Shepard walked into the room, then stopped dead in her tracks.
“Big place,” she murmured, unwittingly echoing Kaidan’s words from many years ago.
“This is the captain’s cabin,” the voice replied immediately. “The crew refer to it as ‘the loft.’”
Shepard jumped a little at the sound of the AI’s voice. Though she knew that she was being watched at all times, having the AI repeatedly show up to give her a guided tour was unnerving. Shepard wasn’t sure if she just wanted to forget the AI was there, or to be constantly aware of it so that she didn’t slip up and give the Illusive Man any more info about her inner state of mind than he could already guess at. So long as he was watching her, she wanted to keep some privacy, even if it was only in her own head.
“This place looks a little too perfect,” Shepard murmured, echoing yet another friend. The late Ashley Williams had once said that of the Citadel Presidium. Like the Presidium, the captain’s quarters were gleaming and white and had a faint hum that seemed to buzz from in Shepard’s own brain.
“Lemme guess,” she said. “This place is bugged, too.”
“The ship has several monitoring devices in various locations…” EDI began.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Shepard sighed. “I might as well start disabling them as I find them. Don’t really like the idea of our mutual illusive friend watching me sleep.”
“The Illusive Man has already seen you…”
“Yeah, I know,” Shepard interrupted. “He’s seen me blown to hell and naked and God knows what else. Tell me this, EDI. Does anyone else have access to your surveillance footage?”
“Officer Lawson has full access…” EDI began.
“But I outrank her,” Shepard said, suddenly latching onto an idea. “If I order you not to show footage of my quarters, you have to follow that order, right?”
“The Illusive Man’s orders supersede yours,” EDI told her.
“But only his orders, right?” Shepard pressed.
“That is correct,” EDI said.
“Perfect,” Shepard began to grin a little. “Then try this on, EDI: no footage recorded on this ship is to be given to anyone other than the Illusive Man. Understood?”
“Yes, Commander,” EDI replied.
Shepard let out a breath. Okay, so it wasn’t freedom from spying, but it helped a little. Now she could worry less about vids of her sleeping ending up on the extranet.
“Oh,” she added, “And that doubly includes Joker.”
“I do not understand that order,” EDI replied.
“Never mind,” Shepard said. She walked into the room and took a look around. There was an empty fish tank taking up one whole wall. It seemed a bit of a waste, but the water was somehow soothing, especially to Shepard’s now-buzzing implants. The wardrobe held some various other armors: all ugly and covered with Cerberus logos so Shepard ignored them. The BDUs also had Ceberus logos on them, which Shepard frowned at. She had settled for the officer’s uniform because it seemed to assert her authority the best. It was ironic, however, that it had a Cerberus logo right over her heart. Here she was, the ‘commander’ of this ship, and yet clearly she was under the thumb of Cerberus.
Shepard closed the door of the wardrobe only to see her reflection staring back at her from a mirror on the closet door. She stared at her face: a face that looked familiar, and yet not quite the same. The bone structure was the same, the skin the same hue, the eyes now both the same shade of icy gray-blue. But her scars were an ugly, red web across her cheeks, and without hair, she looked so…harsh. Shepard saw that on the dresser beside the closet that someone - Miranda, most likely, had left her a makeup kit. Shepard snorted and shook her head. She had never been one for cosmetics. But then again, she thought, cocking her head and looking into the mirror at her own weary eyes, perhaps she might take a crack at makeup before she went to speak with the Council. She looked frightening enough with the scars and the haircut. She might as well try to appear a little feminine - or at least not to look like she’d woken up in a lab with her head shaved, even if that is what had happened. She tilted her head, then noticed something and frowned.
“EDI,” she asked. “What did they do to my scar?”
“Your scars will heal in time, Commander. I suggest you speak with Doctor Chakwas…”
“No. The other one. I one had it since I was a kid.”
“I do not understand,” EDI replied. “Much of your skin was infused with a weave to make it tougher. It is likely your scars disappeared with the growth of the new bio-synthetic epidermis.”
“Right,” she murmured. How strange. She never thought to miss that old scar, that reminder of the eye lost in the attack on Mindoir and the innocence lost along with it, but somehow…she did.
Shepard then opened the drawers of the dresser and completely forgot about her scar. She pulled the thing out of the drawer with her thumb and forefinger and held it up to the light.
“What the hell is this?” she asked.
“Officer Lawson took the liberty of finding you under garmets,” EDI replied.
“Holy shit,” Shepard murmured. “So that’s why I was wearing lace when I woke up. I wondered…” She stared into the drawer, completely amazed and frankly, confused by the mess. “EDI,” she said, “where are the tank-bras? What about undershorts? This is… What is this stuff?”
“I believe it is called lingerie,” EDI replied.
“Lingerie,” Shepard repeated. “Does Lawson actually wear this stuff - to *fight * in?”
