Home is Where the Heart Crashes
The first thing I notice when I wake up is the tingling numbness running through my legs. Then the weightlessness accompanying a different gravity system, complete with no guns strapped to my back. Then the faintest smoke trail tickling my nostrils. Groaning, I flip face up and force my eyes to open. Piercing sunlight burns my pupils. Bouncing insects creep over my body, thankfully still covered in clothing, but that clothing is my workout uniform. Once my eyes adjust I convince my battered spine to let me sit up. First things first, a weapon. Come on gun. Where are you? Aha! I find my favorite, a slightly nicked but thankfully intact Arc Projector, hidden under an animal carcass within reaching distance. Now I feel better. Where's the Normandy? Next step: ship and crewmates. Hopefully another weapon too. Who knows how well my implants handle being thrown through the air and crash landing on an unknown alien planet. I heave myself up and begin the long trek back to my ship. The smoke provides some direction. "Liara? Kaidan? James? EDI? Tali? Joker? Anybody?" No answer. That's just great. Time to hunt my combat party down.
I'm almost at the Normandy when the growling starts. Low at first, almost a hum, but gaining pace the longer it goes on. I know that sound. Before the varren appears I take off in a dead sprint. God, of all the times… Not wanting to risk cloaking in case a friendly face is nearby, I bolt to the nearest clearing. Somewhere behind me a voice shouts "Lola!" James. Backup. Good. Still I run, barely outpacing the grey streak behind me. Those claws and oh-so-sharp teeth are waiting to sink themselves into my warm flesh. Way to think happy thoughts, Pandora. The trees thin ahead, each one thinner than the last until they stop. I skid to a halt. I know this place. Before the thought registers the varren tackles me. Though I manage to aim my gun and fire, the momentum of the animal sends me flying over the edge of a ravine. Ah. That's why there's a clearing. A different voice, this one sounding very much like Liara, screams my name. More backup, but she's too late. As I fly over the side with no way to catch myself the lone thought finally registers: this is the planet all my friends, family, everybody was slaughtered in front of me. This is Mindoir. My home.
An unknown amount of time later a hard impact jolts my brain back to consciousness. Several faces I haven't seen in years pass over my eyelids before two sets of hands, one rough and tight and the other soft and delicate, take hold of my limbs. Their owners could be disembodied for all I care. The only things I can focus on are the memories newly awakened from the deepest pits of my mind. Painful memories. Long since buried memories. Gianna and Luna and Maisy, the little girls using our home as refuge from abuse. And…and Victoria, and Clint, my older twin brother and sister. Mom! Dad! Aunt Emily, Uncle Rehah, little Destiny, baby Wyatt… Lined up, bound and gagged, the children buckled under the heavy weight of impending death. Mom's regs, designed to mark her apart from her platoon due to her Sentinel status, completely shredded. Those bastards liked her, raped her when she used her biotics. Dad's face dripping in blood from trying to protect her. Victoria and Clint, dripping suppressed fear over the guns pointed at their faces. Aunt Emily clutching her baby like a lifeline, Destiny disappearing into Uncle Rehah's steady arms. Maisy and Gianna kneeled behind them, Luna hidden with me but ready to bolt at the first gunshot. They dragged Mom to her feet, stopped her in front of the soldiers protecting the colony, the row where she belonged. While a batarian raised a gun to her head she unleashed her devastating Warp. The soldiers freed themselves but soon fell victim to the slave traders without weapons of their own. At last I couldn't stand the sight and ran to my mother for comfort. She pulled me into a hug. Only Victoria's scream brought my attention to the pistol millimeters away from her skull. I had to hold Mom's limp body, watch the life drain from her eyes… All of it at the tender age of six.
Now I am propped up against a hard metal service. The increasingly dim part of my mind not trapped in memories says it is the bulkhead of the Normandy. Voices converge, all familiar and trying to bring me back to reality, but the minute I open my eyes I'm surrounded by screaming colonists. All the kids growing up around me bawling for their parents. Soft and delicate hands cup my face. I look up to see my mother's eyes, loving and imploring and worried all at once. She starts saying my name. Then it turns to different words, strange words, words my mother would never say.
"Pandora? Pandora, it's Liara. What's wrong? Goddess, James, she's not responding. Go fetch Garrus."
Mom's face turns blue in a blink. Her eyes morph from brown to the lightest shade of purplish blue I've ever seen. Liara, Liara T'Soni, not Mom. Flora, not the bloody remains of everyone I'd ever known. I stare into her eyes wondering why she's so scared. Unthinkable horrors are still playing in the background, but somehow I manage to focus on her face. "Liara? What's…what's happening? Why are you here?" Behind her I see Dad struggling to break free of a batarian's grip, trying to shock him with his ancient omni-tool. "Daddy!" I cry out, breaking free from Liara's grasp and running to him. Instead I end up in the embrace of an armor-plated man. Some small part of me recognizes him as Garrus. The rest of me clings to the battlefield, replaying the same scenes over and over again. I want reality back, whichever world it may be.
