Councilor Anderson frowned as he looked over the files.
They were well-organized and well-written, if a little overly technical, and yet, there was something in them that unsettled him.
He tapped his finger against the edge of the datapad as he read the report again.
Ship class: unknown.
Ship profile: images taken from Horizon security camera footage indicate possible match with other security camera records.
Likelihood of match: 78%.
Anderson set the datapad down and leaned back in his chair.
That was it, he thought. The report was overly technical. And given that the staff commander had served with Shepard, it was strange that the reports were so unflinchingly clinical. From what Anderson understood, the lieutenant had been trusted by the former Spectre – friendly, even. Shepard had been well-respected by her crew, he gathered, but beyond that, he couldn’t make out anything.
Much rested on Shepard’s choices right now, and he simply didn’t know enough about her to predict what those choices would be.
He’d certainly tried to get information about her, but he kept coming up with nothing. Her official reports of her mission to capture Saren were as dry and clinical as Alenko’s reports were. In fact, he thought with a sudden realization, it wouldn’t surprise him if the staff commander had been helping his commanding officer write her reports back then. Either way, he’d gained little insight into Shepard from her own writings. His questions to Alenko were answered plainly, but blandly. And as for the rest of her crew, the ones he’d tracked down were surprisingly close-mouthed about everything that had happened on the first Normandy. Years after the fact, some were still in treatment for post-traumatic stress because of the Collector attack. Yet, even in their sessions with the Alliance councilors, the crew said little about the commander.
Anderson frowned as he sat back heavily in his chair. He knew what the stakes were for Shepard. He knew the pressure mounting against Hackett and the other brass to send out a party to bring Shepard in. He knew the accusations leveled at her – that she was mentally unstable and a potential psychopath. Being with Cerberus wasn’t helping her cause, either. He suspected she was a decent person, but he simply couldn’t prove it.
When he’d first met her, Shepard had seemed an intelligent, decent sort of soldier. She’d also seemed driven and ambitious – but in the way that wanted to accomplish great things rather than be recognized for them. She’d seemed a perfect candidate for a Spectre, and he’d been right about that. But as for her character – well, there Anderson had to admit he knew really very little about her. He had psych reports on her – all vague. He had video-ops and press-releases – all inconclusive. He had been her commander for a short time, but he now saw that only those who had been under her command ever got a clear picture of her. She had always been guarded when dealing with the brass.
The trouble was, Anderson thought, a lot now rested on Shepard’s shoulders, and if he was wrong about her, and she was unstable and she did fail to stop the Collectors and then the Reapers, then who would pick up the pieces? The council didn’t have a single back-up plan should Shepard fail to stop the Collectors. Hell, they hadn’t even had a plan. He had been the one to authorize the GARDIAN project, after all. As for the Alliance, they were mired in politics these days, and Shepard was a sore subject for everyone.
And so, Anderson thought, this was why he’d spent so much time gathering up information about Shepard’s dealings. His contact on the SR2 gave him regular reports on Shepard’s comings and goings and brought him general ship-board info, but couldn’t access anything more privileged. Anderson kept thinking Staff Commander Alenko would turn up something useful, but so far, all he’d gotten from that corner were datapads full of facts. They were useful facts, to be sure, but nothing giving him any insight into Shepard. Shepard was still an unknown here. And the councilor didn’t like unknowns.
Anderson sighed and leaned forward to call for his secretary.
“Is Staff Commander Alenko scheduled for a meeting?” he asked in clipped tones.
“Not until next Monday, sir,” the young corporal replied.
Anderson thought for a moment, then said, “Have him come in today, if he’s able.”
As Anderson sat back, his gaze flicked to the other datapad on his desk, the one he’d read and re-read all last night.
Well, he thought, if Shepard happened to fail, then *someone * would need to head up Plan B.
“Shepard.” Miranda’s heels came clicking across the command deck. As Shepard wearily turned from her computer and rubbed her shoulders, she wondered how it was that Miranda could walk in those things, let alone fight in them. As it was, Shepard felt exhausted. Fighting in no-air environments did that to a body.
“Is this really your mission report?” Miranda asked, holding up a data pad.
“Surprised I got it done so fast or surprised that I used spellcheck this time?” Shepard replied, throwing her shoulders back so as to look a little more like a commander than she felt.
“Surprised at what you did ,” Miranda said, a tiny furrow pinching her brow. She glanced at the data pad, then back at Shepard. “Are you sure that’s wise?”