“My surveillance vids show that she does,” EDI replied. Shepard shook her head. Yeah, it was definitely good that she had locked down any surveillance footage of the Normandy. Otherwise, Miranda would have an extranet fan following in no time. Then again, Shepard thought, maybe the woman already did. Well, hell, no wonder Lawson’s clothing seemed to ride up every crack on her body. Shepard shook her head. How could any woman fight while wearing this stuff?
Well, it looked like she would be finding out the answer to that question. If this was all she had, she’d be stuck with it, at least until she could find something different. Then again, as a woman who had just taken military issue clothing all her life, going shopping for underwear seemed incredibly strange. She had only done so once before, and while the results had been…wonderful…she still wasn’t used to it.
Shepard put the panties back in the drawer and closed it. Well, the upside was, at least when she found Kaidan again, she’d be well stocked. The thought amused her as her eyes strayed to the bed. It was big enough for two, and that thought suddenly made her feel lonely. Shepard turned her back on the bed and walked over to the desk: someone had hung a model of the old Normandy over it – as if she needed to feel any more nostalgic. There was a laptop sitting there. She flipped it open and saw it was hooked up to the one downstairs. Her inbox already held several messages, mostly from the Illusive Man regarding her armor. One, however, caught her eye:
From Councilor Anderson:
On the off chance the rumors are true and you actually are still alive, I need you to come meet with me on the Citadel. A lot has changed in the last two years. You put me on the Council, and it’s only fair that you be allowed to speak for yourself about what we’ve been hearing.
Shepard’s first impulse was a sense of affection for her former captain and relief that he was alive and had contacted her. Then she scowled as she finished the message. She certainly caught the implied reprimand in those words: *you be * allowed to speak for yourself about what we’ve been hearing . What had they been hearing, exactly? she wondered.
Shepard frowned. The message needed an answer, but surely her mail was being monitored. Well, she shrugged. There was no help for it. She’d have to chance it. She typed one sentence, then stopped and hit the comm link.
“Joker,” she called down to the bridge.
“How long until we reach the Citadel?”
“Well, seeing as how we’re still on the other frickin’ end of the traverse, three days.”
“You going to jump us through every mass relay on the way?”
“That’s the fastest route,” he told her. “If you wanted to get somewhere quick, why didn’t you just stop at Omega?”
Because that’s what the Illusive Man wanted, she thought to herself. Out loud, she simply said, “Alright, thanks Joker.”
She let the link switch off and finished the message:
I’m on my way. ETA, 3 days from now.
She nodded, then sent it. Shepard sighed and let her gaze trail over the other items on her desk. Next to the laptop, the Illusive Man or Miranda or someone had scanned her medals into a holo picture. Shepard shook her head. What a crock. As if she needed reminding of what she’d accomplished before. As if she was in any mood to repeat it now.
Shepard’s eyes then strayed to something else on her desk. Something very…pink.
“EDI,” she said slowly, “What the hell is that ?”
“I do not understand, Commander. You will have to be more specific.”
“What is that picture on my desk?”
“Your medals were placed here…”
“No, the other one.”
“Yeoman Chambers picked that painting out and placed it in a holo for you,” EDI said. “She believed it would soothe you. It is by a famous 21st Century artist known as Thomas Kinkade. He’s was known as ‘The Painter of Light’.”
“It’s a goddamn cottage. With flowers. Pink flowers.”
“If I dim the lights in the cabin, the colors change,” EDI explained. “It was part of a series of exclusive prints…”
“Stop,” Shepard said flatly. “No dimming lights, no cottages, no flowers.”
“If you do not like it…”
“I don’t,” she said wearily. “Just replace it with something.”
“I have access to the extranet and can find you any image that is not under copyright,” EDI told me. “I also have access to the Illusive Man’s private collection. What would you like to look at?”
“Kaidan,” Shepard said, the word tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop it.
Damn , Shepard thought. Now she’d gone and said it out loud.
“Would that be Staff Commander Kaidan Alenko?” EDI asked, her voice not betraying any emotion. But Shepard wondered if she had imagined that slight pause before the AI had answered.
“Never mind,” Shepard said. “That would show up on the security cams, wouldn’t it?”
“It would,” EDI replied.
Shepard looked over her shoulder and spotted the camera in question. Though from this angle…
“EDI,” Shepard asked, “Can that camera see this photo frame when I’m sitting right here like this?”
“No,” EDI replied.
“Can any of the cameras in this room see it if I’m sitting here - or standing here?” Shepard asked.
“No,” EDI said again.
Well, hell, Shepard thought. Why not? If the Illusive Man hadn’t been watching and missed that little slip just now, then maybe…
“Alright,” Shepard said. “Find me a picture of Kaidan. But set up the holo so that it turns itself off the moment it’s visible from any of the cameras. That is an order. And don’t tell anyone about it at all. Hopefully, the one person who can override that order will never ask.”
“Very well, commander,” EDI said.
“Okay then,” Shepard said, nodding firmly. “Find me a picture of Kaidan.” *And if I ever find him, * Shepard thought , please God, let me remember to change the picture back to the flowered cottage before he sees it.
“What picture would you like, commander?” EDI asked.
