Shepard started awake, nearly falling out of her chair in the process. For a moment, her eyes landed on the picture of Kaidan and she felt a warm rush of fondness and nostalgia.
Then she remembered.
Scowling, she rubbed a hand over her face. One of these days, she swore to herself, she was going to wake up and not be working with Cerberus. One of these days, if she managed to live that long, she was going to wake up, roll over, and find herself wrapped tightly in the strong arms of…
She looked at Kaidan’s picture, found his face was still half-frowning at her. Why was that expression of his so hard to read? she wondered angrily.
Shepard sighed. Maybe she would never be with him again, she acknowledged. The thought was just too depressing to face this early in the morning, so she pushed it away. She’d worry about that later. For now, she had a kink in her neck, had been sleeping in her clothes, had a hand mark on her cheek, and really needed a shower and a coffee. Shepard rolled her shoulders back and stretched her head from side to side.
She glanced at her computer, debating for a moment. She had fallen asleep reading that email, and now that she was awake, it nagged at the back of her mind. She knew Kaidan had asked for time to let things settle down, but…
Screw it , she thought, popping open the laptop and logging in to her Alliance account. She had to write him something – just a note to say she’d gotten his letter at the very least. She knew she couldn’t write too much. She wouldn’t be able to encrypt this message and whatever she sent would be public record to the Alliance. She’d just write something casual – something that no one could read anything into. And yet, she realized, it needed to convey much more to Kaidan than just…casual.
So…what to say?
Shepard thought for a moment, then wrote:
She wanted to write something like “Dear Kaidan,” or even more sappy, “Dearest Kaidan,” but she’d take a cue from his non-committal greeting and keep this “just friendly.”
I believe my accounts are being watched by Cerberus.
No. No, that was already giving away way too much. Okay… Shepard pinched the bridge of her nose. This was harder than mission reports. God, she really would have made a terrible spy. She began again:
I know you said you wanted to let things settle down…
No, she thought again. That’s referencing the email he sent to you, the one you’re trying to pretend didn’t get sent. Come on, Shepard.
You know I’m not very good at tech or meaningful messages. I’ll look you up when things settle down.
She frowned. God, that was even more non-committal than Kaidan’s mail had been. And besides, she realized, she couldn’t call him “Kaidan” and sign her name as “Shepard,” not on the public record. She frowned, deleted the whole message, then started again:
Commander Alenko -
I’m sorry about Horizon. For what it’s worth, I tried to contact you as soon as I could. That’s a long story best told in person. I hope you can believe me when I say that I never meant for any of this to happen.
I want to write more, but I believe my accounts are being monitored. I’ll contact you when things settle down. I’ll try to settle them as quickly as possible.
Take care of yourself, Kaidan. I lo -
She stopped, frowned, then shook her head. She wanted to tell him she loved him in person, not in some email that was certain to be intercepted by the brass.
Take care of yourself, commander. I still have faith.
- K. Shepard
Well, she thought, frowning, that…sucked. She frowned at the message, but could think of nothing better to say. Sighing, she hit the send button and…
Unable to send message. Account holder listed as Missing in Action.
Please contact your systems administrator for assistance.
“Oh my God,” Shepard whispered, closing her eyes.
She couldn’t believe it. But of course, she thought, shaking her head, the Alliance had kept her account open for archival purposes only. They wouldn’t allow MIA accounts to send mail, in case some hacker or other managed to get in. Spam from dead soldiers would be quite the embarrassment to the brass, after all, and such an account could be used for all kinds of fraud. So, it was bizarre then, that her account was still accepting mail. Maybe that was some sort of Alliance oversight, she thought. Or maybe that was some sneaky Cerberus work-around.
Shepard suddenly wondered about the security of the email that Kaidan had sent to her. Well, she thought grimly, if they had hacked his email already, there was nothing she could do about it now. She’d have to use her Cerberus account to send this message of hers. With a frown, she saved her brief message to her omnitool. She then opened up her Cerberus account, logged in, pasted in the message and…
Unauthorized mail recipient.
Message pending review by Cerberus security protocols.
“The hell?” Shepard frowned. She sat there for a moment, then shouted, “EDI!”
