Liara looked down at the trading floor below, waiting.
So, the rumors were true, she thought. Shepard was back – and she was on her way to Illium.
The asari swallowed and stepped away from the window. Her people were in place. Shepard would be directed here as soon as the woman arrived. Liara only wished that she felt as calm as she wished to appear to the commander. Seeing Shepard again – it would be wonderful, and, no doubt, it would be hard, too.
So much had changed, Liara thought. She had believed that bringing Shepard back would somehow make everything go back to the way it had been. But when her plans had borne fruit, when news reached her that Cerberus had succeeded in their goal, she realized her mistake. Shepard wouldn’t be coming back on the Normandy SR1 to pick Liara up and return to her hunt for Saren. She was in a new ship now, with a new crew, no doubt with a new mission.
And Liara also realized that “the way it had been” was a myth, after all. There was no perfect time in the past when everything had been simple and still. From the very start, everything had been moving, changing, so rapidly that Liara could scarcely believe it. Time passed so quickly on the Normandy, not at all like her research in the dig sites. In the world of archeology, history was as close to a solid state as time could ever be. Living among the short-lived humans, however, time was more like a rushing river.
The years since the Normandy’s destruction had taught Liara a lot about the inevitable flow of time and what it did to shorter-lived species. They lived strangely, Liara thought, but she began to admire their fortitude. Shepard had accepted flux as a way of life, enjoying what moments she could before they were snatched away. Liara wondered if Shepard was still like that.
Liara also wondered if Shepard still possessed a sense of goodwill towards those in desperate circumstances. She didn’t know if her own role in Shepard’s reconstruction was known to the commander. Liara wasn’t quite sure if she should tell of it. After all, it was a strange thing to say to an old friend: “I brought you back into an indentured life because I couldn’t stand for you to be gone.” Liara was still certain that Lieutenant Alenko would have been horrified had he known what she had done. But Shepard… Liara glanced down at the trading floor again, looking through the crowd once again.
Liara wasn’t sure what Shepard would say if she knew. She wasn’t sure if she wanted Shepard to know.
Just then, a call came in. With a glance at the holo, Liara bristled. Him again. Well, so much for quiet reflections.
It was time to return to the present, she thought, sadly, time to return to the place where change had brought her.
Kaidan looked up just in time to avoid running right into Dean. He stepped aside to get out of the doorway to the Alliance locker room. Dean stepped aside as well. The man was dripping sweat, clearly coming from his workout. Kaidan shifted the bundle of his towel and workout clothes on his hip.
“You just finishing?” Dean asked him.
Kaidan nodded. “Yeah.” He had taken his time working out, and had managed to kill a whole morning. This leave time was driving him crazy. Now that he was showered and dressed for the day, he had no idea what to do with himself for the afternoon.
“Hey,” Dean said, frowning, “What happened the other night with you and Lisa?”
“Uh…” Kaidan frowned. “We…talked…and then decided not to go out again.”
“You broke up with her?” Dean frowned at him. “Damn, man, you’re cold, you know that?”
“Hey,” Kaidan said, a little defensively. He steeped a little further out of the way to let a couple of guys past him into the lockers. “We went on one date. One date in one month. It was nothing serious.”
Dean raised his eyebrows. “Like I said, man – cold.”
“Look,” Kaidan said, now growing angry, “Not all of us are lucky enough to have a steady job on the Citadel and nice girl waiting on us, okay? My life is…complicated right now. I didn’t think it was fair to drag Lisa into that.”
Dean considered that, his friendly face falling in a frown. “Okay,” he said at last. “You’re right. It’s none of my business.” He shrugged, then added. “You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Kaidan said. “How about Lisa? Is she okay?”
“I guess,” Dean said. “She just said she was going home. I thought she was still with you, but then she said you’d left.”
Kaidan grimaced, realizing that his hasty exit from the club had probably added further injury to the insult for Lisa. *This * is why he hated dating, he thought to himself. The fundamental rules of engagement for battle didn’t seem to apply there. The simplest and most direct route was often the wrong one, and leaving oneself an exit strategy was inevitably a recipe for offending women. Of course, not leaving oneself a way out also made things messy. With Shepard, he thought he’d finally gotten the whole relationship thing figured out. At least Shepard had been on his side, navigating that minefield along with him. They’d even avoided dating, too, which only made things better. Only even there, Kaidan supposed he was mistaken, since everything with Shepard had since gone to hell.
Kaidan frowned. He really didn’t want to be thinking about Shepard once again.