“Questioning me again, Miranda?” Shepard said, wearily. “Do I really need to explain the chain of command again?”
“No,” Miranda said, quickly. “It’s just that…” she looked around, the lowered her voice. “You had Tali with you. What did the quarian say?”
“Surprisingly little,” Shepard replied, wryly. That was an understatement. Shepard would have thought Tali would have a clear opinion on the fate of the geth heretics. Instead, the engineer had simply been baffled by Legion’s choice to place the fate of his people in Shepard’s hands. And no one had been more baffled than Shepard herself.
Tough calls were something she was used to, but that one had been the strangest of all: re-write the geth programs to accept their previous programming or blow them up? In the past, Shepard had at least understood the stakes on either side of each issue. Civilians in enemy territory? Get them out fast and silent. Terrorists with hostages, demanding escape? Sadly, Alliance rules were clear about that sort of thing. But this – she had no idea what to think of the geth, which meant she had no idea how to treat them. If they were people, wouldn’t re-writing be brainwashing? Or would it be un-brainwashing? And would blowing them up be morally wrong if they weren’t really ‘alive’ to start with? Her first instict had been to explode the problem since she couldn’t understand it. But then she’d paused, and realized she had no idea what she ought to do.
Truth was, she still didn’t.
But she wasn’t about to admit that, so instead, Shepard just hitched her shoulders again.
“I made my decision,” she said, then winced as a sharp, pinching pain cut through her forehead.
“Are you alright?” Miranda asked.
“Headache,” Shepard replied. “It will pass.”
“You get those a lot,” Miranda observed.
“Only at the computers,” Shepard said. “Must be the screens. I think they upset the L5 implants.”
“That’s impossible,” Miranda said in her clipped, authoritative way. “I have the same implants as you and I never experience any trouble with screens of any kind.”
“And yet, we’re not all you, Lawson,” Shepard replied. She winced further as the pain deepened. Funny how regular these headaches were, she thought. They sort of pulsed in long waves, like one long, painful hum, and then would end for a minute before beginning again.
“You don’t get those headaches from using your omnitool though,” Miranda observed. “And you use your ‘tool all the time.”
“Like I said,” Shepard replied. “It’s the computer screens.”
“Is it?” Miranda asked. She turned to Kelly, who seemed quite absorbed in her work. “Chambers,” Miranda said. “Does the light here bother you?”
“Not at all,” Kelly said quickly. “Well, sometimes. But…yes, now that you mention it, that must be it, the light.”
Shepard’s eyes narrowed instantly. “Is there something wrong with my computer, Chambers?”
“Nothing at all,” Kelly said quickly.
“Well, that settles it,” Shepard said, shutting the lid of the computer with a hard click. “Your boss bugged my computer and it’s interfering with my implants.” Shepard curtly nodded to the two other women. “I’ll be in my quarters.”
“The IFF is almost ready, commander,” EDI’s polite voice interrupted. “I was about to install it and run the initial tests.”
“Can you finish it up while I’m napping?” Shepard asked, testily.
“I believe so,” EDI replied.
“Commander,” Kelly said in a voice that was both hesitant and insistent, “The Illusive Man has an urgent mission he needs you to see to.”
“Surely that can wait,” Miranda said.
“The Illusive Man said it can’t,” Kelly pressed.
“What is it that he just can’t wait for?” Shepard asked, rubbing the aching spot on her forehead.
“He needs you and all the ground crew to take the shuttle to Omega,” Kelly informed her. “He has a shipment he wants you to pick up.”
“What, he ran out of cigarettes and gin?” Though Shepard intended the last statement to be under her breath, Miranda obviously heard and snickered a little. Kelly just shook her head earnestly.
“It’s something for your final mission,” she said. “He wouldn’t be more precise.”
“And we all need to go get it?” Shepard made a face. “Send Grunt. He needs to get out of the cargo bay. Just send Garrus with Grunt, so the kid doesn’t get himself shot.”
“The order was for all of you to go,” Kelly said.
Shepard paused, looking from the officer to the yeoman and back. “Why?” she asked, suspicious.
“I have no idea,” Miranda replied with a shrug. “No doubt there is something sensitive in that shipment.”
“And he needs us to sneak it back onto the Normandy?” Shepard asked. “All of us? From Omega? What the hell could be too sensitive for Omega?”
