“How goes your search, commander?” Anderson waved a hand at the empty chair before his desk.
“Well enough,” Kaidan replied, handing Anderson a datapad as he sat down.
“Good,” Anderson said. Both of them knew that the councilor’s office could be bugged. So it was with deliberate care that Anderson glanced at the datapad and said carefully: “Are all of your notes in here, commander?”
“And encrypted, sir,” Kaidan told him. “The pass key is the third one we agreed to.”
Anderson nodded. “As you requested, commander, here is the next batch of files for your review. Fifth encryption key.”
“Thank you, sir.” Kaidan took the datapad from Anderson, then gazed down at it, thinking.
“Sir,” he asked after a moment’s consideration. “Have you truly given me access to everything you have about our…about her ?”
“I beg your pardon?” Anderson frowned.
“Well, sir,” Kaidan said, striving for a polite tone. “You’ve given me intel going back for about three and a half months, but before that, you gave me nothing.”
“That’s because there *is * nothing,” Anderson replied. “Nothing conclusive, anyhow.”
“There was that tip about the information broker who claimed to have her…” Kaidan stopped himself from saying ‘body’ just in time.
“That turned out to be a false lead,” Anderson’s face became grim. “We could never corroborate that.”
“So according to Alliance intel, she was off the grid for two years,” Kaidan murmured. “What was she doing?”
“I don’t know,” Anderson replied, standing brisky to pace behind his desk. “That’s what I want you to find out. And what you find will determine if we can bring her home or…” The councilor trailed off meaningfully.
“Or if you’re going to take her down?” Kaidan asked, his gut clenching at the thought.
Anderson just raised his eyebrows. “Anything else, commander?” he said, coolly.
“No sir,” Kaidan said, swallowing and standing. He left the room with a salute, waited until the doors slid shut behind him before he let his shoulders droop.
Kaidan took a deep breath and sighed. He supposed he should have seen that coming, but the thought of Shepard being officially labeled an enemy of the Alliance just made him feel ill. Heonly hoped that there was something - *anything * - in this mess of data that said it wasn’t so. His mind had been whirring for weeks now, still trying to process what he had learned from these files. Other than his morning workouts and eating and sleeping, Kaidan had been spending all his time trying to put the clues together. Yet, he was no further along in making sense of the mess than when he’d begun.
He still couldn’t understand what had possessed Shepard to join Cerberus. The more that Kaidan saw of the terrorist organization and their dealings, the more he realized she’d essentially damned herself by aligning with their cause. Anderson had given him precious little data about the rogue organization, but Kaidan had already concluded that Cerberus had not cleanly cut ties with the Alliance. He couldn’t tell if the Alliance simply had moles in their midst, or if, in fact, some of the brass had deliberately funded Cerberus years ago – and perhaps were doing so still. As he nodded at the administrative assistant and left the embassies for the parks of the Presidium, Kaidan couldn’t help but shudder. It really was beautiful here, he thought. It was strange to think that these white-walled structures all potentially housed secrets and spies.
Kaidan knew that he needed to watch his step in his investigations. Cerberus had a history of “cleaning up” messy problems like Kahoku. But he simply couldn’t give up on this investigation either. For two years, Shepard had been completely silent. But then, suddenly, she was everywhere. Starting about six weeks before the attack on Horizon, she’d been spotted fueling up her ship near Omega. Then came the docking records of her stop by the Citadel.
Kaidan had questioned Anderson at length about that interview, even though Anderson didn’t have much to say. The councilor simply explained that Shepard had agreed to be reinstated as a Spectre. She then asked Anderson how he was doing. She had spoken as if no time had passed, Anderson said. Then, according to Anderson, Shepard had asked after Kaidan. Kaidan’s heart had leaped at that bit of information. He hardly knew what to make of that. Perhaps she was simply trying to recruit him. But then again, maybe it meant something more. It was hard to say. Kaidan wanted to read something into it, but didn’t dare let himself hope – not when his email to her was still unanswered.
The intel that had followed Shepard’s visit to the Citadel was even more puzzling. She’d been spotted on Omega fighting with mercs and then out fueling up at depots all across the traverse. She had sent the brass information about the rachni, then had turned around and caused a prison riot out on Purgatory Station. Then she had gone to Horizon. Kaidan knew that mission better than anyone and yet he still felt that he didn’t understand what, exactly, had happened there.
And then, about a week after Horizon, Shepard began to show up all over the place. She left the Alliance a message to come pick up a man named Ronald Taylor on criminal charges. She wasn’t there when the fleet arrived to pick the man up, however. A few weeks later, a refinery out on Zorya had been “liberated” from the Blue Suns. The slave workers all claimed that a golden-haired woman, a turian, and a very ugly man had saved them from a fire. It sounded suspiciously like Shepard and Garrus, Kaidan thought, though who the third man might be, he couldn’t imagine.
