Learning how to walk again was torture, plain and simple. His mind remembered clearly how to run, dodge, weave, climb, how to twist in mid-air if he wanted to steer it in zero-g. How to kick out if you wanted to break someone's leg cleanly, and how to do it if you wanted their bones to shatter into a dozen pieces. How to bunch up so a fall from a greater height would not break any bones, or how to spread out to slow down a descent during a HALO jump. How to swim in high-g conditions and how to handle yourself in high-density gas atmo, when the pressure made them thick enough to swim in - and enough to crush your hardsuit into a mess of broken flesh and metal if you weren't careful. Fighting in the ultimate of hardest environments - he remembered learning all of that... and none of it was of any use in a situation where his own body did not obey him anymore.
The gym was absurdly archaic, the treadmills little more than sheets of plastic and rubber on rotating cylinders that could, nevertheless, alter the speed and elevation - and that was enough for the first step to recovery. Literally.
"Come on, Shepard, surely you remember how to put one foot in front of the other," another patient egged on, resting against a training machine that seemed to be intended to burden one's triceps with a simple pulley mechanism. Then again, this was the best they could do without hardlight technology, and they wouldn't get it until... well, until long after he was an old man, once more unable to walk on his own.
"I remember HOW to do it, Lieutenant Vakarian, I just have problems with actually following through on the intention," Shepard retorted, holding on for dear life to the supports with his hands. His arm muscles returned to obedience a lot faster than the legs did.
"Where there's a will, there's a way. Attaboy!" Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Garry Vakarian continued, his smile slightly lopsided because of the scar tissue covering a significant portion of the right side of his face. Yet again, in all but race, he was the Garrus Vakarian that Shepard remembered - pragmatic and utilitarian in many respects, yet managing to be idealistic and supportive at the same time.
Shepard could not help but feel grateful to the man for his support - and his almost instant friendship. Having a genuinely friendly face - even if it was one he did not really know - helped his demeanour significantly. Finally, his legs gave up resisting and he felt the muscles tense at the insistence of his brain, one moving in front of another. He was still fuzzy on the passage of time, but it felt like it took him weeks to arrive at this point - he was finally making significant progress. He threw a quick glance over his shoulder to where Liara -- Lara, he corrected himself -- was standing. She smiled at him and noted something else on her datapad.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh? he mused to himself as she adjusted the machine from its impossibly slow crawl to a more realistic walking pace forcing him to try and catch up.
Through these days he got to meet most of the other patients he shared a hallway with. On one side, he had only one neighbour - Vakarian - who he learned was an Army man, a sniper who landed here because he caught a rocket to his face - literally. A Taliban RPG shredded the helicopter his squad had been in, flying in for an SAR operation - at least, that was all the information that Lara was willing to give him. The other side of the hallway housed Lieutenant Commander Kaidan Alenko, recovering from severe head trauma that seemed to have impaired his spatial sense and left him with crippling intermittent migraines, and one Sergeant Rex Burton, whose problem, actually, wasn't in the huge gashes across his face (which he said he had gotten while wrestling a tiger to death in Pakistan), but in something classified.
This wing of the building housed only male patients, the women having a separate wing all to themselves, crossing paths only occasionally as the men passed through the women's wing on the way to the cafeteria - those of them who could make the journey, of course. Shepard was still stuck on the "re-learning how to digest food" stage, as holding down even the simplest of purees was still a challenge he dreaded repeating each time.
"Commander, the more you manage to hold down and digest, the faster your muscles will be able to grow back, keep that in mind," Lara insisted every time she saw him fighting the retching. Despite all the nurses coming and going through his room, doing whatever it is that nurses did - delivering medicines, changing his IV drips, doing injections, taking his temperature, changing the sheets, sponging him - they seldom said anything beyond the usual greetings and farewells, and that made him feel even more like an inanimate piece of meat on a slab. Thankfully, he finally managed to stand in the shower all on his own this morning, even though he still had to be put there by the hands of others. At least the more demeaning parts of his situation were starting to recede. It felt horribly wrong for a combat officer - and in this reality, however genuine or fake it may have been, he apparently still was one - to be treated like an invalid, incapable of doing anything for himself. It was soul-wrenchingly painful to admit that he was an invalid, and that only strengthened his resolve to get this sorted out as quickly as possible.
"I c-can't--" he hissed, stumbling on the treadmill, and hoping his arms could still hold him from collapsing onto it and being rolled off to further the humiliation. Even if only the doctor and the scar-faced sniper would see him, the shame he would feel would, first and foremost, be shame for himself and in front of himself. He wasn't making it up to his own standards. But he was going to change that.
"Alright, I think that's enough for today," Lara admitted, switching the machine off and helping Shepard ease himself into the wheelchair once more. "Good work, Commander, now let's get you back to your room for your scheduled massage. We want those muscles to grow, not fall off, now do we?" she added in a tone he never heard Liara use - one laced with (probably fake) sweetness, as one would talk when trying to coerce a child into eating his greens through promises of dessert. Oddly enough, it was working on him.
"So, I really have to ask," Vakarian spoke up, reminding Shepard of his presence, "Is your first name really "Commander" or there's something here I'm not getting?"
