Double Monday: The Double, Chapter 31

Once Upon a Time

Hackett had promised Alchera to be a deserted, frozen wasteland but I wasn’t taking any chances. We slapped armored environment suits and pistols on the doc and Joker and the four of us took the shuttle down to the surface with the monument on a hover cart.

It was a shame that such devices were notoriously unstable or we’d just have rigged up a chair on it for Joker and let him fend for himself. As it was we constantly had to keep the silly thing from tipping the chromed wave onto its side as it passed over rocks and drifts.

He had started out sitting on the cart but, after several close calls, decided that he’d walk for a bit. Dr. Chakwas paced his slow progress, ready to spring into action should her favorite patient stumble. Even such a minor incident could result in a broken ankle or shattered foot bones, after all. It came to me that her leaving the Alliance might have had less to do with me than with how needed Joker made her feel, despite her claim to the contrary. Certainly no other patient would put up with Chakwas clucking over him like a broody hen, scolding and encouraging in turns.

Citing a desire for privacy in this solemn task, the four of us had left our comm units on-board. Everyone we saw as we made our way to the shuttle bay seemed respectful and sympathetic but I hadn’t really expected to be much affected. I had loved the SR-1 but my new one was so much better in most ways.

I missed the crew I had trusted but the pillars of it were with me once again, one way or another. Life meant constant change and I had known that idyllic time, flitting about the galaxy with Kaidan in my bed and the Geth in my sights, couldn’t last. At the very least the Reaper threat would have interrupted our fun eventually. The longer they stayed away the less likely the Alliance and the Council would have been content to let us keep looking.

Garrus, Joker, and I had ditched our links to EDI so that we could talk freely. I wasn’t too sure about Dr. Chakwas but Joker vouched for her. She may not have known exactly what was going on but she had been his friend and physician for over a decade and he trusted her with his bones if not literally his life.

Alchera was almost entirely white and eerily silent, the only movement the powdery snow stirred by a fitful wind. We came over the rise behind which we’d landed the shuttle and stared at the crash site spread before us. Huge pieces of the SR-1 were strewn about like abandoned toys, crates and debris dotting the snowy rocks between.

The four of us huddled together a bit and I was startled to discover tears in my eyes. Those months aboard the SSV Normandy had been the happiest of my life, fraught with danger though they may have been. Now I nominally worked for a man I suspected of having a hand in that attack. I doubted the intention had been to kill me outright, considering my unlikely resurrection at this behest, but who knows what nefarious plans he’d had in mind at the time?

So many had died, beyond even my power to save, when the Collector ship had begun firing on us. I resolved to search the site thoroughly as the only way I could thank those left alone here, so far from whatever homes they’d had. Hackett had given me a list of names and we would not leave until I’d found some indication of them all.

We placed the monument outside the ruined hulk of the bridge, in the place where those who had died first would have sat had the ship not been sliced to bits. We shared a moment of silence and then Garrus announced that we needed to do something before we began our search. He popped open the secret compartment and removed a syringe of sorts.

“The instructions say they want some of your blood, Commander.” I shot him an exasperated look, somewhat lost behind my faceplate. This was going to hurt. Why couldn’t we have done it in the pressurized shuttle? It must be payback for my little exertion of authority in the cargo bay restroom. I broke the seal between my glove and sleeve. It would be worth it to have my blood tested by people I could trust.

The icy cold arrowed into my flesh. Though the entire process took only seconds—and the suit compensated as best it could—my entire body ached as the pressure dropped. I looked up, recalling the same pain that I’d felt at far greater magnitude so high above the thin atmosphere, until Garrus finished and I could fix my glove. Nightmares about being unable to do so surely awaited me when next I slept.

Garrus returned the syringe to its hiding place and slid it closed. I realized he hadn’t told me what, if anything, else had been in the base. I hadn’t quite been avoiding him but I certainly hadn’t sought him out during our journey here. With a start I remembered that I’d left the box with Kaidan’s gift in it next to the monument, as well. I’d have to ask what had become of it. It hadn’t shown up in my quarters. For the moment I simply made Joker as comfortable as I could in his old, now-frozen seat and took Dr. Chakwas and Garrus out to search for remains.

