slid through space, coming closer and closer to the blue and green orb in front of it. It passed a massive vessel going in the other direction, a turian dreadnaught, as it approached. The kilometer long warship filled the small windows. Long black scars, burned into the metal hull, could be seen for miles. The turian's refused to have the damaged plates removed. They were badges of honor, as treasured as the clan markings on their faces, and they sent a message: I stood.
The craft began to shake, gently at first, and then more violently, as it entered the outer atmosphere. Inside, its only passenger leaned forward, resting one elbow on her knee, pressing the other palm down on the other knee. "Two minutes out, ma'am" said the pilot. The girl only nodded, shifting to rest her weight onto the other elbow. In the window, the dark of space gradually gave way to a bright blue sky. Still, the girl did not look up. She leaned forward further, resting both elbows on her knees, meshing her fingers together and resting her head on them. "30 seconds." She leaned back, and closed her eyes, remembering what her mother had told her.
"Remember what your father's homeworld has seen," she had said at the spaceport on Thessia. "It is a proud place, full of proud people, and they are right to be so proud. Their sacrifices saved us all, and they made great sacrifices," her kind blue eyes, shining in the lights of the crown jewel of the galaxy, had begun to well with tears. "When you see the burned husks of their cities, remember that they paid this price willingly. They turned and fought when so many others ran."
"15 seconds," called the pilot. Her eyes opened and she stood, using her hands to push off of her knees. A short step forward, and she reached up to grasp the overhead bar in front of the door. The shuttle came to a stop with a soft jolt, and the door lifted. Cool, salty air blew across her skin as she emerged from the shuttle, perched atop a towering building. In front of her stood a figure she had only seen in holovids or extranet articles. She stepped down from the shuttle onto the rooftop landing pad and extended her hand.
"It's good to meet you in person, Admiral Donnelly," she smiled.
"Ma'am, trust me when I say the honor is mine. I knew your parents well," he said in a soft Irish accent, shaking her hand. His light brown hair was starting to turn grey, but his half smile and eager eyes made him look young.
"That's why I'm here," she responded. Donnelly gestured to an elevator, and she stepped past him towards it. But as she passed him, she stopped, looking up into the sky. Atop the building stood a statue, cast in gleaming polished metals mined from across the galaxy.
The statue was of a young woman, clad from the neck down in body armor. She had a sleek, angular face, a small, upturned nose, and messy, shoulder hair length blown by imaginary wind. The armor was sleek and form fitting, molded to fit her athletic figure. "N7" was emblazoned on the breast. The woman was standing, gazing off into the distance, a rifle in one hand, resting on her shoulder. There was air of power about the figure, of invincibility. Carved into the base of the statue was the woman's name: Alexis Athena Shepard.
"Hey, Dad," the girl whispered to the universe as a single tear ran down her blue cheek.
The horizon was a jagged edge of burnt and twisted steel. Where once a great city had stood, one of Earths famed super-metropolises, there was now a graveyard of smashed buildings. On a dry day, wind would blow dust across the barren landscape in great clouds. But when it rained, the ground turned to mud. Thick, grey mud, sometimes as deep as a man, and London had few dry days. Still, life sprang anew. Construction equipment was visible across the city, and each day the new buildings grew taller. Soon, they would eclipse the old, heralding a new beginning for Earth, and the galaxy. London was being rebuilt.
"I hope your accommodations are to your liking, Ms. T'Soni," came a gravelly, low voice from behind her. She turned from the window and quickly rushed to the old man's side.
"Here, let me help you," she offered, taking his arm gently.
"I'm not that old," he said gruffly, but allowed her to help him to one of the chairs near the window. "Thank you, Athena," he said as he sat, gesturing to the other seat.
"Thank you, Admiral Hackett, for agreeing to meet with me," she said as she sat down.
"Ha!" he laughed. His white beard wrinkled skin stood in sharp contrast to his uniform, which looked to be brand new and freshly cleaned. Every button, badge, and cufflink shined against the dark blue fabric, and his breast was covered in a wall of medals. "First of all, call me Steven. Second, if you were alive in '86, you would realize that every person on this planet would gladly lay down their life for you. Although at my age, visiting someone is not that far removed from dying."
"I did nothing. It was my father," she blushed, looking away.
"You are a lot like her. And I don't just mean the name."
Athena scoffed. "Yes, I know that I have her name. My mother told me that she wanted to make sure that everyone always knew that 'she lives on in me'," the girl sighed.
"You have her eyes, did you know that? Bright, gleaming green eyes. God, in the right light, they practically glowed."
"Yes, my mother has told me that many times," Athena said, looking back at the old soldier.
"Like they do right now, in fact. I can see her in you. Anyone who knew your father can," he sighed as he leaned back in the chair. "You see, it's not about you. It's about her. When people look at you, they see her. Or at least a part of her."
"That is why I came here," she said as she stood. "I am starting to mature. Commander Shepard is a part of me, and I want to know everything I can about that part. My mother suggested that I seek out the people who knew her best."