No reply. She sat there for a second in confusion before realizing that the removal of monitoring devices from her room would mean she’d have to contact the ship manually.
“EDI,” Shepard said, hitting the comm link. “What does this mean that my email is pending review by Cerberus?”
“The Illusive Man has issued a block against any extranet addresses that may represent potential security risks,” the AI replied at once. “Any messages to unauthorized recipients must be submitted to my review protocol programs for proper screening.”
Shepard gaped at the empty air before her. “Since when is an Alliance account a security risk?”
“All Alliance personnel accounts have been blacklisted,” EDI replied politely. “As you are the commander, I can give your emails priority and have them reviewed in .72 seconds. However, please note that all messages to Staff Commander Kaidan Alenko must be intercepted and sent to Cerberus command for further review before being delivered.”
“The hell? “ Shepard shouted. She sucked in a breath, trying to make sense of this. Was this all because of her conversation with the Illusive Man after Horizon? she thought wildly. Was he really going to track her messages with Kaidan in order to try and keep her focused on the mission?
“Why, has he done this?” Shepard asked.
“The Illusive Man does not wish anyone to compromise the confidentiality of this mission,” EDI told her. “To that end, he has installed my computers with software meant to monitor all outgoing mail.”
“Yeah, I knew that part,” Shepard said. “But what about this blacklist stuff?”
“After you circumvented security protocols and uploaded classified Cerberus files to Alliance command, the Illusive Man had me raise the level of monitoring on your personal accounts from neutral to high, to prevent future security leaks. The addresses of Captain Anderson, Admiral Hackett, and Staff Commander Alenko were all deemed a high security risk. I have been instructed to intercept and forward all outgoing mail to those persons directly to Cerberus command for review.”
Classified files? Shepard’s eyes widened. Of course – the rachni.
My God, she thought. She had completely forgotten. She had been logged into some merc’s account at the time, directly to the extranet, too. She had gone right by all the Illusive Man’s blocks and protocols that day. The opportunity had been an accident of fate. Shepard briefly wondered if Kaidan had gotten that message before or after their meeting on Horizon.
Shepard’s mouth set in a grim line. She was going to go out on a limb here and say he’d gotten the message… after the meeting on Horizon. Just a guess, she thought sarcastically. But suddenly the whole picture was clearer: Kaidan must have gotten that email, wondered why she was helping the Alliance at Cerberus’ expense, felt badly for his accusations and then…
And then wrote her a completely non-committal email. Shepard rolled her eyes. Well, that would be Kaidan for you. And the Illusive Prick had decided to punish her for her little stunt by upping the security watch over her. She wondered if he hadn’t pulled that Horizon crap as a way of getting back at her as well.
“Where is our Illusive friend?” Shepard asked. “I want to talk to him.”
“The Illusive Man is unavailable at this time,” EDI replied.
“Of course he is,” Shepard sighed. “Bastard. Alright, EDI, I get it. I’m in the time out chair.”
Still, she thought, this just proved that she had gotten around the Illusive Man’s little security protocols before. Cerberus might be monitoring her accounts and intercepting emails, but somehow, eventually, she would get a message to Kaidan.
But Kaidan wants things to settle down, first, she suddenly remembered. He needs time.
Right, she thought with a sigh. That was right. So maybe this email thing was for the best.
Shepard logged out of her account and closed the computer. She might as well just get to work. She could worry about emails later – when Kaidan wanted to read them and the Illusive Man wasn’t able to stop her from sending them.
“How long until we reach Daratar, EDI?” she asked.
“About two hours, commander,” Joker’s voice came over the comm.
“Shit,” Shepard hissed. “You’ve been listening in all this time, Moreau?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, as if she was silly for asking.
Shepard shook her head. “Great,” she muttered.
“Hey, if it makes you feel any better, they blocked my private accounts, too,” Joker said.
‘Your accounts were full of…” EDI began.
“Yes, EDI,” Shepard cut them both off. “We all know what Joker’s accounts are full of.”
“Carry on, Joker,” Shepard said, wearily, as she stood from her chair. “I think I need to go be invisible for a little while.”
“Commander?” a new voice suddenly crackled over the comm. “If you’re up, I need to talk to you.” Shepard’s eyes narrowed. It was Miranda.