There had also been several dozen entries recorded with the Central Galactic Survey Project, all under the name K. Shepard. If Kaidan was understanding those records right, and he suspected he was, then Shepard was visiting worlds all across the traverse, logging rare mineral deposits as she went. Her ship must be very powerful, he thought, to be able to get such extensive surveys from some of these worlds. It also was interesting to him that Shepard would continue to register her finds in the central galactic databases, rather than keep that knowledge private. These scans had earned her quite a few credits, he saw, but not as many as she might have gotten for selling this information to the highest bidder. But then, he thought fondly, Shepard used to say that the galaxy belonged to everyone, but most especially to the people who cared enough to go out and make a home in it.
Kaidan shook his head. He dearly wanted to believe that Shepard still was the same type of woman who would believe something like that. But some of the things he had heard about her actions made him suspect that she had changed for the worse. There had been a report that a high-ranking asari businesswoman on Illium had been murdered in her office. A certain Commander Shepard had been seen poking around the building shortly before that time. And the Alliance had collected all sorts of reports about a biotic human woman with golden hair attacking merc bands on various worlds. The Blood Pack, Eclipse, and the Blue Suns had all reported losses. The precision of the attacks and the fact that they were primarily taking place in Prothean dig sites told Kaidan what he needed to know. He was sure that it was Shepard.
Kaidan didn’t like it. It sounded too much like she was taking the law into her own hands, and he had always feared that might happen with Shepard. Her idealism had always been tempered with a respect for Alliance rules before, but there were times when he worried that the lack of oversight as a Spectre would eventually go to her head. Now, it seemed that it had.
It was odd though, because Shepard was acting was more like a vigilante than the typical Cerberus operative. She wasn’t announcing her return at large, but she wasn’t keeping it secret either. So if Anderson really had given him everything, then it seemed as though Shepard had been a very busy woman for three months, but had done nothing prior to that. Either she had been deeply undercover for Cerberus, their prisoner for two years, or she really had been in a coma all that time.
Kaidan reached his apartment and punched in the elaborate code for the lock to his door. Anderson had put him up in a quiet corner of the Presidium, all the better to stay away from possible security leaks at the barracks. Kaidan went into the tiny studio room and triple-locked the door behind him. The place was sterile and spartan; the one desk was covered with datapads. Kaidan sat down and typed in the encryption key to the new information that Anderson had given him. He read his way through the datapad, his dark brows drawing together as he took in the information.
Apparently, the Alliance had just lost one half of the Watson colony to batarian terrorists. Someone had arrived on site just in time to stop a full scale attack, but apparently had made a choice about which section of the colony to save. That person had chosen to save the civilians - and the Alliance would now have to withdraw their forces from that world. Some estimates suggested that up to seventy percent of the Alliance concerns in that area of the traverse were now destabilized as a result. And yet, Kaidan noted, over one thousand lives had been saved in the bargain.
Only one registered ship had been tracked in the airspace above the moon of Franklin that day: a Cerberus vessel named Normandy .
Kaidan shook his head and tossed the datapad onto the growing pile, then dragged a hand over his face. She’d saved a colony. Shepard had saved a colony - again .
It was becoming something of a habit of hers, he thought with a sad smile. He still suspected she did it all for the sake of the only colony she could never get back. After all, her affiliation with Cerberus was supposedly about stopping those Collector attacks. But still, Kaidan thought, it was pretty extreme to join with Cerberus to try and protect innocent lives. That was like joining a pack of wolves in an effort to better herd sheep.
Kaidan sighed and stood. He dragged a hand through his hair as he went into the kitchen to make himself something to eat. The trouble was, Kaidan realized, he had gone into this investigation the way he had always approached uncertain circumstances. He hand planned to get his facts straight, and then make a judgment on what Shepard was up to and what sort of woman she had become. But instead, the more facts he uncovered, the less and less he knew what to think. Shepard’s behavior just didn’t make any sense - not on Horizon, not before Horizon, and certainly not since Horizon.
And yet, one thing was becoming clearer every day: if the Alliance didn’t know if they could trust Shepard anymore, if the Council didn’t know if they could trust Shepard anymore, then it wouldn’t be long before they sent someone after her much like they had once sent Shepard after the traitor, Saren.
Kaidan frowned at that thought, his gut twisting in a knot. Basically, he figured Shepard had until the Collectors were defeated, and then she would have to prove her loyalties once and for all – or be hunted down and executed for treason.
“No secrets between shipmates, Tali,” Shepard said, leaning against the railing and looking at her friend. “That’s what you said down there. So tell me, truly – how are you?”
