“What do you mean you can’t find her?” Joker snapped. “She couldn’t have left the damn ship.”
“My monitoring devices have not been able to locate Commander Shepard for over fourteen hours.” EDI replied. “I last registered her walking into engineering. She may still be there.”
“Engineering?” Joker asked. “For over fourteen hours? That’s insane,” he flipped on the comm link and spoke into it. “Ken? Gabby? You guys down there?” There was no reply. Joker gritted his teeth. “Come on, people. Anyone down there seen Shepard?”
“Joker?” A groggy voice came over the link. Joker relaxed instantly.
“Where the hell have you been?” he said, his voice coming out more angry than he meant it to.
“I have located the commander,” EDI told Joker.
“No shit,” he replied. “So did I. What are you doing, Shepard?”
“I was…” she trailed off and he didn’t catch the rest.
“Commander, it’s almost midnight,” Joker told her. “You need to sleep.”
“Funny you should say that,” she said, enigmatically. “I’m on my way up.”
Joker shook his head and shut off the comm link.
“You called the commander ‘Shepard’,” EDI intoned in her too-neutral voice.
“Did I?” Joker asked. “Didn’t notice.” He did his best to ignore the blue sphere hovering by his shoulder. The presence of EDI was purely mechanical, he told himself. She wasn’t watching – it wasn’t watching. The artificial intelligence was not staring at him just now, trying to analyze him. Clearly all these monitoring devices were making him paranoid. Well, more than usual.
“Yes,” the artificial intelligence said after a moment. “Twice, in fact.”
“Well, when us organics get worried, we tend to drop protocol a little,” Joker shrugged. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me she had been off the grid for that long? I would have thought the way you like to go spying on people, you’d get bent out of shape the moment one of us went missing.”
“I do not like to spy, Mr. Moreau,” the AI replied, a slight reprimand in her words. “I have been tasked with operating the monitoring devices. When the Illusive Man requests updates, I send them to him. That is all.”
“How often is he asking for updates?”
Joker turned to see Shepard standing in the doorway to the bridge. She looked terrible. Her face was red on one side, her eyes overly bright and watery.
“I have a block that prevents me from telling you about that,” EDI replied.
“Naturally,” Shepard muttered, just as Joker said, “Of course you do.” The two humans exchanged a glance, then simultaneously broke into wry smiles. Joker felt suddenly awkward and his smile faded.
“So where the hell were you?” Joker said, coughing a little as he spoke.
“Engine room,” Shepard told him.
“All this time?” Joker asked. “How come we didn’t see you?”
“Monitoring devices overload after prolonged exposure to the drive core,” EDI informed them. “Rather than require continual replacement of the systems, a window from the crew rooms above was installed.”
“Plus the view of the drive core is just so soothing after lights out,” Joker added sarcastically.
“Don’t mention that blind spot to the Illusive Man, EDI,” Shepard said. “That’s an order.”
“The Illusive Man is already aware of it,” EDI replied. “His surveillance methods have accounted for that location.”
“What kind of methods?” Shepard asked, frowning.
“I have a block…”
“Never mind.” Shepard said, squeezing her eyes shut. “I get it. As long as we’re here, we’re under constant watch.”
“The Illusive Man does not actively watch all footage of the ship,” EDI told her. “He merely records it in the event that he should need to review it.”
“That doesn’t make me feel much better about it,” she muttered.
“Me either,” Joker agreed.
“The Illusive Man deemed it necessary…”
“You know what EDI?” Joker said, turning to the blue sphere, “Just shut the hell up, okay?”
“Logging you out,” the voice replied. Perhaps it was Joker’s imagination, but she sounded almost…hurt. The sphere disappeared. Joker looked up to find Shepard gazing at him with her eyebrows raised.
“What?” he snapped.
“Was that really necessary?” she asked him.
“It’s an AI,” Joker told her.
“Which means she’s sapient,” Shepard replied. “I’d rather have her on our side as much as possible.”
“You want to work with an AI?” Joker gaped at her.
“We’re already working with her,” Shepard said. “Might as well be on good terms. Besides, Joker, she’s still listening.”
“I know,” Joker said, scowling. “It’s always listening.”
Shepard nodded and wearily scrubbed a hand over her face.
“You look like hell, commander,” Joker said without thinking. “I mean,” he caught himself. “I…”
“It’s okay,” she said. “I feel like hell.” She rubbed her hand absently over her fuzzy head.