“You monitoring my conversations over the comm as well as email, Lawson?” Shepard said, coldly.
“Ooh, shit,” Joker muttered. “I’ll leave you ladies to it.” There was a squeak as the helmsman let go of the comm button and left the conversation.
“We’re on our way to Illium, aren’t we?” Miranda asked without preamble.
Shepard sucked in a breath. Illium . She really didn’t need to think about Illium. The last time she had been to that planet had been for a brief, unexpected, and absolutely beautiful shore leave…
“We’re on our way, yes,” she said tersely. “I have several stops planned between here and there, though. What do you need, Lawson? Time off to go shopping?”
There was a silence on the other end. She could practically hear Miranda narrowing her eyes.
“We have a team to recruit, commander,” Miranda said at last, her voice crackling testily. “Two of those people are on Illium.”
“And many other assignments are between here and there. We’ll get there when we get there.”
Miranda was silent for a long while. “Very well, commander,” she said.
“You got a problem, Lawson?” Shepard asked. “Come on out and say it.”
There was a long silence. Apparently the XO heard the tension in the commander’s voice and guessed, correctly, that Shepard was spoiling for a fight..
“I just…” Miranda said at last, but then she didn’t go on. For the first time since Shepard had met the woman, Miranda seemed to be at a loss for words. Or maybe it was just the comm cutting out. Shepard wasn’t sure. Either way, it gave her pause.
“You have people counting on you, you know,” the Cerberus officer said at last.
“I know that,” Shepard snapped. “All the damn colonies in the traverse.”
“Actually,” Miranda said, her tones clipped, “I was referring to this crew. They’re…We’re counting on you. And while some of your former teammates might walk away, we’re at your back. You’re our leader. So lead, Shepard.”
A dozen sharp retorts sprang to Shepard’s tongue at once. She almost spat one of them out, but it wasn’t quite as cutting as the next one, so she stopped, sputtering. She frowned at the comm, torn between exasperation at being second-guessed by a Cerberus flunky and the even more infuriating realization that the woman was - right.
“You done with the pep talk, Lawson?” Shepard asked at last. “The Illusive Man gave me one after Horizon and yours is only marginally better.”
“I…” Miranda broke off. “Just…think about what I said, commander.”
“Noted,” Shepard said, wanting to end this conversation as soon as possible. “We have a few places to go before Illium. Then we’ll deal with those new recruits. Anything else you need, Lawson?”
There was a long pause on the other end of the comm.
“No commander,” Miranda said.
“Fine then,” Shepard said, “We’ll talk later.” She snapped off the comm and rubbed her eyes.
Miranda was right. As much as Shepard hated to admit it, the woman was right. She needed to get moving, not mope about what had happened on Horizon or worry about her accounts behind monitored. She had gotten past the devices in her room, at least. Surely she could find a way around this email thing. She would just think of all this as a little game between the Illusive prick and herself.
Shepard sighed. She was sick of games.
Kaidan logged into his account, scarcely able to keep his eyes open. The headache was a migraine now, and it was only with this fresh dose of meds that he had been able to pull up his omnitool and attempt to read the glowing screen.
There was a new message from Dean, welcoming him back to the Citadel. There was an email from Anderson, saying that he was sorry to hear Kaidan had been hit with a migraine and that he would want to meet as soon as Kaidan was well enough to talk.
But there were no messages from Shepard.
Kaidan let his head fall back against the pillow and tried not to let that fact add to his pain. It wasn’t like he had been expecting anything, he told himself.
But he was disappointed all the same.
Shepard lifted her head from her arms and looked up at the Normandy’s great spherical drive core.
“Yeah, Joker?” she called back.
“See, I told you she was down there,” the helmsman said. His voice faded a little, as if he was talking to someone nearby.
“EDI thought you were in your quarters,” Joker explained, speaking clearly once again. “Only she couldn’t tell because Mordin pulled the monitoring devices from your room.”
“Yeah,” Shepard said, smiling a little. “He did.”
“So why are you down in the engine room if your room is clean?” Joker asked.