Tali let her head fall forward, as if she was considering the floor through the purple haze of her helmet. “My father’s dead, Shepard,” she said, simply.
Shepard said nothing. She simply tried to listen with all the compassion that she wished someone had held for her back when her father had died.
“But,” Tali said after a moment, “At least I know that his last thoughts were for me. And we honored him by retaking his ship.”
“We did,” Shepard told her. “ *You * did. He would have been proud. And he would have been proud to have you take his place on the admiralty board, too.”
“Keelah,” Tali muttered. “I hope they don’t ask me.”
“If they do, I think you should take it,” Shepard told her. “You’d lead your people well, Tali. I know you would.”
“Thank you,” Tali said. “But I don’t know. I’m not so good at keeping my head when I get angry. I get riled up and I don’t speak so well. And I talk too much when I’m nervous. You saw me. You had to step in with your own speeches.”
“Public speaking comes with practice,” Shepard told her, “but competence is something you have to start out with – and you have that in spades.”
“You’ll learn to make speeches,” Shepard clarified. “But you already have intelligent things to say.”
“I wish I had your abilitiy to make speeches,” Tali said. “I’ve never had anyone defend me like that before.”
“Truly Tali,” Shepard admitted. “I was shaking in my boots before all those admirals. Doesn’t matter if they aren’t Alliance, it’s still intimidating to a marine to stand before an assembly like that. But I knew I had to do something for you after all you’ve done for me.”
“Thank you, Shepard,” Tali said. She sounded like she was smiling under her helmet.
“You’re welcome,” Shepard told her. “I only wish I could do more for your people. All what you said about your homeworld and flowers and sunsets…” Shepard frowned. “I’ve only visited Earth twice, but even so, I can’t imagine losing it. Earth is a sort of – hope, I guess. No matter how far off into the stars that we go, we can always return to it and find that it welcomes us.”
“Yes,” Tali said. “I suppose we quarians feel that without a home world we can never really rest. Still, I hope my people are careful in how they go about claiming a home. What my father did…” She trailed off and couldn’t finish.
“Agreed,” Shepard said, nodding.
“And you, Shepard,” Tali replied, straightening a little. “No secrets from shipmates. How are you?”
Shepard gave her a sad smile, “No secrets, huh? The problem is, Tali, with Cerberus listening in, I have to keep secrets.” She nodded at the camera in the corner. “No offense.”
“Yes,” Tali said. “I see what you mean.”
“I’ll be fine,” Shepard told her. “Each day I’m gaining – *we’re * gaining – momentum. We can do this, Tali, I know we can. We can stop the Collectors – and we’ll live to tell about it.”
“And return to the ones we love?” Tali asked, cocking her head to one side.
Shepard’s face grew troubled. “Yeah,” she said softly. She shrugged, uncomfortable under Tali’s silent gaze.
“What about you and Kal’Reegar?” Shepard asked, swiftly changing the subject. “You going to try and return to him?”
“What?” Tali asked, her pale eyes blinking behind her mask. “No! I mean – Kal’s busy. Besides, he thinks of me just as an admiral’s daughter. He called me ‘ma’am,’ Shepard. You heard that.”
“I heard,” Shepard said, a smile quirking at the corner of her lips. “And I’ve heard more than a few soldiers use that term before. ‘Ma’am’ might have been what he was saying, but it was not what he was thinking.”
“How do you know?” Tali asked.
“Male quarians wear very tight suits, Tali,” Shepard said, raising an eyebrow meaningfully.
“You were looking at his…?” Tali gasped. “Keelah! Shepard!”
“Well, it was right there ,” Shepard said, waving at hand at the region below her waist. “Just because *you * didn’t see…”
“I did see,” Tali admitted. “I mean, I didn’t want to see… Not that I wasn’t looking. I mean… I wouldn’t *do * anything. I wouldn’t hook my suit up to just anyone. Not that Kal is just anyone. I mean.. Oh, Keelah.” She trailed off and buried her helmet in her hands.
Shepard laughed, the sound ringing through the room. “Tali,” she said, patting her friend on the shoulder, “Are you actually blushing under that helmet?”
“You’re terrible, Shepard,” Tali said, lifting her head. “Boshtet captain…”
Shepard shrugged off the playful insult. “Don’t worry Tali. I won’t do anything embarrassing like offer you advice or anything like that.”
“I could actually use some advice,” Tali said, hopefully. “I’m not used to having soldiers talk to me like I’m a superior officer.”
“Don’t ask me, Tali,” Shepard told her. “Seriously, for mixing romance and combat, I’m not a good example.”
“So throwing myself between Kal and a geth Prime to get his attention would be a bad idea?” Tali quipped.