“What were you doing down there in engineering?” Joker asked her.
“Well, I found that blind spot,” she replied. “Sat down just for a moment to think things through without feeling like I was being watched and I guess I fell asleep.”
“On the floor?”
“Yep. Take it from me, Joker. View of the drive-core aside, I’m sure the crew deck is better lodgings.”
“You just slept the whole day away?”
“Yeah,” she nodded. “And I’m still exhausted. Well,” she shrugged. “It figures. I hadn’t slept since they…well, woke me up. I was going on three days without rest there.”
Joker frowned. “For all that Cerberus brought you back, they’re driving you pretty hard.”
“I’m driving myself pretty hard, too,” she told him. “But yeah, they are.” She paused, then looked down at Joker and considered him closely.
“Truly Joker. No dumbass comments, now. Why did you join them?”
Joker blinked and looked away. He really didn’t want to have this conversation, but he knew he couldn’t avoid it forever.
“The brought you back,” he said with a shrug.
She seemed to consider that. Then she crossed to the helm and sat down in the seat to his right – the same seat Alenko used to sit in on the old Normandy when he came up to visit Joker in the bridge. The comparison seemed strange, somehow.
“So,” she said, turning her chair to face him and leaning forward with her elbows on her knees, “You joined Cerberus – a terrorist organization – just so that you could work with me?” She shook her head. “Come on, Joker. You were never sentimental - not about your superior officers, anyhow.”
“Yeah, well you weren’t just our superior officer, were you?” he asked. He grimaced and shifted uncomfortably. “Anyhow, they let me fly,” he said lightly. “No one else was giving me squat.”
“You were drinking all the time,” she told him. He looked at her in surprise. “I’ve been reading up on everyone,” she said. “Yeoman Chambers gave me full dossiers on everyone on the ship.”
“Damn,” he muttered. “I forgot how much you check up on your crew.”
“Seriously, Joker,” she pressed. “You joined Cerberus so you could fly and because you wanted to work with me?”
“I wanted to…” Joker made a face, then figured this was as good a time as any to say it. “They told me what they had planned for you, and it was my fault that you… I wanted to make sure you came back.” His voice dropped so low Shepard almost didn’t hear it. “I wanted to keep you alive this time. “
She sat back a little. “You blame yourself for my death?” she asked. When he said nothing, she shook her head. “My God, Joker. I’m sorry. I had no idea.”
“Yeah, well,” he shrugged.
“Joker,” she said, narrowing her eyes at him. “That attack came out of nowhere. You couldn’t possibly have out-maneuvered that ship.”
She watched his face as he continued to stare at the monitor, tension along every muscle. She realized that trying to make him feel better about what had happened was not going to work. Joker would require a different kind of absolution, and she guessed that he would probably have to earn it to feel like he deserved it.
“Okay, you’re right,” she said, standing suddenly. “You were an ass.”
Joker looked up at her, startled.
“You should have gotten off the ship when I gave the order,” she continued, “and if you ever disobey a direct order of mine again, I will personally try out every biotic trick I know on your pathetic hide. You understand me, Moreau?”
Joker straightened in his seat. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied, a little stunned.
“In the meantime, keep this ship together, watch my back, stand with me against Cerberus if it comes to that, and if we both come out of this mission alive, we’ll call it even.”
Joker looked at her, several different emotions crossing over his face in quick succession. Shepard had to hide her surprise. She had only ever seen him sarcastic or sarcastically angry. To see all these different sides of Joker at once was pretty strange.
Finally, his expression settled on a determined look, even though his eyes were a little watery.
“Aye, aye,” he said at last, nodding at her firmly.
“Good,” she said, nodding back. “And get some sleep. You look awful.”
“You look worse,” he told her. She rolled her eyes.
“Don’t push it, Joker.”
“I’m just saying…”
“Dismissed, Flight Lieutenant,” she told him sternly as she turned to go. “And forgiven, as well,” she added, more gently. “In case you were wondering.”
She then gave him a genuine smile. Joker had seen that kind of warmth from her before, but never directed at him. He realized that in her own way, the commander had just decided that she officially counted him among her friends. He also realized that he wasn’t quite sure how to take that.
“Commander,” he managed. She nodded and walked away. Joker watched her go, then turned back to stare blankly at the computer before him.
“Don’t you say a word, EDI,” he said after a long silence.