Shepard shrugged, though she knew he couldn’t see her. “I like this room. The drive core is like a biotic muffler: keeps the static from starting in my head.”
“Oh…kay,” Joker said slowly. “Yeah, I don’t understand any of that. Hey, commander, I…we… We wanted to…ah…give you something.”
“We?” Shepard asked, blinking blearily at the ceiling. “Who’s we?”
“Ah…me and Chambers,” he replied. “I just…that is… I thought you could use it.”
“What is it?” Shepard asked, suspiciously. If Kelly had given Joker self-help literature to feed to her over the comm…
“Okay, just…” Joker faded out.
“Here you go,” he said.
Shepard stared up at the domed ceiling, then felt as though her chest, her heart, her entire body was lifting to the sky.
“My God,” she murmured.
The room flooded with music: the beautiful, soaring, full orchestral score of one of her favorite songs from childhood. The tune was melancholy and hopeful all at once and it reached her in a way no words could have.
“Joker, where did you…? How did you?” Shepard broke off, her eyes filling with tears. This was ridiculous, she thought. She had managed not to cry so far, but she’d teared up more in the last week than in the last decade.
“I found them,” he told her. “Or rather, Kelly told me about them and then I had the idea to use them.”
“Your old playlists,” he explained, “from when you were a kid, it looks like. You must have spent a long time on these lists.”
“I did,” Shepard murmured. Hours and hours, truthfully. She had spent almost a whole summer making playlists of her favorite songs in her cousin’s hand-me-down omnitool. There were lists of all kinds of music, she remembered now, including one list that was titled, “songs that will give mom and dad a hernia.”
“Miranda had all of these in a file,” Joker went on. “I don’t know if she ever went through all of the stuff she had on you. So anyhow…ah…”
“You and Kelly read up on my personal history?” Shepard asked, not sure quite how to take that.
“Hey,” Joker said. “Chambers asked me for ‘insight’ into you and I told her I didn’t know jack shit. She gave me access to these files and… Hell, commander, you take your sweet time when you’re groundside, you know that? I was bored. Really bored, ‘cause working with Kelly was… Ah, don’t tell her I said that.”
“My lips are sealed,” Shepard laughed. Never mind that Joker had just announced this to anyone listening in on the comm.
“So anyhow,” Joker said. “Kelly said you were feeling bad and asked what we could do for you and…well…It was a group effort,” he mumbled at last.
Shepard could just see the chagrined look on Joker’s face and she found she couldn’t speak. She just listened, her heart swelling along with music.
“So I fired up the lists and EDI pulled down the songs and uploaded them to the radio in your cabin,” Joker went on. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“Mind?” Shepard called back. “Are you kidding? Joker…I…” She couldn’t think of how to put into words what she was feeling. At the very least, she felt a sudden rush of gratitude towards her helmsman – and even towards the yeoman.
Even towards EDI, Shepard thought. She didn’t trust the AI, but this reminded her that the thing was a program. It couldn’t stop doing what the Illusive Man commanded it to. And as for Joker and Kelly, well, Shepard simply could not convey how much this meant to her. She still didn’t want to talk about Kaidan – or anything else, come to that – with Yeoman Chambers, but Shepard suddenly felt she owed the woman an apology.
We’re counting on you, Miranda had said. And while some of your former teammates might walk away, we’re at your back. You’re our leader. So lead, Shepard .
“Thank you, Joker,” Shepard said softly. “Thank Kelly, too.”
“Yeah, well, it still should have been Alenko,” Joker muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing,” he said. “Look, I…this…song…isn’t really my thing, so can I…ah…?”
“Sure,” she said, laughing, “Turn it off. I’ll listen to it in my quarters while I get ready for the next assignment.”
“I didn’t know you had such bad taste commander in music, commander,” Joker said, clearly being sarcastic now. “I mean, Colony Western? Old Earth Country? Really?”
“Hey,” she snapped, sounding a little like a Valkyrie again. “I was born on a farm, Joker. Remember that. Besides, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.”
“Whatever,” he laughed.
“Thanks, Joker,” Shepard said, wishing she could say it to his face, and yet, feeling strangely glad she didn’t have to let anyone see how much this had affected her. She suspected Joker probably felt more comfortable giving this to her via the comm link as well. “Just…thanks.”
