“The two known rogue VI programs were analyzed and tracked. They led me to a third program and hinted at a fourth. I finally identified the fourth one and isolated it yesterday. It was hidden in a bank of customs databases. I suspect it has been allowing Cerberus vessels to dock at the Citadel without being properly identified by the authorities. Considering that Shepard’s comings and goings were fairly public…” Kaidan frowned and took a slight breath before going on, “I can only imagine that the ships using this VI to dock secretly were involved in more private missions.”
Kaidan looked up from his datapad to find that Councilor Anderson had not moved from his spot by the balcony of his office. The man stood with his arms behind his back, clasped tightly, looking out at some spot in the distance. The thought went through Kaidan’s head that the past years had changed them both considerably. Anderson once would have been furious at the thought of Cerberus sneaking onto the Citadel. And once, Kaidan would have thought nothing of the man looking out at the view. Now, he couldn’t help but wonder what security protocols must be in place such that the human council could stand at a railing in the Citadel without fearing a sniper shot.
Hidden kinetic barriers, probably, Kaidan mused, likely several layers of them over all of the offices. If he scanned with his omnitool, he probably wouldn’t even find them on the usual frequencies. There might even be C-Sec stationed at points all through the walls, ready to stamp down on potential terrorists. Just because the Presidium looked peaceful didn’t mean there weren’t guns in every pocket. Kaidan had figured out that much by living here for the past few months.
He paused for a moment, wondered if Anderson was even listening to him, then decided it didn’t matter. He was here to give his report, so he’d give it. Kaidan turned back to his datapad and read on.
“I can’t find evidence of any more programs infected with Argus,” he explained. “It seems the program was uploaded into specific points in the system and it doesn’t appear to have replicated itself. If it had, it would be harder quarantine, but it also would have tipped Cerberus’ hand to us months ago. As it is, it seems they still don’t realize we’re on to them. The question sir,” Kaidan finished, looking to Anderson, “is if you want to shut down Argus now and get it out of the Alliance systems, or see if it leads us to any further security leaks.”
Kaidan waited in silence for Anderson’s reply. After a very long moment, the councilor spoke, still looking out at the view.
“Do you think that’s all of it?”
“All of Cerberus’ programs?” Kaidan asked. He shook his head. “Impossible to say, sir. They could be hacking us as we speak. But I’ve been monitoring the Alliance systems for over a month now and this is all I’ve found. If there is more rogue tech in our databases, it’s likely dormant. It could be years before it activates.”
“And while you’re waiting for it to rear it’s head, you’re wasting away behind a desk,” Anderson said, turning around. “Isn’t that right, commander?”
“Ah,” Kaidan opened his mouth, then closed it. That thought had occurred to him on more than one occasion that he simply wasn’t cut out for office work day in and day out. He had been feeling irritable and moody and had been thinking far too much about a certain Cerberus operative and her unknown motives. His headaches had been acting up again as well. But if Anderson ordered him to work in the tech department, then Kaidan would accept that order without question.
“I know better than anyone what it’s like to be stuck in coils of intrigue when all you want to do is fight,” Anderson said, shaking his head. “I’m needed here, however. But you…”
Kaidan waited expectantly for the councilor to finish his thought. Just when he thought Anderson had gotten distacted again, the man said:
“What do you think of Shepard, commander?”
Kaidan blinked at the change of topic. “Sir?”
“You’ve been asked before in debriefings, in an official capacity. But off the record, what is your opinion of her?”
“Off the record?” Kaidan asked, unable to keep a certain amount of sarcasm out of his voice. “You’re asking me in your office with recording devices all around for my ‘off the record’ opinion?”
“Yes, well,” Anderson shrugged. “As off the record as we ever get.”
Kaidan thought for a moment before replying.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said at last. “To make an analogy, I’ve monitored our Alliance systems for weeks now. Given everything I found, I would say if I removed Argus now, there’s a good chance the program would be gone for good. But I could be wrong. There could be more out there – more I don’t know about. The same is true with Shepard.” He looked to Anderson and read nothing on the man’s stern face.
“Given what I know about her actions,” Kaidan pressed on, “I’d say that it seems she’s joined Cerberus of her own free will. And it also seems…” he paused momentarily, then said, “It seems she thinks this is the only way to stop the Collectors – with Cerberus’ help. It’s just…” Kaidan trailed off.