When Miranda just shrugged again and Kelly looked at her with wide, kohl-rimmed eyes, Shepard, just sighed and pinched her forehead again.
“Okay, fine. Does this mean I have to wait for a nap?”
“Well…” Kelly began.
“Right,” Shepard muttered. “I guess we all know who really runs this ship. Bastard.” She pressed the intercom button and spoke into it.
“Attention ground crew. There’s been a change of plans. Suit up and meet me at the shuttle in the cargo bay. You will be briefed upon arrival. Flight Lieutenant Moreau is the senior officer until our return.”
“What the hell?” Joker’s voice crackled back over the comm.
“Deal with it, Joker,” Shepard said back to him, trying not to laugh at the way this conversation must sound to the crew. “You and EDI can hold down the fort until we get back.”
“Well don’t leave the oven on when you leave or you might find the place burned down,” Joker grumbled before clicking out.
“Is that wise?” Kelly asked.
“He outranks you,” Shepard told her with narrowed eyes. “And while Cerberus likes to do away with rank, I’m not Cerberus. So follow his orders as you would mine.”
“Very well,” Kelly said, lips pursed.
“Okay,” Shepard said, turning to the women beside her. “I’m going back upstairs to suit up. Lawson, get your things together and meet me at the shuttle.” With a sigh, she turned and headed to the elevator.
“Shepard,” Miranda called. Shepard paused and turned, trying not to look as annoyed as she felt at the prospect of yet another mission and still no nap.
“We’re getting close to our goal,” the Cerberus officer told her. “We need you well. And if your implants are having flare-ups…”
“Thank you for your concern, Miranda,” Shepard said, wearily. “But I’ll be fine.”
“It’s just that Mordin might have some insight that Doctor Chakwas doesn’t. You might try…”
“Maybe later” Shepard said. “Let’s get this mission done first.”
“Yes, Commander,” Miranda nodded.
Shepard got into the elevator and took it upstairs. Miranda waited until it returned and then took the lift downstairs.
And so neither of them noticed that as soon as they had finished talking, Yeoman Chambers left her post at the CIC and headed towards the armory door. She slipped past Jacob, who was too busy checking weapons for the entire squad to leave on a ground mission to note her presence. And then she continued around the corner, into the debriefing room, and stepped forward towards the table.
As if her arrival was expected, the table dropped into the floor, and Kelly stepped onto it. A grid of yellow light washed over her, and the image of the Illusive Man flickered in the air.
“Is the IFF device ready?” he asked at once.
“It is,” Kelly replied.
“And the entire ground crew will be away for the test?” he continued.
“They’re preparing for their departure,” Kelly replied. The hesitated, then added, “Shepard seemed very tired.”
“No doubt she is.” The Illusive Man nodded. “That is fine. Ideal, in fact, for this moment.”
“Her implants are bothering her,” Kelly went on.
“Yes, I’m aware of that,” the Illusive Man blew out a puff of cigarette smoke. “She’s a much stronger biotic than I expected. I imagine that whatever system we’d given her, she’d use it to full capacity. It’s not surprising that she wears herself out.”
Kelly paused a moment, then ventured: “Her mental state seems – unsteady.”
The Illusive Man seemed amused at this remark.
“Well,” Kelly said, frowning. “I’m not sure how to explain it. I’ve gone over her profile multiple times, and the pieces don’t fit at all. But whatever she was, I sense that she is…changing.”
The Illusive Man smiled at this.
“It’s like she used to be steady, but I sense this…spinning in her - as if she’s a ship looking for harbor.”
“You always had a gift for the metaphor, Chambers,” the Illusive Man remarked.
“She doesn’t trust me,” Kelly said, a trifle irritably, “and I can’t get any sort of proper answer out of her. I think she actually enjoys pushing me away.”
“You were supposed to gain her trust,” her employer told her flatly. Kelly ducked her head.
“I know,” she said.
“I suppose that in your case, familiarity bred contempt,” the Illusive Man said with a shrug. “However, what’s done is done. Your work at her side has done more than enough to gain me the information I need. Well done, Chambers.”
“Thank you, sir,” Kelly said, smiling with pleasure.
“Now,” he went on. “Things are coming to a delicate pass, and timing is key. I need you to follow your next instructions exactly.”
“I will, sir.”
“Good,” the Illusive Man said, his eyes glowing as he smiled at the yeoman. “Because if you do, we are certain to succeed in drawing Shepard to the end of this path.”