It took us hours to comb through the wreckage. No one remained intact or even identifiable after an unprotected trip through the atmosphere but we did find personal items or dog tags for the twenty missing crew members that we could send back to their families. The crew quarters had fallen, mostly whole, a few hundred yards from the bridge, canted so that any loose items had gathered in an angle between a bunk and the wall but most of the footlockers had stayed secured in place. That was why they locked down in the first place, though no marine wanted to think about that when he or she opened one to get a pair of pyjamas.

I admit that I broke down—just a little, mind you—when we found Pressly’s data pad. I remembered how human-centric he’d been on our flight to Eden Prime, an old-guard officer uneasy with allowing aliens aboard an Alliance vessel. He’d grown and changed so much as we’d worked with the other citizens of the galaxy that he’d actually thanked me for keeping him on the ship and changing his mind. Somehow I hadn’t even thought to ask about him. I’d just assumed he was on some ship, navigating away and generally living his life.

As we came to the tail end of the valley one last thing loomed over the scattered wreckage of our ship. I yelled to Garrus and ran over to what appeared to be my perfectly-intact Mako, sitting on a pile of rocks for all the world as though it were waiting for us to drive it up another sheer mountain range. I danced around it, a flurry of celebratory steps that washed away the melancholy of the day.

“Can we take it with us?” I asked eagerly when Garrus finally joined me. It would never fit in the shuttle but perhaps we could get it up to the SR-2 some other way. I patted the seemingly-indestructible flank. “Help me open it up! I want to see if she starts.” I clambered up the side and made for the hatch.

Garrus laughed and raised his hands. “I’m never getting in that thing with you again, Shepard.” He shook his head and backed away a few steps. “I’ve been flung off enough cliffs and bounced over one too many crevasses to trust your driving.”

“It’s just as well,” I sighed from my perch. “It’s frozen shut.” I slid down the side as I had so many times to mark an ore deposit or investigate yet another mysterious Geth encampment. Nostalgia washed over me again as I remembered the dozens of trips Garrus, Kaidan, and I had made in the rover, fearless and joyful at being in one another’s company.

Wrex, Tali, and the rest had been friends, and good ones, but we three had been companions and confidantes. The Mako had been fun not just because its bouncy, balky controls had made driving even a smooth road an exercise in surprise but because it had been the place where our little team-within-a-team had traded hopes and fears, played practical jokes on one another, and turned into more than circumstance had made.

I rubbed my hand across one of the lights, bidding it farewell. We’d never get her off Alchera, however perfect she looked sitting there. For me, the Mako and the scars I still bore would be the true memorials to the SR-1, the things that stood for all the Collector’s had taken from me. It was fitting that we leave her here.

Garrus came to stand beside me, shoulder to shoulder. We had another moment of silence, just the two of us. “I wish Kaidan were here to say goodbye,” I said quietly. He nodded and I realized that I wasn’t the only one missing my former lieutenant. He and Garrus had been close as well, if not in the same…vigorous way. Again I wondered what would happen should we all survived confronting the Collectors. Could the three of us find a way to renew our intimacy or were those days gone forever?

Dr. Chakwas appeared next to Garrus. “How many concussions did I have to treat because of that thing?” she laughed, breaking the mood.

“Forty-three,” Garrus answered, “and forty of them were mine.” The three of us cracked up and my favorite Turian joined me in a sad little dance of remembered joy. Chakwas gave us both a hug and we went back to the ruined bridge to fetch Joker. We hadn’t talked much about Big Al, the puppy, or the rest of our complicated situation but for the moment none of us seemed too interested in intrigue and galactic politics. There was one thing I wanted to know, however. As we lifted off in the shuttle I asked, “Was there anything else from Big Al, Garrus?”

“There was some paper and writing instruments,” he answered, pausing for effect, “and a package with your name on it.” I looked at him sideways. “I put it in the janitor’s closet by the med bay.” His eyes twinkled with mischief and I wondered how long he’d have kept that to himself.

“What did you do with the box I left by it?”

“I crossed out your name with one of our new tools, wrote ‘The Package’ on it, and put it where I’d found the first one. I figured I could use the practice. Those tiny pen things are hard to maneuver.” He flexed his talons in demonstration.

I buried my head in my hands as the atmosphere of Alchera dwindled below us. There was no way I could play off turning the shuttle around to get Kaidan’s present out of the base of the monument. Whoever came to fetch the blood sample would, with the sort of luck I rarely had, see that it got to its intended recipient without opening it, presuming Garrus had been joking about using Kaidan’s code name on it. I fervently hoped he had.

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