"'Starting to mature'," he mused. "You're 19. To a human, that is an adult. It's hard to wrap the mind around how long your race lives."
"To my people, I am barely more than a child."
Hackett chuckled. "That mean you can't drink yet?"
"Oh, no, I was speaking metaphorically. I'm just... naïve."
"I see you have your mother's grasp of sarcasm. To your people, I'm a child. Hell, no human has ever lived long enough to be an 'adult'. Metaphorically. Besides, she wasn't much older during the Skyllian Blitz."
"I know. That is why my mother told me that now was the time. And because she wanted me to meet the people who knew my father in person."
"Well, you're in luck. It just so happens that one of them is on Earth right now. In fact, she's also here looking for someone."
"Where is she?" she asked, trying to stay calm. Her blood was boiling, and the man on the other side of the desk was walking a dangerous line. A line many had crossed and very few had come back from. Part of her mind screamed to lash out at him, and that part sent electrical impulses coursing through the network of element zero nodules throughout her body.
"Look, you fuckin' cunt, I don't know who you think you are, but nobody comes into my office and disrespects me," he sneered, eying her up and down. It made her skin crawl, but she fought back her more aggressive impulses. "I don't know who you're talkin' about, but for the right price," he smiled, emphasizing the word "price", "I think I might be able to find somethin' out for you."
"How much?" she asked, hoping she didn't get the answer she expected.
He leaned back in the large executive chair, folding his hands behind his head, displaying his heavily muscled body. "Well, I have plenty of cash, but there are other things that a little slut like you can provide me with." The man stared at her breasts through her jacket, making no attempt to disguise his interest.
"I'm full of surprises," she said, forcing a smile. As the impulses strengthened, the nodules began to give off dark energy. The energy was collected by implants in her body and focused into a field around her right hand. She balled the hand into a fist and slipped it under the desk to hide the dark blue-purple glow. "Tell me what you need, and I'll see what I can do."
"That's what I like to hear!" he cried, clapping his hands down on the desk. "Well, then, come on over here, bitch, and I'll show you what an old slut like you is good for. Now, get on your knees and..."
She snapped. "Where the fuck is she!" she screamed, leaping to her feet and slamming both hands onto his desk. Tattoos could just be seen creeping out of the sleeves of her jacket.
The man jumped to his feet, snarling at her. "This is my office, whore! You get on your knees, or I swear to god, princess..." She cut him off with a guttural scream. The woman stopped any attempt to control her rage, and the field around her fist expanded over her whole body. She swung her arm to the side, and a mass effect field formed around the desk. She shaped it with her mind, distorting the mass of the area of space-time in the field, and the desk was hurled across the room and into the wall. Before the man could react, she had crossed the short distance between them, seizing him by the throat. Energy rolled off of her body in blue waves, distorting the air around her.
"I ain't no princess, worm! My name is Jack!" she screamed into his face. Jack released his throat, but immediately struck him in the stomach with her other hand. The man was hurled backwards, shattering the 91st story window. With a lift of her hand, she caught him in a biotic field, suspending him high above the remains of Sydney. "Where is she?" she growled, stepping up to the edge. The wind whipped around her, blowing her black ponytail to the side and revealing more tattoos under her jacket.
The door behind Jack opened and she turned, preparing to send his guards flying. To her surprise, a single asari stepped through the door. She was tall for an asari, and had familiar green eyes and upturned nose. "Excuse me, am I interrupting something?" she said innocently.
"Jesus fuckin' Christ, lady, help me!"
"Shut up," Jack sighed, and dropped him. "Do I know you?" she growled as the man screamed, falling towards the street.
"You knew my father," she said, ignoring him.
"From where?" Jack barked.
"The Normandy." Finally, Jack recognized her.
"No shit? I haven't seen you since... oh, almost forgot. Hang on a minute." Jack leaned out the window and stretched her arm out. Her biotic field caught the man a few floors before the he hit the ground, and she pulled him back up the building. "I need to have a little conversation with my friend here, then we can talk."
"I can wait," she said pleasantly, taking a seat in one of the plush chairs in front of where the desk had been. After a few seconds, the man appeared again, dangling mid-air in a blue-purple biotic field.
"Now, I am going to..."
"New York! She's in New York! Please don't kill me, I'll do anything, please!" he blubbered.
"Where in New York?" Jack snarled.
"A place called Wharton's! It's a dive bar near Wall Street! I sold her to the owner, Tommy Wharton!"
"Thank you. I'm sure the cops will be here soon to collect you. I think someone might have tipped them off to your little operation. Just a guess," laughed Jack. She jerked her hand back, sending him flying through the air and onto the floor. Jack turned to face Athena. "Now, I'm gonna buy you a drink," she grinned.
"That would be lovely," smiled the asari, rising from the chair.
As they walked past the man towards the door, Jack sniffed the air. "I think the little bitch shit himself."
Outside, Jack hailed a cab. "I'm gettin' too old for this," she muttered as they waited.
"I don't think that man would agree. What did he do, anyway?"