“I do not understand, Mr. Moreau,” the voice replied as the blue sphere instantly popped back into existence. “What would I say?”
“Nothing,” he told her. “Nothing at all.” With a few taps to the computer, he shut down his console for the night.
“Keep her running for me, EDI,” he said. “I think I might just get a decent night of sleep tonight. First one in a long while.”
Kaidan woke the next morning feeling pretty well rested, for once. The combination of high-quality food, a couple beers, and conversation – awkward though it had been at first – had left him in a good mood. He’d walked Lisa back to her apartment, then stood there as she’d opened the lock and invited him in. She didn’t really seem to be sure if she wanted him to stay, so he had…shaken her hand. That had been the best he could come up with at that awkward moment. She seemed charmed by the gesture, however, and she smiled at him as he turned to go. She suggested that maybe if he came back to the Citadel some time… And Kaidan had nodded and said that he’d like that.
There was a lot of baggage with that one, he thought. But then, he had a whole freighter’s worth of baggage on his own. So when he saw that she had sent him a message asking if she could write to him while he was on assignment, he’d said sure. He’d warned her he would be off the grid for several months at a time, but he’d agreed to it. And then they had that tentative plan to meet again when next he came back. It was a small thing, he thought, but it was something.
And it was pointed at the future, and not the past, so that was even better.
Kaidan e took one glance around his room to make sure he had everything packed into his duffel bag. He nodded in satisfaction. All in all, this little break had gone better than he’d hoped. He left a message for Dean, thanking the guy and letting him know the change of plans, and then Kaidan headed up to the docking bays.
The SSV Rochester was Kaidan’s berth this morning. He settled in, fired up his datapad to check on his briefing for the next mission, and looked out of the port window to see the Citadel lights twinkling below him. He actually felt a little sad to leave. He had been looking forward to drinks with Dean as well as that date with Lisa, and he was a little disappointed that he hadn’t been able to check in with the Councilor Anderson again. Unfortunately, the councilor had been busy.
Still, Kaidan thought, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted to stay on someplace. Clearly, he was turning a corner here. And it had only taken two years to do it.
The Rochester finished preparations to leave the Citadel, and as Kaidan sat below decks, reading his datapad, the captain called in for clearance from Citadel control to leave.
The chief controller, a massive turian with a Port Hanshan accent, flicked his six massive fingers over the computer pad before him, giving the SSV Rochester the necessary clearance codes to leave.
“All clear,” he announced into the comm link. “You are free to go.” A crackled thanks came back in reply, and several floors below the command tower, the Alliance cruiser fired up its engines and pulled away from the dock.
The turian controller looked up to see his apprentice looking at him nervously.
“There’s a ship requesting to dock, sir,” the asari said. “But it’s flagged…” The controller stood and came to look over her shoulder at the image of a vessel that was unlike any he had seen. No, he thought, that wasn’t quite true. He had seen a ship like this two years ago, but that had been an Alliance vessel, not…
“Cerberus?” he snapped, his mandibles flaring.
“Yes, sir,” the asari stammered. “They’re calling in.”
“Patch them through,” he told her. She nodded and did so.
“This is the Normandy SR-2,” a voice crackled over the Citadel control comm. “Requesting permission to dock. We have a Council Spectre on board.”
“What’s the name of this Spectre?” the controller asked, suspicion lacing every word.
A new voice answered.
“This is Commander Shepard of the Human Alliance Military,” the voice said. “Also a member of the Special Tactics and Reconnaissance Forces of the Citadel Council. I have business with Councilor David Anderson. Request permission to dock.”
The computer’s voice recognition system flared suddenly into the red. The picture of a tall, pale woman in Alliance special forces gear appeared on the screen beside the schematic of the frigate. The words “Missing in Action,” flashed repeatedly over her face. The turian controller gaped at the screen, then turned to find that every single person in the room, turian, asari, human, salarian, and their one lone volus worker, had all stopped to stare at him. He swallowed, his mandibles drooping with the movement.
“Sir?” his apprentice said, nervously, “It checks out. I mean, it’s irregular, but…that voice.”
“Screen her at C-Sec,” the controller said, his voice low. “Send her through Bailey’s station and make damn sure it’s her. Call ahead to the Council. They’re going to want to know she’s here.”
He then leaned over the comm and said:
“Permission granted, Spectre. Welcome back to the Citadel.”