Shepard blinked, then felt her heart beat a little faster as images of Kaidan went flashing by the screen. There was a rather bad photo – it looked like an ID of when he’d first enlisted. Then there was another picture – a still from a vid following some rescue mission, then a formal shot of him and about a dozen other officers, all holding up their omnitools in salute. It must have been some tech training class picture, Shepard realized. She blinked as a blurry shapshot from Eden Prime flashed by. Kaidan was carrying someone over his shoulder. A moment later, Shepard realized it was her , her jumpsuit-clad rear turned right towards the camera.
“What is that , EDI?” she asked, frowning.
“This is a popular picture on the extranet,” EDI told her. “It is usually cropped like this, though.” She zoomed in so that Shepard’s ass filled the screen.
“Great,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Horn dog humans…”
“Actually, this picture is very popular among the asari porn sites…”
“Find something else,” Shepard said wearily. She didn’t want to think about that, she really didn’t.
“If you want to look at Staff Commander Alenko’s posterior instead of your own, then here is a good shot.”
Shepard blinked as another image filled the screen. The AI was right. It was a good shot. Kaidan was half turned and climbing up a flight of stairs. He had a grim look on his face and he was following someone – following her, she saw. He was looking back at the camera over his shoulder. It was from Feros, she realized, recognizing those horrible concrete stairwells that she’d run up and down with Kaidan at her back. It must have been a snapshot that Elizabeth Baynam had taken. She’d whipped out a camera before they’d left, begging to let her send in reports on their heroism to all the news networks. Only the Citadel News Net had picked up the story, and Shepard figured that was because Emily Wong thought she owed them a favor or something. Feros was a small colony – few people cared about it. That kind of thing was so typical of the media, Shepard thought.
“That’s a nice view,” she admitted. “But not in that armor. I burned that crap down into omnigel and bought him a Hydra VI after we left Feros.”
“The Liberator armor is strong and well-built,” EDI said. “Better than the Hydra…”
“It’s yellow,” she said flatly. “He looks like a bumblebee. A handsome bumblebee, but a bumblebee.”
“I could tint the photo to make it black and white if you do not like the color,” EDI said.
“You know what?” Shepard said, standing. “Forget it. Just…”
“What about this one?” EDI said.
Shepard turned back to the photo frame and found her heart had somehow lodged itself in her throat.
“Damn,” she murmured. “Kaidan.”
It was some stock photo, one sent out with rosters and dossiers. He was looking at the camera with one eyebrow slightly raised. Serious, calm, completely in control. Shepard knew that wasn’t his only expression, but it was the one that she’d seen first – the one that made her want to see more.
“That’ll do, EDI,” she said curtly, blinking a little at the sudden tears in her eyes. “Use that one.”
“Done, Commander,” EDI said, and the frame flickered for a second, then the image held steady. “I like it as well.”
Shepard raised an eyebrow. “ You like it? You’re a program.”
“His features are very regular,” EDI explained. “They fall well within the proportions accorded to human beauty.”
“They sure do,” she agreed. “But don’t be getting any ideas, EDI.”
“I do not understand, Commander. I am an AI, and am not subject to human emotions or attractions.”
“Lucky you,” she muttered.
Shepard took one last look at Kaidan’s holo, then left the room in silence.
“Status update.” The Illusive Man’s holograph flickered in the air of the comm room. Miranda stood in the center of the floor, her arms folded over her chest.
“Shepard appears healthy,” the woman replied. “If tired. She’s taken command of this ship with remarkable ease. The crew already admire her. I heard she’s promised them better food.”
“You sound displeased,” the man said. He himself sounded amused.
“She’s…unpredictable,” Miranda said. “And she’s gaining much influence already. She’s set our course for the Citadel.”
“I know,” the Illusive Man let out a smoky breath. “I anticipated that. Don’t worry. She won’t find anyone to help her on the Citadel. Hands are already being tied. The only loose end is Commander Alenko.”
“What about him?” Miranda asked at once.
“He’s on the Citadel. We don’t know why and we don’t know for how long.”
“She might try to recruit him,” Miranda observed. “Perhaps she would be more at ease if she had some of her former crew…”
“No. Absolutely not. Shepard needs to be handled…delicately now. If our intel is correct, she may have had…feelings for him. If it comes down to his life or the success of this mission, she may choose him. She’s chosen him before.”
“I did my homework,” Miranda frowned. “I brought her back as the same, cool-headed person she was before. I made sure nothing interfered with her mind.”
“This is her heart, we’re talking about, Miranda. And that’s something I just don’t trust. She needs allies, but they must be known quantities. Otherwise, we’re setting a bomb in our midst. Commander Alenko is not a known quantity – not as far as Shepard is concerned. My sources say that he’s in thick with the Alliance and unlikely to trust us. Furthermore, my sources say that he did not appear to be greatly affected by Shepard’s death. If he does not have feelings for her any longer, then that could cause her distress. We need to get a wedge between her and any forces we can’t control. That includes Commander Alenko.”
Miranda hesitated briefly. Then she nodded.
“Very well,” she said.