“Exactly,” Shepard nodded. “Let Kal take one in the teeth for you.” She smirked. “Actually, I think Kal would like that. He’d probably take that as some kind of tactical foreplay.”
Tali shook her head. “Like I said,” she laughed, “You’re terrible, Shepard.”
“Always,” Shepard grinned.
“Miranda here, sir.”
“You’ve certainly taken your time between status reports, Lawson,” came the sharp reply.
The Cerberus officer straightened her shoulders and looked down at the glowing holograph of the Illusive Man before her. It was true that it had been some time since she had last given a report in person – or in conference, as it were. But she had been strangely reluctant to talk to her boss lately. She did not want to examine exactly why that was, nor did she want to examine the question of why he had started to call her by her last name.
The Illusive Man had called her “Lawson” back when she first started working for him. To hear it now seemed extremely strange. It was all the more strange because Shepard had finally started calling Miranda by her first name. Miranda hardly knew what to make of the change - on either side.
“We’ve been busy, sir,” Miranda told him.
“Too busy to tell me that you recovered a Prothean relic of some power? Too busy to tell me that Shepard almost kicked Zaeed off of the mission due to some disagreement? We paid him too well to have Shepard abandon him on Zorya.”
“He wanted to leave dozens of people to die…” Miranda began.
”…Too busy to tell me that Shepard may have convinced the Migrant Fleet to join our fight against the Reapers?” the Illuisve man continued.
“She did what?” Miranda blinked. “Sir, I haven’t even spoken with Shepard since she returned from the fleet. She’s been talking with the quarian all this time.”
“Ah,” the Illusive Man said, steepling his fingers. “I see. Well then, perhaps I should be the one filing the mission reports, Lawson.”
Miranda frowned. She knew that the Illusive Man could listen in on nearly any conversation on the ship and frequently monitored their suit-to-suit comm systems as well. But it never failed to unnerve her when he spoke of the missions mere minutes after they happened. It made him seem like some kind of god, listening in on everything.
“Well then,” Miranda snapped. “Perhaps you can tell me where we’re going next, sir. I’m afraid I’ve been busy looking into upgrades for our equipment. I haven’t had time to ask Shepard about her plans.”
“You’re slowly heading towards the Citadel,” the Illusive Man said. “I should have thought that was obvious.”
“Yes, well,” Miranda said, shifting a little on her feet. “Is that a problem, sir?”
“I don’t know,” the Illusive Man replied. “Will it become a problem, Lawson?”
His voice was more clipped than usual, though Miranda couldn’t tell quite what was the cause of his irritation. She suspected that it was Shepard’s decision to return to Council space. For some reason, that made Miranda irritated in return.
“Shepard won’t give up on this mission,” she said, conviction in her words. “Not now. She’s too devoted to the team – even to that mistake, Jack.” Miranda scowled a moment before continuing. “She’s taking care of things with remarkable ease, sir, even better than we could have hoped. The team is strong and they are getting more prepared by the day. The new upgrades to the Normandy have made the ship stronger, faster, and more deadly than any other vessel in council space.”
“Save for that of the Collectors,” the Illusive Man murmured.
“We may even be able to take them on, sir,” Miranda said. “Shepard believes that we can.”
“You’re inspired by her, are you?” the Illusive Man said, his eyes narrowing.
“I am,” Miranda said, lifting her chin. “This is by far the most successful mission I’ve ever been a part of - though it is far from over.”
“And do you believe, like Shepard, that this mission is successful because Shepard refuses to acknowledge Cerberus’s hand in all this?” the Illusive Man said, softly.
Miranda’s mouth fell open a little. “What?” she gasped. “How did you…?”
“Yes, Lawson,” the Illusive Man said, his lips curling in a cold smile. “I overheard your conversation with Shepard. There are devices in even *your * rooms, you know.”
Miranda just blinked at him. The Illusive Man continued smiling and lifted his glass to her in a mock salute.
“I’m glad you suggested that Shepard give Cerberus another chance,” he said. “It’s good to know your loyalties are still to humanity, Lawson.”
“Of course they are,” Miranda said, frowning. “Did you doubt me?”
“Shepard is persuasive,” the Illusive Man replied, “And she’s becoming increasingly hard to read. Sometimes, I wonder…” He broke off, then took a drink and set his cup back down. In the holographic display, his pixelated form seemed to shiver in the air.
“Keep Shepard on track,” the Illusive Man told her. “We need her to pick up momentum, to act on instinct. If we give her time to reflect, she might begin to wonder…”
“Wonder what, sir?”
The Illusive Man’s eyes seemed to flicker for a moment, then he said, “Dismissed, Miranda.”
The quantum entanglement link abruptly cut out, leaving Miranda alone and confused in the comm room.