"You just sat there and let me do that stuff to him, and you didn't know why? That doesn't sound like something Shepard's kid would do."
"I was told not to get in your way," Athena answered honestly.
"Oh yeah? By who?"
"Everyone I have ever mentioned your name to. Besides, as soon as I saw the guards I knew he was no good. Mercenaries."
"Yeah, that sounds more like Shepard," Jack snickered. The cab arrived, and they took a seat. "Nearest bar," she said.
"Of course, ma'am," answered the driver VI.
"Make that the spaceport," Athena said.
"You don't want that drink?" said Jack, almost offended.
"I thought you were looking for something in New York," she answered. "We can get a drink later."
"Yeah, you're definitely Shepard's," she muttered before barking at the computer, "Driver, spaceport."
"As you wish, ma'am."
"So, are you going to tell what that man did?" Athena asked after a few moments of silence.
"Huh? Oh, yeah, the weasel. He's a vulture. Made his fortune off reconstruction by providing 'companionship' for off-world contractors."
"Well, yeah, kid. What'd you think I meant, puppies?" Jack scoffed.
"I didn't think that was illegal."
"It isn't, except most of his girls are unregistered, underage, and unwilling," she replied. Athena noticed Jack's eyes narrow coldly.
"Are you looking for one of them?"
"All of them, but it started out as one."
"A student of mine. About a week ago, one of my students disappeared from Grissom Academy. You know Grissom Academy, right?"
"An Alliance station, destroyed by the Reapers and rebuilt since. Houses a school for talented human biotics. You are the headmistress," the asari answered. Jack looked surprised. "Asari have excellent memories."
"Figures. Anyway, one of my kids goes missing, no body, no break-in, nothing."
"How do you know she didn't just leave?"
"You don't 'just leave' an Alliance station, kid. Anyway, she had clearly been lured into a trap by someone she trusted."
"How did you know?" Athena asked, still confused.
"No way in hell some shit-head comes in and takes out one of my kids without someone dying. Would you stop interrupting?"
"Sorry, go ahead."
"So, we go through security footage until we find a security guard leading her into a utility closet. Last image of her we had, so we pulled in the security guard." Jack's eyes narrowed again. "Little pussy didn't even sit down before he started to spill. He led me here."
"And now to New York?'
"Yeah. And nobody better get between me and her."
From the spaceport, they boarded a shuttle to New York. The 20 minute flight went by silently, with Jack staring out the window and Athena staring at her. The stepped out of the shuttle into blistering heat. To Athena, the landscape looked like one of her mother's dig sites. The towering skeletons of skyscrapers filled the horizon, but the immediate area was as desolate as any desert. But instead of sand, the ground was layer upon layer of rubble. She lifted her foot, reading the sign she had stepped on: Battery Park.
"Finally, I can take this thing off," sighed Jack as she pulled her jacket off and tied it around her waist. She wore very little underneath, only a thin sleeveless shirt and bra visible underneath. Athena stared at her, examining the tattoos that covered her small body. "Not the time for gawking, kid," she said gruffly as she started off towards a veritable forest of construction equipment in the distance.
"Right. Sorry," blushed the asari as she followed. The flat hellscape of the "park" gave way to a graveyard of buildings. Most were nothing more than piles of refuse, but a few skeletons still stood, towering reminders of destruction the Reapers caused. "By the Goddess," she whispered.
"Yeah, this was once one of the most important cities on the planet." Jack sounded almost like a tour guide.
"Uhh, Reapers," Jack said, looking back at her with a frown
"I've seen a lot of Earth cities. London, Vancouver, Cape Town, Tokyo, Sydney, but none of them like this," Athena explained.
"This ain't a city anymore," she growled, climbing up a small pile of building. "It's a mass grave pretending to be a construction site. New York was at the top of the Reapers list. They turned this place to ash in days. More than 40 million people, gone in less than two weeks," Jack said casually.
"You seem very... detached," Athena observed anxiously.
Jack grunted. "Yeah, well, you live a life like mine, you come to redefine loss, pain, suffering and death. You know how they say 'what does not kill you makes you stronger'?"
"Nietzsche, a human philosopher. I'm familiar with his work," answered Athena. "He was the father of Nihilism, the idea that-"
"I didn't ask for a book report, kid," Jack cut her off, stepping over a chunk of concrete sticking out of the ground. "Besides, he's an idiot. You make yourself stronger. What doesn't kill you just fucking hurts."
"An interesting theory, but I think-"
Jack spun around and grasped her by the throat, pushing her up against the wall of a ruined building and lifting her feet off the ground. "You ever been raped?" she snarled quietly. Athena shook her head, too shocked to speak. "Well, I have. Many times. And let me tell you, THEY didn't make me stronger. When THEY forced THEIR dicks in MY ass, THEY didn't do anything but hurt me."
"I don't care. I don't care if you're sorry. I don't care if you feel bad for me, because I don't. They made the mistake of leaving me alive when they were done. But they didn't make me stronger. I made me stronger, and I survived. I'm not strong because I survived, I survived because I'm strong.