“There could be more data,” he finished. “It’s impossible to say for sure how she came to work for them in the first place, or what she’ll do next. Or,” he added with a frown, “if her ties to Cerberus haven’t compromised her judgment.”
“You think she can’t be trusted?” Anderson said, narrowing his eyes on Kaidan.
“To stop the Reapers, yes,” Kaidan said slowly. “But beyond that…” he frowned. “I don’t know. What exactly are you trusting her with, sir?”
“I wish I knew,” Anderson said with a sigh. “I’ll be honest with you, Alenko. The Alliance is getting pushed into some hard places, politically speaking. Shepard was one of ours, and now she’s gone rogue.”
“She’s a Spectre still,” Kaidan pointed out. “Isn’t she?”
Anderson shook his head. “She is, but to some of the brass, that’s not much of a recommendation of her loyalty. As for the Council, well, she’s just scarcely within their good graces right about now.”
Anderson turned around and began to pace the room. “She’s high-profile and yet she’s lost clout,” he said, his eyes troubled. “That’s a bad combination, commander. You know that. When things get difficult and fingers need to be pointed, that exactly the kind of person who’s expendable.”
“You’re going to use her as a scapegoat,” Kaidan said, realization dawning. The thought didn’t make him feel angry or indignant or even bitterly justified. It just left him feeling disappointed and cold. “What for, exactly?” he asked.
“I can’t say,” Anderson replied with a sigh. “I’ve probably said too much.” His mouth set in a grim line. “I’ve stood by Shepard as best I could, but the pressure is mounting. Hackett’s already been petitioned…” He broke off suddenly. “Well, never mind. Let’s just hope she can do her work subtly and keep a low profile.”
In spite of himself, Kaidan gave a wry smile. “This is Shepard we’re talking about, sir.”
“True,” Anderson said, without humor.
“Well, you can’t send a soldier into a battlefield and expect no bullets to fly,” Kaidan pointed out.
“It’s not the bullets?” Anderson muttered. “It’s the bombs and the explosions that seem to go off everywhere she goes. Between her and Saren and…well…” He frowned and trailed off, then turned his gaze to Kaidan. Kaidan shifted at once, recognizing that Anderson’s slightly distracted gaze had suddenly turned sharp and considering.
“Spectres are usually low profile, Commander,” he said.
“Sir?” Kaidan asked, confused.
“Nothing,” Anderson shook his head. “At least, nothing right now.” He sighed. “Alright, commander, kill the Argus program and I’ll put a new tech on the job to monitor our systems. You’re being reassigned.”
“Sir?” Kaidan asked, feeling a little stunned at the sudden change in topic – and employment.
“I think you’ll do us more good out on the ground again,” Anderson went on, crossing to his desk and picking up a datapad. He tapped it twice, then set it down again. “Return here tomorrow morning. I want to discuss this reassignment in person.”
“This isn’t something we can discuss now?”
“No,” Anderson said shortly. “See you in the morning, commander.”
“Sir?” Kaidan frowned.
Anderson looked like he might say something more, then he pursed his lips.
“In the morning, commander,” he said, enigmatically, then sat down and returned to the mess on his desk.
Kaidan understood he was being dismissed, even if he didn’t understand the rest of it. With a nod and a salute, he gathered his things and left the councilor’s pristine office.
The light blinked at his fingertips. The slightest movement, the merest touch, and he knew what would happen.
He could hear the words as clearly as if they were being spoken. There would be a string of curses to start, and amid the wave of fury, accusations would lap up the shore. Then, like a receding tide, the conversation would slide out to silence on a question. And when no answer came, another string of curses would come crashing in.
Predictable , he thought. So predictable . And yet, a glimmer of unease remained.
She had a tendency to gather things behind her – people, allies, enemies – she had a string of flotsam and jetsam floating in her wake all across the galaxy, exactly the kind of legacy he had foreseen. The irony was not lost on him. Here she went to fight the Collectors, and yet look at how she collected.
And yet, with the geth, she’d been quick to make her judgment, even knowing the risk. Her unexpected turn there had given him pause.
He watched the blinking light dispassionately. The pieces were set, the path laid. He felt no regret, no hurry. He had no reason to second guess his decisions when everything would follow his plan – when everything must follow his plan.
And Shepard, too, would follow the plan, even if she didn’t know what it was.
Knowing the stakes, knowing the price, the Illusive Man ignored the flashing comm signal. He stared into the belly of the dying star before him and took a long sip of his gin.