“Look, man,” Dean said, he nodded down the hallway, then took a few steps away from the entrance to the locker room. Kaidan followed him a few steps, then folded his arms over his chest, his gear tucked into his armpit.
“I didn’t want to…bring this up the other day when we were down in the Wards and all, but…” Dean looked around the hallway. “I’m worried about you, man.”
“I appreciate that, but I’ll be fine.” Kaidan thought about what he’d considered looking up on the extranet that morning and reconsidered that statement. He shook his head. “I don’t need another date, Dean. I just need some work to do. I don’t do well on leave.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Dean said. He frowned, then lowered his voice. “Look, I’m not trying to set you up. That’s Katie’s thing. I wanted to warn you…” He stopped and looked over his shoulder again.
“Warn me?” Kaidan asked, as confused by Dean’s behavior as by the idea of needing any warnings from the man.
“I’m hearing rumors,” Dean said, watching Kaidan closely for his reaction, “that your former commander is… alive .”
Kaidan blinked. That was not what he was expecting to hear from Dean. “Shepard, you mean?” Kaidan asked, trying to keep his voice light.
“Yeah,” Dean nodded. “And I don’t mean rumors from the news. I heard this rumor from…Well, let’s just say there are folks in the brass who think she might really be alive. And they also say,” he looked around again, then spoke even more softly. “They also say she’s working for Cerberus.” Dean paused and frowned. “I just…I thought you should know, man.”
Kaidan just stared. The absurdity of the situation struck him at once. The top brass hadn’t bothered to tell him this, but Dean had. Kaidan immediately realized the risk Dean took in passing on this information, even if he had simply overheard it.
“What else do you know?” Kaidan asked, now wondering if he could get any more information from this unexpected source. “I mean, how did you get that much?”
Dean looked at Kaidan, taken aback. “You don’t sound too surprised,” he said, accusingly.
“Ah…” Kaidan couldn’t find an answer to that.
“You already knew,” Dean said, his eyes widening. “Shit man,” he frowned. “Well, I should have remembered that you were a commander yourself. Of course you’d know. When did you find out?”
Kaidan remembered back to that moment on Horizon when he had learned the truth, then quickly shoved that memory aside. “Nothing official,” he swiftly lied. “Rumors, like you said. How’d you hear about it?”
“The email systems,” Dean told him.
“Yeah,” Dean said, his voice low once more, “See, the thing is, Shepard’s account was restricted from sending outgoing mail – I mean, she was listed as missing in action, right? Standard procedure, lock the account and archive it for the records.”
“Of course,” Kaidan murmured, his heart suddenly lifting a little. Of course it would be. And that explained why she had written to him from that merc account: she couldn’t use her own mail. Only, he now wondered, why hadn’t her email bounced back his message if the account was locked?
“The thing is though,” Dean went on, answering Kaidan’s unasked question, “And this is the really weird part – her account’s been cleaned out.”
“Cleaned out? What do you mean?”
“Just that - cleaned out. All her old files were deleted.”
“By who?” Kaidan asked, alarm spreading through his chest. Whoever it was couldn’t have found out his mail – could they?
“Well, see, that’s what me and my CO were trying to figure out. It looks like there’s been activity on the account, but it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I think her messages were all forwarded, but I can’t figure it out. Like, whatever system it is that’s hacking into her account, it’s top of the line, man. They’re getting in and out of our systems before I can figure out where they came from and leaving without a trace. I only know her mail is gone because she should have had all those archives.”
“And you think it’s Cerberus,” Kaidan said, frowning.
“Don’t know anyone else who would know our protocols so well,” Dean said, shaking his head. He looked over his shoulder. “I’m not supposed to know what Cerberus tech looks like, but I’ve seen it before. It’s so like Alliance code you’d swear it was written by our guys, but it’s a lot…sneakier. I think someone’s been hacking Shepard’s account remotely, uploading her files, then disappearing again.”
“Haven’t the brass locked down her account?” Kaidan wanted to know.
“Can’t get it authorized,” Dean said, rolling his eyes. “You know how it is. She’s still listed as missing in action, so they aren’t going to acknowledge anything different, even if it’s pretty damn clear that something screwy is going on.”
“Yeah,” Kaidan murmured.