Garrus holds me tight so I don't run off in search of phantom figures. "It's okay, Pandora. That was years ago. You're okay, we're okay. Mindoir is safe. No slave traders or anything."
A different voice, this one James', speaks. "What's up with the commander? I've never seen her like this before."
"This is the source of her first bout of PTSD that she refuses to let us treat. You hear what happened on Mindoir?" James must have shook his head no because Garrus continues, "Slave traders landed in her home colony and started a massacre. Everyone she knew was slaughtered. Now Shepard is the only survivor." By the end he's nearly shouting to counteract my loud sobbing. "As you can see, this is a bit of an issue."
James curses loudly. It blends in perfectly with the madness surrounding me. Screaming children bellow from all angles, begging for redemption. There's nothing I can do about it. That's what stings the most. I need to help but I can't because I'm six and what can a six-year-old do when their entire world is crashing down around them? Nothing to do but sit here and watch them die.
"We need to find Kaidan," Mom says. "He used to be able to bring her out of the hallucinations."
How does she know who Kaidan is? I wonder if she means my father and want to yell with all my might that look, Mommy! Daddy's right over there! Quick, they're hurting him! But then I remember Mom's dead, I watched her die, I don't recall Dad's first name, and by this point I'm so confused I want to cry. Cry and kick and shout, cursing everyone that ever committed the injustice of existing. Garrus nods overhead and holds me tighter for a brief moment. By this point I'm shaking and salty bullets are stinging my cheeks and the smallest of voices chants the great Commander Shepard doesn't cry on repeat. Which only makes the problem worse, but there's no stopping the voice inside your head. The moment is up when Garrus leads me inside through the airlock. Just past is Joker telling a bunch of crewmembers to calm down but the crew is now bloody colonists and Oh God. It's starting up again. How much longer can I take this? How much longer until someone pulls me out of this mess? Garrus leaves me by the Galaxy Map only for Joker to take his place worrying. Joker's known me longest, he understands, he should…he should… I start whimpering, unable to bear the pain of remembering any longer. "Please…make it stop…" I choke out.
"Come on. Want to see Ken and Gabby? Let's go say hi to them."
From the get-go Ken explains how happy he is the madwoman from cargo is gone. Gabby chides him, saying Jack is my friend. Then Ken makes the mistake of mentioning Miranda. Miranda, whom I last saw during what I refer to as the Suicide Mission. Her and Legion, gone in a heartbeat, taken as a result of stupid mistakes. If only I had shut the doors sooner…held her hand a moment longer…God… Gabby realizes the effects of his words and yells at him. It sounds so much like Miranda it hurts. Tears form behind my eyelids despite my best effort not to look weak in front of the crew. Like the memories didn't do the trick. Like…like when Dad forgot Mom grew up in an abusive household and yelled at her for crying in front of the children… Not again… Grabbing my arm Gabby leads me back to the airlock, apologizing over Ken being a dolt and that's exactly what Dad said to Mom. She sat on her bed hiding her face in her hands. Victoria was off trying to figure out why Dad would do such a thing. I dragged Clint upstairs and we watched Mom weep. Why is Mommy shaking? Is she cold? Clint explained No Dora, Dad just scared her, that's all. So I walked into the room and crawled on her lap and said Don't be scared, Mommy. After I got comfortable Clint sat next to her with his face buried in her hair. Mom hugged us both tight, trying hard not to cry but the more she tried the more tears came. I didn't know what to say because how often does your mother cry in front of you? I hugged her tight and in her ear whispered I love you. Mom explained how she grew up thinking insults meant I love you because that's all her father ever said to her. She showed us a jagged scar around her neck the size of a man's handprint. That night was so bad she never told anyone, Clint and I were the first to hear this story, to never tell Daddy or anybody. Then she gave us a piece of advice. I still remember it to this day.
"If a man ever trades you an insult for love do not stick around to find out why. If you do he'll trap you in a prison you're unable to escape."
Clint promised he'd never be that man and I nodded gravely, pretending to understand the meaning behind her words. It made her feel better besides. Fresh air tickles my nose. Must be in the airlock. Loud crashes echo from deep in the jungle. The memories retreat, allowing me to put on the commanding officer façade. I creep to the sound. A minute later an animal the size of a small cruiser charges towards the Normandy. I never learned its name. First graders didn't learn much other than how colonies were the ideal place to live. The traders showed up halfway through the year anyway. Joker tosses me a pistol while securing everyone inside the ship. I fire a few rounds, testing the creature, watching the bullets hardly slow it down. No grenades in this damn uniform. At the last minute I turn invisible and slide underneath it. Without my armor the invisibility only holds a few precious seconds. Its belly isn't as heavily fortified; the shots evoke cries of pain. Using the momentum I grab the prickly tail to swing myself into an ideal position. My legs locked to its neck, I will an incinerating blast of fire on the skin, burning through to the bone. I add a few shots for good measure. The animal falls and I slide to the ground. Slowly crewmembers peek out. Scientists rush to inspect my handiwork. Joker comes to collect the gun, eyes bleeding concern. As the adrenaline wears off I can't keep the sanity a moment longer. I shove the pistol into Joker's hands, not wanting any reminders of the firing squad that took out our last defense. Too late.