"The doctor here," Shepard nodded at Lara, who nodded at Garry who nodded at Shepard, making the latter feel like he was in some stupid theatrical performance and regretting he nodded to begin with, "The doctor thinks that my amnesia would be helped greatly if I remembered my name on my own. So yeah, I'm afraid for the time being, I might as well be C. Shepard."
"But imagine the satisfaction you will derive from managing it on your own!" Lara protested as she finished arranging Shepard in the chair and straightened up, running an absent-minded hand along her cre-- hair, dammit-- as she apparently often did, a sure sign that she started using product - either at all, or this particular brand - only recently and was still doubting whether it held her hair firmly enough. It always did, yet she checked it regularly enough to make Shepard's tracing of his facial scars look tame in comparison.
She still wouldn't allow him to look at them in a mirror, clearly she was trying to hold off his shock from the revelation for as long as possible - and it probably had more to do with the state his face was in rather than the scars on their own, he admitted to himself as she wheeled him out of the gym and into the hallway that ran in a circle around the central halls of the structure, uniting the medical, patient and administrative wings of the hospital's main building. He kept looking around, trying to seep in as many detail as was possible, noting how the hospital was arranged in a circular pattern, with the hallway they were in being the circle from which the five wings radiated outwards.
Seeing other people - real people, with names and lives and thoughts and words and faces he did not recognize, or at least did not think he recognized - affirmed his belief that this really could be the genuine reality and his memories of the Normandy and the N7 Commander Shepard a fantasy dream perpetuated by severe cranial trauma, probably working off some Freudian excuse in his past.
The only outstanding issue was that whenever he saw a face or head a name he recognized, they came bundled with details from the dream that were either accurate or dangerously close to reality. Alenko's migraines? Vakarian's and Burton's injuries? Sure, he may have overheard the doctors or nurses talking about them while he was comatose - but Burton was only moved to this hospital a few weeks ago, and certainly not way back when the N7 Commander became the First Human SPECTRE... That is, if his dream mapped accurately to real time, and was not, like some dreams can be, a life of its own compressed in a matter of minutes.
"Hey, doc?" he called out, turning his head to the left and upwards, almost to the straining point of his neck.
"Yes, Commander?" he heard her voice say from beyond his vision range.
"What's that pressure door? I've never seen one like that on any other patient's room."
"That's the entrance to a clean room, the patient... has extensive epidermal damage," she explained hesitantly. She obviously felt uncomfortable sharing patient details with him, but still did it - either out of a misguided attempt at coaxing his own memories out of him or something else, he did not know or begin to understand.
"Burns? Acid? If you don't mind me asking, of course."
"Burns, among other things. The girl's a mess, really. Poor Tali..."
"Tali?" he repeated, feeling his heart skip a beat. Another familiar-- well name, at least, "That's a weird name."
"Short for Natalie. She says she hates her name but changing it was a hassle - and so she settled for Tali," Lara explained as they rounded a corner, entering the hallways of the men's wing. "Not that it matters now, seeing how she is reluctant to talk even to her doctors," she went on, rambling as she sometimes did, a trait for which Shepard was eternally grateful, "And I don't blame her. What she has to look forward to is rather grim - and I've seen her record photos. She used to be beautiful, before--"
She cut herself short, more because they reached their destination rather than because she caught herself saying too much. Shepard once again wondered how all of these breaches of patient confidentiality did not pile on to her, and then admitted that having a doctor - even a quirky rambling lesbian like Lara - capable of dealing not only with damaged soldiers, but also their internal struggles, was rare enough, especially among those who had security clearance. As Vakarian relayed to him, many patients here were not military, but intelligence, and that meant they could theoretically ramble, spill or otherwise divulge secrets of varying importance. That, in turn, meant that only a select few doctors and nurses could actually WORK in such a hospital... which also explained why the nurses weren't that talkative, as well as why Lara was more willing to talk to Shepard than to her colleagues.
After negotiating the door, she helped him offload himself onto fresh clean sheets of the bed and pushed the wheelchair into a corner.
"The way your eyes widened - you saw her in your dream, too?" she suddenly asked, looking up from reviewing her notes on the day's progress.
"Who?" Shepard asked, trying his best to fake disinterest.
"Natalie. Tali. You snapped at that name like a hungry alligator at a piece of meat," she replied with a wry smile, apparently enjoying the simile.
"Yes. Yes, she was in my dream."
"As was I?"
"And Alenko. Vakarian. Burton. That shrink you had me see yesterday - Chambers, she had a bit part too."
"So, what do you think? Did you really see them, and your mind somehow put all these people - most of which weren't even here when you were first admitted - into your dreams, or you associated something from your dream, or your hopes about it, with the people you've just met?" she went on, almost going out of breath again because she began speaking faster, as if deeply intrigued by the question.
"You're implying I'm trying to compensate for the lack of a memory of my past by filling it with whatever I can recall from my dreams and hooking it onto real people?" he responded, smiling weakly. "I wish that was the case. Oh, how I wish that was the case."
Dark Space (Chapter Three)
Blog entry posted by Noelemahc, Jun 12, 2012.
About the Author
A Russian Econ major with a minor in graphomania. Used to write for a Russian gaming magazine a while back, apparently wasn't very good or they wouldn't've cancelled his column to replace it with one devoted to listing erotic fanservice moments in videogames and anime series. Has a penchant for long-winded distracted rants and a bizarre affection for very old videogames.