“Okay, now that one is just…” Joker laughed. “Sapphire Stars? You actually like that asari girl-power band?”
Great , she thought, Joker would now tease her about this for eternity.
“Shut up, Moreau,” she said, unable to keep the smile out of her voice. “It’s good to dance to.” Not that she danced very well, but still. “Just send it to my radio and you can go back to listening to whatever crap it is that you like.”
“Thanks a lot,” he said.
She chuckled. “No, thank you .” Then she sighed in relief. “Really, I mean it Joker. And Kelly and…and EDI. Thank you.”
Shepard stood, now smiling. She walked towards the elevator, fully intending to go upstairs, turn on some music, feed her fish, then get suited up for the coming assignment. She hadn’t gotten any further than the first door past engineering, however, when a voice shouted up up at her, seemingly from beneath her feet.
“Hey, bald bitch!”
Shepard froze, bit back a retort, and marched down the stairs. As she approached the woman waiting in the shadows, she allowed a bright, roiling ball of biotic energy to form in her upturned palm. The warp missile crackled blue against the red light of the hold.
“You may not be military,” Shepard told Jack, cooly, calmly, “but this is my ship.”
“You really want to do that, Shepard?” Jack asked, her eyes flashing.
“No,” Shepard told her. “I don’t, really. I just want to get it through that equally bald head of yours that if you mess with me, I will set you down like I would any other member of my crew. However,” she added at the sudden tensing of Jack’s tattooed shoulders, “Show some respect and you’ll get some. Now what do you want?” She let the glowing ball of light dim and raised a blonde eyebrow.
Jack considered her for a long moment. “You’ve got quite the tight little group here,” she said. “They’re pretty devoted to you.” Shepard’s eyebrow just raised higher.
“You figured that out from sitting here in the dark, I gather.”
“I pick up on a lot,” Jack said, cocking her head. “Like how they all would follow you anywhere, and not just the ones who you knew before.”
Shepard folded her arms over her chest. Now that was unexpected. Miranda’s words came back to her again: *We’re counting on you. * It seemed that the crew really did trust her more than she had thought. And in return, Shepard was coming to trust them, too.
“What’s your point, Jack?” Shepard asked, now curious.
“Look, bitch…” Jack said, then broke off at Shepard’s raised eyebrows and grim mouth. “Look, Shepard,” she amended. “It’s clear that they’d do anything you wanted. And you have a pretty nice ship. You’d be rich if you took to piracy.”
Shepard’s expression grew even more icy. “Piracy?” she murmured.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t,” Jack said with a slight sneer.
“I’m from Mindoir, Jack,” Shepard said blandly. “My whole fucking life was ripped away by pirates. What do you want, or were you just getting bored down here with these data pads?” Shepard waved a hand at the mess littering the floor.
“Mindoir, huh?” Jack said. She looked Shepard over, then lifted her chin. “Still, I bet you had a mommy and a daddy tuckin’ you in at night, huh?”
“Get to the point, Jack,” Shepard said, eyes narrowing.
“I can’t figure you, Shepard,” Jack said, she looked out into the hold as if the answer were there, then shook her head. “Doesn’t matter. I need to talk to you about somethin’.”
“Alright,” Shepard said, sighing wearily. “What’s up?”
“I have…thoughts,” Jack said, “Like little bugs crawling in and out of my head.”
Shepard frowned at the metaphor, and also at the way the woman suddenly seemed to twitch as she sat down on the stairs.
“I have a history with Cerberus,” Jack said.
“I figured as much,” Shepard said, warily. She felt a little like kicking herself. She hadn’t exactly…forgotten about Jack, down here in the hold, she told herself, she hadn’t. She just…
What, Shepard? She thought to herself. You haven’t stopped to talk to anyone on your crew. They need you and you’ve been ignoring them, all because you’ve been moping over Kaidan.
God, she had. She actually had. And all the while they’d been needing her – even reaching out to her. It was embarrassing – and unacceptable.
Shepard straightened as she set the thought of Kaidan aside and focused in on the angry woman before her.
“I’ll listen to anything you have to say, Jack,” Shepard said.