I want to run, to hide, to disappear in the weeds and never be seen again. But I can't. Out of sight are more slave traders, busy killing everyone long before the Alliance enters the system. There's nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. So I slide to the ground against the Normandy safely out of the way of workers. No one to bother but myself. Pounding footsteps once again come from the forest, but these sound more human. Oh no. They found me. I hide my face in my legs, hoping they don't recognize me. Mom always said hide your eyes. Purple eyes are few and far between in the galaxy. People will remember them, especially on a human. Whenever something bad happens hide your eyes. She then proceeded to demonstrate the next time a military recruitment officer came to town. Lost in Mom's many adages and Dad's endless supply of stories, I fail to notice the increase in activity around the ship. Staff part to make room for the newcomers. So the traders finally found me. I was so sure they would never think to check the library of paperback books Mom lovingly maintained.
"Over there!" a voice fighting to be remembered shouts. "Shepard!" No one in the town addressed my family by our last name. Must be a batarian. A man drops down to eye level. He uses a finger to pry my legs apart. "Pandora, I know you're in there. You can come out now."
"No!" It comes out squeaky and high-pitched, just how I sounded 23 years ago. He tries to lift my face out. In response I hug myself tighter. "Mommy said to never show my eyes to strangers."
He lets out a low sigh. "This is bad. Worse than Virmire and Thane combined."
"And the Suicide Mission." Somehow I know that voice belongs to Tali.
The man switches to my shoulders. "The first time I saw you was after the ceremony for Akuze. Anderson gave you a medal and hurried you offstage. It was the shortest ceremony I'd ever seen. The first time I spoke to you was at the first Normandy's orientation. You shook my hand and asked my name. I asked if there were any biotics aboard. You answered, 'I hope not, Alenko. Besides, how can-'"
"-a man so skinny eat so much?" The retelling jolts me back to reality temporarily. "Kaidan! Oh, Kaidan. Quick, you have to help me. Luna's hiding near the school. We need to find her and-"
"Dora," Kaidan interrupts, pulling me back down. "Luna's not there anymore. Neither are Gianna, Maisy, Clint, Victoria, or your parents. Where are you right now?"
"Why, I'm at the church. Uncle Rehah said they would never find me here. If they come I run back to Mommy's library."
"No, Dora. You're home on the Normandy. Your friends are here, not the batarians. Right here is Tali. Over there with Adams is EDI. Nothing to worry about. If anybody tries to hurt you, we tear off his limbs. Because we're family."
That's it. I can't hold it in anymore. I start sobbing, clutching Kaidan's shirt in my fists. He scoops me up and carries me to the elevator. Tali hotwires it to take us upstairs, then forces the doors to my cabin open. Now that we're alone, safely hidden from the traders, Kaidan gently sets me down on a bed. What's a bed doing in a church unless this isn't a church it's my cabin which means none of this is real. But it is real. Mom really died in my arms and Dad really died trying to save his family. Victoria and Clint really died hoping the system Mom spoke so highly of would save them, even as guns were raised to their heads. Gianna and Luna and Maisy really died believing we would protect them like we always did. And part of me died with them, a loss unfixable by medicine or love. Because everyone I love ends up dead…
My loud sobs draw Kaidan from the bathroom. He rushes over clutching a wine glass filled with water. He sets it down on the nightstand and sits cross-legged in front of me, staring at my hidden eyes. "Pandora, I need you to look at me. That's it. Let me see those gorgeous eyes of yours. Focus. Tell me where you are."
I focus but not on him. My damaged armor is in a heap in front of its mannequin. So much better than never ending death. "I'm…I'm not in their ship. I'm on my ship. I'm…I'm…" My concentration wavers to the unthinkable horrors on the batarian's ship, where they tried to hide me from Anderson and the Alliance. Instead Kaidan insists I focus on the glass of water. "Normandy SR-2. Originally built by…by Cerberus. My cabin. Under the stars…"
"Stay with me, Pandora. Don't go back there. Stay in your happy place. Look at me." He cups my face in his hands, his body glowing pale blue, the same shade and warmth that helps me sleep at night. "You are in 2186. You are in the Normandy. You are home. You are…"
Kaidan keeps chanting that until my rocking turns into broken sobbing. "I am home," I choke out. I let myself be pulled down onto the soft covers. Slowly I calm myself down, grasping Kaidan's shirt in one hand, holding his hand in a death grip with the other. Above us tree branches dance in the wind. Somewhere below the crew is putting the ship back together. My fish swim nonchalantly in their tank. But none of that matters. The Reapers don't matter. Uniting the whole damn galaxy doesn't matter. All that matters right now is curled up around me. All that matters is right here on this bed. Because I am home.