Well, that certainly gave him something to think about, Kaidan mused. He wondered if Shepard was doing this stealth forwarding – unlikely, given her knowledge of tech. She could manage simple systems alright, but she was no hacker. More likely, Cerberus was doing the dirty work. So what did that mean? Kaidan wondered. Had she authorized it, or was Cerberus actively monitoring her systems? More importantly, had she ever gotten *his * email? Maybe not, since she never had written him back. The idea of Cerberus getting hold of his words now suddenly made Kaidan feel a little ill. He also felt worried for Shepard’s sake. If Cerberus had her accounts in lock down, how else might they be manipulating her? Maybe she was in more trouble than he had realized. He only hoped she could get herself out of it. After all, she had put herself into their hands in the first place, Kaidan thought, frowning.
Kaidan suddenly realized that his whole day was once again turning into a “wondering about Shepard day.” He would like to put her behind him, but it seemed that every time he started to, some new piece of information would pop up and make him dwell on her all over again. But this last revelation had him curious. Clearly his answers lay with Cerberus, and since Shepard wasn’t writing him back, he wanted to know why. Maybe, he thought, a plan forming in his mind, he’d be able to get some answers through Dean. He’d just have to be discreet in doing so.
“Hey,” Kaidan said, glancing over his shoulder to make sure no one was listening. “Can you help me get access to Shepard’s mail – from the inside?”
“Why man?” Dean frowned.
“She was my commander,” Kaidan said, trying to make it sound causal. “I just want to know…”
”…what she’s up to,” he finished.
“I dunno man,” Dean said, doubtfully. “I mean, that would get me in big trouble. I’m already going to be in trouble if anyone knew I was telling you this. I just wanted you to know so you could be prepared when the shit hits the fan.”
Kaidan stopped short at that. “What do you mean?”
“What do I mean?” Dean blinked at him. “The woman joined terrorists , man. That’s a hanging crime, as they used to say – back when they still used rope. If they get hold of her, she’ll be tried for treason.”
Kaidan stared at him. He hadn’t thought of that. Then again, he reminded himself, Anderson had known, and Council had re-instated Shepard as a Spectre. Even if she wasn’t Alliance anymore, she was in the Council’s good graces – a little, at least. But to the outside world, of course, and to the Alliance brass, what she had done was a crime.
“No one can blame you,” Dean went on. “You didn’t know that she was alive. But still, the best thing to do is to put some distance between yourself and her. Even if they don’t catch her, you could get black-balled if you don’t cut ties.”
“Wait,” Kaidan blinked. “What?”
“I mean, I’m just saying. You haven’t said anything publicly, I know, because officially she’s not back. The way you’ve stayed close to the Alliance, you sent the right signals, but you might want to discreetly let it be known to the brass that you’re not with her.”
“Not with her…?” Kaidan broke off, utterly stunned. He didn’t know why he hadn’t thought of it before, but of course that was what would happen. His very career could be in jeopardy by his association with Shepard. He could be driven out of the Alliance if anyone thought he was with her – and with Cerberus.
But that wasn’t why he’d walked away from Shepard, Kaidan thought wildly – not then, and not now. He was disgusted by the idea that people would think he’d disown Shepard for his career of all things. Sure, his career mattered to him. He was an Alliance marine for life as far as he was concerned. But he’d walked away from her and Cerberus because of, well, them. She hadn’t contacted him in years . Hearing Dean imply that he had distanced himself from Shepard for the sake of politics made him feel vaguely…dirty.
“Seriously, man,” Dean was saying. “If Shepard’s with Cerberus, then she’s gone rogue. Didn’t they send her to take down that rogue turian Spectre? Same thing is gonna happen to her, you just watch. They’re going to have to send someone to bring her in.”
Kaidan felt his throat constricting. That wouldn’t happen, he told himself, not when she had the Council’s approval. But then again, he thought, anything was possible.
“Anyhow,” Dean shrugged. “Just saying. You’d better watch yourself. They’re gonna witch-hunt her former crew if that happens, so you might as well make it clear where your loyalties lie.”
“Dean,” Kaidan said, his voice low and intense, “I have got to take a look at Shepard’s email files. If what you say is true, then I need to know what I’m up against.”
“I don’t see how looking at her extranet mailbox is going to show that you’re cutting ties,” Dean frowned.
“Please? As a favor to me?”
Dean frowned at him, then shrugged. “I need help with a firewall that keeps getting breached,” he said. “I’ll see if I can get my CO to let you in to help me fix it and then I’ll see what we can do.”
“Thanks man,” Kaidan said, shifting his gear to his left hand to shake Dean’s hand with his right. “I appreciate it.”
And, he thought, as he waved goodbye to Dean and walked away, maybe he’d be able to use this chance to get finally some answers about Shepard and Cerberus.